a pictured pause…

The paper for my UK class is finally starting to take shape… and by that, I mean a shape that doesn’t make me want to throw the laptop out the window. It’s quite normal for me to hate my research papers, because I can’t get them to say what I want them to say. Until about 24 hours after I’ve written them, I decide they weren’t so bad, after all. So, now that I know I have all day tomorrow to finish it, and I’m well into the fourth page, I can breathe more easily. 12287557_10153686755089976_285132929_o 12295085_10153686751844976_1654943065_oSo, before I go see how the Christmas tree decorating is going, I thought the least I could do is share a few of my latest pictures. Mostly taken at Thanksgiving, I can assure you that we dined most deliciously on all the food that you could desire. Oh, right, the cake pictures were taken before Thanksgiving, because my mom tends to bake cakes for parties at work. They’re addicted to her cooking and baking (as are we). And I was feeling all artistic after taking some of these.  : )12290528_10153693025334976_102409055_o12281770_10153697314914976_836887180_oMost of my brothers made it to town, along with my youngest bro’s dog. Bullet has been part of the family for almost a year now, I think, and we occasionally get “custody” of him when my brother has to go do military stuff. Now that my brother is MARRIED, then Bullet stays with my sister-in-law instead. However, Bullet’s a really nice dog, and we love having him to visit, too. This picture I included was taken after he realized that he WAS going home with Joe and Amanda, instead of staying with us. Or rather, he leaped into his bed in the car, and couldn’t be shifted, as if he was afraid he might get left behind after all. So, for a rescue dog that lucked into being adopted by a young man in the Air Force… life is good for him, and he just LOVES my brother and his wife.12318272_10153697411134976_1543031468_oAnd now, away I go, and by tomorrow, I should be ONE research paper closer to being done with this semester! Hooray!

to eat or not to… no, wait, definitely to eat!

I’m so behind on sharing photos and recent happenings! But with several birthdays within the last month and a few other holidays or office shindigs that require baking, as well as having one brother come home from being based in England… we’ve been in food heaven! So, here I am, trying to share some of the wonderfulness of all the food, while I run away for the weekend. Let’s see if I can pull it together in time.DSC_0441

DSC_0452DSC_0453This all started back in April, but what with all my school papers and things, I just took the pictures and kept going with school. Soon, all the pictures of deliciousness began to pile up… I took the time to make my FB and Instagram friends drool, but I can’t make myself just post a million pictures of cake on here without saying at least something, you know.DSC_0455DSC_0459DSC_0477So, for Easter, my mom wanted to try out a new cake recipe… I can’t remember the exact name of it, but she bought special black cherry and black raspberry preserves to put between the layers and I think there’s some kind of cordial or liqueur in the icing… I’ll remember the more recent ones better, I promise! So, along with our wonderful Easter lunch of ham and all the trimmings (including pretzel jello), we finished off with that wonderful cake.DSC_0483DSC_0487DSC_0493And then, with the onset of May, not only did my brother arrive home from England, but several birthdays hit (including mine), followed by Mother’s Day, and we were just eating, eating, eating! At that point, I forgot to take pictures of our dinner meals because there were just too many amazing meals. And I know I have a picture of Joe’s birthday cake somewhere, but I seem to have misplaced it. It was our favorite chocolate birthday cake, though.DSC_0504 DSC_0512DSC_0519With the arrival of summer, a work shindig was arranged at my mom’s workplace, and she decided to make several cakes from new recipes. There was a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, a lemon blackberry, and a chocolate one. Each was in layers, and at least one had a special compote/jam to go in the middle. Actually, she had to simmer blackberries and lemon zest on the stove for a long time, in order to turn it into that jam layer. I tried very hard to be around for all the icing procedures, etc.., but I missed the carrot cake going together. So, seeing them after they were cut sometimes had to suffice.In the midst of this, she managed to make some no-bake chocolate cookies for church, and the rest of us waited hopefully to see if leftovers would come home from work. They did, and we went on sugar overload.DSC_0484DSC_0524DSC_0529On the heels of all that baking, my birthday arrived. I knew that we had just had a whole chocolate cake for Joe’s birthday, plus leftovers from all the cakes for the work party. So, just like last year, I decided to make my own cake…. an Aussie pavlova. I don’t remember if I’ve made it since last year, so it was a little bit like starting from scratch. But it came together, though I was certain it was on the soft side, and I still mustn’t have baked it long enough. The whipped cream really weighed down the soft center, but it was still lovely.DSC_0532DSC_0538Because I was already on a roll and because I had one or two places I might possibly take that pavlova to get help eating it, I decided to make another one, the following day. Good to get some practice in, before I forgot what I’d done before. So, this time, I whipped the egg whites much better and I could tell the batch was better. Not sure to explain how, but it looked right. It baked beautifully, and I baked it much longer than before… the whole 1.5 hours. Different recipes call for different times, so I’ve been experimenting. The goal of an Aussie pavlova is to get it crunchy on the outside and marshmallowy on the inside. Thus far, the outside edge was always extremely sticky and soft… it never cut well and was difficult to get off the knife or spatula.DSC_0629DSC_0635DSC_0639I took the second pavlova to a graduation party for someone at church that Saturday, and it was a hit. When I cut it, it cut so easily that I was stunned and went shrieking to my mom about it. It was definitely crispy on the outside, and I got some really nice compliments on it.From there, it was the day before Mother’s Day, and I was planning to make my mom a pound cake to eat with strawberries. So, that evening, I followed that recipe and double-checked with her to make sure I didn’t pull it out too soon. I’m not as experienced with cake as I am with baking cookies, so I was being careful. But it came out really well (if a bit dry, to my taste). DSC_0652IMG_20140509_194145276IMG_20140510_125837025And with that, and very few details in between, I have finally caught you up on all the baking that our family has done over the last month or two. Hope you enjoy the pics, and yes, I probably can find links to recipes or at least tell you what books we got the recipes out of, if necessary.  : )IMG_20140510_230746588 IMG_20140511_125948130

baking baby bundts…

Oh, come on, I couldn’t resist the alliterative opportunity in that title. But since my mom made these not long after Christmas, it was about time I posted some of the pictures.DSC_0999

DSC_1002Some time ago, my mom saw a particular recipe in Southern Living, called Rum-Glazed Sweet Potato Cakes, and not only did they sound delicious, she loved the little bundt shapes they came in. So, somebody got her the bundt pans for Christmas. And since we always have sweet potato for Christmas dinner, she was able to put some aside for the cakes, for a later date.DSC_1009

DSC_1023That day came a day or two after Christmas, since my brothers were still in town and my aunt and uncle were coming to visit. I don’t have the recipe here for you, just the pictures. But I can tell you that pureed sweet potato was added to the mixture, and there were golden raisins soaked in rum, also. After the raisins were removed from the rum, the leftover rum was used to make the glaze.DSC_1029

DSC_1031Of course, if you’ve been keeping up with this blog, then you’ll know my family has made their own vanilla, some time back. We have several varieties, made from two different types of vanilla beans and three types of alcohol (bourbon, rum, vodka). So, our recipes are all even yummier than ever, with homemade vanilla to add to the mixtures. Obviously, since these were rum-glazed cakes, we used the Tahitian Rum Vanilla.DSC_1036

DSC_1037Since we’re familiar with making pumpkin bread or banana bread, most of our family were expecting these cakes to be heavier, but they were really quite light and moist. They were a big hit with the entire family. Deliciousness!DSC_1046

DSC_1048P.S. Remembering to check back, the recipe came out of the November 2012 issue of Southern Living.DSC_1050DSC_1058

come on, make that pav!

The Australian pavlova… the one dessert I never got enough of, while overseas, and never had a lesson in, until the very end of my time there. As a result, when I try to make it here in the U.S., I start consulting multiple recipes and quizzing all my friends for their opinions on how to make it. Remember, Aussies have slightly different ingredients AND measurements than Americans, so nothing I do here will be exactly like we did there.DSC_1005

DSC_0005My impression, after multiple discussions with friends, is that every Aussie has their own perfect way of making one… or they admit defeat, and don’t make it at all. Maybe it always falls flat (though I don’t even know how that works, yet), or maybe they’re half American, so they were raised on a different combination of desserts. But another friend insists that there is no wrong way to make a pav. So, obviously, it takes all types to make a world. Even in Oz.DSC_0009

For my birthday, I decided it was time to make another attempt at pavlova. Not that anything was wrong with the last one, except technically, it wasn’t pavlova. They do say that it has to have cornstarch (cornflour, if you’re an Aussie) in it, to make it a pav. But as I’ve done more reading on the subject of the ins and outs of pavlovas, maybe it really was one, after all. The difference between a meringue and a pavlova is supposed to be that a pav is hard and crunchy on the outside and marshmallow-y soft on the inside, while meringue is hard throughout. So, last time, I thought I did, and then I thought I didn’t… and now I think I did make one, after all.  : )DSC_0013

DSC_0015If you are already looking for the recipe, I haven’t written it yet, so I think I’ll include it at the very end. So, if that’s all you want, scroll straight to the bottom of this page. You see, as I said, I was working from two recipes, tons of online advice, suggestions from my mom, and a little intuition thrown in. In addition, I had to translate the temperatures and measurements, too.DSC_0017

My original recipe, which my friend Imogen sent home with me, was printed off of taste.com.au, and is listed as a “Traditional Pavlova Recipe”. It doesn’t call for cornflour. For my second recipe, she e-mailed me the link to aussie.info.com. I did lots of flipping back and forth from one to the other, trying to decide what to do.DSC_0019

One problem is that Aussies use caster sugar (Americans don’t have this, except perhaps in a specialty store), which seems to be like granulated sugar that’s been blended slightly finer, but not as fine as icing sugar. In the end, we picked up a box of 4x confectioner’s sugar, which is probably too fine, but who cares? It’ll blend nicely into the egg whites, and it’s sugar. Adapt to the ingredients you have, especially if you’re too lazy to blend the sugar in the food processor.DSC_0021

When I began to dig out the ingredients, I practically had to climb into the cupboard, trying to find the cream of tartar, which was hiding in a small container,behind everything else. One recipe calls for it, and the other does not. One recipe explains that cream of tartar helps increase the volume of the egg whites, and gives the pavlova a crunchier crust. So, I thought, it’ll probably help, so I included it.DSC_0022

DSC_0023Remembering that I hadn’t messed it up the first time, so I couldn’t really ruin it this time, unless I did something completely ridiculous, I began my pavlova. I’ve never had any trouble with separating egg whites from egg yolks, so I quickly did that, and threw them in the mixing bowl. By the way, one recipe called for 6 egg whites, the other for 4-6. I think the 4-6 one was tailored more towards 4, so the measurements were a bit different. I went with six, and decided I’d swing with it. One recipe called for a pinch of salt, the other for a pinch of cream of tartar, so I used both.DSC_0025

DSC_0030My first recipe has my friend’s handwritten note that “Typically, in most Aussie pavs, you would use 1/4 cup caster sugar for every egg white – beat until no longer grainy”. So, it’s likely that their caster sugar is grainier than my powdered sugar, and you have to stir longer. And those cups mentioned are in Aussie measures, so I figured my 1 1/2 cups of sugar would work nicely with my 6 eggs. No, wait, one recipe called for 8 ounces of it… so I may have gone with that. Either works. I gradually added the sugar, vanilla, and white vinegar, though I think I saved the vanilla for the very end. It doesn’t really seem like vinegar and vanilla would go together.DSC_0048

DSC_0049Recipe #2 says to lightly fold in the cornstarch. This is where I needed a lesson on folding, from my mom, because I’ve rarely done any recipe that calls for it. The idea of gently stirring, in order to keep it from deflating, strikes me as very odd, but then, I’m using to stirring cookie dough. So, very carefully, I folded in the cornstarch, wondering what would happen if I stirred it too hard. Would it just evaporate before my eyes? That must be what my friend meant about it “falling”.DSC_0055

Also, in Australia, with no everyone having air-conditioning or insulation in their homes, I’m guessing that some of the issues may come with the fluctuation of temperatures inside the house. Even when our AC isn’t running, the house takes a while to change temp, so there isn’t usually any trouble with cooking projects reacting to heat and humidity.DSC_0056

DSC_0059Once the egg whites were ready, I put parchment paper on my cookie sheet, so that I could easily move it to a decorative plate, later. The first time, I didn’t do very well at getting the mixture in a circle, and hollowing it out to make room for the whipped cream. Of course, that time, I overwhipped the cream, so there wasn’t as much of it. But this time, I kept my circle smaller and piled it higher, in order to make a deeper hollow inside. And wished I knew, in detail (with pics), how my friends do it, and what it looks like when they’re making it.  : )  Recipe #1 also calls for making “furrows” up the sides. I’m still working on that part.DSC_0064

After much debate over the oven temperatures and timing, we put it into our convection oven. If you have a gas oven, the recipes call for starting with 400°F, and then dropping it to 250°F after ten minutes, and then baking for an hour. I see now that my first recipe calls for even lower temps. But if you have an electric oven, you start it at 250°F and bake for 1.5 hours. Final notation says that if you have a fan-forced oven (convection), then you “adjust accordingly”. Great, so we make it up as we go along. Eventually, we settled on preheating to 250°F, then dropping it to 235°, and baked it for an hour.DSC_0065

DSC_0066Though it was completely done, the outside of the pavlova wasn’t as crispy as it should’ve been, and the inside a bit soft, so I think I’ll bake it longer, next time. My brother has volunteered to eat any more than I want to make, for practice.  : )DSC_0069

When it’s baked, you turn off the oven, leave the oven partially ajar, and let the pav cool in the oven. I believe this is because if it gets cool TOO suddenly, it will fall. So, another case of possible “falling” that I have yet to experience, so I’m not quite sure what it would look like, if it did.DSC_0076

After the pav was almost cool, I brought it out of the oven to finish cooling, transferred it to a pretty plate, and cut off the excess parchment paper. It moved very easily, with the paper under it. Then, I prepared to make the whipped cream. The recipe calls for 300 mLs of thickened cream, so I used a pint of heavy whipping cream (which is ~470 mLs, I think). This time, I measured it out, but next time, I’ll just use the whole container, because you can’t have too much whipped cream. Also, I need to mix it slightly less, so it will be a little softer.DSC_0080

Recipe #2 doesn’t have any description of how to make the whipped cream, so I ran with what recipe #1 said. I beat the cream, 1 tbsp of confectioner’s sugar, and 1 tsp of vanilla together. Then, I carefully filled my pavlova, spread it evenly, and decorated it with blueberries and strawberries. We forgot to get a kiwi, or we would have added that, too. And I don’t know if you can even get passionfruit, here in the U.S. (it would probably cost a LOT), so that couldn’t be included. But I’ve seen pictures of pavs with pomegranate seeds on top, too. Raspberries would probably be marvelous, as well.DSC_0088

In the end, the pavlova looked beautiful. So, on to the taste test. When I cut the first slice, I found that the outer crust was softer than last time, and gave no resistance to the spatula. It didn’t hold together very well on the plate, either, so I had trouble getting any photos that didn’t look like a pile of white fluff. My family were all surprised at how light it is, like dining on air, and eating more than one piece didn’t feel like overeating. But despite any criticism that I make of it, with the intention of improving the next one, I think it was delicious, too.DSC_0089

I love how the sweetness of the pavlova, which really is almost the consistency of a marshmallow on the inside, contrasts with the whipped cream. You don’t have to put sugar in the whipped cream, but if you do, there’s so very little, that you just taste creamy wonderfulness in it. And the fruit gives it a punch of flavor, unlike the sweetness and cream of the rest. And getting the crunchiness into the outside of the pav is my goal for next time.DSC_0091

But again, six of us polished off the whole thing in a matter of minutes. And as we joked, if you’ve met my brother, he doesn’t eat four slices of any dessert, just to be polite. And though it was suggested that I could make lemon meringue or key lime pie next, I’m afraid I shot down that idea, because I’ve never liked either desserts, particularly. Oh, I try them now and then, but I’m not a big fan of lemon or lime in desserts, I’m not exactly sure why.DSC_0092

So, thanks for staying with me for this whole extended description of my latest baking expedition. This is what my compilation pavlova recipe would end up looking like, though you can feel free to vary it as much as you like. Remember, this is an Aussie traditional dessert, only slightly revamped for Americans.  : )DSC_0093

~

Rachel’s Aussie-American Pavlova

6 egg whites

8oz confectioner’s sugar, 4x (or caster sugar)

1 pinch cream of tartar

1 pinch salt

1 tsp vanilla

2 tsp cornstarch

1 tsp white vinegar

~

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until it forms stiff peaks. Gradually add sugar, beat until sugar is no longer grainy. Add salt, cream of tartar, vinegar, and vanilla, one at a time. Lightly fold in cornstarch.

Pile mixture into a circular shape, on parchment paper, on a cooking sheet. Build up the sides into walls, with a lower, “hollow” center. Make furrows up the sides, if you like. Bake until crunchy on the outside.

Electric oven: Bake at 250°F, for 1.5 hours

Gas oven: Start at 400°F, bake 10 minutes, then lower to 250°, bake for 1 more hour.

Convection: Bake at 235°F for 1 hour, 15 minutes (varies).

Let pavlova cool in the oven, with the door ajar. When cool, fill with whipped cream and decorate with fruit.

~

Whipped Cream

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar (optional)

1 tsp vanilla

~

Beat cream, sugar, & vanilla until soft peaks form.

~

I hope you’ve enjoyed going on this pavlova journey with me. My thanks to all the friends that have given me recipes and made suggestions on how to achieve the perfect pavlova. All measurements and temperatures are American, so be careful, if you live anywhere else.  : )  I hope more of my American friends will try out this recipe, and learn to love it as much as I do!DSC_0098

birthday bits-n-pieces…

Whenever anyone asked me if I had big plans for my birthday, I didn’t have anything “exciting” to tell them. In the days leading up to it, I went dress shopping with my mom, which was my birthday present. The day before, I saw some friends, and had coffee with them. And for my birthday itself? Aside from dinner and dessert, I really had no plans. DSC_0104

I admit it, I slept late, and really enjoyed checking all my FB messages on my Kindle. I don’t care if FB has to remind someone that it’s your birthday… I’m forgetful with own family’s birthdays, so how do you remember everyone else’s? Every kind message is appreciated, even if it’s early or late.DSC_0994

After enjoying my lunch at Zaxby’s, I lazed about, just a bit, trying to finish re-reading Pegasus, by Robin McKinley. Why, oh why, do we have to wait another year for the next one? But that book is even more marvelous, the second time around.DSC_0995

Finally over my lazy spell, I got down to business. While my mom was working on making chicken and dumplings, I had plans to make an Aussie pavlova. You’ll find more details in one of my next posts, because I can’t put it all in here. Working from more than one recipe and tons of advice, I was still slightly playing it by ear… but it still came out great. DSC_0062

I tried out one of my birthday dresses, a very colorful sundress, and enjoyed wearing it all day. And when I started to cook, I borrowed one of my mom’s aprons, so I would keep my dress nice and clean. I have a tendency to just wipe my hands on my jeans, when I’m cooking, normally. I know, dreadful. But aprons are made to go with dresses, even more than with shorts and jeans, wouldn’t you say?DSC_0996

My self-portraits were taken using the timer on my camera, and I had trouble getting it to focus. But I didn’t go get anyone else to take them, because I never end up getting the shot I want. I almost got it, this time, but why wouldn’t that crazy camera focus? The blurry one is my favorite one of my dress, actually, though you can’t see my face very well. And the apron shots were fun to try and get, even if the timer noise was annoying to some people.  : )  DSC_0036

But you know how every little girl loves being in a pretty dress, with ruffles, and wants to twirl, twirl, twirl? I think that feeling still lingers with any grown woman, who’s wearing a dress they love and feels pretty and feminine in it. I didn’t twirl, but I’ll admit to wanting to wriggle with excitement (just like a little kid), whenever I looked down and saw the ruffles on my skirt. DSC_0041

My friend Courtney joined us for dinner, right after I finished putting the fruit on the cake. It only occurred to me later that since we couldn’t find any candles, we never actually remembered to sing the birthday song. And before there’s any confusion, my issues with being sung to have always been in public, not with my family. So, while it didn’t bother me that we forgot, I love it when we sing it at home. DSC_0081

The dumplings, the favorite birthday dish for my baby brother and I, were delicious, as always. Courtney had never tried them, but soon learned how marvelous they are. If you’ve never had them, they are a bit like buttermilk biscuits, but slightly softer, and cooked right on top of the gravy.DSC_0085

When it was time for dessert, suffice it to say, it was a success. I had no Aussies here to tell me if it tasted right, or anything, and I know it needs to be cooked a little longer, next time. But my brother wolfed down four pieces, and he doesn’t usually overeat. DSC_0099

It was a lovely, relaxed birthday. Everyone should be able to have a party-less birthday, once in a while, just enjoying being with their family and taking it easy. Thank you again for all the birthday wishes!

mrs. fields cookies, a win-win situation…

The end of the semester had arrived, so that meant it was time to bake cookies for someone, right? The last time I did this for co-workers, I was coming to an end of my time working at the East Side Food Court. Finished, because I would be leaving for Australia in a few weeks. But the end of the semester is an end of sorts for some part-time co-workers, and I thought they deserved a treat.DSC_0783

DSC_0779Also, I was trying to figure out how to do something nice for the grad students, or the regulars that we enjoy talking to the most. I never expected my time at the cafe to be half as interesting as it turned out. Mainly because I hadn’t thought I would make friends or enjoy the social interaction so much. So, trying to include them was my way of saying thank you for making my job not just bearable, but fun.DSC_0787

DSC_0786DSC_0788Unfortunately, I couldn’t just hand out cookies to every student that came through, or play favorites. So, my strategy would end up being directed at giving a large bag of Mrs. Fields cookies to a friend in the chem department, and she would drop them off where the grad students could find them. Because most of my acquaintances were in that department, it seemed to work out. I also didn’t tell my co-workers (with one exception) that I was hiding a HUGE bag of cookies under my register, waiting for one of the girls to arrive. If I’d told them, the bag might’ve disappeared when my back was turned, they liked the cookies THAT much.DSC_0792

DSC_0793DSC_0794I had even decided it would be “safer” to hand off the bag to a girl in the chem department, because there’s no chance that any female will hoard that many cookies, because she’ll be worried about her waistline. Aren’t we all? But I wasn’t sure if one of the guys might hoard them, for himself or his buddies, so I knew I’d decided correctly on who would make the “hand-off”.DSC_0799

DSC_0801I’ll put in the recipe, before I get any complaints about forgetting it. Of course, you can read it off the card pictured above, too.

~

Mrs. Fields Cookies

375°, 8 min

(convect: 350°, 6 min)

~

2 cups butter

2 cups sugar

2 cups brown sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

4 cups flour

5 cups oatmeal, blended (5 cups before blending)

1 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp baking soda

24 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

8 oz milk chocolate bar (grated)

3 cups chopped nuts (optional)

~

Cream butter, sugars, eggs, & vanilla. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Grate chocolate bar into the dry mixture. Add wet mixture to the dry, and stir with a wooden spoon. Add chocolate chips (and nuts, if you want) last. Roll into balls (golf-ball sized, or smaller). Serves 6 dozen.

Notes: Previous to this, I have made these cookies by adding the grated chocolate at the end, with the chocolate chips. But at my mom’s suggestion, grating it directly into the flour helped with both the melting chocolate and getting the chocolate mixed evenly throughout the recipe. Also, this is a large recipe, so even with our large mixer, you have to eventually mix them in a bowl. And at the end, we mix the chocolate chips in with our hands. The wooden spoon won’t even do it, at that point.

~~~DSC_0805

DSC_0810This recipe isn’t really that hard to make. It took me a little longer than usual, perhaps, because I was so busy taking pictures in between each step. I’ve even blogged about it before, but that would be asking you to dig back two years, looking for the recipe. And grating the chocolate into the flour really did make it a lot easier.DSC_0812

DSC_0814DSC_0817I remembered how I couldn’t make this recipe in Australia, or anything that called for semi-sweet chocolate chips, because I could never find semi-sweet chocolate over there. How odd is that? But the milk chocolate really can be too sweet, and dark chocolate would be very rich. I’ve never liked milk chocolate nonpareils, for example, because they’re just SO sweet. But the semi-sweet ones are perfect. DSC_0822

DSC_0825While grating the chocolate bar, and trying to not grate my fingers in the process, I had to eat a few small pieces that just wouldn’t be grated. And I thought they would be improved by being included in a s’more, but not eating the whole bar plain.DSC_0829

DSC_0832There’s something about baking late at night, when most of the house has gone to bed or doesn’t have any need for being in the kitchen. I was able to crank up the music on my Kindle, and just have a good time. Of course, Matt was bored, so he volunteered to help me mix up the final batch of dough, after everything was in. And who wouldn’t want to lick the beaters, after running all that sugar and butter through it? I suppose we should worry about salmonella, but we never have.DSC_0834

DSC_0836DSC_0837The funny thing is that after I finished baking, I realized I hadn’t eaten a scrap of the raw dough, after it was all stirred up. We normally eat as much cookie dough as we can get, preferring it to the cookies themselves. But I was too busy counting how many cookies were on each tray, and trying to not make them too big, and run out of dough.DSC_0838

DSC_0839DSC_0842Because though I know about 15-20 grad students by name, I know there are a LOT more of them in the department across the street. I wanted to make sure more than my acquaintances were able to have some. They all work hard and deserve a treat after two hard semesters of research and teaching labs, wouldn’t you say?DSC_0843

DSC_0844If you’ve stayed with me this long, I know I’m rattling back and forth from baking to grad students, but I can’t seem to stay on one track permanently. Sorry.DSC_0845

DSC_0846My family has a convection oven, so we use the shorter time for baking, and less heat, obviously. But you still want to keep a close eye on them. By the time the dough had softened up a bit, I was baking them for around 6.5 minutes, and trying to make sure they didn’t get browned much at all. We like our cookies soft, at my house, so only the teeniest bit of brown is allowed to show up on them. But some of the tops were looking a bit underdone, so I started to press down on the cookies, just a bit, before putting them in the oven. Mrs. Fields cookies don’t spread out like snickerdoodles, so I wanted them to bake a little more evenly, from top to bottom.DSC_0848

DSC_0849I was very happy to find that after all the insanity of counting them, making sure there were enough, and finding a suitable delivery person, the cookies went over really well. When do cookies ever NOT go over well? But I was pleased that I cheered up finals week for some of the chem people. Even if some of them told me they “never go in the grad students’ lounge”. Their loss, if they didn’t get any cookies.DSC_0851DSC_0852

anybody hungry?

While my brother is still smarting over that “mean” post I did for Valentine’s Day, maybe this will make up for it, since he was actually here for this one. On the other hand, another sorely missed brother will perhaps be glad that he helped bring this dinner about, even if he couldn’t be here (Love you, Joe!). DSC_0967

Generally, my cell phone resides at the bottom of my backpack, or somewhere equally difficult to locate, because I don’t need it when I’m at work (except at lunch, to sign on to the local wi-fi). My phone is almost always on vibrate, because no one ever calls me, and I even use the vibrate setting for my alarm clock. It also prevents random wrong numbers from scaring me, in the middle of the night, though it also keeps me from hearing the “Minion Laughter” that erupts when a text message arrives. Such is life.

It was a normal day for me, I finished work, went to the gym, and headed home. To find my family milling around in the hall, waiting for me, because we were going to dinner in Greenville. They had tried to call me and text me, but received no response. The reservations were set for an hour from my arrival time, and I was assured that jeans were allowed. So, contrary to any of you who think a girl can’t get ready to go out, quickly, I was out the door in 15 minutes or less. So there. A bit dazed and confused, but still in the car and decently dressed (I assure you, I looked quite nice, even if I was wearing jeans).DSC_0987

Three of my brothers, my parents, and I went to a restaurant in the West End of Greenville, where only Dan had ever been to eat. Of course, that isn’t surprising, because Dan knows where all the good restaurants are. The Breakwater Restaurant and Bar was a delightful surprise, even if I was still a little rattled at my sudden “kidnapping” for dinner. DSC_0968

I didn’t really take THAT many pictures, but even in my slightly confused state, I managed to find my camera and bring it with me. Don’t expect any pictures of the family, as the lighting wasn’t great, and my family needs lots of preparation and coaxing, in order to have pictures taken of them.DSC_0970

But the evening was fun and the food was delicious! While some of us started with a very creamy she-crab soup, we also got a sampler that included beef carpaccio, fried shrimp, hummus made with butterbeans, and pickled shrimp. The hummus was amazing, but I wasn’t a fan of the pickled shrimp. But then, I’m not a big fan of pickled anything, unless it’s sweet pickles. So, don’t go by what I say. I’m still not sure what carpaccio is, but you can decide for yourself, from the pictures. And I didn’t get any fried shrimp, because Matt ate the last one.DSC_0972

By the way, if you’ve never figured this out from my pictures, I absolutely HATE taking pictures with a flash. Not only does it startle and blind people, when you’re indoors, it often makes people look unnaturally pale and/or shiny. Even with a camera with a not-so-harsh flash, I will avoid using it, if at all possible. And in such a nice restaurant as this, I didn’t feel the need to disturb the clientele, either.DSC_0973

So, though I did quite well with most of the food pictures, I was standing up for the pictures of the desserts on the other side of the table. It is very hard to hold still enough in a dim setting to get clear pictures. But I thought you’d enjoy seeing the chocolate mousse cake, anyway. DSC_0975

My brother even asked “Why do you keep taking pictures of everything?”, and I just looked at him strangely, and said, “It’s what I do.”. I’m a blogger. I don’t take pictures everywhere, especially if I think a camera will be in the way, but this is an outing with my family, they won’t mind. And when you write a blog, you’re always looking for the next pictures to take or the next story to share. It’s what I do!DSC_0976

In many restaurants, I am usually tempted to get the fish, because I love seafood. But when I saw the lamb meatloaf on the menu, I thought of Australia, and really wanted to try it. Not everyone likes lamb, but while I don’t get lamb cravings (like some people I know), I developed a taste for it, because we ate it regularly. Most people would think of meatloaf as a somewhat homely dish, but not only was it beautifully presented, it was delicious. By the way, I’m not dissing anyone’s homemade meatloaf, because my mom’s is awesome, too. Just so you know.DSC_0974

My mom was very brave and tried the shrimp and grits, because if there’s anywhere you’re going to try something so odd-sounding (to those of us NOT born in the South), then it should be at a really fancy-schmancy restaurant. She really enjoyed it, and I had a taste, and agreed that it was really good.DSC_0977

Dessert rolled around, and we tried all of them. They were quite small, which is a good thing, because we were getting full. Dan had the pecan tart, Jon tried the beignets with chocolate sauce, Matt had the chocolate mousse cake, Dad had the apple cobbler, and I had the caramel creme brulee with sea salt. And Mom got to try all of them. Of course, the rest of us shared, too. DSC_0978

To those that are serious chocaholics (there are several, in my family), the chocolate mousse was very rich, but SO good. None of us had ever tried beignets, which Dan described as fancy doughnut holes, but they were like no doughnut holes we’d ever eaten. They were fried batter, soft, moist, and fluffy. And with the chocolate added, they just melted in your mouth. DSC_0980

My creme brulee was amazing, especially with the sea salt added. If you look closely, you can see the white sprinkles of salt on top of it, in the photos. The contrast of the sweet and the salty was fantastic. Of course, you have to like the combination of salty and sweet, but I was already a fan. DSC_0981

Looking around the restaurant, I really liked the paper lanterns that hung from the ceiling, reminding me of some that I have (but are in storage). I tried to take a picture of the one over our table, but it was too bright, and didn’t show very well. So, the picture of the reflection in the window will give you a better idea of the lanterns and the lovely table settings.DSC_0982

And so, minus one brother (we missed you, Joe!), we were able to have a family get-together with our visiting Floridian, while another brother prepared to move to New Hampshire for his new job. You’d think they didn’t like each other, or something, the way they planned their job locations.  : )   But at least we all have good reasons to go to both New Hampshire and Florida, now. DSC_0984

the birthday monsters…

I was in the storage closet at work, re-stocking potato chips, when for the first time, I noticed a list on the wall. Looking closer, I found that most of my fellow employees had their names written down, followed by their birth dates. No wonder they’re able to remember when everyone’s birthdays are. My co-workers love just about any excuse to get Anita to bring in cake, or for IMG_6718someone to order one of those gigantic cookies. A day with extra dessert is always a good day.

Checking the list again, to my intense satisfaction, I realized that my name wasn’t yet on it. Even knowing that I’ve been asked more than once (and answered truthfully), it still hasn’t been written down on that particular list. You’re probably surprised that this pleased me, but I assure you, my friends are not. Actually, in this case, it doesn’t really matter, because my co-workers rarely sing anyone “Happy Birthday”, with the exception of my boss. They just make sure there’s some kind of cake or cookies to share around.

It’s partially Eddie’s fault, you know. I’ve always loved to have my family sing the birthday song to me, on that special day, or even by a group of friends. But my horror of being sung to, in a public place, was probably worsened by him.

My cousin-in-law, before he married my cousin, was already a good friend of our family’s. And then, one year, I made a big mistake. Out of the goodness DSC_0527of my helpful, friendly heart, I agreed to pick him up from the Atlanta airport. On my birthday. I drove to Atlanta, all unsuspecting, and met him at the terminal. If you’ve ever been in ATL or any other large airport, you’ll be familiar with those areas that are wall-to-wall escalators, each one of them about a mile long.

While ascending the escalator, and completely unable to escape, Eddie took the opportunity to bellow to the masses, “Everybody! Today is Rachel’s birthday!”, and a nearby person shouted back, “Should we sing to her?”. Ready to sink through the floor, I had to stand there and take it, while an airport-full of people sang me Happy Birthday. My memory has blanked out a bit on what followed, but I was probably torn between chewing him out and never wanting to speak to him again, but he didn’t care, he thought it was the greatest prank ever. Resulting from this, I swore that I’d never go to the airport on my birthday again, because no one can be trusted in this respect.

Do you have those friends that take you to a restaurant on your birthday, and then in order to get you some free cake, they call in the waiters to sing you the stupidest rendition of Happy Birthday ever? My family knows better.

My friends did it to me, once, aLittleRachelCloseup few years ago, at Outback Steakhouse. Of course, they thought it was hilarious, but I was in that wonderful quandary that every adult, who’s easily embarrassed by being the center of attention, goes through. You want to act like a two year old and throw something at your friends, and at the singing waiters, and you know they’re (supposedly) trying to do something nice for you. But since you think it’s the most horrifying ordeal imaginable, you have a very hard time thinking well of them.

Now, if you have friends that do it on purpose (I have some of those, too), just to embarrass you, then the solution is never to go out to eat with them, anywhere near your birth month. The other option is to threaten the daylights out of your safer friends, and then beat them to the restaurant to lay down the law to the wait staff. I have no shame in admitting that I did that, the year before I left for Australia. We were going to Red Lobster for my birthday dinner, and unable to completely trust my friends to try something, I arrived fifteen minutes early, to talk to the hostess. “If it’s my birthday, then what the birthday girl says is what goes, right?”, I wanted to know. Admittedly, she probably thought I was crazy, but I explained to her that no matter what my friends used as bribes, I did not want anyone singing to me.

Remember, I said I loved having my friends sing to me (preferably in a non-public place), or having my family sing to me? This is true. Some of my happiest birthday memories involve being surrounded by my loved onesDSC_0148 and then blowing out the candles, even when there are more and more to deal with. This is not an age issue. Age is just a number, and for the record, I turn 33 this year. Doesn’t bother me a bit.

It’s probably the same reason I’m not a big prankster. While many of them are funny, I tend to think that a lot of them are just plain mean. And believe you me, I can tell you some crazy prank stories from when I was a summer staffer. But I think that you should be pulling pranks on the people that enjoy them. If you’re playing tricks on someone that will cry, then you shouldn’t be doing it. I don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, and sometimes, people are just hiding their horror over what you’ve done. If you rub salt in the wound by doing something you KNOW they will hate, then my policy is to not do it.

Now, I know that some of you are already gearing up to ask me when my birthday is, but it isn’t very soon, and I won’t be telling you right now. You can probably figure it out, if you search the backlog on this blog, far enough. But if someone asks me in person, I immediately look them over good and HiphopRachel2hard, wondering if they plan to use this knowledge for good or evil. I know the types, I’m not stupid.  : )

This year, once again, I am going to thoroughly enjoy being home with my family on that special day. I will also, probably, have a group birthday celebration with some of my best friends, up north. But when I’m with them, there won’t be any singing, because they’re even worse than I am about public moments of embarrassment. You think I’m kidding? You have no idea.

So, for all you birthday monsters out there, save your singing for those that enjoy it. Consider the feelings of those you’re “celebrating”. If they protest halfheartedly, they might just mean it, but not want to show how much it bothers them. But I’m not really worried that my co-workers will try it, as I said before. They still have to remember to ask when my birthday is. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and they’ll forget until after it’s over.  : )

haul out the Christmas cookies…

What would Christmas be like without the cookies? Our waistlines would probably be thinner, I suppose, but who worries about such things during the holidays? Don’t answer that. Our family got a head start on the Christmas baking and eating, because my mom was making some to mail to my youngest brother (he’s in the Air Force), and some for my older brother’s graduation party. So, some of the cookies were well on their way or already baked by the time I arrived home from work.DSC_0513

DSC_0491But the afternoon that press cookies were the order of business, my hands were in demand, as soon as I arrived home. Some of you may remember my press cookie mishaps (“cookie ups & downs”), while in Australia, but that is not generally how things work out. Normally, we make up the dough, I grab a stool to sit on, and then I whip out several trays of tiny Christmas trees, pinwheels, and wreaths.DSC_0496

DSC_0502Our press cookies are made with an old-fashioned Mirro cookie press, with a twist handle (or knob?), instead of a button or trigger like some of the more modern ones. My family has never used anything different to make them, as they work beautifully, year after year. In fact, I make a habit of wandering through antique stores, looking for this particular Mirro brand press, so that when my brothers get married, they’ll still be able to have them.DSC_0514

DSC_0505My hand quickly got tired of all the twisting, but we finished all of those trays. Thankfully, we had a back-up press, when the first one had a part break. It’s funny how the knack of turning the press returns to your hands, just like riding a bicycle. If you let too much dough come out, you get a more squashed piece of dough, with a design printed on top. But if you do it just right, you get the actual shape of the tree (or pinwheel or wreath), almost in danger of coming apart into separate branches.DSC_0510

DSC_0517On Saturday, as soon as I woke up (I sleep late), I joined in the making of the cut-out sugar cookies. If you’re looking for the recipe to either of these, they’re both in the link listed above. My cousin recently commented on the tediousness of making these, but if you don’t have a helper, it definitely takes longer. My mom did the rolling out of the dough and cutting out the bells, trees, and stars, and I was on oven duty.DSC_0518

DSC_0521You must understand, in our house, we don’t condone the use or making of cookies that are crunchy. They have to be just barely cooked and have not a hint of brown in them, to be perfect. Underdone is perfectly acceptable, because all cookies are supposed to be soft. So, basically, you have to stalk the oven, and make sure you pull them in time, every time. But I’ve been helping with this branch of baking for at least twenty years, so I am perfectly trustworthy when it comes to bringing out the beautifully baked delicacies. Nothing got burnt on my watch.DSC_0525

DSC_0529When we finally finished the baking, the icing was started for both the press cookies and the cut-outs. Same icing, we just use milk to “water down” the icing for the press cookies. When my brothers and I were younger, this was our favorite part, mixing up several colors in the icing and liberally coating the cookies with icing. There were several years when (to my mom’s horror) we mixed up horrible versions of purple and neon pink for some of them.DSC_0531

DSC_0532This time around, though we stuck with mostly white and green for all the press cookies, I managed to put too much blue in the icing for the cut-outs. I blame it on using the food coloring “gel”, whereas we used to use a food coloring that was liquid. You had to use a lot of it to make a good color. So, I got a very rich blue, but considering the other icing colors were in the pastel range, I think it balanced out quite nicely. And at the end of it, we combined the leftover blues and greens, resulting in a more turquoise color.DSC_0533

DSC_0543Funny thing is, I can look at all the cut-outs, and tell exactly who iced them. Since you have to use knives on these, it’s a little more difficult than dipping the press cookies. Mom’s tend to be thinly iced, and beautifully spread to the points of all the stars, like an artist would. She doesn’t like icing as much as the rest of us, so she ices them accordingly.DSC_0544

DSC_0545Mine were more liberally iced, up until the end, when I ran out and my last ten were spread so thin it looked like I’d used paint on them, instead of icing. And, of course, mine were all blue. Matt was having a little more trouble, as he seemed to be trying to ice both of his hands, as well as the sides of the cookies. But the icing lovers in our house will like his best, because they had more icing than mine, even.DSC_0546

DSC_0554This is not to say that our icing activities were accident-free. For some reason, I couldn’t get my knife to stay on the edge of my bowl, so I kept shrieking when it fell off, and caught it in my lap. Or when it hit the floor. I was a little worried that the blue would stain the carpet, but it came off. Of course, my clothes were in need of washing, afterwards, because I managed to get a lot of icing on myself, too.DSC_0568

DSC_0547These two kinds of cookies were not the only ones made during the last few weeks, but I wasn’t around for some of the rest. Scandinavian thumbprint cookies (to be filled with jam), Russian tea cakes (or snowballs or wedding cookies), peanut blossoms, mini pecan pies, and Mrs. Fields cookies made up the rest of the assortment. Of course, Mrs. Fields cookies are NOT Christmas cookies in our house, but they were mainly for Joe’s Christmas box. It’s kind of interesting how this particular Dinger household doesn’t do chocolate chip cookies for Christmas, but our Dinger cousins do. Traditions are strange and wonderful things, wouldn’t you say?DSC_0508

Now, all this writing about dessert has made me hungry. I think I’ll go have a cut-out Christmas tree. What are you munching on this Christmas season? If you don’t hear from me sooner, have a blessed and wonderfully Merry Christmas with your friends and loved ones!DSC_0553

oh, pumpkin bars, oh, pumpkin bars…

Yes, I admit it, I just got the tune to “Oh, Christmas Tree” stuck in my head. If all goes well, it is now stuck in your head, too. Now you can sing it to yourself the whole time you’re reading about my pumpkin bar making experience in Australia.

After finishing up the funny cake, which might have been on a Friday night (I’m not sure anymore!), I saved the pumpkin bars for Saturday morning. Or maybe I made the bars on Friday night, too, but I’m betting I was worn out after all the pie-crust-making. Wouldn’t you be? I made them all by hand, with memories of past pie mishaps to haunt me. I was extremely grateful that they turned out well.

My one bit of real uncertainty over the pumpkin bars was what to bake them in. The recipe calls for a jelly roll pan, but when I asked Mrs. B if she had a jelly roll pan, she asked me what a jelly roll was. I think I was able to explain it to her, eventually, but it didn’t help to figure out what size that was needed. So, I wracked my brain, trying to remember the size pan my mom and aunt use, whenever they make them.

At one point, I had bought my Aussie family a large cookie tray, and it had an edge all around the pan. But was it deep enough? What if I poured the batter into the pan, and it overflowed? Visions of scraping pumpkin mixture off the counter, and trying to get it back into the bowl, danced through my mind. Calling on several females that came in and out of the house, we eyeballed the pan and decided it was my only hope.

My girls had a high opinion of my cooking skills, by this time, which is one result if almost everything you cook or bake happens to be dessert. Ok, the buttermilk biscuits and two kinds of soup were an exception to that rule. But I flatter myself that the girls were willing to try almost anything I made, so they were quite excited to see pumpkin going into the mixer, and words like “cream cheese” and “frosting” were being spoken in the same sentence.

Here are the recipes for the bars and the frosting:

 

Pumpkin Bars

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp cinnamon

2 cups pumpkin pureé (or small can Libby’s pumpkin)

~

Mix sugar, eggs, & oil until creamy. Mix all dry ingredients separately, then add to creamy mixture, stirring well. Then add pumpkin. Pour into jelly roll pan. Bake at 350 ° F for 20-30 minutes. Cool completely.

~

Cream Cheese Frosting

3 oz. cream cheese (softened)

3/4 cup butter (softened)

1 tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla

3 cups powdered sugar

~

Cream the butter & cream cheese, then add milk, vanilla, & powdered sugar. Beat until fluffy. Spread on pumpkin bars when they are completely cool.

~

I didn’t mix up my dry ingredients separately, so I had to mix the whole batch extra well, because the spices were threatening to separate into lumps, or cling to the outside of the bowl. Eventually, I got it all mixed together, added the pumpkin, and it started to smell and taste wonderful. Out came the cookie pan, and into it went the pumpkin mixture… and I was surprised at how little room the batter took up. There was room, and to spare! Some kind of optical illusion had been tricking me, I’m sure, convincing me that I couldn’t use it. I could have made a birthday cake in there, albeit it would be a bit flatter than usual.

Carefully spreading the batter evenly around the tray, I put it in the oven to bake, having my usual bit of fun over what setting to put the oven at. For example, the back of my recipe card reads 350°F=176°C=5.2, which isn’t any algebra you ever learned, but the setting I had calculated on the knob of the oven. Numbered 1-10, could you figure out what to set an oven’s temperature to? I just paid more attention to whether my baked goods were done, using the knife test, because I didn’t trust the oven setting.

Softening up the butter and cream cheese in advance, I found the mixture to be more yellow than expected, though the pictures don’t show it. I think we must have used margarine, last time we made it at home. Doesn’t it look delicious? It was very tempting to just eat the icing, I assure you.

After the pumpkin bars were cool, I forgot to take more pictures, but I cut them up and loaded two plates of them for my Aussie family, and took the rest of the tray to my party. Where, as you’ll see, we had plenty of good food, including way too much dessert. But between my friends and family, we polished off all the leftovers, over the next few days.

In going through my pictures, I’m pretty sure I never posted these pics of the actual party. I didn’t take many, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed with any final speeches, or being forced to make one myself. I was having a hard enough time not crying when I thought about the goodbyes. I don’t know if Dave ever got due honor for the grilling, or for hosting the party. It was a small gathering of my closest friends, which is just what I wanted, and the funny part was that we were all tired from our day, so we weren’t very energetic, either. But that’s the good thing about friends, you don’t have to be bouncing off walls all the time, in order to enjoy each others company.

And so, these dessert posts have been a long time coming. So sorry, but I was too busy that week to write about them, and one thing or another always got in the way. But I couldn’t finish my time in Australia without covering them, eventually.