Ode to The Family Dinner

Once or twice a year I am overcome by a mounting sense of desperation over what to feed my family. I just start coming up blank more often than I’d like. (I probably should just be keeping a dinner journal to help myself remember what has and hasn’t worked. That would be a good idea. It would be fun to use a 5-year journal.)

Last Spring I bought a copy of The Family Dinner while I was looking for answers. I ended up getting a lot more than I hoped for. While the recipes are great, I hadn’t counted on such a serious dose of inspiration and guidance for staging family dinner.

Family dinner sounds easy. Make dinner. Eat together. But the book opened up a new world of possibilities to me. We’ve always actively avoided after-school activities that cut into the dinner hour. But we still needed an extra push to make family dinner a strong part of our family’s routine where we would eat together but also linger afterwards. The book showed me how it’s done. It reminded me how inspired parenting and building a family can be. Along with her own examples, David shares stories from the likes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mario Batali about what their family dinners were like as children.

As a result of my reading the book, we started memorizing poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. Along with the list of recommended reading from the book, we have some general and nature reference books. These are kept by our dinner table at arm’s length and have proved useful when my kids started asking crazy questions like “What is electricity?”.

When I first read the book I was on a mission to make family dinner happen every night of the week. Now I just go with the flow and am happy if it happens more nights than not. We’ve become slackers in the poem memorizing department too. But the bottom line is that the book has had a huge impact on the health and happiness of my family. We’ve started building memories at the dinner table. Hats off to Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt!

Little House Molasses Snow Candy

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The other day, we finally made Molasses-On-Snow Candy from The Little House Cookbook. And let me tell ya that nothing enlivens a snowy New England day like playing with molten sugar! 

Last winter, books from the Little House series dominated our bedtime reading. I don’t recall reading them as a child so I was enjoying them as much as the kids were. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s retelling of her childhood transported us back in time. 

After we read the Christmas chapter of Little House on the Prairie my eldest said to me, “Gee Mom, I hope our Christmas is as good as Laura and Mary’s!!” I think Laura and Mary got a candy cane, a cake, and maybe a pair of mittens in their stockings…and that’s it. They marveled at a heart-shaped cake they found in their stockings and squealed with delight because it was dusted with white sugar! While I enjoy the comforts of modern living, I certainly relate to my child’s desire to be fully enraptured by the magic of Christmas-time.

Given our heartfelt connection to the Ingalls family, it’s unclear who likes the whole idea of making foods out of the Little House Cookbook more, me or the girls. Either way, they did a spectacular job making molasses candy. Nobody had to go to the hospital with third degree burns. Another successful day of parenting! Mostly we made blobs. The fun little shapes depicted in the Christmas in the Big Woods picture book were a little out of my kids’ reach. However, it did get much easier to control the pour out of the pitcher after the molasses had cooled for a few minutes.

These candies are quite tasty. The brown sugar takes the bitter edge off of the molasses perfectly.[/donotprint]

Molasses Snow Candy Recipe

This recipe requires a small ceramic pitcher (A creamer works well), a candy thermometer, and fresh snow. The pitcher’s spout helps control the flow of the molasses. The handle on the pitcher allows the kids to pour the molasses without touching a hot cup directly.

1 cup molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed

Prepare 3 or 4 pans of snow using 9-inch pie plates, cake pans, iron skillets and the like. Gather fresh clean snow into the pans and leave them outside in the cold.

In a small saucepan, stir the molasses and sugar together over medium heat with a rubber spatula. Heat the mixture to 245 degrees Fahrenheit (firm ball stage), stirring frequently. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. When the molasses mixture has reached 245 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the molasses mixture into a small ceramic pitcher. Place the pitcher on a plate in your work area.

Bring the pans full of snow into the work area and allow the kids to pour the molasses mixture onto the snow. Read them the riot act about how hot and dangerous the molasses is and supervise them closely. You have about 10 or 15 minutes until the molasses starts getting difficult to pour.

About 5 minutes after the molasses has come into contact with the snow, test to see if has solidified. If it feels cool and hard, it’s ready to go. Let the kids eat some. Stick any leftovers in the freezer (or outside) still on the snow. If you store it without the snow, it will turn into goo.

[Update Feb 8, 2010: See my daughter and I make it on TV! http://www.wtnh.com/dpp/ct_style/in_the_kitchen/molasses-snow-candy]

Yield: 3/4 pound
Prep-time: 10 minutes
Kid activity time: 15 minutes

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Our Favorite Picture Books About Eating and Food

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had enough of cooking and serving food to last a while. Even when it comes to simple and healthy little snacks, I’m taking a break.

Snack time around here has been devoted to eating the 17 million granola bars sitting around the house. Also, we might be trapped under a pile of  apple chips soon because I found it impossible to walk away from the cheap bags of “applesauce” apples from Bushy Hill Orchard. And thank goodness for clementines which have been a bright spot in our snacking repertoire.

This week, in the name of taking a break from cooking, I’m posting a list of children’s picture books about eating and food instead of a snack recipe. These are our current favorites:

1. Bread and Jam for Francesby Russel Hoban

The rest of this list is in no particular order. But this book is number one for a reason.

2. I Can’t Said the Ant by Polly Cameron

Everyday kitchen objects and foods cheer on a heroic ant who comes to the aid of a broken teapot. Fabulous rhyming.

3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

We all love a good caterpillar story and this is one of the best.

4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett

Brilliant illustrations and a great story make us all smile every time we read it.

 5. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess

The pacing of this story is extremely energetic and fun. A great reminder to never stop laughing and never give up when it comes to trying new foods.

6. Scrambled Eggs Super by Dr. Suess

A boy flamboyantly searches the world for the ultimate gourmet egg.

7. Bee-bim Bop by Linda Sue Park

Fantastic rhythm. Complete with a detailed recipe.

8. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

This summer, my youngest put Sal to shame in the blueberry patch.

9. Mean Soup by Besty Everitt

Anger management via soup-making.

10. A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

A little girl denies her love of lima beans and pays dearly.

11. Chewy Louie by Howie Schneider

A puppy literally eats his way through his new home. Joyously goofy.

12. The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers

A hilarious and beautifully illustrated tale of a boy that decides to get smart the easy way.

13. The Gingerbread Man retold by Jim Aylesworth

Food on the run is always fun. See #16 as well.

14. The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear by Don Wood

A little mouse is convinced a bear is after his precious strawberry and will do anything to save it.

15. There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly retold by Simms Taback

I listened to this song a great deal as a child and now I get to enjoy it again with my kids. The amusing illustrations are a definite bonus.

16. Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour

A hilarious tale of a crafty pickle on the run. Wonderfully goofy.