Healthy & Sweet

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I haven’t had a chance yet to call the dentist’s office for my son’s cavity, but I did buy bags of candies for Trick-or-Treating! Is something wrong here?

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I don’t know if you are like me, but I am very uneasy with this whole candy business. Not because I am against candies, but kids have so many occasions where candies are offered to them: birthday parties, class parties, school celebrations, banks and other offices, restaurants, community events, and even play dates!

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It was my son’s birthday party at school earlier this month. He was celebrating with a classmate whose mom volunteered to bring cupcakes. I didn’t want to bring candies or more cake, but I also sensed that my son was expecting something different from the healthy snacks we contribute monthly to his class.

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And since only store-bought food is allowed, I tried chocolate chip stuffed raspberries from Sweet Paul. It is an elegant snack, healthy and sweet, that is also easy and quick to put together. You just stuff the inside of raspberries with chocolate chips, and everyone is happy!

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By the way, I learned recently that they use to give apples to kids on Halloween! Can this tradition come back, please!? Or wouldn’t it be great if we could find some sort of balance, like the chocolate chips stuffed into raspberries? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Birthday Boy

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He knew exactly what he wanted: a two-tiered cake with lemon and strawberry flavored layers separated by vanilla frosting and raspberries, topped with a spider weaving his web. Of course!

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Believe me, this “order” is a piece of cake compared to prior ones, like the three-tiered snake cake! Plus it’s a healthy cake, so to speak. It has no food coloring, no artificial flavoring, no fat in the sponge cake, and even no chemical leavening. The cake is called génoise, and it gets its fat from egg yolks, its volume from beating the eggs, its moisture from a home-made strawberry syrup, and its flavors from raspberries, lemon zest, and vanilla beans. It is a light cake and absolutely delicious!

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The only butter is in the buttercream icing that coats the cake. The filling is made with whipped cream, which is much lighter, and you can always make more in a flash if you run out.

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Finally, decorating the cake with icing is so forgiving! It’s a great way to practice with royal icing if you are new to cake or cookie decorating. It’s also fun to do with kids, because it can’t go wrong and you can always take it from where they left off.

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Of course, the spider web could be done neatly, but I find a messy web just fine, aesthetically.

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It’s funny how a few simple ingredients can create so much happiness! But to be fair, I have to say that I am lucky to live in an area with the best cake supply store. The Little Bitts Shop is a family-owned business with more than 35 years of experience in cake baking and decorating, and Bob and Ann provide the complete package, from supplies to customer service. They always help me fill even the most exacting – and unusual – of orders!

Ratatouille

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Ratatouille is not known as a chichi French dish. Rather, it’s a rustic, working-class vegetable stew you normally wouldn’t dream of taking to a French White Dinner Potluck in Chevy Chase, one of the richest neighborhoods in the Washington DC region, tout simplement because French dining is meant to reflect class! (sorry about bad iPhone image quality)

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But today, French refinement has inspired and even defined the style of some great American chefs. Thomas Keller, named Best Chef in America in 1997, transformed the disheveled French ratatouille into a dish presented in true French style – hearty but elegant.

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It all started when Keller was approached by Brad Bird, director of animated film Ratatouille.  Bird challenged the chef to invent an appetizing ratatouille dish that could be generated by a computer and cooked by a rat! 

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Keller responded by challenging Bird and his team to immerse themselves in French cuisine, in order to make the most authentic animated movie about food possible.

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They took cooking classes, consulted with food experts, interned in Keller’s professional kitchen, and dined in high end restaurants in Paris.  

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The results of the exchange are remarkable: an Academy Award–winning film and a delightful ratatouille recipe, one that managed to charm more than a few French guests at the recent White Dinner.

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With all the work that went into creating Ratatouille, you might think Keller’s ratatouille would be difficult and expensive to make. Quite the opposite. You’ll be surprised how simple, economical, and convenient it is. Here is the link I used for the recipe:  http://www.justasdelish.com/ratatouilles-ratatouile-confit-byaldi/.

Welcome Back!

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We’re driving our final hours after several weeks far from home, and I am thinking of arriving to an empty house, with a list of things that need to be taken care of—first of all, dinner.

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I am a grown up now. I have my own family, and no one has spent all afternoon making me a hearty soup, waiting for my return from a long trip. But I am not going to repeat past mistakes. I’m not going to start, before even paying a visit to the bathroom, running to the grocery store, running back to the kitchen, and sucking the last drops of energy from my tank, all for the sake of a meal that will revive everyone, perhaps, except me. It’s too late anyways, I already reminded the boys about their favorite burger place in our nearby downtown.

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And then finally, we are home. As soon as the car engine shuts off, there is a silence that, in a strange way, as in a TV ad, suddenly fills with something like a melody coming from our garden. Almost like a welcome, a warm welcome – warm like a hug.

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A colorful sight bursting with joy.

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You can almost hear the garden’s heartbeat as you come closer.

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And the sweet breath of life.

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Look at you, Garden! You’ve grown so much in just a few weeks!

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I feel revitalized with a new energy, and I call the kids to pick the gifts of nature.

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With a handful of gems, I make a quick and simple meal.

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To my surprise, no one even mentions the burger joint.

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Rather, we let the joy of reunion carry the conversation.

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We make Moroccan tea and tell summer stories.

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We say good night, and we make sure to be thankful for a hearty welcome back home.

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Young Farmers Camp

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There is something about being on a farm that connects us to life in its most ancient, natural, and authentic form. It makes kids at lunch ask for more vegetables, like the beets (yes, beets!) that they, themselves harvested earlier. It makes them stand sober at the scene of a chicken slaughtering, and go to bed earlier than ever before.

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I spent this week at the Young Farmers camp at the family-owned Rocklands Farm teaching kids how to use farm-fresh produce to make simple, healthy, and delicious recipes.

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The overall program, under the guidance of Education Manager Anna Glenn, aimed at showing children what it takes to make the ingredients for those recipes from the ground up, by enlisting their participation in the different stages of farm production, from seeding, transplanting, caring, and harvesting, to storing, processing, packaging, and selling.

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Unlike classroom-based educational experiences, at this camp, kids partake in real farm life, entering into working and living places on the 34-acre farm where Anna’s family and friends raise crops and livestock, grow flowers for weddings, and make their home together.

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Being on the farm made me notice how many great picture books for children are inspired by farm life. One of them is The Little Red Hen. The little red hen grows grain, threshes wheat, and bakes bread, all by herself, without any help from her lazy friends.

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The story, which carries a great lesson about teamwork, was delightfully performed as a play for the kids at the camp, in a setting packed with plenty of charming details and blooming with the bounties of the Earth.

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For pictures of activities at the Young Farmers camp, check out Silly Apron on Facebook.  Click “Like” to keep up with my work on youth education through food!

Family Picnic

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Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is the story of a young donkey who goes out and doesn’t return home. His parents believe he is lost forever. Surprisingly, everything turns out well in the end… thanks to a picnic. This is a simple story by William Steig, but it has all the elements of a masterpiece. It captures the internal experiences and emotions of all the characters in a way that few books for children do, and it teaches some important lessons, like how strong the bond between parents and children is, and how all the magic and treasure in the world can’t match the value of a beloved family member. Sometimes you need to go through trials to realize that.

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I returned to this book recently while looking for recipes for a Father’s Day picnic. I remembered that the picnic menu in the book was really well thought out, a nice composition of sandwiches, pickles, salads, and desserts that is well balanced in nutrition and taste. When I looked up the exact names, however, I laughed out loud when I realized the menu consists of made-up dishes for fictional farm animals: alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. But I decided to stay as close to the core of the menu as possible for our outing.

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I made sandwiches of toasted homemade brioche layered with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon.

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Sandwiches of brie, toasted walnuts, and lavender flowers that just bloomed in our garden last week. (This sandwich is perfect when you add fig jam and prosciutto).

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A fresh salad with shredded baby fennel pickled in lemon juice and olive oil. Some sweet and juicy baby tomatoes from our outdoor market.

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And finally, some baked donuts dipped in brown butter, sugar, and cinnamon that our neighbors shared with us for breakfast that morning.

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Our Father’s Day picnic reminded me so much of my childhood, when my parents took us to the nearby countryside. I remember my experience as a child, running around freely, oblivious to the world and its concerns. This isn’t my picnic experience anymore (don’t be fooled by the pictures). My husband and I were able to relax a bit, but we were constantly aware of our kids, especially after we saw a copperhead snake in the water.

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That’s one more reason why Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a great book for children. It shows them that there is a reason why parents are constantly supervising them, that parents’ protection is essential to their freedom, that if something bad happens to them, a picnic meal will never be the same again.

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In the Night Kitchen

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Like Max in Where The Wild Things Are, in this book Mickey escapes reality to enter his dream, a night kitchen where bakers bake, all night long, to make the morning cake. And like in dreams, things can be out of proportion. The kitchen looks like a beautiful city built with giant food containers that make you feel small, like a kid in a grown-up’s kitchen.

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In the book In the Night Kitchen, the bakers have a problem and Mickey is able to come to the rescue, and thanks to him, there will be cake in the morning. The story is a great example of how you can make kids feel important through food. Give them a small part to play that makes them proud, and they will come back. Like when you race with a child and you let them win.

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There are many other things I like about In the Night Kitchen. Maurice Sendak doesn’t make a big deal of the final cake. You actually never see it done, or if there is something that looks like a steaming cake coming out of the oven, it looks very similar to the cake before it entered the oven. The story is more about the process, the ‘making of,’ the fun, the busy-ness, and the emergencies in the kitchen. The kitchen is where things happen – just like the big city after all.

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I think about this book at least once a year, when I stay up late baking for a fundraiser. It’s been a busy weekend, but what it was, really, is a dream come true!

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That’s Disgusting!

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There is croque madame, and then there is croque crotte (literally “crunch dung”), which is what I like to call the chocolate coated grapes featured in Michel Richard’s Happy in the Kitchen cookbook. They are absolutely delicious!

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I thought of chocolate truffles this summer while watching my steps to avoid camel droppings along the shore of Yasmina Club Med resort, one of the rare spots you can find camels in the Moroccan north region, where they are brought specifically for the leisure of tourists. Croque crotte might sound gross, improper perhaps? Not if you don’t speak French, or if it’s… April Fools!

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What is ‘proper’ is something that kids hear all too often, because they naturally do some unpleasant things. April Fools and its icky food tricks can be amusing but also confusing for kids, unless revolting things are explained calmly and maybe with humor, which of course parents never do when revolting things happen. Kids love to play with food, for example. The last time my kids were snacking on pomegranates, they started squeezing the seeds and shooting juice on each others face, then ducking under our heavy wooden dining table. It took some time for my son to realize that what was dripping from his forehead was not pomegranate juice but blood, after ducking and hitting the edge of the table, breaking through his skin. That was not the time to counsel with dignity on what is or is not proper to do with food. In fact, it was time to run to the closest emergency room. He had four stitches, by the way.

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That’s why I like That’s Disgusting!. The picture book That’s Disgusting! by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais is a brilliant project. It’s nice for parents wanting to teach their children about where things belong. It might be effective, just because it is one of the only opportunities for parents to counsel their kids on repulsive things without scaring the hell of them.

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Now back to Michel Richard. Though he doesn’t suggest in his book to make his chocolate grapes for April Fools, he thinks of them as a nice way to trick satiated guests at the end of a copious diner. They are also a great snack for kids, who usually love both grapes and chocolate. There is an incredible balance between the fleshy fruit and the chocolate candy, the sweetness of the grapes and the tart of the chocolate, the juiciness of the grapes and the dryness of the cocoa powder. It’s a genius combination and ridiculously simple to make. All you need is:

• 1 pound firm seedless sweet grapes, stems removed
• 4 ounces 60% semisweet chocolate, melted
• 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

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Place the grapes in a large bowl so you can toss them easily. Make sure the grapes are completely dry. They also need to be cold, which keeps them firm and easy to toss. The cold also speeds up the chocolate setting. So, I suggest you wash them, dry them, and then keep them in the fridge until you are ready to proceed with the rest of the recipe. Pour the melted chocolate on the grapes while stirring with a spatula, carefully folding through the center of the grapes to coat all of them evenly.

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After only a few minutes, when the chocolate begins to set, use a small strainer and sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate coated grapes. If the chocolate is still wet, the cocoa will soak into the chocolate and will create lumps. Gently stir and toss the grapes as you sift, continuing to add the cocoa until all of the grapes are well coated and separated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time (up to 3 days).

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For less disgusting April Fools’ food ideas, check Silly Apron’s April Fools’ project from 2013.

If you like Silly Apron, please like Silly Apron Facebook page where I post more frequently including links to other people’s amazing food related work. Thank you…

Weather-Inspired Delights (Part 3)

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I am keeping the series going until I convince everyone to try these cookies! Actually, I decided to write on this topic again because I had dreamed up this version of chocolate cookies and speculated about them in my previous post, but now I really made them for the first time. And I am happy I did. Basically, the process of making these cookies is the same as the sablés, in that you shape the dough into a log, freeze it, then slice it before baking. There are a few differences from the original sablés recipe. This version calls for baking soda, and in contrast to what I expected, the sparkles around the cookies stayed nice and round despite the leavening agent. And, this version incorporates chocolate chunks in the dough, exactly like in chocolate chip cookies, but the taste is even better, mainly thanks to the salt that enhances the chocolate flavor.

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Ingredients for two logs – Makes about 36 cookies:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2/3 cups (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips; or, a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips (I use half of each, as bittersweet chocolate contains cocoa butter and melts in your mouth, whereas mini chocolate chips keep their shape after baking and are much cheaper!)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Sugar, for coating

Click here to see the step-by-step recipe with images from the Food52 website. This recipe is attributed to Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan, and the cookies are known as World Peace Cookies. These cookies are not sugar coated, so the recipe doesn’t show that step. So, just after you remove your log-shaped dough from the fridge or the freezer, you will need to brush it lightly with a tiny amount of the egg yolk and roll it in the sugar. If there are some irregularities in the log’s shape and the sugar doesn’t stick everywhere, just sprinkle the sugar over the gaps. Then slice and bake. And of course, share and enjoy!

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