Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Here are the presents!

No blogging for a while since we were in PA visiting my mother, and I of course was not cooking (though I did help chop once in a while). My mother does not, as a rule, cook either--it is entirely unfair, in my eyes, that she has not one but two gorgeous Wegmans stores nearby, bursting with fabulous vegetables and so many cheeses I get quite dizzy, while I have the world's crummiest Shaws (I went in there yesterday and they were out of whole chickens--I had to ask at the counter for them to scrounge me up one).

The trip out there went well, though we were delayed getting on the road as one of our cats had a sudden attack of something and wasn't breathing very well. So, rush her to the vet, wait for the vet to get there, and look at her, and tell us that she looks okay now, make arrangements with him to do some tests, arrange with the cat sitter to pick her up later on so that we can finally get going. While on the road the vet called to let us know that our cat has heartworm. Heartworm?! In a cat who hasn't been outside in her entire life? Apparently so.

But, back to the food. My mother (Nana, now that the grandkids have come along) did a good job for our visit--we had squash stuffed with a cheese, breadcrumb, and nutmeg filling one night, and simple roasted veggies over couscous another. My grandmother provided the traditional (for our family) Christmas Eve ham, potatoes, asparagus (cooked to a sorrowful fare-thee-well, unfortunately), corn, and salad. For dessert there were of course Christmas cookies, though I wasn't together enough this year to bring any.

We had gifts with my grandparents Christmas Eve, my mother Christmas morning, and my sister's family Christmas afternoon. Then on Friday we had JJ's first birthday, in which all of the above stopped by my mother's house. JJ seemed to like his cake (the very last Christmas cake they had at Wegmans, as it turned out -- their bakery seemed to have taken the day off, or something...). On Saturday we took the kids to Erie's Children's Museum and let them run around for a while, which was very much needed.

My cooking-related gifts this year were:
  • from D, a new pepper grinder (ours had started shedding bits of plastic, not good)
  • from D, a new timer/thermometer (ours gave up the ghost on Thanksgiving!)
  • from my in-laws, a creme brulee torch! and a book of recipes to go with it (cue Beavis voice...).
  • from my friend Dottie, a jar of herbes de Provence
And L got a cute little apron and chef's hat from her cousin, to wear when she's helping me. She is, by the way, coming along, little by little -- we had Chinese food that first night at Nana's house, and she sat right down and ate some broccoli and a little bit of rice, just like a normal person. She sat down to supper at my grandparents' table and had some salad. Last night, she asked for chicken--didn't eat any of it, but nor did she push her plate away and burst into tears, and she did eat a few bites of green beans. She's even started to let us know that she's hungry, which is something of a miracle.

The trip back was just as delayed as the one out there--the New York State Thruway was inexplicably closed at the PA end, so we turned around and took I-86 across NY instead. It was reasonably pretty, but it did take a bit longer than we would have liked. When we got home, we opened up a couple of cans of soup and called that supper.

Yesterday I spent most of the day doing laundry, and made a quick run to the grocery store. For my first night back in the kitchen, I roasted a chicken with garlic and herbes de Provence, put together a rice pilaf (the potatoes at Shaws being, of course, all green...), and steamed some green beans. Simple as it gets, and I quite enjoyed it.

A few days of vacation left, and enough on my "to do" list to energize without overwhelming me (for now). Bring on the new year!

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Where are the presents?"

Trust a four-year-old to get right to the point, once we had finished decorating the tree Sunday afternoon! I tried a couple of times to explain to L that the presents come later, but I'm sure we'll be getting the question more than a few times in the next week.

A busy, busy weekend, what with getting the tree and decorating the apartment and coping with a teething baby (again! this kid has had more trouble than I would have thought possible with that) and trying to fit in some baking. I keep thinking in some vexation that I got a lot more than this done last year, despite being in advanced pregnancy, but then remind myself that a) I only had one kid underfoot while doing it, and b) I was working from home three days a week, so I had at least three more hours to get stuff done in the kitchen.

Regardless, it was a productive time, baking-wise.
  • Christmas cutout cookies
  • Another batch of peanut blossoms
  • Midnight Crackles
  • Gingerbread
  • Whiskey cakes
Pictures and recipes to come, but I wanted to get this post up to make sure I did it!

Sunday night, after all of that was done, I made a pizza, and we all sat on the couch and watched Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, which is on my list of Best Things of All Time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nutmeg Cheesecake

The last office birthday of the year would just have to be my boss'. I just did a layer cake and a torte for the other two that fall during this season, so I sounded her out on the topic of cheesecake. This recipe was published in the Holiday 2006 edition of The Baker's Companion, put out by the much-worshiped (and they deserve it) King Arthur Flour--I don't know if they still do it, but my grocery store hasn't had it in ages now. I flagged the recipe immediately, but I never had a good excuse to make it. Cheesecake is not something I can make for just the two of us, it would be sitting around here for a week. And this is a very holiday cheesecake, not something that can be made at just any time of year.

I may have to find an excuse to make it every year from now on, though, because it is really, really, really good. It capped the afternoon very well--the group having taken the opportunity on a rare day when we were all in the office at the same time to go out for an extended lunch at Legal Sea Foods, we meandered back through the freezing rain (precursor to the ice storm that would come that night), occupied a conference room and set to.

I am a bit too self-conscious to take pictures of my baking while at the office. But here is the recipe:

Crust:
1/2 c (1 stick) butter
1/4 c confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c plus 2 Tbsp AP flour
1/2 c chopped nuts

Filling:
3 8-oz packages cream cheese, room temp
1 1/4 c granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp eggnog flavoring OR use 1/2 c eggnog and elimate the 1/2 c heavy cream - NOTE: I used the eggnog
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 c (8 oz) sour cream
1/2 c heavy cream
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Topping:
1/4 c (2 oz) sour cream
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c heavy cream

Stencil Decoration (optional):
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp confectioners sugar

To make the crust:
  1. Preheat your oven to 375F.
  2. In a medium bowl, beat the butter until soft.
  3. Add the sugar, vanilla, and salt, beat at medium speed until fluffy. Scrape the bowl to be sure everything is well combined, then mix in the flour and nuts.
  4. Press into the bottom and about 1/2-inch up the sides of a 9- or 10-inch springform pan. Use a piece of plastic wrap while pressing into place.
  5. Bake the crust for 11-15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool.

To make the filling:
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Beat the cream cheese on low speed until no lumps remain, stopping to scrape the bowl once or twice.
  3. Add the sugar and salt and mix until well blended.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bottom of the bowl after each.
  5. Stir in the eggnog flavoring or eggnog, vanilla, sour cream, and heavy cream (if using). Remember, eliminate the heavy cream if you are using eggnog. Stir just until the mixture is smooth.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake in a preheated 325F oven for 45-50 minutes. The edges of the cake will look set and a light golden brown, and the middle should still jiggle when you nudge the pan.
  7. Turn off the oven, open the door slightly and let the cheesecake cool slowly for 1 hour. During this time the center will finish setting. Cooling the cake slowly will keep the top from cracking (NOTE: No, it didn't! I got a spectacular crack) and ensure an even, smooth texture inside.
  8. After an hour, remove the cake from the oven and run a knife around the top edge to allow the cake to contract as it cools. Chill overnight or for two hours before topping.
To make the topping:
  1. Stir together the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla; set aside.
  2. Whip the heavy cream until stiff, fold in the sour cream mixture.
  3. Spread on top of the chilled cheesecake.
  4. If you plan to stencil the top, place it in the freezer for 2-3 hours.

To stencil the top: (I didn't do this part)
  1. Combine the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar.
  2. Remove the cheesecake from the freezer (be sure the topping is set) and place a holiday or other stencil on top. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the top.
  3. Carefully lift the stencil straight up and refrigerate the cheesecake until ready to serve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

2008 Goals in Review

At some point in the past I stopped making "resolutions" and settled on "goals" instead. Somehow things seem more achievable that way. But since we are well into December now and I am unlikely to accomplish anything on this that I haven't already, a quick review seems in order.

My goals were divided into a few areas:
  • Financial--Save more money and pay off two of the credit cards. The latter we actually managed to do; the former has been haphazard, something to work on if we're going to buy a house next year.
  • Weight/Fitness--Lost the baby weight and then some, though that's largely to JJ's account, not anything that I've been doing actively. Found a local yoga class and attended semi-regularly throughout the year. I did not, however, manage to get any other sort of workout back into my routine, which I will have to do if I don't want to gain a lot back once the baby's weaned. The big challenge is finding some time....
  • Food--A mixed bag of accomplishment. I totally failed to reduce our grocery spending, though I like to think that's not entirely my fault, since prices have gone up on just about everything.

    I have done pretty well on including vegetarian recipes in our meal planning, terribly on adding more fish (expensive, and guilt-inducing what with every kind of attendant environmental problem), and so-so on adding more soups to my repertoire.

    I did not manage to fit a cake-decorating course into the year as I had hoped to do, so that stay's on next year's list. I did well on the "three new recipes a week" goal early in the year, but as the months wore on this fell by the wayside.

    I did well making use of local resources in the form of the farmer's market, the butcher shop, the local organic foods store, though the latter two were expensive enough to conflict with other goals.
  • Stuff--In the realm of material things, I was supposed to reduce my wish list by actually buying things off it, something I did spottily. Did better getting rid of stuff--many boxes of outgrown children's clothes and so forth were ferried to charity drop-offs over the year. We finally threw out some broken things that were taking up space, and we replaced the car, which was of course a major item.
  • Creative--I finished the Spelljammer campaign at long last. I did not get around to making a dent in the old tapes that are hanging around waiting to be looked at, though.
Overall, I think I'm going to have to give myself a C. If I have the following holdovers next year, and the house, that will be more than enough to keep me feeling like I'm not getting enough done....

2009 Goals:
  • Save out of every paycheck
  • Start lifting weights
  • Continue yoga
  • Take a cake decorating course
  • Try 3 new recipes a week, and track/organize them
  • Transcribe those old game tapes
  • Get rid of the futon, old computer stuff
  • Replace the couch

Monday, December 8, 2008

December Supper Club - Cookie Swap - Cranberry-White Chocolate Shortbread

One of our club's longest-standing traditions is that in December we go out for dinner and do a cookie swap, freeing everyone up from having to clean the house (again) to have people over (again) and make a whole meal (again). This year we went to Olive Garden, which I have to admit struck me as a rather peculiar choice, but the food was acceptable (short ribs and tortelloni for me) and since we were there early the place wasn't the usual zoo. L nibbled breadsticks and lettuce and ignored her pizza, JJ sampled two different jars of food and moved from lap to lap once he got restless, and we talked--mainly about the economy and such.

And of course we swapped cookies. I don't have the recipes anyone else, but here's mine, from kraft.com (of all places) via the Cooking Light bulletin boards. I had everything on hand to make them and they looked dead easy, which was a major factor in their selection with the two kids underfoot and very little sleep all weekend due to JJ's cold.

2 cups (4 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 cups flour
1 pkg. (6 squares) BAKER'S White Chocolate, chopped
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries

Heat oven to 350°F. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl with mixer until light and fluffy. Add flour; mix well. Stir in chocolate and cranberries.Drop rounded tablespoons of dough, 2 inches apart, onto baking sheets; flatten slightly.Bake 10 to 14 min. or until lightly browned. Cool 5 min. on baking sheets. Remove to wire racks; cool completely.


Can you believe that I've never made shortbread of any sort before? These turned out pretty well, I think -- light to the tooth, sweet and chewy with cranberries. I might make them part of my annual repertoire.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cinnamon Scones

A rare treat yesterday, in the form of a visit from our friends the Cs. We had last seen them just about a year ago, so it was nice to spend a couple of hours catching up. For brunch I made a strata, which I ended up not liking much, and the scones, which I did:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter - cut into pieces
1/2 cup cinnamon chips
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 375.

In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Using a pastry blender, cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients until the dough is crumbly. Fold in the cinnamon chips. Add the buttermilk and stir lightly until the dough comes together to form a ball. Don't overwork the dough.

On a lightly floured surface, pat the dough into a large circle about 2 inches thick. Cut the dough into wedges with a knife; do not separate the wedges. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Transfer dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 22 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned.

After cooling, separate wedges with a serrated knife.

makes 8 scones
source: WW Recipe Review Board

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Udon-Beef Noodle Bowl

I don't know what it is about noodles, but even the word says "this will be good." This is one of my all-time favorite recipes, so much more than the sum of its simple parts and easy enough to make on a weeknight--though it does require some coordination and several pans, and preferably someone else to watch the baby!

Break out the chopsticks and give yourself permission to slurp. Use fresh udon noodles if you can find them, since they are fantastic; if not, dried will do. I would not use spaghetti as the magazine suggests, though, unless you are absolutely desperate. People will probably want seconds.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Golden Pumpkin Walnut Loaf

I've been meaning to make this for weeks now. Well, on Sunday JJ took a morning nap (those are unpredictable) so I went ahead and put this quick bread together. It's easy enough to make, though mine tend to turn out rather flat--I think that next time, I'll try a slightly smaller pan and see if I can get a shapelier loaf. Since I was bringing this to the office, I doubled the recipe (might as well not leave a half can of pumpkin sitting around) and made half with, half without nuts. I leave the raisins out entirely, as I'm not a fan.

Golden Pumpkin-Walnut Loaf
From Cooking Light

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (about 5 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup canned pumpkin
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 7 ingredients (through mace) in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture.

Combine sugars and eggs in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add pumpkin, oil, and vanilla; stir well. Add raisins and nuts; add to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Spoon batter into a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 50 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack, and remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Milk Chocolate Chip Gingersnaps

As is right and proper, the day after Thanksgiving I started the holiday baking. Just a sort of warm-up round, with much more to come. This is a recipe I got from the Cooking Light bulletin board last year. This particular batch didn't turn out perfectly--I had less molasses than I thought I did, and wasn't willing to go out and get some more at the last minute--but they are entirely snackable and yummy.

2 1/4 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
3/4 c unsalted butter
1 c packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 c molasses
1 1/2 c milk chocolate chips
1/4 c granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  2. Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
  3. In a mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar for about a minute.
  4. Add the egg and molasses, mix until blended.
  5. At low speed, mix in the dry ingredients.
  6. Mix in chips.
  7. Form dough into balls, roll in granulated sugar, and place on cookie sheets about 2" apart.
  8. Bake for about 14 minutes. Cool on sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to rack.
Is it possible that this is the first cookie recipe I've blogged? I haven't used the label before....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Dinner, 2008

My mind keeps drifting back to last year, which I kept dead simple because I was eight months pregnant at the time. Turkey, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, a couple of do-ahead nibbles, and my mother-in-law's pie made for a nearly stress-free meal for a change.


This year, of course, I tried to do a bit more, but not much more, since we have a newly-toddling little boy underfoot and I spent much of the month or so leading up to the holiday with my brain occupied by our potential house purchase. The actual menu came together shockingly late (for me), and I didn't get around to writing up my plan until the day before (an old catering trick, I think I got it from Ina Garten--make a detailed list of what has to get done, when, working backwards from when the meal is to be served, so that you don't forget to put the stuffing in the oven or something like that). This is what I came up with:
  • Prosciutto and Gruy√®re Pastry Pinwheels--An old friend in the appetizer world, because you can do all the prep ahead of time, and then just slice and bake. They disappear very quickly because they taste fabulous.
  • Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese, Bacon, and Balsamic-Fig Dressing--I am salad-impaired; Thanksgiving is the only time I make stuff like this, going for the bag-of-greens-and-bottled-dressing approach the rest of the year. The dressing for this is wonderfully sweet-tart and divine with the goat cheese. I had to use romaine because my grocery store has no arugula, despite the presidential election.
  • Cranberry Relish with Apple Cider--This one had two changes. The first was accidental, because I bought pomegranate-flavored cider instead of normal (I thought they'd just changed the label somehow). I tasted it and thought it would do all right. Then I actually read the recipe, instead of just the ingredient list, and thought, Hm, that's a rather weird preparation. I think I'll cook it all together and see what happens. What happened was really good, so score one for being willing to go off the rails once in a while.
  • Mashed potatoes. In one of Nigella Lawson's books she mentions that she's not daft enough to think that you actually need a recipe for mashed potatoes, but then goes on to include one anyway. I've always liked that bit.
  • Brussels Sprout Hash with Caramelized Shallots--An unexpected hit last year, so I made them again. Might become... tradition!
  • Apple and Sausage Stuffing--With added chestnuts. This turned out okay, but I think I should have toasted the bread, as it didn't hold up as well as I would have liked. Not bad otherwise, though.
  • Salted Roast Turkey with Herbs and Shallot-Dijon Gravy--Another one where I cheated. I always buy a kosher turkey, so I didn't do the salting bit. I did mix a bunch of the herbs into the butter and slathered it under the skin. My probe thermometer chose an incredibly bad time to go on the fritz, but the white meat was done and delicious, and the gravy was fantastic. I'd make this one again any time, and if I had a standard turkey I'd certainly give the salting thing a try.
The cranberries, salad dressing, and appetizer were all put together the night before. The morning of, JJ helped by only getting up once in the night and then sleeping until 7:30. People started arriving around 10:30.

My sister-in-law brought some bread, and her mother the pumpkin and apple pies tradition demands. My husband's family are not big drinkers, and I'm still nursing the baby, so the wine list was minimal: a Beringer merlot my in-laws brought, and Domaine St. Michelle sparkling wine. I cooked, people lent a hand where needed and played with the kids when not. JJ and his grandfather both took a nap. Due to the long drive some people had ahead of them, we sat down to eat at around 3:30, ate a lot, sat around talking, did some cleaning up, called distant relatives say hello, ate some more, talked some more. The only time the TV was on all day was while L watched a library video after lunch--not a football to be seen! We have just enough leftovers to enjoy a reprise some time soon.

It was a very nice day. Good to see family, and spend a day not worrying about much of anything except whether the turkey is done enough.

Monday, November 24, 2008

White Velvet Butter Cake

Another week, another co-worker birthday; they're thick this time of year.

And another awesome Cake Bible cake. When the first thing anyone says is "Mmm," you can be pretty sure you've got a winner!

PS - We did not buy the house. Too much work to be done, too quickly, too costly. We'll start looking again next year.

White Velvet Butter Cake

4 1/2 large egg white (4 oz)
1 c milk
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
3 c sifted cake flour
1 1/2 c sugar
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
12 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare 2 9-inch cake pans; greased, bottoms lined with parchment paper, greased again, and floured. This is a PITA but does mean your cakes never stick.

In a medium bowl, lightly combine the egg whites, 1/4 cup of milk, and vanilla.

In a large mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients, and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend.

Add the butter and remaining milk to the dry ingredients, and mix on low speed until moistened. Increase to medium and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides.

Gradually add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth with a spatula. Bake 25-35 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert onto greased wire racks. To prevent splitting, reinvert and allow to cool completely.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream

9 oz high-quality white chocolate
12 oz cream cheese, softened
3/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice

Melt the chocolate, using either a double boiler or the microwave (stir every 15 seconds), and allow to cool.

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in the cooled chocolate until smooth. Beat in the butter and lemon juice.

Can be stored 1 day at room temp, 2 weeks refrigerated, 3 months frozen. If chilled, rebeat at room temperature before frosting. Beating when chilled may cause curdling.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Cat Returns

Even if I don't have much time to cook lately, I should be using this blog for something. Last night, in between fretting over what to do about the house, I made a pizza (and remembered to put the salt in the dough, something I'd forgotten about last time) and we watched The Cat Returns, an affable little movie from Studio Ghibli. I've yet to see something of theirs I didn't like, and while this isn't up to their highest standards, it was likable, beautiful, safe to watch with a small child, and on occasion made me laugh. Although criticism of the shallow characterization is fair, it didn't take itself seriously, and had more than a touch of the surrealism that makes Totoro such a delight.

I recommend it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

House Update

Yesterday we did the inspection. It was educational, to say the least, and unfortunately included the news that the heating and hot water system are on their last legs. We might be able to nurse it along through this winter, if we're willing to put up with the risk of it going out on us at some point. Noting that the temperature next week is supposed to dip into the 20s, that does not seem like a good idea. So if we're going to buy the place, we're going to have to come up with another five or ten thousand dollars to replace the boiler and hot water heater, and fix about a dozen more minor plumbing problems.

Apparently the fun just never ends with this process. And unfortunately, we don't have very much time to make up our minds.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Check is in the Mail

Last night we did the P&S on the house we're trying to buy. The inspection is tomorrow. I can't quite believe this is happening!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Where I've Been

Buying a house, I hope! So it's been insane, and quite busy, around our household, and meals have been a little haphazard. I did make a cake for a coworker's birthday last week, which I will be reviewing the recipe for ASAP.

Monday, November 3, 2008

November Supper Club: Massachusetts-y Foods

For this iteration of the "host picks the theme" plan, our host settled on "foods from Massachusetts" or reasonable facsimiles thereof. It was a later than usual gathering since she has to work on Sundays, and in the newly dark evening we trekked up the Driveway of Doom (she has the steepest one I've ever seen) and settled to... a lot of cranberries. :)
Next month we'll be going out for dinner and doing our traditional cookie swap. Not sure where yet, but given the budget constraints we're all under, probably nothing too exciting. I'm actually a little bit worried that we're in a rut, that we've stopped challenging ourselves. But then again, maybe that's not what everyone else wants out of the group, and it's okay to just be a bunch of people getting together for dinner; it doesn't have to be an event.

The best thing about the evening? I went three hours and didn't even think once about the election.

Raaarrr!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"Star Change" Campaign Post Mortem

The Star Change is a D&D play-by-email campaign I started in early 2001, using the Spelljammer universe. It is now late 2008, and we have started the wrap-up. During the course of the campaign we ported to the D20 3.0 system, and stuck with it when 3.5 and then 4.0 were released. We kept three of the original six players until very nearly the end, and a fourth who joined early on and stuck with it ever since, which is pretty damn good for this medium. If memory serves, five players have dropped out along the way.

We made it about 2/3 of the way through what I had initially thought of as "the campaign." I decided to move the ending up a bit as things threatened to drag out beyond the ability of the players and myself to stay involved--it would probably take another three or four years to get through the remainder.

As my first (and so far, only) extended GMing tenure, it's been a great learning experience. I have some thoughts as far as what went well and what went badly, but I'd like to hear from the players and any observers.

Things I think I need to work on:
  • Follow-though. Setting things up is easy; getting the conclusion to come off properly... hard. A related problem is impatience--there were moments when I should have, or would have liked to have, taken more time with something but cut it short for one reason or another. A lot of groundwork was laid and never used for one reason or another (including planning lapses on the part of yours truly).
  • Record-keeping. It's tedious, but I should pay more attention to it.
  • Pacing. Too often things lagged because I got distracted, or I didn't pester people or just move on without them when that might have been the better thing to do. It is crucial in PbEM that players be able to expect a certain level of posting frequency; if it drops, they find other ways to fill the time, and it's very difficult to get back up. Of course you have to take into account players' differing natural inclinations in this regard, too; some tend to be terser than others.
  • Managing expectations. It wasn't always clear to the players what was expected of them. The fact that a lot of the time I didn't actually have a preference on what they did was a big problem at some points, leading to a sense of aimlessness.
Other thoughts? What went well, what went badly, what would you like to see again, what should never come up again?

Thank you all. I am extremely grateful that you have given me so much of your time and thoughts and talents over the past seven years.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

House Hunting Can be Depressing

Given our budget and the still-somewhat-inflated prices around here, a lot of what we've been looking at are short sales, places on the brink of foreclosure. Some of them have been dumps, clearly inhabited by far too many people, poorly-cared-for, and all that. Today one came up that was really depressing, but for a different reason than usual:

Nothing like misplaced optimism to make you question your own life.

On the up side, my oven got fixed Tuesday night, and I made some bread yesterday. This weekend is going to be entirely mad--we have either a game or a visit with friends scheduled, depending on some job things; the kids need winter coats as the temps have dropped into ice-on-the-puddles territory quite abruptly; and I have supper club. Plus all of the usual errands and cleaning and so forth. But maybe a miracle will happen, and I'll get some cooking done....

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where Have I Been?

Three weeks ago, we had an unexpectedly enormous vet bill; in the interests of continuing to save for our hoped-for house, we put a tight rein on most grocery spending. I've been doing a lot of pantry meals and no new recipes at all.

Last Wednesday was my big deadline for the year, so I wouldn't have had much time to cook anyway. But that's all over and done with, all tasks marked "complete" in our tracking system, and everything is wonderful except....

That same day, my oven died. I am still waiting for my landlord to get it fixed.

So basically, the Chaos Creatures have been romping through my life lately and making it impossible to get any real cooking in. I did get to spend some time this past weekend going through my "holiday" file, picking out things I'd like to try this season. So here's hoping that things get a little bit better, very soon!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dark Chocolate Brownies with White Chocolate Chunks

Gah, a whole week since my last post? I'm not sure what it says that my long holiday weekend was so busy that I barely had time to check my mail a few times, but that seems to be how things are lately.

On Saturday, for instance, we took advantage of the flagrantly gorgeous weather and took a picnic lunch to Green Hill Park, on the other side of town. Aside from the congregation of bulldog owners (seriously), it was quite nearly deserted. We found a table, admired the foliage, and watched flocks of geese take off in frantic pursuit of or flight from whatever it was they thought was important, while L poked around on the shore and soaked her shoes. Afterward we walked up to the little farm/petting zoo, and then over to the playground. JJ played with sticks, I lay in the grass clippings and watched some fantastic high clouds, we all got a bit too much sun, and it was one of the most perfect days imaginable.


On Sunday, D had to go up to NH to help close up the cottage. I was still recovering from the hideous cough that had been plaguing me for nearly a week, and we didn't really want to get the kids up and ready for a 7 a.m. departure, so it had been agreed that the rest of us would stay home. I always feel a bit nervous about having them to myself for a long stretch, but as it turned out, the day went very well. I made bread and these brownies, which along with Ina Garten's "outrageous" ones are the best ones I've had:

DARK-CHOCOLATE-BROWNIES-WITH-WHITE-CHOCOLATE-CHUNKS

Our friend B came up from Connecticut for a visit with his daughter. She and L ran around the driveway for a while, watched Toy Story, and we got a pizza for lunch. After our visitors had gone and JJ was napping, L got a bath. I didn't aim high for dinner--Chicken & Stars soup for her, leftovers for me--but I did get them both fed and in bed by the time D had battled his way through the fair-going traffic. And no one melted down all day, not even me!

Monday I had off, and since it was still unseasonably nice, we went over to Hadwen Park, near our apartment, for the morning. We walked up the hill and along the trails through dried leaves and pine needles, and talked glancingly about the fact that it might well be our last visit to the place, if we find a house and move this winter. In the afternoon, I bathed the other kid and spent some quality time with my stack of old November issues of Bon Appetit, thinking idle thoughts about holiday menus. I sliced up a pork tenderloin, found a recipe for an easy pan sauce of red wine, orange juice, and broth, added some roasted carrots, squash, and turnips from the farmer's market, and called it dinner.

General update notes: JJ is standing by himself more often, starting to get the hang of this balancing thing. He goes in today to see how his head is coming along. And L, having put up a fight about it that has long baffled her parents, has finally been using the potty. Work has been crazy, but we have our big deadline for this release a week from today, and after that things should get a bit quieter there. I have a ton of vacation time to use up before the end of the year, so I'm thinking about how to best use that (a few days spent baking cookies, perhaps?).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Return to Overlook Farm

The pancake breakfast there in March was one of my first posts on this blog, and in it I looked back at last year's harvest festival, which for one reason and another I didn't enjoy very much. This past weekend, we went back, and everyone had a good time.

The day was cool, bright and quintessentially autumnal New England. The leaves have yet to peak in these parts, but patches here and there are brilliant red and orange, and when we got up to Overlook we were all glad to have worn jackets, as the breeze was really quite chilly. We got there on the early side, took a quick wander around and saw the horse teams all ready to go out on a hayride, with one other family in place. L was quickly befriended by another girl, somewhat older and very outgoing, and we saw her family off and on throughout the day.

The driver thought that was enough, and we went jolting slowly down the road, past the vegetable stand and garden, a field where pigs were acting as living rototillers, and ended up the "pumpkin patch." This was a grassy field full of pumpkins, the actual growing field being thus preserved from being trampled on all day. L picked out an appropriately tiny pumpkin, and we walked back up to the buildings and started making a circuit of the exhibits and barns.
Once we were all pretty well worn out from that we sat down for lunch, most of it made from food produced on the farm. L didn't really eat anything, as per usual, but she did drink some milk and some fresh apple cider. We paid a visit to the farm stand for eggplant, leeks, and Swiss chard, and then headed for home, pleasantly tired.

October Supper Club - Starts with (Letter)

Supper clubs tend to evolve the way they do things over time. For this month, rather than have the whole group try to wrangle out a theme, we decided that whoever was hosting would pick. Looking over our list of ideas, K picked the "starts with (letter)" theme.

For some reason, this one I had a horrible time thinking of something to make. I was given my dish by a friend outside the group while I was communicating my despair over IM. "Too busy to think" seems to have been the tone of the whole weekend for more than one of us, and this was not our most successful dinner; the standard phrase "this is our best one yet" did not get used as it often does (and usually, it's deserved). They can't all be home runs. On the up side, member HK, who has missed a few lately, joined us for this Sunday, and we all had a good time catching up.
  • KS - Slow-cooker beef stew
  • PC - Cucumber casserole
  • HK - Kugel
  • RS (me) - Ratatouille
I used the recipe from Patrica Wells' Bistro Cooking (Ratatouilla Francoise Rigord), being a bit intimidated by Julia Child. The only problem I had with this one is her assumption that you have an infinite number of stainless steel skillets--with lids--and stove burners; otherwise, it's a snap.

6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium onions (about 1 pound), coarsely chopped
Bouquet garni: 12 parsley stems, 8 peppercorns, 1/2 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp fennel seed, and 1 bay leaf tied in a double thickness of cheesecloth
3 large red bell peppers (about 1 pound), cored, seeded, and cubed
2-3 small eggplant (about 1 pound), cubed
2-3 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), cubed
5 medium tomatoes (about 1 pound), cored and cut into eighths
Salt
1 lemon
A handful of finely minced fresh parsley
  1. In a large, heavy, nonreactive skillet (LHNRS) heat 2 Tbsp of oil over ML heat.Add the onions and bouquet garni and stir to coat with the oil. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and light golden, 20 minutes. Do not allow them to burn.
  2. Add the bell peppers, stirring gently to mix, and continue to cook until the mixture is very soft, about 30 more minutes.
  3. In another LHNRS, heat 2 Tbsp of oil over ML heat. Add the eggplant and stir to coat. Cook, covered, until soft, stirring from time to time to keep the eggplant from sticking to the pan, about 20 minutes.
  4. In another LHNRS, heat 2 Tbsp of oil over ML heat. Add the zucchini and stir to coat. Cook, covered, until soft, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, about 20 minutes.
  5. Add the eggplant to the onion and bell pepper mixture. Cook, covered, over low heat for another 15 minutes.
  6. Gently spoon all of the vegetables into a colander set over a nonreactive saucepan or skillet to collect the liquid. Spoon the vegetables into a large bowl. Place the pan of liquid over high heat and reduce until thick and syrupy, 5-10 minutes. Pour over vegetables and stir to blend. Season wiht salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.
  7. To serve, remove the ratatouille from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving. Adjust the seasoning. Squeeze half the lemon over the top and sprinkle with parsley.

Yields 12-16 servings

Thursday, October 2, 2008

North Woods Bean Soup

AKA, "She ATE IT!!!"

This is an old standby at our place--I didn't even pull out the recipe last night, I've made it so many times--but it's been in retirement for a while, as it's not exactly a summery soup. It is hearty, warming, and relatively cheap as far as the ingredient list.

We have been working for a couple of weeks now on getting L to eat a normal dinner, instead of going through a separate rotation of the four things she likes to eat, and then giving her some yogurt. The invariable reaction has been to push her plate away, drink her milk, and announce, "I'm done." I did have some hopes for this soup, because she does like beans. She did pick a few of those out, then speared a piece of kielbasa and asked me if it was a hot dog. "Yes," I told her, figuring it was close enough. She ate it. A while later I saw her looking speculatively at a carrot, though she made a face when she ate it. She even ate a piece of kale (which I use instead of spinach when I have it).

Needless to say, this soup will be going into regular rotation.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Bars

It was a good weekend in just about every way (the exception being the weather, by turns downpour and muggy overcast). On Saturday we went out to look at houses and actually saw one that we like quite a bit, was in our price range, and was in pretty decent shape. We're not sure yet what we're going to do about it, but the existence of one such prospect makes us feel better about the whole endeavor.

On Sunday there was the usual cleaning and errands to be done, and in the afternoon I got to spend some time baking. I made D an apple pie, something I do every three years or so. I don't have much of the normal fear of piecrust, but I don't really care for pie most of the time, so he ends up having to eat the whole thing. I use a Mrs. Fields recipe, and previously it's turned out all right, but this weekend the filling failed to thicken. Not sure if it was the apples I used or some other error, or just one of those things. It did look awesome, though:

While the crust was chilling, I threw together these bars, which are one of my favorite things to make. They're basically Toll House cookies with some of the butter replaced by peanut butter, baked in a pan; what's not to love?

1 1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temp
1/2 cup commercial smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temp
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

  1. Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly grease an 11x7 baking pan with butter or vegetable oil.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together into a medium-size bowl and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter, peanut butter, both sugars, and the vanilla until light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape the bowl.
  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat on medium speed until partially blended after each, about 10 seconds. After the second, beat until blended, about 30 seconds.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the batter and mix with a spatula until the flour is absorbed. Then mix on low speed until blended, 7-10 seconds. Scrape the bowl.
  6. Add the chocolate chips and blend for several seconds. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
  7. Bake the bars on the center oven rake until the edges are deep golden and the center is lightly golden and slightly puffy, 25-30 minutes. The center will drop when the bars are taken out of the oven, creating a chewy texture. Cut the bars into squares after they have cooled a bit on a rack.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Black Bean Soup for a Rainy Day

After last weekend's budget-busting entertainment extravaganza, I was determined to be a bit more frugal this week. Saturday was soggy as can be, and we spent a goodly chunk of it looking at a couple of houses in Framingham, one of which actually seems like it might be a good prospect (finally). I did not have time to do grocery shopping; I did have the leftover ham and a bag of black beans. So--black bean soup it was! I made some bread while it simmered, and there you have it, a decent and decidedly cheap meal (with leftovers to have for a couple of lunches).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Got Eggplant?

Then you can make Penne with Sausage, Eggplant, and Feta! Which is what I did on Monday. File under "quick and delish." I like to buy eggplant in the summer, when the farmer's market has small, smooth, perfectly purple fruits, but I have few means of using them so far.

I discovered with this rendition that if you turn the heat waaaay up and don't use a nonstick pan, you get some awesome browning on the sausage, and the eggplant is done without getting mushy (yuck).

You may have noticed a distinct bias around here toward things that can be made in less than twenty minutes and put on top of pasta. There are days I like to fuss around in the kitchen for hours, but they're hard to come by.

Monday, September 22, 2008

JJ's Baptismal Lunch

It was an enormously busy weekend--a D&D game on Saturday, and one of the group had a recent birthday so I made Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Cloud Cake. It was absolutely fantastic and I wish I'd taken a picture. The only problem was the presentation, in that the whipped cream tends to slide around a bit when you cut into the cake. Minor problem, though, since it tasted great. While we played, I put together Ina Garten's Outrageous Brownies. (Take a pound of butter....)

My in-laws were here to watch the kids during the game. For dinner we gave them Bistro Chicken with rice pilaf and steamed green beans, and then we finished off the cake.

On Sunday morning I made some French-style potato salad, chopped up veggies for nibbling with hummus, plated the brownies, and put the ham in the oven. JJ was fussy at first during church, and complained quite loudly about the water, but soon after that he fell asleep. Here's the little guy in his gown.


We caravaned the family back to our apartment, and it was short work to put all the food out. D's mom and dad brought some bread and iced tea to round out the menu, and his aunt and uncle had thoughtfully brought some prosecco and glasses, and we toasted our little guy and then fell to demolishing the food.

That didn't take long, and there isn't much left over, which is pretty much the best compliment one can have for this sort of event. Everyone stayed for a while, catching up, taking pictures, playing with the kids (L was a little hyper but generally pretty good, and JJ behaved fabulously--must have been the nap).

Midafternoon JJ finally went to sleep again. I took L outside and blew bubbles for her, and we went down by the pond's shore to see the turtles, and the heron that was fishing off the old pilings. I will miss that pond, but I am really starting to look forward to moving.

Here's a pic of the two kids from earlier this week, just for the heck of it!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Apple Spice Cake with Brown Sugar Glaze

"OMG. So yummy."
"Wow… that is DELICIOUS!"
"YUM!!"
"Thanks for sharing the delicious apple cake!"

And so forth, from my co-workers. This is a really good cake for fall entertaining. Sweet and moist and big enough for a crowd.

It's been a while since I brought anything in to the office. Hopefully this made up a bit for the drought.

Edit 11/3/08--I just now realized that I have blogged this recipe twice. Oh, well.....

Sunday, September 14, 2008

He slept through the night!!!

I will never figure kids out.

Friday night was awful. L brought a cold home from school and gave it to her brother, and he was up I think four times in the course of the night--crying, snuffling, and more than willing to share his misery with his parents. So Saturday night we were braced for more of the same; we got the car seat ready in case he found it easier to sleep propped up, and agreed to take turns getting up with him as needed.

Instead, he slept from 8:30 to 5, had a snack, and went back to sleep for another couple hours. Amazing. He has also become quite competent at pulling himself to standing. While he had done it a few times before yesterday, over the course of the weekend he has gained confidence and proficiency. When I went in this morning to find him standing up in his crib, it was time to lower the mattress level.

Most of yesterday was taken up with a trip to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in RI. We were there last year with our friends the Rs and their daughter, and are trying to make it something of a tradition, since we don't get to see them as often as we'd like. The zoo is on the small side in terms of the number of exhibits, which makes it just the right size for small children; both girls were pretty tired and edging into cranky by the time we finished. When the kids are bigger we might broaden our activity zone to other parts of the park.

Something to remember for next time: with little ones, do not try to leave something good for the end of the visit; they'll be too tired to enjoy it and will rush you through it, too.

Now to spend a rainy morning figuring out menus and shopping lists. Aside from the normal weekly things, JJ is getting baptized a week from now, and I have to figure out something to feed people afterward, plus we have a D&D game on Saturday. Takeout may figure into one or more of these events....

No further news on the house front; we seem to have exhausted the existing stock that meets our criteria in the Framingham area, and are left waiting to see what else comes on the market. We are hoping to take a second look at that one fixer-upper, just for kicks and to see how much work would really be involved. I keep reminding myself that we have plenty of time... but last night I packed up two boxes of videos we don't watch much. There's a big part of me that really wants to have this done with.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sweet Potato and White Bean Soup

Or just potato and white bean, since I bought a lot of the former at Monday's farmer's market (I always buy more potatoes than I need. Always.). And I had to resort to jarred pesto, since I didn't have everything required to make one from sage and walnuts (which sounds good, but at what point do you have to stop calling it pesto?).

This was one of the best returns on investment I've had in a while. The leeks take long enough to cook that you can do everything else at a rather leisurely pace in the meantime, instead of having everything ready to go before you get started, but the entire recipe can be ready in a half hour or so. And of course, pesto can make almost anything taste good. Together with what was left of the bread from Monday, this made a very satisfying meal for a weeknight.

L ate half the beans out of the colander before I could put them in. She's got the first cold of the school year now. I am still obsessing over that rehab in Maynard, and counting down the days before our big October deadline at work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Classic Walnut Boule

Two marvelous things happened on Monday: the weather was reasonably cool, and my head was well enough organized that I could make some bread--some new bread, at that, instead of a recipe I know by heart. I'd marked this recipe in the latest Cooking Light issue (yeah, them again, sorry), and even remembered to buy the walnut oil for it, so it was a natural choice.


I can't find a lot to say about the process of making it. It's bread; you mix a few things together, let it sit around for an hour or so, knead in some walnuts, let it sit some more while the oven gets nice and hot, and there you go.

It seemed a little small at first, but after the second rise it was hefty enough to make a good-sized loaf. Following my recent success with my pizza stone, I tried baking this bread on it, and I'd have to say it worked quite well. The loaf did not get much of a crust, but that's something I really have to work on. Perhaps next time I make it, I'll try for some steam and see what happens. I will definitely make this again; it's a tender, slightly sweet loaf, and something about serving up a round loaf just says "special occasion" to me.

Monday, September 8, 2008

House Hunt Update: Maynard

After a long break due to various vacations interfering with the schedule, this past Saturday we resumed looking for a house, this time in Maynard. It's a tiny, tiny town surrounded by farms and apple orchards, but the main street looks reasonably lively, it's close to a number of other towns, and there's a definite appeal to the idea of a place you can walk around.

We looked at four houses, two of which were too small, one of which was enormous but the location is a little "eh," and the fourth was one of those sad tales that are all too common in this market: a foreclosure that has the potential to be gorgeous, but due to neglect and water damage and the fact that it hasn't been updated in about sixty years, it's going to need someone to gut the place before that happens. I highly doubt that it's going to be us who do that.

So ended our second day of looking at houses. We liked what we saw of Maynard, and will keep an eye on the place. We are also getting a sense of what the square footage advertised means in terms of real space, which is helpful. We have all these books to house along with the four of us!

Dinner and a Movie: Ratatouille

Every once in a while we have a movie night here. It's traditionally been an MST3K episode to celebrate the end of some long week or other with minimally brain-straining fare, but we've recently decided to experiment with Netflix and see if our hectic lives can support actually watching something new once in a while. We inaugurated the experiment with Ratatouille, a movie everyone I know liked. Now that I've seen it, I'm not sure how I went so long without it. I mean, I knew it had something to do with cooking, but has any other animated film in history given a visual shout-out to Microplane? My admiration for the Pixar crew continues to expand; they get so many details right. L, surprisingly to me, lost interest after a while, but a lot of it was pretty well over her head, too. It may be that a second viewing would draw her in.

Along with the movie we had pizza. I have been working on my pizza for a while now. I use a basic pizza dough recipe from Cooking Light, purchased sauce, lots of cheese, peppers, mushrooms, and pepperoni. To the sauce I add some Italian herb mix and crushed red pepper. Bake it on a pizza stone (now that I've finally learned how to get it on the stone rather than the oven floor--parchment paper!) for about twenty minutes. Resorting to delivery pizza has become an option accepted with a resigned grimace.

Friday, September 5, 2008

September Supper Club: Fruit

A bit of an odd theme perhaps, but I was willing to go with the flow. There were only three of this month, and we met at P's little condo and discussed (among other things) the way the group has changed over the four years (!) of its existence, and people we know who might be interested in joining. These days we top out at five attendees, and there's usually one who can't make it; we could use a few more people to reinvogorate the group. We also agreed that we need to get a little better about planning, as things have been very last-minute for a while now.

For all that, we had a pretty good menu. I went a little overboard and did three recipes, taking advantage of JJ's long Sunday morning nap and the cooler weather to get back into my kitchen.
Either K or D will host in October, and we're going to experiment with having the host choose the theme.

Cruising!

JJ took his first cruising steps today. Wish I'd had a camera handy, because he had the biggest grin I have ever seen!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Springfield Chili

I notice that my post count has dropped every month since I started this blog. Well, it's September now--time to get back into the kitchen! though not today, as it's supposed to be in the high 80s.

So you probably won't want to make this chili tonight. I made it on Saturday, my night to cook for what will probably be the year's final excursion to NH for me. I picked it in a state of aggravation and nigh-desperation, not really looking forward to going up there at all. I was sick of driving and being away from home, worried about how the new puppy some of the relatives have would handle the kids, grouchily certain that none of us would get any sleep, and generally in one of those vile moods where giving yourself free rein to wallow in it provides a sort of weird, petty satisfaction.

Fortunately, once we were actually there, this mood didn't last. It was in fact a lovely weekend, with clear (albeit somewhat windy) weather. The puppy behaved himself well, and so did the kids (and the grown-ups, for that matter). A lot of work got done (not by me, which made me feel a little bit guilty, but I did have the baby to keep an eye on). A lot of ice cream got eaten--L had her first-ever cone at the GPC store, and quite surprised me by insisting on getting one, since she's always had it in a dish.

And the chili, which I had worried about, turned out to be great. I might even make this my new standard recipe. I made the following adjustments:
  • I had a green pepper left over from something else, so that went in
  • Although I doubled the recipe, I only used 1 can of beer, since 2 would have meant a great deal of liquid to get rid of. PBR, of all things, that we had in the refrigerator.
  • I used a lot more Worcestershire sauce than they called for. On the order of a quarter cup, which may have been a tad too much, but a couple of teaspoons seemed ridiculously low.
The results? Spicy-good, there were no leftovers, and nine people got fed for something like $5 a person (that includes the salad my mother-in-law made, too).

The rest of this week is likely to be a wash, cooking-wise--I have not had time to shop or plan since we got back on Monday, and we've been throwing together pantry-based meals for the most part. On Friday, though, I should be able to get to the farmer's market in the morning. We're having pizza for dinner and watching a movie (we finally joined Netflix, will see if we can actually find the time to watch anything). This weekend we're looking at cool, rainy days, always nice to spend in the kitchen. Bring on fall!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Black Bean Tomato Soup and Quesadillas

I stayed home from yoga on Wednesday due to somehow messing up my hand--didn't think a downward-facing dog would do it any good. It's feeling better now, and I have a nice new recipe to boot.

I have off and on attempted to introduce a "___ day" theme into my menus. I know there are people out there who always have pasta on Tuesday, for instance. I think I'd find that overly restrictive, but I have been inspired to try having a "soup and sandwich" night once in a while, since I have very few sandwiches in my repetoire.

This duo was featured on the latest issue of Cooking Light's menu suggestions page at the back of the magazine. You make the soup, which really couldn't be easier and was also very good--I suspect the bacon played a role there!--and while it simmers you can throw together a couple of quesadillas with chicken and whatever cheese you like best. The result is something that doesn't take any additional time, but that feels more like dinner to me than having just soup often does, like I'm cheating or leaving something undone.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Chicken Breasts with Avocado, Tomato, and Cucumber Salsa

One of these days I really will start taking pictures of recipes; it would make the place look a little less boring. But probably not this one, because it was, well... kind of boring, too. Not that there was anything wrong with it, it was easy and quick to put together and tasted fine, it was just kind of dull. Maybe grilling the chicken would have made all the difference, but my grill pan needs to be cleaned and reseasoned, and it's one of those things I just don't get around to. And I think I have to come to terms with the fact that I don't like avocado much. Perhaps I have simply never been exposed to a good one, since the one we had for this salsa tasted somewhat watery to me.

But anyway. If you're looking for something quick and simple and have the stuff on hand, there's no reason not to make this, but if you have some time and ambition, might want to keep looking.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dunkin Donuts Helps My Budget

They've changed their cream cheese recently. I don't know what sort of crap they're trying to pass off now, but it surely is not Philadelphia brand; it's thinner, and faintly gritty, and I find it on the edge of disgusting. So there goes that habit, unless I want to switch to donuts.

They're still working on the Finagle A Bagel on First Street. Looks like they've started hiring, so perhaps we have not much longer to wait. I hope they'll have decent cream cheese.

Getting Back to Cooking

It's been a while. The height of summer is not really recipe-friendly. But yesterday I managed to sit down and put together an actual list of menus for the week, things that involve more than "saute veggies, boil pasta, put veggies on pasta."

Although not necessarily a lot more. Last night, in order to use up some farmer's market eggplant, I made Eggplant Marinara Pasta Casserole. It took a bit of time to put together, and the baby was teething and fussy, and L was tired and cranky, and I poured myself a glass of wine with a lot more feeling than I usually do. But the recipe is a good one. Salting and prebaking the eggplant gives them a bit more of a concentrated texture, without the mushiness that can be a turnoff for those who, like me, have not quite made up their minds whether or not they like the stuff. I found myself thinking that some sausage would go very well, but the dish is hearty and can stand on its own quite easily.

Note that the recipe is written for 8 servings--I halved it, and it worked perfectly well that way.

So get yourself an eggplant and get to it!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lake Week 2008 Part 3: Maine

Saturday: Last day here. We spend much of the day packing, cleaning and getting the cottage closed up. Lydia scrapes her foot on a rock, and from the screeching you'd have thought that she broke a leg. At 2 we get on the road (Rt 25, to be specific) for Yarmouth, ME. leading through quaint towns where the only industry still extant appears to be antique stores, but it's a pretty drive. Soon after we arrive, the rain clouds that have dogged us drop their burden. Yarmouth appears intent on making itself walkable/bikeable, and the result is a very agreeable little town. My sister-in-law and her husband are there as well, making for a tight fit in a two-bedroom condo, but we manage to sort out the sleeping arrangements. L and I go along for the dog's evening walk, and get bitten up by mosquitoes. After dinner we have dessert from Kickass Cupcakes, where J has just gotten a job. Not a very restful night; JJ is up a lot, including one spell of about an hour when he just would not get properly to sleep.

Sunday: At Christmas my father-in-law presented everyone with tickets for a harbor ride he'd won in a church raffle, and today is finally the day. In contrast to the previous evening, it's sunny, warm, and about as gorgeous a day as one could wish. I go out for a half hour's walk around the neighborhood, which is quite nice. Around 11 we drive over to a little park with a beach, which is very nice, apply sunscreen, and at 11:30 meet Brenda, our “captain” for the day, a pleasantly outgoing sort with a converted lobster boat in which she tools around. Everything goes fine (once we get Lydia in a lifejacket, which she wasn't keen on). Both of the kids behave well and seem to enjoy the trip.

Boxed lunches from the European Bakery are eaten while we idle past Whaleboat Island. We see a lot of lovely boats, many attractive little islands with rich people living on them, and more lobster buoys than I would have imagined possible.

We leave around 3, run into much worse traffic than we expected, with the result that by 6 we are in the vicinity of Haverill and running low on energy. We have some pretty bad Chinese at Oriental Garden just off the exit. L has a granola bar. JJ sleeps for most of the trip, but after being put back in the car after dinner decides that he's bored and cries most of the rest of the way. We finally get home around 8, stagger upstairs, count the cats, and go to bed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lake Week 2008 Part 2: Sun

Wednesday: D's birthday! It's sunny! And very cold at night. L is up very, very early, possibly as a result. I make a fire in the morning, then take the kids to GPC so he can do more inventory. In the afternoon we visit Fun Spot, where L seems to have a much better time than last year; she goes on the bumper cars but seems disconcerted by the actual bumping, plays a round of mini-golf with her dad (I have JJ in the Baby Bjorn, not conducive to golfing), and attempts a couple of games.

Afterwards, we head to Kellerhaus for ice cream sundaes, a venerable family tradition. Both kids fall asleep, JJ in the restaurant, L a few minutes into the car trip back. L sleeps until suppertime. JJ does not; he gets a bath in the sink.

Thursday: Beautifully misty, not so cold. L falls in the water (again) as she gets adventurous enough to try for a new standing rock. The forecast is for showers and more thunderstorms, so in the morning we seize on the still-clear weather and head over to the beach on Long Island. For most of the morning, we share the place with only one other family and a handful of bored and off-duty teenage lifeguards. Relaxing. At noon we head home for lunch. By 1 L is scratching her legs nearly constantly. I wash her off and douse her in calamine lotion, with her howling bloody murder the entire time and JJ complaining in counterpoint about being left in the playpen. I cuddle them both by turns and sing songs. At 2:30 he goes to sleep. At 3 she decides she's feeling better. The rain has not materialized; the afternoon is perfectly gorgeous. D retrieves the sock she threw into the water. There's a bush down there with a few red leaves already; that one is always among the first to turn. Cicadas sing in the daytime, crickets at night. We try again to go to GPC for ice cream, but they seem to be changing their hours randomly, and have to get some at JoJo's. On our way over we see a deer and a very bold fox; D tries to take a picture of the latter.

Friday: Another beautiful morning. Chilly. The kids sleep until 9. I make pancakes for breakfast. We make a trip to the dump, visit the Old Country Store, look at all the stuff, and get L some penny candy. Then a stop at the farm stand to get things for dinner; corn, some carrots, locally made cheese, and some cheesy bread twists. After a lunch of leftovers, D heads out to do more laundry. I let L watch Robin Hood again while I try to get JJ to go to sleep. Dinner is the veggies and some braised chicken thighs with Penzey's Lemon Pepper.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lake Week 2008 Part 1: Rain

Saturday: Travel is surprisingly easy, since it's not a holiday weekend. With a stop at the Moulton Farm, we're at the lake around 1. Lunch and supper with my in-laws, with plenty of relaxing in between. L goes in the water and gets an unexpected dunking when her grip on the dock's edge slips, but no harm done. JJ has chosen an inopportune time to develop stranger anxiety.

Sunday: The loon pair in the cove have a chick this year. D takes L to GPC in the morning for two hours so I can write, still working on reordering a few scenes in the middle of the book. JJ sleeps for four hours, making up for a rough first night. Rain 12-2. Trip to Center Harbor for groceries. Rain 5-sometime in the early morning. D gets started on his project for the vacation, taking inventory of the accumulated junk in the crawlspaces and closets upstairs. Shortly after we get JJ to bed, an oak tree comes down, narrowly missing big cottage porch (or so we thought, later realizing that a branch had glanced off the roof--you can see it in the background of the second picture).

Monday: Rain. I make pancakes. D drives down to Boston to see his cousin and about the legal arrangements for the cottage's future. I play with L, cut pictures out of the newspaper for her to glue, make a fire and spend the rest of the day keeping JJ away from it. He's teething or something, nursing every time I turn around. L watches the animated Robin Hood DVD on my laptop, runs out of steam around 5 pm and gets very clingy, but it's a surprisingly good day for having been stuck inside the whole time. For dinner I make a huge pot of pasta and sauteed globe zucchini and the little star-shaped ones we call flying saucer squash (we eat it for lunch for the rest of the week).

Tuesday: Another threatening morning, so we drive in to Meredith. It clears up. We walk along the waterfront and marvel at the millrace by the Mill Falls, which can barely contain the amount of water coming through.

Lydia walks on the rocks at the water's edge. We visit the Innisfree Bookshop, where I manage to only buy a couple of things, then walk up to a new gourmet food store a friend told me about. On the way back we stop at a new bakery for an enormous round of foccaccia. Businesses are always coming and going in Meredith. Lunch on the porch is bread, cheese, and sliced cucumber. D tackles more inventory. I take L down to the dock to play, and think about how last year we wouldn't let her on the old concrete stairs without someone to hold her hand. Now she scrambles surely around the shore rocks, finding sticks and pebbles to throw into the lake (and one of her brother's socks, which earns her a time-out), and puts her feet in the water. We drive over to GPC, but the ice cream parlor is closed and it's begun raining again, so we turn around, occasioning tears from a disappointed little girl. She is mollified by some more scissors-and-glue action, and her mother congratulates herself for having thought to bring the stuff along. Intermittent showers throughout the afternoon. Dinner is pork fajitas, rice and beans, and salad.

We're Back!

More, much more, to follow, with pics from our vacation, but for now I am still wading through email and trying to remember what my job is, anyway....

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake

I've been meaning to post this for weeks now--it's the recipe I used to make L's birthday cake, and it was not only the best chocolate layer cake I've ever made, but quite possibly the best I've ever eaten. Thank you, Rose Levy Berenbaum, whose book truly deserves the title The Cake Bible.

1/2 c + 3 Tbsp unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa (I use Droste, and for things like this, it is worth the expense!)
1 c boiling water
3 large eggs, room temp
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 c + 2 Tbsp sifted cake flour
1 1/2 c sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 c unsalted butter, softened.

  1. Preheat oven to 35oF. Prepare 2 9-inch cake pans: greased, bottoms lined with parchment or wax paper, then greased again and floured.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together cocoa and boiling water until smooth. Cool to room temp.
  3. In another bowl, lightly combine the eggs, 1/4 of the cooled cocoa mixture, and vanilla.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend.
  5. Add the butter and the remaining cocoa mixture. Mix on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened.
  6. Increase to medium speed (high if hand mixer) and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scape down the sides.
  7. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides.
  8. Scrape batter into prepared pans and smooth. Bake 25-35 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when touched lightly in the center. Should start to shrink from the sides only after removing from the oven.
  9. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides and invert onto greased metal racks. To prevent splitting, reinvert and cool completely.
I used Martha Stewart's chocolate frosting, and the result was fabulous.



UPDATE: Added the sugar!

Monday, August 4, 2008

We Looked at Houses!

On Saturday we went to Sudbury and met our "facilitators", and then drove around with them to look at three houses. The first one had a lot of issues, the second and third had more promise. Not that we expect to actually buy any of these--we're looking around to see what we like, and whether it's going to be possible to find anything we'd consider living in for the price we want. Right now, it looks like the answer may be "yes." Finally.

Other than that, I watched a lot of old B5 on Sunday, made some brownies (will post recipe if they're good), and did a fair amount of cleaning. Not too exciting really. Cooking has mostly been off the cuff and ancient stand-bys since we've been so busy lately.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Menu of Summer Delights

Since I was working from home and for once had some energy left at the end of the day, I went nuts in the kitchen. First thing, I made some sandwich bread from my old standby recipe; I've really missed having fresh bread around as a regular thing, since our lives have been a little too nuts lately (not to mention how hot it's been).

That taken care of, I pulled out all of the great things I got at the market that morning and went to work. I made my first-ever pesto; that only took a few minutes. I sliced a bunch of vegetables and set them marinating, and sliced corn off the cob for Tuesday night's planned dinner, Open-Faced Jerk Vegetable Sandwiches and Summer Corn Soup.

Tuesday taken care of, I turned back to Monday night. Everything came together quickly and, amazingly enough, more or less at the same time. We had Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms, corn on the cob with the husks still wet from the previous night's rain, and Pork Medallions with Lemons and Capers, which wasn't lemony enough for me--the pepper tended to drown the other flavors--but quite good.

I felt absolutely wonderful.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Three-Pepper Quesadillas

The usual jam-packed weekend. We spent Saturday morning doing house drive-bys in the Tewksbury area, and found some reason to be encouraged, though most of the ones we saw were in pretty bad shape on the outside or in awkward locations. We got lunch at a pizza joint in Billerica called Sal's (passable slices, but the TV was tuned to a Pauly Shore movie), drove by a couple more houses, and then made our way home.

In the afternoon we took turns running errands. We had decided to finally see Surf's Up, a movie L loves to watch Youtube clips of, so I had to make something that could be eaten in front of the TV. Normally I do pizza, but we had pizza for lunch, so I decided to stick with the flatbread theme and make quesadillas. I looked at what was in the pan and decided that it needed more heft -- as written it would probably make a fine addition to a menu, but as the only course, I chucked in some black beans (added bonus, L eats those). The movie turned out to be very entertaining, though L cried a bit at unexpected points, which I chalked up to over-excitement.

Sunday I spent the morning cleaning the kitchen and L's room, including packing away a bunch of her old clothes for eventual transport to the thrift store. It needs to be done, obviously, but it always makes me feel wistful.

In the evening we drove through one of the apparently never-ended rainstorms the summer is giving us, to Allora Ristorante in Marlboro, for dinner with my supper club buddies. In sum: excellent food, service could use some work. The bruschetta was like nothing I had ever seen, hefty triangles of toasted bread smothered in chunks of fresh tomato and balsamic vinegar, scattered with cheese. Fabulous, and much too much for one person. Then the organic greens salad with pears and walnuts, which was quite good, and the pesto chicken, which I somehow managed to eat all of, somewhat to my own surprise. One of my fellows got the osso buco and practically licked his plate clean.

It was not a cheap evening in terms of money or calories, but I'd definitely give the place another try and see if our waiter was just having an off night, or what. JJ behaved marvelously, L less so, but they had us in a private room so it didn't matter too much that she was running around (and under the table) for most of the evening.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dream Waves

Last night marks the third or fourth occasion in recent weeks when I have dreamed about a tidal wave. I do hope that this is just a rather obvious metaphor for a "to do" list that sometimes seems overwhelming.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chickpea, Chard, and Tomato Stew

Another great way to get your greens, and assorted other veggies. This one cooks up quickly, and is actually a sort of takeoff on chili, both in flavor and thanks to the use of ground chicken (the recipe name makes it sound vegetarian; it is not, though it could certainly be adapted). It could have used more spice, in my opinion, but CL is famously cautious about its seasoning.

Chickpea, Chard, and Tomato Stew

This weekend with any luck we'll be going house hunting, and out for dinner with the supper club crew at Allora, so I might not have a lot of time to cook. I am trying to enjoy summer, which places its own restrictions on cooking, and not look ahead to fall just yet. It's a good time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summer Garden Pasta

So you went to the farmer's market and you have all this... stuff... on your counter. Sqash, peppers, onions, herbs, and you're not sure what to do with it. Dishes like Summer Garden Pasta are susceptible to a thousand variations--more of a method than a recipe. You can use any firm veggies you have on hand, just cut them so they take about the same time to cook, and any herbs (I have a ton of gorgeous basil right now, so used that), and any pasta, and you'll have a quick, healthy meal on the table. And there's no reason you can't add some chicken or beans or something if you must.

It's a surprisingly chilly day here in Worcester, and I'm glad I have soup on the menu tonight.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Facebook + Blogger = Bread?

On Sunday I finally got myself organized enough to make bread again for the first time since before Fourth of July (hey, that's a long dry spell for me...). Not just any bread, but a new bread, something I haven't done in what seems like ages. And not just any new bread, but the recipe I've bookmarked on my Facebook page since I first added the Epicurious link to it, oh, weeks ago now.

So. Oatmeal Wheat Bread. This is great stuff--tons of whole grains, and the oats soften the impact of the whole wheat. It took a while to make, but I'll do so again. I had to knead it by hand, since it was too big for my mixer, but I didn't do so for long; I used far less yeast than they called for and gave it a longer rise as a result, which (I read somewhere) also develops the gluten. And it's good bread, so what the heck.

In other news, JJ is about to cut his third tooth, the whole family except me (knock wood) has had a cold for several days now, and I am actually, tentatively, doing some writing again as of yesterday.

We went to the farmer's market this morning. Squash, zucchini, tomatoes, kale, peas in their pods, and a bunch of basil that has perfumed most of the apartment by now. I have actually had time this week to figure out a list of recipes based around what I thought we were likely to find, so I should be actually cooking this week.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where We've Been

Appalling lack of posting here, for which I apologize to anyone actually reading this. Having the internet connection in the office/nursery/guest room is something of a problem when one actually has a guest occupying the room. My mom arrived on Saturday from PA to spend a few days with us while we celebrated L's fourth birthday, and even though we didn't really do anything, it was surprisingly hard to find time.

Part of this is because while we were out shopping for birthday presents on Sunday, I picked up a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which ended up entirely obsessing us (we finished it last night!). Other than that, we had some unexpected trouble with her car and with one of our computers, which ate up some time. D had a trip to make into Boston to visit people there, so we spent a day without a car. And on Tuesday evening it became clear that L was coming down with a cold (what a birthday present...), so aside from the obligatory visit to the quilt shop so my mom could add yet another project to her list, we just played with the kids and hung around yesterday.

I will be posting the recipe I used for L's cake, because it is hands-down the best chocolate cake I have ever made. I just need to find the time to type it!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Farmers Market Update

The Chandler St. farmer's market in Worcester appears to be in full swing, with a handful of new vendors this morning. In addition to three stands selling the usual veggies (one had corn--already?! color me suspicious as to its provenance), there was a new Hmong farm , a bread baker (looked good, but at $6.50 a loaf I'd just as soon bake my own), another baker, and a woman selling jewelry. I got bok choy, lettuce, a very ripe tomato, a cucumber, and some potatoes. Not sure yet what I'm going to do with all of them. D is having some work done on his gums today, so he might not be able to eat salads for a bit.

I meant to take a picture but forgot. I'm taking a few days off next week so should not be in such a hurry on our next visit, maybe I'll remember to do it then.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Kids Moving Right Along

Can't believe I forgot to mention this in yesterday's post, but on Sunday night JJ said "maamaaamaamaaa". We're very excited! And last night L actually ate some pasta.

I'll get back to posting recipes soon, but this week I haven't had any time to plan or to shop.