Your Mocha Pudding is Not Better Than This Mocha Pudding.

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

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

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

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

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

Mocha Pudding

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

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

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

1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract

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

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

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

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

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

Just keep whisking.

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




Mr. Coffee Brush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some day we will talk about microwave popcorn.

Salad for 125

A few weeks ago, I was spending most of my time in my kitchen preparing for a fundraiser to be held at the home of a man who likes to hold pig roasts as fundraisers for local non-profits. The deal is the same every year: he will roast the pig in his backyard. A local restauranteur will provide a few sides (collards, macaroni and cheese, sometimes a third thing TBA). There’s cole slaw, there’s white bread. And there’s salad. This year, a local health-food store volunteered to donate trays of green salad for the event, and as we discussed the plan, I agreed to make the salad dressing for the greens. This was a piece of cake, so to speak, particularly compared to making the caramel cake and coconut cake I’d already signed on to make for the dessert table.

It was Thursday evening, a few days before the pig roast, when my neighbor knocked on the door and asked me, “Do you want ten heads of lettuce?”

This isn’t a question I get asked very often. I said, “Why don’t you come in and explain to me why you happen to have ten heads of lettuce sitting around?”

She explained. She’d gotten a Peapod delivery and in the process of unpacking the bags had discovered that Peapod had given her, in addition to her order, more than a dozen heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce. She said, “We can use maybe two or three heads, but we really can’t use all of this, so I thought I’d ask my neighbors if they wanted any.” Peapod, after all, had come and gone; there was no returning the merchandise.

I said, “You know what. I’m helping to organize a pig roast happening on Sunday, and we’ll be serving salad. I will take your lettuce and you can be assured it will go to good use.” It wasn’t that I was anticipating disaster, mind you; merely, it seemed to me that whatever salad we got from the health-food store, it could surely be happily augmented by ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce.

My neighbor was thrilled to divest herself of these heads of lettuce, and the grocery bags were dumped on the floor. “We’ll put these all in the fridge and wash them later,” I told my daughter, who gawped at all the plastic clamshells full of perfect-looking lettuces. It is lucky for us that we have a second fridge in the basement, and that it happened to be nearly empty: all those clamshells of lettuce filled the shelves in that fridge, and the last three had to be crammed into the fridge in the regular, daily-use kitchen fridge.

On Saturday, during a lull in the cake frosting-and-assembling process, my daughter helped me wrangle the lettuce. I had devised a solid plan for handling this vast quantity of delicate greenery. It involved wiping down a large cooler, placing several ice packs on the bottom, and then lining the cooler with a clean cotton tablecloth. “We’re gonna wash all the lettuce now, and throw it into the cooler,” I explained. “Then we’ll fold the tablecloth gently over the lettuce, put another couple ice packs on top, and the lettuce will stay nice and cool and safe and ready to use on Sunday. We’ll just have to carry it up to the pig roast — it’ll basically be ready to go.”

My daughter was all in; she loves washing lettuce now that we have a nifty salad spinner. We spent about forty minutes opening plastic clamshells and separating the lettuces from those weird balls of root system or whatever the hell those things are at the stem of the hydroponically-grown lettuce (I don’t even want to know); we washed the lettuces and spun them and tossed the clean lettuce into the cooler. Then I folded the tablecloth down, put extra last ice packs in, put the lid on the cooler, and placed the cooler jauntily by the couch, where it would serve as an end table until Sunday morning.

In the meantime, I emailed the people working on the event, saying, “Just to let you know — heads up, so to speak — I have, through a bizarre fluke, come into possession of ten heads of hydroponically grown butter leaf lettuce, and I’ve washed them and they’re stored safe and cool and clean and I’m bringing them to the pig roast just in case.” Everyone responded warily going, basically, “um, ok.” They probably thought I was nuts, but didn’t want to quibble about it with me since I was, after all, in charge of the cakes.


Assisted by my husband and child, I schlepped two cakes, a chess pie, large quantities of Green Goddess salad dressing and vinaigrette, approximately 50 tablecloths, a dozen tea towels, a dozen cloth napkins, serving utensils, and a cooler full of lettuce to the house where the pig roast was being held. I went into the kitchen and began working on the tasks that needed doing: unpacking gear, and asking people already present what I could help with. I spent about an hour making about two gallons of simple syrup (in small batches, because I could only use a 2 1/2 quart pot, all the big stuff was already being used) and squeezing lemons for lemonade. It got to be noon, and the salads for the meal hadn’t yet arrived; I began to worry about that. If the donated salad stuff wasn’t ready to be served, in nice trays or bowls, it would take time to get it into serve-able shape, and time was running out. (Ha. If only I’d known what was about to happen.) I sent a text message to the woman picking up the salad stuff asking, “Everything ok? Salad coming?” No response.

Eventually, just before one o’clock, I got a text message saying, “Salad on its way, coming in separate components, we will have to assemble.” I thought, “Well, that’s not ideal, but fine.” What I envisioned was something like “we’ll be getting big trays of prepped lettuce, and bags of chopped veggies, but we have to throw it all together and toss it ourselves.” This is not the end of the world, I told myself, and I continued working cheerfully. Starting setup on the dessert tables, mixing lemonade, making sweet tea, and so on.

At a little after one, the salad components arrived, and I discovered when I went to help unload the boxes from the car that I’d been woefully optimistic about the situation.

What we had was about a dozen bags of mesclun, which we could not serve confidently straight from the bag because we didn’t know if it’s been washed. We had a large crate full of heirloom cherry tomatoes. We had a large crate of beautiful red peppers. An absolute fuckton of food, don’t get me wrong, and all useful, but none of which had been washed or prepped to the best of our knowledge, which meant that all of it had to be washed and prepped before we could put it on the table.

It was 1.15. The pig roast started at 2.

As the person nominally in charge of the kitchen, I made a large-scale editorial decision. One: any person not busy doing something else was to start washing lettuce, using our host’s salad spinner; two, any person not busy doing something else was to start washing tomatoes and peppers; and three: the ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce were to be torn by hand and added to the salad serving bowls kindly provided by the health-food supermarket. It was suddenly crystal clear to me that had we not had those ten heads of lettuce from my house, we would have been, as I like to say, fucked. I mean, fuuuuuuucked.

“Thank god I have those heads of lettuce in the cooler,” I said to myself, over and over again, as I washed and seeded and diced red peppers. It turned out that my volunteer kitchen staff was limited and so basically my points 1, 2, and 3 were mostly going to be achieved by me. I listened as other people in the kitchen audibly freaked out about how short we were on time, but kept my head down and kept working. After personally washing two bags of mesclun and feeling very overwhelmed by the whole thing, I said to myself, “Stop.” It was time to step away from the mesclun and toward the cooler. I took a big salad bowl and put half the washed mesclun in it, and then I carried the bowl to the cooler and began to dump nice, clean, sweet-smelling hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce into the bowl, tearing it as I went. I tossed all the greens together: it was, I have to say, an impressive and handsome assemblage. Somewhere in there, two volunteers entered the kitchen and I told them to get on the mesclun washing project; they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  These were not small bags, let me be clear with you: we’re not talking about little “family size!” Dole salad bags. These were bags the size of a standard-size pillow, and about as fluffy as the finest pillows you’ll see for sale in The Company Store catalog, and it all had to be washed before it could be served. No corner-cutting. But the ladies did it. They washed, they spun, and then they combined the mesclun with lettuce from the cooler, tearing the big lettuce leaves as they added so that the salad greens would all be roughly the same size. I fleetingly wondered if I’d missed my calling and should have been working in professional kitchens all my life, since I was, it seemed, very good at pep-talking people into working with crazed efficiency. (We will ignore the fact that I’m also paralyzed by terror when marshmallows catch fire under the broiler: clearly, in all seriousness, I am not cut out for professional kitchen work.)

“We need to spend as little time as possible washing lettuce,” I said. “So wash the bare minimum of the mesclun you can, ok? Use the stuff in the cooler to augment the mesclun until we have four or five huge huge bowls of salad, ok?” “Ok!” everyone said. “I have to go work on the dessert table,” I said, wiping my hands dry. “You all can handle this, right?” Everyone seemed confident that they were capable of washing and drying lettuce and putting it in bowls — big shock — and it wasn’t exactly that everyone saluted me and clicked their heels, but I had a sense that people understood that if I were disappointed, this would be not good; so I went off to handle desserts. It would all be fine.

And indeed it was: by two o’clock, eight bags of mesclun had been washed and combined with ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce; I don’t even know how many red peppers had been minced and combined with the lettuce (I know I personally handled ten peppers). About half of a crate of tomatoes had been flung festively atop the salad bowls. (Someone had asked me, “Should we cut up the tomatoes?” and I had responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?”) The liters of homemade salad dressings were on the table, with appropriate serving implements, and, most importantly, the dessert table was arranged extremely well, so as to maximize the visual impact of the bounty of sugar that awaited our guests. (I didn’t do the dessert arranging, in the end: I had help from two friends from my retail days, who know how to handle displays.) Guests who’d signed up with me to provide desserts showed up to the party with carloads of treats: there were bean pies, chicken and waffle cupcakes, mini praline cheesecakes, chai pound cakes — that was just the first carload to get placed on the tables. There were all sorts of wonderful things that, really, made my caramel cake and coconut cake and chess pie look like mere child’s play. I’m talking two long, long tables, just covered in sugary goodness. Lemon icebox cakes and chocolate icebox cakes. Pecan pies. Four different Jell-O molds sprung from the mind of a demented man who was determined to make Jell-O molds seem like a good idea (he succeeded). There were peach cakes and bundt cakes. It was all so amazing that I was taken by surprise when someone complained that there wasn’t enough chocolate on the table. (They were right. There weren’t enough chocolate desserts. I will not let that happen again.) My daughter came into the dessert area and asked me loudly if she could take something before having her macaroni and cheese. I didn’t even have to answer, I just shot her a look. Everyone watching us laughed.

The party opened with a bang: people watched the roasted pig meat getting pulled, the line for getting meat and sides formed quickly, and before I knew it, almost all of the savory food was gone, and people were starting to sniff around the dessert tables. “It’s time for you to cut cakes,” someone nudged me. I said, “Ok, just let me check one thing –” and I went to the tables where the sides had been laid out. There was almost no salad left — out of all the greens we’d washed, there were just a few scraps in a bowl. The macaroni and cheese was almost gone, too. Everyone had spent 90 minutes cramming that food into their faces and now they wanted cake (or Jell-O, or pie, or whathaveyou).

So I went to the dessert tables, hefted my knife, and spent the next twenty minutes slicing cake and serving it. Everyone had a wonderful time (except the person who wanted more chocolate, I guess). The cakes disappeared quickly; the Jell-O molds were hoovered right up. People were loading three, four, five servings of desserts onto their plates. You had to admire their willingness to try everything. “I don’t really like coconut,” a man said, frowning at the cake. “Are you stupid?” his wife would say. “How many times have you had homemade coconut cake and not that dumb stuff out of the freezer case?” “Oh, ok,” the man said. “A small piece,” he added warily. I gave him a small piece. “If he doesn’t like it,” the wife said to me, “I’ll eat it for him and then I’ll kill him.” I laughed. “Caramel cake?” I asked, holding up my knife.

It was a good time.

When the party was all over, I prowled through the kitchen to try to assess what food remained, what damage had been done, and so on — also, I had to collect my own stuff to bring it home. I was really astonished to learn that there were only a couple of bags of mesclun left in the crate, though one medium salad bowl of assembled salad had never gotten served in the first place — whoops. I think we ran out of room on the tables in the backyard and in the end we were all too distracted to bring that last bowl out during the meal. No matter: Almost everything was gone. I mean, considering what we had started with, there were almost no leftovers. The desserts had been particularly well-received. There was one mini praline cheesecake left — which I ate, and let me tell you, it was delicious — and a few slices of pie. “Well all right,” I said, happy. The bowl of greens came home with me (along with a small quantity of leftover Green Goddess dressing). In the end, really, it all got eaten. The very, very last tag end of the Green Goddess dressing, I used in making a batch of buttermilk biscuits. I don’t know if that’s a traditional thing to eat at a pig roast, but someone should definitely consider adding Green Goddess biscuits to the menu. Maybe next year.

The Hausfrau and the Hobbit’s Coffeemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Things We Do for Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, good to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sad Story about a Silk Shirtdress, with a Happy Ending

Saturday was a busy day. My family had to attend two separate parties. One was an event  essentially for adults, involving elegant tidbits — smoked salmon, champagne, and cake; three children were present, my daughter among them, all beautifully behaved. And then from this, my husband swept up my daughter and whisked her off to a little friend’s birthday party back in our neighborhood. When he and I picked her up at eight in the evening, she was seated happily on a bench swing in the birthday girl’s backyard. She was with two friends, they were talking quietly and happily, dragging their bare feet in the grass as they swung lazily; the party was over, and everyone was tired.  Goody bags distributed, the three of us wished the birthday girl a happy birthday one last time, and walked home talking about what a fine, full day it had been, with friends and food and cake and all kinds of wonderful things.

There were numerous bug bites involved, for me and for my daughter, as the result of all this party activity, and so on arriving back home there was much application of witch hazel and Aveeno anti-itch cream. (The Aveeno expired two years ago, but whatever.) I helped my daughter get out of her fancy dress, which is actually a size small woman’s silk shirt (trust me, it looks darling and elegant on her), and it was when I was unbuttoning it that I noticed the grease stains on the front. “Is this grease?” I asked. “Do you know what this is from?”

“I dunno,” my daughter said, frowning at her shirt.

“You had pizza, right? Pepperoni pizza? At the birthday party?” We all made some quick calculations and decided that though there was no proof, the odds were good at the numerous grease stains were pepperoni stains. It sure wasn’t champagne. And we know for a fact that our daughter is a total chazzer when it comes to pepperoni pizza.

So I laid the shirt on the kitchen counter and dumped about half a cup of cornstarch on it. I know that’s a lot of cornstarch, but hey: there was a lot of grease. “We’ll leave this to sit overnight and tomorrow I’ll wash it and we’ll see what we can do,” I said.

The next morning I came downstairs to find the shirt on the kitchen counter, lots of cornstarch on it, as expected. As not expected (but only because I just hadn’t thought it through), I also found a sweet little path of fucking disgusting white kitty paw prints. They were visible on the shirt (also visible on the shirt: a few little bits where Jackknife had evidently licked the cornstarch just to see whether or not it was poultry, beef, or fish, which it was not). The pawprints led from the shirt across the strip of dark grey counter in front of our double sink, across the counter around the jar of cornstarch (which, yes, I should have put away last night: sue me.) The pawprints meandered around my daughter’s very cool projects she made at summer camp (various do-nothing machines, some powered by batteries, some with water, some with magnets), back through the various do-nothing machines again, and then, my husband pointed out to me, there was one last pawprint — very faint — on the front of the one of the cabinet doors under the sink. “That’s where he finally decided to jump down, and he braced himself on the door for a quick second before landing,” said my husband.
“There’s no cornstarch visible on the floor,” I said. We all agreed that it was doubtless present, just in such fine form that it was invisible to the naked eye. I sighed heavily, surveying all the pawprints.
“I think the cat sneezed over here, too,” my husband said. “You can see on the shirt where the cornstarch is sort of sprayed around. He was sniffing the shirt and it made him sneeze and it blew the powder around.”

I wadded up the shirt and put it in the bathroom sink. I cleared all the do-nothing machines from the counter (along with all the other miscellaneous crap that’s accumulated there — crap accumulates like nobody’s business when it comes to kitchen counters). Then I took a dishcloth and some Dawn and I scrubbed down the entire kitchen counter. I rinsed it, and then I sprayed it with rubbing alcohol and wiped it down again. Finally satisfied that the counter was restored to a proper level of cleanliness, I took the shirt from the bathroom sink, brought it back to the kitchen sink, and began to wash it.

I suppose I could have tried to be more gentle with this shirt dress. It is, after all, a high-quality, delicate, silk article. However, I bought it secondhand for about three dollars, and life is short. So I got it sopping wet, squirted Dawn detergent on it, and started washing it. I washed and rinsed it three times. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not I’d gotten the grease stain out — the thing about wet shiny mauve silk is, you can’t really see schmutz on it, when it’s wet, because the fabric gets so dark, it’s just — it just looks like wet silk. I decided to take it on faith that whatever schmutz I was capable of removing, I had removed, so I gave up. I then wondered how to wring the water out of it without wringing it — I was worried about accidentally shredding the thin fabric — and immediately thought, “I’m in the kitchen: obviously, I will use the salad spinner!”

Five minutes later, I’d spun the shirt in the salad spinner several times, pouring out several tablespoons’ worth of water. It was sufficiently effective that I found myself muttering, “I bet people do this all the time and I’m only now figuring it out. I bet there are websites that talk about hand-washing your undies and spin-drying them in the salad spinner.” I turn out to be absolutely correct. You can do Google searches for the basic concept using a number of different phrases — “hand wash salad spinner” “laundry in salad spinner” “silk clothes in salad spinner” are good starts — and you get lots of hits. It’s clear I was way behind the curve on this one, probably because Peg Bracken never had a salad spinner.

The silk shirtdress dried on the balcony in the sun, and when I went to take it in at the end of the day, I inspected it carefully. All the grease had washed out, and the article had dried so beautifully it won’t need any ironing. Victory is mine. God bless the salad spinner: works wonders on greens, herbs, and your delicates and umentionables. (Of course, if my husband catches wind that I’ve been spinning my unmentionables in the salad spinner, he may have apolexy, so I might stick to the dryer for those. Officially.)

The Cricket on Livingston Street

Unfortunately for me I have a track record of being shat on by animals. The first time I can remember was in 1987, when I was walking down Chapel Street in downtown New Haven wearing a jacket that had belonged to my father. It was the jacket from the first suit he bought after graduating from college; the story was he had purchased it to go to his first job interview. It was a dark grey pinstriped suit. The pants were long gone but the jacket had become mine and it was, absolutely, my favorite article of clothing. I wore it every day for years. There I was, ho de do, walking down Chapel Street, and a pigeon shat on the shoulder of the jacket. I was in front of 1142 Chapel Street when it happened. It was a huge blob of white and yellow bird crap, and I remember I said, “OH FUCK” and spent a long time, when I got home, meticulously cleaning it off the delicate wool of the jacket. I tried to tell myself that being shat on by a bird is good luck, but who the hell knew. (I got the jacket clean enough that I would wear it for many, many more years after that. I no longer wear it, but I still have it.)

That was the first dramatic crapped-on-by-some-random-animal moment. There was also the time I was sitting on the deck at my father in law’s house, minding my own business, reading, and a flock of geese flew overhead. I looked up at the herd of squawking geese, saying, “Hey! Geese!” and at least one of  them shat on my back. My husband and child found this uproariously funny. I, not so much. “You never look up when geese are flying overhead,” my husband gasped through his laughter. “Fuck you,” I said angrily, tugging at my shirt carefully, trying to get it off of me without getting goose shit in my hair.

I have yet to be crapped on by a dog or a cat. I cannot even recall that my infant daughter crapped on me. Maybe she knew it just would not do; I don’t know. She certainly never minded spitting up on me, and the first time she puked, at about 18 months, I will never forget: she threw up all down the front of the pretty dress I had put on to go out to dinner on a rare date night with my husband. But wild animals seem to see me and think, “Ah, THERE’s the toilet.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was walking down Livingston Street with my daughter — I was taking her to summer camp — and a cricket pooped on me.

“Look! A cricket!” I said to my daughter, pointing to my shirt, where this cricket had just landed on my shoulder.

“Aw! Cricket!” she said admiringly. My daughter is a serious, huge friend of bugs. She is a magnet for praying mantises and likes to bring them home for me to make little houses for them. I could tell she was already thinking, “Can we take him home?”

“Look!” she said. “It pooped on you!” She laughed happily.

“Aw, crap,” I said, realizing she was right. My pristine white poplin button down shirt had a tiny dot of green cricket crap on it. The cricket hopped off me and went to find something more interesting to do. “Great,” I said, peering down at my shoulder. The little green dot of crap would be barely noticeable to anyone, but my knowing it was there made the shirt unwearable.

“Guess you’ll be doing laundry when you get home,” my daughter said knowingly.

I sighed. “I was going to do laundry anyway,” I said. “It’s no big deal.” It’s summer. There’s always laundry to do. 

So here I am, back at home, doing laundry. To be honest, it is so beastly outside, I’d rather be at home doing laundry than outside doing anything at all, unless being outside means sitting in a screened-in cafe patio drinking an iced coffee. But it’s pretty good right here: I’ve got iced coffee right here at home. And my iced coffee at home is better than any cafe’s iced coffee, because I have coffee ice cubes. And air conditioning. God bless clean laundry, air conditioning, and coffee ice cubes.


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