Thursday, March 9, 2017

Caring for My Caretakers with Cannoli and Cookies

Every cancer patient credits their care to a flock of smart and compassionate health care professionals. Most of them we see; some, we don't.

I've seen a lot of great doctors over the past year -- my gynecologist, my primary care physician, my breast surgeon, my neurosurgeon, and a number of radiologists. I count myself very lucky to have ready access to so many physicians of their caliber, especially since I live in a pretty rural (some might call it BFE) area. At the top of the list of my post surgical treatment are my oncologists, my medical oncologists and the radiation oncologist. They were the brains of this outfit.

If the doctors were the brains, I have to say that the nurses and other professionals I saw on a day-to-day basis have been the heart and soul of my cancer care. Always pleasant, always patient, always attentive. Never stressed, never hurried, never curt.

And best of all, always, always. always ready with a hug.

I never doubted their professionalism, but it was the warmth they generated that made my compulsory visits more than pleasant.

And what better way is there for me to show my appreciation than to cook for them? Although I've always thought of myself as more of a cook than a baker, I have mastered a few desserts. (I've also learned the hard way that there's no free wheeling with baking, like I do cooking.)

The Radiation Team
One the last day of my radiation treatment, I delivered homemade cannoli to my radiation team. (I missed getting my doctor into the picture.) Because the technologists always made great small talk as I got my treatments, I learned that Josh (the guy on the left) loved cannoli. "You just can't get good ones around here," he said.  "Oh, yes, you can," I thought to myself. "You just wait and see."

I haven't made cannoli very often -- it's messy, a tad tedious and a bit time-consuming. But oh-so-good. I bought the molds back in my twenties when I was way more adventurous (or bold and foolish) than I am today.  I hung on to them though, along with the butter molds, just in case the right opportunity came up -- and Josh's hankering for a cannoli was it.

The recipe I used came from Alex Guarnaschelli; how could you not trust someone with a name like that?!? They're really not all that hard to make. If you don't want to go to the trouble of buying the molds, you can buy pre-made cannoli shells on-line, although I've never done it.

Italians traditionally put lots of different things in the sweetened ricotta filling for cannoli: chocolate, citron, nuts. I like the filling best with just some chocolate chips, the mini ones, and the open end of the cannoli edged with chopped pistachios. (I never was a big fan of citron.) My best piece of advice if you're going to make cannoli is to wait until just before serving to fill them -- and don't forgo the dusting of sugar and the pistachios. Great finishing touches.

* The recipes I used for both Cannoli and Chocolate Chip Cookies are below.* 

My Chemotherapy Nurse
The first time I met my chemo nurse, Michele, she hugged me. I saw her a lot, so I got lots of hugs. She never fails to greet me with a smile. I've never seen her down, even when I knew she was having troubles of her own.  She offered me good advice and reproached me when I didn't do what I was supposed to -- like drink two gallons of water a day during chemo days.

How am I supposed to thank someone who does her job with such grace? Cookies!

I brought two dozen chocolate chip cookies one day, my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe, the one with jello pudding in it. (Mr. Rosemary prefers his CC cookies soft and chewy and this recipe brings me the closest to meeting his thumbs up.)

She was beyond the moon about them. So I kept bringing them -- every month.  One visit, though, I just didn't get around to making them, and I could see her disappointment.  Another time, I didn't have any vanilla pudding mix in the pantry, so I substituted chocolate pudding. Mistake.  Michele's not really a chocolate lover, she told me.

"But you love the chocolate chip cookies," I reasoned.

"It's not the chocolate chips; it's the cookie!"

My chemo treatment ended 10 months ago, but I still see Michele monthly for an infusion of Zometa, a bone strengthening drug. She gave me a reprieve right before Christmas, though. "We'll have so many treats around here, then; you don't have to make them."

But when I showed up without cookies, she told me she wished she hadn't given me a pass. Don't worry, Michele, I'll keep bringing the cookies.

All the people I've met at the Cancer Center at Clarion Hospital  have been just super. I'm still thinking about things I can do to express my appreciation -- in the meantime, there's cannoli and cookies.

Homemade Cannoli
from Alex Guarnaschelli
Makes 2 dozen
For the shells:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup dry white wine
For the Filling:
2 cups ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips
1 lemon
1 quart canola oil, for frying
Flour, for rolling
1 egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash
Confectioners sugar, for dusting
Chopped pistachios, for decorating the cannoli ends

For the shell dough: In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Work the butter pieces into the flour with your fingers until the mixture becomes coarse and sandy. Add the egg yolk and the white wine and mix until it becomes a smooth dough. Spread a piece of plastic wrap on a flat surface and place the dough in the center. Wrap the plastic loosely around it and press the dough to fill the gap. Flattening the dough will mean less rolling later. Let it rest in the fridge for a few minutes while you make the filling.

For the filling: In a medium bowl, whisk the ricotta until smooth. Sift in the powdered sugar, cinnamon and allspice. Mix to blend. In a separate bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment), beat the heavy cream until fairly stiff. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the cream into the ricotta mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips. Zest the lemon and add it to the ricotta. Refrigerate for a half hour to an hour.
                                 Norpro Stainless Steel Mini Cannoli Form, Set of 6

To roll and fry the shells: In a medium pot with a heavy bottom, heat the canola oil to 360 degrees F. Meanwhile, sift an even layer of flour on a flat surface. Flour a rolling pin. Roll the dough until it is very thin (about 1/8-inch thick). Cut the dough into fourths and work in small batches. Use any glass or small bowl that has a 3-to-4-inch diameter. Cut rounds, tracing around each one to assure the dough has been fully cut. You should have about 24 circles. Wrap each circle around a cannoli mold. Use a little of the egg wash on the edge of each round to seal it shut and to assure it won't slide or fall off the mold before pressing it closed over the mold. Flare the edges out slightly from the mold. Flaring will allow the oil to penetrate each cannoli shell as they fry. Use a pair of tongs to hold the edge of the mold as you submerge and fry the shell in the oil until crispy, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oil, and holding the mold in one had with your tongs, gently grip the shell in your other hand with a kitchen towel and carefully slide it off the mold. Set aside to cool. Repeat with all of the circles.

To fill the cannolis:  Don't fill the cannoli until just before serving. (The shells will get soft and no one likes a mushy cannoli.) Just before serving, use a pastry bag without a tip to pipe the ricotta into the cannoli molds. Fill the cannoli shells from both ends so the cream runs through the whole shell. Dust with powdered sugar. Dip the open edges in finely chopped pistachio nuts.

My Chemotherapy Nurse

Vanilla Pudding Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Two Peas and Their Pod
Makes 3 dozen cookies
1 cup butter flavored Crisco
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3.4 oz. package vanilla instant pudding mix
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat and set aside.

Using a mixer, beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add in pudding mix, eggs, and vanilla extract. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Drop cookie dough by rounded tablespoons onto prepared baking sheet.  Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until slight golden and set. Remove cookies from oven and let cool on baking sheet for two minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Do I Love My Chemo Curls?

The short answer to that question is "Maybe." It's growing on me.😉

Every time I pass by a mirror these days, I'm startled because I look foreign to myself. All my life, I've had thick healthy hair with good body and just a bit of wave. (My mother is forgiven for the Toni perm she gave me when I was 8.) I've had more cowlicks than I'd like but I've always liked my own hair.

When I learned I needed to have chemo for my breast cancer, like most people, I immediately thought of my hair. Losing one's hair is the most obvious side effect of chemotherapy. Most people do lose their hair -- and not just on your head! -- and most often it happens soon after the second treatment.

My hair started to come out in clumps right on schedule. Instead of waiting for it all to come out, I went to my hairdresser, Bobbi, who shaved my head.  She was kind enough to meet me at her shop after her regular hours. I didn't ask Mr. Rosemary to come with me, even though I'm sure he would have. I went alone. Looking back, I think I was afraid. Afraid of what I'd look like, afraid I'd cry. And I always wanted to appear brave, even if I wasn't.

Getting my head shaved wasn't nearly as traumatic as I'd feared. In fact, Bobbi made it fun. She had me laughing and thinking about what fun we'd have styling my hair when it grew back. (I'm lucky my hairdresser has also become a good friend.)

It is, after all, just hair and it would grow back.

Until it did, I was determined to make the most of it.

I have always loved hats, but often felt conspicuous in them. I once wore a great black picture hat to my niece's wedding (pre-cancer) and a couple of my nephews were reminded of a line from the movie "The Wedding Crashers" -- "Don't waste your time on girls with hats. They tend to be very proper."

Still, I wore hats a lot last summer . . . .

Chemo patients are well advised to stay away from the sun. Another great excuse to wear hats.

I did get a wig, a couple in fact. But I rarely wore them . . . . too hot, too uncomfortable for me. I felt like I was in costume.

I loved playing with scarves, and have built quite a nice wardrobe of them, but the best investment I made was buying a set of bangs. The bangs are on a Velcro strip, so I could attach them to any hat, any scarf.  Made me feel, and look, more like myself.

When I went to bed, I wore a little cap. My head got cold! (Sorry folks, no picture of that.)

Although all these pictures show me smiling, I surely didn't smile all the time. I think I was lucky going through chemo during spring and summer; I know if I was going though all that now, in the doldrums of a gray winter, I might not have been smiling as much.

Good friends throughout my treatment were very uplifting . . . .

Dick and Mary Lou are just two of our friends who made me laugh. I took this group selfie at our neighbor Dude's annual fish fry. Every year on the first day of trout season in April, he hosts a great neighborhood party. He and his brother and friends deep fry walleye, fresh french fries and chicken wings. More buddies play good old-fashioned sing-along music.  The combination of great weather, good food, music and friends -- and plenty of beer flowing -- is unbeatable.  (Dude doesn't go fishing, by the way, not on opening day. He'll wait til the crowds go away.)

I finished my chemo at the end of June, my radiation in September and, yes, my hair started to come back. Mr. Rosemary told me he didn't think I needed to wear hats and scarves anymore. He liked my fuzz; he called me "Peaches" so I had to call him Herb.

A friend who also went through chemo at the same treatment center I did told me about another patient, a very outgoing woman who had terminal cancer, who admonished her for wearing hats and scarves:  "Lose the rag! Be proud of your beautiful head!"

As my hair started to return, I sent a couple pictures to my Florida daughter who told me I looked "distinguished." Her boyfriend said "presidential." Another daughter told me, "Now you really do look like Isabella Rosellini!" (An older Isabella, you understand, not in her super model days!)

My first big "coming out" without a scarf was at my sister Anne's 80th birthday party. It was the first time several family members had seen me and their compliments were plentiful -- and sincere.

I've been back to Bobbi three times for haircuts since October.  I'm not used to managing these curls. All I can do is wash it and slather on some gel . .  and go.  Very freeing.

Will the curls stay? Don't know.  Many people have different experiences. Some people who've had curly hair say it comes in back straight. A lot of people see more gray. (Me, too.) Many of those who get the "chemo curls" say they fade after several months.  We shall see.  In the meantime, I'm just enjoying this wash and go.  And getting back to normal, even if it is a new normal.

Speaking of getting back to normal, I want to apologize to my faithful readers and followers for being absent for a few months. I immersed myself in getting back to normal -- buying and making Christmas presents, organizing closets and drawers, plain old cleaning, all things I wasn't able to do well for months.

But in the midst of getting ready for the holidays, I got another scare -- I needed to get a follow-up diagnostic mammogram after my routine annual screening. There was a "suspicious" area on the other breast, giving me several days of anxiety, even though I tried to talk myself out of it.  But I still couldn't help wondering:  Would I have to go through this again? Turns out there was not a serious problem, so I'm good for another six months.

I continued to be bothered by a herniated disc, too. I got three steroid shots over a period of a two months. The shots helped tremendously, but I continue to experience some pain, especially in the morning. With continued stretching and walking the herniation should continue to shrink. And the Naproset helps a lot. I really don't want more surgery. 

And I missed blogging. I've still been cooking. Even taken several pictures. Have a couple blog posts in draft stages. But mixing blogging about food and cancer in the same post started to seem a bit contrived to me, even though I wanted to do both. (I even thought about sharing a recipe about spiralizing, making "zoodles," along with this chemo curl diatribe! Aren't you lucky.)

I've also been plagued by procrastination. Yesterday, for example, I was bound and determined to finish this post finally. But -- wouldn't you know it? -- our internet service was down for the day.

So, today, I was going to finish for sure. After I cleaned up the kitchen and made the beds and started laundry and paid bills, etc., etc. After I made a broccoli salad for dinner, but, what the heck, why don't I make broccoli soup for lunch? And while I'm at it, why don't I brown some beef for enchiladas later? Of course, then I had to clean up the kitchen again, fold the laundry I started.

It's 2 o'clock and I'm finally sitting down and re-reading what I wrote. I better hit "publish" before I chicken out again. No recipe today . . . and no more pictures of me, either!