It’s a Good Thing We Live Near Romeo’s: The Museum of Tsuris Has Opened a New Wing

My daughter’s piano teacher, who we adore, holds a party at the end of every school year. She invites all her students to her adorable house, which is in a perfectly civilized town yet has a backyard that’s half brick patio (civilized) and half wild, wild woods (totally uncivilized). All the kids play a little mini-recital in her living room and then they eat party food and run around like maniacs. Sometimes the kids play Music Bingo. Ok, most of the kids play Music Bingo, and my kid is the one who runs around the woods like a maniac, because she thinks it’s awesome that Miss L. has woods in her backyard. We have a lot of things, where we live, but one thing we don’t have is a backyard, and certainly not a backyard that’s half-woods. So.

The deal with the party food is that Miss L. provides much of it herself — which I view as heroic (she’s got as many as twenty little student/fiends coming to these parties, bear in mind) — but the families are invited to bring things to eat as well. Some families bring snacky stuff, like chips and dips, but others bring treats like cookies or cupcakes. In my case, I always feel I should bring some wonderful cooky. It seems to me that last year I brought whoopie pies, and I had to stand guard over the tray to assure that each child only took one each, because there were only a couple dozen of them, and I wanted to have it so that each kid who wanted one could have one. One little girl took four, as I recall, and I was disgusted. But whatever. She’s her parents’ problem, really, not mine (thank God).

I did not put a whole lot of planning into this year’s effort, knowing that I happened to have in the fridge cooky dough, rolled and ready to slice and bake. We had plans for the morning, but I wasn’t worried about it. “I’ll slice and bake early in the afternoon, frost the cookies with something, and we’ll be all set to bring them to the party at three,” I told myself super-optimistically. I had good reason to think I had this beat: By one o’clock I had sliced and baked the cookies (which were nothing fancy, just chocolate and vanilla shortbread cookies) and I let them cool while I contemplated my frosting/decorating options.

I could have done something easy like make a confectioner’s sugar glaze and dumped sprinkles on top of the wet glaze and called it a day. I could have made colored icings, put them into squeeze bottles, and drawn on the cookies. But that would involve mixing things, I said to myself, and icings take time to dry. “Fuck that,” I said, “I’ve only got about 90 minutes here.” I then remembered that I had, in the pantry, bags of mini-marshmallows and a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. “Genius,” I said to myself.

So you may have figured out where this goes, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll take it step by step.

Thinking, “What could be easier than broiling some marshmallows on top of the cookies? It’ll be great! Everyone loves marshmallows.” I took the cooled cookies off the racks and laid them out on a baking tray. Then I put either marshmallows or a blob of Fluff on top of each cooky. I sprinkled colored nonpareils atop each chocolate cooky. These are expensive little things, I want to tell you, and I use them only on very special occasions. I’m not talking about those cheap waxy sprinkles you get at Stop & Shop — which are fine,   don’t get me wrong, they’re what you want on ice cream. No, these nonpareils have to be purchased at baking speciality stores or ordered in from places like King Arthur Flour. I explain all this to demonstrate that I was trying, in my lazy way, to put on the dog. I had the noblest of intentions. Furthermore, I sifted a little sprinkle of cocoa powder onto the marshmallows on the vanilla cookies. So the chocolate cookies had their pretty contrasting topping, and the vanilla cookies had their own special contrasting topping. You could tell that when these cookies had been run under the broiler a bit, they would be a) beautiful and b) little marshmallow cooky heaven blobs. So then, when the trays were ready, I turned on the broiler.

You know where this is going now, right?

I slid the tray under the broiler and set about putting away the supplies I’d just used. Meaning: I put the lid back on the jar of Fluff; I closed the bottle of nonpareils; I closed the cocoa powder tub; and I put the little tea strainer I’d used for the cocoa sifting into the sink. All this took maybe 90 seconds, if that.  I swear to God.

Then I smelled something burning.

I opened the oven and discovered that all of my cookies were on fire.

I wish I could report that I kept a cool head under the circumstances. I will be frank and say, I did not. Instead, I yelled “HELP!” and my husband, who’d been sitting on the couch watching clips on YouTube of Dave Letterman interviewing Salma Hayek, ran over. He grabbed pot holders, pulled the fiery tray of cookies from the oven, and blew out the flames. I came to my senses and turned on the vent fan over the stove. We closed the oven, and I turned off the broiler. It was all over in about three seconds (thank fucking God).

My husband was still standing there holding the cooky tray, looking befuddled and sad — I was busy spewing expletives — when our daughter, who had been playing out front, came running in. “What happened?” she asked.

“My cookies caught fire,” I said. My husband showed her the tray and carried it out the front door to let the last of their sugary smoke waft off into the apartment building courtyard. She followed him. “Can we still eat them?” she asked. I gawped at her idiocy.

“Well,” my husband said, bringing the tray back inside and setting it down on the stove for us all to contemplate. “The Hausfrau has some new material, anyhow.”

“Boy,” I said. I had moved through the stages of grief with remarkable speed. It was true I didn’t have much time for denial, but we had definitely seen anger. There was about a nanosecond of bargaining (who was I kidding, there was no way to salvage these things), and I was, right at that moment, deep in the depression stage.

It was 2.30; we had to be at the party at three. I had to face reality (final stage: acceptance). I would not have homemade cookies to bring to the party; was there anything else, ANYthing else, I could throw together in fifteen minutes? The answer was, miserably, no. Had I had a jar of roasted red peppers, I could have made pimiento cheese and brought it with a bag of pretzels; but I had none (only a raw red pepper, which would take time to roast, let alone cool, peel, and process). “I don’t know what to do,” I said miserably.

“What you do is, you go to Romeo’s and buy cookies and bring them,” said my extremely practical husband, who has always thought I was insane for baking for events like this. I wasn’t actually crying,  and I had not cried, but I felt the way you do after you’ve been crying; I snuffled and blew my nose and said, “Fine.” We piled into the car and before we went to Miss L’s house, we stopped at Romeo’s, where I bought a pound of those little ball-shaped sandwich cookies. Baci de Dama, they’re called. They’re really good. I brought them into the piano teacher’s house with a feeling of defeat, put them on the kitchen table, and sat down to listen to the children play.

At the party, the cooky box emptied out before any other tray of cupcakes or brownies did. One father, who has been to enough of these rodeos that he knows to look to see what I’ve brought, sidled up to me. “What’d you make this time?” he asked me, glancing toward the table. “I had a little disaster,” I said, “so I brought cookies from an Italian bakery.” “Disaster?” he asked. “The cookies all caught fire,” I admitted. His eyes got round, like Baci de Dama cookies. “You got a fire extinguisher?” he asked.

The answer is, We do, and it’s three feet from the stove. I think that the smart thing, though, is for me to remember to never, ever do anything like this unless my husband is at home, because clearly I am not cut out for broiling marshmallows.

My husband explained the cooky disaster. “It was supposed to be like meringues,” he said. “Cookies with a meringue topping.”
“Except that you make meringues in a low oven, slowly,” I said. “There’s no danger involved in making meringues. It’s not like broiling marshmallows at all.”
“Really?” said my husband. “Really,” I told him huffily. The other father’s eyes moved from me to my husband, watching us nervously.
“Maybe you should stick to meringue,” my husband said generously. “I think I will,” I said. “I’m not cut out for broiling marshmallows.”

The Museum of Tsuris has a new wing. I’m painting the walls with this color, which I think will be a nice contrast to this, which I’ll use on the trim .

Ever notice how paint companies never name a color “Charred Marshmallow”?

 

Adventures with Heavy Cream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, you jerk,” I snapped.

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

I have no need for runny blue cooky icing, do you?

I try very hard to keep track of what I’ve got on hand in the house and what I need to stock up on. For example, I knew that it would become necessary for me to supply various social occasions with vast quantities of baked goods, and so I would need a lot of flour, a lot of sugar, and a lot of butter. Accordingly, when I placed a Peapod order, to be delivered a few mornings ago, I requested several five-pound sacks of flour (on sale! lucky me!), many pounds of butter (also on sale! More lucky me!), and many pounds of granulated sugar (not on sale, but also not that expensive, so it’s ok).

However, I made what my husband might call a rookie error. I neglected to order several pounds of confectioner’s sugar. Any idiot knows that if you’re baking snazzy desserts, you’re going to need confectioner’s sugar; and, what’s more, that it’s the kind of thing it’s smart to over-purchase, because you often need to add it with abandon to get icing or frosting consistencies just so. Recipes SAY “Combine two cups confectioner’s sugar to four tablespoons of creamed butter” or whatever but I’ll be damned if two cups has ever really been sufficient. They say two cups, I say three and a half cups. Basically, I know better. And I need, like, six pounds of confectioner’s sugar, easily, if I’m going to ice 58 little cookies shaped like letters.

One recent fine, cold morning I set aside several hours in which, I told myself sternly, I was going to make icings in pretty colors to decorate the 50-odd alphabet cookies I had already baked. I was going to mix up the icing and sit down at the table with the cookies and many sheets of wax paper and squeeze bottles and I was just going to do this thing.

Except I had no confectioner’s sugar.

Shit.

Furthermore, the grocery stores, which are normally an easy stroll away, were treacherous to get to because they were covered in sheet ice. I love my neighborhood, I do, but too many homeowners do not shovel their sidewalks as they are supposed to; this is a real bummer (and also illegal, but we won’t dwell on that). Did I want to risk falling and hurting myself to get confectioner’s sugar? No. I remembered that I could, hypothetically, make my own confectioner’s sugar out of granulated sugar and some cornstarch, and so I cheerfully took out the food processor, the sugar, and the cornstarch, and got to work.

I won’t go into the boring details, but let’s say that 90 minutes after embarking on this project, what I had was something that was totally unsuited to the task before me. I wasted a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of cornstarch, about two tablespoons of milk, two tablespoons of corn syrup, a squirt of fancy blue food coloring gel, and even — added in a moment of hope and desperation — two tablespoons of Bird’s Custard, to arrive at…. nothing useful.

In the end, I waited until the next day, when I felt more confident about my ability to walk safely to the grocery store. I paid a ridiculous amount of money for four pounds of confectioner’s sugar; I took it home; and then I got to work, feeling totally on top of things. The cookies were iced (not beautifully, but for sure colorfully); my daughter came home from school and expressed deep admiration for them, asking if I would do another batch but this time do only purple and green because those are her colors; and they were dispatched to the art opening. I washed my hands (and my pastry bag) of the whole enterprise, and had, happily, a whole bag of confectioner’s sugar left over for the next project.

One problem remains: what should I do with the two squeeze bottles of different shades of blue icing I have leftover? I see more cooky decorating in my near future.

Sour Cream: No Sour Grapes

A few months back I read a new Jewish cookbook — The Gefilte Manifesto — which had in it instructions for making your own sour cream. It seemed to me that it would be rather pointless to do this, but on the other hand, it would take almost no effort to make the attempt and see if it might possibly be worth doing. So a few days ago I did as instructed. I took a cup of heavy cream (the best cream I could find, which has no added thickeners or other mishegas in it) and a half a cup of buttermilk (again, the best stuff I could find) and I put them in a jar with a lid and I shook them together, hard, for a minute. Then I left the jar on the counter top and waited.

Eventually, this stuff turns into sour cream.

It took about six hours for me to have the nerve to open the jar and see what would have developed inside. It turned out to be a combination of things. The top inch or so was thick, fluffy sour cream that tasted lovely, and the rest of the jar was filled with runny sour cream that seemed like a good useful product to me, but not to anyone else in the family. When we had latkes for dinner, I was the only one who’d use this sour cream. In other words, this was an interesting experiment, but not one that is likely to be often repeated unless I am willing to figure out a way to thicken the product (I glean that this is easily done with unflavored gelatin, but do I really care?). It turns out that I know a woman who makes her own sour cream all the time. She admits it’s not the same thing as storebought, but loves it on its own terms; I tend to think that I’m in that camp. It’s not “sour cream” as we’ve all been raised to think of it, but it’s a very good thing if you accept it for what it is.

In the end, I worked out a process in which I’d use the top layer, then shake the cream again and let another top layer develop, and so on and so on. It was not unlike the way when you toast marshmallows, you can toast the outside, slip it off, eat it, and then re-toast the marshmallow, and take off the “skin” and start over and over again until you’ve eaten the whole marshmallow. But it was silly, if I was the only one going to eat the stuff. I decided, after a few days, that I’d be better off just using the sour cream up in some recipe, because homemade sour cream doesn’t last very long. No preservatives, don’tcha know.

It was time for me to set up a loaf of bread, and I decided on a whim that it could not possibly hurt to use the sour cream as the primary dairy product in the bread. I’m talking about my usual pain de mie, the bread we use for breakfast toast and sandwiches and all that. Instead of adding dry milk and regular milk to the dough, I just threw in the last of the sour cream (it was about one cupful), and prayed. The dough was rather slow to rise at first, but after the first knocking down, I knew everything would be fine. I did my usual three rises, and when we baked the bread we wound up with this incredibly, ridiculously, tender loaf of bread that has been almost entirely consumed after two days. People keep coming up with excuses to eat toast. My daughter’s been asking for toast with butter and capers to have as her afternoon snack. My husband’s been eating it toasted with cream cheese and sliced green olives. It’s nearly gone.

I’m almost wondering: is it worth it to make a second batch of this failed experiment just so I can use it in more bread?

 

Purple Rain in Ocean City: A Celebration, a Lament, a Learning Experience

I imagine that most people, when packing to spend a week in a rented apartment in a Mid-Atlantic resort town, do not make a point of carefully selecting knives, silicone spatulas, a good can opener, and a pair of serious kitchen scissors to take with them, along with a Microplane. They also wouldn’t pack a set of four mixing bowls and a stock pot, and they absolutely wouldn’t bother with two 9” cake pans. That is their business; that is their God-given right.

But I have, in 2016, done these things. And I have not regretted it for a moment.

We were in this same apartment last year, sharing the apartment with a close friend from our college days, G., and her husband and their children. Last year when we came, we had no idea of how the kitchen would be equipped; we expected to be able to cook sort of normally, and tried, but kind of failed. Part of it was, I admit, total apathy on my part, but a lot of it was due to a sense of frustration with the gear in the kitchen. The big stock pot we cooked spaghetti in, to serve with Cincinnati chili, smelled deeply of boiled crab. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world… but…. it wasn’t ideal. Especially for our crew: We don’t all like to cook, but we all like to eat. And it matters to us if we boil spaghetti and it tastes like old crab and Old Bay. We are not pleased by such things. It doesn’t feel like exciting Fusion Cookery to us. It feels weird and not at all pleasant.

So this year, I said to my husband, we weren’t going to screw around. Not only would we eat proper food in the apartment, at least some of the time, and not just live on crappy boardwalk food like French fries from Thrasher’s and sub-par gyros; but I also had plans to bake a birthday cake for my friend’s oldest child. This girlchild is not a little girl like my daughter: she is in her 20s, an adult, and someone who doesn’t require lots of fuss at her birthday, but I feel she deserves a little fuss. Her mother has two little boys, now, aged 5 and 7, and it always strikes me as possible that her firstborn might a little bit shorted in the birthday-celebration department, now that she’s got these two much younger little brothers. Maybe she doesn’t care. To be honest, she probably doesn’t, and would rather spend her birthday with her boyfriend anyhow. But I care; I wanted to make a cake for her. So I planned ahead.

A digression, but an important one: Some months ago, shortly after Prince died, I was in a Target in North Haven, Connecticut, with my friend Eliza. This is as novel to me as going to Harrod’s. While there, I discovered something that probably most Americans in my demographic already knew, which is that someone out there has been marketing Purple Rain cake, in a boxed mix, for some time now. If I watched TV and went to supermarkets more often, I’d’ve already known about this. But I don’t, and I don’t, so I didn’t. “What the hell is this?” I gasped to Eliza, who laughed. I insisted on buying it — its price had been slashed to something wretched, like $1.25 — and said, “I’m gonna bring it when we go hang out with G. in Ocean City this summer.” I posted to Facebook about this cake mix, and there was much discussion of preserving it in a kind of archival way, but it dawned on me that the obvious thing to do was to bake the Purple Rain cake as A.’s birthday cake, which we would be celebrating at the end of August. I put the box into the cabinet where I keep baking supplies and said to my daughter, “When I pack for us to go to the beach for a week, do not let me forget to pack this.” 

August came. I began to organize in earnest. G. and I exchanged dozens of emails regarding packing lists: what would we need for the beach, for the kitchen, to increase our general comfort. “Don’t forget laundry detergent,” we reminded each other. I remarked that because I’d been given a wonderful knife roll as a birthday present, I’d be able to safely and easily pack good kitchen knives. “Also some other things we’ll want in the kitchen,” I said. “Like a can opener that works, and a cheese grater that won’t cut our hands open, and stuff like that.”

I plotted and plotted. I set aside a stock pot to take with us. I debated taking a Dutch oven but decided against it (should have brought it! Next year). I pulled out two cake pans. I packed groceries (boxes of pasta, various shapes; canned beans; canned tuna in olive oil; canned olives; capers; a small block of Parmesan cheese). We made dozens of good meatballs and put them into strong-sealing plastic tubs that would be packed to travel in a cooler stocked with ice packs. I packed dishcloths and tea towels. I packed a cutting board. I packed my little silicone-coated kitchen tweezers, because I thought they might come in handy, though even I admitted it was a little crazy.

I remembered to pack things that had to do with going to the beach, too: I packed an ancient Indian print tapestry to use as a beach blanket and I packed cornstarch to use when we had to rub sand off our children. I packed Solarcaine. From our domestic Health & Beauty department, I packed a thermometer (natch) and a bottle of cold and cough medicine just in case (and yes, it came in handy).

So we arrived in Ocean City on Sunday afternoon and I unpacked our things and G. mocked me  (though she had also packed an astonishing amount of stuff, including several cans of chick peas, some cups of instant macaroni and cheese, and a whole watermelon). My husband mocked me as well, but I moved serenely through the kitchen knowing that I would have what I would need for the week.

Naturally, setting up the kitchen for the week required a trip to a supermarket. Some things, you don’t want to pack ahead when you’ve got a six hour drive to your destination. “We need milk, we need fruit….” To bake the Purple Rain cake, we’d also need eggs and a bottle of oil. G. and I spent less money than I had feared we might, on that grocery run, which I felt was a testimony to how well we had planned ahead. I admit, it wasn’t good that we had to buy a pound of butter and a bottle of vegetable oil — I could have handled that better — but as oversights go, these are small failures. We did remember to buy a can of ready-made cake frosting to decorate the cake. (I was not willing to hand-whip some kind of frosting together; besides which, a Purple Rain cake seemed to be the kind of thing that deserved some equally terrifying frosting to go on it. I mean, you wouldn’t make Swiss meringue to go on top of a Purple Rain cake, would you? No, you wouldn’t.)

It was self-evident that a can of lurid purple frosting  would be just the ticket for the Purple Rain cake. “AND it comes with Funfetti®! G. pointed out gleefully. We grabbed a box of little white birthday candles (but no further decorations, as we saw no need to gild a  funfetti’d purple lily). We drove back to the house feeling pleased with ourselves.

Monday mid-day, I started to assemble the Purple Rain cake batter with a kind of cockiness (“I bake cakes all the time, this’ll be a snap!”) that was quickly dimmed by apprehension as I realized that I was going to have a lot of small technical issues. It turned out, for example, that we had no measuring cups. We had no measuring spoons. It hadn’t occurred to me that the kitchen wouldn’t have these things and, astonishingly, it hadn’t occurred to me to pack them. I had silicone tweezers, but no measuring spoons. Worse, while the oven could be turned on, I had no ability to gauge how hot it was really getting: a huge disadvantage when baking.

The recipe called for, as I recall, three tablespoons of oil and one and a third cups of water. I eyeballed these amounts using a kitchen tablespoon and a teacup. I felt I was likely to get it roughly correct, but I worried, nonetheless, because I knew I was going to be baking these things in the wrong size pan anyhow; that is to say, I was, in a sense, screwed before I’d even begun. “It’ll be fine,” I assured myself. “I can totally do this shit.”

Totally doing this shit is what I did, and G. and I spent a lot of time laughing at how it got done, but boy did I not have much faith in that cake. You have to mix up the cake batter in one big bowl (if combining by hand, they recommend 450 strokes, which is a lot). Then you separate the batter into two bowls.

 

Icing GhostTo one bowl, you add purple dye that comes in a tiny packet about 1/4 of the size of a takeout ketchup packet; it is a tiny packet of what is surely purple toxic waste. (Photo taken by G., who observed that it looked like I’d drawn little teeny purple-featured ghost.)

You stir the purple dye into that one bowl of batter. You want to have one bowl of uniform purple batter and one bowlful of pristine white batter. (The white batter is white: it is white like Marshmallow Fluff, weirdly beautiful) Then you carefully pour the batters into the buttered-and-floured (in my case, buttered and cake mix’d) cake pans in such a way that concentric circles of cake batter form a beautiful bullseye in the pans. This is easier said than done. Actually, had I been at home, with my full batterie de cuisine, it would have been a snap, and I’m tempted to give a cake like this a roll once we’re home (using regular cake batter, maybe I’d add chocolate to half the batter). But under the circumstances, it was all a little challenging.

But we did it. And I took those 9” cake pans and I put them in the oven and set my phone’s timer for 30 minutes. I washed some dishes, and then went to relax on the porch for a bit.

About eight minutes later, G. came out to the porch. “I think the cakes are burning,” she said.

“Shit,” I said eloquently. I looked at my phone’s timer: I was supposed to have another 22 minutes to sit around being lazy. “That can’t be right.” I went into the kitchen and opened the oven. G was saying, “I think the oven runs really, really hot.” I tipped a knife several times into each cake, and the things were fully baked. It made no sense. I’d set the oven to 350° but it was like they’d baked at 450°, and boy howdy they were done. “Well, ok then,” I said. I then realized I had no cooling rack on which to rest the pans. I opened a cabinet wondering what I could find that might be a decent substitute, and I found a stack of those wicker “plates” that always seem to take up residence in summer-resort houses. I never knew what they were for, but pressed for a solution to my problem, I used them as cooling racks for the cake layers, and felt very clever. (G. tells me that people use these to lend support and strength to cheap paper plates. Now I know.)

I let the cakes cool for a good long while before attempting to pry them from the pans.IMG_7037

I figured that trying to tip out cakes that weren’t cool enough would be a recipe for disaster in what I already felt to be a tenuous situation. What I didn’t count on was that getting these things out would lead to disaster pretty much no matter what. I whacked and whacked the bottoms of those pans; I ran knives around the edges; I whacked and whacked some more. Both layers fell from the pans, eventually, landing fairly neatly on the waiting plates, but in each case, the bottom crust remained in the pan. The good part of this was, I could confirm IMG_7038visually that the cakes were, indeed, both swirled purple, and baked all the way through. The bad part was, the layers were all fucked up. What you see here is one layer of cake, turned onto a plate, and its bottom crumb, still firmly attached to the baking pan. It wasn’t an ideal situation. And I still had to frost the cake.

The usual way to frost a cake involves putting down what Cake People call a “crumb coat,” a thin coating of frosting that seals the cake. You do this after you’ve trimmed your cake layers so that they’re not domed anymore. In my case here, it was all folly. The cake layers were so thin and mangled there was nothing for it but to pop open the can of frosting and just have at it. I peeled as much cake “skin” as I could out of the pans, and placed them carefully where they belonged, and then I just started plopping tablespoons of frosting in strategic places. If I was careful, I reasoned, I could spread a thick layer of frosting atop one messy layer and carefully flip the second sad layer atop that, and then I could pray.

So that’s what I did. The frosted cake was far from a thing of beauty, but it was purple.

The Funfetti® didn’t hurt us, but I’m not sure it helped.

That evening, after dinner out at a restaurant, the two families came back to the apartment. The younger children were wildly excited about the cake. The 26 year old was politely amused. G. and I managed to light 26 tiny white candles without burning anyone or anything, and we sang “Happy Birthday” really quickly so as to avoid having wax melt onto the purple frosting — it seemed important to move fast, since the truth was we didn’t know if the frosting itself would melt, either.

Then we cut into the cake. Purple Rain Cake

The crumb was so tender the slices of cake could barely be called slices. Doubtless if you use an 8” pan this isn’t so much of a problem — but the shallowness of the layers and their precarious condition meant that this was a cake that should really have been doled out with a large serving spoon. But the kids ate it up, and asked for seconds (denied). The leftovers were packed up and sent home with the birthday girl when she left the next day (to have her proper birthday celebration in the company of her boyfriend).

The cake itself tasted fine. It had a very soft, fine crumb, and was very sweet, but it lacked a distinct flavor; perhaps this is just how white cakes are. I have to admit, I’m not an expert on white (or purple) cakes. The frosting definitely had that synthetic tang we all know and love. I think the adults found it amusing, but not a cake they’d sneak slices of as the night wore on… and the fact that we had leftovers to pack up supports this judgement.

The rest of the week, when we needed dessert, we did what any self-respecting person on an ocean boardwalk would do. We bought ice cream and caramel corn and fudge. Some of us gorged on deep-fried Oreos…. but we can discuss that later.

Note for future rented apartment vacations:

What I didn’t pack that I should have: measuring cups and measuring spoons; an oven thermometer; pot holders; a cork trivet or two; perhaps a cooling rack, if I’m going to be stupid enough to bake a cake. And, most importantly, ingredients to bake and frost a decent cake.

“You realize we are never doing this again, right?”

These were the words I spoke to my beloved daughter after I’d been rolling spring rolls for about fifteen minutes and realized that I could never work in a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant. Basically, any restaurant that features spring rolls on the menu is a place where the chefs have earned every ounce of my respect. Because few things in the kitchen are more infuriating than working with rice paper wrappers. It’s right up there with exotic buttercream frostings, something I will never muck with again since the last time I tried and wound up crying. Some kitchen enterprises are just not worth it.

This all started months and months ago. We had been out to lunch at a Thai restaurant with my mother. We decimated a tray of spring rolls in about three minutes and my daughter said, “We could make these, couldn’t we Mama?” I said, “Well, probably.” I meant this to mean, “I COULD, but I am not going to.” She took this as “Sure, we can ABSOLUTELY DO THAT!” and never let the subject drop. So all the rest of the school year, I’d say, “Some day over the summer, we’ll make spring rolls. It’ll be an Activity.” And she got more and more psyched about it. Which is great, to be honest. But it means the bar for success is pretty high.

Yesterday was the day we finally got around to it. We went to the Hong Kong Grocery downtown — they have pretty much everything you need to make pretty much anything except matzo ball soup — and we carried home a tote bag filled with the necessary stuff. We had a packet of rice paper wrappers — mysterious things I’d never used before — and a nice bunch of cilantro and a head of lettuce. We had surimi (imitation crab sticks), purchased because the more traditional spring roll animal flesh, shrimp, is unacceptable to my daughter. We had a fat carrot to grate, bean sprouts, a package of bean thread noodles. At home I already had a cucumber and all the condiments I’d need to pull this off.

It was early in the afternoon when we began the prep work: I explained to my daughter that making the spring rolls would be a lot of work and that it’d be easier if we got the veggie prep done well in advance. “We have to wash all this stuff before we can use it,” I said. “Let’s just get it done and then we can hang around and be lazy for a couple of hours before we really get to the hard part.”

“Why is it the hard part?” my daughter asked.

“Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” I said.

We stood at the sink and spent some quality time with the salad spinner. We washed cilantro and bean sprouts and lettuce; my daughter plucked the leaves from the stems of the cilantro and filled the 1/2 cup measuring cup I’d put out for this purpose. She did a great job. I made sure that the surimi was thawed, and then we played a game of Scrabble.

At five o’clock, I filled a big enamelware bowl — I usually use it as a salad bowl — with hot water, and we lined up our mise en place, and we got to work.

Within roughly fifteen seconds I realized I was going to lose my mind. I knew that working with rice paper wrappers wouldn’t be fun, but I hadn’t fully grasped how evil those little shits would be. You have to soak the wrappers and dry them before you put them on your work surface, lay filling on them, and then roll them up. It makes hamantaschen-folding look like pouring a bowl of cereal.

I produced four spring rolls, all of them technically correct — untorn, complete — but they were messy, ugly, and I said to my daughter, “This is going to kill me.” I had no idea how many spring rolls I’d have to make in order to have spring rolls be an entire meal. In the meantime, I was tired and cranky and losing my ability to be patient with this very, very fiddly work. We had to empty out the water bowl and refill it several times: no cookbook or website I looked at mentioned this, but if the water’s not hot enough, the wrappers don’t soften correctly. And if you don’t time it JUST RIGHT, the wrapper’s not worth a damn, either. Every recipe I read said to soak the wrapper for 10 to 20 seconds, turning it once in the process. Well, no: it was more like 5 seconds on one side, three seconds on the second side. We counted aloud, that’s how I know.

You soak the wrapper and lay it on a towel, and then you fold the towel over so that you dry the top of the wrapper quickly as well. Then you have to somehow migrate the very delicate wrapper to a place where you can roll the thing up. (I suppose it could all be done on the towel, but it’s hard to see the wrapper when it’s on the towel.) A little bit of bean noodle; a little bit of carrot, of cilantro, of surimi — then you fold it like a little bitty burrito. Or, as I observed to my husband, when he got home, like a boerek. (How do I know about making boereks, those little Turkish cheese pastries? It was an annual fundraising project at my daughter’s nursery school. Don’t ask.)

Making spring rolls is one of those things where, It’s not that it’s hard; but it’s HARD. I assume it takes hours of practice to get really skilled. I had a running monologue going on the subject as I took the wrappers from my daughter and laid them on the towel and dried them and then filled them and rolled them. “The kitchens at the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are probably all staffed by people who’ve been making these things since they were six years old,” I spat. “By the time they’re teenagers, they can do this in their sleep.” “Uh-huh,” my daughter said sympathetically. She knows when I’m on a tear. “You realize we’re never doing this again, right?” I said. “Uh-huh,” she said. At one point she refilled the bowl with hot water and carried it back to the counter saying, “I’m not gonna spill, I’m not gonna spill,” (and she didn’t) and she said, “I would give you a hug except I’d get in your way.”

I muttered my way through rolling a platter’s worth of spring rolls. A couple of them were so wretched I just fed them directly to my daughter, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. She declared them delicious. I got through my supplies of slices of surimi, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and grated carrot, and thought, “I’ve had enough of this crap.” I still had a huge bowl of bean thread noodles in front of me. And my husband and child were looking hungry.

So I cooked up a sauce out of peanut butter, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and peanut oil, and mixed it into the noodles with my hands (this is the only way I can effectively mix sauces in with noodles like this; I don’t know how other people manage it otherwise). I sprinkled the last of the bean sprouts on top and set the bowl on the dining table. Then I whisked up a sauce for the spring rolls (peanut butter, soy sauce, Sriracha, garlic) and brought that to the table. Lastly, I brought out the spring rolls.

I had to admit, it all looked fairly impressive. Spring Rolls Cellophane NoodlesMy family certainly inhaled vast quantities of food. I think I’d rolled well more than a dozen spring rolls, when all was said and done — I could figure it out by counting how many wrappers were leftover, but that’s too depressing to contemplate, because it means I’d have to face how many I have leftover to deal with in the future. And a dozen spring rolls doesn’t sound like a lot of spring rolls, but when you’re an incompetent klutz and a novice at working with rice paper wrappers…

 

Well. I think, actually, that I can handle it. I think that given a little more practice, I can get good at it. And that if I do get good at it, it will be worthwhile. Just like with the hamantaschen. But in the meantime, I’m going to order spring rolls in restaurants as often as I can to try to figure out how to get mine better. Yesterday’s spring rolls were a new room in the Museum of Tsuris, but I have to believe that given practice I can demolish that room.
In the meantime, the leftover cilantro’s been turned into chimichurri sauce, which we’ll be having with a broiled steak for dinner tonight. Potato salad on the side. Very straightforward compared to last night, to which I say, Thank god.

 

A Plan Hatched in 1993 Comes to Fruition

Ever since I read More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin I have thought, “I should make yogurt.”
This is a book I purchased the day it arrived at the bookstore where I then worked. I was making $5 an hour, which is to say, bupkes, but I bought it in hardcover and brought it home hours after I’d freed it from the shipping box. I carried it home, made myself a meal of spaghetti with pesto sauce (in those days I bought pre-made pesto sauce), and sat down to eat. The very first thing I did was inadvertently fling a blob of pesto onto one of the pages of the book, staining it permanently. I think I cried, I was so angry at myself, but I quickly grasped that Colwin wouldn’t mind at all, so I blotted off as much oil as I could and then kept eating and reading.

In this volume, Colwin assures her readers that any damned moron can make yogurt. I was skeptical, but thought, “Maybe she’s right. She wouldn’t lie to me.” And so I got the idea in my head that someday I would make yogurt.

Every six months or so, ever since then, I have had the thought, “I should make yogurt. See how easy it really is.” But I never did it. Whenever  the thought crossed my mind, I would be lacking one of the essential ingredients — I didn’t have enough milk on hand, or I didn’t have good, plain yogurt. There were times when I would deliberately buy fancy milk or fancy yogurt, thinking, “I will use these to start my own yogurt,” but it never worked out. This went on for decades. It’s now 2016, after all.

But yesterday I was spending an afternoon at home. My daughter had, rather uncharacteristically, decided to take a nap. I was downstairs and awake, willing to do something in the kitchen, but not willing to make a lot of noise (so anything involving the stand mixer was out). I realized that I had on hand a nearly full carton of Preferred Milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk) and about a third of a tub of very good yogurt from Arethusa Farm Dairy.

“Here we go!” I said. And so I pulled More Home Cooking from the shelf and got to work.

Colwin says that making yogurt is ridiculously easy and that you don’t need a thermometer to do it, to which my response is, “Maybe YOU don’t need a thermometer, but I’m glad I have one.” I did exactly as she said. I took 2 1/2 cups of milk and brought it to a boil in a pot. She doesn’t tell you to have the pot boil over and make a huge mess, but I achieved this effortlessly, as well. I then simmered the milk for two minutes and took it off the heat and let it cool down. It needs to come down to a temperature between 110°-115°, which takes longer than I would have guessed if I’d just been relying on my finger to test; I was glad to have the Thermapen to let me know what was what. (Colwin says, by the way, to bring it down to 110°, but when I looked in other cookbooks to see how their recipes compared, what I found was a range — between 110° and 115°. When mine was at 114°, I moved.)

When the milk is cool enough, you whisk in your yogurt starter. I used about 1/4 cup of the Arethusa yogurt. I then made a mess on the counter pouring all of the milk and yogurt into the glass Mason jar, but most of the stuff got into the jar. I closed the jar, wrapped a tea towel around it, and set it by the stove. You want to keep it warmish while it’s fermenting or doing whatever it’s doing. I then had a lovely time cleaning up the milk from the stovetop and the countertop.

After dinner last night, when I was cleaning up the kitchen, I noticed the jar sitting by the stove and wondered if it would remain warm enough. I had just scrubbed out the biggest Dutch oven we have and it was still warm from the hot water. I decided to put the jar into the Dutch oven and balance the lid on top. I figured the residual heat couldn’t hurt the yogurt and might help it along. A lot of yogurt recipes tell you to keep the jar by the pilot light of your oven to maintain temperature, and that’s great advice, but I don’t have a pilot light of which I am aware (though there must be one, since I have a gas stove). What’s more, if I put the jar into the oven and left it overnight, I would be all but guaranteed to forget about it, which I know would lead to total disaster. So the “jar-int0-warm-Dutch-oven” plan seemed like a good compromise. I balanced the pot lid on the top of the Mason jar and turned off the kitchen lights and went up to bed, thinking, “Well….. we’ll see what we’ve got in the morning.”

Everyone writes about how when they first start making yogurt the results are soupy. That’s the word everyone uses: soupy. So I didn’t have very high expectations for my first attempt; I figured that the worst-case scenario was that I’d make soupy yogurt and then spend some time draining it with cheesecloth or use it to make a yogurt cake. I wasn’t optimistic about the process but I was curious to see what would happen.

This morning when I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee, I noticed the pot on the stove and thought, “Come on, who left a pot on the stove last night?” and remembered that it was me. Then I remembered the whole yogurt thing. I took out the Mason jar and shook it a little: would the yogurt just splosh around in there?

To my astonishment it did not splosh at all. It was a solid mass with just a little bit of whey floating at the top. In other words, it looked exactly like real yogurt. I opened the jar and took a spoonful of it: it tasted just like real yogurt.

In other words: I had successfully made yogurt. And it really was easy.

So now I feel like a jackass for not having done it before.

On the bright side: I now get to spend time thinking about how to make it even better. Must remember to add Farmer’s Cow Half-and-Half to the shopping list.

Postscript: I fully expected my husband and child to be excited about the yogurt this morning, and to want some with breakfast. My husband is in the habit of eating yogurt in the mornings, so I was particularly confident that he would want some. Instead, he complained, “What happened to my Arethusa yogurt? There’s hardly any left in the tub.” I said, astonished, “I used a quarter cup of it as a starter for the yogurt I made yesterday.” He said, “So you didn’t really make yogurt. You just took someone else’s yogurt, and added milk to it, and now you’re calling it yogurt.” “You wanna try some?” I countered. “No,” he said.
It then dawned on me that he didn’t trust the yogurt I’d made. “It’s good!” I insisted. I got the jar from the fridge. “Look! It looks just like yogurt! From the store! Except it’s homemade!” He glanced at it dismissively. I put the jar back in the fridge, saying, “I can’t believe you ingrates. I make yogurt and none of you will eat it.”
“Have you eaten any of it?” my husband asked.

“Yes!” I said. “I had a spoonful of it.”

“Well, let’s wait and see what happens,” he said.

Basically, he’s positive that I’m going to give everyone food poisoning with the yogurt. So my yogurt victory may be a total loss on the domestic front. I had not planned to put this post into the Museum of Tsuris, but after this update, I feel I have no choice. It’s not that the yogurt has given me any tsuris, mind you, but my husband sure has. Ingrate.

I Cooked a Blue Apron Meal and All I Got was…

…. well, I got a lot of things out of my Blue Apron meal. I got a lot of little packages, and I got enough food to sort of feed the family, or, at least, it might have fed the family, had the family genuinely liked the food. What I really got was, simply, the experience of using Blue Apron, and confirmation that, for someone like me, it’s a total waste of time.

I already knew I was kind of anti-Blue Apron, just on principle, but I didn’t realize how frustrating it would be to prepare a Blue Apron meal until I set out to do it. I guess part of my problem stems from the fact that I obviously misunderstood what it is that Blue Apron saves you time on. As my readers doubtless know, Blue Apron is a service that delivers to your door a box of ingredients for cooking dinner. You go to their website and look at their menu and select which meal(s) sound good to you, and the ingredients for those meal(s) are shipped to you in a refrigerated box. I knew this, but since I’d never played with the contents of such a box, I didn’t really understand how it worked, until this week.

A few months back, I noticed that my neighbors, a very busy young couple, started receiving Blue Apron packages. I figured that my neighbors’ schedules were so batshit that the service made sense to them, even though they live literally one block from a lovely Italian grocery store, three blocks from another lovely Italian grocery store, and within easy walking distance of so many other places to get food, it’s ridiculous. (I mean, there are reasons I live in this neighborhood.) The other day, the lady of the house caught me in the courtyard. She said, “Hey, I was wondering — we’re getting our Blue Apron shipment today but we’re not going to be around to cook it. I meant to cancel it but I forgot. Is there any chance you’d want it? I mean, I hate to waste the food.” I thought about it and realized this was my chance to have a crack at a Blue Apron project and said, “Sure!” So late yesterday afternoon she knocked on the door and handed over the goods.

There was a package of two catfish fillets; a little plastic bag with two Yukon Gold potatoes; a really tiny plastic packet with two sprigs of parsley in it; a small foil box of organic whole milk; a plastic bag with a weird grayish powder in it that I took to be the flour mix for breading the catfish; 1/4 of a head of Napa cabbage; and another mini-package with something in it called “knick knacks.” It took me a while to figure out the “knick knacks” because I was afraid to just open it up. It finally occurred to me to read the glossy color instruction sheet my neighbor had helpfully given me. The “knick knacks” were the things you need to make the recipe, things that, in a household like mine, you’d just have because you have them. Things like cider vinegar and butter and mayonnaise and “cajun spice blend.”

I don’t have a jar of Cajun Spice Blend around, but Blue Apron does explain to us what Cajun Spice Blend is. It is: smoked paprika, ground yellow mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried thyme, and cayenne pepper. In other words, stuff I had sitting around on my spice shelf.

My family considered this pile of ingredients. My daughter, who isn’t a big seafood person, said simply, “Yuck.” My husband said, “Catfish is good!” but seemed dubious: two potatoes does not make a whole lot of mashed potatoes. And the quarter of a head of cabbage — it was to laugh.

Well, I set to work. I read the instructions carefully and inspected the pretty color photos to make sure I understood what Blue Apron wanted me to do. It seemed to me that this was a situation where, if I winged it, I wouldn’t be giving the product the test it deserved. I resolved to follow the instructions to the letter. To this end: I took a shallow bowl and poured some of the milk and the vinegar into it, and then I stirred it around a bit, and placed the fish fillets in the bowl. This is supposed to do something to the catfish akin to soaking catfish in buttermilk. (Curdling milk with vinegar is a good way to approximate buttermilk; even I know that.) I’m not sure why we are supposed to soak catfish in buttermilk but this is Standard Operating Procedure, so, fine. I soaked the fish and turned it over in the “buttermilk” intermittently while I washed and dried the cabbage, sliced it finely the way Blue Apron wanted me to, and assembled the cole slaw (combine with mayonnaise, a little vinegar, and Cajun Spice Blend). I also set a pot of salted water to boil for the mashed potatoes. I hate making mashed potatoes; I hate cooking potatoes. But I dutifully washed and peeled and chopped the potatoes and boiled them for 12 minutes. Then I drained them (saving the potato water to use in making bread — thank you, Blue Apron, for my future loaves of potato bread) and mashed them with more of the milk and the butter Knick-Knack.

Once the potatoes were done, I put the pot in the (gently pre-heated) oven to stay warm, and I assessed the overall situation. It was abundantly clear that the cabbage might have created enough slaw to satisfy our cabbage needs (raw cabbage doesn’t shrink down the way cooked cabbage does, so I guess 1/4 a head of Napa was sufficient, and my snotty laughter was uncalled for). But there was simply not going to be enough of this meal to feed three of us. For one thing, our daughter was sure to not want to eat any catfish; and there were nowhere near enough potatoes. So I filled a stockpot with water and set it on to boil, and then I spent a few minutes mincing onion and garlic and getting a pot of pasta Natalie ready. (This meant sautéing onion, garlic, and some chopped olives in anchovies, and olive oil and then blending in tomato paste and water. It’s not hard to put together, thank god.)

Once the Natalie sauce was assembled and I didn’t have to think about it anymore, I heated some oil (not provided by Blue Apron) in a wide cast iron pan and dressed the catfish as instructed — shaking the “buttermilk” off the fish and dredging it in seasoned flour. I fried the fish and drained it on paper towels as Blue Apron advised.

“Okay everybody,” I said. “As soon as I’ve cooked the spaghetti, dinner’s ready.” I chose thin spaghetti because it takes five fewer minutes to cook than regular spaghetti, and seven minutes later, the three of us were seated around the table.

“That’s catfish?” my daughter asked, looking skeptically at the handsome platter of fried breaded fish.

“It’s yummy,” my husband said. “Well, it looks yummy,” he said. He took an entire filet and put it on his plate.

“I made spaghetti for you,” I told my daughter. “Don’t worry.” I gave her a large serving and grated cheese onto it and spooned some extra olives on top. “Here you go.” I then served myself some fish, some potatoes, and some cole slaw.

The cole slaw was fine. The potatoes were fine. The fish was entirely unappetizing. I ate a bite, trying to be optimistic. “What do you think?” I asked my husband. “It’s ok,” he said. I chewed, took another bite. “Is the problem the fish or the way I cooked it?”

“I have don’t know,” my husband said. The truth is, I almost never cook fish, so there’s no way anyone could described me as a skilled seafood cook; how could this have turned out well? My husband, the poor guy, doggedly continued to consume his fish. I got through half of mine and gave up.
He looked at my plate sadly. “Had enough?” he said.

“I’m switching to spaghetti,” I said, humiliated. “The cole slaw is good,” I said.

“The potatoes are okay,” my husband said.

“Can I have more spaghetti?” my daughter asked.

By the end of the meal, there were no leftover potatoes and the cole slaw was gone. One half of a catfish filet remained; there was enough leftover pasta to serve some to my daughter for lunch the next day and give myself some for lunch too. Had my husband and I not had catfish, cole slaw, and potatoes, there would have been no leftover pasta at all.

“What should we do with the leftover catfish?” I wondered.

“I’ll take care of it,” my husband said. I assumed this meant he would choke it down. I wiped down the kitchen counter and took the dirty kitchen linens upstairs, saying, “I might as well do a load of laundry now.”

While I was standing at the washing machine measuring in the detergent, my husband came up the stairs holding a small bowl. We don’t generally have food upstairs, so I was curious. “What’s going on?”

“Watch,” he said. He put the bowl down on the floor in the stairwell and our cat came trotting over from the towel on the bedroom floor that he regards as his bed. He sniffed. “You’re giving the cat the catfish?” I said. My husband smiled affectionately at the cat. The cat pawed at the fish and licked his paw once; then he repeated this exploratory movement. Satisfied that this was food, he then plowed through the scraps of fish in the bowl. “I only gave him a few flakes,” my husband said. “The rest of it I’m saving in the fridge as treats.”

“Okay,” I said, defeated. The truth was, if neither of us liked the fish, then the cat might as well enjoy it. The cat finished the fish in his bowl and marched away, pleased as punch. A tiny flake of fish had landed on the floor. I debated bringing it to him and decided that was insane and threw it into the toilet bowl. Then I went downstairs to help finish cleaning up the kitchen.

“I think Blue Apron’s worth it for people who really can’t stand grocery shopping,” my husband said, “or people who’re living in those extended-stay hotel type places and maybe don’t want to deal with stocking a pantry while they’re there.”

“Yeah,” I said, dolefully putting leftover pasta into a plastic tub.

“But otherwise, it’s not really worth it. They don’t take care of the prep for you, or the cooking. It’s just the shopping.”

“I spent just as much time cooking this meal — more time, really — as I would on any other normal weeknight dinner,” I said. “And it was ok, but none of us really liked it.”

The cat marched down the stairs and came into the kitchen and looked at us expectantly.

I’m wondering if I should make my neighbor an offer. For $50 a week, plus the cost of groceries, I will cook dinner for her and her husband two nights a week. It might be a better deal than Blue Apron.

Passover Ends and a Local Doughnut Maker Gets a New Name

Folks, it’s been busy here. You’ve been wondering where I’ve been, and the answer is multi-faceted. I was in DC for a few days, celebrating Passover with my family down there, for one thing. But that’s a hollow excuse: mostly, I’ve been tied up with the preparations for a big fundraising event for a very weird place called The Institute Library. I’m not going to post a link here – if you’re curious, you can Google it  – but I’ll just say, We were hosting a party for 125 people, and there were a lot of moving parts, and for a while there was no phone or internet service at the Library, which did not facilitate matters, and it’s been hard on the Hausfrau. And my husband and child as well. Not all dinners were what they could have been, during this time. OK: some of that had to do with it being Passover for eight days, but let’s be honest: usually, Passover cooking doesn’t get me down.

But it’s been a mess around here: The laundry has piled up to some degree. God knows I haven’t vacuumed. To say there’s a lot of domestic catching-up to do is an understatement.  I will say, in my defense, that the bathrooms aren’t too disgusting (I managed to swab them down a couple of times in the last month) and that we do have clean underwear, thanks for asking. I mean, it hasn’t been that bad. But today I’m doing four loads of laundry on a day when I’d normally do two. I mean, I was down to maybe five clean dishtowels in the kitchen. It hasn’t been pretty. Peg Bracken would nod understandingly; Martha Stewart would cluck her tongue and ask why I hadn’t hired help.

One aspect of hosting a big social occasion for a non-profit organization is, If you’re lucky, there are some good leftovers to take home with you. I know some people would disagree with me, and say that if you’ve done the job correctly there are no leftovers at all, but those people are wrong. One should never have an event where the table is stripped clean of food: it means there was not enough food. In our case, on Monday night, we had ordered madeleines from a local bakery (Whole G), by request of the Executive Director, who apparently has a thing for their madeleines; but more importantly from my perspective, we had managed to get Tony’s Square Donuts to donate several boxes of their mini-donuts to the event. Tony’s Square Donuts used to be known as Orangeside Donuts. They got famous a few years ago when Jane and Michael Stern wrote them up for Saveur Magazine — one of America’s 50 Best Donuts. Because Orangeside was, at the time, around the corner from the Institute Library, I used to go there in the mornings before I went to the Library. Maybe I’d get a bowl of grits with some syrup, on a cold winter morning, if I was feeling virtuous, but more often, I’d get coffee and a donut. The Sterns wrote the place up and pretty soon Orangeside was booming. They relocated, and started serving more regular diner-food items, but I think Tony missed just being a donut guy, so now he’s back to having a small storefront downtown, and he’s changed the business name to Tony’s Square Donuts. When I asked him about providing donuts for this event, I explained to him that we liked to order desserts from businesses very close to the Library, and he lauded that effort; when I said that Jane Stern would be coming to the event — which she was; I wasn’t just making it up for the sake of getting Tony’s attention —  he was excited, and said, “Anything for Jane Stern!”

Well, let me tell you: those donuts were beautiful, and they were utterly delicious as well. I fully expected there to be no leftovers, though I was hopeful: I mean, you have to have hope, when it comes to leftover donuts. At the end of the evening, the small crew of people who’d signed on to help clean up, as well as the guy who’d been playing accordion tunes for us all evening, Adam Matlock, all migrated over to the desserts table to see what could be scavenged. The answer was: not much, but enough to satisfy us. There were maybe a dozen madeleines and  roughly twice that number of the mini-donuts. (I don’t mean donut holes, by the way. I mean mini-donuts. If a regular donut provides you with many mouthfuls of delicious soft glazed donut, a mini size provides you with, say, three or four bites. The thing is, Tony’s Square Donuts are often beyond rich. There’s a caramel turtle donut he does that can actually give you the collywobbles if you eat the whole thing in one sitting. The regular glazed or chocolate donuts, you can plow through — it’s the specialty items that can really knock you for a loop, gastrointestinally speaking. Tony’s mini-donuts are perfect because you can, without guilt, sample many different flavors and glazes without starting to feel like you’re going to be sick. You could have four or even five mini-donuts, as made by Tony’s Square Donuts, and still feel perky.

We all divvied up the spoils, grasping quickly that there were some real finds still on the table. Folks had not realized, for example, that those caramel-covered glazed donuts on the yellow tray were not just plain donuts with caramel glaze: they also had an exquisite apple-pie filling. Unless they were filled with Boston cream pie filling. Or raspberry jelly. Since Adam Matlock and I are connoisseur-level appreciators of Tony’s Square Donuts, we quickly created our stashes, nodding appreciatively at each other’s selections, and I think all who got in fast got what they wanted.

My husband and I drove home and I offered the babysitter — who works around the corner from Tony’s Square Donuts — a chance to snag a donut or two. She’s been known to drive real distances for donuts, all the way out to Wallingford, so I knew she’d take a couple happily. But even after donating to the Babysitter Donut Fund, we had quite a few, maybe six or seven, for ourselves.

The next morning, our daughter came downstairs and saw the big pizza box of donuts on the dining table. “Pizza for breakfast?” she asked, confused. “Donuts!” I said. She opened the box, peeked in, and smiled her crazy, missing-the-two-top-front-teeth smile. Our daughter being no fool, she asked, “Tony’s Donuts?” Suddenly, my husband burst out laughing. “Tony’s Chametz? Is that their new name?”

I began to laugh, too. “What are you talking about?” I said. “They’re Tony’s Square Donuts.”

“I know!” he said. “But — I thought you said –”

It didn’t matter. The damage has been done. The end result is that Tony’s Square Donuts will now always be Tony’s Chametz to me. I’d better notify Tony that he should print up some new business cards.

The Hamantaschen Chronicles: 2016

Once again, we began our Hamantaschen enterprise this year full of good intention, tons of thought, and feeling ready for the challenge. And at about nine in the morning, I got a message from my friend S., who said, “I’ve never baked hamantaschen before, but I really want to do it. Can I really use whole wheat flour to make hamantaschen?”

This, friends, is not how a hamantaschen novice should start out, by worrying about whole wheat flour. As any experienced hamantaschen baker knows, one of the biggest challenges about baking these cookies is that most recipes — and I really do mean about 90% of them, in my experience —  produce a dough that bakes up into tough, tasteless things that you really have to suffer through to before you get to the good part (the filling). This is just wrong. It’s not how it’s supposed to be. In an ideal situation, both the cooky and the filling are both delicious and a pleasure to eat.

I fell to all caps and said NO NO NO NO WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR FOR GOD”S SAKE DON”T DO IT.

I explained to S. that the tenderness of the cooky is an Issue even under the best of circumstances, and that whole wheat flour is never, ever, going to make matters better. I then spent about an hour at the computer, sifting through recipes I’d emailed to myself, through old blog posts about hamantaschen, looking at websites, side by side with S.

“I think I’ll do the Smitten Kitchen recipe,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. “I have three different SK tabs open now.” Proof that any hamantaschen baker worth his or her salt is always, always hunting for The One. If Deb Perelman is still looking, we’re all still looking.

S. thought that the big issue was going to be folding them so that they stay folded. I said that this is a big issue, and that failure is very frustrating, but that I’d learned that doing an egg wash on the cooky rounds before folding makes a huge difference. I emphasized that producing hamantaschen is a giant pain in the ass, and tedious, and full of tragedies. “You have to be prepared for the results to be ugly,” I said. “You have to NOT MIND THIS. You have to be ZEN AS FUCK about it. And you have to hope that the cooky part at least tastes good, not dull and floury.”

We then went to our respective kitchens and began baking. In my case, I discovered quickly that I had sorely miscalculated how much butter I had in the house. While I thought I had at least a pound stored away in the freezer, and several sticks left in the fridge, it turned out I did not, and I had to cobble together ends of various bits of butter (including using the hideously expensive Arethusa Farm Dairy butter I bought a while ago, which I was saving for Something Special) to come up with a scant pound. I got out my kitchen scale and weighed and re-weighed. No matter what I did, I had not quite a pound of butter. “No matter!” I said. “I can still do this.” I then put the butter I had into the Kitchen Aid bowl and put on the paddle attachment with the silicone edges — a handy thing because it scrapes the sides of the bowl for you as it beats the butter. I turned the machine on, and immediately heard a nasty crack. The butter was not as soft as it perhaps should have been, and I broke my paddle attachment.

I went to Facebook and typed, “This is a sign of some kind.”

Then I got out my old metal paddle attachment and started over. Cream the butter, I thought placidly. Double the recipe, cream the butter. Not quite a pound of butter, I’ll just do a little less flour, everything should be fine. The butter was creamed, and so I smoothly added sugar to the mixer bowl. I looked again at the recipe I was using, which was from a blog post I had written myself a couple of years ago. And then I caught my breath. “Double the recipe,” I’d been reciting in my head. But the recipe called for four ounces of butter, which was one stick. And it said to use a little more than a cup of sugar.

I’d managed to get myself messed up about whether a stick of butter is 4 ounces of 8 ounces. It’s four ounces, friends. Not eight.

I hadn’t doubled the recipe, I had quadrupled the recipe. If I had almost 16 ounces of butter, that meant I’d have to use significantly more than one cup of sugar. And more of…. everything.

I thanked god that I had two cans of poppyseed filling, because I was going to need them.

And then I took my own advice, and got Zen as fuck.

Because I realized that the instructions I was so carefully following were about to mess me up again, I stopped everything and tried valiantly to think hard. If I doubled the recipe, I would be using…. eight cups of flour. Which was impossible. Eight cups of flour is what I’d use to bake a couple loaves of bread, not to make hamantaschen. Not even a LOT of hamantaschen.

So I got even more zen, and I took a deep breath, and I carefully measured out three cups of flour and brought the flour canister over to the counter where I was working. “You can always add more, but you cannot take away,” was my mantra. I added the three cups of flour to the mixture and while it clearly was not enough — the dough was so soft as to be completely unworkable — I had no idea how much more I needed. I began to take flour from the canister in small quantities and work them in gently with a wooden spoon. The mixer was getting tired and the dough was crawling up the neck of the paddle. I didn’t count how many more cups I added, but it was probably a little over five cups, total, that I used. I then very smartly put the mixing bowl into the fridge to let the dough rest and chill (because it’s impossible to work at room temperature, but when it’s cold, it’s very easy) and began to prepare the baking trays. Four trays with four sheets of parchment paper were readied and stacked nearby. I floured the countertop heavily, pulled a hunk of dough out of the mixing bowl, and gingerly began to work with it.

The dough rolled out beautifully. It cut perfectly. I added the scraps back to the mixing bowl, so they could rest and re-chill, and I focused on brushing on the interior egg wash. (One jumbo egg took care of all the egg washing, inside and out, that all these cookies required.) Cut; wash; fill; fold; wash; make sure folds are sealed. The cookies — a dozen on each tray — went into the hot oven, and I let ten minutes go by before I looked nervously through the glass door to see how they were doing. This is the moment when you really have to steel yourself for disaster. There is no guarantee that what you’ve put together will, in fact, work.

To my considerable joy, the cookies looked great. A little puffier than I’d expected, somehow, but better they be puffy than that they look hard and sad. These were big, happy, fluffy kittykats of hamantaschen, and the filling was staying exactly where it was supposed to.

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I let the trays bake for 25 minutes and then took them out. They were perhaps a little less golden than I might have liked, but to leave them in longer would mean risking burning; so onto the cooling racks went the cookies, and I slammed the next round in.

I spent the next few hours breathing calmly. I cut, washed, filled, folded, and washed again. And in the end I had I think 67 hamantaschen, and only two of them weren’t quite perfect little triangles. (One of them had four corners. I don’t know why it happened but when I started folding it, somehow I couldn’t get it to do what I wanted, and it turned into a square, and by then I didn’t want to fight with the dough anymore, so I let it bake as it. The other imperfect one was made with the last scrap of dough, which I pressed into a circle by hand, and since I was by then quite tired, I just curled up the edges a little and put filling on top of it and said, “Baker’s treat.”) In the end, 65 hamantaschen worthy of being served to family and given to friends. I took a picture and sent it to my husband, who was impressed. When the cookies were all on the racks and cooling, I then turned around and baked the two loaves of bread I’d been working on, which had waited with great patience in their pans on the kitchen floor right in front of the fridge (don’t ask). (One glory of the Pullman loaf is that, since it is tightly covered, you can do things like let it rise on the kitchen floor and it’s totally fine.) All of this was achieved, mind you, before I went to pick my daughter up at school at 4 p.m. (later than usual because of a special event), which is nothing short of a miracle.

That night my husband ate several cookies while my daughter and I attended services at a nearby synagogue. “They’re perfect,” he said after we got home. “It’s very impressive. Your hamantaschen success rate is about 60%, but these are perfect.” The cooky was a sweet, crumbly, soft shortbread-like cooky — it was so good that, in fact, my daughter asked if I could make the cooky again but without the poppy seeds. Could I bake it with, say, sprinkles on it instead? The filling was wonderful because, of course, it came from a can, and I had nothing to do with it. I claimed victory all over the place, and we delivered a couple dozen cookies around the neighborhood feeling triumphant.

Late that night S. checked in with me. She’d made her hamantaschen, and sent me a photo. They looked perfect, and I told her so. “The cooky is tough,” she wrote sadly. “Tough hamantaschen are endemic,” I said. “Next year, you’ll do better.” I can say this because I know from experience. I told her she did great and not to worry.

As for my perfect hamantaschen: If I can pull this off again next year, it’ll be a miracle, but on the other hand, I really think I can do it. I think I’ve got it licked. (Famous last words. Tune in, in mid-March 2017, for the next episode of the Hamantaschen Chronicles.)