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Our decorated gingerbread men, snowflakes and more.
Today we decorated ginger cookies. It's not a traditional gingerbread recipe so the cookies are softer and bake up puffy. They lose their defined edges but are pleasantly plump! I make these cookies as drop cookies throughout the year with just a sprinkle of sugar on top. I think they taste even better with just the sugar, but decorating is always fun!
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The dry ingredients spiced with great color from the ground ginger and cinnamon.
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Recipe uses canola oil, not butter.
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Thick molasses pours easily from the measuring cup that held the oil.
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Liquid ingredients just before adding the flour mixture.
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After adding the flour, the dough becomes quite dense. This is a double batch.
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Divide the dough and flatten into discs. Refrigerate for easier rolling and cutting.
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Rolling on parchment paper makes for easy clean up!
These ginger cookies are based on NYC's Magnolia Bakery's Iced Ginger Cookie, though I have adapted them slightly by reducing the amount of oil. When I follow their recipe, I feel like I can literally taste the oil and there's even an oily texture. Reducing the oil makes the cookie a tad firmer but it remains moist.

Franny & Jordan believe that when you come home from school, the house should smell of fresh-baked cookies. I try to oblige when I can, and I love this recipe because they are optimal for spur-of-the-moment baking since there's no butter that has to be softened the night before. Although I tend to fret about the future, I'm not very good about actually planning and organizing the small things. I often bring out a stick of butter, but then don't have time to bake with it. I've always envied the moms who can conceive a week's worth of meals, shop and prep those dinners on the weekends, and then enjoy easier weeknights after being at work all day. And I've always wished to live within walking distance of a produce and meat market so I wouldn't have to plan anything at all. These simple cookies are just right when you're craving a fresh-baked dessert but didn't know you'd have time to bake!

It's the holiday season so I took some time off work and had the luxury to make the  dough last night. We invited Franny & Jordan's friend, Elle, to our house to bake and decorate. 
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Snipping the corner of a zipper lock bag makes for an easy pastry bag. The bigger the snip, the wider the piping.
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Franny decorates a house.
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My gingerbread gal boasts a bodice.

Ginger Cookie, slightly adapted from Magnolia Bakery
yield: about 4 dozen gingersnap size cookies, or 12 gingerbread men

Equipment
stand mixer
large bowl for dry ingredients
measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons
spatula
plastic wrap
spring-action melon baller (if making round cookies)
rolling pin & cookie cutters (if making shaped cookies)

Dry Ingredients
2C flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients
1/2C canola oil
1C sugar**
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
*Magnolia Bakery recipe uses 3/4 cup canola oil
**If you don't ice the cookies, then sprinkle with additional sugar (about 2-3T). Course sugar gives a nice texture and gives it sparkle

Procedure for cookie dough
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
2. Combine dry ingredients in a big bowl & set aside
3. In a mixer bowl, beat together oil and sugar
4. Add egg & combine
5. Add molasses & beat well*
6. On low, gradually add the dry ingredients. Use a spatula to incorporate any dry bits stuck to the bottom
7. If making drop cookies, cover the mixer bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes or overnight. Or seal in an air tight container and bake off a few cookies each night for a week.
8. If you want gingersnap-size cookies, use a melon baller to portion the dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet (or ungreased cookie sheet)
9. With your finger, lightly depress the cookies to flatten slightly for more uniform cooking
10. Sprinkle lightly with sugar
11. Bake for 9-1/2 to 10 minutes for a slightly chewy interior & crusty exterior.**
12. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

Alternate directions for cookie-cutter cookies:
7b. If making cookie-cutter cookies, plop half the dough onto plastic wrap and flatten into a thick disk. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
8b. Lightly flour your rolling surface (parchment paper, cutting board (not used for vegetables or meat) or kitchen counter) and rolling pin
9b. Remove plastic wrap and roll dough to 1/4" thick
10b. Use cookie cutters and place cookies on cookie sheet with at least 2" in between cookies
11b. Combine dough scraps into a ball, and re-refrigerate. Combine with scraps from 2nd disk and roll again
12b. Bake for 7-1/2 minutes
13b. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

*Be sure to use the same measuring cup for the molasses as you used to measure the oil. The canola will slick the glass and the sticky molasses will easily pour completely from the cup.
**For a crisp cookie, flatten the cookie more before baking. Or for chewier cookies, adjust baking time or make cookies larger.

Icing Equipment
medium bowl
medium metal spoon for stirring
measuring spoons
citrus reamer & mesh strainer

Icing Ingredients (not from Magnolia Bakery)
1C powdered sugar
2T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
warm water, if needed
I love the slight tartness from the lemon juice. It keeps the cookies from getting too sweet.

Procedure for Icing
1. Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until smooth. 
2. Add small amounts of warm water, if needed, to achieve proper consistency. If using as "glue" for adding candy to cookies or piping from a bag, keep it thicker. If drizzling, make thinner.
Most recipes recommend sifting the powdered sugar, but I find that this step isn't really necessary if you stir it enough—one less thing to wash!
3. Be sure cookies are completely cool before icing
 
 
For Dave's 50th birthday, we went to see Mary Roach, a science writer and humorist who has written such books as Stiff, Bonk, and most recently, Gulp, speak as part of the City Arts & Lecture series at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco. It was an entertaining evening, and Roach is a great storyteller as she recounted funny anecdotes from her research. The Q & A portion was surprisingly interesting and absent were the typical gooey praise for the speaker. Through Roach's answers of a few different questions, she spoke about her own insecurities, self-criticism and general worry that her writing won't be good enough, clear enough, funny enough. But what struck me is how her insecurities became motivators. What makes one person's low self-esteem productive, and for another person, their low self-esteem creates paralysis? It seems like at the root of both people is fear—fear of being insignificant, fear of failure, fear of being judged. Roach commented that she only shares the drafts of her book with her trusted editor, because anyone else's feedback might cause her to abandon the whole project. That sounds like a lot of self-doubt for a best-selling author, and I don't believe that she was just being self-effacing. So how do her fears manifest in book after book, while for me and others I know, that fear results in not pursuing our goals?

One possibility may be that success could be a defensive posture to counter shame and lack of self-worth. But why does the insecure productive person's desire override their fear? Does their need for attention trump their worry about judgement? For others, those feelings of worthlessness compound on top of each other and create nothing but regret. 
What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who has found success and the insecure person who is stuck?
On television, reality show and celebrity interview after interview, low self-esteem and narcissism rear their ugly heads time and time again. I understand that fame attracts those qualities—the need for attention from your director or your audience offers reassurance and belonging—I realize that this is a gross overstatement, but for argument's sake, is that need for affirmation so great that it suppresses the fear of rejection? Shouldn't that kind of lack of confidence cause these stars to crawl up into a ball and hide, instead of pursuing their goals with such dedication? This is such a mystery to me. It's something that I need to unlock. I want to perform. I want to have the resiliency to go to auditions, to network and to slough off rejection, all the while building skills to help me get cast the next time. But it feels all too much for me, at least at this point in time. My love of performing does not trump these feelings of doubt. And the very fact that they don't, makes me question myself even more.

I've always thought that content people are the individuals who have healthy self-esteem, who feel uncertainty but move through those uncomfortable stages until they travel to the other side and complete their tasks. But listening to Mary Roach last week made me realize that many of these seemingly successful people are filled with more than just a little healthy self-doubt. How does she manage her apprehension to keep working, researching and writing? 
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Birthday boy with his girls at Smitten in SF.
How does one person's youth filled with lack of stability, financial insecurity and unloving relationships motivate them to become competent and wealthy, while for another, it just reemphasizes scarcity and keeps them down?

How does one person have enough belief in themselves to see their ideas through, while another lets the world pass them by?

How does one person decide they are an authority on a subject and become a professor, a mechanic, a surgeon?

At the heart of the situation, I think that we attempt to raise our children, to teach our students, to help our friends, our family, ourselves, to listen to our feelings (whether they are filled with fear, joy or something in between) and to have the emotional tools to act upon our needs. We try to not judge others and to not judge ourselves. We strive for empathy and to open ourselves to experience. And hopefully that is an easier thing to learn when you are a young person who has not lived through damaging relationships and disappointments. Maybe our children will be more resilient to those harmful situations and will gain strength from them instead of having their spirits crushed. But what of the folks who have been deflated. How do they aspire to their potential?

My real question is: What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who is productive and the insecure person who is stuck? I feel that this is fertile ground for exploration and some answers could open a new path of inquiry for me to follow in my own efforts to release my uncertainty and embrace my aspirations. I know that not many folks read this blog (as I've been too shy to widely publicize my nascent writing) but if you have thoughts on this subject or know someone who might, please make comments below, pass the question along, or drop me a line!
 
 
I'm off to Palau, a chain of islands in Micronesia, east of the Philippines and northeast of Indonesia. The time difference is 16 hours from California, and it will take me about a day to travel there. I leave on Saturday and will be gone fourteen days from my family. For weeks, I've felt tinges of, "What was I thinking?!" and pangs of homesickness, before I've even left, for the cozy comforts that I share with Franny and Jordan and the joy I feel when I hear their lovely voices chattering away. At this point in my life, I'm used to traveling with the girls and Dave. They are my home away from home, and they make being on the road just like bringing your nest along with you. When Dave and I used to travel together before the girls were born, we would think of ourselves as a snail, carrying our home on our backs. Marilyn, my mother-in-law, has a saying that, "No matter where you are, there you are." I think she means that there is always that one familiar thing—yourself—to rely on among all the unknown.

There is something about traveling to the opposite side of the Earth and the remoteness of Palau that makes this two week trip feel so much further and more daunting (and likely will make the experience so much richer once I'm there). Luckily, I will be with two friends, who I met on a trip years ago, as well as Ron, the group's trip leader, who is also a friend. When I arrive, Ron will be there to meet me, and I will stay a few nights with his family, and sleep in his son's room which I imagine to have the familiar feel of toys and more toys. All of these people will add to my enjoyment and keep my tendency to feel lonely at bay.

The flying portion of any of my trips combines a pleasant amount of anonymity that can be liberating but can also be a source for melancholy. When I was young, my parents and I hardly went anywhere, and so when I was older and began to travel more, I loved the feeling of airports. People were going places, there was adventure and romance, and I was one of many who were participating in this global arena. Now, the sheen has worn away and the plane ride is just tiresome, and I get a bit squirrelly and claustrophobic. Oh, how I long to have access to a portkey or some floo powder!

With a journey, there is more self-sufficiency, a simpler life where everything you need is in one perfectly packed bag. It's a design challenge to find and fit all the essentials, an opportunity for perfectionism overkill, for analyzing and predicting numerous possible scenarios. But what of the spontaneity and surrender to the unknown adventure? Maybe that heightened state can only be achieved once you have brought your luggage and all its contents into sublime balance prior to your trip. One would think that were true, given that I had nearly finished packing a week early, and have had a running list for about a month now! Seriously though, there is a liberation in not being weighed down by your possessions, the clutter of your daily life. Each time Dave and I return from a trip to Europe, we attempt to extend the Scandinavian design sensibility into our home, all clean lines and open space, or the carefree Mediterranean style of good food and long conversation. It's a way of life that we aspire to but can be difficult to maintain within the drudgery of daily America, with its longer work hours for less time off, and the emphasis on ownership and individualism rather than community and experience.

Traveling holds so much allure for me, and as my trip nears, I am getting excited. There are new adventures, new friends, new tastes and smells, tangible experiences that are multi-faceted and sear into your memory like nothing else. Travel holds the mystique of reinvention, an opportunity to be at your brightest, the chance to leave behind your mundane or neurotic routine and instead to be open and ready to savor. A foreign place can be tiring and taxing and can often push us nearly beyond our limits. But while we explore—while we embrace our wanderlust—we are more flexible, more able to squeeze and stretch. It's partially due to the newness of the situation, but mostly about attitude. While on a trip, there are
 instances when we are scared, exhausted, disappointed, ill, confused—all manner of emotional conditions that we normally try to avoid—and yet, when we are able to push through these hardships, to prevail, it is in those moments that we grow. It is here in this space where our minds and hearts expand. It is here where you realize that you are you, no matter where you are. It was not this better self that exists only while traveling, but it is you, your essence, and we can tap that source of energy even at home. So travel is practice; an opportunity to dip into that well of strength and hope and to rekindle within ourselves that breadth and depth that is within us.
 
 
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Fake food of my fake food, needle felted by Jordan
Today is my birthday. Coincidentally it is also my Free Friday so I'm enjoying a very lovely leisurely day. We began with candy in my shoes, fresh-baked muffins and presents. I received the most wonderful and thoughtful gifts—and so many! An artfully designed wiFi speaker from soundfreaq. The girls and I are listening to Yo-Yo Ma while I write. The new Cooks Illustrated compendium, The Science of Good Cooking, to further my culinary explorations; a gorgeous newly release boxed set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes—stunning cover art and wood block prints throughout—which Jordan has all ready dived into; and the most charming and delightful handcrafted gifts from the girls. 

I am so impressed with the girls ability to do things, to make things, to conceive and execute. Franny knitted a scarf—oh, how I love the colors and stripes!—using two new stitches that she learned while watching YouTube videos. She has a fantastic spatial sense and an ability to self-teach and tackle new concepts. Franny also made me a darling beanie, with a peaked top that resembles the stem of an acorn, that she knit using circular needles, alternating normal and vertical stitches, and all made without a pattern. 
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Fresh blueberry muffins baked by Franny
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Needle felted gnome that we named Toady. He's adorabubble which is beyond adorable.
Jordan ripened her needle felting skills by making a gnome (so tubby & cute!) and fake food fruit. She led me out to the dining room with eyes closed for a surprise reveal of handmade green apples, yellow pears, orange and twin cherries arranged to match the cover art of my blog. It amazes me that she can sit with a blob of wool, to then transform it into the very thing she imagined.

Franny and Jordan are an inspiration to me. They can be shy to talk to a sales clerk at a store, but they are fearless when it comes to devoting their energy to a project. Verbal acuity will happen as they mature; their curiosity and enthusiasm seem innate. The mission will be to foster that passion and creativity throughout their lives.
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With my Bear, and wearing the hand-knitted scarf she made me
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The celebrations started yesterday at work with a beautifully moist layer cake baked by Carole.
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Gorgeous bouquet!
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Tin Cup Serenade at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden's Redwood Grove Thursday Summer Concert Series, with the girls and Caryn
My past birthdays have been fun, melancholic, hectic, full of expectation, but always a time of contemplation. As the start of my new year begins, I find myself in an unusual (but getting more common) sweet spot of laid back reflection. It's been a tough year due to relationship problems that Dave and I face, but it is has also been a year filled with good growing pains. I've stretched these past months in ways that I've wanted to for the longest time. My blog currently offers a creative play space that is easier to attain than juggling schedules for rehearsals or expensive glass blowing classes. I've enjoyed my attempts to try new recipes. My blogging serves as a jumping off point for remembering the past, the preservation of new experiences, and therapeutic as I develop as a parent, partner and individual. 

What are my goals for the new year? Should I have specific objectives? Maybe the golden ticket would be to not set forth a series of intentions but to let each day unfold. But I think that's a bit far-reaching, after all, I called my sweet spot, "laid back reflection." I will always like to plan, I will always enjoy puzzling over meaning. Dave shared with me a beautiful essay,What's on Your Mind? by Joyce Dyer. Dyer speaks to her jumbled thinking patterns and how it feeds her imagination. 
For too long, I’ve mistrusted this mind of mine. I let conventional organization rush in too soon, and I chased away the reflection and associative chaos particular to the way I think — traits I’ve begun to honor now. 

-Joyce Dyer, What's on Your Mind?
I do believe that the act of self-acceptance, albeit difficult for some of us, does cultivate creativity. It's our individual approaches, our zebra stripes if you will, that make our voices unique. So why not acknowledge those quirks instead of trying to eradicate them. Possibly by embracing that my mind likes to mull things over, I might be able to continue my beneficial contemplativeness while letting go of the more debilitating aspects of scrutiny and rumination. Would that allow me to sense more intuitively, to be more in the moment? By accepting the way my mind works, could I lose the exhaustive commentary of self-judgement, and allow life to unfold with a balance of awareness and joy? Self-acceptance also fosters connection; a kindness towards yourself engenders a reciprocal loop of generosity and receptivity to the larger world. So let's start the year not with an agenda, but trust ourselves to know what we feel, to act upon those sensations and to allow our lives to be enriched with love.
 
 
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Upside down sundae with Judy's homemade caramel and chocolate sauces and oven toasted almonds
We just returned from a long weekend at our friend's Tahoe cabin for our fourth year in a row. It's always a wonderful visit full of delicious food, swimming in the lake, kayaking, chatting, and one of my favorite activities, admiring the bats at dusk while they swoop through the pine trees—such a magical sight. Our friend, Judy, is an amazing cook, baker and executor of well-planned and plentiful meals. While I worked on the beginning of this post, the kitchen was filled with the savory aroma of Judy sautéing shallots!
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The view from our room!
Judy and I took advantage of our time together to practice making her favorite caramel sauce (the recipe that I attempted to make and failed at a month ago). We had some concerns about how the butter, (Strauss' European organic salted butter) which was different than her normal brand, and the high altitude might affect the results. It was a little touch and go with the sauce behaving a bit differently at first, but Judy tamed it into submission and made a gloriously smooth caramel sauce. 

I'm still not sure what I did wrong when I tried to make this recipe previously at home by myself. I ended up with an awful light brown liquid with solidified chunks! I thought the problem might have been that I used too big of a saucepan (4-1/2 quart size) and that caused the mixture to heat too quickly, but then up at Tahoe, Judy used a pot about the same size. I think it must just take practice, and I intend to try again on my own this weekend.
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The supplies: sugar, heavy cream, vanilla and an old penny, in this case, an old Euro cent. More on that later!
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Adding the sugar to the melted butter.
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Butter and sugar coming together
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It was at this point where we were a bit concerned because the butter was separating from the sugar. Judy kept stirring and stirring, and it eventually came together.
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Use the color of an old penny to help judge if the sugar has browned enough. Other indicators are the smell, and when it starts to slightly smoke, it's getting close.
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Even after all the stirring, the sauce was slick with separated fat/oil from the butter, but we pushed on. Notice the color becoming more reddish-brown.
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Remove from heat, and add the heavy cream; watch out the mixture can flare up!
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Bubbly and frothy! Keep stirring!
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The finished sauce incorporated just fine and continued to darken as we stirred out the lumps.
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Notice the lighter (tastes more sweet) color of the jar on the left compared to today's batch (the two right jars). That dark red-brown color is achieved by cooking the mixture longer before adding the cream and creates a more complex, intense, burnt caramel flavor.
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Judy reaps the benefits of her work and gets to lick the spoon!
Rich Caramel Sauce, from David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert
Yield:  about 1-1/2 cups

Equipment
heavy saucepan, large enough so that when you add the cream, it doesn't overflow
wooden spoon
measuring cup & measuring spoons
glass canning jar(s)

Ingredients
8T (1 stick) salted butter
1C sugar
1C heavy cream
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Melt the butter in a clean, dry saucepan. This is important because impurities will cause the sugar crystals to re-bond.
2. Add sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
3. Keep stirring as the mixture begins to carmelize and turn an amber color.
4. Use the old copper penny as a guide for the color of the caramel. It's important to let the mixture reach a deep reddish-brown color to achieve a more intense flavor. If it's too light, it will just taste sweet. 
5. As the mixture begins to smoke, it's getting really close. Watch it very carefully. David Lebovitz recommends using an All-Clad saucepan because the light stainless steel contrasts with the caramel and makes it easier to judge the color (Hint, hint. Birthday or Christmas gift, anyone?)
6. Instead of a candy thermometer, use your senses—visually, I think of Crayola crayon's burnt sienna, and the smell should be the moment right before it's just about to burn.
7. Remove from heat and add heavy cream. Stand back! It will foam up vigorously.
8. Stir continuously until smooth and creamy. This could take awhile.
9. Add vanilla.
10. Poor into glass jars (small canning jars or recycled jam jars are perfect) and cover. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
11. Rewarm before serving in the microwave at 15-second intervals, or over a double boiler

Notes: 
*Give this recipe your undivided attention. The mixture is hot and volatile. It can go from almost perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds.
*Judy adjusted the heat throughout, going from medium-low, to medium, to brief moments with no heat to control the rate of carmelization.
 
 
These homemade croutons are completely addictive. I named them Elle's croutons because I first made them up when Elle was over for a playdate with the girls (they've designed a model of their dream Parisien apartment and are currently building it together). It was lunchtime, we were having soup and were out of crackers, so I improvised and made croutons. Normally I would have combined olive oil and butter, but I made these without due to Elle's dairy allergy. I love it when a restriction becomes an improvement! My family (and Elle) can eat these in huge quantities, snacking on them like potato chips. 
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Crusty bread sliced into half to one inch squares.
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Heat about 2T olive oil in a pan and sprinkle with about 1/4 tsp kosher salt. Toss repeatedly and drizzle more oil and more salt to taste.
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The more browned the better, and don't skimp on the salt! But be sure it's kosher salt* (see note below) which is milder than table salt and offers a much larger margin of error so you don't have to worry as much about over-salting.
*Special Note about Kosher Salt
When I started using Kosher salt a few years ago, I luckily picked up the Diamond Crystal brand which recently I've learned is the preferred salt in many a professional kitchen. It has a course texture and is much less salty per volume than table salt, and even compared to different brands of kosher salt. Diamond Crystal has a patented method of stacking salt crystals, instead of flattening, which creates a grain size that, although larger, is less compressed and so not as strong flavored. 

Therefore, you can't use equal amounts of table salt when a recipe calls for kosher or koshering salt, and you can't use equal amounts from different brands. Deb from Smitten Kitchen has a great article about salt where she sites Jill Santopietro's article and conversion between different brands and types. I've listed the conversion below for convenience, but you really should read both articles! Ultimately, you can be a lot more liberal when sprinkling with Diamond Crystal without worrying about over-salting.

As for baking, my friend and food professional, Peter Degnan, uses kosher salt for savory and Morton's table salt for baking. This has worked well for me. Thanks, Peter!
Salt Conversion from Jill Santopietro's Research:

1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt = roughly 1  1/4 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt = roughly   1  3/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Now, back to the croutons. 

They're best with a quality sweet batard (like Acme's Italian batard or Semifreddi's sweet batard), loads of olive oil and generous sprinkles of kosher salt. It's a great way to use up old bread (extra olive oil is required), but the flavors soak in better with a fresh loaf. 

Equipment
serrated knife & cutting board
Large frying pan

Ingredients
half loaf of crusty bread (we like sweet batards but sourdough would be delicious, too)
1/4 C olive oil, approx.
1/2 to 1 tsp kosher salt, approx. (table salt or iodized salt is too harsh. Course sea salt would work fine)

Procedure
1. Slice bread into 1/2"-1" rough squares. 
2. Pre-heat pan on medium-high heat.
3. Drizzle olive oil across pan to coat (approx 2T) and heat well.
4. Add half of the bread. A single layer is best for better browning.
5. Sprinkle with kosher salt (about 1/4 tsp).
6. While one side is browning, drizzle more olive oil on top of bread (about 1T).
7. Toss to brown other side, sprinkle more salt (about 1/8 to 1/4 tsp).
8. Keep adding more olive oil and salt to taste until well-browned.

Be sure to heat the olive oil in the pan before adding the bread for better browning. I let them brown on one side and then toss while in the pan, adding more olive oil and salt as I go. I'm not sure how chefs codify a recipe. It's so hard to measure exactly how much salt I'm using when I'm sprinkling. So I encourage sprinkling and tasting, rather than getting out your measuring spoons! You can always sprinkle more table side if you find they aren't savory enough.

The saturated pieces taste the best -- first you crunch through the browned exterior, then a satisfying little gush of olive oil. Don't be shy with either ingredient, and be sure not to overcrowd the bread in the pan. I usually make these in two batches, or else there are never enough! Even with two batches, we always want more. Enjoy!
 
 
Oh my gosh! This was so delicious! The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen's Spinach and Smashed Egg Toast. It was everything I love: fast, healthy, full of texture and breakfast-for-dinner! Thank you Smitten Kitchen!

Every time I go out for breakfast, I have poached eggs. I love the delicate white texture contrasted with the warm, gooey yolk, but I find poaching eggs at home to be troublesome. These five minute boiled eggs capture that delightful texture with no hassle! 

My very favorite brunch spot in the world is Tartine in NYC in the West Village. I have so many fond memories of brunches there with friends. While Cate was attending massage therapy school, I would go to her rent control apartment and she would "practice" on me, both swedish and shiatsu techniques. Afterwards, we'd walk down the block for breakfast at Tartine and indulge in the very best hollandaise sauce. On the weekends, they offer Eggs Benedict (with canadian bacon, Dave's fave) or Eggs Florentine (with spinach, my fave) with dark, crusty-browned potatoes, orange juice and coffee. They do booming business with a line that snakes around the block every weekend. 
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Even better than eating outside on a sunny spring day, was being bundled up in winter, waiting in line filled with anticipation. Here's Wendy, Dave & Mike, preparing for our Tartine ritual.
I loved Cate's apartment. It was light-filled and looked down upon one of those rare-Manhattan sights, a neighbor's backyard garden. I remember one warm summer evening, Cate, our friend, Joel, and I, sat out on her fire escape and chatted about the books we were each reading. I had so much time in those days. It never felt like it though. I was always rushing from one thing to the next, but in comparison to my life now, the days were long with vasts amounts of free time. Now the hours, weeks, months tumble by, and I'm trying to learn to better savor each day. I'm attempting to worry less about how things turn out, control only what I can control (i.e. how I respond to the out of control) and to stay present (less regret about the past and less anxiety about the future). I think that's what this blog is about. An attempt to have fun, reflect, be a little creative and an opportunity to practice really tossing things out there.

Last night, the girls were out at a birthday party, so I tried SK's smashed eggs for mine and Dave's dinner, and was richly rewarded with memories of our old Manhattan days. Maybe that's a good formula. Indulging the senses with nutritious and memory-invoking food, blogging about good times with dear friends, and again, remembering to appreciate what I have.
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The ingredients!
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Does everything I love start with shallots?
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SK said to use a "small puddle of water." I'll call this about 2T.
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4 oz. of spinach. Washed but does not need to be dried.
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Just wilted and about to remove to drain in a colander.
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Melt 1-2T butter, saute minced shallots until soft, translucent and fragrant, but before they get brown.
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Add drained spinach
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Add 2T half and half, pinch of salt, a couple of turns of fresh ground pepper.
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Add eggs to boiling water and cook for five minutes.
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Toasted bread thinly spread with dijon mustard.
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Peel eggs under water to remove shell. Be sure to peel away thin membrane, and pat to dry.
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Gushy goodness! Eat with a fork and knife, or just pick it up and eat with your fingers.
Smashed Egg & Spinach on Toast, from Smitten Kitchen

Equipment

small sauce pan
fry pan
fork, butter knife, serrated knife
colander
wooden spoon, measuring spoons

Ingredients
2 large eggs
4 oz fresh spinach leaves
2 slices of hearty bread. I used herb slab sliced in half
2T shallots, minced
2T butter
2T half & half*
1 tsp Dijon mustard
kosher salt & fresh-ground pepper
1T crumbled cheese, such as feta or goat**

*Smitten Kitchen uses heavy cream. I always have half & half for my coffee so I substituted that instead and it tasted great!
**I skipped the crumbled cheese, and for me, it was plenty rich without the extra dairy. 

I have a hard time getting everything to come together at the same time. SK begins the process with boiling the water and then cooking the egg for 5 minutes. I find that's a lot to juggle so I waited to boil my water until after the spinach & shallots were cooked. I think that was a little late, so in the future, I plan to start the water after draining the spinach.

Procedure
1. Mince shallot into very small mince.
2. While washing spinach leaves (no need to dry. Yay!), heat 2T water in skillet over medium low heat.
3. When water bubbles, add spinach. Cook just until wilted. It should still be a bright green color. 
4. Drain spinach in colander, and press excess water out with a fork. Don't squeeze. You want the spinach to retain its shape.
5. Pat dry the pan (though I found the residual heat evaporated the left-over water from the spinach), and melt 2T butter over medium low heat.
6. While the butter melts, start boiling the water for the eggs in a small sauce pan, and slice & toast the bread.
7. Add shallots to melted butter and saute until soft, about 3 minutes or until shallots are fragrant and translucent, but not browned.
8. Add two eggs to boiling water, lower heat a bit so they don't knock around too much, but water is still boiling. Cook for five minutes for a really loose egg.
9. Add the spinach to the saute pan and incorporate. 
10. Add 2T half & half (or heavy cream) and incorporate, simmer for about a minute
11. Add two pinches of kosher salt and ground pepper, to taste. Turn burner off, but it's okay to leave in the pan on the stove to keep warm. 
12. Spread about 1/2 tsp. dijon on each slice of toast.
13. Drain eggs, peel under warm tap water. At five minutes, they are quite jiggly so gently pat dry with a paper towel.
14. Arrange spinach on toast, making a nest with an indented area for the egg to nestle.
15. Place egg in nest, smash with a fork and sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, serve immediately.
 
 
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It's a gray Sunday afternoon and Franny and Jordan are playing Scategories at the dining room table with their friend, Charlotte, so it must be time for me to bake cookies! 

I'm making my favorite chocolate, chocolate chip cookies which are the same as Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies except I substitute chocolate chips for the white chocolate chunks. I do this because I always have chocolate chips in the pantry (unless Dave has eaten them all), and second, because I find white chocolate too sweet.

The contrast of the white on dark brown cookie does make for a more enticing-looking cookie, but I prefer the semi-sweet taste of the chocolate chips.

Ina Garten always scoops her cookies with a spring-loaded ice cream scooper or melon baller to get a uniform size. I don't think that's necessary because they don't have to be perfect. 

She then presses them gently with her finger (finger dipped in water so the dough won't stick) to get an even spread of the cookies as it cooks while still retaining the nooks and valleys that give this cookie a terrific texture. 

These have already been flattened. As you can see, it's a very slight depression.
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On the first batch, I forgot to make the depression with my finger, and this is how they came out. Definitely more jaggedy, but still delicious. The kids voted accordingly: Charlotte liked the first batch better, Jordan and me the second, and Franny didn't care.
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We all agree that the finger-depressed cookies look better so we plan to stick with that!
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Cookies with friends. What could be better?
Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Yield:  about 3 dozen cookies

1/2 lb. room temperature butter
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
2 Large (or XL) eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 C cocoa powder, unsweetened

Dry ingredients
2C flour, unbleached
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

2C semi-sweet chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter in a standing mixer. Add both sugars, eggs, and vanilla. After mixing well, add cocoa powder. Careful, it will float up and dust everything! Toss a kitchen towel over the mixer if you want to catch the dust. Mix the cocoa powder in well. 

Gradually add the dry ingredients and be careful not to overbeat. Hand stir in the chocolate chips, scraping the bottom and the sides to mix in any dry ingredients.

Using your wooden spoon or a soup spoon, spoon the batter on to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Don't overcrowd. I usually only put 9 to a half-sheet pan. Wet fingertips and flatten slightly.

Cook for 11 minutes if making 3 dozen cookies. Ina's recipe makes larger cookies and so she cooks hers for 15 minutes. Be sure to not overcook. These are best when they are chewy in the middle but crusty on the edges.

Addendum from May 5, 2013: 
Having just written about salt, I think Ina Garten always uses kosher salt, even when she bakes. I use table salt when I bake, and you really can taste the salt in the above cookies. Personally I like this because it creates a complex umami flavor like eating caramels with sea salt. Next time I bake these cookies, maybe I'll try them with Diamond Crystal kosher salt and see if we can taste the difference. 
 
 
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I love when caf├ęs serve you a glass of water with your coffee--very European!
One of the many treats of working for Wilderness Travel are our "Free Fridays." The office is divided into four groups, and each group gets one Friday off each month. On my December FF, I dropped off the girls at school, and then crawled back into bed for the ultimate indulgence--a weekday morning nap!

Later, Cate, Jet, Franny & Jordan and I headed to Masse's Pastries in the North Berkeley Vine District for delectable treats. I enjoyed a cappuccino, Gingerbread woman and an Amaretti Bianchi, which remind me of my favorite Kransekage, an almond paste cake with the consistency of a cookie, eaten at celebrations in Denmark. Since Dave is half Danish, we had a tiered Kransekage at our wedding.