I’m back…

It’s been almost exactly eleven months since my last post. I didn’t plan such a long break. When I started to lose my blogging mojo I thought I would take a break for a few weeks, or maybe a month. Well, somehow life got in the way and here it is, almost a year later.

Highlights of the last year

Calvin got his driving permit and is slowly learning how to drive. We have graduated from parking lots to subdivision streets. Soon we might venture out on a main thoroughfare. He isn’t totally comfortable behind the wheel and Rich and I are fine with taking the whole process slowly. He will be sixteen in a few weeks (gulp!) but I think the license will wait for a few months until he is more than ready for the test.

We gave the kitchen a facelift in late winter. That story is material for another post, complete with pictures. But I will say I love the new kitchen and still catch myself standing in the middle of it, marveling at the new look.

Okay, I wanted three things to highlight for the year, but there really haven’t been any earthshaking events. The year was full of food and fun in the kitchen, of course. We made lots of pizza, lots of desserts and even tried deep frying (that is definitely a story for another post).

I didn’t make any big cooking discoveries, at least I can’t remember any. One thing I missed about not blogging was taking notes while I cooked. I need to get back in the habit, whether I intend to blog about a recipe or not. We have had some killer meals that I haven’t been able to recreate because I didn’t take any notes.

The blog might look a little different as I move forward. I won’t be posting as often, and I probably won’t be posting as many recipes. I am going to try to get back to my original intent to use the blog as a window into the world of a cook, baker, gardener and foodie. Rest assured, though there may not be as many recipes, I will still be posting cooking tips for the novice (and the expert). And I will still share recipes and experiments in the kitchen, just maybe not three times a week!

Here’s to eating, cooking and blogging about it! (Raises a glass and cuts a piece of cake).

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Just a Typical Friday

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I’m not sure what your normal Friday looks like, but mine is usually full of catch-up chores and projects to get ready for the weekend. I don’t usually work on Fridays, so I try to make time to play in the kitchen along with the other things I have to get done.

Today I have been to the store to pick up ingredients for a date night dinner with Rich. Calvin is spending the night with my parents and Rich and I are cooking dinner together and then going out on the town. Don’t get too excited – the going out includes shopping for a new mailbox. But do get excited about our dinner. I am. We are having Cornish game hens roasted on a bed of apples and shallots, a red rice and kamut medley and caramelized acorn squash. They are all experiments, but if they turn out I’ll post recipes and methods soon.

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I have cinnamon almond ice cream churning right now and there is butter softening on the counter for chocolate chip cookies. Both are for tomorrow’s delayed family celebration of Rich’s birthday. The ice cream is another experiment, so if it turns out I’ll be posting that one too.

I also have injera batter fermenting on the counter and plans to make a starter for an Austrian buckwheat bread tonight. Tomorrow I am leading a bread baking session to make several kinds of bread for World Communion celebrations at our church on Sunday. We have done this for the last several years and it is always fun. The picture at the top of the post is the selection from last year – we made a Xichuan flatbread, sorghum rolls and a round schiacciata.

I enjoy the challenge of finding recipes to use every year. It is always a lesson in planning to figure out the timing on three different breads so that we can make them in a couple of hours, with one oven and one stovetop. This year we are making Ethiopian injera, Austrian buckwheat bread and Persian flat bread.

Baking, cooking and experimenting. Yep, that pretty much sums up my usual Friday. What are your plans for Friday and this weekend?

Thanksgiving Dinner Hints – Part Two

I hope I didn’t come off as a know-it-all in my post on Monday. I am the last one to claim that I am the expert on hosting large groups of people, but I do know what makes it easier for me. So, with proper humility, I give you the rest of my tips for making Thanksgiving dinner (or any other big dinner party) a little easier.

Everyone knows the party always ends up in the kitchen. I love it and think it is great. If you are someone who doesn’t like to share the cooking, or you have a tiny kitchen, plan for that. Have appetizers and drinks in the living room or dining room to encourage people to stay there. If you don’t mind company, or want the help, plan what tasks you can delegate, and then do it. Lesson 4 for Turkey Day: Put your guests to work, or give them something else to do while you happily work alone.

I am a planner. I do not do well with change or surprises, generally. I do find that if I have the time to make plans, build in extra cooking time and have back-ups available, I am much better at going with the flow. Whether you like order as much as I do, or you would rather fly by the seat of your pants – get organized for Thanksgiving. Lesson 5: Make a plan. I write out a list, complete with menu, shopping list, cooking times and a plan for when different things go in the oven. It helps to avoid those last minute realizations that the turkey will never be done in time or that no one remembered to buy cranberries.

Lesson 6: Do as much ahead of time as possible. I do as much cooking as I can on Wednesday, including dessert (always pies for our Thanksgiving). I make as many side dishes as possible, ready to bake when the turkey comes out, or to serve cold. I even set the table and bring up the extra chairs from the basement the day before. I want to be able to enjoy the party too, so the more prep work I can do, the better.

Finally, a tip for the guests – help your host. Offer to bring a dish, ask if you can help with prep work or wash the dishes. Better yet, just pitch in. There really are very few people who don’t welcome help with the dishes after a big meal. Or do like my mother does, and start washing dishes while the prep work is going on. She loves to have as many dishes washed as possible before we ever sit down at the table. Thank you, Mom!

What tips do you have for making the day go a little more smoothly?

Kitchen Tips of the Day

Everyone has their own ways of doing things in the kitchen, but there are ways of making things easier – trust the woman who has spent way more time in the kitchen than the average bear. I have had a few tips swimming around in my head for the last few weeks and thought I would share.

First, and foremost, start any kitchen project with a clean sink. To me at least, there is nothing more discouraging than starting out with a sink full of dirty dishes before I even get out my first bowl or pot. Whether it is the breakfast dishes or the five containers from a spur-of-the-moment fridge clean-out – wash the dishes before you start. Then you can make your mess and not feel overwhelmed with the clean up when you are done.

Related to that, clean as you go. Put ingredients away as you use them, put dirty dishes in your (previously empty) sink, wipe up spills right away. It is nice to not have a disaster of a kitchen when you get your cake in the oven or dinner on the table – at least for those of us who don’t have a staff waiting in the wings to clean up after the master chef. I do have Rich, who does a mighty fine job on the dishes, but he does have a day job, so I am on my own unless it is outside of business hours.

Finally, read the recipe before you start. Make sure you have everything you need. Really make sure. Don’t just assume you have an ingredient in the pantry, actually go see. Can you tell I speak from experience? I have had to stop in the middle of the recipe an embarrassing amount of times to run to the store or ask Rich, the ever-patient husband, to go for me.

These seem really basic, but they can make the process of trying a new recipe or cooking dinner at the end of a long, busy day a lot more fun. Or, in the case of making dinner when you are tired, a lot less of a chore. What makes things work more smoothly for you?

Cookies lead to dinner and dessert

The last day of school for Calvin is this week, with all the end-of-the-year craziness of awards ceremonies, orchestra concerts, tests, locker clean-outs and field trips. We wanted to give his teachers something to say thank you for a great first year of middle school, but weren’t sure what. We finally decided on homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The baking session started out with just one project, which quickly snowballed into many more. Calvin and I started making the cookie dough (project #1), and Rich ran to the store to get sweet potatoes (project #2) to have with dinner and half and half to make ice cream to have with chocolate pudding cake for dessert (projects #3 and #4).

By the time Rich got home, we had the first cookies in the oven and Calvin was making tags for the cookie bags. While the second round of cookies were in the oven, I stirred up cinnamon ice cream and Rich got the ice cream maker ready to go in the office/third bedroom because it is kind of loud and annoying when it is running. Plus the kitchen was hot from the oven. Everyone makes ice cream in a bedroom, right?

When the cookies were baked and cooling on the dining room table, we put the sweet potatoes in the oven and Rich started grating the cheese for the four cheese mac and cheese we were having for dinner (project #5). The ice cream finished and went in the basement deep freeze to freeze and firm up (hopefully) in time for dessert. Rich finished the cheese, and washed the mountain of dishes we had made already. I measured out the ingredients for chocolate pudding cake to go with the ice cream. It is the perfect recipe to mix up and slip into the oven as you are taking dinner out. It bakes and cools just in time for you to have warm dessert later in the evening.

Rich went off to help Calvin with something and I dried and put away all the dishes he had just washed. I then realized that if we wanted to eat anytime close to a normal dinner hour, I should start making the mac and cheese. With all the rest of the mess from projects #1-3 almost totally cleaned up, I made the cheese sauce and read a book while I stirred the pot. Once I had dinner in the oven, Calvin and I had time to package the cookies for him to take to school, which cleared off the table in time for dinner.

Dinner came out of the oven, cake went in and we were ready to sit down. We topped off our cooking frenzy with a walk around the neighborhood to make room for dessert, and then dug into our still warm cake and perfectly frozen ice cream.

Teacher gifts, dinner and a two-part dessert in three hours’ kitchen time – that’s how we roll around here!