Aug 21, 2014

Cooking with London - Blueberry Coffee Cake

Last week, or the week before, I received my September issue of Martha Stewart Living. Cameron brought it in from the mail just as I was starting a bath for the girls, so while they played, I sat on a stool and started to read the publication. I proceeded to leave it in there, given that I get a little distracted once the girls are out of the tub and we are working towards getting them down to bed. (Not to mention it was a Game of Thrones night, which means as soon as they are down, we are watching our Netflix disc of two episodes - it's our latest obsession when it comes to TV).

The next morning on my way to the kitchen after getting ready for the day, I spied London sitting on the toilet reading it, when she should have been getting ready herself. When she realized she had been caught, she quickly flipped to the cover, held it to her chest and pointed to the coffee cake that was adorning the cover. Then she asked "If I'm really good this week, can we make this?" I said yes. 

We've been having some trying times lately, with London testing the limits to see how far she can take things as well as talking back and plain, just not listening to us. From every other mother I speak to, they all have gone through this at this age too. It's like a switch goes off around 3 1/2 and continues through ages 4 and 5!

Any how, last week was an exceptionally good week. And with Cameron planning on being gone most of Saturday evening and Sunday for his Fantasy Football league's draft and the social aspects that go with it, the girls and I were having some of the other wives and kids over on Sunday for some girl time. Saturday night I let London stay up late so we could make the coffee cake. 

The recipe can be found here. I didn't follow it exactly but used it as basic recipe to which I added my own spin to it. First, I added cinnamon to the batter, as I have never heard of a coffee cake without cinnamon in it. I also used regular oatmeal instead of muesli for the topping. And instead of purchasing a whole new bag of white whole wheat flour, I used the regular whole wheat flour I already had on hand. And on top of the layer of blueberries in the center, I added a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon before topping it with the second half of the batter. Plus, I don't own a bundt pan or circular cake pan, so we improvised and baked in a normal 9 x 9 pan. 

It all worked out just fine and it cooked in just an hour versus the 1 hr 10 minutes mentioned in the recipe. 

My #1 baking tip is to always check something you are trying out for the first time 1/2 way through the recommended baking time. I then reassess how long I need to continue baking. Every oven is different. I then check a few minutes before the final buzzer. I find that a baked good is done when a knife inserted comes out ALMOST clean, with just a little of the baked good coming with it still. An absolutely clean testing knife or toothpick means its been over cooked. Then I cool the item on the sheet or in the pan for a few minutes - in this case 10 minutes, before transferring to a wire rack. The baked good will continue to bake in the pan/on the sheet while cooling.With cookies, I find 2 minutes on the cookie sheet to cool and solidify is perfect.

The resulting coffee cake was nice and moist, and oh so delicious. The girls loved it, I loved it, our friends loved it and my co-workers loved it. I took what wasn't eaten to work so that Cameron and I wouldn't indulge in the last half of it. Whatever we can do to keep the calories down, right?

If a promised baking experience every weekend results in happy weeks, I think my life will be easy. Helps that I love baking and my co-workers are happy to take whatever is leftover off our hands - that helps our waistlines considerably. 

Aug 19, 2014

Preserving the Harvest - Overn Roasted & Dehydrated Tomatoes

Unlike our basil, our tomato crop this year have been less than stellar. It;s not that we haven't yielded high number, just that the actual fruit has been small. Our Early girls, which should be the size of a vine-ripened tomato found at the store, ended up looking like extra large cherry tomatoes. In fact, I think we had cherry tomatoes last year the same size!

We also planted Romas. These didn't grow very large either - not even to the size of what you find in the store. But, given this was a learning year (more water earlier on, and fertilizer/nutrition for the soil next year) and that we still have plenty of tomatoes from last year frozen in our freezer in the garage, I decided to experiment in ways to use these tiny tomatoes this year.

We eat Greek salad for lunch on a weekly basis, and I've been using our home grown tomatoes for this salad each week - using up 6 to 8 at a time. And even at that rate we couldn't use them up, we do have that many. After reading my September issue of Martha Stewart Living, I decided to give Oven-roasted tomatoes a try. 

So last week, I set about rinsing, slicing and spicing up our tomatoes, laying the tomatoes halves, skin side down on cookie sheets lined with parchment. With the oven set at 250 degrees, it took 3 hours to get the tomatoes to a perfect sun-dried tomato-like consistency. And the house smelled delicious. I then canned the halves up in 1/2 quart canning jars, surrounded by 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 veggie oil. Because I jarred the tomatoes straight from the cookie sheets, 2 or the 3 jars sealed from the heat. The 3rd ended up sealing while in the refrigerator (we even tested it by taking it out of the fridge and letting it come to room temperature throughout an entire day). 

But given that our oven is gas and we are on propane, over-dried tomatoes isn't exactly economical, even in summer (especially given that we then have the AC going more).

We recently had solar installed, so I decided to give the dehydrator a second go, this time set up in the garage. That way I could poke my head in on the progress versus going absolutely batty listening to the fan in it. We put the tomatoes in for 5 hours at 160 degrees. After that, the tomatoes were almost done. An extra hour in the oven at 250 finished them off and provided the charred edges that I love so much. 

Again, I jarred the tomatoes immediately, with 3 of 5 sealing that night. The other two jars I simmered in water on the over for 30 minutes to get them to seal. 

I can't wait to use these on food soon. I love sun-dried tomatoes, whether blended with garlic and used as a spread with or without cheese, or mixed in with Alfredo sauce and pasta. Honestly I could just snack on these suckers. We tried a few right off the cookie sheets and they were delicious.

The recipe I followed from Martha Stewart is a simple one. Simply sprinkle sugar, salt and assorted Italian seasonings (I literally just used Italian Seasoning) over the cut-side of the tomato halves and bake at 250 degrees 1-6 hours, depending on how dried out you want them.

Aug 14, 2014

Homemade Pesto Recipe

We planted six basil plants this year in the garden, mainly as a way to combat pests for our tomatoes. While the tomato plants have been less stellar than years previous at our old home, the basil has turned out to be a rock star this year. But what to do with all the basil? One of my favorite recipes calls for pesto. And so, I set out trying to perfect a pesto recipe that could be stored in the freezer. 

I started out following one of Martha Stewart's recipes. After 4 attempts with tweaking different aspects of the recipe, I have finally come up with my own, which I love. Here it is: 

Roasted Garlic Basil Pesto

  • 1/2 cup roasted walnuts
  • 1/2 cup roasted pine nuts
  • 1 head oven roasted garlic
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2/3 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil 
  • Salt
  • Pepper
It usually takes me two nights to make a batch. This is why - first, I have to separate the leaves from the stems. This can be a bit time consuming.  I usually do it sitting in front of the TV, working between the basket full of fresh basil, a bowl that holds the separated leaves and a brown bag to place the stems in, which is then taken out to the compost pile. 

Meanwhile, while I am separating the leaves, I have the head of garlic roasting in the oven for an hour. I follow these directions for that. I just store the garlic, wrapped in tin foil for the oven roasting, in the fridge until the next day. By the end of the night our house smells heavenly from both the basil and garlic.

The next night, I roast the pine nuts and walnuts in the oven at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes, tossing half way through. These go straight into the food processor, along with the roasted garlic cloves and grated Parmesan cheese. 

This photo was taken during a pine nuts only attempt at the pesto.

Meanwhile, I bring a pot of water to a boil for the basil leaves. When the water is right, I blanch the basil quickly in the boiling water, then drain and cool it off in the sink with cold water. I like this step, mainly because my basil comes straight from the garden and not all spiders or other pests, along with dirt are removed with a regular old rinsing.  I feel this way, some sterilization takes place.

Originally I was then drying the basil leaves on paper towels, but I have since found it is much easier to simply squeeze all the water out by hand. It all goes into the blender next any how.

Once the basil is added, I start my Cuisinart. As it is going, I add the olive oil through the top, along with some salt and pepper to taste.

The final step is scooping out the pesto into a zip lock bag and placing it in the freezer. Usually my batches are about double the amount specified above, which fills up about 1/2 of a Quart Freezer bag by Ziplock.

The you have it.

Aug 12, 2014

Kitchen Message Center

In our kitchen, we have a giant blank wall next to the refrigerator. When we moved in, the previous owners had left a long, skinny pegboard up, which I removed when I painted the kitchen. 

While I liked the concept of a peg board in that spot, its positioning was all wrong. I also wanted to hang our yearly calendars there and put up a white board to post all our planned meals for each week as well as our shopping list needed. 

Originally, I thought of re-purposing the original peg board, just turning it vertical. But once I found the white board, or in this case, silver board, I decided I wanted something that would mimic the size and shape of it in the form of a peg board. 

Then I was thinking about getting a similar sized peg board and covering it with fabric. That is, until I unpacked a few more boxes, in search of straws, when I found a bag of wine corks. We do have a bit of a Mediterranean/wine country theme going on in our house. And I have all these left over corks. That's when I involved Cameron and had him build me a frame for a wine-cork peg board. Viola! 

The board wasn't without its own growing pains. First, when we cut the pieces at Home Depot, I thought the silver board was 18" x 18". I discovered at home, that it was 14" x 14". Having the additional length was a blessing though, as I also realized we cut the angle the wrong way, because we needed the thicker side of the molding to go on the inside, otherwise the corks would be a bit taller than the frame. It took a while, but Cameron finally got around to cutting the pieces down, and then I painted the pieces with our trim paint. After an evening of gluing, we finally had our cork board, and as soon as it was ready I got around to hanging all the pieces of our new message center. 

We capped it off with another one of my mom's paintings, a still painting of pears. It goes so well here with the colors in our house!

Aug 7, 2014

The Sunflower & Butterfly

London received a very special gift for her 4th birthday from my mom. Since my mom's retirement from nursing, she has pursued her passion in art, first in watercolor and now she is expanding into acrylic. 

London already had a beautiful watercolor monarch butterfly in her room from my mom. For her birthday, my mom created a picture based off all the colors in London's room, resulting in this beautiful Acrylic Sunflower and Butterfly. Isn't it beautiful.

It took me quite a while to get the picture up in her room - we had it placed up in our family room after London opened it and we were enjoying it there. I finally allowed it to find its home in her room when I was putting up the message center above London's new desk.

My mom has also had some of her paintings professionally photographed so that she can make prints of them. I am now a proud owner of one of her other acrylics - the day that one arrived, it went up in our kitchen immediately. But you'll have to stay tuned to see it along with the kitchen message center completed.

Aug 5, 2014

Swim Lessons: Round 2

London had a blast with her one week of swim lessons at the end of May. And Cameron and I want her to continue to enjoy the water, while being safe about it, so we decided to sign her up for a round of summer swim lessons at the end of July. These courses are two weeks, Monday thru Thursday, instead of 1 full Monday thru Friday week. 

I made sure to schedule the lessons when Cameron and I would both be home, as we also wanted to get in Sydney's first swim lessons. This would be a parent-tot class at the same time as London's. 

Over the two weeks, Cameron and I both noticed London was definitely improving. She was much better about going under water. It was recommended she continue with her Polliwog classes as she needs to work on floating on her back more before she can graduate to the Turtles class. So we signed her up for the last Polliwog session of the summer, which ends Thursday. It's hard to believe summer is almost over (in school terms, that is - I have a feeling the warm weather will last until mid-October at least).  

Sydney showed improvement by the end of the two weeks as well. But she is definitely different than London when it comes to swimming 20 months old. Oddly enough, Sydney is the exact age London was when we did a parent-tot class with her. London loved it, though she shivered through it since the indoor pool in February wasn't as heated as we would have liked. 

Any how, the first day, I got in with Sydney. She went between not wanting to let go of me and not wanting me to hold her at all. She drank a bit of water and a think a healthy fear of water settled in. Cameron went in with her the next day and he didn't have to hold on to her at all - she was clinging that tight to him most of the time. 

It seemed the first week, Sydney wasn't interested in anything other than holding on to us, unless we were allowing her to slide down the last 3 feet of the large water slides that emptied into the pool. It wasn't until Monday of the second week that she seemed more interested in practicing her kicks while floating around on a foam fish or turtle. And it wasn't until Thursday, after our last swim class, in  the bath tub that she decided to blow bubbles like we had been showing her the last two weeks! It wasn't like she didn't want to go in the water at all. If you asked if she wanted to go swimming she would say yes, and was cooperative in getting into her bathing suit, even wanting to walk into the water each day. I guess she knew she was just safest in our arms, at least in the beginning. 

Sydney will have to wait until next year for another swim class. Had I not been gone two days of this last round of swim lessons I would have considered signing her up for another class, but since she can't go up to the next class until she is 3, she still has a whole summer that she can take lessons as a Starfish with us to get better & more comfortable in the water. 

What I did learn with the last class of the summer classes is that it is a fun day. The pool actually has two 2 or 3 story water slides and a splash zone with a few kiddie-size slides at it and they turn the slides and splash zone on for fun time for everyone. Sydney and I even went down one of the little kiddie-sized slides! 

London had fun practicing her kicks on one of the foam fishes during this time. I think she had a little crush on the male instructor she had - she would not leave him alone. And both Cameron and I noticed this the entire two weeks. I think part of this was because he could throw her up in the air, high. Unfortunately, Cameron missed this play day as he was away that one day for a business-type trip.