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Front Page News

On Monday, Milo and I went shopping at our local grocery store for a few supplies before the next snow storm came in. The guy at the fish counter said I looked familiar.  He said, “Did you do something with pies?”

“I did bake a pie,” I said.  “I won second at Mack’s apple pie contest on Saturday.”

“That’s it,” he said.  “You’re in the paper!”

“Really?”

“Yeah, hold on a sec.  I’ll get it for you.”

And there it was.  Front page news.  Me and Milo.  Told you he was photogenic.

I bought some extra salmon from the fish guy.

To read full article from New Hampshire Union Leader, click here.

Pelham resident Sabina Chen beamed with her son, Milo, while showing off her winning ribbon Saturday afternoon after earning second place for traditional pies in the 21st Mack’s Apple Pie Contest.

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The Pie Contest

Pie heaven!

Mack’s Apples is a venerable institution in Londonderry, New Hampshire, family-run since 1732.  There are sprawling orchards with well-groomed trails.  In the winter, the kids invade an impressive hill behind the farm stand for sledding.  I can see the sleds zooming down the hill as I pull into the parking lot with my pie.  Contest rules required all pies to be registered by 1:30 and judging to begin promptly at 2:00pm.  Milo was napping when I left around 1:00, so Daddy was to bring him later, while I went ahead with my pie.

The farm stand is a rustic, weathered building with brightly painted signs.  Bins of apples and pumpkins line one side, while the other side has shelves of local New Hampshire foodstuffs: maple syrup, apple butter, pancake mixes, candies.  Instead of shopping carts, there are big red-flyer wagons that Milo loves when we come here.

On the day of the pie contest, the farm stand is starting to fill up.  You can smell the warm cinnamon and sugar as you walk in. There were two categories for the pie contest: traditional and non-traditional apple pies.  Traditional pies were described as two-crust pies with an apple filling.  Non-traditional pies were any pies with predominantly apple filling, but could include other fruits, nuts, cream, etc.  My pie was a traditional pie.  I had wanted to limit the variables in my first pie contest, so I went with the traditional pie.

My pie was registered pie #9–a lucky number in Chinese culture.  A contest official took my pie and laid it on a long table along with the other pies.  There weren’t too many pies on the table yet and I thought, oh, maybe the competition wouldn’t be too bad.  But as the room filled up, the table filled up too.  By 1:45, there were 23 traditional pies on the table.  Wow.  That’s a lot of pie.

Lining up with the competition: 23 pies total.

I had taken a seat next to Lorraine, a lovely grandmotherly woman who sat in the middle of the long room and wore an apron.  Lorraine had entered the contest six times and always wore an apron.  Two years ago, she won the whole she-bang.  This year, she had submitted two pies, one traditional and one non-traditional.  She used the same pie recipe that had won two years ago.  She does so every year.  She said there were people came year after year and it was great to see the familiar faces.

With our new friend, Lorraine.

Judging sounded like a complicated process, but a well-oiled machine.  There were twelve judges, six for traditional and six for non-traditional.  During the first round, two judges taste each pie and award points: 3 points for appearance and 7 points for taste.  After those scores are tallied, the top 8 or 9 pies from each category are advanced to the final round.

Milo and Daddy joined us just in time for judging to start.  Milo was an instant hit, of course, but I couldn’t use him to influence the judges.  They were all too busy gobbling down pies to notice him.  He flirted with Lorraine and with others gathered around us.  He squirmed off my lap and took off down the room.  He got his photo taken over and over.  I was sure his picture was going to make the local paper.  Milo is a photogenic charmer and he knows it.

The first round of judging completed, they announced the pies that would advance.  “Pie number 1.” “Pie number 2.” There was a cheer as each pie was announced.  “Pie number 6.”  This was Lorraine’s pie.  She was pleased.

I tried to keep my hopes down.  There were so many pies, chances of winning were slim, especially among this bunch of very experienced bakers.  Though it would be nice if my pie made it to the final round, I thought.  It was slightly nerve-wracking.

“Pie number 9.”  That’s mine!

Nine out of 23 pies advanced to the finals.  I was happy.  It didn’t matter to me who won at that point.  It was nice to know my pie made the cut.  (ar.)

For the final round, the judges switched sides: traditional to non-traditional and vice versa.  For this round, all six judges per category taste all the pies and award points accordingly.  Sixty points total.

By this point, Milo had taken command of the room, freely wandering off into a crowd of strangers.  Blake and I had to tag team him to corral him, until he discovered the forklift parked in a back corner.  Thankfully, he had a grand old time with the forklift until it was time to announce the winners.

Second place, with a score of 54.5 points, Pie number 9!

I must say, I was stunned.  Out of 23 pies, I won second place.  And with a pie that I had yet to taste.  I had an inkling it was pretty good, but it must have been really good to stand out in that field.  It was the first time I had entered such a contest, the first time I had offered up something I had cooked to judgement other than that of my family and friends.  Apple pie.  I felt humbled and grateful.  And quite a sense of accomplishment.  More than I had felt in quite a while.

When I finally did get a taste of my pie–there were only a few bites left in the pan–I had to admit, it was pretty good.  The apples, which I had pre-cooked, were just the right tenderness, not too sweet, not too tart.  The crust was flaky and light, but not too dry.  Even Blake, who (ahem) doesn’t like apple pie, said the crust was really good.  So I guess I was on to something with my baking experiment.  Third pie’s a charm.

My new friend, Lorraine, said she would cut out all the articles she read about the contest and send them to me.  We promised to meet again next year, if not before.

For my recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Standing out in the crowd, with pie.

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Apple Pie!

On a whim, I decided to enter an apple pie baking contest at Mack’s Apples, a local orchard that has been in operation since 1732.  They’ve been hosting their apple pie contest for 21 years.  I thought, what the heck, I can bake a decent apple pie and this sounded like a fun community event.

The first apple pie I ever baked was in 1991, when I was living in China.  This was back when you couldn’t find many Western goods in China and if you wanted any American food, you had to make it yourself, from scratch.  So I learned to bake an apple pie for our small ex-pat Thanksgiving gathering that year.  It was quite a thrill when it came out of the tiny electric oven.  Nicely browned and bubbling apple goop out of the cut slits.  Since then, I’ve baked my fair share of pies and usually they come out pretty tasty.

For this contest, I thought I should test my pie first on some willing takers.  A week before the contest, we hosted a potluck for Milo’s playgroup and I foisted my first try on them.  For this pie, I used the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated.  I also tried to address the issue of too much liquid when the apples cook down in the pie.  I found this sometimes happens and makes the lower crust soggy.  I had read about a technique called maceration, which calls for the cut apples to be mixed with sugar and spices and to sit in a colander for an hour so that the juices can be collected before baking.  The juices are cooked down into a syrup, which is added back to the apples right before baking.  Sounded fancy.  A little complicated.  So I tried macerating the apples, boiled down the syrup, etc., and fed it to the playgroup potluck.  I thought the pie came out a little dry and the apples tasted a little bland.  It was the kind of pie that needed ice cream with it.  Not optimal.

A few days later, my parents hosted a small gathering because my brother was visiting and I foisted a pie on them.  This time, I used the same crust (which had come out nice and flaky the last time) and did not bother to macerate the apples.  I just mixed up the apples with sugar and cinnamon and a little bit of cornstarch and dumped it into the pie.  This pie came out juicier, but maybe a little too juicy.  If I had let it sit for any length of time, the bottom crust might have become soggy.  Not optimal.

The night before the the contest, I decided the best thing to do was to pre-cook the apples before putting them in the pie.  In my search for recipes, I came across a basic recipe that seemed like it would work, with a few adjustments.  I made my pie dough that evening and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Milo tastes the apples. Mommy hasn't showered yet.

The recipe called for apple juice, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I substituted a dry white wine–a nice California chardonnay I had been saving.  The alcohol would cook out of the mixture and we would be left with a lovely tart acidity to counter the sweetness of the apples.  I also added spices and decreased the amount of sugar, as I don’t like my pies to be super sweet. Finally, I would top off the whole thing with more butter.  In my opinion, you can never have too much butter.

The next morning, I got up and started peeling and coring apples.  Milo kept me company part of the time and helped by taste testing the apples.  Most the time, Daddy took care of him so that I could concentrate on building my pie.  I used Golden Delicious and Mutsu apples (from Mack’s Apples, of course) and cooked them in the white wine, brown sugar, and butter.  It was sweet and fragrant as the apples cooked down to just tender.  I added spices, white sugar and a few tablespoons of cornstarch, and cooked the mixture a bit more until the juices started to thicken.  (This is the way I add cornstarch to my beef broccoli so that the juices thicken and are not too watery.  Beef broccoli and apple pie–hm.)

Topped with extra butter!

I let the apple mixture cool down until it stopped steaming. In the meantime, I rolled out my pie pastry.  The chilled pie pastry was pretty easy to roll out.  Once the apples had cooled down, I poured the mixture into the pie and dotted it with some extra butter.  (Again, you can never have too much butter.)  Then I topped the pie with the upper crust.  Unfortunately, I got a little too eager with cutting slits into my upper crust and my pie looked a little sad, like a bad slasher job.  So I cut out a few decorative leaves and tried to patch up the edges.  Voila!

This pie recipe calls for baking the pie at a lower temperature (350F) than usual pie temperature (425F).  I figured this was because the apples were pre-cooked, but I was still a little paranoid about the crust not browning well, so I compromised at 375.  I brushed the upper crust with egg white and sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar and popped it into the oven.  About an hour later, I had a lovely, golden brown apple pie.  The crust had risen a little more than usual and I attributed this to the lower temperature, but when I poked the crust a little and saw that it was flaky, I knew I had something good.

I whisked the warm pie off to Mack’s and submitted my entry.  It took a little bit of faith to submit a pie I hadn’t tasted yet, but I knew it couldn’t be too bad to be inedible.  Details of the apple pie contest to follow.

For my complete recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Warm apple pie. Yum!

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Baking Day

This morning, there was a complication with our husband-installed geothermal heating system.  These past few nights, it’s been bitterly cold (below 10 F) and our well, which feeds moderate temperature water into the heating system, was having some difficulty keeping up.  Blake decided to scale back on the heat in order to let the well catch up a bit.  But today it was all of 12 F outside and we couldn’t very well do without heat.  So Blake decided to supplement our heat by turning the oven on.

Since our heating system was sketchy, I had canceled the playdate we were scheduled to host today.  But with the “supplemental” heat, I couldn’t very well leave the oven on and not put something inside it.  So I decided to make it a baking day.  In between chasing Milo (who is walking!) and changing his diapers, this was my day:

10:30 am  Turn on oven at 350 degrees

Milo helping Mommy's baking chaos

11:00 am Roasted pumpkin (1 hour)

12:30 pm  Roasted sweet potatoes (1.5 hours).  Served lunch.  Peeled & cored apples while Milo sat at table and took a bite out of each apple piece.

2:30 pm Roasted apples for applesauce (1 hour).  Peeled & pureed roasted pumpkin into mash for pumpkin bread.

3:45 pm Roasted Pumpkin seeds (1 hour).  Pureed applesauce to sweeten pumpkin bread.  Prepped mac & cheese

5:00 pm Baked Mac & Cheese (1 hour).  Prepped pumpkin bread batter.

6:00 pm Baked pumpkin bread w/applesauce.  Served dinner of Mac & Cheese and salad.

7:00 pm Put Milo to bed.

7:30 pm Pumpkin bread finished.  Turned off oven.

The kitchen stayed nice and warm all day and now we have tons of food.  Some time towards the end of the day, Blake got a call from the well driller with a hopeful solution to our well problems.  So the day, which started off with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, turned out to be quite warm and productive.

 

Fruits of my labors (clockwise, from lower left): roasted sweet potatoes, spiced pumpkin seeds, baked mac & cheese, pumpkin applesauce bread

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Here’s the Skinny

Milo is a long, skinny baby.  He is currently 10 1/2 months old and he weighs just under 16 pounds.  He’s fallen off the growth charts.  Granted, these growth charts are predominantly Caucasian babies and Milo is half Asian.  (Asian and Latino babies tend to be smaller than Caucasian babies.)  Still, the low weight is a little disconcerting.  It’s not like he doesn’t get enough food.  In fact, he eats about 1000 calories per day in solids, plus 4-6 feedings of breastmilk.

Our pediatrician is not too concerned at the moment, as long as there is an upward trend in Milo’s weight gain, however small that might be.  Also, he is on the chart in height–currently 27 inches.  We do note that Milo is an extremely active baby and always has been.  He is constantly moving, crawling, climbing, bouncing.  Our pediatrician thinks this could account for the slow weight gain–he’s just burning off the calories faster than we can feed him.

Both grandmas think we should be spoon-feeding Milo to get more down him (see previous post on Baby Led Weaning), but we are quite confident this is not the problem.  Milo has a friend, born on the exact same day, who is also feeding himself by Baby Led Weaning and he weighs over 20 pounds.

At this point, Milo refuses to be fed by the spoon anyway.  But he still eats plenty.  A typical lunch includes the following:

Milo stuffing his face with carnitas

  • 2 slices of pear with soy butter   (188 calories)
  • 2 pieces of roast beef   (100 calories)
  • 6 chunks of sweet potato  (100 calories)
  • 1/4 cup of whole milk yogurt  (85 calories)
  • 2 slices of cantaloupe  (35 calories)
  • 4 tablespoons hummus with pita bread  (150 calories)

TOTAL  = 658 calories

That’s a big meal!

Still, because of Milo’s high metabolism, we’ve been charged with trying to feed him even more calories.  In particular, more fat.  So now we pour olive oil into his vegetables and dunk his fruit into yogurt mixed with coconut milk.  We fry up his sweet potatoes in bacon fat.  We slather butter onto his bread.  It’s a totally different diet from one we might consider “healthy.”

I’m not entirely sure the added fat will make a difference, as I note Milo eating a little less when we make his food richer.  It makes sense.  He’s used to self-regulating his food intake, so he stops when he’s satisfied.  He’s not waking up hungry every hour at night (he feeds 1-2 times at night), so that would seem to indicate he’s getting enough food and calories during the day.

Hubby and I argued over the addition of sugar to Milo’s diet.  Hubby thinks allowing some sugar would get additional calories into him.  I have been adamant about avoiding sugar.  To me, it is critical that we instill healthy eating habits in Milo early.  His palate is very sensitive at this age.  He already gets plenty of natural sugars from fruit.  Refined sugar would be like crack to a baby.

But after one discouraging weigh-in (he gained only 1/2 ounce in a week), I relented and agreed to let Hubby try some added sugar.  We went to the health food store and got some “all natural” fig newtons and some organic whole milk ice cream.  Milo seemed to take to the fig newtons fairly well and now he eats maybe two a day (for a total of 140 calories).  Hubby was particularly excited about the ice cream, loaded with both calories and fat (and sugar).

One afternoon, when I was out, Hubby fed the ice cream to Milo.  Evidently, Milo liked it a lot.  He ate spoonful after spoonful and Hubby felt quite good about feeding all those calories to his skinny baby to fatten him up.  Until about 30 minutes later.  Milo, usually fairly mellow and even-tempered, started rooting manically on Daddy’s knee.  Rooting is a combination of sucking, slobbering, and shaking his head, searching for something with his mouth.  As a newborn, Milo would root for my nipple in order to nurse.  Rooting on Daddy’s knee was an entirely futile exercise, but under the influence of ice cream, it was essential to his survival.  He was like a muppet on speed.

After this episode, Daddy agreed to lay off the ice cream.  Like crack to a baby.

Other than the weight issue, Milo is a perfectly healthy baby.  He’s meeting (and surpassing) all his developmental milestones.  Our pediatrician is not too concerned.  She doesn’t want us to freak out.  Milo could just be a small baby and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.

I do find myself (and everyone around Milo) overly anxious about what my baby eats.  I’m sure Milo must sense this.  It is important to me that Milo develops healthy eating habits, but maybe this is more likely to happen if everyone around him just relaxes.  We’ll do our best to feed him healthy foods with his share of fats and calories.  He feeds himself quite well.  And even though he refuses to be fed by a spoon, I note with particular pride that he will–quite happily–eat off my chopsticks.

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Baby Led Weaning

Food has always been an issue for Hubby.  When he was a child, there were very few foods he could actually stomach.  He has many food sensitivities and even as an adult, while he can now eat a larger variety, there are few foods that he actually enjoys. While he didn’t want Milo to inherit his food issues, Hubby said he could never force his child to eat anything he didn’t want to eat and he dreaded “force-feeding” with a spoon.

So when it came to feeding Milo solids, we were delighted to stumble across a concept called Baby-Led Weaning.  This feeding philosophy bypasses the pureed, spoon-fed baby food in favor of finger foods that the baby can feed him or herself.  The logic behind BLW is that purees are a product of an earlier generation that fed solids to babies when they were younger and could not feed themselves.  At six months old, the age recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to start solid foods, most babies can grasp items and bring it to their mouths.  We figured Milo was already putting everything in his mouth already, so why not food?

Milo concentrating on a banana w/peel

BLW advocates letting the baby feed himself so that he has control and choices about what he eats.  Hubby believes the lack of control leads to a lot of children’s fights over food and results in picky eaters.  BLW suggests placing finger foods in front of the baby and letting him choose and feed himself.  Breastfed babies, in particular, are accustomed to self-regulating their food intake and should, theoretically, be able to regulate their solid food intake.

It turns out Milo is the perfect baby for BLW.  He’s sitting up without support, curious about everything, and grasping items quite well.  And he loves the food!  He will quite contentedly suck on a slice of pear for 20 minutes.  In the three weeks he’s been on solids, he has tried bananas, avocados, apples, pears, sweet potato, butternut squash, carrots, cantaloupe, oatmeal, asparagus, beans, hummus, and broccoli.  He loved the broccoli.  He seemed to be fascinated by the differing textures in his mouth.

with sweet potato

Giving the baby control over his eating makes him less likely to choke.  Milo doesn’t have enough teeth to chew yet, but he can gum the appropriate foods very effectively.  He also gets a lot of good practice with his hand motor skills by grasping at the food.  It’s been great fun to watch him gnaw away.  We’re not as concerned about how much he’s actually eating at this point; he’s still getting the majority of his nutrition from breastmilk.  Mealtimes are like play for him, which will hopefully translate to a love for good food.

Still, as with any baby feeding, Milo needs to be closely observed when he eats.  And especially because, well, despite what the book says, he hasn’t figured out how to self-regulate his eating yet.  He gets so engrossed with gnawing at the food that he forgets to swallow and stores up the food in his mouth like a chipmunk.  Often, this food comes back out, sometimes as regurgitated spit-up.  Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to bother him and he goes right back to gnawing at the pear or avocado without missing a beat.  Hopefully he’ll soon figure out how to stop eating when he’s full.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that BLW is very messy.  Baby is in charge, after all.

and the detritus of his meal.

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Wonder Food

You would think, since I haven’t updated my blog in over a month, that I would have something momentous to write about.  But no.  Only to report that Milo is pooping once every 7 days.  It might seem a little alarming, but our pediatrician tells us this is normal, especially for babies who are exclusively breastfed.  His gut is being lined with the stuff that will help aid his digestion for the rest of his life.  Plus, breast milk is so easily digestible that, as his digestive system becomes more mature, very little of what he eats will actually go to waste.

Breast milk is not only a miracle food, it is also a miracle salve and nasal decongestant.  One of my mommy friends has a baby with eczema.  She uses breast milk to help soothe the itching.  When your baby is congested, squirting a little breast milk up his nose will help dissolve the proteins in the mucous and relieve his congestion.  Who needs the pharmacy?

We have been fortunate that Milo has not gotten sick yet during his almost 5 months of life, even though a good chunk of his life has been during a cold New England winter.  Breast milk helps with a baby’s immunity system, so that’s yet another plus for breastfeeding.  And it’s free.

Given Milo’s current digestive disposition, the lack of poopy diapers has made clean up easier.  However, his farts have been extra stinky.  Phew!

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Grilled Blueberry Muffins

One of the culinary discoveries we’ve made here in New Hampshire is the grilled blueberry muffin.  There’s a little Mom & Pop restaurant around the corner from our office in Salem, NH, called A & A Restaurant.  The A’s stand for Asian and American, and it’s run by a Korean family.  I wandered in here one day in search of something Asian, as I was in withdrawal from my SF Asian food scene.  Their menu had a mixture of American lunch stuffs and Korean/Japanese bento boxes.  It was simple fare, but hit the spot.  Hubby and I go there once a week now.

My mother told me that A & A have wonderful homemade blueberry muffins, so Hubby & I went to check try it out.  When we ordered our muffins, they asked, “Would you like them grilled?”  We had never heard of this, so we thought we’d try it out.

Basically, grilling is how they’re reheating the muffins after they’ve cooled off.   Instead of sticking it in the microwave, they cut the muffin in half and grill the flat sides so that there’s this crunchy crust of toasted muffin.  Very tasty.  

I might try this at home, maybe we a slab of butter.  Yummy.

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Last Chinese Takeout Meal

After a full day of packing, I zipped over to the foggy side of town, the Sunset, to pick up some maternity clothes from my friend Christina.  On my way over, I started getting a craving for sam see chow mai fun, a rice noodle dish from my favorite take-out place in the City, Cheung Hing.  This restaurant used to have a spot in Chinatown, right on Kearny Street, but they closed down several years ago.  The space remains an empty shell.

But Cheung Hing kept its Sunset location open and every time I’m on the foggy side of town, I think about stopping by for sam see chow mai fan.  (This is about the only thing I can say in Cantonese, by the way.  That and a few dim sum dishes.)   As I drove across town today, I thought this might be the last opportunity I have to stop by Cheung Hing for a long time.   So I made my way to Noriega Street and there was a line out the door.  I waited, and when it was my turn, I ordered sam see chow mai fun, stir fried green beans, and half a soy sauce chicken.

When I got home, the food tasted so good, I couldn’t stop eating.  The beans were the right amount of crunchy, stir fried with bits of pork.  The chicken was flavorful and tender.  The noodles were light and textured with bits of pork, chicken, and vegetables.  Would I ever find food like this in New Hampshire?

I am rather particular about my Chinese food, and for good reason.  When you’ve been raised on the genuine cuisine (my mother is an excellent cook) and you’ve lived in China and in San Francisco, Panda Express is just not going to cut it.  Neither is P.F. Chang’s.  I would be aghast to step foot inside one of those pseudo-Chinese establishments.

Unfortunately, my own high standards have stunted me from learning to cook my own Chinese food.  While I’m a fairly accomplished cook in various cuisines, I have insecurities about cooking Chinese.  I can fix simple stir-fries, ja jiang mian, and even prepare decent jiaozi (dumplings), but I am often disappointed by my own fledgling efforts.  I have no such expectations when I cook carnitas or apple pie, both of which I can prepare to my own satisfaction and to the gastronomic pleasures of my guests.  However, when it comes to Chinese food, it’s never good enough.

Go ahead, psychoanalyze me.  I’m glad I got enough Cheung Hing leftovers for lunch tomorrow.  Yum.

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