Epic Backyard Playhouse: How I spent my summer, and what it taught me about food

Epic Backyard Playhouse

Looking back, this project just seems crazy. But if parenthood doesn’t drive you at least a little bit nuts, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Epic Backyard Playhouse

What will it be after the kids are grown: Art studio? Poker room? Lawnmower storage?

Wanting nothing but the best for our kids, we aspired to build them a truly epic backyard playhouse, with our own hands. Not a play structure, but a real “mini-house”, and while we were at it, why not two stories…and a pop-out bay window…and a cross-gable roof?

Four months later it’s still not fully complete, but they’re thrilled, and we feel pretty satisfied. I must sincerely apologize to you all for putting my blogging on hold, and I promise more recipes soon. For now, here are the big lessons of this project, as I relate them to the world of food:

You Can’t Measure Ridiculousness

Our imperial measurement system is so bad. How much time is spent adjusting decimal results into sixteenths of inches, compensating for 2x4s being actually 1.5×3.5, or converting feet to inches? Similarly, most baking recipe developers long for the US to adopt measure-by-weight conventions for more precision and easier kitchen workflow. When will we be ready to bake a change?

Plan Ahead

You know I care about meal planning, otherwise I wouldn’t have developed the Spinning Meals app. Ever counted the per-project trips to Home Depot or Lowe’s? As our chief architect and organizer, my wife burned through a stack of graph paper with great plans and cut lists which saved our butts day after day, and kept those butts at the job site more than on the road. Plan ahead!

Epic Backyard Playhouse First Story Framing

First we built a box, then we built another box on top. Like a layer cake, but without the creamy middle.

Precision (Usually) Matters

An eighth of an inch gap may lead to a quarter, to a half…and eventually nothing fits. Time spent on precision pays well later. But an experienced carpenter knows which cuts can be made in haste and which require perfection. In kitchen work, baking is generally more precise than cooking, but not always. The good news is, food forgives a lot more than framing, and since you aren’t risking building collapse, go ahead and try something different, and if it fails just do it again more conservatively.

Practice is Confidence is Fun

The kitchen can be a scary place when you’re starting out, just as serious framing work once made me feel out of my league. But it’s amazing how quickly repetition breeds skill, and skill, confidence. Eventually my mistakes became rare, and churning out perfect compound miter cuts made this a workplace from which I drew strength and enthusiasm, not fear. Can the kitchen become a place of real joy, if you challenge yourself beyond the mundane and really master it?

Try Something Big

To energize your kitchen, maybe you don’t need to learn to make a slightly better pork chop. Maybe you need to make something that’s the ultimate, something as stupidly ambitious as this playhouse. Like a recipe with 30 ingredients, or 15 steps, or a name you can’t pronounce… Cook or bake your heart out, let your loved ones swing a hammer, I mean a whisk alongside you, and make something worth remembering, whether it succeeds or fails. Hammer on, friends.

What do you think? Any questions about it?

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Posted in Family, Food Articles, Philosophies

Brown Butter Rhubarb Crisp Recipe

Brown Butter Rhubarb Crisp - form The Spinning Cook

Brown Butter Rhubarb Crisp - form The Spinning Cook

This recipe has the potential to change your relationship with your rhubarb plant. Contrary to popular belief, there is no law requiring the use of strawberries in every dish prepared with rhubarb. I received a lot of love from readers and friends (thank you) as a result of my Brown Butter Apple Crisp recipe, which is still one of my absolute faves. But the character of the rhubarb is just dynamite here, together with the irresistible crunchy topping, and the melting ice cream which begs to be eaten before it becomes soup.

Like before, we at The Spinning Cook take no responsibility for any: obsession which may result from brown butter crisp recipes; abandonment of past favorite crisp, pie, or cobbler recipes; nor any hurt feelings or loneliness which may begin to afflict your dear strawberries. Happy crisping, my friends.

Brown Butter Rhubarb Crisp Recipe
5.0 from 1 reviews
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8
Special equipment required: A large oven-safe skillet (about 11 or 12 inches wide). Something magical happens to the butter and brown sugar when they are cooked together, and this recipe maximizes that effect. The biggest thing to be careful about with this or any rhubarb crisp recipe, is to make sure the moisture from the rhubarb doesn't make the topping soggy. Starting the rhubarb on the stovetop with a little sugar allows it to shed some moisture for that reason.
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup oats
  • ⅔ cup white flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 5 cups chopped rhubarb (1/2 inch sections)
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Melt the stick of butter in a large heavy-bottomed oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Continue cooking until foaming has subsided and the butter separates and turns a medium brown (stir and tilt the pan occasionally to check color, watch carefully towards the end). Stir in the brown sugar and salt, and continue cooking for one minute. Off the heat, stir in the oats and flour, then press the topping together with the back of a spoon to form some clumps. Set the topping aside on a dinner plate or in a medium bowl, scraping the pan clean.
  2. Return the skillet to medium-high heat, and add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Add the chopped rhubarb to the pan along with ¼ cup of sugar, and stir to coat.
  3. As soon as the rhubarb begins losing its juice and bubbling in the pan, set the timer for 8 minutes. Continue to cook at medium-high heat for this length of time, stirring occasionally, to ensure enough of the juice cooks off to keep the topping crispy.
  4. Add the remaining ¾ cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons flour to the pan, and stir. Flatten the rhubarb into an even layer with the back of the spoon.
  5. Distribute the topping evenly over the rhubarb. Bake until bubbly and medium brown on top, about 15 minutes.
  6. Allow to cool at least 5 minutes. Serve over vanilla ice cream.


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Posted in Dessert, Recipes

Why Moms Want Nothing For Mother’s Day

Why Moms Want Nothing For Mother's Day - by SpinningCook
Why Moms Want Nothing For Mother's Day - by SpinningCook

What’s this woman looking at? Nothing. © drbimages

Like many mothers, my dear wife wants nothing for Mother’s day. I know, I’m supposed to buy her a Lexus, or a diamond, or a Home Depot flower tower project or something. But in fact she wants nothing so badly that she made a list of all the nothing she can’t wait to have. See, there are so many things in our lives lately that nothing…is wonderful. Nothing is brilliant. Nothing is restorative and healing.

Before I list all the nothings which moms seem to want, I’ve decided that I too want nothing for Mother’s Day. Like last year, we are giving away the highly-rated Spinning Meals iPhone meal-planning app for free (regularly $2.99), throughout this weekend. Available here on the App Store, please be a good friend and spread the word.

So ladies, I’m looking for confirmation – do you too want nothing for Mother’s Day? Here is a list – a few are from my wife, but hers is short actually. So I’ve added some more based on moms I know, and some hilarious blogs which help us cope. Wonderful nothings moms want:

  • No “flotsam and jetsam” around the backyard, my wife’s term for all the stick swords, pine cone grenades, broken sand toys, unrecognizable dog chewies, etc.
  • No recycling hanging around, especially Styrofoam blocks and hard plastics needing a special trip to the recycling center
  • No interruptions during the sacred Mother’s Day morning sleep-in. No kids in my bed. Or as Karen Alpert says in her Baby Sideburns post, “take them outside immediately. Not downstairs. OUTSIDE. That’s right, scoop them up in a football hold and rush them out the door.”
  • No overcrowded shelves full of toys we don’t use anymore. No boxes of outgrown clothes or toys destined for Goodwill, or unsuspecting friends and relatives.
  • No dishes to clean up from any special breakfast, and no cleaning house for a special Mother’s Day event.
  • No bathroom interruptions. Cue the classic Rants From Mommyland slogan “For the love of God, let me pee alone.”
  • No Legos or dinosaurs scattered like landmines
  • No landmines in our food like GMO’s or pesticides. And wouldn’t it be nice if it were easy to know which these are? Labels?
  • No fluoride in our drinking water
  • No smartphones buzzing or ringing to interrupt family time currently happening in person
  • No anxieties about not parenting correctly
  • No internal or external pressures taking away enjoyment of just living and loving on those kids

Which of these nothings is most important to you this Mother’s Day, or is it something not on my list? Is it really possible to live simply, cut back to the true necessities? Because I think the bottom line is this:

This Mother’s Day, let’s prove we really care about moms, and help streamline the other 364 days out of the year, when they carry such a great load to hold everything together.

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Posted in Family, Food Articles, Parenting, Philosophies, Thanks

The 65 Cent Latte: How To Make Lattes At Home

How to make a 65-cent latte.
How to make a latte at home without an expensive espresso machine. Super easy!

Make your own darn latte.

Hot beverages can carry magical powers of encouragement, especially for tired parents. At Christmas one year I gave my wife an electric mug warmer, since she was suffering from perpetually cold tea syndrome, a common parental affliction. Around the edge of the warming pad I wrote in Sharpie something like “Ha-ha, you never get to drink your tea hot, but my love for you never grows cold.” Making matters worse, the tyrannical infant/toddler schedule means there is little point in leaving the house for “fancy coffee” only to have to rush home before the nap clock strikes again. And espresso machines cost a fortune, so lattes are simply out of the question, right? Enter the new cult favorite sweeping the nation, the AeroPress machine (dramatically) DUHN, DUHN, DUHN…

Invented by Alan Adler, the same game-changing mechanical genius who brought us the iconic 80’s Aerobie flying disc, the AeroPress is a hand-pump espresso maker, capable of making amazing coffee.

Shake milk in a canning jar to easily create a frothed latte.

While it won’t compete with steam-frothed milk, a few shakes in a canning jar is all you need to produce enough foam to insulate your drink and prevent a skin from forming.

The AeroPress isn’t brand new by any means; but despite its huge cult following among coffee geeks, I find that most people are still just discovering it. It is impressively simple: the chamber sits atop your coffee mug, with a filter on the bottom, grounds and hot water stirred inside, and a plunger which presses the brewed espresso down into the cup. Remove the filter, and the puck of pressed grounds pops out into the trash; just rinse the end of the plunger and it’s clean.

How to make lattes at home

To make your own 65-cent latte, you will need: An AeroPress, ground coffee beans, hot water, and hot frothy milk. Once you have the AeroPress, the frothy milk is the hardest part. You can skip the foam entirely, but it serves two purposes: keeping the coffee warm, and preventing a thin “skin” from forming on top. You can buy an Aerolatte device (electric mini-whisk), but I recommend simply giving it a few quick shakes in a canning jar, then microwaving it without the lid until hot.

Check my math. The cost of coffee has shot up in recent years, but the home latte is still very affordable I think.

Item Total Cost Number of uses Cost per latte
AeroPress espresso maker with 700 filters (with the 350 filter bonus pack) 29.35 700 (buying more filters, or a reusable steel mesh filter, reduces per drink cost further) $0.04
Espresso roast coffee, ground for fine-drip machines (not espresso grind, which will clog the filter) 14.99 3 scoops per ounce, 16 ounces, equals 48 shots, or 24 double-shot drinks $0.31
1 Gallon Milk 2.98 13 x 10 ounce servings (each makes a 12-ounce latte)  $ 0.30
 Conclusion:  $0.65 for 1-shot, $0.96 for 2-shots $0.65

Tips on using the AeroPress:

How to make a 65-cent latte.

Regular AeroPress method, per instructions: brew over the mug, then plunge to express the coffee.

  • Watch the temperature of the water when brewing, but consider going higher than the directions. The coffee should brew at 170-180 Fahrenheit, so the boiling point is way too high. But a barista at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco pointed out to me that the chamber itself will cool the water, so consider adding the water at 190, or even 200 if your grounds are from the freezer.
  • Keep your coffee fresh. Aromas escape at room temperature, especially after grinding. If you’re after convenience, get pre-ground coffee and keep it in the freezer. Grinding your own will improve the taste, but the beans should still stay in the freezer even if kept whole.
  • Consider brewing upside-down (see photo) which allows you to steep the coffee for longer than the directions state; my barista friend recommended a full 90 seconds, while you continue to stir.
  • Experiment with diferent beans and roasts. Some medium-roast coffees can make an exceptional latte, more fresh and flavorful, depending on what you like.
  • Know your ideal coffee ratio. One shot may not be enough coffee to go with 10 ounces of milk. If you have young children at home, you may want to start by brewing yourself one shot for every child who is not yet in full-day school, or the number of times you were awakened last night, whichever is higher.
Turning an AeroPress upside-down allows for longer, controlled steeping without drainage.

Turning the device upside-down allows for longer, controlled steeping without drainage. Add the filter cap and turn into normal position over your cup to press.

Do you, or does someone you love, suffer from always-cold-hot-beverage-syndrome? Have you tried an AeroPress or some other means of making high-quality coffee at home? Do you know someone who needs one of these for Mother’s Day?

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Posted in Beverages, DIY, Recipes

Homemade Airbrushed Sous Vide Easter Eggs and (High) Holiday Expectations

Photograph of an airbrush
Photograph of an airbrush

No airbrushes were harmed in the writing of this post. Photo by Manfred Brückels, License GFDL.

Yesterday we had the best Homemade Airbrushed Sous Vide Easter Eggs. And now the bar has been raised.

Three weeks ago I acquired fresh eggs at the Farmer’s market, to age them in the refrigerator for easy peeling. White eggs are best (a blank canvas) even though everyone knows brown eggs are superior since they seem more “earthy.” I checked the chickens’ papers, asked a few follow-up questions, and was satisfied that these were the eggs for us.

After aging at exactly 45 degrees on the refrigerator’s top shelf, I cooked them using a homemade sous vide system I designed, with 170 degree water (a touch of orange flower water added) constantly pumping through an insulated cooler. The eggs themselves plateau at 170 over the course of 36 hours. Note that bags and vacuum sealing typical of sous vide is unnecessary since each egg provides its own package, yet the method is still considered sous vide if you were wondering.

After cooking we dried our eggs in the sun, for both culinary and symbolic reasons. Eggs were then cooled in the refrigerator atop a bed of fresh hand-clipped grass trimmings while I prepared the airbrush equipment.

Typical paints might leach through the shells into the egg whites, so a local bean-to-bar chocolate maker devised an organic alternative cacao-based paint which still feeds through my airbrush, while tying in the theme of Easter candy. Then came the easy part, the painting itself.

Computational Future geometric pattern photo

Algorithmically-created geometric patterns can be surprisingly beautiful. Here is one Stephen Wolfram showed in a SXSW presentation on “Our Computational Future.”

Taking inspiration from traditional macramé, I followed visual geometric algorithm patterns, calculated using my children’s names as base input for a little mathematical personalization.

By now I sincerely hope you’ve realized that this is not my Easter post, but April Fool’s day. The truth is, we had a very nice, very simple egg-dying time with the kids on Saturday, just in time for a simple Easter. But I do have a real point to add.

Recently there has been some debate over the holidays getting out of hand, with parents, bloggers, and some creative teachers constantly raising the bar to a level which is unsustainable for families. On St Patrick’s Day our girls built 12 clever leprechaun traps, and we indulged them by “springing” some traps and carrying off the bait of Lucky Charms.

Leprechaun traps

This year’s collection of leprechaun traps was extensive (here is a small sampling), and entirely kid-driven, though inspired by preschool and kindergarten activities.

This was all great fun, but are we setting ourselves up for annual exhaustion? Here’s my take on the debate:

  • Every parent, blogger, and parent-blogger has every right to spend each holiday the way they wish. The Internet and social media amplifies remarkable content, so it is natural for bloggers and other writers to try to make a big splash.
  • For each of us, it’s our job to manage expectations (both our own and our children’s) for how big or small we want to make each holiday.
  • Practice moderation with tools like Pinterest, Google, and the blogosphere. Find your personal balance where you’re having fun but not exhausting yourself.
  • Remember that a parent’s one-time splurge can easily turn into an annual expectation by the kids, but don’t be afraid to ratchet down that bar later (“Christmas can’t always be like last year”).

Do you agree? Do you think it’s wrong or unfair for some to go totally overboard on certain holidays? What’s your own policy, and how do you keep things from getting out of control?

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Posted in Food Articles, Holidays


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