Saturday, December 28, 2013


What a year! A wedding. A divorce. Selling a home. Buying a home. Losing one life style. Nurturing a new one.  Saying goodbye. Saying hello. Dark nights. Bright mornings. A roller coaster ride to be sure! 

In my late 50's and thinking that I had mastered the art of living with enough experience to pass it forward, I blinked... and life turned me into a student. And its most important lesson was that all of us have within the ability to be stronger than we think. So, I am standing here to tell you, if your resolve is tested, and you find a door closing, find an open window...and climb through!

And in the multitude of changes of these past 12 months, there are two defining, breath-taking moments I'll keep with me always. Actual times when there was a catch in my breathing pattern. One, was observing my oldest son's expression as he watched the love of his life walk toward him on their wedding day in June. The blue sky, sandy beach, the salty air added to the perfectness of this life changing moment. For both of us.

The other was observing the pride on my youngest son's face as he closed and latched the door on a rented moving truck and headed to settlement on his new home. Our addresses separate for the first time in his life. And in mine. Knowing I too was packing, he hugged me and said "Let's do this Mom!" And so I did! A few months later, I sold a home at 11:00 in the morning and bought a home at 3:30 in the afternoon!

In 2013 I was "schooled" as the kids would say. I did things I never thought I could do. I learned things I never thought I needed to know. Yes, I made some mistakes. But I also made some gains. And along the way I even picked up some tidbits to pass forward: 
  1. Know when you're about to fly solo, and being conscience of a budget, while packing the contents of a four bedroom colonial to move, the size of the moving truck is not the place to economize.
  2. When you're standing in your new home, surrounded by boxes of pictures, clothes, dishes and's on you. So don't hesitate to pull in every favor that is owed!
  3. And since you will never know when you will need them, stay in good standing with your family. They will make the difference. Trust me here.
  4. There are only one or two things you can't do without a man, but there is almost nothing you can't do without quality duct tape!
  5. When you're full of yourself after taking carpentry courses at Home Depot to fix up your new place, remember there is a difference between masonry drill bits and those used on wood. Remember this before you leave the store and go home to put on sweat pants...which don't flatter anyone.  
  6. It is a real joy to select all the paint colors for your new home without compromising with someone else's preference. To stand with paint chips in your hand and say "I'll take this one and this one..." is exhilarating. BUT only buy a quality product that already has primer in it. You don't want to have to paint twice! (This one should be highlighted)!
  7. When you are picking your lifelong friends, select a couple tall ones. They come in handy when scraping wallpaper.  
  8. ...But be careful of their choice of beverage.You're the new kid in town. The contents of your recycle can will be judged.
  9. And remember, no matter how tired you are, the car key remote will not turn off the TV, so don't ignore the horn blowing outside.
  10. You have to go through a divorce to really appreciate country music.
  11. Most important, if you don't already know how, learn to pray. It always gives you someone to talk to when your alone. And the results are amazing.
I entered 2013, knowing major changes were ahead and completely apprehensive as to what they would bring. I enter 2014 living in a home that I love with an independent lifestyle that I am embracing. A sidebar to this whole New Year's thing is that January 1 is my birthday. A date, in spite of its personal significance to me, I usually hate because it brings an official end to the holiday season. But this year, for some strange reason, I am eager to put away the decorations. Eager to throw out the eggnog and that strange cheese ball thing. This birthday girl will be looking toward the sky and waiting the ball to drop! (Just please, 2014, don't let it be on my head.)

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Unexpected Gift...

If I've learned anything worth remembering in the last year, it's that as long as you keep one foot moving forward, you're going in the right direction. But the real trick isn't just to keep moving, it's not to lose sight of the important things your peripheral vision is trying to provide when you're working so hard to to stay focused. I almost did that recently. Allow me to explain.

I started the Kitchen Clatter blog a little over two years ago when my life was a world away from where it is now. My original premise was that in almost every home life is lived in the kitchen and I wanted to share the stories, recipes, the laughter and warmth that my family and friends created in mine. I started it in April, 2011 and quickly became stunned by the amount of readers the blog was attracting. So the family stories and recipes continued weekly, and all was good. Until it wasn't.

The thousands of people who read Kitchen Clatter each week know that a sudden divorce changed my personal landscape. No need to rehash everything, but needless to say, writing funny, family stories became somewhat of a challenge. At the time, my kitchen went from being the place that everyone wanted to hang out in, to the place no one wanted to be. It was a death zone. And I had to decide whether or not to end the blog or adapt it to accommodate a journey. I'm so glad I decided on the latter.

The best thing, the very best thing, that this blog has done was to force me into the world of social media. You can't promote your product (a term I learned from social media) without getting people to share it, to talk about it, to connect with it. Enter Twitter and Facebook. I now have a host of friends, people I can confide in, at times, commiserate with, discuss world events with, always laugh with, and on occasion, cry with. People I have never even met in person have become my soul mates. In spite of efforts to always present myself as a woman of strength to those around me, even now, I'm not immuned to waking in the middle of the night wondering what happened to my world. Then, somewhere, someone who is willing to listen, is always just a keystroke away. And it never ceases to amaze me.

And then there are the readers...they came to me, supported me, stayed with me. Most not comfortable with leaving comments on the blog site for the public to see, emailed me to explain how a particular story resonated with them in one way or another. Oddly enough, readership doubled when I finally admitted online that my 40 year marriage collapsed. Surviving an all too common situation had somehow bonded us. And I am grateful for each and every one of them.

Now, with all this going on; writing, blogging, holiday decorating, shopping, hanging with family and friends, I almost lost it all! Short lesson needed here. Blog domains (web sites)  must be renewed each year, usually automatically, with the fee coming from your registered bank account with your host. Before the divorce, I changed my accounts. Never thinking of the renewal until Goggle emailed me that the site had been suspended. I froze. I panicked. I couldn't find a way to fix it.

Because of the collapse earlier this year of my email accounts after moving into the new home, there was no way to recover the information needed to renew the domain. No way, that is, without a Goggle expert named Oliver who called me and spent hours getting Kitchen Clatter back online. I couldn't have done it without him. We actually became quite friendly after two days of working together. And I couldn't help but laugh when he ended the conversation with a reference to a recipe in the blog by stating, "By the way, my wife is making the ricotta cookies." Boom! I loved it.

So it's back! Kitchen Clatter is renewed and secured for another year. I did lose a few emails in the interim however, one especially that tugs at my heart because I no longer have the address to respond to. So to the solider in Afghanistan, who emailed me to say that the blog about my Aunt Lee had encouraged her to get passed an argument and call an aunt that she hadn't spoken to in years, I am beyond thrilled that you made that call. You, and the many others who have taken the time to tell me how Kitchen Clatter has effected your lives, is a gift I never saw coming. I honestly don't think I could have gotten through the last year without all of you dropping by my virtual kitchen to lend support.

"Ding, ding, ding"
The journey has led me miles away from where I was this time last year! My kitchen, where cooking and hosting have also been renewed, is wide open! I even danced to "What does the fox say?" with my nephew and niece this past Thanksgiving as I was preparing dinner for my family!

I am home. And there are so many more stories and recipes to share! Please take a few moments each week to pull a chair up to the table. We need to talk!

Photos by ImageGoggle and Betty Shepard

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Aunt Lee...The Christmas Cookie Queen

It seems every family has one. Most times they’re called matriarchs, sometimes they’re called divas. My Aunt Lee was both the family matriarch and a kitchen diva, loved by all who would tread softly in her court. Her passion was baking. Blueberry pies in the summer, Jewish apple cake in the fall. Cakes and pastries for her ladies club. At Halloween, she would gather the kids in the neighborhood to bake cookies. This was a trade off so they would know not to trick or treat at her house since a bad hip made it hard for her to get up and down. 

But come Christmas, oh baby, the flour would fly like snow! Starting in early November, sprinkles, silver balls, maraschino cherries, pineapple preserves, chocolate buds, sugared stars and anise were among the many ingredients spread out on the counter next to the butter, flour and sugar. Cookie sheets were lined on the table next to an old metal cookie press and Pizzelle maker. We all had our favorites, but tops on everyone's list was Aunt Lee's Ricotta cookies, Soft, sweet and cheesy, these tasteful delights were baked and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Each day, in the early winter morning hours, she would start her annual ritual of making the dough. And here is where the mystery started... Aunt Lee's cookies were wonderful, flavorful, fragrant, and well, simply delicious. But like most of her recipes, she wasn't too keen on sharing her secrets. "Oh, a little of this, and a little of that. It's hard to say." she would respond when pressed for details. It was her "thing" and gave her much pleasure. Once baked and decorated, the tasty morsels were placed between layers of wax paper and stored in tin containers till ready to present. And presentation was a big deal with her. If you were on her cookie "receiving" list, your tray would come wrapped tightly with sprigs of fresh greens on top, tied with with seasonal ribbons.

And while the cookies were in her oven, you could be sure that chicken soup was on the stove. It was the one demand that her many nieces would insist on when we stopped by. Her and my uncle had built a house, by themselves, from the ground up in the Pine Barrens, near the Jersey shore. When the house was being built, much "cousin fun" was experienced.Sleeping bags lined on the floor in front of the fireplace on winter weekends. Legendary muck fights in the lake during the summer. 

A brief history of her legacy is that Aunt Lee (whose real name was Angelina - a name she detested) was my mother's oldest sister. She had one son and no daughters. When my mother passed away at the very young age of 39, Aunt Lee kept me, my sister Betty, my youngest brother Tom, and to be truthful, most of my cousins, under her wing on weekends and summers. But never close enough to see what she was actually doing in the kitchen. Which she felt was her prerogative....of which she had many. She ruled, we eagerly followed, and all was right in her world.

Aunt Lee was a loving and strong women who also fought Crohn's disease for years. The irony here was that this nasty gastronomical affliction often prevented her from tasting many of the wonderful things she made. Its punishment on the body often put her in the hospital where her age and weakened condition would cause us to fear the worst time and time again. On one such occasion, my sister and I were summoned by my uncle to visit her bedside as she seemed to be getting worse. We were standing around her bed quietly as she lied sleeping, when Betty leaned over and whispered "Aunt Lee, how did you make the gnocchi's?" Everyone knew about her unwillingness to share her best recipes, and I believe my sister was just trying to lighten the mood a little...but instead, Aunt Lee opened her eyes for the first time in days. She turned to glare at my sister as if to say "I'm not dying today!" The probing of the ever-light gnocchi's recipe resurrected her. That was nine years before she actually passed...and not the only time we were summoned to her bedside. This lady had nine lives!

I was blessed to have Aunt Lee spend her last several Christmases at my home. She lived about an hour away and would drive up to spend the holiday. Her trunk filled with cookie trays and tins that she would deliver to relatives as I drove her around. What most people don't know is that one tray always went to a women's shelter. "For the kids", she would say. "No one needs to know" and I never mentioned it, until today.

When finished, she would treat me to lunch and a little last minute shopping. It was always a good day. She would also bring some cookie dough to my house so we could decorate and bake them together and so the kitchen "would smell  like Christmas". (Never actually making the dough used for most of her cookies at my house, although under cousins orders, I tried each time to get the recipe). On Christmas Eve, my Uncle Andy, her youngest brother, would pick her up and take her to Mass. A venture she eagerly awaited each year. I can so clearly see her sitting on my couch, dressed and waiting for him. 

As she got older and more frail, making the hour drive to my house became too much. It was then that I started picking her up so she wouldn't be alone during the holidays. When I got to her house, spread across the kitchen were cookie trays filled with Biscotti, pineapple squares, butter and ricotta cookies, spritzes, and homemade chocolate truffles, her new passion to make. I would carry some trays to the neighbors and put the rest in my trunk just as she had for years. 

It's been a few years since I had to make that trip and I miss her each holiday season. I think of her often as I bake my own Christmas cookies these days. I don't have her recipes, (although the internet has helped me to figure a few out), but the first year without her was when I realized how she had been leaving her decorative tins behind when she went home. I now have most of them. 

Another reminder is that at her last Christmas with me, she brought a large wagon table ornament that she had bought the first year she was married - over 60 years ago. It's heavy iron wheels made it hard for her to carry into the house, so she handed me the bag as we unloaded her trunk. "I got this at Strawbridges in the city the first year Uncle Al and I were married, I want you to have it now." I adore it. 

Since so much of Christmas is about the memories it creates, it would be hard not to write about her during this season. I am sure that at least one memory of her will be in the mind of my Uncles, Aunts and cousins this holiday. Below, is a ricotta cookie recipe that most closely resembles what I remember as the decadent creation that came from her kitchen.  It took me a long time to find a recipe that equals hers...almost.

To all of the "Aunt Lee's" in the world, a Very Merry Christmas!

Ricotta Cookies
1/2 lb. butter -- 1 3/4 cups white sugar -- 2 eggs -- 15-ounce ricotta cheese -- 2 Tbsp. vanilla extract -- 4 cups all-purpose flour -- 1 tsp. baking powder -- 1 tsp. baking soda.
Preheat oven to 350. In a med. bowl, cream together butter, white sugar, eggs, ricotta cheese & vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder & baking soda, blend into the creamed mixture, mixing in additional flour as necessary to form a workable dough. Roll dough into teaspoon- sized balls & arrange on a ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 min. or until lightly browned. When slightly cooled, sprinkle with powdered sugar. 

Or - if glaze is preferred add:
5 Tbls milk
1.5 cups confectionery sugar
1 tsp. almond extract

In a medium bowl, beat milk, confectioners' sugar, and almond extract until smooth. Spoon over warm cookies, and sprinkle with colored candy sprinkles.

Photos courtesy of Jason Sowders and Jo Ann Phelps

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Magic in Dark Decembers...

"The woods are lovely dark and deep"
The days are shorter, for sure. A few weeks away from the Winter Solstice, we are reminded daily now that we have entered the dark pages of the calendar. But this weekend, I was reminded how all of us will seek a way to find the light in winter by a simple post on Facebook. I was looking to change my "cover" photo from a Thanksgiving theme to a Christmas theme when I stumbled upon a picture that captivated me...and 200 others.

Deep within the snowy woods stood a fully lit tree illuminating its surroundings. With snow covering the ground, there's no sign of where the lighting wires lead to, but its placement there speaks volumes. Each colored light reaches within our souls and rescues hope from the darkness that is often buried beneath our struggles.

Now, social media can be a great measurement of how people that you know, and people you have never met, are feeling. And in the four years that I have been posting photos, I have never had one that stirred so much emotion, or was "shared" on both Facebook and Twitter as much as this one little picture. One tweet that came back to me said "holidays depress me but that picture made me smile. #warmth". On Facebook, a friend who had taken a sleigh ride in Vermont with her husband and actually came upon a decorated tree in the woods, shared the photo and posted "It was the most magical experience!" I can only imagine!

But one tweet I received absolutely hit close to home. "I can't help but wonder, what would Robert Frost think if his horse stopped here?" Of course! "Stopping in the woods on a snowy evening" is by far my favorite poem. His words perfectly captured the elegance of a snowfall deep within the woods witnessed by someone most likely both tired and cold but humbled by the wonder of his surroundings. And he pays homage.

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   
He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost

   This poem is my quiet place. It's an image I call on when I'm stressed or overwhelmed. Although, this time it took a stranger on twitter to point out what drew me to this photo of a Christmas tree deep in the woods on a snowy evening. It's a reminder, that as we attempt to cram so much into the short days of December, we take a moment to sit back and quietly breath it all in. We all have "many miles to go" before we sleep. But please make a moment to find that "the woods are lovely, dark and deep."

Photo by ImageGoggle