An Unorthodox Egg Cream

A woman I’ve never met, to whom I’m connected on Facebook, posted a thing about egg creams a couple weeks ago. Her reading audience read the post and went, “Huh?” It was around ten o’clock in the evening my time, and I was getting ready for bed, but when I read her post (it was only about 7 p.m., her time, out in California), I thought, “ok, I gotta go make an egg cream.”

Fortunately for everyone concerned, we had Fox’s U-Bet, milk, and plain seltzer on hand. I ran down to the kitchen, made an egg cream, guzzled it down, burped heroically, and went back upstairs to fall into bed.

A few days ago, after school one very hot day, I said to my daughter “how would you like an egg cream?” and she said, “YESSSSSS” so we hustled home and I used up the last of the Fox’s U-Bet to make two little egg creams, which we shared. (I managed to eke the most I could out of the syrup bottle by pouring milk into the syrup bottle, and shaking it like crazy; the pre-mixed chocolate milk went into the glasses, and the egg creams were, I have to say, particularly good.)

Today, it hit 95° outside, and the walk home from school was — well, not brutal, because we’re only talking about five blocks or so, but: it was hot. My child’s face was bright pink. I said, “I would offer you an egg cream but we’re out of syrup, I haven’t bought more yet. BUT.” I turned and looked at her. “WHAT IF,” I said. “What?” she asked tentatively.
“I know this will sound weird, but: WHAT IF we used Ovaltine to make egg creams with?”
My daughter’s eyes got very big and she said, “WE MUST DO THIS.”
“It could be gross,” I said.
“It could be delicious,” she said.

So we got home. I took out the recycling, waiting by the door, while my daughter ran inside, washed her hands, and got out the jar of Ovaltine (Rich Chocolate Flavor). I came inside, washed my hands (hard, fast rule: you always wash your hands after taking out trash or recycling), and assembled the drinks. We stood silently next to each other while we watched the foam develop and crest and calm down at the rims of the two glasses. “It could be gross,” I reminded her.
“It won’t be gross,” she said. She shoved a straw into her glass, and started to drink. I took a sip of mine (no straw).

“You know,” I said, “this is surprisingly not so gross.” My daughter stopped drinking to gasp, “I think it’s better than the syrup kind.”
“Now, listen,” I said, “I won’t have that kind of talk in my house, that’s blasphemy.” I finished my drink. I stood there by the sink for a moment or two — neither of us had even bothered to sit down to sample these heretical egg creams — and waited for the burp. It came, right on time. My daughter finished her drink more slowly and burped a little burp. “I had a nose burp,” she told me.

We put our glasses in the sink. A lesson has been learned. An Ovaltine egg cream is probably not to everyone’s liking, but, on the other hand, in this day and age, almost no one thinks an egg cream is a good idea to begin with. So, fine. If you’ve not got any Fox’s U-Bet around, but you do have Ovaltine, mix up your egg cream with a clear conscience. Not only will you be downing a refreshing beverage but you will be getting a few good synthetic vitamins and minerals in the bargain. What’s not to love?

It’s a Good Thing We Live Near Romeo’s: The Museum of Tsuris Has Opened a New Wing

My daughter’s piano teacher, who we adore, holds a party at the end of every school year. She invites all her students to her adorable house, which is in a perfectly civilized town yet has a backyard that’s half brick patio (civilized) and half wild, wild woods (totally uncivilized). All the kids play a little mini-recital in her living room and then they eat party food and run around like maniacs. Sometimes the kids play Music Bingo. Ok, most of the kids play Music Bingo, and my kid is the one who runs around the woods like a maniac, because she thinks it’s awesome that Miss L. has woods in her backyard. We have a lot of things, where we live, but one thing we don’t have is a backyard, and certainly not a backyard that’s half-woods. So.

The deal with the party food is that Miss L. provides much of it herself — which I view as heroic (she’s got as many as twenty little student/fiends coming to these parties, bear in mind) — but the families are invited to bring things to eat as well. Some families bring snacky stuff, like chips and dips, but others bring treats like cookies or cupcakes. In my case, I always feel I should bring some wonderful cooky. It seems to me that last year I brought whoopie pies, and I had to stand guard over the tray to assure that each child only took one each, because there were only a couple dozen of them, and I wanted to have it so that each kid who wanted one could have one. One little girl took four, as I recall, and I was disgusted. But whatever. She’s her parents’ problem, really, not mine (thank God).

I did not put a whole lot of planning into this year’s effort, knowing that I happened to have in the fridge cooky dough, rolled and ready to slice and bake. We had plans for the morning, but I wasn’t worried about it. “I’ll slice and bake early in the afternoon, frost the cookies with something, and we’ll be all set to bring them to the party at three,” I told myself super-optimistically. I had good reason to think I had this beat: By one o’clock I had sliced and baked the cookies (which were nothing fancy, just chocolate and vanilla shortbread cookies) and I let them cool while I contemplated my frosting/decorating options.

I could have done something easy like make a confectioner’s sugar glaze and dumped sprinkles on top of the wet glaze and called it a day. I could have made colored icings, put them into squeeze bottles, and drawn on the cookies. But that would involve mixing things, I said to myself, and icings take time to dry. “Fuck that,” I said, “I’ve only got about 90 minutes here.” I then remembered that I had, in the pantry, bags of mini-marshmallows and a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. “Genius,” I said to myself.

So you may have figured out where this goes, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll take it step by step.

Thinking, “What could be easier than broiling some marshmallows on top of the cookies? It’ll be great! Everyone loves marshmallows.” I took the cooled cookies off the racks and laid them out on a baking tray. Then I put either marshmallows or a blob of Fluff on top of each cooky. I sprinkled colored nonpareils atop each chocolate cooky. These are expensive little things, I want to tell you, and I use them only on very special occasions. I’m not talking about those cheap waxy sprinkles you get at Stop & Shop — which are fine,   don’t get me wrong, they’re what you want on ice cream. No, these nonpareils have to be purchased at baking speciality stores or ordered in from places like King Arthur Flour. I explain all this to demonstrate that I was trying, in my lazy way, to put on the dog. I had the noblest of intentions. Furthermore, I sifted a little sprinkle of cocoa powder onto the marshmallows on the vanilla cookies. So the chocolate cookies had their pretty contrasting topping, and the vanilla cookies had their own special contrasting topping. You could tell that when these cookies had been run under the broiler a bit, they would be a) beautiful and b) little marshmallow cooky heaven blobs. So then, when the trays were ready, I turned on the broiler.

You know where this is going now, right?

I slid the tray under the broiler and set about putting away the supplies I’d just used. Meaning: I put the lid back on the jar of Fluff; I closed the bottle of nonpareils; I closed the cocoa powder tub; and I put the little tea strainer I’d used for the cocoa sifting into the sink. All this took maybe 90 seconds, if that.  I swear to God.

Then I smelled something burning.

I opened the oven and discovered that all of my cookies were on fire.

I wish I could report that I kept a cool head under the circumstances. I will be frank and say, I did not. Instead, I yelled “HELP!” and my husband, who’d been sitting on the couch watching clips on YouTube of Dave Letterman interviewing Salma Hayek, ran over. He grabbed pot holders, pulled the fiery tray of cookies from the oven, and blew out the flames. I came to my senses and turned on the vent fan over the stove. We closed the oven, and I turned off the broiler. It was all over in about three seconds (thank fucking God).

My husband was still standing there holding the cooky tray, looking befuddled and sad — I was busy spewing expletives — when our daughter, who had been playing out front, came running in. “What happened?” she asked.

“My cookies caught fire,” I said. My husband showed her the tray and carried it out the front door to let the last of their sugary smoke waft off into the apartment building courtyard. She followed him. “Can we still eat them?” she asked. I gawped at her idiocy.

“Well,” my husband said, bringing the tray back inside and setting it down on the stove for us all to contemplate. “The Hausfrau has some new material, anyhow.”

“Boy,” I said. I had moved through the stages of grief with remarkable speed. It was true I didn’t have much time for denial, but we had definitely seen anger. There was about a nanosecond of bargaining (who was I kidding, there was no way to salvage these things), and I was, right at that moment, deep in the depression stage.

It was 2.30; we had to be at the party at three. I had to face reality (final stage: acceptance). I would not have homemade cookies to bring to the party; was there anything else, ANYthing else, I could throw together in fifteen minutes? The answer was, miserably, no. Had I had a jar of roasted red peppers, I could have made pimiento cheese and brought it with a bag of pretzels; but I had none (only a raw red pepper, which would take time to roast, let alone cool, peel, and process). “I don’t know what to do,” I said miserably.

“What you do is, you go to Romeo’s and buy cookies and bring them,” said my extremely practical husband, who has always thought I was insane for baking for events like this. I wasn’t actually crying,  and I had not cried, but I felt the way you do after you’ve been crying; I snuffled and blew my nose and said, “Fine.” We piled into the car and before we went to Miss L’s house, we stopped at Romeo’s, where I bought a pound of those little ball-shaped sandwich cookies. Baci de Dama, they’re called. They’re really good. I brought them into the piano teacher’s house with a feeling of defeat, put them on the kitchen table, and sat down to listen to the children play.

At the party, the cooky box emptied out before any other tray of cupcakes or brownies did. One father, who has been to enough of these rodeos that he knows to look to see what I’ve brought, sidled up to me. “What’d you make this time?” he asked me, glancing toward the table. “I had a little disaster,” I said, “so I brought cookies from an Italian bakery.” “Disaster?” he asked. “The cookies all caught fire,” I admitted. His eyes got round, like Baci de Dama cookies. “You got a fire extinguisher?” he asked.

The answer is, We do, and it’s three feet from the stove. I think that the smart thing, though, is for me to remember to never, ever do anything like this unless my husband is at home, because clearly I am not cut out for broiling marshmallows.

My husband explained the cooky disaster. “It was supposed to be like meringues,” he said. “Cookies with a meringue topping.”
“Except that you make meringues in a low oven, slowly,” I said. “There’s no danger involved in making meringues. It’s not like broiling marshmallows at all.”
“Really?” said my husband. “Really,” I told him huffily. The other father’s eyes moved from me to my husband, watching us nervously.
“Maybe you should stick to meringue,” my husband said generously. “I think I will,” I said. “I’m not cut out for broiling marshmallows.”

The Museum of Tsuris has a new wing. I’m painting the walls with this color, which I think will be a nice contrast to this, which I’ll use on the trim .

Ever notice how paint companies never name a color “Charred Marshmallow”?

 

My Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer Needs a Therapist: The Build-Up to Mother’s Day, 2017

One morning at 9 a.m., like I was going to work, I put on the one pair of Birkenstocks I own — hideous things, but, even I will admit, good to wear when you’re going to be on your feet a lot — and entered the kitchen with what we could politely call resignation.

I was anticipating a Saturday during which I was to provide baked goods for three separate events. There were two school fairs — the nursery school from which my daughter graduated four years ago and her current elementary school — and then in the evening there was a piano recital to which I would need to bring a treat. I had planned my week out thinking I only had to bake for two events; it was late Monday night when I remembered the piano recital that we’d be participating in Saturday afternoon, a few hours after all the Spring Fairs.  I had an uncharitable moment of “fuck this shit,” but decided that surely it wouldn’t kill me to bake two extra dozen cookies. And there was also Mother’s Day coming up and I knew I wanted to bring a treat to my mom when we went to visit her.

That morning I knocked out three dozen triple coconut cookies, some of which I reserved for home consumption.

That afternoon I started a big batch of chocolate bread dough, something I hadn’t made in a good long while. It rose overnight and the next day I baked three small loaves. One, at my daughter’s insistence, we kept; one went to my mother; one was for sale at the nursery school fair.

The next day I faced the Kitchen-Aid and said, “We are going to DO THIS” and made I think 124 little cookies — two flavors, chocolate and vanilla — to be turned into sandwich cookies. One cooky broke, so I had 123 cookies to work with, which meant I really had 122 cookies to work with, which meant I’d have 61 sandwich cookies to divide up between events.

I still had to figure out the fillings for the sandwich cookies, but I figured, “Child’s play!” Frostings and fillings are, so long as you’re not too picky, the kind of thing you can just make up as you go along. (My husband finds this attitude appalling, but I don’t give a shit what he thinks.) I also needed to blend up the special vanilla butter that goes with the chocolate bread. But again, child’s play.

The thing I felt bad about, in all of this, was the Kitchen-Aid mixer, which was feeling put-upon this morning. I’d never regarded the Kitchen-Aid as a thing with feelings, but this week of cooking and baking was definitely taking a toll on the machine, which we got in the fall of 2002. It’s unhappiness with me was audible, and I’m not speaking metaphorically here. These cooky doughs I was making are sturdy doughs; it takes a lot of power to make these things. I cannot imagine trying to make them if I was mixing the dough by hand — in fact, there’s simply no way I would do it. The poor Kitchen-Aid was groaning and wheezing by the time I had finished the second dough. I thought, “This Kitchen-Aid needs some therapy.” It might in fact need new screws or something — hell if I know — but I was suddenly imagining a stand mixer lying down on a shrink’s couch, like in a New Yorker cartoon. “All this cooky dough,” it sighs. “Can’t this lady ever give me a break? I mean, it’s freaking EVERY DAY she’s baking.”
“You’re not exaggerating? Every day?” the therapist asks gently. “That does seem like a lot.”
“She was at it like crazy a couple weeks ago — then things calmed down a little, it was okay,” the Kitchen-Aid says. “Maybe a couple times a week I’d have to do something for a couple of minutes. But this was ALL MORNING.”

By 3 p.m. on Wednesday the counter was cleaned up, and all the baked goods are put away. I assembled the sandwich cookies on Friday and on Saturday morning I trotted around the neighborhood delivering tinfoil-lined boxes of cookies to schools. I have no idea if everything sold; all I know is, I had fulfilled my obligations, and without disaster.

My husband, when I express exhaustion during and after marathons like this, always says to me, “No one’s forcing you to bake all this stuff. No one’s making you do this. You volunteer to do it.” And he’s right. But the fact of the matter is, if I don’t do it, who’s going to? There are not a lot of parents that are willing and able to engage in this kind of lunacy, and this is the kind of lunacy that makes our community what it is — or what it’s supposed to be, anyhow. It’s supposed to be a place where schools have spring fairs and the entire neighborhood shows up to have fun. Kids who graduated eight years ago come back to play — at both the nursery school and the elementary school fairs. The parents come. Grandparents come. These aren’t little birthday parties: these are major neighborhood events. People truck in from all over town, and even the suburbs, to go to the nursery school fair, because part of the event is a massive tag sale that’s known for being one of the best ways to get second-hand baby and kid gear. People line up to get in, no early-birds. Current nursery school parents volunteer to get coffee donated by the best local cafe (Willoughby’s, which does all its own roasting and is just generally awesome), and people cruise the housewares and clothes and strollers and shop while they eat elaborate homemade baked goods and drink coffee. One year, I remember, some lucky housebitch bought a white Kitchen-Aid mixer that someone had donated — why would someone ditch a Kitchen-Aid like that? — for $25.

This year the mama in charge of coffee made a vast quantity of cold-brewed iced coffee in addition to the regular hot stuff and the few dozen homemade cupcakes she’d made for the event. It takes time and advance thought to produce cold-brewed iced coffee to serve 200, but she did it. And she did it in the middle of getting her house ready to sell and packing up her own things so she can relocate her family, and while working a job involving weird schedule hours and demanding clients. (I stand in awe of her all the time; my suspicion is that she’s not big on sleep. Must be all the cold-brewed coffee keeping her going.)

There are some people who take on these challenges no matter what — and their labor tends to go quite unacknowledged, because they’re not getting paid for it. But it’s work. What’s more, it’s hard work: it’s hard to pull off a real humdinger of a spring fair, and it’s the behind-the-scenes invisible work that is, whether or not people realize it, makes a neighborhood a neighborhood, a community a community. I’m one of the people who has time for this crap; so I help with these things however I can. I will gladly help set up tables, I will bake, I will let people use my tablecloths to cover the crappy institutional folding tables so that things look nice.

I don’t do this kind of thing every week. If I did it every week, it would be a sign of lunacy (and we’d be bankrupt; we cannot afford to have me bake on this scale, uncompensated, every week; eggs and butter are, in fact, pricey, especially when used at this scale). But for annual events like the nursery school and elementary school spring fairs, you have to have cookies and cupcakes and muffins and things; you have to have pretty cakes and tarts for the families to buy to give to the mamas on Mother’s Day, the day after the fair.

*****

After we visited my mother on Mother’s Day this year, we drove to a Penzey’s Spices shop in West Hartford, where I spent a crazed fifteen minutes — we arrived shortly before closing time — picking out jars and bags of spices. It was only after I sat down to write this that I realized I had used my Mother’s Day treat to acquire things I would use, at least in part, to make other peoples’ Mother’s Day treats next year. I hope the Kitchen-Aid makes it to next spring.

 

Creamed Spinach is Our Friend

I’ve gone on public record regarding my love of creamed spinach. Here I will discuss a) how to make it, should you be so inclined, and b) why you should make a lot more of it than you think you need, because it is useful in leftover form.

Making Creamed Spinach: it is very easy. Let us presume you’re going to start with boxes of frozen spinach, though, because washing and trimming fresh spinach is a true pain in the ass. (I really don’t wanna hear from the peanut gallery about this. I have a salad spinner. I know I could use fresh spinach. But look: fresh spinach is a pain in the ass and it’s expensive, and when you’re making creamed spinach, it’s just easier and cheaper to use frozen. So, enough, ok?) Here is what you do to make a considerable quantity of the stuff, enough to serve to three hungry people at dinnertime, and have leftovers to work with later on.

Take three boxes of spinach (10 oz. boxes, I think, are what I usually see when I’m shopping) from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter while you focus on the next steps.

1. Put a pot of water on to boil — it doesn’t have to be a big stockpot, but it should be big enough to hold a cup or two of water and the contents of the spinach boxes.

2. On another burner, melt 3-4 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy pot (I use enameled cast iron).  To this add maybe 3/4 of a cup of minced yellow onion. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, and then sprinkle in three or four tablespoons of white flour. Yes, you are making what the grownup fancy people call a roux. Whatever amount of butter you used, use an equal amount of flour. Stir stir stir: you want the flour to combined with the butter, and to cook: raw flour is not tasty stuff. Your pot will seem to be filled with an uninteresting lumpy mess, but it will be ok so long as you don’t burn it. Keep the flame on medium or even medium low. When the onion and butter and flour have formed a depressing-looking paste, and before it starts to burn (this takes maybe three minutes), slowly pour in maybe 1/4 cup of milk (or cream, or half and half, whatever you have on hand; skim milk will work but look rather sad and watery; I’d go for fattier dairy products if possible). Stir the liquid into the flour and onion combination; what you’re trying to do is dissolve the lumps and create a sauce that will be mostly smooth, but for the bits of onion. Add liquid a little bit at a time, ending up with between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of dairy in the pot.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve doubtless noticed that your pot of water is boiling. Seize the moment: Cook the spinach in the boiling water for a few minutes; you don’t need to let it cook to death, just let the bricks of spinach loosen up. Drain in a colander in the sink, press excess water out of the spinach and into the sink, and add the spinach to the pot with the roux. Stir well: the contents of the pot will suddenly look like creamed spinach, and you’ll think “Hey, we’re done!” but you’re not. You’ll want this to simmer for a little while, maybe ten minutes. Now is when you add your seasonings. I like nutmeg, salt, and pepper. You might want a little cayenne or some hot sauce or something else entirely, it’s up to you.

So here’s the thing: this is a lovely dish to serve alongside chicken or beef or fish or whatever you are into: all well and good. My family will eat easily a cup and a half, per person, in a sitting. I’ve heard of people who don’t like creamed spinach and who’ll only grudgingly choke down, like, a tablespoonful if they’re out at a restaurant and it’s foisted on them next to a steak; we are not like that. If we’re gonna eat creamed spinach, we’re gonna eat creamed spinach.
But as a leftover, it’s a useful tool for gussying up something that needs a little extra oomph. For example, the night after I first made this creamed spinach last week, I used some of the leftovers, along with some shredded brisket I had around, on nachos. I know that sounds weird, but let me tell you, my husband and child snarfed those suckers down. And another trick I’ve used a lot is, creamed spinach as kind of a ready-made pasta sauce. (You have to thin it out a bit, and it wants to have lots of Parmesan cheese added, or maybe some goat cheese — but it’s good and colorful and a comforting thing to eat on a rainy night.) Creamed spinach can be added to soups; it can be whipped up with cream cheese and/or sour cream to make a dip; I’ve put it on pizzas.

I know it’s not fashionable, and I know it’s not exactly a dietetic food item. Someone with dairy issues is not crying out for a long explanation of how to make and use creamed spinach. But people who like creamed spinach — we, the silent, the unpopular people, the kitchen wallflowers — need to know that we are not alone. Don’t worry, my friend: I am with you (with about a dozen boxes of spinach in the freezer ready).

A Rainy Memorial Day

Memorial Day: it’s supposed to be about remembrance and Noble Americans — which it is — but also supposed to be about family and friends barbecuing, and people making potato salad, and celebrating the fact that you can finally wear your white shoes with impunity.

Well, folks, today it’s grey and rainy and cold. It’s like London in April out there. So we’ve spent the day at home. I would have spent the day feeling like nothing whatsoever was happening, except that I had the presence of mind, yesterday, to finally do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time, which is prove that I can make better ice cream than my husband. Because I made the ice cream batter yesterday — you do call it batter, don’t you? — and because we always keep the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer, I was ready to go this morning. The batter churned for about twenty minutes, and got to the thickness of soft-serve, and then I spatula’ed it into three little pint containers, and now it’s in the freezer hardening up.

However, I can tell you that this stuff is good. How do I know? Well, I got to lick the spatula, and also I ate the blobs of ice cream that landed on the counter, and the little bits that were too hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the pint container. In other words, I got to eat about three tablespoons of homemade ice cream that I’d made myself, and I am quite confident that this is good, good stuff.

My husband is in the habit of making French vanilla ice cream, of which he is very, very fond. It is a product that involves a lot of egg yolks, a lot of cream, and sugar. I never really like it. I feel bad admitting this, but it’s simply true. I always feel like it just coats the inside of my mouth, greasy and heavy. I always attributed this to the cream he uses — he uses cream which has thickeners added, guar gum or something. Whatever it is, I do not like it.

A couple of years ago, during a phase when we were consuming a lot of this kind of dense, heavy ice cream, I happened to notice an article in the paper about “Philadelphia” style ice cream. I realized that for years and years, I’d been reading cookbooks where they talked about “French” ice creams and “Philadelphia” style ice creams and that I’d never really thought about it hard enough to grasp that these were really different things. I’d never thought about it because, well, I’d never made ice cream myself. Reading the article about Philadelphia ice cream made me grasp that while it may have been that my big problem was too much guar gum in the cream or whatever, the fact remained that, at heart, I was probably someone who just preferred a Philadelphia-style ice cream.

The difference comes down to eggs.

French custard ice creams have eggs; Philadelphia ice creams don’t.

I am normally someone who would say “Eggs? Custard? I am IN.” But somehow, with ice cream at home, I’ve got this idea that it’s just not my thing. Perhaps there are other issues I’m not grasping; some sources I read online suggest that perhaps the greasy mouthfeel I’m not so into could be attributed to over churning, and that the problem isn’t the eggs but the fact that we’re eating, essentially, vanilla-or-coffee-flavored butter. This could be.

But here, for the record, is what I did, and it’s resulted in some delicious, clean-tasting stuff. I considering going the adventurous route re: flavors, but for this maiden voyage I reined myself in and stuck with a simple, plain, vanilla ice cream.

In my medium-size enameled cast iron pot, I combined the following: 2 cups heavy cream (Farmer’s Cow brand — no extra crap in it); 1 cup of milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk); just under 1 cup sugar; 2 tablespoons dry milk; 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise, most of the seeds scraped into the pot); 1/2 tsp kosher salt; 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I was using Penzey’s double vanilla, which is phenomenal stuff and worth the money).

I heated these things up enough, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar and dry milk into the liquid. This wasn’t a mixture that had to cook, per se; but the heat made dissolving the solids much easier. I removed the vanilla bean pod from the pot and set it aside to dry (it can be used again) and covered the pot and put it in the fridge, where it stayed overnight.

The next day, I set up the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment — ok, I had to have my husband show me how to do it, because it made no sense to me how the thing worked, even after watching three different YouTube videos on the subject, because none of the videos showed the same model of ice cream attachment gizmo that we have — and I churned the batter for about half an hour and then I took a spatula and filled my little paper pint containers. Three little tubs got filled — so we’ve got three pints of ice cream, here. If I were a good person, I would bring some over to a friend’s house and say, “Here, have some ice cream.” (And maybe I will do this yet; if my husband says he doesn’t like the ice cream, I almost certainly will, because this stuff won’t keep indefinitely (no stabilizers) and I can’t eat it all myself.)

If I feel, after eating a dish of ice cream tonight, that this is an unqualified success, then I am shortly going to branch out into chocolate ice cream, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m setting sail for the land of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also coconut ice cream.

Last week my family ate, for the first time, a local ice cream treat called a Downside Watson. This is something that can only be purchased at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which is our gold standard for ice cream. A Downside Watson is assembled on a frisbee (which you get to keep). It’s supposed to come with bananas, but the night we were at the store, they were out of bananas, so a brownie was placed in the middle of the frisbee, to make up for the lack of fresh fruit. Atop this were piled seven scoops of ice cream and nine toppings. This sugar monster cost $26.95 plus tax, and it took us three nights to finish it. (We ate about half of it at the parlor, first night, but I had to say “OK, everyone, STOP” before we faced imminent collywobbles; and the rest was doled out after dinner two nights running).

We will always love Ashley’s more than any other ice cream parlor. Going to Ashley’s will always be a treat. But even so: if I can make my own platonic ideal mint chocolate chip ice cream, how can that be a bad thing?

But that doesn’t mean we cannot have nice things at home, too, right?

Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.