Roxanne

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If you’re reading this story, it means I’ve mustered up enough courage to hit the “publish” button.  It also means that if you’ve ever suspected  I’m a big awkward dork, you’re about to learn you’re an excellent judge of character.

OK, here’s the first odd thing: I have a culinary bucket list.  Some people want to travel the world or skydive before they die, I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and roast a whole fish.

This bucket list is why I found myself in the kitchen on a sunny afternoon, attempting to make pretzels and subsequently cross one more item off my list.  Things were going smoothly — the dough had risen and it was time to twist the pretzels.

Shaping pretzel after pretzel is kind of Zen but there’s only so much quiet reflection a girl can handle.  To help quell the monotony, I pulled up my favorite Pandora channel, hit play and settled back into my groove, quietly humming along with Michael Hutchence.

After a few more minutes, I did what any emotionally healthy, totally sane person would do: I picked a fight with myself.

Oh my God, could you be any more uptight?  You’re home alone.  Humming.  Nobody hums when they’re alone.  And nobody hums INXS.  Ever.  Live a little.

Damn, I sure told me.  Shamed into action, I start to sing along.

The next song brought about some toe tapping and head bobbing, followed by hip swaying and even louder singing.

By the fifth song, I was feeling it — music cranked as loud as it would go, I belted out Roxanne as if I was the one painfully in love with the beguiling streetwalker.  Sting tried to sing along with me but I told him to sit down and relax with the rest of The Police, ‘cuz I totally got this:

Roxanne (Put on the red light)
Roxanne (Put on the red light)

I was going for the awesome finish with an air drum solo when a flash of movement caught my eye.  I look up, expecting to see a squirrel on my deck.  Sadly, it was not a squirrel.  It was so not a squirrel.

It was a man I’d never seen before standing in my backyard, looking horrified.

I had forgotten that I made an appointment to get an estimate for a few home repairs.  I quickly weighed my options and realized that I couldn’t drop to the floor and crawl away, so I dusted the flour off my hands, turned down the music and stepped outside for what will go down as one of the most awkward conversations of my life.

“I, uh, rang the doorbell several times but I think your music was too loud.”

“Oh, ha ha.  Yeah.  I’m making pretzels.”

As if that explained everything.

Somehow Baby can get away with, “I carried a watermelon,” but “I’m making pretzels” just doesn’t cut it.

We stumbled through a conversation, he gave me a price quote and I sent him on his way, probably scarred for life.  Neither of us spoke of Roxanne.

★★★

I may have been crushed, but the pretzels were pretty awesome.  Here’s the recipe if you’d like to make them.  It’s not hard to do and it’s even kind of fun — just be sure to keep the music at a respectable volume.

Roxanne’s Soft Pretzels
A modified recipe from the King Arthur Flour web site.

pretzel dough
2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
7/8 to 1 cup warm water*

pretzel bath
6 cups boiling water mixed with
2 tablespoons baking soda

Place all of the dough ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer, and beat until well-combined. Knead the dough (by hand or with a dough hook) for about 5 minutes, until it’s soft and smooth.

Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with olive oil, cover with a clean kitchen towel  and allow it to rest for 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 475°F. Line a baking sheet with a silpat mat.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and divide it into eight equal pieces.

Allow the pieces to rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes.  Bring 6 cups of water to boil and add 2 tablespoons baking soda.  Stand back, the mix will bubble big time.  Leave the mix simmering on the stove.

Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope (about 28″ to 30″ long), and twist each rope into a pretzel shape.

Working with 4 pretzels at a time, place them in the pan with the simmering baking soda/water mix, spooning the water over their tops.  Cook for 1 minute, then place pretzels on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle pretzels with coarse kosher salt.

Bake the pretzels for 8 to 9 minutes, or until they’re a deep golden brown color.

Columbus Day

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What’s your favorite holiday?  Christmas?  Aw, how nice.  Thanksgiving?  Lovely.  Halloween?  Spooky.  Oh, and you’re wrong.  Around here, Columbus Day reigns supreme for one simple reason: my husband has the day off work but the kids don’t have the day off school.  Once a year, we are granted six kid-free hours to run amok like sailors in the New World.

Past Columbus Days have been marked by sporty endeavors involving hiking trails or mountain bikes.  Last year was embarrassingly practical – we spent the day shopping for dishwashers.  This year threatened to be another snooze fest as we discussed things like going to the auto body shop (sadly, not a euphemism) and buying a nice ficus for the corner of our family room.

A ficus?  Columbus didn’t traipse around the globe claiming land and spreading disease so we could take a day off to buy a ficus.  Thankfully, we realized the lameness of our ways and went with Plan B: a quick road trip to wine country for lunch at one of our favorite spots that we haven’t been to in years.

We ate.  We drank.  We photo bombed tourists’ vacation snapshots.  We went deep and tackled tough topics such as our entrance songs — music we would want played to announce our arrival at a party, WWE smackdown or beer pong tournament.  It was perfect.

The success of our Columbus Day adventures hinges on playing it cool around the kids to minimize their complaints that it’s not fair – boring Monday morning for them, best day ever for us.  We were able to hold it together long enough to maturely wipe the shit-eating grins off our faces, get the kids ready for school, and feed them cake for breakfast as a peace offering.

Not just any cake, but a plum cake that has achieved cult status since appearing in the New York Times way back in 1983.  It only takes a few ingredients and a few minutes to put together.  It has as much fruit as it does batter, so it totally counts as a healthy breakfast (consult your doctor about which healthy breakfast is right for you).  And it’s best  served on the second day, meaning an enterprising cook could bake it on Sunday afternoon so it’s ready Monday morning in honor of, um, Columbus Day maybe?

But do yourself a favor and don’t wait a full year to try this cake.  Chores and ficus shopping can wait, some days need to be celebrated with breakfast cake.

Marian Burros’ Famous Purple Plum Torte
I got this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who got it from Amanda Hesser’s  Essential New York Times Cookbook, who got it from Elegant But Easy, etc. etc. 

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
large pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar plus additional 2 teaspoons
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
6-12 purple Italian plums, halved and pitted (I used plums labeled “sweet plums” at the farmers’ market and it turned out great)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 350°F. Sift flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into a buttered 9-inch springform pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar and the cinnamon over the top.

Bake until cake is golden (about 40 to 50 minutes). Cool on rack.

Once cool, let cake stand covered, at room temperature, overnight.  Delight kids by shouting, “surprise, it’s Columbus Day and we’re having cake for breakfast!”

The Barely Sick Day

I started Monday morning with firm resolve: I would let my son stay home from school on a “barely sick” day to have a little more time to recover from a virus, but it wasn’t going to be a party.  No screen time, just books and crayons and a tough love policy that would make him beg to go to back to school on Tuesday.

I lasted an hour.  60 measly minutes before I decided that it might be a little bit ok to watch a movie together while I folded laundry.  But after that movie it would be back to the books.  I meant it.  Really.

I would have remained tough if it hadn’t been for that t-shirt in the laundry pile; a well-worn tiny shirt he picked out in preschool because he liked the scary skulls and skateboards.  The juxtaposition of his baby face in the tough kid t-shirt made me smile every time he wore it.  Consequently, I ended up smiling a lot because he wore it nonstop.

I don’t know how that shirt made it into the dirty laundry pile because it’s so small he can’t wear it anymore.  Maybe he needed a crop top for a superhero costume (belly man?) or maybe he put it on a stuffed animal (skater bear?).  Either way, I sat on the family room floor holding the small shirt while staring at my big kid with the loose tooth, stinky feet and wicked sense of humor who had outgrown it.  Time is racing by faster than I ever imagined.

I left the unfolded laundry sitting on the floor and snuggled with him on the couch as we finished watching the movie.  We played football in the house – the sprightly rookie quarterback vs. the aging linebacker.  There were tickle fights, fart jokes and art projects.  Finally, with an hour left until we needed to pick up his sister from school, we made cookies.

The only shred of evidence that this day started out as a tough-love-no-tv kind of day was the fact that these cookies are marginally healthy, made with whole wheat flour and almond butter.  But truth be told, these cookies, much like barely sick days, are quite sweet and a real treat.  Enjoy them while you can because they’ll be gone in the blink of an eye.

Whole Wheat Almond Butter Sandies
Adapted from Melissa Clark’s wonderful book, Cook This Now

1 ¼ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup natural salted almond butter
1 cup raw sugar (sounds high maintainance but C&H makes it and Safeway carries it)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter.  Beat in the almond butter until smooth.  Add the sugar and beat well.  Beat in the egg and vanilla until fully incorporated.  Stop and scrape down the bowl.  Slowly beat in the dry ingredients.

Transfer the dough to a large sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper.  Shape the dough into a 12-inch long log.  Transfer dough to refrigerator and chill at least 2 hours.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Slice the dough into ¼ inch thick rounds and place on an ungreased baking sheet 1 inch apart.  Bake cookies until lightly colored and semi-firm, about 12 minutes.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

The Power of Two

I hate Fantasy Football.  Hate it with a white-hot passion that I normally reserve for the Kardashians and use of the word “invaluable.”  Really, really hate it.

There is no faster way to ruin a football game than by watching it with someone who has a Fantasy Football team.  “Who do you hope wins” becomes a loaded question and the answer is something like, “Well, Tom Brady is my quarterback but this other guy on the other team (sorry, the only player I know by name is Tom Brady) is my tight end, so on this play I want…..  My eyes glaze over and I stay focused on Tom, hoping he leads his team to victory and celebrates by ripping off his shirt à la Brandi Chastain in the ’99 World Cup soccer game.  But I digress.  We were talking about how much I detest Fantasy Football.

Therefore, given my feelings on the subject, imagine my reaction when my husband told me that he wanted to join a father/kid Fantasy Football league with our seven-year-old son this year.

I said go for it — because as much as I hate Fantasy Football, I love the idea of our son having a special thing to do with dad.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of parenting both kids as one unit.  Sports, playdates, even some Christmas gifts are all easier to manage if the kids are doing the same thing.  But every once in a while it is important, not to mention fun, to take the time to enjoy each kid as an individual.

So when my husband and son set up the computer in the living room and scattered pages upon pages of scouting reports over our glass coffee table in preparation for selecting their team, I ignored the chaos and reminded myself that they were bonding.  And when they made Michael Vick their starting quarterback, rejecting my suggestion of not drafting anyone who has either spent time in jail or beaten up a ladyfriend, I simply shrugged and walked away.

In fact, I walked straight into the kitchen where I enjoyed a little culinary bonding with my daughter by making a peach pie together.  We followed Deb’s recipe at Smitten Kitchen and it turned out pretty awesome for a first attempt.  We talked, laughed and made a huge mess, while in the next room the guys talked, laughed and made a medium mess.  The time we spent split into pairs doing our special projects was – dare I say – invaluable. Nope, I may be softening on Fantasy Football, but I still hate that word.  Baby steps…

Mango Bread, Jon Hamm and Floor Eggs

Mother’s Day started off with a bang – literally.  The sound of one dozen eggs hitting the floor is surprisingly loud.

I don’t have many vices, but coffee paired with a treat (something “scone-y” my son calls it) ranks high up there, along with citrus-based cocktails, Lainey Gossip and Jon Hamm.  So in honor of my special day, my special people were busy in the kitchen trying to make mango bread.

My daughter accidentally drops the eggs, my husband accidentally drops an f-bomb, tears and apologies abound.  Then, they scrape three eggs’ worth of mess off the floor and keep cooking.  The simple fact that I was able to smile, chew and swallow bread that was made with floor eggs is a testament to my deep love and gratitude for these goofballs.

Our morning consisted of a few nice moments as well as more chaos as an entire mug of hot coffee was spilled into my lap.  The rest of our day was pretty uneventful but our night took an interesting turn when my daughter asked how babies are made while we were eating dinner.  My husband and I had an entire conversation with our eyes:

Me:  “Hey, why don’t we just answer this and get it over with?  Two kids with one awkward conversation.”

Him:  “Hell no.”

Me:  “Are you sure?  We’ve got a teachable moment here…”

Him:  “Seriously?  I’d rather eat floor eggs.  Let’s get through dinner and put them to bed.  Mad Men is on tonight.”

Me:  “Aaah, the Hamm card.  Well played.  You win.”

And with that, Mother’s Day 2012 came to a close.  Messy, sweet, chaotic and pretty perfect.

Here’s the recipe for Mother’s Day Mango Bread, floor eggs optional.

Fresh Mango Bread

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s book Baking From My Home to Yours

 3 large eggs

¾ cup canola oil

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (packed) light brown sugar

2 cups diced mango (about 2-3 mangos, depending on size)

grated zest of one lime

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter an 8 ½ by 4 ½ inch loaf pan, dust with flour and tap out excess.  Put pan on an insulated baking sheet (it helps keep the bottom of the bread from burning during the long baking time)

Whisk the eggs and oil together

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.  Add the brown sugar and stir to break up any lumps.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix.  The batter will be very thick.  Stir in mango and lime zest, scrape into the pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake the loaf pan/insulated cookie sheet combo for about 90 minutes, covering the top of the bread loosely with tin foil if it is browning too quickly.  Once baked, let the bread sit in the pan for 5 minutes to cool, then flip it onto a cooling rack and let it get to room temperature before trying to slice it.