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The Year of the Rabbit: Our House is a Very Very Very Fine House

Winter is drawing to a close; spring is on the horizon and a fresh new start approaches with the Chinese New Year this week. The holidays are such a busy time that New Year’s Day is often just another celebration and might not feel as real and special as it should. Chinese New Year resonates with me this year more than any other because it symbolizes a second chance at new beginnings. It seems everything is new right now and a perfect time for a fresh start. A new blog, new kitchen, and new students all give reason to celebrate, but it’s also bit overwhelming and makes me crave things of comfort like my “old” cashmere sweater with holes in it.

Do you ever notice how certain material things we’ve had for a while make us feel safe? We have comfort food but we also have comfort clothes. Certain garments offer us stability. My cashmere sweater is like my security blanket; it’s familiar and safe and I know the way it will make me feel. I want to wrap myself up in what I feel comfortable in.

We typically recognize January 1st as the first day of the New Year. I like the idea of celebrating again on February 3rd. This is the year of the rabbit and predicted to be a gentle year full of good luck. This will be a refreshing change to the dramatic year of the tiger. The rabbit is calm, quiet, flexible, positive, and peaceful. It’s a good year to be home. The motto of the rabbit is to retreat; as a cancer zodiac sign, I’m good at hiding under my shell but as a dragon Chinese sign I still have trails to burn!

As with anything new, there is hope and optimism for new beginnings. At our house we have been remodeling our kitchen and with that comes clearing away old energy by cleaning, making repairs, painting, washing windows.... It feels good to start over and have a positive change and outlook.  The beginning is the most important part of the process, but it’s also the messiest!

I’ve always found the Italian language to be the most perfect language there is. There is a word for every feeling, food, and sense. A phrase that’s been on my shoulders is ‘sono a pezzi’ which means really tired, exhausted, or sad. Too much newness can be overwhelming! Like a typical teacher, I don’t care for change! I want my routine and schedule to be consistent. I think of David Bowie’s Changes...

(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different ‘woman’
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

I’m ready to sing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s  

Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two ‘dogs’ in the yard
Life used to be so hard

Even though it’s not quite complete, the energy is already different. A new buzz surrounds our family and it is welcome like the lucky year of the rabbit.  But this ‘sono a pezzi’ feeling won’t quite leave me alone. I honestly haven’t enjoyed my new kitchen to the fullest yet due to these butterflies in my stomach that are also buzzing in my head? How do you make the new feel comfortable? I think ‘just do it’, dive in, open some fortune cookies and say Gung Hay Fat Choy!

On my menu to celebrate Chinese New Year and welcome the rabbit and all things new my family will enjoy cold sesame noodles, a crowd pleaser for the young and old! Whatever Chinese sign you were born under, the New Year is a time for feasting with family and friends.

If you have trouble mustering the energy to get started on something new, it might help to think about something that was repeated to me very often as a child. “Make sure you start each race with your best effort. You don’t have to be a head at the beginning to win at the end, but it sure increases the odds that you will.” I hope you get a great start!

Ashley’s Cold Sesame Noodles
1 lb Chinese egg noodles (or spaghetti)
1 small piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T brown sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
3 T rice wine vinegar
3 T soy sauce
1-2 t red chilli sauce like Sriracha
1 T toasted sesame oil
6 T water
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Add a generous handful of toasted sesame seeds and cilantro for garnish

In a blender, add ginger, garlic, sugar, peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, chilli sauce, sesame oil, and water. Process until smooth and refrigerate for about an hour. Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted water and marry together with the peanut sauce. Garnish with scallions, sesame seeds, and cilantro.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Finding Whimsy

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Whimsy to me is playful, eccentric, original, and can evoke a child-like feeling that brings fantasy in a fun and colorful way. Whimsy doesn't have to be saved for big events like weddings and baby showers; it can be added to your everyday life in fashion, décor, and food. Whimsy is everywhere for children; perhaps it's because so many whimsical things are childlike. An adult world is not a fantasy and there are many times we would like it to be because adding that playful quality can bring us back to our carefree childhood. You can bring whimsy into your everyday life by thinking about the following:

• Don't be afraid of colors, mixing them with patterns and shapes.
• Wallpaper can be whimsical; it can take you into a garden or a rainforest if you are brave enough.
• Contrast in textures can create playfulness.
• Anything that produces a feeling of nostalgia may be a feeling of whimsy.
• Start small and slowly add as you feel comfortable.

My mom has a charming English village called Whimsy on Why made up of a series of highly detailed and colorful porcelain houses and buildings found in the typical British village. Just looking at it and imagining living in such a place makes me feel good.

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I've always thought of Alice in Wonderland as hands down the most whimsical story in the world. Sesame Street is also whimsical; I especially love how the puppets are not high tech because of this children can use their imagination along with Elmo and friends.

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Everyone's house is most whimsical during the holidays. Think about Christmas decorations: the twinkle lights, garland, glittery ornaments... I turn to my mom who is the queen of thinking outside of the box to add whimsy.

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For a restaurant, Rise Soufflé is not only fabulous French cuisine, but it also has a whimsical atmosphere with its mix of old and new. It's cozy and intimate with twinkle lights in tree branches in the middle of the restaurant to bring in an outside charm.

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Neiman Marcus at Willow Bend had the perfect sensory simulation to get you in the mode for shopping. Who wouldn't want to walk under and be tickled by soft butterflies? Going up the escalator inspires you to touch and feel the different fabrics. Birds and butterflies naturally come to mind when I think of whimsy in nature because they playfully flutter and their colors can be fanciful.
Some say I dress my daughter like Cyndi Lauper. I love patterned tights with spots, stripes, and a mix of bright colors. It's young and youthful. On an adult, a little goes a long way. It's easier to focus on small accessories like a clutch, scarf, broche, or earrings. Playful adornments add glamour.

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The French are experts at whimsy, always making it look so easy and effortless. Just look at this gorgeous cake from The Sugar Plum Cake Shop in Paris. I also think of French furniture: shells, scrolls, branches of leaves, flowers, and bamboo stems dance their way around the legs of an armoire. The French have such an appreciation for Chinese art that inspired chinoiserie motifs. The Louis Vuitton City Guide to Paris is mesmorizing, watch it and I promise you will feel inspired to create something whimsical.

Songs I find whimsical and that make me feel happy:

• Corrine Bailey Ray- Just like a star
• Annie Lenox- Little Bird
• Beatles- Blackbird
• Paul Simon-You can call me Al
• Henry Mancini- Moon River

You can find fanciful architecture in other places than Disney World. Gaudi decorated Barcelona, Spain with such whimsical character that you can't help but feel like you're in a fantasy.

Find your eccentric side and look for everyday flourishes, you'll be surprised how much whimsy you find in the most unexpected places.

Dare not to be a bird in a cage

Recently, I was listening to Mendelssohn and thinking about the controversy over the Wedding March. There are those who believe that the history, background, and underlying messages with in the well known music should prevent the use of it for a religious based wedding ceremony! I disagree. There’s always a bit of “wild” in a woman and, we should never be birds in a cage or we would end up crazy like the woman in the Yellow Wallpaper.
There are many famous and infamous women in history/books/movies who are trying to find themselves: Josephine Baker, The Woman from the Yellow Wallpaper, Jane Avril, Holly Golightly, Elsa from Lohengrin, and Carrie from Sex and the City. I see them all as feminine feminists even though some may be courtesans or modern American Geishas. Most of these women came from sad and dark backgrounds which I think makes them survivors, not “bad girls.” There have been many movies and songs written about women like these feminine feminist: Bad Girls, Roxanne, Lady Marmalade…

Holly Golightly, is free spirited modern call girl with a crazy streak, a bird in a cage. She doesn’t want to belong to anyone or anything to belong to her. Like Carrie in Sex and the City she is a single girl living in NYC. She’s also a traveler, forever seeking a place that she can call home; a place where you feel at home. She chooses love of money over love of integrity. Tiffany’s was a place that calmed her down “nothing bad could happen to you there.” We all want to find that happy place where we feel safe; a real place like Tiffany’s where we feel we belong.

Josephine Baker overpowered men with her sexuality, but she was a loving woman full of life. She was famous for performing at Folies Bergeres wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas, adopting twelve orphans she called the “rainbow tribe”, and was awarded the medal of the Légion d'honneur.  Josephine was also a muse to many artist, writiers, and designers. Like the character Holly Golightly, Josephine came from a sketchy past and was searching for a place to call home.

Toulouse-Lautrec gave Jane Avril  everlasting fame. She danced alone at the Moulin Rouge for her own joy. If you’ve ever seen the movie Moulin Rouge, you know the tango scene danced to the song Roxanne. It was dark, stirring, and passionate. Looking at lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Jane Avril, you see her face was the same. He captured her just as she was, a lost survivor.
The history of the tango suits these women; it is sexual, popular in brothels, and the men are in control. Think about who leads the tango today? In life when you meet a man, the man leads, then woman takes over, finally the children overpower both! The tango is my favorite ballroom dance to watch because it exudes strong passion and life. What I like about “The Scent of a Woman” tango scene is that it’s not about sex, but life. Al Pacino plays a blind man who is hungry to feel the joy of living. Dance is life and life is dance; the body in motion that makes the world go round.

 If men and women are truly equal in society today, they should be able to lead if they want to. The choice allows for creative control. Even if the man leads, the woman has a choice to follow him or not. The tango is an expression of emotion. Women feel the same powerful emotions to lead the tango that a man does.  The question is who is willing to play the role of the object?
I remember reading the Yellow Wallpaper in college; it was one of those haunting unforgettable stories that you can’t peel yourself away from until you finish. The husband in the story controls his wife and labels her crazy; It used to be common to diagnose women with “temporary nervous depression.” This couple had a totally unequal relationship where the woman was given a “rest treatment” and not allowed to care for her children, leave, write, or do anything she would enjoy (a bird in a cage). In the story, she has nothing to stimulate her so she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper. She is trying to achieve self-worth only to fail. Her spirit is breaking and dying and her husband thinks he’s curing her of depression by locking her in a room to “rest.” There is wildness in women that can’t be changed; it seems much better to have a little crazy spirited behavior than to have no spirit at all.

Mendelssohn’s Wedding March (Here comes the Bride) from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,  can be heard in Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. This is the most popular tune there is. Mendelssohn’s Wedding March has become a staple in American weddings; but because of its sexually oriented scene, some religions object to using it as a wedding march. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the march is played as Elsa and Lohengrin retrieve to the bridal chamber. Lohengrin who had won Elsa defending her for being wrongly accused for killing her brother makes Elsa promise to never ask him his real name or where he comes from. Curiosity got the best of Elsa on their wedding night and Lohengrin leaves her, so theirs is a false marriage.
In a wedding, the happy tune is commonly played as a recessional piece. I remember talking to the Priest with my husband about our music choices and being totally floored to hear that the Wedding March wasn’t allowed. Well, we snuck it in anyway (choosing to seek forgiveness even after permission was denied) and I felt very much like a modern feminine feminist as we left the church as man and wife.
Even though times have changed, people hang on to stories as if they’re holding on to a grudge.  I think Jane Avril, Else, Holly Golightly, Josephine Baker were all wrongly labeled as courtesans. They may have been modern Geishas, but they were also survivors. We are all travelers forever seeking that place where we feel at home. It may take some of us longer to get there but we can help those who are down so we don’t end up like the woman in the Yellow Wallpaper. I dare you to march to Mendelssohn, do the tango, and even dance in a banana skirt… find your spirit and help those who have lost theirs. Do you have the nerve to take my dare?

Yours Truly, Ashley

Julia Child and Avis DeVoto were more than pen pals, more than best friends, they were soul-mates. Our friends are a reflection of who we are and our soul-mates can be best friends who bring out all our good qualities. Julia and Avis built their friendship with the art of letter writing. Sometimes you just know when you've made a special connection. Their letters discuss all kinds of topics: shallots, beurre blanc, dried herbs, McCarthy paranoia politics of postwar Europe, personal chaos, theater, books, aging, even sex.

Our true thoughts come out on paper. It's easy to get a feel of what someone is really like in a letter. You see personality in the handwriting, phrasing of thoughtful words, and punctuation marks. As Always, Julia is not a novel but a truly wonderful book of letters between best friends; this is the kind of book you want to share- and then write a letter to your best friend instead of emailing her.

We are so deeply entrenched in technology that letter writing can seem sadly outdated compared to using a cell phone to text, tweet, or call. None of those methods of communication equal the delight and satisfaction you get from receiving a real letter. Technology produces an emotional distance; unlike a letter that you can smell, feel, and see the beauty in the choice of stationary (even the stamp). With our busy schedules, sometimes it's easier to keep up with our friends through writing. It's not always possible to have a conversation while coordinating dinner and children's bedtimes but afterward I very much enjoy sitting down to write to a friend. It's a release and a joy!
When I was little I used to love walking to the mailbox and I'd cross my fingers hoping there would be a letter in there for me! Reading As Always, Julia I was very much inspired to write to a friend.

I wonder what Julia would have thought of Facebook and Twitter. It's my guess that she would have liked them because she loved people and loved to write, learn and keep up with her friends. I doubt she would have loved it though because it's so much more impersonal than a letter. Letters are a lost art! In this time of bite sized tweets, texts, and emails we have forgotten how special it once was to receive a thoughtful letter, not thank you note, a real letter. A letter is but a talk on paper. Why are letters so hard for some people? Is it because technology makes everything so choppy? Twitter only allows space for 140 characters. You really can't say much, even in a direct message! My motto for writing is always (like Nike) "just do it," because you're in the moment and it sounds real.

I always had pen pals growing up and I attribute my love of writing to a love of having a written conversation. Writing is so easy when you care about the person you are addressing. Avis said, "I suppose one reason we can write so easily to each other is that, for one, we have established the rhythm, and for another, that our lives are not much involved with each other, actually. Perhaps if we lived next door, we would have developed curtains and veils and various tender heels. Anyway, it is lovely to be perfectly at ease and to be able to discuss anything at all; and may it remain ever so!

If you want a letter, you have to send a letter and begin the circle of communication. I have a former student, Savanna, who writes to me occasionally. Her letters are little treasures full of innocence and even a little German! Fostering a love of letter writing is easy if your children see you doing it too. I very much encourage children to write "free flow" style because like writing in a journal, they develop their voice and will start to enjoy it just as they do when they've just checked out a new library book.

It's great fun to read Avis and Julia's friendship build in the letters. Their correspondence was really just by accident. Julia had admired a column in Harper's about knives that Avis DeVoto's husband, magazine journalist Bernard DeVoto wrote. Julia was living in Paris at the time and wrote Mr. DeVoto a letter to thank him for his article, Avis, who handled most of her husband's mail, wrote back. The two hit it off instantly. Their forty plus year friendship begins with Dear Mrs. and eventually Dearest friend. I love how Avis ends her letters lashings of love. These were women who were highly intelligent, strongly opinionated, extremely witty and who loved each other very much.

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I absolutely adore Julia Child and think of her as Our Lady of Butter and Vermouth. Julia is my personal hero for teaching me to savor life and find my joie de vivre. She was a totally charming woman and I wish I could have met her. While reading this book, I laughed out loud several times; these are a few of my favorites Julia quotes:

People who love to eat are always the best people.
About her body, Julia writes: Bosom not as copious as she would wish, but has noticed that Botticelli bosoms are not big either.
I had intended to be a great woman novelist, but for some reason The New Yorker didn't ask me to be on its staff.
Before marriage I was wildly interested in sex, but since joining up with my old goat, it has taken its proper position in my life.
I think one should get one's vitamins in salads, and raw fruits, and what is cooked should be absolutely delicious and to hell with the vitamins.
If you have knives you certainly don't need tomato slicers, parsley choppers, onion choppers, etc.

About a hostess Julia says:Be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of "oh, I don't know how to cook, and this may be awful," or "poor little me," or "this didn't turn out" ...etc. etc. It is so dreadful to have to reassure one's hostess that everything is delicious, whether or not it is. I make it a rule, no matter what happens, never to say one word, though it kills me. Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done...Grit one's teeth and smile. It ain't French, it ain't good, and the hell with it.

Avis was an excellent first editor. Prior to reading As Always, Julia I knew lots about Julia Child but none about her best friend, Avis. She is fascinating and I really enjoyed getting to know her from her letters. She was extremely smart (reading nine newspapers a day) and busy (conversing with people at Harvard and in the New York publishing field). Avis was a huge help in getting Julia's magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking published.

Their friendship lasted until the end. They wished they'd found each other, and shared their love for food earlier in their lives. Don't wait to start writing; just like Julia and Avis, you might send or receive a letter worth saving.
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New Year's resolution to "have fun" and "just dance!"

Instead of making a New Year's resolution to "lose weight" or "get healthy" why don't we try making a resolution to "have fun?"

One of my New Year's resolutions is to have enough energy to meet all challenges. When we are strong physically, it's easier to feel strong emotionally. I attribute a lot of my energy to Pilates, ballet, and yoga because all three help me find my center and stay balanced physically and mentally. If you care about your body, you take care of your body.

I love a fusion of ballet, Pilates and yoga because I think the three marry really well together. As a working mom of two young children I also have to be creative about how to find the time to exercise, it's much more fun to do together! I have some favorite DVDs that are fun for the whole family.

Dancing together creates an instant happy environment. We tend to favor music over the TV in our house, my children are happiest when music is on (so am I). If you want to have a blast with your children try: Wii "Just Dance," and Tracy Anderson Method Dance Cardio Workout with the children, I also recommend the New York City Ballet: the Complete Workout, for your dancer body.

 Dance workouts are all the rage because they are FUN; especially if you can do it with little people! There are many places offering belly dancing and Zumba classes; grab a friend and go together. It's much more fun to dance with a partner! Also, these are all things that can be done inside, when the weather is bad.
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I have always found ballet, yoga, and Pilates to be mentally and physically challenging. Each has a calming meditative effect that soothes the soul. Listening to music while practicing can inspire creativity and artistry that you can't get in sports. If you think about other forms of exercise like cycling and running your mind is somewhere else. But with ballet, Pilates, and yoga you are mentally in control; you have a sense of power to direct your body to move in a certain way.

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Ballet is my favorite! It's one of the oldest forms of exercise. There are movements that have evolved over hundreds of years and are specifically designed to embellish the beauty and grace of the dancer.

Ballet today is the result of centuries of learning how a dancer's body can be made strong and svelte while asserting itself with beautiful daintiness. Ballet is an exercise that is also an art form; because of this, it's never boring! Ballet requires you to move and to stand in a particular and balanced way. It benefits your coordination, posture, flexibility even your emotional well-being. I love that the mind is in tune with the body with breathing, concentration, control, strengthening smaller muscle groups to pull in longer muscles there is not bulk. Dancing can give you beautiful posture, sleek muscles, longer limbs that make you appear taller, a strong core, and flexibility. To me, a ballerina's body is the most beautiful: long, lean, athletic, and feminine. Ballet can actually change the shape of your body into a feminine and graceful structure. It is possible to have a dancer's body and not be a dancer!
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Ballet targets and tones specific muscles that you don't use in other sports. Because of this, many athletes have looked to ballet as a rewarding form of exercise. I think of Emmitt Smith, Lynn Swann , and Herschel Walker who have a dance background. Emmitt was so much fun to watch in Dancing with the Stars; he was quick and light on his feet. Football is dancing around a ball. There is choreography, allegro, across the floor, agility, balance, rhythm... That's the benefit to practicing dance; you can carry it over into other activities that enhance what you already do.

I enjoy Tracy Anderson and think it would be a blast to go out dancing with her. At our house, we move the coffee table to the side and dance like crazy to the techno music that my husband says puts him in a trance. Tracy Anderson trains big celebrities like: Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakira , and Courtney Cox to name just a few. She is ballet based and has a background in Pilates. I really like how she uses low weights and high reps. Joseph Pilates set out to make the core of the body really strong, this is why so many dancers do Pilates.

Dancing is one of life's most enjoyable experiences! Discover a new world of beauty for you and your body. Find a friend or a little person and "Just Dance!" The fun you have will make you want to continue what you have started.

Doing this workout will get you swan lake arms!

Jenifer Ringer: Mom, Sugar Plum Fairy, Role-Model

When Jenifer Ringer was younger she was told by a ballet teacher that she was lazy and needed to work much harder; she now says she's grateful for the teacher's honesty because it pushed her to be the dancer she is today. To have the opportunity to dance on stage is an honor; a dancer becomes a tour guide to take someone on a journey, a least for a little while. Dancers send energy to the audience and in return fuels the dancer's fire to perform.

We are all our own worst critics so when Alastair Macaulay said, "Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many" the world heard because it hurt not only Jenifer, but all women who have battled with eating disorders. Macaulay responded, "If you'd rather not be critiqued on your body, don't enter the world of dance." Voltaire said, Let us read and let us dance; two amusements that will never do any harm to the world. This was true until we read Macaulay!

Jenifer Ringer knows that her body is part of her art form; she says she has a more womanly shape than most ballet dancers. I think of So You Think You Can Dance judge, Mia Michaels who was told she was too big to be a dancer so she switched to choreography. What I love is that she didn't just give up because of critics like Macaulay, she made her own dance through determination. Jenifer had a ballet teacher who told her, "I don't care how you look, you need to dance." She eventually accepted herself and found her balance.

Ballerinas need to have tough skin. As beautiful and fragile looking as they are, ballet dancers are tough! A ballerina's job requires more than just aesthetical beauty; dancers today are required to be more athletic as well as artistic. The aesthetic of an ideal ballet body is shown in Natalie Portman's twenty pound weight loss for the movie Black Swan. Natalie plays Nina, an anorexic ballet dancer whose goal is to be perfect. That is the goal for most ballerinas.

There are all kinds of dancers out there just as there are all kinds of body types. We have to deal with what we've got, appreciate it then move on. There are many women out there with beautiful bodies who aren't prisoners to dieting and self-inflicted misery. Yes, many of them are "French women who don't get fat" but that should tell us something about America. American women are absolutely full of "food" guilt! We are obsessed with weight and have the most eating disorders in the world. I certainly don't want this for my daughter.

Things have gotten much better than they used to be... "Old School" ballet teachers used to be mean, using cigarettes and canes to threaten to keep the leg up high. The same can be said for all teachers. I think of my husband who went to Catholic school in Rhode Island and has very bad memories of "Old School" ruler slapper Sister Bruce. Instead of corporal punishment we have critics! It is not the kind of constructive criticism that helps us to grow though; it is hurtful, unkind, and unnecessary. Macaulay's comment may have made him infamous but it's the meanness that will be remembered. Didn't his mother teach him if he can't say something nice don't say anything at all?

Sometimes being scared of someone can bring out the best in a talent. I think of Chef Gordon Ramsay and how he yells at his chefs in training. But the difference is that people like Ramsay want the best from you and are highly respected. I don't have respect for Macaulay.

Ballerinas have a natural joie de vivre; a dancing mom especially! Being a mom has made my dancing more liberated. Jenifer is thirty-seven and seasoned with life experience. Having children adds fire and meaning to dancing. Moms have more love to express. My favorite memory of being pregnant is dancing a very special pas de deux with my babies. Many ballerinas dance up to their eighth or ninth month, I did and I'm proud to say I could still do a double pique and pirouette turn in my eighth month. Jenifer's daughter has the perfect name for a ballerina- Grace.

I love that Jenifer attributes a lot of her post baby shape to Pilates! I love that she wants to write and have more children, I love that she prays before she goes out onto the stage. She is healthy, beautiful, smart, gracious, and a wonderful role-model for all young girls who want to be dancers.

Last Monday when Jenifer was on the Today Show I read my favorite Christmas book Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays to my second-graders. It was so ironic that one of the characters was the Sugar Plum Fairy. She says, "Ze Sugar Plum Fairy does not eat ze cake. Ze Sugar Plum Fairy has to be light as ze air to perform at ze Lincoln Center."

We all have a bit of Sugar Plum Fairy in us and once we find that happy balance we CAN have ze cake and eat it too! After all, dance is food for the eye.

Sugar Plums
2 cups whole almonds
3/4 lb (350g) dried figs, stemmed
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp amaretto
Grated zest of 1 orange
About 1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating

Spread almonds on baking sheet.
Toast in preheated 400˚F oven for 4 to 5 minutes or until golden.
Cool in small bowl.

In food processer, pulse almonds and figs until figs are about the size of peppercorns.
Sift in cocoa, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Add honey, amaretto and zest. Pulse a few times, just until blended.
Place in large bowl. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour to firm up.
Pour sugar into small, shallow bowl.
Using palms, roll fig mixture into balls about 1-1/4 inch in diameter.
Roll balls in sugar to coat. Store in airtight container in fridge for several weeks.
Makes 30 sugar plums.

Santa's Sinister Sidekicks

You better not pout; I'm telling you why...Krampus, Zwarte Piet, Pere Fouettard, and La Befana are coming to town!

Christmas in America is filled with sugar and spice and all things nice. Just look at the Elf on a Shelf; it's so cute and so American! The European Christmas has a more noirish flair; filled with characters that are not so loveable and kind. It happens that these noirish figures mostly come from Catholic backgrounds. Catholics have so many Saints; is it surprising that they also have a hefty amount of evil characters to go with the good?

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After learning about Krampus, I started researching more of Santa's European companions. Although none are as scary as Krampus with his red tongue and horns, there are many who are just as disturbing.

Having two young children of my own and teaching seven and eight year olds, I have mixed feelings about these evil characters. Sometimes I think a little scare to entice "being good" might be a plus but I certainly don't want my children having nightmares! I think it's better to keep images of Sugar Plums (not demons) dancing in their heads!
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In Austria: Krampus (meaning "claw" in German) is a scary horned creature with a red forked tongue; he is weighed down by heavy chains and goat fur. Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas carrying a switch to punish bad children. The tradition in Austria is the children eat the little devil up in pastry form so he won't come to visit them! Krampus carries a wooden stick or switches and threatens children who misbehave. St. Nicholas never lets Krampus harm anyone because he is so kind but Krampus makes it his business to scare the living daylights out of children. On the Feast of St. Nicholas (December sixth), Saint Nicholas and Krumpus visit children to ask for lists of their good and bad deeds. The nice ones get treats like toys and candy; naughty ones get switches with a tree branch from Krampus. My friend from Austria said her parents never asked Krampus to come to their house and all her mom and dad had to say was, "Do you hear those heavy bells ringing and chains rattling?" That was all it took!

Also in Austria is a character named Sylvester who wears a grotesque mask, beard, and a mistletoe wreath lurks in a dark corner until a woman foolishly walks into the shadows and to her surprise she is seized and roughly kissed. All Catholic "Saints" are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint's memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day - hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester's memory.

In Germany: Belsnickel (similar to Krampus but not as grotesque) is a mountain man covered head to toe with fur who accompanies Saint Nicholas as the main disciplinarian. He is feared for his scary looks and leaves coal for bad children and candy for the good.

Also in Germany: Knecht Ruprecht, which translates as Farmhand devil or Servant devil, is a companion of Saint Nicholas. Tradition holds that he appeared in homes on Christmas Eve, and was a man with a long beard, wearing fur. Knecht Ruprecht sometimes carries a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wears little bells on his clothes.

According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild castaway raised by St. Nicholas from childhood. Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down a chimney.

sinterklaas Zwarte Piet.jpg
In the Netherlands : Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas and threatens children with switches and receiving lumps of coal, he helps Sinterklaas hand out presents on the fifth of December in Holland (St. Nicholas' eve, his feast day) by a steamboat from Spain, where he lives throughout the year. Accompanying Sinterklaas on the steamboat every year is Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas's Moorish servant helper, who partners with him on the holiday gift-giving mission. Sinterklaas doesn't actually deliver any of the presents instead it's Zwarte Piet going roof to roof delivering to the children of Holland because Sinterklaas is too old and feeble for such exertion. Zwarte Piet and his friends were former chimney sweeps and have familiarity being up on rooftops and entering houses in uncustomary ways.

In Scandinavia: Nisse an Elf or gnome like creature who protects the farm In Scandinavian folklore, has an active interest in the farm by doing chores like grooming horses, carrying bales of hay, and other farm-related tasks. These chores were usually done much more efficiently and effectively than by their human counterparts. However, the Nisse is known to be temperamental and mischievous. If the household was not careful to keep its Nisse satisfied and unforgotten (usually in the form of a single bowl of porridge with butter in it left out on Christmas Eve) the Nisse could turn against its masters and bring bad fortune to the farm.
Pere Fouettard.jpg
In France: Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father) an evil butcher who committed murder carries around switches to threaten children and is feared by children. He carries rusty chains and switches. On December 6, Pere Noel roams through France with his small donkey laden with gifts and treats, and each good boy and girl receives a present. The bad girls and boys, however, receive a visit from Père Fouettard, who lashes them with his whip. Isn't it just très French to have a butcher in Christmas legend? I wonder if Pere Fouettard prepares a crown roast for Christmas dinner.

In Italy: La Befana was just an common old woman, cleaning her house and going about her business, when the Magi (the three wise men of gold, frankincense and myrrh) showed up at her door asking for directions to the Christ child. She didn't know, but gave them refuge in her home overnight. They found the experience so pleasing that they invited her to come along on their journey the next day; but she declined because she was too busy with her cleaning and didn't want to waste time. Later that night, she regretted the decision, and set off to find them with no luck. Since then, every year on January 6th, La Befana is said to be searching for the Christ child, and flies around on her broom leaving toys and candy in the stockings of good little children (and lumps of coal or ashes in the bad.) As an added bonus, before she leaves the house, La Befana sweeps your floors so you wake up on the morning of Epiphany with a sparkling home. But beware! If you see her during the night she'll give you a thump with her broom. La Befana may be ugly and old but the children adore her; I'd love for her to clean my house!

The good news is, no matter what country or culture, Santa is always viewed as a merry old man. I prefer the orientation toward kindness and positivity that we seem to favor in America. It seems a lot more consistent with the "Ho! Ho! Ho!" mentality to reward children for good behavior than to punish them for "being bad."
Saint Nicholas und Krampus .jpg

Live, Laugh, Love

There are many celebratory songs that can make us smile and feel grateful for where we are now in life. For me, one of the most popular may be Celebrate good times come on! Let's celebrate We hear that song at most weddings. For my friend, Laurie, celebrating ten years of being cancer free, I thought of Cyndi Lauper's Time after Time... 

if you're lost you can look--and you will find me
time after time
if you fall I will catch you--I'll be waiting
time after time

Laurie had a roomful of people who would "catch " her Friday morning during a surprise birthday party before school. Honoring her struggle with cancer and celebrating life was truly a miracle and cause for celebration. Laurie found out she had inflammatory breast cancer on her thirtieth birthday; it was stage 3B and she only had a four percent survival rate.

Laurie had mentioned the day of her "cancerversary" how she had been blessed with two families, one at home and one at work. This is so true; we will always have the support of our families, and if you are so lucky, those friendly faces at work you see everyday become your family too.

Laurie said in a letter to her school family, "I hope you will take this opportunity to count YOUR blessings. Even if you are going through a difficult time this season, look closer at how God is working in your life. I don't know why He chose to allow me to survive, nor do I know if the cancer will return, but I know I will continue to give Him my praise."

This is the season for us to celebrate life and its many blessings. Laurie is an inspiration and a reminder to honor those true values in life, our family, friends, and our relationship with God.

Winston Churchill said, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."There are a million things to feel good about in a day. So much of the fight with cancer is about attitude. Something I have always admired about Laurie is her willingness to do for others. It's people like her that make the world a better place.

There are times when words can't describe feelings as well as art can. Sometimes art can move us in ways that we didn't know were possible to feel; art can be a tap into our emotions. I remember last year seeing a dance piece on So You Think You Can Dance about a woman facing breast cancer. This piece expresses the message of hope, frustration, anguish, and love; it is one of the most moving dance performances ever! It's impossible not to feel a million emotions all at once watching this beautiful dance.

The art of living is like a dance that may not have been choreographed; we are all dancers! There are lines in Kate Bush's Woman's Work like, "Pray God you can cope" and "Just make it go away" that resonate with the emotions experienced by those dealing with cancer. At the end of this dance, you see the person who loves her catch and carry her; that's what friends and family do! Then she looks up to the sky and you know she has a relationship with God. There's a passage that starts, Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. Thank you God for Laurie; she is a gift to so many!
Live, laugh, love everyday!

Classic movies and recipes for an extended evening

I am a cozy classics girl! Although modern in other ways, like shoes, I prefer the old classics and stick to them. There's something to be said for the familiar. Maybe it's because I favor comfort; especially in food! My favorite kind of night-in involves: a fireplace, books, magazines, comfort food, and old movies. It all starts with Thanksgiving; our bodies naturally start to store up warmth and comfort that we crave for the winter. We become a bit like bears over the holidays; eating heavier foods, maybe not going outside as much... We build our own bear cave at night; in front of the fireplace and TV.

Do you ever have that fantasy that once you put the kids to bed you simply won't need sleep and can stay up all night watching old movies and not worry about work the next day? Well, I have a plan for the day that happens (unfortunately I am notorious for falling asleep in front of the TV)! My plan is highlighted by a cozy night of cinema classics planned in front of the fireplace with a 50's style TV tray full of cozy goodness.
I have a thing for the 50's: clothes, hair, music, food, cocktails, and of course...movies! I love the glamour of the time: the brooches, scarves, high heels, red lipstick... One of my favorite designers of today is Kate Spade; she has a retro-chic flair of the 50's, except with a modern twist.

I've paired four of my favorite old 50's movies with four inspired courses: cocktails, appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each movie has something special...White Christmas has Rosemary Clooney's voice, Vera-Ellen's dancing, African Queen was nominated for four Oscars and has the amazing Katharine Hepburn (I love everything she was ever in), hunky Humphrey Bogart (I could have easily fallen for him), How to Marry a Millionaire showcases a famous beautiful trio (who doesn't love Marilyn Monroe), and Hitchcock's Vertigo is dark, and suspenseful and also one of the most mesmerizing movies ever!

You wanna catch a mouse, you set a mouse trap. All right so we set a bear trap. Now all we gotta do, is one of us has got to catch a bear
How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953
Three "Hot Toddy" models (Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall) move into a large New York apartment together, which is supposed to be used as a trap to attract millionaires. Unfortunately, the great plan doesn't exactly work out. Of course, they each find their man! This romantic comedy is just plain fun!
My "bear trap" would include this cozy blanket and a hot toddy!
Hot Toddy
4 slices of red apple
3 cinnamon sticks
3 slices of orange
2 cloves
16 oz of whiskey
16 oz simple syrup (equal part sugar dissolved in water)
Add all ingredients to a large saucepan and put over low heat. Slowly bring up to a simmer to infuse the bourbon, and keep over low heat for 5-7 minutes until the fragrance of the mixture becomes more apparent. Serve warm.

Hot Toddies are traditionally enjoyed before going to bed, or in wet or cold weather. They are perfect for the season.
I want to wash my hands, my face, my hair with snow
White Christmas, 1954
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play war buddies turned entertainers who fall for a pair of sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). The guys follow the sisters to a resort, which is owned by their former commanding officer, and he's in danger of losing the place. What better reason to stage a show than to keep the resort in business? Irving Berlin's music is what makes the singing and dancing in this movie a classic: White Christmas, Count Your Blessings, The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing, and my favorite, Sisters. My sister Paige and I have always liked to sing this song... Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister And lord help the sister, who comes between me and my man!
This glamorous movie calls for silk pajamas and empanadas!
1 ¼ cups chopped mushrooms
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
¼ cup Italian sausage
1T olive oil
¼ cup Marsala
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
1/T thyme
½ t lemon juice
Salt and pepper
½ cup crumbled feta with herbs
½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 pkg purchased pie dough
1 egg yolk
1 T water
1/3 cup toasted whole hazelnuts or almonds
1 T sugar
1 garlic clove
1 jar roasted red peppers, drained
2 T red wine vinegar
Salt and red pepper flakes to taste

Preheat oven to 400; line a baking sheet with a silicone pad or parchment paper. Sauté mushrooms, shallots, and sausage in oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium/high heat. Cook until onion is soft and mushrooms begin to brown, about 5 minutes, breaking up sausage into small pieces. Deglaze with Marsala and simmer until nearly evaporated, then stir in spinach, thyme, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Cook until spinach wilts, transfer to a bowl, and cool to room temperature; stir in feta and mozzarella. Unroll 1 sheet of pie dough onto a work surface, and cut out circles using a round cutter. Place 1 t filling on each round, fold in half, and pinch to seal. Arrange on baking sheet and crimp sealed with a fork; repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Blend egg yolk with water and brush on empanadas. Bake until crust is golden, 15-18 minutes. Pulse hazelnuts, sugar, and garlic in a food processor. Add remaining ingredients and process until pureed.

Find something glamorous to eat your empanadas off of like Kate Spade appetizer plates.

Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.

Vertigo, 1958
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is one of the greatest American movies of all time. James Stewart plays Scottie, a police detective with a fear of heights. He's obsessed with a married woman, Kim Novak who he follows for an old friend. This movie sucks you in and keeps you mesmerized, even if you've seen it before, Vertigo never loses its suspense.
I think this soup is magical, maybe if Scottie had some, he'd be cured of his vertigo!

White Bean Chili
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 poblano peppers, chopped
4 minced garlic cloves
2 teaspoons oregano
dash of allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-2 teaspoons pepper
2 teaspoons cumin
3 4oz cans chopped green chilies
2 cans cream of celery soup
5 cups chicken broth
1-1 ½ lbs cooked cubed chicken breast or a rotisserie chicken
4 cans Great Northern beans
4 Cups grated Monterey Jack

In a large heavy stock pot on medium heat add olive oil, stir in onion, poblano peppers and garlic (sauté about 3 minutes). Add chilies, cumin, oregano, cayenne, pepper, allspice and cook until onions become translucent (about 5 minute). Add soup and broth. Bring to a boil. Then add chicken, beans, and cheese and simmer on low 1 hour stirring occasionally or add to your crock pot. Cook on low 15 minutes. Serve with sour cream, chopped avocado, remaining cheese, and chips. 
                                                 African Queen, 1951
African Queen is a story of adventure and romance of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in Africa just as World War I got underway. Charlie (Humphrey Bogart), a rum guzzling captain and Rose (Katharine Hepburn) a straitlaced missionary take on a German gunboat while falling in love.

Bread Pudding
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
6 T sugar
½ cup dark rum (in honor of Bogie)
4 t cornstarch

Bread pudding
Panettone bread loaf cut into inch cubes
8 large eggs
1 ½ cups heavy cream
2 ½ cups whole milk
1 ¼ cups sugar

For the sauce
Bring the cream, milk, and sugar to a boil in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently. In a small bowl, mix the rum and cornstarch to blend, and then whisk it into the cream mixture. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 2 minutes.

For the bread pudding
In a large buttered casserole arrange bread cubes. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, milk, and sugar to blend, Pour the custard over the bread cubes, press down gently to submerge. Soak for at least an hour or overnight. Preheat oven to 350. Bake the pudding until it puffs and is set about 45 minutes. Cool. Serve with warmed sauce.

Truly, this would be an extended evening and one that would require commitment for the full effect. If you want to try to break them up into more manageable segments, the Hot Toddies mix well with all of the other menu items. Cheers to you for Cozy Classics!