October 31, 2011

0 out of 5 dentists approve...

Daniel minus a couple of teeth
50% of the members of our household are at the age of losing their teeth on a regular basis.  For this reason we modified the traditional caramel apple recipe.  Knowing how difficult it would be for any of the wiggly-toothed family members to take a big bite out of a whole caramel apple, we made a bite-sized version.

Audra and Zach volunteered to help make them.   Their first job was to unwrap about fifty individually-wrapped caramels and put them in a pot.  I sliced up four apples into small manageable pieces.

I added two tablespoons of water to the caramels and melted them on low on the stovetop.
No comments on the dirty stove, please.
Meanwhile, Audra and Zach put toothpicks into each apple slice.

I poured the melted caramel into two bowls so they could each work alone on coating the apple slices with the caramel and not get in each other’s way.  Zach found a spoon helpful, but Audra decided the plunge method worked best for her.  She also threw on a hat to be sure she didn’t get any hair on the caramel apples.  What a professional.

We put the finished apples on wax paper on a tray, eating plenty of plain apple slices along the way, including sharing one or two with a non-volunteer.

Then we put the tray in the fridge for an hour to cool.  Next time I will forego the wax paper in favor of the plain plastic tray.  When we took them out of the fridge, some of the wax paper stuck to the now-hardened caramel until we coaxed it off with some warm water.
We still may lose a few teeth with these treats, but we’ll be smiling while we do it!

October 28, 2011

Scott's gift...

Our son Scott is a young man of few words, unlike his mom.  Since this post is in his honor, I’ll try to model it after his style.*
Scott came home from the hospital as a baby looking like this:
 Now he looks like this: 
He knows I love knick-knacks and scale models.  He knew my birthday was coming up.  He had a wooden dagger he had carved for himself.  He sanded it, re-carved it into a big birthday candle, and painted it.
Now it looks like this.
Thank you, Scott.  It means more to me than words can say.**

*There are certainly more pictures here than he would include, some of which imply a reflection on the passing of time and how precious he is to us that he would find irrelevant.  But this is still my blog, after all.
**While a mostly accurate statement, it is still partly due to the self-imposed standard of “few words”.  I actually could go on and on about this wonderful son of mine and how much his sacrificial surprise means to me...

October 20, 2011

Inexpensive inspiration...

It all started with a cheap, severely lopsided pumpkin from Walmart.  It was the sort that would be rejected by someone planning to carve it, but it fit perfectly with my plans.  I was going to do to it what I do to nearly everything else around our home – paint it with glossy acrylics.  Since it would be sitting on our front step, I knew that its lopsidedness would be ideal for displaying the painted side to whomever was standing looking down at it.
Starting with a few colors drawn from a beautiful fall wreath my mom made for me, I then mixed portions of those together to create more shades to use.  This method guarantees color harmony in the finished project.  With a few simple brush strokes I had a fun fall decoration with which to greet visitors to our home.
While the pumpkin dried I was inspired to do a quick project on a beaten-up hand-me-down nightstand.  Normally I like furniture that is in terrible shape because of the character it gives it, but the finish on top was chipped and cheap-looking.  It needed something to make it look aged but not decrepit.  With a broad flat brush and the remnants of two shades of green I had left over from the pumpkin painting, I painted just the top, taking care to allow some of the original wood to show through.  This brightened its look and made it smoother and easier to clean as well.

Once the pumpkin was dry, I set it out on the front step and finally hung up our fall wreath.  With company coming this weekend and these two festive fall items now in place, I was even inspired to sweep the front porch.  A fresh, cheerful, and welcoming entrance makes people feel right at home.

If you’re willing to see hidden potential in something inexpensive and seemingly defective, you will find that the inspiration to create, revitalize, and yes, even to clean, can come from anywhere.  Even Walmart.

October 13, 2011

Our homemade pizza...

Having suffered through the pathetic pizza options here in the South by one tray of cardboard too many, a few months ago I threw myself headlong into an attempt to make the perfect pizza from scratch.  Our pizza night I’ve described before remains a part of our life, but now it happens right here at home.  (Goodbye, chef’s-day-off.)
Ignoring the fact that I’d never made pizza before, I began the cyclical process of experimentation followed by constructive criticism from my family.  We now have a Wilbur-approved recipe.  As I mentioned last time, that obviously doesn’t mean you’re going to love it.   But I’ll tell you how I do it, and then you can try it, abandon it, or improve it until it is your-last-name-here approved.

First, the dough…
2 ½ cups warm water
2 packages quick-rise dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. olive oil (I only use Filippo Berio brand.  Try it.  You’ll never go back.)

Pour water into mixing bowl.  Slowly add contents of both yeast packages.  Add sugar.  Allow yeast to dissolve, approximately five minutes.  Add olive oil, flour, and salt, and mix until a ball of dough forms.  I have a mixer with a dough hook attachment for this.  If you don’t, I’m really sorry.  Go get one.  They’re fantastic.  If you can’t, then combine everything slowly by hand.  Women did that for centuries before KitchenAid was a twinkle in its mother’s eye.
Cover bowl with a damp dish cloth.  (Moistening it prevents it from sticking to the dough.)  Allow dough to rise for however long it takes to hear the funny thing that SpongeBob just said, help someone with their schoolwork, remind everybody that good pizza takes time, answer a robocall about wonderful vacation opportunities, switch laundry loads, and get the sauce made and cheese grated (more on that later).  Or about half an hour, whichever comes first.
The pizza:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  The amount of dough you’ve made yields one large round and two large rectangle pizzas, just right for this household of six good eaters.  Those shapes and quantities aren’t because of excellent planning or anything related to geometry; I’m just using what I have.  I was once given a fancy round pizza stone, and I use that along with two cookie sheets from the 1970’s that my mom passed down to me when I got married.  I spread a good coating of olive oil on each.  Next I punch down the dough in the bowl, then dump it out onto a floured work surface.  For a few minutes at most I fold it, knead it, and whack it around a bit like I’m trying to get it to 'fess up to something.   Then I divide it in thirds and spread it out evenly by hand on each of my pans, pinching the edges to make a crust.  I also make sure there are no bubbles in the dough.  Next I ladle on some homemade pizza sauce.  (I have been strictly instructed not to share the recipe for this by my husband who thinks perhaps we could sell it someday.  I’ll take that as a compliment, but I’ll keep working on him to give me the green light to share it with you anyway.  It’s pretty tasty.)  How much sauce?  As much as we like.  You should use as much as you like.
Then I cover two and a half of the pizzas in 2 lbs. of shredded whole milk mozzarella.  (I don’t use skim or low fat anything.  It tastes bad.  And that’s that.  There is no such thing as delicious diet pizza.  Not possible.)  The other half-pizza stays cheese-free for my cheese-hating son Daniel.
Another important note on cheese:  I buy the big lumps and grate it myself, as alluded to in my dough monologue.  Those pre-packaged pre-shredded mozzarellas melt poorly, feel grainy, and taste weird.  If you disagree or feel the time they save for you is worth it, go right ahead.  Just don’t ask us to.  We’re cheese purists around here.  (Except for Daniel.)
Occasionally we add pepperoni, but at my husband’s suggestion I cook it a bit before putting it on the pizzas, even if just in the microwave.  It helps it get those curled crispy edges.
Another tip from my pizza-lovin’ husband is to sprinkle the cheese a little closer to the edge of the crust than the sauce.  It’s less likely to slide off in large pieces as you eat it if you do this.
Bake at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until cheese is golden/orangey looking.  Or until the pizza looks like you’d want to eat it.  Or until the smoke detector goes off from olive oil dripping all over the inside of your oven.  The neighbors around here always know when Friday rolls around…
One last tip before we go.  Every so often I empty a sack of flour by filling plastic baggies with six cups of it in each.  As you can see, I label the bags too.  The dough recipe is almost identical to the one I use for homemade bread, which also calls for that amount of flour.  For pizza or bread, I'm able to just grab a baggie from the pantry and dump it right in to the bowl.  Not having to measure the flour each time allows me concentrate on more of my children's retellings of SpongeBob's adventures.
This homemade pizza is a lot more work than throwing some make-up on and heading off to the South's finest pizza establishment (a generous phrase).  But it tastes a lot better too.  And my family is worth it.  Though now I need to figure out how to get a different day off...

October 10, 2011

What's cookin' good-lookin'?

When I was first married I knew little about cooking.  I could make four or five things, but most of those were desserts.  As that was not a sustainable long-term plan, I had to figure out how to cook.  Through the early years I was convinced that there was some standard of perfection for each meal that was achievable only to those with "the gift".  I was also convinced I didn’t have it.
Eventually I realized that if my family liked what I made, then it was good.  Beauty is in the mouth of the taster.  I began to focus my cooking efforts on pleasing my husband and children without regard for what others say is the "right way" to make a particular dish.  In time, I learned to make many different things by taking a recipe and tweaking it until it met with the Wilbur standard.  We’ve even created a recipe or two completely from scratch.  By no means does any of it equate to world class chef culinary perfection, but it’s what works for us.  Since we’re eating it, that’s all that matters.
This is among the reasons that I have not shared recipes here on the blog up until now (with the exception of “rainbow supper” of course.)  How I make things isn’t necessarily going to please your palate.  But if you look at them instead as suggestions and starting points, perhaps they will be useful to you as you make meals for your loved ones.  I’ll also be sharing with you ideas that have worked for us to simplify the organizational part of cooking for a family.
So watch for the new post label, “What’s cookin’ good-lookin’?” (Let's start from a place of confidence, ladies!  You're beautiful, and so is your food!)