Geekamama


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Mama’s little helper

It was a little surreal after dinner a couple of nights ago. I was the last one finishing up my meal (not unusual, since I’m often eating and kid-wrangling at the same time) and I needed a distraction for Kiddo. “Hey, do you want to go help Daddy pick up in the living room?” I suggested enthusiastically. “Yeah!” he said, and ran off to do… a chore I’d been putting off myself.

What parent hasn’t joked that the reason to have kids is to get free household help? It seems just a little ironic that he’s so eager to help now, with all his two-year-old klutziness, and once he gets the motor skills and attention span to be able to do a task well, he’ll find all kinds of things he’d rather do.

But we’re making the most of it while we still can. He’ll pick up his toys and books as long as one of us sits there directing Kiddo’s efforts. There’s a lot of, “OK, now please put away the red dump truck. The red one. That’s it, great! Now the yellow truck. The yellow–hey, we’re still working on the living room here, come back!” When we’re in a hurry or antsy to get on with the day it’s really tempting to just do it myself. But all that’s going to do is teach him how to get out of doing chores. That sure won’t forward my goal of being able to lounge on the couch eating bonbons while Kiddo vacuums around me.

His favorite “chore” these days is sweeping the floor. And if enthusiasm was all it took, our living room carpet would be as clean as the day it was installed. Kiddo likes to grab the old broom from next to the fridge–the one with straw bristles that break off pretty easily–so we can tell where he’s been sweeping by the trail he leaves behind.

He isn’t completely ineffective though. He’s gotten pretty good at picking up his clothes, if reminded, and he’ll help me sort laundry. First we sort it into shirts, and everything else. Then we sort the remaining pile into socks, and everything else. And so on. I’m confident that with practice, we’ll be able to reduce the number of passes through the basket.

A few months ago, I asked some of my toddler-mom friends what chores they recruited their children to help with. Some of their suggestions were things we were already doing, and others (like the laundry sorting) were easy to put into practice. But the one that surprised me was getting him involved with cooking. That seemed like asking for trouble! But I decided to give it a chance.

I was making a test batch of key lime fudge (you’ll see more on that project before long) and it seemed a simple enough and safe enough recipe to test out this mother-son cooking gig. Before we started cooking anything, I prepped everything. I opened the cans and containers, measured the other ingredients into little bowls, and lined up the equipment we’d need. I also recruited my husband to photo-document the whole thing.

Kiddo’s tasks were to break up some white chocolate baking bars in a Ziploc bag, and to pour ingredients into a cold saucepan. Once that was done, I melted everything together on the stove. I’d planned that he would pour the remaining ingredients into the pan once I took it off the heat, but we realized right away that this wasn’t a good idea and I took over. Fortunately, Kiddo’s nose wasn’t put out of joint at all by this, because he’s still got that typical two-year-old short attention span and he was ready to move on.

Breaking up the white chocolate

Scooping up the chocolate pieces and pouring them into the pan

Shaking up some condensed milk before we add it to the mix

We’ll probably try it again one of these days, when time and the recipe allows. I think it will take a couple tries before we get a good feel for what kind of recipes are best for him to help with–if anyone has suggestions, please let me know! We might as well leverage his desire to be just like mom and dad for as long as we can.


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A pair of sweeties

For Valentine’s Day I made cherry and blackberry fruit jellies. I half-dipped some of them in dark and white chocolate, and rolled the rest in sugar. They ended up distinctly different, even though both kids of treats started from the same foundation.

The ingredients aren’t far off from what you would use if you were making homemade Jell-O blocks. The jellies have a lot more sugar than the gelatine blocks, and the fruit flavoring comes from jam instead of juice. This means that you’ve got the pectin in the jam to help the gelatine do its gellin’ thing, producing firmer blocks. The recipe also calls for citric acid, which is used as a preservative and sometimes as a stabilizer for ice cream.

(Fun fact: Vitamin C, often associated with citrus fruits, is ascorbic acid, not citric. Rather than go off on a tangent about how they differ, I’ll just refer you to here, here, and here.)

The ingredients for the fruit jellies

This was one of the simplest candies I’ve tried so far, and probably the only one where the recipes in my two candy cookbooks were almost identical. Mix everything up, bring to a boil for a few minutes, then pour into a well-buttered pan. Then into the fridge for several hours, or in our case, overnight.

Mix it up, pour into the pan

It took some effort to get the jelly slab out of the pan after it had set up. When I’d made caramels, that recipe had suggested a pizza cutter to slice up the slab, so I tried it on the jellies as well.

Cutting the jellies

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Well, this looks like trouble! He’s standing on a small stepstool, but I suspect it won’t be long until he doesn’t need that anymore.

Cornstarch kept the cut jellies from sticking to the pan, the parchment paper, and each other. It also got all over the counter, the floor, and my sweater. You know what’s really dumb? Wearing a black sweater while working with cornstarch. No, you don’t get to see those pictures.

I let them chill for another 24 hours or so, and then got on with the dipping. I used compound coating because it was quick and easy, and because I hadn’t yet gotten any practice with tempering and dipping real chocolate. The blackberry jellies got the while vanilla coating, and the cherry ones got the dark cocoa.

Dark and white candy melts

I didn’t dip them all the way because I wanted people to be able to see the jellies inside, not just taste them. It ended up being a lot of work, so I only did about half of them in this way.

Dipping blackberry jellies in white chocolate coating

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The final result! They weren’t as beautiful as I’d envisioned, but they tasted great. I took most of them to work as a Valentine’s Day treat for my co-workers.

After all that, I still had half a batch of undipped jellies, and I wasn’t wild about doing the compound coating again. Both the books had suggested rolling them in granulated sugar, so after we got tired of nibbling the naked jellies, I gave sugaring a shot.

I found the easiest and least-risk-of-sticking method was to use a spoon to cover the jelly square with sugar and then to roll it around.

The blackberry ones got regular white sugar, and the cherry ones got pink sugar. Colored sugar is super easy to make: one cup of white sugar, plus 10 to 12 drops of liquid food coloring. Combine in a Ziploc bag, and shake the bejeebers out of it. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but I got a nice pink color.

And here’s how this bunch turned out.

The texture difference between the two styles is interesting. With the enrobed ones, the coating was a solid coating containing a soft center. I’d intended that the jelly flavor would dominate and that the coating would be just a flavored container. But the only way to get that effect was to eat it upside down. If I try this again, maybe I’ll dip the top halves instead.

The sugared ones have a more consistent jelly texture, with the graininess of the sugar as a minor contrast. I was worried that adding more sugar would make them too sweet, especially to the already-very-sweet blackberry jellies, but that turned out not to be the case. They’re much easier to handle too. They’re still sticky, but they can touch each other without fusing into a blob.

As usual (if two posts defines a “usual’) the post-mortem!

Lessons learned:

  • Be open to changing your plan. I had this vision of chocolate-dipped jellies that I wouldn’t let go of. Sugaring them was both easier and (in my opinion) produced a better result. In addition, I’d been determined to have two flavors, when one would have been plenty and would have saved a lot of time and work.
  • Consider how the components will react with each other. Jellies will melt with they get too warm. Melted compound coating is rather warm. The blackberry jellies were leaving purple streaks in the vanilla, and I had to keep stirring it up to get a uniform color. I’m sure the cherry ones were too, but it was harder to tell with the dark cocoa coating.
  • Dipping is harder than it looks. Half-dipping? Good grief. I think it would work with something like a mini candy bar where I could hold one end, but trying to manage blocks this small got frustrating. I’d also made them too small for my dipping forks, so I had to use regular table forks.

Changes for next time:

  • Single batch rather than taking on two flavors
  • Sugar the whole batch, don’t bother with dipping unless I’m feeling really ambitious.
  • Try not to be overambitious.


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Cupid says hi

We made valentines for Kiddo’s class last week. I did some whirlwind shopping on Monday evening, grabbed a few things I already had on hand, and with Kiddo’s help, constructed a dozen valentines for his friends. I was worried that I was going to be That Mom who goes nuts with the DIY crafting. But when we picked up Kiddo and his haul after daycare the next evening, it turned out we weren’t alone in this endeavor.

At any rate, it was a fun family activity for us to do together. We had a hard time keeping on track and needed to take a couple goldfish breaks, and we didn’t finish the insides until after dinner. But I think we all had a good time. I need to find things like this to do more often!

I glued big red hearts onto some blank cards that I had on hand, and then let Kiddo go to town with the heart stickers that I’d gotten on my way home.A couple ended up on his father’s card as well. Then I wrote a greeting on the inside and Kiddo “signed” the cards with a scribble or two.

He had a little trouble getting the stickers off the sheet, so his dad and I took turns helping out.

Peeling stickers off the sheet

We let Kiddo pick out which ones to use next.

Stickering is serious business.

Placing stickers on the cards

The finished product.

We hope your Valentine’s Day was a good one!

Love, Kiddo and family


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Birthday treats!

Penuche is a brown sugar fudge-type candy. It’s got no chocolate, but the finished texture is similar to traditional fudge, and the cooking process is basically identical once you get past combining the ingredients. From what I can dig up online, it’s primarily Hispanic in origin, although Wikipedia claims that it was once very popular in Hawaii. It’s still pretty well-known in the southern parts of the U.S.A., although less common elsewhere. I’d never heard it pronounced (and thus was mispronouncing it pa-noosh instead of pe-noo-chi) but I think I’d read about it somewhere or other… probably in cookbooks from previous generations.

Since I was feeling both creative and generous, I decided to bring treats to share with the class my co-workers for my birthday. Technically it was the day before my birthday, but I didn’t expect many people to be in the office on a Saturday.

One of my cookbooks has a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie dough fudge that’s based on penuche. The recipe looks fantastic and I can’t wait to make it; the only problem is that it calls for a stand mixer and ours is out of commission. I considered using a hand mixer but after reading the steps, I realized why the brute strength of a stand mixer is needed. Since I couldn’t make that recipe, I fiddled around and came up with a variation that I hoped would suggest chocolate chip cookies. My plan was to make a cookie-crumb crust along the lines of a graham cracker crust, then pour the penuche over that to set up, and top it off with miniature chocolate chips. It didn’t turn out quite how I’d envisioned it, but it was close, and got positive reviews from my officemates, family and friends.

For the crust, I used Alton Brown’s recipe for The Thin chocolate chip cookie. I wanted something that was more on the crispy side, so that it would crumble up more easily. I left the chips out because I didn’t want to pick them out of the crumbs later. This resulted in some rather naked-looking cookies.

I baked the cookies the night before I made the rest of the components, so that they’d have time to cool and get crunchy.

The penuche recipe I used is basically the one from The Joy of Cooking, except I replaced half the brown sugar with white sugar, and I increased the recipe by 50 percent.

One of the best cooking habits I’ve gotten into (not just for candy but pretty much everything) is to gather and prep everything, and even measure out ingredients ahead of time before I even turn on the stove. Soooo much easier to have that right at hand mid-recipe, rather than trying to chop or measure while also keeping track of what’s going on elsewhere.

And now, get to cookin’! Combine the ingredients (other than the vanilla and butter which go in later), cook without stirring up to 238 F, then remove from heat, float the butter and vanilla on top, and let it cool — again, without stirring — to 110.

Meanwhile, my Chief Taste Tester and Personal Brute Squad was tasked with crushing the cookies. That champagne bottle next to the stove top is what I’d been trying to crush them with, until my CTTPBS stepped up to the plate… er, counter.

My base crust was just cookie crumbs and butter, combined and then pressed down flat in a 9×13 pan. I used the time while the penuche was cooling to get the crust ready. In retrospect, I should have gone with a thinner layer of crumbs, and possibly found something other than just butter to use as a binder for the crust. Because– well, you’ll see soon enough.

Once the penuche had set up for about an hour, I sprinkled chocolate chips over the top. I think I should have done it a little sooner, because the top was already firm enough that the chips didn’t really stick. And next time I’ll be more generous with the chips as well. Next time, wall-to-wall chips!

The following morning, I attempted to cut out little circles with my new biscuit cutters. The idea was that they’d look like cute little round cookie bites. The upper two-thirds of the team went along with this plan quite nicely, but the cookie crust crumbled.

I was bummed, to put it mildly. I almost gave up on taking them to work. After some grumbling and muttering, I fell back to my second plan, which was to cut squares rather than circles. That worked better.

And off to work I went, and made many new friends.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had these leftover naked cookies to deal with. They tasted fine without the chips so I could have just left them as they were, but I had a bunch of mini chips left over as well. So I melted the chips and channeled my inner Jackson Pollack. (Do you know how hard it is to take pictures with one hand while drizzling chocolate with the other? I do.)

So, lessons learned (because engineers habitually do post-release analyses, even when off the clock).

  • Making test batches is a good idea and they let your spouse take goodies in to the office too. (This is what led me to adjusting the JoC recipe.)
  • Test out as many components as possible before bringing them all together. If I’d tried a proof-of-concept crust with just one or two cookies, I might have known how to adjust it to make it work the way I wanted.
  • Don’t tell people how something was “supposed to” turn out. Let them enjoy it as-is (because they will), and pretend you meant to do that.

Changes for next time:

  • Much thinner cookie crust
  • More chocolate chips
  • Experiment with penuche recipes to find one with a creamier end result. Mine ended up more on the grainy side, which was still very tasty although not quite what I’d intended.


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Snow day

Last week we had a record-breaking snowstorm in the Seattle area. There had been snow on and off for the previous several days, but on January 18 the official measured snowfall was 6.8 inches. That’s almost 2 inches more than the average annual snowfall around here.

It may bring traffic to a standstill and strain email servers as everyone works from home, but it’s also a lot of fun to play in. Kiddo didn’t get a snow-covered Montana trip this past holiday season, so it came to him.

He and his dad set out from the back porch (where we’d measured the snowfall) around to the front of the house.

Walking around the house in the snow

(Click the pictures to see larger versions.)

Once he got to the front, he tromped around by himself for a bit.

Tromping around in the snow

We brought a bucket and shovel out for Kiddo to play with. He loved it. He walked from one spot to another, scooping up a shovel of snow and dropping it into the bucket.  When asked, he told us he was grocery shopping.

Playing in the snow with bucket and shovel

Someone taught him how to throw snowballs. It only took him three tries to discover the true purpose of snowballs: throwing them at other people. His favorite target? Mom, of course.

Kiddo throws a snowball

When his grandparents were here a few days earlier, we’d made a snowman with the couple of inches that fell over the weekend. Today seemed like a good day to round out the family.

Building a snowman

He was clearly having a grand time playing outside…

Very cute picture of Kiddo

… but eventually decided he was done for the day, after one too many falls in the deep snow.

Down again in the snow

Just how deep? Here’s what we measured on the picnic table on the back porch. I think there was even more than that out front.

Snow measurement: just over 7 inches


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The beauty in unplanning

When we started planning the Glacier National Park portion of our vacation, I was a little bit at a loss. It had been more than 30 years since I’d been there, and I didn’t have any good ideas about where the best places to stay would be, or what the must-see sights were. From what I could tell, the things to do were 1) hike, 2) drive Going-To-The-Sun road, and 3) admire lovely scenery.

Based on this information, I made a plan. We’d arrive Monday afternoon, early enough to do a short hike. Tuesday would be more hiking, Wednesday would be driving the pass, and Thursday we’d make our departure for Bozeman.

That plan didn’t even make it through Monday. First of all, I underestimated the time it would take us to get out of our hotel that morning. I’d also forgotten about the time change between Idaho (where we stayed the first night) and Montana, so what was a three-hour drive turned into four hours on the clock. We had to make a couple unscheduled stops – first, to top off the oil in the car, and second, to load up on fresh cherries. By the time we arrived at our hotel and home for the next couple nights, it was already around 5 p.m.

Tuesday did start out according to plan. Armed with a list of day hikes that we’d gotten at the hotel, we set off for the park. We found a trail that led to a waterfall, and we also walked the Avenue of the Cedars, a short enough and flat enough trail that we let Kiddo run instead of loading him into our carrier.

In fact, we had such a good time that as we came to the end of the walk, I said, “I wish we were doing more hiking tomorrow instead of driving over the pass.”

“We could do that,” my husband said. And there went my plan for Wednesday. Rather than driving over the pass, we’d do some more day hikes, and then on Thursday we’d start our drive to Bozeman via Going-to-the-Sun road, exit the park on the east side, and proceed from there.

Wednesday morning we picked out a couple more day hikes around the lake, and drove to the park. And were thwarted by Kiddo before we even got to the first one, because he fell asleep just as we entered the park. To preserve the boy’s naptime, my husband suggested we continue up the road for a bit, then come back.

By the time we found a scenic pullout, we were well on the way up Going-to-the-Sun road. And that was when we made what turned out to be the pivotal decision for the day. Why not continue on to the visitor center at the top of Logan Pass, and hike around there? Well heck, why not?

And as we continued, I found out what it is about Glacier National Park that brings people back year after year. The scenery was breathtaking. I was snapping pictures out the window every mile. My husband, on the other hand, had to pay more attention to the winding road hanging off the side of the mountain. “Tomorrow I’m driving this, so you can gawk,” I said.

     

But the day was just getting started. At the visitor center, a ranger showed us two hikes we could do: one to Hidden Lake overlook, and another that made its way along the mountain wall we’d just climbed. We opted for the lake, since it had a definite endpoint.

That hike is one I’m going to remember for a long, long time. Glacier had had more snow than usual this past winter. Even though it was summer down in the valleys, snow fields remained up top. The hike to the lake is a boardwalk path, but even so, a good part of our 1.5-mile trek out there was covered in snow. Like most of the other hikers, the three of us we were wearing shorts and t-shirts (and sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.) But that wasn’t a problem – it was 68 degrees outside, and all that high-altitude climbing kept us warm.

We let Kiddo walk for a while, even through the snow. Then we loaded him onto my back and kept walking.

    

We crossed the Continental Divide shortly before the overlook. We also met up with half a dozen mountains goats along the way.

It was a gorgeous day, sun shining, snow glistening, mountains towering above us. And we wouldn’t have experienced it if we hadn’t spontaneously added an extra day of hiking; if Kiddo hadn’t been napping at an inconvenient time; if we hadn’t missed our intended turnaround spot and ended up halfway up the mountain.

Organizing is one of my personal strengths. I thrive on plans on checklists. But this trip reminded me that sometimes the best plan is the one where you throw the schedule out the window.


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More than I could ever promise

I have a husband.  He is wonderful.

We met many years ago while helping to run an intern puzzle-solving competition at Microsoft. We started dating in 2005.
In 2007, in front of about 125 people who shared our geeky puzzle-y interests, he asked me to marry him.
I was so surprised that it took me several seconds to respond.

 

We were married in March 2008, with a couple dozen friends and families to bear witness.
As a tip of the hat to a Montana girl gone west, Mother Nature gifted us with a surprise snowstorm.
The California guy handled it with flair.

I think he’s a very handsome fellow.  He’s a full foot taller than me, and his eyes crinkle up when he smiles.
Most days you’ll find him wearing a t-shirt and jeans, but when he wants to, he cleans up real nice.

He’s a great husband. He does things like wash my car as a surprise when I’m out with my mom and sister, and buy me pistachios when they’re on sale just because he knows I’m addicted to them. True, he’s not always great about picking up after himself (but then, neither am I) and sometimes we get into arguments about stupid things. But he shows me love in so many ways, like being consoling when I’m taking days to work through a tough decision, and listening to me, and remembering the little things that are important to me.
He puts up with my occasional stress-induced spazz-outs, and he takes care of a lot of vital household tasks that I often overlook and forget to thank him for.

On top of that, he’s a great dad to Kiddo. They play together, they read books, they enjoy being around each other.
Kiddo is continually amazing us with how quickly he learns things, and he gets plenty of love and praise from his dad whenever he shows off a new talent.

I love him (both of them) so much.

 

Happy anniversary, dearest husband.  Here’s to many more wonderful years together.

 

Photos 3, 4, 5 and 9 copyright 2008 Rathbone Images

Photo 2 courtesy of Jan Chong