Jatz pecan pie, without Jatz or pecans, that is not actually pie

This story perfectly illustrates how I operate in the kitchen.  It starts with leftover egg whites.

The eggs whites were left over from the finger lime cheesecake I made last week.  Finger limes are a native Australian bush fruit with a very strong tart citrus-y flavor and hints of earthy muskiness.  I was given a bunch of finger limes at the end of summer by VIM2 and his parents, who grow them on their farm.  VIM2 has served finger limes in fruit punch and salads, but I thought a mild creamy dessert like cheesecake would go well with their strong flavor.  Pretty Boy removed all the fruit from the skins, and I squirreled them away in the freezer until I finally got the chance to make a lemon zest cheesecake topped with finger lime curd last week.  The cheese cake was a mix of these two Zoe Bakes recipes; the leftover egg whites coming from the finger lime curd.

We finished the cheesecake quickly (cheesecake is one of Pretty Boy’s favorites), but I was only able to get Pretty Boy to eat half the egg whites for breakfast so we still had some egg whites leftover.  We were also at the very end of a grocery cycle, meaning I’d been scrapping meals together from the last of all the ingredients we had in the cabinets until we went shopping again.  It also meant we were really low on ingredients, particularly the ingredients I could have used for baking desserts: out of eggs, out of all flours, and out of most cooking oils.  I was thinking about making a pavlova, which mercifully doesn’t need flour or oil, but we didn’t have any fruit to put on top of it.  Pavlova led me to thinking about meringues, which lead me to thinking about a dessert introduced to us by VIM2’s parents, which they called Jatz pecan pie.

Jatz pecan pie or 4-ingredient pecan meringue pie is a super simple meringue.  3 egg whites are whipped to stiff peaks.  1 cup of sugar is whipped in until glossy.  1 cup of chopped pecans and 22 crushed Jatz crackers are folded in and it’s baked at 180°C for 20-25 minutes.  That’s Jatz pecan pie.  Sometimes you can get fancy and add vanilla extract.  (Jatz crackers are similar to Ritz crackers but with a slightly crispier/crunchier texture as opposed to the biscuit-y/crumbly texture of Ritz.  They’re delicious, and we regularly eat a whole box in one sitting.)

Simple, uses egg whites, few ingredients.  It sounded like the perfect recipe to make when I was low on ingredients and had egg whites to use up.  Except I didn’t have Jatz… or pecans.  So this is what I did.  I used 5 sheets of crushed graham crackers instead of the Jatz.  I used ¾ cup of almond meal instead of chopped pecans.  I added vanilla extract because I’m fancy.  And because I once made a really interesting dessert called Huguenot torte, I also added our last apple, chopped into tiny cubes.  Baked at 180°C for 25 minutes.

The dessert turned out alright.  It could have used a little flour like in the Huguenot torte because of the extra moisture that the apple brings, but with the ingredients I had, I couldn’t have done anything else.

This is the meal cycle we’re gotten into: we (mostly I) pick out a few meals/recipes to make.  Then, I write a grocery list based on that meal plan and we go shopping.  After the planned meals get made, there are always some leftover ingredients and produce.  And I start getting creative.  I use whatever protein and produce we have on hand and make up a few more meals.  A typically dish from this point in the cycle is some kind of vegetable lentil stew with rice or naan.  When the vegetables run out, then it’s just dhal and rice or naan.  And the cycle repeats.

I’m not sure why I’ve gotten so stuck on stretching the time between grocery store trips as long as possible.  Part of it is that I get anxious when there’s too much food in the fridge or pantry.  Too much food increases the changes of something going bad or being wasted, and it looks and feels cluttered to me.  I am also a really big fan of efficiency.  I’ve started calling it the ‘E’ word, as in ‘You [Pretty Boy] know I can’t resist the ‘E’ word!’  If planned right, grocery stopping in one big trip is more efficient in terms of time and money, than many small trips.  Mostly though, it’s just one of my ‘things.’  Pretty Boy always offers to run to the store when I get ideas for tasty things to cook but don’t have all the ingredients.  And we can walk to the store, buy something, and be home in 10 minutes.

But still, I usually just don’t want to do it and have learned to make do, often to the extreme, sometimes to a fault.  This is the pattern we’ve gotten into after over 2  years of feeding ourselves.  It works for us, and I still eat the faults!

Three smells

In the last day, I have been hit with three different smells that strongly evoked my time in China in 2001-2002.

The first smell was of coal.  It came from the fire we had in our fire pit in our courtyard last night.  We were burning exceptionally hard wood.  Expensive, fancy firewood purchased from the home improvement store.  The hard wood had burned down to hot, hot embers.  And the smell sent me back to wintertime, biking through the undeveloped alleys in Beijing to get to my host family’s apartment.  The alleys smelt of the coal burnt by the people who lived and worked in the rough structures that made up the edges of the alleys, burnt to heat their homes and cook their meals.  I remember the winding alleys, my host grandfather biking to school with me in the morning and picking me up in the afternoon for the first week to guide me through the maze, at first how scary the alleys seemed at night, how later they were so familiar and comfortable and part of my life in Beijing.  How once, I found a (seemingly) coal-dusted Harley Davidson stop tucked back in a corner alley that I rarely traversed.  How that seems like a dream now.

The second smell was of home-brewed rice liquor.  It came from the red wine on Pretty Boy’s breath.  It was cheap red wine that he was drinking with the burritos he was eating for dinner last night.  I’ve smelled many different alcohols on his breath, but there was a sharp, sourness to the smell last night that sent me back to the Miao villages I visited in the Yunnan province in southwest China.  Walking into the villages, we were often met by villagers dressed up in traditional outfits, who meet us with some form of a welcoming ceremony.  I remember walking along lines of people in black fabric, elaborately accented with bright pops of pink, blue, and white.  Large silver pieces.  Singing.  And at the end of the walk into the village, at the end of the line of people, someone standing with an animal horn filled with home-brewed rice liquor that we were offered to drink.  I remember the sourness and the bite of the alcohol and the bits of rice still floating in it.  I remember seeing the murky rice liquor later in a glass, murky but not murky enough to completely obscure the floating bits.  I remember the roughness of the lives the villagers lived.  I remember feeling like, at times, they were putting on a show for the tourist dollars.  I remember, at other times, the food and homes they shared generously with us.  I remember a man laughing at us because we couldn’t shell and eat sunflower seeds as well or as fast as he could.

The third smell was of cold dry morning air spiked with exhaust, wood and coal burning, and food.  It came from the path I bike to the office every morning.  This morning, the air was the coldest and driest it’s been so far this year.  Exhaust came from the cars on the roads that the path crosses.  The burning likely came from some of the houses that line the path because some homes in Canberra still use wood or coal fired furnaces or fireplaces for heat in the winter.  And breakfast.  The combination sent me back to the bustling street on which my school in Beijing was located.  Lanes and lanes of cars and bicycles and pedestrians every morning and afternoon, bundled against the cold, going about their daily lives.  I remember one of the streets somewhere around my school or host family’s apartment was called Xin1 Jie3 Kou3 Wai4.  I remember the grippy, reddish surface of the pedestrian flyovers, like the top of a skateboard.  I remember how everything was a little faded, how everything became gray or dark gray: the cars, the clothes, the road, the buildings.  I remember pulling my hat low and blending into the rush.

It must be so different now.  Almost 15 years later.  I can’t believe it’s been that long.  I don’t know why so many smells triggered memories of my time in China in such quick succession.  Maybe it’s because I was looking at pictures yesterday of my old friend and classmate from China.  Maybe it’s because the smell of the cabinet under my sink often reminds me of my time in China, and after two years of living in our townhouse, I still can’t place why the smell reminds me of China, and I had my head in that cabinet two days ago.  So many of my China memories have faded, but these smells brought back some memories so sharply, memories that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, memories that I am grateful I still have.

We brought the Halloween to Australia

We threw an awesome Halloween party, and brought all the Halloween to this place that hasn’t quite embraced it yet.

Most of our October was occupied by preparations for the party.  Earlier this year, the plan was to again co-host a party at a friend’s house.  We did this last year at VIM2’s house, and the plan was to co-host a party this year at the house we used to live at in Dickson.  The party last year was great, though Pretty Boy and I didn’t get to do as much party planning and preparation as we wanted to (like the party didn’t have a theme beyond Halloween), because it wasn’t our house so we could only do and move so much there in the day or two before the party.  Plus life, life keeps us busy always.  Side note, last year we were a cos-play version of the Cheshire Cat (me) and a Mad Hatter from the 2010 Alice in Wonderland movie (Pretty Boy):

me as the cheshire cat

pretty boy as the mad hatter

halloween 2014

When we found out not too long before Halloween that our friend had too much going on to co-host a Halloween party with us, we were stuck.  Our choices were: (1) no Halloween party or (2) put on our big-boy Halloween pants and host the party ourselves.  I was hesitant to commit to option 2 since I knew it would be a lot of work and clean up and I thought our place wasn’t the best party house, but option 1 was pretty much not an option in Pretty Boy’s mind, so we decided to throw our first ever, real-life adult party for Halloween 2015.

And throw a party we did!  I got right on the planning and organizing.  There were 4 Halloween party planing tasks, each of which had subtasks.  The main tasks were costumes, decorations, food, and entertainment.  Some of the inspiration and ideas are collected on a pinterest board here.  We decided on costumes (Zombie bride and groom) and food (Mexican) first which lead to our party theme: Day of the Dead Zombie Wedding.  We made an invitation using picmonkey.com and got to making our vision for the party happen.

party invitation

For costumes, Pretty Boy bought a button down and blazer from the second hand store and set to them with a metal grinder (not recommended), file (recommended), scissors, and a lighter to distress them enough to match his already-very-distressed work pants.  I combined a cream skirt and linen tank top I already owned with “sleeves” made from tights with the feet cut off, a homemade flower crown veil and bouquet, and some jewelry.  The flower crown veil was my favorite part.  I tied tulle and dollar store, fake flowers onto a headband with fishing line, and hot glued in a few black plastic spiders.  For the bouquet, I used black paint to painted the flowers from another dollar store flower bouquet, then hot glued some black painted gummy worms (called gummy snakes here) in among the flowers, and tied chicken bones around the base.  The last part of our costumes was makeup.  We did a makeup trial the week before Halloween, and Pretty Boy came up with pretty standard Zombie makeup with face wounds made from liquid latex and fake blood.  I did a combination of lady Zombie makeup tutorials from the internet and the signature, under-eye blush from one of my favorite Minnesota burlesque performers: Musette the Mistress of Mischief.

Concurrently, we started working on decorations for our place.  Even though we got an awesome care package full of American Halloween stuff from Pretty Boy’s mom (called mum here), we decided we wanted a really creepy Halloween vibe and a lot of the care package stuff was just too cute.  I mean look at those socks and ghost lanterns!

Pumpkin socks

mini ghost lanterns

There wasn’t a great assortment of Halloween related stuff for sale in Australia, so we mostly made our own decorations.  They are still working on understanding Halloween, and the market is small, so Halloween stuff for sale is just different here.  This for example:

not so giant bag of candy

When has 20 pieces of candy ever been considered a “GIANT VALUE BAG” in the US?  Isn’t that just a normal bag?

Keeping with our creepy Zombie party vibe, we hung Christmas lights (called fairy lights here) inside and outside, decorated the windows with cut up and stretched garbage bag garlands inside and outside, and a black feather wreath for our front door.  We put white spider webbing on the window glass and sliding glass door and brown spider wedding on the walls.  Our normal wall art was covered with spooky skull art prints.  We covered the inside flat surfaces with black or cream pieces of fabric and placed on top beef bones and a variety of glass bottles and jars with tea candles and long taper candles.  Pretty Boy organized a fire pit and fire wood for our courtyard.  A lot of the decorating ideas this year were sourced from Martha Stewart.

decorating

This was mid-week, as we were slowly adding decorations. We hid all the plants in the garage for the actual party.

creepy candles

So creepy, right!?

For food, I decided on Mexican food because I miss Mexican food so much and its so festive.  This was the menu:

The tamale and guacamole recipes are my go to recipes for those dishes.  I made the tamales with rendered beef tallow instead of lard and served them with the garlic, creamed corn but not the swiss chard (called silverbeet here).  The recipes for red rice and black beans were new to me, but the Homesick Texan blog comes highly recommended from the Smitten Kitchen blog, so I thought I’d try them out, though I veganized both by using water instead of vegetable stock and vegetable oil instead of animal fat.  The coffee caramel tres leches cake was another new recipe from a trusted source.  The main reason for picking these dishes was to create a well rounded meal; the second reason was pre-cook-ability.  I outsourced the guacamole to a friend and bought chips and salsa, but made the other things over the course of a week.  I prepared and froze the tamales on Monday, cooked and froze the red rice on Tuesday, cooked the black beans Wednesday, and made the tres leches cake Thursday.  On Friday, the day of the party, I used bamboo steamer boxes to cook the tamales and reheat the rice, heated the beans and kept them warm in my slower cooker, and make the whipped cream for the cake.  Since I’d already placed the tamales and rice in steamer basket and the beans in the slower cooker pot, it mostly just took turning the stove and slower cooker on.  Sourcing Mexican cooking ingredients and beverages was not easy and required at least 4 or 5 stores, but I got everything I wanted, even the epazote in the black beans, which I’ve never used before.

The food turned out great!  The beans were much spicier than I anticipated , which some of our guest couldn’t quite handle but others were absolutely thrilled about.  I’ve made the black beans and red rice again since the party because we loved them so much.  The tres leches cake was good, but I like Martha Stewart’s plainer tres leches cake better.  And with another Martha Stewart reference, I will acknowledge that none, I repeat none, of the recipes are used are from Mexico.  Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, Georgia, but not Mexico.  I wanted to find Mexican sources for my recipes, but I don’t currently have any trusted Mexican sources for Mexican recipes and I didn’t have the means or time to test recipes before the party (you know I don’t trust random recipes off the internet!).  So here, when I say Mexican food, I’m talking about an Americanized take on Mexican food, though as I continue to cook Mexican food in the future, I want to find more sources from Mexico.  Though admittedly, Americanized Mexican food is the kind of Mexican food I have a taste for, the kind I’ve eat in Minnesota.  Its a struggle.  Even Epicurious named an American-written Mexican cookbook in their Epicurious Cookbook Canon (I still want it and the Southern cooking cookbook on that list), though I’m interested in this one now too.

Lastly, there was party entertainment.  This involved getting a DVD of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to play on the TV on repeat during the party, making a Spotify playlist of Halloween-ish/spooky/party songs we liked, and setting up pumpkin carving stations.  We had a lot of fun putting together a really crazy and diverse collection of songs for the playlist, but it worked out.  If you have Spotify, you can listen to our Halloween mix here, featuring everything from Michael Jackson to Modest Mouse, Nina Simone to Lady Gaga, and everything in between.  The pumpkin carving stations went completely unused.  Pretty Boy and I carved our pumpkins before the party, and no one brought pumpkin to the party to carve (even though I instructed them to), but that’s alright.  Big orange pumpkins here are rare and out of season October, so they’re very expensive.

pumpkins

mandala pumpkin

My carved pumpkin

jack skeleton

Pretty Boy’s carved pumpkin.  Love to oogie-boogie man in the moon!

We had so much fun with all the party preparations.  We put a lot into the party, but had so much fun doing it all that it never felt like work.  If anything ever did start to feel like work, I crossed it off the list and we just didn’t do it.  Here’s how the decorations turned out:

front of housefront door

living room

dining room

kitchen

kitchen banner

And then I think the party went great too.  People came in waves throughout the night, as people will do at a party.  I made way more food than was needed, and it was supplemented by tasty things brought by friends, like salad, homemade wheat tortillas, and hummus.  I couldn’t stop saying “farty paux pas” when I was trying to say “party faux pas” about someone messing with the music.  Many more people came in costume this year compared to last year, which was great, including some amazing homemade costumes and other creative get-ups.  Someone did come covered in glitter with a can of silly string; the silly string cleaned up alright… we’re still working on the glitter.  And here we are under the fairy lights in our courtyard with the party in full swing:

costumes

practice makeup

Closer view of my flower crown and practice makeup the week before

It was awesome.  We might make a tradition of it.  So until next year, Halloween Pretty Boy and Halloween Pretty Pie say, “RAAAARRR!”

favorite picture of our costumes

Thanksgiving in June

Christmas in July is a thing.  Especially, it seems, in some parts of Australia.  And it makes sense to me:  July is the Winter in the southern hemisphere and winter has always been so strongly tied to Christmas.

So we Americans thought, if its Christmas in July, then it should probably be Thanksgiving in June too!  Once Pretty Boy and I committed to Thanksgiving in June being a thing, we committed and decided to throw a Thanksgiving dinner.  We wanted to do a very traditional Northern Thanksgiving for 8, so this is the menu we came up with:

We started preparing Wednesday for dinner Saturday night.  I had the whole thing scheduled – empty fridge then most of the shopping Wednesday plus some early kitchen prep work like washing and chopping vegetables and roasting pumpkin, the rest of the prep work Thursday and Friday night so getting the turkey in the brine and making pie crust, oven and stove schedule for Saturday to make sure everything got in (oven: 8am pies, 10 am turkey, 2 pm casserole and stuffing, and rolls just before dinnertime; stove: 7:30 am bourbon pecan pie filling, 10 am cranberry conserve, 1 pm mashed potatoes, 2 pm gravy), and last minute shopping Saturday before dinner.  Pretty Boy ran out to get more cream, the bakery rolls, and cutlery.  He decided last minute that our plastic stuff wasn’t going to cut it.  Since we only have cutlery for 4, that meant buying another set of 4.

Fridge, pre-shopping

Fridge, pre-shopping.  Emptied and prepared for Thanksgiving madness.

Fridge, post-shopping

Fridge, post-shopping and after prep work had started.  I used all the bowls!

Shopping started with the turkey because turkey is usually only widely available around Christmas time, and a frozen turkey would take some time to defrost, and Thanksgiving dinner hinges on the turkey.  Luckily, I found a turkey on my first stop at our local butcher’s.  It was the one and only turkey they had lurking in their freezer chest.  I was hoping for a 4-6 kg turkey… but instead, the one and only turkey in the butcher’s freezer was 8 kg.  That’s about 15 lbs.  It was HUGE!  We cooked a 15 lbs turkey!  It was almost as long as our oven is wide.  I followed AB’s recipe pretty closely.  Modifications include omitting stock, allspice, and ginger from the brine, doubling the apple and onion inside the turkey, and roasting in a fan forced oven at 180C for 3.5 hrs.

The turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the green bean casserole recipes were all new to me, but I have great trust in AB.  I followed the mashed potato and green bean casserole recipes almost exactly, though half my tray of onions for the casserole burnt and the other half never browned.  I blame the fan-forced oven.  I used homemade beef stock in the gravy instead of chicken broth and choose rosemary for herbs.  I’d made the wild rice and mushroom stuffing, cranberry conserve (though I didn’t know it was Ina Garten’s recipe until this time around), pumpkin pie, and pecan pie before.  Having good recipes from sources I trust is always key to successful dinner parties.  I didn’t alter the proportions of any of the recipes much, and I think they were all meant to serve around 10-12, so we knew we’d have leftovers.  And I have a bad habit of putting more veggies into everything.  Recipe says half an onion, but I like onion, why not the whole thing, half the ingredients later and I’ve effectively double the yield of the recipe.

Mid-cooking

Mid-cooking, as dishes started making their way to the table.

Table set

Table set, we had leftover red party ware from our Chinese New Year party.  It fit our Thanksgiving great as well.  We had to pull my craft table out of the craft room to have enough seats.

Of course, the food was set up buffet style.  I have pretty strong feelings about appropriately picking buffet versus table set depending on the number of people. 4 or less is a pretty perfect dinner group size if I’m going out OR eating in and then if I’m hosting, I can manage table set food.  If there are 6 people, that’s about the maximum size I would be comfortable with going out or serving table set food at home.  For dinner parties of more than 6, I’ll always serve buffet style.

The buffet

The buffet and a good view of our little kitchen.  From right to left, plates, turkey, mashed potatoes in the crockpot, gravy, rolls, stuffing, and green bean casserole.  The pies are hiding up on the ledge, and the cranberry conserve and drinks were on the table.

Pretty Boy's plate

Pretty Boy’s plate

It was a great dinner.  We invited Pretty Boy’s three moto friends and their girlfriends/partners, because we’d been wanting to have them over and because they are the most Aussie people we know!  It was really fun watching and listening to them eat food and dishes they’d never had before and marvel at me whipping the cream by hand right in front of them.  One guy was pretty sure he’d never had turkey before that night, and the green bean casserole and pecan pie were big hits among the Aussies.  Pretty Boy couldn’t get over the gravy and all of it!

Pretty Boy’s friends definitely aren’t cookers, so I think a lot of what we did was lost on them, but they definitely appreciated the end result anyway.  It was a lot of work, but Pretty Boy and I had a good time with it all.  With careful kitchen management and planning, everything went smoothly and was done on time!  I think our biggest advantage was being able to host Thanksgiving dinner on a Saturday instead of Thursday, without any worries about traveling family members, store closures, crowds, weather, traffic, or any of the rest of the stuff that comes along with Thanksgiving in the USA.  I don’t know if I’m ready to volunteer to host any big family Thanksgiving dinners back home anytime soon, but if I ever had to, after this experience, I’m pretty sure I could.

Shoes, clothes, fashion, style, evolution

Can we talk about shoes? I’ve never thought of myself as a “shoe girl,” but when I started packing to move to Australia, I pulled out all of the shoes I own and had to face reality: I own 38 pairs of shoes. That alone might mean I’m a “shoe girl.” At the time, Pretty Boy and I had been together for about three years, and after looking at my collection of shoes, he said he’d seen me wear every single pair. I’m proud of that fact and maybe will allow the label “shoe girl.”

shoe collection

All those shoes!

But we moved to Australia with two suitcases a piece, and I only brought 10 pairs of shoes with me. I had one pair mailed to me and I purchased rain boots shortly after I arrived which brings my total here to 12. Including flip-flops, including dressy shoes and athletic shoes and summer shoes and winter shoes, and I’ve come to the conclusion that its just not enough!

aussie shoes

The shoes that came with

Last weekend I went clothes shopping for pretty much the first time since I’ve been here. It was time. Since arriving in Australia, many things have changed. My body has changed: both in size and shape. The pants I brought when I moved here don’t fit me anymore, and the styles and cuts I used to wear fit differently and are less comfortable. My work environment is much more casual than I was previously used to, so I now wear more casual clothes. Socially, I go out less, so I dress up less and when I do go out, its also generally more casual than before I moved here. All this combined to mean the clothes I had were not serving my clothing needs.

Since this shift in body and style, I bought some new clothes when we went to Hong Kong and Japan and a few second hand items from thrift shops, and its been enough for me to get by with. But last weekend, I had just had enough. I’d been feeling frumpy, making due with the meager selection clothes I had, both while at work and at home for too long. I want to feel put together both in the casual work environment I’m currently in and the casual social situations I encounter when I go out.

So I went shopping, and it was hard. So hard. I had to find the intersection between (1) the clothes that fit and feel good with my different body size and shape, (2) the clothes that suit and complement my new-but-still-mostly-undefined casual but put together style, and (3) the clothes that are sold in Canberra. I’m still working on figuring out what cuts and styles fit well. I’m still working on defining my casual-but-put-together style. And the clothes sold in Canberra are limited and heavily feature young, pop-Australian fashion trends, most of which to not intersect with the first two clothing needs.

In the end, after two long days of shopping, I did buy two pairs of jeans, two tops, and one sweater, so I’m calling it a successful trip, but it wasn’t until this morning when I came across something in a post from Amid Privilege, that I was able to identify what was still missing (and what brings this back to shoes):

“Shoes. Turns out, we women buy a lot of shoes not because we are fetishists but because we know instinctively that shoes can make an outfit.”

Shoes can make an outfit. And shoes are exactly what I’m missing. Now that I have some nice pieces, that fit me, that fit my lifestyle and how I want to look while living that lifestyle, I’m really missing my shoes.  I’ve resolved to rotate through my current shoe collection more often to help make more outfits.  I’m also hoping to bring a few more pairs of shoes from home over here someday, but in the mean time, I’m keeping my eyes open for those outfit-making shoes.