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.)

The Overwritten Recipe: Another Book Edward Gorey Forgot to Write and Illustrate

If you are reading a recipe, and the instructions seem over-written to you, the novice recipe reader, you should bear in mind that the person who wrote the recipe is probably trying to save you some angst by being so precise. Don’t sign angrily and insist that the writer is an asshole or just trying to get your goat. He or she is trying to explain to you why you should take step A before step B, lest you veer in the wrong direction and wind up in the Museum of Tsuris. It is true that longwindedness in recipes can be due to mere literary preciousness, or culinary pretention, but in my own case? It’s really just that I’m trying to convey to my reader, in entertaining manner, the good reasons why something is done a certain way. In other words, I’m not trying to piss you off, I’m trying to be helpful, dammit.

Conversely, an underwritten recipe can be nearly useless. We’ve all seen old index cards tucked into books or found in boxes of random stuff in our grandmother’s junk drawer. The recipe is titled, “Angela’s Spice Cookies — very good!” and it’s a list of ingredients but then there’s no instruction for how to combine them. The card’s text ends, “Bake in hot oven for 12 minutes.” Thanks, Angela.

I’ve also met another sneaky bastard, the Secretly Underwritten Recipe, that you really have to watch out for, because it’s a sneaky bastard that can ruin your day. This is the recipe that comes from a normally reliable source, but that turns out to have some crucial ingredient or step left out. Like, it tells you that you need four eggs to make the recipe, but then doesn’t tell you what to do with them. Ever. Or it neglects to advise you that not only should you grease the pan, but that you should put some parchment paper down before you pour in the batter, otherwise you will never get the cake out of the pan.

I am thinking about all of this because the other day I was doing some online research about madeleines. Specifically, I was wondering, “Can you make madeleines without a madeleine pan? I mean, of course you CAN, but is there any reason to seriously feel bad about not using a special pan?” I arrived at the conclusion that if what you want is little puffy lemon cookies, you should absolutely not feel bad about not using a madeleine pan. But in the process, I stumbled on a website maintained by a young woman who clearly has it in for food writers who use more than one sentence to describe a process.

At http://goutaste.com/a-modified-madeleines-recipe/ we read the madeleine recipe of Deb Perelman (Smitten Kitchen — an exceptionally fine blog, known to everyone who’s reading this, I am sure, except my mother, and, Mom, even you might even like reading Smitten Kitchen, if you were in the right mood, because Deb Perelman’s pretty flippant and sassy about cooking). Goutaste Lady (E. Grossman) feels that Deb Perelman uses too many words to write her recipes, which makes me think of the Emperor who moans that Mozart used too many notes. Grossman pouts, “I finally found one that looked just about right, except that this chef clearly has way too much time on her hands! Who has time to read – let alone WRITE – paragraphs of instruction??”
It makes me think of the Emperor who moaned that Mozart used too many notes.

The reason why Perelman uses those words is to get you to create a thing that is Correct, that is not a Disappointment. There are reasons why she wants you to combine ingredients in a certain order. Like, science reasons.

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I can’t always explain them, but I know for a fact that there are reasons why we combine certain ingredients together at certain times. It isn’t just that recipe writers are persnickety for the fun of it.

There are really good reasons why Smitten Kitchen has been such a success: Perelman’s writing is clear and precise and works to make intimidating enterprises less intimidating. She’s following in the footsteps of people like Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker (Joy of Cooking), and Julia Child — someone who Ms. Grossman should have heard of, what with being such a Francophile and all. Where would any food writer today be without these people, who used a lot of words in their recipes, as role models? It is nearly unthinkable.

Deb Perelman doesn’t talk down to her readers and she doesn’t dumb recipes down needlessly or pointlessly. She assumes that someone wants to make something and then says, basically, “Ok, is this easy? Is it hard? Can it be done in a tiny kitchen, possibly an ill-equipped kitchen?” Then she goes about and explains how the thing can be made, whether it’s churros (which she had assumed were a pain to make, but assures us are totally easy, but even so, I’m not gonna bother, well, maybe someday) or babka (which is a pain to make, no matter how you do it, but it is worth doing, and the SK recipes are a good way to go). It seems clear to me that she assumes a certain level of competence in the kitchen, but it’s also clear from the comments that if a novice baker has a question, she’ll answer it, no matter how obvious the answer may seem to her or her more experienced-cook fellow-commenters. Many, many of the comments on Smitten Kitchen are written by people who would never have tried to bake or cook at all, if not for her website. Even I — I’m pretty comfortable in the kitchen, but when I am daunted by the prospect of baking a particular thing, I will turn to Smitten Kitchen for reassurance that I can do this.

Ms. Grossman’s recipe for madeleines may work; I don’t know, and I never will, because I don’t want to make madeleines. I know that her attitude is amusing. But I also know that there are recipes where if you get too flip about method, the product will fail. The end result will not be what you want. There is, for example, a real difference between “folding in” an ingredient and “mixing in” an ingredient. God help Ms. Grossman if she ever decides to make something involving whipped egg whites. If she decides to just mix them into her flourless chocolate gateau, instead of carefully folding them in, she is going to wind up with a very, very fallen cake. And there will not be enough whipped cream in the world to make up for the fact that she didn’t respect the ingredients and how they have to be handled.

So, missy, don’t get all high and mighty about those overwritten recipes. Because, come the day when you really, really fuck something up in the kitchen, and you’re crying and screaming, “Why did this happen to me? Why does God hate me?” you will seek out that overwritten recipe, and it will calmly explain to you, “If you are not careful with this step, your cake will fall/your butter will taste burned and you will have to start all over/your beef will be tough and stringy and you will want to just throw it to the dog rather than serve it to your loved one on your anniversary.” Ms. Grossman, be flip. But respect the people who’re doing the heavy lifting, to whom you will run crying like a baby in times of trouble and sadness.

In the meantime, I will keep a light on for Ms. Grossman in a small room in the northern part of the guest wing (where visiting scholars may rest their weary heads) of the Museum of Tsuris.

You Don’t Need Mise en Place Bowls: or, There isn’t Much Virtue in the Prep Process Being Beautiful

Don’t get me wrong. It is all well and good to have mise en place bowls — which are the little cute bitsy-size bowls made of glass or metal, usually, that cooks use to organize the stuff they’re going to use in small amounts while they are cooking. Online recipes, especially those little video ones you see on Facebook all the time, always show all the ingredients for something lined up in mise en place bowls. Here is one bowl with your teaspoon of cinnamon, another with your teaspoon of cumin, another with your tablespoon of coriander, another one with your half teaspoon of salt. Sometimes you see these presentations of mise en place bowls and it’s so pretty you just have to hold a scented hanky to your eyes, it’s so affecting, it’s like a painting, it’s so lovely. But it is also  true that using mise en place bowls makes for a hell of a lot of little bitty bowls to wash.
Look at this, for an example. This is a link to a Blue Apron recipe. https://www.blueapron.com/recipes/chicken-cacciatore-with-fettuccine-pasta-mushrooms

Blue Apron is a service that charges you a bunch of money so  that you can have delivered to your door a box of ingredients, pre-measured and ready to go, as I understand it, so that you can cook a nice homemade meal without having to go grocery shopping. I know a woman who is a subscriber to this service but observes, “It’s still a pain. And I don’t have all those little bowls.” I screech, “You don’t need the little bowls to cook the meal!” but she doesn’t care. Somehow, in her mind, she has to have the little bowls to have things Work Right. Because that’s how Blue Apron shows you how to use their product. I pointed out that she could buy mise en place bowls, and that they are, indisputably, cute and would be fun to buy; or that, alternatively, she could just use whatever little bowls she has around, and it would still work fine. “But then you have to wash all those bowls!” she moaned. Well, it’s true: if you dirty a bowl, you have to wash it. But the thing is: most home cooks aren’t doing anything that really requires the use of mise en place bowls. It is useful to have them in a photo essay describing how a recipe is put together, so that the visually-minded novice home cook has a mental image of what they need (“oh, so that’s what a tablespoon of cinnamon looks like”) but it’s not like you get arrested if you don’t use mise en place bowls.

The fact is, there’s a learning curve to cooking that doesn’t perhaps get discussed as much as it should. The novice cook doesn’t have to start with a book or recipe labeled “E-Z Italian Recipes” and assume that he or she is doomed if they look at Marcella Hazan; at the  same time, expecting the novice cook to, as Laurie Colwin says, waltz into the kitchen with a copy of Edwardian Glamour Cooking Without Tears and expect a decent meal to result is sure to result in at least an emotional disaster. Cookbooks and online recipes are, whether or not they expressly say so, targeted toward different skill and interest levels, and these should be assessed and respected.

I remember clearly when, in 1988, as someone who had zero interest in cooking, someone who had a deep love of cooking and entertaining told me that I must buy The Silver Palate Cookbook. I was just missing out if I didn’t make Chicken Marbella. And I remember sitting down in the bookstore and looking through it and going, “Are you kidding me?” I saw all these references to creme fraiche, an ingredient I knew I would never buy, and demands for the use of pieces of kitchen equipment I didn’t own, many of which I don’t own to this day, mind you. It was all so ludicrous. The idea that this was someone’s idea of a 101-level cookbook was madness — and yet, thousands and thousands of well-intentioned people gave this book as a gift to young people setting up their first apartment, as a wedding gift…. and I imagine that thousands and thousands of people attempted Chicken Marbella, made some tough chicken with weird mushy prunes, and said, “Fuck this,” which is why in the 1990s, working in a used bookstore, we were always being offered barely used copies of The Silver Palate Cookbook. It’s a useful book if you are already comfortable in the kitchen. For the novice? It’s just painful and intimidating and annoying. A much more reasonable gift would have been a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which is a book that contains recipes both insanely complicated and ridiculously simple. There is, literally, something in it for everyone. And they never make you feel bad for not having mise en place bowls.

These days, because so many people rely on the internet for their recipe searches (i.e., they’re getting their recipes from photo-heavy blogs, not like this one), and so many cookbooks have elaborately staged color photographs of the recipes being laid out, prepared, and served, we have an over-ambitious, unrealistic sense of what our cooking should look like, in terms of process and result. The people who maintain beautiful, inspiring food blogs (I don’t mean me; I mean, people like Mimi Thorisson or whoever is out there that has a nice supply of mise en place bowls) are in the business of making sure that the images of their cooking process are perfect. That’s part of the point. It’s not just about “This would make a good meal.” It’s that all of these are, at some level, lifestyle magazines. And I guess it’s nice to look at, sure, but it can have a dampening effect on the reader/viewer who innocently went online to figure out how to make chicken cacciatore or salade Nicoise, things that aren’t in fact hard to make, at all, but are easily presented in such a way that a novice cook might be scared right into calling for some Indian takeout.

You don’t need mise en place bowls. You can cook very good meals without laying out your spices and herbs in seventeen perfect little bowls around your big mixing bowl. Your mixing bowl could, in fact, not be a bowl at all, but be the stock pot you also use when you cook your 89 cent box of totally un-chic spaghetti. How do I know this? Because — while it’s true I own a lot of mixing bowls, all given to me as gifts — the “bowl” I use to bake bread (where I mix the dough initially, and then let it sit and rise) is also the 7 quart pot I use for making spaghetti. It’s just a big metal pot with a lid. It’s not fancy. It’s just there, and it works. My mise en place bowls, when I feel called to use something like that, are the same bowls I serve ice cream out of on lazy weekend afternoons when we all need a treat. They’re just little bowls I have around. And in the days before I had no dishwasher, I swear on all that is holy, it wasn’t a big deal to wash them; now that I have a dishwasher, it’s even less of a big deal.

Saint Colwin wrote about kitchen equipment, and how people get all worked up over having just the right gear, but that most of the time, there’s really no need for such agonies. It’s really true. There are certain pieces of equipment you have to have to achieve a few specific goals; it is, undeniably, hard to make true madeleines without a madeleine pan. But if you just want a madeleine-flavored cooky, you could make them in muffin tins, or as drop cookies, if you wanted to. No one is stopping you. You don’t need mise en place bowls to make Cincinnati chili, the recipe I make most often that calls for more than three spices. And you know how I handle organizing the spices, which do have to be added to the pot in a fairly organized manner, to be sure that they cook properly and don’t burn?

I do this.

 

I look at the list of ingredients, which is long:

1 Tbsp canola oil
2 cups diced onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp allspice
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups tomato sauce
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef

And then I do this: I cut up the onions and I put them into the pot. While they sauté, I prep the garlic, and add it to the pot.

Then I get one of my ice cream bowls and in it I put the chili powder, the oregano, the cinnamon, the salt, the black pepper, and the allspice.

I squeeze the tomato paste straight from the tube into the pot. I dump the entire bowl of spices into the pot. I pour the vinegar straight from the bottle into the pot. The brown sugar is spooned directly into the pot from the plastic box where I keep the brown sugar, usually with a soup spoon, not a measuring spoon, because it really doesn’t matter. Then I add the tomato sauce (i.e., open a can of crushed tomatoes and dump it into the pot) and the ground beef (i.e., unwrap the package of meat and put it into the pot) and the chicken broth (or water, as the case may be), which is probably poured from a measuring cup, but who knows, I may just pour it from the teakettle or the tub where I’ve been storing the chicken broth in the fridge for the last week. I can eyeball two cups of liquid. It’s not that big a deal.

This means that the prep equipment to be washed, after setting up the Cincinnati chili, is this: a knife; a cutting board; a soup spoon; an ice cream bowl. Four objects. The only one of them that can’t go in the dishwasher is the knife (you don’t put knives in the dishwasher, period. Got it?). If I used a measuring cup for water, I just set it in a rack to dry. Painless.
If I used mise en place bowls and showed you how to do this a la Blue Apron: there would be a knife, a cutting board, several measuring spoons, and possibly as many as 14 mise en place bowls. Which is a lot of little bowls. I’d be annoyed if I had to clean up 14 little bowls (ok, the meat would admittedly require a larger bowl). But it’s just not necessary! What is necessary, to cook efficiently, is to read the recipe and really absorb what steps you have to take with which ingredients, and when. Cooking is a flow chart, and a well-written recipe will be clear and explain in concise terms which actions you take at which junctures in the cooking process. No cookbook is going to seriously insist that you have mise en place bowls. And no one should be intimidated out of the kitchen because they don’t have such things.

Forget the mise en place bowls. Just read the recipe carefully, put a pot on the stove, and start cooking. Don’t worry about pretty, don’t worry about not having a mandoline. Just put the pot on the stove and start cooking. Then you’ll get to be all smug about not paying for takeout, and about how you cleaned up the kitchen in ten minutes. As someone with a fancy website or two has said, “And that’s a good thing.”

Relatively fast, relatively painless, definitely delicious: One Evening Meal for Three

A few days ago I was riding in a car with two people who are far-better travelled than I, which is not a hard thing to be, because I am one of the least well-traveled people I know. These associates of mine were discussing Italy, specifically the food in Italy, and I realized, as I listened to them, that while it is certainly true I have never been to Italy, I am, for an ugly American, remarkably conversant on the subject of Italian food. It’s not just because I grew up in New Haven, which is a very Italian place, for a New England city. I chalk it down to two things: 1. my owning rather a lot of Italian cookbooks, considering my lack of real interest in Italian food and 2. my having worked, for many years, for a guy whose wife was from Sicily. He, unlike me, was very interested in Italian food, and had considerable access to it. Between his wife and their spending much of their year in Sicily, visiting her family, he knew quite a bit about Italian food — and even regional variations, because he was a traveling man. From him, I picked up a lot of data without trying to. I remember the time he bought some boxes of old issues of Gourmet magazine, even though they were pretty much without resale value. (I was, I should explain, working in a used/rare/out of print bookstore.) He just thought we’d find them fun, and we did. I spent hours paging through them. One issue caught my eye because the photograph on the cover featured a salad I could not imagine eating: it was oranges sliced thinly, scattered on a platter with red onions, also sliced thinly. What a bizarre combination. “My god,” I said, “who would eat that?” He said, “We eat it all the time in Italy,” he said, “It’s really delicious.” So I was the philistine. And, quite frankly, because I don’t like oranges, so when it comes to orange and red onion salad, I still am a philistine.

But other dishes I wouldn’t have imagined preparing, back then, are now second nature to me. One such dish is one I described while sitting in that car with those two well-traveled Americans discussing Italian cookery. “Oh, the anchovies!” one of them cried. “I love anchovies,” said the other. “I make a dish with anchovies all the time,” I said meekly. “My daughter really loves it.”

The other passenger in the car besides me, the mother of a toddler, perked up. “Really!” she said. “What is it?” I explained that it was just a pasta thing, with anchovies and garlic and olives and capers, no big deal really. “Could you send me a recipe?” she asked. I thought for a second, and she said, “It’s probably one of those things you don’t have a recipe for,” a bit glumly. I said, “No, no, I’m sure there are a thousand recipes for this, it’s just, I tend to just throw it together.”

Tonight was one of those nights when I threw it together. It was a night when I didn’t want to make a big production out of cooking. Frankly, I’d had a rather craptastic day, and I was tired, and I wanted something hot and savory that I could do without paying close attention. A lot of recipes for this are called Midnight Pasta, or Pasta Mezzanotte, or some variant thereof, but I’ll call it Natalie’s Pasta here. The technique, such as it is, is simple. It’s a simpler and less spicy version of pasta Puttanesca. The time spent in preparation is about 15, 20 minutes. A pot of this feeds my family of three. Tonight, I served it with sautéed zucchini on the side, because I felt a green side dish would be nice. But some nights, there is no side at all.

Set to boil a stockpot of water; you will be cooking a pound of pasta. I personally prefer a long, thin pasta, like spaghetti; the rest of my family seems to like a chunkier noodle, like cavatappi. It doesn’t really matter.

In a 2 1/2 quart pot (I use a small Dutch oven), put one half a tin of anchovies and some of the oil from it and put the heat on to medium. You want to heat the oil and let the anchovies begin to melt into the oil. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil that actually tastes good — not extra virgin, though. Once the oil is hot, add one medium onion, sliced thinly; cook the onion with the anchovies and oil. When the onion is translucent, add two fat cloves of garlic, also thinly sliced. (I think that’s the last “thinly sliced” of this blog post.) When the garlic has also reached a translucent state — this takes some stirring — add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste and maybe 1/2 cup of water. Stir to create a thin, pinkish sauce. By this point, the anchovy will be invisible in the sauce, but the pot will emanate a distinctly strong, almost meaty, salty, scent. You then add a tablespoon or two of capers — this is a matter of personal preference — and maybe 1/2 cup of good olives (even canned crappy ones are okay if that’s all you’ve got, but some nice Kalamatas are better), sliced up however you want them. Stir and let simmer on very low heat until your noodles are cooked. You could even just turn off the burner and put the pot aside, keeping it warm by covering the pot. Cook the noodles; dump on the sauce. You’re done. Unless you want to add some minced parsley, which, if you’ve got parsley around, is really really good on this. If you are totally on your game, the best topping for this is bread crumbs you’ve made yourself in a food processor with parsley added to the bowl. This makes for slightly flavored bread crumbs, which are somehow really good on top of these noodles. Because we are heathens and philistines, we’ve been known to add Parmesan to this as well, but it’s really unnecessary. It’s just that it seems like an extra topping is nice.

I have been known to make a batch of parsleyed bread crumbs in the food processor and just stow a jar of it in the fridge for a few days to use on top of whatever pasta things I make during the week. You’d think it would grow mold within 24 hours, but it never seems to; I’ve had a jar of these crumbs last very nicely for almost a month, tightly closed. But usually, to be honest, they get used up pretty quickly because they are so good on so many things.

The glory of Natalie’s Pasta is that you can make it with stuff you would keep around the kitchen. Except for the parsley — which is optional — everything here is something that can live in your pantry in a tin or a jar. Anchovies, capers, and olives. If you don’t have anchovies (heaven forfend) you could use some canned tuna instead (ideally the fancy stuff from a jar, packed in Italy, but seriously, even Bumble Bee in olive oil is fine, and I’ve  done it, when truly pinched, with the really crappy store brand tuna packed in water, and it got gobbled up). If you wanted to add more stuff, for the sake of adding more stuff, you could crack a can of chickpeas or a can of cannellini beans and add those to the pot as well. But that’s more effort. My goal here is, Cheap dinner, reasonably fast. I suppose if you were the kind of person who didn’t keep onions or garlic around all the time, this wouldn’t be a great meal for you; nor will it work if you’re phobic when it comes to anchovies, capers, or olives. But I don’t know how someone who likes savory dishes could possibly dislike those things, which are basically the definition of savory.

The funny thing about Natalie’s Pasta is  that it’s not fancy at all, really, though it uses, in small amounts, ingredients that we ugly American types think of as “fancy.” They’re just not run-of-the-mill items in American cooking. But they are, in European cooking, and since they store so well, there’s no reason to not keep them on hand. Even the tin of anchovies, once you’ve opened it: you’re only using half the tin, so you think, “What the hell will I do with the other half?” Well, I’ll tell you. You dump it into an empty jam jar you’ve washed clean, put it in the fridge, and keep it there until ten days go by, and you don’t know what the hell to make for dinner. Yank that jar from the fridge, and… you’ve already got dinner started. And how cool is that?

 

You’d Think It Wouldn’t be Hard: Peanut Butter Brownies

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The first one. Not so great.

I suppose that out of my couple thousand cookbooks I probably have at least thirty different reliable recipes for peanut butter brownies, but the other day when I decided on a whim that I had to bake peanut butter brownies, I did not turn to any of my utterly reliable cookbooks, but instead went to the internet. I found a recipe that seemed plausible and, after making sure that I in fact had all the ingredients on hand, I set to work. I had this idea that I would make peanut butter brownies and put some chocolate chips in them.

But when I stopped to think for a moment, I realized that I had in the refrigerator a little tub with leftover chocolate babka filling, and that, instead of using chocolate chips,  I should swirl the babka filling into the brownie batter. So I melted the chocolate filling in the microwave (because that stuff hardens to rock in the fridge) and poured it atop the brownie batter. My daughter watched me. “Mmmmmmmmm,” she said approvingly. “Yeah,” I said. “But you know what, this was dumb of me, I should have put half the batter in the pan, then put the chocolate, and then put the rest of the batter on top of the chocolate.” “Well who cares,” said the wise one. “I do,” I said, “but never mind, I can do it next time.”

I baked the pan of brownies and they came out…. fine, but not at all brownie-like. They were more like peanut butter cake, and rather dry peanut butter cake at that. We ate them, but none of us loved them. I was disappointed, but immediately grasped the problem. Too much flour, by 50%. “I will fix this,” I said to everyone, and everyone paid no attention at all.

The other day, having baked a lovely loaf of chocolate bread, I then returned to the peanut butter brownie problem, which sounds like it would be a really good episode of Peg + Cat, except probably peanuts aren’t allowed on PBS shows. This time, I revised the recipe, cutting the flour dramatically. So now it went like this:

1/2 cup peanut butter

1/3 cup butter (original recipe called for margarine, but get real)

2/3 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

You cream the peanut butter and butter together in a mixer and when it’s smooth you add the sugars. Then you add the eggs and vanilla. Whip it all up so it looks fluffy. In a separate little bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and add them to the butter/sugar/eggs.

Prepare an 8×8″ baking pan by taking the wrapper from a stick of butter and lightly rubbing it on the bottom of the pan. Then make a sling of parchment paper and lightly coat the paper with butter, too. The grease on the wrapper will be enough to achieve this, you don’t need to slice any actual butter or get your hands messy to do this; you just need a microscopic film of butter on the pan and paper.

Put half the batter in the pan, then put most of your chocolate filling (or chocolate chips) over the batter. Cover the layer of chocolate with the rest of the peanut butter batter, then add the rest of the chocolate to form the top layer. Swirl with a knife until it looks however you think it looks best, then bake at 350° for about 30 minutes. I kept thinking 20 minutes would do the trick, but it didn’t, and I kept adding time, six minutes at a time, and I think I wound up at 30 minutes. Let cool a while in the pan (about 20 minutes) on a rack; then remove from pan using edges of parchment, and place the brownie, still on the paper, on the rack. It needs to cool all the way before removing the paper and slicing.

This peanut butter brownie is far superior to the one I made the first time around. “Much more chewy, peanut-buttery,” said one reviewer. “Mmmm, really good,” said another reviewer. It was felt that chocolate chips would be preferable chocolate element over the leftover babka filling, so when I work on this again, I’ll be doing it with chocolate chips.
However, there is an argument to be made for making babka again, and, again, making too much chocolate filling, and starting this vicious cycle all over again, because some of us like the chewy, rich, chocolate sludge…

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Much better. Peanut butter swirl brownies, and half a loaf of chocolate bread for good measure.

 

Laundry Competence: or, This Time it was My Fault

I’m not going to say which member of our family has a tendency to leave little paper-wrapped bits of ABC chewing gum in their pockets, but I will say that more than once I’ve had the unhappy experience of laundering things with such items left in the pockets, and it would be fair to say that no one benefits from this process.

As such, I’ve gotten pretty good at making sure pockets are empty before be-pocketed articles of clothing go into the washing machine.

But this weekend, I missed something. And when the laundry emerged from the dryer, I noticed these odd little cinnamon-red smudges all over the laundry. I thought, “What the hell?” For one thing, how had I managed to put these smudged items into the dryer before I noticed the smudges? But more importantly: what had made these marks?
It was after I dumped all the ostensibly clean, and actually dry, laundry onto the hallway floor that I found the culprit: a now-empty tube of Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm. In other words, the fault was mine. What I think is that the lip balm was in a pocket (or, possibly, it got knocked off the top of the dryer into the washing machine, when I was putting the laundry in), and that it made it through the washing process all right, but that in the dryer, it melted and oozed through the seam at the cap and got all over everything. Because the cap was still on, you see. But the tube of lip balm was shockingly empty.

I laundered that load of laundry two more times, with massive doses of Oxy-Clean. One undershirt is still marred, as is a vintage Peanuts bed sheet I’d given a household member as a gift. The new white washcloth I’d had in that load is stained a nice, even pink (but the pink is fading, I noticed today, when I laundered it a fourth time). Why it was even in a load of dark laundry is beyond me, but these things happen. That, I’m taking philosophically.
But the fact that I let this happen annoys me even two days later. When I discovered the problem, I swore so loudly that my daughter went downstairs, where my family was getting ready to go out together on a little errand, and she said to them in a low voice, “You better just go out to the car; Mama’s about to get really angry. Trust me, I know.” (This was reported to me, later, by my husband, who was amused by her skill at reading her mother’s moods.) I’ve apologized to my husband for pock-marking one of his undershirts, but added that because I’m fairly good about separating the lights from the darks, the worst-possible scenario did not come to pass. This would be the scenario in which all of our white towels, white undershirts, white kitchen linens, and white bedding is all smudged with Burt’s Bees Red Dahlia Lip Balm, a product I fully endorse, though I don’t recommend running it through the laundry.

I did two more loads of laundry today (the aftermath of having family visit from out of town) and there were no disasters. Tomorrow, I’ll buy another lip balm, and this time I will make sure it never goes in a pocket or on top of the dryer.

Kitchen Competence: The Update

This is the result.
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Last night I took care of the last steps to prepare this dough to bake. I kneaded it one last time — very sticky stuff, I had to use a dishrag to get my hands clean — and I set the dough into a pot to rise overnight in the fridge, as per the King Arthur Flour directions for their No-Knead Harvest Bread, which was one of the recipes I was taking as a model. This morning, when I went to make the coffee, I took the pot out of the fridge and set it on the counter to come up to room temperature (or closer to). When I was back home after taking my daughter to school, I did as King Arthur said: I put the pot, covered, in a cold oven, turned the oven to 450 degrees, and baked it for 45 minutes, after which point I took off the lid. I baked until it registered 205 on a thermometer (actually, it said 206°) and then I tried to get it out of the pot.

Well, here, we ran into trouble. This thing did not want to leave its house. It was a like taking a cat to the vet. “I know what’s happening next, and I don’t like it, and I’m staying here.” In the end I had to take a plastic knife and shove it all around the edge of the bread to separate it from the pot, and when I turned the pot over to shake out the bread, it came out, but, as you can see, it left the bottom crust of the bread behind in the pot.

So this isn’t a complete success. It’s not a very handsome product. However, it occurred to me immediately that this bread would make a fabulous stuffing, and so if we don’t want to eat a mangled, ugly loaf of cranberry-sunflower seed bread, we will happily consume it alongside a roasted chicken.

I’m now eating a slice of this bread with some butter. It’s pretty good. I think the solution to baking this is one of two things: 1. line the bottom of the baking pot with parchment paper, don’t just rely on the pot being greased to do the trick; or, two, bake it as a messily-shaped loaf on a big cooky sheet, again with parchment underneath it. Because I can already tell this is worth making again, even if I messed it up this time.

Wasting Time and Ingredients: My New Hobby

Today I vowed I was going to get the last of the holiday-type baking done. I had grand plans.

Now it’s 2.15 and I’m conceding the race; I’m also thanking God that because I have leftover Cincinnati chili in the fridge, I don’t really have to worry about cooking dinner, because if I try to make anything else today I am positive it won’t come out right.

I was going to make caramel-covered shortbread. This is the kind of thing I can normally do almost in my sleep. Because I couldn’t resist messing things up, I decided to try a new shortbread recipe, and I have to say it is a very good recipe but boy you have to watch those pans like a hawk because the cookies will burn in a nanosecond. (The trick is to use oatmeal you’ve whizzed up in the food processor and confectioner’s sugar and cornstarch along with the flour and butter. The result is wonderful thing very similar to an English digestive biscuit.) I found the recipe at the Serious Eats website but I’m not going to bother posting a link because I basically ignored the recipe beyond thinking, “Oh, adding oat flour, that’s a good idea.” Go find whatever shortbread recipe you like and take out a little bit of the regular flour. Substitute in two parts oat flour and one part cornstarch for whatever amount of white flour you took out. Whizz everything together in the mixer for an incredibly long time. It seems like this will never turn into a cohesive dough but after about ten minutes in the mixer at medium speed, it will come together. This is a very soft dough, you have to be gentle with it, but the texture of the baked product is wonderful.

The caramel, however, was my downfall. I’m not going to say too much about it but I will tell you that it is imperative that you pay attention to this detail. After you have dissolved your sugar in your water, and cooked it until it is the shade of gold you want, and you are ready to add in your vast quantity of heavy cream — do NOT just pour the heavy cream into the pot assuming that all is well.

Because I currently have, sitting on my stove, a big Le Creuset pot filled with caramel made with cream that’s gone bad. I am taking this pretty well; I haven’t thrown anything in anger. I’ve washed all the other dishes and things that need washing, I’ve wiped down the counters, I’m ready for the next thing. But I can’t yet just pour this into the trash. I’ll wait till five p.m. today, I think, before I admit total defeat. And tomorrow I will make caramel with a can of sweetened condensed milk, which, in my experience, is never, ever off.

 

Baking Can Be Discouraging

Even when you think you’ve got it nailed, even when you are sure you can get it right, things happen.
The other day, I thought I had rugelach down. I produced these. They looked perfect and they tasted perfect.

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Then this morning I made more rugelach. Granted, the filling was slightly, slightly different. But I used the exact same technique and this is what happened.

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The good news is twofold. One: the burnt chocolate filling smells and tastes great. Two: no one in my family will mind eating these.
The bad news is, the failure means I had to come up with something else to bake, fast, to mail to people this week. Fortunately, I was able to put together the Chocolate Crunch Shortbread from last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, and I’ve baked them, and they came out of the oven looking the way they’re supposed to. So I can wrap and ship this afternoon, once they’ve cooled.
I think I’ll stop baking for a couple of days. I think I need a break.

The Sad Story of the Grape-Nuts: How Some Things are Worth Making at Home, and Others are Not.

I was not one of those people who automatically liked Grape-Nuts. As cold cereals go, it is not friendly. These are hard little pellets that look like nothing so much as crumbled bits of hamster poo. They taste like vaguely sweet yeast pellets. But when I was about twenty years old I decided I really liked them and that they were worth the expense — because, for reasons I don’t really understand, they are distinctly more expensive than most of the cold cereals out there. And then I married someone who also likes Grape-Nuts. This means that we’re capable of going through a rather alarming number of boxes of Grape-Nuts in the space of a week. So it’s a splurge. Cold cereal as splurge: a sad state of affairs, but so it goes.
There was a time when I was in an Expect Discounts store and saw Grape-Nuts on sale for $1.50 a box. I bought seven boxes of them. My husband was appalled when he saw that our cabinet had been filled with nothing but Grape-Nuts, but I said, “What’s your problem? They were cheap, and they’ll get eaten!” Which they did, in a shockingly short time frame.
Now, during the days when I was pregnant and working part time and then working even less than what I’d always thought of as respectably part time, it became clear we were going to have to trim our household costs a little. To that end, I thought, “What if I could make my own Grape Nuts?” Since the internet had been invented, I was able to Google up some recipes, and I hit on one that sounded plausible, and one day I set to making homemade Grape Nuts. This involved lots of mixing and types of flour normal people don’t keep around the house (I think graham flour was involved) and baking and crumbling up slabs of unappetizing brown baked stuff and then baking some more and crumbling some more. It was labor intensive. But I had the time, and I’m the sort of person who, when determined to do something like this, will see it through to the bloody end.
The bloody end, in this case, resulted in a strange nubbly bin of stuff that even I wouldn’t eat. It was horrid. It was so horrid that we had to just laugh at how horrid it was. I attempted it a second time, if I remember correctly, and it came out inedible a second time. And then the inedible horror grew mold. Cold cereals aren’t supposed to grow mold. It was clear that this was something that was just beyond my ability. Our trash was rich with the spoils of my noble attempts.
By this point in our relationship, my husband had gotten used to my kitchen misadventures and was pretty cheerful about it, but this particular episode was so bizarre he began to tell people at his office that I was going around trying to make homemade Grape-Nuts. Naturally, everyone clucked, “Well, women who are very pregnant get odd ideas in their head. It goes with nesting.” “No, no,” he would say. “You don’t understand: she’s like this anyway.” And they’d look at him with an expression that said something like, “wait, you married this person? Because it seemed like a good idea?”
Well, making homemade Grape-Nuts is not a good idea. But making homemade granola is. Making your own pain de mie is a very good idea. Making your own Twix bars is a very good idea. This week we’ve established that making your own Almond Joy bars is a good idea. It’s not that I think everyone should drop whatever they’re doing and go make these things: it’s that if you happen to be the sort of person who likes to kill a few hours in the kitchen doing something really tasty that doesn’t directly relate to what you’re having for dinner, these are things that are really good if you make them yourself. They are even, according to my husband, better than the versions you’d buy at the store.
So, my husband has pointed out to me, it should follow that since I’m someone who wouldn’t bat an eye at making Grape-Nuts or Twix Bars or Almond Joy bars, I might as well try my hand at making croissants from scratch. I’ve now spent some quality time with the King Arthur Flour recipe for making croissants, and have decided that when the weather cools down (it’s 95 degrees outside today), I will give it a shot.

I will let you know if it turns out to be a good idea.

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