The view from my writing window is gray this morning. Even what little snow is left outside looks greasy and gray these days: the sad remains of snow flurries that were cause for celebration a couple weeks ago.
I don’t hate the view. Or at least, up until today I haven’t, and I think perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I used to dream about snowy winter weather during the temperate, lavish green ones I took for granted back home in California. The hills are emerald green by now, I imagine, and beanies are more of a fashionable reminder of wintertime, rather than a necessary defense against bitter winds. Bags brimming with oranges and lemons and grapefruits used to show up on our doorstep back home, all gleaned from my Grandparents’ stalwart old trees. Can you imagine the miracle of finding a bag of citrus on our doorstep today? I clearly see Grandma taking a break from all the fruit picking and cradling an afternoon cup of tea in her hands. Its steam swirls in the cool of a January afternoon, and she laughs as we share a short visit. I want to be there with her right now: capturing her laugh in a locket and catching the sweet smell of the backyard blossoms in a bottle, and I want to tuck them into my chest so I can always remember her that way. And I really want that bag of oranges she inevitably sent home with me.
You were dreading your big day –turning 40 — for months. Ever since you turned 39, really. The day loomed over you, big and foreboding, like a storm cloud. I was dreading the day too–not because I wasn’t looking forward to being married to a man in his 40’s (Ha!You’re older than me!), but because I felt like I owed you a big birthday debt because I blew it when you turned 30, and the sting of disappointment over that flop of a milestone birthday still bothers you. It bothers me too.
It’s been ten years, but I remember that evening clearly: I must have been putting groceries away because I was I crouched down low in front of the refrigerator, nestling lettuce and cucumbers into the crisper drawer when Christy reminded me we were supposed to take you out for dinner that night. What she ordinarily would have used as an excuse to get the two of us in the same room suddenly seemed like a big inconvenience. She was feeling just as pressed for time as I was that night. Her bridal shower was in the morning and the groceries I was struggling to put away were minor details compared to the long list of other things awaiting our attention in the next few hours. We went back and forth for a minute or two trying to figure out how to make good on our promise to take you out to celebrate your birthday, finish our to-do list, and get a little bit of sleep. Something had to give, and that night, it was you.
Was it Christy who called you or was it me? I don’t remember, to be honest. But I do remember how awful I felt about it the moment you hung up. You spent your 30th birthday alone because we flaked on you. Every so often you remind me how much it disappointed you, usually when you are giving me a hard time about how I am so dense that I didn’t even know our first date was, in fact, a date at all. But a week ago, your frustration over the circumstances surrounding this birthday erupted. The rainy weather, another round of coughs and congestion, our weekend getaway on the verge of falling through rattled you. “We have to do something, otherwise this birthday will be just like my 30th,” you said. Here we go again, you seemed to be saying, another big birthday left uncelebrated.
I felt it too–the weight this milestone put upon you. I wanted to make your 40th birthday awesome anyway, so awesome it would inspire you to forgive me for flaking on you all those years ago–but after you said that, the pressure was on. The problem is: my hands were tied. By the time I realized how much this day meant to you, there were only three days left, for crying out loud. Three days didn’t give me enough time to do much other than move ahead with my original plans for a low key birthday at home (which by then were feeling much more ho-hum than anything).
I trudged through the week, worried and stressed and failing miserably at the smallest of gestures I hoped would make your birthday week special–making your top five favorite meals each night of the week, culminating in Beef Stroganoff and Grandma Adeline’s kuchen on your big day. But the only meal I managed to tick off the list was Chopped Cheeseburger Salad–I was too busy fretting that the super awesome birthday present I ordered the week before wouldn’t make it here in time for your big day; wracking my brain to figure out how to make good on my promise of making your annual birthday dinner now that food allergies and intolerances complicate things around here; afraid you would be unhappy with the bill that came with even the most modest attempt at making your day special; and worrying that my best effort to make your birthday special still wouldn’t be enough to make you feel loved and important. It wasn’t a good week, admittedly, and my attitude was just as volatile as the weather patterns around here have been.
But there was a break in the clouds by the time your birthday rolled around, and the lingering guilt over this big debt I felt I owed you dissipated when I realized that small things done with big love aren’t really small at all. It also helped that you seemed genuinely happy all day. If there was any disappointment in your heart, you covered it well.
I imagine there must have been some disappointment. The gluten free, dairy free kuchen failed miserably. I didn’t get around to cooking the Beef Stroganoff until after the Goobies whispered their last “Happy birthday, Daddy!” as we tucked them into bed, and we weren’t quite over whatever bug we’d been fighting that week quite yet. Our weekend plans were cancelled, more rain came in–but that super awesome birthday present found its way to you on time. And you loved it.
As piddly as my gestures felt compared to the grand plans with which I wish I could have surprised you–these small things were done with great love. And that right there is the biggest difference between your 40th birthday and your 30th. Ten years ago, I didn’t love you yet. That we’resorry we hurt your feelings birthday dinner we took you out for to celebrate your 30th birthday was a bigger party than your 40th birthday dinner, indeed. There were more people there, more food, more presents, more fun, and you spent the evening surrounded by people who loved you. This time around, there weren’t as many people around the dinner table, the food was only so-so, and the presents were small, too. But I showed up. The Goobies thrilled at throwing you a party. The food mattered to you. And the presents knocked your socks off. Most of all, this time, even the smallest, seemingly insignificant screamed how much I love you, because this time around, I do.
Chopped Cheeseburger Salad
Cheeseburger salads are everywhere–I get it. What makes this one stand out? Nothing much, I guess, except that Joey likes it better than any others he’s eaten at a restaurant, which of course makes my heart soar–but also, I totally agree. Many cheeseburger salads plop a lukewarm burger with plastic cheese on top of a pile of lettuce leaves and bun-sized slices of tomatoes, pickles, and onions, and serve thousand island dressing on the side. You end up having to chop the thing up yourself, making it feel like a lackluster bunless burger rather than a hearty, somewhat indulgent salad. At home, I chop the lettuce into bite sized pieces and pile them high with classic cheeseburger toppings: shredded sharp cheddar cheese (Daiya cheddar style shreds for Emery, if he’s around), ripe red tomatoes, chunks of dill pickles, and diced red or green onions if we feel like fussing around with them. Sometimes I get fancy and add some bacon or avocado, but we like the simplicity of this version best. Also–a note about the Pink Sauce. It’s really just Thousand Island Dressing like my mom always used to make, but we call it Pink Sauce because that’s what our girls call it. I use Trader Joe’s brand mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickles in this recipe. Other varieties will work too, of course, but I’m devoted to these Trader Joe’s staples and way their flavors meld into the perfect thousand island dressing. If you don’t want to use all that pickle juice, swap some out and use plain white vinegar instead. The salad and dressing are naturally gluten free, but swap vegan cheese for the sharp cheddar (or leave it out altogether) to make it dairy free. THM friends, this is an S.
For the Salad
1 pound ground beef (plus salt, to taste)
2 romaine hearts, washed, dried and chopped into 1 1/2″ pieces or so
2 handfuls of grape tomatoes, chopped (or try 1/2 – 3/4 cup chopped Romas or beefsteaks)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
dill pickles chopped, as few or as many as you prefer
Red onions, chopped (go easy on them–start with 2 Tablespoons or so) or 4 sliced green onions or so
Pink Sauce (as below)
For the Pink Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup dill pickle juice (see note above)
2 Tablespoons Pyure Organic Stevia Blend (or other sweetener equivalent to 1/3 sugar, or clearly–just use sugar. 1/3 cup should do.)
1/2 cup diced dill pickles
First, brown the ground beef and season it with about 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Once the meat is cooked through (no more pink), drain it and set it aside to cool.
Next, work on the dressing. In a large jelly jar, measure the mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickle juice and sweetner. Whisk until smooth. Toss in the diced pickles, give it another stir, and set aside (after tasting to make sure you like it, of course).
And now, on to the salad. Shred the cheese (if necessary) and set aside. Wash and dry the romaine lettuce. Next, chop it all up, along with the tomatoes and pickles, and toss it into a big bowl: first the lettuce, followed by the ground beef, then the shredded cheese, followed by the diced tomatoes, onions and dill pickles. Finally, swirl the dressing on top–about a 1/2 cup at first–and toss with tongs to coat. Add more dressing if it suits your taste to do so.
Pile high on plates, top with freshly ground black pepper and enjoy.
I think we made a good decision when we chose to put off our own New Year’s Eve tradition in favor of letting the Goobies stay up a little bit later than usual to get a taste of what New Year’s Eve is all about.
We usually make Shrimp & Grits and kick off our annual Harry Potter movie marathon on New Year’s Eve, a tradition we started a few years ago when it became clear we were the sort of people who used to go out on New Year’s Eve, but have traded in our party shoes for slippers. (Things really changed once we had kids, didn’t they?) It occurred to me on New Year’s Eve morning this year that our kids didn’t really know what New Year’s Eve was, let alone realize it was that same day. I tested this thought at the breakfast table, excitedly prodding them, “Who knows what today is?!”
“Saturday?” It might have been Addie who asked this, but I don’t remember. I do remember thinking I was right. How can they not know what New Year’s Eve is? What kind of parents are we that we haven’t even mentioned this before?
“Yes, it is Saturday. But it’s also….NEW YEAR’S EVE!”
More blank stares.
Mia tentatively asked, “So what do we do to celebrate?”
And it was that question, right there that wriggled its way between my excitement over Harry Potter and my deep desire to cultivate a culture of celebration in our family. These kids are young, yes–but aren’t they too old to send to bed without marking the occasion in some small way? If we don’t show them what New Year’s Eve is all about this year, we will have to wait a whole year to introduce it, and Addie will be seven years old by then. I felt it grow inside, that pesky feeling that I had to act now or miss my chance, and that the opportunity to weave another strand of tradition into our family life was there right then, and really? How long do we have until these Goobies want to spend New Year’s Eve with their friends, and not us? The time is now, I thought.
So we threw together a plan for our own family New Year’s Eve party–nothing fancy, but different enough from a normal night to make it feel special and fun. Central to this party was the idea of tradition–something that connects us as a family to our collective past and forges a bridge into our future, a bridge that we’ll keep building as we grow and change and step into the first few days of a still-hazy 2017.
Maybe that’s why your mom made sure to keep her New Year’s Eve offerings consistent every year: bridge building. Her traditions led you from one year to the next, first then and next, now. Maybe she knew that all that time ago when her her Green Chili Cheese Dip and Sweet and Sour Little Links showed up at the table while that funky 1960 rendition of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine flickered on the TV. Those things were constants for you then, and perhaps that’s why it felt right and good to make the same party snacks for our family this year–because traditions connect our individual pasts with our collective future.
Logistically speaking, cheesy dip is sort of a nightmare to serve with a kid who has a dairy allergy. But Emery was sick on New Year’s Eve and he took a nap straight through the dinner hour–a serendipitous coincidence that allowed our girls to enjoy that dip without any of us having to worry about Emery being around it. We taught the girls how to play Charades while we knelt around the coffee table and nibbled our way through dinner. By the time Emery woke up, we had all had our fill of dinner snacks and Emery joined in the fun of making s’mores around the fire and watching the Peanuts movie (which we had to explain to Mia wasn’t really about peanuts at all). All five of us piled on top of each other on our too-small-for-us-all couch and giggled our way through the evening. By 8:30, everyone was in bed but us, and we toasted to the new year in our pajamas, watching Food Network reruns while the fire petered out.
And so, we said goodbye to 2016 in peace, not feeling guilty or pressured, soaking up the joy of what we had right around us, and in the process, I think it’s safe to say we started a new tradition. Perhaps it’s not flashy or exciting, but it’s ours–and that’s what matters the most.
P.S.–We collapsed on the couch with big bowls of Shrimp & Grits last night instead–on New Year’s Day after the Goobies were in bed. They crashed early, after being up late the night before and in preparation for going back to school in the morning. We turned on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and geeked out (well, I did, at least), and fell asleep right as Hermione Granger is figuring out who Nicolas Flamel actually is, and totally missed midnight. I think we’re both ok with that being our new tradition, too.
Mema’s Green Chili Cheese Dip
This is the dip my mother in law made every year for New Year’s Eve–and still does, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a constant in Joey’s memory of the way he spent New Year’s Eve as a child: eating dip and little smokies while watching the 1960 version of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, so it’s no surprise this is what he requested when we talked about starting a New Year’s Eve tradition for our own family. I admit this recipe deviates from the original a bit, meaning mainly that this one is gluten free.That famous national brand of Cream of Mushroom soup (you know the one) is made with wheat flour, which poses a problem for people like me. But Pacific Foods makes a fantastic gluten free version that works just as well as that other brand, and it’s made with organic ingredients, too. Use mild cheddar cheese — it melts beautifully into the soup and stays creamy. Add more cheese if you like it even cheesier, but Joey gives the amount listed here two thumbs up. Also, this dip is mild as can be, so add hot sauce if you want things to be spicy.
1 cup milk (we used 2% milk, but use what you prefer)
12 oz. shredded mild cheddar cheese
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, mix together the soup, chiles and milk. Heat for a few minutes, until warm and steaming. Add the cheese, about a cup at a time, and whisk until melted and combined. Heat thoroughly–the dip will bubble up around the rim of the pan when it’s ready to pour into a serving bowl*.
*Joey says his mom always serves this dip straight out of a small crock pot to keep it warm and gooey, but we fared just fine using a regular serving bowl. You might need to reheat the dip a bit as it sits, but it stays nice and smooth at room temperature.
I bet you’ve never panicked about a cake before, but I have. I still do.
The only time that cake might have sort of caused a bit of a concern for you was when we sat down with the Cake Lady to discuss our wedding cake. Perhaps you wondered how a dedicated chocoholic like me and a plain white cake with buttercream boy like you would ever find enough common ground in the flavor department to place the order at all. (I know I was.)
Cake made me nervous then and it makes me nervous now. In hindsight, finding a way to compromise on a flavor was a walk in the park compared to what we deal with now. These days, I have much more pressing concerns than whether you’ll coax the kids to insist upon a flavor other than my beloved chocolate.
When I plunged into the gluten free world, baking a cake from scratch went from a pleasant way to spend an afternoon to a risky ordeal that was often not really worth the trouble. Cakes are temperamental anyway, but throw in the fact that it had to be gluten free, and baking a cake became a precarious endeavor. I figured it out eventually, of course, and have been baking cakes without much fuss since then–until lately. Now we have an almost-two-year-old (!?) with a dairy allergy who can’t be hoodwinked out of his fair share of cake, too. And so, baking a birthday cake became a problem.
Addie’s 6th birthday is tomorrow and we had a bunch of her friends over to help us celebrate a few days ago. We’ve been planning on this party for several weeks now, but I put off figuring out the cake part until last week, when suddenly I realized I didn’t have the time or wherewithal to spend a bunch of time in the kitchen experimenting with gluten free, dairy free cake recipes. I almost just bought a box of that Pillsbury Funfetti cake mix and called it a day. Except that I don’t bake with wheat flour anymore, and I didn’t want to contaminate all my baking gear with gluten. I thought about getting the gluten free version instead, but then I realized Emery wouldn’t be able to have them because that mix contains dairy. And so, I took a deep breath and bought an expensive box a gluten free cake mix because it was dairy free too–and easy.
I spent the money and walked out frustrated and pressed for time and a little thrown off by the fact that it was Halloween that day and you had Vertigo and all I wanted was just to bake my daughter a birthday cake that our whole family could eat and you know, enjoy, and I didn’t want to have to go through this frustrating process every time a birthday came around. I wanted a yummy cake recipe, a go-to cake recipe. I wanted to find THE cake recipe, the one I would turn to again and again and again through the Goobies’s childhoods, the one that would be so familiar I could bake it in my sleep if I had to (and I imagine there will be years ahead when that exact scenario will be necessary). But instead, I bought a cake mix.
Overwhelmed by all this, and very disappointed in the only sort of ok chocolate cupcakes the mix turned out, I decided to whip together a gluten free version of Smitten Kitchen’s Red Wine Chocolate Cake and enjoy a slice with a glass of wine after everyone was down for the night. You know, because I deserved it. (gag). The original recipe isn’t gluten free or dairy free, but I made a few substitutions and tweaked it a little to fix that problem. And you know what? It was fantastic.
As I sat savoring that piece of delicious cake, I realized the Red Wine Chocolate Cake recipe was really just a riff on Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake, and I figured if I could transform the Red Wine cake into a gluten free/dairy free version, I could make a non-red wine cake for a crowd of kids. My suspicions were right: you even liked them, despite the fact that they were chocolate. You sneaked a cupcake after the party was long over, and said to me in your very serious voice, “These are really good, Rach.”
You like that these cupcakes are dense like a brownie (and laden with your mom’s famous not-really-butter buttercream frosting–recipe below). I like that they’re moist and actually have flavor (and that the cupcake wrapper effortlessly peels away from them without tearing the cupcake apart). The Goobies like them because they all get to eat them. I like that part too.
It’s safe to assume you’ll see these chocolate cupcakes again and again over the course of our children’s childhoods. And yes, I promise to figure out a vanilla cake cousin for these little beauties. Your birthday is coming up next, after all.
Chocolate Cake Cupcakes
I hesitate to come out and say these are the best chocolate cupcake I have ever made because it is free of so many allergens and I doubt anyone would dare believe me. But I wouldn’t be paying this cake its due if I held out on you, now would I? So ok fine: these are the best chocolate cupcakes I have ever made, good enough to dupe you into thinking there must be one of the top 8 allergens in it. If you opt to use a banana instead of eggs (which is a very wise decision if I do say so myself) they are indeed free of dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish . Thick and moist with a tender crumb–deeply chocolately, yet not too sweet. This is chocolate cake perfection, food allergies or not. This recipe makes enough batter for 24 cupcakes or 2-8 inch rounds. The cake is done when a wooden toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. For two 8″ rounds, check the cake at 30 minutes–which is the perfect amount of time in my oven. I used Joey’s mom’s recipe for basic buttercream frosting (recipe below), but you can frost it as you like.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread, softened OR 6 oz softened refined coconut oil (not melted)
2 large eggs (or for an egg free version, substitute 1 very ripe medium banana, well mashed, to equal 1/2 cup*)
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar*
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened original non-dairy milk beverage (we prefer Good Karma Flax Milk)
*If using banana instead of egg, reduce brown sugar to 3/4 cup
**If using coconut oil instead of Earth Balance or butter, increase salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.
Start by preheating your oven to 325°F. Then, line your cupcake pan with paper cups. (Bonus if you have a 24-cup pan!)
Next, sift together the gluten free flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together, and set aside to add to the wet ingredients later.
In a large bowl of a Kitchen Aid (or similar electric mixer), cream the softened Earth Balance until it’s nice and smooth. Turn the mixer off, dump in the sugars and beat them together until they get nice and fluffy. Turn the mixer off again, add the eggs and vanilla and turn the mixer back on, making sure to whip the batter together well. Turn the mixer off.
Pour 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and add the flax milk (or rice milk) into the same measuring cup until you reach the 1 1/2 cup mark. Pour the vinegar/flax milk mixture to the batter, turn on the mixer again and mix well. The batter will look a little clumpy, but that’s ok. Turn off the mixer and dump in the dry ingredients. Turn the mixer back on (again!) and mix well, beating together until the batter is smooth and luscious.
Scoop the batter (about 1/4 cup per cupcake) into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean (mine were perfect at 22 minutes). Cool the cupcakes in the pan for about 5 minutes, and then pop them out and let them cool completely on a wire rack. Frost with whatever you desire, but we use my mother in law’s buttercream recipe, which I happily share below.
Mema’s Buttercream Frosting
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 teaspoon meringue powder–omit to keep the frosting egg-free