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Stop What You're Doing And Make These Cookies


In the Fall, I had a lot of time on my hands. I was unemployed and we were living on a very tight budget, so I spent much of time puttering around the internet looking for healthy, affordable meals... and the rest of my time puttering around my kitchen trying to figure out how to make delicious things out of the ingredients we had on hand.

Buried among the dozens of recipes I'd bookmarked over the years (no Pinterest here, just 15 years of bookmarked blog posts), I found it: the cookie recipe that has changed my opinion on all other cookies. I've made them (with and without the optional ingredients) many times and for many people. So far, no complaints.

They take a little planning since they have to chill for an hour before baking, but they are very, very worth it. We have a batch in our freezer now and have been baking them two at a time for dessert each night. It's definitely the highlight of these COVID-19 Shelter in Place days.

Brown Butter Dark Chocolate Pretzel Cookies
adapted from this recipe
yields about 2 dozen large cookies

Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, loosely packed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg and 1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips (any chocolate chips will do, I just prefer dark)
3/4 cup smashed pretzels (optional)
Flaky sea salt for topping (optional)

Instructions:
In a small pan, melt 1 stick (1/2 cup) of butter over medium-high heat. Once the butter is melted and is foaming, swirl it around pretty constantly. Continue to cook and swirl. The foaming will subside and the butter will start to brown, getting flecks throughout it. Cook for about 2 minutes, until it smells fragrant and nutty.

Pour the browned butter into a bowl and let cool. (I typically bring both sticks of butter out of the fridge, brown one and let it cool while the other comes to room temperature, then come back to finish the bake.)

In a large bowl or stand mixer, cream the rest of the butter with the brown sugar until very light and fluffy (3-5 minutes).

Add the vanilla and mix.

Add the granulated sugar and the cooled brown butter and beat until very light and fluffy. (About 3 minutes.) Don't forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times.

Add the egg and egg yolk and mix well.

If you so choose, this would be where you add the bourbon.

Continue to beat until fluffy. (2-3 minutes)

Add the flour, salt and baking soda and beat on low speed until everything comes together, being careful not to over-mix.

Using a spatula, fold in the chocolate and pretzel bits.

Scoop spoonfuls of dough (use a large cookie scoop or ice cream scoop) onto a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops of the dough generously with flaky sea salt.

Let chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

From here, I typically divide the dough in two. Half to bake immediately, half to freeze for later. I've had best luck freezing them in a short rubbermaid container so they're touching on the sides, but not stacked.

Bake at 350F.
From the fridge: for 12 minutes
From the freezer: for 13 minutes

O Christmas Tree

Here's something you should know about me: I like to have a (real) Christmas tree in my house as long as I possibly can. I'm talking the day after Thanksgiving until the first weekend in the New Year. 

I love a good tree. So there was no light so bright as the one at the end of our Thanksgiving lockdown signaling it was time to pick out our Christmas tree! 

Here's something else you should know: I like a full Christmas tree. Like, so full there might be a woodland creature nestled inside. (Cut to Josh pulling out several trees in the Lowe's parking lot as we hunt for the biggest, fullest tree in the bunch.)


Last year, I waited until Josh was in California for the weekend so we could pick out and decorate the tree in my apartment. 


Then, already understanding my deep love of trees, Josh sent me a tiny Christmas tree to decorate my desk at work. (Way, way, way better than flowers!)


He also put up a fake tree decorated with printed photos of us to give his home a little more holiday spirit for my visit over New Year's Weekend.



But this was our first tree together! 

This would be decorated with our ornaments, in our house, and we’d have night after night to sit together beside it.

Add that to the stir-craziness of being sick on the couch for a week... I was EXCITED about this tree!

Now. There's one major (unexpected) difference between shopping for a tree in Southern California and shopping for a tree in Southern Texas.

In our part of town, those who purchase their trees from a lot, take it home in a pick-up truck... not a Toyota Camry (like we did).

The poor Lowe's employee was at a loss for how to tie this massive tree atop our tiny car. He attempted a few times (backward...the top of the tree toward the front, which really made for some interesting wind-resistance on the drive home) before we thanked him and drove over to Chick-Fil-A so Josh could tighten the ropes while I grabbed us some sandwiches.

We got our tree home safely and learned a little for next year!

Up next, decorations!

In July, we moved my things into the townhouse Josh had been living in for a few years and he left for Summer Camp two days later. I had three uninterrupted days to do what I love: organize! I emptied every box, drawer, and cabinet in the house and did my best to merge our belongings into one happy (albeit, full) home.

This has not only made it easier to find things like batteries and winter hats, but it also meant that all of our Christmas decorations (lights, ornaments, stockings, and wreaths) were in one big (massive) tub ready and waiting for this day.

It was fun to share stories of where each of our ornaments had come from as we hung them on the tree. But it was the most fun to hang those we've picked out together.

We've made it our tradition to buy an ornament as a souvenir and/or to mark a special occasion. Our hope is that over time the tree will have more and more ornaments linked to stories and memories we share. We've been together just over a year and we already have a pretty decent collection.


(The round, wooden Love Nerds is from my bridal shower. The red T-Rex is from the day we got engaged. The little round calendar was a wedding gift, it's marked with our wedding date. The bottle caps wreath is from our honeymoon in Jamaica. And the giant wooden Texas was part of my Christmas gift from Josh last year.)

I loved watching our tree come together. I stopped more than a few times to take it in and snap a photo. 


Once it was complete, we sat on the couch with warm cups of coffee and watched a few episodes of The Holiday Baking Championship. (I want to remember this as the year Josh became very interested in baking shows. We watched five seasons in about a month... choosing our favorite competitors, booing when they were sent home and cheering when he or she won.)



Last year, we started another holiday tradition: a living room fort. 

We string lights inside and spend the majority of the holiday week in there taking naps, watching shows, playing cards. It’s the best.

Here’s us, year 1:


Since we were headed to California for the week between Christmas and New Year, we built our fort a little early this year. It was also quite a bit bigger than last year's to make sure we could see our beautiful tree while we watched Christmas movies, stitched presents, and ate breakfast for dinner (in keeping with tradition.) 

Here's us, year two. (The photos are rough, but the memories are great.)



We had a great pre-Christmas week in our holiday-ed home. And we're already talking about some small tweaks we can make to up our game next winter!

What about you? Do you prefer a real or fake tree? With store-bought sets of decorations or an assorted mismatched collection? Any tips for a really comfortable, long-lasting living room fort?

Top 5 Thursday: The Blessings And Challenges Of My Youth Ministry Background

I grew up in a healthy, thriving Youth Ministry. 


I joined the team at my home church first as an intern during college and, shortly after graduating, as a full-time staff member on the Junior High team. 

 (That's me--second from the left.)

(There I am, in the purple shirt... with black hair.)

About 6 years later, I was hired by another local church where I served in the High School Ministry before joining the Worship Department. 


Even in my years as a Worship Leader, I led a High School small group.


You would think all this experience would be nothing but good news in my new marriage to my Youth Pastor Husband, but there are definitely a few thorns among those roses...

Here are 5 Blessings and Challenges of my Youth Ministry background:

::: Blessings :::
1. I have a heart for teenagers.

2. I understand the desire to put in the extra hours, to answer phone calls during "off hours", to go to football games and dance recitals and five graduation parties in a single Saturday... there's always more to do... I get it.

3. I have ideas... and like to brainstorm events and series and volunteer care.

4. I speak 'ministry'. Hype, care, you name it. This comes in handy with parents, leaders, students, and my husband.

5. I've had the advantage of watching many, many marriages in the church... most of them really close-up and over long stretches of years. I've learned a lot as I’ve seen them balancing Youth Ministry schedules, budgets, and parenting.


::: Challenges :::
1. Since I like teenagers, it's easy for me to jump in and serve in Student Ministries. But in the last few years, I've found other ministries within the Church I've loved. Finding my place in our new church--exploring new ministries and serve opportunities--has been tricky because it's fun, safe, and comfortable to serve alongside my husband.

2. There are two of us who could spend an entire date night talking about students, leader care, and upcoming events.

3. I have ideas and a ton of opinions... not to mention pretty high expectations. You can imagine what this can do to my poor husband!

4. I know what it is to be on staff at a church (show up early, stay late, model enthusiasm and support to the congregation)... but I also know the joys of simply being an attendee. (If I'm honest, there are days I really miss having the option to sleep in and stream the message later in the week.)

5. From what I remember, a majority of those Youth Ministry marriages started around the same time, so they were figuring out this newlyweds-in-ministry life together. Nobody had kids yet, nobody had any money, everyone was really into the "Must See TV" lineup on NBC. I can't help but feel a little envious of the world they lived in: a lot of friends in the same life stage in the same church. 

Make, Take, or Bake. Our Christmas Tradition

Christmas morning was always such a special day for our family because my mom was really, really good at playing Santa. 


She'd pin a sheet across the doorway leading into the living room where the tree was so, if we woke up early, we couldn't peek at the gifts he'd left. There would always be a mix of things we needed (new toothbrush, the big bottle of our favorite scent of shampoo, a massive box of our favorite cereal) and things we wanted (a tree-shaped Reese's, new video game, and one year, a bike). It was magical and exciting... honestly, even into our early teens.

And it only got better from there. 

Once we'd finished opening our gifts at home, we'd pack up and head over to Bum and Papa's (my mom's parents). My mom is the oldest of five girls (the youngest was only 6 when I was born), so their house would be filled with Christmas morning energy and anticipation by the time we arrived. 


There were more stockings to open and gifts to unwrap, but my favorite part was giving the gifts we'd specially picked out for each person... and watching them unwrap the gifts their sisters had chosen for them.

The tradition has always been that everyone buys for everyone. And, starting from youngest to oldest, we give out gifts one-by-one, each watching the others to see what they've received. 

It takes hours

And there are several breaks for bathroom runs, coffee refills, or more food. 

But it is my very, very event of the entire year.

As the years went on—as sisters married and/or gave birth—the house became more and more full and the list, and, thus, the expense, became greater and greater. 


So we switched things up.

We went with the classic: Secret Santa. We pulled names at Thanksgiving and purchased one $50 gift per person. But some people broke the rules and bought more expensive things (think Michael Scott and the iPod) and others went the opposite direction and brought me a bag of clothes from the back of their closet. (Thanks a lot, Creed!)

So we switched it up again... and it worked really well for us!

For the last nearly ten years, we’ve done a Make, Take, or Bake Christmas. You can create the gift from scratch, wrap something from your home, or cook up something excellent... the one rule is: you can’t spend more than $5 per person.

It’s been so fun to see everyone’s clever spin. 

My cousins have created incredible works of art from clay, metal, and wood. My aunt drove all over the county to find street signs with each of our names and gave us each a framed photo of ours. My Papa gave each of us a beautiful, hardback book from his collection with a personalized inscription inside. 

One year, I made "About Me" journals for my Bum and Papa and asked that they fill it in and gift it, completed, to me the following year. It took two years for my grandmother to complete it since her childhood was pretty painful for her to recount. On the morning she passed away, it was sitting on her bedside table. It's now, my most treasured possession--the thing I would run back into a burning house to save.


People think about it all year long. For the last three years, Papa has gifted volumes of his life story. He spends all year writing and editing then has a copy printed and bound for each of us. What a treasure they are... and something he may not have done had we not switched to these kinds of gifts.

Needless to say, there's a lot of bragging at the pre-Christmas family gatherings when someone has figured out what they’re going to make everyone that year. (My aunt Gina is known to have her mind made up as early as Easter!)

This year, I decided to cross-stitch something special for each person. (This is part of the reason I’ve been a little MIA in this space... every spare minute was spent making sure these were ready.)

————————
Side story: A friend of mine recently saw me stitching one of the bigger pieces and commented, “Oh, I used to love cross-stitching when we were newly married. I would stitch while we watched LOST!” 

I laughed and told her I’m about 10 years behind her since we’re currently watching LOST and I’m big into cross-stitch.

She laughed and said, “Enjoy this season, because it’s short... then you’ll have kids and wonder what happened to all of the time you once had!” 

(When I relayed the story to Josh, he said, “Oh, she’s right... maybe we shouldn’t have any kids!") 
————————

I thought it might be fun to share them here... if for no other reason than to commemorate the holiday season I had all the time in the world. 

• • • • • 

For my aunt Debby and her two sweet dogs 


For my aunt Sarah and uncle Scott, who met Josh for the first time last Christmas and told me about a week later that they went straight home and looked up Josh’s birthday on Facebook so they could check our astrological compatibility.



My cousin Elijah traditionally makes dozens of pancakes for breakfast one morning during our family weekends in Palm Springs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up at Le Cordon Bleu. He can look back on this and remember when he was just starting out.


For my cousin Sunny who has celebrated her birthday at Sushi restaurants since she was three and has taught me so much about the history of women in politics—especially as she’s taken class after class at UC Santa Cruz.


Sunny and her boyfriend, Derek, went to Spain this summer. This gift for him felt like a sweet little keepsake to remember the trip. 


My brother runs a record label called Doom Trip Records, which releases albums primarily on cassette.


And for my cousin Thatcher who is the perfect blend of surfer and artist.


Logan is an avid Orioles fan. (In my family, mentioning you really like something means you’ll receive anything and everything people see with that logo. Hence the dozens of Abe Lincoln books, stamps, and banks I have displayed in my home!)


Logan’s girlfriend, Jamie, loves Alice in Wonderland. This was the last piece I made, but maybe the most fun. I finished one character each night and really loved watching it come together. And she cried when she opened it, so I'd say she liked it, too.


My aunt Gina got two because I couldn't choose between this one:


And this one. (They were both too perfect for her!)

For my mom--who has beaten me and my brother in every game of Dr. Mario we've played since the early '90s. She made up words to the background music, so I stitched those around his little face. (They just bought an arcade game archive for their living room, so Josh and I played Dr. Mario while we were in CA over the holidays. The skill is in my blood--I dominated every round!)


For her husband, Dave. He loves a good martini! This now hangs in their bar.


The more I stitched, the more inquisitive Josh grew. He'd lean over while I was working on a piece and ask questions like, "how do you know where to start? How do you make the little 'x'?"

Then lo and behold, Christmas morning, I opened this little beauty. (He's desperate for my logo to be a T-Rex wearing a space helmet.) Sure, it's a little rough and ready, but it's also so dear.



I love our family Christmas traditions. (Even when it takes six hours to give open presents.) I'm grateful to be part of a thoughtful and generous family who knows and loves each other enough to give great gifts! (A big recap of our Christmas in California to come!)

Have you ever made all of your Christmas gifts? What did you create? What's the best gift someone has made for you?

Trading Butterbeer and Turkey for Gatorade and Tylenol: Thanksgiving 2019

I had high hopes for our Thanksgiving break...

We'd be spending the week before in Tampa at the Youth Specialties conference (more on that later) and then head down to Orlando to visit Universal Studios. (Josh and I have spent the last few months listening through the Harry Potter series--we're over halfway through book 7!--and we’re very excited to visit Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley together.)

After a full day at the park, we would fly back to Texas where I’d spend the day prepping for Thanksgiving. (I had dreams of making these cookies and this chocolate tart.)

We'd drive to Dallas Thanksgiving morning, rolling in just in time for dinner with his family. We'd spend the following day at the movies before returning home to decorate our house for Christmas.

But, when we arrived in Orlando, all of that went out the window.

Let me back up...


We left the conference Sunday morning and had a beautiful lunch with a dear Mariners family now living in Florida. They dropped us at the airport to pick up our rental car (a Jurassic Park-style Jeep! Pretend there's a photo of us in it here. Once you read the rest of this post, you'll understand why it's only imaginary.)

We made the drive to Orlando with relatively few issues. About halfway there, Josh mentioned his allergies were acting up, so we stopped by Target to pick up some Claritin. I suggested we grab some cold medicine, too, just in case it was more than allergies.

Josh's dad generously gifted us a hotel room that came with early admission to Universal Studios, so we checked in, bought our park tickets, and set an alarm for early the next morning. We drifted off to sleep with visions of chocolate frogs dancing in our heads.

When the alarm went off the next morning, I looked over at Josh and knew our plans had changed. He said, "I think you’re going to have to go without me."

My initial response was frustration... we were so close! We could practically see Hogwarts! Not to mention the hundreds of dollars we'd already spent on admission. So I ran down to the lobby to find out if we could get any of our money back... if we couldn't, I had plans to drag my sick husband through the park. (Compassionate, I know.)

Hearing the news that the tickets are valid for a year kicked my care-giving side into gear. I swung by the coffee shop, grabbed myself a big iced coffee and him a banana and a Sprite. I whiled away the morning watching a Twilight Zone marathon and working on a Christmas gift while Josh faded in and out of sleep. 

By the time we got to the airport that evening, I knew I had not been lucky enough to avoid whatever it was that had taken down Josh. And, as judgmental as we all are about people who choose to fly sick, there was no way around it!

We texted his family to let him know we would not be subjecting them to whatever had taken over our bodies and boarded our flights, doing our best to cough into our elbows and navigate our way to the restaurant in each airport that serves hot soup. (I'm still not sure if the tortilla soup in the Houston airport is actually delicious or if I'll just remember it that way because it was so incredibly comforting.) 

We made it home... 


When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I said to Josh was, "I am so sorry that I even considered trying to make you go through the park feeling like this! I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus!" I hadn't been this sick since high school. It was the pits.

The next few days were a blur of sleep and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a lot of episodes of Lost, Seinfeld, and The Great British Baking Show. (Incidentally, that is one of the most comforting shows to watch while you’re sick. They’re so nice to each other!)

After a few days, the fog began to lift. Still a bit groggy and heavy-limbed, I began a Velveteen Rabbit-level scouring of our home. No dish, towel, sheet or countertop was safe. Everything was deeply cleaned to wipe away any chance of round two. (I threw away our toothbrushes, too.)

Finally, on Friday, we felt well enough to venture out of the house. We grabbed some Chick-fil-A and picked out our Christmas tree. The warmth of a fully decorated house was some kind of medicine all its own.

This was definitely not how I had imagined spending holiday week, but I did feel wonderfully cared for by my sweet husband and I was so grateful that we had those days to hole-up, rest, and recover.

Midweek Meals Made Easy


In true Youth Ministry fashion, Wednesdays are long days that end with late nights. If we're eating dinner before 9:30pm, we call it a victory.

In our first month (or so) of marriage, we'd come home from midweek and stand in front of the fridge unsure of what to do next. We were both super hungry, but too tired to cook anything. At these points, even waiting for bacon and eggs to cook sounded like torture.

It only took a few weeks of this before our mutual frustration was channeled into problem-solving. Slow Cooker to the rescue.

With a little bit of research and even less prep, we have hot, delicious meals ready when we get home. And, as a bonus, our house smells incredible.

Here are some absolute winners:

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork (I could eat this all the time... bonus: it makes about 8 servings, so we can eat it for lunches or quick dinners for a week)

Chicken, Rice, and Green Chile Casserole So simple and flavorful.

I've shared this Chili before, but it's been a go-to around here. And I'm sure it'll be a staple as we approach the colder months. (I like to add small potatoes so it's not just straight meat and tomatoes.)

Creamy Southwest Chicken. I prefer the bell peppers diced, not sliced... other than that, this is a winner. (The photo at the top is of this chicken... doesn't it look amazing?!)

I haven't made this one yet, but it's next on my list.

How about you? Do you have any go-to Slow Cooker meals around your house? We're definitely in the market for additions to our rotation, so please share!

A Handful of Recent Favorites


I love to read. LOVE it. I'll curl up and read, turn on an audiobook while driving or cooking, and I love to sit on the couch with my friends' kids and giggle through a new children's book.

Over the years, it's become more apparent that reading a lot of books does not equate to enjoying a lot of books. Most of the time, I'll read something all the way through with the hope that it will redeem itself in the end. This, sadly, is not always the case.

So, in case you find yourself at a loss for something lovely to read, (and you trust that I will not steer you wrong) here are a handful of my recent favorites.

// FICTION //
The Nightingale. If you haven't read it yet, do so right now. It is, hands-down, the best fiction book I've read in the last five years. As soon as I finished, I handed it to my best friend... then to my mom, who handed it to her husband, then I gave it to a coworker. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful. (You will most likely (ugly) cry at the end... be sure to pick a suitable place to do so.)

I read 85% of The Tattooist of Auschwitz on a single flight--I couldn't put it down. It was so lovely and, again, heartbreaking. (As are, I'd imagine, most books about WW2.) AND THEN I FOUND OUT IT'S A TRUE STORY.

In 2018, I made it a goal to read books primarily by people of color. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was one of my favorites. The story of love and friendship is so moving... and, having not known much about Japanese Internment camps (other than knowing they existed), found the detailed explanation of them eye-opening.

Another I loved so much was The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. I really enjoyed the Audible version.

Last, but not least, The History of Love. Two stories (one an old man, the other a pre-teen girl) woven together into the sweetest, saddest, most lovely book. I read it every few years and fall in love with it all over again. Josh read it this year, too, and even used my favorite line in his proposal.

// NON-FICTION //

Born a Crime was captivating. It made me laugh, it brought tears to my eyes, it incited curiosity in Apartheid. I could not stop listening. I especially loved listening to it, since the accents and pronunciation of words in South African dialects added to the richness of the storytelling.

After visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, I read everything I could from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To say Why We Can’t Wait was moving in an understatement. I'm an auditory learner, so I read the book aloud to myself. There were several lines that made me choke up, forcing me to pause before I could complete them... if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

I've planned and executed many, many events in my years of youth ministry. But my approach to brainstorming and planning shifted after reading The Power of Moments. It sparked so much thought and creativity in me that I had to read with a massive notebook open next to me so I could pause and write down thoughts and brainstorms and lists. Man, it was good.

I just finished Notorious RBG this week. Growing up, I'd heard about her work surrounding women's reproductive rights, but this opened my eyes to the battles she fought for women on many fronts. I especially loved--and resonated with--her thoughts on how she'd like to be remembered: "[As] someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid."

// UP NEXT: //
Becoming and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

We're also halfway through Harry Potter around here (on Audible because Jim Dale is the greatest narrator of all time, as far as I'm concerned.) It's my fifth or sixth time through, but Josh's first. He's super into it: pausing to make sure he has characters straight in complicated scenes (Quidditch World Cup anyone?!), pausing to guess what's about to happen ("I think the Chamber was opened by..."), pausing to react to everything that's just happened (The story of four friends in the Shrieking Shack!!!)

What have you read (and LOVED) recently? I’m always looking for new great books.

P.S. Have you heard of whatshouldireadnext.com? You enter the title of a book you love and it suggests four or five books by similar authors or with similar topics based on the recommendations of real readers. I used it in a pinch while at the new public library last week and picked up two books... this one, which I really enjoyed, and another I did not...

{top image of the Stockholm Public Library}