Archive for November 2007

Ben’s Whole Wheat Bread

Ben’s been reading cookbooks lately, really reading them, like bedtime stories. After our bedtime routine of two picture books and a chapter of (currently) A Cricket in Times Square, Ben reads aloud to Eli, who is very patient about being read to sleep with recipes for pesto and salad dressing (though I do sometimes wonder how this affects his dreams).

And because Ben’s a reading and writing kind of guy, it didn’t surprise me that reading cookbooks would lead him to write out recipes, but now he’s also starting to invent his own. He didn’t get very innovative with his recipes for guacamole or roasted potatoes (both of which he made for the extended family over Thanksgiving), but the other day he wrote out a recipe for bread that he’s been begging me to help him make.

I was torn. On the one hand, I want to encourage his kitchen adventures. On the other, it just didn’t look like a recipe that would turn out very well. I didn’t want him to be disappointed, and I didn’t want to waste food. So we sat down and compared his recipe to a similar one from his cookbook, we talked about the chemistry of baking, and we talked about not wasting food. He took it all in very seriously, but was ultimately not swayed. He wanted to bake his bread recipe, as written. So we did, and I’m happy to report, it turned out just fine — a nice, wheaty soda bread. So here’s the recipe, exactly as Ben wrote it, with my comments in brackets.

Whole-Wheat Bread

You’ll Need
¾ c + ½ c whole-wheat flour
½ c warm water
1/3 c cornmeal
1 package (1/4 ounce) dry yeast [not really doing anything in the recipe, so you could cut it]
3 tablespoons + ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons + ¼ teaspoons wheat germ
¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter [I talked Ben down from a full cup of butter, so we used 1/2 cup, melted]

Measuring cups & spoons
Bread pan
Cooling rack

Preheat oven to 375 F.
Measure the flour, cornmeal & butter into the bread pan
Add the yeast and salt
Now add the water, sugar, baking soda & baking powder
Add the wheat germ
Bake up to ½ hour [it took exactly half an hour. This surprised me almost more than how good the bread tasted]

Note: This bread will taste good with some raspberry jam (page 77) [a reference to the jam recipe still to come in his hypothetical cookbook]

Edited to add: we ultimately halved the recipe (which delighted my fraction-loving boy) so a full recipe might need to bake longer than half an hour. Bake until the top is browned and a tester comes out clean.

Reality Check

We don’t watch a whole lot of television around here. The boys are still happily watching episodes of Oswald that we recorded two years ago, or the occasional Dan Zanes concert video. They even watch Sesame Street sometimes, old copies on videotape, even though apparently the lessons they teach are suspect. And while I’ve been Tivo-ing lots of programs that friends recommend, or that I’ve read intriguing reviews of (shows like Mad Men and Pushing Daisies), I haven’t actually watched any of them. These days we watch Project Runway and the occasional final quarter of a basketball game and then get back to work.

So, flying on JetBlue, as we do several times a year to visit my family, is always eye-opening. On our recent trip east, Ben watched a Discovery Channel program about bridge engineers, and Eli watched a lot of cooking shows.

I don’t have the attention span for a movie on a plane, and on this trip, once Eli fell asleep on my lap, I couldn’t keep the light on to read my fabulous book. So I flipped back and forth between the reality shows on Bravo and The Learning Channel, which is apparently, late at night, Multiples TV. First I watched a program about a family with quintuplets. And I was glad it wasn’t my family. Then I watched a program about a family of 10: 6 year-old twins and 2 year-old sextuplets. In one episode, the mom tried to get her grocery shopping done in under two hours while the sextuplets napped at home under a neighbor’s supervision. In the second, which I watched because the first was so gripping (I’m not being sarcastic) the parents, with help from an uncle, spend a Sunday afternoon installing garage shelving. Let me just tell you that if the television writers’ strike never ends, we’ll all be fine, because this was high drama.

I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend surrounded by family, and enjoyed being with my parents, all my siblings and siblings-in-law, my niece, nephew and a pair of big dogs, but I sat on the plane watching these enormous families and gave thanks, again. My tiny grandmother used to say that it’s not a family until you have more kids than you can hold with both hands (she had four, despite being told that one pregnancy might kill her), but I’m content with my two, relieved that I don’t have to plan grocery store runs like military campaigns, and grateful that I don’t have to store six strollers in my garage.

Mama at the Movies: Into the Wild

Edited to add: I try to write the column without giving away anything about the plot for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet!

The guys and I traveled east for Thanksgiving, to my parents’ cozy Connecticut home deep in the woods. I spent the weekend surrounded by family and food — my favorite way to spend a few days. Occasionally my dad organized a work party to move a pile of wood; he cuts and splits the trees that fall in the woods, and we all work like a bucket brigade to move the logs from the woods to various spots on the rough-mowed lawn, and from there to the garage, so that my parents can heat their home all winter. The rest of the time, this time of year, we stay inside reading, writing, cooking, eating, talking talking talking.

So it’s a sharp contrast, indeed, to think about Into the Wild, the film I wrote about for Literary Mama this month. Its subject, Chris McCandless, decided to abandon civilization for a while and trek deep into the Alaskan back country. When I posted a draft of the column to the Literary Mama columnists’ group, it generated a great discussion about “guy” movies and “chick flicks,” and whether men are more likely to head into the wild than women. In my experience, among my friends and my own family, it’s the men who have stayed relatively close to their families and the women who, for various reasons, have moved away. I traveled from New York to California for grad school, met Tony, and never moved back. Hence my cross-country journey to visit my family.

It’s hard for me to imagine my boys ever having an independent life, let alone an independent life cut off from mine, but this movie made me think sadly about that. To distract myself from that line of thought, I focused on the sibling relationship, as depicted in the film and as I see it in my family. I hope that if my boys do ever choose to leave me, that at least they won’t leave each other.

Here’s a blurb from the column:

At home [months after Chris’s disappearance], his parents’ anger softens into pain and [his sister] wonders why he doesn’t get in touch with her; “the weight of Chris’s disappearance,” she says, “had begun to lay down on me full length.” Her words rocked me out of my Alaskan reverie to think about my own family. I’ve got two older brothers living 3,000 miles away. We may not talk every week or even every two, but I know that when I call, they’ll call back. We’ll connect. I thought about Carine McCandless and how I’d feel if one of my brothers just . . . left. Nothing on the surface of my life would look much different, but I’d walk with a persistent ache no doctor could ever heal.

And then my thoughts turned to my boys, young brothers who wriggle like puppies together in the oldest one’s bed each night. I thought about Eli, who from the time he could talk has called Ben “Buh-buh,” for “Brother Ben,” the sharp urgency in his voice now when he calls out “Ben!”, about how bereft he’d be if that call went unanswered one day. I thought about how Ben runs to give Eli a hug before we leave his kindergarten classroom each morning, and then bends down gently to give Eli a kiss on the cheek. I can’t bear to imagine them losing each other. To move into adulthood having lost the shared history and understanding created with a brother or sister would permanently cloud one’s days.

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest, and let me know what you think.

The Daring Book for Girls

Full-disclosure: I worked with Andrea Buchanan for a couple years at Literary Mama, Miriam Peskowitz wrote the foreword for my book, and I think of them both as friends. I was one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of I hope not-too-annoying-people who sent them suggestions while they were writing The Daring Book for Girls this summer. I’d feed them if they came to San Francisco, and definitely buy them both a drink if we met up somewhere else. I’m a totally biased reviewer.

It seems many of the Daring Book for Girls readers have fallen into this book with a sigh of nostalgia. I didn’t have that reaction. This book is nothing like any books I had as a kid, unfortunately, and lists dozens of activities and facts that are entirely new to me. Peach Pit Rings? I can’t wait till next summer to try this with my sons! And today’s princesses? All –except Princess Anne– new names to me.

The Daring Book for Girls did not make me think nostalgically of my childhood because I’ve done so few of these activities – I counted around a dozen — and two of them (public speaking and salary negotiation) I’ve only done as an adult (I worked as a kid, sure, babysitting and such, but I think people said “I’ll pay you X” and I said, “OK!”) I had a great, fun childhood, don’t get me wrong, and I didn’t spend it sitting in front of the television, but I was not a daring girl. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was 19, and I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 20, or maybe 21 (the fact that I can’t remember when I got it tells you what a milestone it was in my life. I was not chomping at the bit to adventure independently).

An adventure for me was walking in the meadow outside my grandparent’s house at night, pretending to be Emily Bronte walking the moors – see, I wasn’t even adventurous enough to pretend to be Catherine; I pretended to be the writer! And so of course I feel kinship with Miriam Peskowitz and Andrea Buchanan, who write, “When we were young and bored, our parents told us, “Go read the dictionary!” We did, and look where it got us. One should never underestimate the pleasure to be found flipping through a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or an old science book.”

Indeed, and such is the pleasure of flipping through this book, full of facts and fun, instructions on games and crafts, social skills (boys! letter writing! Robert’s Rules of order!) and life skills, from Japanese t-shirt folding to changing a tire. I was more of a paper-making, doll outfit-sewing, campfire singing girl than a hideout-building, tree swinging, roller skating kind of girl, but both kinds of girls are reflected here, beautifully. All kinds of girls – and boys – are going to find things to do and learn in this book. It’s a completely inviting, approachable book, from its green and sparkly cover to its lovely line drawings; it’s sized right for curling up and reading in bed, but also sturdy enough to carry along on a girl’s adventures.

I wasn’t a daring girl, and I don’t have any girls in my house, but this book will keep my family good company in the years to come.

Cross the country and through the woods…

To Grandmother’s (and Granddad’s) house we go!

And in honor of our current favorite travel game, here’s what we’re packing:

Animal and alphabet books
Blanket (Eli)
Clothing for three days (knowing we can do laundry partway through the trip)
DVD player to get through 10 hours on airplanes (plus who knows how long in airports…)
Eli’s two stuffed doggies
Fanny at Chez Panisse (Ben’s bedtime reading of choice)
i-phones? ice-cream? no, none of these I items
Jamberry (Eli)
Monkey (Ben)
New Yorkers from the last month (I’m being optimistic)
O‘s cereal
The Places In Between (Caroline’s book)
a sketch for a Quilt I’m thinking of commissioning from Susan’s mom
Robert McCloskey books
The Spirit of St. Louis (Tony’s book)
Tofu jerkey (Tony)
Unlined drawing paper for the boys
Very many stickers for Eli
Warm sweaters
2 oz bottles of toiletries that will make it through the X-ray screening
Yellow, and green and blue and red and black markers
Z-bars (the kid Cliff bars)

Espresso Cookie-Tired

First, there was Stupid Tired. We’d been parents less than a week, and were driving the still-unfamiliar route to the pediatrician’s office for Ben’s first check-up when I said to Tony, “Shouldn’t you turn here?” And he responded, “Aren’t you driving?” (The irony of course is that now we could drive the route in our sleep.)

Then, there was Desperate Tired. The stand-out (although really, there’ve been so many times, it’s hard to keep track) was my first morning home after a trip with Ben to visit my sister in Virginia. Ben was about 8 months old. He hadn’t slept particularly in Virginia, and now on our first day back he woke for the day at 4:30 AM, Tony had gone in to work around 6:30, and by 9 I was lying on the living room floor, out of my head exhausted, crying pathetic tears and letting Ben crawl all over me.

Today didn’t start out seeming like a day when I’d realize a new level of Tired, but there were 4 clamorous kids (only one of them mine) in the house all morning and then a too-short nap from Eli. We followed-up the nap with some rough-housing on the big bed — at least I could be horizontal, right? We were baby cats, and then we were baby dogs. We did bouncing, and then we made a fort with the comforter. And then there was more bouncing. And maybe it was the oxygen-deprivation in the fort, but all of a sudden I realized I was… waking up with Eli jumping on me! Hmm. Don’t know how much time was lost.

Clearly (and I know not every exhausted mother would respond this way) it was time to do some baking, and Mayan Chocolate Cookies seemed like the right call. I tore the recipe out of the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago and hadn’t tried them till today. They’re worth making. Even when you’re not Espresso-Cookie Tired.

for the dough:
1 ½ c flour
1 ½ t baking powder
½ t salt
½ t cinnamon
1 t instant espresso powder
¼ t ground black pepper
1/8 t cayenne pepper
¾ c unsweetened cocoa
¾ c butter
¾ c sugar
1 egg
2 t vanilla

for the filling:
about ½ c chocolate chips
about ¼ c white sugar

Sift together dry ingredients.

Beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy; add egg and vanilla and beat well. Add dry ingredients and blend. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Put chocolate chips and sugar in separate bowls. Pinch off a walnut-sized piece of dough and press an indentation in the center; insert 4 chocolate chips and mold the dough around them to enclose completely. Roll the dough into a ball, roll the ball in the sugar, and place on baking sheet. Continue with remaining dough.

Bake for 8 minutes. Do not overbake; they’re best when still a little moist in the center.

Because He’s Two

  • Two nights in his new big-boy bed
  • Two trips to Ikea to visit the bed before we bought it
  • Two critters, a dog and a cat, on the headboard of his new “kritter” bed
  • Two two-word phrases that made us decide against bunk beds (“jungle gym” and “stomach flu”)
  • Two trips to the bathroom each night after bedtime
  • Two boys happy about having a roommate
  • Two two A.M. cuddles since leaving the crib behind
  • Two mornings with Eli walking down the hall to our room, announcing happily “Li awake! It sunny day!”

Here’s to a couple years of good sleeping in this new bed!

City Toughs

They say city squirrels and city raccoons are tougher and more feisty than ones in the country (though this is hard to imagine); I guess Eli thinks city butterflies are tougher than their country cousins, too. We were at the playground the other day, and he was making me delicious imaginary lattes in the playhouse structure. Lately when we play, he sets up imaginary doors and windows, and spends a lot of time showing me where they are, updating me on their status (“This one open, this one shut“), and pulling them open and closed.

So there we were, me sipping on my imaginary latte, wishing for a real one, murmuring interest in the ever-changing status of the cafe door, when Eli did a double-take: “Hey, no doorstop!”

Well, no, indeed, the imaginary door had no doorstop.

“Maybe,” he continued thoughtfully, “A butterfly came, ate the doorstop!”

And for the rest of the morning, whenever he spotted a butterfly, he pointed accusingly, “Maybe that one ate cafe doorstop.”

I hope this notion doesn’t color his idea of butterflies for too long. The city’s butterflies are pretty scrappy, but I don’t think they’ve been reduced to doorstop-eating yet.

How to Cook Your Life

No, I’m not offering up an instruction manual, just a plug for the quirky documentary I saw last night, about Zen priest and cook Edward Espe Brown, author of the Tassajara Bread Book and other cookbooks. It’s an odd little film, following Brown from various Zen centers in Germany and California, as he speaks to people gathered for his cooking classes and meditations on the relationship between cooking and spiritual life. We see his students, people of all ages, learning to knead bread and to chop vegetables, and trying to fold these skills into a more mindful way of being in the world. This is all lovely, with beautiful shots of the Zen center kitchens and produce. It also goes down more easily for the fact that we see Brown is not perfectly peaceful and mindful himself. He gets irritated, he gets angry; he’s still working. And who among us isn’t?

Still, the movie over-reaches occasionally when it tries to discuss broader food issues. We see the San Francisco Zen Center folks making food to distribute to the homeless and hungry, and then the filmmakers interview one homeless man about how he finds meals (primarily dumpster-diving). This all makes sense. But who’s the woman who hasn’t bought groceries in two years? She’s not homeless; she’s making a political stand about the price of food. We listen to her explain about collecting grocery store rejects, and watch as she gathers raspberries, aples and figs from neighborhood plants, but where is she? Is this some part of her Zen practice? Does she have anything to do with Brown? It’s not clear at all. But you know, when she gets a member of the film crew to pull some ripe figs down for her with the long handle of his boom, it’s one of the sweetest moments in the film, so I got over wondering what the heck she’s doing in the movie.

And the movie’s main theme is staying with me. Brown repeats these words, which he learned from his own master, Suzuki Roshi: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.” That’s not just good cooking advice, that’s the kind of thinking that should carry over to your writing, parenting, whatever you’re doing in your life.