rare occasions

cook's illustrated back covers

Dan and I used to take real pleasure in cooking together. It started back in college, when we, off our meal plans for the first time, were finding our way around the kitchen, discovering appliances beyond the microwave, looking up what to do with artichokes and beets. (This was the year of the vegetable parties and the year Dan bought me knives for my birthday. What a dream.)

The routine migrated with us to seminary, where, newly married, we were so busy with schoolwork that making meals became our time together. We’d set aside our books and laptops for an hour or so and crack open a cookbook and challenge ourselves to try something new, or to make it better than the last time.

yellow napkin

We had a rhythm in the kitchen. You should have seen us make beef and broccoli. Or pizza—we had that down to a science: I’d knead the dough, he’d cook the sausage, I’d grate the cheese, he’d stir the sauce. We could have a pizza in the oven in no time.

These days, though, it’s a little trickier to cook together. These days, it’s more like: I feed the baby, he chops, he cooks, he stirs, he grates, he bakes, he plates. On very rare occasions, if she’s not hungry but insists on being held, he’ll take her and I’ll do the cooking, which is what led to these muffins. It’s good to be back in the kitchen.

corn flour muffins

Corn Muffins with Scallions and Cheddar

Adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction and inspired by Good to the Grain

Like half of what I bake, I deviated from the recipe to accommodate my own cupboards. (Or, frankly, because I was halfway through pouring in the corn flour before I realized the recipe called for cornmeal, which we had run out of the week before.) I got the basic recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction, but Kim Boyce assured me that I could manage with corn flour, and she inspired the scallion/cheddar combo. As I’m typing this, I’m imagining how delicious these would be with the addition of a cup of corn, too!

1 cup (120g) corn flour
1 cup (125g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup (67g) packed dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp honey
1 large egg, at room temperature if you remember
1 cup buttermilk (or my trusty hack: 1 tsp lemon juice + milk enough to make a cup)
handful of scallions, chopped (to make about 1/2 cup)
2 cups grated cheddar

Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease a 12-count muffin tin.

Whisk together the corn flour (or cornmeal!), flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cheddar in a large bowl. Set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together the cooled melted butter, oil, brown sugar, and honey until completely smooth. Whisk in the egg until combined and then the buttermilk. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until combined. Fold in the scallions.

Spoon batter into the muffin tin, filling each cup all the way to the top. Bake for 5 minutes 425°F, then, keeping the oven door closed, reduce heat to 350°F and continue baking for another 15 to 18 minutes, until puffed and golden.

These are best fresh with a hearty knob of butter, by they manage to taste pretty good on day two, too, reheated just barely.

but also, joy

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Lest you think I go about my life drained and never filled, exhausted and never replenished, hear this:

my daughter brings me so. much. joy.

I realized this when I was tracking my health habits for a rewards program through our insurance company. One of the habits is laughing—a good belly laugh at least once a day. In 2015, I almost never recorded that I had laughed. Because I almost never laughed.

In 2016? I check that box every day.

This girl. It’s hard not to laugh with her. She chats with her koala buddies, who hang from her bouncy seat. She kicks up a storm when she’s naked on the changing table. She squawks cheerfully when we read Go, Dog. Go! to her. She wakes up, wide-eyed and ready to talk. She smiles when she’s supposed to be sleeping. She smiles when she’s sleeping: her little mouth moves, unaware of its expression, and lands in dreamy happiness.

Our hearts burst.

drained: a definition

twilight on the trail

Surely it was a nursing mother who first used the word “drained” to describe her exhaustion at the end of a day.

I’ve felt tired before; I’ve felt spent. But until now, I’ve never fallen into bed feeling weakened, empty, utterly void. Because I am. I am empty: I no longer carry a child within me. My belly is not round and full, it is hollow and flabby. All day long, my breasts are drained of their milk. I spend my days tending to this little life, so needy, unable to do a thing for herself. By the end of the day, the stopper has been pulled and all the energy just glug-glug-glugs right out of me. That’s when I lie in bed, my eyes half closed as I feed the girl, who is wailing and inconsolable and greedy as ever for milk, and tell her, “Honey, mama’s got nothing left.”

nursing

The sensation seems appropriate for the season. Lent: a season of self-giving, of self-emptying. Christ gave of himself, emptied himself, even to the point of death, in order to give us life. On a much smaller scale, I am emptied so my daughter might live.

I find myself identifying less with Christ, though, and more with a toddler my mom and sister saw while running errands once. The little boy, clearly worn out from the day, and apparently with a nearly-empty bottle, sighed to his mom, “I’m runnin’ outta energy—I’m runnin’ outta milk!”

here she is

week 3

Today, our Miriam Elaine turns four weeks.

It was hardly more than that—four weeks and a day, really—that we were at Dan’s parents’ for Christmas, me still a week from my due date, his aunt telling me that my face had that flushed look of a woman about to give birth, my sister-in-law cautioning me against getting too eager. (Her daughter was almost two weeks overdue, and from what I hear, those after-due-date days are torture.)

with her papa

Dan and I came home on a Sunday evening and went to bed, just the two of us, the way it has been for four and a half years, and woke up just hours later to contractions. They were low and crampy, not high and hard like the Braxton Hicks I’d been having for months. We monitored them for a couple hours, then called Kim, our blessed midwife, who recommended a bath (always a bath) to see how the contractions responded. They didn’t ease up, but they didn’t increase, either, so I texted her and climbed back into bed, sleeping off and on till morning.

I didn’t know what to make of the contractions, which were still hugging my pelvis periodically when I woke, so I emailed my supervisor and a colleague, saying that I didn’t know if this was real labor or not, but that I’d be staying home today. Then I called Kim again. Dan was lying next to me on the bed and overheard her telling me about the ice storm headed our way, about how she didn’t want us to make the hour-long trek to the birth center if the roads were as bad as the weather people were saying, how she’d stop by after her morning appointments to check my progress and drop off supplies for a home birth just in case.

and her mama

Secretly I’d hoped for a home birth all these months, but we were too nervous to go for it. When I got off the phone with Kim, I looked over at Dan to see what he thought.

“Did you hear that?” I asked. He nodded, laughing at the irony. Then he drove to the grocery store to stock up on food in case this storm and the baby came and we were home-bound and without power for the next few days. I took a shower. When he got back, we played cribbage, our old standby, pausing between hands for me to lean over and rock my way through a contraction. I was still unconvinced that this was real labor. I was just pregnant and uncomfortable, as a woman who is 39 weeks pregnant usually is. These contractions would stop. I’d stay pregnant for two more weeks at least. They’d probably have to induce me at 42.

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Just after lunch, Kim arrived. She brought in bins full of stuff—an inflatable pool, an oxygen tank, other things I never saw or knew she used. We all talked about the weather. I had to stop and lean against the coffee table while another contraction hit. We went up to the bedroom and she checked me. Four centimeters. I was shocked at how easily I’d gotten there.

Somewhere in these minutes, it got decided that we were not leaving the house. I have no recollection of the process of coming to that decision. It had something to do with the crazy-icy roads and the distance to the birth center and the contractions that were coming closer together and growing more intense and demanding that Dan press harder on my lower back. This baby was gonna be born at home.

laboring in the tub

For a home birth, Kim would usually come to the house at 36 weeks, to see the space and to make sure it had all the supplies for a birth. In our case, she had to assemble everything on the spot, which meant that she ran to the Walgreens on the corner.

When she got back, she and Dan pushed aside our kitchen table, inflated the pool in the middle of the floor, and started filling it. When the faucet ran cold, they heated pots of water on the stove and dumped them in one at a time. By mid-afternoon, I decided to try laboring in the pool. We turned off the lights, lit a few candles. The water was glorious—warm and soothing to the contractions gripping my hips and lower back. I took to moaning through each one: when I’d feel one coming on, I’d pause my sentence or cut off Kim’s or Dan’s or Stephanie’s, the birth assistant who had arrived, turn over, lean my head against the pool’s fat edge, sway my aching hips, and hum low and deep.

her praying feet

Dan and I were grateful we weren’t responsible for judging when to leave for the birth center. Our birthing class told us that a sure sign would be my attitude: if I was still smiling and laughing, we should keep laboring at home. But right up until I started to push, I was either chuckling at Dan’s jokes or attempting lamely to crack my own between contractions—and that would’ve been far too late to be driving!

It was in these early-evening hours that I learned the intensity of labor. The contractions worked on my body: I was worn out, as if I had spent the day carting wheelbarrows full of boulders. Between contractions, I drifted off, too tired to keep up with the conversation. A voice in my head told me I couldn’t keep this up. I was getting discouraged.

exhausted

The hours get messy here. My memory is blurry and sharp at the same time: I recall particular moments in strong detail but have no idea about the order. I just know that the contractions were nearly unbearable now, to the point that I threw up as they hit. (The prospect of throwing up terrified me; the last time I threw up I was ten.)

“Throwing up is worth ten contractions,” Stephanie said. That’s the only thing that let me yield to it.

Kim checked me again and invited me to try pushing. I was terrible at it. People had said I’d feel the urge to push, but it was more like I forced myself to. The water wasn’t working for me anymore—I couldn’t control the pushing—so Kim and Stephanie set up a birthing stool. Someone helped me out of the water, and I straddled the stool. I leaned back on Dan between contractions, trying to summon my strength.

sweet baby feet

Pushing hurt. People told me pushing would be a relief. It was anything but. I tried to use the rest of my body to force the baby farther down, farther out. Babies—at least this one—don’t move quickly or easily. Everything was pinched and pressed and pained. It’s not poetic to say so, but what they tell you is sure accurate: pushing is like having a huge poop. Huge.

Next thing I knew, I was shuffling up to the bedroom, a step at a time, using Dan as a crutch. He helped me onto the bed, where I lay on my side and used my leg as leverage to push. I was miserable. Surely pushing would make me rip open and explode. And there were other reasons I didn’t want to push. I wasn’t ready. If I didn’t push, I could preserve our life as it was, the two of us, content and familiar. I had the power to do that, right?

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Stephanie suggested that I refrain from pushing for a few contractions and let my body do its work. It was designed to push the baby out whether or not I cooperated, so I might as well relax and give it some space. Trying not to push killed me. It was a thousand times more painful to try to rest than to work with my body. I was crying by now—in pain, but also in apology to Dan. I knew he was ready to be a parent, and here I was, prolonging labor and putting off the birth.

In those moments, something shifted in my spirit. I had to work with the contractions. It might’ve been a sudden coming to terms with parenthood; it might’ve been the incentive to have her birthday be December 28 (a nicer number than 29, I thought). Even though Stephanie hadn’t given me the go-ahead, I determined to push. With the next contraction, I strained with all my might. If I thought before that I was going to explode, now for sure I would.

I moved back to the birthing stool. Kim called Dan over and told him to look: the head! I reached my hand down and poked the tiniest tip of our baby’s head. It was squishy and rough with hair. Oh, girl. You are on your way.

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Her head half out of me, I waddled back to the bed, got on my hands and knees. With each contraction, I gripped the mattress and pressed my body backwards, forcing that girl farther out. I was in agony. Having a baby’s head half out of you burns. And that burning lasted for nearly half an hour while she s-l-o-w-l-y made her way out. All I can say is that those minutes were the most excruciating minutes of my life. I cried out in pain. I think I swore. I got back on my side to ease the pressure (when the pressure is that great, easing it is a joke). And then Kim slipped in a finger to make a little extra room—which then took first prize for the most excruciating moment—and suddenly everyone was saying, “The head! The whole head! Now her shoulders!” I thought the shoulders were supposed to be painless, but they were not. I cried some more and pushed, and then—

onto my chest came a squirming, slippery fish of a baby, her body still bundled and wrinkly. Hard to hold onto. Hair matted. Eyes squinting and blinking.

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I was bewildered. This—this!—is what I couldn’t fathom twelve hours earlier when we were playing cribbage on the carpet. This person is who I was resisting when I should’ve been pushing. This daughter, Miriam Elaine.

I lay exhausted on the bed, bleeding, sweating, shaking, leaning on Dan. I did not experience the euphoria I had anticipated, but I did feel relief. Kim and Stephanie cleaned everything up—me, Miriam, the bed, the rest of the house—and left us, the three of us.

We slept together that night, our daughter resting on our chests.

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Now she is four weeks old. She is plump and expressive, though her expressions correspond to precisely nothing yet. She smells soft and sweet; even her sour milk-breath has a sweetness to it. Sleeping is her favorite pastime, though nursing comes in close second, and her periods of wakefulness are growing longer and more purposeful. She sees us now, rather than looking through us or past us, and she’ll turn her head to hear us read or sing. When she sleeps, we listen to her quiet wheeze, watch her tiny lips and eyelashes, nuzzle her downy cheeks, stroke her small hands.

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We named her Miriam after the Miriam of the Old Testament, who kept an eye on her little brother Moses as he drifted down the river in his basket, the Miriam who would later sing to the Lord after he delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. It is our prayer that our Miriam will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living and, like her biblical counterpart, will bear witness to his faithfulness. The name Miriam also means both rebellion and bitterness. We desperately hope she will not rebel against us (please not the teenage years just yet!), but we do pray that she’ll be wise enough to see what things she ought to rebel against—like the edicts of Pharaoh and captivity to evil. May she not be conformed to the pattern of this world.

And we gave her the name Elaine, which means light. It’s my middle name, as well as the middle name of my mother and both my grandmothers. We’re oh-so-aware of life’s seasons, sometimes bright, sometimes bitter, and we hope Miriam knows both and gives thanks to God in all seasons.

She is a gift to us, a gift we wanted but a gift far better than we could’ve imagined. We are grateful to God.

A special thanks to our talented friend and photographer, Ryan Humm, for taking some photos of our new family. The one of Miri and me and the one of her tiniest lips are his.

advent week 4: peace

winter wildflowers

“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace.
—Jeremiah 6:14

Every evening, I lie in the tub and swirl Epsom salts through the water.

If I do not do this ritual, at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning, my belly will seize up and wake me, getting progressively harder and then finally releasing, repeating over and over for hours. I will grow agitated and unable to fall back asleep.

So every evening, I lie in the tub and swirl Epsom salts through the water. My belly is a mountain above the water, a mountain that rolls and swells as if tectonic plates are shifting beneath it. The ground surges and shudders. No parts are distinct. It’s all a heaving, trembling mass.

Amiina plays and I close my eyes. I imagine our baby in her watery home while I lie in mine. She is nameless, faceless to me yet, as I am to her. She doesn’t know me as her mother; I’m just her environment.

I pray that she will love me, not as her home but as her home. I pray that she will not break my heart as daughters are wont to do to their mothers. And I pray that when she does, I will be as tender and gracious to her as my mother has been to me. I pray that in the midst of these restless days, this girl and I will come to terms with each other and ready ourselves to meet. May we grow into love.

[During Advent this year, my friend Matt and I posted weekly on the season’s common themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. You can read Matt’s final post at Pillar of Cloud.]

advent week 3: joy

ornamental grass gone to seed

[During Advent this year, my friend Matt and I are posting weekly on the season’s common themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. Read Matt’s latest post at Pillar of Cloud.]

I’ve written before on the elusive nature of joy. I could write more, or I could just say this: that’s what Advent is for.

Advent is for longing for the things that are not here yet. Advent is for praying for them, for trusting that God has not forgotten, for asking him to come soon with joy in tow. It’s so easy for me to wallow in the not-joy, but Advent isn’t for wallowing—it’s for waiting.

In a rare moment of sitting down at the piano, I came across this lovely song of Marty Haugen’s—My Soul in Stillness Waits. Of all the Advent songs I’ve sung this season, this one seems to capture best the active waiting—the asking—of Advent. (And that second verse! Man, it nails it.)

My Soul in Stillness Waits

For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.

O Lord of Light, our only hope of glory,
Your radiance shines in all who look to you,
Come, light the hearts of all in dark and shadow.

O Spring of Joy, rain down upon our spirits,
Our thirsty hearts are yearning for your Word,
Come, make us whole, be comfort to our hearts.

O Root of Life, implant your seed within us,
And in your advent draw us all to you,
Our hope reborn in dying and in rising.

O Key of Knowledge, guide us in our pilgrimage,
We ever seek, yet unfulfilled remain,
Open to us the pathway of your peace.

advent week 2: love

sketches for a christmas ornament

This is the irrational season
Where love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
—Madeleine L’Engle

I am disheartened by the room that we are failing to leave for the child.

It’s Advent for goodness sake and I’ve heard nothing but vitriol and swagger from politicians and celebrities and—most heartbreakingly and frustratingly—religious leaders. Their blustering rhetoric has taken up all the space in the inn, forcing Christ out into the stable.

I suppose he’s used to it. Isn’t that, in some ways, the story of his life? From beginning to end, no one made room for him. The innkeepers took no pity on his mother, a woman obviously in labor. The other guests didn’t want to give up their rooms or disrupt their sleep. Everyone was too comfortable, too scared, too scornful to make room for Jesus.

christmas ornament brainstorming

Now imagine if Mary had felt the same way. If Mary had been filled with reason—or fear or hatred or bravado or any number of the other things that fill us these days—there’d have been no room for the child.

Bless you, Mary, for being filled with love. Bless you for your hospitality of the most intimate kind. Woman, you opened your body to a child. You submitted to nine months of the discomfort that comes from sharing your abdomen with another being. And then you gave your life over to being his mother. Thank you for your irrational love, which allowed Love himself to enter the world.

linocut christmas ornaments

Before falling asleep last night, I read through my journal from earlier this year—from the months we were trying to conceive and the early months of pregnancy. Like Mary, we were not filled with reason. We had no idea what we were asking for (nor, frankly, do we now). We didn’t take into account the financial cost of raising a child, nor did we consider what an imposition she’d be on our relatively smooth life.

Instead, we were filled with bright-blooming, wild love.

My prayer is that the irrational season will overwhelm our nation. That we will let love do what it does: bloom brightly. That we will take the risk of making room.

[During Advent this year, my friend Matt and I are posting weekly on the season’s common themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. You can read Matt’s second post at Pillar of Cloud.]

advent week 1: hope

35 weeks pregnant belly

[During Advent this year, my friend Matt and I are posting weekly on the season’s common themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. You can read Matt’s first post at Pillar of Cloud.]

These days should be rich with meaning! I am pregnant right along with Mary, due only eight days after Christ himself was born. I should feel this Advent all the more forcefully—and really feel it: feel the waiting in my body as it grows fuller, nearly to the point of bursting.

But I do not. The layers of meaning sit there, unmined; the resonance with Mary, unfelt. Was it the warm November? Have I been thrown off by the new environment and schedule that I’m still unaccustomed to? Where is my Christmas spirit? And where is my baby spirit?

When I confessed to Dan my lack of anticipation, he assured me that perhaps the not-feeling has something spiritual to teach me. Maybe we’re not always waiting with eager anticipation. We don’t always have a clear idea of what to hope for.

sweet ruby's ear

So much of my emotion about our coming daughter is simply blank, unclaimed. I’m neither excited nor fearful—I simply have no feeling about it. I don’t know what to feel because it’s utterly new to me. What are the proper emotions for an expectant mother? Not knowing, I go about my business, feeling nothing.

Is this how Mary felt, too? Did she feel swollen as the moon, ready for the dawn from on high to break upon her body and the world, or did she just have a worse-than-usual backache that was too mundane to attribute to the growing body of the Savior of the world? Was she keenly aware of the meaning of her pregnancy, or just as ignorant as I am? Was she full of hope as her belly grew big and her sleep became restless, as she waited out a Braxton Hicks contraction (and later on, a real one), as she watched the drum of her stomach slither and shift—or were those just the odd symptoms of a completely natural process?

puzzle time with grandmas

I want to have hope: both for our baby and for the coming of the Christ-child.

It helped a bit that we got to meet our brand-new niece, who gave us a little glimpse of the sweetness that’s in store.

It helped that we spent Thanksgiving with my grandmothers, who recounted their own stories of labor and birth, who hadn’t seen my belly yet and delighted in it in ways I’ve taken for granted.

I may not be waiting with great hope, but I’m certainly waiting. Our little babe will be here yet. And Christ will come.

dan and baby ruby

(This is the final post in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)

to prepare your heart

snowy day on the paul henry thornapple trail

If you’re in the market for some lovely, thoughtful words on Advent and Christmas, click over to Pillar of Cloud and linger a while. Matt has offered some gorgeous reflections on the season.

pumpkin sausage soup

pumpkin sausage kale soup

I know it happens at your house: you spend all day on household projects, and suddenly it’s past dinnertime and you haven’t started cooking. We’re trying to be better, especially now that my failing to eat makes the baby hangry, too. But sometimes you just need something that you can assemble while you’re finishing up the other tasks, something that satiates your deep craving for nourishment, something that uses up all the pumpkin puree leftover from the pie.

Pumpkin Sausage Soup

with thanks to Rachael Ray (can’t believe I’m saying that!)

I tried to streamline the recipe and work with what we had. Do the same and adapt this to your kitchen! For instance, Rachael suggests peeling and cubing the pumpkin, which might make for a nice texture, but I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than peeling and cubing winter squash. Since I learned the trick from Molly, I only ever cook them whole. Also, I bet you could make this vegetarian with white beans, though you’d want to ramp up the flavor. Maybe browned butter infused with lemon and nutmeg, riffing off Heidi’s?

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (or five sweet Italian sausages, casings removed)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large bay leaf
3 cups pumpkin puree (from 1 smallish pumpkin or 1 28-oz can pumpkin)
4+ cups chicken broth (or water)
1 cup heavy cream
1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
3/4 cup brown rice
salt and pepper
freshly grated nutmeg (ground is fine, but freshly grated is divine)
grated parmesan, for serving

Ahead of time

Cook a pumpkin through: bake it on a pan in a 350°F oven for an hour or so, maybe even two. When a knife pierces it easily, it’s ready. Let it cool, slice it in half, discard the seeds, and scoop out the flesh. If you have extra, make a pumpkin pie. If you don’t have a pumpkin, a can of pumpkin puree works fine. But it’s so much less satisfying.

Soup time

Dice the onion, mince the garlic, and de-stem and chop the kale into reasonable pieces. (I can’t stand long, soggy strands of kale falling off my spoon while  I’m trying to eat.)

Heat the olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat.

While it’s heating, rinse the rice and put it in a medium pot with two or three cups of water or chicken broth. (If you have chicken bullion around, add a teaspoon per cup of water. Stir thoroughly to dissolve the bullion.) Bring the pot to a boil, then turn the burner to low. It doesn’t need to cook through; you’re just giving it a head start since brown rice takes a while.

Once the oil in the big pot is shimmering, add the sausage and break it into bits with a wooden spoon. Cook the sausage through, until it just begins to brown. Stir in the onions and garlic and cook until translucent and fragrant, maybe five minutes.

Then pour in the cream, the rice and its broth (at whatever stage it’s cooked to), the pumpkin, and the kale. Add more water or chicken broth to cover everything. Then add the bay leaf, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and grate a bit of nutmeg on top. Taste it and add more seasonings accordingly.

Simmer everything for 20 minutes or so, while you’re cleaning up the dishes.

Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Serve with grated parmesan if you remember. (We didn’t.) I also imagine a drizzle of browned butter would be amazing.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)

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