Monday, December 22, 2008

How My Cookies Crumbled

It's been a weird week.

My son has banged his shin four times in the last three days, hard, in the same exact spot. My husband's new i-Mac does not work, doesn't even have i-Photo installed on it. And my holiday baking attempts are coming in far below expectations.

I'm never much of a baker. I am left-handed and as a group we are just clinically unable or unwilling to follow directions.

But if I just pay attention and keep my mojo to a minimum, I can usually manage to turn out something both delicious and attractive. So during a recent playdate, my daughter and I kicked off the holidays with the same basic cookie recipe I've been making for a few years now.
I used white whole wheat flour, my old standby. It worked, but they came out as "health cookies". I mean, I liked them; the girls, not so much. Maybe I'll mix in half unbleached white flour next time.
This was cute, though -- on a whim we put red food coloring into egg whites and brushed the cookies before baking. Much easier than frosting, and just as satisfying for the kids. They came out with a shiny translucent glaze. That one's a keeper.

Then I made ginger cookies.

Another parent at my daughter's preschool brought these into a meeting last year, and they were the best ginger cookies I'd ever had! She gave me the recipe, and I made them and they were AMAZING! I made them this year and they were... eh. Is my powdered ginger old and weak? Is my candied ginger lacking in spice? I don't know, but there were more like cinnamon cookies than the spicy carambas I was looking for.
My kids liked the dough, anyway.

And they did all get eaten. I brought them to work and everybody very politely devoured them, so as not to hurt my feelings, I'm sure. (Okay, they were tasty, but I didn't get strangers wandering into my office looking for cookies they'd heard about, like last year.)

Then I had this idea to make peppermint candy. Amanda Hesser wrote about peppermint candy in the Times' magazine a few weeks ago. Chris loves spicy candies, so this seemed like a great present for him. I bought some peppermint oil, and melted some organic cane sugar... past the point where you are supposed to melt it, apparently. It is supposed to be a spread-out shiny melted-glass kind of thing. We ended up with peppermint crumble! Great sprinkled on top of ice cream or in hot cocoa. Except why put more sugar on top of sugar? So that got filed, permanantly.

Then, I made a gingerbread house. We have an elderly neighbor who ate the gingerbread house we gave him last year in about 15 minutes. I figured we'd make him another.

Look at this cute elf who happened along in an apron and got to work!
Unfortunately, even with elf help, the house did not turn out so cute. I used butter, first of all, instead of shortening, which probably makes a softer cookie and is just a reality I have to live with, since I don't want to use shortening. And I didn't use a template. Well, I did use one, but it was homemade, and largely residing in my head. This is my usual procedure, and things have been good. But I wanted a tall house this year, like a towering Victorian, a painted lady that we would paint with pastel frosting... and the buttery cookie walls were too soft, so the walls split when I tried to assemble the house. So I had to make some quick changes. Good thing I'm so **creative** and can change half-assed plans in mid-stream so quickly. Yessiree, it's lucky to be me when you're putting together a half-baked, half-assed gingerbread house.

Once we get it frosted I might have the chutzpah to show it to you. Right now it's not fit to be seen. It's hideous, actually.

You'd think that would pretty much wrap up our holiday baking for the year. Unfortunately, I've gotten sort of used to having cookies and leftover gingerbread mistakes to nibble on while I drink my coffee, or for a midmorning snack, or a dessert after lunch, or a quick pickmeup before dinner, or for dessert... There'll be more coming, I'm sure of that.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Forcing Pancakes?

Q: how do you know when your child is picky?
A: when you have to force pancakes.

My little carnivore, the younger one, would happily survive on bacon, salami and hamburgers. For sweets she likes chocolate and sorbet and that's about it. Muffins? No. Cookies? Well, if she must. Pie? Don't make her throw up and never mention it again. Pancakes? Gross and anyway she is HUNGRY!

This morning we didn't have much to eat. No cured pork products, and not even enough eggs to scramble for everyone. Hey, guys, how about pancakes?

The whining that ensued was such that there were two time outs and a five minute banishment from the kitchen, just in the course of mixing up the batter and frying the pancakes.

She ate two silver-dollars, under great duress.

Part of me thinks it's weird that I am forcing my kid to eat an indulgent American breakfast of refined carbohydrates that when she gets older she will try to forget she ever knew.

The other part is just annoyed.

But I do have to notice that my husband, who is lean and whose almost-spartan food instincts I try to emulate, eats pancakes with the air of a good sport. He'll eat them if I make them, he'll sometimes take seconds if I offer, but he would never request pancakes or order them in a restaurant, or think lustfully about them. Or fry up the remaining batter and have pancakes for lunch, two hours after having them for breakfast.

So maybe it's genetic, and I should be thankful that our daughter got his carb-instincts and not mine.

Anyway, this is my favorite pancake recipe, adapted slightly from the hippie classic, The Tassajara Recipe Book.

Buttermilk Pancakes
(If you have real buttermilk, great; otherwise just use milk. I sometimes use the powdered buttermilk, but I don't find it makes anywhere near the difference that real buttermilk does)

(And if I have buckwheat I'll swap some of it for some of the www flour , but that is probably one reason my kids don't care for pancakes, even though it's been years since I pushed anything really hardcore on them, like those wheat germ and flax numbers, I swear! What's not to like about a little quarter-cup of buckwheat?)

1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk or milk
3 tablespoons melted butter

1. Melt your butter and set aside to cool.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together.
3. Mix the wet.
4. Combine.
5. Fry on a griddle. (I use bacon fat, which really puts it over the top. Yum!)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's a Cruel World

I'm all for the natural cycle of life and everything, but that doesn't mean I want to watch my cat noisily eat a still-alive mouse that he's tortured for the last half hour.

What is going on? We have seen more mice in the last four days than we have seen in 10 years at this house.

At first we thought it was a nest of baby mice whose momma took a wrong turn and ended up in our house at a bad moment. But I've begun to think differently since watching our young vital cat triumphantly burst through the (new) cat door with a live mouse in her jaws. Uh, for the third time. Hmm. Thinking, thinking... Could it be? She must think she is doing such a good job, and maybe that even our grumpy older cat (to whom she often relinquishes the half-dead mice, after she's had her fun) might even start liking her.

The cats make humans look kind.

It makes me want to track down the cashier at the Food Coop who sneered at my wild swine sausages (how could she?!) and predicted that "someday the animals are going to rise up against the humans". And torture us to death, and possibly eat us alive?

Or perhaps they will all become vegan.

This is not to excuse the crueler aspects of the industrial farms by finding even worse cruelty in the natural world. I imagine 19th century farmers proudly thinking out that that's what makes us human -- the ability to deliver a swift and humane death to our prey. Or so we would hope.

I've got to do something about that cat door.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

So Much for Dinner and a Movie

When we somehow managed to arrange sleepovers for both our kids on the same Saturday night, we had great hopes for a high-impact date night (no babysitter fees, stay out as late as we want, sleep in, read the Sunday paper without the sounds of Spongebob's maniacal laugh in the background...)

You know what they say about the best laid plans...

It wasn't because, right as the previews ended and MILK started, the water bottle leaked and spilled cold water all over my lap. The water mostly evaporated and the movie was awesome.

It wasn't the fact that Franny's amazing pizza pies have gone up to a whopping $17 a pie. (It's usually a pie per person, so that's a lot for pizza, right?) I don't care, I would pay almost anything for their clam pie, with whole clams and chili oil. (Franny's is one of those super thin crust, all sustainable ingredients, hip and minimalist places that I am a sucker for.) We also had a vinegary saute of chicory, radicchio and gaunciale (pork cheek) which was so great.

It wasn't that the Beet-ini -- a top shelf martini made with pickled beets -- was $11. It was totally worth it-- definitely not the cloying sweet purple monstrosity I was imagining. ("Last time I got a specialty martini I swore I'd never do it again," I told Chris, seconds before throwing caution to the wind and ordering it.) I bought golden beets today to try to duplicate the effects.

It wasn't that the waiter told me that he'd probably order something a little more hearty on a blustery night like this, but that the Calabrese red I wanted was "pretty good". Fuck you, I want the cheap one, okay? I just spent $11 on a beetini. And I like southern Italian wines.

No, the reason our night was ruined -- almost -- was because we had no sooner settled into the bar, discussed the risks of ordering specialty drinks, gone for it, and taken that first, transcendental sip, than my cell phone rang.

Our five-year-old, on the fourth or fifth sleepover of her life, was having second thoughts. 9:03, and she was crying and wanted to go home.


Talk about culinarius interruptus.

No sooner had I hung up the phone than the hostess appeared: our table was ready.

Are we bad parents because we took the table, ordered our food, wolfed it down, and got to our daughter at 10:03?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pie Crash

I'm ordinarily pretty good with pies, which has made me really lazy.

The problem is, even a totally mediocre homemade pie is pretty good.

When I first started making pies I was obsessed with all the details. I kept a stainless steel bowl, a pastry blender and a sack of flour in the freezer. If everything is icy cold, it makes for a flaky crust. I would even run my hands under freezing cold water to make them cold before I touched the dough.

But then I realized that every time I slipped, the pie was still pretty damn good. So I got lazy. Through the years I got really lazy.

I started using whole wheat flour, salted butter, a food processor, and room temperature flour.

I reached the end of that sorry road yesterday.

This pie sucked.

I made two of them, and they were both terrible. Rolling out the dough was working with a dried dirty rag. It wouldn't cooperate. Then the pie wouldn't set. Then, when it was done, it tasted like crap. Mushy soft filling and a crust harder and thinner than a piece of Melba toast.

Where did I go wrong? Here are some possibilities:

1. Canned pumpkin? Okay, I'm sure you can make a great pie with canned pumpkin, or so I hear. The problem is, I switched to the can without thinking about it. I used the same old recipe I've been using all this time with roasted pumpkin. Canned pumpkin is more watery than roasted pumpkin. Euw, this filling was mushy and soft. I like a dense pumpkin pie that bears no resemblance to baby food.

2. Got too healthy? I love using white whole wheat flour and Sucanat, which is a really unprocessed version of sugar (Sugar Cane Natural, get it?) But maybe I went overboard. (Although I did the same exact thing at Thanksgiving, and my pies came out great, so wtf?)

3. Too warm? Maybe I didn't chill the ice water for long enough. Didn't chill the flour. Might not have even had super cold butter. And was it salted butter?

4. Lazy Lazy Lazy? This part i know. I Just cut every corner possible.

Never again. From now on I will shower my pies with love and care.

Friday, December 5, 2008

First Communion

(Or: My Kids Ate a Fucking Oyster!)

My kids are picky. Shellfish has never even been a serious goal, more of a dreamy aside, along the same lines as, "Maybe you'll be President one day!" How did this happen? I've retraced my steps.

1. A few years ago, we went to France. My father was living in Geneva and working for the Red Cross at the time, so we were sort of visiting him and sort of just hanging out. On our last day we went to the Saturday morning market and -- lo and behold -- the oysters were out. In France. they give you wine and oysters at 10 in the morning. This was maybe the thing my father liked best about his years living in Geneva. It runs in the family, this oyster and wine love. So he and I buckled up to the counter and ordered a dozen cold ones and a couple plastic cups of white wine. At 10 in the morning. Hoo boy, do they know how to do it over there. But one of the most memorable parts about it, aside from oysters and wine at 10 in the morning, was that my daughter, then 3, agreed to take a sip of the oyster liquor. She said she liked it but didn't want any more, but I didn't care. I thought it was a great moment. (My son, then 7, wouldn't even stand near us while we partook in such vile activities.)

2. Last year, my kids started showing interest in clams when I served clam pasta. I love linquine with clams and white wine and parsley and lemon zest. I serve it mothership-style, where my kids think they are just getting plain pasta, but really it is infused with the delicious briny taste of clams and olive oil and all that. So last year, instead of politely ignoring my husband and me as we heaped our "plain" pasta with clams, they started asking for tiny bites of the clams. I would cut off a tiny meaty edge, and they would eat it.

3. Last summer, out to dinner at My Italian Farmhouse, this cheezy but sort of homey and sweet Italian restaurant in NH near my mother's house, where we go at the end of every summer, my kids both tried steamed mussels. And liked them.

4. Over Thanksgiving we had a fried seafood night. When my brother was taking orders and asked if there was anyone who felt fried clams were necessary, and if so did they need the strips or the full belly clams, my mother and I raised her hands and my mother cupped her hands and bellowed out, "Bellies!" When the order arrived, to my utter shock, my 9-year old son -- who doesn't like beans, rice, spaghetti, fish, greens, tomatoes, or really very much of anything -- wanted to try the belly clams. To my further shock, he liked them and wanted more. We ended up fighting over the last few. I was so proud.

Do you see where this is going?

5. Last night my father came to visit. I asked him to pick up some fish at Grand Central Station. (I was going to broil it with bacon wrapped around, so I knew even my non-fish-eating kid wouldn't starve.) My dad arrived with a couple pounds of tilapia, a pot of soft French cheese, and a half-dozen oysters. He knows my husband and I are always ready to down a few oysters.

So I set out a plate of ice, and handed my husband the oyster knife and the bowl of oysters.

This is where things got weird.

"Can I try it? Can I try it? Can I try it?" That's my daughter, 5, the one who won't eat toast or cereal or pb&j or nuts or lentils.

"I want to try it too. I love clams, Mom. Remember? Mom? I ate the clams on Nantucket and the mussels in New Hampshire, right, Mom? I want to try oysters." That's my son, 9, the one who refused cake, pizza and juice when he was two, and survived on PB&J for about 3 straight years.

This breakthrough moment would have been great if this had been one of those holiday meals where my father tends to get a few dozen oysters. But, uh, we each only had two.

"You can try the liquor first," I said. I wasn't taking any chances. My husband and I tipped our shells and let each kid try a sip.

"That tastes just like the ocean," my son enthused. He really said that. "I want more."

By now there was one oyster left. This is where it gets gross. Avert your eyes for a couple sentences if you're squeamish about oysters.

I cut the remaining oyster in half. (I know: euw, but there was only one left.) I gave each kid half, which they slurped out of the shell. They ate them. They each ate a half a fucking oyster. I thought they'd be in college before this happened.

They loved them. They can't wait for New Year's in Boston, when my father has assured them there will be more.

It's working, this whole food acculturation thing. It's really working.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Future Food Czar?

Bill Moyers and Michael Pollan talked over Thanksgiving weekend.

This is pretty necessary viewing. Okay, it's kind of long, so wait until you have a lot of laundry to do or car ride, or your nails are drying. Seriously, it's really worth the listen.

I like the part where he talks about the White House Chef, and says that a locavore-type chef would make a big difference. Hmmm, who's it going to be? I wonder if Dan Barber would do it.

Also love the clip on the green market in East New York.