Solo Baking

We made chocolate chip muffins last Monday during our unexpected snow day. I helped a bit — not a lot, but a good bit, especially in the middle.

Today, the Girl decided she wanted to make muffins again, this time vanilla. She found the recipe online, checked the ingredients, made a shopping list, called K to see if she needed us to pick anything up for her while we were at the store, convinced me to go (didn’t take much), mixed, poured, baked, and cleaned up after herself.

This is not to say there weren’t moments of frustration. It turns out she didn’t check eggs closely enough, a fact we discovered after we returned from the store. No problem: she went to the neighbors and asked for an egg, taking them some muffins when they were done.

She wanted to go to the store by herself, to walk down to the CVS about a half-mile down the street, but that was a bit much. Still, all these signs of growing up…

Snowless Snow Day

We haven’t really tried to force the Girl, as she gets older, to learn how to cook. She’s learned how to clean her room, to dust, to wash a window, to clean the hardwood floors in our house, but cooking, we just didn’t really make her. I don’t know about K, but I figured that she’ll learn when she’s interested. That’s how it was with me. Still, as she nears middle school, we’ve been talking about how, at the very least, she needs to begin making her own lunch for the day.

This weekend, she decided she wanted to make chocolate chip muffins. She didn’t want help other than buying the ingredients and going over the recipe with her. The rest, she wanted to do. So when we went to bed last night, it was with the plan of making muffins in the afternoon after school.

Little did we know that school had already been canceled in anticipation of a front that was supposed to bring ice and freezing rain but never really materialized. We woke up, went through our normal morning routine, and somehow, though the local news was on, missed that Greenville County Schools had canceled everything for the day. We found out when L and I arrived at her school only to find an empty parking lot. “It can’t be a two-hour delay,” I thought, “because there would be some cars there. Someone would be there.” We returned home to find that there was no school, so afternoon muffins became morning muffins.

She began cooking, and I, still not feeling 100%, took the opportunity to lie down for a while. I went to the kitchen occasionally to check on the progress, but overall, she seemed to be doing well, with a little help from the Boy. His help with her was much like his help with anyone: only slightly helpful, often less than helpful, but always eager.

L called me in to help her when she was filling the muffin forms. I looked at the dough and had my doubts.

“Did you follow the instructions very closely?” I asked.

“Yes,” she assured.

“And you mixed this very well?” I asked, wondering how she could have done it without using the mixer. It was thick and not easily budged: it would have been a nightmare to do it by hand.

“Yes.”

I took a spatula and found most of the sugar and a good bit of the flour still sitting at the base of the mixing bowl, untouched.

“Oh,” she laughed.

We threw it in the mixer, combined the ingredients thoroughly, and got put everything in the muffin forms.

“Now put it in the oven,” I said.

“Me?!”

The Girl doesn’t deal with heat well. Things that seem only lukewarm to K and me threaten to scald her, to send her to the emergency room with third-degree burns. But with a little encouragement, she was able to open the door, put the pan in, and pull it back out in twenty minutes when the buzzer went off.

And the result? For a first attempt, utterly amazing. For any attempt, really very good. Moist, chocolatey, and perfect. A hit for the whole family.

The upshot of this: the Girl was eager to cook again. When it was dinner time, she wanted to learn to make the rice. Instead of just plain old rice, though, I taught her to cook a quick and easy risotto. After looking through a cookbook and finding a recipe for lemony broiled chicken, she’s ready to cook a full dinner next week.

And the rain and ice that shut down schools? Nothing. The ground was dry until early afternoon. A district spokeswoman explained it to a local news outlet:

“When an alert of that magnitude is issued we have to consider the problems it would present not only for our bus riders, but also car riders, including high school drivers, who travel over bridges and on curvy roads,” Brotherton said. “We considered the circumstances that occurred in Asheville on December 31st when even small amounts of fog and drizzle quickly turned to ice on roadways and led to treacherous road conditions and multiple wrecks. After a week of freezing temperatures and already cold roads, asking parents, students and employees to travel in the predicted conditions was not a risk we were willing to take. Safety always comes first.”

It’s not the first time something like this has happened; it won’t be the last. But we’ll always make the most of such days.

Thanksgiving 2017

12:50

Three hours in the kitchen yesterday morning; five hours in the kitchen this morning; I’ve listened to over half of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park in the meantime. (Does he ever write anything that doesn’t have a writer in it? I love his style, but sometimes I get the feeling I’m just reading variations on his autobiography. This one, so far, has no connection to Paris.) I’m thankful that it’s almost done. The turkey is in the oven; the dressing is cooling; the soup and cranberry sauce (this year stewed spiced chai with a bit of bourbon as an experiment) sit in the refrigerator; the broccoli casserole (yes, there simply must be a casserole or else it’s not Thanksgiving) is ready to go in the oven; the giblet gravy is almost ready. It’s time for a cup of coffee, a pipe of tobacco (after years of smoking English and Virginia/Perique blends almost exclusively, I’ve begun exploring burley-based blends–it’s like smoking a pipe again for the first time), and some quiet.

It’s been a crazy morning: the dog, less than twenty-four hours after being spayed, has returned to normal energy levels and is highly irritated about being stuck inside with an Elizabethan collar on. The Boy wanted to help, of course, but the difference now is that he’s able actually to help. He broke the dried bread into chunks for the dressing; he crushed crackers and mixed the liquid components for the casserole; he willingly taste-tested the pumpkin pie baklava; he kept an eye on everything. How did I listen to a story and talk to the Boy? Simple: his fits of helping merely punctuated his playing.

10:24

It’s always the same — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, you spend all that time cooking and it’s over before you know it. Even when you slow down, even when you’re mindful, even when you want to stretch things out, you can’t.

You sit and listen to the Boy’s stories, plow through the food, and it’s done. Of course, when you compare the amount of prep to the time eating, even two hours would be “plowing through.” But you can’t complain: people aren’t eager to eat food that tastes mediocre at best, so I take it as a complement.

And go for a meandering walk afterward, the first quarter of it with the family. The rest head back because the poor dog, with her radar hat on, probably shouldn’t be out too long.

Grinding

The Boy always likes helping in the kitchen. He likes helping anywhere, but especially in the kitchen. These days of Advent, that’s always a good thing: K can use all the help she can get in the kitchen.

Tonight: filling for the Christmas Eve dinner dumplings — the uszka (for the barszcz) filled with mushrooms and the pierogi stuffed with a sauerkraut-mushroom mixture. There’s lots of sauteing and grinding. We probably go through two sticks of butter in the process.

“We’re Polish, so that means we use butter for everything,” the Boy exclaims as we cook.

Tonight, we try out our new grinder attachment for the silver Beast, which usually sits on one of the racks in the basement but has spent Advent on the counter top upstairs. We finally have enough counter space to do it, why not?

We have definitely moved past the “It’s so new — don’t touch anything” phase of our new kitchen. It’s like the old one never existed. Certainly makes the pictures look better.

Pierogi Party

Part of being Polish in America is sharing that culture — with your family, with friends, and even with strangers, which is why you might spend the afternoon making literally hundreds of pierogi.

The Boy, ever willing and thrilled to help, makes a mess in the interest of helping. Afterward, he will come outside and help me in the yard.

Priorities

The Boy woke up this morning already discussing the obstacle course we could create that day. “First I’ll go to school. Then I’ll come home. And when you come home from school, we’ll build the obstacle course!” It was the highlight of his morning, this little future utopia that was only hours away.

When I arrived home, though, he was asleep. It happens some times — he’s about to outgrow that nap, but every now and then, he falls asleep. Perhaps it’s when he and K are in the car line to pick up L. Maybe it’s watching a little TV with L after she’s done her homework. Perhaps it just a random “Mommy, I’m tired” situation. Whatever the cause today, he was asleep.

“Good,” I thought. “Just enough time to have a bit of coffee and relax for a few moments.” Just as the Boy looked forward to his afternoon obstacle course, I always look forward to that afternoon coffee. I put some water on and chatted with K about the day when suddenly from upstairs came an excited call: “Daddy!” That in itself was surprising: it’s always K whom he calls for. Not today. “Daddy, we can build the obstacle course!”

I went up to his room and started negotiating. “Well, first we have to do a little cooking.”

“Yeah, sure, sure!” he said. The Boy loves cooking, and I knew this wouldn’t be a problem. The next item, though, might be a little troublesome.

“Also, I have a little school work to do. How about you watch a Might Machines episode while I drink my coffee and finish up my work?” I suggested.

“Okay. I love Might Machines.” And who wouldn’t?

After coffee and Machines, it was time for kiełbasa. We had to cut up a link of sausage (read: I had to cut it up) and fry it. The Boy helped with the latter. He’s our professional stirrer. If anything needs stirring, providing it’s not spitting and bubbling too violently, he’s the man for the job.

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It’s sometimes more trouble than help: he hasn’t mastered the gentle stir, and he tends to get a little excited and send various foods flying onto the cook top. Such was the case tonight.

“Daddy, some fell out.” I’d pick up the sausage piece, toss it back in, and wait for the next one. “Daddy, some more fell out.” One piece, two pieces. He tried putting it back in himself, but by the time he got the nerve up to try it, the sausage was quite hot.

Finally, we were all done.

“Obstacle course?!”

“Obstacle course.”

“Hurrah!”

Up the stairs we went, discussing our options.

“I want one just like the one yesterday.”

“I’m not sure I can make it like that again.” I didn’t mention the picture I had taken of it, nor the fact that I could in theory use the picture to recreate it almost perfectly. I wanted to try something else.

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“It’s more of a maze than an obstacle course,” L observed when she got home from dance classes.

It got me to thinking about two different metaphors for life: mazes and obstacle courses. Which would be a more optimistic view? And how much more optimistic? A maze seems almost hopelessly impossible when it’s life-size and you’re stuck in it, I would imagine. At least with an obstacle course, one can theoretically see the end. But in the end, they both seem just a touch too negative. For most of us, life isn’t a game. Indeed, games and play in general, most child psychologists would argue, I think, are really only dress rehearsals for “real” life. Life is like a maze — at times. It’s like an obstacle course — at times. And sometimes it’s a couple of pieces of sausage tumbling from the frying pan.

Peeling Eggs

The Boy is always eager to help, especially when it comes to cooking. Any time K is standing at the stove, E bounds over to the dining table, grabs a chair, and slides it across the whole room to the stove.

“I want to help!”

Most often, that’s just stirring. It’s simple, difficult to mess up, and difficult to make a mess doing. Today, though, as I was rinsing the boiled eggs we’d be putting in our żurek later, he decided he wanted to learn how to peel the eggs. Rather, having just woke up from a nap, he was encouraged to learn. Bribed, for he’s awfully fussy when he’s awakened prematurely.

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“Want to help me cook?” I began.

He was reluctant at first, but the words “learn” and “something new” seemed to pique his interest, and soon enough, he was peeling an egg.

When it came time for dinner, he was quite insistent that he got the egg that he had peeled.

“Bardzo słuszna koncepcja.”

Preparation

The Girl decided that she wanted to help K make barszcz, that most perfect of all uses of the beet. We’re meeting friends for a post-trick-or-treating party tomorrow night, and the hosts asked K to bring barszcz. What can I say — she’s a master. Everyone loves her barszcz — both varieties.

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The Girl peeled some of the beets before heading off for a bath then peeled some of the carrots afterward. They all simmered with parsnip, garlic, onions, and some herbs to make the stock that will form the basis of the soup.

“Since it’s not a postny soup,” she said, “I also threw in some smoked ribs.” Which is to say, because it didn’t have to be vegetarian because of Lent or Advent, she used a few of the ribs I smoked a few weeks ago.

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The other request was for smalec. In a word, smalec means lard, but to call the dish that shares the same name simply “lard” is a gross injustice. “Lard” is for frying donuts and cutlets. Smalec is a little slice of heaven — or perhaps a little glob of heaven, for it is essentially fat.

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Fat with bacon bits, finely sliced (and sauteed in butter) onions, and slivers of apple (fried in the bacon drippings). At least that’s the way K’s mom taught her to make it. There are probably a thousand and one varieties, and truth be told, we’ve already begun experimenting: we took some of the meat from the ribs used in the barszcz stock and chopped it finely to mix in with the other ingredients for the smalec.

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“Why not?” K shrugged when I suggested it. “It’s all pork.”