Friday, September 30, 2011

chocolate birthday cake

When I left for the soiree, I made a list for my husband. Things like drop-off and pick-up times for kids, food suggestions, a few jobs that must take priority, etc. At the end of the list I wrote, “Clean the house,” and “Baby me,” because I’d be arriving home on my birthday and did not want to come into a mess or have any responsibilities or anything to get under my pms-y skin. (We’re both getting pretty good about tiptoeing around the pms monster. When provoked, it will eat both of us alive. And neither of us likes being eaten alive all that much.)

When I walked in the door at 7 pm, the house was spotless and all five of my most beloveds were sitting on the sofa watching a movie, and an iced cake was sitting all pretty on the table. While they finished up the last ten minutes, I unpacked and put away my stuff, got a shower, changed into my new cherry pie pjs with ruffled edges (thank you, auntie!), and came back downstairs for cake, cards, and presents.

Each of the kids had made me little book-cards (should I call them “cooks?” or “bards?”) bedecked with cut-outs, drawings, nonsensical poems, coins, paper doors that latched and opened up to reveal birthday messages, hearts, etc. Gifts included measuring cups, a bouquet of wooden spoons (my husband is grossed out by my cracking—and therefore, food-collecting, ew!—wooden spoons), a lemon press, a salad spinner, and a camera lens. There was also a bag of cheap, disgusting, chemical-laden florescent cheese popcorn that my baby bought me with his own money so it was super sweet and special. And my little girl bought me a selection of gummy candy from Martin’s bulk food bins, also with her own money.

And then we ate the cake.

Now, I have very low expectations when it comes to my birthday fare. Past birthday menus have included burned pancakes and take-out pizza and I’m fine with that. My only stipulation is that I do not want to cook. On my birthday, someone else gets the honor of feeding all the mouths. So I wasn’t expecting the cake to be anything special. Just, you know, cake.

But cutting into it, I got worried. It was heavy and dense to the point of brickishness. And it felt dry, too. I smiled behind my face (which is another way of saying “to myself”) at how cute it is when my family tries to step into my shoes and started eating. Almost immediately, I stopped eating and studied the cake. What was it? A few more tentative bites and the mystery was not solved. I slowed down even more and turned my full attention to cake contemplation. Bites without icing and bites with. Middle bites, edge bites. I was very thorough. Then I said, “This is really good cake.”

My husband, who was giving it the same thorough going over, nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it’s not bitter. But is it dry, do you think? Maybe I over-baked it?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s supposed to be this way. Kind of fudgy and dense, but not wet at all. The texture is really unique. I like it.”

“The kids will probably be up all night,” he said. (They weren’t.) “It has half a pound of chocolate in it and a three-quarter cup of cocoa.”

“So that’s why it’s so good!” I crowed, mystery solved.

Chocolate Birthday Cake
The recipe comes from a the back of a children’s book, The Bake Shop Ghost, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn. (I know! He got the recipe from a children’s book! How sweet is that?)

The recipe called for 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder and 1 cup water. My husband didn’t think I had buttermilk powder (but I did!), so he used homemade buttermilk in place of the water. I’m using his adaptations below.

1 ½ cups sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ sticks (3/4 cup) butter
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 cup buttermilk
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

In a saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate on low heat. Remove from heat and beat in the buttermilk and then the eggs and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and stir until blended.

Divide the batter between two greased, wax paper-lined 8-inch or 9-inch baking pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. An inserted toothpick should come out with crumbs still attached, not completely dry. (My husband reports that there were no crumbs clinging to his toothpick, so perhaps it was over baked? Maybe it's supposed to be more of a brownie cake? Perhaps the mystery is not just yet solved? There may be another chocolate cake in my future?)

Let the cakes rest for 10 minutes before running a knife around the edges of the pans and inverting onto a cooling rack. Frost and serve.

Vanilla Water Frosting
Instead of milk, this recipe uses water to thin down the icing. As a result, the icing has a lighter, cleaner taste, kind of like a glaze. Though it is definitely still an icing. Follow?

3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Yields enough, but just barely, to ice a two-layer cake.

This same time, years previous: ciabatta, dumping, peposo, butterscotch cookies

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the skirt

My daughter has been taking sewing lessons from a friend for about a year. Sunday was her last lesson. They finished up the skirt she’s been working on for several sessions.

When she walked into the living room to model it for me after I got home from the soiree, I stopped dead in my tracks and gasped. I had no idea.

No idea it would turn out so pretty. No idea that the crazy fabric we picked out at the shop (“But I want dog fabric, Mama!”) would come together so nicely. No idea it would be so full and twirly. No idea that she’d actually want to wear it.

My daughter is not a skirt girl, but this red little number has seemed to change her mind. She’s puffed up with pride and glowing like a thousand watt bulb. I have to keep telling her to change out of it so it’ll stay nice.

Last night when I went upstairs for chatty time, she was industriously ripping out threads. “What are you doing?” I yelped, panicked.

“I’m taking out the gathering threads,” she explained.

“What do you mean? Did your teacher tell you to? Are you supposed to do that?”

“Yes, it’s fine,” she said, waving a seam in front of my worried eyes.

“Well, don’t damage it,” I warned.

“I’m not,” she said, without lifting her eyes from the skirt in her lap.

She didn’t crack a smile, but I could tell she was pleased as punch that our roles had reversed and she knew more than me.

This same time, years previous:
birthday minutia

Monday, September 26, 2011

She outdid herself

This past weekend was The Soiree of 2011* and it was spectacular, spectaculoso, spectaculovelicious, etc. My aunt fairly outdid herself.

Each soiree has the same general outline: a noon lunch extraordinaire on the veranda, an activity, dinner out, and Sunday morning brunch. The specifics of these events are top secret. My aunt likes to build excitement by sending us photos of all the boxes arriving on her doorstep. Bonus activities: some sort of verbal game, a divvying up of my aunt’s hand-me-downs (this can be uproarious funny—like this time when another aunt waltzed around the room with her jeans down around her ankles), our gifts to her and hers to us. (Yes, she gives us a gift. I wasn’t joking about the outdoing herself part.)

This year, the noon-time meal lasted nearly four hours. There was vichysoisse, a shaved summer squash salad, and the star of the show, paella.

While my aunt stirred and simmered and seasoned, we stood around the pan and kept up a worshipful commentary.

Only one person, my mother, assumed the correct position.

She’d probably like me to tell you she was checking the flame, not worshiping, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Do you know how hard it is to cook while surrounded by a bunch of opinionated Mennonite cooks? Considering the high-levels of stress under which she was operating, I’m surprised my aunt didn’t whack anyone with a clammy lobster.

But indeed she didn’t and all the lobsters made it into the paella and then onto our plates and into our tummies, yummy, yummy.

After we drained our mugs of coffee and scraped the last bit of brown sugar frosting from our plates, we piled into cars and shuttled across town to the not-yet-disclosed entertainment...

...which turned out to be an art studio where we dabbled in oil paints and created a red flower each. (Hospital scrubs courtesy of my doctor aunt.)

The instructor had the habit of walking up behind you and painting on our paintings, which irked my aunt, mother, and I to high heaven. Clearly, the teacher was an instructor and not an artist because what artist will paint on another person’s paintings? That’s right—they don’t. So when the instructor bore down on my aunt’s painting, she screeched, “Don’t touch it!” And when she encroached on my space, I struck a discreet but effective defensive pose and timidly squeaked, “I’ll do it myself?” And thus I kept my painting instructor-stroke free.

The art session made me kick myself for not taking art all four years of high school. I never got to oil paintings, and oil paintings are a heck of a lot of fun. This I now know.

By the time we walked into the restaurant at 8 o’clock, I was, amazingly enough, beginning to get hungry again. Our dishes came family-style, so we got to sample everything which made us all glow with happiness and contentment. Beef, shrimp, oysters, chicken, salads, and vegetables, oh my. And then panna cotta, cheesecake, tiramisu and red velvet cake, oh my my. Completely sated, I slumped back in my seat and wished I might magically be floated home on a cloud.

It was at dinner that my aunt told us she had called all our husbands and asked them six questions. They had to email her the answers and the following morning we would try to correctly guess their answers. Whoever got the most answers right would be declared the winner.

These were the questions:

1. What is your wife’s most annoying habit?
2. If your wife had to choose between three cities to live in—Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco—which would she choose and why?
3. What is your favorite way to have a potato prepared?
4. Which of your wife’s girlfriends do you find the most attractive?
5. What color does your wife wear the most?
6. Where was your first kiss? Be specific.

the winner (but I came in second)

There was much howling and hooting as each new question was revealed. But we weren’t allowed to say the answers until the Sunday brunch.

Sunday morning we all gathered in the sunroom for coffee and chit-chat (it’s becoming a tradition) and then a walk to the bakery for breakfast breads. Brunch was yet another feast of eggs, bacon, paella, fruit, coffee, juice, and more breads and biscotti than was decent (but I’m not complaining, no, no, no).

We took turns answering the quiz questions while my aunt checked our answers against what our husbands wrote. I got all of them right (except number 3—potatoes fried in bacon fat, huh?—and number 6 because he got it wrong) (oh, and except number 1, though I got it right on the second try, which was my first guess but I second-guessed myself, duh), but it made me inordinately happy that we got number 2 right. I said, “San Francisco because La Brea Bakery is there,” (which was wrong because La Brea Bakery is in Los Angeles but how am I supposed to keep that straight when I've never been there?), and then my aunt read his answer, “San Francisco, because there are caf├ęs and bakeries,” and I was all like, "Aw shoot, my honey knows me!"

Before we left drove away, there was an assortment of Jeni's macaroon ice cream sandwiches in honor of my birthday.

Exotic flavors included Earl Grey, scarlet (I never knew scarlet was a flavor) and orchid vanilla, pistachio, and my favorite, salted caramel.

Oh, and there was a rousing chocolate taste testing. We tasted with such enormous dedication and thoroughness that you would’ve thunk our lives depended on it. Though I forget which one came in first...

Did I mention there were babies in attendance? A girl and a boy, twelve and thirteen weeks respectively. My aunt couldn’t have lined up better in-house entertainment if she had tried.

This handsome butterball was a cuddle bum—he’d melt into the arms of whoever was holding him.

And this one has the habit of sucking her right thumb while holding the top of her head with her left hand. I can hardly stand the sweetness!

There is something special, nay precious, about getting together with the women (and nursing babes) in my family and talking our fool heads off for twenty-four hours straight. What a luxury. What a gift. Thank you, auntie hostess dear.

*Previous soirees: soiree of 2009, soiree of 2010

This same time, years previous: painting my belly, roasted butternut squash salad, a jiggle on the wild side, stream of consciousness, my beginnings

Friday, September 23, 2011

The most basic way possible

Cooking with meat always throws me for a loop. I don’t work with it enough because it’s so dang expensive, and when I do work with it, I quake all over cause I don’t want to mess it up since it’s so dang expensive, plus all that work. Plus, the cost. Did I mention the cost? The stakes are high.

But then I roasted two chickens the most basic way possible and the meat was so good that I nearly ate half a chicken during the de-boning process. When my oldest daughter came into the chicken, I mean kitchen—kitchen!—she took one look at the pile of bones and set to wailing, “But I wanted to eat a whole chicken for supper!” Because chicken tastes better when it looks like chicken, obviously.

Simple Roast Chicken
With inspiration from The Best Way To Roast a Turkey, by Aimee of Simple Bites

1 whole chicken
3-4 tablespoons butter
black pepper

Rinse the chicken and place on a roasting pan—in other words, a pan with sides. Smear dabs of butter all over the outside of the chicken and inside the cavity. I’m serious here. You want to grease that baby up good.

Salt and pepper the chicken inside and out. You’ll probably use at least a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of black pepper, but it depends on the size of your bird.

Roast the chicken at 400 degrees for 20 minutes before reducing the temperature to 350 degrees and roasting for another hour or so. Not that I know anything about times, though. The way I check for doneness is by look (is it dark golden brown all over?) and leg flexibility (does the leg move easily when wiggled back and forth?). If the answer to both questions is yes, then it’s done. Or else you can just roast it to death. That works, too.

Allow it to rest, covered with foil, at room temperature for 15-30 minutes before devouring.

Note: Don't waste oven heat—roast two birds at time. Leftovers freeze splendidly. Bonus, each kid gets a leg = no fighting.

P.S. I wanted to title this post "Put a bird on it," but it didn't exactly fit, so I refrained. But it's how I refer to this my head.

This same time, years previous: one hot chica

Thursday, September 22, 2011

No reservations

Don’t you hate it when you post a recipe and tell everyone how great it is and then find another recipe that is similar but way much better and then you have to decide what to do with that recipe you thought was so wonderful but is really rather awful now that you’ve seen the light? Yes? I hate that.

Remember that two-minute peanut butter chocolate cake I wrote about? The one I thought was so fun and kind of quirky and rather yummy? Delete it from your memory, m’dearies, and make this instead.

I had reservations with the previous cake (there was that spongy texture from the egg), but with this one I have none (no eggs!). Making and eating it was the highlight of my day yesterday. Just ask my mother. Just ask my husband. Just ask my kids.

The other reason I hesitate to write about this recipe is because it makes me look like all I do is cook and post Julie recipes (and I have another one of hers waiting in the wings!), but facts are facts, and nine times out of ten Julie hits the nail on the head. She knows her food and does a lovely job making it accessible to the average cook. She’s one of my main sources of inspiration.

So anyway, she wrote about these brownies and I thought, oh posh, whatever. I am so not into microwave cooking. That is, like, way below me.

I waited a whole six days before giving it a go.

And then I swooned my fool head off and made two batches and got a major case of Sugar Highitis. My side kick efficiently executed the taste-testing portion of the job and cleaned up every bowl I placed in front of him.

True, he didn’t give much quotable feedback, but there was lots of sticky lip-smacking. I understood what he was saying just fine.

Julie calls these cakes “brownies,” and with that name, I take issue. They are definitely more of a pudding cake, or maybe a molten chocolate cake. Or maybe that’s just because I underbaked them? There certainly is an element of brownie, no doubt about it. In any case, the top was fudgy and cakey and the bottom was chocolate-y syrupy and combined with the ice cream, it was perfection.

The best thing about these babes is their immediacy. I like something sweet and cakey with my afternoon coffee but often there is nothing to be had (yes, it’s true!) and I get all woeful and forlorn. However! These cakes, these glorious cakes, have smacked that problem into oblivion and beyond.

Here’s how I do it: while the kids finish up their lunch, I stir together the dry ingredients. I make my coffee, reserving two tablespoons for the batter. As the children scamper oh-so-cheerfully (not) off to their rooms, I mix the wet with the dry, divide the batter between two small ramekins (putting one in the fridge for later), and microwave the remaining dish for thirty seconds. A bit of vanilla ice cream scooped on top and I’m all set for my happy computer, caffeine, sugar, chocolate time.

One of my friends left a comment on the previous two-minute cake post that read: “It’s too quick and easy. I need hurdles.” So, in her honor, I’m naming these miracles...

Hurdle-Free Molten Brownie Cakes
Adapted from Dinner with Julie

I’ve been experimenting like a crazy chocoholic. See below for adaptations and notes.

The coffee flavor comes through loud and strong. It’s a key player.

1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons flavorless oil (I use canola)
2 tablespoons strong coffee (or milk or water)

Mix dry ingredients, add wet, and stir to combine. Divide batter between two, ungreased ramekins. Cover one ramekin with plastic and refrigerator for later. Microwave the other for 30 seconds. Top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and eat with a spoon (not a fork, like you see in the pictures—I was being a dorkus).

*Reduced Sugar: reducing brown sugar to 2 packed tablespoons yields less molten and more brownie.

*Chocolate Chips: unnecessary additional sweet.

*Espresso: 1/4 teaspoon grounds and milk instead of coffee—not much flavor.

*Whipped Cream: not dense enough to stand up to the warm cake.

*Heath Bar Chips sprinkled on top: meh (too much chemically flavor).

This same time, years previous: soiree 2010, we love Fred, soiree 2009

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pieces, and a slaw

Yesterday at lunch, my two sweet girls had a big go-round and then there was A Consequence that resulted in hysterical crying (I warned them!) and, I declare, my eardrums got shot.


When the relatives were here, they introduced us to this website: the kid should see this. Lots of fun science-y and general interest video clips. We’re hooked.


The other night I couldn’t find a good read aloud book for the older two kids (we finally finished Watership Down), so, disregarding my husband's cries of They’re not ready! I picked up Hamlet and plunged in head first. Two scenes in and the kids are entranced and I am giddy from having entirely too much fun.

The library book I placed on hold, The Reading Promise, finally came available after a long (two month?) wait. But now I hesitate to crack the spine because then it will be all over and I’ll have to find something else to read and I hate having to find something else to read. People, tell me what to read! Please? (Also, I’m taking suggestions for good read alouds. Hamlet will be dead before the first snow falls.) (A word of bookworm happiness: my desperate and unsuccessful search for books that my son will enjoy has finally ended with the discovery of this blog post. Currently, his nose is glued to the pages of Erec Rex.)


I can’t get this cabbage slaw out of my mind.

I read about it several weeks ago and then had to roast a couple chickens and buy some slaw mix (which made me feel cosmopolitan) and then wait for a chicken to lay an egg so I could make a homemade mayonnaise for the dressing.

We ate it up super fast (thus the photos of leftovers). Even the kids liked the salad and slaw is decidedly not their thing. I did not get my fill, so now there’s a cabbage head rolling around in the refrigerator drawer waiting to go under my knife. Kitchen life is so exciting.

Thousand Island Slaw with Roast Chicken
Adapted from Dinner with Julie

If going for the cosmo emos, sub one bag of coleslaw mix for the cabbage and carrot. Also, a bit of thinly sliced green pepper would be pretty.

5 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrot
1/4 cup minced onion
1 small red pepper, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded roast chicken
1 cup mayonnaise (homemade!)
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon vinegar, either rice or cider
2 tablespoons minced sweet pickle or relish

In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, carrot, onion, pepper, and chicken. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, ketchup, vinegar, and sweet pickle. Drizzle the dressing over the slaw (you might not need all of it) and season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When the relatives came

It was in the end of the summer of the year when the relatives came down from Pennsylvania. They left behind the flood waters (that didn’t affect them much) and their studies (because they homeschool all summer long) and piled into their red suburban packed full with sleeping bags and dirty shoes (they were coming to a country house, after all) and the dog named Henry who is actually a girl. They left their house after the father got home from work and after the biggest brother and sister finished their choir practice, and they didn’t arrive until late that night. But there were only two people up to greet them—the uncle and oldest boy cousin who refused to sleep until they arrived. So they unrolled their sleeping bags and went to sleep because there was nothing else to do.

The next morning when they awoke, the Virginia cousins, electric with excitement and anticipation, were already up and waiting. There was so much to do!

There were chickens to be chased and fed and held!

There were horses to be petted!

There were games to be played!

Fences to be vaulted!

Races to be had!

Grape arbors to be climbed!

The Virginia aunt spent the morning in the kitchen making pies because that’s the sort of thing she likes to do. The Pennsylvania aunt marveled at the steady and abundant use of cream and butter and declared they’d have to roll back home. (Later, after the cousins left, the Virginia aunt added up the butter usage: it came to 13 sticks. BUT! There were leftovers.)

In the afternoon they took a walk to the Virginia aunt’s parents’ property. The children made individual cups of decaf coffee over the fire, and pieces of toast and cheese-y tortillas and marshmallows while the grownups took pictures and talked about house plans.

The relatives stayed for hours and hours. They swung on the porch swing and read the chemistry books and laughed at the magazines.

They helped dig potatoes, and the uncle fixed up an old computer and helped replace the rototiller tines.

They drank up all the coffee and ate up all the breadsticks and sour cherry pie and tomato soup and waffles and then helped to wash the mountains of dirty dishes.

When it was time to leave, they scavenged in the garden for tomatoes and basil which they packed into brown bags for the trip home. There were hugs all around, and some of the Virginia cousins climbed into the Suburban in hopes of being forgotten, but their parents pulled them back out. And then the big red car was driving down the road and the Pennsylvania cousins were hanging out the windows screaming goodbye at the Virginia cousins who were running long the fence screaming goodbye—and then they were gone.

After they left, the house seemed empty and quiet, the children deflated. The parents did some straightening up, but the house was still mostly clean, which was nice. And the refrigerator was stuffed to the gills, which was also nice. So the mother made popcorn and she and the children watched a bunch of episodes of Tom and Jerry while the father fell asleep on the floor.

The End

Blog post form inspired by the wonderful children’s book The Relatives Came, by Cynthia Rylant.