29 August 2015

Seven Quick Takes

I
Happy belated feast of St Augustine! He's one of my favorite saints, obviously; the blog's name comes from one of his quotes. I'm so glad I could make it to Mass yesterday with the kids. The homily for his feast was incredible, drawing parallels between Augustine's day and our own—a breakdown of society from within, a rising threat from barbarism from without, a loss of culture and language, a widespread lack of education, logic, and understanding of history. St Augustine intimately understood the faults and follies of his day, because he had personally adopted one after another of them in the years before his conversion. Following conversion and later ordination, St Augustine put his logical and rhetorical powers to work correcting error and instructing on the Truth; a remarkable body of his works have been passed down to us today, smuggled out of Hippo just before the city was sacked by the Vandals. It is for us to pray, Father said, for the grace to transform our culture and our world as St Augustine did. 

II
Our local Catholic radio station, an EWTN affiliate, brought Fr Mitch Pacwa, S.J., up for their annual celebration and fundraising event this weekend. (That was his homily yesterday that I appreciated so much!) Following Mass this morning with the bishop and some other priests from our diocese, Fr Pacwa gave a talk on "the glory of the liturgy," and is giving another this evening on "sanctifying Catholic families." I really, really wanted to go hear both talks, but with two potentially disruptive little kids, I didn't think it would be right to go and risk bothering everyone else. Both talks are being recorded, though, and I can't wait to hear them! When I find a link to the recordings, I'll be sure to share it. From what I've heard, this morning's talk was excellent.

III
I did bring the kids to the radio station's potluck supper tonight, though. Matt couldn't come, which was so unfortunate: I got to see so many of the people we know from all of the different parishes, including some I hadn't seen in years, and many who had not yet met Kit. As part of the supper, the event organizers set up a "crockpot taste-off" with categories for soup, stew, chowder and chili, as well as a dessert auction. I brought fudge for the auction (Little Bear was very disappointed to have to set it up on the dessert table and walk away from it!), and vegetarian chili with brown basmati rice to pour it over. I knew there was no way that vegetarian-anything would win in a crowd of Alaskan hunters, but I didn't have any meat thawed, and my crockpot was half empty by the end of the evening, so some folks must have appreciated having a meatless option! Plus, it made me happy to be able to label it "Friday Chili" and have a halfway reasonable expectation that if people had come to an event supporting the Catholic radio station, they would be able to infer that it was meatless.

IV
No snow yet. I shouldn't have to say that in August, right? But we did actually have snow forecast for this morning; fortunately, it was 36 degrees F when we woke up this morning, so it was just raining instead of snowing. I mean, yuck, 36-degree rain, but at least we can still hold out hope for not getting snow until September this year! Matt ran out in the rain and brought in a load of wood and kindling, and he and Little Bear laid the first fire of the season before breakfast this morning.



Plaid flannel and carharts... those're my men. Matt split a bunch of wood this afternoon, and Little Bear helped him haul it up to the porch and stack it neatly in the wood rack. Winter will be here before we know it.

V
Amazon Subscribe & Save: the verdict is... meh. Last month, we got a box of Huggies sz 1 diapers, a box of Huggies sz 4 overnight diapers, and a box of Huggies Natural wipes. We've used the Huggies brand since Little Bear was born, but Kit's diapers and the wipes that they sent us didn't seem to be the same quality; the diapers didn't fit at all and leaked awfully, so I wound up switching to Pampers and buying them at the store all month; we donated the giant Huggies box to the crisis pregnancy center, hoping they would fit a baby with a different body shape. The wipes work fine, but frequently tear in half when I'm taking them out of the package, which has never been a problem before. They also have a different texture than we were used to. We are using up this box, but then I'm going to re-check my price comparison; I'm pretty sure we can get Safeway's store-brand wipes (which we like) for a better price than the brand-name wipes even with the Subscribe & Save discount.

The overnight diapers are fine, and are definitely a better price than in stores, so we'll keep getting those. I changed the sz 1 diaper subscription from Huggies to Pampers, so we will see how those are; this month's Subscribe & Save delivery was only the Pampers, and they just arrived yesterday—I haven't yet had time to open the box. So far, though, I'm definitely underwhelmed by the program.

VI
When Little Bear was tiny, it was frustrating but kind of amusing that he absolutely flat-out refused to wear anything that didn't have two separate enclosed legs: the elastic-hemmed or closed-bottomed "sleep sack" styles of sleepers were completely unacceptable, and he would kick and scream until I changed him into something with feet. Now, Little Miss Kit does not like pajamas with feet. Not one bit. Last night I knew it was supposed to get down into the low 30s, so I put her in fleece footie pajamas... and she kicked and screamed until I gave up and handed her off to Daddy so I could slip into the sleeping Little Bear's room and find the great big up-to-9mo fleece sleep sack that I had never expected to need and had folded up and stuck in the closet. Once in her preferred style of pajamas, the crying immediately stopped and she snuggled down and went to sleep.

VII
My siblings started school last week, so we did too; it's less of a scheduled thing and more of a "when I think of it and am sitting down feeding the baby and need something good for him to do" kind of thing, which is fine because it's mostly just of fun this year anyway, and I don't need to be making either of us stressed about "getting school done" at a particular time each day. Little Bear had a fun week: for religion, we talked about some of the basic prayers (sign of the cross, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, guardian angel prayer, St Michael prayer, act of faith, act of hope, act of love, act of contrition), where they come from, what the words mean... We also read about St Monica and St Augustine on their feast days.

We did a page or two every day but Friday in the Early Literacy book, which is definitely his favorite book so far, except for when I ask him to practice using the "tripod grip" with his pencil. On Monday, the book told us to go for a walk and take a picture of something God had created to paste on the first page. Little Bear found this big toadstool:



He practiced writing 1s at Grandma's house Tuesday morning while I ran to town briefly with Kit, and he was so proud of himself for doing his schoolwork while his aunts and uncle were doing theirs.

We had decided that Saturday mornings would be a good time for science with Daddy, but I didn't have things ready for them this morning (a big cookie and frosting to depict a cross-section of the layers of the earth), so I baked cookies today and they'll do it tomorrow. So far, we're all enjoying preschool!


For more quick takes, visit This Ain't The Lyceum.

27 August 2015

Freezing zucchini


Zucchini was on sale last week, one of those end-of-summer produce sales that was just too good to pass up. Locally grown zucchini, for the last time until next summer? I already had the week's menu planned, but figuring that I'd find some way to use them, I picked up three zucchini anyway.

Then they disappeared into the bottom of the vegetable drawer. Every couple of days I'd remember them and ask myself, "Can I make zucchini work with supper tonight?" or "Should I just bake with it?" The answers were always "No" and "There's still a loaf of zucchini bread in the freezer," so there they sat... until this morning, when I gave up on using them fresh and pulled out the cheese grater.

Shredded zucchini freezes very well, and is so easy to thaw and throw in recipes later. Three good-sized zucchini gave me about six cups; my zucchini bread and vegetable lasagna both call for three cups, so Little Bear and I divided the zucchini into two quart freezer bags. Kit was very helpful, napping in the sling the whole time! In my experience, it's easiest to measure the zucchini before freezing it; that way, you aren't confronted with a giant chunk of frozen squash when you just need a little bit. You don't need to bother blotting the shredded zucchini dry before freezing, because you'll have to do so once it thaws regardless.

24 August 2015

Heaven & Earth Brownies


As messy as promised, but not a pie; my original dessert plan for the feast of the Queenship of Mary, a chocolate pudding pie with whipped cream, became chocolate brownies with a layer Marian-blue berry pie filling, topped with whipped cream and decorated with the M and cross from the back of the miraculous medal surrounded by twelve chocolate syrup stars.

They are delicious.


We're calling them "heaven and earth brownies," because the process of making them gave me the excuse to reiterate approximately twenty seven million times that Mary is the queen of heaven and earth: dense chocolate brownies for earth, blueberry pie filling for Mary and for the sky, and light, fluffy whipped cream for heaven.

And it worked: Little Bear just now walked up to me and said, "We made heaven and earth brownies, because Mary is the queen of heaven and earth!" Mariology in a dessert: how can you go wrong?

Heaven and Earth Brownies

4 oz unsweetened chocolate 
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract 
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour

2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 
2 tablespoons water

Whipped cream, ideally freshly-whipped
Chocolate syrup

Break up the unsweetened chocolate into a microwave-safe bowl and melt it, then set it aside to cool slightly. In mixer bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs. Slowly drizzle in melted chocolate and vanilla with mixer on low speed. Mix in flours until just combined. Pour into a greased 7x11 pan and bake at 375 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool completely when done, then take a fork and poke holes all over.

In a saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch. Stir in blueberries and water and cook, stirring frequently and smashing berries as you stir, until thickened. When pie filling and brownies are both completely cool, pour pie filling over brownies and spread smooth. 

Spread whipped cream over the pie filling. Decorate with chocolate syrup. Chill until ready to serve.



21 August 2015

Seven Quick Takes

I
We were all in the kitchen making granola the other day, Kit in the sling, me measuring dry ingredients, Little Bear watching the butter melt in the microwave. Ding! "Not melted yet," he tells me. I ask him to set it for another 15 seconds; next thing I know, the butter starts exploding. Little Bear is crouched down, peering up at the butter dripping off of the microwave ceiling. "The butter is totally melted!" he announces. "Now you need to clean the microwave."

II
Today was the first time that Kit stayed awake through an entire Mass, and the young lady was not happy about it; she was yelling by the time Father finished the opening prayer. I had to take her out back, where she finally decided that, oh, I guess I do want to eat, Mama... We made it back in for the general intercessions, and she stayed not-quite disruptive through Communion, when I took her back out because I didn't think she had much more "quiet-enough" left in her. Thank goodness my parents were there too, and could keep Little Bear with them! How in the world do you handle a baby and a little kid by yourself in Mass?

III
Happy baby: When she's not yelling her way through Mass, we've been getting so many smiles out of Kit this week! She'll notice someone looking at her and start cooing, and if you answer her back, she breaks out into a great big smile.


Love that face! ...Especially in contrast to her angry face, which, unfortunately for her, one of her parents noticed bears a remarkable resemblance to the Hulk's "roaring in fury" face...

IV
It's been a busy week for all of us. I had the car four days as opposed to my usual two, what with checkups, grocery shopping, visiting the chiropractor, a rained-out attempt at berry picking, and Mass and a stop at the park today. We got up to 65 degrees this afternoon, which felt incredibly hot after days of barely brushing the lower 50s—we were all dressed for the weather we'd been having, and were very warm! Matt has been trying to finish building a couple of new rooms before classes start on Monday, and they just keep running into problems. He began working through lunches on Tuesday, and pulled out his laptop to rebuild new graphic user interfaces as soon as he got home yesterday and today. Tomorrow morning he'll be back at work first thing, staying "until it's finished." Semester Start is officially one of our least-favorite parts of the year.

V
Has anybody successfully dehydrated fruit in their oven? How did you do it? Will it work if the lowest heat I can set my oven to is 200 F? Peaches are on a really good sale this week, and I know they'll be astronomically expensive again so soon... I'd love to save them for the winter, to put in oatmeal and muesli and such, and I've heard that dehydrating is easy, but all the instructions I've seen online want your oven at 130 F or 160 F or something like that, and my oven can be set to "warm" or "200," but nothing between the two.

VI
Two cords of dry spruce arrived Monday afternoon to be split and stacked, and we haven't even been able to begin because Matt's been so busy and I definitely can't swing a splitting maul with the baby on me. He has the small mountain of logs covered with a tarp as best he could get it, but we're still hoping that the called-for rainstorms all day tomorrow somehow miss us, because the wood at the bottom of the pile will get so wet. Everything happens all at once at the end of the summer, it seems like. Hopefully we will be able to get it all taken care of soon.

VII
Feast days! It's a Marian time of year, with the Assumption last Saturday and the Queenship of Mary tomorrow. We joined my family for supper for the Assumption, and my mom made her traditional custard pie for the feast day. I don't actually know why that's the tradition; Google doesn't seem to think that it is a tradition from any particular culture. I'm sure she has a reason, but it's too late at night to call and ask... Regardless, it turned out as delicious as ever.

Tomorrow being the celebration of Our Lady's coronation as queen of heaven and earth, I've been trying to come up with an appropriate dessert. Somehow I don't have a bundt pan, so anything crown-shaped is out. It needs to be fairly straightforward, ideally something Little Bear can help with... I'm thinking maybe a chocolate pudding pie (for earth) topped with whipped cream (for heaven), and maybe we can make a little crown out of something to set in the center? Or draw a crown of stars with chocolate syrup? Hmm... That might be beyond my artistic talents, but Little Bear would love helping me make chocolate syrup stars, which would mean we'd be able to talk about why we were drawing stars... I think I'm going to try it. Stay tuned for photos of a very messy pie!

Have a blessed feast of the Queenship of Mary, y'all. Check out more quick takes for this week over at This Ain't The Lyceum!

20 August 2015

Quick & Healthy Weekday Breakfasts


For a while now, I've been working to incorporate more minimally-processed foods into our family's diet, slowly phasing out pre-made things that are full of preservatives and other chemicals not naturally found in food. I love cooking and baking, as does Little Bear, so the added kitchen time to make up for losing some of those convenience foods hasn't been a big deal so far. One area that's had me stymied, though, has been breakfast.

When we have time, Matt and Little Bear both prefer eggs for breakfast. Most weekday mornings, though, we're trying to hurry out the door and there isn't time to cook and eat a plate of eggs, so they both reach for cold cereal... which is generally heavily processed, full of sugar and preservatives, and ridiculously expensive for something that won't even really fill you up!

I fully expect it to take quite a while to wean the family off of prepackaged cold cereal, and maybe it will even remain an occasional treat, but to begin the transition I've been building up a collection of breakfast alternatives that are just as quick in the morning as cereal but are better for us, more filling, and less expensive.



Yogurt

I make up a batch of whole-milk yogurt every other week or so, depending on how quickly we're going through it. Six cups of milk, plus a quarter cup of yogurt left over from the previous batch for a "starter", fills four pint jars up to the shoulders. Heat, cool, add the starter, and let it sit... I put off trying to make my own for years, sure that it was too much work to be worthwhile, and when I finally gave it a try I felt so silly for waiting so long! I broke down my yogurt-making method here  Yogurt is a great way to get protein for breakfast without having to cook meat or eggs, and with plain yogurt, you can flavor it any way you like: add jam, honey, syrup, granola... Recently I've been eating mine with just a handful of frozen berries mixed in.



Oatmeal 

I've personally learned to enjoy—even prefer—unsweetened oatmeal in the mornings with just a handful of dried fruit and some freshly-grated nutmeg, but right now Little Bear's idea of "oatmeal" still involves a brown paper packet filled with more sugar than oats. I just saw this idea for do-it-yourself instant oatmeal packets  though, and I'm planning to give them a try; I think that picking out his own ingredient combinations will help Little Bear to be excited about eating slightly less sugary oatmeal.



Muesli

A cold alternative to oatmeal, muesli has become one of Matt's favorite workday breakfasts: it's delicious, filling, easy to bring along to the office, and incredibly simple to prepare a bunch of jars in advance. Fill a pint jar just over half full with grains—we use a seven-grain blend, but rolled or steel cut oats would be fine. (Not instant; they'll be mush by morning.) Fill the rest of the jar up to just below the threads with your choice of dried fruit and chopped nuts; fresh fruit is great too, as long as  you're putting it together to eat the next morning and not several days in advance. The jars with the dry ingredients can just sit there on the shelf for weeks, if you want. The night before you want the muesli for breakfast, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey or maple syrup to the jar and fill to just above the top layer of ingredients with milk, leaving enough room to shake it a little (after the lid is on tightly!) Refrigerate overnight, and shake again before eating in the morning.



If the crunchiness of cold cereal is what you miss most, try making your own granola! You can eat it over fresh or cooked fruit, in yogurt, or just on its own with milk; there have been plenty of times when a mug of granola and milk satisfied my craving for something sweet and crunchy. There are so many different granola recipes out there, and making granola is a simple enough process that altering recipes to fit the ingredients you have or the taste you're looking for isn't a problem. Out of molasses? Use honey, or maple syrup. Like coconut? Add some in place of half a cup of oats. I have a pretty basic recipe that I usually follow... or at least glance sideways at, depending on how creative I'm feeling, but this past week I branched out and tried this recipe for Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Granola. Delicious!



Breakfast Cookies

Finding portable breakfast solutions, for the days when we really don't have time for Little Bear to eat before getting in the car, has been my biggest challenge. Muffins and most quickbreads can make such a mess in the back seat. Banana bread with peanut butter usually holds together well, but then there's peanut butter in Little Bear's eyebrows when we get wherever we're going. These breakfast cookies create the smallest disaster of anything I've tried yet, and Little Bear and I both like them. (I didn't exactly follow the recipe; I used milk and butter instead of coconut milk and oil, honey instead of maple syrup, and flax seed instead of chia.) If you have a not-too-messy, car-friendly breakfast idea, I would love to try it!


Healthy, simple, filling, inexpensive; what other quick breakfast options am I forgetting?

18 August 2015

Getting big

Monday morning, I took Little Bear and Kit in for well-child checkups. Both of them at once, because somehow I thought that that would be better than scheduling two separate appointments? I don't know why. Easier in terms of scheduling, yes, but getting twice as many unhappy kids weighed and measured was at least twice the challenge!

Both kids are doing fine, growing well; Kit really is gaining weight quickly—at two months, she's up 5 lbs 2 oz from her birthweight! She's currently in the 25th percentile for height, 75th for weight; Little Bear is between 10th and 25th in both, as he has been for a while now. I'm pretty sure he was up between 50th and 75th in weight when he was Kit's age, though; he was in 12mo clothes by seven months old for sure. They just gain a whole bunch at the beginning, and it evens out as they get older.

We hadn't seen this particular pediatrician before (we go to a big practice with a whole bunch of practitioners), but I really liked her and how she interacted with Little Bear, who has not been willing to answer questions for most of the doctors we've seen previously. She was also great because she really listened to my report of how each of them was doing, and answered my questions and concerns in a way that showed that she considered me capable of understanding what was going on and why certain things might or might not help.

As the pediatrician laid Kit on her stomach on the exam table, I told her that while I doubted that she really knew how she was doing it yet, Kit had been rolling over occasionally for the last three weeks. The pediatrician's response was surprised but positive, something along the lines of "she does look strong for her age," but I caught the attending med student's raised eyebrow... right before Kit pushed herself up and flipped over onto her back. Good job, little girl!

I know that the books say that two-month-olds can't roll over, so I don't entirely fault the med student for doubting me; it takes either personal experience or willingness to listen to someone else with personal experience to learn that while the book is a great guideline, each kid is unique, and they aren't always going to conform to the schedule or limitations dictated by the book. It's really frustrating to have a doctor tell you that you're wrong about something when you aren't, though, so hopefully Kit helped remind him of that!

17 August 2015

Grinding grain

Once you start asking "What is in this?" before eating something, it's really hard to stop... Even with things I tend to think of as "healthy," I'm finding myself double-checking ingredient lists. It's shocking to realize, for example, how many "multigrain" and "whole wheat" bread products have bleached white flour in them! I try to bake all of our breads myself, but buying whole wheat flour with nothing else added to it can get expensive, at least at the rate that I like to bake. One way we've found to make it more affordable has been to buy whole grain to grind into flour ourselves.

Being super pregnant, then having a new baby, and then realizing that the lid on the bucket of spelt berries was stuck on super super tight have kept me putting it off all summer, but yesterday with Matt's help I finally set up my Mother's Day grain grinder. I know, those don't all sound like equally-good excuses, and they aren't, but in my defense it seriously took my strong husband more than 10 minutes to open that lid today. "You really weren't exaggerating," he grumbled. "Yes, please order yourself the attachment to put a screw-on lid on this bucket, because I am not taking this off again."

Lid finally removed, we ran our first batch of spelt through the grinder, and it turned out perfectly. I'm using a WonderMill, which has settings for bread (all-purpose flour), pastry flour, and a coarse grind like cornmeal. Yesterday we just used the bread grind, but I'm looking forward to seeing how much of a difference the pastry grind makes; I have a record of using regular whole grain flour in doughs that should be light, and having them turn out... not light.

In less than two minutes, four cups of spelt berries turned into somewhere between seven and eight cups of flour.


Opening the canister when the grinding was done sure took me back; it smelled just like my mom's kitchen on a grain-grinding day when I was in high school. I haven't had fresh-from-the-grinder spelt flour to work with in years!

And there's not much that smells or tastes better than fresh-baked bread made with fresh-ground flour. While Matt put Little Bear to bed, Kit and I set a batch of sandwich roll dough rising. Because time and exposure to the air have not yet broken down the lipoproteins and unsaturated fatty acids of the grain, dough made from freshly-ground flour behaves slightly differently than dough from flour that's been sitting on a shelf for months. My dough was softer, more pliant, and had a rich, almost buttery aroma. The resulting sandwich rolls rose remarkably, and came out soft and chewy with just enough crust. The speckles are the bran, which is less finely ground (and thus more pronounced) than it would be in commercially produced flour.


Sandwich Rolls

1 3/4 cups milk
4 1/2 teaspoons yeast
4 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups spelt or whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil

Warm milk to roughly 120 degrees F. Stir in yeast and sugar; set aside to proof. In a mixing bowl, combine flours and salt. When yeast has proofed, mix into dry ingredients along with oil. Knead six to eight minutes, adding more flour if necessary, to make a soft, slightly sticky but manageable, dough. Cover and let rise until doubled, about one hour.

Punch down risen dough and divide into eight to twelve rolls, round or oblong. Place rolls on a greased baking sheet, leaving a good inch between them. Cover and let rise again while the oven preheats to 425 degrees F. Bake 12 minutes or until rolls are a deep golden brown. Remove from pan promptly and cool on a wire rack.