Alternative Holiday Treats

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

plate with granola bars and Santa

Santa Treats

If you are looking for something to give to whoever you might want to give holiday treats to — friends, neighbors, clients, coworkers, teachers, hairdressers, doormen, elevator operators (everyone needs to go read the John Cheever story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” when you’re done here) and of course, Santa — and you would like something other than butter-laden, chocolatey-ness to send out into the world, I am here to remind you of the delicious granola bars that smitten kitchen posted a recipe for in 2009 and that I made a few times in 2010 but never got quite right.

I came back to the recipe this year because I was looking for something I could eat in the morning shortly after getting up, on days when I had to be up and out of the house on an accelerated schedule. (The problem with not being hungry for an hour or two after you get up is that if you have to actually get up and get out of Dodge, you get really hungry right in the middle of whatever it is you had to leave early for. And then you are trapped somewhere with no access to food. And that is a bummer.)

After a few more tries with the granola bars, I am now completely in love with them. (I gave some to a friend a week or two ago and told her I was still working on the recipe but that they were pretty good, I hoped she liked them. She emailed a few days later and said she thought I could stop working on the recipe, and could I please send it to her.)

So here’s the latest version, and what I learned.

The first thing I learned is that you should definitely get quick-cooking oats; the ones I made with old-fashioned oats pulsed in the blender or food processor, as the original recipe gave as an alternative to quick-cooking oats, did not hold together. The ones with quick-cooking oats worked much better.

The second thing I learned is that you should follow the instructions and use parchment to line the pan.

I feel like every cookie or brownie recipe I see these days tells you to use parchment, which just seems like a waste of paper to me, just oil the pan like they used to do back in the olden days. But because of the falling-apart problem, I’m going with parchment, because you can pull the whole thing out of the pan and then cut it, which keeps it from falling to pieces when you try to put a spatula under individual squares and pull them out.

So after making those two changes, I ended up with actual granola bars, not granola bar crumbles. Hooray.

And in terms of ingredients, you can mix and match and put in whatever strikes your fancy.


Fruit and Nuts and Seeds

The main downside of these is that nuts are expensive, and some oils and sweeteners too. You feel like you spend a million dollars getting everything together. But if you get a bunch of different things, you don’t use that much of any of them, so you can make a whole bunch of batches with a whole bunch of different things in them. Just keep them all in the freezer until it’s time for the next round. And also you can mix in lower-cost options — sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, coconut — and that helps.

The last batch I made had coconut oil and safflower oil as the oils; honey, molasses, and agave syrup as the liquid sweeteners; dried apricots and raisins as the fruit; cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and coconut flakes as the mixed nuts and seeds; and peanut butter as the nut butter. (The previous two batches had pepitas, which I missed in this last batch; I didn’t realize I’d used all of them up.) And I made it with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, instead of 1/2 cup, because the first few batches felt too sweet for breakfast.

They are much better than store-bought granola bars, and maybe even better than cookies (well, for breakfast, at least). Enjoy!

Granola Bars

1-2/3 cups quick cooking oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or oats processed into flour in a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup nut butter

1 cup dried fruit
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds

6 Tbsp oil, or melted butter
6 Tbsp liquid sweetener
1 Tbsp water

In a large bowl, combine oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon (if using), and salt. Stir to mix.

Chop nuts and fruit into small pieces.

Over low heat, combine sweetener, oil, and water and stir to combine.

Pour combined oil and sweetener mixture over oats. Add nut butter. Stir until everything is mixed together and the oats are coated with oil and sweetener. Add nuts and seeds and stir until everything is coated and uniformly distributed.

Place a sheet of parchment in the bottom of an 8 x 8 inch pan, with enough overhang on the sides to use as handles when removing.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and, using a sheet of plastic or waxed paper between your hand and the batter, press press press until it is all packed into the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until the top is evenly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. When completely cooled, remove from pan using parchment overhang, peel off parchment, and cut into squares.

These keep well in a closed container (e.g., plastic storage container or cookie tin) for at least a week. I don’t know how they freeze because I’ve never been able to keep them around long enough to need to freeze them.

The Holiday Corridor

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.

A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.

Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.

CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.

The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.

And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …


And possibly the radio, too.

Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.

You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.

That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.

[Aside on living without television...
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:

(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)

Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.

If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]

This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.

The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …

Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.

If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.

And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”

And that is the truth.

No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This is generally unrelated to my usual topics, but it’s one of my favorite things in the world, and yesterday was the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of The Gettysburg Address, so I feel compelled to share.

The Gettysburg Address as Power Point presentation by  Peter Norvig.

Gettysburg Address powerpoint

There are so many great parts of this, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’m going to go with the bar graph of “four score and seven years ago.”

Also I love the fact that Peter Norvig, the creator of the slide show, wrote that his plan was to make it as bad as possible, but when he put it through the “autocontent wizard,” it came out so bad, he hardly had to make any changes at all.

So funny. So true.

I Am Not a Blogger

Monday, October 28, 2013

So I’d heard a few people mention Afford Anything as a blog they like. I’d looked at it briefly a few months ago, but decided to take another look over the weekend.

It seems like a well organized site, with focused, well-written articles. Though it seems to me that it is not really a personal finance blog, it’s more of a “lifestyle design” blog. And, like most lifestyle design blogs, it is all Rah! Rah! Quit Your Job! Travel the World! Move to Thailand! Buy Rental Property! PASSIVE INCOME PASSIVE INCOME PASSIVE INCOME!


Which makes me cower in a corner and cover my head.

Please do not make me travel around the world and own rental property. Please.

I can’t even manage to fix my own house, much less take care of a house I don’t even live in. Every time I take time off to do things around the house I am SO GLAD when I’m done and I get to go back to sitting at my desk figuring things out on my computer. All these people who see rental property as the way to a fabulous future kill me. Man. Total torture.

Also the whole “outsource everything and do your job for four hours a week while travelling the world” is completely not appealing to me. For one, I am a control freak, and therefore find the concept of outsourcing problematic. Also I do not like to travel. With the possible exception of places that I have a prior relationship with (i.e., places I used to live, places I’ve visited often, or places I visited once and enjoyed) or where I have someone I really like a lot who lives there that I can stay with.

I know, weird. But whatever. That is me.

Here are some things in life that I like

1. sleeping in my own bed
2. walking around town and running into people I know
3. going to a restaurant that I’ve eaten at before and had a really good meal, and getting the same thing again. Because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
4. riding my bike for ten, twenty, thirty mile rides and knowing exactly where I am
5. sleeping in my own bed

Did I mention sleeping in my own bed?

Can I just have my nice peaceful life here in North Carolina? Is that okay? I will even pay extra to get my wisdom teeth removed by my friendly local oral surgeon up the street, instead of going to Thailand or Costa Rica for it. (This is especially useful if a week later you get dry socket, you can just go up the street and get that taken care of, and again six weeks later when you get an infection, you can also get that taken care of right in your own neighborhood.)

A lot of these blogs, when I read them, I wonder if these are real people. People who move to Thailand and write ebooks about location-independent lives and make a living off their blogs. Do people really do this?

Do they like it?

I read blogs like that and it makes me think that I’m just not cut out to be a blogger. Because all I have to write about is things like hanging my laundry and mowing the lawn.

And sleeping in my own bed.

Because that is my life.

There you have it.

How It Begins, and How It Ends

Friday, October 18, 2013

[Ed. Note: Last year around this time, I wrote a post that referenced an essay by Umberto Eco, published in the collection How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays. Below is something I wrote just afterwards, but then didn't post because after writing it, decided that it wasn't relevant to anything, and, in the end, I wasn't sure what the point was. But I'm doing a little computer housekeeping and I just read it again. And I decided not to worry about whether it is relevant, or whether it has a point. It poses an interesting question. I like it. That is enough.]

The essay in Umberto Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon that follows “How to Eat Ice Cream” is also great. It’s called “How It Begins, and How It Ends,” and, like “How to Eat Ice Cream,” seemed to speak directly to some of the themes I’ve been thinking about and writing about lately — specifically the idea of what brings happiness.

The essay is about how when he was a scholarship student at university, he and his friends learned that they could bribe the usher for admission to films and plays, but the dorms were locked at midnight, so they had to leave before the end of the show in order to get home in time.

“And so it was,” Eco writes, “that, over a four-year period, I saw the theatrical masterpieces of every time and place, except for their last ten minutes.”

He talks about all of the things he doesn’t know — “if Othello punched up Iago before setting off on a second honeymoon, if the imaginary invalid’s health improved, if everyone threw rice after Romeo and Juliet, and who was Bunbury” — and thought he was the only one who suffered from this problem. But then he happened to have a conversation with an old friend who, as it turned out, “suffered from the same anguish in reverse.”

As a student, his friend had worked at a theater run by students and had taken tickets at the door, but because many people arrived late, it was always the start of the second act by the time he was able to slip into a seat and begin watching the production.

Well to make a long story short, Paolo and I exchanged confidences. And we discovered that a splendid old age lies before us. Seated on the front steps of a country house or on a bench in the park, for years we will tell each other stories: he, endings; I, beginnings, amid cries of amazement at every discovery of prelude or catharsis.

He runs through some of the things they will learn, about Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear.

Missing the beginning or end of a story would always seem like something to be avoided — of course you would want to know the whole story. But Eco ends the essay with an intriguing question:

Will we be happier afterwards? Or will we have lost the freshness of those who are privileged to experience art as real life, where we enter after the trumps have been played, and we leave without knowing who’s going to win or lose the game?

What Are Your Hours?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

window sign with complicated listing of office hours

Window Sign, Eden, North Carolina

That should cover it.

The Sometimes Phone, Part II

Monday, September 23, 2013

[Okay, I lied. No pictures yet. The summary post with the actual how-to will have pictures. I need to finish rambling on before I get to that. Patience, my friends, patience.]

Okay, so I got the phone, and I had already ordered the SIM card (and it was touch-and-go on whether it would arrive before Tuesday so I paid for expedited shipping … don’t wait til the last minute to figure things out, it costs more. News flash for everyone out there, I’m sure no one’s noticed that before.)

And I will say that maybe I’m just kind of an idiot, but the learning curve on all of this turned out to be somewhat challenging.

You have a SIM card. You have a phone. It’s pretty clear where the SIM card goes, there’s a slot in the back, but it’s not entirely clear which way it goes. Though after I did it wrong, it seemed obvious that of course it would go so the metal circuit-board-ish looking side is on the bottom, touching the phone. And I learned that it is possible to remove the SIM card that you put in the wrong way and put it in the right way without damaging either the phone or the SIM card. Good news there.

Okay, SIM card is in phone. SIM card is facing right direction. Still says “No SIM card.”


So then I decide to play around with the phone and get that set up.

One of the reasons this whole thing was especially challenging for me is because I have never been much of a cell phone person, and the only time I use smartphones is when I’m sending a message for a friend who is driving — “on our way, be there 10min.” Things like that. So there were a lot of different ways for me to do things wrong, and I didn’t know what I was doing with anything so had difficulty troubleshooting and narrowing down the range of possible errors.

But I persevered.

I set up the Motorola BLUR account. I figured out the wireless network part and stored my wireless network info in the phone so it would connect automatically.

It now recognizes the SIM card. Progress. (No idea whether that was just a timing thing or the phone account needed to be set up first or what.)

Now let’s see if we can get the phone part up and running.

According to the instructions from Ready SIM, all I have to do is text my zip code to 7850 and I will get a text in reply with the phone number that will go with this SIM card (and that I can then link to my Google Voice number, which is the one I give out as my cell number).

I text the code and it looks like it goes but then … I get an error message. Red X in the corner, “Message not sent.” I do this multiple times. The X keeps coming back.


I try googling, but what I’m looking for is completely vague — phone thing not working. Not surprisingly, nothing comes up. I look on the Ready SIM website for helpful hints, “If you see this, it’s because of that, just do this and it will work.” Nothing. Just their slogan — “So easy your mother can do it” — taunting me.

At 5:40pm, I submit a support ticket. I say, “This may be so easy my mother can do it, but my mother is not here, and I can’t get it to work. What am I doing wrong.”

Then I just give up and move on to everything else I need to do before the trip, decide I will deal with it when I get there.

I was going to Portland, Oregon and staying with a friend I’ve known since middle school and her husband, who are both great. I was getting in mid-afternoon and heading to their house from the airport, they would see me when they got home from work.

[Random aside: I love taking public transportation to and from airports, it makes me feel self-sufficient and it's usually like two dollars. In Portland it was $2.50 to take light rail and change to a bus that dropped me off half a block from my friends' house in Southeast Portland.]

I stayed with them last year and knew the lay of the land. I knew they had a wireless network that I could get on, and that I still had the password for stored in my computer.

So I get to their place, no problems, and I get on their wi-fi and check my email (using my laptop) to see if there’s anything I need to deal with and also see if there is any response from Ready SIM.

I have a message from support that says things should work, there is coverage in my area, restart the device and try again. I’m not in the same place anymore, so that seems not so relevant, but I try sending the text again and this time it goes straight through, no problem, right away I get a message in reply with a phone number.


I send a text to my friend I’m staying with saying I’m at her house and telling her this is my number for the week so she can enter it into her contacts. I text my friend who I had been sending GAAHHH WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING messages to on Monday to tell her I figured it out. I make a call to the friend I’m supposed to be doing work things with on Thursday so we can finalize plans. All is good.

And I have a phone for the next fourteen days. I get to see how the other half lives.

And it’s … fine. Texting is kind of fun, but also insanely distracting. People think they are doing two things at once when they are texting, they think they are still doing the thing they were doing while also typing surreptitiously in the background, but I am here to tell you that that is not what is happening. You have no idea what is going on around you when you are texting.

Totally distracting.

I got the unlimited talk and text plus the full data plan since it seemed like that might be useful but I discovered that most of the stuff I look up online when I’m wandering around is dumb, I get sucked into stupid things that I could just look up later. Or things that I really don’t need to know anyway. It was way more distracting than helpful. (Maybe if I used it more or had more apps I’d decide it was great, but for starters, it didn’t do much for me.)

The second day of my visit, I’m having a nice relaxing afternoon walking around Hawthorne and I see something outside of an interesting thrift-type store that I want to take a picture of but discover that I need an SD card to take a picture and my phone didn’t come with an SD card.

Hmm… Is that something they sell all over the place, like phone cards? Can I just go into a 7-11 and get one? Or do I need an electronics store, or big box retailer?

Hawthorne is all funky shops and bars and cafés and I’m thinking I probably can’t get one here but keeping my eyes open for any place that seems like it might have something like that.

I walk past this shop called iDope. It sells iPhone accessories and does repairs and will jailbreak your phone for you and whatever else you need done with your iPhone or iPad.

I think, “Well … maybe.”

So I walk in and it’s a small shop with a guy sitting at a desk with two buddies hanging out. I say, “Do you sell SD cards?”

He shakes his head, “No … sorry, I don’t …” and then he stops and says, “Well, wait. What kind? The small ones?”

I say, “I don’t know, it’s for an android phone.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out an envelope with SD cards in it. He said, “Here, try one of these. These are ones that came in with phones.”

I give him the phone and he puts one in and it says it’s good to go.

He says, “I have no idea what’s on it, but there you go. It’s yours.”

I say, “Great. I now have someone’s porn collection on my phone.”

We laugh about that, and I thank him sincerely and head out the door to take a picture of something. And it works! Cool.

And it would have been an interesting story to get someone’s crazy pictures, but it turns out the card was empty. (Probably better, but still, a little disappointing.)

So I’m in Portland and I have a smartphone, with everything that entails (camera! calculator! clock!) and an unlimited talk/text + 1GB data plan.

The Sometimes Phone.


[And stay tuned for Part III -- How does The Sometimes Phone work when it doesn't have a phone plan?]


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