Friday, November 29, 2013

Beauty and Function - Rugs

On a day when some people are shopping early and late, we went to the countryside to celebrate our oldest grandson's nineteenth birthday. Didn't enter a store all day! But I do have a shopping story all ready to tell you:

The home-decorating saga of unhandy people continues.

Mr. Glad and I have more time lately, for home-improvement projects of all kinds, but we aren't the sort to relish this sort of activity. I'd rather rummage through my sewing room clutter, or read blogs. My husband likes to practice on his drums. And when more responsible homeowners might be painting or sawing to improve their surroundings, we might be taking a walk to Starbucks to sip our caffeine and read poems for an hour.

But on the way home my mind might race ahead and arrive before us, to contemplate the physical realities of our house, and the danger that our procrastinations pose to our guests.
This monchromatic photograph may remind some of you of a time two years ago when I asked you dear readers for help with our entryway floor safety problem. I am embarrassed to say that we have taken this long to solve it, though not for trying somewhat faintheartedly again and again.

We researched Amanda's rug idea. We contacted several people about Mark's wood inlay idea. I borrowed a dozen books from the library thinking I might stencil the floor myself. I lay in bed thinking how some lights such as Celeste suggested could be installed under the lip - thinking how at Christmastime it would be fun to switch them for colored lights!

All this time guests went on stumbling and occasionally going all the way down, as we envisioned broken legs or noggins and how ashamed we would be of our negligence if that happened. Recently, when we were waiting for one of the contractors to tell us exactly when he was coming to do the job that it turned out was too small for him to even use his good manners on, I applied zig-zags of thin red masking tape. We were expecting first-time guests and feared for their safety. The tape aged and cured while we came to realize that Something Else must be done.

Now we have a rug. I photographed it without vacuuming it first because my husband was watching a movie and I didn't want to disturb him with the noise.

It's not the most stylish rug, but it is the narrowest one we could find in a workable color. Perhaps someday someone will like to do something more artistic and permanent to this step, but for now we are just relieved to not have to think on it any longer.

[Update: I didn't stop thinking about it after all, but kept noticing how that chocolate brown runner was too dark a mass of color drawing unnecessary and conscious attention to itself, so I bought a red version and am happier now. This picture including the red-toned rug next to the wood stove shows how things have become more coordinated.]

For some reason I put the most ho-humly functional rug at the beginning. The other solved-by-rugs situations include more beauty.

An expanse of wall that has been needing something for three years now has a rug to make the toy area of the living room more cozy. This is my view from the kitchen, of a wallscape that has warmed up considerably.

While I was rug shopping I decided to update and brighten up our entry with a new rug for the front door. I had to open the door to get enough light on my subject; that is a little piece of its blue exterior lower right.

Rugs are my new favorite artistic indulgence, and I'm enjoying all the time that has been freed up now that I'm not perusing decorating websites anymore. It's a beautiful life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

We shake the monastery olives.

The nuns at a nearby monastery needed some help with their yard work. We didn't know anything more specific, or that there would be some sadness involved, when Mr. Glad and I signed up to be on the crew for a Saturday work session. I had gardened here one spring day a couple of years ago and was looking forward to another chance to visit, this time doing fallish tasks.

What a bright and shining day it was, too, as we drove over the hill. Recent rains had washed all the earth and air, and high winds pretty much shook them out to dry. The humidity was only 10%.

When the head gardener Sister Xenia led our team of five to the clump of olive trees we saw that they were loaded with black fruit.

Then came the bad news: All of this harvest could not be used in any way, because it was infested with Mediterranean fruit flies. The trees needed to be stripped of olives, and the fruit that had fallen on the ground must be raked and swept up, and all of it taken to the dump.

In a month or two an arborist will prune the trees and some kind of spray will be used to inhibit the growth the the flies next spring. Whether there is hope of them being controlled in one year's time I don't know.

The olives were no good, not even the fat and shiny ones that were hanging on these lovely silvery trees with the light shimmering through.

So the men shook the trees and brought showers of fruit down on our heads. Mr. Glad climbed on the roof of a little house to reach higher branches of one tree, and then he climbed into the tree itself.

You can see olives on the ground in the shade.

Rosebushes that had grown leggy in the shade were snagging the guys when they were stretching up to shake and pick, so I ended up spending the first hour pruning the canes out of the way.

Bright orange fruit hung from the nearly bare branches of a Fuyu persimmon tree, the variety that is crunchy when ripe, and never puckery. At least this tree was healthy, and that was some consolation for the olive disaster.

We picked and pruned that tree, and Sister Xenia encouraged us to take some persimmons home, so I tucked a few into my gardening tote and am planning to use them like apples in baking.
Before we knew it, our work party was coming to an end, and we had been invited to eat the midday meal with the sisters.

Dining room all ready

But first there were prayers of the Sixth Hour, in the monastery chapel, and a few minutes of leisure for walking around the grounds.

I had been anticipating seeing the elegant koi again, and they did not disappoint. We found them gliding soundlessly in their long deep pond, swimming close for a few moments when I leaned over with my camera, until they sensed they weren't getting any food from us. A father and son were visiting them too, and happily chatting in Russian.

The monastery has a nice set of bells under a shake roof, with benches to sit on when the bells aren't being rung. They were used to announce the hour of prayer, but for the call to dinner Sister Marguerite walked all around the property shaking a little hand bell to ring a daintier and less commanding message.

The small amount of work we did seemed a puny offering considering all that we received by spending a few hours at the monastery. We were well fed with the most delicious fasting meal I've ever had, and we went home with armfuls of persimmons, having soaked up quite a lot of love and peace.

Of course I want to go back soon.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

delicious autumn recipe

The air was still cool, but the sun was already drawing the smells out of all the plants along the bike path when I walked along the creeks this morning. We had rain the last couple of days, so the leaves and grasses that have been drying to a crisp got washed and mixed into a good kind of stew.

My first impression, though, was auditory, the sound of ducks, and crows, and Canada geese, all commenting on the morning. Then a flash of silent white against the golden brown background, an egret, not squawking about anything, a quiet fisherman.

The paths are littered with piles of leaves, mostly brown now, like the live oak, which I was glad not to be sweeping off a patio. Their thorn-rimmed cups turn upside down and hold on to concrete surfaces for dear life. That last phrase will be my mnemonic from now on helping me to remember the name of at least one oak.

Mr. Glad wondered at my bringing home a redwood branch, when the tree behind us is dropping similar ones into our yard and pool every day and making hours of work for him to collect the prickly things. When you know you will have to retrieve each one from the bottom of the pool or the decking, it seems that the rich brown sprays are falling constantly, but the trees remain evergreen.

The little redwood cones is darling, isn't it? Less than an inch.

I leaned over a bridge and breathed in the essences of a thousand bits of living things, carried in the air still moist from the rains, and stirred together by the breeze. The dominant herb in the mix was the wild fennel, fallen down heavy with water, dried brown and mildewed black, and in a tumbled mess with blackberry brambles and grasses and everything I don't know the name of. The beauty that used to be visual is now distilled into heady scents.

It was reminiscent of an anisekuchen I have made at Christmastime, but the recipe for this nourishing treat includes a multitude of mysterious and essential ingredients. As I was whiffing my fill it seemed I would never want another bite of white-sugary anise cake or any kind of cake again -- can't I just run down to this creek bed and breathe? Oh, but it's a seasonal dish, and you never know just how long it will be served. But come back tomorrow and something nice will be on the menu for sure!

Asian pear

Friday, November 15, 2013

Warm us up!

"Come unto Him and be enlightened, and your faces shall not be ashamed." This line from a hymn at the close of Divine Liturgy this morning was being sung at the same time sunshine beaming through the window reflected off the floor and shined on me, blinding me for a few moments.

It was lovely to have a sunny morning for the beginning of our Nativity fast, and I was blessed to be free to participate. There weren't many of us, so we fit easily into our little church, and the two women who were surprised to compose the whole choir did valiantly.

Our priest exhorted us to join together in zealousness, as the epistle reading from Colossians also conveyed to us the apostle's prayer, that our hearts might "be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

And he reminded us that just as the body cannot exist without the head, nor the head without the body, so Christ and His Church always go together, and in this Advent period we are helped by our joint efforts in making use of the gifts of fasting and prayer, to prepare our hearts to receive, in about 40 days, the mystery of God With Us.

I want to remember, I want to live by the reality of the light of Christ shining in my soul. When the light from the created sun is so thin that it doesn't have much effect on my earthly body, it's still an encouraging sight and teaches me about intangible realities. Dear God, warm us all up!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flowers cheer me up.

Leaves from the cherry plum tree are piling up in the back yard. I should get out and rake them, but I just look out from my kitchen window, beyond the leaves, and notice the zinnias still climbing, past five feet now. On the windowsill was remains of a three-week old bouquet, so it was time for a new bunch, don't you think? Some French lavender rounds out the picking.


Out front the Pristine rose is blooming. And recently I planted a spread of violas, with ranunculus bulbs down below in some places.

This is my favorite.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

what dust can do

St. Paul
Father Stephen writes about how we don't often follow the Apostle Paul's example of glorying in our weakness. The title of his blog post is "Your Weakness Saves You." We need to pray out of our weakness and not when we are feeling strong; but Fr. Stephen observes that many of us would prefer to glory in our strength:
At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weaknesses.
I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.
I find that the Orthodox prayer book cultivates this awareness of my weakness with its many cries of "Lord, have mercy." Sometimes I am engaged in some activity that doesn't allow me to give my full attention to prayer, but I am still burdened over a difficult situation or the need of a friend. I can express my helplessness to do anything by human strength, my inability to even think about what a solution might be, by praying "Lord, have mercy," as many times as necessary to reach a place of quietness of heart.

As Psalm 103 reminds us weekly, "He remembers that we are dust." When I pray that, I feel the love and tenderness of the Lord. He knows our weakness, and when we know it too, and pray with that understanding, we are near to Him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lavender Baby goes home.

Back in August I posted this picture of yummy fabric I had bought to use sewing the Waldorf doll I wanted to give to granddaughter Ivy for her first birthday at the end of September.

I managed to do it! As it was my first time assembling this kind of head and body and sewing a face, I decided to make two dolls so as to get extra practice. I was so glad I did, because very quickly it became obvious that two very different little dollie girls were taking shape.

It wasn't just that one had brown hair and one had yellow. The expressions on their faces and even the shape of the heads gave them different personalities.

I knew early on that I liked the brown-haired dollie much better than her blond friend. The blonde  -- I hate to say it -- looked like the neighborhood girl no one wants to play with.

Why was that? My friend Crafty agreed that she wasn't very likeable, but she thought I should try to fix her. So when I was up at the cabin in early September I tried to brighten her up a bit.

Both her eyes and her mouth were problematic. I guess I had learned how hard it is to make short and precise stitches in such a way that they form at least vaguely even features, when the instructions are to use only two stitches per feature. The mouth looked pinched, and the eyes squinty.

Not only the position of the features and the meagerness of them were unappealing, but the color was lacking. The eyes were pale blue, the mouth pale pink, and as I had already sewn a light color of hair on her head, the total effect was washed out.

On a rainy afternoon up there in the mountains I set to work, and added bright aqua embroidery thread to her eyes, and darker pink to her mouth. After just a couple more stitches in these more intense tones, her disposition and her IQ improved dramatically.

Her jaw is still a bit too prominent, shall we say, but maybe that will not be too bad when she gets her hood on. I'm just happy that she is calmer and more agreeable. I still haven't finished Blondie, because I knew I wanted to give the sweeter baby to Ivy.

The thrill of seeing the two dollies come almost to life was not something I expected. Immediately I had the urge to start forming a new creature right away, just to find out what sort of character he or she might turn out be. Other things have taken my attention and prevented me, but my materials are at the ready whenever I find the block of time to take the next first step.

In the meantime, I finished the brown-haired lass up with a lavender suit, and posed her all over the house and yard in hopes of getting some good pictures to show you.

I was surprised at how much Bag there is to a Baggy Doll. The drawings in the book from which I got the pattern somehow don't convey the pillow-like quality of the doll's body, a shape they say toddlers love.

I pinked the edges of some fleecy fabric to make the first layer of "wrapping," and then put her in a final layer of blue flannel that could also serve as a doll blanket in the future if the children get into the business of playing house and wrapping up dolls or stuffed animals.

They might not...they are outdoorsy kids whose own mother never cared much for dolls. But the dolly whom I now call Lavender Baby won't mind if she sits on the sidelines or in a corner of the crib. Her hood and all her wool stuffing will keep her warm, and she lives in a house full of love and joy, to which she has already contributed just by being her happy and cuddly self.

Little Ivy didn't waste any time getting familiar with her new doll and flopped her around contentedly.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Feast of Angels

Being raised in Protestant churches, I learned little about angels. Since coming to Orthodoxy, I've been introduced to a large body of teaching, and some practices that help me learn experientially, too. Some lessons come through the feasts such as on November 8th (beginning with Vespers tonight, actually), when we celebrate the Feast of The Synaxis of the Chief of the Heavenly Hosts, Archangel Michael and the Other Heavenly Bodiless Powers.

I read that the commemoration was established at the beginning of the fourth century at the Council of Laodicea. It was set to be celebrated in what was at that time the ninth month of the year, because there are nine ranks of angels.

This very rich article also tells a lot about angels according to our tradition. One teaching that gets me thinking about the mysteries of God's Kingdom is about the angels' bodies. But aren't they body-less, as the name of the feast calls them? On that topic and others, here are some excerpts from the blog post, passing on to us the teachings of several church fathers:

St. John of Damascus says they are creatures limited in space and time; they have their own specific external appearance. Compared to humans, they are bodiless due to the human's "heavy body," but compared to God they have a body. "We speak about the angels as bodiless and immaterial compared to us, but in fact everything is heavy and material compared to God, to Whom nobody can be compared, because only the Divine is non-material and bodiless."

St. John Chrysostom says that "for every one of us has his angel;" St. Basil the Great adds, "Beside every believer in God, sits his angel, so repent." Finally the angel of prayer is the angel who helps us to pray. St. Clement of Alexandria says, "Even when a person prays alone, he is accompanied by angels." Tertullian commands the Christian not to sit when he prays in respect for the angel of prayer standing beside him.
That last sentence is the kind of nugget of truth that I can hope to remember, and let it influence my everyday life. Some will say, Why not just remember that God Himself sits with you, so repent? etc. What I have concluded after debating about these things many years ago is that if God has chosen to use angels in His salvation work, why should we ignore or reject them? Why don't we just say, Thank you, Lord! and show our appreciation by our acts?

In our parish we have many who are named for the Archangel Michael; we'll have Divine Liturgy tomorrow morning and give thanks for the work of angels in our lives. I'd like to muse longer over more quotes from this article but I better return to my housework if I want to make it to church in the morning.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Perfect Cheesecake Bars

It wasn't my idea to make cheesecake bars, but once I accepted the assignment I took ownership with my usual under-deadline obsessiveness. Lucky it was that I only had a week to fill up with the project, as it turned out to be one of those tasks that swell up to take as much time as you give them.

If you want to see how and why a recipe might evolve, devolve, and eventually get tuned up into its final and praiseworthy rendition, keep reading. This is where I play the professional baker (I know, that's tooo funny.) If you just want the recipe, please skip over all of the tedious and painful story and go straight to the bottom of the page.

At church the Sisterhood was giving a dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our priest's ordination, and the 85th birthdays of him and his wife. We threw in a celebration of their 61 years of marriage. We love them so much, we wanted it to be a Very Special dinner, and many people put in many hours and days of planning. I came late to that part, when the final plans for the end of the meal settled on a dessert sampler, and I was asked to make cheesecake bars.

The other four choices on the dessert table were to be Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars, Greek kourabiedes, baklava, and orange chiffon pie. The pie and the cheesecake bars would be baked in bun pans, which are 18x26x1", so that we could cut them into approximately 2" pieces and end up with close to 100. I was offered a recipe that called for a commercial cookie mix, but I decided immediately to find a recipe that I could be proud to serve to honored guests. For this kind of occasion I didn't want to include anything like that.

The things I wanted or needed in a recipe were cottage cheese as well as cream cheese (because I remembered liking what the cottage cheese did to the texture), a streusel topping, and a balanced relation between crust, filling, and topping. It couldn't be much taller than one inch, if I were going to bake it in a bun pan. I wanted a bar that would present well on a tray, and that could be moved from the pan to a serving platter to a dessert plate without its layers mushing together or becoming a crumbly mess.

for the streusel
Pinterest and other sites are replete with pictures and recipes for cheesecake bars, but very few of them met my requirements. Some looked tall and ready to topple. Many were too gooey, or had base layers that seemed too thin to support the cheesecake. And few had cottage cheese as an ingredient. Eventually I went to my old recipe binders and discovered that I myself had made two different versions of this dessert many years ago, and I'd written notes about them. One of them contained cottage cheese.

So I started with that one, and built on it. After several hours (I kid you not) of this creative culinary plagarism, I had a plan, and I put together a 9x13 test pan of the goodies. A bun pan's horizontal space is four times that of a 9x13 pan, so if I kept the height to 1" I could easily adjust the recipe for the larger pan.

The kitchen table was covered with old recipes from my files, and new printouts from the computer, from which I'd cobbled together my own possible versions that I scribbled on a legal pad. First lesson I learned from the test: I should carefully write out, or better yet, print the recipe off the computer in a large font, and double-check that I haven't left out an ingredient or transcribed something wrong.

Test batch #1 was a failure, mostly because I goofed up the streusel and it was way too crumbly. I made a couple of other boo-boos also. After that I studied up on streusels with the goal of producing a topping that would decorate the smooth cheesecake layer and hide any little imperfections or bumps. It would not spill crumbs too readily and mess up the sides of the bars when they were cut. And it wouldn't be too thick, because I wanted to be sure that the cheesecake layer was prominent. I planned for mine to feature walnuts and not cinnamon.

test batch #2 after setting up overnight
Those messy bars were not a complete failure, and the boys next door enjoyed them very much. But I wanted to make a second small batch that was good for my purposes in every way, so the next day I produced Test Batch #2. I remembered to put in the parchment paper before I pressed in the crumbly crust, and the next morning it was very easy to remove the whole cake by lifting up on the sides of the paper.

I set it on the cutting board and began to trim away the unattractive edges. The streusel was just the way I wanted it, but the crust was too crumbly and uneven. There was more crust and less filling than desirable. And maybe the whole thing had been in the oven too long, because the edges of the filling were dry and cracked.

Test batch #2 had several problems.
Layers of the unacceptable Test #2

There wasn't time enough for me to make a third test batch, or even to shop for more ingredients to make it, so I just took care to adjust the amounts and change a couple of things in preparation for making the final huge panful -- though I'd decided by that time to make them in two half-size bun pans.

The next morning was the real thing. I tried not to be my usual loosey-goosey self. I moved slowly and methodically and stopped to clean up several times during the assembly, so that I wouldn't get stressed and confused by all the mess. If I ever play professional baker again, I'll have to bring in a sous chef and/or a dishwasher. But I hope my experience has taught me not to do this kind of thing a second time.

I mixed the base in the food processor this time, after grinding the walnuts finer. I cut down on the amounts, and then I had a really hard time making the dough cover the bottom. Oh well, it's too late to change now, I thought. After it rose in the oven, though, I was surprised to see that the base layer had puffed up a bit. Maybe it wouldn't be too thin after all.

I also increased the amount of the filling, which I had reduced in the second test batch in an effort to achieve that elusive 1" height. I hoped that the shorter crust layer would make room for more filling, which was, after all, my favorite part.

The most fun was spreading all that creamy cheesy lemony filling on to the crust...

...though sprinkling buttery streusel on top was a close second.

I baked the two big pans in my oven, being careful not to overbake, and when they had cooled I took them to church to store overnight, because we have an extra-large refrigerator there. In the morning all of us dessert-bakers got together in the church kitchen and prepared our sweets for serving.

I didn't try to remove the huge cheesecake from the pan in one piece, but I cut the bars right in the pan. They were just as I wanted them to be. The scraps from the edges -- not dry, but a little raggedy -- were passed around to all the people setting up tables and decorating, and they were declared scrumptious.

Some other things I want to remember about this consuming experiment: In the end we served all of the dessert samples in paper muffin cups, so there wasn't as much opportunity for squishing. I decided that it would have been much easier to make four 9x13 batches than to go to all the trouble to adjust for big shallow pans. And after all the cheesecake bars had been cut and made ready in the cups, I heard how a local expert in a sister church makes cheesecakes for a crowd. She bakes individual servings right in the muffin cup!

For a smaller batch to be served at home, I might try this recipe without the streusel and top the bars with something that is less like the base. But for a while, these will be my standard, gorgeous, addictively creamy -- ta da! Cheesecake Bars!!

Perfect Cheesecake Bar

Lemony Walnut Cheesecake Bars

Line a 13x9 pan with parchment paper, overlapping sides a little.

¼ cup already chopped walnuts

½ cup cold salted butter, in chunks

3 tablespoons brown sugar

¾ cup white flour

Using the steel blade, chop the walnuts further in food processor until fine. Add the other ingredients and mix until they clump together.

Press evenly into bottom of lined pan, and bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

1 ½ cups full-fat cottage cheese

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 tablespoon lemon juice

½ cup sugar

Blend cottage cheese in food processor until smooth; add all other ingredients and mix until blended. Spread on baked crust.
½ cup flour

4 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

½ cup walnuts chopped

¼ cup butter, melted
Mix all with pastry blender until the crumbs are the size you like.

Sprinkle topping evenly over filling. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a table knife inserted in the middle comes clean. Cool in the pan on a rack. Refrigerate overnight, then use the parchment paper to lift out carefully onto a cutting board. While the loaf is still on the parchment paper, use a sharp knife to cut the bars, dipping into hot water and/or wiping on a wet towel as needed. Trim edges as necessary and cut into 24 bars. Keep refrigerated.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Everyone lies naked on a bed of nettles.

(This is my second posting, as the first one seems to have been lost in cyberspace.)

I ran across this article, part of a series on education by Anthony Esolen. In the course of describing how the modern world wars against our children's souls in ways our ancestors didn't experience, he touches on the topics of play, and why we don't want to be stimulated, and silence.

I think of the Lord speaking to us, in His silence that communicates so much: "Be still, and know that I am God." And that is how I know that these issues are crucial. Some excerpts:

It is noise, rather, that is the absence, both of the significant word and of the fullness of being that silence allows us to hear. petty and dreary a thing it is to be stimulated. The stimulus is the prick or spur you dig into the side of an animal. Imagine the horse, slow moving creature when he is content, with his large sad eyes. If we are to make use of him, we must apply the spur.

It is essentially a pornographic world, where everyone lies naked on a bed of nettles, and every new thing is dead before it is born.

Silence is so great a blessing to us because we cannot use it. All things truly creative, which partake of the spirit of play, send their roots deep down into silence.

Read the whole article, Life Under Compulsion: Noise.