Friday, December 2, 2011

About That Turkey

 I'm done with searching for the perfect turkey recipe.  Every year I would research relentlessly in an effort to find a recipe that would allow me to cook the traditional protein prescribed for Thanksgiving, but would also actually taste good.  I actually love the flavor of turkey, but as anyone who's ever cooked a turkey knows it can be near impossible to roast a turkey that has decent texture. 

Not anymore.

You should make this turkey.  Then, in the words of SNL, you should go out and buy yourself a hat and hold the f*** onto it.  This is turkey unlike any turkey I have ever tasted.  It was richly flavored, seasoned throughout and so moist that even though I overcooked it a little(seriously, what is my problem with turkey?!) again it was still phenomenally moist.  Make sure that you brine it for the full three days, because that's how long science takes.  The salt pulls the moisture out, seasons it up nicely and then puts it all back inside the turkey meat. 

For some time now, I've been roasting turkey parts rather than a whole bird.  I love the look of a whole roasted turkey on a platter with golden brown skin, but breaking down a whole bird before roasting gives you multiple advantages:

-you can use the backbone, neck and wings to make stock three days before Thanksgiving, giving you a head start on the tastiest gravy ever
-roasting the parts is much, much faster than roasting a whole bird, and if the breast meat comes to temperature before the dark meat you can simply remove just the breast from the oven
-it's a heck of a lot easier to store brining turkey parts in your fridge than it is to brine a whole turkey

To sum up, next Thanksgiving I will without question buy a whole turkey and break it down myself, apply a dry brine with fresh rosemary to the turkey parts, make stock ahead of time, and free up my oven for other things on Thanksgiving day.  No need to get up super early to get the bird in the oven in time for dinner.  You can sleep in, forget about the turkey for several hours and then put it in the oven at your leisure.  Also, I think it's unnecessary to apply the initial blast of high heat; the only advantage is that it makes the skin a gorgeous color, but I think it heats up the oven too much.  Next year(or, let's be honest, maybe even next week) I'll just keep the oven at 275 for the whole time.  If you must have brown skin, broil it at the end or remove the skin when the turkey is cooked and roast it separately.

The other major advantage to the dry brine is that it uses much, much less salt than a wet brine, which sometimes made the drippings inedibly salty.  I don't know about you, but I'm not okay with wasting delicious drippings.  If breaking down a whole turkey intimidates you, I can't recommend enough that you do it anyway.  Clean out your kitchen sink really well and then plop the whole bird in there; it will contain all the mess, the extra juices will just go down the drain, and it makes the perfect container for wrestling with a slippery whole animal.  Get yourself a short, sharp knife, brace yourself for the crunching of bones and then get in touch with your inner savage.  It's highly satisfying.

 Also in the category of highly satisfying is the fact that we finally have a complete Jesse Tree this year.  We try it every Advent, but something always went wrong.  When I was growing up my siblings and I made a whole set of ornaments out of Fimo, but that stuff is way too hard for my kids to work with.  Then I had the brilliant idea of getting little wooden ornaments and letting the boys color them with markers.  It was one of those rare afternoons when everyone was well-rested and well-fed enough to stick with a project, and the boys happily colored for almost two hours until the set was done.  I was further delighted when I realized that I have finally gotten to point in my life where I not actually own a hot glue gun, but I also know with a high degree of accuracy where it is located, which makes it a much more useful device.  I utilized it to glue some loops of ribbon onto each ornament, and those were done.  And no one even cried.  I'm telling you, we have reached a new era around here.
 I used a 50% off coupon to buy a cork board which I tried painting directly on, but it puckered so then I used another 50% off coupon to buy a stapler, and used it to attach some unbleached muslin to the puckered cork board.  Then I laid out the ornaments until I found an arrangement I liked and used a pencil to trace branches where I thought they should go.  I slapped some acrylic paint on there and then used thumb tacks to hang the ornaments.
 This is everyone's favorite ornament.  It's Noah's Ark, painted by Jack.

 This is my other favorite: Jacob's Ladder by Matteas.
See how happy the high priests are to be carrying the Ark of the Covenant?

So that's what's going on at our house; moist meat and crafts galore.  Good times.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Because You Don't Know Until You Do

 It's been a busy couple of weeks in our house.  In Homestead news, one of our chickens developed a prolapsed cloaca.  Don't google images of that, it's disgusting.  I think it was because she was low on calcium, which can cause a chicken's muscles to lose tension and things that ought to be on the inside of them start hanging out on the outside.  Then these things need to be cleaned and swabbed with a mixture of honey, preparation H, and Neosporin, before being tucked back on the inside of the chicken(a lot of research went into this, I didn't just jam preparation H in there mindlessly).  I've never been so grateful for gloves.  We had to isolate the chicken during her treatment because if other chickens see anything that looks like blood or innards, they will go crazy and peck at the affected chicken until they have cannibalized her.  We told the other chickens she was at the spa.  For the past week she's been in a cozy little house of her own in the garage, and during the first few days of this the other two white chickens would stay outside the chicken coop long after dark, looking for her.  At least that's what I told Aaron I thought they were doing.  Yesterday everything stayed inside that ought to, and then she laid an egg and everything still stayed inside.  Today I let her outside(outside of the chicken run) and she kept pacing along the fence line of the chicken run like she wanted to get back in there real bad, and since her bum was back to normal I decided to let her get reacquainted with her sister chickens.  I was worried they might peck at her after all that time away, but no one really seemed to notice and then Pluck(that's what we've decided to name her after witnessing her heroism throughout her ordeal) went straight into the chicken coop and hopped into the nesting box.  I know because I followed her. 

What's interesting is that before, I could only tell one of our white chickens apart because she has a spikey comb while the other two have soft, floppy combs, but I couldn't tell the difference between the soft floppy two.  After a week of close contact with one of the chickens, she now looks as indivudual to me as if she were painted bright purple.  When you've shared certain intimacies with a chicken, you can pick her out of a crowd.  That sort of thing creates a bond, you know?

All of this was not very picturesque, so I decided to post some pictures of a table Aaron built for a breakfast nook.  Not our breakfast nook.  We don't have one of those.  I told him I might not be okay with him building furniture for other women, because when I saw this table I thought "Damn, no wonder I've had that man's babies." 
Here's the sexiest part: there is no metal hardware in the table.  Aaron made the whole thing from hand-chosen pieces of walnut, and no screws or nails.  Just his bare man hands.  It is satiny smooth, sanded down layer by layer using the entire range of sandpaper grit.  Also: this was Aaron's very first table.  So we are both doing things we never have before, and I like when life's challenges teach you new skills because you don't know how to treat a prolapsed cloaca until you do, and then it's knowledge in your back pocket for the next time you find a bulging mass of inside stuff on the outside of a chicken. 

We also got our carpet cleaned a few days before Thanksgiving, and all this new and improved grooming is putting a little extra spring in everyones' step.

I have some thoughts about Thanksgiving which I will share a little later because I'm making more turkey.  This year I used a dry brine, and even though I only had 24 hours instead of the prescribed 72 AND I overcooked the turkey, it was still the best turkey I've ever had.  So I'm doing it again for the proper three days and hopefully not overcooking it, and I'll report back here.  For now I have to go obsessively vacuum my carpet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trying to Hold Out

 This year I broke out the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack far earlier than I intended.  My only defense is that it was a stormy, cold day, Aaron worked from home that morning and built a fire and it just felt kind of right.  The other day though, Aaron gently suggested to me that I should give it a rest so we're not tired of it by Christmas.  My cousin Kayleigh is flying out to spend Thanksgiving with me(commence squealing and rolling around on the floor, which is what I do when overwhelmed by unspeakable joy) so I have resolved not to play any more Charlie Brown Christmas until she's here and we're making pumpkin pie. 
 As you can see, we have plenty of Fall decorations up: our leaf garland and lights on the fireplace, some leaf prints the boys and I made on fabric on the dining room wall, candles and pumpkins on the dining room table and a Platter of Nature with a candle on the coffee table.  The other thing you can see is that I don't dust.  Ssh.
Despite my resolve, I couldn't resist these beautiful sprigs of holly.  They were just right there in my back yard, beckoning, and they look so pretty against my white curtains and gray walls.  I have all kinds of plans to do a proper Advent this year, starting with actually completing a set of Jesse Tree ornaments.  The boys have been super into painting lately, so I want to get a bunch of tiny square canvases and have them paint all the symbols for our Jesse Tree. 

Other things that have happened: Matteas got some really terrible blisters after he got water in his boots at the beach the other day.  The blisters became swollen, bulging orbs of puss surrounded by angry red halos of infection.  I lanced them and soaked his feet in warm salt water with tea tree oil several times a day, with bandaids and Neosporin in between soaks and the angry red halos have receded, the puss is no more.  I feel like a shaman.  Or just a really bad-ass mama. 

I finally caught one of the colds that the boys have been circulating for the past six weeks.  No joke, someone has had some kind of cold symptom for the entire month of October through the present day.  Aaron still has a cough, the boys both have runny noses and for the past two days I've had a nasty sore throat.  Aaron brought me pho for dinner last night and I've been drinking gallons of tea, as well as mugs of hot water with fresh ginger, lemon, honey and cayenne.  It's actually quite tasty and I'm feeling a little better today despite waking up at 7:30.  I got in bed with some tea and the laptop last night and watched an episode of Desperate Housewives, but since I never watch the show I had no idea what was going on.  It seemed a lot like the only other episode of that show I've ever seen, only this time someone else was dead and someone else has an alcohol problem.  I think that show's motto is "What goes around comes around."  It was less than compelling, but I kind of enjoyed the voyeurism. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shrimp and Sugar Snap Peas with Peanut Sauce

Aaron and I had separate errands to run this morning, so I took Jack and he took Matteas, and afterwards we met up at Costco.  When the shopping was all done and we brought our haul home, we were both starving and Aaron had someplace to be in 45 minutes.  This lunch was the perfect solution, and I will definitely be making it again even if I have all the time in the world.  I didn't actually time myself, but if I had to guess I'd say the elapsed time from defrosting the shrimp to plating was a maximum of 20 minutes.  If you avoid peanuts and wheat, substitute tamari sauce for the soy and cashew butter for the peanut butter. 

I made my rice in a rice cooker while I prepared the shrimp, but brought the water to a boil in a kettle first.  I find this cuts the cooking time in half and my rice was perfectly cooked by the time I'd finished the shrimp.  I made one cup of dry rice for two people, and the serving above was the portion leftover.  If you don't have sugar snap peas on hand, substitute with any quick-cooking vegetable or combination of vegetables, such as snow peas, thinly sliced bell pepper, or bok choy.  This sauce would be phenomenal with asparagus come spring time, but if you went ahead and bought asparagus out of season I would totally not judge you.  If you want a visually stunning garnish, sprinkle each serving with black sesame seeds.

Shrimp and Sugar Snap Peas with Peanut Sauce
Serves two for dinner or three for lunch

30 shrimp, raw, tail-on(about a pound, depending on the size of your shrimp)
1 cup fresh sugar snap peas
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, chopped

For the Sauce
1/3 cup creamy natural peanut butter(no Skippy or sugar added brands)
1 TB soy sauce
1 inch grated fresh ginger root
1/2 tsp. Chinese hot mustard
2 TB water
A few dashes sesame oil

If your shrimp are frozen like mine were, defrost them in a colandar under cold running water.

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

Heat a little oil(olive, vegetable, coconut) in a saute pan over medium-high heat.  When it's hot, add the sugar snap peas and saute for about a minute.  Remove the peas into a bowl.

Return the pan to the heat, making sure there is still enough oil in the pan to just coat the bottom.  When the oil is hot, add the shrimp in a single layer.  After about 30 seconds, add the garlic and toss the shrimp around to flip them.  Immediately add the peanut sauce(the shrimp won't be completely pink), add the peanut sauce and the sauteed sugar snap peas and toss to coat.  Let everything cook together for 30-60 seconds, just until the sauce is heated through and the shrimp are finished cooking  Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the chopped scallions.  Serve over brown rice.  This is delicious with sriracha.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Caramelized Leeks

 As an eater, one of my pet peeves is to see food used in a way that fails to utilize its full flavor potential.  One of the ways in which I see this happen most often is the under-cooking of onions and leeks: too pale, too raw, too crunchy, too sad.  A lot of people I know think they either don't like cooking or aren't good at it, but most of the time I think the real problem is that they lack the right information, and maybe proper confidence and time.
 I'm not going to lie: properly caramelized leeks take time.  An astonishing amount, actually.  Like forty minutes.  For one leek.  It is, however, one of those time-consuming things that is really worth the effort and can change the way you feel about your while life, at least during breakfast. 

The first thing to do with a leek is clean it, as they are grown in very sandy soil that can get into their crevices.  Slice the leek in half from top to bottom, then gently rinse each half under cold running water.  Usually the outer layers will be the dirtiest, so pay careful attention to those.  Do your best to dry them, because water is the enemy of caramelization.  Slice them into uniform crescents, and put them in a pan drizzled with olive oil and a little butter over low heat.  Don't touch them for ten whole minutes.  TEN WHOLE MINUTES.  If you have a husband who suffers from the compulsion to stir any cooking thing he walks by without regard to the delicate and vital process that is happening, keep him out of the kitchen. 
 After ten minutes, the leeks should look like this: beginning to soften and picking up some nice(but not too much) color.  If the leeks are looking dry or like they're becoming crispy, add a little more oil or butter.  You don't want them too dry or they'll fry crisp, but neither do you want them swimming in fat because that will just steam them.  While we're on the subject of steam, don't crowd the pan.  You will never be able to caramelize anything properly if the pan is too full.

Continue the process of stirring only once every ten minutes, adding more oil/butter when necessary, until the leeks are golden and soft, about forty minutes.
A pan full of pleasure.
 See now, wasn't that worth the wait? 
And if you've got some ham, zucchini, oven-roasted grape tomatoes and a fried egg, go right ahead and introduce them to your beautifully caramelized leeks.  Other good places for them would be an omelet or frittata, a potato gratin(or anything made of potatoes), in soup, spooned over roasted chicken, or anyplace you need something earthy, sweet and satisfying. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Aaron's Birthday Torte

I didn't mean to become a once-a-month blogger, but a lot has been going on lately.  September came and life got crazy busy, and it doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon although we're in more of a groove now than we were at first.  I do not excel at being super scheduled, but I've been enjoying the rhythm and structure that standing commitments provide.  In addition to soccer, the boys have started swim lessons and somehow working around those two commitments(which fall on three of our weekdays) seems to fill up all our days.  I like having things divided up into Days We Have to be Someplace and Days When Our Time is Our Own; it's not like we stayed home all the time before, but somehow having to be in a specific place at a specific time makes everything that happens before and after it feel more structured.

Speaking of specific times, Aaron turned 33 on Monday.  We are still keeping up our Monday Night Football soup tradition, which involves anywhere from 1-10 people(though usually just 1-2) coming over to watch football and me making a giant pot of soup.  Since Aaron's birthday fell on a Monday this year, I told him we could have Monday Night Football: Birthday Edition, or he could just choose whatever day or meal he wanted and I would make it for him.  Given free reign over my culinary arsenal, Aaron chose beef stew and flourless chocolate cake.  I tell you, it doesn't take much to make that man happy. 

I knew exactly who I wanted to consult about the flourless chocolate cake.  A few years ago, Anna gave me a copy of Fran Bigelow's Pure Chocolate.  It's one of those really beautiful cookbooks that is both well-written and well-photographed, so much so that you can curl up on the couch with it and read it from cover to cover.  What is even more remarkable about my love for this book is that I don't really care for chocolate or dessert in general, but I still think Fran's recipes are amazing.  As I was working on this torte, I realized that it's largely due to the color and texture of chocolate; it doesn't just feel like cooking, it feels like making art.  Thick, dark, velvety and lustrous, melted chocolate brings me all the satisfaction of really luxurious fingerpaint.  Add in the fact that often there is a lot of science involved, and you have my full attention.  I ate fully three bites of this torte, so I know it tastes good.  If you're into that kind of thing.

Flourless Chocolate Torte with Cayenne Pepper
Adapted from Fran Bigelow

1 1/4 pounds good quality semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 pound(2 sticks) salted butter
6 eggs
2 TB sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Butter a 9 inch round cake pan.  Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and butter the parchment.

Melt the chocolate over low heat in a double boiler(to make one, place  stainless steel bowl over a saucepan of simmer water, making sure the water doesn't touch the bowl).  When the chocolate is nearly melted and only a few lumps remain, remove it from the heat and add the sugar, vanilla and cayenne.  Stir until smooth. 

Whip the eggs until fluffy and tripled in volume, about five minutes(if you have a free-standing mixer, whip them on high and set a timer for five minutes while you're melting the chocolate). 

When the eggs are whipped and the chocolate has cooled slightly(it should be warm but not hot to the touch), fold in the eggs gently until the eggs are well incorporated.  You'll lose a lot of the volume at this stage, but that's okay.  Pour the batter into your prepared pan. 

Place your 9 inch cake pan inside a larger, flat-bottomed pan(a rimmed cookie sheet or larger round cake pan works well) and pour simmering water into the larger pan, enough to come halfway up the side of the 9 inch cake pan.  Bake at 300 degrees for 30-35 minutes.  When the torte is finished the top should look dull, but the cake will jiggle slightly when you give the pan a gentle shimmy.  If you pull the torte out too soon the center will fall as it cools, but if you leave it in too long it will dry out. 

Cool the torte in the pan on  a rack for at least an hour.  When the torte has cooled, run a thin bladed knife around the edge.  Place a round of parchment cut to the same size as the cake on top of the cake, then place a cooling rack on top of the torte, press the cake pan and rack together firmly and invert.  If the torte seems a little stuck, gently tap the bottom of the pan until it comes loose.  Chill in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

This torte is so rich in can be served as-is, but if you're into gilding the lily you can cover it in:

Chocolate Ganache

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream

Place the cream in a double boiler over simmering water and stir until melted.  Let cool slightly before using. 

To prepare your work space, place a sheet of foil on a counter.  Put the rack with the cooled torte over the foil so the foil catches any drips of ganache.  Working quickly, pour the ganache over the center of the torte.  Using an offset spatula, gently push the ganache over the edges of the torte so it drips down the sides.  If you have any gaps, use a small spatula to cover the them. 

ganache in a ziploc bag and cut a very tiny hole in one corner of the bag.  Carefully pipe three circles of white ganache around the outside edge of the torte, leaving about 1/4 inch between circles.  Don't worry if the circles aren't perfectly straight, you're going to mess them up anyway.  Starting at the top line of ganache, use a toothpick to draw figure 8's continuously making sure to come all the way down through the bottom line.  Without picking up your toothpick, gently drag your toothpick out to the side and back up to the top, leaving enough room to write enough figure eight directly to the right of the one you just made.  It sounds confusing, but your hand will find a rhythm.  I recommend practicing on a piece of paper with a pen.  Don't worry if your lines are wobbly, it's not an exact science and it will still come out looking really pretty. 

Note: Make sure to do the figure 8 work while the ganache is still warm.  If your base layer of ganache sets too quickly or doesn't spread evenly, you can soften it up very carefully by running a hairdryer over it briefly.  Make sure not to have the hairdryer too close or the ganache will splatter as it warms.

Friday, September 30, 2011

In Which I Become Totally Suburban

 The boys started soccer last week, and it is pretty hilarious. 

 Jack having a casually athletic moment.
See that yellow flag Jack is holding?  They played a game where some of the kids had those flags tucked into their shorts as "tails" and the rest of the kids had to chase them around the field and yank their tails out.  The tricky part was that the kids with tails had to run while dribbling a soccer ball, the goal being to get the kids to dribble really fast.  It was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long, long time.  Jack got his tail yanked out pretty quickly by a girl who, failing to catch him from behind, ran directly in front of him so he had to stop or run her over, and once he'd stopped she reached around from the front like she was hugging him and swiped his tail.  Strategy. 

When it was Matteas' turn to chase, he grabbed his coach's tail and then stopped running to do a victory dance while the rest of the game continued without him.  Team participation is a skill which largely eluded most of the kids on the field, but they all seemed pretty thrilled to be there even though actual soccer doesn't seem to be much of a focal point for the kids.  They're all, "Other kids!  Open space!  Running!  An adult is paying attention to us!  We don't really care what happens next!"

Meanwhile, I was standing on the sidelines in my anthropologie shirt and pearl earrings when Aaron came over with a latte for me.  I didn't even make that last part up. 

Other stuff that's happened: I've made two wedding cakes which have not yet appeared here but I'll get to them eventually; we are homeschooling with great success and learning life lessons during math; our chickens are molting and therefore not laying eggs.  Life is pretty exciting in a domestic kind of way.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

That Was Fast

Today, Matteas turned four.  My baby is four years old.  Somehow it feels like he can't possibly be that old, even though it seems like he's been part of my life forever.  I have to try really hard to think about what it felt like not to be his mom.  I think that's partly due to the fact that in many ways, my 28 year-old self doesn't feel all that different to me than my 17 year-old self.  A little less dramatic maybe, more sure of who I am, but basically the same personality.  For the same reason I sometimes feel a little panicked that I am responsible for two whole children; some days I feel so young, I feel like I still need a mother.

It has been so much fun to watch Matteas develop his personality.  There is never a dull moment with this boy; he is always sharing his boundless knowledge with anyone who will listen, following the neighbors around as they water the grass and get the mail, making sure they get their daily dose of Matteas Wisdom.  I love this about him.  He had such a sweet personality as a baby and is still very sweet most days, but somewhere in his third year he turned a corner and became really challenging.  One of my least favorite parts of parenting is how unpredictable it is, because I'm the sort of person who likes to have a plan.  If I have a plan, I know what to do.  I don't like not knowing what to do, but my kids are really good at teaching me over and over again to let go of my expectations, to roll with the punches.  Lately, Matteas has been the more challenging child to parent.  I never thought I would say that, but there it is.  He is so, so stubborn and will NOT admit when he's wrong(I have no idea where he gets this).  I've been feeling kind of weepy about him getting older, I think because I enjoyed him so much as a baby.  With Jack, I couldn't wait for his infancy to be over; he was so angry about being an infant, and the older he got the happier he got.  Plus he was so tiny when he was born and wouldn't nurse, and pumping two bottles a night really taxed my sanity. 

But Matteas was different.  Quiet and sweet from birth, he took long naps during the day and nursed with ease.  He slept better than Jack did, and seemed quite content to be whatever age he happened to be at the time.  He loved to chat, and would sometimes smile so hard during a "conversation" that his big brown eyes would turn into little half-moon slits that almost disappeared into his enormous grin.  He was, and still is, a boy who loves life and relationship.  Until him, I didn't know that a baby could be so satisfying.  So I'm kind of bummed that we seem to be getting to the hard part of our relationship.

Speaking of unpredictable, we haven't had a party for Matteas yet because Jack has had a fever since Thursday.  Today was his first day of not running a temperature and trying to get warm through fits of chills, so we had a quiet dinner at home and then took the boys out for ice cream cones.  We ended up eating them in the parking lot because the ice cream place was so stinkin' hot inside.  For presents, we got him a scooter(which he's had his eye on for a while) and: a popcorn popper.  Yes, he actually asked for one.  I have a feeling he's going to feel so empowered that we will be eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Trouble with Red Velvet

 I'm  not a fan of dye or artificial ingredients, so when I was asked to make a red velvet wedding cake I was determined to do it naturally.  The baking frenzy that ensued was the most obsessive cooking endeavor I've ever been involved with, and included the boiling, roasting, pureeing and reducing of many many pounds of cooked beets.  I won't lie; it got ugly. 
 I baked between two and five sample cakes a day, a single-layer eight inch round, auditioning different recipes and trying different tricks between crazy amounts of googling.  I have read everything ever published on the internet about red velvet cake.  The results were mostly cakes that were decidedly neither red nor velvety, and the only one I succeeded in keeping red tasted like borscht. 
 The problem is pH.  Baked goods that are red are acidic; baking soda, the main leavening agent in baked goods, is alkaline.  An alkaline cake = brown cake.  I tried and tried and tried: I added more acid, left out the baking soda, reduced the beets for longer, added tons of lemon juice directly to the beets.  I'd end up most times with a beautifully scarlet batter, but 30 minutes later I'd pull a brown cake out of the oven. 
 I finally gave in and bought red dye, then baked off the wedding cake, wrapped it and froze it.  Then proceeded to have nightmares about how brown the cake still was, and woke up with a conviction: I'm not proud of that cake. 

So I started again.
 In all, I baked 27 layers of cake over the course of four days.  The final result, while brown on the outside, was a satisfying ruby red on the inside thanks to the four jars of red gel dye I used.
 It was an interesting lesson in delivering a product I was not, in an ultimate sense, proud of.  I don't believe in sacrificing flavor for visual presentation, and the nature of red velvet cake is such that only a minimal amount of cocoa powder can be used without turning the whole thing brown.  In my rebellion, I added extra vanilla, lemon zest and a pinch of cinnamon.  I'm not going to bother putting up the recipe, because taste-wise it was unremarkable.  I realized the next day that when I scaled up the recipe I finally settled on after dozens of changes and substitutions, I forgot to scale up the amount sour cream I used and the final cake came out a little dry.  I got lots of feedback about the frosting, which confirmed my belief that cake is really just a vehicle for frosting.  I hate that about cake. 

Flowers by Maureen Arpin

I'm not sure what I'll do if I'm asked to make another red velvet cake.  I understand the appeal of a jewel-red cake visually, but the flavor trade off still troubles me on a deeply spiritual level.  Pleasure should be about pleasure, and when all is said and done I'd rather eat an ugly tasty cake than a beautiful flavorless one.  That's what troubles me about this wedding cake; it failed to maximize the opportunity for pleasure, something I feel confident my previous wedding cakes accomplished.  

Still, it was an interesting experience to add to my cake baking evolution.  I look back at some of the cakes I've made and cringe with embarrassment that I served them in public, but I realize that I had to make those first, lumpy cakes to get to the smooth, sleek ones.  Because I'm all about growth.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Few Rash Decisions and a Good Vacation

 A million years ago, when I was pregnant with Matteas, I tried contacts.  With no success.  So I'm trying them again because even after 13 years I'm not used to my glasses, and I hate them every day.  It's kind of working.  I don't hate them as much as I did the first time, and my optometrist saw fit to order me six months worth of contacts because he assures me that I'll eventually get used to them, and because his whole face lifts a visible inch when he smiles I'm choosing to believe him. 

But it's weird, because I've worn glasses for such a long time and now my face looks so naked, and my eyes look so small and my lips are enormous so I thought I'd level the playing field a bit and cut some bangs.  And now I have no idea what I look like: bangs, no bangs, glasses, no glasses?  What does anyone look like, anyway, and what does it matter?  Cue existential crisis.  But during all this we went to Whidbey Island, and it was magical.
 This is as normal as it gets.  I have over ten of these; Matteas will not make a normal face in any of them.  I'm not really sure what his deal is right now, because for once in his life he is being The More Difficult Child and this is new for everyone.
Our last night there, I asked my cousin Christopher to make a bonfire so we could have Cousins Bonfire, and he was all over it.  We drank cheap wine and watched the crazy half moon get eaten by the mountains, and it was epic. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Warmer Days

 It never fails to impress that, while we've had some excellent parties that involved careful planning and extensive preparation, some of our most magical dinners have happened spontaneously.  You can't plan on making the kids climb up into an apple tree to eat their dinner at sunset; these things need to happen naturally.

 Anna's back yard is a lovely place for an outdoor party.
 After dinner, the kids kept each other entertained on the swing while the grown ups finished their wine and the sun sank lower, and for a few hours life felt magical and safe and lovely.
As I type this, Matteas is walking around naked and crying because the gingerbread man tatttoo he wanted got ripped because he didn't know how to put it on and wouldn't let Jack help him, and Jack is being domineering and bossy about how Matteas should have let him help.  Also, it's raining which makes me extra pleased that we ate crab and drank wine in the back yard last night.  Carpe diem.