Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 36--My First (and 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th) Attempt at Sand Tarts

It's been a while since my last post, and although the typical holiday hustle is in full swing, Erica and I have been doing an admirable job of not losing track of our goals and commitments.  We're still making all our food at home, and although we've not had the time to be as creative with new recipes, we've been pulling from our reporitore and managing clean, healthy, and budget-conscious eating.  So naturally, I've spent much of my free time over the past two weeks making very non-vegan, non-clean cookies.

But just like everything else this year, I wanted to try something new.  I can make chocolate chip cookies in my sleep, and I always say that they're my favorite, but that's not exactly true.  No, my favorite cookie is the stuff of legends.  One that most people these days have no time or patience for.  One that, apparently, is so Pennsylvania Dutch that my friends outside the tri-county area have never even heard of it.

I'm talking, of course, about sand tarts.  The paper-thin, crispy-crunchy, sugary-buttery  labor of love that I remember from my childhood.  If you do it right, they come out so thin you can see right through them.  And when you take that first bite, unf, they just crumble in your mouth and melt on your tongue!  I usually leave the cookie baking to my dad on Christmas (except for my chocolate chip, which Erica always demands), but this year I wanted a challenge.

However, not only have I never made sand tarts before, I've never even been in the room while they were being made.  And I've always been under the impression that rolling the dough that thin is such an advanced technique that I shouldn't even bother.  I don't even have a family recipe for them!  But still, I wanted to try.  I found a promising-looking recipe on an amazing blog called My Grandma's Recipes.  [I picked this one for two reasons: 1) I liked the name of the blog, and 2) this was one of the few I found that didn't call for powdered sugar, which I wanted to avoid after my vegan baking disaster.]  The only thing I didn't like about it was that suddenly, it became a two-day process, as the batter needs to sit in the fridge overnight.  But that was a common thread in all the recipes I saw.  If only I'd known that this would actually turn into a five-day event spread over the course of two weeks...

... Actually, no, I would have done it anyway, because I learned some pretty awesome things over the past fortnight:
  • Meg, the author I yanked this recipe from, recommends lots of patience and wine.  Because of my 60-day water cleanse, I had to forego the latter.  Her way is definitely better--doing this sober sucks.
  • I am a master of the technique of "creaming together" butter, sugar, and eggs.
Pictured: stuff that's been "creamed together," in case Hannah Hart was still wondering
  • You can roll this dough so thin you can see the pattern on your counter through it, and it still won't be thin enough.
  • Rolling this vigorously is a workout, also, I'm wicked out of shape.  After the first night, where I only got through a quarter of the dough, my arms were like noodles and I was a giant baby about it at work.
  • One "batch" of this dough makes a ton of cookies.  I still have a quarter of the dough in the freezer.
  • The only way I could get the cookies to stay together was to actually just roll the dough right on the parchment paper.  I'm so happy that I figured this out after only ruining one mini-batch.  I felt like a rockstar. Really. 
  • For the first time in my life, I really see the value in convection technology, and I wish my oven had it. 
  • Erica's family got the first quarter-batch, and even people as close as Philadelphia are not familiar with sand tarts!  (I also learned that testing your first batch on people who don't know how they're supposed to taste is really the way to go.  Huge confidence builder.)
  • Decorating them is the only fun part.  I got really into different toppings, and I seriously think they're the prettiest cookies in the world right now.
  • You really do get better as you go.  By my third quarter-batch, they were as thin as I think I'm capable of getting them.  At least for now.  
Anyway, my hat is off to moms and grandmoms everywhere, or at least those in the PA Dutch country area.  I have a new respect for you, and what you go through at Christmas to make those tiny treats.  I hope I make you proud; I really did my best. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 24--Another Update from Erica!

After Erica's "hat trick" day in the kitchen, she really got inspired to do more.  Over the past two weeks, she's actually been the one doing most of the recipe planning. And as work picks up for me, I could not appreciate it more.  So here's another post from her, updating how she's doing with the "water only" commitment, and some of her latest kitchen triumphs:
Giving up coffee was only supposed to be an experiment.  I told myself after 60 days I'd be right back on it.  But lately I'm wondering if I really want to go back to caffeine?  I function just as well without it.  I'm consciously trying to get more sleep, which is better for me.  So I changed my mind and decided to only go back on decaf.  
Now, though, I'm considering staying the course for the long haul.  Maybe having coffee (decaf) reserved as a weekend treat instead of the status quo.  This would mean I don't go back to those sugary flavored creamers on a daily basis, either.  It's funny how changing your habits changes your way of thinking.  
I've been more active in the kitchen.  Before Val's first challenge, when we were trying to eat healthy and rotating variants of the same old boring recipe, I mentally checked out of the process.  It wasn't fair of me; we're supposed to be a team.  So I definitely owe the household some cooking.  And I'm really enjoying it. 
I made another batch of muffins, banana this time, and shared with people!  I also discovered a love for the Indian spice garam masala.  A recipe required it so I picked some up, and now I can be caught sniffing the jar when no one's looking.  The recipe was for chicken tikka masala, which required an overnight marinade.  (The only thing I did differently was swap in milk instead of cream.)  It was delicious, and this week we're repeating the recipe with veggies swapped in for the chicken. 
 Chicken tikka masala, broccoli, and basmati rice

The reason for the repeat (other than how good it is!) is because I had to buy plain yogurt for the marinade, and the only quantity I could find was a big tub of it.  So, to make sure it didn't go to waste, the goal was to find clean eating recipes that called for yogurt.  I scheduled a vegetarian repeat of the above, and also used yogurt to make a spinach pesto sauce
 Spinach pesto, tossed with whole wheat linguine and mushrooms

We're starting to develop the habit for creating a weekly meal plan ahead of time, and building the grocery list around that.  We're saving money as a result. 
And yes, we pay for the monetary savings with more time spent in the kitchen.  But this is not "chore" food.  This is fun and engaging.  We spend time together while doing it.  We come home and look at the recipe board and get excited about what's on deck for that night.  Because most of the time, it's gonna be deeeelicious.
Moving forward, there are two ideas I'm excited to try: 
One, I'm about to run out of instant oatmeal.  It's been my staple breakfast for years, and while I've lost weight on it, I realize that it's still a processed food and I'm not controlling how much sugar (or salt) goes into it.  So this weekend, I'm going to buy some raw oatmeal in bulk and try some clean eating oatmeal recipes.  My goal is to cook a batch of it over the weekend and then keep it in the fridge, flavoring as I go. 
And two, I am going to stop taking vitamin supplements.  I'm lucky in that I don't have other pill regimens, but I've been popping multivitamins for years, taking for granted that it's good for me, never really questioning whether I should.  You can never have too much of a good thing, right?  Well, it turns out you certainly can overdose on vitamins.  Also, vitamins are more complex than just swallowing them, sometimes requiring other pieces of the puzzle (like fat-soluble vitamins).  And the best place to find that correct mixture is in clean food. 
Besides, those multivitamins have "recommended doses" right?  But supplements are not regulated by any governing body!  I'm basically trusting that the little pill I'm taking, which some strangers made in a pharma factory, will give me what the package claims.  
So if most of our dietary needs can be found in the foods we eat, provided we're eating the right ones, it makes taking multivitamins seem unnecessary.  Since I learned that I can quit caffeine, maybe I should break this habit too.
ETA: We had the vegetarian version of the tikka misala tonight, and it was amazing!   ~Valerie

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Day 21--An Update on the Water-Only Adventure

We're getting close to rounding out the first half of our water-only 60-day stint.  For me, it hasn't really been too much of a challenge: once I decided I was going to do it, I was all in.

Well, I guess I should say my regular routine hasn't been too rough.  But that doesn't mean there hasn't been temptation.  I had an unexpected one the other day as I was Christmas shopping.  I was out all day, so when I got hungry I felt a natural pull to get an Auntie Anne's pretzel and a Coke.  I literally almost did this without even thinking about our water promise.  I caught myself in time, settled for a Subway 6-inch and a bottled water, but it wasn't later until I figured out why I had such a deep-seeded urge to grab that soda: it's an old shopping habit.

See,  I'm a "typical girl" in a lot of ways, but not so much when it comes to shopping.  I don't like doing it, and the mall is the worst offender.  So over the years, I've fallen into the habit of "treating" myself when I have to go. Usually Auntie Anne's and a Coke, sometimes a specialty coffee, or a smoothie.  It's such a habit I almost  slipped up on my commitment without thinking about it!

It got me thinking about all the empty calories I drink because I tell myself it's a treat; I tell myself I deserve it. At the grocery store, I used to always grab a Turkey Hill strawberry lemonade to drink on the way home.  At Target, it was an ice-cold Mountain Dew.  Every time we travel to either of our parent's houses, I have to stop for a mocha.  And since these are things I don't even think about, they're definitely not budgeted for.  I'm glad to be breaking this cycle.

I'm not trying to say that this type of grab-and-go isn't okay in moderation.  That's the very definition of a treat, right?  But I think for a lot of people, it becomes more of a habit than a conscious choice.  That's the case for me, certainly.  And I'm not that far away from the caffeine-addicted, strung out freak who drank over half her caloric intake on a daily basis.  I'm excited to have a cup of coffee again, don't get me wrong, but I'm really happy with the way things are now.  Just like vegan eating, drinking only water has put some of my choices under a microscope.  And when I'm done,  I think I'll have better tools for dealing with making these choices.