BOS, PDX, and a Rich Chocolate Pudding

Fishing

A long, long time ago, this was a different post. It felt so good to write again with that last post that I immediately started drafting three others. I am a person who writes, and when the need builds too high, it has to be addressed. So I stuck with the spirit of doing things and did a lot of writing, and this post talked about doing that writing and other things. It situated that action in the relentless apprehension of the Layoff Life grind, especially how I was hitting the point of really missing financial security and really wishing for some certainty.

Unexpectedly, that state is no longer in effect. M has been offered a job, one that is right up his alley but far from our current home. So in a month, we will become residents of Oregon.

Lava field

To say that I’m terrified is a bit of an understatement. It is not to say, however, that I’m pessimistic about this change. I love the Pacific Northwest, and a relocation seems refreshing at the moment. The major hurdle for me is going to be the abrupt halt of my current career trajectory. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my work lately, and I feel a frisson of panic at the thought of not having it to keep my brain occupied. Of course, becoming a sudden (if temporary) stay-at-home mom is going to challenge me. But it will be temporary, and it will be sweet to spend more time with our Little Bear, who is funnier and more articulate every day.

Besides, M and I both felt, upon hearing of the impending layoff, that good things were in store. M has found his, and now I get to seek mine.

Driftwood and mist

And in the meantime, I get to explore all the Portland/Oregon wonders I’ve heard about for years. Ice cream! Wasabi! Swedish food! But not doughnuts. At least not the big V. They just don’t appeal to me at all. I’d rather get a pan (finally) and hit up the farmers’ markets and local groceries and try my own.

Weeping tree

Speaking of cooking, there is pudding in this post. In the original version, there was plenty of context leading up to the recipe, discussing foundations that I feel are missing from my repertoire and the need I feel to distract myself from the rest of our stress. Now, all that has faded from my mind, leaving just chocolate. The pudding was great, so here is how I made it. It might be my last homemade dessert on the East Coast…

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Tenth Anniversary Edition

Until I tasted the final product, this was simply “Chocolate Pudding.” I added the “Rich” for a reason. I used one of the toddler’s little bowls for my serving, and I think I could have been satisfied with a single spoonful.

Ingredients for Rich Chocolate Pudding

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • scant ⅔ cup cane sugar
  • pinch fine sea salt
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

In a 1-quart or similar-sized saucepan, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture begins to steam.

In a small bowl, whisk together the whole milk and cornstarch until completely smooth. Add to the cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Cook until the mixture is thickening and just begins to boil, whisking occasionally (paying particular attention to the corners of the pan).

Add the chocolate and stir until homogenous. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Immediately pour the pudding through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass dish. Scrape it through gently but don’t push lumps through. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin forming. Refrigerate until chilled. When ready to serve, stir until smooth and spoon into smaller dishes. Feel free to sprinkle with fleur de sel or (as here) finely shredded coconut, or drizzle with raspberry syrup or honey.

Doing Things

Trio

Sometimes life gets in the way of things you intend to do. In this case, I intended to write blog posts a lot more frequently than has happened lately. Happily, life only got in the way in the best ways, so I let it.

Snuggling with Mama's mama

Some of the things have been social. After my sister’s lovely visit a few weeks ago, my mom came to stay for a few days. My family is so geographically scattered that M (let alone Little Bear) hasn’t even met them all yet, so these two occasions were unusual and precious.

We also recently took a quick road trip to Maine for M’s cousin’s graduation. That was eventful, as everything seemed to be scheduled for Bear’s nap times, but it was so nice to see family. (And to hear bagpipes. Oh, Scotland.)

Graduation party

Pond and a wisp of cloud

Some of the things have been experiential. We have, at the ides of May, finally emerged from the dull weight of endless winter to remember that spring still happens. M in particular has taken to outdoor excursions with a vengeance. He walks with LB every day, and I join them on weekends for trips to the beach or the woods. The Japanese term shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) has become a mantra for us, though we do need an equivalent for time spent with sand and salty air.

Moon over dunes

Ham and mushroom quiche

Finally, some of the things have been actions.

I’ve always been more of a dreamer than a doer. I mean, I want to do all the things, but first I want to read all about the history and procedure of each thing, figure out the best tools for doing the thing, and get inspiration on different approaches. It’s unfortunately rare for me to progress to the actual doing of said thing, but it has become easier to follow through the last few years as I’ve settled into a few certain areas of interest.

Baby lettuces

One of those is cooking and baking. One is writing, both the intellectual creation of works and the physical act involving paper and ink and pen or brush. One is gardening, or maybe just attempting to keep plants alive. And one is needlework.

Specifically, I like to sew (including embroidery, if we’re getting specific). I love needles, thread, and fabric. I do not love my sewing machine. I bought one an embarrassingly long time ago and remained terrified of and baffled by it until my mom’s visit brought a chance to move past the fear stage. So I hauled out the machine, set it up per the manual (this was more complicated than it should have been; do manual-writers not sit in front of the machines about which they are writing?), and let my mom guide me.

This episode was an important turnabout in our educational relationship. When my mother has a tech problem, she calls me. Trying to get my brain to step back to the point of pure computer basics is difficult and often frustrating. But I had to sympathize when she was trying to teach me how to sew with a machine. I finally had to remind her: “Mom, you know how I sometimes have to explain the difference between a file and folder? Take this back to a similar level.” We got there in the end, and I got a new handmade napkin out of the process.

Trying my hand at machine sewing

After the flush of that first triumph, I set aside the other three napkins to finish on my own. Several weeks later, I finally picked them up again, and it didn’t start all that well. I recognized one issue, called my mom regarding another, and had a minor frustration fit when it still stuttered. In my younger years, I would’ve flown into a full temper at this point, blamed my sewing machine, and left it alone to rot. But I am older now and (somewhat) wiser and recognize that tantrum-ing is not going to accomplish my goal. Also, it will feel so good when I work over the hurdles and achieve what I want through effort.

Though age 32 is kinda late to be learning these lessons, it’s better late than never. And when I eventually finished those napkins? It really did feel great, and I still grin when I see them on the kitchen table.

This one's for you, Mom

Productivity of Necessity, and a Recipe

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The past month has been a building whirlwind, though obviously not on the blogging front. I like this time of year, but man, it can be exhausting. This year, the buildup to the holidays has seemed coincidental to all the other things going on. That doesn’t make it all less crazy, though.

It also doesn’t negate the impact some recent illness has had on our growing to-do lists. I was just pondering my PTO accumulation, but apparently I tempted fate. An early-season daycare bug quickly swept to Little Bear and home, and I used up sick days in rapid succession.

The unforeseen upside to that, however, was that I suddenly became a productivity machine. I am not one of those people who claims to work best under pressure. The idea of cramming for tests or speed-writing papers still makes me cringe, years after school. But one thing I am good at is buckling down when I simply have no other choice. And so it has been recently (hence the blog-radio silence).

So what have we been up to?

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M carved pumpkins.

His m.o. since we moved to this place (okay, so just the last two Halloweens) has been to carve while handing out the candy. Since he telecommutes, he’s out on the porch promptly as trick-or-treat starts, so he multitasks until I get home with Little Bear. It’s turned into a fun little two-year tradition that I think we might just continue.

This year’s main pumpkin was, as you can see, Minecraft themed. This was a big hit, particularly with the kids dressed in similar style. I was bemused by the mother who suggested that we must have some Minecraft-loving kids. Some people really do feel that games are not for adults, I guess.

Kabuki faces

I went to work.

The last couple weeks have included sick time and holidays but also work events and tons of checked-off tasks. Our director retired last month, but he continues as director emeritus, and we hosted some of his fellow Grolier Club members during the recent antiquarian book fair. It’s always fun to show off collection highlights, and our guests, booklovers all, were appreciative and interesting.

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I’m especially enthusiastic about showing off materials lately, because I’ve been having a blast with our collections myself. I even finally finished a post for our library blog, and I’m planning my next draft. My current fascinations lean heavily toward book history and East Asia, so I’ve been hunting for great examples to support these themes. I took a little detour into Japanese maps, and I’m not sorry.

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I even dragged Little Bear into the fun. My office’s proximity to his doctor means that he gets to accompany me occasionally. Now that he’s toddling, he’ll be reshelving in no time. He’s growing so fast, he will certainly be tall enough!

Training

Embroidery ready

Outside of work, I happily headed home for some domestic bliss.

I have finally, finally reached the end of the hand-stitching the quilt I’m making for Little Bear. I don’t mean that to sound bitter. I actually prefer hand sewing to machine, and it’s been a nice meditative way to end nights. It has simply taken so much longer than I originally intended. Now I’m preparing to add a little decoration in the form of French knots, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit of embroidery.

Cooking shrimp and baby bok choy

Aside from that, and all the housekeeping catch-up, I’ve been in the kitchen. Cookies, pancakes, and chili rolled out as we got over our bugs, and then I finally made soba with shrimp. I’ve been planning a dish made of these two components for weeks, and I made it now because I find soba noodles very comforting. They remain so in this recipe.

Soba with Baby Bok Choy and Shrimp

Shrimp and baby bok choy on soba

I aimed for light but warm, bright and nourishing. I adore baby bok choy, and the shrimp revived my strength after days of on-and-off illness and fatigue. I’m getting more confident at improvising Japanese food, and I considered this meal a success. Note that the sauce measurements are approximated and adjust to your liking. I’m a big fan of the Japanese seasoning blend of shichimi togarashi, but red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds would add the spice and crunch, too.

  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1½ tablespoons minced ginger (I used ginger paste)
  • 1½ tablespoons crushed garlic
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 bundles of soba noodles
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, or more as needed
  • 2 pounds baby bok choy, trimmed, halved, washed, and dried
  • 1 pound shelled shrimp, tails removed (I used thawed precooked shrimp because it was on hand but prefer raw)
  • shichimi togarashi

Whisk together the rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust as necessary, then whisk in the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook until al dente, just a few minutes. Pour into a colander to drain, rinsing a bit to separate if necessary.

Place a wok over medium heat. When hot, add the canola oil and the baby bok choy and toss. Cook, stirring frequently, until stems soften a little and leaves wilt. Add the shrimp and cook until barely opaque, stirring frequently. Add the sauce, stir, and cook until bok choy retain just a bit of crunch and sauce has thickened, stirring regularly.

Divide the noodles among four bowls and top evenly with the shrimp and bok choy (and plenty of sauce). Sprinkle with shichimi togarashi to taste. Pick up your chopsticks and enjoy.

Autumn, Suddenly

Fall flowers

Just like that, it’s cooler and crisper and obviously the season has changed. I love this time of year. The transitional times in general are my favorite. Typically, it’s right about now that the long, endless slog of hot summer days has me down, and cooler weather sweeps in to relieve me. This year, however, summer was surprisingly mild, and I actually enjoyed it. That means that not only am I excited by autumn, I’m still energized instead of drained by constant humidity.

Stacking is a pretty big deal these days

Perhaps that’s why I feel a bit restless and eager to tackle some work. I would love to say that means I’m throwing myself into big projects. But I am finding it more satisfying to chip away, little by little, at countless small tasks that have been nagging at me. And, in the midst of the fresh fall housekeeping, I’m swinging back into cooking.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear raw

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie raw

I have a difficult time with cooking in summer. It’s often too hot, and by the time I get home from work, I am not in the mood to stand and chop things for salads or other cool foods. Fall food is a different story. Fall food seduces me. I make long, lovely lists of produce I want to use and recipes I want to try.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear baked

This one is an interpretation of a salad recipe I have stashed in my MacGourmet database. Don’t ask me why I utterly refused to consider making the actual salad. No, it had to be pizza, and boy, am I glad I stuck to that instinct. I kept the main flavor profile for the first pizza, then, why not, we traded in some leftover Brie and salami for the other. Both variations were something of an experiment, and both were good, but we preferred the first. It was a little less salty and a little more nuanced. Even the baby found it to be just the thing to fuel his rapidly-wrinkling brain.

Now if only Little Bear and I weren’t overcome with sniffles. My sinuses started creeping into cold-weather mode a week ago. I’ve had a constant grumpy headache ever since, and it is getting old. I’m so preoccupied with the expectation that a major cold is about to kick in that I cannot enjoy the fact that a major cold has not kicked in. Oh well. At least I can enjoy food like this pizza, or porridge, or chili, or any number of sweet things

Pizza with Blue Cheese, Arugula, and Pear

Inspired by Williams-Sonoma’s Harvest Salad with Blue Cheese and Roasted Pears

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons golden balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • all-purpose flour, for rolling
  • 2 balls of pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
  • honey, any varietal, to taste
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
  • 4 cups baby arugula leaves, washed and spun dry
  • ½ pound whole-milk mozzarella, grated
  • 1 firm Bosc pear, cored and thinly sliced
  • ½ crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Use a baking stone, or prepare a pizza pan the way you like it.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Roll out one ball of dough on a floured work surface. Brush with half the vinaigrette. Drizzle lightly with honey. Sprinkle with half the shallot and tarragon.

Scatter half the arugula over the dough evenly. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Spread half the pear slices on top. Sprinkle evenly with half the blue cheese. Bake on the stone or prepared pan for 12-15 minutes, until arugula is wilted and cheese and crust are golden brown. Repeat with the other half of ingredients. Serve immediately.

Brie, Salami, and Thyme Variation
Replace the golden balsamic with red wine vinegar. Replace the tarragon with thyme. Replace the blue cheese with Brie. Sprinkle with ¼ cup chopped salami or pancetta.

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie baked

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.

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

snowy day at the office

Comfort

snowy day at the officeIn all my crêpe cake sadness, I overshadowed one great culinary success. The day after my birthday, I came home and just threw together a simple mac and cheese based on a vague craving and no recipe. It was really good, and it was even better leftover for lunch, especially on the seriously snowy day we just had.

I used rainbow chard, which was the only one at the grocery store, but other chard varieties, or any other hearty leafy green, would work well, too. You can also vary the cheeses as you like. I wanted something vegetarian, but I suspect bacon would be amazing in this. Maybe next time.

Blue Chard Shells and Cheese

Blue Chard Shells

  • 1 pound shells, or other short pasta of choice
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1½ cups milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 8 ounces shredded mozzarella
  • 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, stems and leaves separated, washed and chopped
  • salt
  • pepper
  • bread crumbs

Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and whisk briskly until smooth. Slowly add the milk and cream (I put them together in a measuring cup), whisking continuously. Lower the heat and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until thickening. Add the mozzarella and blue cheese and cook, whisking frequently, until the cheese melts and the sauce is thick and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

In the pasta pot or a skillet over medium heat, cook the shallot in a little olive oil until translucent (a minute or two). Add the Swiss chard stems and cook until tender. Add the leaves and cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the pasta in the baking dish. Top with the chard-shallot mixture. Pour the sauce over the top and stir until evenly mixed. Sprinkle the top with a light layer of bread crumbs.

Bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 20 minutes.

Everything was fine with our system…

Little Bear and his daddyOur new, back-to-work schedule is hectic. I think M and I are both feeling a little white-knuckled on the steering wheel of life lately. Even Little Bear is under the weather. He has been delightfully congested at night, so he and I are getting increasingly disrupted. It’s funny how I adjust, though. At 2 a.m., I’m struggling. But when the alarm goes off, I pretty gamely get going. I just make sure to caffeinate adequately.

I also try to let it go once in awhile. Sometimes this means ordering takeout so we can catch up on dishes. But sometimes it’s like last night and I need to prioritize the meal. I’m tired, and I eat my lunch one-handed in my office while pumping, so that’s not exactly relaxing. I have been dreaming of soba noodles and vegetables and things that feel healthy.

I also needed to let go mentally. Since we cooked a nourishing meal, I decided I was allowed to find a way to ignore the never-ending task list that occupies my busy brain space of late. M’s suggestion of Ghostbusters hit the mark. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy that movie. Maybe this will become our Halloween tradition. We have to try again next year, at least, because LB didn’t make it to the end.

End of Ghostbusters

Soba with Sweet Potatoes and Spinach

Soba with Daigaku Imo and Spinach

I wanted noodles with the spinach and sweet potatoes I had on hand. I originally planned to steam the sweet potatoes, but my bamboo steamer was woefully tiny. I had no desire to cook six batches of sweet potato chunks. A Google search for “Japanese caramelized sweet potatoes” consistently led me to daigaku imo, a sweet-salty comfort dish originally favored by university students. I definitely wasn’t aiming for sweet and deep-fried with this nourishing meal, but they looked so good. Happily, it turns out I’d stashed a recipe that was more steam-fried than deep-fried. I threw the spinach in so we weren’t just having candied sweet potatoes. When I took leftovers for lunch the next day, I added a dab of ginger paste, and it was great. I imagine garlic would also work well.

Sweet potato portion adapted from Elizabeth Andoh’s KanshaI even cut them rangiri style, as she recommends.

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 large sweet potatoes (at least 1 pound total weight), peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1½ tablespoons black sesame seeds, toasted
  • 3 bundles soba noodles (roughly 10 ounces dry)
  • 2 pounds baby spinach, rinsed and mostly dried (a little water helps it cook)
  • 3 bunches green onions, cleaned and chopped
  • toasted sesame oil (optional)

Cut a circle of parchment to just fit inside a large skillet.

Mix the oil, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, and water in the skillet. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the sweet potato chunks, in as close to a single layer as possible. Lay the parchment over the top (this essentially steams the surface of the potatoes). Reduce heat to maintain a low simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Cover the pan (parchment, too) with a lid and cook for a few more minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. If needed, add a little more water. Don’t let the sugar burn.

Once the potatoes are tender, remove the lid and parchment. Stir gently to coat the potatoes in the glaze, which will reduce as the water evaporates. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until most of the water is gone. Scoop out the potatoes with a strainer and set aside in a single layer on a platter or cutting board. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a large pot. Add the soba and cook until al dente. Drain.

Pour off most of the oil from the skillet, then add the scallions and cook until fragrant and golden. Add the spinach in handfuls and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed (some of the flavor goes with the oil).

Divide the noodles among four plates (these are slightly generous portions). Add the spinach, then place sweet potatoes on top. As you can see in the picture, I was out of black sesame seeds. I sorely missed them, so I drizzled a little sesame oil over the top. I probably would’ve done so even with the seeds, as I like a pronounced sesame flavor. The dish looks pretty layered, but give it a little mix as you eat, to coat the noodles.

LB and the Sea

M went into the office Thursday, so Little Bear and I spent the day as a duo. It was mainly uneventful. I haven’t actually had too much time alone with LB yet. I mean, I’m up with him at least once a night by myself, but hours-long stretches are rare. M has been telecommuting more than usual since Bear’s birth. At first, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the first days without him, but  it was easier than I expected. Something about having fewer choices made me calmer. You wouldn’t think that one of the few choices being plonking LB in his crib to cry while I take a shower would bring me Zen, but it does. When it’s just the two of us, I gotta do what I gotta do. We are all starting to adjust to (modified) normal life again, and juggling tasks is one of them. LB is maturing every day and is increasingly able to occupy himself. As much as I dislike hearing him upset, it’s exciting to go fetch him after washing dishes and discover that the tears have dried and he’s staring at himself in his little mirror. It’s like watching his brain wrinkle day by day.

When M got home, he wanted, as he does sometimes, to go to the beach. With one thing and another, it didn’t happen. So I cooked a seafood dish instead.

And two days later, our little Yankee baby saw the ocean for the first time.

Crab and Ricotta Manicotti

Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis’ Everyday Pasta

This was rich, decadent, and pretty easy to throw together. Finally, cooking felt normal and graceful again. What a relief.

My only changes were using claw meat instead of lump (which is so expensive!), dried basil instead of fresh, and shredded Italian cheese blend instead of Parmesan (which I did have but didn’t want to take the time to grate). I used eleven manicotti, but I probably could have used ten and stuffed them fuller. This recipe makes 4 cups of sauce, I ended up with over a cup extra, even after nearly submerging the manicotti. Be aware of that, as I didn’t rescale the recipe here.

  • 1 box manicotti pasta (about 12 shells)
  • 1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • ¾ cup shredded mixed Italian cheeses, plus ¼ cup for sprinkling
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil
  • 1 pound crabmeat, lump if you’re splurging, picked over for shells
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • butter, for the pan
  • For the Béchamel:
    • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • ½ cup all-purpose flour
    • 4 cups whole milk
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
    • ¼ teaspoons ground nutmeg

Make the Béchamel: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the milk a bit at a time, whisking constantly, until thickened and smooth. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. (You can make the sauce up to 3 days in advance. Let it cool before storing, covered, in the fridge.)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the manicotti and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain.

In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, ¾ cup of the shredded cheese, the egg yolk, basil, crab, salt, and pepper.

Fill the manicotti with the crab-cheese mixture and arrange in the baking dish. Pour the Béchamel over the manicotti, making sure to coat the pasta and filling the dish about halfway up the sides. You will probably have plenty of extra sauce. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese. Bake until sauce is bubbling and the top is browning lightly, about 20 minutes. Serve right away, spooning sauce over the plated manicotti if needed.

Wisdom from Daddy

Desperate Housewife

Theo and sorting laundry

I like keeping house.

No, seriously, I do. You might not see it right away, as my laziness often trumps my willingness to take the time. But when I do get off the couch and pick up the duster, I get really into it. I like the routine of it, the pleasure that arrives when a surface goes from dusty to gleaming. I like taking care of my family’s environment. I collect cleaning supplies and tools like some women do beauty products. My library holds more than one tome on housekeeping, including an entire book devoted to laundry. I love the sense of satisfaction and calm that results from housework. I am really, really missing that right now.

I recently passed my six-week postpartum check. Exciting things like sex and exercise are back on the table, yet all I want to do is scrub the bathroom and unpack the rest of the boxes in the library. We moved when I was in the throes of second-trimester energy and upbeat attitude. We got about halfway unpacked before I started to flag. It didn’t help that I was also absorbed in moving locations at work. I hit a physical (and, let’s face it, mental) wall right as we cleared the nursery of boxes and started filling it with baby furniture. And that is where the unpacking has stayed. It is driving me crazy.

Happily, I’m starting to see opportunities where I couldn’t before. I’m (a bit) less exhausted, so when Little Bear dozes off, I jump up and wash a few dishes or fold some laundry. He is more easily amused by himself, so I’ve even managed to sneak off long enough to do some ironing and baking. M and I have made a pact to tackle one room, as completely as possible, each weekend. This will have the apartment as shipshape as I’d hoped by the time I return to work. That is a very good thing. The tidier my environment, the calmer my mind. And I assume I will need to jump off from as calm a point as possible as I adjust to leaving a three-month-old infant with strangers every day.

As a home-related aside, my cooking skills are taking a slight dive now that I’m out of practice. I used to handle much of the cooking most nights. Apart from a month or so in the second trimester, I’ve been too nauseated, too tired, and/or too busy to cook since last November. For me, that is a long stretch, and even when I couldn’t quite bear the thought of cooking, I missed it. However, I’ve been disappointed with most of my efforts since LB’s arrival. Either they did not quite turn out as I’d hoped or, more often, I’ve felt awkward and clumsy while putting them together. Oddly, this was not the case the other afternoon, when a fussy Bear wanted to be held. I’m not going to go into the right-or-wrongness of preparing dinner while cradling a baby in one arm. I am certain that plenty of well-intentioned souls would happily lambaste me for so doing, and I am equally certain that most of my fellow mothers have done something similar at some desperate point. I was both proud of my dexterity and resolved never to exercise it in that fashion again.

Anyway, the dinner turned out pretty well.

One-Hand Squash Lasagna

Yes, those are LB’s toes sneaking into frame.

One-Hand Squash Lasagna

This is a case of cook as I say, not as I cooked. My process involved a fair amount of (physically necessary) half-assery that would never be present in an actual recipe. Also, next time I will probably melt the mozzarella into the béchamel sauce to make the whole dish creamier.

[Disclaimer: I did set LB in his crib and endure his cries so I could use both hands to chop the sage and to finish the layering. It was just too much.]

  • extra-virgin olive oil, for the dish
  • 15 ounces part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 15 ounces canned pumpkin purée, or other squash purée
  • 10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1½ teaspoons ground nutmeg, or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
  • fine sea salt
  • freshly ground white pepper, for aesthetic purposes, or black pepper
  • 10 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 8 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, or to taste
  • 2 cups low-fat milk
  • 18 no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set it on a rimmed baking sheet to contain any sauce that may bubble over.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir the ricotta, pumpkin, spinach, nutmeg, most of the sage (reserve some to sprinkle on top), and salt and pepper to taste until blended. Set aside. Roughly mix the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses in a small mixing bowl and set aside.

Melt the butter and oil in a 1-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Turn the heat to low and whisk in the flour and garlic. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture turns tan. Add the milk a bit at a time, still whisking constantly. Cook until the consistency is nearly thick enough for your liking, then season lightly with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. As you assemble the lasagna, you may need to whisk sometimes to keep a skin from forming.

Ladle ½ cup of the sauce into the bottom of the baking dish. Lay 3 lasagna noodles on top and spread with ⅓ of the pumpkin-ricotta mixture. Lay another 3 noodles, then ladle in another ½ cup of sauce and sprinkle with ⅓ of the mixed cheeses. Repeat the noodles-pumpkin-noodles-sauce/cheese pattern twice more. Sprinkle the top layer of cheese with the remaining sage and salt and pepper as desired.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling. Let sit ten minutes, then serve.

Getting ahead: You can assemble the lasagna a day or two before baking and store, covered, in the fridge. Set it out about thirty minutes before baking to let it come somewhat toward room temperature. You may need to lengthen the baking time a bit. Also, I assume it freezes well after baking, or we’ve wasted half a giant lasagna.