Monday, July 25, 2011

Cooking Camp

This spring I saw a brochure for a kitchen store that does cooking classes. They listed a summer cooking camp for teens that ran for a week. My daughter and I loved the sound of that, but not the price tag. $385. Seriously?? I can cook. I can teach. So I decided to have Cooking Camp in my kitchen for my daughter and a couple of her friends.

Since we have multiple schedules to juggle, we're shooting for once a week, and since I do desserts, the theme of the camp is "Desserts!" Each week we cover a different skill and make a treat that the kids can take home.

The first week we handed out binders for the recipes, went over kitchen rules (I think I broke all but one the first day), and made marshmallows. Teens and marshmallows. What was I thinking?

I walked them through making a sugar syrup, using a candy thermometer, using gelatin, whipping marshmallows, and then, through the magic of television (I made a batch the day before so I could pull out the finished product like they do on cooking shows), I cut a pan of cooled, dried marshmallows for the kids to cut and roll and powdered sugar.

Then, to insure that they were fully sugared up, we roasted marshmallows over the gas stove (note to self: shake the powdered sugar off before putting the marshmallow over the burner), and made s'mores.

First cooking class - I'm not sure how much they learned, but I give it an A+ for fun!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Definitely In The Top Three

Recently I saw an online discussion about the question, "If you had to get rid of all but 10 cookbooks, which would you keep?"

Seriously? How would I even begin to answer that question? It would be easier to pick which child to keep. Some days that would be really easy choice, depending on who's annoying me the most that day.

My cookbook collection has spilled out of the kitchen, overflown the bookshelf into the dining room, taken over a bookshelf in the living room, and has satellite locations in the guest room (which, technically, is the Lego room). The cookbooks are a chronicle of my kitchen adventures, starting with the Joy of Cooking, the first cookbook I got as a newlywed. The tomes span the years of beginning cookery, my forays into Chinese cuisine, my excursion into low-fat land, and my decadent rebound phase when I embraced the butter. Since beginning blogging, the collection has grown quickly. When I saw three or more bloggers enthusing about the same cookbook, it went onto my Amazon wishlist, and I was just a click away from owning it. It made gift-giving occasions really easy for my husband.

Although he enjoys gifting me with cookbooks, husband has suggested many times that perhaps I could do a little judicious whittling. Nothing drastic, just get rid of a couple of cookbooks that I haven't opened in years. What? That's crazy talk! I might need that one recipe I have bookmarked or that one cool chart on substitutions or cooking times as related to altitude.

Although it would be a Herculean struggle to whittle it down to only 10, I might be able to do it. But I agreed with one of the discussion commenters who said, "You can have my copy of Baking when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers."

Baking, From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan is a classic. It's beautifully laid out, covers a huge range of baking categories, has fabulous recipes, and is sprinkled with charming anecdotes from Dorie. I have given it as a gift several times, and I know it would definitely make my 10 To Keep list.

Why the unpaid advertisement for Baking? Because I heart Dorie and I was reminded again of how great her recipes are when my husband asked for some cookies to take to work. I hadn't tried this recipe before (astoundingly!), but Dorie didn't fail. They're amazing cookies. Half cookie, half candy bar, all delicious! One of the co-workers exclaimed (with mouth full), "Oh my gosh, these are so good! They're like food bars, only tasty." And another, who has recently lost a lot of weight, asked for a very small sliver to taste. After savoring that morsel he asked politely that the pan be moved out of his reach, so his hand wouldn't wander over and snag a few bars on its own.

So if you ever see a copy of Baking at a yard sale or the thrift store, buy it. But you won't find one there. Because anyone who owns Baking loves it and is going to hang onto it!

Chocolate Oatmeal Decadence Bars
- adapted from Baking: From My Home To Yours by Dorie Greenspan

Oatmeal layer:
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out 1-1/4 cups with white whole wheat flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (firmly packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped*

Chocolate layer:
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups (12 oz) semisweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup moist raisins**
3/4 cup coarsely chopped peanuts, preferably salted

*I didn't have salted nuts, so I used plain, raw peanuts and added 1/4 tsp. salt to the batter. If you use a chunky sea salt, if will give hits of salt, rather than an all-over salty flavor.

**If your raisins are not moist, place them in a small bowl, cover them with very hot water, and let them soak for 15-20 minutes. Drain briefly on a paper towel to remove excess water.

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F with a rack in the center of the oven. Butter and 9 x 13-inch baking pan and put it on a baking sheet.

2- Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.

3- In the large bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it is soft and creamy. Add the brown sugar and beat for 2 minutes, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.

4- Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing just until they disappear. With a rubber spatula, stir in the oats and chopped peanuts.

5- Remove 2 cups of the batter to a bowl and set aside. Put the remaining dough into the buttered pan. Gently and evenly press the dough over the bottom of the pan. Set aside while you prepare the next layer.

6- In a heatproof bowl combine the condensed milk, chocolate chips, butter and salt. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until the milk is warm and the chocolate and butter are melted. Remove the bowl from the pan of water and stir in the vanilla, raisins and peanuts.

7- Pour the warm chocolate over the oatmeal crust, then crumble the remaining oatmeal mixture over the top. There will be gaps between the oatmeal clumps, and that's OK.

8- Bake for 25 to 30 min, or until the topping is golden brown and the chocolate layer is dull and starting to come away from the sides of the pan. Place the pan on a cooking rack and cool for about 2 hours.

9- Refrigerate the pan for at least one hour before cutting. You can either cut them in the pan or remove the whole block of goodness to a cutting board to cut.

Cut into 32 rectangles, about 2-1/4 by 1-1/2-inches.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Treat Food That's Really a Treat

Becoming a parent transforms the way you look at the world. As you clutch your newborn baby to your chest, the world becomes, in the blink of an eye, a frightening place, fraught with lurking dangers. Things which you never gave a thought to, prior to childbirth, now seem ominous. A staircase is a place of peril, with the possibility of tripping and falling ever before your eyes. The person sneezing in the grocery store might be spreading killer germs. Driving down the freeway with your infant strapped into the carseat brings on visions on car crashes and fiery death as you struggle to rescue that new, precious, helpless bundle. Why do you think there are so many cars on the road with Baby On Board signs?

As your child grows, you continue to keep a part of your heart in his or her body, cringing at every stubbed toe, bleeding at every scraped knee, wishing desperately you could protect him or her from all harm.

I think that parents of kids with food sensitivities have it even tougher than regular run-of-the-mill parents. A friend of mine discovered her son had a violent allergy to peanuts when a day care worker wiped the face of a boy who'd eaten a peanut butter sandwich and then used the same cloth to wipe her son's face. His face inflated like a playground ball! Panic!!

Always on guard, vigilant against what might be lurking inside a "treat" that's given to your child, early on you have to teach them the litany of "I can't have" foods. What a blessing, then, to find some "I CAN have" treats. Especially if you don't have to go to a specialty bakery and pay $6 a muffin for it!

The obvious solution for kids with special dietary issues is to make it yourself. Then you know exactly what went into it, you know it's safe, and if you find the right recipe, you can also make it delicious. (And, trust me, not every $6 muffin is delicious!)

I recently made these as a thank you for a super sweet mom who took my son for a week to a Vacation Bible School. Her son has gluten, soy, and egg allergies. She shared them with some other moms of food-issue kids and they all clamored for the recipe, so I'm bumping it up to the head of the posting queue.

I had a muffin before I gave them away (I can't give away untested food - it might be nasty!) and they are really good. Not just in a "not bad for gluten-free" way, but truly good. Moist, tasty, studded with blueberries, with a good texture, not gluey or brickish. Even if you're not going gluten-free, you'll enjoy them!

GF, Egg-free Blueberry Muffins
- adapted from The Spunky Coconut

1 cup almond meal flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour (the same thing as tapioca starch)
1/2 cup coconut flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1-1/2 tsp baking powder*
1/2 cup dried blueberries
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 tsp xantha gum or guar gum (they're interchangeable; the xanthan gum is more expensive)
1 Tbsp flax seed meal
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup milk (substitute coconut milk if dairy is an issue)
1/2 tsp Vanilla Creme Liquid Stevia
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup coconut oil, liquified

*If corn is an issue, you can make your own baking powder. Substitute 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, 1/2 tsp tapioca starch.

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Grease a 12-well muffin tin.

2- In a medium bowl combine the almond meal flour, tapioca flour, coconut flour, baking soda, baking powder. Whisk together to break up any clumps. Stir in dried blueberries.

3- In a bowl combine the applesauce, guar gum, flax meal, and apple cider vinegar. Make sure there are no lumps.

4- To the applesauce mixture add the milk, stevia, honey, and coconut oil. Stir well.

5- Divide the batter between the muffin cups and bake for about 22 minutes.

They are delicious warm, or you can let them cool on a cooling rack.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Party Paranoia

For the most part I am a fairly rational person. I can look at situations and think through the possible outcomes, arriving at conclusions supported by data, probability, and experience. There are, however, a few cases that defy logic. Heights, spiders, and birthday parties.

We recently visited Hoover Dam. Did you know that thing is freaking tall? And that above it they've built a brand new bridge that spans the gorge? And that unwary fools can walk out onto that bridge, cluelessly taking pictures, seemingly unaware of the perils posed by the combination of strong, gusting winds and extremely high bridge? I suppose they just think logically that, hey, if it was dangerous, people wouldn't be allowed to walk out there, right? Or that since thousands of people have done it before without dying, the odds are that they'll survive. I know all these things, and yet I just can't get my brain beyond, "high, windy, slipping, falling, plummeting to certain, splatting death below."
It's the same with spiders. I've been through the exhibit at the zoo, designed to soothe the arachniphobe with informational plaques about the harmless, beneficial spiders, placed right next to the case containing the "HOLY COW! There's no glass on this case! That huge, hairy spider could jump right out and land on my face!! What kind of place is this, putting innocent kids at risk?!! Someone give me a shoe so I can smash that thing!!" My husband had to escort me out and put a paper bag to my face so I wouldn't hyperventilate and pass out. (If I had, I'm sure the spiders would have rushed out and dragged my body away to be wrapped in the spider equivalent of Tupperware to be sucked dry at a more convenient time.)

Perhaps you're wondering why birthday parties might fall into the same category as heights and spiders. Let me clarify - it's not all birthday parties that reduce me to a quivering wreck, huddled in a corner, rocking and sobbing. Just the birthday parties that I have to put on for my children.

My first two children were born in the same month and it ruined that month for me. I dreaded having to put on their parties and the dread swallowed up the whole month in a cloud of worry, guilt, and dread. (Yes, I know I've said dread 3 times, but I really, really dreaded those parties.)

First of all, there was the question of theme. What would be fun? What would be different? What wouldn't break the bank? And what would make all the kids happy? I've done basket weaving, tie-dyeing, card making, nail decorating, American Girl doll, and several piƱatas. There's been playland, beach, pool, and backyard parties. I've done theme cakes till I see Pixar toys in frosting in my dreams.

Through all my years as a party planner, I've learned that the key to happiness is low expectations. I no longer do huge shindigs. We alternate friend party years with family party years. And I strive for the lowest stress possible. For my youngest son's birthday we invited friends to come to the pool. I brought cupcakes and watermelon slices. They swam, opened presents, and ate cupcakes. Ahh, the sweet smell of another birthday party over!

I ended up making three different kinds of cupcakes. I wanted to make minion cupcakes, not because they fit so naturally with a pool party theme, but because they're cute. So I made Twinkies, doubling the recipe, and making cupcakes with the rest of the batter. Then I made strawberry cupcakes, because I had strawberries in the fridge that needed to be used up. Then I made chocolate gluten-free, egg-free cupcakes for a guest with special dietary requirements. After all, what fun is it to go to a party and not be able to eat cake?

Today you get the strawberry cupcakes and next time I'll give you the chocolate speciality recipe. So you'll be doubly prepared next time you're called on to throw a party. Do not fear, they're easy to make and even with lousy decorating skills like mine, you can still wow the crowd.

Strawberry Minion Cupcakes
- adapted from Sky High, Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

1/4 lb strawberries, hulled and halved
2-1/4 cups cake flour
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2-3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large egg whites
1/3 cup milk

1 batch of Twinkies (preferably homemade)
1 batch of your favorite buttercream frosting
Smarties - yellow and white ones
Edible food pen
Thin black licorice ropes, or black gel paste food coloring

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Line cupcake pans with 18 cupcake liners.

2- Place strawberries in a food processor or blender. Process till no lumps remain. Measure out 3/4 cup puree and set the rest (if there is any) aside for smoothies or pouring over ice cream or french toast.

3- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

4- In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter. When it's fluffy, add the strawberry puree.

5- Add the dry ingredients and blend until light and fluffy (the batter will be very thick).

6- In another bowl, whisk together the egg whites and milk to combine. Add the whites in three parts to the batter, mixing only until incorporated after each addition.

7- Fill the cupcake liners about 3/4 full. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

8- Let cupcakes cool in the pan 10 minutes before removing to wire rack to cool completely.

9- To assemble the minions, cut the Twinkies in half. With the edible food marker, draw around the outside of 1/2 the Smarties and color in a circle for the eyeball. Then glue together pairs of Smarties with frosting. When the frosting has dried and the goggles are stable, use frosting to glue the goggles to the Twinkie halves. If you like, for some of the minions, use a single goggle, instead of a pair.

10- If you have the licorice, cut small lengths to use as goggle holders, smiles, and hair spikes. I didn't have licorice (my husband can tell you precisely how many stores in a 5 mile radius of my house don't carry it), so I used an ample amount of black food coloring gel with a small portion of the frosting to do the smiles and goggle straps. We had to make do with bald minions.

11- Frost the cupcakes and plant the minions into the frosting.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Reduced Guilt Brownies

I am a horrible packrat and I know it. I blame it on the Great Depression.

Wait, you think I lived through that? No, even though a big birthday is coming up I'm not THAT old. My grandparents lived through it. My father's parents raised two kids and pinched pennies till they screamed for mercy (the pennies, not the kids) while the country suffered through profound economic turmoil. They raised a lot of their own food in the garden, made it themselves or did without, and never, EVER threw anything away. Because, after all, you might need it again.

The Bible says to train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Can you guess something about my father? Yes, he's a packrat, too. His workshop is a museum of projects past and present. Old sports equipment, broken bits of jewelry, dried paint cans, and scraps of lumber. You never know what you'll find in there, because, after all, he might need that again.

I have to fight this tendency in my own life. The most difficult things for me to part with are magazines (I can't just throw away a Bon Appetite, for goodness sake! I might want to cook one of those recipes. Someday. If I remember it. And can find it.), cardboard boxes (what if I need to mail a package, what will I put it in if all the boxes are promptly put out in recycling like my husband prefers?), and, of course, food.

There is tremendous guilt attached to unused food. There are children starving in Bangladesh! How can I just casually toss out leftovers just because no one wants to eat it? My refrigerator is stuffed with plastic food coffins, waiting for the lids to bulge so that I have permission to throw the contents away. No shame in throwing away bad food (except for letting it go bad in the first place).

An obvious solution comes to mind. When I get a cardboard box, I need to ruthlessly clean out the refrigerator, put it all in the cardboard box, and mail it to Bangladesh. My husband would be happy since the boxes wouldn't be piling up in the garage. I'd be happy because my refrigerator would be clean. And Bangladesh, well, can I pretend that my leftovers will bless them? Maybe if I tuck in a Bon Appetite, that will make up for the rainbow sheen on the ham and the slightly furry quality of the bread.

The best way to avoid leftovers is to plan ahead. If you're making a big recipe, invite company over, or freeze half of the recipe. And if you know a recipe calls for part of an ingredient (half a green pepper, 1/3 of a jar of sauce, etc), menu plan so that the next night you use up the rest of it.

When I posted about making bean dip, I promised you a way to use up those extra beans. Bean salad is a good choice. Tossing them into chili or a soup? Another winning idea.

But, me being me, I like dessert. Bean brownies. The beans replace the flour, so these are a nice option for the gluten-intolerant among us. The brownies are super moist and delicious. No one that I've served them to has been able to guess what the secret ingredient is. Plus, they're so easy, that they take next to no effort to make. All that, plus the warm happy glow of not having leftovers turning slimy in the refrigerator. Bonus!

Black Bean Brownies

1-1/2 cups cooked black beans
3 eggs
3 Tbsp coconut oil
1/4 c. cocoa powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup date puree (directions to make your own in this recipe)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp instant coffee powder
1 cup (6 oz) semi-sweet chocolate chips, or coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate (divided)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (soaked and dried)

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Grease an 8 x8 -inch pan.

2- Into the bowl of a food processor, put beans, eggs, coconut oil, cocoa powder, salt, vanilla, date puree, sugar, instant coffee, and 1/2 cup of the chocolate chunks. Process until smooth.

3-Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate and nuts over the top. With a rubber spatula, gently press on the chunks till they are all submerged under the batter.

4- Bake for 35 to 40 min. The edges should be baked and the center set. Let cool completely. But if you like oozy, messy chocolate, especially served with vanilla ice cream, cool slightly and then cut (or scoop) it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

It's For The Children

Long ago, when I was pretty new at parenting, I bought my son a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli as a treat. It wasn't something I would normally buy, but I thought as a special splurge I'd get it for him. He wouldn't eat it and I initially was angry. I'd bought it as a treat, why wouldn't he eat it? Then I tried it and I could see why. It was nasty!

For some reason we, as a society, reserve some of our nastiest foods for our children, and then we package them up as special treats. Canned, frozen, packaged, or fast food - if you look at the ingredients list you realize that we are feeding the least developed and most vulnerable bodies the most repulsive and often harmful foods.

I used to purchase food (or foodlike items) without a thought as to the ingredients and the effect they might have on my kids. After all, if it wasn't safe for kids, it wouldn't be sold for kids, right? Right?

Actually, the onus is on parents to safeguard their kids. It's up to us to read labels, be informed, and make good choices for our children. The companies who sell snacks loaded with hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors and colors aren't going to go out of their way to let you know the health threat their products pose to your kids. They are in business to make money, not to do your job for you.

With cartoon characters (you wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've bought just because it had Mickey or Donald on it!), catchy jingles, toys, and ads with cute, laughing kids, advertisers try to lure unwary parents into buying foodlike products for their tykes. And if you're not convinced that it will make your children happy, they show you how much easier your life will be if you just open a can, pull it out of the freezer, or go through the drive-thru.

But what are you really buying? Is it nutritious? Is it going to help their growing bodies? Or is it even food? This short (about 4 minutes) clip shows how to make chicken nuggets and also how advertising has brainwashed our kids.

So what's a mama to do when her chilluns clamor for fast food? Make her own, of course!

My daughter is doing her best to meet the nutritional needs of her daughter in the healthiest way possible. Her research has shown her that including organ meats in the diet of a toddler is extremely important for growth and development. That's good to know, but how on earth do you get a toddler to eat liver? Hide it in nuggets! If it works for nasty chicken paste, it works for healthy chicken livers, too.

See how much my granddaughter loves them? Seriously, she gets so excited when her mommy makes her chicken nuggets. She'll yum up three in a meal (and she's a tiny person). Because it's chicken liver, not beef, it's got an easy texture for a person with three teeth to handle. It's good for her, it's easy to fix, and she loves it. What could be better?

Now if you're inspired to try this for yourself, just be sure you get organic chicken livers. The liver is a filter organ and you don't want to eat what's in a non-organic chicken's body!

Real Food Chicken Nuggets

Organic chicken livers
Organic psyllium husks
Grated Parmesan cheese

1- Cut the livers up in to baby hand holding size. Rinse them off.

2- Combine the psyllium and cheese on a plate. Sprinkle some pepper over the mixture. Dredge the livers in the psyllium mixture.

2- Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry the nuggets, turning to cook on all sides.

How easy is that? Lots less trouble than getting in the car, driving to a take-out place, and then having lots of trash to deal with. Plus look at the happy consumer! That's advertising that doesn't lie.