The Grumps

Hear no evil

Winter, or something, is wearing me down. I am a little off lately. Despite things going relatively well and being utterly fascinated at work and winter showing (very) tentative signs of abating, I am not the happiest of campers. I catch myself griping and pouting and generally feeling low. In our toddler-based vocabulary, I am definitely “grumping.” I know the reason, even though I was trying mightily to avoid exactly this.

Life with layoff started surprisingly easily, but the severance honeymoon has ended, and it is tough. I feel the shift. We’re still busier than ever and charging ahead full-steam, but an underlying tension has crept in. We are constantly aware of numbers and paperwork and the amorphous deadline driven by money. I expect spring’s arrival to help combat this, but it is sure being lazy about showing up. In the meantime, I’m trying to find other ways to keep my spirits up.

I started a series about my work in rare books and special collections libraries, and I expect the first real post for that to go up soon. At work, I’ve written two recent blog posts (yes, the general theme there will resurface here), and I have another on the way. I love writing, and having more than one outlet for that is really making me happy.

Fifteen down, 2,121 to go

In conjunction with my work and general Japan obsession interest, I’ve been taking tiny steps into learning the language. I hit a definite wall at work in terms of not knowing how to read materials, so I have to step it up. I don’t have time for a full course, so I’m trying TextFugu and other self-study options for now. In general, I have a knack for languages, so hopefully this works for awhile. I’m fighting a tiny when-do-I-use-which-writing-system terror right now, but I love the newness of the characters as opposed to Latin letters.

That being said, I’m also working out my rusty fingers on Western handwriting. I let it drop a bit late last year as things got busy, but I surprised myself by picking up a Zig this past weekend. I only followed along worksheet-style with some pages from Italic Letters and The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting, but it served to get the ink flowing. I like changing up my daily handwriting too much to switch permanently to Italic, but it is so nice as a “special occasion” script. Little Bear sees it differently.

Scribbles

Cozy with Aunt Kate

I was able to slow down enough to pick up a pen thanks to my sister, who visited for the weekend. She was on spring break from PT school and had a limited time frame, but even those couple of days were really, really nice. We hardly see each other in person anymore (ours is a FaceTime family), so I treasured this rare visit. She hadn’t seen the kid since he was three months old, and the difference must have been shocking. From total immobility to full sentences is quite a change. She also visited me at work, and I got a kick out of showing off some treasures. Since we’re in such divergent fields, I know that we each glaze over a bit as the other talks shop, but I think she liked the show-and-tell.

Secretary hand

One other distraction is holding my attention. I have not done much in the kitchen the past couple of months. My love of winter cooking went into hibernation shortly after the first storm, and all I’ve wanted to do on weekends is get ahead on the life stuff. Recently, however, an insistent little voice in my head has been prodding me to bake. With matcha all over my favorite boards and blogs lately, I couldn’t resist the urge. I even tempted fate by trying two completely new recipes, and I don’t care at all that the result was homely. It was baking for the sake of it, and thus utterly fulfilling. So I triple my yoga time, pick up a pen, and bust out the baking pans. If the tension persists, I remind myself that we can handle this. It is merely the experience that we are currently having.

Strawberry-Swirl Tartlets on Matcha and Chocolate

Strawberry-swirl tartlets on chocolate or matcha

This is not fancy pastry. I am a green tea fan, but M prefers chocolate. I kept the pastry cream simple. And I wanted another flavor, so I just swirled in some strawberry preserves. No straining, no excess cooking, no fuss. Obviously, I want to make them again with plenty of fuss, but this worked so well for what it was.

For the pastry cream (adapted from Alice Medrich‘s New Vanilla Pastry Cream)

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon white rice flour (not glutinous)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

For the crusts (adapted from Sur La Table‘s Easy Chocolate Press-In Dough)

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1¼ tablespoons matcha

To finish

  • ¼ cup strawberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the filling: Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl near the stove. Whisk together the sugar and rice flour in a small, heavy saucepan. Whisk in a bit of the milk until you have a paste. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth, then whisk in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, scraping all around the pan (sides, bottom, and corners) frequently.

When the filling begins to simmer, cook and stir for 5 more minutes, turning the heat down if necessary. You want to maintain the simmer.

As soon as 5 minutes are up, pour the filling into the strainer. Gently scrape the custard through, but don’t push through any cooked eggs bits. Once the filling is through, scrape the remainder from the bottom of the strainer. Stir in the vanilla paste. Let the mixture cool for about a half an hour, then press a piece of plastic directly onto the surface and up the sides of the bowl to prevent a skin, and refrigerate until chilled (up to 3 days).

For the crusts: Beat the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) until creamy, smooth, and well-blended. Add the egg yolk and beat until smooth.

Sift ½ cup of the flour and the cocoa into a small mixing bowl. Scrape in half of the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Sift the other ½ cup of the flour and the matcha over the remaining butter mixture. Mix each until moist and uniform in color. Incorporate any patches of flour or lumps of butter, but don’t go beyond that. If you beat it until it becomes batter-like, chill the dough until it firms up.

Lightly butter 4 tartlet pans and place on a rimmed baking pan. Divide the cocoa dough mixture in two and press into two pans. Make sure the thickness is even, with maybe a little more in the corners for structure. Repeat with the matcha dough mixture. Put the baking pan in the fridge and chill the tartlet shells for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tartlet shells for 10 minutes, then rotate and bake another 5-8 minutes. It can be difficult to tell when they’re done, but a light golden color and slightly drier look are good indicators. Move the tartlet pans to a rack to cool.

To assemble: Stir together the strawberry preserves and the water in a small heatproof bowl. Warm in the microwave until smooth and pourable, about 20 seconds. Fill each tartlet shell with ¼ of the pastry cream. Dollop a spoonful or two of the preserves on top of each and swirl through with a skewer or table knife. Chill until set, about 10 minutes.

You can make the crusts and pastry cream ahead of time. If you’re not going to eat all the tartlets right away, I recommend filling only what you need. Fill the rest when you’re ready to eat them. Alternatively, you can create a barrier to keep the pastry cream from soggying up the crust. Melt a little semisweet or white chocolate and spread on the crust. Chill until set, then fill with pastry cream, etc.

Darkness and Light

Foster Pond sunset

During my blogging absence, another year began, and it began busily.

The holidays were a mess of one- and two-day work weeks, interspersed with a last-minute vacation week for me. All three of us had a bad cold that week, and then, unhappily, my aunt passed away. This lent a melancholy feeling to the holiday, exacerbated by the fact that, thanks to airline heartlessness, my mother then had to cancel her trip to spend Christmas with us.

Tree trimming

We did manage to have a wonderful time, though. It started with the solstice. Because Christmas day is always scheduled with family, M and I started celebrating the solstice as our own holiday. I love the family time of Christmas, but every year I get less and less enthused about the “holiday” of it; solstice fills the void. For me, it’s become a holiday on its own, and one that isn’t saddled with any baggage of commercialism or other trappings. It is a pure expression of winter joy, and I look forward to it every year.

Pumpkin-pecan bread

Pomander

We don’t make a splashy deal of it. We make sure to cook good food, always watch the same episode of “Little Bear” (yes, seriously), and light some candles. As I get less and less into Christmas, which was never a religious holiday for me anyway, I get more and more into the elemental quality of the solstice. It’s all about pine and fire and snow and being cozy on cold nights. This year, I explained a little bit to Little Bear about it being the longest night and how some cultures celebrate with candles or bonfires to symbolize the sun being reborn. Maybe next year I’ll risk putting out the goat.

Skinning hazelnuts

Homemade Nutella

Things progressed quickly after the solstice. Christmas was full and lovely. LB seemed to get it more than last year, of course, but he didn’t so much realize that presents were for him, per se. He loved playing “Santa’s helper” and handing out packages to everyone (“Can you give this to Mémé? No, Mémé. Mémé!”). He himself received a number of beautiful (and quiet!) wooden and/or building toys that he continues to enjoy daily. He is very into blocks and trains and nesting toys. It’s fascinating to watch.

Crêpe for the baby

In a blessing/curse way, we get more chances to observe him at play these days. Shortly after a quiet New Year’s (M and I made it to 11:30 this year!), M got the news we’d been dreading, and the big L-A-Y-O-F-F word became reality. Though we’d been expecting it, there was little we could do beyond lay out the few steps we would take when it actually happened. Now we’re still trying to deal with those steps, and things are terrifying, frustrating, and sometimes a little depressing. Little Bear is home with M during the day now, and we’re both having to squeeze in job applications. I’d love to believe that M will quickly find another position right in the area, but I know that I need to be prepared for the other thing.

Reader

Oddly enough, despite the obsessive monitoring of our bank accounts, the hair-tearingly-frustrating health insurance process, and the uncomfortable familiarity of the library-school-graduate-saturated New England market, we are both feeling good. I love my work and am happy at my job, but M was ready for something new. And though it is very scary to be a one-nonprofit-salary household in an expensive area, we feel strangely, buoyantly optimistic. There is a persistent sense that this is the next step and good things are soon to follow.

Yin Yu Tang near sunset

Obviously, we hope they follow really soon, but we’re doing the best we can to bring them about. There are plenty of options on the table. Information science is a vast and flexible field. I’m a little sad-in-advance, though. I love working in special collections, but jobs in the subfield are scarcer even than general library jobs. I know full well that, if I need to change jobs, I may have to move to a different professional area. I can only cross that bridge if I come to it, so instead I think about geography. My sister moved to Oregon after college, and ever since visiting her some years ago, I’ve felt the lure of the Pacific Northwest. So part of my brain is going, hey, if we have to move, why not move out there…?

Driftwood and mist

Long story short, there is a lot up in the air right now. I have always preferred to pin things down as quickly as I can, and that is just not possible in this situation. It’s an exercise in mindfulness, patience, and time management, and it’s actually kind of… fun. The level of fun is directly proportional to the balance of our savings account, though, so I channel the enjoyment into as much practical work as possible. Life is quite busy, but Little Bear (when he’s not proving himself quite a toddler) provides lovely little moments of joy and quiet. This is an interesting time in our lives, scary and cash-strapped, but clarifying and decluttering. We are certain that we’ll emerge from it stronger, clearer-headed, and with purpose. I keep smelling spring in the air, and I’m going to ride that high to our next stage.

Dark stone lantern

Pics are a montage from the past two months and a years-ago trip to Portland.

Miscellany

This week’s collection of preoccupations:

Games I can’t play for awhile (Sims 4, The Order: 1886).

Since I can’t play those (or Minecraft, or Skyrim, or most games requiring two hands), Sims 3.

The annoying way my student loan processing keeps bouncing between providers whether I like it or not. (Really, the system is broken. If I could do it all over again, I would seriously consider taking the apprenticeship route into a trade.)

Teaching Little Bear (eventually) how to argue. M, as the resident philosopher, is in charge of this. I first need to improve my ability to be wrong with good grace.

Finding an affordable alternative to custom engraved stationery. Right now, I’m thinking blank cards/envelopes and custom stamps.

After a peculiar late-pregnancy obsession with white nail polish, abruptly finding my perfect shade in Zoya’s Snow White. Now I just have to be patient until I have enough time to actually use it.

Etiquette. Maybe to an old-fashioned degree of formality, probably because I’ve been watching “Jeeves & Wooster” and reading a lot of Agatha Christie. I’m currently reading this book to indulge this interest. (Before anyone asks, yes, I have heard that “Downton Abbey” is a great show. No, I do not watch it.)

The new iPhone 5s. But since my current phone mostly works, and my current laptop works less and less, I’m keeping my eye on the ultimate costly goal.