Friday, October 28, 2016

Dulce de Leche Thumbprint Cookies

11 days to go in an election season that has left most feeling really frustrated and tired, like how I imagine running a marathon would feel if I ever ran one. (I did participate in a 5K this past week and my arches fell from speed walking, so I don't think I'm a "marathon candidate.") I made a conscious decision early on to figure out what I liked about Hillary and celebrate it. When I'm feeling furious because a man running on behalf of one of the two major parties condones sexual assault, I remember how exciting it is to vote for our first female president. This is a terrible election, but it's also a historical one. I plan on drinking a cocktail when it's over -- yes, because it's over, but mostly because we will be toasting to something extraordinary and overdue and full of hope. This election has pointed out our country's institutionalized sexism, an incredible disease that has made me extra grateful for how I was raised. My mom taught me how to use my voice and to be assertive, my dad told me I was smart and capable and a leader. Gender was almost a non-issue and my parents were equals.

I'm blaming it on my ridiculous sentimentality, but when I look at Hillary -- a woman who fights for children, who has balanced a career and a family, who has to prove at every turn that she deserves to be there -- I remember my grandma Schmidt and the choices she made.

Margaret passed away when I was three after a terrible battle with stomach cancer. She hospiced at our house, and I remember peeking in her bedroom and tiptoeing in to sit on the bed. She always had glass dishes of lemon drops and Andes mints. She spoke quietly. She gave good hugs. This election reminds me of her -- a woman who I've learned more about in the years since she's passed away. One of my biggest wishes is that we could've chatted as adults, that our time overlapped more. Everyone tells me how strong she was, how smart, and how she had other dreams that couldn't coexist with her dream of having a family.

Margaret Luedtke was born in 1913 in rural McLeod County, Minnesota. She had five siblings. She had a lot of sisterly rivalry with Myrtle, who was older and sometimes spunkier and since they were both stubborn and German, this lasted until adulthood. My grandma's stubbornness -- her determination -- is something I hope I've inherited. She loved her family and loved a full house. She met my grandpa Frank when she was in high school -- he was passing through town on the way to work at a farm in Iowa. They met at a "rainbow dance," which my aunt Shirley couldn't really describe, but Margaret was wearing orange. And Frank never made it to Iowa. She thought he looked like Bing Crosby and her parents didn't like him.

My grandma is the one standing on the right.
And here's where I find great kinship with my grandma. Instead of getting married out of high school, she left the farm for "the cities" and attended business college in St. Paul. She rented a room in a Summit Ave. mansion and took the streetcar to school, where she learned typing and shorthand. I always knew she went to college, but only recently have I really thought about what that meant. She left a boyfriend, friends, family, to live alone in a new city and do something that the women around her weren't doing. Pretty badass. 

After college, she moved to Hudson, WI and worked in an oncologist's office. Again, this is fact that takes a minute to sink in. She was a young working woman in a new place in the early 30s. Maybe it's because I'm a storyteller, but I can only imagine the excitement and independence she felt supporting herself with her skills. She eventually moved back to Minnesota and married my grandpa in 1933. He bought a milk route in Litchfield. She had six kids in eight years. And she didn't work outside of the home again.

All of my relatives will say one of Margaret's defining characteristics was how much she loved her family. She was proud of her kids and adored her grandkids. They also talk about how hard she worked. She did everything -- she baled hay with a pitchfork, made lemon bars, "calved" (which I can only imagine involves pulling a calf out of a cow), managed horses and a garden. She hated snakes and would chop off their heads with a hoe while swearing. Her farmhouse was full of kids and laughter and butter. This is the grandma that my older cousins speak of.

All six Schmidt kids (Marilyn, Barb, my dad Larry, Shirley with Ron, Allan with a cat)
I wish I knew this Margaret, but more than anything, I wish I knew the Margaret from before 1933. I asked my aunt Shirley if she thought her mother missed having a career, and she thinks she did. She talked about her beautiful penmanship and interesting letters. She remembered how Margaret would write everything down in expert shorthand when someone was telling a story so she wouldn't miss anything, and people would ask her to decipher the notes later. My aunt laughed when I asked if it would've been possible to work and have a family. Companies simply didn't allow it. No one would hire a competent secretary who was pregnant or had kids. I look at the women in my life who are balancing both a career and family -- something I hope to do one day -- and how my grandma wasn't allowed to even try. She married a man with a 7th grade education and some would say her schooling was in vain. But I look at her robin's egg blue typewriter that sits in my house in LA and I think of a young writer who once wanted something more.

Margaret and Frank, in the 1980s
When I vote for a woman this fall, I'm doing it on behalf of another strong woman. Margaret would've been proud to cast a vote for Hillary -- according to my dad, "She would've hated Trump something terrible. More than you!" Ask the majority of my extended family and they would disagree, because so many are supporting Trump (I think I should earn points for only defriending *some* of them over Facebook memes). I asked my aunt Shirley about it, and said, nearly whispering, "She was very open-minded. She was a feminist. And you can talk to me and and your aunts about Hillary."

Margaret used to tell my older half sister that anyone can get married, but not everyone can get an education. I hope that my grandma looks down on me, unmarried but college-educated and working as a writer, and is proud. Also, I bake! :)

Dulce de Leche Thumbprint Cookies

Can of sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Sea salt for sprinkling

Blend the softened butter and brown sugar until well-mixed.
Add the egg yolk and vanilla.
Gradually add the flour and salt, careful to not over-mix.
Shape the dough into a ball, cover in plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.
There are few ways to make dulce de leche -- I prefer the oven method.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Empty the can of sweetened condensed milk into an oven-safe saucepan. (Came very close to using a pan with a plastic handle. Don't make this mistake.)
Create a water bath in a larger, oven-safe pan. Fill it with a reasonable amount of water.
Cover the saucepan of sweetened condensed milk with tinfoil and place in the water bath.
Cook in the oven for about 60 minutes, checking occasionally to refill the water.
When the dulce de leche is done, set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. It will thicken as it cools. It should be a lovely caramel color and remind you of delicious glue.
Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and retrieve your dough ball.
Using a tablespoon scoop, space your cookies on a cookie sheet, about two inches apart.
Using your old-school thumb (or the base of your tablespoon scoop), create a small divet in the middle of each cookie. You can smooth out the cracks to create a more perfect cookie, or just say, "fuck it" and keep going.
Using a 1/4 teaspoon, drizzle the dulce de leche in the cookie divets. Mine overflowed, which is actually fine, but stressful in the moment.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool the cookies on a wire rack before sprinkling with salt.
Eat all of them.

Happy baking -- and happy voting!!! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sea Salt Brownies

I know, I know, it's been awhile. My job has me staring at a computer and typing as fast as I can for whole days, so when I'm done for the night, I mostly want to eat in silence. And drink sippy cups of riesling in my bed. Which I do, and I love. Quite honestly, life has been very great. I have been baking a bit, but no recipe success worth posting -- I made some blueberry oat bars and got some difficult yet necessary notes from co-workers on its "flavorless crumb." I'm choosing to not read into it. I'm not a flavorless crumb! I'm delightful!

I could complain about the LA heat, but to be fair, I spent the last week in Minneapolis for the Fringe Festival. I can't believe it's already been a year since I went off on this very site about my obsession with this event! Guess what? I feel the same way. Another year, more shows. Another batch of well-meaning audience reviews. And another ten days of me yelling loud sexual stories at a Minneapolis bar followed by eating Taco Bell in my car. When it comes down to it, my favorite thing in the world is writing words for my funny friends to say. Crazy that I went to college for this? That it can be summed up that way? Everything's fine. The downside to Fringe is, of course, the comedown. I've been told even those in Minneapolis feel this -- the "now what?" that comes with going back to work after the shows are over. I'm sure even the woman who always writes a terrible audience review for every Fringe show I've ever done feels the same way. "Another year until I get to hate something Emily Schmidt writes? Man, what a bummer." I know, lady. I know. We are all in this boat of post-Fringe blues. We are all the same.

Even though I got to return to my sippy cups of riesling in LA, the blues are inescapable. I have to remind myself that even if I lived there, I wouldn't be able to yell loud sexual stories at Minneapolis bars EVERY night. Fringe is special. (Taco Bell isn't, I technically could do that whenever, but shouldn't, and that's important to remember, too.)

I'm easing back into my LA lifestyle by saying, "At least it's a DRY heat" aloud and accidentally getting stuck in the middle of intersections on Sunset. A large, flying beetle attacked and lodged itself inside my shirt yesterday until I hit its iridescent shell with my cell phone. That feels like something that would only happen in a desert environment I still don't fully understand!

It IS lovely to be back among my west coast friends and back at a job that is creatively fulfilling. Plus, street tacos! I can eat meats out of a truck at all hours and the meats are delicious! And it's socially "fine" to eat salsas from tubs that are balanced on trailer hitches! This is a dream. Also, I'm going to treat myself to a pedicure tonight. This is big for me, since the last time I was at this particular nail place, I ended up truly and fully FALLING into the pedicure bowl. I aimed for the chair, of course, as any human would do, but I missed. Like a baby who doesn't yet have depth perception. Like a cat who tries to jump to a bookcase and fails and ends up on YouTube. In I fell, while making a loud noise that was equal parts fear, shame, and confusion. I was so embarrassed, I didn't even use the massage feature on the chair for the rest of the pedicure. Honestly didn't feel like I deserved it. We'll see how tonight goes, going to be extra careful navigating the bowl.

Another thing that helps with any post-whatever blues is chocolate. I tend to prefer a lighter dessert, but when a co-worker requested brownies for her birthday, I tried out this recipe and fell in love with salty chocolate all over again. A love affair for the ages. These puppies are chewy on the edges and melty in the middle, rich but not overpowering -- all the things we look for in love and life and dessert. I hadn't made brownies from scratch before, and thought, "How will I ever make chocolatey powder like in the box mixes?" Turns out you don't make it that way. You need a double boiler or the creativity to make your own double boiler. Trust me, it's worth it.

Sea Salt Brownies
This is NOT a great picture, but brownies are NOT photogenic.
2 sticks of unsalted butter, in cubes
2 cups white sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 baking bar of chocolate (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao, but you're going to want to make sure it has a high percentage -- we're talkin' bittersweet, big time)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
coarse sea salt for that sprinkle top action

Preheat your oven for 325 degrees.
Do whatever you need to do to grease an 8x8 pan -- this could include butter, PAM, etc. If you're fancy, you may even use parchment paper and feel really superior for it!
Set up your double boiler. Honestly? I used saucepan balanced in a tub I've used to cook ham. You can make it with anything. Fill the bigger pot with simmering water, then place a saucepan inside that pot, without touching the bottom. You're going to make your entire batter in this saucepan, so make sure it's big enough!
Melt the butter, sugar, cocoa powder, and chocolate in the saucepan. Mix often! If this burns, you will be sad. The consistency you're looking to achieve is smooth and glossy. It may appear grainy if you get a closer look, and that's okay. Just make sure all of the ingredients are completely incorporated.
Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and egg. Whisk well.
Add the flour and cornstarch to this chocolate extravaganza.
Stir until it's thick and well-mixed.
Carefully pour this mixture into your greased 8x8 and liberally sprinkle the top with sea salt. ...Like a goddamn provencal countrymaid or something.
Bake for about 35 minutes until it passes the toothpick test. You may find the inside is still pretty gooey, but trust me -- it's done. That's how you want it! That's how we all want it.
Serve warm or cold or with ice cream or in the middle of the night when you can't sleep.

I was a hit at the office and everyone forgot all about my flavorless crumb! A win, indeed.

Happy baking!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Maple Oat Pecan Scones

I'm shocked I haven't posted this recipe yet. Scones are magical little hunks of carbs that combine my great loves of biscuits and sugar. This recipe is a good one.

FACT: Starbucks used to sell a very similar scone.
FACT: I ate them truly every chance I got, even though it was plainly marked that each scone was over 400 calories.
FACT: I wrote an email to Starbucks when they discontinued the scone, and after receiving a generic and impersonal reply, went on my own personal, emotional journey to reach the conclusion that I'm better off without easy access to these scones.

...but now I can make them myself, and I don't plainly indicate any calorie information, and I say if you want a scone, you should eat one. The Scots would want it that way. They are pretty into scones, right?

I recently started a new (dream) job! So, I brought these scones to ingratiate myself to my coworkers and mostly because I'm finding a lot of joy in getting up early and completing an entire activity before going to work. This will probably wear off... hasn't yet! As of now, I'm relishing in a routine, even if it's an early one. I love control so much!

I haven't had a lot of weird jobs, but I've... done some weird things for money?

- When I was little, my mom would pay me 25 cents to give her a backrub. In my first badass girlboss move to really make a statement about what I was worth, I asked for (and received!) a 100% raise to 50 cents per backrub.

- My ex boyfriend paid me to write his cover letter. This is initially sad, but when you unpack it, it becomes even more depressing. "I am great at building and maintaining relationships," I wrote, as him, between my tears and verbal outbursts of "Lies!!"

- I was once hired to teach improv to a group of kids -- ranging in age and general demeanor -- at a family reunion. Not my family reunion. A stranger family's reunion that apparently needed to culminate with a shortform improv show featuring random cousins, age 5-17, in a small Lutheran college's auditorium. To highlight how far I was able to get with this group in the few hours I was given, I'm pretty sure the performance consisted ONLY of zip-zap-zop. *Maybe* freeze-tag, but honestly, I don't even think scenework was attempted.

- Obviously, I babysat several teachers' kids, while I was still a student. One time, in Jr. High, I fell asleep on my Geography teacher's couch. Crazy that it was the most mortifying thing to happen to me during Jr. High? 

- I don't mean to brag, but I used to be a pretttttty damn good 8-year-old rollerblader. Sure, I did it mostly in my parents' empty 2-car garage with a drain slope in the middle. Sure, it was mostly smooth blading in one direction, with a few crossovers when necessary. But I really believe if Shania Twain had the chance to see my choreographed routine to "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under," things would've been different. Regardless, my overconfidence and love of organization drove me to spearhead "rollerblading lessons" for the kids in my neighborhood. I made flyers with the little tear-offs on the bottom. I promised every child who completed my curriculum would receive a plastic rollerblade keychain. Kids signed up, lives were changed, I made everyone skate to Deanna Carter's "Strawberry Wine" -- a song about losing your virginity to an older man on your grandpa's farm.

When I said I did weird things for money, you thought I was going to admit to being a sex worker, didn't you? Wouldn't that be amazing? If I was a former sex worker who now baked scones? Sorry. I get called "ma'am" waaaaay too often to be an awesome sex worker.

Maple Oat Pecan Scones


2 3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup oats, either finely chopped or ground in a food processor (if you're fancy)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup cold butter, cubed
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 egg
1 teaspoon maple extract

4 cups powered sugar
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons brewed coffee
2 teaspoons maple extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together the flour, oats, sugar, and baking powder.
Using a pastry cutter or two forks (or whatever you have -- it's really not my business), work the cubed butter into the dry ingredients until there are little butter crumbs. You're not going to feel like it's the right consistency, but that's scones fer ya!
Add the pecans and mix well.
Add the whipping cream, egg, and maple extract. This mixture nearly broke my probably-for-decoration-only Anthropologie whisk, so be warned. At this point, you might want to just use your hands to combine the ingredients. This is going to feel far from perfect -- you can expect to have a dough ball with some dry mixture that just won't mix. That's fine. You're okay.
Flour the hell out of your clean counter, and dump that dough ball, etc. onto it.
Depending on your desired scone shape, work the dough into a circle or rectangle that is about 3/4 in. thick. 
Cut into triangles or circles or squares or stars or the likeness of your significant other. I did triangles. Boring!
Bake on a greased or parchment-papered baking sheet for about 22 minutes.
Cool! Cool? Cool.
Meanwhile, combine the powdered sugar, whipping cream, melted butter, coffee, and maple extract. This should feel like icing-consistency. If it's too thin, add powdered sugar. Too thick, add heavy whipping cream. Have some fun accidentally making way too much icing as you keep overcompensating!
Drizzle the icing over the scones, and top with a few classy pecans. Look how classy you are with that chopped nut garnish! Look at you go!

You know how I feel about these scones. I know I'm not alone. Get on board. They are sweet and hearty and you will get credit for making them instead of Starbucks.

Happy baking!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Raspberry Scones (I'm back)

I don't know, guys. I'm still heartbroken, and it's still hard, and I'm uncovering new layers of my grief like a flaky pastry that peels apart and gets crumbs all over my lap.

I needed something solid.

So, this morning, I made scones.

I'm back in Los Angeles after three weeks of love and wine and hugs and tears in the frozen tundra, and this city's greatest gift to me (and our truly depleted reservoirs) is the rain. I flew into a really beautiful LA sunset and since then, we've been nestled under the most delicious cloud-cover and steady downpours. I mean, did the wall of an El Pollo Loco franchise collapse from rain? Did that poor, scarved man have to climb out of and abandon his Smart Car in the flooded Sepulveda basin? Did people build houses on... I don't know, mud cliffs? Sure. LA doesn't do well with drainage, and that is apparent. BUT if you stay inside and your house isn't on a mud cliff, it's the best. I'm motherfucking cozy. I'm wearing the kind of slippers your grandma wore -- you know, satiny, like ballet flats but with a cushy sole and essentially manufactured for elderly feet. I crawl into my bed earlier and earlier in the evening just because I know it will be warmer in there. And I'm listening to Joni Mitchell on vinyl and deeply swaying in a way that I can only freely do when my roommates are gone. Are you picturing it? With the slippers, too? Sorry.

Gloomy weather and melancholy make a good team, like people who pair their wines and cheeses, or couples who start to look like each other. So I'm grateful for this rain. I can be pretty "right place, right time" about my sadness and even that tinge of homesickness that finds its way in even though I was home for three weeks. It's never enough time! So, eat a scone. Wishing you coziness with something solid.

Raspberry Scones

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice or zest 
1 stick cold, cubed butter
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup frozen raspberries
excess flour for flouring

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a baking sheet.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and lemon product.
Add the cubed butter and, using a pastry blender, mash that business up until you have pea-sized butter nubs. I hate this part of making scones because what is this consistency? Very frustrating. Power through.
Add the heavy whipping cream and mush with your hands that you washed before you even started, especially because of the norovirus.
Once the mixture is mostly combined (there will still be some loose flour), dump it onto your counter and knead it together. Don't overwork it, just be naturally flawless.
Try your best to shape the dough into a rectangle, about 8 1/2 x 11, with the long side facing you.
Starting about 1/3 of the way down from the top of your rectangle, line frozen raspberries along the rest of the dough.
Fold the non-berry portion onto the berry portion, and continue folding until you have a long dough tube (sensual) at the bottom of your counter.
Cut this tube into four squares, and then triangulate the squares.
Refrigerate the 8 triangle scones for about 10 minutes, then...
Bake the scones for about 20 minutes.
Cool and enjoy!

Using frozen berries that are folded into the dough helps contain what could otherwise be a berry shitshow. The tartness of the raspberries balances out the dense, biscuit-y scone and I could eat 20 million of these. But then what would happen to my bikini body?!

Happy baking!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Good Grief.

Grief is a funny thing.

It reminds me of when you're going out and you can't tell what the weather is going to do, so you bring a coat just in case. Some of the time, you're happy you have that coat -- you put it on, zip it up, thank yourself for bringing it. But the rest of the time, you're just lugging around this extra piece of clothing and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't set it down anywhere and it's very present and sometimes you catch other people looking at it and you want to say, "I didn't know what the temperature was going to be, okay? So I brought this and honestly, I'm probably going to need it later."

"But Emily," you say, wondering if there's going to be a recipe at the end of this post (spoiler alert: no). "A coat is ultimately a good thing and grief is terrible so what the hell are you trying to do with this clumsy analogy?" First of all, calm down, don't be mean. It's the holidays.

Second... grief is not terrible. Grief isn't terrible when you are absolutely required to feel something. Losing someone so close and so important has turned me into a ball of feelings -- like a holiday cheese ball, but filled with sadness and loss and coated in anger instead of... nuts? You guys, I love cheese, but I don't like or trust a cheese ball. Is that insane? Are they, in fact, coated with nuts?

There is no emotional outlet. I drive around the chain of lakes in Minneapolis -- the same familiar route I've taken countless times to process everything from college applications to relationships to improv shows -- I drive around the lakes and my eyes fill up with hot, stinging tears and my throat tightens. In the past, I could be various shades of sad and mad AT something -- Northwestern University, Peter, a pretty rough improv set, for example. But this time, there is no target. Just feelings. Sometimes they come out sideways, and I get mad at my cardigan for being wrinkled or the driver in front of me for not pulling over and letting me pass when they want to go 5 mph around Lake Calhoun.

And that's when grief isn't terrible -- it's welcomed. Because I can take a deep breath and say, "Oh, this is grief. What I'm feeling is grief. Here's a label and a box for it." ...Like when you finally learn what a cheese ball is and you can identify it on a table of hors d'oeuvres and move on.

You never choose grief, because it follows closely behind a great loss. But when it's chilly, it's pretty nice to zip up that coat. I'm thankful I brought it. It's only a burden when I have a rare moment of unexpected joy or laughter -- because there's that fucking coat, and the reminder that I had to bring it in the first place, and the temperature is probably going to drop later.

(#thankful and #blessed to be writing from a cold climate where I can really settle into this winterwear metaphor!)

My heart physically aches and I don't recognize myself. I feel quite literally supported by the good friends who have emailed and texted to send their thoughts and love. So, yes, I'm not falling over, but I'm not okay. The only thought that helps a little bit when it's extra cold and I can't stop doing that special kind of sob that feels almost primal, it's so guttural and deep -- the only thing that helps a little bit is this incredibly vivid image I have of my dear friend Samantha tapping my arm and saying, "Sweetheart, it's okay. I'm fine and actually? This place is really neat!" This could be grief working its magic OR Samantha IS right there, in my ear, there but not. I'm putting stock in the latter because... how cool is that?

I'm helping to plan a party for Samantha on her birthday, December 28, at HUGE Theater. If you're in Minneapolis, stop by!

Wrapping this up for now. In the words of Samantha, how she ended every improv class, "Questions, comments, complaints? No? Praise and adoration!" <3

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Upturned ducks.

This doesn't go here. But I don't know where else to put it. Some would say it belongs in a private journal, but I don't really keep those. I'm a sharer, always have been.

My phone was ringing loudly on my nightstand, which was weird because the volume on my phone wasn't supposed to be all the way up, I hadn't set an alarm in hopes that I would sleep in and sleep off the end of my tonsillitis. But my phone was ringing loudly and I saw that it said "Mom" so I groggily swiped it and anticipated a short conversation in which I could say, "Remember? There's a time difference and I'm sick and I'm sleeping." Instead, my half-asleep greeting was cut off by panicked sobs on the other end, and a situation that had been familiarly disorienting suddenly twisted into a reality I didn't recognize at all and I just wish I had taken a second to wake up before I had all of the air knocked out of me.

Samantha Pereira died. I didn't think that's a phrase I'd know or say for a long, long, long time. But here we are -- it's 2015, and she was supposed to turn 47 in a few weeks, and we were supposed to get tres leches cake at Cafe Latte when I was home for Christmas, and we were supposed to finish a text conversation from two days ago where I sent her a picture of my tonsils and she sent a lot of alarmed emojis back.

She was one of my very best and oldest friends. She still is?

Dinner in Vegas last year, attempting a selfie

When I was 12, I watched too much "Saturday Night Live" and became fascinated with improv. My parents took me to see Stevie Ray's Improv in the Park -- a summer tradition in the Lake Harriet Rose Gardens, shortform improv over lav mics between two trees, for families on blankets. Samantha was hosting that day, as she often did -- with this effortless and genuine playfulness that simultaneously made an entire audience and a few nervous improvisers feel safe. I introduced myself after the show and she suggested I sign up for classes, that she would be teaching a new teen class in the fall. Did I know it was going to change my life? ...Actually? I kind of did. Because when you talked to Samantha about improv, there was a spark that made you know very certainly that improv was magic. SHE did that. She was the first person to tell me to "yes and" and listen. She taught me zip zap zop and 2-person scenes. She made me feel safe and okay when I wanted to throw up from nerves before my first show and she was the one to give me my first notes afterwards.

I know I'm not alone in this experience. While Samantha was a quick and masterful improviser, her greatest joy and proudest moments were as an improv teacher. There are so many Minneapolis improvisers -- at Stevie Ray's, and later at HUGE -- who walked into a classroom absolutely terrified and excited and sooo green and came out in love with improv magic. She met each student with a warm smile and twinkle in her eye. No one got to sit on the sidelines in Samantha's class. Everyone was present. Everyone was a genius.

I wonder how many servers at the various restaurants we brunched and drank at over the years signed up for a class? She sold every one of them on it by the end of our meals. I can hear her so clearly in my ear, "Take a class! You'd be fantastic."

Crock Pot

Samantha started as my improv teacher and biggest comedy advocate, and then she became one of my truest forever friends. We shared the stage together at the Bloomington Sheraton with Stevie Ray's. She was on my first "indie" improv team, Crock Pot (with the incomparable Maureen Tubbs and Cristi Rumpza). I remember our first run at Improv a Go-Go in the old Brave New Workshop space. As many Minneapolis improvisers know, winning those three consecutive Sunday slots in the IAGG lottery is a real treat, and we savored those opportunities. We were giddy to play and I don't know that three people have ever made me laugh so hard. Those IAGG sets were like getting on a rollercoaster -- fast, full of delight, and the blackout always came too soon.

At the Brave New Workshop

When I told her I wasn't going to go to my senior prom, and that I was going to come watch the Stevie Ray's improv show in my dress that night instead, she (along with Maureen) secretly planned Improm -- and there aren't enough positive adjectives in the English language for that night. Samantha picked me up in a limo and took me to a fancy dinner with Maureen and a few others, then brought me to the fully streamer-ed, glitter glue-decorated space where an unsuspecting audience and all of my improv friends were waiting to do a prom-themed improv show. Samantha was incredibly thoughtful and always up for something fun. That is what Improm was, totally and completely. When people do something like that for you when you're 16, it changes how you see friendship. If I'm a good friend now, it's because women like Samantha and Maureen taught me what friendship is -- in those grand moments like Improm and also in the 3am phone calls and birthday dinners and shoulder squeezes on the backline during tough improv sets.

Improm surprise

She was wise and dependable. She was firm and compassionate and her advice was somehow practical and whimsical at once. When I was 12 and I thought about the woman I wanted to become, it was Samantha. And now that I'm 27, that still holds true. She's still the woman I want to be, for 10 million reasons. I have a hard time understanding that she won't be a bridesmaid in my wedding and that she won't know my kids. She always joked (although she would claim she was serious) that whenever I got on "Saturday Night Live," all she wanted was for me to hold a cue card during the goodnights that said, "Hi Samantha!" I don't know about SNL, but I do know that she has and will continue to be in every script I write and every improv show I do. How could she not be?

Summer Sunday evenings were dedicated to Improv in the Park throughout high school and college, and Samantha and I would often spend those warm afternoons hanging out at the Rose Gardens after improv class. I used to have these little duck earrings, and Samantha would laugh every time they were upside down. "Sweetheart! Your ducks are upturned!" It stuck for years. "How are you doing?" "Oh, I've been better." "Oh no, upturned ducks?"

Well, gosh, Samantha, if my ducks aren't upturned now.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Aunt Shirley's Orange Jello "Salad"

Oof. It has been awhile and I'm truly sorry. I have been baking, and I have been writing, but the two haven't come together on this blog in quite some time. But I'm still here!

The holiday season is upon us and I! Am! Stoked! For some reason, I'm feeling extra festive this year -- I've got a jolly lil spring in my step, for better or worse. My roommates and I purchased a real, live tree! I'm gorging myself on holiday beverages from Starbucks! I'm sending over 70 handmade holiday cards! Could it be that I'm... procrastinating other projects? Oh, that's certainly part of it, but basically, the holiday spirit is IN me, and yes, it's nearly sexual.

I have many Christmas memories, and most involve visiting my grandparents in Chicago, which we did every year until they passed away. There was the year Santa gave me rollerblades, and I lost my goddamn mind -- the next several years were spent choreographing rollerblade routines to Shania Twain's B-side hit, "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under" in the garage, a song with a message I knew but didn't really KNOW, ya know? But not all Christmas memories are jolly -- like the one year in high school my mom's "big gift" to me was a blender, so that I could "make healthier choices for breakfast." :( :( :(

Another Christmas tradition the Schmidts had in common with many suburban Minneapolis families was the downtown Dayton's* 8th floor Christmas display. *For most of my childhood, it was Dayton's. Then, Marshall Fields. And by the time it was Macy's, we didn't go anymore.

Who remembers this??

Dayton's really knew how to put together a department store floor of pure magic. Every year, a different story would be told with elaborate props, animatronic figures, sound and music... it was a delight. They did Beauty and the Beast, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, other very memorable tales that I just can't remember right now... And maybe I'm only remembering it this way because I was a kid who didn't understand money, but I'm pretty sure it was free? How is that even possible? We'd wait in line with other families in strollers and coats before slowly snaking our way through the display, older kids pushing through the crowd to read the accompanying story placards aloud. There were probably at least 20 scenes to the story, each one intricately designed and aptly fantastical (sometimes terrifying -- I don't know that I've ever needed to see an animatronic Voldemort thrusting at me). And when you reached the end of the story, what was waiting for you (besides a gift shop, obviously)? SANTA. That's right, this whole enchanting scenario ended with 1-on-1, let's-get-down-to-business conversation with the big guy himself, where you could address your Christmas wants and get a picture, too.

I was 8 years old in this picture. God help me.

As if this night wasn't already the best thing to ever happen... you could wrap up your whole familial night-on-the-town with a HOLIDAY PARADE, right through the center of downtown, a real festival of lights called the Holidazzle. If your parents loved you, you wouldn't watch from the street, where it was often below zero and a frozen tundra nightmare. If your parents cared about you at all, you would watch the parade from above the riff-raff, like royalty, in the skyways. Skyways are what Minnesotans use to avoid exposure and frostbite when trying to simply move between buildings in the wintertime. They connect buildings downtown, about three floors up, and make it possible for you to seamlessly move across the whole neighborhood without ever going outside. Fun! Necessary! Winter is a scary time!

I've heard since Macy's moved in, the 8th floor holiday display isn't as magical. I think I'll skip it, lest it tarnish my good memories (of fighting with my sister over Santa's lap-space and being sweaty in snowpants).

Another tradition on the Schmidt side of the family is my aunt Shirley's orange jello, present for every family function, and eaten primarily by me. I made it for my friends-giving this year and it delicious, and again, eaten primarily by me. But it's so tasty! And jello is ALWAYS fun. Give this simple recipe a try the next time you need to attend a particularly Midwestern potluck -- it will always be welcome there, and probably called "salad."

Aunt Shirley's Orange Jello "Salad"

1 large box of orange-flavored gelatin
2 cups orange sherbet (just now learned there isn't another "r" in that word!)
Boiling water
2 cans of mandarin oranges, drained

Boil water according to the directions on the Jello box.
Whisk the gelatin powder and hot water together until well-mixed.
Add the sherbet and stir quickly until melted/fully combined.
Pour this mixture into whatever container you want the jello to live in. I used a traditional bundt pan, but I don't know that I'd recommend it. If you have a jello mold, that's obviously going to be your best and most fun bet.
Let sit for a few minutes until the mixture begins to solidify. Then, add the mandarin oranges and stir to ensure equal distribution.
Refrigerate for 4+ hours.
Some throw a whipped topping on there -- I don't. I don't think it needs it. This jello is delicious and I would eat it every day if I could.

Happy baking!