When the cousins were here, we had pie three days in a row. At the start of the week, I knocked out three graham cracker crusts, wrapped them in plastic, and stashed them in the jelly cupboard. The first day I made a key lime pie. The second, a German cheesecake. And the third, a banoffee pie. [takes sweeping bow] My family thought they’d died and gone to heaven.
Banoffee pie — a mashup of bananas and toffee — originated in Britain (I think) and is enormously popular, from what I’ve read. I’ve been wanting to try one for years (seriously!), and since I’d made a large batch of dulce de leche that week, and we had a bunch of ripe bananas on the counter and that final crust in the cupboard, that’s exactly what I did.
The recipe was so simple — graham cracker crust, dulce de leche, bananas, whipped cream — that it felt trashy. I read it a bunch of times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, and then I read a bunch of other recipes, too, just to double check (and to familiarize myself with all comments and potential variations).
I was skeptical that anyone would like it, but I was wrong. The pie might be kinda low-brow — kinda like the classic banana pudding (that I loved) — but hey, not all pies need to be intimidating. And banoffee pie can be as classed-up as you like, what with homemade whipped cream, raw milk dulce, and, if you’re feeling righteously industrious, homemade graham crackers — or not!
Either way, it’s pie and people will gobble it.
Most instructions say to assemble the pie immediately before eating, but some people say it’s better on day two. The bananas will brown a little, but they also kinda meld into the dulce so it’s not terrible — just be sure to cover them well with the whipped cream to slow the oxidation.
Lots of recipes call for 2 cups (cans) of dulce and only 2 bananas. However, I scaled back the dulce by half (it’s so sweet) and double the bananas.
Variations I’ve considered but haven’t yet tried include 1) caramelizing the bananas, 2) adding rum to the whipped cream, or to the dulce, 3) using cocoa powder in place of grated chocolate, 4) putting a thin layer of chocolate ganache on the bottom of the crust before adding the dulce, 5) using a coconuty shortbread instead of grahams for the crust — and so on. Flavors that keep popping into mind include coconut, pecans, pineapples. Mess around!
1 9-inch parbaked graham cracker crust (see below) 1-2 cups dulce de leche 3-4 bananas, perfectly ripe and without any spots 2-3 cups sour cream whip (see below) grated chocolate, optional
to assemble: Spread the dulce de leche over the bottom of the crust. Slice the bananas and arrange over the dulce. Top with the sour cream whip, making sure to completely cover the bananas. Flurry the top with freshly-grated semi-sweet chocolate. Refrigerate.
for the graham cracker crust: 1½ cups (150 grams) graham cracker crumbs 1 tablespoon white sugar 1 pinch salt 3-4 tablespoons butter, melted
Stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and salt. Add the melted butter. The crumbs should hold together when firmly fisted but not be so saturated that butter oozes out. Press the crumbs into a 9-inch pie shell and up the sides — use a metal cup, if you like. Bake the crust at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Cooled crusts can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for several days, or frozen for longer storage.
for the sour cream whip: 2 cups heavy cream 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 tablespoon sour cream 2 tablespoons 10x sugar
Combine all ingredients in a mixer and beat on high until soft to medium peaks form.
A few days after my older daughter moved moved back into our house (temporarily), my out-of-state brother’s three kids who are ages 4, 7, and 9 came to stay with us for a little over a week and just like that I went from having two fairly-independent children at home to six, three of which required full-time supervision, and was plunged back into the world of bedtime stories, snack-times, potty-training, communal bathing, and early-morning wake-ups.
Except it wasn’t exactly like it was when my kids were little because, this time around, I had three older kids to shoulder (an enormous portion of) the load.
My younger daughter managed bathtime and hair brushing. My older daughter supervised Monopoly sessions (and mediated the fallout).
All of my kids took on the job of “chore coach,” teaching their cousins the ropes of dish washing, collecting trash, bringing in firewood, folding laundry and so on, and then shadowing the kids as they began to do the jobs themselves.
not visible: the footstool my son is standing on
We made excursions to Costco and Magpie (to get mini vanilla braids and to see the kitchen where my younger daughter was working), and to the library to stock up on books.
78 books (the kids counted)
Nearly every day, the littles left for several hours to go play at their cousins’ or my parents’ house, or the cousins came here, and one day my older son and daughter-in-law took them on a special outing to the children’s museum and then out for pizza.
And then almost as abruptly as it began, the whirlwind ground to a halt. My older daughter moved out on Saturday and the next day the three littles went back to their home — and I felt… I don’t know. Adrift? Relieved, definitely. Also, bereft. I was so glad to have my house back again, the burden of needy littles lifted, and yet —
As my kids have grown and our family has moved from one stage to the next, the earlier stages fade. I’ve felt sad every now and then, sure, but since the changes were incremental — reasonable, wanted —I could handle them, often not even noticing what I was losing. But for that one week that my brother’s kids were here, I was back in the thick of it again (which I always kinda hated but also sorta really loved because I thrive on chaos and adore all the organization, bossing, crisis management, cooking, and hands-on, in-the-moment work that goes with running a full house).
But this time my older kids were involved. We were all working together, rallying around these curious and cuddly children, and then the cousins left and we all went back to being our own people doing our own things, sometimes together but mostly independently as it should be and as I want it to be, but that bizarre mashup of two totally different life stages juxtaposed like that — young adult kids with the wee ones — reminded me of just how much I’ve lost and how grateful I am not to be doing that anymore and how much I miss it.
Especially feeding people. That part might be my favorite.
The first time I met with my cheesemaking group and one of them mentioned affinage, I had to ask what it meant. Affinage, my cheesemaking friends explained, is the process of aging cheeses. Okay, I said, and then I spent the next year studiously avoiding the word because it’s French and I can’t pronounce French words to save my life, and because most of my cheeses were vac-packed: in their little plastic biomes, there was no mold, no rind, no excitement, so I didn’t feel like I was affinaging anything.
Currently, here’s what I’m affinaging (oh-la-la!):
Jarlsberg-Style: I wondered if vac-packing was curbing eye development, and if I might be brining for too long (too much salt inhibits eye development), so I decided to attempt a natural rind from start to finish. I’ve had trouble with the rind being too soft/wet, but I think it’s finally stabilizing. . . and the cheese is now at room temp and beginning to swell.
Double Gloucester: Thus far, this one is my favorite cheddar-style cheese so I decided to make it with a natural rind to see if that would add more nuance to the flavor. I’m mostly just brushing or dry rubbing the rind to keep the molds at bay. It’s looking pretty gnarly.
Smackered: I created this cheese — smacked down with a board to give it curved sides (it didn’t really work) and then ale-rubbed with a pinch of b.linens. I think I did pretty much everything wrong. It has a rash of mildew spots, I didn’t wash it frequently enough, and the b.linens never really took off, but I used the cheese corer to sample it last week and it was lovely. Which brings up the next question: when is it done aging? I have no idea. (Probably when I need the aging box for a new cheese, ha!)
Unnamed, #121: Washed curd, a little salt added to the curds and whey, brined, and ale rubbed. The rind was smooth and pinkish until dusty tan-blue molds took over. It smells like cool gravel and kinda reminds me of southwestern colors and climate.
Raclette: I am beyond excited about this one. The rind is wildly sticky-stinky (the other day when I told my husband to smell it, he took a whiff and then dry-heaved) and the most gorgeous peachy-pink. I’m not at all sure I can wait the full three months before tasting it.
Gouda: I rubbed this one with a Belgian ale and it has a golden honey color and sweet, nutty-yeasty smell that’s driving me wild. I’ve switched from the ale rubs to a twice-a-week light salt brine rub. Thus far, it’s pretty darn perfect.
Affinage is incredibly laborious. Flipping a cheese might sound like no big deal, but consider the following tasks:
*shlepping cheeses up from the cellar and then back down again *note taking *mixing brines *washing (or brushing/wiping) the rinds *maintaining a cheese-turning schedule *daily observation, researching, and troubleshooting *monitoring humidity levels and temperature *thinking, thinking, thinking *waiting
It takes up an awful lot of brain space, these cheeses do. I don’t know exactly what I’m going for, or what I’ll do with the cheese when I get there, or whether or not I want to replicate the same cheese or do something different (and if so, what?). The accute and perpetual state of cluelessness and uncertainty is exhausting. The cheeses are heavy and smelly and weird and my head hurts from thinking and I have no idea if I’m on the right track.
So next time you see an artisanal cheese that you think is exorbitantly overpriced, know this: it’s not.
I’ve decided it’s time to start smoking cheese so…
1. I had my younger son pull out an old electric smoker that someone gave to us, but it didn’t work. Or he couldn’t get it to work (which is the same thing as far as I’m concerned). 2. He got out an actual fire smoker — coals in the bottom and food on top — that I’d bought secondhand. It works great for meats, but we couldn’t get the temp to stay below the necessary 90 degrees that cheese needs. 3. He put coals in a pan and we tried to smoke the cheese in the grill but the coals kept dying.
Now my cheese world has exploded. The smoked cheddar is fantastic — like a whole new kind of cheese. I’m so excited to try Gouda and Toscano Pepato.
Jarlsberg, Pepper Jack, Derby, São Jorge, Gouda (of course), and Toscano Pepato
The other day I happened upon a video of some of the behind-the-scenes filming of Napoleon Dynamite.
I watched it multiple times, with multiple family members, and with immense glee. It was so fun to see Pedro, Uncle Rico, etc as their “real” selves (um … the actors, I guess?), and I was fascinated by how everyone seemed to be cobbling the movie together as they went. The whole process looked tedious, unglamorous — and wicked fun.
How many of you know what the Enneagram is? (This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know! The enneagram is such a central part of how I understand people and relationships that I often forget that many people — most people? — don’t even know what it is.)
I always knew my number just from my reading, but then a few years ago I took one of the most in-depth Enneagram tests (some test out of South Africa that we had to pay for and gave me pages and pages and pages of analysis) and it confirmed what I already knew: I’m a raging 8. What number are you? Here’s a list of the best free tests, if you want to try one. (I just took the Truity test and I’m an 8.)
Here’s an oldie but goodie. On the surface it’s about marriage, but really it applies to all conflict. For a clip that’s not even two minutes long, there’s an awful lot to unpack.
I showed it to my kids this week, and they got a kick out of it.
The other day I made a Fat Cow Cheese that bombed. Or I thought it bombed, anyway.
Up until pressing it was spectacular, but then the rind stuck to the cheesecloth and the cheese was all firm on the outside and jiggly on the inside and I was convinced it was full of trapped whey that was going to make the cheese rot from the inside out.
So that evening I took it out of the press, plopped it into a bowl and then tore it into pieces while every fiber in my body screamed at me to stop. I salted it — I’d decided to forgo the planned-for brining — and popped it back in the press.
This time the whey was like creamy milk so now I was losing the good stuff on top of everything else. I went to bed then, but I was so worried that when I woke up in the middle of the night I couldn’t go back to sleep for a couple hours for thinking about it.
(In the dark of night I attempted to rationalize myself back to sleep by reminding myself of a piece of advice from LaNae Williams that I’d read in the NY Times: If there is an issue bothering me, I think to myself, “Will this still be an issue in one week or in one month?” If the answer is no, it’s a small problem so I let the stress go and move on. I told myself that, not only would this cheese problem not matter in a couple days, but I’d probaby have learned something from it and, in retrospect, be grateful for it, but — no dice. Still couldn’t sleep.)
By the next afternoon when I pulled the cheese from the press, the curds appeared well-knitted and I felt a surge of hope. It still felt super tender in the center so, thinking there might still be excess whey in there, I dry salted the top of the cheese and then set it out to air dry.
And then it started cracking.
Not the little hairline cracks that sometimes appear, but deep, innard-revealing chasms that — in the middle of the night, sigh — had me convinced once again, that the cheese was rotting, but this time from the outside in, since all kinds of bad bacteria were surely infiltrating the cheese through the gaping crevices.
The cheese itself still felt super soft on the inside. It was unstable, which made me afraid it would fall apart when I flipped it. That night, worried it might slump down into a big puddle on the table, I tied a cheese cloth around the sides of it to short it up, kinda like a belt.
The next day I had to vac-pack it which meant I had to cut it in half. Finally I’d see the inside. And . . .
It was beautiful! Well-pressed, sweet-smelling, creamy. I was thrilled — and immensely relieved.
And THEN [drumroll] . . . the night before, an idea had popped into my head: might the cheese make a good mozzarella? See, there are two main kinds of methods for making mozzarella — the fast version (here and here) and then a slower, cultured version which I’ve tried but, because I lack a pH meter, hasn’t worked. But this cheese was fully cultured, and then some. Why not crumble a chunk into pieces, pop it into the microwave, and try to stretch it?
People, it worked. Not only did it stretch beautifully but, fully salted and with all that culturing, it was the most wonderfully delicious, flavorful mozzarella I have ever, EVER tasted.
Normally when microwaving mozzarella curds, lots of whey is expressed and lost, but these curds retailed all of their fat. There wasn’t a drop of anything left in the bowl! (I didn’t cut off the rind so the mozzarella wasn’t completely smooth, but I didn’t care. It was still delicious.)
In the end, I made one half of the cheese into (what I’m calling) my Signature Fat Cow Mozzarella and then vac-packed and froze it, and the other half I vac-packed for aging. I think as it ages the rind will soften and the paste will stabilize and it will probably be just like the first Fat Cow I made, though maybe more crumbly because I milled in the salt. We’ll see!
Note: when making the mozzarella, I overheated one batch of the curds and then it refused to stretch. I glopped it into a container and now that it’s chilled it has the texture of a firmer cream cheese.
To eat it, we dig out blobs and add them to calzones, pasta, mac and cheese, whatever — it’s freaking delicious. (I gave my older daughter a taste of it when it was warm and the texture of ricotta, and she promptly scooped a whole spoonful onto her plate and ate it with her breakfast.)
So there you go, friends: yet one more valuable lesson from The School of Cheese. But Jennifer, you say, was it worth a few hours of lost sleep?
This morning I found a dirty rag on the floor beside the basket of laundry. I took it downstairs, along with the laundry, and called the bathroom-cleaning child over for a look-see.
“Things that are full of dirt can’t go directly into the machine with all the other clothes,” I said. “You have to wash out the rag and then put it in the laundry. Now go do it right.”
I do this a lot, calling kids back for a re-do follow-through. Last night at bedtime I called someone downstairs because there was a dirty thermometer on the kitchen counter, shoved up against the wall as though that solved the problem. The other day I noticed a ring of gunk around the base of the pedestal sink and had to explain (again) how to scrub a floor and then make sure it got done again — this time, properly. This morning I sent someone outside to pick up all the pieces of twine that were strewn over the trailer, remnants from hauling a load of hay.
The constant follow-through exasperates my husband. “We shouldn’t still have to tell them how to do it properly!” he rants, and I get it. It would be nice if they scurried around doing all the things before we even knew they needed done (and sometimes they do; sometimes they’re freaking amazing).
But wishing something doesn’t make it true.
The truth is that my children are 16 and 18 (and older) and while they do most of the dishwashing, toilet scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, laundry, porch sweeping, trash emptying, etc, I still monitor and track.
The truth is that teaching kids to work takes work. It’s on-going — a marathon, not a sprint — and it takes years.
The truth is that it’s the little things, like setting the trash basket down properly (upright and in the right place) after emptying it, or wiping the bits of cleaning rag lint clustered in the mirror’s corner, or delivering the stacks of folded laundry to the proper rooms and then returning the empty washbasket to its spot atop the machine, that are the difference between a half-assed job and a completed job.
The truth is that the stupid little things are actually rather enormously important: attention to detail, finishing a project all the way, caring enough to do, enduring temporary discomfort for later gratification, seeing things from another perspective (mine).
The truth is that my children know how to work and I’m still teaching them to work. Two things, both true.
Would it be easier to do the work ourselves? In the short-term, yes, in some ways, but in the long run, no, absolutely not because: 1) I don’t want to do it do it all myself, 2) I can’t do it all myself, and 3) I don’t enjoy children who expect to be waited on. So I make notes of the piddly things like “put coats away,” “fold blanket in hall,” “pick up the paper you swept off the porch into the yard,” and then make them follow-through. Because — another truth — practice makes better, and we have an endless supply of things to practice on!
P.S. While I was working on this post, I got a text from one of my children showing off a freshly-cleaned room (in another house). “It blows me away how amazing I am,” the text read, and I thought back over the years of markered walls, junk-strewn bedrooms, and the hours upon hours of gnashing teeth and dragging heels as I taught them again and again and again how to work — and I laughed. Amazing indeed.
On New Year’s Day, my husband and younger daughter got up at 3 a.m. and drove up to Massachusetts to pick up my older daughter and all her stuff. The plan was to load her up and then return the next day, but they made such good time, and she was all packed (and wasn’t too keen on dragging out the goodbyes), so they loaded everything up and headed right back, arriving home at 2 am in the morning.
Yes, you read that right: they were gone for a total of 22.5 hours and were driving for 19.5 hours of that time.
They spent the next day doing a lot of this:
I was bummed they came right back because I’d been looking forward to a leisurely day at home (mostly) alone, but then I got over myself and adapted. As one does.
When they arrived home in the dead of night, I went downstairs to say hi. Charlotte was all excited to see me, and my daughter was walking around pointing out all the changes. And then I made my younger son wake up and come down because I wanted to be there when she saw him for the first time — all six feet and four-plus inches of him. The look on her face!
I didn’t think about my daughter that much when she was gone. I mean, I thought about her, of course, and we talked on the phone (a LOT), but she was so far away and so busy doing her own thing that she was sorta back-burnered in my mind. The last time she was home was over a year ago for the whirlwind wedding weekend, and she came home a couple months before that for about a week — in other words, she was only home twice in the two years she was gone. The last time I saw her was when my husband and I made a quick trip up in early spring.
I guess what I’m saying is, she was gone a long time and we hardly saw her. And now that she’s back, I’m almost sorry for myself for having lived the last two years without her. It’s like only now that she’s here do I feel the weight of her two-year absence.
In a couple weeks she’ll move into another house not far from here where she’ll be housesitting. She plans to work with my husband, perhaps pick up some other jobs, and get reaquainted with the area while she figures out what’s next.
Know My Name, by Chanel Miller. An incredible story about a difficult topic. Somehow she managed to tell her story in such a way that I didn’t suffer any second degree trauma. I learned so much that, hoping to get my husband to read it, I ordered the book. (And then he wouldn’t read it — says stories like this are just too deeply disturbing.)
Here We Are, by Aarti Namdev Shahani. About our broken justice system and an immigrant family, this is an important topic but the story felt disjointed and too long and I didn’t quite make it the whole way through.
The Measure, by Nikki Erlick. An interesting concept but the story felt a little too didactic. The plot seemed distant and then I realized: with an established predestination for all the characters, there’s not much thrill.
Top picks include Stranger Care and Know My Name (for most absorbing and inspiring), as well as Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking and Courtney Maum’s book (both for their usefulness). I struggle to enjoy fiction — my mom says it’s because the stories aren’t real; she might be right — but I keep trying. Just now I placed several books from this list on hold at the library. What are you reading?