The Grumps

Hear no evil

Winter, or something, is wearing me down. I am a little off lately. Despite things going relatively well and being utterly fascinated at work and winter showing (very) tentative signs of abating, I am not the happiest of campers. I catch myself griping and pouting and generally feeling low. In our toddler-based vocabulary, I am definitely “grumping.” I know the reason, even though I was trying mightily to avoid exactly this.

Life with layoff started surprisingly easily, but the severance honeymoon has ended, and it is tough. I feel the shift. We’re still busier than ever and charging ahead full-steam, but an underlying tension has crept in. We are constantly aware of numbers and paperwork and the amorphous deadline driven by money. I expect spring’s arrival to help combat this, but it is sure being lazy about showing up. In the meantime, I’m trying to find other ways to keep my spirits up.

I started a series about my work in rare books and special collections libraries, and I expect the first real post for that to go up soon. At work, I’ve written two recent blog posts (yes, the general theme there will resurface here), and I have another on the way. I love writing, and having more than one outlet for that is really making me happy.

Fifteen down, 2,121 to go

In conjunction with my work and general Japan obsession interest, I’ve been taking tiny steps into learning the language. I hit a definite wall at work in terms of not knowing how to read materials, so I have to step it up. I don’t have time for a full course, so I’m trying TextFugu and other self-study options for now. In general, I have a knack for languages, so hopefully this works for awhile. I’m fighting a tiny when-do-I-use-which-writing-system terror right now, but I love the newness of the characters as opposed to Latin letters.

That being said, I’m also working out my rusty fingers on Western handwriting. I let it drop a bit late last year as things got busy, but I surprised myself by picking up a Zig this past weekend. I only followed along worksheet-style with some pages from Italic Letters and The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting, but it served to get the ink flowing. I like changing up my daily handwriting too much to switch permanently to Italic, but it is so nice as a “special occasion” script. Little Bear sees it differently.

Scribbles

Cozy with Aunt Kate

I was able to slow down enough to pick up a pen thanks to my sister, who visited for the weekend. She was on spring break from PT school and had a limited time frame, but even those couple of days were really, really nice. We hardly see each other in person anymore (ours is a FaceTime family), so I treasured this rare visit. She hadn’t seen the kid since he was three months old, and the difference must have been shocking. From total immobility to full sentences is quite a change. She also visited me at work, and I got a kick out of showing off some treasures. Since we’re in such divergent fields, I know that we each glaze over a bit as the other talks shop, but I think she liked the show-and-tell.

Secretary hand

One other distraction is holding my attention. I have not done much in the kitchen the past couple of months. My love of winter cooking went into hibernation shortly after the first storm, and all I’ve wanted to do on weekends is get ahead on the life stuff. Recently, however, an insistent little voice in my head has been prodding me to bake. With matcha all over my favorite boards and blogs lately, I couldn’t resist the urge. I even tempted fate by trying two completely new recipes, and I don’t care at all that the result was homely. It was baking for the sake of it, and thus utterly fulfilling. So I triple my yoga time, pick up a pen, and bust out the baking pans. If the tension persists, I remind myself that we can handle this. It is merely the experience that we are currently having.

Strawberry-Swirl Tartlets on Matcha and Chocolate

Strawberry-swirl tartlets on chocolate or matcha

This is not fancy pastry. I am a green tea fan, but M prefers chocolate. I kept the pastry cream simple. And I wanted another flavor, so I just swirled in some strawberry preserves. No straining, no excess cooking, no fuss. Obviously, I want to make them again with plenty of fuss, but this worked so well for what it was.

For the pastry cream (adapted from Alice Medrich‘s New Vanilla Pastry Cream)

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon white rice flour (not glutinous)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

For the crusts (adapted from Sur La Table‘s Easy Chocolate Press-In Dough)

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1¼ tablespoons matcha

To finish

  • ¼ cup strawberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the filling: Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl near the stove. Whisk together the sugar and rice flour in a small, heavy saucepan. Whisk in a bit of the milk until you have a paste. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth, then whisk in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, scraping all around the pan (sides, bottom, and corners) frequently.

When the filling begins to simmer, cook and stir for 5 more minutes, turning the heat down if necessary. You want to maintain the simmer.

As soon as 5 minutes are up, pour the filling into the strainer. Gently scrape the custard through, but don’t push through any cooked eggs bits. Once the filling is through, scrape the remainder from the bottom of the strainer. Stir in the vanilla paste. Let the mixture cool for about a half an hour, then press a piece of plastic directly onto the surface and up the sides of the bowl to prevent a skin, and refrigerate until chilled (up to 3 days).

For the crusts: Beat the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) until creamy, smooth, and well-blended. Add the egg yolk and beat until smooth.

Sift ½ cup of the flour and the cocoa into a small mixing bowl. Scrape in half of the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Sift the other ½ cup of the flour and the matcha over the remaining butter mixture. Mix each until moist and uniform in color. Incorporate any patches of flour or lumps of butter, but don’t go beyond that. If you beat it until it becomes batter-like, chill the dough until it firms up.

Lightly butter 4 tartlet pans and place on a rimmed baking pan. Divide the cocoa dough mixture in two and press into two pans. Make sure the thickness is even, with maybe a little more in the corners for structure. Repeat with the matcha dough mixture. Put the baking pan in the fridge and chill the tartlet shells for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tartlet shells for 10 minutes, then rotate and bake another 5-8 minutes. It can be difficult to tell when they’re done, but a light golden color and slightly drier look are good indicators. Move the tartlet pans to a rack to cool.

To assemble: Stir together the strawberry preserves and the water in a small heatproof bowl. Warm in the microwave until smooth and pourable, about 20 seconds. Fill each tartlet shell with ¼ of the pastry cream. Dollop a spoonful or two of the preserves on top of each and swirl through with a skewer or table knife. Chill until set, about 10 minutes.

You can make the crusts and pastry cream ahead of time. If you’re not going to eat all the tartlets right away, I recommend filling only what you need. Fill the rest when you’re ready to eat them. Alternatively, you can create a barrier to keep the pastry cream from soggying up the crust. Melt a little semisweet or white chocolate and spread on the crust. Chill until set, then fill with pastry cream, etc.

Des couleurs culinaires

The past week or so has been a riot of colorful food at home. The pictures never do it justice, but I tried anyway.

Radishes on marble rye with salted butter

I am a huge fan of radishes and salted butter on toast for breakfast/snack/lunch. Celery salt adds a particular zing.

Baby zucchini

Veggie pizza with smoked sausage and rosemary

These baby zucchini begged to be sliced lengthwise for visual impact, though I blunted it by then covering them with the rest of the toppings. Still tasted delicious.

Frying blue potatoes

I couldn’t believe it when I found blue potatoes at a local farmstand. Home-grown and a gorgeous color, I pan-fried them with sage. We ate them on the side of cumin-spiced burgers topped with yellow tomato (which we devoured before I could take a picture).

Iced matcha latte

My Saturday morning drink of choice this weekend was a matcha latte. I always forget how much I love them, even the ones made with the Trader Joe’s mix. Having a green tea latte tends to spark a run of matcha endeavors, and this weekend was no exception.

Matcha- and cocoa-white chocolate chip yogurt cookies

I have plain matcha at home, though it was a new brand for me, and I didn’t care for it for drinking. It is fine for baking, though, so I was inspired to do exactly that. I took my go-to yogurt-chocolate chip recipe and modified it. Using that recipe as a base just never gets old, and the bonus of it not containing eggs is that I can taste as I go. Experimenting becomes a bit less of a disappointment risk. I made a half recipe with matcha and a half with cocoa, because M is not a fan of green tea.

One note: I stirred in the matcha and cocoa at the wrong point, but I am still mulling over what the right time is. Basically, I’m trying to find the latest possible moment to divide the measurements. To do it properly, split the dough after incorporating the yogurt and extracts. Sift in the matcha with half the flour/baking soda/salt, and the cocoa with the other half. Divide the chips and nuts. Or follow my lazy lead. Luckily, the yogurt dough is moist and forgiving, so a little extra stirring blended in the powders well.

As usual, I made some other modifications from the original recipe. I swapped in a little white rice flour (not sweet/glutinous) for a change of texture and added chopped hazelnuts for crunch. I made the cookies more bite-size than usual. If I had had more time, I think I would have used finely chopped white chocolate instead of chips. Full-size chocolate chips can take over small cookies.

Atypically, I actually baked all of these. I just didn’t think I would like the green tea dough plain, plus I knew that the flavor would muddy the longer it sat. The flavor on both baked versions was great. M even tried a green tea one.

Matcha- and cocoa-white chocolate chip cookies on rack

Matcha- (and Cocoa-) White Chocolate Chip Yogurt Cookies


Adapted from Pillsbury’s Cookies Galore!

Makes about 36 cookies

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup cane sugar
  • ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon hazelnut extract
  • ½ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 1⅜ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup white rice flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup finely chopped white chocolate
  • ¾ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
  • ¾ tablespoon matcha
  • 1 tablespoon Dutch-process cocoa

Heat the oven to 375°F. Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper or baking mats.

In a medium bowl, cream together butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in yogurt, vanilla, and hazelnut extract until blended. Sift in flours, baking soda, and salt and combine well. Mix in chocolate chips and nuts.

Move half of the dough to a small bowl. Stir the matcha into one bowl and the cocoa into the other. Blend well so there aren’t any streaks of powder left.

Drop small teaspoonfuls of dough onto the cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway, until lightly golden (the matcha ones) or set (the cocoa ones). They will be softer than some chocolate chip cookies, but don’t be tempted to bake them too long.

Let sit on the cookies sheets for a minute. Transfer, parchment paper and all, to a wire rack and cool. Store in an airtight container. Enjoy.

Chaos Theory

Day 342

We have a near-toddler in the house, and I cannot understand why everyone says the newborn phase is the tiring part.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t out of the blue. Things began ramping up the moment Little Bear started to crawl. Once he learned how to pull himself up, sitting down for a moment became a luxury. He’s just so tall and apparently fearless. But this? He has leveled up, and our response has had to scale accordingly.

Day 327

I mentioned before that I was surprised by how well I adjusted to the dirtier aspects of parenting. I really am. In fact, I have to say that the hardest part for me turned out to be the chaos. Children have a rationality all their own, and we adults are not a part of it. That is unfortunate for me, as I have never, ever liked not knowing.

Parenting advice columns and blogs will tell you to give in and embrace the chaos. While I have considered that, even as an exercise in mindfulness, I know that I cannot go further than halfway. I am not a person who thrives on entropy. Giving in to the crazy throws me off balance.

When I was pregnant with LB, I used to lament the need to return to work. My mother stayed at home to raise my sister and me, leaving a career in kitchen and bath design and, I now suspect, some independence behind. She was always there when we got home from school. She shuttled us to our dance classes and piano lessons and tennis camps. She kept house and baked and balanced the checkbook, and I dreamed of having what I believed she had. How could I just ship my tiny baby off to daycare? How would I have the time to cook fresh, nutritious meals if I was working full time? How could I ensure clean, neatly folded laundry and dishes always washed?

In the end, the decision was made for me. Daycare, incredibly expensive in Massachusetts and a big reason women leave work, turned out to cost barely less money than I would earn working. So I returned, and boy, am I glad I did. Even a few recent days home sick with Little Bear had me climbing the walls, especially now that he is so mobile. He doesn’t even walk unaided yet! But he crawls and cruises and climbs, and we’d have to baby-proof down to no furniture to completely keep up. We spend a lot of time having to say no. I think even he finds daycare to be a welcome place of permission.

Undergrowth

The point of this story, finally, is that despite the chaos, we had a practically perfect summer weekend. The sort of weekend that reminds you of the carefree summers of childhood. There was a balance achieved between Little Bear’s “jerk” moments (did I mention that he’s discovered hitting?) and the bright, sweet curiosity that shines when he encounters new things. The balance was as close to absolute equilibrium as I think is possible for us right now.

We ran errands in New Hampshire, then, on a whim, took lunch to a wildlife refuge that had a lovely little half-mile trail to a pond. We saw no wildlife but the two-legged kind, but the woods were beautiful and reminded me sharply of my desire to visit the Pacific Northwest again.

Out of the woods

After our picnic, we spent a few lazy hours at home. Then we went out for sushi. I must say, I am really starting to see the point of raw fish. Fresh salmon has such a luxurious texture. Bear actually woke up to partake this time, enjoying miso soup (though confounded by the spoon) and even a miniscule taste of wasabi. To work off the abundance of seafood, we headed to the beach. Our usual beach is in New Hampshire, but this time we decided to try Plum Island.

Beach study

It was not what I expected. I knew that it was inhabited (houses are routinely reported to have fallen into the ocean during hurricanes), but I didn’t realize how many people must at least summer there. We did a circuit of the peninsula before finding parking, but what we found was amazing. It is relatively rare to get a good beach sunset view on the East Coast, for obvious geographical reasons. To our surprise, there was a near-deserted beach facing west, with a gorgeous red-orange sun descending over the opposite shore. For whatever baby reason, LB took an immediate aversion to the sand and had to be coaxed to keeping his toes in it. We’ll keep working on that.

Outrage

After a gorgeously lazy Saturday, we got a surprising amount done on Sunday. I attacked my fledgling garden with a ferocity borne of too many recent sick days. Though we actually have a small patio at our current place, it’s still difficult to maintain outdoor harmony when renting in a multi-unit building. We’ve had enough rain to make the weeds go crazy, and I finally got fed up. I swept away old leaves, repotted some herbs, moved some plants into the ground, and harvested some successful vegetables.

Cherry tomato

After a couple hours outside, I even managed an experiment. Little Bear is increasingly ambivalent about jarred baby food, and I decided to try a possible way to use up the surplus. I love banana and pumpkin breads and I figured that baby purées of fruit could be swapped in easily. I was too cautious about proportions and my product was a bit dry and dense. I’m not sure I’m willing to buy more baby food just to refine the recipe, but never say never. No matter the result, baking was a nice way to end the weekend.

Baby food bread

Sick again

The weekend’s lovely glow didn’t last long, I’m afraid. In a callback to the terrible long sicknesses of late winter, the Bear succumbed to a virus just a week after finishing a round of antibiotics for his ears. He’s on the mend, but not 100%, so I am really exercising my chaos tolerance muscles. This is much easier, unfortunately, because the baby is so clearly miserable. Poor little guy. If anyone has any tips on forcing a willful one-year-old to take in liquids even though his throat hurts, I welcome them!

Good Mornings

Hurricane Little Bear

I haven’t slept in in months. As tired as I can get, however, this doesn’t really bother me. First, I like mornings. Second, I realized a couple of months ago that Little Bear’s consistent rising time is a blessing in disguise. Not only does it mean that he wakes up in a timely, chipper fashion for daycare during the week, but it gives me a little quiet time of my own.

M has been casting pretty regularly on Twitch the past few months. The dichotomous effect of this is that it makes me want to play video games while using up all the weeknight time for such an activity. Light bulb realization: wait, I have mornings! I figured out very quickly that, now that LB is very mobile, intensive games are off the table. Pausing mid-dungeon crawl in Skyrim to extricate the baby from a mess is frustrating at best (i.e., when I remember to pause). If I play the Sims, however, the worst that usually happens is that my Sims sleep through work and cook three dinners in an hour instead of eating leftovers. I can deal with that.

cheeky Little Bear

So the little man and I have quietly spent our weekend mornings the last few months. He crawls and, as of the past weekend, steps carefully while holding the coffee table, throwing all our DVDs to the ground and laughing when I sternly order him to leave the power cables alone. I start up Sims or SimCity 4 and let things play out, intervening when LB allows. And sometimes, I can snag enough time to make breakfast.

I love breakfast. The Frenchman in M gets by with a single muffin. I prefer savory breakfasts, with at least two food groups, though I am not opposed to baking something sweet. Lately, I’ve had the opportunities for both, and I took advantage. Here are a couple of recent favorites…

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche ingredients

Feel free to alter the herbs and other seasonings. I know the celery salt seems like a strange addition. M is obsessed with the seasoning Camp Mix, and so we’ve been trying it on everything. It is surprisingly good on eggs, so I couldn’t help but add some here. If you’d rather not, I like this quiche fine without. But it definitely adds something.

Dropping in bits of ricotta makes the resulting texture incredibly creamy. I love eggs in all forms, but this is especially luxurious.

baked quiche

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche

forkful of quiche

  • 1 pie crust, thawed if frozen, rolled out if homemade
  • 6 thick-cut bacon slices
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, divided
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • celery salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly press the crust into a deep 9-inch pie dish. Fit a piece of foil into the crust and fill with pie weights or uncooked dried beans. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the foil pulls away without sticking. Remove the weights, and set the crust aside for now.

Cook the bacon in a nonstick frying pan until crisp and set aside on paper towels to drain. Pour off almost all of the fat and add the butter to the pan. Add the shallot and cook gently until translucent.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs, and ½ cup of the ricotta until smooth. (I tend to take pains to keep my dirty dishes to a minimum, so I usually measure the cream in my 4-cup glass measuring cup, then add the eggs and cheese and whisk right in the cup. It makes filling the crust later easier, too.) Whisk in the herbs, pepper, and celery salt until evenly mixed. Pour the mixture into the prebaked pie crust. Dollop the rest of the ricotta over the top in little spoonfuls.

Bake until set, about 30 minutes. If the crust browns too early, cover with foil, but don’t let it touch the filling, or it will stick. Let cool and finish setting for a few minutes, then slice and serve with a morning beverage of choice.

zucchini bread slices

Lemon Thyme-Zucchini Bread with Sweet-Salty Crust

Can you tell that I have a thriving lemon thyme plant in the garden? M suggested zucchini bread awhile back. I added the herb on a sudden inspiration, and likewise the salt in the crust. I wasn’t feeling a super-sweet breakfast, so that was a small concession. It worked perfectly.

zucchini bread ingredients

Adapted from The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book

Makes one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf

  • 1 medium zucchini, trimmed (about 8 ounces)
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  •  cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  •  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • ¾ cup chopped pecans
  • For the crust:
    • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
    • 2 pinches fleur de sel
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease (I used salted butter, because I currently have a delicious tub of Plugra in my fridge) and lightly flour one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pan. Mix the crust ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Using the large holes of a box grater, shred the zucchini. You should have about 1 cup. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat vigorously with a whisk or with an electric mixer on medium speed until pale and creamy, about 1 minute. Stir in the shredded zucchini until blended.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, lemon thyme, and pecans. Add the flour mixture to the zucchini mixture and stir just until combined. The batter will be stiff. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crust mix evenly over the top.

Bake until the top is firm to the touch and the edges pull away from the pan sides, 50-60 minutes. A cake tester inserted into the center of a loaf should come out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the bread out, place upright on the rack, and let cool completely. Serve with salted butter or a drizzle of a favorite honey.

Bon matin!

baked zucchini bread

The finished products

Banana-Chocolate Chip Cookies and Dough

The finished products

I made cookies the other day. They were not great. I tried a new recipe, and though I modified it slightly, it wasn’t enough to make them as meh as they turned out. They were edible, and oh, we ate them. But I’ve been brooding about their mediocrity ever since.

Tonight, I could stand it no longer. There was yogurt in the refrigerator, chocolate chips in the pantry, and a serious case of nibbles in my mind. To soothe my wounded pride, I decided to make an old favorite that I knew wouldn’t fail: chocolate chip-yogurt cookies.

The original recipe for these comes from one of those slim Pillsbury booklets of which my mother seems to have a hundred. I don’t know if they’re still sold, and I didn’t read any more of them after I found these cookies. The usual egg in the recipe is replaced with yogurt. This is apparently to make the cookies lower in fat, but more importantly, in my view, it renders the dough edible without fear of salmonella. Finding this recipe was a true eye-opener. It’s easy to whip up and a dream to vary. This version takes the original and injects a tangy banana flavor that tempers the sweetness.

The not-so-secret ingredientI don’t normally like to make recipes that require a specific branded ingredient, but for this variation, I make an exception. I adore Stonyfield’s BaNilla yogurt for its resemblance to banana pudding, and it only seems to come in gigantic containers. I first subbed it into this recipe to use it up, and now I use it because it’s delicious. That being said, this recipe is incredibly adaptable. Feel free to use the blended yogurt of your choice. (I’ve never tried it with any fruit-on-the-bottom flavors. It may alter the consistency. Proceed at your own risk.)

Chocolate chips

I frequently throw this dough together to eat like ice cream. Keep it in the refrigerator and grab a spoonful whenever you need a hit of something sweet. My husband is more of a traditionalist and likes me to actually bake some. Pro tip: keep the baked cookies in the freezer. They stay soft enough to eat without cracking your teeth, and the cold-chewy texture makes them all the more toothsome.

Loading the cookie sheet

Banana-Chocolate Chip Cookies and Dough


Adapted from Pillsbury’s Cookies Galore!

Makes some cookies and plenty of dough (I am not being flippant. I have never baked an entire recipe of these.)

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup Stonyfield Farms BaNilla lowfat yogurt
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts

Heat the oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add yogurt and blend well. Sift in flour, baking soda, and salt; mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts. (If you’re like me, you stop here, pack it into a covered container, and stash the dough in the fridge for later consumption. If you’d rather have the baked goods, read on.)

Drop tablespoonfuls of dough about 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until light golden brown. Let sit on the cookie sheet for one minute, then cool completely on a rack.

Baked cookies

Lamy A.L. Joy

The Big 3-1

I celebrated my birthday this past weekend. More precisely, I enjoyed several little celebrations over several days. I told M that I wanted to do three things: go out for Japanese food, bake myself a cake, and play some uninterrupted Skyrim. His reply? “Going big for the 3-1, huh?” I think he was being sarcastic.

In truth, I’ve never been a big birthday bash person. I don’t dislike parties, but I’m not fond of being their focus. It took a fair amount of faking comfort to get through the baby showers last summer. Something about opening all those presents in front of everyone.

Anyway, the festivities started early, thanks to a snow day last week. Since work usually gives the final say around 07:00, the baby and I were already up. I got a shower, saw the happy email, and decided to settle in for a little gaming. Something about snow just makes me want to play Skyrim. Incidentally, is there a mod to remove all the nonessential dragons? Fast-traveling is becoming a major pain. (Yes, I know dragons are basically the point of the game. I’m a scaredy-gamer, and I really just play to collect and craft. Or kill bandits. I can do that.)

baby and socktopus

Japanese food was Saturday’s task, checked off at Hana Japan in Newburyport. We gingerly took Little Bear with us, and, to my shock, he lasted the entire nearly-two-hour dinner without fussing once. He couldn’t seem to get enough of the charming ladies in kimonos, the paper lanterns, the carp streamers hanging from the ceiling. I, on the other hand, could not get enough of the food. Their rendition of nabeyaki udon was different than the one I used to order at Mr. Sushi in Brookline but was still excellent. The noodles were perfectly chewy, the broth was rich, and instead of cracking in an egg, they topped it with slices of tamago, or Japanese omelet. It added a great sweet counter to the savory. I also had agedashi tofu for the first time. I’ve wanted to try the dish for years, but I dragged my feet on making it myself. I can now add it to my repertoire without fear. Deep-fried tofu is wonderful.

agedashi tofu at Hana

My present from M arrived earlier than expected. Because I’d asked for it specifically, it wasn’t a surprise like he prefers (and is very good at). But it was eagerly anticipated and joyfully received. I’ve been dabbling more and more in writing, both everyday and decorative, so I asked for my first real fountain pen. This pen works for calligraphy, though I fully intend to use the 1.1 Italic nib I selected for everyday cursive. I chose this pen especially because it includes a converter, and I am mildly obsessed with bottled ink. I also got samples of this ink and this ink. I look forward to spending a messy hour learning how to swap them in.

Lamy A.L. JoyThe last step of my chosen fun was the cake. For some reason, I started getting really particular about baking birthday cakes once M and I moved in together. Except last year, when I prioritized homemade bao, though a blizzard nearly derailed that. Two years ago, I made almond champagne confetti cake. This year, I wanted something green tea and simpler, though you wouldn’t know it from how it turned out. I wanted something made with green tea. In googling, two cakes really stood out: a swiss roll and a mille-crêpes cake. Having never made génoise, I decided the modular style of a crêpe cake might be more forgiving this time. (Silly me.)

On a hunch, I thought chestnut might be really good with green tea. However, all I had on hand was sweetened chestnut spread, and I couldn’t find a pastry cream recipe that used sweet purée. I really didn’t want to try my hand at reducing the sugar when I’d never even made crème patisserie before. So I figured the chestnut spread could be its own component and flavored the pastry cream with white chocolate instead. As happens with a six-month-old in the house, I wound up making the components separately and in advance. I actually assembled the cake on my birthday night.

It was not great.

Mille-Crêpes messThe pastry cream was too thin, so things started sliding, then it essentially started weeping down the sides of the cake. The white chocolate seemed heavy to taste. The chestnut was strong and had to be mixed with cream to spread easily. The crêpes turned out well, at least. I’m adept at making American-style pancakes, but I’d always heard the first crêpe or two off the pan comes out badly. This was not the case for me, somehow. A small victory amidst the mess.

green tea crêpesI didn’t realize how badly I wanted a win until I didn’t get one. I don’t make a huge deal about birthdays, but it was so disappointing to work hard on my birthday cake and have such a subpar result. (Note: the flavor the next day was good, but it never really firmed up. I basically ate my cake with a spoon.) But hey, there is some silver lining. I discovered a taste for chestnut. My love for green tea continues unabated. And I’m a surprisingly dab hand at making crêpes. Just don’t ask me to layer them with pastry cream again.

The night of the cake, I was feeling a bit bleak. I don’t cook or bake often enough these days to be unperturbed when an effort goes awry. But I’ve had some time to reflect. Reading back over this post, I realize that this birthday was full of things that I love. Which means, despite the culinary disaster, it was a total success.

Classic Weekend Breakfast

So I made soda bread yesterday for a breakfast we ended up skipping in favor of leftover Chinese. That didn’t stop me from eating several slices throughout the day, and Sunday morning breakfast brought the full glory.

Breakfast, generally my favorite meal no matter what time of day it is consumed, is becoming a complicated affair in our household. When we do pancakes or coffee cake or French toast, it’s totally fine. I do the bready things, and M is in charge of the protein. But when the focus of our breakfast is protein, it becomes a slightly nerve-wracking circus of me timidly minding the bacon while he carefully scrambles eggs.

But I get over it, because he makes heavenly scrambled eggs, and I haven’t actually ruined the sausages yet. So that’s what we did, and it was great.

I’ve made soda bread before, having become enamored with it whilst “training” for an Irish semester abroad by eating a lot of Celtic-ish fare during my undergraduate career. I haven’t found a set recipe, so this attempt was very much another on the road to a favorite. Happily, I think I’m getting there.

Incidentally, I enjoyed one slice spread with boysenberry preserves and one smeared with creamy dill scrambled eggs. I recommend both options.

Soda Bread

Adapted from Bon Appétit.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ¼ cup oat bran
  • 2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
  • 2 tablespoons wheat germ
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups buttermilk, or as needed

Place baking stone in oven. Preheat oven to 425°F. Lay out a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet.

Mix flours, flaxseed meal, wheat germ, oat bran, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Mix in enough buttermilk to form moist clumps. Gather dough into ball.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead just until dough holds together, about 1 minute. Shape dough into 6-inch-diameter by 2-inch-high round. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cut 1-inch-deep X across top of bread, extending almost to edges.

Bake until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 30 minutes. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely.