Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chocolate Cream Pie and The Magic of Waiting

I recently found the Ever So Humble Pie Company in Walpole, Massachusetts, quite by accident. I happened to be in the building and was lured in by the wonderful smells of freshly baked goods.   I was therefore quite surprised, and somewhat disappointed, when told that the company is a frozen pie company. As in, you cannot purchase a slice of pie or a fresh whole pie to take home. You can purchase a thaw and serve pie, or a ready-to-bake frozen pie, and there are a few fresh scones or donuts if you simply cannot wait for your dessert treat.  Still not understanding why they couldn't just sell me one of the delicious-smelling pies that just came out of their giant ovens,  I decided on a thaw and serve individual chocolate cream pie and took it home to defrost.

I must say, it was definitely worth the wait.  The crust was a true graham cracker crust, quite tasty and of good consistency. The chocolate filling was delicious.  I had never had anything quite like it; it reminded me of chocolate cake batter, and it was quite decadent to be eating a pie filled with it.  The topping was a sweet cream that tasted like a cross between whipped cream and sweet heavy cream, with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.  I thoroughly enjoyed my pie from the Ever So Humble Pie Company, despite the fact that I had to wait to eat it!

In our current world of instant downloads and the anytime, any day, anywhere availability of practically everything over the internet, there are few things we actually wait for these days.

Santa is something that we do wait for.  I believe a child's excitement over Santa's arrival is probably still the same now as it was years and years ago.  I still remember my excitement over Santa's impending arrival, that butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling upon going to bed on Christmas Eve and the joy of bounding out of bed when morning finally came.

One year, however, Santa showed up early.

I was five years old.  We had recently moved from the Bronx and the family was having Christmas Eve in our house in the suburbs.  I remember that at some point during the night my father said that he thought there was a knock at the front door.  No one ever used our front door, so this, in and of itself, was surprising.  We gathered near the front door and heard someone outside. The door opened and, quite unbelievably, there was Santa.

I still remember the awe and surprise and shock.  Santa came in with a big ho ho ho and someone grabbed a chair for him.  He sat down and talked to my brother and I, and he knew our names.  He gave us each one present, which he pulled out of a big sack, and told us that he was just making a quick stop on our street, but that he would be back while we were sleeping.  And then he waved to everyone at our house, and he left.

It was positively unexpected and incredible.  Santa had actually knocked on our door, had visited our house! Why had he chosen us?  Maybe it was because we were in our new house.  Maybe the timing was just right.  Maybe we had been extra good that year.  Either way, it was magical.

I remember listening for the doorbell or a knock at the front door in subsequent years on Christmas Eve, but I don't remember Santa coming back while we were awake.  And for that, I am kind of grateful, because it was really special.  It remains, forever in my memory, The Year that Santa Knocked on My Door.  

The best things, the special things, are often one of a kind.  Fast forward to a different decade, a different time and place.  I was visiting the Vatican in Rome. I had been to the Vatican once before, but this time, there was a special prayer space set up behind some curtains.  People waited in line to go in and say a prayer.  We were running out of time, but I really wanted to go into the prayer space.  We took the time, waited in line, and finally went in. And inside that space was a sense of peace and grace that I cannot describe.  

When we came out of the prayer space a little while later we met up with our tour guide.  "There's something about that place," she said.  "People leave things there, I don't know what it is, but there's something about it."  It was somehow reassuring, and confirming, that someone else was echoing what I felt. I was grateful that I had been a part of it. That I had waited for it. 

May this holiday season provide you with moments of magic worth waiting for. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hot Chocolate and Holiday Moments

I had the best hot chocolate last week.  I took a break from outlet shopping and went into a Godiva chocolate shop.  Seeing an enticing photo display of a giant drink with mounds of whipped cream and caramel drizzle, I pointed to the photo and said, "I'll have that." 

"Hot or cold?" asked the sales clerk.  "Umm, hot," I replied.  

I was somewhat disappointed, therefore, when five minutes later he handed me a small, covered hot beverage cup that looked no more exciting than an ordinary cup of coffee.  

"But I ordered the caramel hot chocolate," I said, pointing at the sign.  

"That's the cold version.  You ordered the hot version."

Live and learn.  So I took my small, hot beverage, took off my gloves and went outside in search of an outdoor bench.  And I was surprised to find that this ordinary, no frills cup was quite possibly the best cup of hot chocolate I have had in years.  It was exactly the right temperature, not scalding to hold in bare hands but still hot enough to warm you up on a cold day.  The mix of caramel and chocolate was smooth and perfect, seamlessly blended to create one flavor, one experience.  The best part of all was that it tasted . . . real.  It did not have that after-taste of powdered flavoring, nor was it dwarfed by mounds of sweet accompaniments.  It was, simply, a good cup of deliciously warm caramel hot chocolate.  I drank it all.   

That simple cup got me thinking about simple holiday moments.  There's a lot of fanfair that unfortunately accompanies the winter holidays.  For instance, my black Friday shopping experience at a local department store this year featured a loud and chipper DJ spinning tunes at 5:30 in the morning.  My inbox practically screams at me every day, announcing the biggest sale yet, the best present yet, a fabulous new recipe, and that anxiety-inducing countdown. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the real reasons for the Christmas season or the Hanukkah season, but we are all lured in, caught up in the frenzy, rushing around to nowhere.  

The holidays mean different things to all of us;  maybe it's Christmas Eve church service that means the most, or opening presents with the family, or the lighting of candles.  Maybe it's a delicious holiday meal, or good wine with good friends.  I have found, as I have gotten older, that amidst the pressure of getting it all done, taking advantage of those sales, trying really hard to get presents that actually mean something and don't just take up space underneath the tree, that small moments stand out.  And of course, they have nothing to do with the aforementioned frenzy.  One year, it was sharing one of our beloved holiday traditions with my son's second grade class--telling the tale of our treasured replica skating pond, complete with miniature plastic skaters, inherited by me from my grandfather, and not found anywhere else in the world but my family room.  One year it was singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve Mass, several steps too high because the organist had forgotten the right setting, and feeling like my voice was soaring as I sang better than I ever thought I could.  Another year it was sitting down amidst the chaos of preparations to sing, really loudly, arm in arm with my three kids, a song from our beloved Partridge Family Christmas album.  Another favorite moment for me, always, is that first taste of a spinach crepe or pepperoni pinwheel or stuffed clam at my childhood home which for me, are the hallmarks of happy childhood memories of the holidays.

One holiday moment that I would like to share happened the first year that I did not return to my childhood home for Christmas Eve, which had always featured a cast of thousands and food that went on for days.  I was newly married, and we had devised a system where each family would get its share of the holidays, and then the next year it would rotate so that we would eventually spend each holiday with both sides of the family.  

So, for my first Christmas Eve away from my childhood home, I was doing something new.  It was to be a small formal dinner at my husband's grandmother's house, to begin after the four o'clock Mass.  There would be only ten of us in attendance.  Somewhat homesick already, I believe I asked if anyone else would be coming.  My husband replied, in a somewhat perplexed manner, that no, why would anyone else be coming?  

"No one drops by? Long lost friends? More relatives?" I asked.  

"Nope, just us.  That's the way we always do it." 

We went to Mass, and had a very nice dinner, and I got to participate in someone else's tradition that year, which involved a formal dinner followed by presents and holiday stockings which apparently dated back to my husband's childhood, and I was happy to find that I now had a stocking too.  It was all very nice, but still very new, and still, not how I had grown up celebrating.  

At some point that night, my husband and his brothers and their girlfriends were in the kitchen and an old fashioned, 1940's holiday song was playing on the stereo.  I don't remember how it started, or who's idea it was, but at some point, we all started dancing, almost waltzing really, right there in the kitchen. It was Christmas Eve and I was sharing a dance with the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with.  

And as we were twirling around the kitchen together I remember thinking, this, this moment right here, is a great way to celebrate Christmas.  

Have a sweet week!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Cake Pop and a Dinner Stop

I promised another story about a random act of kindness for this week, and in keeping with that theme, I decided to review another Starbucks treat, since last week's review of the Starbucks Cranberry Bliss Bar is where this all began.  
Have you seen the Peppermint Brownie Cake Pop at Starbucks?  It is quite festive!  It's a round, white chocolate pop sprinkled with candy cane pieces and crystalized sugar.  Inside is a soft, chewy brownie.  I loved the candy cane pieces and chunks of sugar on the outside of the pop.  I was initially skeptical about putting peppermint candy cane with a brownie, but the combination of flavors actually worked well.  By the time you bite through the candy cane/sugar, and the white chocolate shell, the peppermint flavor is muted enough not to overpower the brownie.  The brownie cake center is chocolatey, and soft and chewy, although I must say it was a little bit softer than I anticipated.  As I do not have that much experience with cake pops, I am wondering if this is true of all cake pops or just Starbucks.  I will have to do some investigating! 

On to my next random act of kindness story!  This happened to me last spring at Disney World in Florida.  

I was getting dinner for two of my children at Casey's in the Magic Kingdom. If you've never been there, it's basically a large hot dog and fries place with outdoor seating only.  The seating area can be quite crowded, especially if there is a castle show or parade about to start.  So that night, we bought our food and drinks and looked around for a place to sit.  It was packed, but there was a standing-only table where the three of us could stand around and eat. We put our food down, and continued to scout for a table.  After some time, I noticed a family leaving a table and told my son to run over and grab it, and we would follow with all of the food and drinks and bags.

He went off, and my daughter and I carefully loaded up hot dogs, fries, and drinks and maneuvered through the crowd.  When I got to the table about twenty seconds later, my son was indeed sitting, but there were also two adults and two children filling out the rest of the table.  I asked him what happened and he told me that after he sat down, the family had just come over and taken all of the remaining chairs. He looked rather uncomfortable. I explained to the man now sitting with my son, that my son had gotten the table for us while I collected our food.  He looked at me and said, "Well he didn't have any food and we have our food here now, so it's our table."  I again explained that my son was sitting down first, and that we obviously were bringing food to the table, as we were still carrying all of the food and drinks, and that I couldn't believe he would just sit down with someone else's child. He insisted that it was now his table, and his family proceeded to begin eating.  

I was torn between complete exasperation that someone had done this to a twelve year old, and panic at the fact that we were now standing in a huge crowd with nowhere to go with our food.  I looked back over to our standing table and saw that indeed, while we were arguing with the man, someone had taken our standing table, and now there really was nowhere at all to go.  

It was one of those moments when you are almost paralyzed by indignation and frustration.  I was standing in the middle of a packed seating area, loaded down with food, my son sitting in the middle of a family that had no regard for us and refused to move, and I really didn't know what to do.  As I was trying in vain to think of something else that I could say, knowing full well that nothing that I said would have made a difference, a woman suddenly swooped in.  "We're done, you can have our table," she said.  

She led me to an area a few tables away, and pointed at a pre-teen boy who was eating a giant chili dog.  "You go ahead and finish that," she said to him, "And these nice people are going to join you."  I asked her if it was really okay and she insisted that we should take the table.  I thanked her repeatedly.  

So the three of us sat down and introduced ourselves to the young man eating his chili dog.  "Your mother is a very nice woman," I told him.  "She's not my mother.  She's my stepmom's mom.  It's complicated," he said.  "Well, she's a very nice person," I repeated.  He was an incredibly polite, well-mannered young man.  We found out that his family was from Louisiana, and we enjoyed chatting with him, and even shared a joke or two. When we were done eating we stood up to leave and wished him a good trip.  As we left the area, I saw the woman who had given up the table, and she waved and smiled.  I noticed that she was standing at one of the standing-only tables, and that some members of her family were still eating, standing up.  

I don't know why the woman gave her table up for me. Maybe she saw my frustration.  Maybe she saw what had happened and wanted to help. Whatever the reason was, I was incredibly thankful in that moment, that someone noticed, and that someone cared.  I was even more thankful, and incredulous, when I saw that she had not really been finished eating. She had made a sacrifice for me, and for my kids. 

So thank you, kind woman from Louisiana. Whenever I recall how I felt that day, alone with my kids and feeling bullied into giving up our table, I think of you, and how you turned an unpleasant situation into something else.  And when I tell the story, you are the star. 

That's the power of kindness.  

Have a great week.      

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cranberry Bliss Bars. And an Opal.

'Tis the season for the Cranberry Bliss Bar at Starbucks!  This beloved dessert makes its appearance around this time every year.  It is never around for very long, so you can't wait on it; you have to seek it out and enjoy it as if it might be gone tomorrow, because it very well might be!  These bars are small, triangle-shaped treats, with a blondie-cake crust bursting with white chocolate chunks.  The cake is topped with a sweet cream cheese icing, and layered with sweet cranberries.  It is a perfect mixture of flavors, as the cream cheese icing plays off of the white chocolate chunks and the cranberries add a tart sweetness in every bite.  It's a one-of-a-kind dessert, found only at Starbucks, and trust me, if you try it, you won't be disappointed.  

The Cranberry Bliss Bar always makes me think about random acts of kindness.  A few years ago, when ordering one at my local Starbucks, the barista gave me two bars, simply because the first one she put in the bag broke in half.  "No one should have to eat a broken Cranberry Bliss Bar," she said.  It was one of those unexpected moments of kindness that can happily change the course of your day.

I would like to share another random act of kindness story.  Actually, I have two, but I will save one for next week.  The first story was shared with me a few years ago, and takes place in a store during the holiday shopping season. Here's what happened.

A customer walked into a jewelry store in the hopes of selling some jewelry.  It was about a month before Christmas.  Gold was selling high at the time, and the woman had lots of forgotten jewelry--broken chains, earrings without a match, old bracelets, and some necklaces that were actually in very good shape, but which she never wore.  A sales clerk came over to wait on her, and the customer unpacked all of her unwanted jewelry.  As the sales clerk began to inventory the pieces, she noted that some of them were really beautiful.  "I know," said the customer. "I just never wear them anymore." 

The two women continued to talk as the sales clerk packaged up all of the jewelry to be appraised. She happened to admire a very nice ring that the customer was wearing, and the customer said that her husband had gotten it for her for one of their anniversaries.  The sales clerk said that he had really good taste.  

Looking through the rest of the jewerly, the customer shared that one of the earrings she had brought in was a particular favorite, but she had lost its match and she hated not being able to wear it anymore. The sales clerk said that she knew how that felt, to lose a piece of jewelry, and told the customer the story of her opal ring.

Her father had given her the ring.  It was a simple gold ring with a lovely opal set in the center.  He had passed away some years ago, and the sales clerk treasured the ring in remembrance of him.  The sales clerk pointed out similar opals in the glass case, explaining the size and color of her beloved opal ring.  

One day, the sales clerk said, she had realized that the opal was missing from its center setting.  She realized that she must have lost it in her car, and she tore the car apart looking for it, but she never found it. She kept the ring with its empty prongs, and wished she had been able to find the opal so that she could wear the ring.  Especially because it reminded her of her father.  But she never did find it.

"You should buy another opal and have it set in the ring," said the customer. "The jeweler here would probably be able to help you out with that."

The sales clerk explained that her husband would not let her buy an opal to replace the one she lost.

"Maybe he'll buy one for you," said the customer.

"No, he won't," said the sales clerk. "But at least I still have the ring."

The appraisals were finished soon after.  The customer decided which pieces she wanted to sell, and she left with a check, thanking the sales clerk for all of her help.  

A few weeks later, just before Christmas, the customer returned to the store and specifically asked for the sales clerk she had worked with.  The sales clerk remembered her and greeted her with a warm smile.  

The customer said, "I have a gift for you," and placed a small box on the counter. The sales clerk looked at her, puzzled, and opened the box.  

Inside the box was an opal.  

"I hope it's the right size," said the customer.  "Here's the name of the store where I bought it. The jeweler there said he will set it for you, and if it's not the right size, he will give you a credit and get you one that will match your ring."  The sales clerk was shocked and said she couldn't accept such a gift. But the customer insisted, saying that the opal was specifically for her, and that now she could wear her ring again.  The women exchanged hugs, and a few tears, and then the customer left the store.  And the two women never saw each other again.

Why did the customer buy the clerk that opal?  Maybe it was because she felt guilty, selling unwanted jewelry and talking about her husband's gifts, while the sales clerk could not even get permission to purchase an opal for herself. Maybe it was because she felt sad, sad that the sales clerk had lost her father, and had lost the opal, the best reminder that she had of her father. Maybe it was because the holidays were coming and she wanted to do something that would make someone happy.  

Who really knows why people commit random acts of kindness?  I think the best random acts probably don't involve a lot of forethought.  For the woman who bought the opal, there were probably a hundred reasons not to do it.  But she did it anyway.  And her act changed two lives, on that day, and in that moment. 

It's like the Cranberry Bliss Bar.  The chance to make someone's day might be gone tomorrow.  Why not take that chance?  

Stay tuned for another random act of kindness story next week!