Time is flying by so quickly. It feels like Roux was just born, and it feels like he’s been a part of our family forever. It feels like we were just unwrapping Christmas presents, and now we’re getting ready to have a cozy Valentine’s Day weekend. A week from today I turn 34, and then there’s Valentine’s Day to follow what I assume will be a very quiet birthday. I’m genuinely looking forward to a nice birthday/Valentine’s weekend with my little, slowly growing family. I’m soaking up all these sweet newborn days with the knowledge that they’ll pass too quickly. You’d be surprised how many hours a day can be spent smooching a sweet baby face.
Just before Roux was born I whipped up a batch of homemade Almond Roca. The recipe came from my friend, Linda, along with her special Caramel Corn recipe. She taught me to make the caramel corn, but was too fatigued by her battle with cancer to make the Almond Roca with me. She gave me her recipe and talked me through it. I made it on my own last Christmas, and again this Christmas. I meant to share the recipe around the holidays, but since I was 5,000 weeks pregnant I never did. We also meant to send out Christmas cards, but that didn’t happen either. The Almond Roca is incredibly rich and sweet, it’s decadent but actually quite easy to make.
Last week, Kyle said, “Why don’t we send out Valentine’s Day cards to our family and friends like Paul and Julia Child did.” Did I marry my perfect match or what? For those who haven’t read Julia Child’s memoir, her biography, or watched Julie and Julia two dozen times, Julia and her husband sent out Valentine’s cards every year from wherever Paul was stationed at the time to their friends all over the world. Slightly off-topic, but this (hilariously) edited version of Julie and Julia called Julia Sans Julie is pretty wonderful.
Anyway, when Kyle suggested we make cards, I immediately reached out to Artifact Uprising to see if they’d be interested in collaborating with me. I’ve admired their gorgeous cards for a long time. I decided to make a custom card so that we could combine a Valentine’s Day card and a birth announcement for Roux. Sending Valentine’s Day cards is something we’ve decided to make a tradition for our family since I never seem to be able to get Christmas/holiday cards out in time! If any of you want to make cards Artifact Uprising is offering a 10% code: KAAU13 – if you’re in the UK/EU you may need to select priority international shipping to get the cards for Valentine’s Day.
The cards I created, and the Cork + Brass print stand arrived here in England surprisingly fast. Over the weekend I addressed and mailed them out. For our local friends, I made a batch of Almond Roca to be delivered with their cards, and since we have a grand total of maybe five friends here we still have more than enough Almond Roca to have with our afternoon tea through this week and into next. In fact a quiet weekend of board games, tea, and Almond Roca sounds just about right for easing into my 34th year.
HOMEMADE ALMOND ROCA
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup chopped raw almonds, toasted
6.5 oz milk chocolate (preferably Hershey brand)
10 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup ground/very finely chopped raw walnuts, toasted
vegetable or canola oil
Grease a rimmed baking sheet (a baker’s half sheet size is perfect) with a bit of vegetable or canola oil.
Boil sugar and butter on high in a heavy medium sized saucepan. Stir constantly for about the first five minutes. Add the almonds all at once stirring to thoroughly combine.
Reduce the temperature a bit and continue to boil the caramel, stirring often and watching closely, until it turns a rich caramel color and your candy thermometer reaches between 300-310˚F (the crack stage).
Working quickly and carefully pour the caramel out onto the greased baking sheet, and use a rubber spatula to spread the caramel evenly onto the sheet. Allow the caramel to cool completely.
When the caramel is cool, melt the chocolates together in a double boiler. Once the chocolate is melted remove it from the heat but leave the chocolate over the hot water while you work to frost the candy.
Frost the top side of the candy with the melted chocolate, sprinkle with half of the ground walnuts, and pat the walnuts gently to set them into the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to set and cool completely.
Carefully flip the candy out onto a clean surface or cutting board. You may need to flex the sheet a bit to get it out. Don’t worry if the candy cracks in half. Frost the second side the same way you did the first side. Allow to set and cool completely before breaking the candy up into small pieces.
*Candy can be stored in an airtight container at cool room temperature for a week or two, but it’s best in the first week.
HOMEMADE ALMOND ROCA
It’s nearing the end of January, and today our sweet baby is already four weeks old. There’s lots of frost on the ground each morning, and I can still see it hanging on in the shade into the evening (or rather until the sun goes down around 4pm). We’re spending lots of time focusing on comfort and coziness. I’m a baby person, so I wish I could freeze time. If I could I’d buy more time – more time for snuggling him, for smelling his sweet head and breath, for watching him sleep.
For the past four weeks we’ve mostly laid low. We took a long day trip into London to apply for Roux’s passport, but other than a few little walks around in the countryside, we’ve been hunkered down in our fleece pajamas, slippers on our feet, enjoying the newborn loveliness.
I have to admit, it feels amazing to be not pregnant anymore! It feels like a huge weight has been lifted – both figuratively and literally. I knew, but I didn’t know, just how stressful it was being pregnant and trying to plan for a birth in a foreign country. All that wild unknown, the logistics of childcare, not knowing where exactly to go in the hospital, all of it added up to be almost too much. Now that Roux is in our lives, we are feeling exponentially more comfortable in all facets of life.
We’re able now, more than ever, to focus on comfort. Getting more comfortable here in our temporary home in England. Getting more comfortable creating a little space for Roux, which at the moment consists of a cozy corner in our master bedroom. We’ve got our little guy close by at night, snug in his Nuna Sena Travel Cot (which may just end up being this crib forever), and his Sleepyhead bed (in the States it’s called Dock-A-Tot). The Sena/Sleepyhead combo is proving to be really wonderful. The Sleepyhead is sometimes used as a “crib reducer” which makes the space feel really cozy and secure for the baby, and I don’t worry about him squirming around or rolling over in the night. Both the Sena and the Sleepyhead will also be great for different types of travel once we get out of the house and back to our passport stamp collecting ways. Anyway, each night I swaddle him up, and lay him down, and for the most part he complies, giving us some good stretches of sleep between nursing. While we’re on the subject of sleeping newborns, I have to tell you how much I love and rely on my Snuza Hero… it’s a movement and breathing monitor that, for an anxious person like me, helps me feel way more relaxed and get way more sleep because I’m not stressed about the baby. I got one when Lulu was a newborn and it was life-changing for me in regards to post-partum anxiety. Anyway, all that said, Roux ends up in bed with me, snug and warm on my chest, by the middle of most nights. So I wake up with his little breath tickling my arm or neck, and his little hands gripped onto my t-shirt. Have I mentioned how much I love babies?
Part of feeling and getting more comfortable in our home, is our continued focus on simple comfort food. I’m trying new recipes that I can make with easily found ingredients, and simple cooking equipment like this Sticky Braised Pork (all you need is a dutch oven and knife), and soups like this Sausage Barley Soup (all you need is a pot and a knife). Baby Roux is a bit fussy in the evenings, so I also like anything that I can start ahead of time. Soups and slow roasts that spend a good while simmering on the stovetop or in the oven, the rich flavors being coaxed out by the low heat, provide wonderfully easy ways to get a delicious dinner on the table without too much stress.
This Sausage Barley Soup is in regular rotation these days, Gigi loves it, and with enough Parmesan cheese on top, so does Lulu. The basic aromatics are sautéed in olive oil, spiked with a bit of garlic, and then the vegetables and joined by dried herbs and a bay leaf, tomato paste, crushed plum tomatoes, a Parmesan rind, (preferably homemade) chicken or vegetable stock, and pearl barley. It’s really pretty darn simple, so simple that you hardly need a recipe to make it! In fact, I’ve made variations of this soup for years, and this is the first time I’ve written it down. The same soup can be made with puy lentils (also called French lentils) in the place of barley if you’re looking for more protein or if you want to make the recipe gluten free. The barley version is a bit more comforting, it has a toasty, warming quality that I love and seem to be craving these days. The lentil version is a bit heartier, more earthy and robust than the barley one. Whichever direction you go with it, I recommend serving this soup with a good crusty French bread or a heaping plate of fragrant garlic bread, and topping the soup itself with a little grated Parmesan (or a lot if you’re Lulu), and a drizzle of olive oil.
SAUSAGE BARLEY (OR LENTIL) SOUP
1 lb (450g) ground sausage
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley, sage, and thyme
1 bay leaf
pinch of ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 14oz can peeled plum tomatoes
1 parmesan rind
2 1/2 pints (6 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups pearl barley (or puy lentils)
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
Season the ground sausage with salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Brown the sausage in the pot, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until it’s golden brown. Transfer the sausage to a bowl and set it aside.
Add a bit more olive oil if needed before adding in the onions. Sauté the onions until they are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.
Add in the carrots and celery and sauté for another few minutes. Toss in the garlic and sauté another few minutes. Add the sausage back into the pot along with dried herbs, the bay leaf, and the pinch of nutmeg, and stir to coat the vegetables and meat with the herbs.
To the pot add the tomato paste, and crush the peeled plum tomatoes by hand into the pot, discarding the cores, as well as any tomato juice in the can. Toss in your Parmesan rind if you have one.
Add the stock to the pot and bring the soup up to a low simmer before adding in either the barley or the lentils. Cook until either the barley or the lentils are tender but retain a bit of bite – this will vary based on the ingredient. I find that the barley takes about 30-40 minutes, and the lentils take about 20-30 minutes to cook perfectly. As the soup simmers, stir it occasionally, and check the done-ness of the barley/lentils as you go.
Serve the soup piping hot with a shower of freshly grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.
SAUSAGE BARLEY (OR LENTIL) SOUP
Kyle’s Mom arrives this afternoon and we’re looking toward to her arrival with the same anticipation and glee we normally withhold for the first snow of the season. She’s bringing along with her lots Christmas cheer in the form of: Christmas stockings, Hershey Kisses for making Peanut Blossoms, and a new set of homeschool books. She’s also bringing much needed hugs for all of us transplants, and she will be lifting a huge weight from our shoulders known as the “who-the-hell-do-we-call-when-I-go-into-labor?” weight which I felt intensely again last night as I weathered four hours of contractions through the middle of the night.
It feels like we’ve been holding our breath, waiting for Grandma to get here, and then we can all collectively relax, enjoy the holiday, and slip out to the birth center when we need to without any stress… because giving birth isn’t stressful on it’s own, right? It’s been three and half years since we welcomed Lulu to our little family, and I have to say I’m not particularly looking forward to the whole process again! I am, however, very much looking forward to having a teeny tiny, fuzzy skinned, sweet smelling baby to snuggle with. Both girls were born at exactly 39 weeks, so if this baby stays on that same program we could have a newborn by the start of next week!
We still don’t have a lot prepared for welcoming our babe, but the wonderful Nuna company sent us an amazing Ivvi Savi stroller (pushchair), and a Sena travel crib (cot), which will, for the time being, be the baby’s bassinet/crib. When the boxes arrived on Tuesday, I about hugged the delivery man! I set it up the Sena yesterday morning, and the girls quickly took it over as a crib for their dolls. I have a feeling their baby brother is going to have to get used to sharing his swaddles, bottles, new stroller, crib, board books, and tiny clothes with his sisters and their dolls. It’s amazing how much more “ready” I feel to have this baby now that we have someplace to set him down!
The freezer here is tiny and doesn’t allow for my usual about to have a baby cooking and stocking the freezer extravaganza, but the fridge is stocked with simple ingredients for simple dinners. I’ve had a really hard here time finding ingredients for most of my “go to” meals, and have spent the past few months coming up with new go to meals. I feel like my draw towards innovative cooking has had to be put on a hold a bit due to the challenge of finding ingredients (that I seriously took for granted back home), and the fact that the convection oven seems to insist on torching about everything I attempt to bake or roast.
I’m finding that if I stick to much more basic recipes and meals like tuna noodle casserole, sausage lentil soup, and roasted chicken, I’m much less likely to end up in tears (although, it’s still pretty likely regardless of the success of the dish, given my current hormonal state). If you were to ask Kyle how many times he’s found me weeping in the kitchen over a pan of dry brownies, a garbage bin full charred root vegetables, or an overcooked chicken, he would say, “A lot.”
For the most part I’m finding the stove top to be much more controllable and predictable, so I prefer to make dinner with a pots and pans “on the hob”, as they say here. One of the easiest things I’ve started making regularly, is pasta with herbs and garlic breadcrumbs. I begin with salty water boiling away, ready to cook my pasta – any type of pasta will do and the kids love macaroni so we do that, and a non-stick skillet over medium heat with a small pool of olive oil warmed through. Into that pool I toss some breadcrumbs and dried herbs, allowing them to begin toasting before I add in lots of garlic. The fragrant, toasty breadcrumbs are then simply tossed with the al dente pasta, and a bit of pasta water and served with some grated Parmesan cheese (which I know is not traditional, but I just can’t eat pasta without a little salty Parmesan!), lemon zest, a few more of the breadcrumbs, a hefty drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of flakey salt. The finished result also benefits from a handful of thawed frozen pea for a bit of color and pop, or can be topped with a lacy-edged olive oil fried egg. The whole dinner takes about 20 minutes to make. With meals like that in the queue, who needs a fully stocked chest freezer?
PASTA WITH HERBS AND GARLIC BREADCRUMBS
1 lb. pasta
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley (or a small palmful minced fresh parsley)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes
olive oil fried eggs (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
In a non-stick skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is just starting to shimmer, add in the breadcrumbs and dried herbs, stirring to coat them in the oil.
When they are just to turn a light golden brown, use your spatula to move the breadcrumbs to the outside of the pan, leaving an exposed space in the center. Pour another tablespoon of olive oil into the center of the pan and allow it to heat up a bit before adding the minced garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you’re using them. Gently sauté the garlic for a minute or so until fragrant, then mix the garlic into the breadcrumbs.
Stir occasionally until the breadcrumbs are deep, warm caramel color, and smell wonderfully toasty. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a large bowl and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper (skip the back pepper if you used red pepper flakes). Scoop out about 1/2 cup of the breadcrumbs and set aside for topping the pasta.
Cook your pasta to al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta water.
Add the pasta to the large bowl with the breadcrumbs and begin to toss it together, adding splashes of the pasta water as needed to help the breadcrumbs adhere to the pasta. Toss in the peas, lemon zest, and fresh parsley if you have it on hand.
Transfer the pasta to serving bowls, drizzle with a bit more olive oil, top with a sprinkle of Parmesan, an extra bit of breadcrumbs, and a pinch of flake salt.
Serve on it’s own or top it with an olive oil fried egg.
PASTA WITH GARLIC AND HERB BREADCRUMBS
We’ve been pretty much homebound the past couple of weeks, which is par for the course this time of year. Last weekend I had a round of preterm contractions that left us all a bit rattled and motivated; nothing will kick you into gear like thinking your little bundle might just arrive sooner than you expected! I should know by now that that’s a possibility since I had similar experiences with the girls. But, alas…
We don’t have so much as a bassinet, diapers, or baby wipes in the house – although I do have a laundry basket of clean, folded, newborn clothes tucked away in our closet. It’s strange because as much as I want to nest and prepare for our baby’s arrival, we still feel somewhat-not-at-home here, and that has made it hard for me to nest and for me to create a space and prepare for the baby. So, while we still have a completely bare nursery with wall to wall mauve carpeting, I allowed those six hours of contractions to motivate me to log in to our Amazon account and get the basics lined up. Slowly but surely the deliveries have started arriving and by the end of the week we’ll have our stash of newborn diapers, a new booster seat for Gigi so the babe has her carseat to ride home from the hospital in, and baby wipes. The basics will be covered, and we’ll figure out where to go from there as needed. Even though this is my third baby, in so many ways it feels like it’s my first.
Another cause for our current lay-low-lifestyle is that the kids have gotten knocked down by their first major cold of the season. High fevers, coughs, and sore throats call for spending lots of time in our pajamas, making chicken stock, binge watching Curious George, lots of essential oils rubbed on chests and backs, and early bedtimes.
In the midst of our quarantine, we managed to pull together a little Thanksgiving dinner for the four of us on Sunday, and so have been nibbling at leftover stuffing and apple cobbler into the start of the week. But today the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, and I’m mapping out what to make for the remainder of the week. I have no idea what’s for dinner tonight, but I do know that we will be making a loaf of banana bread this afternoon, an activity that has brought me untold comfort in our few months here in England.
Finding little comforts is what I’m all about at the moment. The baby’s nursery might not be complete (today or ever), but there will be banana bread. Aside from the one proper cookbook that made the suitcase cut (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), only a few food memoirs came along for the journey. Most notably, and most in rotation, is Molly Wizenberg’s wonderful A Homemade Life. I’ve made her banana bread recipe at least a dozen times since we moved. The recipe calls for chocolate chips and crystallized ginger, and it’s great with both, one or the other, or without the edition of either which is how I find myself making it most of the time.
There’s something resourceful and comforting about making banana bread – even if you find yourself buying extra bananas just to let them turn overripe on the counter, or find yourself marking perfectly edible bananas with a marker with phrases like “Don’t eat me!” and “I’m for banana bread!”
I love the way that banana bread smells when it’s baking. I love the way that the recipe for it has become so familiar that I almost don’t have to look at it. I love that the ingredients are always on hand as long as you have those bananas at the ready. Mostly, I love that the girls love to make it with me and I feel so much like a “mom” when we are making it together, and even more like a “mom” when we’re sitting together eating warm, steaming, fragrant slices of it with glasses of cold milk in the middle of the afternoon… as we will be doing, yet again, about one hour and a half from now.
MOLLY WIZENBERG’S BANANA BREAD
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and then cooled slightly
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed banana (from about 3 large ripe bananas)
1/4 cup well-stirred whole-milk plain yogurt (not low or nonfat)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Set a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350F. Grease a standard-sized (about 9 by 5 inches) loaf pan with cooking spray or butter.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger and whisk well to combine. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla and stir to mix well. (The same fork works fine for this.)
Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients, and stir gently with a rubber spatula, scraping down the sides as needed, until just combined. Do not overmix. The batter with be thick and somewhat lumpy, but there should be no unincorporated flour. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.
Bake into the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 mins to 1 hour. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, tent with aluminum foil.
Cool the loaf in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Then tip out onto the rack, and let it cool completely before slicing – unless you absolutely can’t help yourself, in which case, dig in.
MOLLY WIZENBERG’S BANANA BREAD