pretzel bites.

pretzel bites.

Friday, July 17, 2015

lemony ricotta cake. with blueberries and plums.

we got home from vacation on saturday.
getting home from vacation is sort of the worst.
especially when you have no food in the house.
and your children decide to share your last $2 yogurt.
(YES! sometimes i buy $2 yogurt, okay!)

josh offered to go to the grocery store because, he told me, i looked too tired to do it. which i was. he took maya with him and i got to sit on the floor and play chutes and ladders with rapha, which i did not win.

josh is a deeply kind human being.

they left at 5 something. and they didn't get back until almost 7.
i don't know what happened.

he asked for a list. i gave him a list. on this list i wrote:
peaches (or nectarines. whatever is ripe.)

before he left i thought about reviewing what i meant by ripe, since josh once came home with an avocado that seemed like a scientific anomaly in its epic hardness, then claimed he doesn't really know what a ripe avocado feels like. but the thing is, my husband constantly awes me with not only his kindness and patience, but with the depths and creativity of his mind, too. he's always thinking. whether it's about philosophy or religion or belief or the law or shoes or parenting or game of thrones, his mind does not stop twisting and turning in the most fascinating, beautiful ways.

and maybe that's how and why he came home with one bag full of rock hard peaches and another bag full of rock hard plums. oh, and the biggest container of ricotta i've ever seen. because, he explained, he likes to garnish his french toast with it. (we make french toast once a week, on saturday mornings, with leftover challah.)
sometimes it's hard for Thinkers to go grocery shopping.

and i know that right now it probably seems like i'm making fun of josh, but i don't mean to. because sometimes having too much of something, or not the right version of something is a wonderful challenge. and it seemed to me the only thing to do with all of this food we wouldn't possibly be able to eat before we move on monday is bake it. which is what i did.

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups ricotta (i used whole milk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 cup chopped plums

to make:
1. preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 9 inch round cake pan with parchment paper, then spray with non-stick cooking spray.
2. combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a big old bowl.
3. combine the eggs, ricotta, vanilla, lemon juice and zest, and butter in another bowl.
4. dump the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir slowly until combined.
5. add in the fruit (i'm sure any kind of fruit would be good here) and stir gently until it's all mixed in. 
6. spread in pan and, if you're feeling fancy like i was, gently place some thinly sliced fruit on top.
7. bake for about 50 minutes or until the cake is a nice golden color.

a wonderful summer cake. enjoy!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

donuts. in cakes. on the cape.

when you marry someone, their family is not yet your own, and you have to learn to navigate an entirely foreign dynamic, which, needless to say, can be difficult. you're thrown into another entity--a group that existed as a unit before any of them ever knew you existed--and with your spouse comes a family history, quirks, ways of understanding the world, and traditions.
if you're lucky, like me, you marry someone whose family comes from providence and has a summer tradition of renting a house in cape cod for two weeks every summer.

you see, before i met josh, The Cape was a mysterious far off land, somewhere up there on the map, part of a state i knew only for boston and cambridge. people always flexed their arm muscle as they explained the geography of this place with an abundance of hydrangeas and i smiled politely and pictured people with blonde hair wearing pastel shirts tucked into shorts with small marine animals decorating them.
but, oh, oh, oh, cape cod. how i've fallen for this place with its quaint-but-not-too-quaint towns. its ancient trees. its ever-shifting bay, high tide so high the rocks upon which we collected hermit crabs and went splashing in the tide pools mere hours before are nowhere to be seen, low tides so low the beach is an endless expanse into the calm, blue waters. the gardens here are well tended, full of color, a source of pride. there are ice creameries on what seems like every corner. cranberries actually grow around the corner from the house my in-laws rent. you get the idea. and when we're here, we're on vacation. and i don't mean we don't have to work (i've actually been working a good deal while i've been here), i mean when we arrived a few days ago my mother-in-law said "you're off duty." magical words to the ears of the mother of two toddlers. a vacation, indeed.

with time to bake.
one of the traditions that has become essential to these visits, whether they last two days or five, is a baking experiment. you see, we stay just down the road from dear friends of my in-laws, who have children who have become dear friends of ours, who now have children of their own we hope will become dear friends of our children. and so on. and every year rebecca and hannah, wonderful, clever sisters, come up with a baking experiment for us to complete. an example: gluten free cronuts, which were successful probably only because we deep fried them and coated them in powdered sugar, and deep frying anything and covering it in powdered sugar can redeem it from a sad, dry, flourless fate.

this year it was donut cake. and i don't mean a stack of donuts assembled in the shape of a cake. i mean donuts in a cake. my extraordinarily brilliant grandfather once remarked, "i love all donuts and anyone who doesn't is a pervert." i couldn't agree with him more. and, well, by now it should be quite clear how i feel about cake. besides which, i've long been a fan of this kind of baking. my hamantashen (sadly, not blogged) this year were peanut butter cups inside chocolate chip cookies inside chocolate sugar cookies with crushed pretzels on top. i believe that putting delicious things inside of other delicious things is almost always a good idea.

rebecca was inspired by a helpful recipe she found in people magazine. the difference between the way rebecca operates in the kitchen and the way i do is drastic. she is a recipe follower, uncomfortable with veering from the set idea and steps laid out before her. i, on the other hand, find it nearly impossible to follow recipes exactly. i'm a rule follower in life, but not in the kitchen. hannah helped us reach a very respectable agreement: we'd just have to make two cakes.

yesterday morning the three of us set out for dunkin' donuts bright and early. we stood in line once and ordered donut holes to taste test as rebecca's recipe called for donut holes. we tried four kinds and had a very serious discussion about the merits of each and their suitable cake pairings. (cinnamon donut hole-->coffee cake. glazed donut hole-->any kind of cake. chocolate donut hole-->highly underwhelming. boston kreme donut hole-->not as good as a full size boston kreme donut.) after much discussion we thought we'd made up our minds and marched back to the counter. when we got there we spotted something we'd missed during our first order--a chips ahoy cream filled donut--and, as you can imagine, in a moment everything changed. we ordered one and brought it back to the table, full of hope. it was one of the most disappointing donuts i've ever eaten. the chocolate glaze on top wasn't the issue, nor was the cookie crumble, which neither added, nor detracted from the overall taste of the donut, but the cream was an inexplicable color and taste. a disaster, really. so then, for the third time, we went to the counter and placed our order. two dozen glazed donut holes and four boston kreme donuts. the big ones.

then we went to stop and shop and had to make more hard decisions. there are just so many cake mixes and frostings. it's even possible to buy a pink and white zebra striped boxed cake mix. what is this, the future? anyway rebecca and hannah settled on a white cake funfetti mix for their glazed donut holes with a blue vanilla frosting with sprinkles. i grabbed the chocolatiest thing i could find--triple chocolate fudge cake, which was a pretty clear choice because three times the chocolate is three times better than regular chocolate cake, and besides, it had the word fudge in it. the frosting gave me pause because i didn't want to go straight up vanilla. i wanted something to match the cream in the boston kreme. and then i saw it. buttercream, of course.

we went home.
we went to the beach.
we bathed our sandy children and took naps.
and then we baked.

we followed the recipes on the back of our boxes. (i wish i could meet the helpful person who created the just add water, oil, and eggs box cake mix and shake his hand.) but here is the most ingenious thing the recipe from people magazine suggested. REPLACE THE WATER IN THE CAKE WITH BUTTERMILK. buttermilk! so that's what we did. and then we poured some of that batter into a greased pans and layered our donuts and poured some more batter on top of them and baked them for longer than the box said to bake them because they were full of donuts. my cake was a little underbaked in the center, and the donuts felt a little hard on top, and i was worried about the cream leaking out and the cake being a total disaster, but there was nothing i could do but frost it and cross my fingers.

yesterday evening, out on the deck of the single most beautiful beach house i've ever had the great fortune to set foot in, overlooking the high tide with the sun setting over it, we dined.

the confetti cake was fine. the donuts were a little dry and a little lost in the cake. the icing, however, was very popular with my children. and don't worry, i do feed them food other than cake. (sometimes they eat cookies, too.)

but, as it turns out, putting boston creme donuts inside of a triple chocolate cake baked with buttermilk and covering it with buttercream frosting is a Very Good Idea. maybe even one of my very best.

we're already talking 2016 baking challenge. maybe hannah, rebecca, and i will begin this discussion today, our toes in the sand, boats on the horizon, and happy children at our feet.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

camp food. and chocolate fudge cake.

we’re at camp. like, for real. sleepaway camp. in a place called kunkletown, PA. which might sound weird, but it’s a thing for rabbis to go to reform summer camps for a couple weeks on faculty. we’ve been here for six days. we actually got really lucky and were placed in a lovely little cabin called the green house, which even has a kitchen. with this stove.

 i haven't been doing much cooking.

so here we are at camp. 
eating camp food.

we do what we can. josh has turned into a carb. i’ve been eating a lot of cereal and really weird salad concoctions from the “salad bar.” yesterday it was lettuce, three bean salad, babaganouj, and sliced tomato with some coleslaw on top. for good measure. rapha has taken to hoarding little packets of the most sticky, sickeningly sweet jelly i’ve ever had the misfortune of touching, and straight up licking it out of the container when he thinks i'm not watching. i'm always watching. i don’t blame him. like i said, we do what we can. the only one who seems unaffected is maya, who basically eats whatever is in front of her all day long. 

two days ago, after 20 straight hours of cold rain, we left camp and went out for chinese food. call me an optimist, but sometimes the absolute worst chinese food is the best. or maybe all the canned pineapple and cottage cheese i've been eating at breakfast has turned my palate to mush. 

the above scene might be confusing to you. it was confusing to me. this was the entirety of the decor at the chinese restaurant. (yes, that is a bottle of wine, some red peppers, cabbage, potatoes, numerous other vegetables, and a basket of raw fish...)

anyway, it wasn’t the first time we left camp. we’ve now twice been to the shop rite about 15 minutes away, which is one of the most wonderful grocery stores i’ve ever set foot in. they even have a thomas the train on a track suspended above the store. everyone was happy there. the other day i even took rapha and maya for ice cream in a town called effort. EFFORT. rapha ordered a swedish fish flavored ice.
long before we came here, the rabbi josh works for, who came to this very camp for some 20 years as faculty rabbi, gave me a charge. he is a very wise and kind man and i respect him deeply. so when he told me about the diner down the road called cherry’s, and said i’d have to order the chocolate cake despite the fact it would disappoint every time, and never taste as good as it looks, as good as you want it to, i took him seriously. because, you see, to me, chocolate cake is a very serious matter. 
i think about it a lot. want it all the time. in almost any combination or form. dessert isn't dessert unless chocolate is involved. desperate for chocolate, i've been known to whip up a chocolate chip laden mug cake despite josh's insistence that it can't be good. it's good. or it's good enough. and sometimes all you need is good enough. like when your dessert option has been brownies that taste like passover.
so after the 30 somethingeth hour of cold rain, and after breakfast and staff-brat day camp for rapha and a harry belafonte dance party for maya and me, and after lunch and a good nap for the three of us while josh was off doing various rabbinical things like playing basketball, the four of us climbed into the car and headed for cherry's. we ordered two pieces of chocolate cake to go. one piece of chocolate fudge cake and one piece of chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. (i do a lot of things for good measure.)

i'm not going to talk about the chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. it's not worth it. maya is the only one who ate it, anyway. even rapha turned away after eating the sprinkles off the top. 

josh took a few bites and said he thought the chocolate fudge cake was delicious and challenged me to say anything different. but i am going to say something different. it was not actually delicious. it was wonderful the way even bad chinese food is wonderful because sometimes your heart and soul just need something rich and sweet and indulgent. but delicious is a stretch. the cake itself wasn't dry, so i'll give it that, but i think that has little to do with the actual crumb and more to do with the generosity of the fudge. on its own the cake would be nearing the camp dining hall brownie situation, but the fudge elevates it to entenmann's worthy goodness. this is a compliment. my mom and i used to eat those little boxes of cake together. inch by inch i'd scrape the frosting with a (preferably small) spoon while she ate the cake i'd revealed below. this does not embarrass me. it was a perfect system. that the cherry's fudge from the fudge cake reminded me of an entenmann's cake is no small thing. i went for it, separating out the cake part from the frosting part. it's okay to know what you like. 
the point is, if a chocolate fudge cake is truly delicious, it doesn't look like this when i'm through with it. like i said, the rabbi josh works for is a very wise man. 
maybe i'll head back to the grocery store today and buy an entenmann's cake. i know i can count on maya to eat the cake part. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

the problem with buttermilk

here’s the problem with buttermilk: there’s too much of it.

i don’t mean existentially, in the world. i just mean in the carton. or bottle. they're too big. who needs a whole big container of buttermilk? i don’t. and i love buttermilk. but i’ve never seen a small container of it. ever.  and i spend a lot of time in grocery stores.

there are only so many things you can do with buttermilk before it goes bad, and you’ve got to be committed.

here are the things i made with one carton of buttermilk:
ice cream
cornbread cake
cornbread muffins
we went strawberry picking with friends and i imagined us in lovely hats in a giant field of plump fruit falling off the plant into our stained hands and then tumbling merrily into a giant bucket. 
i pictured my children with strawberry juice dripping from their mouths as they skipped along the endless rows. not so much. there weren’t so many ripe strawberries, it turned out, i forgot my lovely hat and both my children immediately removed theirs, my three year old ate all the best looking strawberries and the ones that were left weren’t exactly sweet, so the only thing to do with them was to roast them. and add sugar. and cream. and buttermilk. and turn them into ice cream.

our neighbors just had twins! a boy and a girl! so i had to bake for them, something quick they could just cut and shove in their mouths in two seconds because that’s all you have when you have new baby. and they have two new babies. i thought about cornbread because who doesn’t love cornbread? also i had buttermilk and blueberries. (a really good thing is that this recipe makes TWO cakes, so we got to eat one, too. it doesn't call for blueberries, but the batter was screaming for some. also, i skipped the frosting, though it looked utterly delicious)

my friend elly made strawberry rhubarb scones AND LEFT THEM AT MY DOOR AS A SURPRISE BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT SHE IS LIKE and they were delicious but i ate them all and then i needed more scones so i had to make more. and it’s almost a sin to not make scones when you have an abundance of buttermilk. either scones or biscuits. and then i ate all of those scones. because that's what happens. i didn't even take any pictures. so there's this one, instead.

my three-year-old has a friend who’s been sick recently with some scary stuff so we offered to make dinner for her lovely family and i thought COMFORT FOOD. obviously. i spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to make. lasagna, mac ‘n cheese, baked ziti, etc. but then i thought maybe they’ve had their fill of pasta and i made a kind of improvised vegetarian cassoulet with veggies, beans, quinoa, and a panko parsley parmesan topping. protein, right? and then i made these happy little kabobs with cucumber, watermelon, and mozzarella, because everyone knows eating food off a stick is better than eating food that’s not on a stick. josh told me he thought they were weird but i was still so proud of them. and for dessert i made peaches and cream and wondered all the while why i don’t make peaches and cream every day. and, of course, buttermilk cornbread muffins. because that’s comfort in the palm of your hand.
the truth is, my mom made the most delicious cornbread i’ve ever had and i can’t find the recipe. i know it had tons of butter and tons of sugar in it because there is simply no way it could have tasted that good without tons of butter and tons of sugar, but even knowing this i still haven’t been able to even get close. i'll keep trying though.  come to think of it, it probably didn’t even have a drop buttermilk in it…

anyway, that’s a lot of buttermilk baking, if you ask me.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The thing about candied yams.

I haven't tasted my mom's candied yams in three years. And I'll never eat them again. When I was a kid they were my favorite part of Thanksgiving. They were the epitome of her cooking. Mushy and sweet. Uncomplicated and comforting. Perfect. And not, I must add, covered in marshmallow (which my husband still claims is the "real" way) or ruined by nuts or any other unnecessary embellishment. Sometimes your mom just makes things right. 

Two years ago my mom threw a huge Thanksgiving dinner and her whole side of the family flocked to my parent's big house in a DC suburb. I wasn't there. I was with my in-laws (we trade Thanksgiving and Passover each year) eating yams that weren't my mom's. Then, just more than six months after
Thanksgiving, my mom died. By the time September rolled around I was five months pregnant with a baby my mother would never meet and I decided Thanksgiving could go fuck itself and my husband and 18 month old son and I went to Costa Rica to visit friends instead. It wasn't for lack of gratitude, which was, after all, my mother's deepest gift to her family and the most profound lesson my brothers and I learned from her. I felt deeply, unquestioningly grateful for my many blessings. For my incredible husband (who supported my aforementioned suggestion about what Thanksgiving could do last year), my delicious son whose existence was and is the light of my life, and for my healthy, uneventful pregnancy and the promise of new life, despite my persistent grief and anger that my mother was gone. On Thanksgiving we lit Hanukkah candles for it was also the first night of Hanukkah, but there was no turkey or cranberry in sight. We ate imitation Thai food I made with the lemongrass growing in my friend's yard. We took walks and ate ice cream and plantains and drove to the beach and swam in the Caribbean Ocean during a rainstorm and saw a sloth making its way up a tree in a humid, beautiful jungle. So going to Costa Rica and skipping Thanksgiving was better than the alternative, which was facing the first holiday after my mom died in any way. 

My dad ended up in Connecticut at the home of someone he'd never met, or met only once--my younger brother's wife's uncle. My dad was used to hosting holidays and when my mom died he became rather like a holiday orphan and shuffled where he could, his three married children divided by obligations to their married families. So after Thanksgiving last year he wrote us and said let's all do it at my house again next year, together. And no one said much about it but it stayed the plan. My brothers, sisters-in-law, and even my younger brother's in-laws said of course. And so did my mom's parents. And her siblings and nieces and nephews. Everyone said yes, they'd like to have Thanksgiving together in my mother's house. Without her. There will be 23 of us.  

When my aunt and I were divvying up cooking responsibilities I volunteered to do the yams. I briefly considered taking them in an entirely different direction this year. I'm a peel-it-yourself, make-it-from-scratch kind of cook and I knew the yams my mom got came from a can and were then doctored by her diligent hands. But that idea quickly fizzled when I thought about what it would be like to eat Thanksgiving in my childhood home, with my family, with yams that were different on purpose. My aunt told me that she'd tried making my mom's yams in the past using the exact same ingredients but could never get it right. Maybe because my mom never used recipes, and instead cooked by intuition, by taste. My younger brother confessed my mom had walked him through the steps one year but his yams fell terribly short of the real thing, too. I'm glad you're going to make them this year, he told me.  

Maybe it would have been easier if I'd ever even made candied yams with my mom before, but I didn't even know where to start or which brand of cans she bought. When I tried to picture the image of the can my mind drew a blank. At the grocery store I wandered back and forth hoping something would spark a memory but had no such luck so I did what I figured was the next best thing and I Googled canned yams and bought six large cans of the first result Google came up with. I've never been good at eyeing how much is the right amount of something. This year I ended up with three large bags of leftover Halloween candy. Last year I ran out. Six cans was my best bet. 

Tonight, as I stood there in my kitchen emptying the sweetened juice out of those 
cans I had a flash of what it would have been like if I had yelped "but I don't know how to make your yams yet!" as my mom lay dying in front of me. It was a ridiculous image, but somehow also fitting. Because what I really needed to ask her was how do I do anything without you? How am I supposed to raise my children without you? How can it be that your important, shining life will be reduced to the stories I tell them about you? How am I supposed to understand the world without you in it to analyze it with me, for me? And how am I supposed to continue being a person in this world without you? Maybe she might have been able to answer me about the yams, but I just held her hand instead.

I didn't buy enough. My husband offered to run to the grocery store to supplement what I had and I let him. My mom would never have made too little of anything. He brought me three more cans. I added some of this, a bit of that. The yams are sitting on the stove cooling before I freeze them for Thursday. They're making me feel homesick. And hopeful. 

And here's the thing. I don't know whether I'm hoping everyone will say oh, you did it! You made her yams just right! Or whether what I really want, what will be more comforting this second Thanksgiving without my beloved mother, is if everyone tells me that I, too, fell short of making the real thing.