Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Slacking at the Grove Park Inn

A funny thing happened last December. After Thanksgiving we began some renovations on the main living area of our home which were supposed to be completed in 2 weeks, but ended up taking 9. (Guess how many people were surprised when I told them this? Approximately zero people. It would probably be smart for contractors to start factoring Murphy's Law into their timetable estimates.)

You would think that we would be angry or at least disappointed that our home was in such disarray at Christmas. In fact, it was the most relaxing, stress-free Christmas of my adult life. It turns out, not having a functional living space is the perfect excuse for being the ultimate Christmas slackers.

Sorry, kids, we can't have a tree this year, there's no where to put it!

No, we can't host any parties, we've got nowhere for people to hang!

Elf on the Shelf? All the exposed nails just make it too dangerous for him this year.

Send out Christmas cards? Nope. Can't. We have no mailbox.

AHEM. I may have gotten slightly carried away with all the Christmas slacking.

Consequently, our house was in sad shape. The stockings were anti-climatic.

Our tree left something to be desired.

The holiday aesthetic was lacking to say the least.

However, come January 1st, all I had to put away was some felt and 3 large socks. It was glorious.

Unfortunately, this year our house is in pristine condition. With the absence of precarious stepladders and menacing nails poking through the floors, I panicked at the thought of carrying out our usual holiday tradition: cramming in so much holiday bustle and sparkle and cheer that I end up a hysterical Christmas zombie who cries at cracked cheesecakes and yells things like "I swear, if you kids do not stop shaking those jingle bells YOU WILL BE GETTING NO PRESENTS!!"

So in an attempt to ride the wave of holiday slacking as long as acceptably possible, we we decided to delegate Thanksgiving. For years my mom has talked about spending Thanksgiving with the whole family in the mountains of Asheville, NC, particularly at the lovely, historical Grove Park Inn. This year we took her up on it.

Built in 1913, the resort sits nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The impressive stone structure was constructed in the popular Arts and Crafts style of the time, giving the inn a rustic mountain-lodge feel complemented by touches of artistic charm found in ornate carvings, stained-glass light fixtures and literary quotes impressed upon large stones throughout the resort. Or, as Cormac McCarthy described it in a novel "a cool room high in an old rough pile of rocks." Same same.

The Grove Park Inn was conceptualized by Edwin Riley Grove and was built with the fortune he amassed by selling a treatment for malaria called "Grove's Tastless Chill Tonic." The tonic was so popular it became a household name and sold more bottles than Coca-Cola in the 1890s.

We had a lovely, relaxing Thanksgiving this year and if anyone asks what I am thankful for I am going to say malaria.

Best marketing campaign ever. #fataspigs

We spent our three-day stay exploring the grounds, snacking at the Gingerbread Bar, keeping Elise out of mischief, frequenting the buffets, viewing the dozens of gingerbread houses on display and sipping hot chocolate on the terrace. And eating. Did I mention eating?

Since I was not performing the usual Thanksgiving tasks of basting a turkey or washing dishes or consoling the child who got the short end of the wishbone, I had time for other things. Like taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. As in, your finger may need a rest after all the scrolling you are about to do. 

Every November GPI hosts the National Gingerbread House Competition and the top ten entries in each division (adult, teen and child) are displayed around the hotel until the new year. Ironically, of all the displays, there were only a handful that were actually houses. This year the entries included a gingerbread peacock, a gingerbread choir and a gingerbread ice queen whom Elise insisted was Elsa from Frozen. Luckily, Elsa was located right by the elevator so we got to spend 10 minutes looking at her every time we left the room.

Gingerbread "Elsa"

The grand prize winner of the gingerbread house competition.
Probably got bonus points because it was an actual gingerbread house.

It was no surprise that of the dozens and dozens of themed trees throughout the resort, Henry's favorite was the "farm tree". Like Elsa, we also spent quite a bit of time around the farm tree, and Henry, in an attempt to recreate the magic of the Grove Park Inn, stuck all his animal toys in our Christmas tree when we got home. Elise has not yet attempted a gingerbread Elsa.

Along with the edible houses (and non-houses) the GPI put their own little spin on gingerbread by creating a magnificent hot chocolate bar constructed entirely of gingerbread and other confections. Naturally, cocoa and gingerbread people were available to purchase at the Gingerbread Bar which helped reinforce for my kids an important childhood truth: when Mommy says no, Grandpa says yes. 

It took an entire 30 seconds after arriving at the resort for me to exclaim "this is great! why doesn't everyone do this for Thanksgiving??" It turns out, everyone does do this for Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving day the inn was teeming with people of every age, from near and far, dressed in their holiday best. It was crowded, but the atmosphere was festive and jovial, like the scene in White Christmas, when all the soldiers arrive for the big show and there is dancing and singing and Bing and Rosemary Clooney smooch behind the tree. If we had only brought our feathered fans, my siblings and I could have done an inspiring rendition of "Sisters."

My mother and sisters are missing from this group photo. I think they got distracted by the gift shop.

Of course, it wasn't all magical cocoa moments and endless buffets and majestic mountain views. Actually, it was mostly those things. There was the occasional tantrum and every night Elise did crawl into my bed and lie across my face, but I realized that by removing myself from the role of holiday coordinator-of-all-things, I was actually able to relax and enjoy our time together.

Nonetheless, as soon as we got home there was baking to be done and presents to be wrapped and parties to attend. I'm sure you will be shocked to hear that I have a hard time taking things off my plate (both literally and figuratively). There's always a new recipe I want to try and just one more string of lights I want to hang and a color-coded gift spreadsheet I can't wait to type up. 

But I always overestimate the number of days in December, so by the time Christmas Eve rolls around I'm kicking myself for all the stupid, fun plans I've made because now I'm exhausted and if anyone is mean to me I am going to cry so hard at them. 

It seems the only way I can take things off my plate is if the plate is pried out of my type A, overachieving fingers. 

Still, there are some tasks that can't be negotiated and if mama doesn't do it, it doesn't get done. All the same, I need to find moments in this busy season to channel my inner slacker. I may not have a Gingerbread Bar, but by golly I can make some darn good hot chocolate and force the kids to watch White Christmas with me. 

And I suppose if that doesn't work I can always call my contractor. 

Merry Christmas, friends. The weary world rejoices on this day and I wish you peace, rest and a big mug of cocoa with the ones you love.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake with Chocolate Ganache

Why I would make a terrible food blogger:

1) It generally only occurs to me that a recipe is good enough to merit its own post after I'm halfway through eating it.

2) If I do try to construct a fancy food presentation for a photo, my children believe that is their cue to stick their faces within one inch of the dish.

Case in point:
It is literally the only time my children want to have their pictures taken.
In fact, my daughter was determined to maul this bundt cake the way a rabid wolf might attack anything that moves. I am not joking when I tell you I threw a handful of M&M's on the kitchen table to distract her and then ran away with the cake in order to take a photo.

In a panic I searched for the perfect backdrop. I knew I had mere seconds to accomplish the task at hand; Elise devours M&Ms with astounding speed and ferocity. I can't imagine where she gets it from.

I finally settled for the rug in our foyer. Yes, the surface on which people wipe their muddy feet was the perfect place to set my scrumptious dessert.

Meanwhile, another child began yelling from the bathroom "COME WIPE MEEE!" Ignoring his cries for the sake of art, I frantically arranged the plates to create the illusion of 2 things we never actually use while eating: tablecloths and restraint.

In a frenzied cold sweat, I positioned myself above my masterpiece and whipped out my camera phone. Unfortunately, despite my feverish pace, I was too slow. I watched as a tiny hand reached past my foot to grab the artfully placed fork just as I snapped the photo. The life of a food blogger is super glamorous, you guys.

This pic proves that all you really need to be a food blogger are some killer Instagram filters.
I'm coming for ya, Joy the Baker.

3) I post a fantastic Thanksgiving recipe the week after Thanksgiving.

It's ok, you could still make it for Christmas. Or for Tuesday. Whenevs.

So glam. So delish. 

My friend Alev made this Pumpkin Bundt Cake several years ago and it was so good I hounded her for the recipe until she gave it up. I've made it every autumn since because I like to steal other people's best recipes and pretend they are mine.

As a food blogger it is important to take lots of close-up pictures, giving the distinct impression that you are a professional baker, and to also hide the fact that the unpictured cake has been completely decimated. 
If my remarkable food photography has not already convinced you to make this dish, please allow me to explain the gloriousness that is bundt cake. Bundt cake is obviously a fabulous dessert, but it's even light and muffin-y enough to pass as a suitable breakfast item. You can skip the ganache if anyone objects to their breakfast being glazed in chocolate. Or you can just not invite those people to breakfast.

Also, pumpkin counts as a vegetable so you could totally eat this for dinner too.

Finally, did you know that 'ganache' is harder to say than make?? Seriously, SO easy. You will be ganaching all the food after this.

There. I hope I've convinced you. I'll just leave you with this one final, stunning photo and accompanying recipe. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm sure "Martha Stewart Living" will be calling any minute.


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl combine: 3 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, 2 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp baking powder, ½ tsp salt, ½ tsp cinnamon

Add the following and blend until well mixed: 1 cup melted butter, 4 large eggs, 2 cups pumpkin purée

Stir in: 1 (12 oz.) package of chocolate chips

Bake in well-greased bundt pan for 1 hour until toothpick comes out clean.  Remove from pan and cool.


Bring 1 cup heavy cream to a boil, pour over 8 oz bittersweet chocolate (do not use chocolate chips). Cover with foil for 5 minutes, then whisk together. Pour over the cooled cake!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself...Unless it's Kinda Hard

I want to turn off the news. I want to snuggle my kids in their beds and read stories and forget about all the hurt that exists outside our very door. I want to avoid debates and uncomfortable conversations and just stick with sharing silly stories of motherhood and awkward pick-up lines. But there’s one story I can’t stop thinking about, a story that is nagging my mind and haunting my thoughts every time I try to get on with my comfy life.

This story is about a man who was beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. As he is lying helpless, 2 men walk by. They are respected figures in their community; they are religious leaders, but they walk on past. Perhaps they do not have the time to help or do not feel the obligation to this stranger who is so far removed from their busy, privileged lives.

A third man walks down the road. The thing about this third man is that he is of a completely different nationality and culture than the stranger. In fact, their cultures despise each other. Even still, the third man helps this stranger. He puts all of his own plans on hold and spends the day tending to the stranger’s wounds, giving him a ride back to his town, finding a place for him to recover and footing the bill for the entire ordeal. Even more remarkable is that just by entering the stranger’s land, the third man could have been killed, his people were that hated. He risked it all to help a stranger.

I probably don’t have to tell you that this story is the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke when asked “who is my neighbor?”

The Samaritan gave his time, his money and risked his very life to help a man he had been taught to fear and hate.

And Jesus says “Go and do the same.”

I fail every day at finding Jesus in the needy, the neglected and the marginalized. How easy it is to see a homeless person and think “addict.” A welfare recipient becomes a “freeloader.” A refugee becomes a “terrorist.”

I don’t want to spend my life espousing Christian platitudes that fall apart when I’m forced outside my comfort zone. My greatest hope as a parent is to teach my children to love God and love others. Not “love others who look like you.” Not “be kind and have courage…unless you’re scared of the unknown.” Not “do unto others…unless it gets in the way of your own self-preservation.”

It’s hard. There are so many questions unanswered, so much pain, so many reasons to shut our doors to refugees in need.

But I can’t ignore the one truth that I know for sure:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

A Syrian refugee family living in my city. Click here to read their story.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Finding Goodness in the Cracks

*Originally published on Hello, Dearest for MOPS International

When it comes to a Thanksgiving feast, there is only one thing more important than preparing the traditional eats: making sure everything looks perfect enough for a magazine photo shoot. Because if you can’t impress your friends and family with your impeccable food presentation and themed tablescapes, then what is the point of the holidays anyway?

At least, those were the thoughts that lurked in the back of my head a few years ago as I prepared to host a dozen or so relatives for Thanksgiving dinner. The menu was planned, extra linens were purchased and approximately 72 trips to the grocery store had been made. Only one thing could stand in the way of my perfect Thanksgiving celebration: pumpkin cheesecake. You see, there was one flaw in my cheesecake that bugged me to no end each year. Every year I baked it; and every year it cracked.

I usually disguised the crack with artistic swirls of whipped cream, but that year I was determined to make a picture-perfect pumpkin cheesecake.

I stayed up late one night researching no-fail, no-crack cheesecake baking methods. Some recipes swore by the water bath technique. Others suggested adding a little cornstarch to the batter. Whatever tricks and tips the recipes recommended, they all preached the importance of cooling the cheesecake very slowly. Whatever you do, DO NOT open the oven door while the cheesecake is baking.

So that year, with the help of my eager 3-year-old son, we put all of the advice to work. We added cornstarch to the batter as we discussed his favorite part of preschool (lunchtime). While preparing the water bath, we debated the very best superhero (verdict: Superman) and as we added the finishing touches he confided in me his future ambition (to be a toy salesman). Finally, we popped the cheesecake in the oven and shut the door with our fingers crossed.

Periodically, I peeked through the oven window. My cheesecake was progressing beautifully! I turned away to continue other preparations only to hear a little voice behind me, “Look, Mommy! Our cake is going to be so yummy!” I turned and to my horror, saw my son peering in at the cheesecake, with the oven door wide open.

I screamed. I stomped. I threw a dish towel on the floor. I may have banged my head against the refrigerator. It was not pretty. And then I saw little tears beginning to well up in my son’s eyes, “I’m sorry, Mommy, I just wanted to peek at our yummy cake.”

Needless to say, our cheesecake came out of the oven with a crack that year. Actually, it was more like a giant crater. And somehow, despite the crack, it was still delicious. In my quest for perfection I had missed the goodness in the cracks.

A perfect cheesecake is not nearly as important as the act of baking with someone you love. What is on the table is not nearly as important as who is around it.

I apologized to my son for my dramatic outburst and promised myself to never again get so carried away by cheesecake, which is no small undertaking considering the power that cheese and cake possess when they join forces. Funnily enough, the crack in our pumpkin cheesecake has become a Thanksgiving tradition just as much as the dessert itself. I no longer try to hide the crack, instead it reminds me not to focus on the imperfections, but on the beauty in the flaws.

This year, let us be thankful to gather hand-in-hand with the people we love. Let us celebrate the goodness that comes from acknowledging our shortcomings. Let us be thankful for those who love us, cracks and all.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How to Not Hate Your Spouse

There are few certainties in this world. However, in my experience, one of those certainties is whenever you start to become overconfident in an area of your life, that is generally the time the universe decides to give you a swift kick in the pants.

For example, one time a friend of mine asked for advice on dealing with her misbehaving 3-year-old. My own 3-year-old happened to have a good Wednesday that week so I was feeling particularly confident in my parenting skills. I don't remember what words of wisdom I bestowed upon her that evening, but I will never forget my son's preschool teacher pulling me aside the next day to tell me that my 3-year-old had spent the morning acting like a rabid dog and had clawed another child's face so bad he drew blood.

I immediately texted my friend and told her to please ignore all of my previous advice. "Instead, just throw out all the granola bars and maybe get a tattoo that says 'this too shall pass' on the inside of your hand so you will see it whenever you get the urge to face-palm."

So you see, I'm a little hesitant to share advice. Especially marriage advice. Because it may cause my husband to claw at my face like a rabid dog.

I kid! I kid!

Actually, John and I recently celebrated our 10-year anniversary. I have been married 10 years to the funniest, smartest, most loving guy a girl could ask for. But sometimes I forget. Sometimes I forget all those things under the stress and strain of everyday life.

All of his stellar qualities I fell in love with become commonplace as the days pile on and the weeks become months of needy babies and dirty laundry and home maintenance projects.

And when life takes dips into drudgery, as it often tends to do, resentment rears its ugly head. And who gets the brunt of this anger and frustration? None other than the partner I pledged to walk through life with.

What can be done to uproot these seeds of bitterness before they grow into full-fledged hate for your spouse?

This is where the advice part comes in, but even with 10 years under my belt I can't help but feel unqualified to offer martial wisdom. Luckily, this is not my advice. This advice was given to me by a speaker I heard several years back. I honestly don't even remember who she was, but I've never forgotten what she said.

Her advice for a happy marriage was simple: index cards.

Yes, index cards.

It works like this. Let's say you've asked your spouse to take some chicken out of the freezer so it can thaw for dinner. He forgets. As the five o'clock hour (or the dark time where dreams go to die, as we call it in my house) approaches you discover his oversight and you are gripped with the horrible realization that there is no dinner and delivery pizza will take at least 45 minutes, so you might as well throw some cereal boxes on the table and let the children duke it out over who gets the last of the Lucky Charms.

Did I mention this scenario was hypothetical? Anywho, in such desperate moments, we inevitably look for someone to blame and our spouse is the obvious scapegoat. Rather than giving the benefit of the doubt, our thoughts immediately turn sour. I can't believe he forgot such a simple request. If he wasn't so preoccupied with work, he would have remembered. If he was thinking about my needs, he would have remembered. He's so selfish. He doesn't care about me. He doesn't care about us.

It sounds silly, but admit it, we've all fell victim to letting those little lies invade our head. Sometimes, when I'm trapped inside my head, I convince myself that the lies are truths.

This is where the index cards come in. That speaker, all those years ago, shared that she had written down truths about her husband on a set of index cards so that when she felt the lies in her head, she had some solid truth to use against them. She would read through her cards until she was no longer mad, and the bitterness never had a chance to take root.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I have never written down the truths on index cards, but it's been on my to-do list for about 5 years now, so I'm sure that counts for something. In the meantime, I do have a mental list of truths about my husband always at the ready in my brain. If they do ever make it to index card form, they may look something like this:

He always opens the door for me. Even after 10 years.

He works long hours to provide for our family.

The children adore him.

He has immediately forgiven me every time I have hit the house with our car.


He stands firm in his convictions and beliefs.

He does a hysterical impression of Dr. Phil.

He does a hysterical impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He does a hysterical impression of the Crocodile Hunter (admittedly, that one was funnier before he died. But seriously, John should probably just do impressions whenever I'm mad at him because who can stay mad at the Crocodile Hunter?)

And just like that, with a bit of review and repetition, these truths begin to soften the shell of bitterness covering my heart, and I am reminded of why I love him so fiercely.

It's a simple little exercise, but I swear it works every time. Maybe because it's the often-quoted Corinthians passage in action: Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

Perhaps I should have more wisdom to bestow after 3,650 days of life with the same man. On the other hand, I believe I've worn the same pair of sweatpants-as-pajamas for 3,645 of those days, so maybe you're better off just sticking with the index cards.

Nothing to see here, Universe, go find some other (sweat)pants to kick.