Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Great cooking

I made grape kuchen and I’m so puffed up with pride that I nearly floated off over the ridge behind our house.


The recipe involved eggs, sour cream, lemon, and grapes. I measured and mixed next to a large pile of daffodils that Sweetsie had deposited on my red concrete counter top. (She said she was going to set them afloat again, but I think she forgot.)


The bright colors and tangy-tart smells made my heart race. Forget lovin’ on me, babe. Just give me some deep purple and sunny yellow against a backdrop of red. Mm, mm, mm. Does me in every single time.


This is the first time I’ve made kuchen (pronounced “kü-ken”—see, it really was my first time—I didn’t even know how to pronounce it!) and I’m completely enamored. There’s something deeply satisfying about the rich yeasty bread dimpled with fruity sauce and a tangy-sweet glaze drizzled over all.


I’ve been searching for a way to use up some of my frozen grape preserves. Last summer when I was processing grapes (pinching off the skins, cooking and straining the seedy innards, adding the peels back in and cooking the whole thing up into a royal purple pulp fit for the Queen herself), I set aside some of the precious filling to freeze instead of can. My canned grapes have a tendency to unseal and send me plummeting to the depths of despair, so I needed to try something different. It was a wise move on my part. The frozen grape puree tastes cleaner and brighter and it’s a snap to turn it into pie filling—simply thicken with sugar and flour (or cornstarch or Therm Flow) and it’s ready to go.

But still, I wanted a new way to serve my grapes besides in a pie, so I scoured the web. This grape kuchen was my reward.


This morning I told the kids they could have some grape kuchen after they finished their granola, and clueless Miss Beccaboo, bless her ditzy heart, said, “Huh? Great cooking?”

She said it, not me!


I need to know two things please. They’re very important. First, have you made kuchen before, and if so, how do you make it? And second, do you have any other suggestions for how to use up my frozen grape preserves?

Thank you, m'darlings. I’m much obliged.


Grape Kuchen with Lemon Glaze
Adapted from a recipe I found on ifood

Don’t be put off by the different stages and steps. This kuchen is really quite simple to make.

I imagine the variations are endless:
*Instead of a grape sauce, try blueberry, apricot, sour cherry, or rhubarb. Oo000!—what about red raspberry-rhubarb!
*Add some lemon or orange zest to the dough (I’m definitely doing this next time).
*Add nuts to the streusel.
*Use a plain vanilla glaze, or flavor it with almond extract or orange juice. Maybe add some cream cheese, too?
*There’s also the option of using a sourdough base instead of the commercial yeast. I want to look into this next.

About the grape puree: I won’t lie to you. Processing grapes is a time-consuming affair. It goes something like this:
1. Pick the grapes.
2. Pick the grapes off the stems.
3. Wash the grapes.
4. Squeeze out the grape innards (clear, seedy, eyeball-like blobs).
5. Put the eyeballs in a kettle and reserve the grape skins.
6. Cook the eyeballs till they melt.
7. Smoosh the melted eyeballs through a sieve, thus removing the seeds.
8. Put the melted, seedless eyeball mush back in the kettle and add the grape skins.
9. Cook till heated through.
10. Can (hot pack them), or cool and freeze.

I will understand if you’d rather use blueberries.

For the grape filling:
2 cups grape puree (see headnote)
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Put the grape puree in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Stir together the sugar and flour and add it to the grapes. Cook the grapes over medium-high heat till bubbly and slightly thickened (though they will still be saucy). Stir in the lemon juice and set aside.

For the dough:
2 teaspoons yeast
½ cup warm water
½ cup butter
½ cup sugar
½ cup milk
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup sour cream

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Scald the milk and add the butter.

Stir together the flour, salt, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the milk (once the butter has melted) and stir well. Check with your finger to make sure the mixture isn’t too hot, and then add the dissolved yeast. Stir in the beaten eggs and sour cream. Spread the mixture in a greased 9 x 13 inch pan, cover, and let rise for twenty minutes.

For the streusel:
½ cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix with your fingers till crumbly.

For the lemon glaze:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
juice of one lemon (about 2-3 tablespoons)
a little milk, if needed

Combine the sugar and lemon juice, adding milk as necessary to make a drizzle-able glaze.

To assemble:
Once the twenty minute rise is finished, sprinkle half of the streusel over the dough. Pour the grape puree over top, using the back of a spoon to spread it out evenly-ish. Top with the rest of the streusel.

Using a skewer (or a knife) poke holes—eight to twelve, perhaps—in the batter to allow the grape filling to seep down through and infiltrate the whole cake with its fruity richness. (It won’t look like any infiltrating is happening, but it is.)

Cover the kuchen with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for another 45 minutes.

Bake the kuchen at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the cake is pulling away from the edges. Don’t over bake—dry kuchen isn’t so hotsy-totsy.

Allow the kuchen to cool for at least 30 minutes before glazing and serving. It’s best served warm, but the cake is still mighty tasty the following day.

About one year ago: Flaunting My Ignorance.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I meant it

Some weighty matters are clogging up my brain, slowing it down till it can barely function.* Therefore, I was not able to fully maximize The Baby Nickel’s three-hour nap, Miss Beccaboo’s fever-induced extended rest time, and Yo-Yo’s complete absorption in a new novel. Instead of producing something (i.e. writing), I spent the afternoon finishing up Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (a pretty good second option, all things considered) and surprised myself by liking it so very much. (Some industrious seminary student ought to do a study of the varied Mennonite responses to the book. It might be enlightening to find out what sorts of Mennonites like it and which ones don’t. Tied in with theological stances and cultural upbringings, and you’d have the materials for mighty interesting paper.)


I then forced myself into the kitchen to jive with The Chieftains and make a quadruple batch of French chocolate granola. Sweetsie accompanied me. She danced around in a pink leotard, played with her little plastic horses, and harvested a bouquet of daffodils which she then de-stalked and set to floating in a bowl of water. (Later, when I thought she was done with them, I disposed of the cumbersome arrangement, much to her dismay and subsequent teary rage.)


Just as I was beginning to chop an onion for supper’s barbequed chicken pizza, my sister-in-law stopped by with a pan of still warm chocolate-oatmeal cookies-turned-bars, some empty egg cartons (for the glut of eggs we’ve been struggling with), and two (2) (TWO!) bags of tortilla chips.

Which brings me to my next point. I nearly lost the bet. If it weren’t for the grace of Mr. Handsome, we would’ve feasted on hamburgers and french fries tonight. But Mr. Handsome, in all his vast generosity, hath bestowed favor upon my undeserving head and granted me absolution. I'm free to continue hoarding my nickels and scrutinizing him for one false move. And when I see him trip, stumble, and fall, I will POUNCE. (I’m not nearly as nice as he is.)

(We even brought the matter before a few of our fellow Mennonite congregants, and after reading scripture and praying over it [I'M KIDDING!] [about the scriptural/prayer component], they were evenly divided. Some, including a trusted friend [!], declared me a definite loser; others pointed to my innocence and naivete [tax? there’s such a thing as food tax?] and stated I was fully innocent and still a viable contestant that needed to be reckoned with. The game goes on.)

(Honestly though, I feel like throwing in the towel. I need a can of coconut milk for a peanut soup I’m hankering to make. The recipe calls for five [5] [FIVE!] cups of peanuts, which would help considerably in my efforts to empty my freezers [I have about 15 pounds of the nuts squirreled away]. Wouldn’t the utilization of the nuts negate the coconut milk expenditure? But no, don’t worry, I’m going to stick this out. The peanuts aren’t going anywhere. Mr. Handsome is going to rue the day, just you watch.)


Anyway, changing the subject. I made crackers. (Did I give you literary whiplash? Sorry.)


When I told you I was going to work on my cracker repertoire , I meant it.


These crackers, first time around, made me happy, oh so happy. I have ideas for how to tweak them, but there is no rush. It’s more a maybe-if-I-feel-like-it-later attitude.


For now, I’m plenty contented. They are mildly sweet, gently crunchy, excellent with peanut butter, and Mr. Handsome praises them effusively.


Really, what more could I ask for from a cracker? That Mr. Handsome would sing my praises profusely? No, that's going a bit too far. I'm a reasonable woman, after all.


Oatmeal Crackers
Adapted from Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Small Breads

Now, if I were to play around with these, I would add more whole wheat, sub several tablespoons of lard for coconut oil (to increase the crunch factor), change the sugar from white to brown and increase it a tad, and add a healthy dose of cinnamon. The end result would be called Oatmeal Graham Crackers. Can I get an “amen?”

4 tablespoons butter
½ cup lard (or vegetable shortening)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups rolled oats, plus extra for sprinkling
2 cups white flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk (or thick sour milk, or 1 part plain yogurt and 2 parts milk)

Cream together the butter, lard, and sugar. Stir together the dry ingredients and alternately add them to the butter-sugar mixture with the buttermilk. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.

To bake:
Divide the dough into four parts, and roll out one of the parts on a greased cookie sheet that has been generously sprinkled with rolled oats. The dough should be about 1/8th inch thick. Use a fork to poke holes in the dough every half inch or so, and then cut the dough into squares (or whatever shape is desired) using a pizza cutter or knife.

Bake the crackers at 350 degrees for 10 to 20 minutes, or as long as possible without them burning. Remove the crackers along the edge as they begin to brown.

Transfer the crackers to a rack and cool completely before storing in an airtight container. (I suspect they freeze well, too.)

Yield: about a gallon

*I’m not saying what the weighty matter pertains to. My lips are sealed; my fingers are crossed. If it amounts to anything, I’ll tell you later. But rest assured, nobody is in trouble.

And no, I’m not pregnant.

About one year ago: Coconut Brownies.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My brother's weirdnesses

It’s common knowledge that my tiny-little brother is weird.


Let's chronicle the evidence, shall we?

*He likes math, and not only that, but he reads entire books filled with nothing more than mathematical equations.
*He used to bolt up and down the wooded hill behind our WV house to get in shape for soccer.
*He likes to dig holes for fun.
*He wipes out a la Napoleon Dynamite and then writes about it for the university paper.

Let me stop right there and quote from that story.

It was a pretty, almost-fall day and I had just finished chorus class. Happily I pranced down the sidewalks leading from Martin Chapel to Elmwood where my bags were packed and ready—I was about to go home for the first time since coming to school. As I passed the Commons, I broke into a sprint like an Olympian on the hundred meter dash. You know how they lean way front at the beginning, when they’re trying to speed up really fast? Well, I guess I must have leaned front just a little too far. I desperately strode ahead, tying to regain balance, moving my legs as fast as I could to bring my rear end back underneath my front end, but it was too late. My heavily laden backpack slid forward over my shoulders and I had no choice but to dive onto the mercilessly abrasive concrete.

As I slid to a halt, my first thought was, “Am I okay?” I had to be okay. I didn’t want to have to explain to people that my injuries were a result of my clumsiness. It would not have felt so bad if I had been run over by a crazy driver or something like that; then I would have been only a victim of someone else's stupidity. But I had no excuse, not a single one. I don’t even remember tripping on anything. Still hoping that I wasn’t really hurt, I jumped to my feet and assumed the prettiest smile I could muster for my friend Derrick, who was running to the rescue. By this time, I was no longer deceiving myself about my pitiful state, but I still tried to make up for my clumsiness with wit. “I don’t think I have dain bramage,” I said.

See what I mean? He’s a goon. Pressing onward...


*He chops veggies with a cleaver.
*He rides his bike in snowstorms.


*He makes enormous fire mushroom clouds with wax and water.


*He bungee-jumped from the Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa. (When I look at this picture, I have to remind myself to breathe.)
*He recently used a pair of needle nosed pliers to remove a wart on his hand. (Dumbbell.)

In case that isn’t enough to convince you, let’s move along to the food weirdnesses. Consider the following:

*He lives off of pumpkin pie, cereal, pancakes, pasta, and enormous hunks of beef.
*He refuses to measure when he cooks. It takes too much time, he says, or some such stuff-and-nonsense. (Regardless, he makes a kick-butt pumpkin pie in his gigantic cast iron skillet.)
*When he’s doing lots of physical labor (like digging holes) in hot weather, he ensures that he gets enough salt by sprinkling some in his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On nice, thoughtfully prepared homemade bread and strawberry jam! What is the point? I ask you. Why bother making good food if it’s going to be so royally blasphemed?
*He packs his whole lunch in one big plastic container, everything all mounded together. For example: a sandwich topped by a carrot, a wedge of skillet-baked pumpkin pie, a cucumber, and a cold baked potato. And perhaps a couple shakes of salt.
*He adds orange juice to his milk.
*When he was little and he didn’t know any better, he killed and ate a mockingbird.
*In college, he dumpster dived like it was an Olympic sport.
*He once fried up a pan of locust and served them with a choice of honey, ketchup or Ranch dressing. He got Miss Beccaboo to eat one.
*He also caught a live locust and ate it raw, just to see what it tasted like. Or maybe because he was practicing to be a prophet.
*He chews up chicken bones.

Keeping all that in mind, the other week I got an email from him: "I had some exceptional chickpeas at a gathering Saturday. The link to the recipe is below, because I had asked to pass it on to you."

My brother never sends me recipes. Perhaps because he doesn’t use recipes, or perhaps because it takes away from valuable time otherwise spent bicycling, fiddling, or computating. In any case, I took heed.


The recipe was for an appetizer, smoky fried chickpeas. It called for lemon zest, thyme, garlic, and smoked paprika. I had a one-pound bag of dried garbanzos lounging on my still-overfull pantry shelves, so I ripped into the plastic and set the legumes to soaking.

Even though this recipe came to me via my brother, these chickpeas are not weird. Or maybe if they are weird (the rest of my family thinks so), at least they're also delicious.


Perhaps they're simply deliciously weird.

Or weirdly delicious.

In any case, they're crispy, nutty, crunchy, sometimes tender-creamy, smokey, garlicky. I had to set the plate up on top the fridge to put an end (kind of) to my first-rate binge snacking.


Smoky Fried Chickpeas

The original recipe calls for frying the sliced garlic after frying the chickpeas, but I think it would make more sense to first fry the garlic and then proceed with the rest of the frying—that way the garlic-scented olive oil would have a chance to flavor the peas as they take their hot oil bath.

As you can see from the proportions, there is a good bit of flexibility. I used two cups of cooked chickpeas, but the recipe called for two cans which equals 3 cups, I think. I dialed back the seasonings accordingly, but I don’t think it was necessary to reduce the lemon. You can never have too much lemon, right?

If you have fresh thyme on hand, eliminate the dried and add a sprig of fresh to the hot oil at the same time as the lemon.

One note about smoked paprika. If you don’t have any, for heaven’s sake go out and buy some! This spice is new to me, but it’s fast becoming one of my favorites. I use it in everything from cream of tomato soup to baked corn to sauteed Swiss chard.

½ - 1 cup olive oil
2 - 3 cups cooked chickpeas, drained
2 - 3 teaspoons lemon peel, in ribbons
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 - 3 teaspoons smoked paprika
½ - 1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

Spread the drained chickpeas on a towel and gently pat them till fairly dry.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed, high-sided pot. When it’s hot (I didn’t measure, but if you’re inclined to use thermometers, aim for about 355 degrees), add the garlic and fry till golden brown. Keep a close watch—it cooks quickly. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels, a couple coffee filters, or a torn open brown paper bag.

Add half the chickpeas, along with half of the lemon and thyme, to the hot oil and fry for about five minutes, stirring frequently. When they are crispy brown, transfer them to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with half the salt and paprika.

Repeat with the remaining chickpeas. Add the toasted garlic slices and toss to blend. Taste to correct seasonings. (Hot pepper might be a nice addition.)

Store any leftovers in an airtight container. Because they soften over time, they are best eaten the same day (though I still thought them plenty delicious the second day).

Serving recommendations: make these for an afternoon snack or for an appetizer for a schmultzy party. (I imagine they'd pair nicely with fried locusts.)

About one year ago: Brandied-Bacony Roast Chicken.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Whoopin' it up

I’ve missed writing about food. I’ve been filling all my blog posts with holy, dramatic, competitive, child-based content (or, holy dramatic, competitive child-based content—the wondrous comma, oh how I love it) and neglecting to tell you about any gustatory pleasures. Part of the reason is that I’ve slapped a lid on my culinary creative streak in an effort to empty the freezers, and the other part of the reason is that I’ve been either out-and-about (gardening and meetings) or in-and-reclining (Kinky Boots [I want a pair of bright red, crotch-high boots!], Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Dumbing Us Down, The Endless Steppe).

All that is about to change.


I have three new recipes for you. The dessert one comes first, of course, and the other two may or may not follow, depending on how much more gardening and reading I feel pressured to accomplish in the next several days. But first, I must tell you about Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.


Have you read it, this hit book by Rhoda Janzen? My book club read it last month (except I didn’t start it till after the meeting—I’m all wonky these days), and they did not give it good reviews. I already had some pretty strong biases towards it, even before the group tore it to shreds, so it was with a begrudging, resentful attitude that I finally got around to cracking the spine.


And then I cracked up, giggled, snorted, and guffawed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t really like the book (or the author, or something) but not for the same reasons as the book club ladies. And don’t get me wrong—I really like the book (or the author, or something) for some of the reasons the book club ladies don’t. Capiche?


Rhoda is a non-Mennonite who grew up Mennonite. (Problem number one: the title is a lie.) Her life slams to a halt when her husband leaves her for a guy named Bob, so she heads home to her Russian Mennonite family to recuperate. Leaping ahead so I can get to what I want to talk about: in her book Rhoda recounts the "shame-based" Mennonite foods she was raised with, foods that I, another ethnic Mennonite, have never even tasted. (Problem number two: she portrays her Mennonite culture as The Mennonite culture.) Even as an adult she admits that she is reserved about serving these weird (but delicious! she claims) foods to non-Mennonites. Embarrassed by food? Still? At forty-three? (Problem number three: pervasive immaturity.) All that said, and knowing I’m not done with the book yet, I haven't found it nearly as offensive as I thought I would. In fact, I find it rather endearing.


And I happen to find Mennonite food to be endearing too, especially when it involves chocolate and cream. Me, embarrassed by ethnic cooking? No sirree! I’m so cocky-proud about it that I’m liable to fall kersplat on my face if I don’t watch where I’m going.


I grew up with whoopie pies. They are a classic Mennonite dessert (keep in mind I’m speaking for the East Coast Mennonite groupies), and they were always a huge treat since they take considerably more prep time than, say, brownies. But oh my, there is something delightful about two cookies mortared together with fluffy vanilla frosting. Each whoopie pie comes wrapped in plastic so you get what amounts to a brand-spanking-new dessert—from an unjaded child’s point of view, it’s almost as good as a candy bar! And then there is the two-in-one factor—you’re getting two cookies for the price of one! A veritable boon, this is indeed, one that quickens the heart of frugal Mennonites-in-training.


Since whoopie pies involve a couple extra steps (icing, joining, and wrapping), I like to make a lot at one time. And when you take into consideration that a dozen cookies will disappear in just one serving (look, I’ll do the math for you: twelve cookies make six whoopies, see?), it’s important to err on the side of too many. Not that that’s ever the case. Keep in mind, the whoopies freeze well. Not that they get a chance to hang out in their chilly box for all that long (in less than twenty-four hours, I’ve already run down to the basement two separate times to fetch me more pies), but we can pretend, right?


Now, classic whoopie pies call for a fluffy vanilla filling. The main reason that I don't make whoopies all that often is because I’ve never liked my filling. It called for an egg white, two teaspoons of flour, and an excessive amount of beating; it was picky, finicky, and unpredictable.


But then I saw Pioneer Woman’s latest frosting—one that reduced her to a gushing, raving, blithering fanatic. I was skeptical. I crossed my arms and thought happy thoughts about chickpeas, but man! that woman is convincing. I held out for about five days before ducking my head obediently and whipping up a bowl of (to die for!) frosting...and putting it on chocolate cupcakes and covering it with sprinkles for my delighted chillens, just like she did. Like I said, she’s convincing.


Once I realized that the frosting was perfect for a whoopie pie filling, well, I was sold. And that's the simple truth.


P.S. I have a little black dress in my closet. Think I ought to write a book?

Whoopie Pies

This recipe yields a fair amount of cookies (but it’s not even close to being too much), so if you decide to halve the recipe, simply use one egg yolk in place of the whole egg (Or, you can be bold and employ the old Mennonite egg-cutting trick.)

Note: Whoopie pies invite variation, and while the chocolate cookie with vanilla cream filling is a classic, I did fill some of my cookies with some leftover peanut butter frosting (because I only made a single batch of the cream fluff frosting and consequently ran out—horrors!). The peanut butter-chocolate combo was really, really, really, reallyreallyreallyreally good.

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup sour milk
5 tablespoons water
1 cup cocoa
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
double recipe Cream Fluff Frosting (recipe follows)

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and vanilla and beat some more. Beat in the milk and water.

Sift together the dry ingredients and add them to the wet. Beat briefly to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough for an hour (or longer, if you’re not yet ready to bake).

Scoop out the dough (a smallish amount) and drop it on a greased baking sheet, keeping the dough blobs a couple inches apart. If the dough sticks to your fingers, slightly dampen them first.

Next, dampen a finger tip or two and lightly shape the cookies into smooth circles and press down on the centers a bit. (This keeps the cookies from rising too high and ensures that their tops stay crack-free and smooth.)

Bake the cookies at 350 degrees for 8-12 minutes (depending on the size of your cookies) until the tops hold firm when lightly pressed. Transfer to a baking rack and cool completely.

To assemble:
Upturn one of the cookies and spread its bottom with a thick (thick, THICK!) layer of filling. Find a similar shaped cookie and set it on top of the filling. Once all the cookies are filled, wrap them in individual pieces of plastic wrap, set the whoopie pies in a large, airtight container and transfer them to the freezer.

Cream Fluff Frosting
From Ree Drumond, The Pioneer Woman

When I told my mom about my new whoopie pie filling, her comment was, “Oh yes. That’s the recipe for red velvet cake frosting.” She’s always known about this recipe and yet never taught it to me? How could she!

This icing is delicious and note-worthy, addicting and dangerous. I’m tempted to keep a batch in the fridge at all times. I just know it would be good on anything and everything: muffins, bread, pancakes, scones, pot roast...

1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
5 tablespoons flour

Put the milk in a small saucepan and whisk in the flour. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, till the milk thickens. Stir in the vanilla and set aside to cool.

In the meantime, cream together the butter and sugar in a separate bowl.

When the milk has cooled to room temperature (set the pan on snow or ice if you’re in a hurry), add it to the creamed mixture and beat it all together till it is light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream. Taste it. Do you detect any sugar crystals? If so, beat some more, tasting frequently as you go. When the mixture is completely smooth, stop mixing. And for crying out loud, stop tasting, too. Or else you’re not going to have any frosting left.

One batch of frosting will ice a sheet cake or fill a little more than half a recipe of whoopie pies.

About one year ago: Snickerdoodles, and Happy Birthday, Happy Pappy!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Playing Martha

Yo-Yo and I were in a little drama this Sunday. He was Matthew and got to put his feet on the table, eat lots of dip, and pal around with Lazarus. I was Martha and I got to tell Matthew to take his feet off the table, screech at various people (a guest, Jesus) to try the dip, and hiss at Lazarus to sit up straight.

The five minute drama went off without a hitch. Yo-Yo had a great time; he said he only got nervous right before he walked on stage and then he was perfectly fine. I had a grand old time even though I had no idea what I was doing. I learned what “cheating” and “off-book” mean, and I stretched parts of my brain that I didn’t know I had. My lower back ached from the standing, stress, and nerves, and in the couple days leading up to the event, I developed an annoying habit of stomping around the house yelling about muffins, dip, and nard.

Now, our post-play dinnertime conversation revolves around me tossing out a line and letting the children finish it up. For example:

Me, “Caleb!” (Martha’s sous chef.)

The kids, “Yes Martha?”

The kids, “Where are the muffins?”

The kids, “Muffins?”

The kids, “Yes, muffins! Round, crumbs on top, moist, fig-laden muffins! WHERE are the muffins?”

The Baby Nickel crows, “I’m on it!”

And so it goes. As you can see, the kids don’t need much prompting. We can make our way through most of the ten page script without too many gaps.

Acting intrigues me. I’m drawn to it, for more reasons than just the glamour and adulation (though those are nice, too). The challenge of pretending to be someone else, stretching my mind to imagine life differently, using my whole body to express ideas and emotions—this is why acting appeals to me. The only problem is, I’ve never acted.

Well, that’s not quite true. In college I played an angry lover in a short Spanish play. I sat on a park bench and bickered about negro and blanco. But really, I’ve never auditioned for anything in my life. Auditioning scares me senseless, truth be told. As does acting. I’m not good at ad-libbing or anything impromptu. I’m calculated and methodical. The mere thought of getting up on stage and forgetting my lines makes my bowels quake.

(A side benefit of acting: weight loss.)

Volunteering to participate in Sunday’s drama was a big step. It helped that we were working with/under a pro or two, and it helped that the cast was intergenerational and that there were other newbies—I wasn’t the only one staggering into the unknown. But still, I was scared. I was putting myself Out There to be watched, examined, judged. The stage, it turns out, is a vulnerable place to be.

And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Perhaps I should try out for a community play. But there’s the awkward audition and my fragile ego; I don’t know if I could handle being rejected. (Not that they have any reason not to reject me, considering I’ve had no training, no experience, and no idea what I’m doing.) In any case, in order to justify all the evenings spent away from home, I think at least two of the kids would have to also participate. It will be a long time till I have a second kid who wants to act with me and Yo-Yo (he’s already agreed), though—Miss Beccaboo shakes her head vigorously when I ask if she’d like to be in a play, and while Sweetsie has developed a gift for flaring her nostrils and reducing us all to tears of laughter, I don’t see her waltzing around on stage any time soon.

But never mind. All my life's a stage, right?

Now tell me, have you taken any bold, bowel-quaking steps lately? Please share. I covet the company.

Signed,
An insecure, vulnerable, hapless dreamer

P.S. I'll stop signing off on my blog posts ... eventually. Maybe. I think.

About one year ago: The winner. Oh goodness! Look at that, will you? The spending freeze finished up last year at this time, and this year it's still going strong. Whee!

Nutty therapy

“What’s this?” Mr. Handsome asked the other morning when he came into the kitchen and saw me dividing peanuts into four little glasses. “Do we have a bunch of Dumbos around here?”

“Ha. Very funny,” I smirked. “We just might.”

Peanuts were my latest attempt at dealing with the bickering, name calling, bad table manners, and poor attitudes that had been cluttering up my home. All the typical techniques—gentle reprimands, scoldings, shrieks, threats and dire consequences—weren’t doing the trick. My throat was raw from yakking/explaining/arguing/laying down the law, and I was exhausted. It was time to pull out the nuts.


While I’ve been accused (rightly so, I’m afraid) of being a tad bit nutty and my kids are nuts (they get it honestly), I’ve never before parented with nuts. I’ve employed pennies and mini M&Ms in the warfare against bad behavior, but the humble groundnut had, until that morning, largely been ignored.

The treatment plan is as follows:
1. Line four glasses up on the counter and place 10 peanuts (or 20 peanut halves) in each glass.
2. When a child does something wrong (talks back, name calls, disobeys, etc), announce, “I’m eating one of your peanuts,” and calmly walk to the counter and pick a nut out of the appropriate glass. And eat it. (Look at that! You can simultaneously fortify yourself and discipline your children! Three cheers for multitasking!)
3. When the allotted amount of time is up (see point number four), the kids get to eat their remaining nuts. (The Baby Nickel insists on chopping his few remaining nuts—he’s struggling, the poor kid—into as many pieces as possible so he can have more than the other kids and subsequently not feel so bad about himself.)
4. For optimum effectiveness, use the treatment for short periods of time. (We do not continue with peanut therapy in the pm; in this house it’s the mornings that are tough.)
5. For additional fun, include a cup for yourself, name a bad behavior you want to correct, and let the children monitor you.


So there you have it. After one day of peanut therapy, their behavior was much improved (even Miss Beccaboo's, and she doesn't like peanuts). The powerful peanut shocked them into goodness, I guess.

I wonder how long it will take the psychologists to start utilizing this new treatment plan. The new DSM is coming out in 2012—do you think they’ll make mention of this groundbreaking peanut therapy? Maybe I ought to patent it.

Yours truly,
A Dumbo Mom

P.S. Allergic to nuts? Try raisins.

About one year ago: Caramelized Onions.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A fast update

Yo-Yo has been begging us to quit the spending fast. That he is unable to convince us to buy him a treat irritates him to no end. We’ve pointed out that he has his own money to spend, that he’s not starving, and that we’ve met all his needs (buying the kid underwear to replace his shredded loincloths doesn’t count as breaking the fast), but that doesn’t appease him any. Simply the idea of self-imposed frugality bugs him. What he doesn’t realize is that now that we know he’s watching and understands our little game, he’s given us more reason than ever to stick it out, to show him how few monetary needs we really have. There’s a lesson here, kiddo! Listen up!


Poor child. The suffering we inflict on him has no end.

So far we’re doing pretty good, though I must admit that I was sorely tempted to buy a coffee this morning when I went to Barnes and Noble for some writing time. To sit in a café and use their electricity (no wireless, though!) without buying anything at all brought on some tiny twinges of guilt, but I was strong. I buy coffees other times, I reasoned. I don’t need to buy them every time. (Right?)

Now that I have no flexibility with my purchases, I detest grocery shopping. Last night’s trip to the store was just so dang boring:

25-pound sack of bread flour
4 gallons of 2% milk
4 pounds of butter
10 pounds of potatoes
2 pounds of carrots
1 bunch of celery
1 container of tapioca
1 container of sour cream

As I was putting the milk in the fridge I got an incredible urge for a bowl of bought cereal, pretzels, ice cream, chips, and popcorn. So I made popcorn and opened a quart of grape juice. That was nice.

But not as nice as it could’ve been.

We still have insane amounts of food in this house. Wanna see?


Here’s the jelly cupboard. (Can you see where I took out the jar of grape juice to go with last night's popcorn?) Mr. Handsome hauled two wash basket loads of canned goods from the basement and restocked the shelves. This is what the shelves in the basement look like now.


Still way too full. But wait! What's that I spy? Empty canning jars! Lots of empty canning jars!


(To provide perspective, this is what we started with. It might not seem much more than what you see in these photos, but it is. Trust me.)

We’re doing our best to put a serious dent in the food supply (we're pretty much having an applesauce free-for-all), but it’s a big job. We had three extra kids to feed yesterday, so unbeknownst to them, I enlisted their services.

Lunch: grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto from the freezer (check), oven-roasted tomatoes (check), and fruit smoothies with frozen strawberries (check) and frozen apricot chunks (check).


Mid afternoon snack: butternut squash pie (check).


Supper: biscuits with dried beef gravy (check—the beef had been in the freezer for going on two years and I still have some left), scrambled eggs, canned green beans (two quarts, check), frozen corn (1 ½ quarts, check), and some leftover rhubarb-strawberry crisp and squash pie (check, check, check).

Here’s what my freezers look like.


They’re emptying out nicely but there’s still a ridiculous amount of food in them.


I realize I’m soon going to shift my focus from freezer to garden, so I’m feeling the pressure to keep lids a-popping and bags a-defrosting. I focus on frozen and think positive thoughts. We can eat it. We can eat it. We can eat it.

As for the pantry, it’s certainly depleted (contrary to all appearances). No longer do we have white rice, cereal, wheat crackers, canned black olives, or lentils. I’m running low on whiskey, sherry, and pasta. But aside from those shortages, we’re still awash in a surprising amount of nonessentials: cracked wheat, kalamata olives, matzoh meal, coconut cream, canned pineapple, ranch dressing, canned grape leaves, dulce de leche, wine, chocolate, nuts, sweetened condensed milk, canned beans, hominy, barley, and cake flour.


There have only been a couple times that I’ve seriously felt the pinch. This morning at the café was one of those times, and the other time was when we went to Pittsburgh—making stops for junk food and coffee was out of the question (though Mr. Handsome did get a plain tall coffee because he was falling asleep—it was a question of life or death) and we relied on my brother for any entrance fees (he may have done that anyway in his role of host, but we didn’t even offer to chip in, something I don’t like not doing). (I did take him a box filled with various jars of canned goods.)

I have a list of things that I want to buy when we go off the freeze—for starters, chocolate tights, mascara, a camera battery, a flowy blouse, and sunglasses—but for now I’m sitting tight. I have a feeling that it might be quite awhile before Mr. Handsome buckles.

Until then, we certainly are in no danger of starving.

Two months, and one week and counting.....

About one year ago: To the dentist she goes, kind of.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shaking things up

Life has been rather tough around here lately. I’m not sure why since we have a good, stable routine (but yet did something out-of-the-ordinary), are getting enough sleep, and are eating well. Regardless, life has felt a bit overwhelming. Mostly because the kids fight continually. I tried my best to nix that on Monday (maybe I’ll write about my brilliant techniques later), but then on Tuesday night I got a new idea.


The goons I have to work with.

Because the forecast was calling for sunny weather and 60 to 70 degree temps for Wednesday through Saturday, I decided to shake things up a bit. Hey, I thought to myself. I can do anything I want. I’m a homeschooler. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.

The truth is, I’m ready to quit the kids’ studies right now. I know that homeschool families are expected to go through a bunch of draggy angst in February, but for me, the blah-fits strike when green stuff starts poking through the brown and the kids forget that they possess foot apparel. Then I just want to scream, ENOUGH! and head outdoors to the toolshed. But alas, we’ve not studied sufficiently for one year (by my self-imposed and ill-defined measuring stick), and besides, it really is too early to put up all the winter clothes. So instead, we slog through our lessons and wallow around in our sun-drenched misery.

Or not. Or not? Or NOT!

For illustration purposes, take a look at Miss Beccaboo's poking techniques. She is The Queen of Poke:




Tuesday night I called the kids to me (saying that makes me feel like a clucky, head-bobbing hen) and informed them that for the rest of the week we would have a different schedule. We would do our school reading time in the evening (we’re between read alouds anyway, having just finished up To Kill A Mockingbird on Sunday) and review the next morning’s independent work assignments. In the morning they could sail straight through their studies and then on out the door. I would sail out after them and then we’d all do some garden work together.

We’ve now actualized one day of the new plan; it’s officially kid-tested and mother-approved.

We didn’t get outside as quickly as I had hoped—we still had chores and attitudes to deal with, after all—but outside we did get. I pruned the red raspberries and cleaned up the asparagus bed (THE ASPARAGUS IS COMING UP! I SAW A FAT WHITE SHOOT WITH MY VERY OWN EYES!) and the kids loaded up all the brush and brambles in the wheelbarrow and hauled them down to the burn pile. I transplanted out the rhubarb (and broke a shovel), and the kids worked at shoveling dirt back into a hole that they made last fall. The Baby Nickel went against my orders and collected the eggs from the coop and then one of them busted in his pants pocket. I wasn’t ready to go inside yet (I lock the doors and carry the key when we all go outside to work—it helps to keep us all on the same page) so he sat on the sunny porch steps in his underwear and “read”/shredded the newspaper flyers. We finally went inside for our lunch, which I already told you about yesterday.

Today will be only slightly different. I’m watching my friend’s children from mid-morning through supper. This means that my kids will probably get their jobs and independent work done more quickly than before and then they’ll stay outside and play all day long. Despite needing to cook bigger meals, I hope to get my flower beds cleaned up and do some weeding in the strawberries. We’ll see.

P.S. It's still dark outside and Yo-Yo is up. He asked for a pencil and sat right down at the table to do his grammar pages. It appears we're off to a good start!

About one year ago: Butterscotch Pudding, and Warm Chocolate Sourdough Cake (Only click on the latter link if you have a full stomach; otherwise, bad things might happen.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Oats, plumped and fried

About three or four years ago, I used to make oatmeal pancakes for our breakfast on a regular basis. We had a school bus-riding foster child then, and since I needed to be up anyway to make sure she didn’t slip out of the house with her tongue ring still in, I went the extra step and made a hot breakfast for everyone. Along with Dutch puff, oatmeal, Farmer Boy pancakes, scrambled or fried eggs, egg casseroles, and Cream Cheese and Blueberry French Toast Sandwiches, I made oatmeal pancakes.


Everyone likes oatmeal pancakes better than plain oatmeal (c’mon, there’s syrup involved!), and they are fairly simple to assemble, though because the oats soak in a yogurt-water mixture overnight, you do have to remember to start them the night before. I’ve been trying to make them all week now, but somehow always ended up going to bed before setting the oats to soaking. Until last night, that is. Then I finally remembered. (Seeing as last night was Tuesday night, I guess I'm not doing so bad.)


Soaking oats (and other grains) in yogurt or buttermilk is recommended by the health experts because the enzymes in the cultured dairy products help to break down and neutralize the phytic acid, thus improving the food's nutritional benefits. (I got so smart by reading Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions.) But we all know I’m no health freak (I’m a freak in other ways, yes, but not in healthy ways), and even so, I choose to soak my oats. Why? Because they taste good! The oats plump up till they are swollen and tender (and about the same consistency of cooked oatmeal), and they develop a slight hint of sourness (use less yogurt for less sour; more yogurt and the sourness becomes more intense) so that the final product tastes more cultured (in a sophisticated sort of way).

So this morning after spending some dark morning quality time at my computer, I set the griddle on the stove top and went about adding flour, spices, oil, and a handful of eggs to the bowl of soaked oats. The Baby Nickel joined me and hijacked my spatulas.


The final pancakes are tender and chewy (but not gummy) with a hint of cinnamon. Served with lots of butter and homemade maple syrup, they make for a deliciously hearty breakfast.


We ate a bunch of the leftover pancakes for lunch (after we finished off a loaf of bread, some chicken salad, lentils and brown rice, and spinach-chicken quiche), reheated and spread with butter and grape jelly.


Oatmeal Pancakes other ways:
Molly's Oatmeal Pancakes
Mama Pea's Oatmeal Pancakes

Oatmeal Pancakes
Adapted from Simply in Season

A double recipe feeds my family most generously and still leaves a couple pancakes for later snacking.

Variations: Add a grated apple, chopped dried dates, or blueberries to the batter.

2 cups rolled oats
½ cup yogurt or buttermilk
1 ½ cups water
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup oil, or melted butter
½ cup flour
2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt

The night before:
Stir together the oats, yogurt, and water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (or a shower cap) and set it aside on the counter. Go to bed.

In the morning:
Stir together the dry ingredients in a small bowl.

Add the eggs and oil to the soaked oats. Stir in the dry ingredients.

Melt a pat of butter in a frying pan and spoon some of the batter into the pan. The batter is thick, so you may need to use the back of a spoon to spread the batter out a bit. Fry the pancakes until they are golden brown and no longer wet inside.

About one year ago: A child's blessing.