Friday, November 30, 2012

It's that piparkūku time of the year again!

I’ve been told that there will be days (weeks, months!) like these, days when nothing gets done except even bigger messes made, days when the boys don’t make it out of their pajamas, days when I don’t make it out of my pajamas… I’m not sure what has been the single most overwhelming thing this week, but the combination has been a doozy. I’ve made a to-do list for the holidays and don’t even know where to start. We’ve bought a used bookcase from craigslist and it barely emptied the boxes of books from the space it now stands. Mikus has found the various places in the house that are not childproof and insists on visiting every chance he gets. And sleep! I spend more hours a day trying to get both boys to sleep than they actually spend sleeping!

It might be the Christmas list that irks me most, as this will very possibly be the first Christmas Lauris remembers. It certainly is the first where a portion of the preparations will be more for him than for me. Discussions of Santa Claus, the elves, advent calendars and the meaning of Christmas dot our afternoons, and I find myself reading Ziemassvētki Rezgalē (an Astrid Lindgren book about Christmas translated into Latvian) at least twice a day.

So it is with great relief that I announce I have started the piparkūku dough! Currently in the refrigerator “resting” before the cookie cutting begins, it took almost an entire day to make. While Mikus was taking his first nap of the day Lauris helped me get started, pouring and sifting ingredients. Twenty minutes later Mikus joined us, pulling my pant leg while simultaneously shrieking for attention. One belt, lunch and diaper changes later we continued the process, only to break for another snack break (which means more diaper changes). And in the final stage I found myself elbow-deep in dough at the moment when Mikus decided he had had enough and wanted up, now! Needless to say the clean-up took even longer (and might still be unfinished as I’m pretty sure there is flour dusting the entire kitchen) and only because of Thanksgiving  and subsequent leftovers was there any dinner on the table (anyone else enjoy their turkey soup as much as we did?). And this was without all the added challenges that making them in France brought...

All the spices that go into the piparkūkas!
This morning I made it a point to get dressed and brush my teeth before starting on the boys; we have to go to the store and although we are in the US I doubt making the trip in my pajamas would be proper. We’ve gotten a good start to the morning, and I instead of dread when I look at the clock and see it’s only 9am, I’m a bit relieved, because it means I might actually get something done today.

* Today I am grateful for my two boys. Sleep-deprived, sanity-challenged and patience-deficient also, sure, but grateful.
** And during the process of trying to post this they’ve gotten into the kitchen cabinets. Mikus has broken something and Lauris smashed his pinkie finger in the door. Now we’re eating a second breakfast and reading about a dingo.  <Sigh>

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Children's Museum of the Upstate

Yesterday we had reason to celebrate! It was the name day for all those named Lauris and Laimdots (if you need a refresher on the Latvian name’s day tradition, you can take a quick peek at this post), and as there is a lack of Laimdoti in our family, we instead focused on Lauris!

He said he wanted to go to a museum to celebrate (I’m not exactly sure where that came from), so it was as good a time as any to check out the Children’s Museum of the Upstate, right here in Greenville.

The "Garage Rock" room even had a beat box!
It was a blast! Some of the rooms were similar to the Children’s Museum we visited while in Chicago, and there was plenty to do and see that we ended up spending the entire day there. Good thing I brought a snack…

Mikus in the toddler lily pond - and when I say "in", I mean IN!
Admission is a little steep ($10 per adult, $9 per child over 2), but a family membership is available, which might make sense for those planning to visit often ($150 annually). Parking is an added expense to consider, and there is a café on the premises so budget accordingly. For us the special occasion warranted a day spent exploring, and once Mikus is older we might consider the membership.

Build your own truck - took mom a while to figure it out
During the morning it was on the crowded side as five or six buses of children from local elementary schools were swarming inside, but after taking advantage of the activity room to make “family collage puppets” it felt like we had the entire museum to ourselves. There were no lines to try out toys, no fights over sharing, and blessed peace for this mom while both boys played. If only the wi-fi had worked…

* Šodien esmu pateicīga par visiem mīļiem cilvēkiem kuŗi sūtija sveicienus Laurim vārda dienā! Laurim pastā pat pienāca vesela kaste ar tulpju sīpoliņiem, kuŗus viņš un brālis lielā sajūsmā palīdzēja mammai iestādīt priekšas dobē (paldies vecvecmamma!). Vienīgi nezinu vai iztiksim līdz pavasarim – viņš katru reizi garām staigājot prasa kur ir tomāti!

Monday, November 26, 2012

A month of gratitude, part sept - apples, recipes, pop!

We’ve made a dent in the apples.
You might remember, we hauled home two bushels of apples from an orchard in North Carolina. With half of my fridge space and a cooler on the porch occupied, the apple recipes took priority over other experiments for a matter of weeks.
First, we made applesauce. My mother has a little more experience with canning than I do, so I was happy to have her on board. We used Dzidra Zeberiņa’s recipe from Ģimenes pavards, the Latvian equivalent of Joy of Cooking or Taste of Home.

Ābolu biezenis
Veselus, nebojātus  ābolus nomazgā, izgriež kāta un zieda galus, sagriež šķēlēs un vāra ar tik daudz ūdens, lai nepiedeg, kamēr mīksti. Izspiež caur sietu, tad liek atpakaļ katlā, uz 3 tasēm biezeņa liekot 1 tasi cukura, uzvāra vēlreiz, tad tūlīt lej traukos, atstājot apmēram ¼ collas platu brīvu telpu. Viegli apmaisa, lai nav gaisa burbuļu, uzliek vākus, karsē verdošā ūdenī 10 minūtes (paintu un kvortu traukus).
We peeled and cored a lot of apples, sliced them, then boiled them in a very large pot with just enough water so they wouldn’t burn. When soft we pressed them through a sieve, returning the result to the pot. The recipe called for 1 cup of sugar to every three of sauce, but we cut back significantly on that, adding only 1 cup sugar to about 9. Once the sauce boils again it must be immediately poured into sterilized mason jars (which hopefully are also hot, so that they don’t crack from sudden temperature change), leaving about ¼ inch free space. Stir to let any bubbles escape, wipe the mouth of the jar clean, put on the lids, and return to boiling water for 10 minutes.
The absolutely best part of the whole process…. A little pop! If there is a good seal between jar and lid, the boiling creates a vacuum within the jar, and the lid makes a little noise when it pops in. I missed the first pop but my mother caught it, it came not long after removing the jars from the boiling water to cool on the counter. She said the sound brought her immediately back to her childhood, and described the scene on my great-grandfather’s farm. I must have been a little too young those last autumns before the property was sold, because I don’t remember the canning, but I have a new association with that exhilarating little pop: the kitchen of our new home, my two boys playing on the floor, my mother at my side and enough applesauce to last us at least a little while.
We boiled all the apple peels extensively and my mother used the resulting juice to make apple jam. Don’t ask me for the particulars, I only know pectin was involved. I learned how to seal jam jars with paraffin, and even after giving my mom a few jars to take home and gifting a few jars to neighbors, we have enough for ourselves.
We used less than a quarter of the apples for sauce, so it was on to other uses. I made apple pancakes a few times with the recipe that is responsible for thousands of pancakes at the Cultural Festival in Chicago, back when anyone could serve food without special permits. Very easy, only it requires a few hours, and so is best served as a late breakfast or brunch!

Chicago Cultural Festival’s Latvian Apple Pancakes
3 eggs
5 tablespoons sugar
2 cups milk
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
½ ounce fresh yeast
¼ cup warm water
3 cups of peeled, cored and sliced apples
oil or butter, for cooking
Beat the eggs and sugar, then add the milk, salt and flour. Mix well. Proof the yeast in the warm water, then fold into the dough. Add the apples. Let rise in a warm place until doubled (which occurs faster if you’ve mixed in warm milk in lieu of cold). Then cook over medium-low heat (I prefer to cook in oil), flipping once until both sides are a beautiful golden brown and the pancake has cooked through. This makes enough for a hungry group of four!
There was an apple-pork loin in there as well, of course an apple pie or two (ok, maybe three or four!), and these delicious apple-walnut muffins from Joy of Cooking. Roberts says he’s the “apple guy” at work, and Lauris has taken to opening the fridge himself to grab an apple when he just can’t wait for mom to feed him. I can proudly say that despite the apple overload, we haven’t grown bored of them just yet!
And that, my friends, is the story of how we came to reclaim our refrigerator from two bushels of apples… just in time for Thanksgiving leftovers!

* Today I am grateful for a husband that kept both the boys occupied for over three hours while I did some shopping. Not quite black Friday shopping (more like grocery shopping!), but with that satisfaction that comes from having a week's worth of dinners in the fridge.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A month of gratitude, part six - a cooked turkey

My first Thanksgiving turkey turned out well, to my disbelief. I don’t know what I expected, certainly for the turkey to take longer to cook than I had budgeted for. Instead, the self-timer popped out ½ an hour early, and a thermometer confirmed it – the bird was fully cooked 1.5 hours before dinnertime. No problem, according to the recipe it needed 30-60 minutes to rest, an extra 30 minutes wouldn’t ruin things. The stuffing was “the best stuffing (my husband) has ever eaten” so I will be making it again. The Real Simple recipe I used added sweet Italian sausage and walnuts, an interesting combo. And the gravy, well that might have been the biggest crisis of the night – it wouldn’t thicken. So, I did what any other distracted cook would do, left it on the stove for an extra 45 minutes with a little extra flour and voila! It thickened, although a little on the lumpy side. Mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, we did in fact have all the fixin’s and it was fun! Fun to cook, but even more fun with the company; our guests experienced their first Thanksgiving and the house was a hive of activity with five boys running/walking/crawling underfoot.

The women, severely outnumbered!
The only thing that could have made the evening an even bigger success? A Lion’s win – they got robbed. Not for me of course, my loyalties lie with da Bears, but for the boys. Mikus even wore his Lions jersey.

Black Friday was spent around the house and yard, with a small excursion to pick up some hardware and deck stain. That might give you a small hint as to what we’ll be working on the next few days…

* Today I am thankful for skype, and the opportunities modern technology gives us to stay connected with family. My father got a tour of our new house this morning, and numerous family members have had the chance to “see” Mikus learning to walk – something that helps me feel less far away from them all. I’m waiting for the “hug app” that will let me give out hugs through my iPad!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A month of gratitude - part cinq, Thanksgiving

As I’m elbow-deep in preparations for Thanksgiving, this will be a short post. The turkey has been brined and is now “drying,” the pecan pie is on the counter next to the cranberry sauce, the stuffing is cooling its jets in the fridge and I think I have everything I need from the store to pull this off.
My sister Anna and her husband sent me these adorable pie topper stamp things that I will probably be using year round. I’m thinking they’ll make pretty cool piparkūkas too!

I’m following this year’s Thanksgiving issue of Real Simple for dinner (except for the brine, cranberry sauce and green beans), I’ll let you know how that goes. All the recipes are relatively straightforward, completely necessary for a novice like me. Yep, I said it, a novice - I’ve never cooked a turkey before. As I’ve cooked everything from a chicken to duck and squirrel, I hope I can handle a turkey. (Maybe I should wait to admit this until after our guests show up?) As our families are all far away this year, I decided to invite an expat family from Britain; I thought it would be great to share this traditional American holiday with them. Kind of funny, a Latvian-American who has lived in France the past two Thanksgivings and never actually cooked a turkey is going to show ‘em how it’s done! (Please keep your fingers crossed!) Although I guess it’s not any more strange than having my first traditionalThanksgiving in France

Wishing all those celebrating Thanksgiving a wonderful holiday!
* Today I’m thankful for the recent extra time in the kitchen. Before Lauris and Mikus joined our family I took that time for granted; there is a lot less time for new recipes, complicated dinners and my favorite – desserts now that I’m chasing after two macaroni-eating, cheerios-snacking, applesauce-devouring, banana-smushing kids. However while my mother was visiting, and now with the holidays, I’ve had some time to try my hand at a few new recipes and use all those pots and pans for something other than mashed potatoes and rice!



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A month of gratitude, part quatre

We had some additional guests last week; not only was my mother visiting to help with the transition, but my husband’s cousin Asja and her husband Brandon dropped in for a few days on their babymoon. Their tour took them to Chimney Rock in North Carolina and a bed and breakfast near Lake Keowee before stopping here in Greenville. The house was full, no doubt about it, but it was that pleasant (been away from family for too long so now we are soaking it in!) kind of full and I love for the boys to get all that extra attention.
We spent a wonderful day at Greenville zoo and even managed to catch Paula Deen during her appearance here. Because of all the extra help I was able to spend some much-appreciated time with my mom in the kitchen, trying some new recipes and giving canning a go.
Everyone left on Saturday, leaving the house suddenly quiet and empty. Not for long however, we had more than a dozen local Latvians over to celebrate the 18th of November, and Thursday friends are coming over for Thanksgiving. I wish everyone good luck with their Thanksgiving preparations, and may you have a wonderful week!

* Today I’m thankful that Thursday’s mishap wasn’t more serious. Brandon fell and broke his leg, necessitating a day spent at the local hospital. I’m just so grateful it wasn’t Asja, or my mother – Brandon, heal quickly, you’ve got to get back to babying Asja before the baby comes!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

18. novembris Greenville

Priecīgus valsts svētkus! Mūsu Latvija, 94. gadus jauna!
Netikām uz aktu Atlantā. Ar visu to, ka nupat pārvācamies un tad vēl mana mamma bija ciemos, novembra pirmā puse kautkur pazudusi. Skatos kalendārā kā pateicības diena un Ziemassvētki lielā ātrumā tuvojās. Un tā arī jau bija 15. novembris kad apjēdzos 18. tikai trīs dienas prom.
Tomēr valsts svētkus kautkādīgi jāatzīmē, un ja to nedaram officiāli ar runām un svinīgu aktu, tad daram to dienvidkarolīnas stilā. Ielūdzām visus latviešus kuŗus pazīstam šinī apkārtnē uz mūsu māju, un tie arī sanāca. Ēdām pīrāgus (paldies mammīt!), kriņģeli (paldies Brigita!), ābolmaizi, smalkmaizītes un visādus citus gardumus. Pacēlām glāzes uz Latvijas valsts svētkiem, vērojām kā bērni skrien pa māju un baudijām jauko kompāniju.

18 of us in the picture, coincidence? (Actually Mikus is hiding in the back, so 19!)
Today we celebrate the Proclamation of an independent Latvia, which took place 94 years ago. For a brief history lesson please have a quick peek at this post, which I wrote last year.
We didn’t make it to any of the official celebrations this year, but we did invite all the local Latvians to celebrate at our house. This is how it came about that a half dozen kids were running around, pīrāgi in hand, while the adults raised a toast to the heritage that brings us together.

Lai dzīvo sveiks!

* Today I am thankful that despite the short notice and the hectic pace of life this time of year, almost all of our local Latvian friends were able to come together to celebrate. We missed a few key players who were home sick, including our friend Lūcija, and I hope they know they are in our thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A month of gratitude, part deux - Paula Deen and Kiko

A worn copy of Joy of Cooking is a go-to resource in my kitchen, dog-eared, grease splattered pages marking frequently used recipes. Here in the south, in many households that place of honor on the counter is reserved for Paula Deen. She is to southern cuisine what Julia Child is to French cuisine, and today she was in Greenville, South Carolina.

This morning I dragged both boys and all three visitors to a local supermarket to see the local legend. We arrived right in time to hear her kick off the store’s hunger relief program, and it was interesting to watch her interact with the audience. With a stroller and toddler in tow, it was impossible to get anywhere close to her, so no autographs and all my photographs turned out blurry. We must have missed the giveaways too; many people were walking around with autographed copies of her The Lady & Sons cookbook, but I believe they must have showed up and waited for a few hours. I’m not disappointed that we went, as now I can say I’ve seen Paula Deen, but possibly her event organizer needs a little assistance in logistics?

Next stop, the Greenville zoo!!! Luck was on our side; although the weather was crisp and cool, the sun was shining and the animals soaking up the rays. We arrived at the giraffe enclosure to find the male Masai giraffe outside, and after it disappeared inside we were just about to leave. Luckily we paused, because not two minutes later Kiko and the mother emerged! Kiko was born on October 22nd, and this was our first time meeting him as the enclosure was empty during our Boo in the Zoo visit. There are few animals cuter than a baby giraffe…

A walk up and down Main street, a meal at a new burger place and a milkshake later we were headed home with our guests to rest and start dinner. After the meal my mother remarked that with the teamwork in the kitchen and wonderful company at the table, it feels like a holiday. The boys agree, with three extra laps in the house for storytime, and six additional arms for hugs, it’s all smiles and grins.

* As we were leaving the Paula Deen event a stranger came up to me. He had seen me asking an event organizer about the autographed cookbook giveaway, and proceeded to press a book into my hands while explaining. He came with his wife, who had brought with her personal copy of the cookbook, hoping to get Mrs. Deen to autograph it, but instead won a brand new copy. Today I am thankful for the kindness of that man, and I wish I could tell him that every time I cook “sausage and grits,” “South of the Border Mason-Dixon Dip” or “The Lady’s Cheesy Mac” I will think of how his and his wife’s generosity supplied me with a perfect keepsake of this day. Truthfully, I would rather have a copy of the book that has seen that kind couple’s kitchen than a new, autographed copy. Thank you.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A month of gratitude, part une

The season of being thankful has begun, kicked off by Veteran’s day here in the United States, the official holiday honoring armed service veterans. The 11th is the official day of remembrance, and it should be distinguished from Memorial Day, which honors those who died while serving. Last year we visited the D-Day beaches in Normandy and with the memories from that trip still so vivid, the holiday seems particularly poignant this year. And so today a thank you, from our family to all those who serve and protect the country that we call home.
The American cemetery in Normandy, France
November 11th is also Lāčplēša diena, the Latvian commemorative holiday marking the anniversary of the Latvian national army's victory 93 years ago today. Although independence was proclaimed November 18th of 1918, Soviet and German troops still occupied the country until the decisive battle almost a year later. Lit candles are placed in windows throughout Rīga to honor the freedom fighters who fought for Latvia’s independence.

It isn’t just the holidays and the approach of Thanksgiving that has me reflecting. I have a score of things to be grateful for, each a reminder of the multitude of people and things in my life that fill each day with love and happiness.

The first came a few weeks ago when we finally left our temporary apartment to move into our new home. Our belongings arrived soon after, and the comfort of having our clothes, our kitchen, our furniture quickly superseded  the temporary inconvenience of boxes piled high throughout the house. After the 6 months spent waiting on our apartment in Clermont-Ferrand, I am immensely grateful to be warm and cozy in our own home before the holidays, so quickly after our move.

The second gift arrived a week ago in the form of my mother. Her assistance has been invaluable; the unpacking, cleaning, cooking and care of Lauris and Mikus seemed insurmountable before her arrival, and in only one week we have gotten so much done that it seems like we’ve been living here for months.

Photo credit: my mom
The third came as somewhat of a surprise to me – Mikus has taken his first steps. On the 10th we counted ten unassisted steps, tiny but distinctive nonetheless, and once we get a good video I shall be showing it off.

It isn’t often enough that I slow down and take stock of all the blessings bestowed upon me and my family. Especially recently, after moving back from France and during all the chaos that has ensued, I have taken for granted the family and friends that have been there for us every step of the way. This month I have decided to take some time every day to think about how very fortunate I am to have been blessed with a wonderful husband, two healthy children, a foyer to be a femme to!

* Today I wish to mention how thankful I am that my sister and her family in Brooklyn were spared the fury of Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter, and how very proud I am of their volunteer efforts to help their neighbors and those not as fortunate.

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