Knife Storage is a Pain in the Ass. Chapter One: in which we cannot agree on anything, and I bitch about knife blocks.

Problem: if you have a kitchen, you probably have sharp knives that have to be stored somehow.
Problem: if you share a kitchen with someone, they probably feel that the way you want to store the knives is unacceptable, and the way they want to store the knives is equally unacceptable to you.

I am of the school that believes that knives are best stored on the wall, on a span of magnetic strip. For many years, I lined strong magnets on the wall of the fridge that was adjacent to the short span of counter next to our stove. I found this a completely wonderful system for many reasons. It kept the knives at hand; it kept the knives out of the way of children and other people who shouldn’t handle knives (only grownups could reach this place); and it was just a neat, clean way to store items that would otherwise take up precious horizontal storage space, of which we had essentially none. We had almost no counters in our kitchen — I mean, there were 18″ of counter space next to the stove, and that was that — and similarly very little in the way of drawer storage. Magnets on the side of the fridge struck me, to be honest, as quite ingenious.

My husband felt differently. He essentially felt that storing the knives this way would result in all of us being maimed or killed.

When we moved to our current residence, we began a large-scale discussions that continued for two and a half years as we designed the kitchen we planned to build. “Where are we going to store the knives?” My husband initially expressed interest in one of those special knife-drawer designs people seem to like, but I found it fussy and a needless expense. What’s more, I don’t like the idea of having to open a drawer to get at a knife. When, at an estate sale, I found a knife block for $5, I bought the knife block and lugged it home. “When the kitchen is done, we can use this,” I said. My husband looked pleased. Though it was awkward to fit our ragtag collection of knives into this block, it could be done.

But the knife block presented numerous challenges from Day One. For one thing, when I got it home from the estate sale, I felt honor bound to clean it. It was dirty, after all, and I was going to put my knives in it: it would obviously be ideal for it to to not be completely fucking filthy.

Cleaning a knife block is not the easiest thing in the world. I mean, it’s not that cleaning it is precisely difficult — it requires less skill than cutting a good jack o’ lantern — but it requires patience to do it thoroughly and well. I used a lot of soapy water, and vinegar, and rags, and pipe cleaners. Years of accumulated layers of dust and grease had definitely left their marks on this thing. But I got it clean.  I took it out on the balcony to rest in the sunshine, and then I let the damn thing sit and sit and sit for several days before I decided the wood was dry enough.

Then, we arrived at inevitable problem #2: it took me about half an hour to figure out how to arrange our motley knife collection in the limited slots and spaces of the block.

I managed to set it up so that the system was good enough. No one would be automatically harmed as the result of this knife block sitting in our kitchen. But it wasn’t great. There were only two slots that could hold chef’s knives, and we have three such knives that we use regularly. There’s a total of eleven knives that I want to have right at hand all the time. The knife block could store about half of them comfortably. I managed to get ten of them in safely, but it took some creative thinking. (The 11th knife, my left-handed serrated knife, and I’m ok with that living in a sheath in a drawer under the workspace.)

I spent probably an hour fiddling around with all the knives and the block. It was a process not unlike arranging one’s furniture in a new apartment. I learned that the chef’s knives couldn’t rest in the block the way knives always do in photos, with the edge of the blade facing down, handle ready to be grabbed. Our knives, placed just so, became wobbly and dangerously unbalanced; the handles were not designed in a manner that fit well with this block. I figured out that if I turned them so the edges of the blades faced up, the knives in vertical slots would be relatively stable, and that what’s more, the edges would stay sharper that way. I was able to nestle two chef’s knives into one vertical slot in this manner; it wasn’t perfect, but it was okay.

The horizontal slots in the block, which is where I’d’ve kept the chefs knives, ideally, were too narrow for those blades; instead, the relatively narrow-bladed, serrated bread knives went there. All the little paring knives went willy-nilly, two to a slot, in the other horizontal spaces, and the spot where the honing steel should go was where I kept an old favorite, a skinny little serrated knife that looks like junk but slices tomatoes and onions into perfect thin slices really well.

So the knives were housed, if imperfectly; but we lived with it. Over time, the top of the block collected dust, and the whole thing annoyed me as it took up a surprising amount of real estate on the kitchen counter. The system worked, technically, but I hated it. I hated this knife block, as I have always hated all knife blocks, and I never stopped thinking, “What would be a better way to handle this situation?”

After three years, someone posted an image to my Facebook wall. It was a knife block someone had made out of old books. I looked at the picture and I began to think.

Tomato Pie Variant: A Technical Success, an Actual Failure

Yesterday it came to me that the thing to do with the last summer tomatoes that are sitting on my counter was to make a kind of Last Hurrah tomato pie, to do something really special with them. Remembering how spectacular tomato pie with Liuzzi ricotta is, I acquired some ricotta. I also had fresh figs on hand, which isn’t par for the course at all, and when I was riding the bus home I thought, “Ok, obviously, what you want to do is take these things and put them together. There is no reason to not take that ricotta, whip it with some honey, and make a gorgeous single-crust fig and tomato pie.”

So though I was utterly wiped come five p.m. yesterday,  I did this. I actually made a lattice crust pie, because I had just enough dough to do so, but never you mind that. I assembled this pie with love and patience, skinning the tomatoes, slicing the figs perfectly, whipping the cheese with locally-made honey, the whole nine yards. I baked the bottom crust first — beautiful — and I layered on the tomatoes and figs — gorgeous — and then I assembled the lattice crust (not as awful to do as I’d feared). I baked the pie and drizzled a little more honey on the top to jazz up the presentation a little. It looked quite nice — not beautiful, but impressive, for an average home cook. And you know what?

No one liked it.

Half of the pie is leftover. The plain, cooked-in-salted-water broccoli I made was a bigger hit than the pie. It was a lackluster meal, to be generous about it. And I am sad about it. I wasted 3/4 of a pound of perfect ricotta, four perfect figs, and  two perfect tomatoes on this product. I will be the only one eating the leftovers. I just know the last slice of it will wind up in the trash because even I won’t be able to eat it all myself.

I don’t know what went wrong. I had thought it would be a pie version of the spectacular goat-cheese-and-honey-on-biscuits thing we all ate so happily over the summer. But it wasn’t.  Maybe it needed some red onion to sharpen it a little (it was kind of bland). Maybe I should have whipped some goat cheese into the ricotta and honey.  Maybe it’s just that no one else in the family likes figs. It wasn’t that it was bad, mind you; it just was not interesting to eat, at all. Unfortunately, it’s not something I’m going to be able to work on improving, at least not right now, because the ingredients necessary are coming to the end of their season.

I think I’d better throw myself in the direction of autumn cooking. I’ve clearly had it with summer cooking.

 

Burning Up the Vegetables: or, Thinking Again about Strategically Burned Vegetables, also known as Carbonized Food

When Talking Heads recorded “Burning Down the House” they probably weren’t thinking about housebitches who would be making dinner at 1.30 in the afternoon so it’d be easy to heat up at 7.30 on Tuesday evening after attending their child’s school open house, messing up the process so badly that email was sent to a housebitch’s spouse reading, “I may have ruined all the vegetables for dinner, sorry about that.”

There was probably something more rock and roll in mind.

However, this actually happened to me, and once again, we’re mulling over the fact that burning vegetables can be a good thing. Burning things is something we shouldn’t really aim to do, in our day to day life — we don’t want to cause house fires, after all — but it really does seem to be true that a certain amount of godawful overcooking results in some really good food.

I’m not referring to steak here; we all know some people like their steak burnt to hell. Ditto with French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches (“the burnt parts are the best part!”).

In a world where there are people who believe vegetables should be gently steamed, never overcooked, or just served exclusively raw (god help these folks), I am going to fight the good fight and say this:

Burning your vegetables can be the best thing to happen to your dinner plate.

It was many years ago that I first burned the hell out of a big pot of Brussels sprouts because I got distracted from the stove and discovered that this resulted in fabulous sprouts. We came to call this “strategic burning” and never looked back. I’ve since done it with great success to many types of vegetables — broccoli, cabbage — basically, your strong, hearty veggies — and green beans.

This week, I knew Tuesday was going to be hell, and I began to prepare for it on Monday. At noon on Monday I was starting Tuesday’s dinner. I had frozen buffalo short ribs pulled from the freezer on Sunday; once thawed, I started braising them Monday afternoon, and then I put them in the fridge feeling smug. Tuesday, I bought a bag of carrots, and thought, “I will cut these into coins, and cut those fancy-pants farmer’s market radishes (that have been sitting in the fridge for more than a week) into coins, and I will braise them together, and I will reheat the short ribs, and we can have it with egg noodles. That will be a fine dinner.” I had to be out of the house most of Tuesday, and would be at my daughter’s school’s open house from six till 7.30; but I had faith that if I had the meat ready, and the veggies cooked and just in need of re-heating, I could task my husband with cooking egg noodles such that when my daughter and I got home at 7.30, all three of us could sit down to eat in style.

It was a noble plan. The problem was that in the 90 minutes I was home on Tuesday, I got the carrots and radishes cooking, and went upstairs, and forgot to set a timer. The phone rang, and I forgot that I was cooking anything, and the next thing I knew, I walked into the hallway and thought, “I smell burning food.”

I flew down the stairs and found that I had really burnt the shit out of my fancy pants radishes and the plain jane carrots. The bottom of the pot was black, thickly crusted with black. It wasn’t a good situation. I had to leave the house soon — it was time for me to go get my daughter — and after saying, “Crap, crap, crap” a few times, I sighed, resigned. There was nothing for it but to turn off the flame, cover the pot, and deal with the mess when I got home at 7.30.

I fetched my daughter (“You’re LATE!” she scolded me) and once we were on the bus headed downtown, I texted my husband: “I burned the shit out of the veggies for dinner.” He wrote back and said to not worry about it. I expressed dismay over the fact that I’d ruined $5 worth of vegetables (those fancy radishes had cost me $3.00). “I think we can recover from this financial disaster,” he wrote back.

I took my daughter to her piano lesson; I gave her a healthy snack (yogurt and jam and a Scottie-shaped shortbread cookie; ok, so it wasn’t a SUPER healthy snack, but screw it, the yogurt was organic, the jam French, and the cookie imported from Great Britain, a leftover Christmas stocking item we need to use up). I sat dutifully through the piano lesson. On finally leaving the music school, I advised her, “We’re gonna have to stop at Romeo’s on the way home, really fast; we’ll drop off the food and then go back to school for the Open House, ok?” It had been a long day, but we knew we just had to soldier on. My daughter was exhausted, but she nodded. “Can we at least take a bus home?” she asked. I conceded we didnt have to walk. We came back to our neighborhood, we bought some broccoli, we went home.

When we walked in the door, my daughter said, “It smells like food in here.”

“I burned the vegetables,” I said. I went straight to the stove and lifted the lid off the pot still on the stove. To my surprise, the contents of the pot smelled wonderful. I pulled out a charred radish and popped it into my mouth, and it was…. really good. These radishes, raw, were so peppery that eating one raw brought tears to my eyes — it was like eating wasabi at a good Japanese restaurant — but cooked like this, they were just buttery and slightly sweet. The carrots were somehow almost candied. I had added to the pot only butter and water and salt; there had been no tricks to this dish. There had been no sprinklings of sugar or splashes of balsamic vinegar. The extreme cooking session with only butter and salt had caused this complete evolution: they were now the exact opposite of the hard, raw, aggressive vegetables they’d been at one in the afternoon.

My daughter saw me eating and trotted over. “Me too?” I popped a radish into her mouth. “Mmmmmm,” she said peering into the pot.

“No,” I said. “For dinner, not snack.” I filled a stock pot with water for the egg noodles, set it on the stove, and got us out the door and to the school open house.

I was settling into the school auditorium, about twenty minutes later, when my cell phone buzzed: my husband writing: “Jesus. What is that SMELL?”

“Burnt carrots and radishes,” I wrote back.

At 7.30 on the nose, we got home. The open house was nice if not super-informative, but then, I don’t know what I need to know anyway. My husband was sitting on the couch, relaxing with the cat. The house smelled of short ribs, reheating gently in the oven. The vegetables were in their pot, also gently reheating; the egg noodles were boiling on the stove. In a few minutes, we all sat down to eat what was, truly, one of the most delicious dinners we’d had in a long time. There was much discussion of how good the radishes were, in particular.

The challenge now: deciding what to do with the leftover short ribs. I’m seriously thinking chili. And wondering what other vegetables I’d like to burn. Maybe I should turn to Talking Heads for ideas. “More Songs About Buildings and Food.”

Tomato Pie, revisited: 2016 Brings Perfection

As I write this, I want you to bear in mind that none of the following is likely to be useful to you until next summer. But I’m writing it now for future reference. In July 2017, 2018, and so on — assuming the world hasn’t come to an end — when you are seeking information about tomato pie, this is where you go.

I recently had a sad realization, which was that an entire summer had gone by and I hadn’t made a single tomato pie.

When I happened, during the week, to walk past a farmer’s market where one of the stands had baskets of big, beautiful tomatoes for $4 per basket, I decided it was a sign, and I bought a lot of tomatoes and carried them home.

Last night I set to making tomato pie. I was feeling tired and unenthusiastic about the whole enterprise, but I was determined to do it, not only because a year without tomato pie is an unacceptable proposition, but because if I didn’t use up several of these tomatoes, there’d be no hope of eating them all before they began to rot, which would mean my good intentions and money would all be just down the (bleached and Boraxed) toilet.

I pulled myself together and decided to try a couple new steps in my tomato pie recipe this year, to see if I could substantially improve the finished product. The fact is: While we love tomato pie, some pies are better than others, and there’s always one problem, which is that the bottom crust becomes mush, and the dining experience is sadder for it.

I am happy to report that this pie was a huge success. The two extra steps I added to the system made a world of difference. My husband reported this pie was “teashop-worthy,” and possibly the best tomato pie I’d ever made. I think the best one I’d yet made, prior to now, involved using Liuzzi’s ricotta cheese, which this one did not; I have a plan to make another pie soon using that cheese, to see if I can nail this recipe down and declare it perfected.

Readers who are looking for a fast, easy meal should go look elsewhere. This tomato pie requires a lot of steps. There’s no getting around it. Sometimes, you have to invest heavily in a project to get it right, and I’m afraid there’s no faking it with tomato pie.

You will need many things:

  1. the makings for biscuits sufficient to make a double-crusted pie;
  2. Tomatoes (probably about two lbs., fresh and good — not hard spring or winter tomatoes; canned will not do; this is a summer recipe)
  3. some green thing in the basil/scallion/parsley range
  4. mayonnaise
  5. cheese. More than one kind. Last night I had feta and Parmesan.

The first step is to peel your tomatoes. I never used to do this but have decided it improves the pie dramatically if you do it. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cut little Xs into the bottom of the tomatoes; fling them into boiling water for 30 seconds, maximum (15 seconds may well do the trick). The skin will begin to peel back. Don’t boil them for very long, because you will ruin the tomatoes and have to start over. Fill a bowl with ice and water, and use a big spoon to put the tomatoes in the ice bath. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the tomatoes. The tomatoes must then be sliced and seeded and drained: you want as little liquid as possible to remain. (You can, if you wish, save the tomato liquid for cooking something else, or just drink it. I drank mine mixed with seltzer, which put some pep in my step, enough to se me through finishing making dinner.) Put the sliced tomato flesh into a mixing bowl and set aside.

By this point you have decided what your green element is going to be, and if you’re going to get creative with any other elements in your pie. I like scallions in my tomato pies, and on a whim decided to add some frozen corn. img_7196Wash a scallion, and slice it thinly, using the white and green parts. A cup of frozen corn, thawed, should be roughly chopped (you can do this down and dirty on your cutting board with a chef’s knife, though I suppose some folks would do it in a food processor). Add them to the mixing bowl with the tomatoes. Add any seasoning you want.
I might have done some ground pepper, though I didn’t; I did add a heaping tablespoon of capers. The truth is, I keep things pretty simple. NB: I do not add salt to this mixture, because my feeling is that the cheeses and mayonnaise in tomato pie are quite salty enough.

Now it is time to assemble your biscuit crust. Get the oven heating to 400° while you do this.

I find that the usual biscuit recipes, which start with two cups of flour, make a perfect amount of dough to make this pie; if you’re using a smaller or larger pie plate (mine is 9”) you may find you need less or more dough. But the basic recipe goes like this:

Combine in a large mixing bowl: 2 cups all purpose flour; one heaping tablespoon baking powder; a teaspoon of salt. Combine with a fork. Using your fingers, cut in six tablespoons of very cold butter and blend until you have coated the flour with fat. Food writers always say this mixture should resemble a coarse meal, and that’s basically true. Stir in a scant cup of milk and stir. When the dough begins to cohere into a ball, stop using a utensil to work it, and use your hands to fold it together until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too dry and crumbly, add milk, teaspoon by teaspoon. Set it in its mixing bowl and put the bowl in the fridge so you can wash your hands and get the next step together.

The next step involves two things: getting ready to roll out a bottom crust, and getting some stuff ready to put on that bottom crust.

To roll out the crust, I highly recommend using what the pros call a pastry cloth, and what I would describe as a flat-weave towel (something that doesn’t produce lint), and some flour. Spread the towel flat on your countertop and sprinkle maybe 1/4 cup of flour over the middle of it. This will be the surface you use to roll out the crust. If you did it on the countertop, you’d need to use more flour, and that works, but too much flour and you’ll toughen the dough. This way, you’ll have a bare minimum of extra flour on the biscuit crust.

In a smallish mixing bowl (could be a cereal bowl, I don’t care) combine about 1/2 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s works for me; anyone who makes homemade mayonnaise to make tomato pie is a git, as far as I’m concerned) with cheese. Last night I used some feta, because I had half a cup of crumbled feta sitting around, but you could use shredded cheddar or Muenster or crumbled goat cheese (goat cheese is really good) or whatever floats your boat. Ideally it’s a cheese that will melt fairly well — I don’t like to use all cheddar, because cheddars don’t actually melt the way I’d like. But cheddar plus something else is dandy. Whatever cheeses you choose, have a cup of it ready to incorporate into this mixture. Be aware that if you use the stuff that comes pre-shredded in a bag, the cheese is coated with cornstarch or something, which will produce a slightly different end result from what you’d have if you grated a block of cheese on your own. Have that mayonnaise-cheese mixture near at hand; say, put it next to the tomato/scallion/corn bowl.

IF you are using life-changing ricotta, such as the unbelievably smooth, whipped-cream-like stuff made by the Liuzzi people in North Haven, Connecticut, you will not need mayonnaise at all. I can’t honestly recommend using supermarket ricotta for a tomato pie: it’s too grainy. But if you live in a place where you can get this sort of ricotta — it looks as smooth as cream cheese — I urge you to put some in a tomato pie. A 1 lb. tub of cheese is too much for one tomato pie, but if you use about half of it in a pie, you’ll have enough cheese leftover to put in a nice pasta dish the next day, or to spread on a pizza, or whatever floats your boat.

By this time, your oven is hot. Roll out your first crust. Take 1/3 of your biscuit dough from the fridge, roll it out nicely so that you have a circle that will fill the bottom of your pie pan and come up the sides. This will be a thin, delicate round to move into the pan. I’m sure that there are clever ways to roll it out and fold it for safer moving (Deb Perelman talks about how to do this, in fact, at Smitten Kitchen) but I didn’t find it so hard to just pick it up and move it six inches to the pan. So do it. img_7193Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of your hard cheese (some of your cheddar or Parmesan, say) onto the crust. What you’re doing preparing the bottom crust so that it won’t turn into a sodden mess by the end of final baking. Bake the bottom crust for about ten minutes.

This is important: don’t let it get particularly brown. It has to be cooked through, and risen a bit; but you don’t need to bake it too long because it’s going to be put back into the oven for another 30 minutes. In these ten minutes, you can wash prep dishes and drain any juices you can from the bowl of tomatoes and corn and scallions (or, tomato and minced red pepper and parsley and basil, or whatever combination you’ve got in there). If you’re very enterprising you can save the liquids from all this tomato draining to use in stock or something.img_7194

Remove the crust from the oven once it’s done, and get to work assembling the rest of the pie. With a spoon or a spatula spread a thin layer of the mayo-cheese goop (or your ricotta) on top of the crust. Then begin to layer on your veggies. You put down one thin layer of tomato-corn-whatever, and then sprinkle on some cheese, and then spread some of the mayonnaise (or ricotta) on top of that. Then you start again with the tomato-corn-whatever. It’s usually my experience that you get two layers of veggies out of this; there needs to be a layer of mayo-cheese on top when you’re done.

img_7198Then you take the rest of your biscuit dough out of the fridge and roll out another circle, and lay it on top of the whole shebang. Cut in some steam vents with a knife, press the edges together (if you’re someone who cares about aesthetics you could do some fancy fluting; I personally don’t give a crap), brush the top with a little melted butter, and put the whole thing in the oven again for 30 minutes.

When you pull this beast out of the oven, it is hot as hell: far too hot to eat immediately. I advise letting it sit on the counter for fifteen or twenty minutes before cutting into it. When you do cut inimg_7199to it, assuming you haven’t used a lot of a really runny cheese, the contents of the pie will be messy but nowhere near as messy as it is if you don’t bake the bottom crust first, because the bottom crust will not have dissolved into mush. Ricotta will probably be runnier than mayonnaise, but regardless: having baked the bottom crust first, you should be able to serve this with a pie server, and not have to just reach for your big serving spoon.

img_7201This pie is extremely filling. I always feel I should serve it with a side dish — a green salad, or some kind of green vegetable — and
that’s all well and good. But the fact is, my family of three — and we all eat like pigs — can only consume about half of a tomato pie in one meal. You could serve this with more elegant sides at a summer dinner party. (For example: A platter of asparagus could be roasted while you’re making this, and then served at room temperature: done and done.)

We have always enjoyed tomato pie, but it has also been responsible for several closet-sized rooms in the Museum of Tsuris. But today we are deaccessioning tomato pie from the Museum. In other words, tomato pie has been perfected, and we’re evicting it so we can make room for more kitchen disasters. Onward.

Purple Rain in Ocean City: A Celebration, a Lament, a Learning Experience

I imagine that most people, when packing to spend a week in a rented apartment in a Mid-Atlantic resort town, do not make a point of carefully selecting knives, silicone spatulas, a good can opener, and a pair of serious kitchen scissors to take with them, along with a Microplane. They also wouldn’t pack a set of four mixing bowls and a stock pot, and they absolutely wouldn’t bother with two 9” cake pans. That is their business; that is their God-given right.

But I have, in 2016, done these things. And I have not regretted it for a moment.

We were in this same apartment last year, sharing the apartment with a close friend from our college days, G., and her husband and their children. Last year when we came, we had no idea of how the kitchen would be equipped; we expected to be able to cook sort of normally, and tried, but kind of failed. Part of it was, I admit, total apathy on my part, but a lot of it was due to a sense of frustration with the gear in the kitchen. The big stock pot we cooked spaghetti in, to serve with Cincinnati chili, smelled deeply of boiled crab. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world… but…. it wasn’t ideal. Especially for our crew: We don’t all like to cook, but we all like to eat. And it matters to us if we boil spaghetti and it tastes like old crab and Old Bay. We are not pleased by such things. It doesn’t feel like exciting Fusion Cookery to us. It feels weird and not at all pleasant.

So this year, I said to my husband, we weren’t going to screw around. Not only would we eat proper food in the apartment, at least some of the time, and not just live on crappy boardwalk food like French fries from Thrasher’s and sub-par gyros; but I also had plans to bake a birthday cake for my friend’s oldest child. This girlchild is not a little girl like my daughter: she is in her 20s, an adult, and someone who doesn’t require lots of fuss at her birthday, but I feel she deserves a little fuss. Her mother has two little boys, now, aged 5 and 7, and it always strikes me as possible that her firstborn might a little bit shorted in the birthday-celebration department, now that she’s got these two much younger little brothers. Maybe she doesn’t care. To be honest, she probably doesn’t, and would rather spend her birthday with her boyfriend anyhow. But I care; I wanted to make a cake for her. So I planned ahead.

A digression, but an important one: Some months ago, shortly after Prince died, I was in a Target in North Haven, Connecticut, with my friend Eliza. This is as novel to me as going to Harrod’s. While there, I discovered something that probably most Americans in my demographic already knew, which is that someone out there has been marketing Purple Rain cake, in a boxed mix, for some time now. If I watched TV and went to supermarkets more often, I’d’ve already known about this. But I don’t, and I don’t, so I didn’t. “What the hell is this?” I gasped to Eliza, who laughed. I insisted on buying it — its price had been slashed to something wretched, like $1.25 — and said, “I’m gonna bring it when we go hang out with G. in Ocean City this summer.” I posted to Facebook about this cake mix, and there was much discussion of preserving it in a kind of archival way, but it dawned on me that the obvious thing to do was to bake the Purple Rain cake as A.’s birthday cake, which we would be celebrating at the end of August. I put the box into the cabinet where I keep baking supplies and said to my daughter, “When I pack for us to go to the beach for a week, do not let me forget to pack this.” 

August came. I began to organize in earnest. G. and I exchanged dozens of emails regarding packing lists: what would we need for the beach, for the kitchen, to increase our general comfort. “Don’t forget laundry detergent,” we reminded each other. I remarked that because I’d been given a wonderful knife roll as a birthday present, I’d be able to safely and easily pack good kitchen knives. “Also some other things we’ll want in the kitchen,” I said. “Like a can opener that works, and a cheese grater that won’t cut our hands open, and stuff like that.”

I plotted and plotted. I set aside a stock pot to take with us. I debated taking a Dutch oven but decided against it (should have brought it! Next year). I pulled out two cake pans. I packed groceries (boxes of pasta, various shapes; canned beans; canned tuna in olive oil; canned olives; capers; a small block of Parmesan cheese). We made dozens of good meatballs and put them into strong-sealing plastic tubs that would be packed to travel in a cooler stocked with ice packs. I packed dishcloths and tea towels. I packed a cutting board. I packed my little silicone-coated kitchen tweezers, because I thought they might come in handy, though even I admitted it was a little crazy.

I remembered to pack things that had to do with going to the beach, too: I packed an ancient Indian print tapestry to use as a beach blanket and I packed cornstarch to use when we had to rub sand off our children. I packed Solarcaine. From our domestic Health & Beauty department, I packed a thermometer (natch) and a bottle of cold and cough medicine just in case (and yes, it came in handy).

So we arrived in Ocean City on Sunday afternoon and I unpacked our things and G. mocked me  (though she had also packed an astonishing amount of stuff, including several cans of chick peas, some cups of instant macaroni and cheese, and a whole watermelon). My husband mocked me as well, but I moved serenely through the kitchen knowing that I would have what I would need for the week.

Naturally, setting up the kitchen for the week required a trip to a supermarket. Some things, you don’t want to pack ahead when you’ve got a six hour drive to your destination. “We need milk, we need fruit….” To bake the Purple Rain cake, we’d also need eggs and a bottle of oil. G. and I spent less money than I had feared we might, on that grocery run, which I felt was a testimony to how well we had planned ahead. I admit, it wasn’t good that we had to buy a pound of butter and a bottle of vegetable oil — I could have handled that better — but as oversights go, these are small failures. We did remember to buy a can of ready-made cake frosting to decorate the cake. (I was not willing to hand-whip some kind of frosting together; besides which, a Purple Rain cake seemed to be the kind of thing that deserved some equally terrifying frosting to go on it. I mean, you wouldn’t make Swiss meringue to go on top of a Purple Rain cake, would you? No, you wouldn’t.)

It was self-evident that a can of lurid purple frosting  would be just the ticket for the Purple Rain cake. “AND it comes with Funfetti®! G. pointed out gleefully. We grabbed a box of little white birthday candles (but no further decorations, as we saw no need to gild a  funfetti’d purple lily). We drove back to the house feeling pleased with ourselves.

Monday mid-day, I started to assemble the Purple Rain cake batter with a kind of cockiness (“I bake cakes all the time, this’ll be a snap!”) that was quickly dimmed by apprehension as I realized that I was going to have a lot of small technical issues. It turned out, for example, that we had no measuring cups. We had no measuring spoons. It hadn’t occurred to me that the kitchen wouldn’t have these things and, astonishingly, it hadn’t occurred to me to pack them. I had silicone tweezers, but no measuring spoons. Worse, while the oven could be turned on, I had no ability to gauge how hot it was really getting: a huge disadvantage when baking.

The recipe called for, as I recall, three tablespoons of oil and one and a third cups of water. I eyeballed these amounts using a kitchen tablespoon and a teacup. I felt I was likely to get it roughly correct, but I worried, nonetheless, because I knew I was going to be baking these things in the wrong size pan anyhow; that is to say, I was, in a sense, screwed before I’d even begun. “It’ll be fine,” I assured myself. “I can totally do this shit.”

Totally doing this shit is what I did, and G. and I spent a lot of time laughing at how it got done, but boy did I not have much faith in that cake. You have to mix up the cake batter in one big bowl (if combining by hand, they recommend 450 strokes, which is a lot). Then you separate the batter into two bowls.

 

Icing GhostTo one bowl, you add purple dye that comes in a tiny packet about 1/4 of the size of a takeout ketchup packet; it is a tiny packet of what is surely purple toxic waste. (Photo taken by G., who observed that it looked like I’d drawn little teeny purple-featured ghost.)

You stir the purple dye into that one bowl of batter. You want to have one bowl of uniform purple batter and one bowlful of pristine white batter. (The white batter is white: it is white like Marshmallow Fluff, weirdly beautiful) Then you carefully pour the batters into the buttered-and-floured (in my case, buttered and cake mix’d) cake pans in such a way that concentric circles of cake batter form a beautiful bullseye in the pans. This is easier said than done. Actually, had I been at home, with my full batterie de cuisine, it would have been a snap, and I’m tempted to give a cake like this a roll once we’re home (using regular cake batter, maybe I’d add chocolate to half the batter). But under the circumstances, it was all a little challenging.

But we did it. And I took those 9” cake pans and I put them in the oven and set my phone’s timer for 30 minutes. I washed some dishes, and then went to relax on the porch for a bit.

About eight minutes later, G. came out to the porch. “I think the cakes are burning,” she said.

“Shit,” I said eloquently. I looked at my phone’s timer: I was supposed to have another 22 minutes to sit around being lazy. “That can’t be right.” I went into the kitchen and opened the oven. G was saying, “I think the oven runs really, really hot.” I tipped a knife several times into each cake, and the things were fully baked. It made no sense. I’d set the oven to 350° but it was like they’d baked at 450°, and boy howdy they were done. “Well, ok then,” I said. I then realized I had no cooling rack on which to rest the pans. I opened a cabinet wondering what I could find that might be a decent substitute, and I found a stack of those wicker “plates” that always seem to take up residence in summer-resort houses. I never knew what they were for, but pressed for a solution to my problem, I used them as cooling racks for the cake layers, and felt very clever. (G. tells me that people use these to lend support and strength to cheap paper plates. Now I know.)

I let the cakes cool for a good long while before attempting to pry them from the pans.IMG_7037

I figured that trying to tip out cakes that weren’t cool enough would be a recipe for disaster in what I already felt to be a tenuous situation. What I didn’t count on was that getting these things out would lead to disaster pretty much no matter what. I whacked and whacked the bottoms of those pans; I ran knives around the edges; I whacked and whacked some more. Both layers fell from the pans, eventually, landing fairly neatly on the waiting plates, but in each case, the bottom crust remained in the pan. The good part of this was, I could confirm IMG_7038visually that the cakes were, indeed, both swirled purple, and baked all the way through. The bad part was, the layers were all fucked up. What you see here is one layer of cake, turned onto a plate, and its bottom crumb, still firmly attached to the baking pan. It wasn’t an ideal situation. And I still had to frost the cake.

The usual way to frost a cake involves putting down what Cake People call a “crumb coat,” a thin coating of frosting that seals the cake. You do this after you’ve trimmed your cake layers so that they’re not domed anymore. In my case here, it was all folly. The cake layers were so thin and mangled there was nothing for it but to pop open the can of frosting and just have at it. I peeled as much cake “skin” as I could out of the pans, and placed them carefully where they belonged, and then I just started plopping tablespoons of frosting in strategic places. If I was careful, I reasoned, I could spread a thick layer of frosting atop one messy layer and carefully flip the second sad layer atop that, and then I could pray.

So that’s what I did. The frosted cake was far from a thing of beauty, but it was purple.

The Funfetti® didn’t hurt us, but I’m not sure it helped.

That evening, after dinner out at a restaurant, the two families came back to the apartment. The younger children were wildly excited about the cake. The 26 year old was politely amused. G. and I managed to light 26 tiny white candles without burning anyone or anything, and we sang “Happy Birthday” really quickly so as to avoid having wax melt onto the purple frosting — it seemed important to move fast, since the truth was we didn’t know if the frosting itself would melt, either.

Then we cut into the cake. Purple Rain Cake

The crumb was so tender the slices of cake could barely be called slices. Doubtless if you use an 8” pan this isn’t so much of a problem — but the shallowness of the layers and their precarious condition meant that this was a cake that should really have been doled out with a large serving spoon. But the kids ate it up, and asked for seconds (denied). The leftovers were packed up and sent home with the birthday girl when she left the next day (to have her proper birthday celebration in the company of her boyfriend).

The cake itself tasted fine. It had a very soft, fine crumb, and was very sweet, but it lacked a distinct flavor; perhaps this is just how white cakes are. I have to admit, I’m not an expert on white (or purple) cakes. The frosting definitely had that synthetic tang we all know and love. I think the adults found it amusing, but not a cake they’d sneak slices of as the night wore on… and the fact that we had leftovers to pack up supports this judgement.

The rest of the week, when we needed dessert, we did what any self-respecting person on an ocean boardwalk would do. We bought ice cream and caramel corn and fudge. Some of us gorged on deep-fried Oreos…. but we can discuss that later.

Note for future rented apartment vacations:

What I didn’t pack that I should have: measuring cups and measuring spoons; an oven thermometer; pot holders; a cork trivet or two; perhaps a cooling rack, if I’m going to be stupid enough to bake a cake. And, most importantly, ingredients to bake and frost a decent cake.

Setting Up for the School Year

I suppose there are people out there who didn’t thrill to buying new school supplies at the end of the summer, when they were kids, and teenagers, but those people were never friends of mine.

I have vivid memories of my mother taking me to the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover, NH, where I would carefully, carefully, select the notebooks and pens and pencils and erasers and the pencil case that I would use for the next nine months. Some parents would have probably just taken the kid to the local five and dime and said, “Come on, let’s get this crap and get out of here,” but my mother is the sort of person who understands the importance of notebooks, and so is my father, for that matter: basically, everyone in the household grasped the importance of having the right tools for the tasks facing us. I remember that my father even had opinions about which protractors were good and which ones were mere mediocrities. It was difficult when we couldn’t find the right color Trapper Keeper notebook, but I survived; and some of the discoveries of that era (Le Pens, for example) are gifts that keep on giving, all these years later. I still go to Hull’s Art Shop on Chapel Street to stock up on my preferred colors of Le Pens (and I get ticked off when my daughter nicks them to draw with — because they are a pleasure to use — and ruins the pen tips). When my daughter needs school supplies, I do the right thing: I insist we take an inventory of what she already has that’s good, and then I make a list of what gaps need to be filled.

This year, I’m told, she needs to have two highlighter pens. I don’t think I had a highlighter of my own until I was in high school, but whatever. We did inventory and then wrote up a list of what gaps needed to be filled in, and we went downtown.

The pleasure of stocking up on new erasers, new notebooks (two composition notebooks required, in addition to the looseleaf binder with five labeled, tabbed, sections of fresh looseleaf paper), new pencil case (to supplement the old pencil case, which is to hold colored pencils exclusively), new pencil sharpener! What colors should the composition notebooks be? (Because these days, you don’t have to settle for just black and white. My daughter opted for teal blue and a shade of purple I think of as Chiclet Purple.)

The joy of laying everything out on the dining table when you get home to examine it all and assemble it and decide which things will be embellished with zebra striped duct tape and which will have leopard print duct tape! We didn’t acquire any Trapper-Keeper folders, but there was joy in the house nonetheless.

My daughter is very pleased with herself to have everything all set up. I made her pack it all away into a brown paper bag with handles so that her special new school supplies wouldn’t wind up scattering around the living room and dining room — the temptation to have it merge with the chaos of the papers that are piled high on the kitchen table is vast — but last night she unpacked it all to show her father. “Look, Papa,” she said. “Look at my new green pencil case!” He admired it dutifully. “Looks good,” he said. “Should hold a lot of pencils.” He then glanced at me. “When does school start?”

“September first,” I said. “And we are all ready.”

We are ready….. if you don’t count the fact that I’ll have to sharpen all those pencils before we head off for the first day of third grade. This reminds me: I should really ask my husband, “Can you install that pencil sharpener that’s been sitting on the kitchen table for a few months now?”

On Being That Pretentious Jerk of a Parent: Suddenly, I Kind of See

In general I am as lazy a parent as I can get away with being. I ardently want my kid to entertain herself and bother me as little as possible. I don’t want to play with her most of the time; I am her mother, not her playmate, after all. But it’s difficult for her, as it is for us: she’s an only child, and one can only play alone in one’s room for so long. And right now we’re in that horrible long phase of the summer where there’s no summer camp, there’s no nothing to break up the days, and I am on my own with the kid 24/7.

Tensions are running high. We are both very deeply sick of each other. It’s been ugly. And yet, she cannot leave me alone; when we’re in the house, she insists on being in the same room I’m in. She cannot stop chattering at me; I want it to be quiet so that I can think. I can’t focus enough to even pay bills online, my daughter so consumes all the air around me. I mean, the bills are getting paid, but I don’t actually have confidence I’ve done it correctly, and I guess I’ll find out come September if we suddenly have no electricity or cooking gas.

A lot of parents in this circumstance go to great lengths to Do Things with the kids. I guess the idea is, you wear the kid out, outside the house, such that when they get back home, all they want to do is lie on the couch quietly. For various reasons, I’m not game. I’m not taking my kid to water theme parks, to the Pez factory, or even to the playground — normally I wouldn’t mind the playground, too much, but it’s 100 degrees and humid outside. Neither of us wants to be outside; we want to be indoors. The problem is that it’s just the two of us rattling around in here.

I decided last night that the smart thing to do today would be to shake up our routine. Instead of waking up and making a pot of coffee and spending a bit of time reading the papers and drinking coffee while my daughter lolled on the couch watching Mr. Bean cartoons on YouTube, I announced that I had another plan for how the morning would go. I informed my daughter of it to get her ready for the shock to her system. “Tomorrow morning,” I said, “When I get up, we’re gonna get ready to leave the house immediately and we are going to go out and get coffee at East Rock Coffee.” This was a big deal. I almost never go out for coffee, and even less often do I go to East Rock Coffee. I resent spending money at cafes, particularly when I’m with my daughter. Going to a cafe should be a relaxed luxury but instead, going with a child, it’s just stressful and annoying. I resent paying money to be stressed and annoyed; but for the change in routine, and save myself the effort of making a pot of coffee, I was willing to chance it. Predictably, my daughter reacted to this news with excitement and delight, and I thought, “There is hope.”

This morning we washed and dressed with astonishing speed and assembled our supplies to take with us to the cafe. I had three days’ worth of unread newspapers — newspapers have piled up at an appalling rate since my daughter’s stopped going to camp — and my daughter had two ancient issues of Cricket Magazine. In her tote bag was a board game, too: a moment of inspiration had led me to suggest we take my ancient travel Scrabble set with us. We got drinks (a lemonade for her, a tall iced latte for me), I paid a criminal $8 total for them, and we found a nice place to sit outside. There were many people at the tables around us: retired men with their dogs, workmen having breakfast sandwiches before heading to renovate nearby houses, and grad students complaining about the crap grad students complain about. So many grad students. This is why I don’t go to East Rock Coffee. So many grad students.

But I was not going to be brought down by the presence of so many grad students. This is my neighborhood, I feel, more than it is theirs. We imperiously arranged ourselves. My daughter read her Crickets and I read three days’ worth of Wall Street Journals. And then, around ten o’clock, I was the incredibly pretentious annoying parent sitting outside at a cafe table playing Scrabble with her daughter and demanding that she calculate the scores and add them up.

I disgusted even myself. I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been sitting there teaching her to play Bridge or Backgammon. But Scrabble is bad enough.

A woman with two children, aged maybe five and three, came over and sat down at the table next to ours. Her children looked at us and said loudly, “Are they playing Scrabble?” My daughter looked over at the five year old, a girl, and said, “Yup! It’s Scrabble!” and I think she was proud to be doing something as grown-up as playing a real, grown-up style game, not some baby game — which is fair.

The mother, having given her children pastries to eat, took out a notebook and began to write a letter to a friend. While she wrote, her children ran around loudly singing nonsense songs to each other. She didn’t pay much attention to them, and while I understood the desire to not pay much attention to them, obviously, their hubbub made it difficult for us to play our Scrabble game. “I can’t concentrate,” my daughter complained, whispering into my ear, “because those kids are making so much noise.”

“I know the feeling,” I said. I was sympathetic, to put it mildly.

Long, annoying story short: We played about half a game. When my daughter’s attention span had dwindled to the point where she would just shove her rack of tiles over to me to figure out words for her, I gave up. It was eleven o’clock. “Let’s just go home,” I said. “We’ll go home and you can scrub potatoes so that I can set up the potato salad we’ll have for dinner.” “Okay,” she said.

I now theorize that part of why we see parents pretentiously playing grownup games, or doing stretch your brain type exercises with children when out in public (“is the font on this package of Oreos sans-serif or not? Come on, you know this one, Spencer!”)  is not merely that they’re trying to make their kids better prepared for applying to Harvard; they’re trying to keep themselves from losing their minds altogether.

It’s not going to work, folks. But I’m now marginally more sympathetic toward those parents, who, till now, I’ve mostly regarded as pretentious twits. Staying home with a child can make you do weird things. It took me eight years to get this weird.

In the afternoon I posted to Facebook, wondering if anyone would be willing to babysit my daughter for a couple of hours sometime on Thursday or Friday. I explained that we really needed to get out of each other’s hair for a tiny bit. I said I couldn’t really justify the expense of paying a sitter, but that I would, because I can’t legally kick her out of the house yet, and I didn’t feel it was wise to just leave her alone. My friend Eliza, who is much more good-humored than I am, but is also spending far too much of the summer with her own only child (a nice little boy who my daughter enjoys hanging out with), said, “Have your girl come hang out with us for a couple hours. We have to go to a farm to pick up tomatoes for canning. She can come with and feed some goats.”

I said, “That would be awesome,” and told my daughter that she’d be going to this farm with Eliza and her son. “You’re not coming with us, are you?” she asked darkly.

“No, I’m not,” I said. “So you will be on your own. Please help Eliza if she needs help carrying boxes of tomatoes.”

“I will!” she said cheerfully. “Thank god I’m getting away from you.”

Eliza has sent me numerous photos and videos of my daughter horsing around with her little boy. At the farm, she fed goats and crawled around on a tractor. Back at their house: She’s got an Incredible Hulk mask on. She’s jumping on furniture. She’s having a grand old time. Soon, she’ll be returning to our house, and I’ll feed her lunch and we’ll fold some laundry. She’ll grouse about how boring it is at home. I will try to not argue with her about it. This afternoon we’ll go swimming; this evening we’ll eat sandwiches for dinner. Tomorrow will be another day. I promise I won’t make her play Scrabble. And soon it will be September.