Meandering Thoughts on Pizza Toppings

Once upon a time, there was pizza, and it came with toppings on it, usually only one or two at a time, of types that were easily removed by children who didn’t like them, ever. You could get pepperoni, onion, mushroom, sausage, meatball, garlic, peppers, black olives, and clams. (If you’re not from New Haven, you’re going, “Clams?” Just shut up and keep reading, okay? I said clams and I meant clams. By the way, it’s not so easy to remove clams from clam pizza, so if your child won’t eat clam pizza, get them a little plain cheese pie; more clam pizza for you that way.) People would say, “I’ll have a small mushroom and pepperoni pie, double mushrooms, please” if they wanted to feel they were eating healthy. In New Haven, you also had to specify if you wanted red sauce on your pie, and say if you wanted cheese, too, because these things are not a given. This isn’t Domino’s, for god’s sake.

Then time went on. More vegetables became standard pizza items, you saw spinach and broccoli pizzas. I remember in the late 1980s my mother and I would go to Est Est Est and order a white pie with spinach and garlic and feel pretty pleased with ourselves, because we were eating pizza, which isn’t serious food, but we were also getting health vegetables, because of all that spinach.
You could get pizzas with chicken on them; then buffalo chicken. In New Haven, the potato pizza was born, and kept an open secret for an astonishingly long time. Somewhere along the way, some smart aleck began to put pineapple and bacon on pizza, and I’m not going to discuss that any further. Basically, things started to get weird. The weird seemed to be focused regionally. For example, I’m told that there are places where people routinely eat their pizza with a side of ranch dressing, which has to be a 1980s development, because, well, ranch dressing?

I don’t understand this, and I’m not going to dwell on it.

Then we hit a new age of hipster pizzas — all basically borne from the first era of weird pizzas, like the California pizzas Wolfgang Puck got famous for doing in the 1980s. This is pretty much where we are now, and it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, you can find smoked salmon and caviar pizzas. But there are pizzas out there that are, let’s just be honest, far too ongepotchket for their own good. They often involved vegetables that were not handled properly in the first place, and hence arrive at your table somehow burnt and hideously undercooked at the same time. The Holy Trinity of pizzerias in New Haven don’t get too involved with this kind of thing, but other places are straining for novel combinations of things to put on their pies, and while the combinations are often tasty — they strike me as morally dubious.

There, I said it. There is morally dubious pizza out there.

I don’t mean simply bad pizza, which is certainly a thing that people eat. I mean, pizzas that are made with no basic respect for the form. At some level, is a pizza just a flat disc of bread you can put anything on and bake in a hot oven? Yes, and no. I mean, it is; but there are certain things that just don’t seem very pizza-y to me, no matter how good they taste. A prime example of this, an item sold at a local pizzeria I don’t go to because I find their pies so salty they hurt to eat, is a pie loaded with barbecued pulled pork, roasted corn kernels, cheddar cheese, and mashed potato. I’m sure it’s delicious. But why is it on a pizza? I mean, wouldn’t it be better on a hard roll? This is morally dubious pizza. Or pizza with tofu and vegan cheese on it. No no no. This is not pizza, this is a sad excuse for food.

Occasionally we are faced with a novelty pizza topping that seems so obvious that I will say to my family, “Why have we never done this?” I’m no stranger to putting somewhat unusual things on pizza. Zucchini or yellow squash pizzas are totally standard fare here, and have been for as long as I can remember (I started making zucchini pizzas when I lived alone, because I could make a pizza and eat some for dinner and bring some to work for lunch; it was easy to eat, not too messy, and delicious even at room temperature). We have been known to cut up slices of leftover meatloaf into small chunks and put them on pizza (what’s the difference between meatballs and meatloaf? Just the shape, really). I have put meatloaf and leftover mashed potatoes on pizza. We have drained cans of chick peas and made pizzas with chick peas, black olives, and garlic. It’s true that not everyone liked the pea shoot pizza I made some years back, but I still think it was a good idea and I would make it again. I make pizzas with leftover roasted Brussels sprouts on them, shredded quickly with a knife so that they can be scattered more evenly across the pie. I like to think I’m gently inventive with pizza toppings, in other words, but it had never once occurred to me to put cauliflower on a pizza. But why not? I don’t know; but the thought never came to me until a couple years ago, because of a pizzeria that opened a few blocks away from us.

This small pizza place had been a pizzeria for as long as we’ve lived in the neighborhood — the kind of joint you can go to get a cheap Greek pizza for ten bucks, and if someone wanted a meatball sub, they could get that, and, sure, what the hell, you could get an order of fries, too. Then the Greek pizza place closed, and new owners came in. They cleaned up the joint, installed a serious pizza oven, and now it’s seriously not a Greek pizzeria anymore. Now it’s the kind of place that has ongepotchket hipster pizza, and ten bucks will get you pretty much nothing. Bring your credit card. They’ve got some ridiculous-sounding things on the menu (which isn’t limited to pizza — there are also some small plate type things, and sandwiches), but they also have some damned fine pizzas. The first time we went, with low expectations, but hopeful and hungry, we got a small pepperoni, a small Brussels sprout/balsamic vinegar, and a small cauliflower. And you know what? They were all great. My husband doesn’t even particularly like cauliflower, and I think he ate three pieces of that pizza. “How come we never make this at home?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s good!” They fry their cauliflower before they put it on the pizza, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t just parboil the vegetable and drain it before putting it on a pizza. It’s delicious, it’s filling, and it’s probably more healthful than meatloaf… though, come to think of it, a meatloaf and cauliflower pizza could be a very good thing indeed. Since then, I’ve parboiled cauliflowers and made excellent pizzas with it. I’ve also put leftover creamed cauliflower on pizza. Once you start mucking around with pizza toppings…. it’s a slippery slope.

Then there was the pizza we ate in Northampton, Massachusetts. We are fond of Pinocchio’s, on Main Street, which makes excellent pizza — thicker crust than New Haven pizza, but tasty — and seems to specialize in making up these weird combinations for the fun of it. I imagine that the staff enjoys getting slightly baked and then sitting around with notepads dreaming up weird pizza topping combinations. There was a barbecued chicken, gorgonzola, and spinach pie the last time we were there. It was good, for a bite or two, but I can’t imagine wanting to eat an entire slice of it. The one that really slayed me, though, I had to order, because I just thought it was so ridiculous: it was a tortellini pizza. And you know what? It was wonderful. Again, we all had a bite and said to each other, “so, is there a reason why we never make this at home?”

Pizzas I have made at home that people pay lots of money for in fancy restaurants: pizza with fig jam, goat cheese, red onion, and olives; pizza with mushrooms, capers, and caramelized onions; spinach and olive; pizza with honey, pistachios, goat cheese, red onion, and sliced fresh figs; pizza with spinach and goat cheese; pizzas with honey-whipped goat cheese and pistachios. For years, when getting pizza out, we made a point of getting an eggplant pizza if it was available, because eggplant pizza is one of the best things in the world (especially if you get it with double onions and some garlic), but I’d never made it myself because I have a deep-seated and reasonable fear of cooking eggplant. Well, guess what. Recently, it dawned on me that if I roasted the fuck out of eggplant slices before making a pizza, I could do it. I’m not someone who’s good with eggplant, but even I can slice an eggplant and put slices of it on a tray and put it in a hot oven and let it cook for twenty minutes. As long as the eggplant winds up mushy-soft, you can totally put those slices onto pizza dough and make yourself an excellent, excellent pie. Last month my husband made eggplant parmigiana, which is a real pain in the ass to make, and there was a little bit leftover. Not a lot — not enough to make a meal of — but after looking at it sitting forlornly in the fridge for three days it dawned on me that the solution to the leftover eggplant parmigiana problem is to use it as a pizza topping. Good lord was that delicious. I need him to make it again so I can make the pizza again.

I suffer from real and tangible guilt and embarrassment at making some of these pizzas. A pizza with barbecued chicken on it is stupid. It just is. On the other hand, in the name of using up leftovers, I don’t regard it as stupid, I regard it as clever and frugal. I think it’s all about context. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order a whole barbecued chicken pizza, but I’ll definitely make one if it means we’re having a decent meal and I’m cleaning out the fridge at the same time. I am at heart a purist. But I’m also pragmatic. Making a pizza at home is often a matter of opening the fridge and going, “What can I use?” The morally dubious pie — the pizza decked out with leftover creamed spinach, olives, red onion, and duck bacon — is morally dubious, indeed. But it’s also really fucking good to eat. Most importantly, the greater good is served. Which is to say, Dinner is served, and we are all fed, and go to bed happy.

And, bonus, it’s easy to pack leftover pizza in the kid’s lunch for school the next day. Nothing morally dubious about that.

 

 

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The Hausfrau and the Hobbit’s Coffeemaker

To say that I am not a fan of the works of Tolkien is opening a big can of worms, but I’ve got a really good can opener and I’m feeling reckless.
It’s not merely that I have no interest in The Lord of the Rings or anything to do with it — though it’s absolutely true I will never been seen toting volumes of it around. To me the issue isn’t just that I cannot deal with fantasy — though I can’t. It’s that there’s a whole life aesthetic bound up with the likes of Tolkien, and the Narnia books, and all of it all of it all of it drives me fucking nuts. This aesthetic — by which I mean the physical objects and articles that seem, inevitably, to be favored by folks who’re into this stuff (I’m deliberately refraining from saying “this shit” lest I come off as too rude and dismissive) — is something I reject wholeheartedly.

I have had many tense conversations with my husband, over the years, regarding home decor, but one thing on which we have always been agreed is that there is a look that is Hobbity (should that be Hobbitty?) and we will not have it. 

We will not live with macrame anything; we will not have dishes or mugs that look charmingly hand-made; anything that screams 1970s hippiedom is scorned. There are no blankets made of granny squares, no pieces of dark 1970s wooden Ethan Allen furniture with white porcelain knobs. Our wardrobes hold no floppy leather hats, no shirts that have elaborate lacings on them anywhere, no knee-high boots of suede, no suede-fringed anything. There are many aesthetics we appreciate, and many eras of design I thrill to, but the 1970s is not one of them — though I occasionally like a 1970s piece which is obviously Art Deco or 1940s inspired.

We then come to the question of coffeemakers. I know you’re going, “the fuck?” but bear with me.
We gave up on electronic coffeemakers a long time ago, and for more than a decade relied on one of two different devices. The first was a Melitta pour-over, which had a lovely tall thermal carafe, and it worked quite well. But some little thingy broke off the filter part that sat on top of the carafe and that was that. (We kept the carafe, which is occasionally useful on its own, but we no longer use it as a coffeemaker.) I had long used a French press, for times when I was just making coffee for myself, but when it broke my husband surprised me and gave me (us, really) a bigger, steel French press, where the carafe was thermal and hence could keep coffee hot for a reasonably long time. And so the household converted to the French press method, which we both liked a lot. The one problem is that it can be hard to get a replacement filter thingy for this model of French press, and you do have to replace them periodically because they have silicone edges that wear down over time.

Now, in the meantime, my husband decided that he wanted yet another coffeemaker, and he asked me to buy him a Chemex as a Christmas present. I didn’t see why we needed one, but he’s hard to shop for sometimes, and seldom makes such specific requests, so I bought the Chemex. He promptly began a massive coffee-drinking frenzy. He became, as Nicholson Baker wrote somewhere, operatic with caffeine.

The thing about the Chemex is that its pros and cons are, like the object itself, abundantly clear. It makes coffee that is so smooth and easy to drink that it’s very, very easy to drink way the fuck too much coffee. But, you know, it’s good coffee. The carafe is, like, the absolute opposite of thermal. And the filters — paper filters, which annoy me, but there’s always a flaw in every coffee making system — have to be purchased every few months. (When we started using it, I found the filters a little difficult to find in local shops, but since then I’ve noticed boxes of them for sale here and there, so I’m no longer sweating that particular issue; and they’re not hideously expensive, as long as we’re only making one pot a day most of the time.) My one voiced concern about the Chemex, when we first got it, was, “How’m I supposed to clean inside this thing?” My husband assured me that it wasn’t a problem because you would just rinse it out after each use.

I knew this was bullshit. There is no coffee making device in the world that can be cleaned by merely rinsing it out. This isn’t the device’s fault, nor the user’s: it’s that coffee generates oils and scunge that just naturally build up on the surfaces where it rests. It’s the nature of the beast. This chemical fact of coffee’s fundamental chemical nature is why old coffee cups that aren’t properly cleaned after use get brown and sad-looking inside. (Same for teacups, not that I drink tea, so I’m not going to discuss that any further.)

It is entirely possible, if you clean coffee cups properly, to have them in use for decades without having them go brown inside, by the way. I know this because I own coffee cups that have been in regular use since the 1980s and they are white inside, and have always been white inside. Because, in all these years, no one has abused them. (Let’s acknowledge the abuse of our kitchenware, shall we? You know who you are, you people whose coffee cups are never really clean inside and you’re just used to it. Get yourself some baking soda and deal with that shit, would you?)

I knew that I would have to be the person who oversaw the occasional de-grossing of the Chemex, but, okay.

So the one real practical problem with the hourglass-shaped Chemex — cleaning it of that inevitable rancid yellowish-brown cast — is easily solved, as long as you’re willing to look kind of like an anal-retentive asshole once in a while. What to do: You pour some baking soda into the bottom of the carafe along with your dish soap and then you take a wet dishrag and choose to look like an idiot by sticking the handle of a long wooden spoon in to swish the dishrag around, really rubbing the interior well and making sure that the soap and gentle abrasive get all the crud loose. Maybe you could use a bottle brush, if you had one, but I don’t: I use my dishrags for everything. But I think the dishrag is preferable in this case anyhow; and swishing the dishrag around with the spoon handle for about ten seconds does the trick without my having to acquire another object to keep at the sink.

Then you do this: Rinse rinse rinse, and let the Chemex dry.

So basically, I can get behind the Chemex. Except. Except.

I fucking hate looking at it. I hate that wooden girdle it wears, and I really fucking hate the leather thong that holds the girdle in place. (Thongs, girdles. Ick.) I like the clean lines of the carafe itself okay; I understand its modern severity. But the overall visual impact this thing has on me is negative. “It does have a kind of Hobbity look,” my husband said — with affection! — when he began to use it, and it was clear to me that to him, this was a sentimental object of some kind; his usual disparaging use of that phrase had turned into something sweet, like he was talking about our more unpleasant and disgusting cat, Jack. Jack is pure hate wrapped up in a coarse fur coat, and my husband adores him out of sheer perversity. The Chemex, though it was so obviously offensive for so many reasons, was a love object in my husband’s eyes. Or at least, the Chemex was something like “a face only a mother could love,” and my husband was the Chemex’s mother.

I was instructed sternly to not ruin it. I should be careful cleaning it. I should never, ever, ever put it in the dishwasher. This, I was told, was how a Chemex of long-ago had met its demise. Apparently my husband had one of these things in his college years, and one time (I guess during a summer break or something) his parents ran it through the dishwasher and killed it. I don’t know if they took the girdle off first or what. Clearly the trauma of losing this first Chemex was so great, my husband — who is, to be sure, among the more stoic types out there — cannot even really talk about it. It’s like, “I had a Chemex, and I loved it so. And then, one day, the Chemex was gone…..”

So, ok. I don’t put the Chemex in the dishwasher, and I remove the wooden girdle before I give it its occasional serious deep-cleaning. It was the process of removing the girdle that got me to allow a grudging admiration for the wooden girdle as an object. But this process also caused me to develop a particular grudge against the leather thong which one was to lace through the wooden bead (that fucking wooden bead) that sits at the front of the carafe, between the girdle bits, to keep everything together.

And the thing is, you don’t have any choice here: you’ve got to have the wooden girdle there, because otherwise you’re going to burn the fuck out of your hand if you pick up this carafe to pour hot coffee from it. The girdle is there for a reason, and if you don’t respect and maintain the girdle, you will regret it. (No, I don’t know this from hard experience; it’s just obvious to me that this is the case.)

I suppose a crafty type would create some kind of alternate girdle that would insulate the middle of the carafe in a more attractive manner. Something made of silicone or wool or fleece or something. Something with little snaps, something washable. Maybe a thin strip of velcro. This would, in all likelihood, ruin the cool modern lines of the thing, but no more than the godawful knitted and quilted cozies for Chemex bottoms I see around on Etsy.

A couple years after acquiring the Chemex, we finally started using it as our daily coffeemaker (I need a new filter for the Bodum French press and am having trouble finding one, any leads helpful) and I gritted my teeth when I dealt with the girdle. Despite my best efforts, in recent months I began to notice a certain crusty quality to the leather thong, despite my noble attempts at keeping it from getting wet, and there was a day a few weeks ago when I just said to myself, “This is bullshit,” and I removed it from the device. I then took some pieces of white twine from the kitchen drawer — bits of string leftover from a cake-carrier jury-rigging of a while ago — and finger-crocheted them into a fat little worm. I then laced the worm around the wooden girdle and through the bead and tied it with an undistinguished knot.

This was preferable to the leather thong — white is better than brown — but it still had a distinctly 1970s-macrame vibe about it, to me. I thought, “I could try a black grosgrain ribbon,” but decided it was seriously not worth thinking about that hard and went on with my life.

A friend happened to visit the next day and noticed the white crochet girdle lace. “Gee, that’s nice,” she said. “I like that better than the leather thing. I hate that hippy-looking shit. Did you make that?” I did, I admitted, saying, “I don’t like it much better than the leather thing, but at least it’s not brown.” She nodded and said, “I know what you mean.”

It took several days before my husband noticed the white lace. That is to say, he may have noticed it straight off, but he didn’t say anything until about a week later. “I like this,” he said. “It has a kind of nautical feel about it,” I said. “Also a little macrame-y, but oh well.” “No, it’s good,” he said.

So we’ve been living with it. It’s not so bad. But I’m not done with this. I am also considering the possibility that a nice clean well-chosen shoelace might be, in fact, the right object for us to use on the wooden girdle. Believe me: since we’re stuck using the Chemex for the foreseeable future, I plan on figuring out how to get this design issue settled and settled right. Because I don’t want to be offended by the sight of my coffeemaker every day.

I’m thinking a black dress shoe shoelace. Simple. Elegant. Maybe I’ll fix myself one last cup of coffee for the day and stare at the Chemex and think about it.

The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

It was in the fall of 1993 that I first read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and, hence, in the fall of 1993 that I first read about Black Cake. Black Cake is a West Indian fruit cake. Because I am no fan of fruit cakes I had little interest in eating one of these things, but I enjoyed the essay very much and it stuck in my head.

Over the years, my feelings about fruit and fruitcakes haven’t evolved much but my feelings about cooking have evolved tremendously and in the last, say, twenty years, I’ve thought, “Some day I will attempt to make a Black Cake.”

To this end, sometime around the year 2000, when a bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar presented itself to me while in a specialty shop, I bought it. “NOW I can make a Black Cake!” I said to myself. But I didn’t.

A decade went by. I moved in and out of apartments. Every time I moved the kitchen I packed up that pretty little bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar. I felt stupid and thought, “I should really make a Black Cake this year.” I said this in 2002 and I said it in 2011 and I said it many, many times when I noticed the jar on a shelf or in a drawer. I knew that it did not speak well for me that I’d had this stuff so long and never opened the jar.

It was last fall when I decided enough was enough and I had to get my shit together to do this. Late last fall, then, I went and bought a vast quantity of dried fruit and dark rum and I spent considerable time whizzing these things together in the food processor. We’re talking pounds of dried fruit and an entire bottle of dark rum and a ridiculous quantity, too, of Manischewitz, which is mysteriously called for in this recipe. I carefully spooned this almost-black sludge into several Mason jars and stowed them away. It was clear to me that I would not be baking for Christmas 2016, but, having made the fruit sludge, I was obligating myself to bake the cakes in time for Christmas 2017.

“In March I will bake the cakes,” I said to myself.

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

And then it was summer, and the thought of baking fruitcake was — impossible.

However, in the last few days, the tag end of August into early September, the weather here has cooled down significantly — thank God — and so it was that one recent morning I was putting things away in the kitchen and I realized that the house was a comfortable temperature and I had a dozen eggs in the fridge and just enough brown sugar; what’s more, it was 10.30 in the morning and I didn’t have to be anywhere until 3 p.m.: if I wanted to, I could, on this very day, finally assemble Black Cake.

It was eleven in the morning by the time I got my shit together, and I did not waste time after that. Because, to be quite honest, I do not often have an entire dozen eggs and that much brown sugar just sitting around. What’s more, the Mason jars of fruit — which I had moved from the basement pantry up to the counter in the kitchen sometime over the summer, in hopes of forcing myself to deal with the issue — were really starting to annoy me. They were taking up too much space. “Make the freaking cakes already,” I said to myself, as I pulled out the brown sugar. “They need to sit around for several months before serving them anyhow. Just do this and be done with it.”

I pulled out the eggs, I went to the basement and took out the requisite entire pound of butter (stowed in the freezer down there), and I plugged in the Kitchen-Aid. Because the butter was frozen I had to grate a lot of it into the mixer. I decided that the thing to do was soften some of it by nuking and let grating half of it be sufficient. A pound of butter went into the Kitchen-Aid, and I began to cream it. I propped the Laurie Colwin cookbook up on top of the toaster and referred to it constantly as I worked. I also did one last series of Google searches for Black Cake to confirm that the recipe would work, that I was on the right track. It was clear that I did have one significant problem. Colwin’s recipe — which she says, mind you, that she herself never made — calls for two very deep 9″ cake pans: something I do not own. This meant that I was about to mix up a truly vast quantity of cake batter and I was going to have to really wing it in re: cake pans. Not ideal, to put it mildly. But I was game and determined. So I greased and floured five tinfoil mini-loaf pans and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans, thinking, “Surely this will hold all the batter.”

How innocent I was in those days (seven days ago).

I had the butter and brown sugar creamed together, and it was time to add in the fruit. I opened one jar of fruit, and used a spatula to get it all out of the jar and into the mixing bowl; and then another jar; and it was at this point that I realized that my Kitchen-Aid was not going to be up to this task. Not because it wasn’t powerful enough to stir the mixture; but because the mixture was just going to be….. too damned much for the bowl to hold. It was at this point that I looked up on my shelf for the biggest mixing bowl I own, which is vast, not very deep-but-deep enough metal bowl we generally use for things like making a lot of whipped cream or for serving salad to 20 people at Thanksgiving. It’s a big bowl.

I transferred the contents of the mixer bowl to the metal salad bowl, kept adding Mason jars of fruit sludge, and then added seven jumbo eggs (which I figured would be roughly the equivalent of the dozen eggs St. Colwin called for). I mixed and mixed and mixed, alternating between using a spatula and a wooden spoon, because no one utensil could manage the task. I added the vanilla and I added the cinnamon and nutmeg and I mixed and mixed and mixed. Finally it was time to add the flour. It’s an incredibly small amount of flour this recipe calls for — perhaps all fruitcakes are like this — a pound of flour plus 1/2 cup, combined with three teaspoons (that’s one tablespoon to you and me) of baking powder. I weighed and measured and, bit by bit, I combined everything into one massive lumpy mess. This is not a cake batter that makes me swoon because it’s so beautiful. It looks like the devil’s vomit, to be honest. But I pressed on.

I then looked at the mixing bowl, and contemplated the pans I’d prepped — let’s run through this again: five tinfoil mini-loaf pans, and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans — and grasped immediately that this was not going to handle all the batter.

As it happens, I recently attended a talk at the Institute Library in downtown New Haven, where a forensic linguist, Dr. Robert Leonard, was talking about his work. He uses linguistics to help solve crimes. Among the many interesting things he said was, “When someone starts a sentence with the word “fuck,” that’s not normal.” Dr. Leonard is a very interesting guy, and very smart, but the woman sitting next to me and I disagree with him entirely: we feel it is very common for people to start a sentence with the word “fuck.” “I often use it as a complete sentence,” I said to my friend, who nodded.

Contemplating the range of cake pans buttered and floured before me, I used “Fuck” as a very complete sentence. And then I opened a drawer where I keep baking equipment and I began to rummage around looking for smallish Bundt-type pans. I pulled out one pudding tin and one small Bundt pan, greased and floured them as fast as I could, and lined up all the pans on the counter. The oven was pre-heated to 350°, the batter was activated, and I had to be at school to pick up my daughter at 3 p.m. It was a quarter after one.

I got out my kitchen scale and began to carefully ladle cake batter into the mini-loaf pans, weighing them so that each pan would have roughly the same amount of batter in them. I had no idea at all how much these cakes would rise (not much, I now know: I could have put more batter into them and everything would have been ducky) so I was conservative and put 13 oz. of batter into each of them. Then I set them on a cooky sheet (to make it easier to move them in and out of the oven). I ladled cake batter into the two 9″ rounds and set them aside. I peered into the bowl and saw that I still had a ridiculous quantity of cake batter in there, and I sighed, and I started to ladle batter into the two little bundt pans. To my considerable relief, I was able to fit the rest of the batter nicely into those pans. So in the end, this recipe made nine — count them, nine! — Black Cakes. Two nine inch rounds, five mini-loaves, and two little Bundt cakes.

This is more fruitcake than anyone needs. “I will give these away to people come Christmas,” I told myself. “Which is fine. But I just don’t understand how this is supposed to be a batter for two very deep 9” rounds. The “very deep” would have to mean six inches.” Thinking about it now, I still don’t understand at all how two 9″ rounds is supposed to be enough to hold this batter.

But I slid all the pans into the oven and then I set the timer for an hour and thirty minutes and I went about my business, which means I started the heroic process of leaning up the huge fucking mess I’d made.

By the time I’d wiped down the counter and got everything squared away, the only thing left for me to to do was throw myself on the couch for ten minutes before starting to check on the cakes. I did have a small logistical problem, which was that I had to go get my daughter at the end of her school day, and I of course had no idea when these cakes would actually be done. I started testing them after an hour and thirty minutes and found them…. not done.  It was clear that the proscribed baking time was something of a flight of fancy. “Fine,” I said to myself, “I’ll go get my daughter, let her play outside for a bit, and when we come home, they’ll be done.” This plan worked just fine, and so it came to pass that at around 3.30 in the afternoon, I had nine Black Cakes resting on racks on the counter. “That’s a lot of cake,” my daughter observed.

It took several hours for the cakes to cool down enough for me to feel confident about turning them out. In the end, the two bundt cakes came out like a charm, fat little cake ladies, and the 9″ rounds were no trouble at all, but the mini loaf pans were a bit more problematic. Well, one was. There’s always one, isn’t there. So out of nine cakes, eight sprang from their pans with good cheer, and one kind of tore and was an irretrievable mess. I let them finish cooling on the racks for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening; these things have to be wrapped and stored for a long time, and I wanted to be absolutely sure they were cool before I moved onto the next step.

That evening, as I was washing the dinner dishes, my husband was standing at the counter where the cakes were resting. “So these are the cakes, huh?” he said. He clearly had what we might call mixed feelings about this enterprise. On the one hand, he’s all for cake; on the other hand, these are fruitcakes, which aren’t, you know, fun. I turned toward him to say, “Yup, now they sit for a few months —” and saw him take a bit of the broken cake and pop it into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed and got a look of disappointed surprise on his face. “You’re not supposed to eat it NOW,” I yelped.

“You’re not?” he said, yanking back his hand. “I guess that’s good, because….” He looked sad. “It has a kind of raw, raisiny quality to it.”

“It’s supposed to mellow, or something, for MONTHS,” I said. “MONTHS. You don’t eat this for MONTHS.”

“Okay,” he said apologetically, backing away from the cakes.

I’ve wrapped them all in tinfoil and I’m storing them in the metal cabinet in the basement where I kept the Mason jars of macerating fruit. There, they will be safe from cats, children, peckish husbands, and probably also fire and brimstone. I’ve made the Black Cakes; in December I will frost them with the requisite white icing, assuming that when I unwrap them they’re not just covered in mold and completely vile looking; and if it turns out we all hate the stuff, I’ll never do it again.

On the other hand, if I unwrap them, and there’s no mold, and I frost them, and it turns out we all find it delightful, I guess Boxing Day will find me going out to buy five pounds of dried fruit again.

 

The Things We Do for Friends

A few days ago I attended a baby shower for a friend who is, honestly, a much better baker than I am. She is the kind of person who thinks nothing of making numerous fruit pies to enter (and win) pie competitions; and she’s not opening cans of fruit fillings, either, the way I probably would if someone asked me to make a fruit pie, which no one in their right mind ever would. She is an extremely organized and determined person. She has clearly been this way from infancy. She probably started working on her piecrust skills when she was about three. Whereas I am 47, and my mantra is, “Piecrust can go fuck itself.”

But hey, she’s having a baby, and the organizer of the shower asked if I’d provide a dessert. I naturally said “Sure thing!” and started thinking about what I could make. The question became a little more complex when I got word that the other woman working on desserts was not going to be available to do it, after all — she was moving house, it turned out, during the crucial time. “I can provide dessert for everyone,” I said, cheerfully, “it’s totally not a problem.”

In retrospect, I should have made two beautiful cakes. “Beautiful” being, you know, a term of art, here, when applied to things made in the Hausfrau’s kitchen.

I need to accept that making cookies that look beautiful and are actually delicious is not my forte.

But I was foolish when I took to the kitchen this past week to work on this project. I thought, “Two cakes is a bad idea because what if people don’t want cake, they just want a little sweet thing to nibble?” I decided — again, foolishly — that the thing to do was make a couple dozen tasty cookies, and one showstopper of a cake. Cake’s precise nature TBD.

I texted the mother-to-be’s husband (he’s the father-to-be) and asked, “Is there anything that I DEFINITELY should not use when I’m baking for this event? Any flavors/ingredients she absolutely hates?” I had begun to think about cookies with a chocolate peanut butter glaze and maybe chopped salted peanuts on top. Father-to-be wrote back almost immediately: “She hates peanut butter.”

Ok, good to know.

I decided to make chewy brown sugar cookies with a nice glaze on them. Mostly because they are good and they are easy for me to put together. “A caramel glaze,” I thought. I had to think carefully about what order to do all this work in; I had only a few hours in which to bake the cake and the cookies. It was Friday: I wanted to allow myself time in which to fuck up royally (in other words, make sure that if things went hideously wrong, I could work out a plan B on Saturday morning).

I made the cookies first. I used the “close to Entenmann’s” cooky recipe I’ve written about elsewhere, and left out the chocolate chips. I also upped the brown sugar content a little bit. (I doubled the recipe because I needed to have several dozen cookies, since this was all being done for a big party, not just for my family.) While the many racks of cookies cooled, I assembled the cake batter (King Arthur’s golden cake recipe, done in three 8″ layers) and baked it. I wound up utilizing every single metal gridded object in my kitchen to use as a cooling rack, and stacked things up in the microwave to assure that no evil cat would pounce on anything. I’m looking at you, Jackknife, you raw-pizza-dough-eating piece of crap.

I waited until Saturday morning — day of event — to assemble and decorate my finished products. At nine in the morning I was making caramel, transferring it into a squeeze bottle, and dousing the brown sugar cookies with glaze. While the glaze hardened, I made a Bird’s custard buttercream (cribbing from a Nigella Lawson recipe — this is a thing I’ve made a million times, Bird’s buttercream, just working off-the-cuff and not caring much about proportions — but I wanted to have a formal framework this time because, again, I was going to be serving this to people other than my loyal, if highly critical, husband and child).

Because the mother-to-be is a fan of fruit desserts, I felt called upon to do something with the cake that involved fruit. I, of course, had no fresh fruit in the house, and I wasn’t about to go find some in the nearby stores. Working with fruit means worrying about things like seeding and peeling and things I just do not have the fortitude to deal with, certainly not with four hours to go before loading finished products into a car. “I have jam,” I said to myself. “People put jam in layer cakes.” Knowing that I had precisely zero experience of doing this, I decided to Google “jam cake filling,” and I’m glad I did, because I learned that in order to do it right, you have to make a ring of buttercream at the edge of the cake layers before you put on the jam. The idea is you build a dam of buttercream and then paint the jam inside the dam. (And the vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true.) This prevents the jam from squirting out the sides when you put the next cake layer on. The assumption is that you’re going to frost the sides of the cake, and you wouldn’t want jam that’s poking out from the between the layers to screw up how your cake frosting looks.

So I loaded a pastry bag with buttercream and began to pipe a dam around the edge of the first layer. I melted some jam in my yellow saucepan (the same saucepan I’d used to make the caramel in, so there was a small amount of caramel mixed in with the jam; “it won’t hurt anyone,” I said to myself) and spooned it carefully onto the cake. You can be fairly loose-handed with this part of the process, as long as jam doesn’t pool up threateningly in any one part of the cake (too much jam will certainly make the cake a sodden mess). I placed the second cake layer atop the bottom layer and built another dam. I had to re-heat the jam a little bit to get it spreadable again, but this was easy, and then I spread the jam onto the second layer. This used up most of the jam. “I need some chocolate on this,” I thought to myself, and then I remembered that the Nigella recipe I was using for the buttercream was for a cake that actually involved, in addition to buttercream, a layer of chocolate glaze. I consulted it quickly and thought, looking at the yellow Descoware pot which now held the remnants of both caramel making and jam filling making, “I could whisk some chocolate into there and throw in a tiny bit of corn syrup and cream and make a pourable chocolate glaze in about two minutes.”

You know, there are reasons why my cakes taste good and look like crap. No matter what, I’m always trying to do the short-cuttiest thing to arrive at the tasty object. Nice responsible cooks do not use the same pot, unwashed, to create three entirely different elements of a cake.

I placed the third layer on the cake and built a dam on it and then I filled the dam with a thickish layer of the buttercream. It was clear that I didn’t have enough to do the sides, but I figured it didn’t matter. Nigella’s cake, in the cookbook, didn’t have frosting on the sides either. And anyhow, I reasoned, the chocolate ganache (now reconceived as a kind of raspberry caramel chocolate ganache) would drip photogenically down the sides. It was gonna be awesome.

I put the cake into the fridge to make the buttercream harden a little faster, and turned to the raspberry caramel chocolate ganache. I decided, on a whim, to drizzle some over the cookies, on which the hardened caramel glaze was, sadly, nearly invisible. This made them look a little more appealing, but not by much. I was sad, because I knew they were good cookies, but no one in their right mind would leap to taste them, because they just looked like tan blobs.

The cake, on the other hand: after a thick layer of chocolate was draped over the top, it really didn’t look so bad. It looked almost handsome. I wasn’t able to get the chocolate to drizzle down the sides quite as I’d hoped, but on the other hand, the layer on top of the cake was nice, and I managed to decorate the layer of chocolate with some buttercream stars and the mother-to-be’s first initial. It looked — well, okay, not professional, absolutely not professional — but it looked ok. It looked like it might be worth eating.

The moment came, finally, when the woman running the baby shower told me to cut the cake. I’d brought my own knife and a pie server with me, to assist with this project, because I wanted the slices to look as sharp as possible when I served them — I’m so glad I thought ahead and did that, because the place where the shower was being held had basically no kitchen equipment. I cut very carefully. First I cut the cake in half; then into quarters; then into eighths; then into sixteenths. These were very thin slices of cake. The first one that landed on a plate looked… well, I’ll be brave and say it: it looked perfect. The yellow cake was creamy yellow; the layers of raspberry jam were bright, deep red against the yellow; there was a layer of faintly pink Bird’s buttercream, and then a thick layer of chocolate. Each slice had a little of everything, and it looked wonderful.

At the end of the baby shower there were about six cookies leftover, and two very thin slices of cake. (I panicked, when it came to the cake, and cut it as shallowly as I could, because it was obvious that people were drawn to the cake more than the cookies, and I’d have to stretch that 3 layer, 8″ round cake to serve thirty plus people — no mean trick, considering that under normal circumstances I’d feel an 8″ round serves about ten people. Luckily, the children at the event favored cookies over cake.) The lesson I learned: when in doubt, bake a cake.  And, the next time I have to bake for a baby shower, do two cakes: one Aunt Velma and one golden cake.

Having written that last sentence, I’m sitting here thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I do that in the first place?” Hindsight is 20/20. It would have been so easy to do an Aunt Velma with a nice vanilla sour cream or cream cheese frosting. I’m an idiot. Well: I’ve got more events coming up soon. There’s always another opportunity to make cake. I may have to create one (an opportunity, and a cake) today, come to think of it. We’re having pizza for dinner, and an Aunt Velma for dessert? What’s to complain?

The Instant Pot: Our New Doorstop

A few weeks ago there was this kind of perfect storm in re: the Instant Pot, which is, as you all know, the latest must-have stupid kitchen gadget.

Ok, maybe for many of you it’s a kitchen necessity. I get it. But in our case: we HAVE pots, we HAVE a stove, we HAVE an oven, I’m not afraid to use any of these things, and I have the time in which to use them to great effect. We don’t freaking need an Instant Pot.

But, we kept reading articles about them. My husband — an Instant Pot skeptic by nature — read an article about them in the Wall Street Journal and asked me why we didn’t have one. I sighed. We have, historically, been fairly united on what our kitchen needed and what it didn’t. I accepted that he was correct regarding the Kitchen Aid and the Cuisinart. He admits that the bread machine was a mistake. Do we really need an Instant Pot?

No, we don’t. But then that fateful day arrived when I had an Amazon gift card sitting around and Amazon had an Instant Pot on sale and the long and the short of it was that I could acquire an Instant Pot for a pretty minimal personal cash outlay — about $40. This was a small enough amount of money that I decided I was willing to take the gamble. The Instant Pot arrived, and I was astonished by the size of it. I knew it would be big — I got an 8 quart pot — but Jesus, this thing is ludicrously huge. Dauntingly so. And it has so many buttons. “What the fuck have I gotten into?” I asked myself as I unpacked it. I pulled the pot and its accessories from the packaging, and then settled the packaging back into its shipping box. Roger the cat immediately leapt up onto the box and claimed it as his New Place. “Okay then,” I thought, “I guess we’ll be keeping the Instant Pot.”

It took me ten minutes to figure out how to reconfigure every single item in my one big kitchen cabinet to store this thing. That’s not so bad. My husband was impressed. But the question remained: What would we cook in it? I had no idea. I was, to be quite honest, rather intimidated by the idea of actually plugging the thing in and turning it on. It wasn’t that I was afraid of exploding food — I am given to understand that this cannot happen with an Instant Pot. It’s more than I am terrified of putting expensive ingredients into it, turning it on, and then cooking everything only to discover that I’ve got slop that no one wants to eat.

We had the Instant Pot in the house for a week before anyone plugged it in. I’ll come clean: it was my husband who used it first. I was content to look at Roger the cat curling up on the top of the Instant Pot Shipping Box, next to the kitchen table. That was totally worth $40 and an Amazon gift card. “Let’s fire this sucker up,” my husband said. “Let’s make baked beans.”

He made baked beans.

They were ok. I mean, they were acceptable; they were cooked correctly; but I don’t think any of us were entirely satisfied with how he’d seasoned them, so the baked beans, while technically correct, couldn’t really be construed as a culinary success. Still, it was clear that this device had potential in our household.

I made barbecued chicken in it on hot summer evening. This is the kind of dish I like to make in the oven, and which, done properly, takes several hours of low heat: just the kind of thing an Instant Pot should be good for. The chicken came out quite well, and we were all pleased. “It would be good if I understood how to do the rice in this thing at the same time as the chicken,” I said. “Apparently you can cook a pot of rice in here, separate from the entree, at the same time, I just don’t understand the logistics of it.” “Don’t push it yet,” my husband advised. “Let’s get the hang of using it for simple things first.”

I made Cincinnati chili in it. That went swimmingly. And this past week, I made my Bolognese sauce in it, and it was almost, almost, as good as the transcendent, majestic kind I make in the Dutch oven. However, transcendent Bolognese takes four to five hours to cook in the oven. This sauce took about 30 minutes to assemble and cook (this includes the prep and sauté process for the aromatics; the actual full-sauce-all-ingredients cooking time was fifteen minutes).

With autumn cooking and then winter cooking coming up, it’s pretty easy to see that there will be times when this huge object is quite useful indeed. It will loosen up my cooking schedule in some ways; I think it’ll allow me to get away with a certain kind of sloppiness.

There’s one thing about the IP that has been nagging at me, and I think I’ve figured out how to get around it. The problem is this: because it’s a closed system (the lid clicks on super-tight, for obvious reasons — I mean, it’s a pressure cooker, the lid had better fucking be on tight!), it’s not immediately obvious how you’re supposed to cook a liquid down. For example:  When I make bolognese, or Cincinnati chili, I add the amount of liquid necessary, but if I feel the “finished” product is actually too liquid, too runny, I’m in the habit of continuing the simmering with the lid ajar, so as to allow for evaporation. Any idiot would do this, it’s not rocket science. But, I was thinking, How the hell do you achieve this end with an Instant Pot? It tells you in no uncertain terms that you’ve got to keep the lid on during slow cooking and pressure cooking.

The answer, it now comes to me, is to revert to the sauté function on the pot once all the formal cooking is done. If you treat the sauté button as a “simmer with the lid ajar” button, and maybe jerry-rig a lid or just keep a close eye on things, you could let the sauce or stew or whathaveyou cook off the extra liquid without hurting anything.

Perhaps someone who read manuals more carefully would already have gleaned this because the manual tells us about this. To be honest, I have no idea. I put the manual on the shelf in the kitchen where I keep manuals and haven’t looked at it since. However, it matters not: having made the cognitive leap, I know I can put this plan into action and achieve the correct consistency for my next Bolognese or Cincinnati chili. Both of which I expect to be making in the coming weeks.

My take on the Instant Pot right now is that with our current lifestyle, it was a bit of a splurge and the space investment is not trivial, and occasionally frustrating. However: if I were someone who worked very long hours outside the house, or — this is key — if I were someone who lived in an apartment with a really crappy oven, or no oven at all — the Instant Pot would be a really marvelous thing to have. My husband and I have envisioned a life, already, in which we had no big kitchen, and kept only two appliances for cooking food: the rice cooker and the Instant Pot. And, seriously, if we could figure out how to cook the entree and the rice in the IP at the same time, we wouldn’t need the rice cooker. We’re clearly envisioning a living situation not unlike a dorm room — but, a dorm room that has a decent countertop, a full-size refrigerator and freezer, and a good kitchen sink.

Except: can I cook pasta in an Instant Pot?

A Sad Story about a Silk Shirtdress, with a Happy Ending

Saturday was a busy day. My family had to attend two separate parties. One was an event  essentially for adults, involving elegant tidbits — smoked salmon, champagne, and cake; three children were present, my daughter among them, all beautifully behaved. And then from this, my husband swept up my daughter and whisked her off to a little friend’s birthday party back in our neighborhood. When he and I picked her up at eight in the evening, she was seated happily on a bench swing in the birthday girl’s backyard. She was with two friends, they were talking quietly and happily, dragging their bare feet in the grass as they swung lazily; the party was over, and everyone was tired.  Goody bags distributed, the three of us wished the birthday girl a happy birthday one last time, and walked home talking about what a fine, full day it had been, with friends and food and cake and all kinds of wonderful things.

There were numerous bug bites involved, for me and for my daughter, as the result of all this party activity, and so on arriving back home there was much application of witch hazel and Aveeno anti-itch cream. (The Aveeno expired two years ago, but whatever.) I helped my daughter get out of her fancy dress, which is actually a size small woman’s silk shirt (trust me, it looks darling and elegant on her), and it was when I was unbuttoning it that I noticed the grease stains on the front. “Is this grease?” I asked. “Do you know what this is from?”

“I dunno,” my daughter said, frowning at her shirt.

“You had pizza, right? Pepperoni pizza? At the birthday party?” We all made some quick calculations and decided that though there was no proof, the odds were good at the numerous grease stains were pepperoni stains. It sure wasn’t champagne. And we know for a fact that our daughter is a total chazzer when it comes to pepperoni pizza.

So I laid the shirt on the kitchen counter and dumped about half a cup of cornstarch on it. I know that’s a lot of cornstarch, but hey: there was a lot of grease. “We’ll leave this to sit overnight and tomorrow I’ll wash it and we’ll see what we can do,” I said.

The next morning I came downstairs to find the shirt on the kitchen counter, lots of cornstarch on it, as expected. As not expected (but only because I just hadn’t thought it through), I also found a sweet little path of fucking disgusting white kitty paw prints. They were visible on the shirt (also visible on the shirt: a few little bits where Jackknife had evidently licked the cornstarch just to see whether or not it was poultry, beef, or fish, which it was not). The pawprints led from the shirt across the strip of dark grey counter in front of our double sink, across the counter around the jar of cornstarch (which, yes, I should have put away last night: sue me.) The pawprints meandered around my daughter’s very cool projects she made at summer camp (various do-nothing machines, some powered by batteries, some with water, some with magnets), back through the various do-nothing machines again, and then, my husband pointed out to me, there was one last pawprint — very faint — on the front of the one of the cabinet doors under the sink. “That’s where he finally decided to jump down, and he braced himself on the door for a quick second before landing,” said my husband.
“There’s no cornstarch visible on the floor,” I said. We all agreed that it was doubtless present, just in such fine form that it was invisible to the naked eye. I sighed heavily, surveying all the pawprints.
“I think the cat sneezed over here, too,” my husband said. “You can see on the shirt where the cornstarch is sort of sprayed around. He was sniffing the shirt and it made him sneeze and it blew the powder around.”

I wadded up the shirt and put it in the bathroom sink. I cleared all the do-nothing machines from the counter (along with all the other miscellaneous crap that’s accumulated there — crap accumulates like nobody’s business when it comes to kitchen counters). Then I took a dishcloth and some Dawn and I scrubbed down the entire kitchen counter. I rinsed it, and then I sprayed it with rubbing alcohol and wiped it down again. Finally satisfied that the counter was restored to a proper level of cleanliness, I took the shirt from the bathroom sink, brought it back to the kitchen sink, and began to wash it.

I suppose I could have tried to be more gentle with this shirt dress. It is, after all, a high-quality, delicate, silk article. However, I bought it secondhand for about three dollars, and life is short. So I got it sopping wet, squirted Dawn detergent on it, and started washing it. I washed and rinsed it three times. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not I’d gotten the grease stain out — the thing about wet shiny mauve silk is, you can’t really see schmutz on it, when it’s wet, because the fabric gets so dark, it’s just — it just looks like wet silk. I decided to take it on faith that whatever schmutz I was capable of removing, I had removed, so I gave up. I then wondered how to wring the water out of it without wringing it — I was worried about accidentally shredding the thin fabric — and immediately thought, “I’m in the kitchen: obviously, I will use the salad spinner!”

Five minutes later, I’d spun the shirt in the salad spinner several times, pouring out several tablespoons’ worth of water. It was sufficiently effective that I found myself muttering, “I bet people do this all the time and I’m only now figuring it out. I bet there are websites that talk about hand-washing your undies and spin-drying them in the salad spinner.” I turn out to be absolutely correct. You can do Google searches for the basic concept using a number of different phrases — “hand wash salad spinner” “laundry in salad spinner” “silk clothes in salad spinner” are good starts — and you get lots of hits. It’s clear I was way behind the curve on this one, probably because Peg Bracken never had a salad spinner.

The silk shirtdress dried on the balcony in the sun, and when I went to take it in at the end of the day, I inspected it carefully. All the grease had washed out, and the article had dried so beautifully it won’t need any ironing. Victory is mine. God bless the salad spinner: works wonders on greens, herbs, and your delicates and umentionables. (Of course, if my husband catches wind that I’ve been spinning my unmentionables in the salad spinner, he may have apolexy, so I might stick to the dryer for those. Officially.)

The Cricket on Livingston Street

Unfortunately for me I have a track record of being shat on by animals. The first time I can remember was in 1987, when I was walking down Chapel Street in downtown New Haven wearing a jacket that had belonged to my father. It was the jacket from the first suit he bought after graduating from college; the story was he had purchased it to go to his first job interview. It was a dark grey pinstriped suit. The pants were long gone but the jacket had become mine and it was, absolutely, my favorite article of clothing. I wore it every day for years. There I was, ho de do, walking down Chapel Street, and a pigeon shat on the shoulder of the jacket. I was in front of 1142 Chapel Street when it happened. It was a huge blob of white and yellow bird crap, and I remember I said, “OH FUCK” and spent a long time, when I got home, meticulously cleaning it off the delicate wool of the jacket. I tried to tell myself that being shat on by a bird is good luck, but who the hell knew. (I got the jacket clean enough that I would wear it for many, many more years after that. I no longer wear it, but I still have it.)

That was the first dramatic crapped-on-by-some-random-animal moment. There was also the time I was sitting on the deck at my father in law’s house, minding my own business, reading, and a flock of geese flew overhead. I looked up at the herd of squawking geese, saying, “Hey! Geese!” and at least one of  them shat on my back. My husband and child found this uproariously funny. I, not so much. “You never look up when geese are flying overhead,” my husband gasped through his laughter. “Fuck you,” I said angrily, tugging at my shirt carefully, trying to get it off of me without getting goose shit in my hair.

I have yet to be crapped on by a dog or a cat. I cannot even recall that my infant daughter crapped on me. Maybe she knew it just would not do; I don’t know. She certainly never minded spitting up on me, and the first time she puked, at about 18 months, I will never forget: she threw up all down the front of the pretty dress I had put on to go out to dinner on a rare date night with my husband. But wild animals seem to see me and think, “Ah, THERE’s the toilet.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was walking down Livingston Street with my daughter — I was taking her to summer camp — and a cricket pooped on me.

“Look! A cricket!” I said to my daughter, pointing to my shirt, where this cricket had just landed on my shoulder.

“Aw! Cricket!” she said admiringly. My daughter is a serious, huge friend of bugs. She is a magnet for praying mantises and likes to bring them home for me to make little houses for them. I could tell she was already thinking, “Can we take him home?”

“Look!” she said. “It pooped on you!” She laughed happily.

“Aw, crap,” I said, realizing she was right. My pristine white poplin button down shirt had a tiny dot of green cricket crap on it. The cricket hopped off me and went to find something more interesting to do. “Great,” I said, peering down at my shoulder. The little green dot of crap would be barely noticeable to anyone, but my knowing it was there made the shirt unwearable.

“Guess you’ll be doing laundry when you get home,” my daughter said knowingly.

I sighed. “I was going to do laundry anyway,” I said. “It’s no big deal.” It’s summer. There’s always laundry to do. 

So here I am, back at home, doing laundry. To be honest, it is so beastly outside, I’d rather be at home doing laundry than outside doing anything at all, unless being outside means sitting in a screened-in cafe patio drinking an iced coffee. But it’s pretty good right here: I’ve got iced coffee right here at home. And my iced coffee at home is better than any cafe’s iced coffee, because I have coffee ice cubes. And air conditioning. God bless clean laundry, air conditioning, and coffee ice cubes.

 

My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of.  There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If  you want to.

As a rule, I don’t want to.

This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?

Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.

So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.

So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.

There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.

OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.

But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.

In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic.  It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.

The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)

Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.

I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.

My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.

Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.

“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.

As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)

The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.

The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.

Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?

My Daughter is Unimpressed with the Barefoot Contessa.

I have a dear friend who used to work with me in a bookstore; our shared passion for eating and for reading cookbooks brought us together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly via Facebook of course, and a few times recently she’s posted things about Ina Garten.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I heard about Ina Garten, though no one used her name in that conversation. I was working in a shop that sold mostly rare and out of print books, and so I had become pretty well-versed in that kind of thing. One of our specialties was cookbooks. As such, I was thrown, and upset that I was thrown, when someone came in asking for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “The what?” I asked. “There’s a cookbook to do with The Barefoot Contessa?” How had I, a bit of a film buff and a cookbook person, never known that there was such a thing? It took a while before I realized that the person was looking for a cookbook that had nothing whatsoever to do with either Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner. Which was a pity: I would buy that book, I said to the would-be customer. The would-be customer had no idea what I was talking about. (Clearly, we were not going to be soulmates.) Furthermore, it turned out this was a new book the person was looking for: by definition, something I wouldn’t be obligated to have in the shop. I dismissed the whole thing pretty much out of hand: anyone who came into our shop looking for a brand new book was basically written off as an idiot. I was especially disgusted once I realized what the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook really was.

The way I felt about it: Not My Scene. Cookbooks with Pretty Pictures: Not My Scene. Cookbooks Written by the Rich Wives of Rich Yale Professors: Not My Scene.

So I stopped thinking about it.

Of course, in the decades since the 1990s, Ina Garten has sort of taken over the food world, or, at least, she’s one of the people who dominates it. People I like are obsessed with her. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (one of my favorite TV characters in recent memory) is obsessed with her. In the back of my mind, for a while now, I’ve been thinking, “I guess I should read one of these books.”

So today, the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I are at the public library and there’s a copy of Cooking for Jeffrey (the aforementioned Yale professor, Jeffrey Garten). “Oh, what the hell,” I said to myself, adding it to my pile.

I checked out the book. The lady at the circulation desk, Krista, I think is her name, said, “I think you’ll find this not too interesting. Stuff you either already do or stuff you already COULD do, if you wanted to, which you don’t, if you’re not doing it already. But the pictures are pretty.” “I don’t like cookbooks for their pictures,” I said. “I know,” she said. “But,” I added, “I’ve never read Ina Garten and here it is, so, I’m taking it home.” “Good luck,” Krista said. And we were on our way.

While my daughter and I ate lunch, I flipped through the book. There is not much to it. It’s $35, not cheap, and has alarmingly few recipes, but the photos are indeed gorgeous. They must be the reason this book costs $35, because there is really, seriously, not a lot of actual content here. My daughter ate her sandwich (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with pickle relish and mayonnaise) and I ate mine (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with mayo and sliced fresh figs), and we contemplated the book.

I said nothing as I turned the pages, at first, and then I sighed. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “But, I mean, who lives like this? Look at these pictures!”

“Maybe that’s how people feel about the Hausfrau,” my daughter said to me. I gave her a look and thought, “ouch.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said, eating more of my sandwich. It was then that I landed at Ina’s lentil and kielbasa salad, which is, I swear to god, nothing but a highflalutin’ variant of the lentil and chicken salads I’ve been serving my family for the last few days (with great success). Last night I made one, in fact, and I served it on a bed of pea shoots, with semolina bread and brie on the side. Now I want to kill myself for having done something so foofy. (Though it was a really good dinner, especially for a hot summer night.)

A few pages later I landed on a recipe that’s, again, basically something I make all winter long: roast chicken with radishes. “Jesus Christ,” I said, staring at the page. And the next recipe was a brisket. “That looks just like when you make brisket,” my daughter pointed out.

I was, by this point, polishing off my sandwich, and sagging slightly in my chair.

I kept flipping pages.

“I didn’t know that’s how you spell “couscous”, ” my daughter told me. “I thought it was “kooskoos” — with a K.”

“No, that’s how you spell it,” I told her. “Look, kasha varnishes. I used to make those, but I never do anymore. Why do I never make them, they’re good.”

Kept turning pages.

“How come you don’t have a cookbook like this?” my daughter asked me. “Your food looks like this. You’re probably even a better cook than that lady.” I laughed. “I don’t think I’m a better cook than Ina Garten,” I said, “but it’s nice of you to say.”

“Well, your food looks just like all of this food, I don’t see why you can’t have a big fancy cookbook.”

“It helps to be a big fancy well-connected person,” I said to her. I said, “Ina Garten’s not like me at all.” A quick skim of the Wikipedia bio confirms this. My god, the woman’s never even seen The Barefoot Contessa.

We discussed the possibility that we might try to make the chocolate creme brulee. “Of course, I don’t have little creme brulee dishes,” I pointed out.

“No one has little creme brulee dishes,” my daughter said.

“Ina Garten does,” I said.

Then I went into the kitchen and made brownies from a recipe by Ann Hodgman. Much more my speed.

A Late Dinner Alone: or, It Was Nine O’Clock and I Had to Do Something

My husband and child went to New Hampshire for a night this weekend. As such, I had most of a day, all of a night, and most of the next day to myself. This meant, naturally, that my usual framework for Life As I Know It went entirely down the toilet for about 40 hours. Which is fine — some of it was enjoyable, even. But one thing that definitely could have been handled better was the mealtime organization. Which is to say, there was none.
And it’s fine: if the only person who’s expecting anything is yourself, then you can raise or lower your standards as you see fit, right?
Much of my dietary intake on Saturday involved eating things that had been left behind in the fridge by the people who would normally eat them. For example: pizza. I ate the leftover pizza for lunch. Unfortunately, I ate lunch around 3 p.m., with the totally predictable result that at our normal dinnertime, I was utterly not hungry. So at six o’clock, when I’d normally be cooking, I was folding laundry and watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It got to be seven o’clock: I’d put away the laundry and was lying on the bed watching more Orange is the New Black, thinking, “Should I cook dinner? Well, I’m really not hungry, and why should I eat if I’m not hungry?”

Time went on. Another episode of Orange is the New Black. It got to be about ten to nine and I realized, with a bang, that if I didn’t eat something then what would happen would be, I’d go to sleep and wake up at three a.m. ravenously hungry, and that would totally suck.

Furthermore, if I kept watching Orange is the New Black, I was not going to sleep well, because inevitably each episode has some image or plot development that I find sufficiently upsetting that it’s just not healthy bedtime viewing for me.

So it was that at five to 9, I was in the kitchen filling a pot with water and thinking, “I’m gonna come up with a pasta sauce that might involve some chopping but will not involve actually cooking anything except the pasta.” There are lots of ways to handle this challenge, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the matter over the years. The kind of raw pasta sauce that can be thrown together quickly is a specialty of mine. I am expert in the field of Cannellini Beans and Tuna and Parsley and All Variants; I have spent years doing research into Uncooked Tomato Sauces. The Hausfrau has long advocated for the Raw Egg and Cheese sauce, which goes very unappreciated by most Americans, as far as I can tell; and there is a world of joy to be found in pesto sauces, which are great, but you have to have the ingredients on hand to make them. This evening, I did not. (Furthermore, making a pesto sauce would have compromised my rule, that moment, of “don’t dirty anything more than a knife and cutting board.” Making pesto is a snap, but you do have to have the basil ready, the nuts, etc. etc. — I had none of these things on hand — and even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with washing the food processor. However, in the summer it is totally sensible to make big batches of pesto and keep it on hand precisely so you can throw together a good dinner out of pretty much nothing.)

I opened the fridge and the first thing that jumped out at me was the bowl of fresh figs. “I am the only one who likes figs,” I reminded myself. “What goes with figs? Goat cheese. Do I have any goat cheese?” The answer was, “Yes, I have half a log of goat cheese that actually needs to be used up because if I don’t it’ll get that weird yeasty smell and be inedible and gross and I’ll be really pissed off that I wasted two ounces of goat cheese.”

The figs were sliced on the cutting board. I boiled half a pound of pasta and dumped it in a big bowl. I drizzled on some olive oil, put the figs and cheese on top, and then tossed it. The goat cheese melted, the figs warmed up, and, because I was feeling madcap, I grated some Pecorino cheese on the whole thing. Then I sat down and watched an episode of 30 Rock, which I highly recommend as an antidote to distressingly grim episodes of pretty much anything.

My family came home on Sunday around 5.30 in the evening, just in time to walk in the door and have the first topic of conversation be, “What’s for dinner?” I was glad to see them, but I have to admit, I was not too excited to cook for them. I admit, though: it was good to be back on schedule. “I didn’t eat dinner until about 9.15 last night,” I told them. “And then I was up until midnight.”

“You can’t sleep well if you eat dinner at nine o’clock,” my husband chided me.

“But I wasn’t hungry at all at dinnertime,” I said.

‘That’s probably ’cause you ate lunch at four o’clock, didn’t you?”

“It was three o’clock,” I said smugly.

Last night we ate dinner at 7.15, my daughter was asleep by 9.15, and my husband and I were out cold by ten. Today is my daughter’s last day of third grade: the beginning of summer vacation. I’ve got a long summer ahead of me during which I will have to devise breakfasts and lunches and dinners and Special Picnics and 4th of July Treats and things to bring to potlucks.

Oh my god.