How to have a happy Thanksgiving despite the lizard people

Look out! Like a freight train, bearing down on us with gathering speed and menace, I mean twinkling and jollity and goodwill toward mankind in general, here come The Holidays.

Or maybe that goodwill, try as it might, doesn’t quite extend all the way toward those specific people who are going to turn up at your house at 3 PM for the family get-together you’ve been dreading, I mean looking forward to with glee. 

Many of us were lucky enough to find allies and support among family members, and we all more or less banded together and did what we needed to do to get through the pandemic and an extreme silly season in politics safely and sensibly.

But many . . . didn’t. Many discovered, over the past couple of years, that they’re related to a passel of absolute nut jobs who never met an inflammatory slogan to dumb to reject, a conspiracy theory too ridiculous to believe, or a tentacled creature too sentient to struggle up on the side of the petri dish, wave hello, and squeak out in a miniscule voice that only they can hear, “You really need to lay off the sauce, Janet!” 

If the past year or so has left you feeling somewhat bruised and battered in the psyche, and the thought of playing host to a crowd of people who perpetrated that battering just makes you want to scoot out the back door and not stop until you hit salt water, then don’t despair. There are actually strategies you can follow to make the day work well for you. It doesn’t have to be your favorite day of the year, but there are things you can do to survive when the loony tunes you’re related to come to call.

Be respectful. Maybe you’ve spent the last several months reading, with increasing horror, the blithering insanity that streams forth on your family’s social media feed. Maybe you’ve gone from wondering if you should check in on cousin Ted, to wondering if someone should check in on you, because anyone displaying such high levels of non compos mentisemente has got to be some kind of genetic carrier, and it’s only a matter of time before the wack-a-ding-hoy starts to manifest itself closer to home.

But still, family is family, and it’s important to show respect. Practice in front of the mirror if you have to. Make yourself immune, so you can come out with phrases like, “No, indeed, I haven’t yet met any transhuman babies born with pitch black eyes because of the vaccine; how very interesting! Would you please pass the yams?” or “And you heard this directly from the Chair of the Finance Committee; I see! It’s been very humid lately, it seems to me.” It’s a matter of muscle memory, same as learning to ride a bike or manipulate a yo yo. You can do this. 

Dazzle them with compliments.  Even someone who turns up in your living room spoiling for a fight will not be immune to the wiles of a honeyed tongue. The trick is to be sincere, and make sure it’s something you really mean, so it hits home.

For instance, let’s say you’re hosting your cousin Cameron, who drives around town with a flag so huge, it patriotically drags on the ground at red lights, and whose favorite party trick is licking doorknobs to own the libs. Cameron has rune tattoos, his three daughters and his four dogs are all named Dixie, and last Thanksgiving, he rated all the dishes according to how “soy” they were, even though you’re actually a pretty good cook and bought a nice but rather expensive turkey from your farmer neighbor, whereas Cameron lives largely off gas station chicken nuggets which are, in fact, about 68% soy. Cameron is also most definitely going to bring up how thousands of people mysteriously dropped dead after receiving the covid vaccine (which didn’t happen, but then again, neither did important parts of Cameron’s cerebral development, so what can one do).

So what you can say to Cameron is: “Cameron, I know there are lots of people in the world who agreed to get the vaccine, because they think it’s just a little prick. But you’re helping me see that the world is full of much bigger pricks to worry about.”

This is not especially clever, but it’s okay, because Cameron is an absolute moron and has been drinking heavily since breakfast, and it will not even occur to him that you don’t think he’s rad. 

Overfeed. Don’t spurn the age-old holiday tradition of simply stuffing people until they’re comatose. There’s a reason people eat too much over the holidays, and it’s only partially because they’re having such a wonderful time and you’re such a stupendously generous host. The other reason is because, when someone is carrying an extra 23 pounds of partially-digested fats and carbs, they’re way easier to knock down, if that’s how the party goes.
 

You can test out recipes by cooking up a batch ahead of time, loading several portions into a sack, labelling the sack “Cousin Richie Who Believes in Lizard People,” and kicking it. If it falls over easily, you probably have a winning dish. If it resists, add butter.

Don’t despair. Sometimes rifts happen in families, and it feels like things will never be right again, but that may not be so. Sometimes all it takes is for the merest little shift to happen, and people can really gain a new perspective on each other. For instance, you believe that the pandemic was real, but we can learn to live with its aftermath; whereas your cousin Lennie believes the pandemic was fake, and we should learn zero lessons, make nurses cry, and possibly shoot up a hospital. Then one day, the earth opens up and swallows up Lennie. Then the rift in the earth closes again, and that’s the end of your Lennie problem.
You see? The rift is healed. Happy holidays to us all. 
 
 
*
*
A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in December of 2021. 
 
Image via openclipart license 

What’s for supper? Vol. 318: That’s the way the Brussel sprouts

Friday! We made it! Nobody has to make a lunch for tomorrow! What bliss. 

Speaking of lunch, let me tell you about an excellent lunch I’ve been making for myself pretty often these days, because it’s cold and drizzly and I crave deeply nourishing foods: 

Heat up a pan, spray it with cooking spray, and throw on two or three big handfuls of spinach. Cook it a little bit to slightly wilt it. Then crack two eggs into it and continue cooking lightly until the whites are firm but the yolk is still runny. Grind some fresh pepper and sea salt over all.

Eat with a side of  cherry-on-bottom Greek yogurt, and a large green apple cut up slowly with a paring knife. 

I don’t know why, but this is just a restorative meal, a lunch of great balance. It’s also less than 400 calories for kind of a lot of food. You could grate some parmesan over the egg while it’s cooking, but you don’t need to.

I spent most of the week being sick and complaining about being sick, and dragging myself off one couch only to land heavily on the other, so nothing super inventive happened in the kitchen this week. Still, we had some decent meals, including one final homegrown vegetable (Brussels sprouts). 

SATURDAY
Spaghetti and Marcella Hazan’s three-ingredient red sauce 

Yum.

Damien shopped for and made this. Always unreasonably delicious. Just tomatoes, butter, and onions. 

Jump to Recipe

I always say this, but it really does taste like there’s some kind of meat involved in this sauce. But nope. 

SUNDAY
Italian sandwiches, fries

Damien shopped for this and put it together. Also yum. 

Red pesto, so nice. 

MONDAY
Hamburgers, chips

This is the third picture in a row that was actually taken some previous month or year, because I was too tired to take pictures of my actual food this week. For shame! From now on, only authentic Nov. 2022 food photos.

TUESDAY
Chicken cutlets with leftover red sauce, raw broccoli and dip

I cut the chicken breasts in half lengthwise and soaked them in seasoned milk and egg. Actually I languished on the couch and begged Elijah to do it for me. Then sometime when dinner really began to loom, I heated up the leftover red sauce from the other day, heated up some oil and butter, dredged the chicken in seasoned panko crumbs, and fried those mofos

and we had chicken cutlets with sauce. 

Quite good. I felt like the chicken should have had provolone and basil, or else pasta, or else it should have been on a sandwich, but it was pretty tasty.  Panko is certainly your friend. We had plain broccoli on the side, and talked about fried breaded broccoli and how, yes indeed, people do that. People do whatever they want. I had broccoli tempura at a Japanese restaurant in New York City when I was very little and I never forgot it. I forget why we were in New York City, but I remember that broccoli. We were probably talking about some other meal while we were eating it, too. 

WEDNESDAY
Meatloaf, roast butternut squash and baby Brussels sprouts

We got our first snow, finally, on Wednesday. Just enough to get the kids wound up, and then it turned to rain. That was my cue to go outside and finally harvest the Brussels sprouts

which, and this is crazy, I planted six months ago. I just looked it up: May 20, and harvested Nov. 16. I’m not gonna say I put a ton of work into them, but I did keep them watered, and I did fertilize them, and put up a little fence to keep Mr. Nibbly Rabbit away, and then a mere six months later, there I was, bringing in a grand harvest of an entire pint of Brussels sprouts, some of them somewhat larger than a pea.

Of course the real benefit to this crop was checking on it every time I went out and getting excited at the progress they were making, and laughing at what silly plants they are

and being glad something was still growing when everything else was dead or dying. Brussels sprouts actually get a little sweeter if they’re exposed to a light frost or two. Ain’t that the way. 

So this is how many Brussels sprouts I grew for my family:

Can you even imagine making a garden that would actually feed your whole family all year ’round? CAN YOU? I simply cannot. But the sprouts were sweet, and tiny and tender. I cut some butternut squash in thin little wedges so it would cook quickly, and tossed it together. I drizzled it all with olive oil and sprinkled it with brown sugar and kosher salt and a little hit of wine vinegar, and roasted it at a high heat, and it was nice. 

The meatloaf was fine. A good dollop of Worcestershire sauce in there makes it pretty tasty, and yes, I spread ketchup on the outside before cooking it.

Jump to Recipe

The secret to meatloaf is not making it too often, so people still get excited about it.

THURSDAY
Chicken tortilla soup, toasted tortilla strips

You’ll never believe this, but it was cold and drizzly on Thursday. Soup to the rescue! I like this soup because it has plenty of flavor, but you don’t have to go through a whole song and dance. It’s easy to make when you want a hot soup because you’re feeling poorly, but you’re feeling poorly and you don’t feel like cooking much.

You just jam them everything in the food processor and puree it 

(that’s garlic, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce from a can, and several fresh tomatoes)

and then you heat up some oil in the Instant Pot (or obviously you could do this on the stove top) and thicken up that purée for a little bit. Then add some water and toss in your hunks of raw chicken, and cook it until the chicken is done. Pull the chicken out

shred it up

and put it back in.

At this point you’re supposed to add in tortilla strips, which are supposed to be corn, which thickens up the soup. But I don’t like corn tortillas, so I used to use the flour kind, then I started using nothing, and then I started making crunchy tortilla strips instead. And this is how I always make it now. It doesn’t thicken the soup, but it bulks it up, and it adds texture and flavor, and it’s just fun.

You cut up a bunch of tortillas into strips, spread them in a shallow layer on a pan, toss with oil, sprinkle heavily with chili lime powder, and bake at 350, stirring every 10- 15 minutes, until they are toasted. 

I aways heap too many in there so they don’t all get toasted and some of them stay chewy. Guess what, I like them that way. I like chewy, gummy, floppy things. There is a part of me*, especially when I am tired and blue, that would probably just eat flour paste all day long. Maybe I would put it in the microwave, but maybe not. 

So it’s not a thick soup, but a kicky broth with plenty of chicken. You top it off with a good handful of crunchy chili lime tortilla strips, and some of them get soaked with broth and some of them stay crunchy; plus chopped scallions, sliced avocados, cilantro (or parsley if that’s what you have), shredded cheese, and sour cream.

 

Truly a great soup for when you’re sick. I made it pretty spicy, and it cleans out your head like a son of a gun. 

FRIDAY
French toast casserole, OJ

I planned this meal to make myself deal with how much bread is building up in the house. So far it’s gotten to the stage of me hearing the kids blame each other for not doing anything about it, and that’s pretty good, but it’s not sustainable. 

French toast casserole is just you tear up your old bread and soak it in egg and milk and some sugar, and a little cinnamon and vanilla if you like. Butter a pan, pour it in, maybe dot it with butter, maybe sprinkle some cinnamon sugar on top, and bake at 350 until the custard is cooked. Serve in wedges with syrup or jam. 

Here’s a rather arty photo, from back when stone fruit was in season: 

Today what’s in season is I have is a can full of ashes from the wood stove, that I’m saving to spread under the peach tree for next year. Ah well, it’s almost Advent. 

*my mouth, I should hope

 

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup

Adapted from twosleevers.com. This is a very flavorful chicken soup. It has a little hotsy totsy burst of spice with the first taste, and then the more complex flavors come through slowly. Magic.

It's fairly brothy, and then you heap up all the garnishes you want on top.

This is a little over a gallon of soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 med onions
  • 1 lb (4 medium) tomatoes
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 chiles in adobo sauce plus some of the sauce
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (include seeds for more heat)
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • water
  • salt to taste
  • garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, tortilla strips, chopped scallions

Instructions

  1. Cut the onions and tomatoes into chunks so they will fit in the blender or food processor. Put the onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, chili pepper and sauce, garlic and cilantro into a blender or food processor and blend it until it's a thick sauce. You may need to do it in batches, or just keep poking the big pieces down so everything gets blended in.

  2. Add enough oil to the Instant Pot pot to cover the bottom. Press "sauté" and let the oil heat up for a few minutes.

  3. Pour in the tomato mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until any liquid is mostly absorbed. You may need to press "sauté" again to keep it hot.

  4. Cut the chicken breasts into pieces and put them in the pot. Add six cups of water.

  5. Close the top, seal the valve, and press "pressure cook," then the + button until it goes to 20 minutes. When it's done cooking, let it naturally release for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure manually.

  6. Open the top and fish out the chicken. Shred it and return it to the pot. Add salt to taste.

  7. Serve the soup with garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, tortilla strips, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, and chopped scallions.

 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top
  • 2 onions diced and fried (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

 

 

Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce

We made a quadruple recipe of this for twelve people. 

Keyword Marcella Hazan, pasta, spaghetti, tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes, broken up
  • 1 onion peeled and cut in half
  • salt to taste
  • 5 Tbsp butter

Instructions

  1. Put all ingredients in a heavy pot.

  2. Simmer at least 90 minutes. 

  3. Take out the onions.

  4. I'm freaking serious, that's it!

Instant Pot Chicken Tortilla Soup

Adapted from twosleevers.com. This is a very flavorful chicken soup. It has a little hotsy totsy burst of spice with the first taste, and then the more complex flavors come through slowly. Magic.

It's fairly brothy, and then you heap up all the garnishes you want on top.

This is a little over a gallon of soup.

Ingredients

  • 2 med onions
  • 1 lb (4 medium) tomatoes
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 chiles in adobo sauce plus some of the sauce
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (include seeds for more heat)
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • water
  • salt to taste
  • garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, tortilla strips, chopped scallions

Instructions

  1. Cut the onions and tomatoes into chunks so they will fit in the blender or food processor. Put the onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, chili pepper and sauce, garlic and cilantro into a blender or food processor and blend it until it's a thick sauce. You may need to do it in batches, or just keep poking the big pieces down so everything gets blended in.

  2. Add enough oil to the Instant Pot pot to cover the bottom. Press "sauté" and let the oil heat up for a few minutes.

  3. Pour in the tomato mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until any liquid is mostly absorbed. You may need to press "sauté" again to keep it hot.

  4. Cut the chicken breasts into pieces and put them in the pot. Add six cups of water.

  5. Close the top, seal the valve, and press "pressure cook," then the + button until it goes to 20 minutes. When it's done cooking, let it naturally release for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure manually.

  6. Open the top and fish out the chicken. Shred it and return it to the pot. Add salt to taste.

  7. Serve the soup with garnishes: avocado slices, sour cream, tortilla strips, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, and chopped scallions.

About that lamb with seven horns

[Several months ago, I was pleased to begin contributing once a month to America Magazine’s daily scripture reflections. You can find my previous reflections here. Today’s reflection is on a reading from Revelations.]

Today’s first reading is one of those “sit up and smell the apocalypse” passages.

I, John, saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who sat on the throne.
It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.
Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

Well, not me! I have sat through a couple of classes where scholars explain what these passages from Revelation mean, with the lions and the scrolls and the seven seals, and even with a dry, scholarly explanation, it’s really hard not to hear these verses in a dire, Johnny Cash voice . . .

Read the rest at America
 
Four Horseman painting By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov Public Domain

Gifts our 10 kids loved: The 2022 MONSTER LIST

For the last eight years, I’ve been sharing a list of gifts my family actually purchased and enjoyed. We have ten kids and we buy a lot of presents, so I have a lot of recommendations.  This year: MONSTER LIST. I’m consolidating all the old lists into one, organized by category, and adding a bunch of new products. I made a feeble attempt to organize the categories by agel, but the formatting always defeats me in the end. 

Note: I am an Amazon Associate again, yay! So I get a commission when you buy things through my links. (Not everything on this list is from Amazon, but most of it is.)

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

This year, I’m listing most products as Amazon ad links, which look like this:

Oh yes, ADVENT CANDLES.  Just in case you forgot.  Advent Begins Sun., Nov. 27.

This is important! If you have an ad blocker on, you may not be able to see the list! If nothing is showing up for you, please turn off your ad blocker.

Also please note: The display ads often show a higher price than the actual price when you click through. I have no idea why, but it’s worth clicking through just to see. 

Here is a sort of table of contents of categories. I am going to attempt to figure out how to insert code so you can jump to the different sections, but I’m pretty dumb, so it may not work. 

Little guys’ toys (besides dolls)
Games and puzzles
Building and tactile toys
Kitchen
Sciencey stuff
Electronics 
Art and journaling supplies
Jewelry, pins, accessories (+makeup, sunglasses)
Music and musical instruments 
Crafts, kits, knitting, sewing
Dolls and stuffies
Outdoor and active toys
Weaponry and knives
Costumes
Hats and hair accessories
Bags and wallets
Miscellaneous

I didn’t do a great job noting what age these products are for, but I have found that the manufacturers have almost always done great research and can be depended on.

One final note: There are no books in this list, except for a few cook books. I’ll do a separate list of books that would make good presents! 

Here we go! Happy shopping! 

LITTLE GUYS’ TOYS (besides dolls)

B. Toys baby car keys Babies are not supposed to suck on your real car keys because of the toxins or something, but car key toys are usually made out of plastic, which is no fun for babies. So these are made out of safe metal (with flat edges, so they can’t cut their gums), they are heavy and they rattle, and the keychain has different buttons that make various car noises — but it’s muffled, so not terribly intrusive. (We like a lot of the toys from the B. company. They hold up well and are designed with actual kids in mind.) 

 

Beloved bedtime elephant that projects stars and plays little tunes. We bought this for a kid several years ago when she was a toddler, and then it finally broke and we replaced it when she was a liiiiiiiiittle too old for it, because she still loves it. It also plays a heartbeat sound and we all think that’s kind of weird. 

Silicone teething cookie duo Corrie got one of these when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.

Baby smartphone B. Toys This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other. 

Classic Baby Beads by Manhattan Toy
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound.  Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. 

 Melissa and Doug animal magnets in a wooden box. Bright and pleasant. Magnets have stayed on the wood, animals have not peeled off, despite occasionally getting wet.

Tomy fountain rocket bath toy A simple but very cool toy. Fill it up by holding it under the water, then hold it aloft, and it empties itself in a shining dome of water. Fascinating for the little guys. We’ve found that TOMY toys hold up very, very well to hard use, and don’t get moldy, either.

Mother mermaid and triplet babies. We’ve had some of these bath toy sets of frogs and ducks and such, but look how cute this is! Three chubby little mermaid sisters and their happy mama. They float separately or together.

Tomy bath dolphins  All my kids played with this bath toy set. So clever. A rainbow of rings that float individually or linked, and each one has a matching dolphin. Tap the dolphin on the head as it floats and it makes a little musical fluting sound! You can also blow into the dolphin’s tail like a whistle. Line them up and it plays a whole octave. Rugged toys, mold resistant. 

Mickey Mouse RC Cars for toddlers. The older I get, the more I appreciate Mickey Mouse. That guy is always smiling, and I appreciate that. Here he is, tooling around in his little red convertible. Okay, his head fell off, but that did not slow him down. Easy for little guys to control.  

Little Tykes shopping cart. Many different styles of toy shopping cart, but we chose this one because it had a seat for a companion, which was important for shopping games. This model did get years and years of service, and the older kids would take it apart and put it back together again constantly.

Also see “outdoor and active toys” 

GAMES and PUZZLES

Build a Robot Spinner Game. Spin the spinner to collect pieces and be the first to build a complete custom robot that fits together like a puzzle. We have several of these eeBoo games and they’re wonderful. The illustrations are funny and appealing to kids, the spinners work well every time, the pieces are durable, and the games are generally short and not tedious. The best games for young children I’ve ever found. Good for pre-literate kids, but not too boring for young kids who can read. 

Fairytale Spinner Game. Suitable for pre-readers. You spin the spinner to collect different elements of a story (a scene, a hero, a magical helper, a rival, a magical object, transportation, and a treasure), and the first one who collects them all gets to tell a story using them all. It’s adorable. The pieces are very stout and durable cardboard, and they are just lovely. Of all the games they want me to play, I’m least unwilling to play this one. 2-4 players 

Lunch Basket Spinner Game. Yes, another eeBoo spinner game! This one is a picnic, and you spread a tablecloth and begin collecting various foods to complete your meal. I can’t explain to you why these games are fun and pleasant and not tedious and all the same. I just like them, and really don’t mind playing them. They tap into something really good, and we all like them.  

Wow, looks like we also have The Cupcake Game. This one actually teaches kids a bit about baking, because you have to collect the various necessary components to make cupcakes, just as in a real recipe. 

Also notable about eeBoo games: The storage boxes are sturdy and don’t collapse after you use them a few times. They’re really designed for actual kids to use. 

Okay, moving on! 

 

It’s just Chutes and Ladders, but with princesses. I was really surprised at how much more my kid (who got it for her tenth birthday) enjoys this than she does regular chutes and ladders. She always marvels at how pretty it is. 

(and Sack of Replacement Marbles for Chinese Checkers)
There are cheaper boards, but this one is very big and sturdy, and the marbles stay in place. Popular with kids of all ages. And for goodness’ sake, buy the replacement marbles now. You will need them.
 

 

Snake Oil is hilarious family improv game, also good for parties. You get a bunch of word cards and become salesmen who must use those words to invent a product and make a sales pitch that the customer will fall for. Great for a mix of ages, lots of laughing.  Blogged about it here.

I Got This! game. Exciting, frustrating, some teamwork required, but lots of competition. Very entertaining to watch. Kids have to decide if they should push themselves a little further to do more and more challenging, silly tasks. 


Good old Bananagrams. I’ve bought this game many, many times and I never mind playing a round or two of this free-form word-building game. Pleasant and portable, easily adaptable to people of various skill levels and to solitaire play. 

 Exploding Kittens card game. Easy to learn, a little weird and crude, lots of laughing. You have to draw cards that say things like “see the future” (so you can look at the top three cards) or “potato cat” (they explained it to me, but I forget) until you choose an exploding kitten card, which has to be defused. Trip up your opponents and prepare yourself for the exploding kitten card. Good party game. 

 
Chess set with large pieces, roll-out vinyl board, storage tote, and instruction book. We were SO pleased with this tournament chess set. It is HUGE, the board is very tough, and the pieces are big and heavy. Great product for the price, and portable.

Isle of Lewis Chess set (From Etsy)

Polystone reproduction of 12th-century walrus ivory chess pieces unearthed on a Scottish Island. The opposing pieces are a deep oxblood color. Wonderfully detailed and lovingly packed. These are just the pieces; there is no board included. 

 

King of Tokyo is a great family game. Super competitive, very lively and frenetic, sometimes over really quickly. Young players (age 6 or so) can be included with some help. 

 
 
 
Munchkin fantasy card game. Howls and screams of laughter, just enough squabbling to keep it interesting — that’s what I hear when Munchkin is out. I haven’t played this game myself, but my kids love it, and it’s works well with kids of different ages playing together. It includes a few borderline inapwo-pwo elements (a little crass or gross, as I recall) but they seem fleeting, not central to the game. For ages 10 and up.
 
 

Werewolf game Good for ages reasonably-alert-10 to adult. The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other. Then everyone has to vote on whom to lynch. Players are eliminated one at a time, and it becomes more and more evident who is killing everyone, who is being framed, and who is lying through their teeth (and, in my case, who forgot the rules and accidentally blabbed too much information).

Pandemic board game. Lots of strategy and cooperative play, or you all die. My teenagers played it with the younger kids (age 7 and up). Suspenseful and lots of pressure. Full disclosure, we haven’t played it since before the, you know, actual pandemic, so I don’t know how it would hit now!

 

Ransom Notes word magnet game. Simple concept: Someone reads a prompt from a card, and everyone (including the reader) has to pick words from their collection of word magnets to express what is on the card. Then everyone reads their entry aloud, and the judge picks the best one. Ranges from amusing to outlandishly hilarious. Can be a little naughty. I reviewed this game here

Mysterium board game. Help a dead murder victim remember details about his grisly demise, using clues from arty and deliberately confusing “vision cards.” Lavish and complex cooperative game. Comes with an app to play spooky music to add to the atmosphere. (Full review here.) 

Betrayal At House on the Hill, a cooperative strategy game, unpredictable and spooky. Kind of like Scooby Doo with better graphics. You gradually build the map of the house as you explore it, but can you really trust everyone? (NO.) Doesn’t drag on too, too long. Good party game.

Skulk game. Full disclosure, I have no idea if this game is any good. We got it because it looks cool. The description says age 10 and up. It says “social bluffing combined with light strategy.” And it looks cool!

Kill Doctor Lucky game. Only a few rules, but the experience changes with every game and is always a lot of fun. Some strategy involved.  

 

We got this 40″air hockey table with great reluctance, thinking it would be flimsy for the price, and that the kids would get tired of it soon. Nope! They use it a lot and have a lot of fun. It’s great for parties, and fun for the little kids to play with their big brothers. Kinda loud, but it’s air hockey. They just stand it up on its end to keep it out of the way. 
 
 
Inflatable puzzle saver. Clever product for people who can’t leave their jigsaw puzzles lying around. It has an inflatable tube on one end of the felt mat. Roll it up and secure it with rubber bands, and your puzzle is safe from cats, toddlers, etc. I was skeptical, but it really works. 
 
 
Pretty bird puzzle, 1000 pieces 
 
 
 
 
 

BUILDING and TACTILE TOYS

Build-a-bouquet flower construction set. Maybe it’s just late November talking, but I had a desperate need to see my little ones sitting in a beam of sunshine on the living room rug and building some flowers. These are sturdy and easy to use, and the older kids enjoyed putting different combinations together, too. 

 

The right kid will find these simple Melissa and Doug wooden pattern blocks endlessly fascinating. There are many versions. This Melissa and Doug set comes with a sturdy wooden box and several patterns to try to reproduce, or you can build your own designs. Smooth and pleasant to touch. 

These wooden castle building blocks were a huge hit with the kindergartener with a mania for building. This is a pretty good-sized kit (75 blocks) for the price, and includes a nice variety of shapes for lots of possibilities. You could easily paint or decorate these if you wanted to. The older kids like them, too. 

I’d seen these Connectagons in catalogs for years and years and years, and finally ordered a set. They are slick and cheerful, easy to use, almost impossible to break, and the set is huge. I can see why they are so popular. They come in many different styles (butterfly, glow-in-the-dark, etc.)

A lot of weird tactile molding materials came and went in the last decade, but kinetic sand is king. This stuff is awesome. You can squeeze it and shape it, or you can let it dribble out of your hands like . . . wet sand lace foam, or something. You can buy kits with molding toys, but cups and butter knives work fine. Comes in many colors and varieties. Does not smell weird or leave stains. 

 

K’NEX are great! This set is motorized and has 529 pieces. My six-year-old went straight to work building things, but they would be fun for a much older kid or even an adult. This set comes with a motor and you can make all kinds of vehicles and machines. Popular for a reason. 

 Snap Circuits! 60+ parts. I can’t believe how long it took us to finally start buying Snap Circuits. They are just as interesting and exciting as everyone promised. Hours of fascination putting together all kinds of elecronic projects that really work, without welding. For ages 8 and up. We’ve also gotten Snap Circuits Illuminations, which has walls as well as a base

 

Adorable li’l mini Lego-compatible sushi cart kit, lots of nice detail. Note, this is a mini kit.

Lego compatible hat. Bring your Legos with you! Put your Legos on your head! What a time to be alive!

KITCHEN

 

Klutz Kids Cooking Book. Klutz books are generally good, but this one was a huge hit. The directions are nice and clear, and the recipes are things people actually want to eat. Comes with a cute rainbow whisk. My just-turned-eight-year-old started using it right away with only a little help, and it’s really helped her get comfortable with basic cooking and baking.  If you’re looking for a first cookbook, I recommend this one. 

Here’s a little baking set we put together:

A set of three silicone heart-shaped cake pans to make a fancy layer cake. These are unusually deep pans. Plus: 

Cat paw oven mitts. We got these just because they were cute, but they’re actually really good oven mitts, much better than the ones I got for myself for everyday use. 

Plus, the best part:

Personalized chef’s hat and apron. This is just adorable, and quite nice quality for the price. (Only the hat is personalized, not the apron.) The hat stands up nicely and is sturdy. 

My girls adored this spiral bound Fairie’s Cookbook. The recipes aren’t too complicated or exotic to try, but they are out of the ordinary. I know you can find millions of ideas on Pinterest, but there’s something about having a book to leaf through. Best for kids with some basic kitchen competence.

 

Just a decent little hand mixer for an aspiring chef. All the attachments fit nicely into the storage case, which provides room for . . . 

 

a ‘Potions Master’ sticker designed to go on a mixer. (This is a Harry Potter-themed one, but there are others.) Lots of kids go from making potions in the kitchen to actual cooking and baking, so here’s a cute sticker to illustrate the transition.

Mini waffle maker. A surprisingly popular gift. Always makin’ mini waffles, and this continues to get use several years later. Some kids really like having their own personal appliances. Comes in several colors and patterns.

An Unexpected Cookbook. For more accomplished cooks and bakers, this is the best collection of Hobbitish recipes I’ve seen, meticulously researched (it’s based on recipes from rural Victorian England), and written in a cozy, engaging, humorous style by someone who clearly loves The Hobbit and loves eating. I could live off the stuffed, braided mushroom, onion, and cheese bread for the rest of my life. It also includes variations for people on special diets, and makes suggestions about how to use leftovers. Nicely done all around. 

Embossing rolling pin A small-sized rolling pin, makes pretty repeating designs in cookie or pie dough, as shown. Click through for other designs.

 

SCIENCEY STUFF 

 

Lighted pocket microscope. Great, great little tool for the money. We’ve bought several of these over the years. Kids can learn to use them easily (my six-year-old took to it right away) and take a close, lit-up peek at anything they like, and they’re not so expensive that it’s a catastrophe if they get left outside or stepped on. That said, they’re pretty rugged.  They come with a few slides, but they mostly get used for looking at stuff on the go. 


 
Motorized robot hand kit Build a robot hand and program its fingers to tap out different patterns. My 11-year-old daughter really enjoyed taking it apart and putting it together repeatedly.
About $18

 

 

Celestron portable telescope A decent starter telescope, designed to be portable, so you can carry it easily on your back to a dark field or a mountaintop. Has an adapter so you can take photos with your smartphone. 

Celestron beginner astronomy binoculars. These binoculars are designed specifically for night viewing. 7X magnification, easy to use. Paired with:

 

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky. User-friendly, packed with information. A small sized book, so it’s portable (but the print is therefore small and a little hard to read if you’re old!).

Field binoculars, compact and good for hunting or hiking. 

ELECTRONICS

 

LITE BRITE IS FUN. WE LIKE IT. YES THEY LOSE ALL THE PEGS RIGHT AWAY. BUT IT IS FUN WHILE IT LASTS.

 

Mini Simon Says game. Two game modes. Works well for parties, or you can play solo. Just like you remember: Very bright and very loud, so caveat emptor. 

 

Motorola Walkie Talkies. we have bought a lot of walkie talkie sets in our day. These have held up the best. They are on the small side, but they are not toys. They’re easy to use, stand up to a lot of abuse, and don’t gobble batteries. We haven’t tested the limits of the range, but the reviews say 16 miles.
 
 

Mini Arcade game. This is not a good toy. It’s a bad toy. But oh, do they love it. It has dozens, maybe hundreds of terrible, pointless little games with squalid little graphics and meandering, senseless tunes. THEY LOVE IT.  And it’s reasonably cheap, so when they leave it at a rest stop on a field trip and are heartbroken, you can buy another one. 

Fujifilm instant camera with case, film, and album. Take little instant photos just for fun. A rugged little device. 

 

Huion drawing tablet. A good basic drawing tablet, a better value (according to local art school students) than the new entry level Wacom tablets. 
 
 
 
Good wired earphones, loud and comfortable. They have held up for a few years and counting. 
 
 

Headphones with light-up stars.  For a kid looking for something a little flashier, these light up and pulse to the rhythm of the music. They plug in and also work with Bluetooth, and they are foldable. Reasonably sturdy. 
 
 

Pink ergonomic gaming chair. Very comfortable for gaming (and art). Comes in other colors. 

 
 
 
 
A little bit dorky, but very useful, especially for people who share a room and don’t go to sleep at the same time. It wraps around the back of your neck and you can adjust the direction and brightness of both lights. 
 
 
 

A megaphone! This one amplifies your voice, plays siren sounds, and also can be used as a speaker for music, etc. A real megaphone, not a toy. Why did we buy this for our child? Because we trusted her not to abuse it. And for some reason, it worked. The worst thing she did with it was take it to Walmart and tell people to put their masks on in the middle of the pandemic, and I was okay with that. 

 
 
Turntable with software for recording, editing and converting your vinyl Audio in MP3 format. Decent turntable for cheap. Doesn’t need constant rekajiggering like some.

 

Decent set of wireless earbuds. They come in several colors. 

Bluetooth cat ear headphones. Decent sound and they light up in different colors and pulse along with the rhythm of the music, which is just cool. We’ve bought several of these for various kids over the years. 

 

BTS Soul Map Light Stick Okay, a light stick is just a flash light. It’s just a really expensive flash light. But I guess you can synchronizes it along with whatever it is that people are experiencing at a BTS concert? I have never been clear about what is so desirable about these items, but BTS has not yet become problematic, so I’m still for it, I guess, and we have bought several varieties of lightstick.

Decent little boombox with CD player and radio that you can as as a bluetooth speaker for your wireless device. Why do kids want to buy CDs again? I have no idea. But this one has held up fine. It does drain batteries fairly quickly. 

Just a lava lamp. I have no idea if there are good lava lamps and bad lava lamps, but this one does what it’s supposed to do! Here’s a replacement bulb

Book-shaped lamp. Closes up and looks like a book; opens up and lights up. Just a pleasant little lamp. Not super sturdy for little kids, but better made than we were expecting. 

PORTABLE SOLAR PANELS and a PORTABLE POWER PACK.

Not toys but incredibly useful. (The power pack is currently 40% off)

Damien works from home, and uses these every day to power his office, which is a refurbished bob house.

He sets up the solar panels to catch a couple of hours of sun, and, depending on how bright it is, that charges the power pack enough for a day or two, and he can run his laptop and phone and a fan.
These two items could be very handy for hunters or campers who who are going off the grid and need a little electricity. Also handy to keep charged up in case of a power outage. 
The solar panels fold up into about the size of a briefcase.
The power pack can also be charged by plugging it into an outlet for a few hours, and it can also be used as a powerful LED flashlight. It is about the size of a small lunchbox. 

ART AND JOURNALING SUPPLIES

 

Garden fairies scratch and sketch activity book Sturdy, spiral-bound (so you can open it up flat to work). Scratch away the black to reveal rainbow swirls and glittery colors underneath. Sweet little poems, pictures to copy if you like, and blank pages for sketching, besides the scratch-off pages. Many themes available, from  outer space to mermaids to Jurassic creatures.

Six nice big bottles of tempera paint! (16 oz each) Smell that kindergarten smell.

Lyra Ferby giant triangular colored pencils. Our beloved kindergarten teacher introduced us to these lovely colored pencils. I balked at the price at first, but they are quite good. Vivid colors, nice and smooth, and easy to grip, even for lefties, and the tips don’t snap off.

LCD doodle tablet For the kid who can’t stop doodling, and the mom who is going insane with reams of scribbled paper all over the place. Write with the stylus on the black screen, press the button to erase. That’s it. Surprisingly durable for the price. We have a couple of these in different colors. It’s great for car rides, waiting rooms, etc. 

Nose Pencil Sharpener
Who nose when you’ll need it, ho ho ho

10 colors of Sculpey clay Sculpey is always a favorite. Every so often, all through the year, I find another little batch of tiny little octopuses, lollipops, and bowls of miniscule fruit and whatnot baking in the oven.

Pair it with:

11 piece sculpting tool set with 21 tools to make all kinds of details and textures in your clay. Real tools, not toys. 

Sealing wax stamp kit! Each kit is for one letter and comes in an attractive little set shaped like a book. Seal letters and envelopes with your initial. Works as expected, quite fancy.  

10-pack Sakura Micron black pens, the most-requested pens from all my various artist kids. Pair with an 8-pack of vibrant colored pens:

 

For the DIY guy: Make: Props and Costume Armor: Create Realistic Science Fiction & Fantasy Weapons, Armor, and Accessories book and maybe pair it with a gift card to Michael’s, which you can also buy on Amazon because it’s a weird world. 

Mythology notecards Commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, set of 20 cards from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, blank inside, colored envelopes, comes in a nice box with a magnetic closure

Dover dragon Stained Glass mini Coloring book (and many other mini Dover coloring books). I adore these. Color with marker or crayon and pull them out of the book, and you have nice little stained glass panels to put on your windows. Many to chose from.

Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady, plus the companion coloring book, A Feast of Saints, by Matthew Alderman. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.

Official Die Hard coloring book. Sighh. She loved it.  

Wedding Traditions from Around the World coloring book There is a Dover coloring book for every conceivable interest, and they’re all done in that same blandly reassuring style, with tons of carefully-researched detail. Dover is awesome.

Shark float pen (Etsy) 

Just a silly thing, but perfect for someone. Etsy is full of these novelty pens, with everything floating in them, from chickens to donuts to flamingos to possums. 

 

Scheaffer calligraphy set So you say you’d love to let your kids have that magical, sensual experience of writing in pen and ink, but you’re not dumb enough to turn them loose with a bottle of ink? Here is a lovely calligraphy set, with 3 pens, 3 nibs, and a bunch of pre-filled ink cartridges in various colors. Also includes an introductory calligraphy booklet.

Here’s a little metal stamp set I put together: 

Heavy duty number and letter metal stamps for metal, wood, or leather. To go with 30 blank steel pendants

 

plus a little anvil  and a little jewelry-making hammer
I myself thought this was a cool present and I still do! Alas, the child who received this little bundle as a gift thought it was LAME-O. But maybe your kid would like it! I think it would be fun to tap out personalized little pendants on my little anvil up in my room, but what do I know. 

And here’s another set that I thought would be sure-fire, but the kid didn’t like it! Maybe your kid will. A resin pouring set:

Resin, hardener, cups, stirrers, and instructions….

18 colors of resin dye . . . 

and 30 pendant resin molds. Someone could have fun preserving flowers, coins, insects, or whatever in resin and making sun catchers, earrings, or necklace pendants!  

Moving on. 

 24,000 multicolored glass seed beads. Just what you wanted! We had a kid who was really into making little beaded lizards for a while, and this kept her busy. Sturdy storage box, but note there is only one lid for all the compartments, so beware!  If you open one, you open all.

 

Buddha Board Art Set You use the brush to paint elegant shapes with water, and it slowly evaporates. Soothing and pleasant, comes with a little easel and water pot. This also comes in a mini version for cheaper.

 

The Peter Pauper journals are varied an exquisite and very reasonably priced. Nice quality paper, gorgeous covers. 

And just because I don’t know where else to put this:

Nixon decal: “I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies”
Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4.28 you ever spent. 

JEWELRY, PINS, ACCESSORIES

  

 
Handmade Celtic brooch or scarf or hair pin 
Large and stunning. My daughter wears this with her woolen Irish cloak, or sometimes in her hair, and it’s just gorgeous. 
 

 

Golden wheat earrings
Damien got these for me and I absolutely love them, and always get compliments on them. They are extremely bright and not heavy, despite their large size. I corresponded with the maker, because I was having an issue with them slipping off, so I do recommend what she suggested if you buy them: Just clip the backs to be shorter with a strong pair of scissors, and maybe use some rubber earring backs.

Silver spinner fidget ring. An excellent ring for a fidgeter. The gold part spins noiselessly around the silver part. Really solid and sturdy.

 

Pearl and carnelian earrings
Also a gift from Damien. These are even nicer in person. They go well with dressy or casual outfits. I adore the combination of carnelian, silver, and freshwater pearl, and I wear these several times a week. 

 

Be excellent to someone and buy this Bill and Ted Wyld Stallyns pin

Heart-shaped rose gold plated locket. Okay, I did a LOT of research on this before I bought it. I wanted a locket that kid with separation anxiety could use to bring Mama and Daddy photos to school with her, and I did NOT want it to break, because augh. There were much more expensive lockets to be had, but someone recommended this one for sturdiness, and they were right. She has used it for years and it’s still in one piece. It’s a little tacky, but a little kid wants tacky sometimes. It’s also pretty big, which makes it easier to find a photo that fits. (We used a Polaroid photo trimmed down.) 

 

More BTS! These are nice little silver studs, shiny but understated.

Weeping Angel earrings. Don’t blink or the price will go up! 

Flower-shaped makeup set. For a kid interested in exploring make-up, this is a fun set. You twist the top layer and the petals glide open and reveal the pallets and brushes and things inside, and there’s a little mirror in the top. Comes in a few different colors. Does not include liquid eyeliner, which is pretty popular, so you may want to buy that separately

“Deal With It” pixilated glasses. Some of you still haven’t dealt with it, and it shows. 

 Heart diffraction glasses. A big hit. Put these magical glasses on and wherever you look, light sources turn into heart shapes, so the world is swimming in multicolored hearts. The more lights, the more hearts, hooray! The glasses themselves are quite sturdy, and are large enough for an adult to wear. They look like sunglasses in the picture, but in real life the glass is clear like reading glasses. (They also make diffraction glasses with other images, stars and whatnot.) 

MUSIC and MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

Boomwhackers! Bright plastic tubes in graduated sizes that you whack to make different booming tones. You can arrange them in different orders and hit them with sticks, hit them with each other, or use them to hit other things. Music and hitting things! Sounds like a happy childhood. Very sturdy. These have been stepped on and mangled without any ill effects. 

Ukulele bundle. The whole ukulele thing was one hipster fad I fully endorsed. It turns out a ukulele really is easy to learn to play, and it’s small enough to bring with you. Very pleasant to hear the gentle music wafting through bedroom walls. According to the seller, this “concert” size is the size “recommended for most adults & children age 9 & up.” Comes with case, strap, picks, tuner, and an instructional video.  

The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for  Better Living book Lots of variety, great for learning. Opens flat (also comes in digital format).

Beginner’s acoustic guitar set. We got two of these, one in black and one in blue. Also comes in red, pink, and other colors. I don’t know anything about guitars, but two of our kids taught themselves how to pick out some songs using this exact set-up, so it definitely comes with everything you need to get started, for a very reasonable price. 

For someone who already plays guitar:

Beatles chord songbook, in regular and spiral bound. If you’re not learning how to play Beatles songs, then what are you even doing with a guitar? Also:

 Bob Dylan: Easy Guitar book Basic arrangements of Dylan’s most popular songs. 

 

Beatles tin of guitar picks
As advertised. Hooray for songs with only four chords! Hooray for things that come in tins!


 
Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown by Anais Mitchell For the obsessive Hadestown fan, this book has excerpts from the studio and other albums versions, and full lyrics from Broadway version, plus commentary. Can’t get enough of that tragical stuff! 

A distortion thingy! If I say anything else about it, it will become abundantly clear I have no idea what any of this is. My daughter likes it. 

OTAMATONE This . . . is a little hard to explain. The stem is a touch-sensitive electronic music-maker, so if you press or slide your finger along it, you can make different tones. Then, with your other hand, you squeeze the flexible sides of the mouth to open or close it, to change the volume, to make the sound staccato or give it vibrato, etc. It. Is. Hilarious. It looks like the little guy is singing. It’s the cheesiest imaginable synthesizer sound. It’s a little bit fragile, so not appropriate for young or careless kids.  There’s a video if you click through. 

 

A kalimba, also known as a “thumb piano,” is a sweet little portable instrument for picking out quiet tunes or accompanying singers. Click through for a little video to hear how it sounds. 

Casio keyboard A very serviceable electric keyboard for people learning to play. Comes with a stand and headset, so you can practice without driving your sister crazy, assuming that’s your goal.

Bluetooth karaoke LED microphone Not gonna lie, this is a terrible product. It works very well, is very loud and bright, and is hard to break. TERRIBLE. It’s a real, heavy microphone, not a toy, with a speaker built into it, and puts on a little light show when the music plays. Links up to your smartphone. It’s just terribly obnoxious. The kids love it. LOVE IT. You can also use it just as a wireless speaker. It has lasted for years, I’m sorry to say. 

 

CRAFTS, KITS, KNITTING, AND SEWING

 

 

Set of two Melissa and Doug wooden hearts and butterflies bead sets Can I just pause a moment and express my delight at the nice little wooden boxes that so many Melissa and Doug sets come in? They really hold up. You can’t depend on anyone, but you can depend on Melissa and Doug wooden boxes. *sniff* Anyway, these are pleasant wooden beads painted carefully with a good gloss for that kid who loves to string beads, and the set of two is great value for the money. 

Klutz Twirled Paper Kit One of the better Klutz products. I’ve always tried to get my kids interested in quilling (winding flat strips of paper into spirals and then shaping them into various designs), but they just gave me the side-eye. The nicely-illustrated instruction book that comes with the quilling paper made it simple and inviting, and my nine-year-old turned out some nice projects. Told you quilling is fun! I told you! 

Klutz Clay Charms kit Such a hit! You can follow the directions (which were clearly tested by actual people, whew) to make the various charms pictured, or you can make up your own stuff. My daughter loves making and baking little figurines, earrings, and pendants for herself and for gifts. 

Creativity for Kids Flower Crown Kit I thought this was just another crummy stick-fake-flowers-together-and-watch-them-fall-apart,-then-wander-around-sadly-with-bits-of-glue-in-your-hair kits, but it’s not! My kids used this kit on a day when we were unexpectedly stuck at home and had a little guest, and they all had fun, did fine without much help, and turned out some really lovely crowns that still haven’t fallen apart. 

The Creativity for Kids line is another new find for us recently, and we’re pretty impressed. Even the paracord wristband kit turned out to be fun for my sons, who usually consider themselves above craft kits.

Enough perler beads (17,000) to subsume your entire household. These melty beads continue to be popular in the 1/2 and 3/4 classrooms at our school. (What you do is carefully arrange plastic beads on a pegboard, put some wax paper over it, and run it over with an iron, and they melt together and form a little flat plastic toy.) Honestly, it’s not so bad. The kids take their Perler beading really, really seriously, and the beads have miraculously not escaped from the jar. The appeal escapes me, but I never got understood why all my friends were doing Shrinky Dinks when I was that age, either. 

We also got this pattern book and this set of pegboards that you can join together to make bigger projects.

Glitter body art kit. Fun little set. My 13-year-old got a lot of use out of it. A generous supply of glitter stuff. The tattoos last for a few days, but are easy to clean off when you’re ready.  

Alex Headband Craft Kit I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations. 

Cat and dog beginner felting kit. Not the exact kit we had, but similar. Felting is a good project for a kid who is both domestic and a little stabby. It takes some patience but not a lot of skill, and you can put this project down and pick it up again days later without any harm. Make a bunch of cute little puffy cats and dogs, and get the hang of the technique so you can make more complex projects. 

Melissa and Doug fleece tie blanket kit. Generous size (3.5×5 feet). My then-six-year-old made this almost entirely on her own with no trouble, and found it very satisfying. No sewing or tools required. 

Honey bee beaded embroidery kit (Etsy)
Isn’t this gorgeous? It includes the canvas, patterns, beads, and needle; you must supply the thread, but it doesn’t have to be specialty thread. It is Ukranian but the instructions are in English. Make a dreamlike little work of art. 

Yarn storage and organizer tote. Lots of handy pockets and compartments with a little hole on top to feed the yarn through as you knit, so it doesn’t get tangled. 

Rosewood yarn bowl. A lovely handmade item, decorative and useful. Keep your yarn from getting tangled while you knit. You can feed more than one strand out at a time. 

Other handy knitting notions:

tapestry needles for finishing
and 

stork embroidery scissors. 

SINGER | MX60 Sewing Machine with 57 stitches 

 

Good little workhorse for basic projects. Easy to use, gets the job done. 

 

Brother XM2701 lightweight sewing machine with 27 stitches. Another good choice for a beginner sewing machine. I am not competent to tell you which is better. We have both and they both sew, and I can use both of them and I am an idiot, so that’s all I know. 

If you want to spend somewhat more, we also have this sewing machine, a Brother CS6000i with 60 stitches:

which also does a great job and is easy to use.  

For hand sewing:

A cute little owl-print sewing basket with a bunch of supplies. Has a little removable tray to store the needles, measuring tape, lots of thread and threaded bobbins. We also bought separately a package of multicolored felt, a tomato pin cushion, and a package of 100 sweet flowered buttons, and the kid managed to stuff them all inside the sewing box and latch it. Cute, cute, cute. 

and finally:

 

The Tudor Tailor book by by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies For skilled seamstresses. Full of detailed, authentic patterns for all kinds of garments from Tudor society. 

 

DOLLS AND STUFFIES

 

Barbie Dreamhouse
BAR! BIE! DREAM! HOUSE! We have eight daughters and finally bit the bullet and bought this pink plastic monstrosity, and the two youngest girls have played with it more days than they haven’t. It has a moving, wheelchair-accessible elevator, a disco room with lights and sounds, a toilet with flushing noises, and bunch of other little details the kids love. It took two adults about an hour to put together, not counting sticking all the little stickers on. If you’re a Montessori person, you won’t like this; if you’re a “oh my gosh, there are teeny little plastic cupcakes inside the teeny plastic oven” person, you will love it. 

 

Princess Leia doll with Endor adventure accessories. Solid Barbie-sized doll with a pleasant face and lots of accessories. The Ewok lost its hood and turned up in a basket with my fresh ginger and scared the hell out of me, but I can’t fault the doll for that. 

 

Luna Lovegood doll. Barbie-sized. There are a bunch of other Harry Potter dolls as well, Nicely detailed, and they didn’t fall into the uncanny valley trying to make the faces resemble to actors too much. 

I may have been more excited about this than the kids: Comfy Clothes Barbies (Anna and Elsa). Familiar princess characters wearing normal clothes, no spike heels or strapless cocktail dresses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dressing up dolls in impractical clothes! But it’s fun to think of the characters living their everyday lives.) We got a bunch of these for a kid who already has a million Barbies but always wants more.  

Uncle Iroh! He is 5″ tall (not Barbie-sized)

Calico Critters Maple Twin Cats Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. 

Stuffed anteater. Do you have a child who really got into anteaters? We did. So we know our plush anteaters. This one is a fine specimen. Very plushy and huggable. (Our is named “Schlopp-Schleep,” thank you very much.) 

Nice little stuffed pink axolotl. 21 inches long. Has a friendly little face, as an axolotl should. 

 

Shoulder Grogu. This is pretty cute. Sits on your shoulder with the aid of a little magnet on a fabric disk that fits inside your shirt.  

 

These BTS dolls keep turning up on wish lists (and all over the house), and they apparently fulfill some sort of need, whatever that may be, so now you know as much as I do. 

Is it the right time to get your child a gigantic stuffed tiger to lounge around on? MAYBE!  

BIG PLUSH MIKU. A real gift of the magi gift. You know I really suffer a lot when I order stuff like this, but I love my kids, and they’re very good kids, so.  

Groovy Girls are  soft, colorful dolls with cute hair and nice little outfits (the clothes don’t come off). Neither trashy nor simpering.

 

Small wooden doll family  from Melissa and Doug. Oh my gosh, these dolls don’t fall apart. Their arms and legs and heads don’t fall off, their hair doesn’t fall out, their clothes don’t unravel, and they don’t have creepy faces that make you want to hurl them across the room. Great size for doll houses, and they come in a nice little wooden box. They also have Black families, royal families, etc.

Wow, more Melissa and Doug! I guess I’m a fan. We had a kid who loved the idea of paper dolls, but found the little tabs endlessly frustrating. These magnetic wooden dress-up dolls made a nice compromise: you can mix and match the outfits, and they just stick on with magnets. 

Pleasant faces on these soft, poseable ballerina dolls, who are proportioned like little girls, and not like, you know, strippers. We got three of these last Christmas, and no limbs have fallen off, and the dresses have held up for a solid year without ripping, unravelling, or even going limp. 

A sturdy, washable, kissable favorite little 12″ baby doll.  

Funko Pop Eleven from Stranger Things. Aw, wookit the widdle blood coming out of her nose. I guess I don’t really understand Funko Pops.
 

OUTDOOR and ACTIVE TOYS

Little Tikes toddler slide Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.

We got our toddler roller coaster super cheap when a store was going out of business, and used it steadily for the next fifteen years. It’s still in decent shape, and we still pull it out when little nieces and nephews come over. It has survived many winters of being forgotten in the yard under several feet of snow, and never stops being fun fun fun for little guys. Just the right amount of thrill without being really dangerous.

Good old Rody the bouncy horse. Pricey but very, very durable, and cute as heck. Easier to get on and off of than hopper balls. Some of the older kids even watch TV while sitting on them, which may or may not be an endorsement. Anyway, the one we have (in lime green) has stayed inflated for years, no kidding. 

Radio Flyer Cyclone Ride-On 
A SPECTACULAR toy. I had a similar contraption when I was little and it was pure heaven, skimming over the grass, wheeling myself to and fro, spinning and whizzing and rumbling along. We got this Radio Flyer model for our youngest and she loves it, and uses it indoors, too. It’s a large toy but super maneuverable, so it’s not out of the question for small spaces. 

Roller Derby four-square skates. Durable and comfortable. 

 

Adjustable inline skates. Sturdy, smooth, comfortable. 

Gots to have a helmet! This one has plenty of space for stickers, which is important. Comes in a few different colors. 

MOON SHOES!

YAAAASSSSS! YES YES YES! These are just as awesome as I remember from my childhood. Little trampolines for your feet, and very reasonably priced. Everyone loves moon shoes. 


Wall-mounted speed bag set. Pretty good set. I don’t know how this would stand up to someone serious about boxing, but for a kid who just needs to hit stuff from time to time, it’s been doing the job.

 

STILTS. Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. (We put patterned duct tape on them so they can tell them apart.) First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior! 

 

YOU SHOULD HAVE A TRAMPOLINE. NOTHING IS BETTER THAN A TRAMPOLINE. We actually have a slightly different brand, but this one looks similar. Wonderful, wonderful purchase. Every single last person likes being on it. It lifts your mood. It wears you out. It’s funny and makes your hair stand on end. And you can lie down on it and look at the stars without bugs getting in your hair. You can put a sprinkler under it. You can entertain the baby. You can keep party guests occupied. In all the years we’ve had it, no one has broken a bone or a tooth or gotten mangled at all. Get the biggest one you can afford. 

WEAPONRY and KNIVES

 

Cosmic shock phaser light spinner! It has pulsing, multicolored lights and makes space laser noises. Everybody loves this gun, not just the three-year-old. Sometimes we sit around at night and talk about why it’s not more annoying than it is. It’s a space laser mystery!

Schylling toys in general are well-made and seem to tap into that sweet spot of awesome-but-not-infuriating, not sure now. 

Airzooka Air Blaster More low-tech fun. Aim, pull, and release. Shoots a harmless blast of air, enough to make your hair blow back, and makes a satisfying “choonk” noise, too.

Two Bros Bow and Arrows

These are simple, lightweight, and durable, and the arrows come in all kinds of bright, exciting colors and patterns. They have padded ends, not points, so you’d have to try really hard to hurt yourself with this set; but the bows work really well and you can get some good distance. Check out the sales, as they run a little high. 

Exceedingly cool light saber. I mean yes it’s a toy, but it changes colors, has different sound settings, you can change the volume and whether it strobes or flashes or glows, and it makes that lightsaber noise when you swing it around. I am not 100% sure because I don’t have it in front of me, but I think it interacts with being whacked. If you click through, you can see a video to watch it in action. 

 

Medieval(ish) sword and scabbard. Surprisingly sturdy little sword for the price. It would be best for display, costumes, and waving around, and not so much for really heavy chopping or stabbing action; but it’s real (not sharp) steel and real leather, and looks very cool.

Samurai sword with a stand, just the coolest thing in the world. Again, not designed for heavy combat, but you can definitely whack stuff with this sword, and it looks awesome on its stand.

A good little swiss army knife. Cool translucent cover, comes in several colors besides blue. 

 

Decent, heavy pocket knife for the price, with attractive wooden handle

Smith and Wesson 8-inch folding knife. For when they’ve outgrown the little red Swiss Army Knife and are maybe a young woman going to college and you never know who might need stabulatin’. (I jest. These are handy for opening packages and cutting fruit and whatnot, though, and are satisfyingly heavy knives that fold up with a good snap.)

22″ Machete, good for clearing brush, gathering kindling, or just choppa-choppa-choppa. Hey, they have ten fingers, plenty to spare.

October Mountain right hand recurve bow
 A light, slim, powerful bow; shoots well. Damien has this for hunting and target practice. 

COSTUMES

 

 

Greek goddess costume. Flowy and dramatic, ombre cream to purple. Comes with a stretchy gold leaf headband. Reasonably washable.

Ballet shoes with ribbons. Silky and pretty. They have little leather pads on the sole, and you can wind the ribbons around your ankles and tie bows, just like a real ballerina. See also Tinkerbell ballet DVD. 

Wonder Woman costume. Runs a little small. I like the star pants. Makes a kid feel super without sliding into “sexy tot” territory.

 

Flap flap flap! Butterfly wings are always in style. The material is strong, but thin enough that you don’t have to take it off to strap a kid into a car seat, which, whew. 

These are by far the most luxurious rubber Godzilla hands we’ve ever owned.

Not really a costume, but a mermaid tail blanket. Crocheted mermaid tail for lounging about, being a mermaid in. Cozy and super soft. Comes in several colors, and it has a little mermaid charm on a chain as a bonus gift. For that one kid, it’s perfect.

And a general recommendation for costumes:

The Little Dress Up Shop

These are by far the nicest costumes we have ever bought. They are so well-made and comfortable, they can be worn as clothing. Everything we’ve bought has been machine washable, and it doesn’t come out all strangled and mangled. The ones with sparkly parts stay sparkly, and do not shed glitter everywhere, and the ones with tulle don’t tear. Remarkable. They are fancy and extravagant enough to please kids, but the style remains sweet and child-like. Here’s one of my favorites: the Mulan dress. Last I checked, they had free shipping on all U.S. orders, and  excellent, humane customer service. 

CLOTHING

Rainbow Dash Hoodie with ears and mane. Just plain cute, reasonably thick material, and the zipper held up well.  We also have the Pinkie Pie hoodie.

We have several of these. You really cannot imagine how many different kinds of patterns there are on CowCow dresses. My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetlesconstellations,  or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material, almost like a swim suit. 

 

You can’t really see from the little picture, but this is a reversible dress. One variety has white feathers on a black background on one side, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the other. Very clever. Runs a bit small. A few different choices. 

Just an elegant little dress with realistic birds of various kinds. Thick, soft stretchy knit material, falls gracefully, plenty of fabric in the skirt so it flares prettily when you spin. We bought an adult size small for our nine-year-old and it fit her nicely. 

“Trapped in time, surrounded by evil, low on gas” Army of Darkness t-shirt
Groovy. 

We looked at a lot of mermaid-print leggings, but realized that our kids are more the dragon type. Snarrrrl. These come in a few different colors. 

Hot Pink Doc Martens! For the prom! For everyday wear! For making yourself awesome from the ground up. A million colors, all shiny and rugged and BACK IN STYLE. Aw yiss. 

Irish Donegal Tweed Wool Cloak 
My land, this is a nice piece of work. It’s very soft and drapes wonderfully. I don’t know how warm it is, but it’s awfully pretty, and looks well with dressy or casual clothes. Hood is a good size. Handmade. Ships very quickly from Ireland. Many more beautiful goods at the site on Etsy. 

 

 

LIVE, LAUGH, LURK t-shirt. It’s what Mothman does. 

Dinosaur chompster hoodie. As you can see, this is one of those hoodies where you bend your elbows in front of you and, if you move them right, they become the chomping, slavering jaws of a hungry dinosaur! Amazing! Chomp chomp chomp! Thick nylon material, runs rather large. 

Surfing Bigfoot Hawaiian shirt, for that special weirdo.

I’ll let this magnificent Krakitten garment speak for itself. Comes in a few different colors.

Tree of Gondor shirt! Also comes in other colors, in long-sleeved, etc.  

 

You know what these knee-high goth boots are? They’re CHEAPER THAN DEMONIAS. And my kid has worn them several times without breaking an ankle, so you tell me. 

 

And these are my boots, which I’ve had for a few years, and they’ve held up quite well. INC International Concept knee high leather boots with a little heel, a wide calf plus a little elastic gusset to make them even more comfy on your calves, and a zipper that comes halfway up so they’re easy to put on. They look stylish with dressy clothes and jeans, and they’re exceedingly comfortable. I put a cushy innersole in to make them even comfier, but the boot itself is nicely made. I have pretty wide feet and corns on one foot, and I wear these all day. The soles are a little slick (they’re not designed for trekking through the snow) but you can add grips if you’re going to be on a lot of slippery ground. 

 
 
 

Yaktrax run traction cleats. Kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from the boots above: These help you grip the ice so you can continue running through the winter like a lunatic. 

 

Little Donkey Andy Men’s Thermal Running Jacket. This is the thermal jacket Damien wears for running through the winter. He says it’s lightweight, warm, easy to layer, and doesn’t get too smelly.

 

These hunting boots are waterproof like whoa. These boots all but get up and walk around by themselves. Damien says they are comfortable, too. 

Oops, another Hawaiian shirt! Tropical tiger shirt (with toucans!). Come on, it’s just a magnificent shirt. There are many other patterns available, but why would you look further than this? It’s a rather silky material.

Fluffy fox slippers. Not super thick, but cozy and fluffy. The bottoms have little rubber grippy dots.  

 Lace-up knee high Chun Li/Dance boots. They come in a few different colors, but if they’re white, they’re CHUN LI BOOTS!

 

Speaking of lounging, THE COMFY is the loungiest. Much-desired, in service all winter long. I may ask for one of these myself. 

Lightweight sleeping bag. Not clothing, but I had to put it somewhere. Honestly, we have so many sleeping bags. They all seem fine. This one is fine. It’s fluffy and good. We don’t actually camp, so I have no idea if it’s good for rugged people. It says it’s good for down to 32F. Lots of colors.

HATS AND HAIR ACCESSORIES

 

 

Just a pretty rose crown/headband for your little flower. Large, luxurious blossoms. Comes in many different colors. 

Princess Leia bun knit hat. Warm and snug. And who might you be?  

The Jimin K-Pop ring hat. Another “I don’t know; I just live here and buy what I’m told” present

Handmade video game Hats By Charlotte on Etsy. Great communication and nice craftsmanship. 

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil horn headband. It’s either very comfortable, or just so fabulous you don’t care if it’s uncomfortable, not sure which. Not to be worn at Stations of the Cross, but good for every other last possible waking moment, including *sigh* school picture day. 

 Leaf hair pins. Surprisingly elegant and detailed for the price. Flexible and bright. 

 
 

Set of six polished wooden hair sticks in different shapes. Smooth and elegant, good for buns, chignons, etc.

These are *sigh* spikes with screw backs so your kid can have spikes on their clothes. It’s just clothes.  

BAGS and wallets

 

 

These sequin-covered goods aren’t everywhere in the stores anymore, but some kids still can’t get enough of that sequin flipping action. This backpack has RAINBOW sequins, with silver on the flip side. A somewhat small backpack, and not super duper sturdy, but about what you’d expect for the price. If you’re looking for a larger, sturdier backpack, here are single-color flip sequin backpacks, which we also have.

Scooby Doo tote bag. Kid says it’s “very durable and holds a lot and gets lots of compliments from middle aged ladies at the library.”

ZELDA HYLIAN SHIELD CHAIN WALLET! Just the thing for the kid who likes Zelda, likes feeling just slightly dangerous with chains and stuff, and also tends to lose wallets.

It’s still not clear to me why the kid wanted this pineapple purse so desperately, but she sure loves it. A smallish purse on a long chain, with an inside section you can remove from the outer, cut-out layer. 

 

Sturdy brown canvas and leather satchel at a great price. Roomy and attractive, and the strap is comfortable. It’s even bigger than it looks in the picture.

Black canvas messenger bag. Comfortable and decent quality, a great blank canvas for pins and patches. 

 

VERY MISCELLANEOUS

 

Set of three nature photo flip books. Flip through the pages with your thumb and watch a hummingbird hover, a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, and a tadpole turn into a frog. Little kids (and bit kids, and adults) are fascinated by these low tech amusements. 

Lovely little blue and green Polish pottery bubble vase with blueberries. I have this vase.  I got it with one of the Amazon gift cards my dad used to send me for my birthday every year. This is a sweet little vase, beautifully proportioned, just the right size for roses or lilacs, or a big bouquet of dandelions and violets. You can’t go wrong with Polish pottery. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t like it.

Not the thickest fleece blanket in the world, but definitely the most Dungeons and Dragons die-shaped fleece blanket you will find, very popular with our resident DM. Great for snuggling up in while you’re on a campaign. 

 

“May Godzilla Destroy This Home Last” printed cloth. A little something to hang on your wall and make it your own space. 

Panda surprise mug. Helloooo! (There are also cats, monkeys, ducks, Santas, etc.)

A slightly odd present, but I knew my five-year-old would love it. These are just transparent colored paddles to play with, mix together, and look through. Despite they way they are arranged in the photo, they are not attached together. I strung six of them on a chain and put the rest away so I could replace them as needed. Kids love peering through them and seeing Purpleworld or Everythingisgreenville. It’s just cool! Good for car trips. There are also slightly raised different patterns on each. 

“Sorry, we’re dead” shop sign.For that one kid to hang on her bedroom door. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a kid who has a bearded dragon, this dragon wings harness might make a nice little gift. If you’re thinking of getting a pet, you could do worse than a bearded dragon, by the way. They require a large tank and heating elements and fresh food like crickets, but once you buy the supplies, these guys are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. They are surprisingly charming, and have a lot of personality. Our bearded dragon is much smarter than our cat.  

Silly squishy stretchy rubber dino head puppets. These are silly puppets in a very satisfying kind of rubber to have on your hand. It’s kind of flabby, but in a good way. All the kids got one of these, or else a squishy stretchy flabby unicorn head puppet, in their stockings last year. 

 

Foot massage roller. This is almost too grim to put on a Christmas list, and it’s honestly just something I bought for myself, but I still love it very much. It’s a foot massage roller and it feels so good, it brings actual tears to my eyes. If anyone on your list has sore feet, this really would make a thoughtful stocking stuffer or small gift.

I included this not because I hope your child will ask for a Thor Ragnarok lifesize stand-up cutout for Christmas, but because maybe you’ll see this on the list and get inspired to get a cutout of literally anything else. There are many other choices.  

Note “Wonderful Homelife” book in the background of this liquid sand art thingy, so you know it’s good! Just a pretty thing to play with. Tilt the frame to change the landscape. It’s soothing and pleasant. Choice of several colors.

 

This three-part house-shaped bird feeder looks somewhat different from the bird feeder we ended up getting, but this one looks nice, and you can fill it with three different kinds of food to attract various birds. We really got into bird watching over the pandemic and it’s been a joy. Lovely to have familiar visitors right outside a child’s bedroom window. 

With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This Lenox one is by far the sturdiest, but with the quilted silver outside, it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Für Elise.”

 

Metal Archangel Michael keepsake or rosary box. Good and heavy, nicely detailed, really handsome. 

This bubble motion toy was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t not mind waiting.) 

BABIES movie. How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it. 

Tinkerbell learn ballet DVD. By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre. 

Magic sequin pillowcase. I have seen these in therapist’s offices, and I can understand why. It’s very soothing to just smoooooooth the sequins up, and then smooooooth them down again. Of course you can also draw little pictures or spell things, but mostly we just smoooooth the sequins up and down.  Comes in several colors. NOTE: This is JUST THE PILLOWCASE. You will need to buy the pillow insert separately

Little kid rocking chair. Very sweet. This isn’t the exact same model we had, but it looks similar and gets decent reviews. Nothing sweeter than a little kid with his own special chair.  

TIN TEA SETS. Why did we not think of this several daughters ago? You do need to dry them off so they don’t rust, but it’s so much better than endlessly gluing broken shards together. Here’s a Schylling one with Forest Friends, cups, saucers, plates, a teapot, and a little tray

Here’s another tin tea set we had, also with woodland animals, kind of a folk art style, and this one comes in a neat little lunch box:

 

Plastic is another great option for tea sets. This pink flower-shaped Melissa and Doug set with butterflies painted on the side hits that sweet spot of bright and appealing without shading into Lisa Frank fever dream. These are full-size tea cups and they are not flimsy. 

And finally: 

I . . . don’t remember buying this Wooly Willy. But it’s in my order history, and I certainly remember playing with these in my life! They are fun! Your Christmas will be better if you have a Wooly Willy, probably. 

AND THAT’S IT! That’s the whole list. That’s how it ends: not with a bang, but with a Wooly Willy. Happy shopping! 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

In some ways, the world is getting kinder

As I was writing this essay, I got a call from a blind man named Henry. He needed help finding the front door of his apartment, and then help making his way through the somewhat maze-like halls of his building, around several corners, through several sets of doors, down a ramp, and into the lobby where the stairs were.

He walked holding his phone, and I guided him based on what I could see on the live video. At one point, it was too dark for me to see where he was going, so with his permission, I tapped my screen to remotely turn on his phone’s flashlight, lighting his way. When he got to the lobby, he thanked me, we wished each other a good day, and we hung up. Simple as that.

The call came through an app called ‘Be My Eyes’, and it works wonderfully well. It connects blind and visually impaired people with randomly-chosen volunteers who can help them out in various ways. At last count, there are 431,970 blind people using the service, and nearly six million volunteers. Someone always answers.

If you want evidence that the world is getting meaner, you don’t have to look far. I won’t even supply examples, because I’m sure several sprang to mind. Entire careers and industries are dedicated to keeping supplies of human cruelty fresh and constant, and to making sure we all think about it all the time.

But there is also evidence that the world is getting kinder. The ‘Be My Eyes’ app is just one. Despite how it may feel some days, we’re not all engaged in some inexorable downward slide into Gehenna. There are countless happy warriors everywhere, waging tiny battles to retain their humanity day by day, and to find ways to be kind to each other.

Here are some I’ve noticed recently, when I decided to look:

Many libraries no longer charge late fees. I’m sure they were partially forced into this decision, because people were simply not returning books, and then never going to the library again; but the general impulse — “all is forgiven, just return to me” — is a wonderful one, very much in keeping with the Gospel. Good stuff.

Several video games now have what could be called “little buddy mode” — a setting or character designed for a younger, less competent companion player who tags along with a more skilled gamer. They can feel like they’re part of the action, but they aren’t at risk (or else they can regenerate endlessly), so it’s harmless fun for them to join in. (Super Mario’s Nabbit, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yarn Yoshi, and Mario 3D World are some examples of some variety of this feature.)

To be sure, this isn’t altruism. It’s a product made because the company thought it could sell something. But it’s a beguiling idea, and caters to a wholesome and friendly consumer need, rather than a cruel and low one, which is something you don’t see very often.

More and more parking lots have reserved parking spots not only for disabled customers, but for pregnant women and for parents with babies. One of the greatest baby gifts someone ever gave me was a reserved parking spot in the last month of my sciatica-ridden pregnancy, saving me a short but very painful walk to and from the school door five days a week. Again, partially consumer-driven, but kind and merciful all the same for the grateful woman who really needs that spot.

The proliferation of GoFundMe’s, meal trains, money pools, Amazon wish lists for strangers, and other easily-sharable means of supporting people in need. Yes, sometimes they are foolish, and sometimes they are scams, but very often they literally save lives, and people in crisis are rescued with their dignity intact. This is something that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago, and it’s very good that we have it. It just about redeems the internet, and it’s good that people with only a little money to donate are given the chance to join in on a good deed.

‘Buy nothing’ groups have also proliferated on the internet. This is a resurrection of a practice from another age, when people would “wear it ’til you wear it out; make it do or do without.” Now, pushing back against the tsunami of discarded consumer goods, there are myriad groups where people can list what they no longer want, and I have rarely seen anything go unclaimed.

The other day someone said she had several spaghetti sauce jars without lids, and I rolled my eyes, thinking no one would want her excess recycling. Within minutes, another woman happily claimed them, saying she was selling cut flowers at the farmer’s market and needed more jars for vases.

I have also seen people request furniture, clothing, and all manner of things for their families, and someone always something to share. People want to share; it was just the mechanism for doing it easily that was lacking.

Any time we need to fix something around the house, or make a car repair, or even make a costume or a party prop, we head to YouTube, and there is almost always a useful instructive video.

Sometimes they are slick, monetized videos that someone produced as a business, but very often, they are just little movies that people have made because they know how to do something, and they would like to help other people out. There is no money or fame involved; they’re simply being helpful. This is purely lovely.

Little free libraries, and little free food pantries, and other little free structures have been erected all over the landscape, just so people can share what they have with each other. These little free-standing miniature sheds started popping up a few years ago and people have not gotten tired of them yet. It’s easy to see why.

There’s no paperwork, no income requirements, no humiliating process where you have to display your poverty before some beneficent committee. If there’s something you want, you simply take it. If you have something to give, you simply leave it. Simple and kind.

The concerns of children are taken more seriously than they were even a generation ago. Some of this is legislated, with child labor laws and efforts to abolish statute of limitation laws regarding abuse; but some of it has just made its way into the social order.

You don’t have to “but abortion” me. I know that there is immense cruelty and hardheartedness toward unborn children at the same time. That doesn’t negate the good that is happening, and it’s truly good that adults today are much more likely to listen to a child who says they are being bullied, or who says they are feeling anxious or afraid or overwhelmed, or who says something bad is happening to them.

In general, we treat children more like full humans, and this is a very good thing.

There’s a real trend away from remarking on people’s appearances. I was skeptical at first, and thought that this trend was merely lip service that people would be trained to do so as to appear correct; but my younger kids seem truly acclimated to the idea that it simply isn’t normal or acceptable to judge someone based on how they look.

It will be fascinating to see how far this trend goes, and how it affects people’s actual behavior toward each other, but even if it only reaches so far, it’s been pleasant to see that it’s no longer socially acceptable, for example, for a man to dismiss a female colleague simply because she isn’t attractive to him. Guys still behave like this, of course, but at least in many quarters, there is now always pushback. When I was growing up, no one would have batted an eye. There really is change afoot.

It’s become more and more common for businesses and schools to offer free menstrual products in their bathrooms, along with other hygienic necessities like toilet paper and soap. Since about half the population menstruates, and these products can be prohibitively expensive, it’s wonderful to see more corporations acknowledging a responsibility to provide these goods so women and girls can show up and function at full capacity.

There is more and more integration of adaptive equipment in public places for people with disabilities. More playgrounds have adaptive swings and other play structures; more churches offer sensory-friendly services and more gyms and entertainment centers offer sensory-friendly evenings; more crosswalks have auditory aids; more museums have adaptive displays for the impaired; more supermarkets have adaptive carts.

These accommodations are not only great so people with disabilities and their families can live their lives, it’s good for the rest of the world to constantly recognize that people with disabilities are fully part of the community, and that their needs are different but just as legitimate as the needs of abled people.

And there is more. I’m sure you can think of examples, if you look. These things have a way of building on each other. If you see that the world is kind and kindness seems normal, then it’s easier to start contributing yourself.

What can you add to this list?

*

A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly on October 5, 2022.

Photo by Greg Dunlap via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Signs of the times (and watermelons) for the 2022 election

It’s almost election day. Time for a little sign round-up, and a look back to see how far we’ve come. 

Back in 2019, I was stopped at a red light near the commons, where a group of earnest people were gathering to protest climate change. They carried signs saying things like “I speak for the trees,” and the rally leader started up a syncopated chant about striking because the waters are rising.

Stopped next to me was a whiskery old man in a pickup truck full of rusted out auto parts. He chewed on a sandwich and watched with great interest as the crowd clapped along with the chant. It came to an end, everyone cheered, and the man in the truck shouted, “WATERMELONS!!!” Then the light changed and we all drove on.
 
I yearn for those days. I yearn for that clarity, when we were all able to receive each other’s words, look each other in the eye, shout, “WATERMELONS.” And then just drive away. 
 
 
 
Unlike Watermelons Guy, Trump Thumbs Guy did not listen. He did not shout. He did not drive away. He just sat there with his thumb inert, telling you all you need to know about China Joe. And look where we are now. (I actually don’t know. I have been using all my effort not to pay attention.)
 
I also have an album of additional signs and other public displays from medium-weird New Hampshire from around this time, as follows:
 
 
You could spend an afternoon trying to parse exactly what is meant by “NO” in quotation marks AND inside a “no” sign, and that’s even without the “CHINA” “JOE” “CONTROL” “MAN” aspect of it, not to mention the little snowman.
 
There was another sign at a different intersection, making the same point in a more concise fashion:
 
 
I realize this is superimposed on a Biden sign, but it’s also in keeping with the general feeling of the area, in and out of election season:
 
 
Whose woods these are, I think I–NO.
Take that, Robert Frost. 
 
Speaking of in and out of season, this area also sports an unexpected snowmobile
 
 
and about fifteen minutes down the road, the town commons had not only a nativity scene and a giant Hanukkiah, but also various other displays, because somebody read a thing about the constitution on Tumblr one time
 
 
This display was soon joined by a Festivus pole and something that was either some kind of other pole that was either a frickin Wiccan thing or else a Quiddich thing. I did not slow down to ask questions. 
 
Of possible interest, the brain trust who put up the I’ll Show You Constitution Nativity display ended up being harassed by a completely different brain trust who calls himself [gird your loins] The Hip-Hop Patriot, and who was at the Jan. 6 riots and before that was cocaine dealer turned snitch, although he says nuh uh he was not. Mr. Hop is now running for State House, because of course he is.  There is also a third brain trust, a former cop with some interesting extracurricular activities who was at the time city councilor and stood up for Christianity by doxxing the guy and his wife and hosting a discussion where someone threatened to cut him, and this guy . . . I’ll save this for another day. He’s also running. So that’s where we are now, democracy-wise.
 
In 2020, a number of signs on both sides were defaced by the opposition. Someone took a bite out of a Trump sign; someone spray painted all over a Biden sign. Someone went around painting “RACIST,” and sometimes “RAPIST,” over other Trump signs. But this year, we had this much more restrained exchange of ideas:
 
 
possibly because the local police reminded folks that no matter how noble your cause, it is still illegal to go in someone’s yard and set their signs on fire. We are just coming out of a drought, so we have that going for us.
 
I always read the little rebuttal sign in a squeaky “kangaroo in her pouch” voice, and it helps a little bit. 
 
I’ll tell you what doesn’t help: Running late to pick up a kid at one school, getting to the other school to find that everybody’s already left and the one kid you did manage to get is HUNGRY and the only car cookies left are Nutter Butters, and so over the sound of her howls, you voice text the only  kid with a phone and ask her to find the others and meet you at the library instead, and when you’re on your way there you suddenly realize you’re supposed to be at a third school watching a third kid at soccer practice, and then you see this:
 
 
With God as my witness, the man is 52 years old and I thought he could arrange for his own ride. 
 
Speaking of rides, a few local citizens are signaling in their own way that the candidates this election are somewhat wanting, and maybe it’s time to write in someone who actually represents who we are as a people today. Someone like, um, Larry Dickman, or *sigh* Bertha Butt. 
 
 
We are not okay, guys. 
 
Not sure whether it’s better or worse that the next sign is from a real candidate:
 
 
These ones tend to show up in clusters, which is disconcerting because of the eyes. I did go to the website, and I did not get any clarity on any of it, not “I Want To Rule You,” not the cat eyes, and definitely not the chameleon. I find it alarming that this dude raised enough money to buy more than one or two signs. He also has this version, same guy:
 
 
“Death is not the worst of evils” is not a campaign slogan I have seen before. I agree with it in principle, but he’s a 2022 libertarian, so there is a 10,000% chance he would finish the sentence “death is not the worst of evils” with “but age of consent laws are!” 
But, he notes ON THE SIGN, “I’m serious.” 
My only question is, what the hell. 
 
Next we have another new sign that it grieves me to admit I understand:
 
 
Aria DiMezzo is [gathers strength] a local trans anarchist libertarian recently convicted of laundering bitcoin through a fake church of Satan . . . look, just stab your finger into a random page in the Big Book of Stupid Ideas, and you’ll get the gist. 
 
That’s not rain on the window, it’s tears of exhaustion. 
 
But wait! It’s not just the far right and the moronic middle who are terrible! Everyone is terrible! This is a sign I have to pass by at least twice a day, sometimes four times, and each time, my desire to punch someone increases:
 
 
I don’t even disagree! I mean I’m pro-life but I’m super duper in favor of holding men accountable for making babies. But this freaking sign is so STUPID and it thinks it’s so CLEVER. Gah. Imagine lying in bed and this phrase pops into your head, and you think, “Ho ho, that’s a corker!” and then you wake up in the morning and YOU STILL THINK IT’S A GOOD IDEA, and you actually go and find two colors of paint and a paintbrush and a piece of poster board, rather than punching yourself in the head like you should. WATERMELONS, I SAY. 
 
This house has since added a sign urging people to vote because it is almost “ROEvember.” GET IT????????? You can just feel them wriggling with delight over their own exquisitely barbed wit. Gah. You know what, I have a prescription for Xanax and I never filled it.
 
As a palate cleanser, I enjoyed the forthright nature of this message I recently found stuck to a guardrail in a parking garage:
 
I don’t imagine it will change anyone’s mind, but on the other hand, if everyone already knew it, we wouldn’t have any Nazis. But we do, so. 
 
But most of all, I liked this sign.
 
 
“JESUS CHRIST IS THE ANSWER.” In this photo, the man who stands there with the sign is just setting up for the day, and you can see the giant wooden cross he is about to put up next to it. He just stands there with the cross and the sign. What else is there to say? 
 
He’s set up in the same spot as the Trump Thumber used to be, and for a while, I tried to convince myself it was the same dude, and that he had massively upgraded his hero. But I’m pretty sure it’s a different guy. No matter. I wave and beep whenever I see him, because I’ve had a lot of questions in my life, and let me tell you, this man is correct. Between him and the watermelons, that’s a whole-ass political theory right there. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What’s for supper? Vol. 316: All Fall

We made it through Halloween and the Spooky Triduum! Plenty of cozy fall foods this week, although no applesauce as of yet. Here’s what we did have: 

SATURDAY
Vermonter sandwiches

By popular request. Your choice of ciabatta rolls or sourdough bread, roast chicken breast, bacon, thick slices of sharp cheddar, slices of tart Granny Smith apples, and honey mustard dressing.

Just an excellent sandwich. Nestle plate in among fabric paint and other craft materials because you are still frantically finishing up Halloween costumes. 

SUNDAY
Spaghetti and ragù; garlic bread; blueberry and pumpkin walnut ice cream 

Damien made this, following the Deadspin recipe. It turns out a little different each time. This time was a little spicy, and wonderfully — look, nobody likes it when I describe a meat sauce as “fluffy,” but the English language is just not helping me out. Here, have a picture:

If you’re thinking of pasta with a standard sluggish tomato sauce with some ground meat thrown in, think that no more. This is entirely different, and absolutely scrumptious. 

The kids miraculously scooped out the pumpkins on Friday while we were out of town, sorted out the pulp and seeds, and cleaned up. I know! So over the weekend, they carved their pumpkins, and all I had to do was roast the seeds.

I spread them in shallow pans, drizzled them with oil and sprinkled them with kosher salt, then cooked them in a 250 oven, stirring them occasionally, and switching the pans once so they’d cook evenly, until they are crunchy but not burnt.

I never know how long this takes because I always, always forget they are in the oven and almost burn them. Maybe forty minutes? I have no idea. 

I had a slightly better handle on dessert. Blueberries were on sale, so I bought a few pints, planning to make ice cream, with lemon pound cake from a mix. But then I felt bad that I hadn’t made any kind of Halloween-themed meal or dessert, so I decided it was important to make pumpkin ice cream.  (In the past, for Halloween I have made SPOOKY MEATLOAF

and once I made those mummy hot dogs

and you know, that was not a good use of my time. As usual, I’m the only one putting pressure on myself to come up with this stuff. Anyway, the ice cream turned out to be a great idea. I thought the two flavors would be terrible together (Watch: This Food Blogger Thinks Dessert Will Be Terrible But Makes It Anyway For Some Reason!), but they were actually great.

The blueberry was sweet and a tiny bit tart, and the pumpkin had all the comfy, custardy flavors of pumpkin pie, and somehow together they worked in the same way that peanut butter and jelly work together. They didn’t taste like peanut butter and jelly, you understand; it was just the same kind of combination. Fruity + earthy, or something. 

I did also make the lemon pound cake mix, but overbaked it, and I was worried the lemon would not go well with the other flavors (I had bought it just thinking lemon + blueberry), and this time I was right. Should have just skipped the cake. Oh well!

Imma have to come back later and write out the ice cream directions. I used Ben and Jerry’s recipes for both, except that I doubled the amount of blueberries for one, and added walnuts to the other, and increased the spices a bit. They both use the basic sweet cream base and do not require cooking. I will say that double blueberry was too much, and the berries clumped together in a way that wasn’t completely pleasant, because the tiny seeds get a little gritty one you get a certain volume of blueberry (they were macerated but not cooked). Next time I’ll just follow the recipe! But the walnuts were an excellent addition to the pumpkin ice cream, and I stand by that. I may make this again for Thanksgiving, or possibly this butternut squash ice cream with candied curry pecans.

MONDAY
Chicken nuggets; candy

Halloween! Dinner is only there to keep child protective services away. The kids had parties at school and ate all kinds of nonsense, then we zipped home and hurried to get costumes on for trick or treating. 

Benny and Corrie were Sarah and Duck

and I assisted them as Scarf Lady 

Lucy, Sophia, and Irene were Doc Ock, Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, and a robot 

You can’t really tell, but the robot has three special features: It lights up in several colors, it has a little secret compartment for storing things, and it is wearing a fanny pack full of diabetic supplies for its sister, so as not to mess up her Doc Ock costume.

The other kids dispersed to various parties and promised me they would send pictures, but they did not!

TUESDAY
Bagel, sausage, egg, cheese sandwiches; caramel apples

On Tuesday I had an easy meal planned (bagels with sausages, egg, and cheese)

because everyone was exhausted and of course we had to get to Mass for All Saints Day, but I also suddenly couldn’t stand how there were apples all over the place, so I made caramel apples. We usually get the easy-peasy kind where you just stretch a sheet of caramel over the apple and warm it up to meld it on, but the boxes can be a little misleading, so I had two kits of the kind you need a candy thermometer.

Which reminds me of the last time we attempted this, which was one of my favorite Irene moments, when she was about seven. 

Irene, stirring caramel: “We don’t want it to get too hot. Not hard ball. Or hard crack. Or . . . [peering at thermometer] fish donut.”

WELL, THAT’S WHAT IT SAYS. The adult world can be very confusing, and you just have to go with it, even if it sounds a little fish donut.

So I made about 20 apples. 

They turned out lovely, but I surely did not have room for 20 sticky apples to cool and harden in the fridge, so I just left them out all afternoon. Usually our kitchen is about as cool as a refrigerator anyway, but we’re having a little warm snap, and by evening, the caramel had ooooozed its way downward until what I had was a panful of apples, each with its own caramel penumbra, sitting in a pool of caramel. Oh well! At least I got rid of the apples. Some weeks, cooking is like a game whose goal is to get rid of all the food. 

WEDNESDAY
Chicken and salad; soul cakes

This was an okay idea that didn’t quite come off. I had the vague idea to serve a Greek-inspired salad with chicken. While I was out, Damien roasted some chicken breasts with plenty of lemon pepper seasoning, and I sliced up the meat and served it with a big green salad, black olives, feta cheese, pomegranate seeds, chopped walnuts, and cucumbers and tomatoes.

I think the tomatoes were the mistake.  You really can’t have tomatoes on pomegranates in the same plate. They threw the whole thing off. Also I forgot to buy any kind of dressing, so we were forced to dig through the fridge and take our chances. Damien found some creamy Italian dressing, and I was trying to tell him that we also had some kind of vinaigrette, but I couldn’t think of the word, so I called it “greasy Italian.” Which goes to show that describing things accurately is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I also just this minute remembered that I bought pita chips to go with this salad, and totally forgot about them. 

Regarding the pomegranates, I briefly considered looking up some clever TikTok idea for how to get the seeds off the rind in no time flat, but these things never, ever work for me. It’s always a video of some sun-kissed woman with shining, blue-black hair and a peasant blouse, standing in her garden going, “Oh, you cut up your pineapple with a knife, you DUMBASS? Try it like this!” and she grins at the camera and sticks a toothpick in the bottom, and all the pineapple just falls out into a basin in perfect little edible chunks and she eats one with very white teeth. Or else there is some perky dude with weirdly inflated biceps bopping around a spotless kitchen showing us how, when he wants 400 cloves of peeled garlic, all he does is make a little slit in the side and then tap it with a spoon, and the garlic absolutely cannot wait to scurry off and arrange itself into useful rows, all perfectly peeled and not a bit wasted. So I watch this stuff and it looks quite easy, so I imitate them exactly, and somehow slice the tips off my three favorite fingers, and then I have to explain to the ER nurse that I was trying to be like someone on TikTok.

So I decided to just cut the pomegranate into quarters and then just sort of scrabble at it until the seeds came out. And I got a bowlful that way. 

And then I took a picture, so there. 

OH, I also made soul cakes on Wednesday. I guess soul cakes are the original treats that people would give to beggars who would come to their house, and offer to pray for the souls of the dead in exchange for a cookie? I don’t know. I still had a shit ton of apples left, so I was getting ready to make applesauce when I suddenly remembered that the kids had asked about soul cakes, so that’s what I made. 

Jump to Recipe

It’s a very quick recipe, and I do like the taste. They have a faint cidery flavor from the cider vinegar, and they’re soft and a little spicy, very nice. I cut out two kinds and told the kids they represented souls before and after being prayed for. 

Raisins in purgatory, and then you upgrade to half a dried apricot when you go to heaven. That’s some high octane theology for you. 

THURSDAY
Mexican beef bowls and beans

Everyone was pretty excited about this meal. I actually started marinating the meat the night before. 

Jump to Recipe

I had already cut up the meat before marinating it, so I just fried it up in a giant pan along with the marinade. 

Earlier in the day, I made a big bowl of guacamole

Jump to Recipe

and a pot of black beans. The beans were completely yummy,

Jump to Recipe

but I wish I had cooked them with the lid off for a little longer (they were in the Instant Pot on “slow cook” most of the day) to simmer off more of the liquid. 

But all in all, a very tasty meal.  I made a big pot of rice, put out salsa, chopped scallions, sour cream, lime wedges, and corn chips, shredded some cheese, and heated up some corn. Everyone found something they liked to eat.

Mmm, I think I will have leftover beans for lunch. 

FRIDAY
Quesadillas

Lots of leftover fixins from Thursday’s meal, so I’m just going to make plain cheese quesadillas and people can dress it up as they like. I also bought some plantain chips, which I will no doubt forget to serve. 

Happy Friday! If you want some apples, come over. I have a lot. 

Soul cakes

Servings 18 flat cakes the size of large biscuits

Ingredients

  • 1 cup butter, chilled
  • 3-3/4 cup sifted flour
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp allspice (can sub cloves)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp cider vinegar (can sub white vinegar)
  • 4-6 Tbsp milk
  • powdered sugar to sprinkle on top

optional:

  • raisins, currants, nuts, candied citrus peels, etc.

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350

  2. Put the flour in a large bowl. Grate the chilled butter on a vegetable grater and incorporate it lightly into the flour.

  3. Stir in the sugar and spices until evenly distributed.

  4. In a smaller bowl, beat together the eggs, vinegar and milk. Stir this into the flour mixture until it forms a stiff dough.

  5. Knead for several minutes until smooth and roll out to 1/4 thick.

  6. Grease a baking pan. Cut the dough into rounds (or other shapes if you like) and lay them on the pan, leaving a bit of room in between (they puff up a bit, but not a lot). If you're adding raisins or other toppings, poke them into the top of the cakes, in a cross shape if you like. Prick cakes with fork.

  7. Bake for 20-25 minutes until very lightly browned on top.

  8. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while they are warm

 

Beef marinade for fajita bowls

enough for 6-7 lbs of beef

Ingredients

  • 1 cup lime juice
  • 1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 head garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tbsp cumin
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 2 tsp hot pepper flakes
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together.

  2. Pour over beef, sliced or unsliced, and marinate several hours. If the meat is sliced, pan fry. If not, cook in a 350 oven, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. I cook the meat in all the marinade and then use the excess as gravy.

 

Instant Pot black beans

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 16-oz cans black beans with liquid
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp cumin
  • 1-1/2 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Put olive oil pot of Instant Pot. Press "saute" button. Add diced onion and minced garlic. Saute, stirring, for a few minutes until onion is soft. Press "cancel."

  2. Add beans with liquid. Add cumin, salt, and cilantro. Stir to combine. Close the lid, close the vent, and press "slow cook."

White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

I read the museum cards when I look at art!

Last week, we went to a museum without any kids, and so the last bit of museum pressure was off. I was absolutely free to look at whatever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, in whatever order I wanted. We even took a break for coffee and scones, because museums are exhausting. And if I wanted to read the card before looking at the painting, I did. 

A crazy amount of intellectual guilt needed shucking off, to arrive at that decision. I have always been told to look first, look long, and only then to read about what I have seen. Encounter it plainly and openly on its own terms before you let your experience of it get shaped and tutored by whatever few sentences some curator thinks are vital. 

But when do we encounter things completely openly, for real? Never. It’s as if we live on one planet, and a work of art lives on another, and maybe the atmosphere there will suit us, and maybe it won’t, but we do need to bring some oxygen with us for the trip. Because we are human. We bring what we have, who we are, with us when we encounter a work of art, because we can’t breathe without it. We bring our prejudices and our contemporaneous contexts, but also just the information we have gathered in the course of a lifetime, information about what it means to be alive. This happens whether or not we read the museum card. There is no such thing as coming intellectually innocent to a work of art. That’s just not how human beings operate. If a body (me) meets a body (art) coming through the rye, my petticoat is gonna draggled. It just will. It’s not a big deal.
 
I already knew this, but it became so obvious to me when so many people came to see the Catholic works of art, which I understood, and they did not, because they had no context, no frame of reference to behold them with. For instance, I saw more than one madonna and child that was clearly painted as a rejection of Manichaeism. It’s an ode to the inherent goodness of human flesh; but without context, it just looks like the painter had no idea what a baby’s body actually look like. Silly old painter!
 
People of faith would like to believe there is something so innately human and universal about what is depicted in sacred art that it will speak to people directly whether they know anything about the faith or not. And some of this is surely true, sometimes. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s snarly Parker who gets women pregnant even though he doesn’t like them that way, who meets the “Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” and is knocked right out of his shoes. It happens. I’ve been struck spiritually by works of art depicting faiths I know nothing about. Power is power.
 
But it is also true that when museum-goers had the option to push a button and hear some snippets of eastern chant to go along with the altar frieze on display, almost every one of them laughed. A tenor called out “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One!” into the echoing gallery, and they giggled. I don’t know why. It just startled them, probably, or maybe it sounded spooky, or maybe they were not used to hearing a man sing in that register. But despite the best efforts of the museum, this fragment of beauty did not translate well to many, at least not instantly. It did not enhance their wonder; it just confused them.
 
And of course the same failure of translation happened to me in other galleries. We beheld the art of the Marshall islands, and I had no idea what I was looking at. Even with the cards to help me see what I was seeing in those hollow eyes, rounded mouths, jagged teeth, elongated limbs, the best I could do was to remind myself that what I was seeing was very different from what the people for whom it was made would have seen. I offered a humble shrug, that was as far as I got.
 
Not all the examples of “I am here, they are there” were that jarring. There was a very odd 1618 Flemish painting depicting the artist as Icarus with his father, and his expression was peculiar, almost a smirk, and the postures were enigmatic. I did giggle, because I had no idea what I was looking at, and I checked the card, and it said it was not known what the artist intended. Even the experts thought he didn’t quite pull it off. Too dated! Not my fault!
 
And sometimes it was very obvious that I was misreading what I saw, but I couldn’t help it. I read the card that said the hands of this Asian deity were in gesture called “the fist of wisdom,” and I raised my eyes to behold it, and oop, it sure looked like the thing that Howie did in second grade at the lunch room, and everyone laughed and the teacher got mad. The card told me what to see, and it didn’t help at all, because part of me is still in second grade. A planet too far. 
 
I saw a painting that looked like it had been commissioned in 1957 for a John Coltrane album cover, but when I checked the card, I almost fell over to read: “John Singer Sargent, 1879-1880.”
 
Sargent was incredibly sophisticated, and clearly anticipated a lot of what was to come; but he also stood out in his own time, painting in a style of his own, ruffling feathers. I suppose this is one of the marks of genius, to be able to see the style of your own era for what it is, with its strengths and its limits, and not to be confined by it.
 
But we tend to feel that an artist is especially good if they break out of the mold of their era, and this is an odd thing to do, if impossible to avoid. It pits one style against another, and makes us consider everything in terms of being a response to something else, rather than existing on its own terms. This informed approach to art enriches our understanding of what we’re seeing, but at the same time, it narrows our ability to perceive it openly. Would it be better to look at a painting without knowing anything at all about art history? Just to look? Better? I don’t know!
 
I do know that the galleries with contemporary art were filled with pieces that absolutely required you to know something — not only to read the card, but to be trained in how to see what you were seeing so that it looks like anything at all. And the kicker is, I am the audience this was designed for. I live in this world. And yet I still needed help to see what I was seeing. My husband said that many artists are now making art for a culture that exists only in the art world, and not for the public in general. The art world is the context. Once, visiting a different museum with a bunch of squirrelly kids, I was at the end of my energy. Wondering if I should make the effort to climb yet another flight of stairs to get to the 20th century wing, I peered through and said to the guard at the entrance, “It’s hard not to feel like something went wrong,” and he said, “I know.” 
 
Of course, maybe he was wrong, too.
 
What a puzzle it is, trying to sort out the things that are actually timeless and the things that simply happen to speak to us in our time. People have never stopped adoring Rembrandt, as far as I know. Gauguin, I myself have made the forty-year trip from mistrusting him and feeling bad about it, to adoring him, to thinking, “If I found this painting on fire, I would look for water, but I wouldn’t run.” Cy Twombly, I didn’t even go to that floor.
 
Which is not to say that we are doomed to distort what we see. Only that we can feel at home in not knowing everything there is to know. If you can take your ego out of it, and subtract the pressure to be the smartest person who understands things very well indeed, it’s actually comforting to recall how at home we actually are in the time and world we live in. So many of us feel so alienated and displaced and out of communion with our own culture. I look at TikTok or a video game or the previews for upcoming movies, and I think, “What planet does everyone else live on?”
 
But we are more at home than we realize, more a creation and a creator of our own culture then we may know. It’s just that we may not know it until we step away from it, find some distance, and see what it would be like to be truly on the outside. And that is what happened to me. 
 
Poor William Shatner went up into space and found that distance.  He suddenly realized for the first time that earth is small, temporary, finite. I suppose going to the art museum could have me feel the same way. So much distance, so much fragility. Here was a massive marble building dedicated to showing me . . . everything. Everything there was to show, everything people thought was worth preserving, and yet so much of it is opaque to me. I suddenly felt very keenly the distance that is there between me and so many other worlds of experience.
 

But I thought of “Having Misidentified a Wildflower” by Richard Wilbur. It’s such a short poem, I suppose I can get away with quoting the whole thing:

A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

 
People sit down with their brush or their sculpting tools or their beads and loom, and I suppose sometimes they are trying to make something immortal, something that will speak to the human heart in every age. But the living artists I have met are not like that. Their aims are so much more humble, in general. Many of them are simply trying to capture something because they know it’s fleeting, and they have no illusions that what they create will somehow be more permanent. (Well, we’ll talk about the Egyptians some other time.) Making art is a way of naming the unnameable, of finding a familiar spot in a vastly uncatalogueable universe of experiences.The very fact that we keep doing this is familiar enough for me, and I smiled and smiled my whole way through the museum. 
 
I suppose I’m just happy, happy to be a member of a tribe that sees the world is fleeting and decides, I know what to do! And makes something.
 
 
 
 

Twenty-five years calls for baked Alaska!

On Tuesday, Damien and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

We did it in the way we know best: With a lot of food. Damien made a spectacular meal of Korean fried chicken, roast broccoli, and rice (more about that tomorrow!), and I was in charge of dessert. 

Twenty five years ago, I baked our wedding cake at the last minute, because my mother got sick, or accidentally cut off her own hand, or otherwise made sure she didn’t have to make the wedding cake. Which, understandable. I don’t remember what recipe I used; I just remember just baking more and more and more cake until it finally seemed wedding-sized, and I was very tired, so I stopped. And that’s how you do it!

We didn’t have a little bride and groom or even a floral topper. This is because I forgot. It was just cake. At the reception, my friend Kate noticed it was just bare white, and gathered up loose flowers and ferns from the bridesmaid’s bouquets and strewed them over the cake, and last I heard, this does not invalidate a marriage.

Nevertheless, someone told us it was traditional to save the top layer of cake and eat it on your first anniversary, so someone wrapped it up and we dutifully put it into the freezer. 

And then we moved, and moved the cake to the freezer of the new house. And then we were pretty busy, so we forgot about it, and then we moved again, and then we moved several times, and had ten kids and probably half a dozen refrigerators, and after a certain point, I got a little weird about the cake and wouldn’t let people throw it away even though it was taking up valuable space and there was no possible way it was edible. 

Anyway, maybe I had the sort of semi-disastrous wedding cake in my head as I hatched the idea to make a baked Alaska for our 25th anniversary. And let me apologize for the lack of photos in the first part of this. It does get less wordy and more pretty as it goes!

This was my first attempt at making baked Alaska, which is a cake topped with ice cream surrounded with meringue which is then toasted and/or set on fire. You can toast it with a torch, as I did, or you can bake it in the oven, and you can eat it that way, or you can toast it and then douse it with 80-proof liquor and flambé it. Either way, the novelty is that the ice cream stays frozen while the outside is briefly very hot indeed.

No part of it was difficult, but it did take some planning, because I wanted to make the ice cream and other components from scratch, and you have to freeze the ice cream bowls for 12 hours before making ice cream, and I was making three kinds. You can make it with store-bought ice cream, though, and you don’t need any special equipment to make the baked Alaska. You can use a kitchen torch, but you don’t have to. I will include a condensed version of the recipe at the end. 

As I mentioned, the meal was Korean or Korean-adjascent. With that in mind, this is what I ended up with for dessert, from the bottom up: 

Pound cake (which I made from a mix, because my baking is unreliable)
Raspberry-blackberry jam and pecan pralines
Mango ice cream
Pecan pralines
Coconut ice cream
Raspberry-blackberry jam
Strawberry ice cream
Meringue, toasted with a torch and then flambéd with spiced rum

Here’s the timeline, with recipes for each component

SATURDAY
I made a double recipe of Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry ice cream. Damien loves strawberry ice cream, and he said this is the best he ever had. 

Ben and Jerry's Strawberry Ice Cream

Ingredients

For the strawberries

  • 1 pint fresh strawberries
  • 1-1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

For the ice cream base

  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk

Instructions

  1. Hull and slice the strawberries. Mix them with the sugar and lemon juice, cover, and refrigerate for an hour.

Make the ice cream base:

  1. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs for two minutes until fluffy.

  2. Add in the sugar gradually and whisk another minute.

  3. Pour in the milk and cream and continue whisking to blend.

Put it together:

  1. Mash the strawberries well, or puree them in a food processor. Stir into the ice cream base.

  2. Add to your ice cream maker and follow the directions. (I use a Cuisinart ICE-20P1 and churn it for 30 minutes, then transfer the ice cream to a container, cover it, and put it in the freezer.)

It comes out a lovely petal pink and is full of strawberries. What more could you want?

SUNDAY

On Sunday I made coconut ice cream. I used the Ben and Jerry’s recipe for this as well, and it was very easy: Just a sweet cream base with a can of coconut cream stirred in. Here’s that recipe:

Ben and Jerry's coconut ice cream

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 cups whipping cream or heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 15 oz coconut cream

Instructions

  1. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs for two minutes until fluffy.

  2. Add in the sugar gradually and whisk another minute.

  3. Pour in the milk and cream and coconut cream (discarding the waxy disk thing) and continue whisking to blend.

  4. Add to your ice cream maker and follow the directions. (I use a Cuisinart ICE-20P1 and churn it for 30 minutes, then transfer the ice cream to a container, cover it, and put it in the freezer.)

This ice cream would be an excellent base for all kinds of lovely add-ins, nuts and chocolate chips and things. It was very rich and pleasant just plain, though. 

MONDAY

Monday I made mango ice cream, cake, and pralines. 

First the mango ice cream. I fiddled with various recipes, and here is what I ended up with:

Mango ice cream

Ingredients

  • 30 oz (about 3 cups) mango pulp
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 mango, chopped into bits

Instructions

  1. In a bowl, whisk the milk, sugar, and salt until blended.

  2. Add in the mango pulp and cream and stir with a spoon until blended.

  3. Cover and refrigerate two hours.

  4. Stir and transfer to ice cream maker. Follow instructions to make ice cream. (I use a Cuisinart ICE-20P1 and churn it for 30 minutes.)

  5. After ice cream is churned, stir in fresh mango bits, then transfer to a freezer-safe container, cover, and freeze for several hours.

My goodness, this was fantastic. If you like mangos, this is your ice cream. Lovely golden color, too. 

While it was churning, I made two boxes of Betty Crocker pound cake mix. I made two nine-inch rounds, plus an extra heart-shaped pan. I knew I was going to have to cut up the cake and reassemble it into a larger circle, so I wanted to have lots of curved pieces to choose from. 

I also made a batch of pecan pralines.

My computer has weirdly evaporated any trace of this recipe, so I’ll have to come back later and fill it in when I find it. It was just a basic recipe with butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg white, as I recall, and a low oven with the timer going off every fifteen minutes to stir the dang things. They came out nicely light and crunchy, very hard to stop snacking on them. 

TUESDAY

Tuesday was our actual anniversary. The first thing I did was clear out a space in the freezer, so there would be plenty of room to freeze the dang thing. Then I decided at the last minute to make some fresh jam to go in between the baked Alaska layers. This was a good idea, but I wish I had made more, because it was a little dry in between the cake and the first ice cream layers, but I only had a few cups of berries (half blackberry, half raspberry). 

It’s super easy. You combine three parts very ripe berries to one part sugar, and a li’l spoon of fresh lemon juice, bring it to a gentle boil in a pot, turn it down to simmer, and keep it simmering, stirring it frequently, until it thickens up. The recipes say it takes twenty minutes, but nothing takes twenty minutes. It took probably forty minutes to turn into anything I could honestly call “jam.” But it was a chilly, drizzly day and I did not mind hanging around sniffing the gentle clouds of berry steam. 

And then I was ready! Ready to make a baked Alaska! I had watched a few videos and read a few recipes, and chose out the most reasonable-sounding instructions. Here is what I did. 

My goal was to have the whole thing assembled at least four hours before dessert time, so it would have plenty of time to freeze. I took the three tubs of ice cream out of the freezer to let them soften up.

Note: The coconut ice cream softens up faster than the others, and eventually separates, so if you’re using it, maybe leave it in the freezer longer. 

I was planning an enormous baked Alaska. It probably could have served 15 people. I sprayed a plastic salad bowl 12″ in diameter with neutral cooking spray. Then I lined it with two ribbons in a cross shape, to make a handle to lift the frozen ice cream out at the end.

Then I lined the whole thing with plastic wrap, leaving some hanging over the edges. 

I really did not want that ice cream to get stuck!

I also made a diagram of what I wanted my finished baked Alaska to look like, because I knew I was going to get confused. Remember, you’re making it upside down, so the first thing you put in is going to be on top of the finished product.

I mushed up the strawberry ice cream a bit to make it the consistency of soft serve, and spread it in the bowl, making a smooth surface with a spatula.

Then I put it back in the freezer for 25 minutes or so. The jam was still pretty hot from being cooked, so I popped that in the freezer, too. When the ice cream had solidified a bit, I spooned some of the jam over the top and spread it out. Then I took the coconut ice cream, mushed it, and spread it out, and sprinkled pralines over the top, and put it in the freezer to harden a bit. Then I repeated the process with the mango ice cream, making the third layer. I spread the rest of the jam and the rest of the pralines over this. 

(I wanted this baked Alaska to be in layers, but you can also make it with random scoops or blobs of different kinds of ice cream, and this is easier and faster, because you don’t have to let it freeze in between, and you don’t have to try to smooth it down. But you don’t get stripes, and where’s the fun in that?)

Then I folded the flaps of plastic wrap over the ice cream to compress it all and make it as smooth as possible. 

Then it was time to cut up the pound cakes! I had two nine-inch rounds and a heart-shaped caked. First I leveled them, then I cut one of the rounds in half and laid them along both edges of the bowl. I cut a long rod out the center of the second round and used it to fill up the center. Then I cut rounded wedges from the heart to fill in the remaining gaps. I was pretty proud of how well it all fit together. 

You can see that I put the crust edge down, touching the ice cream, and the trimmed edge up. I wish I had done it the other way, so the more tender cake would be in contact with the jam and ice cream. Next time!

Many people use brownies for the base. Any baked good is fine, as long as it’s dense and can hold up to the weight of a lot of ice cream. When all the gaps were filled in, I folded the extra plastic wrap flaps over the cake again, and added a little extra, to keep it dry in the freezer, and that part was all done. I got it in the freezer by noon. 

I also did some prep for the meringue early in the day. I separated eight eggs gave the yolks to the dog, and set the whites aside so they would be room temperature when it was time to make the meringue. Then I made some superfine sugar: I put two cups of regular granulated sugar into the food processor and whirred it for a couple of minutes, and then set that aside as well. 

The meringue turned out to be the only part that gave me trouble. After dinner, I started whipping the egg whites in the standing mixer with the whisk attachment along with 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar. I whisked it until it was frothy, and then started adding the superfine sugar, one little scoop at a time, with the whisk going on high. And it went and it went and it went and it went, but it the peaks just never got stiff. Every time I tested it to see if they would stand up straight, they would flop over. I know it takes a long time with a lot of eggs, but it really got to be ridiculous after a while, and I was afraid I was going to break the eggs, so I decided to just go ahead and work with what I had. 

With great trepidation, I put a pan under the ice cream bowl, flipped it over, gave it a tap, and . . . it came right out, no problem whatsoever. I didn’t need the handle or anything. The plastic wrap peeled off easily. Here’s how it looked at this point:

At this point, you don’t have a lot of time. You have to spread the meringue all over the whole thing, including down to the bottom of the cake base, before the ice cream melts. The meringue insulates the ice cream and keeps it from getting melted by whatever kind of heat you apply. I frantically meringued it with a spatula and then added scallops (I mean designs, not the shellfish) with a fork, then I toasted the whole thing with a kitchen torch. That was fun! It brought out the design like magic, like those books you get when you’re little, that you brush with water and a hidden picture appears. 

Next step: Flambé! I had bought a nip of Kraken spiced rum and just sort of splattered it all over the baked Alaska, and then turned the torch on it, and up it went.

It just made a small flame, so I threw some more rum on and torched it again, and that was a little more impressive.

 

 

There is supposed to be a video above! Please tell me there is a video above. 

Some of the instructions I read said you were supposed to
warm the rum, which I forgot to do, and some said you were supposed to pour it into an eggshell (?) and set it on fire and then pour it onto the baked Alaska, which sounded like a wonderful way to set your arm on fire. My method worked fine, and it burned itself out fairly quickly, without blackening the dessert too much. 

And then it was time to cut! I thought it would be an absolute menace to hack through, but it was actually quite easy, and the knife slid right through. The ice cream held together in distinct layers, yet the cake wasn’t hard and frozen. I was so pleased.

The meringue even held in place and didn’t really start to slide until I was almost done cutting slices for everyone. All in all, a complete success, way beyond what I was hoping for. 

You guys, it tasted so good. I guess I was halfway expecting it to be some kind of novelty monstrosity dessert that would impress the kids because it was on fire, but instead it turned out to be truly delicious. 

I was entirely happy with the combination of creamy, tropical fruity flavors, and the jam and nuts added a lot of interest so it wasn’t just sugar and sweetness.

I do wish I had made more jam, but the jam itself was a great idea. Cold jam made from fresh fruit is an absolute delight. The meringue itself had more depth of flavor than I was expecting. The light torching had caramelized it slightly, and it had a wonderful cozy, toasty taste that added a real layer of appeal. 

I will absolutely be making this again. Absolutely! Not for a while, though! 

Ah, but what about the top tier of the wedding cake, the one we saved for a quarter of a century, brought with us through several moves and held onto throughout countless power outages? WHAT OF IT? 
 
Well, I happen to have this video of Damien finally unwrapping it, and I think you’re just perverse enough to be curious. Enjoy! Enjoy! 
 

Well. Anyway, you can make a baked Alaska in a day. You can see I did this the slightly insane way, but you can get a readymade cake, get a quart or two of ice cream from the store, and make a meringue, and set it on fire! Do it! 

Here are the assembly instructions for baked Alaska, without all the recipes and chit-chat. This is for a somewhat smaller one than the one I made, but you can fiddle with the proportions.

Spray or grease a bowl.
Lay a cross of ribbons inside it to make a handle, to help you lift out the frozen ice cream dome. 
Line this with plastic wrap, leaving some hanging over the edges. 
Add small scoops of various flavors of softened ice cream. Or add softened ice cream in layers, smoothing it down and letting it freeze in between. 
Continue filling the bowl, and leave a space on top. Fold the plastic wrap over the top and smush it down, to compress it and make the top smooth. 

Get a pound cake, slab of brownies, or other dense cake, and cut it into slices about half an inch thick. Fit these over the top of the ice cream like a puzzle, filling up all the gaps. 
Fold the plastic wrap over the top of the cake and freeze the bowl for at least four hours until the ice cream is rock hard. 

Make the meringue: Make a cup of superfine sugar by whirring it in the food processor for a minute. 
Separate four egg whites and add in 1/4 tsp cream of tartar. Whisk with an electric mixer until frothy.
Spoonful by spoonful, add in one cup of superfine sugar until the meringue  is smooth, not grainy, and the peaks are stiff. (Test by pulling out the whisk and turning it upside down. If the meringue stands up straight and does not flop over, they are stiff.)Take the ice cream bowl out of the freezer and flip it upside down on a flat pan. If it doesn’t pop out, use the ribbon handles to pull it out. Peel off the plastic wrap.
Spread the meringue all over the ice cream and cake, all the way down to the bottom, and make it into decorative swirls, using a fork to add details if you like. 

Lightly torch the meringue to toast it.
(If you don’t have a torch, you can toast it in the oven, but you will need to re-freeze the whole thing for a few hours first, before popping it into a 500 oven for 4 minutes.)
 
To flambé the meringue, pour a few tablespoons of 80-proof liquor like rum or brandy over the top of the meringue and touch a flame to it. It will burn itself out in a minute or so. 
 
Cut with a sharp knife. If it’s too hard to cut, dip the knife in hot water. 
 
 

What’s for supper? Vol. 314: The sound of stroganoff

Happy Friday! Before we go any further, I have to show you last Friday’s lo mein. I posted the WFS post before I made dinner, so there was no photo, but it turned out so good. I made the basic recipe but added shrimp, zucchini, yellow bell pepper, and matchstick ginger. 

Fabulous. Here’s the recipe in case you need it.

Jump to Recipe

Very easy and fast. I usually use fettuccine for the noodles, and that makes it cheap, too. I think I got everything at Aldi except the rice vinegar.

Okay, on to this week! Here’s what we had. 

SATURDAY
Burgers, chips

Not tired of burgers and chips yet. Especially when Damien cooks them outside. 

SUNDAY
Italian sandwiches, fries 

On Sunday we went apple picking, and then stopped at my parents’ graves to say a decade and plant a bunch of crocuses. Very glad to see the two rose bushes and the lilac tree I planted in the summer are still alive! 

Here’s a little album from Facebook because I’m lazy. 


 

Then we came home and had Italian sandwiches. I had mine with plenty of red pesto, yum yum.

Damien got an extra package of prosciutto for later in the week, as you shall see. I flubbed dessert (I had bought some Halloween-shaped rice krispie treat kits that you had to make and decorate spookily, which not even the kids felt like doing after a couple of hours in the car), but Damien had had the foresight to buy a sack of cider donuts at the orchard, which he put in the microwave for dessert, and they were delightful. I was feeling the teensiest bit emotionally bruised after the cemetery visit, and a hot sugary donut definitely helped. 

MONDAY
Oven fried chicken, roast butternut squash, apple hand pies

The fried chicken I made a few weeks ago was so very tasty, but such a pain in the pants, so I took the advice of my friend Patti and tried oven frying it. It was quite good, and so much easier. 

Early in a day, I let the chicken (drumsticks and thighs) soak in milk and eggs with salt and pepper. Then at dinner time, I put a few inches of melted butter and canola oil (half and half) in a couple of roasting pans in a 425-degree oven. While it was heating up, I rolled the chicken parts in flour seasoned with lots of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. I put the chicken in the pans, skin side down, and let it cook for about half an hour, then turned it and let it finish cooking for another fifteen minutes or so. 

Not quite as spectacularly crackly-crisp as pan fried chicken, but still crunchy and delicious, and moist and tasty inside. Will definitely do it this way again. 

I wasn’t able to fit all the chicken in the oven pans, so I pan fried the extras, got distracted, and burned the ever loving hell out it. Completely black. Then I turned it over and, just to be fair, did the same thing to the other side. Then I threw it away. 

I also made hand pies. Corrie loved the pumpkin empanadas from last week so much, and it made mornings so much easier when she had something tasty and homemade to grab for a car breakfast, so I decided to make pineapple empanadas with the rest of the Goya dough discs I bought. I’ll spare you the details, but I managed to ruin quite a lot of pineapple, and then light dawned on blockhead, and I realized we had 9,000 apples in the house. So I pulled out my lovely old fashioned apple peeler-corer-slicer and made apple empanadas, or really just little pies at this point. See my pies! See my pies!

Chicken and pies, Mr. Tweedy. 

The pie filling was apple sliced and dusted with flour and sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and a little butter. I forgot salt. I folded them into the dough, cut some vents, and brushed the tops with egg, then sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon, and baked them on parchment paper at 375 for about half an hour. 

I’m not gonna lie, I was also doing a lot of running around and shouting and waving my arms about something completely unrelated to food, while I was making 20 pies, and ruining pineapple, and rolling chicken in flour, and burning it, and burning the other side, and snatching apple peels away from the dog, and so on. It is an actual miracle that I get dinner on the table every day, even when I’m not all worked up about something, which I was. It’s like a Greek tragedy in there every day, I don’t know what goes on. But eventually everything got cooked, and I had it in my head that we needed butternut squash, too, so I chopped that up, drizzled it with honey and olive oil, sprinkled it with kosher salt and chili powder, and broiled it until it was a little blistered, and I guess we had pie for supper and squash for dessert, I don’t know. ἔξοδος.

TUESDAY
Beef stroganoff

Yeah! Stroganoff! Someone, and I’m very sorry I don’t remember who, posted this on Twitter

and the vision that was planted in my brain/still remains./And I haaaaad/ to make stroganoff. 

I usually make stroganoff with ground beef, but honestly, it’s gotten so expensive that it was only like three dollars more to get a big hunk of roast. It’s called “budgeting,” sweaty. I followed the Deadspin recipe. These recipes are invariably delicious, but incredibly obnoxious, so I went ahead and made a card. 

Jump to Recipe

I was very busy on Tuesday, so I did all my chopping and slicing and mincing in the morning,

and when dinner came, it all came together in a flash. It’s very easy, and is a great way to furnish yourself with enough calories to survive an eighteen month siege.

First you lightly fry the sliced meat in butter

And I was very determined that this stroganoff would turn out tender, not tough, so I fried the meat very lightly indeed. Then you remove meat from the pan and fry up the onions in more butter, salt it, then add in the garlic 

then the mushrooms and tarragon and pepper.

This is the point where you add brandy if you have any, which I did not.

Then you put your meat back in, heat it up, blorp in an insane amount of sour cream, heat that up, adjust your salt, and that’s it. 

While you are cooking this, you boil up a pot of egg noodles, and you serve the stroganoff over noodles.

So delicious. My only disappointment was I didn’t taste the tarragon much. I don’t use tarragon often, so I was looking forward to it. Maybe I should have saved some out and used a bit to garnish the top and bring up the flavor a bit. We all have colds, though, so it’s a miracle we can taste anything.

WEDNESDAY
Pizza

Three pizzas, and I made the mistake of not making one plain cheese pizza. Oh, there was howling and complaining. I have heard the cries of my people, and next time I will make one plain cheese pizza. 

This time, I, monster, made one pepperoni, one mushroom and olive, and one prosciutto and arugula (that’s what the extra prosciutto was for. That’s called building suspense. Look it up, sweaty). That third pizza was just remarkable. Fresh little curls of parmesan frolicking on top, so nice.

First you make an arugula salad: A few handfuls of baby arugula, the juice of a small lemon, a few drizzles of olive oil, and kosher salt and pepper.

Then you make a normal cheese pizza but spread plenty of thinly-sliced raw garlic on it, and some fresh rosemary if you have it (which I did not), and drizzle a little olive oil over that, and give it a little salt and pepper. Bake as normal, and when it comes out, spread it with torn-up prosciutto, and top it with the arugula salad.

It’s so good, it almost makes me mad. What the hell is this? Why is it so delicious? Who comes up with this stuff? Gosh! 

THURSDAY
Kielbasa, potato, and Brussels sprouts

The kids were helping me make the shopping list on Saturday morning, and more than one shouted “Kielbasa!” They are prone to shouting things like “Kielbasa!” without meaning anything in particular by it, but I wrote it down anyway. But they were all pretty adamant that they didn’t want any cabbage, and they seemed to mean it. I don’t really know any kielbasa dishes besides the one-pan deal with potato, kielbasa, and cabbage, so I thought why not make the same basic thing but swap in Brussels sprouts, which people do like? 

It turns out lots of other people have had this idea, including the New York Times. I followed an uncharacteristically simple recipe by them (well, they sort of sheepishly suggested tossing some mustard seeds and almonds in there, but they admitted that it wasn’t really necessary), and it turned out fine. I’m a fool and didn’t save the recipe when it let me in for a free view, but it’s just a basic sheet pan deal with potatoes, some kind of sausage, and Brussels sprouts cooked with olive oil, salt, and pepper for a while, and then you toss it with a honey mustard dressing and continue cooking it. 

I used three ropes of kielbasa, two pounds of Brussels sprouts, and probably three pounds of potatoes (red would have been nice, but they were like a dollar a potato, so I just cut up some baking potatoes), and I think the honey mustard was four tablespoons of mustard and six tablespoons of honey. Something along those lines. 

So I cooked it at 425, I think, for about 25 minutes, I think, stirred it one time and then drizzled the honey mustard on and finished cooking it, then pulled it out about twenty minutes later

I guess the almonds would have been pretty good, and it would have been good to use dijon mustard instead of cheapo yellow mustard, but it was fine as it was, and it certainly was easy. Maybe a tiny bit dry.

I think next time I will make extra honey mustard sauce for a little dipping after it’s cooked. 

The original plan was to make King Arthur hot pretzels to go with this meal, but there was nothing anywhere near enough time for that. Next time! 

Come to think of it, I do know another kielbasa meal: Jambalaya. Ooh, it’s been quite a while. I think I’ll make that next week. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

Just whatever. 

And now! Next Tuesday is our twenty-fifth anniversary! We will be going out for a little outing at a later date, but for the day itself, we thought it would be fun to just cook a nice meal for the family. We like cooking together, as long as we’re not too rushed. 

Damien is probably going to make Korean fried chicken, which is guaranteed scrumptious, and I am thinking of making a baked Alaska, probably with strawberry, coconut, and mango ice cream. You’re supposed to spread softened ice cream onto the cake in layers and let it freeze, so that will work well with homemade ice cream, which comes out of the machine soft anyway. 

I have had baked Alaska only once, in 8th grade when our French class went to Quebec and were horribly obnoxious to everyone in the entire hotel and city and country the whole time, but never so much as when they wheeled out the baked Alaska. I am very sketchy on the details besides that everyone was screaming, especially my friend Becky, so if anyone has any more useful details or experience with baked Alaska, please share! We do have a small blow torch. It seems like the individual components are easy, and it’s mainly a matter of starting well in advance, sticking to the plan, and not panicking, and that’s how you earn the moment where you set it all on fire. Kind of like,,,, twenty five years of marriage.

Anyway, I may get someone else to make the cake part, because I’m not great with cake. I’m good with ice cream, though. And setting things on fire. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

Deadspin beef stroganoff

The tastiest, coziest, most calorific cold weather comfort food known to mankind. You can make this with ground beef, but it's so good with thin, tender slices of beef. Please don't ask me what cut of beef to use, as I don't know.

Calories 500000000 kcal

Ingredients

  • 2-3 lbs beef, sliced into thin, flat pieces
  • 4-6 Tbsp butter
  • 2 medium onions, diced or sliced thin
  • 5-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup red wine (optional)
  • 16 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • bunch fresh tarragon, minced (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • 32 oz sour cream
  • egg noodles that you will need to cook while you are making the stroganoff

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, melt most of the butter and cook the beef pieces very lightly, until they are just a little brown but still partially pink.

  2. Remove the beef from the pan, put the remaining butter in, and put the onion in, and cook it until it's slightly soft. Sprinkle it with salt, stir, and add in the garlic and cook for another few minutes.

  3. If you are adding wine, splash that in. Add in the mushrooms, tarragon, and pepper, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are soft and fragrant.

  4. Add the beef and any juices back into the pan with the mushrooms, and heat it up. Stir in the sour cream and continue stirring and heating.

  5. Add salt if necessary, and serve stroganoff over hot egg noodles.