… and the Rescue of the Whoopie Pies

Well, this morning, first thing I did after dropping my daughter off at school was I went to the grocery store down the street where I paid an unconscionable amount of money for unsweetened cocoa so that I could start on whoopie pies this morning. The store didn’t sell Hershey’s — only Ghirardelli — which tells you something about the demographic in my neighborhood. But I had no time to gallivant off to the Big Supermarket two miles away, so I sucked it up, paid my $6.50 for 8 oz. of cocoa powder, and went home.

By ten o’clock I had the first pans of whoopie pie batter in the oven. The batter came together nicely, and I put a conservative six blobs on each tray, and then played it cool while they baked. I didn’t want to hex these cookies by checking on them too often. When they’d been in the oven ten minutes, I opened the oven to rotate the pans, and saw to my huge relief that they were baking perfectly: rounded, puffy, just the way they were supposed to be. They weren’t as dark as the cookies I’d made with the Hershey’s cocoa, but: beyond my control.

The rest of the morning, I baked whoopie pies contentedly, and in this whole process I’ve learned something. One: Maida Heatter’s recipe is wonderful, truly wonderful, but one mustn’t double it. And two, when she insists on using tinfoil to line the pans: well, that works well, but parchment paper is even better. You don’t have to peel the cookies off; they practically jump off the paper, eager and cheerful.

http://books.google.com/books?id=pyJEFUMIFcEC&pg=PA142&dq=maida+heatter+whoopie+pie+recipe&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_doRVJDPCNCj8gGK5IFI&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=maida%20heatter%20whoopie%20pie%20recipe&f=false

is where you could find this recipe via Google books. It’s in her book of Great Chocolate Desserts. The filling I will be using is from America’s Test Kitchen, and it is totally different from Maida’s recipe. Where she takes the shortening route, ATK takes the route I prefer: marshmallow fluff, butter, and confectioner’s sugar.

So there you have it. There will be whoopie pies, and there will be joy.

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The Great Whoopie Pie Disaster of 2014

Failed CookiesYours truly got roped into being in charge of desserts for a Big Fundraiser for a local non-profit. I sit on the board. It behooves me to be helpful. Since I have a reputation for being the “food person” on the board, there I was, going, “Sure, I’ll be in charge of desserts.” To this end, I persuaded two friends who are even better bakers than I am to help out. We met over drinks and ascertained that they would handle all the fruit-based desserts, and I would bake a couple of cakes and a lot of whoopie pies.

People are paying a lot of money to come to this thing. The desserts have to be good.

The whoopie pies were my husband’s idea. When asked, “What should we serve for dessert?” the first thing he said was “Whoopie pies.” Now, I’ve never made whoopie pies in my life, but I thought, “I bet I could do that.” So just to be sure, I did two test runs. The first batch, served to a crowd of people at an end-of-summer lobster dinner party, came out perfectly. I thought, “Dude, I’ve got a lock on this.” The second batch, served to a bigger crowd at a neighborhood block party, was also very good. So it was with tremendous confidence that I marched into the kitchen this morning. I’d dropped off my daughter at school; I had cleared my day; I was going to do nothing but make whoopie pies. A double batch. Then I would let them rest for a couple of days, and fill and serve them at the fundraiser on Saturday. (One interesting thing I discovered is that whoopie pie cake actually improves after sitting for a couple of days.)

I mixed up my batter. It looked beautiful. I began to bake. And when I took the first trays out of the oven to rotate them, I saw I had a big problem. The cakes had only spread, they had not risen or puffed at all. Muttering “Laurie Colwin, Kitchen Horrors,” under my breath, but remaining calm, I decided to try out the whoopie pie baking pan a friend had lent me. Since it had 12 spaces, and there was only one pan, I wasn’t very optimistic about using it, and hadn’t thus far bothered, but I thought, “it can’t hurt to try.” So I baked some of the batter in that pan, and they looked okay…. like very, very shallow cupcakes. And then, even after fully cooled, the cakes wouldn’t come out of the pan.

Then I hit on using muffin tins. I did a test pan: some lined with cupcake papers, some not. Once again, the little cakes baked beautifully (if not domed), but then could not be removed neatly from the pans.

So what I have here, after baking 1/2 of the batter I mixed up, is a whole lot of wonderfully chocolate cakey cookies, not one of which is pretty enough to serve to guests, and not one of which even remotely resembles cakes for whoopie pies.

St. Colwin, please help me tomorrow. Please let this work tomorrow. I will have to buy cocoa powder, because I used up all that I had in the house. But please, please help me make this work. I need to serve these things to people on Saturday. I don’t know what else to do.

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New, inventive forms of procrastination

I realized last night that I never got around to writing up what happened with that rice bread, and actually sent myself an email that read only WRITE ABOUT BREAD so that this morning I would do something about that. I like to keep my promises; I said I would write about what happened with the rice bread, and I will. But first, let us discuss what I did today before I sat down to write about the rice bread. It’s so stupid I can’t even believe it myself. 

I decided to try my hand at making butter. 

It started like this: several weeks ago I observed to the Mensch that making butter is something I’m capable of doing, and probably pretty quickly, what with owning a Cuisinart and all. He said, “Well, sure, but why would you bother?” I said, “I dunno, it just seems like something it’d be cool to try.” And I filed that away: someday, try to make butter. 

This morning I dropped the child at school and pootled off to Pino’s to grab a few things for dinner tonight and on a whim I bought a little carton of Farmer’s Cow heavy cream; this is, lately, my preferred brand for all liquid dairy products. It might just be a matter of packaging, but I don’t think so. Anyway, I carried my stuff home, unpacked it, and poured myself a cup of coffee. I then sat down at the computer thinking, “Let’s see if I can find some easy explanation of how to make butter.” I had a dim recollection that it was mostly a matter of whizzing the cream around until it just, somehow, turned into butter, and that there would be liquid that would have to be poured off, and this would be Buttermilk.

This all turns out to be true, but it also turns out that while it is very cool to watch heavy cream morph into whipped cream and then butter, getting out the liquid is a pain in the ass (at least by my standards). I made quite a mess on the kitchen counter, too. “Washing the butter” seems like it’d be easy, but it sort of wasn’t. A process that I had thought would take me maybe fifteen minutes — thirty at most — wound up taking me almost two hours, because I kept thinking, “That’s not right, is it? Can’t I figure out a better way to do this?” and making things even messier along the way. At eleven o’clock I finally told myself, “Enough.” I had, by this point, taken some cheesecloth and wrapped my blob of butter up in it with some ice cubes and then twisted the chesecloth tight — as I would for making yogurt cheese — and suspended it in a fine-mesh colander over a mixing bowl, set in the fridge. An hour later, there was still water that could be squeezed out of the butter with my hands, but — I just couldn’t make myself spend any more time getting water out. My hands had been washed at least seventy-six times in the course of all this; I was tired of the project; and I declared the enterprise Over. So we now have a little plastic tub in the fridge with 4 5/8 oz. of butter. This, from about 2/3 of a pint of cream (I didn’t use the entire pint because I was worried about the liquid overflowing into the center part of the food processor and making me crazy before I’d even started). 

The moral of the story is, Making butter at home isn’t worth it unless you need a food experiment to do with a small child on a cold winter day, and even then, I really think you’d be better off doing something else. 

Now: the rice bread. Two lovely loaves were produced with the rice bread experiment but no one seemed to like them much, at least not compared to the buttermilk bread I’d made. I respect that. The rice breads did make gorgeous toast, but untoasted, they had a slightly-too-soft quality that made them difficult for sandwich-making. My daughter was the one who complained; no one else did. But if the little girl doesn’t want her peanut butter sandwich on the bread I have, that puts a crimp in my day, so if I make rice bread again, I’ll be going about it in a different way. 

I did use some leftover cooked oatmeal to make some wonderful oatmeal bread; I don’t know why I’m unable to get rid of cooked grains, but clearly it just kills me to let things like this go to waste. Everyone likes oatmeal bread, anyhow; you really can’t go wrong. My system seems to have solidified since I started this bread baking thing: every time I bake bread, I make sure to make two or three loaves, which are cooled and then wrapped carefully and put in the freezer. When whichever loaf in the bread box gets down to the last, say, three sandwiches’ worth of slices, I go to the freezer and take out another loaf to thaw, so that I’m not caught empty-handed the next morning when the little girl demands a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. 

Now, having gone through this butter debacle this morning, you may be wondering, “Well, so, what’d you do with all the liquid that came off the cream, when you made that mess you made?” The answer is, of course, I used it in my bread dough. Today’s dough was not a big deal at all. Water, yeast, a little sugar, an egg, the buttermilk, and enough flour to make it feel correct. It’s rising now. I will give it two rises today and a third overnight in the fridge, I think; I will bake it tomorrow morning. 

“But what about challah for Shabbat tomorrow?” you’re wondering. That’s easy: I still have one challah left in the freezer. All will be well. 

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Small Proofs of Lunacy

It was in early March of this year that I ordered a 25 lb. sack of flour from King Arthur Flour. I’ve done this before, in my life; around the time the Mensch and I moved in together, as I recall, we started baking a lot and it just made sense to order vast quantities of flour. But over the years I stopped baking bread, and so did the Mensch, and we fell out of the habit. I get most of my flour from King Arthur, still, but have tended to purchase it in smaller sacks that get delivered by Peapod.

However: I realized over the winter that I was baking a lot more, and that I was baking bread again. And so when I was setting up a Peapod order some weeks ago, it occurred to me: what would be the better deal, having five 5 lb. sacks brought by Peapod, or ordering directly from KAF? As it happened, I had a coupon for a shipping deal from KAF, and so I took advantage of it and had a 25 lb. sack delivered. The Mensch didn’t bat an eye — he actually looked pleased — but the sack sat on the counter for a few days and some houseguests we had marveled at it, and asked me questions like, “Jesus Christ, how long will it take you to go through that?” I said it would probably be a couple of months, and laughed.

Readers, I was wrong. I realized one week ago that I had run through the bulk of that shipment, and had maybe eight cups of flour left. Which is enough to do some baking, but not a lot. Not if you’re baking four challahs a month plus a few loaves of bread plus cookies and birthday cakes and pizza once a week. It’s amazing how fast I run through flour. So on Monday, I looked to see if I had any emails from King Arthur Flour in my inbox: any deals? Any deals? Lo: yes! A deal. And this time, I had fifty pounds of flour delivered to the house. It arrived on Tuesday (which is nothing short of astonishing, if you ask me). I wondered how long it would take me to go through this flour; my daughter’s birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks, which means Birthday Cake and also Cupcakes to Take to School, or something like that. It also means baking snacks to serve at the birthday party itself (I’m thinking some kind of cheesy poofs, or maybe a few pizzas I can slice up and serve to the kids, god knows, I’ll get there when I get there). And there will be the usual pizzas for dinner a couple times a week, and loaves of bread, and so on and so on.

The only thing I see on the calendar that will slow me down is Passover — and I’ll just hide the flour away during Passover, who are we kidding). Otherwise, though, I expect i will be tearing through these sacks with horrifying speed. If anyone has any requests, let me know.

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An Epiphany Regarding Hamantaschen

Today is the anniversary of the night the Mensch proposed to me. Over a plate of snails at Peter Havens, a lovely restaurant in Brattleboro, Vermont, he asked me to marry him, and I asked if this was a joke, and he said no, and I said, “Okay.”

Our courtship was one that had a distinct emphasis on food. Actually, our entire friendship, even before we were a couple, had two threads running through it: food and music. We bonded over our loves of aioli and Lou Reed. Early in our courtship, the Mensch came to visit me one weekend and I’d made hamantaschen, and he broke out into a crazed jig. “What the hell is that?” I asked, and he said, “It’s my Hamantaschen Dance!” For a Gentile, he sure loved hamantaschen.

So I’ve been baking hamantaschen a long time, is my real point here, and in all these years I’ve never found a recipe or technique that made me happy. I am a believer in Solo Poppy Seed-filled hamantaschen, and I don’t mind buying cans of it at all. The fact that it is poppy seed in high fructose corn syrup glop is completely fine with me. I love it. But the cooky part has always stymied me. I have a lot of cookbooks, as you can imagine, and I probably have more than a dozen hamantaschen recipes under my belt, and none of them have been what I wanted. What I wanted was to be able to replicate, at least sort of, the kind of big fat cookies I used to be able to get at the Westville Kosher Bakery. I am sure you know the kind I mean. In real bakeries, hamantaschen are always huge, it seems, with these soft, crumbly cookies, and the filling always has this slight, slight crust on top of it, and then underneath that crust is just a big fat blob of wonderful goop, your choice of poppyseed, prune (yuck), raspberry, or apricot (neither of which I would ever eat, left to my own devices). I know recipes nowadays talk about things like chocolate filled hamantaschen or Nutella-filled hamantaschen, but these things are uncool and I will never make them, so don’t even ask.

While the Mensch has always happily eaten whatever hamantaschen I put on a plate, the fact was, I was never happy with them. But today. Today. TODAY, I did a Google search and landed on the recipe that I believe will be the recipe I use for the rest of my life. I found it by Googling “hamantaschen like bakeries sell” and at http://www.joyofkosher.com , my friends, is the recipe that changed my life.

You might ask, “Darling, is it so hard? Why are you so picky about your hamantaschen?” But it’s like anything: we like what we like, we don’t like what we don’t like. I have found that most recipes call for orange juice to go into the dough; I don’t like oranges, or orange-flavored things, and there’s no way I’d want an orange flavored hamantaschen. (One of the reasons I am so partial to the Solo brand of poppy seed filling is that it does not have any citrus in it; most recipes for poppy seed fillings call for citrus. This leads us into the stupid problem of poppy seed muffins and cakes, which foolish people are always putting lemon or orange in — we’ll tackle that another day.) The recipe at joyofkosher.com is flexible enough to let me avoid citrus, and, more crucially, it explained a step that I think makes all the difference in how the cooky turns out. I will explain.

Most recipes tell you to make your dough and roll it out and cut out your circles and put your filling on and then fold the sides up to make the triangle. At this point, some recipes demand an egg wash, and some don’t. Then you bake.

If you are me, you’ve turned out endless trays of cookies that — while they taste good — are basically round circles of unfolded hamantaschen dough with a spread-out blob of filling on top.

Here’s the thing. Joyofkosher tells me this essential fact: you have to brush the circles of dough with egg wash before you put the filling on. This is not a joke: this is a detail that makes all the difference in the world.

So here is what I did. As per Joyofkosher, I took two sticks of butter and creamed it in a mixer, and I added 1 1/4 cups of granulated sugar, and I blended them together until pretty smooth. They ask you to mix in three eggs; I used two jumbo eggs, and blended until fairly smooth; it was pretty lumpy, to be honest with you — I think the eggs were perhaps colder than they should have been when I added them to the bowl. A quarter cup of milk also went in (2%, for those of you keeping track at home, but I don’t think it would matter much).

I then added vanilla (they suggest orange juice OR vanilla, good souls that they are), about 1 1/2 teaspoons, and then slowly mixed in about 4 cups of flour (NB: EDIT MADE in MARCH 2016: there is no way I added four cups of flour; that’d be a massive quantity of flour. The original recipe, which I’ve relocated at http://www.joyofkosher.com/recipes/elaines-hamantashen-hamantaschen/  , calls for 2 1/2 cups of flour, which is a much more reasonable quantity to match against 2 sticks of butter, 1 1/4 cups of sugar, etc. etc. However, this dough is VERY tender, and you will want as much as a cup of extra flour to help you work with the dough when you go to roll it out, etc. etc.,)  to which I’d added  2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. I mixed this all together. It made a very thick dough, which was pretty messy to handle. I turned it out onto my countertop, which I’d dusted with flour, and then spent a few minutes trying to get the dough stuck to the bowl out (I did this by using flour, tossing in some flour and rubbing the sides of the bowl until the dough just kind of flaked off on its own, and then I just added those flakes into my big ball on the counter). At this point, I turned on the oven to let it heat to 350, and let the dough rest. I set up my little bowl of egg wash (egg mixed smooth, maybe a teaspoon of heavy cream splashed in) and opened my can of poppyseed filling, and was ready to go.

Roll out; cut, set aside on parchment paper. When you have a trayful of cooky circles ready, take a little brush (I have a silicone brush I like for this) and brush egg wash lightly onto each circle. Then put a teaspoon of filling onto the circles, all of them; and then fold all the circles. I found that about 14 cookies fit well onto a tray, but it obviously depends on the size and shape of your cooky sheet. When you’ve got them on the tray, brush them with the egg wash again, and put them into the oven. The recipe says to make for 18 to 25 minutes; I found 18 to be nowhere near long  enough, and 25 minutes was the way to go. At 25 minutes the dough that had egg wash on it had turned a lovely golden color. Whisk them from the oven, move to cooling racks, done.

The mensch had been out of the house while I made these today, but he came home when they were in process, and let me tell you: he was not at all annoyed to walk in the door and smell hamantaschen baking. I ran out of poppyseed filling and so the last tray and a half was, I’m sorry to report, filled with Bonne Maman raspberry jam, but it’s ok: the mensch will eat those happily. And he concurs with me: these are the best hamantaschen I have ever made. It is nice to finally feel, after all these years, that there’s something I’ve learned to do right. Why did it take so long? What book was I not reading that had this recipe, this piece of advice about the double egg wash? Am I stupid? I don’t know; I don’t know. All I know is, I am not looking back. In fact, I am looking over at the kitchen counter, thinking, “I am going to go eat another hamantaschen now.”

(Dedicated to Bekah, who understands what it’s like to be the kind of person who would eat Solo Poppyseed Filling out of the can with a spoon.)

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Bread, bread, bread.

So a few weeks ago I got it into my head to bake challah. It nearly killed me. The dough was beautiful, but braiding those fuckers reduced me to a screaming raging maniac, so angry that I told my darling daughter, “If I ever tell you I’m going to bake challah ever again, I want you to remind me NO.” She nodded at me, dutiful and scared.

Then last week, on a calm Sunday, I decided to try again, because the Mensch had declared those horrifyingly misshapen challahs so delicious, I couldn’t not try again.

Once again, I produced some pretty homely loaves. I suppose they’re all right. They’re good enough. But I have work to do.

However, making these loaves has got me back into the swing of baking bread, something I haven’t done for a very long time. I mean, I make pizza all the time, but not loaves of bread. For a while the Mensch was in the kitchen every weekend making these loaves of No-Knead Bread which I found nearly inedible and extremely unappealing. He’s let go of that, at least for the time being, and we’ve gone back to eating loaves of bread I buy at the store. Now, bread for me means either a loaf of something akin to Pepperidge Farm’s pullman loaf, or a ciabatta from Bread and Chocolate, a very impressive operation out of Hamden, Connecticut. I don’t think I could do a ciabatta, but this week, on realizing that we were almost out of the kind of soft generous sandwich bread that we all like to have on hand (good for toast, good for PB&J, good for weekend tuna salad sandwiches), I thought, “I don’t want to spend money on this. If I can make challah, I can make my own goddamned sandwich bread.”

So yesterday, late in the morning, I came home from running errands and set up a dough, kind of by the seat of my pants. I’m writing this post as much to remind myself what I did,  as for any stray readers of this blog, because it seems to me that mucking around with this stuff is all well and good but it’s best if I can take notes so that if I wish, I can replicate a recipe in the future.

This was a pair of loaves I’m calling Buttermilk Bread.

1 1/2 tsp yeast; about 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, combined with some boiling water to bring it to room temp; a tablespoon of sugar: these items are combined in a big bowl and left to froth up.

I then mixed in (eventually kneading, as dough developed): about 4-5 cups KAF white flour and maybe two tablespoons of soft butter and one jumbo egg.

I coated the dough ever so slightly with butter and left it to rise. When it had doubled, I knocked it down. I let it rise again. I knocked it down. By this point, it was a little after six p.m. and I was cooking dinner (Chinese chicken with broccoli, carrots, and celery with rice). I divided the dough into two loaves, slashed the tops, brushed them with an egg wash, and let them rise again while the oven preheated to 375. I brushed more egg wash on, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and baked them for about 40 minutes. These loaves were, let me tell you, gorgeous. Both the Mensch and my darling girl were very, very impressed. We couldn’t even wait for them to cool completely before we cut into one to taste. My girl declared the bread “awesome” and before we went to bed last night we had consumed half of one of the loaves (which is just ridiculous, considering we’d all just eaten a good dinner).

I have come to believe that there are two key elements to excellent bread. One is using as little yeast as you think you can get away with (i.e. a recipe that calls for more than a tablespoon is a recipe I am going to ignore or at least revise significantly) and the other is LET THE DOUGH RISE THREE TIMES. Maybe it’s just that I really prefer a very fine and tender crumb; but the breads I have been making have all gone for three rises, and they have all been spectacular to eat.

Today I am testing this again with another dough I’m making by the seat of my pants. This is a dough started with about two cups of leftover white rice, which I whizzed in the food processor with boiling water (the rice had been in the freezer) into a kind of porridge. I added one teaspoon of yeast, two teaspoons of sugar, two tablespoons of butter, one jumbo egg, and enough flour to make a just-shy-of-sticky dough. It’s now rising for the first time. I will report back when we’re all done.

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Ibiza, I hardly knew ye.

Yesterday evening I checked Facebook to see a post from an acquaintance named Carlos: Tuesday night was to be the last night that Ibiza was serving dinner. It would be closing operations permanently after that. In other words, today, it’s gone.

I think I ate maybe four meals at Ibiza. Maybe only three meals, even. It opened in New Haven a long time ago — more than ten years ago, and before then the space was another extraordinary restaurant, Pika Tapas — and it was many years before the Mensch and I felt we were sufficiently well-heeled to go have dinner there. That is to say, we could have swung it a long time ago, but weren’t ever sure we’d like it, and were nervous about spending a lot of money on a meal we wouldn’t enjoy. This has happened to us enough times in New Haven that we got quite conservative about eating out: when we went, it was either cheap and low-stress (if tasty), or expensive but very much the same-old-same-old (cf. Union League Cafe, a joint I love, but only feel a need to go to maybe once every year or so).
It was relatively recently, then, that we finally took a flyer on Ibiza, and my god, it was wonderful. It was just wonderful. I admit that I can barely remember what we had, but I remember that every single element of it was a delight; the drinks were perfect; the service was wonderful; and I thought, “I want to eat here once a week for the rest of my life.”

Now it is gone. The Yale Daily News reports that, as I had suspected, it came down to the landlord not being cool with the lease — Business was, by all reports, fine and dandy. I had originally posted here a complaint about Yale being a crappy landlord, because I assumed that Yale owned the property (they own the vast majority of buildings around there). But I am wrong: the landlord is local developer/real estate mogul John Wareck. Frankly, I would expect more from him, and I’m stymied as to why he wanted them out. There must be a story. Well: the story has to be one of these: either Wareck is a fool, or he’s got Big Plans. Either way, it’s a shame. I can’t think of a Big Plan that I would prefer of having Ibiza tucked sweetly into that little wedge of High Street.

I suppose now I will have to go elsewhere for Spanish food (Barcelona will do, but frankly, I liked Ibiza better). Another tack, admittedly, would be for me to learn how to cook, or at least approximate, food like the food they served at Ibiza. This is what happened with Bentara — which is still open for business. I felt like Bentara went downhill a little bit, a few years back, and instead of being just sad about it, I set to figuring out how to sort of make for myself food that I liked eating at Bentara. It’s never really the same, obviously. But I can fake my way through nasi goreng now enough that I don’t really pine for Bentara the way I used to. Ibiza, though: that will be a tall order. I don’t think I could ever replicate the kind of food they made there, in part because so much of what I ate there was seafood, and I almost never have that at home.

Tonight for dinner I will be making one of my wacky attempts at making “Chinese” food — the kind of thing I make because we almost never go out for Chinese food anymore. It will be chicken with broccoli and carrots in a sweet and spicy sauce. To be served with rice. My big tip on how to make that is, Freeze the chicken breast for a while before you slice it to cook it: it is really easy to thinly slice frozen chicken breast, and it’s damn near impossible to make attractive sliced out of chicken straight from the fridge.

Goodbye, Ibiza. We loved you so.

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An Embarrassing Realization: My Kitchen is My Desk

I am at home by myself this morning and taking care of little things that need to be done. Laundry, for example. Another example, and a task I’ve been putting off for a while, is cleaning the very large burner grates on my stove. 
And doing this led me to a kind of life-epiphany, which is that my kitchen has become my desk. And that, as such, I ought not feel bad about spending serious time on maintaining it to standards that make me feel comfortable working in there. 

Please let me explain, at length.

I have a few friends who are, like me, housewives. There is a constant thread of dialogue that runs through our lives regarding housework. There are those women who don’t seem to mind doing it, most of the time anyhow (though it is certainly an endless burden, no matter how you slice it) and there are women who obviously really hate doing it and find it just impossible to keep the house looking “nice.” I put “nice” in quotation marks because this sort of thing is relative, and a matter of opinion, and so on and so on. My “nice” is “a shanda” by the standards of Martha Stewart; but my “shanda” is “wow, the house looks good!” by my mother’s standards. Incidentally, she was someone who felt that housework was Someone Else’s Job and she avoided doing it as much as humanly possible and I grew up with maids coming in once a week to take care of the big jobs like the bathrooms and kitchen. So we can’t say that I learned housewifery from my mother. No, I came to it on my own, through reading, basically, and through the realization (which started, slowly, when I was living on my own in my 20s — it had nothing to do with becoming a mother) that keeping a house clean meant that the house was more comfortable. That is to say, a house that isn’t a total filthy pigsty, with toothpaste on the floor and gray scum in the toilets and so on, is a nicer house to live in. 

Any sensible person who takes baths will understand this: you want to  get into a bathtub that is clean. You don’t want to sit down on an inch of brownish gray soap scum. 

So housework has been on my mind a lot lately, not merely because I’ve been engaging in it but because my lady friends and I have been talking about it. Sometimes I feel bad because it’s clear to my that I’m viewed as a compulsive cleaner, someone who’s nasty neat. I’m really not. Left to my own devices, I leave clutter everywhere I go: piles of papers and newspapers and catalogues and magazines and my keys and my sunglasses and the deck of cards I was playing Solitaire with two nights ago and the pretty roll of ribbon I keep meaning to put in the bag where I keep rolls of pretty ribbon. This shit is all over the place. It makes my husband nuts. And this hasn’t even begun to address the subject of my actual desk, which is upstairs in our bedroom. (Trust me, it is a nightmare.) 

The kitchen, however, is clean. There may be a certain amount of clutter on one stretch of countertop, at any given moment — this is the area where we keep maybe some flowers, if we happen to’ve acquired some flowers; it is where my daughter goes to put tape on an art project and then leaves the tape out; it is where I perch at my computer to write pieces like this, so there’s often a coffee cup nearby. 

But the working part of the kitchen, which is a one-walled space (sink, dishwasher, stove, fridge, with a steel countertop on the short span of wall opposite the stove and fridge), I keep very, very clean, for this reason: I believe it is gross to cook food in a place that isn’t clean. My husband, who worked in professional kitchens when he was young, feels the same way, and gets that it’s important to spray down the steel countertop at night and really get it clean. We put raw meat on it; I knead doughs on it; it is a serious cooking workspace and we built it with serious dirty work in mind. We paid for a steel countertop precisely so that we’d have a work surface we could clean without worry. Pour bleach on it? Fine. Rubbing alcohol? Fine. Not a problem. The countertop, who we call Clark (he’s the Man of Steel), is perfect for us. 

So. The stovetop. 

Our stove has, for reasons I don’t understand (we didn’t select this thing, it came with the house), not four burner grates, but two very large grates that cover all four burners. In between the two back burners is another grate, much smaller, that covers some kind of exhaust vent for the oven. I have no idea how it really works. What I know is, all of these grates get absolutely disgusting, and they are heavy and a real bitch to clean. I’ve lived in this house for not quite three years. The stove was brand new when we moved in. The grates all look like hell, because I cannot figure out how to clean them. And it’s gross. I mean, I can get the white enamel top of the stove looking reasonably good, but the grates are kind of hopeless. I decided today to try a new cleaning method, which has involved my filling our bathtub upstairs with hot water and ammonia and soaking all of these grates. It seems to be helping a little bit; we’re on round  two now, I’ll let you know how it comes out. But: while the grates were soaking, I figured I might as well clean the stove top, since it was free. 

It turned out that there was an amazing amount of caked on, baked on, brown schmutz (probably grease?) under the little oven-vent grate. It was sort of horrifying to realize how dirty it was under there. The burners themselves weren’t so bad. I took a deep breath and dumped some baking soda onto the stove top and started scrubbing with my dishrag. “My friends would laugh at me,” I said to myself aloud. Seriously: I was talking, aloud, to myself. Then I imagined what one of my neighbors would say. This is a woman who is very, very career driven. She reminds me a little of my mother, actually. She is someone who works very very hard and also has a small child, a little older than my daughter, and the little girl is clearly expected to Do Well and be the apple of her parents’ eyes (what child isn’t?) but also Let Mama Do Her Work. I don’t think this mama does housework. No — as I think on it, I know she doesn’t; she has told me about her maid. And I have always gotten the feeling that she didn’t think much of me because I am someone who DOES do housework and, what’s more, doesn’t gripe so much about it. 
So I was thinking about this mama and imagining, What would she think if she saw me scrubbing, really scrubbing, this stovetop? She’d look at me with pity and disdain. And then I got angry. And I said, again, aloud, to myself, “Look. I don’t judge you for how you maintain your desk. This is MY desk. And if I want it to be clean, I want it to be clean. And in this case, my family benefits from having THIS desk be clean.” 

We do. We don’t get sick because of food-borne bacteria in this house (or haven’t yet, anyhow, touch wood). We eat good meals every night, in part because we’re lucky (we can afford good food) and in part because I work to make it so (someone has to cook the good food). We aren’t paying through the nose for takeout three nights a week and then eating the greasy leftovers for the next evening’s meal (though I admit, I’m a fan of greasy leftovers). And even if I had a proper job that paid a salary and involved my putting on stockings and heels to go to work every day, this stuff would STILL have to get done, because in the end, no matter what, a household has to be maintained. The laundry must be done. The kitchens and bathrooms must be maintained at certain levels of hygiene, or else you’re just inviting bad things to happen. Someone has to make sure the floors aren’t slippery or sticky.

Some people have an office they go to, and they keep it just so, because That Is How They Like It. 
My house is my office — especially the kitchen — and I keep it the way I like it. And if you don’t like it, I am sorry, but that’s on you, not me. You are welcome to be a guest here, and I will be happy to feed you, but do not, do not, berate me for working on maintaining my workspace the way I maintain it. Do not bite the hand that is feeding you. 

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Home.

The little girl and I came home a few days ago and since then I’ve been trying to build meals for us out of whatever happens to be in the house. There has not been any fresh food here to speak of for over a week. We do have milk. We had two zucchinis; we had eggs. Fortunately for me, the child is not a picky eater, and she didn’t mind when, day after day, too lazy to do a proper grocery run, I said, “well, let’s see, what can we make for dinner. We have….”
“Anything’s fine,” she would always say. Two nights in a row, she ate an evening meal that was made up of canned chickpeas, a chopped cucumber, and some minced black olives. I would not put up with this myself, but she was perfectly content.

Last night, the Mensch arrived home, and to celebrate our first night back together, in our own house, with our own well-lit and well-equipped kitchen, I made pizzas. Two pizzas. Red sauce, caramelized onions, julienned zucchini, garlic, and black olives. The little one declared it “a good pie,” and I was pleased.

This morning, walking her to school, I mentioned that I had no idea what to make for dinner. “Chinese food?” she suggested. I said, “What if I made chicken in a Chinese sauce, and then we had rice and veggies with it?” She thought this was a lovely idea. I am pleased because, while this does mean I have to buy some chicken, that’s not a huge problem. It’s easy to run down the street to Pino’s and buy some chicken, and it won’t break the bank. I can make this in my sleep. And I still have one zucchini waiting in the fridge. Even though I haven’t actually cooked dinner, I really love it when I feel I’ve got it nailed by 8.30 in the morning: the rest of the day will be, metaphorically speaking, cake. It definitely helps knowing that when I reach for a pot, the handle of it is not going to shimmy. We’re in good shape here.

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Someone Else’s Kitchen, Someone Else’s Condiments

We are, the three of us, on Cape Cod for a little while. We are house-and-dog-sitting for a few days. Those of you who know me in real life know this: Cape Cod is not ever my idea of a good time. However, it is the Mensch’s home, here: this is where he grew up. And this house is where he grew up. So he finds it relaxing, here. He likes it. While I gnash my terrible teeth and roll my terrible eyes and want to show my terrible claws, he just kicks back and enjoys it. Except the kitchen. 

The man of the house here is a widower whose interest lies, shall we say, not in the kitchen. The state of the batterie de cuisine is often scary. I’m not being flip here. I mean, there are very sharp knives where the blades will separate from the handle if you just look at them funny. There are saute pans and sauce pans where the handles are barely attached to the side of the pot, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to tighten them up. It’s been like this as long as I can remember, here, and I’ve been coming here a long time, now. 

I want to say, right now, that I am not a fetishist when it comes to kitchen knives, but I will say this: when I buy a knife, it is a full tang knife because I believe this is a safer design. Why anyone would buy this kind of piece of shit half tang knife is beyond me. 

So here we are, in a kitchen where the pots are unreliable; the knives are unreliable; and, I’ve learned over the years, any food items in the fridge and cupboards may well be unreliable. I could tell you stories. 

Last night I offered to make dinner for the three of us. The Mensch and I browsed idly through a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (a gift from us to the man of the house, from a few years back when he expressed interest in learning how to make simple things like meatloaf) and I hit on a recipe that I thought I could pull off easily even in this kitchen. “Chicken in ketchup sauce,” I said. “There’s always a ton of stupid half used bottles of condiments in the fridge here. Let’s do this. You go to the store and buy some chicken and maybe some Brussels sprouts and I’ll whip this up.” “Are you sure?” he asked. “Sure I’m sure,” I said. 

The Mensch had already brought into the house a forbidden allium — a head of garlic — and about six cloves of it remained. Two of them, I peeled and sliced and sauteed in the wobbly saute pan in some cheap extra virgin olive oil (because, under the sway of Rachel Ray, that is the only kind of olive oil the man of the house buys; he doesn’t understand that it’s not worth cooking with). I cut up two pounds of Brussels sprouts, halving them, and added them to the pan. I burned the edges nicely, and then added maybe a cup of water from the teakettle once the sprouts were nicely browned. They finished cooking in the steam, and when they were done, I moved them into a serving bowl and set them aside, covered with a piece of foil. I then took the rest of my garlic cloves and added them to the pan with some more olive oil. While the garlic sizzled, I opened the fridge and gazed into its terrifying depths. 

Indeed: the entire top shelf of the fridge was covered in bottles of condiments. Some were half used. Some were barely used. Some were nearly empty. Many had decorative layers of mold visible through the glass. I weighed my options and selected the following: 

a bottle of “lite” La Choy soy sauce; a bottle of French’s honey mustard, nearly empty; and a bottle tomato ketchup. 

When the garlic was nearly golden, I placed four boneless chicken breasts over the garlic and seared them on both sides thoroughly. When they were browned just a little on all sides, I took them out and put them aside in a bowl. Then I put about half a cup of water into the mustard bottle and shook it thoroughly so that I’d really be able to use up whatever was left in there. I dumped the mustard water into the pan. I squirted maybe half a cup of ketchup into the pan; and then I shook maybe 1/4 cup of the “soy sauce” in: these were all mixed together thoroughly. This was my “pan sauce.” I placed the chicken breasts back in the pan, added another half cup of water, lowered the heat, covered the pan, and let the mess simmer for about ten minutes. In the meantime, the Mensch was working on mashed potatoes. While he mashed potatoes, I sliced scallions two ways (one way: nice inch-and-a-half long stalks, to cook in the sauce in a few moments; the rest, minced, to sprinkle on our finished plates, to look pretty). 

In the end, we had a meal that was, no kidding, thrown together without buying anything particularly special, and that took advantage of the junk that was available to us to make it taste good. The Mensch was impressed with how good the meal was. It wasn’t quite as good as a similar dish I often make at home, that uses ketchup in a sauce for chicken — that involves ketchup and some coconut milk sometimes, sometimes some peanut butter, and some Rooster Sauce (Sriracha) — but we didn’t want to muck around with looking for coconut milk here. And I don’t know where you can get Rooster Sauce around here. Grocery shopping on Cape Cod is a funny thing: some things you can get perfectly easily, and other things, it’s like they just don’t exist, period. I assume that somewhere around here, maybe in Hyannis, there are Asian markets that are just filled with shelves of hot sauces and curries and when you walk in the door everything smells wonderful. But my experience of Cape Cod is grocery stores that smell of disinfectant and, frankly, restaurants that often smell of disinfectant, as well. I’ve eaten more bad food on Cape Cod than I have anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s like they think, “Well, you know, folks are on the Cape, it’s beautiful here, they don’t need the food to TASTE GOOD.” 

I wished I hadn’t had to use olive oil to do the frying — coconut oil would have made this a fabulous meal, for instance, as would some onions. But we didn’t have those things. And we’re leaving in two days. It’s just not worth it to agonize over kitchen supplies too much. When we are home, the little girl and I — we go home in two days, the Mensch will follow a couple days after that — I will break out the coconut oil and the onions and I will do it up right. I will make the pan-asian-whatever-the-hell-it-is savory/sweet/sour chicken dish of our dreams, and we will accessorize each plate with chopped cashews and scallions and hard boiled eggs. We will serve it over rice. It will be heaven in a bowl. 

In the meantime, though, we will get by. I plan to make chicken salad sandwiches with the leftover chicken in ketchup sauce and I have a feeling that, if I can find some nice Portuguese rolls at the Stop and Shop in town, this will be really, really good…

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