Monday, December 31, 2012

Cavalier Mountaineer

When we went to bed on Friday night, we had no idea what our plans were for Saturday. We figured we’d get up 2 hours before sun up (aka 7ish), work out, and then possibly get together with some other dog owners for a hike. However, we ended up sleeping until 9 AM, realizing that if we didn’t act fast, there was no way we’d be able to get a hike in before our 6 hours of daylight were over.

By 10 AM we were at our buddy Ryan’s house where we met up with he and his lab Angus and our friend Falene and her lab Kady. You may remember that Ryan is Jonathan's Defender-owning friend, so instead of taking one car, we obviously had to take both Defenders. We drove in our mini-Defender Caravan to Tap O' Noth Hill.
Without knowing where we were going, I made the snap decision to bring Samson along for the walk.
I figured since Ryan was choosing the hike, it couldn’t be too challengingJ. When April came to visit, she was admittedly not into hiking. She told me that she would only go on walks that passed the ‘Samson’ test. If Samson could make the trek, then so could she.
Well, next time she comes to Scotland, she’s going to be climbing some mountains, because when we pulled up in the parking lot to greet Tap O’ Noth “hill”, this is the site we were faced with:
As we laced up our boots to start the climb, Ryan commented that if Samson got tired, he’d carry him. Falene made the suggestion that if Sam couldn’t hack it we could always just zip him into our back pack. But all along I knew that my little man would make me proud. And sure enough, Samson did more than pull his own weight, he pulled mine as well.

Since his training isn’t quite at Bailey’s level yet, he was kept on his extendable leash during our ascent and that 15 pound dog was pulling me up the entire way. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly put one more foot in front of the other on the nearly vertical climb, he swooped in with all his might and tugged me up as if he were a speedboat and I was on water skis. He’s deceptively strong, which should be indicated by his manly name.  It was his first ‘big dog’ hike and he treated it like he had something to prove, shaking those haters off left and right. 
windy is an understatement
Despite the powerful gusts of wind that almost sent me tumbling off the cliffs, he made it up that ‘mountain’ with energy to spare and had a blast romping around the summit with the big dogs.
Our first family photo in Scotland. Can you tell how windy it was?
The view.
I couldn’t get him to sit still for a picture, but I feel like this shot captures some of his exuberance:
He made it back down the hill with minimal effort and everyone was pretty impressed with his stamina. The only problem with his new found endurance is that when I took him for his normal 1 mile walking route yesterday, he wasn’t satisfied. As soon as we turned towards home, he started tugging in the opposite direction on the lead, and when we got to our walkway he was downright defiant. The look on his face was asking, “Are you kidding me? You can’t take me mountain climbing and then expect me to be content with a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood gardens”.  Oh my sweet Sam, spoiled is not the word…
I have to put in a word for Bailey girl too, who also made me one proud momma on Saturday.
She stayed close by during the whole walk and came back every time we called her. Other than a few photo bombing incidents, she was nearly perfect.
I would have given her an A+ for performance if it weren’t for a stunt she pulled about 100 yards from the finish line. Why is it that perfectly well adjusted house dogs feel the need to roll around in sheep excrement? Disgusting. Oh well, it wasn’t like either one of them was escaping a bath when we got home anyway. It just would have been nice to not have sheep poop filling my nostrils for the hour car ride home.
more mud = more fun

 Here are a few more pictures from our hike:

That's all for today. I hope you had an amazing weekend and I'll see you next year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Highs and Lows, Christmas Edition

It’s been a weird week with Jonathan having 2 ½ days off right smack in the middle of it. It was nice to have a weekend built into the work week, but also left me super busy with chores and errands on the few days where he did go to work. Hopefully next week will settle more into a routine so that I don’t have to clean the entire house in one day. Bleh. I prefer to space it out. But since I don’t have that luxury and still have toilets to scrub and stairs to vacuum, let’s get down to business. Here are this week's highs and lows.

1) Today is Tanvi and Ram’s official moving day. I’m wishing them all the luck in the world and I’m excited to see what adventures Dubai has in store for them. I’m praying that they find a group of friends that is as supportive and fun as what they are leaving behind in Aberdeen. But I’m also super pouty and sad about the fact that they don’t live here anymore.
Tanvi, you better keep that blog updated on a regular basis and please please please post as many pictures of Luca as possible. I need my fix.

2) Spending Christmas away from family. That’s all I have to say about that.
3) I got a notice from Blogger that I was infringing on someone’s copyrights and if I didn’t fix the issue my blog would be removed and that perhaps I should seek legal consul. Bloggers, beware…even if you source a photo, some trolls will police your blog that only your friends and family follow and threaten to shut down your non-profitable operation. Good to know. So now I am trying to go back and make sure I didn’t make that mistake on other blog entries which is going to take quite a while.
It's probably not that big of a deal, but I am the epitome of a law abiding teacher's pet. Finding out that I broke a rule or that someone is mad at me seriously ruins my entire week.

4) Most everybody left Aberdeen for Christmas, and those that didn’t have left for New Years. It’s quite lonely in the ‘Deen and I’m a bit anxious about how I’m going to spend my time with crummy weather and no housewives to entertain me.

1) Spending Christmas with friends. We had plans with friends on both Christmas Eve and Christmas, and if I had to be away from my family this holiday season, I can’t think of anybody else I’d rather spend it with.
My abs seriously hurt from laughing so hard during the festivities.

2) Sunny skies. We had 4 days of sunshine this week; a little island of Vitamin D in a sea of misery. It was great to get out of the house and I spent about 2 hours per day outside with the dogs.
3) Going to see Life of Pi on Boxing Day. I absolutely loved it. The book is a longtime favorite of mine and I was happy to see that the film did it justice. I love metaphors and symbolism and this story delivers on both counts.  Not to mention it was beautifully done. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen (or read) it yet.
(P.S. I didn't make this poster. I found the image on wikipedia. So if you did make this poster and you are upset about it being on my blog, please take it up with them...)

4) We rearranged the layout of our living room and I love it so much more now.

The only problem is that with the new arrangement, we now have room for a full sized sofa in the bay window.
The sofa saga continues…

What about your Christmas week? Highs and Lows?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Cookin'

I've kept very busy over the holiday season with various get togethers and festive events, most of which required a food contribution. I made a few of my favorite concoctions, but also used the opportunity to experiment with some enticing Pinterest ideas.

Any one else notice how trendy Brie is right now? I can’t log onto Pinterest without developing a serious craving for the French cheese. When we had a pot luck Book Exchange party for book club a few weeks back, I wasn’t quite sure what I was making, but I knew that Brie would be the main ingredient.

I didn’t have to search too hard to find a simple enough recipe for bite sized brie bites. The fact that it only required 3 ingredients was icing on the cake. And when your 3 ingredients are puff pastry dough, brie, and chutney, can you really go wrong?
Apparently not, or else I would certainly have some tips on how NOT to make this recipe, but instead I came out with an edible treat on my first try.

You basically just buy pre-made puff pastry dough at the store. Roll it flat (unless you are super lazy like me and buy the pre-rolled puff pastry), and cut it into squares. Place a small, thin square of brie in the middle, and top it with chutney. I used a apple, cider, and fig version that is seriously yummy.
Once the Brie and chutney are on board, press the four corners of the dough together. You can use water to help them stick, or allow them to open a bit while baking. It all tastes the same, just depends on what you're going for with presentation. I opted for the open look.
Then bake them in the oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or so.
Easy and yummy. The only problem was that we had to let the book group know if we were making a sweet or savoury dish so that we could make sure we had a balance of the two. What would you classify Brie Bites under? I went with savoury, but they definitely go a long way for satisfying my sweet tooth.
They were so simple that I decided to make them for the White Elephant gift exchange party with my girl friends, and I got really gutsy and tried the same formula with goat cheese and honey. Amen. Not to toot my own oven, but they were good.
Since I was hosting the White Elephant Gift exchange, I also made peanut butter cookies, bruschetta, and Swedish meatballs. I mentioned in a previous post that I spent a small fortune on grape jelly and Heinz chilli sauce so that I could make this recipe for cocktail meatballs. When I actually went to make them I noticed the recipe called for three cans of jelly and three jars of Heinz chilli sauce.

Since I didn’t want to spend a month’s salary one on dish, I decided to improvise. I still used a full jar of jelly and chili sauce, but I added about 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard to the mix and only made 30 meatballs. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough marinade, but there was plenty. This dish was so easy to make and are a perfect snack for an at-home get together. I forgot to snap a photo so here is one from the site where I found the original recipe, and this is the link for the source.
A few of us decided to do a last minute Christmas Eve dinner and Jonathan volunteered to bring 3 of the 5 pheasants he brought home from his recent hunt. Since we needed space in our itty bitty freezer and cooking full birds freaks me out, I decided to let him be in charge of our Christmas dish.

However, not to be outdone, I went ahead and made Reindeer Bark to bring along as well. I made these last year as gifts, and have been collecting the necessary ingredients ever since we got to Aberdeen.
They don’t sell the Christmas M&Ms so I had to physically sort out the red and green M&Ms from 3 mega-packs I bought. I’m nothing if not resourceful. And now I’m left with a giant ziplock of all the non-Christmas colored M&Ms. Oh well they all taste the same in a buttery bag of popcorn, so I’m not sweating it.
It’s another simple and easy recipe that you really can’t mess up unless you just so happen to burn the white chocolate, which is really one of those things that you only do once…Lesson learned.

Monkey bread is another Christmas favorite of mine that I refused to live without this year. Our traditional recipe requires canned biscuits, which you can’t find in Scotland. I knew that if I could just make the biscuit dough from scratch, I should be able to replicate the breakfast food. When I spotted a box of ridiculously inflated bisquik, I decided to splurge so that I could later use it for this purpose.

However, two days before Christmas I started doing research and it seemed that monkey bread recipes made with bisquik didn’t turn out as good as the canned biscuit version. With my expectations lowered I decided to go a bit smaller and make Monkey Bread Muffins instead of a bundt cake. This meant I had to also alter the caramel sauce poured on top to avoid a big sticky mess.

This is the recipe I worked from, combining it with my inherent knowledge of monkey bread after years of assisting my Mom. I just substituted canned biscuits for dough made with Bisquik, and added a bit of sugar and cinnamon to the dough to sweeten it up. Next time I’ll use butter milk in place of skim to give it a richer flavoring. 
The Bisquik directions were simple enough, except for the requirement of kneading the dough 8 times. Kneading? Eight Times? Why not 7? Or 9? When instructions are that specific, I get a bit scared. Secondly…what the heck is kneading? I racked my brain and remembered that kneading is the setting on the manicurist massage chairs when it feels like someone is grinding their brass knuckles into your back. So I grounded my fists in a rolling motion over the dough 8 times.
Jonathan walked in during this process and instantly told me that I wasn’t ‘kneading’ correctly. Apparently, kneading does not call for a full body massage of the dough. Whatevs, it came out looking like the stuff that comes out of a can so I proceeded to roll it flat with a rolling pin and cut the dough into small squares, each the size of a quarter biscuit.

I rolled each quarter into a ball and then I plopped them into a butter and maple syrup mixture. Once they had been coated with butter, I plopped them into a ziplock bag full of sugar, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Once they were coated in sugar, I plopped them into a cupcake tin 5 at a time, and gently pressed down so that the little biscuit pieces stuck together.
(Notice that this method involves a lot of plopping. That direction is to be strictly followed. There can be no placing of bisuit dough into required ingredients. They must be plopped. Trust me.) 

I then drizzled some more of the butter/syrup concoction over them before plopping them in the oven for 17 minutes or so.
They turned out pretty good. Not quite so good as the full loaf of monkey bread, but enough to fill the void on Christmas morning. Plus, the muffins were an excellent way to maintain portion control. Instead of slicing off a big heaping piece of cake I just had one muffin for breakfast...and one for a mid-morning snack...and one for a pre-lunch appetizer, 1 for a post-lunch dessert, 1 with my afternoon tea, and 5 for Christmas dessert. Everything in moderation.

Follow these links to find the recipes that inspired the ones in this post:
Brie Bites
Swedish Meatballs
Reindeer Bark
Monkey Bread Muffins

And here is the flesh and blood, life-size monkey bread recipe that I have been loving my whole entire life:

Monkey Bread
½ cup pecans chopped
½ cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3 10 oz cans buttermilk biscuits
¾ cup finely packed brown sugar
½ cup melted butter

Sprinkle pecans in bottom of well greased bundt pan
Combine sugar and cinnamon
Cut biscuits in quarters
Roll each quarter in sugar mixture
Layer in pan
Combine brown sugar and butter and pour over biscuits
Bake at 350 for 30 or 40 minutes
Invert pan on serving platter

Great, now I'm drooling. What Christmas foods would you miss the most if you had to spend the day away from family?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day and Christmas Traditions

While most of you Americans are headed back to work today, the UK is celebrating Boxing Day. The British Commonwealth basically traded Christmas Eve for the day after, so while the grocery stores and businesses were open for December 24, they are mostly shut down today.

I’ll never forget my very first ‘Boxing Day’. In 2004, I was visiting my parents in Nigeria for the holidays and on the day after Christmas we headed to the beach for some relaxation.
When we got home we had several messages from concerned family and friends. They knew we went to the beach and they knew there was a Tsunami that wiped out several Boxing Day celebrants on the coasts of Asia and Africa.

Fortunately, our outing was on the Western rather than Eastern coast of Africa. The damage was thousands of miles from us but I couldn’t help but feel like we had dodged a bullet. It could have easily been otherwise. My dad could have been stationed in Indonesia rather than Nigeria. The earth could have moved in the Atlantic rather than the Indian Ocean. So on every Boxing Day since then I’m re-hit with a gratitude for my life and a remembrance that at any moment it can be swiped from me.

I’m grateful that Jonathan has the day off. For one thing, he needs time to recuperate after all of the Christmas festivities we’ve enjoyed over the past 2 days. Also, it’s our second gloriously sunny day in a row which goes so far in giving us a good attitude despite being far from our families during this holiday season.
I only cried like 6 times yesterday, so all in all I think I’m handling it like a champ. Jonathan would say I’m handling it like an irrational crazy person, but crazy is in the eye of the beholder.
Honestly the hardest thing about Christmas as an expat is altering your expectations. Instead of dwelling on the traditions we’re missing out on, we’re trying hard to focus on creating new traditions, while attempting to incorporate all the feasible ones from back home into our own routine. Here’s a list of my favorite family traditions and how we’re making do over here in the UK.

1) Reading the gospel retelling of Jesus’ birth. Hey, we have a bible over here. So Jonathan has to read in place of my Dad, but the words still bring the same joyful meaning.

2) Baking a birthday cake for Jesus. A cake is a little much for the two of us to consume in the Messiah's honor, so instead I made Jesus some Christmas bark for his 2012th birthday 
3) Going to a movie on Christmas day. We had other plans yesterday, so we’re making it a Boxing Day movie instead. We’re going to the 4:40 feature of Life of Pi later this afternoon with some displaced American friends who happen to have this same tradition with their family back home.

4) Opening one present on Christmas Eve. We still did this with the two of us.
My new running watch, a gift from Bailey girl:)
5) White Elephant Gift Exchange. I did this with my girlfriends in Aberdeen and it was such a success. We’ll surely make it an annual tradition.
6) Monkey bread! This is my all-time favorite Christmas morning breakfast. It’s made with canned biscuits which are nonexistent in Scotland. I improvised with making biscuits from scratch and instead of a whole loaf I just made mini muffins.
They weren’t exactly the same but they satisfied the need. I plan on writing a separate blog post on my holiday recipes so look forward to that.

7) Handing out a smack down during a girls vs boys game of Trivial Pursuit. We didn’t have Trivial Pursuit so instead we handed out a smack down during a girls vs boys game of Taboo. We also played some charades, UNO, and BINGO over the past few days which curbed my competitive cravings.
8) Mario Cart tournaments.
Jonathan and I finally set up our wii this past week simply for this purpose and we have been having fun honing our driving skills. I’ve gotten much better since I now realize that for the game they drive on the left hand side of the road. No wonder I was so awful before!

There are still traditions that we can’t replace:
- Watching my nephews open their presents on Christmas morning.
- Hitting the day after Christmas sales with the women while Jonathan plays a round of golf with the men.
- Enjoying my grandmother’s sugar cookies which I can’t seem to replicate no matter how hard I try.
- Seeing extended family and taking pictures of every possible family combination my mother can think of.
What are some of your favorite family traditions during the holiday season? We could use some help coming up with new ideas of how to make this time a special one for our itty bity family of four.