Fresh Strawberry Daiquiris

Two strawberry margaritas with shaker.
Shaking, not blending, ensures the strawberry flavor shines through in these fresh strawberry daiquiris.

TODAY’S MUSINGS:

Stephanie & Marc: “Attention everyone; we have an announcement…We’re PREGNANT!!!!”

Me: “What if you regret it later and then it’s too late?”

Everyone in the room: {Crickets}

“What if you regret it later and then it’s too late?”  Why is this question deemed completely acceptable to ask someone who made the decision NOT to have children, but it is considered abhorrent in the scenario above?

This week, I read a post where a woman was sharing her reasons for not having children and someone responded with the question above. I am also child-free by choice and have weathered the same question over years of my life. 

We are all confronted with serious choices throughout our life, among which is the decision to bear children. Pros and cons are weighed; guts are checked; consequences are ruminated upon, before most life-altering decisions are made. For me, the answer was, “no.”  Of course, I wondered if I would regret my decision – just like I pondered if I had made the right choice to buy this house, move to another city, take a job I wasn’t qualified for, or when I broke up with someone I thought I loved. Yet, I don’t think a woman should decide to birth and raise a child out of fear of making the wrong decision.

Throughout my baby-bearing years, I saw the life I wanted and was 99.98% positive that life did not include children. But, I also realized, should that .02% ever grow stronger as I matured, excellent options remained open to me – adoption, fostering, mentoring.  While, conversely, women who give birth and realize they weren’t cut out to be a parent have fewer palatable options – give the child away, abandon the child, become a resentful parent inflicting emotional scars, attempt to grin and bear it.  The person who has a child and regrets it later has a hell of a lot more to lose than someone who doesn’t.

“But, no one REGRETS having a child! Once you give birth, you’ll feel more love than you thought possible.”

I will concede that most women do not regret having a child, but there are plenty who do due to their unpreparedness to be a parent, the state of their marriage, the father’s non-participation (whether physical or financial), or economic hardship.

“But don’t you want someone to be there to take care of you when you’re old or be with you when you’re dying?”

Giving birth to children is NOT an insurance policy made flesh. I can imagine someone, in their late 40’s, inhaling salt water during a scuba-diving mishap, their last thoughts as they sink to the bottom on the ocean being, “Damn, having children didn’t help me in the end, after all.” We don’t know how or when our lives will end.  While it would be NICE to die of old age, surrounded by our loved ones, should we rely on that scenario when family planning?  I’ve experienced my fair share of final moments – some offspring step up to care for an aging parent, some don’t. Some family members hold vigil during the final moments, some don’t.  Some mourn, some don’t. Raising children does not safeguard us from dying alone and destitute.

I am not vilifying women who want children or have children. That is their choice, just like it was my choice to not have kids. By the way, I’m biologically in that “it’s too late” time of my life and I don’t regret my decision; not one bit. 

TODAY’S RECIPE:

Below is the ideal cocktail recipe to celebrate strawberry season – and a woman’s choice. Cheers!

Fresh Strawberry Daiquiris

  • Servings: 2 cocktails
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Shaking, instead of the usual blending, ensures the strawberry flavor shine through in these fresh strawberry daiquiris.


Ingredients

  • 5-6 very ripe fresh strawberries
  • ½ ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces white rum
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice

Directions

  1. Muddle strawberries and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker until well mashed.
  2. Add white rum, lime juice, and 6-8 ice cubes. Shake until well chilled.
  3. Pour through a sieve (don’t use the shaker strainer*) into chilled martini or coup glass. Garnish with a strawberry.

* We found the shaker strainer clogged too quickly with strawberry pulp. A sieve works better.
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My Favorite Vanilla Cake Recipe

A slice of vanilla cake with chocolate buttercream

Years ago, I discovered the ultimate chocolate cake recipe and never looked back.  This simple combination of ingredients produces an exceptionally dark and moist sponge that has become my go-to whenever a chocolate cake is needed – black forest, German chocolate, even an ultra-rich red velvet.  Full confession – this sponge is not one of my recipes.  I found it on the internet and would give credit if I could find the original recipe/author. My contribution is the addition of coffee/espresso which gives chocolate a richer flavor.

For over a decade, I’ve been searching for the vanilla equivalent to this chocolate version – a tried-and-true vanilla cake that is rich, moist, and flavorful.  I’ve tested a handful of recipes, always disappointed with the result, until now.  Since bakers and tasters have different ideas about what makes a “perfect” vanilla cake, I’ve found it difficult to find a recipe that matches my own aesthetic. Many people look to boxed cake mixes as the “classic” vanilla cake, but I usually find them too light and delicate, often dry and lackluster, with an artificial vanilla taste. Consequently, I’ve called this cake “My Favorite” versus “Ultimate” or “Best” since my cake holy grail may be miles away from your ideal.

This sponge is a combination of a few recipes and calls for a mixture of browned butter and room-temperature butter for a rich flavor as well as oil which adds a tender texture. I also used vanilla bean paste because I like to see the little specs of vanilla beans, but real vanilla extract works as well.  No imitation vanilla, please. This recipe results in a buttery and moist sponge – luxurious, but not quite as heavy as pound cake.  If you are looking for a fluffy, light, butter-free cake, this recipe is not for you. 

For testing, I paired the sponge with a classic chocolate buttercream frosting, but found the chocolate overwhelmed the delicate vanilla bean and browned butter flavor. This sponge would be best paired with a vanilla Chantilly cream or Seven-minute frosting and layered with fresh fruit to ensure the flavor of the cake shines through. 

MY FAVORITE VANILLA CAKE RECIPE

  • Servings: One 9” cake
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This recipe results in a rich, buttery, and moist sponge – luxurious, but not quite as heavy as pound cake.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
  • 1 ⅔ cups whole or 2% milk
  • 1 Tablespoon white vinegar
  • 3 ⅓ cups sifted cake flour
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 ⅓ cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (or real vanilla extract)
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature

Directions

  1. Place ½ cup (1 stick) butter in a small saucepan. Melt butter over medium-low heat. Swirl butter frequently. Continue swirling until melted butter turns light brown in color and smells nutty. Remove from heat and let cool. In a liquid measuring cup, combine milk with white vinegar and set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease bottoms of three 8″ x 2″ round cake pans and line with parchment. Grease and flour parchment and sides of pans. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together cooled browned butter, room temperature butter, vegetable oil, and sugar until light, fluffy, and no longer grainy, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla bean paste.
  4. Beat in eggs, one at a time until fully incorporated. Be sure to scrape down sides and bottom of bowl a few times to ensure ingredients are fully combined. Beat in flour in 3 additions, alternating with milk in two additions (flour, milk, flour, milk, flour).
  5. Divide batter evenly between the baking pans and smooth the tops. Bake cakes for approximately 25-30 minutes, swapping position of cake pans halfway through. The cakes are done when internal temperature in the center of the cake registers 190ºF or a toothpick inserted comes out with just a few crumbs attached. Cool 5 minutes, remove from pans turn out onto cooling racks, remove parchment, cool completely, and frost.

Vietnamese Cilantro-Mint Eggplant

A plate with grilled eggplant marinated in cilantro lime Vietnamese sauce

Today’s Musings:
Beware of Prince Charming; he’s quite possibly a sociopath.

Confession time – I watch my fair share of true crime TV and documentaries, from Netflix’s An American Murder, the Family Next Door to Dirty John to Dateline to old reruns of Cold Case Files.  In fact,  if I can’t sleep,  true crimes are my go-to bedtime stories.  This became a habit during my career as an Event Manager.  Hotel television in other countries is often a handful of terrible shows, usually in the country’s native language.  However, no matter where I’ve traveled, I can usually find a channel playing back-to-back episodes of Forensic Files. At a half-hour each, they are just long enough to provide the necessary background noise to send me off to dream land.  And, although I’m unsure if it’s intentional, true crime hosts tend to possess a soothing voice – Keith Morrison, Lester Holt, Bill Kurtis, Peter Thomas – that jettisons me off to snooze-land within no time.   Yes, this does mean I sometimes crawl under the covers clutching a kitchen knife or can of mace.

I’ve noticed these stories, predominantly wives or girlfriends who have been conned of their life savings, murdered, or had some other atrocity committed upon them by their partner, initially described their perpetrator as “charming.”  Hello, Ted Bundy. Interviewers of the unsuspecting neighbor or love interest will hear, ” I just don’t understand it. He was so charming! “

 Having dealt with my own “charming” partner who eventually exposed himself to be a liar, philanderer, and psychological abuser, I often relate closely to these women, going from feeling cherished in the first month to changing the locks on all the doors during the final days.

I’m not alone in recognizing “charming,” a word little girls grow up believing describes the perfect man, should actually be a big ol’ red flag.  A simple Google search of “Charming Beware” or “Charming Red Flag” shows that charming behavior is often a precursor to abuse, be it physical, mental, emotional, or a combination of these.  In fact, there’s a name for these men – Charm Syndrome Man. 

“Dave was a charming, outgoing, hands-on dad.”

Sandra Horley, author of Power and Control-Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers writes, “…women invariably remember the charming side of their partners, the side they fell in love with. They describe them as loving, tender, funny and considerate. More often than not, they explain that between bouts of abuse, their partners revert to being charmers. They can beg forgiveness, smother them in affection and promise they will never behave badly again. And because the women still care, they agree to give them just one more try…. The word “charm” has cropped up again and again. At first it seemed astonishing, but soon repeatedly, I was making the connection between these two apparent opposites, charm and abuse, which seemed to run like two threads intertwined into women’s lives. It might be the charm of Dr Jekyll or the abuse of Mr. Hyde, and just as in Stevenson’s novel, the activities of Mr. Hyde are protected by the character of Dr Jekyll.”

Interviewer: “Was Tom charming?”
Victim’s Best Friend: “Very charming. Larger than life!”

Charm is, essentially, an affect employed to convince the outer world that this person is a good egg.  If this man is truly of good character, no affect or convincing is needed.  True character will shine via their deeds and consistent right actions.  When recalling my healthiest relationships, the words I use to describe my partners would be “kind,” “loyal,” “dependable” and “thoughtful.”  Prince Dependable, however, doesn’t have the same ring. 

Today’s Recipe:
I couldn’t get the flavor of the cilantro-mint sauce from this Bahn Mi recipe out of my head. I knew it could be delicious used in various recipes. It’s quite tasty drizzled over sweet potatoes or used as a marinade for eggplant.

Vietnamese Cilantro-Mint Eggplant

  • Servings: 4 main or 6 as a side-dish
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Marinate Eggplant slices in this flavorful sauce and grill or bake in the oven. Don’t forget to serve with additional sauce on the side for drizzling.


Ingredients

  • 2 large eggplants, cut into ¾”thick rounds
  • ½ cup mint leaves, loosely packed
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed, plus more for sandwich
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Zest from 1 lime
  • Juice from 2 limes
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 Tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sambal oelek chili paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Preheat grill or preheat oven to 400° F. Combine all ingredients except eggplant in a blender and blend until smooth.
  2. Set aside ¼ cup sauce. Toss eggplant in remaining sauce making sure eggplant is evenly coated. Grill or roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes until eggplant is soft and browned around the edges.
  3. Drizzle with reserved sauce and serve.

Chermoula Sauce and Marinade

Chermoula Sauce with Chermoula Sweet Potatoes and Chermoula Eggplant

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
“Julie, It’s me, your heart. Are you listening? Those butterflies doing aerials in your stomach?  Ignore them. Those quiverings are merely reactions to the chemicals surging through your system right now, making you feel ‘in love’ – no relation to real Love, with a capital ‘L.’ Love is MY domain.  The saying may be, ‘Trust your gut,’ but believe me, when it comes to Love, let me do the talking. They call it ‘Matters of the heart’ for a reason.  I empathize, at the first sign of butterflies, you bloom in response.  Suddenly, rather than hiding in your house in your old, ratty yoga pants all day, you feel buoyant and sexy as you strut down the sidewalk.  You are transformed into Ms. Personality, sharing light banter with the grocery store clerk and the bank security guard as you run your errands.  The warm sun shines brightly upon you, although we both can see the sky is grey and cold.  You can’t concentrate, giggling to yourself as you recall sweet nothings whispered in your ear and the electricity of his touch along your skin. This fluttering in your gut inspires you to buy sexy, expensive lingerie, sign up for a Pilates class, throw out those cookies, and cut out all those naughty carbs. (It’s a conundrum for me – I’ll benefit from a healthier diet, but I want you to eat better for yourself, not because the butterflies coerced you).

I’m fairly perceptive and I’m convinced that dopamine and norepinephrine, these chemicals promoting this blissful, ‘in-love’ feeling, must also confuse and discombobulate your brain as well, ensuring you’ll forget (once again, may I remind you) the rest of the story.  Why can’t you recall that you’ve experienced this giddiness before – dozens of times? Why must you, me, and the rest of the organs residing within you, be swept away into this land of butterflies and candy-coated rainbows when, soon enough, the clouds of reality will cast their shadows over this romantic scene again?  Don’t you remember re-reading your old journal a few weeks ago?  I do – I constrict at the thought!  On its pages, in your left-handed scrawl, you captured the metamorphosis from ‘bright new love’ through ‘struggling with difficulties’ to ‘sadness’ and finally ‘heartbreak,’ when I’m shattered into a million pieces.  There’s your gut-induced butterfly life-cycle in ink on paper – and spanning less than a year.

Do you forget this pattern because, should your brain fully grasp how swiftly the fluttering turns to catastrophe, you would avoid this biochemical trap again?  Can the butterflies ever foretell an ending other than sorrow? Put your trust in me, dear Julie.  Listen to your heart, rather than the butterflies.  I’ll find you true Love.

– Always, Me”

Today’s Recipe:
Chermoula, a North African sauce and marinade, is traditionally used to flavor seafood, but is also delicious on red meat, chicken, and vegetables, like the sweet potatoes and eggplant above. It’s North Africa’s answer to chimichurri.

CHERMOULA SAUCE AND MARINADE

Garlicky, tart, earthy Chermoula works as a marinade and sauce for fish, chicken, or veggies. Add it to mayonnaise for a flavorful sandwich spread.


Ingredients

  • ½ cup fresh cilantro
  • ½ cup fresh parsley
  • ½ cup mildly-flavored olive oil
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • ⅓ cup lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Chermoula can be refrigerated for a week.

CHERMOULA SWEET POTATOES

Garlicky Chermoula pairs perfectly with sweet potatoes. It’s the culinary Venn diagram of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.


Ingredients

  • 1 ½ lbs. sweet potatoes, each cut into 8 wedges
  • ¼ cup Chermoula sauce, plus more for drizzling

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine sweet potato wedges and 3 Tablespoons chermoula.
  2. Bake for 15 minutes, flip wedges over and bake for another 15 minutes until tender.
  3. Drizzle additional chermoula sauce over wedges before serving.

Lemon Chiffon Pie

A lemn chiffon pie with 2 lemons and a pie server

Today’s Musings:
An undeserved firing, a cheating partner, a false accuser, a friend who never pays back money lent – why is it nearly impossible to let go of the injustices we have endured at the hands of others?  Why do we waste time ruminating on people who don’t deserve another minute’s thought – the liars and the cheats and the backstabbers? We fixate on and revisit these feelings of betrayal because we wholeheartedly believe in the rules of balanced and fair conduct.  When someone deceptively tips the fairness scale in their favor, we want repercussions for the cheaters’ and charlatans’ duplicity.  Once we have recognized their deceit, we desperately attempt to rebalance the fairness equilibrium.  Becoming consumed by our efforts to uncover their motivation, we endeavor to understand the why, feverishly seeking justice in a situation that is intrinsically unjust. Haven’t we all, at some point, been incapable of spitting the betrayal bit from our teeth, even though we know it’s causing us further anguish?

This unrelenting quest for fairness, sadly, puts our own precious life on hold.  Unable to move forward, we spend hours rehashing the details with our friends and therapists, conjuring schemes to rebalance the scales by stooping to the betrayer’s level or questioning if we somehow deserve what happened to us. To step off this hamster wheel, we need to move past our inherent need to comprehend these injustices. Squandering minutes contemplating motives or reliving the injustice merely exacerbates our wounds and is ineffective in moving the scales.  How do we begin to rebalance?

Forgiveness.

In spite of what you may believe, forgiveness is not proclaiming, “I forgive you because I didn’t warrant being treated any better” or “I am releasing you because it is okay that you did this to me.”  It was NOT okay – it was NEVER okay.  Forgiveness is saying, “I release you because you are incapable of giving anything better, whether through your ignorance, intolerance, mental defect, or circumstance.”

So, how do we unearth forgiveness for the undeserving? By sending that shithead all the love we can muster.  Whoa, I know; it’s not easy.  There’s a Buddhist meditation called Metta meditation (Lovingkindness meditation) that encourages the meditator to first focus on someone they love deeply and meditate on the words, “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.” Next, they focus on someone they feel neutral about – the barista, the dog walker, the person jogging down the street – and repeat the same words. Finally, the meditator choses someone who deserves their anger. They gather up all the bits of love in their heart and send that loving energy towards the undeserving, feeling the words, “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”  The meditator continues with the practice – days, weeks, months, years – until they can truly muster lovingkindness towards this person.

Once we can find love in our heart for an undeserving asshole, we can find love for anyone and everyone.  It’s a sense of mastery – and then we are free.

I’m still practicing.

**Inspired by Phil Stutz…and Betty Broderick

Today’s Recipe:

LIGHT AS AIR LEMON CHIFFON PIE

  • Servings: 8-10 slices
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Spring captured in a pie. This light and airy pie doesn’t skimp on tart, mouth-watering, fresh lemon.


Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 11 graham crackers)
  • 7 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 2 ½ teaspoons (1 envelope) unflavored gelatin
  • 1 cup sugar, divided in half
  • 4 large eggs, yolks and whites separated (room temperature)
  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon zest
  • Freshly whipped sweetened whipped cream

Directions

  1. Combine graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Press along bottom and sides of a 9” pie plate. Set aside.
  2. Pour cold water into a small bowl. Stir in gelatin until fully mixed and let stand while you make the custard.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk ½ cup sugar, yolks, lemon juice, and salt together in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it is the consistency of custard, about 10 minutes. Add lemon zest and softened gelatin and stir until fully incorporated. Pour into a large bowl and set aside to cool while you make the meringue.
  4. In a stand mixer, beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Gradually add remaining ½ cup sugar, one tablespoon at a time. Increase speed to high and continue beating until firm peaks form. Fold ⅓ of meringue into custard to lighten and then fold in remaining meringue until no large blobs of white meringue remain, but do not knock all the air out.
  5. Spoon filling into crust and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours. Garnish with sweetened whipped cream.

Today’s Tips: 
By adding about ⅓ of meringue to the lemon custard first and then adding the remaining, the two textures blend without overly deflating the meringue.

This meringue is uncooked. If salmonella is an issue in your area, use pasteurized egg whites.