The Nesting Instinct Explained and My Grandma’s Buttermilk Biscuits

Today is finally my due date… although my baby apparently did not get the invitation, which is why I’m typing a blog post from my living room rather than heading off to the hospital.

Throughout my pregnancy, I kept hearing about this “nesting instinct” thing, where women apparently go crazy cleaning their houses to prepare for the arrival of their babies.  I was never too sure what to make of it.  We moved to a new country at the halfway mark of my pregnancy and into a new house right before I reached the third trimester, so cleaning and organizing wasn’t really optional for me– we were starting everything from scratch, so I couldn’t call it an instinct as much as a to-do list.  The whole house needed a thorough, deep cleaning when we moved in which took several weeks to achieve, and then we needed to add furniture to each room, organize everything, etc.  Our new house is significantly bigger than our last apartment (one of the main benefits of moving from a city of 15+ million people to a town of 8,000) and it took a long time to get everything in order.  Sure, part of that was preparing for the baby, but we would have had to do most of this stuff anyway even if I wasn’t pregnant.

Now, in these last couple of weeks, I get it: the nesting instinct isn’t some innate maternal drive to provide for our young, it’s because waiting to go into labor is BORING and DISTRACTING and DEAR GOD, WHEN WILL THIS BABY SHOW UP?  It’s considered normal to go into labor anytime between weeks 37-42 (with the start of week 40 being the “official” due date), and five weeks is a long time to wait around and see when the tiny human you’ve been carrying for 9+ months will deign to make their appearance.  These weeks especially feel long when signs of early labor can come and go frequently without actually progressing into full labor.

So, I’ve been cleaning and cooking, a lot.  Things are already more or less in place for the baby to get here, but I keep finding things to do around the house because 1) it makes me feel productive, 2) it distracts me from all the waiting, and 3) it doesn’t require many brain cells, of which I have none at this point.  I made a whole freezer of meals (something I wasn’t planning on doing until I decided to one day, and then banged them out in a three-day rampage this past weekend), I’ve vacuumed floors and scrubbed tubs and rearranged furniture and done endless laundry and flipped and rotated the couch cushions.  I even mopped the damn bathroom walls, and lately I’ve been eyeing the dusty electrical sockets and radiators around the house, thinking that they need a good cleaning too, and there may or may not be a chance that I’ll re-organize the spices in my kitchen.

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Freezer: stocked

And I’ve been baking.

I’ve really grown to love baking in the past couple of years.  I like cooking too, but sometimes it can feel like a slog, especially when you’ve had a long workday and still have to come home and make dinner.  Baking, on the other hand, is strictly a “just for fun, when I want to” hobby– no one HAS to get home from work and make a tray of brownies at 8 p.m.  (Barring a bake sale or other timeline-sensitive obligation.)

That said, baking can be a kind of a hit-or-miss thing for me, in part because I end up doing a lot of substitutions.  This is usually because I’m making an American recipe and can’t find the requisite ingredients in whatever country I’m living in (such as brown sugar, which a lot of recipes call for and isn’t available in either Turkey or Germany), and sometimes because I just don’t have something in the house and don’t feel like going out to get it (like eggs– I sometimes have them in the house, but I often don’t when I need them and end up substituting 1/2 a banana in its place).  I also don’t have American measurement tools, like measuring cups or teaspoons or tablespoons, and there is no easy conversion to the tools available to me (since American recipes tend to measure by volume and European ones measure by weight) so I end up winging the measurements, which works well when cooking but is less reliable when baking.  Usually the things I make turn out fine, although sometimes the texture or density is a bit off (even if the taste is good) and then occasionally I make something that is downright inedible.

Earlier this week, I decided I wanted to make my mom’s coffee cake recipe, a childhood favorite of mine.  I had to sub out the brown sugar and wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but was pleasantly surprised that the end result was actually pretty close.  I could tell a slight difference, but everything I love about the coffee cake– that it’s light and airy, that the topping is crumbly and dense, that the flavors are balanced and not too sweet– was there.

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My mom’s coffee cake

While going through some old recipes looking for the coffee cake one, I found the recipe for my grandmother’s buttermilk biscuits.  My grandma was a great cook in general, but her biscuits were what she was known for, that everyone always asked for when we ate together, practically begged for.  (Well, the biscuits and her green beans.)

She passed away in January, less than a month after my husband and I moved to Germany.  We were close and her death was very difficult for me, in no small part because I couldn’t go home and be with my family during it.  I still miss her every day and I can’t imagine that ever changing.

When she was alive, I asked her many times when I was home to teach me how to bake these biscuits and it always went the same way: she’d tell me to come over around maybe 8 a.m., and then when I got there, she’d already have made them and would just serve me breakfast.  She had a lot of chronic pain late in her life and a lot of trouble sleeping (I’m sure the first influenced the second, although I’m not sure if the sleeping problems predated her pain issues or not) and she would often wake up for the day at 3, 4, or 5 a.m., so I can understand her not wanting to wait around until 8 to make breakfast.

Finally, I wrote down her best approximation of the recipe she used, even though she didn’t really use a recipe and generally just kind of threw it together.

Today I read over the recipe before making it– it has exactly three ingredients, and I didn’t have any of them.  I decided to try anyway.  I didn’t have self-rising flour so I made my own with white flour, baking powder, and salt; I didn’t have buttermilk so I added a bit of vinegar to regular milk and let it curdle.  My husband couldn’t find shortening in the supermarket here– according to the internet, it’s just called “das fett” (the fat) in German, but he didn’t see it with the baking stuff so I used butter instead.

I was nervous when I started the recipe, but to my relief, they turned out at the very least edible.  They’re not as good as hers– not as fluffy or as flaky, perhaps due to the substitution of butter for shortening– and not as thick as hers, and I’m not sure if that means I didn’t use enough baking powder in the flour or if I just need to double the recipe and not roll them as thin.

Either way, it was an improvement over the one and only other time I attempted to make them, when I was 21 and completely inexperienced in the kitchen and trying to guess the recipe on my own after some vague comments from her and they turned out so hard that they squeaked when I tried to cut into them.  I think I might have forgotten the baking powder completely that time. I’ll make some adjustments next time, and again after that, and hopefully I’ll get closer and closer to how hers tasted.

I wish, just once, I had gotten up extra-early and gone over to my grandparents’ house at 5 a.m. and made biscuits with her, drank coffee and eaten breakfast before the sun was up.  I’ve been waking up pretty early myself these past couple of months– common in late pregnancy, when you’re huge and uncomfortable and have to pee constantly– and often sneak downstairs for an early breakfast.  Then, I usually sit down with my coffee and read a book with only one lamp on, the way she always started her day. There is so much I picked up from her– a love of crossword puzzles and reading and storytelling and card games and (I like to think) my sassiness– and every now and then I find myself acting like her without even noticing. I’m not looking forward to waking up early again tomorrow, like every day, hauling my enormous self out of bed and waddling downstairs when the sun has barely begun to rise, but I’m glad I’ll have some biscuits to eat when I do.

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