Finding Gentleness

(The scene: Starbucks. 5pm. My 13-year-old son and I are set up with laptops, editing a shared Google document that contains his upcoming speech. In typical just-became-a-teenager mode, he has zero…zero…attention span at present.)

Me: We’ve been here for an hour and you haven’t finished this speech. Come on buddy.

Son: (types two words. Picks up a pencil to read “Ticonderoga” carved into its side and sets it back down. Types something else. I look at my screen and he’s just sent me two emoges. He looks across the table at me and smiles.)

Me: Seriously. I’m starting to get irritated. I need to get home to make dinner.

Son: Mom, I’m trying to think. I really am! Ok, I’ll try to hurry.

(Minutes pass. Nothing is added to the speech).

Me: This is ridiculous. Can you please just finish this? Why do you keep looking everywhere but the computer screen? Can’t you just focus? (This is somewhat of a rhetorical question.)

Son: (smiles and then types on his computer keyboard. The message pops up on my screen: “I don’t think so”)

Me: I sigh, pack up my things and tell him with my “I’m over it” mom eyes, “It’s time to hit the road.”


A dictionary would describe it as ‘a person of mild temperament or behavior. Moderate in action, effect, or degree; not harsh or severe.” I would describe it as something I think I lose a little more each day.

And I’m desperately trying to get it back.

Writer Mary Ann Becklenberg said this: we are short on others because we are frustrated with ourselves. And reading that was like having a cast iron skillet smack me in the face. Holy shit that hurt.

It’s never easy to be confronted with a shortcoming. It’s even harder when our own conscience is the one doing the dirty work.

When I reflect on that interaction with my son, I could easily justify my frustration. He was disregarding my (justifiable) prodding. And I did have good reason to be frustrated, feeling the urgency to cook, feed and clean-up before bedtimes.

But what bothered me most about that hour at Starbucks (and too many more like it) is that really I wanted to do a Homer Simpson strangle on my Bart. Internally, I was anything but gentle in spirit. And although outwardly I think I passed the test of displaying some level of gentleness, the irritation of my heart, mind and spirit told the real story.

Kind, tender, sympathetic, considerate, understanding, compassionate, benevolent, good-natured. These attributes are what I want to know myself for. I have them in doses, at times. But I want them, in larger doses, to reside throughout every molecule of my being.

Is there anything stronger than possessing gentleness? To do so is to have character that is consistent, reliable, and steady. A weak person cannot do that. Leo Rosten goes as far as to say, “Gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.”

I have a small, but ever-growing, list of people I admire. A few are bold. Adventurous. Risk-takers. Achievers. Leaders. Others are what most would consider to be quite ordinary. Predictable. Mundane, even. I began writing out their characteristics a few months ago --- what was it I really admired in these people? The common denominator was gentleness.

Paul Newman has been my lifelong crush. No brainer. Those eyes. Lawd. His smile? Get outta town. I’ve watched old interviews he’s given. He always avoided reactionary responses to questions. Instead, you could almost see the mental step-back as he answered thoughtfully, gently, and with wisdom. Not sarcasm, brashness or flippancy. And yet, Mr. Newman – in all that blue-eyed glory- was a competitive racecar driver and swore like a sailor. (Newsflash: Embodying gentleness of spirit doesn’t mean you forgo your spunk.)

So how do I embody more of it? In a daily routine of deadlines, demands (both self-inflicted and otherwise), travels, speeches and chasing dreams, how do I ease my soul back towards gentleness of spirit? I listened to a podcast recently with a Hebrew professor talking about repentance. The interviewer asked, “Isn’t repentance about making an abrupt change…the 180 degree turn?” In my previous spiritual readings I have always been led to believe this, so I was nodding my head in agreement as she asked the question. His response surprised me. In essence he said, “Any slight turn in the right direction will get you to a different destination.”

Yes. Yes!
Baby steps.
Striving for improvement, not perfection.

My first baby step back towards a gentle spirit is learning to be gentle with myself. Referencing back to Becklenberg’s quote, I totally resonate with the truth that I lose gentleness because internally my spirit is spinning. Being gentle with myself is requiring me to let go of some expectations. Whether it’s to have dinner on the table within a certain hour, have a proposal arrive in someone’s inbox ahead of schedule (I error on the side of overachieving), make huge decisions that I’ve let sit on the backburner, or reading my kids a book before bed each night, I need to just chill the heck out on myself.

“How terribly hard many of us are on ourselves. Our reactions, and manner of response, to our unpleasant circumstances so often result in self-punishment administered in creatively cruel ways.

And to what degree is the management of our situations based upon an inability to lower self-expectations, as well as the pervasive fear of losing ourselves?”

Mary Ann Becklenberg

My second baby step towards gentleness is letting go. It’s the only way to truly free myself from that internal spinning.

When my jeans won’t button….let it go. (Hard one.)
When my business meeting gets cancelled 15 minutes before….let it go.
When my husband checks his phone in the middle of my story….let it go. (Verges on impossible.)
When my idea is claimed by another….let it go.
When the cookies get over baked…let it go.
When the coffee shops blares b-side 70’s rock tracks at 6am…let it go.

When I can start letting things go, then these daily frustrations however miniscule they may be, no longer own me. They no longer reside in my belly to fester and then bubble up to a moment of unreasonable irritability towards another.

I want to start moving to a place of choice. To have the insight to see the implications and consequences of all of my actions. And reactions. Not giving over to the angsty feeling that arises because I feel I’m missing the mark.

Most people, including myself, haven’t always been surrounded by gentleness. Which makes its power even more visible when it’s present. Every day I’m turning my radius just a bit more in the direction it needs to be headed. Just don’t ask me about it when the third batch of cookies has burned. I’m nowhere close to that kind of sainthood.


For You, Sweets { Baked Goods That Benefit}

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In return, you'll be getting a downloadable cookbooklet of Art of Homemaking recipes.
Click the link or the picture, watch the video, and donate what you can.


The Best Ohio Sugar Cookie; Hello Cheryl's Cookies Copycat Recipe

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and when I was young, it was a treat to get a Cheryl's Cookie. A couple of decades ago (ahem), walking into a Cheryl's storefront was pretty much like walking into Santa's workshop. The smell was better than any Yankee Candle you'll ever put your nose to. And the long, glass case housed the richest, buttery sugar cookies imaginable. I've been to bakeries from NYC to Paris and have never tasted anything that comes close.
Cheryl sold her company a few years back for alotta moolah. I interviewed her for the magazine once...she's a dynamo businesswoman. Goddess status, in my book.  The company has grown a ton after the sale, but its all different now. No storefronts with bakers smearing thick layers of frosting on cooled sugary disks. Everything now is pre-packaged. Which, for this nostalgic girl, is rather heartbreaking.

Recently I bought our first cookie jar. I have no clue why it took over 15 years, but it did. And because there is now a cookie jar, there is also now a weekly cookie at The Smith Homestead.

This week is my attempt at a traditional Cheryl's sugar cookie. Simple ingredients and method, with stellar results. Make this recipe your own! Its so flipping versatile. Add nuts or zest. Peppermint oil or rose water. Shove the dough in your cookie press and make fancy designs. Get the kids involved. Give them as gifts in a couple of months. You get the idea.

As for me, I'll be keeping it simple and channeling some of those memories of childhood. And getting a massive sugar fix.

Cheryl's Cookies Copycat Recipe

For the cookie:
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 3cup sugar
  • egg
  • 1teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1teaspoon salt

In mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and sugar. Add egg, vanilla; mix well. Combine flour, baking powder and salt; add to creamed mixture and mix well.
Form cookies by measuring ¼ cup of batter into the palm of your hand. Shape into a round disk that is approx. ½ inch thick. Place onto ungreased cookie sheets. Alternatively, you can roll out the dough and use a cookie cutter.  Bake at 375 degrees for 6-8 minutes or until set, not brown. Do not over bake! Cool on wire racks.

For the frosting:
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2T butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or other flavoring extract
  • 2 1/2 – 3 tablespoons milk or water
  • Food coloring, optional

Beat together softened butter, vanilla. Slowly add 2 cups powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Add milk and beat until smooth. At this point you could add food coloring. I prefer not to….but across the board I have a pretty strong affinity for neutral colors. Baked goods included. 


Apfelstrudel - Traditional Apple Strudel (with photo tutorial)

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels…

I’ve never given much consideration to cream colored ponies. But strudels are a different story. Especially after spending time in the narrow brick lined corridors that make up Vienna’s city center.
Strudel is everywhere in that part of the world. From Hungary to Slovakia and Germany, this pulled-dough pastry can be found, filled with everything from apples to curded cheese, poppy seeds and cherries. I came home from that trip (happily) five pounds heavier and ready to govern a strudel super-pack.

This weekend, the weather changed. And my heart leaped like it has since I was a little girl. Because autumn, as it is for many of us, is my favorite season. It is, perhaps, what deep down I hope heaven will be like; knitted scarves, the babbled tones of game-day football commentators coming from the TV in the next room over, copious amounts of apple cider in pottery mugs, apple picking, bowls of chili, picnics on quilts (I argue that picnics are meant for fall, not summer), boots caked in mud and leaves after a strenuous hike, and…of course…baking.

There are more than a few strudel tutorials floating around cyberspace and sitting on library bookshelves. I did my research, jotted notes from Google translated websites, and landed on the recipe below. A blend of three strudel variations that seemed to need some overlapping on each other.

Don’t be intimidated by what you are about to see. It’s harmless. Enjoyable, in fact.

It’s definitely doable by your lonesome, but it’s more fun with someone else. I happen to have a dashing 12 year old chef as a son…lucky me. 

Apfelstrudel (Traditional Apple Strudel) 


15 ounces (3 cups) all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur Flour for this recipe) pinch of salt 2 eggs, room temperature 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 6 ounces (3/4 cup) milk, room temperature

1 stick melted butter

Apple Filling:

2 lb apples (I used Gala)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup fine bread crumbs (I made my own from a few slices of rustic loaf bread)
1 Tbsp cinnamon
raisins, dried fruit, optional, to taste

1. Melt the butter in over low heat until melted through

2. For the pulling of the dough, you need a large table. Spread a clean tablecloth over the table or kitchen island. Flour the cloth (lightly) and turn the dough from the bowl in which it was resting, out onto the center.  With a floured rolling pin roll it out long and narrow, as much as possible. This should be easy to do and the dough should be soft and supple. Brush the dough evenly with melted butter


3. Now it is time to begin stretching and pulling the dough. Lift and stretch the dough to about double its size. This takes time. No need to rush it – try treating it as an active meditation time.

4. The dough should be thin enough to read a page through. 

5. Lift and stretch the dough (including the middle) until it hangs over all the sides. When finished stretching, remove the thickened edge by rolling it on a hand as it is torn off.

6. Brush the dough evenly with melted butter.

7. On one end of the long edge (about 6-10 inches from the edge), sprinkle with the bread crumbs, then mix the sugar, apples, raisins (if using) and cinnamon in a bowl and pile it, as shown, on your stretched dough.

8. Fold the dough over by lifting the cloth and quickly flipping the dough over onto itself.  Roll up the dough by grabbing the cloth on both ends of the filled side and lifting it so that the strudel rolls gently. 

9. Lift the roll in an S shape into a buttered pan (I buttered parchment paper). 

10. Brush the strudel with melted butter. Bake in a pre-heated 400F oven for about 10 minutes, then lower temperature to 350F. Bake until light brown for approximately another 25-35 minutes.

10. Let the strudel cool a bit before cutting it into pieces. Best served when still warm from the oven. Can be frozen and reheated.

11. Gift to friends 


*For full recipe, without photos, for printing continue on here*

Plum Crumble with Vanilla Coconut 'Cream" (Dairy, Refined Sugar and Flour Free)

I have a sweet tooth. It's a manageable one (most days). Usually just a nibble of something sugary at the tail end of a meal is good enough, with no need for secret candy drawers in the studio or late night ice cream binges (although I have considered taking up that practice).

At any rate, I think dessert is a treat we should enjoy regularly. Daily, in fact.

And there went any future I may have had as a nutritionist....

I bought a big heaping pile of plums not too long ago. Some were put in lunch boxes (not sure if they were eaten by the three little bears...I prefer they just not tell me as I also believe ignorance is bliss.) Some were quartered and put on the charcuterie board Mike and I like to construct a couple of times a week (pre-dinner snacks aren't just for kids) and the rest were sitting in a bowl on the butcher block counter - gathering a small contingent of fruit flies.

With a mid-day break at the studio, the usual itch to bake and a fruit fly issue beginning to unfold (there were only like 2 of tolerance is low), I crafted this little diddy. Its actually healthy, which wasn't necessarily my goal. But its so, so, so doable to make healthy desserts that actually taste spectacular, that I find myself doing it without intention.

A word of caution... there may be ingredients listed here that you don't already have. And it may deter you and you will think I'm daft for asking you to consider buying these things for a plum crumble. But before you discount it, let me say that if you don't already have these ingredients, you should consider having them. They are pantry staples for both savory and sweet good-for-you cooking. Most (all) of this should be easy to find. I'll put in notation where I bought stuff and hopefully you have one close. xo

Also another note: This recipe is for a small batch. You can up the quantities for a larger portion. You also don't have to use the ramekins I'm using (pictured). This recipe, as are most of the recipes I develop, are super flexible. I prefer to give common sense instructions that can be manipulated and customized.

*Coconut sugar retains quite a bit more nutrients than refined sugar. Stuff like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium and has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar. I buy mine at Trader Joes.

Plum Crumble with Vanilla Coconut "Cream"

4-5 small, ripe plums
3T coconut sugar (you could substitute honey, agave, Splenda. You can also add more sweetener if the plums are sour or under ripe. Adjust levels to your taste     preferences (I like my fruit desserts a bit tart.)

Cut the plums into bite sized chunks. I like some variation in sizing of mine so I tend to have some larger bits and some smaller ones. Mix with the coconut sugar and set aside.

1 Cup Old Fashioned Oats
1 Cup Almonds (preferably raw)
1/4 Cup Coconut Manna (essentially coconut butter. Could also substitute with a good quality coconut oil or even olive oil. Coconut Manna can be found at most health food stores or on Amazon.)

Pulse the almonds in a food processor, a blender or go to town with a sharp knife on a cutting board. Get the almonds to a coarse chop and add the oats, continuing to pulse/chop until you get a good looking 'crumb' for the crumble. The coconut manna is a bit like a hard butter. So it needs to be worked in with you fingertips to make a nice crumb topping for your plums. If you don't have/don't want to get coconut manna (butter), then opt for a binder like olive oil. Taste the crumble and see if you might want to add a bit of the coconut sugar to it. I like to sprinkle a bit of salt into mine. Key here is taste, taste, taste. Let your taste buds help you become a chef!

Divide the plums into small ramekins or any sort of baking dish (ceramic or glass is ideal). Sprinkle the crumb topping over the plums. At this point, you can bake. Or you can wrap your little plum crumble in some saran wrap and store it for a later time. Waiting a few hours gives your plums even more time to soften and sweeten, but obviously, instant gratification is pretty remarkable too.

Baking time is going to range between 35-45 minutes at a temperature of 375 degrees. Keep an eye on it and if you get to the 45 minutes mark and want to see some more browning and bubbling on your crisp...then keep it going a bit longer.

Vanilla Coconut "Cream"

1 Can Coconut Milk
1 Vanilla bean pod (or 1 T vanilla extract)
4 T Coconut Sugar
1 T Cornstarch mixed to a slurry in water

Simmer the coconut milk in a small saucepan until it begins to simmer. Add the coconut sugar and then the cornstarch slurry and whisk to fully incorporate into the coconut milk. Continue to simmer/gently boil the coconut milk until it thickens. If its not thick enough for your liking as a cream sauce, make another small batch of cornstarch slurry and add, simmer, wait, assess. Once the 'cream' is looking lusciously pourable, turn off the heat and add the vanilla. Taste. Thoughts? More sweet? More vanilla? A hit of salt? Again, this is your dessert - so make your tastebuds sing.

When the crumble is browned and the cream is thickened, its time to get those two married on a plate. Both components do really well in the fridge and devoured over the course of a few days afterwards.

bon app├ętit!


And He's Off...

My littlest one started kindergarten last week. He's the one that's almost single-handedly carried Mike and I through some tough stuff over the past three years with his ability to find humor in literally everything. Nothing gets him jazzed more than making us laugh...which isn't hard. This dude is funny.

So off to kindergarten he went on Friday. I cried more than I thought I would. Wasn't nearly as prepared for the final send-off as I imagined I'd be.

The day before school started, Otto and I drove some old country roads. He fell asleep in the car on the way and when he woke up, we were in the woods, off to hike and paint. Then there was ice cream and doughnuts before heading back to the Smith Homestead to brag...of course... to the brothers about the adventure.

The last two pictures are to be credited to Otto Rockand Smith, who takes pictures whenever, wherever he can.