Saturday, March 31, 2012

braided bread

It’s been a bugger of a week in the kitchen.


Several days ago I sent out (what I thought was) an innocuous-enough tweet/facebook message that read, “What should be my next cooking project? I want something new and exciting and delicious. Suggestions, please.”

My sweet cousin tweeted back, “How about you perfect the art of the English muffin (preferably with some whole grains). Or have you tried that already?”


As of today, I have five failed English muffin recipes under my belt. Also, I no longer think my cousin is very sweet. In fact, I think she might be a little bit evil. She probably thought to herself, “She wants a project? Ha! I’ll give her THE MOTHER OF ALL PROJECTS! Let’s see how she handles this one!” and—ka-BAM!—she tossed me an idea and then sat back to watch the flour fly.


Or maybe that’s just my tired, English muffin-overloaded brain running a-muck. At this point, I really have no idea.

I have one more variation to try later on today and then I’m clean out of ideas. Which slays me. I’ve figured out how to duplicate a number of (what I thought were) unduplicable foods—bagels! baguettes! flour tortillas!—and so I was quite hopeful that I could conquer the English muffin.

Maybe I was too hopeful. (In any case, if you have any English muffin-making advice to bestow upon my drooping head, then please do so, okay?  And yes, I’m begging. Desperate times and all...)


Because all my hard work was getting me nowhere, on Friday I decided to pour my energies into something more straightforward: braided bread. This egg bread is a piece of cake to make, looks fancy, and tastes delicious. Also, it has Easter written all over it.


The recipe first entered our family about 25 years ago. My family had moved to Leadmine, West Virginia when I was ten, and while the culture was shockingly different from our previous life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (no Mennonites in sight, no running water at the church, bears in the woods, etc), there was one family in particular that went out of their way to make us feel at home. Judy was one of the daughters, grown and with children of her own, and, if I’m remembering correctly, she had us over for dinner one Sunday afternoon and served us this bread.


Judy’s family lived in an underground house. The front part stuck out from the side of the hill, but the back rooms were completely underground—it was strange and fabulous. Every time I went to their house I was reminded of the cow that stuck its foot through the roof of Laura Ingalls’ sod house. I kind of hoped that something similarly exotic would happen at Judy’s house, but it never did.


Unless you count the braided bread. That was exotic and delicious. I thought it the most amazing bread ever and my mother must have, too, because she got the recipe and went on to serve it at a great number of our own company meals.


I didn’t make this bread yesterday with the intention of serving it to company, but then my parents showed up so it was kind of a company meal after all. Except not really, because my parents aren’t real company—you know, the kind that makes you spin into a tizz—and besides, all I served them was a big bowl of salad (store-bought greens with bacon and boiled eggs) and the fresh braided bread and jam. (And the not-good-enough English muffins. But we’re not talking about them any more, now, are we.)


Braided Bread

Because of its fairly high sugar content, this bread gets dark quite quickly. Bake it on your best burn-proof baking sheet and cover it with foil if it gets too dark.

2 tablespoons yeast
½ cup warm water
½ cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 tablespoon salt
1 ½ cups warm milk
3 eggs, beaten
7 cups flour, approximately
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for the glaze

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, butter, salt, warm milk, and several cups of the flour. Stir in the dissolved yeast and the eggs. Add the remaining flour, a bit at a time, taking care not to add too much, until the dough is stiff enough to knead but still slightly sticky. Knead for five minutes until smooth. Set the dough in the floured bowl, cover, and let to rise until doubled.

Divide the dough in half and cut each half into three equal parts. Shape each part into a long rope, about 15 inches long, or several inches longer than the baking pan. Lay three ropes side by side and braid them together, pinching the ends together and tucking them under the loaf. Repeat with the other three ropes.

Lay the braids on greased baking sheets (I used two separate sheets but you may be able to fit them on one large one) that have been sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and let rise for 30-60 minutes until puffy but not quite doubled.

Immediately before baking, brush them with the egg wash (I use a paper napkin to dab on the glaze). Bake at 350 degrees for 25-35 minutes.

This bread is best served warm. Tear off great hunks and slather with butter and jam. Leftovers make good French toast.

This same time, years previous: baby love, grape kuchen, coconut brownies

Thursday, March 29, 2012

the boy and the dishes


It was after lunch and I was hustling around cleaning up the various kitchen hot spots—stove, table, counter—while.my son did the dishes. Because my son washes dishes as though he has a hundred hours in each day and not a care in the world (read, slooooowly), I had set the timer for him.

“Get this many dishes done in ten minutes or else you have a window to wash, too,” I threatened.

So he was washing at a steady pace—not super-fast, but not slooooowly either.

However, the other thing he does when he washes dishes is he talks.

Or whistles.

Or sings.

Or makes weird noises.

Or asks questions.

It's more of an undercurrent of sound, not loud and abrasive, so I wasn't paying him any mind this afternoon until he said, “Mom?”

“Um, yeah, um...” I said, focused on straightening out the throw rug. And then, suddenly aware of the question dangling in the air, “Oh, sorry. I wasn’t listening. Try again.”

“Nah,” he said cheerfully.

I paused my clean-up to observe him washing. I do this occasionally—turn myself into a hawk, head jutting forward, eyes popping and piercing—because we have trouble with the dishes getting all the way clean. Every business needs quality control management and the home kitchen is no different. There’s no point in washing the dishes if they aren’t going to get clean, I’m forever saying.

“Boy,” I harped, “you didn’t even wash the mouth of that glass! And all I used it for was cutting out the muffins. It's filthy! Look at what you’re doing!”

Unfazed, my son swiped the rag over the glass’s rim. “I’ve washed more dishes in my life than you have in yours,” he stated calmly.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“As soon as I was born,” he continued, “my mama looked me in the eye and said, GO WASH THE DISHES.”

Which is probably what it feels like. I’ll give him that much.

***

In other news, another Kitchen Chronicles is out this week. It's all about eggs.


And Dutch Puff.


This puff gets divided four ways and disappears lickety-split. Soon I'll have to make two each time. (Actually, my daughter is the Dutch puff maker. All I do is bake it.)

This same time, years previous: cream puffs (another thing to make if you're swimming in eggs), oatmeal crackers

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

warts and all

I think my thumb might fall off any day now. It’s the one on my right hand, and it has a lot of ailments—namely, a slew of warts and a way-down-deep splinter.

Yes, “warts” is a dirty word and I’m sorry to use it here, but I feel compelled to tell the truth. (Mainly because if I suddenly stop writing, you’ll know it’s because my thumb fell off and I can’t type anymore. You need to know these things.)

The warts have been there for eons (they’re all over my hand, and only my right one is stricken—perhaps I committed a grievous sin with it and am now reaping the dire consequences?), and we’ve become rather fond of each other, the warts and I, but then I got a little cut (I was grating cheese and decided it’d be a jolly hoot to grate my knuckle, too) and had to bandage up my thumb for a couple days which resulted in my wart, thanks to all the moisture trapped in by the bandage, puffing up to gross proportions and looking very much like a baby cauliflower that was sprouting from my thumb.

About that time, I discovered a baby wart a little higher up on my thumb. And then I poked my thumb on a jagged wooden doorframe, so on went another band-aid. A day later my thumb was hurting kind of bad, so off goes the bandage and that’s when I realized that part of the wooden doorframe was still in my thumb, a quarter-inch down in and with no easily graspable part of it sticking back out. And, two more baby warts were starting, yay and yay.

So I applied some wart-eating acid pads, put on two band-aids, and went to bed. The next time I take off the band-aids, there will probably be a whole colony of warts under there, whooping it up real good. I’m scared.

And as for the splinter, I had a thought. Once I put a too-big piece of wart-eating acid pad on my daughter’s finger and it ate off part of her finger along with the wart. So if the splinter doesn’t come off on its own, I’ll just stick a quarter-inch strip of acid pad over the splinter. That ought to do the trick, don’t you think?

(Notice there are no pictures. You're welcome.)

***

Nothing makes a house feel dirtier than swarms of flies. They congregate around certain areas on the floor/counters/stove/table/computer, and even though those areas may look clean, the cloud of flies is a dead giveaway that they’re not. It’s like the flies are infrared detectors, but instead of heat, they’re detecting food smears. It’s quite gross.

(Again, notice there are no pictures. You're welcome.)

***

In the car ride on the way to the theater (where we ushered for Richard III and my daughter was so freaked by all the killing that she alternated between fleeing the theater, burrowing her head into the doorjamb, and curling up in a ball on my lap—but she loved the play, she says), I asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up.

I was trying to make conversation, discuss life on a deeper level, figure out the workings of her mind (which is very different from mine). Her answer, however, wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for.

“A grown-up,” she said.

I snorted.

Without missing a beat, she added, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I don’t always understand the kid but I sure do think she’s funny.

***


Speaking of that daughter...

1. One evening when she was helping me load (two hundred dollars worth of) groceries out of the shopping cart and into the van, she hoisted up a bag filled with three boxes of store-brand cornflakes (99 cents each) and said, “If people saw us with all this cereal, they’d think we were spoiled!”

Which warmed my heart right up. I love it that my child thinks she’s spoiled because we bought cornflakes.

I really, really love it.

2. You remember how she got her ears pierced last fall? Well, she kept having trouble with the left ear and about six weeks ago it got so infected that we finally told her to take the earring out and let it grow closed. We promised we’d get it pierced for her again once it healed.


Weeks went by (she had every intention of being a pirate with one gold hoop for Halloween) and then last weekend her friend re-pierced the ear! It wasn’t all the way closed (though it looked like it from the front) and my daughter said it hardly even hurt. The friend poked the earring through back to front, so my daughter wore a reversed earring for a number of days before turning it around and becoming a normal, two-ear pierced little 10-year-old girl again.

***

I am experimenting with English muffins and having an awful lot of fun doing it, too.


The first batch wasn’t right, but the kids thought they were pretty wonderful. They ate all but two (plus the couple I ate) for lunch.

What are you up to these days? Go on, tell me a story. I’m all ears and warty thumbs (er, thumb).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

a spat

The other afternoon on my way to the theater, I passed a van that had the following advertisement printed on its side: You live life. We’ll clean.

It made me mad for a few minutes, and then I forgot all about it until that evening when my husband and I were flopped across opposite ends of the sofa, rehashing our day. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I passed a van on I81.” And I told him what it said.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked, feigning ignorance. We haven’t been married for eons for nothing—he bloody well knew what was wrong with that little advertisement, the little rat.

Even so, I enthusiastically broke it down for him.

“It’s implying that people are not living life when they’re cleaning, that’s what! People who clean houses ARE living life—it’s their livelihood. Cleaning is not separate from or less than the other parts of life!”

“Hey, calm down,” he said. “Some people need other people to clean their houses so they can do their work. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Maybe, and maybe not. I’m not saying that,” I snapped. “All I’m saying is that it’s wrong to imply that one is ‘life’ and the other is not. It’s not true. Plus, it's offensive.”

“It’s a catchy little ad, is all,” he said. “You’re just in a bad mood.”

This conversation came on the tail end of another conversation (if you could call it that) in which I tried to express some ideas (about the current trend in which young adults marry later and the implications that has on for the church’s no-premarital-sex mandate) and he argued with every single thing I said.

I can handle a lively discussion, but I don’t do well with straightforward antagonization. It’s pointless, rude, and uninspiring.

So yes, I was in a bad mood.

I resolutely shut my mouth, refused to say another word, and hauled my irritated and grumpy self off to bed.

Which made my husband laugh out loud. “Ha! I made you mad!” he crowed. “You won’t talk to me!”

The next morning I gave my friend a rousing recap over the phone. She heard me (which is, I might add, different from agreeing with me), and we had a long, civil, and satisfying  conversation around the matters.

So vindicated did I feel that, when my husband walked in the door, I told him about my phone conversation. “She got it!” I said, triumphantly. “You are so out there in left field it’s amazing.”

“Just because she agrees with you doesn’t mean you’re right,” he said with a cocky laugh.

Ooo, the man is incorrigible!



But so am I. So there.

This same time, years previous: breaking the habit (and my heart)

Monday, March 26, 2012

the quotidian (3.26.12)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
everyday; ordinary; commonplace



dirt on my doorstep: 'tis the season



a new game: what you don't see---the two siblings who are hurling black walnuts at his head



Mise en place for spicy Indian potatoes, my contribution for a fundraiser that, because it was my fourth year to cook for it, I got to attend for free. Talk about amazing ethnic food! 
I'm still dreaming about the posole.



rest time results: marker socks (they're all the rage, didn't you know?)



eighty pounds of frozen vegetables: 50 peas, 20 cauliflower, and 10 carrots



Our newest family member: a congratulatory, you-have-your-own-newspaper-column! 
gift from a reader (oh my word WOW). We are all completely smitten.
(Today the grill face-planted on the deck, thanks to some boisterous breezes. We got it back on its feet right quick, and my son tied it to the deck railing with bailing twine to keep it there. The grill seems perfectly fine, though the deck is bunged up a little.)



the inaugural meal
(the next night we had hamburgers, broccoli, and ice cream cones)



post-supper relaxation: a grill, a deck, warm weather...I couldn't ask for more



swinging off the Edy's ice cream sugar rush

This same time, years previous: smoky fried chickpeasbrandied-bacony roast chicken

Sunday, March 25, 2012

the faces of my nieces

I can never spell “nieces” right the first time. For the title, I first typed it “neices” and then “nices.”

Though it is true—my nieces are nices, or maybe it’s nice-es. I’m rather fond of them.


Maybe it’s because if I had continued to have children in my every-other-year pattern, by now I would’ve had a little munchkin and a baby just their ages—four, and soon to be one.


Except, if we’re adhering closely to my pop-‘em-out routine, the baby should be a big girl of two by now and there ought to already be another wrinkled, red face in the picture.

But I’m not keeping track that closely. As is, the pattern is stair-steppy enough.


If I have any luck, my nieces’ parents will continue their baby-making streak for the next ten or fifteen years, at which time my children will be old enough to take over the job of adorable-creature-making. That-a-way, I’ll always have my baby fix.


And no, I’m not demanding or bossy or highly structured or anything. Why do you ask?

This same time, years previous: snappy happy, fatira, whoopie pies, snickerdoodles, happy birthday, Happy Pappy!

Friday, March 23, 2012

oatmeal toffee bars

I am in a stupor. Brain shot and not a thought in my head. But my friend is watching my kids so I’m forcing my fingers to peck at the keyboard, willing the words to come out of my esophagus, or my belly, or my kneecaps, wherever they happen to be because it sure doesn’t feel like there’s anything up there above my eyeballs right now.

This is what happens when I spend extended periods of time—as in 1 hour and 33 minutes—wandering through stores by myself. I shut down and walk around in a daze, mouth dry, eyes glazed, hair frizzed out to China. It’s like a mental hibernation.

I really do detest shopping.

It’s not like I even did much of anything. Just tried on a handful of shirts, picked up some discount candles and a water bottle, dropped off clothes at the thrift store (when the kids weren’t in the car because if they’d see what I’m getting rid of, they’d freak), returned a pair of flip-flops and bought two more, plus two pairs (sets?) of nail clippers since we lose them with alarming frequency—

Are your eyes glazing over now? All boring stuff, I told you.

Now I’m at Panera, guzzling a coffee in the off-chance that my brain cells might start to jump. I really want to optimize these next couple hours before I have to go hit up Martin’s for the 80 pounds of frozen vegetables I ordered. (Way to preempt the garden season, Jennifer. Fill the freezer with vegetables so you don't have any room for homegrown ones.)

Maybe I’ve been getting too much sleep? Is that why I’m dragging? Perhaps if I stay up extra late tonight watching a movie and eating popcorn and drinking strawberry daiquiris, I’ll feel more energized tomorrow. It’s worth a shot, I suppose. Any good movies to recommend? I'm leaning towards Paper Moon.

Anyway, I have a recipe for you.


It was on Sunday afternoon that I first ate these oatmeal toffee bars. We were at church for the last Bible quizzing match of the season (not counting the final match that’s being held in Ohio this weekend—my kids have never been to Ohio and they keep calling it Oregon or Hawaii), and I was in charge of helping to set out the food. There were a bunch of younger kids running around the fellowship hall while the Bible quizzing was wrapping up, and when they saw us getting out paper cups and pitchers of ice, they crowded around the table.

“Scram! Not yet! We’ll call you when it’s time!” I joined the other moms in shooing the kids away.


And then I reached into one of the Tupperware containers and snitched a bar. The kids hadn’t moved very far off, so I walked into the kitchen, my arms dangling casually by my side, a bar cradled in the palm of one hand. I yanked a couple paper towels out of the dispenser, buried the bar down in them so no kid would see and point a finger, and hunkered down to eat my forbidden treat. I’m such a good role model.

The bar was as good as it looked. I ate at least one more before we left the church, but not until everyone went through the line. I wouldn’t want to take more than my fair share, of course.


Oatmeal Toffee Bars
This is adapted from friend Shannon’s recipe. When she was a little girl, she made these bars for 4H—they won her lots of prizes.

I baked these for 20 minutes, and they were on the soft side. The ones that Shannon brought to church had been baked the full 25 minutes and were more crispy. With her bars, I liked how the crunchy bottom matched the crunchy toffee topping, so I recommend the longer oven time.

Also, I'm thinking some coconut added to the oatmeal bottom might be nice. 

1 cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
2 egg yolks
1 cup flour
1 cup rolled oats
6 ounces chocolate chips
Heath Bar chips or smashed toffee

Cream together the butter and sugars. Beat in the yolks. Stir in the flour and rolled oats. Press the mixture into a 9 x 13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the chocolate chips. Once they’ve softened, spread them out with a knife. Sprinkle with the toffee. Cut and remove from the pan while still warm (the cooler they get, the harder they are to remove from the pan).

This same time, years previous: big businesses read little blogs, caramelized onions, sour cherry crumb pie, egg and ham casserole, playing Martha, nutty therapy

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

roasted vegetables

I felt kind of puttsy this morning. The kids were up earlier than usual, so we whizzed through their studies and then there was nothing to do. I didn’t know what to cook, nor did I want to get into a big project. So I wandered listlessly around the downstairs, obsessively checking email and all the time feeling guilty for not being incredibly productive on such a gorgeous day.

And then I remembered a video I had watched a few days ago. It’s about how to prepare all your vegetables for the week in just a few hours. Mostly, it involves roasting all sorts of veggies and washing a variety of lettuces. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the idea (and one oven-load of vegetables doesn’t make enough to last us a week), but it was rather inspiring in a gentle sort of take-it-or-leave-it way.

So, with nothing better to do, I set about peeling a bunch of carrots and potatoes, both sweet and white. I chopped them roughly, drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled them with coarse salt, and then popped them into a 400 degree oven.

That little burst of productivity was like a shot of adrenaline. While the veggies roasted, I loaded three-fourths of my chillens into the car and zipped over to the greenhouse where I bought two six-packs of lettuce.

I have lots of lettuce coming up in the garden, and the spinach is just beginning to sprout, but with this 75 degree weather we’ve been having, I’m starting to crave salad something fierce. The greenhouse lettuces were about 6 inches high—a lot higher than the pinky fingernail-sized leaves of my lettuces—which means that now my salad craving is just that much closer to being satisfied.

I also bought a six-pack of tomatoes. Yes, I know it’s March and that our frost date is still two months out. However, it’s easy to cover a half dozen tomato plants should the frost decide to nip, and I’m squirreling away gallon milk jugs, holey bed sheets, and tablecloths for this express purpose. I think we’ll be okay.


Back home again, the veggies were starting to burn. Which isn’t really a problem when it comes to roasted vegetables—a bit of black is a bit of yummy, I think. I stirred them, put them back in the oven to roast a bit longer, and told my son to pull them out of the oven when the timer binged. Then I headed back outside to plant the lettuce and tomatoes, dig thistles, and transplant a bunch of strawberries.


We ate the potatoes and carrots for lunch with scrambled eggs (turns out, the kids aren’t too keen on roasted carrots, silly critters), and I stuffed the roasted sweet potatoes into a half gallon jar for later. Maybe to eat with black beans and sour cream?


Roasted Vegetables

olive oil
salt
black pepper, optional
herbs, fresh or dried, optional
roast-able vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, onions, squash, etc.

Prep the vegetables (wash, peel, roughly chop, etc). Toss with olive oil and sprinkle with seasonings, if desired.

Spread the vegetables in a single layer in large, sided baking sheets, using a different pan for each kind of vegetable (unless you want to mix, which is fine, too). Roast at 400 degrees until the vegetables are fork-tender and caramelized around the edges.

Eat immediately or refrigerate for later. Suggested uses: in quiches, lentil stew, fried rice, lasagna, spaghetti sauce, Alfredo sauce, enchiladas, quinoa salads, grilled cheese sandwiches, etc.

This same time, years previous: getaway, a fast update, a bad day

Monday, March 19, 2012

family time

My father turns 60 this month so we (my brothers and I, plus our families, of course) gathered at my parents’ place in West Virginia for a work weekend—our birthday present to him.


We’ve done this before. It’s kind of our standard birthday gift. But it’s a fun one. He and Mom make the rounds between my house and my brothers’, helping out with whatever needs helping out with, so it’s nice to turn the tables and return the favor.


This time around, we fixed, scrubbed, tilled, mended, built, weeded, dug, hauled, mulched.








At the end of the day, there was a tour to admire the completed work.


A lot got accomplished, but our work pace was leisurely. There were lots of breaks for visits, hikes, playing, and long lazy meals. In fact, it didn’t feel like we were working all that much.


Or maybe that was just my feeling.

I mostly wandered around with my camera, taking pictures of everyone else doing all the work, though I did spend some time in the raspberry canes. I even have the scratched-up ankles to show for it.


(Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there.)

Other activities included:

lots of baby holding...


(and lots of arguing over whose turn it was to hold the baby)


piano pounding...



book reading...



Parcheesi playing...



dollhouse arranging...



story telling...



tree climbing...



new house plan figuring...



mountain hiking...



tag tagging...



(and ecstatic fleeing...)



and hot dog roasting...


Also, I managed to almost burn the house down with some waffles.

Sunday brunch was my responsibility, so I made waffles, since that’s what I do on Sundays. Apparently, the three waffle irons were too much for the house’s electrical system and halfway through the meal, the table erupted with shouts of “Fire!” and “Flip the breaker!” and “Where’s the extinguisher!” I had no idea what was going on, except that I could no longer cook my waffles since all the power was suddenly shut off. So while the rest of the family jumped about and flapped their arms, I blew out all the votive candles and shooed the stunned children out onto the porch .


And then I grabbed my camera and took a picture of the deserted table. Deserted by everybody except for one happy, waffle-eating person—the boy who cried fire. Was that a smooth move, or what?


Once the situation was under control, the evacuees were called back in and we resumed our waffle feasting, though with one less waffle maker and with the other two plugged into outlets that weren't connected to the bad circuit.


And just so you know, burning electrical cords smell like a rotting animal, not like scorched chemicals like you (or I, at least) would expect.

As for the birthday celebrating, it wasn’t a fancy-schmancy affair. We didn’t even have a birthday cake.


Instead, my mom let the kids stick some candles in Saturday's breakfast sweet rolls, and we burst into rousing renditions of Happy Birthday whenever the mood struck.


And then we drove home through a warm spring rain to our little piece of world that is now a bright Irish green.


The end.

This same time, years previous: our house lately, oatmeal pancakes