My dad built a stage. My mom made a million cookies and borrowed coffee makers and mugs. They put up signs for parking and seating. There was a bonfire and twinkle lights.
And then the people came.
Lots and lots of people.
It was the biggest crowd of mostly maskless people — they requested unvaccinated people wear masks — I’d been in since the pandemic started sixteen months ago.
And it was lovely.
And then the next day my younger daughter and I went to Costco where we were met at the doorway by this sign.
We promptly ripped off our masks and, grinning maniacally, waltzed into the store. My daughter took off to get her own stuff and then, minutes later, came racing back: There’s samples, Mom!!!
AND THERE WERE.
The sample carts had plexiglass walls affixed to their tops, with a little hole at the bottom through which they’d slip individual paper bags of samples.
There was a sign telling people to wait until they were out of the store to eat the samples, so I dutifully carried around my little bag for a bit and then I was like, Wait, I’m not wearing a mask so whether or not I put food in my mouth is irrevelant — that sign is for the masked unvaccinated. And then I chowed down.
After his second vaccine, my younger son had just a slightly sore arm. In other words, he was the only one in our family to have zero side effects. LUCKY.
Version One It’s nearly been a month since I pulled my hamstring, and, not to be dramatic or anything, going cold turkey on all physical activity has been tough. Without my morning runs, walks with friends, and Ultimate games, and without a need to cook or eat, I sank into a puddle of self-pity and despair. Withdrawal symptoms included, but were not limited to, malaise, end-times thinking, apathy, bodily heaviness, self-pitying thoughts, low energy, loss of appetite, and an unreasonable urge to eat down the house. Seriously. Even though I wasn’t hungry, all I wanted to do was eat. It was ridiculous.
On the flipside, I’ve had more time for writing.
Version Two A couple days after I pulled my hamstring, I tried to go for a walk and only made it about a half mile before having to turn back because my leg just wasn’t functioning properly and I was afraid I was doing real damage, but then when my leg didn’t hurt any worse the next day, I began to go on regular walks even though they were time-consuming, didn’t raise my heart rate hardly at all, and made me feel like I’d aged thirty years, but nevertheless I persisted and I kept doing my hamstring strengthening exercises (and making my husband give my leg a deep tissue massage every night) and then after a couple long weeks my older son suggested we go on a bike ride and that was so refreshing that I went on another bike ride the following week and then, a couple days later, I, in a burst of optimism, biked the ten miles from town to my house on my own and it was glorious but, wouldn’t you know, then my knee started hurting like the dickens and, via some quick internet research, I discovered that my (self-diagnosed) bursitis was a consequence of a tight hamstring and I was like THIS IS NEVER GOING TO END WAAAAAH and began considering private swimming lessons and a pool membership but then I managed to mostly stay off my feet for a couple days while religiously icing my knee and popping Ibuprofen, which made me feel actually good enough to attempt a short run, and now, because my knee and hamstring are both considerably better (or at least not worse), I’m letting myself run a slow mile or two every other day which is doing wonders for my mental health but I still can’t play Ultimate, pant-pant.
We’re slowly getting the hang of this milk thing. I’m working with three — no, four — main components: the milk, yogurt, cheese, and whey. Here, let me show you.
The Milk The first few weeks, I thought the milk tasted stronger than it should. Farmy, or something. I’d read that a rapid chill-time was key to keeping milk fresh-tasting, so I started making my younger son keep the “collecting” bucket in a pan of ice water while he was milking, and now the milk tastes much better.
While my son was getting a bit faster at milking, it was still taking him at least an hour to get a gallon and a half. So, at my dad’s urging, we borrowed an electric milker from a neighbor and now he’s getting two-plus gallons in about fifteen minutes. (Update: this morning it took three minutes.) The whole process still takes time — setting up, washing the milker afterwards — but it’s much faster.
We get hardly any cream! We’re not sure why — is she saving all the hind milk (where the cream is) for the calves? is her diet missing something? is it because she’s a Holstein? — and I’m pretty bummed about it, but, oh well. I never skim the milk. We just shake the cream in before using it, and if I want cream, I buy it from the store.
Yogurt Making A friend told me that boiled milk makes a thicker yogurt, which seemed counterintuitive — one would think that a barely heated milk would allow for more bacterial growth which would then lead to a thicker yogurt — so I experimented: barely heated fresh milk versus boiled milk, and, sure enough, the boiled milk was thicker.
I’ve also tried stirring a bit of xanthan gum into the milk prior to heating and incubating. The resulting yogurt was extremely thick — nearly half of it was whey — but far too tangy and grainy. So never mind that idea.
with the xanthan gum: grainy
I’ve also strained some of the homemade yogurt to make Greek yogurt. I like it, but I think I prefer the looser, non-drained version. It’s lighter and sweeter. More refreshing.
My mom doesn’t like the layer of cream that you get on the top of homemade, raw-milk yogurt and challenged me to figure out a way to make it without that separation. I queried all my raw milk yogurt-making family members and friends, and did a bunch of internet research, but no luck. Apparently, a cream cap on raw milk yogurt is just par for the course. Sorry, Mom. Just scrape off the cream cap and carry on.
The other day I made some yogurt that turned out wildly tangy. I had no idea why; I’d done it the exact same way the day before. Perhaps I’d left it in the incubator for a little too long? But I’ve left it in even longer other times and it’s been fine. The only other thing I could think of was that I was also making two cheeses at the time and perhaps a bit of citric acid dust floated through the air and screwed it all up? Who knows. We fed it to the dogs.
I still haven’t landed on a perfect yogurt-making formula. Sometimes, for whatever reason, there’s more whey on top, or it’s super creamy or extra thick, or it’s unusually sweet. I can’t figure it out. I know a lot of you making your own yogurt at home, so if you’ve discovered some tricks — religiously temping the milk, using fresh starter every time, or using a lot of starter or a very little starter, whatever — please share. I’d love to get really good at this.
Cheesemaking I’ve been steadily experimenting: ricotta, fromage blanc, queso fresco, queso blanco, cuajada (a Nicaraguan farm cheese), paneer, etc. The actual names are sort of confusing, since, in some cases the methods are almost identical — like, paneer and queso blanco are basically the same thing, and ricotta is like paneer but without the pressing, and so on.
set with rennet and mesophilic starter: for queso fresco
The similarities make me think that cheesemaking is, perhaps, a lot like making bread: once you get a feel for it, you can kind be as precise or as casual as you like — it all depends on what you’re going for.
set with rennet: for cuajada
So I’m beginning to relinquish my death grip on the recipes and instead focus on how it feels, messing around with different coagulants and temperatures and methods, as per however the heck I feel and based on what I want. It’s liberating.
curds for queso fresco
So far, cuajada might be my favorite — I’m building the recipe based on memory, and some internet research — and paneer is a close second. Ricotta third.
after six hours at 35 pounds of pressure: queso fresco
But these cheeses are quite different from their store-bought equivalents, so you can’t always use them interchangeably. Therefore, I’m working to create my own cheeses that I’ll name based on how I use them. Accurately-named cheeses will help manage expectations and allow me to keep my methods straight in my head.
butter chicken with paneer
So… recipes forthcoming, I hope. Stay tuned!
Whey I don’t have a good use for the whey.
I’ve made bread with it — whey in place of water — but while it makes a wonderfully tender bread, it only uses a few cups. And I have gallons.
One friend suggested using the whey to make mint tea. I said that sounded gross. She said, Think mango lassi. Me, Oh.
But then I tried it and, while actually surprisingly good, the tea had a heavier mouthfeel and I’m used to mint tea being light and bright. But I bet it’d be good in a smoothie, yes? (Or it would be, anyway, if I wasn’t already making smoothies to use up all the milk and yogurt.)
And then another friend suggested using the whey in place of water in soups — potato, veggie, chowder, etc — but again: I have gallons of the stuff. Also, it’s not exactly soup weather.
So for now I’m either feeding the whey to the dogs or dumping it down the drain.
One enormous plus of all this milk? We’ve dramatically reduced our plastic waste. I never really thought about it all that much, but now, after a morning of cheese and yogurt making, the counter will be littered with dirty jars and I can’t help but realize how much plastic I’m not using. It’s a pretty cool feeling.
Ever since we moved into our house, our bedroom has been plagued with a useless corner nook. Too small for a desk or chair, too bright to store clothes or books (because of the enormous window), and too out-of-the-way for anyone to actually hang out back there, it’s always ended up being a catch-all for clutter. I hated it.
From the door looking in.
From the center of the room: awkward corner, closet, bedroom-bathroom wall. Note the patched floor where the old stairs were.
From the bed: awkward corner with window on the left, built-in closet and the bedroom-bathroom wall, hallway.
It was all our fault since we were the ones who renovated the place. Ever since, we’ve wanted to fix it, but we never could settle on a plan. We’d shift things around — put in a sofa and then take it out, add a homemade desk, change dressers or bedstands or lighting — but it wasn’t until a few months ago that we actually started talking about it. Like, productively brainstorming “LET’S GET ON WITH IT ALREADY” solutions. We talked about big things, like moving the bathroom or taking out the window. I even suggested making a false wall and boarding up that corner entirely. After much deliberation, we finally came up with an idea.
But first, let me back up. Like, way back up. Here’s what our house looked like when we bought it.
The boxy part on the end had been added on to the main house at some point. On the addition’s first floor was a bedroom and bathroom, and a set of stairs that led up to two tiny bedrooms. The upstairs of the addition was not connected to the upstairs of the main house. On both levels of the addition, the ceilings were low.
one of the addition’s bedrooms
So my husband took out the stairs in the addition and jacked up the first floor ceiling by about 9 inches. He made the downstairs bathroom bigger (and we kept the downstairs bedroom — our guest room). The upstairs part of the addition became one big bedroom with a gloriously high ceiling, and a bathroom. He connected the upstairs of the addition to the rest of the house with a hallway and, since the addition portion was still lower than the main house, two steps.
note the different levels between the main house and the addition
And then we moved in and I had a baby on the floor.
So that’s the story of our room and its problematic corner. We have a plan for how to fix it, but we’re moving slowly, in stages. If any of you have some good suggestions, speak up now. We just may be able to incorporate them.
The day after the CDC announced that kids ages 12-15 could get vaccines, I signed up my younger son for his shot. Once again, I had that same nervous feeling, and, once again, it was totally fine. The clinic was teeming with parent-child duos, and there was even a place for walk-ups.
The next day, my son had a wee bit of stomach upset, but his arm hardly even hurt. He gets his second shot later this week which means that, when we head north on our family vacation, he’ll be nearly fully vaxxed, hip-hip!
Ultimate games (until I pulled my hamstring).
The day after the CDC’s sudden (and extremely clumsy) mask mandate reversal, I was itching to put on lipstick and go shopping without a mask. Better yet, I wanted to burn the masks. (Not really, but you know what I mean.)
But then I got to Old Navy and everyone was still masked, the “just virtual hugs for now” announcement still playing over the sound speaker every ten minutes, and I was like, Oh yeah, national chains can’t just turn on a dime. Darn. Guess this means Costco’s probably not putting out the samples just yet.
Indoor meals! With (lots of) friends!
Back in the beginning, in an attempt to get everyone on board with mask wearing, a moral case was made for them: people who wore masks were thoughtful and caring; those who didn’t were selfish and rude.
There was good reason for this because, apparently, a whole bunch of people in our country no longer believed in science [cue the rumbling of a falling civilization]; how else were we to convince people to put the damn things on their faces if not through shame and blame?
But now that science has proven that fully-vaxxed people have a very low risk of transmitting and contracting the virus, mask-wearing advocates find themselves in a bind: if we give up masks, then how will anyone be able to tell us thoughtful folk apart from the careless maskless ones we so itched to challenge in the grocery store? Now I find myself feeling pressured to continue wearing a mask, not because it will protect me against the virus (thank you, vaccine) or because the people I’m with are compromised (they aren’t), but because if I don’t, then people might think I’m a bad person.
It’s ironic, no? We make a moral case to shame people into wearing masks and now we’re embarrassed to take them off. Oops.
But it is also reasonable for people to want to continue wearing masks, to feel anxious that others might now decide not to, or to be dubious that strangers will be honest about their vaccination status. People don’t make decisions about the present in a temporal vacuum. They integrate across their past experiences. They learn. Some have learned that the CDC can be slow in its assessment of evidence, or confusing in its proclamations. They watched their fellow citizens rail against steps that would protect one another from infections at a time when the U.S. had already weathered decades of eroding social trust. They internalized the lessons of a year in which they had to fend for themselves, absent support from a government that repeatedly downplayed a crisis that was evidently unfolding. “We had no other protections all year,” Gold said. “We had masks. No one else protected us. It’s understandable that people would be hesitant about taking them off.”
From my writing nook at the coffee shop.
Now, (semi-)post Covid, I keep hearing people ask, What’s it going to be like to be in a group of people without a mask? Will I be able to relax? Will I remember how to be behave? The emotional fragility has felt familiar to me, and then I realized why: it reminds me of how it feels to come home after living in another country.
Reentry is tough. The whole world seems shrouded and otherworldly and, unsure of myself, I move gingerly. Each new thing — writing a check, driving a car, running the washing machine — evokes anxiety. Can I do it? Will I remember how? But as soon as I do the “new” thing I’m so worried about, like buy groceries with a credit card or check books out of the library, my confidence comes flooding back and I relax.
That’s how this stage of Covid feels to me. Each new thing — standing close to someone, waltzing into someone’s house, walking into a populated room without the “putting a mask on” motion, sitting outdoors with a crowd of people — is a little weird. I feel clumsy. I marvel. I get emotional. But I’ve also noticed that I’m acclimating. Quite quickly, actually.
Thing is, with Covid, people are re-entering at different times and at different speeds. It’ll probably take weeks, if not months, for us to work our way through this stage of the pandemic. But then, I imagine, we’ll reach the tipping point where we look around and suddenly realize that more people than not are in society, doing more or less the same things they used to pre-pandemic.
That’s my theory, anyway. We’ll see what actually happens.
At my kids’ concert, we sat physically distanced but, once seated, almost everyone removed their masks. At one point, we were even instructed to sing along. I settled for crying.
Popping in with popovers, again, but this time: sugar-crusted.I know.
When I posted about popovers (just) last week, reader Miriam suggested I try David’s version in which the outside of the popover gets brushed with melted butter and then aggressively rolled in cinnamon sugar. So I did — but with my recipe as the base — and WOW, sooo good.
In this version, the butter turns the crispy-crunchy exterior soft and tender, like the butter-drenched center of the piece of toast. Actually, come to think of it, the entire popover is like the center part of a piece of toast, plus cinnamon sugar, which is awesome. The inside stays like it was before except wherever there’s a hole in the crust, the butter and sugar runs down in making it all buttery and sugary on the inside, too, swoon. For those of you raised on cinnamon sugar toast, this one’s for you. THANK YOU, MIRIAM.
Because these are best eaten fresh (and you probably shouldn’t eat them all yourself), these make for a fantastic contribution to any potentially awkward, post-Covid gathering: a brunch with extended family, a team meeting with coworkers, an (indoor!) afternoon coffee with friends. Show up with a cloth-lined basket stuffed with these billowy, sugar-crusted clouds of goodness and any lingering social angst will vanish immediately, you mark my words.
So go on, now. Be a hero. Bake some sugar-crusted popovers and feed them to people. The world will be a better place for it.
Brushing baked goodies with melted butter and cinnamon sugar is not a new concept — I’ve used it before with muffins (the very first recipe on this blog!) — and is well worth the little bit of extra mess.
1 recipe of popovers, baked 2-3 tablespoons melted butter ½ cup sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon
As soon as the popovers are cool enough to handle, brush them with melted butter and then dredge in the cinnamon sugar. Devour.
When our older daughter moved out, officially reducing us to a family of four, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. With just two kids at home, would I be bored? Would I feel incomplete? Would I feel disconnected from the children who’d moved out? Would I lose my sense of purpose? Would an endless stream of regrets rise up to overwhelm me? Would I turn hopelessly melancholy and bereft, constantly thinking back to the days when all my kids were under one roof? Would the younger two turn glum and despondent? Would I lose my drive to cook?
Well, now that we’ve been a family of four for nearly four months, I can tell you this: I absolutely love it.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Am I bored? Yes. Now, then, and always. It’s a constant battle. I could have a million kids and I’d still be bored. Moving on.
Do I feel incomplete with just half my kids? Not at all. It’s gratifying to watch the older two go after the things they want without my time, supervision, or money. (I recently read an article that said there’s an increase in dissatisfaction for mothers with young adult children, primarily if/when those children are still financially dependent, which makes me so glad that we began requiring the kids to pay for a whole bunch of stuff starting when they were sixteen. Kinda feels like I dodged a bullet on that one.)
Am I disconnected from the older two? Yes and no. Yes, because when my son’s school is in session, we sometimes don’t see him for days on end, and, in my daughter’s case, because she lives nine hours away in a foreign (to us) world of equestrians. No, because my son lives only 15 minutes away so he’s in and out of our lives, showing up to our pick-up Ultimate games or popping in to the coffee shop where I’m writing just to chat (and he’s working with my husband full-time over the summer so they’re basically best buds), and my daughter calls home almost daily to tell us about her day in great details. In other words, while we’re definitely separated from the older kids — and they clearly have their own lives — they’re still very much a part of our family.
Have I lost my sense of purpose? A little bit, yes. For me, creating “home” means living in it. And now that there is less living in our house — we all work out of the home — the sense of “home” is less concentrated. (But this may have more to do with transitioning to an empty nest, combined with COVID’s lingering ramifications on our social lives, than being a family of four….)
Have I become melancholy about “the good old days”? Nope! They had their nice moments, but I sure do like it — prefer it — where I am now, thank you very much.
Is being a family of four hard for the younger two kids? To a certain degree, yes. They’re the ones who get to experience the gradual fragmentation of a family. With their older sibs gone, there are fewer people for them to bounce up against, which also means there’s less to pull them out of themselves. Sometimes it feels like it’s not just the family size that’s diminished, but our actual selves. (Or maybe it’s just that we’re all getting older and our energy levels are tanking?) The older two gone, I can focus on the youngers, actually pay attention to them, which, in their opinions, may not always be a good thing. On the other hand, I think the younger kids do appreciate the less-frenzied vibe and slower pace.
Have I lost my drive to cook? Not really, but there’s no need to, and that makes me crotchety. It doesn’t take much to feed the family anymore, and we’re crazy food-rich to boot, what with my daughter’s occasional contributions from the veggie farm, scraps I bring home from the bakery, our beef-stocked freezers, and now all the milk and dairy we could possibly want. I’m saving a ton of money, but I do miss cooking.
So, in conclusion, do I enjoy having just two kids at home? Yes, yes, and YES. The house feels spacious — we have empty rooms! — and stays cleaner. We have more money and less people to spend it on; going out for ice cream doesn’t break the bank. There are fewer demands on me, so I’m pulled in fewer directions and am less harried and distracted. Going somewhere is less of a production; we are less of a production. There is more time, fewer disruptions and interruptions. I can let down my guard — i.e. sit around a lot. You know the saying about how firstborn children have different parents from the last borns? It’s so true.
Sometimes, now that the kids are mostly grown, I’m tempted to do All The Things. I want to write more, bake more, try new (as yet unknown to me) things. But then I stop myself. This little window of time as a family of four — we have about two years, I’m guessing, before the next child takes off — is special. It’s like having a second family, almost, and after 20-plus years of hardcore parenting, the lull feels sweet. I’m savoring it.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who borrowed a Cook’s Illustrated magazine from the library. In it was a recipe for popovers. The popovers looked good, she thought, but there was a problem: she didn’t have a proper popover pan. But then, a couple weeks later, she came across a popover pan at the thrift store. She bought the pan, went home, and made popovers. They turned out perfectly, just as the magazine said they should: custardy on the inside, crispy on the outside. The woman and her family (and a visiting friend) ate their perfectly proper popovers with plenty of butter and a spot of jam, no problem. The end.
Popovers Adapted from the January-February 2021 issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
If you can’t find a popover pan at your thrift store, a regular muffin tin will do.
6 ¾ ounces bread flour ¾ teaspoon salt 1 ½ cups milk, heated to about 115 degrees 3 eggs
Butter the bottom and sides of the muffin tin and then, with a wadded-up napkin, wipe out any excess — you want enough grease to keep the batter from sticking but not so much that the batter can’t adhere to the sides and rise properly.
Stir together the bread flour and salt. Whisk in the milk and eggs. Divide the batter evenly between the six tins — each tin will be about three-fourths full.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes — do not open the oven during the first 30 minutes. Serve hot, with lots of butter. Leftovers can be bagged and stored at room temp. To reheat, place directly on the rack of a 300-degree oven (I use my toaster oven) for 5-10 minutes.