Category Archives: cooking

Food science & history with crappy camera-phone photos

Started the food history lecture today (we spent the first week getting hung up on math assessments). Good enjoyable stuff–PK making connections between what Professor Albala was saying about prehistoric cooking practices and things he already knows about prehistory*–and it turns out that there is a downloadable course booklet that comes with each of the Great Courses. In the one for this course, the professor specifically mentioned, there are accompanying cooking activities. So I went and looked, and the first activity was a perfect hands on, homeschool type of science/anthropology experiment. Here ’tis.

Boiling Water in A “Skin” Bowl Made of Paper


Yes, that’s a Trader Joe’s bag

Make a cup out of a large, flat piece of paper (not one that’s been cut and glued into a cup, b/c the seams will leak)–an 8″x8″ square cut from the side of a grocery bag will work well for this, as the paper is thick enough to hold the water without soaking through and 8″ is large enough that you can hold the corners without burning your fingers.

Light a candle in a holder so it’s ready to go (or just hold it in your hand and have the kiddo do the next part, assuming kiddo is old enough to have sufficient motor control). We burned a whole taper down and were just short of boiling when we finished, so I’d suggest using either a high-quality taper or a larger candle.


No, the sink is not clean. This is not one of those blogs that pretends to perfection.

The cup may drip a tiny bit (ours did), though, so if you are using a pillar candle there’s the possibility that accumulated water will put

it out; I recommend a good taper held sideways–or just laid down with the burning end over an open area.

The kitchen sink is perfect since it’ll contain any spills and there’s water just in case something does catch fire….

Fill the paper cup halfway with water. Hold it over the candle flame. In a few minutes, the water will start to steam and then, to boil.

Stuff you can talk about while you’re waiting:

  • Why isn’t the paper burning? (It will probably smoke, and if you pay attention you may see little ember glows within it right above the flame.) You can point out that an animal skin (leather) would be even less flammable than paper, of course, and therefore better able to stand up to an actual campfire as opposed to a tiny candle flame. Plus it’ll hold more water.
  • Do you think cooking this way would be something that would be more characteristic of settled agrarian people or hunter-gatherers who had to move around a lot to find food?

We did ours, as I said, in the kitchen sink; initially I held the candle sideways and PK held the cup, but once he realized that this was going to take a while, we decided to just rest the candle on the side of the sink while I held the cup and PK did his job of cleaning the kitchen. :-) It’s fun to watch, though, especially if you look for the tiny embers that you can occasionally see through the water. Because I am a klutz, I twice spilled some water while adjusting the candle as it burned down, which means that by the end we had very little water in the “cup,” and the candle burned all the way down before the water actually started to boil–but there was quite a bit of steam by that point and the water was quite hot to the touch, so we deemed the experiment successful.

*Including the interesting fact, so PK says, that the sword was the first weapon built exclusively for fighting and killing other humans. Other weapons used for that purpose (spears, slingshots, clubs) can also be used against animals, and axes and knives can be used as tools, but swords are too big and unwieldy for either hunting or even to cut up an animal carcass; they are weapons built to be used in a situation where your opponent will not run away, but will stand and fight. i.e. there is a “rule” about the fight. He did not, however appreciate my thought that this fact suggested that the laws in pre-modern Europe and Japan (and for all I know, other places as well) that actually forbade commoners from owning or wearing swords, along with accompanying ideas about sword-carrying being a mark of nobility, effectively meant that the idea of status in complicated modernizing societies basically amounts to being able and willing to kill other humans (and therefore, to forbid others from having this power), since he is a 12yo boy and still really wants to believe in the idea of knights, soldiers, etc as protectors….


A Completely Uncontroversial Mommy Blogger Post About Dinner

I like to cook, Pseudonymous Kid likes my cooking (in fact, he prefers it to eating out and actively complains on the nights I say we’re getting takeout or going to a restaurant), and I’m pretty good at it. Somehow this year my cooking stepped up a couple of notches, too, and I can’t remember the last time I made something disappointing: I finally seem to have mastered a broad enough range of techniques and gotten a good command of flavor profiles, enough that I can reliably wander into the kitchen, decide what the backbone of the meal will be (pork chops? Pasta? Rice?) and just start gathering things and deciding how I want the end result to taste (North Africanish? Mediterranean? bright and tangy? complex and earthy?) and pull it off. I am proud of this.

The thing that got me started cooking many years ago, though, was baking. I really like baking. And a couple of years ago I got started with this Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day thing, and I am telling you: it is true, and it is a total game-changer.

Let me start by saying, you really should buy the book, and the follow-up, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which has a lot of whole-grain recipes. But I will tell you–from memory, because it is that easy–how to do the most basic, simple bread in the first book, which is what I use for our basic every day bread and, as one of my staple quick dinners, the dough for pizza.

Get a big tupperware-type container, one that holds like 4-5 quarts. Pour in three cups of warm water, add a tablespoon and a half of yeast and the same amount of salt. Measure out 6 1/2 cups of flour (I tend to be scant with the cups, because since you’re doing this by volume not weight, you’re better off with a dough that’s a little loose than one that’s too dense ime). Stir the whole thing up with a butter knife (which will cut through the thick dough more easily than a spoon).

That literally takes like five minutes. If you have a kid who wants to help in the kitchen, they can do this part, though they might spill some flour. But if you do it regularly, they can totally contribute to one of your staple family “chores” in a substantive way.

Then put the lid on loosely and leave the dough for a couple of hours. Like, if you’re doing this at dinner time, leave it out until bedtime, or if you’re doing it in the morning, leave it out til you go back into the kitchen at lunch. The dough will rise and then collapse a bit. At that point, snap the lid tight and put it in the fridge.

The next day, when you want some dough, get out a cookie sheet or some parchment paper. If you’re using a sheet, sprinkle either corn meal or oat bran or some other fairly gritty dry thing on the pan (this is so the bread will not stick to the pan, so sprinkle heavily; any leftover you can wipe back into the corn meal or oat bran container after the bread goes into the oven). Heavily flour your hands and the part of the dough you’re going to grab, and use another butter knife to cut off about 1/4th of the dough volume. Shape it into a ball-type shape and put it down on the cornmeal covered cookie sheet or the parchment paper. (I recommend a cookie sheet for bread, and parchment paper for pizza; you’ll see why in a minute.)

If you want it to be bread, slash the top of the ball a few times with a serrated knife (this is to help the bread expand as it bakes, and so it looks pretty), set the timer for 15 minutes and walk away.

If you want it to be pizza, flour the top again and roll it out with a rolling pin to about 12-15 inches. Pour some olive oil on the rolled-out dough and spread it around to coat the dough, using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon or your hands. (If you use your hands, you will obviously need to wash them afterwards, but that’s not difficult.) Then put your pizza toppings on the pizza: I’ll put some ideas below. Basically preparing the pizza takes about the same 15 minutes as letting the bread sit.

When the timer goes off (if it’s bread) or when you’re done prepping the pizza (if it’s pizza), turn the oven on to 400 degrees. You want the oven to contain another cookie sheet or, if you’re fancy, a baking stone so that the surface the bread will bake on will be HOT when you actually put the bread in. Otherwise the bread will stick, but a hot surface will cook the bottom immediately and the bread won’t stick. On the bottom of the oven you want a metal roasting pan, something with an edge on it so that you can pour water in to steam the bread later (you don’t need this for pizza, but mine lives on the bottom of the oven regardless b/c this whole process makes breadmaking so easy we make all our bread now). Don’t use glass, b/c a glass pan will break if you pour cold water into it when it’s hot! (For the same reason, if you decide to splurge and buy a baking stone? Make sure never to get it wet when it’s hot.)

Set the timer for another 15 minutes or so to let the oven heat up, and because 15/15/15/15 is easy to remember.

When the timer goes off a second time, it’s time to put the bread/pizza in the oven. If it’s bread, you’re going to use the cookie sheet the bread is on as a kind of big spatula; transfer it onto the hot sheet in the oven with a quick jerk, and assuming that you put enough corn meal under the bread, the transfer should be clean. If it’s not clean, your bread loaf will be a bit of a weird shape, but that’s not the end of the world. Mistakes happen.

If you’re doing pizza, though, in my experience it is impossible to do a clean jerk with a fully-laden pizza, so instead I just use the parchment paper the pizza is sitting on to pull it onto a clean cookie sheet, then use that sheet to transfer to the hot sheet in the oven parchment paper and all. Parchment paper is non-stick and thin enough that the hot sheet will still cook the bottom of the pizza quickly, so just let the pizza cook on the parchment paper in the oven. The paper will probably brown around the edges, which is no biggie.

Set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off for the third time, if you are making bread, fill some kind of pouring container (I use an empty wine bottle) with water, open the door real quick, pour the water into the roasting pan on the bottom of the oven, and close the door.  The steam will help the bread form a nice crispy “artisan” type crust. Try to do this as quickly as possible so that the oven temperature doesn’t drop. If you are making pizza, have a look at the pizza to make sure the cheese isn’t burning; if it is, maybe turn the oven down a bit.

Set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off, your pizza or bread is done.

This all sounds more complicated than it really is when you’ve done it a couple times, so here is the real short version:

Dough: 3 cups warm water, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast, 6 1/2 cups flour.Let it sit for a couple hours, til it rises and collapses a bit again, then put it in the fridge.

Bread: cover a baking sheet with oat bran or corn meal, flour your hands and the dough, cut off 1/4 of the dough volume, roll it into a ball, put it on the bran-or-meal-covered sheet. Slice the top.

Pizza: same thing, but put the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper instead of a baking sheet and instead of slicing, roll the dough out (use more flour so it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin). Spread olive oil on the top and then make pizza.

Baking: 15 minutes to rest (or prepare the pizza); 15 minutes to heat the oven (with baking sheet inside); 15 minutes to bake without steam; 15 minutes to bake with steam.

If you’re doing pizza, you can just set the timer for 30 minutes baking, obvs. 20 might be enough, but surprisingly I have found that even though the dough is thinner, it still requires the same baking time. Probably b/c stuff on it keeps it wetter longer.

Pizza “recipes”/ideas:

Sprinkling the olive oil with a seasoning mix–Italian, Greek, “pizza mix,” etc–can kick up the flavor, but is not necessary.

For tomato sauce, you can just use bottled marinara or pasta sauce, or plain bottled crushed tomatoes (in which case the seasoning mix really does help). Or you can not do sauce. Or you can use bottled alfredo-style sauce or make a white sauce, which is basically a roux with garlic to which you add milk, parmesan, and oregano or basil or whatever. There’s a recipe at the link if “roux with garlic and milk and parmesan” doesn’t make sense to you.

Toppings: my kid likes sliced salami; I really like mushrooms, which you can buy pre-sliced, thus making it super easy. Goat cheese is grand. Another family favorite is olives, preferably real ones (i.e., the greek kind–pitted and either cut in half or put on there whole). Sliced multi-color bell peppers look nice. Pre-grated mozzarella makes cheese toppings easy, and there’s even grated soy mozzarella for the non-dairy types like my husband.

Greek Pizza: greek seasoning, olives, crumbled feta and bell peppers.

Potato pizza: no sauce, rosemary sprinkled heavily over the olive oil, and thinly-sliced potatoes and red onions (use the slicing side of a box grater to do thin slices really quickly).

Chicken and garlic pizza: Crushed or thinly-sliced garlic on white sauce, and grill a chicken breast, then slice it and put it on top. (I often grill an extra breast or two if I’m cooking chicken, then slice the breasts and freeze the slices, which makes chicken pizza even easier.) Broccoli is yummy with chicken, too.

BBQ Chicken: use bbq sauce instead of white sauce, or use tomato sauce and mix the sliced chicken with a cup or so of bbq sauce before putting it on the pizza. This is also yummy with sliced or diced red onions and cilantro.

Basically one of the things I love about doing pizza is that a cup or so of pretty much any kind of leftover–random chicken breast? pepper starting to wizen? couple of meatballs? A carrot?-can be sliced up and made into a pizza. Interesting looking goodies at the grocery store–peppered goat cheese? a small jar of roasted peppers? artichoke hearts? capers? fresh mozarella–work great, too, and you don’t have to figure out a “recipe” for them.

And the clean up is super easy. Throw the parchment paper away or reuse it if it’s not too burned, wash a cookie sheet and the pizza slicer and maybe a knife, and you’re done.

When Hippie Parenting Fails

So a few years ago I had this clever idea that I would save all the various random toys that come into the house, get played with for five minutes, and then just clutter up my life by throwing them into a bag and giving them away at Halloween. Not candy! Environmentally better than just tossing them (if less admirable than not acquiring them in the first place, but what can you do)! Clever!

Of course, I never actually *remembered* to drag out the bag, or if I did, I couldn’t find it, right? But this year, I saw the bag and it’s all ready to go.

Only, HITCH. Pseudonymous Kid is now old enough that he has FIRM OPINIONS on the complete and utter lousiness of this plan. “Mama. Kids HATE the people that give out non-candy crap. And no, you cannot give out sugar-free gum this year, either. Kids want CANDY.” He even tried to talk me out of the $20 worth of ETHICALLY SOURCED NON-SLAVE-LABOR CHOCOLATES* I bought yesterday at the overpriced “health food” grocery store, finally relenting by grudgingly insisting that I could buy that chocolate to give out, but that I would also be required to buy a bag of almond joys and reese’s for us to eat.

Only Almond Joy and Reese’s are both Hershey products, and Hershey is sucky on the chid-slave-labor front. I’m trying to talk him into a homeschool cooking project to make them at home. He is intrigued by the idea of making them for ourselves, but, on realizing that I was not proposing whipping up a ton of these to hand out to every kid that comes to the door but rather proposing to hand out the health-food-store chocolates, he reverted to “NO. You will hand out the regular, unhealthy, bad-for-the-environment stuff. Or the kids will hate you.”


*Endangered Species makes halloween-type chocolates–little individually-wrapped squares. And yes, they are much more expensive. Which is kind of the point.


Today’s stealth homeschool project: making caramels.

So PK mentioned last night that he wished we had some caramel around. Thinking of my need to become more flexible and get him to do things other than play video games all day, I said “we could make some tomorrow.” Which he bought into.

Then this morning he mentions it again. So, clever me, I hauled Harold McGee down from the shelf (having bought it in the first place on my boyfriend’s recommendation, both b/c it sounded really interesting and thinking PK might learn something from it–but PK never seemed too interested) and said, “here, look up ‘caramel’ in this.”

While he was doing it, I played a little dumb. “I think caramel is just melted sugar, isn’t it?”

“No, mama, it’s not exactly the same as sugar, because there’s a chemical reaction that actually changes the molecular structure.”

“Hm. I wonder how.”

“The heat changes it.”

“No, I mean, I wonder what the specific molecules are.”

“If I remember, I think it’s something like C12H11O10, or something like that. At least they’re all double-digits, and I think it’s carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.”*

“I’ll be impressed if you’re right.”

From McGee, he learned that caramel is, in fact, caramalized sugar (i.e., melted sugar–the melting is a chemical reaction, but I didn’t fuss at him about that), and that caramel, the candy, is caramelized sugar with milk fat added.

“This says that the more milk fat, the less the caramel sticks to your teeth. So since I have braces, we’ll have to add a lot of milk fat.”

Since PK has expressed an interest in learning to cook, I’m beginning to see how the chemistry component of this, at least, might work.

*I couldn’t get him to look it up himself, or to look up “Maillard reaction,” which is something McGee talks about. Nor has he yet looked up an actual recipe for caramel; as soon as he got back on his laptop it was back to the video games. But baby steps; the summer’s not even over yet.