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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Creamy Gnocchi with Mushrooms


Matthew conquered two major milestones over the past month, one good and one not-so-great. Let's start with the good. After watching nearly every person in his first grade classroom gradually enter the pirate phase by dropping teeth out of their mouths, including one poor girl who lost two during lunch while biting into an apple - Matthew has finally joined them by losing his first baby tooth. Matthew started teething really late as a baby - after his first birthday - and I'm guessing that's the reason his mouth has been equally slow to lose them in favor of his adult teeth. But, one day at lunch, Matthew began complaining that his mouth hurt when he bit into his sandwich and after closer inspection I verified that one of his lower incisors was in deed on the verge of being evicted by an emerging adult tooth. I offered to pull it for him right then and there but he squealed at the thought.

So, Matthew sat and wiggled it for the remainder of the day until it was basically hanging on by the tiniest bit. Sick of watching him constantly put his hands in his mouth, I told him I just wanted to inspect it and then yanked it out with barely any effort. Matthew didn't even notice until he saw that I was holding it in my hand. "My tooth!! I lost my first tooth! YIPPEE!!"



He then proceeded to run a victory lap around the house and find every neighbor on our street to show them his accomplishment up close and personal by shoving his bloody tooth into their faces while peeling back his gums to proudly display the tiny little crevice left behind. It was a very big deal for him.

That night, Matthew left his tooth on his nightstand in anxious anticipation of a visit from the tooth fairy. After he had fallen asleep, Paul sneaked into his room and replaced the tiny tooth with a conglomeration of coins adding up to one dollar since neither of us actually had any paper cash on us. When he came back into our room with the tooth, I told him that I wanted to put it in Matthew's baby book as a keepsake and for some reason Paul took that to mean that he should have a mini seizure right at that moment. For no reason whatsoever, he lost his grip on the tooth, bobbled it for a few seconds in a vain attempt to catch it, and then dropped it onto our shag carpet where it became lost among the fibers. We searched and searched for it for about 20 minutes but there was no trace of it. I even vacuumed the next morning in the hopes of finding it that way, but no luck. And that's how Matthew, and his parents, lost a tooth.

The second milestone has to do with the ever-so-common but completely-horrifying instance where children decide to test out their skills as a hairstylist. Usually on their younger siblings and almost always with less-than-stellar results. I had so far survived only one minor incidence of Emma cutting her own hair and ever since then have been pretty careful about keeping scissors out of reach. Matthew does keep a pair of crafting scissors with his art supplies but that's because I was positive I didn't have to worry about him using them inappropriately. Well, we live and learn because Matthew decided to cut a family member's hair this morning only it wasn't Lucy or Emma's. Poor Peyton was the victim.



I walked into the family room and nearly jumped at the discovery of several large clumps of reddish-golden fur. At first I thought Peyton must be going through a major shedding phase and began to panic at that thought, but then I noticed that the hair was clumped in clusters that seemed as if they had been deliberately cut from his mane - the edges were perfectly clean. Then, I took a good look at Peyton's back and sure enough there was evidence that someone had completely hacked off the longer parts of his fur, leaving him with a choppy, unsightly-looking coat. I was sure it was Emma, but when she instead pointed her finger at Matthew, he quickly owned up to it, claiming that Peyton "needed a haircut to stay cool". Matthew was then ordered to clean up all the hair, apologize to Peyton (yeah, I know, like he cares!), and instructed that he would be banned from scissors at home for the next few weeks.

I still thank God that Matthew was inspired to cut Peyton's hair rather than Lucy's...


These kids keep me on my toes which is why when it comes to mealtime I need to make something that is quick, easy, filling, and enjoyable. Here is a great meal that takes less than 30 minutes to get on the table: Creamy Gnocchi with Mushrooms. The recipe uses par-cooked potato gnocchi found in the pasta section of your grocery store so you don't have to worry about making your own (gnocchi is historically quite difficult to get right!). The gnocchi is seared in butter before being set aside to make a creamy mushroom-based sauce that is infused with just a bit of cream to make a velvety accompaniment to the soft gnocchi. Finished with a quick simmer and a handful of chopped fresh basil and you've got a dinner that can be great for company or as an easy, weeknight family meal. The gnocchi is creamy and rich without being too heavy. Serve with a beautiful green salad and some Italian bread for a complete meal.


Creamy Gnocchi with Mushrooms
from Cook's Country

Note: I almost always double the mushrooms because I love them. Vacuum sealed gnocchi found in the pasta aisle works best, but frozen or refrigerated gnocchi will also work in a pinch. And don't be afraid of the nutmeg! It adds authentic Italian flare to this dish.

1 1/4 cups vegetable broth
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 cup)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound vacuum-packed gnocchi
1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

Whisk broth, Parmesan, cream, nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper together in bowl; set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add gnocchi and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes; transfer to plate.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in now-empty skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth mixture and gnocchi and bring to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Blueberries and Cream Cookies


The blueberries are here!

I look forward all year for the blueberries to ripen just so I can drag the kids out multiple times to pick pounds and pounds of blueberries both to be eaten fresh and to freeze for our enjoyment during the long, cold winters. This year's harvest is apparently amazing so the moment I saw the signs out in front of our favorite blueberry farm, I was itching to get the kids over there to pick us some berries.

So, naturally, I planned for us to go on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer thus far. I figured if we went as soon as the fields opened that we could avoid the intense heat of the day.

How wrong I was.


First off, I had a very difficult time getting the children moving in the morning. Matthew readily went upstairs to get changed, but kept coming down dressed completely inappropriately for the day. The first time, he came down wearing sports pants. Pants! It was already 85 degrees and climbing! I sent him back with the strict instructions to wear shorts. He comes back down sporting his coonskin cap and a pair of shorts that were so over-sized, he struggled to keep them from sliding off his skinny little rump. I told him to go upstairs and put shorts on that fit him. 

This started a fit of whining, "But MOM! I want to dress like Davy Crockett!" to which I yelled back, "I'm sure Davy Crockett wore pants that fit him now GO CHANGE!"

The things you never thought you'd hear yourself say.

So, due to wardrobe changes and other excuses to dawdle, it was 10:00 AM and 90 degrees when I finally wrangled all the protesting children into the car and began the 20 minute drive to the farm.


When we arrived and the kids had claimed their buckets of various sizes, we headed out in search of a remote portion of the blueberry patch with abundant berries. After a bit of a walk in, we found a great spot and started picking. The children were quite enthusiastic at first, but their energy quickly waned as the sun and humidity began to take their toll. Lucy was the first to give up, throwing down her little bucket (filled with only about 10 under-ripe berries) and demanding that I pick her up. I couldn't because I was balancing a gigantic bucket around my neck as well as my camera because I didn't want to miss an opportunity for some precious family photos, laughable now since they all look fairly miserable in the five pictures I did manage to take.

After about 15 minutes of picking, Emma was also ready to throw in the towel and sat down to just eat the blueberries she picked. Matthew also began to wig out because a June bug flew in his face. I was the only one still picking at this point, limping from bush to bush with an extra appendage in the form of my 2-year-old wrapped around my leg. At this point we had picked maybe a pint of berries which was hardly worth our visit!



And then from between the bushes came my guardian angel in the form of an elderly woman with a full bucket of berries.

"Your children are darling!" she told me in greeting, "I had seven of my own and taking them out anywhere in the summer heat is quite the chore."

She then asked me to switch buckets with her, handing me hers that was filled-to-the-brim: "Go ahead and take it. It's a lot of work picking berries but way more difficult with children. I remember those days!"

So we switched buckets and, after thanking her profusely, we headed back to pay for them. The kids were overjoyed. It was just too hot. Her act of kindness and compassion was greatly, greatly appreciated!


In honor of the start of blueberry season, I am sharing our favorite cookie recipe - Blueberries and Cream Cookies. Perhaps this isn't the best recipe to share to celebrate blueberry season since it requires dried blueberries instead of fresh, meaning you can't use all those big, beautiful, berries from the local fields or farmers markets unless you dehydrate them yourself (but really, who has time for that?). Thankfully dried blueberries are readily available year-round at any well-stocked grocery store meaning you can make these at any time, blueberry season or not. And you're going to want to because these cookies are amazing.

This is another recipe from the genius of Christina Tosi. This was the cookie I chose to try at her famed Milk Bar in NYC. Paul and I had originally agreed to share our cookies, but after taking one bite I knew that he wasn't getting any of it - it was that good! Naturally, I made a couple batches of this cookie from her cook book as soon as we got home and Paul agreed that it was his new favorite cookie recipe.

While the recipe itself is a bit more involved than the average cookie recipe - requiring an extra long beating of the batter in order to properly beat all that fat and sugar into submission and give the cookies some body otherwise the cookies have a tendency to spread. I have also found that using a flour with a little extra protein also helps give the cookies a bit more height. Otherwise, these are the chewiest, tastiest, most excellent cookies around. The milk crumb is pure genius and I have always been a huge fan of white chocolate and any fruit - fresh or dried! Take the extra time to make these. They will certainly be worth your while!


Blueberries and Cream Cookies
from Milk Bar

Note: For best results, weigh all of your ingredients. Glucose can be found at most craft stores, believe it or not, or online. You can substitute corn syrup for the glucose and, while acceptable, the cookies themselves do not come out as gloriously chewy.

For the Milk Crumb:
¼ cup (20g) milk powder
2 tablespoons (20g) flour
1 tablespoon (6g) cornstarch
1 tablespoon (12.5g) sugar
¼ teaspoon (1g) kosher salt
2 tablespoons (¼ stick, 27.5g) butter, melted
2 tablespoons (10g) milk powder

1 ½ ounces (45g) white chocolate, melted

For the Cookies:
16 tablespoons (2 sticks, 225 g) butter, at room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) granulated sugar
⅔ cup (150 g) light brown sugar, tightly packed
¼ cup (100 g) glucose
2 large eggs
2 cups (320 g) bread flour
½ teaspoon (2 g) baking powder
¼ teaspoon (1 g) baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 cup (130 g) dried blueberries (I always toss in extra!)

To make the Milk Crumb:

Heat the oven to 250° F.

Combine the 20 g (¼ cup) milk powder, the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Toss with your hands to mix. Add the melted butter and toss, using a spatula, until the mixture starts to come together and form small clusters.

Spread the clusters on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes. The crumbs should be sandy at that point, and your kitchen should smell like buttery heaven. Cool the crumbs completely.

Crumble any milk crumb clusters that are larger than ½ inch in diameter and put the crumbs in a medium bowl. Add the 10 g (2 tablespoons) milk powder and toss together until it is evenly distributed throughout the mixtures.

Pour the white chocolate over the crumbs and toss until your clusters are coated. Continue tossing them every 5 minutes until the white chocolate hardens and the clusters are no longer sticky. The crumbs will keep in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer for up to 1 month.

To make the Cookies: 

Combine the butter, sugars, and glucose in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and beat for 7 to 8 minutes.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix just until the dough comes together, no longer than 1 minute. (Do not walk away from the machine during this step, or you will risk overmixing the dough.) Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

Still on low speed, add the milk crumbs and mix until they’re incorporated, no more than 30 seconds. Chase the milk crumbs with the dried blueberries, mixing them in for 30 seconds.

Using a 2 ¾-ounce ice cream scoop (or a ⅓-cup measure), portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat. Wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour [I did overnight], or up to 1 week. Do not bake your cookies from room temperature—they will not bake properly.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350° F.

Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment- or Silpat-lined sheet pans. Bake for 18 minutes, checking after 15 to ensure that you do not overbake them! The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. They should be very faintly browned on the edges yet still bright yellow in the center.

Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or to an airtight container for storage. At room temp, the cookies will keep fresh for 5 days; in the freezer, they will keep for 1 month.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Loaded Persimmon Cookies


Emma is a classic middle child. She is generally easy to please and entertains herself quite well. She lands in between two very demanding siblings who take up a lot of her parents' time. She is generally ok with this and does not put up too much of a fuss. The downside of her complacency is that I fear she is too easy to forget. Far too often, we plan activities and outings based on the preference of our eldest son and youngest daughter, leaving Emma to just "go along" with whatever is decided. While this is fine and dandy for the most part, and she rarely if ever complains, I do want to ensure that she feels special once in a while.

Emma discovered that she loves roller coasters and amusement park rides during our visit to Idlewild earlier this summer. Matthew, however, is terrified of virtually every ride outside of a carousel or slow train ride. He gets that from his father who has voiced many, many times that he is "not a fan" of coasters or thrill rides in general. I'm still disappointed that he never once went to Cedar Point with me during our college years.

So, I decided to take Emma on a mother-daughter date to the local amusement park and buy ride-a-rama tickets for the evening for the two of us. She was so excited to go! We ate an early dinner and then headed down to the park with Emma chatting loudly the entire time about how she wanted to ride the biggest roller coaster of them all. I warned her that she, so far, has not inherited her mother's height and probably was going to be a bit too small for some of the larger rides. That didn't seem to bug her as long as she could ride a coaster of some type. Thankfully for us, as long as an adult accompanied her, Emma could ride almost everything in the park!




We had the greatest time! I so delighted in watching Emma's facial contortions as the rides threw us up and around as well as hearing her gleeful laughter. After our second ride on one of the coasters, Emma adopted the practice of holding her hands up the entire time because, according to her, "it's more fun that way!" Meanwhile being the worrisome mother I am, I kept encouraging her to hold on tight to the lap bars or keeping my arm wrapped tight around her waist as an extra precaution against her suddenly catapulting off the ride. Not once was Emma nervous or scared during the rides - and there were a couple rides where I prayed until the torture was over! She wanted to keep riding long after her poor aging mother was feeling nauseated, sore and exhausted. But that is what I have always loved and admired about her - her wild, carefree, and adventurous spirit! It was such a joy to share that evening with her. I will never forget it!

She is an absolute maniac. 


As we were going up in the large, gondola-style Ferris Wheel, we were treated to some spectacular views of the surrounding water as well as a gorgeous setting sun. It was thrilling to see, but then I made the mistake of looking down. I gasped and shut my eyes. I'm not so nervous when I am riding by myself or with an adult, but being that high up with my tiny little girl, all sorts of horrible thoughts of her plummeting to the ground kept racing through my mind. At that moment, Emma shifted in her seat to get a better look at the ground and I completely flipped out: "Don't you dare move from your seat! Stay put until we are back on the ground!" Emma looked utterly confused and then rubbed my arm while cooing in her most soothing voice, "It's ok, Mommy. Ferris Wheels are supposed to take you high into the sky! That's what they do!"


Sunset from atop the Ferris Wheel.

We stayed up past 10 pm riding as many rides as we could. It was pretty fun to be out so late enjoying the warm summer air, the beautiful glowing lights of the Ferris Wheel, carousel, and the other attractions in the park, while bonding with my daughter over our mutual love of free falling. As we finally left the park and headed towards our car, Emma squeezed my hand and told me, "I had the best time with you on our date!"

I just love her. That night was one of the most fun I have had in a long time. She is such a precious little thing and I feel so honored to be her mother.

Continuing the theme of special mother-daughter time together, Emma and I cleaned out the last of the persimmons from the freezer and made a batch of my grandmother's persimmon cookies while the boys did some more construction work outside the house. Emma was very skeptical of the persimmons as she watched me slice the tops off and scoop the gooey, gelatinous, bright orange pulp from the insides. My favorite part of the persimmons is the skin - I find them so sweet they are almost like candy! I offered Emma a piece but she balked at the idea of eating it. Her loss!




However, once she saw how much butter, sugar, cranberries, raisins, and nuts went into the batter, she couldn't help but venture a taste. Then I nearly had to banish her from the kitchen until after all the cookies were scooped and baked lest she consume all the batter raw! While not a fan of the persimmons themselves, Emma is very much in love with the finished cookies. I told her that they are one of my favorite treats as well and bring back so many childhood memories for me. She replied, "They're my favorite too but not that orange stuff by itself because it's gross, right Mom?"

One of these days, I'll get her to taste a ripe persimmon that is completely unadorned and masked by butter, sugar, and dried fruit and she will be a convert. Guaranteed.


I have already posted these cookies on my blog, but I did tweak the recipe slightly to produce taller, puffier cookies that are a little nicer on the eyes. These cookies will still never win awards for their beauty, but they are certainly as tasty as they are ugly. As an additional bonus, they are a bit healthier than the average cookie and are quite filling, making them an ideal snack to take with you during hiking or camping trips. If you can get your hands on some hachiya persimmons (I'm looking at you, you lucky Californians!), be sure to bake some cookies!



Persimmon Cookies
tweaked  from my Grandmother's recipe

1 cup butter (I like salted in this recipe)
2 cups (400 g) sugar
2 eggs
2 cups persimmon pulp
4 cups (500 g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to Bake at 325 degrees. Grease or line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add egg, and then add persimmon pulp.  Mix well (the mixture will still be a bit clumpy).

In another bowl combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and whisk together by hand until well combined, about 30 seconds. Stir the dry mixture into the wet ingredients until just combined.

Stir in the nuts and dried fruit.

Drop spoonfuls of the dough onto the prepared sheet pan.  Keep cookies small and far apart as they spread out. Bake for 15-18 minutes, depending on how large your cookies are. Remove from the oven when the cookies are just set and light golden around the edges, taking care not to dry them out. Allow to cool and serve.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Better Chocolate Babka


My children have been drowning me as of late. They are wonderful, my whole world, my pride and joy and all that but they can be so incredibly needy and demanding.

Ever since Paul and I disappeared to tour New York for a few days, Lucy has been very clingy towards me. She's always been attached at my hip, but she has definitely been taking it to a whole new level as of late. Bright and early each morning, I am woken up by Lucy butting my skull with her very hard noggin while demanding in a very groggy voice: "Want milk. Cereal! Hungryyyyy!" It's a pleasant way to wake up, I'm telling you.

In addition, I can't eat a meal, sip a cup of coffee, or fold the laundry without her climbing all over me, stroking my freshly washed hair with her sticky fingers, and kissing my cheeks a little too roughly. And the other two - supposedly at an age where they can start helping their worn out mother - are constantly bickering with one another about the dumbest things or jumping in my face trying to inform me of the most mundane, uninteresting little tidbits. Matthew in particular keeps nothing to himself. The moment he has a thought - any thought - he shares it, no matter how irrelevant it is to our current situation or activity. We could be discussing our plan for the day and he will suddenly pipe in with: "The spot on Jupiter is actually a big storm."

Great. Thanks for the info.

Or I poke my head into the living room where he is reading a book about tornadoes and ask him whether he prefers grilled cheese or peanut butter for lunch. His response might be something like, "Why is Daddy not allergic to Christmas trees?" Totally relevant.

I just have to keep reminding myself that never in my entire life will I be as needed or loved as I am now. It's difficult to enjoy all the love though, especially when it comes in the form of tiny boogers being wiped on my shirt and very little sleep at night.


I have had the pleasure of attending a women's book study over the summer at a local church that has been a really uplifting opportunity to discuss the difficulties of being a wife and mother with other women in the same season of life. One of the topics that came up today was how mothers are constantly giving of themselves in service to others - to their husband, to their children, to their friends, to their community - and how it is in our very nature to be so generous with ourselves. The danger in all this, of course, is that eventually we women become so exhausted by all this giving and just need some time to focus on ourselves - our help, our well-being, our spirituality. It struck a real chord with me because this is something I struggle with all the time. I exhaust myself in providing for my family and eventually I simply explode because I crave time away from it all, especially time to pray or simply sit in quiet somewhere. If you've ever been to my house, you know how loud my kids are. They are loud. Ridiculously so. I thought they might all be partially deaf and dragged them to the doctor but apparently their ears are perfect. They just enjoy yelling instead of speaking. Basically, I should hand out migraine medication to anyone who comes to visit because there's no way you're leaving without a headache.


Anyway, back to my original point, I need to take better care of my own needs - especially my spiritual needs - in order to better serve my family. Since two out of my three kids never nap and wake up before the sun rises because they are insane, I am basically never without children. As soon as they go to bed, I collapse in a heap on the couch and fall asleep. And then the whole thing starts all over again. It's great fun 80% of the time, but the other 20% I just want to hide in my closet and read quietly with ear plugs blocking out the noise. So, I've been trying my best to do something about that.

I've decided one of the areas that I need a bit more fulfillment is in my spiritual life. I really have missed attending Mass during the week. I used to attend all the time, but then both girls had a serious meltdown one time and it traumatized me from going back and it just completely fell out of my routine. I do attend sporadically and have found that when I make an effort to go, God really gives me a nice extra showering of grace to power through my day with my very loud, very high-energy children. So, even with my three little ones in tow, I've been trying to go see Him more often during the week. Most of the time we are banished to the cry room in the back because my two year old does not know how to whisper and my four-year-old cannot sit still. Also, at some point during Mass they will all inevitable fight over who gets to sit on my lap. It's great. BUT I'm there! And inevitably, even though I'm stressed at points during it, I always leave feeling a bit better than I did when I came. And, when I sit back and reflect upon my day during the twenty seconds before I completely pass out for the night, I realize that I was able to handle the meltdowns, the fights, and the mundane nature of my work with a bit more grace. I need to commit to visiting Him more often because he truly knows I need it and rewards me greatly for it.

Proud of the "ties" they gifted their Dad for Father's Day.

As a little aside to that, while at Mass this afternoon Lucy had the entire congregation in stitches as we were slowly walking up for communion. She noticed the big, tall Easter candle by the baptismal font in the front was unlit and it bugged her to no end. So, she kept proclaiming loudly for all to hear, while I tried desperately to shush her, "Uh-oh! Happy Birthday not working! The Happy Birthday not working!" She wouldn't stop. Even our priest was in stitches about it which took a little bit away from my embarrassment.

Sorry for my endless rambling, but this is just what has been on my heart as of late! If you made it through that brain dump, congratulations! You deserve a fantastic recipe for Chocolate Babka!


Obviously, one of the ways I serve my family is by baking them treats and cooking their meals. Babka is something I have made traditionally around Christmastime for the last nine years but only recently have my children developed a love for it, particularly Matthew. One of the items I looked forward trying the most while in New York City, was an authentic babka. Of course, I ended up trying a non-traditional version but it was still delicious. Matthew polished off most of the loaf when we got home and kept begging me to make more. The loaf we had in NYC was interesting because they used a chocolate paste as the filling rather than the traditional filling of loose chopped chocolate and cocoa powder. The paste idea was appealing to me because I have always found the most tedious part about making babka to be rolling and twisting the dough carefully so that the bits of chocolate does not fall out everywhere. My counter always ends up covered in chocolate by the end. So, since Matthew had been bugging me to make more, I decided to try baking a babka with a more paste-like filling akin to the one we had tried at Breads Bakery in NYC.

The result? I think I've found my new favorite babka recipe. Not only was the paste easier to work with, I thought the entire process of this recipes was much more streamlined and certainly less messy. I loved the flavor of it and thought the chocolate swirls actually distributed much better with the paste rather than the loose chocolate. This is a crazy good treat!

As I'm typing this up, Matthew is reminding me to make it again soon. I have no idea why I usually wait until Christmas! My kids will take this over cinnamon rolls and banana bread any day!

And, just an FYI, if you're a Mom in desperate need of a few minutes to yourself in a day, eating a slice of this while hiding from your children in the coat closet during a game of hide-and-seek might be the perfect part of your day. Not that I've actually done that or anything...


Better Chocolate Babka
from Smitten Kitchen

Note: I included the weight measurements because baking is so dependent on proper measurement of ingredients. I almost always weight my ingredients using a scale from chemistry lab (don't worry, it's been cleaned!). Also, the sugar syrup that is brushed on the freshly baked loaves is a must! Do not skip it!

Dough
4 1/4 cups (530 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
Grated zest of 1 small lemon or half an orange (I omit)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup water (cold is fine) and up to 1 to 2 tablespoons extra, if needed
3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (150 grams or 5.3 ounces) at room temperature
Sunflower or other neutral oil, for greasing

Filling
4 1/2 ounces (130 grams) dark chocolate (or approximately 3/4 cup chocolate chips)
1/2 cup (120 grams) unsalted butter, cold is fine
Scant 1/2 cup (50 grams) powdered sugar
1/3 cup (30 grams) cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon [optional]

Syrup
1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar

Make the dough:

Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and zest in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer. Add eggs and 1/2 cup water, mixing with the dough hook until it comes together; this may take a couple minutes. It’s okay if it’s on the dry side, but if it doesn’t come together at all, add extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a mass. With the mixer on low, add the salt, then the butter, a spoonful at a time, mixing until it’s incorporated into the dough. Then, mix on medium speed for 10 minutes until dough is completely smooth; you’ll need to scrape the bowl down a few times. I usually found that after 10 minutes, the dough began to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it doesn’t, you can add 1 tablespoon extra flour to help this along.

Coat a large bowl with oil (or scrape the dough out onto a counter and oil this one) and place dough inside, cover with plastic and refrigerate. Leave in fridge for at least half a day, preferably overnight. [Dough will not fully double]

Make the filling: 

Melt butter and chocolate together until smooth. Stir in powdered sugar and cocoa; mixture should form a spreadable paste. Add cinnamon, if desired.

Assemble the Loaves:

Coat two loaf pans with oil or butter, and line the bottom of each with a rectangle of parchment paper. Take half of dough from fridge (leave the other half chilled). Roll out on a well-floured counter to a rectangle about 10 inches wide and 12 inches in long.

Spread half of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log. I found that transferring the log to a lightly floured baking tray in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes made it much, much easier to cut cleanly in half. Repeat with second dough. I've made this twice now and skipped chilling the second time and I was able to slice it just fine as long as I was careful!

Trim last 1/2-inch off each end of log. Gently cut the log in half lengthwise and lay them next to each other on the counter, cut sides up. Pinch the top ends gently together. Lift one side over the next, forming a twist and trying to keep the cut sides facing out. Don’t worry if this step makes a mess, just transfer the twist as best as you can into the prepared loaf pan. During baking, the dough will rise and puff and fill any gaps in your pan.

Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise another 1 to 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. Repeat process with second loaf.

Bake the Loaves:

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove towels, place each loaf on the middle rack of your oven. Bake for 30 minutes, but there’s no harm in checking for doneness at 25 minutes. A skewer inserted into an underbaked babka will feel stretchy/rubbery inside and may come back with dough on it. When fully baked, you’ll feel almost no resistance. If you babka needs more time, put it back, 5 minutes at a time then re-test. If it browns too quickly, you can cover it with foil.

While babkas are baking, make syrup: Bring sugar and water to a simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside to cool somewhat. As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush the syrup all over each. It will seem like too much, but will taste just right — glossy and moist. Let cool about halfway in pan, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool the rest of the way before eating although, trust me, this is pretty amazing served warm!


Monday, July 10, 2017

Orzo Salad with Pecorino, Radicchio, and Chickpeas


Back when I was a mother to only a little boy, I told myself that I would be perfectly happy only raising boys. As a little girl, I was never really fond of fancy dresses, makeup, jewelry, beads, or heels like many other children my age. My younger sister was fascinated by all those things and I used to think she was truly strange. All that has changed now that I have two little girls of my own. They both are tough, rough, and strong-willed little things but boy do they love all the glittery, sparkly, princessy things you can imagine. Tiaras, gowns, wands, rings, bracelets, makeup, and shoes...my girls can't get enough. Emma hardly goes anywhere without her purse or ordained with some jewelry, sunglasses, or other accessories and Lucy is starting to imitate her.

Sometimes a girl needs two purses for all her necessities...


Lucy prefers a simpler approach to her outfits. A t-shirt and matching diaper are the perfect compliment to her heels. Classy, classy.


Isn't this ridiculous?...



A friend of ours recently bequeathed the girls some plastic heels and the two of them can be heard clicking and clacking all over our house. There certainly has been more than one wipe-out on our slick hardwood floors.

But even while dressed up as a girly-girl, Emma can almost certainly be found beating up her older brother. I kind of love that about her.


My dainty little princesses certainly do not prefer dainty food - like salads. Pass them ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, or just about anything that makes a huge mess or leaves gigantic stains on their pretty clothing! Maybe one day they will grow up to love their vegetables like their mommy.

And speaking of vegetables and salads, orzo salad is one of my newest obsessions. I can eat a big bowl of this for dinner and be completely satisfied. This recipe in particular is right up my alley because it incorporates a plentiful amount of healthy greens and beans into the pasta to create a dish that is light and fresh yet perfectly filling on a hot day. This would be the complimentary side dish to serve with some grilled chicken, salmon, or even steak! It also makes a great alternative to potato salad or coleslaw at a barbecue or potluck. You can change up the cheeses and add-ins to create your own unique combination of flavors. Try queso fresco, cilantro, lime juice, black beans, and fresh sweet corn for a southwest twist! Or kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onion, mint, and cucumber for a Mediterranean spin! The possibilities are truly endless.



Orzo Salad with Pecorino, Radicchio, and Chickpeas
from Cook's Country Feb/March 2017

1 1/4 cups orzo pasta
Salt and pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 ounces baby arugula, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 ounces grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1 cup)
1/2 small head radicchio, cored and chopped fine
1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Bring 2 quart water to boil in large saucepan. Ad orzo and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain orzo and transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Toss with 1 tablespoon oil and let cool completely, about 15 minutes.

Combine the vinegar, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Slowly whisk in remaining 5 tablespoons oil until emulsified. Add arugula, Pecorino Romano, radicchio, chickpeas, basil, and cooled orzo to dressing and toss to thoroughly combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Let salad sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Serve, drizzled with extra oil if desired. The salad can be refrigerated for up to two days.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Best Cheesy Breadsticks


Last Friday, the kids and I chose to ignore the foul weather predicted by local meteorologists and traveled down to Pittsburgh to spend the day with Lucy's godmother at Idlewild Park. I am so glad we did because not only did the severe storms completely pass by our area with barely a zephyr, the day actually proved to be extremely sunny, bright, and hot. It was the perfect day to be outside exploring!

I'm a bit of a history lover, so I'm going to share just a bit of information about Idlewild park. Located just Southeast of Pittsburgh, Idlewild was initially established as a picnic area in the 1870s and advertised in the Pittsburgh area to church groups and schools as an ideal recreation local. While the park enjoyed great success and popularity as a picnic grove, after about sixty years the famed Mellon family chose to commercialize the property further through the addition of rides, bandstands, and other attractions, including the commissioning of a beautiful carousel that is still in operation today. Idlewild has been a grand success every since and is now considered the third oldest amusement park in the United States!



Idlewild is located right off of historic Route 30 in a beautiful, wooded area that provides an ample amount of shade for the park's many areas. It was a beautiful drive down there through the curvy, twisty hills of the Pennsylvania countryside - one that I especially enjoyed because the kids were quiet and napping! There is the main portion of the park that consists of all your typical carnival rides such as carousels, til-a-whirls, and other spinning rides that are perfect for children ages 4-10. As you walk further in, you encounter Hoot and Holler, a cute little western-themed town featuring shops, shows, and a log ride. Jumpin' Jungle is a play area great for the whole family that includes a tree fort for climbing, a giant slide, ball pits, and more. Storybook Woods is a shaded, relaxed area where the whole family can walk along a guided path and encounter characters and interactive scenes from favorite children's stories and nursery rhymes. Across the river and just a short train ride away is the Neighborhood of Make Believe, an adorable Daniel Tiger exhibit where the big, furry little feline himself is usually present for a short song-and-dance show followed by a meet-and-greet. The rides in this area are ideal for infants to young school-aged children. Then, of course, there is an outdoor water park with slides, wave pools, and other ares to cool off on a hot day.


My kids absolutely loved Idlewild! Granted, there were a few meltdowns - Matthew was initially scared of every single ride and refused to ride anything. Emma didn't want to leave at the end of the day and sobbed the entire way back to the car. The best behaved child award definitely went to Lucy. The poor baby was to too short to ride most of the rides in the main area and had to be content with watching her siblings ride. For the most part, she was fine with it! There were plenty of other things for her to do...




I loved that the park had something to offer each of the kids. My daredevil child Emma got to ride as many spinning rides as she wanted. She was really dying to go on the large coaster but thankfully it ended up closing early due to maintenance before Jen or me had the courage to tell Emma that she was too short to ride! Matthew had a blast driving bumper cars and sliding down the giant slide. He also was obsessed with the little train they had in the park, but I should have predicted that! Lucy was absolutely thrilled to watch Daniel Tiger sing and dance live - she was clapping along and dancing too! She also enjoyed all the little rides The Neighborhood of Make Believe had to offer and wouldn't stop talking about how much fun she had for days afterwards. It was adorable. Jen, of course, was a champ for helping me put up with the kids. We were both zonked by the end of the day. But so were the kids which made the drive home not-quite-so-painful. Thanks Jen for a fun day!






The recipe for today is in no way related to our fun in Idlewild other than, like the amusement park, it is something that all three of my kids adore. My kids refuse to eat the crust of their pizza, but they are all over breadsticks. It doesn't make much sense to me either, especially as I watch the discarded pizza crusts from my children pile up on my plate during a pizza party. Thankfully for them, I have never met a carb I didn't like and the crust just happens to be my favorite part of a pizza. I have been trying to gently explain to them that breadsticks are just pizza crust without the pizza attached but they just aren't buying it.

Breadsticks are a quick, easy filler to any meal - especially caesar salad (yum!) or chicken parmesan - and I have yet to find a recipe that is as easy, forgiving, and just plain good as this one. Our little family will devour an entire batch of these in minutes. If you don't wish to make them cheesy (but really why wouldn't you?), these taste just as good plain with a hint of garlic salt. Be careful...they are incredibly addicting. It's so hard to eat just one!



The Best Cheesy Breadsticks
from Lauren's Latest

1 1/2 cups warm water
2 envelopes rapid-rise yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted, divided
4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic salt (I use less)
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan
1 cup grated mozzarella
1/2 cup grated cheddar

Stir water, yeast and sugar together in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Set aside until foamy.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and measure out the flour and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir with the dough hook for a few seconds to disperse the salt into the flour. Pour in the foamy yeast mixture and start to incorporate. Drizzle in half of the melted butter. Scrape the sides if necessary and knead about 7 minutes. Dough should be sticky. If it's dry, sprinkle in a bit of water, a little at a time, until the dough is slightly sticky. Grease a large bowl, gather your dough into a smooth ball, and then place in the bowl. Turn to coat with oil. Let rise 30-45 minutes in a warm place until doubled in size.

Punch down dough and roll out to be 2 ft x 1 ft, approximately, on a floured board. Cut into 1/2-3/4 inch strips using a pizza cutter. Twist two strips together to create breadsticks and place onto baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let rise another 30 minutes or so. They should be almost touching by now.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Brush remaining melted butter over breadsticks, sprinkle with garlic salt and cheeses and bake 8-10 minutes or until poofy, hot, bubbly and brown. Cool 3-5 minutes before eating!