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.

Holy Thursday 2017

Last night, I went out to get something I’d left in my car, and as I was opening my car door,  I heard behind me a thunk. I turned and saw silhouetted against lights of the house a shape that moved ever so slightly. For a moment, I thought it might be a raccoon: we have them all over the place, including in a hole in our neighbors’ Sweet Gum near the base of our driveway. That didn’t make sense though: why in the world would a raccoon jump onto the car? And would it even be possible? Sure, one had jumped onto our deck once several years ago, but that jump was from our not-so-long-gone gas/AC package unit, a jump of about three feet.

A closer look showed it wasn’t a raccoon but looked positively owl-esque. I walked slowly to the back of the van and saw that it was indeed an owl. It came back this morning, drawn by the birds nesting in our downspout. Determining that there was no way it could get to the birds, it left as quickly as it came.

That was probably good, because everyone had lots to get done today. For K, it was a baking day. She finally was able to bake a miodownik like her mother always bakes. “You have to bake four sheets, and we never had an oven big enough,” she explained. Now we do.

So K baked and baked while I was out cutting grass and cleaning up the lawn for our Easter guests.

I got the kids out to help by picking up Sweet Gum seed balls, the spiky little bits of hell that can spawn dozens of almost-impossible-to-kill saplings each. They decided to count as they collected. Front and back yard yielded over six hundred, they said. And the probably only got about thirty percent of them in total.

They finished up just in time to do some egg painting. K tried some new method that involved whipped cream (or shaving foam) and food coloring, which remained a mystery to me throughout the process,

but the girls elected to go with more traditional methods. An egg painting mini-party has always been a staple in our Easter preparations, but it’s been on the decline over the last few years. This year, it was at its most minimalistic.

One chore left: smoking the meat. Two racks of ribs, two pork loins, six large chicken breasts. The ribs will go into K’s Easter żurek along with generous amounts of horseradish. The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.

The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.

Przepalanka

The name comes from the verb przepalać, which means to overheat, blow, or scorch. For instance, when a lightbulb (żarówka) blows out, the verb of choice to chronicle the event is “przepalać” (with the reflexive “się” added to confuse foreigners). Likewise with a fuse — they’re still fairly common in Poland and in much of Europe, with the old buildings that still have old wiring.

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Cleaning the bottles

It also means “scorch,” though, as in to scorch sugar, as in to caramelize sugar. It’s from this that the name “przpalanka” comes from.

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The finished product

I first encountered przepalanka when my neighbor, a fellow American who was getting married in early 1997, invited me over for a Friday evening game of chess. I still didn’t know how to play chess, and he less so. We were basically just moving pieces around without any sense of strategy, but we could chat. And so when I entered, he greeted me with a strange declaration: “Look, we made vodka!”

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Measuring the sugar

We made it for our wedding, too. And it was the result of a jolt of terror during the wedding celebration.

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Przepala się

“We’re about out of vodka!” K proclaimed at about ten in the evening, when the party was just getting started.

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Dilution

Fortunately, she just meant przepalanka — else it would have been the end of the party.

Steps

The barszcz takes several days to prepare because you have to ferment the beet juice first, and that takes a while. The herring salad takes a couple of days to make because it has to marinate. Or rather, re-marinate. The fish course — trout this year — is unpredictable, so we ordered it a week ago, for pick up on Saturday morning.

And of course for the kids, it’s been a year in the waiting.

Making the List

Making the list for tomorrow’s shopping is a process that takes as much planning as the cooking itself. I guess that goes without saying: you want to make sure your list has everything you need so that you don’t have to go back out. There’s no way I want to have to go out on Saturday to get anything — anything — we’ve forgotten, so making this list now reduces the chances of that happening. It began last night, sitting at the kitchen table, cookbooks everywhere, and it continued in the afternoon and evening tonight.

Taking a short dance break requires less planning. When you’re listening to highlander Christmas carols and you grew up dancing, it comes naturally. And that’s to say nothing of K.

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.

Meat

When we woke up, it was twenty-seven degrees outside. For South Carolina, that’s cold, especially in December. The really low temperatures like that don’t usually hit until January and February. It creates a challenge for the day’s activity: smoking of the holiday meat.

With twenty-some pounds of pork loin, a rack of ribs (for soups), and several pounds of chicken to smoke, I’m going to have a long, cold day in such weather.

Fortunately the Boy comes out to help.

At least for a while.

Rainy Sunday

“It’s cold and rainy!” I said as I came back inside from taking pictures of the Boy, who was more thrilled than I was that it was cold and rainy. After a blistering dry summer, to have finally some cold, wet weather is a blessing.

It made the rosół we had for lunch all the tastier, the cuddling with Papa and Nana all the more comfortable, and family movie in the early evening all the more enjoyable.

The automatically created URL for this post indicates that this is the fourth time I’ve used “Rainy Sunday” as a post title:

All within the last three years.

Thanksgiving 2016

In the morning, it’s cooking. And the Boy wants to help. He wants so much to be a big boy, to do the things he sees adults do, to do the things he sees me do. It’s humbling to think that I am for him the example of what a man is supposed to be.

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After a few hours of work, we head to the backyard, where the leaves make a kaleidoscopic carpet and curtains. One advantage of things not being as wet as they often are — there are colors. The last few years, it’s seemed like it rained a lot during autumn and all the leaves just turned black and fell off. This year, there’s no chance of that happening. Sure, we’re eleven inches behind in rainfall now. But those colors.

Mid-afternoon, it’s back to the kitchen to finish up everything. This goes into the oven, that comes out. The turkey remains the whole time. K’s a bit nervous about the turkey: we haven’t done a turkey. Ever. It’s not “We haven’t done a turkey like this” or “We haven’t done a turkey in this gas oven” — we just have never baked a whole turkey. Nana and Papa always contributed that to the Thanksgiving dinner. Still, how hard can it be? Research a few recipes, double-check the temperature and time in relation to the weight, then wait.

In the end, everything turns out fine.

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Better than fine.

Everyone goes home, K goes to bed early, and I head downstairs for an after-dinner drink and cigar. I scroll through what’s new on Netflix and see one of my all-time favorite movies is now streaming: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

How can I resist?