Just November Things

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Saturday was the perfect pie baking day. I can’t believe it’s November but it’s still warm enough to leave the door open. I love the way the breeze blows the leaves in through the open door. That and the sound of the wind chimes.

Of course, no baking day would feel quite right without the baking hairdo. It’s a very complicated technique. The higher the hair, the better the pie. That’s my theory anyway.

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My favorite pie in the whole world right now is this one. I went to look it up and my browser informed me that I had last visited this page back in FEBRUARY. I was a little horrified at how long I had neglected it. 

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You’ve got to try it. It combines maple syrup, pecans, and peaches…all of the best things! If you use canned peaches like I did, make sure they’re completely drained and add a little extra flour and cornstarch. Also if you don’t have bourbon, you can substitute vanilla and rum extract. I couldn’t be bothered to make an extra stop at the liquor store (here in Maryland, grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell alcohol), but 1/2 teaspoon of rum extract and 1 teaspoon vanilla per pie (plus enough water to equal the 3 tablespoons of bourbon) worked really well.

Oh, also, edge crimping hack: my mother told me that little girls make the best edges because they have tiny little fingers, and she’s right. But since I don’t have any of those yet I use my pinky finger and it’s not too bad!

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It’s November and my garden is all dug out and my carrots came out looking a little less like the picture on the seed packet and a little more like something from a horror movie. Carrots, what did I ever do to you? Sad, sad carrots.

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November also means that my canning is done and my favorite cupboard of all cupboards looks like this. Sometimes I am vain and I just stand and look at it.

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With the leaves changing and the weather cooling, in October I dragged Kevin to Harper’s Ferry to climb to the top with me. In this picture we are blissfully unaware of the evening that’s in store for us. Look how calm and ignorant we are because we have no idea that the shuttle bus that is supposed to take us two miles to our happy, warm little car that has the water bottles will ABANDON US in the old town.

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Basically the shuttle runs every fifteen minutes between the lower town and the parking lot, and the last one leaves at 6:45 at night. We were almost to the bottom of the giant hill mountain thing when we realized we were barely going to make it. So we RAN all the way down the path by the water, up the stairs, across the bridge, through the town, and we were still running, 20 feet away from the bus stop at 6:45:01 when the driver shut the doors and drove away without glancing back to see our desperate, horrified faces. We got to the benches at 6:45:30 and couldn’t believe what a difference thirty seconds can make sometimes.

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And then I was so thankful for a husband who is always, always prepared. Because he had planned ahead for this to happen and had already thought about directions and flashlights and maps. Don’t know what I would do without him! We made it back safely but as we walked I composed an irrationally heated Yelp review for Harper’s Ferry all about ATTENTION TO SURROUNDINGS AND DO YOU EVEN REARVIEW MIRROR which will never be posted because I am not a horrible person. But it did make me feel better.

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While we’re talking about fall things, I want to show you the pumpkin Kevin carved at our church’s Young Married’s fall gathering. I wanted a Cinderella carriage pumpkin so that’s what he made! It turned out great, but what you can’t tell from the picture is that it is a deceptively healthy looking pumpkin. On the inside it was completely rotten! I am now deeply mistrustful of all pumpkins. And to think that I had to dive headfirst to the bottom of the pumpkin bin at Aldi (with loud huffing sounds and legs flailing) to retrieve that thing. Ungrateful.

Happy Fall, everyone! Have some hot chocolate.

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Concord Grape Pie

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In fall in Western New York, you can smell the grapes in the air if you drive past the vineyards with your windows down. Growing up there is probably why making grape pie is one of my annual late-summer traditions, like canning peaches and making apple crisp. My grandpa made it almost every year and I think of him every time. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized how few people have ever heard of this deliciousness.

Basically it looks like blueberry pie and tastes tart, like a cross between sour cherry pie and grape jelly. So good.

Here’s the recipe and then I’ll go step by step:

Concord Grape Pie

9″ double crust pie crust

2 pounds concord grapes (about 4 or 5 cups)

1 cup white sugar

2 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon lemon juice

A pinch of salt

Pick the grapes off the stems and squeeze the pulp out of each grape into a medium saucepan, saving the skins. Cook down the grape pulp until it is soft and the seeds are starting to separate, then strain through a sieve to remove the seeds. Combine the grape pulp, skins, sugar, tapioca, flour, lemon juice, and salt. Pour into pie crust, add top crust, flute edges, and cut slits in the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until the juice starts bubbling out the sides and the top crust starts to brown. Note: you can add another tablespoon of flour if you don’t want the pie to be very juicy.

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Start by washing the grapes and taking them off the stems. (I was making two pies, so the grapes in this picture are double what you’ll need.)

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The most time consuming part of the whole process is probably squeezing the pulp out of each grape, but it really doesn’t take too long, especially if you do one in each hand.

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Place the pulp in a medium saucepan and cook on medium heat until they are soft and starting to separate from the seeds. You’ll want to stir occasionally but it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to boil them down.

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Use a sieve to strain out the seeds, and then discard them.

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Unless you know something amazing to do with grape seeds.

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Add all the other ingredients and stir until combined.

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Press the bottom crust into the pie pan and pour in the filling.

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Fun trick that I ALWAYS do with my top crusts. Cover a large dinner plate with saran wrap and then press out your top crust on it (I just use my hands, no rolling pin necessary). Then carefully turn the plate over onto the pie, remove the plate and peel off the saran wrap. Flute the edges and cut one inch slits to allow the steam to escape.

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Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the juice comes bubbling over the sides (and making those burning splattering sounds on your oven floor) and the top crust starts to brown.

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Sadly, you’ll need to let the pie cool before diving in. But then enjoy (try with ice cream)!

Relevancy & Credibility: Millennials and the Church

This post is primarily written by my husband, Kevin. Back story: our church has been hosting millennials meetings recently (geared to ages 15-30), trying to find out what makes our generation come to church and what makes us leave. Many at these meetings suggested creating new programs and events to bring in youth, but Kevin and I feel that the solution is much simpler. Here are a few thoughts; we welcome feedback!

IMG_1740The early twentieth century was defined by the Greatest Generation; the middle and late twentieth century by the baby boomers. As the twenty-first century dawns, everyone’s attention is turning toward the millennials. Politicians want to know what their hot-button issues are. Businesses want to know what products they want. Social commentators want to know what kind of a society we will pursue. And the church has questions too. Namely:

-How can the church attract and minister to millennials?

-How can the church retain millennials?

Two separate questions, but ones which I believe are completely interconnected.

Why are millennials leaving?

A big part of this is simply the endemic problem millennials have with commitment in general. In an age of unprecedented access to information, connectivity, and mobility, we have limitless options. With so many choices, many millennials find decision making and commitment difficult, but drifting and sampling easy. Add to this the increasing cacophony of voices demanding our time, money, intellect, and allegiance—in a way it’s easy to see why today’s young people are so prone to bounce around. I suppose in some ways this has always been true of the youth demographic and I doubt it will ever change. That being said, I believe the church can still wade into this churning tide of information and demanding voices and provide a safe, stable harbor.

This leads me to my first thought: the “relevancy” of the church lies in being an institutional rock, not a trendy corporation. I think many churches confuse relevancy with trendiness. But as a millennial, I can personally attest that the church has a lot to offer as a sanctuary where we can meet face-to-face, tune out an exhaustingly loud and busy world, turn off our devices and reconnect with ourselves, our neighbor, and our God.

Credibility

But if we want to be relevant, we first need to restore our credibility. The recurring theme of my discussions with both former and current churchgoers (and, I might add, those who have avoided church altogether) is that as Christians, individually and institutionally, we have largely lost our credibility. We have done this by:

  • creating a “Christian” subculture that is subpar in nearly every way
  • becoming more combative and less collegiate
  • overspiritualizing and preaching a message that is not lining up with reality

Credibility: A problem with “Christian” subculture

Throughout its history, one of the core tenets of the church was to celebrate, explore, support, and affirm that which is true, good, and beautiful—because these things are a reflection of our amazing God.

Yet the feedback I’ve gotten from Christians, atheists, and agnostics is that we have completely shot ourselves in the foot by so vigorously and vocally supporting anything that labels itself Christian. We may preach the true, the good, and the beautiful, but then we advocate for the latest Christian band or movie—which is often notoriously not beautiful, barely good, and not even that truthful. This is completely destroying our credibility. Deciding whether to watch or listen to media based on its Christian label first and foremost makes it seem as though we don’t value good art in itself. When we start asking “is it Christian enough?” rather than “is it good art?” we limit ourselves and lower our standards.

I understand wanting to support clean movies and music in an era where PG-13 might as well be X. However, when we fail to honestly critique Christian material the same way we critique secular works, we come off as biased, non-credible, and hypocritical—which we are.

I’m not saying we need to completely discard the Christian genre, but at the very least, we need to apply the “true, good, and beautiful” rubric to ourselves before judging others. I have personally found that doing so restores a level of credibility and opens doors to address deeper issues. It may well be time to—as adults—leave the Christian subculture behind and once again try being “in the world”—not “in our own world.”

Credibility: A problem of conversing

Another way we can restore credibility is by adopting a more collegiate atmosphere where opposing ideas can be safely exchanged and considered. Absolute truth exists. Of this I am supremely convinced. I loudly applaud the church for being a rock in a culture of subjectivity. That being said, there are actually precious few absolute truths which can be proven with one hundred percent certainty. There are far more gray areas. I think that both on an individual and institutional level, the church needs to do better at acknowledging the plausibility of various theories and humbly entering into vulnerable and open dialogue with those of differing opinions. After all, if we believe that truth exists, and that it will always rise to the top, why shy away from theories that conflict with ours? Isn’t it true that we might be wrong? Or only partly right?

We need to be careful to balance out aggressive apologetics with a little introspection and humility. For example, I love the idea of churches having a Got Questions booth at the local fair. But if we are going there to provide answers, we need to make sure that we are willing to listen too.

Credibility: A problem of obvious disconnect between message and reality

In addition, we need to make sure that our message matches reality, which is where I have found most former churchgoers have the biggest issues—and rightly so. Over-spiritualization has reached epidemic proportions and I believe it is creating more casualties than Christians. Again, our credibility is severely (if not completely) eroded when we ignore basic realities like statistics, probabilities, incentives, psychology, biology, sociology, and economics. Now, I understand not getting blown about by the latest scientific discovery, but there is a difference between being an anchor of intellectual rigor and a reef of blind dogmatism.

I get it. Intellectual honesty and vulnerability are hard work. It’s a whole lot easier to say “God works in mysterious ways” or “The devil made me do it” or “God must have a plan,” or “#blessed” than to deal with the tough realities of life.

But in over-spiritualizing, in giving God “all of the credit,” I fear we have actually minimized who God is—and worse, turned Him into a devilish puppeteer. This is a slap in the face of an amazingly complex, just, and loving God. It is also a great way to convert people to atheism and agnosticism.

It may be time to step back and refocus on the role God has granted man (via free will) to shape our individual lives, our culture, and planet. As a church, maybe it’s time we stepped up and took more responsibility instead of pushing it all on God. Maybe we need a little less #blessed and a little more #causeandeffect, and #takeresponsibility. Restoring our credibility is a major first step to making the church relevant again. It is also necessary to retain the next “churched” generation.

Retaining millennials via ministry

Another important factor for retention is ministry. I would encourage the church to emphasize the importance of “every member a minister”—especially for the young adults. I realize that (as in many of the areas discussed above) parents have a huge role to play. That being said, I know personally that direct teaching and encouragement from church leadership is a powerful motivator.

When, at a millennials meeting at our church attended by at least fifty people between 15 and 30, I asked for an informal show of hands to see how many of us were actively involved in ministries, I was appalled. Only a few hands went up. Here we were discussing what changes we could make, what new ideas and programs we could implement to attract and retain people, and yet so few of us were even involved in the ministries we already have! Maybe the last thing millennials need is a new program that caters to them. Maybe instead we should be learning to serve now, where we are.

“Every member a minister” is important for several key reasons. It gets us out of our segregated holy huddles. When we start helping our neighbors in tangible ways, it attracts those seeking the truth and ministers to those in need—which is kinda the thing Jesus exemplified.

It tangibly roots us as individuals in the institution of the church. It’s easy to sleep in and miss your age-tailored Sunday school class—it’s a lot harder if you are the teacher’s assistant or the teacher! As someone who often works a 12-hour night shift right before church, I know. Getting people working together, side by side, face to face, selflessly employing their talents for the benefit of another—this is what selfish, isolated millennials need. Maybe it’s time to learn dependability and responsibility via regular institutionalized ministry.

Ironically, one of the major attractions of texting, social media, and increased technological connectivity is the promise of human interaction and affirmation. The world’s solutions, however, often actually isolate the individual while simultaneously making him or her the central focus. Ministry provides an opportunity for interaction and affirmation, while turning the self outward toward others.

And so we have come full circle. The church, to the extent we restore our credibility, has much to offer in its traditional, classical form. A place of grace and learning which promotes the true, the good, and the beautiful, bringing people face to face, providing a quiet sanctuary from a loud and demanding world, and institutionally providing a superior infrastructure to reach out and serve our neighbors.

Conclusion

I personally have found that by distancing myself from popular “Christian” culture, by adopting a more collegiate approach, and in rejecting over-spiritualization, I have managed to restore credibility with all kinds of people and open the door to many good, challenging discussions. I’m trying to encourage my peers to adopt a similar approach and I think it would do churches a lot of good to hear their leadership do the same. By doing so I believe we can start to attract and retain millennials and others as we seek, teach, and apply the Truth to our lives.

Sporadic Attempts at Domesticity

On the first day of April, filled with the optimism of springtime, I took this picture of my vacant garden bed (also my empty compost buckets because was too lazy to move them out of the picture). I had decided that this year would be the best garden yet, and I would post a picture of green luscious leafy vegetableness along with this one to show the before and after. I envisioned perfect little rows of carrots, flowering echinacea, and peas climbing happily to the tops of my poles.

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So here it is, nearing the end of August, and I’ve run outside to grab the after picture. The reality is that my peas all died of strangulation after I tied them too tightly to poles, my echinacea produced nothing but leaves, my tomatoes got some sort of dwarf syndrome, and worms ate all the leaves off my broccoli.

Thank goodness I planted cucumbers and potatoes because they are the only thing thriving. This would be a sad, sad picture without them!

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If you like pretty pictures of food, keep scrolling, because I don’t feel like typing any more but I do like to look at these pictures.

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Chocolate Chip Cookie Cheesecake Bars

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Because I hate food blogs that won’t give you the actual recipe unless you scroll through fifty thousand paragraphs of rambling about how much they LOOOOVE this recipe, that cute thing their cat did, their vacation plans, and all those pictures that just won’t load (and then your browser crashes or the app closes abruptly), here’s the recipe first off, and then we’ll talk about it!

Chocolate Chip Cookie Cheesecake Bar

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 TB vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Filling:

  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together the butter, shortening, sugars, salt, vinegar, vanilla, and egg. Then add the flour and baking soda (don’t overmix!). Add in the white chocolate and chocolate chips and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together the filling ingredients. Grease a 9×13 pan and spread half of the chocolate chip cookie dough mixture evenly across the bottom. Next, spread the cream cheese filling across the top, and then sprinkle the rest of the cookie dough as evenly as possible across the top. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes, until slightly brown on the top. Store in the refrigerator after cooled.

This recipe was adapted slightly from the blog Heat Oven to 350 (see original recipe here).

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Mixing cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies was a genius idea and I wish I could take credit for it! It’s an extremely simple recipe and it actually tastes better the longer it’s in the fridge (well, probably up to a certain point, but you know what I mean!).

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I love that I only need two bowls and no mixers or beaters.

330None of the recipes I’ve seen call for both white chocolate and regular chocolate chips, but I think it’s way more exciting this way.

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The other fantastic thing about this recipe is that even if your cream cheese isn’t quite room temperature and the filling comes out looking lumpy, it doesn’t even matter! It all bakes out in the oven. So no crying and trying to use the blender to take out the lumps…just move on with your life.

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See, mine has lumps but it’s okay!336

This is the trickiest part. The cookie dough is actually very sticky and not dry enough to pat into the pan with your hands. The best way to do it is to use a spatula to try to spread it out.
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Same spatula, just dump the filling on there!

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I just use my hands to “sprinkle” the rest on top. It’s a giant mess all over your hands, buuuut that’s where the licking comes in! (A little raw egg never hurt anyone. Except salmonella. And then yes. But I try not to worry about these things. ;))

Anyhow, they make a great dish to bring to a summer potluck or picnic…just refrigerate until they can be cut into bars and put them on a plate!

Out with the old.

I created my first blog in 2007 at the ripe old age of 16. My goal was to share my political views far and wide, and in case there was any doubt of my intent, I named it “Jessica’s Soapbox.” Talk about bullhorn in the face! Over the next couple years, I published posts like “Iowa Presidential Caucus,” “My advice for Hillary,” and “Politics made simple.” (Don’t bother looking for them, they got reverted back to draft status somewhere in my college years when the embarrassment caught up to me!)

I was at the height of my high school political frenzy, which phased out soon after I started college. The door knocking, the phone calling, the letters to the editor, the web designing, the debates, and the victory parties–that was my life.

But the teenage years don’t last forever (thank goodness) and the political ranty side of me went the way of that bad perm, the braces, and the xanga account (anyone? anyone?).

I’ve tried to revitalize and update the blog several times, but the title becomes less and less relevant.

For awhile I posted all my college writings, but realized that didn’t exactly fit either. I don’t want to share dry academic papers written to answer a professor’s prompt.

Instead, I want to share about things I care about: real life, pictures, quotes, lessons learned, recipes, happiness, and yes, some deeper thoughts too. I’d like this blog to be more conversational, less preachy. More personal, less abstract.

It was time to take the plunge and start over.