New “School” Year Resolutions

Most people make New Year’s Resolutions as we shift from calendar year to the next on January 1st. For me, the beginning of the school year always dangles the hope of a fresh slate and new beginning.  This is even more true since I moved to academia.  Today is our first day of classes today and I’ve drafted a motto or series of resolutions for the new year. It is going to be a good one. 2015-08-24 12.27.15

This year I resolve to be present in my school and life

To enjoy the pleasure of time with friends and family

To reflect on the beauty of the Midwest with its rust/gold falls and chartreuse/jade springs

To do my best and delight in finished tasks

To allow distractions and worries flow over me like rain off a duck’s ass


Breathe deep

Live my life


Move on

Banana Cream Pi 

Okay, sit down. I’m serious, sit down, I have a confession. 

I’ve never participated in Pi day before. 

*hangs head*

I’ve seen it wizz by online as people gleefully post pic of their best pies and Pi’s, but if I posted a pic in the past it wasn’t a pie I’d made for the occasion, but something I had on the camera roll. I don’t make pies much. They’re good, but I’m a cake gal. And crusts can be tricky. I feel for the people who ate my early hard as rock pie crusts and biscuits. Sorry ’bout that. 

Part of working on my PhD and trying to crack into academia is it is the world’s biggest time suck. There are a lot of things that pass me by or I have to opt out of because I’m working on something, or catching up on work I out off working on something else.  In other words, endless fun and glamour. 

But that’s the gig and it’s not forever, so ok. This year I happened to have some ripe bananas and even though I’m on a terrible time crunch with my dissertation proposal, I thought I’d try and fit it in. So on breaks from revising and over two days I made this…

I started with an interesting crust recipe. Kenji over at Serious Eats had a new way of making a crust that rejected the old method of leaving large chunks of fat and keeping the dough really dry. You make a paste with the butter and flour and then add a bit more flour. Crazy, but he claims his crust was almost no fail and easy to roll. 

Well he was right! It came together so easy I thought it was wrong (it was wrong the first time I tried it and realized I had almost twice the flour, ugh). 

And this is how it baked up

Ain’t she pretty? This is hands down the easiest pie crust I’ve ever made. And it tastes delicious. The only adjustment I made was to replace 6T of the butter with shortening. He says it makes it more tender,  but I also don’t love an all butter crust. A little butter a little shortening that’s the best of both worlds. 

And this is how it baked up (some of my snack scraps). Look at how flakey it is. Yummy stuff. Blind bake the crust to golden brown. Let it cool. 

I’m not going to include the filling I used because I’m not in love with it. I managed to get workable, but I prefer the old timey Better Homes and Gardens cream pie filling. If you can find that, use it and add bananas, if not just whip up some vanilla pudding and you’re set. Let the pudding cool at room temp covered with some cling film to avoid the yucky skin from forming. 

Once the crust and the filling have cooled their jets you can assemble. You can either start with a little filling or a layer of bananas. I put a bit of filling and then half the bananas. Eyeball about half the rest of the filling and cover the banana layer. Add another layer of bananas and top with the rest of the filling. Make sure you leave enough filling to cover all the naners or they’ll get brown and gross. 

After its assembled give it a rest in the fridge so it gets nice and cold.  Top with whipped cream and I threw on some toasted almond slices. 

A thing of beauty. Happy Pi day! 

I dub thee Proposal Cake

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I don’t have much time, but I’m dropping in for a second just to take a break from writing. I’m working on submitting my proposal for a defense date of April 7th.  It seems like it’s way off, but there is spring break and my adviser’s trip to factor in, so it feels tight.

I’m working away, but I need to take small breaks and over the course of a few small breaks yesterday I made this wee cake.  It’s just a 8×8 fun cake I made from a Smitten Kitchen recipe you can find here.  It is wicked easy and holy crap, it’s so good.  I’m eating little bits to keep me going.  You know just to keep my energy up, yah, that’s it.  So I’ve named it proposal cake and by the time I’m done with it, I’ll have my first draft off to my adviser.

Still wish me luck, proposal cake’s magical powers only work so hard.

It ain’t fall until someone bakes up some pumpkin

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Well, two posts in a week…  That’s a little scary, and let’s not set this up as an unmeetable precedent.  However, I took a couple of minutes and baked an absolutely delightful fall treat and I needed to share.

Fall is my favorite time of year.  It brings the promise of football, snuggling in blankets, wooly sweaters, and the comforting heartier foods of the season. The thick stews, long braised fatty meat, and slow roasted Brussels Sprouts make my mouth water. But let’s be honest, if you were playing Password and could only name one food to conjure up the idea of fall, it would be pumpkin.

To say I merely “like” to use pumpkin in my cooking would probably be an understatement. I love the stuff to the extent that I’ve even tried baking fresh pumpkin for pies. That works okay, but let’s be honest, Libby’s has the pumpkin game locked down.

What isn’t always easy is making a pumpkin baked item that is light. Pumpkin baked goods can end up can end up seeming a little heavy.  Last year after a few pumpkin bread and muffin fails I have been looking around for a new recipe. So when I saw the Tartine bakery’s Pumpkin Tea Cake virtues extolled several times, I thought I had to hunt up a recipe and make it myself.  What I like about Chic Eats’ post is the flexibility to use a scale or cups to measure out ingredients (I used my scale).

This recipe is very easy, and it bakes up an incredibly moist quick bread masquerading as a snack cake. It has a very pumpkiny taste, tender crumb, and did I mention it was moist? The extra sugar creates a crackly crust on top that sets off the moist cake beneath. You can bake it in smaller loafs, just adjust the cooking time down. The only change I made was I use much less spice than the recipe called for and I added in one of my own. I used 1t cinnamon, 1/4t ground cloves, pinch of ginger (my addition), and several generous gratings of whole nutmeg.  I don’t love baked goods that are drowning in the pumpkin pie spices, and that amount of cinnamon would have put my teeth on edge, but if you like to (pie) spice it up, go for it.  But do get on baking this cake; it won’t be fall until you do.

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Tartine Bakery’s Pumpkin Tea Cake from Chic Eats

OMG – What’s happening?

I realize it’s been a while and probably none of you are still around, and that’s fine.  I would’ve quit me too.  It was a rough year last year and heck blogging is like journaling and I always sucked at that, so there.

I’m back though and am doing a little TV blogging to over at my other blog What I Watch Now or    It’s my little reward for getting my work done for the day and I do like blogging and it’s fun. So if I’m not here I’ll be there and so forth.  Unless I’m not either place, then I’m hopefully working which is good.  Mamma gots to finish.

What has brought me back is I’m doing a little experiment on my patio.  I had a big beautiful mint plant in a pot this summer. It was glorious. I use pots because mint is a weed and will take over your yard in like 5 minutes if given half a change. But I have to have my mint (mojitos!), so there you have it.

I noticed a few weeks ago it was on its last legs. I pretty much give up watering come August and unless we get rain stuff that needs water starts to die. It got rangy and I was having guests over, so I tried to rip out the plant, but all I got were the stems and the let’s call it “main plant” that was left above ground. The roots were too deep.

Being busy (read-lazy) I just left it there and noticed there was some activity. Well that voracious grower hasn’t disappointed me, this is the mint today

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HOLY MOLEY! It’s totally back. Two weeks ago this was just dirt and now it’s going to town.  I know this won’t last, but I’ve decided to just let it go and see what it does.  I’m going to leave it all winter too and see if it comes back.  This is basically a mint throw down.

Basil Oil, thy time is now

Tomatoes with Basil Oil

Delicious evidence

I have several things on my plate for the next couple of weeks, but I couldn’t keep this from you. It was one of those things I made for myself and thought, dang it how selfish would I be not to share this? I’ll make this quick…

Last weekend I hit our local farmer’s market and was delighted to find tomatoes. I know, tomatoes are in the grocery store every week of the year and there’s even been hothouse tomatoes at the market for a while. That’s not what I’m taking about. I’m talking about “grown in the ground”, luscious, sweet, red (and other colors too!!) tomatoes. The kind when you smell they they have that vine-y tomatoes smell. You know it, and to me it’s summer. I have memories of canning bushels of tomatoes with my mom and my dad and making his special spaghetti sauce.

While any tomato are pretty good, but they’re even better when you try eating them seasonally. Back in the day I used to take cooking classes from a restaurant in Madison, L’Etoile (I miss those classes, dang it, Chef Tory, bring them back!). I learned so much from their chefs, but their founder, Odessa Piper was like the Midwest equivalent of Alice Waters. Very much an early adapter of the local food movement, she is a rare gem and visionary. One of my favorite classes was following her around the Madison Farmer’s Market and meeting each of her favorite purveyors. I still shop from them when I’m in the area. She always extolled the virtues of eating seasonally. How much more delicious it is to eat a tomato, or even a BLT if you haven’t for many months. Then she said you eat them when they are in season until you’re almost sick of them because you crave them so much, but it is these “culinary vacations” we have to take from certain fruits and vegetables when we eat seasonally that makes them all the more special.

Now I can’t do this, at least not completely. I’m lucky in that I live by a really great farmer’s market in central IL. I can even get peaches locally for a few months over the summer. However, if I couldn’t get local peaches I’d have to get them somehow. There’s other things like avocados that I just couldn’t live without. And I do eat the occasional tomato off season, but they don’t taste very good, and I usually regret it in the morning.

By now you’re saying, “Um, so what does this have to do with Basil Oil? Can we circle back to the point, hmm?”. Sorry for the long windup, but I’m getting there. When tomatoes are in season, basil is right there too. Basil and tomatoes, like Bert and Ernie, two very different things that go quite well together. At the market last week as I squirreled together my tomato stash, I grabbed a bunch of basil (yes, I have “basil” in my “garden” but my garden is a sad sad place where plants go to die and I’m trying to give them their space. That’s for another time. Or not).

I had been plotting to make a Margarita Pizza with my spoils when I turned on an episode of Barefoot Contessa where she was drizzling some gorgeous vivid green oil over some tomatoes. Basil Oil! I thought, well, why not? I googled up a recipe and found a good one on Epicurious. A couple of words of advice about the recipe. You need to blanch the basil or it will get muddy brown. A big part of this recipe is how beautiful it looks, so take 5 seconds and blanch it. I shocked it in ice water too, but cold water is probably fine. Also, I used a mixture of olive and canola oil because the olive oil I had was kind of spicy. I’d use all olive the next time I make it. It doesn’t have to be fancy oil, but I think all olive would have been a bit jazzier.

Oh so delicious

Mmmm, my bright green precious…

That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious. Seriously. I made a caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil and it was amazing. You can see the evidence, or lack there of above and I’m not saying this lightly; it was incredible. Over the next few days I was looking for ways to use it. I made some sandwiches and used it as a spread/oil for the bread. I also drizzled it over some fish I steamed in the oven.  There are so many ways you could use this oil. Also, It lasted for several days and stayed bright green and tasty.

So um, not quick I guess, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Tis the season for basil oil and fresh tomatoes.

Protip: Freezing Cookie Dough

Cookie PlateI love chocolate chip cookies. Not a huge leap, but it needs to be stated nonetheless. These cookies are ones I made for the social work policy class I’m teaching. I bake for my classes, it’s what I do. See what I did there? For just a nanosecond it ran through your mind that you might consider taking a social policy class in order to secure some of my baked goods, and that my faithful reader is the power of a good chocolate chip cookie.* And yes, I use my baking superpowers for good, as you will see.

But come on who can blame you, who doesn’t love warm, melty, homemade chocolate chip cookies? You could say I inherited my love of chocolate chips and cooking from my grandma. My grandma was a good cook. She was a traditional 60’s style cook, nothing fancy or haute, but just good tasty food. She liked to cook, and I guess I inherited that from her.

scan0246Wasn’t she pretty? She also made a mean chocolate chip cookie. When we’d come to visit the cookies would always be there, and when we left we’d often have a tin of cookies to take home. They were a variation on the old Toll House Cookie recipe, but they were much more cakey. Once she taught me how to make them. Her secret was basically “more flour”. She was older then and cookie dough was so stiff that her arthritis made her mix the dough by hand. I remember thinking she must love me very much to go to that much effort for me.

When I was little these cookies were magic, and so of course when I got older I wanted to make them myself. Toll House was my jumping off point too. In my opinion, regular Toll Houses are a bit thin and meh. Over the years I’ve honed my own recipe. I too add a little more flour, but less than my grandma. I toast my pecans to add some depth to their flavor. I also put in a bit more vanilla, and use good vanilla, you really can tell. With my few small, yet important tweaks I think I’ve hit on a great slightly chewy chocolate chipper with just a bit of puff.

Now we all know that the best chocolate chip cookie is warm and right out of the oven, and sadly too often we are deprived of them having to settle for a regular room temperature cookie.  Oh it is a rough world we live in, but lucky for you, I solved all that. A few years ago at the grocery store I noticed a little tub of cookie dough in the refrigerated section. I got thinking why couldn’t I do something like that myself? What I needed was a way to preserve my own cookie dough without the additives that little tub was chocked full of. Then it hit me, freezing. All I had to do was freeze balls of dough and I could have warm cookies whenever I wanted. Choco chip freezerYou’ll notice they don’t look especially ball-like. My cookies usually need a bit of a smoosh so they flatten out as they cook.  I take a small ice cream scoop**, pop a bunch of balls of dough on my Silpat lined cookie sheet and then squish them. Okay, I also top them with a sprinkle of salt because I apparently feel the need to salt everything sweet I make, but that’s pretty much it. Once they’re frozen solid they can be sealed in a baggie, just push all the air out so they stay fresher. For cooking, just toss them on a cookie sheet and bake ’em up. You can bake up a bunch or you can bake just one or two for yourself. I usually just keep an eye on them, they’ll need a few more minutes than the right out of the mixer ones.

Choc chip cookiesAnd voila, cookies! Now you can have a warm cookie whenever the mood strikes you. So whether it’s been a long day or that special someone drops by and you want to woo him or her with the irresistible allure of warm cookies.  All you need to do is heat up the oven.

*If you didn’t think that, you are obviously a cyborg because only they are immune to the powers of a good cookie. Stop reading my blog, cyborg!

**Ice cream scoops make baking so much easier. I use a regular sized scoop for portioning out muffin batter and a small scoop for making a lot of cookies really fast. If you bake a lot try it I swear they’ll make your life so much easier, call this protip part deux.