When Life Gives You a Broken Oven…

…make no-bake cookies and a gigantic box space ship. At least, that’s what we did.

Two weeks ago, I mixed up a batch of coffee cake from a new recipe (which was delicious, but sadly in the kerfuffle I lost closed the tab with the recipe, alas). I turned on our oven and it made the usual gas burning sound. When I put the cake into the oven, it didn’t feel particularly hot. I figured, “It’s only 350; that’s why.” Not that I’d hang out in a 350-degree oven, or anything, but in the scheme of baking it’s just normal.

Well, 40 minutes later, I checked on the coffee cake and found it entirely batter still. I mean, it actually still sloshed when I moved it. A quick phone call to Mom confirmed that her oven was available. Benji and I zipped over there, still wearing our pajamas.

Well, actually, zip doesn’t describe it so well as delicately minced along. The drive proved surprisingly harrowing, with a very full pan of liquid sloshing first one way and then another as we traversed the innumerable up-and-down hills between our house and my parents’ house. I spent a good portion of the drive leaned over, trying to level the pan while still seeing out the windshield well enough to drive. Good thing I didn’t get pulled over.

Anyway, Mom had neglected to mention she had guests arriving within 30 minutes of our starting the 40-minute bake of our coffee cake. Needless to say, I might have chosen to wear regular clothes and brush my hair if I’d known that.

While Benji and I baked the cake, Ian researched new ovens. We easily chose to replace our old one, which had previously broken once already. When the repair man fixed it at the time, maybe two years ago, he mentioned that parts weren’t available because the oven was too old. On the bright side, he said, it was so low-bidder that the control panel was extremely simple. So simple that the repair man simply rewired the control panel so our “bake” setting worked. We agreed at the time that, if the oven broke again, we would retire it for good.

Armed with Ian’s research, during nap time Dad and I went to Albert Lee and looked at ovens. We found one that got good Consumer Reports ratings, and (only briefly distracted by the $4200 Wolf range) ordered it. They scheduled delivery for November 17, 10 days later; but said we needed to find someone else to install it, as their installers couldn’t come for a month and a half (!!). I privately wondered whether we’d have gotten an installer sooner if we’d bought the high-end range. Fortunately, Pat Zeller, the guy who did our fireplace, was available and came to help us out.

Because Pat loves cookies, I made a batch of Ian’s favorite cookie of all time, Chocolate Dreams.
Chocolate Dreams
This sparked a discussion about the definition of candy versus cookie, as Chocolate Dreams are pretty much entirely sugar and cocoa powder, with milk and Karo syrup to hold in some oats. Either way, they’re delicious. Turns out, Pat doesn’t care about no-bake cookies, so that just meant more for us.

On Thursday, the delivery guys arrived with our oven. When they asked if I wanted it in the box or not, I immediately realized that we absolutely did want that enormous box. Then, in a burst of (if I may abandon modesty for a moment) brilliance, I asked if they had any extra big boxes in the back of the truck. And they gladly handed over a huge refrigerator box along with our range. I gave them some Chocolate Dreams.

Boxed Range

These two boxes we turned into a really great box fort, currently a space ship. You can see Benji’s “bed” on the side, outside the space ship. I don’t ask how that works.
Box Spaceship

Inside the Space Ship

On Thursday, we got the range unpacked, but unfortunately Pat wasn’t able to come to install it until Friday morning.
Unpacking the Range

New Range Installed!
But fortunately Pat showed up and got it installed in plenty of time for me to bake for our “Friendsgiving Dinner” with our church group. I got a good trial of the new range as through the afternoon I cooked:

  • Mashed potatoes
  • Steamed carrots
  • Bacon
  • Roasted beets
  • Homemade dinner rolls

It was a veritable glut of oven-use after nearly two weeks without! And everything turned out delicious. Either that, or my friends were fibbing. But, in the ultimate tests — cooking bacon, and baking dinner rolls — the new range worked beautifully.

The new range has nice dual-size burner that boils things really fast with the inner small ring and the outer big ring both on; or simmers things really low with just the small inner ring on. I’m going to have to get used to burners of different sizes, but I think I’m going to like the broader range (har har) of this new stovetop.

The oven is a convection bake, but I didn’t use the convection setting for any of our baking yesterday. I need to experiment a bit to see what kind of difference it makes to baking time. But the oven heated up quickly, which was nice; and I think I’m going to like the rolling-sliding rack that lets you slide things in and out more easily than moving the whole shelf.

So, back to baking for me! Hooray! Let me know if you need any baked goods. I’m going to be keen for baking the next few weeks, I’m sure.

Two Sweet Round Things

I got some new wheels for my pink bike, the first step towards a significant parts upgrades I’m planning. It’s been a long time since I did any upgrades on this bike. I’ve been waiting for good, reasonably-priced road disc wheels for a number of years, and I’m pretty excited about these.

image

I’m also excited in a whole different way about our first pumpkin pie of the season, made following (mostly) Martha’s recipe for pumpkin from scratch. Deborah and I spent a good part of the morning making these pies, starting with a whole sunshine Kabocha squash and ending with two lovely, delicious-looking pies.

image

I know what WE are having for dinner… And breakfast.

Snickerdoodly Perfection

Day’s Verse:
“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”
Mark 4:30-32

Snickerdoodly Perfection

What do we do when the weather switches from sunny perfection do drizzly reality? Make cookies. Such as, for example, the above-pictured perfect snickerdoodles. This recipe (below) came from a cookbook called The All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. It’s quite the hefty tome, elucidating on the art and science of cookie-making to an extent rarely seen outside of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In short, the cookbook is incredibly bossy. It starts off with a section detailing such crucial differences as how semi-sweet chocolate morsels are not equivalent to semi-sweet chocolate chips, and how they should not be lightly interchanged. Each recipe demands something outrageous, like that the flour should be freshly hand-ground by artisans in small, local mills no greater than 15 miles from the kitchen, to preserve freshness.

At first I scoffed at these strictures. Cookies are cookies. We’ve made innumerable batches of cookies substituting milk-chocolate for semi-sweet chocolate chips, white sugar for brown, granulated for decorator’s sugar, omitting nuts and berries, or tossing in whatever kind of oats we had, be they quick or slow.

But after following the directions in this cookbook exactly a couple times, I finally learned something amazing: The by-the-book cookies turned out better. Not just better. They turned out exceptionally delicious, the epitome of their type, wowing even jaded cookie snobs. In fact, they so far exceeded any such cookie I’d made before with more laissez-faire methods that I hardly recognized them as the same species of cookie.

All this to say that, if you try the recipe below, trust me: Follow the recipe exactly. Don’t skip a step, don’t fudge on the “resting” time, don’t pass on the lightly-greased hands, don’t shrug off turning the pan halfway through. It’s well worth the hoop-jumping to finally sink your teeth into a warm, golden example of cookie perfection.

Best-Ever Snickerdoodles

2 2/3 cups all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 cup sugar, combined with 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, for topping

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease several baking sheets or coat with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg; set aside.

In another large bowl, beat together the butter, sugar, and corn syrup until well blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well-blended and smooth. Beat in half the flour mixture until evenly incorporated. Stir in the remaining flour mixture until evenly incorporated. Let dough stand for 5 to 10 minutes, or until firmed up slightly. Put the topping in a shallow bowl.

Roll portions of the dough into generous 1 1/2-inch balls with lightly greased hands (the dough will be soft). Roll each ball in the topping. Place on the baking sheets, spacing about 2 1/4 inches apart. Using your hand, slightly pat down the tops of the balls.

Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 8 to 11 minutes, or until just light golden brown at the edges. Reverse the sheet from front to back halfway through baking to ensure even browning. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack and let stand until the cookies firm up slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to wire racks. Let stand until completely cooled. Let the baking sheets cool between batches to keep the cookies from spreading too much.

Store in an airtight container for up to 10 days or freeze for up to 2 months. (As if they’d last so long!)

Cookie Rhapsodizing

Day’s Verse:
Watch your words and hold your tongue;
you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

Proverbs 21:23

I was going to write a blog about my wet, miserable, all alone, cut-short bike ride, but who wants to read about that? Even I don’t. So we’ll move on to something nicer: Cookies.

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned the cookie cookbook Colleen and Jordan gave me for Christmas. I think I have. It’s large, dense, and starts off discussing the theory of cookies and then goes into seemingly excruciating picky detail about ingredients. Nearly every recipe calls for ingredients like light corn syrup or candied ginger, things I don’t think any normal household regularly keeps on hand. It sternly instructs new bakers to follow the recipes exactly the first time, and the way it’s written you get the sense that any future deviations from the recipe would probably be ill-considered, too.

Needless to say, I was intimidated. It’s taken me three months to bravely crack it open, and then finding a simple enough recipe with standard ingredients took some doing. So far I’ve made two recipes, exactly according to the recipe, and both have turned out not just good but fabulous. The first was a peanut cookie with molasses, and they turned out wonderful — unique, delicious, and yet not overpowering.

The second recipe I just baked tonight, a simple and basic oatmeal raisin cookie. I almost always add chocolate chips to such a recipe, but mindful of the stricture against such improvisation, I stuck with the recipe as written. WOW. They’re sweet, but not overly so; hearty and tending towards the snacklike, but definitely still desert; the raisins, soaked in hot water, are soft, a nice counterpoint to the walnuts; and they’re creamy, if a cookie can be described thus.

Here’s my ideal for a cookie: Crispy with a little crunch as you bite into it, soft and gooey in the middle, but still holding together (cookies that droop or ooze when you’ve bitten them are undercooked, and although enjoyable aren’t quite perfect). These oatmeal raisin cookies may well be my current zenith in cookie-making, the epitome of the Perfect Cookie.

And I have enough to share.

PS – The time change has left me all discombobulated. We forgot about it until I woke up this morning at 6:15 and suddenly realized it was actually 7:15. It also reminded me how arbitrary time was, and made me think how funny it is that we all just agree to fabricate an hour out of nowhere every year — and it works. We say it’s 8:30 pm, and as long as we all agree, it is 8:30 pm. As I said: Funny.

Things 1, 2, 3, and 4

Day’s Verse:
You don’t want to squander your wonderful life,
to waste your precious life among the hardhearted.
Why should you allow strangers to take advantage of you?
Why be exploited by those who care nothing for you?

Proverbs 5:9-10ish

Thing 1
Sun breaks yesterday.
Winter Garden

Thing 2
I tried making the cheesy bread Ben mentioned on his blog last week.
Crusty Cheesy Bread
I decided to keep the loaf sealed, rather than cutting it in quarters or half as the recipe said. You can see the result. Overall as bread it turned out well; the crispy crust, fairly light innards (although I still prefer the no-knead bread for interior lightness). As far as the cheese goes, it ended up with just a thick slab of cheese right down the middle. The recipe calls for you to flatten the dough into a rectangle, sprinkle the cheese, and then seal it up again. If I did this again, I’d probably roll the bread out a bit thinner and then do multiple rolls to get a swirl of cheese in the middle, like you do with cinnamon rolls. We enjoyed this bread with homemade tomato soup that I’ve had frozen since summer. I can hardly wait for tomato season again.

Thing 3
The first Bike Alliance teacher training is in 10 days. This morning just before I woke up, I dreamed I was back at WPI and I had overloaded my class schedule. I was overwhelmed with the number of papers I had to write. I felt panicky and unable to handle everything. Finally I gave up and started trying to decide which classes to drop so I could keep up with everything. Subconscious message, you suppose? I can tell you right now that every time I think about the first training in Mattawa — and, indeed, the next trainings in Lynden, Sedro-Wooley, and Auburn — my mouth goes dry, my stomach clenches, and a little voice inside my head starts screaming in terror. The voice keeps saying “I’m not ready I’m not ready I’m not ready” and then follows up with “and I won’t be ready, I’m going to fail, the trainings will be a total failure and the teachers will leave not having gotten anything out of it and I’ll look incompetent and…” –and it goes on. Whenever this happens, I take a big breath, tell myself, “Calm down, it’ll be OK,” and then bury my head in the sand.

Thing 4
The sand has, lately, been The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at 1,400 or so pages and is thick enough that I had to prop it on something to read it comfortably. My prior knowledge of the story came entirely from the 2002 movie of that name. Let the record show that the movie is to the book what sugar is to a cake. The movie took the first 100 pages of the book and discarded the remaining 1,300 pages.

In the book, Edmond Dantès thinks of himself as an instrument of Divine retribution against the people who wrongfully imprisoned him; it’s not just a personal vendetta, but a God-given mandate. There’s no romantic Hollywood ending where he kills the bad guy and gets Mercédès back. Instead, the Count maneuvers the four people who betrayed him into horrible deaths (or madness, in the case of one) after taking away everything they loved. Mercédès and her son (not, incidentally, secretly Edmond’s son as the movie had it) end up destitute and miserable.
After doing an unnecessarily elaborate good deed, the 40-year-old Count sails off into the sunset with a teenage slave-girl.

Most of the time the Count is a character in the story, but the reader spends more time following the lives of people the Count is ruining than the Count himself. By the end the reader feels ambivalent: Whey the slave-girl says “Oh you’re so good, you’re an angel!” I have to admit I thought, “That’s not the term I’d apply!” The plot is dense, complicated, follows the history of at least two totally incidental characters in detail unknown to today’s novelists, and leaves the reader breathing a huge sigh at the end.

Now that I’m at the end, I can’t avoid the things I’ve been avoiding: Bonney Lake bike audit report edits and figuring out the nitty-gritty details of the teaching I’m committed to. Last night Ian reminded me, “You’re doing this because you want experience teaching bike classes so you can go out on your own.” Right. That’s right, that’s why I’m doing this. …I sure hope it’s worth it.

Cookie Science

Day’s Verse:
“Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD.
Zechariah 2:10

Introduction
A cookie recipe was received and tested. The recipe as written included directions for 3 different baking temperatures and times. This study evaluated all three combinations, seeking to determine the best combination. Subjects were randomly selected and subjectively evaluated cookies, providing feedback on preference.

Methods
One batch of dough was prepared, strictly following the directions.

The dough was divided roughly into thirds. Each third was further divided into cookie-sized units using two teaspoons. Two batches of cookies were put onto black bakeware cookie sheets; the third batch was reserved, and put on a used black bakeware sheet after the first batch had been removed and the cookie sheet had cooled.

One batch was baked at 325°F for 12 minutes; the next batch at 350°F for 9 minutes; and the final batch at 375°F for 8 minutes. All cookies were immediately removed from cookie sheets and cooled completely on wire racks.

Subjects were provided with a representative cookie sample from each batch and polled on preference. This was not a blind taste-test, and subjects were aware of time/temperature combinations while consuming cookies.

Results
The first batch, baked at 325°F for 12 minutes, appeared slightly set and golden-brown all over when removed from the oven. They were soft when removed from the cookie sheet. When cooled, they appeared moderately crunchy.

The second batch, baked at 350°F for 9 minutes, appeared unset and very lightly golden around the edges when removed from the oven. They were very soft when removed from the cookie sheet. When cooled, they appeared crunchy around the edges but lightly cooked in the middle.

The third batch, baked at 375°F for 8 minutes, appeared slightly set and lightly golden all over when removed from the oven. They were very soft when removed from the cookie sheet. When cooled, they appeared crunchy around the edges and cooked through the middle.

So far, subject n = 4*. All subjects agree that cookies baked at 350°F for 9 minutes were most delicious, exhibiting desirable cookie qualities of crunchy outer edge and soft interior. Cookies baked at 325°F for 12 minutes and cookies baked at 375°F for 8 minutes were both deemed overall too crunchy. Cookies baked at 325°F for 12 minutes were considered crunchiest and least desirable, while cookies baked at 375°F for 8 minutes were considered reasonably good, but not as desirable as the cookies baked 350°F for 9 minutes.

Conclusions
Cookies in this recipe appear to bake best at 350°F for 9 minutes. Future research into lower cook times at 325°F may provide additional data points. All data are subject to suspicion due to the low n value. Additional subjects are requested for participation if available in the next 24 hours.**

* Including one self-professed “cookie snob,” who is discriminating about cookies.
** In English: This is your chance to have free cookies! Call me if you want to try the three cookies and give your input on which is best.