A New Generation of Curd-Nerds

Cheese 101When locating your true calling, a commonly asked question is “what opportunity would you jump at whether or not you were paid?” The answer that trips effortlessly off my tongue is “share my insane passion for cheese, most ideally with children.”

This summer, I had the privilege of doing just that; teach two sessions of Cheese 101 For Kids at the A Little Yumminess Around the World Summer Camp in San Francisco. When my friends from the blog-o-sphere Simran and Stacie, the camp producers, presented the opportunity, I did a graceless pirouette and leapt at the chance.

In preparing for my sessions, I received valuable guidance from Lassa Skinner, owner of Culture Magazine who was also generous in providing free issues as a takeaway for campers. I offered four cheeses for tasting: fresh goat cheese (chevre), French camembert, Basque sheep’s milk cheese, and gorgonzola dolce. I wanted the campers to sample three types of milk: cow, goat, sheep; and a range of textures from soft, perishable fresh chevre to firm alpine-style cheese.

When I stood before the class of eager campers for the first time and introduced myself as a self-described “cheese nerd,” I knew in that moment that what I was doing felt very right.

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Before tasting, I encouraged the campers to utilize every sense in the process. First, look at the cheese; pick up and touch the cheese to analyze texture; inhale the aromas; finally, place the cheese on their tongue and savor before gobbling it up. I was most impressed with the adjectives (goaty, stinky, tart, mushroomy, etc.) that these sophisticated city dwellers used to describe the selections and encouraged them to write their impressions on tasting notes that I created in partnership with Stacie the resident artist and co-director. One camper amusingly described the aroma of an aged goat cheese by offering “it smells like hotel room.” Wait! What?

We ended our discussion by pondering what recipes we could create using each of the cheeses: pastas, pizzas, salad toppings, not to mention grilled cheese sandwiches and mac n’ cheese.

Not every cheese was loved by every camper, but they were adventurous in sampling each offering. I felt honored to share in their impressions and have the opportunity to infect them with my love for cheese. As I was preparing to leave the last of the two sessions, a boy walked up to me and volunteered “I think I’m going to be a cheese nerd!” I responded in kind with a super geeky high-five, then walked out into the street, beaming with pride.

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An Unforgettable Visit to the North Pole

Toward the end of November, my family drove to Sacramento for a long-awaited, magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express.

This annual Christmas season offering from the California State Railroad Museum is what memories are made of and the tickets sell out in a hot second. This year, after taking out a membership to the museum, Mateo was savvy enough to jump on-line at just the right time to secure four tickets for our family.

We arrived at the Sacramento train station in the early afternoon and after retrieving our tickets from will-call, all we had to do was look for families with pajama-clad children walking toward a classic steam train waiting expectantly on the tracks. We purchased a pair of Polar Express PJ’s for Sadie (Caleb was apparently way too cool to put on a pair), then we eagerly waited in line. Volunteers in classic railroad costume greeted and welcomed us, truly setting the tone for the fantasy journey ahead. Caleb and Sadie were all smiles and just over-the-moon when the time had come to board the train.

We quickly found our seats and then the train exited the station. On our way to the North Pole, we were greeted by a conductor who stamped our tickets, and then entertained by a hobo and a cast of other actors who reenacted scenes from the movie. Dancing up and down the aisle with hot chocolate and cookies, we eventually were offered our own individual Polar Express branded mugs with piping hot (and perfectly mediocre) hot chocolate, along with soft, fresh-baked cookies. The train rode along side the Sacramento river, making a gorgeous backdrop to this unforgettable excursion. The kiddos were in heaven and Mateo and I were feeling triumphant as parents who aim to make lasting, positive memories.

Eventually, our train arrived at its destination: the North Pole. Santa and his elves (several hot chicks in costume) were at the station outside the train, waiving at us, while packing and arranging Christmas gifts for the children of the world. Most of the kids on the train ran to the window to wave back at Santa and his crew. Once the train moved on, a very special visitor came on board and greeted each of the children – Santa himself. I was tickled by all of the thought they put into this exceptional train experience, which was bound to make perfect lifelong memories for our children.

The efforts by the volunteers dressed up in period costume, the crazy hobo who kept running up and down our car, the hot chocolate and fresh cookies, having the book read to us by a grandfatherly voice over the speaker system – all of this was just extraordinary. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad we made this a part of our holiday plans this year – a wonderful way to end the year.

Happy Holidays from the Soltero Family!

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“We Don’t Eat Farm Animals, Momma!” – Part 2

An Actual Egg Tree!

Caleb and I were baking thumbprint cookies last Sunday and I thought I’d try taking those small steps with him by asking where some of the ingredients came from. “Caleb, do you know where these Pecans come from?”  He responded, “A pecan tree!” I then asked him if he could tell me where eggs come from and he answered hesitantly, “from an egg tree?” I stifled my laughter and could hear Mateo doing the same from the other room. I went on to lamely explain that chickens poop out eggs each day, but I meant ’pop out’ and I heard Mateo saying “this is going well!” I dropped the subject right there, thinking to myself “you come in here and try having this conversation and see how well you do!”

It’s not like we’re just starting to talk about food and where it comes from with Caleb. Each week, we pick up our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box of organic produce. Caleb picks the box up from the porch of the local drop-off site and very proudly walks it back to our car. We get our box from Full Belly Farm – a real multi-family, certified organic farm on 300 acres of land in the Capay Valley – and he understands that everything in it was delivered to us fresh from the farm. As we’re putting the produce away in our kitchen, we play Name that Vegetable! with Caleb. He usually passes with flying colors and wins a brand new Chevy Malibu. When he doesn’t know the answer, then we just teach him.

We can and should talk with our kids about where food comes from. We can also teach the importance of really getting their little hands into it, and activate all of their senses while cooking.

This brings me back to the thumbprint cookies. Caleb and I have made them several times together and it’s such a kid-friendly recipe. Thumbprints are basic ice-box cookies that are fun to make. Caleb’s little hands love to roll the cold dough into small balls and place them onto the cookie sheet. He then presses them down with his palm and creates a well for the jam with his little thumb. We take turns spooning the jam into the center of the cookies with one of Sadie’s baby spoons, which are perfect for the job! Caleb will open the oven door for me and I’ll pop the sheet in and we wait for our house to fill up with the fragrance of sweet, baking cookies. Once the cookies have cooled on the rack, the real reward comes! Eating these not-too-sweet cookies is a real treat because they’re old-fashioned and they take you back to a simpler time. I can also see that Caleb feels such a sense of accomplishment after having made them with his own hands and I love that.

Pecan Thumbprint Cookies

Makes about 32 cookies

Ingredients

3/4 cup pecans – process until course in food processor

2/3 confectioners’ sugar

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 large egg at room temperature

Jam (we use low-sugar strawberry, but try any kind!)
 

Method

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Beat together butter, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla in a bowl with an electric mixer at high-speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg and beat well. Add flour and ground-pecan mixture and mix at low-speed until just combined, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (Dough will be crumbly but will hold together when squeezed.) Put in fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Once chilled, pull out dough and roll into small balls (slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball), place on buttered pan, use palm to gently flatten dough to about a ½ inch thick, use your thumb (or the back of a wooden spoon handle) to create little wells for the jam, then spoon in the jam of your choice.

Bake cookies in middle of oven until tops are pale golden, about 15 minutes. Cool cookies on sheets on racks 2 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

 Enjoy!