Wednesday, December 24, 2008


(Warning, this post will only make partial sense)

There are times when the world arranges things absolutely perfectly. The sunrise as you drive over the brow of the hill, the rainbow in the midst of depression. The bird call as you stare out into the ocean.

At other times, the world sucks.

Christmas is not always 'the most wonderful time of the year'.

I'm sitting here this afternoon, grieving my parents, wearing the Christmas Sweater my mother knitted for me before she died.

I'm a little bit angry because circumstances point to the fact that I have been misled, and I'm little scared because the future has suddenly gotten more fuzzy and uncertain.

It took a little animation to pull me out of myself.

Life will all work out o.k.

Between the 'Appearance of the Angels' and the 'Shepherds Kneeling at the Manger', there is a dark and scary moonlight walk down a mountainside, leaving your livelihood and only source of income (the sheep) unguarded.

It's a bit dark right now, but somehow I will make it to the manger tonight.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

A Party? Not this year

I wonder if Jesus ever says-

You know what Dad? I think I want a quiet birthday this year. I don't want a lot of fuss. I'll just have a few close friends over, just the disciples and their wives. We'll munch our way through some hors d'oeuvres and I'll make some of my special red wine. I don't need a big celebration with lots of candles and music....

...oh and make sure you invite Judas, for some reason he thinks I don't like him.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The sting in the tale of Christmas

Last Christmas I wrote a blog entry about a part of the Nativity story we often miss (click here).
But there is another section of the story we tend to skip - probably because it's not nice.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matt:2 :16)

Herod, acting on a perceived threat from Jesus responds in out of his megalomania by ordering the massacre of all male children 2 years old and under.

I remember when I was a child in Sunday school, our teacher was showing us the t.v. series 'Jesus of Nazareth'. We watched with joy as Shepherds and Wise Men visited the Stable and 'paid homage to the Christ Child' - and then the teacher stopped the tape at a place that was obviously not the end of the episode.

When we complained, we were informed that the next section 'was not suitable for children'.

It was the Slaughter of the Innocents.

It's out of place with the fuzzy nostalgic Christmas story. It doesn't look good on a Christmas Card and we definitely can't have our young children acting it out as part of the yearly Nativity Play.

The Brick Testament which is a website that the publishes bible stories interpreted visually with Lego, and is an excellent site to waste some time, published a book of the Nativity Story which sells on Amazon. I was reading a review that criticized the book for showing this scene in Lego.

The reviewer felt that the picture was inappropriate in a children's Christmas book - not that the Lego Nativity market's itself as a children's book in any way.

The story makes us feel uncomfortable, we wish it wasn't part of the Christmas Story, and so we deal with it by ignoring it. The trouble is we reduce the story when we do that. We create a sanitized version that is age-appropriate, and in doing so remove part of what drives the narrative along. Without the Slaughter of the Innocents, Mary, Joseph's and Jesus escape to Egypt makes no sense.

We 'tidy up' the story of Christmas to somehow make it 'more acceptable'. We remove from the story anything that may give offense to us.

I 'tidy up' the story of my life to somehow make it 'more acceptable' too. There are parts of my past that make me uncomfortable. There are parts of my past that I wish I could travel back in time and erase. But those parts of my past have shaped me and formed me, I would be less of a person without them.

Another theme that I see in myself in this story is the response of Herod to the news of the Wise men.

Herod's worldview certainly doesn't have room in it for a new King, even one as young as Jesus is a threat to him. And so Herod does what he knows, he lashes out in and orgy of violence out of all proportion to the event itself. He is so intent on clinging on to the status quo that blood is shed.

I can get like that, I have a framework that I call 'Christian', and when a person, or a theology comes along to shake that framework I resist change. It's sad when I do that to others, but it is dangerous when I do it to myself. I find something within me that is so at odds with what I consider 'Christian' that I am left with 2 choices. Either deny and destroy what is within me or enlarge my 'framework'.

And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. (Matthew 12:25)

It is amazing to me the energy that I have wasted slaughtering innocent parts of myself because they do no fit into some preconceived idea of what 'Christianity' looks like. I'm not perfect, my theology is not perfect, and yet somehow I would rather enslave myself to a faulty framework than allow myself to change.

I am the innocent slaughtered, and I am the slaughterer of thousands.

It's time the killing should stop.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Coating the Pork

After my previous success with Pan-Frying Stuffed Coated Chicken (click here)
I decided to have another go with a slightly different recipe.
First get some boneless, skinless thin pork loin chops and set up your coating station.
Bowl 1 is seasoned flour.
Bowl 2 is two egg whites with a tablespoon of mustard whipped in.
Bowl 3 is 1 cup breadcrumbs. 1/4 cup Parmesan. Sage, salt and pepper.
Dip the pork into the three bowls in order, alternating your hands so you don't get covered in a total icky mess (see the chicken post for full details)
When all 4 pieces are coated, shallow fry them in a skillet for about 3 minutes a side. Don't disturb them too quickly or the coating will fall off in the pan!

I served them with broccoli, cauliflower, shallots and red peppers that I had all sauteed and steamed in a skillet. And then just grated some Parmesan over the top.

Another yummy concoction!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pastry Problems

Last night I had a party to attend. I signed up to bring Chips and Dip, but in a fit of creativity yesterday I decided to bake.

There is something about Christmas that makes me long for Mince Pies, even though they are not my fave Christmas Fare.

A mince pie (sometimes also minced, minced meat, or mincemeat pie) is a British festive sweet pastry, traditionally consumed during the Christmas and New Year period. Mince pies normally have a pastry top, but versions may also be found without the top in which case they are known as mince tarts. Mince pies are filled with mincemeat – a preserve typically containing apple, dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, spices, and either suet or vegetable shortening.[1]

Modern mince pies typically do not contain any meat, but because suet is raw beef or mutton fat, mince pies made with suet are not suitable for vegetarians. Individual mince pies are usually 6–7.5 cm in diameter, although larger mince pies, suitable for slicing, may also be baked.

Original mince pies are just pastry and filling - and are a bit of an acquired taste.

I was looking through 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess' and found a version of them topped with Frangipane instead of pastry - they sounded nice. So I thought I would make these individual pies as the cookbook suggested.

I forgot about the humidity!

The sweet shortcrust butter pastry - which is a nightmare to work with on dry days, did not fare well in 120% humidity. It bound together into a sticky mess after adding just 1 tablespoon of fluid!!! I added more flour and put it in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes, but the instant I tried to roll it out and put it in my pan, it just all fell apart.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

I grabbed a large flan case and made one big tart and just wodged the pastry in with my fingers before pouring the frangipane over it!

It looked yummy, and the pastry stayed light and flaky.

The only problem was convincing the Americans at the party that something called a mincemeat pie, was actually a sweet tart rather than a savory meat pie! The Frangipane actually worked well with the mince and made the whole thing a pleasant culinary experience.

Just as well really - I still have half of it in the Fridge!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fighting With Holst

The English composer Gustav Holst is probably best known for his work The Planets, but one of his melodies is sung nearly every Christmas, the melody to 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. True, there is another famous setting by the English Composer Harold Darke, but it is not so well known.

This year I set the lyrics of 'In The Bleak Midwinter' - written by Christina Rossetti, to a new tune, composed by myself.

You can see and hear my setting here.

I did not receive much response from the choir last night over the piece.

Comparing my setting to the familiar Holst setting, my melody is more interesting. It uses some interesting rhythmic devices and changes time signature. Holst stays in 4 beats to the measure.

Harmonically, I have some interesting chord progressions and some mini-modulations. I even more the entire melody into the Major Key for one stanza. Holst has one solitary note that isn't in the basic scale of the key of his melody. His melody is 4 lines long, and two of those are practically identical.

In terms of text setting, my melody is in the minor key, and tries to feel bleak and sparse to conjure up musically the feeling of 'bleak midwinter'. When the choir sings about 'frosty wind made moan', the melodic phrases sets up a 'musical wind swirl'. Holst's melody seems at odds to most of the lyrics.

None of that matters.

The problem is, mine is not the familiar tune the choir is used too.

Singing lyrics to a new tune creates culture shock (just imagine if somebody did the unthinkable and set the lyrics of 'The Star Spangled Banner' to a new melody!)

It's like learning to drive on the other side of the road - it feels different, it feels wrong, and suddenly you have to concentrate on the act of driving.

By putting the lyrics to a new tune, I'm fighting against tradition. The new tune isn't a big deal to me, I know other settings of this carol beyond the three I've listed here. When I moved to the U.S. I discovered other Christmas Carols that are sung to different tunes than to the ones I grew up loving in the U.K. I've dealt with my culture shock.

I still remember though how weird it felt.

And now my melody is causing the choir to experience that 'weirdness' for themselves.

I've taken something that is beloved - and altered it!

For many people Christmas is a time of nostalgia and tradition. I have certain foods that I want to eat, and certain things I want to sing - If a candlelight service didn't end with singing 'Silent Night' whilst holding your candles aloft I think there would be uproar.

In the midst of that, I'm fighting with Holst. A fight that most people don't see as necessary. Why does 'In The Bleak Midwinter' need a new tune? It doesn't. But I wrote one simply because I could and I wanted to be creative.

As I said I did not receive much response from the choir over the piece. That lack of response has reminded me that I didn't compose the piece for the response it might get. Writing new tunes to Christmas Carols has become a Christmas tradition for me.

It's ok to let Holst win.

It's not a fight.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In The Pink

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. It's the Sunday when we light the Pink Candle, the candle of Joy. But why is it pink when all the others are Purple or sometimes Blue?

The earliest Feast Day to be celebrated in the Christian Church was Easter. The season of Lent was viewed as a time of Preparation for this Feast. Every Sunday in Lent a candle would be lit as a symbol of the hope of Resurrection. Some churches would begin with seven lit candles and extinguish one each of the Sundays of Lent.

During Lent people were encouraged to fast and reflect on their own lives. The problem was that many people became more caught up in how bad they were rather than on focusing on how good God is. People began to wallow in their sins and misery and instead of Lent leading them closer to God it became a time of separation. To counter this, the Pope would hand out Pink Roses on the Third Sunday of Lent, a symbol of coming Joy and the goodness of God. (Some sources say that the roses are handed out on the Fourth Sunday which is Laetare Sunday in the Catholic Church, and is when the Pope used to hand out golden roses to Catholic Sovereigns. Whether the roses of the commoners were given the same sunday as the roses for the Sovereigns is a matter of debate.)

When the church began to celebrate the feast of Christmas, they wanted to have a time of preparation before it, and so Advent was instituted. They kept the candle lighting, and they wanted to also keep the hope of Joy with the roses, but of course before the age of cultivated flowers that was a challenge. And so the Rose Colored candle for Advent became the solution. The other candles were purple because that was the color of Penitence that was used during Lent. Some traditions now use Blue Candles instead of purple, to distinguish Advent from Lent.

Bible Verses You Never Hear Preached On

1 Kings 14:10

Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

This preacher's interpretation of the bible is so off base it's sad and funny at the same time.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Candy Quiz

The Answers to all these clues are the names of candy. How many can you get?

  1. Swashbuckling trio
  2. Indian burial grounds
  3. Galaxy
  4. What bees make
  5. Flotation device
  6. Twin letters
  7. Red planet
  8. Sarcastic laugh
  9. Greasy digits
  10. Famous author
  11. Famous baseball player
  12. Elite street in New York
  13. Sign of affection
  14. What a worker looks forward to
  15. Nut happiness
  16. Pleasantly plump
  17. Two female pronouns
  18. Feline
  19. Single women look for him
  20. Sun explosion
  21. Crunch noise
  22. Children of the cane
  23. Lottery amount
  24. Lactic flops
  25. Determines who wins the game
  26. Home of movie stars
  27. Superman's favorite hangout
  28. Opposite of bad and few
  29. What Elmer Fudd calls pranks
  30. Sticky teddies

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Keeping Your Coating On!

One cooking technique that I've never really tried before is pan frying items that have been coated in some way. For example Chicken Fried Steak. I've heard that one of the top questions that cooks ask is 'How do I keep the coating on the steak?'. Visions of burnt crispy bits floating around in a skillet of hot oil had deterred me from attempting this feat. Plus I could claim that I was trying to eat healthy as a way of avoidance.

Well Cooking Light arrived with an article devoted to pan frying so I really had no more excuses. One of the recipes that sounded really yummy was chicken stuffed with Pancetta and Fontina.

One problem - I didn't have Pancetta or Fontina and I didn't want to get out of my comfy clothes to go to the store! I rummaged around in my fridge and mixed up a stuffing of chopped deli ham, cheddar, garlic and rosemary.

As you can see from the pic I go through a lot of garlic so I but it in bulk :)

The next step was probably the fiddliest. Cutting a pocket in the side of the chicken and making a cavity for the stuffing. The trick is to use a small knife and to make sure you don't make a hole in the other side of the meat in your zeal for maximum stuffing containment. Then all it takes is a teaspoon and some judicious poking with your fingers to get the chicken stuffed.

Now it starts to get really fun. You set up three dishes with coatings on them. The first one had 1/2 cup of flour. The second, 2 egg whites lightly beaten, and the third had saltine crumbs in it. (Take a sleeve of saltines and run them through the processor for 2 minutes.)

You cat the chicken with flour, then with egg white and then with the cracker crumbs. Why the flour? Why not just dip in the egg white and the crumbs? Well The egg white won't stick to raw chicken without something for it to bind too. And the cracker crumbs are too dense to stick to the chicken without some form of glue. So the Crumbs stick to the egg white which sticks to the flour which sticks to the chicken! Do it this way and your coating shouldn't fall off!

The one trick I learned is to designate a 'Wet hand' and a 'Dry Hand'. Otherwise the mixture gets all over you and makes a real mess.

  1. Use the wet hand to pick up the chicken and place it in the flour.
  2. Use the dry hand to coat it in the flour.
  3. Using the dry hand, shake off the excess and place the chicken in the egg white.
  4. Using the wet hand make sure the chicken is coated in the egg white.
  5. Using the wet hand shake off the excess and place the chicken in the crumbs.
  6. Using the dry hand coat the chicken in the crumbs.
  7. Using the dry hand shake off the excess chicken and place it on your board.

It's as easy as that. Repeat with all your chicken pieces and then you are ready to cook!

Put the chicken in the oil and fry one side for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes flip it over carefully with some tongs and give the other side 10 minutes.

And there's the finished deal :)

The coating stayed on the chicken and the chicken is crispy without being drenched in oil.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

On Your Mark. Get Set. Wait.

(Random thoughts for the Contemplative Service this Sunday)

Those of you who have heard me speak before know that I love to cook. I can be a month away from a dinner party and already be searching through cookbooks, planning the perfect menu. Organizing my shopping list under various subcategories and even drawing up a time plan to coordinate the cooking of multiple dishes.

I love the running around on the day, putting the finishing touches on everything, making sure every dish is ready to go when the time for the start of the party rolls around, and then just waiting for the doorbell to ring.

...and waiting....

...and waiting...

...and waiting...

Being English I was raised that being 'on time' meant being 10 minutes early. There's something about waiting beyond the length of time I was expecting that sucks the joy out of all my preparation.

It couldn't have been easy being Israel. Imagine hearing the promise:

"But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."

and having to wait over 400 years for it to come to fruition. I get angry enough when someone is 30 minutes late!

400 years feels like along time.

I read the Magnificat - Mary's incredible song of Praise that she sang in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, and I wonder. I wonder if she was still singing about how blessed she was when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant and riding a donkey.

9 months feels like a long time.

I sit in Advent - this season of Preparation and Waiting. And I get frustrated. Even when I've done everything that I can to Prepare I still have to wait. Preparation can fill up the time, but it cannot make the time move any quicker.

4 weeks feels like a long time.

I sit in the Contemplative service. We've finished a song. I look down at the bulletin and I know that a liturgical reading is coming next. I look up to see who is leading it, but nobody has stepped forward. Have they forgotten? Is there some miscommunication that I am unaware of?

2 minutes feels like a long time.

I sit in stillness, I pray and ask God to speak, I talk to others about whatever it is God is 'birthing' in my life...

...and I wait...

...and I wait...

...and I wait...

The waiting teaches me that I'm part of something much larger than just myself with my own calendar and my own agenda.

The waiting teaches me that I'm not the center of the Universe.

The waiting teaches me to trust God's timing whenever I think God is moving too slowly.

The waiting teaches me that God cannot be manipulated. It's not just about me putting my quarters in the cosmic coke machine and pushing the right button.

The waiting teaches me that just because I'm prepared doesn't mean I'm ready.

On your mark. Get set. Wait.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fun with iTunes

Most of this is just ridiculous, but some of them are pretty funny.

1. Put your iTunes on shuffle.
2. For each question below, press the next button to get your answer.
4. Tag 10 friends.

IF SOMEONE SAYS "Is this okay?" YOU SAY?
"Cop Song" (Urinetown Soundtrack)

"My Little Girl" (tim McGraw)

"When Tomorrow Comes" (Eurythmics)

"Selig sind, die da leid tragen" (Brahms German Requiem) -
translates as 'Blessed are those that suffer'

"Candle in the Wind" (Elton John)

"Coming Around Again" (Carly Simon)

"Careless Whisper" (Wham)

"Where is the Love?" (Shirley Bassey)

WHAT IS 2+2?
"I Can Do Better Than That" ('The Last Five Years' Soundtrack)

Metamorphosis 2: Danae " (Paul Schwartz)

"And Then There Were None" ('Spring Awakening' Soundtrack)

"Aiutami" ('The Light in the Piazza' Soundtrack)
Aiutami means 'Help Me!' in Italian.

"The Bitch of Living" ('Spring Awakening' Soundtrack)

"The Look of Love" (ABC)

"Knowing When to Leave" (Burt Bacharach)

"Seven Seas of Rhye" (Queen)

Eclipse" (Pink Floyd)

"Strawberry Fields for Ever" (Beatles)

"Musica Dei Donum" (Rutter)
Translates as 'Music is God's Gift'

"The Hills of Greenmore" (Steeleye Span)

"Kiss Me" ('Sweeney Todd' Soundtrack)

"Wanted Dead or Alive" (Bon Jovi)

"Octupus's Garden" (Beatles)

"Acension" (Paul Schwartz)

"In Old Mexico" (Tom Lehrer)

"No More Lonely Nights" (Paul McCartney)

"Saturday Night" (Bay City Rollers)

"Blaze of Glory" (The Alarm)

"No No Never" (Texas Lightning)

"Begin the Beguine" ('DeLovely' Soundtrack)

"Time Heals Everything" (Bernadette Peters)


A New First!

Through the miracles of the Internet I received an anonymous piece of hate mail today for something I wrote on my blog!

It doesn't matter what you write, there is always someone ready to burn you at the stake for it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ultimate Chocolate Cookie Recipe

I've been asked to give out this recipe so many times I thought I'd post it here. It comes from The New Best Recipe - published by Cook's Illustrated, an awesome cookbook.

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa (dutch processed if possible)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 16 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons instant coffee or espresso powder
  • 1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened but still cool
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

2. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat.

3. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla lightly with a fork, sprinkle the coffee powder over to dissolve, and set aside.

4. Beat the butter at medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 5 seconds. Beat in the sugars until combined, about 45 seconds; the mixture will look granular. At a slow speed beat in the egg mixture until incorporated, about 45 seconds. Add the chocolate in a steady stream and beat to combine, about 40 seconds. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer at a low speed add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Add the chocolate chips and mix until just combined. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until the consistency is scoopable and fudge-like, about 30 minutes.

5. Adjust the oven racks to the upper and lower middle positions and preheat the oven to 350F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

6. Scoop the dough onto the prepared sheets with a 1 1/2 inch ice cream scoop, setting the mounds of dough about 1 1/2 inches apart.

7. Bake until the edges of the cookies have just begun to set but the centers are still very soft, about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through the cooking time.

8. Cool the cookies on their baking sheets for 10 minutes and then slide the parchment with the cookies onto wire racks and cool to room temperature.

The recipe makes about 48 cookies.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Appropriate Cocktail Talk - World Aids Day

Today is World AIDS Day. I was reading an article about whether the Global AIDS crisis is overblown. It's an interesting thought provoking article, but one line just made me smile -

"Everybody talks about AIDS at cocktail parties," Oldfield said. "But nobody wants to hear about diarrhea."


Back in the 90s Churches in the U.K. did special services on World Aids Day, today it just seems to slip by almost unnoticed. I remember attending a service in Nottingham - I attended because a friend of mine was speaking. I recall sitting there and being aware that some of the people who were sitting across the aisle from me were living with AIDS. It was the first time I'd seen someone with the disease. It put a face to something I'd just heard talk about. Suddenly AIDS became much more real to me.

After the sermon they played the song 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' from the musical Les Miserables, they played it in memory of people who had died from the disease.

As the song echoed around the church I began to see people sobbing over friends, colleagues and partners they had lost. I did not know anyone who had died from the disease, but the grief was so palpable I began to weep too.

It was at that point that AIDS ceased to be a 'homosexual problem' or a 'third world problem' instead it was simply a 'Human Problem'.