Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Formula for Fresh Pasta

Every family has traditions that are unique to them, and one that works, thanks to my family's idiosyncrasies, is making pasta. My sister is key to pasta making, so much so that I rarely attempt it if she isn't nearby. And now that she lives two provinces away, she isn't nearby very often. So when she came to visit this past weekend, I took advantage of her presence and added fresh pasta to the menu.

Why does pasta take two people to make it, you might ask? Well, in this case, I have the interest and the instinct to make a well-balanced pasta dough. I mix it by feel and it rarely turns out too dry or sticky. But the key ingredient to the pasta is my sister's strong hands. She's a massage therapist, you see, and she's got strength and stamina in her hands and shoulders that I simply do not possess.

So I mix the dough to the right consistency, starting with this recipe, and then add water to the bowl until all the flour is incorporated, depending on the weather and humidity (it took about 1/2 cup this time around because we're stuck in a stubborn mid-western cold snap right now, and our relative humidity is practically negative), then I hand the bowl over to my sister. She puts the bowl on the floor, gets down on her hands and knees and gives the dough a working over like none you've ever seen. The resulting ball of pasta dough is smooth and silky—it looks almost too soft to use, but it rolls out perfectly.

The recipe makes a substantial amount of pasta—in our case, just the right amount for a family dinner that served all 13 of us (from ages 1–61, all noodle fiends). I divided the pasta into three bowls: plain-buttered (for the kids and my dad); with pesto (also popular with D); and tossed with a container of oven-roasted tomatoes and sprinkled with Parmesan (my personal favourite). And it was served alongside my dad's home-cured smoked pork chops and my mom's home-frozen garden veggies. 

Nothing like family working together to make dinner taste great!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Kids and Christmas Baking (or, How Not to be A Control Freak)

I struggle with a bit of a paradox. I want my kids to be interested in food and cooking, and for the most part they are. But in order for them to really get into it, they need to do it, and in order to allow for that I need to create space in my schedule for some learning and mistakes.

Most of my days of cooking are parcelled out into measurements: I have x amount of time today, and I will use that time to cook a meal that takes exactly the time I have, assuming no distractions and constant, efficient forward movement. That doesn't leave much room for the kids to help out. Especially considering that preparation of meals always happens at that awkward time where children are hungry and likely tired, and the longer the process takes, the higher the likelihood of a meltdown of epic proportions.

The same goes for Christmas baking. D says, "Mom, can we make gingerbread people this year?" Well son, I've already carved out time in my schedule between mid-November and mid-December to make the usual peppernuts, mini-fruitcakes, truffles, spiced nuts and a gingerbread house. Gingerbread cookies were not part of the plan.

It appears I can handle one kid at a time, to help me with something simple and non-crucial. While I was rolling peppernut dough into long tubes that would be sliced and baked later, I offered a piece of dough to G to play with while D was outside with his dad. This led to a full twenty minute conversation about why he couldn't just eat the whole lump of dough, as I watched him lick his fingers and touch the dough, drop it on the floor, and sneeze on it multiple times. At that point, I offered to bake it for him, so he could have his own cookie. It certainly wasn't going to be part of the baking I gifted to clients.

D was pleased with the opportunity to help roll truffles in cocoa powder. While a singularly messy endeavour that ended in cocoa powder everywhere, he was fully engaged and happy to contribute. There was still a running monologue about why you don't lick your fingers/pick your nose and then pick up a truffle, but I didn't feel too anxious about keeping things perfect, mostly because (except for the mess), the task was fairly controlled.

The gingerbread house, which I will bake and construct before setting the kids loose on the decorating, is theirs and theirs alone. I make suggestions, but they are free to create as they see fit. From year to year, they will gain more skill and a longer attention span, and hopefully this paradox will become less of a challenge. In the meantime, I have made arrangements for my mom to wait until we get home for the holidays before she decorates her gingerbread people so my boys can help. And I've started offering D the chance to scrape the carrots that go in my morning smoothie. He loves that. And maybe that's enough for now. Baby steps, right?

I'd love to hear from readers some of your thoughts on creative ways to get kids to help in the kitchen.