What I did on my maternity leave (Part 2)

If you’ve read my post about what I did on my previous maternity leave, you’ll know I’ve already exhausted all of the coffee shops within walking distance from my home. So what do I do with my time now that baby #2 has arrived?

Bake. A lot. So much for losing that baby weight...

I enjoy cooking. It’s a great way for me to relax and just zone out, focusing on the recipe. Plus there’s (usually) a delicious reward at the end. Between nursing and being pinned down by a sleeping six week old, I had lots of time to scroll through my Facebook feed. I’d get hooked on those video posts from brands like Tasty, Serious Eats, and Bon Appétit; everything looked yummy and deceptively easy to make. I itched to get back into the kitchen.

Stuck.

Once baby #2 started taking more consistent and longer naps in her crib, I began diving deep into Pinterest, pinning all kinds of glorious concoctions (yes, I have five different boards for food; doesn’t everyone?). With Safeway a quick, five minute walk away, I stocked up on basic ingredients and started trying out some of these recipes. Similar to what I did in my previous post, I’ll share my experience and rate them, taking into account complexity (how many dishes will I have to clean?), time vs. taste (is it worth the effort I put in?), accessibility of ingredients (do I have everything on hand or are special trips to Whole Foods necessary?), and other semi-useful considerations.

Cinnamon Rolls

Score: B

I love love love warm cinnamon rolls and am highly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. I keep a jar of yeast in my fridge, so all of the ingredients were already on hand. I’m not a big frosting person, so I skipped that whole section of the recipe which means I didn’t have to specially buy cream cheese (and made these that much more health, right? Extra roll for me). Overall, this is a solid recipe for cinnamon rolls; fast, tasty, simple, and aren’t they pretty?

Why yes, that IS a cafe au lait! I started making them at home so I can always enjoy my freshly baked pastry with the best coffee drink around.

Then why not a better score you ask? Don’t worry, you’ll see my reason in the next section.

One quick, possibly obvious thought I’d like to add: Once cinnamon buns have cooled and no longer have that warm, gooey, freshly-baked goodness going for them, I find that I’m less inclined to eat them (this may actually be a good thing health-wise, but that’s a different post). This gave me an idea that is common knowledge to more professional bakers than me: after you slice them into individual rolls with your floss/twine, freeze them in a gallon-sized bag and bake when ready! Just pop one or many into your oven at your convenience and enjoy a freshly made cinnamon roll with your cafe au lait anytime. I usually throw a frozen bun into a ramekin and put it right in the oven when I turn it on; the bun thaws/rises as the oven preheats. It doesn’t puff up as much as it would if you defrosted and proofed properly, but they turn out great when I’m in a rush!

Morning Buns

Score: A

As I mentioned before, cinnamon rolls are freaking delicious. I also love honey, which is why these buns appealed to me so much when I saw them being made in Bon Appétit’s video post. Even though it was a multi-day process with an overnight rise, I had to try these out.

Orange zest is amazing. I understand why people zest things now. I didn’t have an orange on hand, but I have an endless supply of Cuties in the pantry for our toddler (Cuties are great negotiation pieces when you’re running errands and a tantrum ensues). In other words, do not skip the orange/Cutie zest in this recipe.

As I usually do when I try a recipe for the first time, I cut everything in half; if it sucks or I mess up, I only waste half of the ingredients. I also ignored the extra yolk the recipe calls for because it annoys me when recipes leave me with an extra egg white or yolk with no solution on what to do with it. Does that half yolk really matter that much? I found that no, it doesn’t, so don’t worry about leaving it out. I always have bread flour on hand for making pizza dough, but you can easily find it at the grocery store if you don’t (though you may want to as you will later see in this post). I also skipped the ground cardamom since I didn’t have any and I didn’t want to buy it when I don’t think I’d ever use it again. Lastly, I didn’t brush the tops with the butter/honey mixture + sugar sprinkle. I found the buns didn’t need it, but feel free to add that back in if you want. See how lazy I am? Lucky for me, the buns turned out amazing anyway.

Left = lazy Naureen. Right = patient Naureen

One mistake I made that you can see in the photo on the left is that after rolling out the dough, I skipped this very important step:

“If dough gets too warm or sticky to work with, slide (with parchment) onto a baking sheet and chill until firm, then proceed.”

My fridge is usually quite full and I was impatient to finish, so I ignored this tip and tried to power through the rolling process without chilling. This made it REALLY difficult to roll because the dough was rising while I was attempting to make tight, cinnamon-y coils. After lots of cursing and many splatters of sticky filling all over the kitchen, the result was a bunch of fat, ugly buns. Somehow they still tasted delicious, but I learned a valuable lesson. Instructions are usually in a recipe for a reason.

So overall, these morning buns do beat out the cinnamon rolls, mostly because the orange zest and honey really elevate the flavor. It does take more time and effort to make these, but since it’s a simple process to freeze and store them, I find that they’re pretty darn worth it. Come to think of it, I only have one left in my freezer… Time to restock (and yes, I’ll chill the dough properly this time…).

Cheesecake

Score: B+

Have you ever had the cheesecake from Vive la Tarte? It’s mind blowing. But at $6.50 a slice, I just can’t get myself to buy it again. So I decided to try and make my own. I chose this recipe because I was looking for a light, fluffy consistency, similar to Vive la Tarte’s version. It was also pretty straightforward with minimal ingredients and no silly water baths.

I try to cut sugar in a recipe where I can and I ended up using no sugar in the crust, hoping that the graham crackers and cheesecake would be sweet enough. I think it worked fine that way, but it’s probably up to your taste preference. I don’t have a photo of the end result, but it basically looked like any other cheesecake except with a few typical cracks on top (they say that’s bad, but it tasted good so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

The recipe says to put it in the freezer when you’re done, but I live in SF; who the hell has a large or empty enough freezer for that? Refrigerator was fine. I did freeze a couple slices for future consumption though and that turned out great. Not quite as good as Vive la Tarte’s, but a very satisfactory substitute.

French Strawberry Cake

Score: A-

This was delicious and super easy. I even made it with help from my toddler (the fact that she was hanging around and I could still do this = major points). The cake looks beautiful too; with all the berries we usually have in the house, I can easily put this together for a special event or if I have leftover fruit that needs to be used.

My little helper. Beautiful, right? The cake, not the toddler. Okay, the toddler too.

The cake is more dense because of the sour cream and it needs to be refrigerated as the surface can get a little moist. This means that while the cake actually got tastier after a day or two, it didn’t look as nice after the first day.

I was curious if the sugar sprinkled on the top made any difference, so I experimented by putting it on half of the cake. It tasted just as delicious without the sugar, but the sugar did create a pretty sparkle on top (you can see a light shimmer on the upper half of the cake in the photo above). I would probably keep the sugar topping in future recipes if I’m bringing this cake for a special occasion, but cut it out if I’m making it just for myself. Which I do from time to time. Don’t judge.

Chocolate Babka

Score: C+

It looked so beautiful, I just had to try it. Another overnight rise though, so it is a two-day process. This recipe makes two loaves and as usual, I halved it for my tester round. I also skipped the streusel and the syrup to see how good the babka was without it, which may account for my lukewarm results. I did learn the technique to create that fancy braided look. It was brilliantly simple; maybe I can use that new skill for other creations in the future.

I’ve never had a proper babka before and maybe this is just how babkas are, but it was a bit dry and more dense than I’d expected. I believe that’s what the syrup in the recipe is for, but poking holes into the loaf and pouring in more sugar after everything is already baked didn’t appeal to me. My friend, Jessica, was visiting that weekend and with the remaining loaf, I made us french toast for breakfast. Now THAT was awesome. If it wasn’t such a task to make babka, I’d make french toast chocolate babka for guests all the time. Again, zest (this time from a lemon) = wow.

Captions made via Instagram Stories. Have you noticed we collect black mugs from random coffee shops yet?

I don’t think I’ll make this again any time soon. Between the significant time and effort it took, plus the fact that it doesn’t taste amazing even when you eat it right out of the oven forces me to give a lower score. This recipe did surface a tip I’ll share that helps me tons: get an instant read thermometer. They are awesome. I’m always afraid of over or under baking things, but with the thermometer showing me the exact temperature of the baked good and Google Home telling me what the food’s temperature is supposed to be when fully cooked, I have become a much more confident baker. I highly recommend adding one to your assortment of kitchen tools (they can be used for meat too!).

Mini Chocolate Cream Pies

Score: A-

This pie recipe is no joke. There are multiple pieces that make up this incredibly delightful dessert. While it appears intimidating and fills up my sink with dirty dishes, this pie is so worth it. I literally lick clean the pot, spoon, bowl, mesh sieve; basically anything that touched the chocolate custard. Gross? I don’t care. It’s that good.

I’ve made this pie normal-sized before (recipe above), but never mini-sized. My husband, nor my toddler, are into sweets and baking things only to have me be the only one eating them gets cumbersome. I wanted to see if I could make a smaller version and if any of it could be frozen and made later. The answer is: sort of.

This is my go-to recipe for pie dough. This magical invention, the Cuisinart 8-cup food processor, makes incorporating all the ingredients together incredibly fast and easy. I constantly measure poorly or misread an amount, but this recipe is quite forgiving too. For mini crusts, I cut rounds using my toddler’s plastic dinner bowl from IKEA, separating four rounds to experiment with and freezing the rest between parchment paper. One great suggestion I got from another mini pie recipe was to cut strips of parchment paper and put those under the dough in the muffin pan, creating little handles to lift the pies out when they’re done cooking. Another tip for blind baking (baking the crust first with nothing in it) was to use sugar as the pie weights. Sugar gets messy for klutzes like me though, so I used dried dal/lentils and that worked fine.

Amazingly, baby #2 slept through this entire process.

I have to say, meringue is tough. It takes forever for the egg whites to heat up to the appropriate temperature and I constantly worry I’m going to scramble everything. The recipe calls for 175 degrees F, but I called it a day when after 20 minutes of stirring, sweating, and worrying the baby would wake up, we were still only at 160 (Google Home reassured me eggs are pasteurized after 140, but it seems like 160 is more on the safe side). At least the Kitchenaid mixer helps make the rest of the meringue-making process enjoyable. I love that machine; it whips up the egg whites blindingly fast. Best wedding gift ever (thanks Doshi family!). When cut in half, the recipe calls for 4 egg yolks (for the chocolate custard) and 2.5–3 egg whites (for the meringue), but I just used all 4 egg whites. I made cookies with the leftover meringue; unfortunately I can’t freeze it for later.

The meringue was too sweet for me when I made the pie last time, so for this version I cut the amount of sugar required in half and it was still plenty sweet. I think the meringue tastes best as the topper, but if you’re in a time crunch or not feeling the extra work, normal whipped cream would be just fine (and it stores better).

This is the main reason for points against this recipe. I can’t easily make this again later because I’ll have to remake the meringue each time, which means extra work and extra egg yolks. So freezing doesn’t really help me much.

Overall, there are a lot of moving parts and it takes a good amount of effort, but the results are pretty impressive. My husband, Omar, finally sampled some for the first time and he said it was the best tasting dessert I’ve ever made (huge compliment from the guy who usually refuses to try any of my concoctions). Do try this or the full-sized pie, which is easier than the minis, if you’re up for a rewarding challenge.

Cheesy Cauliflower Breadsticks

Score: B

I know, this is probably the opposite of a chocolate cream pie, but if I’m trying to lose the baby weight AND still eat a moderate amount of dessert, I gotta cut calories somewhere. And this recipe seriously impressed me. Our Cuisinart food processor not only makes pie dough easy, it’s also the best gadget for ricing cauliflower. A few pulses and you’re done.

Microwave, mix, shape, bake, and tada! Cheesy, savory, pizza-like “breadsticks”. The recipe and ingredients are simple and you can top the breadsticks with whatever you like. Best of all, I don’t feel guilty when I eat the whole thing myself.

I’ve been really into beef bacon lately.

But at the end of the day, it isn’t real pizza…

NY-Style Pizza Dough

Score: A+

This is the beautiful reason you should stock up on bread flour. I know we’re deep into savory territory now, but this dough is so crazy easy and delicious that I have to share it. Lately, I’ve been making this every week and everyone in our family loves it (excluding the infant, but that’s temporary). This is a partner effort; while I make the dough, Omar preps, tops, and cooks the pizza. Though of course, the dough is the best part. ;)

Again, the Kitchenaid stand mixer is what makes this work so well. You throw everything in the bowl, add some warm water and olive oil as the dough hook does all the hard work for you, place the dough balls into their own Ziploc bags, stick them into the fridge (up to five days), and pull it out when you’re ready to make some pizza. That’s it. Omar will make breakfast pizza with caramelized onions, beef bacon, sliced potatoes, and crack a couple eggs on top; I can’t tell you how good this pizza is. My toddler constantly steals the crust from my plate because it’s so soft and fluffy, which may not be how some people like their crust, but I think it’s amazing. It’s tough getting the oven as hot as it needs to be for a crispier crust, but a pizza stone helps with that. Frankly, I think it’s pretty darn perfect.

Drool.

This dough is a must try. It will forever ruin you for delivery pizza while costing you a fraction of the price. Win win!

That’s all I got for you! In conclusion, when comparing how easy it is to make + how delicious the results are for each of these recipes, the NY-style pizza dough is my favorite thing I’ve made this maternity leave with BA’s morning buns a very close second. I hope you try some of these out and enjoy them as much as I do!

West coaster who loves menus, beaches, and great stories.