• Blog blues

    These days I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to blog. It may have something to do with feeling like my brain is kind of empty, like there is nothing worth pointing out (which is so NOT true because everyone knows that it’s the little things that make the good stories), that I have too many ideas (yes, I realize I just contradicted myself), that no one cares (hear me out—I’ll try to not be too pathetic), and that I’m a bad writer. I know where this last one comes from: my mother.

    No, no, no, my mother did not tell me I’m a bad writer; on the contrary, she is quite encouraging. But see, I just wrote an article (two, actually) that I’ve submitted for publication and she edited them for me.

    “Edited” is such a mild-sounding word, isn’t it? Kind of neutral, peaceful and unobtrusive?

    Well, let me tell you, it’s not any of that. It’s a wickedly violent word, fiercely cutthroat and bloody. It gouges and slashes, seemingly at random, and then as suddenly as it attacks, it spins on its heel and is gone, leaving a royal mess of decapitated ideas and shattered words in its wake.

    Okay, so that’s a little bit of an exaggeration (and the analogy is flawed, of course, because violence doesn’t bring about something better, but editing does), but then again, it’s not that much of a stretch because it’s how I feel.

    I took a college English course when I was a senior in high school and our professor, Mr. Whitmore, a brilliant man (and also, as it so happens, the English professor of Henry Louis Gates, Jr, the author of Colored People and the man who got arrested and was then invited to drink a beer with Obama a couple months back), got the privilege of drilling us in the art of the three-point essay. We had to churn out a new essay every couple weeks or so, and he was a tough grader, the type of teacher that every nerdy student longed to impress. He probably never had any idea of the suffering his essay assignments wrought in our little West Virginian house.

    It would go something like this: I’d work on my essay and then give it to Mom. She’d glance at it briefly before handing it back, saying, “Two of your three points are redundant, and your second point should come first. But your bigger problem is your thesis statement—it’s a bit vague, I think. What’s the point you’re trying to make?”

    So I would try again. And again and again and again. I’d yell and cry and slam my bedroom door. Mom would lecture. I’d give her the silent treatment, and she would reciprocate. Yet I persisted in handing over each new version of the essay for her to critique. It was agony, pure and simple. But I got an A in the class.

    Now that I’m an adult (and a homeschooling mother of four, at that), I still ask my mother to edit all my writing: speeches, articles, stories, tricky letters, complicated church announcements, my letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine THAT GOT PUBLISHED (it happened about five years ago but I still think about that glorious moment in all caps), but I don’t let her edit this blog. I don’t want to obsess about this space, crafting it into something perfect; it would take too much time and suck all the joy out of it, though I’m sure it would be more enjoyable and meaningful for others to read. This is a space for me to just talk off the top of my head, to edit myself in my own (poor) way, to make me write.

    But I’m obsessing anyway, having trouble writing simple blog posts after these recent bouts of editing. I mean, my mother tore apart my article numerous times—too wordy, misspellings galore, unclear ideas, weak sentence structure, yadda-yadda-yadda. Needless to say, I feel a little insecure right now, not quite worthy of perching a laptop on my knee.

    (Let me pause here for a moment of clarification: I am not bothered by other writers’ mistakes. I may note them, but I don’t feel all critical and superior towards those people. [I’m assuming/hoping that others extend the same grace to me.] This is purely an internal battle, one that I’m sharing with the world because…well, I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe just to be honest. Whatever.)

    But perch the laptop on my knee I will. Because I can, by gum! Perhaps this crazy desire to write without being edited is my own little way of thumbing my nose at my mother (after all, I never went through the required Age of Rebellion), good English, and my own perfectionist tendencies. Or maybe it’s just the lazy way out. In any case, I’ll keep plugging away in my little unedited corner of bloggyland, and whenever I need to write something professional, I’ll be shooting my mother an email. (Mom, I’m not really thumbing my nose at you. But then, you knew that, right?)

    I don’t know where this post is going anymore, but one more interesting (to me, anyway) thing about editing before I move on to something edible: a couple weeks ago Mr. Handsome listened to an NPR story on editing. The person was saying that “drafts” have become a thing of the past. No longer are there first, second, and third drafts because people write on the computer, editing as they go. (In that sentence alone, I spell-checked, back-spaced, and deleted more times than I can count, and it’s still not how I want it.) It used to be that writers thought long and hard about what they wanted to say, typed everything out, edited excessively, and then retyped the whole thing. I think the NPR speaker was making the point that we lose something (not sure what) when we take the “draft” component out of writing. Or maybe I made that up.

    Back to my mother (and I spelled “mother” as “mover,” which she is): she used a manual typewriter till I was in college. You know, the kind that calls all your finger muscles into use, that makes loud plunk-plunk noises, and that hides no mistakes. I remember my mother typing out the final drafts of her articles over and over again—if she made so much as one tiny mistake, she’d groan and sigh heavily, rip the paper off the roller thingy, and start over again. It was painful to watch. (By the way, I’m keeping my eyes open for one of those old clunky machines; I think it would be a great learning tool/play thing for the kids.)

    My mother gradually caught up with the times and got a word processor and then a computer (and then a fancier computer and then a laptop as well). Despite the progress, she still looks like this, wild-haired and vacant-eyed, when she writes:

    See, she suffers, too (though she has replaced the glass goggles with smaller, stylish frames and combs her hair, most days). I can’t resent her too much.

    Now. How about we shift gears and talk about scones? The good thing about these beauts is that they are perfection in a biscuit (er, scone), so you can create them as outlined below, no editing necessary, though after you gorge yourself, you might wish you could backspace.

    Ginger Cream Scones
    Slightly adapted (but not edited) from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

    12 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes and frozen
    3/4 cup heavy cream, whipped and then chilled
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/3 cup sugar
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon ground ginger
    1/8 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon lemon zest
    2/3 cup crystallized ginger, chopped fairly small

    For the topping:
    2 teaspoons cream
    2-3 tablespoons demerara sugar

    Put the chilled cubes of butter in a food processor along with the flour, sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, salt, and zest. Pulse for 10-15 seconds until there are no longer any large lumps. (Or, if you prefer, simply rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers.)

    Dump the mixture into a large bowl and add the crystallized ginger. Fold in the whipped cream. Knead the dough lightly, shape it into a ball, and then press it into a disk that is 6 inches in diameter and about 3/4 inches thick. Wrap the disk in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for about an hour.

    After the dough has chilled (do not omit that step as the dough is very tender and will lose its shape if it is not sufficiently firm when it goes into the oven), remove it from the fridge, unwrap it, and cut it into eight wedges. Place the wedges on a lightly greased baking sheet, brush the tops with cream and sprinkle liberally with sugar. Bake the scones at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

    Serve warm or at room temperature. Any leftover scones should be stored in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the freezer; to thaw, remove them from the bag and set on a plate.

    Do ahead: Rose suggests flash-freezing the cut, raw scones and then storing them in a plastic bag in the freezer. When ready to bake, simply place them on the baking sheets, brush with cream, sprinkle with sugar, and bake. Add 5-7 minutes to the baking time. I haven’t tried this yet, but I plan to.

    About One Year Ago: A poor, little-widdle smashed finger.

  • To monkey with

    Over the past couple weeks each of my kids has taken their turn visiting my parents for several days at a time, and this past Monday when my mother returned the last child, she stayed for a day and a night so she could do some rugging. When she left yesterday afternoon, I gave her a little assortment of goodies for her to take home to share with my father. Later that evening I received the following email:

    JJ– The monkey bread was exquisite. I believe I find it preferable to sweet rolls. The fruity chocolate candies were also wonderful. What chocolate do you use? The raisin-filled cookies will wait for tomorrow. If we don’t have school (not likely) I’ll sit and eat mine in the morning with coffee. JJ and John, Thanks for letting your children visit us. They are delightful. –Love, Dad

    Well, shiver me timbers, if that didn’t make me feel all warm and snuggy inside I don’t know what will. For some strange reason, people who appreciate my cooking strike me as being above-average. You know, more intelligent and debonaire. Obviously, they know a good thing when they see it, and they’re confident enough to say so. It’s refreshing.

    I’m pretty sure I’m not biased or anything.

    After further thought, I suppose it could be that complimentary folks are kindred spirits because they view their food the same way I do—i.e. we like the same things.

    Or maybe they’re just crafty; they know that if they play their cards right, they’ll never have to do any baking ever again.

    Hmmmm. Now that’s a very real possibility because giving me a compliment is like opening the floodgates: once I know that a particular person appreciates the fruits of my labors, I direct all my extra culinary creations in their general direction. THUNK—Take that bread! PHWAP—Eat cranberry sauce, three different kinds while you’re at it! SHAZAAM—Chocolates, cookies, cake coming your way, Sugar Pie! With that in mind I think it would be wise to only dish out honest compliments; otherwise you might drown under a deluge of food that you said you liked but didn’t really. And that might make you feel kind of sick.

    Not that my father would do something like that. He is sincere and intelligent, of that I am certain. He doesn’t monkey around when it comes to compliments.

    Ree’s Monkey Bread
    Adapted from her blog The Pioneer Woman

    Ree says you can use any leftover bread dough you happen to have loafing around your refrigerator (ooo, I crack myself up!), but I made a batch of sweet dough specifically for the purpose of turning it into monkey bread. I’ll include the recipe, but do what suits you. The recipe for monkey bread is more of a process anyway, one you can monkey with.

    (After all those bad puns, I’m beginning to wonder where the title “Monkey Bread” originated from. Because you’re playing around with the dough? Because you’re pulling the bread apart with you fingers? I grew up with something similar—balls of dough that were rolled first in melted butter and then in cinnamon-sugar before being piled on top of each other in a greased tube pan—but we called it “Pluck-its” because you pluck off the pieces one-by-one. Clarity, anyone?)

    One other thought: I bet this would be really good with dulce de leche in place of the condensed milk.

    1 recipe sweet bread dough (recipe follows)
    cold butter, cut into little pats, about 1 teaspoon each
    lots of cinnamon
    1-2 cans sweetened condensed milk

    Grease the muffin tins. Put a pat of butter in the bottom of each tin. Add ½ teaspoon (or so) of sugar and a generous dash of cinnamon.

    Pull off ragged little chunks of dough and, without even bothering to roll them into nice little balls, plop three of four of them in each muffin tin. (It’s important to not put too much dough in the tins—like I did in that last picture—because you need to have room to add the condensed milk after the bread has baked and gotten all poofy, so err on the side of too little dough.)

    Top each cluster of dough balls with another pat of butter, sprinkling of sugar, and dash of cinnamon. Let the dough rise for 30-45 minutes, or bake them right away. Either method works fine.

    Bake the muffins at 350 degrees for about fifteen minutes. Upon taking the pans out of the oven, scoop a generous spoonful (a tablespoon, maybe?) of the condensed milk on top of each muffin. Let the muffins cool in their cups for about ten minutes before scooping them out and scarfing them down.

    I am not sure how well the baked monkey bread keeps. I’m assuming that after 6-12 hours it needs to be refrigerated because of the milky coating, but I’m no authority on this matter. I recommend only making enough for immediate consumption and sharing and saving the rest of the dough for another baking. Goodness knows it’s easy enough.

    Sweet Dough
    Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter

    1 cup milk
    ½ cup butter
    ½ cup sugar
    1 ½ teaspoons salt
    2 eggs, lightly beaten
    7 cups flour
    ½ teaspoon nutmeg
    2 tablespoons yeast
    1 cup warm water

    Put the warm water in a small bowl. Stir in the yeast and set the bowl aside for ten minutes, or until the yeast has puffed.

    Scald the milk. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the butter. Let the butter melt.
    In a large mixing bowl, stir together the milk-butter mixture and the sugar and salt. Add a couple cups of flour and the nutmeg and stir till combined. Stick your finger in the dough to make sure it is no longer hot and then add the yeast, a couple more cups of flour, and the eggs. Stir well. Add the remaining flour.

    Knead the dough till it’s supple and elastic (don’t add too much flour or the resulting bread will be tough) and set it to rise in a floured (or greased) bowl.

    When the dough has doubled in size, it is ready to be turned into monkey bread, sweet rolls, sticky buns, regular loaves of bread, dinner rolls, or anything else your little heart desires. Or you can punch it down, put it in a large (it will rise), tightly-lidded container and store in the refrigerator till you are ready to shape and bake.

    I am submitting this post to YeastSpottings. Lots of other wonderful recipes can be found there, so go check it out.

    About One Year Ago: Cashew Brittle. You really need to make this.

  • Christmas corn

    This past week I cooked supper for a homeless shelter. I had never done anything like this before and it semi-freaked me out. Cooking a meal for company gets me in a tizzy, but to cook a meal for 20-30 people, transport it into town, and then serve it and clean up afterwards? Whew! It about threatened to put me over the edge. (Well, okay, not really. I managed fine. But I was anxious. I’ll admit that much.)

    Several years ago our town started a shelter for homeless people. This program differs from other, more common, programs in that it is the downtown churches that host the homeless, usually for a week at a time. The host church is in charge of providing the space, volunteers, and food for the guests, and last week it was our church’s turn to host. Usually people will work together to prepare different parts of the meal and then serve it. But me? Ho-ho-NO. I decided I could handle it all by myself with just—get this!—Yo-Yo Boy and Miss Beccaboo to help me out.

    No wonder I get in a dither over these things; I’m forever totally over-estimating my capabilities.

    But I had my reasons for being so stoic, my precious little reasons. The first was that I didn’t want to coordinate food with a whole bunch of people; many times it’s just easier to do things in my own crazy way, sink or swim, and I like being in charge. My other reason was slightly more noble: I wanted Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo to be central to the evening’s events because this little supper making/serving deal was to be a big part of our Christmas festivities … because in our house we don’t do Christmas gifts.

    Our decision to scrap the gifts came about when Yo-Yo was two years old. He had a huge pile of gifts that year, generously given to us by different family members, and I watched, fascinated, as my little blond-haired-though-still-mostly-bald baby grabbed and tore and shrieked and grabbed for more. There was a glint in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before, and, quite honestly, it alarmed me.

    Around the same time one of my friends, a woman with children much older than mine, told me about how her youngest son turned into a greedy little brat come Christmas morning. No matter how much they emphasized that Christmas was not about getting gifts, they couldn’t seem to get the point through the kid’s tough skull.

    Those two incidents (and probably some others that I don’t recall) clinched the deal for me: Christmas gifts would not be a part of our holiday tradition. We would focus on other things like playing games (a huge sacrifice for me since I hate playing games), buying chickens and pigs for needy families in underdeveloped nations (via MCC or Heifer International), decorating the tree, visiting with friends and family, reading good books, and, of course, baking lots and lots of Christmas cookies.

    Naturally, my nice little decision to nix gifts hasn’t been as clear-cut as I make it sound. Life never really is. Friends and family members give us Christmas gifts and we’re not so hardcore that we tear off the red and green paper and rewrap them in pastel flower prints and make the kids wait till May to open them—no, no, no, we savor each gift that comes our way.

    Then there was the whole issue of Santa Claus. No matter how many times I told my kids there was no Santa Claus (come ON kids, use your heads! do you REALLY think a fat old man could squeeze down our chimney? and even if he did, how would he get out of the stove, huh? he would TOTALLY burn to a crisp if he ever tried to pull such a stunt!), they insisted he was real. Finally we just gave up and played along.

    On Christmas eve the kids hang up (thumbtack, really) stockings (they have morphed from Mr. Handsome’s white tube socks to old cloth bags to the official-looking decorative stockings that I scavenged from a thrift store) on the wall by the wood stove, set out a plate of cookies for Santa, and write him a letter before going to bed. Then Mr. Handsome and I eat the cookies, write a reply letter, and fill the stockings with candy and doo-dads. Come the twenty-fifth, we blast Christmas music, gorge on candy, eat a huge platter of cookies for breakfast, play games, and read seasonally-appropriate stories. Joy and sugar highs abound.

    However, now that the kids are older it was time to illustrate the second part of our no-gifts equation: that we don’t only forgo our gifts, we give gifts to others. (I don’t count choosing geese and goats from a catalogue in my category of “felt” giving; it is way too far removed for the kids to truly grasp the concept.) So one morning last week I played some of these videos for them, and then I explained that this meal I had been working on was one of our Christmas gifts and that they were going to be a part of it by coming along to help serve the food and wash the mounds of dirty dishes. They were dubiously agreeable.

    Earlier Miss Beccaboo had helped me to cobble together the menu:

    Me: I know I want to take baked corn. What else do you think I ought to make?
    Miss B, almost without thinking: Sloppy joes, and green beans.
    Me: Yes, that would be good. And I could make something with potatoes.
    Miss B: And applesauce.
    Me: And some sort of dessert.

    But then the day before The Day, Harold, the coordinator from our church, told me that kids weren’t supposed to be present at the shelter because a number of the guests were sex offenders. “But I don’t think it would be a big deal if the older two came as long as they stayed in the kitchen and didn’t mingle with the guests,” he said.

    Oh dear. Was I being foolish if I took my children? I mentioned to the kids that there was a rule that I hadn’t known about (I did not explain the reason for the rule—couldn’t quite figure that one out), and they were upset—apparently they did want to do this project. After more thought I decided it would be okay to take the kids as long as Mr. Handsome was there to be their bodyguard and ensure that they felt needed and useful (in other words, were doing their work). Then Harold called back to say that he had rounded up a couple more volunteers and that it really would be okay if the kids came, so all was set. We were still on.

    Thursday morning came. I panicked that I wouldn’t have enough food (I always do this—it’s par for the course), so I turned two more pounds of burger into sloppy joes. I thawed and iced the cakes. In the afternoon I baked the potatoes and then smooshed them into a large crock pot. I heated up the sloppy joe meat and smooshed it into another large crock pot. I cooked the green beans, put them in yet another large crock pot, and drizzled browned butter over top. I made three large pans of baked corn. The kids brought jars of applesauce up from the basement. When Mr. Handsome came home, he loaded the crock pots and foil-covered pans into wash baskets; the kids cradled the cakes in their laps.

    Harold met us at the door and gave us a tour of the makeshift shelter: three rooms had been filled with cots and blankets. While it felt right to see our Sunday school rooms transformed into something so basic and useful, it was also deeply disturbing. The people who would be sleeping in those beds did not have homes.

    Then the guests came in and it was time to eat. I stationed myself behind the serving table and slapped burger meat into buns as fast as I could. Nelly, Harold’s wife, stood beside me dishing up the potatoes and green beans. The guests hesitated when they got to the corn, bending over to peer at it more closely and inquiring as to what in the world it was.

    “That is baked corn,” I said, my bossy-mother instincts taking over. “It’s good. You’ll like it. You must try it.” I must have been pretty convincing because almost everyone obediently scooped a bit of corn onto their plates.

    One man asked, “Is that an old Mennonite recipe?”

    “Why, yes!” I exclaimed, totally surprised. He went on to tell me that back during the Civil War the Mennonites ate a lot of what they called corn pudding, something similar to my baked corn recipe.

    Almost everyone came back for seconds, and some came back for thirds and fourths. They loved the potatoes and meat, but the thing they commented about the most was the corn. “That corn is good,” they said, mystified. I crowed triumphantly, “I told you you’d like it! Eat more, there’s still another pan back.” And they did. One woman even requested a bowl so she could fill it with corn for a snack later on.

    And that, my dears, is what I call the ultimate compliment: when people, total strangers, mind you, taste the food just to be polite (or to get me off their backs) and then actually hoard it for later. How gratifying.

    Baked corn, anyone? And, Merry Christmas.

    Baked Corn
    Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter

    2 tablespoons butter
    1 ½ tablespoons flour
    1 tablespoon sugar
    1 teaspoon salt
    black pepper
    1 cup milk
    2 cups corn (frozen, fresh, or canned)
    2 eggs, lightly beaten

    Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, add the flour and stir well. Immediately (the pan is still on the burner and you don’t want the roux to scorch) whisk in the milk and stir till it bubbles and has thickened a bit. Add the salt, sugar, and corn and heat through. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly whisk in the beaten eggs (the corn is hot and can cook the eggs if you’re not careful—no one wants bits of scrambled eggs in their baked corn).

    Pour the corn into a greased, square (8 x 8) glass pan. Grind a bit of black pepper over the top. Bake the corn in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until set, the top is puffy in spots and has a couple (little) cracks, and the edges are lightly browned. Serve immediately.

    Yield: 4-6 side servings

    About One Year Ago: Company Tizz, and other matters.

  • Full circle

    As soon as I realize that we would be eating supper in the dark if it weren’t for the wondrous invention of the electric light, I get hit with the urge to make Christmas cookies. I chomp at the bit until Thanksgiving passes (according to my personal laws and regulations, Christmas is not allowed to swerve out into the passing lane and cut off Thanksgiving) and then, only then, do I set free my inner child and start tossing flour and sugar all around the kitchen like nobody’s business. I have no limits, I exercise no restraint, I have no shame, and it is marvelous. (The grocery bills don’t exactly make Mr. Handsome sing for joy, but he doesn’t do much complaining when his mouth is full.)

    The first cookie I made this season was one that I haven’t made for a couple years because I could always count on my mother to bake them and then share with us—raisin-filled cookies. But this year I didn’t want to wait around for my mother to start baking. I wanted those cookies all for myself, and right away, please. So on Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of a long day of solid rain, I stuck Handel’s Messiah in the CD player and took the rolling pin in my own two hands.

    These old-fashioned raisin-filled cookies (a little spoonful of ground nuts and raisins tucked between two rounds of sugar cookie dough, the edges pressed gently together, and then the final touch—the only bit of adornment allowed—one little raisin poked into their caps when they are still hot from the oven) are plain yet comforting, honest in their unassuming modesty. In fact, they are so simple that many an unknowing person unwittingly bypasses them for the more glitzy sugar bombs—the gooey lemon cookies, the chocolate-nut toffees, the iced gingerbread men. Therefore, we don’t usually share these cookies with complete strangers because we’ve learned it takes a certain kind of person, mainly one of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, to fully appreciate these labor intensive sweet cakes. But for those of us who grew up with them? Oh my, do we ever love our raisin cookies!

    From the way I’m going on about these cookies, it’s probably pretty obvious that they played a central role in our Christmas celebrations. I remember my father helping my mother set up the old metal meat grinder that she used to mash up the raisins and then watching, entranced, as the ground raisins, dark, moist, and richly fragrant, slowly snaked their way out of the side of the machine and softly plopped into the waiting bowl. My brothers and I would sometimes help to roll and cut the dough (with my mother in the background forever warning us against over-working it), and we’d wait impatiently by the oven for the cookies to finish baking so we could perform the raisin-poking honors.

    Nowadays I use a screaming food processor to chop up my raisins and walnuts (my mother left out the nuts), so for a few very loud moments the atmosphere in my kitchen is not quite as romantic as it was back in the good old, food processor-less days (which, by the way, still persist in my mother’s house). But then I’m done with the obnoxious (but oh-so-marvelous) machine and peace is restored and goodwill reigneth (until the Baby Nickel starts smashing his fists into my freshly cut circles of dough, but I’m ignoring that part for the sake of the romanticized Christmas cookie baking ideal that I’m forever striving after).

    Regardless of the method used, these cookies still produce the same results: my kids delight in these Christmas treats in the same way that my brothers and I did when we were little. And in this way, via raisin-filled cookies, I am completing one of my life’s (hopefully many) full circles. If only all traditions could be so delicious.

    Now it’s your turn. What’s one (or two or three) of your Christmas baking traditions?

    Raisin-Filled Cookies
    Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter

    These cookies are plain enough to be a part of the main meal (and they are probably much healthier than what many people call muffins), so as well as eating them for dessert, afternoon snacks, and with a glass of milk before bedtime, we sometimes also enjoy them for breakfast along with our cereal.

    There is always a little raisin filling left over after assembling the cookies (this time I had about half a cup extra), and it’s very yummy stirred into a bowl of warm breakfast oatmeal. As a matter of fact, you may find that you like the raisin-walnut puree topping so much that you decide to make a batch of filling for the sole purpose of globbing it atop your hot cereal.

    A note about rolling out cookies: Remember that less flour makes a more tender cookie. You want your dough to be floured enough that you can handle it, but still sticky enough that you get mad at it every now and then for gumming up the rolling pin, your fingers, the tabletop, etc.

    1 cup butter
    2 cups sugar
    2 eggs
    5 ½ cups flour
    1 teaspoon salt
    4 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 cup milk
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    1 recipe raisin filling (recipe follows)

    Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat some more. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients and then add them to the creamed butter alternately with the milk.

    Cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for about four hours or overnight. (It freezes well, too.)

    On a well-floured counter, roll out the dough till it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter (I used a drinking glass) that is about two inches in diameter to cut out cookie rounds. Place the rounds on greased cookie sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies (they will spread quite a bit as they bake).

    Put a teaspoon of filling in the center of each cookie and then top with another circle of dough. Gently press down on the edges of the top cookie so that it sticks to the bottom cookie. (There is no need to use a liquid to stick the cookies together because the dough softens as soon as it hits the heat and the two cookies quickly melt together.)

    Bake the cookies in a 350 degree oven for 10-13 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned (a little bit of brown gives the cookies good flavor), and the tops look dry.

    Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for two minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. While the cookies are still quite warm, poke a single, solitary raisin in the top of each cookie, pushing it down far enough so that it won’t easily fall off, but not in so far that it disappears from sight. (This is a good job for the impatiently lurking kiddies.)

    Yield: About four to five dozen cookies.

    Raisin Filling

    2 cups raisins
    ½ cup walnuts
    1 tablespoon thermflo
    3/4 cup sugar
    1 cup water

    Put the raisins and walnuts into the food processor and pulse till they are finally chopped. (Or put them through a food mill or finely chop them with a knife.)

    Put the sugar, thermflo, and water in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Add the chopped nuts and fruit. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, till the mixture has thickened — about 5-8 minutes at a gentle simmer. Remove it from the burner and cool to room temperature. At this point you can use it to fill the cookies, or you can store it in a covered container in the refrigerator (or freezer) till a later date.

    About One Year Ago: The Selfish Game

  • To go in my orange pot

    On Monday morning I walked into a local rinky-dink meat shop and fell in love. Actually, that’s not quite right—I didn’t walk into the shop and immediately fall in love. The moment of enamorment was actually two separate moments.

    The first moment was when the swinging door behind the deli counter got stuck open and I had a clear view of the butchering floor. A man was standing just inside the large room, his arm thrust deep into a skinned, four-legged beast which was dangling stiffly from hangers. As I watched, the man pulled his hand out, along with a handful of somethingorother, and then unhooked the animal, cradled it in his arms like a baby, and thunked it (it’s really a good thing it wasn’t a baby) down on the counter. I blinked, or glanced away or something, and by the time my eyes had refocused, the man was holding a large bandsaw in one hand and a tremendous “drumstick” in the other. The door swung shut then, putting an end to my little peep show.

    The second moment happened when I told the woman behind the counter that I needed stew meat but that I wanted it to be cut bigger than the little pieces in the showcase. “Could I have some of the lean stew meat in two-inch cubes, please?” I tentatively asked, not sure of proper butcher-shop etiquette. “I need three pounds.”

    “Three pounds, you say?” she hollered at me cheerfully. I nodded and she turned, pushed open the swinging door and shouted my order at the saw-wielding dudes in the back. “It will be a couple minutes,” she said when she returned. “Would you like anything else?”

    While I waited for my cut-to-order (!) beef, I listened to the boisterous meat-doler-outer and another customer (he was wearing a white coat and buying for his business) discuss the merits of tripe, the newly offered pigs’ stomach, and the benefits of using cow feet to make broth (and while I was there I saw another customer make off with a large bag of animal feet). When the conversation shifted to beef shanks (of which I bought two), I joined in, telling them about the glories of peposo.

    As I pulled away from the little nondescript shop on the edge of town, my bag of freshly cut stew meat, beef shanks, and side pork (which I thought was bacon but soon learned otherwise) settled on the floor of the passenger side, I nearly shouted with glee over my newly discovered treasure. I had just unearthed a shop that slaughters local meats (for the most part), that gives customers their choice of grass-fed or grain-fed beef, and that will cut the meat according to specifications! (I think all of that is true; I’m still figuring the whole system out.) Briefly I imagined that I was no longer living in the Shenandoah valley, but in a European town, one that was crammed (I give my imagination free rein when I’m in the car) with high-quality specialty shops. And so, in the spirit of celebration (and the reason that I had sought out the store in the first place), I went home and made Beef Bourguignon.

    This stew was a long time in coming. There were many little components that led up to its conception (both the idea and the reality) and if I told you all of them, it would exhaust you and I would run the risk of sounding whiny and pathetic. I’ll just tell you this:

    *I have been wanting a lidded cooking pot that is for both the stove top and the oven, and last week I found one at a discount store: an enamel-coated, cast iron, five-quart pot, and the best part was that it was painted orange, just like in the Julie-and-Julia movie. Even as I was crouching down in the aisle examining every single label on the box, I knew that beef bourguignon would be the pot’s christening meal. I’m not usually sappy like that, but considering the circumstances (recently viewed movie, bedtime perusing of Julia’s cookbook) there was no other option. It was the right thing to do.

    *The ingredient list, while not really all that tricky, had me in a consternated fix on several different occasions. The “bacon” from the butcher wasn’t really bacon, and then I forgot to buy real bacon when I was at the grocery store so my sister-in-law kindly brought me some when she made a trip to town. There was no beef broth in the freezer like I thought there was, so Mr. Handsome had to stop on his way home from work to buy me some Swanson’s. I couldn’t find fresh pearl onions, so I bought frozen ones (and they were quite good). I used my last bottle of red wine, but at least I had a bottle of red wine to use. I greased up the kitchen two times—once when browning the beef and again when browning the mushrooms.

    *The process was different from what I’m used to, but that’s not saying much since I don’t really know much about cooking beef. Because this was a learning experience and I was determined to improve my technique, I followed the recipe to the letter. I braised the onions, browned the mushrooms (in four batches), towel-dried my beef cubes (and then bleached the towel), browned all sides of the beef in the bacon fat, drained the fat, browned the veggies (used exactly one onion and one carrot, no substitutions or embellishments), cooked the mixture for three hours (adding the broth towards the end when Mr. Handsome walked in the door), poured everything into a strainer, reduced and flavored the broth, washed out the pot, reassembled everything in the clean pot, and sprinkled the stew with freshly-picked-in-the-dark parsley. I even served the meal with peas and buttered boiled potatoes and red wine, just like Julia recommended. And it was good, kiss-your-fingertips good, richly sauced and fork-tender.

    Of course by then it was too late for me to take any pictures, so you’ll have to settle with a photo of today’s lunchtime bowl of beef.

    Beef Bourguignon

    Adapted (only slightly) from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

    3 pounds lean beef, in two-inch cubes
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    6 ounces bacon, chopped
    1 carrot, thinly sliced
    1 onion, thinly sliced
    1 bottle (750 ml) red wine (Chianti is first choice, but any wine will do the trick)
    3 cups beef broth
    1 bay leaf
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    1 tablespoon tomato paste (or sauce)
    2 teaspoons salt
    ½ teaspoon black pepper
    3 tablespoons flour
    ½ teaspoon thyme
    fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
    ½ pound white pearl onions, braised (recipe follows)
    1 pound browned mushrooms (recipe follows)

    In your gorgeous five-quart, enamel-coated, cast iron cooking pot, lightly brown the chopped bacon in a tablespoon of olive oil. Scoop the bacon out of the pot and set it aside.

    Working in batches, brown all sides of the (towel-dried—any moisture and the meat won’t brown as nicely) beef. Set it aside with the bacon.

    Add the sliced onion and carrot to the fat and stir them around for a couple minutes until they are nice and brown. Carefully tilt the cooking pot and pour off the fat into a bowl. Dump the meat and bacon back into the pot on top of the veggies. Sprinkle the beef with the salt, black pepper, and flour and toss well. Put the uncovered pot into a 400 degree oven for 4 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven, stir the contents a bit, and put it back in the oven for another 4 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven and turn the oven down to 325 degrees.

    Pour the wine and beef broth over the meat. Add the tomato sauce, bay leaf, garlic, and thyme and stir briefly. Bring the stew to a simmer, clap the lid on the pot and slip the whole kit and caboodle into the oven. Leave it alone for three hours. In the meantime (or two days before, or whenever), prepare your baby onions and mushrooms.

    When the three hours is up, dump the pot’s entire contents into a strainer set over another large kettle. Wash out your fancy-schmancy, heavy-duty cast iron pot. Put whatever is in the strainer back in the now-clean pot. Add the mushrooms and baby onions.

    Put the pan of broth on the stove top and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook it until it has been reduced to about three cups of liquid (or more, if you like—the sauce is amazing and I couldn’t get enough of it, so err on the side of too much), correct the seasonings, and then pour it over the meat.

    Bring the meat to a simmer, stir briefly, sprinkle it with parsley, and serve.

    Makes enough for 6-12 people, depending on how hungry they are and whether or not they love their beef.

    Braised Baby Onions
    From Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

    ½ pound peeled baby onions, fresh or frozen
    2 tablespoons butter
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    ½ cup red wine, beef broth, or water
    black pepper

    Melt the butter and oil in a saucepan. When the butter fizzles, add the baby onions. Cook the onions for about ten minutes, gently shaking the pan every so often and nudging them gently with a wooden spoon so that they turn over and brown evenly, more or less. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and add the liquid.

    Transfer the (uncovered) pan to a 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes, or until the liquid has completely cooked off. Gently turn the onions every ten or fifteen minutes so that they brown evenly.

    Serve immediately, or else store in a covered container in the refrigerator until they are called into service.

    Browned Mushrooms
    From Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

    1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
    2-4 tablespoons butter
    2-4 tablespoons olive oil

    Melt half the butter and olive oil in a large skillet. When it fizzles, add half of the sliced mushrooms, making sure that none of the mushrooms are overlapping (you want them to brown, not steam). When they are brown on one side, turn them and brown on the other side. Sprinkle with salt, scoop them out of the pan, and repeat with the second batch. Use immediately, or store in a covered container in the fridge until later.

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