Before 2017 ended, I realized, there was one last thing to do.

 

For several years my husband, who is not, despite what you may think, a very demanding person when it comes to my cooking*, has wondered why it is that I’ve never made croissants. I have always had a very tidy answer to this question: “I’ve never made croissants because it is a giant pain in the ass.”

I try to avoid making things that are a giant pain in the ass to make. Beef Wellington, for example: I have zero plans to make beef Wellington. My husband would love it if I did (he’d love it more if he made it, since then he’d have bragging rights), but I’m not gonna do it. I also have no plans to make a Buche de Noel, though I admit that every December I think about it (and then think better of it as I do not own a jelly roll pan and have no plans to buy one). Friends have assured me that it is not so hard to make a Buche de Noel; to them I say, How Jolly For You. I’m not making one (yet).

There are two elements of a recipe that can turn me off it, just speaking categorically, and they are: huge expense in terms of ingredients, and the stakes in terms of failure. If you fuck up a Beef Wellington, you’re out a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of money. This is more than I can bear, and so, no Beef Wellington.

But look. This year, I made Black Cake, which really IS a GIANT pain in the ass, and it was a considerable success, such that — despite my initial protests I would never do this again, I have already made and discussed publicly plans to make Black Cake again in 2018. I am already making my shopping list, and I have people asking to be on the list of cake recipients next December. And as I write this, it is New Year’s Eve. I mean, we are all seriously planning ahead. So despite the considerable expense for the ingredients, and the considerable time it takes to make Black Cake, and the general mental energy required to make Black Cake, and — this is huge — despite the fact that I only kind of like the stuff myself, I know I’m going to make it again. I did it in 2017 after thinking about it for nearly 25 years. I can do it in 2018.

Along similar lines: It was last Sunday when I thought to myself, “You know, I could make croissants. If I can make Black Cake, I can make croissants.” Croissants do not require fancy ingredients. It’s just a regular dough, and rather a lot of butter. But it’s not even that much butter, as these things go. So I set about reading croissant recipes for about thirty minutes. I gleaned that I would have to make the dough and set it aside for quite some time. Like 24 hours. So I quickly mixed up a dough, basically combining the recipes I read in the Joy of Cooking with stuff I read online from, I forget, David Lebowitz maybe and someone else. I used less yeast than any of the recipes called for, because I’m cranky that way, but otherwise I was pretty good about doing what I was told. All the recipes are pretty much the same. You make a yeast dough with some butter in it and you set it in the fridge to sit for a while.

In my case, “a while” means two days, because I lost track of time on Monday. Bear in mind, please, Monday was Christmas Day. I had a lot of stuff going on Christmas Day. Cooking for Christmas Day was its own special affair and the last thing I needed was to figure out how to make croissants in the middle of it.

So it was Tuesday, Boxing Day, when I finally tackled the hard part of making croissants. Seven in the morning found me standing in my pajamas at the kitchen counter with my big long rolling pin.

[Side note: I fortunately own the kind of tapered rolling pin that is recommended for this sort of thing, and I’d urge you to ditch your old-fashioned wooden one with handles and get one of these tapered ones, too, because they are just better. If you can spend the $15 or whatever, do it. I say this as someone who contentedly, for years, used a wine bottle as a rolling pin. I think spending real money on rolling pins is stupid. However, after years of hating rolling things out with the handled pin I eventually acquired through a tag sale or something, I finally broke down and bought this tapered job, and let me tell you, it changed my baking game significantly. I am now someone who has no fear of rolling out cookies or dough. Or, it turns out, whacking butter between two sheets of wax paper at seven in the morning on Boxing Day.]

It would have been a very pretty scene had I been standing at the counter in my pajamas rolling out dough for, say cinnamon rolls — I’m sure my family would have liked that a lot, come to think of it! So placid and cozy-sounding, right? But no. I was standing there whacking at chunks of butter that I had arranged carefully, like a monochromatic Mondrian painting, between two sheets of wax paper. It was loud. It was dramatic. It was seriously not placid at all. My daughter, eating her oatmeal, looked warily toward the kitchen. My husband, drinking his coffee, looked at me thoughtfully and then turned to our daughter and said, “I think Mama’s finally lost her mind.”

“I have not lost my mind,” I said. “I am making croissants!”

My husband clearly had doubts about this but kept quiet.

I pounded the butter into roughly the correct size of parallelogram and put it in the fridge so it would stay that way. I opened the Dutch oven full of dough, which had been sitting on the counter since six a.m. It was still very cold. This meant it would be somewhat difficult to work with, but I was unfazed and began the extremely tedious process of rolling it out to form a rectangle measuring some specific thing; I don’t know how big it was, I can’t remember. I floured my pastry cloth (e.g. my favorite old cotton tea towel) and got to work. It was not easy. This was a tough dough, and it was cold, and it was by this point twenty after seven and I had not had enough coffee and for god’s sake, it was all lunacy. Because no one needs homemade croissants.

You have to roll the dough out to a certain size such that you can then place the big flat butter slab (which is supposed to measure something by something, exactly, a perfect square) into the middle of the dough. Then you’re supposed to take your big perfect square of dough and fold the dough up around the butter. No butter can be visible afterwards. It needs to be sealed into its dough envelope flawlessly, or you have invited disaster into your home. You have to know this at the outset: it is very easy to fuck this up royally.

Having achieved dough-butter-envelope perfection, you then place this flat object, wrapped in wax paper, in the fridge to let it (sorry) chill out for a while. Like 20 minutes or so.

Here’s the big problem with making croissants, people: it’s not that any one step of it is so difficult. It’s that the process requires endless stop-and-wait things. It’s like a Hollywood set, full of hurry-up-and-wait, but with a lot more butter. So very annoying. This is, I’m sure, why I’m not a Hollywood movie star, or a pastry chef.

You take the dough-and-butter from the fridge and put it on the pastry cloth again and now you start the really exciting part: Laminating the dough. This does not involve sheets of plastic or weird epoxies (thank god) but it does involve rolling the dough out to just-so dimensions and then folding the dough over itself, like you’re folding a letter, and then letting the dough rest (again, and yes, again in the fridge) and rolling it out again. You have to do this four times. Well, some recipes say three times. Some say four. I did four. There’s some PERFECT NUMBER of layers that are achieved, people say, in a perfect croissant, and the humber of turns you make determines the number of layers. Whatever these numbers are, they are large and daunting and really more than I want to think about. The point is, you make these turns, you keep resting the dough and rolling it out and making these turns, and it’s all, as I said at the beginning of this essay, a giant pain in the ass.

Eventually you reach a stage where you have to cut the dough into sections and roll it out and make little triangles which you then roll up and shape so they look like croissants. Because I’m an idiot, I rolled eight or nine croissants thinking, “These don’t look right,” before I realized that I was taking my isosceles triangles of dough and rolling them up from the wrong side, resulting in strange-looking pastries. Fortunately, this dough was forgiving and it let me unroll and re-roll each and every croissant. Then they looked nice. Well, reasonably good anyhow. (I now realize I forgot to cut an all-important notch into the dough to allow for the dough to curve just so as I was rolling.) The croissants were placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet (some recipes said to use buttered pans; I said “fuck that”), splooshed some egg wash on them, and then set them to rise. I was advised to let them rise in an environment where the temperature was some very specific thing — something between 85° and 115°, I remember reading somewhere. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said cheerfully, as I preheated the oven and quickly got it to 90°. I put the pans in to the oven and closed the door thinking, “Ok, I’ve got to start to clean up the living room, and I’ve gotta do laundry.” In some ways, all this starting and stopping allows you to go do other things while you’re baking, but let’s face it: if you have to constantly interrupt an activity to go focus on another activity, it means you’re not doing either thing with optimum focus. Fortunately for me, doing laundry and cleaning the living room are not mentally taxing activities, they’re just shit that has to get done.

It took maybe an hour for the croissants to have the puffy look and “jiggle” that they’re supposed to get before baking. Once they’ve risen, you take them out of the oven, preheat the oven to the scary hot temperature called for  — 425° was what I did — and you watch them carefully while they bake. The first ten minutes of baking isn’t so exciting but the thing is, croissants, I’ve learned, can burn very suddenly. King Arthur Flour advises to bake for 15 minutes at 425° and then turn the heat down to 350° for another 15 minutes, and that seems like sage advice I will take into consideration if I ever do this again. I admit, I had not read the KAF instructions before undertaking this enterprise, a mistake I will not make again.

Taking these croissants out of the oven was a moment of wonder and awe. It really was incredible to me that I had made these things that looked, okay, smaller than the croissants we can buy at Marjolaine, but still, remarkably like real, proper croissants. My daughter came trotting into the kitchen to see the results of this long project. “Can I have one?” she asked. I handed her one saying, “Be careful, they’re really hot!” and she ripped one in half and crammed some into her mouth. Then she rolled her eyes in ecstasy. “Really?” I asked.

“Oh my god,” she said.

I brought one on a plate to my husband. “Have a look,” I said.

“Wow,” he said. He ripped it open and said, with respect and not a little surprise, “That is the real deal.” We ate several croissants then and there — they were not very large, don’t be disgusted with us. My daughter was already talking about how the next time I’d make chocolate croissants. My husband was thinking spinach and feta. I have not announced any plans to ever do this again, but it seems self-evident that this will happen again.

When it does, I’m going to try to operate on the mode prescribed here, at King Arthur Flour.

because, let’s face it, KAF does not steer people wrong. I will have to think about how to handle the chocolate question: do I want to buy these special bars of chocolate, or can I just sprinkle some frozen chocolate chips in the dough and pray? There are many questions remaining to be answered. But it seems that 2018 will be the year the Hausfrau ceases to be a croissant novice. Similarly, I am already adding Black Cake ingredients to my shopping list.

Maybe a couple extra pounds of butter, too.

*I think he would be genuinely bummed out if I started serving us all frozen food for dinner every night, particularly since I am a housewife and ostensibly have nothing better to do than make nice meals for us to enjoy. I mean, if I’m sick with a fever or something, that’s one thing, he doesn’t expect a serious dinner. He’s not a jerk that way. By and large he is a considerate and thoughtful person and it is extremely unusual for him to complain about anything I’ve cooked; similarly, he doesn’t demand certain meals, unless something special’s happening like it’s his birthday or something and he’s obviously allowed to make special requests then. That said, he will occasionally ask pointed questions regarding things he does like that I don’t make. For example, croissants, or, another one that’s come up a few times in the last three months, peanut butter fudge. How come I never make peanut butter fudge? I’ve been asked this, in casual tones, at least twice in the last two months. So I’m thinking, now, it can’t be that hard to make peanut butter fudge, so I expect I’ll be making some in the months to come. Croissants, on the other hand, are a bit of a logistical nightmare, so it might be a while before I make them again. Unless I’m expecting a run of snow days, in which case I might have a mother-daughter activity be “Let’s Make Croissants!”

Alone in the Kitchen with a Slab of Tar with Elaborate White Frosting

It’s coming on Christmas and that meant that it was finally time for me to face the boxes hidden in my basement. I had to unearth the Black Cakes I baked in early September. I have, now and then, checked on them, the little sleeping babies, since I baked them. I have taken strategic pinches off of the one that came out of its pan ugly (just like a real newborn!), and have been surprised that it didn’t taste completely vile. The flavor has evolved since September. By November, when I last checked on them, it was obvious that these were, for reals, legit fruitcakes. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste; but they were proper fruitcakes.

This week, though, I realized that I really had to get my act together in regard to frosting the cakes and making them be what they were supposed to be. Black cake is meant to be iced with royal frosting — not an item I really have down in my repertoire — and it was obvious even to me that I’d need time to have the icing dry and so on before re-packaging the cakes and delivering the ones I’m going to give away. Basically, I had to shit or get off the pot.

So the other day, after I packed my daughter off to school, I brought all the cakes upstairs and unwrapped them and set them on paper plates around the kitchen. In this process I learned something, which is that you should not let tinfoil touch the resting, mellowing, sleeping cakes. It doesn’t seem to’ve been a big serious problem, really, but a couple of the cakes were not 100% covered in wax paper when I wrapped them, and the few places where tinfoil was touching the cake, sometimes the foil stuck a little. It was easy enough to shave off the offending bits, but it’s the kind of detail that I would handle differently next time around. NOTE TO BLACK CAKE NEWBIES: Be lavish with the wax paper when initially wrapping the cakes.

Having laid out all the cakes, I then set to contemplating royal icing. I decided to turn to the old reliable Joy of Cooking.

Now: royal icing is something that involves egg white. Basically you whip egg white with confectioner’s sugar until it becomes this mass of white fluff (Marshmallow fluff, more or less, to be honest, though it sets into a dry crust, something Fluff will not ever do) and this is all well and good except that these days no one wants to hear about a thing made with raw egg. So you have to somehow cook the egg white to a safe temperature and then make the frosting. The JoC advises that you take the whites and put them in a dish with some of the sugar and microwave it in short blasts, taking its temperature now and then until it reaches 160°, which is the safe zone for eggs.

I did this. Except that I forgot to whisk in some of the sugar first. And what I wound up with was basically a little dish of cooked egg white. This was useless, so I threw it into the cats’ bowls and moved onward. (The cats were very happy.) I separated more eggs and tried again, this time deciding that the microwave could go fuck itself and that I was better off whisking the egg and some sugar in a small Dutch oven on the stove, where I could better see and control the eggs’ process. Egg white and about 1/4 cup of confectioner’s sugar into the pot; whisk in one hand; Thermapen in the other; I took my position, and kept it for about ten minutes. I had the Thermapen on most of the time once it hit about 125°, because it wasn’t clear to me if the temperature would crawl or shoot right up very suddenly. It turned out to be more of a crawl, but as soon as the egg mixture hit 160° on one side of the pan, I took it off the heat: overcooking this would mean another disaster. And I only had so many eggs. Not to mention only some much time and patience for this kind of mishegas.

I had been slowly adding sugar as I whisked, and had maybe 1 1/2 cups of sugar in the pot by the time the egg whites hit the safe zone. Feeling super-on-my-game, I transferred the white glop — perfectly white, shiny glop — into the Kitchen Aid, added more sugar, and let the whisk attachment do its thing. I let it whip for a few minutes, added a little fresh lemon juice (which I happened to have because my husband cooked fish for dinner a couple nights ago, so we had lemon slices on hand) and decided we were done.
I then spread the royal icing on the cakes as best I could, stood back and surveyed my work. “These cakes are wretched,” I said cheerfully.

I could, perhaps, be less judgmental about it. The truth is, they might be very fine fruitcakes indeed! It’s just that I am not a fan of fruitcake. And I know my frosting aesthetics are sorely lacking. So my sense of Right and Wrong in this matter is, let’s say, fundamentally awry. It is clear to me that in my heart of hearts I was hoping that in the months since I baked these cakes, they would have sat in the basement in their wax paper and tinfoil beds and morphed into sublimely fudgey chocolate cakes, and that the royal icing would be, in fact, Marshmallow Fluff. Because who wouldn’t want a dark chocolate cake frosted with Fluff?

But there it was. I had two 9″ rounds, sloppily iced, and several little rectangular slabs, not-so-badly-iced, and two little bundt cakes, thinly iced, because to do them I had to make yet another batch of royal icing and thin it thin it thin it to make something I could pour over the little bastards. It was a process to just ice the little bundt cakes, let me tell you. I mean, my husband came home from work at about six that night and found me still dealing with these cakes while making our dinner (pizza, very good, thank you for asking). The amount of labor, all told, that went into these cakes, well: to the good people of the West Indies who make these things annually, or even more often, because my understanding is that people serve these as wedding cakes, too —  my hat is off to you. All of my hats are off to you.

After dinner, my husband wanted to try some fruitcake, for dessert. I felt this was very gung-ho of him. “Me too! Me too!” my daughter said. I said, “Um, I don’t think you’ll like this very much,” I told her, but I gave her a tiny slice of the misshapen hunk of fruitcake — the one that came out of the pan badly back in September, but which I kept for testing purposes, the Ugly Cake.

The look of sadness on my daughter’s face broke my heart. “It’s not a chocolate cake,” my husband and I reminded her gently. I really thought she might cry. “Did you think it was chocolate?” my husband asked her. She nodded her head, miserable. “It’s pretty good,” my husband said happily, eating his piece. “I don’t think I’m doing this again,” I said.

“No, for the effort involved, it’s not worth doing again,” he agreed. “But it’s pretty good, I have to say.” He ate every crumb from his plate. Went and got a second little slice.

“I like the frosting,” my daughter said as gamely as she could.

I posted on Facebook that I had a number of these Black Cakes available for the taking, if anyone was interested. I thought, to be honest, that maybe — maybe — three people would express polite interest in them. To my surprise, seven people asked for cakes. I spent some time delivering them yesterday and today; the only one left is the one dibsed by a friend who’s in New Orleans for the holiday. She will gets hers in January. It’s quite amazing to me that people wanted these cakes, which I find so, well, unappealing. But I guess it takes all kinds. There are people out there who love lemon curd, and marzipan, and candied orange peel, too! It’s shocking. But it’s true.

It now falls to me to design and prepare a Christmas dinner for me and my husband and child in two days. It’s not clear to me that I really have it in me to do a big elaborate Christmas Dessert — had I not done these fruitcakes, I might have said this was the year I would attempt a Buche de Noel, maybe. As things stand, however, I’m thinking, Christmas dinner will be some nice, comforting chicken dish, with jeweled rice on the side (my daughter’s request), and Brussels sprouts; and dessert may well be something as simple and perfect as an Aunt Velma with Marshmallow Fluff.

I believe St. Colwin would understand.

Your Mocha Pudding is Not Better Than This Mocha Pudding.

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

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

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

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

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

Mocha Pudding

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

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

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

1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract

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

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

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

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

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

Just keep whisking.

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

 

 

Mr. Coffee Brush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some day we will talk about microwave popcorn.

Salad for 125

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY OF EVENT.

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

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

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

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

It was 1.15. The pig roast started at 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good time.

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

99 Bottles of Salad Dressing in the Door of the Fridge…

Ok, I have nowhere near that many bottles of salad dressing in the door, but you all know exactly what I mean. Salad dressing is the kind of thing that seems to engage in spontaneous generation while the fridge is closed and the interior is dark and no one can see what’s going on.

We haven’t bought salad dressing in I-don’t-know-how-long, because having bottled salad dressing in the fridge drives me insane. The bottles take up so much room. And what happens is, you start to run low on something, and then you stop using it, because you’re all like, “Well, I’m about to run out of that one, I better save it for the right salad!” and then what you have is a bottle of dressing with, like, an ounce of dressing in it that takes up room in the fridge for two years, because no one is willing to just use the shit up. What began as a humble range of options — say, a vinaigrette, a creamy Caesar, and a balsamic-onion dressing — suddenly becomes 99 bottles of salad dressing in the door of the fridge, and you don’t have room for the things you actually want to have in the fridge, like the jar of capers, the bottle of Sriracha, and the pickled okra. All of which, by the way, are things you can use to make awesome salad dressings.

I am personally acquainted with a refrigerator where there are no bottles of salad dressing in the door, specifically, but the number of bottles is so vast that an entire shelf of the fridge is taken up with bottles of salad dressing. It amazes me because I frankly can’t imagine consuming salad enough to warrant owning that much salad dressing; it would make me ill to eat that much salad in an entire calendar year. I would be sent to a doctor, who would say, “Cut it out with the salad, okay?”

What’s more, that shelf in the fridge, that is prime refrigerator real estate, and it’s being wasted on salad dressing. It could be holding things that are important, like milk, or the leftover roast chicken, but no: the milk lives in the door of the fridge, where it’s bound to go bad faster, and the chicken carcass sits on the bottom shelf, where it gets forgotten until it begins to stink and then… into the trash. Some day, we will talk about The Refrigerator as Real Estate, and whip some sense into all of you.

To my original point: By and large, no one needs bottled salad dressing. Here’s what you need: oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. And condiments. Which are multi-purpose. If you want something a little jazzier on your salad, you add some horseradish or some mustard and whisk it in with your oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. Or add some mayonnaise. I’m all for having a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge! I’m all for condiments!

I know someone will read this and go, “jeez, what’s YOUR problem? Live and let live.” But I can’t do that. I have to be bitchy about this. Because at some level, the person who has 99 bottles of salad dressing is the person who’s thinking that they’re being all virtuous and healthy by eating salad but who in fact is just kidding themselves. Salad dressings are a frill, and an expensive-as-all-get-out frill at that. And bottled salad dressings have so many weird things added to them that God did not intend for you to have in your salad dressings; I just cannot accept the idea that Wish-Bone Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing is a healthful food item. I can accept the idea than an actual, honest-to-God, Caesar dressing is nutritious, but that bottled junk, no way*. I cannot accept that anything with that list of ingredients is, like, healthful.

I say this as someone who recently helped to organize a feeding frenzy for about 125 people. The event was a pig roast, and the sauces to be served with the pig were all to be homemade according to the very specific recipes supplied by the man roasting the pig. Bottled sauces from the store would not do. One of the other items on the menu was salad. The organizing committee spent some time discussing salad dressings. “I can pick up bottles of salad dressing,” someone offered helpfully. I said, “Nuh-uh: this is a meal where we can’t have bottled barbecue sauces, and I know the man roasting the pig and I am positive that showing up with bottled salad dressings would be a bad idea.” Everyone looked at me blankly. I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll make salad dressing.” Thinking, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, salad dressing for 125 people, am I out of my mind?”

But I went home and thought about it for about 36 hours, during which I read a lot of Southern cookbooks and websites about Southern cooking, and I thought about novelty food items and things that were once standard on American tables but have fallen out of fashion even though they maybe shouldn’t have, and it dawned on me that what we needed to have at the pig roast, to serve with the salad, was one basic vinaigrette, for the nervous-eater types, and then one humdinger of a dressing to really knock people on their asses. Something rich. Something a little bit trashy and a little bit elegant at the same time. Something  that no one would be expecting but that people would fall on with excitement. Preferably something with buttermilk. Maybe a Ranch dressing.

I pondered it for a while, stewing, thinking, “buttermilk dressing, buttermilk dressing.”

And I talked it over with a friend for about ten seconds and we realized the answer was Green Goddess salad dressing. Which I promptly mixed up in the food processor in batches. Two versions: one vegetarian and one not-vegetarian (it had anchovy in it, as God intended). I poured them into the biggest clamp-lid jars I own, labeled them, and packed them up with long-handled spoons to for serving. I set them out at the table near the salad bowls, and thought, “Well, here goes nothing.”
Three hours later, we were cleaning up. I noticed that there wasn’t much dressing leftover at all — most of the vinaigrette was gone, and almost all of the anchovied–Green Goddess. There were only about three cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess left. One of the women helping with clean-up asked me rather timidly, “Would it be ok with you if I poured some of that salad dressing into a bottle to take home?” I said, “Of course it’s ok! Take as much as you want!” In the end, I took home only about two cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess, which, considering how many quarts of dressing I’d made, really wasn’t much. (Under normal circumstances, I’d view two cups of salad dressing as an immense quantity, but when you’ve started out with dressing for 125, the scale of operations changes.)

Now I need to restock my mayonnaise supply, and also my olive oil supply, and we need more red wine vinegar. But, by my calculations, for about $20 worth of ingredients and in the space of maybe 30 minutes, I made all that salad dressing, and it would have cost more like…. I don’t even know how much, but for sure more than $20 to buy that much bottled salad dressing. Assuming I could even find bottled Green Goddess dressing anywhere.

Tonight we’ll be having macaroni and cheese for dinner, with salad on the side. Green Goddess dressing. I’m thinking I might whizz some anchovies in, because while it was very good without the anchovies, anyone with sense knows it’d be even better with the anchovies. I predict someone will wind up drinking it from a shot glass.

P.S.: Here’s how you make Green Goddess dressing, The Sloppy Hausfrau Way:

Get out your food processor. Wash an entire bunch of parsley (flat or curly-leaf, it does not matter one iota). Wash a bunch of scallions. Trim the ends off the parsley stems; trim the roots and any scungy bits off the scallions. Throw them in the food processor with a fat clove of garlic and maybe a tablespoon of dried tarragon and a tablespoon of salt. Whizz together, adding probably one and a half cups of mayonnaise and buttermilk until you have achieved desired consistency — some people want this very, very thick, some people want a pourable dressing. Taste as you go along.  Throw in some capers if you like capers, some anchovies if you like anchovies. Maybe you’ll want more salt, especially if you didn’t use anchovies. Whizz and whizz and whizz until you have a pale green flecked thick liquid/sauce. This is your salad dressing. Enjoy.

*Here is the list of ingredients in a bottle of Wish-Bone Creamy Caesar Dressing: NGREDIENTS: SOYBEAN OIL, WATER, DISTILLED VINEGAR, EGG YOLKS, SUGAR, PARMESAN CHEESE (MILK, CHEESE CULTURES, SALT, ENZYMES), SALT, ANCHOVIES (FISH), SOY SAUCE (WATER, WHEAT, SOYBEANS, SALT), GARLIC, SPICES, PHOSPHORIC ACID, ONION, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, SORBIC ACID AND SODIUM BENZOATE AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (USED TO PROTECT QUALITY), CORN SYRUP, POLYSORBATE 60, XANTHAN GUM, GARLIC POWDER, SOY FLOUR, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, TAMARIND.

Yay, corn syrup. Just what I want in my Caesar salad. FFS.

Meandering Thoughts on Pizza Toppings

Once upon a time, there was pizza, and it came with toppings on it, usually only one or two at a time, of types that were easily removed by children who didn’t like them, ever. You could get pepperoni, onion, mushroom, sausage, meatball, garlic, peppers, black olives, and clams. (If you’re not from New Haven, you’re going, “Clams?” Just shut up and keep reading, okay? I said clams and I meant clams. By the way, it’s not so easy to remove clams from clam pizza, so if your child won’t eat clam pizza, get them a little plain cheese pie; more clam pizza for you that way.) People would say, “I’ll have a small mushroom and pepperoni pie, double mushrooms, please” if they wanted to feel they were eating healthy. In New Haven, you also had to specify if you wanted red sauce on your pie, and say if you wanted cheese, too, because these things are not a given. This isn’t Domino’s, for god’s sake.

Then time went on. More vegetables became standard pizza items, you saw spinach and broccoli pizzas. I remember in the late 1980s my mother and I would go to Est Est Est and order a white pie with spinach and garlic and feel pretty pleased with ourselves, because we were eating pizza, which isn’t serious food, but we were also getting health vegetables, because of all that spinach.
You could get pizzas with chicken on them; then buffalo chicken. In New Haven, the potato pizza was born, and kept an open secret for an astonishingly long time. Somewhere along the way, some smart aleck began to put pineapple and bacon on pizza, and I’m not going to discuss that any further. Basically, things started to get weird. The weird seemed to be focused regionally. For example, I’m told that there are places where people routinely eat their pizza with a side of ranch dressing, which has to be a 1980s development, because, well, ranch dressing?

I don’t understand this, and I’m not going to dwell on it.

Then we hit a new age of hipster pizzas — all basically borne from the first era of weird pizzas, like the California pizzas Wolfgang Puck got famous for doing in the 1980s. This is pretty much where we are now, and it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, you can find smoked salmon and caviar pizzas. But there are pizzas out there that are, let’s just be honest, far too ongepotchket for their own good. They often involved vegetables that were not handled properly in the first place, and hence arrive at your table somehow burnt and hideously undercooked at the same time. The Holy Trinity of pizzerias in New Haven don’t get too involved with this kind of thing, but other places are straining for novel combinations of things to put on their pies, and while the combinations are often tasty — they strike me as morally dubious.

There, I said it. There is morally dubious pizza out there.

I don’t mean simply bad pizza, which is certainly a thing that people eat. I mean, pizzas that are made with no basic respect for the form. At some level, is a pizza just a flat disc of bread you can put anything on and bake in a hot oven? Yes, and no. I mean, it is; but there are certain things that just don’t seem very pizza-y to me, no matter how good they taste. A prime example of this, an item sold at a local pizzeria I don’t go to because I find their pies so salty they hurt to eat, is a pie loaded with barbecued pulled pork, roasted corn kernels, cheddar cheese, and mashed potato. I’m sure it’s delicious. But why is it on a pizza? I mean, wouldn’t it be better on a hard roll? This is morally dubious pizza. Or pizza with tofu and vegan cheese on it. No no no. This is not pizza, this is a sad excuse for food.

Occasionally we are faced with a novelty pizza topping that seems so obvious that I will say to my family, “Why have we never done this?” I’m no stranger to putting somewhat unusual things on pizza. Zucchini or yellow squash pizzas are totally standard fare here, and have been for as long as I can remember (I started making zucchini pizzas when I lived alone, because I could make a pizza and eat some for dinner and bring some to work for lunch; it was easy to eat, not too messy, and delicious even at room temperature). We have been known to cut up slices of leftover meatloaf into small chunks and put them on pizza (what’s the difference between meatballs and meatloaf? Just the shape, really). I have put meatloaf and leftover mashed potatoes on pizza. We have drained cans of chick peas and made pizzas with chick peas, black olives, and garlic. It’s true that not everyone liked the pea shoot pizza I made some years back, but I still think it was a good idea and I would make it again. I make pizzas with leftover roasted Brussels sprouts on them, shredded quickly with a knife so that they can be scattered more evenly across the pie. I like to think I’m gently inventive with pizza toppings, in other words, but it had never once occurred to me to put cauliflower on a pizza. But why not? I don’t know; but the thought never came to me until a couple years ago, because of a pizzeria that opened a few blocks away from us.

This small pizza place had been a pizzeria for as long as we’ve lived in the neighborhood — the kind of joint you can go to get a cheap Greek pizza for ten bucks, and if someone wanted a meatball sub, they could get that, and, sure, what the hell, you could get an order of fries, too. Then the Greek pizza place closed, and new owners came in. They cleaned up the joint, installed a serious pizza oven, and now it’s seriously not a Greek pizzeria anymore. Now it’s the kind of place that has ongepotchket hipster pizza, and ten bucks will get you pretty much nothing. Bring your credit card. They’ve got some ridiculous-sounding things on the menu (which isn’t limited to pizza — there are also some small plate type things, and sandwiches), but they also have some damned fine pizzas. The first time we went, with low expectations, but hopeful and hungry, we got a small pepperoni, a small Brussels sprout/balsamic vinegar, and a small cauliflower. And you know what? They were all great. My husband doesn’t even particularly like cauliflower, and I think he ate three pieces of that pizza. “How come we never make this at home?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s good!” They fry their cauliflower before they put it on the pizza, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t just parboil the vegetable and drain it before putting it on a pizza. It’s delicious, it’s filling, and it’s probably more healthful than meatloaf… though, come to think of it, a meatloaf and cauliflower pizza could be a very good thing indeed. Since then, I’ve parboiled cauliflowers and made excellent pizzas with it. I’ve also put leftover creamed cauliflower on pizza. Once you start mucking around with pizza toppings…. it’s a slippery slope.

Then there was the pizza we ate in Northampton, Massachusetts. We are fond of Pinocchio’s, on Main Street, which makes excellent pizza — thicker crust than New Haven pizza, but tasty — and seems to specialize in making up these weird combinations for the fun of it. I imagine that the staff enjoys getting slightly baked and then sitting around with notepads dreaming up weird pizza topping combinations. There was a barbecued chicken, gorgonzola, and spinach pie the last time we were there. It was good, for a bite or two, but I can’t imagine wanting to eat an entire slice of it. The one that really slayed me, though, I had to order, because I just thought it was so ridiculous: it was a tortellini pizza. And you know what? It was wonderful. Again, we all had a bite and said to each other, “so, is there a reason why we never make this at home?”

Pizzas I have made at home that people pay lots of money for in fancy restaurants: pizza with fig jam, goat cheese, red onion, and olives; pizza with mushrooms, capers, and caramelized onions; spinach and olive; pizza with honey, pistachios, goat cheese, red onion, and sliced fresh figs; pizza with spinach and goat cheese; pizzas with honey-whipped goat cheese and pistachios. For years, when getting pizza out, we made a point of getting an eggplant pizza if it was available, because eggplant pizza is one of the best things in the world (especially if you get it with double onions and some garlic), but I’d never made it myself because I have a deep-seated and reasonable fear of cooking eggplant. Well, guess what. Recently, it dawned on me that if I roasted the fuck out of eggplant slices before making a pizza, I could do it. I’m not someone who’s good with eggplant, but even I can slice an eggplant and put slices of it on a tray and put it in a hot oven and let it cook for twenty minutes. As long as the eggplant winds up mushy-soft, you can totally put those slices onto pizza dough and make yourself an excellent, excellent pie. Last month my husband made eggplant parmigiana, which is a real pain in the ass to make, and there was a little bit leftover. Not a lot — not enough to make a meal of — but after looking at it sitting forlornly in the fridge for three days it dawned on me that the solution to the leftover eggplant parmigiana problem is to use it as a pizza topping. Good lord was that delicious. I need him to make it again so I can make the pizza again.

I suffer from real and tangible guilt and embarrassment at making some of these pizzas. A pizza with barbecued chicken on it is stupid. It just is. On the other hand, in the name of using up leftovers, I don’t regard it as stupid, I regard it as clever and frugal. I think it’s all about context. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order a whole barbecued chicken pizza, but I’ll definitely make one if it means we’re having a decent meal and I’m cleaning out the fridge at the same time. I am at heart a purist. But I’m also pragmatic. Making a pizza at home is often a matter of opening the fridge and going, “What can I use?” The morally dubious pie — the pizza decked out with leftover creamed spinach, olives, red onion, and duck bacon — is morally dubious, indeed. But it’s also really fucking good to eat. Most importantly, the greater good is served. Which is to say, Dinner is served, and we are all fed, and go to bed happy.

And, bonus, it’s easy to pack leftover pizza in the kid’s lunch for school the next day. Nothing morally dubious about that.

 

 

The Hausfrau and the Hobbit’s Coffeemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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