One Step Ahead

Fall is beautiful and wonderful. It’s filled to the brim with family hikes, delicious foods, the incredible smells of fall. And it’s also the time of year I struggle. I don’t know why, but there it is.

I thought that this year I might be immune. My fall is packed with good things. I’m meeting up with people I adore for a whole weekend, I am going to my first out-of-state professional conference for the first time since I had kids, and I may even get to take a challenging eight mile hike I’ve never completed before. Depression can’t bite if I’m in my insulated happy-suit, right? Wrong.

For some inexplicable reason, it sneaked up on me early this year. Maybe it got a peek at my calendar of awesome and knew that this time in the waiting was its only opportunity. Depression is a sneaky little you-know-what. Anyway, it got me. Suddenly yesterday I found myself tangled like a bug in that all too familiar web of self-doubt and despair, all my personal failings both real and imagined playing in a continuous loop.

But I’ve got a secret weapon; stubbornness. This time I refuse to play by the rules. Just because it’s got me doesn’t mean it gets to keep me. There is still good in my world, even if it wants to hide itself behind a mask of inconvenience or disappointment.

I went shopping for a new book but didn’t find anything I wanted to buy. Instead, I found a book in the free bin at my favorite used bookstore.  It was a book sj has mentioned a time or two, but I had never read it.

It rained on Saturday. Poured for hours, knocking outdoor activities off the schedule. Instead, I spent my day in bed reading my free book. And said book turned out to be my first five-star book of the year. It is also on my personal top 10 ever. Ever. It made me cry, it made me think, it made me wonder.

This morning I woke far too early with a sudden, jump-out-of-bed illness. After such a jolt of adrenaline, going back to sleep was impossible. So I canned eight jars of pumpkin butter and did three loads of laundry. After taking Squish to school, I dug in to my afternoon chores. Now my floors are steam-cleaned, laundry is finished. By 10am, all my chores for the day were done. Now I get to start a project I’ve put off for a while, and I get to play.

There weren’t near enough jars for all of my pumpkin butter. A breakfast of hot pumpkin butter, coffee, and fresh bread is divine. And I can do it again tomorrow.

Some of the photos I took last year and had high hopes for are unusable. But the contrast between my old camera and my new are vast. My new camera has incredible capabilities, and I have just scratched the surface of what it can do. There are tortoise books in my future. Plus, by clearing out the bad photos, I’ve made a bit of room on my computer.

I know that positive thinking isn’t a cure. Depression is not exactly a choice, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a choice to be made. I can focus on what’s good and try to stay afloat while I ride out this storm, or I can give in and sink. For today, I am stubborn. I am counting those blessings as fast as I can see them. For today, I’m one step ahead.



*Update – As I tried to publish this post, Chrome and all its extensions crashed, taking part of my post with it. Depression is a sore loser.

A Little Post To Help Out My Starving Writer Friends

I’m not here to get my starving writer friends an actual job. Unless your ambition is to set up a slow-cooker lasanga stand somewhere. Not that there would be anything wrong with that. I always say, if you’re going to dream, dream big. No, I’m here to help out all my friends who, like me, may be finding their word output far exceeding their caloric intake. Or finding themselves at the bottom of a bag of peanut M&Ms in search of inspiration. This one is for you guys, my brothers and sisters in NaNoWriMo.

Here’s a quick and easy recipe that you can put together in 5 minutes (unless you’re trying to take pictures of the process. In that case, add an hour) and leave it for a few hours while you hammer out content. Drumroll, please.

Heather’s Slow Cooker Lasagna – complete with crappy photographs. You’re welcome.

Here’s what you need:

8 lasagna noodles (I prefer whole wheat because they maintain their integrity in the recipe, meaning they don’t cook down to paste. Friday, my husband finally admitted that he hates them. Who knew?)

15 oz of ricotta cheese (I like part-skim so I am not all fat, but whole milk variety works as well for you skinny folks. That I hate.)

2 Cups of shredded mozzarella cheese

1 Jar of the  spaghetti sauce of your choice (not for a minute did I pretend that this meal was going to be totally from scratch. Deal with it, or go back to your M&Ms)

1/3 Cup of water

Optional: half a pound or so of your favorite ground meat or protein crumble (my kid is a vegetarian, so we leave out the meat, but Morningstar Farms Sausage crumbles are pretty awesome)

You were, perhaps, expecting Julia Childs? Get real.

1) Break the noodles into the bottom of the slow-cooker.

I hate my oval-shaped slow-cooker. But whatever.

2) Pour in half of the jar of your sauce. You don’t have to be exact.

Cover those noodles, for the love of Linguini! Cover them!

3) Add the water. I didn’t include a picture of this step. I am sorry if you are now confused and will end up with toast instead of lasagna. I can only do so much for you.

4) Add your ricotta cheese and try to spread it evenly. Here’s a tip: it doesn’t spread. You’re going to have to squish it. But it’s kind of fun.

Squish. Squish. If it's boring, try saying "Braiiiins!" while you do it. If you're into zombies. Which I'm not. Sorry SJ. I tried.

5) Here’s the dangerous part in the recipe. If you have meat or a meat-substitute, this is where you add it. I don’t, so there is no picture. Meat or meat substitute. Not dog food or pencil shavings. You can do this, even without a photo to guide you.

6) Sprinkle 1 cup of shredded cheese over the ricotta/meat/meat substitute. Note: this represents only HALF of your cheese. If you use all of it, it will be cheesy, but it will look really weird.

Sprinkle that cheese. Sprinkle it, I say! How does sprinkling cheese make my hand look so fat. I think I need to go back to bed.

7) Top with the remainder of the sauce.

I know what you are thinking. Not only can those hands type out a novel, they are also pretty adept at pouring generic sauce from a jar. Thank you, my fans. Thank you.

8 ) Turn your slow-cooker on low. Cook for an hour. Set a timer if you have to.

9 ) After cooking for an hour, top with the remainder of the cheese. You CAN do this before step 8, but your cheese will be all brown and crunchy. Me no likey, but if you like crispy cheese, feel free to mix it up. And by that, I mean change up the recipe. If you actually mix up the contents of your slow-cooker, it won’t be pretty.

It's all in the wrist. Don't despair if you aren't this good at first. I have been training since childhood.

10) Cook for another 2-3 hours. If you have an oval slow-cooker, you’ll aim for 3 total hours of cook time. If you have a round one (I am jealous), aim for four total hours.

11) Serve it up with a side of salad and fresh bread. That you kneaded from scratch. Shut up. I did. I can’t make spaghetti sauce yet, but I can bake me up some bread. I’ll post that recipe another time.

Yes, those are raisins in my salad. And it's a bag salad. Don't judge me.

So there you have it. A recipe that is quick and easy and doesn’t require a lot of baby-sitting. Your word-count is almost guaranteed to shoot through the roof . **  Carbs and comfort food can have that effect. Happy writing!

** Please note, I said “almost ” guaranteed. Author is not responsible for writer’s block, computer crashes, hair loss or weight gain.

Yes, You Can!

Ta-daaaa! And you can do it, too!

This is a no-nonsense (okay, minimal nonsense) guide to canning apple butter. Please note that different types of food have different canning requirements, and this method isn’t right for all of them. Before using this method on other treats and tasties, please do a little research, or you may poison someone you care about. Accidentally. Not like that other time.

I was intimidated the first time I thought about preserving the fruits of my labor. I had watched my grandmother in the kitchen as a child, and it seemed that canning involved a lot of sweating, swearing, and steam, and since she used a pressure cooker to can, an element of fear, as well. I don’t go within 100 yards of a stove-top pressure cooker, so I did a bit of research before deciding to attempt canning on my own. I had to figure it all out by reading the jar packaging and filling in some really big blanks.  But you don’t. You have me. You’re so lucky!

And here’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to use a pressure cooker! Apple butter can be preserved using something called a hot-bath, which is nothing more than a large pot filled with water and lined on the bottom with a towel.

If you followed my apple butter recipe and really heaped those apples into the slow cooker until you couldn’t get the lid on, you’ll have enough goodies to make 8 half-pint jars and some left over for yourself. So let’s start.

What you’ll need:

What you need.

8 half-pint jars with lids and rings– I prefer Ball’s jelly jars. They make prettier gifts, but more importantly, the decorative scoring on the sides of the jars provide a better grip with your tongs. They also come with adorable labels and have more pronounced dimple in the lid when they are sealed. You can use rings more than once, but lids must be brand-spanky new.

***Jars are plentiful right now because it is harvest time. Buy some while you can find them easily. For first-time buyers, if you buy a box of jars, they will come with the lids and rings that you need.***

plastic knife – yes, it needs to be plastic. Apple butter is acidic, and a metal knife may lend a weird taste.

ladle – if you choose one that’s too big, filling the jars may get a little messy

hand towels– I have a lot on hand before I start. You’ll notice my collection is mismatched. I have a gas stove and usually set fire to at least one towel every time I can. My sister reads about it in my blog and buys me new ones for Christmas. I love my sister.

large, heavy pot– For my hot bath, I use the largest pot that came with my cookware set. My stock pot is actually bigger, but using something that deep puts you at serious risk for a scald when you try to remove the jars. Not kidding here. Steam will tear you up. The pot needs to be about an inch deeper than the jars are tall.

It's not haunted. It's lined with a towel. You need to do that, too, to protect your jars.

another big pot– this one doesn’t have to be as deep. You’ll use it to sterilize your jars

a tea kettle– I always keep extra boiling water available while I’m canning. You should, too. Better to have it and not need it…

A pair of tongs: Rubber-coated handle is a good thing. Less slippery and won’t conduct heat as quickly.

about two hours– you may not need this long. It took an hour and a half today, but it’s better to pad your schedule the first couple of times.

A word to the wise: Hot goes into hot! Always. Every single time. What this cryptic phrase means is that you want to can your apple butter while it is still hot. Best case scenario, the jar won’t seal. Worst case scenario, you have an explosion. Explosions are bad things. Hot goes into hot. My recipe takes around 13 hours, so I try not to even plug in the pot unless I’ll be ready to can it when it’s finished.

While I’m getting everything ready, I go ahead and fill the hot-bath pot, the sterilization pot, and the tea kettle and start them boiling.

STEP ONE: wash and sterilize your jars. Wash them in warm soapy water, and then put them in the shallower pot, which should now be boiling. Toss in the lids and rings, too, and let them bubble for 15 minutes. If you use your tongs to offer rats to your snake, go ahead and sterilize those, too.

killing germs is a good thing

Step Two: Fill your sterilized jars with yummy stuff to about 1/4 inch from the top.

Step Three: Use plastic knife to get out air bubbles. Carefully run the knife around the edge of the jar. Lightly thump the jar on the counter a couple of times, and run the knife around again. Air bubbles= spoiled food. Get rid of them.

You want a pink knife like mine. Admit it.

Step Four: Wipe the rim carefully. You want to get rid of any food or water droplets that will prevent your lid from making a seal. Once the rim is wiped, center the lid on the jar and screw on the ring.

Clean rim = good seal

Step Five: Add to hot-bath. Once you’ve got all of your jars in the bath (my pot holds four or five), turn the heat up and cover the jars with boiling water. You want to cover them with at least an inch of water.

Step Six: Start your timer after the water in the hot-bath has reached a steady boil. A bubble or two doesn’t count. A good, hard boil means that you can start your timer. Boil for 15-20 minutes. I like having a good chance at a seal, so I aim for 20. Use tongs. The water is hot, the apple butter is hot, everything is all splashy. If you ignore this advice, study up on some good swear words. You’ll be needing them.

Use tongs to set the jars carefully on top of the towel

Step Seven: Monitor your jars. Inevitably, some water will boil off, splash out, etc. You need to keep the water level fairly constant. Add water from the kettle as needed. Jars need to remain upright.

Step Eight: Remove the jars. Again, please use the tongs. You have them right there. Use them. Set the jars on towel on a counter where you won’t have to touch them for a bit. They are hot. And you’re waiting for them to seal.

The most satisfying part of canning for me is the sound of the jars sealing themselves. If you hear a noise like a distant gunshot, chances are good that a jar has sealed. If you are in the middle of a high-crime area, feel free to hit the deck, anyway, because safety always comes first. But if that muffled *pop* isn’t followed by sirens, give yourself a big high-five while you’re down there on the floor. Your venture into canning has been successful.

Seals that have not set within 12 hours aren’t going to. You’ll want to get a fresh lid and try it again from the beginning. Hot goes into hot, remember? And after 12 hours, it’s just not anymore. If you are unsure if your jar has sealed, push down on the middle of it. A sealed jar is one whose lid has no “give.” If it is slightly indented in the middle and doesn’t pop back up when gently pressed, it’s sealed. Congratulations. You’ve done it! If your lid initially has give, but it doesn’t pop back up after you’ve pressed on it, you’ve worked some magic and sealed it at that very second. It counts. Again, congrats!

All you have left to do is label the jars with the product and the date you created it, and you’re ready to make out your gift list. Apple butter stored by this method can keep for a year if it is unsealed. A caveat. Even if you seem to have done everything right, if you open the jar and there are little bubbles in it or if it smells weird, don’t eat it. Not worth it. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I read about it and thought it might be important to pass on.

The Flavors of Fall

I usually don’t post on weekends, but my blogging buddy tweeted yesterday that she went apple picking, and another pal posted on Facebook that honeycrisp apples (which I suspect were the delicacy responsible for the fall of  The Very First Lady, and may actually have been worth the consequences) have hit stores, and I am inspired! One of my favorite fall traditions is making apple butter in my slow-cooker, and the time is ripe.

Let me dissuade you of the illusion that I have always been steeped in traditional homemaking skills. I grew up watching my great-grandmother pick, cook and can her own fruits and vegetables and create beautiful quilts, and my grandmother sewed many of my dresses and was a skillful knitter,  but in my opinion, those skills were for old people. And since my mother was a single-parent who worked 45-50 hours a week, all that domesticity skipped a generation.

When I got married, I didn’t even know how to cook. Hamburger helper and canned green beans constituted fine-dining in those early days. I could scramble and egg and bake cookies, but those dishes do not exactly make for a balanced diet. Over time, I have branched out, and I am happy to say that I am now an adventurous cook, and definitely not a bad one.

Now I am a stay-at-home mom (and arguably rather old),  I am beginning to appreciate those skills possessed by the matriarchs as a lost art. One by one, I am trying to revive them. Since I am but a slow knitter, and I can’t sew a straight line, cooking is currently the skill at which I am most successful. Enter apple butter.

Here’s my confession. I love eating the stuff. And it makes a great gift for family members. At least the ones who know I actually like them and won’t look at the jar and wonder if I’m trying to do them in. Actually, I’m not above messing with anyone’s head, but I hate to waste food, so I stick to the people I like. What I love most about apple butter, though, is not the taste or the mind games. I love the way it makes my house smell. Like cinnamon and the spices. The fragrance of fall. It’s  simply incredible. Unless you burn it, but I’m not going there.

I do things a little differently than my Nanny. She stirred apples on the stove-top for hours on end, until they were a delicious, caramelized mush. But face it. She raised her kids during the Great Depression. They didn’t have access to the many and various ways to do bodily harm that my kids do. I use my crock pot.

I do bow to tradition in one way. I don’t use those gadgets that will peel/slice/core an apple for you in 30 seconds. My apples are peeled and sliced by hand. It takes an hour or two, but here’s the cool part. My daughter joins me. The time that we spend together here is magic, time we spend actually talking. She is now fourteen, and I find myself greedy for these interludes of conversation and laughter. She may eventually become suspicious and wonder why we are making 6 batches of the stuff, when we normally make only two. I hope she doesn’t catch on for awhile.

So here it is, the recipe you’ve all been waiting for. Or skipped all the other drivel to get to:

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

4 1/2 – 5lbs of apples (no exact measure, but you want so many apples that the top doesn’t quite fit on the cooker) peeled, cored, and sliced thin

4 C sugar (you knew it was going to be good, right?!)

3 tsp cinnamon

1/4  tsp cloves

Combine sugar and spices. Pour apples in large bowl and pour sugar mixture over it. Mix it all up.

Dump in slow-cooker and cook on high for an hour

Decrease heat to low and cook for 9-11 hours, stirring occasionally

Uncover and cook for another hour

Whisk until smooth (I sometimes use an electric hand mixer, but really hot stuff will go flying)

Can in half-pint jars immediately (I’ll post instructions in another blog, if anyone is interested