Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I can't hear you!

Every once in a while, Ulysses will cover his ears with the palms of his hands, stand in front of me and shout, at the top of his voice, "Mama! I can't hear you!"

He hadn't played that gag for a couple of months or so, but he did it once late last week. I'd forgotten about it until then. I figured I'd better hurry up and write it down.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Voting: Very important

I told Ulysses I was going out to vote last evening -- did he want to come with me? To my surprise, he said, "Okay!" He's been cabin bound nearly all winter, rejecting almost every suggestion, exhortation and command to venture into the coldest, snowiest winter in Wisconsin history.

This time, though, he said, "Beep, beep! Ride in the green car. Okay!" So we bundled up and rolled off into the quiet dark, passing the snow-banked yards and medians until we came to the bustling parking lot of the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, our voting place. The tall evergreen by the entrance was draped all over with tiny, blue lights.

"Mama!" said Ulysses. "A Christmassy tree!"

As we were exiting the car, I offered to put on his hands the gloves I've been carrying in my handbag all winter, in the hopes he'd wear them. He wore mittens when he was a baby, but has refused mittens and gloves for the last few years. It puts quite the damper on any chance for snow play. He surprised me again: "Glubs? Okay!" His fingers wriggled unceasingly and unhelpfully, but his face was serene as I worked five-finger gloves onto his hands for the first time ever.

In the polling room, he followed me to the booth, asking, "What doing, Mama?"

"I'm going to vote now."

"Vote," he echoed.

I positioned my paper ballot on the booth's writing ledge. "It's very important."

"Very impor-tat. What doing, Mama? What doing?"

Marking my choices, I answered, "This is how everybody decides what to do."


We walked to the ballot receiving machine and I offered him the ballot to feed into the slot. "In the old days, someone told everyone what to do. Now we all decide together," I said.

He pushed gently at the paper until the rollers engaged. "Yay! We did it!" he exclaimed as my vote disappeared into the monolithic casing of the ballot machine.

I thought about what, if anything, to say next. That in plenty of the world, it was still those old days? That even here and now, plenty of people want to tell everyone what to do?

"I voted!" I said.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

U's Fourth Birthday, Part IV

I enlisted other guests' party services while I frosted the cake. Jennifer mixed icing colors for decorating the cake. Gloria, Vicky and Nico festooned the kitchen/dining area with "Happy Birthday" balloons (Jennifer kindly stopped to buy them on her way) and Hot Wheels crepe paper streamers.

These were the same rolls of Hot Wheels streamers that Don's mother bought when she was here for U's second birthday. It had been really hard to find party stuff at the party store that didn't have licensed character stuff on it: Spongebob, Dora, Barbie, Hot Wheels. We hadn't been able to find trademark-free streamers at all, so I decided on the Hot Wheels streamers, because, outside the commercial turnoff, they were cool looking: orange flames racing down a red background. The design actually worked with the concept of a streamer, unlike all the others.


Sigurd's job was blowing up balloons, to Ulysses's delight. The rest of the gang, when they were done making the streamer maze in the kitchen, joined S and U in the living room and formed a balloon-blowing-up-and-playing-with team. Gloria taught Ulysses the game of bat-the-balloon-in-the-air-and-don't-let-it-touch-the-ground. I watched and listened to the laughter and happy shouting while I puttered with the cake.


Ulysses ran into the kitchen -- to find me, to check on the progress with his cake, I guess. Or to tell me about the balloons, perhaps. But before he could tell me what he was about, he stopped short, looking up at the streamers and balloons everywhere.

"A party!" he said. "For me!"

"Yes!" I said. "It's your birthday party."

Ulysses lifted his arms out by his sides and began to hop up and down. "I'm dancing, Mama!" he said, smiling up at me. "I'm dancing!"


On Christmas day, Ulysses never did get around to opening all his presents. This morning, I'd re-wrapped in birthday-ish paper those little packages -- a Hot Wheels car still in its blister pack, a mesh sack of gold-wrapped chocolate coins, a jelly candy in the shape of a Christmas tree. He opened one of these to find a miniature ring toss game -- the kind where you press down on a button to make the rings swish through the water, and, ideally, land on a little peg. It was packaged in cellophane alongside a lollipop. "Merry Christmas!" the packaging announced. The lollipop was oblong, about 3/4" wide and 2" long, and striped diagonally with white, brown and forest green.

"Open, Mama-Tata! Open eh lollipop!" Sigurd pulled out his jacknife and worked free the tight neck of cellophane on the pop's stick.

Ulysses slipped away to the laptop workstation we set up for him recently, where he can stand and jump while he plays. He settled into some game play, licking on his lollipop, and the rest of us settled into conversation.

All at once, there was a cracking sound, and a scream came from Ulysses. The lollipop had somehow shattered into dozens of bits. Maybe it was exposed to heat or cold somewhere along the line? Or rattled against the ring-toss toy?

Don got to him first, with words of comfort. Ulysses held the lollipop up, smiling a little.

"Hix it, Tata," he implored. "Lollipop je broken."

"I can't fix that, Ulysses," he said. "It's too broken. I'm sorry."

A moment went by. Ulysses's face crumpled into tears. He sobbed and fell into Don's arms, then began to wander in little circles, crying quietly.

I remembered that in my handbag was a cinnamon lollipop U had picked out on our last visit to Shopko about a month ago. He'd never asked for it after we left the store. I ran to get it.

"Look at this Ulysses," I said, holding it near him. He turned quickly to see. The hope on his face turned dark. He shook his head slowly and looked at me.

"That's not a birthday lollipop," he choked through his tears.

I wish I could remember what Gloria said a few moments later that distracted him and made him laugh, forget the calamity of the birthday lollipop, and rejoin the party joy. She's better at cheering children up than I'll ever be.

U's Fourth Birthday, Part III

After opening one big box -- the medical kit -- Ulysses was content to leave the rest of his presents alone. That was a relief, as Don went back to having a bit of alone time before the house filled up for the afternoon and evening, and I turned to my big project: the cake!

I tried again to interest Ulysses in the cake. Now that he had the experience of opening a birthday present, he should be more in the mood, I reasoned.

"Ulysses, what color birthday cake do you want?"


"We're having a party today! Our friends are coming over for your birthday!"


So much for that.

The KitchenAid whirred, creaming butter and sugar together as I got out the sifter and cake flour.

"Mombie!" Ulysses called from his computer workstation. "Quiet! I'm busy!"

Ever since Ulysses discovered zombies -- he loves them -- I've become "Mombie."


By and by, party time arrived. The cakes were out of the oven and people were coming over at any moment. Ulysses still wasn't on board for the celebration. I decided to try a new tactic. I went into the bedroom and changed into a velvet blouse, and flowing, hippieish skirt and vest. Even put on earrings. Why I don't bother putting on this sort of thing more often, I'm not sure, because it's my favorite way to dress. At any rate, I went over to Ulysses and somehow distracted him from the video game he was playing on the uptoten.com site.

"Look at me, Ulysses!"

He looked. "Mama!" he said.

"I'm dressed up for your party! And here's what you're wearing." I put some clothes by him, on the spot on the couch where we dress him.

"Party!" he said. "Party! Beep, beep! We're going ride in the green car? To party?"

"No!" I said. "We're having the party right here! People are coming to us!"

"Party, party!" he said, and jumped on the couch, sticking out his ankles for me to dress him.


A moment later, U was dressed and in the kitchen, pointing to the cakes cooling on the rack. "Cake! Candles?" I showed him the box of candles. "Candles!" he said, happily.

"What color do you want your birthday cake to be?" I said, jumping on my opportunity.

Silence. Uh-oh.

Just then, Don walked through the room, and said, into the silence, "Red!"

"Red!" echoed Ulysses. "Red cake!"

"Would you like a red cake for your birthday, Ulysses?" I asked.

"Red!" U exclaimed. "Red cake! Red cake. Red, red, red. Red birthday cake. Red, red, yellow. Yellow cake."

That threw me. I backed up. "What color birthday cake would you like?" I asked.

"Yellow cake. Yellow birthday cake." He rummaged through the little bottles of decorator coloring on the dining table. He'd seen them once before, last summer, when we made dough ornaments with Donald's mother out in the yard during her visit from Georgia. He picked out the one with a yellow sticker on top.

Holing the bottle of yellow coloring, he walked over to our freestanding dishwasher and picked up the clear, plastic container of white frosting that I'd pulled out of the refrigerator a little while earlier -- I had made it the day before, figuring I'd color it when Ulysses put in a request, but he hadn't seen it before that moment. Right next to it was the container of white decorator icing. That he passed over.

He brought these two items to me -- exactly the two items needed to frost a cake yellow -- and placed them on the kitchen counter in front of me.

"Here, Mombie. Here yellow. Yellow birthday cake. Yellow!"


I turned the frosting into a mixing bowl and added a little yellow coloring. As I was stirring it in, Ulysses exclaimed, "You're baking, Mama! You're baking!"

"How is this?" I asked. "Is this yellow enough? Or do you want it more yellow?"

"More yellow!"

More yellow he got.

U brought over the coloring jar labeled leaf green. "Green, Mama! Green!" I broke off a lump of the decorating icing I'd mixed the day before and stirred it together in a bowl with a bit of green coloring. "How's that? Is it green enough? Or do you want more green?"

"More green!" he answered. "Birthday cake!"


Our friend Jennifer showed up and began helping with the cake project. She stirred up some bright red icing. Actually, it looked more magenta than anything, even though the jar was labeled "Christmas red." Good thing no one was requesting a red cake.


Our friends Sigurd and Gloria came over with their kids, Nico and Vicky. I had just finished covering the cake with frosting and was starting to fill decorating tubes with icing for piping flowers and whatnot. "What kind of cake is it?" Vicky asked.

"Yellow," I answered.

"I can see that," she replied.

Oops. Right. This cake was blindingly yellow. Spongebob yellow. In fact, Sigurd had already asked whether it was a sponge cake. Ha, ha. I explained that I meant it was golden on the inside.


The recipe came from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. The same recipe I used to make Don's birthday cake a couple of months ago -- the only difference was that I'd stirred coconut flakes into the frosting of his cake, and topped it with toasted coconut besides.

Last year, I read about cake baking and decorating for weeks in advance of U's third b-day. I practiced piping Crisco into flowers and borders and garlands for days. And then I followed recipes from Rose Levy Berenbaum's esteemed The Cake Bible to end up with a delicious, but complicated to make, buttercream frosting that never set up, even after I doubled the amount of powdered sugar in it, runny decorating icing that made its way to the base of the cake minutes after it was applied, and a dryish cake.

This year, I went with Bittman. For Donald's cake, I had used royal icing, which, it turns out, becomes rock hard shortly after application. This time, I used the 1974 Joy of Cooking's Decorative Icing, substituting organic palm oil for vegetable shortening. Perfect results, but a bit stiff.


For the writing, I mixed up some brown coloring with a lump of icing. I added some peanut oil to thin it sufficiently for handwriting.

It occured to me, as I mixed this, that it looked exactly like rich, luscious chocolate. Somehow I hadn't seen that coming. I thought it would be unpleasant and confusing to the palate to encounter something that looked this much like chocolate, but didn't taste chocolate, so I poured in some cocoa powder, enough to match in flavor the intense dark color of the icing. Plenty of cocoa powder.

Then it struck me that I could've skipped the brown coloring altogether.


U's Fourth Birthday, Part II

While Don and I were discussing, once again, how to introduce the birthday topic to Ulysses today, he stumbled, half-awake, into the office. There we were, surrounded by wrapping paper and wrapped presents. Red-handed! Fortunately, his consciousness was semi enough that I could easily divert his gaze and lead him out of the room before he registered any of it. And all was good cheer.

Several minutes later, Donald guided U to the uptoten.com page with the birthday greeting that awaited him that day: cartoon characters Boowa and Kwala singing lustily, "Happy birthday to you, to you! Happy birthday to ..."

"No," said Ulysses. "No, no, noooo!"

Oops. Too different, too early. Retreat, retreat! Back to good cheer.

A little after that, cuddling on the couch with Ulysses, I told him, "Today is your birthday, Ulysses!"

"No," he said.

"I'm going to make your birthday cake now!"


"What kind of cake would you like?"


I dropped the subject.

A little while later, Ulysses wandered back into the office. From where I was working in the kitchen, I could hear this conversation with Don.

"Wow! Present!"

"That's for later, when we have the cake."

"Present! Present!"

"No, Ulysses, you can't open them now. That's for later, when we have cake!" Don was starting to sound a little desperate.

"Yes! Present."

"No, Ulysses! You can't open that now. Mama will be upset!"

Suddenly I realized that Don's main worry was that he -- Don, that is -- would be in trouble with me if he let Ulysses open his presents early. Well, I thought, this stuff is supposed to bring fun. Not fear and misery. So I called out, "He can open his presents!"

"OK, Ulysses, you can open a present," said Don, but Ulysses had already carried the biggest box halfway across the house and over to his train table, which hasn't been repopulated with trains and tracks since we put it aside for the Christmas tree in December. We've left it clear for now, and figured it would make a good play space and present opening space for U's upcoming birthday. Evidently U had come to the same conclusion.

Ulysses worked off the paper to reveal ... the present our friend Sharon had sent us for Christmas of Aught Five! We had decided back then to give it to Ulysses when he had grown enough to understand what it was. A toy medical kit! At the time, when he was not quite two, it would've just been a random collection of interesting shapes to him. It seemed like a waste of such a beautifully presented set to give it to him at that time. By the time he was old enough to understand it, it would've been worn out, the pieces separated, the brand-new sheen worn off.

Over the past couple of months, Ulysses has picked up the relevant concepts and vocabulary: doctor, medicine, Band-Aid. And then there's: "Fix it," "It's broken," "Ow! That hurt!" and "I bonka'd my head!" Since last summer he's learned the names of a lot of body parts also, starting with head, and followed soon after with eye and foot. One of his favorite books is Maisy the Doctor. On uptoten.com one of his favorite games involves helping Kwala take medicine, get a shot, take a temperature, and so forth. Kwala sings a song, "I'm not scared of anything," through this ordeal in her sick bed. So this morning we rewrapped it in birthday paper (the original Xmas-themed wrapping was long gone) for four-year-old U.

And so he was thrilled to see the doctor kit! "Open the box! Help!" he said, and we obliged. He picked out the stethoscope and, to our surprise, directed the earpieces towards his head, held the resonator disk to his chest, and said, "Ba-BOOM! Ba-BOOM! Ba-BOOM!" Donald and traded glances and exclamations of the form "I didn't know he knew that."

He picked up the toy blood pressure measure and Don showed him how to squeeze the bladder. It made the needle spin on the dial. Ulysses squeezed happily, saying, "Around and around and around and around!"

"Is happy!" said Ulysses at the thermometer's 98.6 position, helpfully illustrated with a happy face as well as the Centigrade equivalent. "Is sad!" he said at the sad-face-fever setting.

He picked up the syringe and started pretend-plunging it into his arm.

"Oh, great," I said, "He must have gotten that watching Pulp Fiction."

"He's not shooting up!" said Donald. "He's drawing blood."

Later, at the party, I heard Don confessing to Sigurd and Gloria that he'd just been sticking up for Ulysses in saying that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

U's Fourth Birthday

Today is Ulysses's fourth birthday. He's not awake yet. We still are deciding how to present the whole birthday situation to him. I've been thinking about it nonstop for over a month, but I hestitated to say, "Ulysses, your birthday is coming in a month!" because I didn't want him to respond, as I've heard tots do, ten minutes later with "Is it my birthday yet? Has it been a month? Where's my cake? Where's the party? Wah!"

I thought we might tell him it's his birthday when he wakes up and comes stumping half-asleep from the bedroom. He's often super chipper at that time, but it's somewhat deceptive. It's a fragile moment, that newly awakened conscious state. Any bit of information or happening that's out of the ordinary -- good, bad or neutral -- can knock him out of his happy mood, and then the reparations can be extensive. A few days ago he awoke sunny and bouncy, seemingly completely awake. But a few minutes after our happy morning greetings the horn sound on his racing game didn't work. He was instantly inconsolable, and he panicked at the sight of our touching the computer to fix it. I had to hold him back physically while Don rebooted the computer and relaunched the program -- the only way out of the situation was straight through. U couldn't bring himself to try the game again until later in the morning. It was all too devastating, evidently.

Had the horn malfunction happened a half hour later, the whole scenario would have been different. He would have simply called to us or come to us: "Mama, Tata, horn not working, race je broken! Hix it?" ("Je" is Serbian for "is"; he uses Serbian for some parts of speech. "Hix" is "fix.") We would have fixed it quickly and been heroes, and the pleasant morning would have continued. Sigh.

So I thought we'd break the birthday news a little past that fragility window. But when? How soon, how late? Hey, Ulysses, by the way ... it's your birthday today! Huh? Where did that come from?

Don said we should tell him at the party this afternoon, when people start coming over. He said, "It'll be a 'Surprise, it's your birthday' party!" I couldn't figure out whether he was joking or not.

Meantime, I noticed a couple of days ago that he'd dug out and has been keeping close at hand a certain, tiny, board book that he hasn't read for a couple of years. I don't even know where he found it. It's called "The Birthday." It's all about a fox having a birthday party and all his little animal friends preparing a cake and so forth. The last time he read it was just around his second birthday. He carried it around with him for days, paging through it over and over, up through his birthday. That was the last I remember seeing him handle it.

He's got to know more about stuff than I've been giving him credit for.

Friday, February 15, 2008

U's fourth: the prep

Ulysses's birthday is tomorrow and I wanted to make for a more fun and relaxed weekend by making it a three-day one. I'm puttering around cleaning and cooking stuff for tomorrow. I just made some buttercream frosting. I tasted a little and it had that rough, scratchy quality that mars the taste of frosting. Uh oh.

I was hoping it would go away by tomorrow -- that maybe it was the coarseness of the sugar that hadn't been absorbed into the butter and cream yet.

Then I was looking for decorative icing recipes and I came across this nugget of info in the (old) Joy of Cooking: it said that the cornstarch they put in confectioner's sugar has a raw taste and if you want it go away, heat it over boiling water for a little while. Oops. Too late for that. Now I'm thinking maybe this is just a brand of sugar that has a lot of cornstarch in it and I'm basically screwed. Then I remembered seeing, the other day at the natural food store, a bag of all-natural confectioner's sugar, but it was like four bucks. Do you have to pay four bucks instead of one just to get sugar that's all sugar and not sugar plus? Geez.

Well, I just hope the frosting tastes better by tomorrow. I'm about to make a decorative icing with more confectioner's sugar, cream and veg shortening. And vanilla. I hope it tastes OK. I am not of the school of thought that says it doesn't matter what a birthday cake tastes like, as long as it's there and pretty.


Oh, good. I just retasted that frosting and now it tastes good. The vanilla came to the fore instead of the powderyness. So maybe it was just a matter of letting everything get absorbed.

Last year for U's birthday I bought a bunch of frosting tips. I look forward to using them again!

Thursday, February 14, 2008


We had a bake-off at work today. Fifteen or so contestants brought in cookies, cupcakes, breads and such, and seven judges, also co-workers, sampled them all. Each wrote their two favorites on a slip of paper. The three entries that got the most votes were the winners. I didn't win, place or show, but I did get a lot of compliments! And I had a lot of fun.

I made vanilice, which I've blogged about before. Here's what I wrote in 2005.

Today (writing as quickly as I could during work time!) I updated what I wrote in that post, and made some corrections that I've learned of since. Below is what I printed and placed next to my platter of cookies.

Vanilice (va-NEE-leet-seh)
Serbian holiday cookies.

Tiny, elaborate cookies are a Serbian favorite around the winter holiday season, which, for Serbs in America, can stretch from the buildup to “American Christmas” on December 25 through Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and even Serbian New Year's on January 14! As a category, they’re called “sitni kolaci” (SEET-nee ko-LACH-ee), meaning tiny cakes.

These are based on my Grandaunt Naka's “vanil grancle” (VAH-neel GRAHNT-sleh). My cousin (her granddaughter) reminisced recently: “They were my favorite cookies growing up and haven't had them since she passed away five years ago. She used to make them up until the time she died, despite the fact that her hands were almost crippled from arthritis. I used to eat each one slowly and carefully thinking of her crippled fingers making them lovingly for us. She would make hundreds each year – they were among her specialties. I really think she was a master baker among Serbian women, who are really mostly master bakers.”

Naka and her daughter – my aunt – came to the US from a place called Kikinda in a region known as the Banat, an ancient term meaning “frontier.” The region is famous for is delicious apricots. My mother and her brother (my uncle) come from Ruma, a little town in Srem, which is renowned for its cherries. It’s in honor of these two branches of my own heritage that I make half my vanilice with cherry conserve, and half with the more traditional apricot jam.

Hardware note
You will need two sizes of cookie cutters to make the rounds and the windows in half of the rounds. Scrounge about the house for bottle tops that will yield pleasing results, as I did for years – or do yourself a favor and invest a few dollars in a set of round pastry cutters at a kitchen supply store or Web site, or a restaurant supply store. These will serve you well for the rest of your life!

1 1/2 stick butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla (2 for extra flavor)
2 cups all-purpose flour

Powdered sugar
Apricot jam, cherry jam, or other kind of jam

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Work in the flour. The result will be a soft, easily crumbled dough about the consistency of pie crust.

Roll out to about 1/8" thickness. (I use a ruler.) Use plenty of flour on the board, and sprinkle flour atop the dough so that the pin doesn’t stick. Cut the dough into rounds about 1 3/4" in diameter. Into half of the rounds, cut a hole of about 7/8 " in diameter. These will be the cookie tops. Keep re-rolling until all the dough is used. If the dough gets too sticky to work, refrigerate it for a while.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 300° F for 10 minutes. They do not need to brown at all. Do not overbake. Let cool before handling. They are crumbly and fragile while still hot.

Spread about 1/4- to 1/2 tsp of jam on the solid rounds. Atop each round, place one of the rounds with a hole cut into it.

Dust each cookie with powdered sugar. To accomplish this, put about a three-inch deep layer of powdered sugar into a bowl or deep dish. Lightly drop each cookie into the sugar, first bottom down, then top down. Gently knock off any extra clumps of sugar.

I like to do the sugar dusting the day after the jam sandwiching. The cookie sandwiches are less likely to fall apart after the jam has had a chance to set up.

Don't worry about getting powdered sugar on the pretty jam centers. It'll be absorbed and invisible in the space of an hour.

Arrange on a platter. These are better at least a day later, when their flavor has had time to develop.

Yield: about 3 dozen cookies.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Real dogs

I'm roasting some bones in the oven for beef stock. After they brown nicely -- developing a range of deep flavors -- I'll simmer in water in my stock pot into the evening. See the chicken stock post of a little earlier for more comments on stock making. As with chicken stock, I won't add salt or other seasonings. Just let the bones and marrow do their thing. We haven't had homemade beef broth for several years -- dunno why, just one of those things -- so I'm psyched.

I hadn't realized how easy it was to get beef bones. I asked a manager type at my local, locally owned grocery this morning, "How can I get bones for making beef stock?" thinking he'd have to go into the back and dig some out for me. He pointed to the freezer case two feet from where we were standing. "Right there!" he answered, and we both laughed a little.

I looked at the label. They were labeled "Dog Bones" and priced at $1.29 per pound. I picked out about $6 worth, 4 1/2 pounds or so.

I made some remark about how funny it was that people consider these to be just for dogs, when they make the most wonderful beef stock possible.

The manager guy nodded. "Yes!" he agreed. "Cooking is such a dying art."

"Not at our house!" I said, "We're just getting going."

"Ours, too!" he said.

We commiserated for a few moments about The State of Things, and parted best of beef-eating buddies, as it were.

Minutes later, I was in the checkout line. The cashier asked me about the bones -- what was I going to use them for?

"Stock," I said, "Like broth or bullion. You just roast them in the oven, and then simmer them in water for a while. It makes the most delicious stock, so much better than anything you could get from a can or a bullion cube." She was looking at me intently, so I went on. "Then you just use it for starting soups, or whatever. Wherever you would use stock. Like when a recipe calls for stock, or bullion cubes."

She nodded and continued ringing out my groceries.

Finally she asked the question that must have been on her mind all the while.

"Are they really made of real dogs?"