Sep 29, 2014

Emergency Planning...

The thing about anxiety is that it isn't always about BIG things. In fact, I would venture to guess that in my case it's more often little, ridiculous things that add up & make adrenaline and who knows what else accumulate in my system and mess with my sensibilities.

Case in point: I recently found myself the recipient of a massage. I'm not much of a spa & pampering type of person, but given my history with back stuff, a good massage can be quite therapeutic.

I was lying on the glorious heated table, under a sheet and lovely purple plush blanket, making pleasant conversation and contemplating my life. My wandering mind was brought back a couple times by my un-silenced phone dinging with texts, but I decided it wouldn't be anything that couldn't wait until later. The Cat Daddy had all the kids and all the carseats, and is quite capable in a crisis and besides, if it were truly urgent he would have called instead of texting.

Well, that got me to thinking about if there were some sort of crisis at the massage place, which got me to thinking about my, um, minimally-clothed situation, and what would I do if the fire alarm went off RIGHT THEN and we had to evacuate?

In retrospect, it seems like a no-brainer to fashion a toga from the sheet, but keep in mind I was under the influence of calming music and pleasant aromas wafting about, so my mental acuity was less than optimal.

My penchant for finding things to freak out about, however, was fully intact. It really depended on what sort of lead-time we'd be talking about. I mean, I could dress & be out of there in under 30 seconds, but maybe we wouldn't have 30 seconds. Maybe the aromatherapy scents would make the air more combustible or something and the massage therapist would say, "We need to go NOW," and bolt without a second look. What then?

Well. One of the things about being a nervous-type is that while I can't pre-think my way out of every possible contingency, having a general plan of action goes a long way. So here's what I decided. The room was situated such that if I hopped down on the left side of the table, I'd pass right by my belongings on the way out, giving me about 2 seconds to grab everything and get out of there. If we were in a real pinch, I could leave my shoes and even my shorts behind, but the shirt was coming with me no matter what.  If it was more of a smolder I could take the 30 seconds to dress, but if it was more like Die Hard, with doors exploding open right & left, I could deal with the self-consciousness long enough to get to safety and then put my shirt on. I mean, given the situation, a handful of half-naked people would probably not be the most conspicuous thing that day (or maybe they would...).

I was pretty proud of my careful planning, so I shared it with the Cat Daddy. In case, you know, he ever finds himself nearly-nekkid in the middle of a massage parlor fire. He was less impressed than I had hoped. I blame it on his sound reasoning skills--he mentioned that even if I had been absolutely nude and could take nothing, once the fire dept got there they would give me a blanket or something to cover up with. Honestly though, I'm not sure what the hierarchy is on priorities. Like, do they get the fire out and then worry about covering the uncovered, or do they sort of divide and conquer the responsibilities ("OK Smith, and Taylor, you get the fire out. Jennings, go find some blankets for these scandalous individuals, and then pick up a section of hose")? It's a good backup plan, but I think I'd still prefer my own soft cotton tee.

And thankfully, I made it through the entire massage with nary a fire in sight (Or smell. Or earshot. There was no fire.), so I didn't even have to test my plan.

Now, you might be thinking "What on EARTH, Skerrib??" Because seriously, what is the likelihood of needing to evacuate the building during a massage? And normally I'd hang my head sheepishly and tell you you're exactly right...

...Except that this one time back around 2007 or so where I was having my annual well-woman check and the building was put into lock-down. And not just a "oh, lock the outside doors" lock-down. It was a "remain in your current room and lock the door" sort of lock-down. That's right--paper gown. Stirrups. Mid-Exam. Full-on lockdown.

This is possibly the only time in my life I've thought "Thank God I'm being examined in a military treatment facility," for two reasons:

1) I knew it was part of a base exercise and there was therefore no need to worry. Most likely, anyway.
2) In (most?) military exam rooms they have hospital-style curtains.

So in this instance, the doc finished the exam and pulled the curtain, I re-robed, and then he & I chatted about our young kids until the lockdown was lifted. I have to say that I had never once considered what I would do if the building was put into lock-down while I was in the middle of a medical exam. Thankfully he was super-professional, and calm about the whole thing, and my guess is he'd considered the possibility in some sort of pre-exercise briefing or something, because while he looked a little annoyed by the exercise, he was mostly nonplussed and knew exactly how to handle things as un-awkwardly as possible. Thank the Lord.

Anyway, my point is that it just goes to show you--worrying yourself silly is unhealthy, but a little advance planning is probably not a bad idea. Just in case.

You're welcome...

Sep 17, 2014

Nighty Night...

I started making my bed recently.

It's been gradual, and it still isn't all that consistent, but I'd venture to guess I make it more days than I don't.

Growing up we had to make our beds, and I didn't think all that much of it. In college my friend Mrs. B. showed me how to do hospital corners. I thought they were pretty slick, and a useful skill, but I only used them when I changed the sheets.

The Cat Daddy and I have never been in the habit of making the bed. It's mostly an issue of practicality--we usually get up at different times, and there are plenty of other things to spend our energy on, and king-sized beds are fantastic for co-sleeping but kind of tedious for bed-making. And neither of us has ever cared all that much. I mean, we appreciate it, but not enough to do anything about it.

Once, during one of our in-town moves before the Air Force, a friend remarked how much she loved pulling back the sheets after a long and tiring day, and climbing into her bed. And I thought that sounded really nice. But again, not nice enough to put the effort in to making it every day.

Plus I have this weird mental block about doing certain things just to do them, and somehow I found it unjust that I should take responsibility for making the bed without any help from the Cat Daddy, who occupies half or more of it (depending on how he is lying).

I'm still not quite sure what happened, but I think the laundry was part of it. As part of our ongoing negotiation over the division of labor, the bulk of the laundry folding was transferred to me, and I found it helpful to pull up the quilt and fold the laundry on top so as not to lose or entangle little shirts or socks.

And the KIDS. Those kids come in and pretend all sorts of stories, and mess the whole thing up. Left unchecked they would burrow under the mattress pad like little tail-less moles scurrying along the TempurPedic top layer. Then at night I am rummaging for the stinkin' covers so I can hunker down and snuggle up.  For some reason when I make the bed they are less likely to pull it all apart. That's not to say they won't still do it, but somehow they don't do it quite as often.

Plus we have low-maintenance covers. A top sheet and quilt, plus a blanket in the winter. And pillows with regular pillowcases. No shams or piles of decorative pillows. Piles of decorative pillows are just fodder for my burrowing tail-less moles, and they stress me out.

But as I said, somehow along the way I made the bed a few times, and I realized that with low-maintenance covers and pillows it's not a big deal. And I also found it fairly calming, to walk into my room and see a nice smooth bed instead of one all rumpled and askew.  And in this season of scaling back and simplifying (if only in my mind), investing a minute or two to spread a little calm throughout my day is time well-spent.

And now at nighttime, after a long day of whatever, it does indeed feel glorious to pull back my low-maintenance covers and slide in all comfy and cozy.

Sweet dreams for me...

Sep 11, 2014

The Great Cookie Test...

Needs more chips. But not too many more.
I have a lifelong love of the chocolate chip cookie. Growing up my mom used the Tollhouse recipe, except with margarine instead of butter, and sans nuts, thank you very much.

Except somewhere along the line I decided margarine was lame (because it is), and started using butter instead. While I have a slightly clearer conscience about the quality of the obscene amount of junk I'm shoveling into my body with butter ones, I've spent years tweaking the recipe to get it to turn out closer to my cookies of long ago (i.e., not greasy flat discs). In recovery circles they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results. Using this reasoning I should be very, very sane from trying so many different things over the years, but unfortunately I have never achieved the same result as my childhood cookies. Because, trans fats. The closest I've come is the fabled Neiman-Marcus recipe, which I do enjoy, but requires special treatment so I'm not inclined to count it as equivalent to the old stand-by.

Well, this lady did a parametric study on Tollhouse tweaks, resulting in a handy-dandy chart of cookie goodness, which you might've seen making its way around Facebook and Pinterest as of late. And while I loved the IDEA of embarking on my own study, I understood the reality of time and ingredients and suddenly felt very tired and sluggish.

And then there's the Cat Daddy, who feels that the cookies I make are "just fine the way they are," and doesn't understand why I would want to re-invent this particular wheel. He also may or may not realize that, at least in my eyes, they turn out differently every single time. I don't think we have the same goals and desires for our cookies.

Well after a 4-year stint at high altitude, which brought its own set of gifts and problems, I finally just kind of threw my hands up at the whole situation. I mean, I do still bake cookies occasionally, but let's be honest, the kids care about (1) getting as much cookie dough into themselves as I will allow/not notice, and (2) getting as many cookies into themselves as I will allow/not know about because I'm sleeping and they woke up at 3 AM to sneak them (lots of sneakery at my house), and I found the empty bowl and slice of bread the next morning, but at least the Cat Daddy will usually put the bowl in the sink, Littler One.

I digress.

That's all to say I sometimes bother to make dough from scratch, but other times I pick up the ready-made packs from the store. But no Pillsbury chocolate chip dough rolls, because come on, those cannot compare with the little Tollhouse pull-apart pucks.

So the last couple months have found me on an unexpected journey. Unexpected in that I wasn't planning on studying cookies, and also in that I didn't expect cookie-related adversity, mostly in the form of guff from the Cat Daddy.

It started with my online friend Emily. I read her post about what might be the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever, which of course I took as a personal challenge, because who wouldn't want to be in possession of the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever? I told her that I would be trying the recipe soon, probably in the next week, and I'd let her know how they turned out.

About six weeks later I found that we had both the ingredients and required block of time, so my sous chef and I commenced with the cookie baking. We assembled our ingredients:

  • One pound salted butter
  • 1 3/4 cups white sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 6 cups + 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 Teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 pounds dark chocolate chunks

From here it's basic cookie protocol:

  • Combine the dry things
  • Combine the wet things (sugars count as wet here, as many Good Eats aficionados will know) 
  • Gradually add the dry to the wet, finishing off with the chocolate pieces at the end
  • Exercise great restraint, cover the dough, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour

Then, and only then:

  • Preheat the oven to 350F
  • Line cookie sheet(s) with parchment
  • Roll the cookies into balls, place on parchment, and bake until done (10-15 min. Ish.)
Good for developing fine motor skills in sous chefs
  • Don't even think of removing them from the pan until they've cooled a bit. I rotated between two pans, placing the one from the oven onto a wire rack for a few minutes before I removed the cookies to another wire rack and re-loaded the pan. Emily says let the pan return to room temp, and while I don't know if I waited that long, it was at least close.
  • Enjoy the cookies. Share if you want. Don't listen to the naysayers who are anti-progress when it comes to cookies.

And now for some discussion and tips...

--I read several years ago that for chocolate chip cookies, the vanilla should be at least tripled to a Tablespoon, so this is my general practice. I have never been disappointed.

--The commissary didn't have dark chocolate chunks, but they did have Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, so I went with those. Honestly, I'm not sure if I would have tasted the difference between those and the Tollhouse ones, but Emily said to trust her that Ghirardelli would be good and she certainly was correct on that point. If you know about my mild addiction to Nestle dark chocolate chips, you might wonder why I wouldn't use those here, and the answer is that I love them so much I wouldn't want to taint their complexity with any other ingredients. The right tool for the job, and all that.

As to the quantity of chips, this is highly subjective. I realize this will sound heretical to some, but I generally go with about half what the recipe calls for. Here I started with a full 12-oz bag of chips and that seemed a little sparse, even for me, so I added another half a bag, but that seemed a little much. So, use your judgement on the chocolate chips/chunks. 

--The dough will be really thick. Even my Kitchenaid Pro was whining at me, and it took everything in me not to yell, "Suck it up, this is what you were made for!" It got the job done, but you may want to keep an eye on your mixer just to make sure it doesn't suddenly go kaput. Not that I would know about that sort of thing.

--Keep an eye on the cookies! That line between "ew, too doughy" and "ugh, too crunchy" is mighty fine. My best pans came out just before I thought they were done. If you can, stick with using the oven light and opening the oven as little as possible. We want to bake the cookies, not fan them indulgently with an oven door.

--I have found out that life goes better for many reasons when we do baked goods in smaller batches, so I baked a third of the batch, split the remainder into two little batches, wrapped each in wax paper, and froze both in a freezer bag. A week later when I needed something dessert-ish for a gathering, badda-boom, badda-bing.

I will caution you about this method though. You may or may not find yourself sawing off corners of frozen dough to sneak when the kids aren't around (I know. Sneakery...), or eating tiny little slabs of frozen dough for breakfast, or something. Discipline, people. This is all I am saying.

--The cold dough is tough to work with, but I found it really does produce the best result. If it gets too squishy, of course just stick it back in the fridge for a while and resume.

Also, keep an eye on your sous chef. Some are known, under the guise of ball-rolling, to actually perform chip removal (via SNEAKERY), which may or may not be desirable...

"I'm just tasting, Mom."
--And as many people like to do, try tweaking the recipe for your particular equipment and tastes. I tried smushing the balls just a touch and found I preferred them un-smushed. The next time I plan to try a smidgen less flour, just to see what happens, and try maybe one bag plus just a few extra chocolate chips, to see if the balance is better.

--My household is a tough crowd. Certain cookie conservatives were upset--nay, OFFENDED--at the mere mention of my trying a new cookie recipe (and also with 'way too much chocolate,' as they put it. Which was true, but a confusing way to phrase it because how can one ever have too much chocolate??). While I appreciate their love of cookies past, I found this a worthy endeavor. The recipe as-is turned out wonderfully, and I received high praise from credible cookie lovers, so I feel confident recommending it.

Now go forth! And bake cookies! And let me know how it goes...