Friday, December 25, 2009

Gone Ice Fishin'

Enjoy the holidays! Hope you'll join me for some more (un) domestic adventures next year...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Muffin Meltdown

It was a muffin emergency. The first batch of muffins I made for Ruby's class' holiday celebration were passable, but I had to ditch the second batch, which were deflated and undercooked.

What to do?

Like any reasonable person, I trudged through the snow to the local bodega to pick up a pumpkin-flavored Pillsbury "Quick Bread" mix (hoping nobody would see me in my moment of shame).

I added milk, oil and eggs to the mix. The directions on the back of the box said I should "stir 50 to 75 strokes," but I admit I lost count after 35 or so.

The good news is that I managed to produce respectable looking pseudo-homemade muffins.

"My mom made these muffins," Ruby bragged to her classmates this morning.

I didn't let on that I had a little help from Pillsbury and the pre-K kids couldn't tell the difference.

But don't worry -- I haven't given up in my quest to make the perfect muffin from scratch.

Please send in your muffin making tips. Clearly, I could use some help!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Muffin Mania

Now that I know how to make muffins, I no longer have to purchase the overpriced muffins at our local bakery.

Even more satisfying -- I can bake my own muffins to bring to the girls' school for their breakfast "winter celebrations" this week.

Now I'm playing the role of the happy homemaker who vies to outshine the other parents with her homemade contributions. But don't feel bad if you didn't have time to make your own croissants or fresh szueezed orange juice. I'm just overcompensating for all of the years of bringing in napkins or plates.

The only catch is that Avo is out of town snowboarding and I'm stuck inside with a sick kid and only three eggs and one banana (luckily, I stocked up on butter!). I just used two eggs for the sour cream muffins I baked for Ruby's class. Now I might have to get creative and make a pseudo-banana muffin for Jesse's class with one egg and one banana, rather than the 2-3 bananas called for in the recipe.

I learned a couple of tips about muffin-making (forgive me if you already know this):

1. Don't over mix muffin dough. It should be clumpy or else your muffins will be too dense.

2. If you're not going to eat the muffins right away, add more butter or oil than the recipe calls for or else they'll get too dry.

3. You know your muffins are done when the tops are golden and spring back lightly when touched, a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Oops. Apparently, you're supposed to put the muffin pan on the middle rack in the oven. I didn't do this, but the muffins still turned out okay. Still, it seems like good advice.

Another tip I learned too late for this batch: Sift flour for best results and use fresh baking soda and powder since so muffins rise nicely. I just checked and my baking soda expired in 1993!

Luckily, I knew enough to let the muffins sit in the tin for a few minutes after removing them from the oven. Usually, I rush to take them out and they fall apart.

But I didn't know that some muffin experts advise setting the pan on a cool wet towel to prevent the muffins from sticking to the bottom. Just be careful that you don't keep the muffins in the tin for longer than 5 minutes or else they might get soggy.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn about baking muffins! Still, the first batch came out pretty well.

"It tastes like cake!" said Jesse. I think that qualifies as a good review. Personally, I think they're a little too bland, but I doubt that the pre-K kids will be too discerning.

Aside from the pride I take in bringing in homemade goods, I'm also appreciating the warmth that the oven is generating since it's freezing here in Brooklyn!

UPDATE: That'll teach me to get too cocky about my muffin-making skills. The banana muffins were a disaster. Since I didn't have enough bananas, I poured in some milk. To compensate for the lack of banana sweetness, I tossed in some chocolate chip cookies. I forgot that unlike cooking, baking requires that you follow the recipe. I paid for my "creativity."

Instead of the nice, puffy muffin tops I aspired to, my muffin tops turned out deflated and basically concave. The inside is gooey and undercooked.I think even the pre-K kids are savvy enough to notice that these muffins suck. Jesse agreed that the muffins are inedible. Sadly, I just tossed them in the trash.

Now it seems I might have to patronize the pricey bakery around the corner. Maybe I should have volunteered to bring the napkins and plates after all.

Meanwhile, if you have muffin problems and need to diagnose what went wrong, check out this helpful site.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Childhood Favorite

It's freezing out. Much too cold to schlep to the co-op to replenish the fridge.

Luckily, I've learned how to scavenge the pantry for potential dinner ingredients.
Last night I discovered we had penne pasta, tomato sauce, chicken breasts, and bread crumbs waiting to be used -- just the right stuff to make chicken parmigiana, a childhood favorite of mine.

Although I was a picky kid when it came to food, I loved chicken parmigiana, which is basically -- let's face it -- a big chicken nugget topped with pizza.

After proving I can make chicken cutlets, I decided I was ready to go the next step.

Conveniently, Avo had just made mozzarella cheese using a cheese making kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. The cheese came out looking more like ricotta or cottage cheese than mozzarella, but I had a feeling it would be perfect on top of my chicken parmigiana.

I loosely followed Mark Bittman's recipe for chicken parmigiana, but basically, here is what I did:

I fried up some chicken cutlets, plopped them on a baking pan with some tomato sauce and topped with some more tomato sauce, mozzarella and shredded parmigiana. I baked it for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. What do you know? It looked -- and tasted -- like the chicken parmigiana of my childhood.

Ruby and Jesse ate the chicken cutlets without the "parm" on top, along with some penne.

"This is the best meal ever!" declared Ruby. "And my mom made it!"

(Seriously -- she said that.)

"It's so-so, but for me, that's pretty good," said Jesse. "I still like regular chicken nuggets better though."

Served with a nice green salad and a glass of wine, the chicken parmigiana and penne made a nice romantic dinner for me and Avo.

"This chicken parm holds its own against any deli chicken parm," said Avo.

That's high praise.

I am still marveling at the fact that I can cook at all. Will there come a time when Avo and I take it for granted?

Meanwhile, tonight I plan to use up the bunch of broccoli and seitan in our fridge. Then it's time to go food shopping before we find ourselves trying to make a dinner out of butter, yogurt and carrots.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Undomesticated Bloopers

It's taken me years to discover the the simple pleasures of meal planning and preparation, as well as the satisfaction that comes from nourishing friends and family.

But, even though I now know the difference between a whisk and a spatula, I've still got a lot to learn. Just this week, I made two major gaffes:

1. When I tried to duplicate Katherine's delicious hamburgers in my own home without a "hamburger helper" looking on, I made a terrible beginner's mistake. The outside of the burgers were burning, but the inside meat was still rare. Instead of lowering the flame, I tossed the burgers in the microwave. Yes, the meat cooked, but it also turned barely edible. Ruby happily chowed down on the burgers, but Avo opted for a frozen Indian meal instead.

2. I'm getting better, but I still have a problem following recipes. Just today, for instance, I ignored the very clear instruction to "let butter soften" before mixing the batter for oatmeal cookies. The butter was too hard and the batter got stuck to the mixing blades. At least I knew better than to toss the bowl into the microwave! Instead, I turned the mixer on high until most of the butter splattered off. I scooped the rest out with my fingers. No harm done. The cookies turned out tasty, but it was a close call nonetheless. (And, yes, I'm still baking. I can't stop myself!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Joy of Baking

I know Avo and my mom are right. I have to back away from the Bundt pan and cookie tins for a while. But it is hard when baking is so satisfying.

For one thing, although people can get pretty fancy with pastries and cake decorating, for the most part, baking relies on a few basic ingredients: generally sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder. And the directions are pretty straightforward – you mix the ingredients and then you bake them. Not at all like cooking, where you’ve got to double-check the shopping list to make sure you’ve got the right ingredients and then decide whether you’re going to steam, sautee, smoke, roast or fry your food.

For another thing, apart from a few freaks who don’t like anything sweet, most people appreciate a tasty cookie, cupcake or cake. You don’t have to worry that your guests are vegetarian or don’t like onions or won’t eat fried food.

On a day when I’m procrastinating about articles to write and toilets to clean, it’s satisfying seeing the result of my labor – in the form of a muffin.

So when my friend Kathryn invited me and the girls over for a cookie baking bonanza on Saturday, I didn't hesitate.

In addition to the Butter Spritz dough I prepared, Kathryn prepped the dough in advance for Swedish Tea Cakes, Gingersnaps, Chocolate crinkles and rolled sugar cookies. Where did she get the recipes? From the Pillsbury Kitchen Family Cookbook circa 1979. It's great if you're looking for recipes featuring onion soup mix or for classic cookie recipes. Unfortunately, it's long out of print and is available used on amazon for nearly $90! So take good care of that cookbook, Kathryn.

Even with the dough prepared in advance, it took Kathryn, me and assorted children six hours (!) to churn out five batches of cookies. The kids especially enjoyed decorating the sugar cookies with multi-colored sprinkles -- by the end of the day, the kids were coated in a thin layer of flour and "snacked" by licking the sugar off their hands.

Just to show that even a pro can make an honest mistake, Kathryn accidentally used the Spritz dough for the Swedish tea cakes.

"That's okay. We can paint them with egg yolks and sprinkles. Kids go wild for anything with sprinkles," said Kathryn.

Kathryn was right about the sprinkles, but unfortunately, the Spritz/Swedish tea cakes didn't hold up. They were a crinkled, sprinkled mess. Not one to be discouraged, Kathryn quickly whipped up some more spritz dough, which produced perfectly spritzy cookies. Light, sweet, and buttery.

A helpful baking tip from Kathryn: "Remember, use parchment paper for everything except for the Spritz cookies since they need to stick to the pan."

Aside from the initial batch of botched "Spritz" cookies, the rest of the cookies were delicious -- and so colorful too. The Ginger Snaps were Jesse and my favorite, while Ruby preferred anything with sprinkles. Apparently, this was the most cookies Kathryn has produced in a day. I was proud to be a part of the production process.

The girls and I went home with a nice stash of assorted holiday cookies -- which somehow managed to disappear before the weekend was over.

Perhaps it really is time to take a break from baking or else I'll have to buy a whole new wardrobe -- in a bigger size.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Baked A Cake!

The economy is rocky. There's still a war overseas. But all is right in the world -- for the moment, at least. Why? I baked a cake.

For the first time ever. Yes, believe it or not, it took me 41 years to learn to bake a cake and then to go ahead and DO IT.

After my disastrous Nanaimo Bar experience, I was skittish about trying to make my mom's famous Coffee Apple Cake, but I was not going to let a little unsifted and sugar intimidate me -- especially not after finally managing to hunt down a Bundt pan.

Mixing the ingredients was a breeze. Everything was going smoothly until I poured the gooey batter into the greased bunt pan without flouring it first.

Oops. It only reached about halfway up the pan.

What to do? Call mom, of course.

"Mom, it doesn't look as if I have enough batter."

"It will rise," mom assured me. "That's why you flour the pan."

"Um, do you need to flour the pan?" I asked.

"Yes," said mom.

"Oh well, I didn't flour it."

"It might not rise very much, but it should be okay," mom assured me.

"I can pour the batter out now and flour it."

"No, it's too late. Hopefully, it will be okay. You just may have a low cake."

Luckily, even though I neglected to flour the pan, the cake reached the top of the pan. After taking it out of the oven, I quickly flipped it over and onto a plate.

It looked okay, but was I was supposed to wait until it cooled before flipping it?

I phoned mom to find out.

"Do I flip it out right away?"

"No, wait for it to cool."

"Oh. I already flipped it out," I said.

"Why did you ask me after the fact? I hope you at least remembered to peel the apples. And you brewed the coffee, right? You didn't just put in coffee grinds."

Phew. Luckily I peeled the apples and brewed the coffee. And even though I didn't wait for the cake to cool before flipping it, it held together.

I drizzled on the glazing in time to hurry over to Dori's Hanukkah party, where the cake was a big hit. I foisted it upon a couple of foodie friends.

"Very moist!" one exclaimed.

"Tasty!" said another.

"I like the texture," Avo added.

I was fishing for compliments, but they seemed genuinely impressed.

One party guest who had brought a packaged (albeit yummy) apple pie asked, "Did you make that cake by scratch?"

"Yes and it's the first cake I ever made!" I told her and anybody who seemed mildly interested.

Buoyed by my apple coffee cake success, yesterday I started shopping online for Bundt pans.

"I'm sort of hoping this baking thing is just a phase," said Avo. "And that you'll start focusing on the main course."

He's got a point. Baking is fun, but it doesn't help feed us at dinnertime. Then again, 'tis the season for sweet stuff.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Baking Tips for Dummies

"Do you have a Bundt pan I can borrow?"

Yesterday, I phoned all of my domestically-minded friends in the neighborhood in a desperate attempt to locate a Bundt pan.

Not long ago, I didn't even know what a Bundt pan was.

Luckily, my friend Katherine came to my rescue just in time for me to bake my mother's famous apple coffee cake for Dori's Hanukkah party tonight.

Yes, this is the same apple coffee cake that I spurned in favor of the failed Nanaimo Bars (in case you're keeping track of these things).

Meanwhile, my friend Kathryn (not to be confused with the aforementioned Katherine) is a super-duper cook and baker has invited me and the girls to a holiday cookie baking bonanza tomorrow morning. She is baking Russian Tea Cakes, Gingersnaps, Chocolate crinkles and rolled sugar cookies. I'm impressed (and a bit intimidated!).

When I asked if I could bring anything (maybe some extra butter?), Kathryn replied:

"Oh, here is an idea: find a recipe for spritz cookies, make the dough and bring that. I have the cookie press for them and kids think this is the coolest thing since Playdoh."

So in addition to scrambling to find a Bundt pan yesterday, I was also searching for an easy Spritz cookie recipe. Here's what I found (courtesy of the Food Network):

Butter Spritz Cookies


1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups sifted flour
Sprinkles for garnish


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixer with a paddle attachment, add the sugar and the butter. Mix until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and mix to incorporate. Sift together the baking powder and the flour. Add the flour mixture. Mix until combined. Using a cookie press, press cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets. Top with the sprinkles of your choice. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, or until firm, but not yet browning.

When I got to the bit about the paddle attachment, I panicked. But Kathryn assured me I can use my hand mixer as long as the butter is softened first.

"It's the key to cookies: leave the butter out till it reaches room temp and always use non-salted so you can adjust salt accordingly."

My mom e-mailed me another basic baking tip:

"When you measure flour for baking, lightly spoon the flour into a measuring cup, then level off with a knife or spatula. Don't pack it down into the cup as this will make your cake too heavy. That goes for all baking unless they say to firmly pack (which is very often the case with brown sugar)."

Believe it or not, I remember this tip from when I was a kid and I would help my mom bake cookies.

I've got the spritz cookie dough ready to bring to Kathryn's tomorrow for the mega-baking session and today, Ruby and I will tackle the apple coffee cake. Hopefully, it will turn out better than the Nanaimo Bars. Wish us luck! And feel free to share any more baking tips with me (I could use the help).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Oh No Nanaimo!

Perhaps my first mistake was not following my friend Sam's recipe for Nanaimo Bars. After all, as a native Canadian (from Vancouver), she should know her Nanaimo Bars. Instead, I trusted my friend Dori, a native New Yorker (from the Bronx), to supply me with a recipe for the famous British Columbia treats.

I'm not sure what my second mistake was, but clearly I made one because the bottom layer of the bars I produced pretty much crumbled in my hands. And the middle layer was just an ooey gooey mess of sickeningly sweet goop.

I can't blame Dori since she was just trying to make my life easier by presenting me with an Americanized version of the Nanaomo Bar (translated by Kraft). After all, I could barely decipher Sam's recipe, which called for vanilla custard powder. It took me several days before I realized that custard powder is the same as instant pudding.

Since I didn't have any Graham Cracker Crumbs around the house, I had fun crumbling graham crackers by hand. Ditto for the walnut pieces, which I smashed to bits with a potato masher. So it was a good recipe for working through any excess aggression.

I also liked the fact that I didn't need to use the oven for this recipe. Otherwise, I'd say it was pretty much a disaster.

The middle layer -- which consists of dry pudding mix, softened butter and powdered sugar, was sickeningly sweet (not surprisingly, that was the girls' favorite part). The bottom layer was a crumbly mess and the top layer was too bitter (I mistakenly used bittersweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet).

Jesse and Ruby enjoyed squeezing out the inner goop, dipping their fingers in the mess and then licking it off. But even they lost interest when it came to the chocolate.

I forced Avo to try just one bite.

"Well, it's better than anchovies," he said. Avo hates anchovies.

This morning I was about to dump the messy creation in the trash, but Jesse asked me to hang on to it so she could play with it after-school. So I may not have succeeded at creating a delicious dessert, but I did make an after-school activity!

After a heavy week of baking, I am getting heavier by the minute. I think it's time to get back to some lentil and bulgur dishes!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nanaimo Bars Win!

I guess it wasn't much of a competition -- yummy, gooey, exotic-sounding Nanaomi bars vs. my mom's apple coffee bake. The deck was stacked pretty much in favor of the Nanaimo Bars and not surprisingly, Nanaimo Bars won. So they will be the next sweet treat I will try to bake (sorry, mom).

I'm gathering the ingredients and promise to report back as soon as I've done the deed.

Meanwhile, with so many holiday parties ahead, it's a good thing I've learned the basics of baking. Now I don't have to fret about what to bring to the upcoming festivities.

Then again, Nanaimo Bars don't exactly shout "Hanukkah!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Color-Coding Crayola

As you all know, I've been on a domestication bender for the last six months or so. In addition to learning to cook and clean, I'm trying to just generally organize my life more smoothly (I say this as the timer for my laundry goes off and I'm pre-heating the oven for brownies!).

Jesse and Ruby are starting to get with the program. Ruby has always loved to clean. In fact, she often says that when she grows up she wants to be a cleaning woman (if she's not a "nail painter.") She's happiest when she can help me "fold" laundry, vacuum or unload the dishwasher. But, Jesse's notion of tidying up means tossing her candy wrappers in the trash.

Maybe all of my neatening efforts have gotten to Jesse because last night, she decided to color-code her enormous crayon collection and enlist Ruby as her helper. I was all for it. It gave us an excuse to weed out the nubby stumps of colored wax masquerading as crayons. Plus, it was a good way to kill time before bedtime.

Maybe I'll ask Jesse to color-code her clothes too -- it might be a good way to convince her to clean out her dresser.