Saturday, December 25, 2010

It's a good thing she can cook

Dear Elise,
I know you are a fan of Nigella Lawson. As far as I'm concerned, she is the Devil's Spawn. But she can cook, so I still occasionally consort with her.
I was trying to decide what to make for Christmas Eve dinner dessert. The traditional Buche de Noel seemed too show off-y and the Nantucket cranberry pie seemed not show off-y enough. I have had some of Nigella's cakes with you, a really amazing chocolate orange one stands out. And I have been circling around the plum pudding/fruit cake class of desserts for a few years now.
When I was little, hard sauce was my favorite food.
Nigella has a recipe for chocolate fruit cake. It is all prunes, raisins and currants with a little bit of candied orange peel. No glaceed cherries or brandied dates. No brandy whatsoever. Sounded like a possibility.
At first I thought I'd make a practice one, just to be sure. Well, Nigella, helpful as always, says of the recipe, "The hardest thing you have to do for this recipe is wrap the pan with brown paper." She goes on to admit that, "it is the sort of task that makes a klutz like me hyperventilate." But then reassures you that, "I find that there is nearly always someone around who can deal with that part with magnificent ease." Nigella cooks in a TV studio so I'm sure for her there is always someone around. The only thing around me are dogs and they don't have opposable thumbs and other than moral support, are no help whatsoever.
Forty-five minutes, a roll of parchment and 3 paper bags later, I had wrapped the shit out of the fucker, but there was no way this was going to be a practice cake.

Then I need some candied peel. Well, it being Dec. 23rd, there is about as much chance of buying candied peel as there is of finding some cranberries. So I have to make my own.
This is the point in the process when I start wondering what's wrong with a nice pound cake.
But I make the candied peel and I mix up the cake, which compared to what's come before, really is pretty easy. I'm not sure why the pan needed to be wrapped in eighteen layers of different sorts of heat proof paper. The batter doesn't even reach the top of the pan.
I pop it in the oven and it bakes and bakes and bakes. The Devil's Spawn, Nigella, says that the cake should be firm on top, with the center still gooey. Well, how gooey? It's not uncommon for my cakes to fall apart completely and this when I believe they are really cooked through. So "a little bit gooey" is quicksand territory for me. Eventually I have to go to bed and the center of the cake is still gooey so I take it out of the oven and leave it to cool overnight.
It actually unmolds and it doesn't fall apart. Still not sure why I needed all that wrapping, cake didn't rise above the sides of the pan.
Now I want to spiff it up a little, some top dress. The Devil's Spawn suggests marmalade, marzipan and fondant. Of course she does. She also shows it plain with just a sprig of highly poisonous holly on top. I opt for some of the home made candied peel, affixed in place with the remains of some caramel sauce I made a month ago.

It was delicious.
Love, Margaret

Christmas cookies


I baked

and baked

and baked.

Yet somehow, on Dec. 23rd there wasn't a cookie in the house.

Thank God for Maison du and the best mother in the world.

love, Margaret

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I knit Christmas presents

Dear Margaret,

I am reminded again that you are the one who bakes Christmas cookies. Every few years I succumb to the fantasy of delivering plates of cookies, heaped high with fudge, delicate gingerbread snowflakes, rich buttery rugelach, dense nutty caramel bars, wrapped in tastefully decorated cellophane and topped with a bow and a card with a picture of a dog in a Santa hat on it.

This year I admit that I was more than a little swayed by your enthusiasm and stream of photos and texts about the process. The final blow to my resistance was dealt by the wonderful staff at the vet's office, all of whom know Stella by name and give her hugs and treats. Yes, I thought, these are people worth baking for!

So I threw myself into the weekend bake-a-thon.

Wednesday and Thursday - obsess about what to make, comb through cookbooks, wonder if the molasses cookies I used to make are still a good recipe and did I really like a cookie made with Crisco? Consult with you. Make lists of contenders and strike cookies off it. Make master shopping list.

Friday - shop

Friday evening - make molasses cookie dough

Saturday - make chocolate chunker cookie dough. Congratulate myself on how well it is going, and the care I am taking with measuring and following directions, knowing that the cookies are destined to bring happiness to others. Think smug thoughts about my own worth and how the people at the vet's office will really love me now.

Sunday morning - Make Linzer dough. Decide that it really doesn't take all day to bake up 3 enormous batches of cookies including one that has to be rolled out and cut and a batch of turtle bars. Really going skiing is the best thing I could do. Better to start the bake-a-thon with a good dose of fresh air. Congratulate self on being so organized and skilled that I can go skiing in the midst of a bake-a-thon.

Sunday afternoon - Begin baking molasses cookies. Feel tired after skiing. Have a cookie. Still tired. Have another cookie. Realize that chocolate chunker dough is very hard and not coming to room temperature. Get chisel out of basement and chisel chocolate dough into cookie forms and bake. Still tired. Have another cookie, or two.

Sunday evening - roll out linzer dough, cut out shapes, mutilate shapes, rechill dough, repeat.Eat some dough. Not bad, considering that it has 1 cup of cornstarch in it. I think this is why you test drive the recipes.

Sunday night - make a batch of Turtle Bars. Wonder why honestly I didn't just give the vet's office a batch of Turtle Bars in the first place and call it done?

Late Sunday night/early Monday morning - sift powdered sugar over linzer cookies and floor. Cut the Turtles into bars. Eat crumbs. Arrange all on plates, top with aforementioned cellophane. Have a cookie.

Monday morning - start to wonder if anyone even likes cookies. I mean, don't we all get too many sweets over the holidays, and just end up putting most of them in the compost? And isn't half the Seattle population gluten free nowadays? Maybe some one at the vet's will poke Stella extra hard with a big needle because they feel slighted that I didn't include any gluten free ones.

 Monday afternoon - deliver cookies to the vet's office with a urine sample (pee and cookies, anyone?) and go have a mammogram for respite. Then come home and do dishes.

Hope your bake-a-thon solidified your role as The One Who Bakes Christmas Cookies, love, Elise

P. S. Look what I got from my neighbor - cookies!

Friday, December 17, 2010

How to Feel Like you Have Two Heads

Ask a Whole Foods "team member" where the crisco is.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Hi Elise,
It's cookie season. Really all of November and December are one long bake-a-thon, but as Christmas gets closer, the baking field narrows down to cookies. I like to give cookies as presents. I don't have to shop for them, and they don't create that reciprocity pressure. My friends understand that I have a baking disorder and that their gift to me is to just pretend not to notice and accept whatever I force on them. Some might call it enabling, I think of it as the holiday spirit.
Last year I just made Rugelach. I was coming off a few years of disappointing Christmas Cookie Melanges and I decided to do one thing and try to do it reasonably well. You may remember, they taste good, but they are unsightly.
But this year I have been reading cook books and cooking magazines, and even though the magazines don't devote anywhere near the energy and print space to Christmas that they lavish on that damn Turkey, there are still some recipes that catch my eye and seem worth a go. I've spent the last week experimenting with some of these.
One of my new favorite cookbooks is The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman. This is a book I actually got for you, but then it wouldn't fit in the box with your other presents so I had to keep it for myself. Don't worry though, there is always St. Patrick's day. KZ has a recipe for Double Chocolate and Dried Cherry cookies. She says that it is originally from Rick Katz and appears in the Baking with Julia cookbook. Baking with Julia is edited by Dorie Greenspan. And Dorie Greenspan invented the beloved Chocolate Chunkers. I tried the KZ recipe. And it was good, but difficult to work with. The dough is extremely sticky and the baked cookies are also impossibly sticky. They stick to the parchment paper, they are gummed onto the pan even when sprayed with Pam. They cling to the spatula. And they aren't as good as Chunkers. I compared the recipes and DG's has a slightly higher dry to wet ration, but other than that, pretty similar. But, Mine is not to reason Why, Mine is just to go with what is Easiest.

I have always been attracted to a sandwich cookie. I used to spread canned frosting on Milano's so the combination of frosting and cookie is a compelling one. I tried some chocolate mocha sandwich cookies. Good, but too sweet, (I know, cookies with frosting and I'm complaining about too sweet?) and the filling was too soft.
I then made some sleigh bells. This is an old favorite, a real go-to. Originally a Gourmet recipe, back before Ruth Reichle ruined that magazine. It is a walnut short bread baked into little half moons with a chocolate ganache sandwiched between the 2 half moons and the whole thing is then rolled in more ground walnuts that adhere to the ganache where is has oozed out the sides. It looks pretty, small yet bountiful. A really stellar addition to a Christmas cookie melange. They are a tad time consuming, many steps, but not hard and I was reminded just how good they are, so they will be part of my weekend baking extravaganza.

Back to Kate Zuckerman. She has a recipe for Rugelach that I wanted to try. You asked why I would want to try a different recipe when I already have one that is great. I wanted to try this one partially because Kate raves about it, though really I've never read an introduction to a recipe that said, "Just OK, but you can probably something better." This one also seemed easier; the dough is rolled around the filling, chilled and then the log is sliced. What could be simpler? None of that fussiness with the pizza cutter and the individual little rolls. You pointed out that it wouldn't really be Rugelach, and while I admit you have a point, you do see this sort of shape more and more. You said, yes, well, mass produced in China perhaps.
As usual, you were right. Rugelach can't be bad, but Kate uses an egg wash instead of jam and currants instead of raisins and that adds up to less delicious. Also, really not that easy because the original roll up of the dough around the filling is challenging. So I'll stick with Lora Brody.

Then (still experimenting) I made some Hazelnut Cardamom Raspberry jam sandwich cookies. Also from Kate Zuckerman. (You really wish you had this cookbook) and also time consuming. But they turned out really well. They look pretty, they look festive, they look impressive. They made the cut.
I have one more sandwich cookie to try and then I'll make final determinations, but for now the melange will be Rugelach, Sleigh Bells, Chocolate Chunkers and the Raspberry Jam sandwiches.
This weekend I'll put on the Three Tenor's Christmas, I'll sing along with Pavarotti to O Holy Night, and I'll mix and roll and chill and bake and repeat. My weekend is perfectly laid out. I just wish you were here to do it all with me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Isn't it time for baking?

Hi marg,

just a quick note to tell you that work is an extremely unsatisfying substitute for baking. The holiday (I was tempted to write Christmas but resisted out of consideration for all my friends who resist religious holidays) season is upon us, harassed looking UPS drivers deliver cardboard boxes and carols bombard from every street corner and store ceiling speaker. Tangent - ever notice how every musician from Peter Cetera to Run DMC has a Christmas album? ASCAP and BMI income for evah.

Anyway, I'm in the mood for baking and instead have to go to a lunch meeting at a Mexican Restaruant. Searching for irony or humor in it, but not finding it.

Love Elise

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

my shopping list

This is what was on my shopping list yesterday.

heavy cream
confectioners sugar
bath oil

That suggests something wonderful or deeply disturbing about my life.
Or I could just chalk it up to the holidays.

Love, M

Saturday, December 4, 2010

From Ham to Eternity

Hey Elise,
You know the definition of eternity? A man, a woman and a ham.
I brought the leftover ham home after Thanksgiving and two days later commenced the ham campaign. The first strike was mac and cheese with ham. Instead if a white sauce, mix equal parts milk and cream and simmer until reduced by about 1/3 to 1/2. Add cheese, I used meduim cheddar, and fold in the ham and cooked pasta. Now this is where it gets good. You make a topping from 2 parts fresh whole wheat bread crumbs and one part walnuts chopped small but not fine. Mix this with some melted butter and a few TB of parm. Sprinkle it over, cover and cook at 350. For the last 15 minutes, take the cover off so the topping can brown. This was amazing.
The next strike was a squash pasta bake. This is a recipe that calls for pancetta and I substituted a few cups of chopped ham. It was OK, but not extraordinary. Pancetta is betta. Which goes to show that you can't substitute ham for bacon, at least not with impunity.
I made a grilled cheese with ham and I made some scrambled eggs with ham and I finally got to the point where all the good parts of the meat were gone. Phew!
For the final assault, I started reading bean soup recipes, but I was really not feeling it. I almost threw up my hands and went with the pea soup, just because I like saying pea soup. It has all those great connotations and is so often used to describe weather. Even if I didn't like it, I would still have fun announcing that I'd made it.
But then I had the happy memory of a wild rice soup that calls for a stock made with a ham bone. I HAVE A HAM BONE! So I made that. Simmer ham bone and a chicken carcass, which I also had, and some onion, carrot and parsnip, (called for celery, but I didn't have celery). Once you have this stock which is rich and glossy, you sweat some more onion, carrot and celery (by now I had some celery) and add your wild rice and then the broth and simmer it for 2+ hours.
The bf has the Shingles and he was feeling poorly so I took it over to him and we ate it all. One chicken carcass, one ham bone, two dinners. Now that is where the home made stock really lifts your dinner right up to the stars.
It took a week and a day and didn't feel at all eternal. I'm thinking we might have another ham for Christmas.
love, Margaret

product product product

OK, Elise,
I'll try to address your concerns about the vegetable cobbler. I have some empathy bc the second time I made it, it wasn't as blissful as the first, although we both still really liked it and I ate it 3 days in a row. The first time I made it I used a chicken stock that I had really cooked down so by the time it had simmered a bit in the vegetables it was almost syrupy. The second time I made it, I used a thinner stock and it wasn't as good so I'd add the note to use a double strength, syrupy stock.
The other crucial ingredients are obviously the vegetables and quality vegetables will make a much more quality cobbler. Mine was spicy and complex from the parsnips and the celery root. I'm not sure how you ended up with an anorexic sweetness.
So, I'd say, condense your broth, make sure you have a good balance of quality vegetables and see what happens.
Although I imagine you will never be making it again.
Not to be harsh, but if you use canned broth, then your dinner will be gross and you'll have only yourself to blame.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Land O'Bland

Dear Marg,

I think there must be some mistake. You sent me this recipe and you wrote on it, "awesome!". See?
In the note you sent with it you wrote that it made you happy for TWO days - the day you made it and the leftovers the next day. Even though the recipe seemed a little lacking in flavor, I thought, well, Margaret knows what she's doing, Margaret's a great cook, Margaret and I have genetically linked taste buds.

Boy, was I wrong. If you could make oatmeal out of root vegetables, but without the nutty texture of oatmeal, and with sort of an anorexic sweetness, that's what this would taste like. Boring and bland, and not even healthy.

In the spirit of all those reviewers on Epicurious who say the recipe sucked and then list the 14 things they changed, I did substitute dried marjoram for fresh. But should that take it from awesome to beyond bland? 

The one redeeming part was the cheddar biscuit crust, but since I took your suggestion to double the vegetables, the ratio of crust to vegetable was strongly skewed in the wrong direction.

To cap it off we had eons of leftovers to get through before I finally composted the last 2/3rds.
So what gives? Did you really like this dish? Had you badly burned your mouth on hot chocolate the day you made this? Were you taking some fancy pain meds? Tipping back the Armagnac bottle?

Love, Elise

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It came and went

Thanksgiving morning dawned bright and clear. No wait, Thanksgiving morning dawned overcast and rambunctious. Actually, I have no idea how Thanksgiving morning dawned because I was finishing up the previous night's dishes, feeding the dogs, and tweaking the day's action plan, all the while slurping once, slurping twice, 24 oz of Peets should suffice.
By noon I had finalized the tables, arranged the chairs, delivered as much food as I could--gravy, pies, small container of sugar, pint of heavy cream, just in case, one more bottle of white and that cab I've been trying to move. I had prepped and glazed the ham and left it with detailed instructions about when to bring to room temp, when to preheat the oven and when to actually start cooking it.
I was off to take the dogs for their second walk. I could have saved the time and effort because the dogs can't count, but they can tell time. It doesn't matter to them how many walks they get, at 3, it is time to go for a walk and like a pack of head injury victims with no short term memory, they race around the house baying and shredding their toys, insisting that they haven't been walked. Of course, the walks are only ostensibly for them. I was the one who needed a 45 minute march around the fields to settle my mind and justify the amount of pie I planned to eat. I fed the dogs, washed my hair, only changed my clothes six times and by 3:45, I was over at the bf's with the whipped cream, onion casserole and broccoli all chopped and ready to steam.
The dogs were left behind and they hate Thanksgiving. All the food goes to someone else's house and they are left alone for six hours with the door to the back yard propped open letting all the cold air in.
The bf's family was all there. His sister and sister-in-law and I all worked seamlessly in his kitchen, chopping vegetables for the salad, measuring and heating milk for the mashed potatoes, rotating the different casseroles through the oven. We talked about books and recorded books and cooking early in the morning when the house is quiet and we can take as much time as we want to chop and measure and mix. They talked about their children and I tried to curb my impulse to chime in about my dogs. People who have children generally don't appreciate the comparison.
In case I have given the impression that the bf does nothing, that he is helpless or worse, unhelpful, let me correct that. He and his brothers like to have their "passive help" recognized. He stays out of the way, he agrees with me when I ask his advice, and other than that, he doesn't offer unsolicited suggestions or unwanted opinions. He says, "Gosh, that sounds challenging!" and "Wow, that looks great!" Every now and then, apropos of nothing, he exclaims, "You are amazing!!"
He also fried the turkey. There are so many things to love about a fried turkey. It doesn't require brining or stuffing, it is moist and delicious, and it is fridge to table in an hour. The only thing that is unlovable about it, is the open flame and 6 gallons of scalding, roiling oil. You could fry a turkey or you could defend your castle against bands of marauding Parthians. And it is not uncommon for the cold turkey upon contact with the hot oil to burst into flames. If any of that hot oil drips down into the propane, that starts a fire that is considered "beyond a homeowner's capabilities." You are cautioned against using marinades "which can cause explosions." The turkey fryer comes with 45 pages of warnings and statements of general alarm.
The bf and his brothers took the pot into the middle of the lawn where they watched it, monitored the temperature, regulated the flame and avoided burning anything down. They stood over it for an hour, in the cold wind and enveloping dark, sipping once, sipping twice, 24 oz of Guinness and your Turkey is perfectly done.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Dear Marg,
Can you explain how come I found this in my fridge in the middle of November?

Me neither.
Love, Elise

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Despite my better judgment and against all common sense gleaned from past experiences, I decided to participate in presenting a Thanksgiving. As I've noted, it's more than a meal, it's campaign.
I haven't taken responsibility for a holiday since my divorce 6 years ago. I've gone to someone's house, I've baked a pie. I occasionally listen to too many renditions of O Holy Night and race outside to string some lights, but I haven't actually taken one on and called it my own. But this year the bf is hosting his family, and I started to feel responsible. His kitchen is dirty, his house is a mess, his plates don't match, I don't think he owns a table cloth. Oh my God! He needs me!
A week ago I woke up at 4AM thinking about center pieces and it was too late to turn back.
But it was going to be OK. He is casual, his family is casual. I asked his sister if there were any family traditions I should be prepared for and she said, "Our only tradition is lousy food." I can do that. So I'd wipe a counter, donate a few napkins, light a scented candle and call it a holiday.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow and this is what I've done so far.
Visited the flower shop to choose vases, choose flowers, discuss arrangements and alternatives, "If you have the winter hydrangeas, then some of those with these small roses, but if you will only have these anemones, then the orangey roses, but not those salmon ones and then in this square vase."
Poured over cookbooks, designed different menus, wondered if serving mashed potatoes and dinner rolls would be carb overload, and if carb overloaded wasn't really the point of Thanksgiving.
Studied the hated November issues of several cooking magazines and pondered roasted vs. pureed parsnips.

Baked a practice pear tart and practice pumpkin bread pudding. (neither made the cut)

Pulled out all the matching table cloths and napkins I could find and set and reset the table with different combinations, trying to find one that was pretty and also hid the permanent stain on the only table cloth that was really large enough.
Carried the table cloths, napkins, votive holders, scented candles and eight chairs to the bf's house.
Braved Whole Foods where I bought a turkey AND a ham and some pomegranates for table decorations.
Scrubbed the stove, refrigerator and counters, vacuumed and dusted.
Cut some bittersweet to supplement the pomegranates, nuts, votive holders and flower arrangements because one of the tables had a few square centimeters not covered with decorations, and that table was looking rag tag and off-brand.
Baked two pecan pies.
Tried to find some of my old silver flatware to supplement the bf's.
Polished the silver.
And I fear I've left too much for tomorrow.
Love, Margaret

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Curried Carrot Ginger Soup

Hi there,

just a quick note to tell you about the soup I unvented last week. Well, I actually unvented it a few weeks ago, and re-un-vented it again last week. Curried carrot soup, idiot's delight.

There is a japanese farmer at the market who sells fresh ginger every fall. This is really fresh, with soft white skin, moist and succulent with barely any difference between the skin and the interior. It's beautiful. I bought a chunk of it and a mess of fresh carrots.

Cut up the carrots, slice the ginger, chop some onions. Saute the onions and ginger with curry powder in some olive oil. When the onions are soft add the carrots and a bunch of chicken broth. I use canned. You would make your own from a local, free range, heritage bird. you could use vegetable broth if the vegetarians were coming. Simmer the whole thing until the carrots are soft, about 30 minutes or so depending on how small you chopped the carrots. Plunge the immersion blender in and whir the shit out of the fucker, as Bill Buford would say. add a dollop of heavy cream and some honey if the carrots weren't sweet enough and you are set.

I like to eat it with a french roll from La Brea, the kind that you buy frozen and "cook". If you ate bread you would no doubt make your own with yeast sauvage and hand ground grains.

Love ya, Elise

One good thing about Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the harbinger of eggnog season!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The case against Thanksgiving

Dear Elise,
You may have noticed that in the last several years it has become fashionable to declare your preference for Thanksgiving over Christmas. I hear it all the time and it seems to be based on the 3 F's of Thanksgiving, Food, Family and Football. There is this belief that Thanksgiving is so much wholesomer, all about real and transcendent values. The entire extended family around a table festooned with doilies, the local orphans invited in to partake of the food, family and football, a pick up game in the fallen leaves, everyone dressed straight out of the LL Bean catalogue, (J Crew is for Christmas, smug, vain, supercilious). Generosity, health, gratitude (it's right there in the name). While Christmas is vilified for the 5 W's of the holiday, Wistfulness, Wanting, Whining and "Winter Wonderland."
I'm not making a case for Christmas, I just think Thanksgiving has gotten off too easily.
Thanksgiving is great for the person who doesn't cook. For the poor schmo in the kitchen, it is Hell. A meal that takes 4 days to prepare and is then consumed in less than 40 minutes, leaving a pile of dishes that would rival the garbage barge for size and longevity. And don't get me started on laundering those doilies. A meal that insists on at least one and often 2 main dishes, .5 side dishes for every guest unless your number of guests is fewer than the date of Thanksgiving, in which case you need one side dish for every guest, even the guests who are under a year old, or taking all nourishment from a feeding tube. Every side dish requires a long list of ingredients and at least 3 steps. No baked sweet potato, steamed broccoli. No, it's sweet potatoes with orange zest, roasted apples and caramelized cider glaze. It's flash seared broccoli with blackened sage and smoked chili cream. This trend is continued in the desserts, pumpkin bread pudding with pumpkin seed brittle and roasted pepitas, pumpkin cheese cake with marscapone, bourbon and a gingersnap crust, pumpkin chiffon pie with chipotle in adobo and a mole whipped cream. A person who is lukewarm on Pumpkin can end up feeling a little neglected on this day.
But the Turkey is the main culprit of the meal. This is a bird that requires weeks of preparation. Why are we eating something that needs to be brined and or salted and or hung for flavor development. Something that needs glazing and shellacking, stuffing and spicing and rubbing, tenderizing, moistening and enhancing? We are required to do all that because of the 3 S's of Turkey, sere, stringy and strongly-flavored. Basically, Turkey is gross and the poor cook has to spend whole days trying to overcome that initial complication.
But the main reason I am coming out against Thanksgiving, is what it does to the cooking magazines. For the entire month all I can read about is This One Meal. It's as if preparing for Thanksgiving takes so much time and attention that for the rest of the month we just eat frozen pasta or cereal. And really, there are only so many things you can do with a potato. But we are exhorted to add basil, horse radish, gin or ranch dressing, and that's all from one article. Or eschew the potato in favor of turnips, parsnips, celeriac. If it's white and it can be pureed, it gets a page in the November issue.
The Turkey recipes run the gamut from "Fast," Turkey Breast Roulade, with cider, with dried autumn fruits, with bacon, with chipotle in Adobo, to "Traditional," the aforementioned brined, salted, glazed, even deconstructed, to the ridiculous, Turducken. Paul Prudhomme claims he can bone a turkey in 15 minutes. It takes me three times as long just to read the recipe.
I'm tired of pie crusts--rolled, press-in-the-pan, store bought, crumble, with vodka, with ice water, food processor method, pastry cutter method, chilled, blind baked, pre-baked, partially baked. I'm sick to death of pull out menus complete with a 6 day count down, especially since they never begin with, "Day 1, start drinking." I read it all last year and the year before that. I want some bold editor to say, "For Thanksgiving Menu ideas with recipes, check out last year's issue. Now here's an article on baked pasta and another one on dulce de leche cakes."
I could go on, but Thanksgiving is in less than 2 weeks and I have to go wrap my turkey in pumpkin leaves and bury it in hand crushed acorn shells.
love, Margaret

Monday, October 25, 2010

Polenta Fig Almond Upside Down Cake - what more is there to say?

 Bastardized version of a Martha recipe from one hundred years ago. We call it The Damn Polenta Cake, bc I badgered Andrea for it for so long that she finally sent it to me with the words, The damn polenta cake is yours!

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Rule

Dear Elise,
This is the rule:
No apple sauce in apple cake!
If you need to use applesauce in an apple cake, know that it will, at best, be "apple bread." And, as such, it should never be frosted.
I made a Fuji Apple Spice Cake. Rave reviews on Epicurious. And I'm still working on that spice cake. I was excited. It was going to be my birthday cake, it was going to be my community picnic cake. Luckily it was neither.
It called for apple sauce and I ended up with apple bread. It would be all right if that's what I wanted, or at least what I expected. It would be all right if I could slice a piece off, pop it in the toaster and slather it with butter. But it is in layers and heavily frosted. So it's not all right, it's gross.
This is the problem. Well, these are the problems. #1 apple sauce is not a complexly flavored food. It is one dimensionally bland and sweet. Trust me, those both exist on the same dimension. Not even that far apart on that dimension. When you add it to something, when you use it as an ingredient, it enhances the bland sweetness of what ever you are making. #2 apple sauce is wet. When added to something, used as an ingredient, it makes that thing wet. Not moist, that would be a good thing, delicate, tender, moist in a full and dreamy way. No we are talking wet. And dense. And heavy. #3 apple sauce was always the go-to fat substitute in low fat baking. So I have bad associations to that texture and mouth feel. And even though this cake has plenty of fat, I don't like it, but I constantly want more, just as with low fat baked goods. I keep eating it as if somehow there will be satisfaction, if not from the experience then perhaps just from surfeit.
So my apple cake, for which I had so much hope, is like a frosted muffin sold at the Unitarian Universalist bake sale.
And I still don't have my spice cake.
At least we have a rule.

love, Margaret

Expensive Preserved Food

Hi Marg,

Last month I got swept up in the whole "preserve your own local, organic food" movement that seems to be sweeping the written word world lately and bought a case of tomatoes. I read - online, in books, in magazines - about the merits of canning versus freezing, dehydrating versus slow roasting and settled on canning. Largely bc our freezer is quite small, though also in part bc the jars look so pretty.

$30 worth of tomatoes and 4 hours later, I had 4 jars of canned tomatoes.You do the math, I'd prefer not to.

 Part of what took so long was squeezing the juice out of all the tomatoes. I strained it into a bottle and it was amazing. Really wonderful tomatoey flavor, and very pretty too.

I haven't cracked open a jar yet, am actually saving that for a dark January afternoon, but every few days I open the cupboard door and admire my four jars.

love, Elise

Sunday, October 10, 2010

marble cake

Dear Elise,
Spiced marble cake to be exact. I have been eying the recipe for years. I am still looking for the elusive spice cake of my far-fetched dreams. I have never made this one, a Maida Heatter recipe, because she wants you to use something called the New Cake Pan, supposedly available from Bridge Kitchen in NYC. Bridge Kitchen has moved to NJ and their web site doesn't offer anything like a New Cake Pan. But I recently purchased Tish Boyle's The Cake Book and she offers the most useful chart. She lists cake pans by size and then tells you how many cups of batter each will hold. No more trying to remember how to calculate the area of a circle and then trying to remember what Pi is. MH needed a 14 cup pan, and Tish reassured me that my tube pan would be ample for that. So I embarked on the marble cake.
Some marble cakes want you to make one batter and then divide it in half and do something extra to one half. Not MH. She has you make two completely separate batters. This is ideal if you really feel like baking, and you aren't in a hurry and whole hours spent mixing and measuring and losing time to the steps is just precisely how you want to spend your rainy afternoon.
I mixed and folded and greased and floured and eventually baked, and it wasn't under or over baked. It was moist and dense and it aged well. Unfortunately, the dark batter called for half a cup of dark molasses. I should have known better. If something calls for a half cup of dark molasses, you should save your money and not bother to add any other flavorings, because the molasses would overpower gasoline, never mind a teaspoon of cinnamon.
If you really like molasses, go for it. But if I were to make it again, I'd bump up the spices, bump up the almond extract in the light batter and use golden syrup in place of the molasses.
The tube pan worked like a dream. But my elusive spice cake is still living with the snipes.
Love, Margaret

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Hi Marg,

Remember our friends Chris and Justin? Well they have a farm near us and are doing a CSA this year. We signed up and Chris showed up with bundles of goodies. Blackberries, herbs, flower arrangements, a big bouquet of mint, and more blackberries.
I made an herb crusted salmon the first night. I marinated the salmon with a mix of olive oil and lemon juice, then coated it with chopped chives, basil, rosemary and Italian parsley. Maybe some thyme too, I can't remember. Cooked it at 350 until it was almost done, about 10 minutes and then let it stand covered with tin foil.

It was great, even though it wasn't farm-raised. :)

Blackberry jam, several batches of blackberry muffins, and blackberry cobbler followed many bowls of blackberries and yogurt, blackberries, peaches and yogurt, always with flax and wheatgerm in honor of Mimi and it being a super food and all. I'll tell you about the blackberry days next time.

Love, Elise

Monday, September 6, 2010

Red Velvet

Dear Elise,
I have a community picnic in a couple of weeks and I want to bring a red velvet cake. Seems festive and appropriate to the season and the crowd. But I've never made a red velvet cake and clearly needed to practice, otherwise known as an Opportunity to Bake.
My first exposure to red velvet cake was at Old Crow Bar-b-cue in Altoona FL. Also my first exposure to bar-b-cue and remains the standard by which all others are measured and against which all others fall short. I had red velvet cake pretty much every day that winter. Their cake was reddish, but not scary, and it had a white frosting with nuts mixed in. I don't recall if the frosting was butter cream or cream cheese and probably the cake was a mild chocolate, but again, I can't really remember specifics.
I started by asking you what happened when you made a RV cake and you said it was gross, period, the end.
I found several recipes, most call for butter, Martha called for canola oil. Most want a cream cheese frosting and that seems traditional. Some call for nuts in the frosting, but some don't. Modern incarnations add cinnamon or berries but I wanted traditional. They all want it to be a layer cake, but this is a picnic, so I'm going w sheet cake.
I started w a Martha Stewart recipe that called for canola oil and 2 TB of red food coloring. This cake was a deep and alarming red. I then went with a very similar recipe from Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito that used butter and slightly less red food coloring. This one was a sort of anemic brownish pink. After two tries, I went with an Epicurious recipe that used butter, but I increased the amount of cocoa powder and decreased still further the red food coloring. The previous two recipes add the leavening at the end as a slurry of baking soda mixed with vinegar. For the final recipe, I just put the dry in with the dry, and used baking powder as well, and added the vinegar in with the vanilla.

I then made a big batch of cream cheese frosting and used it straight on the Martha cake, put crushed pecans over the top of the frosted Baked cake and mixed chopped walnuts in the frosting before spreading it over the Epi cake.

The results:
The bf, my friend Christiana and her bf all came to dinner and agreed to be testers. Christiana's bf has had a RV cake as his birthday cake every year of his life, so he is a connoisseur. He is also from New Mexico, so he isn't fully familiar with the southern red velvet tradition. He preferred the very red cake, really everyone did, because it was by far the moistest. He also preferred the plain frosting, I think because that is what he is used to. The Baked cake was second. The Epi cake, the one I had most tailored to how I thought it should be, was dry and sort of flavorless. Also, once baked, the least appealing color. The rest of us liked the frosting with crushed pecans on top.
I'll have to test them again today, see what sort of difference a day makes.
In conclusion, you are right. Gross, period, the end.

I think for the picnic, I'll make an apple cake.
love, Margaret

Friday, August 27, 2010

cake dreamer

Dear Elise,
Usually, we write about some thing we have made, or something we have baked. But I haven't been cooking very much lately. Tired from training and not too much time and lazy about going to the store. Hence all the dinners of frozen green beans and scrambled eggs. But there are a lot of things I want to make. I ride along on my bike and fantasize. A dessert that was composed entirely of peaches; peach ice cream and peach cake and peach caramel sauce and a grilled peach on the side. But I would never make that. Way too time consuming.
Remember when we took that tremendously long hike up to some distant lake and for the final few miles we talked ravenously about what would be the perfect meal to be waiting for us when we arrived? It's like that, for hours on the bike.
But I also plan meals and design dishes and invent new twists on old favorites.
Since I am such a fan of the corn and tomato pie, I started there. One of the things I love about that pie is the biscuit crust, so I started to think about what else could go in a biscuit crust. A sloppy joe could work. A gooey burger, perhaps? I wondered about sausages with red peppers and onions, the sort of ragout that is usually served with polenta. I wonder if polenta is a better accompaniment? Maybe sausages with onions and apples? Then I thought maybe my famous meatloaf. I think I would have to saute the meat loaf first, at least the meat and veggies part, then add the flavorings and bread crumbs and put it in the crust. I think the biscuit crust would be burned by the time the meat cooked if I just put it in raw. But this sort of opens all sorts of possibilities, beef stew, pot roast, short ribs, all good with biscuits, so why not in a biscuit crust? I realize we are entering beef pot pie territory, but it would be different because the crust is thinner and crispier and also there is a bottom as well as a top. And really, does it matter if we have one more beef pot pie?
And because it is nearly fall, I am back on the spice cake quest. There is a marble spice cake I want to make and I still want to make the perfect spice cake. A cake that is aggressively spicey, perhaps with a soft filling and a caramel frosting, or maybe easier to go with caramel filling and whipped cream. I love cream cheese frosting but it tends to run right over anything you put it on. Maybe a spice cake with a roasted apple filling, a caramel frosting and whipped cream on the side. I just read a quote in the NYer where a Chinese high school student said, "Americans have a way of taking a good thing and adding to it." Words to live by, and as soon I start cooking again, I'm going to put them in action.
love, Marg

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Problem with Cakes

Dear Elise,
I have lost my baking confidence and I blame it on unreliable ovens. That and the altitude. Also, there may be a reverse magnetic field around me.
Despite the limited white sugar, white flour guidelines, I have been doing a bit of baking. I baked a lemon cake for Ab. You know that cake that everyone in the family, except me, loves? The one that calls for whole cups of lemon zest, the one that usually has more than a few knuckle shards in it bc of all that hateful zesting? But Ab wanted it and I was visiting her, and bc she is nursing, she can't have chocolate so really, what's left?
I baked the cake and tested it and it seemed that the tester came out clean and I took it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes and then turned it out onto a plate to cool, whereupon, it fell into pieces and raw batter ran out and puddled all over the counter. Well, I popped it back in the pan, salvaged as much raw batter as I could scrape off the counter, and put it back in the oven for another half hour. Naturally when I tried to turn it out of the pan again, it came out in pieces. For this cake, other than making it unsightly, that's not a bad development bc you have so many more cracks and crags to catch and absorb the glaze, which is really the only tasty part of that wretched cake.

Because of that debacle, I am now nervous about under-baking and I don't trust the time that recipes recommend and I don't trust my oven temp because as everyone knows, reverse magnetic fields wreak havoc with electric ovens and the whole thing is fraught. So last Sunday I had a few people for dinner, otherwise known as an excuse to bake. I wanted to do something with all the lovely local peaches we get this time of year. And I wasn't up to making a pie crust and I wanted something sweeter and softer than a crisp. I considered Mrs. Bently's peach cake since you have been raving about it, but you also recommend doubling it and I didn't have enough eggs. So I went with Dorie Greenspan's Summery Peach Upside Downer.
This is the summer version of the Cranberry Upside Downer. We worked with the cranberry version quite a bit, if you recall. The peach one needs some work too. Part of the problem was my under-baking anxiety. To compensate, I over-baked it. But it is also a lackluster cake. Not as warm and sweet and soft as I wanted. I served it with whipped cream and no one complained. But next time I think I'll make a pound cake and use that over the peaches, flavored with the barest intimation of almond. As everyone knows, almond is an antidote to reverse magnetic fields.
love, Marg

Corn and Tomato Salad

Hi Marg,

This is an old favorite of mine and I made it last week. I cook the corn lightly, say about 4 or 5 minutes in the boiling water, and then cut it off the cob. Add cherry tomatoes, basil (chiffonaded of course), salt, pepper and dressing. I put some fresh zucchini slices in this one because we had such beautiful little ones in the garden.

I usually make the dressing by mashing up an anchovy or two with some lemon juice and salt. Then I whisk in olive oil, add a spoonful of plain yogurt and a pinch of sugar and fresh ground pepper. I learned about the sugar from Erin when we were in Switzerland. She copied a dressing that we had at a restaurant and put in a bit of sugar. I'd always scorned sugar in salad dressings but this was such a little bit that you didn't taste it at all. It just softened the acidity a tich.

Taste and correct and taste and correct until you are happy. It's important to taste it on the vegetables bc they influence the final outcome. Obviously.

I'm hungry and there is no corn and tomato salad here.

Love, E

Friday, August 20, 2010

Can she bake a cherry pie?

Hi Marg,

The answer is yes. Definitively yes. Will it be a good pie? The answer is sometimes. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will not be so good.

Yesterday we harvested Montmorency pie cherries from the tree that I planted many years ago. Probably about 15 years ago, thought it's hard to believe. We harvested what we thought was enough for 2 pies, but once pitted turned out to be enough for one real pie and a baby pie.

I made the usual pate brisee crust with the ingredient list you sent me, and then had to ad lib the pie part bc I forgot to ask you to send those ingredients and my copy of Martha Stewart Pies and Tarts is in Seattle. Besides Martha uses flour to thicken her cherry pie and I don't like the raw flour taste, so I was happy to experiment.

I added 1 and a half cups of sugar, 1 and a half T of cornstarch, a squeeze of lemon (possibly too much in hind sight) to enough cherries to fill a large Emile Henry ceramic pie plate.  Tossed it all together, into the crust, sealed it up, and realized I'd forgotten to dot with butter. Considered stuffing chunks of frozen butter through the vent holes but rejected the idea, mostly out of laziness mixed with a tinge of vanity over the perfection of the crust and its current vent holes.

I know you'll say I'm my own worst critic, but the pie was very runny and a bit tart. I think more sugar and definitely more cornstarch. Also, could the butter help it to set up? I think the butter would have added a richness that would have counteracted the tartness and maybe helped me to get away with less sugar.

Everyone ate it up, and there were no complaints. A did say that the last one I made (when I had the recipe) was better.

Lessons learned - put in the butter even if it messes up the pristine crust, cherries that are really ripe have a lot of juice so go heavy on the thickener (come to think of it, they'd be a great candidate for tapioca at thickener since it takes a lot of liquid to dissolve the pearls), pie cherries are tart so use plenty of sugar, juice of half a lemon is excessive.

I'm taking your advice and making peach crisp tonight so I'll let you know how it goes.

love, Elise

sorry, can't make image right side up...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Signature Dish

Dear Elise,
As you know, I was recently in the Mid Pyrenees, and we went to Lourdes and then we went to Toulouse. I knew, from reading, that Cassoulet is the signature dish of the region. In Toulouse, it wouldn't matter if you hadn't read up on the local signature dish because it is served everywhere, all the time, stuffed into omelets, rolled into crepes, mixed into gelato, with afternoon tea and of course, at dinner. It seems Cassoulet is a bit like macaroni and cheese, many variations, only a few of them worthy. I had one at a good restaurant, and while it was very tasty, it didn't have duck and I think confited duck legs should be de rigueur for Cassoulet because otherwise it's just a stew.

I started thinking about what makes a signature dish. I think when you have a signature dish for a region, it should be made from local products. I guess there are lambs and pigs and ducks and beans all over the mid Pyrenees.
The signature dish for PEI should be oysters in potato baskets. The signature dish for PEI is poutine. French fries with mozzarella cheese and gravy. It is nearly gross, but hard to stop eating. That's both a signature and a metaphor.
I can't imagine what the signature dish for my part of VA would be. Something cooked on a barbecue in your driveway.
Then I tried to decide what my signature dish would be. It could be meatloaf, that's what I am most famous for. But I think a signature dish should have many variations and while meatloaf does have many variations, I only make one, so that doesn't seem right. It could be chicken salad, many variations and I make most of them. But if chicken salad is my signature dish I may as well start scrap-booking and wearing leatherette shoes. Ice cream Sundae could be my signature dish. I have a long history with this. It has a number of very worthy variations, caramels sauce, chocolate chip ice cream, salted walnuts, butterscotch sauce, raspberry sauce, coffee ice cream, several different kinds of ice cream and several different sauces. The only constant would be freshly whipped whipped cream. But it seems off to have a signature dish that I so rarely make any more. Then there is cake, but cake is too general. That would be like saying casserole is my signature dish. It's not exactly a signature, it's more of a tome, an entire address card, a memoir. I could choose roast chicken but that has the same problem chicken salad has. I could choose curry, but that seems to falsely imply some sort of exotic heritage.
I think I'll go with Pastitsio. I love it. It is a go-to recipe for company, at least company I care about. You can vary it a bit, and it is super forgiving. I crave it, even when it is hot out. And everyone likes it, even though it isn't that healthy.
What is your signature dish?
love, M

Saturday, August 14, 2010

If I were there

Dear Marg,

If I were there I would make dinner for you. I would start by making some homemade lemonade with a sprig of mint in it bc I know it's hot. Then I'd make turkey meatloaf, bc even though it's hot it's so very comforting. We could turn up the AC. I'd make it with shiitake mushrooms in it for the umami. I'd probably also make a big green salad with crunchy baby carrots from the farmers market and an English cucumber. The dressing would be a lemon vinaigrette, with maybe an anchovy mushed up in it for flavor complexity.

Or tomato corn pie bc I know you love it, and since I've never made it you could show me how. Or gougere, bc it's light, and would be good with the salad, and has eggs in it. Everyone knows eggs are soothing. 

Maybe a cold poached salmon with a yogurt and cucumber saucy with just a touch of cumin. Or chicken kabobs marinated in a turkish sort of marinade with olive oil and cumin and some fresh oregano. Both would be good with cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil, S&P, and some cubes of feta, with chopped parsley sprinkled on top. Some crusty bread too, with butter.

For desert I'd make a peach blackberry crumble, mostly fruit and an oatmeal/nut topping with barely any sugar at all. We could  have it with ice cream or not, your call.

Love, Elise

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chocolate, Cubed

Dear Marg,

I'm sorry about this post. I know you are in your my-race-is-two-months-away-so-can't-sully-my temple body-with-white-sugar-and-fats mode, and I was going to blog about this really great pasta I made, since it would help you with carbo-loading. (Does anyone do that anymore?)

Anyway, I can't remember how I made the pasta, even though it was only a week ago and I have good pictures of it. I'm blaming it on jetlag. 

Instead, I am posting about the Chocolate Chunkers I made tonight from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours. Do you remember when Mom gave us the list of words she thinks are tacky? Home, as in you have a lovely. Gift, as in I brought you a hostess. Do you remember any of the others? Tangent...

I made the cookies bc lately I've been fantasizing about making a cookie that tastes like Raisinettes. Since I've been in my oh-my-god-I'm-existing-on-sweets-and-this-has-got-to-stop mode lately, I've been having a handful of raisins with a few milk chocolate chips mixed in for desert. This tastes a lot like Raisinettes, which reminded me how much I love them. 

When Mot was living with us, we used to buy them by the gallon at Costco. No one in the family but me liked them and I LOVED them, so Mot would hide them and only bring them out when we were going to the movies. I'd take a plastic bag of them in with me bc the Costco variety tasted so much better than the brand name ones. Another tangent...

These cookies seemed like they might be an approximation. I was tempted to leave out the nuts since that seemed to put them more in the Chunky corner than the Raisinette corner. Wasn't that the name of that square candy bar with raisins and nuts in it? But I figured I owed it to Dorie to at least try to follow the recipe, at least once. 

My analysis - really excellent batter. Ratio of mixed in chunks of chocolate, raisins and nuts to batter is very high. Consequently, I won't really know for sure until they cool enough for the chocolate to harden. This hasn't stopped Amos and me from sampling extensively and pronouncing them quite good. Sorry. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

No, you can't just guess

If the recipe says 2/3 cup of butter to make the caramel, it is advisable to count the little lines on the paper the butter comes in, and then do the math to convert Tablespoons to cups. Really.

If you get too happy and just wing it, your Turtle Bars will have a sizable layer of butter on top of the caramel layer, which will percolate down through the shortbread layer as they bake. They will be greasy and even richer than usual. This will make it impossible for you to strike that balance between feeling like you ate enough Turtle Bars and feeling like you are going to die.Really.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Birthday Cake

Amos wanted yellow cake with chocolate frosting for his birthday. Cake from The Cake Bible, Downy Yellow Cake (what does downy mean, in reference to a cake, anyway?), frosting from my own hand written cook book called "The Really Great Chocolate Frosting".

The trouble with really great chocolate frosting is this -

But we made wishes on it anyway...