Turning Two

Lilli turned two on Sunday. We celebrated with cupcakes and an ice cream sundae bar at the Inside Playground down the road. Thankfully, the party was sandwiched in between two snowstorms, ensuring that the guests and grandparents from outside of Boston were still able to make it.

It’s been a while since I planned a party and I’d wanted to share how it turned out, like my friend Molly always does with her own awards show viewing parties. Of course, I forgot to snap photos of the sundae bar. Sorry about that. We bought a case of small, wide-mouthed jars from the local hardware store for a few dollars which will obviously now be used for canning things. Then I filled the jars with candies like M&Ms, chocolate chips, jelly beans, crushed Oreo cookies, and mini York Peppermint Patties. Next to the jars I placed cut up strawberries and bananas, fresh homemade whipped cream, hot fudge, salted caramel sauce, marshmallow topping and a jar of cherries.

ice cream party

Daddies were very appreciative of having a place for their toddlers to play.

After consulting with mommies at work, I decided to forgo a fancy bakery cake for Lilli and just buy some mini cupcakes from the grocery store. As it turned out, the bakery at the market couldn’t guarantee they would have enough, if any, in stock that Sunday morning, so Lilli and I donned our aprons and got to work in the kitchen. We have weekly baking projects, although most of her participation ends with me sweeping flour and sugar off the kitchen floor. Papa and Grammy got her a Kitchen Helper for Christmas which is nice because I was always a little nervous about her slipping off a dining room chair.

I was sent Hello Cupcake! years ago to review, but hadn’t found the right moment to dive into the recipes in it until I needed to bake these birthday cupcakes. If it had been a birthday party for me, I probably would have gone with the sweet potato cupcakes with cream cheese frosting or saffron cupcakes. And if nuts weren’t an issue, Lilli would have loved the Nutella cupcakes. We settled on the “Classic cupcakes” recipe, which had a nice lemony base and a cream cheese frosting.

cousins playing

The author is British and the recipe is measured in weights, so get out your kitchen scale. The recipe says it makes 12 regular-sized cupcakes, but it made 48 mini-cupcakes, more than enough for the party. The smaller cakes took about 13 minutes to bake. I think the frosting was a bit too sweet, but I think that’s because I had a little slip up with weighing out the sugar. Many of the guests thought it was divine, but that’s just my two cents.

Classic Cupcakes from Hello Cupcake! by Leila Lindholm

Ingredients

3 eggs

250 grams (9 oz) sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

100 g (3 ½ oz) butter

100 ml (3 ½ fl oz) milk

350 g (12 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 pinch salt

Grated peel and juice from 1 lemon

Cream Cheese Frosting

60 g (2 oz) softened butter

500 g (17 ½ oz) icing (confectioner’s) sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

100 g (3 ½ oz) cream cheese

Sprinkles or flowers, for garnish

Directions

Preheat oven to 345F (175C)

Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla until white and really fluffy.

Melt the butter, add the milk and mix this into the eggs.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt and carefully fold into the other ingredients until combined.

Mix in the grated peel and juice from one lemon.

Set out paper cups in a muffin tin and fill the cups until two-thirds full with the mixture.

Bake them in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes. Once they cool a little, move them to a cooling rack to cool down.

Frosting

Mix the butter, icing sugar, vanilla, lemon juice and cream cheese until creamy.

Spread the frosting on the cakes and garnish with sprinkles or flowers.

 

Up For Grabs

Lilli is six months old and the strongest baby in the world. She’s crawling. Changing her diaper and dressing her is like wrestling an alligator – minus the teeth. About a month ago we started to feed her. Well, tried to, anyways.  Although she loves the idea of using a spoon, it’s pretty clear that she’s not interested in pureed anything. Carrots she was noncommittal about; sweet potatoes were a no-go, the look she gave me with the avocadoes made it clear she thought I was trying to poison her. Cream of Wheat was clearly as bland to her as it is to the rest of us, and I really thought we would have a winner with the pears. We did not. It seems she wants to be eating, just not what I’m feeding her.

Lilli at the festival

Take these blueberry muffins. I’d been on the hunt for a good muffin recipe. Every time I’ve had a home-baked muffin they’ve always been too dull and far too flat. They always looked homemade. I wanted a big, fluffy muffin like you buy at the bakery, and these are them. They are from the Flour cookbook (the first one) so you know it’s a good recipe. They originally call for raspberry and rhubarb, but Joanne Chang said you can use blueberries, so I did. I’m not a scientist, but I know it’s the four teaspoons of baking powder that made them puff and rise.

Puffy Blueberry Muffins

I baked them once and we gobbled them up. The second time, I knew I wanted to share them with you. So I stood in the kitchen with Lilli on my left hip and plated the muffin. I got out a knife (a butter knife; come on, I’m not that bad a mother), cut the muffin in two and got out my camera. In a flash, Lilli reached down as fast as she could, poked her little fingers in the freshly baked muffin and shoved her hand in her mouth. All I could do was wipe the blueberry off her face.

Lilli approved muffins

That’s when it hit me: It’s not that she doesn’t want to be eating, it’s just that she wants to be eating what we’re eating. So we’re doing things a little differently now. We sat and ate a green pepper the next day. Or, more like she held a big piece of it in her hand and sometimes got it into her mouth. Baby steps — well, baby bites.

Classic Blueberry Muffins from Flour by Joanne Chang

Ingredients

3 ¼ cups (455 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

4 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

1 ½ cups (270 grams) sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks/140 Grams) butter, melted

½ cup (240 grams) milk, at room temperature

1 cup (240 grams) crème fraîche, at room temperature (I use the Greek yogurt that’s always on hand in my fridge. It works perfectly.)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups (320 grams) fresh or frozen blueberries

Directions

Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a standard 12-cup muffin tin, coat with nonstick cooking spray or line with paper liners.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolk until thoroughly mixed. Slowly whisk in the sugar, butter, milk, crème fraîche or Greek yogurt, and vanilla until well-combined. Pour the butter-sugar mixture into the flour mixture and, using a rubber spatula, fold gently just until the ingredients are combined. Gently fold in the blueberries until evenly distributed. The batter may seem lumpy, but don’t try to smooth it out. (The batter can be made up to 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)

Spoon the batter into the prepared cups, dividing it evenly and filling the cups to the rim (almost overflowing). I’ve found that a standard ice cream scoop works perfectly for this step.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the muffins are golden brown on top and spring back when pressed in the middle with a fingertip. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then remove the muffins from the pan.

Note: The muffins taste best on the day they are baked, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. If you keep them for longer than 1 day, refresh them in a 300-degree-F oven for 4 to 5 minutes. Or, you can freeze them, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 1 week; reheat, directly from the freezer, in 300-degree-F oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

Guess Mother Does Know Best

Well, it’s been six weeks since Lilli Virginia has joined us, and, like I’d learned before but had somehow forgotten, whatever plans I had for my new baby didn’t matter. It would be up to the baby to set the rules. For instance, because I thought that I’d never have a chance to cook, I filled a freezer chest with foods and baked goods. I also thought I’d spend a ton of time wearing my baby and going for long walks along the river. Well, it turns out that I’ve actually been able to cook a few meals, and my baby screams like a banshee when I try and wear her. (You’d think after 41 weeks and 60 hours of labor she’d want to be close to my chest and heartbeat, but apparently not.)

wide-eyed lilli
In November, when I told my mom about my plans to cook a month’s worth of meals because I wouldn’t be able to cook, she shook her head. “Pfft. Babies sleep a lot. You’ll see. I promise you’ll be in your kitchen just as soon as you’re physically up to it.” Or, as Aleza put it over a porter (hers) and a chocolate banana milkshake (mine), “you’ll just bring the baby into the kitchen.” Well, it turns out that they were totally right: Babies do sleep a lot, and thanks to the generosity of Lilli’s cousins Jack and Ari, she has a swing, chair and bassinet, all of which I have rolled or carried into the kitchen.

bassinet
So, I have been able to cook and I’ve actually started baking bread, too. Tuesdays my mother comes in from Western Mass, and on Fridays my mother-in-law comes in from just north of Boston. Neither ever comes empty-handed, but I’d like to focus on the goods my mother packs. Like Mary Poppins, her bag seems to seem endless and full of perfect little things you didn’t know you wanted until they’re in front of you.

ari's chair
One week there was some roasted salmon and briny cucumber salad. Twice she’s brought us cantaloupe that she’s stood at the counter and cleaned for us, storing chunks in one of my leftover yogurt containers that is now part of my Tupperware collection. Another time there were blueberries that I sprinkled over my breakfasts of overnight oatmeal.  A tub of egg salad, whole wheat rolls and an avocado. Two cooked artichokes that Rich and I ate for a Shabbat meal (Lilli had to sit in her bouncy chair for that one; artichoke eating is best done with two hands.)

jack's swing
And Mom’s  not just bringing meals for us, she’s bringing random vegetables that have inspired me to  stand in my kitchen and get back into the groove. A gorgeous green pepper found its way into shakshuka. Green beans were steamed and added to a Nicoise salad. Cabbage slaw that I turned Vietnamese.

 
Last Tuesday, she brought fennel. “Open up one of your cookbooks,” she encouraged me. “Go on, choose a recipe.” I had a recipe in mind from a Lidia cookbook. I’d made it years before, and I remembered how tasty it was. You can see in the photo that I’ve tossed it with farfalle. That way it became an entire meal for us – I said I’m cooking, but not that much. Leftovers, people! (Note: I decided I didn’t like how the finished product photographed, so here are a few photos of Lilli, instead.)

going for a walk

Purim

Her Purim costume will fit better by Halloween.

Lidia’s recipe calls for about three pounds of fennel; the one Mom brought came out to a little less than a pound once its stalks and fronds were removed. I scaled the recipe to suit the changes in fennel size, but am keeping the recipe here as it stands in her cookbook. It’s a seriously tasty dish. The sweetness of the fennel really works well with the salty capers.

slicing fennel
Skillet Fennel with Capers from Lidia’s Italy

Ingredients
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds fresh fennel, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 ½ cups sliced onions
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt, or to taste
¼ cup small capers, drained
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Recommended Equipment: A heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan, 12-inch diameter or larger, with a tight-fitting cover
Directions
Pour the olive oil into the skillet, and set it over medium heat. Dump in all the fennel and onions, season with the salt, and stir and toss well.

Cover the pan tightly, and let the vegetables cook and caramelize slowly, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat as necessary so they’re sizzling, softening, and cooking in their own moisture, but not burning or browning too fast.

After 15 minutes, stir in the capers; if the fennel pieces appear dry, add a few tablespoons of water too. Cook another 15 minutes, tightly covered, stirring now and then, until the fennel is tender and tinged golden brown. If they’re pale, or you want deeper color, cook them uncovered for a few minutes.

Taste, and season with salt if you want; grind on pepper to taste just before serving, nice and hot.

Oh My Darling

People prepare for babies in different ways. Some set up their nurseries and make sure their cribs are positioned for optimal natural light. Others spend the weeks leading up to the big day by pre-washing the little one’s wardrobe. Most everyone has their car seat installed at the local police or fire station.

Unrelated gratuitous baby photo

Unrelated gratuitous baby photo

I faced a dilemma: on the one hand, Jewish tradition frowns on bringing baby things into the house before there is an actual baby; on the other, hand I am an inveterate planner. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found my solution in the kitchen. I spent the weeks leading up to Lilli’s arrival cooking, baking and freezing foods to make the first few months less stressful.

Give the people what they want...

Give the people what they want…

“I need to serve something to our guests that come by for a visit,” I explained to Rich about the added hours I spent in our kitchen. “I’m pretty sure people are supposed to bring you the food, honey,” he replied. And it’s true, a nice meal train has been set up through our synagogue, although it has been somewhat derailed by snowstorms and flu season.

I was vindicated this weekend. We had Lilli’s baby naming on Presidents’ Day (no pressure, Lil). She already had her name, but this was a Jewish ceremony to announce her Hebrew name and explain the origins of her other names. It’s a rough analog of a bris, minus the delicate surgery. If you’re interested, you can watch the video of the service on YouTube:

It was really touching to see all the people who came to celebrate the occasion with us. My guess is around 80 people showed up on Monday morning.

One more, but that's it for now...

One more, but that’s it for now…

On the day before we hosted some of our out-of-town guests at our house: my Cousin David, his girlfriend Wendy and Brian Levinson, who made the drive up from Queens (commiserating about the Mets the entire way, no doubt), and Sylvie and Miriam who had flown up from DC. Suffice it to say, I was quite pleased with myself because I had defrosted this clementine cardamom pound cake I had baked, weeks in advance, for just such an occasion.

Boxes of clementines are pretty ubiquitous on kitchen counters this time of year. In the late stages of my pregnancy, I’d taken to eaten them to spur Lilli, who was an exceptionally quiet fetus, to give me a reassuring kick or two. It became such a thing that for about a week Clementine was a serious baby name candidate.

2013-02-19 10.33.22

Before I ate all of them, I thought it best to bake a cake with some of them. I hunted around the Internet and came up with a Nigella Lawson recipe that called for boiling, grinding and then adding nuts — not unlike this blood orange and pistachio cake Sara and I made last year (although I have a feeling ours was better). Too much work for the ninth month of pregnancy, even for me.

I finally found what I was looking for on Food52. All this recipe called for was zesting and juicing the fruit, and I loved the idea of the cardamom adding a spicy warmth to the cake. Although spices can get expensive, I’ve found bags for very cheap at the Armenian stores in Watertown. Also, one cardamom pod goes a long way, so even if you end up at Whole Foods, in the long run, the price isn’t bad at all.

20130217_160340

After I removed this cake out of the oven and it cooled down, I wrapped it in a few sheets of tin foil, labeled it and stuck it in the freezer. It defrosted beautifully in less than an hour just by unwrapping it and setting it out on the counter.

Clementine Cardamom Pound Cake by SavvyJulie on Food52

Ingredients

1 1/2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for the pan

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 Tablespoon clementine zest, from about 2 clementines

4 Tablespoons clementine juice, from about 2 clementines

1/4 cup milk

Directions

Heat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9x5x3″ loaf pan.

Cream the butter, olive oil and sugars together until smooth.

Mix in the eggs, one at a time, until completely blended.

Stir in 1 cup of the flour, followed by the salt, vanilla, cardamom, clementine zest and juice.

Add the milk and the rest of the flour. Beat until the batter is smooth and consistent, but do not over-beat!

Scrape the cake batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the edges are browned and just pulling away from the sides of the pan, and a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Run a knife or spatula around the edges of the cake to release it from the pan, and flip onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and serving.