Tough Love (or More Tart for Me)

My cell phone rang, but my sticky fingers kept arranging apricot wedges in a circle around the tart pan.  I have a hard time tearing myself away from projects once I get going, especially when nap-time’s fleeting window offers me some uninterrupted time.   But then my phone buzzed again;  I wandered over to read the text message on the screen.

Val, my friend who’d invited us over for dinner that night, sent me a note:  “Call me.”

I washed my hands and called.  “What’s up?” I whispered, not wanting to wake my girls.

“Two non-nappers,” she said, sounding distraught.  She didn’t need to say anything else. I knew exactly how she felt.

As we chatted, I thought about the times when one–or worse–both of my own sleepy-crabby-wild children didn’t want to nap.  On several occasions, I had said, “Only girls who fall asleep get to go have fun tonight.”  And I remembered the difficult times I’d had to follow through with my threat and cancel plans.

“Do you want to reschedule dinner?” I asked.

“Would that totally screw you up?”

I looked at the partially finished tart and worried that I might eat more than I needed.

“Not at all,” I said.

I got back to arranging apricots, glazed the fruit with warmed apricot preserves, and put the tart in the oven.

Then I scouted the fridge for leftovers.  I found plenty of pasta from the previous night to feed all of us and then some, so I called another friend:  “We need help with an apricot tart,” I explained.  We decided to meet at the park for dinner.

My daughters woke up chattering about what they would do with their friends that evening.

“Guess what?  Cole and Kate didn’t take naps today.”

Their eyes grew wide.  “Does that mean they can’t have us come over?” Eliza asked.

“Yep,” I said.

They looked darn sad.

“Come look what we have for dessert,” I diverted.

They ooh-ed and aah-ed, and I asked if they wanted to meet some other pals at the park.  They looked happier, and off we went to enjoy fresh clams simmered in white wine and garlic, homemade chicken soup, leftover broccolini and sausage pasta, and beet and fennel salad.  Together, my friend and I pulled off an impressive last-minute feast.

Before we cut the tart, I called Val to see if she wanted to sneak out and join us for dessert, but her tired kids needed her.  She didn’t say it, but I figured she probably felt exhausted herself.

At about quarter-past bedtime, we packed up our things to head home.   By the time we finished, the kids, still cheerful, hadn’t stopped running laps.

“I’ll be right back,” I told my husband.   I drove to Val’s house.  Everything looked quiet, and I didn’t want to interfere with bedtime, so I sent a text — “Check your porch for the last slice of tart” — before returning to the park for my family.

As we loaded into the car, a funny thing happened.  “I bet Coley-Moley and Kate will nap tomorrow, Mommy,” Tessa said.

And you know what?  She was right.

Apricot Almond Tart

Adapted from The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition).

Makes one 10-inch tart.

Crust
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
2 large egg yolks

Grease the bottom of a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom.  Dust with flour and set aside.

Whisk together flour, sugar, lemon zest, and salt in a food processor.  Add butter and whirl until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs.  Add one of the egg yolks and process until the dough comes together.

Roll dough between two sheets of parchment paper (if the dough is too sticky, refrigerate it for 15 to 30 minutes).   To prevent it from slipping as you roll, place a silicone mat beneath the bottom sheet of parchment.  Remove one sheet of parchment and flip the dough into prepared tart pan, folding and gently pinching overhanging edges down the inside of the pan.  Prick the bottom generously with a fork.  Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown, about 18-22 minutes.

Whisk remaining egg yolk with a pinch of salt.  Brush the inside of the tart shell and bake until the egg glaze sets, about 1 minute.  Cool crust before adding filling.

Filling
1 cup slivered blanched almonds
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
6 to 8 apricots
2 to 3 tablespoons apricot jam, warmed

Toast the nuts in an oven heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 7 minutes.  Cool and then chop to desired consistency.

In the bowl of standing electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla extract until light and fluffy.  Beat in egg, and then stir in nuts. Spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared crust.

Gently pit and slice apricots to 1/4-inch thickness.  Arrange the fruit in a circular pattern over the nut mixture, overlapping slices slightly.  Brush with jam.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the nut mixture has set, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Cool on a rack until ready to serve.

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Birthday Bug

ladybug cake My daughter’s very first island friend wanted a lady bug birthday cake.  Her mother Rita, my very first island friend, started asking me questions about fondant and cake decorating.

Rita bakes amazing chocolate cake.  She makes amazing jewelry.  She paints amazing flowers and bugs on the walls of her daughters’ bedrooms.  I knew she could make a lady bug cake.  She didn’t seem so sure.

“We’ll do it together,” I told her.

The day before the party, I showed up to help assemble the cake.  Two recipes of chocolate cake, divided between one large and one small Pyrex bowl, came out of the oven as I arrived.  While they cooled, we mixed the red and black coloring into the fondant.

To get deep colors, you have to knead the color in a bit at a time.   If you put in too much color at once, it just spurts out all over the place. Sometimes it feels like you’ll never get the right shade.  But we did:  perfect ladybug red and perfect ladybug black.

When the cakes had cooled, Rita trimmed down the smaller cake, and then cut a curve into it that would nest into the ladybug’s body.

We frosted the bigger cake with a thin layer of butter cream, and then rolled out a large red circle to 1/8-inch thickness to center over the cake.

After carefully trimming and tucking in the edges with a butter knife, we got started on the head.   We frosted, rolled, transferred, scooted, and then trimmed.

We were already starting to feel darn proud of ourselves, and we hadn’t even added details.

A shot glass pressed into a sheet of black fondant made the spots–six for the six-year-old girl–and a hand-trimmed a black strip divided the lady bug’s shell in half.

We added eyes and stuck black vines  in her head for antennae.

She didn’t look complete, so we squeezed some fondant through a garlic press to make eyelashes;  the fondant didn’t hold its shape, so we rested the eyelashes over a straw until we could safely transfer them to her face.  After we added bright red lips, the birthday girl declared her done.

Right before the party the next day, Rita nestled shredded coconut mixed with green food coloring around her.  She looked fantastic.  I wasn’t sure Rita would let us cut her up.

Fortunately for all of us, she did.  Ladybug guts hit the spot.

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The Pits

I broke my cherry pitter this week.   Over the years, it’s mostly pitted Kalamata olives with the occasional cherry here and there.   I guess  it couldn’t handle the sudden stress imposed by nine pounds of cherries.

Let’s  just say I’m glad my husband talked me out of ordering my own  18 pound  box from our local co-op.  Thank God I listened and split a box with my friend Sharalyn.

It started like this.  My six-year-old decided she needed to pre-pit a pile of cherries instead of popping them into her mouth whole and spitting out the seeds like a normal child.  For the record, the spitting method is much cleaner.  You’ll have to take my word for it, though, because I failed to document the sheer quantity of juice that splatters every which way when a small child wields a cherry pitter.   Thanks to the sudden death of the instrument, we won’t have to repeat the experiment for at least a few days until my new pitter arrives.

Then the pitter prepped a bowlful of fruit for a Double Crust Cherry Tart.

I haven’t made this recipe since I lived in Pacific Grove, CA, close to the amazing cherries in Morgan Hill and Gilroy.  I’d forgotten how delicious the cornmeal crust tastes.  It’s more of a shortbread cookie than a pie crust.  As I nibbled the dough scraps (um, actually all of them, to my daughters’ dismay), I promised myself I’d see how it  works out as cookies sometime in absence of cherries.

Next, in preparation for our weekly potluck at Roche Harbor, it went head to head with a galette’s worth of cherries.

If you’re looking for easy, make a galette.  Yep, I prepped everything in the hour I had between dropping my kids off and picking them up at  pottery class, and then I threw it together and baked it when I returned home.  I recommend this recipe especially for people who feel intimidated by making pie crust.  More than one person has told me that they will bake anything but pie because of some past crust disaster.  With a galette crust, you don’t have to flute the edges or make it look fancy;  just fold up the edge and you’ve got rustic charm.

The poor pitter finally met its match on the cherries for a Gingerbread Cherry Cake  for my friend Rita’s birthday picnic at English Camp.

I decided Rita needed cake, even at a picnic, and planned to make a simple one in the morning before I left.   I arrived at our designated picnic spot–the Big Leaf Maple–almost on time;  attempting to fix the pitter again and again while I worked slowed me down.  So much for simple.

I’d hoped to pit and freeze several bags to use in the wintertime when we’re craving a taste of summer, but it looks like for now we’ll have cherries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Double Crust Cherry Tart

From Sunset Magazine, June 2004

Serves 8-10.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 pounds fresh cherries, pitted
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter with 3/4 cup sugar until smooth, and then beat in egg yolks. Stir in flour mixture until well blended. Divide dough in half.

Press one portion over bottom and up sides of a 9-inch tart pan with removable rim (if you’re like me, and think, “Oh, it will be easier to roll out and put in the pan,” think again). Place other portion on a lightly floured piece of parchment paper. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out dough to a 10-inch round. Slide round onto a baking sheet. Chill tart shell and round until firm, at least 30 minutes, or wrap airtight and chill up to 3 days.

In another bowl, mix cherries, tapioca, lemon juice, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Let stand 10 minutes. Pour into chilled tart shell and spread level. Invert round over tart. Press edges into rim of tart pan, pinching off any excess. Sprinkle tart lightly with sugar.

Place tart pan on an uninsulated baking sheet. Bake on the lower rack of a 375 degree oven until top is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating tart halfway through baking time. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cherry Galette

Serves 8-10.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
5-6 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 to  1/2 cup ice water
2 tablespoons semolina flour
1 1/2 pounds of cherries, pitted

Whirl flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor with the blade.  Cut in butter with several short pulses, leaving pea-sized chunks in tact.  Working quickly, turn on the food processor and pour strained ice water through the feeding tube.  Pinch the mixture to see if it holds together.  If needed, whirl in  more water.  Turn out dough on a large piece of plastic wrap.  With the help of the plastic wrap, form the dough into a flat disk:  fold the edges of the dough toward the center gently and press down until it no longer crumbles apart.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out dough on lightly floured surface into a 14-inch round.  Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Sprinkle semolina flour evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge.    Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar evenly over the flour.  Mix gently with fingertips.  Arrange cherries in a single layer in over the flour-sugar mixture.  Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar over the cherries.  Fold edges in to cover the outer rim of cherries, pleating dough as you work your way around.

Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, and then reduce heat to 375 degrees and continue baking until fruit is tender and juices bubble thickly, about 25 to 35 minutes.  Using the parchment paper to help you, slide the galette to a rack and brush hot juices over the cherries with a pastry brush.  Cool for at least 30 minutes before eating.  Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Cherry Gingerbread

Adapted from The Bread Bible.

Serves 8-10.

2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 cup sour cream
1 stick  unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

Toss cherries, granulated sugar, and vinegar in a bowl.  Set aside and let sit for at least 15 minutes.

Preheat oven  to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease a 9-inch springform pan.  Whisk flour, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and mace in a medium bowl.

Place a strainer over the bowl for a standing electric mixer.  Drain cherries over the bowl to catch the juices;  set cherries aside.  Add sour cream, melted butter, eggs, and maple syrup to the mixer bowl.  Beat to combine.  Add 1/2 cup flour mixture and beat until smooth.  Add remaining flour mixture and beat until just smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute.

Spread two-thirds of the batter in the springform pan.  Arrange reserved cherries over the batter.  Spoon remaining batter over the cherries (it’s all right if you don’t cover them completely). Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the top is dry and springy, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool on a rack until serving time.

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“Chicken” Noodles

Every week or so, my friend asks me if I need eggs.  If I say, “Yes,” I often find a carton on my kitchen table when I get home from work.   I feel like a little kid opening it up to find out  what different shades and sizes it contains.  Sometimes the the lid isn’t even closed because the presence of an enormous egg or two simply won’t allow it.  No kidding.  If you cracked one of these eggs, or two, or three, you would blink in disbelief at the yolks’ deep orange.  Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I often do.  Eggs.  Who ever thought I would gush about them.

So our friends have chickens.  Lots of chickens. I have lost count of how many, but I do know several chickens by name.   Soon after the chicks arrived, each of my daughters picked one out as her very own.  My older daughter named hers Eliza. My younger daughter named hers Tessa.  These happen to be my girls’ names as well.   And yes, it does get confusing.  Wanna guess what our friends’ daughter Ellie named her chicken?For months, the girls wanted to commune with their chickens 24-7.  They held them, talked to them, and carried them around the coop like babies.  If they could have figured out a way to put doll clothes on them, they would have done it.

I worried at times that the chickens might need a little space.  The girls meant well, but sometimes it looked like they hugged them a bit too tightly.  But when the chickens finally started laying, guess which chickens produced eggs first?  Eliza, Tessa, and Ellie.  If memory serves me correctly, they started laying at least a week before the other hens began earning their keep.  Who knew?  If you ever decide to raise chickens for eggs, make sure you involve some children in the project.

These eggs, of course, are divine.  Every time I crack one into batter, the cake seems to bake at least a half inch taller than it would with conventional eggs. And foods with only a few ingredients, like pancakes, custard, or pavlova truly shine when made with them;   I’m always especially excited to use them in recipes that will only taste as good as your eggs.

Like pasta.

We used to make fresh pasta all the time before we had kids, and then somehow we got out of the habit. Just as these amazing eggs came into our lives, we realized that our babies had turned into small children excited about making a mess in the kitchen with their parents.  So we dusted off the pasta maker and had a go at it.

Now we often try to make pasta when our friends with kids come over.   It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s messy. And best of all, when kids have a hand in making their own dinner, they usually eat it.

Fresh Pasta with Lemon and Parsley

Makes about 4 servings.

Pasta
3/4 cup semolina flour
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons olive oil

Sauce
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste

Combine flours and salt in the bowl of standing mixer with the paddle attachment.  Lightly beat eggs, oil, and water together in a small measuring cup.  While mixing on low speed, drizzle the egg mixture into the flour very slowly.  Stir to combine, adding more semolina flour if necessary until the dough comes together and is no longer sticky.  Remove dough from the mixing bowl and knead by hand for about five minutes, adding additional flour only if needed to prevent sticking.  Let dough rest for  at least 20 minutes before forming pasta.

In the meantime, prepare sauce.  Heat olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.  Set aside.  Combine remaining ingredients in a large bowl.  Add garlic-olive oil mixture and stir.

When ready, roll pasta dough thinly and cut into strips by hand, or feed the dough through a pasta machine.

Cook pasta until tender–1 to 4 minutes–in a large pot of salted water.  Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water.   Add pasta to the lemon-parsley mixture and toss well.  Add pasta water if it seems too dry.  Serve, topping with additional Parmesan cheese.

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No Frills Cheese Balls

Over an impromptu picnic dinner, our friends explained how they reverse-engineered a grapefruit-basil martini they’d enjoyed last summer at Backdoor Kitchen, one of my favorite restaurants in Friday Harbor.  When they found themselves home in the Bay Area craving their favorite island cocktail, they headed to the internet to find a recipe, and then another, and still another, until they finally nailed it and felt satisfied.

“How did people figure out how to make anything before the internet?” my husband asked.

Without skipping a beat, my six-year-old daughter replied, “They read cookbooks.”

After we’d all finished giggling, someone said, “You’re right, these days, you can do both.   Cool, huh?”

Later, when I tried to figure out what to bring to the cocktail party our mixologist friends decided to host, I realized that inspiration for recipes comes not only from favorite restaurants, quirky cooking blogs, fabulous cookbooks, or in-season produce:  in our house it sometimes comes from children’s books.

Months ago, while reading Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, my youngest daughter asked me to make the “No Frills Cheese Balls” Lilly’s dad bakes for her to bring to class after she’s been a jerk to her teacher. I said, “Sure,” and consulted, not the internet this time, but the Joy of Cooking.  I remembered seeing a recipe for cheese puffs in there at some point;  I’d wanted to try it at the time, and now I had my excuse.   Sure enough, right there under “Anchovy Toasts” on page 162, I found, “Gougeres,” AKA Cheese Puffs.

You start with choux paste, add Gruyere cheese, pipe out little balls, and bake.  There you have it:   “No Frills Cheese Balls.”  My husband teases me about this recipe.  He thinks because you start with choux paste, it’s darn frilly.  I disagree.  The name sounds intimidating, but choux paste is easy to make, and if you haven’t tried it, you really should.


Every now and again, my daughter requests “No Frills Cheese Balls.”  She loves them almost as she loves the book that inspired them.  When I suggested that we make them for the party, she looked like she thought I was the best mom on the island, which is saying quite a bit because she knows some pretty awesome moms.  I just  thought her favorite cheese balls would pair well with grapefruit-basil martinis.  Lucky me.  I made my daughter’s day and brought home an empty plate at the end of the evening.

No Frills Cheese Balls (AKA Cheese Puffs — Gougeres if you’re feeling frilly)

Makes about four dozen.

Adapted from The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition).

1 stick butter, cut in small pieces
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
2 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine butter, water, milk, and salt in a large saucepan.  Bring to a full boil over medium heat.

Add flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture pulls away from the side of the pan.  Cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute.

Transfer to the bowl of your electric mixer and let cool for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure the paste is smooth before adding each additional egg.  Beat until smooth and shiny. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of cheese and mix to combine.

If you don’t have a pastry bag, place a large zip lock bag in a measuring cup to hold it still while you scoop in the paste.  Press the mixture into one of the corners.  Snip a 1/2-inch hole in the appropriate corner with sharp scissors.  Pipe into 1-inch rounds onto an ungreased baking sheet.  Use a moistened finger to smooth down the pointy top on each round.  Sprinkle a bit of remaining cheese on the top of each one.

Bake for 15 minutes, reduce the  oven temperature to 350 degrees, and bake until golden brown and firm to the touch, about 15 more minutes.  Turn off the oven and remove baking sheets to a rack. Flip cheese puffs upside down carefully with a spatula.  With a skewer, poke a small hole in the bottom of each one.  Return cheese puffs to the oven to dry in for 10 minutes.   Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

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Undercover Leftovers

On the 3rd of July, my husband ran to town to buy one more pork butt for our 4th of July party.   We already had two, but as he measured spices for the rub, we tried to remember just how many people we’d invited to come.  From our pieced-together recollections, 12 pounds of pig seemed light.  Most everyone said they’d bring a side dish, so no one would go hungry, but the idea of running out nagged at both of us.    “Remember last time?” we both said in unison.  After our last smoke-out, not a shred of succulent pork remained at the end of the evening.  Faster than you could could say, “Jinx,” he was out the door and on the way to the store.

Our three little piggies amply fed our guests and opened up limitless possibilities for a week of easy meals.  While the same leftover pig featured in most of what we at this week, each iteration felt new and different.  We’d had pork sandwiches, pork with rice and vegetables, and pork-topped pizza with broccolini, green onions, and goat cheese.  Our pork finale, though– pork tacos–ranks as my favorite this time around.

When slicing garden-fresh Napa cabbage, radishes, cilantro, and green onions represents the most difficult dinner-prep work, making your own tortillas hardly seems a chore.  My kids like to help out, so I usually just mix the masa, salt, and water for them earlier in the day and let it sit on the counter until it gets close to dinner time.

Shortly after 6:00 pm, the kitchen becomes a little tortilla factory;  my husband helps the girls use the press while he cooks the flattened disks on our sandwich press that folds out into an awesome griddle.  In the meantime, I can chop veggies and make salsa or a mix up some lime-herb sour cream.

A tea-towel wrapped pile of warm tortillas surrounded by small bowls brimming with various fillings unleashes the creative taco maker in everyone.

Although if we’d let them, the kids would just eat the tortillas.

Corn Tortillas

Adapted from The Bread Bible.

Makes about 18 6-inch tortillas.

4 cups masa harina
1/2 rounded teaspoon salt
2 3/4 cups hot water

Stir masa harina and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment.  Pour in about 2 1/2 cups of the water and mix until the dough forms into a firm, springy ball.  If the mixture seems too dry, add water a little bit at a time.  If it seems to wet, add more masa harina.  Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least an hour at room temperature.

With damp hands, roll pieces of dough into egg-sized balls.  Place one of the balls on a rectangle of parchment paper and fold it over so the ball is centered in the middle.  Flatten in the tortilla press, remove disk of dough from parchment paper, and drop it an ungreased  griddle or cast iron skillet heated to medium-high.  Cook for 1 1/2 minutes on each side.  Repeat with remaining dough.  Stack finished tortillas on a clean dish towel, wrapping the towel over the top of the pile to keep them warm after each addition.

 Lime-Cilantro Sour Cream

1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 green onions, minced
1 lime, juiced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper, to taste

Combine ingredients in a small bowl.  Mix well.

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Strawberry Diversions

Summer on San Juan Island almost makes you forget all about dark at-four o’clock-San Juan Island-winters.  Warm days where light dances on the the harbor until 10:00 pm can sometimes make us forget about bedtime for the kids.   My husband works at the marine lab year-round, but most of the scientists who do research here just come for all or part of the summer season.   I know someday we will have to move away, but I tell myself, rightly so or not, that we’ll always come back for the summers.

When the long days bring friends from far and wide, we squeeze in as much time with them as we can before the ferry boats carry them away.  We invited the Murrays for pizza soon after they arrived.  Days full of beach play, art classes, and swim lessons–alternating with study days for me with the girls at school–make meal prep time scarce, so I planned a quick and easy meal.  I promised myself I’d sit on the couch like a good girl and complete the astronomy homework that will magically turn me a into a “highly qualified science teacher” (Sounds easy, right? By the end of next year, this English teacher will also be a government/civics, history, and social studies “expert.”  At least on paper.).   All I had to do was make dough for pizza and chop vegetables after our friends arrived.  If we needed something sweet after dinner, we could always have ice cream.  I read chapter seven about “The Universe,” and then headed to the store, grateful to get off the couch and out into the sunshine.  I hadn’t even gotten through the door when the strawberries stopped me in my tracks.  Not your white-tinged with red monsters these;  no, these berries–each with it’s own quirky shape and personality–looked like they started out red and just kept going.

I watched my hands reach out for a flat and put it in the cart — my cart!   Then I went along my merry way, tossing in green onions, broccolini, and mozarella while mentally checking that I had everything I needed at home to make strawberry shortcake.  Just like that, chapter eight on “Exploring the Solar System” vanished from my afternoon horizon like a red dwarf shifting phases into a variable pulsating star.

Fortunately, shortcake comes together easily and quickly.  Unfortunately for my astronomy homework, I never did made it back to chapter eight.   Too nice a day.

Strawberry Shortcake

Adapted from Foster’s Market.

Makes 12 3-inch shortcakes

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Whirl to mix.

Add half of the butter and pulse until you don’t see chunks anymore.  Add the remaining butter and pulse lightly, leaving substantial hunks of butter in the mixture.   Pour the mixture into a large bowl.

Measure the cream. Add the vanilla extract to it and stir.   Pour cream mixture over the flour mixture and stir until the dough just comes together.  Turn the dough out onto a very large piece of plastic wrap.  Pull the sides of the plastic wrap together and lightly press, folding the dough’s rough edges over as needed to incorporate the dry bits.  Gently press the dough into a flat disk.

Unwrap and roll out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/2 to 3/4 inches.    Cut six-inch rounds with a cutter, re-rolling scraps to form additional shortcakes.

Place rounds on prepared baking sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown.  Cool on a baking rack.

Slice each shortcake through the center like a sandwich.  Cover the bottom with strawberries, add a dollop of whipped cream, add more berries, and then replace the top.

 

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Best Supporting Roll

Sweet Potato Roll Sliders | flourarrangements.org
My husband likes gadgets. He especially likes gadgets he can deconstruct and make better. I try not to complain too much when I find random wing nuts in the couch or notice computer cables weaving precariously through an open window.  I really try.  And when I feel frustrated and get close to chucking all his crap through that open window, I remind myself how often his projects turn out just awesome.

One of his latest projects involves a Brinkmann Electric Smoker.   Notice the wires coming out of the meat.   Yes, those are the ones that lead from the smoker, across the porch, and up through the kitchen window.

He wrote a computer software program that monitors whatever he’s smoking.  It generates a graph of the meat’s temperature on a cute little Eee PC.  But wait, there’s more:   he got it to text him updates in case he’s not by the computer.  His friend Neil, who likes to smoke meat the old fashioned way, likes to hassle him about this.  But I say, bring on the text messages.   They mean we can row to town or go to the beach or do whatever else strikes our fancy on a Saturday afternoon.  If a raccoon gets so hungry it knocks over the smoker, the drop in temperature will generate a text to tell us to head home.  At least this is the way I imagine it works when I’m out enjoying my day.

This last weekend for our 4th of July gathering, he smoked some pork butt (three pieces, actually; high-tech graph aptly labeled “three little piggies”).  Pulled pork tastes better on soft rolls, so his project complements my interests well;  I’ve made potato rolls, buttermilk rolls, and seeded rolls.  As he perfects his project, I perfect mine.  And I have discovered the perfect pulled pork sandwich vehicle:  the sweet potato roll.

The recipe suggests preparing the dough ahead of time and refrigerating it until you’re ready to bake.  I’ve never liked using cold dough, so the first time I attempted it, I skipped that step.  The soft, sticky dough made rolling and cutting difficult, so I decided to try letting the dough rise in the fridge this time.   It turned out to be the right thing to do;  the dough handled more easily when cool.   And, the ability to pull cold dough from the fridge and then warm rolls from the oven just before dinner time emancipated my mind from the distraction of dinner-roll-rising mental calculations while I enjoyed watching Friday Harbor’s small town parade.
Some other perfect features of this perfect little roll:  The gorgeous peach dough bakes into a pale golden orange.  The soft, tender texture melts in your mouth without getting gooey. The sweet, buttery flavor makes them hard to stop eating.  Their small size means there’s always room for one more pork sandwich.  Oh, and kids who despise vegetables of all kinds love to eat them.

Sweet Potato Rolls

Adapted from Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen.

Makes about 5 dozen 2- 2 1/2 inch rolls.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups mashed sweet potato (from one large or two small sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and mashed)
2 large eggs
7-8 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Lightly grease a large bowl with oil.  Set aside.

Combine yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in small bowl.  Add warm water, stir,  and set aside while completing the next step.  The yeast should froth and double in size.

Melt butter in a small sauce pan.  Add milk, 3/4 cup sugar, and salt.  Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Turn off heat and cool to 115 degrees Fahrenheit before continuing.

Add yeast to milk mixture. Stir to combine.

Beat potato and eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment.  Add milk-yeast mixture and beat to mix.

Add two cups of flour and beat hard for two minutes.  Add five cups of flour, about a half a cup at a time, allowing it to incorporate before adding more.  Add additional flour if needed, but prepare yourself for incredibly sticky dough;  resist the temptation to add too much flour.  Switch to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 5 minutes.  Scrape the dough into greased bowl, flipping it once to coat dough with oil.  Cover bowl oiled plastic wrap and let the dough rise for 2 hours or in the refrigerator overnight.  It should double in size.

Butter two rimmed baking sheets or cover them with parchment paper.  If you refrigerated the dough, let it sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before continuing.  Turn out the dough onto a floured surface.  Divide it in half.  Roll out half the dough to a thickness of about 1/2 inch.  Cut circles with a 2-to 2 1/2-inch round cutter, placing the the circles close together on the baking sheets.  Gather scraps to re-roll.  Repeat with remaining dough.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brush rolls sparingly with melted butter.  Fold the rolls in half, pressing lightly in the center so they stick together.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Bake for 14-16 minutes, until golden brown and gently firm to the touch.  Serve warm.

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