The Things I Carry

It’s possible that I go grocery shopping more than the average American. All I know is, As I was walking home from the grocery store today, carrying a bag with some chicken, some Brussels sprouts, an onion, four bananas, and a carton of half and half, I stuck one of my hands into my coat pocket to keep it warm. Nestled in my coat pocket like an egg in a chicken’s nest was a head of garlic. It has probably been there for a week. I’ve been wearing my coat every day and only today did I notice I’d left a head a garlic in there.

It’s convenient though because I am running low on garlic.

Some people, when they’re worrying about an oncoming snowstorm, rush out to buy milk and bread. Me, I’d rush out and buy chicken, onions, garlic, and milk. The bread, I can handle myself.
Snow’s in the forecast for later this week. In the meantime, enjoy this.

I said I would make peanut butter fudge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screwing Around with Lemon Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Two Cakes and Two Custards Equal One Boston Cream Pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Happiness: A Beautiful Dud of a Book

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I’m a huge Laurie Colwin fan and I’ve read all of her books many many times and I’ve got them all internalized to a probably unhealthy degree.

There’s a novel of hers, though, that I’ve read distinctly fewer times than anything else she ever wrote. It’s called Family Happiness, and it’s a book that I know is loved by many of her fans.

It is not loved by me.

It’s not hated by me, either; it just leaves me sort of uninterested. Though the writing is as recognizably — and enjoyably — Colwin as anything else she wrote, the story and characters give me very little to work with. It’s about a devoted wife and mother who has an affair. That’s all. It’s not really very complicated (not that Colwin books really are; they’re all basically novels of the heart and novels of manners). There’s nothing wrong with it, but our heroine, Polly, isn’t interesting enough for me, and the characters who are spiky enough to be interesting aren’t given lead roles. Other Colwin novels, the spikier types get much more dialogue, and I think the books are much more fun as a result.

But that’s neither here nor there. What I want to talk about is, Giving the book a chance. The first time I read Family Happiness I think I was about twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I was decidedly pro-Colwin, and it was among the last of her works of fiction I read. It did very little for me, but I remember thinking, “This is one of those books where I’ll probably like it a lot better if I read it when I’m a little older.” Like I knew that I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate it on the correct levels.

So while I would re-read Goodbye Without Leaving and Happy All the Time annually, and keep the cookbooks on hand in the kitchen, my copy of Family Happiness tended to just sit around collecting dust. Every few years I would notice it and think, “Yeah, I should re-read that.”
Well, it’s now been decades since I first read that book. I’ve read it I think two times in the intervening years, and I just read it again last week, and I’m here to tell you: I will never love that book the way I love the other Colwin books. Mostly, I think, because I think Polly’s a twit. I mean, I kind of sympathize with her, but not that much. All the flaws people call out in Colwin books — they’re completely blind to serious entitlement issues, they’re completely unrealistic to the vast majority of Americans, almost no one actually lives on Planet Colwin — are there but to the absolute nth degree in Family Happiness. Other books of hers will give at least some kind of lip service to class issues, race issues, and so on — sometimes more than lip service, in fact — but Family Happiness is the kind of worst-case-scenario of Colwin books. Here’s a woman who’s got, seriously, no big problems, except her rich lawyer husband works a lot, and she’s an emotional wreck because of it.

Well, look, babe. Such is life. I’m not sure how to empathize with you, given what I know about your life. You think that people who do grocery shopping in supermarkets on Sundays are morally bankrupt wretches? Really? Oh, Polly: What would you do in today’s America? How would you react to Blue Apron and Plated and Instacart?

I’m going to be blunt and just say what I think: I think Family Happiness is a beautifully-written dud of a novel. However, its flaws, for me, serve a crucial purpose, which is that they make the other books, which I love, seem so much better.

It’s now 2018 and been thirty years since Home Cooking was first published. It’s time for a major assessment of Colwin’s work. I plan to work on this, and I’m glad I’ve got Family Happiness out of the way, because now I can think about the stuff I actually like. In addition to the thorny problem of what to make for dinner tonight.

Building a Lifestyle Brand

My friend S., who leads a life that one could view as moderately glamorous (in that it involves a lot of travel to posh-sounding places) (my standards for these things are pretty low, I think), has asked me on more than one occasion why I haven’t done more to promote this blog and my lifestyle brand. He’s said to me, “Think of how many people would admire you, if they knew about you!” He clearly envisions beautiful photographs along the lines of, well, every other blog in the world written by some thin blonde woman or some thin sable-haired woman with perfect nails. I am not thin, blonde, sable-haired, or manicured. There’s no point in having a manicure when you cook as much as I do.
“The truth about the Hausfrau really isn’t that interesting, though,” I laugh, when he asks me about my lifestyle brand. “I don’t do anything so exciting. Or admirable.” “Maybe not,” he said, “but you look good doing it!” This, I suppose, his way of complimenting me, of acknowledging and appreciating my refusal to walk around in yoga pants or similar. If I’m having a “messy day,” I don’t think anyone’s ever aware of it, because the fact is, I tend to put on a black wrap dress, a pair of black tights, and a pair of black boots on days when I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, and most people seem to read that as “Whoa, she’s doing something big today.” Nope, just scrubbing the toilets. Even when I go out to shovel snow, I admit, I layer my multiple scarves just so, and I won’t wear a hat that looks stupid on me. I may be a Hausfrau but I’ve got some pride, too.

The fact remains, however: I don’t have a good way to photo document just how good I look doing much of anything, since I’m not a compulsive selfie-taker and — bizarre as this sounds — the local paparazzi have no idea I exist. No one has ever asked to spend a day following me around observing my routine. The New York Times has never asked me to describe my usual Sunday. And I don’t know why they would. My usual Sunday usually starts with me asking my daughter, “Did you brush your hair before you went to bed? Yeah? Then how come it looks like you haven’t brushed it in three days? Jesus, come over here and bring the brush.” I brush her hair and pull it into a ponytail. Then I tell her to go put on her bathrobe because it’s freezing, is she out of her mind, and put on some slippers too or at least a pair of socks. She rolls her eyes at me but puts on a robe and slippers or socks. Then I pour her a bowl of cold cereal and tell her to not bother me while I read the paper.

It’s all very glam.
Look: We don’t go in for photogenic breakfast trays here with little pitchers of hot milk and sprigs of whatever garnishing the toast. Even if I did put a sprig of parsley on the side of the plate, it wouldn’t get me very far because my daughter would eat it before she ate her breakfast. I’m not sure why but my daughter has always been a garnish-eater. It’s actually raised eyebrows more than once among the waitstaff and management of restaurants both in the U.S. and in Canada. Anyhow, I’m not a garnisher. The aesthetics of the plate are not my bag. My bag is How do I get through the day?

Consider my Tuesday morning, today. Tuesday is Monday, this week, because yesterday was a holiday. To un-do the effects of a three day weekend with my husband and child in the house all weekend long (because it’s so damned cold outside), I had to turn into a kind of domestic tornado as soon as I saw the kid off to school today. I finished my second cup of coffee and then I got to work. By noon today I had done the following things:

Emptied the dishwasher, which we ran last night as we went to bed; washed and dried three loads of laundry, which are now piled up on my bed waiting to be folded and put away; set up pizza dough, and dough for the week’s loaf of pain de mie; set up a big pan of onions to caramelize; vacuumed the first floor and the front foyer; cleaned the toilet in the first floor bathroom; scooped the three litter boxes in the basement; taken out all the trash and two very seriously overloaded recycling bins; washed the filters for the vacuum cleaner, which were vile, and because you have to hand-wash these things, it counts as a task unto itself even though you wouldn’t think it would; changed the tablecloth on the dining table; cleared the piano of all flotsam and jetsam in anticipation of the tuner arriving at 11; and sharpened all the non-serrated knives.

Here’s the thing. Are any of these activities the kind of thing that lifestyle brand people talk about? Are there chicly-outfitted ladies who snap pics of themselves  taking out recycling and scooping cat shit out of litter boxes? Do they really find it worthwhile to pay for the posting of these photos? I cannot imagine so.

Having written this: I’ve learned that we’re expecting another snowstorm tonight. This means the odds are reasonably good that tomorrow there will be no school, which, in turn, means the Hausfrau (no copyright yet registered) will have to use all her Lifestyle Brand Skills to come up with a plan to keep the child from going stir crazy and to keep herself from being driven barking mad by the stir-crazy child. The first floor, which is finally reasonably clean (if not as tidy as some of us might like) for the first time in over a week, will become a vortex of filth once again.

But I can face this. I have milk; a loaf of pain de mie is about to go into the oven; and I’ve laid in a supply of ice cream and have what it takes to make hot fudge sauce, should anyone request it. I can make a yogurt cake tomorrow; I can play Rack-O for an hour if I absolutely have to. Tomorrow, indeed, we can entertain ourselves by folding laundry and listening to WPLR (the local classic rock radio station) and talking about whether or not Van Halen sucks. My daughter will ask the deathless question, “How come they never play Suzi Quatro?” I will sigh heavily and admit that life is full of such sad mysteries.
In the event the child has school, I will skip the WPLR and the Rack-O, sure, but either way, being the Hausfrau: it’s not glamorous, but one thing I’ve got going for me, that my world-traveling friend doesn’t, is that whatever happens, the odds are in my favor that I can roll with it.

A Small Domestic Victory: The Mildew on the Shower Curtain

I don’t know what the statistics are in re: how many American households have shower curtains, and what those shower curtains are made of, but I am confident about one thing, which is that probably 98% of the people who have shower curtains have really disgusting shower curtains. The other two percent are people who buy new shower curtains once every three months, in all likelihood made of plastic that puts off fumes that make the bathroom smell weird and can’t be recycled.

I have spent most of my nearly five decades as someone who thinks a great deal about shower curtains and I arrived, a long time ago, at the conclusion that a fabric shower curtain is preferable to plastic, for a lot of different reasons; the big hitch is that good ones are really freaking expensive. If I ever get really rich, I am going to invest heavily in them, however, buying a supply of six which I will rotate frequently and wash religiously with no-screwing-around laundry supplies so that they always remains perfect.

Until that day comes, though, I have to put up with the kind of semi-mediocre fabric ones I can afford, which are made of a tightly woven nylon of some kind. The one I have is okay. I shouldn’t really complain. It’s fine. But it’s, like, my dream shower curtain — and yes, I have one.

So the shower curtain I have, which I bought online a couple years ago, has held up fairly well, but it does require laundering to keep it from getting quite vile at the bottom inch or so. It’s really the bottom hem that suffers the most. I launder it once a month or so and for quite a while that was sufficient to keep it in nice shape but I must have spaced my routine for a while. Last summer I became aware that genuinely vile black mildew had grown on the hem. I muttered some oaths to myself and took a vow to be more diligent about laundering. At the time, I soaked the hem in bleach and managed to get most of the mildew to fade away; after laundering, it looked pretty good again. Not perfect, but okay. (I wear glasses, and my standard is this: if I notice the stains while I’m standing in the shower with my eyesight blurred, then things are not good.)

This morning, I noticed the black stains had really come back with a vengeance — and I know I’ve been good about laundering — but I suddenly had a flash: maybe there was a better way to attack the stains. I remembered my bar of Fels-Naptha and the spray bottle of vinegar I now keep in the bathroom (because I often rinse my hair with vinegar, okay? what’s it to you? I also use it to clean the bathroom mirror).

On the Peg Bracken theory of Clean It While It’s Annoying You, I sprayed the hem of the shower curtain with the vinegar, really dousing the bits that were most gross. Then I took the bar of Fels-Naptha and rubbed it all down the hem, again, hitting the really vile parts the hardest. Then I took an old toothbrush and began to scrub my way down the hem. When I use Fels-Naptha on clothes, the toothbrush trick works just fine, but it was not really doing much for the shower curtain. My eye fell on the heavy-bristled scrubbing brush I use to clean the shower tiles, and I grabbed it and used that on the shower curtain hem, thinking, “This is a little crazy.”

But damn: the crud just faded out of that hem like nobody’s business. I applied more vinegar, and rubbed more Fels-Naptha on, and kept scrubbing. In about six minutes, it looked good.

The next step is obviously to throw it in the washing machine, but as I don’t have enough laundry piled up to warrant running the machine it will have to wait another day or so. Still: there is no question that this small amount of effort has just extended the useful life of my shower curtain significantly. Victory is mine. And now, when I win the lottery and can buy all the lovely cotton duck shower curtains I’ve ever ever wanted, I know exactly what to do to keep them from looking gross. I will be part of the 2% of Americans who do not have vile shower curtains! I will be a member of the elite! Thanks, Fels-Naptha!

One of the more weird gifts I’ve received.

Tidying up the living room, yet again, I come across an item that was not part of the scene on December 24th, 2017. It’s a bright orange dusting device. My devoted husband and loving child purchased it as a Christmas gift for me a couple days before Christmas. They’d gone to Home Depot — I knew about this — to buy stuff for a project they are working on, and apparently what happened was that as they strolled through the store my daughter espied the duster and said, “Ooooo, Mama would love that!”  So they bought it.

It is bright orange. It looks like something the police would use at a crime scene at night. Dusting for fingerprints. Who knows. It is — I hear Cosmo in “Moonstruck” as I write this — it is very bright.

It is an effective duster, I’ll say cheerfully; I used it to dust the hi-fi and the piano and it did a good job. More amusing to me is that fact that it has become one of my daughter’s favorite toys. For reasons I don’t fully understand, she thinks it is great fun to dress up in specific attire and then walk around the house dusting. The ensemble that she has declared her work clothes includes: black penny loafers; a grey straw porkpie hat of mine; black skinny pants; and a black, elaborately embroidered kimono that was a gift from a world-traveling friend of ours.

To my astonishment, this outfit actually looks totally awesome on the kid and I’d let her wear it in public, no problem. Hell, I’d wear it in public, if the kimono would fit me.

Normally things like dusting supplies are kept in a closet or under the kitchen sink, places where one won’t see them on a day to day basis. I’ve decided, however, that it’s totally okay if the extremely bright duster stays in the living room. If it means that my daughter gets to play and do housecleaning at the same time, thus keeping out of my hair and keeping our house a little cleaner, it’s fine with me. I keep it stowed away behind the couch or tucked discreetly underneath one of the side tables. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Maybe there’s money in dusters. Someone should make a line of dusters that are simultaneously effective, washable, and attractive to look at. Instead of having cut flowers in vases, people could have bouquets of dusters scattered attractively around the house.

Or maybe this already exists.
The problem, of course, is that anything like this is just another tchotchke to dust. And how would you keep it clean?

Getting Friendly with Laminated Dough: An Unexpected Turn of Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It really is,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My husband clearly had doubts about this but kept quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Maybe a couple extra pounds of butter, too.

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

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