Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mondo Muffins

It's amazing how one song can take you back to your college days. The other day I was doing errands in my car without the children in tow. Both kids were at school and for once (!) I got to listen to the music that *I* wanted to hear: No Raffi, no Led Zeppelin and certainly no Music Together ("Hello everybody! So glad to see you!") for this girl. Just some good old fashioned grunge music on KFOG. Pearl Jam's "Black" came on and immediately I was transported back to the pastry kitchen of the cafe that I worked at in college. I only lasted about three months as a pastry baker on the graveyard shift because I was also working as a nanny during the day and trying to hold down a full schedule of classes. You can guess what happened to my G.P.A. during that time. It sped downhill so fast that I had to use every extra credit trick in the book to pull it back up again.

I loved the job even though the hours were brutal on me. I would go into the shop at 4 AM, prep and bake all the baked goods for the cafe and then go to classes at 10 AM, often with flour under my fingernails and butter hand prints smeared on the butt of my jeans. I felt this need to fill every moment of my life with "something" and I thought it felt wildly romantic to be up at 4 AM baking scones and croissants while the rest of the world slept. I loved the solitude of my work, being alone with Pearl Jam thumping through the kitchen stereo and having the authority to make whatever I felt like with the ingredients on hand. It was great to be creative for once and it was there that I discovered that I am a morning person - till I had kids and they redefined what a "morning person" really is.

The owners of the cafe were a young couple that had moved to my little college town right after they married in Louisiana. The wife had been a cook in the army and she knew a lot about cooking large quantities of food, she ran a tight ship with the college students as her employees. Her recipes for the cafe pretty much all came from her mother's kitchen and one of the most popular items we made were the Mondo Muffins. They were baked in oversized muffin tins and we always had several different kinds to chose from. Whenever I could swing it with the ingredients on hand, I would always made the Coffee Cake Mondo Muffin. It was packed with walnuts and I was very generous with the crumble topping because I thought it was the most delicious treat in the world.  I could not get enough of those muffins.

But as my grades and social life slipped (I was the only person leaving the bars as many of my friends were just starting their night out) I knew I had to find another job. I gave my two weeks notice to the cafe and they asked if I would consider working as a barista in the front of the cafe. I immediately accepted the job and worked there till I graduated.

I didn't have to give up my Mondo Muffins or the mean coffee addiction I created while working there, but I did have to give up making the call on what we would be selling that day. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but probably for the best.

I don't have the original recipe anymore because I lost it somewhere between here and 1996, but I recently combined an old Martha Stewart recipe with a crumb topping recipe from Smitten Kitchen and had great results. I highly advise eating these at 6 AM while driving a 1972 Volkswagon bug, listening to some Pearl Jam and wearing your boyfriend's flannel shirt and your brand spankin' new Doc Marten's.

Cafe Paulo's Coffee Cake Mondo Muffins
(Combined recipes from Smitten Kitchen and Martha Stewart)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for pans
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
For the crumb topping

1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups flour

  • Prepare crumb topping: in a large bowl, whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth. Then, add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
  • Prepare muffins: Butter and flour a jumbo 12-cup muffin tin (or two 6-cup muffin tins). 
  • In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat together butter, sour cream, granulated sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well combined. With mixer on low, beat flour mixture into butter mixture. Stir in walnuts. Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Using your fingers, crumble the crumb mixture on top of the muffins. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Loving: Lentils

The other day I was shopping at Trader Joe's and paused to look at the packaged cooked lentils. I have passed by this convenience item several times because I know I should just make them myself. I could practically hear my Depression-era grandmother's exasperated sigh at the laziness of such a thing, ("You can't find time to cook lentils? For heavens sake, Amanda!") But I really wanted to try these cooked lentils for a weeknight soup and I knew that cooking lentils after a long day of work and two hungry children nipping at my ankles was asking too much. I bought them thinking this was going to be a bust.

Holy Sweet Time Saver, Batman! I loved them and my kids ate them. I made my soup in 30 minutes last night and had plenty of leftovers to make a warm lentil salad with mustard vinaigrette to take with me to work. They were perfectly cooked with a slight bite to them. I am definitely buying those again. However, I still feel guilty about Trader Joe's frozen brown rice, but I'll get over it eventually.

Lentils are my new swoon.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dinners for February 26 - March 3, 2012

Sunday: Dinner with friends for an Oscar Party

Monday: Lentil Veggie Soup

Tuesday: Chicken with artichokes and angel hair pasta

Wednesday: Shrimp Fried Rice

Thursday: Chicken tacos (from the stash in the freezer)

Friday: Homemade pizza

Saturday: Kids with grandparents for the night!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lunchbox Loser

My son has said some soul crushing words to me about the food that we serve him. If memory serves right, "Please don't ever make this again" is one of the most memorable to date.

But please keep in mind, he is only six years old so he is only talking the way a six year old can - brutally honest and as frank as an American Idol judge.
Yes, I realize he is no longer on American Idol.

The other morning I was making my son's lunch and he peered into his lunchbox and said, "I wish you could make my lunches more interesting."

Ouch! You see, I try really hard to make dinner a fun event around here, but lunches? Well, let's just say I've been taking a hall pass on lunches ever since he was in preschool.

I find making lunches a total drag and approach the task with as much enthusiasm as clipping my toenails. Yet my husband and I dutifully make his lunches four out of five days a week. Once a week we let him pick a lunch to buy at school and his choices are usually either Mac 'n Cheese or pizza. But on the other days we have the same rotation of sandwich/fruit/vegetable/cracker/cheese stick.

Kind of boring, right? I am a Lunchbox Loser.

I don't think my son knows who Pac-Man is.

I have a slight sneering disdain for those who put too much effort into their kids lunches... and it's totally out of jealousy. I wish I had the time to cut fruit into flowers, create inspirational Bento boxes with a daily theme and make Pac-Man sandwiches. (My big question with those Bento lunches - How do they get them to stay that way till lunchtime? Surely I don't have the only child who throws his backpack with lunchbox inside on the ground. How does it stay all nice and pretty?) Most of all, I swoon over fancy lunchboxes that look like they could solve ALL my lunchbox problems. See below...
$50 metal lunchbox = Lunch problems solved

I agree that I have hit the 'repeat' button too many times for his lunches. I thought back to journalism school and decided to interview my son about his lunches and asked pressing questions like, "What is in an interesting lunch? What do you want to see when you open your lunch? Who has the cool lunches at school? What do they eat?" (Eat your heart out Woodward and Bernstein!) His answers were embarrassingly simple: Some kids get chicken nuggets (not going to happen), some kids get wraps, and others get hot pasta in thermos containers, hot dogs with a bun, and slices of pizza. That's it? Seriously? I can do that!

I also searched on the interwebs for some inspiration -  I am not looking for gorgeous presentation here, folks, I am looking for something that is a step above a sandwich. I would love to produce lunches like this, this or this, but that isn't going to happen around here.

In my searches, I discovered LunchBox Blues and was inspired to give a few new ideas a try. I made a list of lunch ideas that I keep next to the prep area in my kitchen for inspiration and bought a few supplies like English muffins, pita pockets and tortillas. I prep fruit ahead of time so I am not stuck cutting and seeding a canteloupe five minutes before I leave the house in the morning.

So far the lunches have gone over pretty well. We settled on pasta shells tossed with butter and Parmesan and steamed broccoli from the night before. That was as easy to put together as a sandwich because all I  had to do was reheat the meal for his thermos. I've made chicken wraps, banana peanut butter dogs, English muffin pizzas, and egg salad sandwiches. So far he is loving the effort and his empty lunchbox shows this.

It took some harsh words and some creative thinking to get me out of a lunchbox rut. Not bad coming from a person who can easily eat the same sandwich with carrots everyday - IF someone else made it for me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dinners for February 19-25, 2012

Sunday: Dinner at a friends house

Monday: Friends at our house for dinner: Roast pork, brussel sprouts, salad

Tuesday: Sausage, broccoli and pasta toss

Wednesday: Cornmeal crusted fish sticks with rainbow salad

Thursday: Roasted zucchini and tomato pasta

Friday: Spinach feta quiche (making two of these - one for a friend with a new baby and one for us)

Saturday: Black bean and cheese quesadillas, avocado and tomato salad

Friday, February 17, 2012

A New Yarn

When I announced my New Years resolutions a month or so ago I had no idea what an effect it would have on me. Yes, this is me admitting, "You didn't really expect to actually go and do those things, did you?"

But I did!

For two years I shared my daily train commute with my husband but since he has taken a new job in the city, I am back to riding solo. Which means becoming engrossed with knitting again and suddenly I am working on two projects at once. I love knitting on the train in particular because it gives me about 80 minutes of knitting a day without interruptions. During that time I finished projects like this
'Salina' by Rowan Knits

And these two beauties...

Koolhass by Interweave Knits

Minimalist Cardigan by Interweave Knits
The only downside to knitting on the train is that it can invite the chatty Cathy's to sit next to me and tell me about how their grandmother used to knit or if I could tell them about what I am working on. But for the most part people leave me alone. 

Not only can I knit on the train, but I also knit in the car (while the spouse is driving of course). It is one of those great hobbies that travels well. While my husband is at the wheel I can simultaneously knit and hand out snacks to the kids in the backseat. Multi-tasking at its finest!

On our way to Lake Tahoe
The green mass on my lap is for the Yoked Cardigan also for my daughter. This is a really easy knitting project done all in one piece with no seaming. Love that!

I also love to knit on the couch in the evenings and I think it goes without saying that wine and knitting really shouldn't mix... but I ignore that rule.
When I saw this top-down raglan dress called Nova I immediately wanted to make it for for my daughter. It looks deceptively easy, but it is knit on teeny tiny needles that could easily double as toothpicks. Ah well, it will be a fun easy raglan knit. No seaming!

Let's hope I finish these projects before the end of the year.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For the love of Gwyneth

If you ever need a good laugh, I recommend signing up for Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP email newsletter. A few weeks ago, I received a Goop email about their New Years cleanse package that she is shilling selling... for a whopping $425.

Rather than pay that amount for a bunch of protein powders and pills, I recommend following Bon Appetit's Food Lovers Cleanse 2012 plan for a cheaper and far more sustainable way to be healthy. I'd rather put my $425 into food for the next month that is organic and healthy.

Criticisms aside, I truly enjoyed Paltrow's cookbook and successfully made quite a few recipes for my family with great success. Her green rice was a hit with the kids and the desserts were really good. Maybe when Dinner: A Love Story cookbook comes out, I can create a cooking challenge to cook exclusively from that book and see how the recipes go over with my family. Nice thing is, I pretty much know it's a sure fire win because all the recipes have been hits so far.

Also, the girl knows a thing or two about music. Not only is she hilarious on Twitter (my personal favorite tweet, "Who do I have to bang to get an advance copy of the new album? I mean, really.") but she tweeted about Erato and now we all sing this song at home.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tutorial: Shrinky Dink Necklaces for Valentine's Day

I never was much of a fan of the holiday/craft thing till I had kids and now I feel like I am making up for lost time. My son was interested in making something for Valentine's Day this year, but candy is not allowed at his school. A few days later a co-worker and I were talking about creative Valentine's Day cards and she told me about how she and her daughter (this was back in the 90s) used Shrinky Dinks to make name plates for the children to put on little handmade satchel bags one year. The Shrinky Dink idea stuck with me and when I mentioned it to my son, he was all over it. Mainly because it involved using the oven and an oven mitt. But instead of name plates, we decided on making necklaces for his classmates. Below is a short tutorial on how we made Shrinky Dink Valentine's Day Necklaces for my son's first grade classmates.

Shrinky Dink Valentine's Day Necklaces
Makes 35 necklaces

Here is what you need:

1 package (6 plain sheets) of Shrinky Dink paper
A hole punch
Sharpie markers in a variety of colors
Necklace string (you could use yarn or even embroidery thread)

Have your child draw all over the sheets of Shrinky Dink paper with the Sharpie markers. This took us a few days since my son lost interest pretty quickly with drawing. I didn't want to prod him too much with the drawing, so he did a variety of rainbows, stars, smiley faces, squiggly lines and lots of hearts with arrows.

I cut a heart out of an index card measuring 2-1/4" across the widest part to use as a template. You can play around with the size of the heart, since the Shrinky Dink will... wait for it... shrink quite a bit. Our hearts shrunk down to 1 inch after it was baked. Carefully cut out the Shrinky Dink hearts.

Put a hole punch in the heart, but not too close to the edge. If the hole is too close to the edge then it will crack like an egg. I wrote out each child's name on the heart to personalize it a little bit.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and have your foil covered cookie sheet in the oven while it warms. You want the cookie sheet to be hot when you are ready to bake the Shrinky Dinks. Place the cut-out hearts on the cookie sheet in the oven quickly. Make sure to turn the inner oven light on so your kids can watch the Shrinky Dinks do their magic. This was by far the best part of the whole process for my kids.

When the Shrinky Dinks stop moving and flatten out - usually within one minute - take the cookie sheet out of the oven and let them cool off. If any were a little lumpy when they first came out then I used my oven glove to gently press down and flatten them out. If they are not done yet or look a little wonky, then you can put the sheet back in the oven and they will flatten out.

Lace the necklace string through the hole punch and, Viola! You have just made a totally cute handmade Shrinky Dink Valentine Necklace!

I cut 4x4 cards from some cheap-o card stock paper we got on clearance from Michael's and my son signed the cards.

Other cool Shrinky Dink tutorials:

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dinners? Not this week...

I have never experienced this before, but dinner has taken a backseat to the plague that has descended upon our house.  It isn't a marathon, but it is a new kind of busy that I have never experienced before.

Dinners this week were nothing like what we had planned. Instead I have ordered pizza, opened a jar of long forgotten marinara sauce from the cupboard and threw it over overcooked pasta, and defrosted some long forgotten soup from the freezer and at one point just ate popcorn for dinner by myself after everyone else passed out from exhaustion. I feel like I am on a cruel improv show at my house where every night I am met with some crazy new challenge to deal with. 

My improv show skits include 

-- The sick child who sleeps from 6 pm to 6 am!

-- The sick child who inhales dinner the next night and then throws it up in the middle of the night all over his bed!

-- The no nap toddler who took a nap for the first time in three weeks and turned into a manic Energizer Bunny at bedtime!

-- The toddler who wants to potty train herself!

Preaching to the choir much?

All I can say is that I hope we  go back to our regularly scheduled life this weekend, sans the snow trip we had planned. I have a lot of posts saved in my drafts folder but those are taking a backseat to laundering bed linens and doling out M&Ms for visits to the potty.

While I am dealing with all this loveliness, why don't you go read this fantastic article by actress Felicity Huffman who espouses the love/hate affair she has with dinner. It almost made me cry.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dinners for February 5 - 11, 2012

Sunday: Superbowl party

Monday: Crock Pot Santa Fe Chicken burritos

Tuesday: Italian Parmesan Corncakes with marinara and a side of broccoli

Wednesday: Bacon & Shrimp Pasta

Thursday: Parmesan chicken with celery & apple salad (trying to introduce new salads besides the same ol' green salad to the family)

Friday: Snowbound

Saturday: Snowbound

Sunday: Snowbound

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pity Party, Table for One

** Warning: Heavy whining ahead**

I could feel it sneaking up on me all week. A random series of sneezes, a morning cough that felt like I had been smoking and then the "sneeze that changed it all" came along. Boom! I was down for the count. Another sign that I am getting sick? I often pick clothes out of the closet that haven't been worn in a couple of years and end up feeling as awful as I look by the end of the day.

One thing you quickly realize once you become a parent is when you get sick you are on your own when it comes to care and gaining sympathy from your kids. The little kids still have their own little worlds to be tended to and you better not let that stuffy nose slow you down or they will let you know it.  Suck it up and have some Sudafed already!

My day off during the week is Friday and while I knew that I was down for the count, I went about my business but I seriously crumbled that night. I bought some frozen pizzas for dinner, threw those in the oven and went to bed. My kids thought they won the lottery. I had no will power at the grocery store. If they asked for it, I bought it. So they had frozen pizza, frosted cookies and creamsicles in the cart before we hit the check out aisle. I did say no to the Jell-O pudding cups, though! (I hate pudding) But I could see my son plotting my demise in the future because it was clear that Sick Mom = Food Bonanza.

I woke up on Saturday feeling even worse than the day before, I was all zoned out from repeated hits of Nyquil during the night and I knew that I was going to be of no good to my family. So between the chills, the sweats and the vapors I got them out of the house for the day so I could Just.Be.Sick.

I spent the day sleeping and drinking seltzer water. By the time evening rolled around, I was voraciously hungry and nothing seemed good to eat. Should I order War WonTon soup, heat up another frozen pizza or just eat frosted cookies? I was on my own for dinner since my son went to a sleepover at a friends house and the younger one was at a birthday party with her dad. What does a sick mom have for dinner?

Pity Party Tomato Soup, of course!

Pity Party Tomato Soup

2 Tbls. Butter
1 Tbls. EVOO
1/2 onion chopped
2 Tbls. flour
2 Tbls. tomato paste
1/2 tsp. dried thyme or a few sprigs of fresh thyme if you have it
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 can of chicken broth
A few glugs of cream or half n half

Sautee the onion in the butter and EVOO for 5 minutes. Add the flour, tomato paste and thyme and let it cook for one minute. Then add the can of tomatoes (juice included) and can of broth and simmer for 15 minutes. Add a few glugs of cream and then puree the soup with an immersion blender. I feel better already just writing this down.