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.