The Deep Roots of Family

Three generations- From L to R, Grandmother Katherine, Granddaughter Michelene, Great Granddaughter Penelope Katherine
Three generations- From L to R, My mother Katherine, My daughter Michelene, My granddaughter Penelope Katherine at one month of age.

“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”
Anne Lamott

I am the sum total of the generations before me. My grandparents, mother, father, and relations even beyond them, reaching far into the history of Greece and Turkey are part of me. The personalities and mannerisms that I have about me, no doubt are deeply rooted. I’m sure I do things my ancestors did without even being aware of it.

When I was little, I would spend three or four summer weeks at my Yiayia’s house in Stockdale, Pennsylvania. My dad used to say that the biggest excitement in town was going down to the gas station and jumping on the bell. 🙂 That may have been true but yiayia’s house was my second home.

These roses are just like my yiayia’s.

My grandmother had a trellis of pink tea roses that grew wildly in the summer. I was so attracted to them that to this day, I am crazy about roses. Yiayia would take the rose petals and a recipe she had from her homeland of Chios, Greece and make rose jelly. I have no idea the type of rose she had or the recipe but someday I am going to figure it out.

Beautiful Gardenia
Beautiful Gardenia

My grandfather (Papou) planted a big garden, filled with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Put those together in a bowl, add a bit of feta cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar and you have an amazing salad. Papou had the biggest, healthiest gardenia plant I have ever seen. As he aged, he would hum to himself and clean the leaves with a Q-tip. I am deeply attracted to gardenias and wore one on my wrist for my 25th anniversary.

I married my husband partly because when he drove me up the driveway to the family homestead, there was a huge field next to the house, surrounded by woods. I’ve been a nature girl my whole life and that stuck with me. We’ve planted a garden pretty much every year we’ve been married. We grow tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. I love my backyard and it is an endless source of calm for me. In the morning, I can walk outside in my jammies and not worry about a next door neighbor.

My daughter Michelene is an even bigger nature girl. She has planted dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, dried the seeds, and used them for new plantings. Her yard is huge and she always has something going on- canning fresh applesauce, making homemade sauce, or raising her first batch of baby chicks. Beekeeping is something Michelene does with her dad; check out her first Beefuddled Farms blog post HERE.

Me and Penelope
Me and Penelope

My son John and his partner Jessica are amazing cooks. When I go and watch Penelope, there is always something creative in the fridge. This past week it was pizza and the crust was made with spaghetti squash (no kidding). It was amazing. Penelope is going to have quite a palate I am sure.

As a family we embrace traditional foods but also look for new ways to enjoy healthy choices. I love how John experiments with avocados, squashes and cauliflower and creates delicious wonders. Then of course, there’s always a square of good dark chocolate for dessert. We love that.

Last year for Mother’s Day, I made a nice dinner and invited everyone over. For a take home gift, I had little pots of fresh herbs to choose from- basil, rosemary, or parsley. Every year I grow a giant basil plant for a big Orthodox holiday in September. Michelene and John chose basil as their plant to take home. I was proud of that.

My prize basil plant

If we look deep enough, we will find clues to what makes up all those amazing parts of us. The combination of ancestry and influences are who we are inside. We can certainly change those things that no longer serve us and in the process, some really good stuff will come bubbling up. Scrap away the fluff (as Pooh would call it) and find your beauty within.

What did you like to do as a child? I’ve read this recently and have tried to go back to it. I loved to jump rope, color, be creative, and be outside. Those are the things I’m trying to embrace as often as I can. (Well, I admit I have yet to buy a jump rope!)

Happy Earth Day!
Know you are beautiful inside and out.

My book, Ordinary Is Extraordinary, is available on Barnes and Noble Nook now! Click HERE for the link. To order from Amazon, click on the book to the right of this post (on the sidebar). I have some good “book” stories to tell you about next time we chat. 🙂

Happy Easter, Kali Anastasi, to my Orthodox Christian friends! For my latest post on the Orthodox Christian Network click HERE.











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The Treasures of Christmas

Poinsettia 3
Janoski’s Poinsettias- So Beautiful

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

So here we are in the “in between” week, the week between Christmas and New Year’s that gives us a chance to catch our breath. It’s a good time for rest, relaxation, and yes, reflection. Maybe you’re with family, friends, and your children. Maybe you have time off from work and are taking a well deserved break.

I did a lot of entertaining the last few days. My cousins are here from New York, my sisters are both in, and my (soon to be born) granddaughter’s other grandma made a visit to Pittsburgh to spend Christmas with us. Talk about blessings. Jess’ mom Ann brought me this oh-so-cool gift of special M&M’s with my son and Jessica’s picture on them (no kidding). They were even in this box with little feet on them.

Holiday M&M's
Is This Adorable or What?

I am looking forward to getting to know Ann and Jessica’s family better in the coming years. A new child is so bonding and we will all have Penelope’s best interests at heart as we go forward. She is due on January 9, 2016 (my son’s 30th birthday ironically) but really, she could come at any time. We are anxiously awaiting her arrival.

What are the treasures of Christmas for me this year? It was quality time with my husband’s family on Christmas Eve. Then Christmas Day with my kids, cousins, sister and husband, Jessica and Ann, and especially another holiday with my mom. She never fails to keep up with it all, staying up late, getting up early, and always ready for whatever we want to do. I tease her about the planning we do- the food briefings for Christmas were months ago- but it’s all in jest. Really, her entertaining skills were my basis for what I do today. 🙂

The true treasure was keeping the origin of Christmas in my heart despite the rush and commercial tugs of the holiday. It was about coming back to center, recognizing and honoring what this holiday truly means. I wrote a post about the Navitiy icon for the Orthodox Christian Network and it was even an education for me. That is the great thing about writing for them. I learn in the process too.

I want to wish you a very happy New Year and thank you for all your love and support this year. I am truly blessed with such a beautiful group of family and friends. It makes my life so rich.

Christmas Morning 2015
Sunrise Christmas Morning 2015


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Halloween Traditions

Gavin and his Pumpkin
Gavin and his Pumpkin

“Tis the night—the night
Of the grave’s delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without,
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they—it is they!”
Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Halloween: A Romaunt

Are you ready for Halloween? Chances are, you have plans this evening. You may have a party to go to or maybe you’ve already been to one? Maybe you’ve carved a pumpkin and roasted the seeds? 🙂

This past Thursday, we did what we have done for years. We made our way to my mother’s house for our traditional Halloween dinner. There were seven of us this year for her famous pastichio and salad. Jim and I, Michelene and her boyfriend John, Aunt Joy and Gavin- all at grandma’s house.

This has been a tradition of ours for at least thirty years. Since we live at the end of a short lane, I took my own children, and then my grandson to my mom’s. She still lives in the neighborhood I grew up in with lots of houses and even some of the same neighbors. I felt very safe taking my kids trick or treating there for years. When Gavin was born, we did the same thing with him.

Mom makes us dinner (she’s 86 now) and afterwards we hand out candy. I thought about taking some pictures of the kids for this story but I worry about their privacy. So you will have to be happy with this one picture I found from the past. It’s Michelene and her cousins. She loved to dress up as a black cat.

Michelene, Jerra, and Daniel
Michelene, Jerra, and Daniel

One tradition Michelene had with her son Gavin was the yearly carving of a pumpkin. Every year it was a different carving and over time she came up with some pretty good ones. Gavin is now fourteen years old. It’s hard to believe time has gone by so fast.

Gavin loved to carve pumpkins!
Gavin loved to carve pumpkins!

For years we also went to Hozak’s Farm at least one Saturday in October. We would pick out a pumpkin, enjoy hot apple cider, and look at all the Halloween decorations. It’s a great farm with hay rides and beautiful scenery.

Michelene, her friend Joyce, and John
Michelene, her friend Joyce, and John

I’d love to know what you do for Halloween. If you have a yearly tradition be sure and leave a comment below. If you follow this blog via Facebook, attach a picture of your carved pumpkin or your favorite trick or treater onto the post. Happy Halloween!


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Love and Prosciutto

Joe and I in da' cooler
Joe and I in da’ cooler

God is in the details. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Talk about coincidences. Jim meets a wonderful man last year. It was Joe (above), and Jim fondly nicknames him “Prosciutto Joe.” They click. Joe invites Jim over, Jim buys a prosciutto. (so far, I’ve not met Joe)

In a separate state of affairs, I’m taking a water movement class at the YMCA. I overhear the ladies talking about the recent death of a butcher who was in the class. His name was Joe. He makes prosciutto. I tell Jim. Could it be the same man? We wonder. We think Joe is no longer on this earth. This makes us very sad.

But wait! Joe turns out to be alive and well. AND definitely IN MY SWIM CLASS. Joe and I have a good laugh over the coincidence. In his gorgeous Italian/English way of speaking, he says, “Next time Jim comes over, you come.”

So last Saturday, we came, we ate, and we left with prosciutto. Joe only makes so many and most of them are taken. I think someone else is probably getting one less prosciutto because of my husband.

The first thing we did when we arrived at Joe’s was eat. We were invited to the dining room table where his daughter Lidia made us fresh cappuccinos to go with our slices of homemade apple pie. Then Joe’s wife Ida presented us with little handheld pies, made with a filling of ground chickpeas, cocoa powder, and of course, Jim’s honey. Amazing.

When I was at that dining room table, I felt like family. We told stories, heard about Ida’s recent miracle, and talked about everything under the sun. Joe took a small break to attend to matters outside but when he returned, into the cellar we went.

The basement reminded me of my grandmother’s house. There was a washer, dryer, a stove, sink, and a table and chairs. Ida showed me her summer herbs, drying on a rack in her gas oven. It’s the old style, with a pilot light!

Sweet Ida and her Herbs, Parsley, Rosemary, and Basil.
Sweet Ida and her Herbs: Parsley, Rosemary, and Basil.

Next, Joe, JIm, and I went into the cooler so JIm could pick his prosciutto. Jim looks around a bit (they are everywhere) and picks THE ONE. Joe says, “Looks like a good one Jim!”. While Ida and I talk (and she gives me a jar of her homemade grape jelly) I hear Jim and Joe talk about salt. Joe tells me it’s all about the salt. I believe him.

I hope this isn't a secret. ;)
I hope this isn’t a secret. 😉

Then Joe and Jim cut a hunk off of the prosciutto, slice it paper thin, and we all taste. And moan. It is so good. So awesome. I can hardly believe I’m witness to this whole morning.

I know from experience that God is truly in the details. The salt, the herbs, the apples in the pie, the foam on the cappuccino, the amazing prosciutto. The deep down warmth of this family is just beautiful. I promised Joe that I would wrap some of his paper thin prosciutto around melon slices for my son’s upcoming baby shower. Joe, it would be my pleasure.

I love these stamps. Joe is a butcher, after all.
I love these stamps. Joe is a butcher, after all.
Jim and Joe and the prize Prosciutto
Jim and Joe and the prize Prosciutto

PS. The barn wedding I did a month ago? Joe is the bride’s great uncle. I saw him at the wedding!

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A Family Tradition- Greek Baklava!

The Baklava, fresh out of the oven
The Baklava, fresh out of the oven

When I first got married (many years ago!), I wanted to learn to make Baklava. You’ve probably tasted it at Greek food festivals or weddings. It’s a delicious, sweet cookie/dessert that’s been around for ages.

My Aunt KC gave me her recipe and I wrote it down. Since then, we’ve both made subtle changes to the original but the outcome is just as awesome.

The Recipe!
My historic original recipe!

Phyllo dough no longer comes in big sheets (in the Athens box!). I don’t use crushed zwieback any more. But this recipe is priceless to me. I had to finally place it in a plastic sleeve to keep it from falling apart. I don’t have the heart to discard my ancient piece of history so I am going to attempt to re-write my recipe here. If you’re comfortable handling phyllo dough, this recipe is a cinch. If you’re not so experienced with phyllo, give it a try anyway. Just keep moving so the dough doesn’t dry out.

Greek Baklava

1 lb. of walnuts, chopped between coarse and fine (not too fine!)

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

15-20 sheets of phyllo – I use one tube of Athens phyllo dough, thawed in the fridge for a couple of days. Or you can thaw on the counter for a few hours.

8- 10 oz of butter (no margarine!)

9 x 13 glass (preferably) pan

Silicone basting brush

Syrup Ingredients

3 and 1/2 cups water

6 cups sugar

squeeze 1/2 lemon

1/2 orange, cut up in slices

1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Grind the nuts and place in a large bowl. Add the sugar and cinnamon. Lightly mix. Set aside.


Melt the butter over low heat. Be careful not to burn it or let it brown. Make an assembly line of sorts. Place a 9 x 13 (preferably glass) pan in front of you. Place your saucepan of melted butter and your brush above or next to you. Place the phyllo dough next to the pan. Start by laying 5-6 sheets of phyllo down in the pan, buttering each layer lightly.

My daughter Michelene making Baklava!
My daughter Michelene making Baklava!

Sprinkle 1/3 of the nut mixture over the entire pan and smooth it out. Butter two more sheets of phyllo over the nuts (go slow or the dough will rip), another 1/3 of the nuts, two more sheets of phyllo, then the final layer of nuts.

First Layer of Nuts
First Layer of Nuts

Layer at least 5-6 more sheets of phyllo on top of the last layer of nuts, again buttering between each layer. I don’t saturate each phyllo layer, just a good light coating of butter. Do butter the top layer of phyllo very well.

Place the finished product in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. While it’s in there, pre heat your oven to 300 degrees.

After ten minutes the phyllo will be hardened. Take a good knife and score the baklava before you bake it. I like to do a diamond pattern (see the picture at the opening of this post). I achieve this by making four long lines, length wise across the pan. Then I start at the top left corner and slowly make diagonal cuts about an inch or less apart. Don’t think the phyllo will cut perfectly. It may give you a hard time but just keep at it, working slowly.

Tip: I don’t make my pieces too big. It’s perfect when you can eat one in two or three bites. You are welcome to make your pieces bigger!

Bake the baklava for about an hour. Keep an eye on it after 50 minutes. It will make your whole house smell wonderful. Pull it out of the oven when it is a medium golden brown. You don’t want it too dark.

Let the baklava cool completely (preferably over night). When you’re ready to syrup it, combine the water, sugar, lemon, orange and cinnamon and bring to a light boil. Boil the syrup for 10-15 minutes until it is slightly tacky.

Take the syrup off the heat and set a timer for 5 minutes to briefly cool it. After cooling, take a measuring scoop or soup ladle and fill it with syrup. Lightly pour the syrup over the baklava, going back and forth over the whole pan.

My original recipe calls for 2 cups of syrup per pan but that may be too much. I really just eye ball it. When the syrup comes about half way up the sides (an advantage to having a glass pan), that’s when I stop.

Let the baklava sit and absorb the syrup. Within a couple of hours, you should be able to cup it (use pretty cupcake liners- one piece per liner). Arrange a few in a pretty box or tin and what a gift. Or, arrange on a holiday platter and dazzle your guests.

A few tips:

I usually place a piece of aluminum foil over the pan after I syrup it. I don’t seal the foil yet. You don’t want an airtight seal until the syrup is absorbed. Later, you can seal the foil and this will keep it fresh.

Save the ends of the rows of baklava. They’re not great for presentation but they make a delicious topping for ice cream sundaes. 🙂 Don’t forget the honey or chocolate syrup drizzled on top!

The syrup recipe will make enough for 3 pans of baklava. If you don’t use it all, it makes a delicious simple syrup to use in your tea for the winter.

Resist the temptation to pour hot syrup over hot baklava. One should be hot and one should be cold. Cold baklava, hot syrup.

Baklava with Coffee
Baklava with Coffee

If you make my baklava, please let me know how it turns out. Happy Holidays!





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