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Recipe Review: Softbatch Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies

I wish I could remember the first time I ate a homemade chocolate chip cookie because I feel like my life since that moment has been an endless, fruitless (though chocolate-filled and therefore often delicious) effort to bake the perfect one. Yes, I realize that I ate my first chocolate chip cookie as a child, and for me at a young age, “effort to bake the perfect one” usually just meant baking variations of the recipe on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse Morsels bag.

Variations, you ask?

Oh, you know.

Semi-sweet vs. milk.

Softened butter vs. melted butter.

Light brown sugar vs. dark brown sugar.

Nuts vs. no nuts.

And my favorite . . . adding oatmeal.

As a grown-up person, I’ve gotten better and more adventurous with my baking. I still follow other people’s recipes. When it comes to stuff that I and my loved ones and I are going to eat, I’m not one for the road less traveled, not when it’s made by me, anyway. Being a follower is not a terrible thing some of the time. I’m getting away from my point. Anyway. As I was saying, I like recipes, though I use them more as a general guide rather than a strict set of rules.

Still, all that said, I’d never varied too much beyond what’s listed above, when it came to chocolate chip cookies. The standard recipe is easy, and there’s chocolate so even when they’re bad, they’re good. But realizing that I’ve passed on my chocolate chip cookie addiction on to my daughter, it occurred to me that if she is going to love the chocolate chip cookie as much as I do, I’d like for her to believe that the cookies we make at home are better than anyone else’s. I mean, whenever she wants to have a really awesome cookie, I want her to say, “Mommy, let’s bake!” instead of, “Mommy, let’s go to the store and buy cookies!”

So with that in mind, I’ve looked at recipes here and there that were a step above the old standard, but not so complicated that my 2-year-old couldn’t help me (or that I couldn’t keep an eye on her while in the thick of it because she got bored and decided to go color on the table in the dining room—it happens). Ideally, the ingredients would all be stuff I keep at home on a regular basis, and they’d bake soft.

Here’s a recipe, from the blog AverieCooks.com, that I landed on in that search, and while I won’t claim it’s the perfect cookie. It’s pretty damn good.

(Fair warning if you follow the link to the recipe: There are so many pictures of delicious gooey cookies before you get to the actual recipe that you will be convinced you have to make them right then when you finally do.)

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One of the things that makes the cookies soft is that the recipe replaces some of the butter (softened) with cream cheese (also softened). You can’t actually taste the cream cheese, but the resulting batter is much thicker and stickier than for cookies I’ve made in the past. Instead of chocolate chips and chunks, as suggested, I only used chips.

The recipe also calls for refrigerating the dough for two hours (or up to five days!) before baking. I never do this when I follow cookie recipes. I’ve been told that cookies baked at just the right temperature are all the tastier for it, but who has the time or patience for that? Not me. In this case, I put the dough in the fridge while my daughter sat on the potty for 20 minutes before scooping onto the baking mat. Don’t know if it made a difference. The resulting cookies were delicious either way. Very soft and very tasty. I took some to a friend’s house who had us over for dinner and her kindergardener confirmed that they were very good indeed. I highly recommend this one.

Recipe review: Triple berry muffins

The hubby, always a great gift-giver, got me a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer for Christmas. It’s a thing of beauty. Also, the hand mixer I’d been using was one he bought while in college to make queso. I hate replacing things before they’ve broken beyond repair, but I think 20 years is good enough for one small kitchen appliance, don’t you?

Anyway, this weekend, while clearing out the fridge, he came across a bag of frozen berries from Costco that may or may not have been there since 2012. So for the mixer’s maiden voyage, I went to the net in search for a good muffin recipe. I’m trying to stay away from the Food Network and AllRecipies.com as much as possible, so I went with this one from the blog abeautifulmess.com.

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I won’t copy the recipe here, but I’ll note that I made a few adjustments—isn’t that part of the fun? I don’t like Greek yogurt, so I substituted Noosa, which is what we usually have in the house. And, obviously, my berries were frozen not fresh. The nice thing about that, though, was that when they thawed, they were extra juicy, which made the batter and the muffins themselves nice and colorful.

The mixer preformed beautifully (was there ever any doubt?) and having my hands free cut the prep and clean-up time in half. The muffins themselves were pretty good. A bit on the dry side, but I left the first batch in the over a couple of minutes too long so that was likely my fault.

The kid’s reaction: She ate three over the course of the day. By “ate” I mean ate the tops off, but she genuinely seemed to enjoy them and this is a child that usually has to be talked into breakfast.

My verdict: B, not going to rush to make them again, but tasty way to get rid of the frozen berries.

Adventures in Baby Feeding, Part 2: My daughter prefers pinto beans

The thought that most often came to me in the first forty-eight or so hours after my daughter was born was, “Is she breathing?” Every fifteen minutes, I felt (and acted on) the urge to go over to her hospital bassinet to make sure. I don’t know if that’s weird or if that’s something all parents experience, but for the first couple of days she was around, that was pretty much all I could think about. Eventually, that feeling went away, although I can’t remember exactly when. More recently, I’ve found that eating is the life function I worry about most. Namely, I wonder, “Is she going to starve to death?”

The answer to that ridiculous question is no, obviously, but sometimes, my feeling of helplessness in the face of toddlerhood can’t be helped. The baby that so easily opened her mouth to all kinds of nutritious goop, prepared from scratch by her mother with her fancy food processor, is now a picky, finicky, hard to please toddler who is prone to the occasional tantrum if you offer that sippy full of milk one too many times.

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Adventures in baby feeding, Part 1

To say that I have a complicated relationship with food is to say that Hillary Clinton has a complicated relationship with Bill. No, there is no serial infidelity (unless you count me cheating on every diet ever), but there is resignation and recriminations hidden behind of veil of happiness and peppered with occasional bouts of peaceful coexistence. Why am I ascribing human traits to food? It’s complicated, as I just said. But I’m not going to go into it because (1) that would take more space than exists on the internet and (2) I’m not here to talk about me. This is about my daughter.

When I learned I was having a daughter and again when she was born, I remember thinking over and over, “Please, God, don’t let her have my food issues.” What and how she eats are what I worry about the most. I want her to be healthy, first and foremost, but I also want her to have a healthy outlook, so that when she’s 8 she won’t cry at the dinner table and when she’s 16 she won’t be too embarrassed or afraid to eat in front of her friends and when she’s 40 she will enjoy an occasional ice cream outing with her kids without fearing it’ll go straight to her hips. I don’t know if this magical head space exists, but if it does, I want her to live in it.
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5 things in no particular order

1) Dreaming of a White Christmas

I grew up in a tropical climate, so the concept of a white Christmas was totally foreign to me until mom and I moved from Colombia to upstate New York. Snow was, indeed, a wondrous thing to a 9-year-old who had never seen it before. We also discovered, though, that however prettily it settles on the Christmas pines, snow can also be kind of a pain in the ass. For the latest proof see this week’s travel news out of the East Coast. Still, when you don’t have to fear its effects on your holiday itinerary, snow does add a certain charm to the season. Few things compare to burrowing yourself in a warm blanket, Christmas lights flickering, mug of hot chocolate in hand, as winter does its thing outside.

There was no such picture in our house this year. Denver weather, fickle mistress that she is, teased us with a cold spell early this month before temperatures settled into the 40s and 50s over Christmas, showing few signs of fluxuating too drastically before the calendar turns. Not that I’m complaining. I still get chills when I think about the winters hubby and I endured during our adventure in Chicago. There is cold, and then there is winter in the Midwest. Denver winters are much milder in comparison. That can be hard for some who don’t live here to believe since blizzards and bone-chilling temperatures have a reliable tendency to make an appearance when the Broncos are on Monday Night Football or the Rockies are playing October baseball and the rest of the country happens to be looking our way.

So a white Christmas is not exactly rare here, but it’s also never a guarantee. That I’ve come to expect, even wish, for one every year is a product of the very cold places I’ve lived since moving to the United States, but also an inclination that runs contrary to the Christmases of my early childhood in Latin America. I guess at this point in my life, I’ve spent more Christmases in cold weather so warmth feels like a novelty. Of course, when the cold does come around and I’m wrapping myself in several fleece blankets trying to keep my feet from feeling like icicles, I remember that my mind may have come to terms with weather above the Tropic of Cancer but my body still lives at the Equator.
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Palin knows her turkey — as we all should

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ticket may not have won the presidential election, but that doesn’t mean she intends to go quietly into that Alaskan goodnight. As a vice presidential nominee, she gained the stature to be one of her party’s standard bearers going forward, but to remain so, she’s going to have to stay in the public eye.

One way to do that, I suppose, is to pardon a turkey and then hold a news conference as the rest of the turkeys, the ones deemed less camera-ready, are being slaughtered behind her. This happened last week, and the footage became quite the hit on YouTube.com after it was shown on MSNBC’s countdown and a handful of other news programs. Certainly, the incongruity of pardoning a turkey and then breezily talking politics and smiling cheekily (the only way Sarah knows how) for the camera while the other birds get ready to become Thanksgiving dinner is amusing. If nothing else, it points to the silliness of the pardoning ritual — why bother saving the life of one turkey when at factory farms across the country the only humane action taken against animals brought up for slaughter in the poorest of conditions is death itself?

Many of the programs who showed the footage of Palin and the dying turkeys called it yet another “gaffe” from the good governor, warned viewers about the “graphic” nature of the video and just generally criticized her. For what, though, I’m not sure. I’ve written about Palin before and probably will again, but on this, if on few other issues, I’m on her side. What, exactly, is wrong with being aware of where your food comes from? Of not thinking it a big deal that turkeys are dying right behind you? Where do people think their meat comes from if not from once living animals?

I’m not a vegetarian. Humans are carnivores. It’s in our biology. There are nutrients we get from meat that we don’t get anywhere else naturally. Having said that, though, I do sympathize with those who chose to abstain from meat because of the way animals are treated in our food industry. Most live in factory farms, in cages barely bigger than they are, without ever seeing the light of day. Farms and ranches have a mythological place in our country’s heritage and rightfully so, but in today’s world many are run not by families but by corporations with little regard or respect for the land and the animals. The result may be inexpensive food, but we end up paying for it in other ways: poor health, to offer one example, from cows whose meat is high in fat because they’ve been overfed with grain and aren’t allowed to graze naturally.

A library full of books has been written about the sad state of our food industry and how far removed the average American is from the source of his or her sustenance. The best are probably The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, who outlined how the next president can revolutionize the food industry in our country (and clean up the environment in the process) in a recent New York Times piece.

So Sarah Palin may be a lot of things and may have committed her share of gaffes. Knowing where her food comes from isn’t one of them. Just a little something to chew on as you digest that Thanksgiving meal.

What I’m thankful for this year

My family did not celebrate Thanksgiving until I was 9, which is how old I was when we moved to the U.S. from Colombia. South of the border, there’s is no giving of thanks, or at least no federal holiday that allows for copious consumption of turkey and fixings (copious consumption of other foods — sancocho, sobrebarriga, pasteles — happens pretty much throughout the year). If I’d ever eaten turkey before then, I have no memory of it. Thus, the holiday meant very little to me over the years. When I was younger, co-workers or friends of my mom sometimes would invite us over and eventually, despite initial skepticism, the deliciousness of pumpkin pie won me over.

I like Thanksgiving as a concept (a non-religious reason for people and families to come together), even if I still find myself a bit detached from the tradition of it. For the longest time, my Thanksgiving tradition involved simply going to work. All of the papers I’ve worked for have provided a turkey dinner to the sad sacks who, for lack of seniority or a desire to avoid family dysfunction, had to come in for a shift. Free food will lure journalists almost anywhere.

Last year, hubby and I decided to change things up. We hosted our own Thanksgiving and invited other “orphans” whose families were too far away to travel to. It was a small group and it’ll take a few tries before we perfect the food preparation, but it was fun. My sister came for her first Thanksgiving, she having lived south of the border her whole life with my dad. (Like me, she was a bit leery of the pumpkin pie at first encounter.) It was nice having her there. Thanksgiving was, for me, for the longest time, a reminder of how far away my family was — mom in another time zone, dad and siblings in another country. Some of them are still far away physically, but they feel closer, perhaps because we’re all grown-ups now and no longer separated by time as well as distance. I also married into a big, warm family and live near them now, so it’s unlikely the hubby and I will see another quiet Thanksgiving any time soon. I’m thankful for that. And for the family that I won’t see tomorrow, for the ones south of the border, who aren’t celebrating a holiday and might be eating a big delicious meal, but only because the mood struck.

Of oysters, abuelos and marriage

Recently, an article in the Travel section of the New York Times got me thinking about the food I ate as a child. It was a feature/review on up-and-coming restaurants in Cartagena, Colombia, which apparently is making a name for itself as the latest international foodie heaven. The descriptions, mostly of very delicious-sounding seafood, included few condiments and dressings I recognized. Though the setting was familiar, it was not Colombia, or food of the sea, as I remember it.

As a child in Colombia, I grew up surrounded by the smell of salt water. In my family’s home town of Barranquilla, on the delta of the Magdalena River, we were about a half-hour drive from the beach, but between the ages of 5 and 8, my mom and I lived in El Cerrejón, a coal mining outpost near Puerto Bolivar, on the tip of Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula. The town, if it could be called that, was little more than a collection of mobile homes on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The beach was, there too, about a 30-minute drive away, but the ocean water, its sounds and its smells were a football field’s walk from our trailer, No. 315.

One would think it would be no surprise that I would love all sustenance borne of the ocean. Still, my mother remembers expressing extreme surprise when I sucked down my first oyster at age 6.

We were visiting my grandfather Gilberto, who at the time lived on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela. I had eaten a lot of fish before, but things like oysters, shrimp, scallops, mom had not yet dared offer. Few children like such things. Why would I be any different? My grandfather insisted on the oysters, though, and I complied with gusto, apparently. My memories of the trip are hazy—it’s hard to tell whether I’m recalling actual memories or simply picturing moments I see captured in old photos. The tastes are there, fresh in my mind. Lime, salt, a squirt of Tabasco and the sea. A slimy sensation turns earthy as I bite and then, after a second, slips down my throat and into the vault of my childhood.

I’ve had fish, squid, scallops, and shrimp countless time since, but oysters on only a handful of occasions. Maybe five or six times in 25 years. None since I got married. Part of the reason is emotional: I know they won’t taste like I want them to, like they would to a hungry and curious 6-year-old eager to please her abuelo. Part of the reason is practical: My husband has no taste for seafood.

I’m not exactly sure when during our courtship I figured this out. To reveal his preferences is to reveal how different his upbringing was from mine. He grew up in the landlocked state of South Dakota, fed by a mom whose farm roots stretch across the American prairie. That is to say, fresh milk, eggs, meat, and potatoes. As a child, I ate those things too, but dressed with avocadoes, tomatoes and other kinds of things that my husband tends to look at with a suspicious eye. To be fair, there are foods he loves that I hate and foods he’s tried that I haven’t.

Still, it’s a marriage, and to nourish it, we’ve found common ground in the kitchen, in ethnic foods and ingredients new to us both. I’ve introduced some of the flavors I grew up with, but I haven’t tried to cook any seafood for him. He doesn’t like it, I’ve told him, because whenever he might have eaten it as a child, he couldn’t see where it came from. For him, there were no morning swims in the ocean followed by a late lunch at a beach side hut—swimsuit still damp—where the special was whatever just came out of the water. As good as shrimp, scallops, oysters, can be at some restaurants, even if their source is miles and miles away, I want his first taste to be something like mine was. Even if my grandfather Gilberto isn’t there to spur him on.