Picture Gratitude


According to the Greater Good Science Center, being mindfully grateful can enhance our immune system, improve sleep, lower blood pressure, lessen depression, strengthen our relationships and encourage us to take better care of ourselves and others. Check out the videos on the Greater Good Science Center by Emmons on the hows and whys of feeling thankful. So how do we get a piece of this?
Cultivating gratitude is a gift you can give your kids and family through modeling the behavior. It may be enough to express your appreciation for things out loud. Ask them at the end of the day, what happened that made them smile and share your daily high points with them. If you are having a terrible day, focus on how you were grateful it wasn’t something worse. It could almost always have been worse.
Journaling is a research proven winner in the gratitude contest. Folks who write down what soothed their soul were more able to keep those feelings going. It has the added benefit of allowing you to look back on what you wrote when you are not feeling the love, and remember a better moment.
But what if writing it down is a road block? In the era of phones with cameras, I encourage you to take a picture. The quality, lighting, style et cetera doesn’t matter. Just capture an image that will call your mind back to what you were feeling at the moment you hit the shutter.


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Save the images to a special album. Make a collage of them. Use the collage as your screen saver or have it scroll through the album on your desktop. Collect them all onto a memory card and play it on a digital picture frame.

Most smart phones have microphones. Hit record to tell yourself about a good moment. Catch a loved one singing in the shower, a beautiful few seconds of music or the sound of rain patter when you are dry and warm inside. Record someone saying what they most appreciate about you or their infectious laugh. Make yourself a happiness mix tape to play when you need it most.
Smell recording needs to happen so I can record fresh baked bread and cookies, morning tea and coffee, the woods after it rains, the scent of my child’s head or my dog after her bath. Somebody please get on this.

Most importantly, don’t keep the joy to yourself. Share what gives your life meaning. Joy is one of those few things that increases the more you give it away. Making everyday a little bit more like Thanksgiving (minus the drunk uncle and screaming cousins) is something we can all celebrate.

Good Versus Great Baking & Making Your Own Vanilla

Ever wondered why cooks executing the same recipe can get radically different results? While there can be many culprits, let’s look for a minute at ingredients.
What you use, how you store it and preparation method are all important when baking. Take flour for instance. There are several types with different characteristics:
All purpose flour: 8-11% protein. Comes bleached (chemically) or unbleached. Chemical bleaching will lower the protein in flour and should therefore be limited to use in quick breads and cookies. Unbleached flour is best for applications where you want air pockets in the dough such as bread and pastry.
Bread Flour: 12-14% protein and best used in yeast dough applications.
Cake flour: 8-10% protein and finely milled allows for cakes and quick breads to rise well. This product is bleached.
Self Rising flour:Low protein, not for use with yeast as it already contains rising agents. Usually bleached.
There are many other flours in the world (and a range of gluten free options), but most home cooks use the aforementioned most often. Mark the purchase date on the bag when you bring it home. Flour should be used within 3-6 months if you are storing in a dry, dark, room temp. location. If you store it in the freezer in an airtight bag it will keep for several years. Frozen flour should be brought to room temperature before using with yeast or it may decrease rise. Never store flour next to strong smells or it will absorb them.
So now you have the perfect flour for your application, let’s talk vanilla. If you have never made your own, I encourage you to try. My first foray into vanilla came when my mom bought me a perpetual vanilla kit for Christmas.


An adorable glass jar came with a handful of vanilla beans and instructions. All I had to do was remove the beans, slice them down the middle, return them to the jar and fill with vodka, rum or bourbon, label with the date then wait at least 30 days before using. Since I still had some vanilla, I put it together then tucked it away and forgot about it. Three months later, while searching for the cream of tarter (why do I always have to empty the spice cabinet to locate this??), I found the bottle. Opening it yielded a beautiful, complex and rich aroma not even close to the supermarket product. I have never gone back.

If you don’t have a kit, any glass bottle (the cuter the better) in the 4 to 8 oz. range will do. Vanilla beans can be purchased from many sources but I get mine from Beanilla. There are several origins for beans and each carries a different taste profile. Madagascar  beans have that classic, sweet and buttery scent. Mexican beans are rich, sometimes a bit smokey or even acerbic/spicy. Indian beans have a rich scent but I find them interchangeable with the Madagascar kind. Tahitian pods have an amazing caramel, fruitiness that makes them a favorite.  Once you have your beans, slice them down the middle. I like to remove some of the ‘caviar’ and put that paste into the bottle, then put the sliced pods back in. IMG_1707

Don’t worry if your pods break apart when you slice them open. Just put the pieces into the bottle and proceed. Fill the jar with your choice of vodka, rum or bourbon until the pods are covered. IMG_1708

Label the bottle with a reminder not to use until after at least 30 days from when it was made.


The longer it sits, the richer the taste. Shaking the bottle every day or few days for the first month, also increases the extract flavor. Once it is done, use like you would any vanilla. If you top up your bottle with more alcohol every time you use some, you can have ‘perpetual vanilla’. I have a bottle that is going on 3 yrs. now but I think new beans will be needed soon.

Once you are a vanilla fan, you will find new excuses to include it in food. Putting it in salad dressings, most baked goods, custards, whipped coconut cream, stews, rice blends, anything with curry and vegan ice creams only makes each recipe better IMHO.

So other tips and tricks for great baking?

1. Test your oven temperature. You aren’t baking at 350 deg. F unless you test it with an oven thermometer. I test my ovens at least twice a year.

2. If you have a convection setting for your oven, bake with that. If not, turn the baking sheets or pans half way through baking.

3. Use parchment or silicone oven mats on baking sheets to prevent excessive bottom browning.

4. Know the texture you are trying to achieve with a batter. Good recipes should include this information but don’t be shy about penciling it into your cookbook to remind yourself or your kids, how it should look.  Flour will vary in moisture content depending on humidity. If too dry, add small amounts of water until the batter looks right. If too wet, add spoonfuls of flour until reaching the desired consistency. This is something only experience can teach so good baking is often a matter of lots of baking.

5. Store any ingredient with oils that can go rancid, in the freezer such as flour, nuts and seeds.

6. Bring eggs (if you use them) and butters/oils to room temperature before use as they incorporate better. If you use flax eggs- ALWAYS store your ground flax seed in the freezer. It goes rancid very quickly and is then bad for your baking and health.

7. If you are using sugar and fats in a recipe, cream them together. This is not a step to skip. Ever see those cookies at the bake sale that consist of a flat dough disc with the chips standing up like mountain peaks? The sugar and fats were not blended and the batter was probably too wet.

8. Don’t over beat quick breads, muffins, pancakes and cookie doughs. The rising power of baking powder and soda lasts only a short time once it touches the liquids. You must move fast to preserve that lift and over stirring the batter will develop the tough gluten fibers of the flour. Folding the wet into the dry ingredients keeps the results soft. Who wants a hard muffin?

All this talk of baking is making me hungry. I’m off to the kitchen until next post.

When Less Sugar is More Nutrition

Sugar and I go way back and our relationship has not always been healthy. Like most Americans, I spent the early years of this affair ingesting, ahem… more than the World Health Organization recommendation of six teaspoons (or a measly 100 calories) per day for women. Men don’t get off much easier. They are allowed only 9 tsp., or 150 calories/day. Things were going well. My weight was fine and it tasted SO GOOD.

So why should I care now and why should you? Piles of studies are pointing to the damage sugar can do to your health. Check out some of it for yourself at www.sugarscience.org. Fructose especially, but all sugars really, can cause triglyceride elevation, inflammatory reactions throughout the body and liver damage. Eating naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruits, is not so harmful because the fiber in the fruit slows absorption enough to let our bodies process the carbohydrates slowly.

Over time, I have been trying to get refined sugars out of my life. The candy bars were easy, the cookies are still a struggle. I also know that my chances for success will increase if I can find a healthy substitute for bad sugars. Enter the magic of fruit purees.


Normally, this is easy to find unsweetened apple sauce, but prune, banana and apricot are also great choices. Prune or date puree can be found in the baking section of the grocery or can be made at home. I will routinely substitute ¼ to ½ of the sugar called for in any recipe with fruit puree. Purees can also stand in for fat in baking. If you are putting fruit in for fat and sugar, start at ¼ of the total for each and work your way up each time you make the recipe. Sugar lends proper browning and texture so some is usually needed in cookies and cakes.

There is a world of culinary uses to explore here, but let me show you how I make apricot puree. The technique is the same no matter what dried fruit you want to use.

Apricot puree:

½ cup dried apricots

1 cup water

In a dish or measuring cup, put the fruit and water together, cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge overnight until the fruit has plumped up.


Put the fruit and water into a blender and puree until smooth.

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This may require you to stop and scrape down the insides of the blender several times before it is smooth enough to be lump free and stick to a spoon when turned upside down.


When fully blended, store in a jar in the fridge for about a week or the freezer for up to 6 months.


So now you have your puree, what can you do with it? Stir it into your morning granola, slather it on pancakes or toast, use it instead of jelly on a sandwich and, of course, cook and bake up a storm. It is a terrific thickener for homemade salad dressings!

Since going plant based with our diet, I began to notice how hard it was to find granola without dairy in the ingredients. Granola is often loaded with sugar and very expensive. On a recent trip, a bag of granola was selling for over nine dollars! Eek. That’s when I found out how fun, rewarding, great smelling, simple and delicious making your own granola could be. You seriously have to try this. The smell alone is worth the effort.

Naturally Sweetened Apricot, Macadamia Nut Granola:

3 cups rolled oats

1 mashed ripe banana

2 tbs. coconut oil

½ cup apricot puree

12 diced dried apricots, diced

½ cup unsalted macadamia nuts, chopped

1 tbsp. ground flax seed stirred into 3 tbsp. water

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. vanilla extract


1 tbs. chia seeds

You can always add sugars in the form of agave, black strap molasses or maple syrup if the naturally sweetened recipe above is just not sweet enough. I have not needed more than ¼ to ½ cup of additional sweetener per recipe to satisfy even the biggest sweet tooth in the house. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Put the oats into a large bowl with the nuts, dried apricots, mashed banana and flax/water mix (this gets gelatinous and helps hold the chunks of granola together while adding nutrients) .


In a small pan over low heat, mix the apricot puree, coconut oil, vanilla and cinnamon until the oil is melted.


Pour the melted mix into the bowl with the oats and stir until well combined.


If you are adding any of the optional chia seeds or natural sugars, do that now. Pour onto a baking sheet covered in parchment or baking liner and spread out into an even layer.


Bake at 350 deg. F for 20 mins. Turn off the oven, rotate the pan and let sit in the turned off oven another 15 mins.  Let cool on the baking sheet undisturbed if you like chunky granola or break it up and stir it around if you like it in small bits.


The sky is the limit on what you might want to add to the recipe when you make it at home. Bran, dried cranberries, different nuts and seeds, coconut…

I store this in a glass jar with one of those silica desiccant packs taped into the top of the lid to keep it fresh. Eat within a week although it never lasts that long at our house.IMG_1705