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Having a child isn’t like what they say.  Most of the time as parents, we navigate a private, intimate, singular relationship, one that happens while lying together on a hammock and staring up at the clouds, or holding hands and watching two linked arms cast long shadows across the hot asphalt, or sitting together in the darkened room with only a tiny nightlight to see each other by.  These moments have nothing to do with Supernanny’s naughty seat, Ferber’s sleep technique, the Magic 1-2-3 method of controlling tantrums, or Jessica Seinfeld’s recipe for sneaking pureed spinach into brownies.  Most of the time, we’re parenting off the grid, and no manual or methodology can help us.

Take my almost-5-year-old daughter’s bad dreams, for example.  She has been waking up many nights, moaning and/or crying, and either my husband or I will drag into the room, perch on the edge of her bed, and hope that it subsides quickly without too much bargaining over how many more minutes she needs us to stay and stroke her tiny legs.  Neither one of us is a particularly gracious night waker.  Dave turns into Sherlock Holmes, quizzing her on who, what, where, when, and why, hoping to solve the problem right then and there.  Then he stumbles back into the room saying, “I don’t know what’s going on.  But she fell back asleep.”  I, on the other hand, become Marcel Marceau.  I grope my way through the dark, my eyes barely open.  I lie down beside her on the bed, rub her back, then creep back into my room and hope that she doesn’t wake up when I step on that creaky spot at the top of the stairs.

Because our 3:00 a.m. tactics manage but do not in any way prevent these episodes, my husband devised a new strategy.  He told Sofia that she should draw a picture of the very scene she wanted to dream about each night and put the drawing near her bed, so it could guide her dreams all night long.  She got very excited, and announced: “I’m going to dream about riding on a horse!”  So we set her up with some paper and pens and retreated downstairs for dinner, wine, and quiet conversation.

At bedtime, I walked upstairs to my bedroom and found a lovely drawing sitting on the floor, at the entrance to my bedroom.  It pictured two horses, one with a girl on its back.  Everyone in the picture looked very happy, peaceful even.  She does this often.  She leaves her drawings under our bedroom door, like a little love note we get to see before bed.  But this one was an obvious depiction of the horses she so badly wanted to dream about.

Dave had tears in his eyes.  He was so happy she took to heart his ‘visualize your dreams’ project.  I was overcome with a bittersweet feeling, acutely aware of the ways that we’re trying to protect her from the pain our own minds will inflict, both in sleep and while awake.  How much longer would a “magic wand” beside the bed, or a drawing of her ideal dream, or any other technique we devise, work?  And who am I to be dispensing sleep wisdom anyway?

Before bed, every night, I read a book, listen to a meditation podcast (not that I actually meditate, but the guy’s voice is like Ambien), or ask my husband to tell me a story.  Sometimes I do all three.  Judd Apatow spoke about this on Fresh Air not long ago.  He said he needs to hear other people’s voices in his head at bedtime to avoid listening to his own thoughts.  That’s probably a very good description of what I’m doing.  At the end of the day, I don’t want to be with my own thoughts anymore; so I substitute someone else’s.  It works like a dream.

Sometimes I feel that we’ve given our daughter this flimsy tool, a creaky mechanism to deal with her nighttime fears.  An artistic dream journal. But then I have to ask myself: isn’t that what art is for?  It’s a place to express your dreams, to visualize the world and your place in it; to see what is, and to imagine what could be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In landscapes, the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know.  The details, the prose of nature, he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor.”  Children seem to know this instinctively.  My daughter’s drawing are filled with smiling suns, gorgeous butterflies, rainbows.

I guess what I’m saying is, we don’t have any overarching strategy, or explicit guiding principles, or road map for this.  The best we can hope for is to teach our kids a few coping skills, so they can navigate their way through those long, dark nights, years and years hence, when nobody will come in to stroke their back and say, “It’s ok.  Everything’s ok.”

Oh, hey, how about those chockablock cookies?  They’re a tour-de-force of oatmeal, molasses, chocolate chips, coconut, raisins, and almonds.  At the same time, they’re a touch out of control, hectic, unbalanced.  I had these for two nights in a row, then went back to my favorite NY Times chocolate chip cookies, and it was a relief.  My dad likes to quote Thoreau, so I will, too: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.  I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

What he said.  And that goes for cookies, too.

Thanks to Mary of Popsicles and Sandy Feet for selecting this week’s chockablock cookies.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 86 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

Double-layer chocolate cake

I used to be a big fan of the dense, fudgy, flourless chocolate cake.  You know, the low, smooth, intense sliver that’s usually topped with raspberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream.  But lately, as I mentioned last week, I’ve been more drawn to the classic layer cake, with its fluffy interior and thick layers of frosting.

Of all the great chocolate layer cakes out there, this one is my current favorite.  It manages to be both light and tender, and dark and intense, all at the same time.  The cake is fluffy and moist (using 1 1/2 cups brewed coffee), but the frosting is more like a ganache-y glaze, packed with melted chocolate.  It makes an enormous two-layer cake.  I usually cut the recipe into 1/3 and bake it in a square 8×8 pan.  That makes just enough for me and my little family to be very happy for several nights in a row of blissful dessert.

Double chocolate layer cake

Adapted from Gourmet magazine

For cake layers
* 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
* 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
* 3 cups sugar
* 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
* 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
* 3 large eggs
* 3/4 cup vegetable oil
* 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
* 3/4 teaspoon vanilla

For ganache frosting
* 1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
* 1 cup heavy cream
* 2 tablespoons sugar
* 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
* 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter

Special equipment

* two 10- by 2-inch round cake pans [This makes a LOT of batter.  Don’t use smaller pans, or they will overflow like crazy]

Preparation

Make cake layers:
Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.

Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.  [If you make 1/3 batch in the 8×8 pan, bake ~ 40 minutes.]

Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

Make frosting:
Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.

Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency).

Spread frosting between cake layers and over top and sides. Cake keeps, covered and chilled, 3 days. Bring cake to room temperature before serving.

There’s something about the word cake.  I love that word.  When I hear “cake,” I may appear composed on the outside, but inside I have a response more akin to a werewolf.  At first, I think, calmly, Cake.  Then, in a singsong voice, Mmmmmmmm, cake!  Left unchecked, it devolves into a primal growl, Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!!  I don’t think I grow long fingernails and tufts of fur, but do (cake) werewolves ever really know?

The werewolf response is reserved for my ideal cake: tall, fluffy, tender, moist, with a thick layer of frosting or pudding in the middle, and another layer of frosting on top.  Boston Cream pie.  Tall and creamy Hummingbird cake.  Chocolate Blackout cake.

Tea cakes are so dainty, they don’t qualify.  That’s why I’ve relegated them to breakfast, where they’re perfect.  This Swedish visiting cake deserves a prize for it’s many lovely tea cake qualities.  First, it’s so easy to make, you can fit it in even on a busy morning.  I made this while getting my kids ready for preschool (which is saying something during “Teacher Appreciation Week,” where I have to cajole the kids into making six, count ‘em, six homemade cards).  The cake is baked in a cast iron skillet and the results are delicious: lemony, almond-y, lightly crisp on the outside, soft and tender on the inside.  This is my favorite tea cake from Dorie’s cookbook, hands down.  And I assure you, when I eat tea cake, I’m very ladylike.  :-)

Thanks to Nancy of The Dogs Eat the Crumbs for selecting Swedish Visiting Cake.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 197 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

No-knead bread

The past few months, my cooking has changed.  It’s not that I’m cooking any less often, it’s just that my cooking is much more opportunistic (last week’s post is a perfect example) and limited in scope.  Fettuccine Alfredo.  Spaghetti Carbonara.  Grilled flatbread topped with whatever’s getting old in the refrigerator.

I gaze longingly at my long-neglected recipes for homemade gnocchi, brioche, and other favorites that require patient, loving, or sustained attention.  I check out Bon Appetit’s Fast, Easy, Fresh cookbook from the library, and even these recipes seem overly time consuming.  I miss long, leisurely days moving about the kitchen, but cooking just doesn’t rank very high on my priority list at the moment.

Thank goodness for no-knead bread.  The only drawback is the flip side of its greatest strength.  The recipe is so simple, it’s easy to forget to make it.   More often than not, I’ll climb into bed, read a little bit, and it hits me.  Ugh.  I forgot to make bread.  It happens so frequently, I’ll just heave a sigh and say, “Shoot.”  And my husband will say, “Oh.  Yeah.  We forgot to make a bread.”  He’ll put on his robe, go downstairs into the kitchen, and mix the dough.  It takes under five minutes, but still . . . what a guy, huh?

If you haven’t tried Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, what are you waiting for?  It’s the best, crusty, old-world bread you’ll ever make at home without 1) perfecting old-world techniques and 2) owning specialized equipment.  We make a loaf at least once every week or two, and if you buy Lahey’s book, you’ll find endless variations on the original loaf.

It takes just a few minutes to make the dough, then it rests overnight.  The next day, you shape it, let it rise a bit, then bake in a very hot oven.  It couldn’t be easier — just remember to make the dough before you go upstairs to bed.  Or marry a really good guy.  :-)

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

You’ve got to love a recipe that fits into the general chaos of family life.  I made this coconut tea cake last week, on a weeknight evening, between 5-6 pm.  I proceeded cautiously, moving in little, manageable, non-committal steps.

I got out the ingredients.  Looked around.  Noticed that the kids were dragging the coffee table to the edge of the living room and pulling off all of the pillows from the couch.  I know what’s coming, and it’s a good sign for me and my little baking project.

Sift the dry ingredients.  Set the bowl aside to answer the high-pitched pleas for music.  A request for Coldplay.  Oh, thank god, because I’m not sure I can stand another round of songs from The King and I.

Warm the coconut milk and butter in a saucepan amidst cries of “I don’t want this song.  I want ‘bum-BUM, bum-BUM, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-BUM.'”  That’s 2-year-old speak for Coldplay’s Death and All his Friends.  The kid has an uncanny ear for rhythm and that’s how he names one of his favorites.  I change the song and return to my project.

I’m getting a little more committed now.  It’s time to beat the sugar and eggs.  But both kids are dancing full out now, and my daughter suggests that they put on dresses, a request my son agrees to instantly.  So they run upstairs to put on more formal dancing wear.

This is my chance.  I’m all in.  I beat in the vanilla and rum, reminding myself for the hundredth time to adjust the measurements (I’m only making 1/4 batch), then add the dry ingredients, knowing full well that the baking powder is already doing its work and I can’t turn back now or the cake won’t rise properly in the oven.

Both kids come giggling down the stairs in their “princess” dresses and resume dancing to Cold Play.  They’re dancing mosh-pit style, crashing into each other and tumbling onto the couch pillows, pink tulle and sparkly sequins flying up.  They come much too close to the sharp edge of the coffee table. and though I’m in the middle of pouring the batter, I set it aside to clear the coffee table far away from their barely-controlled “princess” slam dance.

I finish pouring the batter and I’m almost there, but then realize that my oven is still set at 425 because I’m roasting fennel.  I yank that fennel out and turn the heat down to 350.  But there’s no time to wait for the oven to cool down because my son climbed up the back of the couch and hoisted himself up onto the two-inch window ledge, flattened himself against the window pane, and he’s asking for help, so I shove the cake into the oven, slam shut the door, and come to his rescue.  Does everyone bake like this?  Is it just me?

In any event, these coconut tea cakes were delightful.  My 1/4 batch allowed for three mini-cakes.  The first night, after the kids were in bed, I made a buttered rum glaze and my husband and I split the cake.  Yum.  The second night, we got wise and each had our own individual cake.  This time, I made some vanilla pastry cream, cut the individual cakes in half, and filled them with pudding.  I put hot fudge on mine (Boston cream pie-style) and Dave put caramel on his.  Divine.

The cake itself is a cross between a pound cake and a sponge cake.  Dense, slightly springy, with a small crumb, perfect for brushing or soaking with a sweetened glaze.  I loved the combination of coconut and rum, and the buttery rum glaze couldn’t be easier.  Here’s the recipe:

Buttered rum glaze

1 1/2 sticks butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup rum

Boil butter, water, and sugar for five minutes.  Stir in rum.  Drizzle over anything you like!  Because I didn’t make a whole cake, I reduced this recipe a good bit: 2 Tb. butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp. water, 2 Tb. rum

Thanks to Carmen of Carmen Cooks for selecting this week’s coconut tea cake.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 194-195 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.  And thanks to my two young children for making life such a crazy, beautiful ride.

Irish griddle bread

All of the St. Patrick’s day celebrations last week got me thinking about Ireland.  I did my study abroad at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, and it’s hard to believe, in retrospect, how many extraordinary experiences were packed into that semester.  The Chieftains visited our class to discuss Irish music and play a few songs.  Seamus Heaney visited our class to read and discuss his poetry.  We studied James Joyce’s Ulysses and then tracked Leopold Bloom’s progress throughout Dublin.  We all took a ferry to Wales, hitchhiked (for the first and last time), bought cable-knit sweaters in the Aran Islands, visited Yeats’ tower, and generally basked in the glow of the Emerald Isle.

All this, plus the rollicking pubs (our favorite was called The Foggy Dew);  live Irish music every night; fresh, hot sugar donuts near the O’Connell bridge; tea and pastries at Bewley’s; crispy fish and chips, sprinkled with vinegar, served in newspaper; Harp and Guinness.

At the end of the semester, we left Dublin to spend two weeks on the west coast of Ireland, in a town called Balleyvaughan.  The students all stayed together in thatched-roof cottages and we were to make our own dinners every evening.  You might expect this arrangement called for Ramen noodles or spaghetti with ketchup, but you’d be wrong.  My roommate, born in Belgium, had an incredible talent for cooking and she whipped up first-rate dinners at our little cottage just about every night.

She owned a sweet little Irish cookbook and of all the recipes she tried, griddle bread stands out in my memory.  And yet, I’m well aware that this memory is now twenty years old.  Those two weeks on the west coast of Ireland were defined by long nights of live Irish music, many rounds of Guinness, and even more rounds of “The Wild Rover (No, Nay, Never)” sung at the top of our lungs all the way back home through the lush green fields.  My roommate may have been a top-notch chef, but she was also very clumsy, and I recall several prolonged late-night adventures untangling her from barbed-wire fence or scraping cow flop off her shins, but that’s another story.  At that time, this breakfast was a revelation: slathered with fresh Irish butter and jam, it was hearty, quick, and delicious.  Twenty years later, I had to find out: would it stand the test of time?

Oh, man.  It’s exactly as I remember.

Irish griddle bread is a little less fluffy than a biscuit, not quite as crumbly as a scone, and, unlike biscuits and scones, it requires no technique whatsoever.  There’s no chilling, rolling, or shaping the dough with a feathery touch.  You just mix together the ingredients and fry it in a cast iron skillet.  Nothing could be simpler.  Eaten warm from the pan, spread thick with good butter and jam, it’s absolutely delicious.

Irish griddle bread

Adapted from The Irish Country Kitchen

* 2 cups flour
* a pinch of salt
* 1 teaspoon baking powder
* 1½ tablespoons sugar
* 1½ tablespoon melted butter
* ¾ milk
* 1 beaten egg

Lightly grease a heavy cast iron pan.

Sieve flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl; add in the sugar. Add butter, milk and eggs to the dry ingredients and mix well. Heat the greased pan and cook the bread for 7-8 minutes on each side over low to moderate heat. Divide into 6 triangular shapes and serve hot with plenty of butter, jam and honey.

I shamelessly stole from the Vosges line of chocolate bars *and* the pastry chef at Magnolia Grill for inspiration this week.  My favorite Vosges chocolate is the Barcelona Bar: milk chocolate, sea salt, and smoked almonds.  My favorite dessert at Magnolia Grill is the Barcelona Tart: dark chocolate, sea salt, smoked almonds.

I’m not sure why they both have “Barcelona” in the title.  Spain is famous for its Marcona almonds, but then shouldn’t they be called Marcona Bar and Marcona Tart?  I’ve been to Barcelona and my strongest food memory involves me and my husband eating paella on a terrace, poking at several mysterious chunks of meat in hopes of identifying their origin.  Eel?  Horse?  Meanwhile, several cats rubbed against our legs beneath the table and my husband inspected the meat, gazed back at the cats, looked more suspiciously at the meat, looked back at the…. well, you get the idea.  Me-ow.  We didn’t have much of an appetite that night.

Dorie’s original tart recipe calls for berries, but I substituted toasted almonds and smoked sea salt.  I hoped to smoke the almonds, but I don’t have a smoker, or a dehydrator, or any of the other nifty tools that are used for smoking.  And soaking the almonds with liquid smoke?  Forget it.  The smoked sea salt would have to do.

I’m getting crotchety in my old age.  This dessert wasn’t chocolate-y or silky enough for my taste.  It tasted too much like a brownie in a pie shell, and I was hoping for rich, dark, and intense.  Ah well, at least I can say with confidence that no cats were harmed in the making of this soft chocolate “Barcelona” tart.  :-)

Thanks to Rachelle of Mommy? I’m Hungry for selecting this week’s soft chocolate and raspberry tart (the original title).  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 354 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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