This Week Is Nuts, and So Is This Creamy Baked Chicken

This week is nuts.

It’s crazy on a national level, clearly, but chaos happens behind closed doors in the very ordinary goings on of life too. My calendar is slammed. So is my brain. And lots of personal, real-life-problems showed up on my doorstep and holy moly can’t I just catch a break?

My mom, bless her, showed up on my doorstep too, but instead of trouble she brought tubs of almond-milk ricotta and almond-milk Greek style yogurt. And other things too, like hugs.

I guess there’s just always something, right? Some weeks just feel more fraught with hardship than others, and on those particularly tense days I focus on the things I can control, like my attitude. And dinner.

My guess is you are having a hard week too, and I bet it goes deeper than just the uncertainty of the election itself. I wish I could reach through the screen and give you a hug. I wish I could invite you over and pour you a cup of tea and chat over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. But alas, since I cannot, I’ll leave you with a recipe that might make you feel comforted just the same.

This Creamy Baked might look a little basic–breast meat slathered in a white sauce–but aren’t the most comforting meals also the most simple? This is quick and easy and packed with flavor–and easy enough to get done in the middle of a particularly nutty weeknight. Joey and the Goobies lick their plates clean when I make it, and while I show a pinch more decorum than that, I admit I really want to do that too. It’s that good.

Take good care, friends. Make yourself some dinner. Gather your people around the kitchen table. Nourish your bodies and your souls, because you need your strength in both places. Today, yes. Tomorrow too. Start with something basic, like baked chicken.


Starting from Scratch and the Reason I Keep Writing

Dear Readers:

When I first started writing here, I called this blog “Love, Scratch.” It was a love letter, really: notes and recipes from my kitchen addressed to Joey, the man who called me Scratch before circumstances earned me the nickname.

In those early days, I wrote to relate my days to him, the ones spent in small spaces with two baby girls who kept me busy. My words were limited to the pages here, and that was enough for me. It was a season, and I knew it would pass before long. When it did, I wrote to remember: documenting days of struggle and success, heartache and hope. Life unfolded and revealed all sorts of things we didn’t expect, as most of you know. The food and the kitchen and all the things I cherished about both went from friend to foe in an instant, and the light-hearted spirit with which this blog began faded. I wrestled my way toward hope during those scary, painful days right here and many of you followed along, praying big prayers for us even as our life got smaller.

It was a hard road.

The kitchen got complicated and messy, and the table got lonelier and lonelier as the years wore on. Food kept complicating things that should have been simple. Throwing open our doors and inviting people over got inconvenient; accepting invitations to other homes felt impossible. But the Goobies stayed hungry. We all did. For food. For friendship. For life around our table.

Under normal circumstances, food slows us down and calms our hearts when pain and uncertainty wrench us out of our normal routines. Showing up with chicken enchiladas and a pan of lemon bars screams I see you right in the middle of your mess and I’m coming to you anyway. Food doesn’t fix the problem, but it acknowledges the pain and whispers hope that things could turn out ok after all. Friends show up with casserole because it invites people to catch their breath.

The very tricky part about our particular pain was this: food couldn’t soothe the ache away even if we wanted it to. Dietary restrictions barged into that sacred space that ministers hope to the hurting, and it doled out fear and loathing right along with rules we didn’t know how to follow yet. I was hurt and needed help, but it was extremely difficult to ask for it and even harder to accept it.

Letting go of the way things used to be wasn’t quick or easy for me. Lord knows I folded my arms and clutched what was left tight to my chest. It felt safer to live that way. But life became small and living in fear wasn’t really living at all. Fear told me staying home meant staying safe. Faith taught me God is good everywhere, within my home and beyond my walls, regardless of whether I’m what I think of as safe.

The tricky part was this: the risks of leaving our safe zone are very, very real. Getting glutened. Cross-contamination. Alienation. Hurt feelings. Accidental ingestion. Anaphylaxis. Just because God is good doesn’t mean those things aren’t real. They are. We’ve experienced them all. But the rewards of leaving our safe zone are very, very real too. Making friends. Connecting across tables. Bearing each other’s burdens. Acceptance. Adventure. Life.

A few days ago, I was exploring all this in a project that’s diverted my attention away from this space for awhile now. It’s been taking shape and going well until suddenly, surprisingly, my words dried up. I stomped my feet and cried ugly tears over the ones refusing to be written. I tried forcing them into a place they didn’t belong, and it just plain didn’t work. I labored over that document for hours clicking it open and snapping it shut and getting nowhere fast. I pouted. I cried. Lord knows I shouted a thousand times over “That’s it! I quit!” but something inside told me to start from scratch.

But staring down a fresh blank page and stringing together beautiful, brilliant words while the cursor blinked at me, taunting my effort felt foolish too. The idea of scrapping all the work I had already done made me mad. No thanks God. I’d rather quit than start over. Starting over hurts. What we leave behind feels wasted, as if walking away from it means it never mattered in the first place. (Or am I alone in that feeling?) But I couldn’t shake it. My spirit whispered, “Start from scratch.”

I clicked open a new document and sat with it for a moment, begrudgingly at first, waiting. The cursor finally winked at me, and words rippled across the page like cake batter tipped into a sheet pan. It settled and smoothed, and I realized God was right. Starting over hurt, but it’s what changed me, what shaped me, and what grounds me. As it turns out, starting over heals too.

That’s why I write any of these words at all: because starting from scratch hurts, but it also heals, if we let it.

Opening myself up to the possibility of starting over did more than just save my life: it made my life. When I realized God is just as good now as he ever seemed before, that’s when I realized why he had written it on my heart to start Love, Scratch in the first place, and why changing course with Rachel Maier Writes makes perfect sense: Rachel Maier writes to Joey, always. But she also writes to you: to remember with you and relate to you and remind us both that God is good in both places.

Later that day, satisfied and surprised at what had just spilled out on the page, my doorbell rang. I opened the door to find my brother standing on the stoop, juggling a box of frozen fish sticks and a covered casserole dish.

“Hey Sis!” he said. “Mom sent fish sticks for the kids’ dinner tonight. She sent over this chicken casserole so you could eat something too.”

I eased the pan out of his hands and laughed in spite of myself. The chapter that spilled out that day was about showing up anyway, arms heavy with casseroles if you can. Just like that.

There were days when my mom wouldn’t have dared to send dinner over on a whim. She would have stuck to something less risky, like nestling a whole chicken in a crockpot, sprinkling it with salt and cooking it low and slow until the thing fell apart. She’d serve it with a baked potato or a mound of white rice, and coleslaw with vinegar and sugar and not sleep all night long, worried and wondering if she fed us well or made us sick. But we’ve come a long way from there, and we’re both armed with more confidence now.

She walked alongside me–alongside us–and invested her time in learning how to make food work for our family so that she could feed us well, even in this complicated place. At her house and at ours. She helped me learn how to put feet to my faith and walk out the message I preached: that life is more than food. That people make food what it is food. That God provides and makes a way and gives us every single thing we need, like comfort food I didn’t have to make, but trust enough to enjoy.

I know this life is hard. Exhausting. Overwhelming. Scary. I know you feel alone sometimes because I did too. I still do. But this place is also a sacred one with an opportunity for connection and camaraderie. All of it together makes the reason I keep writing: to share the reason I have hope into the homes of women like you and me–and our mothers and sisters and best friends and neighbors–women who are hurting and in search of healing, and the people who love them but don’t know how to help. I remember how it was. I’ve tasted what it can become. Life is good here too, because God is good in both places. Starting from scratch–painful as it may be–is worth it when we do it to make room at the table for people we love.


The Real Thing and Cocoa Cola Cake

Dear Joey,

Without further ado, here is a fun cake that made an otherwise lonesome birthday a little bit more fun last week: Cocoa Cola Cake.

It was Grandpa’s 90th birthday, which felt big and important, of course. Celebrating him mattered, Covid or not. But the big question looming over my head was this: How?

Not one for making a big to-do about himself, Grandpa is a cool, come-alongside sort of guy who built and nurtured things his whole life. He planted seeds; watched them grow; and today he reaps the reward of a life well-spent.

But life doesn’t look much like he thought it would look these days, I imagine. Settling into a new rhythm in a new home thousands of miles away from where he built his life, adjusting to life’s complications as they presents themselves; turning 90 in seclusion with most of the folks he loves so far away from him now–the idea of this milestone birthday must have made him feel more lonesome than ever. Even so, he never complains.

In fact, I have never heard the man complain. Instead, his calm and quiet strength taught me to accept what comes with an attitude of hope that the Good Lord knows what’s best for us and divvies things up accordingly.

He taught me that speaking one’s mind doesn’t have to include shouting; hamburgers taste better after a long, hard day’s work; and use up every ounce of the things you are blessed with, because you’re lucky to have them. He taught me to be thankful for the the things we have and to care for them well.

I know a Cocoa Cola Cake doesn’t really sound like it’s at all good enough to honor or celebrate such a milestone, but Grandpa loves the classic cola from which it gets its name, and every time I see him take a sip of his favorite afternoon beverage, it I hear that old soda pop jingle singing in my memory: “Can’t beat the real thing.

My Grandpa: he’s the real thing, and nothing beats that.

When someone you love turns 90, and he loves Coke, and you need a way to celebrate his birthday in the middle of a disappointing, hard season, and you miraculously find a way to make it free of all those pesky allergens and it’s still moist and delicious? You celebrate and eat a slice and feel like things aren’t so bad after all. Gluten free. Dairy free. Egg free. Soy free. Nut free. The list goes on. Full of rich, chocolatey flavor that won’t let you down. (Which is why I changed the name from Coca Cola Cake to Cocoa Cola Cake. It’s that chocolatey!)

A few notes:
1. It’s flexible! Use regular flour or regular buttermilk of that suits your family.
2. Use a gluten free flour blend that contains xanthan gum. The xanthan gum acts as a binder, so don’t skip it.
3. Try any non-dairy milk you prefer, but I am devoted to plain unsweetened Flax Milk.
4. The original Coca Cola Cake recipes I consulted contained eggs. This made it *too* moist in my opinion, but if you’d like to try it that way, add 2 eggs with the wet ingredients.
5. Sugar content reduced down to 1 cup instead of the 2 cups all those originals called for. It was waaaay to sweet for me that way (thus the reduction in sugar in my version).

Best enjoyed with family and friends: this one’s a keeper!



Grumbling and Granola

Dear Joey,

Everyone is bored with breakfast these days. I’m not sure what it is–the monotony, the lack of urgency to get out the door, the repetition that renders it boring? The promise of a full belly holds no sway over the Goobies these days. Lucky Charms doesn’t even seem to tempt them to the table. Breakfast in isolation robs us of our appetite, it seems. Morning meals still happen, sluggish as they are now, but none of us are particularly fond of the mopey feet and grumbling tummies that bring us to the table.

Reality met us there every morning, and no one was particularly fond of the unwanted guest.

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More than We Realize and Hawaiian Pizza Pasta (Top 9 Allergen Free)

Dear Joey,

I haven’t been to the grocery store in fourteen days–a record for me, don’t you think?

We are stocked and ready for another couple weeks: I bought our monthly groceries up front this time around because I watched things getting dicey out there. The idea of taking the Goobies shopping with me over spring break was enough to make me toss an extra few packs of lunch meat into the cart. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Now that spring break stretched into weeks on end, I am certain the decision was a wise one.

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Even so, the fridge can only do so much to make food last because the Goobies ask for snacks every five minutes. They are old enough to help themselves when their tummies start to grumble, but maybe giving them permission to dig in whenever they feel like it was a mistake? Emery would tear through an entire pack of ham without supervision. Ditto with snack crackers and toaster pastries. “When it’s gone, it’s gone!” we say as they snack. Even so, things get eaten up fast.

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Panic’s Empty Promise and Learning to Choose Joy

Dear Joey,

Worry whispers half-truths everywhere: on the evening news; at the doctor’s office; in the scroll of idle hands—you’re not safe, it says, subtly feeding the feeling that worry is warranted.

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Do you hear it? I’m sure you do–especially now with “the virus,” as the Goobies call it at our house. You head out the door to go fix broken bones even as the bones of our nation are bending under the weight of responsibility, beneath the cost of the consequences if we all don’t collectively get serious about staying safe. The perilous state of politics hovers in that place too, and so much uncertainty hangs heavy in the world.

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He Is Strong, and Hulk Smash Split Pea Soup

Dear Joey,

We spent the first autumn season in our new home watching more than just leaves fall.

We watched Emery fall a lot, too.

Kids run and jump and trip and fall every single day. Bumps and bruises happen. So do skinned knees. Our boy was just as rambunctious and active as any other, until somehow he wasn’t.

When Emery started walking funny, we paid attention. Soon he couldn’t run, really. He shuffled and cried. He couldn’t jump or climb. Next he told us his fingers were tickly.

We never saw it coming.

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