I'm in a slump ... but my stepsister isn't.

My kids and I are all under the weather, so I haven't had any interest in cooking for the past week or so. I don't have recipes to share, so I thought I'd post a couple of links:

Mix It Up With Betty contest -- I submitted a bunch of recipes to this contest, but wasn't selected as a finalist. This is the downside of entering contests -- when I worked hard at one and don't win, I'm bummed out. These cookies all look very nice, but I have a hard time looking at the winners and figuring out what they are looking for. While I'm pouting, feel free to vote for your favorite.

My stepsister, the superstar -- My stepsister will be on "VH1's 40 Greatest Internet Superstars" tonight at 8 p.m.! Why? Well, that's a long story. Watch the show ... or check out Karyn Bosnak's web site.

(About the photo: Last weekend, Karyn and I were in the Chicago area for my brother's wedding. The photo is of the two of us after belting out our karaoke rendition of "I Will Survive" at Clark's Bar in Waukegan. Karyn knew every word to the song and sang in tune - she is a woman of many talents.)

Guest Reader

A couple of weeks ago, a friend called and asked me to be a “celebrity” reader for second graders at a Webster elementary school (they obviously use the term “celebrity” loosely). I was told to talk about my cooking contest experiences, read a book, and then tell them how reading helps me.

The first part was easy – I used my aprons from the contests I've attended to illustrate my story. The third part was easy, because many people are eliminated from contests for failing to read the rules closely. The hardest part was finding the perfect book. I wanted it to be about cooking or food, and appeal to second graders – so it couldn’t be a really short picture book that preschoolers would enjoy, and it also couldn’t be a long chapter book.

I posed the question to the helpful members of Cooking Contest Central, and about a dozen people gave me some great suggestions including:
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Green Eggs and Ham
Warthogs in the Kitchen
The Sensational Samburger
Sam’s Sandwich
Gregory the Terrible Eater
D.W. The Picky Eater
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
series (a favorite series of ours, by the way)
Oliver’s Vegetables
Bread and Jam for Francis
Stone Soup
Mr. Wolf’s Pancakes
Chicken Fingers, Mac and Cheese ... Why Do You Always Have to Say Please?
Amelia Bedelia
Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich
Toad Food and Measle Soup

Although they all were great ideas, I decided I wanted the book to have more to do with cooking than with food, and came close to choosing these books:

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) , by Philemon Sturges and Amy Walrod

I always found the traditional Little Red Hen folk tale to be a bit punitive and mean-spirited. To me, the real joy of cooking is enjoying what you’ve made with family and friends -- whether or not you get any help in the preparation. In this tale, the little red hen decides to make a pizza and, of course none of her friends are willing to help with the process. This version's twist is that the Little Red Hen shares the pizza with her friends, then all of her friends help with the dishes. Better.

Tallulah in the Kitchen, by Nancy Wolff

This is about a cat that likes to create lots of different kinds of pancakes. Her friends are her recipe testers. (This obviously has parallels to someone who likes to create recipes.) The book has lots of little conversations and sidebars that I thought would make it hard to read to a big group, but it would be great for reading with a little one on your lap.

Cook-A-Doodle-Doo! by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel

Here’s another story with references to the Little Red Hen folk tale. The illustrations by Janet Stevens are especially well done, and they are nice and big for reading to a group. In this case, Rooster gets his friends Pig, Turtle, and Iguana to help in making a strawberry shortcake. It gets funny when the friends misunderstand the directions completely inept in the kitchen. There are sidebars about cooking terms that are better suited for lap reading than for a big group.

Chicks and Salsa by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Paulette Bogan

The chickens were tired of chicken feed. Inspired by the cooking shows the farmer’s wife watches, the rooster raids the garden and makes chips and salsa. Soon the barnyard animals are making various Mexican dishes and yelling “ole!” The illustrations are fun, colorful, and festive and I thought it would be fun to get the kids yelling “ole!”

My “eureka” moment was finding The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

Paulina the Princess decides to compete to be married to a prince. The competition involved the familiar pea under the mattresses test, then trying on a glass slipper, then an essay writing contest. The final contest is a cooking competition! Paulina wins the contest with an inventive pizza, but decides she doesn’t want to marry the prince after all, and instead opens a pizza shop. The illustrations are colorful and comical. I thought it was perfect for my talk, and the children seemed to like it.

A few days after my visit to the school, I was surprised to see a big article about Mary Jane and Herm Auch in the Democrat and Chronicle. By coincidence, the authors live in the Rochester area! They have written several children’s books, which you can see at their Web site.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Webster second graders, and received a packet of cute and well-written letters from the children today. I guess being a “celebrity” has its perks!

Maple-Walnut Scones

One of my favorite flavor combinations is maple and walnut. It's not an accident that the cookies I have in the March issue of Cooking Light has that combination of flavors (I know, it's the second time I've brought this up, but it's the first time I've been pictured in a national publication so give me some slack here).

Today I decided to try the recipe for New Hampshire Maple-Walnut Scones from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. The recipe plugs maple syrup from New Hampshire. I used Wegman's branded maple syrup of unknown origin, but I can say from experience that New York has really good maple syrup as well.

The challenge of baking with maple syrup is that maple syrup actually has a subtle flavor that can get lost. You really need some bottled maple flavoring to give the maple flavor a boost. In fact, this recipe didn't call for enough of the stuff to my taste.

They weren't the very best scones I've ever made, but they were pretty good. The dough was sticky and hard to work with. Here's the way I'd make them if I decide to make them again. I made half of a batch; the original batch made 16 scones.

Maple Walnut Scones
Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold butter
1/2 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts, plus a little more for the top
1/2 cup milk (I used 1%)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon maple flavoring

Preheat oven to 425 F.

In large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

In a separate bowl, combine the milk, maple syrup (reserve 1 tablespoon syrup for brushing on scones), and the maple flavoring. Add to the dry ingredients and mix until you've formed a very soft dough.

Generously flour your work surface, then scrape the dough onto the floured surface. Use floured fingers to pat the dough into a 7-inch circle about 7/8 inch thick. Use a bench knife or pizza wheel to cut the dough into 8 wedges.

Place the wedges on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, in the same configuration that you cut them, but spacing them one inch apart. Pierce the tops of the scones with the tines of a fork and brush them with some of the remaining maple syrup. If you have some leftover chopped walnuts, sprinkle them on top.

Bake for 15 - 18 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove them from the oven and brush again with any remaining maple syrup. Let cool a couple of minutes on the cookie sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 scones.

Whole Grain Product Reviews

My most recent effort on the nutritional front has been to increase the amount of whole grains our family consumes. To be honest, I’ve been eating whole wheat bread since I was a kid. My parents attended a nutrition course when I was about 10, and adopted a diet with lots of whole grains, fruits, veggies, fish and very little refined sugar and flour. Do you want to guess what happened to my eating habits when I went off to college? Let’s just say that it wasn’t pretty ... but that's another story. Anyway, the only part of that diet that stuck was eating whole wheat bread, just because I thought it tasted better.

My husband was raised on Wonder Bread, and when we got married he had no interest in switching to whole wheat. Since I believe he's a grown-up who can make his own nutritional decisions, I just bought both white and wheat bread – an approach that continued when we had children. During their early years, my kids ate the whole wheat bread that I ate. Then they discovered “Dad’s bread,” and the wheat stuff was out of the question.

This bugged me to no end. I tried baking with whole wheat flour, but the resulting flavor was too pronounced and the texture too heavy.

When I discovered King Arthur white whole wheat flour, I was skeptical, but I figured it was worth a try. According to the company’s Web site, the flour is milled from white whole wheat, and it has all the fiber and nutrition of traditional whole wheat, with a milder flavor and lighter color. I bought some and incorporated it into various recipes for pancakes, waffles, banana bread, and coffee cake. To my surprise, when I’ve replaced half of the all-purpose flour with the white whole wheat flour, I can’t detect any difference in the flavor or texture – nor can my family. When I used all white whole wheat flour in pancakes, the texture was a bit more dense but still didn’t elicit any complaints from my family members. This product is an absolute winner in my book. I plan to do a lot of experimenting with it.

Another product I tried was Fiber One chewy bars, which had little chocolate chips in them. I bought a big box of them at BJs, figuring they might be a healthy snack for all of us. (I’d tell you the nutrition information but they are long gone. They have a lot of fiber, but like all of these kinds of bars the tradeoff is the sugar content.) I thought they were ok, but my younger son went nuts for them. I thought that was a good thing, because he doesn’t eat a lot of fruits and veggies until I noticed ... er, how shall I say it delicately ... well, he was farting up a storm. So the rule became one bar per day. I suppose I’ll buy these again – while they aren’t health food, they are a step up from cookies.

Finally, I tried the Rice-A-Roni whole grain blends. I chose this because I have a son who’s absolutely nuts about Rice-A-Roni (yes, I resort to boxed stuff more than I care to admit). Even though the salt content is horrid, I thought getting my family used to a chewier whole grain texture might be a step in the right direction. Well, when I made it I thought it was too salty and the rest of the family thought it was too chewy. I probably won’t be repeating that particular product.

Banana-Oat Quick Bread

I buy bananas every time I go to the store, especially in the winter, when most fruits and veggies are expensive and out of season. Sometimes we eat them all in a day or so, but I often have a few bananas that are too ripe to eat. As a result, I make lots and lots of banana recipes. This recipe, which I got from Cooking Light magazine, was a good one. The bread was moist, very banana-y, and full of fiber (especially the way I made it). I made a few changes here and there. Here's how I made it:

Banana-Oat Quick Bread
Adapted from Cooking Light

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup King Arthur white whole wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large egg whites
Cooking spray
1/4 cup quick-cooking oats
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pecans
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons butter

Preheat oven to 350°.
Lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine flours and next 4 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture. Combine banana, buttermilk, oil, and egg substitute in a bowl; add to flour mixture. Stir just until moist. Spoon batter into an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray.

Combine 1/4 cup oats, nuts, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and butter, and sprinkle over batter. Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes in pan on a wire rack; remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Yield: 16 servings (serving size: 1 slice)