Christmas Eve

We had a beautiful snowstorm today—about 4 inches of fluffy, white snow that fell most of the day. After some last-minute errands, I took the boys sledding this afternoon. We’d gotten Duplo a new sled last year, but it never snowed enough for him to use it last winter. So this year, we’ve been aching to go at the first good snowstorm. Unfortunately, the first real snowstorm, near the end of November, came at a time when I was too busy to take them, so we just had to go today.

We went to my favorite spot in town: the “barn park,” as some friends used to call it. It doesn’t involve a barn at all; it’s next to the cemetery, and it has large fields and whatnot for soccer and baseball. One the southwest end of the park are some hills that are perfect for sledding.

At first we couldn’t get down the hill because the snow was so fluffy that the sleds kept getting stuck. But then we found an area where some other children (now gone) had made compressed paths, and one of the paths even had a jump in it!

El Guapo hated sledding and eventually just needed to be snuggled while his brothers giggled and flew down the hill and trudged back up again over and over and over. The house next to the park had some big wind chimes that sounded like Christmas bells ringing. Other than the laughter of the older boys and the occasional chimes, all was silent. The clouds that had brought the snowstorm earlier had parted, and there were some blue skies peeking through. It was so utterly beautiful and happy and Christmasy that I was almost overcome by joy and peace.

I hope your Christmas is full of joy and peace and family as well. Thank you all for being so good to me. Merry Christmas!

What the kids are up to lately

Well, El Guapo’s walking. He was taking a few steps at a time about a month ago, and about two weeks later he started just toddling around the house. He still is unsteady enough that an object on the floor or a sudden change in the texture or height of the floor (moving onto or off of a rug, for instance) often causes him to fall. But he gets around, and he’s happy about it.

He’s also trying to talk more, which is going rather weirdly. First of all, he calls me Dada. He also calls Jon Boy Dada. We have this conversation about ten times a day:

El Guapo, patting my chest affectionately: “Dada!”
Me: “No! Mama.”
El Guapo, patting again: “Dada!”
Me: “No! I’m Mama. Say Ma. Ma. Ma.”
El Guapo: “Dada!”

He smiles so pluckily its as if he thinks that his thick mother might eventually figure out that her name is Dada and that he’s right. Last night we did get him to say “Nah-Nah” (like Mama, but with N’s) once, so maybe he just can’t. I don’t know.

Then, once in a while, he’ll say a word he’s never said before, once, almost perfectly. Like “book” or “cheese” or “thank you.” Then he won’t repeat it. Ever. Instead, he just says “light” a million times a day.

Duplo is becoming more interested in reading and is figuring out more and more words. He’s in that stage where he’ll decode a single word on a sign or a book and ask why it’s there. He spends hours a day playing with wooden blocks and is super interested in how things are put together and what the functions of different pieces of machinery are.

Lego just started first grade and is doing fine. He actually seems to come home cranky more often than not, but he claims to love school, so maybe he’s just tired after a long day of working hard. He also learned to ride his bike without training wheels this weekend. I really can’t say who’s prouder of him, us or him. We’ve been working with him on it all summer, but we weren’t even outside when he figured it out. He was out with his cousins and tried a smaller bike, and when he learned how to ride that, he tried his own and did just fine.

So yeah, we’re doing great and learning all the time. Never a dull moment at our house, let me tell you.

In which I go all granola on you

I really don’t consider myself the sort of person who buys organic, who makes her own bread from her own freshly ground whole wheat flour, or who does any number of homely but ultimately time-consuming, earth-mama-y things. I’m a modern girl, and while I do garden and can my home-grown produce, I generally don’t care enough to stop buying bread at the store, and I’m too much of a cheapskate to pay more for something that is probably better for my family when the alternative is not actually bad for them. I think the word for people like me is lazy or maybe apathetic.

Which is why it’s so surprising to me that I’ve suddenly gotten into homemade cleaning products. I just don’t feel like the sort of person who makes her own laundry detergent, you know? Not that I have anything against people who do; I just didn’t see myself joining their ranks.

But a few months back, I saw a blog post from someone who moved into a place with a horrible, old, black, gucky tub. Like mine, you might say. She tried a whole bunch of things to clean it and reviewed each one. In the end, the one she recommended most highly was . . . borax. Plain old-fashioned boric acid borax. I didn’t even know you could clean a tub with borax. I didn’t even know where I could acquire it. What I did know is that I’d tried a whole host of things to clean our nasty tub, and none of them had made much difference. If borax could get it whiter, I’d consider it a triumph. So I went to my grocery store’s laundry aisle and bought a box of borax. I scrubbed and scrubbed (she did warn that elbow grease was needed), and you know what? That tub looked better after I was done than I’d ever seen it. Not that it was perfect, mind you, but it was better. (Update: At my mother-in-law’s suggestion, I tried a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser for some of the black spots on the tub, and it worked wonders as well. It didn’t do as good of a job on the general grayness as the borax did, though.) One downside is that borax doesn’t dissolve in water, so you end up with a gritty residue where you use it. It rinses off easily, though.

Now that I’d seen the power of borax on my tub, I decided to try it for its main purpose, laundry. I used it to freshen the scent of musty loads, and it does work great for that without the risk of bleaching the colors. It isn’t so awesome at stain removal, unfortunately.

I guess borax was my entry drug. After that, I was more willing to try cream of tartar (and later baking soda) to scrub my stovetop. Cream of tartar works great for greasy, cooked-on food stains. Again, it requires elbow grease, but it does work really well. Baking soda does not work half so well. I later used cream o’ tartar to scrub clean a cookie sheet that had had burned food on it (babysitter didn’t know it was in the oven when we left . . . oops), and it worked for that too. Too bad cream of tartar isn’t exactly cheap.

Well, after trying these, I guess the logical next step was to try making my own laundry detergent. To be honest, I kind of felt like I’d gone over to the dark side when I first started contemplating it. But the more I thought about paying $25 for three months’ worth of laundry detergent, the more I wanted to see if homemade detergent, which cost more like $35 a year, worked as well as some people online said it did. I had to find Fels Naptha soap and washing soda, the latter of which I actually had to ask an employee for help finding. I have to admit, my first load of laundry didn’t come completely clean with 2 Tbsp. of my detergent. But upping it to 3 Tbsp. seemed to solve the problem, so maybe I just do really big loads.

So yeah. Natural cleaning products for the win. Maybe I’ll mix up some vinegar and water and use it to clean my kitchen. Ca-RAAA-zy!

The best peach cobbler

I feel like I have a lot of updates on our family that I should be sharing (El Guapo turning one and learning to walk among them), but instead I’m going to take a minute to share the best peach cobbler recipe I have ever tried. And I’ve tried some.

My dad and I share a deep and abiding love of peaches, and when peach season hits, we both crave a good peach cobbler. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a recipe that quite did it for us. The yellow-cake-mix variety is just sad, but anything we tried with a more biscuity topping tasted bland and floury, and sometimes dry. So when I was in high school, we did a peach cobbler bake-off. We tried several different recipes, but none of them was quite right. Ultimately we gave up.

A few years later, I married my husband. One night, either early in our marriage or while we were still engaged, we had some peaches and decided to make cobbler. I told him I didn’t have a good recipe, and he pulled out his mom’s.

Oh. My. Word. This recipe is like the Platonic ideal of peach cobblers. It’s a bit more work than the other ones I’d tried, but it’s worth it.

Peach Cobbler

For the peaches:

4 tsp. corn starch
4–6 Tbsp. brown sugar (depending on the sweetness of your peaches)
1/2 c. cold water
3 c. sliced peaches
2 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. lemon juice

In a medium saucepan, mix corn starch, brown sugar, and water. Add peaches. Cook and stir over medium heat until bubbly and thickened. Remove from heat, and add butter and lemon juice. Pour into casserole dish (ours is 9″ x 7″).

For the topping:

2/3 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. butter, softened
1/4 c. milk

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in butter. Stir in milk until it forms a sticky dough. Don’t worry too much if not every bit of butter is completely incorporated; as it bakes, the butter will melt and integrate better with the rest.

Drop the topping by spoonfuls over the peaches as evenly as possible. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Eat with vanilla ice cream if you’re not counting calories.

Pumpkini or Zumpkin?

We hosted Thanksgiving at our house last year, and my mom brought out some decorations to supplement the very little I had. Among these were some pretty pumpkins that dressed up our mantle nicely. After the holiday was over, the pumpkins ended up in our garden to rot. I can’t totally remember why I did that.

Anyway, last winter and spring were unseasonably warm, and the last frost was sometime at the end of March. About that time, dozens and dozens of pumpkin seeds started sprouting. Knowing pumpkins are spreaders, I picked 98% of the ones that came up (yeah, I probably have picked at least a hundred by now). I left the two biggest plants in my garden, and WOW are they big now.

One of them is producing beautiful carving pumpkins, large and round and orange. It currently has grown two pumpkins to maturity and is working on at least SIX more in varying stages of development. Apparently pumpkins usually just grow the two, sometimes grow as many as five, and rarely grow more than that. I have eight, people. Some have suggested that I pick the smaller ones, but I’m not super worried that the medium-sized ones won’t mature if I don’t. One of them is the size of a small jack-o-lantern already, and two more are cantaloupe-sized. By October, all three should be as big as the two big ones, I’d guess. The next few are more iffy, but I’d be thrilled to walk away with five pumpkins.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about the pumpkin plant. It’s about the neighboring plant, which apparently is a hybrid. Instead of pumpkins, it grows these:

Lego with pumpkini

So far I’ve gotten four out of the plant. The fourth I’ve left growing to see how big it ends up and whether it ever changes color. I doubt it will.

Anyway, I had to do something with this mystery vegetable. Could I treat it like a zucchini and make zucchini bread with it? Could I treat it like a sugar pumpkin and puree it for pumpkin bread or muffins? Could I eat it plain or would it be too tough, bitter, or tasteless?

I tried asking the Internet first, but all I really found out was that a) pumpkins and zucchini like to pollinate each other, b) you’re more likely to get a hybrid if you plant seeds from your Halloween pumpkin than if you plant store-bought seeds, and c) this particular hybrid is usually called either a pumpkini or a zumpkin, depending on which plant is the “mother.”

So it was up to me to figure out how to use my pumpkini. I figured I’d try both ways and see what the results were. First I cut the pumpkini in half.

pumpkini cross-section

As you can see, white flesh like a zucchini, but kind of hollow with the seeds and “brains” in the center like a pumpkin. Raw, it tasted, well, halfway between a pumpkin and a zucchini. Fancy that!

I peeled and deseeded each half, chopped the first half, and placed the chunks in boiling water. About five minutes later, I had this:

I took the boiled cubes of pumpkini and pureed them until they looked like this:

pumpkini puree

As you can see, it’s quite a bit runnier, if you will, than canned pumpkin usually is. I was really worried at this point by the color. Would my “pumpkin” muffins be greenish? Would anyone want to eat them? Would the extra wateriness be a problem? But after I’d added all the other ingredients, the batter was a much more appealing light tan. The muffins baked up great and super moist, and they were gobbled up (and shared with neighbors and friends) in a matter of days.

I have since used this method of preparation to make ten loaves of pumpkin(i) bread, which were even better than the muffins. Keep in mind that those ten loaves came from only TWO pumpkinis. Yikes.

Back to the original one, though. I shredded the other half like I would have done with a zucchini. This took forever, so I’m not sure I’ll do it again with such a large vegetable. I then made a chocolate zucchini bread recipe I’d tried and loved before. This too turned out great. I was worried that the firmer flesh of the pumpkini would translate into “crunchy” chocolate bread, but no shreds were discernible in the finished product.

The moral of the story is that the humble pumpkini is a very versatile vegetable. You can’t exactly saute it in oil with onions like you can with zucchini, and I wouldn’t add it to a salad raw, but if you find yourself in possession of one, the baking possibilities are many. Post a comment if you’ve had success with a zucchini-pumpkin hybrid (or if you just feel like posting a comment!). I hope that the next person like me who doesn’t know what to do with one can find this post helpful.