Sunday, July 23, 2017

Best in Show



 The end of July signals a big event in our home.  It marks the middle of summer of vacation and elicits excitement, joy and sometimes, tears when the Barnstable County Fair is set up for a week at the edge of town.
  The barren land of the dry, dusty fairground becomes alive with the Zipper, Ferris wheel, fun houses, games with loud hawkers trying to get anyone to play for a huge stuffed animal and most often, lose.  Carnival treats: cotton candy, fried dough, Dell's Lemonade, ice cream sundaes, pulled pork, fried chicken and french fries.  Vendors show off everything from handmade silver jewelry to hot tubs and vacuum cleaners.  Livestock barns filled with cows, horses, hatching baby chicks, rabbits and exotic petting zoos.  Even live acts of has-been or up-and-coming singers and bands entertain the crowds.  But none of that is on my kids' minds.
  They are ready for competition.
  Adult and youth exhibits of amateur artwork, gardening, cooking, needlepoint even 4-H and science are set up in the halls just inside the main gate.  This is where the action really happens.  Ava and Declan allow me to bring in a few pieces they make in art class through out the year and Declan may decide to build a project out of Legos but where the kids really want to shine is in the baking department.  And it can get ugly in our kitchen.
  I know I have myself to blame.  I am the one who can't wait to bake something I deem to be spectacular and enter in the Adult exhibit, hoping for a top prize of my own.  Val is the queen of blue ribbons, state awards and Best in Show prizes for everything from her homemade sliced white bread to expertly knit baby blankets and garden grown raspberries the size of a giant's thumb.  So, I thought it would be fun to get my children involved.
  Not the greatest idea.
  These two are close in age, going head to head in the same group.  Their competitive natures rival Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Superman and Lex Luthor.  And this year,they both wanted to make cupcakes.
  This is understandable as Ava, last year, created a cupcake that Hostess would be proud to market.  The silky frosting, creamy filling and devil's food cake won her not only a blue ribbon but also a Best in Show for the kids' baking category.  No small feat.  We were all very proud.  Ava was elated.  She had not only beaten the competition but best of all, she blew her little brother's entry out of the water.
  But this year, Declan had his heart set on such a prize. I was fearful for him to go up against the cupcake champ.  But he kept insisting.  He wanted to make a cupcake with a toasted marshmallow on top.  I did not think it was worthy of top prize.  Ava wanted to make a chocolate cupcake that had M&M's hidden inside.  The candy spilled out after the first bite much like a pinata after being hit hard enough and breaks open.  This sweet treat, topped with fluffy buttercream and a sprinkling of M&M's was sure to garner praise.  But a cupcake with just a marshmallow on top?  Declan was sure to be disappointed and I did not want to deal with the moodiness and potential tears.
  He was not convinced when I suggested a brownie entry.  Not just any brownie, something fancy.  Like Rocky Road, studded with chocolate chips and mini marshmallows.  The judges would surely think it was a hit.
  Declan was not convinced.  He wanted a huge marshmallow toasted on top.  This was his vision.  He wasn't about to budge.
  We compromised.  A brownie with graham cracker crumbs on top and, O.K. a huge toasted marshmallow on each square.  We tested it out.  They looked and tasted pretty good.  I was just glad he would not be in direct competition with his 13 year old sister who is becoming quite a baker.
  On the first night of the fair, we did our usual routine.  Straight through the main gate to the exhibitor halls to check to see if anyone won anything.  Then off to a dinner of way to much junk food and lots of rides to work off our meal.  I tried to pace the kids to look at all the artwork as they became excited over a red ribbon for Declan's Lego fidget spinner and Ava's blue for her clay birdhouse.  But they ran ahead over to the baked goods display.  I wanted to be the buffer, just in case of disappointment.   I really wanted to avoid the whole thing all together.  It's hard to be exited for a winner and console the one who fell short, when they are both your children.
  Shocked and excited, the kids both won blue ribbons for their individual categories. As their mother I was relieved that no one would be mad or sad while we spent a night at the fair.  But wait, I felt this wave of relief to soon.   Ava had the look on her face that only comes from being angry at her younger brother.  My eyes followed her icy stare and landed on Declan's beaming face as he pointed to the large, red, white and blue ribbon for his marshmallow topped brownies: Best in Show.



Super S'Mores Brownies
(Make 9 large brownies)

6 graham crackers, crushed
1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
14 teaspoon baking powder
5 jumbo marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease an 8x8 pan and sprinkle 1/2 of the crushed graham crackers as if flouring the pan. Reserve the rest of the graham crackers for the topping.  Melt butter in a medium sized sauce pan.  Remove from heat.  Add sugar, eggs and vanilla.  Beat to combine.  Add cocoa, flour, salt and baking powder.  Mix well.  Pour batter over crumbs in pan.  Top batter with remaining graham cracker crumbs.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Do not over bake.  Cool completely.

Cut brownies into desired serving size.  Place each brownie on a lined baking sheet.  Cut each marshmallow in half horizontally and place 1/2 on each brownie with the sticky side down.  Place brownies under broiler for 3-5 minutes until marshmallows are golden brown.  Cool and serve.  Enjoy!

-Declan Norris, age 11


M&M PiƱata Cupcakes
(Makes 12)


For the Cupcakes:
3 ounces of semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¾ cup brewed coffee, still hot
¾ cup bread flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


For Vanilla Buttercream:
1 ½ sticks of unsalted butter
3 cups sifted powdered sugar
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons whole milk
½ cup Crisco


Make the Cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners. Place the chocolate and cocoa in a medium bowl. Pour the coffee over the mixture and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Whisk the mixture gently until smooth, then transfer to the refrigerator to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
Whisk the oil, eggs, vinegar and vanilla extract into the cooled chocolate mixture until smooth. Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture and whisk until smooth.
Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups. Bake cupcakes until set and just firm to the touch, 15-20 minutes. Let the cupcakes cool in the tin on a wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Remove each cupcake from the tin, set on the wire rack, and let cool completely before filling and frosting, about 1 hour.
Assemble the Cupcakes: Using a small, sharp knife, cut the centers out of the cooled cupcakes, going about two-thirds of the way down. Save the part you cut out. Fill the cut-out insides with mini M&Ms. When filled, the M&Ms should almost reach the top of the cupcake.
Once all the cupcakes have been filled, slice off the smooth top of the piece you cut out. Replace the smooth top over the M&Ms.
Make the Buttercream: Use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, powdered sugar, salt, vanilla, and milk and Crisco.

After filling the cupcakes, Use a frosting knife, spread a good amount of frosting on top of the cupcakes, being careful not to move the removed cupcake top around. No need to let the frosting set, but any cupcakes not being eaten right away should be stored in an airtight container, and if it's the summertime, in the refrigerator.


Monday, July 3, 2017

Fireworks

 Around here, the July 4th fireworks are a big deal.  Money is raised all year by gathering dollars and loose change in covered coffee cans at the cash registers of small businesses all around town and the selling of t-shirts and hats to commemorate the event.  This cash collection funds the barge full of pyrotechnics that will be towed out into Vineyard Sound in the hazy summer afternoon before letting off the massive display after dark.  Hoards of people descend along the beaches on that side of Falmouth. From Menahaunt, Bristol, Falmouth Hieghts and Surf Drive beach and everywhere in between, there is not an inch of sand to be had as the throngs arrive to claim their turf as early as 5:00 pm, hours before the event takes place.  People lay out towels, blankets and coolers full of beer and juice boxes.  These campers are here for the long haul.  The first burst of fireworks won't begin until at least 9:00 pm, well after they have drank through all of their supply and past everyone little person's bedtime.  There will be lot's of crying and the occasional fight will break out over space or loud comments and everyone will need to use the bathroom.  But they will persevere.  And the show will be fantastic, exhilarating and loud, as long as the fog doesn't roll in to spoil the view.  After the show is a test for all men, women and children. The traffic is unreal.  At least an hour of gridlock snaking down every windy beach road to finally get back on the highway on the edge of town.  They might get home by midnight, if they are lucky.
  I can't stand it.
  It's not that I don't like the sensational burst of patriotic red, white and blue in the night sky, feeling the boom in my chest as each one goes off, anticipating the glorious burst then watching as it drips and drops into the soft edges of the skyline.  Once, Rob and I were on our way back to Val's house after seeing a movie when we spotted fireworks being shot off in the distant sky.  We quickly pulled the car over and enjoyed the show on a grassy hill of the golf course adjacent to the theater.  Other people did the same: a couple here, a family of four there, spilled out of their cars to catch the sight.  All gathered at the spur of the moment to enjoy just that- a fleeting moment in time.  No haggling for space or hours waiting.  A surprise fireworks show glimpsed between the trees on a warm summer night.  Now that's my kind of experience.
  So, I say "No, Thank you." to the damp, salty, night air, the whiny, tired children, the loud drunks and the sand fleas.  I will avoid the massive crowd at all costs again, this year.  Perhaps, from another part of town, in my travels this summer, I will by chance see some explosions of color in the night sky.  Until then, I will continue to listen to the Falmouth fireworks in the far distance on the 4th of July.



Patriotic Fireworks Bark

1  12 oz. package white chocolate chips (Ghirardelli)
2 packages red Pop Rocks
2 packages blue Pop Rocks

Heat oven to 300 degrees
Pour white chocolate chips onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Heat chocolate in oven for 3-5 minutes until the chips begin to melt.  Remove from oven and smooth out chocolate with a rubber spatula.  Sprinkle Pop Rocks on top.  Slide chocolate covered parchment off pan and allow to cool completely.  Once cool and dry, break up chocolate into large pieces.  Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ruthless Gardening



 I am impatient, critical, when all I can really do is let it all go.  I want everything to be perfect.  As if I know what perfect is.  I long for my house, my life, my world to be organized, neat and tidy.  And because I am the one who plants, weeds and waters, I want my garden to be exactly as I envision it: in neat little rows.  These delusions are my potential downfall.  Especially when it comes to nurturing plants outdoors.  Every year, I think that if I control the variables, or at least try to, that I will be guaranteed the results I seek.  But just like any living thing, plants will behave exactly as they need to in order to survive or die according to Mother Nature's plan.  No one ever consults me.
  I thought I was so awesome, planting cucumbers from seed.  I started them early, indoors.  I misted them daily with a spray bottle.  I rotated them in the sun.  I finally planted them into the ground and waited for them to grow.  After some heavy rainfall that seemed to last for days and days, I inspected them last Saturday morning to find that the tender leaves had been eaten on most of the fledgling plants. Only a stem left.  Dammit all!  I called Val immediately.  I needed answers, solutions and remedies...FAST!  She is far more knowledgeable and sympathetic in this department than Google could ever be.  In the early days of the internet, before Google took over the world, me and all my friends used to refer to her as "askval.com". She has proven to know what you need when you need it and give you a pep talk over the phone as well.
"It's probably slugs.  I will send Dad over with some diatomaceaous earth.  Sprinkle it all around your plants.  The tiny particles will lacerate their little bodies and they will crawl away and die."
I think her favorite part about giving gardening advice regarding pests is describing how they will suffer.  Disturbing.
  Within ten minutes, my dad was knocking at my door with an extra large Quaker Oats container labeled in black Sharpie: DIATOMACEAOUS EARTH  NOT POISONOUS  Still in my pajamas, teeth yet to be brushed, I was so mad at those leaf eating slugs, I dumped more than the Val recommended amount on and around those cucumber sprouts.  It looked like there was a King Arthur flour accident in the tiny garden.
  Aside from a wet and cold spring, my little garden is limping along.  Every morning, I get up, pour a cup of coffee and peek out over the deck in my stocking feet to inspect.  I don't know what I expect to see differently from the night before.  Perhaps some sort of miracle growth spurt like Jack's bean stock?  But I know what I don't want to see.  I don't want to see a rabbit hopping away after enjoying a breakfast of sweet pea tendrils and tiny pea leaves.  "BASTARDS!" I yell as I grab for the phone to place my call.  This time I am instructed to head to the local garden center for something that will irritate the nostrils of any four legged, cotton tailed intruders.
The lady at the cash register inspected my purchase as she rang it up.
"You should have a dog that can help you with this problem." she said
Yeah, I know.  Although our sweet dog, Stella is almost 15 and gets a pass on every dog "duty" now that she is old, she was never any good at keeping rabbits, squirrels or chipmunks away.  I couldn't wait to get home and shake my new pest eradicating product all over the remaining plants in my garden.
I am becoming ruthless and irritated over this process of growing seeds and plants.  It may be all in vain.  But I wait and coddle, weed and threaten anyone who dares step on a seedling.  Maybe, just maybe I will be able to harvest something soon out of all of this madness called gardening.