Behind the Scenes + Make-Ahead Oven-Barbecued Beef Brisket

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As I was making things for the boys’ parties, Sam remarked, “All women are crafty!” Without making a distinction as to which homophone he may have intended, I’d say this may not be universally true, but I think his statement is right to some degree. He’s said things like this before, and to clarify, it is not in an air of sexism or stereotyping, but rather bewilderment at having married into a family of six women, and after nearly five good-humored years, of still trying to figure out why we are the way we are.

I think it is in the nature of humans to be drawn to things that look good, to want to be surrounded by things we think are nice, to wish to imitate that which we admire. It’s what drives the entire enterprise of Pinterest, am I right? Could it be an effect of being made in the image of God? I mean, as far as I know, no other creatures are quite like this; creative, nurturing, caring for beauty and not just survival. A squirrel doesn’t delight in the state of her pantry, and a mama bear doesn’t make an effort to make her den look cute. Ants and bees are exemplary in the running of their households, but no ant or bee ever marveled at the intricacy and efficiency of their organization, and to be sure the animal model lacks the nurturing effect of love.

I think what we are striving for when we pin those gorgeous homes, adorable crafts, and ingenious household hints is perfection.  Deep down we know we fall short, we have a gnawing sense of discontentment with ourselves and our surroundings. What we seek is outer perfection, what we need is holiness. As we are made in the image of God, but are in fact sinners living in a fallen world, this craving is only natural, and is, I daresay, inescapable. We very well ought to desire holiness, to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

In the same way I believe it is part of the makeup of women in particular to want our surroundings to be perfect too. Our homes are meant to be a reflection of our eternal home, but how often I get it all wrong in the carrying out of this endeavor. A party is to honor others, but I was thinking of no one but me when I carried on and cursed my stupidity for not knowing basic geometry and rolling out my double-batch of pigs-in-a-blanket pastry to quadruple the proper size. (Divine justice I’m sure for the gloating I was doing not long before as I chuckled at the task of dredging hot dogs—hot  dogs!—in flour for homemade pigs-in-a-blanket.) And it was all about me when I botched the frosting. I should have scraped the bowl during mixing; a realization that became clear only after ¾ of the cake was frosted. Notice there are no close-up pictures of any of the sewing projects I worked on for the parties? That’s because I’m an even worse seamstress than I am a baker, though I may have spent more time trying not to be than I did spending quality time with my boys. A home is to be a haven of comfort, but I’m sure there was not much of that when I snapped at Sam for SITTING DOWN! HOW CAN YOU EVEN THINK OF SITTING DOWN RIGHT NOW THE PARTY IS SUPPOSED TO START SOON AND THERE IS SO MUCH LEFT TO BE DONE! WHY DON’T YOU HELP ME! I appreciate all your kind comments on the posts and pictures of the boys’ birthday parties, but you have to know, what may not be visible in the pictures (or perhaps I’m just fooling myself there, maybe it is) is my pride.

I could go on. And on, and on. I have about a million examples of my failure to make my home a reflection of my heavenly home, let alone be holy myself. Perhaps that should just become the subtitle on the header of this blog, as it truly is a constant theme around here.

The point is, although I am happy with the way both parties turned out, it did not do a thing to remedy that gnawing sense that I have when I browse the internet, that sinking feeling I get when I look at the messy ugliness of my life. Only God is holy, and only he can make me so. I must strive to emulate Him, who by grace has given me a whole year with one of the sweetest baby boys I know; the privilege of being “Mommy” to my favorite three-year-old in the world; a gracious husband who helps me even when I’m awful to him and loves me in spite of it; and generous, loving sisters, parents, in-laws, friends, and grandparents to boot. He is a creative God, maker of all things beautiful, unapproachably holy yet abounding in love so that I may, somehow, with my imperfections and failures, stand before him and be seen not as I am, but as covered by his perfect Son.

I started to write this post weeks ago, before we even celebrated William’s birthday. Shame on me for delaying so long in sharing what really went on behind the scenes of these parties. Writing my thoughts did help me to have a better mindset the second time around, for William’s party, but I still have a twinge of regret for not getting any pictures of the food table in all its glory (because it wasn’t all that glorious), and I know it’s so selfish and silly! And I still want to write a post about the Camping Party games, but now you know. I don’t deserve your words of praise. Is there a good segue from “I’m a sinful, superficial human being,” into “Oh, by the way, here’s that brisket recipe I was telling you about”? Anyway, here it is.

Make Ahead Oven-Barbecued Beef Brisket
Adapted from Cook’s Country
Serves 10

  • 4 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1  4 to 5 pound beef brisket, fat trimmed to about 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 pound bacon
  • heavy-duty aluminum foil
  1. Make dry rub: mix all but brisket and bacon together in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees.
  3. Massage dry rub into both sides of meat and poke all over with a fork. (This allows the flavors and fat to permeate the meat = tender and yummy!)
  4. Arrange half of the bacon strips on the bottom of a 13×9-inch baking dish. Place brisket, fat side down, on top of the bacon, and lay the rest of the strips on top of the brisket, tucking the ends under  the brisket if possible.
  5. Cover the pan with foil and roast until meat is fork-tender, about 4 hours.*
  6. Very carefully remove pan from oven. (I can’t stress this enough. My 5+ pound brisket fit snugly in my pan at the start of cooking. When the time came to take it from the oven, I was unaware it was brimming with juice. I sloshed a lot of it onto my stovetop and into the oven. I’m lucky to not have been burned, but what a mess! So, be careful!) Let the entire pan rest until cool enough to handle.
  7. Lay out a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, large enough to wrap entire brisket. When cool enough to handle, remove bacon from the top of the brisket (save for homemade barbecue sauce, if desired), place brisket fat-side up on the foil, leaving bottom bacon in the pan. Wrap tightly in foil (I do the “match up ends and fold over” method). Now do a second layer of foil.
  8. Refrigerate brisket up to 3 days. About 1 hour before serving, heat brisket in 350-degree oven about 1 hour, or on covered grill, until heated through. (Oven method has not been tested, and since grill temperatures are hard to measure, I can’t give an exact time, but I believe our brisket took less than an hour on the  Smokey Joe. Use your best judgement; the meat should already be fully cooked, you just want to get it up to serving temperature. Overcooking it a little will just yield fall-apart tender meat, and anyway, it’s camping food, not gourmet fancy restaurant food.)
  9. Unwrap brisket, slice against the grain, and serve with barbecue sauce.

For Will’s party, I served our brisket with a jar of Russ and Frank’s BBQ Sauce, but for those who don’t like to waste, you can make your own barbecue sauce with the leftover bacon and cooking juices from your brisket. Since I haven’t tested the recipe or adapted it in anyway, I don’t feel right about posting it on my own blog, but after having mentioned it in a previous post, I thought I’d at least direct you to it over at Cook’s Country. With a pound of real bacon in it, how could it be bad?

By the way, if you end up with leftover brisket, as we did, there’s no better way to use it than smoky, barbecue nachos. I’ll admit, I may have had this idea in mind all along; for quite a while I’d been craving my favorite thing on the menu at Jethro’s, a local barbecue joint, just waiting for an excuse to recreate it. It’s not precise, but here’s the how-to:

Jethro’s Barbecue Nachos
Adapted from Jethro’s BBQ

  • Tortilla chips (You could fry your own, or not.)
  • Leftover barbecue brisket (If you made a whole brisket just for nachos, I would not judge you.)
  • White Cheddar cheese sauce (Again, you could make your own, but I went the lazy route and picked up a can of Rico’s Queso Blanco. I intentionally did not look at the ingredients list, but it tasted decently good, and certainly true to the creamy sauce of the college town sports bar original.)
  • A sprinkle of taco seasoning (Only here must I insist you use the homemade stuff. I have a rough mixture in my cupboard that involves brown sugar, paprika, cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt, and pepper.)
  • Shredded cheese, if you so desire
  • Sour cream
  • Avocado
  • Pickled jalapenos, if you like ’em

I love these with a drizzle of barbecue sauce, but Sam prefers the classic salsa. Do as you please, or go with both! Jethro’s also tops theirs with smoked corn pico de gallo, so some fresh tomato, onion, chiles, and/or corn could only put these over the top.

William’s Camping Party: Part II

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I’m trying really hard not to procrastinate posting the details of William’s camping party. If you only knew how many pictures are on my hard drive intended for blog posts that never make it into existence, you’d applaud me right now. Perfect camping weather is quickly fleeting, but it’s not too late to have your own camping party or backyard camp-out!

September has to be the best time of year to go camping, doesn’t it? Sure, it gets chilly at night, but with plenty of sleeping bags, wool blankets, and somebody to cuddle, it’s cozy! (Says the girl who slept inside with the baby.) If you’re reading this with your window open right now, try to tell me you don’t want to go outside and take a nature hike. You can smell the leaves starting to change, find plenty of cool seeds and leaves to learn about, see some wildlife busily preparing for the cooler months. You can’t beat the crisp air that makes you really appreciate that campfire, or the golden glow that falls over your campsite at dinnertime. And the days are short enough you don’t even have to keep the kids up way too late to do a little stargazing.

For Will’s birthday, a slow-cooked “smoked” brisket was the obvious choice for supper at the party. It not only says “camping food” to me, but makes enough to feed a crowd, and this particular recipe (coming soon now added!) is cooked in the oven, so it can be made ahead and warmed on a grill, campfire, or in your oven the day of the party. We topped our brisket with Russ and Frank’s BBQ Sauce (because I liked the look of the bottle!), but the brisket recipe comes with instructions for making your own sauce with the flavorful juices leftover, which you could serve in a recycled Mason jar.

We also served Kettle Chips (I also chose these for the appearance of the packaging–I know, I know), beans cooked over the fire, and my mom made her famous orange jello salad.

That’s root beer. Will also picked out a couple flavors of IZZE sparkling juice to drink. But my favorite part of the meal was dessert…

You can’t have a camping party without s’mores, so we had those of course. But William also kept requesting–or rather declaring–that there would be cupcakes at his party, so we made owl cupcakes. I decorated, William helped make the batter and the frosting. Since we were having s’mores and cupcakes and jello “salad,” and Swedish Fish, I opted for mini cupcakes instead of normal ones, in an attempt to keep the sugar high from being…higher.

It didn’t help much. Will was still pretty wound up as we were getting him ready for bed that night. Thank goodness for aunties who read to him and got him calmed down a bit.

But you can’t deny a Birthday Boy sugar at his own party, and seeing him eat his very first s’more made my heart feel all warm and melty.

And a little sticky.

William’s Camping Party: Part I

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I don’t mean for it to feel like Birthday Party Central around here, it’s just that I have two little boys with birthdays less than a month apart, and throwing their parties has been pretty much the only “productive” thing I’ve done since August. Don’t worry, I can’t do more than about two of these themed, thought-out gatherings a year, so now that these are over, I’m putting away the balloons and the cake flour and getting back to dusting and cleaning the toilet regularly. (I can hear Sam breathing a sigh of relief.)

My Grandpa Dave and Grandma Mary spent many of their summers while their kids were growing up introducing their family to much of the country, camping at National Parks in canvas tents and thick, warm sleeping bags. I remember seeing pictures and hearing of their adventures as a kid, and when I was about four they even took me camping with them on Lake Superior, in Minnesota. I still remember that trip to this day, and as our kids get older, I want to emulate that experience. I want them to see the country through the window of an over-stuffed car, to explore it on foot, bike, canoe. When I think of camping, I think of my grandparents’ iconic 60’s-70’s* experience, and that was the inspiration for William’s birthday party this year.

We wanted to take the boys camping this summer or fall, but as we talked about it, we decided they’re a little too young to go on a real camping trip yet. (Or we’re a little too weak to brave a real camping trip with a three-year-old and a baby.) However, William was old enough, we thought, to sleep in a tent with his dad, so our campsite (Grandma’s backyard) furnished the perfect backdrop for the party.

I slept in the house with Titus, and we joined the guys again in the morning for breakfast cooked over the fire and camp stove. Then we packed up camp and headed to a nearby trail for a long bike ride and picnic lunch.

Camping this way proved to work well for us, as we could let Titus nap in the house and send William up to harvest potatoes with Grandpa when he got tired of helping set up camp. (Plus, I needed him distracted while I set up one of his party games–more on that later.) I also borrowed a few things I inevitably forgot to pack. Not to mention, we had real bathrooms just a walk away, and–most vital on a camping trip with little ones–fresh coffee in the morning.

There will be more details to come about the food, favors, and that party game I mentioned, but right now I need to go clean up a boy who just finished a snack of leftover graham cracker and chocolate frosting from the party.

*Now that I think of it, it was probably more like the 70’s and 80’s, but I can’t help it, 60’s and 70’s is what I pictured in my childhood mind. I just don’t want to be presenting inaccurate information here! Grandma, if you’re reading this, you can set me straight! :) And thank you so much for letting us borrow the camping gear–Sam and Will layered all the sleeping bags to keep warm at night, and you may have caught the dishes in some of these pictures. But most of all, thank you for all the great memories to recreate with my boys.

**It was brought to my attention that I should make it clear that the vehicle was not in motion while the boys were playing in the trunk. I do not reccommend that, in fact I’m told it is illegal. They were just hanging out in there while we were loading up, me at arm’s length from them the whole time. Safety first! I guess the cheesy caption should be, “Packing up camp–we’re not forgetting anything, are we?”

Titus’ First Birthday Party, Part III

I thought it would be fun to incorporate each of A.A. Milne’s characters into Titus’ Winnie-the-Pooh party somehow, but because we kept our gathering small, with just his grandparents and aunties for guests, we didn’t do much in the way for activities except for eating, opening presents, and chatting. We played one party game, Pin-the-Tail-on-Eeyore, and all of this seemed to consume about two hours, which just happens to be the amount of time between the birthday boy’s two naps.  Here are some of the ideas I had that just didn’t seem practical, or didn’t fit into the  budget, or were left out of our day for some other reason. Feel free to use them for your own Pooh-themed bash!

  • These e-cards are what we sent out as invites. I especially like the one with Piglet carrying the red balloon (I believe it was a gift for Eeyore).
  • If you need a tablecloth, or something with which to cover a large eyesore  (like the  rows of water/energy gauges we would have had as a backdrop if we had had our party outside our apartment), look at your local thrift stores and garage sales for vintage sheets, which would match the style perfectly I think.
  • A medium-size metal pail would make a cute (though not very insulated) ice bucket for drinks.
  • Saltwater taffy, or any old-fashioned candy, would be a cute favor or party treat.
  • Make wooden signs with white paint and old palettes to label some of your activities (see below), or if you have a garden, “Rabbit’s Garden–Please Keep Out!” (which would be a lighthearted and theme-fitting way to let little Tiggers know you’d rather they didn’t uproot your cabbages.)

  • I’m dying for an excuse to get some twig pencils like these. They look straight out of the Hundred Acre Wood to me! Kids could color these coloring sheets (or a table covered with butcher paper) with them, or take some home as a favor. Coloring would be a great rainy-day back-up plan.
  • If you have guests of differing ages, the older ones may be interested in a more “intellectual” diversion. Bananagrams (which I’ve also learned as Take Two, using old Scrabble pieces), Boggle, or any word-based baby shower game could be dubbed “Owl’s Word Game.”
  • “Tigger’s Bouncing Contest” may be more suitable for the more energetic party-goers, and all you need is your trampoline, or maybe some jump-ropes, which could double as party favors.

Thanks for allowing me to get those ideas off the scrap of paper lying on my cluttered desk and into the blogosphere, where I hope they may be put to good use. Do tell me about it or send pictures if you do!

Titus’ First Birthday Party, Part II

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I don’t suppose a lot of you will care about the next set of pictures, unless you’re related to Titus and live in South Africa. It’s just a bunch of shots of Titus opening his presents. We have a special way of doing gifts for birthdays, in which the giver holds on to their gift until opening time, and then the birthday boy sits with or near them while they open the gift. It’s our attempt to connect all the presents with the people, and to emphasize the more important of the two. I don’t suppose the boys are really old enough to catch on yet, but we hope that eventually this will help them to recognize that a special someone thought of them, and they’re giving them a gift because they love them. It also helps take the focus off of just the birthday boy, lessens confusion about where/whom the gift comes from, and (hopefully) encourages thankfulness right off the bat.

Titus got three new trucks (his first trucks of his very own) from his aunties, which big brother was more than willing to help demonstrate the workings of. And…

…a heffalump! Not just any heffalump, but a heffalump all decked out for the party, and that wiggles his ears up and down whilst singing “Today is Your Birthday” by the Beatles. Pooh Bear and the Fab Four. Makes sense. They are both British, you know.

This is my grandma, the one who gave me my first Winnie-the-Pooh books on tape. My sisters and I used to listen to them almost every night as we fell asleep. Grandma nearly won Pin-the-Tail-on-Eeyore, by the way. She and Sam pinned their tails exactly the same distance from the point on Eeyore’s rear we deemed the Proper Place for a Tail. William declared it a tie.

I’m so thankful for my family, each of whom made the day special with their presence. Balloons and buntings and pigs-in-a-blanket are all very nice, but the best part of the day was having these wonderful people to share it with. Love you all! I am truly blessed!

Titus’ First Birthday Party, Part I

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For Titus’ first birthday party, I had the idea of doing a Pooh party. No, not a poo party, a Winnie-the-Pooh party, because of my love of the original A.A. Milne books, which my Grandma Peggy introduced me to at a young age by way of these books on tape. We had originally planned on having it outside in the back yard area of our apartment complex, which would have been appropriate since we have a little wooded area back there (a.k.a. the Hundred Acre Wood), but the morning weather forecast showed a chance of rain right around party time, so we opted to have everything indoors, which was fine, though it was a lovely day out and the storm clouds dissipated before they reached us anyway.

I made a paper bunting with yarn, Scotch tape, and scrapbook paper. And there is Pooh’s blue balloon. “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming. Now, if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is: Which is most likely?”

We held the party in the late afternoon, so instead of a full meal, we wanted to serve just a small smackerel of something. Though, I don’t know about anyone else, but I ended up eating a full hotdog’s worth of Piglets-in-a-Blanket, plenty of vegetables from Rabbit’s garden, and a rather generous piece of Chai-Spiced Carrot Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Frosting. I was feeling somewhat stout myself when all was said and done.

For beverages, I couldn’t resist ordering these striped paper straws off Etsy, which were used to sip sparkling lemonade, and there was also iced tea, with honey as sweetener for those who wanted it. I also impulsively bought some Teddy Grahams, which William had a delightful time passing out one by one to each guest.

I thought I had uploaded a better picture of it, but here is my attempt at a homemade Pin-the-Tail-on-Eeyore game. I sketched the picture of Eeyore from an image I found online, painted it with watercolors, and taped it to a thick piece of cardboard before mounting it on our bookshelf. The only problem was, while working on it, neither Sam nor I could figure out the proper position for Eeyore’s eyes. The original illustration proved unhelpful, and all my attempts looked creepy or wacky. So we finally went with the assumption that he must be looking down, and his eyes are sort of hidden because of the position of his head. This was probably the most time-consuming and labor-intensive project of the whole party, including the blindfold I also sewed and the yarn-ribbon-and-pushpin tails, certainly ridiculous when you consider it was just something people were going to poke holes in and probably never use again, but I don’t regret it. After all, what is a birthday party without Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, and what donkey could be more welcome at a Pooh-themed gathering than Eeyore?

And, last but not least, here is the birthday boy, enjoying his first unofficial gift, a foam “chair” Grandpa brought him from work. More present-opening pictures coming soon (especially for you, Mal!), and maybe some additional ideas I didn’t get worked into the party, but that I still humbly think are pretty cute or clever, and I would love to have someone steal for their own Winnie-the-Pooh birthday party or baby shower or whatever the occasion may be. Be sure to link to pictures or tell me about it in the comments if you do!

Roasted Asparagus Soup with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

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The recipe I’m posting today goes out by request: Roasted Asparagus Soup with Sun-Dried Tomatoes. I had intended to test this again before sharing, but it was delicious, and asparagus season is upon us, so why wait? There are a couple things that make this soup good, in my opinion: first, the sun-dried tomato and Parmesan add so much flavor. Even if you’re an asparagus skeptic, I’m confident you will find something to love about this soup. I made an asparagus soup last spring, and I thought it was pretty good, but then my dad made this soup, and it was about a million times better than mine. I also think that the roasting helps to concentrate the flavors of the asparagus. It may seem superfluous to cook the asparagus in the oven and then put it in a pot and simmer it, but I’m telling you, the soup I made without the roasting was totally lackluster in comparison.

It’s really not as much work as it sounds, either. I just snapped off the asparagus’ tough ends, tossed the spears on a baking sheet with olive oil (not extra virgin, it smokes too much at high heat) and salt, and stuck them in the oven. While they got all delicious in there (Seriously, if you’ve never had asparagus roasted like this, stop right there and eat the cooked asparagus as is, next to a steak and some mashed potatoes. You can add freshly ground pepper, a squirt of fresh lemon juice and maybe some zest, a grating of Parmesan—any or all of these are good, but the simple oil and salt version is the one I remember eating at home, made by my dad, with spears cut fresh from the garden.) I chopped and prepped the other ingredients, all the while keeping an eye on William and his friend playing.

The beauty of roasting the asparagus is that you don’t have to keep an eye on it and time it carefully on the stove. You don’t even have to proceed with the recipe right away after the roasting step. (In fact, it is probably better for your fingers if you let the asparagus spears cool a little before chopping them.) Doing it this way allows flexibility, perfect if you have little ones around. And it’s the best way to cook the asparagus tips that you’re going to want to reserve and add to the top when you serve it.

Unfortunately, I think the double-cooking doesn’t do much for the looks of this soup. It looks like a puree of brown-green overcooked vegetables, the crayon color I used to call in elementary school “booger,” which now I actually find quite pretty but does not appeal to most people as something they want ladled into a large bowl to eat with a spoon. (Actually my favorite color currently is what I like to call “fluorescent booger,” or chartreuse, or ochre if you prefer.) Once you dish it up and add the sun-dried tomato, reserved asparagus tips, and shaved Parmesan, it looks quite beautiful—really! For this reason I was going to suggest this as a nice thing to serve to company, but I couldn’t figure out how exactly that would work, because while it would be nice to let everyone add their own garnishes, I can’t imagine placing a bowl of it unadorned in front of my guest and making them try to hide their disappointment. Oh, I know what you could do: you could serve each bowl with a bit of each garnish on top, but also put out small bowls on the table so people could add more tomato, asparagus, or cheese to suit their taste. Yes, that’s what you could do. I imagine this would also be a good way to make it look appetizing to less adventurous eaters in your family, and if that’s not enough, to add a “fun factor” of being able to sprinkle things into their soup.

Also, Sam and I both thought this would have been excellent with some good bread (I’d pick up a baguette from Panera) and extra virgin olive oil for dipping. I didn’t do that—I never think of bread for our weeknight meals—but I highly suggest it. If you make it the way I did, you’ll want that bread for substance too, because the original soup recipe only made enough for us all to be just satisfied for supper, with one serving for leftovers (which Sam took to work for lunch, and then called me to say that a couple coworkers wanted the recipe, so that’s why I’m sharing it here. Thanks for boosting my self-esteem, Rachel and Liz! ) It was so good that I would have appreciated more leftovers. In the recipe below, I’ll note my suggestions on how to remedy that, aside from just doubling it. However you decide to make and serve it, I hope you enjoy!

Roasted Asparagus Soup with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Adapted from my dad, who adapted it from Robin Miller
Serves 4

  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
  • 2 pounds asparagus (The original recipe called for 4 cups of roasted asparagus. I used 1 pound, which yielded about 1 ½-2 cups when roasted and chopped. I would guess that 2 pounds should get you closer to the intended amount, and would also likely help the color issues I mentioned in the post. This should also boost the amount to a good, filling 4 servings.)
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 baking potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (I used a Russet, my dad did an unpeeled red potato—the red skin doesn’t seem out of place, with the sun-dried tomatoes and all—you’re just looking for a size/amount akin to what you’d want for a baked potato)
  • 6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
  • ½-3/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, julienned or diced (the ones I purchased came julienned—and to be honest, there’s no need to measure this, just dish some into a small serving bowl, leaving most of the oil behind—the measurement is included here so you can have an idea of whether you can use up a jar or if you need to go to the store)
  • Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler into thin strips (again, no set amount here, but I would go with 5-8 per bowl)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wash and dry your asparagus (by lining up the spears on a length of paper towels and rolling it up—wet veggies don’t roast well) and snap off the tough ends. On a baking sheet large enough to hold asparagus in one layer, toss asparagus with a light drizzle (1-2 tablespoons) of olive oil and a pinch or two of kosher salt. Place baking sheet in the oven and roast until asparagus is crisp-tender and browned in spots, 5-10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, chop into pieces roughly ½ inch big, reserving tips.
  2. Heat another tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, 2-4 minutes. Add bay leaves and thyme and cook for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add chopped asparagus, potato, and broth and adjust heat in order to bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, partially cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until potato is fork-tender.
  3. Remove bay leaves, and use an immersion blender to puree soup until smooth. You may also use a regular blender, but please be aware of the dangers of hot soup exploding out of your blender, and read up on how to do this safely. I cannot be held responsible if you burn yourself, but I will feel really bad.
  4. Reheat soup if needed before serving, and garnish each bowl with sun-dried tomatoes, reserved asparagus tips, and shaved Parmesan. You may wish to pass additional tomatoes, asparagus, and Parmesan at the table.

Craft Time

Today I learned that, contrary to what one might think, “craft time” is not a good way to keep a toddler busy while you prepare dinner. Yes, after helping William with the cutting of his paper pieces, I thought, Why am I just standing here watching him do this when I could be making supper while he is occupied with his craft? Pleased with the prospect of chopping vegetables without having to beware of little snitching fingers, or measuring ingredients and following recipes properly rather than having someone dump random things together unexpectedly, or enjoying the simplicity of stirring a pot without surrendering to demands of, “I wanna do it!” and “I wanna see!” I trotted off to the computer to print off the recipe I had selected earlier. No sooner had I done so, when I thought, What’s that noise? It was the sound of the entire contents of a large de-capped bottle of Elmer’s Glue glugging onto the paper and the table. Thank goodness for plastic scrapers, and funnels, and Mr. Rogers, for with their help I was at last chopping onions and measuring spices, albeit after spending more time and effort than my original plan had intended to save.

The charm of cooking with a toddler has definitely worn off. I wish I could offer some great advice about how to churn out a wholesome, delicious meal every night with two little ones nipping at your heels (speaking quite literally of Titus one day. Ankle Biter.), but no. I’d love it if I could recommend a recipe that’s really good for making with a little helper, but nothing in particular comes to mind. As much as I want to be an encouragement here, to be some wonderful refuge and resource on the web for being a better wife, mother, homemaker: I’m not. This is no portrait of humility I’m trying to paint either. To be quite honest, I used to love cooking and eating good food, but now most days I find it a major chore that I’d rather avoid. Last week, feeling entirely defeated, I told Sam I wished we didn’t have to shop or cook or eat anything unless we wanted to. I love my kiddos more than anything, but I sometimes feel as though they’ve stolen a hobby that I was really rather fond of. So, I guess all I have to say is, if you’re out there feeling the pang of dread at the thought of cooking dinner tonight, you’re not alone. I find it helps in some way to laugh at my misfortunes. And to thank the Lord for washable glue.

Chocolate Cupcakes

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One of my favorite books to read to William is A Baby Sister for Frances. Frances is a cute little badger who makes up the most adorable songs, and that’s one of the reasons I like to read it to William, but I am glad this is a blog and I am not telling you about this in person, because there is no risk of your hearing my renditions of them. In this story, Frances astutely observes that since the baby joined their family, “Things are not very good around here anymore. No clothes to wear. No raisins for the oatmeal.” (Sounds like my house…maybe that is the reason I like the book so much.) Frances decides to run away to under the dining room table, and her parents display great wisdom in handling the situation. I covet their wisdom, and I covet the peacefulness of their household, and I covet the way Frances’ mother simply “whips up” a chocolate cake at the end of the story. Seriously, who just whips up a chocolate cake from scratch on a weeknight while the baby sleeps and the toddler looks on contentedly? Not me.

Ok, I lied. I found this great recipe for chocolate cake that I actually made one afternoon with William while Titus napped. It helps that it takes only one bowl, can be whisked by hand, and bakes up in about 30 minutes. Plus, the eggs go in last, which is nice because then I am not so worried about the kiddo snitching batter, which is what the majority of his “helping” consists of. Oh, he also put the cupcake liners in the pan, and I think he was rightfully pretty proud of himself.

This cake is rather delicate, so not ideal for cupcakes actually, but I might try to ignore that fact and make this my go-to chocolate cake recipe anyway. I like cupcakes better than layer cakes, but not just because they’re cute! Come on, you have to give cupcakes a little more credit than that. They’re actually very practical. You can bake a batch, eat some of them, and freeze the rest for another time, which is what I did. They’re also good for sharing. I could say they’re better for portion control, but that may or may not be true, because when you bake a full-size cake, if you eat a slice, it’s pretty obvious, but with cupcakes, you can eat one, just to taste test of course, and nobody really notices. And then you think, well, they are so small and cute, I can have one more. So maybe that’s not really a pro. But I do think they’re easier to frost. I highly recommend a simple decorating set like this; it took me mere minutes to frost the whole batch of cupcakes.  And the high cute to effort ratio meant I could experiment with different frostings, because I couldn’t make up my mind between espresso or peanut butter. Which, of course meant I had to test each flavor, plus eat several to see if which piping technique tasted the best. But again, that may not be a point in  cupcakes’ favor from my hips’ point of view. 

I’m providing you with both frosting recipes, so you can try them out and let me know which one you liked the best. Sam liked the espresso, I preferred the peanut butter, and I think William thoroughly enjoyed licking the funnel I used to get the chocolate sauce into a bottle for drizzling. While he ate it, he made up this song:

Nummy
Nummy nummy
Nummy nummy stuff
Nummy nummy stuff

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes an 8-inch triple-layer cake, or about 3 dozen cupcakes 

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar (I used the latter)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch round cakepans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper. Alternately, place cupcake liners in a muffin tin.
 
Use a whisk to combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. (This was very thick for me, but for some reason I was too dumb to switch out my whisk for a wooden spoon for this step. Don’t be like me, unless you like making things harder than they need to be.)
Beat in the water, carefully, as it kind of wants to slosh out of the bowl. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well mixed. 
Divide the batter among the three prepared cake pans or muffin tins. I used a standard cookie scoop to help portion my batter and found that roughly two scoops turned out to be just right. You want the batter to be about half an inch from the tops of your cupcake liners.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes for layer cakes, 15 minuted for cupcakes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
For layer cakes, let them cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Cupcakes are less fussy, but you do need to let them cool completely before frosting.
I must direct you to Smitten Kitchen for detailed directions on how to frost the layer cakes if that’s what you opted for. She also has some valuable tips on freezing to avoid the pitfalls of working with a very delicate layer cake. I didn’t find the cupcakes too soft to work with, but froze them anyway for longer storage. More on that in a moment. To decorate, I used the smaller star tip in my set and just followed the directions included with it. I used a little squirt bottle I bought at Hobby Lobby for the chocolate drizzle on the peanut butter cupcakes, and tapped a small mesh strainer filled with cocoa powder over the espresso ones.

To freeze cupcakes, let them cool completely, then arrange in a gallon-size freezer bag and seal, with as little air in the bag as possible. It’s best to take them out of the bag before you thaw them, so the tops don’t get gummy, but I didn’t, and it was just fine. I figure gummy tops are not a big deal since you’re going to frost them anyway.


Espresso Frosting
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman 

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound powdered sugar
4 tablespoons instant espresso
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half
Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt and mix thoroughly, scraping down the bowl as needed. Continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes. (I didn’t do this, but taking a cue from the peanut butter frosting, I’m suggesting it now.)

In a small bowl, mix cream and instant espresso until coffee crystals are dissolved. Add to butter/sugar mixture and beat until thoroughly blended.


Peanut Butter Frosting
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about 5 cups 

10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter, preferably a commercial brand (because the oil doesn’t separate out)
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar about 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.


Chocolate Peanut Butter Drizzle
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about ¾ cup

Note: In the original recipe this is a glaze that drapes beautifully over the finished cake, but I halved it for my purposes and adapted it quite a bit. I recommend clicking over to Smitten Kitchen for the original recipe if you are making the layer cake, as it is a more fundamental part of the finished cake than my version. Still, it is deliciously more than just decoration and not to be missed. 

4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1-2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
In the microwave, melt the chocolate, peanut butter, corn syrup, and cream. Heat for no more than 30 seconds at a time, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Use while still warm, but it helps if your base frosting is chilled.

Baked Potato Pizza

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If that last recipe was the picture of health, then this one is its polar opposite. It’s…I hesitate to type it…Baked Potato Pizza. Is it horrible that we had these two meals back to back in two nights? Now that I think of it, had I been on top of things, this would have been great to serve at a Super Bowl party. Inspired by a pizza we had at the wonderful Fong’s Pizza, it’s basically pizza crust + sour cream + cheese + potatoes + more cheese + butter + bacon, which = more calories than I’m willing to count. But we devoured it. The addition of a tomato and green onions is hardly redeeming, is it? And that whole wheat pizza crust? It’s there less for its health benefits than it is as a way to get all those delicious things into your mouth. To be honest, I think it could have used more tomato, but what I’m going to share with you is not a recipe, but more of a general idea of toppings with suggestions based on what I did, because I think we all know how to make pizza. I think that’s how I’ll go about it when it comes to pizza recipes, of which I have at least a few more in mind to share with you at some point. They’re like this one, what Sam likes to call, “unique pizzas,” that is, they involve things like butternut squash, or arugula, or grapes, or cilantro, things you wouldn’t normally find on top of a pizza crust. Sooner or later, you’ll probably figure out that I sometimes use pizza to get healthy things into my family that they wouldn’t eat otherwise. But sometimes, I use it as an excuse to eat more bacon. This is obviously the latter.

Baked Potato Pizza

Serves 4-6

  • Pizza crust (I used a loaf of frozen bread dough—whole wheat [like it makes any difference], thawed, risen, and then pressed into an oiled cookie sheet—this makes a pretty big, thick-crust pan pizza, which is great for the hefty toppings. If you use a ready-made crust like Boboli, the amounts for the rest of the ingredients would probably make two pizzas.)
  • 8 oz. (1 cup) sour cream (I used Ranch & Dill, but Chive would also be good)
  • 8 oz. (about 2 cups) shredded cheddar cheese
  • 8 oz. (about 2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 4-5 Small Russet potatoes, baked (I baked mine in the microwave—washed but not pricked, placed on a plate, HIGH for 3 minutes at a time, turning them over until tender all the way through)
  • Roma tomato, seeded if you like, and chopped (I used one, recommend 2 or more)
  • Garlic butter (I almost forgot, I used a container of Papa John’s garlic sauce we had leftover. It doesn’t really make sense to order a pizza just to get an ingredient to make a pizza, so you’ll probably have to make your own garlic butter by melting some butter and adding garlic powder/minced garlic and salt to taste.)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bacon
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Prepare whatever crust you’re using, spread it with sour cream, then sprinkle on about half the cheese. Slice the potatoes onto the pizza; don’t worry if they crumble, just get a pretty even layer of carb-y goodness. Add the tomato, then the rest of the cheese (yes, that’s two whole bags of shredded cheese total…it’s Baked Potato Pizza, you were expecting restraint?), and drizzle with garlic butter. Sprinkle with a little salt and plenty of black pepper. Into the oven it goes; while it bakes you can make the bacon. I don’t remember how much bacon I used, but I venture to say that if you make a whole package, it will not go uneaten. When I make homemade bacon bits, I like to chop up the bacon before I cook it. It’s so much simpler than fussing with individual strips you’re just going to crumble anyway. Just be sure to have a paper towel-lined plate ready, as the little pieces can go from perfectly crisp to burned in a moment if you’re not quick with the slotted spoon. When the pizza comes out of the oven, sprinkle it with the bacon and some chopped green onions or chives, and don’t skimp on either of them. Slice and serve!