Sunday, December 1, 2013

Love, Loss, and Comfort Food

My sister Cathy lost her battle with Pancreatic Cancer on November 12, 2013. Pretty cool date to go in my book. I was not there at her bedside, but her family was, along with my mom, brother and her chosen sister was there. I consider Sandy, our sister-in-law, a gift that I gave my brother and sister. After all, it was my constant nudging to date my younger brother that helped get them together, eventually married and parents to two young, smart, and challenging girls.

Cathy and I were both okay with me not coming back to see her again before she passed. I'd known when I'd seen her in May that I would not see her alive again. But you cannot tell a cancer patient that you do not think they will make it. The pathetic excuse for doctors at Kaiser had missed her cancer for 18 months and when it was finally found it was inoperable. (Long story there that I won't delve into now). And I could just tell, no matter how good she may have looked or felt that it was too far gone at that point.

A big reason for me to not be at her side is that I know how to override morphine pumps. We did not know at the time that she wouldn't be on a pump but would be on oral meds at the end. Another reason is that I am a fierce patient advocate and would have caused her family undue stress if I perceived any lack in her care...it's just my nature. I have a friend who refers to me as a "force of nature", this is not a bad thing, but it is a very accurate assessment.

My brother-in-law did an AMAZING job taking care of her until the very end. It is not fair that he should lose the mother of his children, the woman who taught him to love again (he lost his first wife unexpectedly), and his partner in life so young. He held it together well at her Celebration of Life, but wondered why I didn't shed a tear.

Truth be told, I've been walking with death for too long now and have become numb to it. I've almost lost my husband several times, and the fact that he is still alive and functioning baffles his doctor. I know she's in a better place, pain free and enjoying herself with all of the other people and critters I love that have passed on.

I stayed to spend Thanksgiving with my family. One of my stress relievers is baking, and with the cookbook due to be formatted any day now, I did a lot of baking while there. I made Satan Muffins (a.k.a. Snickerdoodle Muffins) for breakfast, not realizing my sister-in-law had NEVER had them before. I don't know how that happened as these were one of my favorite things to eat after a night of unbridled drinking during our college days.

I asked everyone if they wanted anything special. My brother asked for just two things: banana cream pie and Charlie Brown's Brownies.  I'm not a banana cream pie fan, but I did find a recipe (which of course I had to tweak a bit) and made him banana cream pie from scratch. I hear it tasted wonderful.

The Charlie Brown's Brownies took a bit to find. The recipe was in a Peanuts Cookbook put out by Charles Schultz in 1969. Cathy and I had both been given the book by Maga and Grandad (our mom's parents) that Christmas.  Luckily for me, there are other fans of that cookbook who've posted the recipe on the internet. The first batch came out as blondies, which my middle nephew loved, the second batch was perfect.

Brownies are one of my comfort foods, Banana Cream Pie is one of my brother's. My sister was a social butterfly and had started several traditions for her cul-de-sac family. The neighbors get together often for Drinks-on-the-Court and one tradition is to have a second "dessert" for Thanksgiving at someone's house. So I took requests and started baking. In the end, I had made 2 banana cream pies, a batch of Devil Truffles, Peanut Butter Chocolate cookies, Pumpkin Cake, real whipped cream, Charlie Brown's Brownies, accidental Blondies, Snickerdoodles, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something else.

It is no surprise that my sister's cul-de-sac is named Corazon...Spanish for heart. She was well loved by many and will be missed...even if I never shed a tear at her passing.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Check Yourself, Know Your Normal

Most people know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and even though we are now rapidly approaching Thanksgiving, it doesn't mean we can forget. Please check yourself, every month, and every year if you're off "that age" to get mammograms - this includes you men as well! Get to know your "normal". And always trust your instincts.

Last year around this time I learned a dear friend had an agressive form of breast cancer and due to a lab mistake it had been overlooked. When she was diagnosed it was late Stage 3 HER breast cancer. At one point her odds were down to 30% survival, after completing part of her planned double mastectomy her odds went up to 90% survival. Everyone who loves her was ecstatic and extremely grateful.

I'm a dense girl, so more difficult to test, much like my mom. However, my mom and I have an advantage: her mother. My grandmother had a double mastectomy and was a guinea pig for much of our protocols in use today. She handled it all with style, grace, and fight. My mom also handled hers well, and was fought for what was right for her. As a result, I've done a lot of research and had made all my decisions on treatments plans years ago. I never want to have to make these decisions while in the throes of the diagnosis.

My dear friend didn't have that advantage, but she has had tons of love and support, many fund raisers, an amazing employer, and a very strong family. She didn't feel that things were right, so she kept going back to her GP, who also didn't feel that things were right and got her in front of a specialist who immediately spotted the cancer. So trust your gut, you know your normal, if something is off be ready to fight your doctor, insurance or whomever to get a second opinion and have someone listen to you.

My only request is this: Check yourself.  Now, and each month. If you don't know how, there are tons of resources online. Start with the Susan G. Komen site at a minimum.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How do you know when it's done?

That's a question I hear a lot when teaching people to bake for the first time. Lately I've been asking myself that question.  Every time I think I have the absolute last recipe for my cookbook, I get stressed out by yet one more thing and end up coming up with some new recipe that I just "have" to included.

My alpha tester all along has been my husband. He's honest when something isn't working and doesn't oversell a recipe that is tasty but not truly outstanding. My beta testers are the crew at a local diner (Red Geranium) and they've been awesome as well.

I've got beta testers to proof out the recipes all lined up and I'm planning on getting them the recipes before the end of the month. I've refined my oldest  recipes, making sure I have the steps and methods outlined correctly. Section titles have been determine, a book title has been selected, and formatting has begun.


So, how do you know when your book is really done? I'm not sure. I'm still new to this self-publishing business. My best guess is to set an absolute, drop dead date for getting the book formatted and ready to be proofed by an editor. Or perhaps it's the fact that I just had another cover shoot for the book - which involves a flurry of baking for models. Either way, I need to wrap up this book soon. Which means I need to quite baking for awhile and find another form of stress relief.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Diving into the Self Publishing Pool

I've been working on a cookbook for the past several months. What started out as something for my friends and family is rapidly growing into a much bigger production. I decided to self publish it for many reasons: 1) my friends and family are scattered across the globe, 2) most of them are big eBook fans, and 3) I want to keep the cost as close to “free” as possible. Because a few of them want a print copy, I need to price it at Amazon's minimum to be eligible for their CreateSpace print-on-demand option.

Several of the GRRWG members have had great success lately going this route. As a new author, I am not holding out hopes for large number of sales, but hope to at least get my setup costs covered. ISBN's must be purchased, a publishing company name needs to be selected, I need to develop the book cover, have it edited, get testers to test the recipes and pick a name for it. Lots of work yet to do for what I thought would be a “quick” side project.

The biggest obstacle is simply me being me. An IT geek by trade, I'm always thinking of ways to improve thing, and my recipe list is growing as I keep thinking up recipes to add. My “beta tasters” are growing to hate me as their waistlines have grown since I started down this path. I've selected my most “kid friendly” recipes for this book as I'm a big believer in teaching kids bake and cook simple things for themselves. The one thing I can't really do for this book is the artwork, as I am not an artist or photographer.

I'm still debating about the photos after seeing how much work it may be to get the layout I see in my head to work for an eBook. So for the first edition it may end up with no photos, but I gave myself to the end of the year to get this book out, so I may have to give up a few things to get the first edition out. Plus it's a lot of work to get all the samples ready for a photo shoot, and I'm a horrible procrastinator.

Another thing to consider when self-publishing is which platforms you want to publish on. There'sjust so many: Amazon vs. Nook vs. Smashwords, just to name a few. The decision may end up being a tad easier for me though as Amazon seems to be the one platform that all of my potential readers can get to.

Who know that self-publishing could get so complicated?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Brownie Cookie Perfected!

Note: This can also be found on my crafting blog at pyrhaven.blogspot.com (in case anyone was worrying about copyrights).

It's taken me longer than expected, but I finally got the recipe down. These turned out nice and chewy once completely cooled and are very close to my all-time favorite one that I used to get in high school. They're not exactly alike though as I refuse to use corn syrup in my recipes whenever I can avoid it.

So here's the basic recipe and if you're a corn syrup fan, you can take out 2 tablespoons of the sugar in exchange for 2 tablespoons of light corn syrup to get a moister, chewy brownie cookie.


First whisk together (or use a mixer) the following:


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter (melted) or you could substitute for shortening, but then why bother?
  • 2 teaspsoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt  (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant coffee/espresso (optional)

Put the mixer on slow and add the following:

  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder (regular or dark cocoa) - add this 1/4 cup at a time
  • 2 eggs - extra large or jumbo size

When the eggs are just blended turn off the mixer and stir in the dry ingredients by hand:

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (if you like "cakier" brownies use baking powder)
  • 2 1/3 cups flour

The dough will be thick. You can either spoon them onto a parchment lined cookie sheet (non-stick may work too), or do what I do which is roll them into a ball, much like Snickerdoodles.  For a thinner cookie, use wax paper and the bottom of a glass to flatten them out, otherwise they spread fine and end up about as thick as my Snickerdoodles.

Bake at 350 degrees Farenheit for 8 minutes (undercooked is ok) and leave them on the still hot cookie sheet for at least 4 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cook.  These are at their chewiest after they are completely cooled.

Feel free to add in whatever you wish, chocolate chips do really well in these as do nuts, cinnamon chips, white chocolate, and vanilla chips.

These are a good cookie to involve your kids in too as there is no need for a mixer and kids are always good to have around for rolling cookie dough. Just remember to kick the dog out of the kitchen - the cocoa powder is a major no-no and my dogs kept trying to sneak back in while I made these.  Be kinder than I was and put them outside where they (hopefully) won't be able to smell the heavenly aroma.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Accidental Whoopie Pies

I'm still adding a few last-minute recipes to my cookbook that I'm planning on self-pubbing by Christmas.

Imagine my surprise and joy when trying to develop the "perfect" chocolate brownie cookie I accidentally whipped up my grandmother's old Whoopie Pie/Moon Pie recipe.  It wasn't planned as I haven't had her recipe in my hands since I was a Tween.  I was simply fiddling with a cookie recipe, and accidentally had these come out of the oven.

Maga (my grandmother) made hers with Carob powder, I made these with Cocoa powder, but either way works wonderfully.  My "tasting crew" at my favorite local diner all gave me thumbs up on these, so I figured it's worth posting here.  Pictures will come later.

The key to these is the way they are mixed, so read the instructions before you start pouring stuff into the bowl.

What you'll need for the cookies:

          1 cup butter, softened (nuked in the microwave works too)
          1 cup Cocoa powder (I prefer Nestle or Hershey's_
          1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
          2 eggs
          2 teaspoons vanilla
          2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
          1 tsp. baking soda
          1/4 tsp. salt  (optional)
          Parchment paper
          Wax paper (just a little piece will do)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream the sugar and butter really well. Turn off the mixer, add in the Cocoa powder and mix on low/medium speed until really well mixed then increase the mixer speed. Add in the eggs and vanilla, mix until "fluffy" or well blended.  Add in the baking soda, flour and salt and mix well BY HAND, until all the flour is incorporated.

Roll into balls and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (non-stick may work too).  Place wax paper over the cookies and press flat using the bottom of a glass (if you don't have waxed paper, you can dip the glass in some cocoa powder to keep it from sticking).

Bake for 8 minutes, remove from the cookie sheet after a few minutes and let cool completely.


What you'll need for the icing:

          3 cups powdered sugar
          1/2 cup melted butter
          2 tsps. vanilla
          2-3 tablespoons milk

Place all of the ingredients in the mixing bowl. Start out slow, scrapping the sides until it is all incorporated, it will be thick at first. Add 1 tablespoon of milk, increase the mixer speed and continue mixing, continue adding milk until the icing is of the right consistency (thick but spreadable). When it looks "right" whip it for a few minutes more until it gets fluffy.

Place the icing in a frosting bag or baggie that you will cut the end off of and pipe the frosting onto a cookie bottom and top with another cookie. If the frosting is a bit loose, place the cookies in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes and it will firm up.  I would not suggest spreading the icing on as you would a cake, the cookies are a bit too fragile to hold up to that.

Serve with milk and don't worry about the calories!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cancer just sucks!

Cancer is eating up too much of my life of late. I'm fortunate, I'm not the one who's sick, but my sister and a very dear friend are both battling different forms of the disease. My mother already fought and won her battle with it and remains clear to this day. Another dear friend's daughter has done the same and is back to being a sweet, funny, smart vibrant girl.

My dear hubby shaves his head every few days, and sports a pink ribbon tattoo in support of our dear friend battling breast cancer. I'm trying to squeeze time in to sew (working around a big project at work) and throw together some comfy, lightweight pants for my sister who is battling pancreatic cancer and needs "adjustable" pants as the tumor progresses. I'm also putting togethre pink ribbon tote bags to sell via Etsy, with profits going to cancer reseearch.

Chemo makes both my sister and my dear friend crazy. It's not just the nausea, but it's what it does to their heads, both in mood and in the capability to think clearly. While my sister has made the brave decision to stop chemo for her own sanity and quality of life, my friend continues on in her attempt to beat the cancer which is slowly trying to take away her life. She battles it bravely, dealing with the nausea and chemo-brain issues. She is forutnate, her employer is extremely supportive of her, sending gifts, continuing coverage, and being active in every fund raiser.

Even my writing is taking a back burner, except for the rare occasion when my characters bug me to write. Publishing is taking a back seat to life, finding an agent is taking a back seat to life, but my cookbook continues to move slowly forward. After all, this book isn't about trying to get "known" but simply putting together something for my family and friends who've requested my recipes multiple times.

I haven't been blogging lately due to all the demands. Doing the math tells me it's been almost six (6!!!) months since blogging here. How does one find more time in the day without giving up sleep?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Time Traveling Blog

I can time travel! At least my blog posts can, thanks to being able to back date posts.  :)

It took me awhile to figure out what to post this month. I've been a bit preoccupied with a bazillion different life interruptions, including the banking issues in Cypress and the gun control talks in DC. Both of those events have affected my writing though.

One of my characters is a former UK spy for the US during World War II. In my "version" of WWII, he became one of Hitler's inner circle and is still on a quest to kill off Hitler, who's still alive and protected in the USA. I've been doing a lot of research for this series and can see us repeating some mistakes from the past, especially when it comes to our current financial situations - both global and domestic. Humans are fickle creatures, we want we want and when we want. Patience is not something we seem to be good at (myself included) and credit cards make it too easy to feed our desires.

The most interesting part of my research is comparing the media from back then to the media now, and to be able to see where the extremes are drawing their comparisons (or denial of any comparisons) of current governments to the former Nazi movement. Extreme views in either direction existed then as they do now and it's interesting to see how little they've changed over the decades, the bigger difference is in the language used then. Lucky for me, I actually have some original papers from back then.

It is no surprise to me to hear that some journalist from today called someone else an "idiot", "moron" or something even more foul, or to hear them berate guests during their shows in today's media. Not that it didn't happen back then, but the language used was far more clever, and more polite than in today's media.  I really miss the creative use of language to show their disapproval or disdain for another's work.

I'm enjoying my time travels back to that bleak time in human history as it makes me thankful for what we have now. Things may be rough today, but we still have it so much better than the world did back then. Things may be expensive, but food is plentiful, new methods of communication pop up everyday (social media anyone?), our water supply is relatively safe, and we're not having to ration energy. Better yet, more of the world is tapped into each other, providing us an opportunity to - hopefully - prevent such atrocities from happening again.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dragon Dreaming

No, I'm not referring to dragons as in a new book direction, but rather the Dragon software by Nuance (formerly Dragon Naturally Speaking).  I was a tester back in the dinosaur age of computers for voice recognition software. It worked well, but had difficulty understanding my cadence and occasionally dropping of a consonant when speaking.

Fast forward from ancient history to today and I'm a happy camper. I picked up the home version for less than $100 on sale before the end of the year.  After just 10 minutes I had it installed, trained and ready to go. This time it understands me just fine, performance is greatly enhanced by newer hardware and the headset doesn't require batteries, yay!!

If you're a writer who has arthritis and who's hands hurt when it's cold out (like me), I'd strongly recommend picking it up. The software is very powerful, but to just to basic dictation doesn't require a degree in IT...in fact I think this software would be easy enough for my mother to use, which is saying a lot!

The trouble I have now is finding the time to actually sit and write with it. My poor phone has several voice recordings of ideas to transfer over (yes, it will take a recording from your smart phone and translate it!) and I'm itching to test it out, but first I must finish my tech writing contract.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Blaming the Pounds on Writing

I decided to put together a cookbook as my first self published eBook. Since then I've been testing out a few different recipes that are inspired by a single cookie. Luckily, I have some taste-testers to help out, but I've gained several pounds while testing the mixes as I go along.

The cookbook has been requested by friends and family to assemble all my cookies, muffin, and bread recipes together. I don't expect it to sell even 100 copies, but making it available by eBook will make it easier for everyone who's had a particular cookie or muffin to get the recipes in one fell swoop. It will also be a nice exercise in formatting for the various sites.

Baking is my hobby, not my profession, nevertheless I've been told I make “evil” goodies. They are evil in the sense that they will call you from the kitchen to come eat them and you can't possibly eat just one. Some of my favorite recipes have been nicknamed “Satan” and one of my newest recipes has been called “Heaven”. It will be fun to include all the nicknames that the recipes have been given.

I wish there was a way to deduct my pounds like I can deduct expenses from my taxes. The tax man would probably want proof of my weight before and weight after with increases along the way attributed to each trial. Maybe if I gave each pound a name I could deduct them as dependents?

Nah! That's too much work, think I'll make another batch of cookies instead.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Temporary Change of Direction

So, I'm taking a quick detour off of my Jess Barker series to do a cookbook. Yes, I am aware there are 300 gazillion or so cookbooks out there. This one is being done at the bequest of many friends and family members who've asked for recipes like the "Satan" muffins, my banana bread, and several cookie recipes.

I did ask first. And the consensus was most would buy at least one copy for $0.99 on Amazon. My mother want's a print copy so I will have to format it for print-on-demand as well.  The formatting will be a learning experience for certain. Not sure how I'm going to make that work, but I'll figure it out.

Stories on some key recipes and my "philosophies" on making the particular recipe sets will be added in as part of the book. My great-grandmother used to just take handfuls of flour, sugar, and whatever else until it was "just right", she didn't measure. I take after her a little bit on some things, but for the most part I have all the measurements down.

There will be one component lacking though, and that is pictures. Because to do pictures means I have to make a batch of every cookie, muffin, and bread recipe I include. That's a lot of pictures and I'm most definitely NOT a good photographer.  I might be able to sweet talk a friend into doing a photo shoot for me, but I'll have to have everything made up and trek it to his studio.  And then I'd have to figure out how to include them in the electronic and POD copies.

Too bad I have a full time job, these is going to take a lot of research!