Saturday, December 27, 2014

Oh My, Cherry Pie

This summer, the cherry tree in our front yard fruited gorgeously. It produces those little tart cherries that don't make for good eating, so it's not that exciting, but Shawn decided that he would make it his mission to collect enough of them for me to be able to make something with. So over about a two week span, he climbed the ladder, yanked on branches, and even practiced his tree climbing skills to collect as many of the little things as possible. Though the robins got most of the cherries, we ended up with quite a bit due to the tree being so dang huge.

It was so cute. Shawn up in the tree, being so gung-ho about his little cherries. He even pitted each one before freezing them. He cut open each one, then added a little water to the pile of pits and boiled them for a bit, adding the resulting juice to the cherries in the freezer. (He read online that that would increase the depth of flavor of the fruit.)

So after all his effort, he ended up collecting just shy of 4 cups of cherries. (It almost filled a large yogurt container.)

Christmas Eve proved to be the time when the cherries were meant to shine. My sister and her husband hosted our family Christmas Eve dinner, and we were asked to bring a pie. I had never made a cherry pie before, (much less could count the number of times I've eaten cherry pie in my life on one hand,) but decided that I needed to try my hand at a classic cherry pie.

I have a confession to make. I almost never make a pie crust from scratch. I find cutting the butter into the flour to be a pain in the ass, and though doing it that way makes for a super delicious, flaky, buttery crust, Krusteaz make a pie crust mix that is plenty yummy.

So the first step was to dump the cherries into a colander sitting over a bowl and sprinkle 1/4 cup of sugar over them. The goal is to collect the juices from the cherries to use later. While the cherries are resting, I made the pie dough and used half for the bottom, and put the other half of dough into the refrigerator to chill for later.

Then I dumped the collected cherry juice and put it into a small bowl. The cherries went into a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat with about a teaspoon of lemon juice. Into the cherry juice I mixed in 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and another 1/4 cup of sugar. Once the cornstarch was dissolved, I added that to the saucepan with the cherries. I cooked the cherries and the juice until they were starting to thicken, and took them off the heat to cool for about a half hour.

Now I knew that 4 cups wasn't going to be enough to cherries to fill an entire pie so I decided to add some pears, since that is a fruit with a mild flavor on its own. So I cut up a couple pears and used about half of them to line the bottom of the pie plate.

Once the cherries were a bit cooler, I mixed in a 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract then poured it into the prepared pie plate. This is when I added the rest of the sliced pear, but just fitting them in here and there so that they were evenly placed.

Now it was lattice crust time! I've never done a lattice before, so I was excited. It was pretty easy and super fun. I gave it a little egg wash, then sprinkled with large sugar crystals for a little sparkle and some red decorative sugar in the middle for extra festive-ness. Hey, Shawn put a lot of effort into collecting these cherries so I wanted to make sure to put as much effort into the pie.

Into a 400 degree oven it went and stayed there for about 35 minutes. I knew it was done when the filling was bubbly and the crust was nice and golden brown.

Holy shit. This pie was delicious.

Next year, I'm getting into that tree with Shawn.

Hoping everyone's holiday was a smashing success...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Festive Invasive

I just realized I've been slacking on the holiday posts lately. Well, I've been slacking on all posts, but I feel like I have an pretty decent excuse.

But what I haven't been slacking on is finding super easy projects. First was the dryer sheets, then came the sauerkraut, now I'm here to tell you about my holiday holly wreath.

In past years, I've made what I call a "festive holiday door hang." Those were always really easy to whip together, but this time I wanted to try my hand at a wreath. Pinterest LOVES wreaths. Though I personally am not on Pinterest, (I know, shocking, isn't it?) I've noticed the wreath making mania that has struck the home decorator at large. Since I'd never made one myself, I didn't realize the fun that can be had when creating this super duper satisfying and easy project.

So we have this English holly tree in our yard. I hate it. Holly is horribly invasive and the awfulness is helped even more when the berries are carried all over the place by birds. Our yard is covered in holly seedlings and I'm constantly pulling them. Ugh. Did I mention that I hate it? The problem with this tree is that it's so old, it's like old growth. The trunk is at least 18 inches in diameter, and it's hugely tall. We haven't cut it down for several reasons: it's on the border between our neighbor's and our yards, it does house tons of birds, it keeps our house cool in the summer by shading it (yeah, that big), and cutting it down won't kill it anyway.

But once a year during the holidays, I'm glad we have it.

Shawn did some pruning while cleaning the gutters a few weeks back and I took what he cut and decided to try my hand at this whole wreath-making business that everyone on Pinterest seems so excited about.

For the frame, I just took a wire hanger and stretched it out into a circle, leaving the hook as is. Next, I cut about 6-8 inch pieces of the nicest-looking parts of the holly. I think I cut about 60 pieces total, making sure to get some pieces with berries, and others with just the lush, waxy green leaves. The nice part about having an old growth holly tree is that when they get that big, they lose the need to make spiky leaves. So it was nice to not have to worry about injuring myself.  Next, I cut longer pieces of twine and tied the pieces in bunches of three. Using the ends of the twine that was left, I then tied the bunches into the hanger in two places to keep them in place. Making sure that the nicest sides were facing out with the berries scattered nicely, I just tied the rest of the bunches on the same way, all facing the same direction. I added a gold bow to finish it off, and ta-daa!

This took me a total of a little over an hour, from start to finish.

I really like it.
I think I understand this whole wreath making thing.

Happy holidays everybody. May this world be a little more peaceful. Now go hug your people.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Babies Want Good Food Too

When Eddy was 4 months old, we began our baby food feeding journey. I was really excited. I have always thought most people fall into two categories: People who eat to live, and people who live to eat. I, by the way, am part of the live to eat team. Food is so delicious. I wake up in the morning thinking about what I'm going to eat for breakfast, and I eat lunch thinking about what's for dinner. Having a delicious lunch waiting for you makes any work morning more pleasurable.

Food is also a huge part of my family. We, to this day continue to get together for family meals on an almost weekly basis (adding chairs as new additions come into the fam,) and any and all reasons to celebrate any achievement by any family member is a reason to get together for a delicious meal. (Followed by delicious dessert as well. Life is short. Eat dessert. That's a whole separate blog post.)

Food is culture, food is happiness, food brings us together. Food. Is. So. Delicious.

So introducing Eddy to the thing that brings me daily happiness was something I was really looking forward to.

Surprisingly, it was tough going at first. We started with rice cereal, which to this day she still won't eat, and slowly started trying pureed fruits at five months. There were a few things we learned in the beginning:

1) Babies have a hard time with chunks. We tried to give her some mashed well-cooked carrot, but even the tiniest chunk of carrot was too much for her, and she barfed all over herself. We have some hilarious video of that. Sorry, Eddy.
2) Spoons are foreign objects that babies generally don't want in their mouths, regardless of how much deliciousness is on the end of it.
3) Sweet things are far more desirable to non-sweet things.
4) Eating is hard and you have to take it slow.

But we persevered and kept trying everyday. The first thing she started eating willingly from a spoon was pear baby food. Then she decided she liked pureed peaches and other fruits. But even with this, she would only eat a few bites willingly, then glue her lips together and no amount of goofing around we did for her resulted in her wanting any more. Trying to keep the whole eating experience a positive one, we didn't push it too much.

During this phase, I bought several jars of baby food just for research purposes. I wanted to see what flavors Eddy liked, as well as taste it myself and check out the consistency. Once I got the info I needed, it was time to make my own. First, I pureed simple-flavored fruits and vegetables and froze them in ice cube trays to keep them in easy portions. Once frozen, I would pop them out and keep them in ziplock bags. I didn't realize at the time how helpful this would be in the future.

Clockwise from top: Pureed yam, peas, apple/pear, spinach, beet/carrot/spinach, peach in center.
When it came time to eat, I would pull out a cube or two, thaw, and heat 'till warm. She was always more willing to eat the fruit purees, but the peas I had to mix with apples or sweet potato for her to eat. She seemed to like them ok, but she really never got enthusiastic about them. Though it made me feel bad to do it, we were washing at least half of what we prepared for her down the drain. (Maybe about an ice cube's worth of food, so not much, but I still felt bad.)

Then at about 6-7 months, we discovered that she would rather feed herself. She liked trying to pick stuff up on her own, and even though the food rarely actually made it into her mouth in the beginning, she liked practicing using her hands. So we gave her soft slices of pear, avocado, and CHEERIOS! Cheerios are a magical food, I tell ya. At about this time, we also discovered that she enjoyed eating small bits of food from our fingers. Whenever we would offer something to her from our hands, she would open up eagerly. This also allowed her to start practicing her chewing motion. She didn't have any teeth yet, but the act of chewing something small helped with swallowing smaller chunks of food. We were giving her tiny pieces of banana, beans, and carrot and she was liking it. (And we were happy that chunks were no longer a catalyst for barfing.)

So we slogged along and still kept trying spoon feeding, since that was the only way she would actually get any amount of food into her mouth. She was occasionally having good feeds, but mostly only eating a handful of bites at each meal along with a few Cheerios. The thing that changed it all was a combination of the appearance of her first teeth at 7 months, and me cooking some real food for her. I found some turkey patties in the back of my freezer, and decided to fix them up for a quick weeknight dinner. I used about a quarter of a patty and pureed it with some cooked butternut squash, a couple frozen cubes of sweet potato and one cube of apples and pears for some added sweetness. That's it. I cooked it all up together in a small saucepan and then blended it with an emersion blender. I froze it into small meal portions in a silicone baby food freezer tray that my mom got me.

Dude, this stuff was so good, I would have eaten a whole bowl of it for myself. I think it helped that the turkey patty was just slightly seasoned.

So this made me think: I'll bet Eddy isn't into eating real food because we really aren't offering her real flavors. Maybe instead of one ingredient, she prefers combinations of flavors. We like different flavors, right? Wouldn't we rather eat food with real flavors and some seasonings than plain steamed vegetables? I know in the beginning it was important to start with really simple flavors to get her into the whole eating thing, but I think breastfeeding helped in getting her palate ready for more complex flavors.

So now my new favorite pastime is to make gourmet baby food. This is where I've found my simple ice cubes of pureed ingredients so helpful. They are perfect ingredients that are all ready for me to combine to make tasty baby food. Since she liked the squash/turkey concoction so much, I looked for other ways to mix vegetables and proteins. The second recipe I created was a tomato basil chicken soup. It included onions, tomatoes, basil, a cube of spinach, and chicken, all cooked and pureed together with some water, and a sprinkle of rice cereal to thicken it up.

The third recipe I came up with was a spaghetti squash tofu curry. First I heated up some leftover spaghetti squash from our dinner the night before. Then I added some silken tofu and a cube of purred apples and pear and mashed it up. For seasonings I used a few dashes of curry, some onion powder and just a tiny bit of garlic salt. My immersion blender came in handy again here as well.

So much ready to eat food!
Seriously. Eddy doesn't know how good she has it. I make sure to taste everything I make for her. I always add the least amount of salt as possible, but I also think that you really need some to let the sweetness of other flavors come through. If it passes my "I would eat it" test, then I know she will too. (Side note: I'm seriously thinking about writing a baby food cookbook with these recipes. Do you think there's a market for it?)

All of these soups I generally make for her to take to daycare. She's finally up to eating three times a day now so that packing a lunch with her bottles has become necessary in the last couple weeks. Sometimes she eats them for dinner, but usually we try to make a version of what we're eating available to her. A baby food mill makes almost any food that we are eating an option for molar-less little ones as well.

Oh, how we love you little Milly.
This sucker can instantly turn almost any food into baby food. When I am cooking, I pull out the various ingredients for her portion before I add the final seasonings that might be too much for her like salt and spicy stuff, or I wash off some of the sauce before grinding it to prevent her from getting too much sodium in her diet. Otherwise, she eats what we eat. Gotta get that habit started early, folks. Here is the list of deliciousness Eddy has enjoyed recently:

* Japanese curry rice
* Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwiches
* Portuguese bean soup
* Creamy pasta with salmon and peas
* Lentil soup
* Roasted veggies

In conclusion... Yes, I have put a lot of effort into feeding Eddy. Like breastfeeding, this has been more work and a lot harder than I was prepared for, but it's something that is super important to me. I want her to enjoy good, wholesome food as much as I do, and not become one of those kids who only eats hot dogs and mac and cheese. It's for her health, my sanity, and really... food. Mmmm.

Yummy food = Happy baby!

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