The thing that matters

A few days ago I sat at my computer, skimming recent photos, intending to join up with Heather in the new This Week in My Kitchen blog hop she’s hosting. The blog hop could not be more appealing to the totally-not-creepy-I-promise voyeur in me, the eater in me, and the can-we-sit-on-your-front-porch-in-rocking-chairs-drinking-sweet-tea-and-shelling-peas-? neighbor in me. And here’s what I noticed: we sure do eat a lot of eggs. cooling Farming for a living does something a little funny to a family, I think. You might assume we never buy strawberries from California or grapefruits from Florida and Texas, but that’s not quite the case. For one, we have to eat in the winter, and we are not great at putting up lots of our summer harvest. Also, we have a four-year old who is only just emerging from his beige food stage, and I am telling you, if it is real food and it has a color and he is willing to eat it, I will buy it. And also, frankly, we’re not in the most lucrative line of work. We shop where everyone else shops when there’s no food from the farm to eat. You’ll find plenty of conventional produce in our fridge and on our countertops, particularly in the winter and early spring. (I have a lot more to say about this, I think. Hoping to find the time, and the words, and the pluck, to write it down here someday.) pullets Animal products are trickier – tricky in general, and trickier still now that we don’t have our own land and are living in a beach town. Meat and dairy and eggs produced with respect for the animals and care for the land cost quite a bit more than their vegetable counterparts. And our grocery budget is very tight. But we don’t feel comfortable eating conventionally produced animals products regularly. I’ve said before that our fridge and pantry are an embarrassment of riches, and that was probably nowhere more true than when it came to the meat, dairy, and eggs we ate when we were farming our own land. We kept goats for milk; they were given to us by some neighbors who were thinning their herd, and as ruminants, their feed costs were quite low. When our goats weren’t in milk, we knew where to find other fresh milk. We always had laying hens. Some years they numbered in the hundreds, when we were selling eggs, and we kept the cracked eggs for ourselves. Other years we just kept a homestead flock. Either way, we never worried where our eggs were coming from. Most years we raised 50-75 Cornish Rock chickens for meat. That worked out to about one roast chicken a week, plus some extras for potlucks or for thank yous to farm sitters and neighbors. We always threw the bones from our roast chicken into a big freezer bag, and once we had enough, we’d make bone broth. Sometimes we had venison in the freezer too, also from our land. We kept pigs for two years, and although we couldn’t afford to eat our more expensive cuts, we always had sausage and ribs available, and pork belly for making bacon, and fatback for lard. These things saw us through the year quite well. Sometimes we traded tomatoes for ground beef at market, or we’d till a garden for our livestock farmer neighbors in return for a lamb shoulder. This is how we lived beyond our means.

Here, in our beautiful beach town, we’re learning a new normal when it comes to this stuff. We don’t have our own land, so there’s no way to easily raise our own meat. And this is a resort town, with a huge summer population that turns over weekly and very sleepy winters. So it’s a tough place to be a market farmer selling most of your products retail, and therefore a tough place to find raw milk or grassfed beef. So what does this mean for us? Well, first, as the freezer stock we brought with us dwindles, it means we are eating less meat. It also means we compromise. We buy organic milk at the grocery store, but we don’t know where it comes from or how the cows were treated. We can’t trade for amazing cheeses at market anymore and so we buy from Miss Linda at the deli counter. She and my son are becoming fast friends. We usually buy Dannon yogurt. stacked But eggs. For some reason, I can’t relax about eggs. Why? There are many, many reasons to eat locally produced foods in season – some of those reasons matter quite a lot and others, I am starting to think as the years go by, are perhaps overplayed. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, though, to say that fresh food tastes better. The lettuce you picked at 11:30 to eat in a salad at noon? Those dead ripe, still-warm-from-the-vine Sungolds? Broilers you raised in your backyard whose grain was supplemented with daily kitchen scraps and June bugs they chased down themselves? It’s really no contest. But when it comes to eggs, maybe I’m wrong.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s personal. I have washed I don’t know how many thousands of eggs over the years. There were times I thought my brain might rot from the endless, changeless hours of scrubbing, but sometimes I really found peace in the rhythm. (Either that or I found a bottle of tequila and mixed myself a margarita, after which everything looked cheerier.) wash Here’s what I do know. I know there is not much farm fresh food to be had before May in this part of the country. I know I am only two months into learning how to mother two children and there is no elaborate or inspired cooking going in. I know eggs are fast and healthy and always delicious. (We are big, big fans of not really cooking dinner around here. Scrambled eggs and toast ranks just after popcorn and smoothies and just before a baked potato bar on our Effort Scale.)

The best thing I know? My kid will always crack an egg. I think this matters to me more than whether or not he’ll eat one. We have cooked with our son since he was just a few weeks old. He started in a sling on my hip as I stirred stock or sliced tomatoes, and he perched on my husband’s shoulder a few months later as they flipped pancakes together. When he was steady(ish) on his feet, he graduated to a beautiful homemade learning tower we received from a friend in trade for one of our CSA shares. We taught him more than two years ago how to crack an egg, and how to scramble it too. He has a preferred whisk. He can safely use a sharp knife.

I cannot take credit for much of his awesomeness, but I do think that keeping him right alongside us in the kitchen is one of the better calls we’ve made as parents. They say that when your kid cooks with you, he’ll be more likely to develop a broad palate – that hasn’t been our experience. But, and I say this with a hard-won and bittersweet clarity: that is almost beside the point. My children do not belong to me, and I can no more easily dictate what they will eat now than who they will love later. What I can do is give them skills – how to use that knife, how to know when cupcakes are done, what to do with a few wilted carrots and an onion – and I can also give them my time. It’s the thing, you know. The thing that matters.

I had a baby two months ago. She has rosy cheeks and big eyes. She sleeps a dream, for now. She loves to watch her brother talk, and she loves it when we sing the Mighty Machines theme song (or, oh my gosh, in French!) to her during diaper changes. She gasps when the bay breezes rush over her shoulders. And she nurses the day away. I love her, hard.

I also miss my boy.

But you know, thanks to those damn farm eggs, we’re finding our way back to one another.

baking

Classic Vanilla Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
cupcakes adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Twelfth Edition (1979)

I am not kidding when I say we made these cupcakes a totally immoderate three times last week. Partly it’s that we had a lot of leftover frosting from a cake we’d made the week before, and what were we going to do, give it to the pigs? I don’t think so. Partly it’s that they’re just so good, and we found we didn’t like being out of cupcakes. Mostly, it’s that something really good happened when I tucked my sleeping baby tight against my chest in the sling and invited my son into the kitchen to mix up the second batch. He leaped from the couch with an enormous grin, after a week of furrowed brow and clenched fist. He chose the eggs he wanted to use and watched, rapt, as I showed him how to separate the whites from the yolks. He turned on the mixer, and he measured and added the ingredients as I read him the recipe, and he taste tested the batter every step of the way (because that’s how you get good at this, right?), and he spooned the batter into the muffin tin. Later, when he ate his cupcake from the top down and asked for a second layer of frosting when the first was all gone, I wanted to say, “My beloved child! You have no idea how much I’ve missed you! We spent four years walking through our days hand in hand and now we have to make some space in our togetherness and I believe with all I’ve got that your life is going to be better because your sister is in it but it’s really hard for me right now and YOU CAN HAVE ALL THE FROSTING!” But instead I just handed him the spatula.

The cupcakes were my idea, by the way, and not his. I bake quite a lot but didn’t have a go-to cupcake recipe. I avoided looking for one online altogether, knowing how many I’d find, and instead I stood quite thoughtfully in front of my cookbook shelf, considering. I wanted something simple and classic. I was willing to put in a little effort, but I dismissed any recipes that insisted on cake flour (we don’t usually have it around) or a different number of egg yolks and whites (yes, there are always ways to use leftovers of either, but again with the new baby – I knew I’d just give any leftover egg to the dog). When I pulled my Fannie Farmer off the shelf and read the recipe for Boston Favorite Cake, I knew I’d found what I wanted right away. That Marion Cunningham. She knew a thing or two.

(A note on the frosting: I used a cream cheese frosting because I almost never want anything else, but a basic buttercream would be good too. Or play around – add some almond or lemon extract, or some citrus zest. Mmm. It might be time for a fourth batch of these babies.)

For the cupcakes:
2 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons/85 grams butter, room temperature
1 cup/200 grams sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups/245 grams all-purpose or cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk

For the frosting:
1 8-oz/226 gram package full-fat cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick/113 grams butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups/250 grams powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners (recommended) or generously grease and flour the tin. (This recipe makes an awkward 14 cupcakes. You can either find two small oven-safe bowls and put an additional two cupcake liners in those, or you can grease and flour a ramekin and make a very tiny cake with the extra batter.)

Make sure your mixer bowl is very clean. Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on fairly high speed until they are quite stiff but not dry. Scrape them gently into a medium bowl and set aside.

Switch to the paddle attachment, but don’t worry about cleaning the bowl. Cream the butter for a few seconds and then add the sugar slowly, beating until the mixture is light. Add the egg yolks and the vanilla and beat until well blended.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low, add about a third of the flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg yolks and beat until just incorporated. Add about a third of the milk and beat until blended. Repeat twice with the remaining flour mixture, following each time with a bit of the remaining milk. The batter should be smooth at this point, but be careful not to overblend.

Add about a third of your egg whites to the batter and mix on low until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the remaining egg whites by hand with a spatula. You don’t need to be too gentle – you’re not making a soufflé. Fold well enough that the egg whites are thoroughly incorporated but still light and fluffy.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tin and other pans of your choice (see note above), filling each well about halfway. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cupcakes are lightly browned on top and spring back when you touch them. (These consistently take 18-19 minutes in my oven, but I confess that since our move I haven’t confirmed my oven temperature with a thermometer, which I really do recommend.) Cool on a wire rack, in or out of the tin (these don’t seem to suffer from being left in the tin to cool).

Meanwhile, make your frosting. Using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the powdered sugar a bit at a time, beating until smooth and thick.

Wait until the cupcakes are cool to frost. Or frost them as you need them. You’ll have more frosting than you need. The cupcakes keep well at room temperature for about a week in an airtight container or zippered plastic bag, and the frosting keeps for about a week in the fridge, or for quite a long time in the freezer.

27 thoughts on “The thing that matters

    1. Lisa Post author

      Thanks Denise. They are just little slices, and few and far between in this season of my life, but looking back over what I have managed to post here in the last year and a half or so, I feel so grateful. Grateful for the snapshots of what we were living, and grateful for the chance to connect and feel less lonesome.

  1. Cristina

    I hope you do write something more about the produce you keep in the fridge. I would be interested to read it–not only because I enjoy your writing so much, but because of your unique perspective as a farmer.

    I do not yet have children, but I so admire (and plan to emulate) keeping children alongside you in the kitchen. It seems beneficial in so, so many ways. Thank you for your words.

    1. Lisa Post author

      Thanks for your kind words, Cristina! These thoughts on the vegetables we eat are always percolating for me – because we’re nearly swimming in them for more than half the year but then are not, because I have a child who loves some of them and flat out refuses others, because big questions on how food security affects family culture were what brought me to farming in the first place … so much to think about!

  2. sarah

    Great post and such an important topic. Because of my well-paying job, can afford to shop mainly at WholeFoods and our local co-op and we buy shop weekly at our farmers’ markets for veggies, eggs, meat and cheese. (We also make the choice to shop organically rather than have smart-phones and cable, etc etc. We are by no means rich, but our food budget comes first). But my in-aws, who own and operate one of the local small farms, can’t. It’s kind of nuts. And they are charging premium prices for their organic produce, it’s not like they are selling themselves short. They just can’t make all the ends meet and still have money left to shop organic for all of the things they need to buy.
    I love that you work with your kids in the kitchen. I’m really trying to do more of that with my girl, who’s almost 2.

    1. Lisa Post author

      Hi Sarah! It is a strange thing, isn’t it, farmers and their food? I think I should say we’re still lucky enough to have a very full pantry, even during the times of year our own fresh veg options are slim. Hoping in time to juggle momming and putting food by with a little more success!

      What kinds of things do you do already with your little one in the kitchen? It’s such a great place to connect.

  3. erin perry

    oh lisa, thank you, thank you, thank you. reading his has affirmed that those messes, the slowed down process of cooking with my boys, the delight in watching my own two discover just how to separate eggs has been worth it, every minute of the way. now at twelve and eight, by boys are adventurous eaters, having a preference (but not prejudice) for hours old sun warmed peas, straight out of their jackets, and tomatoes that smell as heavenly as they taste. they happily share cooking the simple meals, breakfasts, lunches and snack fare. we are simple, whole food eaters too, the less fuss and more interesting the meal without fuss, the happier we are. no food fads, or fad diets, just simple, whole ingredients. my boys love to read and analyze labels and becomes awesome home learning discussion. they are sometimes shocked at what isn’t real food that ends up in food!

    you are doing amazing things by your kiddoes, and they will have choices and experiences so many kids just don’t. knowing how to check cupcakes for doneness? well, that beats memorizing chemistry facts, this is living chemistry! so i could go on and on but i will just say, i love reading your writing, your thoughts, there is so much resonance and so much to deepen my own thinking. <3

    1. Lisa Post author

      Erin! I miss you! Thank you for coming here to chat.

      Amazing your boys are so big already! And I’d forgotten, or not known, they’re the same number of years apart as my two. That makes me excited for what’s to come for us, having gotten such sweet glimpses of their adventures together.

      Here too: lots of messes, but little fuss. Maybe that’s part of why I don’t talk as much here about the produce we eat – so often it’s just roasted with olive oil and salt or thrown into a frittata! Throw an egg on it and call it dinner. Mmmm.

      And, I would love for you to go on and on about the living subject matter of learning at home … we are still not sure exactly how we’re going to do or not do school, and have had to reconsider again since our move.

    1. Lisa Post author

      Thanks Cheri! You’d think having made them three times I might’ve gotten one photo, right? Next time.

  4. molly

    Oh, Lisa. I am achy with all the truth you have packed into this little post.

    Last things first: So much talk right now about disruptive technologies and businesses and ideas. Is there any disruptive anything, I ask you, more than a new babe? Not even. Nor, anything better. Still: so, so hard. And good. And worth it (you are so right about that). But those first days that stretch into months? Well, cupcakes.

    Also: The bit about not owning our own, and what they choose to eat. That hit me hard, as truth will do. And I’ve been at this parenting thing 13+ years. Thanks for that. You can ask me in five years, and I’ll be quoting it, still.

    And: The honesty around food, fetched from whatever four courners will feed those who have particular ideas about food. After years of “tomatoes are a summer food”, and a decade+ of a modified-beige-food-only child (oh, yes; it does get worse than beige), I finally learned he likes tomatoes. Out of season. Far-flung. All year long. By the bucket. Who knew? You bet I buy ’em.

    Finally: Eggs. I, too, save a weird corner of my heart, and budget, for gorgeous, plump-yolked local heroes, which I adore. My farmer knows we can burn through 3 dozen every week. They are not cheap. But neither are they more expensive than the other dinner options. Also, had to laugh, having just written up how often we lean on them, in lieu of, I mean, as dinner. Had never seen either link. Off to read them both.

    Bird by bird, cupcake by cupcake.

    xoxo,
    Molly

  5. Kener

    Please, please for the sake of your and your family’s health, incorporate veggies into your meals. Even if they are frozen. I know having two kids is hard work but if you have a summer garden, canning is the way to go. You can also can salsa. Also you can freeze fresh corn if you grow it.

    1. Lisa Post author

      Please be assured we eat enormous amounts of vegetables. We grow them for a living, and buy them at the grocery store when there’s nothing growing on the farm.

  6. Margit Van Schaick

    So full of love, your post. My mother practiced the same belief that you show your child how to use a paring knife by age 4, and teach him/her how to safely climb up to the counter, rather than saying NO. Makes for a confident kiddo, with an enthusiasm to learn everything. I have tried to teach my children the same way. And, yes, being present and available whenever you’re together means everything. About food, would love to hear your coping solutions, and maybe we can all share ideas for what works. The truth about the effect of not having surplus money, but having to make the best choices we can, is something many blog writers/readers do not deal with. This topic, explored in depth, could be helpful for so many. One thing I’ve learned in my own situation is tha using the freezer for small batch preserving of the harvest works best for me. Thank you for such a deeply thoughtful post, so eloquently written.

  7. KC

    I buy six dozen eggs from a farmer we know and they are the most incredible eggs I have ever eaten. He takes so much love and care into raising and feeding his birds. I feel like I am eating sunshine when I eat those eggs.

    I’m a total food crazo. Our budget entirely goes to finding good food. And we are all happy with that.

    I have so many opinions about the current food system and society, but I keep most of it to myself.

    Those cupcakes look yummy. Can I come over and eat one? 🙂

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  9. amanda

    so much goodness and honesty here I just don’t even know what to say, but I wanted to at least say something, to acknowledge ‘out loud’ how much I enjoyed reading this. loved your wording, particularly about ‘loving her hard’, your ‘totally immoderate’ consumption of cupcakes, the idea of having to ‘make some space in your togetherness’ (what an excellent way to put that) and your little man eating all the frosting off the top and then asking for more….. and gosh, the bit about not owning your children….. yeah. food for thought, right there.

    personally, I’d LOVE to hear/read more about your thoughts on food. if you happened to, say, write a book about your experiences being a farmer/mom/etc and dealing with these issues, I’d totally purchase a copy 😉
    cheers from NC

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  11. Elvira

    Your post spoke to me in so many different ways. The food issues, it’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately and while I want to tighten my budget, food is just too important for me to compromise on. I’m not buying everything organic, I try to buy as locally as possible, because I believe it has more impact ecologically. But I still buy a lot. Including cookies and crisps and different cheeses and desserts. While I’m confident making our main meal from scratch, I can’t seem to fit in making other things from scratch too. Maybe a learning tower would help (it’s hart to cook in the few hours little boy takes a nap or while he’s constantly hanging at your leg), but still…
    And then what you wrote about reconnecting with your boy since you had your second (congratulations…) you write about my biggest fear and the one thing that’s really holding me back to dream about siblings. I would be so afraid and devastated to loose that special connection with my boy. I strongly remember how hard those first months were, I can’t imagine how to do that while giving my boy the attention he needs and deserves.
    So thank you for writing this (and sorry for my comment being all over the place…)

  12. Nicole

    I’m in one of those moods where I just want to say I love you. 🙂 Super sweet post that really speaks to me. All of us with our high ideals (which is awesome) can’t possibly do it all perfectly. And it’s just so OK, you know? It’s just….life. Looking forward to trying that frosting recipe. I make a mean buttercream frosting, but am in need of a good cream cheese version.

  13. Noell

    Oh, Lisa, this posthaste been waitin in my browser for days and I finally sat down to read it. Reading about time with your boy made me cry. I, too, would gladly read abybramblings from you on food… I struggle so much around fair food and affordability and accessibility and privilege and everything in between and I have no answers, but I know we live out if our means when it comes to our food budget… Need to put this root cellar in our new to us old house to use. Also, I love farm eggs, and I think they taste better and their yolks are so much yellower… One day maybe we’ll have some urban hens. Anyways, I’m rambling, but I’m grateful for you and the snapshots of your life and family, and the ways you are living with intention.

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  15. Cordelia

    Wow. We are living a very similar life, though I am on the West Coast, I could have written a lot of what you shared and walk a very similar lifestyle. I love finding like-minded folks through the internet. Nothing like a tribe.
    XO
    C

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