And So Lent Begins. Only 39 Days until Easter.

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Yesterday morning I took a little detour on my mile-long walk to work and stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Despite being dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surround it, the cathedral cuts a majestic figure, all towering Neo-Gothic spires and stained glass. It takes up an entire city block on its own; more than 3,000 people can find solace in its pews. Once inside, I joined a quick-moving line of city dwellers and tourists, all marveling at the intricate statues and prayer stations along the walls. Then it was my turn—a smiling priest dipped his thumb in dark ash, from palm fronds blessed last Palm Sunday, and rubbed it on my forehead in the shape of a cross. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It was Ash Wednesday, and Lent had officially begun.

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Posing in the cold after getting my ashes at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Lent, a period often described as (but not always literally) lasting for forty days, leads up to the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead on Easter. There’s fasting (no meat on Ash Wednesday or on Fridays), atonement (via confession and prayer), and the donation of money or time to the less fortunate. Catholics try with renewed vigor to connect with God through prayer and sacrifice: it’s common to “give up” something that you enjoy, specifically a sinful habit or a vice you want to curb. As a kid, I always gave up biting my nails—until I didn’t really bite them anymore. After that I usually picked a dessert food: cake, cookies, ice cream, potato chips. One year I renounced fast food. But these days I rarely snack on pastries unless I’ve baked them myself or know they’re not loaded with additives, and I almost never eat fast food. It took some brainstorming to decide on a Lenten promise for 2016, but I eventually settled on two, one physical and one mental.

First, my remaining bad food habit: bingeing on snacks at nighttime when watching TV. Often I’ll feel so proud of how I ate during the day—yogurt and fruit for breakfast, nuts as a midmorning snack, a salad for lunch, a little dark chocolate and a coffee as a midafternoon snack, and finally a home-cooked dinner—but then when I get home I’ll pull out the gummy bears, the sour worms, the licorice, the chocolate-dipped figs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat that kind of stuff in moderation, but lately it seems I pop open those bags more often than not. So, for Lent, I will give up eating candy at night when I get home from work.

Second, I want to be slower to criticize and to try harder to think positive. I don’t think I complain an undue amount, but I’ll sometimes snap when annoyed without forethought about my words or my delivery. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, I’m going to attempt to find the silver lining in everything. Standing on crowded subway train? At least that will wake me up a little bit more than sitting would have. Working late? At least I get along with my coworkers and have a boyfriend who will pick me up.

I’m not sure I’ll succeed completely, but I’ll try my best, and I’m sure God will appreciate my effort. Hopefully I can learn from the next forty days, instill into my life new ways of thinking and being that will carry forward even after Easter.

What are you giving up for Lent? How else do you celebrate the season?

All Things New

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I admit that I find solace in my habits and routines. They help me feel safe, secure, protected, comfy. But one of my goals for 2016 was to get out into the world and create new experiences, no matter how tremulous I might feel about them. And I’m proud to say that, with the help of my family and friends, I’m making progress!

In January, my cousin (and soon-to-be maid of honor) and I participated in an Escape the Room game, where you’re locked in a room for an hour and have to solve puzzles in order to escape. We had fun strategizing, throwing out theories, and figuring out clues—but ultimately we failed to make it out in time. Even though we didn’t succeed, it was worth it just to spend time together. And the delicious Italian dinner we shared afterward definitely made us feel better.

On Saturday, I tried out a new hair salon with my mom. I hadn’t been happy with the brassy golden tones lingering in my hair, and I wanted to add some long layers to give it body without cutting off too much. It’s hard, but I’m trying to grow it out for my wedding in August. (Can you believe it’s only six months away?!) Not only did Mom and I get free cappuccinos at the new place, but our hair came out just as we had hoped it would.

On Sunday, I attended my first yoga class! Run by the donation-based Yoga to the People at the Upper West Side studio, the vinyasa class focused on smooth transitions between movements and basic poses like child’s pose, downward-facing dog, upward dog, chair pose, crescent pose, warrior I and II, camel pose, and a few others. Though I didn’t feel like I got a calorie-torching workout, I found the hour-long class enjoyable: it helped me find calmness and balance, both inside and out. I think I’ll try another class one of these days—maybe even hot yoga!

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With my new haircut, ready for yoga class.

Recipe: Walnut-Topped Blueberry Loaf

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Is it a bread? Is it a cake? The beauty of this walnut-topped blueberry loaf is its versatility, its ability to be whichever you want it to be. It’s not too sugary, so it tastes great toasted, blueberries bursting, and slathered with butter for breakfast. But its moist, dense texture and sweet topping also pair well with coffee or tea. The best way to decide? Bake it yourself and try it both ways!

I promise it’s easy, and definitely worth the effort. (Note: I used the strawberry-basil loaf recipe in the cookbook Ovenly as a guide.) You’ll be so glad tomorrow morning, when you slice it up for breakfast. And then again after dinner, when you have an excuse to eat another piece for dessert.

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Blueberry loaf, fresh from the oven

INGREDIENTS
~1/4 cup white sugar, plus more for topping
~1/4 cup brown sugar
~1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
~2 eggs
~1/4 cup maple syrup, plus more for drizzling
~1 tbsp. almond extract
~1.25 cups flour
~1 tsp. baking soda
~1 tsp. baking powder
~1/2 tsp. salt
~Zest from 1 lemon
~1 cup buttermilk
~1/2 cup to 1 cup blueberries (or as many as you want, really), rolled in 2 tbsp. flour
~Cinnamon, for topping
~Walnuts, for topping

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Loaf slices, loaded with blueberries

PREPARATION
~Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan and set aside.
~In a large bowl, combine sugars and butter and whisk until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, blending after each. Add maple syrup and almond extract, then mix well.
~In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest.
~Add dry ingredients from the small bowl to the large bowl. Add buttermilk and blend until thoroughly combined.
~Fold in blueberries.
~Pour batter into loaf pan, then sprinkle walnuts along the top. (Though I only used a handful of nuts, I recommend using more than that because they add a nice, satisfying crunch to the loaf.)
~Dust with cinnamon and sugar, then drizzle maple syrup in a zigzag pattern along the top of the loaf.
~Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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I gave half the blueberry loaf to my parents and a couple slices to coworkers. By the next evening, the remainder was gone as well, settled firmly in Todd and my stomachs.

 

Winter Reading: One-Sentence Book Reviews

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This weekend more than two feet of snow settled atop New York City’s streets and resulted in a travel ban and transit shutdown on Saturday that effectively trapped me at home. Despite all that, I had a great weekend: snow shoveling led to a snowball fight and a snow angel, followed by hot chocolate laden with marshmallows and whipped cream; Todd and I finally had time to relax and catch up on season six of Royal Pains; and I baked a walnut-topped blueberry loaf.

But one of my favorite moments during the blizzard came on Saturday morning while everyone else still slept, and I curled up on the couch with a blanket and a book in front of our electric fireplace. There are few activities as cozy and pleasurable as that, especially when you’re reading a novel you can’t put down. Unfortunately I’ve also slogged through some duds since I last posted a reading update. To help you decide what to pick up and what to pass over, I decided to write up a few one-sentence reviews about my winter reading picks thus far:

Worth It…

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks: The first in the Lightbringer series, this fantasy newcomer delivers a fresh, funny protagonist; an action-packed story with a mind-blowing twist; and a really detailed and really cool system of magic based on color.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker: This gripping novel brings to life two creatures of legend, a golem named Chava and a genie whose real name is never revealed—and in prose as mesmerizing as the gleam of a magic lamp, it chronicles their very real, very human struggles.

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller: Romance, tragedy, and magic fill readers of this short novel with a yearning and nostalgia they didn’t even realize they possessed.

Don’t Bother…

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Though it began with a fun premise and quirky family dynamic, this novel quickly became an uninspiring commentary on urban life, with flat characters and lessons never learned.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire: A far cry from the delights of Wicked, this fantasy retelling succeeds only in making readers feel as though they’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and, in order to get back home, must wade through tiresome bouts of wordplay, boring character cameos, and two story lines that mostly ignore each other.

Season of Salt and Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe: This breezy book’s thin plot and too-easy ending leave the reader unable to find anything meaningful in its love-story drama.

Recipe: Morning Glory Layer Cake

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The idea started small: buy dessert to bring to Staten Island on Sunday when we visited Todd’s parents. Soon after, I thought, why spend money on a sugar-loaded treat when I could make something myself? But when I considered each person’s tastes, it became clear that I couldn’t just bake a simple bundt cake or box brownies. I decided on a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I’d never made one before, so I searched online for a recipe; I settled on this one, mostly because it looked good in the picture.

Though I’d chosen a recipe, I didn’t feel ready to bake yet. I wanted to try something new—two somethings, in fact. The first, the mini heart-shaped layering pans I’d bought in advance of Valentine’s Day. The second, the new KitchenAid stand mixer my parents gave me and Todd for Christmas. But something still felt incomplete, so I decided to add dried papaya, dried apple, and dried pineapple to my cake, basically rendering it a morning glory cake instead of carrot. Thus, my Saturday baking project was born.

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My finished cake! The layers look very dark, but I swear it wasn’t burnt.

INGREDIENTS
~2.25 cups flour
~2 tbsp. baking soda
~1/4 tsp. salt
~4 tbsp. cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling
~3 large eggs
~3/4 cup buttermilk
~3/4 cup vegetable oil
~1/2 cup tart apple juice (I like fuji apple by Red Jacket Orchards)
~1 cup sugar
~1/2 cup brown sugar
~2 tsp. vanilla extract
~2 cups shredded carrots
~1 cup walnuts, chopped, plus more for decoration
~1 cup raisins, plus more for decoration
~1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes, plus more for decoration
~1/2 cup each dried pineapple, dried apple, dried papaya, all diced (I used fruit from Costco’s Kirkland fruit and nut mix)
~2 tubs cream cheese frosting (about 30 oz.) for a naked cake like mine, probably more if you want to frost the sides as well. I used Pilsbury cream cheese frosting, and I do not recommend it—too sweet, no cream cheese taste. Your best bet, and what I wish I’d done, is to find a recipe online and just make it yourself.)

*Note: This recipe is for one 8 x 12 cake or several mini cakes depending on pan size.

 

PREPARATION

~Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease pans and set aside.
~In a medium bow, sift flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
~To a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer, if using), add eggs, buttermilk, oil, apple juice, sugars, and vanilla. Mix well.
~Pour the dry mixture into the large bowl and thoroughly combine.
~Fold in carrots, walnuts, raisins, coconut flakes, and dried fruits.
~Bake until browned and a toothpick comes out clean. My mini cakes took about 20 minutes; the original recipes says to bake an 8 x 12 cake for 1 hour.
~Let cake rest until completely cool. Then frost and stack each layer. Decorate the top with remaining walnuts, raisins, and coconut flakes—or any other topping you choose.

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A tall, thin slice of moist fruit-filled morning glory cake.

Enjoy!

Making Some Wedding-Planning Progress

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I’m a big planner: lists, colorful charts, detailed itineraries. So you can only imagine the zeal with which I’m planning what will probably be the biggest day in my life—my wedding. Luckily we started way ahead of schedule, since Todd proposed in Disney World two years from the date we planned to marry. We booked the venue, Nicotra’s Ballroom in Staten Island, as soon as possible, before the date could fill up. Then we made our way down the checklist:

Bridal Party
Originally I’d hoped for a big bridal party with my and Todd’s friends. But due to costs, friends’ travel plans, and a desire to also involve family in our wedding, we decided not to have a dedicated bridal party after all. Instead, we’re going to have our closest family walk down the aisle before us, and our best man and maid of honor stand up there with us. I’m lucky to have my cousin as my maid of honor; I know I can count on her to always be there for me. In the past we’ve created our own newsletter, started our own band, made “fancy dresses” out of our grandmother’s sewing materials, watched countless horror movies and once slept with a knife under the bed after a particularly scary flick, and have never been afraid to just act silly and be our truest selves together.

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We took these photos in a mall photo booth while shopping for wedding dresses a few months ago.

Music
We decided on a jazz band for the ceremony and cocktail hour; we wanted something that felt upbeat but still a little sophisticated. And since Todd’s a musician, he loved the idea of having live musicians play for part of our special day. As for the reception, we booked a DJ through Platinum Entertainment. What swayed us was their huge index of songs and artists available online, so we can listen to samples and select certain songs we definitely want to hear—and several that we don’t. We can even upload new songs to the database if a tune we want isn’t there already.

Flowers
We thought we’d settled on a florist for the ceremony and reception, but because of recent unfortunate events, we’re back in the market for one. We want to keep the flowers low-key, like a bouquet you might picked while wandering through a sunny meadow. We do want some color, just to give them a little pop, but for the most part we’re hoping for pastels and whites. Hopefully we’ll be able to settle this soon; I’m starting to get a little nervous as the date gets closer!

The Dress
No, I still haven’t found the one, the dress whose swish is like a whisper of sweet nothings in my ear. I’ve found some that I like, a few that I really like, but I’m still on the hunt for that perfect dress. Maybe I won’t find it, and I’m trying not to stress about it, but I don’t want to give up just yet. Plus, I have to admit I kind of like trying on fluffy ball gowns and parading around in them. I’m going to try on some more this weekend, so keep your fingers crossed I’ll find one I love.

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I loved the detailing on this dress, but my dad said it looked too much like lingerie, so I had to cross this one off the list.

Book Review: The Lightkeepers

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9781619026001_p0_v2_s192x300.jpg I stumbled across The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni on a recommended reading list, where reviewers had described it as a locked-room mystery a la Agatha Christie. You have to understand: I loved And Then There Were None so much that a few friends and I tried making an amateur film version of the book. So I couldn’t resist ordering this new title and reading it as soon as it arrived—and I have to say that I’m so glad I did.

The premise seems simple at first. Miranda, a nature photographer, travels on assignment to the remote Farallon Islands off the coast of California, where she then lives with six biologists studying the wildlife there. But slowly the plot thickens: Miranda writes letters to her deceased mother; one of the scientists is found floating in the water, dead; two of the cabin’s occupants sneak off together in the middle of the night.

The novel takes its time unraveling the secrets of the island and the biologists struggling to survive on its harsh terrain, but that just lends to the story’s beauty. It helps that Geni’s prose is superb. She relies on stark sentences, a rhythm that is constantly moving yet incredibly detailed, and a voice that is at once unbearably close and utterly detached. In writing The Lightkeepers, the author seems to have take the same approach that her biologists encourage when it comes to the flora and fauna they encounter on the island: observe, but do not interfere. The characters adopt a life of their own, and to the reader each becomes incredibly real—and potentially dangerous.

Peppered throughout the novel are short musings by the protagonist on universal themes like human nature and its limits, memory and its reliability, and photography and its ability to capture things that the mind might not want to see. In one instance, Miranda thinks:

“Photography is immediate. It does not offer the luxury of time. Faced with blood, death, or transformation, a photographer has no choice but to reach for the camera. An artist first, a human being afterward. Photography is a neutral record of all events, a chronicle of things both sublime and terrible. By necessity, this work is made without emotion, without connection, without love.”

But despite thoroughly sinking into and enjoying this novel, I did have a few qualms with it. The prologue takes the reader into the future and (I think) gives away too much of the story’s ending. Plus, I ultimately found the plot too predictable—I guessed the outcome halfway through—though I savored the journey to the solution regardless.

Overall, I highly recommend adding this to your bookshelves. It’s both a suspenseful mystery and a poignant work of fiction, offering insight into our own fight-or-flight responses to danger and deception, our own primal core.