Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.

Homemade Goodies: or, How I am Under Strict Orders to Not Make Cracklin’ Oat Bran from Scratch

This morning, out of the kindness of my heart, I slipped a few pieces of Cracklin’ Oat Bran (the finest and possibly most expensive of all schlocky breakfast cereals) into my daughter’s morning bowl of Grape-Nuts. “Almost used up,” I said, peering into the box, which I’d given to my daughter as a silly birthday present.
“Buy more,” my daughter advised.
“Nah, this crap is too expensive for me to buy it all the time,” I said.
“How much could it cost?” asked my husband.
“It’s almost six dollars a box,” I said.
“Well, that’s bullshit,” he said. “Considering what breakfast cereal is made of, too.” He spared us his traditional diatribe about pencil shavings but only because I stepped in to distract him by suggesting I might attempt to make them from scratch. This proposal was made entirely in jest — I’m not messing around with that kind of thing anymore, I’ve learned my lesson — but he was fast to say, firmly, “No! Don’t do that!”
“You should make oatmeal cookies instead,” he said.
“Oatmeal cookies are awful,” said our daughter.
“No, they’re not!” my husband and I said as one. “What are you talking about?”
“They have raisins in them!” she insisted. “They’re bad.”
It was odd, because in fact this is a child who doesn’t mind eating raisins, but she has apparently absorbed the notion (held by me, to be sure) that raisins in desserts are a real bummer. My husband consoled her, “Oatmeal cookies don’t have to have raisins. They can have chocolate chips! And that’s a really good cookie. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are really, really good.”
He did admit that he likes them better with raisins AND chocolate chips. The skeptical girl at the dining table looked at me askance: she would have no truck with this.
“This afternoon, we can make oatmeal cookies,” I told her. “Good ones. No raisins.”
“Okay,” she said gamely.
“Check Cook’s Illustrated,” my husband reminded me. “I’m sure Christopher Kimball has some ludicrously elaborate and perfect way to make oatmeal cookies.”
We can do that. Because here it is. (Though I think this is from an issue that’s post-CK’s tenure at CI; the basic premise still holds.)

1 cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ cup (5 ¼ oz.) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3 ½ oz.) granulated sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 whole egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (9 oz.) old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup raisins, optional

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Melt butter in 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, swirling pan occasionally, until foaming subsides. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping bottom of pan with heat‑resistant spatula, until milk solids are dark golden brown and butter has nutty aroma, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl, scraping skillet with spatula. Stir in cinnamon.

Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil to bowl with butter and whisk until combined. Add egg and yolk and vanilla and whisk until mixture is smooth. Using wooden spoon or spatula, stir in flour mixture until fully combined, about 1 minute. Add oats and raisins, if using, and stir until evenly distributed (mixture will be stiff).

Divide dough into 20 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange dough balls 2 inches apart on prepared sheets, 10 dough balls per sheet. Using your damp hand, press each ball into 2½-inch disk.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookie edges are set and lightly browned and centers are still soft but not wet, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheet on wire rack for 5 minutes; using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool completely.

Housecleaning: The Story of One Friday Morning

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

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

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

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

It had been there for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures with Heavy Cream

It sounds like it could be a previously unpublished with by William S. Burroughs, but no, it’s just me in my kitchen.

It took me several days to reach a point in our schedule when it was feasible and reasonable for me to leave the oven on at 180°, which is what I would have to do to try my hand at making clotted cream. But I hit that golden hour on a recent Saturday night. And so, armed with the link provided me by a staffer at Kimball Brook Farm, I tried my hand at making clotted cream.

The instructions, from this website, are very easy. You buy cream and pour it into a shallow pan; you cover the pan with tinfoil, and then you leave the pan in the preheated oven for twelve hours. After twelve hours, you take the pan out of the oven, and peel back the foil a bit to let steam escape. When the cream’s cooled for 30 minutes, you decant the stuff into a jar, pop it in the fridge for another twelve hours, and at the end you’re supposed to have — WHOO HOO! CLOTTED CREAM!

So I did all this. At eight thirty in the evening, after the dinner dishes were cleaned up, I turned the oven to 180° and I poured the cream into an 8″ square Pyrex dish and I covered it with tinfoil and I slid the pan gently into the oven. Then we all went upstairs. Eight-thirty the next morning, after my first cup of coffee, I removed the pan from the oven, peeled back the foil a bit, and let the cream cool. After thirty minutes, I got out a little Mason jar and a shallow spoon and did the big reveal.

What I saw was a thick layer of stuff on top and… warm cream underneath. I was frankly not sure what the big deal was; was the stuff on top the clotted cream? Because it really wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Or maybe it was; no, it definitely was; but there wasn’t much of it.

Nonetheless, I had a sense that separating the cream from the cream, if you’ll follow me, was not what I wanted to do quite yet; I needed to get all of this stuff into the Mason jar. It wasn’t easy to spoon it into the jar, but I managed, and only made a small mess (which the cats were happy to clean up) (yes, I cleaned the floor afterwards), and then I bunged the jar into the fridge and told myself that no matter what happened, I would be able to use the cream, and it was just some dairy products and everything would be ok.

I didn’t dare to open the jar until Monday morning. The jar made a strong “pop!” sound as I opened it, and the cats came running. “Okay,” I said to myself reassuringly, like the way the surgeons do in movies when they’re reconstructing the violinist’s hands and rebuilding his heart at the same time. Sure, it’s tricky work, but if you stay calm, you can do it. As I was saying, I opened the jar and I gingerly stuck a teaspoon in. Sure enough the top of the jar was nearly-solid cream — butter, more like — and underneath it was a pool of heavy cream.

Bearing in mind that my husband had been very curious about this process, I decided to not muck with it any further until he got home from work. During the course of the day I decided, too, that I would use some of the cream to make biscuits for dinner — because, frankly, I’d have to use the cream up, and it would probably only be suitable for baking. He came home from work and as he poured himself a drink and lifted the lid of the pot on the stove to see what we were eating for dinner (chicken and lentil soup), I said, “You gotta see this.” I took the Mason jar from the fridge.
“What’s that?” he asked

“This is the cream from Vermont,” I said. “Check this out.” I opened the jar and jabbed another spoon into the thick cream. “Oh, nasty,” he said.

“Come on, you jerk,” I snapped.

No one wanted to try it. I ate some of it myself, on toast, and found it fine, but to be honest, not particularly compelling; and it wasn’t the kind of thing I’m capable of eating in vast quantities anymore. I guess I’m getting old. And, given my family’s reception of the results of all this work and attention, I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do this again anytime soon.

Pastrami Risotto. Because I’m a daredevil.

It was the end of a long and difficult afternoon involving bus travel, poor weather, and unhappy children. I was facing making dinner without a lot of emotional steam to work with, and also without a concrete plan. This is how someone like the Hausfrau winds up staring into the refrigerator and saying, “Sure, I could make a pastrami risotto.”

It began when I was at the Italian market down the street a couple blocks, contemplating pizza toppings. This was a few nights ago: it was my daughter’s birthday dinner. She had requested that I make pizza. A spur of the moment reminder from my daughter than I’d made an excellent stromboli with pastrami inspired me to buy a pound of pastrami. “We’ll use it on the pizza, Papa will love it,” I said to my daughter, who nodded. I had visions of pastrami sandwiches, another stromboli, and so on. We carried the pastrami home and I assembled the pizzas and they were quite good. One was pastrami, red onion, and olive; the other was spinach and olive. Those were some fine pizzas.

I wrapped up the rest of the pastrami — the cats yowled indignantly — and felt smug about it, thinking I had a trick up my sleeve to help me jazz up dinners for the rest of the week.

And when it came to last night: it was dismal outside. It was pouring rain when my husband walked in the door. I was trying to be optimistic about the tiny epiphany I thought I’d had, which was, People use proscuitto to form a layer of flavor when they’re starting all kinds of italian dishes, including when they’re making risotto; why couldn’t I use pastrami the same way?
So when my husband came home, the rain was pounding down and I was in the kitchen chopping onion and I said to my daughter, “Bring Papa a towel from the drawer” — pointing my foot to the low drawer where I keep plastic storage tubs and towels to be used for cleaning up messes, along with a few special-purpose linens (tea towels suitable for use as pastry cloths; cheesecloth; stuff like that). She reached into the drawer and then ran to help her father, a dutiful daughter, and my husband came into the kitchen, squidge squidge squidge, to find me roughly chopping long slices of pastrami. “Whatcha making?” he asked cheerfully. “Pastrami risotto,” I said. He looked skeptical, but I pressed on.

I had some nice vegetable stock that I’d made; I heated it up and used it to start to cook the risotto. I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to pep things up a bit. I had a lot of sliced red onion in the pot, and the pastrami, and the rice, and everything smelled quite delicious. Toward the end of the cooking time I added green peas and parsley. My daughter walked over and stuck her nose over the pot. She made approving noises. I was,  thus, optimistic that this meal would be greeted with pleasure. It did, for sure, look absolutely beautiful: the red pastrami and the red onion looked gorgeous with the bright dots of green peas and parsley. I mean, it looked like something you’d totally want to eat, and it smelled like something you’d totally want to eat.

Instead, we all sat down to eat, and while no one complained that the food was bad, no one seemed to actually enjoy it very much.

It was fine.
There’s plenty left over.

It was today when I started to sort the laundry — one of many small tasks I had to tackle today — that I found my biggest piece of cheesecloth in the laundry. “What the hell,” I said to myself. I knew I hadn’t used it for anything — I haven’t used cheesecloth since I think last summer. And then I realized: my beloved girl had handed her dripping wet father a piece of cheesecloth to use as a towel. I’m sure he was confused, but too polite to say anything like, “no, can you get me an actual towel?”

So I laundered it. And I’ll be the one to eat the leftover pastrami risotto, for lunches, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It’ll be fine.

It’s just a stack of big heavy books and laundry supplies in the doorway. No big deal.

One recent evening, as the adults in the household were getting ready for bed, my husband’s sock snagged on a tiny splinter of wood from the wood floor, right in the doorway to our room. “Hey,” he said, annoyed. He bent and and felt the little flaw with his fingers. “I better glue that down,” he said. I was sitting on the bed folding the last few laundry items that had been piled up there for hours; there was no going to bed without folding the laundry first. Hence, my back was facing my husband as he got down and did some futzing around with stuff at the floor in the middle of the doorway.

I got up, holding a stack of clean towels, and noticed that while my husband was no longer in the doorway, there was, instead, a rather imposing little tower. We had, in the middle of the doorway, the following items, which are, you’ll note, mostly very large, heavy books:

The Grove Dictionary of Jazz; the Washburn Bible; Roz Chast’s Theories of Everything; a collection of works by Lewis Carroll; and a brand new, full, 5 lb. tub of OxiClean.

In the middle of the doorway.

I gave my husband a skeptical look. “What,” he said.
“What if the cats trip on this?” I said.
“The cats can see in the dark,” he said.
“What if trip on it? when I go the bathroom in the night?”
“You’ll see it there; there’s a nightlight in the hall.”
I sighed.
“This would make a great Roz Chast cartoon,” my husband observed cheerfully, settling in with his book. Annoyed as I was, I had to laugh at that.

Short and Sweet: Remembering A Housebitch Moment

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