On Managing Expectations and Anise Cookies

The final book in my wonderful (if I do say so myself) dark fantasy series published Monday. I got lovely applause and cheerful “well-done’s” from my FB friends, and beautiful flowers from my husband. A few sales, too.

“Tales of Darkwood” is a thing I am proud of writing, and chuffed that I completed it in a year. But… I expected to feel a bubbly joy in this culmination of it. It was hard work. I gave it bits of my soul and lots of my time and money.

I felt heartbroken instead. A huge gasp of “now what?” No celebratory feelings at all. You know those images and videos of marathon runners staggering to the end of the race, crawling to get to the finish? They don’t look joyful either. Just determined. Or perhaps crazy. I identify with them today, the day after release. And I know why.

I failed to manage my expectations. There were no balloons or parades for completing the series. It’s just… done. I wanted more of a huzzah, glasses raised, cake, and a gift bag to take home.

As I’ve gotten older, managing expectations has taken on greater urgency. I don’t do well with the emotional hangover being crushed by disappointment leaves behind. “Live and let live” is an iteration of managing expectations. Or perhaps a hearty “Oh well!” when things don’t live up to my hopes. But sometimes the shock of the disappointment wins and then you’re depressed and cry and feel awful.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in varying degrees. The meal that took hours to make, but just doesn’t taste good. The gift you thought would bring someone true happiness, but instead simply just gets a polite thank you. The restaurant that had five stars, but you had a one-star experience. The bored/rude/inept clerk at the store where you’re about to spend hundreds of dollars who acts like they don’t see you. The child that doesn’t call.

Sometimes I do a good job of managing my disappointment. I bake, read a book, swim, go for a walk, drink too much coffee. I gave up drinking many years ago, so that’s out. I’ve found talking to others feels a lot like dumping my emotional burden on top of them, so that’s not an option anymore, either.

Sometimes I’m going to feel sad, lonely, and less-than for a while… until it goes away. Listen, if you’ve got any coping mechanisms for this, please let me know. ‘Tis the season for multiple, possibly massive disappointments, after all. The holidays can feel like one big field of landmines for many of us, so walk carefully as you ho-ho-ho your way these next few weeks. Someone’s heart may be bruised, or close to breaking. I know I’m going to do my best to be patient and kind. Even in holiday traffic.

Luckily, baking has a spark of magic in it. I am always heartened when I mix disparate, boring ingredients together and put them in the oven… because what comes out is nearly always an aromatic bundle of love and deliciousness that I can share with others. I’m not quite sure when feeding people became my love language, but it surely is now. Right up there with telling a good story or helping an actor discover how very good they are at their chosen craft.

In that vein, here’s our family recipe for soft Anise cookies… it’s not your normal Christmas cookie… anise is a bit of an acquired taste, unless you already like black licorice, then this is the cookie for you. Anise tastes of darkness, sort of the Krampus version of a Christmas cookie. It’s fantastic with coffee. This is a half-recipe, and it still makes about 4 dozen cookies. I apologize in advance for the vague instructions. I learned this one in my aunt’s kitchen in Kingston, Iowa. My family tends to cook by how things look or smell or feel as opposed to actual measurements.

My rolling pin was made by my great-grandfather, but you can find them online, or use finding one as an excuse to go visit Germany.

SOFT ANISE COOKIES by Helen Brown (my aunt)

Beat 4 eggs for about 10 minutes with a hand mixer, then add in slowly as you continue to beat:
1 dram of Anise extract (it’s roughly ¾ of a teaspoon, but I do a bit more)
1 heaping tablespoon baking powder
1 scant tablespoon oleo (I use Nature’s Own, bc I cannot deal with Oleo, margarine, or Crisco.)
1 pound powdered sugar

This will make a nice batter, like cake batter. Then add in (you’ll need to hand mix at this point, or you’ll kill your mixer) 4 cups of flour… about… it depends on the size of the eggs you use but you want a dough you can roll out. It will look like cookie dough should (I warned you about how I learned this recipe, ha.)

Roll out dough on floured surface, about ½ inch thick and print cookies. As you go, put them on lightly floured cookie sheets. Continue until dough is all printed.

Let them dry on a table for 3-12 hours. This will allow the print you put on them to stay when they bake.

Lightly grease cookie sheets. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes or so, just until the bottoms are light golden brown. The tops will stay pale. They will puff up and stay that way.

This version is intended to stay soft. There are others that omit the bit of fat that this one uses. If you do that, you’ll get a jawbreaker, biscotti-type of cookie, but it’s just as tasty in its Krampus-like way.

On Apple Cake and Book 5 of 5

Day-old Apple cake* plays a huge role in my “Tales of Darkwood” series, especially in the final book that publishes this coming Monday. I only thought it fair that I find a good recipe for apple cake to share with you. Here it is: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/361695413829270678/

Book 5, titled “Blood to Bind” turned out to be a fantastic yarn. I’m going to go out on a limb and say publicly that I’m thrilled with it, as well as happy with the whole series. Completing an entire five-book series, along with a hefty novella prequel in a single year (well, okay, it took a year and a half to noodle them out and write them all, but they all published in 2022) took a lot of effort. Not to mention learning how to be a publisher, creating my publishing imprint, and then figuring out marketing. If you haven’t started them yet, this is the link to my author page. https://www.amazon.com/Stacey-Upton-Bracey/e/B07NZDGRPJ You could get all 5 books for someone for Christmas for less than $25 on kindle… just a suggestion.

“The Traveller’s Tale” is the FIS (First in Series—see how I can sling the acronyms? Lol.)

I’ll let you in on a secret: It nearly did me in. Especially this last book. I imagined it was going to be a 75k page book but turned out to be about 110k. It’s good though. A page-turner that wraps up multiple story lines in an entertaining way. My Beta readers claim it’s their favorite one. I trust them.

I stayed sane by talking to friends, going for walks, and swimming. Coffee also played a big part in keeping me going. I wrote nearly daily, at least 2,000 words a day (about 8 pages of book). Towards the end, I was writing about 8k a day (32 pages) to get it done in time. I’ve found I do my best writing in the morning, so I started getting up early, around 4am to get ‘er done. Not that I like that answer to “what is my writing practice,” but it’s what works for me.

I do love writing, though. Pretty sure my current pace of at least 6 full-length books + some shorts per year is something I can keep up.

This coming year will bring some changes. I have a pen name I introduced in an anthology this year, alongside the dark fantasy series. Stacey Christine writes Romance. I’m currently torn between writing Paranormal Romance or Sports Romance (Clean or Spicy?) or Small Town Second Chance Romance. What do you like to read? Email me back here and let me know. Please share any good titles you think I should read in those genres too!

That’s it for now—enjoy your apple cake! “The Seasoned Mom” has good recipes.
*Being that this is a darkish sort of tale… the apple cake in the story might be poisoned…

On Pasta Salad and Dogs

I’m going to start with the pasta salad, because the Dog bit of this blog might make you sad. I’ll give you a spoiler alert, so you can stop reading, and just use this week’s entry to go make yourself a tasty side-dish or wowza contribution to your next potluck gathering.

The Facebook algorithm delivered this recipe to me. Now I will say, I often find the algorithm spooky on a good day, obnoxious on a bad one. For instance, the algo decided I must have gone to Camp Lejeune and gotten horrible diseases. I blocked about fifteen variants of that particular ad, and I am still getting it in my spam email.

Other times, it can be amusing. As in, I’m thinking about doing a SwimTrek trip to Indonesia. On this one, along with swimming in gorgeous waters with sea turtles and colorful fish and sharks (I know, I just don’t have a big fear of them, not like I do, say, going to the car mechanic on my own), you visit an island Komodo dragons live on. I did zero research online about the reptiles, other than going to the site and checking out the trip. Next day, Komodo Dragons littered my feed. Everything from where to see them to movies about them to pictures of them. Totally obscure, although I did learn the government has recently hiked the price to step foot on the island from $65 to $250, so all the folks who make their living preventing people from being eaten showing people the Komodo dragons are mad.

Another friend looked at one bra and then had to weed through bra commercials for weeks. I’ll let you know if that happens to me after I publish this.

I do like to try the occasional recipe that the algorithm serves up. This one was very easy. I only watched the video once. A few little notes before I give it to you:

1. Dice instead of chop. It all melds better with smaller pieces. As one of my sons says, that shows the love. He likes chopping though.

2. Amounts of each ingredient are really up to you, except with the dressing. If you love black olives, put more in. Hate green pepper? Don’t add it. I don’t care for spicy things, much to the chagrin of my children (although I remind them, I liked spicy/hot things before I was pregnant with them, so they only have themselves to blame for my pallid palate), so I keep my red onion to a half one, instead of a whole one. You do you.

3. This is best made ahead of time. Just seal it up in Tupperware and let it sit in the fridge.

4. This is just as delicious with regular pasta. I just use brown rice pasta because we are trying to be better about gluten.

5. I know we can’t all get organic food, or care to. I would try to get organic tomatoes for this, though.

PASTA SALAD (This makes enough to serve 10-12 as a side dish.)

1 bag brown rice pasta. Cook and rinse and cool. Tip: Heavily salting your water really makes it taste better.

Green onion, red onion, green pepper, black olives, cherry tomatoes—chop up and add to cooked pasta.

Toss in dressing: 4 cloves of garlic minced, 1 T Dijon mustard, equal parts red wine vinegar and olive oil, 1 T oregano, 2 T parm cheese. Whisk until it melds. You’ll know you have your proportions right if the color turns creamy. Taste it and see if you want it tangier (add more vinegar), or if it needs be more mellow (add more olive oil).

When getting ready to serve, add a bunch of tiny fresh mozzarella balls… or go crazy and add chopped meat too. It’s your pasta salad. Enjoy!

Now, if you’d like to just be happy with a recipe this week, I bid you adieu… the next bit about Dogs makes me awfully emotional, and I wouldn’t want to ruin your coffee time.

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So, a few days ago was National Dog Day, and FB had oodles of cute pictures of pups. Don’t get me wrong, or think I’m ready to sit on the porch and wave my cane at people. I wasn’t resentful at all. I LOVED seeing everyone’s pictures of their doggos. It stabbed me in the heart at the same time, because after over a year, a month, and a handful of days, I still miss our beloved rescue dog. Like, I still cry weekly that we had to let her go.

Yes, it was the right thing to do, yes it was time. Yes, she let us know she was ready.

I wasn’t ready. None of us were.

I’m still not ready.

Most of you know our story of Keisha, who was a rescue who rescued us, or you can read about it in this blog, or in the book I wrote about her and us. My husband has nearly convinced me she was a Beauceron.

So now we are on all these Beauceron websites looking at them, getting to know where to find the breed. We will 100% do a rescue again. We are not puppy people anymore. We are NOT READY for another dog yet, mind you. But we are super wistful for the one that is gone. I also torture myself by having friends who rescue animals (I donate proceeds from the book) so really, I should be used to seeing all the cute noses and perky ears and that soulful way dogs gaze at their person.

Whew, howdy. After about the tenth picture, I had to close the website. I know, I know. I AM grateful we had her. I’m relatively sure my heart is mending from the loss, and very sure that I’d like to have a dog or two again.

I like the walks too, amiable pup by my side, or just ahead, sniffing things. I love the way dogs’ tails wag when they walk. Letting you know they are happy.

That’s the other thing. Where I walk in the mornings is the same route we used to walk with our dog. It got shorter as she got older. And then recently, when I was back visiting where we lived when she had lots of energy, I walked in those spaces as well. It was very emotional.

I have to believe that loving something that much is good for me. It better be, because this broken feeling is hard to take some days.

Please give your pup an extra snuggle from me, and a biscuit. Our dog loved biscuits. She was a such a good girl.

On Air Fryers and Terrible Toys

My husband and I have birthdays just 5 days apart. Now that our children are grown, this means that we often get combination gifts for the household rather than individual things.

This birthday week brought us an air fryer. I have to admit, I was leery of the thing. Just like I was with the Instapot I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. As I am totally without mechanical skills, the arrival of any new gadget fills me with suspicion that something could go very wrong, that it will explode somehow, leaving bits of both myself and the kitchen cabinets scattered on the linoleum.

Its name also reminded me of the Air Poppers that we all owned in the early 1980s. Nothing better than some cardboard-textured, tasteless air popped popcorn to go with your strongest-aftertaste-ever-on-the-planet Tab. Mmmmm.

The exploding thing was really what stopped me. The dread of what could happen. It’s like that feeling you get when you have to open those heinous round cannisters of poppin’ fresh dough. Please tell me this happens to you, too. I hold them at arm’s length and avert my eyes as much as I can. Trepidation builds as I get closer and closer to the POP when it opens. It’s almost not worth making orange sweet rolls on Thanksgiving morning. Almost.

I think those “peel and open” containers were invented by the scions of the super crazy loon who invented the Jack in the Box as a “fun” toy for children. That horrific building suspense, and then the awful “surprise” of a THING popping out at you. A thing dressed like a clown that then bobs around on a spring. I’ll give you a shiny quarter if that thing made you laugh, but you have to be honest about it. I am sure it made most of us cry. My Jack in the Box played “Pop goes the Weasel,” and I loathe that tune to this day. This is what mine looked like. Terrifying, am I right?

I’m sure a close cousin of the Jack in the Box was the inventor of the game Operation, where you pull the diseased and broken parts of a human being out of a man on an operating table. If you hit the metal edge of the game with your metal operating instrument, a buzzer goes off and the nose of the guy you are operating on blinks red. You might not actually get shocked for real, but the jarring sensation feels like it. Honestly, they should all be locked up for scarring us for a lifetime.

I’ll give you one more. My kids were raised on Legos, and we stepped on our fair share, to be sure. Not fun at all. However, I believe Jacks, with their multiple pointy bits were much more lethal on the night-time walks from bedroom to bathroom. How did we ever survive our childhoods?

Back to the present. I now love my Instapot and can cook whole meals in it if I get ambitious. The air fryer sat on the counter untouched by me in spite of this proof that newfangled gadgets can make my life easier. But my braver husband started making things with it while I remained in another room, far away. Then I tasted what he made. I’m now a solid convert. It was the air fries that sold me. Being that it was a potato product, it had a natural edge, but man those were good. Fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside. I’ve made really good salmon in it so far. My son tells me I can bake with it too, but we will have to see about that. Preheating the thing seems to be the secret. It’s all very self-contained, nothing exploding that I’ve unearthed yet. And pretty easy to clean, too.

The Instapot was definitely more scary. I think it’s the hissing sound the steam makes. It’s just not a friendly sound.

It’s great to have the Air Fryer during the 100+ degree temperatures of summer. Anything that helps me avoid turning on my oven is a plus. Here are a couple of recipes to get you started. They tell me I can make bread in the thing too, I’ll let you know when I try it.

AIR FRYER SWEET POTATO FRIES

Preheat your frier at 380 degrees. Cook for about 10 minutes. Give the potatoes a little shake about halfway through.

Peel and cut sweet potatoes into fries, about ¼ -1/2 inch or so.

Toss with a little olive oil (about a teaspoon). Or just spray the inside of the cooker with spray olive oil.

Sprinkle potatoes with garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper.

Put in the air fryer in a single layer. One or two potatoes is plenty.

NOTE: It’s the same principle and temp for regular fries, just soak your cut potatoes in water for about fifteen minutes, then dry them first.

AIR FRYER SALMON

Preheat fryer to 400.

Make sure your filets are the same size. Season with a little lemon, garlic, and salt and drizzle a little olive oil on top. If you are getting fancy, some sprigs of rosemary are nice.

Place salmon skin-side down in fryer. Cook for 6-11 minutes, depending on thickness and how done you like your salmon. It’s not a temperamental thing, you can pull the basket out and check on it, and then put it back in.