Saturday, August 23, 2008

I love a good party: Baby Shower Brunch

A very dear friend is expecting a baby and the first thing I said after she told me that she was pregnant was "Can I throw you a shower?!" I love to celebrate babies most of all. Becoming a parent has stretched me in such unexpected, good directions, so seeing such a fantastic person on the verge of parenthood is exciting indeed!

Mindy and I have been running buddies over the past couple of years, and most days we run, we end at my place with a big breakfast. I thought a brunch shower would be appropriate, since so many great Mindy memories are associated with breakfast. We had crepes with plenty of toppings. This is my go-to crepe recipe. It has never failed me:

Vanilla Crepes:

1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons melted butter
vegetable oil, for brushing pan

1. Place milk and vanilla in the jar of a blender. Add yolks, sugar, salt, flour, and butter. Blend on high speed 30 seconds. Scrape sides of blender; blend 30 seconds more. Transfer batter to an airtight container; refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. Brush a non-stick skillet with oil. Heat on medium until just starting to smoke. Remove pan from heat; quickly pour 2 tablespoons batter into middle of pan. [note: the first crepe is usually a disaster and makes for good scraps for the cook to munch on while making the rest.]

2. Quickly (in 2 to 3 seconds) tilt pan in all directions so the batter covers entire bottom in a thin layer. Return pan to heat for about 1 minute. Jerk pan sharply back and forth to loosen.

[not the prettiest picture, but it's hard to tilt the pan and take a picture at the same time. Hopefully, you get the idea of what's supposed to go on here. You can do it! Just keep twirling the pan!]
3. Lift edges with a spatula; if underside is golden brown, turn by using two spatulas or by flipping crepe with a toss of the pan [a much more exciting option, if you can do it with confidence]

[this is what the crepe looks like when it's ready for the flip.]
4. Cook about 30 seconds more, or until brown in spots. Slide crepes onto a plate. Grease pan again with oil, heat to just smoking, and repeat process with remaining batter.

For chocolate crepes, substitute 1/4 cup sifted cocoa powder for 1/2 cup flour.

For the fillings, I took advantage of summer's bounty: fresh peaches and berries, along with sauteed pineapple, sliced bananas, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and my beloved lemon curd. Here's the recipe, and seriously, try it:

Lemon Curd:
3 large egg yolks
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice [sorry, but this time, it really should be fresh lemons, rather than the juice in the green bottle]
6 tablespoons sugar

1. Combine yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar in a small sauce pan; whisk to combine. Set over medium heat, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon, making sure to stir sides and bottom of pan. Cook until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter, one piece at a time, stirring with the wooden spoon until mixture is smooth.

3. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on surface to prevent a skin from forming; wrap tightly. Let cool; refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour, up to 2 days.

My husband always tells me that I'd be less stressed out if I didn't try out new recipes when I'm entertaining, which I believe to be true. But, tell me, when other time would a strata be appropriate? Maybe you all are cooking stratas for your husband and two-year-old sons all the time, but I haven't been quite so motivated. A party, on the other hand, is a perfect venue for such fanciness, and, although I was nervous sticking my Canadian Bacon Strata in the oven. But, hooray, I was pleasantly surprised to see it in all of its puffy, eggy majesty as I pulled it out. Thank you, strata, for making me look good. Unfortunately, there are no pics of this one, since the strata finished cooking ten minutes into the shower.

oh la la, I was not the most organized lady on shower day, and, fortunately, everything came together just as the first guest arrived. But, you know, the lesson learned during this party, as well as other entertaining ventures I have tried is that people don't particularly care about the food or the table or the fussy stuff that the hostess cares about. When someone comes to a party at my house, they just want to have a great time. The details can certainly add to a party, but if I'm stressed, my guests will feel it and worry. So, you see, when I have a party, I throw it for me too. So, once the party started, we certainly celebrated Mindy and her baby girl and all the great hopes and dreams that come to mind when a new person is about to be born.

Here they are--a sweet mama with a sweet little girl inside! Doesn't Mindy have the prego glow to outshine them all?! Here she is, showing us the baby quilt I made for her (aw, shucks!) More to come later on baby quilts :)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Good Taste: (Quick) Summertime Dinner

What is the perfect summer recipe? Well, there are several criteria: 1) No oven involved, 2) should take no longer than the amount of time to cook pasta, and 3) should be eaten and enjoyed by all family members. A tall order indeed, but this week, I found a new favorite summer dish: Pesto Pasta Salad.

1/2 lb. penne pasta, cooked as directed and drained
1 15.5 can chickpeas, roughly chopped
1/2 of a jar of roasted red peppers, drained and thinly sliced
12 black olives (I like kalamata), pitted and roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, thickly sliced
1/2 cup steamed green beans
1 6-oz can tuna, drained
4 tablespoons homemade or store-bought pesto
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the chickpeas, red peppers, olives, celery, tuna, pesto, salt, and black pepper. Divide among individual plates. Voila!

And as you read through this recipe, you may be thinking, "Ew! Tuna?!" But, give it a try. You may just fall in love with tuna in a whole new way. My first heavenly encounter with tuna in a salad was eating a Salad Nicoise at a cafe in Orange, France, and I have never looked back. Dude, it's so good.

And here's a picture of Orange. I posted it just to remember myself, there, eating a Salad Nicoise. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Good Taste: Peach Pie (my favorite)

I like to make pies quite a bit. I have made many, many pies, but peach still stands alone as my favorite. There's the sweetness of the peaches that only lasts a few weeks a year, the beautiful lattice top (or not!), and the late-summer-sit-around-the-picnic-table quality to eating peach pies, requiring any pie-eating participants to slow down, tell some stories, laugh out loud, and get that old familiar feeling that life is so good....ahhh...

We made a weekend of our late-summer peach pie by going to the orchards and picking our peaches. Some of the peaches were truly bigger than a baby's head. Have you ever heard the pregnancy descriptions of size, like during such-and-such week, your baby is the size of a walnut? Well, I think the 36th-week fetus is the size of an August Peach at Lyman Orchards. These peaches are enormous, and most branches were nearly touching the ground, being heavily burdened by the weight of these incredible peaches.

Ta da! Here it is! I opted out of the lattice crust for this one. Why? Well, one, I was feeling lazy. If I had the neat-o fluted pastry wheel from Williams Sonoma, there would be a much greater likelihood that I'd go for the lattice (hint hint husband).

But, heck, it's summer, which is meant for sipping lemonade and not fiddling in the kitchen with my pizza-cutter and a ruler to create a lattice crust. I'll save the pretty pies for Thanksgiving.

I used my favorite pie recipe, which I rarely stray from, it's on page 862 of The Joy of Cooking, Deluxe Butter Flaky Pastry could this not be good, right?!):

The key element of pie crust is the temperature. I cut up 2 sticks of UNSALTED butter and stick it in the freezer. Martha says to also put the flour in the freezer, which I guess could be helpful on really humid days, but seems to be just a tad much. You know how Martha can be sometimes...

I then get 1/3 cup ice water ready to go.

Next, I put 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon white sugar, 1 teaspoon salt in the food processor and pulse until mixed.

Then I put the butter and 1/4 cup of Crisco in the food processor, and pulse it just a few times until the butter is in pea-sized clumps.

I add the water next. This is the most tricky part of the whole process and can make or break your crust--too much water, and it's totally soggy, too little, and it's like eating flour. I remove the ice from the water, turn on the processor and stream the water in through the top until I hear what I call the crust rumble. It really is a rumbling sound that is the sound of the crust binding together. Here's what it looks like:

I take the dough out of the processor bowl and put it in 2 saran wrapped disks. I stick it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I roll out the first crust, put it in the pie dish, and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes. There's kind of a tricky way I transfer the crust so it doesn't fall apart on me during the move--I roll it around the rolling pin and unroll it into the dish.

In the meantime, I made the filling. My favorite peach pie filling is also from Joy, Peach Pie on page 876:
2 1/2 pounds peaches (5 cups peeled, pitted, and sliced 1/4 inch thick*)
1/2 to 3/4 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca or cornstarch (use cornstarch for a lattice pie)
3 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon salt.
2 to 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 egg yolk
1 to 2 Tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine ingredients in a large bowl and let stand for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour filling into the bottom crust and dot with butter. Roll out top crust and cover filling, sealing the edges by fluting the edges with my knuckles. And here's the big secret to a beautiful-looking crust: I always mix 2 tsp. heavy cream with an egg yolk and brush it on right before I stick it in the oven. I'm telling you, it does wonders.

If the crust seems warm and starts to stick, put it in the fridge for a half hour. If it seems nice and firmed and chilled, go ahead and slip a baking sheet underneath the pie and cook it for 30 minutes at 425. Reduce the temperature to 350 and continue to bake for 30 more minutes.

And who doesn't love a big dollop of whipped cream?! I just dump a cup of whipping cream with a 1/4 cup of sugar and a little vanilla if I think of it, and whip it in my KitchenAid on the highest setting for a minute or two. Whoop, there it is.

The Good [Handmade] Stuff: knitting for dummies (meaning me)

Granted, I know that one child is much easier than two or three or any more children than one. I know. All of you friends with multiple children have been clear on this point. But, there is a challenge I have run into with having just one child--every day, I find myself just sitting and watching. Sit and watch Pete play with his cars, then sit and watch him at playgroup, then sit and watch as he plays outside. I used to try to read, but after Peter grabbed my book and threw it on the ground a dozen times, I decided that reading was out. And I do like being interactive with him, which is hard to do while reading Anna Karenina. I resolved to pick up knitting for the sixth time and really get it this time. I've had one-on-one lessons in the past, which were good, but working with someone made me feel self-conscious. There's only so many times you can ask "will you do that again" before your teacher starts to think that you are an idiot. But, we live in the information age! No people required! I love the video tutorials at and have lost track of how many times I've watched the cast-on tutorial. Good times.

After I dedicated a cheap skein of yarn to getting the basic stitches down, I was ready to try something real. Ooooh! Naturally, my first project was a scarf. I can't say how many scarves I have started over the years, but this is the first one that I've ever finished and I was pretty happy with the results. The pattern can be found here.

After feeling a boost of confidence and a slight obsession to continue to knit something, I took a stab at some baby booties and a hat as a gift for a friend's baby. Really, knitting for babies is the most instinctive motherly activity there is. It's so natural to want to create things to keep baby toes and heads cozy during the winter months.

The booties are really simple, from the book Knitting for Baby. I love the hat so much. It reminds me of what pilgrim babies would wear coming across the ocean on the Mayflower. The pattern is from the book Last-Minute Knitted Gifts. And neither of these things required knitting in the round.

So, now, the slight obsession has evolved into a full-fledged weirdo addiction. I keep my little ball of yarn and needles in my purse always and pull it out in the car while Shane is driving, while talking on the phone, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I knitted through a whole game of Scrabble. Which I lost. Really lost. Anyway, maybe my enthusiasm well simmer down with my current project--I am attempting to make a sweater, which may be over my head. We'll see how it goes!