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Archive for November, 2013

I want to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving today! It’s also the first day of Hanukkah, so holiday greetings to those celebrating the Festival of Lights, too.

Last year, Bart and I had just moved to the DC area one week before Thanksgiving, so we celebrated the day by ourselves and eating on a plastic folding table.

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It was a fine holiday, and we were thankful to be spending it together after just starting a new journey. But we’re very thankful to have friends and family to spend the day with this year.

I hope that, whatever our circumstances today, we still can count our blessings and appreciate the good things we’ve been given.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)

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For some reason, I volunteered to bring three separate desserts to Thanksgiving tomorrow at our friends’ house. I’m not sure what got into me, but the compulsion to make copious amounts traditional holiday treats proved stronger than reason.

I decided to make a pecan pie, a spice cake, and a pumpkin roll. I’ve made pecan pie before and I make spice cake all the time, but a pumpkin roll is a mysterious and unknown object to me. I had never heard of such a thing before I met Bart, but it’s a standard treat and family favorite that his mother makes every year. She gave me the recipe a couple of years ago, but I’d never considered making it before. It looked complicated and intimidating. I also don’t usually love pumpkin flavored treats. However, my friend Kenda gifted me with a charming little pie pumpkin and a recipe for pumpkin purée this fall. I roasted and puréed it a week ago, and with this star ingredient now sitting in my freezer, I decided this was finally the moment to tackle this new holiday treat.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. The first task for the pumpkin roll is to prepare your pan for the cake part. Grease a 15″x10″ jellyroll pan or lipped cookie sheet and press a sheet of waxed paper on the bottom and sides. Grease the waxed paper, too. Make sure to get the sides of the pan; I missed these, and removing the paper was more difficult there.

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Now, make the batter for the cake. In a medium bowl, combine 3/4 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and about a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice (I made my own from cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, and it ended up being a little over a teaspoon).

With a mixer, beat three eggs, then add one cup of sugar, one teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 2/3 cups pumpkin purée. Here’s my homemade batch thawed and ready to go, but you can use canned if you are a normal and sane person who hasn’t roasted his own gourd.

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Now, slowly incorporate the dry mixture and mix until just combined. Pour this into your lined pan and bake at 375 for 11-13 minutes, or until the cake springs back to the touch.

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While the cake is baking, lay out a cotton tea towel (basically, any towel that is woven like a sheet and not terry like a bath towel) and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. I used a small wire strainer to disperse.

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When the cake comes out of the oven, it’s time for the most terrifying part. Carefully flip the pan over and turn the cake out onto the tea towel, then free it from the waxed paper. Now, starting from one end, very gently roll up the cake and towel. Fervently pray that the cake doesn’t split. Be thankful when it doesn’t.

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Let this cool on a wire rack for a little while; about an hour worked for me. In the meantime, wash dishes, bake two cakes (since the oven is already preheated and you’ve overcommitted yourself on desserts), wash dishes again, then prepare the cream cheese filling.

With a mixer, beat one 8-oz. package of cream cheese, softened, six tablespoons of butter, softened, and one teaspoon vanilla extract. Slowly combine one cup of sifted powdered sugar. Normally, I am too lazy and jaded to sift my powdered sugar, but I did it this time out of pure fear of somehow messing this recipe up. I used the same strainer employed for dusting the tea towel.

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Carefully blend until smooth. Despite sifting, mine was still lumpy. I feel vindicated to never sift again.

Now, unroll your cooled cake and carefully spread the filling over it. I tapered the thickness down at one end where the roll ends so it wouldn’t squirt out the seam.

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Finally, roll the cake and filling (not the towel!) into final form.

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Wrap snugly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. I think this will help fill in any gaps between layers, or that’s what I hope, since mine is not all that beautiful looking at this point. Dust with powdered sugar if desired, then slice and serve. I haven’t gotten this far yet, so I have no beautiful final photos. But regardless of how it looks, Bart sampled a nibble of the cake and scraped the bowl of filling, so he assures me it’s going to be delicious. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters!

So, thanks Connie T. for the recipe, the inspiration to try something new for the holidays, and the confidence to bring copious amounts of food to share with loved ones! (I have to be nice to my mother-in-law; she’s a regular reader. 😉 Fortunately, she’s great and makes it easy!)

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One of the first areas we tackled with initial home improvements was the hallway on the main level. It wasn’t necessarily intentional to focus on that area, but many of our high priority or opportunistic improvements apparently converged there.

First things first: the three bedrooms along the hallway had old slab doors with 50 years worth of paint on them, while the bathrooms and closet doors were replaced with more modern, six-panel doors during recent renovations. My dad offered to show us how to replace these three doors so they would all match on the main level. He assured us it was very easy, as the new doors would come pre-hung on new door jambs, and all the old stuff would go away in one fell swoop. Replacing the doors would also give us the opportunity to change the orientation of the door at the end of the hall which, as you can see below, opened into the hallway for some inexplicable reason.

The hallway before

The hallway before

Naturally, the first thing one wants to do to their brand new house a mere day after moving in is to start tearing it apart. So Bart and Dad set to the three doors with crowbars and hammers. It didn’t take them long to get them installed, and our hallway was already looking much spiffier and less crowded. It will probably take more time to paint all the doors than it did to install them.

No more random door at the end of the hallway.

No more random door at the end of the hallway.

The hallway seemed ripe for a bit of color, texture, and warmth, so I decided to get a rug for it. Based on some positive experiences of family members who had purchased rugs on Overstock.com, I took a chance and ordered this navy wool runner. I’m quite satisfied with the way it turned out; the rug is good quality, and I like the color a lot. We’ll see if it stands the test of time; the hallway to our bedroom is a pretty high-traffic area.

Navy blue runner for the hallway

Navy blue runner for the hallway

But for our final and most awesome hallway update, Bart and I decided to totally geek out. We said adios to the old, boring thermostat…

Old and boring.

Old and busted.

…and said hello to this piece of home automation awesomeness.

New hotness

New hotness.

The Nest Thermostat is the next generation of programmable thermostats. It learns your schedule and preferences as you walk by or manually adjust it, then creates an energy-efficient schedule to heat or cool when you need it and hold off when you don’t. It connects wirelessly to the internet, allowing you to monitor and control from your computer or iPhone, whether you’re in the next room or the next state. We learned about the Nest a couple of years ago, and before we even started looking at houses, we knew we wanted to put one in our new house.

It’s a fun gadget that’s pretty easy to install; we did it ourselves in under an hour. You can determine if your system is compatible by checking out their compatibility wizard on their website; we were compatible, even with a boiler and radiant heat system. We input information about our heating and cooling systems, and it takes that into account with its decisions. In particular, baseboard heating takes longer to get to temp than forced air, but it stays closer to a constant temperature rather than cycling in wide swings like a regular furnace. The Nest now knows how long it takes the baseboard heaters to warm up to a new temperature and displays that when you adjust the setting.

We were also suckers for the sleek, shiny package and the cute little touch screen. It looks way cooler in the hallway than the boring old unit. At a retail price of $250, we didn’t necessarily neeeed the Nest, but we made use of coupons and gift cards and rebates and got it for a really good price. And it’s easy to imagine that it won’t take long for the energy savings of a smart thermostat will pay for itself.

The only unsexy thing about this thermostat is the strange patch of unfinished drywall behind it. I guess that means there’s still work left to do in the hallway, but we’re well on our way to making it more functional and modern.

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Last night, Bart and I ventured out to find our local movie theater. We only see a movie every month or two in the theater, yet having a theater that we normally go to is, strangely, something that makes me feel really settled in a place.
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Last week, we marveled that it has already been one year since we moved to Washington, DC, but you’ll probably be as surprised as I was to realize that we’ve already been in our new house for one month.

The new house

The new house

Moving and unpacking takes a quite a bit of effort, and even though we have a couple of boxes left, mostly of decor items I’m not quite ready to put out yet, I’d say we’ve been sufficiently unpacked and settled for a couple of weeks. I’ve found that physically extracting items from boxes is one thing, but finding a new place to put it all is completely another. This is complicated by two facts about our house: 1. my kitchen is much smaller than my previous ones, and 2. we also lack closet space upstairs (we have no coat closet on the main level). This lack of storage means I’ve had to be creative, thoughtful, and intentional about stowing our stuff. However, I couldn’t just leave things in boxes until I had the energy to tackle each problem area, so I initially had to unpack everything and shove it into any space I could find. Now that I’ve lived in the house a little while and see how it flows, I’m going back through these areas and making things more efficient and useful. It’s a slow process, but fortunately I love organizing and optimizing, so I revel in it, maybe just a little more than is healthy for a normal person.

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I was surprised to  find myself hankering for eating out today. Not just hankering for restaurant food, but mostly interested in the experience of going out and having fun. But we’re still in our Eat-Out Challenge for November, so I’m soldiering on by cooking some great home-cooked meals and trying out some new recipes.

What better way to completely forget about ho-hum hamburgers or burritos than to whip up your own, savory chicken pot pie from scratch? I’ve been thinking about making this since before we moved but haven’t had the opportunity yet. Coincidentally, when I asked Bart what he’d like for me to cook this week, he also suggested chicken pot pie. Well, the people have spoken, so here we go.

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Today marks the 1,001st day of the 101-in-1001 challenge that Bart and I started back in February of 2011. Our goal was to create a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days–just about 2.75 years–and accomplish all of them in the given time. As of today, I count that we accomplished 88 out of 101 items on our list, meaning 13 items were not completed by this date.
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Believe it or not, this week marks one year since we woke up, put our suitcases and the dog in our cars, and turned our backs on the Rocky Mountains. We arrived in Maryland exactly one year ago today, literally and figuratively in the dark. Twelve months, two states, and two houses later, I still wouldn’t say that we’re totally settled here, but being in our own house seems to have closed the chapter on a year of transition.

I don’t think I anticipated how difficult the first year here would be from a personal standpoint. I knew there would be challenges with fighting traffic, getting lost, finding grocery stores, meeting people, joining a church, and learning my job. But surprisingly, I struggled with feeling like I was wasting my time and lacking purpose in life when we didn’t have any friends or anything we were involved in and just sat around the house looking at real estate listings on the internet all the time. At times, I felt despondent, unmotivated, and a little sad. Bart reminded me that this was not a truthful way to look at this time. It wasn’t time wasted, but it was a season of rest and rejuvenation so we would be ready to begin again with those things when that time came. And, of course, he has been right about that. In due time, things like finding a house, meeting people, and getting involved have fallen into place. We aren’t completely back up to speed, but we’re accelerating in that direction, and it seems like every week we see new opportunities around us.

It never hurts to look back and see that we have actually done a lot in our first year here. You don’t often have such a period free of obligations to explore a new place and have new experiences, so we tried to take advantage of it. Looking back over the last year, here are some of the most notable things we’ve experienced:

  • Visited twelve different states along the Eastern Seaboard and New England. When was the last time I visited twelve states in one year? Probably never.
  • Now that I think about it, we should also include the seven other states we drove through when moving here, and two more we hit on a trip back home in April. That’s an incredible 42% of the United States.
  • Bought a house. This is typically not something you do every day, and given how many months it took us to find this one, it definitely isn’t an insignificant accomplishment.
  • Hosted our first dinner party. That happened this last weekend, in fact.
  • Weathered a presidential inauguration, sequestration, furloughs, shutdowns, and a gubernatorial election in a state where we missed the voter registration deadline by two days. And there have been numerous other little quirks we’ve experienced living in Federal City.
  • Had seventeen separate house guests stay with us, some multiple times. I can think of maybe 10 overnight guests that we had in Colorado the entire eight years I lived there.
  • Waited at the DMV twice. Remind me to never move states or buy a new car or anything else that requires a trip to the DMV ever again.
  • Both of us had jury duty in Montgomery County. And now we’re back at the top of the list in a new one.
  • Driven past or walked on a beach three times. Not something we could accomplish in Colorado or Arkansas.
  • Visited many monuments and museums on a whim that most people have to go on vacation to see.
  • There were also a few things we didn’t do that we expected to do, mostly because finding a house was a real time-sucker for the nicest six months of the year. But we look forward to having time to do these and more now that we’re not in the market for a home. Of course, I hear that home improvement projects take up weekends, too. Good thing we don’t have a list of dozens of things we’d like to do to the house…or something. ;p

  • Go to Gettysburg. I was 100% positive we would do this sometime in our first year, but it never happened. It’s definitely going to, though.
  • Go to Mount Vernon. Granted, we now live about ten miles from it, and we’ve heard it’s awesome during the holidays. I’m motivated to make this happen before the year is out.
  • Go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. We almost did this on our trip to New England over the Fourth of July weekend, but we passed, opting to go during the off season this winter. We like excuses to head to upstate New York.
  • Go to New York City. We ran out of non-house hunting weekends in the summer. Depending on the weather and our travel plans around the holidays and first of the year, this might have to wait until next spring or summer.
  • Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park. This would have been awesome to do three weeks ago, but if you recall, we bought a house three weeks ago. But I hear Shenandoah is beautiful all year round.
  • That’s a quick snapshot of our first year in Washington, DC. I guess we can’t consider ourselves “new” to the area anymore, but I still feel pretty green most of the time. But we’ve still got a lot of living to do here as long as we live here, be in a few years or the rest of our lives. I appreciate your accompanying me on this journey and hope you have enjoyed the blog so far. I intend to keep sharing our adventures with you, both with exploring the DC area and the East Coast as well as fixing up our new house. I hope you’ll continue to join me as we start Year Two in Washington!

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    As you recall, part of November’s Eat-out challenge was trying four new recipes this month. We’ll call that the Eat-In Challenge for November. To start off the month last week, I tried my hand at a dish Bart and I had at a restaurant in Arlington a few months ago but had never made on my own.

    I’d heard of huevos rancheros before, but I had never eaten it. I’m not sure why; I’m a gigantic fan of breakfast and of Mexican food, so it’s an obvious win. At this restaurant, I saw that they had not only huevos rancheros on the menu, but they had huevos rancheros divorciados. I’d never heard of this before, but the waitress explained it as huevos rancheros with both red and green sauce. As I am also a gigantic fan of green sauce, I knew I needed to try it. Despite the ominous name, it was quite delicious, so I knew it was something I wanted to try at home.

    I based my red sauce on Jamie Deen’s huevos rancheros recipe; my main modification was using green chilies instead of a jalapeno. I also used diced tomatoes but decided that next time I would go with whole or stewed instead for a deeper flavor.

    Base ingredients for the red sauce

    Base ingredients for the red sauce

    I blended these in a blender, then transferred to a sauce pan to warm while I focused on the green sauce.

    For this, I used the green half of this Food Network recipe. This recipe is legit, as it called for roasting the tomatillos, onion, pepper, and garlic before making the sauce. I did this in a cast iron skillet over high heat on my awesome gas cooktop.

    Roasting the ingredients for the green sauce.

    Roasting the ingredients for the green sauce.

    For the record, this is the first time I’ve ever used tomatillos. I have no idea if the were ripe or anything, but it seemed to turn out just fine. Then I blended them all up and transferred to yet another saucepan to warm.

    Will it blend? Yes, yes it will.

    Will it blend? Yes, yes it will.

    I didn’t make any modifications to this recipe except for one that I literally just realized I did on accident: instead of halving the Anaheim pepper, I used a whole one. No wonder I thought it was almost too hot to eat…mystery solved. Bart tells me it was just right and to not change it. We’ll see next time. The only modification I think I’d make in the future is adding some spices like cumin and coriander for a little added depth.

    Next, I turned my attention to some refried beans. I always make my own, usually with pintos that I cook myself.  I add the equivalent of one can of beans to a skillet with a little bit of oil of my choice; I used canola oil this time. Just a tablespoon or less did it for me, but definitely suit yourself.

    Pre-fried beans.

    Pre-fried beans.

    To this I added salt, onion and garlic powder, cumin, and coriander. I’m guilty of rarely measuring spices; I’m trying to reform my practices, I promise. I use something like 1/2-1 teaspoon of each.

    Spicing up the refried beans.

    Spicing up the refried beans.

    Add these to the beans and heat them in the skillet for 5-10 minutes. If they get too dry, just add a little water and let that cook down. Once all the flavors are incorporated, mash to the desired consistency; I use the back of a spoon or sometimes a potato masher. Mine were pretty chunky this time, but I usually like it on the creamy side.

    Once that was cooking, I toasted up some flour tortillas in the cast iron skillet. Corn is probably more traditional, but I had flour tortillas so there you go.

    Heating up the tortillas.

    Heating up the tortillas.

    Finally, I had my resident fried egg-spert, Bart, cook up a few for us. I’m the scramble master, but he’s got the magic touch for fried eggs and omelets.

    Oh, and if anyone ever questions the need to have more than four burners on a cooktop, he should try making huevos rancheros sometime. Have you been counting how many separate pots and pans going on here? Go back and count them.

    To assemble, I spread the refried beans on a tortilla, add the egg, then top with both red and green sauce (but this is divorciados-style, so in the immortal words of the Offspring, you’ve got to keep them separated). And a little shredded colby-jack never hurt anyone.

    Huevos rancheros divorciados

    Huevos rancheros divorciados

    You’ll notice one glaring omission to this recipe–any sausage or chorizo. That’s because I’m a dork and I forgot to pick it up at the grocery store. That’s okay; I was running out of burners anyway.

    I have no idea what it is, but there’s something about this meal that is utterly delicious. Bart and I gobbled it down and went back for more. It just goes to show that expanding your horizons and trying a new dish could lead to a new favorite to add into the rotation of reliable meals. Plus, it enforces the point that we can eat just as well or better at home than we could at a restaurant and save a bunch of cash doing so. In all regards, the first new recipe for the Eat-In Challenge was successful. I’m due up for recipe #2 any day now, so I’d better start scouting out a delicious prospect. Any suggestions?

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    Evidently, November is a popular month for challenges. There’s NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) and, of course, Movember/No-Shave November (I’m not participating in any of these). I’m even sporting the Eating-Out Challenge here on the blog. But another month-long movement that has really turned into an internet tradition over the last couple of years is “Thirty Days of Thanks.” I have seen numbered status updates popping up all over Facebook since last Friday. Seeing their posts makes feel a bit like a delinquent for not participating on there, but that doesn’t mean at all that I am not thankful or grateful for a very blessed life.

    There are the obvious things I’m thankful for: my faith, my husband, my family, a new house, good health, my job, plenty of food on the table. I’m also thankful for the many extravagant privileges I am afforded by my situation, like having the funds to splurge on fun things now and then, being young and able and free, and getting to spend many years of my life studying so I can have a career, not just a job. Not only am I thankful for these things, I am humbled to list them specifically; when I see them written out, they seem so frivolous compared to the struggles faced by many around the world.

    My friend Bobby Pruett from Boulder introduced me to the idea of “blessed to be a blessing” during the years I was in school at CU. That phrase was the mantra of his family and the focus of his whole ministry to students at the university. In Genesis 12:2, God directly tells Abraham that He would magnificently bless him. But God doesn’t stop there; He clearly indicates that the the blessings given to Abraham are given with the full intent of their being poured out to others. There is no expectation of the blessing being given to Abraham and his descendants for their own pleasure, with a little of the bounty rubbing off on other people if they happened to wander by while it was wafting through the air. The reason for the blessing was to pass it along; Abraham was to be the curator of blessing, a vessel poured out, a distribution center.

    In light of these things, I am reminded of all the blessings I receive, and I, as a spiritual descendant of Abraham, have an obligation to pay it forward. While I am so caught up in the things I have, like a new house or a job or family, I forget that those things aren’t just for my own enjoyment. Thanksgiving isn’t just about giving thanks; it’s about identifying my blessings like resources and finding out how I can use them to improve the lives of people around me. For me, this means doing my job well and providing a quality service for those who depend on it. I also should focus less on doing things to my new house and more on using it to help people who need a place to stay or to feed someone who could use a break from buying groceries and fixing a meal. I can use our ample space to entertain, to enjoy the company of friends and to build our relationships. Time is a big one–am I wasting it playing Candy Crush and watching TV, or am I investing it in relationships and my own personal development? November is a timely reminder to not get tunnel vision about my own self, but to think about others.

    And on a related note, I’ve always wondered–doesn’t there have to be an object of thanksgiving? Typically, when you give something, there has to be an recipient of the transaction. Therefore, if we give thanks, it makes sense that we should be giving thanks to the source of what we are thankful for. Since I believe all things come from God, I clearly should turn my gratitude to Him foremost, even though I don’t nearly as much as I should (even then, it’s impossible to express adequate thanks for everything He has done). We also have so many people around us–family, friends, maybe even people we don’t know–who give to us, be it their love or time, or things we need or extras we enjoy. Be sure to thank them as well and let them know they are appreciated.

    This holiday season, I encourage you to think about all the things that you do have in your life. Don’t take them for granted. Appreciate them; think about how you can pay them forward to others. Most of all, consider where these blessings come from and give ample credit where credit is due. I’m speaking primarily to myself here, but I hope you also enjoy this season on a deeper level this year by paying forward the things you are thankful for and expressing your gratitude to those who deserve it.

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