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Keeping Wonder Alive

A recipe for Balloon Baked Branzino inspires a return to wonder.

Key points

  • How do we keep wonder alive, while also doing what we need to do in our lives?
  • Being intentional about keeping wonder in our lives is a way that we can work to evoke "Wow" moments.
  • A Branzino recipe shows how cooking can forge connections and incite wonder by creating a bag that's your cooking vessel.

It’s the last day of February and it finally snowed in our fair city. My 7-year-old son, Olliver, and I walk out into the cold, which he greets with excitement: “Finally, finally! It finally snowed mama! Look how beautiful it is!”

As we make our way through the sidewalk to the subway, Olliver starts to pack the snow in his hands, admiring the snowball he’s waited to make for so long.

Fully aware of our need to get to the subway, get on a subway, and walk 10 minutes from the station to school, I wonder how we will negotiate the journey with the joy of newly fallen snow.

We hold hands and I start to walk quickly—the dread of the voicemail message from the school board in my head: “We are calling to say that….Olliver…was late to school today. We are calling to say that…Olliver…was late to school today.”

As we weave in and out of the sidewalk, Olliver can’t help but stop and make a snowball. “Can I throw it at you mama?”

I couldn’t resist either, “Sure sweetheart, go for it.” Boom! The snowball hits the back of my coat. Oh my goodness—how were we ever going to get to first grade on time?

By the time we make our way down to the platform, our train is pulling out of the station. “Is it my fault?” Olliver asks as we watch the letter B disappear into the tunnel.

At that moment, I know I don’t want Olliver to feel bad about something he’s been so excited about. “No sweetheart, of course not,” I swallowed. “We both played in the snow.”

Another opportunity for timeliness after our ride on the next train. We passed someone shoveling snow off the sidewalk as we climbed the stairs from the station to the street. “Why is that guy doing that?!!” Olliver shouts.

I was suddenly struck by the dilemma of our situation: How do we keep wonder alive while also doing what we need to do? How can we be excited about the freshness of life while also living its day-to-day reality?

The truth is, I don’t want Olliver to be late for school and I also want him to cherish this snowy moment he’s been looking out the window for, for so many weeks.

How do we find the balance between play and responsibility? I grab some snow and crush it into a snowball. “Hey Olliver,” I shout and throw the snowball at him as he turns around.

Olliver’s face breaks into glee. “Watch out!” he shouts back, as he starts to make another snowball.

As I start to run, a solution comes to mind: Keep running in the direction of school while throwing snowballs together—to enjoy the wonder and get to school on time.

The snowball hits my back. “You’re good!” I laugh.

Olliver makes it to the front door with time to spare. In fact, he scoops up a huge chunk of snow and asks the teacher at the entrance: “Can I bring this into class?”

“No!” she laughs.

“OK,” Olliver says, leaving the snow in a precious pile on the sidewalk.

As I trek back to the subway, I think about how the solution to literally play on the way, applies to life in general. How often is there something we really want to do but daily life gets in the way of doing it? How often do we have an idea of how we want our day to go, but we lose the focus by getting bogged down in distractions?

How can we keep wonder alive?

Cooking can be one of those everyday things we dread doing. But are there ways that we can bring wonder—the solution of playing on the way—to creativity in the kitchen?

A variation of a recipe in our book, Eating Together, Being Together, "Baking in a Bag: Balloon Baked Branzino," is one of my co-author and husband Julian’s creations that captures wonder and reality through drama and healthy eating. We use red snapper for this recipe, which illustrates how we can be flexible and try different options to keep wonder alive.

Just like our snowball fight transformed into a way to get to school on time while also preserving the wow moment, it’s amazing to see how steam cooks vegetables and fish through a bag that’s transformed into a cooking vessel.

Baking in a Bag: Balloon Baked Branzino


½ cup dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight in cold water
1 spring thyme
1 bay leaf
1 small winter squash, peeled and cut into ¼-in squares
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
1 medium leek, cut into 1/8-in thick rings, washed and dried
1 medium fennel bulb, cut into 1/8-in thick slices
4 pieces boneless Branzino fillet, 6-7 oz each, skin left on but scored with a sharp knife
4 pinches saffron pistils
1 cup white wine or vegetable stock
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • Place the cannellini beans in a saucepan and cover them with 2 inches of fresh cold water. Add the thyme and bay leaf. Bring everything to a boil. If you need to, skim the top of the water. Next, reduce the heat to low and simmer everything for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the beans are soft but not mushy. After simmering, please do not strain the beans (doing so will dry them up)—just add 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt and place them to the side.
  • Toss the diced squash with 2 Tbsp of the olive oil. Season the squash with salt and pepper. Spread the squash out onto a nonstick baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until just tender. Leave the oven on.
  • Now you are ready to make your cooking parcels: Fold four 24- x 12-inch sheets of aluminum in half and crease along the folded edges. Open up the sheets and spread 2 Tbsp of butter in the middle of each bottom square.
  • Toss the cooked squash with the leeks, fennel, and the remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil. Season with a little salt and pepper. Arrange a quarter of the vegetables on top of the butter in each of the foil parcels.
  • Lightly season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and place them, skin-side up, on top of the vegetables.
  • Use a slotted spoon to remove the beans from the cooking water and place a quarter of them on top of each fish fillet. Lastly, sprinkle the fish, vegetables, and beans with a pinch of saffron.
  • Now it’s time to close your cooking parcels: Fold the top sheets of aluminum foil over to cover the fish, vegetables, and beans. At one edge, start to crimp and seal the foil, being careful not to pierce it or create any holes.
  • Work your way around the foil until you have about 1 inch left open. Lift up the opening slightly and add a 1/4 cup of white wine or vegetable stock to each parcel. Close your cooking parcels by folding the aluminum over and sealing it tight.
  • Place the cooking parcels on a rimmed baking tray and bake for 15 minutes. Slide the parcels onto warm plates and serve immediately.

Guests of all ages will delight in opening their cooking parcels with a pair of scissors to reveal the delicately steamed fish, flavored with saffron and winter vegetables. (Clauss-Ehlers & Clauss-Ehlers, 2022)

Putting Wonder Back in Our Lives

Sometimes the unexpected, like a sudden snowfall, reminds us of the need to put wonder back in our lives. The danger, of course, is that we might not make space or time to experience the moment. It seems there’s always something to do, somewhere to be, or some obligation that threatens to cloud our wonder. This blog is all about reclaiming wonder while also doing what you need to do in your life—living with wonder being a recommended part of that. Consider the following activities for all ages.

Young Helpers (toddlers through school-age children): Make Your Cooking Parcels. Did you ever think you could cook in a bag? Have fun making cooking parcels with your grownup helper!

Preteen and Teen Helpers: Identify Your Passion. Is there something you want to do but you’ve been too afraid to do it—an interest, activity, or a new class? Take a risk and pursue your passion.

Grown-Up Helpers: Balance Wonder and Reality. As a parent, life gets hectic. Sometimes we get so caught up in running around that we forget what makes us go “Wow.” Try to take a moment to be intentional about keeping wonder in your life.


Clauss-Ehlers, J.C.E., & Clauss-Ehlers, C.S. (2022). Eating together, being together: Recipes, activities, and advice from a chef dad and psychologist mom. Princeton Architectural Press.

More from Caroline S. Clauss-Ehlers Ph.D., ABPP
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