Help!

This was a nutty week. Even with my make ahead strategies, I was down to the wire on Wednesday with a long to do list and not enough time to do it all.

Here’s the scenario:

  • Made ahead cookie dough just needs to thaw before baking.
    Made ahead cookie dough just needs to thaw before baking.

    Taught my usual Monday night fitness class, and came home to bake four dozen oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for a hockey fundraiser. The dough had been in the deep freeze, ready to thaw and bake.

  • Our last French class for the term was held at Le Bistro Le Coq – formidable! – but it meant I got home later than usual, so Tuesday night was a write off for any advance prep.
  • My parents and aunt and uncle were coming for dinner Wednesday night. My parents were also staying the night.
  • D’s sweet 16th birthday was on Thursday, and she also had a hockey game that night.
  • She needed supper before the game and it was a night I’d be teaching at the Y at suppertime. So I planned mini pizzas she could pop into the oven.
  • Baked goods were due to be delivered to that game for the fundraiser, and I wanted to add a couple of loaves of banana bread to our offerings.
  • I wanted to send surprise birthday cupcakes into the locker room after the game.
  • Other birthday surprises included a display of 16 penguins on the lawn, wrapping gifts, scanning and uploading adorably embarrassing baby pictures to Facebook, and making waffles for the birthday girl.

I was stressed from the moment I woke up Wednesday morning. I had about a two-hour window before my aunt and uncle arrived, and D got home from hockey. There was so much to do, and I didn’t know if I could make it all happen.

I turned to my trusty slowcooker to help with dinner. I love slowcooker recipes that are pretty much dump and run – toss all the ingredients in, set the heat and time, and walk away. This honey sesame chicken is one of those. You can even get away without adding the corn starch at the end, if you don’t mind the sauce being thin.

On the weekend, I’d made up bags of dry ingredients for Cooking Light’s classic banana bread and D’s traditional birthday cake – a pumpkin chocolate chip bundt cake from The Complete Harrowsmith Cookbook. Both recipes bake at 350. So my plan was to get the banana bread into the oven first as it takes about an hour. Then I’d make the pumpkin recipe as cupcakes, which shortens the cooking time, and add them into the oven. (Cupcakes are also easier to serve to a bunch of hungry hockey players.)

That’s about all I had time do in advance. I’d have felt better if I’d chopped and bagged the broccoli and carrots; measured out the rice and water; and sliced a baguette and assembled a brie baker recipe for a little pre-dinner nibblie. I’d have felt better if I’d had time to clean the cat litter and bring in some wood for the fire. I’d have felt better if I were a superhero who could leap over domestic challenges in a single bound.

Have you clued in yet that I’m not good at asking for help? I’m trying to get better at that. Progress is slow, but I’m trying. On Wednesday, I reached out.

In the morning, I sent H an email, letting him know I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I asked him to please respond to any urgent requests with a sense of urgency that day, even if it didn’t seem like an urgent task to him. That support would help calm me down. He got the message. He did just about everything I asked right away. He also decided to take D out for supper on her birthday, relieving me of the make ahead pizza meal.

Next, I put my parents to work. They met me at the office, we drove home, and as soon as we walked in the door, I gave my mom the dry ingredients and recipes for the baked goods and unleashed her on the kitchen. Dad helped me bring in wood then started chopping away at the broccoli and carrots while I fed four very hungry cats, got the brie ready for the oven, and cleaned the litter. Somehow, I remembered to put a cheque in the mailbox for the company that would come like thieves in the night to set up 16 penguins and a happy birthday sign on the front lawn.

With my parents’ help, everything was under control when my aunt and uncle arrived. (This would be a much funnier story if it had been bedlam, but there you go.) We had a lovely meal and conversation. It was great to catch up with my aunt and uncle, who live on the other side of this very big country. It was also nice to sit down.

And in the blink of an eye, it was back to work. D had gone off to take a shower, and if you’re familiar with teenage girls, you’ll know we had about an hour to clean up after dinner and get her cupcakes iced, sprinkled, and packaged. We just got them done and hidden in time for her reappearance. Whew!

Simple, pretty packaging for cookies and loaves.
Simple, pretty packaging for cookies and loaves.

Next, I wanted the baked goods for the fundraiser to look nice, so mom and I rolled up the cookies in parchment paper and tie off the twisted ends. It was definitely a four-hand job – and a very giggly job, too. The banana bread was easier to wrap. We made and attached little tags to identify the treats.

It was after 11 p.m. by the time I hit the home stretch, wrapping D’s birthday present and writing the card. Then I went in search of baby pictures, and scanned and edited them. H and I found ourselves in bed at midnight with the laptop, uploading her chubby baby cheeks and big blue eyes onto Facebook.

Why penguins for a birthday surprise? Why not?
Why penguins for a birthday surprise? Why not?

Asleep at 12:30 a.m. despite a cat and a husband snoring on either side of me. Then wide awake at 4:30 a.m. Could it be that the penguins were not very stealthy? I don’t know. I got up at five and grinned at the flock of them, almost glowing in the moonlight. I put the baked goods in the car so we couldn’t forget them in the morning bustle, took a shower, and made a pile of waffles bigger than your head for the birthday girl.

And with that, my to do list was done.

I can do a lot by myself. Heck, I can move mountains. But sometimes I need help. And sometimes, I actually manage to ask for it.

a

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake
The Complete Harrowsmith Cookbook (1996)
I was able to find this recipe via a Google search, so I feel it’s safe to post here with attribution to Harrowsmith.

Ingredients
3 c. flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
3 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp salt
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 c. oil
2 c. cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/2 c. chocolate chips (we make it 1 c. chocolate chips and omit the pecans
1/2 c. chopped pecans

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350. Mix dry ingredients. Beat eggs and sugar together. Add oil and pumpkin. Blend in dry ingredients. Fold in chocolate chips and pecans. Pour in bundt pan and bake for 1 hour, or until cake tester comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes on wire rack before turning out onto rack. This is lovely with basic chocolate frosting.

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Wedding Cookies

Delicious oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

If you found this post because you’re looking for Mexican wedding cookies, lo siento, amigos. Today, I’m writing about a lovely little oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that played a starring role at our wedding.

As we interviewed caterers for the big day, I kept saying that I wanted to offer something homemade in the mix. I’m fairly well known in my circles for the baking and giving of treats. It seemed wrong to throw this big party and not offer something that I made myself.

First, I was delusional. I dreamed of making a variety of cakes, pies, cookies and squares and displaying them beautifully in a desert buffet. All without breaking a sweat.

I can you hear you laughing. You can stop. Because I came to my senses. Ok, you might disagree on that point, but I think I found a reasonable solution to add something of myself into the food offerings without half killing myself in the process.

I decided to bake cookies. And to make them all gluten-free because we had more than a few guests with known gluten issues. It was important to us that nobody would be singled out because of their dietary requirements. We worked with the caterer on a buffet menu that made it easy for everyone to find lots of options. And I set about looking for a gluten-free cookie recipe.

Brown rice flour made these gluten-free.

I wanted one that didn’t call for a zillion different kinds of flour. This was going to be a big enough production, I didn’t want the extra measuring of four types of flour. I tried a Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free general purpose mix that included tapioca flour, but I found it left a weird, almost metallic aftertaste.

Then I thought perhaps an oatmeal-based cookie might do well with the nutty flavour of brown rice flour. So I took a Cooking Light recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip and pecan cookies that I’d made once before, and tried a straight substitution of brown rice flour for regular flour. I omitted the nuts, added some more chocolate chips, and I happened to forget the white sugar.

The verdict? Delicious! You’d never know they weren’t made with regular flour judging by taste. If you’re familiar with the challenges of gluten-free baking, though, you might guess the ingredients by the texture – they were slightly more crumbly.

This is drop cookie but I tried rolling them to make them sturdier. It worked like a charm and they held together very well. So about a month before the wedding, I spent a Saturday with the oven on for 10 straight hours and the KitchenAid roaring away, mixing three batches of dough at a time. I made nearly 600 cookies. Hoowah.

Little paper bags filled with cookies – a little piece of me for every guest.

I froze them, took them out two days before the wedding to thaw, and packaged them the day before with a thank you note and the recipe. The little packages looked so happy and eager to please on the tables. Happy and eager to please, just like me.

While these little yummies freeze very well, there’s noting like fresh and gooey from the oven. So I now use a different make ahead trick: I make three batches of the dough, roll it into balls, package about two dozen per plastic container, and pop them into the deep freeze.

The only problem with these cookies is that I can’t keep up with the demand. They’re always gone in two days. But I guess as far as problems go, that’s not a bad one to have.

a

Wedding Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light oatmeal chocolate chip pecan cookies)

Ingredients
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (or brown rice flour)
1 cup regular oats
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 4 ingredients (through salt), stirring with a whisk; set aside.

Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add vanilla and egg; beat until blended. Gradually add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place an inch apart onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350° for 14 minutes or until edges of cookies are lightly browned. Cool on pans 2 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool on wire racks.

Mmmmmmuffins

Fresh, warm muffins on Sunday morning.

There’s nothing like getting up late on a Sunday morning, getting a fire going in the woodstove, and sitting down with warm, delicious muffins within about a half an hour.

I found this great recipe for whole wheat oatmeal raisin muffins in a Cooking Light magazine a few years ago and I’ve been making them regularly ever since. It’s become my go-to muffin recipe. These little beauties are moist, full of fibre, and very tasty.

Now that I think about it, these muffins launched my “make ahead” habit. Soon after I found this recipe, I was planning a series of about 25 meetings with staff in all our offices through the spring and summer. I decided to make a batch for each meeting. The idea was to come bearing gifts to start forging relationships.

Yes, I’m crazy. I know. But I swear it really was entirely doable.

When I made the first batch, I mixed up the dry ingredients for another two or three batches in plastic bags. That way, if I was pressed for time, I could throw the muffins together in just over a half hour, and tah-dah!

A bag of pre-mixed dry ingredients makes for fast muffins.

I now do this make ahead mixing for staples like banana bread and biscuits as well. It means I can enjoy warm, freshly baked yummies without much fuss on a lazy weekend morning…or even on a busy weekday morning, because I can shower and dress in the 20 minutes it takes for these muffins to bake.

(I wish I had a picture of my original storage system for these bags of dry ingredients. You see, I have cats and I just knew they’d get into the bags if they weren’t securely stowed away. I lived alone at the time and almost never used my ancient, energy hog of a dishwasher. So in went the bags, lined up just like they were dinner plates. Weird, I know, but it worked like a charm.)

A few tips about these muffins:

  • You can substitute other things for the dried fruit. I don’t care for cranberries so I’ve always either upped the amount of raisins and dates, or substituted pumpkin or sunflower seeds. H loves blueberries almost as much as chocolate, so I now make them with about a cup of fresh or frozen blueberries. Play with it, see what works for you.
  • Don’t skip the step of letting the batter stand for 15 minutes. It softens the oatmeal and plumps up the dried fruit. However, you don’t have to let it stand in the mixing bowl. You can spoon out the batter into the muffin tin and go about clean up and other things done during those 15 minutes.
  • You can make this batter ahead of time. I don’t know how much ahead of time, but at least a day is ok. I found this out when I had the batter mixed and something came up, preventing me from baking the muffins. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge. The following day, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try baking them and they turned out just fine.
  • No racks required.

    Cooling racks? We don’t need no stinking cooling racks. Use a fork to gently pry the muffins out of the tin and tip them onto their sides. They cool well and you have one less thing to wash.

So maybe next Sunday morning, you’ll roll out of bed and whip up a batch of these lovely little muffins. They’re great served with cheese and grapes or fruit salad. Enjoy.

a

Awful Pie

Ok, now that I’ve dazzled you with my Sunday night cooking for the entire week, I want to be perfectly clear that I am not a superhero or a Stepford wife. I produce culinary disasters just like everybody else. Let me tell you about the latest flop.

H is the gardener in the family and I’ve been raving about our sweet carrots, summery beets, and tomatoes from heaven. I do not, however, share his love of beet greens and Swiss chard. Blech.

But he grew those greens, they won’t last as the nights are getting frosty, and I hate waste. So I wanted to find a recipe that H would enjoy and that D and I wouldn’t completely hate. How hard could it be?

Jamie Oliver rocks with Meals in Minutes.

I remembered a delicious spinach feta phyllo pie recipe from Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes cookbook. (I’ll sing Jamie’s high praises in another post – he’s such a passionate advocate for real food, I think he’s my food hero.) I started hunting for a similar recipe that called for beet greens and Swiss chard.

I found one that used puff pastry and looked simple enough. The danger, though, was that it wasn’t precise about volumes. It called for a large bunch of beet greens and a medium bunch of chard. My medium could be your large, so how could I know how much to pick from the garden?

Skeptical, I washed all the greens and chopped the leafy parts as well as the stems. This was labour intensive and while I was doing it, D asked what was for dinner. I told her and she said, “That sounds awful.” I had to agree, but I persevered in the hopes of something half-way tasty in the end. Boy, was I wrong.

I sautéd the greens with zucchini and garlic, mixed them with egg and feta, and dumped it all into the puff pastry. It was already looking kind of pink. Skeptical. I folded the pastry over top, shoved it in the oven, and crossed my fingers.

The most hideous dish I’ve ever made.

The pastry got nice and golden. That’s about the only good thing I can say about it. I served up a slice for each of us, pink juice trailing after each one, and set them on the table. I felt like Brigit Jones serving blue soup.

H sat down and said, “We’d better dig in right away because we want it at its best.” This is when I burst out laughing and said, “Because we sure as hell don’t want it at its worst!”

And I continued to laugh so hard (my out-of-control laugh that’s silent and ridiculous with shoulders shaking, mouth gaping, eyes closed, and tears running) that it took quite a while before I even managed to taste the darn thing. And it tasted…not awful, but not good either.

It was just so hideous, what could I do but laugh?

All in all, here’s my advice to you…make Jamie Oliver’s spinach feta phyllo pie. You’ll love it. His tomato salad is fantastic, too. I hope your laughter while eating it is the normal kind shared around the table with folks you love.

a

ps – For the record, H liked it. Enough to have more a couple nights later. Chacun son goût.

Homemade Fast Food

After writing that first food-focused post, a rush of ideas came to me for more. I must have jotted down at least 15 through the day today and I can’t wait to tickle the keyboard to share them with you.

But I promised to tell you how I upped my game to manage good dinners despite a hectic family schedule. So here goes.

We keep a shared Google calendar that all three of us can access anywhere online, including on our smartphones. I always take a look to see which days could be tricky for getting people fed before I plan the week’s dinners.

It’s a given that I’m not home at suppertime two nights of the week when I teach at the Y. So I’m already in the habit of having a casserole ready for H or D to stick in the oven, a slowcooker meal that’s ready to serve, or sometimes leftovers.

This fall, there’s a third night dedicated to French class, so I’d been taking the same approach – leaving something that’s either ready made or easy to finish preparing.

But that Sunday when I looked at the Google calendar, I realized leaving something ready to pop in the oven wasn’t going to cut it. The window of dining opportunity was so short every single weekday that there wasn’t time for anything more than microwaving.

What we needed was fast food. But not deep-fried, greasy fast food. I’m talking good, tasty, homemade fast food. So here’s what I did.

First, I invested in a wee bit of new equipment. I found snazzy red single serving casserole dishes at Winners.  A set of four was $9, I believe, so I got two sets. I also got Pyrex dishes about the size and shape of frozen dinner containers, but with spiffy red plastic lids. They were $7 each at Sobey’s. (Did I mention I like red?)

Then I whipped up my menu plan and shopping list on Evernote – I’ll tell you more about this handy app another day – whizzed through the grocery store, and headed back to the kitchen. I cranked up the iTunes – because it’s so much more fun to bop while you chop – and proceeded to cook an entire week’s worth of meals in one night.

Here is the menu I chose for five weeknight dinners to feed three busy people (left to right in the photo):

You’ll notice some extra servings in the photo – these went to the deep freeze to patiently await being called to service during a future busy week. You’ll also notice a few other things in the photo:

  • Across the top, three extra containers of rice, ready to serve as sides.
  • Next to the rice is a container of cooked macaroni, ready to turn into a casserole.
  • Top right, the other half of the dump chicken recipe.
  • Below the dump chicken are bags of chopped ham and grated cheddar for adding to biscuit dough.
  • All of these extras went into the deep free except the loaf of chocolate chip banana bread at bottom left. My chocoholic peeps would murder me if I did that.

A productive night, indeed. And it was easy peasy for everyone to eat a good dinner at whatever time they needed it through the week. Not every week requires this much full preparation in advance, but doing most or all the prep on the weekend sure as heck makes the week a lot less stressful.

I’ll do some step-by-step instructions for this kind of make-ahead mania in another post. In the meantime, here’s mom’s baked mac and cheese recipe to warm you up on a crisp fall night. I don’t know where she got the recipe and I don’t care. Once you’ve had this cheesy baked deliciousness, no other mac and cheese will do. It’s my ultimate comfort food. I’ve lightened it slightly, and I like to serve it with tomato slices sprinkled with freshly ground pepper.

Mom’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Hot, cheesy deliciousness.

1 7-oz package of macaroni
2 cups fat-free cottage cheese
1 cup fat-free sour cream
1 slightly beaten egg
2 cups grated light cheddar cheese, divided
Dash of pepper
Sprinkle of paprika

Preheat oven to 350. Cook macaroni according to package directions, omitting fat and salt. Drain and return to the pot. Mix in cottage cheese, sour cream, egg and 1 ½ cups of cheddar. Pour into a 9×9 pan prepared with cooking spray. Sprinkle remaining cheddar over the top, and finish with a sprinkle of paprika. Bake for 45 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

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Focus on Food

So here’s the thing…I like to cook, I like to write, and I like to share. I think my lens for this little blog is beginning to focus.

Little baking tools for little hands.

I’ve always been a decent cook. I almost couldn’t help but be. As the daughter of a home economics teacher, I had my own tiny cookie sheet, pie plate and rolling pin. But there was no Easy Bake Oven for me. Oh no. Why would my parents spring for a box with a light bulb in it when there were not one but two perfectly good wall ovens in the kitchen?

Things that feel instinctual now, I learned at my mother’s elbow from a young age. I was the only teenager working at McDonald’s who knew how to separate an egg. I still use the drugstore wrap with aluminum foil. I feel like I’ve known the cookie method my whole life.

I remember the first meal I made from scratch for my family was scrambled eggs. I remember it like it was yesterday, standing on a chair in front of the stove, slowly moving the egg back and forth as it cooked in the green pot, enjoying the scent of the dash of nutmeg. Mom didn’t hover, but she was in the next room if I needed her. Those were good eggs.

Maybe I should have been a cook but it didn’t seem like something to do as a job. It was something to do for family and friends. Something to share. A way to show that you care. What more heartfelt gift is there – short of donating a kidney – than satisfying the taste buds and filling the stomachs of those you love?

So I graduated from the kitchen at home to baking cookies for my fellow students in university residence. Even when my first attempt at mom’s molasses cookies (not, as I had assumed, made with the cookie method) produced a large batch of hockey pucks, we ate every last one with big mugs of tea to soften them.

Happy packages of cookies ready for co-workers.

I moved on to holiday baking marathons, cranking out a wide and glorious variety of cookies, squares, and fudge that I’d prettily package up and distribute to co-workers. Then I started hosting holiday open houses known for the spread of nibblies, hot apple cider, and big pots of chili and seafood chowder simmering on the stove for hungry guests. (Let’s not talk about the year one guest ended up in the emergency room, which may or may not have had anything to do with the poblano chili in the guacamole…)

After 20 years of cooking and baking simply for the joy of it, my biggest culinary challenge presented itself. I got married and started cooking for a husband (let’s call him H) and his teenage daughter (let’s call her D).

The first thing I had to do was re-arrange their kitchen because at 5’2”, I couldn’t operate in the land of the tall. (We’ve since moved and I’m quite happy with a good, functional kitchen. Ooh, and just wait til I show you the pantry…)

Next I had to get used to making sure there was something to eat every night. Duh, you might say. But as a single, I could easily throw together something quick, easy and nutritious for one, and make it when I felt like it. It’s not quite that simple when it’s for three, has to be (at least mostly) palatable to everyone, and has to fit into a busy schedule – including two week nights when I’m teaching suppertime fitness classes at the Y. (Luckily, we can all fend for ourselves for breakfasts and lunches. I salute those of you who are juggling the full meal deal!)

Then, I had to figure out how much to cook. I was used to making a lasagna and being able to feed on it several times through the week, while also packaging up leftovers to freeze for the future. With more mouths, a lasagna could be devoured in two nights and a work-day lunch.

I didn’t worry too much about the grocery bill at first. It was more important to figure out what I was doing. But once I hit my stride, I started working harder to lower the bill. I also now aim to spend more of the budget on local food with weekly trips to the farmers market and seeking local produce and brands at the grocery store.

I just got all these cylinders firing in sync when the ante was upped again. The family schedule got even crazier this fall. I added an evening French class, and D’s hockey schedule got more frantic with quick turn-arounds between games and practices.

So what did I do? Well, that will be the subject of the next few posts. So stick around.

a

ps – I haven’t thought of a good name for this blog yet, now that I’m focusing on food. I figure I should wait a bit and see how this evolves. If you’ve got an idea for me, I’m all ears. There might even be a tasty treat in it for you if your suggestion ends up gracing the top of this page…