Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The letter I did get today

Dear Parents:

We're almost half way through First Session and looking forward to welcoming you to Visitor Day.
You will have time to tour the farm, see your child's living unit and meet their counselors. We will be serving a delicious lunch, having an assembly and then ask that you plan to depart at 3pm so that we can get back to our regular camp schedule and activities.
Please do not bring the following to Visitor Day:
Please no pets. We cannot allow pets of any kind out on the farm, even with a leash, and cars parked in the meadow will become far to hot to leave an animal inside. There are concerns for diseases coming in with your pets as well as things they may pick up on the farm and take home. Please respect this request.
Please do not bring sugary snacks, soda or candy. We provide homemade desserts on a regular basis and it is only a week and a half until they can enjoy candy and soda at home.
Please go not bring small toys or toys/games with small pieces. At the end of the summer, camp returns to being a farm and animals will be grazing in the meadows. Packaging and plastic parts are dangerous for the animals and we appreciate your cooperation in keeping their pastures safe.

Now, I ask you...what self-respecting parent brings a dog, a six pack of Coke, M&Ms, and Legos to Visitor Day? I'm bringing a companion plane ticket and a stun gun.

Sigh. Time to break out the chocolate.

Grandma's Brownie Mix Cookies*

Buy a box of brownie mix, preferably Ghirardelli Ultimate Fudge Brownie
Follow the directions on the box to make the dough.

Heat oven to 350. Drop dough into roughly tablespoon sized rounds onto a parchment or Silpat covered baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches around each one as these spread quite a bit.

Bake for 8-9 minutes, or until edges are crisp and tops of cookies are dry but still shiny. Incredibly easy! The transformation that comes from cooking them this way is just amazing. They are thin, just a tiny bit crispy on the edge, and melt-in-your-mouth chocolate heaven in the middle. When you serve them, no one ever guess how you did it.

* My mom invented this. There was a special on brownie mix, plus she had a coupon, so she stocked us both up.

Cookie shown here being enjoyed by the older brother who is reveling in both his sister's absence and my culinary response to it.

The letters I did not get in the mail today

Dear Mom,

I love camp! Thank you, thank you for sending me to this awesome place. I have made 28 new best friends, and my counselors all want to adopt me. I said no, because I love you so much. Sorry I haven't written sooner, but I've been busy helping bottle feed the baby kittens and learning to identify edible plants from the meadow. Don't worry, I'm brushing and flossing extensively every day, and we all read aloud to each other every night after the campfire songs. Even though I am having the time of my life, I think about you all the time and miss you like crazy. Can you bake some cookies and save some for when I get back?

Dear Mom,

Get. Me. Out. Now. Cow bit me yesterday, and I had to weave my own band-aid while the blood was clotting. They made me eat raw squash. Can't say more...evil older kids stole my flashlight and the dark is not my friend. No one is. Hate this. Hate you.

Maybe no news is good news, after all.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tomato! Tomato!

One of my favorite true life stories, ever:

A young woman goes to an audition, and the casting director asks her to sing the very famous Gershwin song, "Let's call the whole thing off!"

She takes the sheet of lyrics, and proceeds to belt out happily
(phonetics added by me, since I can't sing aloud here):

You like to-may-toes, and I like to-may-toes
You like po-tay-toes, and I like po-tay-toes
To-may-to! To-may-to! Po-tay-to! Po-tay-to!
Let's call the whole thing off!

She did not get the job.

I like tomatoes. Especially when they are ripe from the farm stand, like the ones we had tonight.

Easy Summer Tomato Salad

Ripe, juicy tomatoes, preferably from a great produce place or your yard
A few basil leaves
Good olive oil
Good balsamic vinegar
Cracked black pepper
Crumbled blue cheese

Slice the tomatoes. Put on a plate. Tuck the basil in around the tomatoes so it looks nice. Drizzle with a little olive oil and vinegar. Sprinkle generously with pepper, and finish off with a nice amount of blue cheese crumbles on top. Serve immediately.

The Devil is in the Details

The message of the week in class today was "Pay attention to the details." I was inspired. When I got home, I noticed the following little things that might otherwise have escaped me:

The dog is overdue for a bath.
The clock in my car is running about 2 minutes fast.
The baseboards need dusting.
My daughter is missing.

I decided to pay attention to the recipe for peanut butter cookies instead.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Recipe adapted from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

1/2 c. (1 stick) of butter, softened
1 c. chunky supermarket peanut butter*
3/4 c. sugar, plus some extra for sprinkling
1/2 c. brown sugar, packed
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 Tbs. milk
1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. peanut butter chips, optional

Heat oven to 350. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and peanut butter together until fluffy, then add the sugars and blend until smooth. Add the egg, mix well. Then add the milk and the extracts. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, and then blend into the butter/sugar/egg/vanilla part. If using, now's the time to stir in the peanut butter chips. The dough will be soft. Drop by rounded teasponfuls onto parchment or Silpat covered baking sheets, leaving plenty of room for them to spread during baking. Using a fork (dip into a glass of cold water if it sticks as you're doing this), form criss-cross patterns on cookies, but don't flatten too much. Sprinkle cookies with a little sugar. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the edges are just beginning to turn brown. Do not over bake! Cookies might look underdone, but they are not. Cool on the cookie sheets for a bit, then finish cooling on wire racks.

* Don't use the goopy all-natural organic stuff. It's OK for the lunchbox at your granola school, but it just won't cut it in these cookies.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tough day at the office

My son has his first "job" this summer. He's a Counselor-In-Training for the day camp at our local park. I was dying to know how his first day went.

Me: So? How'd it go?
Him: OK.
Me: (Restating the question): What did you do all day?
Him: I was with the five and six year olds. I watched them make bead art, and then, since it was water day, I just sort of squirted them a lot. But you're not going to believe this, Mom. There were these two kids in my group. The whole day all they did was complain about the other one!
[He gestures and makes faces to demonstrate as he quotes.]
"He pinched me!" "He hit me!" Like all day they did this. Seriously!
I'm not kidding! And then, when they had to pair up...
[here he is practically sputtering with incredulity]
...THEY PICKED EACH OTHER! What's up with that?
[I struggle to look appropriately mystified by this bizarre behavior.]
Me: Hmm. That is strange.
Him: I know, right? Kids. They're just nuts.

Mother's intuition?

My mom was spot on, yet again. Sadly. RIP Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My faith is a tiny bit tested

I received the following e-mail from my daughter's camp:

"The buses rolled in just after dinner and campers and counselors headed off for their first campfire. Summertime must be here as we hear singing, reading and laughing echoing across the meadows.

We and our staff are excited to greet campers for another great summer at [not your house*].

Thank you for entrusting us with your children...we look forward to offering them a summer of friendship, learning and new experiences.


[The strangers who have your child*]"

I know this is supposed to be reassuring, but I am very worried about this claim that they can hear the children reading. Not physically possible. So is all the rest a big lie, too?

Must now make oatmeal cookies and calm down.

* Names and location have been changed to be more realistic.

Having faith

There's a wonderful quote at the end of Miracle on 34th Street: "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." It's hard to remember when you are caught up in the day to day mania of driving around in circles to the endless cycle of practices, games, practices, games, and more practices, adjudicating territorial disputes, cajoling reluctant flossers, enforcing homework completion, or wresting control of the remote from warm sweaty hands when dinner's on the table, but at its heart, parenting is all about faith.

For instance:

Believing that when you put your daughter on a bus full of strangers and wave goodbye that it's going to be the experience of a lifetime for her, when common sense tells you it's way too soon to let her go.

I cried as I walked away. But I have faith.

Luckily, I also have snickerdoodles* to tide me over until she's back.

Consolation Snickerdoodle Cookies

This recipe is the result of years of collaborative testing by my sister, my niece, my daughter, and me. Turns out we've had a few other moments between us where faith and snickerdoodles came in handy.

1/4 c. cream cheese, softened
1/4 c. shortening
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 2/3 c. flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

3 Tbs. sugar
3 tsp. cinnamon

Heat oven to 375. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, cream cheese, shortening, and sugar until fluffy. Blend in the eggs and the extracts. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Add dry ingredients to the large bowl, and mix well. In a shallow bowl, mix the sugar and cinnamon together. Form the dough into 1 1/2 inch balls, and then roll each ball in the cinnamon sugar until completely coated. Place about 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat. Gently flatten each ball with your fingers or the bottom of a glass. They will puff up during baking, and then flatten when they cool. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until just beginning to turn golden brown on the edges.

Eat by the handful. You'll feel a little better. Or just watch Miracle on 34th Street. It turns out that having faith works out all right in the end.

*These are my daughter's favorite cookies. She likes them even when everything's going great.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A force for fro yo

Whenever I pick up my mom to bring her over to our house, the ride home usually comes complete with Useful Advice For My Life*. Now, my mother would never presume to directly interfere herself (Eckhardt Tolle told her not to.) However, it turns out that there are numerous Higher Powers at work who have important messages for me, and Mom is just helping out.

To date, I have been the beneficiary of thoughts from:

All of the ladies on The View, except Elizabeth, although even she might be onto something with this gluten thing
The guest speaker from Hour of Power
Donald Trump and the celebrity apprentices
The Toluca Times movie and restaurant review staff**

And of course, Oprah. The Highest Power of all.

Here's an example of how Oprah is truly a force for good.

The Scene: Me, kids, mom, and dog, seated outside at Menchie's.

My son: Mom, did you bring the punch card?
Mom: (Lighting up) Oh! Yesterday, Oprah was talking about how to make money in today's economy. And you know what? She talked about these cards! It's one of her top things that everyone should do. It's free stuff, so you are making money every time you buy something. It's just amazing how easy it is.

[I begin frantically searching through my bag, because not only do I agree with this, but I can demonstrate that I was on it BEFORE Oprah even said anything. I triumphantly whip out my punch card, not only for Menchie's, but also for the car wash!***]

Mom: (beaming with pride) Good for you!
My son: Grandma, do you want anything?
Mom: No, thanks.
Me: Are you sure? It's really good.
Mom: No, no. I'm fine. Honestly.
My son: But Grandma, Oprah would want you to have one. It gets us an extra punch.
[Long pause]
Mom: You're right. I'll have vanilla with strawberries on top.

Image from Menchies website.

* Double bonus! When we actually get to my house, there are coupons.
** These last are not exactly Higher Powers, but they do tend to share her views on new releases and early bird dinner specials.
*** I have about 6 of these car wash cards, because I always forget to bring the old one when I go. Probably should not have taken credit for this.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What was he thinking? Update!

One good thing about having an extra-large dog. He apparently has an extra large gastro-intestinal system that is holding its own. No surgery!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What was he thinking?

I have done my best to reconstruct what must have been going through my dog's head when the incident occurred:

Hey. Something smells good.
Must be dinner time again! Yay!
[It is completely dark out, and everyone is asleep]
Hmm. Not seeing anything in my dish.
But there is that yummy smell* again. It must be for me.
Aha! It's coming from way up high on that table over there.
Don't worry guys, I can still reach it.
[Grabs with teeth for object while on tippy toes of hind legs]
Success! Yummy!
Ow! Ow! What the @#?%!
Ouch! Tasty though.
I should keep eating. Maybe it will be easier if I eat more of it.
Ow! OK. That's it.
Just one more bite.

[After two days of painstaking pulling of bristles from his ears, face, and paws, plus $447 in vet bills for x-rays, fluid and medication injections, with the potential for surgical removal if the sharp metal spikes in his gut don't come out on their own]

I'm hungry.

*Brush had been used to clean grill after the pool party burger event.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A suggestion for next time

I am pleased to report that regardless of the weather, kids will get in any available body of water and happily throw inflatable objects at each other for hours. The pool party was thus an unqualified success* in their minds.

With one small exception.

Child: You know, I have a suggestion for next time.
Hostess: Really? What's that?
Child: When you make the burgers, you should add a little bit of ground pork. It makes them especially juicy. Do you have any ground pork?
Hostess: No.
Child: Oh, well. Thanks anyway.

Thanks Anyway Burgers
Which, by the way, were "incredibly great", according to most of the guests.

Very good quality ground beef, at least 15% fat, but preferably 20%. Buy 1/4 pound for each child, and 1/3 pound for each adult.
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Form patties by hand no more than an hour or so before your BBQ. Score each lightly with a knife. Keep refrigerated. Heat your grill to medium high. Just before putting patties on the grill, sprinkle each side liberally with salt and pepper. Put on the grill and close it up. Cook 3-4 minutes, or until you see the edges beginning to brown. Flip. Close the grill again. If making cheeseburgers, wait 1 minute, then open up and add your cheese. I love these with gorgonzola, Swiss, or a sharp cheddar. Yesterday, we pretty much went with American cheese all around. Cook another couple of minutes, or until cheese is melted and you can't stand to wait another second.

Serve with warm buns, and all the fixings for people to make the burgers their own. All the fixings at our house means bacon, guacamole, mixed greens, arugula, red onions, tomatoes, bbq sauce, ketchup, relish, and Dijon mustard. Yesterday, it was basically bacon and ketchup.

*Measures of success for the 4th/5th grade attendees:
Not in school on a weekday? Check.
Chips available for both eating and dropping all over the lawn? Check.
Parents not paying much attention to them, but instead having coffee and chatting? Check.
When not in pool, can continue to throw inflatable things at each other? Check.
Dessert to vegetable ratio above 5:1? Check.
Cool-whip shots all around? Check.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pre-party preparation

If you are having a class of 4th and 5th graders over to your house for a swim party in the morning, you might want to do a couple of things ahead of time to get ready.

1. Hire a lifeguard.
2. Go shopping for food.
3. Blow up the pool toys.
4. Set out extra towels and sunscreen.
4. Check the weather forecast.
5. Discover it will probably be overcast and chilly.
6. Note that party is scheduled to last for four hours.
7. Pour yourself a big fat gin and tonic.

Emergency Gin and Tonic

Hendrick's Gin
A lime

Get out a glass.*
Fill your glass with ice.
Squeeze 1/2 of the lime over the ice.
Pour in gin until the glass is 1/3 full.
Pour in enough tonic to almost fill up the glass.
Squeeze the rest of the lime over the top, then drop it in.

Pictured here after last step was completed.

Now don't get me wrong. I am a huge fan of the artisan cocktail. Love to see the bartender carefully harvesting his own juniper berries and calling up the local organic tonic brewer for the small batch bottling from 2007. Can't beat those heirloom limes, and the dash of freshly grated ginger muddled with the blackberry blossoms. Fantastic. But this is an emergency. Go with the tried and true solution, available now, right from the liquor cabinet in your kitchen.

When you're done, lock up the liquor cabinet, pray for sun, and go to bed.

*The size of the glass depends on the size of your emergency. This qualified as a medium sized emergency.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Don't blame me - Important Correction!

In case Mr. Steingarten happens to tune in, I have just been told that the bribe was actually a letter of recommendation to graduate school.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Don't blame me

I was going to give the whole "start with two sticks of butter, then add sugar" theme a break. Frankly, I was getting low on butter. But then, I had this phone conversation with a friend:

Her: I was on the plane coming home, and I read this article by Jeffrey Steingarten in Vogue about how he went to this lady's house and had these oatmeal cookies and he begged and begged for the recipe and promised her front row seats to any fashion show she wanted if only she would give it to him and eventually she did. He said they were the best oatmeal cookies he's ever eaten.
Me: I love oatmeal cookies.
Her: I know! Me, too. And I was so excited to have the recipe and then I remembered that I completely suck at baking and if I make them they will be terrible and then I was sad but then I thought I should just give you the recipe and you could bake them for me and tell me how good they are and if I should even bother trying, which I probably shouldn't but they really do sound amazing.

[Aside: This particular friend of mine speaks incredibly quickly. I believe the elapsed time for the conversation to this point was about 20 seconds, 11 of which was me saying, "I love oatmeal cookies"]

Me: Definitely send it to me.
Her: I'm on it.

[A few hours later]

Her: (via email) So my husband tossed my Vogue in an effort to clean my office this morning and it is under what looks like mac and cheese and oatmeal so it is toast. I sent a text asking my nanny to pick up another copy for me -- I will shoot you the recipe tonight.

[Aside: She is also very efficient and addicted to text messaging. And no, this is not my sister, thinly disguised. I actually know two people like this.]

The recipe arrived. She had gone to so much trouble, how could I not keep up my end of the deal? I got in the car, and went to buy more butter.

The Best Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from her e-mail transcription of a recipe in Vogue by Jeffrey Steingarten that he got from some lady whose party he went to a while ago

1 c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
2 c. instant oats
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

The cool thing about this recipe is that you do everything by hand. The other cool thing is that it doesn't need eggs, so it is perfect for when you want to make cookies in the middle of the night but you don't have any eggs*.

Pre-heat oven to 350. Mix butter and sugar in a large bowl using a wooden spoon until completely combined. Do not use a mixer! In another bowl, stir together oats, flour, salt and baking soda until well mixed. Add dry ingredients to the butter sugar mixture, and stir with your wooden spoon until they are well mixed, too. Finally, stir in the vanilla extract. Using your hands, form the dough into 1 inch balls and place onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat. After you've got them on there, using two fingers, flatten them to about 1/3 of an inch. You can dip your fingers in cold water if the cookies are sticky. Bake for 11-12 minutes, or until light golden brown.

Me: (via e-mail) They were indeed, the best. And so easy that you can, in fact, make them for yourself. Go for it!

*Yes, this has happened to me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Potluck Season

To everything (turn turn turn) there is a season (turn turn turn). Most have well-known names:

Winter Cruise Wear
The New Fall Television
Daffy: Rabbit
Bugs: Duck
Daffy: Rabbit
Bugs: Duck
Daffy: Duck (Bang!)*

But the one we're in now doesn't have an official name. It comes around every year like clockwork nonetheless. It's the "end the school year flurry of events where everyone is supposed to bring something" season. You've made that macaroni casserole twice already, and you still have three more parties to go. The other lady always beats you to the sign up sheet to claim the paper goods. The host is providing the drinks. Let's call it, for lack of a better name, Potluck Season. What's a mother to do?

Make these.

Cherry Pie Bars

3 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. powdered sugar
2 c. (4 sticks) butter, melted

2 jars (about 17 oz. each) cherry preserves
1/2 tsp. almond extract

4 1/2 c. flour
3 c. golden brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. (4 sticks) butter, softened, cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350, and get out a large sheet pan (10x15 or 12x18)

For crust, mix flour and sugar together, then stir in the melted butter. Mix well, until the batter is no longer lumpy. Spread batter in the pan, and bake for 15 minutes, until nice and golden brown. Cool completely.

For filling, put preserves into a bowl. Add the extract, and stir with a spoon until mixture becomes smooth. It will go from being clumps of jam to a satiny, almost liquid, filling. Pour over cooled crust, and use a spatula to spread evenly, leaving about 1/4 inch around the sides.

For topping, in a large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the dry ingredients together to blend. Add the butter pieces, and mix until it's all crumbly. Don't mix so much that it becomes smooth. You want a lumpy, yummy bowl of goodness.** With your hands, crumble the topping over the filling. It will seem like you have way too much topping, but as the bars cook, it will shrink quite a bit. Put the bars back into the oven, and bake for about 20 minutes, until topping is golden brown all over.

Remove from oven. Cool for at least 2 hours before serving. This will allow the bars to set completely. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, cut into squares, and serve. These are a bit messy (you need a plate), but so worth it!

Why these are great for Potluck Season: You can use any kind of preserves you want!!! I've made them very successfully with apricot, blackberry and blueberry jam, and the original recipe (from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook) called for raspberry. That's at least 5 parties, right there. And these are so good, you will actually get requests for them over and over again.


** I have an extremely hard time keeping my daughter from grabbing spoonfuls of topping to eat before I get it on the pan.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I am a better parent than Michael Jackson

Driving my mom home today.

Her: Did you see the article about Michael Jackson?
Me: Um, No. I missed that one.
Her: It was in the business section. He has venture capital people investing in his new show.
Me: The shows that he already delayed?
Her: They're treating him like a kind of a product. You're a financial person, so you probably understand this, but it seems like a problem to me. You're really lucky you got into the venture business before these people started making bad investments.
Me: I'm not so sure I missed the bad investment part entirely, but...
Her: He was in a wheelchair on TV. How can you invest in a guy in a wheelchair? If he can't stand up, how can he do a show?
Me: He can't.
Her: And his kids were there, too, with him, and the wheelchair.
Me: They were?
Her: Yes. And they were all wearing those masks.
Her: At least you don't make your kids wear those masks.