The whirring of my overheated laptop serves only to remind me that I am not in the mood to write these days. I compulsively check Facebook and twitter feeds, update Salon articles and share stories about friends who are doing great things in the world of food and the world in general. To write is to stop those things. To be still. To take all the baskets of information I’ve collected and put them together. The collecting is easy, the mental organization proves to be much, much more difficult. Writing is an unyielding desire to be peaceful, but still in motion. It is the way I feel when making bread. The act of pressing and presenting a supple soft mound of dough is so calming to me. I could spend my life doing it, if only I could master the art of a sourdough starter. Until I do, one of my favorite homemade bread recipes is from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. It’s great for those of us with many mouths to feed and a little time with which to feed them.
Jackson wakes up a half an hour on either side of 6 a.m. He has done this for his entire life — all four years of it. Any parent with an early riser loves and loathes two time-sensitive events springing forward and falling back of daylight savings.
During the pre-baby time of my life falling back meant the world was full of new opportunities — an extra hour to get loaded at the bar, an extra hour to sleep in the morning — really important and critical events. Life post-babies makes falling back a brutal, soul-sucking experience. Trying to train a child to go to sleep an hour earlier takes weeks of preparation and training — ticking back bedtime 5 minutes at a time, day by day until finally you reach the moment when daylight savings time requires us to retreat and beg these little ones to go to bed. “But it’s still sunny!” they say. “I don’t have to sleep when it’s sunny!” “Yes, you do,” I say and the saga continues. The battle seems endless. It’s a horrible, horrible time. The spring, however, is a time for rejoicing if you are a parent.
Right now at this very moment I can’t help but fantasize about what my life will be like tomorrow morning when I roll over in bed and see that my alarm clock reads, “7:00 a.m.” it will be like Christmas. Angels will sing. Church bells will chime and I will know that for the next two to three weeks until Jackson’s internal clock starts ticking its way back toward the unholy hour of 5:30 a.m. two great gifts will be mine. First, I will wake on my own without the sledge hammering of little feet running to jump on my head and ask me for me milk and second the sun will be shinning and I will, at least for two weeks, be a rested and reasonable human being. If you need to ask me for anything. This is your window of opportunity.
A few weeks ago, as I ended a month of not cooking much for my family or with any real intention, I stood in my kitchen with a change of heart. Flipping through old recipes, I decided to reinvest myself in the act of feeding them dinner.
I made pasta sauce on Wednesday, pasta dough on Thursday, and on Friday afternoon as my children slept peacefully in their beds I turned on the television, dusted my counter with flour and began to roll out soft, delicate dough by hand. With each movement of the rolling pin upward and out, the news of the Newtown school shooting filled the corners of my home with sadness. I pressed the dough thinner and thinner, turning it on its flour bed, then pressed it thinner still.
My heart is breaking for those families.
Each rotation brought another piece of information and I released another prayer for them. I listened and pressed then finally curled the homemade pasta dough into the shape of a cigar cutting one ribbon at a time with a well-worn silver pastry blade.
I have used this blade to cut countless batches of vanilla bean marshmallows and scrape one cup of flour after the other into one form of dough or another all in the name of feeding my family. As the afternoon wore on and I stacked little nests of freshly cut pappardelle noodles on a cookie sheet, my eyes welled with tears and spilled over, my heart sank with sorrow then floated with gratitude that it was not my son’s preschool or my daughter’s daycare, that these children, my children, were still my responsibility.
When they rose from their naps, I held them tighter and longer than usual, I played with them a little more and listened better. They didn’t know about the terrible sadness, fear and horror that gripped the nation and their mother. They were still nearly 2 and nearly 4 years old waiting for me to feed them dinner, an act that as of late, I have resented deeply.
Not just dinner, any meal really.
I started to take my daughter’s rejection of almost everything personally. As is to be expected with toddlers, she is opinionated about things like broccoli and cheese and blueberries and how they are fed to her and by whom. My son doesn’t fare much better. As the preschooler in the family he has decided he has control over what goes in his mouth and he is going to stake a claim to that part of his body and his life. I can’t really blame them, but it doesn’t make dinner easy. When you are nearly 2 and nearly 4 you don’t care that your mom is a food writer or that she makes nearly everything for you from scratch.
I try to be rational; they are only children after all. Brown-eyed, soft-brown-haired children and they are trying to find their way, discover what matters to them and when to take a stand. It is my job to muddle through the tough parts so they come out unscathed, well-rounded and at least in the eyes of a food writing mom – with a diverse interest in fruit, vegetables and protein.
In the middle of all this defiance, I briefly put away my stockpots and chopping blocks in favor of faster foods, but it didn’t work for us. I have to cook for them. I consider it an act of love. Cooking is a necessary part of mothering for me, and when I don’t do it with my heart. When I don’t value the practice, I can taste it. We all can. So I have let the act of cooking for my family slip a bit these last few weeks. I have felt a little sorry for myself and perhaps a bit dejected. That is until, Newtown.
That evening, I sat down at the very same table where I made pappardelle noodles a few hours earlier. Where horror and disbelief gave way to a tremendous amount of appreciation and an overwhelming desire to tend to my children. I served them their nests of noodles with smashed tomatoes simmered in herbs and oil.
As expected, my kids didn’t eat it. It’s just not where they are right now. Instead they nibbled on sliced pears with cinnamon, drank too much milk and chomped on a broccoli floret or two.
This time, however, the mealtime rejection was tucked neatly in a mental file marked not important and doesn’t matter in light of this crushing new perspective.
This time, I fed my family a meal with gratitude that this task is mine and it is still required of me.
The second week of February is kind of crazy around our house. It’s Valentine’s Day (one of my absolute favorite holidays), which is two days after my son’s birthday. He turned four this year so we had preschool parties and family parties and kid’s birthday parties so it was basically the week of sugar. Conversation hearts, pink suckers and birthday cake filled every corner of this house.
I hate to be a buzzkill, but when it came time to bring treats for Jackson’s preschool class I opted to make chocolate covered strawberries and forgo the diabetic coma.
Tempering chocolate is one of those things people try to get fancy about but it’s not fancy. It’s actually quite messy not at all elegant, especially if I’m doing the work which typically leaves 3 or 4 dishtowels and me completely covered in the stuff. I’ve been covered in worse. The only thing you really need is time, a digital thermometer and a good stirring arm.
I can’t give you exact chocolate to strawberry ratio, but I melted about 5 bars, not using all of them and dipped 3 containers of strawberries, but keep in mind how much you need will depend on the number and size of strawberries in your container.
I made these for a class of 3 and 4 year olds so I threw caution to the wind and made silly faces with tempered white chocolate. I just used a pastry bag with a small tip to make the faces. The kids loved them and so did the moms and dads who volunteered in class that day.
5 - 4 oz Bars Semi-Sweet Chocolate (my favorite is Ghirardelli)
The first key to tempering chocolate is make sure everything you are working with is dry. Even a small drop of water can ruin a batch of chocolate.
1. Wash and dry your strawberries an hour or even a day or two before you want to dip them. Make sure the hull is dry as well.
2. Spread out a sheet of parchment or wax paper.
3. Chop chocolate reserving about a 1/2 cup for later use. Put chopped chocolate in a glass or metal bowl. Place the bowl over a pot with about an inch or two of simmering water. Don't let the bowl touch the water. Get your thermometer ready and start start stirring the chocolate. Once the chocolate is almost melted but still has chunks of chocolate in it, remove it from the heat and keep stirring. Bring the chocolate up to 100 degrees, 110 degrees is the maximum. If you removed it from the heat and it didn't make it to 100 degrees, then put the bowl back over the water, stirring the whole time, until it reaches 100.
Once you reach 100 start adding the reserved half cup of chopped chocolate a little at a time. This is called seeding and it helps bring the temperature down. Keep stirring (this can take a while) until your chocolate reaches tempering temperature.
Here is your tempering temperature guide:
Dark Chocolate: 89-90 degrees
Milk Chocolate: 88-89 degrees
White Chocolate: 85-86 degrees
Once you've made it to your tempering temperature continue stirring for about 30-45 seconds. Then dip your strawberries and place them on parchment paper to dry. The chocolate should harden and turn shiny in within about 5 minutes.