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You Just Don’t Know What Tastes Good

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Homemade deer venison and root vegetable crockpot stew, always a hit!

Trying to be more creative in the kitchen has been one of my goals lately, and it even might be one of my New Year’s resolutions.  Keeping my family happy with food is a full time job, so it seems like I am always in the kitchen or at the grocery store, and if I am not in either of those places, I am probably thinking about what I am going to cook, and writing a never ending shopping list.  The biggest challenge is not simply cooking; it is concocting something that everyone actually likes.  When I cook, there is a 25% chance that someone will hate my cooking, and there is a 50/50 chance that someone will be one of my daughters.

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Homemade Kielbasa. Nobody in our family turns these down!

I can hear my mother-in-law right now: “Well you know what you need to do is keep notes of what you cook that the girls like!  Every time you make something and it turns out they like it, just quick write down what you did and what ingredients you put in the recipe; then put that somewhere you can find it next time you want to cook that dish.”

Good advice, because my mother-in-law is a smart cookie, but this is also easier said than done.  If she saw my house right now she would probably decide that for me note taking should be a lower priority than basic domestic hygiene.  Also, I rarely cook following actual recipes unless I am trying something new and unfamiliar, and even then I improvise, substitute ingredients, and experiment, sometimes wildly, because I often second guess the recipes.  “Yeah, Julia Child probably knows what she’s talking about, but I’m going to go ahead and put basil in anyway…”  I do also tend to make dishes up using leftovers and random ingredients, creating resourceful and rustic meals that, like unicorns, only appear once in our lifetimes, astound us, and then disappear never to be recreated.

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Braided bread — gorgeous, epic fail.

When I do make my special creations, like I did yesterday using my husband’s leftover homemade breakfast sausage (with his secret spice blend), some broccoli rescued from the Wal-Mart produce section, and the last of my Asian oils and sauces, I can always count on one child to be excited and one to be grossed out.  I was dumping sauces into my stir fry and then tossing the empty jars into the trash, delighted to be cleaning out the fridge!  But how would the lunch taste?  It turned out pretty great, but I had my 25% failure rate with one child refusing to eat.  Tonight I concocted a Mediterranean dish with chicken, green olives, tomatoes, and other things that I knew the girls would hate.  It was really fun to make, and I danced around the kitchen to Guns n’ Roses while I added the ingredients to the bubbling pot.

This dish was bound to be despised by possibly everyone, but I couldn’t resist.  This time I carefully followed the recipe, even though the instructions were a bit vague.  And just like almost every other time that I have introduced a “new” recipe where I must hover over the stove, monitor each measurement carefully, and finally bring it triumphantly to the table, everyone reacted the same way: “…meh.”

Oh what the hell.  Back to the same old boring menu plan.  Bring on the tacos and spaghetti sauce.

— G

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Making Cheesecake for the Holidays

If you are considering making a cheesecake for the Holidays but have never tackled this daunting task, I will let you in on a little secret. Making cheesecake, while time consuming and details oriented, is extremely easy!

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I first encountered this revelation a few years ago when my father decided to have a benefit auction to help a friend diagnosed with cancer. Looking around my house, I realized that we had neither valuable items worth donating nor sufficient funds to throw into the kitty. Like many housewives faced with this type of dilemma, I baked. A novice with no idea what I was doing, I managed to  produce four massive cheesecakes and three rhubarb pies, and to my surprise, they sold like hotcakes (pardon the pun)!

Back to you (yes, YOU) making an actual cheesecake.  If you really want to do this, FIRST READ THIS ENTIRE POST.  It will take time to read this, but before you start mixing ingredients you have to be 100% committed to this project!  It takes at least two hours but it’s worth it because this is the best cheesecake you will ever make.

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Citrus is what makes a cheesecake really tasty!

I can’t take credit for this recipe because it came from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, copyright 1984.  However, I have adapted the recipe to make it well, better.  While the Fannie Farmer version calls for a sweeter cheesecake, I prefer more complex spices, citrus, and berry notes.  The ingredient list that I use is annotated below, with the Fannie Farmer version in parenthesis and Italics.  These measurements will produce a cheesecake in an approximately 12 inch  springform pan.

INGREDIENTS

For Graham Cracker Crust

  • 12 to 16 whole graham crackers (makes about 1 1/2 Cups of crumbs)
  • 1/4 C granulated sugar
  • 8 T (1 stick or 1/2 C) melted butter (Fannie Farmer also suggests margarine) *dairy free butter substitutes can be used if they have the same properties as dairy butter*
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)  *I only use cinnamon if making a cheesecake incorporating cinnamon or other savory ingredients*

For Cheesecake

  • 1 pound (2 packages/2 Cups) cream cheese (*use Philadelphia, not an off-brand)
  • 3/4 C granulated sugar (Fannie Farmer suggests 1 Cup)
  • 1 T grated lemon zest (Fannie suggests 1/2 T)
  • 2 T all purpose flour (bleached or unbleached)
  • 1 tsp fine grain sea salt (Fannie suggests 1/2 tsp regular salt)
  • 1 T Mexican vanilla extract (Fannie suggests 1/2 T vanilla extract)
  • 6 eggs, separated & at room temperature
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2-3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice (Fannie suggests 2 T)

Fun Little Extras

Depending on the type of cheesecake, you can get really creative with fun extras.  If you want to make a plain cheesecake as your prototype, the ingredients listed above are all you need.  If you want to be adventurous, here is another list of just a few ideas to try.

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  • High quality chocolate disks
  • Lemon curd
  • Dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries, etc.
  • Espresso powder
  • Nutmeg
  • Citrus fruits
  • Toasted nuts
  • Drambuie liqueur (for drizzling scantily over the graham cracker crust — trust me…)

*If you are adding any of these fun extras, you will naturally end up experimenting a bit.  I like to add nuts, dried fruits, and fruit spreads directly to the crust before adding the cheesecake mixture, but you may find a technique that works better for you.  If using a powder such as the espresso powder, mix that directly into the cheesecake mixture or the chocolate when you melt it. Speaking of the chocolate, you didn’t think I forgot about that, did you?  See Step 5-A for the chocolate marble variation.

Before beginning, place all ingredients on a work surface.  You will also need the following tools within easy reach:

  • 2-3 large mixing bowls
  • An electric stand mixer (preferable)
  • An electric hand held mixer (for making meringue)
  • 2-3 spatulas
  • Measuring cups
  • An egg separator (unless you can hand separate)
  • Waxed paper
  • An enamel coated (or otherwise nonstick) saucepan for melting chocolate
  • A lemon juicer (or you can hand squeeze, but beware of seeds)
  • A lemon zester, or very fine cheese grater
  • Rolling pin and gallon sized plastic zipper bag
  • Colander
  • Springform pan (this recipe will make a large cheesecake in a 12 inch pan, but if you have a slightly smaller pan, that is fine)
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Make sure you have the right gadgets before you begin!

If you are still interested in tackling this project, remember that it is easy and keep reading through the steps before you begin baking.

STEP 1:  Make sure all dairy products and eggs are at room temperature.  Trace the bottom of the springform pan onto wax paper and cut out the circle, then put the paper into the pan.  It will settle and stick once the crust is formed into the pan.

STEP 2:  Put graham crackers into a gallon sized plastic zipper bag and use a rolling pin to crush them into fine crumbs.  You may need to sift out the finer crumbs through a colander into a mixing bowl.

STEP 3:  Combine the crumbs and sugar with a fork in a medium mixing bowl, then add the melted butter and continue to mix.  The mixture will become moistened and slightly sticky.  Using a large spoon or spatula, press crumbs into the bottom of the pan and about 1 & 1/2 inches up the sides to form the crust.  Pour about one half shot of Drambuie into a shot glass and sprinkle sparingly over the crust (optional).  Set pan in the freezer while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter and granulated sugar.

Graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter and granulated sugar.

Sprinkle the crumbs by spoonfuls into the Springform pan and pat until firm.

Sprinkle the crumbs by spoonfuls into the pan and press until firm.

A bit of Drambuie sprinkled over the crust gives it a unique and unforgettable flavor!  I also added large granulated sugar sprinkles.

A bit of Drambuie sprinkled over the crust gives it a unique and unforgettable flavor! I also added large granulated sugar sprinkles.

If adding festive ingredients to your cheesecake, a layer directly on the crust is a must!  I added dried cranberries and cherries as well as lemon zest.

If adding festive ingredients to your cheesecake, a layer directly on the crust is a must! I added dried cranberries and cherries as well as lemon zest.

STEP 4:  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In the stand mixer, beat cream cheese on high speed until it is fluffy.  Add 1/2 C of the sugar (if following Fannie, add 3/4 C), hold back remaining 1/4 Cup.  Beat until cream cheese and sugar are well mixed. Add lemon zest, salt, flour and vanilla, according to which recipe instructions you are following.  Beat until ingredients are well incorporated.  Beat in egg yolks (no egg whites) at medium speed, then add sour cream and lemon juice and beat at low speed until the batter is smooth.

STEP 5:  In a separate large mixing bowl, combine the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 C granulated sugar using a hand mixer.  Beat on the low setting for about one minute.  The mixture will begin to appear thicker and will slosh from side to side in the bowl.  Increase the mixer speed to medium for another minute or two.  The mixture will begin to go from extremely bubbly to frothy.  Once the mixture has is rippling, increase the speed to high until soft peaks form on the beaters when they are lifted out of the mixture (turn off before lifting out).  Fold the meringue gently into the prepared batter and mix until incorporated.

Mixing the meringue with the cheesecake batter, creating an amazing texture!

Mixing the meringue with the cheesecake batter, creating an amazing texture!

One cheesecake ready to go into the oven...

One cheesecake ready to go into the oven…

STEP 5-A: Chocolate Marble Variation: Omit lemon juice and zest.  Melt 2-3 ounces of unsweetened chocolate disks or squares over very low heat, stirring frequently.  Remove promptly from heat as soon as the chocolate is melted.  After the meringue has been folded into the cheesecake mixture, hold back about 1/3 of the batter in a medium sized bowl and gently stir in the melted chocolate until blended.  Drizzle the chocolate batter over the original batter, which you have poured into the springform pan, and use a spoon or spatula to create swirls, or marble effects in the batter.

STEP 6:  Remove the crust from the freezer and pour the batter over the crust until the pan is full.  Carefully put the pan into the oven and bake for about one hour, but keep an eye on the cheesecake to make sure that it does not over brown.  The cake may crack, which is inevitable but will not hinder the flavor.  If the temperature needs to be turned down, you can adjust it as needed and continue to check the cheesecake.  It is done baking when a sharp knife (because it leaves no evidence of insertion) comes out clean.

A finished product.  Remember, cracks add character and depth to the cheesecake!

A finished product. Remember, cracks add character and depth of flavor!

STEP 7:  Allow cheesecake to cool completely.  You can leave it in the oven to cool completely after turning the oven off if it has not browned significantly.  A cheesecake needs to wait a full 24 hours before it should be cut and served.  Allowing it to rest creates more complex flavor and texture.  It is well worth the wait!  The cheesecake can even be frozen for up to two weeks, after being wrapped well in foil.

To cut and serve, loosen the clasp and gently wiggle the ring loose around the cheesecake.  A spatula may come in handy to free the sides of the cake from the inside of the ring. The cheesecake will remain on the bottom of the spring form pan, with the wax paper between the crust and the pan.  When slicing, use a very sharp knife to avoid sloppy edges.  The cheesecake will need to defrost for at least two hours if it has been frozen.  Enjoy!

—G

Cozy and Warm by the Fire?

My middle child woke up very ill this morning and was really bummed because she would have to stay home from school and subsequently her Christmas Concert tonight.  I tried to make her feel better by promising to start a fire in our fireplace so she could enjoy the cozy feeling of being near the lit up Christmas tree and burning logs.

My husband is classically the one who starts the fires in our family. A former Boy Scout, he is amazing at getting a fire started without using an entire box of matches and a ream of scrap paper.  I am pretty bad at starting fires but wanted to make my depressed child feel better, so I fussed with the fireplace for nearly an hour.

We had a roaring blaze one minute and a fizzling black void the next.  My daughter stopped caring about the fire but I was determined to succeed.  Even if it meant burning the house down.  Finally, after a dozen matches gave their lives and an unspeakable amount of paper crumpled for the cause, this happened:

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I pumped up the Christmas songs and my little girl curled up on the couch to read in front of the fire.  It lasted a glorious 30 minutes.  Now the fire is only in the embers and the logs are half burnt, but my daughter feels a little better.  I didn’t burn the house down, and when my husband gets home I think I will ask him for a Boy Scout fire building lesson!

—G

Our Neighborhood Belongs to the Children

One of the neatest things about living where we do is that our neighborhood is under the control of the hundred or so children who constantly swarm in and out of our houses, caring little whether the house is actually theirs.  I have never lived any place where this was possible or even acceptable, and there is something so freeing about it.  In other places we’ve lived, always basically nice neighborhoods, the idea of children roaming unattended through the streets, playing in neighbors’ yards, and entering unfamiliar houses was unthinkable, maybe dangerous.

In our neighborhood this behavior is not only allowed but enforced by the children, who would have it no other way.  Perhaps this regime was established years ago when the neighborhood was still brand new and the first families decided to band together to create a close knit environment; then the environment thrived into a microcosm where the children exercise their democracy through the freedom to run and explore, free range, inside the established boundaries.

What a visitor sees when coming to our street is a residential scene from a bygone era: children shooting around on vintage looking bikes, scooters, and skateboards, the muffled sounds of lawn mowers and sprinklers mixed with laugher and the crack of baseball bats, and then in the distance the ice cream van’s jingling songs play merrily.  The children might disappear momentarily to grab a fistful of change, but soon they are back, jostling into a jagged line to buy ice cream and popsicles, and then it is back to zooming around on the now empty street.

While all this is going on there is limited parental supervision.  One or two parents may sit on the front steps of their homes, or fiddle with a dodgy sprinkler in the yard, but no one hovers over the kids while they play.  Some might consider this as irresponsible parenting, but I have had the chance to get to know some of the parents in the neighborhood, and they do not strike me as the type.  It seems more like a social experiment, an understanding between parents and children in which parents allow their offspring to leave the nest and venture out into the world to explore and network with peers.  In this cell phone age when parents and children are just a call away, why not let children explore unsupervised to give them a stronger sense of confidence, accomplishment, adventure?

Often the adventuring leads neighborhood children to my door.  Since I am a well known authority figure in their school, the children feel comfortable coming to me for all kinds of reasons: to ask for a glass of water or a popsicle, to see if they can help me in my garden, to ask if I will teach them how to make sushi, and my favorite, why my hair looks so funny.  I also often look out my window to find neighborhood children just playing in my front yard for no other reason than because their parents probably told them to “go play somewhere else”.  This causes no concern except for when the little boy on the corner is in my yard.  I frequently find him going after my daughters with a hollow plastic baseball bat.  They probably instigate the ‘attacks’ and on the flip side, they are all smiling and laughing, and my girls always have foam pool noodles for self defense.

One day I woke up from a nap to hear noise outside and when I looked out the window there were half a dozen children in my front yard with a remote control monster truck.  They were racing it up the driveway and trying to jump it off of my bottom step.  It kept crashing all over the place and they were making quite a racket.  When I threw open the front door they all froze and looked at me with guilty expressions.  “What are you doing out here?”  I asked.  “Uhh…testing out the monster truck…”  “Do you want candy canes?”  “YES PLEASE!!!”  I shouldn’t have fed them, now they are in my yard all the time.  But they are cute and sweet and they don’t mess with me because I yell at them plenty at school.

Another caveat to the free ranging children is that for some reason they will inevitably want to come into my house and explore when they get tired of exhausting the resources of the surrounding outdoors.  Usually I can fend them off with a popsicle bribe and a hollow promise that “sometime soon” they can come in, perhaps when I am making cookies, but “not now, the house is way too messy!”  It always is.

The best lesson I have learned from these little intrepid spirits is that when they come to my door, it is the perfect excuse to drop the laundry, the dusting, the cooking, or whatever mundane house chore I feel obligated to drudge through and go outside to get in touch with my inner child.  Their subtle, adorable hijacking of the neighborhood has given me a little freedom because I can say to myself, “hey this is not so important when there is a beautiful evening to experience!  I’ll outside and see what my kids are doing, and get back in touch with neighbors I haven’t seen in ages!  Goodbye laundry basket and mop bucket!”

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Zombie Princess drawn by my daughter. Happy Halloween!

Tomorrow the neighborhood will be swarming with children in costumes.  Our neighborhood is THE place to trick or treat.  Many neighbors go all out to decorate houses and stash truckloads of candy for the hoards of costumed youngsters who will invade.  Children at the school have been asking me all week if I will be at my house to hand out candy.  I bought a five gallon pumpkin shaped bucket to fill and still need to go back to the store for backup candy.  It would not be surprising to see at least 200 children at my door tonight.  Children from other parts of town and as far as Fort Riley will come to our neighborhood for candy.  That is fine with me, just as long as no one asks to come into my house.  It is still a mess.

— G