Your Mocha Pudding is Not Better Than This Mocha Pudding.

I’ve been on a pudding tear this week. I feel pudding does not get the respect it deserves. Some milk, some flavoring, some cornstarch, you’ve got a wonderful dessert that takes about ten minutes to put together. It’s refreshing on a hot day, comforting on a cold night, and anyone with any sense likes it.

Pudding gets short shrift; you don’t see it on dessert menus in restaurants, and if you do, it’s presented in fancier forms: mousses or chocolate pots de creme. Which are fine, don’t get me wrong. But they’re not pudding. No one serves pudding at dinner parties, and they should.

So this week, I had guests for Shabbat dinner, and I decided to take a strong stand on the matter and serve pudding for dessert. Why else do I have all these ramekins anyhow, right? I made two kinds of pudding: butterscotch and chocolate. I think all the children wound up with chocolate and all the adults wound up with butterscotch but no one seemed to feel they were missing out. At least, if they did, they played nice and I wasn’t aware of anyone feeling sad.

My husband whipped up some cream a la minute — causing one guest to express great awe that such a thing could be done by hand — and we had enough left over that I said this morning, “Well, it looks like I have to make more pudding.” So today, this afternoon, while it was raining and my daughter was rushing around the house giggling and screeching with a little pal, I went into the kitchen and made another batch of pudding.

This time, to use up the cup of coffee leftover from this morning, I made a mocha pudding. This is a trick Peg Bracken suggests but admits that if you did it too often you’d never want to eat pudding ever again. It’s true. On the other hand, tonight, it was absolutely delicious, and my daughter requested that mocha pudding and corn pudding be the only dishes served at Thanksgiving this week.

Mocha Pudding

This is basically a riff on the “best chocolate pudding” recipe as presented at Smitten Kitchen. However, it’s sufficiently different that I’m going to call it my own.

1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar plus maybe a tablespoon
1/8 teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream: get the best you can, ideally with no weird gums or additives
1 cup leftover coffee mixed with 1 cup of water and 3 tablespoons dry milk
1/8 cup regular cocoa powder; 1/8 cup Dutched/ Dutched blend cocoa powder: yes, I mean BOTH COCOAS, not just one
4 oz. milk chocolate (I had a Ghirardelli bar sitting around; you could use chocolate chips, whatever, I don’t care)

1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract

Put the first three ingredients into a medium heavy pot and whisk them together. In a measuring cup, combine the coffee with the water and dry milk; whisk together, and add the heavy cream. Pour about a cup of this mixture slowly into the pot and start to cook the cornstarch/sugar/salt sludge on low heat. When there aren’t any more cornstarch lumps and things are starting to look smooth, add the cocoa powders, and keep whisking.  Get all the lumps out! OUT! OUT DAMNED LUMPS! There must be no secret pockets of cocoa powder in this. Slowly add the rest of the liquid (careful not to splash) and whisk constantly. You will get annoyed because it’ll look like nothing is happening and you’re just making some sad somewhat greyed hot chocolate. Trust me, this is not just sad hot chocolate.

Turn up the heat to medium — not too high, though: you want to be sure the cornstarch is cooking gently. It will take a few minutes for this to thicken, but the thing about cooking with cornstarch is, it seems like nothing is happening nothing is happening nothing is happening and then SUDDENLY EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING, so be Johnny on the spot.  As soon as the pudding starts to thicken, add the milk chocolate and whisk whisk whisk to melt it into the pudding. Remove the pot from the stove entirely before the pudding thickens too much. It takes no time for a pudding to overcook disastrously. A pudding that is cooked past “coats the back of a spoon” is a pudding that, once chilled and set, feels like rubber in your mouth. Trust me, it’s a bad thing. No one’s happy when dessert tastes like chocolate dog-chew toy.

Having removed the pot from the heat, whisk in about a tablespoon of vanilla. Using a nice big serving spoon or a ladle or something other than the whisk, dole the pudding out into ramekins — it takes up six of the ramekins I have, not sure how many ounces per ramekin that is, but it’s a nice hefty little serving — and put them in the fridge for a few hours. Serve with whipped cream if that’s your kind of thing. It would be good plain too.

Some people will think this is too sweet. Deb Perelman at SK has revised her pudding, which started out with 1/2 cup sugar, down to 1/3 cup of sugar. If that’s how you feel about it fine, but I’m sticking with my slightly-overloaded-1/2 cup version.

And there you have it. Perfect mocha pudding. To have this be a straightforward chocolate pudding, leave out the coffee, and just use water instead to reconstitute the dry milk. You could also use evaporated milk instead of the heavy cream, or in addition to the heavy cream, or whatever. My point is that you don’t have to necessarily worry about having a whole fresh carton of milk in the fridge to get away with making this. I devised this recipe because I was making do, having run dangerously low on milk (since I’d just made pudding for 11 the other day). But this is why I keep powdered milk around. The “you never know” theory makes for astonishingly good puddings.

Just keep whisking.

Then go read Daniel Pinkwater’s essay about the time a pudding company wanted him to be their spokesman. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Pudding pudding pudding.

 

 

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Mr. Coffee Brush

A friend posted a query on Facebook: “Do many of my friends name inanimate objects they own? I just discovered people do this; I don’t know what to make of it.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. And I suddenly remembered, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to write a thing about Mr. Coffee Brush.”

Mr. Coffee Brush is not an accessory to the Mr. Coffee coffeemakers you can buy in fine department stores nationwide (wait, they still make Mr. Coffee machines, right?) (quick Google search: answer, Yes). Mr. Coffee Brush is a little brush we keep in our kitchen that is used exclusively for brushing coffee bean grounds out of the coffee grinder. We do not own a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker. There is no formal relationship between the company based in Cleveland, Ohio, and Mr. Coffee Brush. There is no informal relationship between the two. They are strangers to one another. But Mr. Coffee Brush is well-known in our household. This is to say, not only do my husband and I know who he is, but our daughter knows.

There have been two Mr. Coffee Brushes in our kitchen, over the years. The first one was an ancient, plastic-bristled basting brush that somehow wound up with us from I think my parents’ batterie de cuisine. There was really nothing elegant about it. It was, to be honest, a grungy little thing when I started using it around the year 2000. I mean, it was clean — don’t be grossed out — but it was not distinguished looking. It had a little plastic handle and a long twirled-wire neck, and then the end with the brush was just some yellowed-plastic bristles held close by a little plastic white cap. I began to use it to wipe coffee grounds from the coffee grinder my beau used to make the coffee every morning because I was skeeved out by all the coffee that didn’t get used because it didn’t fall automatically from the grinder into the coffee filter. I realized, one fine morning I can no longer recall (but I’m sure it was fine) that if I just brushed the coffee from the grinder, the machine would be cleaner and we wouldn’t waste coffee. This was the beginning of a coffee-grinder maintenance process that I maintained for aeons. Daily brushing, and every ten days or so I’d grind some raw white rice in the machine to make it possible to get the thing really clean again, wiping it out with a clean damp towel.

My beau thought this was freaking nuts but he was tolerant of me and my ways and I believe it was he who started referring to the brush as Mr. Coffee Brush. (He is welcome to dispute this.) Over the years, even he used it, grasping eventually that little bits of rancid ground coffee in the grinder do not add positively to the coffee-drinking experience. “Where is Mr. Coffee Brush?” we would ask each other, looking around the pantry, where the brush usually lived in a utility drawer near the sink.

Eventually Mr. Coffee Brush began to crap out. The bristles began to break. He went from being grungy-but-clean to being just… a piece of junk. I had to admit, Mr. Coffee Brush’s day had come and gone. And so I began to poke around looking for another item that could replace him.

I cannot recall, now, where I got the brush to replace Mr. Coffee Brush (1.0). But I can tell you that the presiding Mr. Coffee Brush is an entirely different kind of object. He has a round wooden handle and I think technically he’s really more of a pastry brush of some kind. The bristles are arranged in a circular way, not flat like a brush you’d use to paint your walls, and the handle is tapered: this is an object that some designer deliberately tried to make “attractive.” And it’s not unattractive; but it’s not all that interesting, either. It’s just a brush with 1 inch natural bristles of some kind. It’s fine.

At any rate, Mr. Coffee Brush (in new, more refined mode) joined our household’s batterie de cuisine. Someone who shall remain nameless drew a little face on the wooden handle, giving Mr. Coffee Brush a face. And it was shortly after that that we stopped buying coffee beans that we had to grind ourselves.

We moved to our current apartment, which was a shift that meant no more fancy coffee for a while (we started buying canned coffee grounds) and because our new kitchen was tiny and had dismal storage space, a high percentage of our kitchen gear was kept in large plastic boxes in the basement because there wasn’t room to unpack them into the kitchen. For several years, whenever we needed something, we had to go to the basement to find it. I knew that there were two Rubbermaid bins where I would find whichever odd item I needed: the springform pan, the muffin tins, the dopey little jar that held the dopey little corn cob holder thingies. Mr. Coffee Brush lived in one of those Rubbermaid bins. Then we renovated the kitchen, and most of our gear was finally unpacked. (It is really nice to have the muffin tins and springform pans and the food mill at hand; I admit, I am not sure where the corn cob holder thingies are.) But because we still didn’t really use our coffee grinder on a daily basis, I wasn’t moved to relocate Mr. Coffee Brush to the kitchen.

It was only about a year ago that I was rummaging around in one of those boxes looking for something (a bottle of linseed oil, as I recall) that I found Mr. Coffee Brush (and the bottle of linseed oil) and I thought, “Hey! What are you doing here?” There he was, bristles nice and clean, Sharpie’d little happy face smiling up at me in spite of being trapped in an airless plastic box for five years. He was undefeated, unfazed by his lack of love and attention; like a once-beloved stuffed animal shoved into a box in a closet, he was waiting for me all the while. I brought him back upstairs and put him in the top drawer in the kitchen, a place of honor. We almost never use him, and we almost never think of him, to be honest, because we still buy coffee in ground form and not whole beans.

 

Mr. Coffee BrushBut he’s right there in the kitchen drawer, next to the can opener and the kitchen scissors I like best because you can take the parts apart to wash them and the whisks and the vegetable peeler.

Even if we never buy whole bean coffee ever again, we’re keeping Mr. Coffee Brush. He’s nice to have around. You open the drawer, and there he is, smiling at you.

Measuring Kitchen Problems: Which is Worse, X or Y? Today: Oatmeal Edition

Some people find making oatmeal on the stove a horrible burden. It dirties a pot and a spoon in addition to the bowl out of which the oatmeal is eventually eaten.

So God gave us microwavable oatmeal, which is prepared in the bowl out of which one will eat.

The problem of course is that at least 50% of the time, despite even sophisticated use of microwave settings, the microwaved oatmeal explodes out of the bowl. So you open the microwave and find that you have to clean not only the bowl out of which you will eat (which you were anticipating, that’s not an issue) but also the glass platter that spins around on the floor of the microwave and, more annoyingly than that, the walls and floor and ceiling of the microwave itself.

So wouldn’t it just be simpler to make the oatmeal in a nice, easily cleaned, enameled cast-iron pot on the stove? It’ll still take about two minutes to cook. And if you can’t stand guard and prevent it boiling it over, there’s something wrong with your morning schedule, as far as I’m concerned. You could multi-task if you had to: you could brush your teeth while you stirred the oatmeal, or set up the coffee, or drink your coffee, or tie your tie maybe (depending on how long it takes you to tie a tie; you do need to stir the oatmeal so you need one hand available), or stare dully at your phone thinking how much the world sucks (most likely activity to be engaged in while cooking oatmeal, according to an unscientific poll that was conducted solely in my head).

My point is, cooking quick oatmeal in a pot isn’t a big deal, and cleanup of the pot and bowl aren’t a big deal, but cleaning the inside of the microwave is a pain in the ass. So just use the pot.

I realize that microwave oatmeal is a big deal for a lot of people. But, like so many time-saving-in-the-kitchen enterprises, I cannot help but wonder: are we saving time on one end only to create more of a time-suck on the other end? Because the six minutes it takes to wash off the microwave turntable and wipe down the inside of the microwave is definitely more time than it takes to make oatmeal in a pot, transfer the oatmeal to a bowl, and then wash the dirtied pot.

Some day we will talk about microwave popcorn.

Meandering Thoughts on Pizza Toppings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hausfrau and the Hobbit’s Coffeemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Things We Do for Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, good to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Instant Pot: Our New Doorstop

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made baked beans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except: can I cook pasta in an Instant Pot?

One Pot. One Bowl. One Hot Summer Evening. Cold Spicy Peanut Noodles with Chicken.

We are in the home stretch of Summer 2017. I had a short phase when there was this thing called Summer Camp and I would, daily, trot my daughter to her summer program, go away to lead a productive life, and then pick her up at three p.m. and continue on with my hands-on mothering. It was a short phase, a kind of golden era in which I did little that your MBA types would value, but I did contribute to the local economy and the house was fairly tidy.

Those days are gone. The house is a fucking disaster area. I feel unable to take it on. It is more or less all I can do, having gotten my daughter to 5 p.m. alive and in one piece, to make dinner, serve it, and make sure that we’re ready for the next day and whatever it may bring. (It needs to bring coffee by 6.30 a.m., that’s for damned sure; so the coffee has to be set up as soon as we’ve wiped down the kitchen counter. Otherwise, we wake up in the morning and the day is shit shit shit. But I digress.)

Yesterday I spent mostly in back-burner panic mode because I knew I’d have to make dinner and I really didn’t know what I could do, I just knew I didn’t want to spend a lot of money buying groceries to create it. Fuck it: I didn’t want to spend any money at all, but I knew I had to, because I’d already done some vegetarian dinners this week and it was clear that my husband would start to get cranky if I didn’t feed him a dead animal.

So we went to the grocery store and I bought two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a bunch of scallions.

I had, suddenly, a plan. I was going to make cold spicy peanut noodles with chicken. And I was going to do it in such a way that the cleanup would be minimal, because, goddamnit, I was not going to spend my evening washing dishes.

On getting back into the house I took out my stockpot and put about two quarts of water into it. I brought it to a boil and then put the chicken breasts in, then turned down the heat to a bare simmer. I added some soy sauce and a piece of star anise. And then I poached the chicken, cooking it for about twenty minutes. (I had thought it would take less time than that, but when I cut into it around 15 minutes, it was still raw in the middle. At twenty minutes or so, it was done.) I removed the chicken from the pot, put it into a bowl, and put the bowl into the fridge. I then removed the star anise from the pot (slotted spoons are our friends), brought the water and soy sauce back to a hard boil, and cooked a 12 oz. box of whole wheat thin spaghetti in the pot.

While the spaghetti cooked, I whomped up a bowlful of peanut sauce. This is the kind of thing I put together all the time to make “Asian” dishes and it’s never the same thing twice but no one cares ’cause it’s always good no matter what I do. In a mixing bowl I whip together peanut butter, soy sauce, and spices. Thinned with water if needed (it’s not so needed if you’re using this as a dip, but as a sauce for noodles, it definitely needs thinning), this is crazy versatile and you throw it together so fast it’s nearly painless. Last night, I used 1 cup of Skippy peanut butter, 1/2 cup soy sauce,  1 tsp. granulated garlic (because I really didn’t have it in me to peel fresh garlic, which should give you a sense of how fried I felt), 1 tsp. Sriracha, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, almost two tablespoons granulated sugar, a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, and about a teaspoon of chili powder. This made a very thick paste, which I thinned with water from the noodle pot — it probably took about a cup of water to get this to the correct consistency.

I drained the noodles in a colander, ran them under cold water for a moment, returned the noodles to the pot. Then I spooned on about half of the sauce and tossed the noodles around. When they were nicely coated and didn’t seem in danger of sticking to themselves I put the pot in the fridge.

Taking the chicken from the fridge, I began to work on setting it up for the peanut sauce. I sliced one of the breasts lengthwise and then cut each section into thin slices, which were roughly bite-sized — small enough that my daughter wouldn’t need to fight with any of them to get them into her mouth. (The other chicken breast, I didn’t use; it is waiting to be turned into something else for dinner tonight.) I threw the bits of chicken into the bowl of peanut sauce. I washed the scallions and minced about five of them finely and added that to the bowl. Then I diced about half of a big beefsteak tomato and threw that into the peanut sauce bowl, too. The juice from the tomatoes helped thin the last half of the peanut sauce — I did splash in a little water, but only a tablespoon or two — and then I mixed that all up and set it in the fridge.

When it was time to serve the evening meal, I took the pot and the bowl from the fridge. Every plate — pasta bowl, actually — got a heap of noodles and then a scoop or two of chicken and veggie peanut sludge draped on top of it. It was quite satisfying. As we ate, I said to my husband, “I meant to slice up a hard boiled egg to put on this of this,” but according to my husband, it didn’t need further gussying up. Similarly, one could have scattered peanuts on top, or sesame seeds, or some minced red onion, or any number of things. Just to make things look fancier. But none of them were really needed.

The greatest part about all of this was that when dinner was over, there was only one pot to wash. By cooking the chicken and the noodles in the same pot, sequentially, and using the same cooking water, I’d made the most of both the pot and the cooking liquid. The bowl I’d mixed the sauce in? Two seconds to clean up. The stock pot? Ten seconds.

Compare this to the usual deal: one pot I’d used to cook rice or noodles in — ok, that’s fast clean up, I admit — plus, the bad part, one pot that had everything else in it. Sometimes two pots. If you’ve been sautéing things, if you’ve been braising things, the pot can get pretty dirty. I’m not really complaining: I’m good at scrubbing pots and I can usually handle dirty pots without too much agony. But there are times when two pots is two pots too many. Nights like that, it’s good to go with sandwiches, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. This peanut noodle dish, regardless of how inauthentic or sloppy it is, wins. One pot. One bowl. Dinner for three. And, bonus, a headstart (with that second chicken breast) on the next night’s meal. I win.

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