10 Purchases You Should Never, Ever, Ever Skimp On

Image by Natania Barron
Image by Natania Barron

Listen, I get it. I come from a long line of thrifty people. It’s in my blood. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I’m out there every Saturday with my mom, scouring the neighborhoods for tag sales (I live in the South now, but, y’all, it’ll always be a tag sale to me). Over the years I’ve managed to find priceless antiques, top shelf brand purses, and amazing vintage clothes—all at basement prices. My mom loves taking people to her house and making them guess how much she paid for things, then giddily explaining that it only cost her 25 cents for her amazing wall-hanging.

But now, I have a family of my own. And after years of being underwater with college debt, houses, cars, and the general insane expense of having two kids (seriously, how does an eight-year-old eat so much?), I’ve come to believe that there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to purchases. When it comes down to it, you want quality things for the most important components of your life.

Some of these really aren’t that expensive, some of them are. But I’ll make separate arguments and reasoning for each one.

Why does this matter?

No, I’m not saying you should go out and drop Benjamins like it’s 1997. I’m saying that moms have a habit of putting our own wants and needs on the back-burner. Of compromising for everyone else. No, a great cup of coffee isn’t going to change your life. But it can make a better, kinder moment. It might help you later that day, that month, that year, to find a little more zen in your life because you put yourself in a valued place for a bit.

By G.dallorto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons - She's going to be sleeping on this pillow for a long, long, time yet.
By G.dallorto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons – She’s going to be sleeping on this pillow for a long, long, time yet.

10) Pillows.

It’s tempting to get cheap pillows, I know it is. But remember this: You sleep on your pillow every damn night of the week. You might scoff at a $100 price tag, sure. But a good pillow will last years and can make or break your bedtime routine. When it comes to good sleep hygiene, there’s no better first step than making sure your neck and back and shoulders, all places where I personally store a lot of tension, are kept nice and comfy all night long. I’m a big fan of Costco when it comes to finding foam pillows, my preferred type. But there are plenty on Amazon that will do the trick, too.

By MarkSweep (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By MarkSweep (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

9) Coffee.

Life is too short for crappy coffee, I say. Sure, this likely has something to do as my years as a barista. But one thing I can no longer abide by is awful coffee to start out my day (tea = same thing). I can’t even drink regular coffee (hi, anxiety, nice of you to hang out with me every second of my life), so I’ve got to stick to decaf, and that’s even harder since decaf is significantly more expensive and significantly less tasty. My approach? Pour over coffee method with these beans. More than whole bean some places, maybe. But the taste makes my morning ritual fabulous. And still a helluva lot cheaper than going to Starbucks.

Image: Andalou Naturals

8) Moisturizer.

Okay, sure. If you have superhuman skin, that’s fine. If any old moisturizer doesn’t bother your face or cause you to break out in hives and Mt. Vesuvius-sized pimples, cool. Ignore this advice. But it’s my face. I really like to think hard about what I put on my face. I spent years, years I tell you, trying to find a moisturizer that wouldn’t leave me in agony. When I finally found one that I could use every day—Andalou Naturals Clarifying Oil Control Beauty Balm Un-Tinted with SPF30—and had SPF in it (something that usually triggers the nasty reactions mentioned above), I honestly didn’t care how much it cost. Moisturizing your skin is just about the most important thing you can do for your face, regardless of your age. Cheap, fragrance-ridden, questionable ingredient-filled tubes might be tempting, but again this is something going on your face. Your face. If there were ever a place to make sure you’re playing it safe, it’s there.

Félicien Rops [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Félicien Rops [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7) Shower heads.

Showers? What are you on about, Barron? Listen, I may have spent the better part of my graduate school career thinking about the Middle Ages, I never once took for granted that most blissful of modern conveniences: a hot shower. When it comes down to the end of a day, my brain is fried, my everything hurts, and I start seriously contemplating climbing out a window and running away to Bali… Well, there’s a good shower. Our house was built in 1968, and the fixtures it came with are what I think of as Army Grade. You know, they spit out water so fast at you, it’s like being pelted with glass. A $40 Waterpik later, and suddenly my shower is a spa, and I’m as happy as a clam… until I hear that scratching at the door.

Image: Merrell
Image: Merrell

6) Shoes.

Funny story. Once my husband Michael bet me that I owned more pairs of shoes than he had board games. I knew he would lose, since he’s already into the low 100s, but he had this perception that I had dozens and dozens of pairs. Turns out I had 16. I’m very picky with shoes. Y’know, women’s feet—just like their bodies—come in all shapes and sizes. And walking around all day in pain just isn’t my idea of living. When I get new shoes for work, or for play, I spend some serious time researching. Recent favorites include Franco Sarto boots (I have a red pair that wear like slippers and have clocked hundreds of miles in) and Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove Trail Running Shoe shoes. Target has some great shoes, sure. But my high arch and high bridge means that most shoes = aches. It means I get fewer shoes, sure. But I just can’t abide by aching feet. As my father in law says, “Oh, my dogs are barkin’.” I avoid the barking dogs like the plague.

Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5) Crafting supplies.

Yes, this can easily get out of hand. But bad paint and bad yarn are just a waste of money. Sure, that three-skein pack seemed like a good idea. But now you’re stuck with it for a whole afghan and it’s turning your fingers blue. Which is really weird considering the yarn itself is red. Better to save up for a really nice set of oil paints than struggle through a whole set of acrylics that just don’t get the job done. When it comes to your hobbies, make them count. Don’t break the bank, but make a list of what’s most important. Paint brushes: non-negotiable. Palettes: maybe not so much.

By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Paolo Neo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4) Wine.

Two-Buck Chuck. Just put it down. Just walk away. Two dollars for any amount of fluid is too good to be true. Plus, ever since I read about dead bird wine I can’t even abide by the stuff. I’m not telling you to pay $30/bottle. In fact, I try to stay well under $15 if I can help it. Between Trader Joe’s (I suggest their Epicuro wines if you like a great value with lots of flavor) and Whole Foods (they carry a Globerati brand that is about $12/bottle and comes in a bunch of varietals), you can do really, really well for yourself.

Image: Amazon
Image: Paper Mate

3) Pens.

The art of writing may be dwindling, but not for me. When I’m at work I like to take notes, less for posterity and more just to help with memory later on down the line. But I’ve tried cheap pens and the result is always rather sad and unsatisfying. Paper Mate Inkjoy pens are one of my favorite new lines, and it’s far from pricey. Sure, there’s always Mont Blanc to save up for someday, but I’m happy with these colorful ones that suit just fine, whether I’m writing my next novel out longhand or scribbling a note to my husband. There is a special kind of rage I experience with crappy pens, and really, I prefer to avoid that if at all possible. No one should have to endure that fury, really.

By Rainer Zenz at de.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rainer Zenz at de.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) Herbs & spices.

I know it’s tempting to go the McCormick route. But the quality of herbs and spices really matters when cooking. Not just because it adds good flavor, but because it’s one of the best things you can do to brighten up your meals without paying a ton. Sure, saffron might be a little out of the price range. But finding a local spice shop—I’m lucky to have Savory Spice Shop here in North Carolina—means access to freshly made blends. Throw out old herbs and spices. They’re tasteless and awful. Get good ones, and experiment. It’s an investment that will please everyone at the dinner table. My personal favorites as of late include Szechuan peppercorns, cardamom pods (amazing in aforementioned coffee), and Vietnamese sweet lemon curry.

Image: Tote
Image: Tote

1) Your purse.

Maybe you’re not a purse person. Then this isn’t a big deal for you. But my purse isn’t a status symbol—I couldn’t care less if I’m packing Michael Kors or Coach or Tori Burch (and LOL—yeah, none of those are even close to my budget). But what I do care about is something that fits my laptop. Some diapers. My wallet. My iPad. And it’s got to be able to take a beating, look cool, and essentially be a Bag of Holding all at the same time. I spend more time researching purses than I do researching cars. Some of my favorites include B. Makowsky (great cellphone slip pockets on the outside, high quality, and often available on clearance at Marshall’s) and Betsy Johnson (non-leather, most usually, but with lots of pockets and pizazz). I’ve actually taken a two-pronged approach. On the weekends I wear a cross body B. Makowsky bag that I got at a consignment store (I didn’t say you have to stop being thrifty!) and during the workweek it’s a Betsey Johnson tote I snagged at Stein Mart (they carry far more than old lady sunglasses and jogging suits). I swap my phone and my wallet between the two, and it’s worked incredibly well.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. A few others I could have included are vacuum cleaners, nail polish, and mascara. But maybe that’s another list altogether.

Either way, there are two factors at work here: Some are about the long tail, others are about better single moments. No matter what your time frame, if you save up for the purchases that really matter, it means less stress later on. And hope that you find little moments to put yourself first, instead of everyone else.

What are your non-negotiables?

Build This Periodic Table of Spices For Your Kitchen

Image: Wayne Hammond
Image: Wayne Hammond

Kitchen organization is a work in progress for many of us. It seems that once you get one cabinet organized, another becomes a bottomless pit of forgotten foodstuffs. The worst offender is often the spice cabinet or spice drawer or wherever all the seasonings end up at the end of the day. Instead of digging to find them, organize them—with science!

This periodic table of spices was built by Wayne Hammond who was suffering from an out of control spice drawer. It was hideous.

Image: Wayne Hammond
Image: Wayne Hammond

Hammond came up with a brilliant solution that not only makes use of an otherwise unused space in his kitchen, but adds a wonderful nerdy bit of science to his cooking. He designed a periodic table of spices using botanical taxonomy as his foundation. This yielded a fantastic chart that looks just like the periodic table of elements, but with things like garlic, chives, and parsley.

Image: Wayne Hammond
Image: Wayne Hammond

He constructed the whole thing in a spot housing a doorless kitchen cabinet that measured 11″d x 17″w x 30″h and originally held wine bottles. He removed the wine bottle racks and had metal shelves built to hold his spices. The chart he developed is now on the walls of the cabinet and it’s all highlighted by a spotlight. It’s just that cool.

You can get the full details on how it was made over at Make including a downloadable PDF of the periodic table. It’ll make you feel like a mad scientist every time you cook!

(via ThatsNerdalicious)

Living the Lefty Life in a Righty World

Lefty power! Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

I’m a southpaw! I’ve always been proud to be in this elite 8-15 percent of the world population. Did you know that in 2008, you had no choice but to elect a left-handed president? Four of the last seven presidents are left-handed, and seven presidents total have been lefties (16 percent). Fascinating, don’t you think?

I polled the other GeekMoms and it turns out, I’m possibly the only one (out of those who responded) who is left-handed. I was particularly intrigued by this, since there are around 20 of us, and if I’m truly the only lefty that would make our group only 5 percent left-handed.

Left-handers also have an advantage in sports, particularly in baseball, since they can add an element that most players don’t train for.

I remember my parents making sure I had left-handed scissors for school each year. I also remember my mom struggling to teach me how to use chopsticks, knitting needles, and crochet hooks as a young girl. Luckily for me, I play sports (including fishing) and musical instruments right-handed. I also use firearms (for my Air Force work) right-handed.

In today’s world of spending most of my time at a computer, there’s very little that I need to do that really reminds me (and the world around me) of my sinistrality.

But every once in a while… I’m reminded. And sometimes it can be downright frustrating! Most often, I’m reminded in the kitchen. Today while making a fruit smoothie with my Ninja Blender, I was reminded once again.

The Ninja Blender is designed for right-handed use, evidenced by the handle on the right, spout on the left. The motor only fits on top of the pitcher in this direction—believe me, I tried it the other way! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Here are some other kitchen gadgets that favor right-handers:

What on earth is this? Holding it with my left hand, it’s hard to tell. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Oh! I see! It’s a can opener! I got it as a gift and don’t use it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Pay no attention to the chip on my favorite geek coffee mug, covered in weather facts! I know, I can use it as a lefty just fine! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
But if I were right handed, I’d be greeted with this pretty cloud and sun art with every sip of my AM elixir. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Most can openers are designed for right-handed folks. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is a pie server. Actually, I’m not sure of the Emily Post-sanctioned name for this utensil, but that’s what I call it. Note the serrated edge that faces up when I’m holding the utensil in my left hand.  Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

So the next time you are shopping for your favorite sinistral southpaw, consider ambidextrous kitchen gadgets :-)

French Toast Taquitos? Yes, Please!

Image: Oh Bite It!

Thanksgiving is over, but that doesn’t mean all the holiday cooking is done. It’s not all about sitting down at a table with the family for a giant feast, either. Christmas morning is always a big deal in our house with quite a spread, and this year I’m thinking that spread will include these French Toast Taquitos.

The recipe comes to us from Just Bite It! who knows how to make your mouth water. You start off by cooking some sausage links and then rolling them in pieces of flattened bread with the crusts cut off, because crusts are icky. The whole thing then gets dunked in the traditional egg and milk mixture before it’s all fried up until golden and delicious.

You can sprinkle this with cinnamon or powdered sugar or go nuts and use both. I plan to go nuts. There will also be real maple syrup, not that fake stuff because no one wants imitation maple product on their breakfast. Oh, yes, these most definitely are happening in my house on Christmas morning.

You can see the full recipe over at Just Bite It! and have everyone smiling the next time you make breakfast for the family.

Crupcakes? I Know What I’m Baking Today!

Crupcake, Image: Dude Foods
Crupcake, Image: Dude Foods

I have a thing for cupcakes. I adore them and it has nothing to do with the cupcake craze that everyone says is totally over. It will never be over for me. Even the recent demise of Crumbs (moment of silence) will not end my love affair with this little morsel of all that is right with the world in one bite. So when I saw news that someone had created something called a crupcake, I was intrigued.

What is a crupcake? It’s part cupcake, part croissant. I know, right?! How can these two things not go well together and why didn’t someone think of doing this sooner? I think the answer is that we were all too busy focusing on that potato salad kickstarter to focus on important stuff like crupcakes.

The idea belongs to one Nick Chipman over at Dude Foods who has a website full of weird, amazing, and potentially delicious foods. Although, the deviled ostrich eggs just kind of freak me out and make me feel like I’ve just walked into a scene from Alice in Wonderland. I’m shrinking!

Crupcake, Image: Dude Foods
Crupcake, Image: Dude Foods

But, I digress. Crupcakes. Nick made these by putting some croissant dough on the bottom of a traditional cupcake wrapper and baking them for a bit before adding standard cupcake batter. You can see by the cross-section that you get two delicious treats in one.

Seeing as it’s summer and the kids are home and very often looking for something to do, I believe I may have found today’s something. It’s not even a particularly complex process, so I think I can actually pull this one off and impress the heck out of my kids. Or, just put them in a sugar coma, which is just as good.

Either way, any variation of cupcakes is destined to be delicious, so off I go to the grocery story to pick up the necessary supplies. Let them eat crupcakes!

(via ThatsNerdalicious)

Our Totally Unscientific Food Box Experiment

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.46.26 PM
Screenshot from plated.com, the recipe and food delivery service.

For a few months this spring, our household had trial memberships to two recipe and food delivery services: Plated, the “Chef-designed responsibly-sourced recipe and food delivery service,” and Blue Apron, which features “Fresh ingredients, great recipes, delivered weekly.”

I called it our food box thunderdome experiment.

“Why?” said the spouse. “For science!” said I.  (Also, I was sick of all of our recipes and we were both working late hours. The family was in a cooking rut and time-crunched. And, both Plated and Blue Apron had trial offers that made testing them out fairly affordable. Cheaper than a babysitter + dinner + a movie, at least.)

“Science?” he said. “This isn’t scientific. To be scientific, you’d have to control for date, time, temperature… essentially getting two boxes on the same week and then comparing to groceries on the same week—and no. That is not going to happen.”

“No problem,” I said. “I declare this a totally unscientific food box experiment, all mistakes and impressions are my own doing, and reproduction of this experiment is at your own risk.”

And away we went. We ordered nine different meals from Plated, including their “first two plates free” trial. Plated’s “recommend your friends” option also gave us more free meals. Thank you, friends! Then, we ordered nine meals from Blue Apron, including their “first three meals free” trial.

For both services, there were hits and misses. Here’s the totally unscientific breakdown:

Delivery: Both boxes arrived when they said they would, with thorough insulation.  Box size is nearly identical. All of the produce was fresh and ready-to-cook: Avocados were ripe, fruit was ripe, vegetables were ripe. There were no rock-hard avocados. This was fantastic.

Home Ec 101: A base order is two Plated meals of two plates each or three Blue Apron meals (feeds two to three people each) per delivery.

Selection: We could select meals from an available menu at Plated. We had to list our preferences and a selection was chosen for us by Blue Apron.

Minimum Cost Per Box: (This was per our experience only. YMMV depending on the number of family members and how well you work those refer-a-friend deals.) Blue Apron was $59.95 (three meals, no choices aside from dislikes and allergies). Plated was $48 plus the monthly membership (two  meals/four “plates,” with multiple delivery options).

The Breakdown: Three meals from Plated costs $72, plus membership; three meals from Blue Apron costs $59.50. This is a $12 difference, plus Plated’s membership fee.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.46.35 PM
Screenshot from blueapron.com, a recipe and food delivery service.

Membership Fees:

Plated has three options: $10/month billed monthly; $8/month billed annually; and pay-as-you-go (this puts the per-plate cost up to $15/plate). There is no minimum monthly order, although each Plated order must include four plates.

Blue Apron has a minimum three-meal plan, but you have to un-check the calendar when you don’t want a box or else, surprise, a food box will appear on your doorstep. (This totally bit me in the butt a few times.)

A very not-scientific gut feeling: Our feeling was that many of the recipes from each service could be made for much cheaper. That’s obvious with some of the tomato-and-cheese and chicken items. But not all of the recipes were a budget blow-out, especially when we factored in driving around for ingredients and the cost of certain spices. With Plated, we were able to pick the menu items that provided the most bang for our buck. With Blue Apron, we weren’t able to choose. We also found ourselves less motivated to cook the third meal of the week from Blue Apron, especially since we didn’t pick it. That’s pretty expensive apathy.

Allergies: We could stipulate no dairy, meat, fish, etc. on both. Only Plated offered no-gluten-added meals, which was really important for us and led to much less food substituting versus Blue Apron.

While a lot of produce arrived bagged in a group, with a contents labeled, we received wrapped single items from Blue Apron—always carefully tagged. Photo: Fran Wilde.

Packaging: Plated’s packaging seems more environmentally conscious. The items aren’t individually wrapped unless they need to be (sauces, grains). Both Plated and Blue Apron send liquids in bottles that can be re-used. Other packaging can be recycled. There just feels like a lot more of it from Blue Apron. And really, non-scientifically speaking, there’s a lot of packaging in general, from the boxes to the cold packs and on. If you got these meals regularly, you’d be drowning in cold packs.

General Impressions About the Recipes (From Me, My Patient Spouse, and Our Child):


Me: I loved Plated’s recipes. They were beautiful, delicious, and highly intricate to cook. I learned many new techniques.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good.

The Child: Nope. Not for me. Too spicy, too fancy. Too much fish. Nope. nope, nope.

Blue Apron

Me: I also loved many of Blue Apron’s recipes, though it felt like we wasted a lot of food. Three meals a week is more than we wanted, but that was the minimum. We often substituted out the pasta and couscous because of food allergies. And oh my goodness, does Blue Apron love zesting! Lemons, limes. Seemed like every recipe required zesting. We didn’t need that much zest, really.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good. Have you figured out how to stop the boxes from coming yet?

Me: Nope, still trying.

The Child: Some of it was okay. I liked the gnocchi. Can we have more gnocchi? But without those flowers. (There were edible zucchini flowers for one recipe. Those got the nope.)


1. The best part of this unscientific experiment was when we all started cooking a recipe together. In the kitchen, all of us, at one time. That happens sometimes, but not always. There’s something that happens when you all have to figure out a new recipe together. It’s kind of like a puzzle.

2. Another big pro: Never having to go back to the store for a missing item on a complex recipe.

3. And not having to buy a big box or tin of something that we’d only use a bit of unless we wanted to be eating elaborate food for a month.

4. And we can reuse the recipes.


1. Price and selection—and the contents of each box were a bit overwhelming at first.

2. There was a lot of packaging for each, and there’s no way to return the cool packs for reuse.

3. Being stuck with items one or more of us couldn’t eat was annoying (especially when it came to allergens that were not specifically weeded out).

The Upshot: The upshot is that these boxes are spendy, unless you go with their “suggest a friend” option—and for families, it may be way on the fancy side.

I have some friends whose picky kids turned into gourmet chefs once they started getting into the “build-your-dinner” kits. Not mine. Nope.

I’m no food photographer. And this was delicious. Photo: Fran Wilde.

But for an occasional “night-out” dinner in? The fun of cooking together again without having to remember anything at the store? Or having to figure out which recipe? That was so good. That means, for us, Plated would be a better choice.

Both services seem to default to auto-enrollment in regular/weekly food deliveries. Plated’s team helped me work that out pretty quickly. It took me forever to figure out how to stop the boxes from coming on Blue Apron. I unchecked everything on their widget. Twice. They still came.  (Eventually Blue Apron did help me fix this; thanks you guys!)

Our Favorite Recipes: Blue Apron had catfish and jicama slaw with amaranth and watermelon radish. So very good. A hands-down winner. Pan-seared salmon with lima bean and olive relish was also good, but this is one that we had to substitute out the couscous.

Plated had vegetable lasagna, chicken paillard (so much fun smashing the chicken to make paillard, I can’t tell you.), miso rice portabellos, and chicken tikka masala. It was all just completely awesome. (I wish I could link you to these pages at Plated.com, but I can’t.)

So, one family, two food subscription services: Plated and Blue Apron. When we emerged from beneath our pile of boxes (oh so many boxes), we discovered something: We liked cooking again.  I’ll call that a win.

Cooking the Books: Attack the Geek with Michael R. Underwood & Giveaway!

Since 2011, I’ve hosted an interview series on my own blog called Cooking the Books, which explores the intersection between food and genre fiction. Cooking the Books’ interviews with science-fiction and fantasy authors, agents, and editors have a thing in common: there’s a recipe at the end.

I was all set to post this great interview with Michael R. Underwood, author of Attack the Geek, the new book in the Geekomancy series (more on that in a moment), when I thought, “Waitaminnit, I think the GeekMom audience would love this a lot.” Mike thought it was a great idea too and offered to throw in a worldwide giveaway (more on that in a moment also), in addition to answering random food-related questions about his work and giving us a fabulous pizza recipe.

Book Giveaway! Recipe! Interview with awesome author! This is a brilliant plan. Let’s get rolling…

Michael R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series follows the adventures of Ree, who discovers that some people have the power to bring geek-culture icons to life, for better and worse. From Geekomancy to Celebromancy to Attack the Geek, Underwood keeps the action high and the geekery even higher. Welcome, Michael, to a special edition of Cooking the Books on GeekMom!

Attack the Geek Full
With permission, Angry Robot Books.

Cooking the Books/Geek Mom: The Geekomancy series’ main character, Ree, has worked in several service industry niches—food and sales, with Cafe Xombie (Geekomancy)—as well as getting her break in Hollywood (Celebromancy). Now she’s a barista at Grognard’s. Can you talk a bit about the restaurant/bar culture as it relates to both geeks and geeky writers? 

Michael Underwood: As geekdom ascends in popularity, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen geekdom seep into bars and restaurants. Brooklyn has steampunk/SF-themed bar The Way Station, a group has kickstarted a geek bar, and there are others around the country. Fantasy taverns are the archetypal meeting place of adventurers and bars are frequently the cornerstone of any convention, from small regional conventions to big gaming and SF cons like GenCon.

Restaurants and bars are cruxes of socialization, and geekdom is social—it’s about sharing passion. So there’s really nothing better than some good food and drink to accompany shared enthusiasm and friendly arguments about beloved shows, books, comics, and more.

CtB/GM: Do you feel that you’ve taken the fantasy-style tavern brawl to a whole new level in Attack the Geek? How so?

MU: I honestly hadn’t thought much about Attack the Geek as a fantasy tavern brawl. I was more drawing on bottle episodes of TV shows, where our heroes have to hold out against attackers (like the “Jus in Bello” episode of Supernatural), on siege stories like the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and from “game comes alive” stories like Jumanji. Making the fortress a gamer bar and the gaming gear that comes alive in RPG/strategy games, I mixed up the influences to create something new.

CtB/GM: What are your favorite tavern/bar brawls from TV/film/literature?

MU: It’s hard to beat the bar brawls from Firefly and Serenity—from the pool cue bludgeons wielded by Jayne to people being thrown through holographic windows and Mal’s overly-cocky mugging for Inara to River’s subliminal-advertising-induced-intricately-choreographed ballet of violence that kicks off the plot of the whole film.

What makes these fun for me is how the fights so clearly reveal character: Jayne’s highly tactile approach to life, Mal’s chronic mis-calibration of morality to the situation and his devil-may-care attitude when things go wrong, Wash’s charming bravado as he threatens the locals with the Serenity’s non-existent guns, and River’s graceful, intricate approach to fighting and moving through life.

CtB/GM: If you could have one food item from pop culture, what would it be? 

MU: If it weren’t for the trout-zombie virus included, I’d want to try the energy drink from The Middleman!

I could stand an Ent-draught or two to get a tad taller, or maybe some lembas as emergency survival food. My Whedonite tendencies would lead me to wanting to try the Fruity Oaty Bar from Serenity—or maybe that’s the subliminal programming talking.

CtB/GM: When we discussed your CtB visit, we talked about new business models for publishing. It seems as if the restaurant industry is looking into similar business model changes… do you foresee “book trucks” (like food trucks) on the horizon?

MU: Penguin debuted a book truck at BEA last year, and then they sent it around the country for promotional purposes. We already have bookmobiles run by libraries, so it seems only sensible that someone could start a book truck—especially if they teamed up with food trucks to offer fun reads that would accompany the great eats. Though it seems like they’d probably end up spending a lot on napkins/hand wipes.

Being more serious, I think that book trucks are less of a no-brainer than food trucks, just because technology has already delivered mobile reading devices—phones, tablets, and e-readers. Airports still sell a goodly number of books to a captive audience, but I think that quite a bit of the appeal of book trucks would be the novelty, and it’d take some innovative thinking and business planning to get beyond that initial novelty. Genre-specific trucks with decoration themes are obvious. Fantasy truck with ’70s fantasy mural on the side? Hell yes. Steampunk truck with Victoriana and airship stories galore? For sure. Truck done up like a CSI lab with mystery/crime novels? Go for it.

CtB/GM: What about publishing with Angry Robot do you like best? Are publishers like restaurants?

MU: One of my favorite parts of working with Angry Robot is developing supportive working relationships with authors, each of whom is their own literary chef, bringing their expertise and aesthetic to our big restaurant of food for the mind.

The other part is the innovation mandate. My boss Marc Gascoigne is dedicated to forging ahead, to finding new and cooler ways of connecting with readers, whether that involves trying out print+ebook bundling, partnering with new business models (like Oyster), or another cool and crazy idea.

Publishers are definitely like restaurants in a number of ways: They develop followings based on selection/menu, presentation/packing, and on the personalities. And like restaurants, most publishers aren’t as much in direct competition with one another as you might think. The more restaurants there are that deliver incredible food and a welcoming atmosphere, the more likely customers/readers are to take a chance on another publisher or restaurant, since they’ve already had good luck at least once when they expanded their horizons.

I think there’s also a degree to which individual authors are like restaurants. You still have to cultivate a following, get your work out in front of more people than just your core audience, and that most restaurants/authors become known for one particular feel. You’re a pizza place or an epic fantasy author. Any time an author tries out a new flavor, there’s a risk, but the reward, the upside of finding a new combination, is more than enticing enough to be worth going out on an aesthetic limb.

CtB/GM: What’s next for Ree? What’s next for Michael Underwood? 

MU: I’m currently plotting and am soon to start writing Hexomancy, the third full-length Ree Reyes story. This will roll the plot of Attack the Geek into the overall plot of the series, and will also include some major developments in the characters’ relationships—plus, the usual mix of geeky comedy, superpowered geekdom, and action/adventure.

After Attack the Geek, my next release is Shield and Crocus (June 10), an action fantasy novel about a group of revolutionaries in a city built among the bones of a titan. They strike a bargain with one of the tyrants that rules the city in order to stop the magical storms which transmogrify and/or level entire neighborhoods at once, killing or transforming people along the way. It’s like what would happen if you set Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.

CtB/GM: Where might we expect to be seeing you this spring and summer?

MU: I’m going to be all over the place this year. Here are my scheduled appearances through the end of the summer:

  • May 23-26, BaltiCon, Baltimore, MD
  • May 28-31, Book Expo America, New York, NY
  • June 5-8, Phoenix Comicon, Phoenix, AZ
  • July 3-6, CONvergence, Minneapolis, MN
  • July 10-13, ReaderCon, Boston, MA
  • August 14-18, WorldCon (LonCon), London, UK

CtB/GM: Would you share a recipe with us?

I’m going to share my recipe for Ree’s favorite pizza from Turbo’s Pizzeria, affectionately known as…

The Pizza of Win 

For the dough:

  • 22 oz. warm water
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 30 oz. unbleached bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 T medium or dark rye flour
  • 1 ½ tsp wheat germ
  • 1 ½ tsp mild-flavored honey
  • 1 T kosher salt
  • 1 T dried basil
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • Dash of garlic powder.
  • Olive oil for greasing

This is going to take several stages, so I recommend podcasts (like The Skiffy and Fanty Show, or Fran’s own Cooking The Books podcast with Mur Lafferty [coming soon!]) to listen to while you work.

  1. Start by making a sponge with 15 oz. of warm water, the yeast, and a pinch of sugar to help get the yeast get going. Wait a few minutes for science!
  2. Add 13 oz. of bread flour, the rye, and the wheat germ; stir to combine. Wooden spoons are best, because tradition. And flavor.
  3. Cover the bowl and stow it somewhere room temperature warmish. Listen to podcasts.
  4. 90 minutes of podcasts later, add the rest of the water (7oz.), the rest of the bread flour, the barley malt, the garlic powder, the basil, and the oregano. If you have a mixer, use it. If you like being old-school and hardcore, mix with the spoon and then knead the dough yourself. This will also give you the sexy baker look (and the less sexy dough-all-over-your-hands look).
  5. Mix/knead until the dough will pull away from the edge of the bowl. Another rubrick I’ve heard is that you want to mix the dough until it has the consistency of your earlobe (folkways!).
  6. Get your pizza pan and use cornmeal to dust the pan and the dough, so it doesn’t stick. Plus, cornmeal gives the dough a great mix of textures.
  7. Once you’ve got your dough ready, you’ll need the materials to make the pizza into a pizza of win:

Basil Pesto Oregano:

  • Roma tomatoes (sliced)
  • Mild Italian sausage (or soysage)
  • Feta cheese
  • And a standard mozzarella or mozzarella/Parmesan mix
  1. The basil pesto is your sauce and the mozzarella/Parmesan is your cheese base. Then, top it with pre-cooked crumbled Italian sausage, feta cheese, and the Roma tomatoes.
  2. Cook for 12 minutes at 400 degrees.
  3. Raise a glass to Ree Reyes, Turbo’s pizzeria, and the glory of pizza.
  4.  NOM.


Cooking the Books fans and GeekMoms alike, Michael has generously agreed to do a GIVEAWAY!

The details, from Michael himself: “I’ll give away a copy of Geekomancy (get in on the ground floor) or Attack the Geek (get the new book).”

How to enter: Comment below with your favorite food / geekdom pairing for a chance to win. [Forex: Earl Gray / Star Trek]

Michael will randomly pick a winner and announce it here and on Twitter on April 14.The winner will be contacted for mailing information.


photo courtesy of Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of GeekomancyCelebromancy, as well as the forthcoming Attack the GeekShield and Crocus, and The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. Visit him at michaelrunderwood.com and on Twitter.

Want to read more Cooking the Books? The updated library of interviews is here.

How to Make Game of Thrones Weirwood Tree Cauliflower Steaks

Photo by Cindy White

Some time ago, I came across an intriguing recipe for cauliflower steaks. They’re easy to make and quite elegant, resembling lovely white trees on a plate. Of course, being a Game of Thrones fan, I couldn’t help but see a white tree and think “weirwood,” so I immediately started coming up with ways I could adapt the recipe to make it fit the description in the books. Now that the show is just about to return for a fourth season, I thought it would be a good time to share this slightly altered version of the innovative dish.

In Game of Thrones, weirwood trees are considered sacred by the people in the northern region of Westeros. The trees are distinguished by their pale white bark and blood-red leaves. Many of them also have eerie faces carved into their trunks. It is believed that the gods dwell in them and can see the past, present, and future through their eyes. In the first episode of the HBO series, Catelyn and Ned Stark meet beneath Winterfell’s heart tree, a grand weirwood that sits at the center of the castle’s godswood.

Image credit: HBO

Here’s what you’ll need to make Weirwood Tree Cauliflower Steaks:

  • One head of cauliflower (yields two to four steaks per head)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

Begin by trimming the leaves and stem from the head of cauliflower until the bottom is neat. Then, cut the head into 1/2-inch cross sections, straight through the top. You’ll end up with a few steaks and a lot of florets (save these to roast later or make into a delicious soup).

Photo by Cindy White

Using a paring knife, carve the faces into the trunks of your trees. You can make any kind of expression you want: angry, sad, laughing, whatever. It almost always ends up creepy, no matter what you do.

At this point, you can sear the steaks in a skillet with the olive oil (about 3 minutes on each side). However, that will make them golden brown and for our purposes, we want to keep them as white as possible, so straight into the oven they go. Coat them on both sides with the oil using a pastry brush or your hand, sprinkle with salt, and place them on a baking sheet.

Photo by Cindy White

Cook for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the edges start browning. To make the faces stand out more, I used a little kitchen torch around the edges to darken them.


For the final touch, sprinkle the branches with paprika and red pepper flakes to get the red leaf effect.

Photo by Cindy White

And that’s all there is to it. Here’s the finished product:


These are great as a main course or a side dish, depending on the preferences of your guests and your other menu options. They’d also make a perfect addition to an entire Game of Thrones-themed meal. After all, the books are full of lengthy descriptions of elaborate dishes that’ll make your mouth water and your stomach rumble. For more culinary inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s world, be sure to check out the ridiculously comprehensive collection of recipes at Inn at the Crossroads, the official Game of Thrones food blog.

Game of Thrones returns to HBO for its fourth season on Sunday, April 6 at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Feeding Mr. Banks: Secrets of a Hollywood Food Stylist

Photo courtesy of Disney.

What do Saving Mr. Banks, Dinner for Schmucks, How I Met Your Mother, and Boardwalk Empire have in common? They all feature the work of food stylist Chris Oliver. As chef and owner of Hollywood Food Styling, Oliver has provided beautiful, edible creations for hundreds of movies and TV shows.

“My niche is the on-camera food for film and TV,” Oliver explains. “I’m a chef, and one of the reasons I get a lot of jobs is when the actors actually have to eat the food. Or they’re supposed to eat the food. So it’s not like I can use glue for milk or any kind of chemicals or take cornstarch to thicken stuff. It really has to be natural stuff that they can ingest.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a few tricks of her own up her sleeve. Oliver shared some of her tips with a few bloggers at her test kitchen in Huntington Beach, California, where she designs and prepares a wide variety of screen cuisine. She gave us a demonstration of how she recreated some 1960s dishes for Saving Mr. Banks.

In the film, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins character. One of his tactics is to try to impress her with a steady parade of snacks and refreshments, which get fancier (at least by 1960’s standards) as the wooing goes on. It was Oliver’s challenge to make sure the dishes were not only appropriate for the period, but also reflected the story director John Lee Hancock wanted to tell.

This Mickey Mouse Jell-O mold illustrates Chris Oliver’s creativity and resourcefulness. Photo courtesy of Disney.

“What I was told when I got hired was, ‘We want to see junk food—Twinkies, Ding Dongs—and then we want to have a progression,'” Oliver says. “So they thought they were going to impress her.”

To make a buffet table look appetizing, she uses risers and double-sided tape to position the dishes with a slight tilt to the camera. Color is also important. A red plate, a garnish of parsley, or a sliced olive on top can liven up even the most boring dishes. She showed us how she carefully layers her plates to add interest without making them too busy. With a few well-placed strokes of a paring knife, she demonstrated how to make a rose out of a tomato or lemon peel. She also cautioned us to be mindful of the placement of the food and how it will appear on-screen, and illustrated her point using a photo from an old cookbook.

Food stylist Chris Oliver shows off an old cookbook with unfortunate baguette placement. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Cookbooks, it turns out, are Oliver’s secret weapon. She has shelves full of them in her kitchen, from every era and culture. She refers to them often to research era-appropriate ingredients, recipes, and presentations. It was so much fun flipping through pages and coming to terms with the truly horrifying reality of mid-century American cuisine.

But food isn’t all she creates. She’s also had to come up with edible facsimiles for things like vomit and dirt. For one war film, she got very detailed instructions on the kind of dirt they wanted her to make for a group of starving prisoners of war.

“They shipped in samples of Pakistani dirt so that I could match it, so they could eat it,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than you think. I did an edible arm for an alligator to actually eat. We did like a million of them. They’re huge and heavy and we had to figure out a way to cast it and make it.”

Chris Oliver transforms a plate of boring deviled eggs into a more photogenic dish. Photo courtesy of Disney.

After recreating a few signature dishes from Saving Mr. Banks, Oliver let us try our hand at a few classic recipes, including deviled eggs, fruit kebabs, chocolate tarts, and sandwich pinwheels. I was teamed up with a partner and assigned something called “Moss Balls,” which are basically several different kinds of cheese (cream, blue, and cheddar, among others) rolled up into a balls and covered in parsley. We picked a set of pretty wooden bowls and made them look as appetizing as we could. It wasn’t as good as Oliver’s work, but we were proud of our creation.

An amateur attempt at food styling. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Before meeting Oliver and her team, I didn’t think much about where the food in films and television comes from. Now I have a healthy appreciation for all of the thought and preparation that goes into it. What a food stylist really does is blend cooking and art in the service of creating the perfect culinary backdrop. Plus, you get to cook for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As far as dream jobs go, it kind of takes the cake.

Saving Mr. Banks is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Feast Upon the Taste of Tanzania Cookbook

My shrimpy take on “Prawns in Coconut Sauce” from the Taste of Tanzania cookbook. Image: Rachel Cericola.

Back in my youth, I attended Lollapalooza on more than one occasion. This was back when I wasn’t afraid of taking a punch to the face for some time in the mosh pit and the show was a traveling festival, not a once-a-year gig. Yes, I’m old.

I specifically remember one year, in between Rage Against the Machine’s protest set and getting sucked into an endless crowd of Primus fans, visiting a tent that served African food—and it was downright delicious.

After all of these years, I’ve never forgotten the dish that I had on that blistery summer day. It was just a rice and veggie medley, but it was the most delicious rice and veggie medley. It’s possible that I could replicate it with a little love and a Lipton packet, but I have yet to encounter anything like it in stores or restaurants.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about that dish and then I was offered a copy of Taste of Tanzania, a cookbook by Miriam R. Kinunda. Could I find the dish I had been craving all of these years? Maybe. Either way, I’m pretty geeky about cooking and was dying to try out something (OK, a lot of things) new.

Taste of Tanzania is written in a very personal matter. There’s a lot of experience and love inside these 179 pages. Kinunda gives a nod to several family members in the dedication and goes on to introduce you to Tanzania, which let’s face it, several of us probably haven’t dabbled in since high-school geography. However, those lessons just reinforce how Tanzania is “a social society,” and part of the social experience includes getting together to enjoy some delicious food.

Courtesy of Miriam R. Kinunda.

The book itself is also very social. Kinunda talks about Tanzanian meals, foods, and of course, recipes. It provides background on everything you’re preparing, which makes it feel like a one-on-one cooking class. Even better, I love that it has pictures for every single recipe.

First up, I made Wali Wa Junde Na Karoit, also known as “Coconut Rice with Peas and Carrots.” It looked like the recipe that has been etched in my memory and when I say that my house smelled heavenly during the cooking process, I can’t even convey. I need smell-o-vision for this review. Sure, it seemed more like a side dish, but I didn’t want to overwhelm myself on the first selection. My one “tweak” is that I used brown basmati, making my dish slightly darker than what Kinunda has pictured in the book. I didn’t think it had the same flavors as the dish I’d been craving for years. In fact, I thought it was in need of some salt and pepper. That said, my husband and son barely gave me enough to sample. They ate the entire dish! I’d say that was a success.

The next night, I whipped up Kamba Wa Nazi, aka “Prawns in Coconut Sauce.” Prawns aren’t really a thing in New England, so I went with its crustaceous cousin, the shrimp. (You can also use lobster, squid, or anything else you prefer.) Although the recipe didn’t mention side dishes, I served it with basmati, which made it a full meal—a good one! My son isn’t really a seafood fan and that’s probably a good thing, because I don’t think I would have gotten any otherwise. My husband couldn’t stop saying “it’s delicious” and I thought it had a good amount of spice. I like my spice. This is definitely a keeper.

Since I didn’t have time to make every recipe in the book, I wanted my finale to be a grand one. I opted to make Mkate wa lliki (“Cardamom Bread”) and serve it alongside Rosti (“Meat Roast”). Let’s break this down…

Did you know that cardamom is one of the most expensive spices you can buy in the supermarket? I didn’t, but it’s probably something worth mentioning. Unless it’s fresh, I don’t really want to pay more than $3 per spice. This teeny bottle was $15. (Although Kinunda does recommend making your own powder and shows you how to do that on her YouTube site.) When I mentioned the cost to my husband, he gave me a “you’re crazy” look, but it didn’t stop him from inhaling half a loaf of bread.

Needless to say, the bread was delicious. However, I made two loaves, giving the second a few tweaks. The first loaf was “by the book,” but I would recommend watching the dough rise—not literally, of course. I let the first loaf rise for about two hours and it looked pretty perfect. Then, I decided to run out for a few hours. When I got back, the top had looked like it “exploded” a little. I’m not sure if this was my kitchen, the covering I used, or the bread. It baked up just fine, but it wasn’t pretty. It was pretty delicious, though.

Since I had plenty of cardamom left, I decided to try another loaf and bake it as soon as the dough had risen right above the rim of the pan, as the book suggests. However, this time, I cut the amount of cardamom in half. I wasn’t trying to conserve my precious spices, but I did think the first loaf was a little on the strong side. If that’s what you prefer, you will love this recipe. Either way, when served with a little butter, this is like a little slice of heaven.

The Rosti can be made with chicken, beef, or goat. It’s a nice one-pot dinner with potatoes and tons of flavor. Once again, everyone seemed pleased, including my 7-year-old.

If I didn’t take this picture seconds after it was out of the oven, there would be no record of my cardamom bread. Image: Rachel Cericola.

I’m pretty geeky when it comes to cooking and love a good challenge. However, Taste of Tanzania isn’t very challenging. It’s actually pretty easy and yields some fantastic results. I didn’t find my dream dish and I did notice a few minor typos (mostly typesetting things, but there was one incident where the ingredients called for “coconut cream,” but coconut milk was in the actual instructions). That said, there was nothing about this book that was confusing or disappointing.

If a taste isn’t enough (and it won’t be), know that Taste of Tanzania also has tons of recipes for appetizers, snacks, desserts, and even drinks, as well as your typical entrees and side dishes. There are also sample recipes and tutorials on the Taste of Tanzania website. Enjoy!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Baking DeathMatch: The Easy-Bake Oven versus the Super Hero Cookbook

cover copyright Downtown Bookworks
© Downtown Bookworks

I loved my Easy-Bake Oven when I was growing up. I adored it. You could make cookies and cakes all by yourself and eat them without permission. But I didn’t buy an Easy-Bake for any of my kids  because they never seemed interested and, besides, they were already helping with regular baking.

Instead, we looked up kid-friendly recipes on the internet, using my own time-tested recipes and invested in some kid’s cookbooks. The latest one we’ve been using is The Official DC Super Hero Cookbook by Matthew Mead.

But this year, my youngest son, already a teenager, got an urge for an Easy-Bake because he thought it might make learning to bake simpler and so a friend, who heard about it, bought him one for Christmas.

“Okay,” I thought. He’s a little old for it but, hey, he’ll be able to have fun without creating the mess of the kitchen that regular baking seems to require.

So which is better for kids to use in the kitchen?

The answer wasn’t what I expected.

First, the Easy-Bake.

1970s Easy Bake Oven. Image via wikimedia commons, user rdmsf
A 1970s Easy-Bake Oven, just like the one I had. Image via wikimedia commons, user rdmsf

This isn’t the oven I remember. I was a child of the 1970s and my Easy-Bake was basically a little miniature oven. It looked like one  and the controls were on buttons or dials.

What I didn’t know until we opened the box of the new one this year is that the Easy-Bake has been completely redesigned in the last 35 years.  Food goes in one end and is lifted out the other via a specially designed spatula. It’s now energy efficient but that so far seems the only good thing about it.

This Easy-Bake doesn’t teach how to cook proper food, just how to prepare food for this type of oven. The digital clock doesn’t work, it’s just for show. The redi-mixes that are designed for the toy aren’t simple and often don’t produce good baked goods.  The pretzels took the same amount of time as the regular size pretzel mix for a regular oven and tasted worse. The various cookies and cakes mixes had erratic cooking times and often had to be altered to get the right consistency.

Then there’s the effort spent in actually putting the square pan just right into the oven, and there’s a little trick of lifting the pan up just so to remove it from the oven. My son only just managed this on his own and he’s a teenager. I can only imagine the problems younger kids would have with it. I never had this problem with my own Easy-Bake.

Boo all around.

So how about the DC Super Hero Cookbook? Is that any better?

The good: The recipes range from very simple to somewhat more complicated. They tend to produce good results when following the recipes: always nice, they’re bright and colorful, and great for smaller kids. There are also a variety of stencils of superhero logos included, along with character cut-outs.

The cookbook contains 50 recipes in six chapters: Flying Start Breakfasts, Hero (and other) Sandwiches, Super Salads and Sidekicks, Mighty Main Dishes, Sweets and Treats, and Power Drinks.

I gave the book to my twins to pick a recipe. Their first choice was the Aquaman Ice Cream Float.

Ingredients are:

  • 12 oz. of orange soda
  • 1 scoop of vanilla ice cream
  • 1 optional fresh orange slice
  • 1 optional package of Swedish Fish

We left out the Swedish Fish (not fans), they made the float themselves and the results were delicious.

We also tasted the Super Hero cookies at an event in New York City in November, and they were good sugar cookies. The tricky part is adding the logos. The book recommends that this can be done by using the stencils with edible pigment powders but it can take some fiddling to get those powders to stick exactly right.

The downsides: There are healthy recipes in this book but it’s definitely not a book for those wanting only healthy-style cooking for their kids. Sometimes, the recipes have little to do with the superheroes that inspire them. However, they all make great use of the colors inherent in each of the superheroes, like with the Star City Lettuce Wraps (Green Arrow).

So, the winner is definitely the cookbook over the toy oven, and the loser is my nostalgia for a toy that isn’t quite right anymore.

GeekMom Holiday Traditions: Handmade Gifts

Our DIY gifts from a couple of years ago. Photo: Cathe Post

The holidays are my favorite time of year. I liked December as a kid, but as an adult…well, you can ask my husband: I am almost more excited about the Christmas holiday than the kids are.

We have a DIY holiday tradition in our house. For almost 10 years, we have made everything from truffles to etched glass items for Christmas gifts. Once Pinterest came into the picture, it was much easier to find and organize ideas for what to make for family members young and old.

Why do we make gifts every year instead of joining the buying frenzy? Well, it’s the Christmas spirit. It’s the act of doing for others instead of just buying for others. Even if it is a well thought out purchase, a hand-made gift means more in the long run. Plus, it is a way to do something nice for all of those close to us instead of going broke buying presents for a select few. Now that I have children, I am trying to reinforce the idea of doing for others and that it is better to give than receive. Both hard lessons are easier to understand when you are making cool things to give to others.

If you are thinking about handmade gifts for this year or years to come, these are some gifts that were hits in our family.

Crochet Animals: One year all of the kids in the family received a crochet-stuffed-bear. The kids loved them. I used these instructions, but you can find just about anything on Ravelry as far as patterns.

Freezer-Paper-Stenciled shirts: Another gift we have made for kids. Again, since you can personalize them with pretty much any design you can draw or print off of the internet, the sky is the limit.

The label for our homemade barbecue sauce last year. It was super addictive! Image: Tim Post

Canned Goods: Jams, soups, pickles, and more can be big hits. Our biggest hit seemed to be pickles and barbecue sauce.

Etched Glass: Thanks to purchasing a huge container of glass-etching compound, we have enough acidic goo to make glass etched items for several years. Last year we made name-etched casserole pans.

Ornaments: You can even use the ornaments as name tags on gifts. This year we are making melted snowmen. This tradition actually goes back to when I was a kid when the dad of a family friend made wood ornaments for all of the grandkids every year.

DIY mini-Polaroid magnets. Photo: Cathe Post

Magnets: I like this tutorial and template for making fake Polaroid magnets. These make a great gift for in-laws and grandparents.

Notebooks: One of the gifts I am putting together for all of the kids this year is little cereal box notebooks. It doesn’t matter if the kid is 1 or 18, they are getting a notebook this year. Some of them will come with stickers, some have notebook paper in them and come with a nice pen. Either way, it was the gift I came up with that all of the kids would enjoy this year.

What else are we making this year? Well, I could tell you, but it would ruin the surprise.

Product Review: Chef Sleeve iOS Kitchen Products

The Chef Sleeve Cutting Board with iPad Stand with an iPad Protective Sleeve is an easy, functional way to use your iPad as your cookbook. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Chef Sleeve cutting board with iPad stand and iPad Protective Sleeve are easy, functional ways to use your iPad as a cookbook. Now I don’t have to fear getting chopping onions all over my iPad when I’m preparing red lentil dahl. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Do you use your iPad or other tablet device in the kitchen? I do…sometimes. I don’t care for printing out internet recipes and I figured the iPad was the way to make online recipes easy! I even have a bookmark on my Safari app filled with my favorite internet recipes. But this past Christmas, I had more than one food issue, from flour to splattered cooking oil.

I had the opportunity to review three of Chef Sleeve’s products: the cutting board with iPad stand, a set of iPad 2 protective sleeves, and the dishwasher safe iPad stand. All of these products are made in the U.S.A. If you’ve ever been nervous about taking your iPad into the kitchen with you, these products might be able to make a difference for you. Read on for my impressions.

Chef Sleeve Cutting Board with iPad Stand

The Chef Sleeve cutting board with iPad stand was manufactured in partnership with Epicurean, a company that features chef-quality sustainable wood fiber cooking supplies: cutting boards, utensils, and rolling pins. But the Chef Sleeve version features a slot cut into the top for your iPad.

This is a large cutting board: 18″ x 13.5″. This is the largest cutting board I’ve ever used. It features a groove cut around the edge to catch juices, and the surface is soft enough to not be too brutal on knives. The board is dishwasher safe and I sent it through several cycles and it did just fine. In addition, the board is heat resistant up to 350F, so feel free to put a hot-from-the-oven roast right on top of it.

Because this is a softer board—better for knives—expect to see several knife marks on the surface over time.

The wood fiber board is visually appealing and functional too! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Chef Sleeve iPad Protective Sleeves

The Chef Sleeve protective sleeves come custom-sized for whichever iOS you require; they are also available for Kindles. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I received a box of 25 transparent iPad covers. They’re easy to use: there’s a peel-off strip to uncover the adhesive and you simply drop in the iPad and seal it up.

The touch-screen works perfectly well under the clear plastic. I was even able to remove the iPad from the sleeve and replace the peel-off strip; I could save the cover for another time.

While I had to remove my iPad from the cover that I ordinarily use to insert it into the sleeve, the company claims that the iPad sleeves are compatible with the Apple Smart Covers.

Chef Sleeve iPad covers are 100% recyclable. Double bonus word score.

Dishwasher Safe iPad Stand

The iPad stand is an effective way to keep your iPad—or other tablets—handy in the kitchen. The stand is made of the same wood fiber resin as the cutting board, so it has the same heat resistance and NSF-certified sanitation standards as the cutting board.

The stand has two grooves cut into it. One groove is wider than the other. This allows for two viewing angles…one being more sloped than the other. There’s also a semicircle cut into the groove that allows for easy access to the home button.

A close up of the iPad stand with two grooves for your choice of viewing angle. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
A close up of the iPad stand with two grooves for your choice of viewing angle. In this picture, the stand is being used with an iPad inside a protective sleeve. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Even though this apparatus is being marketed as an “iPad stand”, I decided to try it out with the two other tablets in my house: a Kindle Fire and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

The Samsung—like the iPad, without any cover—fit perfectly. On the other hand, the Kindle Fire only worked in the fatter of the two grooves.

The Samsung Galaxy Note tablet works perfectly well with the Chef Sleeve "iPad Stand". Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Samsung Galaxy Note tablet works perfectly well with the Chef Sleeve “iPad Stand”. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I also tried out the stand with one of my son's Kindle Fires. It doesn't work well in the skinnier of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I also tried out the stand with one of my son’s Kindle Fires. It doesn’t work well in the skinnier of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Kindle Fire works well in the larger of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The Kindle Fire works well in the larger of the two grooves. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Even though it’s a kitchen supply company selling these stands, I think this is something useful anywhere in the home or even in the office. If you do use it in the kitchen, it’s nice for it to be dishwasher safe just like the cutting board.

In summary, Chef Sleeve kitchen products are designed to help out those of us who enjoy using our tablets as our paperless cookbooks. I like the cutting board and iPad stand sustainable manufacturing (they’re made with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood fibers), and NSF-certified safety standards. Keep in mind that with few exceptions, if you use an iPad or tablet case, these products won’t necessarily work as easily.

The cutting board with iPad stand retails for $69.95, a 25-pack of protective sleeves for the device of your choice retails for $19.95, and the dishwasher-safe iPad stand retails for $34.95. Chef Sleeve products are available at retailers such as Amazon, Target, and chefsleeve.com. They make great gifts for your favorite cooking geek.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Cook Up Good Food for a Good Cause With All the Nomz

FemShep's Pie, Art by Len Peralta © All the Nomz
FemShep’s Pie, Art by Len Peralta © All the Nomz

If you’ve got hungry geeks to feed, look no further than All the Nomz, a cookbook put together by Lee Daniels, David Lewis, and Marian De Kleemaeker. All the Nomz is a cookbook with collaboration from notable geeks, created to help raise funds for the Child’s Play charity.

nomzFor as little as $5—but consider donating more!—you’ll get a digital cookbook with over 20 recipes from contributors like Marian Call, The Doubleclicks, Phil Plait, and more.

Recipes follow a wide variety of themes, geeky and not, and include concoctions like “One Bread to Rule Them All,” “Storm’s Really Great-Tasting Guacamole” from Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo of Paul and Storm, and the ominous “TacoDoughnut.” (GeekMom is not responsible for anyone who attempts to consume a TacoDoughnut.)

The cookbook is also peppered with brief biographies and Q&As from each contributor, so you might even learn something new about your favorite geeks.

All of these culinary delights help support a fantastic cause. Donations to Child’s Play provide games, toys, books, and movies to lift the spirits of ill children who are spending significant time hospitalized. Please consider supporting All the Nomz to encourage such a worthy cause. If you’re still undecided, take a look at the sample preview. But how can you resist a cookbook with a recipe for Fem Shep(ard)’s pie?

Artwork by Len Peralta; used with permission.

Weekly GeekMom Video Playlist


This week the GeekMom writers found so many cool videos on the internet; I don’t even know where to start! Tap dancing, mock movie trailers (think Star Wars), game reviews that involve cooking, making burritos in space — you name it, it’s possible we found it. A few of my favorites from this week are here to get your attention, but there are many more in the weekly playlist.

Continue reading Weekly GeekMom Video Playlist

Cookbook Review: Noodlemania! 50 Playful Pasta Recipes

Your kids will enjoy helping with the recipes in Noodlemania! This is a chicken alfredo lasagna roll-up that my son assembled for us. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Your kids will enjoy helping with the recipes in Noodlemania! This is one of the “Rollin’ Chicken Alfredo” roll-ups that my 10-year-old son made for us this past weekend. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

My family had the chance to check out Quirk Book’s latest cookbook offering: Noodlemania! 50 Playful Pasta Recipes. How did they know I live in a house full of serious pasta and noodle fans? Pasta night at my house is always a winner.

Whether your kids enjoy elaborate pasta dishes, or simply want plain noodles (as I’m sure many of you with toddlers and preschoolers can testify), Noodlemania! covers a wide range of recipes that will put a smile on any kid’s face.

Continue reading Cookbook Review: Noodlemania! 50 Playful Pasta Recipes

Eat Like a Geek: Peppermint Toads


My daughter recently had a Harry Potter themed birthday party. The festivities of the day are for another article, but part of the Honeydukes gift bags were homemade Peppermint Toads.

My husband and I are foodies. Why do something food related halfway when you can do it right? This includes candy recipes that call for those Wilton flavored discs that are used as candy coating. Why make candy if you are going to use those? Continue reading Eat Like a Geek: Peppermint Toads

The Blog Revolution: Blog as Source of Knowledge


This week  at the emerging technology site, radar.oreilly.com, began a series of posts about the design patterns being produced by social media that are shaping the way the Internet operates. His opening argument?

That responsiveness, the ability to tweet something instantly, had more power than the traditional ad campaigns we have known up to this point. He makes some excellent points about industry but his ideas reach us on a much more personal level.

The personal blog virtually exploded onto the internet scene and now comes in a wide variety of flavors, but the base ingredient is always a very real person, or persons, guiding the content. This content has become a hot commodity, the place to go when you need something. It is something I have been observing in myself for about a year now. However, just because I no longer reach for the encyclopedia but the internet, that does not mean all sites are created equal.

Continue reading The Blog Revolution: Blog as Source of Knowledge

How to Share Your Homebrew with Your Kids: Spent Grain Recipes

Spent grains photo from Flickr user therealjonnyx
Spent grains photo from Flickr user therealjonnyx

Making beer is a lot like making tea. Except when you’re finished making tea, you drink the tea and throw out the leaves. When you’re finished with the first step of making beer, you put the brew in a giant bucket and throw away a massive glob of wet grains.

Or do you?

It’s a shame to toss all those delicious-smelling grains that you carefully chose to make a delicious brew. Some people compost them, although some people have had bad experiences with how that turns out in the compost pile. Clearly the only sensible thing to do is eat them and all the protein and fiber goodness they have to offer. If you’re not ready to use them all (and how could you?!) as soon as the brew leaves the stove, you can refrigerate them for a day or two or freeze them for longer. And if you haven’t tried homebrewing yet, this is just a bonus reason. It also means you can share your brew with your kids, since this is before the alcohol enters the picture. If you’re feeling really industrious, you can work in a science lesson about yeast and fermentation!

This weekend we got to work on making a Brooklyn Chocolate Stout clone, which I hope will be delicious in a few months. Meanwhile we’re getting a taste of the grains. First I put them into a bread. I tried two recipes. “Recipes,” I say. Bread is one of those things where I was always afraid to go off-recipe. But hey, when you’re already going crazy and throwing a pile of globby, wet beer makings in, who needs a recipe? This is also why the first loaf was a dense, brown blob. A reasonably tasty blob, but nothing I wanted to repeat. The second loaf, however, was sweet deliciousness. Here’s how it goes:

  • 2.5 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup grain (run them through a food processor or spice grinder first)
  • 3/8 cup sugar
  • 2.25 tsp yeast (that’s one packet, regular, not fast-rise)
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup(ish) water

Put it all in a stand mixer, and let your dough hook do the work. You don’t even have to bother activating the yeast first unless you need to see if it’s good. Let the dough rise for an hour to 90 minutes, then bake at 400 for about 45 minutes. If you’re actually good at this bread-making thing, feel free to punch down and knead all you want. That’s a lot of work, so I didn’t, and it was still tasty. Bread blasphemy! Basic notes so you can wing it:

– Bread wants to rise at about 78 degrees. That’s why you’re usually advised to add water around 110 degrees, since the cooler flour will bring that down. However, depending on whether you’ve just taken the grains off the stove or gotten them out of the freezer, your temperature is going to be wildly different. Use a thermometer and adjust accordingly.

– Wet dough is good dough, but too wet is just a mess. Add 3/4 cup at first, then the rest if you need to. I went a little overboard with the water and had to add some flour.

– That’s a lot of sugar, so it comes out pretty sweet. I thought it was delicious, but you’re welcome to cut that back. What type of beer you’re making will affect things too. This one has a lot of chocolate and dark grains in it, and the bread came out quite dark. (My two-year-old thought it was chocolate!) I thought the sugar was a nice complement to that, but it might not be as tasty with a hoppier brew.

Of course, you can only make so much bread. So what else is there to do with all those grains? Burgers. That’s right. Burgers. I came across this suggestion on a message board, and since I’ll try anything once, into the beef went the grains. I picked up a hunk of beef (round, to be specific), and my husband put it through the grinder with some of the grains. I didn’t get a chance to tell him to put the grains through the food processor first, and you’d never know. The meat grinder took care of that just fine. Then we added an espresso/brown sugar rub. A 3:1 ratio of espresso to sugar works great. These were among the most delicious burgers we’ve ever made.

Need some more ideas? Here are a few recipes I’m planning to try. Add your own suggestions in the comments.

Molly Weasley Comfort Cooking

Eating shepherd’s pie just like Harry. Photo: Amy Kraft

After a long winter’s day, ever wish you could just cozy up in the Burrow and have Molly Weasley whip you up a little roast chicken with mashed potatoes? Or feast in the Great Hall on some lamb chops? Now you can… with a bit of Muggle work.

When I was sent The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook for review, I thought it was going to be little more than some fun gimmickry. But, on thumbing through the pages, there are some delectable-sounding treats, including a lot of stick-to-your-ribs winter fare, the kind I usually have to head to a pub to get.

Sure, the gimmickry comes first, but that’s what makes it great fun for fans. It appears that author Dinah Bucholz has scoured the seven books for any mere mention of food, and then paired that nugget with a recipe. Mr. Weasley mentions to Kingsley Shacklebolt that Molly’s making meatballs for dinner? Accio meatballs! Here’s a recipe for Molly’s meatballs with onion sauce. Like Harry, want a taste of treacle tart while Ron and Hermione argue? Or a taste of the vol-au-vents from Bill and Fleur’s wedding? Early and often we’re warned that this book is unofficial. JK Rowling has nothing to do with it. Please don’t sue them! However, this unofficial book reads as wonderfully delicious fan fiction.

But does it work as a cookbook? The organizing principle not only gives the book a structure that follows the arc of a Harry Potter book, it also encourages a wide range of recipes:

  • Chapter One: Good Food with Bad Relatives
  • Chapter Two: Delights Down the Alley
  • Chapter Three: Treats from the Train
  • Chapter Four: Recipes from a Giant and an Elf
  • Chapter Five: The Favorite Cook’s Dishes
  • Chapter Six: Breakfast Before Class
  • Chapter Seven: Lunch and Dinner in the Dining Hall
  • Chapter Eight: Desserts and Snacks at School
  • Chapter Nine: Holiday Fare
  • Chapter Ten: Treats in the Village

The recipes focus on British cuisine, and lacking any other British cookbooks I decided my first crack at the book would be something basic: shepherd’s pie (though as both the book and GeekMom Sarah would quickly point out, I actually made cottage pie because I only had ground beef on hand). Surely you’ll remember in Chamber of Secrets when Harry barely touched his shepherd’s pie because he was so dreading his detention with Professor Lockhart?

Harry and Ron slouched into the Great Hall in states of deepest gloom, Hermione behind them wearing a well-you-did-break-school-rules sort of expression. Harry didn’t enjoy his shepherd’s pie as much as he’d thought.  Both he and Ron felt they’d got the worse deal.

Overall, the recipe was pretty easy, made with mostly staple ingredients. The timing of elements in the instructions could be clearer, but an experienced cook won’t have much trouble parsing these recipes. As for taste, it totally served it’s purpose as wintertime comfort food, but I already have a few things I’d do differently next time – definitely use lamb to make a proper shepherd’s pie, and spice it up a bit. I expect to start scribbling in the margins like the Half-Blood Prince.

It may not be the finest cookbook for British food out there, but it sure is fun cooking to these literary references. And if you have any plans to throw a Harry Potter theme party, this cookbook is a must-have.

How to Make Hello Kitty, Keroppi, and Badtz-Maru Cupcakes

I have a daughter turning five, and she has a problem. Two problems, really. The first is an inability to decide what she wants for a birthday theme. The second is a mommy who thoroughly enables this indecisiveness. Last year it resulted in a cake shaped like Gotham City with a bat signal on top of a Hello Kitty village with a Spider-Man web connecting them. This year the superheroes got replaced by pirates and Mario, but Hello Kitty stuck around.

Lucky for me, short of something they make a cookie cutter for, there is no easier fondant request than Hello Kitty cupcakes. The cat’s head is an oval with ears, two dots and some whiskers. You can do this in your sleep. And as tired as moms always are, you might have to.

To make Hello Kitty, Keroppi, and Badtz-Maru, you’ll need:

  • Fondant: Black, white, green, yellow, pink
  • Black and red food markers, which you can buy in the cake supply aisle of your craft store
  • #7 and #12 Wilton tips
  • 1¼” and 1½” round cutters
  • A wet paper towel
  • These templates

There are some tips for making or buying the fondant in my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cake instructions. It’s hard to get a true black with dye, so I don’t make black fondant except in very small amounts. I definitely recommend buying some if you want to make Badtz-Maru. If you can’t find Satin Ice locally or if it’s too expensive, Wilton sells a package of Natural Colors fondant that includes black. Michaels stores also now carry the Duff (Ace of Cakes) line of supplies, including tubs of colored fondant.

Continue reading How to Make Hello Kitty, Keroppi, and Badtz-Maru Cupcakes

Sweet Geek Cuisine: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Magrathea Cake

Behold the whale! All photos: Ruth Suehle

If you’ve got a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan with a birthday coming up, this Magrathea whale cake is easy to make, even if you don’t have much cake decorating experience. Don’t panic!

You’ll need:

  • fondant
  • buttercream
  • royal icing
  • yellow candy melts
  • Wilton tip #225 (with frosting bag and coupler, of course)
  • Wilton gel colors Ivory, Cornflower, and Rose
  • a 12″ round cake (any flavor)
  • a loaf cake (any flavor)
  • mini muffin pan
  • 1 chocolate mini-muffin
  • 6 waffle cones
  • toothpicks
  • wax paper

You can easily make your own fondant with marshmallows and powdered sugar. The benefit to this type, commonly called marshmallow fondant (or MMF in web forums), is that people will eat it. You can also try your hand at making regular fondant, which takes a little more work. Store-bought fondant is often not very tasty, and most people will peel it off and throw it away. But I won’t blame you for printing a coupon to your local craft store and buying a box. Or, if you want to spend some money and get tasty fondant in a variety of colors, try finding Satin Ice. If you have a local baking supply store, you’ll probably find it there, or you can order it online.

If you need a buttercream recipe, you’ll find plenty of them online along with extensive debate about butter vs. shortening. But if you’re not interested in the finer distinctions of fats, you’ll get good results by whipping together a cup of each with a splash of vanilla extract, then adding powdered sugar until you reach a spreadable and delicious consistency.

Royal icing
Most royal icing recipes you find will make quite a bit, and for this project, you need only a little. Mix 1 tablespoon of meringue powder, 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, and 2 tablespoons of water. It may take more water, but it’s better to add more as you need it than end up with a runny mess. Tint it with the rose gel color. This recipe will still make far more than you need, so go ahead and make dozens of flowers. Practice using all your tips. Things made of royal icing will keep nearly indefinitely if you store them in a dry place, and they’re nice to have around next time you want a little something extra on a boring cake.


The base cake

  1. Crush the waffles cones until they resemble a landscape “now barren of all vegetation and covered with a layer of dust about an inch thick.” You don’t even chopping gadgets. Just break a cone up in your hand, put the pieces between two sheets of wax paper, and use a rolling pin. Or a hammer if you’re having a bad day–crushing things is very cathartic.
  2. Tint your buttercream with ivory gel color until it’s about the color of the waffle cones.
  3. Frost a 12″ round cake with the ivory buttercream. That’s a big cake, I admit. But you need that much room to hold up the whale. I suggest making it chocolate–read on to the part about making the petunias to see why.
  4. Make that barren landscape over the top of the cake with the crushed waffle cones. Leave a roughly loaf-sized dent where your whale will go.


The whale

  1. Bake your favorite cake in a loaf pan. It doesn’t have to be as heavy as a pound cake, but it should be a dense enough cake to carve and then hold up the fondant. Avoid things like devil’s food or angel food cake.
  2. After it cools, use a sharp knife to carve the loaf into the shape of the whale’s body. Shave off the edges of the long sides to smooth them and round off the corners. At the head end, slightly angle the short end of the loaf towards the bottom. Narrow the body somewhat towards the tail, but not much. Most of the tail will be fondant. Make one long side angle in towards the tail to help the whale’s tail curve toward its body.(See picture above.)
  3. Tint a softball-sized amount of fondant with cornflower gel color.
  4. Sculpt two small fins. Carefully insert a toothpick at each end of the side that will attach to the whale. Set them aside.
  5. Roll the fondant out flat in a rectangle, roughly 12″x18″ and 1/4″ thick.
  6. Drape the fondant over the whale. Make sure there’s enough at the head end to cover the end of the loaf, then leave the majority of the excess towards the tail.
  7. Smooth the fondant down over the sides, trimming any excess 1/2″ from the bottom edge of the loaf cake. Tuck the edges of the fondant under the loaf. If you anticipate that your guests will play with their food before eating it, perhaps even re-enacting the whale-falling scene, you may choose to cover the bottom of the whale with fondant as well, in which case, you’ll need to start with a larger rectangle. You may also consider covering your floor in plastic before they come over.
  8. Use the fondant trimmings to sculpt a cone shape for the tail. It doesn’t need to be perfectly shaped–it’s just going to prop up the fondant that extends beyond the cake.
  9. Put the cone at the tail end of the cake under the fondant. Wrap the fondant under the cone and shape the tail. Curve it in a bit so that the whale isn’t lying perfectly straight.
  10. Flatten out the end of the tail into a triangular shape for the fluke and carve in the notch between the lobes.
  11. Use the toothpicks you inserted in the fins to attach them to the whale’s sides.
  12. Gently use a dull knife or other non-sharp tool to make impressions in the sides of the face for closed eyes and a mouth. Be careful not to cut all the way through the fondant.

The petunias

  1. Turn a mini-muffin pan upside down. Grease the outside of one of the cups very well, or if you want to be absolutely certain the pot will release, cover the cup with wax paper and tape it down. The inside of your pot won’t be perfectly smooth if you use wax paper, but you’re going to break it apart anyway.
  2. Melt four yellow candy melts in a microwave-safe cup following the instructions on the package.
  3. Coat the outside of the muffin cup with melted candy melt to make a flower pot.


  4. You need one chocolate mini-muffin. I suggest making the 12″ round cake chocolate and using a bit of that batter to make the mini-muffin. I also recommend making two mini-muffins so that you get to taste the cake when it comes out of the oven. I do that for every cake I bake, regardless of whether I need a mini-muffin!
  5. Use Wilton tip #225 to make tiny drop flowers with the royal icing on wax paper. Put the tip perpendicular to the paper. Squeeze, twist, and lift the bag in a single, smooth move.


  6. Rewarm the leftover bits of yellow candy melts. (Usually reheating them won’t work very well, but you’re only using a tiny bit.) Once the flowers have hardened, use a toothpick to dot the centers of each one with the candy melts.

    So what if they're not perfectly accurate petunias? The whale isn't quite biologically accurate either. It's a cake!
    So what if they’re not perfectly accurate petunias? The whale isn’t quite biologically accurate either. It’s a cake!

Assembling the cake

  1. Place your whale in the spot you made for it on the main cake.
  2. After your candy flower pot cools, remove it from the muffin tin and break it apart into several pieces. Keep the pieces together so that you can place them on the cake as if it had fallen from the sky and broken there.
  3. Place the broken flower pot pieces in front of the whale.
  4. After the mini-muffin cools, crumble it in your hand. Not too much–flower pot dirt tends to clump. In fact, if you overbake this piece just a bit, it will help the crumbling to be clumpier.
  5. Place the crumbled “dirt” in the broken pot.
  6. Scatter several of the finished petunias over the broken pot of dirt.
  7. Edge the bottom of the cake with more crushed waffle cones.

Now all that’s left is to serve the poor, confused, dead whale to your delighted guests. Enjoy!

Kitchen Topology With Challah


Round loaf of challah bread
Figuring out how to braid a round loaf takes patience and math. Images: Kathy Ceceri


Tonight is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For me, holidays mean food, and for Rosh Hashanah the traditional treat is a round loaf of light and fluffy challah. Challah is an egg bread, usually shaped into a long braid. For the Jewish New Year, however, the loaf is round to symbolize the circular nature of the seasons. The bread is served with honey and apples for a sweet New Year.

Making challah–or any yeast bread–isn’t hard. The hard part, at least for me, is the braiding. Like most homeschoolers and other geek parents, we’ve done plenty of kitchen chemistry and even kitchen biology with the kids. But it occurred to me today as I set out the ingredients for our New Year’s challahs that we’re also doing kitchen math–in this case, kitchen topology.

Topology looks at weird shapes like Moebius strips and Klein bottles. It also includes the study of knots. In math, unlike sailing and rock climbing, knots are always made out of a continuous loop. And our round braided challah certainly fit the bill.

Here’s how to braid a round loaf:

    1. Divide the dough into four parts and roll them into long skinny strands.
    2. Arrange the strands like a tic-tac-toe board.
    3. Weave the strands so that they go over-under.


    1. Starting with the two strands pointing towards you, take the strand that is “under” and put it over the strand next to it. Continue going around the loaf putting the “under” strand over its neighbor.
    2. There are now two new strands sticking out from each side of your loaf. Take the new “under” strand and go around in the opposite direction, putting the “under” strand over its neighbor.


  1. Reverse direction and go around again in the same fashion. (If you have enough left, go around twice more, switching directions each time.) When finished, pinch the nearest ends together.
  2. Now take the pinched-together ends of the loaf and pull them up to form a bowl. Holding onto to them, flip the loaf over.  Voila! You have a perfect round braided loaf.

Here’s a video to show you how to do the tricky part:

Chemistry in the Kitchen: Worth Its Weight in Salt

Image by D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

My introduction to the nuances of culinary geekery were definitely attained apart from my parents. No, they weren’t the best of cooks. But they had also been raised in a culture of ease vs. taste, of convenience vs. toil.  But that’s not to say they didn’t help me along. In fact, they gave me the greatest gift you can give a budding geek chef: free rein in the kitchen.

Since my tweens, I’ve been the primary cook in the house. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a really geeky subset into the culinary world, hiding behind an ingredient that I’ve always taken for granted: salt.

After a stint working in a New York style deli during college, I became a convert to Kosher salt. But after that? I didn’t think there were any other horizons to be explored.

Was I ever wrong.

Salt, I have come to learn, is gustatory magic. Yes, I’m aware of salt’s long and complicated past, its value, its cultural significance around the world. But what I didn’t realize was how science and location can combine to create salts of different colors, tastes, and textures. The best part? This combination of science and cooking is easily shared with kids, since salt appeals to so many senses! The large granules make it particularly great for learning about crystal structure, since all you need is your eyes, your tongue, and a magnifying glass.

Here’s a few salts I enjoy sharing with my kid that are quite good for combining science and taste!

Cyprus Sea Salt Flakes – I’m particularly fond of these for their pyramid-like structure, setting it apart from many of salts. The flakes are large, thin, and are well suited as a “finishing salt”—that is, as a last flourish on warm bread, cooked meats, or salads. It’s got a mild flavor—much less potent than table or Kosher salt—and crunches when you eat it. Great for looking at under a magnifying glass, too.

Himalayan Salt – There is some dispute about the purity and composition of Himalayan salt, but it certainly is a multitasker (and, in my opinion, delicious—I use it instead of table salt). This lovely pink salt has been used in cooking, bathing, lighting (by creating salt lamps, seriously), and is filled with minerals. I can attain a much finer grain than many other salts (as it is mined rather than sea salt), it’s also comprised of a variety of other minerals, adding to its depth of flavor and purported health and beauty benefits. My favorite incarnation of Himalayan salt are the salt slabs, which can be chilled and then used as platters for food—like sushi or vegetables. The salt in the rock influences the food just by resting on it. Kids like the color, and the taste is one of the best.

Smoked Salt or Salish – I discovered this gem while visiting my sister in California a few years ago. This sea salt—in its natural production state—is slow smoked over wood like alder, apple, mesquite, or hickory. This method of smoking salt has been used by the Salish tribe in the Pacific Northwest, and is often used as an ingredient in their famed smoked salmon. The smoking process can take over a week from start to finish, and the final product isn’t exactly cheap. However, the flavor is mind-bogglingly good. If you like barbecue and smoke flavor but don’t have the time or equipment for smoking, salish adds that deep, smoky flavor to foods in just a pinch. I often open up the jar just to smell it. Its dark color is great for observation, and it’s a great way to naturally get smoke flavor into foods. My favorite application is adding it to a good rub and grilling some pork loin. Continue reading Chemistry in the Kitchen: Worth Its Weight in Salt