Choux Cake Challenge Accepted!

I did it! I recently opted-in to participate in a baking challenge on Baking on the 15th. The challenge works like this: Participants agree to bake the same recipe which has been selected in advance by the host. Each participant bakes the item and on the 15th of each month, the bakers post photos of their creations across their social media channels. We share stories of our experience and encourage one another’s passion for baking.

Today is the reveal day of my first baking challenge and I’m proud to say that, as far as I’m concerned, it was a complete success! At first I was a bit hesitant because the recipe called for an ingredient I’d never even heard of (ammonium carbonate) equipment I didn’t have (cake ring and sheet pans of the specified size) and a fairly complex-sounding method (even though I fancy myself a fairly competent and experienced baker). Bravely setting that all aside, however, I dove in – and boy, am I glad I did!

Amazon delivery. Let the baking begin!

I did a little research (because I’m a curious sort that way) on ammonium carbonate, then purchased it on good ol’ Amazon. That’s also where I bought a replacement springform pan, which I determined would serve well as a cake ring for the purposes of this challenge. Also included on that Amazon order was the nicest sheet pan I’ve ever owned – and obviously the largest – as, alas, it turned out to be too big to fit in my oven. Good thing I know they have an excellent exchange/return policy!

Preparing for greatness! Fun fact: there are 18 large eggs in a quart.

With the baking challenge deadline drawing near, it seemed I’d have to do some problem-solving as to what to bake my choux in. Upon my umpteenth reading of the recipe, I determined that there would be little problem portioning the dough out into smaller batches that would fit an existing sheet pan. So I baked each layer separately, rather than enough for two layers at a time. Although this solution necessitated double the baking time, perhaps it turned out to be a stroke of serendipity; I had no issue of gummy, undercooked choux that I have heard about from other bakers of this challenge. My smaller batch may have allowed for more thorough baking?

Perfectly baked choux!

I went all in and, despite warnings of the copious amount of dough it created, I made the full recipe. My initial plan was to make two complete cakes and “something as yet unspecified” with the extra third the choux cake did not require. Well, once I was in the trenches of baking, and realizing I didn’t have a second springform pan in which to build the second cake, it was “think on my feet” time once again. I did the “math” and realized that I already had begun the filling for two cakes so clearly I would have to find a use for the second half of that delightful strawberry concoction – because, boys and girls, nothing goes to waste in Gina’s kitchen. Cream puffs, I decided, were the solution. I watched a quick YouTube video on method and amount to pipe out for cream puffs – and away I went! Twenty four or so (some were taste-tested along the way, of course, so I lost actual count!) cream puffs later, the strawberry compote cream was used up – and the bowl licked clean (chef’s prerogative, am I right?).

Piped cream puffs

So, to review… One-third of the chox for the cake. One-third of the choux for cream puffs. And a third for…well, I was still unsure. So I reached out to the Baking on the 15th community and they came through for me! Courtney Nzeribe was kind enough to suggest I make gougeres (a word I honestly had to look up and am SO glad I did!) A gougere, I now know, is a cheese puff; choux with cheese mixed into the dough. Perfect – one batch of savory puffs coming up! I grated up some lustenberger cheese and added it to that last third of the choux and got busy with more piping! I baked up a couple batches of these puffs (to make certain they were edible) and, to our delight, they were absolutely delicious! Yet another batch of piped dough went into the freezer for future cheese puffs. I was feeling extremely successful, accomplished – and resourceful – for utilizing all that dough.

Baked cream puffs – light as a feather!

I was also feeling hungry. I’d begun my time in the kitchen at around 1:00 PM and here it was nearing 7:00. Time for a meal! I was struck simultaneously with these feelings:

    1. I have been in the kitchen for six solid hours. Enough with the cooking already!
    2. How silly to be surrounded by so much food and feel like you don’t have anything handy to eat!

Leave it to my logical better half to suggest the perfect solution to our hungriness – “do something” with the cheese puffs for dinner. Ah ha! It was positively a revelation! I scoured through the contents of the fridge in my mind and devised the following very simple and satisfying dinner: Scrambled eggs, pancetta and cream cheese stuffed into those cheesy puffs – yes, it was magical!

Egg & pancetta stuffed gougiers

Ok, back to the strawberry choux cake that started it all… C’est magnifique! It was important for me to follow the recipe as close to the letter as possible so that I felt that I accomplished the same challenge that was presented – and I did! I was frankly concerned when I began seeing photos of completed cakes that were taller than mine. I worried that I’d done something wrong and didn’t get good rise but I think they stacked more than two layers to gain extra height. Once I realized that, I felt good about my results. My pastry came out just beautifully – light and airy, just like it’s supposed to be! The filling is subtle, fluffy and just what you want mushed into those flaky layers! The whipped cream frosting tops it all with a light, warm vanilla sweetness.

Completed choux whole!

In addition to completing the challenge as presented, it was also fun to be able to “riff” on it and explore some creative detours with all that extra choux. I appreciated the opportunity to experience a technical baking project. The science of ammonium carbonate was new and fascinating to me (I look forward to discovering more ways to use it, lest it wither away in my baking cupboard). I’ve also never weighed my baking ingredients before. And I’ve never cracked so many eggs in one day! Making this cake was an adventure – a challenge, even – that gave me the gift of a day of unbridled excitement in my favorite room of the house. I would definitely make it again someday without reservation.

Choux interior and flaky, airy goodness!

And now… the challenge after the challenge is figuring out what to do with All. This. Cake!

Choux and a slice!

Posted in Inspiration, The personal development of Gina | 5 Comments

Baking Up Some Personal Growth

Grandma Bessie’s bread

Once a time a time, a young girl grew up in a house with a mom, a dad, a slew of siblings and a widowed grandma. Every Friday, that industrious grandma would bake loaves of her signature bread (also known as “Fireman’s Bread”), a fairly straightforward white bread recipe with a hint of sweetness.

The aroma of this particular bread was baked into the girl’s consciousness since as far back as she can recall. It represents to her home, security, tastiness and, of course the loving labors of a cherished Grandma. The girl grew up being acutely aware of the significant disparity between that which came out of the oven on a weekly basis and what came out of the wrapper with the colorful dots. Alas, a baker – or at least a baking enthusiast – was born!

The Recipe Card, side 1 (I’m so proud to have a copy in mom’s handwriting!)

Of course the girl is me and I’m indebted to my dad’s mother, Bessie, for bringing her recipe into our home and with it, the seeds of a lifetime of appreciation of home-baked goods. She taught my mom to bake her bread, who in turn shared the recipe with me and any interested siblings.

Probably as a result of these early memories, I’m very comfortable in the kitchen. I’m what I consider a comfortable-creative cook, always seeking to put a creative spin on basic cuisine. I cook at least one meal at home daily; it’s more than a matter of providing sustenance for my sweetie and myself – it’s an opportunity for self-expression and nurturing. Hopefully, in this pursuit, I’m carrying Grandma Bessie’s legacy forward.

About as fancy as my baking gets – my German Chocolate cake creation for my father-in-law’s birthday

In recent years, my “just for fun” baking has taken a back seat to more practical baking. Read: fewer cookies and cakes; more pot pies and artisanal loaves. And while it’s true that I don’t bake as often as I used to, I still would consider myself at an “experienced intermediate” level. I carry that same basic “foodlosophy” I mentioned earlier into my baking. I adore the process of baking but I’ve never ventured into the realm of what I’d consider “fancy” baking. I think of it this way: What I may lack in experience and proficiency, I make up in diversity. Curiosity drives my baking projects, as in, “I wonder how pita bread is made?” and, “What’s all this fuss about red velvet cake?” I’ve tried my hand at a wide swath of baked goods throughout the years, including English muffins, croissants, yeast and quick breads, pies, cakes, cookies, brownies… and I’ve always been satisfied with the results. Sometimes the verdict is “It’s not worth the effort,” and sometimes it’s “I’ll never go back to store-bought!” but each recipe has been a welcome learning experience.

This has been a pleasant enough stroll down Memory Lane but I do sense your wonderment: Why, you may be asking, is Gina suddenly writing about baking? Believe it or not, there IS a method to my madness (this time, at least)! I shall endeavor to explain… Recently, my dear friend Kelly began a new enterprise called Baking on the 15th. It’s a baking challenge that will begin on May 15th. She’s set up a website and all manner of social media channels for participants to utilize. Baking on the 15th goes like this: Once a month, a host baker chooses and posts a recipe for a baked item on the website. Those wishing to participate in the challenge bake the item, then reveal photos of their creations on the 15th of each month. I, faithful readers, have decided to participate in this venture’s initial incarnation. I will be baking along with the group and revealing photos of my results. I am extremely excited to participate…

and a bit, um, trepidatious.

Here’s why: In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that as comfortable as I am with baking, I am fearful that my final visual presentation won’t be up to par. That’s right – I fear I’ll be sharing photos of unphotogenic food. I’m confident about the baking component. I know from past experience that I’ve made some very tasty baked goods. Have they always been “ready for their closeup” perfect-looking? No. No, they haven’t. So that’s the real challenge in this challenge for me.

These feelings, I know, have nothing to do with the reality of this soon-to-come-together group of bakers. I understand that it’s a diverse group possessing varying levels of experience and expertise. By all accounts they are lovely, courteous folks who encourage, rather than judge their fellow bakers. The purpose of this challenge is NOT competition but camaraderie. We are building and celebrating community around this shared passion. I know this, yet I will, at least this first time, struggle to feel that my efforts are in the same league as others.

Because that’s me; I tend to naturally consider the fruits of my labors to be worth less than that of others. I sincerely desire to grow past that feeling to achieve a greater sense of being “as good as” others. The bottom line is that this is an opportunity for me to step up my efforts toward personal growth. I am voluntarily putting myself in a challenging situation; no one’s holding a spatula to my head to force me to participate in this. I recognize that’s a step in and of itself. This holds the potential to be a positive step toward finding a sense of satisfaction, ease and maybe even comfort with who I am.

At the very least, there will be cake.

Posted in Memories, The personal development of Gina | 2 Comments

Let’s Talk About Eggs, Baby!

One year ago this very day, we brought home our newest feline friend, whom we named Eggs Benedict. We’d had the name chosen for years (it’s based on a character mentioned in an old Woody Allen standup comedy bit) – we just needed to find the appropriate kitty to fit both the name and the cat-shaped space we had in our life.

2015-04-25 13.50.40

Here’s how we arrived at this auspicious occasion:

At the beginning of last year, our home was an emptier place. We’d lost our Desi back in January, so Cooper was an only cat. We’d never experienced a one-cat home together and it didn’t feel right. Cooper is an amazing, friendly, loving, sweet and loyal cat. He’s a buddy to the -enth degree but the fact remained, he was only one cat.

So, we commenced a cat search to again set the people:cat ratio right in our household. After meeting older kitties, special-needs kitties, unsociable kitties and feral kitties at a local shelter, we determined what we really wanted/needed was a kitten. Not just a young’en but a tiny little baby, younger than any cat we’d ever raised. In addition to re-infusing our home with feline energy, we believed Cooper would gracefully step into the role of big brother.

Male or female didn’t matter to us. We were confident that we’d know the “right” cat for us when we met him/her. With our “kitten radar” switched on, it was early spring (aka kitten season) so we were fairly certain we’d find somebody to love if we just kept our eyes, ears and hearts open to the possibility. Quite on a whim, while out and about one day, I called our vet to inquire as to whether they had cats available for adoption. Oh happy day, they did!

We proceeded there forthwith, excited to meet the three 11-week-old brother kitties they had in house. While waiting for an attendant to help us, we approached the adoption corner of the waiting room. As we neared the cages configured two on top of two, we were greeted with a resounding, “MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW!!!” from the lower left cage. Something tiny and gray looked up at us and repeated himself, “MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW!” – even louder (if possible) than before.

“Well, hello there, noisy!” we responded. Oh, he’s so tiny! Ohhhhhh. Myyyyy. Love. Fawning. Weak knees. AWWWWWWW, he’s freaking adorable! And what “cattitude” he’s got! “Yes, please, we’d like to meet this guy in person.”

The attendant told us that he was the runt of the litter and because his two brothers – who were a bit bigger – wouldn’t let him have any food, he was put in his own cage. She left us in a meeting room with the little furball so we could all get acquainted. In the room we sat, entertained by him skittering around the room, evading nearly every effort to pick him up or even touch him. Arching, running, jumping, rolling, flipping…a tiny perpetual motion machine, he was. But what a first impression he made upon us: Look at that face…OMG he’s beeeeeautiful! Big bright yellow eyes shining out of a face full of pure kitten innocence. And look at that short scraggly tail – like a twitchy little torpedo sticking out of his hind end!

While we met his adorable acquaintance, we began filling out an adoption application which was necessary to be considered as adoptive parents. As exciting as it was to be taking this “official” step, it also brought home the reality that no matter how much we might possibly want it to be, the adoption was not yet a done deal. Not only could the approval process take a couple days, but another person had already expressed an interest in adopting him so it was possible that someone else technically had first dibs on him.

We thought he was a whirling dervish when he was alone with us but when the attendant brought in his two black-furred brothers, he kicked into overdrive. The three of them cavorted and wrestled and bounced off the walls of the room, explored every electrical cord, shoelace, purse strap and pant leg in sight. Despite being the runt, the tiny gray thing was every bit as feisty as the bigger guys and gave as well as he got. We spent at least 45 minutes witnessing the little family play and eventually got close enough for a little interaction with each of them. The bigger brothers were fine and dandy but we already felt a connection to the little feller.

I was eventually overcome with an urgent need to leave – I was already falling for him and I’d reached the end of my ability to part ways with him without it tearing part of my heart out. And knowing that we wouldn’t find out if he could be ours for several days was only going to make the yearning worse. So we left – hopeful, yet trying not to get our hopes up too high….

We were completely unable to take our minds off the adorable tiny gray bundle of life, energy and love; we waited with our hearts in our stomachs…

The next day, around noon, the uncertainty was killing us – so I called the vet. They told me the best news we could imagine… YES, we could adopt “Colin” as he was called originally – obviously by someone who failed to recognize his “Eggness.”

Well, we couldn’t get ourselves – and Cooper (who would need a checkup before the adoption could go through) in the car. It seemed it took an interminable amount of time to get Colin ready to go and to sign all the necessary paperwork but eventually, we walked out the door with our two boys, heading for home.

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He made his two-pound self at home nearly instantly. Cooper accepted him immediately, like the friendly, social, goodhearted guy he is. Snuggling, wrestling and general playing began soon thereafter and continues on a daily basis. Eggs is a lovey-dovey to his people, too, and loves to be wherever we are.

He’s a particular creature of habit, even for a cat. Yes, he wakes Daddy Scott up every day at 6:00 AM on the dot – but that’s the most inconvenient of his habits. His endearing qualities of sitting on the scale while I shower every day, snuggling, leaping from great distances into his people’s laps, hugging Cooper with his paws and creating his own unique playthings (including gift bows, Dum Dum pops, metal bolts, twist ties, medication bottles, lengths of yarn…) far outweigh any inconveniences he perpetrates. And speaking of “outweighing” – he comes in at a whopping 10.6 lbs as of today.

In this big and sometimes ugly world, we found ourselves a little piece of beauty and  love. His name is Eggs Benedict.

I’m so excited about this day that I was actually moved to write a poem…

Ode to Eggs
(which is actually a limerick)

There once was a couple with cats by the ton
Who found themselves sadly down to just one
Searched everywhere
For a kitten to share
For loving and petting and fun

In a cage they did see gray furry cuteness – alas!
MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW did he yell at them like a blast
“Take me home!” he did plead
“I‘m the one that you need!”
Welcome to the family – at last!

His name’s Eggs Benedict – unusual that’s true
It suits him just fine – he’s unusual too!
He’s been here one year
And that makes us cheer
Our little Eggs, my how you grew!

And just in case you haven’t yet seen enough Eggscuteness… Watch our persistent guy in this video!

Posted in Memories | 1 Comment

Did You Bring Enough for Everyone?

I appreciate this boiled-down perspective of the residents of planet Earth so much! When we look at the world at large, it’s big, mysterious, confusing and often scary. So much is foreign to us as Americans; so much that’s unfamiliar to that which we’re accustomed. This planet, however, is all about diversity – and being aware of that diversity without judgement – is a way to avoid becoming the very ethnocentric hypocrites we purport to detest. When we consider a digestible look at the world’s population like this video shows, it demonstrates just how enabled and empowered we are as Americans. It’s what we do with our good fortune that reveals our true colors.

Let’s bring it down to basics…What would you teach a child who has lots of candy? Keep it all to themselves – or share it with others? Happy classmates are more often friends than foes, right? Why are the rules different for our neighbors on this planet? If, indeed, the world is so messed up that simple kindness and altruism doesn’t apply to “grownups,” why do we bother teaching it to children? Just to have their hearts broken when they learn how the world “really” works as adults? As I’ve said so often in the past – we’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to interpersonal relations.

You can chalk the world’s challenges up to human nature or some other darker, dimmer view of people – or you can accept that but for sheer luck of the draw, you could be among those oppressed, underprivileged and suffering from birth. Recognize that with privilege and fortune comes not only power – but CHOICE – which translates to the power to enact change and improvements in the human condition. America and other first world nations: we have so much to share – stop grabbing and start giving. We’re (supposedly) not animals. Not everyone on Earth has the luxury of thinking and acting beyond their own circumstances; let’s regain our better, higher selves to serve something more important than our own creature comforts.

The better the world condition is, the better for all. Am I right or am I right?

Posted in Observations a la Gina | 1 Comment

The Abused: We’re Not All Kesha But We All Need Support

This article I read yesterday has haunted me the last 24 hours. I’m a new Lenny reader and have been deeply impressed by Lena Dunham’s informed, passionate and articulate writing. She really touched some chords in me with this piece; there’s so much to champion and take away from the issue it tackles. Although I don’t know Kesha as an artist, I recognize her as victim.

Feelings of insignificance plague the abused.

Feelings of insignificance plague the abused – during and in the aftermath.

Some of my thoughts after reading about Kesha’s experiences:

1. A clean break is a good break. I am ever so fortunate to have been able to make a clean and complete break from my abuser by divorcing him. I never had to see or hear from him again – his influence over me is over forever. Thank goodness there were no children or other ties that kept us bound to one another. This, sadly, is not the case for others such as Kesha whose livelihood (and most likely her emotional well-being) will continue to be affected by someone to whom she had the misfortune to be connected. So often the circumstance of being associated with our abuser is due to innocence, ignorance or lack of personal choice – none of which put us at fault and shouldn’t have to handicap us indefinitely.

2. The myth of an”acceptable amount of contact.” No, there is no amount of “professional distance” that can be achieved so that she can (or should be expected to) continue to fulfill her contractual obligations to – or ever have any contact whatsoever with – someone who used, abused and took advantage of her. To require that is to expect her to volunteer to continue to feel controlled by her abuser.

3. When enough is enough…it’s enough! I’m not the only victim who has ever “tried to make it work” for a time before emphatically declaring, “NO! I WILL NO LONGER ALLOW YOU TO HAVE THIS HOLD ON ME BECAUSE IT IS LITERALLY KILLING ME! In fact, it’s common that the stress of living life influenced by an abusive relationship or incident can bring on symptoms of underlying mental or emotional conditions; it manifested in Kesha as an eating disorder. These can be disabling in and of themselves, furthering the burden of living as a victimized person.

4. It takes a lot of guts to speak out. Our silence is not tacit consent, nor should it be construed as an indication that we are unaffected by the abuse. It’s tremendously difficult to rise from the insignificance we feel to declare the truth about our circumstances. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It’s scary as hell. Yet, when the time comes, it’s a matter of life and death – and we’ve never felt more empowered.

5. It’s really pretty simple…just don’t abuse. This statement from Lena’s article echoed through my mind: “The human contract that says we will not hurt one another physically and emotionally.” Though it should be apparent, you can’t legislate – or otherwise enforce – that one party will not bully, abuse and overpower another – and that’s just sad.

6. Just listen with an open heart when a victim discloses. It’s bad enough that people are abused – then the pain is unknowingly compounded when they talk about it. As unbelievable as it seems, it’s almost a reflex action for people to jump to the defense of the perpetrator! (No, couldn’t be so. Are you sure? I can’t believe he/she is capable!…) To add insult to injury, it’s usually the victim whose motives and reactions are questioned and doubted – not those of the perpetrator. Even though the victim is the one baring her or his soul – our most private demons – our pain is so often minimized by the abuser and by others who become aware of it.

7. Just get me outta here! I was plenty damaged by my abuser – both physically and emotionally. Sadly, like Kesha, there is no recourse. I didn’t want an apology. I didn’t want recompense. I didn’t even want him to publicly admit his mistreatment. I wanted distance in every sense of the word; freedom from him and from the way associating with him made me feel. Once I broke the ties, I was free and able to begin healing. I could learn for myself that I was an intelligent, intuitive and beautiful person; that I could be happy and fulfilled without him; that love doesn’t judge, control or hurt.

8. How you, yes, you, can help a victim. Advice to those on the outside of an abusive relationship: Turning away in disgust, shame or uneasiness, ignoring or minimizing the signs, condoning, blaming the victim (either for being a victim in the first place, failing to come forward “soon enough” or for being scarred by the experiences)… these are all the wrong responses. Victims have been beaten down, made to feel they don’t matter to anyone and used to serve the needs of another. They need unconditional acceptance, patience and encouragement as they find their way and redefine themselves as someone who is, rather than a victim, a survivor.

I tend not to write – or even think about – my 11 years in an abusive relationship very often any more. For the most part, I’ve incorporated the lessons I learned from it into the rest of me which continues to grow into my authentic self. Once in a while, however, something strikes me as relevant to my experience and it l me feel that I have something to contribute to the conversation. As always, I hope that what I write illuminates and/or inspires – especially when it’s on such an important issue.

To any victim out there looking for a lifeline, a word of encouragement or advice: Know that I will listen with an experienced, empathetic and non-judgemental ear. Reach out to me privately at gina@writeytidy.com.

For support, advice and resources from the world at large and to contact trained professionals in abuse intervention, I strongly suggest going to NoMore.org. Of course if you are in immediate danger, by all means, call 911.

Wishing love, security and peace to all!

Posted in Survivor of abuse, The personal development of Gina | Leave a comment