The Challah Problem

We all know I’m capable of baking challah — very good challah, even — but the reality is that I view baking challah as a real pain in the ass and so I’m usually happy to pay for store-bought challah. For many years we’ve been paying about $4.50 or $5, I think, for a loaf of challah from a company called Bread & Chocolate. They’re out in Hamden, Connecticut, and most of what they produce is Italian-style loaves (delicious ciabattas) but when they started doing challah I rejoiced. The challah is everything I want in a challah. It’s a little sweet; it doesn’t have any raisins in it; it is good to eat on its own or as French toast or to use as sandwiches, even. It’s not dry and depressing; it’s rich and perfect, every week.

So the three of us were pretty bummed out when, three weeks ago, we were sitting down to Shabbat dinner and I sliced up the challah and when we went to eat, we all discovered that something was weird about the challah. It was my daughter who noticed it first. “The challah smells funny,” she said.

I sniffed. “It does smell funny,” I said. My husband, across the table from me, held his piece of challah to his nose. It was pretty funny: we’re not in the habit of sniffing our challah every Friday night, but this challah definitely warranted it. It was a “how is this challah different from all other challahs?” moment. “It smells like cookies,” said our daughter.

“Cookies?” I said wonderingly, sniffing again. She was right — it smelled like Italian cookies.  My husband nailed it: “Anise,” he said. “It’s anise.”

Here’s the thing: we’re not anti-anise. But it’s the kind of flavor that has its time and place, and as any child — especially my child — will tell you, that time and place is not on Friday nights in our challah. We all ate those first slices of challah, but no one had seconds. And the rest of the loaf lingered in the bread box for days, which is not the norm. In the end, I threw it out, because it was so clear no one was going to eat it, and there was no point in converting it into breadcrumbs or something, because it’s not like anyone wants anise-scented meatloaf.

So the next week, Friday afternoon, we go to the store to get stuff for Shabbat dinner, and I pick up a loaf of Bread & Chocolate challah. We had talked it over and decided that probably the previous week’s challah had been baked in the same oven as a tray of cookies or some anise-flavored bread or something — that this was just a flukey thing that wouldn’t happen again. But when I picked up the bread from the rack at the grocery store, to be sure, I gave it a sniff, and damn if it did have that same anise smell. “What is going on?” I asked my daughter, and I held the bread for her to sniff. “It’s that same smell,” she said.

I carried the bread over to the cashier, a nice woman who used to work for an Orthodox family doing something or other, and who knows about Shabbat meals and keeping kosher even though she herself is not Jewish. I said, “I know I’m gonna sound crazy, but — has anyone come to you to talk about something weird with the Bread & Chocolate challah?” I held up the loaf. “I’m telling you, there’s something weird about the challah.” She looked at me, surprised. “No, no one’s said anything.” “Well, look — you know I’m not a crazy person, I’m one of your regulars — and the challah last week, it smells like those anise cookies you get in Italian bakeries, and this one does, too!” I held the challah out to her. She said, “I hate those cookies,” and then put her nose down for a sniff. “OH!” she said. “Oh, no no no.” She set the challah aside. “This happened last week too?” “Swear to God,” I said. “We threw away most of the loaf because it tasted so weird.”

“Oh jeez,” she said sympathetically. I felt bad: it’s not her fault that the challah’s gone all weird. “I don’t want to buy anise-scented challah,” I said apologetically. “I guess I’ll have to come up with a plan B.” “I’m gonna call them,” she said, also apologetic. “‘Cause I wouldn’t wanna buy that stuff either.”

We bought the rest of our groceries and headed home. “I guess we won’t do Shabbat tonight,” I said, “but I’ll bake challah next week.”

Today I set up dough for two loaves of challah, one for this week, one for next week. I mean, tomorrow I’ll go give the Bread & Chocolate challahs a sniff, but I’m not optimistic; I did email them to ask what the story is, and I haven’t heard back. It may be that no one’s read my email; it may be that someone read it and is going, “What the hell?” and it may be that someone read it and said, “Like I care” and I’ll never hear back.

In the meantime I guess I should start looking into creative challah recipes, ’cause I’m pretty sure I’ll be sick and tired of making the same loaf week after week with no variations unless I do something to rev things up a little. I’ll just make sure to avoid adding anise to the mix.

A Rainy Memorial Day

Memorial Day: it’s supposed to be about remembrance and Noble Americans — which it is — but also supposed to be about family and friends barbecuing, and people making potato salad, and celebrating the fact that you can finally wear your white shoes with impunity.

Well, folks, today it’s grey and rainy and cold. It’s like London in April out there. So we’ve spent the day at home. I would have spent the day feeling like nothing whatsoever was happening, except that I had the presence of mind, yesterday, to finally do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time, which is prove that I can make better ice cream than my husband. Because I made the ice cream batter yesterday — you do call it batter, don’t you? — and because we always keep the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer, I was ready to go this morning. The batter churned for about twenty minutes, and got to the thickness of soft-serve, and then I spatula’ed it into three little pint containers, and now it’s in the freezer hardening up.

However, I can tell you that this stuff is good. How do I know? Well, I got to lick the spatula, and also I ate the blobs of ice cream that landed on the counter, and the little bits that were too hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the pint container. In other words, I got to eat about three tablespoons of homemade ice cream that I’d made myself, and I am quite confident that this is good, good stuff.

My husband is in the habit of making French vanilla ice cream, of which he is very, very fond. It is a product that involves a lot of egg yolks, a lot of cream, and sugar. I never really like it. I feel bad admitting this, but it’s simply true. I always feel like it just coats the inside of my mouth, greasy and heavy. I always attributed this to the cream he uses — he uses cream which has thickeners added, guar gum or something. Whatever it is, I do not like it.

A couple of years ago, during a phase when we were consuming a lot of this kind of dense, heavy ice cream, I happened to notice an article in the paper about “Philadelphia” style ice cream. I realized that for years and years, I’d been reading cookbooks where they talked about “French” ice creams and “Philadelphia” style ice creams and that I’d never really thought about it hard enough to grasp that these were really different things. I’d never thought about it because, well, I’d never made ice cream myself. Reading the article about Philadelphia ice cream made me grasp that while it may have been that my big problem was too much guar gum in the cream or whatever, the fact remained that, at heart, I was probably someone who just preferred a Philadelphia-style ice cream.

The difference comes down to eggs.

French custard ice creams have eggs; Philadelphia ice creams don’t.

I am normally someone who would say “Eggs? Custard? I am IN.” But somehow, with ice cream at home, I’ve got this idea that it’s just not my thing. Perhaps there are other issues I’m not grasping; some sources I read online suggest that perhaps the greasy mouthfeel I’m not so into could be attributed to over churning, and that the problem isn’t the eggs but the fact that we’re eating, essentially, vanilla-or-coffee-flavored butter. This could be.

But here, for the record, is what I did, and it’s resulted in some delicious, clean-tasting stuff. I considering going the adventurous route re: flavors, but for this maiden voyage I reined myself in and stuck with a simple, plain, vanilla ice cream.

In my medium-size enameled cast iron pot, I combined the following: 2 cups heavy cream (Farmer’s Cow brand — no extra crap in it); 1 cup of milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk); just under 1 cup sugar; 2 tablespoons dry milk; 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise, most of the seeds scraped into the pot); 1/2 tsp kosher salt; 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I was using Penzey’s double vanilla, which is phenomenal stuff and worth the money).

I heated these things up enough, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar and dry milk into the liquid. This wasn’t a mixture that had to cook, per se; but the heat made dissolving the solids much easier. I removed the vanilla bean pod from the pot and set it aside to dry (it can be used again) and covered the pot and put it in the fridge, where it stayed overnight.

The next day, I set up the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment — ok, I had to have my husband show me how to do it, because it made no sense to me how the thing worked, even after watching three different YouTube videos on the subject, because none of the videos showed the same model of ice cream attachment gizmo that we have — and I churned the batter for about half an hour and then I took a spatula and filled my little paper pint containers. Three little tubs got filled — so we’ve got three pints of ice cream, here. If I were a good person, I would bring some over to a friend’s house and say, “Here, have some ice cream.” (And maybe I will do this yet; if my husband says he doesn’t like the ice cream, I almost certainly will, because this stuff won’t keep indefinitely (no stabilizers) and I can’t eat it all myself.)

If I feel, after eating a dish of ice cream tonight, that this is an unqualified success, then I am shortly going to branch out into chocolate ice cream, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m setting sail for the land of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also coconut ice cream.

Last week my family ate, for the first time, a local ice cream treat called a Downside Watson. This is something that can only be purchased at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which is our gold standard for ice cream. A Downside Watson is assembled on a frisbee (which you get to keep). It’s supposed to come with bananas, but the night we were at the store, they were out of bananas, so a brownie was placed in the middle of the frisbee, to make up for the lack of fresh fruit. Atop this were piled seven scoops of ice cream and nine toppings. This sugar monster cost $26.95 plus tax, and it took us three nights to finish it. (We ate about half of it at the parlor, first night, but I had to say “OK, everyone, STOP” before we faced imminent collywobbles; and the rest was doled out after dinner two nights running).

We will always love Ashley’s more than any other ice cream parlor. Going to Ashley’s will always be a treat. But even so: if I can make my own platonic ideal mint chocolate chip ice cream, how can that be a bad thing?

But that doesn’t mean we cannot have nice things at home, too, right?

When the Meal is Astounding and There’s Almost No One Eating

On Sunday, for complicated reasons to do with cooking for an incapacitated friend and also needing to feed my own family, I found myself cooking both barbecue-sauced chicken and a whole brisket at the same time. I patted myself on the back for using the oven so very efficiently — sure, our gas bill shot up, but a lot of good food was generated, so it’s worth it. The house smelled of meat to the most astounding degree — if I have vegetarian neighbors, I hope they’ll forgive me. All I know is, at one point in the afternoon I went to sit on the balcony and I sniffed the air and I smelled…. brisket.

Monday evening, the husband of the incapacitated friend came and picked up his chicken — three or four breasts — and arrived as I was assembling our own evening meal. I was feeling a little under the weather, but was doggedly determined to do right by the brisket. I had prepared a green pea salad (green peas; capers; thinly sliced shallot, in a vinaigrette) and pimiento cheese and I was in the process of making angel biscuits when he arrived. He swooped in, took the chicken, and ran; I, feeling like I’d done my mitzvah for the day, went back to the biscuits. I baked two pans of them, one in a cast iron skillet (as many as would fit) and the rest on a regular baking pan. The oven was hot and the biscuits baked up beautifully but as I took them out of the oven and transferred them into a bowl lined with a towel, I thought, “Eh, do I even want these?” It was around then that my daughter said, “I need to go lie down” and went upstairs.

My daughter does not usually want to lie down at 5.15 in the evening. It was abundantly clear to me that she was not well. I went to check on her and she clearly had no fever; she just wasn’t feeling herself. I let her fall asleep and went back to the kitchen and considered what else there was for me to do. The answer was “not much at this point,” so I cleaned the prep dishes and put them away and sat down on the couch to read until my husband came home. I was feeling, by this point, distinctly crappy myself. It occurred to me that I might have a fever. Staring blankly past my magazine toward my feet, I noticed that the living room floor was covered in a school project my daughter had been working on very hard — a big triptych about the life of Julie Andrews. While all the parts were laid out, nothing had yet been glued to the boards. I thought about how I didn’t want this thing sitting on my living room floor all evening, and I debated disassembling it and shoving it in a corner; maybe she would do the gluing while we watched TV after dinner? But then I realized that the odds were very good that my daughter would not make it downstairs again that evening. And that the best thing for me to do would be to just do the gluing myself. The project was meant to be done entirely by her; but as ‘parents helping with projects’ go, the offense level of “gluing pieces of paper to cardboard” is pretty low. I didn’t have to think about where anything would go; there was no editorial effort involved. So I picked up the Elmer’s glue and got the project taken done. My husband came home to find me mid-gluing, and asked where our daughter was. “Upstairs, asleep,” I said. “Dinner’s ready as soon as you are.” I finished the gluing a few minutes later, propped the whole shebang up in a corner, and went to watch my husband carve the brisket. “Look at this,” he said to himself. “Meat.” I thought it smelled good, but wasn’t really hungry, and had little optimism about my daughter’s dining plans.

In the end, the poor girl did come downstairs for about six minutes. She sagged in front of her plate at the dining table, ate about ten green peas, and announced she wanted to go back to bed. I ate one biscuit with pimiento cheese and picked at a slice of brisket and a tablespoon of pea salad. Believe me when I tell you, I usually eat more than this at dinnertime. The only person who ate a normal meal that night was my husband, who said, “This is all great.” I’m glad it was so great — but it would have been greater if all of us had felt like eating. The consolation was that there was plenty, plenty, of food leftover to serve for dinner the next night, when we were all feeling more normal. Domestic efficiency: making a stupendous meal two nights in a row by accident.

Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

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.

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.

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.