Thursday, April 21, 2016

Why Do We Do All That We Do?

This is school vacation week for my preschool-aged daughter, so I also made it vacation week for my homeschooled kindergarten-aged son. It's a relief for me in a way, because I get a break from planning homeschool lessons for a week, but it's not truly a vacation, because I still need to put on the "mom" hat and make sure my kids aren't just sitting in front of the TV/computer/Kindle screen all week long. If they're playing in the yard, I need to keep an eye on them now and then; if I have errands I need to run, I have to take them with me; I need to take them to the park or to spend time with friends or to do something outside the house. Plus of course I still need to plan and make meals and keep up with the laundry and scrape playdough off the kitchen floor now and then. And on top of that, I'm frantically sewing costumes for a show that opens in just a few weeks, along with requests on the table to help with costumes for two other shows that are opening soon and in desperate need of extra hands. And hovering in the background of all this is work for a Board that I sit on and a committee that I chair, as well as two other committees that I'm involved with.

I'm wearing a lot of different hats this week.

In some ways, it's a relief to switch from one hat to another: when my hands are tired from sewing, I can "take a break" by catching up on Board emails; when my brain is spinning from trying to straighten out some disagreement on a committee, I can "take a break" by supervising my kids riding their bikes; when I'm tired of researching some homeschool topic I want to cover, I can "take a break" by making out my grocery list and going shopping (with two kids in tow, of course).

But it's kind of like circuit-training at the gym: You give your legs a break while you work on your arms, then you give your arms a break while you work on your abs, etc. But when your workout is over, you're still tired. You still need a break.

That's the hardest thing about parenting - heck, that's the hardest thing about life. You never really get a complete break! Someone always needs to be fed, some kind of work always needs to be done, some kind of conflict always needs to be resolved. So how do we get through it without collapsing from exhaustion or totally losing our minds?

The best solution I've found so far is to take a few moments now and then to consciously sit back and enjoy the results of all the work I'm doing. When I'm tired of sewing, I pull up photos of costumes I've designed and think about how satisfying it is to see my creations come to life. I think about the look on an actor's face when he puts on a costume I've made and suddenly feels his character spring to life. When I'm frustrated by my son's lack of interest in a particular subject, I remind myself of his excitement and enthusiasm about another subject. I try to remember times when he was so excited about learning that he grabbed a book and continued studying on his own. When I'm annoyed by the politics and conflicts on one of my Boards or committees, I think back to some of the projects we've accomplished together, the problems that we did solve in the end, and the groups and individuals that we've helped over the years. I remind myself of why I do all these things.

It's too easy to get so wrapped up in the process of what we do that we forget the reason behind what we do. I don't serve on the theatre board just so I'll have something to write on my resume when I go back to work, I do it because I love theatre and I want to help the many groups in our area learn their craft even better, and share it with our community. I don't make costumes just because I like to sew, but because this is an artistic outlet that allows me to think creatively, to physically create images that exist inside my head, and to contribute to a greater artistic vision. I don't homeschool just because public school wasn't the best choice for my son this year, but because I want to encourage my son's creative thinking and curiosity and natural love of learning. I need to remember to focus on those outcomes and not just the annoyances and difficulties of reaching those outcomes.

So what's getting me through this week of shopping and sewing and supervising and emailing and resolving is that mental checklist of results: a full pantry and happy tummies, a vest that makes its wearer smile, laughing and thinking children, averted crises, and compromises that leave all parties satisfied.

And then, just maybe, I can throw on one more hat for a little while.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Snickerdoodles: This Is a Recipe Post, But It's Not JUST a Recipe Post

I am aware that I have not been blogging as much recently as I often have in the past, and I am also aware that I have been writing more blogs about cooking and cocktails than I have about my life and my children. I was NOT aware, however, that other people were missing my "kid blogs." But this past weekend when we visited my grandmother to celebrate her birthday, she dressed me down a little about it. Well, "dressed down" is a bit strong. Let's say, rather, that she let me know how disappointed she was every time she checked my blog and the latest post was still my recipe for bolognese.

So when I asked my kids if they'd like to bake something this afternoon, and they requested snickerdoodles, my first thought was, "Great, I can post a recipe blog!" But my second thought was, "Wait, I really ought to blog about my kids." But then my third thought was, "But I really WANT to blog about my kids." So I decided to cover all my bases and blog about both my kids AND my cookies. Which, not surprisingly, is an excellent combination.

My kids are at that really fun age, at ages 6 and 4-1/2 (and that half is crucially important), when they are perfectly capable of playing by themselves and keeping themselves entertained with minimal supervision, yet they also love playing with an adult. My daughter will happily make up a story with her dolls, but she's even happier if I grab a doll and play along. And my son loves to build Legos, but he has even more fun if I sit with him and ask questions and let him describe to me all the different characters and vehicles he's creating. I truly enjoy doing things with them, seeing their curious minds at work, and filling those sponge-like little brains with all kinds of information and experiences. So whenever I can find time to play with them, I do.

It's rare that I get the chance to work with both of them in the kitchen at the same time, but since they're on vacation this week (my daughter from preschool and my son and I both from homeschool), it was the perfect time for a trio of chefs to perform some kitchen magic. And perform it, we did! This snickerdoodle recipe is
pretty basic: if you bake at all regularly, you have everything you need on hand (with the possible exception of cream of tartar - which you SHOULD have, so you can make homemade playdough, but that's another blog for another day), it doesn't require chilling the dough so it's quick to make, and there are no fancy tools or equipment needed. In short, it's a great recipe to make with kids. So let's get started! As always, the complete recipe is at the bottom.

Oh, and since my cousin posted this fascinating article about cookie chemistry, I also shamelessly used the process as a chemistry lesson. (Wondering why this recipe uses room temperature butter, an egg and a yolk instead of two eggs, or both white and brown sugar? Read the article and find out! the author is experimenting with chocolate chip cookies, but a lot of the same processes apply.)

Whenever I bake with the kids, we begin by gathering our ingredients (there's nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe and realizing you're out of something). For this recipe, you need butter, eggs, white and brown sugar, vanilla, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, cinnamon, and flour.

Start with two sticks of butter at room temperature. If you have to, you can soften them in the microwave, but be very careful not to melt them. Use low power and check often! This is a good step to have kids help you with. They like the squishiness of soft butter (which is why we wash our hands VERY well before we begin - and multiple times during).  

Cream the butter together with 3/4 cup white sugar and 1/2 cup packed brown sugar. If you have a stand mixer, use it! If all you have is your faithful hand mixer that you've owned since college (*ahem*), that's fine, too. Be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Spatula duty is another good job for small helpers.

Next, separate one egg and toss the white (or save it in the fridge for another use - like adding it into tomorrow's scrambled eggs), then add the yolk and the second (whole) egg. I always separate the first egg. That way, in case I accidentally break the yolk, I can pretend I meant to do that and get a second chance with the other egg. My son is the official egg-breaker in the family, so this is always his job. He is also learning to separate eggs - which is another reason we tried with the first egg first. As you can see, he did an excellent job!

Add a tablespoon of vanilla (it seems like a lot, but it's the main flavoring in the cookie, along with the cinnamon, so don't stint!) and beat on medium for another minute or so.

Add a teaspoon of baking powder, a teaspoon of cream of tartar, 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of cinnamon. If using a hand mixer, I recommend folding these ingredients in with the spatula before beating with the mixer - it's less messy that way. Plus, little ones who like to stir can help.

When you're done mixing, the dough should be very soft and creamy, and uniform in color.

Gradually add 2-3/4 cups flour, beating on low at first. Scrape the sides of the bowl often. The finished dough should be quite smooth and only slightly sticky, although very soft.

In a smaller bowl, combine 1/4 cup white sugar with 1 tablespoon cinnamon. This will be used to coat the cookie balls before baking. I like to use a fairly wide, shallow bowl so it's easier to roll the dough balls around. My official stirrer was also a big help in mixing here. You can whisk the mixture together with a fork or a small wire whisk. You'll know it's mixed when the color is even, with no streaks.

Now, we're ready to roll out the cookies! First, preheat the oven to 325, then line a couple of large cookie sheets with parchment paper. Next, scoop out about 2 tablespoons of dough - about the size of a small munchkin. I like to use this handy little gadget, which probably has an actual name, but which I generally refer to as my "cookie flicker." You use the flat blade like a scoop, then pinch the handle and the upper edge pushes the dough neatly off the blade. If you don't have one of these, a) look for one at your grandmother's house or a local yard sale, or b) use a couple of teaspoons. This is my kids' favorite part of the whole cookie-making process; it's like playing with playdough!

Roll each ball very gently between your palms to form a smooth ball, then roll carefully in the cinnamon sugar until well coated, and place on the parchment-covered cookie sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until puffed and golden. The cookies will firm a bit as they cool, but undercooking can leave the middles a bit batter-y (not that that's necessarily a bad thing). If you want to get fancy, you can turn the tray around halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking, but I didn't find that it made a difference.

When done, allow the cookies to cool on the parchment paper. Don't bother using a cooling rack; if you put them on a cooling rack while they're still warm, they tend to droop through the wires. If you need to reuse the cookie sheet for another batch, just give them about 10 minutes to set and then lift the whole sheet of parchment off and leave it on the table to finish cooling, and re-cover the cookie sheet with another sheet of parchment.

 And, of course, the last - and BEST! - part of the process is enjoying the results! YUM!!

Easy Snickerdoodles

For the cookies:
1 cup butter (room temperature)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg plus 1 yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2-3/4 cups flour

For the coating:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

In a large mixing bowl, beat together butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add in egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat for an additional minute, scraping sides of bowl with rubber spatula. Turn mixer to medium-low and add baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and cinnamon. Gradually add flour with mixer on low, scraping bowl with spatula and mixing till just combined.

In a small, shallow bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon till well mixed and set aside.

Preheat oven to 325 and line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out two tablespoons of dough at a time and shape into balls, then roll in cinnamon sugar until well coated. Place on parchment, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until edges are slightly golden. If you prefer crisper cookies, bake for 2 additional minutes. Allow to cool on parchment.

Makes 3 dozen.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bread Around the World: Naan

Today's "Country of the Day" was India, so you would think that our culinary adventure of the day would be some amazing curry, or spicy tikka masala, or some kind of satay. With the whole world of unfamiliar but delightful spices and flavors, who couldn't help but be adventurous? Yeah, my son opted for naan. In other words, bread made from flour, egg, sugar, salt, and a splash of milk.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, by any means. I love naan. And since my son is a fellow bread-aholic, it didn't come as a surprise that he chose bread as our foreign food of the day. It actually kicked off a fascinating discussion of how people throughout the world have some form of bread as a dietary staple, no matter where on earth they live, whether it's the soft white bread we eat in America, crustier loaves in Europe, tortillas in South America, or sadza ( or ga'at, or posho, or ugali) in Africa. Everybody loves bread.

So we found a simple recipe, collected our ingredients, and got ready to cook! For the complete recipe, please scroll to the bottom.

First, we collected our ingredients: flour, sugar, yeast, salt, an egg, some butter, and a little milk.

The first step is to dissolve a package of yeast in a cup of warm water (handwashing warm is about the right temperature). Do this in a large bowl - you can do not only the mixing but also the kneading right in the same bowl. Fewer dishes to wash, yay! Give the yeast about 10 minutes to work its magic. We took advantage of those 10 minutes to measure out the rest of our ingredients. 

Measure out 1/4 cup of sugar, then add 2 teaspoons of salt. They'll be added at the same time, so it doesn't matter if they're mixed together.  

Measure out 3 tablespoons of milk. We used 2%, but anything from whole to skim is fine. I suspect that even soy or almond milk would do. We measured it into a small bowl before adding, because we had just opened a new gallon of milk and it was hard to pour neatly!

Next, break the egg into a small bowl and beat it with a fork.

Measure out 4 cups of flour. You may need 1/2 cup or so more, but 4 cups is a good starting point.

After the yeast has been in water for 10 minutes, add the remaining ingredients, except for the flour. Mix well with a spoon.


Next, gradually add the flour. You may want to trade your spoon for a whisk at first. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl. It's handy to have a friend scrape while you stir. Once the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, it's ready to mix with your hands.


The dough will still be lumpy and sticky, but keeping it in the bowl while you knead makes it easier to work in the extra flour that's already in the bowl. If the dough still seems very sticky after it absorbs all the flour, feel free to add some more. Once the dough forms a nice ball, you can start to knead it properly: Fold the far side of the dough ball towards you and push it down and away from you with your knuckles. Then turn it a quarter-turn and repeat. Keep pushing and turning until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. You can flip the dough lump over now and then, if you like. If your bowl slips, put a rubber pot lid gripper under it, or a few layers of damp paper towels.

Your dough is now ready for its first rising! Spray another large bowl with cooking spray and turn the dough into the bowl. Cover it with a tea towel (to prevent the dough from drying out) and place it in a warm place (if your oven has a "proof" setting, that's ideal; if not, the top of your fridge is usually nice and toasty). Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about an hour or so.

When it's done rising, you get to do the funnest step: punch it down! Seriously, take your fist and punch straight down, right in the middle of the dough ball.

Knead it a few more times to get it all smooth and even.

Next, cover a couple of cookie sheets with non-stick foil. 

Divide the dough into golf-ball sized pieces, rolling each into a smooth ball and laying them out on the cookie sheets with a little space in between. A dozen balls fit nicely on each pan, and the dough made exactly two dozen balls. My small helper didn't like handling the dough at its sticky stage, but he enjoyed helping roll it into balls at this stage.

Place the trays of dough balls back into your warm place for about 30 minutes, for a second rising. I didn't bother covering them this time.

When they're finished rising, spray your grill or griddle with non-stick spray (be sure to have the flame OFF when spraying!!!). Pre-heat the grill to high. 

While the grill is heating, melt 1/4 cup butter in the microwave.

I moved all the dough balls onto a single tray and used the empty tray (still covered in non-stick foil) as my rolling surface. Well, technically, it was my "squashing" surface, since I used the ball of my hand instead of a rolling pin. Flatten the dough balls until they're quite thin, pushing and stretching as you would pizza dough. My final circles were about 6 inches in diameter.

When the grill is hot, place the flattened circles on it. Cook for about 3 minutes, then brush the uncooked surface with the melted butter and flip with tongs.


Cook for another 2 or 3 minutes on the second side, then use tongs to put on a paper plate to cool. The buttered side keeps the grill well greased, so there's no need to re-spray the grill.

Fresh naan, hot of the griddle, is the best! But the leftovers will keep nicely if well-wrapped (I reused the foil I had used to line the cookie sheets), and can be reheated either in the oven or on the grill. A few seconds in the microwave will soften it slightly, but it's still delicious. Enjoy!


1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp milk
4+ cups flour
1/4 cup butter, melted

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Add sugar, salt, egg, and milk and blend well. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead for 6-8 minutes on a lightly floured board (or in the mixing bowl) until smooth and elastic, adding flour if needed. Turn dough out into an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down dough, then pinch off golfball-sized handfuls of dough and form into smooth balls. Place balls on a cookie sheet lined with non-stick foil. Cover with a towel (or not) and allow to rise an additional 30 minutes.

Spray the grill with oil and preheat to high heat. Flatten each dough ball into a thin circle with rolling pin or hands. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned and puffy. Brush the uncooked side with butter and flip with tongs. Cook the second side for an additional 2-3 minutes, until browned, and remove from grill.

Recipe makes approx. 24 6-inch diameter rounds.

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