A stormy afternoon yesterday gave us the perfect opportunity to make thunder cake. What is thunder cake? It’s the cake that a grandma and her granddaughter make as a storm rolls in in Patricia Polacco’s book Thunder Cake. The book tells a lovely story of a grandmother-granddaughter bond and what bravery actually is, a perfect read for Babykins since storms now make her nervous.
After the girls and I read Thunder Cake, I pulled out the ingredients for the cake and we set to work. The full recipe can be found at the back of the book, but I’ll share the “secret” ingredient now: Tomatoes (specifically, pureed tomatoes)!
I was skeptical about how a cake with tomatoes would taste. I like tomatoes well enough, but in a cake? Really? Oh my goodness, the cake is delicious (even despite the fact that I didn’t add and cream the ingredients one at a time. It’s hard trying new recipes when you have little helpers). My issue with homemade cake is that it’s usually dry but this cake was wonderfully moist. My husband said that the cake was birthday-cake worthy–high praise from a guy who would prefer an ice cream cake.
The only problem is that I fear I have set a precedence for making cake every time it storms. Although maybe that isn’t such a bad idea!
One of the biggest struggles of running a household with a baby and toddler is meals. In this season of “survival mode”, many things can be put off. The bathroom doesn’t have to be cleaned today, the garage can stay messy for another couple of months, and those projects I have pinned to various boards on Pintrest can wait a couple of years. But we have to eat today. To be precise, we have to eat several times today and these people are going to be hungry again tomorrow! It would also be preferable if most of these foods are healthy.
Our family is still small enough that every meal doesn’t need to be planned out. Breakfast is usually cereal, bagels, or oatmeal. Lunch is either leftovers or sandwiches. Snacks are fruit, cheese, and graham crackers. So that leaves supper, that tricky time of day when Sweet Pea is less likely to nap and Babykins is having her pre-bedtime crazies. Fancy dinners that require constant attention and precise timing just can’t happen right now. Consequently, I’ve been relying heavily on two kitchen appliances these past few months: my slow cooker and my rice cooker.
Many people are familiar with slow cookers–throw in your ingredients in the morning and have a meal by dinnertime. My requirements for slow cooker meals is that it doesn’t take a lot of precooking. The point of using the Crock Pot is so that I don’t have to cook! About the only thing I’ll consider precooking is browning ground beef. Anything else means the recipe is a no-go.
It used to be that I wanted recipes that contained the entire meal so I wouldn’t have to worry about making a side dish during the afternoon. This made finding simple and yummy meals extremely difficult. Then I got a rice cooker for Christmas and it has been a game changer! Since I can program my rice cooker to finish the rice at a certain time (and it also has a “Keep Warm” setting), I can prep the rice during quiet time. Easy peasy!
Here are some of my tried and true favorite recipes that helps keep dinner on our table:
Broccoli Cheese Soup: This recipe takes a little more hands on work at the end but my husband enjoys this soup.
BBQ Pork Tenderloin: I put carrots and potatoes in with the meat to make a full meal.
Potato Soup: An extremely simple recipe!
Whole Chicken: The leftover chicken is perfect for things like quesadillas or fried rice.
Make with Rice
Honey Ginger Chicken: Typically I make this in my 3 qt. Crock Pot and cook it on high for 2.5-3 hours.
What are your favorite slow cooker meals?
We’re going to our friends’ house for dinner tomorrow night under the guise of a “Corn Festival” (they weren’t able to go back to their hometown’s Corn Festival this year, so I think this is something for their kids to look forward to). Consequently, I had the bright idea to make popcorn balls this morning.
The thing about making popcorn balls from scratch is that you essentially have to make caramel from scratch. That takes time. And since making caramel pretty much involves a million pounds of sugar and heat, Babykins couldn’t “help” me much.
The good news: I made the popcorn balls this morning and they are edible (although some of them have started to come apart since I took the picture).
The reality check: I pretty much gave Babykins anything to distract her while I was stirring the caramel and she was still tearing around the kitchen, yelling with boredom, by the time I was done.
The cat also enjoyed finishing a bowl of oatmeal and milk that Babykins had started eating.
In our world of Pinterest and DIY blogs, it’s good to remember that this whole scenario is most mothers’ reality.
My husband asked for ice cream instead of cake for his birthday last week. Since I’m a birthday purist, I couldn’t stand the thought of not having cake for a birthday. Ice cream cake was the obvious solution for this dilemma. However, buying ice cream cake is expensive, so I went in search of a simple ice cream cake recipe.
Guess what? I found one! Betty Crocker’s Brownie Ice Cream Cake was exactly what I was looking for: simple and delicious! Because the brownies have to cool and the ice cream has to set, it does take some planning ahead to make the cake (I made it the day before my husband’s birthday). However, actual hands-on time isn’t any longer than it takes to whip up a box of brownies and throw some ice cream on it. My husband also loves caramel, so I used caramel sauce instead of hot fudge sauce.
Mmmmm. . . ice cream cake.
I originally wrote this essay for a non-fiction writing class in Fall 2007. It still makes me laugh, especially now that I make a fairly decent loaf of banana bread.
One day in the grocery store, you spot the perfect banana bunch in the produce aisle. Their vibrant yellow peels and smooth curves call to you and lead you to gently place them into the cart. As you continue to shop, you begin to plan the things you can do with them—mix them with cereal, make peanut butter and banana sandwiches, or simply eat them. The possibilities seem limitless. When you return to the apartment, you position the bananas on the kitchen counter, an obvious place where you have easy access to their sweet taste. Then you glance at the microwave clock, realize your class starts in ten minutes, and dash out of the apartment. While doing this, you promptly forget that bananas even exist in the world, much less in the kitchen. About a week later you rediscover the bananas as you search for a snack. However, the bananas no longer have the vivid yellow hue that beckoned you in the store, but rather they have turned into a mushy, rotting mess the same color as day-old coffee grinds. Disgusted, you grab the decaying fruit and head for the garbage. Just you lower the bananas into the trash, you have a thought—why not make banana bread? Excited by this new idea, you flip through the cookbook that your mother gave you (she is convinced that you cannot live off Ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese). Page 99 holds the recipe that will fulfill your baking aspirations. You read the ingredients:
½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana
½ cup chopped walnuts
After reading the ingredients, you begin to follow the instructions carefully.
Step 1: Find the ingredients.
You have some of the ingredients like eggs and sugar (sugar for your coffee, of course. It’s the best part of waking up). However, Ramen noodles don’t require shortening and boxed macaroni and cheese ingredients do not involve baking powder, and you realize that you don’t have the bulk of these ingredients. After you decide the ingredients won’t miraculously appear in the pantry, you go and explain your difficult dilemma to your roommate. She might have these obscure ingredients because she often bakes chocolate-chip cookies from scratch. Fortunately, you guess correctly and your roommate will let you borrow the ingredients. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have shortening. She instead provides a substitute—butter. You express your doubt about this and she replies, “I’m pretty sure butter and shortening are the same thing.” Your mother had never used butter for shortening but you decide to take her advice. Not because you believe the shortening-as-butter theory but because you do not want to use gas to drive to the grocery store, nor do you want to pay for the shortening itself. After a quick glance through the pantry, you find all the other ingredients you need to make the banana bread.
Step 2: Cream together shortening and sugar; add eggs and beat well.
Since you have never baked anything from scratch on your own, you have no idea to as of what “creaming” and “beating” mean. The last time you learned about cooking, you were in middle school and learned recipes like spaghetti and scrambled eggs. Not exactly the most demanding foods to make. Either way, you finally come to the conclusion that “cream” and “beat” will simply have to mean the same thing: stir vigorously with a wooden spoon.
Step 3: Sift together dry ingredients; add to creamed mixture alternately with banana, blending well after each addition.
Another unknown vocabulary word arises in the instructions. You vaguely remember your mother using a rotating, cylinder-like contraption called a sifter whenever she made Christmas cookies. Since you do not own a sifter you decide “sift” will have the same definition as “cream” and “beat.” Once again, you pick up the trusty wooden spoon and beat the dry ingredients vigorously. As you beat the dry ingredients, you realize that you have not mashed the bananas yet. “Mash” is one cooking term you do know and you begin to aggressively smash the bananas into a pulpy, goopy mess. You pour the mashed bananas with the rest of the ingredients. Later you learn that sifting requires light stirring and you decide that beating ingredients may not serve as the answer for every unknown cooking jargon. You also realize later that you forgot to add a teaspoon of baking soda because you only skimmed the directions, reading only the first word of the ingredients. Because of this, baking powder got sifted with the other dry ingredients, while poor baking soda never did make the final mix..
Step 4: Stir in nuts.
You skip this step for two reasons. First, you do not like nuts, they taste like salted cardboard. Second, you do not have any nuts in the apartment and you do not want to go to the store to buy them. After all, if you decided not to go to the store to buy a necessity like shortening, why would you go to buy something unnecessary like nuts?
Step 5: Pour into well-greased 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.
Suddenly, you come to the realization that you do not have a bread pan. After debating if a cake pan would suffice as a bread pan, you decide to get into your car and make the trip to the grocery store that you have successfully avoided until this point. When you enter the store, you realize that besides a bread pan, you need a gallon of milk for breakfast in the morning. As you walk toward the dairy section, you find your hand reaching for other necessities like pudding cups, fruit snacks, chocolate, and of course, Ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese. After finding a pan and spending three times the amount of money you intended to originally, you drive back to the apartment. Finally, you pour the mixture into your brand-new, well greased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.
Step 6: Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) 45 to 50 minutes or till done.
Just then, you realize that you forgot to preheat the oven. You turn the oven to 350 degrees and wait about ten minutes for it to heat up. When it has warmed, you gently slide the pan in the oven and set the timer for 45 minutes. While the bread bakes, you decide to act like a productive student and start your homework. However, first you need to check Facebook, then your e-mail, and then Facebook again in case anyone has written on your wall during the three minutes it took for you to check your e-mail. Then you decide your fish currently lives in filth and squalor and needs to have his fishbowl cleaned. After you finish creating a clean fishy home for your beloved aquatic pet, you remember you have not called home yet this week. You dial home, talk to your mother, and answer her questions. “Yes, everything is fine. Yes, I’m going to class and studying. Yes, I have been taking my vitamins. No, I’m not coming home next weekend. Why? Because there’s a football game next weekend.” After your mother finishes her interrogation, you find the readings that you need to do and sit down on the couch to begin. Just as you flip open the book, the timer on the oven beeps. Well, no one can say you didn’t try to do homework.
After you pull the pan from the oven, you stick a toothpick through the middle of the bread to see if it has finished baking. Since the middle appears to remain slightly soupy, you put the pan in the oven for another three minutes. The same results occur the second time you put the toothpick in the bread, so you return the pan to the oven for another two minutes. Again, the middle seems slightly raw, but you decide that it may only appear uncooked because of the heat. You leave the kitchen as the bread cools. After about ten minutes, you return to look at the bread. To your horror, the whole middle has collapsed and now sits in the middle of undercooked banana bread mush.
Step 7: Remove from pan; cool on rack. Wrap and store overnight.
You remove the bread from the pan—right into the garbage. You make a mental note to lay subtle hints for your mother to send banana bread in the next care package. Why go through the agony of baking banana bread when you mother can cook so much better? Finally, you look in the pantry and debate if you will eat Ramen Noodles or boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner.
*Recipe is from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. United States of America: Meredith Corporation, 1976. 99.
While preparing for this recent move, I started making big plans about how I would use my time, especially before Baby arrives. Since I only have a small writing gig that takes about a half-day’s work to complete (if I’m on task), I thought that I would never fall behind on my work.
I would keep a tidy house. I would write on this blog 3 times a week, including a well-researched Introvert Monday post. I would bake and cook delicious meals. I would prepare everything for Baby. I would be . . .
Of course, what I plan and what actually happens are generally two different things. Sometimes I don’t focus on my work and fall into the abyss of the internet. Sometimes Baby sucks my energy. Sometimes I give into apathy and wonder what’s the point of maintaining an orderly house. And apparently, sometimes I catch a horrible cold that makes me feel like I’m moving underwater right before I go visit my parents for the weekend, rendering me incapable of thinking prior to the trip and horribly behind on my projects when I get back.
The last reason is my excuse for the lack of posts these last two weeks. But I’m almost caught up now. . . except that I need to start cooking dinner.
When I was growing up, my mother made sure we had some sort of home cooked meal nearly every night. She was very diligent about this. Consequently, she would take the time every week to plan the dinner menu on a little slip of paper while making the grocery list. I didn’t think much about it then, but now I realize how impressive her commitment to meal planning was because every magazine and every organizational blog recommends doing this as a way to get organized and save money.
Now that I’m back to manning the home front, that means I’m in charge of dinner most nights (admittedly, pregnancy is starting to catch up to me, so “making dinner” sometimes means giving a sad look at my husband when he comes home from work and asking him if he can make the planned dinner). Since I’ve started to understand the value of meal planning, I try to write the dinner menu on our dry erase board before my weekly shopping trip.
For the most part this method has worked well (I used it on vicarage), but I realized that I was having problems remembering dishes I could make. My mom saved her menu slips for reference and as a nanny, I wrote down the meal plan in my nanny planner. But with the dry erase board system, I had no way to reference what recipes I had used in the past.
After spending way too long thinking of a meal plan the other day, I finally had an idea. First, I cut up index cards into thirds and punched a hole for a ring. On the front card, I color coded the meal categories I use.
After that, I brainstormed all the meals I knew my husband and I liked and wrote one meal, color coded, on each card.
If I didn’t have the recipe memorized, I made sure to note where to find the recipe.
I then hooked it onto the refrigerator for easy access. Ta-da!
The idea behind the little booklet is that I have easy access to the meals I can make for dinner. When I’m preparing the weekly meal plan, I can say to myself, “We’re not doing anything with chicken yet this week. What can I make?” and then flip to the section with chicken meals. Also, because of using a ring, I can easily add new meals to the booklet. I’m pretty excited to use it!
How do you meal plan?
Now that I have more free time than I often know what to do with and I’m not exhausted from chasing a toddler around half the week, I’ve been able to return to one of my preferred pastimes:
Trashing the Kitchen Cooking.
So what have I been cooking up the last few weeks? A variety of things. Some may call this “nesting”, but it’s hard to argue that some of the foods I’ve been working will really be useful after the baby comes.
I’ve been figuring out how to save and freeze fruits and veggies. I wouldn’t recommend the technique I used for strawberries (they defrost with a very mushy texture), but the blueberries generally turn out well.
Our congregation members have already proven to be generous with their gardens’ bounties, so I’ve been freezing corn like crazy. Likewise, we received a pile of cucumbers one day, so I made freezer pickles. My husband and I opened the first container yesterday. They don’t have quite the same crunch as pickles, but they have a pickley taste. I can’t vouch for whether or not they taste good since I’m not a huge fan of pickles. Also, onions were on sale at Aldi this past week, so now I have 3 pounds of onions to freeze. I think the onions really throw out the whole nesting theory.
Additionally, I’ve started baking bread again after taking an entire year off. Since the Kitchen-aid mixer recipe I use makes two loaves, one goes in the freezer while the other goes in our tummies. And this morning I finally started making freezer meals for when Baby comes. Well, I made a freezer meal. Now we’ll be set for one whole day after we get home from the hospital!
If this sounds like a lot of cooking , don’t be too amazed–I have a lot of free time. That, and I have a tendency to ignore things like the fact that the toilet downstairs really needs to be cleaned. . .
Have you tried anything new in your kitchen recently?
When you are older (God willing) and you are questioning my love for you, remember that I gave up eating cake batter and cookie dough when pregnant with you. Granted, I sincerely hope there will be more signs of my love, but this is a start.
About a week ago, I asked my husband if he wanted a specific type of Christmas cookie this year. He immediately responded that he wanted anise cookies. By anise cookies, I thought he meant Springerle (a German Christmas cookie). I had never made this type of cookie before, but I was familiar with it because my grandmother would send us a batch every Christmas. Since the cookies are extremely hard (my mom said they were baked to last through the winter), I referred to them as cement cookies while growing up.
I found this recipe online and set about making and rolling the dough this morning. Unfortunately, I don’t own a Springerle rolling pin so my cookies will be without the pretty designs. Oh well! By the time my husband returned from work this morning, I had the dough cut and sitting in the kitchen to dry. He looked at the dough and asked, “What kind of cookies are these?”
I replied, “Spring. . . Springer. . .Springlearoie. . .I can’t say it! Cement cookies!”
My husband says, “Hmm, I wonder what they taste like.”
I looked at him and exclaimed, “You’re the one who asked for these cookies!”
“Yes! The anise cookies!”
“These are anise cookies?”
Now I have no idea if the cookies sitting in the kitchen are actually what my husband wanted. Either way, I’ll be baking the Springerle tonight–I hope they taste decent!