Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Boys and their toys

        OK, since this blog is named "Gifts, gatherings and gusto," maybe writing about a gift idea would be in order.
        My 'tween son absolutely loves a present he was given by my friend Kimmer and her hubby, a remote-controlled helicopter with light-up eyes that reminds me of a supersized dragonfly.

 Air Hogs remote control helicopter. The helicopter's eyes light up until it needs a charge. To charge it, plug it into the battery-powered base.

        Don't ask me how to fly it. My son seemed to instinctively catch on; maybe all those video games were good training. It weighs just a few ounces so when it crashes into household objects, it rarely inflicts any damage. Once our Michigan winter snow finally turns to spring, I can see him running all over with it outside, as long as he finds a spot protected from the wind. Maybe its dragonfly appearance would even be good for scaring rabbits and deer away from our garden. If all goes well, this could be the year we finally have sweet corn and snow peas. (Don't feel too sorry for the poor animals; we're surrounded by farmland so there's plenty for them to eat without having to ruin our garden).
        Remote-controlled vehicles are good for boys of all ages, especially, it seems, those with a couple cats in the house. Kimmer's hubby had his own helicopter he used especially for playing with their cats, who chased it down and attacked it so greedily there was little left of it. Last Christmas, RC helicopters were on my son-in-law's wish list. I found him two (allegedly) laser-equipped helicopters for battling, the Laser Tag Combat Apache 2CH RTF models. According to my daughter's last report, he was having fun "terrorizing the cats."
        Because the helicopters are so lightweight and fragile, you can expect to go through several stages with them. First, the experimental stage, in which the pilot learns to fly. Second, the having-a-blast-with-it stage, where everyone in the house has to duck as the pilot becomes proficient at swooping the helicopter millimeters from their heads. Third, a crash inevitably affects a helicopter part, motivating the pilot to develop mechanical skills. Fourth, the helicopter flies a bit differently than it did on the first day out ─ it may appear a bit intoxicated at this point ─ but it's still loved and appreciated.
        My son's helicopter has already taken a few beatings and continues to fly. This is the kind of toy that intrigues kids (I'm sure girls would love it too) and lures them away from the couch-potato life. It's something every child should have. They're also relatively easy to find ─ I've seen Air Hogs helicopters at most department stores as well as online. Whether you're looking for a birthday gift or you're like me and keep a running list of gift ideas, I highly recommend this toy.






       

Monday, March 28, 2011

"The Housewife's Magic Wand" and pie-baking tips

I once bought a Swiss-made Bamix mixer, circa the 1950s, on eBay. When the package arrived I laughed out loud at the words on the yellowed box: "The Housewife's Magic Wand." That mixer never worked right ─ I think it needs mechanical help ─ but I keep it. It's a throwback to an era of polka-dotted aprons and women wearing bouffants while baking and vacuuming in heels.
        That's likely the picture that pushed women out of the kitchen for years, for fear they'd be chained to the stove. Even today, women in the workplace resist being associated with the domestic arts because it threatens their career. My friend Marti, an engineer who has returned to school, worked in a male-dominated environment. She told me she'd never bring cookies to work or the guys just wouldn't take her seriously.
        I want to be taken as seriously as anyone else does, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of baking. I confess I'm a bit like the character Ramona in Beverly Cleary's book series, with my mind taking flights of fancy when I get caught up in something. Stirring dough, I imagine myself a pioneer woman, toiling away in a rustic kitchen. Never mind my ingredients would be considered extravagant in pioneer days. The smell of chocolate, brown sugar and vanilla wafting through the house is a time machine back to a time when food was simple and food was life.
        Baking definitely brings satisfaction, but serving up the goods is just as fulfilling. I used to work in the X-ray office of a hospital. No one was particularly happy about dragging themselves into work on weekends and holidays, but a treat like warm chocolate hunk cookies lit up everyone's faces. And honestly, it made me feel special to be able to make people feel good.
        Maybe that's what happened to Kimmer, who's been my buddy for more years than either of us care to announce. I knew her back in the days when the tiny little twig's culinary skills amounted to Taco Bell and ramen noodles. Then one day, completely out of the blue, she began baking the world's best pies. It's like a genie appeared and, poof! Turned her into a domestic diva. Now she gets special requests to bake her legendary pies, even for events she won't be attending.
        The difference between now and the era of the housewife's magic wand, is that women aren't the only ones in the kitchen. When our schedules actually coincide, David and I like cooking together. A couple of months ago we found ourselves tripping down memory lane as he flipped through his cookbooks and found lists, notes and recipes in my handwriting. (I'm better at list-making; he's better at cooking. It works for us.)
        Kimmer may have blossomed into the queen of pies (read her pie-making tips, below) but she's not stuck alone in the kitchen. I've seen her and her hubby cooking side by side. Kudos to the men who can cook and still be manly. We've all come a long way, baby!

Can she bake a cherry pie?
When David requested cherry pie for his birthday, I searched the Internet and went to my friend Kimmer for help, since pie baking isn't my strength. But it was easier than I expected, especially with a store-bought crust which was actually tasty. It'd probably be even better if you made your own crust, but I haven't had the best luck in that department over the years, so I didn't chance it. Kimmer says using butter (or lard) in the bottom of the pie pan with a little flour keeps the bottom crust from getting soggy. I tried it and she's right!

This is a version of a great recipe Diane has posted on her beautiful blog at:
http://lifeincharente.blogspot.com/2011/03/cherry-pie-and-butternut-soup-st.html.

Recipe: Tart cherry pie
2, 12-oz. bags frozen tart cherries, pitted (about 5 1/2 cups, Michigan cherries are perfect)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon quick tapioca
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cup sugar (to taste, use less for sweet cherries)
Drop of almond extract
Drop of vanilla
Optional: few drops of lemon juice (especially if you're using sweet cherries instead of tart)

2 refrigerated rolled pie crusts (take each one out of refrigerator about 10-15 minutes before using)
Small amount butter
Small amount flour
Small amount sugar
Small amount turbinado sugar
1 egg white, beaten with a drop of vanilla or lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put the frozen cherries in a bowl. Gently toss with the tapioca, 1 1/4 cup sugar, salt, extracts and (optional) lemon juice. Let stand for 30 minutes.

Lightly butter just the bottom of a large glass pie plate. Sift a very thin layer of flour over the butter before putting the bottom crust in the pan (tip: leave the crust refrigerated until about 5 minutes before you're ready to use it). After the cherry mixture has set for 30 minutes, turn it into the pie crust-lined plate.

Stir together equal amounts of sugar and flour and sift a very light layer over the underside of the top crust before putting it on top of the cherries. Pinch the top and bottom crust together all the way around with your knuckles to seal them together and form a fluted edge. Put a pie ring or strips of foil around the edge of the crust and place it on top of another pan to catch any juices.

Bake at 400 degrees 15 minutes. Turn heat down to 350 degrees and bake another 40-50 minutes. Remove ring; brush with beaten egg white and sift a very thin layer of the sugar-flour mixture over the top. Sprinkle a little turbinado sugar on if you have it. Bake another 10-15 minutes, until top is deep golden brown and inside is bubbly (either the juice will bubble out or you'll see the crust puffing up). Let set 3-4 hours; serve with vanilla ice cream.



It's actually pretty easy to make the pie filling. I just tossed frozen tart cherries with dry tapioca, a little salt and a few drops of almond and vanilla extracts. Then let the cherries stand 30 minutes.

 To keep the bottom crust from getting soggy, grease just the bottom of the pie plate with a thin coating of solid lard or butter. Don't use oil, though. (Thanks Kimmer, this helped!)

 Once the bottom crust is in place, sift a very thin coat of flour over it to help absorb the juice. Kimmer gave me a handy cup with a built-in sifter that worked perfectly. Too bad Pampered Chef doesn't still sell these. You can also dip your thumb and forefinger into flour and rub them together over the pie crust ─ you'll need to do this several times.
Note: I started fluting the bottom crust, but when you're adding a top crust, just wait until it's in place, since you'll pinch them together and flute them anyway.

David's birthday pie. OK, so it's not picture perfect but it was delicious! I learned not to let the crust set at room temperature too long ─ about 10-15 minutes max, depending on room temperature ─ because it's too soft to work with. You can see the edges didn't keep their shape; the top crust even slid down on one side (another reason to butter only the BOTTOM of the pie plate before unrolling the crust). Live and learn. David loved it, though.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Birthdays amidst chaos

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen life change ruthlessly in Japan. On a personal level, I feared losing my little brother over heart problems. It was a strange, helpless feeling to be able to do nothing for him other than whisper a prayer and care for his young daughters during his trips to the hospital. He’s always been healthy, the one devoted to taking care of everyone else in the family. So it kind of shook my world.
       Maybe it’s untimely to start a blog on top of personal and global chaos, but we’re forging ahead. Not because we as Americans insist on living our lives in the styles we’ve become accustomed to, no matter what, but because these events point up what’s most important.
       I'll never forget preparing for my youngest's birthday, which happened the week of 9/11. I was a newbie reporter, covering a community candlelight vigil that week. It felt so wrong to stand in line buying candles for the vigil while holding a shiny "Happy Birthday!" balloon. Sometimes our gatherings seem trivial, even disrespectful, against the backdrop of crises, but at times like those, it's more important than ever to cling to the core of our existence.
      Over the years, I’ve had to remind myself of that again and again, whether dealing with life-shaking events or plodding ahead with work. I'm now a full-fledged grownup who knows myself pretty well. As such, I've become fully aware I’m the type of person who gets immersed in whatever I’m doing, be it job or school. Like the work horses from our past, I put on the blinders and don’t look left or right as I obsess over finishing a job. It’s sometimes easier that way, but pretty soon you realize it’s been days or weeks since you’ve given the proper attention to the people you love.
       That's another good reason for blogging with my dear Daughter. Because she lives in the Chicago area and I’m in mid-Michigan, I don’t see her nearly as often as I’d like. So our “Gifts, gatherings and gusto” musings are one more way to keep in touch. And not to brag, but she’s such a unique soul, an untamed spirit who surprises me with her newfound devotion to all things domestic, that I'm thrilled to share her individuality with the world. Not many girls want to write a blog with their moms, but combining our different styles should be interesting.
       Like me, she’s inherited an old-school work ethic. This blog will be good for both of us, a reminder that we aren’t living to work, we’re working to live.
       Which is why I’m getting online this morning to figure out how to make a cherry pie to celebrate the birthday of David, my beau. I’ve done tons of baking in my life but cherry pie has never been my thing. Since it’s his only request, how can I refuse? Especially since he made the most amazing German chocolate cake at my request when I was the birthday girl. So I'm off to shop for ingredients, experience a new baking adventure, then run all over two counties. (By the way, another blogger here has posted a recipe that sounds good:  http://lifeincharente.blogspot.com/2011/03/cherry-pie-and-butternut-soup-st.html. I'll let you know how it goes.)
      Thank God for birthdays and holidays. If we didn’t have days of celebration, it would be way too easy to get caught up in our daily checklists of chores. Celebrations help us rip off the blinders and remember who and what is important in life.
      P.S., Daughter, what kind of birthday cake did you make my son-in-law?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Parties Can Be Hard! (especially if you want to party hard)

I'm currently in the process of planning my husband's 28th birthday party.  This is a special one, not because of his age, but because we haven't been at home to celebrate his birthday in four years.  We have had two parties in the past 5 months, and though both were successful, I tend to go very overboard and stress myself out, probably unnecessarily.

To make things easier for myself (and others!) I've made a list of what I have done in the past and how successful it was, and what I feel needs to be done in the future.

Food:  A dinner party is one thing, a big blow-out get-together of the size and style that we normally throw is entirely another.  The first party we threw (a housewarming) I cooked like crazy!  An enormous pan of vegetarian enchiladas, bacon popcorn, havarti cheese bread, salsa corn muffins, cheesecake brownies... shockingly, they ate the enchiladas, but little else, despite my best efforts.  It was GOOD (not to toot my own horn) but people were concerned with drinking and socializing and most (despite my warnings) ate before they came- so food was not the priority.  I learned.  I thought maybe sweet snacking food would be better.  The next party (new year's) I went more simply- homemade cookies, amaretto balls (I had no rum, but they were WONDERFUL) and an attempt at homemade toffee that, while not toffee, was delicious.  If I hadn't thrown them away (a month later) I would STILL have 2/3 of everything.

The moral?  Save the baking and cooking for dinner parties.  For a drinking party, minimal is necessary.  For this party, I'm going to make fancy jell-o shots (a la those found at jellatio.com) and an ice cream cake (http://www.cakesbydairyqueen.com/dairy-queen-cake-recipe.asp)

Cleaning:  While I know that I'll STILL do a ton of cleaning, regardless of what I say, little is necessary, depending on the layout of your residence.  Unfortunately in my case, the front door enters through the kitchen.  The first room your guests enter is vital, and must be cleaned from top to bottom... mostly.  Scrubbing the baseboards are not something I plan to do, and honestly, not necessary.  Think about what your guests will see... in my case, the fridge.  I also know that many people who will be attending are allergic to cats- there are three in my house (no, I'm not a crazy cat lady, I have one, my husband has one, and our roommate has one) so I will vacuum the furniture.  Also, and it's a pain, always ALWAYS clean the bathroom.  Even a quick wipe-down of the toilet will suffice.  The bathroom is something everyone will see, and it mustn't look... well, like mine does, as though two men were maliciously dirtying every possible surface.

Prep:  I consistently try to get as much of the above two things done as early as possible.  This is difficult because, as I said, I have two men living with me.  Today is Thursday, the party is Saturday, I scrubbed the floor Sunday.  I want to kick myself.  I've had to approximately twice a day remind them to take off their shoes.  I cleaned the bathroom about two weeks ago, I will certainly have to do that again today.  Vacuuming, the same, but I blame that on cats, not males.

As far as food prep, I can't do much this time, but make sure to have your recipes printed out and ready to go in advance, triple check the day before you start cooking that you have ALL the ingredients (never assume!) and carefully look to see if there is anything you can do early.  At our housewarming, I made the enchilada filling the day before (and man, was it hard not to eat it!) and the cheesecake brownies as well.  Make certain that anything that needs to chill overnight is accounted for!

Continue to make certain that your roommate doesn't tromp around with his shoes on.  That's my second biggest task.  The first is to get motivated to start cleaning now!