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. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

buttermilk vah-vahs.

rapha's fifth word. approximately.
i must have heard somewhere that frozen waffles are good for teething. so he started on them young. i created a waffle addict. he's not even particular. he'll eat any kind of frozen waffle you can find in the grocery store. square waffles and round waffles and organic waffles and waffles with flax seed and generic store brand waffles and waffles with blueberries in them and whole grain waffles. he really, really, really likes to be in charge of putting the waffles in the toaster. it's not a good idea to do it without him. he also really, really, really likes to take the maple syrup out of the refrigerator by himself. he laughs maniacally when the toaster beeps (or pops, depending on where we are and what toaster we're using) and he is very particular about how much or how little maple syrup he wants. sometimes he wants none, sometimes the waffle is a conduit to the syrup. sometimes he still eats them frozen. he's 18 months old and not always sensible. 
i actually rarely eat waffles myself. i think they're utterly wonderful, but i'm never inspired to order them at restaurants when we go out for brunch (which is approximately twice a year, sadly) because i'm usually more tempted to get something savory involving eggs and hot sauce. but, if i may make a recommendation, consider ordering a plate of table waffles. table waffles are what you get when you've practiced excitedly proposing to the friends and family you're dining with that it would indeed be the most fantastic idea to order a giant plate of waffles (or pancakes, or french toast) for everyone to share because that way no one needs to decide between sweet and savory and everyone can follow their delicious egg dishes with the taste of something sweet and you propose it so stealthily that no one really knows whose idea it was but when the meal is over people will say "hey, whose idea was that?" and you will tell them and then they will thank you. 
anyway, we don't have a waffle iron. i'd probably feel horribly guilty about buying frozen waffles if we did, but i have an easy excuse, which is that i do not have another single square inch in my kitchen to store any kind of equipment, let alone a large and heavy waffle iron. i don't even have have a half inch to spare. some day though. some day i'll get a waffle iron. (the same day i have a dishwasher and a washer and dryer and more than 1 foot of counter space.) cause really, as i learned at school during our breads unit, there's pretty much nothing as delicious as a homemade buttermilk waffle straight out of the waffle iron, onto the plate, topped with butter and maple syrup. and hey, they freeze pretty well, too.

so for all you lucky waffle iron owners out there, please try this.

buttermilk waffles
makes 6 big ones

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs sugar
3 eggs, separated
12 tbs butter, melted
2 cups buttermilk

to make:
1. heat waffle iron.
2. mix together flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a big bowl.
3. whisk egg yolks, butter, and buttermilk in a smaller bowl.
4. mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.
5. beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and then fold the egg whites into the mixed batter.
6. use a ladle to pour the batter, which will be thick, into the waffle
iron and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until they're perfectly done. serve with butter and syrup. and maybe some fruit.

rapha approved.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

here i am. i hope.

i've been absent a long, long time.
for a lot of different reasons.
the happiest reason: i'm in culinary school. finally.
but i want to come back here.
and write about food. and share recipes.
and i want to start by sharing the little application essay i wrote for school.
(there were three different prompts.)

1. I recall studying my mother as she kneaded challah dough, her hair tied back in a bandana as she labored over the sweet sticky substance until it was just right, just so. Though we sat for dinner together every night—forced, despite whatever inevitable sibling quarrel had taken place that day, to be civil, to be kind, for the dinner table was a sanctuary—Fridays were different. On Fridays we ate the product of my mother’s skilled hands, her diligent knuckles, and it made everything more delicious. My relationship to food: sometimes it takes work.  Sometimes that work leads to something sacred for a family.

I remember thinking vanilla extract had some kind of magical properties. That tiny, dark bottle. That rich, smooth smell. Cookies don’t taste right without it, my mother told me as I stirred the ingredients at her side. But you have to add just the slightest bit, she warned. My request for a direct taste of this essential ingredient was rejected. How did she know I wouldn’t like it, anyway? Too many things were off limits to me—the cookie dough itself, because of some awful man named Sal Manella, who somehow poisoned eggs—and now this, too. I happened to know that cookie dough was the most delicious substance in the world, so I was quite sure that vanilla extract was being withheld for its sheer deliciousness. I snuck that small bottle away from the kitchen in my palm and gleefully made my way to the bathroom with the contraband. I brought the bottle to my lips and took an expectant sip. I was utterly shocked and betrayed by what my mouth experienced. My relationship to food: sometimes the whole is better than its parts. It’s always worth trying things though, because sometimes you have to see for yourself.

The year I turned 18 I stopped eating meat. It happened suddenly. I vividly recall visiting the local bagel shop with friends, fully intending to order a turkey sandwich, but when I approached the counter the word turkey didn’t cross my lips. It just wasn’t there; gone, as was my desire for it. I ate lettuce, tomato, and mustard on my bagel that day. It was delicious. And that was it. I haven’t intentionally brought the flesh of a mammal or fowl to my lips since that day. It was an unwitting decision, a moment of change I was only later able to identify. My relationship to food: I won’t eat that which I do not believe is fit to eat. I do not impose this view. What’s right or wrong for my body is not the same for others.

My husband and I are busy. (Sometimes how busy we are is the topic of conversation for us.) And there are never ever enough hours in the day to catch up. There are jobs and a baby and a commute and sleep deprivation and too many emails and deadlines and a shared calendar and plans plans plans. We’re tired and worn and in need of a vacation, just like everyone else in NY and we don’t stop. We just keep going and then we go to bed and we wake up and start again. But there is a pause for us, without which the perpetual business would not be bearable. We pause before we eat. We have an intentional moment in which we bless our food and its source. My relationship to food: I am grateful that it sustains me. I must try my hardest to be mindful as I eat so as not to take for granted the blessing of a full belly.

Certain smells remind me of the shuk in Jerusalem, where I bought my groceries for two wonderful years. There, surrounded by people and movement, and noise and color, a man extended his hand, offered a sliver of yellow orange fruit. Taste it, he said in Arabic accented Hebrew through a lit cigarette. I did, disregarding the flies buzzing by. It was the sweetest mango I’d ever tasted, its ripe, dripping flesh a reward for living, a sure sign that its creator intended for us to experience pleasure. Years later, at a farmers market up the street from where I live in Brooklyn, I’d have a similar experience with a mushroom. As I wavered between two unfamiliar fungi, the smiling forager proposed a tasting. I agreed. And that’s when I discovered mushrooms for what they are, as they are meant to be. Flavorful, soft, meaty things; this one nutty, the other sweet.  My relationship to food: Its unadulterated sweetness, bitterness, freshness, essence are gifts. I must remember the way things taste when they’ve grown from the earth, before I stand in my kitchen and manipulate them.

My relationship to food is based on wonder, respect, admiration, and love. It is, I find, not unlike my relationship to my son. I want to know everything I can about him, to understand his endless dimensions, so that I can do my very best with him always. So that, when he’s ready, I can give him to the world and say here, enjoy this creation that is, as surely as it is human-made, also an ever present reminder of the presence of the divine. 

2. It was in my mother’s kitchen that I discovered the world, learned what I know about life. It is in my own kitchen now that I continue that exploration of the world. I experience life through food—it is the language I speak and the language with which I share my love of life and the world with the people around me. My distracted mind wanders daily to thoughts of recipes, menus, ingredients. I want to turn that distraction to focus. I want to learn to make healing foods to nourish body and soul; I want to understand why the foods we eat play this or that way on our tongues, have this or that effect on our bodies. All my life I’ve been surrounded by people who have devoted themselves to worthy pursuits based on their passions and it took me only 30 short years to realize that as there is nowhere I would rather be, nowhere I am more myself, than in a kitchen, I need a proper education, richer than love and raw talent alone, if I am to make food my life’s work. I seek the knowledge and skills Natural Gourmet Institute can provide me and the direction and guidance it will give.

3. I’ve never made a decision without knowing where it would lead me, without a vision of where I’d end up. That’s the result of a combination of anxiety and determination. But I’m making a decision now, and it’s no small thing. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’ll do with a certificate from Natural Gourmet Institute. I don’t know what I want to do, but I am wholly certain that I want to do something, that I want to pursue food and share food and spend my life thinking about and creating and writing about food. And that’s enough for me to apply. In May of 2014 my husband will be ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion and we will begin our lives anew some place. We don’t know where and we won’t know where until at least next January. Wherever we go, I will assess what kinds of contributions I can make with food, be it a small catering company, local bakery, dinner club, or something I haven’t even yet fathomed. And wherever we go, I know that I will always write about food, even if my mom is the only one who reads my words. I have so very many ideas and when I know where I’ll be ready to build them into realities.