7.05.2016

Gâteau Basque



It goes without saying that having children takes a lot of sacrifice. One of them is financial. In our household, we loose one income to feed an extra mouth -- which I happily do, but still, the numbers do not lie. Finances do add up, and we could no longer spend any money buying pastries without some kind of planning, the way I usually would in a whim, without second thought, when we used to be DINKs.

That's what happened when I came across a glorious slice of Gâteau Basque at a beautiful place called The London Plane during an outing with the Tod. At $5.50 a piece, it was eye-wateringly expensive, at least for us. But that's when the adventure took a turn for the better.

I read up all I could about Gâteau Basque: how it is a cake, a pie, and a cookie rolled in one, how the pattern on the top crust gives a hint to the filling inside, where there is a museum dedicated entirely to Gâteau Basque. I even read about the whole history of the Basque region, the nationalism, the language, the people. After much reading, I came out feeling somewhat smarter than shelling out the $5.50.

Far from the smug-sounding name, making Gâteau Basque is really quite easy and fool-proof. All one need is two components: the crust (which is a version of pâte sablée) and the filling (which can be frangipane/almond pastry cream, plain pastry cream, black cherry jam, or combination of the above).

I happened to have a handful of overripe black cherries at home (about 2 cups), which I turned into jam by adding sugar (about 80% of weight) and the juice of one lemon. I pitted the cherries using the chopstick method and cooked until the jam reduces down to about half. Easy peasy. Next, I prepared the pastry cream, perhaps the most complicated component of the gâteau. If one fancies frangipane, all one needs to do is to add ground almond. Finally, the crust was the easiest. I didn't even have to use the mixer. I simply beat the butter and sugar by hand, added the rest of the ingredients, and rolled it into disks. The next day, I assembled all the components (the top crust actually broke apart, but in the picture you really can't tell, because the dough was so soft and easy to pinch together).

So forgiving, so humble, so satisfyingly delicious. I hope you will give this a try!

Gâteau Basque 

(recipe adapted from Dorie Greenspan, who seems to know everything there is to know about this cake)

Equipment:
1 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch side, buttered generously (I made this using a springform pan, but if you have regular pan, line it with parchment and butter it generously).

Crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Beat butter, light brown sugar and sugar until pale and fluffy, a good 5 minutes or so, by hand or with mixer. Add egg and beat some more. It will look quite lumpy but that's ok.
Add the sifted flour mixture into the butter mixture, drizzle in the vanilla. I found using wooden spoon is the best at this point. Mix just enough until a soft, cookie-like dough forms.
Divide the dough in half. Roll each into slightly larger than 8-inch disk in diameter, in between two sheets of parchment papers (or cling wrap). Chill the dough at least 3 hours or overnight. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead).

Pastry Cream Filling:
(this recipe makes 2 cups, you only need one cup for the cake, save the rest for another cake or better yet, eat them as pudding)

2 cups whole milk
1 plump, moist vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped out
6 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch, sifted
3 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cold

Whisk yolk, sugar, and sifted corn starch. Set aside.
Scald the milk over medium-high heat until little bubbles start to form.
Take the pot off the stove. Ladle a bit of the hot milk into the yolk mixture and stir. Add more milk, bit by bit (a process called tempering) until the yolk mixture feels warm to the touch. When that happen, it is safe to add the yolk mixture into the rest of the scalding milk in a thin, steady stream, stirring the milk constantly.
Put the mixture back onto the stove. Switch to a whisk, over medium heat, whisk the mixture until it boils and thickens. It will really thicken to the consistency of pudding. When that happens, I'd back off from stirring for a second and see if there's a puff of steam coming out from the "pudding," which means the whole thing is really boiling.
Take off from heat, and plunk the cold butter onto the hot mixture. Stir quickly until all the butter is melted and incorporated. Cool the pastry cream down completely before using.

Cherry Jam Filling:
(my own rendition, feel free to use store-bought)



2 cups of pitted black cherries or other ripe cherries
1 cup of sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
A splash of almond extract (optional)

Cut cherries in half or quarter, if they are big. Put cherries and lemon juice into a pan and set them into boiling over medium-high heat. When the cherries are wilted and juice starts to come out, add sugar. Continue cooking until the mixture bubbles big bubbles (rather than small, frothy bubbles), and reduced to about 1/2, stirring occasionally. The big bubbles signifies that the mixture has cooked down enough to the gelling point (you can do the frozen-plate testing at this point: drizzle some jam onto frozen plate, and stick into the fridge for a few minutes. Then the jam looks like jello, the jam is done). Pour into container and cool down completely before using.

Assembly:
1 egg beaten with a bit of water, for glazing

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Set crusts aside on the kitchen countertop for a few minutes until it is pliable but still cold.
Put one crust on the bottom of the pan. Make a plate-shape with the dough with the sides about 1 1/2 inches high.



Pile in pastry cream and/or jam, as much as it can fit. I started with pastry cream on the bottom and simply dotted the top with a few chunky cherries from the jam here and there.



Top the cake with another piece of dough, pinch the sides together and make it as nice as you could (I promise, it will look good no matter what). Score the crust or decorate as you wish, and glaze it with egg.



Bake about 40-45 minutes until the crust is golden brown. Cool completely in a rack before attempting to dismount, least the whole thing cracked.
Nurse a slice with a cup of tea or coffee.



5.25.2016

Things that are so easy to make, I wonder why I bother buying them..


I was just chatting with a fellow mom about our children's school lunches and snacks that we ended up bantering about things we make at home. It dawned on me that there are so many things that we have prepared at home lately that we never have bothered buying them at the stores. 

Preparing food from home saves money, eliminates the bad stuff, and is just plain fun (especially if you can get your children involved). See if you agree or can add more to my list (many are posted on my Instagram account):

  • Yogurt.
    Yogurt is one of those food item that can be deceptively unhealthy, especially if you have small children. One pot of yogurt can contain as much sugar as a can of soda (gasp!). But making yogurt at home is super easy. You can even "copy" the type of yogurt you like (mine is the French/European style yogurt that tastes a bit like cheese & raw). Once you have a yogurt maker, it is the real Ron Popeil's set-it-and-forget-it type of food! I just warm up the milk the night before, mix it with a jar of the previous batch, and set it on my machine. Voila, fresh yogurt in the morning.
    But, wait! There is more!! Even if you don't have the equipment, you can still make yogurt using any container you have and use the oven or slow-cooker to make yogurt. Many tutorials for these are available online. Google them up to your heart's content.
  • Granola.
    O.M.G. why do I keep buying this thing when I can make them, a whole bunch of them, for a fraction of the price, and for not much effort at all!! Plus, the little helper in the kitchen is super happy to stir up a big bowl of gooey granola, mixed with honey and oil. Choose your own recipe, and if I may suggest, add a sprinkling of salt to it. Yum!
  • Salad Dressing.
    Ditto all of the above, my go-to recipe is the French-style vinaigrette: 1 part vinegar, 3 parts oil, 1 teaspoon or so of mustard. All into a used jam jar with lid tightly screwed, and shake. Want more fancy? Add chopped shallots, ginger, a bit of spices and seasonings, use fancy vinegars or oils. The sky is the limit.
  • Hummus.
    Hummus is the staple snack for the Tod at school. It is ridiculously easy to make, yield a lot when made at home, and tastes so fresh, it beats anything in the grocery store. Our favorite recipe is from Yotam Ottolenghi here.

Are there any food items that you make at home regularly that you never have to purchase them made from the store?

4.25.2016

Menstrual Cups (featuring Lena and Sckoon)



I am lucky to never had any traumatic, embarrassing stories from the youth about menstruation, disabling PMS, horrible acne or bloating, carb-craving or binge, etc. I've been using tampons and pads without any cancer or ill-effect. Occasional migraine is my only complaint. However, after the birth of my son, my period suddenly got significantly heavier and longer. My Ob suggested that I use SoftCup (used to be called Instead) and I used it with much success. The downside is, SoftCup is disposable and around that time, I started to explore about waste-less living and came across a whole range of reusable menstrual products (RUMPs).

It's been said that an average woman will generate about 250-300 lbs in menstrual product waste in her lifetime, not to mention other environmental cost of producing these products. Now that I've been using menstrual cup and cloth pads for almost a year, I wish I have known and use them sooner! That is pretty much the sentiment of most women I came across who are using RUMPs.

This post is for you, who are thinking about making that jump to using RUMPs for whatever reason. I will focus on menstrual cup, but if you have any interest in knowing more about other RUMPs, please leave me a comment below. No, they are not gross and not the least bit cumbersome. On contrary, using them are quite empowering and certainly waste-free.

What is it and how it works

Menstrual cup collects menstrual blood and fluid while worn inside the vagina. The cup is first folded and then inserted into the vagina, just like using a tampon. The base of the cup sits clear past the pelvic bone with the rim below the cervix to properly collect the fluid. Once properly inserted, you should not feel the cup. The elastic vaginal wall hugs the cup in place and forms a suction so no blood can leak outside the rim. I found the diagram below (snatched from Reddit with some modification of my own) very useful as a mental tool on where the cup is supposed to sit, especially when I have to trouble-shoot some leaking.

I added the ugly grey ovals as representation of where the pelvic bone should be. Notice the body of the cup sits past the pelvic bone.

In order for the cup to work properly:
  1. The rim should be positioned below the cervix. If the cup's rim is positioned beyond the cervix (as in the wrong diagram above),  the blood dribbles around, and not into the cup. 
  2. The cup should be fully opened properly to collect the fluid (aka no folds on the wall). Popping open a cup is indeed the most important step to ensure that the cup won't leak. 
Keep these two simple ideas in mind -- most leaks and cup problems can be solved by applying these two principles.

If you have never seen one before, reusable cups are mostly made out of silicones. They have similar feel and pliability to the nipples of baby bottles or the silicone muffin cups. Some has smooth surface like baby bottle nipples, or fuzzy-satin surface like the silicone baking cups and the Lena cup, below. They are roughly about the size of a shot glass (approximately 30 ml or 1 fl.oz.).

Cup anatomy


I wish there are more stores out there where women can actually see, touch, feel, and play around with menstrual cups. For the most part, the cups are available for sale online. Even the ones that are readily available in store, such as Diva Cup, are usually sold sealed inside a box.

Usually the cup height is given in terms of measurement from base to rim. Keep in mind, when you research about cup sizes, the differences are minuscule (aka in millimeters) and while it seems like a big difference, it is mostly no big deal once worn/inserted. Also, take cup capacity with a grain of salt: I do found that even when I'm using size 2 (the larger size) I still have to empty my cup every 2-3 hours during my heaviest flow.

The stem is there to aid retrieval. It can be trimmed to fit. Be sure to wear the cup for a few days/cycle before trimming the stem as there is no going back once trimmed. Not all stems are made equal. Some are sturdy tabs like Lena cup above, some are stretchy, rat-tails like Sckoon, which does not help with retrieval (in fact, I have accidentally pulled the stem and it snapped inside me, OUCH!!). Some company like Meluna offered different stem styles which can be helpful.

Lena and Sckoon cups -- cups usually come with cotton pouch to store them in between usage.

Consideration to choose the first cup

  • Know that this is an investment: time, money and skill. It takes time and trial and error to use menstrual cup comfortably. Give it a few cycles before deciding to quit. It took me around three cycles to get the cup to work, and I still have to trouble-shoot every now and then. I didn't mind it, the benefit way outweighs the cost and the hassle.
  • Know your anatomy and your period. Forget about cup sizes based on whether or not you have given birth, etc. and focus on your body. How heavy is your flow? How many days do they last? Do you have low or high cervix? Do you have a touchy bladder? Toned pelvic floor? Learn and find out -- the only shame is the shame of not knowing yourself and your body. Knowing your body is empowerment and freedom. 
  • Familiarized yourself of the different style of cups, but don't get too hang up on it. These companies design the cups with the majority of women in mind, in terms of sizes, shapes, and material. You will never know right away whether the cup is right for you without first investing time and skill to use it (the first bullet point). 
  • Where the cup is made. I have nothing against China -- my better half and thus half of my family came from there, but I do not purchase the generic Made-in-China cups for a variety of reasons. I do, however, chose to support U.S. made cups. Both Lena and Sckoon have excellent customer service, per my experience, and they ship very fast.
Let's apply those ideas to my situation:
I have a high cervix and my flow is heavy for the first two-three days of the cycle, then tapered down toward the end. Despite having a vaginal birth, I do have a good tone on my pelvic floor (I rarely experienced incontinence, for example). With these information and without knowing how it will work on my body, I decided to try out two different cups: ones that are softer (Sckoon) and ones that are firmer (Lena). I ordered each in both sizes to accommodate the variable flow throughout my cycle. While in theory one only need one cup, having several cups on hands turned out to be a good decision.


What to do before first time use:

  • Clean the cup.
    You can either boil them or rinse them. I didn't do much other than washing with regular, unscented hand-soap (I use Dr. Bronner Castile soap for hand wash at home).
  • Check that the air holes/vents are opened and punched out.
    The air holes are there to help open the cup and to displace air when menstrual blood flows into the cup. It is important to keep these holes clean and open.
    I found that the Sckoon cups have little film of silicone covering the air holes that I needed to poke them through (using a clean toothpick or such). And to ensure that holes are open when cleaning, fill cup with water, put the cup face down on the palm and pfft! push out the water out of the holes while holding it tight on the palm. Shake the cup dry, then cover with the palm of the hands and pfft! push cup again to clean out residues. Some suggest cleaning interdental brushes (tiny brush that looks like a short pipe cleaner, available in the pharmacy).
  • Do a dry run.
    Before your period, watch a few videos (resources below) and do a trial run. Try out different folds of the cup and find out which one fits you and your cup. Use water-based lubricants (such as K-Y) to help with insertion. Find out ways to check whether or not the cup is open and stays in the right place.
    While doing a trial run, don't forget to practice retrieving a cup. I found that cup retrieval is more troublesome, at least in the beginning, than insertion. Just imagine that when your actual period started, things can be quite slippery and trying to dig around and grip for the cup can be quite painful. Finding a comfortable way to retrieve the cup is as important as making sure the cup is inserted properly.


Most Helpful hints

Before giving up on the cup or deciding to purchase a different cup all together, I found that with these few hints I was able to make my cup work all the time.

  • Try out different folds that work for your body and your cup. Try facing the fold in different directions while inserting. Softer cups are harder to open, but with a little tweak it can definitely work.
  • When retrieving, bear down (as if you are pushing something out) as you grab the stem and wiggle the cup down to release the contact between the rim and the vaginal wall (some may refer to this "releasing the suction"). Never try to grab and pull the stem to retrieve without breaking the suction first -- it can be downright painful!! 
  • Do not rely on the stem alone to retrieve (stretchy stem can snap, read above). If possible, pinch the cup down by the base to release the rim contact. If that is not possible, hook the base of the cup against the vaginal wall while slowly dragging the cup out.
  • When trouble-shooting a leak, pay attention on how far you insert the cup (see diagram above) and whether the cup is fully open or not. Try out different fold, insert it a different way, or if you have more than one cup, try a different cup. There were days when one cup leaked on me no matter what I do, and the other did not.
  • Water-based lubricant is your friend, especially in the beginning. They key is to get the lubricants on your body and not to get it on the cup (because slippery cup = harder insertion).
  • Doing a few Kegles will position the cup on the right place.
  • Just because the cup can be worn for 12 hours does not mean it should be. I found out during the heaviest part of my flow, I needed to empty the cup every 2-3 hours (Hint: when the cup is almost full to the rim, it feels like something "burping" or air pushing out in the inside and I know I must empty the cup).

Resources

  • Precious Star Pads Youtube Channel is especially helpful for beginners. Briony/Bree is considered one of the leading voice in menstrual cup and RUMPs. She is explaining how to get the cup to open on this video, one of the most useful video in the beginning of my cup-wearing experience. 
  • Dirty Diaper Laundry does a lot of cup comparisons and videos on Youtube as well. She also has a site that is dedicated to menstrual cup here.
  • Amy Nix Holland's Youtube Channel is full of menstrual cup and cloth pads info, for those who are interested.
  • Your cup's brand/maker's website also provide useful information. Lena and Sckoon provided great customer service while I tried to trouble-shoot in the beginning. Take advantage by following them via Twitter/Facebook for sometimes they do giveaways or discounts.
  • Facebook groups Cup Love (a closed group -- you have to send a request and get approval) is very useful for real-time trouble-shooting. They also have a sister FB group of Cup Love B/S/T for buy/sale/trade of new and used menstrual cups.
  • Explore the resources above before you jump into the rabbit hole of Menstrual Cup Life Journal group -- I've only visited here a handful of time when I couldn't find any other solutions anywhere else.
I hope you have found this information useful. Have you used any alternative menstrual products? Feel free to share your experiences below!