Car Seats and Butter Cakes

A few days ago, I was presented with the task of installing a new car seat for Kate. I figured this would be challenging; I often think dealing with these pieces of equipment, fitted with belts, buckles, harnesses, and clips, requires one to have a special degree of some sort. I’m not a complete idiot when it comes to things mechanical, but I’ve learned over the past year that cribs, high-chairs, strollers, and the like are just really tricky and demanding. Oh, and, of course, if you fail to properly put these things together, the result could be catastrophic. Talk about stressful.

Once I finally decided to remove the smaller seat from the car, I was committed to the new one. I went to the store hoping that the owner would assist me with installing it. I should have known better. For liability reasons, he could not. He left me in the parking lot on a 95-degree day with a kind but, nonetheless, frustrating, “Spend some time reading the directions before you start, and I’ll be happy to look at it when you’ve finished.” Okay. Not what I really wanted, but I thought I’d give it a go. After 10 minutes of wrestling with the box that was as big as I am, not to mention trying to locate the English-language section of the directions, I threw the seat in the back of the car and returned home.

I then tried calling another store for help, but only got through to the voicemail. I had to face the fact that I was on my own. So back outside I went, really, really frustrated, hot, and bothered with this task that had already taken hours too long. Pulling and tugging, and muttering to myself, I had flashes of fighting with the Rubix’s cube that was so popular when I was a kid. I hated that stupid thing, trying to get all the same colored squares on each side. I never got it right and usually just ended up chucking it aside for my needlepoint. This was way worse, and I couldn’t just give up the task. Kate needed a car seat! After about 30 minutes on my knees wrestling with the seat in the back of my small Jetta, I finally subdued it. Hearing the last click of the latch that attached out of sight under the back seat, I was elated to have succeeded in forcing it to submit to my will and physical labor.

I’m sure we all have experiences like this. Seemingly simple or straightforward tasks become overwhelming and have a way of making us feel inept or less than capable. I decided I needed to get my self-esteem back on track, and so, of course, I headed for the kitchen.

Cupcakes seemed the best way for me to reboot my ego, so I set about baking my favorite golden butter cakes. The recipe is really a slight variation of a traditional 1-2-3-4 cake. The batter comes together in minutes and bakes into cakes that are firm, buttery, and sweet and also have a tender, soft crumb.

I spooned dollops of the smooth, light golden batter into paper-lined mini-cupcake tins, and in less than 15 minutes, the house was filled with vanilla-scented cakey goodness. After allowing the cupcakes to cool, I piped some Italian buttercream on top, just to make them even more festive. You could just as easily use a quick butter and confectioners’ sugar frosting, or even leave the little blond beauties plain.

As Kate and I shared these prettily decorated sweet treats, I not only felt slightly better about my mommy capabilities, but I also thought rosily that my car seat adventure wasn’t that challenging after all. I’ve already told my husband, though, that if he wants to move the blasted thing, he can reinstall it himself.

My Favorite Butter Cakes

As with most cakes, this recipe performs best when all of the ingredients are at room temperature.

Makes 32 to 36 mini-cupcakes or two 8- or 9-inch round cakes

3 1/3 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Buttercream or frosting (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 32 to 36 mini-cupcake/muffin tins with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating until each one is fully incorporated. Stir together the milk and the vanilla extract. Reduce the mixing speed to medium low. Alternately incorporate the flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with the flour and stopping several times to scrape the sides of the bowl, until the batter is thick and smooth. Resist overbeating.

Divide the batter between the prepared cupcake tins and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the centers comes out clean. Cool the cakes on wire racks in the pans for about 5 minutes before lifting them out to cool completely.

Frost the cooled cupcakes with buttercream or frosting, if desired.

Hot Weather Orecchiette-Salmon Salad

It’s 1,000 degrees in Philadelphia right now. Okay, maybe it’s not that hot, but it sure has felt like it recently. Usually the mid-Atlantic summer heat and humidity don’t really hit until late June or July, but this year both have arrived early, making late spring quite uncomfortable.

For some reason, it also always seems the way of the universe that I am busy with several baking projects on the hottest days of the year. This was the case a couple of weeks ago, when I had several gigs on the calendar. To make matters even worse, our air conditioners were on the blink, and we had to make do with fans. I really almost lost it a couple of times, trying to coat and decorate a 12-inch, 4-layer cake with Italian buttercream that was transforming in a matter of minutes from gorgeously glossy and smooth to virtually runny. I would definitely not recommend trying to frost cutout sugar cookies with royal icing in this kind of heat, either. The baked cookies get soft, and the icing takes forever to firm up. As an aside (but totally worth venting about here), black food coloring paste is a nightmare in virtually any weather. Black-colored royal icing takes forever to get hard and sometimes doesn’t at all. I really needed to go to confession after that project.

Baking challenges aside, what I really wanted to write about here is dinner. Although I couldn’t have cared less about eating during those overheated days in the kitchen, I still had to come up with something yummy and satisfying for my husband and 15-month-old daughter. The meal needed to be easy, quick, and totally anxiety free. With a gigantic cake taking up most of the space in my refrigerator and what felt like a zillion cookies drying on the counters, I couldn’t be bothered to defrost chicken or even burgers. Needless to say, the mere thought of turning on the oven or stove was also more than I could bear.

So, this was my solution. A bit of leftover grilled salmon (or even good quality canned salmon), some orecchiette pasta, ricotta cheese, milk, fresh basil, and salt and pepper combined deliciously to make my heat-weary family happy. I keep disc-shaped orecchiette (“little ears”) on hand, because they are so versatile, taking to a variety of sauces. They are also just the right size for grown-ups and kids alike. The salty, rich salmon pairs beautifully with the creamy ricotta, thinned just a bit with milk. And I happen to keep a pot of fresh basil on my kitchen windowsill, so it was an easy herbaceous addition. I think the fresh pungency of this particular herb complements and heightens the fairly subtle flavors of the other ingredients, too.

The recipe for this salad makes enough for three as a first course or light lunch or dinner, or for two generous servings. It also keeps well in the refrigerator for at least three days. To make it, simply cook 4- to 6-ounces of pasta until al dente, reserving a bit of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with about 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese, a couple of tablespoons of milk (just enough to thin it out a bit),1 to 2 tablespoons of reserved cooking water, 6- to 8-ounces of cooked salmon, about a tablespoon of chopped basil, and salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or, for when the air conditioning is out, chill the salad for a time in the refrigerator.

Here’s to summer. Eat well and stay cool.

Early Summer Cream of Zucchini Soup

I began making pureed or creamed soups frequently during my first pregnancy. They were fairly quick and easy to prepare, stored well in the refrigerator and freezer, and delivered a lot of healthy antioxidants and vitamins in just one bowl. It was also nice to know that when I was tired at night or just didn’t know what I wanted to eat, the soup was already prepared and just needed reheating and a bit of cheese to make for a delicious and satisfying light meal.

After my daughter was born, I continued to prepare these yummy purees for the same reasons. More than ever, I needed to be able to make quick and easy dishes that were always at the ready and stored well. Now that I am gearing up for yet another little one, these now staple dishes have been particularly comforting. Even when I don’t feel well or don’t know just what to eat, a warm bowl of slightly salty, creamy vegetable soup is almost always just the ticket. Adding bits of salty cheese that slowly melt and meld into the mixture is also very comforting and soothing.

Well, even if you don’t have children or aren’t expecting any, I think you’ll like this cream of zucchini soup. It’s still early summer, so our gardens are not yet inundated with the delicate green squash, but this recipe is a delicious way to celebrate it, nonetheless. It couldn’t be easier, either. Four ingredients plus salt and pepper and a bit of cheese, if you want, it is all that’s needed here. You don’t even need cream, although you can certainly stir in a bit if you want a richer, more luxurious dish. I also like to hold back a bit of the cooked vegetables before blending the rest so I can add a spoonful of them to my bowl of silky puree. I like the contrast of textures and flavors. The same goes with the cheese. You don’t need it, but a bit of salty Swiss, smoked Swiss, or Gruyère is delicious here.

The optional addition of pastina is new for me, but again, it lends a pleasant texture and density to the creamy puree. I actually started incorporating it for my 15-month-old daughter. She loves this soup, but I wanted her to have a bit more nutrition. I thought the small star-shaped pasta would be just right and it was. Now Kate and I are both hooked on this flavorful, velvety puree, and I think we will be for the rest of the summer.

One more thing. I usually eat this soup warm, but it will do well at room temperature or even chilled, if you’re looking for a light, cooling meal on a particularly hot summer day.

Early Summer Cream of Zucchini Soup

Makes 5 to 6 cups

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 pound medium zucchini, trimmed and sliced into 1/4-inch discs

Chicken or vegetable broth as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

6 to 8 ounces pastina, cooked until tender, for serving (optional)

Grated or sliced cheese, such as Swiss or Gruyère, for serving (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and stir to coat with the oil. Incorporate the salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the zucchini, stirring to incorporate, and cook, stirring frequently, until the zucchini begins to soften, another 5 to 7 minutes. Pour enough chicken or vegetable broth into the pan to just cover the vegetables. Season with pepper (a few turns of the pepper mill will do), reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer until the squash is tender, about another 10 minutes or so. You can also simmer the soup for a bit longer; it won’t hurt.

Remove the soup from the heat and pour it into a blender, holding back about 3/4 cup of the vegetables, if desired. Puree the soup until smooth and season with additional salt and pepper. The soup stores well in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. It also freezes nicely.

Serve warm bowls of the soup with spoonfuls of reserved zucchini and onions, as well as grated or sliced Swiss or Gruyère cheese, if desired.

Late Spring Rhubarb-Ginger Jam

Sadly, rhubarb season is just about to end. Before it does, however, here is a simple recipe that is worth making the time to try in the next few weeks, and hopefully that you will want to add to your repertoire for next year.

I admit I really never cooked with rhubarb up until a few years ago. My husband is crazy about this sour vegetable (although most of us consider it a fruit), especially when combined with lots of sugar and strawberries in a homey pie.

Although I do love pie, I also enjoy canning throughout the year and thought making some jam would be a good way to introduce myself to this ingredient. I started traditionally and prepared a perfectly acceptable jam simply with fresh rhubarb and sugar. I found using equal amounts of each (by weight), as is typical with many jam and preserve recipes, was just right here; the rhubarb is, of course, quite tart and needs the sugar to subdue and soften its bite.

Then I began experimenting and discovered a mixture of a few ingredients that elevated my simple jam to a sweet treat that, although still simple, was deliciously layered with flavor. A mere pinch of salt, some finely chopped crystallized ginger, and a spoonful of vanilla complemented the tart vegetable with a bit of sweetness, heat, and fruity depth. Not one to wait to taste my kitchen trials, I found the jam was delicious warm right off the stove. Perhaps the best part about this recipe, however, is that as the jam sits in the refrigerator over a period of days, the flavors soften and intermingle in a way that makes the final product at once more delicate and complex.

Initially, the vanilla, in particular, is quite pronounced. Over time, however, it softens and becomes a perfume-like, graceful note that, in fact, you might not even detect as vanilla at all. I used Madagascar vanilla extract here, but I think Mexican would be delicious, too. The latter tends to be a bit gentler and its fruit personality more pronounced.

I hope you try this recipe. If you like rhubarb as much as my family do, you’ll be glad to have it stored in your refrigerator when, in the weeks to come, it will comfort you when rhubarb season is long past.

Rhubarb-Ginger Jam

Makes about 2 3/4 cups

1 pound cleaned and trimmed rhubarb (about 1 1/4 to 1 1/3 pounds untrimmed)

1 pound sugar

1/3 cup water

2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the rhubarb, sugar, water, ginger, and salt in a medium saucepan. Stir several times over medium-low heat until the sugar begins to melt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the jam becomes thick and falls in sheets from the side of the spoon, about 20 to 25 minutes. When the jam is ready, it will register between 215°F and 220°F on a candy thermometer. Remove the jam from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour into sterilized jars, leaving about 1/4 inch at the rims, and seal tightly with the lids. Carefully invert the jars for about 10 seconds (to create a proper vacuum), before setting them right-sides-up on a rack to cool completely. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.