Like I said a couple weeks ago, I think it’s high time we all put a few new zingers into our bags of culinary tricks. Let’s delve further into making 2015 the year we discover the inner Heloise in all of us, with a few more a-ha! moments this week.
In my childhood, my mom was The Queen of Garage Sales. For a certain number of years, I spent many a summer afternoon “going sale-ing” (get it?), treasure hunting in the more affluent Chicago suburbs. Sometimes we’d go with friends, making a day of it, a bunch of kids crammed into a van, driving to the North Shore, as our mothers drank Tab and gossiped and squealed and high fived over their finds. Other times it was just my mom and sister and I, and I’d bring a handful of small change and singles hoarded from found stray money around the house and playing mother’s helper for the family across the street for three dollars an hour–just in case I found something that I thought was interesting, then I wouldn’t have to beg for it.
In case you’re wondering how weird of a little kid I was, one of my favorite finds was an old Heloise Hints paperback, thin and worn with a yellowed, curled cover, for a mere ten cents. But I found the contents absolutely fascinating–basically a MacGyvering guide for the modern housewife (or enterprising 10-year-old girl, as the case was). I skimmed the bullet points daily, and spent the rest of the summer dropping knowledge wherever I could, telling my Gramma to boil a cup of vinegar on the stove after she stunk up the place making corned beef and cabbage, and advising mothers of friends to light a birthday cake’s candles with a long piece of dried spaghetti at parties. I’m sure this wasn’t annoying at all.
My love of “why didn’t I think of that?” tips continues to this day. Anything that makes life in the kitchen a little snappier and re-purposes what’s already around gets bonus points, in my book. In fact, I’ve bookmarked some for years. And then I thought, why am I not spreading this goodness? So now I’ll be doing just that occasionally from here on out. Here’s a round-up of some of my favorite culinary tricks.
How terrifically FUN is summer vacation, darling readers?! No school, so much free time! Throwing routine and schedules to the wind until they flit about like snow! Hooray!
Now let me ask the parents of small children the same question.
(GOOD LORD, HOW IS IT ONLY MID-JULY?)
Sound familiar? I feel you. After surviving Kindergarten, this summer marks the beginning of having Little C on a Real School schedule, meaning she is out until the third week of August (the baby, however, is now 16 months and interested in equal parts cuddling and destruction). We’ve been hanging in there so far–there have been days that my girl has done various activities and day camps, but there are still plenty of hours spent here at home in the Fog Known As San Francisco Summer.
Given the free time and the weather, baking together is on the agenda. And really, seeing as we’ll be careening towards fall and the holidays before we know it, my baking-with-my-wombfruit moments are likely to accumulate. And I don’t think I’m the only one, because I’ve gotten a few tweets and e-mails lately asking if I have any tips for baking with kids. So in the spirit of keeping everyone entertained, satisfying our sweet teeth, and doing that oh-so-noble task of getting our kids involved in the kitchen, here are a few of my favorite tips for baking with small people, particularly if you typically enjoy keeping culinary chaos to a minimum (that would be me here, raising my hand).
So here we are, careening towards the holidays. Please stop the train, I need to get off.
Fortunately, there is something to look forward to in all this calendar-flipping madness. The good part is that the best of high baking season is coming up soon! Let’s make it great this year, friends. Let’s break out our best tried-and-true recipes and magazine clippings that we shoved away and haven’t gotten to yet. Stock up on flours and sugars and pounds of butter. Finally buy a dang candy thermometer and get to some old-fashioned confectionery magic (you can do it!!). Wrestle the baking sheets out from under the everyday pots and pans and fire up the oven. And hey, even let your kids get into the fray! (I’m speaking for my Type A self here–it’s not my favorite thing to bake with little ones underfoot and under armpit; there I said it.)
But here’s a top tip that I think has changed my baking for the better: Reach for the bittersweet chocolate this year, even if your recipe calls for semi-sweet or milk. I’m talking at least 60 to 70% cacao, nice and dark. Because nothing balances out a sea of sweet quite like it. In the same way that a good hit of salt or acid (like lemon juice or buttermilk) makes sweet things all the more craveworthy, a slight bitter edge can also add the kind of balance that makes you unable to resist taking just one. More. Bite. Tastebud trickery! Plus, if you really love chocolate, bittersweet is just that much more chocolaty, because it’s got more cacao power AND it has less fat and sugar, both of which can coat and confuse the tongue and keep you from getting the ultimate chocolate experience.
Picasso had his blue period, Hugh Hefner had his blonde period. I am currently in my dark muscovado sugar period.
That sentence made a lot more sense in my head before I typed it.
At any rate, I’ve been playing with this heady, dark, mysterious sugar a whole lot over the past few months, and I’m smitten, friends. In my last Baking Booster post, I waxed all fangirl about dark brown sugar, and can’t nobody take those feelings away. But! When I want Real Big Dark Brown Sugar Flavor, all smoke and molasses and sticky sweetness, I reach for dark muscovado, and since we’re heading into serious baking season and lots of sweets with big bold flavors like gingerbread and pumpkin pie and decadent dark chocolate somethings, I’ve got to urge you–nay, implore you–to find some and give it a shot. It’s basically dark brown sugar on steroids! Magical. Let’s talk about it.
Over the next couple of weeks as we head into High Baking Season, I’m giving shout outs to my go-to ingredients that instantly transform standard baking recipes into something infinitely more crave-worthy. It’s not necessarily about spending more on exotic items (although Ina is right–sometimes the “good” vanilla really does make a difference!), it’s about easy swaps that you might already have in your pantry, or simply handling ingredients in a different way to get the best out of them, leaving you with baked goods that will blow minds and take names. As the old saying goes, “Bake smarter, not harder”…or something like that.
To kick off this series of Baking Boosters, I can think of no better, easier baking ingredient upgrade than switching to dark brown sugar. Any recipe that calls for light brown sugar will be 50 times more flavorful (roughly–what do you think I am, a flavor scientist?) by simply swapping out light brown sugar for dark, and it won’t cost you a penny more at the supermarket. These days, I typically only keep dark brown sugar in my pantry, and have raaarely run into a situation where light brown sugar would have been a better fit.
Or a “For the New Mom Gift Guide”.
Or the “I’m a New Mom and Desperately Need to Treat Mah Self as to Not Feel 90 Years Old All the Time” List.
The point is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the little things that have made life with a new baby a little brighter, and thought maybe we could talk about those things. Because Lord knows I’d love a break from talking about how my baby never, ever wants to sleep for more than a couple hours at time. Like, EVER. So whether you are a Mom type yourself, or you are looking to get something off the beaten registry path for a friend who is about to, or in the midst of, having life ruled by a tiny high-maintenance person, consider the following:
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