Pumpkin spice and brown sugar creme brûlée

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A few years ago there was a run on cans of pumpkin at the grocery store. For some reason, it was just gone. I learned my lesson and made sure to stock up on pumpkin well in advance of pumpkin season. So I have a fair amount of pumpkin sitting around, waiting for some baking love. I also have a brûlée torch sitting around, waiting to set sugar in fire. The obvious solution was to make pumpkin creme brûlée.

Creme brûlée is one of those dishes that sounds really difficult because of the fancy name, but is pretty easy to put together. It’s a great dessert for dinner parties, as you can bake and chill the custard ahead of time, and then just caramelize the sugar as people are finishing their dinner.
As the custard baked, I realized that I’d probably be content to bake this just for the smell. Breathing in the spices will make you feel like you’re being enveloped in a warm hug. The spices do not overpower the dish, as so many pumpkin dishes are wont to do. The finished custard is creamy, but light, and the crunchy brown sugar adds a punch of smoky flavor.

Pumpkin spice and brown sugar creme brûlée

Ingredients
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed light/golden brown sugar
5 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups heavy whipping cream
8 tablespoons raw sugar or light/golden brown sugar

Heat 12-15 cups of water in a pot on the stove. Preheat oven to 325°F. Whisk pumpkin, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup brown sugar in large bowl. Whisk in egg yolks and vanilla, then spices and salt. Bring cream just to boil in medium saucepan. Gradually whisk hot cream into pumpkin mixture. (You’re tempering the eggs, or slowly adding the hot cream, so as not to cook the eggs.)

Divide mixture among eight 5×1-inch ramekins*. Divide ramekins between 2 large roasting pans. Add enough hot water to pans to come halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake until custards are just set in center, about 35 minutes. Chill custards until cold, about 6 hours. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled.

ETA: I found this makes for a better crust- remove custards from the fridge for 30 minutes prior to torching. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon raw sugar over pumpkin custard in each ramekin. Using kitchen torch, melt sugar until deep amber. (Alternatively, use broiler. Place ramekins on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with brown sugar [not raw sugar] and melt directly under broiler until deep amber.) Refrigerate 15 minutes to allow sugar to harden. Allow creme brûlée to sit for 5 minutes before digging in.

*You can use 3 inch diameter ramekins with 1 1/4 inch high sides. Bake for 50 minutes. If you want to make a thicker custard, lower the cooking temperature to 300 degrees and cook for a longer time.

Recipe via Epicurious

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Some work and some play

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Over the weekend my friends and I agreed that we all have had the same dream at one time or another. They all involved some form of needing to return to high school or college because we had not actually graduated. In my dreams, it’s usually because I need to take a math class or an English class taught by one of my former English teachers. The only thing she and I had in common was contempt for one another. My best friend, Beth, and I would sometimes skip class and go shopping instead. I have great memories of trying on prom dresses at Bloomingdales, hiking up the skirts and pretending to run down the beach, imitating an Elizabeth Hurley commercial that was out at the time. I’m sure the clerks loved us.

Anyway….

Since homework began for Rachael about a month ago, it has felt like I actually am back in school. Rachael generally doesn’t have difficulty with understanding the work. Although, when she does, I can’t help but feel like this is actually the pop quiz my teachers warned me about. I am relieved to find that Rachael doesn’t receive an inordinate amount of homework, like in the horror stories we all hear. Still, the small amount of work she does receive has caused a big change in how we spend the precious few hours between coming home from school and bedtime. The addition of an after-school Spanish class once a week has stolen more time and, seemingly, more energy from my little 6 year old. (Thankfully, she loves the Spanish class.) It seems, now, we are spending afternoons completing homework within the sludge of exhaustion, (both she and I.) Words on the pages of the books she reads become jumbled and blurry because of tired tears.
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Mike and I have wondered what we can do to make everything easier on her. I let her take breaks when the frustrated screams burst out of her. I do my best to maintain patience and, what Mike calls, an “NPR voice”. Last week we had Rachael go to bed earlier and had her take some quiet resting time in her room. But this morning, I had a realization: Rachael isn’t getting enough play time during the week. Recess is a paltry 20 minutes and she only gets choice time on Fridays. She has PE, but we non-athletes know that PE is A) not free, imaginative play, and B) pretty stressful when you’re being forced to do things you don’t have the ability to do, (I’m looking at you, Presidential Fitness testing!) She no longer has time to play with friends after school. So she’s left with whatever she can squeeze in between homework, dinner, and bed.

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Is it any wonder that she has become a little red-headed ball of cranky melancholy during the week? Not only is she not getting time to just be Rachael and have fun, she’s not getting a chance to have much of a cognitive dump during her waking hours. Free play allows kids to tap into different brain centers and let the others take a break. It gives them a chance to work out problems they encounter at school. Free play builds the bonds of friendship and teaches kids how to be empathetic. Most importantly, I think, is that it doesn’t require anything of them. They don’t necessarily have to be “good” boys and girls. They don’t have to be quiet, still, and focused. Rather than following instructions, they make the rules of their imaginary world or choice of play. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by all the information with which they are inundated, (as Rachael has expressed to me) they have a chance to exert control in their world.

So I think, this week, my homework will be to protect the sacredness of playtime. Now is the time that precedent and expectations are set. Rachael needs to know that, while education and hard work are important, so too are fun, creativity, and a chance to just be. The last thing I want to do is inadvertently communicate to her that this will be the rest of her life- work, stress, and no free time, with no time for things like reading for pleasure, playing games, and self-care. Perhaps if we all begin valuing play time a little more, it will infiltrate the “real world” and press a reset button for our priorities. Learning this has been infinitely more valuable than knowing the cosine of an angle or how to do a pull up while eeeeeeeeeeeverybody watches you. Seriously, Schwarzenegger, what the fuck?

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Therapy and the Mind/Body Connection

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I skipped the last session with my previous therapist. Or, more accurately, I sent Mike in my place to pay the bill because the thought of going to another session sent me spiraling into an anxiety attack. Talking itself didn’t worry me. But the physical pain I experienced afterward was enough to make anyone run away like a rat in a maze after an electric shock. I would always walk out of the office fatigued, feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. My limbs would burn. My neck and back muscles ached and stabbed at me. Laying on a heating pad helped very little; only time rid my body of the torture. And time moves slowly when you can barely move and are a prisoner in your own body. Like the maze rats, I learned to stop pressing the lever.

I was in therapy because my doctor had recommended it. In fact, therapy is generally recommended for anyone with fibromyalgia. Even if you don’t have a past which requires therapy, (and God knows I do) a life with chronic pain and fatigue is going to require a great deal of emotional support and healthy coping strategies.
In my case, I knew I was going to need strategies for coping with the stress and anxiety that triggered painful flares, and vice versa. In fact, my body hurting in certain areas was usually my first clue that I was stressing about something. While this therapist provided me with some important insights about my past, psychotherapy, (prior to Lyrica) proved too much for my body to handle. Not to mention, I never really received effective coping strategies to stave off the stress and pain.

Suffice it to say, I was nervous to try therapy again. What would be the point of therapy if it caused me as much or more pain than simply existing? But increased hopelessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide left me with little other choice. This time I synced up with a cognitive behavioral therapist. Now, not only do I talk about my past and day to day, I talk while holding vibrating paddles in each hand. The bilateral stimuli works in my brain to help with unlocking and processing these difficult memories. I don’t just talk about my feelings and behavior, I examine my feelings within the memories and work toward teaching my brain to realize that the memory is just that and no longer a threat. I learn calming techniques like the light stream technique, focusing on deep breathing during mindfulness, and packing up my memories and feelings when it becomes too much. I can pull them back out and work on them another time. And let me tell you, progressive muscle relaxation is amazing!

I still experience the pain during therapy: the pockets of burning and the tightening of leg muscles, rooted in a primal need to fight or fly. My brain is fighting harder than ever to keep those memories locked away and hidden. They’re behind doors and replayed scenes obscured by blackness. It means I’m getting somewhere. It means there’s hope that I can teach my mind to know that, those times when I felt unsafe and without control, are over. And if I can teach my mind to resolve those moments, perhaps my mind can let my body know that it’s okay to relax. My hope is that, someday, I’ll have control over this mind and body, inextricably linked. Until then, I’ll just imagine an aqua light beaming in through my head and down into my legs, which are now hurting because I wrote this post. Or I could pat my legs while talking abut baking. That really calmed me down during my session the other day. Anyone want to talk about apple pie?

**While editing, I found this blog post, which does a pretty good job of describing one way I’ve experienced CBT and how past pain can cause current bodily pain.

Fatigued or Lazy?

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One of the biggest worries a Spoonie has is that someone will mistake the Spoonie’s fatigue for laziness. Should the judging party believe fibromyalgia and CFS/ME to be a bunch of hooey, seeing the Spoonie during a bad episode, or flare, of fatigue may just provide the skeptic with a large helping of confirmation bias. I can see that, from the outside, we probably do seem lazy. Dishes aren’t done. The house is a wreck. You don’t always volunteer for things. You haven’t done a single Pinterest project with your preschooler today. You’re laying on the couch, trying to stay awake, yet again.

The funny thing is that there are plenty of times when we Spoonies assess our own situation like Mrs. Judgy-pants, from the outside. We survey our own behavior and the disaster lying around us and think, What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just push through the fatigue and take care of this shit? Maybe I really am just lazy. I had that fight in my head this morning. I was going to go grocery shopping this morning. I really was! I picked out the recipes, made the list, and everything. But as I began getting ready to go, I felt my body begin to fade. I could almost hear the sound of my energy draining, like the sound the tractor beam to the Death Star made when Obi-wan powered it down.

To put it another way for the non-geeks:
Every cell in my body felt as though it were being drained. My body felt heavier and heavier. If you’ve ever carried large buckets of water in each hand, you may know how I was feeling. You’ll just need to also add buckets around your knees, ankles, shoulders, and neck. And don’t forget the irresistible urge to sleep that you must resist.
I began to worry that I was, in reality, just having an urge to be lazy, an excuse to not go to the store. I wondered if I should just suck it up and push through it. Ultimately I decided to save my spoons and try to do some smaller tasks around the house.

This is the balancing act we Spoonies must do all the time. We must balance “doing” and “not doing” for the sake of our spoons, and we must balance “guilt” and a “clear conscience” for the sake of our sanity. Many times my mind has shrieked in frustration because of the things my fatigue has not allowed me to do, things that I used to be able to do. I liken it to someone in physical therapy trying to regain the use of a limb. And then then depression seeps through the cracks and whispers, Maybe you’re just lazy.

I don’t regret my choice to forego the grocery store and avoid risking a spoon deficit. I still needed to be able to take care of Zoë and stay awake through homework, dinner, and bedtime. As much as I hate to admit it, grocery shopping is really hard on me now. And it’s not because I’m lazy; it’s because I’m sick.

Baby Got Back Problems

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Meet Melissa, who I’ve decided is pretty badass. Prior to this interview, I knew she had back issues, but had no idea just how much she lives with each day. Melissa is a former high school comrade, (I am now beginning to suspect that something was in the water) with whom I reconnected through Facebook. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and 1 year old son.

Check out the other interviews with people who live with chronic health issues as well.
Another Fibro Warrior names Julie? I suspect a conspiracy!
Naturopathy is Trisha’s weapon of choice
Megan is sick of being sick
“I HAVE LUPUS! Take that, House.”
Mary’s Story

1) So, what ails you?
I have multiple issues including, migraines, Degenerative Disc Disease, Spinal Stenosis, Sciatica, Hip dysplasia, 8 herniated discs, spondylosis (osteoarthritis), and various other issues that seem to trigger my pain flare ups.

2) When did you receive your diagnosis (diagnoses)? How long was it from the onset of symptoms before you had a diagnosis (diagnoses)?
My first diagnosis was a bulging disc when I was 18. I have always been well-endowed (DDD- EE), so lower back pain came with the territory. It had gotten so bad, I went to the doctor to find relief. After a round of x-rays, she said it was a strain. She prescribed me Valium. A few weeks later, I returned to my primary doctor, and she did an MRI…a week later. She confirmed what I thought, a “bulging disc”. More Valium and Percocet were prescribed. “It isn’t bad enough to require surgery…oh, they slip in and out all the time,” she said, “…it will go back in, in time.”
Well, a few weeks later, the pain got worse. I went back and received more pain meds. A month goes by, and I request a new primary doctor. I had Kaiser at the time. I saw this new doctor, who seemed sincere. She wanted another MRI. When the results came back, she had this look on her face. She went on to explain to me that I had degenerative disc disease, and that in the couple of months since my first MRI, that there were significant changes. At this point in my life, I was in my first year of college and I was not doing any strenuous activities. She explained to me how she was concerned that, at this point in my life, if the degeneration continued to change as fast as it was, that by my 40’s I would be in a wheelchair. She said this to an 18 year old.
I went on to become a Paramedic, the worst choice for someone with back issues. I figured, do what makes you happy and deal with the consequences later! I did just that. Over the course of a few years and many different doctors, my symptoms became worse: lower back pain; leg numbness; tingling; hip pain; sciatic nerve pain. When I was 27, I had a patient in the ER in cardiac arrest. I was the only medic out of all of the staff so, being the lowest man on the totem pole, I got to do CPR. PROLONGED CPR. Over an hour we tried to revive this woman. She was a big girl, 250+ lbs? Thumping on this woman’s chest was more than difficult to get any cardiac response in the monitor. We finally got a heart beat, but we knew it was a matter of time. I didn’t have any issues pain-wise, other than my normal 2/10 [on the pain scale]. About 4 hours later, I was retrieving an O2 tank from under my stretcher; I bent over to get it. I was suddenly struck with such intense pain, I could not stand back up. In tears, I slowly moved to get help. I went to the ER, and the piece of crap MD said I strained it, gave me meds, and sent me home. After two weeks I still had horrible pain, so I went to my primary doc, who sent me for an MRI. I gave him copies of my previous MRIs and he came to the conclusion that, now, I had 4 herniated discs. Two in my thoracic, which I never had, and two in my lumbar, which were no longer bulging, but now pinching my nerves. I was sent to physical therapy, pain management, and a surgeon. My surgeon said I was not a candidate for surgery and I had to “suck it up”. He was an ass- no bedside manner. It wasn’t that I didn’t need surgery, because I did. I still do. But I am not a candidate because I have a clotting disorder, where my blood clots too much, so I am on blood thinners for life. (Found this out at age 26, when I had blood clots in my lungs). So, every surgeon who I have seen since is scared to open me up.
So, as of today and my most recent MRI, I am in pain management and I have 8 herniations, all of which need surgery. My discs now have no fluid in them, causing my spine sit on top of each other with no cushion. Bone on bone.

3) How does your illness manifest itself, (symptoms)? Does it or has it manifested itself in a way that is atypical? Did that delay receiving a diagnosis and/or does that require that you receive different medical treatment?
I don’t think that the delay of my diagnosis has caused me any harm because, I am stuck in limbo. Until they come up with a way to repair my spine without surgery, all they can do is treat the symptoms and pain.

4) Have any unconventional or naturopathic treatments worked for you? What are they?
I’m not one to go for natural remedies.

5) How has your illness affected your daily activities? How has it affected you long term? Are there things you used to love doing, but can no longer do?
My days begin with meds. I cannot do a single thing without taking medicine first. I don’t even pee before I take my meds. I try to wake before my son does, so my medicine is in effect when taking care of him. Otherwise there’s no hugs, [no] picking him up to put him in his high chair, no making breakfast. Nothing without my meds. There is no functioning without my medicine.
I was able to have a child; not sure how I carried him for 9 months without pain meds, but I did. Since he was born, my back has dramatically gotten worse. Probably 45 [times worse] since I am always running around with him. I cannot get him in and out of our car without intense pain. Sitting on the floor with him requires me to think of the best possible way to get down there…then there’s getting back up. Carry my son? My 30+ lb. son? Lol! That’s funny! But, somehow, I do. I am no longer a Paramedic. I had to give that up when I injured myself. Now I wait tables, which is probably worse. But after being injured at work, it’s hard to get another job in medicine. Walk around a mall? Not even on a good day. Groceries? Sure…if there’s a bag boy. Stairs? NOT A CHANCE. Hikes? Nope. Playground? Sure…if my hubby is with us so I can sit, while he runs after Isaac. What I miss most is movies. I haven’t been to a movie theatre in 8 years. The seats are too uncomfortable for me to sit for 2+ hours. Netflix, Redbox, and On Demand it is!

6) How has your illness affected your mental health?
I am terrified of falling. Terrified of getting into a car accident. Terrified that I will injure my spine again, only to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Depression sometimes gets the best of me, but that’s what Zoloft is for!

7) How does your illness affect your family and friends? Have they been supportive?
My mother thinks I am an addict, as do other family. My mom had a motorcycle accident and fractured her spine in 7 places. She has pain, but rarely takes pain meds…so why do I need them? I cannot complain to her because her pain in worse.

8) What do you wish people understood about your illness?
I wish people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Maybe if she lost weight…” Bite MY ASS. Since having my son, I have lost almost 70 lbs. My pain is worse. You do the math. I wish people wouldn’t judge me when I use my handicap tags. I wish that people could feel my pain so they would understand that my 2/10[on the pain scale] is 8/10 for most people.

9) What do you wish people understood about you in light of your illness?
I wish people would understand that I try my very best to be happy, easy-going, caring and there for everyone. Some days, it IS about me. All other days, it will be about THEM.

10) What has pissed you off the most during your journey with this illness?
That what I loved doing most, being a Paramedic, I can no longer do.

11) What has been the most helpful?
My husband. He is my ROCK. He is always there for me and would do anything to help me.

12) If you could shoot one of your doctors/healthcare providers out of a cannon because of their asshattery, who would it be and why?
The doctor at the spine center in Winchester, VA. He was a douchebag. When he said I had to suck it up and deal with it, he obviously had never experienced pain.

Be Our Guest!

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Whenever I see someone featured as a guest blogger on someone else’s blog, I think, “Ah, they’re legitimate writers who have something important and meaningful to say.” It’s probably every blogger’s secret dream to write a guest post, because that’s when you know you’ve made it. You’ve established yourself as someone who others want to hear from.
So, I’m excited to say that I have my very own guest post on the Parents with Pain website! And of course it doesn’t matter that I volunteered to do it.

So what do y’all think I should wear on my, what I’m sure is to be soon, nationwide book tour? I was thinking that I needed to find some cat eye or hipster style glasses to create an aura of legitimate writer and enigma. Of course I’ll need to find some old, beat up Doc Martins and a well-loved sweater from the 40s at the Salvation Army to pair with whatever sundress I get from ModCloth. I’ll also need to contemplate bangs.

By the way, if you’d like to buy a book about fibromyalgia from a real writer, head over to the Parents with Pain website and get Elizabeth Christy’s fantastic book, Why Does Mommy Hurt? It does a great job of helping kids understand the chronic pain their parents are experiencing. Both of my girls loved it. And you can trust me on this; I have gravitas now.

But, first…

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I began thinking about a nagging feeling on Sunday morning while I lazily drank my coffee. It wasn’t the first time I had felt it, but it was the first time I was able to snare it with words. Even as I write this, the feeling keeps trying to break free and elude me once more.

If we rewind, it actually began on Saturday. I was stuck in bed all day. I could barely muster the energy to get up and walk 12 paces to the bathroom to pee. At other times, I didn’t have the strength to lift the remote and re-watch episodes of Doctor Who. I felt sad being separated from my family. I wasn’t able to go to Family Day at Zoë’s preschool. I didn’t have enough energy to cry about it.
I was in bed because I hadn’t really slept the night before. Any fitful sleep I had was filled with dreams. In between dreams I would awake to toss and turn, marinating in hot and cold sweats. At one point Zoë woke me up by smacking her butt. She had gone potty and wanted help getting her undies and jammie pants back on. On top of that, I had spent the previous two days going whole hog on household chores. I knew I had overdone it the first day and was going to pay for it, so I decided to fly my damaged spacecraft into the mothership and take those sons of bitches with me. Although, in this case, those SOBs were laundry and dishes. Any spoonie will tell you that what I did was a bad idea. But I did it and paid the price on Saturday.

All of this left me feeling like getting out and spending time with my family on this gorgeous, fall Sunday morning. But, first, I needed to take shower.
Suddenly I realized that that was the frustration I’d been feeling lately. I always had things I wanted to do, but it always seemed that there was a But, first… requisite.

I want to spend time with my family. But, first, I need to rest so I can have enough energy.

I want to write. But, first, I need to clean up the kitchen.

I want to be able to put out pastry chef-quality desserts. But, first, I need to learn basic techniques.

I want to take off and travel, to experience the world. But, first, I need the time, resources, and a little courage.

I want to create an exercise program for people with chronic pain. But, first, I have to do the grunt work and dismiss the nagging fear of failure.

I want to break free from the reality of my broken body and monotony of suburban life and do something different, dirty*, and daring. But, first, I have to figure it what that something is.

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I just want to sing!

I realize that a lot of this is standard white whine. Some of it is depression. And some of this is strictly reality, and I need to suck it up and accept it. I don’t have any answers for how to deal with the frustration, nor a way forward. I can’t just break free of it through sheer force. Pulling with all one’s might AND winning the tug of war just leads to stumbling and falling. I have to get it to let me go. I knew that, as I experienced these feelings, I was going to have to battle them and quit ignoring them. But, first, I had to be able to name them.

*as in messy and complicated, not naughty