Archive for April, 2010

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.

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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]


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.

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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.

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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.

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