February 27, 2012

culinary mount everest

It's what Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen calls her home made lasagne and no wonder.  It is a feat to accomplish and a feast to behold (although it didn't get beheld in our house as much as it got snaffled up).  Lasagne bolognese is up there as one of my favourite, hearty, home cooked treats and I'm always looking to improve the recipe I've used for all these years.  I've made it from scratch before a few times you see, even down to making our own pasta, but I've always skipped cooking the pasta first and while the flavours have been good, it's always been a little floury.  Now I know why, although I can't tell you why I've always ignored this step.  Maybe because it's another step in an already long list of tasks and well, when you want a lasagne, you want it bad.  And now.

I didn't skip a thing this time, no.  I followed Deb's recipe almost to the letter**.  I added an extra egg to the pasta (working on Jamie Oliver's 1 egg per 100g flour) and I'm glad I did, because even with the extra egg I needed a splash of water to bring the dough together.  I started it in our KitchenAid before kneading it myself, until it was as smooth and as sproingy as can be.  Deb doesn't suggest working the dough at all, but I've always thought you needed to work the gluten to get a nice, firm but springy pasta.  I could be wrong but after all the work I'd put into the ragu and the bechamel, I went with what I knew and had tested before, and it worked a treat.

The children got a kick out of cranking the pasta machine and I loved taking photos of them doing so, and while I'd hoped Ollie would be more enthusiastic about eating pasta having helped make it, it wasn't to be.  I must have the only child that doesn't want to eat pasta.  No matter what.  Is this normal?

So after the ragu, the bechamel, the pasta came the finished dish and a lot of washing up, which was totally worth it.  The result was delicious, although it didn't hold together terribly well, but it had that creamy/meaty quality that I often crave in a lasagne but can be lacking in the home made variety which can sometimes be too dry.  Max polished off his portion and I was left wondering whether for dessert I'd eat a slice of banana cake with some single cream or another portion of lasagne.  It was that good.  (I did both.)

Next time?  I'll keep the pasta a hair thicker.  I like it thin but I also like a bit of structure to my lasagne and a thicker pasta might help with that (although the next day the reheated slab was pretty much structurally sound).  Other than that, there's not much I'd change. I'd make more, though and freeze up a couple of those bad boys for that mid week moment when you know you deserve something special but after the boys are fed, bathed and in bed you can barely peel yourself off the couch to make it happen. After all, you've just climbed a culinary mountain (with a few detours along the way), so why not take an evening off?

** Changes included:
 - The ragu - I added some rosemary (and wished my bay laurel hadn't been demolished by those cheeky little grasshoppers only the day before).  I also used two 400g tins of tomatoes rather than tomato paste and water.  I found this meant I didn't need to keep topping the ragu up with water (although I did once or twice), and I got a much more mellow sauce rather than one which I think would have been too sweet and rich for my liking.  I only simmered mine for about 3.5 hours, which was ample.  I loved the idea of using the food processor for chopping the mirepoix (or I suppose the term soffritto would be more appropriate) as I do find the chopping a little tedious when I'm trying to get this done during the kids' naps.  Once it was on, the ragu was as easy as anything.
 - The bechamel - the nutmeg is, to my mind, essential.  It gives the bechamel a depth and a fragrance and an earthiness that is so good, Will eats the leftover bechamel straight from the pan with the wooden spoon.  I also needed much more milk than the recipe suggested but then I've never come across a recipe for  bechamel that didn't need a bit of judgement when it came to how much milk to add. 
 - Pasta - I added an extra egg and I used 00 flour, rather than plain (though we've used plain flour before and it was fine).  I've only ever made Jamie Oliver's pasta recipe, and it is a winner.  And I kneaded the bejesus out of the dough on a heavily floured surface before letting it rest for 30 mins in the fridge.  The humidity didn't help but we worked quickly and that did.

February 24, 2012

a stripey second birthday invitation

Max will be TWO at the end of March, which means party time for the little guy I love so much.  Having shied away from theming the boys' birthday parties so far, it seemed like a cool idea to give this next celebration a theme, but something simple that would be easy enough to execute and for everyone to participate in.

It was the usual deal, an idea based on a birthday card Ollie got for his last birthday scribbled onto some scrap paper, which was then executed into a great little card by the talented man in my life, while I agonised over fonts and colours (both of which I'm really happy with).  The cards were printed onto this awesome paper (it truly is fantastic, if a little expensive) with our new printer (the old one died a pretty spectacular death).  Here it is, the invitation to Max's Stripey Second Birthday Party.  I love it.

And so, we have stripey straws, stripey cupcake wrappers, an idea for a stripey cake and stripey themed food.  We've asked everyone to wear their stripiest clothes and I'm hoping to find time to do some striped paper bunting or similar to decorate our house on the day.

I'm sure we have many themed parties in our future, Lego, Star Wars, Hallowe'en, Pirates that Drive Garbage Trucks etc... but for now, keeping it simple is good practice for the fun times ahead.

February 23, 2012

the way the boys are

A month ago, Max joined Ollie at his day care centre.  We managed to secure a place for him at the very last moment, a week before Max would have started at another centre until the boys could be together in mid-March.  It was fortuitous to say the least.

Max has, as we quietly predicted he would, settled in with minimum fuss.  We had a couple of days of tears at the gate, and he still has a firm grip on my hand until the moment I ask him for a squeezy hug and kiss, but every afternoon when I pick him up, his carers tell me what a wonderful day he's had and how settled he is.  It makes every bit of me glow with pride.

One of the loveliest things about this new chapter is that I've had a chance to see the brotherly relationship between Max and Ollie blossom.  Actually, it's not even that it's blossomed, it's that I see a side to it that I don't see at home.  At home, they get on really well most of the time, but they can also wind each other up and each knows exactly how to push the other's buttons.  At 'kindy' as we call it, they seek each other out, take great comfort in each other's company, and I have on more than one occasion arrived early to catch them sitting together, talking about a book, a toy or just hanging out.  It's the sweetest thing a mother of sons can see.

I've no doubt that while a large part of Max settling in so quickly is because he's a confident and easy going little man, it's also because he's there with his brother and chum.  It must have made the transition so much easier, to know his brother is just in the next room if he needs him.  It's also safe to say that Max is the rock in Ollie's life.  Ollie wasn't as quick to settle in, but since his brother and best pal has been going to kindy, he's been much happier to be there and goodbyes are no longer the emotional, gut-wrenching affairs of a month or so ago when I didn't think he'd ever forgive me for putting him through the ordeal of big day care.

But you know, kindy has taught Ollie so much already - and Max too.  The other day we caught Ollie actually singing a song he'd learned there (he doesn't sing.)  He is learning how to interact with children that are different to him and his brother (definitely NO biting) and he talks so sweetly about bringing his friends home from kindy (if only his mum would make friends with some of the other mums).  Sure he has his off days but on the whole, it's been a good experience for him so far.

So the last couple of months have been a big deal in our house with the change in the boys' routine (one they are still getting to grips with because being at kindy is so exhausting for them - and us), but seeing how they are with each other there, with other children, with their carers and how they are bringing home what they learn, makes me so excited for the days when they will be at school, then uni and then grown up men themselves.  Until then, though, I'm pretty happy to see them just been little together and enjoying little breaks with them like the one we just had at North Straddie, where everything was damn near perfect.  Sunshine, waves, gelato every day.  I never want to forget these days.

February 6, 2012

the fish house

For the last 6 months or so, even longer if you count the thinking that went into it before pen touched paper, Will has been working on designing a new house to replace the shack at North Stradbroke Island that his mum has owned for the last 30 years or so.  It's a gem of a place, that ramshackle type of beach house where everything is blue or yellow and nearly everything has a picture of a fish on it.  The bedrooms are small and there's hardly any space inside but it's a great little house, just about 2 minutes walk from Cylinder Beach, with a deck looking out over the ocean, just about enough space for everyone in the family and somewhere you can forget about housework and sand in the beds because that's what Straddie is about.  Relaxing.

We've spent many a blissful (and sometimes stressful) weekend there since I moved out here almost 9 years ago, Wills' father's ashes are in the ocean at Home Beach, Will's brother married there, and I will never, ever forget the perfect 8 weeks shortly after Ollie was born that we moved over to the island, breast pump and maternity pads in tow, making short shrift of what could have been a stressful first couple of months as we got to grips with parenthood (we're still doing that, by the way).  I have no doubt that the sound of the ocean when we dozed off and woke up every morning, the hour long beach walks at 4pm and the evenings on the deck watching the stars and playing Trivial Pursuit made those months feel easy, rather than the slog they could have been.  This photograph was taken on Boxing Day (my UK friends can hardly believe it), and it's one I love.  My sons, happily playing, enamoured with the beach and island life.

But that house is now on its last legs and any attempt to renovate it would probably only last a short while before the bulldozers would need to be called in, so that's what Will's mum is doing now.  This will probably be the last summer that the house is used, before it's replaced with the house that Will is designing - The Fish House.  He's working with an old uni graduate friend of his, who's very talented but somewhat challenging to work with (deadlines?  what deadlines?  when did you say you needed that by?) and the disorganisation drives me crazy, but it's Will that he's working with, and his usual laid back self is coping just fine with his shambolic partner. Me, on the other hand...

It's not a project that has been completely smooth sailing so far, there are the opinions of 6 somewhat loud and opinionated kids and their mum (who's more unassuming), and then the mix of the engineer's point of view, the interior designer, the beach bums, the completely unassuming matriarch and the architect lends its own level of complication.  But it's something Will seems to be enjoying and fantastic experience, and on balance, it's going reasonably well, these challenges are probably no different to those faced by any other aspiring architect.  In fact the family has already agreed on one design (out of a possible four - and it was one of Will's) and now it's at the nitty gritty stage of working out what goes where and getting consensus on that.  I hope to share some of its progress soon and along the way.

It's going to be some time before this house is built and it's a long way from Council approval but it's going to be one of those achievements for the family and Will that will mark change.  A huge change for the family, but also for Will who will have seen through his first residential project from start to finish, dealing with conflicting view points, working in a partnership, council and building regulations, builders, engineers and lack of experience in nearly all those things.  I hope it all works out.  I want nothing but for him to feel proud of what he's doing, because he ought to.  After all, he's taken it upon himself to start this project and it's going to be some achievement to see it through to the end, when we'll be sipping cocktails on the deck and thinking about what it's taken to get there.  Although right now, that seems very, very long way away.
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