Category Archives: baking

Soft pretzels

I mentioned that we made pretzels, didn’t I?

“Tell us about the pretzels,” I hear you cry.

Oh, okay then.

I pinned this recipe ages ago, thinking it sounded like a fun thing to do with the kids, and on our snow day last Tuesday I was apparently desperate/ambitious/energetic enough to unearth it and put it to the test. It worked admirably.

I don’t want to reproduce it here because it’s not mine and I didn’t change it. And they do a great job of the instructions over there. But you can see my photos and get my additional thrilling thoughts on the process.

I made the dough in my lovely Kitchen Aid, though you could do it by hand if you felt up to a decent bout of kneading. It’s very theraputic, you know. I recently discovered that my oven has a “Proving” setting, which is brilliant for baking with yeast in the winter. The dough did such a great job doubling that it runnethed over.

Dough rising up and over the edge of the bowl

Then I set the kids up with a clean table surface and some flour, and gave them a blob each. The great thing was that you don’t have to do any particular shape, so this would work really well with smaller children too. Mabel made lots of little balls, and though I was sceptical, they came out fine and she loved them. I made some long sticks and a couple of bread rolls as well as some small pretzel twists.

Children rolling dough into pretzel shapes
I found a handy video to show you how to shape the pretzel twists, with a pleasingly Canadian narration to boot. But just forming a simple circle was very easy and still impressed the kids, so you don’t have to be so fancy if you’re not inclined.
Boiling the pretzels

The boiling step seemed a little daunting because I’ve never done that before, but it was perfectly simple. Make sure you have enough baking soda to hand, because it does take quite a lot. You don’t have to time the 30 seconds particularly carefully, and I just kept it on the hob between batches, waiting for the kids’ ones to be ready to go. They came out a little slimy, but they stayed in their shapes well.

Unbaked pretzels on baking sheet

After brushing with egg wash and baking – golden and delicious. Do put salt on top (or cinnamon sugar, if you’re that way inclined). I left some plain and they were a little bitter (because of the baking soda); though the children didn’t seem to care.

Baked pretzels

I found myself dipping them in wholegrain mustard. I don’t even know who I am any more.

They were delicious warm, straight from the oven, but a few seconds in the microwave brought them back even the next day (for the few that were left over). I also slit one in half and toasted it with ham inside, like a very thin bagel. It worked admirably.

Ramalamadingdong

This week is not going as planned, so far. But not all in a bad way.

Yesterday began not going to plan on Sunday night, when I realised that I was scheduled to co-op at nursery school the next morning. I had vaguely planned on going back to Target and finalizing some of the gift shopping – the gift shopping that I’d done a week earlier and that had been helpfully sitting on my bedroom floor for the next six days, waiting for me to do something else useful with it.

This problem was compounded on Monday afternoon when I discovered that that very day, not some vague date in the misty future, was the last day for posting by regular mail to Europe. Oops. Because of course 90% of the stuff in the bag on my bedroom floor was to be mailed to Europe, but I’d been waiting for this and that, for the perfect final present to present itself to me at the weekend’s craft fair or some other opportune place, before wrapping it. I also subconsciously felt that B. should partake in the wrapping so that he had some input in all this shopping I’d done for members of his family, but since I didn’t tell him that, and last week was busy with various meetings and whatnot, it hadn’t happened.

Finally, last night, we sat down and had our gift-wrapping extravaganza, and happily we did have enough wrapping paper and tape and I had even bought a box at the post office that was the right size, all of which are no trivial matters.

So that was ready to be mailed first thing this morning, which would only be one day late and therefore practically in time, and would probably make it to Ireland before the big day anyway. Which would have been simple if this was a normal Tuesday, but then we got a snow day.
                                           Ice on tree
Monday had already been a delayed-start for the schools thanks to Sunday night’s snow and ice storm, but then it snowed all morning here and they cancelled school entirely. It’s only about an inch, and melting already, but I suppose the schools didn’t want to deal with the potential mess of getting all the buses in during a snowstorm. We’re not in Colorado, you know. Maryland is technically the South, and thus Not Great With Winter.

However, it was the good sort of snow day. The sort when B. has one too. Yes, yes, he was “working from home,” but that also meant I could send him to the post office once the snow eased off, which it did at midday or so, and the roads had all been nicely treated so they were fine. So, BOOM, the parcel has been mailed and with a bit of luck everyone in Ireland will get their presents in time after all, and even if they don’t, it’s out of my hands now.

While he was doing that, I got off my arse and went through the recipes I’ve been meaning to try out and we made pretzels! BAM! Where’s my snow-day baking award?

And Dash made a snowman all by himself for the first time. It’s a little leafy, perhaps, but he’s proud of it.

Boy and snowman

In the afternoon, B went out with Dash and got a Christmas tree, which we hadn’t got around to doing yet, so that’s something else we don’t have to wait till next weekend for. DING!

Dash decorating the tree.

Mabel and the tree

Finished tree

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

Accidental quiche

I remembered late in the day that I was supposed to bring some food to Monday night’s board meeting – an appetizer or dessert, because it was at 6.30 and some people wouldn’t have had time to eat. There wasn’t much in the fridge, I didn’t even have a lemon handy to make scones or muffins, and I knew someone else had already taken the chocolate option.

So my brain, as it sometimes does, lit upon probably the most complicated thing possible and decided that was the obvious choice. I would use that lone zucchini (courgette) in the salad drawer and the leftover cream from a cake at the weekend, and make mini quiches.

My brain also decided it was too good for recipes, or couldn’t find anything just exactly right, and so thought it would wing it. This could have been disastrous, but by happy chance things came together deliciously and I ended up with some very nice mini quiches.

But then we had nothing for our own dinner, so I decided we should keep the quiches because there weren’t enough for everyone at the meeting, and that I’d make some healthy blueberry muffins (frozen blueberries) instead. I ended up bringing seven quiches and some slightly odd-looking mini muffins (all the blueberries stuck to the pan), and I’m sure everyone thought I was a terrible overachiever.

Apologies for the approximate quantities, but I eyeballed the liquids.

Zucchini (and ham) mini-quiches

Pastry:
1 cup (200g) flour (I used white wholewheat flour)
Pinch salt
4oz (100g) butter (I used some spreadable Dairygold I had in the fridge, which might be what led to the very soft texture of this dough)
1 tablespoon cold water

Filling:
1 zucchini (or any vegetable, probably)
About half a small onion
A slice of deli ham (if you have it, or want it)
Some feta, if you had any, would be a delicious addition
Two eggs
A large splash of heavy cream (if you happen to have some hanging around)
As much milk as it takes to get what looks like the right amount of filling
A good grating of parmesan
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Turn your oven to 400F.

I made the pastry in the food processor. Put the flour, salt, and butter in the bowl, and pulse until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the water through the tube, pouring slowly. You might need a little more – I was surprised that the dough came together after just one tablespoon. Remove from the processor, smush into a ball, and chill in the fridge for half an hour, if you can spare it.

Meanwhile, finely chop the onion and cut the zucchini into 1/4-1/2 inch cubes. Saute them in a little olive oil until soft but not mushy – maybe five minutes over medium-low heat. Cut your ham into little squares and mix it in with the vegetables. If you have some feta, put that in too.

Mix the eggs, cream, and parmesan in a measuring jug, and then add as much milk as you think will make enough filling. I had perhaps 16oz (500ml) in the end. Better to have too much than too little. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and knead it a little on a floured surface, before rolling it out as thinly as you can. This dough seemed scarily soft to me as I rolled it out, but it stayed together and turned out deliciously. I don’t know if it was the flour or the butter or the weather that did it, but I can’t swear yours will be just this good.

Use a cookie cutter or a drinking glass to cut circles to fit your well-greased muffin tin or mini-pie pan (I used my mince-pie tin, imported at vast expense from Ireland, but they probably sell something similar here too). Put a circle of dough in each hole, pressing it out to fit the shape, and then prick the base all over with a fork.

(I was afraid at this juncture that I’d made a huge mistake because now my filling would run through the holes, but that didn’t seem to happen.)

Bake the pastry cases blind (that just means with nothing in them) for 10-15 minutes at 400F. Take them out when they’re still pale – don’t wait for them to be golden brown. Take it out and (carefully – remember how hot the tin is) spoon an equal amount of the zucchini mixture into each piecrust. Then pour over the thick and creamy egg mixture to fill each one up.

Bake for about 20 minutes more, turning the oven down a bit to 375F or so, until the top is set and starting to turn brown. Cool before serving, but they’re delicious still a little warm.

I had a bit more filling than pastry, so I made three muffin-sized crustless quiches with the rest.

Zucchini mini-quiches in pan
If I’d known how well they were going to turn out, I’d have taken more photos

Four point five cake

Saturday was Mabel’s four-and-a-halfth birthday. I like to make a bit of a thing about half birthdays, because a year is a long time to wait, and also Cake, any excuse for; and because sometimes I can make it into enough of a milestone in their minds that they’ll do something, or start doing something, or stop doing something, just because now they’re whatever-and-a-half.

So Mabel is no longer having boo(b) in the evening. At all. This is great.
Also, she is going to start trying to wipe herself after a poo. All I’m asking is that she tries, that she’s willing to give it a go, which will be a lot better than the point-blank refusal I’ve had up to now. And she has been trying, since Saturday. So that’s great too.

On the other hand, she had a fit of the screaming collywobbles at drop-off this morning, and I very much hope that’s not indicative of how four point five is going to go. I know it’s a tough age and I’m prepared for some backsliding in behaviour and/or willingness to try new things, but I would really like to be able to bring her to school without the clawing and the screaming and the tearing at my heart, because it’s nice when that doesn’t happen.

Oh well. Onwards to five, which everyone agrees is The Golden Age, rivalled only by eight.

More importantly, cake.

Burnt butter brown sugar cupcakes with chocolate ganache icing

I made half a batch of Burnt Butter Brown Sugar cupcakes (Nigella, How to be a Domestic Goddess) topped with Dark Chocolate Icing (Darina Allen, Easy Entertaining), and they were, if I say it myself, rather gorgeous. I haven’t done the brown butter thing before even though Smitten Kitchen and others have been raving about it for a while. It was really easy and I’m pretty sure that’s what I have to thank for the fact that these buns are still moist and soft two days later.

(I know, why on earth do we still have any two days later? That will be remedied, don’t worry.)

Yoda cake, or overachieving for dummies

At some point yesterday I had an existential crisis. “I don’t even know who I am any more,” I found myself thinking. “Where has the old me gone?”

The old me, who swore she only made round birthday cakes with icing in the middle and on top, and possibly a shake of sprinkles. The me who didn’t do fancy themed parties. The me who scorned such things.

And yet, here I was carving out Yoda ears from a layer of sponge cake and writing names on Jedi training certificates and carefully placing sprinkles with a tweezers. I hang my head. Not only that, I was doing it all for the second year running. So I can’t call last year a fluke any more. Apparently this is the person I have become. I’m sorry, everyone.

—————

Dash will turn seven on Wednesday, and we had his party yesterday, because when you have a midweek birthday you get to choose which weekend you want, and any child worth his salt will obviously choose the prior one. He asked for another Star Wars party, just like last year, and in a fit of enthusiasm, I suppose because that meant I had everything else all figured out already, I said, “I can make a Yoda cake.”

Right then. One Yoda cake. It turned out to be much less stressful than last year’s light saber cake, mostly because I didn’t bother looking for the organic food colouring and because pale green is much easier to pull off in buttercream than bright red. And just in case you want to make a home-baked, non-professional- style Yoda cake for your own six- or seven- or thirty-seven-year-old, this is what I did.

First I baked a regular birthday sponge in two 9-inch pans. The amount in my recipe would have been better in 8-inch ones, really, but 9-inch is what I have. I knew the kids would be more interested in the look than the taste, and with nine children at the table, there was plenty here. (I did this part the day before.)

Cake batter in bans
Not quite enough batter

I used Nigella’s birthday buttermilk sponge recipe (not online, but from How to be a Domestic Goddess), as I did last year, but you can use any one you like, or a box mix, or make it chocolate if you prefer.

 Cakes cooling on racks

Then I looked at some cartoon-y Yoda images online (like this one) and cut myself two circles of paper the size of my pans, to figure out how long I could make the ears out of one circle. (The first circle was going to be the head, obvs.) I used the paper ears as a template to cut the sponge, once it had cooled completely. I made a couple of moons/asteroids/distant DeathStars out of some of the rest.

Circular cake cut into Yoda ears and two moons
Making ears

Then I realised I had no plate the right shape for this creation, and just like last year, I Blue-Peter-ed a used cereal box and some tinfoil into a nice long shiny platter. Here are the head and the ears in place.

Yoda head and ears in place on "platter"
Naked cake

I mixed up some buttercream icing – not quite enough, because of course I had stocked up on butter but forgotten to make sure we had plenty of confectioners’ (icing) sugar – and used a tiny spoon to make sure I didn’t drip too much food colouring in at one time. I think two drops was enough, and I still have a green fingernail this morning.

Then I plastered the buttercream all over the head and ears, covering up the joins and evening out the slight height differences.

Yoda head with green icing
Green cake

(I ran to the supermarket for more sugar and made up another little batch for the moons. It turned out I had no other working food colouring so I just kept them white.)

At this point I was quite pleased, but of course I still had the “artistic” part to go.

I used the tip of a butter knife to draw eyes, the indentations in Yoda’s ears and the lines around his mouth and on his forehead. Then I dipped the knife tip in hot water and found that made a much cleaner line, so I went over the eyes and wrinkles again that way.

 Yoda head with eyes and mouth marked

I used green sugar (find it in the cake decorating section of the baking aisle, with the sprinkles) for the ears and put chocolate sprinkles carefully – yes, with my tweezers – in the lines to make the eyes and mouth. (Laugh if you will, but I had an empty house and was blasting Pandora on the Duran Duran station. I know how to live it up.) I used a little bit of the uncoloured buttercream for the whites of his eyes and a chocolate chip for each pupil.

Decorated Yoda cake

And I decided to leave it at that before I messed it up completely.

Candles lit
Mabel is eyeing up the moon she wants to eat

I put the candles in the moons, so they were good for something after all.

Oscars and others

So many disjointed thoughts to impose some sort of order on, as I sit here having third breakfast which just happens to be the same as last night’s dessert minus the custard and plus some coffee. It’s got apples and oatmeal in it, so the cake part can be disregarded (but enjoyed, of course). Also, I went for a walk/run, so I’m allowed.

Mabel gatecrashed my weekend, basically. Friday night and Sunday night were supposed to be kid-free zones, and somehow they ended up including a certain four-year-old. This morning I dragged her kicking and screaming to school and left her there, where she stopped screaming as soon as I left the room. When I came back at pickup time I was told she’d thwacked her best friend in the face with a shovel. So that went well.

Last night I packed the children off to bed early and tuned the TV in to one of its rarely watched non-kid channels and spent a happy hour or two making snarky comments about the Oscars on Twitter and Facebook, and even paying attention to the show now and then between frantic typing. Just when they were FINALLY getting to the interesting awards, Mabel woke up and wanted to come down and see what we were watching. Getting her back to sleep made me miss the rest of the show, which was probably just as well since it was after 11pm and I had a raging headache, but it was still a bit of an anticlimax.

Oscar thoughts, randomly:

  • None of the dresses really stood out to me, but then I missed most of the red carpet. I liked Amy Adams’s feathers, Jennifer Aniston’s red, and Jennifer Garner’s violet, even if the ruffle did make my husband think of seaweed.
  • I prefer my men beardless, but George was still lovely. You can all keep Ben and Hugh and I’ll have George, thank you.
  • Adele’s hair looked good. I like the song but I wish she’d stop singing about “Skyfoal” and how it “crumbowls.” The husband was delighted with the Bond tribute but would have liked it to be a bit more in-depth. We may have to just view the whole ouvre again
  • I laughed at the boobs song. Sorry, world. On the other hand, if you’re so unsure of your content that you have to envelop it in a cloaking device of Shatner coming back from the future to tell you it’s not much good, maybe you should just get some better content. Or a host people are well-disposed to from the outset. (Hint: Neil Patrick Harris, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.)

Other thoughts:

  • This is the third time I’ve tried to write a post, so this is what you’re getting.
  • I have Girl Scout cookies. The end.

Two Rapunzel dolls being held in front of a laptop showing Rapunzel from Tangled
Watching Tangled with the Rapunzels

Dilemma

I want to bake something, but I don’t know what to bake.

It needs to be delicious, obviously.

But preferably quick to make and not requiring more than two bowls, max.

It should probably have chocolate in it, because if it doesn’t I’ll end up scouring the kitchen for something else that does.

It should have some sort of vaguely redeeming healthiness about it, so that I don’t feel too bad about making it (and eating it).

But if it’s too healthy, then it’s not going to qualify as a) delicious or b) chocolatey.

If it’s too healthy, or lacks chocolate, the children will not eat it.

But if it’s too delicious the children will fight over it and I’ll regret making it at all.

I could make it and hide it from them, but that requires tricky logistics.

And if I make it and hide it from them I’ll end up eating it all, which won’t be good for me.

It’s going to be pumpkin muffins (with chocolate chips) again, isn’t it?

I suppose there are worse things.

Ramblin’

Gah. I’m sitting here trying to remember the great idea I had for a blog post last night in bed, and I know it was about two things that were like each other but different and I could draw parallels and… uh…I don’t even know if it was a real idea or one of those things that sounds perfectly practical when you’re about to fall asleep but actually involves a minature elephant and twenty-five pints of purple rubber and won’t work in real life because I don’t live in Mongolia anyway.

I’m sure it would have been great. A literary gem. Instead, let us give thanks for bullet points:

  • My new phone just arrived and I’m waiting impatiently for the battery to charge so I can play with it. It’s sort of a smart phone – in that it has a touch screen and can use the internet and appy things – but I’m still pay-as-you-go so I’ll only use the Internet at home and in places with free wi-fi. I know, this seems kinda stupid, but it made sense to me. I don’t need a real smartphone because I’m mostly at home within five feet of my beloved laptop with an actual keyboard.
  • The weather is ridiculously warm and I’ve hung the laundry outside again, which I only do when it’s warm enough for my fingers not to go numb. Which usually means I use the dryer from October to March. 
  • I spent this morning baking cookies for KeAnne, who bid for them in the Hurricane Sandy fundraiser. I hope she likes ’em crunchy, because they’re crunchy. And sweet. And buttery. (We’ve sampled a few. Just to be sure.)
  • I was delighted with myself for finally booking dental checkups for the kids and for myself. The reminder postcards had been floating around the sideboard for months. Then I found myself reading an old blog entry (what? it’s like leafing through your own photo album, you know?) and discovered that they went to the dentist as recently as last August so they’re not overdue at all. However, I suspect Dash has a cavity (on a brand-new adult molar! it must have come up that way) so I think we’ll keep his appointment anyway.

Now I have to figure out how to package these cookies so that I can mail them tomorrow. (I’m told popcorn is the answer. I also have bubble wrap.) So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back tomorrow, maybe even with some purple rubber and an elephant.

A Half-Baked Auction

Bake sale! Buy baked goods for Christmas! Contribute to a good cause! Help victims of Hurricane Sandy!

Go to A Half-Baked Life today or tomorrow and bid on some delicious home-baked goodies to fill in that awkward gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to give to your loved ones, or to pass off as your own creations.

The white-chocolate-chip-cranberry cookies and the gingerbread muffins are my contributions, but I also highly recommend JeCaThRe’s oatmeal cookies, and I bet everything else listed is just as good, if not better.

Sorry, no overseas shipping. If you’re in Ireland, maybe we can do a deal over Christmas, though.

Many thanks to JHL for organizing this in aid of a great cause.

Feast report

Today we went to the zoo. Surprisingly, quite a lot of people seemed to think Black Friday would be a good zoo day, but the weather was perfect as it so rarely is for the zoo, and we did well. We saw a cheetah and the lions, some distant gorillas and a sad orang-utan (do they ever look otherwise), the reptiles and some indolent sea lions. The absolute highlight, however, was the naked mole rats.

Thanks to this book, which we have from the library, the children had heard of naked mole rats. But when I told Dash we could see them at the zoo, he reacted as if I’d just told him the unicorns would be coming up on the left.

“Ha ha.”
“No, really. They’re in the small mammal house.”
“You’re just being silly.”
“I promise. They exist.”
“Really?”
etc.

When we finally got to the small mammals we had to charge past all the (many and various) tamarins, pausing briefly at the two-toed sloth (who looked like nothing so much as a black labrador poking his nose out from under a comatose afghan hound), to get to the perspex tubes (to simulate tunnels) of naked mole rats. They weren’t all that exciting in person, but the children were thrilled by their mere existence.

That’s a lion in the distance. Left of the tree. See?
*******

But that’s not why I’m here, and that’s not why you’re here either. You came for the food, didn’t you? Well, the food is what you’re getting. A report on yesterday, that is.

As we had no company for Thanksgiving, and we don’t particularly like turkey, and we don’t feel any weight of tradition on this culturally-not-ours day, I usually try to do something different. This year I saw a recipe for ribs, and the photo was so enticing that I decided to pull the slow-cooker out of the enforced retirement it’s been in since its disastrous maiden voyage in 2004.

I’m here to tell you that it was a roaring success, and I might have to use the crockpot more often than once every eight years now that I’ve discovered this.

To accompany, we had baked potatoes and lemony green beans, and a nice shiraz which is probably the wrong thing to go with ribs, but we’re not fussy.

Of course, I had to make a pie, even if I am anti-tradition. Apple, if you please. It was delish.

Pastry hearts. Because hearts symbolise Thanksgiving, right?

Then I was left with half an hour to spare and some extra pastry, so I took the half-can of pumpkin that was sitting in the fridge, looked up some recipes, and made mini pumpkin pies too. Mostly because Mabel had announced at her school feast on Tuesday that she loved pumpkin pie. She didn’t like mine, of course.

Splats of pumpkin
The jury’s still out on these, I admit.