I think it’s hard to write about family without sounding cliché. As Matt once said to me about grammar, “Nothing is more clichéd than grammar, which repeats the same structures over and over again.” Writing about family is a lot like that: I traveled many miles, visited the family, we had a good time, the end! Oh yeah, and isn’t my niece the cutest thing in the entire WORLD?!?
No, seriously. Isn’t she?
But family is far more complicated than that because with family comes family dysfunction. Take, for instance, Christmas Day last year. It was actually not quite the cozy, snow-covered portrait I painted months ago. The day turned out okay in the end, but before that, it featured such heartwarming moments as my brother John storming out of my parents’ house, me saying the f-bomb in front of my parents (not my finest moment, I assure you), and this very funny conversation my sister had with my brother Charlie:
Theresa: “How do you make mashed potatoes?”
Charlie: “One part mash, one part potato.”
At this point, Theresa’s phone died and she burst into tears. I don’t remember why she was so upset that morning, but the whole “one part mash, one part potato” thing pushed her over the edge. Maybe I’m a jerk, but it was one of the funniest stories of that day and it still makes me laugh now, just thinking about it. One part mash, one part potato! That’s my brother, in six words. He makes me laugh.
All of this Christmas Day family dysfunction occurred before the official family celebration began, and I’ll admit, I was pretty grumpy. My family can be stubborn and grouchy, and I’m no different. But it was Christmas Day. Christmas Day! And I was about to spend it with people I love, at least in theory. Even more important to me, it was a Christmas with Lydia and Devin, and I’d like to avoid giving them memories that later they will recall to therapists as they try to undo the psychic damage we inflicted on them on Christmas Day.
So I rallied. We rallied. I apologized to my parents for that little f-bomb that fell from my lips—I was pretty embarrassed by that. They shrugged it off, and I felt a tiny bit better. My sister never quite recovered from that “one part mash, one part potato” thing, but sometimes you just have to let people be grumpy for a while. And John seemed to cheer up once the festivities started—I think he also got a kick out of the whole mashed potato “disaster.”
My point now in recalling our not-so-merry Christmas is that sometimes families have bad days. But we stick together, and we tough it out, and sometimes we escape into bedrooms and call our boyfriends, whose cell phones have no reception out in the boonies, but we leave a message anyway because it’s nice to say Merry Christmas to the people we love.
Families are bigger and stronger than the bad days and the bad times. Or at least my family is, and I consider myself very fortunate that I come from such sturdy, if stubborn, stock. Tolstoy may have written that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but I disagree. Even happy families are complex and multidimensional. A happy family may contain some unhappy members. But I am happy to be a part of my family.
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My sister-in-law Amanda is a great cook, and we do eat quite well at her house. That’s her up there in the third photo, baking with Lydia. It’s funny to remember that at the time of that photo, about a year ago, she was pregnant with Devin, my nephew. Now I hear that Devin has started to pull himself up onto his feet! It’s crazy how fast babies grow.
Last winter, while I was in Michigan for Christmas, Amanda made these amazing peanut butter bars, and it was love at first bite for me. The recipe is pretty similar to these flourless peanut butter brownies, but the addition of chocolate, some tweaks on the salt and baking soda, and a change in baking technique make these bars quite different and very delicious.
While the old brownie recipe produces an almost fudgelike confection, this new recipe makes a chewier treat. It’s a little crumbly in the best way, and the chocolate plays really well against the toasty flavor of peanut butter. These bars get a little darker at the edges, so you have layers of flavor, a savory toasted note and a hint of caramel. They’re so good—I can’t quite capture in words how good they are. But I think the photo below does them justice. I got a little fluffy with my food photos on Sunday, posing this pan of peanut butter bars next to the window in the good light. But I do like how the photo makes me want to dive right into that pan.
Amanda’s Amazing Peanut Butter Bars
Makes 24 bars in a 9x13-inch pan
For the peanut butter, I used an organic, “natural” peanut butter, and it worked well. Because the peanut butter gets beaten until creamy, I imagine that any brand would work, including those that require you to stir the separated oil back into the solids.
Oh, and one more note: I bet this recipe would be fantastic with 1 tsp. cinnamon added to the batter. Peanut butter and cinnamon is a favorite combination of mine, so maybe I’ll try that the next time I make these bars.
Cooking spray or butter to grease the pan
18 ounces (2 cups) creamy peanut butter
8 ounces (about 3/4 cup, by eyeball analysis) honey
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup chocolate chips (I used semisweet here), divided
1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 9x13-inch pan with cooking spray or use your preferred method of greasing the pan (butter, etc.).
2) In a large mixing bowl, use a hand mixer to beat the peanut butter until very smooth and creamy.
3) Beat the honey and eggs into the peanut butter.
4) Sprinkle the salt and baking soda over the peanut butter mixture, then beat everything together.
5) Sprinkle 1/2 cup chocolate chips over the batter, then mix them into the batter by hand. The batter will be very thick!
6) Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Then use your hands to pat it into a layer that’s more or less even. (I find it easiest to use my hands here. For some reason, the batter sticks like crazy to mixing spoons, but it doesn’t stick too badly to my fingers.) Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips on top of the batter.
7) Bake for 20-30 minutes at 325 degrees F. The edges will darken, which is okay, but keep an eye on your bars so they don’t burn.
8) Allow bars to cool in their pan on a wire rack. Slice and serve.
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I’ll see you soon, Michigan. You know I can’t wait.