The Great Cake Debate, and Vanilla Confetti Cake (GF/DF/NF)

Dear Joey,

When it comes to cake, you and I are contentious about which flavor wins: chocolate or vanilla. It’s an ongoing battle that will never end because we are so dead set in our ways that we cannot–and will not–change our minds. You could easily live without chocolate, but my life lived without it would be no life at all.

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It’s not that I dislike vanilla; it’s just that I like to think of it as a canvas upon which to play with color, composition, texture and form, but for you vanilla is a finished work of art, complete just as it is. For better or worse, we choose to live peaceably despite this disagreement. Plus, there are other flavors of cake that help smooth things over (like white cake with chocolate frosting, or chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. It’s all about compromise.)

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Through the years we have come to respect each other’s preference, of course, partially out of marital duty and partially because we understand each other a little bit more than we used to. We started listening to each other without trying to win the other onto our own team. Now we appreciate–and even enjoy–the differing perspectives we bring to the dessert table. You will happily eat a slice of chocolate cake (or gulp down a chocolate cupcake in swoop so the Goobies don’t see you going back for seconds), and I accepted the idea that you really do enjoy the one cake in the whole world that sounds completely boring to me: white cake with white buttercream frosting.

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We try to lure the kids onto our own teams, but they generally have one foot in each camp because the truth is, they just plain like cake. Flavor matters little to them, as long as it tastes good. Given time, they’ll form their own opinions I think, but for now, cake wins.

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When I started tinkering around with baking gluten and dairy free treats , I tried to tackle chocolate cake first (clearly) because this girl can only live so long without the stuff. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would need to be fair to vanilla, though, if only for the sake of our marriage. Admittedly, I actually liked the result of my efforts (and am restraining myself from nibbling on a slice as I write this).

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I imagine some might say I liked this cake because my taste buds have forgotten what really good cake actually tastes like (given the fact that they are accustomed gluten free and dairy free treats taste like), but kids don’t lie about stuff as important as this–not ours, not any. Kids always tell the truth about cake.

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I served slices of Vanilla Confetti Cake to a gaggle of kids at a baby shower yesterday: kids with food allergies that span the gamut of the top 8, along with a few kids (like Addie) without any food allergies to speak of. The consensus? “More cake! More cake! More cake!” — and that right there, my friend, is sort of the whole point of tinkering around with these recipes in the first place: to make a cake that tastes good, one that kids think is yummy, a cake that everyone can all agree on–whether we fall in the chocolate camp or the vanilla camp, gluten intolerant or allergic to dairy, nut allergies or no allergies at all. With this cake, everyone wins.

Love,

Scratch

Vanilla Confetti Cake

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If dessert is art, this cake is a blank canvas in the best possible way. The confetti is only an option; leave the sprinkles out if you want a plain vanilla cake, or swap them out for mini chocolate chips (yum!) for a cake compromise. Disclaimer: I only ever make this cake with my own flour blends (click here for the recipes), both of which yield fantastic results. Smear Mema’s Buttercream on top for a classic decorated cake (as above) or serve with sliced strawberries and a dollop some coconut whipped cream for a springtime treat. Either way, you’ll end up with a masterpiece. This recipe makes two 8″ rounds or 24 cupcakes.

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread, softened OR 3/4 cup softened refined coconut oil (not melted)
  • 2 large eggs (or for an egg free version, substitute 1 very ripe medium banana, well mashed, to equal 1/2 cup*)
  • 2 1/4 cups pure cane sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened flax milk (or regular rice milk)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups  gluten free cake flour OR gluten free all-purpose flour blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt**
  • 1/4 cup gluten free sprinkles, optional

*If using banana instead of egg, reduce sugar to 1 1/2 cups

**If using coconut oil, increase salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.

Method:

Start by preheating your oven to 325°F. Then, spray two 8″ round cake pans with nonstick spray (or smear with coconut oil), then sprinkle a little gluten free flour in the pan and shake until the flour completely covers the oil. Set aside.

Next, sift together the gluten free flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together, and set that aside too.

Then in a large bowl of a Kitchen Aid (or similar electric mixer), cream the softened Earth Balance until it’s nice and smooth. Turn the mixer off, dump in the sugar and beat the two together until they get nice and fluffy. Turn the mixer off again, add the eggs and vanilla and turn the mixer back on, making sure to whip well. Turn the mixer off.

After that, measure 1 1/2 cups flax milk (or rice milk) into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, and add the 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar to the measuring cup. Pour the vinegar/rice milk mixture to the batter, turn on the mixer again and mix well. The batter will look a little clumpy–do not fret. Turn off the mixer and scoop in the dry ingredients about a cup at a time–dump, then mix; dump, then mix; dump, then mix; then turn the mixer on high and beat until the batter is smooth and luscious, about 1-2 minutes.

Finally, swirl those sprinkles into the batter and divide it between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the comes out clean (mine were perfect at 35 minutes, but oven temperatures vary. Cool the cakes in the pan for about 5 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack and cool completely before frosting. (We love to top our cakes with Joey’s mom’s classic frosting recipe, which you can find here, way down at the bottom of the page after my recipe for chocolate cake.)


How We Help Vegetables Disappear, and Magic Sauce (or Dairy Free Ranch Dressing)

Dear Joey,

I am such a traitor. There is a chocolate cake cooling on the counter, springy, beautiful and almost in tact, except for the place where it’s not in tact anymore because I couldn’t muster up enough self control to wait and taste it right along with the Goobies. My curiosity (or the fact that it’s lunchtime) threw my willpower out the window and I cut into that thing without thinking about my promise.

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It all started when neither Addie nor Mia wanted to finish the last bit of their lunch–the sliced cucumbers part, specifically–so I told them they could save them and finish them later on before they ate their afternoon snack. Their protests were met with a promise of my good example, and I virtuously preached about how I would be loading up with veggies myself in just a few minutes because my body wouldn’t be healthy if I didn’t eat vegetables every day, but here I am struggling because I totally broke that promise. Magic sauce didn’t even help.

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Magic Sauce–or, Ranch Dressing, as most folks call it–was born out of the need for a ploy to get the Goobies to approach the idea of eating raw vegetables with any sort of cooperation. Like most kids, ours didn’t make the switch from gnawing on soft, steamed veggies to crunching on big kid ones all that easily, and despite my vow to bring up children who wouldn’t just eat their veggies but enjoy them too, it took a little coaxing to get those girls to try them in the first place.

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Before actually having kids, I swore up and down I would raise kids like Julia, a little girl who lived across the street from me when I was in early Elementary school whose eating habits made all the other moms around jealous and confused at the same time. I mean, this little pixie of a thing toddled around our backyard happily munching on baggies full of raw cauliflower. I can’t imagine how her mother got her to do that.

 

The thing that finally made raw veggies sort of an ok thing in Addie’s book was dipping them in homemade ranch dressing. I just couldn’t bring myself to give her that famous store-bought version that apparently makes kids faint with hunger at the sight of a bowl full of raw celery, but when I figured out how to (easily) make my own homemade version? Ranch dressing became a thing.

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When we visited family in Kansas City a few years ago, we discovered your brother uses the same ploy to get his kids to eat veggies too, but he goes a step further by calling ranch dressing something else entirely, a name that captures kids attention and makes them excited to try it: Magic Sauce. They wanted to know, What does the sauce do? and, Why is it magical? The grown ups exchanged knowing looks that said, It makes your veggies disappear.

When we came home, we brought that name with us and it has worked for years. We came to count on the jar always being stocked, but once we found out about Emery’s dairy allergy, I knew its days in our fridge were numbered. As I suspected, that boy eventually started noticing it, and then asking for it, and then getting angry that he couldn’t have what his sisters got to have. And so, magic sauce disappeared from our kitchen and I wasn’t sure how the girls would cope with its absence at our table.

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Ketchup worked a little bit: Addie liked to dip carrots in it and Emery liked to dip green beans in it. Mia–with a more refined palate, perhaps–opted for aioli, a fancy name I gave to a very simple mixture of mustard and mayonnaise. Eventually neither sauce worked anymore.

And then one day, sort of out of nowhere, I realized making dairy free Magic Sauce at home was something I could totally handle. Out came the same supplies I used to use: homemade ranch dressing mix, mayonnaise, and milk–only this time, I used a combination of rice milk and vinegar instead of buttermilk. I whipped it all up and was almost happy with the result. The only problem was it was a bit runny, but I knew how to fix that: xanthan gum would thicken it up in a snap. (Being gluten free sure does come in handy–sometimes.)

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Magic Sauce made a come back in our house, true, but the real question was this: was this dairy free version any good–and not just good enough, but you know–like, yummy? The answer? Yes. All the Goobies happily eat it, you happily eat it, and we have a gaggle of disappointed kids when the bottle runs out. Magic Sauce indeed.

Every time I pour that speckled white sauce into tiny little bowls and nestle them alongside whatever veggies the kids request at mealtime (or nuggets, or pizza–because they’re kids, after all), I feel like I’ve done something good to bring a taste of normal childhood to the table. It’s a simple pleasure, but one that is important to me. I hate it when our kids feel like the other, you know? But I digress.

 

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Addie just came in and saw the rest of that nibble of cake sitting on a plate beside me. She eyed it. I smiled and whispered, “Want to try it?She nodded and ate the whole piece in five seconds, flat.

“It’s good,she said with a smirk.

“I’m so glad you like it. Now? Cucumbers.”

Love,

Scratch

Magic Sauce, or Dairy Free Ranch Dressing

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Ingredients:
  • 1 cup full fat mayonnaise
  • 1 cup Plain, unsweetened Good Karma Flax Milk
  • 2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup homemade ranch dressing mix
  • 1 Tablespoon dry parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)
Method:

First, make the ranch dressing mix. I use this recipe by Laura at Heavenly Homemakers (and have for several years), and I almost always have a jar of it stashed in my pantry.

Next, put all ingredients into a high speed blender and whiz until combined. If you use xanthan gum, the dressing will thicken up as it chills. Pour the mixture into an airtight container (like a big mason jar or an empty ketchup bottle) and refrigerate.

 

 

 


Putting an Unselfish Heart on Display and Nonie’s (Non-Dairy) Magic French Fudge (GF/DF/NF)

8-11 God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it,

He throws caution to the winds,
    giving to the needy in reckless abandon.
His right-living, right-giving ways
    never run out, never wear out.

This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.

2 Corinthians 9:8-11 (MSG)

Dear Joey,

I made fudge this week, and oh how that pan of molten chocolate goodness beckoned me to slip away from the bottomless pile of dirty dishes and unfolded laundry and spend time with it instead of with much else.  Why do I do this to myself? We all know chocolate lords its power over me, and if the two of us are ever found in a room alone together, I just don’t stand a chance.

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My excuse? I was curious whether I could transform my Nonie’s legendary Magic French Fudge into a dairy free treat that could hold its own against my memory of her classic confection. My grandmother’s fudge was it at Christmastime for me, edging out Grandma Teague’s Russian Teacakes because of this one minor detail: fudge is really just chocolate.

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I know this is not normal behavior, daydreaming about fudge even as I change a messy diaper (Gross. But true.), and I realize most people do not spend the majority of their waking hours daydreaming about transforming the comfort foods of their childhood into allergy-friendly versions of themselves. But as for me, well–let’s just say it’s as common as packing a lunch or slicing apples or–yep–changing diapers. It sounds ridiculous, I know–just make a batch of the stuff already, Rach. Sheesh. But fudge is not the sort of thing people make just because they feel like it (unless you’re Monica Gellar and you’re trying to comfort your older brother who is in the throes of a tumultuous heartbreak). I needed a reason to make it, an occasion that warranted such a treat (and doubled as a good excuse). Since Valentine’s Day is next week, I took advantage because I figured I could sort of explain away the pan of rich chocolatey goodness by claiming February as THE month for chocolate (but I believe I could say that about any month, if pressed).

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It bothered me that even though Nonie’s Magic French Fudge holds a place of honor in my memories of Christmastime treats, I still hadn’t even tried to make an allergy friendly version of it. The Goobies are starting to remember, you know? And traditions aren’t traditions unless you do them again and again and again. Fudge wasn’t on their radar, and it’s something I wanted to plant firmly in their repertoire in the same way you want your Grandma Adeline’s kuchen to be. The key ingredient that makes Nonie’s fudge so magical posed a big problem, though: sweetened condensed milk contains dairy, clearly, and with a not-quite-two-year-old with a severe dairy allergy (and a sweet tooth the size of Texas), I wasn’t about to risk making fudge with the same ingredients my grandmother used to use because I knew Goobie #3 would find a way to get his grubby little hands on a piece or two. And so, we haven’t adopted Nonie’s fudge as part of our family’s Christmas treat line up.

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But–I happened upon a can of sweetened condensed coconut milk at some point in the past few weeks. I can’t remember when I first saw it exactly, but the moment I spotted it all I wanted to do was grab a can and scurry home to whip up a batch of my beloved fudge–but I didn’t. It wasn’t Christmastime, after all, and Nonie’s fudge dominated December, so making it at any other time of the year just felt a little…strange. But it’s nagged me ever since, so once February rolled around, I went back to the store and tossed a can of the stuff into my cart, quietly plotting when and how I could get away with attempting a dairy free version of it, and soon the idea infected me like a virus.

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Earlier this week, Mia unknowingly helped my cause when she asked if we could make something special in the kitchen after lunch, when her brother would be happily settled in for his nap and before her own quiet rest time. This is fairly typical; she soaks up my full attention for those few minutes as we measure, stir, pour, laugh. After licking the spatula clean, she skips off to her room, filled and happy. With the ingredients for fudge at the ready in the cabinets, I couldn’t not say yes to her, now could I? So clearly, we measured chocolate chips, melted them down, and stirred in the sweetened condensed coconut milk (or rather, liquid gold), and eased that molten goodness into a pan to set–all while restraining ourselves from breaking out spoons and making the stuff disappear. The funny thing is, once the pan was nestled deep inside the refrigerator to chill, all I wanted to do was give it all away.

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I realized this was a perfect opportunity to show the Goobies what an unselfish heart actually looks like. We talk about selfishness around here a lot lately, it seems, mainly because the girls often point accusing fingers at each other, screaming, “You’re being selfish! You need to share that with me now!” (Sigh.) They’re really good at spotting selfishness in others, but aren’t as good at actually being the thing they clamor for their sister to be: unselfish. And as I thought about that pan of fudge chilling in the refrigerator, I wondered: do we demonstrate unselfishness often enough, in a language our children can understand, so that they can see it, know it, imitate it?

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The idea of giving away that batch of my beloved thick, rich chocolate fudge actually hurt a little, so I paid attention that feeling. The girls would understand it wasn’t easy for me to freely give away something that meant so much to me (Wasn’t it Mia who wanted to give me a box of fancy chocolates for Christmas because she knew how much I love the stuff?) More than that, it hurt them a little too. They wanted to eat the whole batch just as much as I did. But I decided that putting an unselfish heart on display was worth more than hoarding it all for ourselves. So I sliced up that fudge into small little morsels, piled the pieces high, and wrapped them up to give them away. (Yes, I snuck a bite for myself as I did so, but let’s focus on the big picture here.)

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Those Goobies were conflicted, honestly. Excited as they were to bring that plate of fudge to the ladies at your office, they really didn’t want to give away so much of it. They were, not surprisingly, a little concerned about themselves. Their weakness for chocolate rivals my own, and they were a bit peeved I didn’t reserve more than just one piece of it for them. But they chose the higher road and fought over who got to be the one to carry the plate into the office and who got to actually hand the thing over, and after they finally gave it away, they put other people else first and didn’t even ask if they could take a piece or two for the road. (The lollipops they got from the ladies there might have helped.)

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The best part of the story, I think, is this: the day after we gave the fudge away,  Mia asked if we could make another batch so we could give more of it away, this time to our neighbors next door. And ok yes she also managed to squeeze in a suggestion that we not give all of it away this time, but I’m choosing to see this request as a win. When we give out of unselfish hearts, we all win. We are blessed so we can bless others, and when we bless others, we too are blessed. Clearly, my answer was yes. Clearly, I will let her lick the spatula and I will sample the finished product with her and I will even agree to keep a small portion of the stuff here for our family to enjoy, too, because isn’t this what we pray for almost every single night at bedtime when we thank God for blessing us, and ask Him to show us ways we can be a blessing to others?

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A small thing, fudge. Insignificant really. Almost too common or mundane to be all that exciting. But this once-Christmastime treat has planted itself firmly in my heart as a symbol of selflessly giving love away, which in my mind makes it a perfect treat to make in the middle of February.

Love,
Scratch

Nonie’s (Non-Dairy) Magic French Fudge (GF/DF/NF)

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Most families have their favorite recipe for fudge, I imagine, and this is ours. Nonie’s recipe sets the bar high in my opinion, because whenever I taste fudge from anywhere else (even fancy fudge made in artisinal chocolate shops), I tend to prefer hers. I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly magical about this recipe (and I have no idea where the name came from); I’m not even sure where she got the recipe in the first place or how it came to be her go-to recipe for fudge. But for me, this is the gold standard. Using sweetened condensed coconut milk made me nervous that the flavor would change (and taste like coconut-flavored fudge), but the finished product doesn’t taste like coconut at all. Of course, substitute regular sweetened condensed milk for the coconut version if your family can handle dairy, but after tasting this version, you may not even want to. I used Nature’s Charm Sweetened Condensed Coconut Milk, which is available at Sprouts for $2.99. Also, I like to use either extra dark chocolate chips, or a combination of semi-sweet chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate squares (for a darker version than Nonie’s original), but you can use all semi-sweet chocolate chips if you prefer (use a total of 18 ounces of chocolate per batch).

Ingredients:
  • 18 ounces extra dark chocolate chips (or 14 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips + 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate; or 18 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips)
  • 1-11.25 ounce can Nature’s Charm sweetened condensed coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
Method:

First, line an 8×8 pan with wax paper, making sure to create a 2″ lip (or so) of extra paper around all sides (this will aid with removing the fudge from the pan once it has set).

Next, set a glass bowl set over simmering water and gently melt the chocolate chips (or a combination of semi-sweet chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate squares, as noted above), whisking as you go and making sure no water drips into the bowl. Once the chocolate is completely melted, carefully remove it from the pan of water (and turn off the stove). Pour in the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla and salt and whisk to combine. It will begin to thicken almost immediately, but don’t worry about that. Keep whisking until fully combined and smooth. Pour into the prepared pan, smooth with a spatula, and chill until set, about an hour or so.

When ready to slice, ease the fudge slab out of the pan by grasping the lip of wax paper and gently lifting. Peel the paper away from the fudge and set the slab on a cutting board. Slice as you like, and share the love.

 


Macaroni and Cheese–or, More Rightly: The Problem, and Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

Matthew 6:26

“My God will supply all of my needs according to the riches of Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:19

Dear Joey,

We have a noodle problem in our house. More specifically, we have a macaroni and cheese problem.

I made a vow a long time ago that I would only ever make homemade macaroni and cheese, sans the box–you know, until I had two kids under two and time came at a premium. The less time I could spend in the kitchen, the better.

Over the years, I admit I got lazy. Boxed macaroni & cheese is easier to make; all you really have to do is pull the darn thing off the shelf and boil some water. The rest basically takes care of itself. Homemade macaroni and cheese involves a little bit more planning ahead, meaning you sort of have to know you’re going to make it and make sure the fridge is stocked well enough with milk and cheese to make the dish in the first place (milk and cheese turn sour and moldy. Boxed macaroni and cheese lasts forever.) Plus, taking the time to shred the cheese myself was a minor stressor that I didn’t have time for. For a season, I chucked the guilt and embraced Annie’s brand organic Macaroni and Cheese, thankful there was an okay-ish option out there for moms like me who were just too tired to make good on our virtuous vow to avoid overly processed convenient foods with an inflated price tag.

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Of course, that season lasted a little bit longer than I thought it would. Boxed macaroni and cheese is just so stinking brainless–the kids cheer when it shows up on the table every single time. When you’ve got picky eaters as well as food allergies and intolerances, having a no-fail meal waiting in the wings at all times is priceless.

After I figured out gluten is my enemy, I switched over to the gluten free version because cross contamination is a problem. And then, once Emery was old enough for big kid food, it got harder and harder to leave those garish orange noodles off his plate, especially when his sisters got so excited about them. He was not too happy to be left out of the party, and I knew the days of serving the stuff regularly were numbered.

Soon after that, I picked up a box of So Delicious brand gluten free/dairy free macaroni and “cheese” and quickly discovered how much Emery loved it. I figured Hey! This will appease the boy and provide a quick-fix for the days when my brain is fried! Woo hoo! But goodness, that stuff tasted (and smelled!) atrocious to the rest of us. For awhile, I bit the bullet and made him his own special box of it anyway whenever I made some of the gluten-free-dairy-full variety for his sisters, but it got expensive and tiresome and confusing juggling two different batches of orange noodles. Plus, I have more time to spend in the kitchen now–it’s easier to get dinner on the table than it was in those first bleary-eyed days of motherhood. My excuses for leaning on boxed macaroni and cheese were flying out the window fast. But Mia. She loves the stuff the way I love chocolate, and breaking the hold it has on her has been pretty much impossible.

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Clearly, I had a problem. And so, I did the only thing I really know to do when trouble stares me in the face: I prayed. I realize it might sound strange that I would talk to God about something so trivial as my macaroni and cheese troubles, but I believe He cares about me–about us, and that no problem is too small or insignificant for Him. Besides, at its core, the problem facing me is far deeper and more complicated; it is about so much more than macaroni and cheese.

The problem is about our food system and how broken it is and how someone like me who used to be so against all the mumbo jumbo of the food industry throws at us–even I am guilty of falling into the snare of quick and convenient. It’s about food allergies too, and about the simple fact that I don’t understand why the good food that God made to nourish and sustain His creation turned on our family, so to speak. It’s about how angry this all makes me and how trying to navigate the food allergy world is frustrating because I am not able to ditch the boxed stuff and turn to the normal real food standbys and say, “Problem solved!”

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After Emery’s scratch test, this all came to a head. I was bummed out about food allergies and feeling the sting of the grocery bills; I was weary of making two versions of practically everything at mealtime and tired of a picky eater who rejects just about anything I make for dinner unless it involves a noodle. I started talking to God about it, telling Him how ill-equipped I felt to do something so basic as feed my family well.

A few days later, the anger abated and I forged ahead with a little bit of clarity and in those moments God showed me something as I was unloading my current haul of dairy-free staples: God always provides. Time after time after time, in the great stories of the Bible and in our own, far smaller life story–it’s what He does. Truth be told, we have never gone to bed on an empty stomach, and neither have our children. My feelings are real and true, it’s not easy to juggle allergies and preferences and stretch our dollars, but we have allergy friendly options available to us and we have dollars with which to pay for them. Beyond that, I am equipped me with the things I need to make all this work: a passion for food and for feeding my family well. Kitchen know-how (enough of it, at least) and the willingness to try new things there. The kitchen never used to scare me–why should it now? It’s as if God reminded me of who I am and how He made me, and then urged me to look at our family’s food allergy reality as one to tackle with with courage and creativity instead of something to sulk about.

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And then my attention turned to the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese I just restocked, the one that is one of many dairy-free building blocks with which I am learning to construct new recipes, and I thought about that Alfredo-like sauce I made a few months ago, the one I made up on a whim because creamy pasta sounded warm and comforting to me that night. I tossed it with gluten free pasta, grilled chicken and broccoli, and we didn’t have any leftovers to speak of. It occurred to me that a simplified version of that sauce tossed with gluten free noodles might make a suitable substitute for boxed macaroni & cheese. Turns out, I was right.

No, the creamy noodles I came up with do not taste exactly like their boxed counterparts (which is a good thing, when considering the vegan varieties pretty much taste like cardboard covered with cheese that went bad a long time ago, in my very frank opinion), but they do taste good. They are quick, easy, and everyone eats them happily (and the house doesn’t smell like feet when I make it). I didn’t go so far as to add vegan cheese-like shreds like I wanted to because our girls don’t like them (yet…), but for now this recipe works for me. For us.

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Mia does not love them the way she loves boxed macaroni and cheese, true, and often I will sprinkle a little bit of Parmesan cheese on top of her plate to really sell them to her (once Emery is strapped into his high chair, at least), but I am weaning her off of that because they really do taste good without it. Plus, Emery started noticing this minor little difference between his plate and hers and lets us know he does not like being told Sorry buddy, no cheese for you. The whole point of these creamy noodles is to make a dish everyone can and will eat, so the days of Parmesan cheese are numbered indeed.

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In the days since Emery’s scratch test, I came out the other side, in some ways. I am not happy about his allergies. I am not happy about Mia’s allergies either, or about my own issues with gluten for that matter. I realize now that this is not God’s fault. We live in a fallen world where human choice spoiled God’s good earth. In His sovereign kindness, God still provides even in the midst of this ravaged land. I do not believe food allergies were part of His good plan for creation. I believe our bad choices messed it all up (maybe not our family specifically, but humanity as a whole), yet somehow, in the midst of it all, He still takes care of us just like He promises He will.

There is still one lonely package of gluten free macaroni and cheese out in the garage, way up on the highest shelf tucked all the way in the back, but I don’t plan to restock the shelf. These creamy noodles aren’t the answer to every problem food allergies brought to our table, and perhaps they aren’t the most clean/whole/organic/healthy/perfect alternative out there, but they are a choice I feel good enough about, one that I know I will lean on like a reliable friend in the coming years.

Love,

Scratch

Vegan Creamy Noodles (GF/DF/NF)

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This recipe screams Allergy Friendly Flexiblity.  As written, it is free of gluten and dairy, but feel free to swap out alternative ingredients based on what your family can tolerate (if you are dairy free but can tolerate gluten, use wheat noodles. If you are gluten free but can tolerate dairy, use regular cream cheese, butter and milk. Or if you don’t have food allergies at all, use both–the recipe will still work.) We use Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli, but clearly, use your favorite noodles. Also, I cannot vouch for the flavor profile if you use other brands of Vegan Cream Cheese, but I think it’d be worth a try if your family likes other brands. We prefer the Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese, so that’s what we use around here.  To round out a meal for the kids, I sometimes add diced ham and frozen peas. Let your family’s preferences let your creativity soar.

Ingredients:
  • 8 ounces brown rice pasta (such as Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Fusilli)
  • 4 ounces Vegan Cream Cheese (such as Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 Tablespoons Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread (you can use a bit more or less if you’d like. No hard and fast rules on this one)
  • 1/4 cup plain, unsweetened Rice Milk
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Method:

Boil 8 oz. gluten free noodles according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, set a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Plunk in the Earth Balance and Vegan Cream Cheese and whisk until the two have melted together. Pour in 1/4 cup rice milk, vinegar, onion powder and salt. Whisk until smooth, then add the noodles to the pan. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

If you have leftovers, add a splash or two of rice milk to help re-hydrate the sauce when reheating the noodles.

 


Things Don’t Always Go the Way I Think They Will, and Quattro Rosso Sauce

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”

Proverbs 16:9 (NLT)

Dear Joey,

Tuesday night was such a departure from my expectations–not because what actually happened was so far outside of the norm that I walked away all that surprised by the turn of events. In fact, that night turned out to be what most folks might call typical. But for me, the way the after school hours unfolded revealed again that I can (and should) make plans for my day, but ultimately, I have very little control over what actually happens.

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Just after I panicked about what to do about dinner, I rushed out the door to pick up Addie from school so I could whisk her over to ballet class on time. Once she was settled in the car, munching on her granola bar and humming along to the music, I reminded her we were on our way to ballet. Her response surprised me: “Ugh. I forgot it was ballet today. I don’t want to go.” She insisted she just didn’t like ballet, and I was surprised to hear it. This is the girl who used to wear tutus all day long and beg me to click on a YouTube video of real ballerinas dancing in The Nutcracker so she could mimic their every move. She practically begged us to let her take ballet lessons, and up until now she seemed to really enjoy them. This complaint seemed a little out of left field.

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Except for it wasn’t, really. She didn’t want to go to ballet last week either, but when she asked not to go on that particular day I just figured she didn’t want to leave her post at the kitchen table. She hadn’t had school that day and so she set out her markers and tracing paper on the table and colored to her heart’s content. Ballet, I assumed, was an unwelcome interruption in her creative flow for the day. I was mistaken. There was more to it than that.

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We dialed your number and talked together with her about all this in the car, sort of on the way to ballet and sort of on the way home. She admitted she was just so tired at the end of her school day that dancing was the last thing she felt like doing, and she just didn’t love ballet as much as we thought she loved it. We decided it wasn’t worth forcing her to do something she didn’t really want to do in the first place, and if being at home sounded like the best thing in the whole world to her? Well, that was alright by me.

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So it turns out I did have time to make zoodles with Quattro Rosso sauce for dinner that night after all. But I still wasn’t sure about whether you were bringing home take out or not (you didn’t), or whether our friends would be coming over to join us for that night’s basketball game (they didn’t), so while I waited for answers I just did what felt right: I started in on that sauce with just the one pound of thawed ground turkey that was ready and waiting. I figured if friends came over, we’d just send you out on a taco run; and if they didn’t come over, well, we would just eat those zoodles. I chopped garlic and browned the meat and whirled the roasted peppers into velvety submission. The sauce was simmering when you got home from work early and said this to me: “You have two choices: we go on a walk right now, or we eat dinner right now and go for a walk after. Either way, we’re going.”

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The zucchini hadn’t been spiralized yet and the Goobies’ brown rice noodles hadn’t been cooked yet, so clearly eating right then wasn’t going to happen. But the idea of leaving for a long sunset walk and feeding the kids a late dinner made me panic. I like spontaneity in theory, but the practice of it is tough for me. But I clicked off the stove and set the pot of water for noodles aside anyway, and we loaded up the wagon with snacks, blankets and children to set off for an adventure. I did it begrudgingly at first, I admit. But the kids couldn’t have cared one whit about a later than normal dinner time. They were happier than I have seen them in a long time–full of glee and excitement. They shrieked and smiled and obeyed and embraced the idea as if it was the first time in the history of the world that a dad suggested taking a wagon ride at sunset.

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We were gone for over an hour and by the time we got home those Goobies were hungry. They ate their noodles with  Quattro Rosso sauce with gusto (and without complaint) while I spiralized the zucchini. Later that night, after take-home projects, baths and bedtime stories, after they were finally in bed and I felt too tired to blink let alone cook again, I somehow mustered up the energy to tackle the pile of uncooked zoodles waiting for me in the kitchen, and we ate them piled high in our bowls and swimming in that beautiful red sauce as we watched the Warriors lose a game we expected them to win.

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I was exhausted by the time we went to bed. My brain was aching from the strain of a stop-start afternoon and evening, but I rested well in spite of it. My mind didn’t replay the events of the afternoon, keeping me in that frantic place where dinnertime seemed like such a problem to be dealt with instead of a time to enjoy. Instead, God whispered to me in those quiet moments, reminding me when I surrender my will to His and open myself wide to the mysterious truth that His ways are higher and better and far more exciting than mine, my stress sort of just melted away.

So much about my life feels out of control these days, but in his kindness, God took me by the hand and showed me that He’s leading me through my harried days, and I am so glad about that. This life is far too hectic to handle by myself, and really, I don’t know why I ever try to.

Love,

Scratch

Quattro Rosso Sauce

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I came up with this fancy red pasta sauce nearly three years ago, probably on a day when the cupboard was fairly bare and I’d have to get creative to get dinner on the table. We liked the magical combination of the four red elements in this sauce enough to write down the recipe alongside a note that reads, “Mia devoured this. ‘More! More! More!'”. This time around the girls were old enough to ask why I call it Quattro Rosso Sauce. When I explained I gave it that name because there are four red ingredients in it: roasted red peppers, tomato sauce, grape tomatoes and red wine, they both raised their eyebrows and Mia said, “Oop, I feel like a grown up.” Joey and I giggled and asked her why she felt like a grown up, and she said, “Because I’m eating wine.” Enjoy the sauce over pasta (like our kids did) or zucchini noodles (like we did, which would make this an S for you Trim Healthy Mamas out there. Or use lean ground turkey and serve it over zucchini noodles to make it an FP.)

Ingredients:
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1-12 oz. jar roasted red peppers (or a combination of sweet peppers, such as the ones from Trader Joe’s)
  • 1-15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup red wine (such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons herbs de Provence
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Method

First, mince the garlic. Then, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook gently for a minute or two, just until they become fragrant (and be sure not to burn them). Once you start to smell the garlic, add the ground turkey to the pan and then turn up the heat to medium high or high (being careful not to burn the garlic). Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and stir the meat, breaking it up as it cooks.

Meanwhile, drain the roasted peppers. Using a food processor (or a blender, if you don’t have one), whirl the peppers, tomato sauce and herbs de Provence together until smooth. Add the mixture to the browned ground turkey and give it a good stir. Next, add the grape tomatoes and wine and mix well. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Cover and lower the heat so the sauce gently simmers for a good half hour (at least). The longer the sauce simmers, the better the flavor.

 

 


The Season Is Now, and Apple Cider Donuts

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

Dear Joey,

Remember how I felt so against the change in season a couple weeks ago? I’m still in that place a little bit: not really ready for some of the things I know are just around the corner. With Fall pressing in on us I felt pushed, like I had to hurry up and pretend to be excited for change. I wasn’t ready for a lot of the change that happened so far this year, and really, I’m not sure I’m ready for most of what’s waiting just around the corner either. But this past weekend reminded me to be present to what is now as it is now because someday soon I will be lonesome for these moments.

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Fall doesn’t last long, does it? Summer seems to drag on forever, and every October we seem surprised the weather is still warm, too warm to put a pot of soup on the stove or cradle a mug hot apple cider. By the time cooler weather comes around, Fall is halfway over. Christmas arrives on its heels and before we know it, the best time of year is gone, just like that. The weather turned cooler over the weekend, and I think it must be the swirling winds and rainy days that changed the way I’m feeling about Fall. A blustery Saturday whisked away my lingering resistance to Fall and ushered in much needed rain–and a fresh perspective for this season.

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Addie has her first loose tooth I want to pretend it isn’t happening. She has been wiggling that thing all weekend, and every time she announces “It’s getting even more wigglier!” I tear up and she rolls her eyes and I smile and and she laughs as I tell her to stop growing up already. That wiggly tooth is evidence her babyhood flew by just like they say it would, and I didn’t know “they” would be right.

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Then again, the baby-toddler-preschool years are like a wiggly tooth that seems to hang on forever, and sometimes I just want the thing to fall out already. Sometimes little kids are just, well, annoying, and as much as I treasure our own and don’t want to rush them into being big kids, sometimes I wish they could just pour themselves a bowl of cereal in the morning without me. The implications of that moment are terrifying, of course, because the reality of the big kid world is unknown to me still, and I often wonder how I’ll be capable of mothering older children when I feel so inept at mothering such small ones.

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I keep reminding myself the anticipation of change is often harder to deal with than the change itself. Addie’s fear about what it will feel like when her wiggly tooth actually falls out has a pain all its own, the sort that will be dispelled the moment that tooth pops out and she realizes losing teeth doesn’t hurt at all. I expect the same will be true for me when I wake up one morning not to the sound of “mama!” but to the clinking sound of spoons scraping the bottom of bowls of cereal I didn’t pour.

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It’s Fall right now and if I don’t immerse myself in the beauty and flavors and traditions of these moments now, when will I? Fall will come around again next year, true–but we’ll all be a little bit older and Addie’s tooth will have long since fallen out, Mia might be losing her baby teeth by then, and these days will be just a memory. I don’t want to miss my chance to enjoy these days because I’m too preoccupied with the things that scare me about the next chapter in our lives. I’ve got to grab hold of these moments, right now and really give them my attention, or they will be gone before I really notice. I don’t want to miss my chance. And so, in celebration of the season and things that are, I made Apple Cider Donuts.

Love,

Scratch

Apple Cider Donuts (GF/DF/NF)

These mini donuts prove vegan treats are delicious! They’re gluten free, dairy free, nut free too–and brimming with flavors of fall. Fantastically easy to make: use a donut maker if you have one, or a donut pan if you have that. If not, just use a mini-muffin pan and pass them off as donut holes, or use a donut pan and bake them in the oven (375 degrees for 12-15 minutes ought to do the trick). Roll them in cinnamon sugar if you don’t want to fuss with the glaze (and I don’t blame you if you don’t), but goodness that cinnamon glaze is yummy.

Ingredients:

For the donuts:

  • 3/4 cup spiced apple cider (such as Trader Joe’s)
  • 1/2 cup apple sauce
  • 1/2 cup pure cane sugar
  • 4 Tablespoons Vegan buttery spread (such as Melt or Earth Balance brands, or use regular butter if dairy isn’t a problem for you)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cups sorghum flour
  • 3/4 cup brown rice flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum

For the glaze:

  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons Soy Free Vegan buttery spread (such as Melt or Earth Balance brands, or use regular butter if dairy isn’t a problem for you)
  • 3 Tablespoons original, unsweetened non-dairy milk ( or regular milk if dairy isn’t a problem for you)
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of kosher salt
Method

For the donuts: First, the dry ingredients: whisk together the sorghum flour, brown rice flour, baking powder, pumpkin pie spice, kosher salt and xanthan gum in a small bowl and set aside. Next, move on to the wet ingredients. Melt the buttery spread and set aside to let it cool slightly. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the apple cider, apple sauce, sugar, and vanilla extract, then slowly whisk in the melted butter. Once the wet ingredients are mixed well, whisk the dry ingredients into the batter in three additions (pour a third of the dry ingredients in and whisk; pour another third in and whisk; pour the last third in and whisk).

When using a donut maker:  Heat it up, then spray the iron with non-stick cooking spray and scoop about 2 Tablespoons of batter into each mold (each donut is about 2″ wide–if your donut maker is larger, increase the amount of batter accordingly).  Cook for about 3 minutes (or longer, if your donut maker is bigger), until the donuts are golden and easily pop out from the molds.

When using a donut or mini muffin pan: Grease the pans, scoop dough into cups or molds, and bake. 12-15 minutes ought to do the trick.

If you are making the glaze, proceed to the next step. If not, toss the hot donuts in cinnamon sugar and call it a day.

For the glaze: Melt the butter over medium heat, then whisk in the powdered sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and salt. Add the almond milk and whisk until the glaze is smooth–no lumps, please.

Dip the donuts in the glaze, flip them over, and make sure to coat both sides. Let them dry on a wire cooling rack (with parchment paper beneath them to catch drips). The glaze remains sticky, but goodness they’re good that way, and sticky hands can be washed, right?

 

 

 

 

 


One Small Thing, and Dressed Up Tuna Salad

Dear Joey,

You’ve been hounding me to make a hair appointment, begging me to go shopping for clothes, and basically all around urging me to take care of my own self for a change.

It’s nice. I don’t feel so bad when I come home with a new pair of shoes that begged to be taken home with me while I was making a very glamorous diaper run at Target.

But it also makes me feel like saying, “What, you don’t love me just the way I am? Is my hair so terrible? Are you embarrassed to be seen with me but are too afraid to admit it? And by the way, when do you suppose I have time to do all these things, anyway? Oh, right: I’ll just leave the baby with our live-in nanny and spend the day gallivanting through the mall, scooping up armload after armload of beautiful things for myself while I sip champagne. Because clearly, we have all the money in the world to spend to do that sort of thing, and life at home runs smoothly without me. Dishes do themselves. Laundry puts itself away.”

I know you don’t think any of those things, of course. And I don’t scold you when you gently ask me about it (I don’t think, at least). I try to remind you it’s not as easy to take care of myself as it used to be before kids were around. I am so out of the loop on what’s actually in style these days because I don’t really have time to pay much attention. But that distinct mom style I’ve unintentionally been sporting lately has finally gotten the best of me–and you too, I think.

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Making matters worse is the kids have collectively been sick for 10 days in a row, and finding a time to get away to make myself a priority is hard. When I do have a moment to spare, I’m too tired to think about much at all, let alone try on clothes for a few hours, trying to find my style as I do so. (It’s so exhausting, I’m telling you.)

Today I was thinking about all this as I stirred together tuna salad for lunch. Both Mia and Emery were zonked out at an early nap time, leaving me a few minutes to think about my own thoughts for a change. This tuna salad is really simple, quite uncomplicated and easy to throw together, but full of a few surprises that give it texture, interest and beauty. I got to thinking: that is exactly what I need in my style-life. I’m not exactly sure how to get there, but for me to have that much time to even think about what I’m looking for? Kinda huge.

It is HARD to put myself first, to spend money on myself, and to reject the guilt and self-loathing I hear whispering behind my back as I try pretty things on again. But please believe me: I am trying. I haven’t scheduled a hair appointment yet (that’s next on my agenda today), but I did do one small thing for myself this week: I decided to give Stitch Fix another try, and I filled out a profile for Trunk Club (thanks to a friend who swears by at-home styling services), and I’m hoping it helps. Plus, you can give me your honest opinion about what you like and what you don’t like, all without dragging you around town with me.

Love,
Scratch

PS – Both have have men’s styles, too. And, if anyone signs up for their own shipments from either of these places using my referral links, I get credit for it to use toward clothes of my own when they buy clothes for themselves. Score! Here they are:

Stitch Fix: https://www.stitchfix.com/referral/3192368

Trunk Club: https://www.trunkclub.com/my/invite/KTAGMF

Dressed Up Tuna Salad

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This is my go-to lunch, one I make so often I could do it with my eyes closed. I make it with Greek yogurt when Emery isn’t around, but I use low fat mayonnaise instead if he is awake (because his little fingers often get a hold of whatever I happen to be eating). If curry powder scares you: worry not. You can leave it out. But I challenge you to try it because it’s really quite subtle and dresses up the salad just enough to make it a little bit fancy. Start with 1/4 teaspoon, and work your way up.

Ingredients:

1-5 oz. can albacore tuna

1/4 cup Greek yogurt (THM friends, use fat free. Or, to make it DF, use mayonnaise instead)

1/2 apple, diced

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 green onion sprig, chopped

2 Tablespoons dried cherries (or dried cranberries or golden raisins)

1/4-1/2 teaspoon Sweet Bombay Curry Powder

salt and pepper, to taste (about 1/4 tsp kosher salt does the trick for me)

sprinkle of almonds, for garnish (omit if nuts are a problem for you)

Method:

First, drain the tuna and dump it into a medium size bowl with plenty of room to mix well. Next, pile in all the other ingredients (except the almonds) and stir until well combined. Taste to adjust seasonings, then mound it on a pretty plate and sprinkle with toasted almonds.

 

 

 

 


A Winner, and Gooey Cocoa Crispy Rice Treats

Dear Joey,

Well, we left the house in a sort of rush on Friday to try to evade the get-out-of-town traffic. We didn’t do a very good job and it took far to long to get to the lake than we had hoped. Oh well. The busy morning also delayed me from announcing the winner of the Skip Hop Zoo Little Kid Backpack. Oops.

I did manage to at least choose the winner before we left for the weekend(and the winner is Deborah Gardner. Congratulations Deborah! Check your email for instructions on how to claim your prize.) But as a consolation prize, I have a never-let-you-down recipe for allergy friendly crispy treats. I figure disappointment deserves chocolate, right?

Plus, when things don’t turn out the way I planned or hoped or intended, chocolate helps me deal–especially when its made from a thoroughly dependable, never-fail sort of recipe.

Love,

Scratch

Gooey Cocoa Crispy Treats

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These are basically that classic crispy rice treats we all know how to make, but my version is gooey-er than its traditional counterpart because I that’s the way I like it. I used cocoa crispy rice instead of the plain ones because, well–do I really need to give a reason to use chocolate? Since these are gluten free, dairy free, and nut free (and super easy to make), they are a great treat to turn to if allergies are an issue. Beware that not all crispy rice cereals are gluten free, so make sure to buy a box that explicitly states it is gluten free if gluten is an issue for you (I used Mom’s Best Crispy Cocoa Rice Cereal in this recipe). Otherwise, of course–use whatever crispy rice cereal you like.

Ingredients:

12 oz. marshmallows

1/4 cup Melt Organic Buttery Spread (or Earth Balance, or a similar vegan buttery spread to make these dairy free. Otherwise, use butter.)

6 cups Gluten Free Crispy Cocoa Rice Cereal

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

pinch of kosher salt (1/16 tsp)

Method:

First, prepare your pan. Lightly spray a 9 x 13 glass pan with non-stick coconut oil spray (or something similar). Set aside.

Next, set a big pot over medium heat and melt the buttery spread. Add the marshmallows and heat them gently, stirring almost constantly as they melt and meld with the buttery spread. Once they’re completely melted, stir in the salt and vanilla and quickly add the crispy rice, stirring to coat them completely with the molten marshmallow goodness.

Plunk the sticky mixture into the prepared glass pan and press the rice down, smoothing it as you go. It helps to spray your fingers with non-stick spray so the treats don’t stick to your fingers. Let the treats cool and set for a few minutes, then slice into them as you like.

 


Finding Beauty and Something New at the Farmers Market, and Coconut Lime Beef with Cilantro and Red Cabbage

Dear Joey,

We finally made it to the Farmer’s Market this summer. It only took us until the first Saturday after school started to make it there. Not everyone was as excited about it as me: Addie crossed her arms and stomped her way to the car, going on about how mean we were for dragging her out of the house and huffing “You said I could color all day” as finally climbed into her seat.

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Once we got there, I handed her my phone and asked her if she wanted to take some pictures. It was a desperate move on my part to coax a happy attitude out of her. The last thing I wanted was a grumpy, whiny kid ruining a trip to a place so alive with every color imaginable. Color and beauty speak to this kid and she has a knack for capturing it. Plus, she feels pretty grown up when I let her tinker around with the camera. I knew she’d take the bait.

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As we strolled up the deserted aisle, 8:00 in the morning felt early. The tables were still piled high with fruits and vegetables that seemed to glisten in the morning light. Nothing was picked over yet and the sellers greeted us with the sort of smiles I read about in those winsome books about the farm to table movement. I felt like we were part of something big, beautiful and important in those few quiet moments.

I led the girls from stall to stall, pointing out the colors and textures and quizzing them on the names of the things they saw. They swooned over the brilliant red berries, begging to taste as much as they were allowed. They touched and smelled and asked questions as we went. Then, I let each girl pick something special: Addie picked a ruddy heirloom tomato that looked very much like clown lips to her young eyes. Mia picked a pale green bitter melon, a new vegetable for us and one she wasn’t actually keen on tasting after all. But the farmer was so kind to tell us all about it, and his enthusiasm for it must have done its job because she was pretty excited to tell you all about it.

I was not as excited to cook it, to be honest. As I sliced it up, I wondered how I would ever mellow the sharp bite that in my mind screams don’t eat me!  But the little mound of scalloped half moons piling up on my cutting board was so pretty I didn’t care about that for a moment: certainly they would just make dinner more beautiful.

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They did, and they didn’t. Certainly the colors and textures of that stir fry were far more brilliant than much I’ve made lately, but the sly bitterness of the cute little veggie was not our favorite. Thankfully it didn’t permeate the rest of dinner, because what I came up with was super delicious in its own right.

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So hooray for us for getting up and out on an otherwise lazy Saturday morning, for stretching our legs and our culinary muscles and trying something new and different. And hallelujah for a pantry full of ingredients to turn something so-so into something delicious.

Love,

Scratch

Coconut Lime Beef with Cilantro and Red Cabbage

IMG_4455 After all that, bitter melon didn’t make it to the ingredient list here, but if you enjoy a challenge (or happen to like bitter melon), it really does work in this recipe. We handled about a half-dozen bites with it until we started plucking the pieces out of our bowls). Like I said before, the bitterness didn’t overpower the flavor of the dish, and what was left was sweet and tangy, mellow and spicy all at the same time. This dish uses Tamari, which is gluten free soy sauce (regular soy sauce uses wheat, a lesson I learned the hard way). Addie likes the beef ok, but the veggies aren’t her favorite yet. Emery liked it all until he got a bite of the bitter melon. And Mia wouldn’t go near this for the life of her.

Ingredients:

For the sauce:

1/4 low sodium Tamari

1/4 white vinegar

5 Tablespoons lime juice (plus more for garnish)

2 T Stevia/erythrytol sweetener blend (like this one) or about 4 T cane sugar

a pinch of kosher salt

For the Stir Fry:

1 pound ground beef

1 medium carrot, jullienned

1/2 medium head red cabbage, sliced (about 5 cups or so)

5 green onions, ends removed and cut into 1″ sections

1/2 medium onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, minced

2/3 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced (plus more for garnish)

2 Tablespoons unrefined Coconut Oil

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

almond slices, for garnish

Method:

First, prep the veggies and have them cut and ready to go. Next, mix together the sauce; taste it and adjust the sweetness as you go.

Now for the meat: set a large skillet over medium heat. Melt the coconut oil, then add the onions to the pan and cook until they are almost translucent. Next, add the garlic and cook for a few minutes until the it releases its fragrance.  Turn the heat up to medium high and add the beef into the pan, squishing it as you go to make nice large pieces of it. Season the beef with the ginger, salt and red pepper flakes.

On to the veggies: crank up the heat to high and add the carrots first, then the cabbage. Cook those two together for a few minutes (3-5) and let them soften a bit. Add the green onions next, then the coconut. Pour in that sauce and let it deglaze the pan. Once the veggies are soft to your liking, add in the cilantro and give it a good stir.

To serve, mound the sweet and spicy goodness into a bowl and top it with more red pepper flakes, a squeeze of lime juice, a sprinkle of cilantro, and almond slices if nuts are your thing.


Comfort Me with Dinner and Kid Friendly Cassoulet

Dear Joey,

This morning when I called Addie into the bathroom to get her hair brushed, she cast a sideways glance at me and asked,”Are you going to cry again today?” I laughed and said, “I hope not, kid. But probably.” The emotion swirling around the first few days of Kindergarten has subsided now, for the most part. We’re off and running now, finding our stride and fully expecting to hit a few bumps along the way.

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We made it through the first few mornings of back to school mayhem, and even though it went well, it took a lot out of me. I’m exhausted, aren’t you? Trying to be organized with these three tornadoes swirling around me is laughable. The lazy summer days masked my disorganized self quite well, but the fall semester ripped the cloak right off of me and exposed me for who I am: a disaster. I haven’t showered in two days. (Again. Gross.) and I finally understand what all those moms of school-aged kids meant when they told me to enjoy the pajama-clad, messy-bun days at home with little bitty babies while I could. They were right: those days are a cake walk compared to these new bigger-kid days. Back then the only one who saw me unshowered was you. Now the world sees me as I really am.

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Plus, organizing the girls’ schedules and toting them from here to there dressed, fed and on time– with a baby in tow–is tough. Forget getting myself ready: making sure everyone else is ready to go at the same time, with everything they need, while they all still need me to do so much for them is the priority. Add to that my guilt over how much time Emery spends riding in the car now along with the heartbreak that comes flooding in when I scoop him up from his nap on the way to pick Addie up from school, and I have a whole new batch of mommy exhaustion and guilt.

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Never mind the fact that I still, somehow, in the middle of all this have to make dinner. For weeks leading up to the first day of school, I had plans to have a big, comfort-food laden meal welcoming us all home and into evening hours with peace and comfort, anchoring us all to each other again after the first of many days ahead spent going our separate ways. By 3:00 that afternoon, though, I still didn’t have the slightest idea what to cook. I let guilt over that taunt me for a few minutes, until the idea of warming up leftover beans and quinoa (again) was too much to handle. So I opened the fridge, poked around, and found a pack of Italian Sausages smiling up at me practically begging to be cooked. I thought about the way Addie inhales deeply, sighing “What smells so good?” whenever I cook them, and I realized Cassoulet was the perfect solution for this unprepared mother’s lofty ideals of a comforting family meal.

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I browned those sausages and chopped up carrots and sauteed onions and garlic, happily listening to Addie chatter about her adventures of the day, nodding and murmuring Oh really? How cool! as I did so. A few minutes of this and she stopped mid-sentence, clearly catching a whiff of the magical combination of onions and garlic and asked with a smirk, “What’s for dinner?” Those words make my heart sing because what I’m really hearing is “Comfort me with dinner.”

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We actually sat down at the table together on the first day of school–all five of us–and ate the same thing at the same time. There were a few tense moments of course, because our children are normal and young and protest if they are given anything other than noodles. But overall, it was wonderful. It slowed us down and helped us connect. The best part wasn’t even the food: when it was Mia’s turn to share her High Point from her day, she looked up from her plate and smiled, saying, “Right now.”

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In those few minutes, I was filled with a new appreciation for what dinnertime could be in the coming years: a daily ritual of comfort, all of us together, connected and fed in more ways than one. What kid wouldn’t look forward to coming home from school to that?

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That is, if I can get organized and figure out what to cook.

Love,

Scratch

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Addie can’t seem to remember the name of this dish (I can’t blame her. Cassoulet is a sort of tricky word for a 5 year old), but she oohs and ahhs when I tell her I’m making sausage and bean stew, which is pretty much what this is–and an easy one at that. I tend to have the ingredients around most of the time and can toss it together quickly. The food is simple, but the flavors are fantastic, and all my children really do eat this. It is both gluten and dairy free, which makes it easier to get us all eating the same thing. I go easy on the thyme because any more of it overpowers the other flavors for me, but if you love the stuff, then by all means, add more. But whatever you do, don’t leave out the red wine vinegar. It makes all the other flavors come alive.

Ingredients:
  • 6 Italian sausages, uncooked
  • 2-13.5 cans diced tomatoes (juices included)
  • 2-13.5 ounce cans Great Northern Beans, drained
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced to 1/4 cubes or so
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • a few glugs of olive oil
Method:

In a dutch oven, warm up the olive oil over medium high heat. Line the sausages up in the pan and let them turn deep golden brown on both sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove the sausages to a separate plate and lower the heat to medium. Toss in the onions and stir them around a bit, coating them in all those delicious sausage drippings. Cook them a few minutes so that they soften and start to turn translucent. Then, turn the heat down to medium low and toss in the garlic. In a minute or two you’ll start to smell the garlic; at that point add in the carrots and cook to soften a little, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle in the thyme and salt, then add in the tomatoes, tomato paste and red wine vinegar. Stir everything together and turn up the heat to medium. When the mixture begins to bubble, add in the drained beans and gently stir again. Slip the sausages from their plate back into the pan, along with any juice they’ve left behind, and nestle them in with the beans and veggies. When the stew starts to bubble, put the lid on top and put the whole thing in the oven. Leave it there for 40 minutes. After 30 minutes have passed, take the lid off, but keep the dish in the oven for another 45 minutes or so, until the sauce has thickened up and carmelized.

This would be fantastic served with crusty bread, clearly. But since I haven’t mastered the art of the gluten free loaf yet, we served it with roasted cauliflower and a simple cucumber tomato salad.