Monday, July 11, 2011

Whole Wheat Chocolate-Chip Cookies with Pecans

For Ellen, Eileen, and Crystal, especially.

Are chocolate-chip cookies not the most perfect little bite of pure Americana? Right up there next to hamburgers straight-off-the grill and homemade cinnamon rolls, in my opinion. Pair a couple of these cookies hot-from-the-oven with a glass of cold milk, and you've got perfection.

After years of searching for the "perfect" chocolate-chip cookie recipe, I have come to this earth-shattering conclusion: the version on the back of Nestle Semi-Sweet Morsels bag (introduced in 1939) is the best.

However, of late I have been called back to Ina Garten's (of Barefoot Contessa fame) opinion that with a simple, basic recipe it becomes important to choose the very best-quality ingredients available. Now don't get me wrong: I am not a chocolate-chip cookie snob ... I'm not above eating raw Pillsbury dough - with or without a spoon - right from the soft plastic tube ... but after upping the quality of ingredients in the following recipe, I think it's the very best I've had in my 30-plus years of making them. My husband and daughter agree. Try it out and see what you think!

Whole-Wheat Chocolate-Chip Cookies with Pecans

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (I use 2 1/2 cups of King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt (I use Kosher salt)
1 c. (2 sticks) real butter, softened (no Crisco, no margarine, no "spread"!)
3/4 c. granulated sugar (I use organic)
3/4 c. packed brown sugar (I use organic)
1 t. pure vanilla extract (I use Nielsen-Massey brand from Williams-Sonoma)
2 large eggs (I use large brown organic eggs)
2 c. Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c. chopped nuts (I use finely-chopped pecans)

Put on a cute apron. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat butter, sugars, and vanilla in large bowl. Add eggs. Gradually add flour, baking soda, and salt, and beat. Stir in chocolate-chips and nuts.

Use a tiny spring release ice-cream scoop (thanks, DeAnn!) to drop twelve blobs of dough, evenly-spaced, on a cookie sheet. Based on your oven, figure out exactly how many minutes to bake your cookies so that the edges are just starting to brown. (The centers will still appear uncooked...that's how you want 'em!) For my oven, it's eight minutes exactly. Cool on the cookie sheet two minutes, then remove to wire rack.

The next day, if you want your cookies ALMOST as melty-good as when they were just taken from the oven, put a couple on a napkin and microwave for ten seconds.

Friend-making (or keeping) Tip: Consider wrapping some of your just-baked cookies up in a cute way, and making a surprise delivery to a neighbor! The above-pictured container was left on my friend Eileen's doorstep the other night, and she soon returned home with visiting children and grandchildren to find them still warm.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Joy of Sitting - Week 20

So this is what's for dinner at our house tonight: fresh and locally-grown white corn-on-the-cob, Spooner Farms strawberries, green beans, sliced tomatoes and (California) avocado. I'll add a touch of real butter to the steamed green beans and corn, and grinders of salt and pepper will be on the table. No meat, no potatoes or rice or bread, just in-season deliciousness. I can't wait! I hope my husband will be as excited as I am. :)

I'm here today to report on my Excellent Experiment, as I'm now into Week 20. I feel kind of sheepish. I have nothing new to report as far as the scale goes ... I have been holding strong at a -30 pounds, but haven't lost a fraction of a pound since early last month. It's kind of weird, actually. I've been exercising regularly (still running and have added climbing our local Mt. Peak for cross-training, as well as a little yoga), I'm carefully watching what I'm eating at mealtimes, but if I'm being totally honest here, I guess I've had my share of the following things lately: warm and gooey and right-out-of-the-oven Texas sheet cake, dipped ice cream cones, and (my favorite) homemade, whole-wheat dark chocolate chip cookies with pecans. I give full credit to the exercise and the eating well at mealtimes for maintaining my weight, and I give full credit to the Sugar Booger for my lack o' loss.

The neat thing (and the different thing) this time around is that I still feel full of hope and motivation to continue on down the weight-loss road. I know, with the Lord's help, that I am completely capable of reaching my goals. It is just a matter of combining what I've learned through my Experiment so far with the other lessons that wait for me around the bend.

Someone asked me the other day what my best tips are for losing weight. I have thought a lot about this, and have narrowed it down to five tried-and-true basics that served as the backbone of my efforts:

1. Elimination of as many refined sugars (and other foods) from diet as possible;
2. Drink 64 ounces of water, or more, per day;
3. Exercise at least four days per week, at whatever level is a bit of a stretch;
4. Weigh every morning -- "knowledge is power";
5. (MOST IMPORTANT BY FAR) Daily spiritual preparation: following morning prayer, planning on paper what meals and exercise will look like for the day. Pray for and then expect the guidance of the Holy Ghost at each difficult moment that arises. Report back to Heavenly Father at evening prayer, and express gratitude for His help. Repeat the next morning.

Even though my total weight loss goal is only half-achieved so far, there are these wonderful little moments of pure joy that continue to catch me by surprise. They are moments where it is made very clear to my mind and my heart how truly far I have come. Let me share my two most recent little bursts of happiness with you ... they both have to do with sitting. Yep, sitting. Who knew there was any big deal about sitting??!

#1 Moment of Pure Joy: Last week, while my daughter was practicing with her soccer team on the turf, I spontaneously took a couple of mile-laps around the park. I hadn't gotten my run in that morning, and because I had thrown on my running shoes on my way out the door, the opportunity presented itself and I was ready.

As I took a cool-down walk around my daughter's field, I ended up on the shady hill behind the far goal. As I sat my sweaty self down on that hill, my mind was instantly and vividly taken back to the memory of myself attempting to sit down on that same hill two summers ago. I was in the clutches of the beginnings of rheumatoid arthritis, and I could barely get my body down to the ground. I became very aware of others around me, the fact that I had a skirt on, and the obvious difficulty my large, arthritic body was having lowering itself to simply sit on the grass. I remember wanting to cry, and feeling like a woman old far before her time.

But this time! After that great, unplanned run, there I was again on the same hill, plopping down gingerly like an normal person. I saw in that moment how very far I had come, and how much healthier all-around I am now. Happy, happy, joy, joy!

#2 Moment of Pure Joy: On Monday at noon, my husband and I found a little coveted spot on Cole Street, in the crowds of red/white/blue-dressed folks, from which to watch the hometown Fourth of July parade. My husband had slung some old beach chairs over his shoulder, and as he set them up for us on the sidewalk, I thought, "I hate those chairs". You see, they sit just about six inches from the ground, and they were always awkward for a bigger person like me to maneuver down into.

Well, that was my FORMER SELF hating on the chairs, 'cause my NEW AND IMPROVED SELF gracefully settled in to that baby. No biggie! When my mind made the connection between that smile-inducing moment and the one on the soccer hill, I just chuckled and shook my head: hard to believe that sitting down easily can make one feel so darn good.

I have learned so much lately in this journey, this Experiment of mine. Here are a few random thoughts offered up in the hopes that something here will help someone out there (maybe you?) in blog-land:

**I recently decided to get rid of all the clothes I own that are now too big. I have heard of people keeping a closet of clothes in various sizes, so just in case the weight-loss doesn't stick, they'll have their old things to wear. I have been guilty of this, too, but realized that this sends a powerful subliminal message to my brain, which doubts my resolve and my changed life. So, as clothes have become too big, I've donated them to Goodwill. Outta here, just like that. This has made for a very sparse wardrobe: right now I just have one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, and a couple pair of capris. I do have plenty of exercise clothes, though, and I'm finding that I mainly live in these during the day.

**The exception to the above point is my small collection of nice summer skirts that I wear to church. I decided to have them altered to fit my new self, because I loved them: the beautiful floral prints make me happy, they are lined and good quality, and I decided to wait to buy new Sunday clothes until I am closer to my final weight goal. I bought some inexpensive colored T-shirts at Target and a couple of good white shirts ... combined with a few great necklaces and some new flats and wedges, I'm good to go for summer Sundays.

**I have a list of "clothes to look for" when I'm out shopping, but being that I live so far out in the boonies, real shopping trips are few and far between. I have found that some of my clothes actually fit me properly now, rather than bursting at the seams or at the buttons like they used to. It almost feels like a new outfit when the jeans actually now look somewhat flattering or the shirt no longer pulls across the bosomous area!

**May I just confess right here that it is wonderful knowing that I can wear things in the regular-sized women's department now. Years of slumping over to the plus-sized section reeked havoc on my self-esteem. It's a mini-party in the dressing room each time I try on a size large that fits, rather than the old go-tos, XL or 2X. I'm all about simple pleasures ...

**If you are feeling dowdy like I was, may I suggest going to get a good haircut, and maybe even some highlights for summer?? I had been trying to grown my hair out (I forgot why), and was so proud of the fact that my hair had been its natural color for the last couple of years. But, I finally couldn't handle the total lack of style topping my head, and one day nearly flew into Janice's hair chair for a pick-me-up. She didn't disappoint ... having a good haircut and (for me) a little color has made me feel terrific.

**We have a new motto in our kitchen: "Bake and Give". Because we really do love to bake an occasional treat, we will do so on the agreement that we'll each have a serving of cake or cookies, then we'll divide the rest onto pretty plates with ribbon and deliver them to whomever comes to mind. Quickly. It has become really fun to surprise our neighbors with plates of warm goodies, because after all, who doesn't just love to be on the receiving end of that?? Then, we've gotten our "sweet fix" in an appropriate serving size, the balance has disappeared from our kitchen, and we're provided with an easy way to be friendly to our neighbors. Win-win!

I hope that your first week of July is as gorgeous as ours is here in the Seattle area. We PNWers know that we need to "seize the day" when it is presented so beautifully ... rain always seems to be around the next corner! But for now, sunshine is ours. We are climbing Mt. Peak with the youth from our ward tonight, so I'll prepare our simple, fresh dinner now, change into climbin' clothes, and go enjoy being with some of the most fabulous young people I know.

Happy week, all! I'll be back soon with the promised thoughts on homemaking.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Sixth Sense

When I was young, my mom and I used to take evening drives around pretty neighborhoods to "look at houses". My mom, though not a professional decorator, had such an eye for beauty, and taught me from an early age to notice details and to zero in on things that spoke to me aesthetically. From these "educational drive-bys", I learned quickly that I loved colored front doors, (even more if a wreath was hung on it!), the soft, welcoming glow that came from a lamp in a front window, flowers bursting forth from pots on the front porch, and front yards that were neat and tidy. I liked the homes that seemed to say, "Welcome, I'm so glad you're here. Come inside!"

Nowadays my 13 year-old would call this "creeping" or "stalking", but back then Mom and I liked to take our drives at dusk, or a little later, because then you could actually catch glimpses inside homes! I remember seeing lovely bookshelves loaded with books, mantles decorated for Christmas, and pretty wallpapers. I'd imagine what kind of lives the people must live inside of these homes ... my dreams for my own future home had begun in my little-girl mind. A few years later, before I was even married, I was clipping and saving magazine pictures of homes that I loved, and kept long lists (of course) of things that I wanted to include someday, like a Swedish pine grandfather clock, overstuffed sofas, beautiful curtains at the windows, and a wind chime on the back porch.

My tastes have naturally evolved over the years, but I am still in absolute love with the idea of creating a warm, inviting, beautiful home ... not full of expensive antiques or art, necessarily, but full of love and of the Spirit, so that my family and others feel enveloped when they step inside the front door. And guess what? I have that Swedish clock that chimes on the quarter-hour, my husband built me beautiful bookshelves that line a whole wall in our living room, and I wouldn't think of NOT having a lamp in my front window! Above, you see our front porch with the black door and (of course!) a wreath (eucalyptus). Our home will forever be a work in progress, and I'm still, with my husband, planning, improving, organizing, changing, creating, designing, and remodeling. Our goal has always been to make our living space more inviting and cozy for those we love.

In our ward Relief Society last year, we spent lots of time discussing the idea that our homes can be "refuges from the world". I began to think of improving our home by concentrating on one "sense" at a time. This is what I'm working on right now ... here are some beginning thoughts ... feel free to chime in with YOUR ideas!!

Look around your home as you consider the five senses that we're all familiar with. What stands out as you view your surroundings through your sight? (Be honest - right now, I'm looking squarely at a jar of drippy raspberry jam on the counter and leftover lunch dishes!) What do you hear? What can you touch that is soft and comforting? What do you smell? (Dinner in the oven? Your laundry detergent? The flowers outside your window?) What tastes have you experienced in your kitchen today? I am beginning to believe that when we pay close attention to creating a home based on the senses, we can really personalize our living spaces for the total comfort of our family members. I want my family to love coming home, to almost utter an audible "aaahhh" when they walk through the door. If friends and neighbors can feel a measure of this, too, then I will feel like I'm doing my homemaking job well.

I'm going to take the liberty of adding one more "sense" to the other five: the feel of the Spirit. Though this is not something that can usually be concretely identified, it is (in my mind) absolutely the most important thing a home can have. Here's how I learned about this:

I grew up in a beautifully-decorated, immaculate, loving home. However, when I was a young teenager, I started visiting a new friend's house after school and immediately noticed something different and unfamiliar and downright wonderful there. My friend Lori's mom would always greet us at the door, and her home was lovely and clean like mine was. But there was also THIS FEELING. As I looked around, I didn't notice any real differences, but the more I thought about it, well, here, you take a look...

*Lori's mom was usually in the kitchen and there were usually wonderful smells wafting from in there. She was often making homemade cinnamon rolls or bread, and seemed to pulling something out of the oven just as we walked in. We'd pull up a bar stool, she'd pour us a glass of cold milk, and as we'd bite into that warm goodness, Lori's mom would stand there and talk to us. It was as if there was nothing else she'd rather be doing ... she was SO INTERESTED in our teenaged lives.

*Lori had four younger brothers and there was lots of activity in her home. I was an only child and I watched the interactions between all of the kids with great interest. There was certainly the occasional skirmish, but overall, a happy, even joyful, feeling prevailed. Homework was spread out on the dining room table, a baseball game was happening in the front yard, newspapers were being folded in the garage for the route that Lori and her brothers threw. Through all of this, there was a feeling of working together, of "being on the same team", that fun was happening here, and it felt great.

*Where my mom decorated with beautiful, bold colors and patterns, Lori's mom favored more neutral tones. But it wasn't really that that affected me ... it was the what was on the walls. I had never seen a picture of Jesus in a home before, or framed mottos/quotes, or paintings of temples, or so many family photos. The focus in this home wasn't about a perfect decorating style, but about the people who lived there and what they believed in. After spending an afternoon in this home, you knew what was important to them.

*The central feature of Lori's downstairs family room was the big piano. Oftentimes, our friends - and possibly a brother or two - would end up standing around it singing while someone played. Who in the world did THIS kind of thing after school? Well, when we were at Lori's, we did. It was a blast! I began to see the impact that music can have in a home environment.

*Finally, when I visited Lori's house, everyone seemed so happy that I was there. Her mom's face lit up when she saw me, her brothers would run past with repeated "Hi, Macy!"s, and her dad would put an arm around me when he came in from work. I felt so instantly included, even loved, there. Like part of the family.

I came to realize in later years that this "thing" that I felt in Lori's home was the Spirit of the Lord. It transcended a clean home, or a lovely home, or an organized home ... it was an almost tangible feeling that kept me coming back for more. Lori's family had this Spirit there because of they way they lived their religion within the walls of that home. They had kneeling family prayer every night, they studied the scriptures together, they offered blessings on the food at mealtimes, they held family home evening one night a week, and they continually taught one another about living Christlike lives. This religious, Christ-centered lifestyle filled their home, so that those not familiar with it (like me) could actually FEEL IT when they entered. Their home was a sacred space. And I wanted to have THAT in my home someday. You'd better believe that became #1 on my eventual list.

So this is my focus for the next few blog posts: making our homes refuges from the world by focusing on each of the SIX senses. Tomorrow, I'll share some ideas about how what we "see" when we walk through our doors can make an immediate difference in the feeling within our homes. Come on back and check it out, and as always, please feel welcome, even invited, to share some of your thoughts.