Friday, May 24, 2013

Cookie disaster

ie, when the literary and the culinary don't mix. Yesterday's experiment taught me that. But before yesterday, imagine me walking into a bookstore and strolling over to the cookbook section. Imagine me picking up and paging through every volume on display of the "Les chefs cuisinent la littérature" series. (That's "Chefs cook literature," and their tag line is "Reading makes you hungry.") There was a book with a complicated seafood recipe based on a mention in Melville's Moby Dick and some other books with recipes I passed on. However, I thought the "eat me" cookies inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland would make a good rainy day baking project. The slim booklet included two chapters from Alice in Wonderland translated into French (how fun!) and then the cookie recipe put together by none other than Apollonia Poilâne, the head of my favorite bread shop in Paris.

I bought the book then headed off to Poilâne to purchase the "bread flour" called for in the recipe. Then the book and the flour sat on my shelves for a few weeks, while we went off to Scotland and while Malanga Girl turned five. (Oh yes, she's FIVE now!) Yesterday, we came home earlier than usual after school due to a sudden temperature drop outside and some nasty sideways rain. It seemed like a perfect day for making cookies, especially since we have a playdate coming up. Malanga Girl got right to work, as you can see below.

Measuring flour

Adding cherry jam to the cookie centers

Then came the agonizing wait while the cookies baked, then cooled off. We knew as soon as we bit into them that something was off. The texture was too crumbly and the flavor was just, well, not so good. Malanga Girl suggested baking them for longer. I obliged her, but went over the ingredient list while the cookies were back in the oven. Tahini, eggs, butter, pistachio flavoring and cherry jam. Hmmm, no sugar? Maybe that's what made them taste so very not cookie-like? But what about the texture problem?  Out of the oven they came and they were still crumbly and still blah-tasting.

Was it the use of bread flour instead of regular flour? Did I overdo it with the tahini? If I were to add sugar next time, would that improve the texture or just the taste? I continue to ponder these questions, but in the meantime must declare that Alice could not possibly have eaten these when she went down the rabbit hole. No playdate participants will eat them, either. This morning, I made some brown butter poppy-seed financiers from Béatrice Peltre's cookbook, a recipe that was a big hit with the kids in Malanga Girl's yoga class this past winter.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Scotland for the Under-Five Set

Scotland was Malanga Papa's idea, but I ended up loving it. I had to wear a winter coat in May and my hair didn't curl the same way and we only had two rain-free days and yet I loved it. I loved the beyond-my-wildest-dreams landscapes, the friendly, outgoing people, and the feeling of hundreds and hundreds of years of history seeping into everything standing there today. I loved being on small islands that are cold and rugged and unlike any island I have ever been on before. Sometimes when I travel, I love a place because I feel at home there. Other times, like with Scotland, the less I recognize something, the more taken I am by it. Scotland is about the most exotic thing I can imagine in comparison to Cuba.

Scotland was incredible from Malanga Girl's perspective as well. Below are the top activities I would recommend for the under-five set (although for one of them, you technically have to be five and an allowance was made given Malanga Girl's upcoming 5th birthday). The only downside is that our trip involved a lot of driving. I do not like car vacations much, as a general rule, but the places we drove through were beautiful. Nonetheless, because of the driving and the fact that the activities/places I am about to recommend below are not close to each other, I would understand if you held off on a Scotland trip until you felt quite confident about your own ability to drive on the left side of the road. Driving on the left is the ultimate challenge in staying zen, as is being a passenger while your spouse drives on the left.

1) Stirling Castle

Let's start with the fact that it is an incredibly well-preserved castle with a lot to see. The Great Hall could very well have been the setting where all the clansmen gather to present their sons in the Disney movie Brave (ok, yes, I said that to Malanga Girl, but I was sure to say "maybe it was the setting..."). Then there are the vaults, where kids (and their parents) can dress up in period clothing, play musical instruments and see and participate in other aspects of palace life in the 1550s. You may have already seen the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, but this is the place they originally came from. Have you ever seen someone making a tapestry? Has your child? At Stirling Castle, you can! They are remaking each of the Unicorn Tapestries with the same original technique. Each tapestry takes years of work. It's fascinating to watch tapestry-making in progress.

2)  Urquhart Castle

Beautiful ruins and an interesting story about what has stood on this prominent point on Loch Ness at different points in history. Also, great views of Loch Ness!

(Picture above of a page in Malanga Girl's travel journal.)

3) Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

This is where fairies live. I believe it.

4) Portree Stables "Own a Pony" Day, Isle of Skye

You have to be 5 for this one. It helps to love horses. It's a good thing Malanga Girl is turning 5 this month since she adores horses. We dropped her off at Portree Stables at 10am and while Malanga Papa and I walked through the Cuillin Hills of Skye, Malanga Girl got to brush, feed and ride a pony. We picked her up at 3pm and she was so thoroughly worn out that she promptly fell asleep in the back seat of the car. Good thing, too, since we had a long drive ahead of us to catch the ferry to Mallaig and then down to Oban from there. On the ferry ride, a perfectly revived Malanga Girl told us all about her pony day and hasn't stopped talking about it since...

5) Auchingarrich Wildlife Centre

I saw my first live meerkat upclose here. Malanga Girl's reaction to this animal was, "it's just like in the Playmobil zoo!" Sadly, my camera had run out of juice by this point in our vacation, so you will just have to go up to Comrie in Perthshire yourself to see your own meerkat. We also spotted peacocks, owls, llamas, alpacas, wallabys, and we fed goats and sheep. Malanga Girl held a baby chick and played in both the outdoor and indoor playground areas.

If you've had a long, action-packed vacation and want something low-key to the day before you fly back out, this is the perfect place to go. It's just a little over an hour drive to Edinburgh airport from here.