Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What's In a Name?


I can't get used to my friend Nicole's new married name. I have known the girl for over 20 years as Oldewurtel. (Pronounce it however you like, you still probably won't pronounce it right.) Now, suddenly, with a few words from a priest, the Social Security Administration, and the State of Arizona, she is a Carpenter.

As a person who has lived with a very strange last name her whole life also, I feel really more jealous that she doesn't have to struggle anymore with helping people understand. This is how the conversation usually goes for me:

ME: My last name is Stringfield.

THEM: Oh, yes. Springfield.

ME: No, STringfield. With a "T."

THEM: Oh, we don't have a Strongfield on the list.

ME: No. STRING, Like string cheese. FIELD, like a field of grass.

THEM: (sounding even more confused than ever and speaking hesitantly) Is that right? Stringfield?

ME: Yep. String and field, put together. Compound word.

THEM: Is it F-I-E-L-D or F-E-I-L-D?

ME: (silently)How do you think you spell "field"? (aloud) F-I-E-L-D.

THEM: Okay, you are on the list!

Nicole was always the friend who understood the struggles of having a difficult name. I could always count on someone understanding the annoyance. Now, she goes to the bank or a restaurant and says "Carpenter." That's it. Carpenter.

I don't have the heart to change her name yet. My phone still rings Nicole Oldewurtel when she calls. I don't think I have accepted that adulthood comes with many changes -- friends get married, and change their names. I need to reconcile myself with the fact that it is not identity theft.

I asked Nicole today how she felt about her new name. "I love it. I like the name and I like that it represents our family -- and so in that way it does really feel like my name. Oh, and it is easier."

I remember as a younger girl, I would practice my new signature over and over (as many younger girls do). I would write and rewrite the last name of the boy I liked in different styles. I would try to perfect it because, in my fantasy, the boy I liked and I would end up getting married and I would have to sign all my letters with the new last name.

Then, I ask, why do I feel so startled by Nicole's lucky new name?

Nicole's answer today made me realize that changing your name is not identity theft. That both her and I, the quirky girls with the strange names, would be just as unique whether our names be Carpenter or anything else.

And I had to just practice thinking about it this way. So, I literally did practice -- just like the younger-girl-Mara would have. Just to see what it would feel like when signing a new name was less fantasy and more probability. And my boyfriend's last name is Jones, and writing it as my signature suuurreee is easier -- and so much shorter at 5 letters!
I guess it wouldn't be half bad to change my name after all.

Cheers to friends who change their names and help you grow, my little Fickle Nickle.

Until then, this is Mara Stringfield, signing off.

P.S. Dearest BF, though I know you don't read my blog, just in case on this rare occasion you do, please don't be wierded out with the fact that I may or may not have been practicing writing your surname (and may or may not have published my practice on my blog). Trust me, girls do this. I think at all ages, girls do this. It just means I have a crush on you. :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One Hundred Hours of Solitude

Fellow blogger, Selena, asked me to submit a contribution to her blog http://www.highschoolpoetryslam.blogspot.com/ and aside from being a hugely honored because I love the work she is doing over there, it might also have been just what I needed to help remove the giant writer’s block that has been clogging my head.

The premise of her blog is to deconstruct your high school self and kind of make fun of yourself (which is always good, because in high school most of us probably took ourselves way too seriously and couldn’t really laugh at our angsty dramatics). This got me thinking about high school and the feelings associated with being an angsty teenager, and then I remembered two things which went together in a thought like butter and bread: 1) I had not yet blogged about my recent trip. 2) I felt the high school angst all too recently, and it was acute, and it was unpleasant. And let me tell you, I am happy to be out of high school so I don’t have to feel it very often.

On our cruise, we stopped in various ports. I had this romantic idea about the ports that I would be able to walk around, explore, eat local fresh cuisine, chat with the people who lived there, find hidden non-tourist spots to explore. Unfortunately, when you set expectations you are bound to be disappointed. BF was scuba diving at all the ports, so often times he wouldn’t even come to the land at all, but instead tender off from the big boat to his diving spot. That left me many hours of a day in a foreign country (a developing foreign country, at that) to fend for myself. Being an independent and experienced traveler, I was not worried. Plus, the ship makes it easy to set up various excursions at each port. So, I picked excursions that seemed like something I could do alone -- for example, I wasn’t up for zip lining or cave tubing by myself, but some of the more mellow adventures would be fine for a lone woman traveler.

But “lone” really was the operative word. For 12 hours a day (8 on the excursion and 4 to fend for myself), I was alone. Granted, I was in a tour group (of mostly couples and their friends), but I felt very much alone.

I sat on the long bus rides alone. I ate lunch alone. I hiked alone. I walked alone. Full days of almost no talking, unless I was addressed by someone in my group, “Dear, are you all by yourself?” Yes and no, I would say. My boyfriend was scuba diving and that is a once in a lifetime experience, I would say, half reassuring myself. “Oh, that is very nice of you, dear,” they would respond.

In Belize, after a two hour bus ride, our group arrived at a remote Mayan ruin site. We toured the site a bit, and then were allowed to hike up a ruin. It was a pretty treacherous hike, so most of the people in our tour group decided to skip it (they were also much older and it seemed harder for them to get around). I, of course, hiked to the top. When I made it to the top, sweating and panting, I looked out over the vast jungles of Belize that seemed endless. I was alone.

There was something sublime about being alone on the top of a ruin. Something that made you feel important, like you knew a secret on this earth that no one else knew. And there was also something that scared you about being on the top of a ruin so high that your stomach dipped if you took a deep breath, and you felt like you had to take little breaths or you might lose your balance and fall away.

And in my little breaths I looked around for anyone who could witness this too: just one more person to share a real moment with, just so I could remind myself that it was all happening. Someone to give me a little wink or a nod to signify that though sublime and scared, I had been here and I had felt it -- and someone else had felt it too.

But I was just alone.

So, I climbed silently down the ruin. My head felt light from altitude but my heart felt heavy with loneliness. About halfway down the descent I saw a young couple climbing up, they were breathless too but they were laughing and talking to each other in thick Irish accents. My spirits brightened a bit and I asked, “May I climb back up with you and ask you to take my picture?” The said yes, and I climbed back up with them, they snapped my photo and I climbed down again. I heard the girl cheering about being on the top of the world as I climbed down, and I heard the boy laugh, and I imagined them twirling together, arms out, heads up, with their eyes focusing on the nearly touchable sky. I held back burning tears.

Later that day our tour group set up camp (we were in the jungles after all, we needed rest and repast) and we had a few hours to spend at camp before we jumped on a jungle boat through the rainforests. At the camp I walked around for a bit, collecting various sized walking sticks before drawing in the dirt with the shortest ones, and then I sat some more. Others in our group napped with their spouse/partner in large hammocks, or hiked around two by two.

I ate my lunch at that camp, sitting alone in the sun at the end of a makeshift gangway, my legs dangling so close to the water that when the wind blew I could feel the finest spray. And I felt the loneliness again. This time, it was something even more tangible than the loneliness I felt on the top of the ruin. It was as familiar and painful as a chronic ache.

My legs were still dangling, but this time I was sitting on a toilet seat, fully clothed, with no intention of using the facilities. A sandwich in a zip-lock baggie was on my lap: mayo, turkey, cheese, wilted iceberg, a tomato, and soggy wheat bread. Next to me was a brown bag with warm string cheese and a warm yogurt. I was wearing a shirt-style sheath dress made of shiny silver fabric with flowers on it, and white, platform tennis shoes. I felt so confident when I put on the outfit that morning, but in the bathroom stall of my new high school I felt only small and alone.

I chose to start eating in the stall after spending a few lunch and break periods sitting at a cafeteria table alone. No one talked to me, no one included me, and aside from the occasional pitying stare from a classmate, everyone avoided me. So when the lunch bell rang and everyone filed to the cafeteria, I would divert from the crowd to the girls’ bathroom that was located closest to the cafeteria. I liked the close-by bathroom because from my stall I could still hear laughing kids, so I felt both connected to possible kinship and wholly reminded of my loneliness. When the bell would ding to signal the end of lunch, I would wipe my tears, take a few bites of string cheese, flush the toilet for good measure, hold my head high, and exit the bathroom stall like I was a queen.

On the cruise, each excursion at port felt like a ringing lunch bell -- a stinging reminder that I must brace myself for a day of loneliness. But it was almost worse on my trip because I wasn’t confining myself to a bathroom stall, and it wasn’t just teenage gossip that I was missing out on. Instead, I was exploring ruins, hiking, boating, picking wild mini-plums from a rainforest and then eating them, and seeing amazing things like iguanas the size of dogs walking freely down the city streets. But I didn’t have anyone to be able to share these experiences with. The same feeling as the 15 year-old high school bathroom stall queen, but a little more complex and a little less insecure.

Though I don’t keep in great touch with my friends who studied abroad with me in Madrid, I know how to reach them, and I send them well-wishes via Facebook whenever I can. And they are so important to me because their existence reminds me that when I was in Spain, I really lived. I lived life to the fullest, I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I saw my favorite band at the tiniest venue in Madrid with about 20 people present, I spoke Spanish moderately well, I lived in a beautiful apartment, I stayed up all night in Italy and drank sangria every night in Spain, and I took in everything and never took any of the experiences for granted. I was there. And I have a handful of friends whose very existence, regardless if I talk to them at all or not, reminds me that it was not a dream.

In Central America it wouldn’t have been safe to walk around as a woman alone, with not a soul knowing my whereabouts. So, I couldn’t explore much, I couldn’t venture into non-tourist places. Instead I took long bus rides, tuning out chatter and staring or sleeping. I took long walks in contained ports while singing to myself, drew in the dirt with sticks, foraged for berries, visited wild monkey sanctuaries, and made sand-angels on perfect white beach sand. I toasted to myself and drank a stout Belikin Belizean beer at a bar alone, making a mental note that it was hoppier than most stouts, but was still delicious. Though the memories I had were wonderful, they were always tinged with an underlying sadness that was laced with memories of warm string cheese and tears.

But, the show must go on, and the queen always leaves her throne with her head held high. If anything, from my trip I remembered an ache I am not used to, mostly because I have the most wonderful BF. I am grateful that because of him I usually always have someone who would save me a seat at the proverbial cafeteria lunch table. Maybe I took the comfort of partnership for granted, and the fates wanted me to feel that tangible solitude again. Not the most pleasant lesson, but one I can grow from.

Oh yeah, and next time I go on a cruise, I am inviting all of you. Then BF can scuba dive and someone can twirl around on the top of a ruin with me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Red Delicious!

As promised, here is the recipe to the delectible Red Velvet Cupcakes. I took these cupcakes to work and got many compliments. Also, the frosting on these lovlies really makes them stars -- this is now my perfected cream cheese frosting recipe and I will use it as a basis for all my cupcakes from now on. That is how much I like it.

The major note on these is do not overbake them. Watch them like a hawk, and check them judiciously. Red Velvet already has a tendency to seem dry, so leaving them in even a minute too long can be the kiss of death for these little red delights. But, not to worry, if you bake them a bit too long just make sure to add extra frosting to them and I'm sure no one will notice. (A tip from experience, folks.)

Here they are!

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients for the cupcakes:

2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 oz. red food coloring (two bottles)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda

Ingredients for the frosting:

16 oz. cream cheese (2 packages), softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick), softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
pinch of salt


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake papers.

2. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl; set aside.

3. In a small bowl, mix food coloring and cocoa powder to form a thin paste without lumps; set aside. (This is where it starts getting messy! Aprons are key.)

4. In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla and the red cocoa paste, scraping down the bowl with a spatula as you go.

5. Add one third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, beat well, then beat in half of the buttermilk. Beat in another third of flour mixture, then second half of buttermilk. End with the last third of the flour mixture, beat until well combined, making sure to scrape down the bowl with a spatula.

6. In a small bowl, mix vinegar and baking soda. (Also a neat little science project – you will see!) Add vinegar mixture to the cake batter and stir well to combine.

7. Fill cupcake cups with cake batter (they should be 2/3 – 3/4 full). Place muffin tins on the middle rack of a preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for approximately 20-22 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. Cupcakes are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. I would check them as early as 17 minutes to account for oven variation. I should have taken mine out just a few minutes earlier than I did!

8. Cool the cupcakes in their tins on a wire rack for 10 minutes then remove and allow to cool completely before frosting.

Directions for frosting:

1. With an electric mixer, blend together cream cheese and butter until smooth.

2. Turn mixer to low speed and blend in powdered sugar, salt and vanilla extract. Turn mixer on high and beat until light and fluffy. Frost cupcakes when they fully cooled and with frosting at room temperature.

3. Decorate with sprinkles or anything else you might like. I covered half of my cupcakes with flaked coconut which got rave reviews! It gave the cupcakes a bit more texture and the coconut really complimented the flavor.

Enjoy! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Happy Almost Valentine's Day!

I have done it again. I have been baking and not blogging. But coming up tomorrow (just in time for Valentine's Day), I shall provide you with the best darn Red Velvet Cupcake recipe ever (this one is topped with cream cheese frosting and shaved coconut)! I made them tonight and accidentally ate too many! Why, oh, why, do I always do this to myself? Maybe I am am glutton for punishment. Or maybe I am just a glutton.

Also, tomorrow I have lots to say. Real stuff. Not just cupcake chatter -- well, maybe a little cupcake chatter because I have to give you the recipe, but otherwise I want to get down to business. As much as I want to just bake all day and think of nothing else, part of being an adult is thinking on things, like the bf's possible job loss, like moving, and relationships (you know, the things you try to put off because they are too unpleasant/stressful/draining to deal with). And not just thinking, but doing. It takes quite a strength to just get up and deal with the things you don't want to think about. This is a skill I am still learning.

In the meantime, I bake! (For better or for worse.)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

As I said, I did a lot of baking this week!

On our trip, Brian and I went to this little diner in Fort Lauderdale for lunch when we got back to the states. We ordered two shakes, one of which was a peanut butter chocolate banana shake – and boy, was that shake delicious! We drank both shakes (and ate a full meal) until we felt sick, but we couldn’t stop drinking the peanut butter one because it was so good. The result was that we felt sick for the next few hours and we couldn’t eat dinner that night, but it was worth it.

Since we have returned home, I have been longing to capture the flavor of our trip – literally. So, I cooked up a recipe for peanut butter cookies that is inspired in part by cookies Brian’s mom makes for Christmas every year, and in part by the epic milkshake. I tried everything I could to make these the most delicious, most peanut-buttery, most chocolatey cookies ever and I think I succeeded.

If you love peanut butter, try out this recipe. The recipe makes a few dozen cookies, so I suggest making them at a time when you are prepared to give some away. Otherwise, like me, you will eat too many every day. Send them to work with your spouse/partner, send them to school with your kids for Valentine’s Day, bring them to a party, package them up for neighbors, or just make a few and freeze the batter in little balls covered in parchment paper for whenever you get a craving. They are so delicious!

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter Chip Cookies

1 cup + 2 TBS peanut butter (I used regular creamy Jiff)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar + 3/4 cup sugar, separated (the 1/4 cup is for the batter, the 3/4 cup is for rolling dough balls)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
2 TBS milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup peanut butter chips (I got the Reese’s brand and they were delicious)
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (I do this to save clean-up. You can probably use a greased cookie sheet if you have no parchment paper.)
3. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the peanut butter and butter. Once combined beat in the 1/4 cup sugar, and the brown sugar until well blended.
4. Beat in the egg, milk, and vanilla.
5. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt and gently add to creamed mixture and mix until almost combined. (I say almost combined, but really, if you combine it all the way that is fine too, but just be sure to lightly flour the chips before you put them in the batter so they don't sink to the bottom of the cookie.)
6. Fold in chocolate and peanut butter chips.
7. Chill dough for at least 15 minutes.
8. Roll tablespoonfuls of dough into balls. Gently roll the dough balls into sugar and place dough balls on parchment lined baking sheets. Carefully press each ball with a fork to create the classic criss-cross pattern.
9. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until edges are lightly browned.
10. Remove from oven and cool on baking sheets for 5-10 minutes until sturdy enough to be transferred to a wire rack to cool completely.

Notes: Chilling the dough before making them into balls is key -- if the dough is room temperature, the dough balls fall apart when you press the fork into them. Also, definitely make sure you wait to remove these from the oven when you see they are a little bit browned on the edges. I took out one batch a bit too early, and they were very, very soft and didn’t preserve well because they got gooey in the zip lock bag. Finally, to freeze the dough balls simply portion out the dough balls in a Tupperware and cover each layer with parchment paper. Be sure to place parchment paper on top of the top layer so that icicles don’t form on your dough. Cover and freeze and use whenever you want some fresh baked treats!

(Next time, to make these even more chocolatey, I may instead of doing the classic criss-cross, make the dough balls and then press them down in the center with my thumb. I would bake them as usual and when I pull them out of the oven, I would push a Hershey kiss in the center. Yum! If anyone tries this let me know!)

Banana Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

When I get stressed, I bake.

This week, with my school semester starting and the looming endeavor of my master’s thesis on my mind, I spent no time blogging and all my time baking. The good news is, the fruits of my labor were absolutely delicious and now I have some great recipes to share with you.

If you like bananas, chocolate, and cream cheese, try baking these cupcakes now. They are super easy and so delicious – they may be in my list of top 5 cupcakes I have ever made. I took them to work and even non-banana lovers gave them rave reviews! You can whip these cupcakes up in no time and people will think you took hours developing the decadent recipe and baking.

Banana Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes about 12 large cupcakes.


1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 c. sugar
1 c. mashed bananas (I used 3 medium bananas)
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Chocolate chips (to your liking)

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup butter , room temperature
3 cups confectioners sugar
1/4 c. pure maple syrup

Cupcake Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
3. Cream together butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl.
4. Add egg, mixing until just combined.
6. Mix in bananas and vanilla.
6. Add dry ingredients in three additions, beating until just combined.
7. Stir in chocolate chips.( I used about 1/2c. but I think you could use up to 2/3c.)
8. Using a portion scoop, fill each mold in a baking-cup lined muffin tin to the top.
9. Bake for 18-23 minutes, or until tops are a golden brown and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
10. Cool cupcakes on a wire rack.

For the frosting*:
1. Cream together cream cheese and butter.
2. Beat in the sugar in 1 c. additions, making sure the frosting is smooth before you add another cup.
3. Beat in maple syrup.
4. Transfer frosting to a piping bag. (I used a zip lock bag with the tip cut off.)

* Add more or less sugar or syrup to taste. I like very cream-cheesy frosting, so I stuck with three cups of sugar. You could probably do up to four cups, but I find the syrup makes the frosting sweet enough.