Tag Archives: baking

Shoe Pastry

Shoe Pastry

The title of this should tell you just how familiar I am with this particular delicacy.  Two series of GBBO, and I was sure this was how it was spelled.  After all, eclairs kind of look like shoes, right?  They’re long and hollow.  And French.  French cooking terms don’t always make a lot of sense to me.  Probably because I took 4 years of Spanish instead (not that I had a choice.) Thankfully I searched “eclairs” instead of “shoe pastry” when I went looking for recipes for this project, or I never would have found it!

For those as unenlightened as I was, it is actually CHOUX pastry.  See?  French.  Choux is French for cabbages, which the buns the dough was used for resembled.  I’m assuming these original buns were something similar to our cream puffs, and yeah, I can kind of see the comparison.

Technically, I have made choux pastry before.  Back when I was a pre-teen, we lived in a town that had a nice hotel with a really nice (to my uneducated eyes) restaurant.  Their claim to fame was the aforementioned cream puffs.  I got to go once to have one, and OMG it was so good!  But I couldn’t afford to go often (mostly since my brother and I were busy spending our quarters across the street in the pool hall.  Seriously.), so I decided to try to make them myself.  I don’t remember where I got the recipe or how I did it, but I remember the smell.  It has a very distinctive smell.  Not necessarily unpleasant, but not all that pleasant, either.

But back to the present.  I tracked down a recipe (The Kitchn website seems to be my go-to for these recipes these days), picked a day and got started.

Step one was organizing the ingredients.  Not too many of them, it’s actually a pretty basic recipe.


I was even good and made sure everything was at room temperature.

Step two was getting the template together.  I wanted these to all be the right size, so I took a tip from GBBO and marked up a piece of parchment paper that I could then turn over and see through.


Nice straight lines to pipe on!  To get them the length I wanted, though, I had to use the bottom of my cookie pan.  The lip around the top made them just that much too narrow to fit them all in.

As soon as I put the first stage of the dough together, the smell came back to me from all those years ago and took me right back to my parents’ 70’s day-glo orange kitchen.  I’m not sure why butter, water, salt and flour would have such a strong smell, but it does, and it’s not entirely pleasant.  Once the basic ingredients come together, you have to mash the crap out of it while it cooks down. 5 minutes may not seem very long, but when you’re stirring and mashing thick paste constantly, it seems like FOREVER.  My arm’s going to fall off kind of forever.  But that was the hardest part.

Once it was cooked down, I could dump it into the mixer and let the machine do all the work.


At this point, you just beat it until it’s cool enough not to cook the eggs you’re about to add.  It still smells, and it doesn’t look very appetizing, but it gets better.  Once it’s cool, you start adding the eggs.  You can’t just dump them in, though, because too much and the dough won’t set up right when you pipe it.  Do it right and you get a lovely, glossy, thicker-than-batter that’s starting to look more like something you might want to eat.


Then I got out my fancy piping bag and loaded it up.


The piping went pretty well, considering how rudimentary my tools were.


There was paste left, so I got out the other sheet and another piece of parchment paper and piped out a bunch of puffs as well.


Then into the oven they went.


These have to cook in stages.  First you cook them on a high heat to puff them up, then a medium heat to brown them, and then a lower heat to dry them out.  All in all it takes about 45 minutes.  So really, not terrible.  I did get an object lesson in the difference a pan can make, though.


The éclair was done on an aluminum pan, while the puffs were done on a dark, steel sheet.  Same temp, same time.  Major lesson for me, especially since all my cake and muffin pans are the same darker metal.  Time to turn the damn oven down! Or get new pans…

Once they all came out (aren’t they pretty?), we just had to let the steam out and wait for them to cool.  In the meantime I made lemon curd.  Well, technically, I made my mom’s lemon meringue pie filling.  Which is close enough, right?  But that took a long time to come together, and we did have some whipped cream in the fridge…


Oh yeah, them’s good eating!

Again with the piping bag, I filled the eclairs with the lemon filling, dipped the tops in the chocolate, and voila, eclairs!


In the end, I was disappointed with the flavor.  The lemon really overwhelmed the chocolate, so I probably won’t do that combination again.  And they ended up kind of small for my taste.  But that’s me.  That said, I will definitely make choux paste again, this time maybe with pastry cream filling instead.

And cream puffs.  Definitely making cream puffs.



Okay, finally, the first of my Great British Bake Off posts.

I started out, like a lot of people, watching Series 5 on Netflix.  A word on terminology here.  I know here in the US it’s called the Great British Baking Show.  But it’s a BRITISH show, so I will be using the BRITISH title.  Or the abbreviation, GBBO.  Second, yes, it’s SERIES, not SEASON.  Again, BRITISH.

So anyway.  Series 5.

As I watched all 12 episodes over the course of two days, two things started catching my attention: hot water pastry and laminated dough.  I had never heard of hot water pastry before, although it turns out I probably had it once as a kid.  We were on a camping trip to the Upper Peninsula and stop for an incredibly rare meal out, where I had my first ever pastie.  Not PAY-stee, you perv, PAH-stee.  You know, a hand pie filled with meat and root veggies.  They’re pretty common in the part of the UP we were in because a lot of Cornish miners had ended up there during the copper mining boom and brought their food with them.  I remember not liking the crust very much, but I blame the lard.  I am not a lard fan, which made the pie we bought at a church fair in Maine last summer particularly disappointing.

Laminated dough looked even more intimidating.  The concept, for those who haven’t watched the show, is to fold a sheet of dough over a sheet of butter, roll it out, fold it, chill it, roll it out, fold it, chill it, over and over (at least 4 times) until you get a dough that is dozens of layers.  If you do it right, when you bake it, the butter melts into the dough, the steam from it evaporates and makes lovely, open layers.  The next time you have a croissant, tear it open and take a look.  That’s what you’re doing.

I have never done this.  And watching so many of these bakers try it and fail was frankly not making me any more inclined to try it.  But then they got to one of the technical challenges.  Again, for those who don’t watch the show, each episode is in three parts based around the theme of the week.  The first challenge is to make a recipe to the theme but that epitomizes them: a family recipe, a flavor profile, or even just their own creativity.  The second is a technical challenge, where all the bakers make the exact same recipe, usually one they have never seen before, given a recipe with only the bare minimum of instructions (no baking temperature or time, for example).  Then finally they have to do a showstopper, in which they take the theme and make something that could be displayed at a fancy party or in a shop window, something with real wow factor.

So back to this technical challenge.  It was advanced pastry week, and the challenge the bakers were set was a pastry called koiugn amann, a sweet pastry from Brittany in France.  They looked like a cross between croissants and popovers, and my mouth started watering just looking at them.  These aren’t the kind of thing you can just run out and buy, though.  (Okay, well, it turns out Trader Joe’s has them, but I didn’t know that at the time.)  So after stewing on it for a week or two, I decided to try making them.  The big blizzard was coming, so I was going to be stuck in the house anyway, so why not?

Man, I needed the whole day to make them.  I don’t know how the GBBO bakers did them in 4 hours!

I started with this recipe from The Kitchn.  I tried to keep in mind all the tips and advice and problems I’d seen on the show as I worked, and all the warnings about melting butter.  Since I had the time, I took the time.  (Although next time, I think I’ll make the dough ahead and let it chill overnight.)  The dough was pretty straight forward.  If you can make bread dough, you can make this.


I think I scared the cat when I started pounding out the butter!  It was actually kind of frustrating trying to get two sticks to stick together instead of having one big block, but after I’d folded it a couple of times, it started to come together.  Stuck it in the freezer, pulled out the dough, got it rolled out, added the butter and away we went.


It seemed to go pretty well.  It had a lovely, silky feel to it, and the butter didn’t fight me too much (which actually may not have been a good thing!)  I probably should have rested it a bit more so I could have stretched those corners to meet better.  Another reason to make the dough the night before.  This recipe had you adding sugar between the layers of both of the last two folds, and a LOT of it, but I kept hearing Paul insisting that it should just be on the last layer and they shouldn’t be too sweet, so I did what he said instead of following the recipe on that point.  Only about a third of a cup before that last roll and fold.  Even so, I was having a hard time getting the sugar to stay put, so I’m glad I went that route.  I also didn’t put sugar down on the board when I rolled it out to cut.  Again, I really didn’t want to overdo it.  I think there’s European sweet and American sweet, and I didn’t really want American sweet.

It was fun to cut it out, and I got them all mostly square!  Again, you can see where I didn’t quite square up the corners.  Definitely need to be more careful about that.


And into the muffin tins for their last rise.  I sprayed these suckers within an inch of their lives, and I’m glad I did!  Aren’t they pretty?  You can even kind of see the layers in them!


Oh, and somewhere in here, is when I managed to break my toe.  Kicked a chair going back and forth to the kitchen.  It stayed aligned, so there’s nothing to do about it but take it easy.  Which again, with this weather, isn’t such a hardship.

Still keeping in mind Paul’s advice and not wanting to get dinged for being underbaked, I left them in until the points were just this side of burning.


I was really proud of these as they came out of the oven.  But as ever, the proof is in the eating.


Not bad!  I stick by my description of them being the love child of a croissant and a popover.  For a first timer, I think I didn’t do too badly on the layers.  Some I lost by not getting those corners square enough, and some because I didn’t dust the flour off as I was folding.  Loose flour absorbs the liquid as they bake, so instead of puffing up, the layers cludge together.  So that’s that lesson learned.

I will definitely make these again, but they are absolutely a special occasion bake rather than an every weekend thing.  Next time I may put chocolate in the center, or maybe sweetened ricotta and strawberry jam.  And the really nice thing about them is they keep really well in the freezer!  Wrap them up individually in cling wrap, drop them in a freezer bag and just take a few out as you need them.  I toast them up in the oven just to make them warm and crisp again.  So next time I’ll definitely double the batch.  Although I’m going to need a bigger work surface!

Next up: eclairs!

(For another great post on laminated dough, check out this one at King Arthur Flour’s blog.  I may try this next time!  How hard can croissants be, right?)

In the Kitchen

In the Kitchen

It’s nesting season.  Too cold to go outside, so you hunker down in the house and putter.  We’ve been tidying the house up for our house guest, although no deep cleans yet.  That’s probably going to wait for spring.  I haven’t had a lot of enthusiasm for knitting, although the new Nerdopolis tourney has started, so that’s given me some motivation.

Which leaves the kitchen.

Even post surgery, I still love cooking.  It’s just very satisfying to put something nourishing and comforting together, even if your children don’t appreciate it.  I’ve found that unless it’s sweets, I have to feed them something 3 times before they come around to liking it.  And of course with three kids, I get three different opinions.  So I just cook what I want, and they can eat it or go hungry!

It also doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a LOT of the Great British Bake Off.  Watching 9-12 different bakes every other night gets into your head and starts planting IDEAS.  And IDEAS want to be realized.  So yeah, I’ve been baking.  I’ll save the epic projects for individual posts (they deserve it!), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been trying smaller things.  Like my first Victoria sandwich.

20160203_192739  20160203_192927

I wasn’t pleased with this.  Not the concept, because I still deeply love the premise of it.  Come on, cake, jam and whipped cream.  What could be better?  But the recipe I used (it was Mary’s, so I was a little shocked) used margarine instead of butter, and mixed it all together at once instead of creaming the butter and sugar first.  The cake tasted good enough, but it was more a cornbread consistency rather than the spongey texture you’d expect from a cake.  We also messed up the whipped cream a little bit.  I found the one situation where you don’t want really firm whipped cream, and we overdid the vanilla a bit.  Who knew that was possible?  But we redeemed it in a later bake.  More on that in another post!  But it did taste great, rather like strawberry shortcake. So I’ll definitely be trying this again.

I’ve also been trying to eat more from the freezer, which has required thinking harder about side dishes to jazz up what could potentially be a lot of boring casseroles.  I pulled out a jambalaya the other night, but the only veg I had was lettuce.  So salad it was to be.  But I’m so sick of the two salad dressings we have.  I had some avocado in the freezer, so I improvised an avocado dip/dressing that ended up being to die for.  Here’s the recipe.  I just hope I remembered all the ingredients!

Avocado Dressing/Dip

1-2 ripe avocados
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup mayo (any kind is fine)
1/4 cup plain greek yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup onion
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
White wine or chicken broth

Put all ingredients except the salt and wine/broth in a food processer (I did this in the blender, which worked, but slowly, and it had a hard time chopping up the veg.)  Blitz until mixed, then slowly drizzle in wine/broth until the mix is the consistency you want (thicker for a dip, thinner for a dressing.)  Season to taste, and dig in!

Thicker this works GREAT as a guacamole replacement, either with chips or veggies.  Thin it down, and it makes a great salad dressing.  I tossed it with romaine and a handful of parmesan cheese, and it was perfect.

The kids need to eat it a few more times…

Coming Up For Air

Coming Up For Air

Random cat picture. I don’t talk about him in the post, but isn’t he handsome?

Rising to the surface briefly to report that I am not dead.  Yay!  By way of summary:
  1. I started actually training on the new job last week.  Hurrah!  I think once I master it, it will be good, but right now it’s terribly frustrating.  I’m slow and stumbling and I hate not being good at things.  But everyone on the new team is really nice (and young!  ZOMG, so young…), and there’s lots of room for me to develop once I get the basics down, so I just have to be gentle with myself for the next few months.
  2. The washing machine is fixed.  To the tune of $210 dollars.  Ouch.  But worth it.  The technician was worried about my water supply (it leaks a few drops an hour) and my hoses.  I can replace the hoses myself easily enough.  The water supply…well, that will keep for now.  But I realized that this washing machine is the one we bought when we moved into the house 18 years ago.  It’s done very well by us!
  3. Speaking of fixing things, I finished my bike repair class last night.  What a great class!  I can now change tires, replace brake and derailleur cables, and even disassemble and rebuild wheel hubs!  If you have a bike in the Delaware Valley, I highly recommend taking this class and/or checking out Bike Church at the Neighborhood Bike Works.  What a great resource!
  4. I broke my toe.  Yes, on the same foot.  I think it’s cursed.  Not much to do about this one, though, except wait it out.  Which means no running.  Considering the state of the roads, that isn’t as much of a hardship as it was this summer.
  5. I’ve been watching way too much Great British Bake Off.  This is a bad thing.  I’ve put on an additional 3 pounds.  There may be eclairs in the near future.  There will definitely be a blog post.
  6. The payment deadline for Hero’s trip is getting closer.  GAH!!!  In a fit of panic, I started a fundraising campaign on RallyUp to help raise money for those last payments.  If you’re one of the few people who I haven’t force-fed this campaign, please go and check it out, and donate if you can or just share it on social media if you can’t.  We’re about a third of the way to our goal with 6 weeks until the final payments.  In the meantime, she’s selling frozen pizzas and will be working the next few months on making and selling hoagies at school.  She’s had to give up art club for the foreseeable future to do it, but I think/hope this drives home that you need to sacrifice sometimes to get the things you want.  Growing up is hard, yo.
  7. We’re getting ready for a houseguest from Germany next week.  Morgan’s boyfriend is coming over so the two of them can go to a convention in NYC next weekend.  Not only will it be the first time we’ve met him, it will be the first time he and Morgan will meet in person.  I’m both nervous and excited for Morgan, and want to do what I can to help make a good impression on his behalf.  So this week we are cleaning the house within an inch of its life.  And trying not to think about what young men in love are thinking about.  Having your kids grow up is hard, yo.
  8. I have the beginnings of a new book poking at me.  Shh, we don’t want to scare it.
I think that’s it for now.  Updates as they arise!

Ding Dong Merrily!

Ding Dong Merrily!


Christmas is over.  But it was packed, and I deliberately stepped away from the keyboard for the week (although my mother might disagree with that!)  There are just times I want to be experiencing things and not documenting them.  That’s also why I’m terrible at taking pictures.  I don’t want to see the world through a tiny square of glass.  But now I’m home and back at a keyboard, so here’s the holiday rundown!

This was our year to go down to Virginia for the holiday.  We’ve started alternating between going there and going up to the cabin.  It’s getting harder for Mom to make the trip, but we don’t want to miss out on seeing her, so this seemed to be a good compromise.  Plus then we can alternate which of my siblings we spend it with as well!  And I was very happy that I was able to talk Nikki into coming down with us this year.  She doesn’t always like being pried out of her cozy nest, but we all love her company and in the end she usually has a good time, so I was really glad when she agreed to come.  She’s also more likely to stay awake while riding shotgun, unlike my kids! (Or me…)

Launch time was 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.  I didn’t want to waste a whole day on travelling and being tired from travelling, so I left work a little early and by the time Hero got home from school, we had the car all loaded and were ready to go.  The timing worked well, as we were out of the range of any major city centers by the time rush hour hit.  It’s about a 7 hour drive from my house to Blacksburg, but it’s all highway driving, so in general it’s easy.  This trip a little less so, as it was foggy from Harrisburg all the way down, truly biblically at some points.  But our halfway point provided us not only with gas but also with Five Guys for dinner, so it was all good.  We pulled in at Mom’s just before 11, unloaded and crashed.

Wednesday was grocery shopping and some errands.  First, though, Hero and I went out together for a training run.  We were running a 5k on Thursday and wanted to get a feel for the terrain.  Well, the terrain was BRUTAL.  I thought we were hilly around here, but that was nothing compared to the trail near Mom’s place.  Hero and I almost came to blows at one point.  It didn’t help that she’d left her good running shoes at home, and the sneakers she had were terrible for running.  Finally, both of us frustrated, I told her to start walking back but I was going to go out for another fifteen minutes.  Which wasn’t easy.  I walked a lot more of it than I like to admit, and it didn’t give me confidence as to how I’d do the next day.  By the time I caught up with Hero, we’d both had a chance to calm down and were able to talk things through.  We came to the understanding that what I think of as coaching comes off to her as nagging, and that for both our sakes, we’d be better off running the race at our own pace the next day and there was no lack of love in not running together together.  We got back and showered (did I mention the humidity?  Because OMG the humidity!) and then went erranding.  First stop ended up being Goodwill to try and find her a better pair of shoes.  We did score a decent pair of Skechers for $3, and I found a fabulous bundt pan for $2!  What do you need a bundt pan for, you might ask!  Well, I’d just found this recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes using my favorite of their doughs.  Finding that pan just seemed to be demanding that I make this, so we added the ingredients to the shopping list.  Then we went looking for the yarn and fabric store I’d found out about through the Ravellenic Games, only to find they’d closed their Blacksburg store and were reopening in the new year down the road in Christiansburg.  So no yarn for me.  Phooey.

Grocery shopping was a hoot.  It was me, Mom, Nikki and Hero and OMG, we talked ourselves into so much stuff!  Good wine and cheese, egg nog and heavy cream and an ENORMOUS beef roast that is our holiday tradition.  We filled three grocery totes and a couple of bags.  But we would be eating well!  Once we got home, we unloaded everything and I started on the cake/bread/thing.  The dough had to sit for several hours and the cranberries for at least 8.  By then it was naps and dinner and watching way too many episode of Alaskan homesteader shows, my mom’s current go-to TV viewing.  But we were all in bed pretty early (a pattern for the week.  I think Mom started getting offended by how early we all go to bed.  We can’t all stay up until midnight every night like she does!)

Christmas eve was a whirlwind!  We had to be up early for brunch at my sister’s.  She and her husband have a great apartment on the campus at Tech where they’re faculty advisors, so they invited all their friends and us for brunch.  There was a bit of excitement with the catering, but it worked out in the end, and their friends were all really nice, and thankfully for this introvert they were all extroverts, so I could stand in a corner talking to Nikki and someone would come over and join us instead of me having to awkwardly work my way into a conversation.  We hung out there until about 11:30 and helped clean up before getting changed and heading over for the race.

So this race.  I’d found out about it online.  It’s the Frosty 5k that the local running store sponsors every year.  Rachel is a triathlete, but she’d never run this, so I thought it might be fun to run together, even though I knew she would smoke me.  Hero wanted to run, too, since she’s been doing the 5k training almost as long as I have.  She’s had respiratory problems, though, that have kept her from finishing.  We finally got her diagnosed two weeks ago with exercise induced asthma and got her an inhaler, although she hasn’t really had a chance to train with the improved breathing.  No matter.  This was just for fun, right?  Yeah, I’m not competitive at all.

Christmas eve… was not frosty. It was in the 60s, and it had been raining the whole afternoon and night before, so the sign in area/finish line was a muddy swamp. But the sky had cleared by the time we got there and got checked in, and there were pugs in elf costumes, so all was well, right?

We all started out together, but I didn’t see my sister once during the race. Hero and I hung together about a quarter mile (and up one brutal hill) before I headed out at my own pace. It wasn’t too bad. A couple of steep spots, but it seemed to be mostly downhill. I kept a good pace, and really only walked in spots where everyone else was walking, too, so I didn’t feel like so much of a slacker. Hit the water stop at the mile 2 marker and felt pretty good.

That’s when I ran into THE HILL.

Rachel had warned us about the hills, of course.  But I was thinking in Pennsylvania terms.  This… Yeah, calling it a hill was a vast understatement. It was easily a 45 degree vertical climb and it went on for three quarters of a mile! But of course starting into it, you can’t see that. I figured I’d run halfway up and then walk. Got to what I thought was halfway and realized that I wasn’t even close to the top. Which was probably why everyone, and I mean EVERYONE was walking. No one was even trying to run that beast! Bummed about my time, I hiked up to the top along with everyone else. Thankfully once we got up there, we could just make out the hi-vis jackets of the staff at the finish line through the trees, so I started running again.

Morgan was waiting as the path came out of the trees, and the high five he gave me was just the adrenaline boost I needed to get me through to the end. That last bit splashing through the mud wasn’t fun, but I was able to pour it on in time to see the clock as I crossed the line read 33:20. !!!! That was two and a half MINUTES faster than my first 5k back in June! Despite the hills! But no time for that! I raced back to the point where Morgan had met me to wait for Hero and just made it! She was struggling about as much as I had been, but using my new-found knowledge of the high five, I gave her a power boost, and Xander had another one for her closer to the finish line. She finished in 36:40, just under two minutes slower than my first race. Considering she hasn’t finished her 5k training, and did all that training with a respiratory deficit, she did amazingly!


As we were walking back to the car, she made a comment about “next time”. I think I’ve got her!

We went home and washed the mud off and just kind of putzed around for the afternoon.  I made dinner, finished the cake, screwed up some knitting and by 9:30 was ready for bed.  But we weren’t done.  Everyone filled their assigned stockings with much sneaking and angst about there not being enough room in the sock.  Mom needed whipped cream but was too tired to use the hand mixer and didn’t want to be bothered getting out her Kitchenaid.  Well, what’s the point of having a Kitchenaid if not for making whipped cream?  So I got it out and 5 minutes later we had whipped cream you could walk on.  Yum!  I was halfway into bed when I realized we hadn’t put the presents under the tree.  Back out I went with the bags of goodies.  Finally, FINALLY at about a quarter past 11 I was able to crawl into bed and pass out.

I was one of the first ones awake Christmas morning.

The problem with teenagers is they stop being excited to wake up early on Christmas.  It was almost 9:30 before we roused everyone and started on stockings.  Between stockings and tree presents, everyone had a good haul, just the right balance of clothes and stuff.  I got a couple of homesteading/DIY books, a Fitbit (ooooh, stats!), some running gear, a GC to Knitpicks and a couple more for clothes.  Yay!  Matt, Rachel and Uly joined us for dinner.


They brought fake snowballs, which were awesome but led to a couple of falls and arguments.  Of course it was raining again, so we couldn’t kick the kids outside to burn it off.  One more reason snow is better than rain!  And the bread/cake/thing came out good!  Drier than I would have liked, so next time I might not bake it quite as long, but the flavor was very nice.


Saturday was recovery day.  We got all the clean-up we could done (crowding 6 people into a two bedroom apartment leads to some inescapable disorder), and then Mom sent me and Nikki off to cash in my gift cards.  I got two pairs of slacks (size 8!), and silky blouse and this blazer that I swear is made out of sweatshirt material and flannel and may be my most favorite piece of clothing ever!  And everything was 50% off, so when I went over my GC amount, I didn’t feel bad about paying the extra.  The running shop was just across the parking lot, so we stopped in to get our final results from the race as well.  Then home for lunch and we went back out to Old Navy to return one of Hero’s gifts (white top, too small and too transparent) and spend some of our gift cards.  It was pretty zooish, with all the returns and the huge after-Christmas sale, but we all scored some goodies.  Hero came out best, as she found the last of these sleeveless running hoodies that they only had the display version of.  But it was in her size and looks phenomenal on her!  Plus she’s all about the hoods and can wear this over just about anything, so it’s the perfect article of clothing for her.  Once we got home, we had naps and dinner and started packing up for the trip home.

Sunday was back to reality.  Mom took us out for breakfast to her local place that serves beignets, which I had never had.  They were delicious!  Once we got home, it was a race to load the car and make sure we didn’t forget anything (we almost forgot our Christmas angel!)  But we did pretty well and were on the road by 10.  Slightly longer trip this time, as we had to take Nikki home on the way.  Of course it was beautiful and warm all the way up through VA and to the PA line, but almost as soon as we crossed into PA, the fog hit, and then the rain.  *sigh*  We dropped her off in Philly around 4 and were home by 5:30.  The worst traffic we saw the whole way home was around Philly, especially passing King of Prussia (everyone leaving the mall) and coming out of Philly to head north.  Once we got home, we actually did get the car all unloaded in record time, and then I ordered Chinese food, because there was no way I was cooking after all that.

And I was in bed by 7.  Bliss!

South Africa in my Kitchen

South Africa in my Kitchen


Last night was the big South African dinner.  What a great experience!  Not everything met with universal approval, and there were a couple of bumps in the cooking, but it was fun, and I learned a lot!

The Menu:

Chicken potjiekos
Cape Malay curry
Sweetcorn bake
Yellow rice
Miele pap
Milk tart
Malva pudding

(All these recipes and some others I found in my research are on my Pinterest board for South Africa.)

The Cooking:

This was a LOT of food, kind of like preparing for Thanksgiving.  But I’ve gotten really good at Thanksgiving, so I went at it with the same kind of organizational plan as I do for that:  Make as much as I can as far ahead as I can.  I actually probably could have started a little sooner than I did, but it all worked out.

I started on Thursday with the blatjang, which is a kind of fruit chutney served with meat dishes.  Several of the recipes I’d looked at called for it as a side, so I figured I’d better have some.  The recipe said it made 2 1/2 quarts, which was way more than I needed, so I halved it.  The only liquid in it is apple cider vinegar, which you cook down like you would a jam.  The only problem with that is that as it evaporates, the whole house smells like vinegar.  A couple of times the kids came into the kitchen and winced from the smell.


Dried apricots and raisins soaking in the vinegar overnight


Almonds and spices added, ready for the long, slow cook.


After an hour


Another 45 minutes later and it’s ready!

Even after cooking that all down, it still made more than a quart.  I’m going to have to run it through the canner.  I filled a pint jar and 7 half pints, so yeah, lots more than I needed!  I had expected it to be sweet, like a mango chutney, but while it had some sweetness, it’s still very acid.

Friday night was the chakalaka and milk tart.  I love chakalaka.  Mostly because it means I get to say “chakalaka”. Which is an awesome word.  Everyone should eat this stuff just because of the name.  And because it tastes good.  It’s basically carrots, peppers and black beans, but it has great flavor and a really nice mouth feel.  Which sounds pretentious, but honestly it does.  We all liked it warm, although the recipe says to serve it warm or cold.  I served it cold for dinner, but I think I like it better warm.  You could eat it as is, or throw some cooked chicken or pork on it to make a nice meal.


The milk tart didn’t go as well.  The initial recipe wasn’t well written, with no instructions on how long to boil the custard mixture or even if you should, and the sequence of instructions wasn’t clear.  But I trusted it as best I could and ended up with this:


Ugh.  Maybe it will set up over night, thought I.  I made the custard sauce for the Malva pudding and went to bed, hoping.

It didn’t.  *sigh*  Into the trash it went, and I scrambled to find a new recipe.  Found a good one on Allrecipes and banged out the crusts before I went to PT.  I didn’t get back from that until 10:30, and then it was full bore cooking until dinner at 5.

First off I finished the tarts.  This filling thickened up nicely and made two beautiful, smooth pies:

20151024_113243Then I did the Malva pudding, figuring I could add the syrup just before dessert.  Which worked out pretty well.


I was a little worried at how full the dish was that it might overflow.


But it worked out just about perfect!

I figured I’d do the bobotie next, as it was kind of like a meatloaf, so I could put it together and stick it in the fridge until it went in the oven.


All the yummy bits


All mixed together


And in the casserole.

Oh yeah, that was a good choice.  All the lovely smells of onions and curry and turmeric were starting to fill the house.  Hero helped me with the knife work on this part until she forgot the difference between sliced and chopped.  Honestly, what do they teach kids in culinary school these days? 😉

So that went in the fridge while I made the pap.  I figured I could make that ahead and keep it in the crockpot on warm until dinner.

20151024_171217I don’t think I made it right.  It came out as more like a really dense dough than a polenta, and it was still really grainy, even though I added more water.  I think this is one of those situations you need to have had the real thing to know if you did it right.

The sweetcorn bake took no time to throw together and in the oven, although I was reminded again of the fact that I cannot cream butter by hand.  Thank you, Kitchenaid mixer!  Put that in the oven, set the time, then figured I’d do a clean up before the final push.  Loaded the dishwasher, wiped counters, pulled the plug to move the mixer back…and pulled the entire powerstrip out of the wall.  Which was fine, I just plugged it back in, completely forgetting that the microwave that had just been reset had had the timer for the sweetcorn bake.  Which I’d forgotten was in the oven.

Next up was the curry, as that had the longest cooking time.  Another round of sauteeing onions and garlic, veggies, meat, then adding in the tomatoes, fruit and spices.  Oh. My. God.  Before it had even had its stewing time, I wanted to crawl into the pot of this stuff and never come out.

20151024_152852Yes, you’re seeing right, those are banana slices in there.  And apricots, raisins, almonds, carrots, ginger, curry, turmeric, cardamom… Foodgasm doesn’t even come close.  I had been excited about this recipe even before this just because it seemed to have all the flavors of Indian food that I love without the heat that I can’t cope with.  But honestly?  You can’t really compare this two.  They’re just totally different creatures that share genes.  Very, very good genes.

That had to simmer for a couple of hours, so I put the bobotie in the oven…and found the sweetcorn bake.  Just in time!  It was perfectly done, despite my inattention, and looked yummy!

20151024_171331Then it was back to slicing up veggies for the potjiekos.  Potjiekos is Afrikaans for “little pots”, and basically it is a layered dish intended to be cooked in a cast iron pot over a fire.  For this one, we sauteed onions, garlic and chicken, then layered on potatoes, sweet potato, squash, carrots, green beans and mushrooms, then added cinnamon stick, bay leaves and pepper, put the lid on it and forgot about it.  On purpose this time.


The recipe specifically says not to stir it, so I didn’t.  Much.  I just couldn’t see how the seasoning was going to get through everything!

Last up was the yellow rice, which, once you get it in the pot, is pretty hands off.


From there I added the custard to the top of the bobotie and started laying out the table.


Most of the custard slid down the sides, dang it!


The Dinner



None of the adults I’d invited aside from Nikki were able to come, but most of Hero’s friends were there.  Have you tried feeding new foods to teenagers?  But I have to give them points for trying.  They all liked the potjiekos best, probably because it was a) chicken and 2) the least seasoned of everything.  To my surprise, they liked it with the pap, so maybe I didn’t go entirely wrong there.  My favorite was the curry with the yellow rice.  I was disappointed in the bobotie, which I had expected to really like.  But the flavor of the lamb just overwhelmed everything else in the dish.  the blatjang helped a little, but it wasn’t my favorite.  But that’s okay, because Morgan really liked it and wasn’t crazy about the curry.  Balance!

We had the main courses, then took a break to clean up a bit while I put the finishing touches on dessert.  Which I completely forgot to take pictures of.  Doh.  The milk tart was nice and refreshing, not too sweet.  Nikki and I agreed it would be really good with some fresh fruit or compote, or a nice sweet wine.  The Malva pudding was the opposite end of the spectrum, almost too sweet!  It’s like a dense bread pudding soaked in simple syrup.  It really needed the custard to cut the sugary sweetness, but it was still really good.  I think both of those are being added to the recipe collection.

The Aftermath

As I expected, there was a lot of food left over.  I had prepared by getting take out boxes from the dollar store, and packed up samplers for the folks who couldn’t make it.  The curry I packed up in single(ish) meal containers for me to take to work, and did the same with the bobotie for Morgan to have for his lunches.  The potjiekos I split into two containers to be the meat and veg base for a couple of last minute soups.  So not much went to waste.  Except the pap.

So all in all, a good experiment.  I’m looking forward to the next one!  The mother of one of Hero’s friends is Colombian and has offered to send us some dishes if we do a Colombian night, and I’m not about to say no to that.  Apparently she makes amazing cicerones.  But it will be a couple of months.  Next month I’m cooking actual Thanksgiving, so I’m not putting myself through two major meals in a month.  I think I’m going to take them out to a Japanese hibachi place instead.  It’s a kind of cooking I can’t do myself, and while they’ve had sushi, they haven’t had other kinds of Japanese food.  December will be crazy with getting ready for the holidays, so I thought we’d to something Scandinavian (cuz you know, that’s where Santa comes from), so I’m thinking fondue.  We do a home fondue for New Year’s Eve, but this way the kids can see just how bad I do at it!

So, farewell from South Africa!  I’ll report back with our next destination!  And if you have any questions about what we ate or how I made it, let me know!

Another One For the (Recipe) Books

Another One For the (Recipe) Books


I’m working from home today.  As I tweeted earlier, this is dangerous, as home is where the food lives.

I’m back up to 145 pounds.  Which isn’t bad, but I was almost to 140 before I started comfort eating.  This is a big problem for me, especially now that I’m not as active.  Starting Monday, I’m back to tracking and behaving.  Not going down that slide again.

But I’m not going to regret finishing the homemade brownies this morning.  Because brownies.

I’d show you a picture of them, but I can’t.  Because I ate them.  Still not sorry.

This is another one of those recipes from my mom that I ended up tweaking.  It calls for baking chocolate.  Who the hell keeps baking chocolate these days?  Certainly not me.  My kids would eat it behind my back.  (Well, we did the same when we were kids.  Well, not me.  Ben.  Ben would eat anything marginally sweet if he thought he could get away with it.  Even though he usually didn’t.  It was totally Ben.  Every time.  Honest.)(Okay, yes, I tried it once.  That was all it took.  Never again.  Have you tasted plain baking chocolate?  UGH!)

Where was I?

Oh yeah, baking chocolate.  Which I never have.  But I did have cocoa powder.  And on the side of the container, it had instructions for how to substitute cocoa powder and Crisco for baking chocolate.  Well, I had that.  But as always, I called Mom to see if she thought it would work.  She was…doubtful.  But I wanted brownies, so I figured bad brownies were better than no brownies and gave it a shot.

Sorry, Mom, I like these better than yours.

They were a little softer than hers, with a really nice mouth feel and perfect chocolate-ness.  And I had half a bag of walnuts, so in they went.  Perfect, perfect brownies.  I’ll make them this way from now on.

Cocoa Powder Brownies

3/4 c cocoa powder
1/2 c + 1 T Crisco
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

Put cocoa powder and Crisco in a glass measuring cup or small bowl and melt in microwave in 30 second bursts, mixing until smooth.  In separate bowl, mix eggs and sugar until well blended.  Add melted cocoa slowly until well blended.  Add flour, baking powder and salt, mixing until fully incorporated into a thick paste.  If using nuts or other add ins, fold them in.  Press dough into a greased 9X13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes until done.

Feel free to add other goodies (chocolate or other flavor chips, peppermint pieces, fresh raspberries) in place of the nuts.  Go wild!



A couple of goodies I’m mostly writing down so I don’t lose (Can’t put everything on Pinterest!)  Plus I know you’re dying to make what I do!

First up: DIY pot noodles!


In desperation and low funds, I bought the kids some ramen packs to have for lunches.  And stole a couple of mouthfuls for myself.  I like ramen well enough, but I don’t like the seasoning packets, and they’re way too high in fat and carbs for me now.  So when I saw this great post on the Kitchn website for DIY ramen, I got a little excited!  I need to play with the recipes given, but I had an opportunity to get creative on Wednesday night.  We had leftover spaghetti and sauce from dinner, so I thought, why not try to do a minestrone bowl?  And it wasn’t bad.  I think I used to much beef paste, as it was REALLY salty, but otherwise it was yummy!

Minestrone Pot Noodles

1/2 T beef bouillon paste
1/4 c pasta sauce with meat (or without if you prefer)
1/4 c frozen mixed veggies
1/4 c frozen spinach
1-2 T canned white beans (I used garbanzos as that was what I had on hand.  Red beans would work, too)
1 c cooked spaghetti
1 T shredded fresh basil
1/2 scallion, sliced
1 T parmesan

Spread bouillon paste on bottom of a widemouth pint jar.  Layer pasta sauce, then frozen veggies and beans, then spaghetti, packing down tight.  Put basil and scallion in a snack size bag, roll up and tuck into jar.  Do the same with the parmesan.  When ready to use, remove the bags, fill jar to 1 inch from top with boiling water, stir, put lid on, wait 3 minutes, then add the basil, onion and parmesan, stir again and eat.

More of these as I try them!  But go to the Kitchn post for the basic method so you can try your own combos!

Another website find was homemade English muffins.  These may be my absolute downfall.  When I was in grad school, Thomas’ made these things called Australian toaster biscuits, which I LOVED.  Mom would get them for me every time I came home.  But then they stopped, and I was sad.  Fast forward way too many years.  I’ve started doing Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day off and on.  I know it sounds kind of gimmicky, but honestly, it’s an easy way to have great bread around.  Since I shouldn’t eat much bread these days, I like the bread I do have to be really good.  We make the brioche dough a lot, as it makes really good cinnamon rolls easily.  The only problem is that it makes a lot of dough in each batch, as a batch is intended to last up to two weeks.  I could have the dough, but that’s no fun!  So I was looking for ideas for other things to do with the dough, and found the English muffin post.  I had about a pound of dough left, so I figured I’d try it out.  OMG, they were SO good!  They remind me of those Australian toaster biscuits, dense and chewy without the bitterness of traditional English muffins that I don’t like.  I think I’m going to make a full batch of dough tonight to turn all of it into these for the freezer.  They came out very thick and broad, so I think for the next batch I’m going to cut it down to 2 ounces instead of 3.5 but still pat them out as wide.  And I only get to have a half a one at a time. I ate most of the six from the first batch, and I’m not ashamed of it, but the scale was a little unhappy this morning…  (I’m sorry there’s no pictures of these.  I ate them all.  As I said.  Still not ashamed.)

And finally, I owe you marinade recipes!  I used these on salmon, but they would work well on chicken or pork, too.  Hrm, or maybe grilled shrimp…

Maple Dijon

4 T maple syrup
2-4 T Dijon mustard (depending on how mustard-y you like things)
1 lb fish

Mix the syrup and mustard to combine.  Put fish or meat in a freezer safe zipper bag, pour in the sauce and seal.  Squish it around gentle to cover everything, then freeze flat.  Thaw to use, then broil or grill as you prefer

4 tablespoons of mustard was a little much for us, so next time I’ll halve that.  I may put some curry powder in it as well for variety.

Mustard Soy Marinade

1/2 c soy sauce
2 t red pepper flake
2 t whole grain or Dijon mustard
1 t garlic powder
1/3 c oil
1/3 c brown sugar
2 lb fish

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl.  Put fish or meat in two freezer safe zipper bags, pour in the sauce and seal.  Squish it around gentle to cover everything, then freeze flat.  Thaw to use, then broil or grill as you prefer

We haven’t tried this one yet, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Balsamic Glaze

2/3 c balsamic vinegar
3 T brown sugar
2 T Dijon
2 lb fish

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl.  Put fish or meat in two freezer safe zipper bags, pour in the sauce and seal.  Squish it around gentle to cover everything, then freeze flat.  Thaw to use, then broil or grill as you prefer.

This is the one I’m most excited about!  I have a sacred bottle of orange cranberry balsamic vinegar as thick as molasses that we got in a shop in the Italian Market a year or two ago, which I love to use on pork, but this seemed an even better application of it!

There, I think that’s the lot of it for now!  Payday’s today, so once I pay all the bills, (ouch) I’ll see how much I can put towards expanding my pantry to keep ingredients for all these on hand!

Another Birthday

Another Birthday

My baby boy is fifteen!


Poor Xander’s had a tough year.  Making the transition to high school is never easy, and with his learning challenges, it’s even harder because he’s not able to verbalize all the emotional angst being a teenager brings.  He has never been able to tell us what he’s most interested in (aside from video games and Legos) or what he wants to be when he grows up, so we have to guess for him and push him in directions we think he might like rather than where he actually wants to be.  Hence the robotics team disaster.  But he’s a good kid, a happy kid usually, usually kind and thoughtful and fun to be around.  Sometimes I feel really guilty for not having done better by him.  Bad mommy gnomes.  “Other people’s kids with ASD are better adjusted, yadda yadda.”  But he’s happy and healthy and not angry, only lashing out when he’s frustrated, so I have to consider that good.

He asked for a chocolate/chocolate cake for his birthday.  Since that’s what Morgan had, too (they also had almost the identical birthday dinners), I really wanted to mix it up a little, so I tweaked it a bit.  I followed a cake mix hack and instead of following the instructions on the box, I used milk instead of water, butter instead of oil, and added and extra egg.


Then when it was done, I split each cake in two and put chocolate pudding in between the layers.


Frosted that in chocolate frosting and voila!


(Okay, yes, I forgot to take the picture last night.  Shoot me.)  Definitely a worthwhile experiment, and one I will try again in the future.

He got money from his grandparents which will go to Legos, and I got him his own compound bow and quiver for archery.  The 4H club is a bust for reasons best ventilated elsewhere, but the local gun shop has an archery range for $8 an hour, and there’s a club down near where I work where he can do outdoor shooting.  We just need to get the bow set up and adjusted for him.  Another one of those things we think he likes, but we’ll see.

So, happy birthday, Xander!  May 15 go a little easier than 14, love.


Can You Make A Pie? (Neither Can I…)

Can You Make A Pie? (Neither Can I…)

Hero got her acceptance letter into the tech school culinary program for next year yesterday.  Yay!  She’s decided that she wants to be a baker, although after we went to the open house and then she went for a shadow day, she got more interested in restaurant and front of house work.  The nice thing about the program at the tech school is that in their first year, they try all four areas: front of house, restaurant kitchen, industrial kitchen and bakery.  Only in their second year do they have to pick a concentration.  If she stays in the program all 4 years, she’ll come out in good shape to go right into a job, either instead of or in order to pay for college.  And the community college here has a great culinary program as well, so there are a lot of bonuses if this is a good fit.

When she told me she wanted to do this, after my initial “where did this come from?” freak out (before September she wanted to be a vet!), my biggest concern about the whole thing was that for someone who wanted to be a baker, she didn’t…well, bake.  Or cook at all without me pushing her into it.  That didn’t fill me with a lot of confidence that this was really something she wanted to do.  Last night we talked about that and came up with an idea for her to build some skills.  She dubbed it a Baking Ladder, and the title’s stuck.  Basically we came up with 9 categories going from easiest to hardest with 6 items in each.  By completing each category (the “rungs”), she’ll develop skills and confidence and maybe get a better sense of whether baking is really her thing.


She’s excited about it, and is already talking about doing a Chef Ladder when she finishes this.  This is what I want to see, her getting excited about something that is supposedly her passion.  I’m totally on board with encouraging her, and as always happens when teaching, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot, too!  I’m going to try to encourage her to blog about it as she goes.  If she does, I’ll be sure to let you know!  And you know I’ll be talking about my part in it here.