Monday, August 31, 2020

Millionaire's Shortbread, Take One

Malcolm and I were hoping to make a fougasse this weekend, but the GBBO version called for bread flour and the King Arthur Baking version called for dry milk, both difficult to find. So that will have to wait for a future bake. Instead I decided Millionaire's Shortbread would be fun to try.

The shortbread portion was easy enough. We got that in the oven and baked then started on the caramel while that was cooling. The kids and I all took turns stirring, though some of my control/anxiety comes out on things like this and I was constantly itching to take back over the stirring since I really wasn't confident in the kids' ability to actually stir properly and avoid burning. I was so worried about it burning and about following the instructions exactly (which just talked about getting it to thicken and not so much about the color), that I forgot to use my brain and previous knowledge about what color caramel should be. And didn't really make that realization until it was already poured on top of the shortbread and in the fridge. But it at least seemed thick enough!

Final product. Shortbread probably could've used a slightly longer bake as well, just to brown a tad more. Caramel definitely needed more caramelizing. Texture is right and it tastes fine, but doesn't have a very strong caramel flavor at all.

So now we have a 9x13 pan of very rich cookies that are just okay. Ryan and everyone had looked at me like I was out of my mind when I suggested we just make an 8x8, but apparently they weren't realizing how rich these would be. 

I also think the shortbread layer could be thicker to better balance the quite thick caramel layer. I'm thinking next batch we use the same amount of shortbread in the 8x8 pan and then halve the caramel and chocolate amounts, which should give us a shortbread layer that's twice as thick with caramel and chocolate layers as they are here.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

First Harvest and Bakewell Tart

The kids were supposed to be at Camp Quest this week, but that is, of course, cancelled this year. They did get camp shirts still though!

And we picked our first snap peas and carrot from our little raised bed. We may not get many more snap peas, because mildew has taken over the plants. I'm hoping that if we're able to plant earlier next year that will lead to more harvest before we have such issues. And I found a recipe for something that's supposed to be preventative (I tried it out, but didn't seem to be very effective at clearing up the issue after it's taken hold). I'm okay with not getting much this year as we got started late and I went in knowing it would primarily be experimental this year. We had one carrot that we were positive was ready, so pulled it out to find this:

Lots of leafy green, very little carrot! We had a good laugh about it, but it still tasted good. And we have several others growing that will hopefully get a bit longer than that!

This weekend's bake was the classic Bakewell Tart. The combination of flavors is mentioned/used so frequently on GBBO, that this became a must-try. We used a King Arthur Baking recipe again, but switched out the raspberry jam for cherry. We'd decided we wanted to try out frangipane and this particular combo of frangipane-cherry flavor. This bake also gave me the opportunity to try out the ceramic baking beans I bought with some of my birthday gift cards, so I was excited about that.

I threw in my pie chain weight (that was never sufficient on its own) as well, just for good measure. I think the ceramic would've been plenty though. And this is the first time I've tried a blind bake where the bottom of the pastry crust didn't bubble up! So already pleased with this purchase.

We used one of our new pastry bags to help spread the frangipane. I meant to start the spiral in the center and failed, much to my chagrin. But used a knife to smooth it all out after anyway, so guess it doesn't matter much in the end. Everyone took a turn trying out using the pastry bag.

Gareth and Mal enjoyed sprinkling the sliced almonds on top before it went in for the final bake.

Finished! The edge of the crust didn't turn out very neat. This time I tried leaving excess crust on while it blind baked, but wasn't really sure of the best way or time to trim the excess and have it look neat. I'll have to experiment with different approaches to see what works best for us.

Nice layers of jam and frangipane. 

It's tasty, but the almond extract is the predominant flavor by far. This looks like the typical proportions based on pictures on the internet, but I still wonder if we needed more jam and maybe less almond extract. I looked up a variety of frangipane recipes, and some use almond extract while others use vanilla (and rely on just the almond flour for the almond flavor), others use a combination of almond and vanilla extracts, while still others don't use any extracts at all. So lots of future experimentation that we can do with this recipe to determine what our preferences are.

All of us enjoyed it, except for Mal. He wasn't much of a fan day of, but tried it again today and decided he did like it after all. This was another one that was pretty easy, so we'll have to make it again. We also have custard tart on our "to-do" list, which is one I'd really like to get good at since I love custards, pudding, mousse and such things.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

More Quarantine Baking

We really don't have anything else to do, so more baking it is! A couple weekends ago we opted for a repeat of the florentines, which were thoroughly enjoyed by all. This past weekend we returned to something new, but stuck with an easy cookie, making some "Magic in the Middles". Quite easy (though definitely follow the recommendation in the reviews to chill the peanut butter middles) and so tasty.

Mal helping mix together the peanut butter and powdered sugar. I took over after a bit since it took some work to get them to thoroughly combine. Then we divided the mixture into 26 and set them on a cookie sheet in the fridge while we made up the chocolate dough. Gareth learned the hard way when making these again that you shouldn't overwork the peanut mixture. If you spend too much time handling it, the peanut butter gets warm and soft. Then you have to leave it in the fridge longer than the dough takes to mix (if it's soft it is harder to wrap the dough around the peanut butter.)

Weighing out ingredients for the chocolate dough:

Everyone helping to roll, fill, and coat in sugar (and apparently we didn't quite get all our produce put away after picking up groceries and decided to just work around it).

I got the job of flattening the cookies with the bottom of a glass. 

Finished product!

They were declared "Amazing!" by Ryan. Rather than having Gareth make dinner today, we had him make another batch of these. Don't worry, we didn't eat just these for dinner (thought it's tempting!) - I made up dinner instead.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Backyard Camping

We were able to have our house cleaners come for the first time since February this week. Of course, we had to be out of the house while they were here. This meant hanging out in the backyard, with Ryan and myself set up to get work done. But how to entertain the kids for a couple hours?

Ryan had the brilliant idea to task them with figuring out how to set up and take down the tent. We told them if they did this, they could sleep in the tent with me Friday night (we need some more gear to make Ryan comfortable sleeping in the tent, plus we only have 3 sleeping bags, since the last time we camped Mal was 2 or 3, so Ryan sadly can't join us).

It ended up being a great task for a 13 year old. Mal wasn't as into it, until he could see it starting to take shape and see that it really was a tent. He helped with some of the poles and with the stakes. 

We then let them play in the tent a bit while the cleaners wrapped up and we completed our workdays before having them take it back down. They're quite excited to do some backyard camping this weekend.

While they did this, I discovered that the deck is a great place to sit in the afternoon and finish up charting/attend meetings. The sun isn't shining directly on it anymore and you often get a nice breeze. I'll definitely have to start sitting out there in the afternoon whenever I can!

Thursday, July 30, 2020


Mal has long loved going on bike rides. In the trailer. On the front seat of Colin's bike. He was always drawn to the bike racks at Gareth's old elementary school, wanting to ring all the bells and touch the wheels and just look at the bikes. So I thought for sure he'd be one of those 3 or 4 year olds riding around without training wheels. But then we tried to put him on the balance bike and he was frustrated and nervous. We tried on and off, but usually with the same result. And then we moved to our current house, with no sidewalks and both streets a hill and getting him out on it got pushed down the importance list when it was such a battle to get him on board. So that's how we got to where we have been, with his inability to ride a bike constantly in the back of my mind as a semi-urgent thing that I feel kinda guilty and frustrated about.

I was finally going to give up and put the training wheels on Gareth's old red bike (that we got for his 5th birthday), knowing that it was probably a little small, but hoping spending some time on it would give him a little more confidence. We did that a couple weeks ago. There was some frustration still, caused by being a little too big for the bike and by the fact that you pedal backwards to brake. But it did seem to be working - he was zooming around on it and getting more comfortable with the slight downhill of the elementary school playground. Then he forgot to brake, ran into the fence, scraped up his elbow when he fell off, and I'm pretty sure you could hear the screams of anger at how his bike was trying to kill him all the way in downtown.

We took a few days off for him to get over his wounded elbow, but knew we needed to get him back out. He knew there was another bike in the garage that would fit him better, but without training wheels. We opted for that one last weekend, removed the pedals (but brought them with us, just in case). Still lots of frustration on his part about the weight of the bike and how it kept trying to tilt over or turn (always the bike's fault, never his). But he was seeming to keep his balance pretty well, even if he wasn't zooming along confidently. Eventually, he was ready to give the pedals a go.

Within a couple tries, he was riding with only a little help to stay balanced as he got started. He even was willing to try to start on his own, but kept getting nervous and would stop before he could get going. We went out again the next day and I brought my bike. I wasn't getting much riding time since he kept stopping every time he got to a curve and I kept having to help him start. Finally I told him that I was going to ride around the playground once, but that I'd be back to help him. Of course, while I was doing that, he got started all on his own! He's not to the point where he gets going on his first try 100% of the time, but pretty close. Still some confidence work to do, but we're hoping to get him out practicing regularly to buoy that up.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Cast Iron Chocolate Chip Cookie

We were supposed to be driving down to Utah to visit with my sister's family this past weekend, but there's this little pandemic that put the kibosh on those plans. I know we're all getting bored with it, but Utah is particularly bad right now and so many places are getting worse that it's absolutely not the right time to be travelling and visiting family. We're feeling pretty sad about this, as we are finally at a place in our lives where we feel like we were settled enough (not in school, moving, changing jobs, buying a house, etc) and the kids are old enough that we can actually plan trips without them being terribly stressful. We weren't particularly going to enjoy driving for 13 hours, but it was going to be so worth it to hang out with their family for a week. This summer was also supposed to be the first year both kids went to sleep-away camp, and Ryan and I had planned to do some local exploring while they were gone. Hopefully next year.

Since we weren't able to make our Utah trip, we did some more baking. One of Ryan's birthday gifts for me was a new cast iron skillet. I'd finally accepted that I was never going to get around to scouring and re-seasoning the one we already had, and they're inexpensive enough that I figured I'd just get a new one and try to start off on a better footing with it than I did the last one. But I needed to measure the skillet to make sure I got the correct size and never got around to that. Ryan did, though, and it's so exciting to have a new one! I treated it to a few more layers of seasoning (I've done this recently on our small one and am really pleased with how it turned out/how it's been working).

Old one. Definitely not irredeemable, just needing more time than I have.

New one, all nice and shiny after I'd added a couple coats of oil
Ryan's spent the past few days reading up on cast iron; he probably knows way more than I do about it at this point. And he remembered a video we'd watched at a friend's house from America's Test Kitchen of them making a chocolate chip cookie in the cast iron. We decided that should be our first bake.

I started off by burning the butter (wasting so much butter lately with all my mistakes!), but once we re-started everything went smoothly. The end result - a giant chocolate chip cookie that didn't stick at all to the pan. Crispy on the edges and soft in the middle. A fun alternate way to make chocolate chip cookies if you aren't wanting to scoop and bake individual sheets.

Monday, July 6, 2020

July 4th and Birthday Bakes

Last weekend we did more garage clean out, starting with all the electronics boxes that for some reason we'd kept for years. I was so happy to get rid of this pile!

This weekend, we're hoping to give away this bike.

Ryan got it from a friend 5 years ago, but it needs a little work and then he stopped riding. He is wanting to start riding again, so tested it out and realized it is too small for him. Hopefully someone in the neighborhood will be able to use it. If we had tons of storage space, we could consider keeping it for Gareth, but we don't.

We returned to baking Friday night, trying our hand at florentines. Or "Quarantine Florentines", as the kids like to call them. Turns out they're pretty easy. The GBBO recipe is available, but Brits seem to like to add dried fruit to everything, and that wasn't really what we wanted. We started with our almonds, flour, orange peel and then mixed it in with our hot sugar/butter mixture. We let that cool while we put dinner together:

Then we rolled them into small balls and placed them on the cookie sheets:

We thought we'd provided plenty of room for them to spread, but apparently not. After the first tray, we stuck to 9 cookies per tray.

We even heated the chocolate over water. But decided not to really attempt tempering, and didn't pay attention to temperature while melting it.

The kids and Ryan had lots of fun making various designs in the chocolate. Because we didn't truly temper the chocolate, it got more dull as they cooled.

Mal got to have the first taste and deemed them good.

We'll definitely be making these again. And maybe next time we'll actually make an effort on the tempering.

For my birthday, we decided we'd try Nadiya's lemon drizzle cake with fondant. We'd decided we wanted to try a cake with marshmallow fondant (Ryan thought it looked fun to knead and work with) and this one seemed a good place to start.

We started the day by realizing the batteries in our kitchen scale were dying/dead. So I had to look up weight to cup conversions for all the dry ingredients. Then I realized the recipe was for an 8-inch pan and all of my pans are 9-inch, so I added 25% to all my calculations. It also calls for self-raising flour, which of course the stores don't have, so I needed to figure in how much baking powder to add to the all-purpose flour.

After a few laughable mistakes while trying to do all of the above too quickly, we got it mixed up and ready to go in the oven.

Rose quite a bit. Then I had a sickening realization. Almost as bad as when Toby realized he'd put salt instead of sugar into his technical challenge cake.

The recipe called for 8 oz of butter (so I needed 10). I'd put in 10 tablespoons of butter, half of what I needed. So, we set about to re-make the cake.

While waiting for the low-butter cake to finish, we got going on the lemon curd filling.

And learned that we should probably always start with a nice low heat. At least we're guessing that heating it too quickly is why we ended up with egg white chunks and needing to sieve our curd. Tasted delicious once the egg whites were gone!

Second cake out of the oven.

Cut in half, with buttercream and lemon curd filling. The curd seemed well-set, but I wasn't sure how to keep it from oozing out the sides. I'm sure there's some trick to it, or maybe I just should've got the curd even more set?

With the crumb coat on, trying to hold that curd filling in place.

The marshmallow fondant was weird to work with. Very sticky, unsurprisingly. Lovely and smooth to knead for a few strokes, but then it would just stick everywhere again. Maybe we needed even more powdered sugar? But it really didn't seem to matter how much we added. It rolled out beautifully, but then stuck to the counter in a couple spots right at the end and to get it off the counter caused some wrinkles. I was nervous that if I pushed down on it to try to smooth it too much, it would just smush all the filling out. Gareth made a braid and Ryan made a flower out of some of the excess fondant. Ryan thought the flower was hideous, but the kids insisted we put them on top of the cake.

Sure enough, after a bit, some curd started to ooze out.

But the leak stayed fairly small, so it survived to get candles on it.  Never having made a drizzle cake before, we weren't sure if we were really supposed to use all of the drizzle sauce on the cake. We've decided we probably were (or at least a lot more than we did). We were nervous it would become a soggy, collapsed mess if we put too much on, but turned out it didn't get very far down the crumb.

So, lots of lessons learned! And, despite all the mishaps, it was a fun way to spend the day. And the cake still tastes good, even if it was far from perfect.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Garden and Garage

I was supposed to go on a bike ride this morning, but woke up yesterday congested. Felt well most of the day, so was hoping it was just allergies, but woke up this morning feeling worse and decided it was best all around if I stayed home today. Disappointing, but hopefully I'll be better by next weekend and can get out then.

Our plants are sprouting more, though only the cilantro seems to have come up in the railing planter. And the left side of the raised bed is looking much less productive than the right side. No idea why. But what is coming up seems to be coming along nicely.

Ryan and I have embarked on a garage cleanout/reorganization project. We're trying to tackle a bit at a time, otherwise it'll be overwhelming. Yesterday we spent an hour or so and got our food shelf better organized. Ryan cleared up some cobwebs and did a bunch of shrub trimming outside so we could get in and out of the garage easier. Today we got a tool chest. Home Depot was disappointingly crowded, but once we found what we needed, we were able to get out quickly. We got it put together and put all the tools that have been sprawling over the garage floor for the past few years put away in it.

We still have a lot of work to do and a lot to get rid of. Planning to try and figure out some wall storage, a better way to store the bikes, and likely some more shelf storage. Hopefully in a few weeks we'll have made some good progress; it's been a project we've known needed to happen for a while, so it feels good to finally get around to it.

No baking this weekend, but we plan to be back at it next weekend - if my work and biking plans allow.

Friday, June 19, 2020

School End

Well, school has ended for the year. Very anticlimactic this year and it's not clear what things will look like in the fall. The childcare at the elementary school has been allowed to re-open, but Mal won't be going this summer since we're all working from home still. Lots of people are going to be losing childcare FSA money this year I'm guessing. Half of ours was supplied by my employer, so it won't be quite as painful if we don't use it all. The schools will only open full time in the fall if we're in phase 4, which everyone is assuming unlikely. We just got approved for phase 2 and it sounds like we're barely meeting requirements there, so I wouldn't be surprised if we have to move backwards in a few weeks.

Since it was a lame last day of school, it worked out nicely that I had the day off (I'm working an upcoming weekend day). I decided we should do some fun things since the kids didn't really have school. Mal wanted the three of us to play Overcooked, which we planned to do, but Ryan was using one of the controllers, so we'll get that in tomorrow instead.

Gareth and I went for our first bike ride in ages. Just 9 miles over to our old neighborhood and back. It includes some hills but is very doable. I'm going to be in some pain tomorrow since it's been a couple months since I last rode and because I'd also gone for a run this morning. It felt good to get out though and was a nice way to spend an hour. We stopped by a friend's house and had a brief outside conversation before making our way back.

After injuring his back on his birthday when he tried to lift his heavy pillow as though it was a regular pillow, Ryan's realized he needs to be moving more than an occasional walk and dips/pushups. A friend told him biking has helped with his back, so Ryan might actually get into biking again. He has a bike that this friend gave him a few years ago, but apparently it needs a little work - we just can't remember what it needs. One of my big barriers to getting out on rides alone is that I don't actually know a lot of maintenance stuff or how to fix things if something goes awry while I'm out. We're hoping to start learning together.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Potato Cheese Sticks, Fence, and Butter Herb Loaf

We didn't do nearly as much baking last weekend, partly due to the fact that we still had cheesecake left from Ryan's birthday. But we did try out another Julia Child recipe: Potato Cheese Sticks. Basically just riced potato mixed with egg, flour, cheese, butter, and seasonings.

The mixture got easier to pipe as it cooled a bit, simply because it held its shape better. The first tray kinda flattened out a bit, while the second tray (above) held their shape better. I was shocked that Mal actually liked them, considering he hates potatoes and cheese. The texture is a bit like a french fry - still soft in the center, but a little crunch on the outside. I was worried they'd taste terrible as they cooled, but they're actually fine.

Now that things are opening up a bit, we were finally able to get our broken fence replaced. We'd realized that each section was going to fall apart one by one, so we may as well replace the whole thing since the people we bought the house from clearly didn't get it built correctly. The team came early in the week to remove the old fence and to pour concrete for new posts, then came a few days later to put the new fence up.

New gates that actually function!

It feels good to have got one repair/improvement project done. This weekend's baking is a butterflake herb loaf.

Kids did most of the work mixing up the dough

Mal wandered off, so Gareth and I put together the butter-herb filling
All of us worked to cut out the circles, spread with filling, fold in half, and place in the loaf pan. Our pan was a little bigger than called for, so instead of two loaves we made one.

Before baking

We used the scraps to make all sorts of rolls

This one was just 4 pieces of scrap placed together with filling between.
 All done! Some crackage along the side, which I'm sure means we did something wrong. But tastes great! We'll definitely be making this one again.

Next up: Florentines.