Is there anything a parent loves more than the sound of their child happily playing alone? The high-pitched tinkle of O’s voice as she talks to her stuffed animals and god know who else in her ever-growing imaginary universe is music to my ears.
This has just started to happen and only in little fits. Mostly, she still demands our undivided attention around the clock. But occasionally, when I least expect it, she’ll drift into her own world to play with her stuffed animals and put her dolly down for naps or just look out our big picture window and talk to the bluebird who has perched on the very tip of the tree in our backyard.
This gives me five, sometimes ten, minutes of freedom that I usually waste on some mundane household task. Every once in a while I relish the time by standing in the kitchen reading a magazine or cookbook. On one hand, two years is a very, very short time to go from a newborn who can’t even burp on her own to a little person who can entertain herself. On the other hand, two years is a very, very long time for a woman in her mid to late thirties who has previously had loads of free time to have absolutely no free time. Reaching the stage when your child start to show a little independence is a beautiful thing. Anyone who has a kid knows what I mean. Anyone who has a kid who still stands/cries/whines outside the bathroom if you, god forbid, dare to shut the door while you pee or take a shower, really knows what I mean.
Because I am someone who never totally lives in the present, O’s magnificent new ability to amuse herself is tainted by pangs of grief coming from my assumption that in a decade or so (or will it happen sooner?) her sole goal in life will be to spend as much time away from me as possible. But maybe that won’t happen, right? Maybe my teenage girl will still want to spend time with me? She won’t roll her eyes when I tell her she is still my Valentine?
Yesterday, O gave me three gigantic hugs and kisses in a row, each time saying, “I love you soooo much!” She then looked at me very seriously and said, “Did you know that I love grapes soooo much?” And I get it – her love for grapes (which is pretty intense, she talks about them every day) in no way competes with her love for me. There is enough love in my toddler’s world, all of it very sincerely given, for all of her favorites: mom, dad, grapes, pink bear, gummy vitamins and snowmen (still a nightly topic of conversation, followed by a round of Jingle Bells and Up on the House Top. Explaining that Christmas is over has proven to be a challenging topic).
Yesterday, we baked our first cupcakes together and I learned two things. One, there is no greater mess than a toddler and chocolate batter. Two, the Chocolate Fun Cake recipe in the March 2012 issue of Bon Appetit is the only chocolate cupcake recipe you will ever need. (Side confession: until about 5 minutes ago when I looked at the date on the cover, I thought I had been reading the current issue of Bon Appetit. That’s how far behind I am on my magazine reading. This issue has been sitting in my kitchen for an entire year, and I just now discovered it).
Chocolate Fun Cake is moist and fluffy with an intense chocolate flavor. I can’t think of anything else you would want from a chocolate cupcake. The name “fun cake” is perfect. This is not a serious chocolate dessert – the cake tastes surprisingly like Duncan Hines, but better. Plus, no eggs (so kids can eat the batter with no worries) and no weird ingredients. I love these simple cupcakes so much that I feel no need to search for any other chocolate cupcake recipe again. Fun Cake is officially my go-to chocolate cupcake recipe from here on out.
Total Time in the Kitchen: 10 minutes to make batter, 25-40 minutes to bake
Servings: 12 cupcakes or an 8x8x2 pan
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (3 1/2 ounces) I imagine you could use chocolate chips instead.
Preheat oven to 350 F
Coat the bottom and sides of a 8x8x2 pan with nonstick spray and line the pan with parchment paper or put liners in a cupcake tin and lightly spray the liners with non-stick spray.
In a large bowl whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda.
Stir in oil, vanilla, water and chocolate. Scrape the batter into the pan or cupcake tin.
Bake until a toothpick comes out clean. For a cake, this will be 35-40 minutes. For cupcakes, I baked mine 25 minutes which left them just slightly underdone and super-duper moist.
A word about frosting: the BA recipe used Peanut Butter Buttercream, which sounds insane (but very tempting). I opted for simple whipped cream, a nice contrast that keeps the cake from being too sweet.
A half-pint of whipping cream + 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract + 1 teaspoon sugar whisked/beaten until soft peaks form will give you a thin layer of frosting.
If you want a thicker layer (which I recommend) make double that amount. If you frost the cupcakes with whipped cream, make sure to store them in the refrigerator.
It finally got us. Not quite the flu, but some version of it and the whole family is sneezing, coughing and generally miserable. Today was a Campbell’s Soup and Saltine cracker kind of day.
If I was feeling a bit better and my taste buds were actually working, I might whip up some Asian Pesto made with cilantro, basil and mint. Seems like all those aromatic herbs would clean the nasal passage right out and bring a jolt of summer to anyone who is suffering from the winter doldrums right now.
I made it a few times earlier this month; it’s really delicious over rice or noodles, fish or chicken. There’s some room for improvisation – I used regular basil (instead of Thai) and toasted slivered almonds instead of peanuts, safflower oil instead of peanut oil and no chile sauce. But don’t try to blend everything together all at once in the food processor instead of mixing it the way Ms. Henrickson suggests or the texture will be all wrong.
I read that the editor of Culinate has a college-aged daughter who asks her to make this pesto whenever she comes home to visit. The thought of O coming home from college one day and asking me to cook her favorite meal makes me smile with anticipation. What will it be? Right now I’d say Raspberry Jam, which she has regularly been turning into a meal by eating it directly out of the jar. Which might explain why all three of us currently have the exact same cold.
Be well, my friends. When I am too, we’ll chat again.
Last night I hosted my book club. Like most book clubs it’s partly about reading and sharing books, but just as importantly it’s an excuse to hang out with a bunch of intelligent, witty and hilarious women once a month. We always have interesting and insightful conversations about the book we’ve read, which is one thing I love about this book club, and at some point we always veer off onto other topics, which is the other thing I love. Last night I learned a little something new about coal mining, circumcision and fertility clinics in Prague. Plus, I had a glass of champagne and ate much good food.
Having people over was an excuse to buy some fresh flowers (supplemented with lavender greens and lemon verbena from my yard), wash my rarely used champagne glasses and break in my new Le Creuset pot.
I served Roasted Cauliflower Pasta, a winter pasta that’s hearty but not in a heavy meat sauce sort of way. Sorin and I have been trying to eat more vegetables this year and less meat. We’re not giving it up entirely – a girl like myself needs a burger every now and then – but coming up with new and interesting vegetarian meals has been fun. And also challenging. Dinner is just so easy when the formula is meat+starch/grain+veggies. I like having three distinctly different parts of the meal. With vegetarian meals I find we’re often just eating one dish with a lot stuff in it. Like this pasta, or quinoa with tomato sauce and veggies, or soup, or a big salad.
But I like the challenge of cooking in a new way and I like making new discoveries such as baby turnips at the farmers market. Sliced thinly and sauteed briefly with their greens and sprinkled with nori salt they’re my favorite veggie of the moment.
But back to book clubs and cauliflower. Next month we’re reading Cleopatra. If you never read historical non-fiction about kick-ass women I highly recommend starting.
Speaking of kick-ass women in the making, after numerous adventurous climbs out of her crib (and one tumble to the floor) little O is now sleeping in a toddler bed. Surprisingly, she has not once gotten out of her new bed on her own. Poor little bird doesn’t seem to know that the cage door is now open and she can fly out whenever she wants. She has, however, rolled out of bed twice onto the floor, where I find her curled up and sleeping like, well, a baby. I know she’s a toddler now, but she doesn’t know it yet and that’s fine with me. I’m dreading the inevitable day that I call her “my sweet baby” like I always do and she corrects me by telling me she’s a big girl. I understand now why parents view their children as their babies, even when their babies are twenty, thirty or even forty-something years old.
Before I get weepy, here it is: cauliflower pasta.
Roasted Cauliflower Pasta
Total Time in the Kitchen: 1 hour
This isn’t a hard and fast recipe, I just sort of threw the dish together and you can too. I made a big batch to serve about eight people, but you can just cut the amount of cauliflower and pasta in half if needed.
One package (16 ounces) dried linquine
2 heads of cauliflower
olive oil for drizzling over cauliflower and making breadcrumbs
finely chopped parsley, to taste (I used half a bunch)
1 to 2 cups breadcrumbs (see below)
a few tablespoons of butter
a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice
grated parmesan, to taste
salt and pepper as needed
While the cauliflower is roasting, chop your parsley and make your breadcrumbs. If you have some stale white bread on hand, cut it into small chunks then pulse it in a food processor until it’s finely chopped. Or, you can also use panko. Warm a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs or panko, stirring occasionally until they’re nicely browned and a bit crispy. Add a little salt for flavor. Be careful, because breadcrumbs can move quickly from lightly browned to burnt.
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain.
Put the cooked pasta in a large serving dish. Heat the butter over medium until it turns brown and smells nutty. Pour over the noodles and toss well. Mix in the cauliflower, parsley and breadcrumbs. Add a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice and as much cheese as you like. Salt and pepper to taste.
I finished cooking my cauliflower pasta about an hour before it was served and it kept fine in my Le Creuset pot inside a 300 F oven.
We woke up to snow and mom’s poppy seed bread. Two of my favorite things to enjoy with coffee on a winter morning. Wishing you and yours a happy holiday. Here’s a few shots from ours…
Mom’s Poppy Seed Bread. An oldy but a goody.
3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 1/8 cup oil
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
1 1/2 tsp imitation butter flavor
1 1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate, defrosted
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp imitation butter flavor
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350
Mix together dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and poppy seeds)
Beat/whisk eggs, oil, extracts and milk
Combine gently. Bake for one hour in two regular-sized bread loaf pans that have been sprayed with Pam or other spray oil.
For the frosting, whisk together the ingredients in a bowl.
When the poppy seed bread comes out of the oven, keep it in the pan and let it cool for ten minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the bread to loosen it. Pour the glaze over the loaves. Let the bread cool for about an hour (so the glaze sets) then remove from the pan.
I was having one of those days when it felt like every other woman in the world was doing something more interesting, more glamorous and more important than I was.
Mostly what I’d been doing for the past 8 hours was trying to get my toddler to use a tissue and not stick a finger directly into her nose. She has a little cold and thus, a stuffy nose, and she is violently opposed to me assisting in the removal of snot in any way. A friend of mine calls it “death by kleenex” and that’s exactly how O reacts every time I come at her with a tissue or try to get her to use one.
I’m realizing that two is an awkward age - no longer a baby, but definitely not a kid yet. If she were a baby, I would suction her nose or at least be able to wipe it. If she were a bigger kid, she could blow her own nose. Until now, I’d never thought about the fact that blowing your nose is a skill that takes time to master. I spent a solid five minutes demonstrating a successful nose blow to O and she just looked at me the whole time like I was trying to teach her a calculus equation.
On one hand, it’s really rewarding and amazing to be teaching a tiny human basic survival skills. On the other hand, repeating the phrase “please don’t wipe your booger on the curtains” seven thousand times a day can drive you mad.
What would I rather be doing?
I’d rather be sending out inspiring newsletters about “cross-disciplinary interestingness and combinatorial creativty” like the woman I read about in the New York Times. That misspelling of “creativity” is hers, not mine, but she lives in Brooklyn and therefore is very cool and smart. Which makes me think that I am so uncool and out of touch that the misspelling is probably on purpose for some very hip reason that my mom-mind can no longer grasp.
Or maybe instead of wiping a snotty nose all day I could be attending a chic cookie party, like the one featured in Bon Appetit this month. Or opening a little gourmet shop and then a restaurant, like a woman did over the past two years in my neighborhood. Or doing everything all those crafty women keep pinning on Pinterest.
I decided to make myself feel even worse by reading a few of the blogs that I follow. Surely, these super-women had been blogging like crazy and cooking amazing meals and sharing it all through brilliant prose and gorgeous photos. As I hopped from one blog to another I felt a giant wave of both happiness and relief. Posts hadn’t been updated for weeks, or some cases, a month! I was more in love with the blogs than ever. You might think the authors were doing nothing at all. But I knew better. As one woman put it, “Blogging has fallen to the bottom of the list of things I get to do after I get everything else done. Because I never do get everything else done, I don’t blog.”
I have to admit, I’m always a little bit suspicious of mom-bloggers who consistently update their site. You can look like a brilliant mother online, but we all know that you can’t be on your computer constantly updating your blog while simultaneously paying real attention to your child. I also know that if you’re blogging, you aren’t using your free time away from work and kids to do other crucial tasks like showering, or emptying the overflowing recycling bin under your kitchen sink or buying your brother a birthday gift (sorry, Kev) or researching how to set up a living trust like I’ve been meaning to do for a year.
But listen, there’s no reason that like me, you have to admit to whole world that you don’t have time to be as fabulous as all the other women out there. If you bring these homemade chocolate bars to even one holiday party this season, everyone will think you’re amazing. If you eat the whole pan by yourself at home, you will still feel like a dessert-making rockstar, which is just as good.
I once walked into a party with these treats and someone gushed, “You made chocolate?!!” I just smiled and didn’t say anything. Because sometimes you want to be that fabulous version of yourself who’s making artisanal chocolate from scratch in your kitchen, rather than a person who buys chocolate bars, melts them in your microwave and passes them off as an amazing homemade dessert.
“Homemade” Chocolate Bars
Time in the Kitchen: 20 minutes, plus an hour or so to refrigerate
I know this recipe is so simple that it seems too good to be true, but trust me, they taste so much more decadent than just eating a chocolate bar straight. I love the basic recipe, which is just chocolate and sea salt, but you can also mix in other ingredients that you love with chocolate. I always keep these bars in the refrigerator and bring them out just before eating.
Ingredients for the Basic Recipe:
Three 3.5 ounce bars of dark chocolate (75% or more)
1/2 teaspoon large-flake sea salt (I recommend Maldon)
Optional add-ins: 2 tablespoons of caramel sauce, some nuts or dried fruit, 2 tablespoons of coconut oil
Line a 8x8x2 square pan with parchment paper. Chop the chocolate into small pieces. I use a serrated bread knife to do this.
Melt 3/4 of the chocolate in the microwave. In my microwave, this takes 2 minutes, and I stop and stir it once after a minute.
Add the remaining 1/4 of the chocolate pieces and stir vigorously into the warm melted chocolate so all the chocolate is melted and smooth.
Pour the chocolate into the pan. If adding any other ingredient, drizzle or mix it in.
Sprinkle the sea salt on top.
Refrigerate until solid, usually about an hour. After the chocolate is solid, cut into squares. The bars are rich, so the squares don’t have to be big.
Tip: If you add caramel you have to store the bars in the fridge or the caramel will get way too runny and gooey. If I add coconut oil, I usually keep the bars in the freezer so the oil doesn’t liquefy.
A note about sea salt: I love Maldon sea salt, which can be found in many grocery stores. It’s expensive compared to regular salt (around $6) but less expensive than a lot of other sea salts. A box lasts a really long time, even for someone like me who uses the salt almost every day. The sea salt is meant to be sprinkled on food after it has finished cooking.
As I sit here working at my desk I’m thankful that I’m not at a grocery store today. Nor will I be at one tomorrow or Thursday. Miraculously, I already have all the ingredients I need for Thanksgiving and can avoid the grocery store insanity that will start building today and climax around 2pm on Thursday.
I know this because I worked at Whole Foods for several years selling wine and I was always shocked and amazed by how many people left their food shopping until the very last minute. Buying ingredients at 2pm on Thursday is a little late, no?
I’d like to say I have all my shopping done already because I’m incredibly organized but really it’s because I got lucky this year. We’re spending the holiday with a group of close friends in the neighborhood. All of them are great cooks so we’re in good hands and our only assignment is to show up with dessert and wine. As an exhausted mother of a 2-year old, to that I say THANK YOU.
I’m also happy not to be at a grocery store because lately, I’ve been suffering from Trader Joe’s fatigue. I come down with it several times a year and each time I seek a different cure. This summer, I signed up for a CSA box. No more plastic-wrapped, tasteless produce for me! But after a month of uninspiring boxes filled with excessive amounts of onions, radishes and unripe plums, I gave up. My pledge to hit a farmer’s market every single week hasn’t worked out either. Whole Foods is too far away and too expensive. Fresh and Easy is just kind of weird. So this time, I wasn’t sure where to turn.
Until, that is, I had a revelation after dropping O off at preschool last week. This time, I felt sure I’d found a cure.
I’d forgotten there was a Super King just a few miles from O’s pre-school. Usually, I never grocery shop during the 3 hours, 3 days a week that she’s in school. As soon as I kiss her cheek and say, “Mama loves you, see you soon” an hourglass tips in my head and it’s like every second is a little piece of gold slipping away. I spend the time working or doing something that’s impossible to do while she’s with me. But on this day I was desperate; we really had nothing to eat at home and there would be no time to shop later that afternoon.
For the first twenty minutes, I was in love with Super King. It was like the start of a new relationship. I was giddy with hope and wonder and the thrill of something new. Why didn’t I shop here all the time? I threw produce into my cart with wild abandon. Baby bananas, dandelion greens, Chinese long beans, rutabagas! Trader Joe’s produce aisle is so small and predictable that I can shop it with my eyes shut. I could send O into the store alone and she could shop it with her eyes shut. But not at Super King. I had choices! And they were cheap! This wasn’t like Whole Foods where you had to carefully weigh every produce item to make sure you weren’t spending $7.00 on a head of plain white cauliflower (which I did once, years ago, and still can’t quite get over).
I loved that the average age of shoppers in Super King was 75 and the way the older women aggressively manhandled the eggplants and tomatoes to make sure they were ripe. I loved how they spent ten minutes picking through the giant pile of Persian cucumbers to find the very best ones. I loved the deli case filled with dozens of cured meats and cheeses being sold as everyday food items, not precious, gourmet treats. I bought canned dolmas and Bulgarian pickles and a loaf of soft, delicious bread as tall as my kid. I also bought dish soap and sandwich bags. At last, one stop shopping!
But like many new relationships, the excitement quickly began to fade.
It all started with tofu. I needed some for my new “I don’t know what to cook for dinner so we’re having this” recipe. This recipe is good and it’s easy, which is why lately I’ve been making sure I always have tofu in the fridge. Surely there had to be tofu at Super King, but where?
Suddenly the aisles of Super King felt like a labyrinth closing in on me. Every aisle was clogged with people choosing from twenty different brands of garbanzo beans and ten types of brown rice. The line of people waiting at the deli was so long and thick you couldn’t cross it. I had to backtrack through the olive aisle and then back through produce where I got caught in a swarm of women still hovering over those damn cucumbers. “Just pick one!” I wanted to yell. “They all taste the same!”
I felt anxious and cranky and dehydrated. I had lots of random things in my shopping cart, none of which were going to come together into a meal. I had no idea how long I’d been in the store. An hour? Two? I thought about O at preschool and all the time I was wasting. A weird voice in my head suddenly started saying, “like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives…” with that creepy Days of Our Lives soundtrack playing in the back ground. I had to get out of Super King. Fast.
When I got home I had just enough time to unpack my 13 plastic bags (no one shops with reusable bags at Super King) before heading out again to pick up O. I had wasted an entire morning of preschool time, but I had also eased my Trader Joe’s fatigue. Sure, TJ’s bread is stale and the frozen meals all taste the same but I can shop on auto-pilot and buy a week’s worth of groceries in twenty minutes. I know exactly where the tofu is and never have to decide which can of garbanzo beans is the very best because there’s only one. So I buy it, thankful to have one less decision to make in a day.
Apparently, I’m at a moment in my life when I don’t need excitement and variety. Super King, I love you but I also hate you. And right now, I just don’t have time for a complicated relationship like that.
Tofu with Panko
This is a super-quick, relatively healthy meal. I usually serve it over noodles or rice.
Time in the Kitchen: 20 minutes
1 pound firm or extra firm tofu, cut into small squares (the smaller the better, I think)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (optional)
1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs (Trader Joe’s sells it. Yay!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 scallions, chopped
Warm both oils in a pan over medium-high heat. Wait until it’s sizzling a little then add tofu. Be careful – it will probably splatter a some hot oil out of the pan.
Sprinkle the panko and salt evenly over the tofu. Don’t stir! Just let it all fry for 3 minutes, then you can mix well.
Turn the heat down to medium and then let the mixture cook for another 3 minutes without stirring. The panko should be turning golden. If the pan seems dry, drizzle in a little more olive oil.
Add the scallions. At this point you can also add shredded cabbage or snap peas if you like. Cook three more minutes, stirring a few times.
Add more salt or a drizzle of soy sauce to taste.
Tomorrow, finally, election day! I made some calls for my candidate this year at a local phone bank and got the typical mix of responses: people who were gung ho and had already voted, people who told me they were “tired of these damn calls” and hung up on me, people who aggressively stated there was no way they were going to vote for my candidate and of course, a handful of sweet old ladies who just wanted to chat.
I understand all of these responses, even the rude ones, but the people I had a real problem with were the few who said they had no intention of voting of all. One man stated quite proudly that he hadn’t voted once in his entire life and had no intention of starting now. Really? How can you live in a country and enjoy all the opportunities and freedoms it generously offers and then think that voting doesn’t matter? You only have to take a quick peek at the headlines all over the world to understand that the right to vote and have your voice heard without fear of retaliation should never be taken for granted.
So whichever party you’re voting for, get out there and vote (unless you’re a republican in Wisconsin or Iowa….) and then while you’re nervously awaiting the results keep yourself occupied with some mindless snacking. This sweet and salty trail mix is the type of party food that makes people yell, “take this bowl away from me!” It’s is a snack mix that will see you through all the upcoming holiday parties and can even be put in a cute jar as a gift for friends. My favorite part about homemade snack mix is that you can leave out the fillers you don’t like (you’ll never find a peanut in my snack mix) and add more of what you love (lots of pecans, please!).
The inspiration came from two very experienced hosts who know their way around party food, David Lebovitz and Martha Stewart. I combined David Lebovitz’s Holiday Snack Mix recipe with Martha’s Chesapeake Bay Snack Mix. The result is a totally addictive bowl of crunchy nuts and pretzels with a sweet and salty coating that is neither too sweet or too salty.
Total Time in the Kitchen: 30 minutes
Servings: A big old bowl of party mix, for a party of 8 to 12 people
5 to 6 cups of raw, unsalted nuts (I used 3 cups of cashews, 1 cup of pecans and 1 cup of almonds)
3 large handfuls of mini pretzels or pretzel sticks
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
Spread the nuts out in a baking pan and roast in an 350 F oven for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. When the nuts are done take them out, but leave the oven on.
Melt together the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup and Old Bay seasoning.
Pour half the nuts and half the butter in a large bowl and mix well, then add the rest of the nuts and butter and mix until evenly coated. Next, add the pretzels and sprinkle in the salt while mixing well.
Spread the mixture back in the baking pan and bake for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice while cooking. Remove from the oven and cool completely before storing in an airtight container. Eat within a week.
Note that the nuts will be a little soft when still hot, but once they cool completely they will have a crunchy, roasted texture.