Monday, January 25, 2016

Bonding over food

Is there any greater enjoyment than a good meal, especially one that reminds you of your youth, and simpler times? They call such things "comfort foods" and for very good reason. Today, my elderly Mom and I decided to make such foods.

With Mom's dementia and learning so much more about it, I've seen that the very strengths she once had, such as cooking and baking are traits that can withstand the test of time and memory especially if a loved one shares that passion as well.

I entered the warmth of my mother's kitchen today, (well, a little warmer than usual because with her condition, Mom is always very very cold. The heat was a blaring 74 degrees at the time.) to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a well-worn recipe card in front of her, studying it as if the meaning of life was written upon it.

"What's that?" I asked Mom.

"My old recipe for Strufali," came the reply.

Strufali, for those of you who aren't Italian, are little fried dough balls, maybe an inch or so in diameter. Made almost like a pie dough, dropped into boiling oil, then after they are drained on paper towels, put into a pot of heated honey and turned over again and again. These little delectables had usually been made for New Years in my family in the past. My Nonna had made them, and Mom too, bringing to mind my youth and the above mentioned simpler times.

I made up my mind that I was going to be Mom's kitchen slave for the day. Rolling up my sleeves, I began measuring out the ingredients, after putting on a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup, stir-frying another cut up chicken breast, throwing together a meatloaf and oven roasted potatoes too. Did I mention I was a kitchen slave earlier? Indeed. But it was one of the most bonding, fun times with Mom in recent memory. I'd taken one of her favorite things, cooking and baking, and turned it into an afternoon of bonding together. Each time Mom would say, "Please, I want to help," I'd politely turn her down and say, "No, you're the master chef, and I'm your pupil." Now you have to understand, I think I'm a fairly good cook and baker myself, but to let my mother think she was teaching me precious gems of kitchen duties was priceless. Though she did help a little, and later would tell my brother she made the whole meal, it didn't bother me a bit.

What is it with us sometime when we feel we must take credit for everything, or we are completely slighted? It took nothing from me to let Mom think she made the whole delicious meal and the Italian dough balls as well. Her hand had certainly been in it, so in many ways, it was her cooking and baking. I've taken her ideas from many years, and have incorporated them into my own kitchen. Many of the things I make come lovingly from little old scraps of paper, splotches of food encrusted into them as I study Mom's handwriting from years ago. I don't deviate from much of it, though my mother was one of those "pinch of this, dash of that" types too.

When the Strufali were finished yesterday, and we dug into the tasty, honey-coated treats, the look on my mother's face was priceless. A smile, eyes closed, a moan of ecstasy when she bit into one. And when Dad walked into the kitchen and tried his own, the compliment of "these are the best ones ever," was like music to my ears.

What a good day, a bonding day, a day of love and understanding. A day to treasure as her memory may fade, her moods worsen, or God forbid, she forgets any of us some day.

I hope to have more days like this. Days where a mother and daughter can giggle like schoolgirls, talk about old times, work side by side, and share the love and stories that all have come out of an Italian kitchen and bonding over comfort food.

Recipe for Strufali from Grace Massa Langlois, in an article on La Mia Vita Dolce from 2010.

Cicerchiata-Struffoli, Italian Honey Balls

  • 6 large eggs
  • 375 g (3 cups) plain (all purpose) flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Canola or vegetable oil for deep frying
  • 710 ml (3 cups) honey
  • 75 g (½ cup) candied fruit, optional
  • 50 g (1/3 cup) slivered almonds, optional
  • Candy sprinkles, optional
  • Vegetable cooking spray (if shaping cicerchiata into a wreath)
  1. Crack eggs into a small bowl, cover and allow eggs to come to room temperature, 30 minutes.
  2. Add salt to eggs; lightly beat together with a fork.
  3. Place flour on a clean work surface or in a large bowl.  Make a well in the centre.
  4. Pour egg mixture into centre of well.  With the tips of your fingers or with a fork gradually draw the flour into the egg mixture.  Continue until all or most of the flour is incorporated.
  5. Use your hands to gather the dough together.  Knead the dough until smooth and no longer sticky, 5 to 7 minutes.
  6. Shape dough into a ball, cover with an overturned bowl, kitchen towel or wrap in plastic.  Let dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  7. Fill a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan with 5-cm (2 inches) of oil.  Attach a thermometer and heat oil over medium heat to between 185° C and 190° C (365° Fand 370° F). (If you don’t have a thermometer, drop a 2.5-cm (1-inch) cube of bread into hot oil.  If it takes about 1 minute to brown all sides of the cube and the cube floats to the top the oil has reached the appropriate temperature for deep-frying.)
  8. Prepare 2 baking sheets line one baking sheet with non-stick baking paper (for cut pieces of dough) and line the other baking sheet with 3 to 4 layers of paper towels (to absorb excess oil).
  9. Knead rested dough for a few minutes.
  10. Cut dough into 12 equal pieces.  Work with one piece of dough at a time, keeping remaining dough covered.  Using the palms of your hands roll each piece into a rope 1¼-cm (½-inch) thick.  Cut the rope into 6 1/3-mm or 12¾ mm (¼-inch or ½-inch) pieces. Transfer pieces to prepared baking sheet (lined with non-stick baking paper); cover dough pieces with a kitchen towel.  (Cicerchiata puff out quite a bit when frying.  If I am preparing a wreath I prefer to cut the dough into smaller pieces.  You may want to fry a small batch before cutting all the dough to see which size you prefer.)
  11. Cook dough pieces in small batches (do not overcrowd pan), stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until lightly golden on all sides, 1½ to 3 minutes (depending on size).
  12. Transfer cicerchiata to baking sheet (lined with paper towels) with a slotted spoon.
  13. When all dough is fried allow cicerchiata to come to room temperature.  Transfer cicerchiata to a large bowl.
  14. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan bring honey to a simmer over low heat. Simmer at low heat, stirring occasionally, until honey is melted.
  15. Gradually pour honey (reserving 59 ml or ¼-cup if shaping into a wreath) over cicerchiata stirring with a wooden spoon until well incorporated.
  16. If using candied fruit, nuts or sprinkles (or all three), sprinkle over top of cicerchiata and stir to well combine.  (If shaping into a wreath, reserve a portion of the candied fruit, nuts and sprinkles to decorate wreath.)
  17. To serve, spoon into a bowl, pile onto a serving dish or shape into a wreath.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Introducing C. H. Armstrong

In honor of a new friend I made this year, I'd like to introduce C. H. Armstrong to you all. Today is her book blitz, and I'm happy to be a part of this exciting venture for a very talented author!

Here is a little about her awesome new book:

The year is 1992 and Victoria Hastings Harrison Greene—reviled matriarch of a sprawling family—is dying.
After surviving the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Victoria refuses to leave this earth before revealing the secrets she’s carried for decades.
Once the child of a loving family during peaceful times, a shocking death shattered her life. Victoria came face to face with the harshness of the world. As the warm days of childhood receded to distant memory, Victoria learns to survive.
No matter what it takes.
To keep her family alive in an Oklahoma blighted by dust storms and poverty, Victoria makes choices—harsh ones, desperate ones. Ones that eventually made her into the woman her grandchildren fear and whisper about. Ones that kept them all alive. Hers is a tale of tragedy, love, murder, and above all, the conviction to never stop fighting.


All the places to find her:



A little about her:
C.H. Armstrong is an Oklahoma native transplanted in Minnesota.  A 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, “Cathie”is a life-long lover of books, and staunchly outspoken on subject of banned and challenged books.  The Edge of Nowhere is her first novel and was inspired by her own family’s experiences during the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl and The Great Depression.

I hope you'll have a chance to check her book out, and take the time to read a little more about her on her website and social media.

Wishing you all the best my friend!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Best Worst Year Ever

I got the title from a good friend of mine. There was a time in her life that she was going through one of the most difficult events ever, the death of her father. But, she said, there had been so many blessings that year, that she didn't want to look back at it as the worst year of her life. The good events were so abundant, so truly from God, that she told me "It was the best worst year ever."

That got me thinking. I, too, am in one of those best/worst times right now in my life. In early December, my stress level was at an all time high. My husband and I were fighting over pretty much everything. We had four days off together for Christmas shopping and frivolity, but we were both at a power struggle for first place with ideas and "how to do everything correctly." I was at the point that I wanted to go back to work to escape the most wonderful time of the year and the man in my life. My husband's stress level had also been through the roof as well, with extra long work hours and other issues he struggled with. I couldn't find a happy thought toward him, or one iota of compassion. My aging parents lay heavily on my mind at all times, and I felt the joy being sucked right out of me.

But. . . there were several blessings that crept up sneakily. I opened an email one morning from a Pittsburgh publishing company that wanted to feature my new book on their online television show. Now, I must admit, I was more than a little suspicious that this was a fraud. I chuckled about it, secretly wishing it was true. I did a little homework, a bit of research and found out it indeed was a real event! Eight other local authors and myself included, spoke about our books for the television cameras. I'm not quite sure what may come of this, but as I always say: Any publicity is good publicity. This unknown girl who struggles to make a name for herself as an author was given this incredible opportunity. It was a dream come true. But. . .

My husband took a terrible fall during a holiday family get together. It was so bad, he ended up in the hospital. Now, I must admit, the "Christmas Cheer" was flowing pretty freely during the party. So his faculties weren't quite up to par to begin with. But when he broke facial bones and scared me and his children to death, I couldn't help but become angry with liquor and the fact that he'd come from a family that liked to indulge. I was not brought up that way. It's odd for me to see people needing a drink to have a good time. So I haven't been thrilled with this type of behavior throughout our marriage. However, a few great things did come from this. No major problems for my husband. No neck or back fractures even though it was a tumble down outdoor cement steps. And the best part: A complete change of heart. My husband has not touched a drop of alcohol since it happened. This was something I'd been praying for many years.

Another sneaky blessing came in the form of another email one day. A popular cat anthology that I'd submitted a few paragraphs to, had accepted my story! Never before in my writing career have I been "chosen" for anything. I felt as giddy as a child while I danced around my house the day I found this news out.

My brother phoned me two nights ago. He said that our mother, who has dementia, had a terrible bout of diarrhea and was bleeding. He called an ambulance to take her to the emergency room. My husband and I were in the middle of watching the movie "War Room" at the time. I had been completely immersed in the story line and hoped it was only a fluke with Mom, I must confess. She'd mentioned eating a whole box of chocolate covered cherries, and we all wondered perhaps, if it was the "red" of the cherries they were seeing. I got a call later that they were admitting Mom to the hospital to run more tests. It was indeed blood that was found.

Now anyone with a parent or loved one with dementia must realize that a hospital visit can be devastating. Mom had been in the hospital last year, and it had wreaked such havoc with her mind, she truly didn't know where she was and why my father wasn't there with her every moment and sleeping with her at night. She came home depressed from that episode and way more confused than she had been. So I fretted: would this time be like that too? I went on to Facebook and typed a quick status about Mom going into the hospital. And about sixty-five people later, prayers were being offered in a major way.

Talk about the blessing this time. Not only did my family have the stamina needed to be there for Mom, but every hospital attendant, nurse and doctor treated her extremely kind. Everyone took the extra special time to explain things patiently to her again and again, and to comfort each one of us as we awaited tests. The biggest blessing came in the form of the male nurse I'd left Mom with last evening. I stayed as long as I possibly could. The male nurse whose name was Matt, had promised me she was in good hands. But Mom wasn't having a good night. Especially since she'd needed to drink prep for stomach tests in the morning. I had a very rough night, unable to sleep much, tossing and turning from worry. Would the test have to be cancelled if my mother didn't drink enough prep? Was she giving that nice male nurse a rough time?

When my father and I arrived at the hospital this morning, I walked over to Matt the nurse. He admitted that Mom had a fairly rough go of it through the night, but he'd been with her as much as possible, actually spending several hours with her. His demeanor and way that he spoke, assured me that he had been the right nurse for the job. He'd comforted her and reassured her. And when I talked with Mom a few minutes later, she couldn't stop talking about the wonderful young man who'd been with her through most of her scary night.

Mom's tests turned out wonderfully, she went through with flying colors and even had a clean bill of health. A very small issue had caused her problems, and she would be discharged in a few hours.

I sit here tonight thinking back over a full month. From early December when I thought I couldn't take another minute from the holiday stress, to today when I thought I couldn't take another minute from how tired I was. I believe with my whole heart and everything in me that it was prayer that sustained us all through these times. My husband and I have prayed out loud together for at least five years before we go to work every morning. Is our marriage perfect, nope. But have I seen some amazing changes in both our lives, some blessings that only can truly be accounted to our Heavenly Father? You bet. And the prayers of the Facebook friends during these last few days for Mom. They weren't only for her to be "okay." Those prayers sustained every member of my family, gave us the strength, humor and tenacity needed for all that we had to do. Those prayers helped put the right people in our paths, great nurses, good doctors and a positive experience for my mother. She talked with me earlier tonight about how nice everything was. She thanked me for being there and spoke highly of her care and treatment. For someone with dementia, she was acting pretty normal.

Yes, life is hard. I've made some of my own problems, and there are others that come from the natural rhythm of things. But in the midst of some of the worst times ever have come the best ones as well. For God has promised us that He will never leave us or forsake us. He upholds us with His hand. He loves us unconditionally and He is a blesser, my friends. The things I spoke about in this blog may not look to some people like miracles or really great things. But to me and my family, they are answered prayers. And the little extras, the little sneaky bonuses I've been given on top of it all, have really made this time of my life the best ever.