My Not-So-Secret Recipes

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I love reading about food, restaurants and recipes. I have a thick white binder stuffed with recipes I’ve clipped from magazines and newspapers or begged from friends and family. Most of them I’ll probably never make, but there are a few I go back to time and again. You can tell them by the yellowed paper they’re printed or written on and the splatters of overly enthusiastic stirring.

If you flip through the pages of this notebook, you may notice a skew toward baking, and two types of treats in particular: brownies and muffins. Although I love these freshly baked goodies as much (or more) than the next person, the abundance of brownie and muffin recipes isn’t so much because they’re my favorites as it is because it seems so hard to find a really great, foolproof recipe for either.

“This one looks really good, and pretty easy,” I’ll say to myself as I clip out yet another recipe. “This one never fails,” a friend assures me as she emails me her version. And yet the results are never as roll-up-your-eyes-and-slap-your-momma wonderful as I hoped.

Until now.

I’m going to share with you two nearly perfect recipes, one for brownies and one for apple-cinnamon muffins. You can thank me later.

Oh-my-goodness brownies

OK, this one is more advice than a recipe: If you need to bring a dish to a potluck, tailgate or holiday meal that people will rave over, make brownies. And use a boxed mix. Yes, you read that right. I’ve made many scratch versions over the years and there isn’t enough difference to make it worth the trouble. The secret is to not stop there. First, substitute Kahlua or Amaretto for half the water called for. You won’t taste the liqueur but the flavor will be subtly rich and decadent.

Then, make your own frosting. This makes all the difference in the world. That travesty in a can is the frosting equivalent of spray cheese. Never, I repeat never, use it. Making enough chocolate frosting for a pan of brownies takes about 3 minutes and 4 ingredients: butter or margarine, cocoa powder, powdered (aka confectioner’s) sugar and a little liquid, which can be water, milk, vanilla, coffee or the liqueur you used in the brownies. I don’t measure and the proportions are to taste depending on how sweet or dark you prefer it, but it’s roughly equal parts butter and cocoa powder, about two to four times that much sugar, and liquid to spreading consistency. For example, ¼ cup butter, ¼ cocoa, ½ cup to 1 cup sugar and a teaspoon to a tablespoon of liquid. Combine the butter and cocoa first, then gradually add the sugar, tasting as you go and alternating with a little liquid at a time to loosen it up.

This might sound tricky but it’s really not. Do it once or twice and you’ll be able to whip it up in your sleep (and you might find yourself dreaming about it, too). Get ready for ooh and aahs.

Oh, two more tips: Line your pan with foil with enough overhang on either side so you can lift the whole thing out and put it on a board to frost and cut. No more brownies stuck in the pan. And don’t overbake, unless you prefer dry, crumble brownies (if you do, you stopped reading this long ago). Test for doneness before the minimum baking time is up and keep testing until they’re just barely done.

Best-ever apple-cinnamon muffins

This recipe is a combination of a few I clipped, with modifications to make them easier for what I typically have on hand. I like these because they actually rise up like they’re supposed to and they’re not too sweet. They’re great for breakfast or with a cup of hot tea on a cold afternoon.

Combine in a large bowl:

  • 2 cups unsifted flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix in just until dry ingredients are combined:

  • ¾ cup milk (skim or low-fat is fine, even lactose-free)
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil (original recipe calls for melted butter or margarine but this is easier and works fine)
  • 1 egg

Gently stir in as many of these as you want:

  • 1 cup chopped apples (any kind, and no need to peel them)
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Line a 12-cup pan with paper liners and use an ice cream scoop sprayed with nonstick spray to fill each cup. Sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on top of each muffin. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Digging out of the Doldrums

By: Jeanne Reynolds

Sometimes it just all seems like too much.

Work projects I thought I had plenty of time to tackle are suddenly looming over me. I still haven’t painted the laundry room or cleaned out my closet. The pile of charity donations sits where I started it months ago. My office colleagues are quibbling and pulling me into the middle. A nagging hip injury caused me to miss a race for an important cause. My favorite football team lost. And I’m two days late turning in this blog post.

Yeah, I know, first world problems.

Still, all of us go through times when the stress of everyday life seems overwhelming. The list of things to get done grows faster than we can cross them off and molehill-size annoyances take on mountainous proportions.

As the joys – and chores, errands and demands – of the holiday season approach, this seems like a good time to remind myself of simple ways to keep perspective. Maybe some of these will work for you, too.

Take a deep breath. I recently started taking a weekly yoga class (see nagging hip injury above) and apparently, it’s all about breathing. It helps bring oxygen to your muscles and clears your mind. And it’s a concept I can use any time I feel things piling up around me. No stretchy pants required.

Get outside. I don’t know if it’s the aforementioned oxygen or just being surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation, but going for a run or walk, playing a round of golf or even picking up pine cones and sticks in the yard (talk about your never-ending task) never fails to help me change my focus.

Write it down. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer – and old-school, too – but the physical act of writing things down helps me feel better organized. I wrote back in August about how making a master list of everything you need to do creates some mental space and alleviates some of the pressure. If that doesn’t appeal to you, here’s another idea: Keep a running list of the blessings in your life. Jot one or more on your calendar each day, then go back at the end of the week, month or year and read them. This is something your whole family can do. Start now and share around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Start anywhere. Can’t face cleaning out the whole closet? Start with one shelf, one drawer or the shoe rack. The sense of accomplishment will feel great and may inspire you to tackle another piece of the project. I often use this strategy to overcome writer’s block. I just start keying in phrases, bullets or ideas, then go back and cobble them together into a cohesive whole.

Let it be. Sometimes the best thing to do is … nothing. Taking time to think through a problem before jumping in likely will lead to a better solution. Give yourself permission to procrastinate. It may be good for you. (Note to my editor: This is my excuse, I mean reason, for being late this time. Is it working?)

Pray. This one should be at the top of the list instead of the end. I don’t know why it’s one of the last things I think of. I rarely pray for a particular solution to a problem. Instead, my prayer takes the form of thankfulness for my blessings and for knowing God is always there for me. It’s a reminder that no amount of list-making or closet-cleaning means I’m really in control. And thank goodness for that.

How to Make Instagram Instantly Better

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I am not a social media maven. No, let’s be honest: I don’t even like social media. I just don’t see the fascination of wasting hours trolling through tweets or tracking someone’s every movement on Facebook. (Fair disclosure: I have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, but only because I need them in my work.)

This blog and an Instagram account are as adventurous as I get in social media, and the Instagram account only came about more or less by accident. A conference I went to offered a drawing prize for attendees who posted throughout the event using its hashtag. I’d heard of Instagram but didn’t know much about it or why anyone would want to use it. But with that prize dangling in front of me — and a long trip with time to kill — I downloaded the app and taught myself how to use it.

Well, guess what? It was a ton o’ fun, and so simple even I could get the hang of it quickly. Just take a picture, type a short phrase about it, toss in a few hashtags and click share. I don’t have a lot of followers (you can be one: search for @jeannedreynolds) nor do I follow many people, but I have been able to connect with one or two long-lost friends and gained some insight into the personal lives of some of the creative, caring and really cool people I work with.

But — you knew there was a but coming, right? — the more experience I have with Instagram, the more posts I see that are, well, kind of annoying. Here, then, are my gentle suggestions for making the most of your Instagram posts:

  1. Post a picture of someone besides yourself. Of course I like you or I wouldn’t be following you, but your constant stream of selfies comes across a bit self-centered.
  2. Less is more. If you need to write a paragraph to explain your pix, try another social media platform. Don’t make me hit the “more” button and scroll, scroll, scroll to read your entire thought.
  3. Less is more, part B: Enough with the hashtags. I’ve read that posts with multiple hashtags are more widely viewed, but viewed by whom? Do you really care if you reach a tattoo artist in Alaska with your personal views? Two or three is plenty.
  4. Let’s see some variety. There’s one co-worker who I like and admire deeply, but 90% of her posts involve her drinking champagne, or her and her friends drinking champagne, or just two glasses of champagne by themselves. Two family members post mostly photos or videos of each other making puppy eyes or looking soulfully into the distance. OK, they’re somewhat newlyweds, but still.
  5. Save the sap. Related to #4, please save the long, heartfelt confessions of true love for your Valentine’s Day card. This person is a lot of fun to be around and has changed your life for the better, check. Ooey-gooey hearts and doves, check out.

If you haven’t tried Instagram yet, take a look at it. It’s a fast and simple way to vicariously share travel, meals, holidays and everyday adventures with your family and friends. Like me, you’ll probably gain new insights into how they think and feel and a new appreciation for how multifaceted each of us is.

It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. Just be sure you’re only using a fraction of that on Instagram.

Hurricanes, Peanuts and Marriage

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I spent nearly all of last Friday doing one of two things: riding in a car in highway traffic clogged with hurricane evacuees, and dragging furniture and plywood around trying to prepare our home on Cat Island near Beaufort for an unruly and unwelcome guest named Irma.

I don’t know which was less fun. The seemingly simple system our builder created for storm prep — numbered sheets of plywood with a map of where each piece goes, predrilled to fit bolts permanently in place on each window — turned out to be poorly engineered. Many of the pieces weren’t drilled at all, or the drill holes didn’t line up with the bolts. And more than half the windows and doors lacked the bolts needed to attach the plywood anyway.

After about five hours of hard physical labor — including a costly trip to the hardware store to buy an electric drill and extension cord — we decided we’d done the best we could. We emptied the refrigerator and freezer, held hands to pray and joined the queue of cars leaving the coast.

Seeing on the Department of Transportation app that I-95 was a parking lot, we stuck to the backroads from Yemassee to Sandy Run. If you’ve never taken Highway 21 on that route, try it sometime. Keep an eye out for Benton’s Peanut Farm shop at Sniders Crossroads (Highway 63), where you’ll find some of the best boiled peanuts anywhere. (If you read my last post, you know I detest boiled peanuts but I was a passenger and the driver gets to decide where to stop, along with which radio station to listen to.)

The next day we were back in the car, heading to the upstate for a football game on an incredibly beautiful early fall morning. By then it was fairly certain Irma had changed her plans and was heading farther west, with outer bands trailing over South Carolina. Although the impact of storm surge was still uncertain, it looked like — plywood or not — we’d be spared the worst.

Was Friday a waste of time, money and stress? I don’t think so. For one thing, we learned the gaps in our home protection system and can get them corrected before the next time — and there will be a next time, sooner or later.

I also enjoyed the luxury of spending a whole day with my beloved, working as a team to accomplish a common goal. Admittedly, the circumstances weren’t ideal, but isn’t that what marriage is about? We pledged for better or worse. And it could have been much, much worse.

Thoughts and prayers to our neighbors in Florida, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere dealing with nature’s fury or its aftermath this week.

Yuck! Southern Foods I Just Can’t Get the Taste Of

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I love food.

I love to make it, plan it, read about it and think about it. The Food Network is practically the only TV station I watch. (Fortunately, I also love to run or I’d have a big problem … and I do mean big.)

But that doesn’t mean I love all foods. In fact, there are some I’d rather go hungry than eat. I’m not talking about the stuff hardly anybody likes. I mean, if you really like liver, that’s fine, but please just keep it to yourself. I’m talking about popular, traditional, mainstream dishes my family and friends profess to love. And they’re aghast that I don’t share their tastes.

So here, at the risk of starting a second civil war, is my list of foods I just can’t learn to love even after living more than 40 years below the Mason-Dixon Line:

  • Boiled peanuts. Mushy with little taste other than salt. Give me a paper sack of nice roasted peanuts any day. Or a jar of peanut butter (not so handy for tailgating, though).
  • Pimento cheese. What a waste of perfectly good cheddar. The only exception I’d make is DiPrato’s sharp white pimento cheese. The smoked gouda with bacon might be OK, too, but I haven’t tried it yet.
  • Pepper jelly. One word says it all: why? If you want something spicy, have a pepper. If you want something sweet, have some jelly. Don’t try to cram them together into one item. Even pouring it over cream cheese doesn’t cut it. Here again, you’ve ruined some perfectly good cheese.
  • Beets. Maybe it’s the color. Maybe it’s the texture. Maybe I’ll pass (make that definitely).
  • Rice Krispie treats. “Treat” is quite the misnomer. What’s in those things, marshmallow fluff and Karo syrup? Oh, no, I see online it’s butter instead of Karo. Still, there are tastier ways to remove your fillings.
  • Pecan pie. If you were getting all indignant that Rice Krispie treats aren’t Southern and don’t belong on this list, then this Bud’s for you. Too sticky, too sweet. Don’t bother trying to juice it up with bourbon or chocolate. Can I please just have a small dish of pecans? I’ll take the bourbon and chocolate on the side.

The list could go on, but I don’t want you to leave thinking I’m a hater. Fresh sweet corn, vine-ripened tomatoes, the occasional piece of super-crispy fried chicken, perfectly seasoned collards (on holidays), locally caught shrimp (in or out of a Beaufort stew), homemade peach ice cream … there’s lots to love in our neck of the woods. God willing, it keeps coming.

But please, God, keep the boiled peanuts.

Making a List and Checking It Twice

By: Jeanne Reynolds

We recently had the inside of our home painted. When it came to the dining room, the project developed long tentacles: I had to move furniture away from the walls, which meant I had to empty said furniture of 20-plus years of accumulation, which then had to be sorted into keep/share/donate/discard piles and moved to other places … well, you get the idea.

When the work was finally done, the mess and stress was well worth it to have not only clean, bright walls and woodwork but also freshly organized shelves and drawers of only (well, mostly) those items we use and love. The room doesn’t just look better – it works better. And even beyond the physical benefits, the room just feels more peaceful and inviting.

The other day I read an article about applying this same decluttering power to your mental space. I find it hard to relax when my head is whirling with thoughts about what I really should be doing. At really busy times – around the holidays, or preparing for a vacation, for instance – I can become nearly paralyzed with plans and end up procrastinating, getting almost nothing done.

If you’re a list-maker like me, this simple mental decluttering concept will be almost-maybe fun. If you’re not, give it a try anyway. You might be surprised.

Just like a thorough closet cleaning, it begins with emptying out. This goes way beyond your basic daily or weekly to-do list. Make a list of everything – and I mean everything — you need to do: today, tomorrow, this week, this year or next, at home, at work, for family, for friends. Include things you want to do and things you think you should do and things you’d like to do someday. Don’t judge or edit. If it pops into your head, write it down. The idea is to get all the mental clutter out of your head and onto a list.

Next, organize your list. Create categories that make sense for you: personal or business, immediate or longer term, must-dos or bucket list. Put each item in its category. Prioritize the items if you want with numbers, stars or colors.

This list isn’t meant to be static, by the way. Add to it as you think of new things. For me, just the act of creating the list got my mind churning with even more things to put on it. For this reason – as well as the flexibility of reprioritizing – you might want to keep your list digitally.

Now, the really fun part is crossing off items as you complete them. Looking at that marked-up list visually shouting at you, “Done! Done! Done!” feels as good as looking at – gasp – extra shelf space after dropping off that donation of household items you’ve been hoarding for years.

Without the tax deduction, of course.

When Did “Customer Service” Become an Oxymoron?

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I’m trapped in my own home.

I’m a prisoner of our internet provider. “Provider” is a bit of a misnomer, however, because no service is being provided, and hasn’t for a month or so. For the second time in as many weeks, I’ve waited four hours for a technician who never arrived. (Now, almost three hours past the promised appointment window, he’s allegedly on his way. I’ll let you know how that works out.)

Numerous calls, emails and online chats with the customer service department have only increased our frustration. I’m talking service reps for whom English is obviously a skill still in the works and who are apparently reading from a script (“How to Deal with Irate Customers 101,” perhaps), conflicting information and even “alternate facts” (Them: “Our records show the work was completed and technician signed the paperwork.” Us: “That’s funny because I sat here for four hours and no one came.”). I’d like to rip the whole thing out and set it afire on the company’s front doorstep — except there is no other provider where we live. So we grumble and gnash our teeth and battle on.

But why should we have to do that? Why is it so hard to get good customer service these days?

And it’s not just these guys. We all have horror stories of clothes returned from the dry cleaners with missing buttons (or missing completely), hopelessly confusing cable bills, surly store clerks and contractors who won’t return calls. I don’t think it’s asking too much for a company to do what it says it’ll do, when it says it’ll do it, or call and explain what’s going on. Give me a smile and a “thanks” and I’m over the moon. It’s why I shop at Publix and Lands End, and would rather pay more at Chick-fil-A than patronize the McCompetition.

And don’t get me started on companies that only seem to value new customers. Case in point: I’ve paid my newspaper subscription bill on time without fail for the past 20 years. My loyalty is now being rewarded by refusing me the deep discount offered to new subscribers. Is it any wonder fewer people are subscribing to the paper these days?

I really think the problem starts as the top. If excellent service isn’t a priority for a company, part of its culture and emphasized to every employee repeatedly, it’s not going to happen. If a company has a monopoly, like my internet company, it might get away with haphazard service for a while. But it’s a pretty risky business strategy in the era of Twitter and Facebook. Not to mention eager entrepreneurs looking for an edge.

It’s not my style to take to social media to vent. I’d much rather talk to a human being and try to resolve the problem. But hey, I’m getting desperate here. If the internet company isn’t listening to me, at least I can make sure plenty of other people know about it with a few clicks … that is, assuming I ever get internet service.