Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let it Snow(please)

We had an absolutely wonderful Christmas, which I'll share later. We got a (very)light dusting of snow this morning which has me lusting after other people's weather. Since I have children to feed, a dinner party to prepare for and a wedding cake to make, for now I'll leave you with these incredibly lovely images from Meg and Maya.
If you prefer something sweeter to look at, last night when I was too jazzed over my wedding cake sketches to sleep I got up and put together this album. The first cake(picture above) in the album is my most recent, from Iain and Jiyoon's wedding in October.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Because we happened to be dressed like this

It's challenging to get four people to look good in a picture simultaneously.
It's also challenging to get two kids not to move too much when you're taking pictures without a flash.
Sometimes, when everything else lines up, the lighting turns a weird greenish color.
Other times, the yellow pants on your three year-old that weren't supposed to be in the shot creep in.
Other obstacles notwithstanding, sometimes one of the grown ups moves.
Or blatantly sabotages.

Still other times, one of the children might be a little too excited to see what the picture looks like and jumps up to see before the picture has even been taken.

This is what I get for trying to pretend that we're the sort of family who dons matching casual sweater wear and then hangs out in front of the Christmas tree. I almost considered buying the kids a golden retriever, just so our Christmas card picture would have that little something extra. Good thing I realized that would be ridiculous.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Excess? What Excess?

We were invited to my aunt's Christmas dinner cruise on a beautiful boat, and I volunteered to bring dessert. My aunt requested something along the lines of a red velvet cake with crushed candy canes. I latched onto the candy cane idea and then got a little out of control with it. I ended up adding a few more holly leaves around the bottom, but didn't have time to take more pictures because I was of course working on the cake up until the very last minute. I'm kind of in love with red and white, and I just happen to have a ginormous holly bush in my back yard.
This cake was so much fun to make; the boys helped me unwrap all the little round candies and were really good about not licking one single piece. The cake was chocolate-peppermint and the frosting was my usual Swiss Butter Cream, but I added some peppermint extract to match the candy cane theme. There was a lot of cake left over and my aunt asked me if I wanted to take some home, but I sent it all home with her because as it turns out, I still prefer decorating a cake to eating it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

Every year, Aaron and I get into a funk over the tree. I'm not really sure how or why it happens, but almost every year it does.
First, it was the lights. He comes from a colored lights family, I'm from an all white lights family. There are strong feelings on both sides. At first, we alternated; our first Christmas together we used colored lights, the next Christmas all white. I didn't like how one of us was always disappointed, so I came up with the idea of using red and white lights intertwined. We both liked that better, but it still wasn't highly satisfactory for either of us. This year I decided I wanted Aaron to have colored lights, and as I was untangling the many strands of brightly colored offensiveness he asked "What are you doing?"
"I thought we'd use colored lights this year. You know, like the Mickey Mouse Christmas tree cartoon where Chip and Dale are hiding in the tree and it looks like a magical Christmas village inside the branches."
"Oh. I was going to tell you to go ahead and use all white lights this year."
"But you hate all white lights."
"I'm not crazy about all white, but I like you, and you like white lights."
So we used both.
At 5 and 3, the boys are actually pretty good decorators. It's nice not to have a baby trying to chew on the lights or smash the glass balls together. Our kids never terrorized the tree much as babies, but they've never been able to hang ornaments very effectively either. I guess this year, everyone grew up a little.
I never buy Good Housekeeping, but I couldn't resist this one.
It was a good buy, because I got the snowflake idea out of it. We hung a snowflake garland last year, but I'd never thought of doing it from a mirror. I like it.
I think our tree turned out nicely as well. The whole thing was, by far, the most painless tree experience we've ever had. In the past we've made the purchase in the evening, after Aaron comes home from work. That was a terrible idea. It was always freezing cold and we were all hungry, so we'd arrive back home as a family of frozen, grumpy elves. Then it'd be too late to decorate the tree that evening and Jack would have a meltdown, but not before Aaron and I got really irritated with each other over trying to get the tree straight in the stand.
This year was great. We went to Costco first and stocked up on a few things, which felt really cozy. When we got to our usual tree place(a convenient, short drive from our house) there were really only two likely candidates, so we let the boys choose. We paid and got out of there, then headed home where I'd already rearranged the furniture to accommodate the tree. I put on some Christmas music and put away all the food, while Aaron took the boys outside to put up lights on the chicken coop. Hormones(non-pregnant ones) may have been a factor, but I got a little choked up watching the boys through the window. It has been one of Jack's fondest desires to decorate the chicken coop so that "it will look DUST like Snoopy's house in Charlie Brown Christmas!" Even typing about it now, I get a little misty. I love, love, love that Aaron takes our kids' dreams seriously, even if they don't seem "important" by adult standards. The way Jack's eyes were shining told me that Aaron had done so much more than put up a strand of lights.
As an added bonus, Jack's blood work came back: normal. While part of me is bummed that nothing indicates where his migraines are coming from, I'm enormously relieved that everything really bad can be considered ruled out. He hasn't had a migraine since his last chiropractor visit a week ago, and has had fewer headaches in general. I don't think this is the last we'll see of his migraines, but at least the next time he gets one I won't be worried that something deeply menacing is going on with his brain.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bring back that Blogging Feeling

I'm not sure if I've gotten too busy, too lazy, or if my children have gotten more interesting, but I don't seem to have much of a blogging drive lately. I'm not sure what to make of this. I still blog everything in my head, and maybe that habit is having some kind of placebo effect on my desire to do any actual blogging. Also, it's early December, the time of year when I really don't have my act together at all. I'm trying not to celebrate Christmas prematurely while trying to simultaneously stay on top of some kind of Advent tradition, and it never ever works. And at this point, there are so many things I haven't blogged that the list of Significant Posts I Should Have Written is kind of big. For example:
-Iain and Jiyoon's wedding
-The cake I made for said wedding
-My trip to Boston
-My trip to NYC and the famous people I saw while I was there
-The first snow of the season in the Pacific Northwest
-How chickens feel about snow
-Thanksgiving and the only reasonable way to roast turkey
See what kind of pressure I'm under? Add to that list the fact that Matteas decided to spontaneously potty-train himself on Thanksgiving, and you've got a serious blogging back-log. We've also had a bit of family rearrangement lately, as Aaron is building a bunk house for my parents down at their cabin. That's what he's working on in the picture. Drilling into concrete is a necessary step in the process of bunk house building. Aaron doesn't like it when I watch him build stuff because occasionally he can't see his work through the thick cloud of lust emanating from me, so I have to snap a few quick pictures and head back to the cabin. We've been spending every Friday and Saturday down there for the past month until now, when Aaron drove down without me. Jack had a migraine last weekend and some appointments this week, including a blood draw yesterday which he tolerated calmly as I panicked that he would panic. So I felt like Jack should have a mellow weekend, meaning one that didn't include five hours of driving.
About that blood draw: I'd deeply appreciate your prayers. Since taking him to the chiropractor, Jack's migraine situation has been much better but they do still happen. Thus the blood draw. I'm torn between wanting the tests to come back normal and hoping that they point to some kind of diagnosis, something we can hopefully fix. They're not looking for anything serious at this point so I'm not super anxious, I just want to know what's going on with my kid and why he occasionally experiences debilitating pain. I'm an attentive mother like that. The results should be back by Wednesday, at which point I will promptly update. I might even throw up a recipe or two between now and then, a few things which prominently feature NOT turkey. I love Thanksgiving, but I'm glad it only happens once a year.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Hope They Let Us Come Back

We're at Target. Jack is walking, Matteas is in the cart. He scoots his bum forward so that his legs stick out as far as possible, and notices that the bar between his legs does some interesting things to his pants.
"Mom, look at my pa-china!!!" he shouts, grinning from ear to ear.
"Meatteas, you don't have a vagina, you have a penis."
"Yes I do have a pa-china! Look at my pa-china!!!" he insists.
"Fine, you have a pa-china, just stop shouting about it."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Worth the Wait

I didn't mean to do that. Be gone for over a month, that is. I was on the East Coast for ten days, then I was trying to get back into the swing of home life, and then it had been so long that the pressure of "what do I blog about next?" only increased. At least, in my own mind. So what is the deeply significant topic that brings me back to this space? Pie. Pumpkin pie, specifically. I'm not a huge pie fan usually, least of all pies that have vegetables in them, but what I am a fan of is tradition and this time of year, tradition calls for pumpkin pie. I continually find that my best recipes are born out of a challenge to improve something I don't like, and this pie is one of my favorites because it has been a point of conversion for a lot of people who've eaten. Almost every time I serve it someone at the table says(after a second slice) that they usually hate pumpkin pie, but this one is delicious. I've gotten a few requests for the recipe this week, and seeing as how Thanksgiving is a week from today I thought I'd put it up here in a timely fashion. I kind of sort of adapted this recipe from Cooks Illustrated, but I've changed it so much that I feel it kind of belongs to me now. The parts I took from Cooks Illustrated were combining pumpkin with sweet potato, and reducing the mixture with the spices on the stove to remove some of the water and concentrate the flavors. The step of baking at 400 degrees to start and then reducing the heat to 300 after 10 minutes is also a Cooks Illustrated trick. The rest of the recipe I came up with after making about eight pumpkin pies, each of them different from the last. Cooks Illustrated calls for canned pumpkin and canned candied yams(say that ten times fast), but I strongly feel that if you're going to eat pie it should be the best pie possible. You can't get the best pie possible from a can. I've tried. It always tastes vaguely of skunk farts. Maybe you're the sort of person who enjoys that kind of funk, but if not, welcome to a better way. Life-changing Pumpkin Pie 1 sugar pie pumpkin, roasted 1 medium-sized sweet potato, roasted 1 tsp. cinnamon 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger 1/2 tsp. salt 1/2 cup brown sugar 3/4 cup heavy cream 1 tsp. vanilla 2 eggs, well beaten Prepare your favorite crust(see bottom of post for suggestions). Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, then lay the pumpkin halves cut-side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Poke the skin a few times with a fork for ventilation. Wrap the sweet potato in foil and put it on the baking sheet next to the pumpkin. Roast until the pumpkin and potato are soft and gooey, about 25 minutes for the pumpkin and 35 minutes for the sweet potato. When cool, remove the skin. Slice into large chunks and puree in a food processor, or blend with a hand-held mixer until smooth and no lumps remain. This process yielded 2 1/2 cups of pumpkin/sweet potato puree. Transfer the puree to a medium sauce pan and add the ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to 2 cups. I'm not positive exactly how long this took because while I was doing this part Matteas knocked over a huge pillar candle, spilling about 1/2 cup of hot green wax on the carpet. While I cleaned that up he peed in the corner of the living room, so then I cleaned that. I think it was about 20 minutes. Use your own household disasters to gauge the time. You can skip this step, but consider the fact that by doing this you're removing 1/2 cup of water, water that doesn't have a lot of flavor. Removing the water also makes for a firmer, silkier texture. In any case, what you want to end up with is 2 cups of pumpkin/sweet potato puree. Remove from the heat and add the salt, brown sugar, cream and vanilla. When the mixture is well incorporated, add the beaten eggs and combine well. Pour into prepared pie crust and bake at 400 degrees for ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 and bake an additional 40 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before further cooling in the fridge. Go ahead and top it with whipped cream when you serve it, but honestly, it doesn't even need it. The texture of this pie is rich and silky-smooth, the flavor buttery and perfectly spiced. It's downright voluptuous, which I didn't know a pie could be. For the crust, I pulsed the following in my food processor: 1 cup oats 1/2 pecans 1/2 cup flour(spelt works great) 3 TB sugar 1 cube frozen butter, cut into chunks 2 TB ice water Pulse the oats and pecans together until they form a coarse flour. Add the sugar and pulse to combine, then add the butter and pulse about ten times. Begin adding ice water 1 TB at a time and pulse a few times until the mixture holds together when you pinch it. Press about 2/3 of the mixture into an ungreased, glass pie pan and bake for 10 minutes on 400. You will have a lot of pie crust mixture left over, but I loved the flavor; a crunchy, nutty shortbread crust that was a perfect compliment to the spicy pumpkin. It was also easy to work with and didn't require any rolling-out or extra fussing, which I appreciate. Another great pie crust shortcut is to grind up those crunchy Nature Valley granola bars, the really hard ones that come with two bars in a shiny green wrapper, and add melted butter. I've also used ground graham crackers or gluten-free ginger snaps. They all work. Note: I've also substituted the heavy cream with soy milk and coconut milk for my dairy-intolerant dinner guests. The coconut flavor does come through, but it wasn't something I objected to. Using all soy milk tasted just fine, and I imagine that full-fat almond milk would be lovely as well.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Please Pray

See these two beautiful girls? They are Sheila(left) and Lorna(right) Bernhoft, younger sisters of Iain Bernhoft, my friend who's getting married in Boston this Saturday. Lorna is in a coma after an accident early Tuesday morning. The Bernhoft family is responsible for introducing me to Aaron. It is no exaggeration to say that without them, my little family wouldn't be here. Aside from their role in my marital happiness, they are an amazing family. Iain and I have been friends for 15 years. His mom, Alison, is like a grandma to my children. This family means a lot to me. Alison sent the following update: lorna was relaxing with her friends from the quaker notes, her female a capella singing group, at a large, old house in philly. she sat on a piece of wood over a hole in the floor. under her tiny weight, the board broke; she fell 15 feet onto the stairs below. we arrived last night as she was coming out of a 6-hour surgery. they removed her forehead bone to allow the brain to swell. the bone is in the freezer and will be replaced in 4 - 6 weeks, when the swelling is down. her back surgery stabilized the spine: it looks as though there is significant damage to the spinal cord. our beautiful, brilliant, vibrant, loving daughter is broken. she's in a coma, on a breathing tube, her body cold to touch to reduce swelling, her face swollen so badly that only her nose is recognisable. will we ever get her back? will she be able to walk? will she still know the reams of poetry she loved to memorize? she was taking six courses, incl. organic chemistry, (last week she aced her midterm,) and was on a pace to graduate in three years from one of the nation's top 5 institutions. she would have done a year's internship with her extra year, before medical school. robin hoped she would eventually take over his ojai practice; she loved ojai so. this letter feels like an obituary. i don't know whether to use past or present tense; nobody knows if she will be herself if and when she comes back. we may not know for weeks, even months, even years. meanwhile, we have a wedding to celebrate in boston in 3 days: eldest son iain marries jiyoon, the love of his life. we struggle to see God's loving hand in this tragedy. Alison I remember the first time I met Lorna. She was four or five, and her family had come over for a day-after Thanksgiving party at my parents. She didn't say a single word to me the entire time, she just stared at me with her big blue eyes. She was wearing a little sailor dress that tied around the waist, and the bow had come undone. She held the ties in her little hands and slowly crept up to where I was sitting on a couch, then quietly placed the ties in my lap and continued staring, a silent plea. I tied her sash and she ran off without a word, but we understood each other. Some years later, when I was 17 and Lorna was 10 or so, we were in Rome together. There were a lot of fixed tours we were supposed to go on, but I remember the absolute best day as the one when Alison and Lorna decided to go on their own tour and invited me to come along. Lorna is in almost all of my pictures from Rome, a place that was made more alive by her being there. Please pray for healing for Lorna and peace for her family. If you'd like to follow her progress, go here:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I am Getting Kind of Expensive

I have traditionally loathed shopping, but this weekend I did my fair share of it. A good friend is getting married in Boston this weekend, and we're going to the wedding(how else would they have a cake?). So on Saturday, full of faith and optimism, I set out to the mall to find myself a suitable dress. I own dresses. A few. But most are too short, too hot, too cold, too something to work for this semi-formal Boston wedding. I traversed the entire mall. I went to all the major stores, and several not-so-major ones. I tried on at least thirty dresses, no joke. Eventually I just got tired of taking my clothes off. I got very tired of not finding anything that worked. So after nearly six hours, I bought myself a pair of jeans which are exactly like a pair I already own, only without holes. I'm notoriously hard on my jeans, which is why I will probably never own a designer pair. If I can't feed my chickens in them, they don't really fit my life. Then, as I was striding purposefully out of Nordstrom, I spied this sweet little pair of moccasins. My feet were killing me. I'd also been looking for a pair of dress shoes that I could conceivably walk in, since there will be a lot of public transportation going on with this Boston wedding. There are none to be had. So I was kind of despairing and then, the moccasins. I don't really need a pair of casual shoes, but they called to me. I picked them up and smelled them, touched them, asked for a pair in my size. I put them on and felt- what was this strange sensation- could it be....comfort? Suddenly, I realized with utmost clarity that I was a moccasin kind of person. It shocked me that I'd failed to realize this before, but now I knew, knew with the sort of conviction that tells you when you're looking at your own baby in a sea of nursery newborns: these moccasins and I were meant to be together. There are a few spots on them already. From bacon. But otherwise, how would I know they were mine? I won't wear them to the wedding, but they are definitely coming with me to Boston and everywhere else I go for the rest of my life. I think I shall be Pocahontas now. Six hours of shopping, and only jeans and moccasins to show for it. I love my jeans and my moccasins, but neither of them really constitutes a dress. So I set out again with renewed vigor, and decided that if I wanted something beautiful I needed to be willing to pay for it. So I went to Anthropologie. And found. This. The skirt is all pleated like a lamp shade, which doesn't sound very becoming but it is. It's one of those dresses that you put on and suddenly you can see what your life would be like in another time. It was $228. But half off. Oh sweet day.
In other news, I made my first "professional" cake. This wasn't a gift for a friend, it was an actual job for a baby shower of someone I don't know. I was asked to make a cake to match these invitations. I'm not going to lie, it was stressful. With the weddings I was plenty stressed, but at least I knew I was saving my friends a whole lot of money by giving them the cake as a gift. This owl cake wasn't a gift, I was being paid to do it.
As usual, there was a huge learning curve. I learned to dye my own fondant custom colors, I learned all kinds of ways to sculpt and even more ways not to, I learned that no matter how many times I do this I will always get nervous, and I learned that in spite of all that I still really, really enjoy it. I think my favorite part is the problem-solving factor, like figuring out that the eyes I needed were the exact size of a drinking straw, and that I could make the pupils for the eyes by using the end of a lollipop stick dipped in edible dye as a stamp.
Plus, I could buy two pairs of moccasins for how I much I got paid to make this cake. Or one Anthropologie dress. Anyone else need a cake?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chickens, You So Crazy

The Stash
After a very exciting few days of finding an egg in the yard or behind the door of the coop, the egg laying seemed to stop. Most chickens stop laying in the Fall when they molt, and I was beginning to think this was the case with our flock. Today when I went out to check the coop, I noticed there were only five chickens in the yard(we have six). I searched high and low(mostly low) and couldn't find the missing chicken anywhere. I began to worry that maybe one of the neighborhood dogs had gotten her, but I'd been home all day and hadn't heard any commotion. I was running around the yard searching and growing more frantic every minute. I knew I was attached to our chickens, but the thought of one of them coming to grief caused me more pain than I thought it would. Our chickens aren't just chickens, they're pets. I'm pretty sure I won't ever be able to keep chickens for meat; the minute I started thinking about eating one of them, I'd see the look of betrayal in their eyes and go vegetarian. So I'm running around the yard looking for this lost chicken, and it occurs to me that they respond to my voice so I call her. "Chiiiiiiiiccckkkeennnn!" "Braaaawwwk-brble-brble," muffled, near the wood pile. I pull back the piece of plywood leaning against the front of the wood pile, and there is the missing chicken sitting on nearly a dozen eggs. She gives me a guilty look and warbles a chickeny apology. I laugh, giddy with relief and the joy of discovering a bounty of eggs I thought we'd never get. The parable of the Lost Sheep was never so meaningful to me as it was at that moment: "Again again I say to you, there will be more rejoicing in Lynnwood over a single chicken that is lost and then found, than over the other five chickens who were safe in the coop." I gather the eggs, then put three rocks that make very convincing eggs back in the nest. Chickens will sometimes stop laying in a hiding spot if they notice the eggs are being taken, but they can't count so you don't have to replace every egg with a decoy. One or two is enough to assure her that her chosen spot is a safe place for eggs; there are some eggs(rocks) in there now, so it seems reasonable to her to add more. Our homeschooling for the afternoon involves testing the eggs for freshness (thanks to Briana for suggesting it), and all the eggs pass. We have some for lunch. They are delicious, and I think about the correlation between responsibility and investment: the more we take responsibility for producing our own food, the more we're willing to invest in where it comes from. I can't wait anymore, I have to go check the nest.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One Small Thing

Although it wasn't a great year for gardening, we did manage to sneak out a little produce. The chickens recently decided that they really like eating tomatoes, so now even the sad green ones left on the vines are in jeopardy. First my kale, now my tomatoes. "Ladies," I said in the sternest voice I could manage while addressing a flock of chickens, "I expect that if you're going to eat my hard-earned organic produce, you will at least lay some eggs in return." They stared back at me with their chicken eyes and made noises which I could tell were full of remorse. Then one of them crouched down and stuck her tail feathers up, which is chicken talk for "Let's get it on." Only a chicken who is laying will do this. I reached down and scratched her back, and explained politely but firmly that she and I cannot have that kind of relationship and while I think her feathers are just lovely, I think it's best if we keep things between us professional. She continues to fail to respect my boundaries, and every time I walk out into the yard she propositions me. Our chickens don't usually want to be touched, so the boys thought it was odd she was being so submissive. "What's she doing mom?" they asked. "Trying to make more chickens, but she doesn't know I'm not a daddy chicken." That is the kind of technical chicken language we use around here; 'daddy chicken' as opposed to 'rooster.'
The most organic, most locally produced meal I've ever eaten. Everything pictured grew within 50 feet of me.
Even though it's been a slim harvest, I still really wanted to make something that was exclusively produced on our property, even if it was just one small thing. Aaron asked what I was making for dinner. "First I'm going to make something that won't actually fill us up and later I'll make something else, but right now I feel a strong need to do this." "That's fine," he replied grinning. Five years of being married to me has taught him not to question what I do in the kitchen; it doesn't always work out, but he knows I'm going to do it anyway. I chopped, roasted and sauteed. I sprinkled, fried, and plated oh-so-carefully. It was totally worth it. While not exactly a feast fit for a king, it made a really satisfying snack for two. Everything on that plate came from our yard, except the olive oil and salt. Jack didn't care to try it, but when I told him that everything on the plate had been grown by us his whole face lit up and he said "Cool." The good news is that I would make this again, regardless of whether any of it was produced on my own soil. It was independently tasty, but was made even better by the huge dose of karmic satisfaction it gave me. Farmer's Breakfast(or lunch or pre-dinner snack) 2 medium-sized red potatoes, scrubbed 3 baby leeks, cleaned 5-6 cherry tomatoes 1 egg Fresh rosemary, chopped Fresh chives olive oil salt First, dig up some potatoes. This is best done while your kids are "helping" in the garden and your husband is installing the new nesting boxes he made for your chickens. Next, pull up a few leeks(which are actually thriving because they don't mind not having an actual Summer). Hunt around your sad tomato vines for a few gems the chickens missed. Check behind the door of the chicken coop for an egg, and tuck all your treasures carefully in a basket. Scrub and chop the potatoes, then toss them in a frying pan you've drizzled with olive oil. Roughly chop the leeks and toss them with the tomatoes, some olive oil and salt, then roast them in a small dish on 425 until they get wrinkled and soft. While those two things are going on, go outside and pick a little rosemary and a few chives. Chop the rosemary and sprinkle it over the potatoes, which should still be cooking. When they're done, transfer them to a plate and spoon the roasted tomatoes and leeks over the top. Carefully fry the egg and serve it sunny side up, nest it on top of the potatoes and sprinkle the whole thing with chives. Feed your husband a bite and feel a deep sense of connectedness to the earth and all living things. Then send your husband to the store for some halibut because, karmic satisfaction or no, you still need more food.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Officially not Messing Around

I would tell you the final count of eggs, butter and sugar that came in and out of my oven this weekend, but I'm tired.
I can tell you that I made Swiss Buttercream in obscene quantities. Those nine cubes of butter up there? All of them went into a single batch of frosting, which I need to re-post a recipe for because I've changed it since the last time I lost my head and thought, "I can make a wedding cake, it won't be that hard."
The good news is, I'm getting better at this every time. Last time, I didn't realize how long all that mixing was going to take. Knowing a little better what I had gotten myself into, I borrowed my sister's mixer. This was a brilliant move on my part.
The whole thing was still fairly stressful, mostly the part where everything took seven times longer than I thought it would. With this wedding, I arrived a full hour before the wedding began which is a huge improvement over my first wedding. It still took so long that at a few minutes after 4:00 I realized the wedding had started and I was still wearing jeans and cleaning up stray petals. I made a mad dash to the kitchen with my cake gear, stashed it in a corner, then sprinted out to my car which was parked in a corner that was hopefully out of sight enough that no one saw me get dressed for the wedding in the passenger's seat. I wore the same dress I did for the last wedding, at which point I realized that I hadn't shaved my legs since the last wedding. Which was July 24th. Luckily I have baby-fine leg hair and not a generous supply, but I still felt less than put together. One of these days I will be on top of this situation enough to actually do my hair for a wedding or(gasp!) wear actual lipstick, but for now I end up being the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a good-looking cake.
It was definitely easier the second time around, a trend which I'm hoping continues because I've got two more wedding cakes and one baby shower cake, all in October. I'm not wildly opposed to having a little break before then, and making things that are the opposite of cake. Like soup.
I find it shocking how much sugar gets used in American desserts. Shocking and distasteful. So in my cake, I took a bunch of the sugar out. I also don't approve of how flavorless white cake is, which makes sense if you're simply using it as a vehicle for frosting, but since I actually wanted people to taste the cake I took a bunch of sugar out of the frosting too. A whole cup, which is also how much sugar I took out of the cake recipe. My other white cake secrets are lots of vanilla and- my new favorite cake ingredient- freshly ground nutmeg. I was worried that it might make the cake taste Christmas-y or Thanksgiving-y, but it didn't at all. It made it taste donut-y and lovely, and if you use ingredients that have actual flavor you can get away with way less sugar. I tried several variations of this cake, and stopped when I left a cake out on the counter and everyone who walked by kept eating it. Aaron is not a big cake person, but as he said "I really just want to keep eating this cake." I told him that was the idea. A friend kept me company the night before the wedding, and was standing next to the pile of scraps I had cut off of the layers when leveling the cake. We were talking about something funny when she realized she'd been eating the scraps and said, "You know what's NOT funny? This cake." That's the amazing thing about this cake; it has the power to turn non-dessert people into cake lovers.
Buttermilk Donut Cake
Adapted from Ina Garten's 'Barefoot Contessa Family Style'
Makes one 12x18 sheet cake, or three 8-inch round cakes, or one each 10-in, 8-inch and 6-inch round cake.
2 1/4 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 cup buttermilk or sour cream
4 tsp. vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 TB freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter your cake pan(s). If you plan on turning the cake out of the pan when it's finished, line the bottom of your pan with parchment paper and butter the parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt. Whisk together until well combined and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.
With mixer(or egg beater) on low speed, add the eggs one at a time.
Add the vanilla and nutmeg, and mix until just incorporated.
Add the buttermilk, mixing until just combined.
Add the flour mixture in three parts at very low speed, scraping down the bowl between additions. Don't get lazy and skip this part, or when you pour the batter into the pan you're going to find a big pocket of buttermilk and eggs at the bottom. After the last of the flour has been added, finish mixing by hand with a rubber spatula making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl. Bake for 25-30 minutes(if baking wedding cake layers, check them after 20 minutes). When the sides begin to pull away from the side of the pan, it's done. I have found this to be the definitive test for cake doneness, and don't even bother to poke the middle with a toothpick anymore. I did several times, but whenever the sides are pulling away the toothpick ALWAYS comes out clean.
Cool the cake on a rack for five minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the pan and turn the cake out onto the rack to cool. If you're baking this cake for later, wrap gently but firmly in plastic wrap and freeze. If freezes beautifully and the finished cake will be exceptionally moist, since the wrapping and freezing trap lots of moisture that otherwise would have escaped as steam. You can eat this cake on its own, totally unadorned, or sprinkle it with powdered sugar(cinnamon sugar would be lovely also)(Oooh! or brush it with an orange zest glaze!). It tastes like donut holes. If you must frost it, I recommend the following:
Whipped Chocolate Chip Ganache Filling
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
Heat the cream in a saucepan over medium high heat until steaming but NOT boiling. Pour into a bowl, add the chocolate chips, and let it stand for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir thoroughly to combine. Cool in the fridge until well chilled, then whip as you would whipping cream. Don't get hasty and try to whip it when it's still warm, it won't turn into whipped cream. Spread between cake layers.
New and Improved Swiss Buttercream
This makes a quantity of frosting, enough to frost a two-layer sheet cake. Recipe can be cut: 8 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 6 cubes of butter, 3/4 tsp. vanilla.
12 egg whites
2 cups sugar
5 cubes butter
4 cubes unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Place eggs whites and sugar in a stainless steel bowl(a glass bowl works, but metal heats up so much faster) and place over a pot of simmering water, making sure the water isn't touching the bottom of the bowl. Whisk the egg whites and sugar until you can't feel any sugar granules when you dip your finger in the mixture and wipe it against the side of the bowl. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on how hot your water is when you start. Do not use boiling water and do not walk away from the bowl or your egg whites will cook too much.
When the sugar is dissolved, remove the bowl from the pot of simmering water(wearing oven mitts is a good idea to protect against steam burn) and place it on a towel. You want to make sure to wipe all the water off the bowl so that when you pour your egg whites into the bowl of your mixer, they're not contaminated with condensation(which will keep them from whipping up properly). With whisk attachment, mix in a stand mixer on high until stiff peaks form and the bowl is room temperature when you touch the outside with your hand. While the egg whites and sugar are whipping, cut each cube of butter into eight pieces. When the egg whites reach the stiff peaks stage, turn the mixer speed down to medium-low and toss the butter pieces in one at a time. You can do this fairly quickly, but the idea is to get the butter evenly distributed. When all the butter has been added, add the vanilla and then turn the mixer back to high. The mixture will curdle. Don't panic. Keep mixing, eventually it will emulsify. I find it's best of I don't actually watch this part, because it freaks me out every time. Find something to do after you've added the butter; make yourself a cup of tea, check your e-mail, panic that you're a fake baker and not a REAL wedding cake baker, and after a couple of deep breaths go back over to the mixer and admire your beautifully smooth frosting. Don't worry about being away from the mixer for too long, I once walked away for fully 15 minutes and nothing bad happened. It might be possible to over-whip this frosting, but I haven't found that threshold yet.
I've made several versions of this frosting, and I think the 12 egg white version is my favorite. It is the lightest, not-too-sweet frosting I've ever had. The unsalted butter keeps it from being too rich, but it is still pretty decadent. That's nine cubes of butter we're talking about here. But let's be honest, we're making cake, not steamed vegetables. Although, I put butter on my steamed vegetables too. Just not nine cubes of it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Things

It's Sunday night at 8:30 p.m., half an hour past the boys' bedtime. We're driving home from my mom and dad's after a party, and I remember that we're out of coffee. I also want a pork shoulder for the crock pot, so I ask Aaron to drive by PCC on our way home. My plan was to dash in by myself and be back in the car in five minutes, but as soon as we pull into the parking lot Jack shouts "Baby carts!"
PCC has the cutest damn baby shopping carts which I never let my kids use unless Aaron is with us. But he is in fact with us this particular evening, and PCC isn't really a hotbed of activity this time of night so I agree that we can all go in and they can each have their own baby cart. We go over the Baby Cart Rules- no running, no crashing, no putting things in your cart without asking- and proceed to shop as a family. Whenever I pick something up, the boys beg to have it put in their cart. I alternate. The coffee goes in Jack's cart, the pork shoulder goes to Matteas. Aaron takes them down an aisle while I grab cottage cheese, and when I come around the corner I see the boys inching their way toward me slowly and carefully. Jack's feet are off the floor, resting on the frame of his cart and Matteas is behind him, his cart pushed against Jack's but. "Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-choo-choo!" says Matteas, clearly working hard to be the quietest choo-choo he can be. "Mom," he smiles proudly, "we are being a train!"
"That's a very good train Matteas," I say, smiling back. I can tell they are feeling the magic of an ordinary activity happening at an extraordinary time, and am suddenly very glad we were out of coffee.
A few days later we are back at PCC, this time without Aaron, so no baby carts. But- oh happy day!- the cart that has a ride-in car attached to the front is sitting in front of the door and there are no other children in sight. There is only one car cart, and it's always anxiety-producing to see if it will be our turn. It's right there, so I pull into the closest parking spot and we make a mad dash through the rain to the cart, which is dry inside thanks to the cozy roof on it. We have a peaceful shopping time, I remember everything on my list except for one thing and we even make it through the check-out line with both boys still in the cart. About every two minutes they ask me to run really fast, but I always tell them there are too many people in the store. Only one time did they feel the need to make siren noises, but they did it so quietly that I let them do it for a full minute before reminding them that we were in a shared space and we couldn't take up all the sound. "We were doing that so people will here us coming," Jack says.
"People will hear us coming, trust me," I reply.
We leave, and I put the groceries in the trunk and feel cozy for the boys, dry in their little car cart as the rain picks up speed. "Boys, you behaved beautifully in the store and I really appreciate that. Want mama to push you around the parking lot as fast as I can?"
"Yes!" they answer in unison.
The parking lot is fairly quiet, so I run as fast I can while still controlling the cart and we shoot across the parking lot at top speed, the boys screaming and hollering as loudly as they can. "Wheeee-holy-cow-this-is-so-fast-whooooo-hoooo-aaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!" 45 seconds of pure, unbridled, puddle-splashing joy.
"Mom," Jack says as he buckles his own seat belt, "that was the Best Shopping Trip Ever."
"I agree," I say, soaking wet and happy. Some days, this job is so freaking hard that I lock myself in the bathroom just to have three feet of space around my body and fantasize about what it would be like to live alone, all alone in a quiet space that stayed clean. But other days, I have the incredible luck to see an opportunity for shared joy and am able to seize it with both hands, even in the pouring rain.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles

Remember her? How tiny she was?
Well, she got bigger.
And then, after months of waiting, she up and laid an egg. I didn't even pose that feather on top, she did that herself.
We all remember where we were when we first heard(that is a whole lot of 'w's in one space). I was making dinner in the kitchen, Aaron was in the backyard with the boys. He was about to fill the chicken's feeder when I saw him pause by the door and smile. He waved the boys over, and suddenly I noticed that one of the chickens seemed be a little more clucky than usual.
"Aaron," I called out the kitchen window, "is there something in there?"
"Maybe," he grinned.
"It's and EGG!!!" Jack yelled, waving his hands in the air.
"IS DERE A BABY IN DERE?!" shouted Matteas, beside himself with excitement.
We all took turns holding it.
It was a little smaller than commercial eggs, and when I cracked it the shell was thick and hard, a sign our chickens are getting plenty of calcium.
We all agreed this, the first egg, should be fried. Aaron and I each got a single a bite, the boys got two bites each. It was amazing in a way which was largely to do with the fact that it came from one of our chickens, those little balls of cheeping fluff that we lost sleep over when they were babies, made fun of when they were awkward teenagers, and now follow us around like feathered, clucking puppy dogs.
After we ate the egg, I opened wine and we had a toast. I handed Aaron a glass of wine and we thought for a minute about what to drink to. I was feeling like the world was a more magical place and wondering if I was being overly-emotional, but before I had a chance to say anything Aaron looked at me with a sparkle in his eyes, then leaned over and kissed me. The world was more magical, it wasn't just me.
"To eggs," Aaron said, our glasses clinking.
We are enormously proud of ourselves. We figured that with the cost of the chicks($3 a piece), their feed, their litter, the heat lamps we bought, that our family snack of egg cost about $75. Of course, as the chickens lay more eggs the cost per egg will diminish, but I totally don't even care. We made an egg. We bought animals and cared for them, and that single, tiny egg was a huge triumph for our family. When we first got our chicks, a few people shook their heads and told us that if our goal was to save money it was a lost cause. It's not about the money. It's about getting a little closer to our food, about experiencing how real food is grown and not produced; it's about showing our kids why it's important to respect where our food comes from and why it matters that the animals we eat should be well cared for. Someday, I hope it will also be about not having to buy any eggs. I already knew about the awful conditions industrial laying chickens are kept in; they're crammed six hens to a cage, without enough room to stand up. They're never taken out of their cages, and most will go their entire lives without seeing sunshine or eating grass or bugs. I get incredible satisfaction out of doing the dishes and watching the chickens out the window. We keep them in what used to be an old playhouse at night, where the floor is lined with soft wood shavings that Aaron cleans out regularly. They sleep on a perch Aaron built them, and eat organic chicken feed and whatever they can scratch in the yard(including half of the kale I grew, which I have mixed feelings about). They have constant access to fresh water and are allowed to wander anywhere they want to in the backyard. An unexpected bonus of having free-range chickens is that they love to find cozy spots under bushes and shrubs, where they proceed to eat down all the grass and weeds.
For now, it's not about reducing our grocery bill. But some things are worth more than money.