It’s Like Budd-er

Bread and Homemade Butter

Bread and Homemade Butter

The kids were a little stir crazy after two half days at school this week.  One was sick so we couldn’t really leave the house and their making forts out of my furniture was starting to get on my nerves.  So, I decided to come up with a kitchen project for the 3 of us to do while the little one gorged on Pedialyte popsicles and watched TV in the guestroom all day.  I always have stacks of recipes, notes and cookbooks lying around.  The note about making butter had been waiting for me for weeks, but I never had time to do it.  Today, we had nothing but time and since I have been prepping all week to teach a cheese making class, I just happened to have 2 pints of heavy cream.So, the kids rallied and washed their hands.  We poured the cream into my KitchenAid and measured the salt.   Unfortunately, I started the mixer a little too high and suddenly everyone in a four County radius ended up splattered with cream.  The kids thought that was hilarious.  I kind of did, too.

Kneading the Butter
Kneading the Butter

After about 5 minutes of mixing, I lost my sous chefs.  They went back to ransacking  my house while I waited for my cream to stop looking like whipped cream.  Had it not been for the salt, I might have stopped the mixer and grabbed a spoon.  I love whipped cream.  But, I was committed to this little project even if my helpers were not. After about 10 more minutes the cream broke and suddenly I had beautiful yellow butter sloshing around in buttermilk.  My 8 year old decided she had to see that I actually made butter so she came back and helped me knead the butter to release the rest of the liquid.  We cannot wait to make buttermilk pancakes tomorrow.

Epic Failure: My Attempt to Make Squeaky Cheese Curds

Cooking the curds

It started innocently enough.  A friend asked about making cheese curds on Facebook and I jumped at the opportunity to try it.  For those of you who are not familiar with cheese curds check out this description from New England Cheesemaking Supply.  Of course, I have gotten squeaky curds when I was attempting to get another cheese, but I have never tried to make them from scratch.  So, I set out to try a recipe I found online.  Heat the milk, add calcium chloride, add cultures, add rennet.  Wait.  So far so good.

I knew I had a problem when it was time to cut the curd and start draining them.  It just didn’t look right to me.  It seemed too dry and the curd mat was not sticking together even with weight.  I am sure more experienced cheesemaker would have been able to salvage the curds, but it is possible they would have had the same problem.  So, I set out to do what I always do when I have a cheese failure.  I made ricotta!  The best part about cheesemaking is that it is an adventure and you never know what you might get.  Sometimes, even the mistakes are DELICIOUS!


Draining the curds

My fresh ricotta over pasta

My fresh ricotta over pasta

Have Your Cake and Eat it, too

8th Birthday Sushi Cake

8th Birthday Sushi Cake

When I was little, my mom always made me a homemade birthday cake.  I never had a store bought cake and therefore decided in my own mind that they were somehow inferior.  Now, that I have my own kids, it has always been an unspoken rule that I would make all of their birthday cakes. I take great pride in planning, baking, decorating and serving my homemade cakes (sometimes I cheat and use mixes, but I always decorate them myself).  They never look professional and they always have little finger marks in them,  but they are my creations and they always reflect the theme of the party.  Although I am sure the kids remember the jumpy houses and the ponies and dancing the limbo, the cakes have become some of the fondest memories of my kids’ birthdays for me.

cupcakes       2nd Birthday Cupcakes

Train Cake

Train Cake

I clearly remember sobbing at 10 pm the night before my son’s 2nd birthday because I could not get his train cake out of the pan.  I baked that one 3 times before I actually got one that didn’t break.    I remember the first time I worked with fondant, the tons of decorated cupcakes that outnumbered the guests at my littlest daughter’s 2nd birthday and the replica of Wrigley Field that required my husband’s help (what is an outfield?).  I remember the bird cookies that had to accompany the bird cake and decorating them to look realistic because my 7 year old would know the difference.   I remember begging my husband to help me squish pink and white gumdrops together to mold small shrimp for the top of my daughter’s “Sushi” cake.

So, tonight I am staying up late trying to figure out what kind of cake to make for my soon to be 5 year old.  She is having a gymnastics party and I have lots of ideas, but very little time.  Maybe this year will be the year I finally buy a store bought cake.  Yeah, probabably not.

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Walking to School

Walking to School

When I take my youngest daughter to preschool every morning we have a ritual.  I take her out of the car and she demands to hold my hand before I can even close and lock the car door.  We take the big kids to their respective classroom lines and say goodbye to them.   Then we walk to the back of the school and play on the playground until her door opens 15 minutes later.

My daughter has a bit of Mama-diagnosed OCD so our mornings (and surprisingly just our mornings) are always the same.  It is funny and exhausting and endearing at the same time because it never waivers.  While I try to talk to the other moms on the playground, she commands my attention to tell me that she is either too cold or too hot.  She will then refuse to do whichever thing I suggest to fix her internal body temperature issue.  She doesn’t want mittens or a hat.  She won’t take her sweatshirt off.  She won’t zip her coat. She won’t roll up her sleeves.   No matter what I offer, she refuses.  Reverse psychology usually backfires.  Giving her control, asking other’s opinions or ignoring her do absolutely nothing to provide relief from the potential meltdown.  Miraculously, once she interrupts me from my only daily dose of sane conversation with other frazzled moms, her body regulates and her temperature problem is cured without any intervention.  Then, she will ask me exactly 3 times (spaced about 5 minutes apart) if it is time to go into her school yet. “Not yet, honey, 10 more minutes”.  “Not yet, honey, 5 more minutes”.  And finally, “Yes, honey, it is time now”.

Once, we get into school, she will do four things:  1. Grab my hand and try to get us both to fit side by side through the door that the teacher is propping open even though there is only room for us to walk single file.  2.  Ask me frantically (as if she has asked 20 times and I have not yet answered) to help her take off her coat because her “arms are stuck” and  3. Ask me if her hair is sticking up (that one just started recently and it drives me nuts).  4.  Get in line to wash her hands first, but then let all the other kids go in front of her so she is last.  After the school’s required routine of washing her hands she says hello to her teacher and/or a few select friends, and then gets to work on the morning’s table top activities.  When it is time for me to leave she begins her most complicated, time-consuming ritual.  Some might find  it adorable; some may think it is annoying.  It is not one I instigated.  It is not one I encourage.  It is not one I helped her to create.  But it is the one I love the most.

Every morning before I can leave to go about my day, she asks me to bend down to her level.   She then proceeds to kiss me on every available body part before I am allowed to stand up.  Right hand, left hand, right cheek, left cheek, right eye, left eye, nose, hair, chin, neck, ears and finally lips.  If she misses any spot, she does it again.  Even when I am in a hurry, I try to savor the moment.  Because in a week and a half she is turning 5 and I never know when this will end.

To Bee or Not to Bee

honeybeeI just finished reading The Accidental Beekeeper by Marina Marchese and I just finished having a cup of tea with honey in it.  So, of course my mind is racing.  Could I get a beehive?  Where would I put it?  Is my yard big enough?   How much honey will we get?  How many candles could we make?  When I was younger my uncle kept bees, but he had acres of land so the kids didn’t have ever get too close to the bees.  My kids would be right near the hive and so would all of my neighbors’ kids and dogs. There are probably not enough boxes of peppermint bark to give away if one of my neighbors’ kids get stung.

And yet, I cannot stop thinking about it. I have my eyes on my garage roof.  That one car garage roof has become a mansion in my mind.  I have had so many plans with what we could do with it.  A rooftop garden, a chicken coop, a playroom, a mushroom farm were among the latest.  If only my husband were an architect…oh, wait, he is.   Unfortunately, he is the kind of architect who tells me the roof as it stands cannot structurally support any of my wild ideas or apparently my body weight.  We would need to build a new structure from scratch.  And, it would cost money.  If only my kids were not going to need to go to college in the future.

I am still trying to work out where to put a beehive.  I wonder if we could build an indoor one like they have at the zoo?  It is a hive with pvc tubing to the outside for the bees to come and go.  Kind of like a dryer vent.  There is no way my husband could say no to that, right?  I mean how much damage could thousands of bees really cause if they got loose in our basement?

Tight Knit

Mommy and son knitting at the library

Mommy and son knitting at the library

I taught my 6 year old son to knit today.  He is home on Winter Break from school and was bouncing off the walls.  I was trying to tune out the kids fighting, running, yelling, and generally being kids so I plopped on the couch with a new knitting project and tried to focus.  Within minutes, “my overly active, never sit still, can make any furniture a trampoline” son sat down next to me and asked me to teach him.  I was reluctant at first.  There was no way he could do this without getting frustrated and waving my knitting needles wildly.  This was going to end in another trip to the Emergency Department.  Besides, I was not going to let him practice on my very expensive fancy yarn that we got on our “date weekend” to New Orleans a few months ago ( But, he insisted.  So, I had to find him a set of needles (they were in the computer desk, of course) and some spare yarn (skeins of yarn for hundreds of unfinished or more likely never started projects are stashed in every drawer and every closet around here).  I did not think he would have the patience to wait for me to gather what we needed and cast on enough stitches to start a scarf and then wait for me to be able to show him what to do.

I was WRONG.  He not only waited patiently, he watched over my shoulder as I carefully cast on 20 stitches and then knitted the first 2 rows.  When I tried to sit behind him and take the needles in both of our hands, but he said “I got it, Mom. I watched you”.  (Really?  It took me weeks to get the hang of knitting.)   I knew he was capable of focusing on something he is excited about (usually a new toy or a superhero movie that I have finally agreed to let him watch).  I also  knew he was good at spatial relations (like his father, the architect) and figuring out complicated diagrams (like Legos).  What I did not expect was that he would make mistakes (only a few) and ask for help without getting frustrated and that he would stick with it most of the day.  He even asked to take it to the library and sat with me knitting while the girls picked out books.

An added benefit was that as he was knitting, he was talking to me.  He rarely talks to me.  I mean he asks for food, and snuggles occasionally and refuses to go to bed and tattles on his sisters and says he loves me (usually when he wants something).  But, he doesn’t talk to me about anything important very often and if I try to initiate a conversation he gets embarrassed or too silly to talk.  The knitting changed all of that in a way that even the focus of building Legos cannot.  Today, I heard all about the kids at school, his teacher and her dog.  I heard about his favorite songs from music class. I heard about his fears that his friends might tease him for learning to knit because “they do not know how fun it is and they might think it is only for girls ” (not sure how this could be my kid).  I heard about his future dreams “he wants to live at home forever” (ugh!).  I also heard about how he thinks about people who are homeless a lot and wants to donate his warm scarf once it is finished.

The other thing I heard that I have not heard in a while is a calm, silent, focused, happy boy.

Mushrooms Really are Fun Guys

I2012-03-18_15-34-21_59 started growing shiitake mushrooms in a one bedroom apartment in NYC under my kitchen table in 1995.  I bought a small log that came pre- inoculated and a standard 24 inch rectangular plastic planter.  I would soak the log with non-chlorinated ice water and then stand it on end in the container under my table (in the shade) and wait a few days for mushrooms to grow.  It was weird, and fun and delicious.  Over the years I have purchased lots of mushroom kits.  You can get them online all over now.  Portobellos in a box.  White mushrooms in coffee grounds or sawdust.  Oyster mushroom kits for kids in toy stores.  Mushrooms are tasty and fast growing if you grow them in these boxed kits.  And they are a lot of fun to watch.

Now, I choose to grow shiitake mushrooms in logs.  Shiitakes are delicious and the home-grown ones are so much more flavorful than the dried or even fresh store-bought ones.  It is a long, slow, waiting process that takes a lot of patience.  But, once the logs begin fruiting, they will fruit for years to come.   First, you must have recently cut fresh wood and logs large enough in diameter that they will not easily dry out.  Four to six inches in diameter is a good size.  Next,drill holes in the log and stuff the holes with spore material.  It comes mixed with sawdust or in the form of plugs.  It is possible to purchase different strains of shiitakes.  Some will fruit in cooler weather, some in warmer weather. I like a variety so I can extend my growing season.   Once the spores are in the log, it is important to keep the birds out and the moisture in.  I typically water my logs once a week for the first month or so.  Then, I just let nature take its course and wait and wait and wait.

Mushroom logsIn 6-24 months (depending on the strain, the moisture level, the temperature and the elimination of other competing fungi) the log will start producing mushrooms.  Once a log begins fruiting, it will typically fruit a few times a year.  A good rain and the right temperature range will often trigger the logs. I typically get more fruiting in wetter weather. The weather here in Chicago has been so mild that my logs are still fruiting.  The shiitakes are so good, my 6 year old son will pick them and eat them raw right off the log.