ain’t no party like a half-ass party

I have found, much to my satisfaction, that as I’ve gotten older I have become a much happier hostess.  As my poor husband and best friends can attest, entertaining at my house used to be a very sad, stressful affair, where I anguished over every detail of the planning and would basically curl up into the fetal position about ten minutes before the event, terrified that either nobody would come or everybody would come. There was much cleaning and cooking and scurrying about the house muttering to myself about place settings.  These days, I’ve (pretty much) learned to actually take the advice that moms throughout the ages have given to their daughters: if people are judging you on something stupid like how dirty your floor is, they aren’t your friends anyway.  Especially now that entertaining involves hordes of small children coming over, I really don’t even bother cleaning or planning that much.  I just want to hang out with my friends, not lie to them about what day to day life is like.  Having said all that, I am still the weirdest half-assed overachiever ever, so a typical get together for me is as follows.

Yesterday I had a “happy hour playdate”, in which I provided some drinks and snacks and over the course of a few hours some lovely moms brought their hooligans over and we let them wrassle around in the backyard while we drank wine in the sun.  It was pretty glorious, if I do say so myself. When I hatched this scheme I envisioned myself having basically all the preparation done by the middle of the week, because I knew that I’d have my little lady with me all day Thursday and Friday and I wanted to actually hang out with her rather than deposit her in front of the TV while I frantically finished up the food.  Of course, that’s never how my life happens.  I did manage to keep my stuff on the fairly simple side for once, instead of hollowing out grapes and filling them with blue cheese or something equally ridiculous (sorry to the person who had to help me with that in 2005.)  I was planning to make a zucchini ricotta spread, to get rid of zucchini.  Bake some no-knead bread to go with it.  A big plate of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.  And deviled eggs.

I have a cheese making set that my ever-supportive husband got me for Christmas and only used once and I have been really wanting to use again, so I thought I’d make the mozzarella and the ricotta, but in a rare show of common sense I decided to only make one and chose ricotta because last time I made mozz and it was not especially successful.  I thought I’d have a relaxing Wednesday and make the cheese, but somehow it didn’t happen that way and I found myself at 9 pm on Wednesday night realizing that it was now or never.  So, glass of wine in hand, I dumped a gallon of milk into my dutch oven and hoped for the best.

The directions made it seem like it would be pretty quick, the milk just had to come to 180 to 185 degrees and as soon as the curds separated from the why, I was to take it off the heat.  I was supposed to make sure there was no “milky whey”. Curds started forming pretty quickly, but after the first few the whole process seemed to sort of stagnate.  I was kind of hoping that at 180 it was just going to suddenly clump up and the endpoint would be obvious, but at 185 it looked…basically the same as it did at 85.

At this point it was probably 10 pm, and I was beginning to hate the cheese and my life. My husband had long since gone to bed and it was just me, my wine, some semi-clumpy milk and Facebook.  (I did think to make the dough for my no-knead bread during this time, feeling all smug about my late-night tipsy multitasking.)  I noted that the directions said to make sure not to let it scorch so I started stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan a little more vigorously, but still the clumps were starting to get a little brown.  And still, the whey still appeared milky to me.  I just thought there would be a clear distinction – clear liquid vs. clumps, but no.  Eventually, knowing that it still had to sit for 15 to 30 minutes after I took it off the heat, I just gave up and dumped it into my cheesecloth.  About 15 minutes later, it looked like this:

And it tasted like…solid, chewy milk.  It had the right texture and everything, but it was just basically flavorless.  I put it into the fridge and went to bed.

I had planned to make the zucchini spread the next day, and also to bake the bread.  Neither of those things happened because it was the best day ever and it was NONSTOP FUN ALL DAY.

Friday morning we had plans, so at noon I had three hours to bake the bread, make the zucchini spread, the tomato salad, and the deviled eggs, plus try to make my house somewhat presentable.

The no-knead bread is supposed to sit for eighteen hours, then get punched and sit for another two.  Eighteen hours after I made the dough, I was sitting under the stars at a farm with grilled corn, a beer, and some sweet friends.  I eventually punched it roundabout 40 hours after I started it.  I tasted it and it had a slightly tangy flavor, but other than that it seemed okay so I decided to go for it.  I didn’t have time to let it sit for two hours and then bake for 45 minutes so it sat for an hour instead.  This is why I love no-knead bread: the end result was just a kind of sourdough version of the regular bread with a more open crumb.  Genius! Homemade bread = success!

The ricotta came out of the fridge to go into the zucchini spread and had a really weird gummy texture, but I zipped the whole thing up in the food processor and it was delicious!  Homegrown zucchini + homemade ricotta = spread = success again!

Oh right, and somewhere in here during the week, I hardboiled a dozen eggs.  I literally don’t even remember when.  It was sometime during the day, and I didn’t have time to ice them down, so I just stuck them in a bowl of cold water into the fridge for, I don’t know at least three days?  Where they were still waiting for me Friday afternoon.   When I got chickens I had this great idea that deviled eggs was going to be my Signature Dish.  I was going to collect deviled egg dishes and everything.  Then I realized that hardboiling super fresh eggs actually kind of sucks.  I still do it, but I’m a little less enthusiastic about it.  I remember peeling Easter eggs when I was a kid and how it was really satisfying to see if you could get the whole shell off in just a couple pieces.  Fresh hardboiled egg shells come off in thousands of pieces. It is so time-consuming and tedious, and the eggs always look like a fifteen year old’s acne-scarred face.  They are not pretty.  I thought I’d make them more appealing by at least piping the filling out of a pastry bag, but I didn’t mash the yolks enough and a big yolk clod clogged up the bag and I ended up with a yolk volcano out of the top of the bag and all over my hands.  The first one was all twisty and lovely, but the rest were dumped in with a teaspoon as usual. But, hey they were delicious so whatev.  And!  This time I fancied ’em all up with some edible flowers.  Backyard eggs + homegrown edible flowers = success!

Finally, there is pretty much no way you can screw up a giant plate of backyard tomatoes with mozzarella and basil.  I mean…I ran out of the olive oil I was going to drizzle over it, but it still was pretty much heavenly.  And purdy too!  4 variety tomato platter = total success!

So, overall, even a half-assed party can be a success.  I invited some people I liked, made some food I was proud of, and allowed myself to relax once they got here.  I never did get to pick up the house at all though, so there were literally peas and Joe’s O’s all over the floor, and one 4 year old was overhead exclaiming, “There are a lot of dead plants in the front yard.”  True.  So true.  But the food was good, right?

you win some, you lose some

That’s really what this whole endeavor is about for me, actually.  My successes keep me from being too disheartened from my failures.  And amazingly, one of my consistent successes lately has been bread. Until today.

I have always been intrigued by this idea of baking all of one’s own bread.  I’m not sure why but there is a whole lot of emotion tied up in homemade bread for me.  It just seems so rustic, and lovely, and…unattainable.  Only fancy people bake bread at all, I thought.  And only REALLY fancy people bake all their own bread, every week.  The concept seemed truly laughable.

People:  I now bake all my own bread.

I know that I am late to the table on this whole No-Knead phenomenon.  Everyone’s been doing it for ages.  Well, I haven’t.  I’ve been doing it for a month and I am ecstatic.  I, in all my half-assedness, am capable of baking bread for my family every week.  And, oooohhh, this bread.  Not only is it easy, even fun, to make, but it truly rivals a five dollar loaf from a fancy bakery.  I won’t give you the directions, because it’s not my recipe, but I advise you, if you have any bread-making aspirations at all to follow the link and give it a go.

For me, I tend to mix up the dough on a Sunday night.  It literally takes all of two minutes, and you get this nice shaggy dough.  Everyone says shaggy…the recipe says shaggy, blogs all say shaggy.  You know why?  Because the dough is shaggy.  I just can’t think how else to describe it.

I leave it overnight, go off to school in the morning, come home for lunch and do the rest.  This is where I’m probably losing some of you, because you have full time jobs and are not home all afternoon on a Monday.  Do it on Saturday night, then.  In three weeks I’ll be back to my regular life and that’s what I’ll be doing and it will be fine.  I promise.

When I get home for lunch, my dough looks like this:

Yes.  These are two different bowls.  They are two different batches.

Dump the sticky mess out, move it around, let it rest, move it around some more, let it rest for two hours, preheat your oven and dutch oven, dump it in.  That’s it.  It actually even sounds more complicated that it is.  I would say it’s a total active time of maybe five minutes.  And here is the glorious part…it emerges looking like this:

The crust shatters as you bite into it. The crumb is perfect, with big airy holes just right for butter to ooze into.  And I have never, not once, screwed this up.  It must be foolproof.

I made a batch today.  When it was done, I made pita bread.  It did not go as well.  Not a surprise.

It’s yet another victim of my “I can make that better for cheaper” problem.  To be fair, we really do not have access to good pita around here.  So it was worth a go.  The only problem is that…they didn’t rise.  The recipe I was going off of included pictures of giant ballooning pitas in the oven.  I thought it would be really fun for my kid to watch them swell up in a matter of minutes, but as we stood there, staring into a 400 degree oven and sweating, she started asking, “What are they supposed to be doing?” Because, they were basically doing nothing.  Out of the eight I made, two had pathetic tiny bubbles off to the side, but certainly none of them expanded to the extent that I was expecting.

Those are some flaccid pita breads.

Happily, although they were limp, they were also fluffy and moist and flavorful,  words I would never apply to the stale, dry cardboard we get from the store.  So ultimately, it was worth it, if not a total success.  And I’m not disheartened because tomorrow morning we’ll have that beautiful loaf of fresh bread and I will remember that I am capable of magic sometimes.  The magic didn’t happen right away this time, but it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

why it’s worth it

Yesterday I processed sixteen pounds of peaches.  It really doesn’t sound like that much.  When I weighed out, I was disappointed.  I was hoping I’d picked twenty pounds or more.  In retrospect, if I had had twenty five pounds of peaches to deal with yesterday, I might have had a mental breakdown, so it would appear that I lucked out.  As I limped out of the house on the way to pick up my kid from school, I thought to myself, Who am I kidding with this stuff?  Why can I not just be a normal human being who buys the overpriced jam with mysterious ingredients and doesn’t think, I could make this better for cheaper?

Is all this even worth it?

Then last night as I uploaded pictures of the peach fiasco, I came upon this picture that I had taken just yesterday morning.  This is what we had for breakfast:

Fresh eggs from the chickens.  Homemade bread.  Homemade jam with strawberries we picked together.  And blueberries from the back yard.

Before you go getting all worried that I might not be as half-assed as I claim to be, I’ll just clarify.  When I gathered those eggs, there were nine in the laying basket because I hadn’t had time to bring eggs in for three days.  The bread was stale and could probably knock a person out cold if used as a weapon.  The jam is not really jam.  I like to call it “preserves” because it didn’t gel and is instead kind of a chunky strawberry syrup.  And half the blueberries are from the yard, but the other half are from the farmer’s market because usually berries don’t actually make it the hundred feet from the bush to the kitchen.

Despite all those caveats, I still feel pretty good that this is what I gave my kid for breakfast, and that she takes it for granted that this is the food we eat.  Also, it was delicious.  I think that sticky arms, a slight limp, and a kitchen that looks like a bomb went off in it are small prices to pay for the privilege of eating so well. So, once my peach leather has dehydrated, we’ll find out what a person can do with sixteen pounds of peaches, four hours, too much ambition and too little common sense.  In the meantime, as I try to complete the seven other things that were on my to-do list yesterday that didn’t get done, I will probably find myself asking myself at least once if it’s really worth it, and I will picture this:  a three year old with sleepy eyes and tousled hair, hands sticky with jam, face smeared with blueberries, shouting “Mama I love breakfast!” Yes, it is definitely worth it.