Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dancing With Crawfish

After a week of hard work, Kirk and I surveyed the fruits of our labor. Before us lay the beautiful, gleaming, unblemished and un-splintered expanse of our newly refinished dock.
“I know,” said Kirk, snapping his fingers as though something wonderful had just occurred to him.
“What?” I ask, unable to look away from the freshly pressure-treated, golden glory of the smooth new dock boards.
“Let’s have a crawfish boil,” he replied, sweeping his hand in the air as he read from an imaginary marquee.
Still mesmerized by the finished product after so many hours in the sun, I shrugged. “Why not?”
Oh, darling reader, if only I could go back in time. Take early-June Erin by the shoulders, and shake some learned-the-hard-way sense into her. “Why not? Why not?! I’ll tell you why not!” I’d yell, in my best “you can’t handle the truth!” impression. Maybe my next character would be a time traveler, and I will live vicariously through her.
But it seemed like a good idea at the time. Have a party, enjoy the new dock, fire up the turkey fryer, and have us a good old-fashioned southern boil.
So I went about the business of planning the party. I sent out cute little e-vite invitations. I bought hanging plants and arranged the dock furniture just so. Kirk made a cornhole game (I did mention that we live in the south, right? Well, don’t judge me) while I sewed the game bags – black and white Mastercraft theme to match our ski boat. It was all very clever and lovely.
And then it came time to get the crawfish. I picked up the phone to place an order at the farm down the road, and was greeted by a tin-can message telling me they were sold out through at least mid-July. Eh? Was there a run on crawfish or something? I shook it off, and researched other suppliers in the area. After I called one after another, I learned that there was indeed a run on farmed crawfish. (Shout out to all my peeps at BP!)
At this point I am starting to panic. No crawfish for the crawfish boil?! Didn’t these people know that the invitations had already been sent? *Gasp* Oh, no, come hell or oily water, I was going to have the buggers for the boil. After running down the list of suppliers in the whole state, I finally found one that had availability for the party date. And what’s more, they were driving to Raleigh anyway the day before, so I only had to drive as far as the interstate to pick them up. Hallelujah! The party was saved.
Borrowed cooler in hand, I was off to retrieve the main course. We met in the parking lot of a gas station, and the farmer handed over the tightly bound bag of crawfish, while I handed over a fistful of cash. His instructions? “Keep ‘em on ice, but don’t let ‘em sit in water—it’ll kill ‘em.”
Um really, cuz, well, I thought they were freshwater crustaceans. You know, as in animals with exoskeletons that live in water. Clearly one of us was crazy, but looking at the squinty eyed, leather skinned farmer, I wasn’t going to start pointing fingers.
Almost immediately I realized that the cooler is not big enough. The top was popped open and there was not much room for ice. I headed into the gas station and bought a Styrofoam cooler and a bunch of ice. So far, so good.
Once I made it home, I hauled the 35-pound bag into the shade of the front porch before going back for the ice and coolers. Opening the bag, I got my first look at the crawfish. They were rusty colored, barely moving, and surprisingly similar to tiny lobsters. Here was my thinking: The bag is just a little too big for one cooler, so dividing them between the two cooler should be perfect, right?
The moment I start pouring them into the first cooler, they immediately expand like those little foam pills in water (look mom, it’s a dinosaur!). Their little legs and claws went all spread-eagle on me (the sluts) and before I knew it, the cooler was full with two thirds of the little guys still left in the bag.
This is about the time I started to break out in a cold sweat. It was around 98 degrees outside, and the bag was starting to move on its own… I had to get the critters back to their happy place, aka cold hibernation. I poured as many as I could into the 2nd cooler, and added the ice.
Now the little guys still in the bag are starting to get mad. They wave their claws indignantly at me, trying to crawl up the rough fabric. One of them brushed my hand, and I squealed like a seven-year-old girl, dropping the bag and doing the ‘heebie-jeebie’ dance.
Thoroughly freaked out, I stuffed the top of the sack under one of the heavy coolers, then sprinted into the house in search of another cooler. The only one I could find was our good one – sans drain plug. Whatever—it would have to do. I ran back into the kitchen, threw open the freezer door, and poured the ice into the cooler. Oh crap – it wasn’t enough.
Out of options, I dragged the cooler through the house and onto the front porch, where the bag was now heaving and roiling. Here goes nothing. I yanked it out, upended it, and dumped the protesting occupants into the last cooler. I gave it a good shake, slammed the lid down, then did another heebie-jeebie dance.
I needed more ice, but if I left them outside, they would be even more awake than they were now. Unfortunately, I had to keep them water free, so the drain plug had to be open. I ended up putting the coolers in the bathtub *shudders*. When I returned 20 minutes later with the extra ice, I shook each cooler before doing the ice refill as fast as physics would allow. I shut the shower door, backed out of the bathroom, shut the bathroom door, and went to my computer to get some work done.
Only I couldn’t work. Every time I tried to concentrate, I would swear I could hear them moving around, trying to escape. By the next morning, I was in a heck of a state. I couldn’t wait for the boil, so I could get the things out of my bathtub and out of my life. Since the one cooler didn’t have any drain hole, I had to go tip it to get the deadly water out. I worked up my courage, and peeked into the first cooler. All was silent.
Really silent.
As a matter of fact, it was deathly silent. Oh, God, what if I killed them?! They had to be live—dead crawfish quickly went bad. I panicked and pulled one out, holding him gingerly between my thumb and forefinger and shaking his limp body.
Nothing. Crap!
I turned on the tap in the sink, filled the basin with warm water, and plunged him into the water. Breath, damn you, breath!
I poked at him a bit, and he fell over on his side. This was bad, very bad. What a second—maybe the farmer was right. Maybe I was drowning him. AHHH! I yanked him from the water, trying to shake the drops from his… breathing holes? Ew. Was he dead? I still couldn't tell.
I was hoping he was still be in his happy place – maybe he just needed time. So I carried him out to the back deck and set him beside my computer. I tried to get back to work, but his beady little eyes kept staring at me. And the dogs kept staring at it. Dog #1 kept looking from me to the crawfish, incredulous hope plain on her face: Is it… is it for me?
After 10 minutes of staring at the lifeless crustacean, I decided perhaps it was just this one. A few minutes later, I had 2 lifeless crustaceans staring at me with beady little eyes. To my immense relief, I finally saw an antennae move, and then a leg, and finally the tail. Oh thank God. The death scare over, I chucked them back into the cooler (to the dog’s heartbreak) and began preparation for the party.
The party itself was awesome. We had so much fun with all the friends that showed up, and everyone ohhed and ahhed over the gorgeous new dock boards. The cornhole game saw much action, and even the boil itself went fairly well. With one notable exception.
No one seemed to want to eat the crawfish.
Thank goodness for the five or six diehards there, because everyone else was hunting and pecking for the sausage. Sausage!! You know, the handy little tubes of meat that come neatly wrapped in plastic? Son of a—!
So, what did this mean for the crawfish boil? Leftovers, lots and lots of leftovers. I stopped cooking the crawfish at some point, and we had an entire cooler left of the little guys.
Hours later the party wound down, and everyone headed home, Kirk and I dragged our exhausted selves to the house and headed for bed. “Did you bring the cooler back up?” I asked him.
“No, I’ll get it now.”
He went back down to the dock and retrieved the cooler, and came in and said, “So, what do you want to do with the crawfish?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, throw them away, I guess.”
“Erin, they’re still alive!”
I stopped in my tracks. “What?!” We had gotten rid of the ice ages ago. I had assumed they would have perished in the dry cooler. “Crap, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, but I put the rest of the ice over them so they don’t start stinking over night.”
So the next day, we were left with a dilemma: What on earth were we going to do with them? I have no problem using them for consumption, but I couldn’t just throw away a live creature. It was just so wasteful.
We looked at each other, and then out to the lake, then back at each other.
“No, uh-uh.” I shook my head. “As a scientist, we can’t just thrown them into the lake.” Okay, so it was less science, and more the intense dislike of the idea of tiny pinchers nipping my feet—I swim in that lake, for Pete’s sake.
“We could take the cooler to the gas station and leave a sign saying free on it,” I suggested instead. We considered it, but it just seemed too creepy.
“What about past the dam?” Kirk asked. On the other side of the dam, a creek wound it’s way through the woods, all nature-y and full of wildlife.
I hemmed. I hawed. I asked my neighbor about the native population, and he assured me that crawfish were naturally occurring there.
So, posing as casual hikers, we rebagged the crawfish, headed out toward the dam, and parked outside of the nature trail. As nonchalantly as possible, Kirk grabbed the bag and we whistled casually across the road, down the right-of-way, and into the woods. Once out of sight of the road, we sprinted down the trail until we found a suitable place to climb down the embankment.
Kirk slipped and slid his way down with the sack, while I kept watch at the trailhead. I watched as he opened the bag and promptly dumped the contents in one big heap on the shore. They were still cold from the ice, so they just laid there like a great big pile of guilt.
Crap! I had thought he would have sprinkled them up and down the shoreline, not just drop them in a lump. “What are you doing!” I cried.
“What?” Kirk asked.
“You can’t just leave them like that.” They were moving a little, but for the most part, it was just he odd antennae or tail flip. “They look so … so obvious!” I sent furtive looks up and down the trail - still clear.
“What do you want me to do now?” he demanded, already stepping away.
“I don’t know, disperse them.” I made sweeping motions with my arms, indicating the surrounding creek bed. He pushed a toe at them, nudging them around a bit.
“No, no, that’s not helping. Here, help me down.” Kirk lent a hand while I jumped down to the embankment.
I tried to redistribute them, pushing them this way and that, but there was just too many of them. So I decided to try a more aggressive tactic. Lifting the closest one gingerly with my patented thumb and forefinger grip, I chucked it out toward the middle of the creek. Grabbing another one, I repeated the action. “Come on, help me.”
Kirk crouched beside me and followed my lead. When at last the mound was thinned, I rinsed my hands and sighed in relief. It was over.
As we headed back up the embankment, I took one last look behind me, and promptly stopped in my tracks. From this vantage point, I could see a perfect semi-circle from the dumping ground—apparently the exact radius of my throwing arm. The half moon of little rust colored bodies was plain as day from the trail. Oops.
Kirk and I looked at each other and cringed. We looked back at the crawfish, then at each other again, and as if on cue, sprinted for the car.
Be free little crawfish, be free!
I'll be honest with you, darling reader. After such an ordeal, I am not feeling very recipe-y just yet (just like I doubt I will ever eat crawfish again). Tune in Thursday for one of my best recipes ever... Pina Colada cupcakes! Cocktail goodness just in time for the 4th of July.
So, have you ever been to a crawfish boil or eaten crawfish? Would you do it again?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thursday Mini-Post


This week, one of my critique partners asked us to fill out a little survey about summer. I started out answering the questions as a favor, but before long, I was lost in the happy memories of what summer has always meant to me.

First and foremost, I fell in love with my husband fourteen years ago this summer. I will never forget sitting in the car in my driveway during the summer downpour, the well-known chorus of Sweet Home Alabama playing quietly in the background as those three perfect words danced on the tip of my tongue, eager to be said.

I took a deep breath and turned to Kirk to set them free, but he beat me to it. “I love you,” he said, his deep brown eyes full of apprehension and sweetness.

I broke into a huge grin and said, “I love you!” He kissed me then, before we abandoned the car and danced together in the hot summer rain, uncaring of what the neighbors would think. We were young, and in love, and the air smelled of rain, and hope, and possibilities.

Perhaps that is why I love summer so much. It surely is not for the heat, for I will spend every moment I can moving from shade to shade, slathered in sunscreen and reeking of bug spray. But I don’t care if the mosquitoes eat me, or my hair turns to fuzz. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I can still feel the rain on my lashes and the thrill of first love.

What does summer mean to you? Do you have any special memories that come to mind?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lifting My Glass

Today is a very special day for my family, for it was 64 years ago today that my mother’s parents—my Nana and Papa—said I do. Both wearing tasteful suits, hers adorned with a corsage, it was a simple ceremony that marked the beginning of a lovely and long-lived marriage.

Papa was tall, thin, and sported a full head of white hair for as long as I can remember. By contrast, my Nana has always been short, plump, and red-headed. In the black and white pictures from their youth, he was the debonair giant to her diminutive yet voluptuous stature. Her hair neatly coiffed, his suit tidy and neat, they stood beside each other with sweet smiles and love in their eyes.

Circa 1945 – Papa in the Army

Nana was a soda jerk in an ice cream shop – a mere teenager when young Sylvester happened into the shop. Sassy girl that she was, Norma refused to serve the young Army man. Though he was a good five years older than she, in his early twenties, her flashing hazel eyes must have done him in, because from that moment on, he only had eyes for her.

Before long, he headed off to war, and kept up a faithful correspondence with his sweetheart. When he returned safe and sound, they were soon married, and in time they were blessed with my mother and her two brothers.

All of this part of their life I know though fading black and white photos, the occasional story or two, and even a grainy, soundless video. Really, it is all second hand knowledge. The real story comes from my childhood experiences—from those long ago visits when my parents would pile my brother, sister, and me into the car and take the long distance trek up to visit them.

When we finally arrived, we would pull into tidy driveway of the tiny, well kept, post-war suburban house that they called home for 50 years. Before we even came to a stop, Papa would have the side door open, eagerly waving to us as Nana stepped out on the stoop. No matter how tired or cranky we had been moments earlier, we three kids would bound from the car and eagerly accept their freely offered hugs and kisses.

Nana and Papa’s house was always immaculate, with the sound of one sports game or another filtering from the living room while the enticing scent of simmering soup wafted from the kitchen. They both took great pleasure in providing all of the forbidden foods we could ever want, and made extra sure that the house was freshly stocked upon our arrival. The greatest treat of all was always the box of fresh doughnuts that Papa would fetch from Dunkin’ Donuts the morning after we arrived for a visit.

Whenever I pass a frosting-filled powdered doughnut, I think of Papa and his twinkling blue eyes full of mischief. He knew how much we adored the dreadfully unhealthy but oh-so-delicious treats, and delighted in providing us with all the little things that we loved, but were never allowed to have in our own home.

Mom would shake her head at the indulgence, and Papa would chuckle, his voice raspy and hoarse from age and from the cigarettes he smoked before it became a cardinal sin to do so. Nana would offer up sugary junk cereals that had never once graced the table in our own home.

For lunch, Papa would descend into the semi-completed basement with its leaning pool table and 30 years of Reader’s Digest shoved into ancient bookshelves, and he would return bearing our very favorite cream soda that wasn’t sold where we lived. My mother would worry for our teeth, and our sugar levels, and our disturbing level of excitement as Nana popped straws into the 3 cans and dispersed the drinks among my brother, sister, and me.

The piece de la resistance was always the glorious salami that Nana would produce with a flourish at the strike of noon. She would spread the deliciously greasy slices onto decadent white bread (another no-no in our house), top them with a few thick slices of tomato, and drown the whole thing in Italian dressing before putting the sandwiches on paper plates and into our greedy hands. I think that sandwich is the taste of my childhood, if I had to narrow it down.

Our delirium would peak when we sat before the wood encased television that broadcast not just the local stations, but over a hundred off-limits cable stations as well. Papa would flip though the unending channels before settling on Looney Tunes. We would all laugh at the bunny’s antics and the duck’s slurred indignation. Papa, whose name was Sylvester, would call out to Nana, “Come on, my little Tweety bird, come watch our show with me.”

Papa always looked to Nana with love, respect, and adoration. I cannot recall a single time I heard reproach or censure in his voice when he spoke to her. Even now, I can hear his voice calling out to his wife as he did so many times through the years, “Ah, my wild Irish rose. My beautiful wild Irish rose.”

“Oh, Papa,” would be her coy response, chuckling and shaking her head while her eyes shone with pleasure. We three kids would giggle at their courtship, still alive and well after all those years of marriage.

Before we left at the end of one of our trips, we would stand outside on the concrete steps, hemmed in by the black iron railing and the beige, splitting shaker shingles that were always in need of another coat of paint. Nana and Papa would hug us, we would kiss their cheeks, and mom would pull out the camera and shout, “Say cheese!”

I think that there are a hundred of those pictures somewhere in the basement of my parents’ home, where old-fashioned print photographs go to die. The three of us kids, my tall Papa and his little Tweety Bird, smiling cheerily at the camera as we grew by inches and years.

Shortly before my husband and I married, I came to realize that I had managed to find a man who mirrored many of the qualities that defined my grandfather. Papa was perhaps the most patient and gentle man I have ever met. Whether teaching his grandkids to drive, waiting on Nana at the hair salon, or simply taking the time to properly shine his shoes, he never became exasperated or annoyed.

Patient and understanding, loving and respectful, Kirk was the perfect foil to my stubborn, outgoing, and impatient nature. I felt blessed beyond belief that I had found a kindred spirit to the grandfather I loved and admired so much, who had adored his wife so sweetly through the years. When Papa had patted my hand and told me that I had caught me a good man, I merely smiled and nodded my head. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that was true.

Four years ago, the whole family gathered in celebration of Nana and Papa’s 60th wedding anniversary. It was an amazing day, made more so by the clear devotion they shared. Since they had never had a wedding cake, I baked them a three-tiered, flower-adorned monstrosity, and we all watched in delight as they cut the cake and sweetly fed each other a piece. It was so heartwarming, and I frequently look through the pictures from that day.

We all knew that there would not be many more anniversaries for them, and indeed the 61st was the last year they celebrated together. In August of 2007, Papa passed away at the age of 87. Though he is no longer here to celebrate with us, Nana and the family still commemorate the day, remembering the beautiful marriage they had shared and the outstanding example they provided.

When he passed away, we grandkids gathered around the small box of memorabilia that he left behind, choosing for ourselves the items that would best represent who he was to us. I was thrilled to accept his compass, saved from when it was issued to him during WWII. When I look at the aged, dinged metal case, decades old and yet still so beautiful and relevant, I am strongly reminded of Papa and the direction he provided for my life. He lived simply, honestly, and with so much love that I can still feel his presence in my heart today. I hope to leave a legacy half so well remembered as his.

With joy in my heart, slightly damp eyes, and a smile on my lips, I lift my proverbial glass to my grandparents today. Happy anniversary, Nana and Papa! Thank you for the brilliant example you provided us. May the spirit of your blessed union live on for many, many more years to come.


In honor of the occasion, I thought I would provide a different type of recipe today. Papa loved to make homemade soup, and had perfected several wonderful recipes. Today, I offer one of my own that I modified from this one...

Italian Wedding Soup

1 pound buffalo or extra-lean ground beef

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup dried bread crumbs

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon dried basil

3 tablespoons dried minced onion

2 1/2 quarts chicken broth

2 1/2 cups fresh spinach - packed, rinsed and thinly sliced

2 - 3 cups bowtie pasta (based on preference)

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced mushrooms

In a medium bowl, combine the beef, egg, bread crumbs, cheese, basil and onion. Shape mixture into 1/2- to 3/4-inch balls and set aside.

In a large stockpot heat chicken broth to boiling; stir in the spinach, pasta, carrots, mushrooms and meatballs. Return to boil; reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, at a slow boil for 10 minutes or until pasta is al dente, and meatballs are no longer pink inside. Serve hot with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.


And the winner of this weeks giveaway is…KARA!!! Congrats, Kara, on winning a four pack of muffins. Now lets see if I can create a great low-sugar recipe for you… :)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thursday Mini-Post

Research, research, research. As a Regency era writer, it seems like half of what I do is research! What fabric would her dress have been made of? How would two men greet each other? Would the phrase "going haywire" have been around (no, FYI. That one originated in the early 20th century)? I have to admit, it sometimes weighs down the joy of writing.

Recently, however, I did some research for my current work in progress (wip) that was—wait for it—actually fun! And tasty, very tasty. My heroine, Jane, is a baker, and I wanted to see for myself what some of her cooking methods would be. I found a 17th century beer bread recipe (click here for website), and while it is not completely historically accurate (I can't get my hands on barm, so self rising flour is used instead), it was still very interesting to try. It couldn't be easier—3 ingredients, 1 bowl, no kneading or rising... what could be better? Give it a whirl (I bet the man in your life will love it), and let me know what you think!

17th Century Beer Bread
1 bottle of beer (I used Trader Joe's Bavarian Hefeweizen)
3 cups self rising flour
2 Tbsp honey or sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Mix with your hand until well combined. Place in a greased loaf pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until baked through.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A (Country) Moment in Time

As a writer, I lead a rather solitary existence. While everyone else I know heads off to work each day or prepares for a day of chasing kids around, I commute from the bed to the back porch (or basement, depending on the weather), with nary a word to anyone save the dogs. If I am feeling plucky, I will put on a shirt and a proper pair of pants. Usually, however, I end up in one of my three comfy cotton dresses, hair in a knot at the top of my head, and wearing not a hint of makeup.

When my husband comes home, I emerge from my computer-induced stupor, blinking at the bright lights and wincing at the sound of an actual human voice. Poor Kirk. What a vision to come home to everyday. Actually, I think I am slowly morphing into a feminine Jabba the Hutt, only without the slime or henchman, and with a MacBook Pro permanently grafted to my lap.

Needless to say, it ain’t pretty.

There are but a few things that keep me sane: my occasional weekday get-togethers with my lovely friends Nicole (who also lives at the lake) and Kate (who actually works somewhat close to me) are absolute life-savers. I try to act all cool when I talk to them, like, “Hey, it’s good to see you,” while in my head I am thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S A HUMAN BEING! Talk to me, respond to me, ask me what’s going on in my life … DON’T EVER LEAVE ME!


Well, a few months ago, I added another activity to my social calendar: weekly lunches with my friend Tammy. Some of you may remember a mini-blog I did last month about the book club meeting I attended with adorable howling-wolf cupcakes ordered by the Tammy half of author Lydia Dare. Well, that’s her.

These lunches have become a real staple in my week. The opportunity to have lunch out of the house (1 point), with a friend (2 points), who’s also a writer (3 points), and loves food as much as I do (10 points! ...What? It’s my scoring system, I can run it how I want to) adds up to one super-awesome weekly lady-date.

I’m not exaggerating about the date part. I plan what I am going to wear the night before, rifle through my jewelry, and even *gasp* put on makeup! Makeup! Like a woman who cares, and is actually seen by another human being! It’s all very exciting. Added to the fact that for economy of gas and to minimize lost work time, my lunch date coincides with the day I do grocery shopping and errands, well, let's just say it’s an effort to get to sleep the night before.

When we originally decided to get together a few months back, I had just discovered (with Kate, actually) a little restaurant in Louisburg called Country Moments that included not only knick-knacks and cute decorations, but also had a surprisingly wonderful café in the back. Tammy had recently stumbled across the café as well, and loved the idea of meeting there.

I call the sheep Knick and Knack ;)

Country decorations

We couldn’t have picked a better location. As customers came and went, we got to know each other over Napoli salads and water (me) and Diet Pepsi (Tammy). The food was wonderful, the setting comfortable and quaint, and we talked for almost two hours. When we made plans to meet again, we decided no other meeting place would do.

So we came back, week after week, sitting at the same table, ordering from the same waitress, praising the same chef for a myriad of different culinary offerings. As Tammy and I learned more about each other, we also learned more about the people around us. They started off as background, and slowly progressed to spunky secondary characters in our little weekly story.

Angela taking our order at “our table.” Noticed my gussied up state :)

The chef extraordinaire is JoAnn, an outgoing, outspoken, darling pixie of a woman. She has an eclectic wardrobe of brightly colored hair ribbons and a collection of aprons that range from the heirloom from her grandmother to a few with frills and polka dots to one or two embroidered with outrageous sayings. She cooks intuitively, a real panster like me, and hasn’t a single recipe to go by. Everything is by taste and experience, the way your grandmother used to cook.

JoAnn sporting a neon pink, polka-dot hair ribbon.

After only a few visits, she was already pulling up a chair to ask what we thought of the meal, compliment our outfits, or simply to chat when she had a free second. It didn’t take long for us to look forward to whatever unexpected comment would come from her next, or even better, what delectable new dish. The food she serves isn’t fancy, but is delicious in its simplicity and has that extra ‘cup of love’ that goes into every plate.

The owner, Deanna, is such an energetic and positive person, she always has a huge smile and a happy greeting for everyone who drops by. She loves to stop and chat with all of her customers, and get to know them a little. She has even read a few of Tammy’s books. She is a networking machine, and seems to know half the people in Louisburg.

Deanna, surrounded by her ‘Country Moments’ wares.

For the hour or two that we are there, it feels as though we have taken as step back in time. To Mayberry perhaps? No, that’s not right. I wouldn’t call the ambiance old-fashioned so much as timeless. A spot where my computer has no place, and we women can chat about whatever comes to mind, be it family, or work, or the finer points of a homemade soup. A place where the bonds of friendship can be knitted, the craziness of or lives left behind, and, for a few hours each week, we can cast off the weights of the world and revel in the sort of companionship not found through texts, or smiley-face emails, or even over the telephone.

The cozy bric-a-brac around us feels like home somehow—despite the fact that my own home is minimalist in the extreme. I love that Tammy and I can chat for as long as we like, with no one trying to move us along like the rest of the fast-paced world.

Taking our time as we chat

During our date each week, we celebrate each other’s accomplishments, give pep talks in moments of doubt, and help thrash plots and flesh out new characters. Patrons come and go around us, JoAnn cooks up a storm, stopping by now and again, and Angela moves busily from table to table. Deanna flits about, pausing to see how we are doing or what’s new. It is a familiar pattern that has become well loved in only a matter of a few months.

When at last we leave, I feel as though my batteries have been recharged, and I can carry on with another week of toiling away in my quiet, halfway-to-Timbuktu home.

When we started meeting, I had hoped to find a new friend who could relate to the unique challenges a writer faces, and I did; Tammy is already very dear to me. What I didn’t know, however—what I couldn’t have guessed—was that I would in fact gain so much more; a home away from home, a group of lovely women who know my name and actually look forward to seeing me, and a familiar ritual that is simple yet profound.

For all of these things, I am deeply grateful. As is (I suspect) my husband, who for one day a week gets to come home to a wife who looks like the woman he married and not Edith Bunker on crack.

You know, it’s the small things in life ;)

It’s another GIVEAWAY WEEK! Do you have a place you can go to get back to the basics of life? Have you thought about ditching the computer for a while, and sitting down for the simple joy of chatting with a friend in person? I’d love to hear about it! I will be giving away a four pack of blueberry banana muffins (or some other combination if you prefer) this week. All you need to do is leave a comment and I will enter your name into the drawing. And yes, I will ship all over the world, so enter even if you are outside of the US. I will draw a name on Monday night, and announce the lucky winner in next Tuesday’s blog. Good luck!!

In honor of my once-a-week home away from home, the featured recipe this week is not actually my own. JoAnne was kind enough to provide me with the simple yet unbelievably delicious recipe for her Sautéed Pound Cake. By using store-bought pound cake, you can impress your whole family in just a fraction of the time!

Country Moments’ Sautéed Pound Cake with Strawberry Preserves

- 1 store bought pound cake, sliced into 1” thick pieces

- about 1/2 Tbsp of butter per slice

- Light Brown Sugar – enough to sprinkle in the butter for each side (about 1 tsp per slice)

- Strawberry Preserves

This dessert is made almost exactly the way you would make a grilled cheese.

Melt the butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter, and lay down the slice of pound cake. Cook as you would French toast or grilled cheese to desired doneness, laying down more brown sugar before flipping sides. Take extra care not to allow the sugar to burn. If you detect a scorching smell, turn down the heat and flip the slice. Remove the slice from the pan, set aside. Heat the preserves and spread over top. Garnish with whip cream and fresh strawberries.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thursday Mini-Post

*A quick note about the blog format. I am trying to figure out how to create a page that will have all of the recipes in one place. I am more than a little computer illiterate, so bear with my while I work on it :) *

So, you have followed the recipe to a tee, and now a whole batch of glorious, mouthwateringly delicious smelling cupcakes is cooling on the counter. They are perfect in every way, and you can't wait to show them off to the world. After a while—maybe an hour, maybe 4—you notice something is not quite right. With a gasp, you realized you have been the victim of the dreaded Separating Cupcake Liner.

This phenomenon has plagued many a made-from-scratch cupcake baker, and I have devoted quite a bit of time to investigating the cause and solution for said plague. Though I have never had this happen with a box mix, for some reason some recipes—particularly those with using butter—seem to be prone to it. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, well, it just sucks.

Over the past year, I have worked diligently to come up with a solution, and below is a list of tips I have put together in an effort to prevent this from happening to anyone, including you, my darling readers.

This week, I visited a blog called BakingSOS to chime in on a discussion about this very topic, and I had to grin when she dedicated a new post to my suggestions: BakingSOS Post.

Erin's Tips:

First, I buy the special double liners that have a standard paper liner inside a foil one (I get them at Food Lion, but I am sure they are at other stores too). They are meant to be self-supporting so you don’t have to use a cupcake pan (although I highly recommend that you do). Even if the paper pulls away a little, the foil is strong enough to hold it in place. A second option is the Wilton brand paper liners, which seem to be less waxy than some of the store brands. Never use cooking spray on liners.
Sturdy foil liner protecting the paper beneath

Second, I put the batter into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag and snip one corner off to make a small dispensing hole. I carefully fill each liner, then move the pan back and forth on the counter in quick motions to try to get maximum contact between the liner and the batter. Be sure not to smack it down, so not to lose any airiness.

Third, for the recipes I use, I don’t fill the liners any more than half full. At half full, the cupcakes rise just to the top of the paper, without going over and getting all messy and flat.

Forth, I have had the best luck if I allow the cupcakes to cool for 5-7 minutes in the pan before *gently* removing them to a wire rack. Do not store them or ice them until completely cool.

Fifth, if all else fails use a trendy paper cupcake wrapper to force the liner into submission :)

Those liners don't stand a chance with the reversible wrappers holding them in place...and looking pretty in the process :)

I hope everyone is having a wonderful week, and I hope to see you back here on Tuesday for an all new post and outstanding new recipe (not mine, so I can say that!).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Around the World in 12 Hours

Last week, my husband and I celebrated 9 years of wedding bliss. We put a lot of stock in celebrating anniversaries, so it was a bit anti-climactic when we decided to celebrate from home this year. Generally, we like to get away for the weekend, and have in the past enjoyed trips to Wilmington, the Smokey Mountains, and even Italy (thanks Ryan and Kara!).

But with a gift certificate in hand for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours (thanks—again—Ryan and Kara), we decided to at least make a day of it and head to the Big City for a little food, a nice movie, and some together time. Okay—a lot of food, but we’ll get to that.

As I have mentioned before, we live on a lake, which manages to be a tremendous blessing and a total curse all wrapped up in one big package. It’s everything we ever wanted, about ten years sooner than we thought we would actually have it. Well, the property, anyway. The house is everything we didn’t want in a house, but that’s a story for another day. But the dock, the screened porch with a view, the instant access to water sports fun—all of it is a dream come true. And that’s the problem.

We have a very hard time pulling ourselves away from it, and as a result, our time outside of the neighborhood drops off precipitously as the temperature increases. For some reason, I actually feel anxious and guilty when I want some time in the real world, like I am thumbing my nose at my dreams. (Why yes, I do hear voices in my head… why do you ask?)

Lucky for us, our anniversary this year coincided with Memorial Day Weekend (short pause to give a shout out to all past and present service men and women—you guys are my hero!). In a way, it was a perfect storm of events that led to a completely guilt-free trip to the Big City. First of all, no other weekend quite brings out the crazies like Memorial Day weekend when you live on the water. Even though we live on a relatively small lake, boaters are still thick on the ground-er, water. What’s more, these are the people who generally consider themselves boating experts, despite the fact their boat may only get wet once or twice a year.

The water is extremely choppy, the whine of dozens of engines fill the air, and you can’t spit without hitting a boat, tuber, or Jet Ski. So, clearly it’s a good time not to be on the water. Combined with the fact my husband had a full three days off in a row, viola! A day on the town.

We puttered around the house until around noon, then gussied up for our date *giggle* I dragged my husband down to the dock for an impromptu photo shoot, which he was actually a good sport about (he hates getting his picture taken).

What a guy :)

Having properly documented the occasion, we set off for Raleigh. We had no idea what to expect from the tour. It was at a weird time for food, starting at 2 and going until 5. I had no clue how much food would be involved, so we had had a very light snack around noon. By the time we arrived at the appointed meeting place on Wilmington Street in downtown, I was ravenous.

Now, a hungry Erin is like a hungry wildebeest. It is best not to look me in the eye, or get between me and something remotely edible. The website said to be there at 1:45, and at 1:48 I was tapping my foot angrily and checking my watch obsessively, waiting for the guides to arrive. Meanwhile, I was smiling as pleasantly as I could muster to the lovely people who would also be on the tour, while mentally coming up with a list of proper punishments for the late guides. Lets see, three minutes… I was thinking either the rack or forcing them to watch Sex and the City, 2. Either one seemed appropriately horrible.

At last they arrived: a lovely woman named Amy and a nice guy by the name of Tony (I think), and I decided that perhaps I could let the three minutes and 27 seconds slide, just this once.

And so, the tour began.

First stop: 18 Seaboard, an upscale (though not terribly expensive) contemporary American grill. At this point, I was a little woozy from hunger, so I don’t recall much of what was said before the food came out. When at last the food arrived, it was an upscale take on fried green tomatoes that would have made Izzy at the Whistle Stop Café weep with joy. It was beautifully arranged with a side of corn relish and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. I only know how lovely it looked because I glanced at my neighbor’s before mine was set before me, and I promptly went all National Geographic on it. At first I chewed quickly, in a hurry to satiate the wildebeest within, but slowly the flavor broke through my frenzy, and with an effort I was able to slow my pace. By the last few bites, I was finally able to really savor it. Truly, it was absolutely divine…possibly even literally. Is it possible to deep fry angel wings?

It was too delicious to think about pausing for a picture…

Interestingly enough, even though it was a classic southern dish, the preparation and presentation was so upscale, I suddenly felt as though we were at a trendy eatery in New York.

And here I thought we were stuck in Raleigh for the day.

We soon set off for our next stop, a small café-like restaurant called Market Restaurant that serves whole, all-natural, unprocessed foods from local sources. It was a pleasant little place with plenty of little tables and an ambiance that would have been right at home in Asheville, NC or Burbank, CA.

When they brought out frosty glass bottles of water with glasses garnished with fresh cucumber, I was strongly reminded of lunching with my sister somewhere eclectic in California. Only half a mile a way, and here we had already traveled from one coast to the other. Their offering included fish tacos, kale chips, and homemade spicy ketchup.

Frosty jugs of water for our cucumber garnished glasses

Kirk could not have been more thrilled, since I absolutely hate all things fish *shudders*, so he got both servings. The fried-in-olive-oil kale chips, however, were a totally new food for me, and I was surprised how much I liked the crispy little leaves. Who would have thought to fry a cabbage leaf? Oh, wait, this was the south, after all. We’ll fry anything that doesn’t run the other way—and even then if it isn't fast enough to get away. Fried pickles, Twinkies, or squash, anyone?

Lovely arrangements, but, Eww—fish.

Directly next door we found Escazu Chocolates, small-batch artisan chocolatiers. Brace yourselves, ladies, for you are about to take the journey with me.

Upon entering the shop, my attention was immediately drawn to the tiny, perfect little chocolate pieces beneath the glass of the display. Vibrant colors, artful designs, and exotic flavor combinations would have tempted even the most picky of chocolate connoisseurs, of which I am not. Picky that is—I wanted to eat them all!

Elegant, unique, and perfectly portioned

The co-owner, Danielle, is a Venezuelan native with lovely, exotic features and an enchanting accent that emerged as she spoke of the South American origins of their cocoa beans. Before the tasting, she took us on a tour of their operations, showing us the time-consuming process of taking the bean from its raw form to the gorgeous confections displayed in the shop. It was wonderful to see that, in the age of robotic and assembly-line manufacturers, true artisans still exist, practicing their crafts with talent, attention to detail, and imagination. And by imagination, I mean things like chocolate with goat’s milk, chipotle chili, and even pumpkin seeds.

The whole facility smelled of mouthwatering decadence, the sort of richness that can make one fat simply by breathing the air. And breathe I did, in deep, satisfying drafts, much as a sommelier would sample the fine bouquet of a perfectly aged red. I couldn’t wait to get started on the tasting.

We returned to the shop and sat down to await our first sample: 67% cocoa dark chocolate with coarsely ground sea salt. We were advised by the expert not to chew; instead, we were to lay it on our tongues and wait for the flavors to come alive as the chocolate melted in our mouths. It took quite a bit of will power, but it was worth it. The divine texture and flavor of the chocolate blended beautifully with the punch of saltiness, smooth silk merging with sharp mineral, awakening the senses in a nearly primal experience.

When at last my eyelids fluttered open and my eyes were able to focus, I eagerly accepted the next sample, the 60% cocoa dark chocolate with goat’s milk. As unbelievable as it sounds, I liked this combination even better. The creamy, slightly acidic twang of the goat’s milk was the perfect foil to the earthy, almost fruity essence of the dark chocolate. As I savored the heavenly flavors dancing over my tongue, I knew then that the fruit of the tree which had so tempted Eve must have surely been the cocoa bean, waiting only for the touch of an artisan as skilled as those who toil away in Escazu’s kitchen.

By the time the tasting concluded, I felt as though we had sampled the finest delicacies ever to leave the humid jungles of South America. Of course, we simply couldn’t leave without purchasing a few extra treats for later. I chose an inviting square of chocolate-covered marshmallow, while Kirk decided on a tiny truffle of chili and lime. While my choice was classically yummy, the chili lime proved to be an instant favorite, with an explosion of flavor so vibrate one can not help but wonder how so much zing can fit in such a tiny little package.

As we gathered outside in preparation of heading to the next venue, I couldn’t believe what a truly wonderful time we were having. Who knew such lovely delights awaited us within the city we had called home for eight years? As is so often the case, we take for granted the city we live in, never seeing it for all of the amazing options that await us if we but look.

As we headed out, Kirk and I laced our fingers and matched our footsteps like we used to all those years ago when we were dating in high school. It was fun to share such an adventure with each other. So far, we had flitted from New York, to California, all the way to South America, and I eagerly awaited our next stop.

So, drunk with happiness from the chocolate shop, our little group headed on to Zely and Ritz, a totally unique dining experience off of Glenwood South, downtown.

Chef Sarig, greeted us upon our arrival, and quickly and efficiently seated us at a long table laid with a brightly colored and mouthwateringly aromatic pesto and sausage topped pita pizza. Sarig, who is Israeli-born, incorporates Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern spices with local and organically grown meats and produce to create truly unique dishes. As we tucked into the yummy little pizzas, I was amazed to learn that nearly everything served in the restaurant, from the sausage to the tomatoes, is grown or raised on their very own family farm in Hillsboro. How awesome is that? According to the chef, the menus change weekly in order to accommodate whatever is in season at that exact moment in time.

Little Sausage and Pesto Pizzas

With the foreign flavors of the Middle East still fresh on my palate, we said goodbye and went on to Solas…and straight into Miami Beach.

Kirk turned to me with wide eyes and instructed me to take copious pictures of the outdoor area, because, when I am massively famous and fabulous, he wanted an exact replica at our house. I have to admit, I do to:

Enough to make Don Johnson homesick for a white suit, feathered hair, and the biggest cigarette boat money can buy.

Once inside, we were treated to a perfect little slice of rack of lamb and a glass of wine. Again, Kirk was happy since, thanks to my wine allergy, he got yet another double serving.

As for the food, it was my very first taste of lamb, and honestly, it was every bit as good as any filet I have sampled. Kirk and I exchanged conspiratorial looks, each wondering if it would be worth the risk of being booted from the restaurant to pick it up with our fingers and suck every last bit of taste from the bone.

We didn’t.

But we wanted to. Oh, did we want to.


After exploring the second-floor dance club (with a glass floor – I hope the ladies remember their unmentionables lest the restaurant goers below get a little more than they bargained for) and the third floor patio and bar, it was time to move on to the final stop of the tour: The Mint.

At this point, I was stuffed. Even though we had only had a small sample from each place, man did it add up quick. As we walked through the sumptuously decorated dining room, up the curving staircase to the bar area, I sighed and accepted the fact that I couldn’t eat another thing.

And then they brought us our final dish: shrimp and grits.

Oh, Lord.

My eyes got huge. My mouth began to water. My stomach groaned in protest, but my taste buds quickly won the fight. Inordinately glad that I was wearing a high-waisted , flowing dress, I dove into this classically southern, perfectly prepared low-country staple with gusto. The grits were creamy, the shrimp firm and sweet, and, as if that wasn’t enough, little bits of sausage added even more rich-bodied flavor.

So good… it was too bad I was so full I couldn’t breathe. Totally worth it. On top of the deliciousness of the food, I was happily put to mind of sultry summer nights in historic Charleston, warm salty breezes blowing in from the marshes while the distant sound of waves serenaded more beautifully than Mozart.

The tour guides chose that moment to produce a box of cupcakes from The Cupcake Shoppe. Grateful for the knowledge that no store-bought cupcake could be better than my own (despite how delicious the other tour-goers proclaimed them to be), I wrapped a vanilla on vanilla one in a napkin, and stuffed it in my purse for later.

As we strolled to the car (any faster pace was out of the question, though being rolled might have been a good option), Kirk and I linked arms and reminisced about these nine wonderful years of marriage. With big goofy grins on our faces, we piled into the car and headed for our next destination: the movies!

Indulging in a very rare treat indeed, we paid full price to see Letters to Juliet. Though the film was a delightful little love story sure to bring a smile to anyone’s lips, it was the gorgeous Tuscan scenery that had us sighing with pleasure at the memory of our time in Italy.

Afterward, we weren’t ready to let the feeling go, so we decided to treat ourselves to some wonderful gelato from a fabulous little shop in Wake Forest called A-La-Mode. The cool, creamy goodness instantly transported us to the heart of Rome, where we had sat gazing upon Trevie Fountain only a year earlier while partaking in the exact same treat.

As we licked the last traces from the bowl, Kirk checked his watch – it was already past 9:30 pm. We got into the car once more, and paused to look at each other. Neither of us wanted our perfect date to end.

Finally Kirk grinned. “I have an idea,” he said, and put the car in gear.

Within moments we arrived at Shuckers, a local oyster bar and grill that serves absolutely wonderful seafood. “Oh, no,” I said, laughing. “I couldn’t possibly eat another thing!”

I was wrong.

Not only did I eagerly devour my cooked-to-perfection bacon wrapped scallops and mixed veggies, I even had a little of Kirk’s shrimp appetizer. Everything was delicious, and I have to say, it tasted like… home. Sitting on the patio, with the buzz of neighbor’s around us and the unique smell of Raleigh in the air, we had come full circle on our journey.

It was midnight before we finally made it back to the house. Hand and hand, we walked inside, sated, content, and totally in love. In twelve hours, we had managed to sample the whole world, and at the end of the day, we were exactly where we wanted to be.

Home :)

What is your most memorable date? I’d love to hear the special ways that you guys like to celebrate, and whether or not you have ever experienced a perfect day.

PS - I had to use my little backup camera since we couldn't find the battery charger for the good one :( Have no fears, it has since been found, and my pics should be back to their normal, high-quality selves from now on :)

After such a luscious chocolate experience, I thought perhaps a chocolate recipe was in order…

Chocolate Cupcakes

This is slightly modified from the Bakers One-Bowl Chocolate Cake Recipe printed inside the Semisweet baking squares (red) box.

6 ounces (6 squares) BAKER'S Semi-Sweet Chocolate

3/4 cup (1 – 1/2 sticks) butter

1 – 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla

2 - 2/3 cups cake flour (or sifted all-purpose flour)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 -1/2 cups water

2 Tbsp sour cream

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwaveable bowl on HIGH 2 min. or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in sugar and vanilla. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating with electric mixer on low speed after each addition until well blended.

Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. If you are using all-purpose flour, it is best to simply sift it all together.

Add 1/3 of the flour, then ½ the water and the sour cream, then another 1/3 of the flour, the last half of the water, and finally the last 1/3 of the flour.

Distribute evenly into 24 paper-lined medium muffin cups. (I always add the batter to gallon sized Ziplock bags and cut a small hole in one corner for easy distribution. This batter will be very thin)

Bake 19 to 21 min. or until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Be careful not to overcook! Cool in pan 10 min.; remove to wire racks.