Cakes, Cookies, and Cooking as a mom

Experimenting with fondant and piping

Wow! I didn’t realize that the last time I had posted something was January. Props to those of you who are parenting and blogging! I don’t know how you do it! I am learning that the real keys to parenting are adjusting your expectations and figuring out your priorities. You will have to shorten the list of things you can prioritize because you can’t do it all, and you’ll have to adjust your expectation of what you can get done in a day. At least that’s how it’s been for me. But hey, that’s life. For me, blogging simply hasn’t been a priority and so it’s fallen to the wayside. Though, let’s be honest, I wasn’t always blogging that often before the baby!

Using up egg whites and cream by making French macarons

For me good food has always been a priority. As a kid I loved when we had the chance to eat fast food or junk food, which was usually just on road trips or special occasions. I liked the salty fries, soft tacos, and frosty milkshakes that we didn’t eat at home. Nowadays there are still plenty of things I indulge in, but my tastes have changed. I still love fries and tacos and milkshakes, but I also love fresh, flavorful salads and chewy homemade cookies. Finding the time to prepare the kind of food I want has changed a lot since becoming a mom (over a year ago!). I have to plan around baby meals, outings, diaper changes, and nap time.

The type of “fries” I eat most often these days

Now that my daughter is crawling and climbing all over the place, I do my best to make use of the time when she is happily (and safely) playing by herself as well as nap time and after bedtime to prep foods for lunches and dinners. Certain foods are better eaten hot from the oven or the stove, but my priority right now is getting good food on the table, even if it’s reheated from earlier in the day or week.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for quick and easy meals I can prepare during nap time or in a pinch. I find that cold, pre-assembled salads and one sheet dinners seem to work the best. The fewer things I have to pull out of the fridge and reheat, the better!

Though I haven’t been blogging for the past six months, I have been cooking and baking a ton! My husband has gotten so used to my crazy baking sprees that he barely bats an eye these days when suddenly I’m throwing together muffins on a random weekday morning. My most recent foray has been into cakes. I have always loved eating and making cake and I’m trying to get better at it. I’m always looking for an excuse to bake something, whether to test my skills or try a new recipe.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Send me your favorite, quick meals!

Cheers!

Orange Curd Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Sometimes I get a recipe idea stuck in my head, and I have to make it. For the past week or so it has been a fresh orange layer cake, pictured perfectly in my head with its sunshine-yellow hue, tart-sweet flavor, and perfect crumb. I made one several years ago, following the recipe in The Cake Mix Doctor book. You start with a cake mix and “doctor” it up by adding fresh orange juice, zest and the usual eggs and such. I remember that cake fondly and somehow the memory of its deliciousness came back to bug me and wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe it was because I had three oranges sitting in my fruit drawer, or maybe it was because I had leftover (bottled) orange juice sitting in my fridge, and since I don’t drink OJ these days, it felt like a challenge to use it up.

I ignored the idea for a while mainly because making a layer cake without a real occasion such as a birthday or a party seemed a little extravagant, plus there’s the fact that then there would be a whole cake in the house to eat and I wasn’t even sure if Sam would eat some. I even asked my neighbor, who loves sweets, if she would eat some and she declined. This past weekend, I finally gave in, deciding to make a smaller batch.

The thing is I really wanted a layer cake – not a single layer, not a square cake, a layer cake. What I love about layer cakes is the ratio of cake to frosting or filling, all perfectly portioned out so you can have the perfect bite. So how do you make a smaller batch? You can use smaller cake pans (which I don’t have) or you can do what I did and make one single layer and cut it into thirds (or halves) and make your fraction of a layer cake.

So I did just that. But when I went to stack my cakes, the cake was too dense and moist, and the curd filling I had made wasn’t thick enough, and the layers slipped and slid on top of each other while I desperately tried different ways to fix it. In the end I embraced the fact that it was an ugly cake, but hurrah at least I had made it! (I did not take any pictures of it…)

However, the flavor was also off. The cake I made had the flavor of too much baking soda and it was almost too dense to swallow. So a few days later I decided to try again, but this time I gave up on my layer cake dream and opted for a filled and frosted cupcake instead. The result: perfection. It is so satisfying to finally taste the thing that you craved, even if the original idea changed a little.

The gooey center is not in fact undercooked – it’s homemade orange curd!

This time of year, citrus is at its best, which makes it the perfect time to make these cupcakes. Plus if you live in a part of the country where the earth and trees are brown and barren, the ground is white with snow, or skies are gray, these bright sunny colors arrive at the perfect time of year to add some color to your winter.

Orange Curd Cupcakes with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

For the cake:

  • 1 +2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 + 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. orange zest
  • 2/3 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed or from a bottle)
  • 2/3 cup canola oil
  • 2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a cupcake pan with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, sift flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together. Add orange zest and rub into the mixture so that the zest doesn’t clump in one spot and it infuses the dry ingredients with the orange oils.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs, oil and juice until blended. Add to dry ingredients and stir to combine, being sure to scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

Divide the batter between your paper liners (should make about 14), filling no more than 3/4 full. Bake in your preheated oven for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the orange curd:

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. orange zest
  • 1 tsp. lemon or grapefruit zest
  • 2 T. lemon or grapefruit juice
  • 1/3 cup + 2 T. freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 10 T. unsalted butter, cold
  • pinch of salt

If you have a double boiler, get it out. If not, find a pot and glass bowl that fits perfectly into the top of the pot so that the bottom of the bowl does not go more than halfway down into the pot. Fill your pot with a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Make sure the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water as it boils. To the bowl add your sugar and zests and rub the zest into the sugar to release the flavor. Add the juices and whisk to blend. Turn the water down to a simmer and leave until the sugar begins to dissolve and the liquid is warmed.

In a separate bowl beat your egg yolks. Once the sugar and juice mixture has warmed, gradually add some, a spoonful at a time, to your egg yolks, whisking the egg yolks as you add (you don’t need to add all of the juice mixture). Once the bowl with the egg yolks feels somewhat warm to the touch, go ahead and add the egg yolk mixture to your glass bowl with any remaining juice and return it to the simmering water. Cook the mixture until it begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon, 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter in small cubes, whisking to melt the butter. Taste and add a pinch salt to bring out all of the flavor.

Once all of the butter has been incorporated, put all of your curd into a medium size bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap to the surface to prevent a skin forming and refrigerate to cool. (You will have extra curd so feel free to halve the recipe or save for another use.)

For the orange cream cheese frosting:

  • one 8-oz block of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup butter, room temperature
  • 2 T. fresh orange juice
  • 1/2 tsp. orange zest
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

Beat the cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Add remaining ingredients and blend on low until sugar is incorporated enough to not fly everywhere. Scrape the sides and beat until well blended.

To assemble:

Once your cupcakes have cooled, take a small spoon and dig out a small hole in the top middle of each one, removing about 2 teaspoons of cake. (Set aside to eat later!) Fill each hole with your cooled curd. Frost with your cream cheese frosting and decorate as desired. Enjoy!

Lemon Rosemary Shortbread

Eight years ago this fall, my sister, Chelsea, was living in San Francisco doing an externship through her architecture program. Chelsea thoughtfully sent me a package of local treasures including a few lemons and fresh rosemary. Apparently both were growing abundantly in the neighborhood where she lived, and as a passionate foodie, she figured I would appreciate the gifts, which of course I did. While searching for a use for them, I stumbled upon a recipe for lemon rosemary shortbread. I was intrigued by the idea of using a savory herb like rosemary in a dessert. I have to say that the combination of buttery cookie with the floral flavors of lemon and rosemary go together perfectly. The cookies were delicious!

Eight years later (last month) I found myself with a surplus of fresh rosemary – literally. I received some rosemary in my Imperfect Produce box, (they’re an awesome company that takes produce that is scarred, misshapen, or in excess – and which retailers won’t sell – and sends it to consumers in a weekly customized box.) I love fresh rosemary and so when I saw there was a surplus (and from California!) I happily added it to my order, without really knowing how I’d use it. So with an itch to bake, I decided to make those lemon rosemary shortbread cookies once again, if my almost 7 month old baby would let me of course.

Slight tangent here, but it’s funny how delusional about my life as a stay-at-home mom I can be. Sometimes I find myself waking up thinking about what I want to do that day and dreaming up all these recipes I want to make. Somehow I’m reminded that I am a mother and my young, not-yet-crawling baby is likely going to occupy most of my day. Today, however, she took a longer than usual nap so I threw together a batch of these cookies.

Unfortunately I never took a picture of the finished product but hopefully you get the idea. Picture perfectly buttery, golden cookies that go perfectly with a cup of tea on a rainy day (hello Seattle winter!) and you probably have the right image in your mind. And if you’re doubtful of the rosemary and cookies combination, let me tell you that my neighbor, who is not generally a fan of rosemary, loved them and said the flavor was not too strong.

Lemon Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

2 sticks (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg yolk

1 lemon, zested

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 T. chopped, fresh rosemary

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)

Cream together butter and sugar for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg yolk and beat until incorporated. Add vanilla now if using. Combine the flour, salt, and lemon zest, rubbing it into the flour to break up the pieces. Add to the butter, beating on low to incorporate or fold in with a spatula. Fold in fresh rosemary. Wrap dough in plastic and put in the fridge to firm up for at least 30 minutes.

When dough is ready, preheat your oven to 375 F. Roll out your dough on a floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick and cut into squares or use your favorite cookie cutter. Space cookies about 2 inches apart and bake until golden brown – 10-12 minutes. I even almost burned a batch of mine (due to taking care of the baby) and they still tasted good!

Halloween Cookies & Parenthood

Before my daughter was born, a part of me thought I would have more time to do things like write a blog post. I mean babies sleep a lot, right? So couldn’t I just whip up a blog post during one of her frequent naps? Well, sometimes babies fall asleep on you or sometimes you need to eat while she sleeps. Sometimes I have had time to write, but I was too tired to write anything. Or sometimes I haven’t had the time because my child takes mostly half hour naps, and by the time I put her down and go to the bathroom and brush my teeth and get dressed and whatever basic things I need to accomplish, five minutes are left. Continue reading

Homemade Filo for Baklava and Apple Tart

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I became a mother almost two months ago and sometimes it still doesn’t feel like it’s real. It’s like how did I suddenly (though it wasn’t really) become a mother? Somehow, it feels like motherhood is something that has to be earned over a longer period of time, not something you can become in just one day when a baby is born. I’m not trying to discredit other mothers, by any means. We have certainly earned the title after carrying our babies in our bodies for 9+ months and going through childbirth, but somehow the title still feels strange. I’m sure it’s just like being married or changing your name in that it’s something that I will get used to over time.

I thought motherhood would make me a different person, but mostly I still feel the same except with a baby. Feeling the same is good of course, as I didn’t want to lose who I was, but I somehow expected this overwhelming feeling of a change in identity. Maybe that also develops over time as I will interact with the world and my baby as a mother.

Of course one of the things that makes me me is my love of food and cooking. In the first few weeks of motherhood I definitely did not have the time or energy to cook and I was grateful to the friends who brought us food and the meals I’d prepared ahead of time to stock our freezer. It was hard enough to remember to eat or find time to eat when my focus was on feeding my baby and getting enough sleep. In recent weeks I’ve felt myself getting back to normal with my desire to get my hands dirty in the kitchen coming on strong. For some reason this week that desire manifested itself in homemade filo/phyllo dough, which I used to make baklava and an apple tart. I enjoyed the process of making the filo dough, though it didn’t turn out as thin as I would have liked, and I was able to use some nuts that were past their “best by” date (they’re still good!)

The baklava I made was based on this recipe here and the apple tart one I made up with a sheet of leftover dough I had. It felt good to get in the kitchen again and create something with my hands, though it certainly wasn’t the same as it used to be. I made the recipe in steps over an afternoon, evening, and morning, with interruptions determined by a certain hungry baby. In the future, hopefully she’ll be helping me to cook.

Apple Filo Tart

4-6 sheets of filo dough, thawed if frozen*

1 large apple of your choice, peeled and diced

2 T. brown sugar

1 T. flour

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

3-4 T. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Lay your sheets of filo dough on the parchment, brushing with butter every two layers or just on top if using homemade. In a medium bowl mix diced apple, sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Spread the apple mixture in a circle in the middle of your filo dough making sure that the apples are not piled on each other, though don’t be too picky about it. Gently fold the extra filo over the apple mixture and brush the top with butter. You may not use all of the butter.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes until lightly browned and crispy. Let cool and cut into slices.

*I used only one sheet of my homemade dough, though it was thicker than the store-bought kind.

Saveur’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Most people won’t say no to chocolate chip cookies, whether overcooked or store-bought. Chocolate chip cookies are an American classic and definitely a recipe I have made and eaten thousands of times. Maybe the internet is to blame or maybe it’s just my curiosity for baking, but despite the number of times I’ve made the chewy, gooey hand-held dessert, I still sometimes feel the need to try a new recipe. Social media tends to make us feel pressured to constantly achieve bigger (or smaller) and better whether through our perfectly toned and tanned bodies, our flawlessly frosted cakes, or our carefully crafted home decor. Yes, your chocolate chip cookie recipe may already be amazing, but the lure of the internet will lead you to believe that this one is the best. Continue reading

Crispy Waffles

The reason I try recipes over and over: perfection, or something close to it. In my mind, most foods can always be improved upon and so I try different versions and recipes until it’s exactly what I’m looking for (or good enough for the moment anyway). Growing up we often had waffles on Saturday mornings. Crispy, slightly eggy, soaked in syrup waffles – at least that’s how I remember them. My dad was the waffle master, separating the egg yolks from the whites and beating them until they were fluffy and peaked. The beaten egg whites were supposed to make the waffles fluffy and so we continued to make our waffles that way even when it felt like more work than measuring out a few cups of waffle mix and adding water. I remember the waffles were crispy and that you knew that by the sound they made when you dug the side of the fork tines into the waffle for that first bite.

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Continue reading

Breakfast Berry Pie (gluten free!)

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For some reason last week I ended up eating a lot of pie. Monday I went to a movie with a friend and we followed it up with a delicious slice of pie at Pie Bar (the Ballard Bumble Berry Crumble is amazing!). Wednesday evening Sam and I took a mini vacation to Whidbey Island and ended our evening with a shared (and equally scrumptious) berry tart (basically an individual pie) at Christopher’s. Then the next day we stopped at Whidbey Pies for lunch and though we started with a savory pie for lunch, we also ended it, of course, with a slice of dessert pie. Continue reading

Eggs Benedict

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I love Eggs Benedict. I love the natural, buttery yellow of the hollandaise sauce, the rich sunset-orange of the runny egg yolk, and the English muffin that’s there to soak up all the good stuff. My mom used to make us poached eggs growing up. In fact we had a special pan with four perfectly round little cups that would allow the eggs to hover over the simmering water. I didn’t realize there was any other way to make poached eggs until I got older and realized that real chefs just flat out crack the eggs into an open pot of water and somehow swirl them into a dizzy circle to keep the egg together instead of somehow making egg drop soup. That takes serious skill. I’ve tried to poach eggs that way before and, well, it’s tricky. I prefer to stick to my egg poaching pan.

Though my mom made poached eggs often (and later bought me my own poached egg pan!) she never (if maybe once?) made hollandaise sauce, for which I don’t blame her. First of all it’s extra work, which usually means extra dishes, and second of all it’s extra calories. Now my mom wasn’t exactly afraid of calories when we were growing up, but she was like any woman surrounded by the confusing information of changing diet fads. She made her share of spontaneous brownie batches on a Saturday night and extra Christmas cookies when we surely didn’t need them. But, Mom also tried to sneak whole wheat flour into recipes whenever she could, and she went through a phase where she wanted to add ground flaxseed to EVERYTHING. And she recently tricked her stepson into eating cauliflower because he thought it was mashed potatoes. Anyway, I’m guessing it was more the daunting task of making hollandaise sauce that kept her from making it, and not the calories. Also, who honestly makes their own hollandaise, especially if that person has three young kids?

Well, today I made my own hollandaise sauce and Eggs Benedict for a number of reasons. First of all, I love Eggs Benedict! And second of all, I’m pregnant! Yes, indeed, it’s hard to believe! Four months from today I am due to give birth to my own baby girl, who one day perhaps will be sharing her own stories about her crazy, but loving mother. Now when you’re pregnant, the common knowledge rules say you can’t eat all kinds of things – in particular raw or undercooked eggs, fish, and meat. I love the runny yolk of a good Eggs Benedict, but as a pregnant woman, I’m not supposed to eat runny eggs. So I decided to make the dish myself, as I’m always afraid to order it at a restaurant and ask them to cook the eggs until they’re hard.

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And you know what? I did it! And it was delicious! And I’d do it all over again (maybe not after I have kids, or at least not until they’re older.) In fact making hollandaise sauce itself is not hard. The real challenge of the whole dish is the dance of all the different parts – poaching the eggs while you toast the muffins and continuously whisk the sauce and then assembling the whole thing before it gets cold and the sauce curdles. If you’re not bold enough, it’s okay. I totally understand. Maybe find a friend to help you. Or just don’t be afraid to screw it up. I’m rooting for you.

 

Homemade Hollandaise Sauce

adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

2 T. unsalted butter

1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. water

salt and pepper to taste

This recipe makes enough for 1-2 servings and can easily be scaled up. I made a small batch because it was just me eating it and in case I screwed up I didn’t want a huge, screwed-up batch.

Start by cutting your butter into about 6 pieces and set aside to come to room temperature. Or like me, microwave it at low power for about 15 seconds or until it is just soft to the touch. Set a small saucepan with about a 1/2 inch of water to simmer. Once it is lightly simmering, turn it down to keep it at a slow simmer (not boil!) and place a small, heatproof bowl over the water. You want the bowl to fit well and not touch the water below. If you have a double boiler, you can use that instead.

In your bowl, place your egg yolk, lemon juice, and water. Whisk for about 30 seconds to blend. Add one piece of your butter and continue to whisk until it’s melted and the sauce is beginning to thicken. Continue whisking and adding your butter pieces, one at a time, waiting until they are melted before adding the next piece. When all the butter is melted, continue whisking until it is thick and smooth. If it begins to look separated or curdled add a teaspoon of hot water, whisking to smooth it out. I added 3 teaspoons of water when this happened and it turned out and tasted great. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. If you are worried (like my husband) about the egg yolk in the sauce being undercooked, take the temperature of the sauce with a digital thermometer. Make sure you are not touching the bottom of the bowl or the pan below it or the temperature may be off. The sauce should be 160 degrees or more. Serve with cooked veggies, poultry, fish, or eggs.

Note: If making the full Eggs Benedict dish, I would get everything set up before starting the sauce. Put your English muffin in the toaster (make sure it is set to pop before it burns) and get your poaching pan ready with the eggs. Worst case if the muffin finishes before the sauce you can pop it in again briefly to warm it up and if your eggs are done just remove them from the heat and keep the lid on to keep them warm. I added fresh baby spinach to the extra cups in my poaching pan about 30 seconds before I was going to plate it to allow the spinach to wilt. Technically this is called Eggs Florentine instead of Benedict, but most people aren’t as familiar with the name so we’ll just leave it at that.

Grilling from my garden!

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We have spent a year in our house. A fall, a winter, a spring, and summer. A year can go by fast when you’re not counting the length of something. Some of my favorite things about living in this house have been the surprises that pop up in our yard. We moved into a blue house with a yellowed yard, the grass dry and prickly from the rain-free summer days of perfect blue skies and nice breezes. When the rainy season came we were happy to see the grass nourished again and refreshed to an emerald green (while the weeds grew taller!) In the springtime the tulips that we didn’t plant popped up, (thanks previous owners!) the camellia tree bloomed white flowers that quickly browned, and the rhododendrons grew big and bright in front of our window.

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I started my first home garden this summer, though as is typical of me, I had high hopes for all the things I would grow, but I never really planned how to make them happen. Eventually I planted some lettuce, which grew, but had a short season, and some herbs, strawberries, sunflowers, and squash. When the weather finally warmed enough I was rewarded with beautiful tall sunflowers, tiny, ruby strawberries, and zucchini whose leaves grew and spread wide just as I hadn’t really expected. I’ve since lost count of how many squash we’ve harvested from that giant plant, but I am thrilled every time I see a new one forming among the squash blossoms. I literally exclaimed with delight and surprise when I discovered the yellow patty pan squash growing on the other side of the plant. (The package I bought said squash medley, but somehow I only expected one type to grow!)

What I love about squash is their ability to be transformed into a number of different delicious dishes. I love zucchini bread, roasted zucchini, zucchini and cheese casserole, and many other recipes. However, though I tend to complicate things when it comes to food, zucchini are probably at their best when simply grilled. Toss them with a little oil, a sprinkle of salt, a few grinds of fresh black pepper and throw them on a hot grill alongside your chicken or burgers or whatever. Grilling them makes them soft, sweet, and smoky, the perfect way to eat more vegetables this time of year.

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I also forgot to mention another garden surprise from our new house: tomatillos! I never planted tomatillos and yet they sprouted seemingly out of nowhere in my garden bed (apparently they’re perennials). If they ever get ripe enough, I hope to share a recipe using them on the blog soon!

Summer is certainly winding down and it makes me sad to think of the return of the rain and cloudy, cool days, but I also look forward to our grass turning green again and the milder temperatures of fall. Happy end of summer!

Grilled Summer Squash

yellow squash or zucchini, any amount, any variety*

oil, salt, pepper

fresh herbs (optional)

Preheat your grill to medium heat (about 400 degrees)

Wash your squash to remove any dirt and trim the stem ends. Slice into rounds, about 1/2 an inch thick or close to that. Most importantly make sure they are close in thickness for even grilling. Toss or brush with your choice of high heat oil on both sides (olive oil or canola oil for example). Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

When grill has heated up completely, lay squash out on clean, oiled grates using tongs or your fingers (carefully). Cook for a few minutes on one side and then flip and cook a few minutes more. How long you cook them will depend on the thickness, but you want them to be soft and have good grill marks. Remove and serve with a sprinkle of fresh herbs and grilled chicken.

*In general the smaller the squash, the better the flavor. These round squash are perfect for grilling because you can cut them into rounds so they don’t fall through the grill grates. If you buy regular long zucchini, cut them into long strips from end to end. It is much easier to flip bigger pieces.