Baking again

It may not seem like that big of a deal, but when you have a more than healthy relationship with baked goods that enjoy the union of sugar and butter, being able to bake is a big thing. Especially when you live in a place without a decent bakery (meaning one that bakes sweets), let alone a cupcake or cookie boutique popping up on every corner. The problem is compounded when butter and sugar cost twice the US price, and oh yes, you don’t have an oven. In desperation, I’ve more than once resorted to some Oreo off-brand creation with an eternal shelf life. But no more. A while ago I discovered that you could cook cookies in a skillet on the stove top. The results are not exactly like a cookie fresh out of the oven; since you have to flip the cookie to get it to cook properly, you end up with two browned sides. But it’s something. And then, and even bigger breakthrough. Steam cake. Have you ever heard of this before? I hadn’t, and I wasn’t sure about it, but the concept seemed worth a try. If you can take some cake-batter-like substance and steam it into submission, why not try something other than a “steam cake” recipe. I chose banana bread from here (minus the burbon, and substituted oil since I was out of butter). Will you believe me if I told you it worked? I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t tried it myself. It was almost like a miracle when I opened that pan and instead of a gooey, drippy mess I found a perfectly firm but moist banana bread.

The process is very simple. Here’s what it looks like:

how to cake

Here’s the break down.

  1. Find a pan that is big enough to fit your cake pan inside without the cake pan touching the walls of your bigger pan.
  2. Put something metal on the bottom of the pan to raise the cake pan up, but also keep it level. Old canning jars would work great for this, but I didn’t have any, so I just used forks.
  3. Fill your pan with about an inch of water. It should be just below the level of the bottom of your cake pan, but I don’t know if it would hurt the cake if the water actually touched the cake pan.
  4. Fill your greased cake pan with the batter.
  5. Place the cake pan inside the bigger pan.
  6. Tie a dish cloth around the lid of the big pan. Choose one that is big enough to tie, and one that is tightly woven (I think these are less likely to catch fire if the cloth gets hot).
  7. Put the lid on the big pan. Make sure no part of your towel is hanging where it can catch fire. THIS IS VERY, VERY IMPORTANT.
  8. Turn the heat on to medium.
  9. Let it cook for the amount of time listed in the recipe. Steaming make go a little quicker or slower, so just check it about 10 minutes before the time just to be sure. Also, keep an eye on the water level. You don’t want your pan to go dry.
  10. When your cake/bread/brownies  are done, remove the lid and take the pan of the heat. Unless you have some special grabber, it will probably be hard to get the cake pan out before it cools, so just leave it there. Leaving the lid off helps dry out the top if a little water collected on the top of your pan.

finished cake

And there you go.

I have yet to venture into other batter-baking areas, but these brownies have been calling my name, so they are next on the list.

So yeah, if you can’t use your oven for some reason, or you just want to try something a little different, give steam cooking a try.

Have a great Monday (and happy Presidents day to you US readers)!

Christmas Cookies

Here’s something fun to do this weekend with your kids (or friends, someone special, etc.) to get you into the Christmas spirit. Decorate Christmas cookies. Oh yes, as cliché as it might sound, this really is a lovely way to bring some holiday fun into your home.

cookies 2

And it does not have to be complicated. Or fancy. Or perfect (remember this last one especially if you decide to do this with little kids). It is just meant to be fun.

Making sugar cookies with my little girls was a new experience for me. I’ve always loved doing sugar cookies, especially for Christmas, but I wasn’t ready to try letting the little ones help until just recently. As with practically any activity, letting little kids help with something usually doubles the amount of time it takes, but if you can just accept that and allow yourself to ignore the messes and little mistakes tiny fingers make, you’ll find real joy sharing a new activity with your kids. And why not start with sugar cookies? A very good place to begin, if you ask me.

isa looking at cookies

Here’s the recipe I used for the cookies. I have never settled into a really great sugar cookie recipe. In fact, I think I try a new one every time I make sugar cookies, but I have to say, this is a pretty good standard one. Nothing fancy like cream cheese or sour cream, but nice and flavorful.

isabella mixing

The instructions a fairly straightforward, and I decided to let my almost 4-year-old help with the dough.

mixing 2

mixingIt went pretty well, except that part of the way through I went to get something and came back to find my little sweetie spooning unknown quantities of flour into the bowl that I had already carefully measured my flour into. I had to start over there, but it wasn’t a big deal, and she is so eager to learn, which makes it fun for me, too.

dough

Now, I have to be completely honest and say rolling and cutting out the cookies was the hardest part. Probably because I was not quite ready to give up control in this area. My two-year old was especially hard to control during that step in the process, but I should have known. She is two after all. The girls did not want to wait until the dough reached the right thickness, and the didn’t want to hear anything about trying to place the cut outs as close to each other as possible to keep the dough from having to be rolled out multiple times. No siree. I’d go to put a nicely cut cookie on the pan only to find several false starts from some anxious cookie cutters in the center of the rolled out dough, marring the whole project. It got a little tense. But after the cookies were made and the little bakers got to sample their fine work, the rest was just, well, icing on the cookies.

Here’s the recipe I used for the frosting. I halved the recipe and still had lots left over, so if you’re not a frosting0phile like me, you might want to take this approach, too.

So here’s the thing I wanted to tell you about especially. Decorating cookies does not require any special tools or skill sets. Now, I do not mean decorating cookies for Martha Stewart Magazine or some fancy cookie boutique in New York doesn’t require tools and skills. It does. Whole lists of them. But decorating cookies with your kids does not. You can even go a little fancy, if you want.

cookies close up 2

Here’s what I did to spell out a little message with just a plastic bag, some frosting, and some sprinkles.

First, fill a plastic sandwich bag with some frosting, about 1 cup to spell out Merry Christmas. Push it to one corner, then seal and twist the top so frosting won’t squeeze out that end. Snip the corner that has the frosting in it off  so you have about a 1/2 inch opening. Then take some sugar cookies in whatever shape you want (I recommend circles, squares, or shapes with at least one big area; save the snowflakes for the kids to decorate) and spell out your message one letter per cookie. After you have completed a letter, dump a generous helping of sprinkles over the whole frosted letter. You may want to gently press the sprinkles a bit to make sure they stick to the frosting. Wait 10 seconds. Then turn the cookie upside down and gently shake it to remove the excess sprinkles.

cookies

I recommend doing this over a piece of wax paper so you can gather up the falling sprinkles for use on another cookie. This went pretty well for me, especially for a first time go at it.

close up cookiesMy letters turned out a little shaggy since I had big sprinkles, but I would love to see how some sparkly sugar sprinkles or nonpareils would look.

frosting

While I did the cookies this way, I let my little girl decorate as many cookies as she wanted. I didn’t expect much (she’s not even four yet) but I was amazed at how carefully she frosted each one. She was sparing with the frosting and sprinkles, and she kept telling me how careful she was being with the knife (it was a butter knife, but she associates any knife with danger).

decorating It was definitely the best part of the whole process.

eating(Well, besides eating the cookies, of course.) And my two-year old? She was perfectly happy to let me help frost and sprinkle a cookie with her, and then she spent the rest of the time picking off each sprinkle, licking the cookie clean, and then devouring the plain cookie.

eating cookies 2 isa eating cookie merry christmas
Have a wonderful weekend and enjoy some time with the ones you love!

A Typical Saturday

This post could have also been titled “what I look like before 7 AM,” but you get the idea.

First things first, we head to the market.  On the way there, we pass by a beautiful house, with a fun garden that includes poinsettia trees (did you know those little plants you buy at Christmas grow up to be trees?) and pineapples.

Here’s the market. It’s a quaint little crumbling, dilapidated spot in the center of town, and it’s where we buy 80% of our food each week.

I buy most of my food from this lady. She’s like the “no soup for you” guy (I’m not really into Seinfeld, but I do know that reference), but she’s straightforward, and I don’t feel like I’m being gutted. The prices are the same for everyone, even a gringa like me.

I love my little girl’s face in these next three pictures. She’s so good at posing for pictures.

This man was chopping up some freshly slaughtered goats. His friends were making fun of him while I was taking the pictures, saying that he never knew how to do anything, but now he has a woman so he had to learn to butcher goats.

He works outside of the butcher place though. Here’s what the legit butcher shop looks like (it’s really just a corner of the market, too.

This was the first women I bought anything from at the market. She seemed the most approachable, and since my Spanish isn’t great, I was a little nervous about the whole thing. She is sweet and always has a handful of grapes for my girls when we come.

That’s it for the market. Now we’re headed for a real store.

This is one of the bigger “grocery” stores on the island. It’s a little smaller than your standard 7-Eleven.

It’s one of those magical places where you can find nutella, canned beans, maraschino cherries, and baby food all in one place.

After grabbing a few nonperishable, include several liters of milk in a box (that you don’t have to refrigerate until it is opened, is that pasteurized) it’s time to head for home. All of this happens before 8 am, every Saturday. It’s a fun little ritual that we’ve gotten used to.

Have a great weekend!

On the Bright Side

Hmm. I don’t really know how to start this post other than I was just thinking something funny to myself and I thought I would share. I understand this is probably material better suited for a forum such as twitter, and goodness knows I have lots of twitter- and instagram-worthy material, but the fact is I don’t have, and may never have, a smart phone (completely by choice), so I am trying to avoid getting embroiled in any activity that would cause me to one day say “hmm, this would be so much easier to do if I had a smart phone…” But I digress. What this post is really about is food. Well, about cooking. And life. Because everything is about life, right?

I was cooking lunch today, as I do every day. Lunch is the big meal of the day here, and I start working on it around 10:30 every day. It took some getting used to, but I kind of like this schedule now. Except sometimes I have to remind myself to start cooking early, because I may have gotten started on something else, and lose track of time. Such was the case today. It was nearing 11:30 and I had to think quick. Luckily, I stock a variety of ingredients that can be whipped up into something satisfactory relatively quickly. I grabbed some onions, garlic, and broccoli and got to work. But I still hadn’t completely given over my mind to culinary endeavors, and I kept popping out of the kitchen to get a few stitches in while I was letting things sauté and simmer. Well, in one unfortunately long absence, the onions burned. I was going for caramelized, but they were completely charred.  I was really mad at myself and frustrated that I would have to start over. “Well, I’ve just got to make this work,” I told myself. So I picked out the worst of the burnt pieces, added another half an onion, and just went with it. The broth was browner than usual, and there were more than a few black pieces of onion floating around in there, but in the end, the soup didn’t turn out that bad. In fact, it was delicious. It had kind of a smokey undertone that gave it some depth (just winging the food jargon here).

And as I was sitting there, eating that yummy soup that I almost tossed at the beginning, I thought, it’s all a matter of perspective. One thing I’ve learned about food; you can really sell it with the description. My favorite example is giving the description of “rustic” to any pie crust that is a little sad looking. And in this case, those onions weren’t burnt, they were blackened. (This is not to be confused with a discussion of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, because I don’t want to go there.) It’s just a little reminder, mostly for myself, to just look on the bright side. When life gives you burnt onions, make blackened onion cream of broccoli soup.

Have a good weekend!

(In case you’re wondering, the pictures in this post aren’t really meant to be connected with the text. I just think posts without pictures are kind of sad, so there you go.)

Caramel Pumpkin Beignets

For those of you residing in the northern hemisphere, forgive my intrusion into your summery mindset, but here down south of the equator, even in Ecuador, we are feeling a little wintery. So, if you feel you can’t bring yourself to contemplate warm, cinnomony, crispy, fallish foods quite yet, just bookmark this post for later. But if you’re like me, and pumpkin is welcome in your desserts year round, here you go, a pumpkin recipe that is sure to delight. 

You see, every time I’ve visited my in-laws, without fail, my mother-in-law has at least one pumpkin resting on the counter, just waiting for me to do something with it. Pumpkin is the kind of thing that grows heartily down here, but most people are at a loss what to do with it. This third visit was no exception, and there was a freckly green gourd greeting me when we arrived from Galapagos. From the looks of things (dust collected) it had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until my mother-in-law casually mentioned that I should think of something to do with it, that I decided to give it a go. I carved it up, removed the seeds and skin, and steamed it until it was soft, and then pureed it until it was nice and smooth.


Now, having worked with fresh (versus canned) pumpkin a few times in my day, I knew that it would be a thinner and more runny than the stuff Libby’s has to offer. So, this time, I took the extra step of draining some of the extra water out by placing a napkin  over a fine mesh strainer (probably, several layers of cheesecloth would be ideal here) and poured the pumpkin into this to let some of the liquid seep out. I was happily surprised by the results, which were far nearer the thick pumpkin puree than what I had expected.

That was the easy part. The hard part was trying to decide what to do with all that pumpkin (at least 5 cups of it). So I went to work scouring the Internet until I came across some nice little recipes that met my needs and didn’t require buying additional ingredients.
The first was these lovely little fried things. The recipe called them beignets; they looked and tasted more like what I think of as fritters, but as I’m not from the south (and the person who wrote the recipe is, apparently) I would never presume to make a definitive statement about the proper terminology here. I’ll just say that they don’t contain yeast, so don’t expect them to be a pumpkin version of beignets a la Cafe du Monde (never been there, but I’ve seen enough copy-cat recipes around to assume that their beignets do contain yeast).


(have to say, I love the weird sea-creature shapes these turned into in the hot oil)

If you don’t want the too sweet, just dust them with some powdered sugar and call it good. But if you’re like me, you might as well go all the way and make up some super quick and easy salted caramel sauce. So, so good. I may have eaten two hot spoonfuls of the stuff before I even got to drizzling, so you’ve been warned.

Please, please be sure to eats these fresh and warm. They’re okay cold, but it just doesn’t compare to warm, gooey, caramel pumpkin goodness you get when they’re fresh out of the fryer. Enjoy!

In case you missed it, here are the recipes I used: Pumpkin Beignets and Salted Caramel Sauce.

 

Passion Fruit Juice: How to

Because you all have you’re own passion fruit vines, or at least access to a farmers market where they sell them in large bags for a dollar, right? Well, just in case, here’s a quick how-to, in photos, of course.

1. Cut.

2. Scoop

3. Blend with water.

4. Strain.

5. Add more water and sweetener, if desired.

6. Enjoy!

ps. If you haven’t voted for my fabric design (“Rebecca Rendon Circles”) over at spoonflower, please do. Today is the last day to vote. Nothing in it for you, but it would be really cool if you did. Thanks!

Ecuador Days 10 through 12

Days 10:

These next few days were spent listening to a lot of whack, whack, whack, WHACK. Yes, that’s the best description I’ve got for the sound of lots and lots of hammering, with some sawing and chiseling thrown in there too. That’s the sound of a power-tool-less construction project going on. I am so impressed with my husband, not only because he made a chicken coup, and chicken casita (little house), but also because he was able to make it work in very primitive working conditions.

Seriously impressed. The finished product is very a nice little home to seven (soon to be 14) little chickens. The house is complete with roosting poles, a little ramp, and some shelves for the chickens to nest on.

Of course, Papi’s little helper was very busy the whole time. She had a little miniature hammer and some pliers with which she was busily “working.”

Our conversations went like this for most of the days: Me:”Come do [this or that]. My two-year-old: No mami, I can’t, I’m working!

Day 11:

We took a break from the hard work to go to visit my husband’s grandmother: Mami Olga as everyone calls her. Both the girls were pretty shy at first, but eventually the warmed up to her.

Of course, Mami Olga’s cat was the favorite of the visit, until the very-pregnant feline lost her patience with them.

My poor girls; they always love animals way more than the animals love them. So sad.

Mami Olga lives about 2 blocks from the beach so we walked down to see the ocean.

If I were sending out Christmas cards, this would be the photo. Well, maybe not.

We stopped by the “Shopping” (the mall) to get some things, and I couldn’t resist taking this photo.

It is awesome for so so many reasons.

Day 12:

This day started off great with yummy food. A papaya smoothie (with fresh papaya curtesy of the tree in the back yard) and encebollado, which is a really delicious soup featuring fresh tuna and yuca root.

By the afternoon, though, I was beginning to lose my mind a little with all the hammering from the chicken coup construction, so I went on a quick shopping trip with my sister-in-law and my older girl, who is completely enraptured with the whole bus system (fortunately she has been able to block all the memories of her throwing up on them the last time we were here!). I’m still not up to shopping by myself; I’m worried I’m going to get totally ripped off on prices (bad), lost (worse), or robbed (worst), but who knows, I might get the courage to venture out on my own one of these days. It happened to be a Wednesday, and that means all the produce is 25% off, which means I really went to town in the veggie aisle. I was most excited about my 10 artichokes (!) (which, by the way, happen to be the best artichokes I’ve ever tasted, hands down) and 7 great big avocados, but I also got mangoes, apples, plantains, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, and peppers. And I only spent about $20. The bus ride home was less fun for my little girl than the way there, but we made it home with all our bags and no car sickness, so it was a definite win, overall.

Here’s the finished coup, in case you were wondering:

Home-made baby food, and a quick update

I’m still here, in case any of you were wondering where I’ve been. My blogging funk ended just in time to get loaded down with work for my editing job.  From the way things are looking, I probably won’t be able to come up for air until the first of October. I’ll try to drop in here every now and then to show you what I get done in the wee hours of the morning (i.e., the projects I really want to do).

In the meantime, here’s a little follow-up to my last post about living a beautiful life:

Homemade baby food.

I’ve never bought a single jar of baby food. I’ve never made a conscious decision not to, like it’s some big valiant stand against the evil baby food makers (I don’t think they’re evil, by the way), I just never have felt the need to. My baby’s first foods have always been mashed up bananas and such things, and grabbing a ripe banana was always much more handy than going to the store to get a little bottle of the stuff. From mashing things like bananas, I moved on to steaming and puréeing.


Yes, a little more effort, but less expensive and easier than running to the store, in my opinion.

If you want to make your own baby food, you just need to take whatever it is you want to feed your baby and make it soft and easy to eat. That’s it. If you’re looking for ideas, this site has great information. It’s where I always go if I have a question about how to prepare something. For the most part, thought, it’s pretty simply. Most fruit and vegetables need to be cooked (I prefer steaming) and then mashed or puréed before your baby eats them.

Bananas, mangos, and avocados are okay raw. I try to go organic when I can, and you can skip adding salt or sugar, your baby will love it anyway. I love knowing exactly what my baby is eating.

Enjoy sharing some new, home-made foods with your little one.