I am out of breath after a long exciting weekend and a Monday in which Henry and George and I (some of us more graciously than others) played host to a big happy group of other unschoolers in Austin. There’s a little unschoolers meetup every Monday, held at a member’s house or at a park or something. This week it was our turn to host, so I cleared the clutter off the counter top, put three kinds of muffins on the table (I am trying to develop a reputation as the crazy muffin lady), and put paints and all our best toys outside to encourage the kids to spend time out there. I love this group of people. The kids are funny and inventive, and quick to forgive when one of mine throws a ball at their head. The parents are smart, and easy going. Also quick to forgive when the same one of mine brandishes a shovel in their kid’s face, or ties them (the adult, I mean) up with a jump rope. All things that happened today. My favorite part was when Henry and I were talking to a couple of boys about the experiments they like to do, which launched us into an hour-long exploration of what kinds of gross shit we could make with a sack of flour, a ton of water, the last of our food coloring, and every glass we own. It was a delightful mess. We put stuff in the blender and drank it, we sloshed and studied and laughed. It was pure joy.
The weekend was action-packed too. It was the Texas Book Festival- an event I love, though I tend to ignore all the works of literature and instead spend the whole day in the cookbook tent. I go every year, and always hang out with some of my favorite girlfriends there, but this year was extra-special because three of the amazing women of Food52 were there to promote their books (Vegan, Baking, and Genius Recipes), along with the beloved Cathy Barrow, who wrote Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, which I love so much. Thanks to my friend Abbie’s generosity and gift for bringing people together, I got to spend large chunks of the weekend basking in the presence of these incredible people, and I felt giddy the whole time. The highlight was a Saturday-evening pool party (George was the only one who swam and did so in the nude, with wild and reckless abandon) featuring Abbie’s pitch-perfect cochinita pibil tacos and flan, lots of talk about food, and me only putting my foot in my mouth once (when I talked about being so over weddings in front of two women who are young and have boyfriends and might even have been engaged. Why did I say that? I should love weddings! My whole thing is about celebrating people and coming together to honor each other and eat food together! I think maybe it’s the act of going to a wedding with Henry and George that I’m so over, because that genuinely does suck. But I didn’t say that. I just said I was sick of weddings. I’ve spent too much time thinking about that and wishing I hadn’t said it, can you tell?). It was a great weekend, a great Monday, and all of it exhausting. Here’s what we ate this week!
Burrito Bar: Refried Beans, Mexican Rice, Sungold Tomato Salsa, Guacamole, Cheese, Sour Cream, Homemade Tortillas. My beautiful sister Helen, who is wickedly funny, wildly creative, clever, compassionate, and one of the true joys of my life, turned 30 last Monday. I love her to the moon and back and chose to celebrate that love in the traditional way, with a burrito bar. We gathered around the table and told her what we loved about her and what we wished for her in the coming year and ate ourselves silly with too many burritos.
Pound Cake. A few weeks earlier, Helen had spent a good deal of time texting me about pound cakes. She had never had one! I thought that was perfect, because I had just read about one in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter that sounded like a home run. The author describes the “sweet, crackly crust” and an interior “flaxen from the butter and eggs and generously freckled and perfumed with nutmeg.” Sign me. The fuck. Up.
The top crust separated from the rest of the cake and rose above the rim of the loaf pan and stayed there, which meant that it totally shattered when I unmolded the cake. No matter though- this cake is just as advertised. It’s a rich, buttery beauty with enough nutmeg to make you feel that it is meant to be served at Christmastime. I ate two slices (after all the burritos, mind you) and wished that I hadn’t. So good, though. So good.
Carrot Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting. For Helen’s birthday lunch we went out to the Midway Food Park. This place has everything going for it. It’s close, it’s got a ring of fun food trucks surrounding seating under big, shady oak trees, and an awesome playground to boot. But the last couple of times we’ve gone have been on Mondays at lunch when only a truck or two is open, and my contrary children have firmly rejected the notion of setting foot on the playground. Why? Why? Henry tugs at my shirt and begs me to stop talking to my friends when he could instead be dangling upside-down from a geodesic dome! What a choice! I always have to give him my phone and watch in horror as he uses all the special items I have been hoarding in Candy Crush to buy me more time to sit at a table and chat. Anyway, on this particular day, the only available choices for lunch were the lobster roll truck and a taco truck. Henry didn’t want a taco, so I spent 10 bucks on a half-lobster roll for him. He took one bite and put it back. I asked him if he liked it and he said that he didn’t much care for it because the lobster tasted “too gross.” I tasted it and sort of agreed. I don’t get lobster. I ate tater tots and several of these cupcakes. I make the recipe as written, except that I replace all the healthy ingredients with unhealthy ones (no whole wheat flour! no olive oil! the bad flour and the bad oil instead) and it makes a primo carrot cake that is lighter than the norm and has a ridiculously good crispy top. Coupled with cream cheese icing, this is an unstoppable cupcake.
Focaccia with Roasted Vegetables and Purple Basil Pesto. I hope you like the look of this focaccia because it was a part of two other dinners this week. I’ve written about it before, but I just love this recipe. It takes three days but makes a bread that is better than any focaccia you can buy around here. The leftovers should be frozen, not stored at room temperature, because it gets stale really quickly.
Old-School Baked Ziti. I published this post and then scrolled through and saw that I didn’t write anything about this, so I’m back to remedy my bleary-eyed oversight, but with no stamina or wit left to make it interesting. Instead I’ll say that this was easy and fantastically delicious. It’s probably hard to have a bad version of cheese + meat sauce + noodles, but this is a near-perfect one.
Blueberry-Lemon Bread Pudding Muffins with Crumb Topping and Lemon Glaze. Based on the title alone, I was prepared to hate this recipe. Then I saw it was a Bobby Flay recipe, and even worse, from an episode with the unfortunate title of B-ready for Brunch and I doubled down on my initial impression. This is too many things in a muffin, I thought. How can you put a crumb topping on top of bread pudding? How can you then put a sugar glaze on top of that?? It’s America, in muffin form. But I said I would try them and so I did. The ingredients cost double or triple that of the other muffins I’ve made recently, and the workload was double or triple too. And then I took a bite. Warm, rich, eggy bread pudding, with generous pops of tart blueberries, a crumb topping that tastes like rich shortbread and a lemon glaze that gives you an additional hint of acid- this muffin is exquisite. A showstopper. I immediately ate a second one. I am sorry I ever doubted this muffin- it is lovely and perfect. More work, yes, but a greater reward too. Make them when you want to really impress your friends. They’re unbelievable served warm, but still delicious when cold (I froze some and they thawed beautifully). Jennie- thank you for bringing this muffin into our lives! I am so sorry I ever doubted you!
Burgers on Focaccia. I had three roughed-up, dried-out pepperidge farm hamburger buns in the freezer and so gave Andy and the boys the choice of having their burgers on my homemade focaccia or on the crappy store-bought buns. No prizes for guessing what they went for. I really enjoyed the burger on the focaccia though.
This was our after-parkour class dinner, so it’s time for a nemesis report. She wasn’t there. Henry had a really hard time being gentle with the other kids though, and I talked to him about how it’s important to give other people space and to wait his turn. I asked him why he was having a hard time with this and he helpfully explained to me that “all little kids just want to hurt each other.” If my own children’s actions are any indication, his assessment is right on the money.
White Bean Stew, with Still More Focaccia. You guys, what am I going to do when daylight saving time ends? All my pictures are going to look like this one. Washed out and sad under the crappy, dead bug-filled kitchen light. The sadness of this picture is an appropriate representation of a rough day. George woke up furious about something, we know not what. Straight out of bed he insisted that Andy put on his flip flops, which he wears more as a costume piece than as actual footwear, and which have little straps on the back to keep them in place. He was screaming demands the whole time and somehow slipped into a hysterical-upset because one of the straps had slipped off his ankle. Andy and I both tried to fix it, but George didn’t want us to. He just wanted to scream “LOOK AT MY OTHER SANDAL, EVERYONE” over and over through so many tears. Poor Henry burst into tears too and Andy had to leave for work with everyone yelling and crying and sad. We put our pieces back together and left to meet Helen and Phinnie at the library for story time, something Henry had absolutely despised in the past, but acquiesced to try again for George’s sake, who had never been. The librarian had prepared a bilingual program about underpants and the kids were both delighted. She read great stories and then the kids got to design their own paper underpants and it was so much fun. When the program was over we went across the hall to the main building to check out books and to play with the library’s collection of magnatiles. Henry made a beautiful magnatile car, but it eventually collapsed under its own weight which devastated him and brought on a meltdown of epic proportions. It took time, but we all recovered from that setback too, and went on to have a good time at the playground and a fun lunch at Helen’s house. But then George fell asleep on the way home and slept forever, which meant I was late starting these beans for dinner, and then, in spite of soaking for over 18 hours they took two hours to cook so we ate well past dark and everything is so hard. The kids both loved this though, so that was a nice thing.
Vegetarian King Ranch Casserole. I had to make something out of beans leftover from Helen’s burrito bar dinner, a half bag of frozen corn, and the broken shards at the bottom of two bags of tortilla chips. King ranch casserole, y’all. I used bean water instead of stock, frozen hatch chiles instead of poblano, a layer of beans, and a layer of corn instead of the chicken. It was not as good as the real thing but pretty good for something made out of a ton of odds and ends.
Sugar Cookie Pizza. Henry and I spent the whole morning playing restaurant. He drew up some menus, with items including a wild blueberry salad, a fruit risotto for dessert, and a fruit pizza. Lots of fruit. It made me want to make a real fruit dessert pizza, so we did. Baking with kids is an exercise in patience and mindfulness for me. It is mostly not at all fun. I like to do things my way. It physically hurt me to watch Henry try to spread cream cheese frosting (leftover from Helen’s cupcakes!) on the cookie. I was so happy when he asked me to do it. This process repeated exactly with the raspberry jam. And the decorating! That’s not how I wanted to decorate the cookie pizza! I know, I can hear myself. Who cares how your kid decorates a cookie pizza, you nutbag! Well, I do. I wish I didn’t but I really do. I try not to let it show, but I’ve got just about the worst poker face so he’s going to catch on one of these days. Oh me.
Pecan Pralines. There was a hunk of the very last praline sitting on the counter next to me when I sat down to write this post. I think Henry was the one who chewed on it and left it there, but it could have been anyone really, as I served the leftovers at our unschooler gathering today. I ate a few bites off of it anyway. I keep picking up the small nub that remains and absent-mindedly bringing it to my mouth, but then my brain kicks in and I put it back down again. They are just too sweet for one to want to finish eating the whole thing.
I made them to bring to Abbie’s Book Festival party, because she was making tex-mex-y stuff, and was making flan for dessert but thought we could do with another sweet thing. If you’re not getting flan in a tex-mex restaurant, you’re going to get sopapillas. And if you’re not getting sopapillas, you’ll pick up a plastic-wrapped praline from a wicker bowl next to the cash register. Since, unlike the sopapillas, you can make pralines in advance, I decided I’d bring them to the party. They were easy, but they took forever to set up. The recipe says to let them sit for 20 minutes and then move them to an airtight container, but mine were still sort of translucent and sticky an hour and a half later. I was sure they were ruined. I moved them anyway, and stored them between layers of parchment in a tupperware, and by morning they looked like semi-real pralines!
Praline Chocolate Cookies. Though they look like a train wreck, I’d consider these cookies to be a huge success. I chopped up about a cup’s worth of the ugliest of the pralines and tossed them into a delicious chocolate cookie batter. The praline mostly melted, but stayed intact in some places too, but every bit of it was sweet, salty, chewy, crunchy, and fun.
It’s after midnight and I’m wiped. This little praline nugget is still staring at me. I’ve gotta get up and throw it away before I accidentally eat it. Until next week, dear readers!