So It Begins

Another quarter of creating with young bakers starts tomorrow. Another quarter of leaving the house earlier than we’re used to, hauling equipment and ingredients to a ungainly kitchen, sanitizing and setting up. While we have an additional half-hour this go-round, recipes still have to be thoroughly thought through to fit within our frame. I’m expecting to see mini double-crust pies, cream puffs, pastry cream, cheesecakes, and crackers; pita, pizza, and a daring roulade. Things may be over-mixed, rolled too thin, or unevenly baked, but I’m betting on delicious. These bakers dive in, anxious to try, anxious to touch, smell, and taste. There’ll be a lot of hand washing. I’ll try to take photos to show you our process and results.

Over the past 4 years, the venue has not been ideal, some of the relationships have been uneasy, the initial learning curve was steep, and the resulting day has always been exhausting. Filled with gratitude as I set out to start, what will probably be my last quarter in this kitchen, I think of everything I’ve learned from the students, what I’ve learned about myself, all the tricks and tips I’ve picked up from the place itself; I am grateful for the parents who let me work with their kids; I am grateful for Junior plugging along with me. I have been transformed by this funny little class I dove into 4 years ago.

If there is anything you’d like to do, something you’ve thought to try your hand at, I don’t know how to encourage you enough to take the plunge. I hope you do. Cheers!

All hands
All hands

In Season

I love my Farmer’s Market. My market runs year round and only supports first-hand food growers and producers. I don’t get there every week-I often work weekends with shifts that conflict with market hours. I don’t always have market money in my budget-but do try to go for the pre-freeze enormous bunches of greens, always better tasting and a better price than anywhere else, and the kombucha, not (yet!) available at my usual brick-and-mortar market.

More kale than the fridge could hold!
This is late sumer

Beside knowing the faces and names of the people I buy from, the thing I love best about the market is the grounding effect it has. If I only shop at a conventional grocery store, even if that store is a co-op, organic, with goals of supporting local produce and products, there will always be items on hand, far out of our local season, every day of the year.

Shop
This is beauty

Shopping in the grocery store vacuum, seeing 3 kinds of bell peppers, cilantro bunches, corn-on-the-cob, and strawberries during January in the PNW can start to seem “normal”. I begin to feel numb to the when and where and who of the food I buy. Bundling up with scarf, hat, gloves, and warm coat early on a January Saturday morning brings everything back to real: there’ll be root vegetables minus carrots, there’ll be some little bunches of always-hardy kale, there will still be apples, there will be fruit and chilis dried by the growers, there will be the bakers, the butchers, the kombucha, and cheese makers, but it will be slim. There will be camaraderie and smiles, the summer poet’s fingers perhaps too cold to type, but the tamales, salmon slider, or cup-of-soup will be warming.

This is Seattle
This is Seattle

I don’t have a root cellar or even a second fridge at my house. I store some squash and potatoes in the barely heated basement, but I will be buying carrots and kale from California.

This is Fall
This is Fall

I will buy Washington-grown fruit until it’s all gone, or too musty from storage, but won’t buy apples or pears from Chile or New Zealand or  whereever else they might come from. I will use the seasonal fruit captured in my freezer rather than that shipped fresh across the planet.

This is November
This is November

In January, I’ll be teaching new groups of kids how to make a soup and a few other things. I will be emphasizing ingredients that might still be available at a Farmer’s Market, though will be using some that won’t be. Things like celery, local only for a moment, are so integral to the flavor base of every soffritto or mirepoix. Celery seed can be used as a substitute, and I will include the seeds in our conversation, but first learners need to mess around with the whole food before experimenting with stand-ins. For this reason, I do buy celery out-of-season. I buy it intentionally. Having taken many road trips to central California, I can imagine the trucks, the stops, the last In-N-Out of Redding, the low water levels of Lake Shasta, the relief of Portland, the amazingly boring (no offense!) highway between Vancouver and Olympia. Yes it’s more than 100 miles away, but I can reasonably drive to celery. I know the trip it will take, and I will be grateful.

This is me
This is me

As for the soup, it’s a minestrone I’ve tweaked, and, yes, the celery makes a difference. I make this with Junior, both of us practicing our knife skills. The rosemary comes from my garden, nestled where it is, protected from the coldest our PNW Winter can muster. For economy, I usually use the small white beans available where I buy bulk, cooked, then frozen in recipe-ready quantities. If I cooked the beans, I add their liquid to the soup. Take care with canned tomatoes. Always buy whole, it’s good to know what really might be in the can, and buy from companies that care about canning practices, limit toxins whenever possible. Frozen vegetables are a good winter substitute for from-across-the-planet fresh. The green beans can be happily exchanged for strips of kale or any other vegetable you prefer. The touch of green makes me happy.

This is simple food. Each time I start a batch, I have doubts about the meal to come. But each time I sip a spoonful, I marvel that such few ingredients turn into something as comforting, satisfying, and tasty as I find this soup to be. Cheers!

Minestrone • Serves 4-6

Preparation time: 15 minutes • Cooking time: 30-40 minutes

 Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium red onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

1 large celery stalk, diced

1 pinch of red pepper flake

1 garlic clove, minced

1 ½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1 large potato, diced

1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained (save liquid) and finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced

About 5 cups of water

1 10-ounce bag frozen green beans

Optional: ¾ cup grated Parmesan for serving

Method

Place a large pot onto the stove. Turn the burner onto medium. Pour the olive oil into the pot. When the olive oil is warm, add the onion, carrots, celery, red pepper flake, and garlic.

Stir the vegetables to coat with oil. Stir in the salt and pepper.

Cook for 5-8 minutes, until the onion begins to turn golden.

Add the tomatoes, potatoes, cannellini, rosemary, the saved tomato liquid, and about 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Let soup cook for 15 minutes, gently boiling. Test the vegetables for tenderness.

During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the frozen green beans. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. While the soup is cooking, grate the Parmesan, if using, and set aside.Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan, if using

Wednesdays

In January I started a new Wednesday routine: I load a bin or two with sheet pans, measuring cups, pastry cutters, and parchment paper; aprons, bowls, required ingredients, and recipe packs; drive the 40 minutes to venue where I unload, sanitize, and set up a teaching kitchen for a group of 8-12 year olds. The space is tiny, the oven is not ideal, but the students are eager, sometimes excepting Junior who attends by default, and we bake.

We are a homeschooling household. While there are many misconceptions of homeschooling and homeschoolers, I will simply say that we chose this path for Junior’s education as it best meets the learning requirements of his right-brained self. We cover all the subjects required by our state, we get assessed every year, but we most certainly do not stay home. Homeschooling, or  home-based instruction, means we as parents get to guide our child’s schooling path. We could choose to take classes through our school district or through state online programs; we could choose to take classes through one of several homeschool coops; we could organize our own classes with a group of families, hiring an instructor for any given subject; we can learn through books, movies, video games, the public library, an established curriculum, field trips, most of which we employ at one time or another. Our beloved Seattle Homeschooling Group has partnered with two of our city community centers to provide weekly classes for families. As a mom, a homeschool teacher, and a baker, I chose to lead a fearless group of student bakers.

The actual time in the community center’s own Tiny Kitchen has to be thought through like a well-choreographed dance. We have an hour to demonstrate, then mix, roll, shape, bake, clean up, and taste.  Each recipe dictates whether we will work individually, in small teams, or as one group. Sometimes the students do the measuring, but if timing is tricky, they will add pre-measured wet to dry. Who knew that making biscuits could take such a long time?! As everything hinges on baking time, we sometimes shape/bake one recipe, then while baking, we measure/mix another recipe to finish at home.

Biscuits
Biscuits

Before getting to the kitchen, however, I need to find the recipes, test the recipes, re-write the recipes in a consistent, easy-t0-follow way, along with information pages regarding ingredients, methods, and equipment. As with many areas of cooking and baking, I have the recipes down that I use at home on a regular basis. For a class, one in which I want to share method and taste experiences, I need to find good recipes for things I don’t necessarily make, recipes that will work in our facility, within our timeframe, and with my group of bakers.

Piles of printouts/testing donuts
Piles of printouts/testing donuts

While I look for recipes that call for lower amounts of sugar, budget limitations keep me from introducing the more expensive alternative sweeteners, such as my dear coconut palm sugar. When recipe testing, I make the smallest batch the measurements will allow, I don’t want to mess around with anything less than 1 whole egg, and then send most of the finished product to Spouse’s break room. The office break room is an excellent abyss to toss in loads of sugar, butter, and flour! On chocolate chip cookie day, Spouse took 6 versions of 3 different recipes, set up a taste test, and tallied the results. The least favorite cookie was that with the least amount of sweetener, coconut sugar at that, and a little more whole wheat flour. I didn’t use that recipe in class.

Yum!
Yum!

Winter Session had us making pretzels, pumpkin bread, pancakes, and hand-pies. Spring began with scones and will continue with breadsticks, baked donuts, fish crackers, and a triple layer, chocolate whipped-cream filled, buttercream frosted yellow layer cake, unless there is a mutiny and the students demand a chocolate cake like last time. The chocolate cake was really good. So good that I’m leaving it here. Bon appetit!

Chocolate Cake

Makes 2 8-inch layers

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

3/4 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup cultured yogurt, plain

1/2 cup canola or grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup strong brewed coffee, hot

 

How to:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

1. Butter 2 8-inch round cake pans. Scatter flour around, coat butter, knockout extra. Cut a circle of parchment paper to fit the bottom of each pan. Place in pan.

2. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a hand mixer in a large bowl) combine the eggs, buttermilk, yogurt, canola oil, and vanilla. Beat together until smooth.

4. On the lowest speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Mix on low until there are no more clumps of flour. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl.

5. Pour in the hot coffee and mix until combined.

6. Pour the batter into the cake pans. Try to make the two pans have the same amount of batter.

7. Gently place the pans into the oven.

8. Bake for 20 minutes then check the cakes. Bake these until the tops are just set and no longer wiggly. This cake should be moist so try not to over bake.

9. Let cool, then run a knife around the edge of the pan. Put a piece of parchment on a plate. Place the parchment and plate upside down over a cake pan. Flip the cake pan over so the cake will fall out onto the parchment-lined plate. Repeat with 2nd cake. Cakes should be completely cool before frosting. Wrap each layer in plastic wrap, place in a Ziploc bag and put in the freezer. Cold cakes are easier to fill and frost.(the freezer doesn’t dry out the cake like the fridge will).

Recipe from Somewhere on the Internet.

 

 

Something New

A new year is about new things. I may resolve to change an undesirable behavior, start a new project, learn a new skill. 2012 has found me showing a small group of 6 to 9 year olds how to cook and bake. This group does not meet in my kitchen, but rather at the kitchen of a Seattle neighborhood community center. The foot print of the kitchen is larger than mine, but after moving in a folding table, 6 folding chairs, and the moving-talking-laughing-poking-joking bodies to fill those chairs, the kitchen shrinks to ridiculously tiny proportions. The kitchen is poorly equipped for real cooking/baking, so I carry in most of the tools and equipment we use each week. The small space, the lugging around of equipment might give notion that this new experience is unpleasant. On the contrary! Meeting the kids, discovering their love of food, seeing their desire to make and create stuff has given an energy to this project that I didn’t foresee. I initiated the idea from my desire to share, but the physical circumstances would have quickly extinguished that wish. Working with these young humans, sharing what I know, showing how to use the tools, seeing their delight and frustration when rolling pie pastry, getting the reviews upon tasting the day’s project, getting after them when the exuberance for life turns into a potential kitchen safety hazard-this is where the sustaining energy comes from.

So far we’ve cracked and scrambled eggs, made tiny apple pies, blueberry muffins, pretzels, tomato soup and biscuits, scones which we turned into strawberry shortcakes, and pasta by hand. We’ll continue on with vegetable pot pies, pancakes, crostada, moon pie, and pizza. The kids measure and stir, add liquid to dry, knead, roll, slice, chop, and eat.

The planning for each week, the recipe packets, writing the information pages on pie dough or kinds of apples, the lists of what to bring,  this has kept me from writing anything about my own kitchen or my garden. My brain is busy and happy with this activity. I urge any of you to pick up a new thing and do it: dig up some yard and plant some lettuce seeds, try braising a cut of beef, thread a needle and sew a few pieces of fabric together, gather a few people in your home and show them how to do something. Newness is life-giving. The year is still young, give yourself some new life.