Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's The Thought That Counts...

The phrase “Let them eat cake” is commonly attributed to Marie-Antoinette, even though there is no record that she ever spoke those words.  The story in its many incarnations is meant to be a parable; a tale of a queen so out of touch with the needs of her people that when she learns they have no bread she tells them to eat cake.  An entire lecture could be given about the phrase, its origins and why it, in so many ways, reflects the current political and economic climate. 
But this is a blog. 
This year Christmas at our house will be about faith and gratitude, not gifts under the tree.  While my daughter is still too young to appreciate the story of Christmas, or indulge in the myth of Santa Claus, I have begun to think about how I will teach her about the season.  Regardless of your religious beliefs, the story of the birth of Christ can also be read as a parable.  It’s a story about miracles and faith and helping those less fortunate.  That’s the story I will tell my daughter.
So this year instead of becoming consumed by the gift giving frenzy, we are going to remember that it is, in fact, the thought that counts.  For most of the people on our holiday list a jar of cake will be hand delivered.  So let them eat cake and know that every bite was made with love and gratitude.

The first batch of Christmas cakes.  I love these half pint jars.  They say Better Homes and Gardens on the side.  They are shorter and wider than the other half pint jars I've been using.  When I made this last batch of Toll House I tried sprinkling a few chocolate chips on top about half way through the baking process, since they tend to sink to the bottom.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Things to be thankful for...

As an only child I was infatuated with large families, The Walton’s in particular.  We had close friends who were an Irish Catholic family with five kids and I loved nothing more than to hang out at their house.  Their dining room table had bench seats like a picnic table and no matter how many kids there were there always seemed to be room for one more.   There have certainly been times in my life when I wished more than anything to not be an only.  I look at my cousins; three girls who despite the occasional quarrel seem to be the best of friends, and wish I had that camaraderie. 
However, I learned early on that there were certainly perks to being an only child; one of them being that you never had to share the beaters.  Whenever we baked my mom and I would divide the leftovers; one of us would get to lick the bowl and the other would get to lick the beaters.  I remember asking my mom, with a great deal of concern in my voice, what kids with brothers and sisters did when it was time to lick the bowl.  It was a legitimate dilemma in the mind of a seven year old.
My daughter, The Short Person, is starting to learn that sharing isn’t always fun.  It’s a difficult concept to teach to toddlers who see the world as revolving around them.  This week I initiated my daughter, a third generation only child (she, like my mother, has a half brother 21 years her senior) into the glory of licking the bowl. When that little hand went into the bowl and she licked the gooey goodness off I couldn’t help but smile.  She paused for a moment, then pulled the bowl away.  She had staked her claim.
It was a busy week in the kitchen.  I tried to make a chocolate peanut butter cake in hopes that the peanut butter swirl would be creamy enough to serve as icing.  Unfortunately, the cakes were a little too dense.  I did, however, score big with the Tollhouse pie and the chess cake, which I shared with my family at Thanksgiving.  I think those two recipes will make the short list.
Two packages of cakes went out on Friday, one to Marisa and one to a friend in New York.  We’ll see if they are willing to share when it’s time to lick the bowl.

The Chess Cake has been a hit with everyone who has tried it.  These short jars are so cute.

Chocolate peanut butter.  This was adapted from a brownie recipe and although they tasted good, the texture was too dense.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A little box of goodness...

If I could afford it, I could easily become an online shopping addict.  Not only do you get to enjoy the thrill of the buy, but you get to experience the high all over again when you find a lovely box waiting on your doorstep a week later.  Whether it’s hand delivered or electronic, we all love getting mail. 
So I was incredibly excited when I came home to find a little brown box waiting for me.  I knew from the postmark that it was from Marisa. 
Last week we were going to try our first attempt at a cake swap.  However, my plans for baking were thwarted by a bad case of Day Care Funk that overcame our household.  In the interest of public health, I decided it was not wise to bake for the masses while there was something potentially communicable floating around our house.
I couldn’t wait to see what was inside.  The short person and I both sat on the floor in our entryway and tore into the box.  We pulled out two well-wrapped, perfectly intact vanilla bean cakes with an apple caramel filling.  I waited until the short person went to sleep before opening the jars.  Much to my excitement the cake, which was now almost two weeks old, was just as moist as if it had been baked that day.  The caramel filling fulfilled my need for frosting.  The apples were a little overpowering.  Perhaps they fermented a bit, I don’t know.  I’ve been a little anxious about using fresh fruit, so it could have also been my paranoia creeping in.  All in all, the cake was a success.  Three days have passed since the taste test and I’m still alive, so I think my fears of botulism were unfounded.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to find time to bake this week.  I’d love to be able to send Marisa a little brown box of goodness to return the favor.

 The Short Person was nice enough to help me reorganize my supplies.  I can now say with some confidence that mason jars are virtually indestructible.

 Marisa's cakes arrived safely.

 Ready to eat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Best Advice Ever Given...

When I was little my mother went to have her colors done.  It was an uncharacteristic act considering she was a woman who owned one lipstick and not a single pair of high heels.  I went along.  I was probably seven or eight years old; still young enough that adults would talk about things with the assumption that I was too young to understand.  As mother’s friend*** spun her color wheel and draped her with various shades of reds and blues, the friend imparted to my mother some of the best advice ever given. 
I am now going to share that advice with you.
“A woman should always decorate her home in her colors and she should always own a couch that she looks good naked on.”
While I may have been too young to fully appreciate what was being said, I must have instinctively known that this was a morsel of wisdom that I needed to file away for future use.
When I bought my first house, as a single woman, I also bought a light turquoise retro couch.  Turquoise is my color. 
There are many lessons to be learned from this story.  One is that we should try to surround ourselves with things that make us look good – perhaps even better than we are.  Just like good lighting and a great pair of shoes can hide many of your flaws, so can a good recipe. 
Everyone should have a couple of good dinner recipes, a dish that is always a hit at a pot luck, and a baked good that will keep them coming back for more.  That doesn’t mean you have to be a great cook, you just need to know how to do a couple of things very well.  They are those safe recipes that you know will never fail you.
For me, it’s my recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  These cookies have made me a lot of friends over the years.
It’s been a frustrating week in the kitchen.  Nothing I’ve tried to make has turned out quite like I anticipated.  The closest thing to a success was my attempt at making chess cake brownies in a jar.  Served in bar form, they are divine.  Served in a jar they are far too sweet.  They also overflowed when I baked them, then deflated so much that only half the jar was full.  So, in order to feel a little better about myself, I baked up a yummy batch of chocolate chip cookies.  They always make me look good.

*** I ran into my mother's friend a couple of years ago.  She was with another woman and was quick to publicize my successes.  She then turned to me and said, "And I don't care what Prissy always said.  You were never the demon spawn."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cutting my losses...

Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you planned.
For most of my childhood, Saturday afternoons were spent riding around the countryside in one of the antique cars that my father and grandfather restored.  My dad always said that you didn’t always have to know where you were going, but you should always know how to get back.  He probably read that on a bumper sticker somewhere; my father was not terribly profound.  We got lost a lot (after all our pilot was a male who lacked the gene required to ask for directions), but we always found our way home.  Dad instilled in me my love of adventure and exploration.  There are situations in our lives where taking the unfamiliar path, exploring the unknown can lead to great things.  But dad was right; you should always know how to get back.  It’s a nice balance between risk and safety.
I’m a girl who likes a plan.  I like to know where I’m going.  I know how to follow directions.  I ask questions and gather information before making big decisions.  I find comfort in knowledge.
One of the things I like most about baking is that there’s a plan, a guide that will take you through each step until you accomplish your goal.  There is a little room for experimentation, a chance to make each recipe your own.  Taking a tray of baked goods out of the oven, or better yet, watching people devour them, leaves me with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.  I like that.  I am, generally, a person who is highly motivated by praise and reward.  Kind of like a puppy. 
But today was proof that even when you have a plan and follow directions the outcome is not always predictable. 
I don’t know where I went wrong. I was trying to make a flourless “Death by Chocolate” cake.  Once again, I have been trying to find a recipe that gives me the satisfaction of having cake, but doesn’t leave longing for frosting.  The description said that this had the consistency of a truffle, but fudgier.  The end result did not have the consistency of a truffle.  Not at all.
Instead, I had five jars of goo.  I went back over my recipe, trying to retrace my steps.  But the truth is, it was probably a project that was doomed from the start.  Some things are like that.  It was heartbreaking to waste perfectly good chocolate.  However, sometimes, even with the best laid plans, we have to cut our losses and start over.

 Death By Chocolate seems like an inappropriate name when you consider 
the chocolate to egg/butter ratio.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Uh, oh...

I went to start on my new batch of cakes and I found that the Chef de Cuisine 
of the Yellow House had decided to fill mommy's new jars with leaves and toy 

Uh oh.  Time to learn how to sterilize mason jars.

Going home...

So this is the view I look at every Friday evening when I'm on route back to my family.  I spend a lot of times on planes these days commuting 3 1/2 hours between work and family. I'm the modern day commuter mom. 

I miss my boys so much. Did I mention that my four year old son is my official sous chef? I like to refer to him as the Chef de Cuisine of the Yellow House. I'm planning my next cake adventure on this plane ride right now.  I've got two in the works-  Dark chocolate espresso cake with a chocolate ganache and lemon butter cake with a salted caramel apple swirl. Fancy; yes. Very very me; yes.
I actually didn't think of the salted caramel apple until I saw that little American flag on the tip of my airplane that made me feel very patriotic.

It's a strange duality I'm living right now. Working lady in her high heel during the week and baking mommy with her a four year helping in his own pint sized oven mitts on the weekends. I know I'm not alone in this duality.

I so look forward to this view; it means I'm going home.  I'll let you know how the cakes turn out... And if there are any leftovers this weekend I will ship them to Elyzabeth.