27 October 2009

happy birthday, little frankenstein

Kasper turned one last week, so we celebrated with a small family dinner on the day and a little brunch party with some of our closest friends on the weekend. When Jo suggested we pick up champagne to serve mimosas, I countered, "he's only ONE. We don't need MIMOSAS at this party!" I'm sure, quite sure, there were mimosas at our older son's first birthday brunch, so I'm not quite sure why I reacted this way this time around. I guess I had the urge to make sure everything was about the little ones. And everything WAS about the little ones, with perhaps the exception of the squash and greens strata I made, which was the main course of the meal. Big people have needs, too.

Kasper's just learned how to walk, and is wobbling around like a little frankenstein, so I couldn't resist the idea of making these cupcakes. No recipe. Just know, it's chocolate cupcakes, chocolate frosting, marshmallows dipped in thin green icing, a little white frosting for the eyes, green for the hands, black for the rest. I should have added bolts, but after all that monster-making, I was tired, so I guess I'll just have to plead for his forgiveness when he points it out to me on his fourteenth birthday.

On the subject of monsters, this is very off the subject but, heck, it's my blog and I'll say what I want. For some reason I've been thinking a lot about children, just on the edge of sleep, and how the very small ones seem like the monsters you see in horror films. You know the scene. Just when you think that monster is down for the count, dead as a doornail, still beyond still, he jumps up, grabs your ankle and attacks. Getting my kids to sleep often involves a rendition of that scene.

So back to the birthday. He's one. I can hardly believe it. I'm glad the day has come and gone because I have a really difficult time with birthdays. It has nothing to do with sadness at the passage of time, getting older, etc. I've just come to realize that birthdays, for whatever reason, are hugely important to me, and I always enter into them with the highest of expectations. I'm inevitably disappointed when those expectations aren't met. And not matter how hard I try to make it not so, I am always like this. I tried this time to relax, to just accept it for what it was. Jules and I made our monster cupcakes together, and that went over with only a small amount of tensing up on my part, since I've long let go of the need to control just how many times he dips his fingers into the mixing bowl.

I'd wanted to make a special breakfast (Jules had homemade waffles and cream on his first birthday; we ended up having pancakes from a mix), go on a special outing (I'd planned a trip to a tot gym, but we ended up spending most of our time baking, so a ride in the car to look at the fall leaves and get the kids to fall asleep was what actually happened), make a special dinner. Dinner, I pulled off, because I made it simple.

I figure that since turning one is really more a rite of passage for the mama than it is for the baby ("I can't believe you've been out of my belly for a WHOLE YEAR"), I decided to mark this one by eating the meals I ate one year ago. Pagliacci pizza and salad while I was in labor, and eggs, sausage and toast as my first meal after pushing
Kasper out. In the process, I discovered that Kasper LOVES cheese pizza. He ate it like I'd been starving him all day. Well, maybe I had. I was so busy working on those cupcakes, who knows if I actually remembered to feed him. And, not surprisingly, Kasper LOVES chocolate cupcakes. Guess it runs in the family.

Saving mama's sanity (and time spent in the kitchen) was on the menu for the birthday brunch, too, so we stuck with fruit salad, biscuits from a can (I love the surprise when you "pop" it open with a spoon), and a strata with delicata squash, collard greens and cheddar cheese that I made the night before, following Molly Wizenberg's recipe in this month's Bon Appetit, which pleased even the squash haters among us. More Frankensteins for dessert, plus a storebought pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin pie. And no tears or tense words from the kitchen on the day of the party. Yay for mama! And Happy Birthday to my baby!

Sanity-saving Strata with Delicata Squash, Collard Greens and Cheddar
2 pounds delicata squash, seeded (leave the peel on), and cut into 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
7 large eggs
2 1/4 cups milk
6 tablespoons dry white wine
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard (I used stoneground)
1 day-old baguette torn into 1 inch cubes (I bought mine the day of, and put the cubes on a cookie sheet and set them in a 250 degree oven for about 20 minutes to dry them out)
1 cup chopped shallots
1 bunch collard greens, stems removed and chopped into 1 inch pieces
Dash of white balsamic vinegar
8 ounces extra sharp cheddar, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put the squash in a medium bowl and toss it with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Spread the squash onto a foil-lined cookie sheet and roast until squash is tender, about 20 minutes, turning it over with a spatula once or twice so it cooks evenly. Let squash cool and set aside.

While the squash roasts, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute until soft, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Add the collard greens and cook, covered, about 2 minutes. Uncover and stirl until collard greens are tender, about 5 minutes. Finish the greens with a splash of white balsamic vinegar, stir and set aside.

Whisk eggs in a large bowl. Add milk, wine, mustard, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and whisk to combine. Fold baguette pieces into the egg mixture.

Generously butter a 13x9x2 inch pan. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half the bread mixture to the pan, covering most of the bottom. Spoon half the collard greens over the bread, followed by half the squash, and then half of the cheese. Repeat with remaining bread, squash, greens, squash and cheese. Pour remaining egg mixture over the strata.

Cover the strata with plastic wrap, weight it down with something heavy (I like bags of rice or beans, nothing
too heavy or it will start to squeeze out the sides). Let the strata sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the strata 1 hour before baking. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Replace plastic wrap with foil and bake, covered, for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake uncovered until the strata is set, browned, and the juices begin to bubble up the side. Let the strata cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

12 October 2009

cauldrons bubble

Double double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Nyyyaaaaaaah HA HA HA HA!!

For the last two weeks, Jules has been telling me that what he really wants to be for Halloween is a witch. Of course I was more than enthusiastic about this, and went out immediately and bought a wig and a black witch dress. Witches have always, always, always been my favorite Halloween character, since as far back as I can remember. Always. For several years running, the witch was my costume of choice because, above all others, I felt completely transformed the moment I donned that hat, that ratty black dress, and those spiky-heeled vinyl knee-high boots my Grandma donated to my Halloween wardrobe. In the sixth grade, I had the unbelievable fortune of playing a witch in the class play. We were doing some kids' version of King Arthur's Camelot and I was Morgaine. It was delicious. I hammed it up like you would not believe and developed the creepiest witch cackle ever to emit from the throat of a 12 year old. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, and the beginning of a theater career that lasted, sadly, only about halfway through college.

So this morning,
Jules and I set about stirring our cauldron together and learning our lines. It was just like old times (granted, those times were way before he was born, but still). He got really good at the cackle, too. Quite impressed me, actually, that he could pull off that kind of sound with the vocal chords of a not-even-four-year-old. But by the end of the morning, Jules had shed any vestiges of witch to don his superhero costume and head to the park, and by the afternoon he was asking me if it would be OK if he "did not be a witch for Halloween" and chose to be a superhero instead. I tried to hide my disappointment in a smile as I told him, "of course, honey. You can be whatever you want to be for Halloween." Drats. Curses. Guess I'll be stirring my pot alone again this year.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—

Guess it's a good thing that my pot's serving up some tastier flavors than Macbeth's witches. Like what this guy's snuggling:

That's a delicata squash for those of you among the uninitiated. And it has got to be the tastiest squash that has ever made its way past these here cackling lips. Let me say that I find just about nothing more annoying than people waxing poetic about some obscure (to me) vegetable like, say, rainbow chard or rutabagas or Vidalia onions or fingerling potatoes or what have you. It's always seemed so contrived to me. So snooty. But this squash, seriously, is different. For one, you don't have to peel it to eat it. And unless you're talking about zucchini or yellow summer or pattypan (OK, I'm starting to think I know too many squash varieties to not be ashamed in some circles), then you're pretty well stuck with a paring knife or a vegetable peeler and, if you're like me, a few swear words.

So far, I've only roasted it. Cut it up in chunks, tossed it with a little bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, maybe some thyme, and popped it in the oven. It forms the basis of a great pasta or soup. And I even like eating it hot off the roasting pan. My first delicata, I roasted and then tossed in a pan with bacon, onions, garlic, white beans, spinach and tomatoes from the garden, then added pasta and served it with a squeeze of lemon and some parmiggiano reggiano.

The second time around, we made a creamy soup of roasted delicata, roasted red kuri squash, onions, stock and whole milk (recipe here, more or less), which we ate with a thick, crusty bread and good cheese.

And with the weather cooling, my pot's been in constant use. Tonight it was a spicy sausage and sweet potato stew with garlic, onions, kale and fire-roasted tomatoes.

For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

It was very, I'd almost say, bewitchingly (nyaaah ha ha), good. I suggest you try it, if you know what's good for you.

Spicy Sausage and Sweet Potato Stew (based on this recipe in Cooking Light)
2 Tbs.olive oil
2 cups chopped onion (about 2 large)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound Italian chicken sausage
3-4 cups coarsely chopped peeled sweet potato (about 2 1/4 pounds)
4 cups water or broth
2 cups kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 (14 ounce) can diced, fire roasted tomatoes
1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed and drained (we skipped these tonight, but they're good if you're in the mood for them)

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes. Add salt, red pepper flakes, and garlic; stir, cooking until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Squeeze sausage out of casings and into the pan. Cook 5 minutes or so, breaking up sausage into small bite-size pieces as you stir. Add sweet potato, tomatoes, and water or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes. Gradually add kale; cook 10 minutes or until tender. Stir in beans; cook 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Slurp and eat.

08 October 2009

LOST Lovey - Mac the Bear

This is for a friend... an emergency of sorts. A friend of ours lost her lovey while playing in the "woods" at Webster park (next to the Nordic Heritage Museum) yesterday afternoon, sometime between 4 and 5:30 pm. She has had Mac for over 4 years and is EXTREMELY attached to him.

If you happened to have come across him, given him a place to sleep last night, or have any clues to his whereabouts, could you please email her Dad Steve at the address below:

steve_gardner at comcast dot net


03 October 2009

of cakes and critical theory

Writing my last post about birthday cakes got me thinking of a "reflection piece" I wrote for a class on race and gender I took in grad school, pre-kids. It's these things that I'm still wrestling with today. So I thought I'd share. No recipes here. Just food for thought.

----written sometime in the Fall of 2003

I just finished reading Kimberly Sultze's "Women, Power and Photography in The New York Times Magazine" which touched on a lot of issues that have been swirling around in my brain the last several months. Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran as its feature article a story called "The Opt-Out Revolution" written by Lisa Belkin, who argues that professional women are increasingly making the deliberate choice to drop out of work life and become stay-at-home Moms. The cover of the magazine features a woman sitting at the base of a peach-colored ladder on the peach-colored floor of a peach-colored room looking somewhere off in the distance as if distracted, while the child sitting in her lap directs his/her gaze directly at us. Below her are the words:

Q: Why Don't More Women Get to the Top?
A: They Choose Not To.
Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home by Lisa Belkin

Before I'd even opened the magazine I was ticked off. In fact, that magazine sat on the floor for nearly two weeks before I finally opened it up and read what Belkin had to say. Every time I passed by it, I'd fume. And then lo and behold we're reading an article in class that makes me want to see what Belkin has to say, and not only that, to look at the ads, pay attention to the little details, see if I can get at what's bugging me.

So I turn the page. No ads of scantily clad, dismembered women in stiletto heels and fishnet stockings draped provocatively over the desk of their corner office sipping Bombay Sapphire. It's an ad for a printer from Hewlett Packard, but this ad actually makes me more irate. It's beautiful, colorful and striking: a two page spread with a large picture of a small South American boy smiling big for the camera. To the left of this image are four small thumbnails, each from a colorful corner of the so-called "Third World": an old, hunched man walking in front of a vividly painted blue wall, an African man wearing a green shirt balancing a tray of green-and-orange fruit in front of a green wall, his white shawl gleaming against the darker background and his dark skin, an older, barefoot man dressed in a black pants and hat, with a yellow blazer leaning against an equally yellow wall, and three Mayan women, dressed in vivid colors, with their backs turned to the camera, peering through the smudged windows of what looks to be a schoolhouse. Oh, and here's the kicker. The captions:


I turn the page.

Another HP ad, this one for the HP Media Center, with a large photo of three blond children, all wearing birthday crowns, blowing out the candles on an enormous birthday cake. Next to the large photo are a jumble of photos of similarly blond children all celebrating at this camelot-themed party. And here are the captions:


So I haven't even made it to the Belkin article yet and I'm already side-tracked. I'm unsettled by the cover of the magazine. I'm more unsettled when I turn the page to see people turned into objects that grace other people's living room walls, elevating their status to that of an "art gallery" of colorful Third World poverty. And the juxtaposition of this ad with the one on the following page of the kids' Camelot birthday party in suburbia fills me with DISMAY."Our" normal lives on display. This is us. Is this me? Do these three images reflect me?

Criticism comes easy. Holding yourself blameless can sometimes be a perk to this. But lately, I never seem to be able to escape the blame. Don't get me wrong, I'm not walking around wracked with guilt over the way I personally embody the kind of female whiteness against which women living in the Horn of Africa or Vanessa Williams are measured. But... well, I'm not sure what to say here. I feel something, and the urge to do something about it grows stronger every day, especially since I set off traveling, and even more so now that I've settled back into a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle (if it could even be argued that I ever left it). What the "doing something" that needs to be done is, is still a bit fuzzy, though.

So I'll do some fessing up. I want to have kids and don't really know if, when the time comes to have them, I'll want to be the progressive working woman who supports the family while her partner stays home. Maybe I'm selfish that way, but I kind of think I'll want the person who stays home to be me. I do take some solace in the fact that, knowing my personality, I won't be spending my time socializing with other Moms in play groups planning the biggest ever Camelot-themed birthday party that suburbia has ever seen. But who knows what motherhood will do to you. I have another confession to make. My husband and I took over 1500 pictures when we were traveling. Of those 1500, five are hanging on various walls in our house: two from Thailand, two from India and one from Nepal. Will I take them down after seeing the HP ad? No, I like them. They look good up on the wall. So my criticism of these images is not one that can be filled with smug righteousness (well, maybe the camelot party got a little smugness--I can't help that).

So, what am I going to do if not alter my personality, strip my walls bare, stop traveling? Well, I do do things already. Small things. And before I started grad school, bigger things like the volunteer work I was doing--though I'm starting to question the role I played there, too, and whether it was really working toward promoting positive change or helping along the status quo--I think it's a bit of both--or a bit of good in a lot of band-aid.

The fact is, I can see myself in some way in all of these images. And I can see, to some extent, the potential I have to resist them, to question their underlying message, and to reject that message or at least to understand it for what it is. I never got to the article. I did read it. I have mixed feelings about it, just as I do about my own plans for the future. But what I'm realizing more and more is that what motivates me these days to do what I'm doing, to ask the questions I'm asking, is not guilt. It feels more like knowledge--if I had to put a name to it, and that actually feels good.

cake counsel: kasper needs you (and so do I)

So Kasper is turning ONE in a few weeks and I'm still trying to decide what to bake. I clearly need help, most likely of the professional kind, but will settle (for now, at least) with some suggestions from you.

Here's my problem. I've never been a baker, and much less a baker of birthday cakes. Sure, once I did make an almost perfect replica of Cookie Puss for a friend's 25th birthday party after hearing he
r talk to a fellow former-Eastcoaster about how that cake pretty much define their childhood. It looked spot-on, but tastest dense and chewy (and not the ice cream part, mind you, but the cake) and the frosting was little more than wet powdered sugar spread so thick and hardened so completely you could hear it crack when we cut into it.

But for some reason motherhood has changed all that for me. When Jules was just a month old, I had the crazed idea that a new mom should celebrate her fledgling's first 30 days outside the belly with chocolate cake. I looked up a recipe online for some chocolate ganache thing or other and, while the cake turned out OK, the ganache shared Cookie Puss's fate. A yummy candy, it did make, but that wasn't quite what I was aiming for. Nice as they were, my friends ate it with smiles on their faces, and large helpings of ice cream.

When Jules turned one, I decided to mark the occasion with a monkey cake shaped like one of the monkey paintings I'd started hanging in his room a few months after he was born. It was cheeky and cute and maddening to make. The tail broke off in little pieces that I had to glue back together with my signature rock-hard frosting, and I had no platter big enough to hold it, so I eased it onto an ugly gray cookie sheet and decorated and served it on that. Still, it was a proud cake baking moment for me and, will make some lovely memories for him when he sees the pictures.

Year two I decided my gift to would be a calm and centered mama who was not working herself into a frenzy in the kitchen cursing some cutesy cake-like creation for her son. I bought an ice cream cake at Safeway, and a bunch of balloons and called it good.

Year three found me back in crazy-ville, baking up a blizzard of a polar bear while Jules was out playing with Bomma and Tante Leen from Belgium and Kasper, just three months old, gave me a brief period of silence while he dozed in his bed. Of course this one drove me crazy, too, but the cake was good and the frosting slightly better than previous versions. And if you didn't look to close, you'd miss the lumpy crumbs of cake under the frosting I'd try to camouflage with a dusting of powdered sugar.

With Kasper's first birthday fast approaching, I'm starting to panic. Do I slave away in the kitchen to produce a mini-masterpiece of mediocrity for my sweet baby who happened to bless me with his presence a little later in my life? And if I do bite the bullet and bake, what will it be? A Halloween-themed spider? A cutesy bumble bee? Something else? Or do I give him the gift of my sanity and pick up a few cupcakes at the local bakery and call it good? And if I don't bake, will this come back to bite me in, say, 16 years when Kasper's pleading with me to let him get his driver's license and pulls the "you always loved Jules best" line? See? SEE?

Any advice?

having my way with rotten fruit

I've started to realize lately that this blog is as much about my need to document the things I'm cooking so that I can cook them AGAIN as it is to fulfill a need to write, to contemplate my life, as it stands now, with two young kids. I'm starting to think most of the "hits" on this blog I see when looking at statistics are just me coming back to check my recipes while I'm whipping up another batch in the kitchen. And that's fine by me.

So I give you a recipe inspired by a bag of plums almost gone bad that sat in my fridge for almost a week. Before that, they sat in my brother's fridge for I'm not sure how long. And then they traveled across the state with me, since my brother had bought them for
Jules and Kasper to eat while we were staying with him, but we never got around to it. Apparently, fruit doesn't belong in my brother's fridge as much as it belongs in ours. So we took it. And I tried to feed it to Kasper and Jules, but the plums were too sour. And then they got old and were too tough. I didn't want to throw them out, so I decided to try to make something with them. Along the way, I discovered that one of the best ways to salvage almost rotten fruit is to make a crumble out of it.

And ooooohhhh was it good. I wasn't even planning to blog about it, but I knew that if I didn't I'd never make this thing again. And this thing deserves to be made. Again and again. I'm a little bit embarrassed and a little bit proud to admit that I was up at 4am this morning, not able to sleep, eating this crisp from the pan with a spoon. Yum.

(almost) rotten plum crumble (based on this recipe)

One of the best parts of this recipe, in my opinion, is that you don't need a spoon to make it. Though you will need one to eat it, especially if you want to do it like me, straight out of the pan.

15-20 plums, pitted and halved
3 Tbsp. sugar (more or less)
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, cut in 1/2 inch pieces

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Toss the plums into a pie dish, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon and mix them around with your hands, then spread them out evenly.

Mix together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon; add the butter and blend together with your fingers until pieces are no bigger than a pea. Sprinkle over the plums. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and bubbly around the edges.

Serve warm, with or without ice cream, or straight from the pan. Serves 6.

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