Monday, December 15, 2014

Mikulas and the Enduring Joy of Family Traditions

Several studies have found that a big key to family happiness and closeness is the practice of having traditions. In that arena, my mom was an expert! We had daily traditions like prayer and scripture study, weekly traditions like journal time and Family Home Evening, but our very favorites had to be the annual traditions which circled around "the most wonderful time of the year," Christmas. I think all my siblings can agree that the tradition we were most excited about was the one granted to us by our Hungarian ancestry. My mom's maternal grandparents were Hungarian immigrants, and one of the traditions they brought with them from their homeland was the celebration of Saint Mikulas Day (or Saint Nicholas) on December 6. Grandma and Mom grew up celebrating it, and now the fourth and fifth generations are continuing that tradition.

The thing I remember most about my great-grandmother Block was that she baked lots of cookies and she always insisted on us having a big glass of milk and as many cookies as we wanted when we visited. I got the feeling that cooking for her family was a way she expressed her love for them. Grandma and Mom were the same and making Mikulas dinner was definitely a labor of love! Even though the dishes seem a little plain, almost peasant fare, most of them took practically all day to prepare. I have often wondered how the Hunagrians used to do it wihtout all the fancy kitchen gadgets we have today.

One dish we learned from great-grandma was the Krumpli Noodli, or potato noodles. After boiling and mashing potatoes and kneading them into a dough (which mom often did at least in part by hand), she would roll out long snakes, cut them and roll each noodle between her palms to taper the ends. These would be laid out on floured sheet pans to dry a little, then be boiled in batches and tossed with toasted buttered bread crumbs. It took forever and made a big floury, sticky mess, but every year we'd roll up our sleeves and do it again. There was also the Palacinta Ham stack, a dish mom never recalled her mom or grandma making which she found in a Hungarian cook book. It incorporated a traditional Hungarian crepe, called a Palactinta, which grandma did make quite often and is now a breakfast staple among all my siblings. Normally we ate them rolled up with jam, but for Mikulas dinner mom would layer the crepes flat with a creamy ham sauce and cut it in wedges like a cake. She also served red cabbage sauted until tender and stirred with sour cream. I never ate it when I was a kid, and now I crave it but rarely bother making it because no one will eat it with me.

But the crown jewel of the feast was always the dobos torte, or drum cake (visit my cooking blog for the recipe!). It was traditionally a 9 layer cake (though we usually just did 8 layers) spread with a silky chocolate icing and topped with a hard golden candy top. The layers were a delicate sponge cake baked in swivel pans. I remember the old tarnished sliver pans mom used only once a year to make the cake, unless one of us had a heritage or cultural foods day at school, and then the dobos torte was the usual choice we were all proud to share. The story was that it was called a drum cake because you had to smack it hard with a knife to cut through the candy top. A true officianado could make a perfectly straight crack rather than shattering the surface, and a well cracked cake seemed to be symbolic of good fortune in the coming year. Later we did some research and found out it was probaly just called a "drum cake" because the baker who invented it was Mister Dobos, a name that just happened to mean drummer. Misinformation aside, the cutting of the cake in our home was always attended by great ceremony, and a well placed smack was met with a hearty cheer. 

After dinner was over, sometimes while enjoying our cake, mom would read a chapter of Kate Seredy's classic, "The Good Master." The story tells of Márton, a well-to-do yet humble and generous rancher who lives with his wife and son on the pastoral plains of Hungary. His sickly, feisty neice whose mother has passed away comes to stay with them for an extended visit. Her shenanigans keep her aunt, uncle and cousin hopping, but they eventually tame the little savage and she snuggles her way into their hearts. Mom would skip to the ending chapters and read the one that takes place on Mikulas. The two cousins, Jancsi and Kate, start off talking excitedly about the aniticpated night-time visit of the mysterious St. Mikulas and what he might leave in their shoes, when Márton tells them both that they won't have to wait or even wonder about him because they are picking him up at the train station that night. The astonished children bundle up for the snowy sleigh ride and travel with father to the station. They can't believe it when they really do pick up a white bearded man in a red and white fur trimmed suit and escort him around the neighborhood delivering toys to all the children they know. At the last house they have run out of presents, and the two cousins choose to give up their own cherished gifts because they know these children are very poor and may not have anything otheriwse. That part always made mom's voice quiver a little. But the part that always got her was when they return to their cozy house and the children discover that "Mikulas" was in fact Kate's father, come from the city for a visit. Mom's tears were Kate's tears as she is reunited with her father. After Kate's father expresses his wonder at how his little girl has changed and matured, the children ask about who the real Mikulas is, and he gives one of the most beautiful explanations I've ever heard about the tradition of Santa Claus. Try as she did, Mom could never prevent the crying, and sometimes I vainly thought I could at least keep it together if I were to read it. The first time I did I was far from home and sharing this cherished
tradition with some new friends. Despite all my expectations, I bawled. I think mom's tears came because of the deep love she had for her family, the sweetness of reunions like that of Kate and her Father, the joy that comes from seeing the goodness in each other, and the infinte joy that comes with this season and the knowledge that thousands of years ago, a little baby came into the world as the greatest gift of all. Those emotions are powerful and I suddenly understood why mom had such a hard time holding back the tears. Knowing this story was so precious to mom, my sweet brother Joseph thought to read it to her a few days before she died. I recently came across this photo, where you can see the well-loved and weather-worn copy mom always used.

The final part of our Mikulas tradition was just before bed, we would each make sure our best Sunday shoes were standing in wait near the fireplace or the front door. In the morning, they would be filled with little gifts and lots of chocolate. It was never anything as big as what we'd get at Christmas, just a little a little "appetizer," something to tide us over until the big day arrived.

I'm so grateful that my husband has fully adopted this tradition with me, and helps make sure it is special for our children. I imagine they will all do it with their families. This year, the first without Mom, going through the process helped me feel her near, and I know she was happy to see the legacy being handed along to the next generation. It is not about the presents, or even about the food. It is about the people, about the ties that bind us, about the sense of family and what makes us unique. It's having a mutual secret delight, something to look forward to that only you and the people you love the most could ever fully understand. I'm sure it wasn't always easy to do one more intensive thing at this busy season, nor is it any easier for me with two added birthdays in December to also plan for. But mom always came through, and now I don't think any of us would skip it for the world.

I hope each of you has a very special something that you always do with your families, and if you haven't got one, that you'll be inspired with a great idea! I'd love to hear a little about your traditions in the comments if you'd like to share. Merry Christmas everyone, and may the love and joy of this season fill your hearts every day of the year!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

That We Be Not Confounded

I recently came to the Book of Ether in my personal scripture study. Though the book is packed full of sweeping history, epic battles, successions of kings, cycles of righteousness and wickedness, and insightful gospel lessons and observations, the story I have been thinking the most about comes right at the very beginning. Moroni, who condensed and summarized the writings of the prophet Ether into the 15 chapters we have in the Book of Mormon, sets the stage by taking us back thousands of years to when the world was young and the peoples of the Earth spoke one common tongue. As punishment for their wickedness, the Lord confounds the language of the people, causing chaos and confusion and putting an end to their blasphemous tower-to-heaven project. But there were a few faithful among them who seemed to have known this curse was coming. Perhaps they had been warned by prophets. One of the faithful was Jared, who approached his brother, Mahonri Moriancumer, evidently a man he looked to as a leader and man of God. He asked his brother to petition the Lord on their behalf that he spare them from the curse and not confound their language. When that request was granted, he asked his brother to include their friends in the petition, so that they would have a cluster of comrades able to communicate with one another. This became essential, as there was an important undertaking on their horizon: a trans-oceanic exodus to a promised land on the other side of the world.

Thousands of years later, in our day, I find significant parallels to this account. With all the confusion of issues and the persuasive rhetoric flying around, there are many times that I feel like praying for myself, and likewise for those I love that we may not be confounded, that we can see clearly and perceive truth. The prophets past and present have warned many times that in the last days perilous times would come (2 Timothy 3:1), that Satan would rage in the hearts of men (2 Nephi 28:20) and that his cunning would be so great that even the very elect would be deceived (Matt 24:24). Not one of us is immune to this danger. In the early days of the restored church, the prophet Brigham Young saw first hand the apostasy of formerly stalwart church members, leaders, and even apostles, who may have seemed incorruptible at one point but sadly succumbed to the temptations of the world. He wisely said that he personally would never declare, "I will never fall away," because he knew that no one is immune to that possibility, and to make such a claim is practically throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of "old scratch" and setting yourself up for failure. Having a strong testimony is a wonderful blessing, and certainly a goal worth striving for, but even the strongest tree can die if it doesn't get the nourishment it needs. A testimony is a living thing, and likewise must be cherished and nourished and protected if it is to stay strong.

I love what President Deiter F. Uchtdorf shared recently about the apostles at the last supper, how each one examined himself and asked if they might be the traitor whom the Savior prophetically declared was among them. In humility and sincere self-evaluation, they looked inward rather than pointing fingers and suspiciously accusing each other. True disciples are not afraid to give their hearts a good long looking at to see what is there, or ought to be there. They are not afraid to ask the Lord to help them look and see with His eyes, and they are not afraid to hear the Spirit whisper that all is not right and change is necessary. In fact, they expect it, and even relish it, because it means they have the chance to work side by side with the best partner, master, and friend ever. Why would we want to look at our hearts and say to our Lord, "All good here. You can move on to the next person. In fact, let me tell you who needs your help..." Why would we want to pass up the opportunity to embark on a lifetime journey to self betterment at the side and with the help of the master of the whole universe?

I can't say it any better than President Uchtdorf: "...None of us likes to admit when we are drifting off the right course. Often we try to avoid looking deeply into our souls and confronting our weaknesses, limitations, and fears. Consequently, when we do examine our lives, we look through the filter of biases, excuses, and stories we tell ourselves in order to justify unworthy thoughts and actions.

"But being able to see ourselves clearly is essential to our spiritual growth and well-being. If our weaknesses and shortcomings remain obscured in the shadows, then the redeeming power of the Savior cannot heal them and make them strengths. Ironically, our blindness toward our human weaknesses will also make us blind to the divine potential that our Father yearns to nurture within each of us." ("Lord, Is It I?" Priesthood Session, October 2014 General Conference)

It seems to be getting harder to discern truth from error, both in ourselves and in the world at large, but I still believe truth is there to be perceived. Just like the ancient Jaredites, there is an important work for us to do. We may not have to build barges and sail across an ocean, but we do have metaphorical oceans to cross as we prepare for the coming of our Lord. We have to speak a common language, or we cannot work together. And I believe it will take much earnest prayer and diligent living of the principles that have already been given to us in order for us to succeed. We can't waste any time debating about tangent subjects or passing the blame for our personal and collective failings. We have a world to prepare, and the instructions have already been given. Press forward saints!

Image credit: Jaredite Barges, by Robert T. Barrett, from the Gospel Art Library

Monday, September 22, 2014

Be Your ^Best Self

A prevelant theme in current popular thought is how important it is to just "be yourself." We're done with the overwhelming expectations of society, the unattainable ideals, and the narrow definition of both "acceptable" and "in." We are who we are, we're good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us just the way we are. As I raise my children in this brave new world, I am grateful that they are reinforced with acceptance for their uniqueness, that they are taught to love themselves and not be ashamed of what makes them "different" from their peers. However, when I see the mantra "Be Yourself" engraved motto-like on posters and book covers, I always want to insert a little carat symbol and make one small change. I'd like it to read, "Be Your Best Self." We certainly should not overwhelm ourselves with expectations that are currently out of reach, but on the other hand, we can not fall into complacency in our quest to feel content with who we are at this moment. We have to find the balance between self satisfaction and self motivation, so that we are at peace with where we are, but are always reaching for something better. I could easily look at my shortcomings (housekeeping, lack of patience, or selfish use of my free time) and say, that's just who I am. I'm being myself. Don't knock me for having flaws. I could go on in my ways without the unnecessary stress of having to overcome something that is just part of my nature. Nobody's perfect, and that's okay. Well, it is, but not in the long term. I still have faith in people's power to change. I think we owe others that faith, and we certainly owe ourselves that faith. It may be a long and very gradual road, but I believe it is the only true path to lasting happiness and peace with ourselves.

Image courtesy of Matt Banks at

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The "Trust Fall" that is the Atonement

While praying recently, I thought over all the things I had done wrong that day and by extension all week--all the things I needed to repent of. I thought of all the times I had lost my patience with my children, the times I had sighed in exasperation when they asked me for something while in the middle of "my" projects, the minutes I had wasted in idleness. I felt the surge of desire to be better, that elusive ideal, the proverbial carrot dangling constantly in the distance that should be driving me along, but doesn't seem to do any more than aggravate me. Why do I fail so much? Why do I want so badly to be good and yet fail so consistently? Why can't I overcome my fatal flaws? Why is it such a struggle?

My mother let me read her journal once when I was struggling through a difficult time. I was pregnant with my fifth child, my husband was burdened with a challenging work situation, and we were both feeling overwhelmed by life. Mom brought me her journal that spanned her years from having 2 children to having her 5th. She thought it would be helpful for me to see that I was not the only one to have walked that difficult road. It did help, and it also gave me a special window into her soul that longed for the very same thing: perfection. She yearned just as much if not more for the same seemingly unattainable goal and felt just as much remorse over her lack of its achievement. But from the outside, to me she was amazing. She was as good as they can possibly get. She was close to the spirit, trying her hardest and doing her best. She lived what she believed. And yet she was still plagued by feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. She struggled her whole life to be good, right up to the end.

And then she died.

As this thought washed over me, I wept. Mom struggled her whole life to be good, and probably never felt good enough, and then it was over. That seemed so bleak, so horridly hopeless. And she was ten times better than me. If someone like her could feel so inadequate, where does that leave ME?

But then a thought came to me: we can not make ourselves perfect. It is, just as we thought, absolutely impossible. And it is meant to be. We can't do this alone, so why do we constantly try to? Why do I constantly try to do this alone? I need the Savior. It is only through him, with him, and by him that I can become perfect. But in my mortal rebellion, I prefer trying to be perfect the way I envision. So I construct my plan for reaching perfection and I decide what I work on and work towards. But it always falls apart. Why? Because my vision of the perfect me is actually flawed and imperfect because I don't have a perfect persepctive. I cannot see the big picture, so how can I even think to make the blueprint to build the perfect me? Why would I even attempt it? Is it a power thing? Do I want to prove something? Or do I want to take all the credit for myself? No, I have to go to the master builder and ask him for the Plans. And then keep him by my side as he tells me what to build and which parts to work on first. I have to give commmand to him.

This wasn't really a new thought. I have realized many times in my life that I needed to rely more on Christ to help me overcome my weaknesses. I knew I needed him. But time after time, it seems I start forward with that in mind, then eventually slip back into trying to do it all on my own. I call it the "my do it!!" syndrome, because that's what my son says when he wants to do something all by himself, like brushing his teeth, or getting dressed. I let him try, and when he struggles the most and I try to intervene, he screams at me again and I have to back off. I try to wait patiently for him to wear himself out doing the thing that is almost impossible until he is the one that says, "help me."

I guess there are times when God does the same with us. There are times when he wants us to learn independence. He doesn't want us to come to him for every little detail of our lives. He wants us to be self-reliant and proactive. He said, "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will and bring to pass much righteousness." But there are things that we can't fix on our own, and the more we try, refusing the divine assistance we need, the worse things can get.

Handing it all over takes an incedible amount of trust. It makes me think of those "trust fall" activites meant to build team work. On the few occasions I have done this exercise, I barely knew my "team," but already felt a bond of friendship and even love. With my back turned to them, unable to see but hearing their chants of encouragement, I would fall five feet down into their supporting arms. There is always that moment of terror, that you've made a horrid mistake, or that someone you are depending on might fail you, and your stomach lurches. And then you feel the cradle of all those arms, braced to catch and protect you, and it's hard not to laugh in delight. In a similar fashion, I can't see my Savior, but I feel him, I hear him, and he has known me longer than I currently know myself. He calls out to me, "I'm right here. I promise I will catch you." I have to throw my life into his arms, and trust that he will break my fall and bear me up. I have to work hand in hand with him as we create the me he needs me to be. Only then can I be made perfect, because his atonement fills the infinite gap between what I am and what I need to be. As soon as I place myself in his command and stop fighting against myself, I am perfect and whole, and it feels even more exhilarating than landing in the outstretched arms of my friends.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Food is Love: I like to say it with cookies.

I had a friend who entertained me with stories about the Italian Mamma that would feed her while she nannied in New York City. "Food is Love," she would quote in her best Brooklyn accent, "I cook for you because I love you." For some reason it made me laugh, but as I have learned more about cooking, I often find myself returning to that mantra. Sharing good food with my friends and family is definitely a method of mine in expressing how much I love them. Food brings people together. It gives us a reason to gather, and something to share that we all enjoy. Over the years, one of the food traditions that we have enjoyed most is inviting friends over to have chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven with ice cream.

I have a distinct memory from my younger years of a woman who came to visit my mom and brought the most perfect batch of cookies to share with us. I don't even know who she was, but I remember asking her very sincerely how she made such amazing cookies. I think she said she just followed the recipe on the bag of chips, but try as I might, mine never turned out like hers. As a young married, I was determined to find the big secret. Thanks to a jump start from scientific cooking guru Alton Brown, and through extensive trial and error of my own, I feel like I can confidently say, I did it! It's so good, in fact, that my husband never asks for anything else for dessert. If I want to bake something else, I do it at the risk that he will be disappointed, no matter how delicious or fancy it is. That's why these cookies have been dubbed "Dallyn's Favorite Cookies" or "DFC's" by some of our friends. 

There are actually about a dozen secrets to baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie. All points are calculated to increase the moistness, chewiness and flavor. As I've shared this recipe, a frequent response I've gotten is, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. I don't know if I can do all that." Personally, I don't feel like it takes any more effort than the recipe you find on the back of the Nestle chips bag. Most of the secrets are just better ingredients, but there are some method secrets. Anyway, my point is, if you want the perfect cookie, you have to be willing to put in the effort. Every pointer is for a reason. So here's the recipe, along with footnotes that explain some of the why's behind it:
Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (DFC's)

1/2 cup (1 stick) good quality margarine (Land O'Lakes is my favorite)1
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar2
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 cup bread flour3
1 teaspoon kosher salt4
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 egg yolk5
2 tablespoons milk6
1/2 tablespoon Mexican vanilla (my favorite is Blue Cattle Truck Mexican Vanilla)7
1 bag (about 2 cups) Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips8

Picky about ingredients: I never compromise on the vanilla or the chocolate. These are my 2 faves.
Melt the margarine and butter in a small pot.9 Meanwhile, add both sugars to your mixing bowl, sift dry ingredients into a medium bowl, and measure milk, vanilla, egg and egg yolk into a small bowl. Pour melted butter into your mixing bowl with the sugars and beat until smooth. Add milk mixture and beat well. With beater running, slowly spoon in sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Add chocolate chips and beat or stir until evenly distributed. Put all the cookie dough into plastic containers (I like to use two flat 3 1/8 cup Gladware containers) and put in the freezer. Chill at least 1 hour.10 Preheat the oven to 350° and move the rack fairly close to the upper element (not the closest, but probably the next down from that).11 Shape dough into balls a little larger than a ping pong ball, smaller than a golf ball and place a couple inches apart on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake for 6 minutes and rotate the pan, then bake for 6 minutes more. Cookies should be just golden on the outside. Remove the pan, set it down and carefully move the whole sheet of parchment with the cookies onto a counter top or cooling rack.12 Allow to cool a few minutes then serve in a bowl with vanilla ice cream, Hershey's syrup, butterscotch, or whatever you like best. Makes about 4 batches of 9-12 cookies.

I usually only bake one batch at a time, which ends up being about 1/2 a container. I just keep the rest in the freezer and we always have cookie dough on hand for those nights we want a special treat. Any leftover cookies (which are highly rare) can be cooled and put in an airtight container to be fought over for snack the next day. They will stay tremendously moist and chewy for a few days if they last that long.

Again, it sounds complicated, but believe me, every detail is so worth it and makes for one awesome cookie! Bon appetite!

1. Butter is always better in my book, but there are times margarine is called for. This is one of them. Butter melts more quickly, and crisps up instead of staying soft, so all-butter cookies will flatten and be crispy rather than chewy. Using a stick of each is a happy compromise. Just opt for a good quality margarine which will have creamier flavor and less water content.
2. Brown sugar is more moist than white. Most cookie recipes call for an even amount of each. Increasing the brown sugar results in a moister cookie.
3. Bread flour is higher in gluten, which is what makes bread chewy. This was one of Alton Brown's recommendations.
4. Why Kosher? Not sure. I do know it is recommended for bread making because of the extra texture that helps in kneading the ingredients.
5. The yolk is the moist part of the egg. The whites tend to be drier when cooked. So again, adding a yolk increases moisture.
6. Adding milk, once again, adds moisture.
7. This is perhaps my biggest ingredient secret. Do not skimp of the quality of your vanilla! It makes all the difference. This brand is available in select stores in Utah, online, and if you live near me, I buy it wholesale, so I can set you up.
8. Good chocolate is just about as important as the vanilla. This is my favorite brand, and the chips are bigger, which we also like. You can of course substitute semi-sweet, or try other brands, but this is the one we love the most. Cheaper chocolates are higher in wax and other nasty fillers, so not nearly as tasty.
9. You don't need to soften the butter! Hooray! Melting the butter & margarine will make your freshly made dough runnier, which is why you will need to chill it before baking, but it helps the sugars to dissolve and incorporate better.
10. I guarantee it will be better if you wait several hours or prepare the dough a day ahead. If the dough is thoroughly frozen, you will need to thaw it on the counter about 15-30 minutes before you can cut into it, but you still want it to be colder than fridge temperature.
11. This was actually the crowning discovery in my quest for cookie perfection. It happened by chance on a night I had broiled something for dinner, and when I went to bake the cookies I didn't bother moving the rack down. The result was that the cookies browned more beautifully without overcooking the dough, which meant they kept their domed shape better when removed from the oven.
12. Moving the cookies to the counter top prevents the bottoms from continuing to bake from the heat of the cookie sheet. This is why parchment is essential. My cookie sheets have a 1 inch lip, so sliding them over the lip rattled the soft-set cookies too much and caused them to deflate. I found that carefully using my fingernails to grab the corners (which tend to curl up from the pan anyway) and gently lifting the whole thing up and over had much better results. Of course, if your cookie sheets are flat with no lip, you can slide them off. Just do so gently.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Getting Back Up

In April 2012, my daughter and I took a special Spring Break trip to visit some friends in Texas who own a large horse ranch.  They very graciously welcomed my daughter and I for a week of riding lessons.  Like most 10-year-olds, my daughter was a little obsessed with horses.  I remember well being the same way, and how my mother wisely arranged for me to get some first-hand experience working at a ranch. I thought I would be bobbing happily in the saddle on a daily basis, wind blowing in my hair, working on my sun tan. I imagined I would end each day with a little bushing of the horse's withers as she playfully tickled my cheek with her whiskerey muzzle before I latched her safely back in her stall. I never did get to ride, but I certainly learned just how much work horses are to take care of, and how feisty and uncooperative their personalities could be. It effectively quelled my longing to own a horse without crushing my love of them.  That was hardly my intention that week 2 years ago, as I have to admit, I was excited to get up in the saddle a little bit myself.

My daughter started off with a basic tutorial.  Our friend, the owner of the ranch, very patiently walked her through leading the horse, mounting, walking, steering and stopping.  The next day she tried trotting, and continued to learn how to communicate not only with her mouth, but also her legs and hands.  My daughter rode on three different horses during our stay, the last being a beautiful bay mare whom our friend's daughter had ridden when she claimed the Reining World Championship.  She was a very good, obedient mount, but still very spirited, and not always certain how to take instruction from the light-weight amateur on her back.  I knew it was possible that my daughter might experience a fall.  That just happens when you ride, and I prayed earnestly that if it happened, the incident would come without injury. It had been a little disconcerting to learn on our arrival that our champion friend had been thrown just hours before, leaving her miraculously alive, but with a hideous bruise that spread from her forehead to her eyes, darkening as the week progressed until she looked literally like she was wearing Batman's black mask. But my brave girl wasn't deterred. I watched with pride and a tiny helping of nerves as she went through her lessons, and was just starting to feel at ease when it happened. They were in the round pen, walking in circles as our friend stood in the middle with the long whip, guiding the horse with his gentle clucks and taps. Then something spooked the horse, or irritated her, and suddenly she took off at a run. My daughter held on the best she could, but the pace and the bouncing was too much for her, and she fell off into the soft bank of fine red dirt that had built up against the pen wall. To my huge relief, she was uninjured, just a little shaken. She dusted herself off, let us all check her over, but didn't even want for a moment to sit down for a while. She wanted right back up.

I was so proud of my girl. I was so grateful that she didn't walk or limp away from something scary, but that she was determined to try again. That spirit of bravery inspires me, and gives me the courage to get back up when I am down. Some falls are not without injury. Some carry with them permanent scars that don't go away over time, and finding the courage to get back in the saddle is a steeper hill to climb. But people do it every day, against incredible odds.

My daughter hasn't ridden since that trip to Texas, and she has definitely outgrown the darling boots and spurs our generous friends got her so she could ride in style. But I hope she will never forget the experience. And when life knocks her down now and then, I hope she will always get back up, dust herself off, laugh a little with those who love her and were there to make sure she is okay, then get right back in the saddle like the brave young lady she is. And I'm going to try to do the same.

In the round pen
After her fall, my daughter learned how to turn her mount,
which this particular horse was a champion at.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Food Review: Cheesecake!

The "Original"
This post first appeared on March 11, 2014. I continue to update with new reviews from time to time. The italicized part of this introduction is the same, so you can skip ahead if you've read before. New reviews are marked as such, and I've added a star rating and "richness meter" to help you out (see below). Enjoy!

In 2002, when Dallyn was new to the touring cast of Les Miserablés, we had a 4 week stop in San Francisco while they prepared to take the show across the Pacific Ocean for their big Chinese debut. This was my first exposure to the phenomenon that is The Cheesecake Factory, the distinctively decorated, almost always overcrowded restaurant and bakery with a menu so extensive they ought to bring it to your table using a forklift (it's spiral bound and has page numbers. Need I say more?). We spent the month in a little studio apartment just up the street from a CF, and I must admit, we ate there far too often. Dallyn was making bank. Every visiting family member or friend was another excuse to go, and even when it was just us, sometimes I didn't feel like cooking in my tiny, under-equipped kitchen and we would make an escape to the cheesecake haven in the sky (literally; it was on the top floor of the downtown Macy's). It certainly wasn't the extensive, convoluted menu that was the attraction. It was, of course, the cheesecake, dozens of them, more than we could sample. Well, more than we could sample in a month. Dallyn, bless his heart, humored me, since cheesecake is really not his thing, but he was still my perfect sounding board as we discussed the intricacies of flavor, texture, and presentation of each delectable slice. Our obsession followed us as we toured the country, and even in the subsequent years. We were thrilled when they brought the chain to Utah, even though we never lived closer than 40 minutes away from the nearest one.

Now that we live only 5 minutes from a Cheesecake Factory, and I've been needing lots of cheesecake (yes, there are times in life when it qualifies as a need) I thought I might as well put all that sampling to some use and provide reviews of all the varieties we've tried. When it comes to picking cheesecake, we often spend lots of time standing in front of the display case deliberating over just what we're in the mood for, so maybe we can spare you the trouble.  I'll start with my top 3 picks today and continue to add more as time allows. So if you want to have this list handy, bookmark it and check it out the next time you find yourself in the happy predicament of having so many cheesecakes to choose from and so little time.

Ratings: Out of 4 stars (*)
Richness Meter: 1-light & mousse like (there's always room for it);  2-about as rich as your average cheesecake; or 3-richer than a regular cheesecake (you'll want a glass of milk to wash it down. Do not attempt to finish by yourself after a full meal!)

Top 3 Picks:
These are our "go-to" flavors that we get when we just want an old favorite that we know we're going to love.

Chocolate Tuxedo Cream **** 1
This is a lighter more mousse-like cheesecake, perfect for when you don't have room for one of the knock-you-out rich plates, but hey, you're at the Cheesecake Factory, and how can you leave without dessert? Layers of cream and chocolate mousse topped with a super thin ganache.

Chocolate Raspberry Truffle **** 3
Ready for some rich chocolate paired with the perfect complement of tart raspberry? In my opinion, chocolate and raspberries were meant to go together, and this dessert is the perfect marriage. On the richer side, with just the right amount of fruity tartness. Make sure you scoop some of the whip cream to lighten it up.

Godiva Chocolate **** 3
Yes, you can get them mail order,
complete with fun dry ice to play with.
This was my birthday cake in 2008.
Dallyn and I are huge fans of Godiva chocolate. In our less lean years (I mean financially, but I guess I could mean the other thing...), no special occasion was complete without a small box of Godiva, and we would stretch the joy out as long as possible by sharing one piece only per day.  We would tease our children that Hersheys is for kids, Godiva is for grownups and is wasted on the young, and would point them to the stash of kisses in the pantry. (They did challenge us once to a taste test to prove their palates were sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and they sort of passed, so sometimes we are gracious and will share, but mostly we hide it.) Yes, we're obsessed. So it is no surprise that this cheesecake makes our top 3 list. It is rich. It is basic, but basically beautiful in its chocolate perfection. No fancy layers or trappings, it's just the most exquisite pure silky chocolate experience available. Definitely utilize the whip cream.

Everything Else:

(New Review!) Toasted Marshmallow S'mores Galore **** 3
Oh, wow. This was a surprise. We tried this one on a recommendation from a friend. Having seen it in the case, it looked like just another chocolatey one, and I wasn't really in the mood for that, but when I saw a picture the way it would be served with a perfectly toasted marshmallow melting all over the top, I knew I had to partake. Toasted marshmallows are my very favorite treat. Ever. We knew we had to have it on a plate at a table rather than the to-go boxes we typically grab (since presentation seemed pretty important), so it was a little while before we actually got to try it, but it was well worth the wait! The marshmallow turned out to be marshmallow creme rather than an actual marshmallow (the photo was a little deceptive), but it was still nicely toasted and tasty. The chocolate cheesecake was delicious and creamy, with little chunks of harder chocolate hidden near the base that added a scrumptious texture. Crunchy bits of graham were scattered over the lot, with a full square of graham cracker balanced attractively on top. The traditional graham crust was a perfect fit. This one is rather rich, so definitely grab a cheesecake buddy to share. I can't recommend saving the leftovers unless you first eat all the graham cracker parts, as those will get soggy in the fridge (as we sadly discovered).

(New Review!) Original ** 2
Several people said I had to try this one. I was skeptical. I'm picky about the consistency of my "plain" cheesecake. It has to be perfectly creamy and moist throughout, no dry cakeyness, and I especially love a sour cream topping. I usually like cherry pie filling on top, but in order to get the pure experience, I had it plain. It was good. Pretty basic. It was creamy enough, but not the to-die-for creamiest I've ever had. The best plain cheesecake I've had was at Junior's in NYC. There are so many other awesome options for cheesecake at The Factory that I'm not likely to have this one again, but if you really want one, go for it.

(New Review!) 30th Anniversary Chocolate Cake Cheesecake *** 2
This was my desert of choice for my recent birthday. It seemed a nice compromise between cake (for my husband) and cheesecake (for me), and truly it was delightful! The cake was moist and flavorful, the cheesecake creamy, and the moussey layers in between were luscious. The big ganache swirl on top was a bit much to get through, but a little bit with each bite was a nice addition.

Reviews to come:
Dulce de Leche
Key Lime
Wild Blueberry White Chocolate
White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut
Mango Key Lime
Pumpkin Pecan (seasonal)
Reese's Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake
Oreo Dream Extreme