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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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