Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I really feel like our Thanksgiving embodied everything good and gracious about our expat experience.  It was a last minute decision to host a potluck meal.  A friend of ours suggested it and I gladly accepted the hosting responsibilities.  I don't need much arm twisting to host any event.  If I get to bust out my collections of mix matched vintage silver, I'm in!
We had eight adults and eight children.  Having a place for all the grown-ups at the table for dinner is key for me.  I really love being able to all sit down together and talk and toast to a great meal.  The intimacy of the meal depends on sitting together.  Everyone brought a portion of the meal, which left me with only a few dishes to make and absolutely no stress.  I just made sure the table was pretty and there were oysters and olives to munch on as a starter.
Thanksgiving is about breaking bread with family.  Sometimes, family happens to be the people you share an experience with.  Our family this year is friends who are sharing the Ethiopian experience with us.  Truly, it's the people that make this experience amazing. Five families who, three months ago didn't know one another, are now spending Thanksgiving together.  That is what life as American diplomats is all about.  I am so grateful we had the opportunity to give thanks together over delicious food, good wine and great company!  The kids played, the babies cooed and the adults drank and filled our bellies.  Perfect evening.
The menu (cooked by all)
Honey glazed ham
Apple cider brined turkey breast
Turkey gravy
Spicy corn casserole
Scalloped potatoes
Cranberry apple stuffing
Kugel (a Jewish sweet noodle pudding)
Homemade crescent rolls with honey butter
Green salad with honey mustard vinaigrette
Roasted cauliflower and carrots
Green beans with caramelized onions and bacon
Pumpkin pie with whipped cream
Pecan pie with cinnamon ice cream

The meal was absolutely fantastic and truly a special treat while we are here in Ethiopia.  Things are hard to find (turkey and ham), special ingredients were used (butter and pecans) and extra special care was given to all the components of the meal.  Accomplishing a Thanksgiving meal in Addis Ababa is a feat of greatness.


I love experimenting with floral arrangement ideas here in Ethiopia because fresh cut flowers are really cheap.  The day before Thanksgiving, I purchased two large bunches of this yellow wild flower ($2.50) and a chunk of floral sponge (for $1.75).  My inspiration came from here.

Mine isn't nearly as awesome but it was fun to make.  I picked the hens n'chicks from our garden and chose a few really smooth limes to add to the arrangement.  A deep cereal bowl acted as my vase.  It was really simple!  I wet the sponge thoroughly and placed it in the bowl then started adding the flowers on the sides.  As the flowers started to weight the sponge down, I added more water to the bowl.  I used toothpicks on the limes.  As long as you keep the bowl half full of water the sponge stays wet and keeps the flowers fresh.

I'm excited to use the arrangement on our Thanksgiving table.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

real pie

American households all over the world are rolling out pie crust, adding spices to pureed pumpkin, chopping nuts and baking lovely pies for Thanksgiving.  I made seven pies today!  Yup, seven!  Some pumpkin and some pecan.  Five of them are for customers who placed orders with me.  Two of them are an order from my husband for our Thanksgiving meal.

Everyone has their preference for pie. People get really defensive about their pies.  I get it. I personally like both pecan and pumpkin, because who can go wrong with pumpkin pie or pecan pie?  But how do you make the most amazing pie?  Do you line up your corn syrup and your can of evaporated milk next to your pumpkin puree?  Many do, and I'm not going to fault you for it.  It's better than picking up a pre-made pie at the store.  Baked at home, no matter how many fake ingredients, it's bound to taste better than fake from the local Safeway.  Just simply for that fresh out of the oven flaky crust and the lovely smell that permeates your home while it bakes.

So here's the deal.  I know Libby's has the monopoly on canned pumpkin and therefore the majority of folks are making pumpkin pie from the recipe on the Libby's can wrapper.  Canned pumpkin is awesome and even Martha Stewart's test kitchen admitted to preferring canned pumpkin from roasting and pureeing your own.  Fine, use the canned pumpkin, I do.  But have you ever looked at the ingredients in a can of evaporated milk?

Ingredients in Carnation evaporated milk: milk, dipotassium phosphate, carrageenan, vitamin D3.

Three out of four of these ingredients are in this product to that the milk can sit in a can on a shelf for a year or more.

So let's make real pie this year.  Use heavy cream in place of the evaporated milk.  It's fresh and the pie turns out lovely.

Sara's take on Libby's famous pumpkin pie recipe
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
2 eggs
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin puree (or if you're a purist-roast and puree your own)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (12 ounces)
1 tsp homemade vanilla (vanilla beans soaked in bourbon for 6 months)
pie crust (I like to make my own and refrigerate it until ready for baking)

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees
Mix the sugars, salt, and spices in a small bowl and set aside.  Whisk the eggs in a larger bowl, add the pumpkin, sugar combination and whisk until combined.  Add cream and a dash of homemade vanilla bourbon extract if you have it.

Pour in your pie crust and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.  Then turn down your oven to 350 degrees and back for 35-40 minutes.  If you live at 7,000 feet or above like me, plan on cooking your pie for about 10-12 minutes longer.

My pecan pie is the BEST. EVER. HANDS DOWN!  I love it so much because it's real.  No gross corn syrup and corn starch to thicken the juices which creates that unnatural jelly layer under the nuts.  Not in my pie.  Pecan pie is best when it's simple. Just butter, brown sugar, salt, eggs, flour, milk, vanilla bourbon and pecans.  I'm not going to divulge my best selling secret on the internet but if you search for pecan pie without corn syrup there are some awesome options.  Like this one. Or this one.  Cut the sugar a bit on either of those though, wow!  No one needs a cup and a half of sugar in a pie.  Sheesh!  Sprinkle course sea salt on top of the pie after it comes out of the oven.  The salt brings out the brown sugar flavors.

Promise you won't get out a can of that spray whipping cream after going to the trouble to make a real homemade pie.  Right next to the gallons of milk (Lord, I've forgotten what buying an entire gallon of milk is like-how convenient), is the little cardboard cartons of fresh whipping cream.  Buy one of those and keep it in your refrigerator.  Or if you live in Addis Ababa like me, pick up a bag of Mama's heavy cream. Right before you plan on serving your pie (either a bit warm or room temp), pour the whipping cream into your stand mixer or a mixing bowl.  Whip it on high for a minute or so.  When you start seeing the lines in the cream, add a tablespoon of powdered sugar and a dash of vanilla.  Keep whipping until it's big and fluffy but not too dry.  Taste it and whip in a little more sugar or vanilla if needed.  Dollop it right on top of your slice of pie.

Enjoy your pie!  No matter what's inside.  I'm just saying, you might enjoy real pie just a little bit more!

The Crust Addendum:
After I posted this, I received a few questions from friends about how to get the best crust possible.  And if we're being real here, the crust is truly the hardest and most crucial piece of pie! I thought it would be wise to include some tips for preparing and baking fantastic pie crusts.

1. Make the dough in advance, refrigerate it and then the next day roll it out into your pie plate.  If you don't make the pie right away, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate the entire thing.  I froze a few of my pie crusts this year and I like the results of the refrigerated ones better.
2.  When rolling out pie crust, take care to keep the dough even thickness.  Roll out the circle much bigger than your pie pan.  When you tuck your edges under it will give you a nice thick amount of crust on top to crimp.  The crust will not burn when thick and it will not bake unevenly if the crust is a consistent thickness.
3. Do not pre-bake your homemade crust.
4. Make you filling and pour it into a cold pie crust.
5. If your recipe asks you to bake the pie at a high temp for 15 minutes, watch the pie and after 10 minutes at the high temp go ahead and turn the temperature down.  It's OK to cut 5 minutes off that hot bake time.
6. Keep an eye on your pie as it's baking.  Rotate it periodically so the crust that is a the back of the oven doesn't brown too fast.
7. If you do see some dark spots, tear a piece of aluminum foil and fold it over that portion of the crust.
8. If you're extremely concerned about the browning of the crust too soon, turn the temp even further down.  Just plan on your pie taking longer to bake overall.
9. You can leave pecan pies out at room temp for up to two days.  Pumpkin pies should be refrigerated if you don't plan on serving them that day.

Success at Salem's

People have been kind enough to ask me how the open house event at Salem's went.  I feel like I've been moving from one busy week to the next and haven't found the time to blog about the lovely event.

Truth be told, it went smashingly.  There were so many people who visited over the course of the day.  Some faces were familiar to me, but the most exciting part of the day were all the new faces I had an opportunity to meet and talk to.  I was able to have a few conversations with people whom I've known for awhile in passing but never really had the opportunity to speak with for any length of time. Maybe I'm just starved for grown-up conversation after all my days at home with the girls!

The baked goods went over well.  I brought with me four batches of scones, three batches of cookies, 14 loaves of sweet bread, and two batches of cupcakes.  All but a dozen cupcakes were sold for charity by the end of the day.  I was so pleased.

Adelaide ran down the stairs as I was packing up the car that morning, asking if she could join me for the day.  I hesitated, knowing it would be a long day but agreed that she would be a great helper.  In the end, she really saved me!  She sat with the photographs that were for sale while I dealt with bakery customers.  She was a tremendous help.

I was pleased to run across a few folks who purchased a few of the photos for themselves to frame in their homes or even use as postcards and souvenirs of the time in Ethiopia.  One woman honored me with the proposal that if I sent her the original file of the photos she planned to print them out at her United Nations office to hang in their conference room.  Pretty exciting.  I can't wait to go look at the photos displayed.
 Helping Salem throw an open house like this was on my list of things to accomplish while I was in Ethiopia.  She really didn't end up needing much of my help but I was pleased to have been apart of it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Adelaide is at the age where all her teeth are falling out!  For the past few weeks she's had either a tooth that is dangling by a thread or a new grown-up tooth pushing down and loosening another baby one.  It's adorable and I love her in-between snaggle tooth phase.  She's growing so fast.  To top it off her bangs are growing out as well.  She's in the midst of some big changes.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Salem's Ethiopia Fall Open House

2013 United States Marine Corps Birthday Ball

Justin and I had the pleasure to attend our fifth Marine Corps Ball together this past weekend.  It was at the Sheraton Addis Ababa hotel and we had a fantastic time.

Justin impressed our friends by once again rapping to Ice Ice Baby.  It's tradition, what can I say?  It definitely gets the party started.  We danced long past the midnight hour and paid for it the next day when the girls were up bright and early as always.  But it was worth it.  I love that my husband loves to dance.  I'm not a very good dancer but with every passing year, I seem to care less and less what people think of me.  HA!  Now I dance like a fool and it's fun.

Every year, we wonder if the ball will be as much fun as the previous year.  New friends move to post, people move away and sure enough everyone, new friends and old, come to the ball to celebrate our Marines, feel American patriotism, drink, get dressed up and for one night, forget just for a moment all the other things we worry about here in Ethiopia.  For that night, it's as if we are home.  We wouldn't miss the Ball for anything!

Plus my husband looks so dashing in his tuxedo.  I wish we had more tuxedo occasions.

Remember the red dress from Manila 2010?  The process of it's creation here and here and here and here and here.  It's still looking good years later!  I loved dress making in the Philippines.  Man, that was fun. Oh my goodness I had forgotten this photo too.  Bella is such a doll in my arms here.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

missing home

Home is such an elusive word when you're an American diplomat.  Where is home exactly?  It's been almost two full years since we've been to the United States and right at this moment if feels like a very long time.  Home is lots of places to us, but mostly, it's where our family is.

More and more lately, I've been thinking about my parents back home and even subconsciously they've been on my mind.  Last week, I was feeling especially homesick and realized so only after I'd recreated one of my most frequent childhood dinners for my own family.

Then, unexpectedly while shopping at the commissary for a few staples, I happened upon a sweet reminder of my mother and her culinary expertise during the holidays.  My mother's family rotates hosting Christmas and  when I was much younger Thanksgiving as well (now my uncle hosts every year so the rest of the year the family will leave him alone! HA!).  Anyway, whenever it was my family's turn to host, my mother would compile her own version of an antipasto platter as the appetizer.  Back then, I don't ever recall hearing the term antipasto.  It was simply finger foods and things we could all munch on as we hovered around the cooks while they finished the big meal.  My aunt would always comment about how we all better stop eating the finger foods or else we'll be stuffed before dinner.  It sounded like the type of thing everyone's aunt would say.

This lovely tradition of my mother's would include a plate with sectional cut glass bowls separating tiny pickles, green olives stuffed with peppers, black olives. smoked salmon and pickled herring (my father is Finnish).  Sometimes there was a nut covered cheese ball.  Crackers were necessary because they paired with the star of the platter; the canned smoked oysters.  The perfect Pacific Northwest antipasto spread.

Right before our guests would arrive my mother would pull the little boxes from the cupboard, open them and peal back the lid on the metal tins.  The cans, with their little rows of oil packed smokiness would be placed on the platter next to toothpicks and crackers.  When I was really little they disgusted me but my parents loved them.  My Father would sneak in and poke a few and plop them in his mouth when my mom wasn't looking.  As I grew older I tried them and year after year they became one of the traditions that I embraced.  A tradition I grew to love.

So when I saw the canned smoked oysters sitting on the shelf at the commissary I had to buy them with the plan to pop them open while I was roasting a Turkey this year.  They didn't make it that far.  Today, I pealed back that lid and ate them on crackers for lunch.  I was thrilled that my memory of how they tasted matched how they actually taste.  Exactly the same as they tasted every year on my mother's antipasto platter.

After a sweet memory inducing lunch, I poured the rest of the cold coffee from the pot in a mug and nuked it in the microwave to sip on.  And I realize with a little chuckle, that this is exactly what my mother would have done.