Friday, May 16, 2014

Embracing Life

Last Sunday, many people did various things to honor and celebrate their mothers and other maternal figures in their lives.


Phone calls.



You name it.

In the years past, my husband, Teddy, and I would enjoy a brunch on a cruise along the Potomac River on Mother's Day.

This year, we decided to do things a bit differently.

We took a weekend trip to Shenandoah National Park to just get away from the craziness that is Washington, D.C. for a bit. On a whim, we also visited the arboretum near James Madison University. The ducks, turtles, flowers, koi, and other fish were a hit with Teddy! We even saw a small garter snake that rushed across the chipped wood pathway and hid among the bushes.

One of our friends, who lost her son a few years ago just hours after birth, joined us on the trip as well.

My thoughts continually drifted back to her as I hugged my son who would have been roughly the same age as her son would have been. Nothing is to be taken for granted. I also thought about my friends who are either expecting or already had their second child. In fact, one of my friends is giving birth to her third child as I write this.

I also thought about my other friends who are open about not wanting a child at all.

The truth be told, I never thought I would be a mother. I had always envisioned myself as a career woman before anything else. Also, I valued my independence and personal time. And still do. By nature, I am a planner and had my entire live planned out. So I thought. There is a Yiddish saying: "Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht." Or, "Man plans, God laughs," in English.

My sister was always the more nuturing one. Children-especially young children-naturally gravitated towards her and loved her. And my sister was, and still is, absolutely awesome with them. She now has one of her own. And I am proud to call myself an aunt.

I always found it easier to connect with teenagers and older children. Now, the awkward woman around young children. That person was me.

Don't get me wrong. I love children. And most people that I admired were either mothers or maternal figures who always put others before themselves. In fact, my closest friend is a stay at home mother with three children.

But... I have never felt a strong urge to have children of my own nor a big family. Maybe I will be a late bloomer in that sense. Who knows?

I also believe that there are some people out there who should never have children in the first place.

When some of my friends decided that a child wasn't right for them, I admired them for being forthcoming.

Let's just face it. Children requires a lot of work, attention, and is not compatible with every lifestyle.

But there are also rewards.

I felt woefully unprepared when I found out I was pregnant with Teddy just over four months after getting my undergraduate degree. My world as I knew it at the time was turned upside down.

Fast forward four years later, I couldn't have imagined my life to be any different. While some things didn't come naturally to me at first, motherhood definitely made me a better person.

Before Teddy, everything had to be perfect. Post-Teddy, I learned to let go a little bit and accept some things as they are. Admittedly, it is still an ongoing exercise in letting go for me.

Now that Teddy will be turning five years old this summer, some people asked me when we were going to have a second child. While there are different perspectives regarding how far apart children should be spaced, these same people suggest that the magic number was somewhere between two years and four years. My sister and I are five years apart. There definitely are some upsides and downsides associated with that. I realize that.

There are some days where having a second child is appealing. But I want to be sure that I want a second child because of right reasons and my husband is onboard as well. Some of it is also the timing since I am still building my career.

Only time will tell.

And to be honest with you, I love being able to spend all of my "free" time with my son. He is turning out to be such a cool dude! And such a personality!

Thank you, Teddy, for being who you are. I am proud to call myself your mommy. I love you!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Vive Le Fromage!

I am foodie. There. I admitted it. Food is an adventure in and of itself. My kitchen is my laboratory.

When I was a teenager, I lived less than a block away from a Sargento cheese factory. I also toured other smaller, family-owned facilities that produced cheese. I was fascinated with the entire cheesemaking process and the chemistry behind it. The ingredients are rather simple, but produces a wide variety of flavors. All that is really required is some milk and rennet. From that point on, I knew I would have to make my own cheese someday and experiment.

I am know for my various projects. In a typical Sara fashion, I went big like Clark Griswold from the Christmas Vacation movie. Well... alright, maybe not THAT big.

I have gone to a few wine and cheese events, but never heard of anyone ever hosting a cheesemaking party. Why not? I decided to go for it. So I invited a few of my friends over to our house for some cheesy time!

I didn't want to have superior knowledge about the entire cheesemaking process, so I conducted only very limited research in order to find out what supplies I needed to have on hand for the party. I wanted to experience everything at the same time as my friends without knowing what the final outcome would be.

Well, it ended up being such a hit! Everyone enjoyed themselves. We sampled fresh mozzarella and made some gouda. After everyone left, I decided to make one pound of cheddar.

I strongly encourage people to host a cheesemaking party. Before doing so, however, I have the following tips to offer.

1. Invest in a good dairy thermometer. The cheesemaking kits that we used included a dairy thermometer without a clip. Maintaining the correct temperature throughout the entire process is critical. However, we didn't want to always have to hold the dairy thermometer while also pouring or stirring. I purchased one that could be clipped to the side of the pot.

My handy dandy dairy thermometer

It worked wonders! It also meant that we had our hands free to communicate using sign language. Sweet!

2. Buy or make a cheese press. When we decided to make some gouda, I did not realize that the curds needed to be squeezed at a specific pressure for a certain period of time. We quickly improvised and this was what we came up with:

Once we put the curds in a cheesecloth lined cheese mold, we basically put the mold inside a stainless steel bowl and topped it with another bowl that had two five-pound dumbbells stuffed with a bunch of dish towels to limit slipping. Even though it did the trick, it ended up being such a balancing act to make sure that the dumbbells did not fall. Guess what? It did and caused a small dent in our wooden kitchen floor. Probably not the smartest thing to do.

3. Buy whole milk. Cheese requires a lot of milk. However, I did not exactly anticipate just how much. My husband probably thought I was crazy when I had him go to the store to purchase milk. He ended up buying so much milk that our refrigerator was literally full of milk-fifteen gallons total.

Even though we were successfully able to make some cheese with minimally pasteurized, store-bought whole milk, the curds actually ended up being a bit weak. When I made the cheddar, I replaced one pint of the whole milk with heavy cream and saw better results.

Empty glass milk bottles

4. Use stainless steel pots. Let's face it. The cheesemaking process can be a rather messy business. Stainless steel made everything easier to clean.

5. Have a lot of patience. Mozzarella was easy and quick. But let's just say that I did not realize how much time gouda and cheddar cheese required. However, I should have connected the dots because I have purchased cheeses that were aged six months or so from the store before.

But you know what I say now? It is a good reason to invite your friends for another party-this time to taste the cheese!

Gouda cheese drying in the refrigerator at constant 50 degrees

Cheddar cheese drying at room temperature

What other tips do you have to offer? I'd be interested in hearing from you!

After having hosted a cheesemaking party, I developed a new appreciation for cheese because there really is a lot that goes into the process with more steps than I originally anticipated.

I am already thinking about what my next cooking project turned into a party will be.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Funny You Don't Look Jewish!

Many of my Christian friends and family members will be celebrating Easter this coming Sunday. Once I think about it, it has been ten years since I last celebrated Easter.

You see, I identify as a Jew and was officially adopted into the Jewish community eight years ago. My husband comes from a Jewish family. Raising our son as a Jew was a no-brainer. I am currently a Board of Directors Co-Chair for a local Jewish non-profit organization. I feel no different from any other Jew. I have never really looked back. If anything, I feel more authentic.

Except when Jewish geography inevitably comes up. I get puzzled looks when I explain I was born and raised in Wisconsin where I never saw one day of Jewish day school or Hebrew school.

Other times, people say once finding out that I am Jewish:

"Funny you don't look Jewish!"

But what does Jewish look like anyways?

Over the years, I met Jews of every possible color-even Jews of African descent with corresponding dark complexion and kinky curly hair. As far as I could see, there was not a single Jewish phenotype-only stereotypes.

My response has always been the same.

"You mean that I do not look like I am of Eastern European ancestry?

At that point, most people smile sheepishly. They know I am right.

It even led to confusion with my midwife. On my medical documents, I had the box for Jewish under religious preference checked off. When I was pregnant with Teddy, my midwife insisted that I get tested for Jewish genetic diseases. I then had to explain why such genetic tests would be unnecessary.

There was a period in my life where I wanted to pretend that the first eighteen years of my life never happened. There would be less explaining to do that way. And I also didn't want to feel like I needed to justify my Jewish choice to some people who wanted further explanation to help them understand better how someone of a Christian upbringing could become Jewish. It was just the frequent explaining that got rather tiring over time.

But then my appearance would give me away. I simply could not pass for a stereotypical Eastern European Jew. What does that make me then? An Old Black Witch?

I was attending religious services one Shabbat morning when an adorable blond-haired girl of four years approached everyone with the same question:

"Are you Jewish?"

The answer was always the same.


She asked me the same question.

I nodded my head affirmatively.

She ran to get what I could see was a photo book and plopped on the seat next to me. The girl looked at me and said, "You are exactly like me. Did you know that I have two birthdays? One is the day I was born and then the second was the day I became Jewish."

She was adopted from Russia by the cantor and his wife after they couldn't have children.

The girl showed me series of pictures from the day she took dips in the mikveh. "Now that is how I became Jewish!" she exclaimed, grinning.

Then I came to realize that there are Jews with a wide variety of religious backgrounds and upbringing. I am simply a part of that diversity. Since then, I became more open about my childhood years. I still visit my family for Christmas, even though it is not really "my" holiday. It is more about getting together.

Even though I have religious and philosophical differences with Christianity in general, I still wish people nothing but good things for Christian religious holidays.

Happy Easter!

And Happy Passover!