How to Not Make Tuna Casserole

This one goes out to Gina.

I spent all day in the kitchen. I mean, from nine in the morning until 2.45 in the afternoon, I was cooking. Baking, to be specific. There’s a lot going on this weekend, and I have to bake for almost all of it. It’s fine. I’ve got it under control. However, the question of what to make for dinner was nagging at me, because I knew that even though I was going to be getting a Peapod delivery between four and six this afternoon, it was all very unclear how exactly I would put together a decent evening meal. I mean, obviously, I’d cook something, but — what?

The problem was simmering away in the back of my mind when I remembered that I was going to be receiving some cans of tuna, and I remembered a) the bags of frozen peas in the freezer b) the few ounces of leftover roasted red peppers I have in the fridge and c) the block of Colby-Jack cheese I also had in the fridge. “So long as I’ve got some egg noodles, I can make a tuna casserole,” I told myself around noon today, and feeling very smug I slogged on through the baking, along the way confirming my suspicion that I did in fact have egg noodles on hand.

At five o’clock this evening, the groceries all unloaded and put away, I put a pot of water on to boil and began to hotten up (as they say) some butter in a pot. I set the oven to pre-heat (375° or so). I sauteed some chopped onion in the butter, threw in the diced red peppers, and worked on making the bechamel. Flour; milk; looking good. I was feeling quite on top of things. I cooked the egg noodles, threw the peas in three minutes before the noodles were done so they could all drain together. Gina would have been proud. Scanning for cheese in the fridge I decided to not only put in the Colby-Jack, but also the last of a tub of powdered cheese I had from King Arthur Flour. It wasn’t enough to do much else with — maybe a teaspoon and a half of powdered cheese — but it wouldn’t hurt the sauce, I figured, so I dumped it in and stirred and stirred and stirred. “Gotta remember to not forget the tuna,” I said to myself as I stirred the sauce. I turned the heat down and went to drain the noodles and peas.

My husband came home from work. “How are you?” I called to the front hall.

“Tired. Hungry,” came the response.
“Tuna noona coming up soonish,” I said. He said nothing, but came into the kitchen.
“Mmmm,” he said, staring over my shoulder. “Bechamel. Casserole?”
“I said I’m making tuna noona,” I said.
“I didn’t hear you,” he said. He poured himself a drink and stood against the kitchen counter. We got to talking about the differences between Catholic churches and Episcopalian churches. “Hey,” I said, “Can you help me spoon this sauce onto the noodles? The pot’s kind of heavy.”

“Boy, this looks great,” my husband said as he took charge of the pot. The noodles and peas were spread out in a greased baking pan, and the sauce covered them beautifully. I sprinkled the top with bread crumbs and Parmesan and put the pan into the oven. “All right,” I said. “Probably fifteen minutes, we should be ready to eat.”

“Cool,” my husband said, settling himself on the couch. I went upstairs to take care of mundane matters there, and it was after I’d spent ten mundane minutes upstairs that I gasped: I’d forgotten to put the tuna into the tuna casserole.

I ran downstairs. “I forgot to put the tuna in!” I wailed.

So this is how you make a Not Tuna Casserole: you do everything you’d do if you were making a tuna casserole, and then leave out the tuna.

There was a pause, and then my husband began to guffaw.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. It really wasn’t clear to me that there was any fixing the problem; you can’t undo the casserole once it’s been in the oven ten minutes. To stir in the tuna then would mean ruining the topping.

“Just flake the tuna in when you’re serving it,” my husband suggested reasonably.

“I can’t believe I forgot the tuna,” I said. “We got to talking, and I was making the sauce, and it looked good, but I was distracted, and I forgot the tuna.”

Just then my daughter came in from the courtyard, where she’d been playing. “You forgot the tuna? So what’s in the casserole?”

“Everything but the tuna,” I said.

In the end, we mixed the drained, flaked tuna, straight from the can, into the piles of sauced noodles on our plates, and all of us were perfectly happy. Some of us even had thirds. There’s almost none leftover.

So that’s how you make a successful not tuna casserole: proceed as for tuna casserole, but leave out the tuna. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Nutcrackers and picks;

4. drinking straws;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stew, Born out of Desperation, Hailed as a Triumph; or, I Won’t Make This Often, but It Would be So Good if I Did

The other day I was mulling grimly the possible options for our evening dinner hour: grimly, because there was a meeting I wanted to attend that was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., which would mean that whatever I was serving for dinner, it would have to be done before I left the house, and somehow kept warm for my husband and child to eat while I was at the meeting.

Contemplating  the raw materials in the fridge, I remembered that I had a lot of carrots and some celery. “If I bought some beef, and maybe some potatoes, I could set up a beef stew in the early afternoon and just leave it in the oven to cook all afternoon. And then I could just leave — “Dinner’s in the oven!” — with a clear conscience.”

So I popped off to the butcher counter, snagged a couple of pounds of beef cubes, and grabbed a loaf of ciabatta bread and some smoked Gouda while I was at it, and trotted home feeling like I had just solved a long-standing cold case. I got home, pulled down my biggest Dutch oven, and got to work immediately. It was almost 1 p.m.

I have a lot of experience making beef stews but it occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I did a quick Google search on the matter to see if anything in terms of technique jumped out at me as something I should try. The first thing I landed on was a discussion of a Cook’s Illustrated beef stew recipe. I skimmed the list of ingredients and realized that I in fact had everything necessary on hand (or I could fudge it). The things I don’t always have around that I happened to have right there? Several cups of chicken broth (taking up a lot of space in the fridge!); anchovy; carrots. Making this recipe would not only be a good idea in culinary terms, it would also free up space I desperately needed in the refrigerator. So I decided to go with that recipe. It was simple, if a little time consuming in terms of prep, but then, any beef stew involves a lot of prep work, if you’re putting in vegetables. So I set to it. I began by preheating the oven to 250°.

The real work began after that, and I was quite busy for about forty-five minutes. The first thing I did was dry the cubes of beef with paper towels. (This is one of the very few tasks in our household where I think paper towels are called for; we use a roll of paper towels a year, they are so seldom used. But for drying meat: just the thing.) Then I browned them, in small batches, in olive oil. I think it was three or four batches of beef I had to do — it was rather a lot of meat. I set the browned meat in the upturned pot lid so that I could work on the next batch. The cats circled my legs anxiously and hopefully while I did this.

When the meat was done, I deglazed the pan a bit with some sweet vermouth — maybe a quarter of a cupful. I let it cook away, rubbing the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula.  I threw an anchovy (from a jar of oil-packed anchovies) into the pot. I peeled several fat cloves of garlic, sliced them in half, and browned them in the vermouthy-beefy sludge. I added half a very large onion, minced, and a bay leaf. I squeezed about three tablespoons of vegetable paste (a kind of concentrated form of V-8, like Ortolina, but made by Cento) into the pot, and stirred the sludge around. The anchovy melted in with the tomato-vegetable paste, and the sludge smelled good, but in danger of burning. Working quickly, I sprinkled in about 1/4 cup of white flour, and stirred that around for a moment, again worrying about burning, moving fast so that the flour didn’t have time to form wretched clots around the vegetables. I didn’t wait long before I slowly poured the chicken stock (probably about four cups, all told) into the flour and onions. I stirred it for a few minutes until the flour dissolved and something akin to a smooth brown sauce began to form. Once I was confident that I’d passed the dangerous phase of the cooking process — if you burn  the onions and flour, the whole project is going to be disgusting; if you don’t, then you’ll be fine — I put the beef back into the pot, added a bag of frozen pearl onions, stirred the slop around, covered the pot, and opened the oven.

It was 1.30 by the time the pot went into the oven. I then ignored the pot until 4.30. The time was filled up with washing prep dishes, picking up my daughter after school, giving her a snack, helping her with homework, paying bills, and realizing that I’d done two loads of laundry but I’d forgotten to fold them and put them away.

At 4.30 I added to the stew a pound of carrots, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks, two large stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into chunks, and five red potatoes, peeled and also cut into hefty chunks. Making sure that everything was mixed in, and not just a pile of naked vegetables sitting atop the beef stew (because I didn’t think they’d cook properly if I did that), I covered the pot again and shoved it back into the oven.

There was another frenzy of domestic activity between five and six — laundry folding, cleaning the countertops where I discovered a Jackson Pollack-worthy scattering of paw prints (doubtless the cats were trying to figure out if they could get at the beef stew) — but I checked the stew just before I left the house to go to the meeting. The potatoes and carrots were nicely cooked through, the beef was tender: everything was exactly as it should be. I handed off our daughter to my husband, saying, “There’s beef stew in the oven, and a loaf of nice bread and some cheese,” and then I ran off to my meeting.

When I got home two hours later, husband and child were curled up on the couch with one of the cats. Their dinner plates were on the floor (a revolting, uncool habit we are all guilty of falling into, letting the cats lick our plates). “Was the stew good?” I asked.

The opinion passed down was unanimous: this was the best beef stew ever prepared in our house. “Huh, good,” I said as I sat down to sample it myself. I could not offer dissent. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe — which I admittedly did not follow precisely, but which I certainly followed in spirit, and relatively accurately — really was fabulous. It wasn’t quick, and beef isn’t cheap, but it isn’t hard to do, and it’s clear that the payback on the effort is tremendous. “The best thing about this,” I said, “is that there’s enough that we can have it for Shabbat dinner tomorrow, too.” Everyone seemed pleased with that arrangement; and so, happily, at this juncture in the narrative, mid-day on Friday, I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner tonight. All I have to do is buy a challah and set the table, and we’ll be ready for Shabbat tonight.

Except, I’m thinking about making a coconut cake this afternoon.

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.

Hausfrau Roadshow

The Hausfrau usually keeps to herself more than you’d imagine when she’s out in public. True, I have a life in the world, and I talk to people  and stuff, but by and large I don’t put on my Hausfrau hat unless specifically asked to, like when I’m asked to be a guest on someone’s radio show or something. But today I was at a pricey supermarket downtown, and a moment just happened and I had to spring into action in Hausfrau, or maybe Housebitch, mode, to help out a total stranger.

I was at the Elm City Market, which is not in fact the most expensive supermarket in the State of Connecticut, but a lot of people feel like they gouge you. The reality is, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, more nuanced than that. Anyhow, I decided today to stop in and buy a challah from the company they stock (just to see what it’s like) and also pick up something to serve for Shabbat dinner. Also to buy the fancy non-mint toothpaste I like; I’m low on toothpaste. Not that you needed to know that.

So I’m standing there at the packaged meat section, which is not the same as the meat counter, and wondering if I should buy some meat there or go to my usual butcher on the way home. I don’t like to buy meat from anyone except Jimmy at P&M, but I was already anticipating a rather complicated agenda and I decided that to simplify matters I would get my meat at Elm City Market. I stared at the options and noticed that ground beef was on special. I hefted a package and decided to go for it (we’ve been eating chicken all week, and meatloaf is always popular here). I was wondering if I should get one package or two when a man squeezed in next to me and stared, befuddled, at the shelves.

“Am I in your way?” I asked him.

“No, you’re good,” he said. He looked around and saw packages of hamburger patties,”Ok, here we go,” he said. He grabbed one, started to walk away, and then came back. “I better get two,” he said.

He turned to leave and something in me just had to say something. “You could save a lot of money buying a package of this instead!” I said to him, pointing to the packages of ground beef. The man stopped short. “What?”
I said, “Look, what do those hamburger patties cost per pound?” He said, “I dunno!” He looked at the packages. I can’t remember the number he read off, but it was in the neighborhood of $7 per pound. “This stuff’s only $3.49 a pound,” I said. “Do you need the meat to be already in patties or can you make the patties yourself?” “Aw, my wife’s making it!” he said. “Well, does she mind shaping the patties?” “No, she don’t mind,” “Well,” I said, “Why not save yourself a few bucks? I mean, that’s a lot of meat to buy at a higher price.” “Boy, you’re right,” he said, putting the patties back and reaching for a package of the cheaper, less-elegantly presented meat. “I’m not really a grocery shopper,” he said. “But that’s a big difference.”
I nodded. “It’s ok, I am a grocery shopper, and I just … I don’t know, I had to say something.”
“No, I’m glad you did!” he said. “You take care, now,” he told me, and I waved as he dashed off to the checkout line.

I paid for my few purchases and took the bus home, thinking about it for a while: how many people need help figuring out how to buy groceries? Is this how everyone buys food? Am I the only person who thinks, “I will NOT pay extra for pre-formed hamburger meat?” I mean, I never make hamburgers at home, but —

It was all very interesting. I came home and made a panade to use to make my meatloaf. I’m wondering if that guy’s wife will see the meat this afternoon and say, “Hm, this would make a good meatloaf. I’m gonna make meatloaf instead.” I really hope she does. The world needs more homemade meatloaves.

Baking on Demand: or, How One Tired Hausfrau Rose to the Challenge Two Times in Two Days

It was late December and that meant there was a lot of baking on demand to be done, at least for me. My husband had no such pressures to meet; he was busy thinking about what he might make for Christmas dinner, which is a whole ‘nother story.

In years past, I’ve been involved with cross-country Holiday Cooky Exchanges; this year, all the regulars were too depressed to get revved up to do it, so that was off the table. But even this year, friends still hosted holiday parties, and that meant that guests still had to come up with lovely little tidbits to bring to add to the festivities. I don’t mind; I’m all for bringing things to festivities. But I was definitely a little blah about it, in terms of planning. I mean, I knew we wanted to go to these parties, and I knew I would have to bring something, but I was not feeling inspired, culinarily speaking. There was no one thing that I was thinking, “oh, man, I’ve GOT to try out those [fill in the blank] cookies on those people! They’re gonna love ’em! It’s gonna be awesome!”

No, this was a situation where we had one party on Saturday and one on Sunday, and in each case, the morning of the event, I awoke with no sense whatsoever of what I was going to bring. It’s really not like me, to be honest. I had moments of doubt: would I come through? And what would I come through with, exactly?
In the end, I began my work by thinking carefully about what ingredients I had on hand and what I’d have to do to turn them into something special. In each case, time would be tight: I’d have a maximum of three hours in which to commence assembling ingredients, baking, cooling, and icing. What’s more, I had to be working in cookies — cakes would not do. These had to be finger-food treats. (I could have gone a savory route, but that would have sent me into same-old-same-old territory — cocktail meatballs or pimiento cheese — and I just didn’t want to do that to my friends.)

In the case of the Saturday event, I wanted something fairly simple to put together but a little quirky. The hosts are people who like good food; they cook, by which I mean they cook ambitiously. I wondered what cheery herb or spice I had that I could throw into shortbread — because shortbread is a fast thing to make, and calls for very little more than flour and butter and sugar. Did I have anything kind of special just sitting around? I remembered the baggie full of candied rosemary that I’ve had sitting in my “sweet” drawer for two years, and thought “That’s it. Rosemary shortbread.”

And so I threw this together in about 15 minutes.

Take a lot of candied rosemary, and grind it in a food processor all by itself (just leaves, removed from stems); I wound up with about 1/2 cup of pulverized candied rosemary, which was probably 8-9 stems of rosemary, but I didn’t count before I started so who knows.
To this, add 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 1 3/4 cups white all purpose flour; 1/4 cup cornstarch; 1 tsp. vanilla powder. Combine in processor and then cut in one stick of butter. Combine, pulsing the processor, until coarse meal forms. Press into 8×8″ baking pan lined with parchment paper; bake at 325° until golden brown (about 30-40 minutes). Prick holes in dough with a fork before putting in oven, if you can remember to do so; I only remembered about halfway through baking, and everything turned out just fine. Cut shortbread in pan while still warm, then remove to rack to cool.

The resulting shortbread is a little sweet and is slightly perfumed with the rosemary. It’s definitely a “sweet” and not a “savory” but the line could certainly be blurred. If you left out the sugar and upped the salt a little, and maybe added some pepper, you’d have a really twisty-turny, probably very delicious snack. (The candied rosemary is always going to mean “sweet” but rosemary is such a flexible flavor, I wouldn’t put it past me to make another batch of candied rosemary just to give a pepper-candied rosemary shortbread a whirl.)

I gave a piece of the rosemary shortbread to my husband and a piece to my child and they both gobbled them down happily. Then my daughter went off to a birthday party for one of her associates.

About ninety minutes later, I lined up the stubby rosemary shortbread soldiers in a little blue Pyrex tub, covered the tub with tinfoil, and we piled ourselves into the car. We picked our daughter up at her friend’s birthday party and then went to the homey-yet-elegant Christmas party a couple miles away. There, two tables held a vast array of Christmas-y treats: a ham, numerous dips and crackers and cheeses, and a bowl of punch. I imagined that my daughter would graze here happily, but it turned out she was quite full up on party good already; she instead sat down in a corner chair with a coloring book and occupied herself nicely, completely fried, for about half an hour. Then we became aware of two things: 1. Our girl needed to sit down and eat a proper meal and 2. She desperately needed an early bedtime.

So we revised our plan — not that we really had a plan — and made our excuses and wrapped ourselves up in our winter coats again and tumbled back into our car. We were driving down Fountain Street when I observed that we were mere yards away from a favorite old restaurant, House of Chao. “We could stop and get Chinese food for dinner,” I said. There was no good reason to do this; we had good food at home. But my husband immediately grasped the appeal of this plan and turned onto Whalley Avenue. We had a hot, cozy meal; my daughter nearly fell asleep at the table, she was so tired (but she declared the food delicious); and we drove home.  It was a very cold night, and we were all exhausted and what we really wanted was to be in our pajamas and curled up on the couch in blankets with our stuffed animals and perhaps a cat or two. By 8.30, this was achieved, and I wondered how the rosemary shortbread had gone over, but wasn’t too concerned. To be honest, it was a “what’s done is done” situation. If no one liked it, then no one liked it, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The hostess of Saturday’s Christmas party was present at the Sunday afternoon party. So I got my little blue Pyrex tub back — empty. This was heartening: if  no one had liked them, she had at least been kind enough to empty the tub out so that I wouldn’t be faced with humiliating leftovers. “I hope people liked them,” I said. “I was kind of going by the seat of my pants.” She told me that people devoured the cookies, and wanted to know the recipe. Well, Gracious Hostess: see above. I thanked her for returning the little tub to me: it’s not a valuable piece of china, but I am very fond of it.

“What did you make for today?” she asked me.  The tables in the kitchen were, again, covered with platters and trays and bowls of homemade goodies, some sweet, some savory. Some things were easily identified (guacamole) and some things were mystery tidbits (tiny quiches that held some savory thing entirely unidentifiable by sight). I laughed and said, “I made something else up,” I told her. “I made these little vanilla poofs with a brown sugar glaze. They’re on a white tray with little blue flowers on it.” I glanced back at the table where the tray of little vanilla poofs with brown sugar glaze was…. nearly empty. Maybe five biscuits left. Out of three dozen made. You could really see the little blue flowers. As we stood in the kitchen doorway blocking traffic, a guy to my left said, “You made those little biscuits? Man, those are good.

I hadn’t started the day feeling so optimistic about whatever it was I’d be bringing to this party. I knew I had certain parameters, and a lot of flexibility. I needed finger food, but it could be sweet or savory; I needed something I could assemble handsomely and carry the daunting distance of one block; and I needed something that would be enjoyed by adults and children. I wanted to stay away from nuts (one worries about allergies at parties) and I wanted to avoid being deliberately weird. (This was not the time to try a pepper-and-candied rosemary-shortbread.) Remembering how, years ago, I brought soup and biscuits to a friend’s family on this same block, just a few houses down, when she’d broken her arm and couldn’t cook for the family, and how the four year old in the house had been enchanted by the biscuits (which she had called “butter muffins”), I decided to make a fancied-up biscuit. Like shortbread, biscuits are made out of basically nothing, and can be gussied up in countless ways.

And so I reached for the flour bin and the butter and got to work. Soon we had several dozen 1″ vanilla biscuits baking. My husband expressed disapproval, saying I was getting too experimental with something I was planning to serve to friends and total strangers; but I was undaunted.

I took 1 3/4 cups of white flour, 1/4 cup of cornstarch, 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and 1/2 cup of white sugar and sifted them together. I whisked in about a teaspoon of vanilla powder. I cut in nearly a stick of butter, and set the bowl in the fridge to stay cold while I whisked together my liquid ingredients: I killed the last of a carton of heavy cream, maybe 1/4 of a cup of cream, blended with whole milk to make one cup of liquid, with a teaspoon of vanilla essence added. Basically, I made biscuits, but with more sugar than I’d normally use, and a double dose of vanilla.

I preheated the oven to 400° while I added the liquid to the dry ingredients, and combined them. The dough was rather sticky and delicate, and I had to flour the countertop heavily to be able to roll the dough out. But I managed, and using a 1″ round cutter I got almost four dozen little vanilla biscuits onto baking trays (about 15 onto a tray, as I recall). They baked nicely, if lopsidedly (totally my fault, I must have been sloppy when cutting). When the tops were just golden, I took them out of the oven, and when they had cooled, I took a misshapen one and broke it in half. “Here,” I said, offering a piece to my husband and a piece to my daughter. “Mmmmm!” my child said happily. My husband was less impressed, and said they were good, but he clearly didn’t see the point. “I’m not done yet,” I said. I went back into the kitchen and made a glaze. I melted a couple tablespoons of butter in a pot and added to it about four tablespoons of brown sugar. I stirred over medium heat until the sugar began to boil, and kept stirring to get the sugar to dissolve. I poured in a couple tablespoons of milk and kept stirring, over lower heat. I cooked this fairly carefully for a couple of minutes — I wanted to be sure this was as smooth as I could get it, but I also didn’t want it to boil over and make a huge mess — and then I turned off the burner and let the sugar and milk cool down. About five minutes later I stirred in about a cup of sifted confectioner’s sugar, and I whisked and whisked and whisked it until it was absolutely smooth. I lined the biscuits up on cooling racks that had waxed paper underneath them, transferred the glaze into a measuring cup (so I could pour more easily), and began to pour the glaze over the biscuits.

This was a messy process, and it did not result in beautiful, evenly, perfectly covered tops of all the biscuits, in part because so many of them had slanty tops (I reiterate: this is my fault, not the fault of the recipe). Some biscuits had more glaze than others. I’m going to be honest: These little vanilla poofs were quite homely.

However, the glaze hardened nicely, and by the time I could assemble them on a tray without dinging the glaze, the biscuits looked cute, if a little uninteresting. (Someone with more of an interest in the aesthetics would have added a contrasting-color fillip, like bright green sugar crystals dappling the glaze, or tiny sprinkles shaped like snowflakes, or something like that. Candied violets. I do not have the time or patience for this kind of thing.) Nonetheless, I knew these things would be a pleasure to eat, and I called my husband over. “Have one of these,” I said. He said dismissively, “I already had one, it was good.” I said, “Yeah, but have one of them NOW.” He obediently took a glazed biscuit from the tray and popped it into his mouth. “Oh,” he said. “Now, this version, I approve of wholeheartedly.”

He ate two more biscuits before we headed out to the party. I wrote up a little card explaining that these were vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze, taped it to a toothpick, and jabbed the toothpick into one of the biscuits. When we got to the party I set the tray down and stopped paying attention. Maybe half an hour later, I glanced at the tray — I was looking to snag a little artichoke and spinach quiche thingy — and half of them were gone. About an hour later, there were maybe five or six biscuits left. And then, by the time I was telling my daughter that it was time to put on her shoes, it was time for us to go home, there were none left.

I discovered this when someone asked me, as I was wrangling my daughter into her coat, and wondering where my boots were, “What did you bake for the party?” I said, “These little vanilla biscuits. Oh! I need to get my tray actually to bring it home. I’ll just move whatever’s leftover onto another tray.”  I located my boots, set them just outside the door, and I went into the kitchen and looked for my tray. It was on the table, empty. The little card was lying there, but the vanilla biscuits — they were all gone. Only thing left on the tray was the toothpick with the card saying “vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze,” and the little blue flowers printed on the tray.

So it appears that the vanilla biscuits with the brown sugar glaze — which my husband described as slightly too experimental sounding — were a huge success. Assuming no voracious dogs in the house: Any little treat where the tray is left empty after 90 minutes is a success.

How to Cook Pasta: By Request

The other day my husband and child and I were in the car and our daughter was bemoaning the fact that she doesn’t know how to cook. We pointed out that she can barely see into pots on the stove — she’s not tall enough, and I hold that if she has to stand on a chair to see what’s going on at the stove, she’s not tall enough to safely cook — so it’s not really something we expect of her at this point. “I can’t even make noodles,” she lamented.
“Well,” I said, “That’s not true, really, you know exactly how to make noodles.”
“No I don’t,” she pouted.
I said, “Sure you do. What do you do, you boil water in a big pot, and you put in the noodles.”
“But I don’t know EXACTLY how to do it,” she said.
“Why don’t you tell her how?” suggested my husband.
And so I began a monologue. “First you get a big pot and you fill it about halfway or two-thirds with water. You need a lot of water, but you don’t want to fill it all the way to to the top, because then the pot is too heavy to lift. Then you put the lid on the pot and you put the pot on the stove and you turn on the burner to the highest heat. Then you wait for the water to boil.”
“How do you know when it’s boiling?” my daughter asked.
“Well, you can hear it,” my husband said.
“You can hear it, and also you see steam shooting out from under the lid,” I said. “And when you lift the lid to look inside you’ll see the water’s all bubbly, big bubbles rolling up to the top of the pot, not little bubbles. So then you take your pasta and you dump it in and you stir it right away. You have to stir it right away or else it’ll stick together and you can’t unclump it later. And you need to stir the noodles once or twice while they’re cooking.” My husband nodded.

“So you let the pasta boil. Sometimes it cooks really fast and sometimes it takes a little while. Spaghetti is usually about nine or ten minutes.”
“How do you know how long?” asked my daughter.
“The box usually tells you. It depends on the shape. Chunk-style shapes take the longest time usually, maybe ten minutes. The shortest time is angel hair, which cooks really fast, in about three minutes. Really fast. So you have to keep an eye on it before it turns into mush.”
“So then,” I continued, “You get a colander out and you put it in the sink. Before you put it in the sink, though, you should make sure you don’t have dirty dishes and stuff sitting in the sink. Make sure the sink is empty before you put the colander in. You put in the colander, then you go and stir the noodles again, and you pull one out to test it that it’s cooked. If it’s cooked the way you want it, then you take pot holders and you carry the pot to the sink and you pour the water out through the colander, and you let the noodles fall into the colander. Then you put the noodles back into the pot and put on your sauce and you’re done.” I thought for a minute. “Sometimes, before you drain the noodles, you want to dip a measuring cup into the pot to save some of the cooking water.”

“How come?”
“Because sometimes you want the cooking water to help make your sauce right. Like when you’re making a pesto sauce, if it’s too thick to stir into the noodles, you can thin it out with the cooking water. Also it helps to heat up the sauce a little bit, so you’re not just dumping cold-from-the-fridge pesto sauce onto your nice hot noodles.”

“You should write this down,” my husband said.

So I did.

Postscript: one regular reader, who doesn’t cook much, asked me in a private message, “Aren’t you supposed to put salt or oil or something into the water to keep it from boiling over?” I remember that people talk about these things all the time.
I can’t believe I linked to a Smithsonian Magazine article about cooking, but there it is: when I Googled on the subject, this was the first thing that came up, and it wasn’t such a bad recap of how to make pasta (though clearly the commenters find it lacking, and if I were to write it, I’d do it differently (duh, look what you just read), but whatever).
Anyhow: There is a school of thought that says you should add a bit of oil to the pot to prevent boiling over: I hold that if you don’t fill the pot too much, this ceases to be a concern, and that doing this is basically a waste of good oil and makes for a nastier pot to wash up without much benefit during the cooking process.
As for the salt: the reason to add salt has nothing to do with water boiling over, but is about adding flavor. Some people really like salt a lot. I find that I am easily overwhelmed by salt in food, and see no reason to add it to pasta water. If I do this, I am very likely to feel that the finished, sauced dish is ludicrously over-salted, because I’ve got my sauce salted to the degree I like. (If my husband and child want to add salt, as they often do, that’s their business. I don’t like that they add salt, I find it insulting, but it is their choice, and I do understand that.) This is particularly an issue with sauces that have a lot of Parmesan cheese in them, because Parmesan is really salty.

So I don’t salt my pasta water.

The real issues with making pasta are 1. don’t let the noodles stick together while cooking and 2. don’t overcook them. The fact is, you CAN make good noodles in a minimum of water (you can, if you want to, cook noodles the way you’d make risotto, though you’d have to have a weirdly shaped pan if you wanted to do it with spaghetti — short, chunk-style shapes, though, and orzo, this is not a problem). But your average spaghetti-with-meatballs dinner, follow my instructions and you’ll be fine.
Not you are planning to make spaghetti and meatballs or anything.