A print version of this article first appeared in Nougat Magazine in January, 2008. No matter how many times we checked them, Santa's lists, so crucial last year -- last month -- are history. January's lists are different. Instead of December's notes about all the gifts and tasks we must do for others, in quiet January our lists turn toward our own well-being, our own interests. Never mind those dreaded resolutions that fail us after a couple of weeks of deprivation. I'm here to encourage practical lists that make good things like weddings and gardens succeed with ease and grace.
Making a solid list, and following it, will change your life for the better. In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon, describes the ways nurses and doctors in a few intensive care units in a few hospitals in the United States use simple checklists to save thousands of lives. These lists begin, for example, with having the surgeon wash her hands with soap. Great results, particularly reductions in infections, come to hospitals that use checklists to make sure every medical staff person follows every single step, every single time.
Wedding planning, the main subject of this Nougat issue, is not quite so high stakes—it only feels that way. Weddings depend on lists of guests, songs, attendants, gifts for the registry, gifts received, thank-you notes completed, and more. When the lists cause painful anxiety about all the work to be done, the fun goes out of looking ahead and making beautiful plans.
You can have your fun and fine lists too if you make a pact to take tender care of the list-maker — yourself. Promise that you will treat yourself with such kindness and generosity that you will have better ideas and make wiser choices as you plan for marvelous events and experiences in 2008.
Let's be specific about treating yourself tenderly: nothing warms a body and mind in January like a cup of homemade hot vanilla or hot chocolate. Now go one specific step further: top that soothing, warming drink with marshmallows you make yourself.
This is not quite the detour it seems to be from productive planning. Homemade marshmallows take about 30 minutes to make and involve just the right amount of handwork to give your mind both a rest and a boost. I often get my best ideas for a work project when I leave my computer in frustration and go to the kitchen and start cooking a meal. Handling good ingredients, stirring and chopping and tossing, send my thoughts in new directions as my tired brain gets a chance to refresh itself.
Making homemade marshmallows involves softening unflavored gelatin in water while making a hot syrup of sugar and corn syrup, and then beating the two mixtures together with an electric stand mixer for 15 minutes. You get the fun of food chemistry and food physics in your kitchen, and then you get to eat the results. (Here is the complete marshmallow recipe.)
While the marshmallows begin to set, make yourself a hot vanilla. Add two teaspoons sugar, maple syrup, sweet sorghum syrup, or honey to eight ounces (1 cup) milk. Heat for two minutes in the microwave or cook in a small saucepan for five minutes on medium heat. When your drink is hot, add 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract or a sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg. Top with your homemade marshmallow and know that life and warm sweet milk are both good. (If you prefer hot chocolate, here is the recipe.)
Now you are ready: sip, savor, settle in. Write out your wedding guest list, catalog the pros and cons of asking your ex-sister-in-law's first cousin's new boyfriend to be an usher, count the numbers of events that call for favors (Kentucky-made, of course) for guests. If you are feeling charitable, visit the I Do Foundation website, where you can form a perfect union with a good cause in lieu of wedding gifts or "green" your wedding by making eco-friendly choices.
On that green theme, instead of a wedding, maybe you would rather plan your garden for the coming year? January (and warm milk drinks) make such planning particularly pleasurable. Seed Savers Exchange and Local Harvest offer organic seeds of outstanding heirloom plants. Their websites will have you dreaming of Brandywine tomato salad as you savor your wintry comfort drink.
Whatever your planning tasks, enjoy the way January offers a reflective pause in the year's rhythm. In particular, enjoy those homemade marshmallows.