• Baby love

    This little rosebud has been hanging out at our house this week.

    She’s a peach.

    A sweetie pie.

    A sugar drop.

    Even though she’s a piece of cake (excuse me, but the sweetness analogy aboundeth—I can not help myself) to take care of, I’m frazzled.

    It’s my kids, see. They have some serious Baby Love Issues.

    It’s like this: they all want to hold her, touch her, stick their fingers in her mouth, give her a bottle, put her down for nap, play peek-a-boo, change her diaper, carry her, sing to her, play the piano for her, push her in the stroller, make her laugh, make her stop crying, take her jacket off, put her shoes on, shake rattles in her face, wipe her drool… and so on.

    I’m about ready to go out of my mind. Yesterday I squawked at Nickel who was leaving me and the baby no personal space whatsoever, “Will you get back! Just move AWAY.”

    He threw his head back (he was smack-dab up against me so in order to see my face he had to tilt his face to the sky) and wailed, “I can’t stand of the baby!”

    “What can’t you stand of the baby?” I inquired.

    “‘Cause it’s here and it’s so neat!”

    That’s pretty much how all the kids feel about Miss Rosy Cheeks, Honey Pie, Sugar Cakes, Hunk O’ Love. (And that goes for me, too. I’m smitten.)

    When she went down for a nap today, the kids sagged. They asked when she’d wake up. They waited. They puttered. My oldest son begged to be allowed to just go in and look at her, take a picture of her, do something. I said no, and gave them an early lunch to help ease the monotony. Still, they hovered.

    “That’s it!” I shouted in a stage-hiss. This is not helpful. You guys are all old enough to help with a baby, but I am not going to sit around to help you be helpful. If I need to watch you then I’m going to give you jobs so I can at least watch you doing something helpful. Got it?

    They kind of got it, but not really. The baseboards got dusted, courtesy of a certain little boy who would not leave the room, and I did some threatening and wild gesticulating, but I am typing this so something is working.

    Oops. I wrote that too soon.

    Suddenly all four kids are milling about, poking Little Miss Buttercup and offering her kisses and toys, the poor dear. Better run…

    Sugar Drop’s Secret Service Agent

    This same time, years previous: grape kuchen and coconut brownies

  • For Kirsten

    Because she left me such a fetching comment a couple weeks back. It went like this:

    Sorry this is off-topic, but do you take requests?

    I needed to bake cream puffs this evening (yes, needed!), so of course I clicked to your recipe list, searching for cream puffs, or profiteroles, or even eclairs. Nothing!

    My desperation told me I’ve become addicted to your obsessive recipe-perfecting process. It felt really, really wrong to pull an anonymous, un-vetted recipe from cooks.com, and I was intimidated by the Bavarian cream recipes, so I finally just cooked up some vanilla custard and stuffed the cream puffs with that and some raspberry jam. They were fine, but…

    All that to say, if your hens are laying gangbusters like mine now that spring is here, you could do a whole lot worse than to use some of those eggs up on cream puffs.

    And then you could share your secrets…

    Well. How could I ignore such a desperate and sweet plea?

    Actually, I thought I could ignore it just fine. I wasn’t all that interested in cream puffs at present. I had made them before—years before—and they were good, but cream puffs just weren’t the type of thing I crave that often, if ever.

    But still. Her little request wriggled its way into the corners of my conscious, staked out a territory, and then proceeded to create all sorts of mayhem. It yodeled. It danced the two-step. It did somersaults and jumping jacks. And then it started scootching its tent closer and closer till it was occupying prime mental real estate and all I could think of were those dang cream puffs.

    And then, just like Kirsten predicted (am I that easy to read?), I zeroed in on the ornery little buggers and got all sorts of obsessive. I researched the internet. I separated eggs. I baked. I tasted. I researched cookbooks. I took notes. I separated more eggs. I did more baking. Until now, finally, after three rounds of puff baking and four pastry creams, I have a cream puff recipe I’m happy with.

    I sure hope it makes Kirsten happy, too.

    The puff recipe is simple to make and a blast to bake.

    Puff pastry is just a super-thick roux (butter, milk, water, and flour) that gets cooked over the stove and then, off heat, gets a bunch of eggs beaten into it.

    Sit by your oven door while they bake for some real live entertainment: the little yellow blobs of dough bake up into the most ethereal clouds—it’s a hoot!

    The pastry cream was a little trickier. Pastry cream is just like a custard, except that it’s thicker (so you can cut it with a knife when it’s in a pie), has been stabilized with either cornstarch or flour, and is cooked on the stove top. It’s simple enough to make—the hard part was finding a recipe I liked.

    The first pastry cream (crème pâtissière) I made came from Smitten Kitchen. Deb’s recipe used cornstarch as the thickener which gave, in my lowly opinion, too much of a starchy taste.

    The next recipe came from a 1998 Bon Appetit recipe that I found on epicurious. It used half and half, less eggs, and just flour, and ended up being my favorite.

    Nigella Lawson’s recipe, the third, curdled.

    For my fourth and last spin with pastry cream, I turned to Julia Child. Her recipe was good, but a tad bit too starchy (it used a whole half cup of flour). Plus, the recipe was fussy.

    Needless to say, we’ve been subsisting on cream puffs. The kids adore them and pop them into their mouths as fast as I can fill them (the puffs, not their mouths).

    As for me, I’m a goner.

    Last night found me sitting on the sofa, whimpering to my (very unsympathetic) husband that all I wanted at that very moment was a cream puff. I needed a cream puff. (I get you now, Kirsten.) Cream puffs complete me.

    He said something kind and supportive, like, “Quit your whining, you big baby.”

    Cream Puffs

    The Puff Part
    (recipe adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

    ½ cup milk
    ½ cup water
    1 stick butter
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 cup flour
    5 eggs

    In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the water, milk, butter, and salt. When the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbling, dump in the flour, turn the heat to medium-high and commence to beat the mixture with a wooden spoon. Do this for 2 to 3 minutes—you are cooking the flour. Your arm will feel like it will fall off. (It won’t, don’t worry.) Dump the mixture into the bowl of your kitchen aid, or another mixing bowl, and allow it to cool for a few minutes. Then beat in the eggs, one by one. Make sure each egg is fully incorporated (and then some) before adding the next.

    Using a spoon, drop the dough onto a parchment-lined (or greased and floured) baking sheet. You can make the puffs any size you choose—I like mine on the small side. Bake the puffs at 375 degrees for 15 minutes (don’t open the oven during that time), and then rotate the tray and bake for another 10 minutes, for a total baking time of 25-30 minutes.

    Transfer the puffs to a baking rack to cool. Julia says it’s imperative that you poke a little hole in the puffs so that the steam can escape—this prevents the puffs from getting soggy—but I didn’t always do that and couldn’t detect any difference.

    Using a sharp knife, cut the top off the puff. Fill the puff with pastry cream, place the cap back on top, and dust the puff with powdered sugar or chocolate ganache (a couple tablespoons of hot cream with a half cup of finely chopped chocolate stirred in).

    *to make éclairs, put the dough into a pastry bag (or a plastic bag with the corner cut off) and pipe the dough onto the lined baking sheet. My pastry bag hole wasn’t bit enough, so I ended up piping three strips to make one éclair. This didn’t work so hotsy-totsy, as the strips tended to peel off of each other. Moral of the story: pipe one really thick strip of dough when making éclairs.
    *profiteroles are just room temperature puffs filled with ice cream and topped with hot chocolate (or caramel, butterscotch, etc.) sauce.
    *puffs can be filled with all sorts of things, savory as well as sweet. Good savory ideas are chicken, tuna, or salmon salad. Sweet ideas (ha!) can be anything from plain whipped cream to chocolate pudding to fresh berries to jam and cream to the classic pastry cream (recipe follows).
    *one of the best things about these puffs is that you can drop them onto a wax paper covered sheet, flash freeze them, and then peel them off the paper and pop them into a bag and back in to the freezer where they’ll keep for several weeks/months. To bake, stick the frozen blobs of dough straight into the hot oven (on the prepared baking sheets, of course) and proceed as normal—just add a few minutes to the baking time.
    *baked, unfilled, cooled puffs can be frozen. To serve, thaw and then put them in a hot oven for a couple minutes to crisp them up.

    The Cream Part: Vanilla Pastry Cream
    Adapted from Epicurious

    1 ½ cups half-and-half
    ½ cup sugar
    2 eggs
    1 egg yolk
    2 tablespoons flour
    2 teaspoons vanilla

    Heat the half-and-half in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. While the half-and-half is heating, whisk the sugar, eggs and egg yolk, and flour in a small bowl. Once the half-and-half is hot, temper the egg mixture with it. Pour the tempered eggs back into the saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil one minutes, still stirring vigorously. Pour the pastry cream into a clean bowl and whisk in the vanilla. Cover it with a piece of wax paper (to prevent a skin from forming) and place in the refrigerator to chill completely.

    Notes (or, ideas and pointers gleaned from my obsessive reading):
    *European pastry creams tend to be eggier, thicker, and less sweet while North American pastry creams tend to be lighter, whiter, sweeter, and more custardy. The above pastry cream is more European. It got quite yellow, thanks to our gangbuster eggs.
    *If you want a lighter pastry cream, you can fold some beaten and sweetened egg whites into the chilled pastry cream, or perhaps some whipped cream or sour cream. Or so I’ve read.
    *For chocolate pastry cream, add a few ounces of chopped chocolate to the finished, but still hot, pastry cream. Keep in mind that the chocolate, once chilled, will make the cream set up harder, so if you’ll be adding much chocolate you may want to cut back on some of the flour.
    *For a butterscotchy pastry cream, use brown sugar instead of white.
    *Add citrus zests—lemon, lime, or orange.
    *Liquors can give yummy flavor, too.
    *Once chilled, pastry cream can get a little gloppy. Whisk well before using.
    *To fill éclairs, you’ll need to pipe in the cream with a pastry bag.

    If this post didn’t provide enough cream puff information to suit you, here are a couple more links: chowhound and wikipedia.

    This same time, years previous: oatmeal crackers

  • Breaking the habit (and my heart)

    Ever since she was a babe, our second daughter has been a thumb thucker.

    But not just any thumb, mind. It had to be her left thumb—the right one didn’t taste right (or something).

    And she couldn’t just pop her thumb in her mouth and suck away, oh no. She had to hold a corner of her spit rag (so named because she was a huge spitter-upper—the rags were always on hand when she was little, and then when she got bigger she refused to relinquish them) in order to suck her thumb.

    If she couldn’t find the allocated spit rag, she’d make do with a corner of the diaper she was currently wearing.

    Seeing as this particular child is rather high-strung, the fact that she could self sooth was a huge gift. She’d be walloping about in her carseat, screaming about Something Or Other, and all I’d have to do was chuck her spit rag at her and bark SUCK YOUR THUMB and she’d shut right up. Or if she already had her spit rag, then simply threatening to take it from her was enough to make her snap out of it (sometimes). The value of an old diaper must never be underestimated.

    The saving grace of this whole thumb-sucking addiction was that she couldn’t suck her thumb without her rag. Take away the rag (which she called her Spic Rag—we hoped no one would overhear her and think we were racist) and the thumb stayed out of the mouth. This made for easy public thumb-sucking weaning. For a year or two now the rag has been stored on the shelf, getting pulled into service only during rest times, nighttimes, and bad days (and anytime she can sneak it without me knowing).

    But now that she’s seven and her first baby tooth is on its wobbly way out, John and I have decided it’s time to break the thumb-sucking habit once and for all. This means we had to get her to give up her precious spit rag.

    So we had a burning ceremony. We doused the stinky thing with gasoline and torched it while sitting around the fire pit and singing Rock-a-bye Baby and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

    Just kidding. (Please tell me you didn’t fall for that?)

    What we did do was, over the course of several weeks, talk to her about why we wanted her to give up the thumb. We explained. We reasoned. We stayed slightly removed, informative, matter-of-fact. After laying the groundwork, I presented the plan. “Here’s what we’ll do,” I said. “If you go three rest times and three nights without your spit rag, then we’ll take you out for an ice cream cone.” I even made a little chart to illustrate.

    At first she was kind of excited. “Can I have two kinds of ice cream?” “Can I go to Mr. J’s Bagels and Dairy Queen and get a toy?”

    Then she got slightly anxious.“Can I check off the box before I go to bed?” Can I skip rest time? Because then I won’t miss my spit rag.”

    And then she got frantic. “Three nights is too long! You should make it less!”

    But we stayed firm.

    The first night was the hardest. We could hear her crying quietly, so I went upstairs and climbed into her be-curtained bed (a birthday present from her Papa) and wrapped my arms around her.

    “I can’t sleep,” she sobbed. “Can’t we just do rest times and let me have it at night?”

    A little piece of my heart chipped off, but I said no.

    “You are being incredibly brave,” I gushed. “This is so hard for you, I know. Do you think you could hold one of your dolls instead? Which one is your favorite?”

    She rummaged through the menagerie of stuffed and plastic bodies littering her bed and dug out the red sweatshirted brown teddy her sister had given her as a birthday present.

    “Aw, isn’t he sweet,” I chirped. “Hug him tight. And look! His feet feel funny. Squeeze them while you go to sleep and think of ice cream cones. Think of all the different flavors. What kind do you think you’ll chose?”

    I rubbed her back for a little, and then I went downstairs. We had just a few minutes reprieve before the whimpering started up again—John went upstairs that time. And when she woke up during the night, he was the one to go over and sleep in her bed.

    But in the morning there were sleepy proud smiles, hugs and high-fives, and one little box got x-ed off.

    Last night John laid beside her till she fell asleep, and when she came downstairs this morning (she was still holding her teddy bear), she announced that the second night was much better.

    Thank goodness, because I don’t know how much more heartbreak I can stand.

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

  • Fabulous fatira

    There was a lot of good food at Sunday night’s international potluck. It was a dinner for the Venture Club kids (3rd-5th graders) and their families, and I figured there’d be a lot of North American food with International names attached, like “Hamburgers from Germany.” That sort of thing.

    But that wasn’t the case. Lots of authentic digs covered the table: among other things, there was falafel, rice and beans, Swedish meatballs, spicy Indian potatoes (by yours truly), and a yucca and cheese dish. Also, there was a rather blah looking dish of Something Or Other. The only reason I noticed it was because a little girl at the front of the line dug into that bowl with such a vengeance that I was mildly alarmed. I suggested politely that perhaps she’d like to try some of the other stuff, but she just looked at me like I was crazy.

    So when my turn came, I took some of the mysterious blah stuff. I mean, how could I not after that girl pounced upon it so enthusiastically? There was chopped onion and tomato and mayonnaise (mayonnaise, really? um, okay…) to put on top.

    Back at my seat, I took one bite and had a fit. “What in the world is this?!” Fortunately for me (and maybe not so much for her?), the maker of the mysterious dinner was sitting right beside me. I proceeded to grill her. How? What? Why? How?

    Turns out, the blah mystery dish had a name: fatira. It’s an African dish, a common street food, and it couldn’t be more basic and simple to make. (Later, I researched it briefly and learned that it’s common in many countries, or at least the name is frequently used. I’m guessing it’s kind of like enchiladas—in different countries the word means different things.)

    I got seconds. So did my husband. On the way home afterwards, we both agreed that it was our favorite dish of the whole meal.

    The next day I emailed for the recipe. Last night I made fatira for supper.

    (There was also baked squash and green beans, lest you were worried about the lack of green.)

    My two girls weren’t too stoked about the dish, but all the boys (and I) went hog wild.

    And then my family endured an attack of The Crazies that I can only attribute to the fabulous fatira we had just feasted upon. All sorts of strange and wild things happened, and all to the soundtrack of My Fair Lady, no less.

    There was a belly dancing boy in a blue dress:

    There was a glitzy poodle-skirted and red bonneted spiderman:

    There was a whirling pink dervish:

    And there was an elegant damsel with a blue beauty mark and rectangular reading glasses:

    They gave a stunning reenactment of the horse races at the Ascot Race Track on Opening Day, too.

    I coached them in the fine art of The Dover Line: C’mon Dover! Move yer blommin’ arse! It’s best done at the top of your lungs, and with all of us yelling in unison, the house fairly rocked.

    So anyway, I recommend you make fatira.

    But then, watch out. All bets are off as to what will happen next.

    Adapted from Cindy, a long-term missionary to Africa

    Cindy claims the fatira is much better with homemade tortillas. I used bought ones, but next time I’ll make my own.

    I’ve tried the fatira with ketchup and mustard, but I didn’t much like it. For me, mayonnaise is the way to go. (But some of the kids really liked it with ketchup. To each his own…)

    1 tablespoon oil
    1 onion, chopped
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 teaspoon cumin
    1 pound ground beef
    6-8 small flour tortillas, chopped into little squares (½-inch by 1 inch, or so)
    4-6 eggs, well beaten
    salt and pepper, to taste

    Condiments: chopped onion, chopped tomato, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard

    Sauté the onion and garlic in the oil. Add the cumin and stir briefly. Add the ground beef and sauté till browned and cooked through. Add the chopped tortillas and stir for a minute. Add the beaten eggs and stir till cooked through. Season with salt and pepper.

    Top the fatira with the condiments of your choosing.

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

  • Snappy happy

    I’ve been taking lots of pictures.

    I checked a couple photography books out of the library and have been reading them like novels. I’m learning all sorts of new things, but mostly I’m just learning that I don’t really know anything about photography. It’s kind of invigorating.

    I don’t understand half of what I read, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. Much of the time, I just look at the pictures. But I don’t just look at them, I study study study them. And then I study them some more. It’s my attempt to learn to see like a photographer. How to move like a photographer. Photography is a dance, really. (And I’m the dancer who is tromping on toes and poking my elbow into strangers’ ribs, forever terrified that I’ll be booted off the floor.)

    Even with all my reading and picture pondering, when I pick up my camera and go outside, I draw a blank. What’s aperture again? Um, when is shooting in monochrome effective? Is my ISO speed too high?

    That my only human models are my children complicates matters even more. I’m convinced they move into the shadows and flare their nostrils just to provoke me.

    But I keep plodding along. My daughter is my most willing, though spazzy, model.

    I sat her beside the back door this morning and used a piece of white paper as a reflector to lighten the shaded side of her face. You can see the paper in her eyeball.

    Part of my problem is that I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t want my pictures to appear contrived, but at the same time I want an element of surprise, something that stands out and catches the eye, drawing the looker into the picture. Quite by accident, this last picture gave me that—one of her eyes is obscured by her hair which makes the other eye stand out boldly. I like that.

  • No trouble at all

    I’ve been doing an excellent job at writing a weekly menu and then sticking with it. Of course, things do get switched around or I’ll add new dishes in, but for the most part my plan gets followed.

    It’s such a relief. That half hour of planning on Sunday or Monday (and yes, it does take me that long) frees up my brain to think about all sorts of other stuff during the rest of the week. Like what desserts would best showcase my sour cherries and if it’d be acceptable to make yet another batch of flourless peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (yes, those cookies are always acceptable). And with my expert menu planning, I use up a lot more of my Put-Up Food. Three cheers for empty quart jars!!!

    This menu idea is not a new thing—I’ve written about it before—but then I got all loosey-goosey. My menus went haywire, and we lived on things like pancakes and eggs. (Which wasn’t that bad, really.)

    But now I’m on The Straight and Narrow again. I’m immensely proud of myself. In fact, my head is so high I have to look down my nose to see anyone else. (Please don’t stick your foot out or toss a nanner peel in my path, kay?)

    Seeing as today is Wednesday and the flies are buzzing around my flying fingers and the birds are singing outside and the fire in the woodstove burned itself out and my flourless peanut butter chocolate chip cookie is all—sniff—gone, I thought it might be nice if I’d share some details about my menu planning. It takes such a very lot of skill and expertise to draw up a menu so I’m pretty positive it’d be nigh near impossible for you to figure out how to do it without my profound instruction. And I love to be helpful.

    Don’t worry, it’s no trouble at all. Really.

    Here’s what you do:

    First, take a notebook and write the days of the week, in abbreviated form, in the margin of the page, skipping every other line.

    Second, draw a box around the abbreviated days.

    Third, write down a dinner idea for each day. You get bonus points if you include breakfast and lunch ideas. In parenthesis, jot down notes for yourself, like, thaw chicken, or make pancake syrup.

    Fourth, look at the menu before going to bed at night and upon waking in the morning.

    Fifth, cook the food and eat it.

    Would it help to see a sample from my menu notebook? Okay. Here’s what I came up with for last week’s menu. I hope you don’t mind that there aren’t any boxes around the days of the week—I’m not computer savvy enough to know how to make boxes (it’s one of my weaknesses)—but you can just pretend they’re there, right?

    Mon: curried lentils, rice, pie
    Tues: baked potatoes, corn, green beans, squash
    Wed: broccoli soup (for lunch), ham-and-egg bake, peas, applesauce
    Thurs: in West Virginia
    Frid: potato soup with eggs and bacon
    Sat: pesto (didn’t have it) and pizza (for supper)

    Other ideas are written in the margins: Finnish rolls, cream puffs, peanut pie, beer cupcakes, pumpkin pie, cherry cobbler, beans/tortillas/salsa, etc. I brainstorm pretty heavy on the sweets.

    So tell me, do you have any great menu planning tips up your sleeve that are just itching to be shared? Or are you a Menu Winger?

    Writing down that menu reminded me that I want to tell you about the egg-and-ham casserole we had for Wednesday’s supper. I think I’ve photographed it two separate time with the intention of telling you about it, but then I let it slide. Shame on me. It’s a simple dish, really. An ordinary dish. But it’s also a gentle dish, good natured, patient, and kind in every way. (Oops. It appears ‘Enry ‘Iggins is speaking through my cassy-roll.)

    It’s supposed to be a breakfast casserole. One of those splendid ones that you assemble in the evening and then pop in the oven first thing upon waking, after which you are permitted to shuffle off to do Other Things until it’s ready.

    It also works well for supper. Last Wednesday I assembled it first off in the ayem, lived Life for eight hours, and then while I was at my dance class, my husband popped it in the oven. When I got home, famished and sore, supper was ready, hallelujah.

    Egg-and-Ham Casserole
    Adapted from my Aunt Valerie’s recipe

    Other meats can be substituted for the ham. Already-cooked sausage and bacon are my favorites (you don’t need much to get a bunch of flavor), but Valerie also suggests chicken and shrimp.

    6 slices bread, cubed
    3/4 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
    2 cups chopped ham
    3 tablespoons onion, minced
    6 eggs
    3 cups milk
    1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)
    1/4 teaspoon salt

    Toss the first four ingredients together in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk the eggs and add the milk and spices. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and toss gently. Pour the mixture into a greased 9 x 13 pan, cover, and set in the refrigerator overnight (or for about 8 hours). Bake the casserole, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

    This same time, years previous: playing Martha

  • The other one

    Before any more time elapses, I must tell you about the other cherry pie I made. There was the first one, of course. The double-crusted, cinnamon-spiked, tapioca-thickened one, and it was a real work of delicious art.

    But then somewhere I saw a link to Ruth Reichl’s blog and I thought, Huh? You mean Ruth keeps a blog? Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, and so I clicked over there fast as a wink, and sure enough, Ruth’s explosive hair and unflappable charm popped up right there on my computer screen. Of course I immediately signed up to get her posts. I miss the woman’s monthly columns in Gourmet—unlike other editors, she often wrote of deeper things than just the thrust of the current magazine.

    As I scrolled down through her posts, I happened upon her recipe for a sour cherry pie. Apparently it’s her tradition to make a sour cherry dessert at the start of each new year. (Isn’t that sweet?) Her recipe was written simply, in paragraph form, and I quick jotted down notes and then hustle-rustled us up some pie.

    I’ll be honest—(that’s a stupid-upid-upid thing to say—I’m always honest, of course)—at first I thought it wasn’t going to work. The cherries disintegrated mightily while they were thickening on the stove top, and my blind baked crust (from one of my recipes, not hers) baked up into a piece of lace, a buttery web of holes. But the part I was most worried about was the crumb topping—a stick of butter, melted, and a three-quarter cup each of flour and sugar that, when mixed, more closely resembled a sandy sludge than crumbs. But I forged ahead, sprinkling the paste in the best crumb-like fashion I could muster. It was a lot of crumbs, and they ended up forming a lid over nearly all the cherries.

    And you know what? I never should’ve doubted those crumbs, let alone Ruth. (Who did I think I was anyway? A gourmet cook? Ha.) Those crumbs were fabulous! In the hot oven they transformed into a thick, hard lid that shattered like a sheet of ice when the knife hacked through. Crunchy and buttery-sweet, the crumbs were the perfect foil for the soft, tart cherries. I couldn’t keep my hands off the crumb shards. I kept plucking off the edge pieces and popping them into my mouth, yum-yum.

    Of course the crumbs’ underbellies softened a little by the next day. My mom has fits about this. She thinks soggy crumbs are the end of the world and so refuses to make crumb toppings for pies that aren’t going to be served that same day. I agree with her—crumb pies are best on the day they’re made (aren’t all pies?)—but while these crumbs did get a little soft, they certainly weren’t bad, and it definitely wasn’t the end of the world. (Mom, you gotta calm down, okay?) The bottom line: plan to eat this pie the same day you make it and then be thrilled if there are any leftovers.

    Sour Cherry Crumb Pie
    Adapted from Ruth Reichl’s blog

    To blind bake a crust: line a pie pan with the crust, crimp it, and prick it with a fork. (If you’re worried about your pastry holding its shape in the oven, you can line it with foil, and then fill the bottom of the pie with dried beans. Also, sometimes it helps to stick the shaped crust in the freezer for half an hour immediately before baking.) Bake it at 400 degrees for however long it takes to get just a little brown—10-20 minutes.

    I used my cream cheese pastry, and while the flavor was superb, the pastry didn’t have enough structure to hold up to a blind baking. Next time I’ll use a regular butter pastry.

    1 9-inch pie crust, blind baked
    3 tablespoons butter
    5 cups pitted sour cherries, frozen (and unthawed) or fresh
    2/3 cup sugar
    1 teaspoon lemon juice
    a pinch of salt
    3 tablespoons cornstarch
    2 tablespoons water
    crumb topping, recipe follows

    Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the cherries (and juice, if any) and sugar. Stir a couple times, and as soon as the cherries have thawed (this will happen quickly), add the lemon juice and salt. Make a paste with the cornstarch and water and add it to the cherries. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring frequently. Once the filling is thick and clear—after a couple minutes—remove the pan from the heat.

    For the crumb topping:
    3/4 cup flour
    3/4 cup sugar
    1 stick butter, melted

    In another bowl, melt the butter and stir in the sugar and flour. Set aside

    Pour the cherries into the pie shell, and top with the slurry-like crumbs. Place the pie on a foil-lined baking sheet (the cherries are bound to bubble over) and bake the pie at 375 degrees for about forty minutes. Both the crust and crumbs should be golden brown and the cherries will be bubbling madly.

    Allow the pie to cool for about four hours before serving.

    (I just realized that I said “of course” four—4!!!—times in this post. Whoa, dude. Maybe I gotta calm down.)

    This same time, years previous: nutty therapy

  • Big businesses read little blogs!

    Or at least that’s what the Auntie Anne woman said when she called me last week.

    Well, she didn’t say it exactly like that. She said it more like, Hi! I’m so-and-so, director of such-and-such from the Auntie Anne Pretzel Company and I saw the blog post that you wrote on Saturday!

    I don’t think she could’ve sounded more sweet and bouncy if she’d been eating a Snickers bar and jumping on a trampoline.

    She proceeded to tell me that so-and-so, director of such-and-such, was also in the office with her and, if it was okay with me, they’d like to put me on speaker phone—the door was shut—would that be okay?

    I said sure, and we proceeded to have a congenial three-way chat about pretzels and poison. Turns out, the first person I talked to on the phone a couple weeks back gave me false information and the second person gave me no information. Those two things weren’t a problem—at least not for Auntie Anne’s—but then I went and blogged about it, and well, that just wasn’t good PR for Auntie Anne’s. Not that they said that, of course. In fact, they were most gracious, never once requesting that I remedy the false information I’d unwittingly posted about them. And as a final conciliatory touch, they offered to send me a complimentary box of do-it-yourself Auntie Anne’s pretzels, yippee!

    Oh, I almost forgot! I suppose I ought to share what I learned about whether or not Auntie Anne’s uses lye with their pretzels. That’s kind of the point of this post, after all.

    Well, the cheery ladies were very clear with me: they do NOT use lye. No sodium hydroxide/poison/caustic soda—none whatsoever—in their pretzels. (They do, however, dip their pretzels in a baking soda solution.)

    So there you have it. The mystery of the mall pretzels has been solved. They are poison-free! Yay!

    Not that I actually think that’s a good thing. I happen to adore the more complicated flavor of a poisoned pretzel. But at least now the truth is out and all you mall pretzel eaters can rest assured that your shop-till-you-drop snack hasn’t been dipped in any toxic substances.

    Which means, if you want to experience an authentic German pretzel, you’ll have to don some goggles and gloves and make your own!

    This same time, years previous: caramelized onions

  • Getaway

    This past week I took the kids on a 24-hour trip to a private country resort.

    At the very start, the proprietess made us a fabulous dinner of organic whole foods: sauteed chard, garden potatoes, baked squash, and green beans. The kids stuffed themselves on the squash. I stuffed myself on the chard (and squash) (and potatoes). To finish off the meal, there was a lovely whipped cream-topped chocolate pudding.

    There was an evening theater production of My Fair Lady, and then when we returned from the show (nigh about midnight) with thoughts of the rain in Spain strumming through our heads, plates of buttered toast and bowls of sectioned oranges were delivered to our bedroom chambers.

    The following morning I was treated to a first-rate and oh-so-leisurely pedicure.

    Seeing as the pedicure-giver is a study in OCD-ism, the treatment involved many steps: scraping, soaking, cuticle trimming, nail painting, and the final touch, a moisturizing treatment with two different creams.

    My feet have never looked (and felt) better.

    The resort offered other activities, as well.

    There was wagon racing:

    Bird watching:

    Outdoor guitar picking, á la The Sound of Music:

    Tree monkeying:

    And sky canon-ball-ing:

    Sky soaring:

    Sky walking:

    And sky…saluting?

    And thus concludes the story of our 24-hour getaway.

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

  • Our house lately

    There have been a lot of beer bottles decorating our house lately.

    Actually, I think it’s only two but it feels like more since they’re always sitting around. My brother bought some bottles when he came this weekend (this is my brother—

    the kids adore him), and I think we managed to collectively drank one with our soft pretzel supper.

    But then I made beer cupcakes (the cake part was luscious, but the icing was a little too boozy for my tastes) and that was another bottle.

    And then Sweetsie got the brilliant idea to rinse them out and top them off with water and walk around the house taking swigs of brown-bottled water. It was a little disconcerting, but I didn’t say too much.

    Though now that I think of it, Miss Beccaboo walked into the kitchen the other day smoking a straw (or was it a stick?) so maybe I ought to be concerned?

    Miss Beccaboo is still sewing. Though the other day I think she spent most of her sewing time taking apart the machine—as long as she cleans it all up (and doesn’t break anything), I stay mum.

    Oh yes, and here’s the sock monkey she made.

    Isn’t it darling?

    Even though I can’t finish it off all the way (because I don’t know how), I’m done with my scarf.

    To keep my hands occupied during evening reading, I picked up Yo-Yo’s cast-off knitting project and set to. I sat on the floor and knitted while Nickel quietly filled a couple feet of my yarn with slipknots, sneaky kid. (I’ve found him putting slipknots in electrical cords, too.)

    Most mornings, over our breakfast of granola and yogurt, I read to the kids from this book.

    It’s a collection of short stories about real-life peacemakers.

    I crave stories like these—the stories stand out in stark contrast to the teachings of retaliation and me-me-me-isms that our culture would have us believe—and am always on the lookout for more. (Suggestions, anyone?)

    Recently, we’ve been introduced to Professor Noggin, a card fact game.

    I bought four games, but there are loads of others to choose from. How we play it is this: I read each kid a question and if they get the answer right, they get to keep the card. Simple, no? Questions are divided into easy and hard categories, so all four kids can play.

    I like The Human Body game best, but the kids love Creatures of Myth and Legend—they kick my butt at that game.

    This same time, years previous: oatmeal pancakes