Friday, April 27, 2012

Favorite Favorites: Pimento Cheese and Strawberry Jam

Way back when I was in youth group, we played some kind of game that required us to choose the one food we would be happy eating the rest of our lives.  I don't remember the point of the game, but I do remember my answer: pimento cheese.  Back in those days, I was eating the spread on white bread sandwiches.  Since then, more wonderful things have happened.

First, homemade pimento cheese.  My grandmother and mother and aunts all make homemade pimento cheese, but for some reason, I had never tried it myself until recently.  It is ridiculously easy.  Although there are many different versions of the recipe, this is the one my mother taught me:

1 (8 oz.) block sharp cheddar (grated)
1 (8 oz.) block mild cheddar (grated)
1 (4 oz.) jar diced pimentos (drained)
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

Mix the grated cheese and pimentos with enough mayonnaise until it becomes a thick, creamy spread.  Add in the Worcestershire sauce and pepper (freshly ground is particularly good).  Momma recommends grating the sharp cheddar with one size of holes on the grater and the mild cheddar with a different size, just to make the texture more interesting.

Then, my brother-in-law introduced us to grilled pimento cheese.  Again, this is so obviously good that I can't believe I hadn't tried it before.  The crisp buttery bread, the melty cheese.  Mmmmm.  However, the February 2012 issue of Southern Living took it a step further by adding bacon to the grilled pimento cheese and suggesting serving with strawberry jam--what?  Strawberry jam?  Let me tell you, it is unreal.  Jordan is not a fan, but then, he generally doesn't like sauces and condiments--such a purist.  For me, however, a thin slather of strawberry jam on top of a grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwich is amazing.  I have always been a big fan of cheese-and-fruit eaten together, so this is tops.

It is especially good with the year's crop of strawberry freezer jam.  We picked two bucket-fulls not long ago, and I made enough jam to fill up a dozen half-pint jars (one of which went to work with Jordan and disappeared inside of four days!)  Here is my previous post on freezer-jam making.

But, the pimento cheese and strawberry jam goodness does not end there.  Also in the February Southern Living was a recipe for pimento cheese rolls.  Super easy, very tasty.

Pimento cheese seems to be a very personalized food.  Any other variations out there that are your favorites?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sea Anemone

This is (was) my current crochet project, and, oh, is it epic.  It started as a gift for a friend from whom I will have to part in a few months when I move and she gets ready to transfer colleges.  She loves the ocean and bright colors, and so I picked out tones that reminded me of the beach: four different shades of blue, some green, orange, yellow, pale purple, and sand.  I am using Caron Simply Soft (my go-to acrylic), and this is going to be quite a warm afghan because of the density of the stitches.  I wanted to name it Sea Anemone because of the flower design.  However, when I looked up "sea anemone" I discovered that they are not, after all, flowers like the regular anemones.  They are strange, underwater creatures.  They are really kind of bizarre, but also beautiful, so I am keeping the name.

The reason for the epicness is the pattern.  It is very slow, very tedious.  Lots of switching colors, and you can see from the photo that I haven't woven in any ends yet.  It also takes a bit of time selecting colors for each patch so that I don't have the same color combination (each hexagon will be unique--Jordan helped me with the math) and also so that the same colors aren't touching, or even too close.  I predict that it will take me several months to complete, most likely more months than I have time for.  So, it is going into hibernation for a bit.  I have chosen a different afghan pattern for my friend (using most of the same colors), but I will actually be able to complete it before we part ways (and, you know, before she graduates college!)

Here is the Ravelry page for this afghan, and here is a link to a helpful tutorial on joining the hexagons as you go.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Homemade Beauty

 I am a fan of beauty products that come from the kitchen.  The chemicals and what-not in most tubes and jars kind of freak me out, and my skin is on the sensitive side, so it's prone to freaking out, too.  A lot of my homemade stuff I learned from my mom.  And, actually, I'm not sure if it even qualifies as homemade, since there is no making involved.  For example, an egg yolk face mask is just that--beat an egg yolk and apply it to your face.  It seems to tighten pores and smooth skin.  I also like adding a teaspoon of baking soda to my hair in the shower once a month.  I keep a small Mason jar in the shower, toss in the baking soda, swirl in some water so that it's somewhat paste-like and work into my hair.  Rinse, then wash and condition as usual.  This strips out any product build-up and makes my hair super soft.

Homemade stuff usually also has the added benefit of being cheap--usually, I already have this stuff hanging around.  The other day, I needed a body scrub, so that I could apply sunless tanner.  I had seen a few recipes online, and decided to mix some stuff together and see what I got.  Here is my recipe:

2-4 tsp. brown sugar
2-4 tsp. white sugar
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. coconut oil
1 tsp. lemon juice

I mixed it all together in a small, clean jar that once held diced pimentos (see, recycling!).  Honestly, the results were amazing.  I tend to have dry, eczema-ish skin, and this stuff made it super smooth and soft.  If you are not familiar with coconut oil, check it out.  It is about the consistency of Crisco, a white solid at room temperature, but melts when you rub it in.  I use it for so many things, including a substitute for after-shower lotion, face moisturizer in the winter, lip balm, and I smooth some onto dried hair to tame frizz.  I got an enormous jar from a health-food store something like two years ago, but I have seen it now at Wal-Mart with other cooking oils.
Bolstered by my confidence in kitchen beauty, I decided to try another experiment: homemade hair lightener.  I have light-medium brown hair that I actually rather like.  I think the color looks a bit like oak wood, because I have very subtle streaks of lighter blonde throughout.  I was completely blonde as a toddler, and even after my hair turned brown around age five, it would still bleach out to a bright blonde in the sun during the summer when I was a kid.  I don't want to dye my hair--like I said, I like the color.  But, I would like to intensify the highlights that are already there.  So, this is what I mixed up:

1 cup strong chamomile tea (steeped approx. 30 minutes)
1 tsp. honey (dissolved in tea)
1/2 to 1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 oz. John Frieda Go Blonder Lightening Conditioner

I let the tea and honey cool a bit, added the lemon juice and whisked in the conditioner (which should keep my hair from getting too dried out).  I poured it all into a spray bottle.  I tested it out during a long run last week, spraying mostly the front layers and the top of my head until my hair was fairly saturated.  I was out in the sun during my run for about 40 minutes, and when I got back my highlights were definitely more noticeable.  It wasn't a drastic change--I think the process is a gradual one--but my highlights were definitely blonder.  I keep this concoction in the fridge--I'm not sure if the ingredients go bad, but I don't want to spray moldy liquid onto my head. 

So, there you are: homemade kitchen beauty.  I can't guarantee the results, but if you try these, let me know how they work out for you.  And let me know if you have any favorite homemade beauty recipes.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Road Ahead: General Update

 When I was younger, I loved the American Girl series.  One of the books in each girl's series was about changes, so it was called Changes for Kirsten or Changes for Samantha.  I feel like I'm in Changes for Stephanie.  Or, I am about to be.  Jordan got a job.  He starts in August at a small private university that we believe we are going to love.  I have contacted the English department there about an adjunct position and was told I would hear something when they had their fall enrollment numbers in.  So, this means a move.  We will begin house-hunting in a few weeks, after going to the bank and meeting with real estate agents and all of that.  The area is pretty, but very rural and somewhat isolated.  And it is even further from our families.  But, we believe this is where God has called us to be.  We have learned even more clearly over the last few months and even years, that God has a plan for our lives.  He is at work and He wants us to join Him.  We prayed about the offer from C University, and received exactly what we prayed for: confidence that we were hearing His voice.  We believe that going to C University is God's plan and that He has things for us to do there.  So, we are excited, even though it means that we will have to experience a bit of heart-ache in the process.  Leaving our church is going to be painful.  We have become so rooted and entwined there that transplantation will be somewhat messy.  But that too, I believe, was part of God's plan for us--we grew and learned and served there--it was essential to our development.
I am learning to trust rather than control.  I have always been the girl with the plan.  I like knowing what I will be doing, when and where.  But, now, some things are up in the air--where I will be living, if and where I will be working, so many things.  But, it will be great, no matter what, where, and when it is.

But, I do know that the next few months are going to be a good deal about packing and cleaning and looking at houses and saying goodbye.  And saying hello.

OK, so what else is going on?  Lots of running.  I am keeping up with my New Years Resolution so far, and I am on track to run 366 miles this year.  I am hoping to get my long run distance up to 5 miles in the next month or so.  I am reading lots.  For fun, I have A Game of Thrones--it was a bit off-putting at first, but now I am loving it--a review will surely follow.  I am also reading Academically Adrift, which is a scholarly report on the status of undergraduates.  It is informational, if not the most riveting reading.  There is about a month of the semester left, so a lot of my time is spent reading things for class, grading papers, and planning lessons.  I think I can make it a few more weeks!  Honestly, this is a wonderful job.  We will be seeing the family soon, and, oh also, planning a trip to Disney this summer!  We weren't too sure when my mom first proposed the trip, but now I am getting increasingly excited.  We went once before when I was 10, but Jordan has never been.

The pictures in this post are from the Bog Garden in Greensboro.  There's a funny story there.  About planning this trip during spring break, getting up early to get good light, arriving, taking approximately 5 pictures before my batteries died.  Realizing that the two sets of backup batteries were also dead.  Driving to Harris Teeter to buy more batteries, driving back to the park, then realizing I had bought the wrong size batteries.  Banging head on steering wheel.  Eventually I just gave up and did my exploring without the camera.  The Bog Garden and Bicentennial Park are beautiful, and I also enjoyed Guilford Courthouse Military Park where an important battle of the Revolutionary War took place.

So, that's a bit of a rambly update, but that's what's going on! 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy: Book Review

An orphan girl, despised by her aunt and cousins, is sent to a boarding school where privations and abuse are mainstays.  The girl grows up and takes a position in a remote manor house teaching a little girl whose guardian is both charismatic and mysterious.  Sound familiar?  It should.  Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy (Harper Collins, 2012) is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.  Set in Scotland in the 1950s and 60s, the novel is both clever and inventive in how it manages the parallels to the original work.  Gemma, born in Iceland, is taken to live with her mother's brother's family at Yew House when both of her parents die.  The opening chapters closely match Brontë's work, from the "not taking a walk" first lines, to the a "bird book" enjoyed in a secluded window-seat.  Claypoole (read Lowood) is a house of horrors: Gemma is taken on scholarship, and in return, she must serve as a "working girl"--basically an unpaid servant, which allows for interesting class dynamics as the divisions between the working girls and the regular students are severe.

In the first part of the book, the primary differences between Jane Eyre and Gemma Hardy are in the heroine's allies.  Unlike Jane, Gemma not only remembers but loves her uncle, who is a kindly minister who dies just before the beginning of the book.  No Betsy, but there is Mrs. Marsden, Gemma's aunt's housekeeper.  No Miss Temple, but, interestingly, a Mr. Donaldson, the teacher at Gemma's school before she leaves for Claypoole: he tries to warn Gemma off the boarding school, but becomes a victim of his own good intentions.  The Helen Burns character is rechristened Miriam Goodall, an asthmatic regular student who befriends Gemma.  She doesn't seem to have the same degree of influence on Gemma as Helen has on Jane, and lacks Helen's stoic faith.  Faith in general seems to be in short supply in this novel, despite Gemma's uncle's vocation, and, more crucially, despite the overwhelming importance of both Christian themes and images in Jane Eyre.

The second part of the book, Gemma's sojourn at Blackbird Hall (there is an extended bird motif through the whole novel), is perhaps the most enjoyable.  Gemma's advertisements land her in the Orkneys, the islands in northern Scotland, working for Mr. Hugh Sinclair, teaching his niece Nell (rhymes with Adele!)  It is in this section, however, that the story begins to spin away from the Jane Eyre story most clearly.  Gemma as adult is less like Jane than she was as a child.  She lacks Jane's unflinching self-possession, and this is demonstrated most strikingly in her reasons for running away from Blackbird Hall after Mr. Sinclair's secret has been revealed (Mr. Sinclair, by the way, is not nearly as much a bad boy as Mr. Rochester).  Jane leaves Rochester, not because he has deceived her and tried to trick her into bigamy--she forgives him the instant he asks before she ever leaves Thornfield.  She does not leave because she is angry with him.  She leaves because of a moral impulse--she is terribly tempted by his pleading that they remain together even though his wife lives.  She flees because she wants to be able to maintain her self-respect--she would rather risk starvation on the moors than to act on her passion for Rochester.  Gemma leaves because she is angry.  She leaves because she has been deceived.  There is no real moral compulsion to flee, so her reasoning takes on a self-righteous tone.  She leaves because she wants to "find herself."

OK.  Enough fussing.  The novel is actually really good.  I sped through it, intrigued to find out what would happen to Gemma (although, of course, you can probably guess).  The novel is an original work in its own right, and although I feel that the novel didn't truly capture the essence of Jane's character and choices (and I think it could have and still maintained it's originality), it is entertaining nevertheless.  It is fun to find the clever ways that Livesey alludes to the original work, and at times I was reading the novel with the memory of the corresponding passage in my mind, almost superimposed above the words on the page.  This is definitely a novel that I would love to dissect with another Jane Eyre fan---so, get on it!

Recommended if you love or even like Jane Eyre, enjoy coming of age stories, are interested in Scottish geography and a bit of history.

On a related note: my review of Fukunaga's film adaptation of Jane Eyre

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Early Easter Morning

 Citrus Spritz Cookies.  I usually make these at Christmas, but I had a cold and didn't get around to it then.  So, I decided that citrus was spring-like as well.  Especially since these are shaped like flowers.  I think I may have finally figured the cookie press out.  These also have a lemon glaze and tiny white nonpareils.
 My handsome husband getting ready for church.
 My Easter outfit.  Every since I was little, Easter was a special sartorial turning point.  I wasn't allowed to go bare-legged until Easter, and we never wore light colors until Easter.  I remember wearing some special Easter outfits as a little girl--hats, gloves, tiny lace purses.

My daffodils have finally bloomed!  I was afraid I had crowded them too much in the containers, but there they are, with their smiling, charming faces.

Our Easter Cantata this morning was one of the most powerful services I can remember.  Each song was so beautiful; the voices of those who spoke and prayed were overwhelmed with emotion; and it was uplifting to see the faces in the congregation clearly worshiping our Risen Savior.  One of the songs keeps playing in my head:
Living He loved me, dying He saved me
And buried He carried my sins far away
Rising He justified freely forever
One day He's coming, oh, glorious day, oh, glorious day
Lunch was so very nice, with friends who made wonderful things to eat.  I miss seeing my family today, but we'll be getting home soon.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Of Queens and Castles: Book Reviews

I have not one but two books to review today.  The first is Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams (Ballantine Books), which is an extremely long title.  I read this on my Nook, and I started it last summer and read it off and on, finishing a couple of months ago.  It is, as you may have guessed, a biography of Queen Victoria.  I was somewhat ashamed that I am a Victorianist, but had never read a biography, so this was my first.  I found it to be quite good.  As the title suggests, a good deal of the book is given to discussing Victoria's predecessors, beginning with George III, who finds himself the grandfather to 56 illegitimate children, fathered by his reprobate sons, and only one potential heir--Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince of Wales.  The first half of the book is devoted to her story, and the text makes clear that had she not died young in childbirth, Victoria herself might never have been born--the demise of the only legitimate heir to the throne left those reprobate sons scrambling to reproduce with their lawful wives.

The biography is interesting, filled with salacious details and honestly, at times, appalling portraits of the nineteenth-century monarchy.  It abounds with cruelty, bad feeling, and very little family warmth.  Even Victoria herself is denuded of her rosy glow, and painted as somewhat shallow and power-hungry and Albert is a bit of a self-aggrandizing martyr.  Although it matched with most of the details of the fairly recent film, The Young Victoria, the movie-version is certainly prettier than the biography version.

Recommended if you like historical detail, famous family drama, and seeing near-mythic figures made human.

The second book I have finished recently is Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.  This is a title that I had heard of before in a very vague way, but had absolutely no idea what the book was about.  I saw it on the shelf at our local used book store and noticed a blurb of praise by J.K. Rowling on the cover.  I read the description on the back and then the first lines and was hooked.  The novel was originally published in 1948, but is set in the mid 1930s, and is written as the diary of aspiring seventeen-year-old writer Cassandra Morton, who lives with her siblings, eccentric once-famous-writer father, and proto-hippie artist's model step-mother in a ramshackle old castle in "not-so-genteel poverty."  Cassandra's diary is intended for her to practice the art of writing, as she wishes to "capture" characters and settings, so she tries out her talents on her family and home.  In the meantime she tells the story of her coming of age, figuring out family and love and all of that.  Rowling's blurb of praise was for Cassandra as narrator ,and I have to agree--let me just give you a bit from the first paragraph:

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.  That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy.  I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left.  And I have found that sitting in a place where you never sat before can be inspiring--I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house."
The book is both funny and sad and beautiful.  I have some issues with the resolution, but truly, I loved it.

Recommended if you like coming of age stories, writing about writing, vintage British-isms, oblique references to the Modernist movement of the early 20th century.

I will be writing a review soon of Margot Livesey's new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is a retelling of Jane Eyre set in the 1950s and 60s in Scotland and Iceland.  I considered adding it on here, but wanted room to do a more extensive review.

Right now, I am a bit between books.  I have two that I picked up used: Wayne Caldwell's Cataloochee, which is a multi-generational saga set in the Cataloochee valley near Asheville, NC, a place I have visited many times; and Diana Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, but I haven't a strong idea of the story--just something about England and Gothic and old books.  But, yesterday a friend forcefully recommended George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series (a.k.a the Game of Thrones series), claiming that he likes them even better than Tolkien, which is utterly unthinkable to me.  I haven't quite decided what kind of reading mood I am in, so I don't know what I will read first. 

Let me know if you have read any of the books mentioned and what you think of them!