Tuesday, October 27, 2015

October 2015 Daring Bakers' Challenge: French Macarons

This month's Daring Bakers' challenge gave me the opportunity to tick another item off of my baking bucket list and I couldn't be more excited about how the whole thing went! This month, we were challenged to make French macarons ... no, not the coconut macaroons ... macarons ... the egg white-based sandwiched cookies that basically taste a little like Heaven.

We had to decide whether to use the French or Italian method of making these airy little delights. I opted for the Italian method, simply because I knew by bringing the sugar to a boil, I wasn't at risk of having gritty cookies. Gritty cookies = no bueno. 

We had free range for our flavors, so I made orange-zest cookies with a chocolate ganache filling. Oh... my... goodness. They were so yummy!

Because I'd never made them before, I was a bit nervous about how they'd turn out. Fortunately, watching various baking shows (a special thank you to Great British Bake Off) I knew some of the methods and tricks that would help lead me toward success. And success I did have!! Each cookie had its foot (aka bumpy part around the sides) that showed the air properly escaped as it poofed up the cookie. 

The cookies were properly crispy and chewy all at the same time. I really couldn't have been happier with how they turned out and will definitely make them again in the future.

Macaron feet

Orange and chocolate macarons

For the month of October we got to take on one of many bakers' deepest, darkest kitchen nightmares : macarons. Our talented bakers Korena from Korena in the Kitchen and Rachael from pizzarossa made the intimidating task of mastering these French beauties a breeze.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Conor's Band

This weekend, Conor and I were in the car when the following conversation took place:

Conor: Mama? Is there a band called The Love Handles?

Me: (trying not to giggle) No, Sweetie. I don't think there is a band called The Love Handles.

Conor: There should be. Isn't that a good band name? The Love Handles!

Me; Yes! It is a great name for a band. You're very clever to think of it.

Conor: I didn't think of it. There is a band called The Love Handles. But I think they broke up, so you should get them back together.

Me: So, I'm supposed to get The Love Handles back together?

Conor: Yes. So they can play music together again.

Annual Pumpkin Patch Pilgrimage, Circa 2015

When you live in Western WA, like we do, planning outdoor events and excursions often comes with the tag "weather permitting." When the weather window opens, we've learned to run at it full steam ahead because you never know when Mother Nature is going to slam it down on you.

Such was the case with our annual trip to Fairbank Farm for our family's Halloween pumpkins. As Conor and I were driving home from church, I realized my windshield was staying dry... the weather window was open!! The gray clouds above meant Mother Nature's hand was on that window, but we are brave (foolish?) folks and decided to risk it. As soon as we got home, I rallied the troops and soon we were in the car headed to the pumpkin patch.

We got to the pumpkin patch about an hour after it opened, which left us parking a couple of blocks away instead of in the farm's parking lot. (Obviously many others decided to pop in while the weather window was open like we did!) Soon, we were feeding the farm's various species of birds (ducks, geese, peacocks, chickens ... all of which smelled like wet bird), watching the pigs, oohing and ahhing over the baby ducks and newly-hatched (and hatching) chicks (note: better smelling than the wet adult birds out in the rain!), and wandering through the mini hay maze.

Because we're regulars at the farm, we were able to make pretty good time as we wove our way through the various sections of the farm. I think I'm the only one who even stopped to look at the pony this go-around! Plus, a number of years ago, the farm changed insurance companies and the new company wouldn't allow people into the pens with the calf and juvenile sheep, so there are a fewer spots to encourage us to lollygag in the barn.

One of our kids with one of the farm's kids

Conor and his new goat buddy

The gray goat kept head-butting the brown one... not hard, just often

Conor decided to referee the goats and restore peace in the goat pen

Once the kids (and their parents) got their fill of taking in the sights and sounds of the barn animals, we grabbed a wheelbarrow and made our way to the pumpkin patch. From our years of experience, we know to bypass the first patch and head to the back one ... novices stop at the first patch, which is more picked over. We seasoned veterans know to hike the extra 40-50 feet and enjoy the bounty of the slightly-less-visited back patch.

It's pumpkin season!

Each family member can pick out one pumpkin. Conor found many of "THE" one for him. His approach was to find a pumpkin that spoke to him (metaphorically, of course!) until another one had a louder voice. Then, the original pumpkin was put down and the next one was picked up. (This happened over and over until he felt comfortable with his final choice ... and it was basically time to leave.)

Conor with one of his chosen pumpkins

And with one of the many others that he deemed adoptable

Annika, on the other hand, was much more discerning in her pumpkin picking. She went in with one goal: to find the biggest pumpkin. No mediocre pumpkin was going to catch our girl's eye. (We can only hope she's this discerning when it comes to choosing people to date in the future!) As we tried to help her along (Mother Nature's hand was getting ever closer to the window, ya know!), all we did was annoy her by pointing out sub-par pumpkins. (Gosh, we are jerks!) Fortunately, she eventually did spot a pumpkin that she deemed worthy and gave us the green light to load it into the wheelbarrow with the rest of our orange loot.

Annika: Pumpkin Huntress

 Most years, I get a picture of the kids sitting in the wheelbarrow with our pumpkins. Only when it was too late did I realized we grabbed one of the smaller wheelbarrows and the kids wouldn't fit in... whoops! I did manage, however, to get one of my other go-to shots: the one of Eric and the kids wheeling our pumpkins away from the patch.

While Eric paid for the pumpkins, the kids played around in the farm's photo op area and put their faces through the holes painted in various scenes so I could take their pictures. They still think this is silly fun and are willing to participate. One day, they'll be too big (or cool) to do this, so I'm taking advantage of it while I can!

Our kids 

The cutest scarecrow and pumpkin on Earth!
After the pumpkins were paid for and loaded in the car, we headed home celebrating our pumpkin finds and outwitting Mother Nature ... we stayed dry the entire time. Yippee!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Circus Wish Comes True

For at least the past year, Annika has been asking to go to the circus. I'm not really sure what sparked her idea, but  she wasn't letting it go. She has even decided that she wants to be a trapeze artist when she grows up ... she is THAT interested in the circus!

A couple of months ago, I found out that the circus was going to be in town, so we decided to get tickets and surprise the kids. They had NO idea where we were going until we were there and saw the signs showing clowns and elephants. Conor was excited .... Annika, however, about came out of her skin with glee and anticipation all rolled up into one. It really was a dream come true for our little girl.

We weaved our way through the crowds and found our nosebleed seats. (While we were all about treating the kids to the circus, we weren't about to spend $100+ per seat!) Surprisingly, the nosebleed seats were quite good and we had a great view of everything.

Ready for the show to begin!

We were treated to clowns, acrobats, motorcylists, unicycle-riders, elephants, horses,dogs, and much more. The feats some of the people performed were really remarkable... the core strength of most of the performers was mind boggling!

I have to agree with Conor, who said some parts of the circus were simply too loud. At times, it was insanely noisy, but still visually impressive. (Note for any future circus outings: bring ear plugs!)

After the circus, we stopped at the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner. During our meal, we asked the kids what their favorite parts of the circus were. Conor gave his vote to the acrobats (his new career path, by the way) while Annika's vote was for the trapeze artists (no shock there).

All-in-all, a very fun (and tiring) family adventure!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Applesauce Oatmeal Cinnamon Chip Bread

I have VERY happy co-workers this morning. Why? Because I brought in two loaves of homemade applesauce oatmeal cinnamon chip bread. Why? Because we have so much applesauce in our freezer that we're getting accosted by it when we open the big freezer in our basement. It was time to take action!!

A very good family friend is an AMAZING cook/baker. (I remember taking a stained glass cookie class from her when I was probably 8 or 9 years old). Anywho, After deciding to put the applesauce to use sooner rather than later, I looked on our family friend's web-based recipe collection and saw an entry for Applesauce Oatmeal bread. Unfortunately, the link to the recipe was broken and she didn't recall the recipe. Bummer! To solve the problem, I did what I often do when I need a recipe... I turned to the Internet. I ran across a recipe on the King Arthur Flour site that looked promising and then ran across a recipe from a blog called Tracy's Culinary Adventures that was loosely based on the King Arthur Flour recipe. (It felt like the baking gods were telling me something.) SO, I decided to use those recipes as inspiration and dive in using those recipes as my jumping-off point.

Annika's eyes about popped out of her head when she took her first bite of the bread. For a half second, I couldn't tell if she loved or despised the bite in her mouth. Another half second later, I realized that she was infatuated. Win!!

Without further ado, here is my version of the applesauce oatmeal bread recipes I discovered online.

One of the plates of bread I left out for my co-workers

Applesauce Oatmeal Cinnamon Chip Bread ala Meredith

(I doubled this and made 2 loaves and 2 mini loaves)

3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oats
1 cup applesauce (I used homemade)
1/2 bag of cinnamon chips (I use Hershey's brand - found on baking aisle by the chocolate chips)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Pam a 9x5-inch bread pan, line the pan with parchment paper, then Pam the parchment paper.
3. Mix all ingredients (except cinnamon chips) in stand mixer or by hand until all ingredients are incorporated.
4. Gently mix in the cinnamon chips.
5. Pour or spoon the batter to the prepared pan. (I had a bit more than would fit in the pan, so I put the extra in a disposable mini 2x4-inch bread pan.)
6. Bake for 60-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.
7. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes, remove bread from pan and parchment paper, allow the bread to  completely cool on wire rack.