Monday, December 28, 2009

Baking My Angst Away

Hi.  It's me again. 

Sorry to bother you so late, but I really need to talk.  I know you must be tired from a long day and that this kind of violates our protocol, but if I can just get a few minutes of your time. 

You see, or rather you hear, my son will not sleep.  He just won't rest and is up every 2 - 3 hours and the kid is 20 months old already and YES, YES, I KNOW!  He's probably teething.  We've talked about this before.  It doesn't change the fact that my husband and I are becoming zombie mental cases with attitudes.  And YES, I KNOW - he's just a little boy, but that does not ease my circadian rhythms none, understand?  Oh, and yeah, I took an extra pill, I even almost gave him one.  It doesn't seem to help either of us sleep.

Anyway, we're up again, cruising the kitchen for some comfort.  The mixer makes too much noise and I am afraid I might hurt him if I go near the food processor. So I stand before you, my devoted and loyal oven, for a little comfort and plea for patience.

Nothing soothes my rumpled and crumpled soul like baking.  Now with cooking, you add a little of this, a little of that and poof, you get dinner.  But baking is a much more precise process.  Of course you can improvise, as can an acrobat cycling across the high wire. But like that trained performer you best know what you're doing.  An extra 5 minutes is the difference between caramelized and burned.  Too much flour and you'll need a hacksaw to cut through your work.  And then there is the tricky business of the egg white, cream, and yeast.  

But the rewards of baking are far greater than the sum of the final product.  It is the process that relaxes my body like a shiatsu massage.  Rough day?  Start kneading bread.  Too much going on?  Zest a lemon.  The physical acts of baking are repetitive and require confidence, both of which calm me in a storm.  And then there is the comfort in knowing that when I slowly cook egg yolks with sugar, it will turn into custard, or if I keep beating heavy cream it will whip into a delicious treat.  I can count on it as sure as the sun will rise and the tide will come in.  

Anyway, my son won't sleep.  He is teething or growing or evil or something.  It doesn't really matter why anymore, what matters is that we are exhausted.  And I am on the edge.  So the other morning, when duty wailed, I took him down to the kitchen with me, gave him a bottle of milk, and started baking.  Nothing fancy mind you; I can't deal with a pastry bag at 2 am.  But I made a fantastic banana bread that I've been perfecting for a few weeks now.  As I chopped the chocolate and smashed the bananas, I felt lighter and my anger eased gradually.  By the time it came out of the oven I was feeling zen like and hungry.  My son quickly gobbled it down and went back to sleep shortly thereafter.  

This simple recipe comes from Elana's pantry, a great gluten free site.  My adapted version is below.  Happy baking.

Shut Up And Go To Bed Banana Bread

3 cups blanched almond flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup agave
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
3 eggs, whisked
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 - 3 mashed bananas
1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate or 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  2. Combine almond flour, salt, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl
  3. In a separate bowl, combine agave, oil, eggs, and vanilla
  4. Mix wet ingredients into dry. Add banana and chocolate.
  5. Add batter to a greased and floured 9 inch cake pan
  6. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes. Note: If you are using a convection oven, test the cake after 25 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and cool

Image: federico stevanin /

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the List: Aromatics

Ah the list.  How I admire and envy the folks who are organized enough to always document their shopping lists each week.  The same people who diligently stick to their budgets, clip their coupons and their guns, and plan their meals well in advance of preparation.  Unlike me who is always in a panic/need of a special spice or a specific grain which I forgot to write down and I guess I could make it next week but oops I bought all the produce for get my dilemma.  Same schtick, different week.

Short of intensive shock therapy, I doubt I will ever completely change my ways.  But I do have one trick in my grocery bag that keeps me going, a set of standards that I purchase every week no matter what.  Of these, my most important are the aromatics: celery, carrots, and onions.  They are named for their wonderful scents, which are particularly sweet and mouthwatering when cooked together.  When properly stored, they last for a long time. They are incredibly versatile and flexible, and did I mention they are cheap as well as highly nutritious?  Every week they automatically go in the cart, boosting my confidence and balancing my budget.  

A few notes on purchasing: I do not like the stores to choose for me; it is a little patronizing and tends to yield less than perfect produce.  So my advice is to look for the whole vegetable in an unbagged, uncut, and loose state.  If you can find things with the leaves on top, even better. Don't get me wrong - I am no purist and sometimes we all need to compromise, especially if you are shopping with two crazy children screaming for gogurt.  I am just saying, try this if you can.  Don't buy a bag of vegetables; select the ones that look best to you and put them in your own bag. Each week I buy 3 onions, a bunch of carrots, and a bunch of celery. 

I also like to mix it up.  If they are selling rainbow colored carrots, I am all over it.  Sometimes I prefer red onions to yellow, or even scallions or leeks.  Vidalia onions are always a treat. And if you can find celeriac, please give me a call because once you peel the damn thing it is delicious.  

Once you get them home, cut them up.  Peel the carrots, and then cut the tops and bottoms off, slicing the remainder in half.  Same with the celery.   Put it all in a tea towel or a plastic bag with a paper towel. Add to the crisper.  As for the onions, peel and cut them into eights, then add them to a plastic bag with a paper towel and set them next to their carrot/celery brethren. If you don't have time to peel the onions, leave them on the counter and out of the fridge.  

And now to cook.  Here are three easy things to do with aromatics all week long:
  1. Fine chop them and add greens, tomatoes, chick peas, flax seed, and dressing. 
  2. Rough chop them and add to 12 cups of boiling water, along with 2 pounds of chicken bones, salt, and pepper.  Lower heat to simmer, cook for 1 1/2 hours, and you will have delicious chicken broth. Discard solids.   Serve with steamed carrot coins, dill, and egg noodles. 
  3. Mince them and saute in 2 tbsp of olive oil for 10 - 15 minutes, until soft.  Add 28 oz of canned, whole tomatoes.  Mash tomatoes, add 1 cup of red wine, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup white sugar.  Simmer for 20 minutes and serve with pasta.
Enjoy every bite, and please leave me a comment below about your own experiences with aromatics. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

20 years

This week-end marked a milestone for me, my 20 year high school reunion.  I had hemmed and hawed about going, worrying if I had anything in common with these people anymore, bemoaning my weight, and delaying purchasing tickets.  Now that it is over, I am only sorry that I hesitated, because I had a blast and it was well worthwhile.

Waistlines were bigger and hair was smaller (in some cases non-existent). Some folks were married with children and others were single and fabulous.  I met lots of other stay at home moms, and envied folks with big careers.  I loved seeing all the smart kids, and learning about what they were doing.  Lot's of attorneys, doctors, financial services gurus, accountants, small business owners, and teachers.  

One friend later remarked about how many people seemed trapped in the high school mentality.  I smiled and agreed, but later thought about it.  He and I were both floaters in high school, friends with everyone and never bound to a single group.  It was the kind of thought we probably would have shared 20 years ago, and it still stands today.  And that of course means we were also still in our high school mode, on the inside but still outside. I suppose it was natural for all of us to gravitate to our former roles.  The cliques still buzzed like little hives.  Some other folks seemed to be holding court.  And some folks were still aiming to please, seeking approval from others who then and now would never acquiesce.  Finally, I also saw and experienced a lot of forgiveness to and from people who may have hurt me/been hurt by me. Past transgressions were overlooked or even transcended in the spirit of evening. 

I have to thank my husband for attending with me; as Jen Balaban (now Fritch) remarked, he deserves a gold star for enduring it.  It was also great to have a neutral party there, someone who wasn't part of my high school experience but knows me so well.  It was like having an anthropologist on hand to observe. On the way home we were chatting in the car and exchanging observations.  He remarked on how large our class was - 700 something people in all, of which probably 150 - 200 turned out.  He also noticed how diverse we were, which I guess was less common in the eighties than it is today.  And then he said something that was so kind, so generous and will stay with me always. 

"Julie, you always talk about how much you admire people who can light up a room, people who draw others in and around them.  What I saw tonight was a bunch of people who look at you like gold, who just loved you and root for you no matter what."  

So now you all know why I married him.  But it was true, not just for me but for all of us.  The friends we had back then really stay with you always, even if you never get to see them but for once every 20 years.  There is a staying power that comes with shared experience, and it ultimately translates into long term albeit hazy bonds that cannot be severed.  I remember fine details about friends from Warnsdorfer Elementary School, Churchill Junior High, and East Brunswick High School; their brothers and sisters, their parents, our teachers, the smell of the classrooms, field day, dances in the gym, parties, where they went to college, football games, the first day of 7th grade, East Brunswick Soccer Club, Farrels, Bella Pizza, trips to Luray Caverns, TAG, IPLE, Ms. Trabilsy's (later Eichorn) wedding, the Metropolitan Club, the fly in Ms. Merli's classroom, Mr. Kenny's ex-wife and antics, scrunchies, Mr. Hanley and chorus, bar/bat mitzvah's, sweet sixteens, crazy science teachers, the Constitutional competition, Model UN, and so much more.  No matter what, I will always remember these folks, and am glad that we had one evening to reconnect.  Class of 1989, it was great to see you - I wish you all the best in your lives, and thank you for the memories.  

Want to share something about the reunion?  Leave me a comment below and tell me about it.