Summer round up

wpid-20140724_124951.jpgHalfway through summer. I feel I’ve struck a good balance between Tiger Mother and Lazy Mom. The lists are still working amazingly well with Mr. Eleven and Miss Nine. Five out of seven days their beds are made, they’ve done a chore, worked on some math review, practiced their instruments. Their rooms are pretty clean. We’ve clocked two or three hours a week at the library, just hanging out. Miss Nine has become good friends with a girl down the street, so most days she has someone to play with.


The past two weeks, the boys were in enrichment classes every morning. The ride home after dropping them off was peaceful. Miss Nine is not a child who needs to chatter constantly (unlike her brothers). We’d go home, do our chores, maybe run an errand. A couple weeks ago, she baked this cake for our anniversary, adding chopped up Snickers bars between the layers (half the recipe, baked in two 9-inch cake pans, made enough dessert for three nights. Next time, though, I wouldn’t halve the ganache.)


We discovered that she doesn’t have the strength yet to use the pastry bag, but she scratched the letters in the frosting with a toothpick, and I traced them with the icing.

This week Miss Nine is at Farm Camp, riding horses and feeding the animals, while the boys are home. Little Six spends his days either playing with Legos, hooking bracelets on his Rainbow Loom, or careening down the sidewalk on his bike, feet in the air. From training wheels to trick rider in 10 short days. When he gets bored with those, he plays the piano. The same two songs, for nearly an hour. Mr. Eleven is playing Minecraft, of course.


Since I haven’t taken on any big projects, I’ve had time to do a few more little ones. I sorted and filed the ragged pile of recipes that had collected in my recipe binder. I washed the cushions on the kitchen barstools. Next week I might start in on the family room slipcovers. Over the weekend, the Hub started cleaning out the fridge, and I finished with the freezer.

I’ve even had the urge to bake a little. Our favorite banana bread, Dutch Baby pancakes for breakfast (soooo much easier than flipping several dozen individual pancakes), a quiche for tonight’s dinner.


I made a batch of sesame noodles for dinner the other night. They make the perfect cold summer lunch. I also tried this cold Avocado Cucumber Soup for the first time–definitely a keeper. And as soon as I get my hands on some more blueberries, I’ll be baking these Blueberry Crumb Bars again, too. The best of summer squished into a buttery baked good. What more do you want?



Fresh strawberry pie

Enough of this cleaning and organizing. (I cleaned out two more kitchen drawers yesterday. Yawn.) You want to see some food, am I right? It’s time for dessert!

I certainly haven’t been baking up a storm here, even being home for the summer. But after spending $10 on farmer’s market strawberries, I felt the need to respect the investment.


It’s Cook’s Illustrated’s Fresh Strawberry Pie, a recipe that has you make fresh strawberry jam to glaze the berries. I even (mostly) followed their recipe for the pie crust. Between the two, I spent four or five hours on this pie. It was wonderful, but I confess I found myself thinking I would have been just as happy with my grandma’s version of strawberry shortcake: pie crust baked flat on a cookie sheet, then broken into pieces in your bowl,topped with juicy sugared strawberries, and a generous glug of half and half. No worrying about trying to serve the pie in the short window between “chilled” and “so juicy the crust is getting soggy.” Am I trying to dissuade you from making this pie? I don’t know. It was really, really good. There is no better strawberry pie. Except maybe a deconstructed one.



People licked their plates clean. Literally.


Multigrain Apple Butter Muffins

Muffins make me feel good. Let me count the ways:

  1. They scent the house with cinnamon-y goodness.
  2. 100% whole grain. Bonus points for the bran. (Some children around here need more fiber.)
  3. Portable. (You can pack your snack when you move Operation Homework to the park district for an hour while Little Brother is at his karate class.)
  4. Thirty minutes, start to finish.
  5. The apple butter is on the INSIDE!
  6. Freezable.
  7. The recipe is flexible: use whatever combination of flour you have (or 2 cups of Multigrain Flour Mix). And if you’re running out of milk, making up the difference with juice or water is perfectly acceptable. It’s like Stone Soup, but in muffin form.

Multigrain Apple Butter Filled Muffins

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup barley flour

1/4 cup millet flour

1/4 wheat bran

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 cup milk

1/4 cup oil

2 eggs

small jar of apple butter

Heat oven to 500 degrees F. Grease 12 muffin cups.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, wheat bran, brown sugar, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. In a 2-cup measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together milk, oil and eggs. Whisk the liquid ingredients into the dry, blending for no more than 20 seconds.

Fill each muffin cup half full of batter. Add a heaping teaspoon of apple butter to each cup, and then just enough batter to cover the apple butter, distributing any extra batter evenly among the cups.

Turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees and bake for 20 minutes. Cool muffins on a rack. Best served slightly warm.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Hub is “relaxing” in the kitchen:

I’m fairly confident there are half a dozen projects I ought to be working on, but the only thing I’ve really accomplished is cleaning and adjusting our sometimes fickle espresso machine. I never would have bought it for myself, but when we received it as a housewarming gift from my parents almost six years ago, we soon found we couldn’t live without it. Why would I darken the door of Starbucks when I can froth milk and dispense espresso like a barrista while still in my pajamas? It does require some maintenance, though, and I am very pleased with myself for tuning it up with nothing but the vacuum cleaner and a hex wrench. We’re going to need a good cup of coffee to go along with those cream puffs.

This week

Last week

  • Fish cakesSuccess! And now there’s a bit more space in the freezer.
  • Chicken with Bacon-y Brussels Sprouts, thin egg noodles. One skillet, so good. In the past, I’ve used chicken broth as the liquid, but this time I used a little white wine, which really brought out the sweetness of the Brussels sprouts. The kids may have accidentally eaten a few bites while they were mining for bacon bits among the noodles.
  • Crispy Fried Eggplant, Tomato Salad and MozzarellaOh, these were good. Try to slice the eggplant fairly thin, and keep the temperature at medium so the breading doesn’t burn before the eggplant gets tender. (The kids ate bean and cheese quesadillas–more eggplant for me.)
  • Tabbouleh and grilled cevapi (swap with Jen). I love this tabbouleh recipe, and fill it with whatever veggies are in the fridge. If you’re out of lemons, red or white wine vinegar works fine. 
  • Spaghetti with meat sauce (from Jen); garlic breadTasty comfort food. Toasting the unpeeled cloves of garlic for a few minutes in a dry skillet removes the bite–but not the flavor–from the garlic bread.
  • Pork and Green Chile StewServe it over rice or with warm corn tortillas. We should cook with chiles more often!
  • Breakfast Oatmeal Skillet CookieMiss Eight helped make this for Saturday breakfast (swapping almonds for the walnuts and vanilla for the maple extract)–a big hit with the whole family. Next time I intend to experiment with reducing the butter and sugar a little.

Monday Menu and Recipe Review

My Facebook feed was filled with photos of friends picking apples this weekend. As the lucky recipient of an entire trunk full of apples, I skipped the apple picking and moved straight on to the peeling, coring and applesauce making.

Though I peeled and chopped nearly 20 cups of apples, I barely made a dent in the apple supply in my basement. I made one small batch of Apple Almond Honey Conserve from Food in Jarswhich tastes like fall when spread on homemade bread (see my breakfast, above). I also made one batch of chunky applesauce in the slow cooker. My goal is to process a bag of apples every couple days, so that maybe I’ll be finished sometime next week.

I’m going to need more jars.

This week

Last week

  • Cheese and Chicken Quesadilla PieBig hit with the kids, and definitely a 30-minute meal (most of it is baking time).
  • Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices, rice. I’ll be using brown lentils, and following the suggestions to streamline the recipe. My new favorite lentil soup–don’t forget the squeeze of lime. So glad there was enough to freeze for another meal!
  • Yogurt-Marinated Shrimp, pita, some kind of fruit salad. Mmm…shrimp. The marinade (Iemon-garlic), plus leaving the shells on, kept the shrimp from drying out under the broiler.
  • Black Bean Burgers, roasted potatoes, salad. In a reverse-vegan move, I replaced the flax seed with an egg. My only complaint is that these turned out a little crumbly–maybe I will make thicker patties next time.
  • Tortellini Soup. This is strictly for lunchbox thermoses. Quick enough to cook during breakfast and ladle into thermoses. Two out of three kids ate it up, and I had some for lunch, too. Homemade broth is the key, even if you have dried tortellini (I like the Trader Joe’s brand).
  • Maple-Bourbon Banana Pudding CakeThe Hub made this Saturday night, and it was superb. It only takes one overripe banana, and the rest you probably have in your pantry. Regular granulated sugar and 2% milk work just fine.

What are you eating this week?

Plum Küchen

A week or so ago, I saw prune plums on sale at the market. They have a short season, so if you can still find a few, grab a bag and make this German plum cake. The recipe is from an obscure cookbook (that is, you can’t find it on Amazon) with a collection of recipes from New England Inns, so I don’t mind reproducing it here. It’s all my favorite things in a dessert. The pastry is barely sweet, and the plums and sugar bake into a jammy layer that seeps into the crust. We finished the cake in two days, but just yesterday Little Five asked me if we still had some plum cake. Alas, he had eaten the last piece (the one I was hoping to save for myself). I might have to swing by and see if a few plums still linger in the produce aisles.

Self portrait on the 2nd day of kindergarten.

Self portrait on the 2nd day of kindergarten.

Plum Küchen

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 T. sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

3/4 cup butter, softened

2 T. water

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla


2 1/2 pounds Italian prune plums, washed, pitted and cut in half

4 T. butter

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cornstarch


Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, sugar and baking powder. With your fingers, rub the softened butter into the flour mixture until well incorporated. Beat the water, egg and vanilla together in a small bowl and add it to the mixture. Knead the dough together and press it into a 10-inch tart pan (if it’s too sticky to work with, chill it briefly).

Press the plum halves, cut side up, into the pastry dough. Slice the butter into thin pats and dot it over the plums. Stir together the sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch, and sprinkle thickly over the tart.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the plums are tender.

Pecan-nectarine layer cake

I have this old Ladies’ Home Journal cookbook that I want to sneer at, but I can’t. The recipes are well tested. The photography is mouthwatering. The recipes are for dishes I want to make. Sorry for doubting you, Ladies’ Home Journal. You had some great food editors back in the ’90s. Clearly you’re not working at Midwest Living, which suggested I make blueberry muffins by mixing my freshly picked Michigan blueberries into my favorite cake mix batter. Go ahead, call me a food snob. 

Within the covers of this cookbook is a recipe for a cake that is perfectly August, bursting with ripe fruit but hinting at fall with its spices and nuts. Three layers of tender, bourbon-laced pecan cake are stacked with mounds of ripe nectarines and clouds of whipped cream. You need a crowd for this beauty, because it won’t keep for another day (though I’m not above finishing off that final slice after the party, cake layers slumped into a puddle of juicy fruit and melted cream). Bake the cake layers the night before, wrap them well, and slice the nectarines just before dinner so they have time to release their juices. After dinner, take 10 minutes to whip the cream and assemble the cake, then hurry back to your celebration.

Pecan-Nectarine Layer Cake

adapted slightly from Ladies’ Home Journal Recipes 1999

1 cup toasted pecans

2 cups cake flour (Don’t have any in the pantry? Here’s a handy substitute.)

1 1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup bourbon

3/4 cup butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

3 large eggs, separated


8-10 nectarines

2 T. granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar


Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line three 9-inch round cake pans with parchment or waxed paper and coat with baking spray or grease and flour. Grind pecans in a food processor or blender until finely ground.

Mix pecans, flour, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Stir buttermilk and bourbon together in a measuring cup. Beat the butter and sugars together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each. Reduce the speed to low and stir in half the flour mixture, then the buttermilk mixture, and finally the rest of the flour mixture. Beat just until smooth.

In a clean mixing bowl with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium-high until they just hold stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter with a large rubber spatula. Divide the batter and spread it evenly into the cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean. Cool the layers in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes; then remove from pans and cool completely.

Slice the nectarines into 1/4-inch slices (I didn’t peel them, but you can if you like). In a large bowl, toss the nectarines with the 2 T. of sugar. Beat the cream with a mixer until thickened. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar and continue to beat until the cream just holds stiff peaks. (If you are serving the cake immediately, you can get away with using a spray can of sweetened whipped cream, but it will melt pretty quickly.)

To assemble the cake, place one layer on a serving plate and cover with a single layer of nectarine slices. Spread one-third of the whipped cream over the nectarines. Top with the second cake layer and repeat. Add the final cake layer, the remaining whipped cream, and garnish with the remaining nectarines. Refrigerate for up to 3 hours.

Makes at least 12 servings.

Enough birthday cake for Mom and all her grandchildren!

Enough birthday cake for Mom and all her grandchildren!

Birthday cake with fondant

I’ll be taking a little blogging break this week while we spend some time with family and friends. But I wanted to leave you with a few photos of the birthday cake I made for Miss Eight. She requested a cake “that looks like a present” (this is what comes of wandering the cake decorating aisle at Michael’s), so I finally overcame my horror of rolled fondant and took the plunge. Sort of like this:

First I baked and frosted a two-layer yellow cake with chocolate frosting. After chilling the cake for a couple hours, I covered it in white rolled fondant. I just followed the instructions on the package, but didn’t use any special tools–I found it easy enough to smooth with my rolling pin and fingers. Because I already had it in the pantry from another cake project, I used Wilton Sugar Sheets (colored edible paper) to make the decorations.

These things are so easy to use: cut out your design, peel off the plastic backing, moisten, and stick it on the cake. Especially for kids, who like bright splashy colors and designs, these are an easy way to decorate.


Miraculously, the cake survived the trip to the pool in 90-some degree weather (in a cooler full of ice), and the eight-year-old girls were lavish with their compliments. But after another hour of swimming and party fun, even the cooler couldn’t prevent the fondant from beginning to melt and slide off the cake. No matter–back at home I lifted the remaining fondant right off the cake and we ate the lovely cake underneath. I won’t be using fondant on all my cakes now–I still don’t like the taste, and most of the girls left it on the plate, too–but the ready-to-use package is a quick and relatively easy way to get a professional look.


And Miss Eight had a happy birthday, which is all that matters.

See you back here in a week or so!

Kids Bake: Birthday Cupcakes

It’s my birthday today. My 40th birthday. Aside from all the lovely cards, Facebook birthday messages, and a 14-layer Lego cake, it’s pretty much a regular day. The Hub is at work, the kids are squabbling over who gets to occupy which room in their mega blanket fort, and I still have to chair a board meeting tonight. We have a little celebration planned for the weekend–featuring cocktails and grown ups–but this morning the kids worked together to bake some birthday cupcakes.

I hung around in the background, but Mr. Ten directed the operation and only solicited my help when instructed to by the recipe (mostly for handling the hot stuff).

They followed a recipe from Honest Pretzels by Mollie Katzen, which is perfect for guiding kids to be independent in the kitchen, making real food. Nothing “semi-homemade” here. The instructions are clear and complete, and broken down into numbered steps. Now that I have kids who don’t need a stool to reach the counter and can read and measure, I’m looking forward to stepping back and letting them cook for me. It takes a little longer, but that’s not a bad thing when we have long summer hours to fill.

These vanilla cupcakes are supposed to have chocolate kisses pressed into their centers, but all we had in the pantry was chocolate chips, which make a fine substitute.

If you want your kids to bake these, do yourself a favor and get the actual cookbook. If you’re a grown up and just want to bake some quick and easy cupcakes, here you go.

Birthday Cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

chocolate kisses or chocolate chips

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Stir in the sugar. In a small bowl or 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the milk, eggs, vanilla and melted butter. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Beat 2 minutes at low speed with the electric mixer. Scrape down the bowl, and beat for another 2 minutes at medium speed. Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups and then press a chocolate kiss, upside down, into the center of each unbaked cupcake (or press several chocolate chips into the batter).

Bake for 20 minutes.