Gift Guide 2015

A brief word about this gift guide: Some of these items are things I can honestly recommend, some are things that I honestly want for myself, one is something that I've written, and one is a Tesla. 

1. This new line of clothing from textile designers Jen Garrido and Lena Corwin is exactly what I want to wear everyday and exactly how I want to dress Teddy.

2. One can never have enough good-looking baskets. I would love a couple of these for the new baby's room.

3. Heidi Swanson's cookbooks are very calming for me. And while I sometimes find her recipes a bit too healthy, I feel like she has a weakness for good bread and I like that a lot. There are two bread recipes in particular in here that I want to make: one from Morocco called beghrir and one from India called paratha.

4. I've been wanting to read this book ever since it came out last year. Here's what Rachel Cusk (whose book Outline I really enjoyed) said about it: "...its deeper purpose is to define the artist's relationship to truth and to demonstrate how, from within the correctness of the artistic process, life can be meaningfully understood.”

5. I was already super into Glen Hansard's latest album, Didn't He Ramble, and then Matt scored us free tickets to see him live at the Disney Concert Hall, and now I'm a mega fan. If you're not familiar with his music, let me describe him for you: he's part Van Morrison and part Bruce Springsteen with just a touch of Leonard Cohen. For real!

6. At first, I found this tome intimidating. Am I really that interested in Nordic cooking? But it turns out: I am! Even the recipes that call for seal or reindeer meat (that I know I'll never make) are intriguing. I think a lot of this is because, despite its immensity, it's still written personally, specifically from Magnus Nilsson's point of view, which makes it much more accessible. 

7. If you have a kid or were a kid, you’re probably familiar with the books of Richard Scarry. But are you familiar with this particular one: Cars and Trucks and Things That Go? Teddy’s hand-me-down copy is falling apart, but he doesn’t care. There’s this character called Goldbug who is hiding (or possibly just very small) on each page and he loved finding him and pointing him out. And now that he knows where Goldbug is without even thinking, he loves pointing out all the other cool things, e.g., a bananamobile, pumpkin car, bug bus, alligator car, etc.

8. Coffee! When I worked at Heath Ceramics, we got ten or twelve bags of Blue Bottle shipped to us weekly—just after the beans had been roasted. Opening up that box and inhaling was always a highlight of my day.  

9. I checked this book out from the library earlier this year and found myself upset that I couldn't take to it with a pen and start marking it up. Meghan Daum writes bravely and honestly about many topics, including her relationship with her dying mother and also her decision not to have kids. 

10. Josh Ritter’s new album! The problem with this digital age is that I rarely listen to a full album anymore. Lamenting this fact, I bought this CD—a physical, actual CD—and have thoroughly enjoyed driving around town playing it loud, like a teenager in the late nineties.

11. Just like last year, I’m going to make a giant batch of pizzelle to give as gifts. I know my mom would like a box and think that everyone at Teddy’s daycare might too.

12. I’ve been a fan of Kate Christensen’s fiction for a long time. I’m reading her first food memoir Blue Plate Special now, and would love to follow it up with her follow-up, How to Cook a Moose.

13. Who doesn’t love playing memory? Especially around the holidays? OK, I know a lot of people. (Many of our family members won’t play with Matt and me at all.) But Matt and I love it. We already have the Charley Harper version but I think we could use another board to mix it up.

14. As long as I make gift guides, I can guarantee you that this book will be on it.

15. I adored Eleanor and Park and so will trust Rainbow Rowell with whatever else she writes.

16. This brings us to Matt’s pick! In past gift guides Matt has added things like a jar of pickles and an Opinel pocket knife. This year, it’s a Tesla Model S! I love Matt for many reasons but one is that ever since Teddy was born (and we put his carseat in our newer, safer car), Matt’s been driving around my ever-so-slightly-banged-up, clunky, eleven-year-old Scion Xa without complaint. (Note: we cannot afford a Tesla, but hey if Tesla wanted to send us a car, we would be happy to shoot a bunch of cooking videos during which we have to constantly drive to the store to pick up one more ingredient.)

17. These are the ideal shoe for a pregnant person living in Southern California in winter.   

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Video: Pumpkin Pudding

Hope you enjoy our latest video for mom.me! (Or at the very least, I hope you enjoy the moment at 1:31 when Teddy offers up some pumpkin puree to his stuffed lion.)

(If you're in the mood for pumpkin pie, but don't have the patience or time for pie crust, I seriously stand by this recipe. It was so delicious.)

p.s. Thank you to everyone who voted for my book in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Alas, I didn't make the final round, but the joke is on them because I actually didn't want to! (Just kidding. I did want to. Very much so.)

Pumpkin Pudding (aka Pumpkin Pie without the Crust) adapted from Alice Medrich / Food 52

cup golden brown sugar
 teaspoon ground cinnamon
teaspoon salt
 teaspoon ground ginger
teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cornstarch
 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 15 oz. can of pumpkin puree
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
whipped cream for serving

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Mix sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger, and cloves in a small bowl. Stir in the pumpkin purée. Gradually stir in heavy cream and milk, then eggs.

Pour mixture into glass or ceramic baking dish. It’s best not to exceed a depth of about 1 1/2 inches. Baking times vary with depth, size, and type of baking dish, so you just have to watch and check. (The one I made in the video took about 45 minutes.) Bake until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack, then refrigerate overnight, or at least 6 hours.

Serve with whipped cream.
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Hickory Nut Cake

A few years ago, when my grandma was slowly sending me the contents of her house via USPS Priority flat-rate mail-box shipments, including pounds and pounds of pennies, she sent me this super old notebook filled to the brim with recipes—some of them handwritten and some clipped from newspapers. I looked through it, immediately interested in the short little recipe for how to make hickory nut cake.

On more than a few occasions, my grandma had told me the story of how her mother would task her with the work of retrieving the hickory nut meat from whole hickory nuts in order to make the cake. She told me how she sat outside with a hammer, smashing the shells, and then picking out the nuts. 

The problem was that I couldn’t find hickory nuts anywhere. And so I eventually gave up on the idea.

Until I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin, at their epic Saturday farmers market that surrounds the Capitol building. Tim—of Lottie and Doof fame—called it the best farmers market in the country and I’m not going to argue with him. After all, that's where I finally found my hickory nuts. And as I purchased a bag (with some borrowed funds from my brother) (I have a problem with keeping more than three dollars of cash in my wallet), I knew that once I was back home, I was going to make that cake.

I love the way the recipe is written, basically with the attitude of: Look, I’m not going to handhold you through this process. It ends with: “Bake in 2 small loaves and ice with thick white icing.” I guessed on two normal-sized loaf pans, 350°F, and just kept my eye on them while they baked. It ended up taking about 25 minutes.

As for the thick white icing, I decided to do a less-sweet version of this recipe. As you can see, it didn’t turn out very white, but I stand by it anyway.

The timing of my hickory-nut discovery was pretty perfect. It was almost exactly two years ago that I was 29 weeks pregnant with Teddy when Grandma came to stay with us for a week. And when I made this cake a few weeks ago, what do you know? I was 29 weeks pregnant with this second baby. I’m sure she would have loved a slice.
p.s. I was just about to post this when I got the exciting news that my book is a semifinalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. If you don't mind, I would really, really appreciate your vote! It's super easy to do, especially if you are already a Goodreads member. AND Matt is apparently offering to cook lemon pasta "at some point in the future" for anyone who votes for me.
Hickory Nut Cake via a super old newspaper clipping
NOTE: Turns out hickory nuts look and taste a lot like walnuts, so don’t be afraid to substitute them here.

Cream together 1 ½ cups fine granulated or pulverized sugar and ½ cup of butter; add ¾ of a cup of sweet milk [whole milk], 2 ½ cups flour, sifted with 2 teaspoons baking powder and 1 cup of hickory nut meats dredged light with flour; lastly, add ½ teaspoon vanilla and fold in the whites of 4 eggs beaten to a stiff froth; bake in 2 small loves and ice with thick white icing.

Icing for Such a Hickory Nut Cake as the One Above adapted from Taste of Home
1/2 cup butter
scant 1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 cups confectioners' sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
more hickory nuts to top icing (optional)

Make icing by melting butter in a medium saucepan. Add brown sugar; boil 2 minutes. Add milk; bring to boil. Remove from heat; cool to lukewarm. Beat in sugar, flour*, cream cheese, and vanilla.

*The original recipe called for 2 cups of confectioners’ sugar but after adding 1 cup, I found it to be insanely sweet and thus, opted to use flour to thicken it without making it even sweeter. I personally think it worked great.
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Video: Matt's Lemon Pasta

In our most recent video with mom.me, Matt is getting the spotlight (as much as you can in a show called "In the Kitchen with Amelia & Teddy"). In it, we make his lemon pasta recipe, which he was kind enough to write down so that I could include it in my book. (Also getting the spotlight is our pretty new cutting board, which the kind people at Jonathan Moran Woodworks sent us. If you're in or near Pittsburgh, you should check them out!)

In other non-video news, I had a great trip to Madison, Wisconsin where the weather was everything Los Angeles weather is not. Thank you so much to those of you who came to my event on Friday night. It was super cool to meet some long-time readers and some possible new ones. My good friends Kara and Tim drove over from Michigan (with their 18-month-old!) aaaand my brother made it there too. And since Teddy stayed home with Matt, I had all of this free time to hang out with them and go to events. Sort of. The book festival overlapped with the 2015 Gymnastics World Championships, so I obviously had to spend a lot of time streaming the competition live on my laptop. That being said, my brother did hang out with me while I watched some of it and he even seemed mildly interested!

In short, happy Halloween! I just bought Teddy a super jenky ten-dollar lion costume from a second-hand shop. What do you think? Will he even want to put it on?

p.s. I have the most amazing voicemail of my mom asking me to help her get one of our videos to stop playing. I wish I could upload it here, but I don't have the technological patience to do so. Point being, apparently something happens to my mom's tablet when she watches these videos; they start going on a loop and she can't make it stop and I guess(?) she doesn't know how to ex out of a window. By the end of the voicemail, she's super frustrated, claims that she's "already tried putting it in the trash a bunch of times" and is basically like, "Make it stop!" I'm telling you all of this partially because it makes me laugh but mostly to remind my mom to watch the above video at her own risk!

Matt's Lemon Pasta ever so slightly adapted from the version in the book
serves 4

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 pound dried spaghetti
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a skillet over low heat. Drop the garlic into a pan and move the garlic around a bit, maybe for a minute or two; don't let it brown. Turn off the heat and drop in the butter. Let the butter melt on its own.

At this point you have a pretty decent sauce. In fact, you can stop here if you want. You can add salt and pepper, toss in your cooked pasta, and call it a day. But if you're making my lemon pasta, you'll need to add the zest of 1 lemon, followed by the juice of that very same lemon. Again, at this point, if you want to skip out on all the cream and cheese, you could stop here and be done. The full lemon cream pasta recipe, however, the one reserved for indulgent occasions that you care not about your waistline, requires you to continue building.

Now is a great time to start cooking the pasta: Drop the dried spaghetti into a pot of lightly salted boiling water. Stir occasionally while you continue making the sauce.

Put the sauce back on low heat and bring it to a light simmer. Add the heavy cream. (You can substitute with half-and-half or even whole milk if you already have one of them on hand, but heavy cream works best.) Drop in the grated Parmesan and the Gruyère. Stir as the sauce is brought back up to a light simmer and the ingredients are completely combined. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Once the pasta is al dente, strain it, add it to the pan with the chopped fresh parsley, and toss to coat it. Plate into pasta bowls and finish with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese.
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Taos, New Mexico + Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

Last month, I was fairly obsessed with this archived interview David Foster Wallace did with Terry Gross, which Fresh Air replayed in light of the recent release of The End of the Tour. The interview is from 1997. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, had just come out in paperback and he talks about his impetus for writing it: he was about 30 and he had a lot of friends who were about 30, who despite having relatively good lives—they’d grown up with top-notch education, good healthcare, political freedoms, etc.— were fairly miserable.

Terry asks him, “Well, when did you realize that all the benefits you had in an educated middle-class life weren't bringing you happiness?”

Markedly uncomfortably and with great reservation, he begins to try to explain to Terry: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness.”

What I ultimately took from the interview is that David Foster Wallace wasn’t made happy by our culture-at-large’s unspoken definition of happiness / the achievement of a successful life, which, he sums up quickly and with a note of self-admitted crassness as: “…let's see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it's a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible...”

In Wallace’s words, this brand of happiness “ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” And since, there seemed to be very little to replace these values and assumptions in our culture, he and his friends ended up feeling miserable.

As you may already know, Wallace hanged himself in 2008; I don’t know too much about the specifics, but I’ve heard other writers who knew him well talk about the intensity of his mental illness towards the end of his life. That said, after hearing this interview, I couldn’t help but think that if he was miserable and/or frustrated and/or fed up with our culture’s definition of happiness in 1997, he would’ve been even more miserable now in 2015.

Because, in my opinion, in 2015, not only are these cultural values and assumptions still the same, but if you are an active social media participant, they are unavoidable. They are streaming live from your all-too accessible smart phone during each and every moment of the day. Ironically, these photos of us in Taos, particularly if absorbed without reading this text, are probably examples.
I guess I was reminded of this interview and its complexity because of our trip to Taos, New Mexico, which either coincided with or kicked off a major period of growth for Teddy. He is talking, talking, talking. Sometimes, you can almost see his brain churning, putting things together, e.g., If I take a nap, how am I going to ride that tractor that’s just sitting outside completely unmanned? 

One of our favorite things he’s taken to saying is a sing-songy repetition of the word happy. “Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-py!” (It’s almost to that tune that sports’ fans use to taunt a player on the field/court: Last-name, Last-name, Last-name.)

Matt and I just about always respond with: “I’m happy too!” Occasionally this spurs a face off of alternating I’m happy toos. It’s ridiculous and amazing.
As you might already know: modern-day air travel with a young child isn’t easy. On our red-eye from Los Angeles to Chicago on the first leg of our August trip to Portland, Maine, Teddy surprised us by completely resisting sleep. When they finally turned the cabin lights off, I thought he might lie down and give it a go. But instead, he began reaching for the heads of the passengers sitting in front of us. Holding him back from doing so took both arms; I looked to Matt and said: “I want to die.” (It was past midnight and we still had three hours to go!)

Matt frowned at me (he’s not a fan of talking about death while on an airplane) and then did God’s work by picking Teddy up and walking up and down the aisle until he fell asleep, some twenty minutes later.

But then there are moments traveling that would simply and straightforwardly suck without Teddy. At LAX, en route to Albuquerque, our tickets, which I’d purchased through United.com, had erroneously led us to the US Airways terminal. (The people at US Airways were like, “You got the wrong airline. We don’t fly to Albuquerque. Bye!”) Finally in the right place, which turned out to be American Airlines—though no mention of American was made on our tickets or our confirmation emails from United—we discovered that we had to catch a shuttle (our second of the morning) to actually get to the gate.

Quickly, we reorganized our things, broke down the stroller, and held Teddy as we waited in another line. But then the minute the shuttle bus pulled up, Teddy began cheering, “Shud-dle bus! Shud-dle bus!” (If you think about it, buses are highly revered objects in toddler culture, what with that never-ending song, “Wheels on the Bus.”) Crammed on the shuttle bus, I patted Matt on the back, thanking him for handling Teddy. His back was warm and damp with sweat. Teddy sat on his lap, smiling widely. “Shud-dle bus!” We were both laughing. 
Because this baby’s due date falls just one day after Teddy’s birthday, I’m finding it almost impossible not to compare the two pregnancies; every time I hit a milestone, I’m reminded of where I was two years ago at that time. Two years ago, I wasn’t just younger but I was also still a member of a two-person-plus-dog family. Two years ago, for the first time in my writing life, I had a contract and a hard deadline. My past pregnant self went to yoga, took longer walks, cooked more varied dinners, and was, at least on a much more quantifiable level, quite productive.

Of course, this way of thinking isn’t very positive or even productive for that matter. Two years ago, my days were still essentially mine. To illustrate this point: I started writing all this down last Monday. The next day, Teddy’s daycare texted me just an hour after I’d dropped him off saying he had a fever. Within 20 minutes, I was picking him up. I tried to drop him off again Friday only to get another call after an hour. He was too snotty. Could I please come get him? As I got back in the car, I thought of all of the things I’d meant to do that week and that obviously hadn’t happened. As it turned out, I hadn’t written: Take care of my sweet-and-active-despite-being-sick toddler on that week’s to-do list.
I’ve been slowly, very slowly, reading this book, Outline by Rachel Cusk, and recently came upon these lines: “We are all addicted to it, he said… the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.” 

I think this particularly resonated with me, having written a book (a memoir, not a novel) that basically ends with the birth of our first baby. And because of this, I’ve grown to see my book as this comprehensive summary of my life before kids. Everything gets tied up by the end. By the end, I think I have things figured out. And the thing is that it’s accurate. My life did feel pretty tied up. I thought I did have things figured out.

If the book hadn’t ended there, however—if there were an extra chapter or two—everyone, myself included, would have realized that nothing would ever be quite so tied up again, that, in fact—surprise!—I had very little figured out.
Did I mention I turned 34-years-old two weeks ago?

Teddy bursted into many Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-pys while we were in Taos. He drank a lot of raw goat’s milk. He ate a couple pints of just-picked raspberries per day. He walked around with a half-eaten just-picked apple in his hand for the other parts of the day; he obviously spent some time on the tractor and feeding the goats (who surprisingly weren’t interested in his apple core when he finally reached it and offered it to them).

To be clear, I don’t think that having children is a way to bring you happiness. Not at all; particularly so if one doesn’t feel compelled to have children in the first place. But I do think it’s often refreshing to try and see the world from a differing point of view for a bit—be it that of a 20-month-old who freaks out with joy at the prospect of riding in a dirty un-air-conditioned airport shuttle bus, or someone who simply might not ascribe to the seemingly understood definition of a successful life that the world spits out at us consciously and unconsciously each and every day.

My Aunt Martha sent us back home with six jars of goat cheese and two pounds of dulce de leche. On the afternoon of my birthday, inspired by the batch of black cherry and chocolate ice cream we made in Taos, I thought I’d make a quart using the dulce de leche as the main ingredient. I followed this recipe, which directed me to “quick-chill” the base. In my previous ice-cream attempts, I’d always chilled the base for at least four to six hours in the refrigerator. But I decided to give quick-chilling a go anyway. 

Thirty-minutes of churning later, the base looked exactly the same as it had when I began. I gave up on the idea of having homemade ice cream that night. I put the base mixture in the refrigerator overnight and the freezer bowl back in the freezer. Just shy of 24-hours later, it churned up nicely. And later that following night, we finally had our ice cream.

I hesitate to come to any grand conclusions, certainly any about happiness. But as I sit here, six months pregnant, I do like the thought of abandoning this idea of life as a progression; of this idea that the longer I live the more I might figure things out; and of this idea that life might be a vehicle to, in David Foster Wallace’s words “experience the most favorable ratio of productivity to work.” At the very least, I’d like to stop pitting myself against myself. And maybe eventually, I’ll even stop pitting myself against other women and against other people’s ideas of success? Who knows? It could happen.

Here’s to 34 and all the unknown that lies ahead.
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream slightly adapted from Gourmet
makes about 1 1/2 quarts

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound dulce de leche(about 1 2/3 cups; preferably La Salamandra brand)
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted (optional)

Bring milk and cream just to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, then remove from heat and whisk in dulce de leche until dissolved. Whisk in vanilla and transfer to a metal bowl. 

Chill in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for at least six hours or overnight.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker until almost firm, then fold in coconut.

Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours.
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