Baking Frenzy

Last weekend I baked up a storm.  Partly because I was avoiding work, partly because I needed to relax.  Baking relaxes me.  It was also partly procrastination.

Finally, it was part of my master plan.  I’m slowly trying to re-introduce the idea of Friday (Shabbat) dinners at home.  Growing up, we weren’t very religious but every Friday night Grandma lit the candles, said the blessings, drank the wine and ate the fresh challah.  I’d like to bring that back but there’s a lot of logistical issues.  For one, my husband works on Friday nights so we can’t have a true family dinner.  By the time Friday rolls around, I’m exhausted and almost never feel like cooking a big meal.  I often forget to light the candles or buy the bread.

How to solve this?  Step by step.  For a few weeks I’ve just concentrated on remembering to light the candles.  Then I added in the bread. I made the no-knead challah recipe and froze the dough.  I’d pull it out on Thursday night and let it defrost in the fridge.  When I got home on Friday I’d put it out for the second rise and then bake it.  Due to timing, the bread was ready long after dinner was over but it was there.  The problem was that it didn’t rise as well and wasn’t as good as freshly made.  So this weekend I made the recipe through to the end and froze the loaves.  I’ll know tomorrow if it was worth it- the first loaf is defrosted and wrapped and I intend to warm it in the oven when I get home tomorrow night. Find this recipe here.

Two of the four loaves. Pretty, no?

The other baking was because I was dying to try the lemon ricotta cake the Hippo made a few weeks back. Mine is nowhere near as pretty as hers but was damn delicious.

I had some lemons left over as well as some yogurt that needed using so I also made Ina Garten’s Lemon Pound Cake.  So yummy.  I didn’t bother with the glaze which is very sticky and instead ended up with a sort of lemony loaf sweet tea bread.  Also damn delicious.

So, in short, due to my weekend of baking, we are well-stocked in the baked goods department.  Try any one of these- all three are relatively easy (even the bread which requires NO kneading and very little prep work)- and all three are absoloutely worth it.

September Comfort

There’s something about September in New England. Cooler air, brilliantly colored leaves, crisp apples….  It might be my favorite season.  Plus, I look good in sweaters.  (This is an old joke with a family member).  Of course, in New England, as soon as it cools off enough for you to change your closet and put away the grill, it suddenly heats up again and you’re sweltering.

September also means the beginning of the school year.  This year, for me that means I suddenly have no time.  Which means no blogging for me.  No worries, I’m still cooking every night, we’re still eating really well, I’m just not able to photograph it.  Since I’m working more hours this year, I’m also doing a lot more planning and pre-cooking on the weekends.  It’s hectic.  Really.

And makes me long for my grandmother, wishing that she were here to cook for me.  It would be so nice to come home to her and her food all warm and ready.  Sigh.  Since she can’t be here with me, I thought I’d make something that always reminds me of her:  Snickerdoodles.

These are cookies that are both sweet and spicy, chewy and crispy.  They have a flavor unlike any other cookie so once you’ve had one, you’ll always recognize it in the future.  Mostly for me, though, these cookies are an indirect hug from grandma.

Sadly, I couldn’t find her recipe so I borrowed one from Smitten Kitchen.  It’s almost as good as hers and will do in a pinch.

These are perfect for these cool fall days.  They make your kitchen smell like it should, like my grandmother’s kitchen.  Go ahead, make them.  See if you can resist the homey smell and deliciousness.  I’ll bet you can’t.

A Hug From Grandma Snickerdoodles (via Smitten Kitchen)

Ingredients:

Dough:

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 stick or 8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/2  cups sugar

2 large eggs

Coating:

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda, cream of tartar) in a small bowl and whisk.  The actual recipe wants you to sift them but if you’ve been reading along here, you know my feelings about that.

In the bowl of your mixer, place the butter and sugar.  If you don’t have a mixer, you can do it by hand, just make sure that your butter is somewhat soft or you’ll kill your wrist.

Mix until it’s all smooth and together. 

Add the eggs and mix again, then add the flour mixture and mix until it’s all incorporated. 

You’ll have to scrape the bowl a bit as you do.

At this point, I put the dough in the fridge for about an hour or two, just to make it a bit easier to use in the next step.  When you’re ready, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Place silpat or parchment on your cookie sheet(s).  On a plate or in a shallow bowl, pour out the cinnamon and sugar.

Whisk together.

With your (clean) hands, make walnut sized balls of dough.  Place them in the cinnamon sugar mixture and roll to coat.

Put them on your cookie sheet, evenly spaced.

Bake for about 10 minutes. They won’t brown but will spread out and look beautiful.

Mmmmm.  I dare you to eat just one.  Bet you can’t.  Addictive.  Little hugs on a plate.

I know, I know, I haven’t been posting.  I’m juggling a lot of things over here in pregnancy/toddler/work-land.  I’ll be getting ready for Rosh Hashanah pretty soon so I’m sure I’ll have some things to talk about then. Hang in with me- I’m hoping to get it together to get over here at least once a week.  Stay tuned…

Surprisingly Tasty.

Full disclosure:  If you don’t like zucchini (ahem, Hippo, I am looking in your general direction), you will likely not enjoy this recipe.  All others, carry on.

For about a year in high school (I believe it was the year I took Biology), I was a vegetarian.  The idea of eating meat of any kind, along with all the microbiotic creatures that live in it, just turned my stomach.  My grandmother dealt with this as well as she could, making fish (which was sometimes ok), finding recipes with beans and other non-animal proteins and making lots of salad.  My grandfather grumbled and worried that I wasn’t meeting all my nutritional needs.  My mother rolled her eyes and figured it was a phase.

It was, in fact, a phase but what got me out of it wasn’t age or maturity or even a craving (true story, my cousin, M., was also a vegetarian for a time, much longer than I- she broke it one summer when she was at my house and I was cooking pork with brown sugar and soy sauce.  She caved and has been a meat-eater since.), it was politeness.  We went to Israel the summer between my sophomore and junior year and I couldn’t refuse the food offered to me for fear of offending my cousin or the family friends who were coking for us.  I came back from that trip eating meat.

However, I do still try to have one or two meat-free nights a week.  My husband has slowly adjusted to this and no longer asks (a la Wendy’s), “Where’s the beef?” or says “This would be better if it had meat.”  I have a few tried-and-true go-to recipes but am always looking for more.  Often they come from Vegetarian Times which my friend, K., is nice enough to pass on to me when she’s done with them.  These are some hard-core vegetarian recipes, often vegan.  Generally I don’t expect them to be that good as I do love my dairy.  I tend to adjust them, sometimes by using real cheese vs. soy cheese or sometimes by using chicken broth instead of veggie broth.   Sometimes I get lucky and it ends up really good- other times, not so much.  I like to think of my grandmother when I make these- she worked so hard to keep me fed in my veggie-phase and I’d like to think she’d appreciate how much work I’m doing now to ensure that her granddaughter eats the most healthy food she can. I also like to think my grandfather would still be grumbling as I serve up my meat-free meals a few nights a week.

Try this recipe- it was surprisingly tasty.  I did make some changes, which I’ll note here, that make it not vegetarian or vegan. I also think that if I’d had a mandolin I’d have been able to slice the zucchini a bit thinner and that might have been better.  Nonetheless, this one may make it into my weekly rotation.

Zucchini-Quinoa Lasagna

Adapted from Vegetarian Times, August 2011

Ingredients

2 large zucchini (or 4 small to medium), peeled and cut lengthwise into 12  slices about 1/4 inch thick

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups chicken broth (or veg broth)

1 cup quinoa rinsed and drained (I use red quinoa because I like it better but you could use white)

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/4 cup chopped onion (I used about 1/3 of a medium size onion)

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon oregano (I used fresh)

1/4 cup basil leaves, chopped

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

2-4 tablespoons of cream cheese (or you could use non-dairy cream cheese)

1 25 oz. jar of marinara sauce (I used Paul Newman’s organic and it was pretty good)

1/2 cup shredded cheese (I used mozzarella and parmesan or you could use non-dairy)

Olive oil, salt and pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Peel and slice the zucchini.  Place on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.  Cover with paper towels and let them sit so that the water will drain out of them. 

Meanwhile, rinse the quinoa in lots of cold water.  Make sure you rinse it well as this will help to minimize the bitterness.

Set aside to drain.  In a small pot, heat some olive oil (maybe 1-2 tablespoons at the most) over medium high heat.  Add the onion and garlic.  Let this cook for about a minute and then add the quinoa.  Let this toast over the heat for several minutes.  This also gets rid of the bitterness.  I think I let mine go somewhere between five and ten minutes, stirring once in a while.  

Add the broth, tomato sauce and oregano.  Bring it to a boil and then cover it, turn the heat down to medium and cook until the broth is absorbed, about 25 minutes.

Pour about 1/3 of a cup of marinara sauce into a square 8 inch pan.  Place four of the zucchini slices on top, as you would for lasagna.

Check your quinoa and if it’s done, add the cream cheese, half the shredded cheese and the herbs (basil and parsley).  I’m lucky enough to have a nice fresh herb garden on my steps, courtesy of my friend K. 

Stir the quinoa and the yummy dairy and herbs you added until everything is melty and combined.  The heat will melt the cheese and it will actually taste really good.  You could use this as a way to serve quinoa, in fact, maybe with a nice salad and some crusty bread.

But we are going to use it for our lasagna.  Spread about half of this mixture over the zucchini slices in the pan.

Top this with 1/3 cup of marinara and then four more zucchini slices, then the rest of the quinoa mixture.

Cover this with the last of the zucchini slices and the rest of the marinara.  Top with the rest of the cheese.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is all brown and bubbly and the zucchini is tender.

This was seriously good.  I mean, no one will ever mistake it for meat lasagna with noodles but if you think of it as more of a zucchini-italian flavored casserole, it’s delicious!  Plus, quinoa is all kinds of good for you and I’m always looking for new ways to make it since the texture is, um, different.  It totally works in this recipe.

Also, in the spirit of organizing (why, no, I haven’t yet alphabetized my recipe index, why?), I re-did our meal planning board to incorporate our shopping list as well as our leftovers list:

Finally, I had some extra veggies (tomatoes, peppers, zucchini) that I needed to use up so I tossed them in a roasting pan with some olive oil, salt, pepper and a few garlic cloves as well as the other 1/2 cup of tomato sauce.

I roasted them at 475 for about 30 minutes. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with them but I’m thinking maybe serve them over rice, kind of like a roasted ratatouille or with pasta as a veggie pasta dish.  I’ll keep you posted.

What Every Jewish Mother Knows Is….

how to make chicken soup, of course!  It’s a law.

Of course, you have my grandmother, who knew how to make chicken soup from scratch, and then you have my mother, who knew how to open a can of Campbell’s. You know, both work when you’re sick.  One is a whole lot more effort than the other.  But if they’re both served by a Jewish mother, than the magical medicinal properties remain.  If you’re not a Jewish mother, well, you should probably still know how to make homemade chicken soup.  It may not be quite as magical but I bet it’ll do the trick the next time you or someone you love is sick.

The problem is, of course, like any good passed-down recipe, there is no hard and fast recipe with measurements.  So I’ll give you the ballpark and you’ll experiment.  Really, it’s hard to go wrong.  Soup is very forgiving.  Plus, I’ll even give you a bonus sandwich recipe since you’ll have a lot of chicken once you’ve made the soup.

Homemade Chicken Soup

1 whole chicken or 1 whole chicken cut into parts

Several carrots, peeled and chopped (I’d say 6 large)

1 whole onion, peeled and cut into quarters

2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled

Several stalks of celery, washed and chopped (Again, maybe 6 stalks?)

2 large tomatoes, cut into quarters

Pasta, if you’d like

About ten billion cups of water.  Okay, how about 14 cups?  I use the same stockpot when I make soup and I just eyeball it.

Directions:

Wash and pat dry your chicken.  If you’re using a whole chicken, make sure to remove the gizzards and neck package that’s usually stuffed inside the cavity.  You can use this in the broth if you like but don’t forget to unwrap it.  No plastic in the soup!   Place your chicken in a big soup or stockpot and cover with the water.  Add 3 of the celery stalks, 3 of the carrots, all of the onion, all of the garlic and one of the tomatoes.  Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Once it’s boiling, turn down the heat and let it cook for, well, forever.  At least an hour.  I generally cook it for a few hours, adding water when the level gets below the chicken.  You’ll know you’re done when the meat of the chicken is coming off the bones.

Set it all aside to let it cool.  In fact, I often put it in the fridge and leave it overnight.  The chicken fat (that’s schmaltz to you Jews) will sort of (gross) congeal and it will make it easier to remove it.

Using a large spoon, skim the congealed fat off the soup.  Or at least as much of it as you can.  If you’re really intrepid, you can save it and use it when you’re making matzo balls.  If you’re like me (and unlikely to make matzo balls in the near future), put it in a bowl and then toss it in the garbage.  It’s not really good for your garbage disposal or your sink drain.

Yucky fat skimmed. And some tomatoes that got throw in there as well.

 

Once you’ve skimmed all the fat, you can reheat if your broth has sort of jellied or, if your broth is just broth, you can skip the reheating.  Remove all the chicken and as many of the vegetables as you can and put them in a bowl to cool.

The chicken and vegetables I removed before I strained my soup.

Then strain the broth through a mesh sieve and into another pot or bowl.

What was left in my sieve.

If there’s any visible fat in your broth, skim it out now.  There will be some left but that’s ok.  You just don’t want a whole lot.  Ick.

Return the broth to the heat and add the other 3 carrots, celery, and the tomato.  Return it to the heat on medium and let it slowly come to a boil.  Meanwhile, go back to your bowl of chicken and veggies.  Pick out the chicken and start to shred the meat with your fingers.  Don’t use the skin or the cartilage or the bones, just find the meat and shred it into small, soup size pieces.  Add this to the soup.  Unless you want lots and lots of chicken in your soup, you will likely have some leftover.  That’s ok, use it for the bonus chicken salad recipe below.

Let this cook for another good while- at least an hour.  Add more water if it gets too low- more than halfway down the pot.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of thyme.  Remember not to over-salt because as it cooks, it will get more salty.  The soup will be done when the veggies are tender but not mushy.

If you want to add pasta to your soup, cook it separately.  Trust me on this one.  Cook it according to the package directions and add it to the soup bowls as you serve.

I used little tiny pasta "ears"

 

Bonus Curry Chicken Salad Recipe

Ingredients

Leftover chicken from the soup

mayonnaise

red onion (to taste, I only used about 1 teaspoon)

Curry power (to taste, I used between 1 and 2 teaspoons)

1-2 stalks of celery, chopped

salt, pepper

bread, for making the sandwich

Directions
Shred the chicken and put it into a large bowl.

Slice your red onion very thinly and add to the bowl.

I didn't even use all of this onion.

Add the celery and the curry powder. 

Add mayo to taste (I think I used maybe 3-5 tablespoons), it will depend on both your taste buds and how much chicken you have.  Sometimes I’ll add some sliced grapes and walnuts or cranberries.  But it’s tasty even without those additions.

Spread on toast and serve with the soup.  Yum.

Summer Winter Pasta

While teaching my class today we wandered a bit off track and wound up taking about food and the psychology behind it.  It’s something that interests me on so many levels.  Food is something that, for many people, connects them to their families, their cultures and their heritage.  Food can be a comfort, it can bring back memories of a loved one and it can help to soothe and organize us (don’t believe me?  If you’re feeling anxious about something, eat some raw carrots or chew gum.  The chewing helps to release chemicals that calm and organize your brain.).  Some foods can elevate our moods (chocolate is one) and some can help us change our moods (drinking warm milk to help induce feeling sleepy and calm.).  The psychology and physiology behind all of it is just fascinating.  I’m sure there are several dissertation and book topics in there.  You know, in my spare time.

For me, one memory that is intrinsically linked to food (and I have many) is Christmas Eve and Basil Pesto.  For a zillion years, I have spent Christmas Eve with my best friend from second grade and her large, loving, loud Italian family.  They serve the same dishes every year:  baked shrimp, shrimp cocktail, homemade fresh pasta, basil pesto and tomato sauce.  Sometimes there’s salad or a few other contenders and there are always several varieties of Italian cookies (including the ones with pine nuts, mmmm), cakes and other sweets.  The guest list shifts, expanding and contracting but the tables always reach out of the dining room and into the hallway.  The dinner goes on for hours and is accompanied by laughter and loud voices.  Lots of teasing- the people who attend are generally related to one another or have known each other so long that it feels like they’re related- and joking and by the end of the night, my mouth aches from my smile and my stomach is stretched to its limit.

It’s funny because most people I know associate pesto with summer.  Basil is in abundant supply in the summer and it goes well with so many “summer” meals- sandwiches, over fish, as a spread or dip and, of course, with pasta.  Until I started Christmas with my friend’s family, I wasn’t really aware that you could make pesto.  But make it you can, and pretty easily too.  Since my wonderful friend K. gave me my own personal herb garden for my birthday and included a great deal of basil in it, a few days ago I decided to make my very own Summer Winter Pasta.  It was delicious and after I ate, I called my friend to have a quick catch up.  It didn’t feel right to be eating pesto without her.

Summer Winter Pasta

1/2  box dried pasta (I’m too lazy to make my own) or fresh (which will cook much more quickly, so adjust for that)

2 cups slightly packed basil leaves (i.e. lots of basil)

2 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

2/3 cup olive oil

salt, pepper to taste

1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

Put a big pot of water on to boil.  Add salt.  Remember this is your only chance to season the pasta so put lots of salt in there.

Toast your pine nuts.  Be careful, as they will cross the line from toasted to burned very quickly.  You can toast them in a dry pan over medium heat or you can put them on a cookie sheet in the oven at about 350.  Again, watch them closely.  And lest you think I never make kitchen mistakes, here’s my first batch (which I did not watch closely):

One side too burned, the other side too raw.  So I chucked them and started over.

Once your pine nuts are nicely toasted, throw them into the food processor, along with the garlic and basil.  Whir it around until it’s all nicely minced.


Add some olive oil while the processor is going.  You  may not want the whole 2/3 of a cup.  I leave that to you.  It will make a bit of a paste.  Scrape down the sides and then add the cheese and whir again to combine.

I will admit two things about the cheese.  I grind it in the food processor rather than grating by hand.  I’m lazy like that.  I also tend to use more than the 1/2 cup.  What can I say?  I love cheese.  Scrape down the sides and whir one more time to ensure that it’s all combined. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.

My pesto tends to be on the thick side which I prefer.  I thin it out with some of the pasta water.  You do know about the magic of pasta water, don’t you?  Speaking of which, if your water is now boiling add your pasta.

Scrape the pesto into a bowl and set aside while your pasta cooks.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain (but reserve some of the water!) and return it to the pot.  Add as much pesto as you like and stir to coat the pasta.

The heat from the pasta and the pot will melt the cheese and warm up the pesto in the best way.  If it’s too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it out- I used about two tablespoons.

I serve mine with an extra sprinkle of cheese (again, I love cheese.  love it.)

As you eat, think of both warm, sunny, summer days and cold, frosty, family-filled winter nights.  Enjoy the contrast.  Consider yourself blessed to be able to have both.

What We’re Eating Now

My grandmother’s table was always full of food.  There was always more than enough and never just one thing.  One of the consents was salad.  She made salad every single night.  I’m not sure why- perhaps to round out the meal?  Maybe to get some veggies into us?  Her salads were always lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and sometimes carrots and mushrooms.  She had multiple dressings- and when the low-fat dressing craze hit, she had lots of those.  I favored Italian dressing in those days, I think it was Wishbone.  It means that I was not a child who scoffed at salad. However, I know for a fact that my grandfather did not consider salad a meal.  Which might be why it was always a side at her house.

After my father moved out, my mother (who, it is well documented, is wonderful at many things but cooking is not one of them) was in charge of feeding me.  That broke down like this:  2-3 nights eating at my grandmother’s house, 1-2 nights take-out or Friendly’s, 1-2 nights at a friend’s house and then another night hitting up the salad bar at our local Roche Brothers.  This was when salad bars were a new concept.  Mum let me put whatever I wanted into my salad on the basis that it was all healthy.  So my salad bar salads had lettuce, tomatoes, cottage cheese, sunflower seeds, croutons, cheese, cucumbers, peppers, pineapple, bacon bits….  All separated of course, so that nothing could sort of run over into the other parts.  I had a whole system based on the cottage cheese as a barrier.  I think that salad bar at Roche Brothers was the thing I missed the most when we moved.  We were clearly  ok with the salad as a meal concept.

These days I’m not cooking much.  It is suddenly hot here- in New England we go from cold, gray, 40 degrees and rainy to about an hour of warm, gentle spring before we plow full on into summer.  We’ve hit that point here- today was easily 90 degrees.  It means that people are out doing yard work, we’re out trying to wrestle the pool cover off and get the pool filled, my mother is changing her closet from winter to summer…. it’s a busy time.  Plus, the school year is coming to a close so I’m rushing to finish everything before June 22nd.  But I am, if nothing else, my grandmother’s granddaughter!  We’ve been eating salad.  I’ve made big salads each night and thrown some protein on top. Grilled chicken one night, steak another.  When it’s this hot and I’m this busy, it’s hard to stand in a hot kitchen cooking and even harder to do that when juggling everything else. Luckily, my husband is in the salad as a meal club (as long as there’s some protein with it).  Of course, historically, he’ll eat anything as a meal if I put it in front of him (well, except fish.).

So, no recipe today, just some guidelines.

Easy Summer Salad

Ingredients

1 head/box/bag of your green of choice (I like baby romaine or baby spinach or a mix.  Arugula is nice too but my husband hates it.)

1 pint cherry tomatoes (if you can find both the red and the orange kind, you should get both.  The orange ones are like crack, they are so good)

1 cucumber, peeled (or washed well, skin on) and sliced

sweet peppers (I use a red, an orange and a yellow), washed, seeded and sliced

Any other veggies your little heart desires.  I sometimes like broccoli either raw or blanched slightly or sliced mushrooms or carrots.

Favorite salad dressing (My husband is a Ranch man.  I recently found this dressing and am in love.  In a way that might be potentially unhealthy.)

Some kind of protein.  (I generally grill or broil or otherwise cook chicken thighs or breasts or grill some steak)

Directions:

Combine all veggies in a bowl.  My grandmother used a large glass bowl which I still have and use for salad.  In fact, we’ve never used it for anything else except once, when I used it for green beans.  It was completely disconcerting, everyone at the table was freaked out and we never did it again.  It was just….. wrong.

Slice protein.  Serve salad on plate, top with protein and dressing and there you go!  Dinner.

I know I’ve been lax about posting here.  I’ve also moved away from the family history part.  I’m hoping to catch up on both this summer, once things slow down for the year and once I have my laptop back from the Apple store.  Thanks for hanging in with me!

Kitchen Fail, South American Style

As I have mentioned before, my family is made up of both blood and “adopted” relatives.  The family story is that around eight years old, I took a look around and finally asked my mother, “How come all the other families are all the same color?”  She had a chat with me about multiculturalism and that was that.

One family member came along after my parents got divorced.  My mom took in an international student from Venezuela, L.  L. was supposed to stay with us for a month and then move on to….Oklahoma, I think.  L. was from Caracas and was a tall, beautiful, dark-skinned woman.  After a month, she sat down with my mother and said,”I don’t want to move to Oaklahoma!  I’ll be the only black person there!”  My mother and I, thankfully, didn’t want her to go either.

L. lived with us for several years.  She attended Umass Boston, graduated and started working.  At one point, she dated a guy from Nigeria and we had many, many jokes about being on Nigerian time since he was always, always late.  I’m sure, looking back, that because of the neighborhood we were living in at the time and because of my age (elementary school), people must have thought that L. was my nanny.  She really wasn’t- she’d babysit sometimes but it was more like having an aunt living in the house.  She and my mother became quite close and for many years we were a happy little family.

L. eventually went back to Venezuela and mom and I managed to visit one year, when I was 10.  L. comes from a large family and they embraced us with open arms.  It was a great two weeks- between Christmas and New Year’s.  I learned a bunch of new traditions, ate lots of different food and saw all different parts of Venezuela.  Not bad for a 5th grader! Mom cried when we left (which is generally what she does when vacations come to an end) and L. has come back to visit often.  She’s married now and has two children of her own.  She and the children came for my wedding a few years ago so I’m pretty sure it’s our turn to visit there.

When L. lived with us she’d make black bean soup and arepas.  I didn’t like the soup (mom did) but I loved the arepas.  A few weeks ago when I was trying to make pupusas (which didn’t work), I was reminded of L’s arepas.  Pupusas are sort of a stuffed corn pancake/dumpling/flatbread.  When I tried it my dough was too dry and I couldn’t fill it properly.  I tried again a few nights ago but with the arepas in mind.  I will share with you what I was able to do.  So, in honor of L, here’s my kitchen fail/fix, South American Style.

L’s Corn Arepas with Beans and Cheese

Ingredients

Arepas:

1  1/4 cups Masa

1- 2 tablespoons butter, chopped

1/8 cup white flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1  1/2- 2 cups warm water

A few tablespoons of canned corn kernels (rinsed)

1/2 teaspoon salt

For topping:

cheese, corn, refried or regular beans, salsa

Directions:

Mix all dry ingredients together and then add the pieces of butter.

Mix in the butter with your fingers- sort of knead it together.  Add in the corn kernels.

Divide the dough into six different sections.  Roll these into balls and place them on a foil lined baking sheet.

Flatten them with your hands and cover with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out.  Heat a griddle or frying pan and brush with oil (I used canola oil).  Not too much, just enough to help the arepas brown up and not stick.

Cook on each side for about 3-4 minutes, until they’re just golden brown.

With a greased knife (I rubbed some butter on mine), slice them in half horizontally.  The inside will be sticky.  Return them to the grill, sticky side down and let that side get brown.  Once they’re cooked, place them back on the foil lined sheet and keep them warm in the oven while you prepare the toppings.

I topped mine with the leftover corn, refried black beans (a guilty pleasure that the baby loves too) and my new most favorite kind of cheese, Cotija. 

Just be sure to slice the cheese somewhat thin so that it will melt a bit.  It’s sort of like feta but not quite as sharp.

Top your arepas with whatever you like.   Pop them under the broiler to let the cheese melt and to make sure it’s all warmed through.

We all really liked these even though they aren’t true arepas or pupusas.  And they reminded me of L., always a bonus. 

Mother’s Day

I have the best mother in the world.  No lie.  She’s taught me so many things, so many that I can’t even begin to list them all.  Perhaps the best thing about my mother is that no matter what we’re doing together, we’re always having more fun than it makes sense to be having.  You name it, we’re laughing- waiting in line, doing yardwork, cleaning my house, playing with my daughter, texting, working….  We’re always, always laughing.  It’s one of the best things about us.

One of my favorite art images of a mother and daughter.

Now that I am a mother, I finally, finally understand what my mother has been trying to tell me my whole life, about loving me.  I finally get it.  The love that I have for my daughter matches the love that my mother has for me and that her mother had for her.  It’s hard to put into words but I hope it’s a love that my daughter will discover someday.

My mother and I did this years and years ago and gave it, along with the previous one, to my grandmother for mother's day. It's one of my very favorite photos.

I’ve been blessed in my life to have had a multitude of motherly figures.  My mother, my grandmother, my stepmother, Ani (my best friend’s mother), just to name a few.  And now that my counterparts are becoming parents, I am blessed to have a number of mothers to whom I can turn when I have questions.  Or when I just want to chat.  I also recently heard a story that broke and then taped back together my heart- about a friend who selflessly gave up a daughter for adoption because she knew she couldn’t have cared for her at the time.  I’m in awe of her mature, unselfish decision, made at eighteen years old and in the midst of postpartum hormones.  In my work, I’ve also been honored to be included in the lives of women who have become foster mothers to children who are struggling to trust, love and simply, be.  These women don’t get honored enough and they do some hard, hard work.  I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by so many models of motherhood and I only hope I can do half as well as they all have.

Of course, it’s not all warm and fuzzy.  One of the saddest mantles that was passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me was the struggle with food and weight.  All three of us loved food and loved to eat but did not love the results on our bodies.  From an extremely young age, I knew I was supposed to be dissatisfied with my body and the mixed messages we all gave ourselves and each other didn’t help.  We are a family that believes you should eat, enjoy and love your food.  But you should also not eat too much- it’s a hard balance to find.  Over the years, my mother and I have made peace with this struggle (most days).  I’d like to think my grandmother would have as well, had she lived.  I am damn sure I will not be passing this legacy down to my daughter.  I’m working very hard to make sure I don’t.

But, in honor of both the happy and sad lessons learned, I give you a grandma recipe for low-fat cookies.  Note, they are not GOOD for you or HEALTHY but they are low-fat and delicious! And somehow, very spring-like.  Light, even.

Pecan Dainties

Ingredients

1 egg white

1  cup light brown sugar

1 1/2 cups pecan halves (I actually used 1/2 cup pecans and 1 cup walnuts.  I had a lot of walnuts.)

Directions

Preheat oven to 250 (yes, two hundred and fifty) degrees.

Separate the egg.

One lonely egg white

Do something with the yolk- I gave mine to my dogs.  Beat the egg white until it is stiff.  You can do this by hand but you’ll have a very tired wrist afterwards.  I pulled out my handmixer.  It will start out foamy.

But keep beating it.  You’ll know it’s done when the peaks stand up on their own.

Looks a bit like whipped cream but it's egg white. I promise.

Measure the sugar.  Try not to spill any.  Grandma didn’t specify if it should be packed brown sugar or not and I went with packed because when have you ever encountered too much sugar in something?

Now, Grandma says to add it gradually.  I tried.  But this happened.

So I mixed it up as best I could- it got very sticky.

Stir in the nuts and then drop by spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets.  I used parchment paper because I am lazy.

Bake for 30 minutes.  Let them sit on the sheet until they’re really cool – if you try to move them before then, you’ll leave part of the cookie on the sheet.  And you wouldn’t want to miss any part of the cookie. 

I don’t generally like meringue cookies but these are good.  Maybe it’s the brown sugar?  And, hey, low fat!

Happy mother’s day to all!!

A ’tisket, a ‘tasket, a brisket, a basket

Growing up, while my parents were still together, we were family friends with another Jewish family.  They lived a few towns over and my mother and the mother of the other family taught together in Roxbury (Fun fact, my mother was teaching in the inner city of Boston when the forced busing happened.  She can remember the helicopters flying overhead.  Another fun fact, when I finally got around to reading Common Ground (I was in my late teens), I recognized so many of the names as people I had met!).  Both the fathers were lawyers and the children were all girls.  R. and M. remained close to my mother after my parents divorced and I played with their older daughter, A., often.  (Another fun fact, a family friend of theirs, P., used to babysit me and A. when our parents would go out on the town.  Fast forward 30+ years later and P. is the assistant at the daycare where I send my daughter.  Small world!)

After my parents divorced, my mother and I spent many a Jewish holiday sitting around R & M’s table.  R. is a wonderful cook and makes all of the traditional Jewish foods- latkes, matzo balls and brisket. She also makes a legendary pumpkin muffin and fantastic meatballs. I have such fond memories of sitting at her table, listening to the adults laugh, giggling along with A. and eating the delicious offerings.  So, it’s no surprise that when I needed a brisket recipe, R was my go-to source.  It’s a remarkably simple recipe with an incredibly delicious result.  It’s so good, in fact, that I made a second brisket last night- there was none left over from the Seder and I had only gotten one bite!

R’s Famous Brisket

Ingredients

1 flat-cut brisket (The smallest I’ve used has been in the 5-7 lb range)

1-2 red peppers, thinly sliced (I use the cuisnart)

1-2 onions, thinly sliced (again, I’m lazy and use the cuisnart)

olive oil

ketchup

water

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.  In a roasting pan, place a small amount of olive oil.  Layer the onion and pepper slices on it and toss to coat.  Place the brisket on top of the onion and peppers.  Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.  In the meantime, fill a drinking glass about 1/3 of the way with ketchup.  Fill the other 2/3 with water and mix well.  After twenty minutes, pour the mixture over the brisket and return it to the oven.  Bake forever.

I mean it, forever.  In R’s words, “there’s no way to overcook this.”  Add more of the ketchup mixture to keep the liquid in the pan at a reasonable amount.  I flipped mine about two hours in- it was starting to burn so I changed sides.  I ended up cooking mine between 4 and 5 hours.  In the last hour or so, I covered with foil to keep it from burning.  When it’s done, it will sort of just shred itself as you try to pick it up.  It’ll be delicious- sort of sweet and sour at the same time.  So good.It may not be pretty but I guarantee, it’ll be gobbled up so fast, no one will notice that it’s not elegant.

Birthday Cake

Today we had a birthday party for baby G.  She’ll be one on Wednesday but we celebrated today.  The celebration involved a lot of cake.  I made cupcakes, cake and more cake.  Why so much cake?  I needed a backup cake in case the REAL cake I was making didn’t work.  Also, my husband has often said he doesn’t like yellow cake.  So, before I give you the recipe and the story that goes with it, I give you what a first birthday should look like:

Mmmmmm....Caaaaake.

What cake do you associate with birthdays?  The Hippo talks about hers here. I always want store- or bakery- bought cake.  Perhaps because I bake, I want someone else to do it for me.  I’ve been thinking about G’s first birthday cake for – no lie- a year (I started thinking about it while I was still pregnant.  What can I say?  I’ll frame it as I’m a planner rather than I’m obsessed with food).  I decided early on that I wanted to make her the Chocolate Initiation Cake from Lora Brody’s Growing Up On The Chocolate Diet.  Lora Brody was a friend of my grandmother’s and I adore this cookbook.  It’s a lot like this blog, actually- recipes along with many, many stories from her life.  I can’t recommend it highly enough- buy it, you won’t regret it.

My copy is a bit battered- it has traveled to Israel and back with me.

This is the birthday cake that she made for her first son.  It is now the birthday cake I have made for my first daughter. I feel it is a nice tradition that I will attempt to continue.  It is, however,  a rather complicated cake.  I was afraid it wouldn’t come out well so I made a boxed chocolate cake.  And some cupcakes.

But back to Lora Brody.  I have read and re-read this cookbook several times.  A few years ago, I emailed Ms. Brody to tell her how much I enjoyed it and to let her know that I was living in my grandmother’s house, cooking in her kitchen.  I told her this because she knew my grandmother and because the inscription on the copy of her cookbook that I own (which was my grandmother’s) reads, “To my wonderful friend, G., with much love and tremendous admiration”.  I thought she might want to know how much I loved it.  She responded and told me how pleased she was that I was in the house and that she drives by often and thinks of my grandmother when she does.

So it somehow seemed fitting for G’s first cake to be the chocolate initiation cake.  And since my daughter is named for my grandmother, it may be time to email Ms. Brody again to let her know how the traditions are being passed down.  I’ll let you know if she responds.  Meanwhile, make this cake.  It’s complicated but so worth it. *I have mixed feelings about including this recipe since it’s from a published book and I didn’t really tweak it at all.  But I googled it and it came up as having been printed in the Chicago Tribune so I feel like it’s already out there.  Regardless, buy the book.  It’s fantastic.*

Chocolate Initiation Cake

For the layers:

2 1/4 cups flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (6 oz.) sweet, unsalted butter

1 1/3 cups sugar

4 extra-large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups sour cream

1 cup milk

12 ounces milk chocolate chips, mini if possible

For the filling/frosting:

2 cups heavy cream

12 ounces (2 cups) milk chocolate, chopped (you can use chips)

2 tablespoons sweet unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and parchment paper three 9 inch round cake pans.  This means cutting out a circle of parchment paper that fits into the bottom of the cake pan (put the pan on top of the paper and trace it, then cut it out).  Grease the pan, put the parchment into the pan and grease the parchment.  You can go the extra mile and flour the pan but I didn’t.  Set aside.

Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a bowl.  Set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and 1 cup of the sugar.  Add the egg yolks one by one, making sure to fully incorporate in between.  Add the vanilla, milk and sour cream.  It will be a sort of curdled looking liquid.  This is ok.  Keep going.  Add the flour mixture and mix just until it’s all mixed in- no more or the cake will be rough. Add the chocolate chips.

In a clean bowl with clean beaters, whip the egg whites and the rest of the sugar (1/3 cup).  Beat until stiff but not dry.  This means the peaks will hold but they’re still shiny and loose-ish.  Fold the egg whites into the batter.

Ready to go into the pans

Divide the batter evenly into the three pans.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, switching pans halfway through (front to back or rack to rack, depending on your oven).  The cakes are done when they are golden brown and start to pull away from the sides. 

Let them cool for a few minutes before removing them from the pans.

Bottom of cake as it came out of the pan.

Make the frosting/filling.

I warn you that mine did not come out correctly so it was more of a glaze than a filling or frosting.  I therefore do not have photos.  However, you’re basically making a ganache with a little bit of butter.  Heat the cream over low heat.  Don’t let it boil over but bring it to a simmer and let it reduce by half.  Add the chocolate and stir until it’s melted and smooth.  Add the butter off of the heat and stir until all is incorporated.  Put it in the fridge and let it cool.  If you’ve done it correctly, you’ll have a very thick but not solid sauce.  Whip it with beaters until it is fluffy.  Or, if you end up with more of a sauce, as I did, whip it and then feel very frustrated.

To put the cake together, place one layer on a platter.  Spread some of the filling (not too much!) over the cake.  Add the next layer and repeat.  Put on the final layer and frost the top, bottom and sides.  Try to restrain yourself from eating the entire cake with just a fork. 

Full disclosure:  here’s my cake from the side.  Note the pool of not-quite- correctly made frosting along the sides.  Yummy but very messy.

So I served the rest of the not-quite-frosting on the side and called it fudge sauce.  Problem solved!

Oh and P.S., the husband decided that he likes THIS yellow cake.