Hits + Misses: Baby Gear

The first time I walked into a Buy Buy Baby, I was completely overwhelmed. I had no idea that there were so many options when it came to baby items and at 20 weeks pregnant, I was tired, hungry and completely incapable deciding what kind of baby bathtub I needed. Then, I saw the price tags of things and considered the amount of room that they would take up in my house. I’m honestly surprised that my head didn’t explode.

Fast forward a year and I now know that choosing a bathtub was a completely minor decision in the scheme of things. But, in that moment, it was monumental. At least that’s what the people who manufacture and sell baby goods would have you believe. I mean, you don’t want to choose the wrong thing and put your baby at risk for some kind of serious injury, right?

The point is, babies need lots of things and it can be tricky to decide on the “must-haves.” I found the book Baby Bargains helpful in cataloging all the options and explaining which items carried the biggest bang for the buck. But, it is still a lot different when you actually use the items in real life. You might find that you get very little use out of the things you thought you couldn’t live without and that certain things don’t really work as well as you had hoped, either because they just are crappy items or they don’t fit your lifestyle.

So, as B approaches the one year mark, I thought I would do a few posts with some of my picks for can’t-live-without baby items, as well as things that we didn’t really get as much use out of as I thought we would. Hopefully, you will find this helpful if you are preparing to welcome a little one into your family (and now I’ll have a handy list to refer to, if I’m ever crazy enough to do it all over again).

Let’s start with baby gear (also known as the “big stuff”).

Hits

Britax image

Travel System

At the very least, you are going to need a car seat. The hospital won’t let you leave with the baby unless you have one. But, I highly recommend getting an all-in-one travel system. Infants sleep constantly (particularly when in motion), it’s a lot easier to just to move the car seat to the stroller and then back to the car, without waking the baby.

I love our Britax B-Agile Travel System. Britax car seats consistently receive high marks for their safety features and the seat snaps easily into a car seat base or stroller. The stroller is lightweight, maneuvers well on uneven city sidewalks, and is easy to open and close with one hand. I also like that both the car seat and stroller have nice, large canopies to keep out the sun.

The only drawback is that the infant seat is bulky, so it can be difficult to carry and maneuver, particularly as the months go on and that baby gets heavier. This is one of the reasons we just switched B over to a convertible car seat (also a Britax). I think this is just the way things are with this kind of system, and not necessarily a reflection of the design of the Britax products.

I can’t remember the specific figures that the car seat/stroller expert at Buy Buy Baby tossed out there, but this also ended up being a pretty cost-effective option, as the system also includes a base for the car seat. The other option, if you choose to go with two different brands for a car seat and stroller is to choose a stroller that allows for the use of a car seat adapter or to go with a dedicated car seat carrier, like the Snap-N-Go, for those first few months.

ergo

Ergo Baby Carrier

The Ergo is usually recommended as one of the most comfortable carriers. The way it’s designed distributes the baby’s weight evenly, so it’s easy on mom and dad’s backs and provides the ideal support for baby’s developing spine, hips and pelvis.

If you plan to use it when your baby is under 12 pounds, you should do so with the infant insert (sold separately). I felt like it just made the whole thing bulky. So, I mainly used it around the house, when B was napping but refused to do so in her crib. But, now, it’s one of my favorite items, to use when we running errands or taking walks, particularly because there are many days lately where B is just not a fan of the stroller. It’s nice to have my hands free when we are out and B still enjoys being cuddled up close to me. I’ve been leaving it in the trunk of the car so that I can make sure we always have it handy when we are out and about.

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Mamaroo

My love for the Mamaroo, which mimics the way that parents bounce up and down and/or sway from side to side when trying to soothe a baby, has been well documented in prior posts. We set it up in our living room, and B took lots of naps in it during those first few weeks. When she was having particularly fussy moments, it was one of the things that could calm her down when nothing else seemed to be working and our arms needed a break. The only drawback is that the base of it does have a rather larger footprint, which is not ideal in a small house. But, it’s still better than having a separate bouncy seat and swing to mimic the variety of movements that this one piece of equipment provides.

rock and play

Rock-and Play-Sleeper

We originally set up the bassinet that came with the Graco Day-to-Night system in our bedroom for B to sleep in during the first few months. As soon as we put her in it on her first night home, she let us know that she hated it. I sent Chester out the next day to buy the Rock-and-Play and she slept like, well, a baby for the next four months. I can see where the deep, structured insert would make an infant feel secure and where the slight incline would be more comfortable for them than lying flat. Another plus, is that it folds up easily, so we were able to move it from room to room for naps, as needed. Did this make the transition to a completely flat crib more challenging? Maybe. But, I think we all appreciated good nights of sleep during those early months where we were trying to figure it all out.

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Graco Blossom High Chair

I chose the Blossom based on the fact that it is like having four different seating options in one item: a traditional high chair, infant and toddler booster seats (to be used at the table) and a youth chair Plus, if you have children of different ages, you can use the  highchair and toddler booster or the infant feeding booster and youth chair at the same time. We’ve mostly used the traditional high chair and infant booster a couple of times, but I have no complaints about it, and I like the flexibility that it can eventually offer. I also like that it has wheels. We currently keep it in the dining room when it is not in use, but wheel it into the kitchen so B can throw food on the easier-to-clean tile floor until her heart’s content.

Misses

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Graco Day-to-Night System

I loved the idea of this system, which features a pack-and-play, portable bassinet, and changing station all in one, when I added it to my registry. But, as I mentioned above, B was not a fan of the bassinet. For awhile, we kept it in our living room, and sometimes she would take (very short) naps in it. But, after a few weeks, it was relegated to the basement. We bought the playard piece of it to my mom’s thinking she would be able to use it for naps there, but so far, she hasn’t.

(Horrible parent alert: we have never really trained B to sleep in her crib, either. When she was very small, I used to hold her for most of her naps. As she got bigger, she started taking naps in bed with me, in her car seat, or in her stroller/carrier if we were out. Yes, I regret this pattern of behavior now).

I still think the multi-use concept is a good one, but in general, a pack-and-play probably makes the most sense for people who plan to travel a lot with their baby. Or, maybe for those people who have three-story houses and want a second changing station/crib on a lower level. We personally just did not get a lot of use out of it. We have only traveled with B once so far, and we were able to borrow a portable crib from the hotel and I didn’t mind going up and down the stairs every time she needed a diaper change or a nap.

What were some of your baby gear hits and misses?

 

The Friday Five: Baking Gadgetry

It’s a good thing that I don’t have a lot of storage space in my house or it would resemble the stock room at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’ve professed my love of gadgets before and seem to gravitate towards items that only have one purpose (see also: mini donut maker that I bought a year ago and still haven’t taken out of the box and Zoku Quick Pop Maker). Alton Brown would not be pleased.

As we settle into the prime baking season, there are a few things that I’m seriously considering adding to my collection, whether they have multiple uses or not:

Via Chef’s Catalog

Layer Cake Slicing Kit: I love cakes that are layered with lots of frosting, but I wouldn’t be able to slice the layers evenly to save my life.

Via Chicago Metallic

Batter Dispenser: Last time I made cupcakes, I had a red velvet mess all over the counter when I tried to fill the tray using a cookie scoop.

Via Chicago Metallic

Dessert Bar Pan: These would end up looking so much prettier than when I cut the bars myself (A similar issue to number one, above. Maybe I need to go to a knife skills class?).

Via Williams-Sonoma

Pocket Pie Molds: These are just adorable and could be used for sweet or savory pies.

Via Chicago Metallic

Stuff it Up Pan: I first came across this pan being used in a stuffed pepper recipe, but it would be great for fancy little individual cakes, as well.

What’s are your baking gadget must-haves?

Recipe: Zoku Lemonade Pops

Summer. Do you remember how much fun it used to be?

There was nothing like the feeling of coming home on that last day of school, knowing that you wouldn’t have to wear a uniform for three months or spend the afternoons thinking up sentences for those silly vocabulary words. Depending on your age, blowing bubbles in the yard, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk and/or riding your bike to the park were pretty much the only things on the agenda.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that deciding what kind of frozen treat to buy at the corner store for an afternoon snack was pretty much the toughest decision you had to make. Am I?

I mean, there were so many to choose from. You could get one of those sickly sweet (but strangely addictive) Otter Pops in the plastic tube that always cut the sides of your mouth. Feel like something a little richer? The sherbet-based Flintstones Push-Up Pop was a good choice. Want to make your mom worry that you would choke to death? The Screwball with the two gumballs at the bottom of the cone was the only way to go, in that case.

Yes, popsicles remind me of simpler times.

So, that’s why I was pretty excited to add the Zoku Quick Pop Maker to my kitchen gadget collection this year. All you need to do is stick the base in your freezer for at least 24 hours and then you will be able to whip up any variety of ice pop that you want in about seven minutes. The possibilities are endless—from single flavor juice pops, to pops with fresh fruit slices, to pops with a cream-based core.

Source

The first time I used the Zoku, I decided to make fudge pops and assumed that you could pretty much use any kind of recipe. So, I found one via Pinterest (of course) that sounded rich and delicious. And, it was. Unfortunately, the mixture was also way too dense and the pops did not freeze all that well. They were nearly impossible to remove from the molds with the handy “Super Tool” that comes with the maker. I probably just should have stuck to either the recipes on the company’s blog or in the recipe book. Oh well. But, you can bet that I’ll be making a trip to the dollar store for regular old ice pop molds so I can make these fudge pops again.

In spite of this mishap, I was not deterred. I made a second attempt using the Zoku recipe for Lemonade Pops and had much better results. The pops came out of the molds very easily this time around. It pays to follow directions, right? The end product is tart and refreshing and vanilla extract balances the acidity of the citrus. The flavors developed even more after the pops spent a few hours in the freezer.

Overall, I am a fan of the Quick Pop Maker. I like the fact that the pops can be made with natural ingredients, fresh fruit, and minimal amounts of sugar (It should be noted, however, that you should not use sugar-free ingredients. A small amount of sugar is needed to help the pops release from the mold). And, the basic pops use many staples you probably already have in your pantry so they are inexpensive to make (the lemonade pops probably came out to around 25 cents each). The maker will produce up to nine pops before it needs to be put back into the freezer and you can buy a nice plastic case separately to store your pops.

Like the bowl of my ice cream maker, the Quick Pop base now has a permanent home in my freezer. You never know when a craving might strike.

Lemonade Pops

“Zoku Quick Pops,” by Jackie Zorovich & Kristina Sacci

Yields 6 pops

What you will need:

1 cup water
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup (2 ounces pure orange juice
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Lemon  slices, cut 1/8-inch thick (optional)

What to do:

  1. Stir together the water and sugar until sugar has dissolved.
  2. Stir in the lemon juice, orange juice and vanilla.
  3. To assemble to pops, use the Zoku fruit wand (sold separately from the maker), or tweezers*, apply the lemon slices to the walls of the pop maker molds.
  4. Insert sticks and pour the lemon base until you reach the fill line.
  5. Let freeze completely and remove. 

*Or, just your fingers, like I did. Stuff sticks to the side of that mold on contact, trust me. So, I guess you should be careful if you go this route, or you’ll end up like the kid in A Christmas Story who gets his tongue stuck to the pole.

Recipe: Sugar Cookie Cutouts

Christmas preparations are in full swing around here. The house is all decorated, presents are wrapped, and cookie baking has started.

Cutout sugar cookies were on the agenda today. The dough was super easy to make and to work with after it had chilled in the refrigerator overnight. The finished cookies are crisp at the edges, and chewy in the center.

As a side note, I’m really glad that I finally broke down and bought Silpat baking mats this year. Not only do they make clean-up easier, but they also help the cookies bake more evenly and prevent them from getting too brown on the bottom.

I also made a batch of royal icing to decorate them with, but when I frosted one to try, I decided that they were better plain. The icing was overly sweet, and just overwhelmed all of the buttery goodness that make these cookies so delicious (Plus, let’s be honest, the prospect of piping icing onto all those cookies was making my head spin). Sometimes simple is better.

I ended up getting about 32 cookies per batch, so perhaps my cookie cutters are slightly smaller than the recommended three or four inches. I wrapped up the dough that was leftover after I cut out all the cookies that I could handle and put it in the freezer. If someone can find me a Mummer shaped cookie cutter, maybe I’ll make some more for New Year’s.

Sugar Cookie Cutouts

From: Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies Magazine (2010)

 

Yield: About 2 dozen

What you will need

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

What to do

  1. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy (three to four minutes). Mix in eggs and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Gradually add flour mixture.
  3. Divide dough in half and shape into disks. Wrap each in plastic and chill for at least one hour.
  4. Preheat over to 325. Soften disks of dough to room temperature (one at a time, they’ll soften pretty quickly).
  5. Lightly flour a piece of parchment paper. Lay dough in center and place another piece of parchment over it. Roll out dough to just under ¼ inch thick.
  6. Cut dough out with cookie cutters and transfer cutouts to lined baking sheets. Keep re-rolling scraps and cutting until you run out of dough.
  7. Chill cutouts on baking sheets until very firm (about 30 minutes) before baking.
  8. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges turn golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on wire racks (and, make sure to cool completely if you are planning to add icing).

Gadgetry: Ice Cream Storage

In spite of my questionable culinary skills, I absolutely adore kitchen gadgets. I could peruse the floor-to-ceiling displays of gadgetry at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for hours. The myriad of options to choose from for can openers, garlic presses, and spatulas makes me giddy. It’s too bad that I don’t like shrimp, because now I have no excuse for buying a shrimp cleaner. And, unfortunately, I avoid doing dishes at all costs, or else I would have purchased one of those soap squirting dish wands long ago.

In my last post about my amazing lemon ice cream, I forgot to tell you about one of my most important gadgets—the Zak Designs Ice Cream Tub. Chester got these for me as a Christmas gift this past year, and I love them.

What’s so special about this container, you ask? Why don’t I just use one of the 50 Rubbermaid or Chinese take-out containers that always fall on my head, every time I open the cabinet near the microwave? (I swear that containers are like rabbits. Every time I throw one out, 20 more take its place).

No, I can’t.

I went that route when I first started making ice cream, but they didn’t really do the job. They don’t have an airtight enough seal—the ice cream either never froze all the way and/or ice crystals would form on top of it, even when I covered the top of the ice cream with plastic wrap. Plus, they just didn’t look pretty when I took them out of the freezer to serve guests.

The Zak containers seem to be solution to both of these issues. I have three of these pint-size ice cream tubs, and two of them are sufficient for storing the amount of ice cream produced by my Cusinart. The containers have a foam insulated core and a freezable gel lid that acts like an ice pack to keep ice cream cold for over an hour out of the freezer.

The Pros:

  • They have a pretty airtight seal, which keeps the ice cream from getting those gross crystals and helps it stay fresh longer.
  • They are multipurpose. A few of the reviews on Amazon.com suggest that you can freeze the gel lid in advance of a supermarket trip and use the container to transport pints of ice cream home. Or, you can fill it with other food items that need to be kept cold (like potato salad) during transport.
  • The ice cream is easy to scoop out. Just let the container sit out at room temperature for about 10 minutes or so.
  • They come in fun colors. I also have a blue one, in addition to the orange and green ones in my photo above.
  • They are dishwasher safe.
  • They are reusable. Yay for environmental sustainability!

The Cons:

  • Because they are so well insulated, the ice cream takes awhile to become completely frozen. So, you may want to make your ice cream a day in advance, to give it time to set.
  • They have a pretty airtight seal. I know, I said that was a pro, right? But, the lid is extremely difficult to remove, once frozen. There’s this little indented spoon thing at the top that seems like it should be a handle, but doesn’t really work for opening the darn thing. My solution: don’t fill it to the brim and don’t put the lid on super tight. I still cover the top of the ice cream with plastic wrap to safeguard against ice crystals forming—this is probably not necessary, but makes me feel better about it. If you forget this part, you end up trying to get pry the thing off with a knife or running it under hot water, cursing the entire time.

Here's another photo of the container, so you can see the useless spoon thing on the top. In theory, your thumb should be able to fit right in the spoon to help twist the lid off. Doesn't really work that way. Also, would be so fun if an actual spoon could be popped out of the lid so you could eat the contents of the container.

The containers sell for about $12 or so, but I think they are worth the investment, especially if you plan to become a homemade ice cream making queen or king. Which, we all know, I am.

Last week, I made my baby brother a batch of strawberry ice cream for his birthday. He actually sent me a two line text message telling me how delicious it was.  He hardly ever texts me, and when he does, I’m lucky if I get a two syllable word. So, I should probably put this recipe in the definitely make again category, as a result of that rousing endorsement.

When I made this, Chester was sleeping, and I was too lazy to take any photos of the process or the finished product, but here’s the recipe I used anyway. It’s kind of a hybrid of a recipe from Epicurious and the booklet that came with my ice cream maker. There are a few recipes that I came across that simply called for tossing sliced strawberries into the ice cream maker about five minutes before it was done freezing, and I almost went with one of these because I was kind of pressed for time the day I made the ice cream. But I think taking the extra two hours to let them macerate in lemon juice and sugar before using them was worth it—it gave the ice cream a more concentrated flavor and a pleasingly pink color.

Baby Brother’s Strawberry Ice Cream

Ingredients:

  • 3 ½ cups heavy cream
  • Fresh lemon zest (I use a heaping teaspoon)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup of sugar
  • 1 lb strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation:

  • Combine cream, zest, vanilla, and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat.
  • Whisk eggs with 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl, then add hot cream in a slow stream, whisking. Pour back into saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened.
  • Immediately pour custard through a fine sieve into a bowl, then cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Chill, covered, at least until cold, about 2 hours.
  • Cut the strawberries into quarters. In a small bowl, combine the strawberries with the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Allow strawberries to macerate in the juices for 2 hours (I covered the bowl in plastic wrap and had them chill out in the fridge). Strain the berries, reserving juices. Mash half the berries with fork (you could also puree in a blender, but this just makes extra dishes). Keep the other half as is, for later.
  • When custard is chilled, pour reserved strawberry juice and mashed berries into the custard. Stir. Pour into freezer bowl of ice cream maker and allow to chill for about 30 minutes. Five minutes before the end of the cycle, add the other half of the (non-mashed) berries and let mix in completely.
  • Transfer ice cream to containers, and allow to set in freezer for at least two hours.

So, this concludes my second consecutive post about ice cream. The past couple of weeks have been pretty busy and I’m hoping to squeeze in some more posts about real food and restaurants soon. Ice cream has been about all I’ve been able to manage lately.