Sweet distractions

I’ve been lean on writing  this last week; sometimes, real life just intervenes. In this case, in a good way. Here is where my time usually devoted to writing has gone…

The kitchen cabinets
I set out determined to clean both pantry cabinets and all the kitchen drawers, and I did. They are beautifully organized, old stuff has been pitched, and some goodies I’d forgotten I had have been used or scheduled for use in dinners or other delights. Some of you will no doubt think I’m sick, but cleaning closets and cabinets is really the only household task, apart from cooking and baking, that I truly enjoy, perhaps because it fairly screams, “Fresh start!”

The garden
We’ve spent considerable time enjoying our backyard garden and the roses and clematis that give our house the look of a little cottage on the Maine coast. Everything we planted, moved, replaced is thriving this year; all we need do is take the time to savor it. We added a climbing rose this week and hope it will be happy in the place we chose.

Long walks with Miss Pup
Our walks have been extra pleasurable on the sunny days that followed what seemed like ages of damp and dreariness. One of the things I love most about our neighborhood is that people are always out and about—kids playing on the green, mamas and papas walking their babies, and lots of other doggies taking their constitutionals. Everyone smiles; everyone waves. The world needs that.

My first Tana French
Faithful Place is a dark crime novel set in Dublin. Oh, my goodness, what skill with voice! This one is really hard to put down.

Strawberries
Our local berries, the real ones, bear no relationship to those big, tasteless California imports in the grocery stores. We’ve been devouring our local berries for over a week, both in biscuit shortcake mounded with real whipped cream and just out of the dish, unfettered.

Every now and then, I catch myself frustrated with how few tasks I’ve completed in the course of a day. Sometimes, I still feel unproductive or even a bit guilty. But really enjoying your #retired life isn’t about changing the sheets, is it?

Photo: In my history with azaleas, which goes back to childhood, this may be the fullest and most beautiful. I take no credit for planting or feeding it—that all goes to our “tree whisperer,” Don. I would have posted a photo of the strawberries, but they disappeared before I could say, “Cheese.” I did include a link to my favorite shortcake recipe, just in case you’re interested.

Rainy-day baking

Despite yet another gloomy day, I’m assuming that the pleasures of outdoor dining are just around the corner. We’ve had crazy weather for months, with the temperature spiking into the 90s long before it should have, then taking a 20-degree fall—sometimes in the space of an hour or two. I know I’m not the only one longing for a steadier state.

Yesterday started out an idyllic, sunny spring morning. Unfortunately, the sky had turned  a dull gray by noon. The rest of the day was bleak, with wind and rain during the night, and today it’s pouring. More gloom is expected for the holiday weekend. Still,  I persist with the optimistic view that we’ll be dining al fresco some time soon. At least some of the time, that means burgers on the grill.

Which brings me to the actual purpose of this post, to share my very favorite recipe for sandwich rolls. I don’t know about you, but I despise supermarket hamburger rolls. They’re full of dough enhancers, preservatives, and artificial flavors; they’re gummy and just about tasteless. Hubby calls this “chemical bread” in all its iterations, which is both pretty cute and pretty much on-target.

Since I love to bake bread, last summer I decided that we were done with packaged supermarket rolls and began looking for sandwich roll recipes on my go-to King Arthur Flour website. Beautiful Burger Buns, Click to link to the recipe. I discovered, are lovely looking, good tasking soft buns. I highly recommend this easy recipe if you prefer a very traditional soft bun—for example, for brisket sandwiches with an au jus, pulled pork, for Sloppy Joes or Wimpies or whatever-they-call that old reliable delight in your part of the world. Maybe even for a chicken salad sandwich. If you try this recipe, however, be mindful that it calls for a fair amount of sugar, which helps to achieve the lovely golden brown color. It’s a bit too sweet for my taste, so I suggest cutting back a bit on the sugar—perhaps from ¼ cup to two tablespoons, per King Arthur notes.

A few months ago, I noticed another KAF recipe, No-Knead Sandwich Rolls, on the KAF Flourish blog. I had a feeling, reading through the directions, that they’d be perfect, which they have been, without fail. They have a more European texture, with a nice airy “crumb.” They’re substantial enough to shape any way you want to—long, for example, for a sausage and pepper sandwich, or smaller than usual, for a dinner roll. Rather than repeat the recipe here, I opted once again to rely on the link, where you will find detailed instructions with photos. Don’t skip dusting them with flour—I’m convinced it helps to produce that lovely crust. Use a sieve, and dust each tray immediately after shaping. One other tip—although the KAF photos show different shapes on the same tray, I suggest doing all the round ones on one tray, and longer ones for hoagies (subs, to you folks who call them that) on another, just in case there’s any minimal variance in baking time. Check at 20 minutes—mine were sufficiently brown by then.

These rolls are truly worth the minimal effort. They’re good enough on their own, as a European-style breakfast treat with butter and jam. What’s more, they freeze beautifully. You can make them ahead (in the evening, perhaps, when it’s not so hot), cool them, and freeze them in a bag, then take out just what you need every time. For sandwich rolls, slice them as soon as they’re completely cool, before freezing. When you’re ready to serve, defrost on the counter and warm them up a bit, and they’ll be just as good as they were right out of the oven.

And here’s another plus—you can make the dough ahead of time, all in the same bowl, which means no mess on the counter— and refrigerate it after the rise. It will store covered in the fridge for up to seven days, which is true for no-knead recipes in general.

They say you shouldn’t bake on a rainy day, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do to chase away the gloom. Once I heat up that oven, all will be well.

Notes:
I use the KAF dough bucket and KAF dough whisk when I make no-knead bread in particular. The bread bucket has measurements so that you can see when the dough has doubled in bulk. Plus, no mess on the counter! The whisk is great–the gooey dough doesn’t stick to it. I bought one elsewhere as a gift once, but the KAF is definitely superior.

I used my go-to KAF unbleached white flour for both, but there’s no reason you couldn’t mix it with white whole wheat, or add wheat germ or flax, for extra nutritive value.

 

Oscar, mother, and those jelly jars

I’ve loved The Importance of Being Earnest, one of dear Oscar Wilde’s funniest, since we staged the show in high school. Many of its epigrammatic quips have stayed with me all these years.  It’s possible that I like this one best:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.

The value of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams cannot be underscored. Their essential truth, well cloaked in satire, sticks like chewing gum under the dairy bar counter. They grow with you. When I was 16, I thought this was just a funny line. When I was 21 and trying to assert my independence, being “like my mother” was the last thing on earth I wanted. When my own kids came along, I wondered if they’d be like me. By the time I was 40, I began to hope I was at least somewhat like her. And now, of course, I am—at least in one notable way.

Which is to say, my kitchen in fully of jelly jars. Specifically, Bonne Maman (“good mother”) jelly jars. Like Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Whereas my mother saved commercial jelly jars for her own wondrous jams and preserves, I use the Bonne Maman jars for everything from baking soda to chopped onion to leftover sweet potatoes. I find they’re ideal not just because I’m a “brand loyalist,” but because the mouth is fairly wide, the lids are an adorable red-and-white check, you can easily see what’s in them, and they stack. More than that, Bonne Maman jams take me back to June in Provence, where Françoise, our charming hostess at Hôtel l’Hermitage, at breakfast served baskets of just picked strawberries and cherries from the orchards around Mt. Ventoux. Plus, as you’ve probably discovered, if it’s French or Italian, I’m in.

Recycling is always a good thing, and since many of us are trying to make the switch from plastic storage to glass, why not try some Bonne Maman—non-GMO, by the way—and put some of these great little jars to handy new uses?

Bon Maman

 

 

 

 

 

But it doesn’t taste like my mother’s…

Author Laura Schenone went to Italy in search of her ancestral ravioli recipe. Hold that thought while I digress a bit.

Ravioli is my favorite food in the world. Not the fancy kind, stuffed with lobster or  “kiwi infused pork” (no kidding!). Plain old cheese ravioli. Peasant food—la cucina povera— at its finest. It was my family’s signature dish for Christmas and Easter. Other special occasions might feature gnocchi or lasagna or “homemades,” but ravioli was always my mother’s pièce de résistance.

Mom didn’t use a recipe, of course—she did it all by feel. She rolled the dough and cut and filled the ravioli by hand, while the sauce was on the stove, in the last few hours before dinner. The ravioli were so tender they truly did almost melt in your mouth.

My mother eschewed shortcuts, possibly because the act of making the ravioli was so important to her. Daddy bought her one of those special rolling pins with the die-cut squares—a ravioli cutter—but she never used it. The ravioli it produced were too small, she said. When he brought home an Italian macaroni machine (that’s what we called it), she used it once, to make spaghetti as a first course for Thanksgiving, then retired it to the basement, saying it required too much flour, which made the dough tough. She never made the ravioli in advance and froze them, as many people do. Mom learned most of what she knew about cooking from her two older sisters—my grandmother had died in the flu epidemic when my mother was only eight. My guess is that Mom’s attachment to “hand made” ravioli was a way of staying connected to her earliest, and probably fondest, childhood memories.

When I was about nine, she patiently trained me to help her. I marveled at the way she whipped that dough around the long, smooth macaroni stick Daddy had made her. She didn’t fold the pasta dough in half, drop the filling at intervals, and then fold it over and cut around it—she cut out every single top and bottom and filled them one-at-a-time. I learned to make the filling—ricotta mixed with egg, fresh parsley, a bit of pecorino, and black pepper—drop a dollop onto the cut-out square of dough, top it with another, and crimp the edges together with a wet fork. And then race to get those delicate little packets into the pot of boiling water, with her chiding  me to handle them with care.

I should add that Mom was a working mother. That she didn’t start cooking till after 8:15 Mass. And that she accomplished all of this in a tiny rectangle of a 1958 kitchen, on a tiny rectangle of turquoise enamel kitchen table partly  covered with a well floured, old cotton  tablecloth I still have. It’s there, in the photo.

When my kids were old enough, Mom enlisted their help. My son, Chris, could whip that macaroni stick around like a pro when he was only eight. My daughter, Emily, picked up hand rolling as well and, inspired to a large extent by my mother, subsequently received her professional chef’s certification from the Culinary Institute of America.

These are glorious memories. One of my great regrets is that we have no photos of Mom in the kitchen, doing these ordinary-but-extraordinary things that made our lives so rich.

But back to Laura Schenone. Given my love of ravioli, how could I have passed up, on a Saturday stroll through Barnes and Noble, a book with the irresistible title, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken? Her family’s Genoese ravioli are different than our Southern Italian version—she uses a meat and cheese filling you’ll hear about in the video. Her quest to duplicate the taste and texture of her childhood, told within the context of a soul-searching memoir, is a satisfying detective story on multiple levels, beautifully told. And it’s an eye-opener for all of you who’ve said a thousand times, “It’s good, but it doesn’t taste like my mother’s.”

I’ve bought the book as a gift for friends and family maybe half a dozen times. You should read it, too. With Laura’s permission, I’m including her engaging and wonderfully instructive video; you’ll hear a short version of her story as she demonstrates how to hand roll pasta dough.

Laura Schenone’s first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, is a James Beard Award winner and a fascinating history of women “in the kitchen.” I highly recommend it, as well. Her newest book is due out later this year.

 

.Video used with permission.

 

 

Pop over…

Popovers, which more or less are individual Yorkshire puddings without the beef drippings for flavor, or “toad in the hole” without the sausage, are pure magic. And, because they’re hollow inside, they’re light as the proverbial feather.

Truthfully, as lovely as they are, they’re very easy to make. You just need to allow yourself enough time, most of which is for resting and baking, and to have a free hot oven so that you can serve them the minute you call everyone to the table. They’re the perfect addition to make a simple supper elegant, amiable companions to any luncheon salad, and to die for at breakfast, with butter and honey or jam.

You can make popovers perfectly well in a muffin tin; but a few years ago, I treated myself to a popover pan on a trip to King Arthur Flour in Norwich, VT—which, as you may know by now, is my happy place. You can buy the popover pan online; a box of the KAF mix is free with the pan purchase. I should tell you, however, that I eschew mixes of all sorts. What’s the fun of baking if you don’t get to use those cute little measuring spoons and spray flour all over the counter? To each his/her own, of course.

Click here for the  KAF recipe. Just remember never to open the oven door while they’re baking, and you should have no problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s cooking?

Cooking changes when you’re “around the ranch” most of the time. I’m still in the process of rethinking  my shopping and cooking habits.

For example, there is the problem of lunch. When we’re on one of our traveling vacations, a long, luxurious lunch is often our principal meal of the day. When I have a busy work day outside the home, I’m often very hungry at lunch time. On the home front, however, lunch always seems like an outlier. Following my mother’s example, some good cheese with water crackers and a piece of fruit are often sufficient for me; but if there are two of you, you need to consider your partner’s lunch preferences as well as your own. Having the  right sort of leftover on hand—a pot of stew or soup or chili, perhaps—helps. Reserve some to freeze, enjoy one dinner from the batch, and have the rest for lunch. Nothing revolutionary about that, however…

This brings me to the subject of meal planning. I have friends who meticulously gather their cookbooks together and plan the next week’s meals before they shop. I can’t tell you how much I admire their discipline as well as their culinary ability. Every time I set out on this path, I get distracted reading my cookbooks*. The net-net is commitment anxiety, and I end up shopping the way my father always did—the menus derive from what looks fresh and appealing and is well-priced. There’s nothing wrong with that approach—it’s actually closer to the European model— but for me, it results in a tendency to fall back on my “old reliables.”

The point is that absent the energy and focus that your work life once required, you can easily become bored with both cooking and eating, which is about how I feel right now, after weeks of roasted root vegetables. If you are the sort of person who has always taken pleasure in cooking and eating, you won’t want this to happen. Stale menus are as unappealing as stale food. You will have to change the paradigm, which will be so much easier now that you have time on your hands. A few suggestions:

  1. Randomly pick a cookbook from your collection or the library. I like a “real” cookbook, rather than electronic, for this purpose because you can take time to enjoy the photos and “digest” the narrative. Hand it to your partner, and ask for three recommendations to try in the next week. Then, choose one or two recipes yourself. Make your list, stock up, and proceed. If you can do so harmoniously, share the shopping, prep, and cooking responsibilities.
  2. Cook with a friend. Make a date to meet at your house or your pal’s. Confer and decide what to make and what each of you should provide. Next month, switch kitchens. You can turn this into a casual dinner party with partners or other friends, or just take home what you’ve made. You’ll have fun and maybe even learn from each other.
  3. Restore the time-honored ritual of “Sunday dinner.” If you don’t have family around to share it with, invite friends or neighbors.
  4. Take a round-the-world culinary tour. One week a month, go beyond spaghetti and tacos: try a few completely different recipes from another country or tradition. This would be a fun activity for the “grands”; you can get them involved in the research and decision-making.
  5. Take a cooking class every now and then, perhaps as a couple or with a friend. You’d  be surprised how many of these there are, even outside the big metropolitan areas. Check out supermarkets, specialty food stores, Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table, or any school, even a high school, that has a culinary arts program.
  6. Follow some food bloggers. The internet is full of trash as well as treasure, so this will take some exploration. Perhaps start with Saveur magazine’s 2016 blogs-of-the- year award winners. I could poke around these sites for hours without getting bored.
  7. Finally, Ina Garten never disappoints. Need I say more?

*Why wouldn’t you expect this of any self-respecting Pisces, whose zodiac sign is two fish swimming in opposite directions???

A pie that can’t grease itself…

Note: Two posts today because this is a companion piece to “Spys [sic] for pies.”

My mother made marvelous pies. Apple and peach, in season, were her favorites; but there was also an errant banana or coconut cream, or lemon meringue, to please my father. Although I had a solid cookie and cake repertoire by the time I was 13, the pies were her domain, and pie-making was demo-only. Whatever I learned, it was by watching, not doing on my own.

I made my first pie attempt shortly after settling into my own kitchen, after a friend gave me a pile of Jonathans from her husband’s family farm. I hauled out my brand new Joy of Cooking and set to it, remembering my mother’s caution—”Don’t over handle the dough—the heat from your hands will make it tough.” I had miserable results anyway. The crust was so tough that I could lift the entire pie out of the plate. Honestly.

I shared my chagrin with Virginia, my food and farm-savvy mentor, who assured me that I could indeed make a respectable pie using an old German recipe she had. I don’t remember the context, but she also said, “A pie that can’t grease itself isn’t worth a farmer’s ass.” In case you didn’t know that you don’t grease a pie plate, you do now.

I’ve used Virginia’s recipe for many, many years. It never fails. It contains Crisco, for which I, like the Pioneer Woman (it’s her recipe, too) refuse to apologize. I’m including this link to Ree Drummond’s directions because they’re very easy to follow if you’re new at, or anxious about, making piecrust. I also like the King Arthur Flour piecrust recipe made with butter and buttermilk powder, principally for meat pies or quiche, as it’s less short and, ergo, sturdier. Both recipes freeze well, so you can make a one-crust pie and freeze the rest for another occasion, which is very handy, and you can use about one third white whole-wheat flour in either if you like.

One of my great regrets is that I have no pictures of Virginia, who became “Grammy” after my kids came along, and that too many years passed without spending time with her. She suffered great losses in her life, but she had what seemed to me an unshakeable faith that kept her going, without discernible self-pity, and made her a kind and calming friend to others.

And, oh yes, she also introduced me to Welsh cookies (we’ll save that for another day) and Old Forge Pizza. She must have a special place in heaven for that.