All posts for the month February, 2012

The anatomy of dinner decisions

Published February 29, 2012 by livinggraciously

The 5-year-old who lives in my head: WAAAAH! You didn’t feed me ALL DAY!!! I’m starving!!

Me: I’m sorry. This day didn’t go anything like it was supposed to. Let’s make dinner now.

5yo: WAAAAH!!!! I’m too hungry for cooking!! Let’s eat the leftover Girl Scout cookies!

Me: You know that isn’t going to happen. Let’s see what we have in the fridge.

5yo: There’s heavy cream, and butter, and a great Amish raw milk cheese. Let’s make cheese sauce!

Me: And put it over…what?

5yo: What do you mean?

Me: It’s sauce. It has to go over something.

5yo: I’m not getting you.

Me: Are you suggesting that we just eat cheese sauce all by itself out of the pot?!

5yo: Oh my god, if you’re gonna be that way about it, just make it thinner and call it soup!

Me: …

5yo: Oh, fine! What’s your idea?

Me: We have all these wonderful greens that we got at the market the other day….

5yo: Salad?! You can’t be serious! I’m hungry!!!

Me: Well, I can saute up some onions and red bell peppers and mushrooms.

5yo: MEAT!!!

Me: Okay, and some grilled steak sliced thin. Oh, and I have some avocado.

5yo: A WHOLE red pepper! A WHOLE avocado!!

Me: That’s a lot of–

5yo: Whole! Whole whole WHOLE!!!!

And that is why I am currently eating a salad the size of my head. It’s actually very tasty, and the 5-year-old is quieting down.

And it’s certainly healthier than a pot of cheese sauce.


The philosophy of an unmade bed

Published February 28, 2012 by livinggraciously

Every “clean up your home” book tells you to make your bed every day as soon as you get up. And it’s good advice: you psychologically establish a mentality of first-thing success before moving on with the day.

Which is great. Except that I am almost always out of bed a minimum of an hour before Ferrett, and usually working out when he does get out of bed. So my mindset is definitely out of the bedroom and on to other things by the time the bed is available for making.

And we have the further problem that after I get out of bed, he grabs all the pillows and makes himself a nest of tangled blankets such that I occasionally look to see if he’s laying eggs. Actually remaking the bed every morning would mean tearing everything off of it to put it all back on. Plus, he hates the topsheet and sleeps with an extra blanket, whereas I have to have the topsheet and often have a blanket only over my torso, so it’s almost like we have two separate sets of covers.

While he’s gone this week, it’s easy for me to slip into my side of the bed then slip back out again and pull the covers up behind me–after all, I’m not trekking across the giant bed to snuggle up with my honey, so my own bed habits are even quieter than usual. His extra blanket is folded in half on his side of the bed, under the duvet. All very neat and easy.

When he gets back, I will have to make more effort to keep the bed made. But I’d rather have his cuddles and a tangle of blankets than all the neatness of a too-quiet house. Maybe the bed won’t get made. But cuddles matter even more.

Digging out of the mire

Published February 24, 2012 by livinggraciously

A couple of things have come together to inspire me to spend the next week in spring cleaning and organization. First of all, Ferrett is out of town on his annual pilgrimage to his ancestral home, plus visits to places further east. So I have the house to myself and can tear through it without being in his way. And I can turn on whatever music I want to listen to at volume and enjoy it while I work.

Second, my friend Cat Valente has started a new Tumblr about getting herself organized called Girl Unlocked and she is inspiring me. I’m far too lazy to start a different blog for such things, so you will just have to bear with me here. It’s not cooking, but it is part of living graciously, so I feel justified. And it’s my blog, so I get to do what I want.

Ferrett departed this morning, and my first reaction…was to sit down and veg on the computer for a while. I was missing him terribly even as he pulled out of the driveway. Yeah, it’s nice to have this time to rip things apart, get the dust bunnies out of the back corners, and generally reorganize, and yeah, it’s something I do much more efficiently when I’m home alone than when I have someone around. But honestly, I’d choose living with the dust and clutter over having him gone.

I’m sappy. I know.

Anyway, after a short pout, I rousted myself off the couch and got to work. I’ve read several books on getting your house cleaned and organized. They universally suggest focusing on one room at a time, and for just a small part of the day.

Naturally, I attacked the living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, AND master bedroom.

Now admittedly, none of these rooms were in truly disastrous shape. It was clutter and dust more than anything for the living room and dining room. The bedroom had some junk, but most of it was easy to find a home for. And the bathroom just needed cleaning (don’t they always?!). Still, it took about four solid hours of work. But now I have all my main living spaces looking neat and uncluttered, just the way I like them, and they will stay that way for the next 10 days!

Tomorrow the real work begins: I have to attack my office. It looks like a Tornado Alley trailer park right now. And it needs more than just cleaning up; I need to think about properly reorganizing it so it’s not so prone to getting this messy. It’s probably a two-day job all by itself. After that, the guest room, which will not take too long, and my sewing room, which is another two-day job at least. Then there’s Ferrett’s office.

I’m thinking that I might just leave that be. A girl can only push her luck so far.

As I noted at the beginning, with Ferrett gone I could put on whatever music I wanted, as loud as I wanted, while cleaning. So I did. I dug around to find my favorite music of all time: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.  And not just any recording. I own three copies, but even after finding the other two I had to keep looking until I found the recording of the Vienna Philharmonic with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano and Zubin Mehta conducting.  I listened to the whole thing twice, and it did my spirit good.

Now I am sneezing from the dust and a bit cobwebby. Time to reward myself with a relaxing bath. The tub’s even clean!

Paean to a Pair of Shades

Published February 22, 2012 by livinggraciously

I wore the same sunglasses for 26 years.

Not the same kind of sunglasses. The same sunglasses.

And this was not a pair that lived in the car and were only worn while driving. I wore these glasses camping, kayaking, biking and skiing. They went with me to the neighborhood park, national parks, and amusement parks. They were perched on my nose during an Alaska river trip at the moment when I realized that I was pregnant with my first daughter.

She’s getting married next spring.

Are these glasses some expensive pair of Ray-Bans that I’ve obsessed over? Nope. Are they such a gorgeous pair of glasses that I can’t bear the thought of losing them? Uh-uh. They are a pair of Uvex tinted safety glasses that cost me a princely $9.95 at the eye shop in our local grocery store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Ferrett regards them as the ugliest sunglasses he’s ever seen–he told me once that he admired my self-confidence in continuing to wear them.

So why do I keep wearing them? Because they do everything I need in a pair of sunglasses: they are large and wrap close to my face. They continue at a right angle to protect the side of my eye. They even have a brow ridge. My eyes are basically sealed away from the dust and pollen that drive me crazy and ruin my day. I love them with all my heart.

But a quarter century of wear takes its toll on a pair of shades. And it’s gotten to the point where I put them on and it’s like looking through fog. It’s hard to give them up, but it’s time to hang them up. So after shopping around, trying a few other styles, and thinking about it, I’ve purchased replacement glasses.

Another pair of Uvex glasses exactly like the ones I’ve been wearing.

Yeah, they aren’t glamorous. But they do the job I want them to do. Today I wore them for the first time, riding my bike for 12 miles. I’m just as comfortable, but without the feeling that I’m squinting through haze.

The old pair? They’re still in my bike bag. They got to go along with me on the ride. I will have to find a place of honor for them. They’re old friends who’ve been with me almost half my life. That’s a long, long time.

BBA Challenge #8: Cinnamon Rolls or Sticky Buns

Published February 16, 2012 by livinggraciously

This bread had to wait until there were going to be other people in the house. Because I cannot be entrusted with such things on my own. I chose the cinnamon rolls option. And for the first time, I used my Kitchen Aid to start a dough. Yes, that’s right, I broke down and used technology. This dough started out like cookie dough, with butter and sugar being creamed, and that was something definitely best done in a mixer. Once the dough was all together and in a dough ball, though, I just couldn’t get a feel for how developed it was in the mixer, so it was back to the counter and hand-kneading. Once it rose, next was rolling it out into a rectangle:

I don’t use my rolling pin very often, but when I do, I’m quite happy that I splurged on a marble pin, because it rolls the dough out effortlessly. The recipe called for dusting the pin with flour to keep the dough from sticking, but I decided to just rub a bit of olive oil over it, and that worked perfectly:

The cinnamon.sugar mix is then to be sprinkled onto the dough. Several of the writeups I’ve seen of this bread complained that the mixture didn’t stay in the roll, or that there was too much of it. I was determined not to have this problem, and solved it in the tastiest way possible: butter.

By brushing the dough with melted butter, I was able to sprinkle the cinnamon on without having any issue with it being dry and falling out. In fact, if I make them again, I will increase the cinnamon/sugar mix–I like my cinnamon rolls to be very cinnamon-filled.

The next step is rolling up the dough and then slicing into individual rolls. The instructions in the book are a bit hazy as to the size of pan these should go in. It sounds like he’s talking about a jelly roll plan, but I could tell that would be too large, so I went to a baking pan:

Yeah, not so much. I moved them to a smaller baking pan:

They were probably a bit close together now, because they sprang nicely in the oven and crowded close together, which meant that they took an extra 10 minutes to bake. But they came out pretty:

For the glaze, the recipe called for a fondant made with milk, powdered sugar, and lemon extract. I was unimpressed with the suggestion, so I added sour cream and got rid of the lemon extract, making for a much tastier glaze.

The results were quite tasty, though not the best cinnamon rolls I’ve had. I think I would leave out the lemon flavoring in the dough if I were to make them again. The next time I make cinnamon rolls I think I will try the buttermilk biscuit recipe I made for Thanksgiving and make cinnamon rolls out it it.

Home is what you make it–one workout at a time

Published February 7, 2012 by livinggraciously

When we repainted and remodeled the upstairs, a lot of our stuff got moved from upstairs to downstairs. This resulted in our upstairs area looking very nice: clean and sleek, the way I like things to look.

The family room in the basement, however, was another matter:

Now, this space is not one that we use on a daily basis, and being in the basement, it was very “out of sight, out of mind” for a long time. I would go downstairs to do laundry and sort of…shut my eyes as I walked past. I don’t like messes, particularly when I feel helpless in the face of them. And wow, did I feel helpless in the face of this one. I’d walk in there and just kind of flap my hands in despair. So it was easier to just pretend that half of our basement didn’t exist.

But then I decided to start working out again. And my exercise equipment is in the basement. So something had to be done.

At first, I just moved all the boxes to the other end of the room, freeing up the exercise equipment. This made workouts possible, but being me quite stressful. Remember about the not liking messes?

I began lifting heavier weights, and with the heavier lifting came recovery time between sets. With a minute or two needed to catch my breath came boredom. And with boredom came the need to do a little something.

I began picking up. A little here and there. Inspired, I urged Ferrett to help me sort through the books and get rid of some–as in 8 large boxes worth. And kept picking up. When we got our new bed, we decided to put our old one into the family room for extra guest space. Day by day, I organized for just a few minutes here and there.

This is what the basement looks like now:

It’s kind of hard to imagine it’s the same space. Now I walk down there and just smile.

BBA Bread #7: Ciabatta

Published February 3, 2012 by livinggraciously

The bread baking continues, this time an Italian bread that I’ve experienced in restaurants but never at home.

Ciabatta starts with a preferment, like so many other breads in this book. As always, that means that starting the day before is the better choice. Of course, I didn’t manage to do that. Still, I was able to give the preferment 5 hours to do its bubbly thing. After that, more flour, salt, and liquid is added. The recipe called for water, but the side comments said that buttermilk could be used for a more tender crumb, and since I had buttermilk available I thought, what the heck?

What results from the mixing of all the ingredients is, well, a wet, sloppy mess:

For 7 minutes or so, you mix this slop in the bowl, turning the bowl clockwise as you go along, dampening your hand to keep the dough from sticking, and then turning it counter-clockwise, all the time squishing the dough to form the gluten.

5-year-olds would love this.

You then take this wet mess, plop it onto a flour-covered counter, and engage in the “lift-and-fold” method of kneading. The idea is that dough too wet to be kneaded can be scooped, stretched, then folded in on itself. This dough was very wet, and the directions weren’t really clear enough on how many times, or for how long. So I did it for…a while? The dough rested for half an hour, then I had to do it again. And again, I wasn’t sure for how long. I think I probably should have done it for longer, in retrospect. But either way, the dough then rises on the counter, covered, for two hours.

Once it finishes rising, the dough is divided into two pieces, each of which will be a separate bread. The breads are to be set up in a couche, a cloth divider meant to hold the loaves in shape. Generally, this is done with a length of canvas impregnated with flour and used for this sole purpose.

I don’t happen to own such a length of canvas, so I had to find some other piece of smooth cloth that I could flour. The obvious choice was a pillowcase:

(Okay, for demonstration purposes I probably shouldn’t have chosen a black pillowcase.)

The dough was very sticky, so I sprinkled on lots of flour. The bread rose well, but then came the next step, which was getting the loaf onto the peel so that it could then be slipped onto the hearthstone where it would bake.

I must make a confession now: I’ve always used parchment paper on the peel and slid the whole shebang into the oven. But Reinhart makes it clear that while certain breads can be cooked with on parchment, others should not be. And ciabatta is one of the “should not be” breads. So I sprinkled the peel with cornmeal to give it a try.

This would have been easier if the loaf was a bit less like a non-Newtonian fluid. As it was, getting my hands under the loaf was like lifting a jellyfish. Not easy. Much swearing ensued. But I finally managed to get it there:

Then there was the setup for getting it into the oven:

The kettle was to fill a broiler pan with boiling water, the mister to further mist the bread in the first part of the baking. And the towel? To cover the glass door of the oven while pouring the water into the broiler. Because at 500 degrees, even tempered glass isn’t immune to cracking if water is dribbled on it.

All this, and we finally had bread:

The measure of success in ciabatta is large holes, so the proof was in the cutting:

We got some very good holes, but the crumb didn’t really taste like ciabatta — very tasty, but not quite ciabatta. But then by this morning the flavor had matured and it was very much ciabatta.Very good dipped in olive oil.

There are several variations on the ciabatta, and I will make others in the future. It’s not an easy bread, but it is very tasty.

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