Friday, April 27, 2012

Daring Baker's Challenge April 2012: Armenian Nutmeg Cake

The Daring Bakers’ April 2012 challenge, hosted by Jason at Daily Candor, were two Armenian standards: nazook and nutmeg cake. Nazook is a layered yeasted dough pastry with a sweet filling, and nutmeg cake is a fragrant, nutty coffee-style cake.


I did this challenge mid-month when I simply couldn't go another day without cake. I take no small amount of pride in my continuing quest for a less-sweet life, and now when I look back on the amount of sugary desserts I've eaten daily for so long, I cringe. I'm not saying that I don't still love to bake, and that I don't still love cake (or all sweet things) with a preternatural, bear-hugging grasp, but somehow my mind has changed and I don't crave sweets on an hourly basis like I used to.

But... this little gem of a cake! I actually made a petite half recipe and baked it in a little vintage 8-inch springform tin - and I made the entire thing in the food processor. I know what you already may be thinking, "doesn't a food processor beat up the gluten in the flours, making a tough crumb?" That's actually what I thought too but it's not the case, and it makes a cake in a single bowl in such a short amount of time that I can see this lovely little cake in my oven just after you phone to say you are stopping over in a half hour.

nutmeg cake

Nutmeg is one of my most favorite spices. Whenever I think of it, all shy tucked up into a rough-skinned nut, growing in trees cloaked in a web of more delicately flavored mace, I think of baking logic I picked up somewhere along the way. Improper logic if I am honest, since it called for judicious use of nutmeg due to it's overwhelming nature. Overwhelming? I can hardly be overwhelmed by such an alluring spice. I almost always add additional nutmeg to spice cakes and cookies, a faint additional grating over rice pudding or even oatmeal.

A little additional reading, and I wonder if judicious use of nutmeg was recommended due to a history of purported psychoactive effects, some of which seem very valid according to this article I read from just a year and a half ago. While I'm not likely to grind up 3 whole nutmegs and down it with a glass of wine to experiment, I will happily make this cake again with a whole teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg, and I'll do it for some while with this beautiful jar that E brought me from France, even though it caused a slight stir in security since it looked like a liquids container on the X-ray machine.


This cake makes its own bottom butter crumb crust, which is endearing because it gives a little textural difference to the cake. I also cut the sugar in half for my purposes, and both my picky boys (the one who rarely eats dessert, and the one who could live only on dessert) loved it. This little cake didn't last long because we had three happy eaters; next time I will make a double amount and increase the baking time ever so slightly. Serve it with some vanilla ice cream for an impossibly elegant dessert, or by itself, a plain, happy wedge with the morning coffee.

Armenian Nutmeg Cake (adapted from DB host Jason of DailyCandor)
1 8-inch cake, 8 small but satisfying servings
  • 1/2 c. whole milk
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 c. ap flour
  • 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 6 T. (6 oz.) cold butter, cubed
  • 1/4 c. walnuts (or more)
  • 1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix the baking soda (not baking powder) into the milk, and set aside. Put the flour, baking powder, and the brown sugar into your food processor, and pulse until uniformly mixed. Add the cubed butter, and pulse until uniformly mixed into tan-colored crumbs.

Pour HALF of the crumbs into your springform (I used an 8-inch for this half recipe, a 9-inch is recommended for a full sized recipe) pan. Press out a crust using your fingers.

Crack the egg into the food processor with the rest of the crumbs still in it. Grate the nutmeg into the crumbs, and pulse until well-incorporated.

Pour in the milk and baking soda mixture. Continue to mix until a slightly lumpy tan batter is formed. Pour the batter over the crust in the springform pan. Gently sprinkle the walnut pieces over the batter. Unafraid of hallucinations, I grated a few whispers of additional nutmeg across the top.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or so, until the top is golden brown, and when a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cake in the pan for at least 10-15 minutes before unmolding. You may need to run a thin knife around the edge to help it. (I removed the sides of the springform when the cake was still warm, and then waited until it was cooled completely to remove the bottom.)

Note: You can find the original recipe here. It calls for 1 egg for the whole cake, and only white, all-purpose flour. I found the texture with whole wheat and a whole egg in a half cake recipe to be perfect, but you may want to make the original version if you prefer lighter cakes - although I wouldn't say this one was dense per se.

nutmeg cake nutmeg cake

It might be impossible to describe the scent of this cake when it was in the oven, calling my family members from other rooms to ask what it was and could they eat some. This response could be another reason why this cake is a new favorite, sure to become a standard for years to come!

Many thanks to Jason for this reason to bake up a well-deserved cake, and be sure to check out the Daring Kitchen websites for the original recipe, the gorgeous looking recipe for nazook (which I will likely make someday when I'm not obsessing about desserts consumption...), and the blogroll of Daring Bakers and their takes on the challenge this month.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pineapple Ice Cream, Steaming Bread.


All severe budgeting aside, I insist upon many things in my daily food life. Bulk foods are a deal, but seem to add up quickly when every cent is a factor, and fresh, organic fruits and vegetables all of a sudden feel overpriced and usually from Mexico or California. I usually feel this way in late Spring, just before planting time in my own garden, and just before the onset of near-daily farm markets scattered across our city.

Not everything is feels expensive and dim however. Fortunately, when I start seeing reliably good, whole pineapples consistently on sale, I figure they must be in season in tropical locals - and they have been so ridiculously sweet that they indeed seem worth their weight in gold. Earlier in the week, my nose told me that I had to break into the stately bromeliad in residence on my counter, when I still had some juicy triangles of yellow fruit at home in a quart jar in the fridge. I originally was thinking of cake, but in continuing attempts at curbing my sugar-tooth, I settled on ice cream sweetened only with honey (and an obligatory 2 T. of sugar just in case).

(I chopped up the scraps seen in the photo above for easier introduction to the compost pile, and then realized I should have tried my hand at pineapple vinegar. Good thing the pineapples are still on sale...)

pineapple ice cream

Here in Wisconsin, everyone - or nearly everyone - is crazy for frozen custard. I'm not saying anything bad about custard, other than that eating it feels to me more like a meal replacement than a dessert. I have always preferred ice creams to dessert, in fact I actually would rather have "ice milk", which is hard to find commercially, but crystalline and easy melting (if not initially hard as a rock) when it emerges homemade from your freezer.

pineapple ice cream, toasted topped

And so I made a pineapple ice milk, a moniker I feel this frozen dessert deserves due to its texture if not its fat content. It's definitely a recipe I will make again. Toast some unsweetened coconut in a dry, cast iron skillet - and then use the residual heat to bring some cacao nibs gently back to life for a most excellent topping.

Pineapple Ice Milk (adapted from Gourmet)
  • 12 oz. fresh pineapple, pulsed in a blender or food processor to "crushed" consistency, then drained - juice reserved
  • 6 T. honey
  • 2 T. sugar (I used raw cane sugar)
  • 2 t. cornstarch
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • pinch of salt if you deem it needs it

Reserve 1 T. of the pineapple juice to mix with the cornstarch, and combine the rest of the juice, the crushed pineapple, and honey in a medium pan. Heat over medium high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar, and reducing heat after the pineapple comes to a simmer. Simmer until softened a little, about 5 minutes. Stir the 1 T. pineapple juice with the cornstarch in a little cup and then add to the simmering crushed pineapple, stirring constantly until it thickens a little, about 1 minute.

In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar to combine. In a smaller pan, heat the milk until little bubbles start to form around the edges, but the milk isn't boiling. Add a bit of milk to the egg yolks to temper them, then add them to the hot milk. Stir constantly to prevent cooking the eggs, and continue to heat over medium heat until the mixture thickens (about 170 degrees). Remove from heat.

Set a sieve over the pan with the thickened pineapple in it. Pour the thickened milk through the sieve and into the pineapple and discard any eggy bits left behind. Stir in the vanilla and heavy cream, transfer to a clean bowl or jar, and let rest in the fridge until completely chilled (at least 4 hours and up to overnight). Freeze in ice cream maker according to directions.

steamed date bread, in tin

Maybe my inner being was crying out for "cake and ice cream", or maybe I was just trying to be a good steward of the leftover cup of heavy cream that remained after making the ice milk. I originally added the cream to some milk, and made a high-fat yogurt. Well, tried to make a high-fat yogurt, since it never really set. I suspect I didn't let it culture long enough, but it tasted good and was the thickness of buttermilk. Multiple factors led me to making another steamed bread.

I only made steamed bread once before, which seems to differ from steamed pudding (the only one I've ever made was for a Daring Baker Challenge) in that it is extremely lean and devoid of sugar. The first recipe I made was Hungry Tigress's, and it was just perfect according to me. Not sweet, very earthy, close-crumbed and moist yet dense, it was one of the nicest little breads, one that I actually considered a cake due to shape and how I ate it copiously slathered in rhubarb-ginger jam.

I altered a recipe in a 1940's cookbook that was very similar to Tigress's recipe. I made a half recipe, since the full one was very large (with 4 cups of flour), and because Tigress's blend of rye and whole wheat flours with cornmeal made such an intriguing flavor, I could bear to use plain all purpose for the whole recipe. I also subbed in my "cream yogurt/buttermilk" to feel, which led to a recipe really not worth recording. I will say it was not unlike the bread I first made, so go immediately to Hungry Tigress and make yourself a steamed walnut bread, substitute some pitted dates for the walnuts, and you will basically have the delicious version that came off of my stove top yesterday afternoon.

steamed date bread
steamed date bread

And, yes, I did eat that wedge above with a little scoop of pineapple ice cream after dinner last night - and it was delicious.

Steaming bread is a technique I want to explore more, and one that if the weather holds in a cool, damp pattern makes my kitchen laboratory feel comfortable and old-fashioned. Meanwhile, when basic home economics have me feeling blue, I remember my wealth in quality foods and can't stay sad for long. Before long, my yard (along with local markets) will sprout vigorously with all the inspiration and sustenance I need for a healthy life, and that is such a comforting thought these cloudy days.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

On The Continuing Quest for Great Pizza.

I think at some point in his or her life, most people who enjoy baking naturally become obsessed with making the perfect pizza. Pizza, born of Italy and Greece, seems purely American to me, and every American I know has a pizza preference whether it be thin, thick, sparse or dense with ingredients. Pizza is one of the first things I ever made without help, and one of the things that grows with me as I change little by little in my kitchen life. This newest incarnation would satisfy just about any pizza eater regardless of pizza preference, and it comes from the guy who unknowingly started me on my path to real bread making.

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A continual learning process had dropped me off on the corner of sparse toppings (as a general rule, I use no more than three ingredients) and medium weight, sourdough or sourdough-esque crusts. That is a very happy corner to wait around on! I snatched up Jim Lahey's new book, My Pizza, at my library recently and near instantly applied his maverick electric oven hack to a different pizza dough and was thoroughly impressed.

I'm even more impressed now that I've made his conventional yeast dough. The dough is a no-knead type, made quickly and then left with an 18-hour or so relax time. When it comes time to bake it, it bakes up fluffy, soft and with a thin brittle bottom crust. It has just the perfect amount of deep, near black scorchings, and a perfect blend of crispiness and chewiness. Baking a pizza by broiling it also puts a hot pie on the table in about 3 minutes, which is pretty amazing too. A quick bake time allows to eat them nearly on demand, immediately after they emerge - which is always when pizza tastes best - and then easy repetition to bake off another one in short order.

(Food52 has the new Lahey method pizza recipe back up on their website, the only tweaking I did was to use Kosher salt and a handful (50 g.) of high protein whole wheat flour in place of 50 g. of the white stuff. I detailed the electric oven hack in the caption of this flickr photo if you are curious... For the pizzas I made last night, I just used several 1/4 inch thick slices of portobello mushrooms, some fresh mozzarella, and some red sauce as a base layer.)

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A full recipe of Lahey's new dough makes 4 pizzas, but I cut one of the quarters in half to please my Kiddo who only eats sauce pizza. I make my pizza sauce with drained quarts of homecanned tomatoes augmented with garlic, spices and maybe some tomato paste if it seems too thin. Baking the smaller pizzas under the broiler seemed to make them too dark too fast, so I experimented by baking it at a solid 500 degrees and omitting the broiler altogether. It worked well, but make a thicker crust all around - an even, airy crust that maybe would have been weighted down a little more if there were more toppings (any toppings) involved.

baked at solid 500
baked at solid 500, side

I stretched the other three portions into 12 inch or so rounds, the dough soft and stretchy, a remarkably easy dough to work with when floured and handled gently but firmly. I really think this pizza is going to hang around for most of the Summer, it was so easy and so good. Since my stand mixer has died a third time, I'm thinking that less work and less hand kneading may be on my agenda for awhile whether I like it or not, but recipes like this one are a solace to my machine angst, reminding me that I don't need machines to produce great food.

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While there were many good pizza combinations in the good book, I was disappointed with petty things like the font, the book size and feel, and the hastiness of the author voice. I loved the first (My Bread) book so much - and I haven't forgotten that there is a Lahey Project tab at the top of my page here regarding it, I may just resume work on the recipes from that book soon - that this one couldn't compare. Though certainly I will soon be making vegan pizzas with pureed walnuts in lieu of sauce, and the simple pork sausage recipe I already made was a definite keeper... perhaps even worth the cover price alone for ease and taste.

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The road to great pizza winds on, and this approach is definitely worth the time to experiment on. Whenever I get all excited about a new pizza, I forget that before it came a pretty great pizza, and that is what baking life is all about. I hope I never tire of finding new doughs, new techniques, new toppings to inspire me never to eat pizza outside my home ever again. As of this writing, I'm feeling pretty close.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Trial by Violet Jelly.


I didn't plan at all on making violet jelly, yet by the end of the day today I had a small batch, resting proud and purple, on the towel lined square of counter nearest to my stove top. An unusually warm March has given way to more seasonal cool this April, and we've finally gotten some rain as well, washing the tender violets and greening up my neighborhood with supernatural aplomb. Spring never ceases to amaze me, that the seeming dead of tree and flower suddenly, prolifically, burst out into full bloom - reminding me on an annual basis that I love living with four distinct seasons.

My kiddo has gotten his first two-wheeler bike, and ever since I told him that violets are edible and we can eat them, he stops his ride at every plot of them to peruse a perfect, edible specimen. This child will not eat one single morsel of lettuce leaf or other green, but purply violets? He not only eats them, but then sings the song he learned in school to remember the colors of the rainbow, emphasizing the word "violet" with proper gusto... The funniest thing is that he doesn't really like them, he is just excited to eat something that doesn't appear at first glance that it should be eaten. I even got him to eat a sliver of bitter dandelion green, of which he declared that he didn't really like it but was glad that he tried it!

violet eater.

While I know in my head that violets are edible, I have to admit I am an intrepid forager. Foraging is something I prefer to learn firsthand, where book knowledge is something I might read and remember, I don't think I would rely on without first comparing with visual human knowledge. I convinced myself that violets are probably impossible to mistake, and that also a little empty lot of land strewn with both them and ample dandelions is probably as close to pesticide free as I'll get in an urban local. I spent maybe 20 minutes kneeling in the grass, soaking up a little sun before swirling winds and rain clouds boisterously interrupted the afternoon. I picked mostly purple violets, a few lighter specimens for accents, easily and therapeutically after I discovered how to turn both hands into discriminating rakes. Then I walked home and soaked 2 packed cupfuls of them in 2 cups of boiling water.

violet water

I let them rest nearly 24 hours before straining them. The water was a deep indigo until I added a lemon and a half's worth of juice, which according to multiple accounts I read of violet-jelly-making I had expected to turn a shocking, brilliant purple. The only sugar I had on hand was raw cane sugar, which I usually substitute by weight measure for canning, and I knew the purple would be diluted by its darker amber color. It's still a pretty shade, but less surprising and more just plain "grape" colored than if I had used a pure white sugar.

violet jelly

I'm actually not much of a jelly maker. Last year, I made wonderful watermelon and grape jellies, but I am far less confident with jelly than I am with jam. I am also not so finicky that a little cloudiness bothers me, so frequently my jelly has a rustic feel that true jelly connoisseurs may scoff at. I also forget that liquid pectin is a far superior product to the powdered type, and I also forgot that I made some homemade apple pectin that I had stashed in the freezer last fall. Any future batches of violet jelly will be made with both white sugar and liquid pectin, since my first attempt was far from perfect.

But for using ingredients that were on hand and growing out in the neighborhood, this pretty, cloudy, slightly herbal jelly is pretty nice. I have likened it to the stone soup of the jelly world, because the violets were very mild in my case, the overall flavor of the jelly is very good, and it was nearly free to produce. It has deep, caramel undertones from the raw sugar, and bright lemon highlights. The texture, while imperfect, is almost pudding-like and I think it will find a happy home in a yellow layer cake (or at least my imaginings of one, since I have really been doing well not consuming lots of dessert...).

One other highlight of my day today was spending the morning with a new friend, Marisa, who I traded my gently used yogurt machine for some tofu coagulant and a new Greek yogurt culture. I let my old favorite, the viili culture, pass gently away to make new room for a thicker, Greek culture, and maybe as soon as lunchtime tomorrow I'll be able to spoon a bit of this new jelly into some fresh yogurt for a true test of its eatability.

violet jelly

It would have been nice if yesterday I had felt like sitting still long enough to paint egg whites over the remaining violets and dust them with sugar. I read a quick article by Linda Ziedrich which outlined the simplicity of it, but for some reason I couldn't gather the patience to sit with them for another hour. I couldn't help imagining a fat shortbread cookie with an appropriately sized indentation for violet jelly, topped with a sugared violet garnish. But that amount of detail is now alive only in my mind, maybe to make a Springtime appearance once upon a time in a bakeshop I may never own.

Instead, this morning I peered in the fridge at a plate full of bright purple, fully wilted blooms that I took out to the compost after contemplating their incredibly short life span. So pretty and small that I don't take the time to look at them as I should, but their tiny wealth of energy will add to the garden I suppose...

violet spoon

PostScript: If you wonder what recipe I used, it was this one (it was credited to being available all over the Internet), and instead of the white sugar, I used 766 g. of raw sugar. I also used lemon juice from 1 1/2 lemons, since the lemons I had on hand needed using and the first half I squeezed smelled so good I couldn't resist. My yield was 3 half pints, 1 quarter pint and one nearly full half pint that I considered run over so I could enjoy it immediately. If you too are a first time violet jelly maker this year, let me know what you think of the flavor, and if you have better luck (texturally speaking) with a liquid pectin set!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Am I? Homemaker.

It is a very contemplative day, being Easter and all. I spent most of the week strangely ill, hoping the near full week I spent without cooking at all would completely heal the last of my wounded hands. When complete recovery finally hit yesterday, I felt aptly renewed, a fresh appreciation for good health. I felt a new determination to be thankful in my everyday life, even as things seem to crash and fall around me with strange and strategic frequency lately.

I feel floundering, unsure (as I've mentioned before) of my place in my world, what to do with myself that is most beneficial to others and also makes me happiest. As I munched this cookie last Sunday after a Chinese lunch with my Parents, I couldn't help but wonder when this statement might possibly come true.


It wasn't until I sat here at the computer, looking over the photos I've liked this week - which weren't many since I barely ate at all - that I realized that I have regularly written things into this space now since April 8th of 2009, three full years of near spontaneous foods that have sprouted, risen and baked off into what I have regarded as my profession. A profession that has yet to pay a single cent, but one that has made me a better baker, a better cook, a full-fledged preserver, and a decent communicator in an online environment that prior to CakeWalk, I could never have imagined.

I'm not sure if it's my age ticking away that makes me wonder about the past with such frequency, the tickle of retrospect that whispers near constantly in my ear if I would have just done one or two little things differently that my whole life would be different. If I had only known that I loved food so much at 20ish years old then maybe today I'd know how to make a Bearnaise sauce, indeed all of the French sauces, off the cuff, and maybe I would know what to actually do when presented with meat, other than to slow cook it or most likely overcook it in a cast iron pan. Maybe my early mornings would be met with vats of dough, shaped and baked in my own steaming deck oven, round lumps of world-flavored bread emerging, goldened from my work visas to Italy, France, and the Middle East.

Yesterday I cast my votes in the supremely fun Saveur Best Food Blog Awards, and I read all of the blog posts in the category for Best Piece of Culinary Writing. They were all wonderful. Distinct voices of people who were grounded in their lives, having come to a point of "where-they-are-ness" that I really have not. While my internal voice seems to shiver, shirk, or shout depending on the variance of foodstuff or music listened to while writing, I do maybe know a few more things about myself since starting a food blog and they are:
  • If I were in a professional kitchen, and if my hands were miraculously healed and I could do it without tearing skin and fingerprints from my digits, I would be perfectly happy being a dishwasher or a line cook. More than inventing and being ever-amicable, I know now that I am most happy serving people, working hard, cleaning thoroughly and with an eagle-eye, and hopefully being well appreciated in the process.
  • If I had endless money, I would buy cheese without ever glancing at the price. I would drink stellar wines, the ones that bring a tear to my eye when the unbelievable scent of it gets even the nearest proximity of my nose. I would finally find an olive oil that knocked my socks off and I would make mayonnaise with it. I would buy a truffle because few things in life could rival it. (And for the record, and since I kinda need a car, I'd get a Fiat Abarth, which my current car crush and is only *slightly* more affordable than the Audi R8.)
  • I never want to write a cookbook, but I want to help you write one if you make food that I love. Call me a ghost, or call me your right hand man, it would make no difference because what little recipe testing I have done confirms that I absolutely love helping someone do something passionately important to them, spinning off ideas and hopefully adding to their inspiration.
  • I would much rather eat simple food at home or at your home, than luscious, well prepared food out. I do love fine dining, but it intimidates me and I'm not sure why. It could be in part because my minuscule appetite can't ever live up to course meals, and I often feel full for days. I also own next to nothing decent to wear - that isn't really a stretch either.
  • If I could really understand only one thing in my kitchen life, it would be the bread. I want to know what makes it really live, how to figure out baking percentages in split seconds and how to judge weather, time and flours accordingly. I want to know how to make it adapt to wherever I am, so I could bake while traveling without much fuss. I want to know why it seems like whenever I feel confident in my bread, my bread changes the rules and makes me feel sophomoric in my bread making once again.
  • I write best on deadlines, and when a specific idea is involved. Not maybe on this personal food blog, but in general anyway.
  • If you ask me to do something for you, I will do it. Sometimes even if I'm not sure at first if I want to.

  • I have a hard time accepting money for things I love to do. Related: I have a hard time charging for things I love to make.
  • If you push me to do something out of my comfort zone, I will do it. (I'm winking at you Deena.)

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My years writing this blog seem like instrumental ones. As I sat uploading the last picture of nopal trimmings that I simmered for a salad tomorrow, my now 5 1/2 year old son sat across the table from me with a candy cane pen and paper writing notes that he cut out and folded in half. The one he walked over to me simply said MOM in big letters across the top, with two stick figures, one big and one little. The little one is missing any trace of hair, but the face was perfectly nuanced with just eyes, nose and smiling mouth is looking upwards, one thin stick arm holding hands with mine.

I blinked back tears actually, looking at it - thinking how obsessed I've been lately with figuring out what I should do with myself but realizing that I am doing a good job of doing what I have been called to do. Making peanuts into peanut butter, taking time to Lego, too many things to count actually, that knit closely together into a pattern of years that somehow feel both gone in an instant and stretching out for forever simultaneously.

first lunch in a week.

Will I garner fame and fortune or just money for groceries and cookbooks as a result of this work of CakeWalk? Not sure. Fortunately, I am in good supply of Artistic reminders that I am where I should be, and I do what I should be doing. I make, I eat, I occasionally mend and repair. I cook, bake, ferment, wash, dry, fold, organize, shovel, hoe, mow, walk, hug, kiss, drive to school. I write.

For the upcoming 4th year of CakeWalk, I'll likely tackle more of the same traditional, real foods I've become so fond of, along with plenty of bakery to be sure. But I'll also try to make a better effort to be reminded that whatever job I'm doing is the right job at the right time. My profession right now isn't really food blogger or writer, it's homemaker. I'm just a homemaker who happens to love making or trying to make it all myself, and sometimes I need to remember that a little help or a shortcut isn't a bad thing.

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