Sunday, April 27, 2014

Better Days with a Recipe for Better Strawberry Pie

After feeling like I've been falling into a deep freeze the past few days, it looks like Spring is finally emerging victorious over Old Man Winter who wanted to rear back up its ugly head. I see a peak of blue sky on the horizon, which I am hoping will yield to a bit of sunshine later this afternoon.

This calls for a celebration. Not only because I'll finally warm up, but also because my face surgery went better than expected a couple weeks ago. The carcinoma was not as widespread as the doctors had prepared me for, and the scar is already hardly noticeable since it fits right along the edge of my nose. Plus, my stylish hat collection is growing, so I feel like a woman born-again -- at least when it comes to sizing up my status in fashion.

My renewed sense of energy has lured me back into the kitchen. With strawberries coming back in season in my neck of the woods, I'm going to share one of my son's all-time favorites: Strawberry Pie.

But today you not only get a better recipe than you'll find on the web, you get two. Plus, both are healthier and just as tasty. I don't think it can get any better than that, can it?

Well, I suppose it always can, but we're sticking to the pie.

First, with the healthier side. Many of you probably have heard the reports coming out about how bad sugar is for our bodies. Among its many dark deeds, it is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes. For years, I've always cut back on sugar in my pies, simply because with the natural sugars present in fruit, I decided that most recipes call for an overkill. Let me assure you that cutting back on sugar is not for lack of a sweet-tooth on my part. I LOVE sweets, and will never turn down cake or cookies for breakfast if such items are lingering in my kitchen from the day before.

However, after much thought on the matter and baking in the kitchen, I realized that most recipes were designed historically around a time-intensive transportation/delivery system that no longer is in place today. Historically, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, fruits and vegetables that found their way into the kitchen weren't recently harvested, but had endured a week- to month's worth-or-more-of-time in transportation and storage. During that time, sugars would naturally break down, and thus fruits weren't as sweet as what they would be if they were fresh-picked and ripe at harvest.

These days, with improved refrigeration during delivery and shorter time from harvest to table, I've bet on the side that most recipes continue to call for more sugar than you typically need. Especially if you're using fresh regional produce. Even more so, if you're using your own.

I've found this too-much-sugar concept to be particularly true when making jam, and you can read more about that in my post here. Nevertheless, if using less sugar applies to jam, it's going to apply to pies as well, as I've been practicing all along. So here goes. Let's dive right in!

Better Strawberry Pie, Recipe #1

1 9-inch pie crust, lined in pie pan, pricked with fork and baked 10 min at 400 degrees
1 quart organic* strawberries, plus extra for fresh garnish
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup orange juice
whipped cream for topping

Hull and slice the strawberries and place them into a heavy-bottomed, medium sauce pan. Don't mash them. You'll lose what makes eating fruit good for you. (Do research if you want to know more.) Pour the sugar over the berries and then add the orange juice. Let the berries sit in this concoction for about 30 minutes. The juice and sugar will begin to draw out those natural sugars and water inside the berries. While you're waiting, pass the time by preparing the pie crust.

You can also pass the time by hulling and slicing those extra berries you bought and set aside. You'll be tossing these on top of the pie when serving it, so you might as well get them ready.

*Speaking of berries, use organic if you can. Strawberries are in the Dirty Dozen for pesticide residue, because they are grown with tons of pesticides. So go organic, if you can. Especially if you're cooking for kids.

After about 30 minutes, add the cornstarch to the berries and cook them over medium heat, while continually stirring them. The juice should thicken up as it starts to slowly bubble after about 5 minutes. I usually let it continue to slowly bubble for about 1 minute more with stirring. Once it is reasonably thick, remove the pan from the heat and allow the sauce to cool for about 15 minutes. Then pour the cooked berries and sauce into the prepared pie crust. Set the pie in the fridge after it has cooled for 10 minutes more. The pie should be ready to serve after about 2 hours when it has completely chilled and set.

Top each slice with fresh berries and whipped cream.

Better Strawberry Pie, Recipe #2

So, I happen to love cheesecake, so that is where this recipe comes from. Combining two of my favorite pies. My son prefers the first recipe. Me? I'll go for either one, but if push comes to shove, I'll grab the second.

1 8-inch graham cracker crust, prepared

1/2 of the strawberry pie recipe above (for filling) (prepared separately)
1 package Pillsbury cream cheese (8 oz), softened to room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream (4 oz)
2 teaspoons orange juice or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all the ingredients for the cheesecake portion of the pie together until smooth. Pour into the graham cracker crust and bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes (until firm). Remove from oven and let cool.

While the cheesecake layer is baking, make your strawberry filling for the top layer of the pie, as directed in recipe #1. When the strawberry filling is cooled to a warm temperature, pour it over the top of the cheesecake layer, and set in the fridge to chill and set. The pie should be ready to serve after about 2 hours. Top each slice with fresh berries and whipped cream.


Feel free to share any of your favorite ideas and tips.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Face of Cancer

Brown Women's Rhinestone Floppy Sun Hat

This spring has held a few firsts for me. The first mother-daughter trip in a long while. The first stressful year-end evaluation with my principal in a new public school (I think I survived and will be hired back for another year). The makings of the first set of plans for sending my daughter to college. These events had all been anticipated. I'd been able to prepare.

What I hadn't planned on was becoming a statistic, on joining a couple million other Americans this year in being diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. I was given the news as "good news" over the phone. Basal cell carcinoma is slow growing, I'd been told, and usually just requires an outpatient cosmetic surgery. This description left me feeling fine, unconcerned. Then I went in for a follow-up to make sure there weren't other spots of concern on my skin. It was during this visit that I was dealt the bad news -- and the reality of being diagnosed with a cancer, an actual cancer, set in.

Because the first thing I realized was that my "basal cell carcinoma" was pictured on a handy poster of skin cancers on the examining room door. Basal cell carcinoma sat right next to melanoma, the more concerning type. But these "slow-growing" basal cell photos also showed rouge cancerous cells breaking off from the group, identical to those breaking off from melanoma group, apparently in order to move freely about my body and set up shop wherever they wished.

Still, I felt unconcerned, or wanted to anyway. After all, when the doctor had removed the concerning patch of skin from my cheek where it rested alongside my nose for biopsy a couple weeks before, all that remained was a light pink spot. I'd figured it'd been removed in its entirety.

"That's the bad news about this type of cancer," the doctor said. "What we removed is like a tip of an iceberg. It grows like an iceberg, or an upside mushroom; so even though we removed the tip and even though it's slow growing, there's no telling how far it has spread under the top layers of skin until we start cutting and removing in the surgery.  And we won't stop until it's all gone."

And of course that where the stories began -- the personal experiences people want to share. The doctor told me of her sister, who had been through the same sort of thing. What started out as a tiny inconspicuous patch like mine, ended up being the size of a silver dollar by the time they had removed all the tissue. Her point wasn't to scare me, she said, but to tell me that the scar was hardly noticeable now. The cosmetic surgeons are very good she said. "That is why we send you to them."

Another person told me of his father. "He was gone a year later," he said, shaking his head. "Don't wait on getting it taken care of." Then he half-smiled. "Just wait until after our big track meet coming up. We'll need you," he joked. (I'm an assistant track coach).

Another person told me of a friend who has had numerous basal cell spots removed, leaving me with images of holes all over my face. "She's fine," she assured me. "She gets them removed all the time. She's a lot older than you, though. You're young for this." 

And the stories continue to come.

Please don't tell me stories. I know they need to be told. I just don't want to hear them. Not yet. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of a "living in the moment" type of person. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the epitome of what it means to be "empathetic." I will feel every cut, every bruise, every hurtful experience that is relayed to me. I am overly sensitive that way. When my daughter tore her ACL in soccer and couldn't walk, suddenly, I was in pain in the same knee and had trouble walking myself. This continued for the duration of her injury. She thought I was nuts. So did I -- although I had been injured in a similar way when I was about her age, so it almost made sense to think that I knew what she was feeling. Almost.

But mostly, I am not a good planner. I don't relish the idea of contemplating alternative realities that may not ever occur, particularly those that may bring hardship. And right now, I'm enjoying a homemade cup coffee -- vanilla latte, actually. And despite how un-vanilla latte it appears, because I lack most of the equipment required in making such a concoction -- I am still telling myself I'm enjoying it.  So that is how it is, in my life, right now, at the moment.

Thankfully, my kids don't have stories to tell. They don't have concerns either. They call my basal cell carcinoma "a condition," jokingly, to help lighten our nerves, I suppose. The reality is that we won't know how it will all be until after it's all done. And I suppose they have always known me to be strong, resilient, and able to come up with a reason to laugh or at least smile, even after the darkest of moments, even when I don't want to. I suppose that's why I am going to bring a few photos along with me to surgery, just in case the surgeon finds himself needing to use more cosmetic skills than he was bargaining for, or even if he just finds himself feeling an immediate urge to practice. Maybe he'll view me as a good specimen. A free nose-job thrown in the deal might be nice. After all, I'd been thinking that the concerning side of my face with the "condition" was getting puffy and needed to be fixed anyhow. Plus, it'll be my birthday. So it could be a gift. Right on time.

... What do you think about Jennifer Anniston ... or Gweneth Paltrow ... or Natalie Portman ... just to name a few? They'll be loaded on my phone, for easy access in high definition.

The point of this post isn't to scare. It's to help remind you to prepare to avoid getting skin cancer--even the non-concerning types. Wear your sunscreen. Wear your hats. Get your yearly skin checks, even if you think you're young. I did all these things, but probably not as well as I could. I've always considered myself to be a normal-looking person, with normal routines. But I suppose I could have done better.

When you're done preparing, enjoy the best life has to offer.

I know I'll keep being a mom; I'll keep being a teacher; I'll keep being a writer. Only I'll keep being these things with a bigger set of hats and sunbrellas, and hopefully not feeling like I have to hide the face with this cancer.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Signs of Spring

The gray hues of winter finally released their grip last week, and I found myself lured out into the yard to begin spring clean up.  Once again I was pleasantly rewarded to see bursts of color poking up from last year's dead growth, which I had left behind. Our new kitten named Sky chased after her first buzzing insect, and thankfully didn't do too much damage to the new flowers she was pouncing on in the process. Sandhill cranes also kept me company as they sang their calls far overhead. They had returned from their winter feeding grounds.

These signs of spring fueled my hope that my yard may also serve as an analogy to my writing projects.  When I return to the manuscripts I've been scribbling away at all winter and carefully hone them with an editorial eye, I might be able to bright out something bright and beautiful as well.

Happy spring!