Monday, December 29, 2008

The Great Sundry New Year's Meme

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?

Passed the bar! That's the main thing. I also seriously considered pursuing alternative teacher certification, in case it didn't work out. And I almost exclusively stopped biting my nails.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I don't think I got far enough on this meme to really make resolutions last year. I do have several in mind for this year, primarily involving moving more and eating less, and reaching out socially.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?


4. Did anyone close to you die?


5. What countries did you visit?

Just this one.

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?

Steady employment! As an attorney! Hopefully the good kind!

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

Halloween, because that's when I found out I passed.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Ahem. Er, see above.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I was not prepared for the possibility of a good outcome on the bar, so when it happened, I sort of flipped out. Like, in a bad way. I'm still trying to figure that out. To be honest, to a certain extent I'm also still flipping out (along the lines of, "BFD, I still need to get a freaking job," etc. etc.). Why am I discounting this Big Success? Am I that scared of writing letters and meeting with people? I don't know.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Well, I had had a remarkably healthy year...and then there was the Thumb Incident. I'm still not ready to knead (because...yack) or to use our spiffy cookie-dough dishers (because they require vigorous thumb action), but I will probably try and make something shortly.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

This bar thing has been extremely expensive (love you, Spouse!). I'd like to think that it's finally worth it.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Spouse's was stellar. I owe him so big. And both our families were all really supportive.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

My own, at times; certain national pundits and candidates; and as someone who was privileged to live in Chicago for a little while, I cannot get my head around the Blagojeviches, man.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Toward quieting the bats in my head (prescription co-pays, therapy co-pays, major therapy bills when I ran out of covered appointments). And toward bar fees. And a new gas tank and muffler.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

I made a good female friend who actually lives here! I am finally starting to get [a teeny bit] excited about my career. I did some community service recently and met nice people through that.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?

This is a toughie. I would probably fall back on those few songs that could perk me up when I was in my lowest depths: "A Touch of Grey," "Mother and Child Reunion," "Kodachrome," that kind of thing. I am completely and utterly out of touch musically. (Note to self: mayhap you should resolve to get a clue about music made in this century.)

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?

a) MUCH happier (the holidays don't freaking count when you're up against a February bar, which I was at this time last year).

b) A teeny bit thinner, amazingly.

c) Decidedly poorer, alas.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

I wish I had...Reached out to people and socialized. Been more dedicated about writing, if not about blogging necessarily. Taken pictures of all the food I keep writing about!

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Freaking out. Worrying. Crying. Living through other people's blogs.

20. How did you spend Christmas?

With our families. (Also: bandaged!)

21. Did you fall in love in 2008?

Am happy to report I stayed that way.

22. What was your favorite TV program?

We are almost done watching TNG (sorry, that's Star Trek: The Next Generation, the one with Captain Picard) on DVD and most of them have been surprisingly good.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

Um...yes, strangely. Someone from my past, someone with whom my last interactions were actually pleasant. Recently I kept remembering things and getting pissed about stuff that was said to me in, seriously, 1994. It was really weird.

24. What was the best book you read?

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was surprisingly affecting. I'm still trying to come to some resolution about how it ended.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?

I don't have one, but this was the COOLEST random media fact I discovered. Okay, you know Lt. Worf [warning! plays a soundbite!], the Klingon, right? It turns out that the actor who plays him, Michael Dorn, is seriously, incredibly, HOTT. Like on a George Clooney scale. So much so that I don't understand why he isn't a household name. Anyway, when I IMDB'd him to see what else he'd been in, I found out something that should have been smack-yer-forehead obvious, and is completely unforgettable once learned: He Is Weasel! That is, on the Cartoon Network show I Am Weasel [click for show opener], he was the voice of Weasel.

This completely revolutionized my viewing of TNG, such that pretty much whenever Worf is onscreen and looking like he is about to make one of his famous pronouncements, I am compelled to proclaim "I Am Weasel!" in a big, booming voice. (And then Spouse rolls his eyes as if he sorely misses the days when he could watch TV in peace.)

26. What did you want and get?

I wanted to pass the bar and I did.

27. What did you want and not get?

I've been waiting for a job to magically materialize and it hasn't. Similarly, I wanted my home to magically organize and decorate itself, and it didn't. I need to get on the stick.

28. What was your favorite film of this year?

I am about as useful on movies as on music. Sex and the City was the only thing I saw at an actual cinema, and it really benefits from being watched with a big gaggle of women. At home the mind is freer to ponder provoking questions such as
  • What the hell is wrong with Carrie?
  • No, really, how many times does "Big" have to run her over with a bus?
  • Why would anyone spend so much on shoes? Particularly when it doesn't look like they can afford food?
  • How cute is that Steve guy?
  • Could I possibly pull off Miranda's haircut, bearing in mind that I do eat food, am not a redhead, and am likely to burn down the house, let alone my ears, if I attempt to use a curling iron? (Seriously, she looked GORGEOUS.)
  • If I sort of hate these people, why can't I stop watching?

...and it makes for a much less satisfying show.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 31. Spouse did dinner and candles and bought an adorable stuffed kitty, who has received so much love that his poor furline is receding. I have since purchased an Emergency Backup Kitty, which is less realistic but a little more resistant to wear. [Hat tip: Dave Barry and his Emergency Backup Dog, which you can read about here.]

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Seriously? I don't like how superficial this is going to make me sound, but I wish my face hadn't resembled a pepperoni pizza for much of the year. I'm getting there--I think I finally have the right products, I just need to apply them regularly--but man, I don't know that there's much of a downer than that. (Somehow I am used to how my body looks, and it doesn't bother me nearly so much, even though it could.) It would help matters immensely if I could just Leave Stuff Alone.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?

There were days when I was doing good if I got showered. Pass!

32. What kept you sane?

Er, see above re Spouse, and therapy, and drugs. I would also say M'n'Ms.

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

On election night, when Michelle Obama hit the stage in her striking red and black, it suddenly sank in that she was going to be the First Lady, and I wore a goofy grin until we went to bed that night. I think we may be following her as closely as we do the President.

34. What political issue stirred you the most?

I think I spent more time fuming about what might be labeled "Women in Politics" more than anything else. Was Hillary really crying? Oh my Lord, did she actually say "white Americans"? Why is she Queen B-word, and how the hell does Sarah Palin get to be Diana the Hunter by comparison? Elizabeth Edwards is fierce--why isn't she running for something? What the heck is a "fist bump"? etc. etc.

35. Who did you miss?

My friends from working in another city, who live 60-90 minutes away. First I didn't have time and then there was no gas to be had and gas is cheap, and plentiful, but I'd feel guilty spending the money.

36. Who was the best new person you met?

My yoga teacher, who has become a good, local friend. Yaaaay!

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.

I found the Serenity Prayer ("God [or whoever] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference") really helpful this year, and I need to focus again on making those distinctions every day. From my therapist, I learned a three-syllable version: "Whatever." There is also a two-syllable version, and it rhymes with "bucket."

Also: I made myself a little sign when I was studying. It listed how many possible points there were on the exam, how many I needed to pass, and then said in giant purple crayon, "67.5% = COUNSELOR!!!" Under that it said, "So let go of Lisa Simpson, and embrace your inner Bart!" This was extremely helpful when I was panicking over minute details and convincing myself I would bomb the exam if I didn't master them completely. I need to figure out a similar incremental approach to Getting a Job so I don't feel overwhelmed.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

"This is the day your life will surely change." From that song by The The that I haven't heard in ten-plus years.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holiday roundup

Coolest gifts we gave: Twenty-five pounds of jasmine rice from Thailand. Chocolate oranges, even though there were way too many trips involved in procuring ten of them with identical labeling. Sheesh.

Most touching gifts received: A pizzelle iron. A giant teddy bear wearing a hoodie parka (decorated with bears), to the both of us, with note asking for a home with lots of hugs. Sigh.

Most ironic gifts received (from my brother, who had not been told of my recent slicing incident): A Big Scary Knife! And a set of steak knives.

Slightly unnerving gift trend: FOOT-RELATED gifts (pumice stones, moisturizer socks, etc.) from Spouse's family. Yes, okay, people, I'm overdue for a session with my Pedi-Egg. Got it. (Although, really, I've always wanted some of those socks, but am too cheap to buy them, so they're a perfect gift for me. I don't mean to sound ungrateful.)

Gift most likely to be used first: Gigantic Lodge cast-iron skillet.

Most anticipated gifts: Half-Assed, by Pasta Queen; What It Is, a writing guide by Lynda Barry, recommended by Swistle.

Most fun gifts: Pop Rocks! And a Rubik's Cube. And a tiny cow that moos "Deck the Halls."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas is cancelled

So today at just after 12:00 p.m., I was trying to Get Organized for my baking spree, which I had procrastinated on until it had become an Official Crisis, and I reached into the cabinet for a food processing blade, and pretty well processed my thumb.

It was really gross. I completely lost my marbles.

I am extremely lucky in that Spouse works around the corner from where we live. He was able to drop everything and come home, and he took really good care of me. I feel like a total heel for making him take me to the doctor, because the doctor's advice was pretty much exactly what Spouse said: put some Neosporin on it, then a Band-Aid, and try not to get it wet. I did not need stitches, not even the Krazy Glue kind. And my tetanus shot is current, dating back to a run-in with a file cabinet during law school.

I wonder how many such incidents need to accumulate until one's medical record gets stamped "KLUTZ" in red ink.

I shopped 'til I dropped

Note to self: Feeling bad about how many people are subscribed to other people's Twitter feeds, when you don't have a Twitter feed, is really pretty silly.

Took a few days off from reading online stuff--not sure why, it just happened, and I came back and read people's updates, and hey! the world did not end while I was away.

I have been procrastinating severely on Christmas stuff. Yesterday was Run Around and Buy Shit day. I left the house at 11 and got back a little before 7. It was pretty nuts out there.
  • Party City: Decimated. No purchases. May go back for a couple of silly items.
  • Michaels: 2 rolls wrapping paper. Box of cards. Saved something like 19 cents using coupon.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond: Several miscellaneous items (rainbow Twizzlers? Whaaaa?). Refrained from buying paper plates with Spode Christmas tree on 'em, even though Mom would have thought they were a hoot, b/c they were $5 for eight freaking plates. Got to bust out the really good and hard-to-find $10 off a $30 order coupon. Alert: At the end of January, BB&B is going to stop honoring expired coupons!
  • Target: Ok, I went in there to use their clean restroom with the crazy hand dryer, to get change, and patronize their Starbucks. I stayed a LOT longer. Bought Spouse adorable card with Far Side cat cartoon, and three types of pretty paper plates.
  • Then there was a short walk baaaaack to Michaels to put $5 in the Salvation Army bucket. Because the bell-ringing man had been caroling, and it was lovely, and reminded me of hearing people perform on streets and in train stations. Promised Spouse this was the only really silly thing I did.
  • Sam's. Sam's is never fun. But I did get some a-freaking-dorable stamps with nutcrackers on 'em. And a hunk of Gruyere. And five pounds of honey for $10.
  • Fancy Schmancy Booze Store: Was looking for grog, or mead, or something else piratey to go with really cool skull-and-crossbones coffee mug I found at Ross. No luck. They did have a brand of Belgian ale with a pirate on it. I did a pick-your-own six pack and, since I was going basically by Names or Labels I Thought Were Cool (e.g., "Yeti Imperial Stout"), made sure to check with someone to make sure I didn't get all the same kind of beer. Also got, for Spouse and me, some Belgian lambic fruit beers that I knew were tasty. Also got, impulsively, three minibottles, and that was not a good move, because they were like $6 each but hadn't been individually price-tagged.
  • Publix: They had almost everything. Apparently there has been a run on red hots (a.k.a. "cinnamon imperials") in this area, as this was the umpteenth place I'd looked.
  • Kroger: Score on red hots! Yes!

I'm now going out, for what should be the last shopping trip, to find TEN chocolate oranges, an OXO can opener, and a tiny can of Crisco, for to grease the Bundt pan. Hopefully I can knock both these out at...the other Kroger.

And then I have to bake challah and get one zillion cookie doughs going. I am so not gonna make it to yoga tonight.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Other stuff I've cooked or baked, of late

1. Dad's birthday cake, or maybe the "Oh My God Cake": This was the All-in-One Holiday Bundt Cake from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: My Home to Yours. A version of the recipe, with some slightly goofy adjustments (almond meal? 5-spice powder? Greek yogurt instead of canned pumpkin?), was recently featured in Bon Appetit. Pop's birthday falls close enough to Turkey Day that we generally do both at once. His specs were simple: something "in a Bundt pan, maybe with pumpkin?" Things learned:
  • Sometimes doing the whole Food Netnerdy, mise-en-place thing--that is, actually measuring everything out in advance, or at least pairing the right measuring spoon with the right ingredient--will totally save your ass. I realized, at 10:15 p.m. Thanksgiving eve, that I had NO CAN OPENER*, and therefore wouldn't be able to get to the crucial pumpkin puree. This would have been a complete crisis if I had already started throwing the batter together, but I hadn't. Keep in mind that I NEVER do the organized, professional, French-chef thing. But something in the back of my head told me to, I guess because it was a new recipe with lots of steps. (*This is our THIRD can opener, by the way, and I finally splurged and got the OXO one. Despite this, I was still unable to get to the damn pumpkin, and so mangled the can that by the time I asked Spouse to step in, he got some IN HIS HAIR and had to take a shower. Oh my GOD.)

  • While chopping fresh cranberries (as they BOUNCED all over the kitchen), I made the mistake of tasting one, and was so profoundly disturbed by the horrid taste and big honking seeds that I decided to use Craisins instead. (See, something had TOLD me to get extra Craisins! I stood in the aisle for MINUTES fretting about buying them and they saved my bacon!) More on fresh crans some other time.

  • I did not stick the landing; a teeny bit of cake stayed behind in the pan, which I had carefully buttered. Mom says Crisco works best.

  • I "finished" the cake with a dusting of powdered sugar. If you are holding the cake that is so dusted, when the birthday celebrant blows out his candles, powdered sugar will dramatically burst all over your shirt and spectacles. The comic effect will be enhanced if you happen to be wearing a black long-sleeved top with tastefully glittery reindeer on it, and it will completely make Thanksgiving. Oh my GOD.

  • The verdict: Dad reported the cake was "exactly what he'd had in mind." Kid: Teared up and got him seconds.

2. Candied orange slices, which are made by bringing a syrupy mess to a boil on your stove and then waiting for hours and hours. Do NOT start something like this at something like midnight before Thanksgiving; I don't care how much you think people will be impressed. Thing learned:

  • Candied orange PEEL might actually be possible, but by the time the peel is actually candied (soft and sort of translucent), the actual fruit part of the slice will become fibrous and grody. I cut the peel from a few of the slices and and it did taste surprisingly like candy "fruit slices." So much so, in fact, that I will probably just buy those instead.

3. Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies; recipe and review available here, from Smitten Kitchen. These are a chocolate-chocolate-chip slice-and-bake, and they are salty, and the salt is supposed to send the chocolate into the stratosphere. I don't know if I buy that, but they are damn good, OCD-inducing cookies. That is: If you have the cookies, all you can think about is eating the cookies; if you have the dough in the fridge, all you can think about is baking some more, or maybe just eating a slice right off the log (and there's no eggs, so why not?). In the Thanksgiving craziness, I wanted to make something I knew for sure I'd like, and we got up early enough that morning that I had time to make the dough, chill it, and bake a few specimens. I could tell from the recipe that Spouse would find them "too chocolate-y," and too chocolate-y for him is right about where I like it. I am probably going to call these PMS Cookies, or Gateway Drug Cookies, or something else clever if I come up with anything. Things learned:

  • I learned the hard way that if I put plastic measuring cups in the dishwasher, one of them will fall out of the rack, hit the element, start to melt, and set off the smoke alarm. I also learned the hard way that both my 1/3 cups fell victim to this phenomenon. The first time I made the dough, I just guesstimated using percentages and our other cups. The second time through, I converted everything exactly with teaspoons and tablespoons. I think guesstimation is fine, but see below.
  • The directions are kind of weird. You are supposed to mix as little as possible once the dry ingredients are added--the directions call for five one-second pulses, followed by a 30-second mix. This made me wonder why I should dirty up the stand mixer. So, if you're following along, Batch 1 was guesstimated and done in the KitchenAid; Batch 2 was exactly measured and done using a hand mixer. Result: Go ahead and dirty up the stand mixer! It is probably possible to properly "beat butter until creamy" and incorporate the sugars with the hand mixer, but I don't think I have the patience. The first batch came out MUCH better than the second one.
  • The first time, I used roughly 1/4 teaspoon (guesstimating again--all I had was a 1/2 tsp.) of supermarket coarse sea salt that I tried to crush in a mortar and pestle. I wasn't getting the salty effect, so I sprinkled a little salt on each cookie slice before baking, which looked really nice and tasted awesome. The second time I used 1/2 tsp. of kosher salt, and this was a little much. You are supposed to use either 1/4 tsp. "fine sea salt," or 1/2 tsp. fleur de sel, which I have yet to invest in. I just read in entirely another cookbook that if you need to substitute regular ol' salt for fine sea salt, you can do so in equal measure.
  • I got to pick out gorgeous, stainless steel, throw-in-the-dishwasher sets of measuring cups and spoons for Christmas, thank gosh, because all this mathy crap is for some other baker. Unfortunately, I won't receive them until, y'know, Christmas, so if I want to give away any of these, or to get my fix anytime soon, I will have at least one more round of guesstimating.
  • If you use chopped-up bar chocolate instead of chips, don't go too crazy with the chopping. You want some chunkitude. Go too small, as I did with Batch 2, and the chocolate will just disappear into the cookies.
More to come!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas cantankerous

Dear Marketing Geniuses at Bath and Body Works:

What led you to name a fragrance "Black Amethyst"?

Because, seriously, amethyst is supposed to be purple.

Yours truly,
Bring A. Torch

P.S. Some of us feel like crap at holiday time and simply cannot handle songs like "2,000 Miles" by The Pretenders. Please keep this in mind when programming your Muzak. Thank you!

Monday, December 8, 2008

How to trigger yourself:

1. Have a really stressful, at times splendidly life-changing, at times unspeakably horrible, law school experience that leaves permanent scars. Struggle to find the right mix of chemicals and therapy that works for your slightly irregular brain.

2. While on continuing quest re your slightly irregular brain, spend three years trying to pass bar exam. Eventually find superb therapist and superb chemicals. At long last, pass exam. Wait over a month for good news to sink in and horrible self-talk to lighten up.

3. Watch already not-booming economy go completely kablooey. Scan want ads and law school career center websites for jobs that simply do not exist in your town. Try to maintain perspective. Freak out, cursing decisions you made years ago, about which not a whole lot can be done.

4. At the precise moment when you are finally coming to be at peace about the whole she-bang, and finally easing up on the self-flagellation, and finally learning to be constructively kind to yourself, read this book by a law professor about her harrowing struggle with schizophrenia.

I'd been looking forward to reading this book ever since I heard the author on On Point, and I would love to go through and do an in-depth review of it, something that would encourage others to go out and grab it, but I just can't go there and read it again. I knew from the first chapter that it was upsetting me, and I just couldn't quit. I was totally unprepared for how much we had in common.

I suppose I've always thought of myself as having some friendly, garden-variety type of mental illness. My diagnoses and treatments are fairly familiar and (I'd like to think) non-frightening to reasonably educated folks. When I really get going, anxiety-wise, the distortion in my thoughts probably approaches the level of delusion, but the thoughts at least originate from some basis in reality.

And I suppose I identify MIs that involve psychosis, which a therapist described to me once as a break with reality, as scarier than my own. If I may refer to The Prince of Tides: you can get your head around most of the Wingos, but sister Savannah, with her frightening visions and her razor blades, is a little out there. If I'm honest, it's almost like "I'm over here with my depression and my worrying, and those people over there, the muttering homeless, the people committed involuntarily, those who get prescribed things that aren't advertised in glossy magazines, are The Other." This shames me, as I like to think of myself as both pretty darned open-minded and pretty darned empathetic.

I was hoping Professor Saks would be able to make me understand what it's like to have The Other kind of mental illness, because I think of it as so very different from my own. And I guess what freaked me out is that it wasn't all that different. Not at all. Granted, I don't hear voices I'm not supposed to hear, and I don't think I've ever worried about having killed anyone with my thoughts, and okay, yes, at my most effed-up, I have thought about the s-word, but I've never felt uncontrollably, forcefully compelled to make any attempts. But the devastating, horrible self-talk she recounts? On page after page? That is me. That is totally me. And literally, days ago, it had started to let up, and then the book came in from interlibrary loan. That's not to say it's back in full force--I've gotten a lot better at redirecting my focus--but man, it was really disquieting to read.

There's one part where she recounts feeling utter terror at finding herself home alone, and I had an eerily similar incident when I was a kid. I visualize it at about age 8 but suspect I was even older. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it turned out that my parents and brother had just wandered over to the site of a house that was being built nearby. They probably weren't gone an hour. But when I couldn't find anyone anywhere, and both cars were still in the garage, I went completely apeshit. I called our nanny, who lived several towns over, I was so freaked, and she was so selfless that she dropped whatever she was doing and came.

Several times lately I've read--in Newsweek, in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink--about how desperate we are, as humans, perhaps particularly as American humans, to have explanations for inexplicable things. This is supposedly why so many rely on religion, or on less conventional supernatural tenets. We'd rather have an explanation that veers into the unprovable, even the whimsical, than no explanation at all.

And what's so scary about certain mental illnesses is that there is no why. My therapist would prefer I not delve into Why I'm Like This, because he's very focused on The Now, and on what I can change. But if you were to listen in on Christmas dinner at either of my parents', I think a few things would be fairly obvious. It wouldn't necessarily explain precisely why I'm this way, nor why my brother is comparatively even-keeled. But it likely would explain certain obsessions, certain thought patterns, certain well-worn paths of self-bashing, certain failures in self-care.

The fictional Savannah Wingo suffers terrible traumas at the hands of family members, society, and strangers. Her illness doesn't make sense, and yet it sort of does, because of those traumas. Professor Saks's illness frighteningly began to manifest when she was very young, but she is careful to emphasize the wholesome, loving family environment she grew up in, the fact that she wanted for nothing. Her illness doesn't make sense and likely never will. She writes powerfully about the facts of her life: Sometimes things just unravel. Sometimes the bottom drops out. Despite our best mythology and our best therapies, some things simply cannot be overcome, nor can they be explained. She will be on drugs for the rest of her life, no matter how hard she fights her illness.

I don't know if I will always be on stimulants and antidepressants. I've wanted to be off drugs pretty much ever since I got on them. This is probably due to the fact that when they were first prescribed--I was fourteen--the meds were presented to me not as a remedy for a sickness, but as a punishment for bad behavior. I have received mixed messages from my family ever since then: "Obey your elders and doctors and take the meds," but also, "Why can't you just [exercise] [diet] [socialize] [read] [bake] [12-step] [something] yourself free of it?!" And I've always been conflicted and guilty about how much of me is bonafide crazy, which would be somehow excusable, and how much is just lazy (the result of not fighting it hard enough). None of this worrying is particularly helpful, and I suspect that eventually, like the professor, I will come around to the point of view that dictates seeing mental illness like we see diabetes or other chronic disease, and that I am simply just taking my insulin.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving Frenzy One: Hooray for Stuffing (and Pioneer Woman!)

Holy crap, it's been a lot longer than I thought it had been.

Anyway, this is the first of a series of posts on Stuff I Made for Thanksgiving, and the only one that will literally be about Stuff(ing, that is).

My mom has a rule that once you turn 30, you have to bring something to Thanksgiving. Last year was my first year "on," and I was assigned stuffing. Spouse doesn't do onions, nor does he do nuts, so I scoured the Web for something inoffensive. It involved shallots and white wine. I made cornbread for it from a Jiffy mix (mit lard!). It didn't kill anyone, and it even received compliments, but I don't know that it was anything to write home about.

This year Spouse informed me that he doesn't really dig stuffing, onion-free or otherwise. So I decided to make a fairly normal stuffing, but throwing in, er, stuff I would really enjoy. Pioneer Woman had been running a Thanksgiving series so I checked out what she had to say on the subject. (I'd consider PW an authority on food, period, but especially on traditional types of dishes that are meant to please a crowd.) I printed out her recipe and wondered how to reduce it, since she cooks for something like a baseball team.

Her recipe calls for crusty Italian white bread and for traditional unsweetened cornbread, 8 cups of each, in 1" cubes. I decided rather randomly to just halve it and go for 4 cups of each. I love cornbread but I don't have a skillet (yet--getting one for Christmas!) so I didn't feel like making it from scratch, and frankly the Jiffy mix wasn't that great last year. (In my 8" square pan, it went completely flat.)

For the crusty bread, I went for Cuban bread from Publix, which is a huge long, light-as-a-feather loaf, so full of air that if you can't eat it all in about 36 hours, it will become hard as a rock. (That's not usually a problem for me, put it that way.) You want your stuffing fodder somewhat dry so it will absorb whatever liquid you throw at it, so I thought Cuban bread would be perfect. (Someday I will write a paean to Publix, particularly its bakery department that always seems to be making chocolate chip cookies when I walk by, but that is a story for another day.)

I had a harder time finding cornbread. Publix stopped making it, the lady said, because it didn't sell well. I found some at a Kroger and was so stoked that I made the fatal error of not checking the ingredients before I bought. Problem: Sugar was listed before cornmeal. We sampled it and it was like yellow layer cake. So that was out.

I called the Somewhat Hippie-fied corporate grocery and all they had was jalapeno cheddar cornbread, which is probably tasty but not what I was after. I called the Fancier Gourmet one next, and the bakery person was knowledgeable enough to tell me that theirs was sweet and probably not right for stuffing. This was Wednesday at something like 3 pm, and I still hadn't made it out of the house. I decided to do What the Locals Do, which is go to the nearest meat-and-three and buy some of their cornbread. I asked the friendly young lady at the counter if she had heard of people doing this and she nodded and said, "All the time." Back in my car, I took a sample (for research purposes! How often do you actually get to do that?!) and it was perfect. Good and gritty.

And then I went to Big Lots, ostensibly to buy a cooling rack, and spent an hour looking at $4 Christmas CDs. I had 3 in hand but thought better of it.

Later that evening, I had more than enough Cuban bread to make 4 cups of cubes, plus a good-sized sandwich or two. Six pieces of restaurant cornbread, minus one corner, were exactly enough to make 4 cups. I spread the cubes out on cookie sheets. That night after I took our frozen pizza out of the oven and turned off the heat, I put the cookie sheets in to get the bread a little crunchy. (Paranoid of any complications, I also stuck a Post-It on the oven controls, lest I forget I had stowed things in there that probably would not benefit from a round of pre-heating.)

Thursday morning, I chopped one yellow onion, about half of a bunch of celery, a peeled and cored Rome apple that a produce section sign told me would benefit from being baked, and one cup of toasted pecans. (Joy says you can toast nuts in the microwave. Don't believe it. It's not the same.) I put three tablespoons of unsalted butter and a good dose of olive oil in a pan. I was at the bottom of my jar of minced garlic and elected to just clean it out [deviation from PW's recipe]. Then I added the celery and onion.

When the onions were starting to turn clear, I added a two-cup container of reduced-sodium chicken broth. Then I started shaking in dried herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano, I think) and fresh ground pepper. At this point it smelled wonderful, but exactly the way I recall Stove Top smelling, and I wondered why the heck I was bothering with all this.

Things got a little hairier once the broth was at a boil, because I was waffling about how much to actually add to the stuffing. I had my giant bowl full of crunchy bread cubes at the ready and started adding the celery and onion with a slotted spoon. Then I ladled in some broth. Then more of the aromatics. Etc. Etc.

Then I threw in the pecans, the apple, and most of a jar of Hormel real bacon bits. [All deviations!] If I did this again, I'd save about half the jar to garnish the top with. I saved maybe a fourth, and that wasn't enough to really create a top layer of bacony goodness. (It is probably cheaper and better to just fry and crumble your own bacon, but that would not have been well received at my house, given that the goods would be going into a dish that Spouse wasn't going to eat.)

But I still had some liquid in the pan, and not knowing where the line between too dry and too wet was, I decided to throw it all in. I might be more conservative with this next time, because I think the stuffing came out a tiny bit too wet. And yet, you don't want to risk it being dry, either. (Hence the waffling.)

I did a taste test and with the bacon in there I felt that I did not need to add salt.

The coolest part was that the mixture fit perfectly into my 9 x 13" pan. That was just plain luck.

When we got to Mom's, the pan went in the oven for about half an hour at 350 degrees. It didn't take on much color but I think that is because there were several other things sharing the oven space.

And my family thought it was mad crazy good. Dad even called Friday to tell me how much he liked it. (In fact, he said it was "Off. Da. Hook." No joke.)

Our grocery store plastic pepper grinder, which we've had for over a year, seems to be on its way out, because occasionally, eating the stuffing, you'd get a big POW! of pepper, which I am guessing means that the grind is too coarse. But nobody seemed to mind, and I actually really liked it.