28 October 2010

One is the loneliest number

(and now I have the Filter version of that song from the X-Files movie stuck in my head...)

The Spousal Unit and I went to Life Group on Sunday night.  We had a good time.  PW makes dinner and then we get into a directed study for a while afterwards.  One of the things I really like about it is Head Guy keeps things within a time frame.  We can all talk, question, et cetera, but if it's getting close to the magic hour, he'll note that we need to wrap it up and then keep it directed towards that end.  Yay for someone who can land the plane!

Anyhoo, we are currently going through the parables and the PotW** was about the sheep - you know, the one that goes skipping merrily off from the ninety-nine and the shepherd goes to find it.  One of the questions posed was why the shepherd (or us, really) might go after the one and the general consensus was because we knew what kind of trouble the sheep could get its little self into.  Plus, we also know what the sheep is capable of - both good and bad.

The conversation switched to types of sheep and boundaries were brought up; specifically, the idea that grace is a part of sheep-catching but that doesn't mean the fluffy little bugger gets to overrun your boundaries and/or take advantage of you.  Jesus showed grace but He also called people on their issues when He needed to.  Forgiveness does not recreate you into a door mat.  It doesn't require that you lay down and let the person walk all over you.  Forgiveness does not necessarily equal relationship restoration in some cases.  At that point, it's basically saying, "I care about you and I love you.  I am forgiving you for what you have done to me because I need to in order to be able to move on."

It also doesn't mean God isn't going to allow Woolyhead the consequences of his/her actions.  We all make good and bad choices and I have yet to see God somehow completely go against the laws of nature and wipe out every consequence or every hurt from memory and set the counter back to zero.  God can (and has) done miraculous things but I think He also sees the value in us learning from what we've done and working to set things right both in the horizontal and the vertical.  How can we grow if everything that comprised our learning becomes a do-over?

While everyone was talking about the more visible types of sheep (addicts, thieves, etc), I started thinking about "other" sheep.  If Christians are the ninety-nine, then anyone who isn't is pretty much the "one".  I don't think that means we immediately go out and start proselytizing to people willy-nilly (wooly-bully?); however, I do think it means we need to invest in the lives of the "ones".

For example, the Spousal Unit and I go out to have a drink on Friday nights and talk about our week.  We usually get the same waitress and we've kind of gotten to know her a bit.  Last Friday before we left, the SU spent some time talking to her about how she was doing in school and what was going on.  As we walked out to the car, I looked at him and said, "You're sowing."  His reply.  "Yup."  It's not a big thing.  It's not handing her a tract (oh, how I hate those).  It's just spending a couple minutes a week finding out who she is and what's important to her.  You gotta know somebody first, y'know?

My mom is one of the sheep who's kind of wandering on the outskirts of the flock - has been ever since my dad died.  She is lonely and afraid.  It's one of the reasons I talk to her every night.  She's already technically one of the ninety-nine but by investing in her, I know our relationship has grown and changed.  She talks to me now about things she wouldn't have before; things that concern and frighten her, worries she has about Heaven and my dad, insecurities, and so on.  I'll admit there are times I repeat that verse about "widows and orphans" because some days it's hard to get through that call.  Still, it's worth it to help her feel safe and secure not only in our relationship but also in the ones she will have after death.

So..the sum of all this nattering on?  Sheep.  They come in many forms.  Be on the lookout.

**PotW = Parable of the Week

25 October 2010

Chocolate Chip Cookies

I am normally not a fan of chocolate chip cookies since they tend to be overly sweet for my taste.  I suppose if I had to pick a cookie, I would be a total philistine and choose Mother's chocolate chip cookies (if you grew up in California, you know the cookies whereof I speak).  They had that slight chemical taste that screamed "I'm from an assembly line" and texture that had them trash-talking Twinkies about beating them in the longevity sweepstakes, but they were in my lunch everyday - thanks, Mom! - and therefore, inevitably I suppose, what I compared any homemade chocolate chip cookie against.  Although I'm pretty sure purists would weep, the Mother's brand always came out on top.

I tried various chocolate chip cookie recipes over the years but could never find one that didn't make my teeth ache or the roof of my mouth tingle like some dental Bat-signal my teeth were going to begin rotting in 3...2...1.  My cookie baking experiences over the last couple decades were therefore spent making oatmeal raisin, shortbread, and various other kinds of cookies.  I'd occasionally dip a toe back into the chocolate chip side of the pool but never found a recipe that I liked.

Then I saw a post on another blog about a chocolate cookie recipe from the New York Times.  Instead of regular flour, it uses a combination of bread flour and cake flour, and then adds in chocolate that is at least 60% bittersweet and sea salt.  The combination of bread and cake flour makes a much better base, IMO, to house the chocolate pieces.  Somehow it manages to neutralize the overly sugary taste I find in other chocolate chip cookie doughs and allows the bittersweet chocolate to take center stage.  The sea salt sprinkled on top of the cookies before baking creates a lovely contrast between the slight sugar sweetness still evident in the dough and the chocolate pieces themselves.  The cookie itself is crispy on the outside and softer/chewier towards the center with almost a carmel-like taste in the background.

The recipe is as follows:

Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from Jacques Torres)

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note**)
Sea salt.

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

The one instruction that you need to make sure you follow is to let the dough rest.  This allows the flavors to blend together better and the flour to absorb some of the moist aspect of the dough. I usually take the dough out of the fridge and let it sit for one to two hours so it starts coming back up to room temp.  It makes it a little easier to scoop out when I start baking.

**I've only made one recipe change and that is I tend to use a mix of bagged, store-bought semi/bittersweet pieces with the "better" bittersweet chocolate.  While I love the flavor of really good chocolate, it's unfortunately a lot more expensive than semisweet or bittersweet pieces.  So, when I make this recipe, I split the difference.  And I know the sea salt may sound strange but give it a try!  

I also don't make the cookies as big as the recipe calls for.  If I'm spending that much time on cookies, I do want a bit of bang for my buck, y'know?  I tend to make them around the size of a very large tablespoon or two.  That way, I get around four dozen cookies versus the one-and-one-half dozen in the original recipe.

Moral of the story?  For me, I think I have a winner in the chocolate chip cookie sweepstakes.  It isn't overly sweet, has great texture and is very satisfying.  The next time I want to make chocolate chip cookies, this will probably be the recipe I reach for.

12 October 2010

"The Year of Living Biblically" (Or, how I followed lots and lots of rules)

The part in quotes is the title of a book by A.J. Jacobs. He's also written The Know-It All about his mission to read through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  I find "outsider" views on religion in general and Christianity in particular to be interesting, sort of a window into what separates my belief system from someone else's and why.  This book, however, didn't do much more than scratch the surface of anything, including the author's reasons for even embarking on this escapade.

Jacobs' idea is to live out the rules of the Bible and follow them as closely as possible.  He will spend eight months with the Old Testament and four months with the New Testament in an effort to...well, I'm not really sure other than I think Esquire magazine (his employer) and his book publisher thought it would make good reading.

Jacobs' heritage is Jewish so it makes sense he would start with the Old Testament and he is also up front in admitting his heritage makes him step back from the idea of Jesus as the Messiah.  His forays into Old Testament living include the 600+ rules that made up life for people in the OT.  He lets his hair and beard grow, he doesn't mix clothing fibers, he observes the correct procedure for touching/not touching his wife when she is considered ritually unclean, etc.  His New Testament wanderings include snake handlers, Jerry Falwell, the biblical creationists in Kentucky, and Red-Letter Christians; an interesting mix for the latter but also one that is rather stereotypical and easy to categorize both for himself and for any reader who may also only have a passing interest in Christianity.  It's actually a kind of polarizing group of New Testament "spokespeople" that he picks.  Now, mind, I certainly don't agree with Falwell on just about anything and I've never handled a snake in my life (for example) but many people have preconceived ideas about these groups of people and would, I think, read those chapters with an eye towards those quotes or impressions that would bolster their own opinions.  Rather than go for easy and identifiable, I would have liked to see Jacobs search out a few less Christian monoliths and a few more smaller churches or groups.

I think the biggest issue I had with Jacobs is he never really surrenders himself to the idea of God as an actual Person who has an interest in and love for A.J..  From reading his previous book, it's apparent he enjoys knowledge and facts but it seems he enjoys them simply for the fact of knowing them and nothing seemed to ever really penetrate beyond "Wow, isn't that interesting."  He amasses books and lists and rules simply for the sake of doing so and then sets about trying to live them.  The leap he seems to be unable to make is that Jesus' coming to Earth removed the need to live by those rules.  They are no longer valid.  For all his perusing and rule-checking and interviewing both Christian and Jewish leaders, no one seems to really mention the idea of grace, that we are free to screw up and can come ask forgiveness and start over again.  He misses that Christianity is not merely a bunch of rules to live by, get a grade when we die, and then live out the afterlife on A, B or C cloud layer.  If so, then Jacobs would already have lost in his quest to follow the rules.  God is holy and can have nothing to do with anything that isn't.  The law (the Old Testament) was death.  Nobody could keep it.  You could sacrifice at the temple until the cows came home but it didn't keep you current in terms of atonement for your sins.  That was why Jesus came.  He came to do away with the rules and bring us in to a direct relationship with God.  No more sacrifices or middle men.  We would be able to speak directly to the Creator of the universe and he to us.

In the New Testament, yes, there are rules and guidelines that Jesus laid out for his apostles but it is not nearly as rigid as Jacobs makes it.  Since God also gave us free will, we have the choice to obey or not.   He misses that as we pursue Jesus, and that by doing so, we grow to become more like Him.  As we grow to be more like Him, we desire to follow what He laid out.  There is a connection that goes deeper than rules, deeper than simply following the letter of the law, and by not allowing himself to jump off the metaphorical bridge and experience the relationship aspect of Jesus, I think Jacobs really missed the boat.

So, overall?  I found the book interesting and somewhat humorous in watching Jacobs struggle with the legalistic aspects of Christianity with a smile and a "been there, done that" nod to his musings but I wish he would have come away with a greater understanding that God is not just a set of rules.  He is also a relationship.

04 October 2010

Rising from the Ashes

It's been a long time since I've written on this blog. I had fantastic intentions when I started it. However, as has been said, "life is what happens when you start making plans". In the past months, I have lost a business, moved, had to realize that my spine is pretty much permanently effed up and it's just going to have to be a fact of my life now, and that my house (which we also lost) is in foreclosure.

So, yeah, not the most happy-making last several months of my life.

But ('cause there is always a but) there is still my ever-wonderful Spousal Unit who brightens my day in ways I don't think he ever really understands, the cats who provide endless amusement and not a little bit of WTF?, God and the fact He continues to provide for us and give us "enough" as He told me he would almost two years ago, good books, friends, and the fact I'm still cooking up a storm.

So I'm grabbing the dust cloth and the polish and hoping to give this place a bit of a shine-up.