Monday, February 7, 2011

In Which I Talk about Baking and Cooking

So, free time has been really hard to come by around here. Between working full time, being the Senior Editor at Warp Zoned, writing for Geekadelphia, spending as many Wednesdays as I can at Indyhall and trying to do as many IGDA events as I can (neither of which I have done satisfactorily enough, if you ask me), being on hand for much of Global Game Jam, going to MAGFest, trying to clean and reorganize my apartment, and attempting to keep up on things like eating food and sleeping and doing laundry...well, let's just say I don't get any of those last three things done very consistently. Add in there the fact that the doctors are still trying to figure out what's going on with my heart and my stomach, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time these last few months at the gastroenterologist, the nutritionist, the cardiologist, and then my regular yearly check-up with the gyno and monthly drop-ins with my family doctor to keep her apprised of my situation. I've also started seeing a therapist to see if treating the anxiety itself will help with the other issues, and they seem to think that treating that directly will end all the other problems. I've even considered going to an acupuncturist, as some of my friends have had some good luck with that. The good news is that I haven't been in the ER since November. The bad news is that I've given up caffeine (with the exception of the occasional chocolate) and alcohol completely, and that I'm still having breakthrough acid reflux, even with the Prilosec. But as a result of the no caffeine and no alcohol, I've lost 30 pounds, and can now fit into ALL of my old clothes, which means I haven't spent any money on clothes lately. So...there's good, and there's bad, and I'm dealing with all of it the best I can.

Since I haven't been able to regularly write in here with anything, I decided I'm going to try to make my writing a little more structured here in order to give myself a more creative outlet. I've been wanting to really get into baking and cooking recently, so I thought that might be a good place to start.

Baking and cooking are things I've wanted to get into for a very, very long time now. My current living situation prohibits getting really creative - or, in many cases, doing even the most simple tasks - because I live in a very small apartment and, frankly, I just don't have the proper tools to get a lot done. For the most part, I just kind of go without and make something else if I don't have what I need to get it done. This weekend, I decided to change that attitude.

First, let me give some background. I started baking when I was very young, probably about six years old. I would help my grandmother bake at Christmas and Easter every year, mixing up the cookie dough, putting on the frosting, eating the batter - whatever I could do, I did. That went on until I was about 11, and then only sporadically until I was 18, and then, sadly, never again. When they moved, my grandmom gave up her tradition of baking Christmas cookies and Easter bread. For the most part, she also stopped cooking. She used to cook every meal for us (except Sunday breakfast - that was my grandpop's job), but since they moved out of the house I grew up in, there's been no serious cooking or baking other than those done for family gatherings.

My own experiences - solo, that is - have been sporadic at best. I moved out when I was 18 but didn't really start cooking for myself until I had my first apartment in Reading, PA...and even then, it was nothing more complicated than macaroni and cheese. My roommate, Rachel, did most of the cooking, and I did most of the cleaning up. Of my next roommates, Patrick and James, I was spoiled by Patrick's cooking, or ended up with take out, or got leftovers from my mom's house. (It's no surprise that at this time in my life, I was my heaviest.) I allowed all of my next roommates to cook as well, as I had little to no interest in learning. I dabbled here and there, but for the most part, I just wasn't into it. I made Irish Potatoes, and I made some awesome mashed potatoes, but in between, there wasn't much.

The true test came when I moved into an apartment alone in 2007. Would I die? Would I subsist entirely off of cereal and macaroni and cheese, as I so often had in Reading? I was really into Japanese culture, so the first thing I bought for myself was a rice cooker, and taught myself the fine art of making onigiri and tried to get into creating mythical bentos. I loved making rice, and made so many different things in my rice cooker - I learned how to make risotto, tried to perfect orzo, and oftentimes made a concoction of a can of soup mixed with a cup of rice and some fresh vegetables. I also loved using the steamer, and used it often.

I also did something else I'd always wanted to try: I made my own Chex mix, which was amazing. I would often make a ton of it and include it in my lunch every day as a snack. I made a few different varieties - sometimes I'd make it salty, and other times I'd make it sweet. But every time, I loved it. It's always been one of my favorite snacks to buy at the store, and learning how to make it was a joy.

When Mike moved in, I got a slow cooker, and became even more daring. I made chili, lasagna, teriyaki chicken, and even pizza in it. It was difficult at first, because I really had no idea what I was doing. Recipes that looked so simple would take me two hours because I had to time browning the meat and cutting all of the vegetables and getting everything opened and drained and mix it all together. At first, I was overwhelmed, but after a few times, I really got the hang of it and started to love it. I haven't used it in a while now, mainly because we haven't had the time, but we've had some ideas, and once we have a free weekend, I plan on diving back in and making some chili again, or maybe some more lasagna (which is Mike's favorite).

Using the slow cooker, and learning how to do other things with food, opened me up to different ideas. I've gotten more daring with the rice cooker (we had to get a new one last year because the cheap one I got when I first moved in ended up breaking), and I have more tools for bento now than ever before, with a few more on my wish list.

Another thing I got really into was making guacamole. I'd never really been all that into guacamole until I tried my aunt's recipe a few years ago. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever had in my life, and I HAD to know how she made it. So I got her recipe and started making it myself whenever avocados were readily available. It's a delicious and healthy snack that I try to have on hand, especially in the summer. I also really want to get into making my own hummus, but that will have to wait until I get a food processor.

Baking had still eluded me, for the most part. Over the summer, I bought an awesome Mini Cupcake Factory from Thinkgeek, which makes approximately a billion cupcakes per box of cake mix. I haven't made anything daring yet - just used boxes of mix and used store-bought frosting. I don't have a hand mixer, so making anything more complicated than that would be an anxiety-inducing nightmare. For now, I love having a billion tiny cupcakes everywhere, slathering on some icing, and covering them in sprinkles.

But this weekend changed everything for me. I decided that, for my grandfather's birthday, I was going to make some food. I'd made my cupcakes for everyone a few months before and they were impressed, but I wanted to do something that took a little more effort, and I guess finesse as well. So I decided to make some really cool dessert bars. I went to the store and purchased all of the ingredients, including the 9X13 baking dish that I needed (I got a really cool Pyrex one with a lid). The main ingredients were graham crackers, walnuts, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut, and they're amazing. I had sort of hoped they would be like the ones I got at Picnic, which have more of a brownie-like consistently to them, but these were more like candy bars. They turned out really well, though, so my next goal is to either find the recipe for the bars I'm thinking of...or branch out and try to make my own.

The truth is, I would really love to start making some more ambitious projects, including cupcakes, but without a real mixer, I can't do a whole lot. So one of the next purchases I want to make is for a hand mixer and maybe one of those baking bags to apply icing to the cupcakes. I've been shopping around the last few days, so once I'm comfortable with something, I'm going to pick it up.

This weekend, I also made some buffalo chicken dip, which was super hot but super awesome. I went with canned chicken because I didn't think I'd have enough time to boil and shred the chicken breasts, but this was a mistake - the canned chicken had the consistently of tuna fish, which made it less appetizing. But mixed with all the cheese and hot sauce, it was less easy to tell that it was from a can. All in all, it was a successful endeavor into baking, and I definitely want to try some more - possibly this weekend when we go to my sister's, if they don't mind being guinea pigs for another project.

All in all, right now, I'm feeling pretty confident. The only major things standing in the way of me really learning how to bake and cook are space issues as well as major time constraints. I'm busier now than ever before, but I feel like learning how to bake and cook will help me to deal with my stress, especially because I feel like it will help me make healthier choices. OK, maybe more with the cooking than the baking, but you know what I mean.

And now, time for some pictures. :)

Me doing some prep for the dessert bars :)

The ingredients!

Adding the final layer

The pup was waiting patiently.

The final product was slightly burnt but totally delicious.

Laying down the chicken layer of the buffalo chicken dip...and yes, those are my pajamas. :)

After adding more cheese than I'm comfortable admitting and baking it, this was the awesome result

Time for me to get some editing and writing done before I pass out. Hopefully someone out there is reading this and enjoyed this post and the pictures. :) I want to try to do some more of these, so look out for some as soon as the end of this week - if I have the time. Ah, that phrase, as always...


Dan.Eliot said...

Herbs are fun and easy to grow. When harvested they make even the simplest meal seem like a gourmet delight. By using herbs in your cooking you can easily change the flavors of your recipes in many different ways, according to which herbs you add. Fresh herbs are great in breads, stews, soups or vegetables. Every time you add a different herb you have completely changed the taste. learn more:

Healthy cooking tips

Dana said...

I cannot imagine you having 30 lbs to lose...
My favorite thing to make these days is soup. Start with butter and onions in a pot and then let your imagination run wild! (I buy this bouillon in a jar called Better than Bouillon - it's awesome!)

Love you!

the nicole kline experience said...

Dana - I definitely look different! But I'm glad to fit into my old clothes again. That soup sounds AWESOME...I think I will give that a try! It reminds me of haluski - have you ever had that? Soooo gooood.

Love and miss you! We should get together <3