Several years ago, I designated the day before Thanksgiving as Creme Brûlée Day. My extended family now observes it, naturally enough, by getting together and making the titular dessert while visiting, playing games, doing other Thanksgiving prep, and enjoying being together.
Part of the tradition is to devise new Brûlée recipes and try them out. In the past, we’ve come up with recipes for Mexican Chocolate (a keeper!), Sriracha (decidedly not a keeper), and Parmesan cheese (far better than it sounds).
This year, our experiments were all based on the same custard base:
1/4 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
1/2 quart heavy cream
We tried even more variations this year than usual. After much deliberation, we settled on trying the following:
The aforementioned Mexican Chocolate. Still delightful.
Add 3tbsp of PB2 powdered peanut butter. We’d tried a peanut butter Brûlée a few years back and were pretty disappointed by it. This was hugely better — probably my favorite variation of the day. A bit like a Reese’s cup, but creamier.
Add 2tbsp of Anthony’s Cheddar Cheese powder. Like our parmesan experiment last year, the combination of sweet and salty was better than it sounds at first blush. Not bad, but not spectacular.
Add 1/3tsp of maple extract. A little of the flavoring went a long way, but it was extremely nice! As you might expect, very similar to maple creme candies.
Add 3tbsp of Kahlua. This was excellent; another favorite of the day. The sugar glass works really well with the flavors of the liqueur. Abby’s favorite, and Kris said it was restaurant-worthy.
We ate about half of the quadruple batch we made (having learned from years past), but still have plenty to take to our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow. A delightful time for both palate and soul!
As the year winds down, it seems a good time to catch up with those who are dear to us around the country and the world. (If you’re reading this, you made the cut!) Since we can’t possibly sit down for a leisurely meal and visit with everyone we’d like to, we bring you this meager substitute: our 2021 Christmas letter!
After a mostly-locked-down 2020, it has been a delight to be able to be out in the world once more. As folks have gotten vaccinated (3rd time’s the charm!), we’ve been spending more time with family and friends once again. (Particularly startling is seeing the bottom half of people’s faces who we’ve only known from the eyes up!) We’ve visited Kris’ sister Kim in Seattle, had a rich and full time with Kris’ family in Indianapolis, and reveled in several lovely places around Texas with each other and with Sean’s family. Oh, the joy of seeing something other than our own walls once more!
In the latter part of the year, Kris finally gave up her commute to our beloved St. Mark’s community and started as the Director of Children and Family Ministries at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church & School. It is a mere 3.5 miles from our home and also happens to be Sean’s 1st and 2nd-grade alma mater. While learning a new set of traditions and building relationships with a new group of people has been demanding, Kris has received an enthusiastic welcome from the leadership both at the church and the school. She’s also been very involved in our community garden and the local “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” efforts and on our evening walks seems to be known by everyone in our neighborhood!
Sean started working for Doximity in April, writing software to help doctors do their jobs better and more easily. The company is remote-first, and Sean has greatly enjoyed the ability to ply his trade from wherever he likes, be it the coffee shops and breakfast taco joints near our house or a relative’s home halfway across the country. He’s also begun getting back into performing, joining the San Antonio Choral Society this summer and recently playing out with a band for the first time in several years (at a bar that had a pig-in-residence named “Minnie Pearl”).
Our kids are all doing interesting things in the world:
After working at the zoo for a couple of years, Maggie earned a promotion to full Zookeeper and adores (most of) the animals she gets to work with there. She continues to make steady headway on her degree and her project turning an old airport bus into a tiny home on wheels. (She’s officially the handiest person at our house now!)
Liam graduated from UT Dallas in May with a Software Engineering degree and is now working for a company there while saving up for planned travel adventures next year. He and Sean enjoyed a week-long graduation road trip together through the American Southwest, culminating in an 18-mile rim-to-river-and-back hike at the Grand Canyon during which they both thought they might die.
Abigail is nearly done with her biology degree and has embarked on a Surgical Technician program here in San Antonio, which she is loving. (“Dad! I got to help with 2 C-Sections yesterday! It was SO COOL!”) She and her beau Christian are renovating a house downtown together.
Savannah is in San Diego, enjoying the West coast life while doing great work as manager of a Cava restaurant and making steady headway on her Psychology degree.
Emily is having a grand time doing the most important job there is — being Mom to her daughter Juniper, who joined the world in February. She and Xander (who heads up the city of Kyle’s design and branding efforts) still hang their hats in San Marcos, so we still have good reason to go up for visits regularly!
Other notable events: surviving the Texas Snowpocalypse (40° indoors with no power for 12 hours at a stretch), playing music together, ushering for theater under the stars at the SA Botanical Gardens, a delightful long beach weekend with all the Texas kids, lots of care and feeding of the feral cats that call our yard home, getting to drive an Indy 500 pace car, enjoying dozens of butterflies and hummingbirds in our front yard pollinator garden, gently tiptoeing past the baby skunk who lived on our front porch for several days, finally finding a good habañero and carrot salsa recipe, nearly stepping on an alligator near the coast, playing lots of board games in person and online, petting kangaroos, and playing Pickleball for the first time.
As 2021 winds down, we wish you the peace of the Christmas season (well, the post-shopping portion of it) and every blessing for the year to come. And if you ever find yourself down our way, please stop on in — we’d dearly love to have time with you!
After many months of off-and-on work, I’ve finally finished creating an appropriate setting for the LEGO Saturn V that my fine son Liam gave me.
This was a fun project: electronics, 3D printing, CNC milling, programming, and audio editing all combined to get the effects I was looking for. If you’re interested in the details, please check out my writeup on its construction.
Some of you may remember that, a few years back, my son Liam and I designed, and my eldest daughter Emily illustrated, a card game. The elevator pitch was “like Risk but with cards,” and we christened it “1945.” It has remained a family favorite since we created it.
It’s been out of print in its physical form for a while now due to some shenanigans with my printer, but I’ve just finished porting it to be playable in Tabletop Simulator. If you’ve got TS (which is near-essential for board game fans during this time of social isolation) you can now play 1945 for free!
Rachel is a high school friend of mine who recently got to speak on addiction at a TEDx event . A few years back, we were both in town for the funeral of one of our shared dear friends. We had a wonderful conversation afterwards about the similar ways that addiction had impacted our lives, and the growth and change of direction that came out of those experiences. She has now been fully focused on addiction treatment and recovery for a number of years, and shares here some of the wisdom that she has won on that road. It’s well worth your time.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Kris and Sean moved to our new home in San Antonio!
There were a number of reasons for this move: lots of Sean’s family is down in San Antonio, and he has long loved the idea of being closer to them. Maggie has just graduated from High School and plans to take classes down in San Antonio this fall, so we’ll be able to provide a base of operations for her. And as much as we love San Marcos and will miss it fiercely, we also are excited to be back in a big city with everything it has to offer.
We’re also particularly keen on the neighborhood we’ve ended up in. About 100 years old, Beacon Hill was one of the first subdivisions in San Antonio; it has evolved into an ethnically and economically mixed community with a very active neighborhood association, lots of artists and musicians, and a good deal of personality. Within a five minute walk of the quirky, charming, Craftsman-style house are a terrific little restaurant run by an expat Frenchman, an Ice Cream Parlor/Fruteria/Ceviche purveyor with a great array of delicious treats, a gift store, an artist collective, a Mexican restaurant (life and breath to Sean), and a community garden. Close enough for an easy bike ride are one of Sean’s brothers, his wife, and their daughter, a mini golf course, two huge and beautiful municipal parks, a board gaming cafe, two theaters with a regular lineup of high quality productions, and two public libraries. Further, our decision to land here seems to have been confirmed repeatedly in a variety of interesting ways. (Ask us about our PorchFest experience sometime!)
Amid the excitement over our new digs, we’re also both feeling a measure of sadness about no longer living in San Marcos. Sean came to this beautiful hill country town in 2000, and has lived there longer than any other city in his life — raising kids, hiking its trails, swimming the river, and seeing it grow. When we got married, Kris quickly made it her home too; Sean half-joked that after a month living there, she had made more friends than he had in 16 years. She has been particularly enamored with the wildlife, especially the skunks, possums, raccoons, and birds of all stripes that have become regular visitors to our backyard. And we’ll both keenly miss being close to our community of friends there, particularly those at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and those from the University.
But blessings abound as we look forward to this new chapter. We’ll be setting up a home together for the first time. (Which sounds more cheerful than “Oh my goodness, there are SO MANY BOXES!”) We will be close to much of Sean’s extended family and to his goddaughter. He will be both helping Handsome, where he works, to define its remote work policies and at the same time will be a guinea pig for them, working remote about 60% of the time. While Kris continues her work at St. Mark’s through the fall, San Antonio has broader career opportunities for her as she considers what her professional life should look like in the future. And once the dust settles, we are very much looking forward to having friends and family come visit in this new part of Texas that we’re already enjoying a ton!
Huge thanks to all of the folks who pitched in on move day or leading up to it to make it a success: Ian, Emily, Adam, Cheryl, Liam, Alex, Bob, Nick, Mike, Tami, Chris, Becky, Ron, Marti, Jeff, Fazia, Michael, Diane, Bill, Abigail, Brian, Bridgette, Finn, Brooklyn, Ken, Tanya, and Maggie. We seriously could not have done it without your help. Many, many thanks.
We earmarked Friday for The Giant’s Causeway. We loaded up early and headed north, stopping only for a quick breakfast along the way. After our arrival and my first Irish Magners cider (which lived up to my friend Jason’s enthusiasm for it), we started our hike down to the Causeway.
I had, of course, heard about the site before, but was still amazed by the reality of it. The regular hexagonal basalt columns are like nothing I’d seen in creation before, and it was easy to see why it is one of Beki’s favorite places in the world. (As a reader, I gave it the highest praise I can offer a place: “I’d love to bring a book and sit here for hours.”) We clambered happily over the rocks for an hour or so, and then hiked up the hillside to enjoy some spectacular views overlooking the causeway and the land around.
We then dropped by the ruins of Dunluce Castle, a nearby site that was beautifully situated on a large outcropping over the sea. We learned a bit about the history of the place, read the slightly self-congratulatory quotes about the importance of the archaeology there, enjoyed more spectacular views, and dodged enthusiastic schoolchildren who were barreling around taking selfies in every cranny of the place.
Randy and Beki then dropped us off in Coleraine to pick up the train to Derry/Londonderry. (Evidently the Irish Republicans call it the former, Loyalists the latter, and there’s strong conviction about it. “There’s no such place as Londonderry, but I can sell you a ticket to Derry” ticketing agents might tell an unsuspecting traveler.) Michael Palin described this as one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world. We enjoyed gliding past verdant green fields filled with content cows and sheep, as well as vibrant fields of yellow rapeseed crops, and lamented that we didn’t have time to explore Derry before hopping back on the train to Belfast.
Our last stop for the day was The Crown Liquor Saloon, a downtown pub that was restored in 2007. Decorated with elaborate tile, stained glass, and woodwork, and featuring a number of semi-private booths, it was an ideal place to enjoy a drink and dinner.
Thursday was a travel day. We spent the earlier part of the day getting from Ballymoney to Belfast, where we’d be staying for the next couple of nights. The drive was lovely. More of the country unfolded before us as we listened to our new friends Sammy and Kylie. Kris was delighted by the signs that directed us not only to the nearest gas stations but also to the nearest castles, which seemed equally numerous.
Once we got to Belfast, we took a black cab tour around town. This brought home the history of The Troubles in a visceral way, as we saw shrines to those slain on both sides of the conflict. Our guide was in his teens during the peak of the tension and violence, and while he was careful not to skew his account, had clearly seen things that left a mark during that time. Sad and sobering that, while most of the violence in now nearly a generation in the past, that there are still Belfast residents who live in the shadow of “The Peace Wall” and who won’t go to the other side to have a drink. There are few past a certain age who haven’t lost someone to the violence of this conflict.
After the tour, we reconnected with Randy & Beki and enjoyed naps and a hike up the hill to Belfast Castle, a beautiful structure with a bistro and gardens overlooking the port and much of the rest of the city. We were struck by the cat motifs in the decor, and were later delighted by the discovery the legend that, like the ravens in the Tower of London, Belfast Castle would remain safe as long as a cat lived there.
We then headed back into town for dinner at “Made in Belfast,” a delightfully quirky restaurant with locally sourced deliciousness of various kinds. (My Ploughman’s Burger, with Irish beef, Irish cheese, and Irish ham was outstanding!) We then dropped in at The Dirty Onion for a couple pints (my first Irish Guiness!) and live music. It turned out, suprisingly, to be bluegrass. It also turned out, unsurprisingly, to be excellent.
Wednesday dawned bright and early. We started the day with a planning session for the rest of our trip, and then a fantastic walk/hike/climb up the beach to a nearby shipwreck. The mix of terrain was delightfully different from the beaches I’m used to, with beautiful schist outcroppings thrusting through the sand and out into the water. We had to choose several times between a carefully timed run around a rock face while the tide momentarily sucked back out to sea and an ambitious bit of rock climbing.
We then made a foray into Gorey for lunch at The Book Cafe, which combines delicious food with a wonderful, quirky bookstore, full of general-interest and Irish author tomes. It would have been easy to lose myself for hours there and to miss the rest of the town. Beki and Randy next took us down to the wood turning shop of Robert O’Connor, who creates stunningly beautiful wood pieces in his shop and has lately started to craft wooden pennywhistles as well. I spent a happy quarter hour trying out various instruments while his dog Maggie looked on reproachfully when I hit high notes.
A trip to Tesco left us well-supplied for a dinner of African potato soup. We then stopped by friends that Beki & Randy had toured with, Sammy & Kylie, for a quick visit. We enjoyed the pleasures of good conversation and the storied Swedish confection, “Plopp”, of which they had a stash they willingly shared. (It’s better than it sounds.)
I was delighted to discover that Sammy was the singer for The Electrics, who were my introduction to Celtic rock around a dozen years ago. I went a little fanboy on them, and they were kind enough to send us on our way with a couple CDs and a thumb drive full of music, which has been the soundtrack of our honeymoon since.
After spending the day packing and saying farewell to the last of family and friends who had come for the wedding, our friend Ron drove Kris and me to the airport. We enjoyed a last American meal, visited with Savannah, whose flight was going out an hour after ours, and loaded up, waving to Savannah as we boarded.
The flight was long but uneventful. British Airways was great, taking good care of us while we watched La La Land and Doctor Strange. The in-flight entertainment included several other movies I’d had on my to-watch list, but I was exhausted, and even Marvel and Benedict Cumerbatch couldn’t keep me awake. We each enjoyed a few hours sleep by the time we touched down at Heathrow.
Our layover there was surprisingly pleasant. We walked a couple of miles, visited shops we couldn’t possibly afford, poked around the Harry Potter store, enjoyed the airport extension of Hamley’s (my favorite toy store), and grabbed a healthy lunch at Wagamama, which I’d remembered from the trip to my brother’s wedding 12 years earlier.
We landed in Dublin mid-afternoon, gathered our things, and visited the tourist information shops, collecting our own weight in brochures and maps, before jumping into the rental car and heading south. The beautiful green hills and mountains unfolded before us, hedgerows and sheep lending extra charm. It reminded me very much of England, but with mountains.
After leaving the motorway and whizzing past several other drivers at impossible speeds on the tiny roads, we finally made it to our dear friends and hosts for the first part of our trip, Randy and Beki. After exchanging enthusiastic hugs, we decided to take a walk down to the beach to fight the jet lag and to keep us awake until at least 9:00pm.
The shore is beautiful, with a sandy beach nestled among rocky crags, and I immediately stripped off my shoes and socks to wade into the frigid Irish sea. We didn’t last long, however, before the chill won out, so we strolled back up to their flat, where they had a wonderful vegan shepherd’s pie waiting. It was fun to try Sriracha that didn’t come from Huy Fong and lacked the accustomed rooster on the front. The unpretentiously named “brown sauce” was also novel. All was delicious. We enjoyed tea, Irish cheese, and excellent company on the patio until five minutes after 9:00, at which point we decided we had fought the good fight against jet lag and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep for 9 hours.