Sunday, December 23, 2007

Gingerbread, at Last

My kids are finally big enough (4 and 8) that I actually have the presence of mind and time of day to think about things like gingerbread houses. Never mind grad school, financing an addition to our house and catching up on world news. It's gingerbread season, and I'm going to be part of it.

Still, even with both my kids in school five days a week, thinking and doing remain opposite sides of the same spectrum. This is my new strategy: I plan the day and invite people over, weeks in advance, when I am still in the hopeful, dreamy it's-really-going-to-be-a-Martha-Stewart-kind-of-Christmas-THIS-year land otherwise known as early December ("Hey, I pulled off Thanksgiving, right? I'll probably put up garlands and buy new Christmas dessert plates and should it be bûche de Noël or a croquembouches after Christmas dinner?, and maybe we should start a hot toddy tradition...").

Well, it worked (not the hot toddies, nor the garlands, nor the bûche de Noël; but yes to the gingerbread houses): since Friday friends were coming over to decorate houses, it meant that Wednesday I had to buy candy and pretzels and anything else that could conceivably stand in for a northern European cottage's architectural detail, and that Thursday I had to bake and assemble the houses. I stayed up after the kids were in bed, melting sugar and gluing houses together. Since I made the templates myself, there were, um, a few architectural shortcomings. Roofs too small, windows too crooked, doorways too weird.

Oh well, because my other strategy, the one that makes me love cooking and baking and celebrating holidays, is this: nothing has to be perfect. Maybe the process is not quite as important as it is at my daughter's pre-school (where it trumps everything), but it still shares billing with the product, in my kitchen. It has to be fun, right? So you can't get all freaked out about things turning out perfectly. Plus, it's better for kids to see you having fun with it, than flipping out about not getting the medieval German period details down. Or, uh, the pretzel logs perfectly lined up (see below).

Epicurious had a recipe from Bon Appetit that looked good, and it was. Instead of making one big house, though, I made my own templates for six small houses, so everyone could have their own house. Then, a stomach virus upset our group decorating plans, but my kids and I went ahead with decorating our houses. (Tomorrow we're bringing the rest of the houses to the now-recovered child's house, for a final decorating party.)

Here's what we came up with: my son's minimalist take on the gingerbread house motif:

My traditional log cabin, with a valencia peanut chimney and pretzel log walls:

And my daughter's anything-goes take:

Like a real designer, she didn't stop here; the house was nibbled on and re-designed several times over the next few days:

Nobody's documented it, but I've joined in the nibbling, too. Nice thing about this recipe: the gingerbread is actually delicious!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


They drive me crazy, they really do. What is wrong with them, and why can't they just eat like normal people?

But just when I am really going to blow my top, two things happened this week that reminded me of why it is not so bad that they are like that, and how actually we adults are not too different.

First thing: We had some English muffins in the house. We sometimes use whole grain English muffins for hamburger buns, the way this swanky restaurant on Nantucket where I used to work does. (Theirs aren't whole grain, but still, it's a nice sturdy hamburger-holder.) But these ones in our house were so white and soft and refined, they were practically marshmallows. We almost never have this crap in the house. But this one occasion, we did. It's a long story why. Let's just say we did.

Other than these particular English muffins, we had almost nothing else to eat in the house to eat. It was Saturday morning, and I was trying to get out to the park to walk the dog, and the kids were hungry for breakfast. Fine, I made them a couple white flour English muffins, with butter and cinnamon and sugar. (Can you believe this? Am I even fit to be writing abut food for families? But, come on, we all have our low moments. And anyway, when it's whole grain sprouted spelt or whatever, and the sugar is Sucanat -- which doesn't really fit through the holes in the cinnamon-sugar shaker, so it's mostly cinnamon anyway -- it's not such a bad breakfast.) (Don't get me started on the chocolate croissants I get for them, which I feel like is okay because, like, French people do it.)

Anyway, I served them this evil, foul white bread, assuming it was going to be this huge excitement. White bread and sugar! Cinnamon! Butter! Nooks and crannies! But no. My kids cried. They literally cried, they were so devastated. They had never seen a white English muffin before, and besides, English muffins are for hamburgers. Here was their weird mom, once again trying to trick them into eating some freaky food none of their friends has ever heard of. They weren't doing it. They wanted Ezekiel Sprouted Multi-grain toast with Sucanat, or nothing.

Why? Because it's what they're used to. And that's the trick. That's the bottom line. What they are used to is what they will eat. Used to macaroni and cheese? Used to pizza in front of the TV? Used to vegetables on their plates? Used to having the same thing the parents have? Used to dessert every night? Used to no dessert? That's what they'll eat. It's how we are, all of us.

And this is the other thing. My four-year old did a cooking project at her pre-school last week. So cute! I love when they do cooking projects. But I don't really want to have to eat them. Especially when it's a mashed up ball of unidentifiable ingredients with a few million flakes of pre-schooler detritus mixed in. Palm flakes, nose chips, glitter specks, paint dust, you get the picture of where my mind was going. There was no way I was eating this thing, no matter how hard my daughter begged.

This is terrible and wrong, I know. My daughter was so proud of her creation, but I was completely flipped out at the idea of eating it. I was completely repulsed, if you want to know the depth of my aversion. But I kept forgetting to throw it away when she wasn't looking. So tonight she pulled it out of the fridge and took it out of the pretty cellophane bag, and it was really the moment of truth. She was holding it in our faces, unwrapped, imploring us to eat it, this hunk of brown matter. Did she want to eat it? No, definitely not. Did the 8-year-old want to eat it? What, are you kidding? No one wanted to eat it. It was mysterious and disgusting, a handrolled ball of light brown stuff with black streaks mixed in. Would you eat something like that?

Since first encountering it last week, I had seen the recipe posted at the preschool. Okay, so now I knew that it was made of crushed walnuts and dried cherries. Okay, so it was like a Lara Bar. This helped. Then, it spent several days in the fridge -- arrgh! that critical period, in which I completely forgot about it and thereby lost my chance to get rid of it forever. Okay, I can't keep wallowing in this regret.

Chilling helped. Under great pressure from my four-year old's earnest gaze, I finally took a sharp knife and cut the brown ball into thin slices, superstitiously paring off the outside edges, where, I figured, most of the palm-cells and nose-bacteria were living. I took a tentative, sensorially-disengaged bite. Okay, so it tasted delicious. It tasted exactly like a cherry Lara Bar. It didn't matter what it tasted like. It was still disgusting. My husband had a nibble, and then, our obligation satisfied, when our daughter wasn't looking I threw the rest away.

Now I know how my kids feel. Some stuff is not good, no matter what it tastes like, what it's made of, or how much love went into it. You still don't want it. I need to remember this moment.

Friday, December 7, 2007


I can't really make any grand claims when it comes to my ramen soup. In Japan, ramen has almost cult-like followings, with different regions making different versions, and recipes passed down through the generations. It's like grandma's chicken soup, squared.

I usually satisfy my ramen cravings by going to this tiny ramen shop in the East Village, called Rai Rai Ken, until it turned mediocre. Now I love this other place, Settagaya. Still, Rai Rai Ken was my first initiation to ramen that didn't involve an immersion heater. They have giant stocks pots bubbling away, with onions and mushrooms bobbing on the surface, and bone tips peeking up from the murky, steamy depths. There are three types of soups, and a few appetizers, and about the same number of seats along a wooden bar. I always get pickled daikon and then a big bowl of shoyu ramen -- a soy sauce-based soup with toppings like bamboo shoots, seaweed, fish cake, roast pork, and scallions.

But sometimes I want ramen at home. Obviously, I can't compete with Japanese grandmothers and chefs who've been making broth for ramen for generations. Still, I have to say, my soup is pretty damn good. I mean -- chicken stock, soy sauce, sesame oil? You can't really go wrong. And ramen is the perfect Mothership Meal. You can start with a really simple soup -- how about some clear broth, kids? -- and then serve all the exotic toppings on the side.

Chicken Stock (really, really, REALLY, preferably homemade, with onions and shiitake mushrooms)
To taste: a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, a tablespoon of sesame oil, salt, pepper)

Add: cooked noodles, preferably those tightly coiled ramen noodles, but egg noodles will do in a pinch, as they did in the photo here. And steamed spinach or bok choy, chopped.

Also: cooked pork tenderloin or pork chop.

Garnish with: hard boiled egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori squares, and anything else that strikes your fancy.

This is a perfect mothership meal, as it can start so simply -- with broth, for example -- and then become more and more complex. I always find it amazing to see how my children weigh their pickiness against their instinct to copy the adults. As my daughter says, "I just want a tiny bit of scallions, right on the side." She doesn't want to eat it; she just wants it because we want it. Eventually she will want it all.

A Spoonful of Honey...

It's not like I'm a complete zealot about alternative medicine or anything. Like, I think antibiotics are pretty great when you really need them. And I gave Tylenol to my babies when they were howling from teething pain. And I ... I... Hmm. Well, I guess that's about it, actually. I don't use cold medicine or allergy medicine or really any medicine at all, if I can help it. I just feel like most common illnesses are best served by rest, fluids and a watchful eye.

Given my anti-pharmaceutical tendencies, I love reading about studies that show that natural remedies are more effective than things that come in a little brightly-colored capsule with a billion dollar marketing budget and lots of side effects. Like good old exercise -- nobody's designing a campaign for it, but it just keeps plugging away, doing its magic, curing depression, preventing heart disease, and improving almost every other function of the body.

And now honey. A study's come out (funded by the National Honey Boards, it must be said) that shows that a spoonful of honey, given 30 minutes before bedtime, is more effective at soothing a child's nighttime cough and leading to restful sleep, than cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan, a drug used in many over-the-counter cough suppressants, was only slightly better than doing nothing.

They're not sure if it's the soothing quality of the honey, the antioxidants, or the anti-microbial properties in honey that calm the cough and help kids sleep better.

Sounds great, and you don't even need the spoonful of sugar to get this medicine down! (My son's response to the news: "Cool! Can I have some now?")

(But no honey for babies under one, right? Botulism risk. And no cough medicine for kids under six, even if you think this study is wrongn and dextromethorphan is the deal; federal health advisors have advised against it because of, um, lack of effectiveness combined with potential for side effects.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

OOPS -- The Bean Sprouts!

I ran into my friend and fellow-pho-addict, Jamie, in the wine store last night. We discussed the proportions that go into cooking steel cut oats, made a plan for a playdate and then talked about my pho post, which was when she dropped the bomb -- I forgot about the bean sprouts. Yes, pho should really have bean sprouts, along with the mint and the basil, to add to the amazing balance between hot and cold, spicy and cool, sour and salty... that makes pho so addictive.

Honestly, I did not miss them. Homemade pho is that good, and the basil and mint are such stars.

I'm making it again tonight. I didn't plan to, but there were frozen grass-fed soup bones at the Coop on Friday, and when I got home with them I had ginger in the fridge and it was so easy to just put the ginger and some onion into the oven, and the bones into a pot of water and start making the stock (I actually left it with a lot of water on a low flame overnight, the way my mom does)... and then today I wake up and it's snowing and feels like winter and it's so totally a perfect hot-noodle-soup day, and... it's just so good.

I'll remember the bean sprouts this time.

PS Homemade stocks are also really great because of the minerals that leach out into the broth. (You can add a dash of vinegar or crack the chicken bones to further usher the calcium, magnesium and all their friends out of the bones and into the broth.) Maybe that's one reason homemade-stock-making cultures like in Asia don't need to mess around with milk.