Monday, September 17, 2012

Holidays: Rosh Hashannah Challah

For me, Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) is important as a culinary tradition.  Each year, it's a time to make my favorite Jewish recipes (challah and matzoh ball soup!) and to try new ones (this year, spinach quiche).

Even though I make challah year-round, I like to experiment a bit during the holidays.  Typically when I bake challah, I rely on my bread machine for the whole process, resulting in a nondescript, rectangular loaf.  For special occasions, I use the bread machine to make the dough, but then take it out to braid it and bake it in the oven.  But I've almost always used the same basic recipe.

So this year, I was pretty excited when I came across Smitten Kitchen's Apple & Honey Challah recipe.  The recipe is meant to be done by hand... but knowing I wouldn't have time for that this year, I decided to use my bread machine to make the dough.  I was sad that it didn't work: My test made it clear that the ball of dough was too dry and dense and did not rise nearly enough.  Even so, the flavors were really good, so I'm planning to tinker with it later on (more liquid? extra risings?).

Despite this, I wanted to share the link because of the great illustrations for braiding to make a round loaf (click and scroll down for the pictures).  It was so easy to do and came out looking special, which to me is the whole purpose of bothering with braiding.  I did not get pictures of mine before it was devoured, but it was probably the best-looking braid I've ever done, which I attribute to the ease of the technique!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Learning New Things: Fondant Cupcakes

After a couple of years thinking about taking a cake decorating class, I finally did.  And I had a lot of fun!

This first class was an opportunity to get familiar working with fondant.  We worked on cupcakes, which were a nice small size that didn't require too much rolling, and used white Wilton fondant.  To get the different colors, we mixed in the gel colors ourselves, which is way cheaper than buying colored fondant and means you don't need to keep lots of colors in inventory.

In two hours, here are the cupcakes* I made:

 And some close ups:

If you have experience with things like ceramics or papercrafting, I think working with fondant is a natural extension.  There is a lot of fine motor skill involved.  I think the greatest challenge for me is being artistic while trying to be consistent--cutting the fondant into pieces of consistent shape and size will take me a lot of practice.  The idea of making a whole batch that look the same is a bit intimidating!

*Next time, I plan on taking the pictures right away.  I dropped a couple of these while packing them up to bring home.  Oops!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Parenting: Short-Term Relief vs. Long-Term Expense

A friend just shared an interesting Washington Post column with me in which a childless woman cluelessly asks what her friends with children did with their time.  I can understand that it would be hard to imagine what life with children is like if you haven't spent time with a young family (although I don't get this particular woman's level of cluelessness), but columnist Carolyn Hax's response paints a good picture of a typical day.  But what I really liked about the article was the following sentence:

[Being a parent is] resisting constant temptation to seek short-term relief at everyone's long-term expense.

This statement mirrors the core challenge of parenting, at least as I have experienced it so far.  When you are with your kids, you are constantly working and on call, so every decision has consequences, and looking for relief certainly has many.  But then the question becomes, when is seeking relief the ever-important Taking Care of Myself (necessary) and when is it Selfish Indulgence (necessary, but less often)?

Even if you are not a parent, Hax's pithy description of the tradeoff between short-term relief and long-term expense is familiar.  So many behaviors--eating, drinking, spending money, browsing the Internet--can start out so reasonable, but then be taken to counter-productive or destructive extremes one teeny tiny short-term decision after another.  Fifteen minutes checking email turns into an hour in front of the computer--oops!

Being a parent just extends the tradeoff to such basic activities as having a complete thought (gasp!), taking a shower, loading the dishwasher, making a phone call, catching up on the news, or running an errand, let alone pursuing a hobby or meeting with friends.  I would love to do these things more often than I do, but at some point they negatively affect my parenting by taking up too much of my attention or time.  Sure, my son can tolerate playing by himself for a while, so I can do some of these things some of the time. But when I try to do too much, my son gets cranky, clingy, and starts to push back.  In my head I'm thinking something like, "Okay, the dishwasher is running, now if I can just get the laundry folded..."  It sounds so reasonable!  Except when it isn't.  I find that it's often hard to identify when it is reasonable to do things for me and when an activity (or pattern of activity) incurs a long-term expense, and then it is even harder to resist temptation and stay on the path toward my long-term parenting goals.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Product Review: Nordic Ware Microwave Popcorn Popper

I have been using this Nordic Ware popcorn popper my whole life and LOVE it.  I can't fathom why it lives in obscurity.  Perhaps it's because it looks so unassuming:

It has all the benefits of microwave popcorn:
Making popcorn with it takes under five minutes.
It eliminates concerns about using the stove near a toddler (bonus!)

It has all the benefits of air-popped popcorn:
You have complete control over flavor, salt, and fat.
You avoid preservatives and other additives.
You have a lower cost and generate less packaging waste than traditional microwave popcorn.

To use it, pick up your preferred popcorn kernels, put them in the popper, and microwave it with the cover on for around three minutes.*  When you take the popper out, you'll have fresh popcorn ready for topping.

Although this popper is what Alton Brown would call a "unitasker," it does its job so elegantly that I'm happy to make shelf space for it. You can get your own for about ten bucks from Amazon, and it can often be found hiding on the shelves of your local Target.

The only drawback with this popper is that it is not designed to eat directly out of the bowl.  Although you can indeed eat from the bowl, and I usually do, the base stays extremely hot for several minutes after the popping is done, so you'll need some kind of trivet.  And if you have leftovers (ha!), you'll have to transfer them because the cover has vents for steam and isn't air tight. Last, if you add your toppings directly to the bowl, you'll need to clean it carefully before using it again.  When I've left traces of butter in it, the next time I used it, the kernels get too hot and started to slowly melt into the popper bowl.

Happy snacking!


*The popping time will vary depending on how many kernels you add and the wattage of your microwave.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Technique: Cutting Pineapple

Have you ever felt at the mercy of a pineapple?  I have.  I had forgotten how I used to struggle with cutting one up.  If I cut too little, the tough brown casings aroud the seeds ruined the final product; if I cut too much, there wasn't much final product at all.  Speaking with a friend recently reminded me of those trials and tribulations and made me realize that I was not alone.  But I eventually got a good technique and have been off and enjoying pineapple ever since.  So here is a technique for cutting up a pineapple that minimizes waste and cuts away the brown spots, without taking a super-long time.

First, use a broad knife to cut away the top and the bottom of the pineapple, and then cut the remaining cylinder into disks about half and inch or so thick:

You will then trim the edges of each round.  I think of this as the Octagon Method, but as you can see, the number of cuts is not always eight:

Trimming the edges can get tricky for the top and bottom slice, which are narrower on one side than the other.  Slowing down my process helps.  I make sure the narrower side is face up, then trim using angled cuts rather than vertical ones.  The angled cut follows the arc of the pineapple to remove the tough outer layers without wasting too much of the fruit.*

I usually cut the resulting disk in half, cut out the core, and then chop what's left. Any tricks for taking out the core more easily?  I'm wondering if a properly sized cookie cutter would do the trick!


*The thicker your slices, the larger number of sides your polygon will need to minimize waste.  Of course, there will be some waste unless you have an infinite number of cuts or an infinite number and thinness of slices.  And if you're a geek, this is fun to think about as an introduction to calculus.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Technique: Coring Apples

Coring an apple can take a no-fuss minute, or it can take three full minutes and generate more waste.  Make your life easier: Use a melon baller!  Just cut the apple in half, use the melon baller to scoop out the core, trim the ends if necessary, then slice or dice.  Here's how my slices looked:

...but not for long!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Recipe Review: Whole Wheat Apple Muffins from Smitten Kitchen

I recently ran across this recipe for Whole Wheat Apple Muffins from Smitten Kitchen, and what do you know!  I had buttermilk in the fridge, and no desire for pancakes or biscuits in my heart.  This recipe is simple and easy and delicious and yields deliciously, unbelievably moist muffins

Modifications: I used spelt instead of whole wheat flour because I have been trying to use up ingredients from my pantry.  This also meant I used 1.5 C whole flour and 0.5 C all purpose flour rather than a fifty-fifty mix.  The muffins were distinctly whole, but no less delicious.  I also decided not to peel the apples--the peels get so soft that they do not detract from the finished muffins and add all the healthy peely goodness.  If you include the brown sugar topping, I would call this dessert; without, it is still hearty and sweet and would sit well on a breakfast plate.  And I think I could cut the sugar even further and not miss it!

(The only problem I had was difficulty getting the muffins out of the silicone muffin cups intact.  I did not spray or grease them, however, and the baking time may have made the minis too dry and the regulars too wet.)

The recipe as I made it:

Whole Wheat Apple Muffins

Preheat the oven to 450°F

Mix together the following dry ingredients:

1.5 C spelt flour
0.5 C all purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 T cinnamon

In a stand mixer, cream until fluffy:

1/2 C butter (room temperature)
1/2 C white sugar
1/4 C brown sugar

Then add:

1 egg

Add and mix GENTLY to avoid curdling:

1 C buttermilk

Add the dry ingredients, mix to form the batter, and then add:

2 large apples, cored, and coarsely chopped

I got 12 regular muffins and 15 mini muffins, so be prepared to fill up to two muffin trays! Bake for 10 minutes and then lower the heat to 400°F.  I baked them for an additional 7 minutes at the lower temperature.  I believe this was a tad too much for the mini muffins and a tad too little for the regular ones, so staggering start or stop times may be a good idea.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Parenting: Book Review of Simplicity Parenting

I just finished reading Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. It is good enough that I am going to ask my very busy husband to read it. I would recommend it to current parents and ideally have both parents read it so you can discuss it and get on the same page. One thing that I really appreciate about this book is that Dr. Payne makes it clear which ideas are appropriate for which age groups and generally addresses each idea throughougly across the spectrum of ages. I actually wish I had read the book before my son was walking and talking (and I was laying the foundations of our communication and routines), so for pregnant moms-to-be, I think it would be useful and a refreshing change of pace from the normal parenting preparation bibliography.

In the book, Payne describes both the conceptual framework and nitty gritty ideas for how to bring more simplicity into our children's lives, and as a result into our lives as well. Drawing from his experience in counseling and training as a Waldorf teacher, Payne presents vignettes from his clients (families with kids from toddlers through teenagers) and cites relevant research to paint a clear picture of the role of simplicity in child development and behavior. He explains both theories of why and examples of how children and their parents are affected by a lack of simplicity and how simplifying can change how children behave, develop, and form relationships.

The book focuses on four facets of life that can be viewed through a simplifying lens: environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out the adult world. Some of the questions he ends up addressing are ones I had often considered myself: How would my son behave differently if he had drastically fewer toys and less clutter in his visual space? If it has been mostly too hard to establish a rhythm of daily and weekly routines, should I keep trying and how can I do it? Why should I be wary of filling my child's days with classes and other scheduled activities? Is my son experiencing information overload? Payne ultimately discusses these ideas in much more detail, exploring the effects of screen time, advertising, choice overload, talking less while saying more, the role of unstructured time, simple ways to start increasing family connections, what kinds of toys may be helpful versus harmful, and generally how to start small and build up from there.  On that last point, he has worked with families that are so busy and overloaded with parental committments that I can scarcely imagine their struggle and has had success with many of them, so I think the success of these techniques has more to do with being motivated and open-minded than with having a lot of time to devote to an overhaul.

In the last week, I have done a lot of ruminating on simplifying, and actually made the time to take action in the "environment" arena. One morning while my son was at preschool, I bagged up half of his toys (the ones he used the least or bothered me the most) and stashed them. Many things are already flagged to be given away, and others are in a big maybe pile, but they are out of sight and out of mind. And it had an amazing and immediate effect on both my mood and on my son. He now spends more time playing with each toy and is more willing to clean up. And he doesn't seem to have noticed that many toys went missing.  I've also noticed I am spending way less time cleaning, so even in terms of time this change has already paid for itself. Really, this is an easy intervention to try out! (And it's reversible--in fact, Payne talks about creating a "lending library" from which toys can be borrowed or rotated.)

Next on my simplifying action plan is to think about shoring up our routines as a family. We've made a lot of progress on this in recent weeks, and I've seen how much easier my parenting job has gotten in the activities that involve routines. When the little guy knows that it is time to brush his teeth, and believes that is just part of what we do before bed, there are a lot fewer discussions--he is starting to become compliant without any discussion at all. (Amazing!) In addition to starting and sticking to these kinds of basic routines, I plan to follow the lead of several friends and to make an activity chart that my son can participate in. It will have a set of pictographs showing our daily activities (eat breakfast, brush teeth, wash hands, clean up toys, take a bath, etc.) that can be ordered and then moved from a "need to do" column into a "done" column. I think it will help keep both of us on track!

The last big part of my plan is more ongoing--changing the way I talk to and around my son. When a parent says too much, how can he or she listen? And how can it leave room for the child to make up his own mind? When a parent overexplains, what does a child really hear? I expect this will be difficult and require a lot of slowing down my thinking and speaking, but I can see where it would improve my relationships with everyone, and not just my son.

The only downside to this book is that I often found the descriptions of the big picture to be far too long. But perhaps this is because I was already on board with most of the concepts and didn't need written persuasion. For a parent who is feeling a bit skeptical or resistant, maybe it is necessary. Even so, there are some gems buried in that prose that seem to crystallize the take-home messages so well that I think it is worth reading the entire book and not skipping around.  I might even read the book again and write them down to create a poster of the most motivating ones.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kid's Clothes: Tea Collection

Ever since I read my first pregnancy magazine when expecting my son, I have kept seeing pictures from the Tea Collection. But I haven't tried their clothes yet. Do they sell them in stores? I don't like to buy a brand without feeling them for myself first. Do you have their clothes for your little ones? What do you think? I am hoping to find out for myself by entering to win a gift card over at In the Know Mom. The Tea Collection has some unique pieces that would be fun, with a new collection of Bali temple garden designs (the Bali beach designs are pretty too, but not my thing). We could definitely use a few pairs of light-weight pajamas for this summer!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dessert: Shamrock Shakes Review

I decided to try out a simple recipe for making "Shamrock Shakes" that are supposed to be similar to the ones McDonald's has been hawking for St. Patrick's day. It is perfect for the person who loves mint-chocolate ice cream but feels like the crunchiness of the chocolate gets in the way. My son agrees: "I like it green minty ice cream!"

Just a warning about portions: The amounts listed below made the perfect amount for two portions. It would be easy to go overboard with this one, as that resulted in nearly 300 calories each! It is amazing how easy it is to drink down large amounts of melted ice cream, but it's nice for a special treat.

1 C vanilla ice cream
1/2 C whole milk
1/8 t mint extract
3-4 drops green food coloring
fancy themed sprinkles, if desired

Throw the first four ingredients in the blender, serve in glasses, and top with sprinkles!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Toddler in the Kitchen: Delegated Task #1

I am always eager for new ways to get my toddler involved in the kitchen. But putting away groceries quickly turns into him taking things off the shelves and running out of the kitchen with a bottle of ketchup. (It's not in his nature to let things go unexplored.) Adding dry ingredients into a mixing bowl resulted in puffs of flour flying into the air, then landing and getting stuck between the creaky old floor boards.

Although I know my son got great enjoyment (and maybe something useful?) out of these experiences, it made food prep harder for me. The perennial question: What's out there that a toddler can handle and is also helpful?

Answer: Husking corn. My son loves to eat corn on the cob, and it turns out he has just enough attention span to pull back the husk on four cobs (and put them in the trash if the ends are pre-cut). After convincing him not to eat the corn raw, he handed the ears over to me. I still had to pull off most of the silks, but next time I will let my son rinse the ears. There was some mess, but I think a large tray as a work area would solve that. Even without these improvements, the project kept him happily (and safely) occupied while I got the water boiling and was time neatral. Success!

Stay tuned for another food prep task that can be delegated to your ever-helpful toddler!