Smell the Soup, Cool the Soup

I used to sleep like a log every night. I could drink a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and turn out my lamp and fall asleep before I was finished with my prayers. I would wake up whenever forced to, many hours later, often in the exact same position I was in when I fell asleep. No more. Those days are long gone, and not just gone, but a distant memory that I can hardly believe is true.

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I’m not sure what it is and then, again, I’m absolutely certain what it is. First, age. Martha Stewart loves to brag about how she only sleeps four or five hours a night and wakes up totally fresh, energized, and ready to make millions. I’m beginning to think I’m channeling Martha Stewart’s sleep habits; alas, I’m not channeling her energy or millions.

Second, the ugly cousin of aging (for women at least), menopause. It changes you. It changes a lot of things that doctors and books don’t tell you about: your hair, your skin, your metabolism, your energy levels. I think part of my current sleep pattern is the after-effects of menopause. I may be finished with it, but it doesn’t seem to be finished with me.

Third, stress. Let’s see, now, just what does Michelle have to be stressed about? I’m so lucky, truly blessed in so many ways. I’m happily married to my best friend for 31 years and counting, I have two beautiful, talented, intelligent daughters, I am (relatively) healthy, and I have food, clothing, and shelter when so many are much less fortunate. I have, most importantly of all, my faith, which has kept me steady and strong through life’s challenges, disappointments, and losses.

But, right now, stress has the better of me, mostly over this pandemic, which has kept me out of my classroom this year, doing something I truly loved. I toss and turn all night, awake more than asleep, but during the brief periods of sleep I find myself dreaming of school, and finally, at 2:30, I am wide awake and unable to settle back to sleep until around 5:30 or so, when very uncharacteristically, I wake up again.

Last night, rather than fight it, I decided to read for a bit. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I had left off in my current novel, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, who also wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Now, there are times when books are put into your hands for a reason. This book was not recommended to me, however. I chose this Maria Semple book simply because it was immediately available for loan on Libby. I enjoyed my first Maria Semple book about Bernadette, and I enjoyed the movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. I expected to enjoy this second book of hers as well. What I didn’t expect was advice–just what I needed exactly when I needed it–via one of the characters, an eight-year-old boy no less, coming less than a quarter of my way into the book.

The main character, Eleanor Flood, is about to have a meltdown when her eight-year-old son Timby gives her advice:

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.”

As I read it, of course, I had to try it. And, it worked. I smelled the soup and cooled the soup about three times and I felt myself relax a little. I read for a while and then slept for a while, alas, waking at 5:30 as my new normal. Yes, I smelled the soup and cooled the soup once, had a sip of water, and drifted off to sleep once again.

hot soup

It’s too early in Semple’s book to know if I’ll enjoy it as much as Bernadette, but if the only thing I gained was this delightful metaphor for taking a deep breath and letting it out, then, it was time well spent. It’s not the first time I’ve learned a life lesson from a book!

The “Pan”-Demic Experiments

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t” was the jingle used during the 1970s to advertise two of my favorite candy bars. 

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By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11364190

And, likewise, sometimes, I feel like doing culinary research for several hours, shopping at multiple grocery stores and markets, gathering stand mixer, blender, bread machine, and an array of measuring cups and measuring spoons on my countertop, to create a dessert worthy of the final round of Food Network’s Chopped. However, sometimes, I just want to whip up something quickly with what I have on hand, get it in the oven, and have it on a saucer thirty minutes later. 

Yes, these sorts of desserts rely heavily on packaged, processed elements, but while this pandemic has bestowed upon us all ample time for big projects, it hasn’t always given us the energy or enthusiasm for them. I do enough cooking and baking from scratch that it doesn’t bother me one bit to give my family something made from a box once in a while. 

One recent COVID-19 night my older daughter, who lives and works from home, was itching for a brownie. We had no packaged brownie mix, and we had not found a source for all-purpose flour yet, which was nowhere to be seen on the shelves of our local grocery store. We did have a chocolate cake mix, though. So, off to the internet we went where we quickly found a food blog about cake mix brownies. I’ve been making cake mix cookies for years–one cake mix, two eggs, and a half-cup of vegetable oil mixed together by hand with a wooden spoon, portioned out with an ice cream scoop onto a baking sheet, and voila, a batch of cookies before you can bat an eye. But, brownies? 

Our first experiment produced something that totally satisfied her craving for a brownie, moist and slightly gooey, definitely chocolate and cakey. The best part was that it only required four ingredients and one bowl, a wooden spoon, and one pan: chocolate cake mix, two eggs, half-cup of vegetable oil, and a cup of chocolate chips, mixed by hand and spread into a greased 8×8 square cake pan. Baked for 20 minutes at 350°, the results were amazing, and better yet, FAST.

Yesterday, I decided to experiment again, this time with a yellow cake mix, which I mixed with the requisite two eggs and half-cup of vegetable oil, but I also added one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and a cup of cinnamon chips I had stashed away in the freezer. After I spread it out into the greased 8×8 square cake pan, I sprinkled the top with cinnamon sugar and baked it for 20 minutes at 350°. Cinnamon Chip BrownieMy daughter said it tasted like the cinnamon swirl coffee cake at Starbucks, which I haven’t tried but I’ll take her word for it. Suffice it to say, we were all happy to sit on the back patio with a cup of coffee and a quick treat that didn’t leave the kitchen looking like a White House State Dinner had just been prepared. 

Next on the list for experimentation: strawberry brownies! Stay tuned!