Several Decades of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: 1988-2018

A while ago, a friend of mine, Lucy, who hosts this food and cooking show on a local radio station, asked me if I’d like to talk about eggplant on her show. My response was, “I hate cooking eggplant, I suck at it, find someone else.” She found this response delightful, and said, “All the better,” and she got me into the radio station with another friend, Brian, who likes cooking eggplant but admits it can be challenging.  We spent about an hour discussing the myriad pros and cons of cooking eggplant. I mentioned Laurie Colwin’s loyalty to and love of eggplant, and how there was a whole essay in Home Cooking devoted to eggplant (“Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”). I took the position (not shared by Colwin) that eggplant is delicious, if properly handled, but that you have to be a better person than I am to actually cook it, and that badly prepared eggplant is so sad it’s just not worth the gamble.
This is the voice of unhappy eggplant experience talking.
Brian, who has many happy experiences of cooking eggplant in his kitchen history, disagreed with me, saying “Eggplant’s great! Eggplant is our friend!” (I’m paraphrasing.) Lucy was also very pro-eggplant. It was an intense conversation, and in the months since we recorded it, to my surprise a lot of people have come up to me and asked me about eggplant, which goes to show people don’t really pay attention (they should be asking Brian and Lucy, not me, for advice on eggplant cookery), but whatever.

Brian said he’d like to read this Colwin book I was talking about, and I said I’d be happy to lend him my copy. As it happened, I’d brought my working copy of Home Cooking with me to the radio station, so I handed it to him and said he could take it home. I can’t remember if all this dialogue is actually on the radio show or if it happened afterward, but if you’re curious you can listen to the show via the above link and have a nice time.
We meant to have lunch, Brian and I, soon after we recorded that show, so that we could hang out and so that he could return Home Cooking to me, but we didn’t cross paths for the longest time.  Like, half a year went by. There were many times, in those months, when I thought, “Goddamnit, where’s my copy of Home Cooking?” I even posted to Facebook about this. “Where’s my copy of Home Cooking?” And Brian responded, “I have it. We should have lunch.”

I could have pulled out one of my hardcovers, but that would have been tempting fate. I have a bad track record of accidentally trashing Colwin books (most notably the time when I spilled a tablespoon of expensive, store-bought, freshly made pesto sauce on the second page of Colwin’s last novel, which I had brought home the day it was released, so excited to read it while I ate dinner: stupid, stupid, stupid). Basic rule: only use cheap, easily-replaced, paperbacks while eating or cooking.

So I made do for several months, in re: my Home Cooking needs, doing these inept online searches for certain bits of text when I needed to. The “search inside this book” function at Amazon is quite useful. But my brother, very unexpectedly, gave me a Kindle edition of Home Cooking. Now that I have this Kindle edition, I can read it on my phone. I don’t have a Kindle per se, I just have the app on my phone — but it’s fine; it’s quite useful, to be honest. And one of  the results of having Home Cooking on my phone is I started to re-read it at night when I was winding down to go to sleep. This has turned out to be a fun and funny experience, not unlike talking to myself. It seems that without trying, I’ve more or less memorized the book: the phrases are all very deeply imprinted in my head. It could be a boring thing, reading a book like this again — it’s just a little cookbook, after all, and I’ve read it so many times — but it’s not boring at all. After a bit, I realized that the truth is, I haven’t sat down and really read it in several years. I mean, it’s one thing to look up certain recipes online, and I’ve searched for certain phrases, to double-check something I’ve quoted to a friend, but that’s not the same thing as reading it, essay by essay. And doing that now — as someone who cooks day in and day out, every day, endlessly, in a very different place and manner from how things were when I first read this book — is interesting. The book has stayed the same, but the world, the world of cooking, and I, have changed so much from where we all were was when I first read it.

I didn’t read the essays in Home Cooking when they first came out. Colwin started writing these essays in the 1980s, for Gourmet magazine, and it was presumably 1987 when they first began to work on collecting them in book form (I could be wrong). In those days I was a teenager and I had zero interest in cooking (though I had a significant interest in eating). All this stuff which would become very important to me was, at the time, not on my map at all, when Home Cooking was published in 1988.

I first read Home Cooking in the fall of 1993. I was a recent college graduate, just beginning to have to learn how to cook for myself. And reading Colwin was essential to this enterprise: it was more important to me than my parents’ virtually untouched copy of The Joy of Cooking. Colwin was easier to get a grip on, both literally and figuratively. The JoC, as definitive as it was (and is), was just…. daunting. But Colwin’s book is a slim little paperback, friendly-looking, the opposite of encyclopedic. The JoC is all about know-how and skills and real knowledge and precision; Colwin’s attitude is respectful of that kind of thing, but her basic vibe in these essays is, “Hey, girl/guy: no biggie. You can do this. And if you fuck it up, it’s ok, go get a pizza and wash the dishes later.” So I read this book many times and slowly, gingerly began to expand my kitchen skills. I had a few, mind you, but very few. Anything I knew how to cook, I knew from one of the two Moosewood cookbooks I owned. I mostly knew how to boil pasta in one pot and make a sauce in a second pot. Anything more complicated than that was beyond me and too daunting to contemplate. I could bake chocolate chip cookies — they were never very good, to be honest — and so I sensibly preferred to eat the dough raw rather than waste time actually baking it. I was afraid of handling raw chicken and raw meat. I didn’t have a food mill; I didn’t even have a sense of what a food mill looked like. I was someone who’d always used a wine bottle as a rolling pin, on those extremely rare occasions when I decided to try to bake cookies that required a rolling pin, because I wasn’t about to buy a rolling pin, for god’s sake — who would waste money on a rolling pin? I was afraid to use the blender my parents had hiding in their front closet. It had sharp parts! And I didn’t know how to take it apart to clean it. Furthermore I was terrified of breaking it, that I would do something awful to it, and then what would happen? I was terrified of the broiler (well, I’m still kind of terrified of the broiler, with good reason) and the idea of making anything that involved spices other than salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes made me laugh: who in their right mind had things like turmeric around?

I know this seems hard to believe, but you have to believe me: if you’d told me that some day I would make homemade caramel for fun, I would have laughed in your face. Cooking like that was for other people — other, insane, people, people who really have nothing better to do with their time. Not people like me. Except, as I was quite broke at the time, I was learning that while I didn’t have to know how to make caramel, I really did need to learn how to cook for myself, as a matter of economy. And so I tiptoed into my absolutely minuscule kitchen and began to figure it out.

I was working in a used, rare, and out-of-print bookstore, in the late 1990s, when I re-discovered the Colwin essays in their magazine forms — the shop acquired a massive collection of old issues of Gourmet, as I was already an obsessive Colwinite I spent hours going through them and pulling out the Colwin issues so I could buy them and take them home. It was wonderful to see the pieces I knew so well in book format as they had originally appeared. It would have been so fun, I thought, to be someone who bought the magazine in those days — I know I would have been someone who just skipped right to the Colwin column and read it as fast as I could, and then re-read it over and over again. This was the way I read Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (which came out in 1993, shortly after I graduated from college, and which I bought eagerly, in expensive hardcover, the day it arrived in the bookstore at which I worked for five dollars an hour). I would have saved those issues of the magazine forever. (I believe I still have all those issues of Gourmet, though I’m not proud to say I suspect they are moldering in a box someplace. In the coming months I’ll have to go see about that.)
I read those essays, in magazine and book form, so many times I could recite passages. I learned to acquire cookbooks that Colwin had spoken of, even in passing, when I found copies for sale in used bookshops. As the years went by, I began to refer to Colwin as St. Colwin, believing that she was, at some level, the patron saint of my kitchen, the person who taught me how to cook and the person who kept me from trashing my kitchen in rage when disasters happened. And oh believe me: they happened.

And look at me now. I have a shelf many feet long that is nothing but dozens of little bottles and jars of spices. Including turmeric. Twenty-five years on, I’m someone who, as Colwin did, has baked countless loaves of bread, kneading it and letting it rise around the schedule of — who’d’ve thunk it? — a little baby who then turned into a young child who then turned into a big kid. (Though, it must be said, Colwin died when her daughter was around the age my daughter is now, which is horrible to think about.) I’m someone who will roast a chicken pretty much unthinkingly. I have a rolling pin that I purchased of my own volition and I have used it to make homemade croissants and I’m able to recommend it over other types of rolling pins because I’ve become someone who has opinions about types of rolling pins. I’m someone who is actually viewed — God help us all — as a small authority on cooking and baking. I get phone calls, Facebook messages, and text messages from people who need me, of all people, to advise them on what to do in the kitchen. I could never, ever have predicted this.

It’s been thirty years since Home Cooking came out and I’d like to revisit it and talk about it, chapter by chapter. This process will either be a great deal of fun for my readers, or they’ll be bored out of their skulls. I’m ok with that, but those who’d be bored by it — even as they follow other food-focused blogs — are short-sighted, for this reason: The fact is, Colwin’s books have, very quietly, had a huge, huge impact on the world of food writing, and on how we eat and what we eat. Every single food blogger in the world, myself included, is basically a would-be Colwinite, even if they don’t know it. Without Colwin, there is no Smitten Kitchen, no Pioneer Woman, no Chocolate and Zucchini, no Food 52, and so on. So let’s take it chapter by chapter. The Hausfrau is going to take off her shoes and curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee, a cat, and a piece of slightly stale cinnamon cake, and think about the introduction.

The Things I Carry

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

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

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

I said I would make peanut butter fudge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screwing Around with Lemon Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Two Cakes and Two Custards Equal One Boston Cream Pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Happiness: A Beautiful Dud of a Book

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

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

It is not loved by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Lifestyle Brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Small Domestic Victory: The Mildew on the Shower Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the more weird gifts I’ve received.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Friendly with Laminated Dough: An Unexpected Turn of Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It really is,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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