Thursday, March 4, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #6 - Construction Site Cake


Cakes have several things going for them at the moment.

  1. It's been a deep winter, cold, wet, and gray. We were buried in snow here, and even Texas had frozen over. Who doesn't feel like eating sugar and fat? (New Year's resolutions, shmoo schmear shmezoshmooshuns.)

  2. My coworkers had a secret-Santa gift exchange. My secret Santa sent me some great cake-decorating tools and an idea book. I've had cakes on my mind.

  3. A daily Pinterest notification reminds me of this cool construction site cake I made for a nephew's third birthday. (It must be my most photogenic cake, despite being served on a baking sheet.)

So, let's talk about it.

It's chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, all the better to represent the earth beneath our feet. A little extra cake baked in a bread pan made a partial tier on one end for a three-dimensional, excavation look. 

The edible decorations are candy: Whoppers as boulders and various Hershey minis for a brick or cinder-block wall. Crushed Oreos are the loose soil. I repeated my grass tufts from the Cars-inspired cakes, again using Wilton tip #233 and a little chocolate icing dropped into the piping bag with the green for the occasional streak of multicolor multidimension.

My sister-in-law found the fun orange traffic-cone candles. And, I did indeed use the toy bulldozer to bulldoze the "3" into the layer of Oreo dirt to reveal the chocolate icing mud beneath it.

Using toys as cake decorations always makes me think of a dinosaur cake I saw in the grocery store bakery, oh, ages ago, back when I wanted such a dinosaur cake for my birthday. (Let's be honest, I still think dinosaurs are pretty cool.) I remember it was a sheet cake with a small volcano (maybe made of cake and frosting, maybe made of plastic) and a river painted onto the frosting in deft shades and swirls to look like it was flowing. There were small plastic dinosaurs and plastic palm trees to complete the scene. It's been a long time since I've seen a cake in that style in a bakery case. 

Part of me wants to place nothing on a cake that isn't edible. Another part of me remembers that old dinosaur cake and realizes how fun (and handy) it can be to use toys as decorations. 

I never had that dinosaur cake for my birthday. This is not a lament. I had many awesome homemade birthday cakes as a kid -- one shaped like a flying saucer, a giant Rice Krispies treat in the shape of a jack'o'lantern, a stacked brownie-strawberry-and-whipped-cream thing. More than once I asked for apple pie as my birthday "cake" because I loved my mom's apple pies. But, the grocery store dino cake has stuck with me for some reason. It was one of those imprints that just never leaves your brain.

I wonder if any of the cakes I've made for my niblings will be among their Polaroids of life left out on top their mind-desk, easily rediscovered with a random sifting of the surface, or if they will blur into a kaleidoscope of birthday extravagance, where everything is so big and amazing that no one thing can stand out. Maybe they'll remember instead a super-delicious but plain-looking cake on a random Sunday afternoon, or a cake that toppled when the dog tore through the kitchen (it'll happen), or some other cake in a bakery window that they saw but never had.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Spring is coming


Remember in the late fall, those first mornings of light frost on the ground? It feels chill-you-to-the-bone cold and wet outside. Time to line the windows with plastic wrap and hunker down for the season. Sorry, dog, just a short walkies today. Your face stings in the northerly wind. Your bare hands take turns holding the leash, one in a jacket pocket while the other one turns red from exposure to the icy air, then switch.

And now, in this last week of February, after an epoch of single digits on the thermometer out back (and some double digits, but all negative) and never-ending snow, the temperature cracks 30 and even creeps above freezing. The sun is out. Oh, glory! Spring is coming! You strip off the wool mittens, unveil your face from behind the Tom Baker scarf, and let your bare skin breathe in the refreshing air. The dog gets a full four blocks today. Steady on the ice patch of a sidewalk. Never mind that four months ago a day 20 degrees warmer felt like certain frostbite.

So it goes every year, I think. You face November's dropping temperatures with dread. Maybe you have holidays to brighten things up, but they'll only carry you so far past the winter solstice, i.e. early winter. Most of the season still lies ahead. The sun disappears forever, temperatures continue falling, your living room couch becomes a hoard of fleece blankets, and you know that old groundhog is going to see his shadow like he always does. And then one day, it's five o'clock and you notice sunlight still lingering on the horizon. Today, it might be 20 degrees colder than that first bitter wind promising winter was coming, but it is also 40 degrees warmer than it was two weeks ago. Sweet joy.

At this point, green thumbs start to itch, and the snow can't melt fast enough. There will still be temperature ups and downs. The weather will oscillate between hints of spring and reminders that it's still winter, getting our hopes up, and then trying our patience. 

I'll try to moderate my springtime dreaming, try to keep it real. Here are a few seedlings of hope in my head right now:

  • New trees! Apple and cherry, scheduled to arrive in early April. We're literally putting down roots at our new home -- and attempting to espalier. Expect future posts on this topic.
  • A more purposeful herb garden. I have some perennials (sage, oregano) in a bed out front, but I have my eye on a sunnier space along the fence in back, near the rain barrels. It will be a lush mix of more perennials (thyme, rosemary, parsley) and some annuals (cilantro, basil, chamomile) -- with cutesy identification markers.
  • The Big Restoration of Our Windows and Doors. You're right, this is not very moderate. It's huge. But there it is. Hopefully, future posts on this as well.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Autumn in February - Pork Chops, Brussels Sprouts and Apples


Sheet pan suppers have been a thing for a while now. Let's make one.

First, a caution. Don't mistake the one-pan bake for an indicator of one-dish meal preparation. For some recipes, all the ingredients can conveniently be seasoned, oiled, and tossed together directly on the baking sheet. Many other recipes have you mixing ingredients in separate bowls with seasonings and sauces before they ever hit the baking sheet. And, if your meat and veggies get too crowded, you know what you have to do. Use a second baking sheet. Still, sheet pan suppers have allure, and here's the one I recently made.

Sheet Pan Roasted Pork Chops, Brussels Sprouts, and Apples

There are zillions (I counted) of similar recipes out there. Here's the one I used as my starting point. 

  • 2 Tbsps vegetable or olive oil, divided
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup whole grain mustard
  • bone-in pork chops (I made 3)
  • 1/2 tsp salt, divided
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, divided
  • 1 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped (or 1 tsp dried sage)
  • 1 lb brussels sprouts
  • 2 sweet apples
  • 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 375°F. If you want slightly easier clean-up, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, but it's not required. No need to oil the pan or use cooking spray, because your dinner ingredients will all be tossed with oil.

In a large shallow dish, combine 1 tablespoon oil, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and mustard. Mix well. Season the pork chops with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and sage. Add the pork chops to the mustard mixture, dipping and flipping to coat them well on both sides. Set aside to marinate while you deal with the other ingredients.

Trim the ends off the brussels sprouts and cut the sprouts in half. Combine these in a large bowl with the balsamic vinegar and remaining oil, salt, and pepper. Toss well to combine.* Scatter the brussels sprouts on the baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. (See my realization below -- you may wish to mix the apples in with the brussels sprouts at this time, depending on your tastes.) 

Meanwhile, core and chop the apples. Toss them around in the same bowl the brussels sprouts had been in, just to scrape up the remains of the oil, salt, and pepper. When the first 10 minutes are up, add the apples to the baking sheet and mix into the partially cooked brussels sprouts. Push them all to the edges so you can place the pork chops at the center of the pan.

*I got as far as putting everything on the pan before I realized I like my brussels sprouts closer to well done. Nice and tender, with crunchy brown outer edges. Dozens of previous sprout-roasting experiences told me just 20 or so minutes at 375 wouldn't do it. 

So, I removed the chops and apples and gave the brussels sprouts a 10-minute head start in the oven. Then, I dumped the chopped apple onto the sheet pan, mixed it with the sprouts and scooted it all toward the edges of the pan to make room in the center for the pork chops. OK. Back to the instructions.

Roast everything in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes until pork is cooked through. 

If you need a little something extra with this meal, 10 minutes before time's up, throw a bag of ready-to-bake garlic knots in the oven. 



Thursday, February 11, 2021

All the work nobody sees

Think about all the things that just are. The things you don't think about until they're broken.

You open a tap, clean water comes out. You plug in your laptop, it charges. You store food in your pantry, it sits there. Until... it doesn't.

Proofreading the house
I'm thinking of the trivia of home ownership, but I've complained about the similar catch-22 in being a proofreader: When someone reads your perfectly clean copy, they fly through it, never stopping to praise such excellent editing. They find one single typo, however, and it's a huge distraction, tarnishing their perception of the perhaps-talented but imperfect proofreader who missed it.

So goes maintaining a property, where so much of the time and work and money are spent on things behind the walls, never seen or cared about by anyone but you. Suddenly, a 99% that was so impressive as a midterm exam score is now a bothersome disappointment when a living room window only closes 99% of the way in the dead of winter.

Of course, some home improvements are quite visible. There are fun projects you get to show off to your friends -- What bold paint in here! Did you lay that tile yourself? How do you grow such beautiful roses? Regular old maintenance projects just to keep the place looking nice are visible as well. They're the "proofreading" of home maintenance. These are the things that are generally unremarkable when in good order but become a noticeable nuisance if you don't take care of them -- mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, vacuuming up pet hair, cleaning up after yourself in general.

But, the realm of projects unseen is vast. Many are just embarrassing little inconveniences you want to fix so you can comfortably host guests, but you wouldn't necessarily show off these upgrades -- fixing a toilet that doesn't flush well, patching pieces of roof that are falling off, replacing a broken window, cleaning up after a mouse sighting. Others -- the most expensive, it seems to me! -- are projects that no one but you will ever know about unless you tell them, and they're not exciting enough to tell. You, yourself, might not even give them much thought until something goes disastrously wrong.

Take, for instance, the basement flooding. You'll mop it up, and then you'll get a guy to clean the tree roots out of the sewer line and inspect it with his camera snake thingy and discover a section of clay pipe that ought to be replaced. More guys come and dig a ginormous hole in your yard and, when they're done laying the new pipe, they fill the hole back in, somehow with mostly random gravel on top, which you'll painstakingly pick out of your yard in your efforts to try and grow grass there again. What are you going to do, take someone on a tour of your basement and say, "Ta-da! How 'bout that dry floor? No drain back-ups for six months now."

"Didn't she do a great job?"
When we were negotiating the purchase of our new old house, the buyer's agent admired her fellow realtor's (the seller) renovation work, gushing often, "Didn't she do a great job?" OK, when you just look at the place, it's easy to be taken in by the updates. Trendy gray walls with white trim. Shiny, refinished original hardwood floors. Brand new granite countertops against a classy subway tile backsplash. She did a great job revealing the house's charm. She did not, however, do a great job on all the actual work.

Example 1: Paint was hurriedly sloshed on every surface without proper preparation. Up close, the peeling chips of the old paint are visible under the new paint on the wooden siding. From the street, it looks fine. Opening windows for the first time required some chiseling with a putty knife. What's noticeable are random bare strips of wood where the thick new paint moved with the window rather than staying put on the frame. Above each ceiling-mounted light fixture, there is an unpainted patch of ceiling, noticeable only in daylight.

Example 2: Also hurried and therefore not well-executed was the bookend to good preparation, properly finishing the projects. The new tile floor in the kitchen, the countertops, and the grout between the subway tiles had never been sealed (i.e., not prepared for actual daily use). So we did that. We finished up that kitchen. Can anyone tell by looking at it? No.

Example 3: There had been squirrels living in the attic. She had her guy drive them out and seal up the holes. Kinda. The squirrels got back in! We hired roofers to come out and replace the chewed-out trim for real. Can you tell? No, not from the ground, and certainly not unless you have a vivid memory of the holes in the old trim.

I could go on. 

In review
Instead, just for fun, I made a chart of some of the work we've done our first year in this old house, a lot of it completed in the first 90 days. I've categorized it into the showcase-able stuff, the invisible but important, and the in-between things that are generally unnoticed except as a day-to-day nuisance or that otherwise negatively affect the aesthetics and comfort of the home. Asterisks indicate work we did ourselves... and by "we," I mean mostly Len.

“Ooh, ahh!”

Invisible, important

Upkeep, improvement

Keys for old-fashioned locks

Expand patio with found bricks/stones*

Stain the fence*

Plant trees*

Build secret door bookcase*

Game room in basement: build mini-golf green, partially restore foosball table*

Frosted glass treatment on front door*

Build porch rocking chairs*

Restore interior of built-in cabinets*

Build shelving in under-stairs storage

Install wash basin in laundry room*

Restyle various furniture pieces to suit house, fit space*

Free or low-cost “new” furnishings*


New lock sets

Add support beams in garage*

Repair water heater vent hood

Repair furnace gas line

Reroute and add electric to garage

New roof trim around dormer

Two rounds of electrical upgrades

Seal crack in foundation wall

New spigot outside*

Massive attic cleanout*

New sewer line

Test tap water for lead

Restore doorbell*

Clean out under front & back porches*

Build insulation cover for whole-house fan*

Caulk exterior holes left by old cable*

Repair section of gutter screen*

Seal all tilework in kitchen*

Seal granite countertops*

Level furnace condensation line*

Multiple plumbing repairs in upstairs bathroom*

Fix gaps in basement HVAC

Have ducts cleaned

Eradicate mice and seal entry points*


Remove old satellite dish*

Prune dead tree branches*

Fix fence position

New washing machine*

Install rain barrels*

Run new internet line

Remove old cables*

Replace glass in broken window*

Install garbage disposal*

Install ceiling fans*

Clean out gutters*

Plant grass, kill weeds*

Install work-light in basement*

Restore proper function of bathroom vent fan*

Minor (in size, not in cost...) asbestos removal

Repair/replace ductwork post-asbestos removal*

Attempt to better align/fit exterior doors*

Weather stripping on doors*

Add insulation to attic*



Thursday, February 4, 2021

Scrape together the scraps for something practically delicious


While we're on the subject of reducing food waste, this article coincidentally appeared in last Wednesday's Tribune: "Waste Not: How to save money (and the planet) by putting those kitchen scraps to use."

I enjoy James P. DeWan's "Prep School" column. He reassures those of us cooking by the seat of our pants that culinary improvisation can be successful with the right foundational know-how, whether in the form of tools or techniques. He tells us why we need to learn these things. And, he's my kind of funny. 

I think my mom would have liked reading him, too. His introducing possibility after possibility -- "Or, you can do this. Or that. Or this other thing. Or even...!" -- reminds me of her creative idea-forthings.

This latest article (that I've read, not necessarily the latest he's written), speaks to my soul. It also goes hand in hand with a Netflix show I just polished off, "Best Leftovers Ever!", in which people are doing exactly what DeWan suggests: Following the method of a recipe, but swapping out the prescribed ingredients for the leftovers at hand. 

While I found "Best Leftovers Ever!" entertaining (more cornball humor!), educational (practical tips for reheating rice),  and even inspirational to be more creative with how I use leftovers, I doubt I'll find myself pulling out individual carrot chunks from a chicken pot pie or rinsing sauce off of noodles as I try to repurpose old takeout into an elegant brunch. Some of the endeavors to create something new resulted in their own unnecessary waste.

Also, in the show, competitors' dishes are judged not just on flavor and texture but on their presentation. I'm not sure DeWan cares whether something is Instagram-worthy so much as whether it's delicious -- and, in this instance, useful. 

DeWan's column offers a more practical approach to using certain kinds of leftovers and doesn't challenge you to do in just 30 minutes. I recommend you read it, but here are a few highlights:

"One way to reduce waste is simply to use up all those things that are languishing on our Frigidaire's death row." 

"Cauliflower and cholesterol soup."

"Every time you cook, ask yourself if something you're discarding couldn't be used for something else."



Thursday, January 28, 2021

Butternut-and-Broccoli-Leaf Lasagna


I said in my last post that one of the upsides of receiving a boxful produce in the mail is the challenge to more purposefully work fruits and veggies into your meals. It's an upside if you enjoy looking up new recipes, trying new flavor combinations, and getting creative with substitutions -- which I do.

Getting creative is another valuable tool for not wasting food. What can you make with what you already have on hand, without having to go to the store?

I already had this pumpkin lasagna in my repertoire and, it just so happens, a box of lasagna noodles in my pantry. What came in my Misfits box that is like pumpkin? Like Swiss chard?

Butternut squash and broccoli leaves weren't the only substitutions I made. We didn't have any heavy cream on hand, but I did have two-percent milk and cream cheese. Let's walk through the recipe and see how my riffs panned out. 

While sautéing the onion, I tossed in a paremsan nub. Here, I was riffing on a tip from Lydia Bastianich. On her recommendation (via one of her cookbooks), we keep a zipped baggie of cheese rinds in the fridge. 

While I wasn't making a sauce or broth, I hoped it would still add some depth of flavor. It certainly added that distinct aged-parmigiano aroma to the kitchen.

As mentioned above, instead of chard, I chopped the broccoli greens from Misfits Market and added them to the pan at the appropriate time. The parmesan rind was still in the pan with the onion, greens, and spices, toasting away.

I roasted (technically, steamed) one of my three butternut squashes in the microwave for time's sake. Looking back, I think I should have roasted two of them. The one just barely got me to three loosely filled cups of cooked squash, and, while it was enough to coat the pasta, doubling the squash would have made for thicker, more distinguishably squashy layers in the lasagna.

I let the squash cool and then just used my hands to squish it out of its skin. Where the recipe called for heavy cream, I mixed in milk for the needed liquid and about three ounces of cream cheese for the creaminess. In addition to standard grated parmesan from a plastic canister, I freshly grated what I could from that nub I'd been sautéing with the onions.

When layering everything into the baking dish, I used even more milk than the recipe called for, because the squash didn't cover the noodles like a sauce so much as dress them. I hoped the extra milk would make up for the moisture that would have come from a more uniform spread of squash and fully cook the noodles during the bake. It worked OK. The noodles are on the chewy side, and the corners are crispy, which I kind of like, but it's not the expected cooked-pasta texture.

You can see in the finished product how the lasagna noodles are quite visible beneath that top layer of squash and cheese. 

It turned out delicious. Not as gooey and thick as you'd expect of a lasagna, but that comes down to the amount of squash in the layers and the fact that it doesn't ooze with melted cheese. If you're looking for a new flavor profile in baked pasta, This combination of sweet squash and onions with savory greens and aged cheese with earthy nutmeg and sage is excellent. 

I thought my improvisation made a great side dish, and we had some tomato-basil chicken sausages in the freezer, which went well with it. With a heartier amount of squash -- as I've had when using canned pumpkin and following the original recipe -- it would have worked as an entrée.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Reducing waste and trying new things


Fun delivery this week!

2 cucumbers, 6 pears, 2 rutabagas, 1 large turnip, 1 tiny turnip (hidden behind the big one), 2 mangoes, a ton of ginger, 2 big bunches of cilantro, 7 limes, 4 Anaheim peppers, 6 kiwis, 3 buttnernut squashes, 2 bunches of broccoli greens, 4 small sweet potatoes

One of the Christmas gifts we received this year was a gift card to Misfits Market. If you haven't heard of them, their taglines sum it up like this:

    Always affordable, occasionally funny-looking. 
    Always delicious, sometimes normal.

They're describing the organic fruits and vegetables they sell in subscription boxes. It's much like a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box you'd get from a local farm, but the produce is not all local. Gasp! 

Yes, I'd argue the extra shipping is the downside. The produce first came from somewhere and arrived at wherever else before it then traveled again to my house. It has a variable carbon footprint that cannot compete with the farmers market. But, a lot of people are having groceries shipped to their houses these days. You think that case of soda wasn't on three or four different trucks criss-crossing the country before arriving at your doorstep? 

OK. So, if you're having groceries delivered anyway, there are a couple of distinct upsides to a service like Misfits.

  1. The main upside is Misfits Market's main mission -- reducing food waste. These fruits and veggies are called misfits because they're the perfectly good ones that just don't look perfect. They would normally be thrown out just because they don't fit some shape and/or size norm for general grocery display. You're saving good, valuable food from the garbage.
  2. It's certified organic produce at -- I think -- not-necessarily-organic prices. I got their "Madness" box, which they say is a week's worth of produce for 3-5 people. It's 14 types of produce (I actually received 13 in this box), with 2-4 portions per type (not sure if "portions" and "servings" are the same thing, as I received more squash and way more ginger than I expected). With shipping and tax, it cost $41 and some change. I'm just eyeballing here (I didn't think of weighing everything until it was all already separated and put away), but that seems like a reasonable spend for that much produce. 
  3. I'm also pleased that the packaging was primarily all brown paper product -- recyled and recyclable.
The other upsides are not unique to Misfits. It's conveniently delivered. There's an element of surprise. You get to try a variety of foods. It challenges you to more purposefully work fruits and vegetables into your weekly menu. It's fun to get a big box of fruits and vegetables in the mail.

I almost ended this post here, feeling the importance of reducing food waste goes without saying. Then, I thought it about. And thought about it some more. And, I thought, someone may very well read my saying the main upside is reducing food waste, and react with a big, fat—
So, what?

So, according to the USDA, our nation's "food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply." What!?

There's food lost at every link in the food supply chain, whether crops are damaged by insects out in the field or yogurt expires in the back of your fridge. Besides spoilage, market demand is another reason usable food becomes uselessly trashed. Remember the stories in early 2020 about dairy farmers having to dump milk because they couldn't sell it? How about when there's a report of contaminated lettuce? Suddenly, no wants any salad for awhile.

Consumer expectations practically demand waste. If your grocer's produce section isn't burgeoning with gleaming fruits and vegetables, you perceive some lack in quality. Guess what? No one will actually buy all those apples on the bottom of the pile, because they'll have bruised under the weight of their picture-perfect buddies on top. However, I've noticed more grocery displays that are just a single layer of fruit on a slanted or tiered surface to evoke that image of a mountain of food without actually burying any of the product. It's a good trick.

The store will also have received only produce of perfect shape, size, color, because that's what you want to see. Not all of the "irregular" fruits and vegetables are just thrown away. Many of them are made into something else -- chopped and frozen, dehydrated for a soup mix, made into dog food, or cooked into a prepared dish that's sold ready-to-eat (but a lot of that deli potato salad gets tossed, unpurchased and uneaten, at the end of the day, too). This is where services like Misfits Market come in. They're taking the cosmetically imperfect -- but otherwise perfectly safe and delicious -- products and finding a good home (ideally, your stomach) for them. 

As individual consumers, we know we can plan our grocery lists more effectively and actually eat all of our leftovers to help minimize food waste at our end of the chain. But, there's a much bigger picture. I'll leave you with a few resources -- not just on how food is wasted, but what we as an entire population can do about it:

A 2012 report (dated, but thorough and still relevant!) from the Natural Resources Defense Council.