Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Christmas 2020

In these last couple weeks we've kept busy with the usual holiday trappings. We started by opening a variety of advent presents each night.

Ryan ate the first grapefruit of the season:

We ordered our usual bushel plus my brother and his wife gifted us a quarter bushel. Which has turned out to be a good amount to have. Mal ate 1.5 all by himself one morning! Gareth suggested that as they get older we should just plan to purchase 3-4 bushels each year to get us through the Christmas season. Which probably would be what we'd need to match their growing appetites and give them their grapefruit fill.

We made cookies - cranberry swirls and magic in the middles. The kids took charge of the magic in the middle cookies both times we made those. Also made fudge and toffee.

We managed to give away a good size chunk of the fudge to a friend dropping off secret Santa presents. This chunk was over 1 pound and we still have so much more! We normally give away at least half of the fudge, but that's more difficult to do in covid times.

We got a little snow! We were all shocked when our rain started to turn to slush and then snow as night fell the Monday before Christmas. It was beautiful, but I had to work on-site on Wednesday, so was very pleased that it melted the next day. Kids were less pleased.

We were gifted our first-ever fruitcake. Very beautiful. Mal was not a fan. Not bad, but a little goes a long way and not a flavor I'm super used to. I could probably acclimate if I had enough of them? But I also don't love raisins in carrot cake, so maybe not.

Before we knew it, Christmas was here!

Gareth received a 2020 Mad Libs style game from his secret Santa. You roll a die to fill in the blanks with horrors of the year, such as "lockdown hair" and "meth gators". It gave us some good Christmas morning laughs.

Mal received a stuffed tiger which he has named Hobbes and has been inseparable from ever since.

The kids got mini waffle makers from a friend and made their own breakfast the next morning! (This age where you trust them to be independent is seriously the best.)

We got them multiple project packs from KiwiCo. Including this Christmas carousel that they worked together to build.

And a couple nights ago we tested out the kids' new coats and the light-up stomp rockets. Both worked excellently and it was definitely cool to see the rockets fly up in the dark. Gareth was able to get the rockets to go especially high/far, though we had to tell him to scale it back a bit so they would stay in the yard and not get stuck in the trees. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tree, Home Repair, and Latkes and Sufganiyot

Last weekend we made an appointment to get our tree and yet again find ourselves debating whether or not to find a new place to tree shop next year. We managed in the end to find a decently tall tree for a more reasonable price, so it worked out. But I've heard good things about a tree farm that runs a local lot not far from us; I think we'll check them out next year rather than going to the nursery again. 

We had a good time putting on the lights and ornaments. Every year the kids find more burnt out lights - I'm surprised we haven't run out of replacement bulbs yet. These lights are at least 5 years old, so are probably reaching the end of their reasonable lifespan. Maybe next year I'll get around to getting some LED ones. Both kids still can't resist clumping multiple ornaments into a single area of the tree.

We finally got the basement wall fixed. We were a little nervous about having workers come in when infection numbers are rising. But we were able to move all of us up to the main/upper floor for work/school and workers were able to mostly come in and out through the garage, minimizing interactions in the same space. 

When they opened up the wall, there was only a small spot of mold on the back of the drywall, right behind where the baseboard was. Everything else was in good shape and totally dry. Their best guess was we'd been lucky and the water had run right through rather than soaking into everything. So they patched the wall back up. The next day they put down new carpet padding where we'd removed wet padding and tacked the carpet back down.

And the next day they painted wall to wall and put new trim on. It looks so good and we're very excited to have this space usable again! Of course, to do what we'd like to (get a custom-built desk along this wall and move all computers over there), we'll need more outlets along that wall at some point. So it might be a while before it's really where we want it, but we're thinking of moving the giant desk back to this side of the room for now and then we can at least start coming up with some ideas for what to do with the rest of the basement space.

G has been getting really into Kerbal Space Program over the past few months, and drew up this design for a satellite. I don't know if this is what it ended up as, but he did get a satellite into orbit. And made a shuttle to get to the Mun and was able to return from the Mun. He and Ryan are very excited for Kerbal 2 to come out in a couple years.

Our friends who usually host a white elephant are replacing it with a secret santa this year. With the help of my sister, I discovered this local yarn shop and was able to select some useful gifts for a knitter on our list. They were super helpful at selecting items over the phone and then had them ready to go for curbside pickup when I dropped by later in the day.

And we got latkes and sufganiyot from a local Jewish deli/bakery. I have never fried up latkes myself, so was a little nervous about that, but it went pretty well. Served with sour cream and applesauce and paired with an acorn squash and it made quite a filling dinner. To be honest, the sufganiyot look a little dark and overdone on the outside, but they still tasted delicious (and I'm not about to deep fry anything like this on my own, so I'm not going to complain). Chocolate, cardamom cream, mango, marionberry, and cranberry filled. 

I'm hoping to get in some holiday cookie baking today, but also need to work on starting a lit review so I can reach out to a couple doctors tomorrow to propose a possible case study we could write up. Ryan has lots of reading to do as well to try and get up to speed at his new job. So some of the baking might be pushed to mid-week.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020

Mal had the whole week off, due to parent teacher conferences. I really like his teacher this year - she's working so hard but also seems to have incredibly reasonable expectations and recognize this is not ideal for anyone. She also seems to really "get" Malcolm and how his brain works and appreciates a lot of his quirks that I felt like his teacher last year either just didn't get or else didn't particularly like. I so wish he could have her in-person! This break came at a great time for him as his frustration with remote school was ramping up.

I only had off on Thanksgiving day, so didn't get any prep done ahead of time. I'm tempted next year to just push the feast to Saturday, so I can do some prep Friday evening. This whole middle of the week holiday where you're supposed to cook a bunch of food is just ridiculous. Anyway, it all came together and we managed to get a dinner on the table, albeit a somewhat late one.

I decided this year to have the butcher cut up the turkey into all its parts. Mal was not happy about this, as he reminded me regularly through the day, talking about how sad and boring the turkey was to look at, asking if we could use edible glue to paste it back together, and so on. Instead of my usual herb/salt/pepper/butter mixture under the skin, opted to follow a recipe from Bon Appetit, which called for a dry brine. I let that sit in the fridge for 24 hours.

It looked beautiful when done:

It was moist and nice enough, but I wasn't a big fan of the resulting flavor. Just didn't seem to penetrate into the actual meat much (none of us like eating the skin) and what did was kind of "meh". So I think next year I'll try it cut up like this, but go back to my usual herb/salt/pepper/butter under the skin method. Mal will be happy about that as he really didn't like the flavor of the rub and glaze, though I'm sure he'll still complain about the turkey being cut up.

The stuffing was also a bit of a let down because the store was out of my usual Pepperidge Farm cubed stuffing and so substituted Franz. Honestly, my kitchen smelled gross for most of the day, because the stuffing just smelled like wet toast. It actually tasted okay, but not amazing and definitely not what I'm used to. Pouring gravy over it helped. I'll have to be sure to stock up on the stuffing early next year!

Our brie-persimmon toast was delicious and Ryan and Gareth ate all but one of these between them.

We also had the usual mashed potatoes and ended the evening with pumpkin pie. I managed to successfully blind bake my crusts this year. The one started to catch a bit, but the pies still turned out great.

The boys all slept in and spent some time outside and playing video games. My feet were killing me by the end of the day - that's what happens when I don't get to make anything ahead of time I guess. Overall, a lovely day, but still thinking next year might be a Saturday Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Home Repairs

We've had two companies come to give quotes on the basement now, and generally positive news there - doesn't sound like the wall is actively damp and both companies sounded hopeful that the mold problem isn't widespread. Just overall hopeful that it will be a pretty quick and relatively inexpensive/painless fix.

One of the companies is a general contracting company and, on a whim, I asked if they also can fix dry rot. Our inspector noted some on an exterior window sill when we bought the house. This issue has been in the back of my mind since we moved in - one of those things that you're terrified to start getting fixed because it can suddenly become a much bigger issue/repair than you thought it would be, but you also know that by putting it off you're increasing the odds that it'll be a bigger repair. So figured while we had a company that could deal with this out, we may as well have them take a look.

The news on the rot was not good, unfortunately. Apparently the compromised part of the window on old windows like ours you can't just easily cut out and replace. Or if you tried to it'd be super expensive. They said we'll be spending about the same money to just replace the entire window. There's a beam above the window that he was particularly worried about because it has no protection from the elements but is a support beam for the house. So if that's gone bad it becomes a big job. Now, if we're very lucky, all we'll need to do is remove and replace the window (they might even be able to save the mahogany window trim). If they pull it out and discover the rot has spread, then we're likely to have asbestos in the walls and that becomes the nightmare increasing costs scenario. They won't even quote for the asbestos abatement because we can't predict yet if it'll be needed and cost would depend on the extent of the rot, so is highly unpredictable. So the whole thing is rather terrifying to think about. Silver lining is getting a couple new (less drafty) windows. And I'll have some peace of mind once it's done. 

At least I've finished paying off student loans before we're doing all of this house work?

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Furlough Part II

Day 4: Made some calls to a couple places to request quotes on fixing our basement (remember our first fall when we discovered water leaking in? We got the external drainage issues fixed pretty quickly (we think...), but are pretty sure there's mold in the wall and it's taken us until now to be ready to fix that). Hopefully we'll hear back soon and be able to move forward on that work. It'll be so nice to have the full basement useable without worrying about what horrors may be growing in the wall.

Also did some more baking, with some cinnamon star bread. This is one I've been wanting to try out for a while. Turned out to be quite easy, but looks and tastes amazing. Our house isn't exactly warm, so my proving times definitely took longer than called for in the recipe, but that's okay.

Day 5: Honey Popcorn. Several years ago we planned to make this a Halloween tradition and then..didn't. Guess we got busy with other things. But since we aren't doing costumes or trick or treating this year, decided we should bring this back. 

Halloween: Headed to Emily and Daniel's place to sit distanced around the firepit, enjoy our popcorn, and roast some marshmallows. Mal declared it the "best night ever". Uncle Daniel introduced the kids to roasting Starbursts, which they both loved. All in all, a great weekend evening and one we'll have to repeat soon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Furlough Part I

I have to take two weeks of furlough over the next few months and was able to get this week as my first one - which, after the past few weeks, turned out to be even better timing than I had anticipated.

Day 1: House cleaners came, so we hung out outside for a couple hours. Unfortunately, it was quite cold here earlier this week, so this wasn't so pleasant. Once the kids hit a school break, I placed our bagel order and had everyone get in the car while I picked up the bagels. Then we decided we should keep ourselves warm a bit longer by driving by Daniel and Emily's house. Ryan was the only one who had seen it up close before, so that was a good excuse to drive by. 

But the big afternoon activity was the exciting one - I hung up the artwork! Huge thanks to my mom and sister for their long-distance assistance in thinking through where and how to hang these. Ryan and I had thought about spreading them out through various rooms and I was a bit worried about having them all in the living room (would it make the whole room feel like it has a "theme"?). Partly because we have so many walls and so little to go on them. And even when thinking about the living room I was thinking they'd have to be spread all throughout the room. Then realized they work so much better all together here, which prevents the room from feeling like is themed around this one thing, but also tells the story so much better than they would spread all over. Having some art on those walls also helps this little corner feel less disjointed from the rest of the room. This is why I have my mom and sister help with this stuff - I'm terrible at visualizing things like this and they're not.

Day 2: Let the kids skip school. They were supposed to have their annual doctor visit, but their doctor was sick, so we just got flu shots instead. Mal amused us all by stating that the flu shot "felt kind of satisfying". After we got home from that, we played some Star Dew Valley together and baked a spider bundt cake. We definitely had some slight stickage issues with the cake (I think our pan must've been a larger size than called for, but dumb pans don't list their size on them so I had no easy way of telling; looks like a typical size bundt pan to me, but maybe not). Once we got the cake out and cooled, the decoration was super easy.

Day 3: More chill. I'm gradually getting old childhood silver fillings replaced as my dentist determines they're needed, so spent an hour on that this morning. Spent the rest of the morning comparing healthcare plans for open enrollment (so fun) and then will take Ryan downtown later to collect his belongings from his old office before his last day next week. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Early Fall

Well, had a nice roll of fairly consistent posting there until September hit. September meant the start of school and ramping up preparations for an organizational go-live at work (we changed our electronic health record, a process that's been in the works for over 2 years). I was a superuser for that, which meant I had to assist others in our department before, during, and after go-live. Basically, worked many 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week for the past few weeks. But got to be on-site again, which I've missed so much! I've also moved into the ketogenic/biochemical genetics cohort at least through the end of the year, which means at the same time as go-live I was also training in keto (ugh, no you shouldn't do keto to lose weight, it is only evidence-based for intractable epilepsy and is actually quite dangerous if not monitored carefully). It's been stressful, but I'm really enjoying being in a stable place.

Our weekend baking has dropped off considerably with all this. But I did make up some mini donuts one day! And had serious issues making the glaze. Not really sure why. The chocolate chips I had on hand were Nestle; not sure if they changed something in their formulation recently, but every time I tried to melt them they just became a semi-melted, semi-solid gloopy separated mess! Never had that happen before. I finally just pulled out some baking chocolate squares and that worked immediately. So bizarre, but enough of an issue that I'll likely stick to Ghirardelli chocolate chips in future. Had recently had those and melted them without issue. Donuts were oven-baked and just from a KAB mix and were delicious. It's tempting to get a couple regular-size donut pans, but we don't really have room for them so we won't.

Ryan splurged and purchased a new microphone for himself. He's been wanting this one for a long while and has been very excited for how much better his sound quality is on his meetings and calls now. I'm gradually realizing we need a bigger house for his audio hobby as he acquires more microphones and various equipment. While I was in the middle of go-live, he was doing some job interviews (our poor kids those couple weeks!). He'll be starting a new job at the end of November, which should provide some good challenges and growth.

Anyone else's grocery stores start using these short bags?? I'm not sure if they're just using them for grocery pickup or what. With COVID, they stopped letting people re-use bags. Not sure what they're doing in-store now, but for the past few weeks we've just been getting these when we pick up groceries. I've been sending all our excess paper bags to the school for the lunch/food programs to use, so hopefully these ones will work just as well as the regular size ones!

We finally got Ryan's album artwork back from the framer! They did such a nice job - worth the 8 month wait. Now we just need to decide where to hang them all. Hopefully before tomorrow because house cleaners are coming tomorrow so would be nice not to have these hanging out on the floor still.

We voted! I love our vote by mail system here. No waiting in lines or having to rush to a polling station during lunch or after work. And that I can track my ballot as well as see my voting history online. If vote by mail isn't the default in your state, I highly recommend you work toward it. (Assuming this isn't the last election we have. *nervous laugh*) I think it took several years to implement here, but was in place by the time we arrived. Voting here is so much easier and I'm way more informed about the issues and candidates that I'm voting for than anywhere else I've ever lived (some places don't send out any voter information at all, so finding out who candidates are can be really difficult). Basically, WA voting makes all other states I've voted in look super regressive. Lest you think WA is too perfect, we have one of the most regressive tax systems and likely an impossible battle to move toward anything more progressive on that front, sadly.

And we tried some new teas! We needed to replenish our MarketSpice (cinnamon orange) tea anyway, so also grabbed some Princess Grey while I was at it. Got a very small amount of their Egg Nog as well. Ryan was not a fan of the egg nog tea; I didn't mind it, but definitely not one I'll sit and drink a lot of. Princess Grey, on the other hand, is delicious. I enjoy Earl Grey typically and also enjoy a good London Fog now and then (if I get it at Starbucks I request they use waaay less sweetener than they typically put in - they make both their chai latte and their London Fog super syrupy and cloying - yuck). This has some of those London Fog flavors (lavender), but without the sweetener. I think we're rapidly approaching the need to clear out and dedicate a whole cupboard shelf to our tea supply.

Isn't that gorgeous? Earl Grey + rose + lavender

And that brings us up to the present. We're spending the weekend watching some Halloween movies (Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, Evil Dead - only with Gareth on that one!). I'm on furlough this week, so planning some fun Halloween activities to do with the kids since we won't be trick-or-treating. 

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.