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Desserts, Cookies and Sweets

cookbooks focused on desserts, cookies, and other sweets

Is this the end of Twinkiehenge?

TwinkieHenge

Hostess has declared bankruptcy. It sounds like the company has been struggling with debt, but that in the short term this is not likely to result in any interruption to operations. So you’ll still be able to buy Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other highly processed foodstuffs, assuming you care for that sort of thing. The NYT article strongly hints that labor and pension costs are a big issue, but if you’re getting into debt to the tune of $860 million there’s a lot more wrong with your planning than just paying your workers too well, I think.

A lot of the coverage has been suggesting, possibly tongue in cheek, that consumers may want to stock up on Twinkies just in case the company ends up folding. I can’t get behind that, but use your own judgment. They don’t actually last forever — though I held onto the ones left over from my Twinkiehenge for over a year before finally discarding them and they didn’t look appreciably changed. But I didn’t taste them to find out.

Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

CakeDecorated2

This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

CakeCooling4

I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

Ginger peach sorbet

ginger peach sorbet

It’s muggy and warm in my home office as I sit typing, so it’s hard for me to believe that summer may finally be drawing to a close. I’m not nostalgic and weepy about it. I cannot wait for the cooler weather. I live for autumn. Yes, even last autumn, which was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever faced in my life, was still glorious for its weather. The crisp tang in the air as the fall breezes undercut summer’s heat. The turning of the leaves.

So far the only sign I’m seeing is that the sun is setting noticeably earlier. It’s grayer now than it was last week at this time. Granted, part of the reason is that the skies are overcast. The forecast has been threatening, or perhaps promising, rain for hours now, but it keeps refusing to come. The air remains dense and warm, and my husband cannot stop sneezing. I don’t know what pollens Hurricane Irene washed up here last week but it’s high time they went away again.

The selection at the neighborhood Greenmarket this past Saturday had changed, but I think that was less a function of the coming fall and more a result of the devastation the hurricane wrought upstate and in New Jersey. Many farms lost all their crops; anything topped by floodwater was automatically deemed unfit for consumption. Plants were damaged or killed, limiting the amount of new growth and harvest. The stalls on Saturday had a much slimmer selection than usual (granted, I didn’t arrive until closer to 1 pm, so the earlier risers may have had more to choose from). Still, I found enough to meet our needs for the coming week: tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, bell peppers.

I looked last for fruit and found peaches, $1 per pound, and not looking bad. I loaded a bag, and thought. You can’t exactly stock up on peaches; they go bad too fast. Their rich sweetness is their undoing. But then I thought, I haven’t made ice cream all summer, and peach sorbet may be just the thing.

PeachSorbet2

I adapted a recipe from the booklet that came with the ice cream maker. The recipe was actually for strawberry sorbet, but I assumed the proportions were basically sound: 3 pounds of chopped fruit, 3 cups of water and 1 1/2 cups of sugar cooked into a syrup, 3 tablespoons lemon juice. As I was measuring the sugar for the syrup I wondered if the fact that peaches have a more unalloyed sweetness than strawberries might result in a too-sugary dessert. This gave me the bright idea to slice a couple of rounds of ginger root into the pan to infuse into the syrup.

Making the syrup is simple: you bring the water and sugar (and ginger) to a boil and let it simmer a bit. The recipe says “until the sugar is dissolved,” but I had stirred well and the sugar was dissolved before the mixture came near the boiling point, so I let it bubble gently for about 5 minutes while I finished the dishes. Then I set it aside to cool. When it was cool enough to work with, I chopped peaches, peeling off the thickest of the skin but mostly leaving it in place, then pureed the chunks. I put everything into the ice cream maker canister and stirred well, then set it churning.

PeachSorbet6

And, voila: ginger peach sorbet. It’s very refreshing. The ginger isn’t strong–just a hint that takes off the sugary edge and lets the full flavor of the peaches shine through. A fitting end to summer indeed. Now if it would just rain already.

Hurricanes and cookies

chocolate chip cookies

I live in New York. If you’ve been following the news you know that Hurricane Irene passed through here in the early hours of this morning. More accurately, it was Tropical Storm Irene by the time it reached us, and not as big and awful as it might have been. It was still big and awful enough for plenty of people in the area; there are numerous reports of downed power lines, flooding, and fallen trees, as well as a few deaths. Here at Chez 107 we were lucky to come through virtually unscathed; the only problems we encountered were a minor leak in the skylight above the hall stairs, the possibly coincidental death of our cable box/DVR, and serious disruption to our sleep.

We were not so confident that it would be this easy in the days leading up to the storm. Forecasts suggested it could be a Category 2 when it hit the city, which could cause serious damage. We don’t live in one of the evacuation zones so we prepared to shelter in place, and that included stocking up on food we could eat if the power went out. We’ve never lost power here in a storm before but a Category 2 hurricane seemed like a good candidate for the first time. So I went to our regular grocery store on Friday night, not sure what would be left. Bread was almost cleaned out, but I found a number of other things: peanut butter, crackers, hummus (one package, which we could finish off in short order if the power went out), salsa (ditto), chips, cereal, and a few other little things. I was pretty sure that if we did lose power we wouldn’t be without it for very long, so I made sure to only get things that we would use anyway.

I understand not everyone kept that in mind when preparing for the storm. If you’re someone who stocked up on non-perishable food that you no longer thrill to now that the crisis has passed, you might donate your excess to a local food bank (such as Food Bank for New York City).

We had completed our preparations by midday Saturday, and then we were left to wait. The storm was moving slowly, and it had an entourage in the form of massive TV coverage, a pretty well-mixed blend of the informative and the sensational. Waves of rain washed through, all a prelude for what was to come. The worst of it passed through overnight; we tried to get some sleep but were repeatedly awakened by alerts and our own anxiety. By this afternoon, when it was mostly through except for some intermittent showers and gusts of wind, I was ready for things to be normal again.

Cookies

Which is probably why I made chocolate chip cookies. My original plan was to make chili for dinner as well, but I seem to be out of beans. (Well, I suppose they wouldn’t have been high on my list of things to make without refrigeration or a stove.) So we foraged on room-temperature food for another night and I’ll be making a pot of chili for tomorrow’s dinner. But I found comfort in the process and the taste of cookies. I was a little imprecise with the soda and salt measurements, so they’re a bit flat, but you know what? They still taste good. They taste like normality, and comfort, and safety from disaster.

Cherry Pie for the Fifth of July

cherry pie, from How to Cook Everything

PieWithCreamThis has been a busy year. I’ve made no progress on the remaining cookbooks from my collection, and I’ve done rather less original or interesting cooking in general than I’ve wanted to. There have been a lot of simple stir-fries and sandwiches, rather too much take-out, and more pizza than I should admit to. (Homemade pizza, at least, but not exactly health food.)

Cherries3There are a few reasons. I’ve been working a lot. I will be taking four weeks of vacation starting later this month, during which I expect to cook a lot more (among other things; I have a writing project to work on most of my time), and so I haven’t really taken more than one or two days off since December. This sounded like a much better idea last fall, when I scheduled the four-week AddingButterleave, than it did this April, when I found myself three writing projects deep and no leave time in sight. And work has been busy, as I’ve taken on some new projects, including several things that are new kinds of work for me. It’s all been very rewarding, and I am glad of what I’ve had a chance to do; but I’ve had an awful lot of evenings where I got home later than I meant to and PittingCherrieswas in more of a mood for take-out empanadas than for chopping and sauteeing something for myself. Normally I’d pick up the slack on the weekends, but I’ve also taken on a Saturday volunteer teaching project that’s extremely rewarding in its own right but doesn’t leave as much time for weekend grocery roundups and cooking ahead.

CherriesInCrust2Still, I get the bug once in a while, especially when there’s a good call to action, and Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef sent out a good one recently: a Pie Party. The idea is to make, photograph and post about pie in time to put up the posts and pictures on July 5. My pie isn’t gluten-free, but I don’t think that was a stipulation.

FirstCrustI got it into my head to make a cherry pie. I haven’t made a cherry pie before, unless perhaps I’ve made one with canned filling, though since it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve made pie with canned filling I kind of doubt that counts. I had seen that cherries had arrived in the Greenmarket near my work last Wednesday, though I didn’t buy any because I was going to be out right after work and didn’t want to haul them around. So yesterday I got up a bit earlier than I might have on a holiday and went to the Greenmarket at Union Square, which was mercifully quiet — usually the place is a mob scene — and found cherries as well as a few other goodies for the week. Once home, I skimmed through my cookbooks and settled on a straightforward recipe from How to Cook Everything, a longtime favorite.

TopCrustOn3I started with the crusts, so they’d have time to chill. I killed our food processor some time last year and haven’t had a chance to replace it, but the hand mixer has a little food processor attachment, and it’s just big enough to do one crust at a time, which is perfect; I’m not that great at evenly dividing a doubled amount. I whirred together flour, salt and sugar, then added butter and processed it briefly into coarse powder. I then turned the mixture into a bowl and added just enough ice water to form a ball (more or less), which I patted into a flat disk and wrapped in wax paper to chill, then did the whole thing again for the second crust.

BakedPieShauna talks in her blog about how people are often afraid of pie crust. I’m not, really, though I can see why people get intimidated. Things can go wrong. It takes practice to get the proportions exactly as you want them — and without practice it’s easy to forget that it’s probably still going to be good if things aren’t exactly as you intended. Then too, we’ve been exposed to a lot of really bad pie crusts, and we have conflicted expectations. It should be light and flaky, yes, but also rigid enough to hold a perfect wedge shape when you cut it? How does that work? No. The edges should be artfully crimped? If you like that sort of thing, sure, but the pie will still taste good if you’re a bit less picky about the shape of the crimping. Cooking is an ongoing practice, not a pass-fail exam, and unless you psych yourself out so badly that you can’t manage to do anything right you will still probably get a good result even if it isn’t picture-book perfect.

SliceOfPieWhile the crust chilled I pitted the cherries. I don’t actually have a cherry pitter, and in fact have never used one. I started out by halving the cherries with a knife to pop out the pits, but then discovered by accident that if I just pressed gently on the bottom the pit would pop pretty easily out of the top without losing that pretty whole-cherry look. So I pitted and got pretty little cherries. This surprised me, which then struck me as odd. I thought, these look like cherries should look. And then I thought, of course they do, you nitwit, they’re cherries. They’re not cherry-flavored bits, or Cherry Brand Imitation Whatsit; they’re actual cherries.

PieWithCream3I realized that while I’m not intimidated by cooking, I do get intimidated by food images. In one sense, by the good blog photography, such as you find in What Katie Ate; I can’t hope to match that level of exposure and staging, though I’m sure I could make good enough versions of the food if I gave the recipes a shot. But I also get cowed by the marketing images. I’ve gotten used to assuming that the pictures on the restaurant menus and advertising, and on the processed-food packages, are Platonic ideals of the food you might actually get. But there I was pitting cherries, and because they were cherries, they were turning out right. I was then reminded of a recent Mark Bittman column in which he talks about the advantages of cooking over eating out; he says, “When I cook, though, everything seems to go right.” The “though” is part of a comparison to dining out, which he considers a gamble; sometimes it’s satisfactory and sometimes it isn’t. And while I wouldn’t always say everything I cook goes right (I am still a bit haunted by that carrot cake), I can point to very few dishes I’ve cooked using real food and simple techniques that have truly disappointed me.

Before too long, I had a bowl full of pitted cherries, plus a spattered countertop and a mess in the sink. I wiped the counter right away to prevent staining but then returned to the pie filling, combining some sugar, cornstarch, almond flavoring and nutmeg, which I mixed with the cherries.

Then I rolled out the crusts, keeping the disks between waxed paper to avoid having to add more flour. I pressed the bottom crust into the pan, poured in the cherry filling, then rolled out the second crust and laid it over the pie. (I realized much later — like, after the pie was out of the oven — that I had forgotten to dot in a bit of butter before putting on the top crust, but the crusts were very buttery, so I crossed my fingers that would save things.) The pie went into the oven for 10 minutes at 450, then baked for 350 for another 50 minutes, and then I had to let it cool for a few hours.

So after dinner I whipped some cream, then sliced the pie and plated it. Nervously, I lifted the spoon. Would it taste good? Had I used enough sugar? Too much? Was the crust too tough? But it was great. The cherries were tart but balanced well with the sweet sauce and the rich crust. The crust was flaky, not tough or doughy, and it seemed to have lent butter enough to the filling after all. The cream was a nice complement as well. And the cherries were very pretty.

Verdict: Success. And that’s my contribution to the pie party: One cherry pie, not gluten-free and not perfect but darn good.

12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes: Pie, and Adjustments

plain pastry

SliceOfPieHello, strangers! I have been a dreadfully inconstant blogger. I could write it all off to an overcrowded schedule — and indeed, with two new volunteer commitments and the logistical adjustments that one has to make to daily life when the weather is bad, I have been really busy — but there’s been another factor at work too. I have been Apples3letting some of the remaining cookbooks get to me.

No doubt you remember the debacle of Miss Leslie’s Secrets, when the jelly puffs were rather short on puff. Two tomes from Victorian cookbook queen Isabella Beeton promised nothing but further defeat. I paged through the thick volumes, repeatedly, searching in vain for anything I SlicingApplesAction2might be able to do. Once I’d ruled out ingredients I didn’t think I could find (isinglass?), recipes that looked logistically impossible (fireplace-size roasts), and foods I was not going to abuse that badly even for the sake of morbid curiosity (good vegetables boiled to death), I was left with vague instructions and imprecise measurements. I fretted. I worried. And finally, I gave up. I SlicingApplesam removing the two Mrs. Beeton volumes from the project.

But as it happens, this does not make my project 105 Cookbooks now. I also found a folder in which I had saved several recipe booklets when I was working on a book proposal for Recipes of the Damned. The booklets, like the proposal, have languished on the sidelines, and they didn’t make it ApplesAndSpiceinto the census back in June 2009, but I am adding them to the project now. Macaroni, Minute Rice, baking soda, and Knox Unflavored Gelatine (assuming I can find it or an equivalent) all lie ahead. There’s also a glorious new cookbook I got for Christmas, Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home, and I am not going to be so unreasonable as to insist I must cook Jell-O and canned ScoopingCriscopineapple before I can start to play with it.

I have given up on the idea of a finishing date. I’m going to try to schedule these more often, but I’m also going to give myself a chance to try other recipes — for example, from my massive backlog of cooking magazines — and to work at my own pace. They’ll all get done, yes, but PieCrustLumpswithout the maddening effects of deadline pressure.

And look, here’s one now. Sunday was National Pie Day (not to be confused with Pi Day, which is of course on 3/14). A made-up holiday, yes, but one after my own heart, and why not make pie? I wanted to improvise the filling, but decided to try a Crisco-based crust from the RollingPiecrustpamphlet 12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes. This slim 1927 booklet from Procter & Gamble has a lot of offerings that don’t seem all that speedy, but the pie crust turned out to be nearly as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. I combined 2 cups of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (aka half a tablespoon), and 3/4 cup of Crisco, and stirred with a fork until the mixture was crumbly and PieCrustInPanmealy. Then I added just enough ice water to hold it together in a dough, divided it in two, and shaped each half into a ball to roll flat. The rolling went easily enough but I kept tearing the rolled crust, so finally I rolled the dough between two pieces of waxed paper so I could lay the crust in place and then peel off the paper.

CaramelInPieI filled the pie with apple slices — Granny Smiths that I had tossed with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a bit of flour. I then drizzled on some salted caramel bourbon sauce that I’d picked up at a craft show, and dotted on some butter. I was hoping for an effect similar to that of the salted caramel apple pie at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, which is a glorious thing. I laid on the top ToppingThePiecrust, pinched it closed as best I could, cut vents, and put it into the oven. The baked pie was a beauty; as it happened, we were too full from dinner to have dessert that night so the pie had plenty of time to cool, which meant that when I sliced into it the next night it didn’t collapse into a heap of apple slices.

The pie was tasty. The crust was PieBaked2flaky and light, and while it wasn’t at all buttery it provided a good neutral foundation for the more distinctively flavored elements. The salt and apple flavors balanced well. The apples were a bit more tart than I had expected, though I should have realized that in winter they might be; I could have added more sugar to the filling, but it would also work to add a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to add the necessary complementary taste. Which I may do shortly. We have lots of pie left.

Verdict: Success. Good crust, good pie, and one more down.

Cookies: When Things Don’t Turn Out as Expected

pistachio sugar cookies

PlateOfBlobs4It’s been an awfully long time since I made a post to this blog. I last wrote on October 4, and that was the end of a series of sparse entries. Things got a little crazy this fall; blogging fell by the wayside. It’s now just over a month to the end of the year and I have 18 more books to cover. Right. I decided to ease myself back into the effort with my remaining cookie book, Cookies, CookieIngredientswhich I got from Sears when my sister was working there years ago and the booklets were part of a special holiday promotion. I thought it would be easy to add pistachio sugar cookies to my holiday baking for this year.

The cookies are simple: a basic sugar cookie made of butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt. I mixed the flour CookieDoughwith the powder and salt and set it aside; I creamed the butter with the sugar, then beat in eggs and vanilla, and then gradually added the flour mixture. The mixing got a bit messy; this was the last of the doughs for my  holiday baking, and my three-speed mixer suddenly decided to operate at only the top speed. This is not ideal. But I managed to form a dough without CookieDough2spraying too much sugar and butter around the kitchen, and wrapped the dough in wax paper to chill overnight. I then chopped some pistachios, and set them aside for the cookie shaping.

The next day, I rolled out the chilled sugar cookie dough and cut it into shapes as directed. I’d gone through my cookie cutter collection and decided that I PistachiosChopped3wanted to have a fair number of pigs in the mix; I’d dub them “pig-stachio” and take pride in the cute, silly presentation. When I’d arranged cut-out shapes on parchment on the baking sheets, I sprinkled the cookies with the pistachios, and put them into the oven to bake: 5 minutes at 375, “or until edges start to brown.” I checked the first set at 5 minutes expecting them to be underdone. CuttingOutPigsWhat I didn’t expect was for them to be spread out, having lost the distinct shapes I’d cut. No pig-stachios here; blob-stachios, more like. And yes, they were slightly underdone, but adding a minute or two to the baking time was not going to change misshapen blobs back into diamonds and pigs and bells. Ugly, I thought. Disaster.

CuttingOutBellsSeething with frustration, I removed the baking sheets from the oven and let them cool briefly before moving the cookies to cooling racks. I dropped a few of the cookies, to my exasperation. What had I done wrong? Too much baking powder, or too little, or too old? My other cookies with baking powder had turned out fine. Too much butter, not enough flour? Were the eggs too big? It CookiesToBakedidn’t seem to matter how long the dough had been out of the fridge when I cut it; pigs and holly leaves cut from chilly dough were no less distorted and unrecognizable than those cut from warmer, re-rolled dough. I’d just wanted these to be simple and cute; why hadn’t I succeeded?

As I juggled cookies and sheets in CookiesToBake4the kitchen, I could hear my husband coughing in the next room. This shifted my attitude a bit. You see, back in early October — about a week after my last blog post — my husband came down with a fever and what seemed to be flu. By that weekend he was tired, hot, and miserable, and we made an early-morning trip to the ER (on a day that I should have gone to a CookiesToBake5knitting festival, because illness is funny like that). He was diagnosed with “flu-like syndrome,” which a friend later told me might just mean they hadn’t done a definitive test to confirm that it was the influenza virus, but it probably was. The blood test and X-ray showed no signs of pneumonia, and several hours later — after he’d been given two bags of IV fluids, some BakedBlobs2breakfast, and directions for alternating prescription-strength ibuprofen with Tylenol to bring down the fever — we came out into the bright sunny midmorning feeling grateful that he was on the mend. And he was getting better, for nearly a week, until suddenly he became weak and achy again and developed a violent, uncontrollable cough. Another ER visit brought a new BakedBlobsdiagnosis of pneumonia, and admission to the hospital for what turned out to be a four-night stay. This was pretty alarming, in an age when people with broken bones and birth complications barely get to spend one night before getting the boot. But Scott was very sick, and the hospital was where he could get IV fluids, IV antibiotics, and frequent monitoring of his condition.

BakedBlobsCoolingOur second ER visit was in the evening, and by the time Scott was diagnosed and admitted, and I was able to go back to see him before heading home, it was nearly 11 pm. I stopped at a corner diner to wolf down a burger, not having eaten since breakfast, then went home and briefed our houseguest on Scott’s condition. Oh, yes, did I mention our houseguest? I did mention BakedBlobsCooling2her in the last blog post. She and her cats had arrived on Sept. 10 after her place was smoke-damaged by a fire that gutted the restaurants adjacent to her building. Now it was Oct. 26, and her building management had finally completed the work that needed to be done before they could send in professional cleaners to eradicate the smoke residue. Who had to work from PlateOfBlobs2bottom to top, and did I mention her apartment was on the top floor? So we had become accustomed to having our friend occupy the couch; we’d worked out a good balance for sharing the bathroom, and had prepared some terrific dinners together. Our cats had gotten pretty comfortable with one another; my girl was still a bit indignant at interlopers in her territory, but HolidayBakingProgress2otherwise they were one big happy family. And as I headed home, I thought, I need to make sure she’s OK. I need to wash all the blankets tomorrow, clean the bathroom. Good grief, I need to throw away Scott’s water bottle, it’s got to be a cauldron of disease. I need to make sure everyone stays healthy.

While Scott was in the hospital I CookiesBaggedbalanced my time between work and housecleaning and visiting him. His hospitalization actually gave me more flexibility; I wasn’t working from home and punctuating document edits with water-bottle refills and other on-demand requests. I was able to go in to the office, and even to take part in the Halloween cooking contest, for which I’d made pumpkin ice cream over the CookiesBagged2weekend. My original plan was to make a sandwich cookie: ginger cookies filled with pumpkin ice cream and rolled in a combination of chopped pecans and crystallized ginger. But I would have had to do my baking on the night we went to the ER, so that didn’t happen. I thought, I’ll find a ginger cookie with which to make sandwiches. Only I couldn’t find any in the places that were on the way to work. Then I thought, I’ll find something I can serve with the ice cream. And then finally I thought, I made homemade ice cream, for heaven’s sake; if that’s not enough to impress people, cookies aren’t going to help. So I presented the ice cream and helped carve a pumpkin and won a prize (for the ice cream; decidedly and deservedly not for the pumpkin carving), and thought, sometimes things can give and it’s still OK.

One thing that gave was the blog. I didn’t want to take the extra time to choose and experiment with new recipes, especially since the odds of success aren’t great in quite a number of the books that remain. I wanted to make easy, comfortable standbys. I made a lot of chicken soup, which isn’t from any recipe at all: prep your vegetables and chicken, saute onions and garlic, add chicken to brown, gradually add other vegetables until you’re really kind of steaming everything in its own escaping moisture, then pour on chicken stock, cover, and let simmer for about half an hour. Or more, if you like, but half an hour ensures the potatoes are sufficiently cooked. Couldn’t be simpler, and never the same twice. I made roasted chicken breasts from a Martha Stewart recipe, in which you rub bone-in/skin-on chicken breasts with a spice mixture and then roast in a cast-iron skillet, atop onion slices, for about 40 minutes. (Martha says to peel away the skin before serving but I find the skin a decadent indulgence.) I poached fish with our houseguest. We ordered Thai food. I got a lot of take-out empanadas. We even turned to canned soup when it seemed warranted (never as an ingredient, only as a dish in itself). Everything was geared toward comfort and convenience, and we were in sore need of both.

When Scott got home from the hospital that Saturday he was tired, and coughing, and in immeasurably better shape than he had been before. He slept for most of the next day and a half, grateful to be somewhere where they don’t wake you up every 20 minutes to poke you with something. (Well, the cats sort of do that, but he’s used to it.) And then he began to have more energy, and was able to be up and about and take naps during the day instead of sleeping most of the time. And I began to breathe a sigh of relief, because not only was he continuing to get better without relapsing, he was getting strong enough to take care of himself for a few days while I was going to be out of town at a professional conference. I had been distractedly grading homework and doing course prep for the workshop I was co-teaching, afraid to even admit to myself that I was worried he might need me to stay home. I missed Sheep & Wool, and that’s fine, I thought, but I can’t miss this. Can I? At some point a bit more than a week before my scheduled flight, I became confident that he really could manage those few days on his own. Our houseguest was now on track to go home herself — the day before I left for the conference, as it turned out — and while we were grateful for her offer to look in on him during my absence, and quite ready to take her up on it if needed, Scott was also excited at the prospect of resting alone, all by himself, without worrying that his coughing was distracting her, or that he was going to be woken up by one of my phone meetings.

We canceled our Thanksgiving party. Usually we host a big vegetarian get-together, but this year about three weeks ahead of the holiday we took Scott in for a follow-up visit to his doctor, who assured us that Scott was well on track for a very slow recovery, and we would have to be patient. And we realized that we couldn’t be confident Scott would have energy for a day of guests, so we alerted our regulars that they would need to make other plans. We were right to do so: by the time the holiday rolled around, he was doing a lot better — able to get to the neighborhood Starbucks for a writing session during the day and not necessarily have to take a nap afterward — but an entire day of cooking and guests, with nowhere to really isolate himself in our little apartment, would have been beyond him. I kind of missed the company, but was also glad of a chance to rest. It was the first Thanksgiving in at least five years that I haven’t had to set an alarm and basically cook all day, or spend the whole preceding weekend scouring the apartment and cooking ahead. I realized that I needed to recover a little myself.

And so we are continuing to get better here at Chez 107, day by day. Every day I cross a few things off my to-do list and move forward. Every day Scott coughs a little less, a little less often, and has a little more energy. Every day I give thanks for his health, and for my own health (I fought off a cold during all that but managed not to carry some lethal variant of pneumonia to the conference — whew). And I think about the lessons I’ve learned and am still learning, about what really matters, about how people will step up to help when you ask, about how you can’t be too proud to ask when you really need the help.

Oh, and the pistachio cookies? Ugly, I had originally said, but delicious. While I was still frustrated about their appearance I mentioned them in a Facebook post and said I was having second thoughts about whether they’d go into the boxes I was packing to ship to friends. One friend said, “Surely there is room in the goodie boxes for some Charlie Brown Christmas Cookies.” And she was right. To me they were ugly because they didn’t turn out as I meant them to. But objectively — well, they still weren’t magazine-pretty, but they were kind of cute in their way, and they were good enough. There was room.

Verdict: Not up to expectations, but good enough. And I am grateful that they taste good. I’m still not sure why they spread as they did, but I think I might try the recipe again, only instead of rolling out and cutting shapes I’ll try forming the dough into balls, rolling them in chopped pistachios, and setting them to bake that way. It’s worth a try.

Special Dork Tower Recipe Entry: Igor Bars

Igor Bars

BarsCutOutDork Tower is a wonderful comic strip by John Kovalic. Its characters make their way through the world with the help of gaming, geekdom, puns, and one another. One of the central characters is Igor, whose role in the strip is to represent reckless abandon. To Igor, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He’s the kind of gamer who will stay firmly ensconced at the table for the DoughMixedlongest, most complicated, most exhausting RPG at the con. If it’s excessive, it’s right up Igor’s alley.

And nothing is more excessive than Igor Bars.

John is contributing to the book “Geek Dad II” from the Geek Dad blog folks, and because recipes should be tested before they are printed in books, he CookiesBaked3asked for volunteers to test the recipe for Igor Bars. I’ve been curious about them for ages, so decided to go for it, with a degree of trepidation more appropriate to skydiving. That’s a silly comparison, I guess, though if I did go skydiving I’d be more likely to admit it to my doctor at my next checkup.

As John explains in the recipe, CaramelsPanMilkSaltCloseupmaking Igor Bars is a great family activity because kids of different ages can all help, and because there is endless opportunity for improvisation. Little fingers can unwrap the caramels; older children can cook the sauce or melt the chocolate. Everyone can suggest improvisations and additions: more nuts! Reese’s Cups! Milk Duds! There is no wrong variation on an Igor Bar. CaramelSauceMostlyMeltedHow can there be? When something is nutritionally wrong, all the rules fly out the window.

I decided to follow the classic structure for Igor Bars and add just one variation. So I began by lining a baking sheet with parchment and preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough to bake as a slab. John spells out the recipe in the version for the CaramelAndPeanutsbook, but I already know it by heart: cream butter with white and brown sugars, add vanilla, add eggs, add flour that’s been stirred with salt and baking soda, add chocolate chips, bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes. (Slightly underdone is better than overdone here.)

While the cookie layer baked I began the next part: the caramel StirringMarshmallows2sauce. I unwrapped two bags’ worth of Kraft Caramels. This is a tedious task, but soon enough I had a heavy saucepan full of little golden nuggets. I added three tablespoons of milk and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and heated the mixture slowly until it melted into a smooth sauce, stirring constantly. I spread the caramel sauce over the slightly cooled pan of cookies, then MarshmallowSaucesprinkled on a cup and a half of salted, roasted peanuts.

AddingRiceKrispies3Now it was time for the third layer: Rice Krispie treats. I melted three tablespoons of butter in the same heavy saucepan (washed out), then added a 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows. (Sure, now that it doesn’t matter which kind of marshmallow I use, I can find mini marshmallows.) AddingRiceKrispiesToCookiesI stirred until the marshmallows were melted, then added six cups of Rice Krispies; when I’d fully incorporated the cereal into the marshmallowy mess I scooped it out onto the top of the caramel and peanut layer and used wax paper to press and spread it more evenly across the surface.

Now it was time for the variation I’d chosen: I spread a bag of peanut butter M&Ms across the top, pressing them lightly into the Rice Krispie treat layer to keep them from rolling off. They made a cheery and colorful addition.

And finally, the top layer: I melted a bag of semisweet BarsToppedWithKrispieschocolate chips and drizzled the melted chocolate over the top of the bars. I was hoping for a kind of artistic line-drawing effect, but there’s quite a bit of chocolate in a bag of chips, and my final artistic effect was more Pollock than pointillist.

I let the structure cool for a while, then cut it into more-or-less even squares (a messy business); I AddingPeanutButterMMs3just cut to a size that seemed reasonable to me and yielded 28 pieces. I put one each on plates for me and Scott, and we dug in.

Wow. Igor Bars are overwhelming. The juxtaposition of the caramel and the Rice Krispie layer is brilliant, and the contrasts are numerous: sweet and salty, chocolate and cookie, nut and sugar, marshmallow and MeltedChocolate3butter. I felt slightly dizzy after finishing my square. I began to think that John’s recipe estimate of “serves 20” was conservative; 40 might be more like it. Of course, I thought, I might see it differently if I were 13 instead of 43. When I was 13 I could drink Mountain Dew without feeling queasy, which is not true today. So serving count may vary by average age of the party.

ToppedWithChocolateA friend who has been staying with us was out on Saturday night when I made the bars, but she sampled the concoction last night. I didn’t realize that’s what she was doing in the kitchen until I heard a shout of “Oh, my god!” that had me afraid she’d managed to cut off an arm with a kitchen knife. But no, she was just swooning at the excess of Igor Bars.

BarsCutOut2Ken’s reaction in the Dork Tower strip turns out to be remarkably accurate.

I brought most of them in to work today. The dieters took one glance and determined not to come anywhere near them; others were drawn to them a moths to a flame. Nobody’s head exploded during the course of the day, so that’s good.

Verdict: Success, of the “What hath God wrought?” variety.

The Classic Carrot Cookbook: Cake Wrecks Edition

sour cream carrot cake

CakeWreckThe Classic Carrot Cookbook is a 1982 production of the Arizona Federation of Garden Clubs. It’s plastic-comb bound (orange comb and cover, of course) and set in Courier type that may have been printed from a word processor, but may have been produced on the small-type ball of an IBM Selectric. The copy I have was sent by a friend; it’s a thrift-store find and she sent it for my GratingCarrotsRecipes of the Damned collection, largely because of recipes like ‘Nana Salad (colby cheese, canned pineapple, carrots, gelatin and bananas, to name but a few ingredients) and Bugs Bunny Bake (carrots and Velveeta).

I leafed through this book on several occasions, hoping I could find something I’d be willing to eat that I could cook in warmer PeelingBlanchedAlmondsweather (boeuf en daube was out), and wondering if I would be taking the easy way out by making carrot cake. No, I decided; I’ve never actually made carrot cake, so it’s not cheating to do what seems like the obvious thing.

Clearly I had no idea what I was in for.

GroundBlanchedAlmondsI bear some of the blame. I didn’t read the recipe through with complete attention before I began cooking, so I didn’t realize some of the problems until it was too late to choose something else. It seemed straightforward at a glance: divide 7 eggs, grate carrots, grind up some almonds, mix it all together with sugar and spice and lemon juice and flour. The sour cream would be part of CakeIngredsa cooked topping, a sort of sour cream custard that looked simple enough. So I went about my day and got caught up in various tasks, and finally started cooking, only to realize that I had some time-consuming things to do for this cake. If I had made the cake in the morning I could have dealt with some of this more smoothly; of course I also wouldn’t have gotten out of the apartment until EggSugarAt2Minsafter 2, so there are always tradeoffs.

The first time-suck was the almonds. I needed blanched ground almonds. Two and a half cups worth. Have you ever blanched almonds? It’s pretty simple: pour boiling water over your (shelled) almonds and let them sit for a few minutes, then drain, and slip off the skins, which EggsSugarAt4Minsshould come off easily when you rub the nuts in your fingers. There are a lot of almonds in enough to make two and a half cups of ground almonds, and slipping off the skins takes time, especially if it takes you a while to figure out that if a given almond is refusing to shed its skin you should set it aside to blanch again, not work hard at it. Finally I had the almonds peeled and AddedCarrotsput them into the food processor to grind. I pulsed repeatedly, anxious to get fine crumbs and not almond butter. After a bit, the food processor stopped working. I checked the plug; I checked the little lip on the container that needs to be engaged for the machine to run; I checked the toggle between high and low to make sure it wasn’t stuck in a AddedNutsnebulous middle. No; the machine was done. I don’t know if it’s just given up the ghost or if it’s simply thrown a belt, but since it’s a fairly cheap department-store brand that I think may have been a wedding present, it’s probably dead.

I had a bowl full of almond chunks the size of macadamia nuts, and was not sure what to AddedEggWhitesdo. The blender? Doubtful; I was sure the blender would turn it into almond butter instead of crumbs, and anyway I hadn’t checked it since I nearly burned it out on the failed Oaxacan pepian sauce. Then I remembered that my hand mixer has a little mini-food-processor attachment that I’ve never used. I assembled the pieces, and even though I had to do it in three batches, I very BatterInPansquickly had all the almonds nicely ground.

I readied my other ingredients, and came to the second puzzler. The recipe says to add sugar to the egg yolks and beat for 20 minutes. Really? I read it again. “Beat egg yolks and sugar for 20 minutes.” By hand or with a mixer? The recipe did not say. I began to read more carefully. The BatterInSecondPanrecipe was close-mouthed on other issues as well. What consistency should the egg yolks and sugar be after 20 minutes? What consistency after all the other ingredients go in, before adding the egg whites? What about the baking pans — should they be greased and floured, lined with parchment, anything? No guidance. I was out of parchment, but decided against using wax paper SourCreamAndSugar— I don’t really like that for oven baking. I decided to grease and flour the pans, hoping that would be enough to keep the cake from sticking.

As for the egg yolks and sugar, I decided that beating for 20 minutes probably meant by hand; I had a feeling 20 minutes with the hand mixer would only add to SourCreamAndSugarCookingmy appliance death tally. So I beat the egg yolks and sugar for 2 minutes, stopped and examined the consistency. Nicely blended and aerated, smooth. I had a hunch this was enough. Maybe 20 was a typo? I went ahead and beat the mixture 2 minutes more, saw no appreciable difference, and decided that I was going to move on with the recipe. I added grated carrots, then the almonds, SourCreamSauceFailthen some spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and clove), then some lemon zest and juice, and finally a small amount of flour. Now it was time to add the beaten egg whites; I folded them in carefully and divided the mixture between my baking pans. They were pretty full; belatedly I thought, are these 9-inch pans or 8-inch? I pressed on and put them in the oven.

DoneLayersWhile the cake baked, I began to work on the topping. When I was prepping my ingredients earlier I noticed that I had only enough fresh eggs for the cake, but still needed 3 yolks for the sour cream topping. Wait, I thought, I have egg yolks in the freezer! I’ll just rest the container on some warm water until they’re thawed enough to scoop out 3, then float that bowl on some warm water DoneLayerCloseUPuntil they’re thawed. Microwave thawing, I reasoned, might go too fast and cook them. Um, guess what: So can warm-water thawing. I returned to my resting yolks to find worryingly solid bits at the edges. Well, I thought, mostly this is liquidy yolk, and I can spoon out the solid bits before I add it to the sour cream mixture. So I set to work: I mixed a cup of sour cream with a cup of CakeWreck2sugar and brought the mixture slowly to a boil. Then I added the beaten yolks. And despite my best efforts, little boiled-yolk bits made themselves evident, and began to multiply. Desperately I added grated carrot and chopped nuts, but the yolks continued to cook rather than to blend in. I had a dismal, unappealing mixture. Sighing, I pulled it off the heat. I would let it cool so I CakeWreck3could discard it; in the meantime, Scott and I would go pick up some eggs and something to eat, then I’d make a new batch of sour cream topping with fresh, non-pre-cooked yolks.

In the meantime, I had been enjoying the developing smell of the cake as it baked. The recipe said to bake for 50 minutes in a 375-degree oven, but at about SadScotthalf an hour I peered in and noticed that the cake looked very brown and solid on top. Could the baking time be off as well? I checked the cake with a toothpick; it came out clean. This cake was done; if I left it in another 20 minutes I would have bricks, not layers. So I pulled it out to cool.

After dinner, I returned to the CakeWithIceCream3kitchen and decided that before I began a new batch of sour cream topping, I’d turn the cake layers out of their pans. I ran a knife around the edge of the first pan, encountering some resistance along the way. Not a good sign. I inverted the pan onto the cake plate and tapped the bottom a few times, then lifted. The cake did not budge. Cautiously, I began to work around the RecipePageedge again, and chunks of the cake began to come out. Not exactly the clean layers I had been aiming for. Had I been wrong about the baking time? I sampled a piece; the cake had a nice consistency and terrific flavor. No, the cake was nicely done, on the verge of overdone; it just refused to come out of the pan. I extracted the rest of the layer and packed the pieces into a plastic SectionDividerstorage container, then tried the second layer to see if it would hold together any better. It didn’t. I had a cake wreck on my hands.

So I abandoned my plans to make the sour cream topping. Instead, we had chunks of cake with the vanilla ice cream I made last weekend. The cake was delicious.

Verdict: Cake wreck. I think I’m done with this cookbook.