Fudgy Peanut Butter Banana Bars (V)

IMG_1930This quarantine has sparked endless conversation, a popular one of which involves the discussion of everyone’s “new normal.” The sudden, jarring shifts in daily routine and atmosphere and social outlets forced by this pandemic have naturally resulted in the need to adjust–and cope. Everyone has been affected by this situation in some way, regardless of whether they’ve physically suffered from the virus itself.

Sheltering-in-place was not an effortless transition for me. Of course, I realized how fortunate I was when so many were not–I was healthy, able to pay my bills, living in an apartment  with roommates I loved. However, in time, I also had to accept that it was okay–vital, actually– to acknowledge that quarantine was hard. Is hard. You see, I had grown quite fond of normal–my old, worn-with-age, tried-and-true normal, the one in which I had a daily job and specific tasks to complete, the one that allowed me to make random stops at my friends’ homes or grab last minute groceries three times in the same week. As a dancer, I am used to physically expelling energy for hours every day, and as a recipe blogger, I’m accustomed to wandering aimlessly in stores, brainstorming potential baking plans. Being an artist, I felt uniquely stifled by the restrictions; the lack of places to expel my creative energy quickly became overwhelming and translated into many anxious, seemingly unproductive days (as well as a few random sketches and a LOT of walking).IMG_1851

After a week or so, I was beginning to feel a bit more comfortable with the changes. Per the suggestion of my counselor, I began planning out a schedule for each day, a strategy that made a massive difference in the way I approached the sudden surplus of time that almost everyone experienced. With more moments of mental clarity, I was also able to address some specific sources of anxiety for me. One of them, I realized, was my food. In an attempt to adhere to the social precautions everyone adopted, I had ordered my groceries through a delivery service. However, with demand unbelievably high, it was about a week before I received them. This left me with six days of eating whatever pantry items I could use to concoct a meal, and, more often than not, they were all various types of carbs. My diet consisted of around  20% oatmeal, 20% peanut butter, 10% absolute randomness, 50% homemade sourdough (okay, not really complaining about that), and 0% vegetables (anyone who knows me knows that was pure torture). Within just a few days, I realized how frustrated I was, how much my body craved the balanced diet it was used to receiving, how it was affecting my mood. Arguably the most shocking affect, though, was that I, the maker of all things sugary, even started to lose my craving for desserts. Perhaps now you can understand just how dire those few days seemed.IMG_1939

Thankfully, I write to you from the other side of that battle–never have I been so thrilled to see a bag of green beans in my life. That week of upheaval in my kitchen was a reminder for me of just how important it is to fuel both our bodies and our minds, especially in times of trauma. When so many factors in our lives are shifting, maintaining a level of nutritious eating can be an incredibly grounding practice, whether or not you generally prioritize a healthy diet. Not only that, but in the midst of a viral outbreak, supporting your immune system is particularly important! That’s why, when creating this recipe, I kept three things in mind:

  1. I wanted the recipe to be “healthy,” in the sense that it offered some sort of nutritional/energy value.
  2. I wanted the recipe to be accessible–I’ve been doing a “quarantine series” on my blog that revolves around ingredients most people always have on hand.
  3. I didn’t want the recipe to taste like a “healthy” recipe: dessert is my specialty, after all, and I know first hand the need to indulge! Especially when you’re tackling a new normal.

So, I immediately grabbed peanut butter and bananas: one of those food pairings that was, I think, unarguably meant to be. My initial recipe development was slow and, quite honestly, frustrating. Though it’s been over a month, I still sigh at the lack of variety in my cabinets: I absolutely love both peanut butter and bananas, but I felt like they were rather cliche among nutritious recipes. For a moment, I allowed my unattainable dreams of inventive, exotic flavors to stall my progress. And, as I always do when I’ve run into “baker’s block,” I called my mom. IMG_1953

Thankfully, my mother is the perfect deliverer of sympathy…when it’s due. In all other cases, she tells me exactly the harsh truth I need to hear, and she holds an impressive success rate of steering me back towards the task I’m aiming to complete. This was no exception. Upon listening to my whining about being forced to use bananas again, she replied with her characteristically precise advice: “So? Do something different. Your whole point of quarantine recipes is to reinvent things!”

Thanks, mom. I realized that I’d momentarily let this chaos of pandemic snatch the one thing it could never completely steal from me–my creativity. At once, the seemingly mundane task before me became a challenge (anyone who knows me also knows that the only thing I like more than peas and carrots is a challenge). With this competitive energy fueling me, I worked all day to develop a recipe, not hindered at all by the involvement of ingredients that I’d once considered overused.IMG_1869

That’s how I ended up with these bars. They’re partially inspired by my recent discovery of the magical taste of fried bananas. To make them, I decided to pan fry my bananas with maple syrup before baking them into the bars, a decision that added an especially powerful caramel sweetness. This flavor, along with the salty creaminess of peanut butter, provided a satisfying balance that I further nuanced with cinnamon and allspice. They even have protein powder in them for an extra nutrient boost. To finish them off, I handed off the apron to readers! You can pick from the list of toppings to add crunch and flair to your own batch.

I’ve come to a myriad of conclusions over the last few weeks, some more complicated than others. One of the most troubling dilemmas was learning how this pandemic would affect my identity as an artist. Through time, restlessness, phone calls with mom, and bananas, I’ve finally grasped at the answer: it doesn’t. An artist doesn’t ever stop being an artist. You can remove a dancer’s stage, an actor’s set, a vocalists’ studio, but–as we’ve all witnessed through daily inspiration like this magazine– they won’t stop creating. This pandemic has robbed the world of physical touch, millions of jobs, and a staggering number of lives. So, I encourage you to hold tight to what it can never infect. As we all endure this time of collective grief and turmoil, I hope you can devote time to allocate rest for your mind; to feed your body with what it needs; and to keep making art.  Sending love and prayers to everyone.

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
    my heart is steadfast;
    I will sing and make music.

Psalm 57: 7

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Fudgy Peanut Butter Banana Bars (V)

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup protein powder (vanilla or chocolate)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • about 3 medium bananas, sliced into about 1/2 inch slices
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 2 TBSP + 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 2 tsp oil (I used extra light olive oil)
  • Optional Add-Ons: toasted nuts, sea salt, toasted coconut, dark chocolate chips, banana/plantain chips, drizzled maple syrup, melted chocolate

Instructions

  1. Place oil and 1 TBSP maple syrup in a skillet over medium heat. When it starts sizzling, carefully place the banana slices in the pan (it may splatter).
  2. Cook until brown/caramelized on one side, and then flip to cook the other side. Remove from heat, mash in a bowl, and allow to cool.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F, and grease a square baking dish.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together almond milk, 1/4 cup peanut butter, and 1/4 cup mashed fried banana together.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, protein powder, baking powder, 1/4 salt, allspice, and cinnamon.
  6. Gradually add the flour mixture to the almond milk mixture, whisking after each addition, until it’s completely incorporated. Pour into the baking dish, and smooth the top with a spatula.
  7.  Bake until toothpick comes out clean, about 22-24 minutes. Allow to cool.
  8. While it bakes, make the topping: mix together remaining 3/4 cup mashed fried banana, 1/4 cup peanut butter, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tsp syrup, and a pinch of cinnamon (Be sure the banana has cooled).
  9. Once the base is cool, spread the topping evenly over the base, covering it completely.
  10. Finish the bars with your choice of add-ons, and chill in the fridge before slicing. Enjoy!

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Mug Cakes: 14 ingredients, 4 cakes (V)

IMG_1164 (1)Is it just me, or does it feel as though we’ve been home for a month already? It’s only day 10 of this quasi-quarantine, and I almost can’t grasp the idea that my life was proceeding at a normal pace just over a week ago. My heart goes out to all of the people suffering from the virus, those in actual quarantine: I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that is! Regardless of the level of affect you’re feeling from these circumstances, I hope that, if you’re able, you’ll try spending some of the extra hours in your kitchen. In fact, you’ll only need about five minutes for today’s desserts!IMG_1111

I explained last week that I hoped to provide some recipes that wouldn’t require unusual ingredients because I don’t want to provide any temptation to disrupt the social distancing efforts! I knew that this mission would eventually lead me to mug cakes, and I couldn’t hold out for long–today is the day. Not only are these single-serve treats incredibly convenient to make at home; they have been a blast to create! The quantity of wasted ingredients and time often limits the number of trials I can execute in my recipes (usually about three tries max), but these cakes provided opportunity for lots of attempts and tweaks with relatively minimal consequence. It’s a win-win situation for us: I end up with less guilt and more experimental freedom, and you end up receiving recipes that have been thoroughly tweaked until they’re the most delicious they can be!

There’s also something quite appealing about single-serving desserts. They’re personal; they come together quickly; you don’t have to share with anyone (maybe my favorite factor); and they eliminate the struggle of self-control that so easily taints indulgence with guilt. Plus, I assume that the idea of baking an entire cake or pie isn’t exactly realistic for those of you stuck at home by yourself for the foreseeable future! There’s simply very little, if anything at all, that one can criticize about adorably tiny, warm, yummy cake. IMG_1154

I’d argue that this concept of single servings is applicable beyond food right now, though. With such chaos ensuing in our world and so much extra time in our schedules to observe that chaos, I find myself consuming news updates and mindless entertainment by the heaping spoonfuls. The magnetism of my phone, of every notification, is something of which I’ve become increasingly cognizant: I don’t know that I’ve gone more than a few minutes without it next to me since this ordeal began.

Perhaps this is something you’ve found yourself experiencing as well–I think the majority of us have been roped in by the incessant online dialogue in some capacity. And while it’s responsible to stay informed about the goings on in society, especially in times such as these, it’s just as responsible to care for yourself by limiting your media consumption. By nature, pandemics are rapidly progressing: things are changing by the hour in every affected city. But will knowing about these changes immediately, each as they occur, really contribute anything to us beyond stress and depression? Not likely. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of bad news right now. This means that it’s entirely possible for us to remain in a steady track of receiving this negative information if we expose ourselves to it. IMG_1175

Please, for your own health, come up for air now and then.

As reckless as it might feel (and I completely sympathize with this feeling), put your phone away for a few hours, even just one. Go outside. Read something that’s not current events. Call your family (without going to speaker so you can still check your phone). Give your complete attention to something that’s not a newsfeed. And know that you can do so without even a bit of guilt. The world will continue on, and you will eventually learn what you missed. Like the saying goes, everything is best in moderation. And it’s the moments we allow ourselves to indulge in the things that this virus hasn’t uprooted–those sweet, single-serve joys– that will eventually see us through it.

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18

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Mug Cakes: 14 Ingredients, 4 cakes (V)

MUG WALNUT BROWNIE

Ingredients

  • 2 TBSP all-purpose flour
  • 3 TBSP cocoa powder
  • 2 TBSP light brown sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 TBSP applesauce
  • 2 tsp oil (I used extra light olive oil)
  • 2 TBSP almond milk
  • 1/8 tsp vanilla extract
  • a few walnuts, broken into pieces (optional, or you can use another nut)

Instructions

  1. Mix all dry ingredients together in a mug with a fork.
  2. Mix in wet ingredients.
  3. Mix in walnuts, and sprinkle the last of them on top.
  4. Microwave until cooked through, about 1 minute 30 seconds.

CARROT MUG CAKE

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 TBSP light brown sugar
  • 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch cloves
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrot (lightly fill cup, don’t pack it)
  • 3 TBSP almond milk
  • a few walnuts, broken into pieces (optional, or you can use another nut)

Instructions

  1. Mix together all dry ingredients in a mug with a fork.
  2. Mix in carrots and almond milk.
  3. Mix in walnuts, sprinkling the final pieces on top.
  4. Microwave until cooked through, about 1 minute 30 seconds.

BANANA NUT MUG CAKE

Ingredients

  • 1/2 small banana
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • pinch cinnamon
  • pinch salt
  • 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • 2 TBSP light brown sugar
  • 2 TBSP almond milk
  • a few walnuts, broken into pieces (optional, or you can use another nut)

Instructions

  1. Mix together all dry ingredients in a mug with a fork.
  2. Mix in the almond milk.
  3. Mash the banana into the mixture.
  4. Mix in the walnuts, leaving the last bit to sprinkle on the top.
  5. Microwave until cooked through, about 2 minutes.

APPLE CINNAMON MUG CAKE

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 TBSP light brown sugar
  • 4 TBSP applesauce
  • 1/2 tsp oil (I used extra light olive oil)
  • 2 TBSP almond milk
  • a few walnuts, broken into pieces (optional, or you can use another nut)

Instructions

  1. Mix together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and 2 TBSP light brown sugar in a mug with a fork.
  2. Mix oil, milk and 3 TBSP applesauce into the dry ingredients.
  3. Mix in walnuts, sprinkling the last bits on top.
  4. Spread the last TBSP of applesauce on top of the mixture.
  5. Sprinkle the last TBSP of light brown sugar on top of the applesauce.
  6. Microwave until cooked through, about 2 minutes.

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Chocolate Yule Log and Gingerbread Cookies (V)

IMG_9204 (1)My family spent the whole week with me for Christmas this year. It’s not uncommon for them to visit during this season–with Nutcracker shows going on after Christmas Day, dancers aren’t usually free to go home until almost January, so it’s become a tradition for the Durands to celebrate the holiday here in Pittsburgh. And while it never fails to be a wonderful visit, something about this one was particularly special.

Perhaps part of the singularity of this trip had to do with the fact that both my parents and sister were all able to actually stay with me in my apartment (with my tiny living situations in the past, we’d become quite accustomed to hotel-room Christmas). It also certainly could have been because it’s only the second year that my parents have lived as empty-nesters. Whatever the many factors, I believe that there was a larger, overriding reason, though–a rather melancholy “first” for our family that made this week as valuable as it was. This was our first family visit when we had no idea when the next time we’d all be together again would be.

I didn’t actually make the connection until last Saturday, when we were shuffling around the living room saying our goodbyes. You see, there’s a solid form of comfort in a goodbye that comes with “I’ll see you in a few months!” or “Can’t wait until summer!” Even the longest periods of separation are made manageable when a clear end is established, when a period exists to eventually halt the dreadful run-on sentence. But parting ways with the most important people in your life and having nothing to say but a nebulous “Bye…” is a terrible feeling, one that I would prefer to never experience.  IMG_9182

That being said, I do believe that this realization was present with us, even subconsciously, throughout our time here. Each moment we shared, even those as simple as cooking together or eating Chinese food after church or unloading the car, had a sense of importance simply because of the fact that we were doing it together. Even my physical therapy appointments were enjoyable purely because my mom and sister sat right next to me for the entire two hours. I can say whole-heartedly that we didn’t waste a moment of the time we were gifted; and, as corny as it sounds, it truly was the best Christmas gift I received.

I hope that you all were able to share this Christmas and New Year’s Eve with those who love you, who bring you hope and happiness. My heart goes out to all of those who are suffering or alone right now–I pray that this year would bring you joy and memories that will outlive any present hurt.

Finally, me being me, the first thing I managed to do in my emotional, angsty state after my family left was to write an emotional, angsty poem. Here’s the rough draft if you’re interested; if not, scroll down for two delish Christmas recipes!

“… How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”

Psalm 133:1

 

Kindred

 

Matt from the bus 

told me that he didn’t understand 

why people feel the need to be close

to their families

“There are so many people in the world”

He said

“So I really just don’t need those five in my life.”

I looked in his eyes and knew

There was no resentment 

or hatred

in the words when he said them

But four days later they came rushing back to me

Like when you stand up too quickly

and the sudden newness of supporting itself

jolts your body 

And as I watched my family walk away from me–

tingling imprints of their hugs still fresh

across my sinking chest–

The fact that there are billions 

of people in the world 

was exactly the opposite of comforting

It meant that

In addition to tears blurring my vision 

and the front window screen

and soon to be hundreds of miles–

There were 7 billion people

Creating space

Between

 

Us.

All I could think about

as I stood behind the door–

the frigid air quickly expelling their

leftover heat that blanketed my body– 

Was that there were

So.      many.      people.

So many people in the world 

Who were not those three

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Chocolate Yule Log (V)

Ingredients

FROSTING

  • 1/2 cup vegan butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup almond milk
  • 1/2 cup cocoa  powder
  • 2 1/2 cups vegan powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

CAKE

  • 1 oz. vegan chocolate, melted
  • 3 flax eggs (3 TBSP ground flax mixed with 9 TBSP of water, left to thicken in fridge for at least 5 minutes)
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 TBSP almond milk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 TBSP cocoa powder

Instructions

FROSTING

  1. Place butter in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Begin gradually adding powdered sugar and almond milk, alternating and mixing on low-medium speed between each addition.
  2. Add cocoa powder and salt, and mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined and smooth.
  3. Add any additional powdered sugar or almond milk as desired to needed ideal consistency.
  4. Cover and keep at room temperature while you finish the cake.

CAKE

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a 10″x 12″ jelly roll pan (cookie sheet with sides); line the bottom with wax paper; grease and flour the top of the wax paper and sides of sheet.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together melted chocolate, flax eggs, sugar, vinegar, and almond milk with a spoon or spatula.
  3. In a smaller bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cocoa powder, and salt.
  4. Gradually mix the flour mixture into the wet ingredients until thoroughly incorporated.
  5. Spoon batter onto cookie sheet, and spread into an even layer with a spatula.
  6. Bake in preheated oven for about 13 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean, and top of cake springs back slightly when pressed.
  7. Remove from oven, and dust top of cake liberally with powdered sugar. Place a tea towel over cake. Holding the pan and towel together, flip it upside down so the cake will turn out onto the towel (the wax paper side will be on top, but leave the paper on).
  8.  Starting from one of the short ends, roll the cake and the towel together into a spiral. Place in fridge to cool for about an hour.
  9. Remove from fridge. Gently unroll cake and remove wax paper. Spread all of frosting evenly over the cake, covering any cracks that have developed.
  10. Roll the cake up again, this time without the towel. Wrap tightly in cling film.
  11. Place back in fridge and allow to chill at least another hour before slicing.
  12. Top as desired: crushed candy canes, melted chocolate, nuts, whipped cream, etc. (I love to do chocolate ganache and flaky sea salt!). Enjoy!
  13. If you have any leftover and have to freeze/refrigerate it, allow to come to room temperature again before serving.

Gingerbread Cookies (V)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup vegan butter, room temp
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 2 flax eggs (2 TBSP ground flax mixed with 6 TBSP water, left to thicken in the fridge for at least 5 minutes
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • (optional) zest of 1 small orange

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, combine butter, shortening, flax eggs, brown sugar, and molasses. Mix well by hand or with a mixer.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and orange zest.
  3. Gradually mix the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. When it starts to form a dough, I find it easiest to use my hands to finish the mixing and form a ball with the dough.
  4. Cover, and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
  5. Preheat your oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  6. Roll out the cookie dough on a lightly floured surface (doing it in sections is easiest). Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters or the rims of glasses.
  7. Bake in the preheated oven until bottoms/edges of cookies just barely begin to darken, about 9-11 minutes in my oven. Remove, and allow to cool on cooling rack completely before icing/serving.
  8. Top as desired: frosting, sprinkles, melted chocolate, royal icing (see my vegan royal icing recipe on the sugar cookie recipe https://waltzoftheflours759559643.wordpress.com/2018/12/30/sugar-cookies-with-royal-icing-v/).
  9. Store at room temperature in sealed containers.

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Nutcracker Popcorn Trio (V)

IMG_8683I’m becoming more and more convinced that I should seek out an aspiring stand-up comic because my life is an endless supply of joke material. To truly recruit your investment in this plan, I think I’ll drop you right into the peak of my Tuesday afternoon–though peak is most definitely a poor word choice. Allow me to set the scene…

I’m sitting straddle in the corner of my kitchen floor, mismatched oven mitts on both hands; my sopping wet hair is wrapped in a drooping towel (a towel that I cannot adjust because of the oven mitts); my lunch, which I’d just finished making, sits in the microwave getting cold; a wet, uncooked loaf of bread is laying on the stove; a broom and a shoe box full of broken glass accompany me on the floor; and I’m hunched over inside our oven, which is also laden with shards of glass. This scene remains relatively unchanged for the next twenty minutes.

Now, for the sake of literary suspense, I’ll back track to that morning. I’ve just received a text from my orthopedist, informing me that he can squeeze me in that day if I come ASAP. So, realizing that the office gets busy quickly, I speedily wash my dishes, brush my teeth, spray myself with an ungodly quantity of perfume to compensate for the lack of a shower, glumly look at my makeup I know I won’t have time to use, and call a Lyft–oh yeah, my car is broken…again. I slide into the backseat, only mildly flustered and  distracted by the fact that I hadn’t even had time to make my bed.

The driver doesn’t say much…for the first minute, that is. Soon, a dramatic squirming pulls my wandering mind back to the front car seat–this man has unbuckled his seat belt and is hastily removing his coat, explaining over the beep of the seat belt alarm that “This is too much for me right now.”IMG_8698

Feeling the subtlety of his masculine display abruptly disappear along with his outermost layer, I silently chuckle as he tosses the coat onto the passenger side and then immediately dons a thick knit beanie. I watch as he completes his presentation by slouching back casually into the seat and glancing in the rear view mirror to assess my response. Doing my very best to avoid locking eyes with him, mostly because I realize I’d likely fail to keep a straight face (and Lord knows how some men interpret a simple smile), I check my phone for nonexistent notifications. I absentmindedly start to bob my head to the music playing from the front of the car, but when I see Mr. Macho perk up–not too abruptly as to break his cool–I realize my mistake. “You like this?”

I conjure up the blandest, most strictly polite response I can: “Yeah, it’s nice. It has a good beat.”

You would have thought that he’d written the song himself and that I’d just presented him with a Grammy. He smiles widely and immediately educates me on the genre of rap-reggae fusion to which I’ve just been exposed. As if I’d begged him to please allow me to hear more of this music, and as if it is a breach of Lyft policy for him to do so, he offers “I’m going to let you hear something.” 

I stop a sarcastic “Really?? Thank you!!!” before it escapes my lips and instead fake interest in an obnoxious song that is growing louder from the speakers. Eventually, I tire of this false engagement and turn my attention back to my phone. After a few seconds, I notice him looking at me in the mirror once again. Despite his one-handed steering and slumped posture, I can see something in his eyes, just a slight hint of panic–he realizes he’s lost me. Scrambling to regain his false sense of influence, he changes the song, grasping once again for my approval. Understanding the ironic power I hold over this macho individual, I start gently bobbing my head again, pretending not to notice his look of satisfaction; it has become a game, tampering with his (excuse my cliche) fragile masculinity. 

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I play my role for the rest of the ride, feeling his glances constantly assess my emotion and constantly contradict his attempts at nonchalance. I must commend his ability to adapt–when an especially shaky moment arises, he proactively gains control of the situation by switching from left to right slouch, or by demanding my attention with the sheer virility of slowly scratching his beard. Thankfully for his emotional stamina, the ride only lasts a few minutes longer, and he drops me off at the door of my orthopedist. I thank him and shut the door, finally able to laugh without risk of breaking character. It’s hard to believe that only the first couple hours of my morning have passed. 

After a lengthy appointment and a much tamer ride back to the apartment, I jump at the chance of getting the shower I’d skipped earlier. I’ve learned, after much trial and error, the perfect ratio of hot and cold water that produces the longest-lasting comfort for a shower (one comes to learn these unique arts when living in a nineteenth century building). Sometimes, though, no amount of mastery can prevent the chilling spritz from coming too soon. This is one of those days, of course. I feel my muscles begin to clench as the last bit of warmth from the shower head runs down my still soapy legs and down the drain. In a panic–I am an utter wimp when it comes to cold–I brush off the remaining bubbles, fumble for my towel on the bathroom rug, quickly pat myself dry enough to yank on clothes, and then wrap my frigid hair up away from my shoulders.

After a few minutes, I make my way to the kitchen, where I’ve been anxious to bake a loaf of bread that I’ve left to rise overnight. I’ve been working on creating a crispy crust on my bread, and one method of doing this is to place a pan of boiling water on the oven floor to create steam, which in turn helps a crusty exterior develop.

**Now, I’d like to prematurely defend myself by saying that this thing I’m about to explain, I’d done it before–idiotic or not, it had taken place without disaster in the past, and I like to think that’s at least a fraction of an argument for my case. You can be the judge.IMG_8694

So, I boil a tea kettle of water and moisten the top of the bread dough to prepare it for baking (another strategy to help with crust). I slide the tray with the bread into the oven above the pan I’ve placed on the bottom rack to create my steam. Lastly, I grab the tea kettle and pour the boiling water into the clear…glass dish. The glass dish which immediately explodes upon contact with the scalding water. By the grace of God, the hundreds of shards manage to avoid my body entirely, instead decorating the inside of my oven and the floor in a dangerous layer. I’m frozen for a moment, waiting to realize that I am dreaming or somehow very confused. Nope.

And here we are, back to the floor of my kitchen on Tuesday afternoon. With the help of a broom, vacuum cleaner, and shoe box, I managed to clean up all the glass eventually, though I always see the glimmer of a few stray pieces when I open my oven door now. Kind of Christmas-y, I guess! The rest of that day was far less entertaining, which, as you may assume, wasn’t the worst outcome. All I can say is that I’m learning constantly how to embrace those days when I feel like a silly cartoon character who gets struck by lightning and then steps on a mouse trap and then gets squished under a giant’s footstep. My roommate, a writer, even fantasized my life as a writing exercise in which you’re told to insert the character into as many unfortunate, inescapable situations as possible. That’s certainly far from my actual life–I’m so very fortunate. But I do experience plenty of face-palm incidents; and, if I’ve given you a chuckle at any point in this saga, well then I guess they aren’t for nothing. I may be dreading my next ridiculous misfortune, but I’m very much looking forward to sharing whatever it is with you!

When times are good, be happy;
    but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
    as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
    anything about their future

Ecclesiastes 7:14

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Nutcracker Popcorn Trio (V)

Ingredients

FOR EACH TYPE

  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 2 TBSP canola oil

“Arabian” COFFEE CARAMEL CORN

  • 1 1/4 c light brown sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1/2 cup vegan butter
  • 1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup coffee, separated
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

“Spanish” CHILI CHOCOLATE POPCORN

  • 2 TBSP vegan butter
  • 4 oz. vegan dark chocolate
  • 1 TBSP cinnamon
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 3/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
  • 2 TBSP cocoa powder

“Russian” CANDY CANE COCONUT POPCORN

  • 1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
  • 6 candy canes
  • 5 TBSP vegan butter, melted
  • 2 TBSP corn syrup
  • salt to taste

Instructions

PREPARE POPCORN

  1. For each type of popcorn, put oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Place 2 kernels in the oil.
  2. When the two kernels pop, remove the pan from heat and turn off burner. Pour the rest of the kernels into the oil.
  3. Return the saucepan to the stove over medium heat, and cover. When popcorn begins to pop, leave a slight crack in the lid to release steam.
  4. Allow popcorn to pop, shaking saucepan occasionally, until the pops are a few seconds apart. Remove from heat, and pour popcorn into a bowl.

“Arabian” COFFEE CARAMEL CORN

  1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and grease the top of the paper with butter. Spread one batch of prepared popcorn across the baking sheets.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine brown sugar, butter, 1/3 cup coffee, and corn syrup. Stir continuously until butter is melted.
  3. When mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring and allow to cook untouched for five minutes.
  4. Remove from heat, stir in 1/4 cup coffee, almond extract, baking soda, and salt.
  5. Pour a little at a time over popcorn on prepared trays, and stir to coat entirely. **You don’t want too much excess caramel left on the bottom of the trays–you may have a little extra left in the saucepan depending on how much popcorn your kernels yielded. 
  6. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes, stirring every 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool completely on tray, and break apart pieces as needed. 

“Spanish” CHILI CHOCOLATE POPCORN

  1. In a double boiler, melt butter and chocolate.
  2. Stir in cinnamon, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and salt.
  3. Pour over popcorn, and stir to coat.
  4. Sprinkle the cocoa powder gradually over the coated popcorn, stirring until evenly distributed.
  5. Spread onto a flat surface to cool completely.

“Russian” CANDY CANE COCONUT POPCORN

  1. In a small skillet, toast sweetened coconut flakes over low-medium heat until browned throughout, stirring continuously. Remove from heat, and allow to cool. (You may want to remove them from the pan immediately to avoid burning)
  2. Combined cooled coconut and six candy canes (broken) in the bowl of a food processor or cup of a Nutribullet. Pulse until fine.
  3. Stir corn syrup into melted butter. Pour over batch of popcorn, and stir to coat.
  4. Pour candy cane coconut mixture over a batch of popcorn, tossing to coat every piece. Mix in salt to taste.
  5. Allow to cool.

 

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Sandwiches (V)

IMG_8248To say a lot has happened in just one week would be dramatically understating the last seven days. This week was one of those occasions that suddenly makes it obvious just how inconsequential the many minute worries of daily life can be. I think you’ll agree, as much as I wish it wasn’t true, that it often takes a genuinely critical circumstance for people to remember how many reasons they have to give thanks–I know I’ve been particularly guilty of this lately. Last Sunday afternoon, like many Sunday afternoons, I was stressed. I was almost out of time to get my blog post ready; I still needed to make dinner; I hadn’t done the heaped pile of laundry in my room; I needed to ice my ankle; I still wasn’t back in rehearsals yet; the weather was about to get especially nasty. It’s incredible how heavily the weight of small grievances can fuel anxiety and stress. But what’s more incredible is how instantaneously they can be forgotten. At 7:14, my mind–was buzzing with concerns, as it had been for hours, and at 7:15, it was wiped completely of those thoughts when I picked up a call from my mom in the middle of Bible Study. My grandpa was in the hospital and was going to need heart surgery.

Suddenly, the spastic atmosphere of my brain came to a jolting halt. Many of you probably know the feeling, the numbness and fogginess that takes over reality in moments of that nature. I remember sitting through our study that night, physically present among our group but entirely disconnected mentally. I glanced at my Bible, not actually registering the text being read and instead staring at my phone screen, waiting for more messages or calls.

For my grandpa, the following three days brought a whirlwind of visits from cardiologists, hematologists, and surgeons. Details about the necessary surgery came gradually, evolving from whether his blood levels would even allow for it, to when and where it was to take place. By Monday, family members had already begun planning their trips to Charlotte, where he was being transferred for the operation. For me, the next few days were a constant period of waiting and a sharp reminder of how many hundreds of miles separated me from the events and how long it had been since I’d last been able to spend time with my grandpa. I don’t think I noticed my overflowing hamper of dirty laundry once.

The first, less invasive and less risk-filled part of the procedure was completed, and my grandpa felt excellent the day after it was done. I could feel the careful jubilation through the family group text (which was graciously formed by my aunt to keep all us long-distance folks aware of what was happenin

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g) –part one was a success, but in two days came the much riskier operation.

I think my family may have managed to get the entire United States of America praying that day. The only details most of us knew were that there were a significant number of stints being inserted, the entire process would take about 5-7 hours, and it was an extremely difficult surgery. My phone was constantly within eyesight: through class, physical therapy, a poetry reading at CMU that night. I think my ankle was hurting that morning, but I don’t remember much. I dropped glove walking from my car that night and couldn’t find it–didn’t phase me. The thought of dedicating any mental energy to a glove when I didn’t know whether I’d ever see my grandpa again was near abhorrent to me. The significance of any personal problems was rapidly dwindling to nothing as the time passed: by eight hours into surgery with no news, I probably could have been punched and not even cared enough to pull my eyes from my phone.

After a long, quiet car ride home, I felt a buzz in my pocket on my way up our steps. Without breathing, I yanked my phone from my pocket, totally numb to the frigid air that bit at my fingers and would have normally prompted a grumbling response. My tense body began to relax the moment I read the first words of the text. “Dr just came out- everything went well…” I whipped my head around to my roommate, who rushed in for a hug, knowing the situation and what this meant. My grandpa was alive. Our worst fears, major fears, even minor fears about the situation hadn’t occurred. I about floated inside, as stunned with the relief and joy as I’d been with fear just four days before. It was an overwhelming sensation, the realization that I could have lost someone incredibly meaningful to me that night–but didn’t.

I want to be careful not to make it sound as though there was any part of this experience that wasn’t absolutely excruciating–it was terrible, beginning to end. But in the moment the nine of us in that group text heard the news of success, each of us received a gift. The hollow pit of apprehension and dread and unknowing that had grown deep within our chests for those eight long hours was, in one second, flooded with the fullness of good news–unbelievably good news. We, all at once, in one second, felt the entire weight of the blessing that my grandpa is in each of our lives, felt it return.IMG_8274 (2)

I have a friend who, to my dismay, told me he refuses to put a phone case on his brand new smartphone. When I challenged the rationality of his decision, he explained that as he constantly fidgets with the phone in his hand without the case, he’s perpetually reminded of its value, of how important it is that he takes care not to drop it. This awareness of its fragility trains him to always handle it with care, care that may easily be abandoned with the security of a case.

As hesitant as I was to accept his logic (ok, so it’s more like I verbally abused his logic), it struck me in a different way today. Today, I respect the fact that it didn’t take a disastrous incident for him to establish the importance of acknowledging the worth of his phone. He knows the nature of human pride well enough to realize that people are shockingly talented at having meaningful things in their lives and then immediately taking them for granted. He’s training himself, on a small scale, to abstain from the dangerous complacency of being blessed with one of those things.

While I don’t particularly love the mechanical tone of the word train–especially when it’s being used in discussion of loving people–I can’t help but feel that the incidents of this week are prompting me to realize my need for exercise in gratitude. I’ve been reminded this week of how conditioned I am, in obsessing over tiny frustrations in my day, to completely deny the existence of amazing people and experiences and privileges in my life at the drop of a hat…or a glove. To really, truly, express appreciation for those constants, it often unfortunately takes a reminder that they’re not always guaranteed, a cracked phone screen, if you will. I’ve had an incredible grandpa (two, actually, and two grandmas too) for all 21 years of my life. I could really afford to bulk up on my appreciation of that.

I share this story not as a didactic means to make you feel guilty–I hope above all it keeps me accountable. I think I speak for my entire family when I say that we can’t give God enough thanks for the miracle of this surgery (there were multiple undoubtedly miraculous happenings through this process). As I move forward, though, I hope to make a habit, if habit-forming is what it takes, to give thanks before I realize I may not always get to. I’m clearly far from it now, but I’d love to shed that phone case one day.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,
    and praise your glorious name.

1 Chronicles 29:13

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Sandwiches (V)

**Makes about 12 sandwiches

Ingredients

PB CREAM

  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 3 cups powdered sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 6-8 TBSP almond milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt

COOKIES

  • 2 cups sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 8 pieces of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate pound plus bar (just over 3oz. chocolate)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 6 TBSP cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

TOPPING

  • more chocolate, melted in microwave with splash of almond milk
  • coarse/flaky salt

Instructions

PB CREAM

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place peanut butter and one cup of the powdered sugar. Mix on medium-low speed.
  2. Begin adding almond milk and powdered sugar, alternating between each and mixing until incorporated.
  3. When all the milk and sugar have been added, mix in both extracts and salt on low speed. Increase to medium speed, and mix until very smooth. Add more sugar/almond milk as needed to reach smooth but thick consistency.
  4. Set aside.

COOKIES

  1. Combine chocolate and almond milk in microwave-safe measuring cup or dish. Microwave for 20 second intervals, stirring well between, until chocolate is completely melted. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place sugar, butter, and shortening. Mix on low-medium speed until completely combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt.
  4. Add chocolate/milk mixture to the sugar/butter/shortening mixture, and mix on medium speed until smooth.
  5. Begin adding the dry ingredients gradually, mixing on medium-low speed after each addition until the whole bowl has been used.
  6. Cover bowl, and chill for fifteen minutes.
  7. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  8. Scoop balls of dough–little less than 1/4 cup each–and place on cookie sheet (I used an ice cream scoop). Flatten each slightly so that it forms a disc about 1/2 inch high.
  9. Bake cookies in the preheated oven for about 10-12 minutes, or until the edges just begin to get crisp.
  10. Allow to cool.

ASSEMBLY

  1. Using piping bag (only if you care about it being neat), pipe a round of PB cream onto half of the cookies.
  2. Place another cookie on top of each filled cookie.
  3. Drizzle tops of sandwiches with melted chocolate, and sprinkle with salt to finish.
  4. Enjoy!

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