Friday, July 24, 2015

Savoring Friday Night Pizza


In our house, almost every Friday night is Pizza Night.  It's a tradition I stole from my aunt who moved up to Boston and got all Yankee-fied on us but who still makes amazing pizza when she's back in God's country for a visit.  I loved the idea of using dinner to make memories for my kids, and pizza is definitely easier than frying chicken with a toddler on your hip.

One of the best parts of Friday Night Pizza is we make it all from scratch.  The dough...the sauce....I even grate my own cheese.  There's something about forcing ourselves to slow down and enjoy the process that makes these nights unique.  Sometimes I do it all, no doubt because I've had enough trials on my patience already that day.  But often, I let my girls help.  


Once I gave a pizza dough making demonstration for my MOPS group.  One of my ladies asked me how in the world I manage to do this with an (almost) toddler underfoot and three others causing various sorts of mischief the moment my back is turned.  Honestly, I'm not really sure.  Some nights are easier than others.  Often we lock the baby in his booster and feed him renegade olives and cheerios.  My husband helps.  You just have to find the rhythm that works for you.  How do you cook dinner on any other night?  It's the same, really.

step one:: the dough
You've got to have really awesome crust.  Now, you can take what appears to be the simpler way out and buy Pillsbury, or you can trust me and make your own.  Nowadays, whipping up a batch of pizza dough takes me as much time as opening the can of store bought.   I won't judge you if you go that route, but give this a try just once in your life to say you have, promise?

This recipe will make two large pizza crusts.

1.  Pour 1 1/2 cups of warm water into a bowl.  Sprinkle a teaspoon of active dry yeast over the water.

2.  In an electric mixer, combine 4 cups all-purpose flour (or substitute 2 cups with whole wheat if you want to feel healthy) with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.  Kosher tastes better, believe me.

3.  Turn mixer on to lowest setting and drizzle in 1/3 cup olive oil. By the way, I use my paddle because my dough hook died.  It works fine.  You can also do all this by hand, but don't try a hand mixer.  That won't work.  Just trust me.

4.  Stir the yeast/water mixture until dissolved.  Now, slowly drizzle it into the flour while the mixer is mixing. It will come together and make a sticky mass of dough.  If dough seems too wet (isn't sticking together) sprinkle in some more flour until it bonds.

5.  Drizzle a couple tablespoons of olive oil in another large bowl.  Remove the dough from your mixing bowl and form a dough ball with your hands.  Work it out slightly from the center to the edges.  Now, toss it in the large bowl and turn it to coat.

6.  If I'm making dough for that night, I place a warm, damp dish towel over the bowl and let it rise in my microwave for the next 1-2 hours.  Don't turn the microwave on!  If I'm making it for later in the week (which would require forethought, not my best feature) I'd cover it in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge.

Need more help? Don't worry The Pioneer Woman has all this in incredible detail with gorgeous photos.  Now is when I credit her with this recipe.

My dough just mixed...


...and now two hours later...


puffy and ready to roll.

step two:: the toppings
Assemble your ingredients.  Now, here's the beauty of pizza night.  It's your kitchen so you can put whatever you want on your pizza, and trust me, anything's good.  Once I made Summer Pizza with leftover squash, zucchini, and carrots. Last week I made this incredible concoction using cabbage.  My husband's favorite is when I have leftover ham from a big family dinner.  Here's what one Friday night looked like:


Mushrooms, green peppers, black olives (my weird kids love 'em), italian sausage and pepperoni. My cheese is a block of mozzerella I grated myself. I used to let my seven year old grate the cheese until the time she grated her knuckles.  You get more if you grate it yourself, just in case you didn't know.

step three:: the sauce
Just like toppings, pizza sauce comes in a variety of options.  When my garden tomatoes aren't drowning, I make an amazing homemade sauce from Simply in Season; you can read about it here.  Most of the time, though, I heat a large can of crushed tomatoes and season to taste with oregano, basil, garlic, salt, and pepper.  Simple, easy, and frugal.  

step four:: the heat
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.  That's right, it goes that high.  If you have a pizza stone, put it in the oven to preheat also.  If you don't, go to Walmart and buy one.  Or call your Pampered Chef representative. You won't regret it.

step five:: the ready
Clear your space.  I use my kitchen table because I'm too lazy to move things off my counter and it's a better height for my girls to help.  Then get out a cookie sheet or pizza board.  My mom got me one for Christmas, and it was seriously my favorite gift.  You'll want to build your pizza on this to make the pizza to stone transfer easy.  If you use a cookie sheet and don't have a stone, you can just put that pan straight in the oven.

step six:: the crust
  Sprinkle a generous amount of cornmeal over your work area.  This will keep the dough from sticking.  One dough recipe will make two large pizzas, so divide it in half to begin.  I then take one half and divide it into thirds for my girls to make their own.  They're regular little chefs.


Now, place the dough in the center of your work area and begin flattening it.


It's going to be elastic-y and stretchy and will bounce back.  That's good, you did it right!  Just keep working it.  When it's about six inches across, I get out the rolling pin and work from the center out. 


Thin pizza is lower in carbs, but won't hold as many toppings, so use your judgement.  It will puff up some in the cooking process.  And those fingerprints? They help hold on the toppings.

step seven:: the pizza
Build it up.  Spread the sauce to your desired taste, usually about a half cup worth.  Then top with whatever makes you happy.  


Here's Annabelle putting on lots of cheese...  


and here's daddy's pizza with everything under but the pepperoni.  They get a little crisp when on top and I love that.  I also pinched the edges of my dough up to create a thicker crust and hold in all that goodness.

step eight:: the transfer
  Don't be scared.  The secret is lots of cornmeal under the pizza dough and sprinkled onto the stone.  Slide a spatula underneath and gently work the pizza from the cookie sheet or board and onto the stone.  Once you get it going it should slide right off.


step nine:: the cooking
Cook in the center of the rack for approximately seven minutes or until cheese is melted and crust is golden.


step ten:: the end

Enjoy!  and post lots of pictures!

Yum!




Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Art of Capturing the Moment...Without a Camera


We had a few moments yesterday sandwiched in between Vacation Bible School and meltdowns on the way to Chic-Fil-A and wrangling goats for a friend.

Just enough moments that I thought maybe everyday, every moment, every element of our busy well-worn life doesn't have to be worth remembrance.

As long as there's a moment or two I can hold onto in the chaos of raising four kids in this world where everything I do feels subject to scrutiny, that will be enough.

We emptied the pool yesterday. Plastic and slimy and simultaneously leaking air and holding water in its inflatable sides, that yellow concoction on my back deck is a lifesaver. I cleaned and they helped and then when it was full of six inches of hose water and old sand buckets, I stretched out in a lawn chair and they miraculously played together.

All four. In six inches of hose water.

Nothing that easy lasts very long.

But the camaraderie lasted just long enough for Madelynne to take the half a pirate ship that had been capsized by Hurricane Gus and toss water into the air.

Clear sheets of sparkling incandescence erupted out of that little ship, caught in the air for just a half-second and showered back down into the pool.

"Hey! Watch this! Look at the water!" She called out to her siblings and tossed another boatful.

Cast into the air, the water seemed almost solid, a shape that could be held and touched.

An art of childhood long forgotten by this wearied mama.

The image fell with a splash and then they were fighting over the boat and the bucket and I looked down at the now damp page of my paperback--

"No minute is quite like the one before it...Watch carefully, and keep watching...then you'll be able to capture it."**

Indeed.



**Quote taken from Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart. Read the whole story in a day and a half while Gus poured that hose water all over my feet and legs. Read voraciously partly because my soul starves for good stories, partly because I'm reading lots of 'comparative works' for my own novel as I write a book proposal, partly because if you've ever spent a summer on Edisto Island, you know sometimes, you just want to come home to the low country.

Photo of my beautiful growing-up girl by my friend Sarabeth. Who owns the aforementioned goats we spend our evenings with right now.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Coming Back to Life


I think I've just run out of steam.

Somehow we survived the last three months of Joshua's work overload that included a college course in entrepreneurship for small businesses, two trips to Boston, and twice a week evening webinars.

Somehow we survived twice a week rehearsals followed by track practice followed by crockpot meals and pleas to just go to bed already because Mommy can't be nice past 9 p.m.

Somehow we survived him chairing the Stewardship Committee at church the year a proposal is brought to spend 2.6 million dollars on building. Which meant on the nights he wasn't online learning, he was Baptist committee discussing.

Somehow we survived nine straight days of four hour plus tech and dress rehearsals that culminated in four performances that had me crawling into bed well past my bedtime. Nights that prompted him to say, "I think I get why you've been so frustrated lately about me being gone."

Those words? All I needed for Mother's Day.




In the midst of it all, Madelynne was in a play at school. I drove Amelia to Physical Therapy once a week and down to Atlanta for the oncologist and over to the pediatrician for a well-child (ironic, huh?). Oh, and every Saturday we drove 50 miles or more to a track meet that lasted all flipping day.

Gus turned three and started wearing underwear and watering the flower beds. In the front yard. My neighbors just love me, I know. But since they have a Statue of Liberty in their front yard, I don't think they have room to complain.

Yes, Lady Liberty can be viewed from my front porch. Small town Georgia never had so much class.



Then, in the midst of it all, I took an assistant editor position with the Splickety Publishing Group and a month later, the editor I worked under got promoted, so guess what I got?

Assistant removed from my title and an inbox that scared me so much I had to close the computer and walk away and eat a lot of chocolate.

So, we've been a little busy. A little overwhelmed. A lot tired.

But I held hands with starry-eyed teenagers last week who were readying for the last show of their spring musical and I told them thank you.

Thank you to Footloose and Splickety and Babson College and rec league track and Building Committees and birthday parties and the beginning of CSA season at Red Dust Ranch.




Because for the past three months, we haven't just been those parents who have a child with a scary, unknown diagnosis.

We've just been parents with deadlines and schedules and lives.

I think we were "winter killed"--buried beneath the weight of frost and fear.

But spring brings revival. It's hard work pushing back up and taking root and stretching for the sun.

I think we're going to survive after all.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

We Want Unique Kids, But We Teach Them Standard

This post originally appeared in The Northeast Georgian on April 24, 2015.

It’s spring. Farmers turn soil into bounty. Thunderstorms rush us inside. Fresh cut grass permeates the air. Teachers find their brave face.
Because it’s test week. This week The Georgia Milestones replaced the CRCT as the public school’s assessment and accountability tool for students and teachers. Those who conceived it say it’s a better test, more aligned with the new standards, more user friendly, more likely to give an accurate indicator of where a student and school stands against the other public schools in the state.
As a former educator, I was elated to lose the CRCT and its pass/fail requirement for certain grades. I was thrilled to hear this new test might actually assess students the way they are being taught. Until I realized that meant teachers are working with standards that lack creativity and are simultaneously above and below common grade-level expectations. For instance, students read excerpts of informational texts but rarely an entire book. The standards fit the test all right, and when followed should produce a nice standard score. But where’s the joy of learning in that?
When it comes to intellect, we are not one size fits all.
I know teachers have mixed emotions about the test. I’ve talked with them and seen the fear in their eyes when I ask how the computer administration is working. On one hand, we’re raising a technology-driven society. On the other, we’re still limited by server capabilities and physical equipment. My daughter retook a section of the test this week because her computer logged her out on question nine. She wasn’t stressed, but that night she prayed for her teachers, because she knows that incident worried them.
Teachers have put on their game face. They’re doing what must be done to keep funding in our schools, to keep schools run by local boards instead of state know-it-alls, and they know through it all, their own jobs ride on the scores those tests produce.
It’s a terrifying thought. What if doctors were assessed yearly by whether or not they had the same outcome for all their patients? Everyone who has a tonsillectomy should recover in three days with no complications. Oh, your patient now has neurological difficulties? Well, then, you fail.
My daughter’s surgeon would be out of a job due to circumstances he couldn’t control or have foreseen. 
That’s what we’re telling teachers. Regardless of a student’s domestic or socio-economic background, after a certain number of days in your classroom, all students should be able to perform the same. Including students with learning disabilities. After all, the computer will ensure a standard administration. No worries about cheating.
Except no one wants to discuss the pressure that drives an educator (like the ones convicted in Atlanta) to believe cheating is actually helping. They were misguided, sure, but ask any teacher and they’ll tell you a standardized test should be nothing more than a tool. One piece of the puzzle to  helping a student succeed.
The same breath that reads aloud the standard rules of test administration is the one that has encouraged our students. Don’t be like everyone else. Be yourself. Be unique.

Except of course on the test. Then, just be standard.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When God Gives More Than You Can Handle




Things have been quiet here in this space, and I really needed it. Needed to step back and not spew out words and frustration that would do no one any good. Instead, I just had some good old-fashioned temper tantrums with my real life people.

And I made pizza and filled our house with friends and took a real position with a real publisher as a real associate editor. You know sometimes in this hard knock life, distractions are exactly what I need.

(Yeah, we've seen Annie a half-dozen times. Also, the new Cinderella and Home. I haven't been to the movies so much since college.)



We've made some changes to our little home and are settling in to be here longer than we ever wanted, but Joshua's got the garden plot ready to grow salsa and Gus is finally big enough to drive that hand-me-down Jeep all over the tracks in the yard his sisters originally created with the Barbie version, so we're good.

Annabelle was baptized and Easter came and we can finally get outside in the sunshine.



Yes, that's a Minnie Mouse balloon. You don't keep balloons in your trees?

Yes, his mouth is blue. I think there was a ring pop involved.

We're still living in a state of unknown, but we're good. Well, sometimes.  Sometimes I just want to forget doctor appointments and physical therapy and that I'll have to write a 504 plan if she goes to kindergarten. Sometimes I just want to drop everything and go to the beach.

She does too. She draws pictures of the Pink House and begs to go there where the sun is warm and the sand is cool and the peace that passes understanding blows in on a breeze across the sea.

I posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago that sometimes I have to pull a Katniss and recite what I know to be true:

Amelia has a brain lesion.
This lesion causes her right side to be weaker than her left.
It affects her gait and her grip.
It tightens her muscles and turns her foot inward.
It makes her tired and irritable and turns her into not my kid.
It's not bigger.
It's not smaller.
She has other autoimmune indicators that could lead to an MS diagnosis someday.
But right now, she's still technically living through one episode.
There are good days. There are bad days.
It's not a tumor....or lupus or lyme disease or genetic or a host of other disorders that have been ruled out with vial after vial of blood and scan after scan of her brain.

It's a lot to handle, mostly because we just don't know. I'm in a place where any diagnosis sounds plausible and fixable and better than "we'll just have to wait and see."

Everyone likes to say God doesn't give you more than you can handle. But I read a piece last week that counteracted that statement in words that resonated: Of course God allows me more than I can handle. Because if He didn't, I (we) would never have a need for Him.

We're not long for this world of despair.

But this world is where we are and along the journey, He does give us miracles calling themselves friends. I just finished Anne Lamott's essay collection, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.

(Side note: I love Anne Lamott. She's honest and witty and irreverent and loves Jesus all at the same time. Sometimes I need a little left perspective.)

Anyway, she wrote a piece called Barn Raising about how her neighborhood circled the wagons and raised the metaphorical barn of shelter around a family when their young daughter was diagnosed with CF. I cried.

Y'all built us a barn, too. It's a shelter from the fear and anxiety. It's a place where Amelia is just a daughter, sister, friend and we are loved and comforted. It's a place where she can jump on the trampoline with her friends and their moms can remind me to care for myself. It's a place where dinner is on a gift card and gas for appointments is already paid for and Gus is always welcome to play.

It's a place of prayer and a place of peace.

Thank you for loving us through this. Our barn door is always open for anyone who needs shelter from the storm. We'll hug your neck and tell you we understand and in the fortunate-unfortunate dance of life, we will really mean it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mardi Gras, Aqua Notes, and Marriage

Last week I told you what's saving my life right now. This week there's a "holiday" around the corner so I thought I'd tell you what's saving my marriage.

Not that it needed saving per se--but a good marriage is like a faithful car. It needs a little maintenance and every now and then, deserves something more exciting than the same mundane trip around the block.

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Brown, The Northeast Georgian.
Enter Mardi Gras. Now, we're not French. We don't live in New Orleans, and we're good Southern Baptists who usually don't make a big deal about Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday ushering in the season of Lent. (More on that later and how we're invoking some of our own family traditions.) But our little hometown, that reminds an awful lot of Stars Hollow most days, has a big fundraiser every year. Proceeds support the Downtown Facade Grant for improvements to small businesses, and you know we love to support a small business. It's kind of what Joshua does all day long and why he sometimes can't answer my text messages about potty training in a timely manner.

We have friends who own small businesses and sponsored some tables for this year's event and invited us along for the fun. Here's the part about marriage: he didn't want to go. Fancy dinner and dancing and socializing are not high on my introverted husband's list of a good time. But he knew I wanted to go, and he figured it was a good excuse to see me wear something other than my favorite tunnel-neck sweatshirt.

Marriage is so often about compromise and sacrifice. Even if all you're sacrificing is another night of Netflix and take out Chinese.

Then the worst thing possible happened to the man who is a self-proclaimed wallflower. That Mardi Gras tradition of finding the baby in the King Cake making you king of the feast? Yup.

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Brown, The Northeast Georgian.
He tried to trade it out with a friend who instead convinced him it would be fun (and I'm pretty sure mentioned something about how it would make his wife happy.)  Here's the thing--I would never have asked him to keep it. I know he hates spectacle and attention and he's no good at accepting compliments. But he decided publicly making me his queen was worth the embarrassment. And the front page of the newspaper.


That's when I know we have something special. He tries so hard to put my needs, wants, and desires above his own. Which makes me wonder? How often am I reciprocating?

It's so easy to get caught up in my everyday chaos of our four kids and doctor appointments and chorus rehearsal and impossible 3rd grade homework. It's so easy to feel like I'm giving it my all while he's trooping off to work everyday in a quiet office where no one uses the juice box as a weapon. It's so easy to forget the man he is when I'm just focused on myself. 

It's so easy to lash out instead of take a deep breath.

I firmly believe it's not money or relationships or decisions that tear marriages apart. It's communication. It's like we forget how to navigate and listen to one another, so we bottle up frustration and pretend we're keeping the peace, when really all we're doing is getting ready to blow.

I'm a pursuer of words, a writer, a reader. But I'm not always a good listener. I miss the cues among the conversations because I'm so busy moving on to the next thing. I'm too busy thinking about myself. And add four really loud kids to that mix and we've got a recipe for communication disaster. Conversations start and stop because someone needs juice or toilet paper or a signature. We forget what we haven't said and don't always have the time to say what we really need.

He bought me these for Christmas.

Click image to purchase via Amazon.

 Aqua notes--a waterproof notepad for the shower. He found them on a list of great gifts for writers, and he got them because he knows the shower is my quiet place. I get fifteen minutes to shut out the world and think. Then I forget the plot points or the dialogue I've composed because I didn't write it down. Voila! Now I can.

But these notes have morphed into something else for us. I've started scribbling down my worries and fears--mostly about our daughter and the unknown journey we're on--but also the stress points that have pushed me back to medication. I write down the words I can't quite say, and I leave them for him to find.

He writes me back. We make decisions. We breathe a little easier. We communicate a little better.

Marriage maintenance shouldn't be like taking in that faithful car and discovering a host of problems you didn't know existed. It should be like getting the oil changed and hearing the engine purr again.

Then you can leave a love note in the shower and take that marriage out for a night on the town.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's Saving My Life Right Now




So I stumbled onto Modern Mrs. Darcy this week. How have I been missing her? Anne with an 'e', loves books, mom of four....I'm pretty sure she doesn't know we're soul friends. I'll have to work on that. But she had this post about what's saving her life, just all the random little goodies that make days easier, those thousands of gifts I count inconsistently but bow my head in gratitude for when I remember that He didn't have to make this easy.

Saving my life right now? My chaotic, doctor appointment, insurance debacle, temper tantrum (me, not kids) life? These little fun gems. Necessary? No. Blessings? Yes. Reminders that I really do have it good and that's the life I need to share.

Gilmore Girls on Netflix. 
Source
I totally justify my current Loreli-Rory-Luke binge by telling myself that it's a dialogue study. It is. Rachel Hauck wrote a post about what writers can learn from the Gilmore girls, and besides that, a girl needs background distraction when folding laundry. Right?

The iPad for the littles. They've taken over my iPad for their own Netflix binges that include Harry and the Bucket Full of Dinosaurs and anything with a dump truck or train. Don't judge. It's winter and cold and trust me, we get our fair share of imaginary play and outside time. But letting them watch what they want so the big girls can watch what they want? Sometimes that's called saving my life and saving dinner.

Chai tea latte. It's my new Starbucks fave. Alas, my gift cards have run out, and I'm having withdrawals. I made a version at home a few weeks ago, but sometimes it's just worth it to cough up the few bucks and have someone else do the work. Hot, sweet, low-cal and soothing me through tough days. Thank you, Starbucks in my local Ingles.

Chic-fil-a giftcards. 
CFA_BreakFast
Source
Speaking of gift cards, friends keep sending us these. They want to help at a time when we don't know what we need, and here in the South, it's figured that food's always a safe bet. So we fill up on waffle fries and nuggets for them, salads and sweet tea for me, and then we head to the doctor/physical therapy/test appointment a little less stressed.

Birthday plans. Amelia's birthday is the 19th. She's been talking about it for months. We're planning a little party with all her favorite things (and it's quite a hodgepodge, let me tell you). She makes a new plan everyday. We're also planning something special since we'll be in Birmingham at the specialist for her birthday....maybe a pool at the hotel? To add to the birthday fun, mine's two days after hers. There's a cousin, an uncle, my sister, an expected baby, and my daddy's birthday all in February too. We like to cram it all in the shortest month possible.

Chocolate. I'm taking myself to Trader Joe's after our next neurologist appointment and buying the dark chocolate caramel popcorn my mom gave Joshua for Christmas. He didn't mind a bit I ate it all. These days just a little chocolate hit at nap time keeps me going.

Jazzercise.

Source
The above would be one of the reasons I keep going to class. That and the 30 in 35 days challenge that has the cutest shirt for a prize! Jazz keeps me up to date on music too. That's not my forte, but after an entire class of Katy Perry yesterday, I must confess, I think I might be a fan.

Unroll.me for the email subscriptions. If you don't do this, stop reading and sign up now. Unroll.me is the personal assistant I've always needed. All my various subscriptions (blogs) now come in one email that I can read at my leisure. Changed my life. And my inbox.

Tsh's 'round the world adventure. Except Tsh. I didn't roll her up because I don't want to miss an update of where in the world the Oxenreiders (#worldwideox) are now. Follow on Instagram for an instant passport and dream of what it would be like to go around the world with your kids. Then dream of what it would be like without them! (Probably not as fun.)

Bloggers who confess the truth about blogging. Read this today: My Slower Paced Blog from Micha Boyett. Got the link from a Tsh email, just so you know. Spoke to me profoundly. I'm not a big blogger. I'm jealous of them, I confess, but I don't want to be a big blogger. I don't want to have to comment on every piece of news media that's getting twitter feed or Facebook views. I don't want to be controversial just to get views. I don't want to write about things that don't inspire me. So if you're still sticking with me, I thank you for appreciating this slow little blog that's leading to a slowly written little novel. Because I'm a writer first and a blogger way behind all that.


And of course there's this kid. He kills me. Makes me crazy. But gracious, I'm beginning to think God gave him to me because he makes me laugh all the time.

So what's saving your life these chilly winter days? And where's all that snow that was persimmon-seed forecast down here? 35 degrees is not worth it unless there's snow.

Linking up at The Modern Mrs. Darcy.