Law & Order: Pregnancy Brain Unit

Well then. Now that a certain almost-one-year-old is walking, I thought I’d share another story from my pregnancy.

Whether or not pregnancy brain does exist is an argument people have been having for years. But the week I lost both my wallet (on the T, no less) and my keys, I started to become a believer. First, I should say that my wallet was brought to a manager at the T and I was able to pick it up at the end of the line. And not a dime was missing; I didn’t have to replace my monthly T pass or any of my debit cards. It’s nice to know you can still count on the kindness of strangers.

And the keys? Well, the keys were a different story. I was picking up some groceries at the local market one Sunday afternoon last fall. I usually use the self-checkout, but that day I went to a cashier aisle. I unloaded my cart, handed her my key ring with the savings card looped through it, and turned to let the bag boy know that I’d brought my own bags. I turned back around, paid my bill and walked to the car.

When I got to the car I realized the cashier hadn’t given me back my keys. I went back in and walked right up to the register. “No,” she said, “I gave you back your keys.” I honestly couldn’t remember if she had, and since I’d lost my wallet less than a week earlier, I took her at her word. But the thing is, I really didn’t remember her handing them back to me. The cashier then very dramatically passed keys back to her current customer. I knew we did not have that interaction.

slurp slurp

I went back to the car. I dug through my bag. Nothing. I went back inside. “Could you please just check around your register? I know I might have pregnancy brain, but I swear you didn’t give me back my keys.” And round and round I went.  For over fifteen minutes it was in and out, in and out, searching my bag, and hounding the cashier.

Outside the supermarket was a table of Boy Scouts selling bags of popcorn as a fundraiser for their troop. And so, every time I went in and out, these two Boy Scouts, Tommy and Nicky, would introduce themselves. They were either working on their perseverance merit badge or had some sort of short-term memory problem, because Tommy and Nicky must have reintroduced themselves to me at least five times! There was a point when the mom standing with them asked them to stop pestering me.

Finally, after several rounds with the cashier, my Law & Order training kicked in. I looked down at my receipt and went to the manager who had been watching my back and forth. “My receipt is time-stamped. I know you have cameras in here. Could you please go to the video in the back room and rewind the film to this time on the receipt and see what actually happened at this register?” DUN DUN.

He took pity on me, this sweaty, out-of-breath pregnant lady, and went to the back room doors. A few minutes later he emerged. “OK,” he said to the crowd that had formed, “here’s what happened: You gave her your keys, and then you turned to talk to the bagboy. While you were turned, she put your keys down on the counter, and the person in back of you put his wallet on top of your keys. He unloaded his cart, and picked up his wallet, and unwittingly, your keys, at the same time, and pocketed them.” DUN DUN.

Thank goodness the unintentional key snatcher came back to the store within a half hour and returned my keys to the Courtesy Desk. I finally had my keys back. And, on the way out of the store for the final, final time that day, I stopped and bought a grossly marked-up, five-pound bag of popcorn kernels from Tommy and Nicky. Their mother assured me that 70% of the sale went directly to their troop, but I still felt pretty gouged by the price, which I’m not going to bother mentioning here.

buttered popcorn cookies

So long story short, I had my keys back, but I also had a very expensive, five-pound bag of popcorn. And so what does a frazzled pregnant woman do with all that popcorn? She goes to the smitten kitchen cookbook, which had just come out at the time, and I made these Buttered Popcorn Cookies. DUN DUN.

Buttered Popcorn Cookies from the smitten kitchen cookbook

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil

¼ cup (45 grams) popcorn kernels

¼ teaspoon table salt

1 Tablespoon butter, melted

½ cup (115 grams or 1 stick) butter, softened

½ cup (95 grams) packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar

1 large egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Make Popcorn: Pour the oil over the bottom of a large saucepan that has a lid and add the popcorn kernels, shimmying the pan around so the kernels land in one layer. Cover the pot, heat it over medium-high heat, once the kernels begin to pop, keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 to 7 minutes total. Toss the table salt and then the melted butter over the popcorn, then transfer it to a bowl so that you can fish out any unpopped kernels. You should have about 4 to 4½ cups of popcorn. Let cool.

2. Mix Dough: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour and baking soda together. Stir the combined dry ingredients into the butter-sugar mixture. Fold in the cooled popcorn so that it is evenly distributed through the batter, which will seem like a ridiculous instruction because there is so much popcorn and so little cookie batter, but it works. Don’t worry if the popcorn breaks up a bit. The mixed-size pieces are part of the cookie’s charm.

3. Bake cookies: Scoop heaping-teaspoon-sized mounds 2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are light brown. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up before transferring them to a rack to cool.

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A New Birthday Tradition

Lilli’s birthday is at the end of the month, but her Hebrew birthday, the 14th of the month of Shvat, is on Wednesday. It is also the day before the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, or Jewish Arbor Day. And in my kitchen, that means making dishes that celebrate the seven foods from Israel that the Bible praises: wheat, barley, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and grapes.

Lilli loves her new toy

Lilli loves her new toy

With Lilli’s birthday so close to the holiday, my goal each year is to celebrate her Hebrew birthday using at least some of these foods in a birthday dish. I found this recipe for white whole wheat fig muffins with goat cheese filling from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals a few weeks back, when I baked up a couple of artichoke-rosemary tarts with polenta crusts. Because Rich and I both have meetings after work on Wednesday, we celebrated Lilli’s birthday today with these muffins.

I ended up taking a few liberties with this recipe, and even consulted with Maria about an ingredient substitution. We met in person a few years back when her wonderful cookbook came out and she gave a lecture at Boston University. My friend Sara was my date that night, and she was definitely a little embarrassed when I used the opportunity to promote my favorite kitchen tool, the pressure cooker, as the ideal kitchen tool to cook up all those ancient grains. (My persistence has paid off, as Sara broke down a bought a pressure cooker this week. Victory!)

The main concern I had was with the two tablespoons of honey that are mixed with the goat cheese, lemon zest and vanilla. Doctors warn about not feeding honey to babies that are younger than one because of botulism fears, so I checked with my stepfather, a doctor, about feeding a 50-week-old honey. He said it was probably fine, but warned that the spores are not killed by baking. There are some moments when it is better to be safe than sorry, so honey was out of the picture. I thought of maybe using agave nectar or Golden Syrup from the United Kingdom, but Maria suggested maple syrup.

Cream cheese filling

A word about maple syrup: People will tell you how much better Grade B syrup is than Grade A, but since I buy my maple syrup at Ocean State Job Lot, I grab whatever is on the shelf. Of course, it was at this point that Sara sent me a link about how botulism is found in both maple syrup and high fructose corn syrup. But since the two things the pediatrician warned us against were honey and milk, I decided to move forward with the maple syrup.

When I went to double check to make sure I had all the ingredients in the house, I discovered that my white whole wheat flour canister had oat flour in it, so I decided to do a mixture of whole wheat and white flour. I also decided to use the leftover cream cheese from the rugelach instead of a market run for goat cheese.

Lilli and her muffin

Maria has some notes about measuring whole grain flour which I think are worth repeating, especially since I futzed with the recipe: Use a digital scale, regardless whether you use whole grain or regular flour. If you don’t yet have a scale, she suggests using the “spoon and level” method for measuring whole grains:

Unlike when you dig your cup into your flour jar, this method results in less flour in the measuring cup and thus lighter results. Here is how you do it: Fluff or stir the flour with a fork to aerate slightly. Spoon flour into your cup until it is overflowing. Do not pat down, shake, or bang the measuring cup on the counter, as this will compress the flour. Using a knife or a slim metal spatula, sweep across the top to level the cup.

Maria also suggests having an oven preheated for at least 20 minutes, something I will try and do more frequently for my projects. As for having room temperature eggs, a few weeks back I came across a Cook’s Illustrated suggestion for placing eggs in a warm bowl of water to speed up the process. I don’t have fine sea salt in the house, so I swapped out that half teaspoon with a pinch of kosher salt. We had buttermilk in the house for a breakfast dish that Rich made for us; buttermilk is just one of those things that survives because it’s already spoiled. But I predict these muffins won’t have a long life in this house. They’re really terrific. Just ask Lilli.

Fig Muffins with Cream Cheese Filling, adapted from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Filling

¾ cup (3 ounces) softened cream cheese

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Muffins

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

(If you’re using a scale, these two mixed flour will equal 8 ½ ounces.)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch kosher salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup packed dark or light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup virgin olive oil

¾ cup buttermilk

1 cup chopped dry figs, stemmed

3 Tablespoons turbinado or granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Directions

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400F. Lightly butter a standard-size 12-cup muffin pan, preferably nonstick, or coat with cooking spray.

To make the filling, combine the cream cheese, maple syrup, lemon zest, and vanilla extract in a small bowl. Beat with a fork until smooth.

To make the muffins, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, lightly whisk the eggs to blend. Gently whisk in the brown sugar and vanilla extract, and then the olive oil and buttermilk until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg mixture to the center of the flour mixture, and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Do not overmix; the batter should look lumpy. Fold in the dry figs.

Using a soup spoon, fill each muffin nearly half full. Add a bit more than 1 teaspoon of the cream cheese filling to the center of each muffin, gently pressing in. Top with the remaining butter. (The filling should not be visible.) Generously sprinkle the muffins with the turbinado sugar.

Bake until muffins are nicely domed, the edges start to brown, and the tops spring back when gently pressed, about 13 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before gently twisting the muffins out of the pan. Cool them completely on the rack, or eat warm.

The muffins cane be baked 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 1 month.

Twist and Shout

As my back heals and I try to follow the directions my physical therapist has laid out for me which include wearing a back brace, and not bending or twisting, Rich has done more than his fair share in the kitchen. This is a mixed blessing, as his repertoire consists mostly of cocktails and cooking large pieces of meat. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I do love gin.

Last week I heard him rummaging in the spice cabinet – my guess is to find the nutmeg for a hot toddy – and I heard him call out to me, “You know you have an unopened container of Ghirardelli baking cocoa back here?” I thanked him for the reminder and tucked the knowledge away for another time.

dark chocolate soft pretzels

When we heard that winter storm Hercules was coming our way, Rich went to the market to load up on supplies, which just meant more milk for White Russians and hot cocoa with the aforementioned canister. But I actually had a plan for that unsweetened cocoa, one I hadn’t had a chance to work on. And so, with both our offices closed on Friday because of the snow storm, and Lilli off taking her morning nap, I got to work on the dark chocolate soft pretzels I’d bookmarked in a cookbook that was sent my way a few months ago.

I’ll admit the title of the book captured my attention immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a cookbook called Crazy About Chocolate? It contains more than 200 sweet and savory recipes written by Krystina Castella, author of Crazy About Pies, Crazy About Cupcakes, Crazy About Cookies and Crazy About Cakes. (There was a photo of her on the back cover, and no, she doesn’t look like she eats sweets all day long.)

There were the expected candy, cake and cookie recipes (a natural progression by someone who’s written books about those subjects) but there were also savory recipes like apple-smoked ribs with cocoa barbeque sauce, and grilled corn on the cob with milk chocolate butter. I also got a kick out of the holiday section, which ranged from chocolate-coated, almond-flavored Easter eggs, hamentashen for Purim and hazelnut meringues for Passover, and even chocolate pineapple moon cakes for the Chinese New Year.

But it was these dark chocolate soft pretzels that caught my eye. They were actually in the “Weddings” section of the book:

Celebrate tying the knot with soft chocolate pretzel twists. Based on recipes used by classic New York street vendors, these pretzels have a chocolaty, salty flavor combination that’s sure to please.

Or, as Rich noted after eating one, “They taste like the chocolate bread they serve at The Cheesecake Factory.”

There’s something nice about rising a yeasted dough on a heating vent on chilly winter days (so long as the heat is working). And yes, like last week’s rugelach, the directions might seem complicated but aren’t at all: Make a yeasted dough, let it rise, shape the pretzels, boil them and bake them. The rolling out the dough into long ropes and twisting them into pretzels would be a great task for young helpers in the kitchen. If you can’t find a ruler, do what I did and use a measuring tape.

Cowgirl Lilli

I will say that the author and editor slipped up a bit in the recipe, forgetting to include when the yeast mixture is added to the flour mixture, so I have included that step here. I also kneaded the dough with my dough hook on my Kitchen-Aid mixer, lightening the load on my back.

When I posted the photos of the finished product on Facebook, my friend Gayle asked where I’d found the lye, which is traditionally added to the boiling water when making pretzels. Goodness, no, I wouldn’t have lye in the house with a little one. Baking soda replaced the lye when it was time to boil these babies. Feel free to get creative with your toppings. The recipe makes eight pretzels, so I made two each of Maldon salt, Turbinado sugar, chopped mini peanut butter cups (a tub of which lives in my freezer, ahem) and mini chocolate chips leftover from last week’s rugelach.

Dark Chocolate Soft Pretzels from Crazy About Chocolate by Krystina Castella

Ingredients

1 ½ cups warm water

¼ cup plus 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)

4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Vegetable oil

2/3 cup baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 Tablespoon water

Pretzel salt, sea salt or Maldon salt

½ cup nuts, sprinkles, nonpareils, or white chocolate chips

Directions

Combine the water, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and the yeast in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam.

Combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in a large bowl. Or, combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the foaming yeast mixture and mix it all together in an electric mixer on low speed until well blended. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead the dough until it is smooth, 8-10 minutes. Or, if you are using a standing mixer, switch over to the dough hook and knead the dough on high speed until the dough is smooth.

Grease a large bowl with vegetable oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with either plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and set in a warm place for 50 – 60 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with vegetable oil.

Fill a large pot with water (10 – 12 cups) and stir in the baking soda. Cover and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U shape with the rope and, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other to form the shape of a pretzel. Press the dough to secure the shape, then place on the baking sheets.

Add the pretzels one at a time to the boiling water for 30 – 40 seconds, 15 – 20 seconds on each side. Remove the pretzels from the water using a slotted spoon. Return to the baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the egg-water glaze, and sprinkle with the salt, nuts, sprinkles or candies. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, until dry and dark. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving.