Where have all all the fall things gone?

Thanksgiving is still a week and a half away, but you would never know from the available craft options at your local hobby store. On the first Saturday of November, I went out with Robert and our friend David, searching for the materials to craft some holiday centerpieces. We wanted to find cornucopias to decorate. I figured we had only just finished Halloween, so there was bound to be plenty of materials to work with at one of the local craft supply shops.

I was wrong.

At least, I was wrong about there being materials at Michael’s. REALLY wrong. There weren’t even autumn colored leaves and berries in the floral section! There were a few pet costumes (which, admittedly, I picked up…Alvin now also has a shark costume, to go with his lobster and spaghetti ensembles) and a few glittery skull candles but, aside from that, the store was void of anything remotely evocative of the fall season. Everything was white and red and (to a lesser extent) gold and sparkly. And even the gold things were very clearly for Christmas, not Thanksgiving.

We decided to check out A.C. Moore, which is the other craft store within relatively close distance to my house. Thankfully, while they had started to set up a massive Christmas craft supply section as well, they still had some fall-themed items. Even better, the stuff in that section was all on sale for 70% off!

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My cornucopia, with a lovely little bird nest in it.

We each chose a cornucopia, and assembled piles of oddments to decorate them with. I picked up a pair of fake birds, some ribbon with sparkly autumn leaves, and some fake fruit – pears, apples, grapes and berries galore. David found some lovely cat tails and glittery acorns, and a wide assortment of fake leaves. Robert bought googly eyes, glittery green fronds, and white craft foam.

David's Cornucopia - he makes the best bows!

David’s Cornucopia – he makes the best bows!

Items in hand, we set off back to the workshop in my basement. Robert succeeded in getting the most glitter on the floor (which I don’t mind at all but find rather funny), and I broke out the huge assortment of acrylic paint and glue guns (seriously, I have at least 8, of different sizes and temperature settings), and we got to work.

As with last year’s gingerbread turkey fun, we all started with the same basic materials and, once again, ended up with entirely different looks. I ended up donating my grapes to Robert, as they didn’t really fit with the final look of mine.

I laugh every time I see Robert’s finished project.

Robert's cornucopia!

Robert’s cornucopia!

Every. Single. Time.

For someone who claims he isn’t artistic, he certainly manages to pull together some great pieces.

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Nobody Here But Us Turkeys

My Turkey

My Turkey

I am a stickler when it comes to my Christmas decorations/music/movies. No festive Christmas decorations can go up before December 1 – certainly not before Thanksgiving is over, like some of my friends and family do. And the same goes for Christmas music. I mean, I like some of those hymns, too, but I just can’t see playing the music before December hits. Especially since the music is going to be everywhere, anyway.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like holiday decorations during November, though. In fact, I

feel my house is a bit lacking in decoration spirit, though there are certainly reasons for that. I had a fairly free Sunday coming up and decided it would provide a perfect opportunity for some festive, Thanksgiving-themed fun. I had heard Trader Joe’s hawking their gingerbread turkey kits on the radio this past week, and I figured that would be a good project to work on. It took two trips to Trader Joe’s (the one in Springfield was out…surprise surprise…they’re usually out of things we go looking for), but we finally located a bunch of kits at the store in Fairfax.

David's Turkey

David’s Turkey

Mom and I picked up four kits – one each for myself, Robert, my friend David, and an extra in case my sister stopped by – and scouted the nearby Rite Aid for some supplemental candy ornamentation.

The kits require a bit of preparation, beyond the actual bird assembly. Since the stuff will harden pretty quickly, the kits don’t include pre-mixed adhesive icing. Instead, you have an 8.8 oz box of powdered sugar, a piping bag, and instructions for adding an egg white and some lemon juice or vinegar. We knew we’d need at least three piping bags of icing, so we got to work. I separated the eggs (which I learned how to do for the very first time last year!) and Robert got to whipping them to a frothy frenzy. Then we slowly added the powdered sugar (1.5 lbs of it) and some lemon juice. We also threw in a dash of vanilla extract, and a little bit of water, to thin the mix down a little. It’s a good thing we did, too…the icing was next to impossible to stir before we even added the third box. So much so that we broke one of the rubber spatulas.

Robert and I each filled one of the piping bags, making a bit of a mess along the way (me, more than him). Mom filled the piping bag that David was going to use. She, of course, didn’t make a mess.

Alvin helps with the icing

Alvin helps with the icing

Then, we set out bowls of our candy decorations: sno-caps, skittles, plain m&ms, jujubees (which tasted perfumy), nerds, several different types of sprinkles, fruit snacks, Haribo raspberry gummies, and red hots.

Robert's Turkey

Robert’s Turkey

My favorite of the turkeys was Robert’s. I couldn’t stop laughing. Mine was positively spartan, compared to the others. Robert used a ton of icing for his, and then proceeded to eat the leftovers out of the piping bag. David used the least icing, while still having a fully decked out turkey.

The gingerbread was a lot softer and tastier than I expected it to be. And, yes, at least two of the turkeys have already been nibbled on.

In search of a good crust

Last week included several firsts: my first time separating an egg (and I didn’t drop eggshell into it, or break the yolk, or anything!), my first time weaving a lattice crust (for an apple pie for our “Friendsgiving” at work), my first time making homemade pie crust from scratch, and my first time making my own cherry pie filling.

Whew! I did a lot of baking last week, and thankfully didn’t have any major issues. **I had one small problem with a leaky top, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Before I go much further, I want to clarify that not all of my pies were made with homemade crust. I actually tried a variety – one was the pre-rolled type you buy in a box and just unroll on the pie pan. The other was a Betty Crocker mix I just had to add water to, and roll out.

Mmmm....apple pie

Mmmm….apple pie

I’ve used the pre-rolled type a number of times before, with fairly good results, though I can generally tell the difference between a store-bought and homemade crust. Since I was pressed for time when making the crust for work, I just went with this kind. I did get a little fancy though, and attempted my first lattice crust. It’s a little wonky – I didn’t cut the strips uniform width – but I think it was pretty good for a first try. I brushed on a little egg white before baking it, and it browned nicely.

For Thanksgiving, I decided to make two pies: one pumpkin, and one cherry. Even though I was going to use the store-bought mix for the pie crust, I wanted to make the filling myself, and give it a little pizzazz. So I went with this recipe for a pumpkin apple butter pie. I used the last of the apple butter that I made – extra homemade! I added a few little pie crust stars around the edge (they kind of sunk into the pie). The pumpkin pie disappeared at Thanksgiving. I guess I found a good recipe! I’ll have to make another one at home, for my folks.

I knew I was going to make my own crust for the cherry pie, using a recipe I found on Your Cup of Cake.

My first homemade crust, neatly rolled out and placed in the pie dish

My first homemade crust, neatly rolled out and placed in the pie dish

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • ice cold water, added 1 T at a time

Directions

  1. Place all ingredients in a bowl. Start with 2 T. water. Use a fork or dough blender, and mix dough until crumbly. Keep adding a little water at a time until you can form a ball with your hands. Make sure you don’t add too much water!
  2. Split dough in two and form two balls.
  3. Roll out one ball between two sheets of parchment paper.
  4. Peel off the top layer of parchment, then gently flip the pie crust onto your pie pan.

I had wanted to make the filling myself with sour cherries, but those are very much a seasonal thing, and the Food Lion where I picked up supplies didn’t have any tart cherries in the freezer section. I knew I had cherry pie filling at home (and, let’s be honest, I would probably eat the stuff out of the can if I was allowed), so I went ahead with that plan.

Homemade cherry pie filling

Homemade cherry pie filling

Thursday morning, I woke up bright and early and started setting out my ingredients, only to learn that the only stick butter we had was salted, and that Mom was planning to take it down to Richmond, when they went to my aunt’s house that afternoon. I slipped on my tennis shoes and headed down to the grocery store (yes, in my pajamas), in search of unsalted butter. While I was there, I also checked out the freezer section…and, lo and behold, there were a few packages of frozen cherries. These were sweet cherries, instead of the tart ones I was looking for, but I decided to pick them up and see if I couldn’t find a recipe that would work.

A short Google search turned up this pie, which can be made with sweet or tart cherries, simply adjusting the sugar levels. I didn’t have any almond extract and didn’t want to go back to the store, so I just put in a little more vanilla extract. I think I put in a little extra lemon, too, and I don’t think it needed it.

IMG_20141127_142233_662The recipe does specify that the pie needs to sit 2-3 hours after baking, before you cut into it. Unfortunately, I think it should also sit a while before you try to drive it anywhere in a car. If I had another person in the car with me, who could adjust for the movement of the car around curves, I’m sure it would have been fine. As it was, I was alone in the car and the pie juice filtered out of the vents in the crust, and ruined the pristine top crust. 😦 Good thing I remembered to take a picture, right before I put it in the car!

I will note that I had a little bit of an emotional breakdown while preparing for this pie. A number of years ago, my aunt Gidget gave my mom, my sister and I special pie dishes from Longaberger. It’s an Ohio company, and it’s kind of a big deal sometimes, and Aunt Gidget wanted to commemorate the struggle that she and Mom and several other members of our friends and family have gone through, with the pie dishes. It was a perfect gift – I don’t usually use baskets, but I love baking pies, and the pie dish is the perfect size. Every year, the cherry pie goes in that dish.

Except…I couldn’t find mine this year. I used it earlier, in summer, to make a tomato pie, but it wasn’t in the cupboard, and it wasn’t on top of the oven, and it wasn’t anywhere else I looked. I was, to be honest, a bit upset and frantic. I wound up using Mom’s dish, so we had cherry pie after all, but I miss my own and will continue the search.

Finished pies: Pumpkin Apple Butter and Cherry

Finished pies: Pumpkin Apple Butter and Cherry

I had people do a sort-of blind taste test of the crusts, though it wasn’t as scientific as it could have been. If I wanted a pure test, I would have made two of the same kind of pie, with different crusts. I wanted feedback on the taste of the homemade crust. About half of the people who tasted the two were able to pick out the homemade crust (Robert was the first to tell the difference). It’s not a bad crust…in fact, Dad raved about the cherry pie to several people at church, not realizing I could hear…it’s just not the one I’m looking for.

Just what am I looking for in a crust? Flaky but sort of sweet.

To be specific, I want to replicate the pie crust from a little place I found in Santa Fe, called the Sweet Lily Bakery. Oh lord, people…that pie was the best pie I have ever had. I told Robert I would live in the pie if I could, and it’s true. Normally, I’m not a big fan of pie crust. A lot of it is there to hold the innards of the pie together, and I’ve had my share of bad pie crust. This crust, however, was life-changing. I happened to get a piece of the strawberry-rhubarb pie when I was there for a conference, and it was the best food decision I’ve made. Except, of course, that the Sweet Lily Bakery is all the way in Santa Fe, and I’m here on the East Coast.

After pie time on Thanksgiving, not entirely satisfied with my first crust, I went on a Google search, hoping to find a recipe from Melinda Gipson, the owner of the bakery. I found an article where she mentions she uses flour, butter and cream cheese for her pie crust, so I’m going to make a second crust attempt, armed with that knowledge.

Alvin is thankful for soft blankets, the occasional chin scratch, and an opportunity to steal pie from unsuspecting victims.

Alvin is thankful for soft blankets, the occasional chin scratch, and an opportunity to steal pie from unsuspecting victims.

Pies and Prayers

Thanksgiving is tomorrow. It is, without a doubt, my favorite holiday…which I’ve written about before, for the blog at work. There’s not much I can add on top of that, as I think it perfectly sums up how I feel about the holiday.

BJ and Neenah - 2006

BJ and Neenah, at Thanksgiving in 2006

I am at a bit of a loss this year, though, as I stand here the day before Thanksgiving. The past few months have been difficult for my family, with a few unexpected losses, and the normal struggles of day-to-day life added on top of that. I know the holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving to New Years can be tough for a lot of people, and I feel like this year is going to be more trying for a number of people I know. I worry for them all, knowing that depression is an insidious foe, that burrows into your heart and your mind and does its damnedest to hold on. Knowing there are no easy solutions and that people often hide their hardest inner struggles makes me worry more.

And that worry doesn’t stop there. I worry about the sadness and the darkness and the hatred I see on the news every

Thanksgiving 2006 - you can only see a portion of the typical craziness.

Thanksgiving 2006 – you can only see a portion of the typical craziness.

day. I worry about the intolerance that shows up, unexpected, on my Facebook feed – divisions of “us and them” that come from people I thought I knew and who I thought shared a desire to welcome and love and accept everyone in this world, regardless of differences of opinion. I don’t stop loving those people, even when the hatred appears in those posts, but my heart breaks a little each time I read those words, and it proves that love is hard sometimes and that it is something we have to work on, each day.

In the midst of all that worry and grief and stress, there come flashes of hope and inspiration and proof that we are not alone in our struggle.

Earlier today, I came across an article about a letter written in response to what has come to light at UVA. While it was written in response to a very specific event, the words and sentiment speak to more than just one situation, in one town. They resonate with all that is going on around us, whether it be war and conflict, protests, sexual assaults, or grieving the loss of a loved one. I read these words these morning and cried because of the beauty and the hope contained within them:

We are adrift. We have faced tragedy upon tragedy. We have been asked to contend with the inexplicable, with the horrendous, and with the deeply unfair. We are adrift—yet we drift together.

Together, we share in the small solace of company, and we share in the ache of our sadness, and in the light of our hope that things will be better. We share in our anger and in our concern, but—what’s more—we share in the belief that our community can and must evolve.

In times like these, we stand together. We say to each other: I am your support, just as you are mine. Today, and every day, may we stand emboldened by our capacity for love and inspired by our faith in what we can be, what we must be, what we will be. Though our path forward is unclear, we know that it is a path that we must go down together. All of us.

We find ourselves adrift, yet we drift together. Afraid, angry, confused, unsteady, uneasy, unsure —but together.

I hope if you, too, find yourself struggling right now – financially, emotionally, physically – you will find comfort and solace in the knowledge that you are not, in the end, alone. Our grief and our rage and our hopelessness can seem overwhelming, but we can help each other through it. None of us walks completely alone in this world, even though it often feels like it. Sometimes we just can’t see the people beside us.

Note the Trivial Pursuit on the floor.

Note the Trivial Pursuit on the floor.

Tonight and tomorrow, I will be making the pies for Thanksgiving, as I have been doing for several years. And, as I always do, I will be pouring my love and thankfulness into them, along with my hopes for better tomorrows. I know it’s “uncool” to talk about one’s faith, and I in no way want to push my beliefs on others…but tomorrow evening, before we eat, I’ll be saying a prayer, thankful for the abundance before us, for the love around us, and for the strength to move out into the world, bringing what hope and love we can, and doing my best to make a difference for the better. I hope you will not mind when I include you all in my prayer.

Regardless of where you’ll be tomorrow – driving to dinner, sitting in your own house, stuck in an airport, on your own or with family/friends or wishing you were somewhere else – know that you are loved, and that you are appreciated, that someone is thankful you are here, and that there is a place for you in my heart and at my table.

Happy Thanksgiving.