(See it — and a tour of my trashed house —here.)
(See it — and a tour of my trashed house —here.)
Right now, I am…
Savoring… lots of snacking meals of leftover cheeses, eggnog, nuts, cookies, and fruit.
Worrying… that perhaps I’m eating too much of the above?
Struggling… against the pull to be productive and disciplined while at the same time just wanting to luxuriate in the delicious holiday inertia for forever. Too bad “doing nothing” gets boring so fast….
Discovering… a new writing place! They recently (a year ago?) expanded their space, taking over a vintage clothing shop and transforming the former changing rooms into little cubbies, perfect for holing up for long stretches of time. The music is terrible (abrasive) and the coffee is tepid (though tasty), but the atmosphere is pretty swell. Want to join me? If you’re lucky, you might get the roomy handicap stall.
Missing… Spanish, Puerto Rico, and — I can’t believe I’m saying this — hot weather.
Marveling… that Ghirardelli salted caramel boxed brownies taste exactly like toasted marshmallows! Am I the only one who thinks this?
Thrilling… over my sweet children who pooled their resources and surprised me with an absolutely fantastic chef’s knife. The comfy handle, the smooth rocking motion, the wicked-sharp blade — I am so over-the-moon.
Reeling… from the spontaneous purchase of a much-longed for macbook. This was not the plan. First, I bought a super-cheap Lenovo, but when we realized it was making a death rattle despite being brandnew, we returned it. Then, after much thoughtful and very adult-like deliberation, I finally settled on a better Lenovo — faster, more expensive. But — oh woe! — it was weirdly slow and kept blanking out. After working on it for a bit, my brother declared it defunct. By then my husband was like, Screw it, Jennifer. Just get a real computer. So now our budget’s in shambles but I don’t really care because Oh my word, this computer is AMAZING. #noregrets
Failing… yet again to convince my husband to go on a run with me, grumble-gr. My sister-in-law, aka my loyal running buddy, broke her elbow (surgery, plates, pins — ouch!) and will be out of commission for a couple months, so now it’s just me out there facing the bone-chilling cold all by my lonesome.
Appreciating… the meditative nature of solo runs. My thoughts go every which way and, when I return, I feel like I’m resurfacing from a deep fog. I like it.
Gloating… over my hearing test results. My kids always fuss that I’m going deaf, and I feel like I’m always saying What?, so when our pharmacy hosted free hearing tests for a day, I took one. I fully thought the tests would reveal moderate loss, but no — my hearing is excellent. Thus proving that it’s not me — everyone else is mumbling. (Or maybe I’m a lazy listener….?)
Watching… my older son’s snowboarding footage and wondering what sort of crazy person would even consider paying good money for the privilege (torture?) of whizzing down a snow-covered mountain with their feet strapped fast to a slab of wood? And then realizing, oh right — my kids.
Raving… to EVERYONE about Roma. Have you seen it? Everything — the realism, the acting, the cinematography, the intimacy — is utterly pristine and exquisite.
Assembling… a puzzle, meals from leftovers, mince tarts.
Here you go, just in time for the dark winter months…
*Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan. Excessively wordy and dry. I skimmed a lot, especially towards the end. Also: what’s up with the huge paragraphs? They’re not easy to read or fun to look at, so why?
*The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott. Pristine writing. Slow, meandering story. Pretty good.
*Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Interesting and kind of fun, but the plot flaws and underdeveloped/inconsistant characters bugged me.
*The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard. So bewilderingly dense that I felt, at times, like I wasn’t even reading English. Summary: one-third I didn’t understand, one-third I sort of understood, and one-third connected on a deep, deep level. Weird, huh?
*The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live, by Todd Tucker. Interesting and informative. Also, it made me hungry.
*The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister. Food porn — over-the-top and light — but fun.
*The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. Excellent, though I didn’t get all the plane stunt stuff.
*Educated, by Tara Westover. AMAZING. I devoured it in two days, mostly while sitting on the patio of our little vacation house in Vieques [dreamy pause], and then the three younger kids read it, too (though not while we were on vacation — we’re not that efficient). Nuanced, gracious, and raw, it’s perhaps the best memoir I’ve read, ever.
*The War Against All Puerto Ricans, by Nelson A. Denis. Stupendous, eye-opening, and extremely well-written. Reading it while in Puerto Rico and struggling to understand the messy relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico (and while attending church with the grandson of Pedro Albizu Campos, no less) made the book feel just that much more relevant. Highly recommend.
*Call the Midwives: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth. Entertaining, and surprisingly similar to (at least the beginning of) the TV series, but so poorly written.
*The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. Fun and engrossing. The storyline was unpredictable and low-key, and therefore unsensational, which I liked.
*Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah. Entertaining and eye-opening — he has lived such a wildly varied life. I’m considering buying it and making it required reading for the older kids.
*Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love, by Zack McDermott. Written by a lawyer with bipolar, this books makes for an interesting connection between mental illness and the prison system. Also, the vivid writing helped me to understand not just what bipolar is, but how it feels.
*Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison. Great story-telling. Insightful. I made it required reading for the older kids. (Warning: it may inspire certain readers to blow things up.)
*A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines. I didn’t much like the main character, and the flow felt stilted, but the ending was super powerful.
*A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert, by Karen Piper. A personal, informative account of the war-making machine, but as a story goes: meh.
*Speaking with Strangers, by Mary Cantwell. Beautiful, fluid writing, but I did not “get” her at all.
*The L-Shaped Room, by Lynne Reid Banks (the abridged version, because that’s what my mother had lying around the house). Interesting.
*The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Pros: Intriguing concept and good writing. Cons: Weak plot, underdeveloped characters, repetitive, and lacking humanity and nuance.
*The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. Insightful, multi-layered, and relevant. After reading it, I bought a copy so the older children could read it. The girls both loved it.
*Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Super fantastic. Incredible. Exquisite. Delicious. Felt a little Barbara Kingsolver-esque. My husband and I fought over it who got to read it and when (I started it first, so I got dibs.) I inhaled the entire last section, came up gasping for breath, and then was so worked up (in a good way) that I had trouble sleeping.
Currently, I’m reading four books: Becoming (having trouble getting into it), Salt, Fat Acid, Heat (ordered it!), A Gentleman in Moscow (I keep having to take it back to the library and then get it out again), and The Wife (a whippy-fast page turner).
Now, your turn! What good books have you discovered in 2018?
This same time, years previous: balsamic-glazed roasted butternut squash and brussel sprouts, sex for all creation, old-fashioned sour cream cake donuts, the quotidian (12.22.14), the quotidian (12.23.13), bacon-jalapeno cheeseball, marshmallows.
Tuesday, my mother turned 70.
First thing in the morning (well, first thing after I’d baked two sausage-egg casseroles and a pan of sweet rolls and warmed two other pans of sweet rolls and assembled a fruit salad), my brother’s family and our family caravanned over to my parents’ place. We quietly walked into the house, our arms loaded with food. Mom was sitting on the sofa, holding the Pittsburgh brother’s new baby (their family had arrived at my parents’ place the night before), completely absorbed. Not until almost all of us were standing in the kitchen, staring at her, did she even glance up and register that we were there — surprise!
My poor father had been trying to hold her off in the kitchen — he’d even went so far as to mix up a batch of pancake batter and heat up the skillet — so we cleared away the fake breakfast, set our stuff up, and tucked in.
After breakfast, we gave her cards and gifts…
And then we hung out for a bit, fighting over who got to hold the baby and visiting.
Mom had to leave then, to go teach her class for refugees, so we all stayed behind to rehearse the music for the evening event … that she didn’t know about.
A few days before, I’d invited her and Dad over for a birthday supper, said my Pittsburgh brother and his wife were welcome to join if they wanted. The evening event wasn’t a big party or anything — just all of us again, with the addition of my mom’s sister, and lots of good food. Maybe she sort of figured it out ahead of time? I’ll have to ask her. (I haven’t talked to her since Tuesday. Probably she’s still recuperating.)
So mid-afternoon my aunt arrived at our house. My brothers’ families showed up, too, and we prepped food and strung the kids’ homemade paper chains and lit candles.
Supper was shaping up to be quite a feast. Days earlier, my Pittsburgh brother and his wife had had a serrano ham, great hunks of Swiss raclette cheese, and a cheese melter delivered to our house. My other brother provided the roasted butternut squash and onions and boiled potatoes. My aunt brought the fresh fruit, olives, and pickles. I made a giant green salad, the bread, and roasted brussel sprouts. My younger daughter and her cousin made the cakes.
Mom and Dad arrived at supper time, much to the children’s giddy excitement (kids are such a hoot!), and then my aunt walked out of the bedroom where she’d been hiding (and did surprise my mother, I think), and then we plugged in the cheese melter and set about the serious business of eating.
After we’d stuffed ourselves sufficiently, we presented our songs — one song for each decade of her life: starting with a Bible School song and ending with We Are The World in honor of her refugee work.
Then the cakes, which were sort of complicated. The plan was to trick her with the first cake, a “fake” one that’d she’d ooh and ahh over and then we’d be like, Ha! It’s a box cake!, but what with the singing and all the candles, juggling secrets, lies, and two cakes were way too complicated. So the girls presented her with her “fake” cake and we sang and yelled at her to cut it and take a bite because, unbeknownst to my mother, my aunt was in the back room trying not to burn the house down with the real cake (also made by the girls) that she’d crowned with 70 honest-to-goodness candles. So my mom took one bite of the fake cake, my brother did a key shift on his guitar, and we sang happy birthday a couple more times while my aunt carried out the flaming cake, and then I told the girls to explain the cakes when what I meant to say was explain the second cake but too late and oh well. The seventy candles were massively impressive, the real cake was a little boring, and the fake cake got devoured, ha!
Then, just when all the hubbub was dying down, my aunt ordered my mother into the bathroom where she dressed her up a slinky black dress, heels, sunglasses, and a wig.
The kids dressed up in whatever they could find, and my older son set up the polaroid camera that my sister-in-law had brought for a photo shoot.
To quote from my older son’s birthday card to my mother:
Happy 70th Birthday, Grandmommy.
Soon you will be old!
Recently, I got it in my head that I needed to conquer croissants. I mean, puff pastry is Baking 101, right? In the Great British Baking Show, the ability to turn out a quick puff pastry is a basic requirement. All the bakers can make it, no problem. So why not me?
Turns out, the number of variations on the theme were rather overwhelming. Which kind of butter: Salted or unsalted? Plain butter, or butter fortified with wheat germ and flour? All butter, or a mixture of butter and (blech) margarine?
About the method: quick puff or a slow, three-day process? No leavening or yeasted? And should the dough rise before baking, or was it better to freeze it first and then pop it directly into the oven? Or should I do both?
It was enough to make my head spin.
Hoping to find someone who knew a thing or two, I emailed a friend. Have you ever made puff pastry? I asked.
Nope, she wrote back. But I know I’d rather shove bamboo under my fingernails.
You know, being a self-taught baker (or a self-taught anything, for that matter) can be exhausting. Sometimes, especially when I’m trying to master a new recipe that I know nothing about, I just want someone to hold my hand and show me. I want a Gold Standard, something against which I can compare myself. But short of becoming best buds with a French pastry chef, or actually traveling to France (ha, dream on), I’m on my own, sigh.
I’ve now made puff pastry a number of times over the last few weeks and, while the idea of folding and rolling a entire slab of butter directly into dough does seems like a disaster waiting to happen, it turns out it’s actually a clean-cut, simple process with very little mess. A couple batches in and the method began to feel almost intuitive.
frozen raw (and twice glazed) and then glazed for a third time and popped into the oven, still frozen
There were problems, though. Most notably, no matter how long I baked the croissants, they felt a little gummy inside, like they were either underbaked (they weren’t) or they had too much butter (impossible). Weirdly enough, they tasted better the second day, especially when split lengthwise and stuffed with ham.
Desperate for insights, I shelled out the several dollars for a Panera croissant. Biting into the pastry, I was horrified to discover that here, instead of baking bits of dark chocolate into the actual pastry, they’d just sliced a regular croissant in half and stuffed it with chocolate icing! Furthermore, the actual croissant was practically tasteless. Hmm, I thought as I gagged it down, I guess the competition isn’t as stiff as I thought?
I continued to plug away, and finally, a couple nights ago, I actually turned out a steller, honest-to-goodness croissant. How did I know? I’m not sure! Just, one bite and all the pieces — the researching, the tasting, the redoing — slid into focus and I knew this was it: I’d made a croissant.
Much, I imagine, as Wonder Bread tastes nothing like a crusty artisan loaf of sourdough, these croissants don’t taste anything like commercial ones. Even though they’re airy-light, with hundreds of spectacular layers, there’s a heft to them, a rich flavorfulness that feels more substantial.
That night, I couldn’t stop cutting the croissants: vertically! horizontally! With each cut, I’d scrutinize the internal structure and then, squealing triumphantly, hold the pieces out for everyone to admire. The kids watched me like baby hawks, smiling and nodding, waiting for me to quit gloating and feed them already.
My success, however, was short-lived. A couple days ago I baked up a few croissants, exactly as I did the other night (and from the same batch and with the same process, straight from the freezer into the oven), so I could take photos. After letting them cool for 15 minutes or so, I cut into one and — what in the world? — they had that undone look again! I’d baked them at 400 degrees for exactly 30 minutes, too, so I know they’re done. I can not, for the life of me, figure out what’s going on. Anyone? ANYONE?
Adapted from Issue 97 of Fine Cooking.
Make sure to use instant yeast, not rapid rise. (Rapid rise yeast needs to be activated with warm liquid, while instant yeast goes straight into the dough.) I buy little individual packs of instant yeast special for this recipe (and for making ciabatta), and then store them in the freezer. (Update: it might not matter! I’ve used both rapid rise and instant, with no ill effects. I simply use hot tap water to activate the yeast.)
For the butter layer, I use Kerrygold. The flavor shines through, so it’s absolutely worth the extra cost.
Updated March 2019: For lots more tips and information, see this post. The most important information is tucked in the directions below.
1 pound 2 ounces all-purpose flour
5 ounces each hot tap water and cold milk
2 ounces sugar
1½ ounces butter, softened
1 tablespoon, plus scant ½ teaspoon, instant yeast
2¼ teaspoons salt
10 ounces good quality, cold butter, for the butter layer
1 egg, for the egg wash
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or, if making by hand, in a regular mixing bowl), combine the flour, water, milk, sugar, the 1½ ounces butter, yeast, and salt. Using a dough hook, mix for 4-6 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured bowl, cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight
Arrange the butter in a rectangle and sandwich between two sheets of plastic wrap. (Important: Sprinkle the plastic with a couple teaspoons of flour, and then sprinkle the top of the butter with a couple more teaspoons. The flour will be incorporated into the butter as you roll it, thus eliminating any extra moisture.) Using a rolling pin, pound and roll the butter until it’s roughly a 7-inch square. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate.
While the butter is firming up, turn the dough out onto a floured table and roll into an 11-inch square. Unwrap the butter and place in the center of the dough arranged so it looks like a diamond atop a larger square. Pull the edges of the dough around the butter and pinch to seal shut.
Flip the dough, seam-side down, on a lightly floured surface and roll into a long rectangle, about 8 by 24 inches. Fold the dough into thirds, as you would a letter, brushing off any excess flour. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 45 minutes.
Place the rectangle of dough seam-side down on the floured table and repeat the rolling and folding process. Refrigerate for another 45 minutes.
For the third time, roll and fold. Wrap well (it will rise a little, so make sure it has some wiggle room) and refrigerate overnight.
Day Three (or four or five)
On a lightly floured table, roll the dough into a very long rectangle, this time 8 by 44 inches. (Partway through, if the rolling gets too difficult, lightly fold the dough, wrap in plastic, and return to the refrigerator to relax a bit.)
Note: If you don’t want to bake all the dough at once, lightly roll it into a small rectangle (8 by 12 inches, maybe) and cut in half. Roll one half into a longer rectangle and then fold in thirds, wrap in plastic, and return to the refrigerator. With the other half, make whatever you want.
Using a ruler, snip the dough every five inches along the top side. For the bottom side, measure in 2½ inches, snip, and then snip every five inches until you get to the end. Using the ruler to keep your line steady, and a pizza cutter or knife for cutting, cut the dough on the diagonal, snip to snip, into sideways rectangles (or whatever they’re called). Go back through, cutting each rectangle in half to make long, skinny triangles.
Before rolling the croissant, make a ½ – inch slash in the wide end of the dough, in order to help the dough curve around in the appropriate semi-circle. Roll the dough, from the snipped, wide end to the point. Place the croissants on a parchment-lined baking sheet, the narrow tip on the underside. Pull the two ends together, gently pinching them together in the front of the croissant — or not. It doesn’t really matter.
Beat the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush over the tops of the croissants. Allow them to rise for an hour and a half, uncovered. They don’t puff up that much, but if you jostle the pan, the tops will jiggle. Brush them again with the egg and water mixture.
Now you have two options: bake them straight away, or pop them in the freezer to bake later. They say both methods are fine, but since my best croissants were frozen first and then popped directly into the oven still frozen, I strongly advise you to freeze them. (Update: I now think they are better if they go directly from rising into a hot oven!) So! Gently slide the tray of twice-brushed and risen croissants into the freezer. After one hour, transfer them to an airtight container and return to the freezer.
To bake, place however many croissants you want on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let them rest at room temperature for about five to ten minutes. Brush them with a third coat of egg mixture. Bake at 400 degrees (convection bake, baby!) until dark golden brown all over, about 25-30 minutes. If they are getting too brown on the bottom, slip a second baking sheet directly under the first at about the 18-minute mark.
Cool to room temperature before devouring.
For a killer breakfast, cut in half lengthwise and stuff with salty ham.
For chocolate croissants: place some chopped chocolate (chips, or whatever you have) on the wide end of the triangle before rolling.
This same time, years previous: in praise of the local arts, science lessons, the quotidian (12.14.15), hot chocolate mix, soft cinnamon sugar butter bars. cracked wheat pancakes, cranberry white chocolate cookies.
This same time, years previous: when the dress-up ballgown finally fits, welcoming the stranger, yeasted streusel cake with lemon glaze, Italian wedding soup, in my kitchen (sort of): 4:15 p.m., stuffing, pimento cheese spread, winter quinoa salad, peanut butter cookies.
Well hello there, m’lovies. It’s been awhile.
This morning I made a pot of coffee for me, my husband, and our older son. But then my husband noticed that coffee was spilling all over the counter, none of it going in the pot. So he tossed the whole grainy mess, washed out the pot, fixed the do-hickey spout thing that our older son had put in backwards — SON! — and started again.
But, same thing. All the coffee ended up on the outside of the pot.
So he tossed that, too, and then we all blearily scrutinized the evil machine, trying to figure out how we were to get the coffee to go where it was supposed to. And then my husband figured out that another do-hickey (how many do-hickeys does one coffee pot need, pray tell?) was flipped up instead of down.
This time, though, instead of brewing yet another a pot of coffee right away, I insisted on running a half cup of water through, just to be sure everything went where it was supposed to go. It did, so then I made several more cups of water, just to be sure. And then my husband flipped because What? Still no coffee?
But I didn’t much care about his flipping because I’d already made my own cup with my aeropress and was happily sipping away while flipping the pancakes on my new stove.
That’s right, people. I have a new stove!
Or rather: I HAVE A NEW STOVE!!! !!!!!!! !!!! !!!!!!!!!!! !! !! !!!!!!!!!!!! !!!! !!!!!!!!! ! !! !!!!! !! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(FYI, that’s me happy-ventilating.)
Remember that post where I asked you all for stove advice? You were great — so much useful advice! — and after reading all your comments and doing a bunch of research, I actually pretty much settled on the stove I was going to get. But then we decided to volunteer in Puerto Rico for a few months, and no income meant no purchases which meant, sob, no stove.
When we got back home, my rinky-dink borrowed, but still functional, electric stove of thirteen years began to throw me some curveballs. The oven door stopped closing all the way. The big burner occasionally refused to downshift out of high gear. One of the small burners tipped violently so my kettles would slide off. None of it was critical. Just, I had a feeling the end times were drawing nigh. If I wanted to be proactive, not reactive, I’d best get on with it.
I plunged back into research. My husband and I drove to actual stores, checking out our options. We read reviews and watched sales. After a lot of mature, very adult-like (and decidedly unlike us) consideration, we finally settled on this one, but from Costco (and no longer available).
Last Thursday, after a two-week wait, it arrived, finally.
My husband stayed up late that night to install it…
And in the morning when I woke up, there it was, my new best friend.
Except currently we’re not besties just yet. More like wary acquaintances. No longer can I just waltz into my kitchen and bang pots and pans all over the place, oh no no no. This stove is far too serious for that. It’s big and solid, intimidatingly so. It’s something to be reckoned with, something to be considered.
Today, with snow in the forecast, I took a day off from my normal write-and-run routine in exchange for a baking marathon. While I’d been using the stove on a daily basis (we do have to eat, after all), it’d been sort of tentative, just a little here and there, as necessary. It was high time, I decided, I quit tiptoeing around the beast and actually got down to the business of figuring out how this thing worked.
There were those pancakes first off, and then I roast a couple butternuts and some brussel sprouts. The butternuts refused to get brown and I sort of freaked for a little there — What good is an oven that doesn’t brown vegetables? Oh no! I’M GOING TO HAVE TO SEND THE WHOLE THING BACK AND START OVER AGAIN, wahhhh! — but then I kept playing around. I tried the broiler. I cranked up the heat. I experimented between “convection roast” and “convection bake” and regular “bake.” I swapped trays. In the end, the butternuts got beautifully caramelized (whew), and then the brussel sprouts blackened gorgeously, and fast.
Now, as I type, I have French chocolate granola toasting. Next up is a cranberry walnut crostata, and then a loaf of ciabatta for supper, to go with our roasted veggies.
The enormous — no, cavernous — oven really is out-of-this-world dreamy. Convection bake is incredible: I love, love, love being able to pop things into the oven at any level, and pies and pastries and bread bake up a gorgeous golden brown. The proof setting is sweet, and I haven’t even gotten around to experimenting with time bake. With space for seven racks (ordering a couple more is on my to-do list), I haven’t even come close to maxing out the oven’s potential. It’s a real workhorse, a beast, rawr.
But you wanna know the very best part? The big glass door and the oven light!
You know how in The Great British Baking Show the contestants often kneel on the floor in front of the oven to anxiously watch their bakes? Well, that’s me now! I CAN DO THAT. I can squat on the floor and watch things bubble and sizzle, brown and rise, to my heart’s content. Such thrills!
Not everything is perfect, of course. The oven puts out a lot of heat. As in, the kitchen’s temperature shoots up an easy two or three degrees every time I bake. This is fine in brr-cold weather, but in the muggy summer heat, I’m afraid it’s going to be wretched. I paged back through the stove reviews to see if I overlooked some critical complaints, but a preliminary skimming didn’t reveal any comments regarding this issue. Am I the only one bothered by tremendous heat output?
Also, certain burners don’t seem to get hot enough, and others don’t go low enough. In fact, I don’t feel like the burner flames have much variation at all. But maybe I just have to get used to them?
I keep telling myself to stop panicking over every little glitch. There’s gotta be a reason the stove has nearly five solid stars. Plus, I’ve been a good twenty-some years with an electric stove, so it only stands to reason that a fire-breathing monster is going to take some getting used to.
I’ll get the hang of it. In no time at all, that stove and I will be BFFs. Just you watch.
This same time, years previous: books and movies, by a thread (if you need a laugh), writing: behind the scenes, in the sweet kitchen, oatmeal sandwich bread, nanny-sitting, the college conundrum, Thanksgiving of 2013, sushi!!!, baked ziti.