I don’t want to cook dinner.

I didn’t want to cook dinner last night, either.

On the other hand, I have to cook dinner. We need to eat.

Last night, when I didn’t want to cook dinner, I thought very carefully about the contents of the fridge, and arrived at the conclusion that I had two options.

One was, Take the leftover steak and do something ludicrously clever and thoughtful with it. (We’re talking about six ounces of meat here, enough that, had I been feeling clever and thoughtful, I could have come up with something clever and thoughtful and delicious to boot.)

The second, more likely, move would be to take the steak and the various other things I had lying about and put them on nachos. This struck me as a much better idea. It would allow me to use up the last of the nacho cheese goop I made last week. This was a sauce made with cheese, evaporated milk, and a little cornstarch. It melted nicely on nachos and was, I thought, a nice change of pace from the usual grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack, though I admit my husband and child were somewhat underwhelmed by it.

Still: I had all these things that would go well on nachos, and I had that cheese sauce sitting around in a little congealed block in the fridge, and I thought, “Yes. Nachos.” I even put a tiny bit of effort into it: I sauteed the minced red pepper and the minced onion before I put them on the nachos. At my husband’s request, I did not put the sliced steak directly on the nachos, but left them to be served on the side. I laid out the chips, and put on the toppings, and I put the pan in the oven with a certain amount of satisfaction, thinking, “This didn’t take much effort and it should be reasonably good, even if we’re running low on sour cream.”

Well, things were not as I expected. The sauce — which, I now realize, I should have re-melted before putting it on the nachos (I had simply sliced up the brick of congealed sauce, optimistically telling myself it would melt back into happy goo in the oven) — had sat in its little Lego-brick-size congealed state on the chips. Sometimes the top of the Cheese Legos had browned a little, sometimes not. But nothing was gooey at all.

I pulled the tray out of the oven and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Which my family has come to learn is the sign of a really good time coming their way, if you know what I mean. “I’m sure it’s fine,” my husband said doggedly.

We all ate, but I can’t say it was one of my finest moments. Everyone had the good sense to not complain. Everyone knows that when Mama is pissed about dinner, it’s best to keep quiet.

I cleaned up the dinner dishes, ate a granola bar, and sighed.

Come the next day, I vowed I would not let this happen again. “I’m thinking I’ll make some barbecue chicken or something,” I said to my family in the morning. Everyone thought that sounded fine.

So today, in spite of my total lack of interest in doing it, I put a little thought and effort into making dinner. I didn’t want to. I just knew I had to. I cannot bear, personally, to eat two depressingly crappy meals two evenings in a row. I’m a hausfrau, for god’s sake: this is part of my job. If I don’t do it well, what the hell am I doing, exactly? It’s one thing if it happens once in a while, if once in a while dinner really sucks — I know it’s inevitable. There are, in every household, nights where things go hideously wrong and you really have no choice but to say “Uncle” and order a pizza, fast. And I know that not every evening is a showstopper — it’s not that; I’m a reasonable person — but it just bums me out so much when dinner sucks. I’m sure no one else enjoys it either, but  hate it, too. want to eat a decent meal at the end of the day. For breakfast I usually eat cold cereal. Some days, I don’t get lunch at all, and if I do eat lunch it’s almost always some random leftovers scavenged from the fridge. So dinner, if dinner is not good then Mama is not happy.

So today — as I was saying — I put a little thought and effort into it. I bought two chicken breasts and I took them home and set them up to braise in a fake BBQ sauce. Longtime readers have probably heard me talk about this before. I swear it’s nothing fancy. Saute the chicken in a little olive oil to get it started, and then assemble the sauce straight in the pan, and let it cook, slow, for a couple hours.  The good thing about this method of cooking is it gives you a shitload of leeway: it’s an accommodating technique. Today, I threw into the pot a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of onion powder. Because, ok, I was  too fucking lazy to mince actual garlic and actual onion: sue me. But it put me on the right path. The stuff in the pot smelled good and I found it encouraging, motivational: I could do this.
I veered back toward the traditional moves and poured into the pot some apple cider vinegar, about two tablespoons of brown sugar, maybe three tablespoons of ketchup ketchup, two tablespoons of French’s mustard, and a tablespoons of chili powder. I stirred this all around to make sure none of the powdered stuff just settled in lumps at the bottom of the pot — that would suck — and when things looked pleasantly sludgy and smelled good, I poured in maybe half a cup of water from the kettle. Normally I would turn on the oven and let this cook in there for a few hours. But it’s a hot day, and I knew I didn’t want this to be an all-day production. I wanted the chicken to remain intact. (Cook it for a very, very long time, it tends to start to break up, and become pulled chicken, which is great, but not what I wanted specifically tonight.) I kept it on the stove on a low flame for about two hours: it smelled great.

By this point I’d totally gotten with the program and assembled a rice and lentil salad, with a yogurt dressing. This involved boiling rice as for pasta, adding some leftover lentils I had in the fridge to the pot (because, I’ll admit it, they were slightly undercooked the first time around). I drained all the rice and lentils into a colander, let them cool spread out on a baking tray, and then made a dressing out of yogurt and the last two tablespoons of sour cream I had in the house. (Remind me to buy more sour cream tomorrow.) The dressing was doctored up with fresh garlic (see, I’m not ALL lazy — I was conserving my energy for the rice and lentil salad) and and some Penzey’s spice mix I can no longer recall. I think it might have been the Turkish spice mix. Whatever it was, it worked. When the rice and lentils were cooled I combined them with the dressing and settled the bowl in the fridge. So all I had to do, to have a respectable meal, would be to put together a little green salad really fast. Dinner might not be impressive, it might not be the best thing we ever ate, but at least I could be confident it would not be as solidly, resolutely depressing as the meal we ate last night.

*************

8.30 p.m. We have eaten dinner. The countertops have been wiped down, the coffee for the morning is set up, the dishwasher is running (which is a damned good thing because otherwise we will not be able to eat anything good tomorrow morning, what with every piece of silverware we own being in there).
The verdict on dinner tonight?
“This is really good. The sauce from the chicken is really good on the rice salad and the lettuce too.”
“I really like the chicken and the rice and lentil salad. Can you pack me some of this in a thermos to take to school for lunch tomorrow?”

Victory was mine tonight, but now the problem remains: what to make for dinner tomorrow? I’ve got about three cups of cooked lentils in the fridge. Perhaps a salad with the leftover chicken, chopped up and served over lettuce with some decadent salad dressing, some chopped scallions? I can do this. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

Housecleaning: The Story of One Friday Morning

The house has gotten rather disgusting, what with one thing and another: we’ve had almost two straight weeks of serious domestic chaos (meaning, Life as We Know It has forced me to focus on things other than doing the bare minimum of household-maintenance, and as a result while we’ve always had clean underwear, the state of the house otherwise got to near-revolting — no, scratch that. It got pretty gross). The sky was gray and the air damp: it felt like rain. If it was going to be a grim, depressing-looking day, I might as well stay in and make the most of a few hours of uninterrupted time here. I knew that there were dust bunnies on the stairs and I knew that the bathtub was all scummy and I knew that I needed to do laundry again (again!) so as soon as I packed my daughter off to school this morning I said, “OK, Let’s Do This.”

I began, as I often do, by clearing the countertop at the bathroom sink we use the most. I took care of that, including dusting the lightbulbs above the mirror there. Then I scrubbed the bathtub. I decided to leave the third floor alone this week — I did it quite thoroughly two weeks ago, and the only person who uses it really is my husband, and if he’s not happy with it, he can either take care of it himself or wait for me to have the intestinal fortitude to deal with it. The last time I cleaned the bathroom up there, I discovered the sink wasn’t draining right, and had to spend about thirty minutes dealing with the clogged drain, which wasn’t my idea of fun. So I’m happy to put that off for a little while.

Once the second floor bathroom was tackled, it was time to vacuum. I carried the vacuum cleaner upstairs and plugged it in and then looked into my daughter’s room. She has a big rug in her room and the cats love to claw at it and roll around on it, which is fine — it’s not a fancy rug, just a thing we got at Ikea about a decade ago; it can be trashed by the cats and none of us will mind.
Thing was, my daughter’s room was such a goddamned mess I couldn’t just vacuum: I had to straighten up a bit before I could vacuum. I hate this. Now, I am not what you’d call a minimalist, in my approach to life: I have a lot of stuff, and I like having it around. It drives my husband nuts. Unfortunately, my daughter seems to have inherited my tendencies, and elaborated upon them: not only does she have a lot of stuff and want it around, she likes to have it around on the floor, and is not fazed by things like little tiny snips of paper being scattered all over the place. Little peel-off-sticker-backs are all over the floor in my daughter’s room, all the time. Little scraps of paper from the time she decided it would be fun to cut out paper dolls. Little rocks. Little shells. Little THINGS. All over the place.
So this is a room that really needs vacuuming, but the thing is, there are also piles of books all over the place, and stuffed animals, and maybe some socks that were supposed to make it into the laundry basket but didn’t, in addition to the precious little shells, which, if I vacuum them up, there will be hell to pay, because those little shells are IMPORTANT. I can’t say it’s chaos, really, but it is a mess. However, it is my job to corral this mess a little once in a while, and I accept that. (I don’t do total room overhauls anymore: my daughter’s old enough to do this. But vacuuming isn’t something she can do yet — she can’t even lift the machine — so, I bite the bullet periodically.) I made the bed (which is a mattress on the floor — you need to have the bed neat in order to vacuum correctly)and did some cursory straightening up enough that I could do the rug, and I vacuumed the rug and also did the closet floor. I have no idea what she does that causes the pillows to leak feathers like this, but there were a lot of feathers around; there were also about 2 cups of little paper snips and some ponytail holders (I rescued those), in addition to the anticipated general schmutz.

It was as I went to vacuum over by the side of the bed that I noticed the wadded up tissue on the floor. “Jeez,” I thought, “can’t she even throw her used Kleenex away?” I picked up the Kleenex, and that was when I noticed the cat puke.

It had been there for a while.

I don’t know if it was there last night, when I was reading to my daughter, the usual bedtime session.

I assume it was there when I went in this morning to say “Good morning, want some breakfast?” She was, at that moment, snuggling with Roger the cat, who seemed perfectly content, and probably hadn’t just recently thrown up.

Usually, when a cat throws up — and it happens pretty often, because, you know, CATS — I either know about it immediately and clean it up immediately, or whoever is first to discover it cleans it up immediately, unless the discoverer is my daughter, who is, for whatever reason, scared to clean it up. I find this annoying, because she’s perfectly capable of using paper towels, but, ok: she is, I give her credit, very good at coming to get me, saying, “The cat gakked,” and she will bring me paper towels and vinegar or whatever I need to clean up the mess.

This was a case where it’s like she tried to get brave and start to clean up the gak, but something happened and her nerves got the best of her so she thought, “I’ll just put this tissue on top and IT’LL BE FINE.”

I’ll tell you: I had to use two rags to clean this mess up. (Don’t worry, they went straight into the washing machine with some bleach, they’re right as rain now.)

But I cleaned it up, muttering to myself, and then I continued vacuuming. I did the bedroom as thoroughly as I could, all things considered; I moved down the staircase (my god, how cat fur will accumulate in the corners of the steps!); I tackled the first floor of the house (Meow Mix crumbs make a very satisfying noise when you vacuum them up). I did the front entryway, and even did the stairs to the basement (which is, truly, cat fur central — and, lucky me, I discovered more cat puke in the basement, in the process, so now that’s taken care of as well).

I ran a load of whites, I ran the dishwasher, I organized the recycling to go out. I dealt with the nasty tubs of leftover food in the fridge that really needed to just face their trash dumpster fate (this happens even to me) and readied the trash to go out. By two p.m., the sun had fought its way through the gray, and the air felt clear and dry. I’ve opened all the windows I can; the house is as clean as it’s going to be this week; and as soon as I take out the trash and recycling, unload the dishwasher, and fold the laundry, I’ll be ready for the weekend.

Well, except that I still have to make dinner tonight.

The Bench Scraper. This sounds like the name of a sports movie, but this is not about sports.

As long as ten years ago, I don’t know for sure, someone gave me a bench scraper. It was a softly waved piece of white rectangular plastic, and one long side of it had a beveled-to-a-point edge and the other long side of it had a silicone or rubber strip. It was meant to be used as a tool in the kitchen for working with dough, but I found it totally useless in this context. I tried. The “sharp” side couldn’t cut through anything well, and the softer side, well, duh: it was too soft to cut anything at all.

The thing was completely useless  to me, but I kept it because I thought, “Some day, I will wish I had this thing.”

In the meantime, somewhat less then ten years ago, I acquired a metal bench scraper at a tag sale, and that thing is lethal and I use it all the time. It has one rolled edge you use as a handle and one sharp sharp sharp edge that I use to cut through dough, dividing raw dough for pizza, cutting biscuits, cooky dough, whatever. It works great and I can run it through the dishwasher without worrying about it melting. It looks kind of like this. It isn’t fancy but it does its job extraordinarily well. This is what you want in most kitchen utensils. You don’t need bells or whistles, you just want the thing to do its job. The metal bench scraper lives in the drawer where I keep the work tools I use most frequently: the Microplanes; the rolling pin; the scissors that come apart for cleaning; the can opener; the garlic press; the silicone-tipped whisk; the tongs. (You’re wondering, What about the silicone spatulas? Where do those live? Answer: they live in their own separate drawer. Yes, the silicone spatulas have their own drawer.)

The white plastic device, on the other hand, lives in a drawer where I keep things I use pretty frequently, but not as frequently as you might guess. Ready at hand in that drawer are: measuring cups; measuring spoons; ladles; a balloon whisk; biscuit cutters; and the white bench scraper. Which I’ve kept there not because I’ve used it, ever, in all these years, but just because it seemed to fit there in a categorical way: “small kitchen utensils that I don’t need a lot but when I need them I want to know where they are.”

Other stuff I keep in this drawer full of things that I hardly ever use:
1. a little plastic thing in the shape of an apple where you take off the top half of the apple and what you’re supposed to do is put your apple that you want to have for lunch in there, and then put the lid on. Supposedly this will keep your apple from getting bruised as you carry it in your bag. It may work, but I’ll never know because I’ve never purchased an apple that fit into it. However, my daughter likes it for carrying snacks now and then, so, fine;

2. All tea balls. I don’t use tea balls, but my husband does. They need to be accessible, but they don’t need to be in my way all the time. So they live in this drawer.

3. Nutcrackers and picks;

4. drinking straws;

5. salad tongs and other more elegant devices one might use to serve salad.

So you get the idea. These are all USEFUL things to be sure: but they are not everyday-on-the-table-or-countertop things, for me, personally.

Well, a few weeks ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of spending several hours working on some really messy cooking projects involving a lot of dough and fillings and frostings; the countertop was a mess. It was the kind of clean-up job where there was nothing for it but to take everything off the countertop, wash the surface down with a clean dishrag, and then wipe up the detergent. As I was contemplating the drag it would be to keep rinsing this countertop to get all the soap off, I suddenly remembered how I deal with wiping water off my shower walls (to reduce mildew growth): I squeegee the shower every day. (Shut up. Don’t laugh at me. It helps.)

But, I reasoned: I did not want to use my shower squeegee on my kitchen countertops. ‘Cause that just seemed…. gross.

On the other hand…. I suddenly remembered that I did — I do — own a thing that is, basically, a kitchen squeegee. That white bench scraper thingy: THIS is what the bendy side of it is for! 

It was a an epiphany. I pulled the white bench scraper from the drawer, got a waiting-to-be-washed bowl from the sink, and began to squeegee the countertop, letting all the scungy, soapy water run straight off the counter into the bowl. It worked like a charm. I got the counter basically clean and almost dry in about two seconds. I dumped the bowl back into the sink, and then I sprayed my usual rubbing alcohol dose on the counter and wiped it dry with a towel. Done and done. The white bench scraper no longer lives in the drawer; it now lives at the kitchen sink, with the dishrag and the bottle of Dawn, and it gets used almost daily. I use it to push water from the countertop near the sink straight into the sink (I used to just use the side of my hand, which, believe me, never worked as well as I thought it should), and I use it to clean my working countertop. And I feel like a fucking genius for doing so.

My husband, who has long been aware of this odd white object in the kitchen drawer (probably because it is near his precious tea ball collection), asked me a few days ago, “Why is this thing living next to the bottle of dishwashing liquid?” I explained, “Because after years of being a useless object, it has suddenly become a very useful object!”
“How so?” asked my ever-curious husband. Ok, he wasn’t curious exactly; he was skeptical. I could feel his skepticism oozing all over the floor (great, more for me to clean up). But I showed him. I explained how a cleaning process that, ok, wasn’t arduous, but was slightly messier and more time-consuming than I’d like, had suddenly been made simpler and easier by using this previously-useless tool. “It’s a small leap for the household,” I concluded. He nodded. “It’s like the time I changed the method for emptying the coffee grounds from the coffeepot, and my life improved exponentially,” he said.

I don’t actually agree that his method is superior to the method I use. But if it works for him, fine and dandy. In the meantime, the white bench scraper lives at the kitchen sink, it gets used, and I’m already wondering what I’ll do when I do something horrible to it by accident or through over-use and I can’t use it anymore. I guess I’ll either get used to the old counter-cleaning system again, or go spend a few bucks on another “useless” bench scraper.

Short and Sweet: Remembering A Housebitch Moment

My husband decided to make pancakes on a recent Saturday morning. He needed 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. I happened to be standing in front of the sugar tub, which I keep a 1/2 cup measuring cup in, all the time. “I’ll get it for you,” I said, trying to be helpful. I scooped up some sugar, eyeballed, shook some out, and held the cup aloft for him to take.
“You can’t just scoop some out,” he scolded. “You have to measure.”
I said, “This is one and a half tablespoons of sugar.” He protested that there was no way I could know that. I said, “Fine, get a measuring spoon, measure it.”
He got a set of measuring spoons and measured it. It was precisely one and a half tablespoons.
“Fine,” he said, grudgingly.
Do not fuck with the Hausfrau, people.

Recalibrating the Oven: or, The Hausfrau Can Google Things, Too.

Well, a few days ago the Hausfrau went to bake a loaf of bread, as she frequently does, and this time things went horribly wrong. The bread baked; and it baked; and it baked; and it was, somehow, never done. I should have known, sooner than I did, that something was not right — my inner Miss Clavell should have sat right up, pointing a finger in the air — but I did not. And so nearly two hours was that bread baking (ok, maybe 90 minutes). The house smelled wonderful, and the exterior of the loaf looked fine. But evil  was lurking within.

I admit: it wasn’t evil. It wasn’t as though we cut the bread open to find anything festering in there (thank god). But it was a sodden, heavy, wrong loaf of bread. And I was very sad, because I had used really good stuff to make that bread, and it was simply useless.

(I should, someday, attempt to whizz this stuff up into bread crumbs, I suppose. But it is so sad and wretched, even after being sliced into large wedges and dried out in the oven, that I suspect I will simply give up on it and throw it in the trash.)

It was four days after I baked that bread that I went to bake some cookies and discovered, in the process of pre-heating the oven, that things were not correct with the oven. I thought I had preheated the oven to 350°, but it was hovering around 325°. “Well, that isn’t right,” I said to myself. I re-set the oven so it would say it was at 375°; this time it got up to just under 350°. “Huh,” I said to myself. “That isn’t right, either.” I texted my husband: “The oven needs to be recalibrated,” I said to him, “I think.”

He wrote back saying, basically, “Huh?”

I baked my cookies, keeping a very close eye on them. They turned out fine. I made dinner, which also came out fine. Then in the evening, when the kitchen was officially closed for the night, I went to Google and did a search for “recalibrate oven.” My fear, of course, was that this was a task that I could not do on my own, and that I would wind up paying some big burly guy $300 for the pleasure of having him hit three buttons, go “boopboopboop” with some battery operated device, and then turn to me to say “There you go, ma’am.”

It turned out that recalibrating the oven — a phrase that I’m familiar with mostly through reading old cookbooks and household manuals — is something that current oven manuals discuss. I was, in fact, able to track down my oven’s model number and through the wonders of Google find the manual for it online. It turns out that I didn’t have to pay a big burly man anything to come go boopboopboop and no battery operated device was necessary at all. I was able to recalibrate our oven myself — well, mostly. It’s still running about five degrees cool, I think. I want to put a little more effort into getting it as correct as I can — but I can do that.

I want to assure you: I am probably the least mechanically-minded person in the world. While it’s true I’m not afraid of disassembling a vacuum cleaner to see why the suction’s all stopped up, it’s also true I’m really afraid of tinkering with computers and I certainly don’t want to mess with something that might, theoretically, explode (cf. gas ovens in my apartment). But I figured if the household manual says I can do this, then I can do it. Here’s one thing to bear in mind, when you go to recalibrate your oven: you want to have at least one, and probably ideally three oven thermometers on hand so that you can arrange them in different parts of the oven and see for yourself what the temperature(s) is(are) in the different parts of the oven. We experienced bakers get that ovens have hot spots and cool spots — but you ideally have a sense of where they are. I’ve never had this information in my head; I’m just someone who keeps a close eye on things when I’m baking, or else relies on the fact that it’s almost impossible to overcook a braised dish.

Believe it or not, I do not own three oven thermometers, but I do own two of them. (One is better than the other — easier to read.) So it was easy for me to place two of them in the oven  — one way to the left, one way to the right, one on the upper middle rack and one on the lower middle rack — and set the oven for 350° and see what would happen. What I found was that one dial moved up to 345° and the other one went to just a smidge past 350°.   If I had a third and fourth thermometer, I’d scatter them about, too, and see where they landed. My guess is that the middle of the oven is, in fact 350°, or close enough for government work anyhow, and I’m ok.

But isn’t it funny: we’ve been using this oven for five years, and I’ve never had any trouble with it, and then suddenly it’s out of whack. What happened to cause this? I have no idea. I don’t know what (other than just sheer mechanical failure of some oven part) causes an oven to go out of whack. I’ve now spent enough time reading up online about oven functioning and what I’ve decided is that a) I’m going to keep both of these thermometers in the oven and b) when I preheat the oven, I will not assume that things are ‘correct’ just because the oven display says it is so: I will wait a little longer, and check the thermometers before putting food in. If I have to preheat twice (moving the setting up or down, as needed), so be it.

On that note, I’m going to go roast some beautiful red peppers I bought the other day. Maybe I’ll make pimiento cheese this afternoon.

Housecleaning at Night. Or, When You See Schmutz, Clean Schmutz.

I’ve long wondered why it is that I tend to clean the kitchen — I mean serious deep cleaning — after dinner. It was only last night that I really figured it out. It’s because it’s only at night that I can actually see the filth.

A couple of days ago a Facebook associate asked me for housecleaning advice and I found myself engaged in a long dialogue on the subject, which basically began by saying “It’s not that you need special products or create a special system; you just have to have a system that works for you and the products needed to implement it.” She had said, “I don’t have a housecleaning schedule and I feel like everyone else does.” I said, “I don’t, with the exception of the days when I know I have to face laundry or the world will fall apart. Everything else is catch-as-catch-can.” You notice that the bathroom sink is visibly vile, grab a washcloth and clean it. The toilet can wait if you want, but do the thing that’s bugging you really fast, if you can, and get it out of the way. This is a riff on the Peg Bracken advice that you should embrace any small housecleaning urge the moment it seizes you, because the feeling will pass and then you still have the filth and that particular housecleaning urge may not visit again for a rather revolting-to-consider length of time.

A case in point is this scene from last night. I was quite tired: it was eight o’clock, and I’d cooked dinner and done the dishes and wiped down the counters and by all logic, I would be flopping on the couch and zoning out in front of the TV as any good American would. However, while I was wiping down the counter, I noticed that there was rather a lot of schmutz on the edge of the shelf where all the spices live. Looking more closely, I looked at the tops of the spice jars and boxes: they, too, were grey with schmutz. I took a handful of jars from the shelf and saw these very sharp, clear rings in the dust. Clearly, the shelf and jars needed to be wiped down.

I could have said, “Screw it, I will deal with this tomorrow.” But here’s the thing — and it came to me in a flash — I cannot, for whatever reason, see the schmutz as well in the daytime. Inexplicably, the light in the kitchen is such that I literally see the dirt better in the evening than I do in the daytime. And since it makes sense to clean when you can see what you’re cleaning, it came to pass that at 8.15 last night I was removing everything from that shelf and taking a towel and wiping down every surface. The shelf itself was cleaned, and then each jar was cleaned. Then I rearranged the stuff back onto the shelf. It took me maybe fifteen minutes all told, which isn’t very long, but on the other hand, when you’re tired and you’ve had it, fifteen minutes is a long time. However, I didn’t mind doing it because I knew that once it was done, it would be done. This is a task I only perform a few times a year — maybe twice or three times — and I felt good about knowing I’d taken care of it. The next time I will notice schmutz on the spice shelf, it will probably be mid-July, and fine: I’ll get there when I get there.

I now understand why it is that every so often, having washed the dinner dishes and wiped the counters and set up the coffee for the next morning, I will find myself washing the kitchen floor. It’s not because I think it’s a good time to wash the floor. It’s because that’s when I can see the schmutz. And it’s ok, come to think of it. At least it’s getting cleaned. Sometimes. Once in a while. This is also how my oven gets cleaned: after dinner, when I am done with the dishes and setting up the coffee and thinking, “All right things are good!” That is when I’ll notice what a shanda the oven and stovetop are — especially the glass door, why can I never really get the glass door clean? — and I’ll think, “There is no point in putting this off.” Forty-five minutes later, I will finally be satisfied with the state of things, and I’ll apply hand lotion and call it a night. It’s ridiculous. (Especially when you consider that the best way to deal with the stove burners involves an overnight-with-ammonia process that is no joke.) But look: the cleaning gets done this way. And, equally important, I get to go to sleep with a clear conscience.

Fine, I’ll wash the floor tonight, ok?