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Pretzels & Pate Choux

(Please insert the obligatory desultory comments regarding Neglect of Blog, Promise to Blog More Faithfully, Excuses of Very Crazy Life Lately, Etcetera.)

Since it’s Resurrection Day, and I am Christian, here are two elevating recipes to give a whack. Both look fancier than they are hard, which is really nice for earning bonus Slacker Mom points. And, no pictures, because: Slacker Mom.

(I will freely admit that on several occasions, we either creatively cropped photos, or turned off the date/time stamp, and faked “Easter Sunday” photos for the grandparents.)

Soft Pretzels

Right, so, it sounds really fancy to say, “Oh, we’re making a batch of soft pretzels to enjoy!” but really, what makes soft pretzels pretzels (or Prunt-zulls, if you’re a Little at my cottage) rather than boring bread is simple: a 30-second water bath in baking-soda-fortified H2O.

I also highly recommend using parchment paper when baking the soft pretzels. It keeps things from sticking horribly, and absorbs some of the moisture, so you get a crisper crust.

For 8-10 decent sized soft pretzels, or pretzel sandwich rolls (which are stupendously bliss-making):

  • 1.5 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 4 to 4.5 cups all purpose flour (I prefer unbleached)
  • 3 tablespoons butter (melted) OR 2-3 tablespoons oil

Mix all of this together and knead or slap around in a stand mixer until a smooth dough is formed. I like to leave my dough a bit on the “wet” side, and pop it into a bread bowl or plastic tub to raise, so I don’t have to knead much at all. Let it double, and if you forget, let if fall and rise again! This will take about an hour. Do other stuff in the meantime, such as getting your pretzel bath ready, and preheating the oven to 450 degrees, and lining a few baking sheets with parchment paper.

Prep your water bath: 10 cups or so of water, with 1/2 to 2/3 cup baking soda in it. Bring this to a nice boil. It foams and fizzes a bit. Do not be alarmed.

Punch down your dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it up into 8-10 portions. I’m a slacker, to I pinch of “hold it in my palm” sized balls of dough, and however many we come up with, I’m happy.

Time to get kindergarten on the dough: roll each portion out into a snake. Make a U shape, and then twirl the ends together twice, before flipping the ends toward the bottom of the U and pressing them onto the U to seal a “pretzel” shape. Here’s a video, from Canadians, so you know they’re kind and trustworthy. Some people get really fancy and just do a flippity-twisty thing. I am not one of those people.

To make sure you have loads of surfaces for the lovely water bath to pretzelize the crust, make sure your pretzel has space between all the sections. You can use your hands to just stretch them open as needed.

If you want a pretzel sandwich bun/roll, don’t stretch the sections option; when the pretzel rises, gaps will fill in, and you’ll have a whole bun shape that slices through nicely.

Now that the pretzels are formed, you’re ready to start bathing and baking.

Use a shallow, flat-bottomed holey ladle thing (I think it’s technically a large slotted spoon?) to lower one or two pretzels into the baking soda water bath for 30 to 40 seconds. Retrieve and let them drain a moment before placing them on the parchment-lined baking sheets.

Drop another two, and while they bathe, sprinkle the still-quite-wet already-bathed ones with garlic, or salt, or both, or anything else you want stuck on the pretzel. Some recipes call for an egg wash, but I don’t particularly care for that, and the just-bathed dough surface holds onto “toppers” pretty well.

Pop the bathed pretzels into a 450* oven for about 12-15 minutes, until they have a nice deep color. Slip the whole parchment paper onto a cooling rack (or the counter, if your cooling rack was perhaps stolen by your Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal Husband last year to serve as a topper for the baby chicks’ brooder box).

I made a quick sauce with a few ounces of sharp cheddar, ditto Monteray Jack and cream cheese, plus a bit of dry mustard and a splash of milk, melted slowly together. But mostly, the kids just buttered them, and they’d be good with spicy brown mustard, too.

Cream Puffs

I love cream puffs. Here’s some information on How Cream Puffs Work. Here’s the basic recipe:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup eggs (this frees you from the tyranny of wondering what size eggs. Just crack ‘em in until you have about 1 cup total, and whisk them together.)

Parchment paper is helpful for this recipe, too! Line some baking sheets before you get going, and pre-heat the oven to 425*.

Bring the water, butter, sugar, and salt to a rolling boil. Dump in 1 cup flour, and beat the tar out of it. It will gelatinize, which is cool to watch happen, and may leave a bit of film on the pan as you’re stirring. That’s fine, don’t worry about it. Keep beating/stirring hard for 4-5 minutes over medium heat, and then set it aside to cool off just a bit.

If you have a stand mixer, cool beans! Put the flour dough into the mixer and fit it with the paddle attachment. Get it running on low-ish, and drizzle in the beaten eggs a bit at a time. You’ll notice that the dough will get slimy for a minute, then smooth out nicely. Keep going until the egg is all incorporated.

If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can do it by Ye Olde Sturdy Biceps Method: add some of the egg and beat the tar out of the dough by hand. It will be lumpy and slimy for a bit, then smooth out. Keep repeating until all the egg is incorporated. I will admit to cheating: I put all the egg in at once, and just deal with about 4 minutes of slimy to get to the smooth part. It will take loads of bicep endurance. You are amazing. You can do it.

Cream puffs are great for the slacker baker, because you’re going to succeed by ignoring them. They need an initial fairly-high temperature to create the burst of steam from the moisture in the eggs (this is what puffs ‘em), with a second stage of lower heat to set and dry them out, so they don’t fall flat as soon as you take them out.

Use a regular spoon to grab a nice rounded portion of dough-goop. Scrape it off onto the parchment paper. Repeat, spacing them about 2″ apart, and going for a rounded mound.

Pop them into a 400* oven for 15 minutes. WITHOUT opening the door, turn the heat down to 350* for about 35-40 minutes.

Go do other stuff. Like look up recipes of good junk to put inside the puffs. When that second timer-buzzer goes off, turn off the oven, crack the door, and let them cool for maybe 10 minutes, then remove them to a cooling rack, and use a skewer to jab a hole in the side. It should come out clean, and jabbing the hole in also gives a steam vent as another insurance against collapse.

Even if they do fall flat, they’re still a good platform for Delivering Other Tasty Stuff To Your Face-Hole.

You can make the cream puffs dairy-free by subbing non-dairy margarine (of the sort recommended for baking); you can make them gluten-free by subbing almond flour for wheat flour, 1:1—but definitely use a stand mixer, because it takes longer for the egg to incorporate, and let the mixture cool entirely before portioning it on the sheet. This helps it set up better and puff more in the oven. Almond-flour puffs are more hygroscopic than wheat puffs, so they’ll soften in the ambient humidity, but they taste fantastic, and are still good platforms, as mentioned above.

You can fill cream puffs with just about anything, sweet or savory. The vegan “egg salad” recipes that use mashed chickpeas are great, as are regular egg salad (please use sustainably, humanely raised eggs from happy hens!), tuna salad (ditto, but with fishes), etc.

For sweet, plain whipped cream with berries folded in is always a good choice. You can also use my sister’s secret weapon: pudding mix.

Addictive Pastry Cream

In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, combine:

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 3 ounce package of any flavor instant pudding mix you like

Beat the tar out of it until it’s really, really thick. Haphazardly scrape into a bowl and refrigerate until you need it. Use a rubber scraper to gather up all the haphazardly neglected dregs of addictive pastry cream and lick them off the scraper while the kids aren’t looking.

And these two lovely examples of leavened, “Risen” treats, combined with the multiple puns I made regarding Easter Sunday/Risen treats, were part of our day today.

 

 

Instant Nutmeg Nog!

So, I have a very dear friend who cannot have chocolate.

I know.

Let us pause for a moment of solemn contemplation, as we realize this includes hot cocoa.

Lamentations and woe! Seriously!

For winter happiness, it’s very important to have a hot drink, so here’s an instant nutmeggy nog mix that tested very well in our little cottage (among those who will attempt to drink nog, anyhow). It’s actually egg-free, so it doesn’t have that weird slimy quality, but it’s quite delightfully vanilla-y and nutmeggy, and you could certainly add some cinnamon if you like.

Mix this in a good-sized soup pot; it’s not so huge a batch as the cocoa mix, so you can spoon it into a quart jar if you’re willing to give it some taps and shakes to settle it in.

Instant Nutmeg Nog

  • 4 cups instant non-fat milk
  • 3.4 oz packet of instant vanilla pudding
  • 1/3 cup powdered French vanilla coffee creamer
  • heaping 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

As with the hot cocoa mix, you’ll use about 1 tablespoon of mix for each 2 ounces of water (1/4 cup mix for 6 ounces hot water, 4 tablespoons mix for 8 ounces hot water).

I don’t have a snapshot of the nog, so here’s an older picture of the Spicy Child, contemplating the goodness of hot vanilla-y, nutmeggy winter drinks topped with a bit of real whipped cream:

Spicy, Age 1

When I was a child, we really did have to walk to school (or the bus stop, at least) uphill both ways in three feet of snow, because we lived on the hilly side of town. Once we moved out of town, we could ski down to the bus stop, but that meant a long trudge dragging the skis back up to the house in the twilight after school, too.

Cocoa Mix at Notmolly.wordpress.com

A happy cow mug will cheer up even the Queen of Skye, sitting glum under her threadwork icicle chapeau.

I cannot remember a time when my mother did not make hot cocoa mix during the fall and winter. And if we looked particularly damp, pale blue, and pathetic when we finally reached home, we could often get *two* cups of cocoa out of her, to “warm us all the way up!”

This is a slightly more complex version than her original (which likely came from the Make-a-Mix cookbook in the 1970s, the only item which I can truly say I coveted upon leaving home!) If you want to take it back to the original, remove the instant puddings. It’s still very rich, but with a more distinct dark chocolate flavor. If you use the puddings, decrease the powdered sugar by about two cups to compensate.

Get out your biggest vat to stir this up; the mix takes up a good deal of space! The quart jar shown above is one of more than four I made from the batch. I tend to store it in a half-gallon jar (re-used and well-clean huge pickle jar!) on the counter.

  • 1-3/4 cup Dutch process cocoa powder (if you can find this in bulk foods, so much the better!)
  • 10 cups Instant Dry Non-Fat Milk Powder (ditto bulk, or buy a box/bag.)
  • 2 cups Instant Non-Dairy Creamer powder (plain is great, but you can make flavored cocoa mix by using hazelnut, Irish cream, or amaretto flavored instant cream powder)
  • 4-3/4 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar–this is 1 pound
  • Options for Ultra-Rich Cocoa: a total of two 4oz packets Instant pudding mix (chocolate, chocolate fudge, or vanilla). I like one chocolate, one vanilla.

Whisk all the ingredients together very well in a large bowl (vat, really. I mean it). Store in an air-tight container, jar, etc.

To make some Truly Lovely cocoa for a winter night, or any time, add about 3 level tablespoons (or approximately 1/4 cup) mix in a six to eight ounce mug. We tend to use 1 tablespoon of mix for every two ounces of hot water. Add hot water, and stir to dissolve.

Variations: vary the pudding flavors (these really are optional; the mix is great even without them) or creamer flavors; add crushed peppermint candies, mini-marshmallows, or mini-baking chips.

You can even make fresh whipped cream, dollop it out in portions on a baking sheet, and freeze them solid, to store in a freezer bag and pop fresh (frozen) whipping cream on top of any cocoa mug. (Drizzle the whipped cream dollops with chocolate sauce or caramel sauce before freezing.)

This batch makes about 45 servings of cocoa, which lasts for about a week at our place. Or less, now that my son is taller than I am, and I can’t put the stuff out of his reach. :)

The cost works out to be a bit less than a similar quantity of gourmet hot cocoa mix, but it’s highly satisfying to see a huge canister of homemade mix on the pantry shelf, or to make up quart-sized canisters with customized creamer flavors inside.

Makes a great gift, too! Measure out several mug-portions into a ziploc bag, and create a “topper” with cardstock folded in half and stapled on, the whole thing tucked in a mug. Or, measure out portions into a canning or “found” (recycled from other groceries, label-removed) glass jar, and use white school glue to add a label with instructions for making up a mug. Download and print a label right here: Happy Christmas Cocoa Labels.

Revisiting the Creche

Long, long ago, in a rather lanky house at the top of the hill, there lived a little girl who loved her mother’s Christmas creche, which lived on her mother’s bookcase every Christmas. It was not an expensive or magnificent creche. The little structure was covered with bits of bark and moss that tended to get dusty, and the little plaster figures were not elaborate. The little girl loved it because she was a girl who loved stories, and there was a story for this creche. It had been a gift to the little girl’s mother, from her older brother, one Christmas.

And so, the little girl grew up with the solemn idea that a creche ought really to be something a loved one gave to you, rather than something you buy in a store.

And one day, that little girl married a Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow. They had a little girl of their own, and she was a little girl with clever hands and sharp eyes.

Years went by, and the little girl with clever hands and sharp eyes noticed that her mama mentioned the story of the gift creche, but never owned one. So one year, she and her Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal Daddy built a simple, spare, and just-right creche for the mama, and populated it with the same style of plaster figures the first little girl’s mother had been given, and gave it to her for Christmas, where it was given a place of honor as the focal point of the family’s Christmas celebrations.Mantel

The only thing that bothered the little girl with clever hands and sharp eyes was that the nativity figures did not look exactly like what she saw in her mind. But her clever hands were too young and unskilled to produce what she saw in her mind, and her sharp eyes needed to be even more sharp to do the work she wanted to do.

The little girl grew into a tall girl, and her hands became ever-more nimble, and her eyes ever-more sharp, and one year, she looked at her mother’s lovely creche, with the simple plaster figures that had never quite suited her, and decided to revisit the creche.

And so, she worked in odd moments, and hung a curtain across the doorway, and insisted everyone knock on the door lintel, so the creche might remain a Christmas secret.

A few days before Christmas, when this tall and lovely girl set about decking the cottage to celebrate, she quietly placed the re-painted creche in its place on the mantel, and waited.

It took her mother a few days to notice, but when she did, this is what she found:

The Angel, Bending Near to Gaze

The Angel, Bending Near to Gaze

Three Regal Kings come to Worship

Three Regal Kings come to Worship

A Mary and Joseph with Overflowing Hearts

A Mary and Joseph with Overflowing Hearts

A Mother Rapt with Joy in her Sweet Baby

A Mother Rapt with Joy in her Sweet Baby

A Renewed Gift--as Christmas Renews Us Every Year!

A Renewed Gift–as Christmas Renews Us Every Year!

And the mother was transported instantly back to the little given creche on her own mother’s bookshelf, and she was filled with happiness, for gifts that are given again and again in love are always the most happy gifts.

Quickly: About Readers

Quickly, go and read a very wonderfully amazing and gorgeous essay about readers in schools, because it is full of truth, and will make you cry:

School is No Place for a Reader

This past weekend, my two Eldest Minions and I attended a family reunion with over 70,000 total strangers.

We went to ComiCon Salt Lake City. Three days of nerdtastic fun. Crowded exhibit floors (on Saturday, the Fire Marshall got out the clickers and instituted one-out, one-in policies). Amazing costuming (seriously, amazing). And a whole lot of geek family adoration.

Some beautiful things happened that made me a little misty, and a lot proud, and I didn’t expect them at all. It’s the unanticipated graceful moment that has the most depth, some days.

For instance, I never knew that the energy from a crowd of 50,000 people in one spot could be energizing. I’m a hermit, and married a hermit, and birthed hermits. We tend to not like crowds. But when you put 50,000 hermits in one space, everyone has that same “don’t invade space, don’t invade space” attitude, so even when the crush is a bit tight, everyone is keeping their own energy mostly to themselves, and it’s not exhausting. It was… oddly invigorating. There were a lot of people, and they were all happy to be together.

And speaking of happy to be together: when one nerd recognizes the nerdness of another, and appreciates the level of devotion one person can have for a fandom, it is a beautiful thing. Normally shy, at events like ComiCon, a person can spot another in a similarly-themed costume, and holler “Hey, Pith buddy!”—and then get together for a snapshot that, judging only by the expressions on the faces, is of long-lost best friends finally meeting up. It’s happiness. It’s comfort.

Pith Buddies

There’s a sense of community in shared fandoms. There’s the delight when another human being calls out really random quotes or references to minor elements of a favorite book or show, and they fit perfectly, and are understood completely, and responded to with the appropriate line or gesture.

There’s an instant kinship when someone sees this:

Elemental Master1

… and shyly asks, “Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters, right?” Because only a kindred spirit recognizes the cues that make a costume one genre versus another. And when those cues are recognized, there is instant camaraderie and delight.

I didn’t expect to get emotional seeing entire families in costume, or to tear up when a large man in spectacularly-rigged Darth Vader costume knelt down to be in a picture with a tiny Jedi or Leia. I didn’t expect to leak a bit from my heart watching adult cosplayers ask to shake the hands with children, and be in a picture with them, or genuinely compliment the bitty cosplayers on their work.

I’m from that earlier generation of nerds, hermits, and geeks who spent a lot of time at the library, and read sci-fi and fantasy books during lunch, and if we were gamers, we were quiet gamers who didn’t talk a lot about it outside our own game, because that was setting ourselves up for ridicule and pain. And here we were this weekend, with entire panel discussions on the thematic relevance of games in modern society, and formal gaming groups right there in the exhibition hall. It was… liberating.

These sorts of people do “fun” a little differently than most, perhaps. There was standing-room only for panel topics like “HP Lovecraft: are his works thematically relevant in modern society?” and “Paradox: the physics of time and multi-dimensional travel.” Only certain types of people get excited about modifying and hacking cell phones to control digital servo-motors to animate clockwork wing assemblies.

There’s a cross-generational re-seeding and regeneration of fandom… such as the gentleman with a Wheel of Time Heron Blade, who had to get a picture of the kid in the Stargate Atlantis uniform, who recognized the blue silk sari of his own fandom on one of our young companions, and reminded me that there was an entire epic fantasy series I have yet to share with my kids.

The genuine joy that was manifest when groups of similarly-themed people posed for big pictures was… cool. Only “cool” doesn’t go far enough. It was the joy that comes when we find a whole new family that feels as passionately as we do about something.

ComiCon is perhaps unique in that everyone is both an active part of the show, and an audience member, all at the same time. Having been complimented on her own costume by a very well-done adult cosplayer, my Eldest felt entirely comfortable expressing her delight and admiration to younger cosplayers, and posing just as graciously with them as her heroes did with her.

When a tiny princess asked for a picture with “her Maleficent”, the Eldest felt compelled to reward her bravery with one of her pixie-people… because that’s how fairy tales work. When bitty girls whispered and pointed, wide-eyed, the Eldest was comfortable kneeling down to chat and reassure them—and then they all squished in for a picture with “The Nice Bad Lady.”

Solemnity

And there was the most wee of all tinykin girlies, with huge brown eyes, who, when asked if she had a favorite costume for the day, pointed at my girl, smiled and said, “Her.”

To the other four Maleficents who were just as eager to have a picture with my Eldest as she was to have a picture with them: thanks for being part of my happiness.

To the impressively-dressed men who didn’t just pose for a picture for my Boy, but who pulled him into the picture with them, and chatted about the mutual fandom, and were genuinely eager to ask about how he put various parts of his costume together: thanks for being new members of our nerdly family.

Troopers

To the artists who were delighted to speak intelligently about inspiration, materials, techniques, and the work of being an artist: thank you for seeing my kid as a peer, not a consumer.

To the actors who were so genuinely delighted to meet us: thank you for being real. You are a delight to us.

To the grandparents who read Asimov and Tolkien by flashlight under the covers, to the parents who read Jordan and Brooks and Herbert, to the young parents who developed graphic novels and webisodes and cosplay, and to the rising nerdlings who inherit all the splendor and imagination and wonder we can impart: let your nerd flag fly, my brothers and sisters! We’re a grand, weird, delightfully odd and beautiful family, and I love you all!

There’s a sweet little children’s song my minions learn at home and at church, called “I Am a Child of God.” Though my own Family of Origin is prone to writing and singing dreadful parodies of most songs (including this one), the poetry here makes a very concise outline of some basic educational ideas that struck me particularly well this past weekend.

And since I’m never one to be struck without sharing, here we go:

I am a child of God, and He has sent me here; has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear.

The reminder of my children’s true spiritual genetic foundation is right there: I’m entrusted with people who are my spiritual siblings, and we’re children together. I’m given the role of mentorship, but not ownership, and that also means I have to let go of thinking I can control their entire experience and response to learning opportunities.

I am a child of God, and so my needs are great; help me to understand His words before it grows too late.

I sometimes get impatient with those at a different point in their learning, but it’s important for me, as a homeschooling mother, to remember it’s Not About Me… it’s about them, and they have needs. Needs for rest and recreation, needs for encouragement, needs for the creativity that can only be sparked by boredom. Needs for patient reminders, needs for a good sense of humor, needs for guidance in finding new ways to respond to stresses. Some days, needs to just sit around reading for hours. Or a week.

There are so many educational strategies inside Scripture–God’s Word. I have just as great a need to understand as they do, in matters temporal and spiritual. I’m comforted that our faith is one of second chances… because some days, I feel the pressure of “too late”, and need to remember to use it as a motivator for tomorrow, rather than a large stick to castigate myself.

This verse is also a reminder that a firm foundation in gospel principles and their application truly is a major part of learning. When a child starts to understand their eternal potential, their responsibilities and stewardship as a disciple of Christ, their ability to interact directly with their Creator, and the liberty they can find within their covenants, they’re experiencing a change that can carry them through every situation they’ll experience later. All learning counts!

I am a child of God. Rich blessings are in store; if I but learn to do His will, I’ll live with Him once more.

There are huge blessings in learning together at home, even on the hard days (and oh, there are hard days!) Being able to remember the blessings helps with minor frustrations as they arise. And the major ones, too. The bit about “will” is, for me, more about tempering my own Natural (wo)Man, and trying to be the sort of guiding teacher and parent God is to me; bending my imperfect, finite will to His perfection and infinite goodness. Not easy. Totally worth it.

Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do to live with Him someday.

And there’s the crux of it: lead, guide, walk beside, help, teach.

Nowhere in there does it say “be perfectly organized at all time” and “do awesome crafting” and “make themed lunches every day” and “teach kids Latin in kindergarten.”

Just: lead, guide, walk beside, help, teach.

Show them a good example in my own improving habits and learning. Guide them to good habits, and interesting things to learn. Work along with them, and learn as we go. Help them accomplish things, and find solid resources. Teach them all the things I use as an adult, and how to learn in pursuit of their own passions.

Plus, the song has a catchy tune to hum. Not bad for a very condensed educational philosophy course!

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