A Place to Call My Own

Made some gooey lemon coconut bars on Saturday and they were not bad. It’s a new addition to my collection of “spring recipes” and the first time I’ve tried ‘em. Not bad at all. Seems I find myself craving lemon early each spring, and when I came across the words “lemon” and “gooey” I couldn’t help but try it out.

I’ve been thinking a lot as I do my spring cleaning, and the word “gool’ won’t leave my head. It just came into my head the other day the way words and ideas do, and I did a bit of online research and there it was: “Gool: a safe spot in a game of tag; a goal, common in Greendale, WI, in the 70s and 80s.” Well, I did grow up in Wisconsin, but not in Greendale, and “gool” was as common a word as any while playing with my friends over in the school ball fields. It meant “safe” to us while we played tag or hide-and-seek. “Gool.” A safe place where nothing can touch or harm you. You can’t lose when you’re on gool, and you can’t be compromised. That’s what it felt like to me, anyway.

Thing is, I haven’t used that word since, and for it to pop into my head, well, that’s all just plain interesting, and it’s gotten me thinking about how we all have our “safe places.” Some are obvious, and some don’t make sense except to those who have them. I have the feeling of being on gool when I’m shopping for groceries. I have it when I’m out for a drive (ever take Sunday drives when you were a kid?) and when I’m at my parents’ house and when I’m in a tub full of hot water and lavender Epsom salts. Where the kids live is gool to me, and I think my own house is the Big Gool if there is one, and that’s when I get to thinking about people who have no home, and do they ever feel safe?

It’s a big question among the Big Questions. I think we each need a place in order to feel comfortable being alive. I imagine for some people it’s wherever they can park their shopping cart full of gleaned necessities. Or a park bench. A cave somewhere or the corner of a field of tall grasses. It’s a humbling thing to think of all the people without a home, and I wish life were different that way. But it’s not. So the thing to do, for me, is to take good care of what I have, and welcome everyone I can who stops on by, and be mindful when I’m out in the world that the kindness of a smile or a hello or a plate of warm lemon bars might bring a fleeting measure of that feeling we all so deeply need. I like to think that enough kindnesses flung out into the world will find each other and weave themselves in some kind of mysterious blanket of comfort which will in turn find a person without a place.

Oh, my, that’s a lot. My house smells like lemons now from fresh baked bars and furniture polish and one lit candle labeled “Limoncello.” I like the smell of lemons. I like the sound of “gool.” And I like cleaning the house I call “home.” A way of returning a kindness that life has shown me. A place to call my own. For the time being, anyway, in this new season making its own place to stay awhile.

Something new to try. Give ‘em a whirl, and take a plate to work or to the neighbors. Lemon is always good, especially on a rainy spring day.

Lemon Coconut Gooey Bars

1 1 lb. yellow cake mix
1 egg
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. coconut extract
½ c. lemon juice (fresh)
2 c. powdered sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Topping
½ c. sweetened coconut
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. sugar
4 tbsp. butter, melted
¾ c. flour

Preheat oven to 350 and butter-prep a 9×13 cake pan. In a large bowl, pour in the cake mix, add the egg and the melted butter and stir together with a wooden spoon. Once well mixed, pat into the bottom of the pan. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the cheese until smooth and add the eggs one at a time, creaming into the cream cheese. Add the vanilla and coconut extract, lemon juice, powdered sugar, and melted butter. Pour the filling on top of the cake mix.

For the topping: mix together the brown and white sugar and the sweetened coconut, and stir in the butter. Add the flour to the mix and stir. The topping will become very crumbly. Turn onto wax or parchment paper and let it sit for about 10-¬15 minutes so the crumbs can dry out a bit. Sprinkle the crumbs on top of the filling. Bake for 35¬-40 minutes. Make sure not to over bake as the center won’t be as gooey. Allow to cool and cut into squares.

Enjoy!

The Last Place, or Not

Made some Carmelitas Saturday and they were not bad. Got the recipe from a dear friend after I tried one at a gathering and nearly tipped over. They’re a new favorite of Mr. S’s, and figured I’d make a batch after he worked hard all afternoon fixing something in the car and cleaning up the garage. It’s what Spring does to us, and it’s here at last, and the great urge is to clean up and clean out and freshen and sort. I’ve been doing it all week, and the house feels more like home with some clean windows and the scent of lemon and windows open during the warmer part of the day.

We’ve been talking lately about home, and our house, and whether this is The Last Place or not, and we’ve done a bit of looking in the area. I’ve always had in mind that dream home, you know, the one with a wraparound porch and lots of light in the kitchen, on a lake with trees all ‘round and a lawn with hills to roll down and a pantry big enough for a storm shelter. Not that I don’t love where we are. Seems no matter what you got, there’s always a wish for this or that, and I can live with that. We have lots of good neighbors, too, and I’m not sure my dream house realized would allow for that.

Maybe dream houses are supposed to remain that way. Maybe there is no such thing, and we make it up in our heads to have a place to go when we need an escape. Maybe we are all there now, each of us, not knowing that where we live is where we’re supposed to be. What I know for sure is that a house and a home are not the same, and my porch swing is here, and all the quilts and bowls and wooden spoons and books, and that I can’t smell the smell in my house anywhere else on earth.

So it’s here for now, and all is good. The daffodils are starting to bloom, and the tulips, and I’ve put away my winter recipes and dug out the spring ones. I’ve been thinking about a garden, and a new table with chairs for the deck, and maybe a fresh coat of dove-white paint for the bathroom downstairs. Thinking about some new wind chimes, too, and changing the brass knobs in the kitchen for a soft brushed nickel. Small things, you know, in a house where the voices of children echo, and the songs of birds have found their way into the living room, where Mr. S is now. Sleeping. In his favorite chair by the window, from which you can see a lovely budding maple, and Mr. Johnson out sweeping his walk. Oh, Spring, welcome home.

I promise you: make these bars for the kids next time they visit, and they might hang around a bit longer. Or make a pan for the new neighbor down the street, and they’ll never forget your name. OR. Make them for you, and freeze all you don’t eat right off, and you’ll have a small reward for each day of chores in the next stretch of weeks.

Carmelitas

3/4 cup butter, melted (1 1/2 sticks)
3/ 4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 T vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-rolled old fashioned oats (not instant or quick cook)
1 tsp baking soda
pinch salt, optional and to taste
35 caramel squares, unwrapped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt, optional and to taste, if you prefer salted caramel sauce
1 cup (6 oz) semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8×8-inch pan with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Lining your pan is highly recommended for ease of cleanup; set pan aside.

Melt butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar, vanilla, and whisk until smooth.
Add the flour, oats, baking soda, pinch salt, and stir until combined. Mixture will be quite thick.
Add half of the mixture to the prepared pan (just eyeball it), and smooth it out with a spatula to create an even, smooth, flat layer; set remainder aside. Bake for 10 minutes. While it bakes, make the caramel sauce.

In a large microwave-safe mixing bowl, combine the caramels and cream, and heat on high power in 60-second bursts to melt caramels, stirring after each burst. It will take about 4 to 5 minutes to melt; heat until mixture can be stirred smooth. If you wish, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste, for salted caramel sauce; set sauce aside.

After 10 minutes, remove pan from the oven and evenly sprinkle with the chocolate. Slowly and evenly pour caramel sauce over the chocolate. Evenly crumble reserved oatmeal-brown sugar mixture over the top. Return pan to oven and bake for about 16 to 18 minutes (I baked 16 1/2), or until edges are lightly browned and center is bubbling slightly.

Allow bars to cool completely in the pan before slicing and serving, giving the caramel time to firm up. This can take up to 4 hours, or overnight, at room temperature. You can speed it up by placing pan in fridge with a sheet of foil over the top. If you don’t wait for bars to cool completely, they’ll be a literal hot mess. Bars will keep airtight at room temperature for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 4 months.

Enjoy!

A Lovely Moment of Silence

Made some soup on Saturday night and it was not bad. Chicken Gnocchi (pronounced ‘no key’) along with some good crusty bread and a glass of red wine. Mr. S calls it “GAHNOTCHEE” which is fine by me. People are entitled to pronounce words how they wish, but it does get a bit tedious at times. He gets an odd thrill out of blatantly pronouncing words wrong now and then, and personally I think he’s covering up a quiet fear that he will say it wrong, so why not make it look intentional? “Paradigm” for example. It’s ‘para dime’ but he says ‘para didge em.’ With great intention. And I simply smile. Not worth an argument, and it’s hurting no one.

We don’t fight much, Mr. S and me. When we do it’s usually to do with one of us having a rough day and the patience isn’t as accessible as usual. We might pick at each other. We might have occasional flurries of words. “An exchange” he calls it. Mild and innocuous. We’ve never had a blowout. Never a feverish volley of digs. Never the kind of yellin’ two people might do after being cooped up together all winter. Make a person look silly, hollerin’ can. So we remind ourselves to be gentle with each other, that we are each only human, and broken in ways, and we are each doing our best. That works pretty well.

Though there are moments, here and there. I know you know. Like last week when Mr. S said he would vacuum and then somehow got caught up in a repair project which didn’t really need repair. Or when I washed his winter coat and overlooked the blue ink pen in the pocket. Most of that load of clothes was done for. Or today when Mr. S was watching a golf tournament all afternoon and I got tired of the announcer and said, “Who WATCHES this? How can you stand it? How does one cheer on a golfer?” I should have kept my trap shut, but my gosh. Life is flying by. Let’s go DO something. Mr. S didn’t skip a beat. “I cheer by doing Kegels,” he said. There was a lovely moment of silence, and I burst out laughing. And so did he.

Humor is a good thing, especially in the rough patches as we wait for Spring. Cabin fever, headaches, illness, too much snow, water in the basement, housecleaning. Thing is, most of it’s not worth the argument. Just not worth it. Laughter is the opposite thing, and why not do just that? One way of doing your best in a life that can get to a person now and then. Kinda like cooking up a storm. Takes some pressure off. And if you by chance find yourself cooking and laughing, well, then, you’ve got yourself one fine moment, and that’s the truth.

Got this recipe from my daughter, who knows more about cooking than I do in some ways. She takes no prisoners. This recipe will send you to Comfort Town and back, and it doesn’t take much time at all.

Creamy Chicken Gnocchi Soup

1⁄2 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 clove garlic
1⁄2 carrot, shredded
1 tbsp olive oil
3 to 4 chicken breast, cooked and diced
4 cup chicken stock
1 salt, to taste
1 black pepper, to taste
1 tsp thyme
16 oz potato gnocchi
2 cup half-and-half
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped

Sauté onion, celery, garlic, and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent.
Add chicken breast, chicken stock, salt, pepper, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then add gnocchi. Gently boil for 4 minutes, then turn down the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes.
Add half-and-half and spinach, then cook for another 1-2 minutes until the spinach is wilted.

Enjoy!

Between a Polar Vortex and a Stretch of Snowstorms

Made some chicken and noodles in the crock pot Saturday, and it was not bad. That was Saturday night, and Sunday was all about potato pancakes and Superbowl dip and bacon. Yes. Bacon. Fried up two pounds of bacon and went to bed smelling bacon and the house still smells like bacon, and maybe I do, too. But you know what? I don’t mind a bit. For some odd reason, the smell of bacon is only a good thing, and if you don’t agree I sure don’t blame you. Mr. S is not such a fan of the smell of bacon, at least not on his clothes, but when I cook up some venison in the crock pot, he goes all wild. “LOVE THAT SMELL!” he hollers from the living room. “Mmm, mmm good! WHEN’S DINNER?”

I don’t know. I just don’t smell what he’s smelling. Somehow the smell of venison doesn’t cut it for me, and the smell of bacon doesn’t do it for him, and there’s another example of the glory of how we’re all our own selves and different from each other and who would have it any other way? I think it has a lot to do with where we come from, how we grew up, what we ate and who did the cookin’. It was my father who was, is and always will be a fan of side pork, metwurst, kielbasa and pork. There was always a roast cooking or chops frying, and he made this thing he called “breads” where he deep fried wads of bread dough ‘til they were brown all over, split ‘em open on a plate, and drizzled bacon fat and real maple syrup over and my brothers and I devoured those breads as fast as he could make ‘em.

It’s the time of year, I think, when kitchen smells carry us away. We can’t go outside for fear of our limbs freezing off and we spent a chunk of our vacation money on medical bills and a new furnace so our vacation won’t happen ‘til summer. Not a complaint, mind you, but cabin fever has a way of winding itself around our moods and pretty soon we’ve got to put our energy into something creative and life-giving or we might very well holler it out on each other. So, on Saturday afternoon, Mr. S headed to his work room to carve wood into spoons and bowls and odd fishing lures to sell at summer craft fairs, and I stitched words into flour sack towels and dusted and sorted through books and clothing in an attempt to lighten the load.

But, inevitably, as the day grew dark, Mr. S got out his guitar, and I opened my recipe box. Lo and behold, I was carried back in time to a table set for a family of more than two, and all my favorite comfort foods in haphazard array on the kitchen island: blueberry muffins with a dash of nutmeg; cream corn casserole; homemade macaroni and cheese with a sprinkling of crispy bacon; pork roast infused with slivers of garlic; cream cheese coffeecake and egg bake and pie. Apple pie, with streusel. And cherry pie, my dad’s favorite. And the banana cream pie my mom makes better than anyone, ever. Blueberry pie, my secret favorite. Homemade salty pickles and green bean casserole and chow mein hotdish and cheesy potatoes and, oh my, warm rice pudding.

Sigh. I pulled out a recipe for just the right thing. Crock pot chicken and noodles, complete with a stick of butter and a couple of cans of cream soup. Perfect thing for a night between a polar vortex and a stretch of snowstorms. Just the thing for that warm-and-cozy-after-dinner-feeling. Missing only bacon, which I’d make the next day, and blueberry pie, which I’ll make next weekend, along with a batch of breads. For the old days. And these cold days. And us.

Here it is. The recipe for Crock Pot Chicken and Noodles, which – paired with a nice white wine – rendered Mr. S motionless in his recliner sometime after nine on Saturday night, and left me singin’ as I washed up the dishes and listened to the radio while the wind howled ‘round the eaves in the cold clear night.

Crock Pot Chicken and Noodles
1 24 oz package frozen egg noodles (Reames!)
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of celery soup
½ cup butter, cut into pieces
1 32 oz carton chicken broth
1 tsp chicken bouillon
6 small or 4 large chicken breasts, skinless
1 pkg frozen peas and carrots
Parsley, salt, pepper

Salt and pepper chicken and put in bottom of crock pot. Mix soups and pour over chicken. Cut butter and place evenly over soup. Place lid on and cook 6 hours on low, 4 hours on high. Remove chicken and shred, and throw back into the crock pot with the noodles and veggies. Cook another 2 hours, stirring now and then. Sprinkle with parsley, salt and pepper. Stir and serve. Enjoy!

Oh, Time

Made some apple butter bars Saturday and they were pretty good. Last of the apple butter and on to the cranberries and Brie. It’s been a spell since I wrote, I know, and the reasons I have are all over the map. A granddaughter, who claps when I walk into the room and crawls among piles of books and blows raspberries when she doesn’t like what’s going on. She’s yet to articulate herself with clarity in words, but if you look into her eyes you can see pages of prose waiting to take flight in words. And then there are my two part-time jobs tutoring young folks struggling to read and older folks wanting to write, and what can I teach them? No more than what I know, but it’s something, and it’s time, and what better way to spend a few good hours a week than talking about books and words and the stories of human life? A few friends in challenging situations with their partners, such frustration and despair. A tidal wave of letters from people near and far, secretaries and pastors, teachers and actresses, lunch ladies and doctors and painters, whose lives mirror my own in ways, whose stories are simple and true. How might I respond to all of them, express my gratitude and heartfelt appreciation? Oh, Time. There it is again, that word, teasing in its way, without mercy, without pause. Add all the other reasons a girl might not write – bills, fatigue, the doorbell rung by seven people in a day, an ermine in basement, car trouble, cracked fingers, out of milk – and the woman responds, “Write anyway.”

So here I am. Despite all that. All those. Not excuses, no, but rungs in a life of ladders to the sky.
People, I have learned, will ultimately do what they want to do. Take the other night, for example. It might have been the sky, or the evening air, or the pot of beef stew simmering on the stove, or the freshly washed snowmobile suits laid out by the fire. Might have been the Christmas commercials on TV. Might have been nostalgia, or nothing at all, but I wanted to go caroling. I told Mr. S I’d like him to come along, and he reluctantly agreed. “But only for an hour,” he said. His show starts at 9 so an hour it was.

Of course, he thought we were going with a group, and was chagrined to learn it was just the two of us, and stood there a bit at the end of the Petersens’ drive. “You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t even SING,” he lamented, but there was no turning back. We sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” for the Petersens, who both clapped and gave us each a hug. For the Johnsons, it was “Angels We Have Heard On High” and on the “Glo-OOOO-O-OOOO-O-OOOO-O-RIA” part, Mr. S sang as low as he could and sounded something like an angry gorilla. “Please just hold yourself together,” I said. “This is fun.” “Oh, it’s fun, alright,” he grumbled and I gave him a little punch in the arm and he gave me a little punch back and I gave him a harder punch and he laughed and dipped up some snow and tried to give me a face wash but I’m faster and waited for him on the Sandgrens’ porch. They weren’t home, but we sang “Away in a Manger” anyway, and “Jingle Bells” at the Smiths, who don’t celebrate much of anything, and then it was the Clausens, and “Silent Night.” In no time at all, the whole Clausen family, all 9 of them, were standing out there on the ol’ farm porch, singing verse three. Mrs. Clausen was holding a candle, and the little ones were in their flannel jammies, and I felt my heart might burst on out of my chest.

Glanced over at Mr. S, and there he stood, his eyes closed, his head blocking the yard light out near the barn so it looked as if he might have a halo. It’s a stretch, I know, but whatever it is that makes Christmas CHRISTMAS, I felt it pour on over and through me like warm milk. (Whole milk, not that light stuff a person can see through.) I felt it, and feel it still.

And so did Mr. S, who said on our way home, “Well, that wasn’t so bad after all.” And then he thanked me for dragging him along, and when we got home, while I ran the bathtub water, he made two mugs of the best hot chocolate and handed one to me. He raised his. “To Christmas,” he said. “To Christmas,” I replied, and we took big swigs and before I climbed into the hot tub water, I could hear snores coming from the recliner in the living room.
I’m thinking I may give him a gift early this year. The ice skates. They’ve cleared an area out on the lake, and the man was a fine hockey player in his day. And it’s one of the few activities where I can maintain a semblance of grace. For a while, anyway. The best feelings come and go, but my gosh, they’re worth the effort. Especially when you can share ’em.

Used up the last of the apple butter from the neighbor’s orchard apples, and this has to be the easiest new recipe I’ve tried in a while. Good with whipped cream or ice cream, or simply on its own.
Apple Butter Bars
1 ½ cups flour
2 ½ cups quick oatmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cups sugar
Mix.
Add to above 1 cup melted butter or ½ cup each butter and shortening. Press half of mixture in 9×13 pan. Spread 1 ½ cup apple butter over and cover with remaining mixture. Can also add some chopped nuts to topping. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.

Gluten free flour mix:
2 parts rice
⅔ parts potato starch flour
1 part tapioca flour