How to Teach a Child to Cook

Step one: be totally daunted by the idea but figure “oh, what the hell, I can do this.”

To be brutally honest, I have absolutely no idea how to teach a child to cook; I barely know how I taught myself how to cook. It was, as I recall, a matter of trial and error and many years of effort.

However, at the end of June, an offer I made to a friend casually, without thinking very hard about it, is about to become a reality in our household. It is this: the friend, who has two daughters (one a year older and one a year younger than my daughter; they’re all good pals), was, one day last year, feeling a little desperate for childcare. I can’t recall the details; it was probably a school holiday that wasn’t a federal holiday, and she and her husband both had to work. Since I was at home with my kid, I proposed that her girls come spend the day with us. “If the weather’s nice we can go hang out at the park or something,” I said, “and if the weather sucks we’ll stay in and cook.” I was just making shit up trying to be helpful but it turned out that the two little girls thought the idea of coming to my house and cooking all day was totally freaking awesome.

In the end, the childcare disaster was averted through some other means and no one spent the day in the kitchen with me, but as months went on there were many conversations about how we should do this some time. We discussed how I could plot out projects to cook with three little girls and I could thus keep three little girls entertained, maybe teach them a thing or two while their parents were at work; and at the end of the day we’d wind up with good things to eat.

Well, this month, it’s happening. In the last week of June I’m going to be hosting these two girls, plus my daughter, and we’re going to work on a number of cooking projects. I now have to come up with, like, an agenda. Maybe I should call it a syllabus, I’m not sure.

My daughter’s wondering if we can make a Swedish sandwich cake. (Yes.) We’re also thinking about making piles and piles of sushi (no raw fish, I don’t want to bark up that tree, especially with kids — but there’s tons of things we could make with cooked or vegetable ingredients). I’ll need to buy more of the bamboo rolling mats, since I only have one. There was discussion this morning as to whether or not we could make marshmallows. One of the girls in this enterprise eats no meat — eats very little, actually, as far as I can tell, aside from French fries — and I’m not sure how flexible she will be in the kitchen; I have faith, however, that I can somehow make this work. I can see us making piles of tea sandwiches, pitchers of iced tea, and fruit salad, and packing a picnic to take to the park. Part of me is thinking about doing a field trip to the C-Town on the other side of town, where they have an amazing range of produce you don’t see in the suburban Stop and Shops.

I’m thinking it’d be cool to make mayonnaise with the girls — by hand, so they can really feel how it happens. Then we could use it to make different fillings for deviled eggs. (Peeling the eggs will be a great project in and of itself, since it takes for-fucking-ever to peel eggs.)

I was thinking about making sugar glass, just for the hell of it; it would be pretty, and sugar is cheap.

We could make fast things like biscuits and we can make slow things like the pain de mie I like to make, which takes two days to make. We could try to make croissants maybe, or challah.

There are a few things I know for sure, before this project starts. I am going to need to lay in new supplies. Dozens of eggs. Another large sack of flour, and maybe ten pounds of sugar. I have six pounds of butter in the freezer, but have a feeling that won’t see me through. Also, the long span of countertop that I usually don’t mind if it gets cluttered up?

Yeah. I better go start working on clearing that space. It’s gonna take me a week to get it to where I’ll need it to be.

This is going to be fun. I may want to cry at the end of the week from sheer exhaustion, but I actually think it’ll be fun.

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The Day is Fucked but the Bread is Good

By seven in the morning I knew the day wasn’t going to go right. I won’t go into details; let’s just say, I knew. “The way you know a good melon,” as the lady says in “When Harry Met Sally,” which I swear to God isn’t a movie I quote all the time. In this case, it was true. By seven, several little things had gone haywire and everyone in the house was pissy and I thought, “It’ll be okay. I just have to get my daughter off to school, and we’ll all shake it off.”

There was a two-hour school delay today thanks to a snow-ish weather event, but even so I had my daughter get cleaned up and dressed by 8 a.m. like it was a regular morning. She spent a long while playing with some blocks and some marbles and then started punching the pillows on my bed. I tolerated this for about two minutes, at which point I’d had quite enough and said, “You want to punch something, go roll up your sleeves, wash your hands, and knock down the Japanese milk bread dough that we started yesterday.”

She didn’t think that sounded fun, because she was too antsy to think anything sounded fun, but I made her do it and she knocked the dough around and managed to get some of her energy out. We set up the dough yesterday, after school let out early, and I’d let it rise overnight. The dough this morning was cold from the fridge, but nice and smooth. “Like a baby’s tush,” my daughter told me, having given in to enjoying the experience of kneading such good, soft dough.

Japanese milk bread is like an inch away from being pain de mie. Since I make pain de mie all the freaking time, when I first heard about Japanese milk bread I thought, “I could totally do that,” and made a mental note to do it, but of course I lost the mental note. However, I was reminded of the bread’s existence over the weekend, and decided that this would be the week I made it. For readers who don’t know: Japanese milk bread is a sweet white bread that is made with something called a tangzhong, which is a roux made of water and flour (no fat) and I guess sometimes milk. You whisk this sauce up on the stove before you do anything else. Once it’s cooled to about 110°, you can add your flour, yeast, salt, some sugar, and some butter. You knead the dough for ten minutes — you really don’t want to skimp on the kneading, from what I understand — and then you let it rise. In my case, I used about 1/3 tsp. yeast, maybe four or five cups of flour (bread flour, too — fancy — because every recipe I saw really did insist on bread flour, not all-purpose), half a cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt. The recipe called for four tablespoons of butter but I think I wound up using three. The recipe also called for an egg, but I didn’t use it; I wanted to see what it would be like eggless, and I wanted to have a really white loaf of bread — and I knew that if I added an egg, the color would be ever-so-slightly creamy. So. I pared down, and moved onward.

The dough didn’t look like anything particularly special when I began to shape it this morning. It did roll out nicely, though. The deal with this bread is, you divide it up into balls and you roll out each ball so it is a long oval. Then you fold up the oval much the way you’d fold dough for making croissants — into thirds, like a letter going into an envelope — and then (unlike with croissants) you roll the “letter” from one side to another, right to left, or left to right, I guess, I don’t see how it matters, to form a fat little log.

You line the fat little logs up in your buttered bread pan and you let the bread rise a final time and then you bake at 350° for about 40 minutes.

My daughter and I kneaded and rolled and shaped the dough and I had it in the pan to rise by ten in the morning; I then focused my attention on getting her ready to go to school. “Ok, you need to go put on your shoes,” I was saying, when suddenly she howled.

It took me a longish moment to realize that something was actually wrong; my daughter was sitting on the couch and staring red-eyed at her foot. I gleaned that she had a splinter, and I said, “Ok, it’s just a splinter, we’ll take it out.” But even I was impressed when I sat down on the couch and looked at the bottom of my daughter’s foot. She had a mother of a splinter that had slid horizontally into her foot in a most painful place. She begged me to remove it; I said I’d get tweezers, which is a phrase that I don’t think any child likes hearing.

The morning I had planned — such as I’d been able to retain a mental plan — was over.

Fortunately, bread dough is forgiving stuff. I spent the rest of the day tending my daughter’s sad foot, with occasional breaks for bread-related activity. The results, by the end of the day, are that the bastard of a splinter has finally come out, and I’ve baked my first loaf of Japanese milk bread. We sampled the bread, my daughter and I, early in the afternoon, while she was soaking her foot in Epsom salts for the fourth time. I figured that even though she’d hardly had a rigorous day (foot-soaking isn’t stressful, after all, and she was seated quite comfortably with a pillow at her back and a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books), she might feel peckish. “Try some bread,” I said, handing her a slice.

“This is good,” she said, “It’s just like your pain de mie, but it’s softer.”

Nailed it, kid. I am now thinking that if I want to make a kind of superstar pain de mie, the trick to it would be making a small batch of tangzhong to mix in at the beginning. I see a summer in front of me, a summer of sandwiches built on endless loaves of tangzhong pain de mie. I’m having guests for dinner on Saturday night; I have no idea what I’ll be serving — most likely some kind of roast chicken — but something tells me I’m going to make a loaf of Japanese milk bread rolls (or maybe a braided version? hm) to serve with the meal. My plan (which may go awry, who the hell knows) is, I’m going to eat a lot of Japanese milk bread in the next week, while I can. Soon it’ll be Passover, and I’ll want lovely memories of delicious bread to sustain me as I get through eight days of peanut butter and matzo sandwiches. Which reminds me: I need to go buy matzo.

 

I said I would make peanut butter fudge.

A few months ago a member of my household who shall remain nameless began to ask me, “How come you never make peanut butter fudge?” This, as if I spend all my time making other kinds of fudge and I’m just fucking with him by not making peanut butter fudge.

(I guess that pronoun kind of gave things away. Oh well.)

Here’s the thing: I never make fudge at all. I think once I tried to make that Marshmallow Fluff fudge they have the recipe for on the back of a tub of Fluff but I don’t even remember how it came out. I guess it was probably fine. However, when my husband began to talk about peanut butter fudge, like, specifically, and on a regular basis, I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll make some one of these days.”

I decided to make a batch of it for his birthday, but what with making Boston cream pies and lemon cakes the whole peanut butter fudge thing got away from me slightly. I did not have the time to invest in making it the way I’d like to — the way that requires spending serious time paying attention to cooking sugar on the stove. Instead, I made the down and dirty kind you find a recipe for online involving Marshmallow Fluff. And it’s not bad! It’s fluffy and peanut buttery and you can eat two pieces of it happily and if you’re smart you don’t have a third piece because you will get the collywobbles. Not that I have any personal experience with this, thank God; but common sense snuck up on me and, you know. Just stop at two, ok?

The fudge I made is poured into an 8×8″ pan — if I were to do this over I might even fish around to see if I had a smaller square casserole or similar to pour it into. You line the pan with tinfoil and butter the foil. (This is not optional.) Then, in a saucepan (I used a small Dutch oven) you melt a couple teaspoons of butter in two cups of white sugar and 1/2 cup of milk. You cook this, stirring constantly, until the sugar melts, and you bring it to a boil and simmer for three minutes. Do not stop stirring, and run the spoon or spatula along the sides of the pan to bring sugar that sticks there down into the goo. After the three minutes are up, remove pan from heat, and stir in 7 ounces of marshmallow fluff and about 1 1/2 cups of peanut butter (your choice as to what kind, I guess; I used Skippy smooth). Pour this into your prepared pan and chill for several hours. The website I pulled this from claims it makes 64 pieces of fudge, which is total bullshit, unless your idea of a piece of fudge is something the size of a sugar cube. I don’t remember exactly how many pieces I got out of my 8×8″ pan but it was more like 36 pieces of fudge. Which is enough, don’t get me wrong — I had plenty for the birthday boy and some for a neighbor who had expressed a deep interest in sampling some peanut butter fudge (and I gave him enough that he and his teenaged sons could each have a piece or two). But, math-challenged as I am, even I know that 36 is not the same thing as 64. Now: let’s move on to the important question, namely: Is this stuff worth eating?

The answer is, Yes, but it’s clearly not real peanut butter fudge. I refer to it as “Baby Peanut Butter Fudge” — it’s a first step toward the real thing. Real peanut butter fudge is — if my research is indicative of the process — a much more finicky and daunting operation, requiring you to bring sugar to a boil to very precise temperatures and maintaining those temperatures for very precise lengths of time. Generally speaking this is my impression of how it is making any kind of fudge, which is why I’ve never gotten into it. But I’ve come to see, tasting this Fluff version, that I really do have to give it a roll sometime. The Fluff version is quite tasty. It has a certain almost halvah-like quality, which is enjoyable; my husband said it reminded him vaguely, too, of Circus Peanuts, which he likes, he claims, but for me that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I mean, this is good to eat, for sure, and my neighbor reported he and his sons snarfed down their share of the goods, too.

Me, I missed the smooth denseness of the kind of peanut butter fudge you can get in fancy candy stores. The kind of fudge where, when you bite into it, your teeth leave a sharp scalloped edge behind. That’s the kind of fudge I want to make. And the more I think about it, the more I want to make it, even though I know in my heart that I’m not likely to be able to achieve fudge nirvana, and that I could well wind up with a panful of very hard grainy weirdness than I wind up just melting down again and whisking with heavy cream to serve as an ice cream topping.

But look: if that’s the result of a cooking failure? Please.

My daughter has a week off from school coming up and I am thinking about creating a One Week Cooking School for her, to give us something to do and to give her a chance to get to work in the kitchen a little more. I sense a peanut butter fudge project in our near future. The potential for disaster is considerable, yes, but on the other hand… even crappy peanut butter fudge is, presumably, better than no peanut butter fudge at all?

Screwing Around with Lemon Cake

My husband’s birthday called for a cake to be served Day Of and I asked him, “What kind of cake do you want?” Most years he picks something chocolate-oriented, but this year he broke down and said, “What I really want is a lemon cake with lemon frosting.” This was very brave of him because he knows I hate lemon cake with lemon frosting, and basically what he was saying was, “I want a cake that I know you will not enjoy making or eating.”
But he works hard, and he supports our little family, and frankly, he deserves a lemon cake, even if he drives me nuts. So I spent some time thinking hard about lemon cake. “Do you mean lemon cake or lemon pound cake?” I asked him, in hopes of really nailing down a concept. He said, “I don’t care.” “You said you wanted lemon frosting,” I pressed on. “Do you mean, like, a light, whipped, fluffy frosting? Or the kind of thick icing that forms a dense layer on top of the cake?” “I mean the dense layer kind,” he said decisively.

“Ok then,” I said. I began to pull out cookbooks and spread them out on the dining table and on the kitchen counter. By 8.30 in the morning, I’d gotten my butter and eggs to room temperature and I was ready to roll.

After reading many recipes, some of which called for more eggs than I had on hand, I settled on a lemon cake recipe that I found via Smitten Kitchen — it’s really an Ina Garten recipe, I’m told. It calls for a manageable two sticks of butter and four extra-large eggs (for which I substituted three jumbo eggs). This is a recipe that produces one nice big Bundt cake or two normally-sized loaf cakes; today I opted to do two loaf cakes.

It took me nearly an hour to assemble the batter for this cake, what with zesting several lemons and squeezing lemon juice. I don’t mind squeezing lemons, thanks to the miraculous Juice-O-Matic I nicked from my parents’ front closet when they got ready to sell their apartment about 15 years ago, but zesting citrus fruit is not a task I really get excited about. But I rose to the challenge. I laid out a sheet of wax paper at the dining table and sat down with a bowlful of lemons and my fine-tooth Microplane and I zested the little fuckers thoroughly until I had 1/3 of a cup of fine lemon zest.

The batter mixed up nicely and I poured it into the prepared (greased, floured, parchmented) loaf pans and then I baked them for an hour. When the cakes came out of the oven, I made a lemon simple syrup (1/2 cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup granulated sugar), and after the cakes had cooled out of the pans for a little while, but while they were still warm, I took a toothpick and carefully poured the syrup into the holes. The idea is this somehow makes the interior of the cake even better than it was originally. How this is possible — these are, after all, just lemon cakes — is beyond me, but hey, I do what I’m told.

I washed the endless dishes and then I took the last of the lemon syrup and used it to make the frosting for the cakes. This turned out to be the one aspect of the cake that I really had to wing on my own because no source I turned to seemed able to give me a recipe that would produce what I wanted. Almost every recipe I saw for “lemon cake frosting” or “lemon cake glaze” produced either the light fluffy sort of thing I’d been told to not make, or a very thin, drippy glaze that would dry to a clear varnish on the cake. This wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I read many, many recipes, and after a while it dawned on me that I had what it took to make my frosting. I did a few more Google searches to see if anyone else was doing what I was about to do, and came up empty handed. It must be out there somewhere, but I don’t see it anywhere.

What I did was I took about three ounces of cream cheese and beat it in the Kitchen Aid until it was smooth — the way I might if I were adding cream cheese to a buttercream frosting. And then I whipped in something like 1/4 of a cup of lemon simple syrup — stuff that was leftover from soaking the cake. I added a couple of cups of confectioner’s sugar and, when this resulted in something a little bit thicker than I wanted (I need to be able to pour this in very thick ribbons over the cakes) I splashed in maybe a tablespoon or two of milk.

The stuff I made was a cross between a frosting and a glaze, really; had I whipped in more sugar, or added a whipped egg white, it could have been an incredibly fluffy lemon frosting. As it was I had a very dense, heavy substance that I knew wouldn’t exactly harden but would form a crust as the top of it dried. Very importantly: it would be visible: white, not just a layer of sugary shine on top of the cakes. I poured it carefully over both of the cooled loaf cakes (pouring this stuff on a warm cake would, I know, be a disaster, don’t you even think about it) and then I set them aside for several hours. By the time we cut into one of the cakes, around eight o’clock, there was indeed a thin crust on top of the glaze, which had hardened into a soft, slightly-glossy, not-quite-solid, white mass on top of the cakes; handsome drippy bits fell down the sides here and there, just like in the magazines.

It occurs to me that it might have made for a somewhat prettier glaze if I’d cooked the lemon syrup with some corn syrup and then added that combination to the cream cheese. There are certainly ways to make this glaze work in a more fondant-y manner and yet taste better than fondant. Maybe I’ll work on that. A chocolate variant of it is already forming in my mind, too.

But regardless: the cake was viewed as a success. When I cut into the cake I had no idea of what to expect. What effect would the soak have had? What would the crumb look like? How would all of this taste?

Well, due to the soak being applied to the bottom crust of the cake, the bottom of the cake had a distinctly more sharply lemony flavor to it than the rest of the crumb; but there was a distinct lemon flavor to the whole cake. I found the frosting too puckery, but my husband and child seemed to like it. I did finish the thin slice I’d cut for myself — probably the first time I’ve eaten an entire serving of any lemon dessert — but am not moved to eat any more. The rest of the family, though, will presumably decimate the rest of the cake very easily in the next couple of days.

And what of the second loaf? “Can we freeze it so I can have lemon cake later?” my husband asked eagerly — the subtext being, “Can you not give this cake away, but freeze it so that  can have it, for god’s sake, some time when I’m tired of eating Mallomars and hot fudge?”

I’ve wrapped it up tight in many layers of plastic wrap. It’s in the freezer. And in the meantime I’m going to think about chocolate simple syrup frostings.

When Two Cakes and Two Custards Equal One Boston Cream Pie

I have earned an entirely undeserved reputation as someone who can walk into the kitchen and emerge two or three hours later, unflapped and holding aloft a pretty decent cake. This is why I am relied upon to come up with birthday cakes and cakes for festive occasions. What people don’t realize is that the disasters they feel I am exempt from are, in fact, just as likely to befall me as them — the difference is, I think, that I allow for such disasters in terms of timing. In other words, it’s not a measure twice cut once situation: it’s a measure, mix, bake, and see if it works, and make sure you’re working with enough time such that if it doesn’t work, you can do a second measure, mix, and bake. Because the odds that disaster will strike twice are, truly, pretty slim.

Let us consider, for example, last Friday. We were expecting family to visit in honor of my husband’s birthday. I knew my husband would want some kind of fancy iced cake, and since I happened to be aware of our houseguest’s love of Boston Cream Pie, I decided that the thing to do was make a Boston Cream Pie. My husband is not against Boston Cream Pie, either, so really, it seemed like a safe bet, in terms of “will people be happy with this.”
Now, normally I would view this as too much of a pain in the ass to take on, but there were some extenuating circumstances. One: birthday. Two: I already had a jar of fudge in the fridge which would work very well as the chocolate icing. Three: I have a tub of Bird’s Custard in the sweet drawer, which means I thought I wouldn’t have to fuss with making a real pastry cream (something I’m sure I could do, but didn’t want to start experimenting with just then).

“No problem,” I said to myself, and I stared at a Nigella Lawson recipe for Victoria sponge and thought, “Perfect.” I whipped up my Victoria sponge batter, it looked great, I bunged it into the pans precisely as instructed, and when I went to examine the cooled layers an hour later I saw that my nice cake layers had undeniably crashed. What I had was two lovely vanilla pancakes. “Okay,” I said to myself, looking at the clock. “This sucks. BUT. Onward.” I had two hours in which to bake a second cake, and I managed to get two very nice Golden Vanilla cake layers out of the oven in good time (God bless King Arthur Flour for that recipe, along with everything else they do).

I had hoped — naively — that I would have the entire cake assembled before my husband came home from work, but it was not to be. Instead, come 5.30 Friday evening, while he stood around the kitchen having a beer with our houseguest, I worked on the custard filling. Which failed. This isn’t fair: it was Bird’s, there was nothing to fail, exactly; the problem was that I abused the product and overcooked it and wound up with something I could not use as a cake filling. I had to throw out a panful of rubbery custard and start over. The second time around, I managed to get it more or less right, and I forced the necessary cooling by dunking the pan in an ice bath (worked pretty well! whisk hard all the while you’re doing this, though, lest the custard get weird on you). My husband tried to not watch me and tried to stay out of my way, aware that as I swore and gritted my teeth, I was doing all of this ostensibly for his benefit (though it’s really both for his benefit and out of my own sense of obligation because this is something I should be able to do). “You realize,” I snarled at once point, “that this is actually the second cake I’ve baked today.” He got a look of horror on his face — suddenly understanding that the frustration he was witnessing over the custard was really just the tip of the iceberg. “It’ll be fine,” I said, “I’ve got the chocolate layer taken care of anyhow.” This thought was, in fact, comforting, and I cooled as the custard did, feeling like I could get this done without throwing anything against a wall.

I did have to whip up a little more hot fudge sauce, in the end, because it turned out the jar of sauce I had in the fridge wasn’t quite enough to cover the job — but making hot fudge sauce is, I swear on all that’s holy (the Joy of Cooking, for example) that making hot fudge sauce is infinitely easier than making a cake or custard. Making hot fudge sauce is like this: you take about 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of butter, and some whole milk or cream or even evaporated milk (maybe 2/3 of a cup), and you whisk it together over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for three or four minutes. You could put in a dash of salt if you wanted. Cook and stir — do not stop stirring, ever — and after a few minutes take it off the heat. Sprinkle in about 1/2 cup chocolate chips and a dash of vanilla and stir until the chocolate chips have melted. Depressingly, this is all it takes to make hot fudge sauce that is perfect on ice cream but is even better to eat by the spoonful straight from the jar. It also makes a perfect topping for a Boston Cream Pie; the corn syrup makes it nice and glossy and you can do things like what I did, and use a spatula to swirl the birthday boy’s initial into the chocolate, just for kicks.

My husband missed seeing me make the extra hot fudge sauce, because he was out picking up the Chinese food we’d ordered for dinner (his choice! not a matter of my being unwilling to cook!). If he had witnessed it being made, he might be less impressed by it. However, the upside of his having gone to get dinner was that by the time he got home, I had assembled the Boston Cream Pie and knew it would be a humdinger.

Yes, there are things I’d do differently next time. Next time, for one thing, I think I’ll attempt a real pastry cream, with actual eggs, and I’ll make a lot of it so that I can have a really nice, thick layer of it between the cake layers — I was a bit stingy with filling this cake. For another thing — well, come to think of it, there isn’t another thing. This cake was otherwise perfect. The cake itself was wonderful, the chocolate was excellent, and we ate all of it up by the end of Sunday.

Which is lucky, because my husband’s actual birthday is this week, and we need to make room for the lemon cake he’s asked me to make him. I’ve never made a lemon cake before, so the truth is, this will be an adventure as well… but what could go wrong?

Getting Friendly with Laminated Dough: An Unexpected Turn of Events

My daughter was thrilled by the idea of my making croissants mostly because she believed that if it was something I did in the kitchen it would involve chocolate. The first time I made croissants, I said no. I didn’t want to attempt a variant of something before I felt comfortable with the process for the basic item first. It’d be like if I asked her — a kid just learning to write reasonable sentence — “Go write a villanelle.”

But we had a lot of snow days last week and so I suppose it was inevitable that I would turn toward the idea of chocolate croissants. Which are probably properly called pains au chocolat. Whatever. I made croissant dough and formed it around bits of chocolate and baked it.

This time around I took a slightly different approach to the dough, modeling it after the dough in the KAF recipe (which I linked to in my earlier essay on croissants), and relying much more on my sense of touch. That first dough I’d made was rather tough, and I was confident it should have had more water in it. This time around, working as snow fell heavily and wind howled and we hung around eating leftover Christmas chocolate and talking about how surely there would be no school the next day, I used a little more water, and was rougher with it, and the dough quickly became the elastic thing I wanted. As my husband admitted that even though his office was formally closed, he intended to go to work the next day, snow day be damned, I put the dough in the fridge to rest overnight and said, “Well, tomorrow, we’re making chocolate croissants. We’ll be pounding butter bright and early.”

The next morning, my daughter learned how to pound butter and did quite well until she pounded the tip of one of her fingers with the rolling pin by accident. She went sulking up to the third floor, where my husband had gone to putter about (having looked out the window and realized that his plan to go to work was completely not happening). This left me to work on the croissants by myself.

By this point, I’ve gotten comfortable with the process and I understand what kind of timing is involved and I more or less know what to do. So I rolled out the dough and I made my butter envelope and I let it rest and then I began rolling it out again and doing the turns. I made four turns. Everything was going beautifully. I thought for sure my daughter would want to help me put the chocolate into the sections of dough to roll up, but no, she was busy doing something important like playing with stuffed Microbe dolls, so I got to do it on my own. I do not own the fancy chocolate sticks one traditionally uses in pain au chocolat. I do have the rather large bittersweet Ghirardelli chocolate chips, and used those instead. I lined them up neatly at one end of the rectangles of dough I’d cut and rolled up the dough. The little rolls looked perfect, if I do say so myself. On the small side, compared to what you’d get in a bakery, but that wasn’t a problem. Looking at the sides of the rolls you could see the lamination. It was, if I do say so myself, an impressive job — so much so that I told my husband, “C’mere and take a look at these. These are PERFECT.” And he dutifully came into the kitchen and admitted: the little rolls looked perfect.

I let them rise for about an hour and then I brushed them with egg mixed with water and I baked them.

The baking process turned a little harrowing. I tried to take the sophisticated approach, which meant starting the croissants in a rather hot oven (about 425°) and then turning the heat down after ten or so minutes. What I became aware of, after turning the heat down, was that the croissants were just leaching butter. There were pools of butter forming on the parchment paper. “Aw, CRAP!” I wailed. My husband peered in through the oven window. “But the dough still looks flaky!” he reassured me. “I bet they’ll be great!”

“They’ll be greasy messes!” I said, frustrated. I peered in again through the window. “What a mess!” I sighed. “Needless to say we will eat them anyway.”

I had to bake them a little longer than I expected to get them really golden on top but after about 15 minutes I felt confident that they were as good as they were going to get, and I took the pans out of the oven. After they’d cooled a bit, I noticed that the butter problem seemed to have gone away somewhat. When I removed them from the pan and put them on a cooling rack, they looked genuinely fine. And once they were cool enough to handle and eat, we each had one, and…. there was, seriously, nothing wrong whatsoever with these chocolate croissants. They were, in fact, delightful. My husband began to eat a second one.

“You realize that there’s half a pound of butter in these sixteen croissants,” I said to him.

“Really,” he said. “That’s a lot of butter.”

“It really is,” I said.

Today I went to the dentist and he remarked to me (after complimenting me on not having any cavities) that he’d heard from my husband, who had a checkup at the end of last week, that I’d had a pleasant couple of snow days at home with my daughter. “It was fine,” I said, laughing. “We made chocolate croissants.”

“I know!” he said. Apparently he’d asked my husband, at the end of his appointment, if he had nice plans for the weekend. And my husband had said something along the lines of, “I’m going to go home and eat the chocolate croissants my wife and child made this morning.”
God only knows what our dentist thinks of us now.

It is a funny thing about making chocolate croissants, now that I think about it. In the days since I made them, I’ve now discussed them with several medical professionals. Not one of them has said to me anything along the lines of “gee, don’t you worry about eating that much fattening food?” or “wow, I hope you ate a pound of broccoli to offset those croissants.” No: they’ve asked me, “How’d you do that? Boy, that must be hard.”

The sad thing is, what I’ve learned is, it’s really not hard. It’s just, as I always knew and said it would be, a giant pain in the ass. And I’m already thinking about when I might make them again.

Before 2017 ended, I realized, there was one last thing to do.

 

For several years my husband, who is not, despite what you may think, a very demanding person when it comes to my cooking*, has wondered why it is that I’ve never made croissants. I have always had a very tidy answer to this question: “I’ve never made croissants because it is a giant pain in the ass.”

I try to avoid making things that are a giant pain in the ass to make. Beef Wellington, for example: I have zero plans to make beef Wellington. My husband would love it if I did (he’d love it more if he made it, since then he’d have bragging rights), but I’m not gonna do it. I also have no plans to make a Buche de Noel, though I admit that every December I think about it (and then think better of it as I do not own a jelly roll pan and have no plans to buy one). Friends have assured me that it is not so hard to make a Buche de Noel; to them I say, How Jolly For You. I’m not making one (yet).

There are two elements of a recipe that can turn me off it, just speaking categorically, and they are: huge expense in terms of ingredients, and the stakes in terms of failure. If you fuck up a Beef Wellington, you’re out a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of money. This is more than I can bear, and so, no Beef Wellington.

But look. This year, I made Black Cake, which really IS a GIANT pain in the ass, and it was a considerable success, such that — despite my initial protests I would never do this again, I have already made and discussed publicly plans to make Black Cake again in 2018. I am already making my shopping list, and I have people asking to be on the list of cake recipients next December. And as I write this, it is New Year’s Eve. I mean, we are all seriously planning ahead. So despite the considerable expense for the ingredients, and the considerable time it takes to make Black Cake, and the general mental energy required to make Black Cake, and — this is huge — despite the fact that I only kind of like the stuff myself, I know I’m going to make it again. I did it in 2017 after thinking about it for nearly 25 years. I can do it in 2018.

Along similar lines: It was last Sunday when I thought to myself, “You know, I could make croissants. If I can make Black Cake, I can make croissants.” Croissants do not require fancy ingredients. It’s just a regular dough, and rather a lot of butter. But it’s not even that much butter, as these things go. So I set about reading croissant recipes for about thirty minutes. I gleaned that I would have to make the dough and set it aside for quite some time. Like 24 hours. So I quickly mixed up a dough, basically combining the recipes I read in the Joy of Cooking with stuff I read online from, I forget, David Lebowitz maybe and someone else. I used less yeast than any of the recipes called for, because I’m cranky that way, but otherwise I was pretty good about doing what I was told. All the recipes are pretty much the same. You make a yeast dough with some butter in it and you set it in the fridge to sit for a while.

In my case, “a while” means two days, because I lost track of time on Monday. Bear in mind, please, Monday was Christmas Day. I had a lot of stuff going on Christmas Day. Cooking for Christmas Day was its own special affair and the last thing I needed was to figure out how to make croissants in the middle of it.

So it was Tuesday, Boxing Day, when I finally tackled the hard part of making croissants. Seven in the morning found me standing in my pajamas at the kitchen counter with my big long rolling pin.

[Side note: I fortunately own the kind of tapered rolling pin that is recommended for this sort of thing, and I’d urge you to ditch your old-fashioned wooden one with handles and get one of these tapered ones, too, because they are just better. If you can spend the $15 or whatever, do it. I say this as someone who contentedly, for years, used a wine bottle as a rolling pin. I think spending real money on rolling pins is stupid. However, after years of hating rolling things out with the handled pin I eventually acquired through a tag sale or something, I finally broke down and bought this tapered job, and let me tell you, it changed my baking game significantly. I am now someone who has no fear of rolling out cookies or dough. Or, it turns out, whacking butter between two sheets of wax paper at seven in the morning on Boxing Day.]

It would have been a very pretty scene had I been standing at the counter in my pajamas rolling out dough for, say cinnamon rolls — I’m sure my family would have liked that a lot, come to think of it! So placid and cozy-sounding, right? But no. I was standing there whacking at chunks of butter that I had arranged carefully, like a monochromatic Mondrian painting, between two sheets of wax paper. It was loud. It was dramatic. It was seriously not placid at all. My daughter, eating her oatmeal, looked warily toward the kitchen. My husband, drinking his coffee, looked at me thoughtfully and then turned to our daughter and said, “I think Mama’s finally lost her mind.”

“I have not lost my mind,” I said. “I am making croissants!”

My husband clearly had doubts about this but kept quiet.

I pounded the butter into roughly the correct size of parallelogram and put it in the fridge so it would stay that way. I opened the Dutch oven full of dough, which had been sitting on the counter since six a.m. It was still very cold. This meant it would be somewhat difficult to work with, but I was unfazed and began the extremely tedious process of rolling it out to form a rectangle measuring some specific thing; I don’t know how big it was, I can’t remember. I floured my pastry cloth (e.g. my favorite old cotton tea towel) and got to work. It was not easy. This was a tough dough, and it was cold, and it was by this point twenty after seven and I had not had enough coffee and for god’s sake, it was all lunacy. Because no one needs homemade croissants.

You have to roll the dough out to a certain size such that you can then place the big flat butter slab (which is supposed to measure something by something, exactly, a perfect square) into the middle of the dough. Then you’re supposed to take your big perfect square of dough and fold the dough up around the butter. No butter can be visible afterwards. It needs to be sealed into its dough envelope flawlessly, or you have invited disaster into your home. You have to know this at the outset: it is very easy to fuck this up royally.

Having achieved dough-butter-envelope perfection, you then place this flat object, wrapped in wax paper, in the fridge to let it (sorry) chill out for a while. Like 20 minutes or so.

Here’s the big problem with making croissants, people: it’s not that any one step of it is so difficult. It’s that the process requires endless stop-and-wait things. It’s like a Hollywood set, full of hurry-up-and-wait, but with a lot more butter. So very annoying. This is, I’m sure, why I’m not a Hollywood movie star, or a pastry chef.

You take the dough-and-butter from the fridge and put it on the pastry cloth again and now you start the really exciting part: Laminating the dough. This does not involve sheets of plastic or weird epoxies (thank god) but it does involve rolling the dough out to just-so dimensions and then folding the dough over itself, like you’re folding a letter, and then letting the dough rest (again, and yes, again in the fridge) and rolling it out again. You have to do this four times. Well, some recipes say three times. Some say four. I did four. There’s some PERFECT NUMBER of layers that are achieved, people say, in a perfect croissant, and the humber of turns you make determines the number of layers. Whatever these numbers are, they are large and daunting and really more than I want to think about. The point is, you make these turns, you keep resting the dough and rolling it out and making these turns, and it’s all, as I said at the beginning of this essay, a giant pain in the ass.

Eventually you reach a stage where you have to cut the dough into sections and roll it out and make little triangles which you then roll up and shape so they look like croissants. Because I’m an idiot, I rolled eight or nine croissants thinking, “These don’t look right,” before I realized that I was taking my isosceles triangles of dough and rolling them up from the wrong side, resulting in strange-looking pastries. Fortunately, this dough was forgiving and it let me unroll and re-roll each and every croissant. Then they looked nice. Well, reasonably good anyhow. (I now realize I forgot to cut an all-important notch into the dough to allow for the dough to curve just so as I was rolling.) The croissants were placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet (some recipes said to use buttered pans; I said “fuck that”), splooshed some egg wash on them, and then set them to rise. I was advised to let them rise in an environment where the temperature was some very specific thing — something between 85° and 115°, I remember reading somewhere. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said cheerfully, as I preheated the oven and quickly got it to 90°. I put the pans in to the oven and closed the door thinking, “Ok, I’ve got to start to clean up the living room, and I’ve gotta do laundry.” In some ways, all this starting and stopping allows you to go do other things while you’re baking, but let’s face it: if you have to constantly interrupt an activity to go focus on another activity, it means you’re not doing either thing with optimum focus. Fortunately for me, doing laundry and cleaning the living room are not mentally taxing activities, they’re just shit that has to get done.

It took maybe an hour for the croissants to have the puffy look and “jiggle” that they’re supposed to get before baking. Once they’ve risen, you take them out of the oven, preheat the oven to the scary hot temperature called for  — 425° was what I did — and you watch them carefully while they bake. The first ten minutes of baking isn’t so exciting but the thing is, croissants, I’ve learned, can burn very suddenly. King Arthur Flour advises to bake for 15 minutes at 425° and then turn the heat down to 350° for another 15 minutes, and that seems like sage advice I will take into consideration if I ever do this again. I admit, I had not read the KAF instructions before undertaking this enterprise, a mistake I will not make again.

Taking these croissants out of the oven was a moment of wonder and awe. It really was incredible to me that I had made these things that looked, okay, smaller than the croissants we can buy at Marjolaine, but still, remarkably like real, proper croissants. My daughter came trotting into the kitchen to see the results of this long project. “Can I have one?” she asked. I handed her one saying, “Be careful, they’re really hot!” and she ripped one in half and crammed some into her mouth. Then she rolled her eyes in ecstasy. “Really?” I asked.

“Oh my god,” she said.

I brought one on a plate to my husband. “Have a look,” I said.

“Wow,” he said. He ripped it open and said, with respect and not a little surprise, “That is the real deal.” We ate several croissants then and there — they were not very large, don’t be disgusted with us. My daughter was already talking about how the next time I’d make chocolate croissants. My husband was thinking spinach and feta. I have not announced any plans to ever do this again, but it seems self-evident that this will happen again.

When it does, I’m going to try to operate on the mode prescribed here, at King Arthur Flour.

because, let’s face it, KAF does not steer people wrong. I will have to think about how to handle the chocolate question: do I want to buy these special bars of chocolate, or can I just sprinkle some frozen chocolate chips in the dough and pray? There are many questions remaining to be answered. But it seems that 2018 will be the year the Hausfrau ceases to be a croissant novice. Similarly, I am already adding Black Cake ingredients to my shopping list.

Maybe a couple extra pounds of butter, too.

*I think he would be genuinely bummed out if I started serving us all frozen food for dinner every night, particularly since I am a housewife and ostensibly have nothing better to do than make nice meals for us to enjoy. I mean, if I’m sick with a fever or something, that’s one thing, he doesn’t expect a serious dinner. He’s not a jerk that way. By and large he is a considerate and thoughtful person and it is extremely unusual for him to complain about anything I’ve cooked; similarly, he doesn’t demand certain meals, unless something special’s happening like it’s his birthday or something and he’s obviously allowed to make special requests then. That said, he will occasionally ask pointed questions regarding things he does like that I don’t make. For example, croissants, or, another one that’s come up a few times in the last three months, peanut butter fudge. How come I never make peanut butter fudge? I’ve been asked this, in casual tones, at least twice in the last two months. So I’m thinking, now, it can’t be that hard to make peanut butter fudge, so I expect I’ll be making some in the months to come. Croissants, on the other hand, are a bit of a logistical nightmare, so it might be a while before I make them again. Unless I’m expecting a run of snow days, in which case I might have a mother-daughter activity be “Let’s Make Croissants!”

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.

 

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?

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