Monday, December 30, 2013

Good bye 2013

I have to admit, I'm glad to see 2013 end. Though there have been lots of bright spots in this year: each of the boys graduating and being so happy in their new phases of their lives, wonderful vacations with friends and family, I think I will always associate this year with the passing of a generation.

Just in my own family we lost my mom, her brother (my uncle), and my grandmother's husband just this past week. On top of that, there are half a dozen friends who've lost one of their parents this year. It feels strange and lonely to be the oldest generation in our family now. 

I guess the best thing to take away from losing all these loved ones is to strive to give as much love and support to our families as they did to us. To try to model their humility, sense of humor, and generosity in our own lives. And to remember them. Always.

Here's to hoping 2014 is a year of beginnings, not endings. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Traditions

Nana (Kate) and baby Bobby
I think one of the wonderful things about the season is the traditions that each family creates. The familiar rituals and customs are something we all look forward to and it is interesting to see how they evolve as the kids get older.

Our starts early with the tree. My husband is responsible for selecting the tree (sometimes we accompany him, sometimes not) and putting it up. I put the lights on (a mistake I started when we were still dating...warning: be careful of what becomes a tradition!) and decorate it. Bobby usually helps with the decorating and the putting up, though this year the tradition had changed, since he is in college.

Food is always a big part of our holiday, starting with the cookies. Usually just after Thanksgiving, I'll send out a note confirming which cookies everyone wants and my sister & I will divide up the list, usually consisting of: Fudge, orange cookies, pineapple cookies, shortbread, sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, ginger snaps, chocolate-toffee crackers and butterscotch haystacks at a minimum. I like to wait until a few days before everyone arrives to make the cookies because I'm not a fan of freezing them.
Ocean Pines Christmas
For Christmas dinner we usually repeat the thanksgiving menu: turkey, oyster stuffing, horseradish carrots, beets for my sister, sweet potatos, mashed potatoes etc. A few years ago, I decided to try making a Christmas goose. My logic was that most of us like the dark meat and I figured a goose is more like a duck but bigger and would have the "darker" flavor. was a fiasco...not enough meat and I don't think I cooked it right. So now it is back to the Turkey. I've heard of "heritage" turkeys that are of a more diverse variety and uncaged so that they build up their legs and thighs, hence more dark meat. I need to see if I can find one of those!
Christmas in Tokyo (1968?)
We've always included a Chinese meal before Christmas day, often going on Christmas Eve to our favorite, Margaret Kuo's Mandarin. We've gone to this restaurant since before we had kids and for both the boys, it was the first restaurant food they ate. Kids LOVE chinese dumplings! We used to make our own Chinese meal. My mom had taken Chinese cooking lessons when we lived in Japan and made wonderful Peking Duck among other dishes. We would each have a responsibility. I would make the spring rolls, my mom would make the duck (she even had a hook installed over her kitchen sink to hang it from), my brother would carve the duck, my sister would do the fried rice. For years it went great. And then one year, we added another large group to the dinner and it was a mess. Nothing turned out well. Ever since then we've gone to the Mandarin...the meal is always perfect and after going there for over twenty years, it feels like family too!

A relatively new tradition we started is a jaunt into Philadelphia. We take the train into Philly and do a progressive lunch in a selected neighborhood of town. Usually we are going on December 23rd or so and restaurants are quiet at this time of year and happy to have a large group. We try to hit at least 3 places, plus a Christmas "sight". Last year, we stayed around Rittenhouse Square and did, Zama and then Parc for dessert. We also went to the Comcast building to watch their holiday show on the big screen. The year before we focused in Old City and had tapas at Amada, sushi at Zento and Chinese at Han Dynasty and ended up at the Franklin Fountain for hot chocolate and dessert. Someone usually brings a flask to "enhance" the hot chocolate! One of these years we need to catch the light show at the old Wanamakers building.

Games are  part of the tradition. Often we will drag out the mahjong set, each time trying to recall and bickering about the intricate rules of Japanese mahjong. Balderdash is a favorite (though I often seem to devolve into potty humor with my words as I drink more eggnog).

And of course there is Charades. Ever since we were young, this has been a part of our holidays as well as other gatherings with good friends. I think we first started playing with my god mother's family when they would come over the holidays when we lived in Oakmont. We had a family we were close to in both Japan and Pittsburgh with whom we shared Christmas and they were some competitive games! Back in the day, we'd include advertisements and quotes (categories now abandoned). Some of the classics were the quote on the back of the toothpaste tube "The American Dental Association has found that a preventative...." or old Wheaties commercial. Then there was the song, "Die Gotterdammerung, Siegfried's Rhine Journey", and yes, you had to get EVERY word right! It got to the point where we had to institute the two person rule where at least two people on the opposing team have to have heard of the clue. There are Charades acting bits that have become family legend: my uncle Danny acting out "Birth of a Nation"...  a fifty year old man writhing on the floor giving birth, and with our friends, Jim being "Forrest Gump" running back and forth (and back and forth) across his living Forrest, run! and of course Dave's brilliant guitar rip for Bohemian Rhapsody!

The joy of traditions is that they give you an anchor for your memories, years and events blending together but all sharing that warm and fuzzy feeling that defines the holidays.

I hope you are enjoying a joyful, happy, warm and fuzzy holiday season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Art of Gift Giving

Gift giving is a under-appreciated art, I think. It takes a lot of work.

In our family we have two styles: the make a list style and the surprise approach.

Making a list: this is the efficient method and my boys, at a young age, became adept at creating an excel spreadsheet (complete with links to Amazon) with the various games etc that they wanted. For the gift giver, especially when you are thousands of miles away, it guarantees that you are giving the person something that you know they want. For the receiver, it is satisfying knowing that you will get something that you looked forward to and asked for.

But I always like going rogue, and going off list. Shopping for the boys, I've always made sure that the main gifts from us were not on their list, a complete surprise. My mom also taught me to make sure the nicest gift was from "Mom & Dad"; let Santa give the others! Billy expressed that he found these to be the most exciting part of the gift experience because they have always been a wonderful surprise (and usually something "really, really cool").

Part of the thing I love about Christmas is shopping for my siblings, especially my sister. I guess it is because we share many of the same tastes and also she loves gift giving herself. She is a wonderfully creative gift giver. When the boys were young, she alway came up with fabulous gifts that they didn't know they wanted. One of the biggest hits was an Indian teepee. They received it when Bobby was about 6 and it remained in our basement until last year, and I swear they used it all those years. I think there were sleepovers into high school, when someone slept in there!

My brother Bill claims to hate buying gifts, but whenever he picks out something for me or my sister, it is always perfect!

It takes a real skill to learn how to be a good gift giver: time, empathy and creativity are important and really knowing the person helps a lot! Not that there aren't mistakes, and I've made my share of those. But a lot of the fun of the season is thinking about the other person and trying to imagine what they would enjoy or.... you can always refer to the list!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


One of my favorite images of Christmas was when I was pregnant with Bobby. I was due at the end of January, so we celebrated at our house since I wasn't supposed to travel. Billy was 3 and a half and was so excited about Santa arriving that when the rest of us came upstairs on Christmas Eve to go to bed, we found Billy, asleep, on the top of the stairs. Waiting for Santa.

Half of the fun of the holiday season is the anticipation that builds. Some of my favorite memories of our Christmases in Japan were of the build up to the holidays.

One of the things I looked most forward to was the arrival of my brother, Bill, who was in school and later college in the States. He'd spend nearly a month back in Japan with us and I loved it when he was home. He would take me to movies: I still remember seeing Oliver in one of the huge Japanese movie theaters and Tora, Tora, Tora (that was an experience in Japan!). The movie-going seems to be a theme with us. When I was unhappy in high school, I'd often go down to visit he and his wife and see classic movies in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. I learned to appreciate Bogey and the Marx brothers through him. As the kids grew and we'd go to visit him, he introduced the boys to Mel Brooks and Kurosawa among others.

I remember the Christmas when we lived in Korea. Bill had arrived the night before and I wanted to show my wonderful brother to my friends. We crept into his room, four of us, and gathered around the head of the bed and just stared at him, like he was an amazing specimen! He woke up, jet lagged, to find 4 eleven year olds staring curiously at him.

I think one of the other reasons I liked Bill being home was that we lived in 3 bedroom apartments in Tokyo, and so when he arrived, I'd have to move in with my sister. Now for me, as a seven or eight year old, this was a wonderful thing, sleeping with my big sister. Not only did it save me the bother of sneaking in her room, which I did on a regular basis to "explore" her stuff, but I loved the proximity to her. During the rest of the year she was busy being a typical teenager, and this was for me, our special time together. But for her, being seven years older than me, maybe it wasn't such a thrill! Still, she was usually especially nice to me when I shared her room and this was the best Christmas gift she could give me.

Once I was married and had kids, their anticipation took over. For many years we'd go to my parents when they lived in Ocean Pines. We'd talk daily, sometimes more in the week before.  By the time we pulled into the North Gate, across the pond, the boys would be jumping out of their skins. Mom would have everyone's favorite cookie (I mean each grandchild and her own kids' favorites...a LOT of cookies!). The tree would be up in the sun room, with the little train set under it and gifts strewn everywhere. They'd get to spend time playing with their cousin, their aunt and uncles and even take a dip in the hot tub that sat, strangely enough, in my parent's garage. My mom made sure everything was perfect. The whole experience was a gift.

When I asked my eldest what he looks forward to about Christmas he talked about the games we play: mahjong, various board games, charades, the wonderful food and most importantly, no one working, just enjoying the warm and fuzzy feeling of being together as a family. And that's what it's all about isn't it?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Cookie Recipes!

Every year, we make mountains of Christmas cookies, ensuring that everyone has their favorite to gorge on! Some of them are made only over the holidays...I don't know why this is, as they are so delicious. It used to be that way with fudge. My mom would make it at Christmas and no other time of the year. However, once I started making it for my boys and they took it to school, it became famous! It even made an appearance at two of their after proms in high school. So I am going to share my mom's fudge recipe, which is a little tricky but worth the effort and also her Orange cookie recipe which is one of my favorites. I've even invented a variation of it with lemon and lavender, but you have to wait until Springtime to get that one!

Kate's Fudge

·         4 cups granulated sugar
·         1 can evaporated milk
·         1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
·         12oz package of chocolate bits (I prefer the Ghiradelli's bitter sweet bits for a deeper chocolate taste)
·         24 regular sized marshmallows
·         1 teaspoon vanilla
·         1 cup of walnut pieces if desired (I don't usually include these though it it delicious with them)

1.       Butter the sides of a heavy 3 quart sauce pan and also butter the sides of a 9x13 pan.
2.       Add the sugar, evaporated milk and butter to the sauce pan and cook, stirring constantly to soft ball stage (240 degrees). I recommend using a candy thermometer.
3.       Once it hits soft ball, remove from heat and add the chocolate, marshmallows, vanilla and nuts (if using).
4.       Beat/stir aggressively until chocolate and marshmallows melt.
5.       Pour into prepared 9x13 pan and score pieces while warm.
6.       Cut when cool and firm. If you didn't get it quite to soft ball stage, put it in the frig to help firm it up.
Note: soft ball stage is usually 20-25 minutes after it boils, with the heat on medium-low, but this is very dependent on your stove (electric or gas etc)

Kate's Orange Drop Cookies (with Lee's addition of cranberries)

·         1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
·         1 cup of granulated sugar
·         1 egg
·         1/2 sour milk (or buttermilk)
·         1/4 cup orange juice
·         grated rind of 1 orange
·         2 cups flour
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         1/2 teaspoon baking soda
·         1/2 teaspoon salt
·         1/2 cup chopped cran-raisins (dried cranberries)
·         1.5 cups powdered sugar
·         orange juice for icing

1.       Mix the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder & soda, salt AND orange rind) in a small bowl with a whisk.
2.       Cream the butter in a mixer, adding in the sugar, blending well
3.       Add the egg, milk and orange juice to the butter/sugar mix, beating till smooth.
4.       Add the dry ingredient mixture to the wet, beating on a low speed till well mixed and then add cranberries.
5.       Drop rounded teaspoon onto baking sheet and cook at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
6.       Let them cool on cookie sheet for about 10 minutes, then move to cooling rack to add frosting.
7.       While the cookies are baking, mix the powdered sugar with enough orange juice to get to icing consistency (start slowly with the OJ).

8.       While the cookies are still warm, frost them with the icing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I'm making a list...

I have a confession to make...I'm an semi-obsessive list maker.

I make lists when I'm entertaining, starting with the menu, going to the shopping list and finally a fairly detailed task list of what to do when. It's almost like a project plan. My sister does this as well, but she is even more detailed than I am! I have a notebook with the menus and invitees to parties going back to 1997! It's kind of fun, seeing who was coming, what we had etc. And it can be useful...there are recipes I've forgotten and these old menus jog my memory. Plus it's fun to look back and remember the events. In 1997, Billy was 6 and Bobby 2! No wonder I had to make detailed lists.

Of course, I make holiday lists. What I'm buying everyone, when guests are arriving, what needs to be done on a daily basis.

I also make long lists when I'm planning a trip. Especially as it gets close to departure date. I obsess about all the details: how are we getting to and from the airports? do we need dinner reservations anywhere? what are the backup plans? did I call the credit card companies and bank to let them know we are traveling? is everything arranged with the house sitter? It goes on and on.

I discovered a few years ago that my oldest brother is similar in his list making...we actually make the same kind of notations: drawing a little square box next to each item that we check off when completed. Now, I don't see RD very often and he went to college when I was 3 or 4 and we haven't lived in the same city since then. But we still have this weird note taking habit. I don't remember my mom doing it, but maybe Dad did? It's not something I consciously remember. Very curious!

I do use my iPhone apps to create lists too, but I find it more satisfying to have them on paper. The physical sensation of checking off the item feels like more of an accomplishment and boy, do I feel great when the list is completed. Almost a feeling of I crazy or what? Perhaps just a tad OCD! Oh well, I'm off....I have a list of other things I need to accomplish today!

Friday, December 6, 2013

West Chester Raves...

I feel so lucky to live near West Chester. It's a fabulous town to stroll around, with a great selection of restaurants and boutiques. You could easily spend a few days, exploring them all. I discovered the town when my kids started going to West Chester Friends School, a Quaker elementary school in the heart of the borough. We were embraced in this wonderful community and love the school and the foundation it gave our boys.

After I dropped them off at school, I would explore the town, walking the various streets and alleys. I started going to the dry cleaner in town and have now been going there for over 15 years. I love Eunice, the lovely Korean lady who runs it. We've shared experiences of raising boys over the years.  She even brought me back souvenirs when she returned from a trip to Korea, after learning I had lived there.

When I took a hiatus from working, I began taking photos of town and began painting watercolors. All my early work was of West Chester architecture. I've done several commissions of some of the lovely old homes in the borough.

As the years have gone by, I feel like this has become "my" town, becoming a regular in many of the shops and restaurants. There is a special feeling when you walk into an establishment and are greeted like an old friend. I rarely go to a mall to shop; they are so impersonal and sterile.

There are quite a few fooddie shops in town that I love. I've mentioned Eclat,, the best chocolate in the world, owned by Chris Curtain. There is also Carlino's,, a wonderful Italian market with a great cheese, italian specialties and great bread selection. Taste of Olive carries vinegars and oils; my favorites are their fig vinegar, which is excellent over roasted vegetables and their truffle salt, which I put on everything from omelettes to spinach to popcorn. All three of these places have websites, so you don't have to be local to experience them. Eclat chocolate in particular makes a truly spectacular gift.

There is a newcomer in town that I wanted to highlight on the corner of High and Miner Streets, called Dia Dolce This is a cupcake shop and coffee bar extraordinaire! The baker won the Food Network's Cupcake Wars. Now I have to admit that I am not normally a cupcake fan, but after trying her's, I'm a convert. The flavors are very creative and delicious. I have brought them home, telling myself that I will only eat half at a time, but my self control is lost after the first bite; I end up devouring the whole cupcake.

The coffee bar/store itself has a wonderful funky vibe. The coffee is first rate and it is a great place to sit and watch the town walk by, with several seats looking out of the window. Also, be sure to check out the has a fabulous hand painted mural of West Chester.  Their hours are 7:30am-7pm(T-Sat) and 7:30am-2:30pm on Sunday, but they are experimenting with staying open late on the weekends which I think is brilliant. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, after we've had dinner or happy hour in town, my husband and I would stop at the D'Ascenzio's for gelato, but they close from October to sometime in the spring and we would love to grab a cupcake at this time of year! In fact if you are heading to the Christmas parade tonight...stop by. I know they are open!

They say that the "urban suburbs" are experiencing a resurgence and with West Chester it's easy to understand why. It's an architecturally lovely town, with great restaurants and shops and every thing is walkable. Now all they need is a Trader Joe's in town and it would be absolutely perfect!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ah nuts!

During the holiday season I like to have extra snacks or appetizers around, in case people stop by or who knows,we may decide, spur of the moment, to entertain. One of the easiest treats to keep around is spiced nuts and by this I mean they are simple to make ahead and store. However be warned! They are so delicious they quickly disappear.  The  recipe is from the Barefoot in Paris Cookbook (Barefoot Contessa), which in turn based it upon the nuts served at the Union Square Cafe in NYC. I've added suggestions for modifications that would use other spices or other nuts. I love the nuts from Trader Joe's. Make sure you buy unsalted nuts as you add salt in the recipe.

I was going to try one of the variations of the savory recipe below before Thanksgiving. I had bought pecans for a pie but decided we didn't need a third pie for 10 people! So I was going to try them with the chili powder. However when I pulled the nuts out, I had purchased the pieces, rather than the full nuts which would not work great for the savory recipe. So instead I decided to make a pecan brittle. I found a recipe online( that I adapted by adding pumpkin spice and OMG, were they out of this world. They were devoured every time I put them out. The recipe makes a big batch (We had them 3 times, served in a cocktail sized bowl). The inspiration for this adaptation came from the caramel popcorn lady at the West Chester Artisan's Exchange ( She makes a superb caramel popcorn with pumpkin spice and pecans mixed in...I can't stop eating it when I have it in the house. My sister and I quickly went through the large bag on a road trip to Pittsburgh! 

So here are two recipes for sweet and one savory...keep them on hand for the holiday season, if you can keep Y/OUR hands off of them!

Pecan / Pumpin Spiced Brittle 

3 cups pecans pieces (a pound)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 TBSP butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice
several shakes of cinnamon

1) In a saucepan over medium/medium-high heat combine sugar, water and salt.
2) When the mixture comes to a gentle boil and the sugar is dissolved, set a timer for ten minutes.
3) Stirring occasionally, watch for the color to change from clear, to a light amber color. This may take 10 minutes or up to 20, depending on the heat of medium/medium-high on your stove. As soon as the color is a light, golden amber – get it off the heat! If you’d like, use a candy thermometer and when the mixture reaches 300(F) take it off the heat.
4) Working quickly, and stirring continuously, add butter, vanilla, baking soda and spices. The mixture will foam. Continue stirring until the foaming subsides and the mixture starts to get glossy.
5) Stir in the nuts all at once and quickly turn out onto a silicon baking mat or very well greased baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Another blog recommended heating the baking sheet in a warm oven (about 200 degrees) before you pour the brittle onto it. This would allow it to spread a bit easier. I didn't try it but it makes sense to me.
6) Flatten the mixture as needed and allow to cool for about 20 minutes, until brittle.

Salty / Savory Cashews (or other nuts)

1 pound roasted unsalted whole cashews (or pecans or almonds)
2 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon chili, curry or five-spice powder)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper  (cut to 1/4 teaspoon if you like, if you are using chili powder)
2 teaspooon brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter.

1)Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the nuts on a sheet pan and toast in the oven for 5 minutes.
2)In a large bowl, mix the rosemary (or other herbs), cayenne, sugar, salt and butter. Toss the warm nuts with the butter-herb mixture.
They can be served warm or cold. They keep in an air-tight plastic container for a week or two.

Monday, December 2, 2013

And so it begins....

Phew....what a weekend! We had a wonderful Thanksgiving...relatively small, starting with six of our family for dinner, then augmented by four friends joining us for desserts and drinks. The turkey tasted great but had the challenge for the second year in a row, that I didn't cook it long enough and had to return it to the oven. That's the thing that drives me nuts about roasting's a real challenge in timing the meal. Next year, I have to listen to the butcher rather than the recipe.

We did have great success in creating a new drink...dubbed the "Blizen" by my sister. It is 1 shot of rosemary simple syrup (see earlier simple syrup blog), juice from half a lemon, a teaspoon of grenadine,  and 3 shots of gin. Put it all into a cocktail shaker with lots of ice and shake till you can't feel you fingers anymore (because of the cold) and then pour into a martini glass rinsed with bourbon...and Voila! You have (and become) a Blizen! Oh and don't forget the sprig of rosemary to garnish!

We made this our signature drink at the neighborhood gathering on Saturday night. What a great night that is so wonderful to have this second family of friends, with shared memories that stretch back 20 years! The group has gotten so large, 22 in total and now they are nearly all adults with only 3 left in high school. (10 adults and 12 kids). We start off with all the chaos and chatter and catching up over hor d'oeuvres and then progress to sit down dinners with the adults in one room and kids in the other, though as they graduate from college, the line blurs, but the dining room table constrains us. I think once we start adding in significant others and eventually the kids' kids, we will have to rent a hall to handle us all!

Jack & Bobby 2013!
Jack & Bobby 2000
Over dinner we slip into re-living neighborhood memories: the first time we met ...Maddie coming down the street in her Fred-Flintsone car, red hair shining or the naughty night the adults crashed another neighbor's hot tub. Then there is the infamous Beanie Baby Caper, when the boys snuck into Emily's house, crept to the basement and stole her favorite beanie babies, making sure to give a shout as they exited, so they couldn't be accused of true robbery (only a 6 year old boy could come up with that logic!).

Finally we end the night with Charades, with much consideration given to the can't have spouses or siblings on the same team and how to divide up the natural actors and psychic guessers...there's a lot of strategy involved in just team creation. The game itself is a riot...very raucous and sometimes a bit heated on the rules but always a good time. We missed Billy this year but did skype him in from China at the very end.

So now the holiday season is officially kicked off...starting it with a marathon weekend of family, friends and food. What could be a better expression of the spirit of the holidays?