By Rebecca Lindamood, Local columnist
---- — The rains have been pouring down -- it seems -- without ceasing since spring officially sprang. Plans, field days, playground time, garden preparation, planting and other long-anticipated things have been canceled due to weather. We've spent a good deal of time crabby, cranky, out-of-sorts and fidgety. The poor walls of our home have been bounced off of by the boys and climbed by my husband and me.
Early this morning the boys and I decided we'd had enough. Since shaking fists at the sky had not worked for us up to this point, we opted to have some fun with it. We created a game called "Things You Can Do In The Rain." There is only one rule and it's a simple one. Think of things that you can do in the rain that are otherwise difficult or impossible. Here are some of the highlights from our round.
• Eco-friendly laundry: Just rub your dry clothes with soap, hang on the line and wait for the next sunny day to pull it in for folding.
• Full immersion baptism for people with back problems: Just walk outside.
• Hyper-efficient bathing for children and/or pets. (See full immersion baptism or eco-friendly laundry technique.)
• Cry surreptitiously.
• Build a kayak and take it white-water rafting, all in our own backyard.
• Do a method acting study on how to think like a beaver.
• Practice holding your breath underwater. In the back field.
• Learn the backstroke. In the front yard.
• Practice log rolling for the local lumberjack games. In the side woods.
• Play in the mud and get washed off at the same time.
We laughed until our sides ached and worked up a real appetite. It was then that we realized the thing we really could do in the rain was excuse our omnipresent desire to cook and eat and sit and read. And then we truly made peace with the rain.
My "to read" list is shorter and the boys have put a world of hurt on the competition in the "read the most books" contest at our local library. Truly, can you think of a better way to spend the day as a family? Baking, eating, laughing, snuggling in plush blankets and reading. I do hope the rain stays a little while longer.
Ham and Cheddar Stuffed Soft Pretzels
1 c. lukewarm milk
½ c. hot water (not boiling, just hot)
4 c. (1 lb. 1 oz., by weight) high-gluten flour (or bread flour)
1 T. malt powder (or granulated sugar)
1¼ t. kosher salt
2¼ t. instant yeast
For pretzel boil:
2 quarts water
¼ c. baking soda
1½ c. diced ham (I like to use country ham or a Virginia-style baked ham for this.)
1½ c. diced Cheddar cheese (We prefer extra sharp, but use your favorite.)
1 egg, beaten
Coarse sea salt, kosher salt or pretzel salt
To make the dough by hand:
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, malt powder or sugar and yeast. Set the whisk aside and switch to a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir in the milk and tap water until a soft dough forms. Turn onto a generously floured surface and knead, adding small amounts of flour as needed to keep the dough from adhering to the counter. You do not want a firm dough; it should be fairly slack, a little tacky and soft, yet smooth. Place dough in a clean bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place until nearly doubled in bulk and puffy, about an hour or so.
To make the dough by stand mixer:
In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour, salt, malt powder or sugar and yeast. Mix on low just to combine dry ingredients. With mixer still on low, carefully pour in the milk and water. Continue mixing on low until you have a smooth, soft, slightly tacky dough. Remove bowl from the mixer, cover with a damp tea towel and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place until nearly doubled in bulk and puffy, about an hour or so.
To make the dough by bread machine:
Add the milk, water, flour, malt powder or sugar, and yeast to the pan of your bread machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer. Select the "Dough" or "Dough Only" cycle and hit start. Allow the cycle to complete.
To form pretzel bites:
Line two 11-by-13-inch baking sheets with silicon or teflon pan liners. (You can use parchment, but you will need to grease it generously to prevent it from sticking.) Set next to your work area.
Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. Use a bench knife to cut the dough into four pieces. Keep three pieces of dough covered with a tea towel while working with the first. Roll the piece like play-dough until you have a snake of dough about the circumference of two thumbs squashed together. Use your bench knife to cut the dough snake into 6 equally-sized pieces. Press each piece into an oval that is about 3-4 inches across. Put 1½ teaspoons each of the ham and cheddar into the center. Bring the dough up together from the sides toward the center and pinch together firmly to seal the dough. Pinch the ends so that the cheese and ham are sealed into the dough.
Transfer the sealed, stuffed dough, seam-side down, onto the lined baking sheets, being sure to leave generous amounts of room between pieces and rows. They will expand both as they rise and again as they boil and bake.
To cook the pretzels:
Preheat oven to 400°.
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a stainless steel or other non-reactive pan (enameled cast-iron, tempered glass, etc.) When water boils, add the baking soda. Gently lift the pretzel dough pieces one at a time into the boiling water. (You can boil more than one at a time, but be sure not to crowd the the pan as they will expand as they boil. Let simmer for about 45 seconds, flip the pieces and simmer for another 45 seconds-1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to drain and return each piece to its place on the pan. Continue until all pieces have been boiled and returned to the pan.
Brush all pieces of dough with the beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse salt. Place pans in oven and bake at least until golden brown (at least 15 minutes), but you can bake until they are deep brown. It's up to you!
Remove the pans from the oven and let the pretzels rest on the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a serving plate. Leftovers, if you have them, should be stored in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Makes two dozen stuffed pretzels.
Serve warm or room temperature. I like mine with classic yellow mustard, but they're also good with grainy beer mustards.
Salted Caramel Popcorn with Dark Chocolate Drizzle
2 c. brown sugar (lightly packed)
1 c. butter (no substitute)
1¼ t. sea salt or kosher salt
½ c. light corn syrup
1 c. pure vanilla
1 t. baking soda
8 quarts (32 c.) popped popcorn (stovetop or air popped, but not microwave popped)
12 oz. chopped dark chocolate (or semi-sweet chocolate chips)
Optional: extra sea salt for sprinkling the finished popcorn
Place popcorn into a large mixing bowl and set aside. Preheat oven to 250°.
Prepare two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper, silicon baking mats or teflon baking sheet liners.
Combine all remaining ingredients except for the baking soda and chocolate in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and let boil vigorously for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the baking soda. It will foam up, so be careful, but continue stirring.
Pour the caramel over the popped corn and mix well to evenly coat the popcorn. Divide between the two prepared baking sheets.
Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes to prevent scorching around the edges. Remove pans from the oven.
In a microwave safe bowl, melt chocolate at 70 percent power for 1 minute. Remove the bowl, stir and continue heating in the microwave at 30-second intervals, stirring after each, until the chocolate is melted and smooth.
Use a rubber spatula or serving spoon to drizzle the melted chocolate over the caramel corn. If desired, sprinkle or grind a small amount of sea salt over the popcorn and chocolate. Let the chocolate firm up, break into chunks and store in an airtight container at room temperature.
For a heartier helping of Foodie With Family, go to www.foodiewithfamily.com or Rebecca's new blog, www.icouldeatthat.com. Write to Rebecca at email@example.com to share your adventures and favorite recipes.