"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ring things: Why I don't wear my engagement ring every day

Most ladies, when presented with engagement bling, are thrilled beyond words and barely take off their new jewelry acquisition (if they take it off at all--I know some gals who never remove their rings). I feel like I am already establishing myself as an offbeat bride because I rarely wear my engagement ring.

Before you think I'm some sort of ungrateful woman who doesn't appreciate her gentleman and the gorgeous token he's given her to symbolize their love and commitment, hear me out.

First off, my ring is the wrong size--it's too big. I wasn't sure of my ring size when I ordered my ring from the interwebs--I knew I was between a 5 and a 6--so I played it safe and ordered it a size too big. So even though it fits my finger, it's a bit loose and I was worried about losing it, especially since my fingers tend to contract in size in the winter cold. I wanted to wait to get it adjusted until after I had my wedding band (which I ordered in a size 5, which IS my real size, as you'll see below), so I could see how the two fit together, so in the meantime I went to a jeweler and had them put on an inexpensive ($10) temporary sizer.

The woman at this jewelry store seemed to think she knew more about my own body than I myself do. When I used a sizer to figure out my official size, I was pleased to see that yes, the 5 was indeed the size that felt comfortable on my finger. But the woman made me try on a 4.5 sizer, and that ended up being the size my ring was adjusted to.

"I think the 4.5 is a little tight on me," I said, as I gave the sizer a vigorous twist and pull to get it off my finger.

"No, you're a 4.5," she insisted.

"But it was sort of hard to get that ring off," I persisted, politely. "And my fingers swell in the summer."

"You had no difficulties removing the 4.5 ring," she said, a bit snootily. "That's your size."

I was not going to win here. I sighed and gave up. Fine. I was a 4.5. Whatever.

So since this woman wouldn't listen to me and sized my ring to a 4.5, my ring is just a tad tight, which means it squeezes my finger and gets a tad uncomfortable and leaves an imprint after I wear it for a whole day. So until I take it to get it officially sized in a month or two, I have to deal with the squeezing and the temporary finger disfigurement.

The other reason I don't wear my ring every day is that I work at home, alone. And it's not like I can't just wear the ring for myself, because I could, and I should if I want to, but I just don't think to put it on. Partly because it's a tad too tight as I just described, and partly because I'm just not used to wearing it.

An engagement ring is a very public symbol of a very private thing: a decision between two people to spend the rest of their lives together as a married couple. So maybe I don't remember to wear it when I'm home but I also don't feel the need to wear it, because I know and Jeremy knows that we're getting married, and that's good enough for me. I try to remember to wear it every time I go out, but I don't always remember then either. If I worked outside the home, would I wear it every day? Maybe. There would probably still be days when I forgot though. And I don't think it would be that big of a deal, to me or to Jeremy.

I love it. I love my ring. But I don't necessarily think it's more than that: a ring. A symbol. A beautiful one, but just a symbol. I don't need it to prove anything, because I feel like I have nothing to prove and no one to prove it to.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cinnamon chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake, oh my!

Somehow I managed to miss that yesterday's post was my 100th post in this blog! Hurrah to me!

To celebrate this momentous event, I bring you a most delicious recipe for cinnamon chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake from Smitten Kitchen!

I'm actually going to include the recipe here along with my commentary, because I feel like there is a bit of a trick to preparing this. It's not horrendously difficult or anything, but I did find that this bears some notes. Also my own photos, because as Deb of SK admits buried in her list of many comments, her mum put together the cake she photographed for the post somewhat differently from the recipe instructions, hence the lack of chocolatey goodness on top. So without further ado, read this recipe, get yourself into the kitchen, and make this cake!

Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Coffee Cake

For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter (4 ounces or 8 tablespoons) at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated (remember: separate them when they're cold, then let them come to room temp!)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
16 ounces sour cream (I use the low-fat kind and it's just as nice!)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

For filling and topping:
12 ounces chocolate chips
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9"x13" cake pan.

In a bowl, sift flour, baking soda, and baking powder together. I use a large fine-mesh sieve for sifting. After you sift everything into the bowl, use a whisk to get all your dry ingredients blended together.

In a small bowl, mix together the 1/2 cup of sugar and teaspoon of cinnamon. Use a fork to blend them together well, then set this aside.

In a large bowl, use a mixer to cream together the softened butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar until light and fluffy (2 to 3 minutes), then mix in the egg yolks and vanilla.

Use the whisk attachment of your mixer to beat the egg whites until they're stiff and hold firm peaks. 

Alternately add sour cream and then flour mixture into butter mixture. This will require near-superhuman strength, because this mixture will become incredibly thick and hard to stir. I had to use a wooden spoon and then stop every couple of stirs to scrape it off with a spatula. Really. It is that thick. You will oof and grunt your way through this one, but it's okay! It will look almost like a bread dough rather than a batter. Carry on!

Now the recipe calls for you to fold the egg whites into the batter. Laugh, because there's no way anyone will be able to properly fold the egg whites into the black-hole-dense mass of dough in the bowl in front of you. Do the best you can to incorporate them in a technique that is as close to proper egg white folding as possible. The mixture will become softer as you incorporate the egg whites, but don't get discouraged if you can't do the folding properly. I adore artfully folding egg whites into batters, but this is not one of the times that calls for art. It calls for sheer determination and the use of your biceps.

Mop the sweat from your brow and get that cake pan handy. Plop about half the batter into the pan and spread it around. Again, it's so thick that this isn't going to be easy. I found that it was easiest to blob in gobs of dough all around the pan and use a small spatula to spread it around to completely cover the bottom of the pan. Once you've got the first layer of batter in the pan, use a spoon to sprinkle on about half the cinnamon-sugar mixture you prepared earlier, and then add about half the chocolate chips.

Then gob on the second half of the batter and spread it round again with the spatula. This can get a bit messy because of the chip layer, but I find that if you drop the batter in the pan in small amounts before spreading, it keeps things neater. (See photo!)

Once you've got all the batter in the pan, sprinkle on the rest of the cinnamon-sugar mixture and the rest of the chips. Grumble to yourself about what a pain in the ass it was to put this together, then put it in the oven for 40 to 50 minutes until a tester comes out clean. Put the pan on a rack and let it cool. Wonder if all the effort was worth it.

It is! It IS worth the effort! The cake is moist and spongy and not overly sweet, and the cinnamon-sugar mix on top gets slightly melty and crisp, and the chocolate chips don't melt all the way and it's just awesome. The first time I made this, Jeremy took some to work and it was extremely popular--so much so that one of his coworker's wives heard tell of it and felt left out so I packed up some for him to take home to her.

So yes... Jeremy and his coworkers are lucky gents, and you and your loved ones will be lucky too if you make one of these coffee cakes! Like I mentioned in my previous post, I'm pretty sure this is one of the reasons Jeremy is so excited to marry me: a lifetime guaranteed supplier of cinnamon chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The life of a newly engaged lady

So! What does a newly engaged lady do in the days following her engagement? If that newly engaged lady is me, it goes something like this.

  • Newly engaged lady (hereafter referred to as "NEL") excitedly shares the happy news with friends and family.
  • NEL shows people her ring and is pleased when everyone oohs and aahs over how beautiful and unique it is. She feels slightly guilty that she is buying into the tradition of a lady receiving a diamond upon engagement, but not so much so that she doesn't enjoy the sparkle. She is, after all, a lover of gems.
  • NEL has to explain that no, there was no formal proposal, so she has no sweeping grandiose tale of romance to relate. 
  • NEL has to explain to over-eager friends and well-wishers that no, there are no wedding plans yet. She and Fiance plan to get married, hopefully within the year. But that's just about it. NEL starts to wonder just how much time other ladies devote to wedding planning, real or imagined, before they actually get engaged. NEL starts to wonder if there's something wrong with her because she was never one of those little girls who dreamed about her wedding. Instead she dreamed about having her artsy black-and-white author photo emblazoned on the dust jacket of an international best-seller (that she has yet to write).
  • NEL uses a birthday Amazon gift certificate to order a bunch of budget wedding planning books, including Offbeat Bride, the book that led to the greatest website ever for the newly engaged
  • NEL finds a binder from her senior year in high school titled "The Sacrament of Marriage," a project wherein all senior year girls had to plan their own weddings, both from a religious perspective and a practical perspective. NEL laughs when she sees that her 17-year-old self imagined getting married at age 22. She laughs even harder when she sees that her wedding budget was under $5,000. Then she sighs and feels like crying a little bit.
  • NEL travels back to Boston post-birthday-Thanksgiving-engagement-and-reunion-with-high-school-friends-whirlwind and feels the doldrums that come after a week of excitement and fun. She finds it hard to work, mostly because she's begun obsessing, just slightly, about her wedding. 
  • NEL starts to seriously research things like venues and a bubble of panic begins to form inside of her when she realizes how expensive these things are.
  • NEL starts to imagine a wedding with only 50 guests. Then 30. Then 10. Then she begins to imagine how wonderful (and affordable!) eloping would be.
  • NEL decides that eloping is the only solution.
  • NEL realizes that even though she never spent hours imagining her perfect dress or floral arrangements or first-dance song, she actually does want a real wedding, with a meaningful ceremony and surrounded by family and friends. Elopement is out of the question.
  • Realizing this, NEL then faces the fact that it will cost a lot of money to have even a very simple, pared-down, classy yet unelaborate wedding.
  • NEL spends several days feeling pit-of-the-stomach dread and several nights getting very little sleep because she cannot turn off her brain.
  • NEL, in a state of sleep deprivation and complete financial paranoia, has a meltdown. 
  • Fiance of NEL spends the evening comforting her as she sobs and snots and wails all over. Fiance of NEL wipes her tears away, assures her everything will be okay, reminds her that a wedding is a happy thing, tells her to relax, throws away her snot-covered tissues, and puts her to bed.
  • NEL realizes she is marrying a gem who is right.
  • NEL gets a good night's sleep and wakes up the next day confident that yes, she and Fiance can figure out a way to do this and stay happy.
  • NEL brainstorms and researches and finds potential wedding venue and lots of money-saving ideas. 
  • NEL feels much better and actually gets excited about the prospect of planning her wedding. Fiance is actually showing enthusiasm and contributing ideas too, which makes NEL extremely happy that this isn't going to turn into The Bride Show with Groom acting as a mere prop.
  • NEL vows not to become a Bridezilla.
  • NEL happily bakes a cinnamon chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake, which she is convinced is just a tiny bit responsible for Fiance wanting to marry her. Yes, it really is that good. (Recipe to follow!)
So there you have it. My life as a newly engaged lady, to date. I have no idea if this is how a typical newly engaged lady spends the first couple of weeks after getting engaged, but I'm sort of glad I had a meltdown early on. It gave me some much-needed perspective and helped me lighten up and remember that this should be FUN, not OMG WTF. Also, the wedding porn on Offbeat Bride helps me feel not quite so odd for wanting to do things my way.

Fun recipes, including coffee cake recipe, coming soon!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Big news and a big year ahead!

It amazes me that it's December already. My November went by in a blur. I don't like to make excuses for not blogging, but I do have my reasons for finding it hard to make the time to do it. My month was rather busy: deadlines for work, turning 30 (more on that in a minute), celebrating Thanksgiving, seeing old friends. Oh yeah, and getting engaged.


Anyone who's known Jeremy and I for any period of time knows we've been together for a while now (6 years together, 8 years of knowing each other), so it's not like the news suddenly came out of nowhere. Jeremy and I had been talking about it for a while, but we finally just decided to make it official. (No, there was no proposal. I didn't want that, actually. We wanted to come to the decision together when the time was right.) He got me a lovely ring that is very me: it is delicate and different and vintage looking. (Photo below: props to my mama and her experimentation with her camera settings to find just the right one for a non-blurry close-up.) Part of me knew I didn't need a gem to make it official, but the other part of me just adores gems. I think I am a pretty even mix of traditional and offbeat. I made sure to wait until I found the perfect one though, and believe me: I looked at HUNDREDS of rings. I feel like I take after my maternal grandmother: she really loved jewelry and so do I. She had some fabulous pieces, and she, my mother, and I must all have the same size hands because all of her rings fit my mother and me perfectly. I found her wedding band set when I was home for Thanksgiving and part of me thought that perhaps I could have just used that for my own rings, but then I realized I just love the ring Jeremy got me and I like the idea of starting my own tradition. I look forward to wearing one of her rings on my own wedding day, though, to honor her in my own little way. My cousin did this and I like being part of that tradition.

And speaking of wedding days, no, no plans yet. But rest assured that as they come together, I will certainly share them here. (In a normal, oh-my-god-how-do-I-plan-a-wedding/look-at-this-cool-idea-and learn-from-it-or-enjoy-it way rather than as a BRIDEZILLA!)

I was so happy to turn 30 this year. I genuinely was. I have a job I enjoy, I like my apartment and neighborhood, I am feeling good about myself mentally and physically, I love my friends and my hobbies, and I have a man who loves me who I love dearly who I will be marrying. Pretty good year! I am excited for what the future will bring to us.

Jeremy and I share a birthday (November 21), and this year we decided to have a nice dinner together at Top of the Hub. It was great. We had a really nice meal and a great view, and it was nice to just have a night together to enjoy each other's company and know that soon we would be sharing the news of our engagement with our friends. And let me just say how awesome it has been to share our news. Everyone is so excited and supportive and showering us with happiness and good wishes and (among the most eager) wedding ideas. So thankful to have such great friends! A big beso to you all!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NaNO (emphasis on the NO) WriMo, and Rolf and Roll #2

November, where are you going? This month is seriously zipping by, and I can't believe how close we are already to the end of the year 2010. Overall it's been a very good year for me, but I can get into an introspective, year-in-review type of post when it's actually nearly the end of the year. For now, Novembery things.

First off, NaNoWriMo. I tried it. I really did. And even though I wrote about 1800 words, I decided that it just wasn't for me. I thought up an idea for my novel and started typing away, trying not to give myself any big expectations and telling myself that anything goes. I didn't have big expectations and I let anything go. The problem was that I wasn't having any fun. I just wasn't enjoying myself at all. I'd think if you're going to do something as completely insane as trying to write a novel in 30 days, you should at least enjoy the ride. But I wasn't enjoying it. At all. I disliked my plot, I disliked my character, I couldn't think up an alternate idea or character to write about, and the pressure of trying to come up with something or someone new to write about just wasn't appealing. So I scrapped the effort and gave myself permission to say, "To hell with this." I'm pleased with that decision for sure. It's been a busy month with work and things, so much so that I've barely had time to think about the fact that I turn 30 (!!) this Sunday, so I figured why add unnecessary anxiety to my life? To sum up, NaNoWriMo is a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again.

Second, my second Rolfing appointment! I realize that I have my third appointment in two days and yet I haven't even written anything about the appointment I had two weeks ago! Ooops. During my second session, Daphne focused on my feet and lower legs as well as my back. Let me tell you much fun it is to have your feet Rolfed. It's not. Feet (at least my feet) are skinny, bony, uncushioned things, so you can really feel every poke, prod, and squinch that's going on down there. My right foot, which is the one with the old ankle injury, was especially unpleasant, and at one point Daphne even said, as she worked on the bottom of my foot, that she could feel that things were "bunched up" in my plantar. I feel like that was a good way of putting it. For the past few months, my right ankle has really bothered me any time I've walked more than a couple of blocks, and I felt like I just wasn't walking right. Everything felt tight and out of wack. So I hoped that the unpleasant foot work she was doing would help.

She also worked on my back. Let me tell you: having my lower back work on was the most painful thing yet. At one point, while she was working on my lower back on the right, I actually gasped and said "Oh my God!" out loud. It was very, very tender. I've often felt like I hold a lot of stress in my lower back. It often feels tense, and whenever I have backaches, this is where the pain tends to be. Even when I've gotten back massages, which are supposed to be a pleasant and lovely thing, I find it painful to have my lower back rubbed in more than a superficial way. Deep tissue massage down there would probably make me cry. Any time it's pressed hard there, I feel tears in my eyes because it feels like ice picks being stabbed into my muscles. Pleasant!

But I know that all of this unpleasantness is for the greater good, so I deep-breathed and gritted my teeth through the pain. She ended by doing a bit of work on my head and jaw, which felt good because my jaw tends to pop and shift around (I wear one heck of a sexy night guard to prevent clenching and grinding). Later that night, Jeremy noticed that I had bruises on my lower back, precisely where it had been most painful to get Rolfed. Oh my! The area wasn't really hurting much anymore, it just looked sort of disturbing.

For a day or two afterward, my feet felt tender and a bit odd, and I kept making Jeremy examine the progress of my bruises until they faded. However, I have noticed a real difference in my ankle. It definitely does not hurt as much, or even in the same place, when I walk now. Most times it doesn't hurt at all, or if it does, it just feels sort of sore right in the joint. Before it used to hurt all over my foot: the joint, the bottom of my foot, the sides of my foot, my arch, my calf. Now it's a lot more subtle, if it happens at all, and a lot more concentrated. In fact, here's how much I believe in Rolfing: I wore a pair of very cute plum-colored pumps last Thursday night to an outing with some lady friends. The heel on these pumps is nice and wide (I can't handle wobbly thin heels) and probably isn't higher than 2 or 2 1/2 inches so it's not like I'm up on shoe stilts or anything. But still. I remember when I'd tried them on the day I bought them in September, it made my ankle ache just to walk in them.

Well, last Thursday I walked all over Harvard Square: to a reading in the bookstore, over the cobblestone sidewalks into the bank, over to a local restaurant. And not once did my ankle complain. It did not hurt AT ALL. Even though I was wearing heels! Even though before my last Rolfing appointment, even walking around in sneakers made my ankle hurt! The only thing I experienced was that the next day, my calves were slightly sore because I'm not used to walking around with my weight shifted in that way, but my feet weren't bothering me at all. Amazing! I am looking forward to telling Daphne about this.

My posture, which was improved after my first visit, has only gotten better after this second visit. I can't wait to go home for Thanksgiving next week and surprise my mother with my improved posture, because she was constantly telling me to stand up straight, telling me that I was going to end up a hunch back in my old age because of my terrible slouch. I'm really so grateful for this. Not only do I look better, but I feel better, breathe a bit better, and even walk and hold myself better. I spent several hours standing around in a bar the day after my last Rolfing session, and it wasn't that uncomfortable. At no point did I feel like I absolutely had to sit down, which is how I used to feel before when I had crappier posture.

This Friday, as I mentioned earlier, is my third visit, so I'll be going into my 30th year of life freshly Rolfed and standing even straighter. I've booked my next three appointments. Don't know how many I will end up needing overall, but it really does make me feel better, the way going to a chiropractor or masseuse helps some people--even though sometimes it is painful. I can tolerate a session of discomfort if it means feeling better about myself every day thereafter as a result.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Adventures in Apple Picking: Apple Cake

Oh my! November is just flying by, and I have lots to write about but I've been so busy with work and things that I've not had the time. Naughty, naughty blogger.

I've got lots to write about, like my second Rolf session, books I've been reading, NaNoWriMo, and food, obviously.

One of the things I made recently was an apple cake. I had some more leftover apples left after my apple picking adventure, so I decided to find a good apple cake recipe. I found one that looked decent in one of my baking books, but it called for half butter and half shortening. I didn't have shortening on hand (also, I try to avoid using it if I can, because the consistency weirds me out) and was antsy to get underway with the cake, so I turned to the good old internet to find an alternative.

I found a fabulous recipe on Smitten Kitchen for the blogger's mom's apple cake. It looks like an old-fashioned German or Jewish apple cake recipe, and it's very easy to do. Not to mention it's amaaaaazing! Click on the link above to get the recipe and the adorable story about the blogger and her mom making the cake, as well as an awesome photo of her mom's original handwritten recipe card.

A few things that I did differently. First off, I know it can be a real pain in the ass to fill a large bowl with so many cut-up apples and then try to get them all evenly coated in cinnamony goodness. So instead, I put the apples into a gallon zip-top bag with the sugar and cinnamon and gave them a vigorous heave-ho. This got them all nice and coated and since I could keep the bag sealed, it helped prevent any possible browning.

I didn't have any nuts in the house, but I imagine that this cake would be only more awesome with some nice toasted walnuts or pecans. Some dried cranberries would probably also be very nice.

Also, I don't yet own a tube pan (though I fully intend to get one), so instead I used a 9 x 13 sheet pan. Since the batter was more spread out in that pan, I baked it for just a few minutes over one hour. You can't really get the beautiful layers the blogger did with her tube pan if you use a sheet pan, so I just sort of alternated pouring in batter and adding apples and squooshed everything together with a spatula.

The cake was so, so good. It is not overly sweet, and you can't taste the orange juice much, but it is very moist, and the spiced apples really are the star. The Ginger Golds that I used baked up super soft and tasty, so that they were nearly melting into the cake. Awesome!

This cake gets better by the day, becoming more and more moist and appley, and Jeremy and my taste-tester friends all agreed that it was delicious. I'd definitely recommend you try this. I'll be making it again with my next big batch of apples.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Adventures in Apple Picking: Apple Crumble

I can't believe November is upon us! October passed way too quickly for my liking, but I was fortunate to squeeze in an October day of apple picking at Boston Hill Farm with my friends Nicole and Justina. It was a glorious fall afternoon, perfect temperature, bright and sunny, and meant for apples.

Neither Nicole nor Justina had ever gone apple picking when they were growing up, an egregious misfortune that I wanted to remedy. I grew up going apple picking, sometimes several times in one season. My father has an apple obsession that's almost incomprehensible. He takes his apple picking very seriously, overfilling the house with many, many pounds of apples. I too felt the pull to pick this fall. I guess some things are genetic!

So what does one do when she comes home with 12 pounds of apples? Bake! :) I picked a few Macoun apples, but the majority of my bag was lovely ginger gold apples. They're a yellow-green with a pink blush on them and have a wonderful, creamy texture. They are a nice balance of tart and sweet. They're fantastic to just munch on, but everyone knows the addition of butter and sugar makes everything better.

I decided to use a few ginger gold apples in a nice apple crumble (interesting factoid: an apple crisp is basically the same thing as an apple crumble except that the topping on a crisp is a finer, breadcrumb texture and a crumble's topping is chunkier). These apples brown very slowly after you cut them, so even though it was a couple of minutes between the time I finished chopping them and the time I finished combining my ingredients, they hadn't changed color. This recipe would work well with any baking apple. I highly recommend it! It's a simple, unfussy dessert that is extremely hearty and delicious. We ate our warm out of the oven with a dollop of yummy vanilla Greek yogurt. After the leftovers cooled in the pan, we wrapped it in foil and stashed it in the fridge. Just portion out a serving and reheat in the microwave. Yum!

Super Simple Apple Crumble

  • 6 ginger gold (or other baking) apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups of rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a square baking pan (8x8 or 9x9, whatever you've got).

Combine all the ingredients except for the apples and the butter in a large zip-top plastic bag, seal, and shake to combine. Cut the butter into small bits and add to the bag. Reseal the bag and knead the butter bits into the dry ingredients until the mixture holds together.

Heap the apples into the prepared pan. Crumble the topping all over the apples.

Bake uncovered for 40 to 45 minutes until the crumble is golden brown and the juices are bubbly. Or, if you're like me and you made enough topping to completely cover your dessert so you can't see the apples, you'll know it's ready when your house starts to smell amaaaaaazing. Carefully scoop out and enjoy the bliss.

Stay tuned. My next adventure in apple use is going to be an apple cake! 

Friday, October 29, 2010


So for the past week or so, I'd been thinking of participating in NaNoWriMo. For those who mistakenly think I just spasmed while typing, rest assured: I'm convulsion free; this is just an abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month. I didn't have terribly long to decide, because NaNoWriMo starts in November, which somehow, inexplicably, is just 3 days away. Seriously, how is it almost November? How is 2010 almost over? Anyway.

You have 30 days to write a novel that is at least 50,000 words long. Obviously most people just use this as an exercise in getting themselves into the practice of writing regularly (a very commendable thing), but some people really do take it seriously and I'm sure many folks actually get a good bulk of usable material out of it.

Why would I subject myself to the insanity (because let's face it, that's what it is) of trying to write 50,000 cohesive words in 30 days? Partly it's because I've sort of always wanted to try NaNoWriMo. Partly it's because November is my birthday month and that makes me excited. But for the most part, because I've been doing NO writing for myself, other than this blog (and even that petered out for a few months there), for the past FIVE YEARS. It's pretty sad, but I've just not made time for myself and my writing projects, even though I love writing and have wanted to write a book since I was 5 years old. I'm one of those people who has a half-finished novel languishing in a drawer somewhere, except that it's not even close to being half finished and it's not in a drawer, just on my hard drive. So I have to do SOMETHING. Honestly, what do I have to lose? Even if I fail to meet the word count, the time I spend writing won't be a waste because it'll be time I used to write, getting my brain and body used to the feeling of putting words down.

This is why I have just signed up to participate. I suppose I am certifiably insane. Or as certifiably insane as the thousands of other people who have signed up for this.

But this is a year that seems particularly significant to me. I've started a job doing what I really love, I'm feeling comfortable about myself emotionally and physically, I'm turning 30. I'm finally starting to feel like I get it. Like things are falling into place somehow. It's tough for me to describe (which must mean something, since I'm a writer and descriptions are my job), but I just have this feeling that is saying, yes, go ahead and do this crazy thing! So I've gone ahead and done it. Hopefully I will be feeling sane enough to actually post regular updates on here about how I'm doing with this.

If you want to join in the insanity, click on the link in the first paragraph and join in the wackiness. Insanity loves company, right? At least when it's the insanity related to writing a novel in a month.

Now I just have to figure out what to write about...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chai spice bread

I love spices of all kinds, so it's no surprise I love chai tea. Lately I've been on a quick bread kick, always keeping a loaf on hand for breakfast or a nice afternoon snack with a cup of tea, so I was delighted when I found the recipe for this chai spice loaf. It combines the best of both worlds: bread that is almost cake, and the warm spice chai tea. It's the perfect treat for fall, when everyone craves dishes full of autumnal spices.

A prevalent spice in chai (and a lot of Indian cooking, which I adore) is cardamom, and this bread tastes strongly of it. It's not terribly sweet, but it's moist and and dense and wonderfully spicy. The recipe linked above recommends making a sweet glaze for it, but I left mine sans glaze and it was still awesome. I found that adding a schmear of pumpkin cream cheese from Trader Joe's was the perfect complement--again, not too sweet, and with its own level of spiciness that worked with the flavor already in the bread. You can use any kind of black tea that you like (I used some decaf chai I had on hand); just brew a cup and then let it cool while you get your ingredients ready.

I shared this with some lady friends in addition to the usual taste-tester of Jeremy and they all agreed it was delicious. Not bad for a first-time effort. (I usually like to taste-test things before sharing them with friends, in case they're dreadful, but this time I got lucky!)

Chai Spice Quick Bread
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter at room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup prepared black tea, cooled to room temperature
  • 1/3 cup milk (I used 2%)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Heat oven to 350. Grease just the bottom of a loaf pan with butter or cooking spray.

In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter with the mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Add the eggs, tea, milk, and vanilla at low speed until the ingredients are combined. The mixture will look curdled--that's okay!

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a separate bowl and whisk to blend well. Using a rubber spatula, stir the dry ingredients into the wet ones until just moistened. Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly with spatula.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove the bread from the pan and cool on the wire rack completely. If you choose to glaze the bread, let it cool just 30 minutes before glazing.

 Artsy shot, by Jeremy, of me making chai bread

Monday, October 25, 2010

Roasted Acorn Squash with Red Quinoa Stuffing

One of the things I love most about fall is the abundance of squash. The mix of colors and shapes adds some variety to a season where everything is gradually starting to brown, and I feel like the insides of squash are pretty darn delicious too. You can do a lot with a squash. I never met a squash I disliked.

Last week I popped into the supermarket for a quick something-or-other and spotted a beautiful, pine green acorn squash. I couldn't resist, and for a week I admired its perfect green ridges gracing my kitchen counter. This weekend I decided it was time to stop admiring the squash and get it into my belly.

I also happened to have a package of red quinoa I'd bought at Trader Joe's on a whim. I'd never before eaten quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), but I do know that it's a healthy grain that can be used in place of rice. It's got a nutty flavor, a slightly toothsome texture, and it's high in protein, so it makes a good stand-in for meat. I decided to make a variation on my traditional Thanksgiving acorn squash with chorizo stuffing. I left out the meat and made a slightly simpler version that turned out just as delicious. You should try it if you're looking for a veggie alternative that's still hearty and filling. This recipe does take some prep time but most of it is just waiting around for things to finish cooking, so it's pretty simple to prepare. You can put the squash in and then make the quinoa and prep the rest of the ingredients while the squash roasts.

Raquel's Roasted Acorn Squash with Red Quinoa Stuffing For Two (or one with leftovers)
  • 1 acorn squash, washed and dried
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup dry red quinoa, well rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 1/2 sweet yellow onion, diced
  • 1 scant tsp dried sage
  • salt, to taste
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped dried cranberries (I used orange flavored ones that were awesome)
  • maple syrup for drizzling
Preheat the oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with foil. You will need to stand the squash up on the non-stem end, so you may need to trim off the bottom to provide a flat surface. Make sure you have a big, well-sharpened knife. Carefully cut the squash in half lengthwise. (Or get your bulging bicep'ed boyfriend to do it for you with such skill that he even cuts the stem in half so artfully.) Use an ice cream scoop to scoop out the pulp and seeds. Set the pulp aside; you'll want to take the seeds out to roast for awesome snackings. 

Generously brush the squash inside and out with olive oil. Place the squash cut side down on the foil-lined baking sheet and bake for about 35 minutes, until the insides are tender.

Meanwhile, rinse the quinoa well under cold running water and drain. Place the quinoa in a pot with 2 cups of cold water and a sprinkling of salt and turn the heat up to high. Once the water starts boiling, turn it down to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. (It's okay if the quinoa still looks moist, but there shouldn't be any standing water left in the pot.) Remove the quinoa from the heat and give it a good stir, then leave it in the pot.

Once the squash are done roasting, remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 325. Using tongs, carefully turn the squash halves over to allow the steam to escape. Let the squash cool for a few minutes until you can scoop out the pulp without burning yourself.

While the squash cools, heat up some olive oil in a small saute or frying pan over medium-high heat. (Use enough oil to just thinly coat the bottom of the pan.) Once the oil is hot, add the diced onion and stir occasionally, cooking until translucent and softened. Add the sage and stir well to combine. Cook for another minute or two to allow the flavors to combine, then remove from the heat.

Using a spoon, carefully scoop out the squash pulp into a bowl so that the edges of each half are about 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick. Squoosh up the pulp to break up any big chunks, then add the squash to the pot of quinoa. Stir in the onions and dried cranberries. Season with salt to taste. (Seriously, treat yourself to a big spoonful of this now to taste it. It'll taste only better after you cook it.) Adjust seasoning, and add a little chopped fresh parsley if you have it.

Arrange the two squash halves back on the baking sheet. Mound the stuffing into each squash half. It's okay if you can't fit all of it; that just means LEFTOVER STUFFING for tomorrow's lunch! After filling each half, drizzle with maple syrup and put them back in the 325 oven for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Perfection! They are sweet, savory, and creamy. The quinoa gets nice and soft and the nutty flavor works well with the squash. Here's hoping you enjoy them. They are a real taste of fall. Dig into the season.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pumpkin brownies

What's better than a brownie?

A brownie made of PUMPKIN.

Don't get me wrong, I can eat chocolate any day, any time. But pumpkin I only really eat during the fall. (Yes, I know that thanks to the glories of canning and freezing I could, theoretically, eat pumpkin any time of year, but it feels more special keeping it associated with the fall. Chocolate is in its own category though. It doesn't need to be associated with anything other than my belly.)

Chocolate and pumpkin actually tends to be a pretty decent combination, but the thing I love most about these brownies is that they just completely leave out the chocolate and are made just with pumpkin, so that the pumpkin is the moist, scrumptious star of the show. I supposed a chocolateless brownie is technically a blondie, but I've always hated the term "blondie" and so I will forever after refer to these delights as pumpkin brownies.

I got the recipe from the Baking Bites site, which to a sweet-toothed lady like me is like a baked goods porn-o-rama. They are denser than a pumpkin bread, but a bit creamier than a pumpkin cake.

I basically followed the recipe except that I whisk together all my dry ingredients before incorporating them with the moist ingredients. Also, I've found that while these are delightful with nuts and etc. mixed in, they're also positively fantastic and totally divine devoid of chunky additions. These are simple to make and I highly recommend them!

Pumpkin Brownies with Pecans
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease an 8×8-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the pumpkin puree. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, and salt and stir this into the moist ingredients, mixing until just combined. Add in pecans (if using) and stir to evenly distribute.

Pour batter into prepared baking dish and spread into an even layer with a spatula.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the brownies are just just lightly browned at the edges and the center is set (it may look moist, but will not be sticky when lightly pressed). Cool in the pan before slicing.
Cut them into bars or whatever shape strikes your fancy and store in an airtight container. These will keep nice and moist for several days, or several hours, really, because they're just that good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rolf and Roll

After years of curiosity and wanting to try it, I've finally been Rolfed.

Before you go thinking that I'm engaging in some weird binge/purge behavior, know that Rolfing has nothing to do with vomiting. It is an unfortunately named technique--named so after the woman who invented it, Dr. Ida Rolf. It's a structural integration technique wherein the practitioners manipulate your fascia tissue.


Okay, I admit when I first hear what it was, I was perplexed. Fascia is the connective tissue that helps your muscles work. Over time, repetitive movement, injuries, and gravity bind up your fascia so that your body isn't moving the way it should be. For instance, I've got an old ankle injury that flares up and hurts, and it makes me walk somewhat differently by redistributing my weight and balance. Also, I've been a chronic sloucher for most of my life. I couldn't help it. Standing or sitting up straight was a real effort for me, and if I wasn't consciously thinking about straightening my body, it would slouch down, slumping on top of itself like a bag of wet sand. I felt heavy and clumsy and generally blorpy. What a Rolfer does is apply pressure to parts of your body to sort of move the tangled up, misaligned fascia back to where it should be. This lets your muscles move the way they should and realigns your body. As my Rolfer explained it to, it's helping your body to work with gravity again, instead of against it.

This might sound very mumbo-jumbo to you. It might also sound like massage. It's not. Rolfers don't work on your muscles, they work on the tissue over it. If you look at those drawings of anatomically correct skeletons that have muscles on them, it's the white stuff. From the Rolf Institute website: "Essentially, the Rolfing process enables the body to regain the natural integrity of its form, thus enhancing postural efficiency and your freedom of movement."

To learn more about Rolfing, go to the Rolfing Institute site. 

My cousin had Rolfing done years ago and raved about it, and I wanted to try it out myself to help with my own issues, but I'd not really had the money until now (even now it takes some budgeting, but I think my well-being is worth it). Rolfing is expensive and usually not covered by insurance, but it's also really effective. Unlike massage or chiropractic work, once you go through the series on your whole body, you're usually good to go. My Rolfer told me that sometimes people come in a year or so later for a "tune-up" but the effects tend to last a good long while.

This morning I had my first session, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. You work in your underwear, which I was a little nerve-racked about because OMG who wants to stand about in their underwear. I feel so exposed. But I went out and got some cute little girl boy briefs, which make me feel a little more covered and a little less exposed, and that was fine. Also, this woman clearly sees all types of people in their underwear because it's her job, and knowing that what she'd be doing would help me got me over my inhibitions mighty fast. What's a little cellulite exposure if it means you'll feel better?

My Rolfer's name is Daphne and she works at the Cambridge Health Associates. She's great. Very nice and friendly and effortlessly sets you at ease. First she asks a series of questions about your general health and any injuries or concerns you have about your body. Then you strip to your skivvies and she has you stand facing her and turn in different directions so she can see you from different angles. Then you walk across the room a few times so she can see your gait.

Most of the work is done lying on a table in various positions, though I did do some work where I sat up and hunched over my knees. It is a different feeling. Some of it feels like pressure, like a pressure point massage or a reflexology type of press on you. Some of it is a more intense digging pressure that almost feels like a knot is being untangled under your skin--a "hurts so good" type of feeling that people have with deep tissue massages. And some of it is honestly unpleasant. She did some work on my chest and along my spine that felt like a really intense, uncomfortable Indian burn. That wasn't fun, but it also wasn't unbearable. And as soon as she stops doing the work, the feeling goes a way. I am right now a little tender and sore in those areas, and around my neck, but it's not all that noticeable.

Today she was doing some realignment on my arms and hamstrings, loosening my hips, and working on opening my chest. Amazingly, she knew that I was right-handed just by looking at me, and by touching my neck and skull, she was able to deduce that I get headaches. She did some work there that should help reduce those.

Deep breathing helped me get through the more unpleasant periods. Daphne is also lovely and we had some fun chit chat initially, which helped me relax. But there were some periods where I felt semi-meditative. While she worked on my hips, especially, I felt my mind clear a bit, and even though there was some pressure, I felt almost relaxed. It was interesting. The whole experience isn't passive, though; you do have to move about in certain ways to help the Rolfer work. 

So after being poked and prodded what happened? It's not like I was suddenly transformed and completely fixed, but I have already noticed that I DO NOT SLOUCH. I've stopped slumping over. My shoulders are straight. My chest feels open. I look a little taller. Even sitting in my chair now typing, I am sitting up straight effortlessly. I'm not even thinking about it. My body doesn't WANT to slump over the keyboard. I don't want to hunch in my chair. It feels just a tad easier to breathe. And one lovely thing that appeals to my vanity about this new posture is that because I'm not folding in on myself, it puts my bosoms on a bit more of a display.

I'm sort of amazed at this. Obviously I know I have a lot longer to go in terms of getting my whole body aligned and feeling good, but I really didn't think that after just one session my posture would be better.

I'm looking forward to continuing this process (I go back November 5) and will continue my missives reflecting on the process. It should continue to be interesting, though, and I am looking forward to it.

This is the Rolfing logo. It might seem a bit exaggerated, but seriously, my initial posture was not that unlike the fellow on the left. Yeah. It was THAT bad.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My platter of figs

It's fall. It's gloriously, gorgeously fall. I love early fall weather. It gets pretty perfect in October. The sunshine seems somehow more intensely sunny, the wind has a crispness to it, and you have to wear just enough layers that you feel cozy without feeling bulky. (That comes with winter. I always feel slightly bound and stuffed and bumbly and near suffocating in winter. But in fall, you can still move freely.)

This weekend was a textbook example of perfect fall weather, and while I was out and about, I happened to find a container of lovely green figs at the supermarket. I'd wandered in to get a bottle of iced tea as I was running errands, and my eyes just happened to fall on the container.

There they were, each nestled into its own little cup, just waiting to be taken home and devoured. Yes, they were pricey ($4 for eight), but once I saw them, I had to have them. It was a small price to pay for such a satisfying indulgence.  

It was thrilling. It's not every day you find fresh figs, or at least it's not every day that a lady like me living in Boston, on the opposite end of the country from where figs are grown, finds fresh figs. Yes, they are becoming more commonplace, but you're still more likely to find dried figs than fresh ones at your supermarket. At any rate, this wasn't my usual local supermarket, but one that I don't really go to because it's quite out of the way. So it was like a doubly special treat to find them. The fates had aligned and the universe had conspired to get me into that supermarket and down that aisle to the figs. How could I say no to the universe?

I picked up a package and instinctively went right for the cheese section. Figs are delicious with certain cheeses, and initially I was going to get blue cheese, but then I found some nice crumbled goat cheese. It has a lighter, more subtle flavor and a wonderful creaminess that I think balances the delicate figginess of a perfectly ripe green fig. Green figs taste a little more fresh and a bit less intensely figgy than their dark purple (mission fig) counterparts.

Eat ripe figs as soon as possible. They are quite soft (though not mushy) when ripe, so be gentle when you wash and dry them. No peeling necessary; you can eat them as is. They're also lovely, as I mentioned, with blue cheese and some balsamic vinegar. Walnuts are a good companion too.

I sliced my figs in half lengthwise and sprinkled each with some goat cheese. Then I drizzled each with a bit of honey.

These were lovely, light and soft and tasting of the last lingering bits of summer. The delicate fig flavor wasn't overpowered by goat cheese or honey. I thought they made a nice nibble for a fall evening. And honestly, figs are just beautiful. I love the way they look when they are sliced in half. That pretty burst of bright pink when you cut into them is just awesome. You feel like you are connecting to something very ancient and almost sacred, in a way, when you eat a fresh fig. I'm not sure I'm explaining this properly, and I'm not even really sure that I can. All I know is that figs are amazing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Raquel Likes Food is moving!

Hello friends!

Yes, I know it's been 5 months since I last posted in here. What a hiatus!

What have I been doing during that time? A lot of things. Among them, I've started a new job and moved to a new apartment. And there were some other things in there as well that I don't necessarily want to discuss, but let's just say that I did a lot of changing and thinking.

While I still love writing about food, I've found that having a blog devoted solely to writing about food isn't doing it for me. There are a lot of other things I want to write about: books, work, helpful household hints, adorable bargains I just scored that I can't wait to wear. It seems odd to write about those things in a food blog, and because I found that I wanted to talk about other things, I stopped writing here for a while. But now I'm finding myself really missing having a regular outlet to share my thoughts, so I've decided to change this blog into a blog that incorporates all of the things I love. Food will still be a big focus, of course, because I love food and can't really give up writing about it and experimenting with it. But I'll also dish on other things I'm passionate about as well.

So I wanted to tell you all that in just a few days, I'll be migrating this blog to a completely new URL: www.raqueldishes.blogspot.com

All the same content that's on this blog will appear on the new blog, but it will be expanded to include new content. 

So update those Google Readers, folks! And stay tuned for more good stuff, brought to you on a regular basis.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Surprise cookies: stupid name for a delicious treat

Recently Jeremy went out of town for a few days on business, and I thought to myself, Self, what better way to welcome home your gent than with a pile of soft, chocolatey cookies with a gooey surprise center? Since I'd be at work when he got home in the middle of the afternoon, I wanted some sort of treat to fill the void of my absence, so he was welcomed by two dozen scrumptious surprise cookies.

Now, as much as Martha Stewart's smug attitude of superiority to the rest of humanity bugs me, the woman knows how to put out an amazing cookbook. I have been loving her Cookies cookbook, which not only features an amazing variety but which is also absolutely beautiful to look at. (It is worth the price of admission alone for the chocolate gingerbread recipe, which is out of this world.) And I appreciate that there is a photo on every page, something that not every cookbook offers. It was here that I found the recipe for Surprise Cookies. I sort of hate the name, because it's vague (a better name would be Hot Chocolate cookies, because that's what they remind me of), but let me tell you: these cookies are the bomb. They are chocolatey, cakey cookies with a piece of marshmallow on top that are then covered in a simple chocolate frosting. So delicious! Check out the recipe and look at the drool-inducing photo I got from the website.

 Mon dieu! Look at that melty, marshmallowy center, peeking coyly out at you! What a flirt!

I did change a few things from the recipe. First off, I found that cutting each marshmallow in half resulted in too thick of a marshmallow, so I cut each jumbo marshmallow into fourths and found that size much easier to work with. But if a giant marshmallow is your thing, by all means, go for it. Second, I didn't bother to sift together the dry ingredients; I whisked them instead, and my batter was just fine. Third, I don't own a stand mixer with a paddle attachment and I have never found that an impediment; a regular hand mixer works just as well. Fourth, I don't have a variety of ice cream scoop sizes, so I just used two spoons and used those to shape the dough. Fifth, I ran out of vanilla extract after I made the batter and it was 10 p.m. and I was in jammies and not about to go to the supermarket to get more vanilla, so I didn't put any into my frosting and it was still scrumptious.

Below is my version of the recipe with my changes and comments integrated. You really should try making these. They are a real joy and everyone I shared them with really liked them. Who doesn't like surprises?

Makes about 2 dozen
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder (not Dutch processed, although I can't imagine that the world will end if you use Dutch processed cocoa powder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (you can speed up the process by placing the stick on a dish and microwaving at 5 second intervals until it is soft but not yet melting)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 12 large marshmallows, cut horizontally into four discs (or just in half is fine) *
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  2. Using an electric or hand mixer, cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg, milk, and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Add the flour mixture about a half cup at a time and mix until it is completely incorporated. The batter will be extremely thick and sticky. Stirring this is a good upper-arm workout.
  3. Use two spoons to drop dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Scoop up about a walnut-sized gob of dough with one spoon and use the other to shape and scrape the gob into a ball onto the sheet. These cookies do not spread much, so if they aren't spaced quite right, don't worry. Bake until cookies begin to spread and become firm, 8 to 10 minutes.
  4. Remove baking sheets from oven, and place a marshmallow in the center of each cookie, pressing down slightly. Return immediately to oven, and continue baking until marshmallows begins to melt, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer cookie sheets to a wire rack to cool for about 20 minutes and then remove them from the sheets and place them directly on the racks so that they're cool before frosting. 
Chocolate Frosting

  • 2 cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional, as I learned)
  1. Melt the butter and cocoa powder together in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly with a spatula, until the butter is completely melted and has completely incorporated with the chocolate.
  2. Put the sugar into a large bowl. Pour in the butter mixture and add the milk and vanilla (if using). Whisk everything together until well combined. When I was whisking, I found it a little thick, so I dribble in just a bit more milk and everything smoothed out.
  3. Immediately frost each cookie, starting at the center and spreading the frosting with a butter knife to completely cover the marshmallow. Let the cookies sit out in a single layer for a bit and the frosting will firm up. 
These cookies stay fresh and chewy for a few days. Store them in an airtight container in a single layer. The frosting recipe I used actually called for larger amounts of everything, so I ended up with some extra frosting (darn, what a shame) that I stashed in the fridge. 

*Note to my vegetarian friends: If the thought of eating marshamallows is more than you can bear (due to the gelatin), something tells me these cookies would be just as amazing sans marshamallow. Just don't skip out on the frosting. It is amazing!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Organic produce: what's a girl to do?

If you're anything like me, organic and natural can cause some confusion. Yes, I know that foods that are natural are good for me, and yes, I feel like foods that are organic are probably even better, but unfortunately, my wallet doesn't always agree with me. I try to get as much organic produce as I possibly can, but let's face it: sometimes I just can't find or can't afford to get every fruit and veggie organic. Then I am wracked with guilt and worry. Will I die because I got something non-organic that might have harmful pesticides? Am I contributing to the destruction of the earth because the sale on non-organic carrots was too good to pass up?

The internet to the rescue! A few years ago I had seen this extremely handy site that features a card-sized list you can clip and carry in your wallet that lists foods you should always choose organic versus foods you can get nonorganic without worry. Then, like many good things I find on the internet, I lost the website before I could bookmark it. It's back, and now I want to share it with you. Go to the site to cut out the list to carry with you. And for the sake of convenience, here are the two lists.

THE DIRTY DOZEN (always buy organic)
  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Bell Peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes (imported)
THE CLEAN FIFTEEN (lowest in pesticides)
  1. Onions
  2. Avocados
  3. Sweet Corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet Peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Watermelon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Sweet Potatoes
  15. Honeydew Melon
Interestingly enough, I already sort of tend toward these lists in my current shopping habits. I try to always get organic spinach, celery, apples, and berries. And some of the clean fifteen foods simply aren't available as organic options at my local supermarket, so I just get my non-organic asparagus because I can't pass up eating asparagus. But now I know that it's okay to eat it, non-organic and all.

Of course, we're left to wonder where along the pesticide spectrum other forms of produce we eat fall. (WHERE ARE CARROTS?) But this small guide is at least a good start, and I think the main Food News website yields even more information about this stuff. What are your thoughts on organic produce? Do you religiously buy all organic? Or do you think this is all an elaborate hoax set up by the government and food industries to get us to spend more money on food?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing with your food: When sushi met cupcake

Sometimes people like to make food that looks like another food. Some of the fake turkeys that are made of tofu that become available around Thanksgiving come immediately to mind. (Though really, if you've given up eating meat, wouldn't you want to be eating something that DIDN'T look at all like the meat you gave up eating?) Or think of some of the breakfast cereals out there that are supposed to be "fruit flavored" that have neon-colored fruits made of puffed grains or something. Sometimes foods that are made to look like other foods are okay. Sometimes, as in the two examples I just presented, they are terrifying.

But then there are times when they are just downright adorable. Case in point is this site (Glue and Glitter) showcasing cupcakes made to look like sushi rolls.

Oh my goodness! How adorable are THESE? Two of my favorite foods, sushi and cupcakes, coming together! But unlike turkey-shaped, turkey-flavored tofu, these cupcakes taste like cupcakes, not like raw fish wrapped in rice.

I might want to try making something like these sometime. Of course, you could always just make a sheet cake and then cut pieces out of the cake to look like the sushi. I also love the blogger's suggestion to use marzipan in place of fondant, because marzipan is delicious whereas fondant is not.

Playing with your food can really be adorable.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fusion on a saucer

Cupcakes. Bacon. Only french fries. Only grilled cheese sandwiches. Exotically flavored ice cream. Eggs in everything. Offal. Pork belly.  (Pork belly, pork belly, pork belly!) What's next, crispy pig skin? (It should be, it's GOOD.)

Food goes through trends constantly, and I don't necessarily buy into many of them. To me, a good meal with ingredients that are fresh and thoughtfully put together, cooked well and obviously presented with care and pride is better than any deconstructed, foam-embellished, truffle-oiled morsel forced into a metal ring and laid out on a bed of baby greens/grains/flower petals/somethings. I'm not saying all food trends are bad, because many are not (see: cupcakes, eggs, anything pork-related), and as a matter of fact, I am quite fond of many of the foods that become trendy. But when I'm either cooking or seeking out a good restaurant, I don't tend to pay much attention to the trend factor. I just want a place with something delicious that I want to eat.

I recently went with a friend to a restaurant that is newish to my neighborhood. This place does Asian fusion food presented on small plates. The first concept I'm not so into. The second one I love.

I understand that fusion is a way to take familiar cuisines and mix them up with elements from other cuisines in order to make something new. Sometimes it works, with astonishing, surprising, pleasing results. Sometimes it just tries too hard, putting overwrought, overthought, and bizarre combinations on the plate, which makes one wonder: what was so wrong with the way things were that someone was presumptuous enough to believe that they could make it BETTER by completely changing it?

When we ate at this particular restaurant, some of the dishes really shone. They were satisfying, flavorful, and a true success. Tiny fried sweet potatoes? Yes. A pork ragout on a bed of noodles, a perfectly poached egg nestled among them? I could have eaten a second bowl. The pork belly on soft, cloudlike Asian buns? Perfection. Like a bacon cheeseburger slider without the cheeseburger. But the smoked tofu? Mediocre at best, and lacking robust flavor. The crab and jicama salad on a bed of egg custard? Disappointing texture combination, jarring and dissonant flavors. Overall, enough of the meal was good to keep it from being a completely mediocre restaurant experience. But what I really liked was the small plates concept (or Asian-fusion tapas, as I referred to it).

This is one of the reasons I love being Spanish. The cuisine is second to none, and the tapas concept, featuring Spanish food or not, has really caught on in the States. Viva foods on toothpicks! Americans embrace what many other food cultures already know works beautifully: small plates meant to be shared, so everyone can try a variety of foods, rather than eating a massive portion of a single food. It's a fact that after the first few bites of any particular food, our taste buds relax/disengage and the food's taste is just not as intense and satisfying as it was initially. The small plates concept is brilliant because the constantly rotating repertoire of foods keeps the taste buds engaged and primed for action. Small plates encourage eating to become a social event, with everyone getting a taste of each dish. Everyone can try more, and everyone can discuss how something tastes. I find that I much prefer this style of eating, because to me, food is at its best when it is about celebration, socializing, spending time with people we love. And when we graze, eating off these small plates of variety, I feel like we eat less than when we are presented with one huge pile of food at once. Keeping the plates moving keeps the conversation going and the lag between getting each dish allows you to really feel in tune with how your stomach feels physically. Eating more slowly lets you realize when you've had enough. And if you don't like one particular food, you can wait for the next one to come around.

I found that during my meal with my friend, we talked more, spent a lot of time talking about personal things, but also talking about what we eating, saying what we liked and why. So even though everything we ate wasn't fantastic, it was still nice to both be able to try things and talk about why certain things worked more than others. Any time I've ever eaten in a small plates style, or in a way where everything is shared and passed around, I find that I've just enjoyed the meal more. So fusion? I can take it or leave it. But small plates? Keep (many of) them coming.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Recipes that go on your face rather than in it

The recipes I'm linking to might not actually be for anything to eat, but they are all made with edibles. They are DIY natural beauty treatments, like masques, scrubs, and soaks. It's common knowledge that many foods help different parts of our bodies with antioxidants, vitamins, and other healing effects when we eat them, but slathering them on ourselves is apparently another effective use for them.

Recently, I've been moving, slowly but surely, away from beauty and personal care products laden with synthetic and, quite frankly, scary chemicals toward more natural skin care, and many of these products are full of foods (and plants and minerals) with different healing and fortifying properties. Conventional skin care tends to be filled with preservatives that extend shelf life at the cost of pumping a product full of chemicals. These chemicals are absorbed by our skin and thus into our bodies. And while it does seem too soon to tell what sorts of long-term effects these products might have on us, the very fact that they might even HAVE long-term effects on us that are undesirable is enough to make me think twice about using them for the rest of my life. So I'm gradually swapping out my traditional skin care products as I finish each for natural alternatives.

It's nice to know, though, that you can make cost-effective and easy pampering products at home, because skin care can get expensive. I've certainly tried a few of these, like using honey to moisturize or cucumber slices or cold used tea bags on puffy, tired eyes. But I'll probably whip up a few of these concoctions next time I feel dehydrated or in need of a boost. One thing I learned recently is that apparently lemon juice applied to a bug bite as soon as possible after you get it helps soothe the itchiness and irritation. Plus who doesn't love the smell of lemons?

Do you find yourself feeling the same way about skin care products, or does the use of chemicals not bother you? Have you ever tried any home remedies using common kitchen ingredients that you find to be highly effective? Dish!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Less is more: learning a kitchen mantra

One of my favorite food-related phenomena is what I refer to as the Fridge Factor. This is when you're hunting around for something to eat and realize that you just so happen to have everything on hand that you need to create a favorite dish that suits your current mood. It is a happy accident, an aligning of perishables and pantry shelves that points you in the direction of the dish you didn't know you could make but are happy that you can.

This happened to me this weekend. I was in the mood for something fresh and crunchy on Saturday, and when I opened my fridge, figuring I'd make a salad, my eyes fell first on the two-pound container of strawberries I got at Trader Joe's for a bargain price and then on a box of baby arugula, my favorite salad greens. My brain spun a bit, and I remembered that I'd gotten some blue cheese for an endive salad we had earlier in the week. Then it spun some more when I remembered a bottle of vanilla fig balsamic vinegar I found in the Home Goods section of Marshall's (really!).

What a perfect combination: peppery, bitter arugula with sweet strawberries, salty-sour blue cheese, and the tangy sweetness of balsamic vinegar. Four ingredients, a simple combination, but one that made my mouth do a little happy dance.

As I started to slice my strawberries, I began having second thoughts. Perhaps my salad was TOO simple. I did, after all, have some grape tomatoes I could slice up and also add to the salad. No, I told myself, tomatoes will be too much. They will add acid that might not gel with the rest of the salad. Hold off.

But I still felt uneasy. When I went to the pantry, I still found myself in this mentality of more is better. My eyes scanned the shelves. What about some slivered almonds? How about pine nuts? I could add some olive oil.

Trust yourself, woman. Four ingredients is fine, I had to assure myself. Your first thought was your best thought. These four things are all ingredients you adore. Your instinct to put them together was right, but don't make a muddle of things by forcing more guests to the party. More is not always better. Just stick with what you have.

So I did. Arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, vinegar. I assembled the salad slowly, feeling the light, dry arugula leaves give under my hand as I piled them into the bowl, carefully cutting the berries into neat, thin, round slices. I shook out just enough of the gloriously stinky blue cheese that it looked like a snow flurry, not a blizzard, had hit the bowl. I opened the bottle of vinegar and inhaled deeply. It had that lovely, heady balsamic smell to it, with just a hint of dessert to it. I slowly drizzled it over the salad and wiped up a drop from the rim of the bottle with my finger. The vinegar was a rich brown color speckled with fig seeds. The vanilla really mellowed out the vinegar's acidic flavor. It wasn't an overwhelming addition; it just enhanced the vinegar and made it taste a little more special.

I dug in. The salad really did it for me. Everything combined in just the right way to make for a satisfying lunch. The textures, the mixture of salty and sweet and bitter and tangy flavors, combined in a way that was just right. I was so glad that I didn't go overboard and start adding ingredients just for the sake of having more on my plate. This was definitely a case of less is more.

The more I cook and learn about food, the more I realize that less is more is probably the best mantra you can recite in the kitchen. You must trust yourself. When something seems to be at just the right balance of flavors and textures, stop. Don't second guess yourself. Leave it be. Chances are, your first thought was the best thought and was correct. You don't have to add dozens of ingredients to make a wonderful and impressive dish. This is not to say that having many ingredients is a bad thing. It can be essential. I think of something like mole sauce and respect the fact that it takes a lot of ingredients and time and patience to make it perfect. But then I think of something like the humble lentil soup I make from time to time for an easy, filling dinner, and I realize just how important it is to have less rather than more. Onions, carrot, celery, and garlic cooked in some olive oil, with lentils and water, salt and pepper. It is so simple, and yet so amazingly satisfying. Every ingredient gets to be a star in this show.

By honoring technique and treating ingredients kindly, with respect, you will get amazing results no matter how few things go into your pot or bowl. Finding ways to coax pleasing flavor combinations out of seemingly ordinary foods often leads to extraordinary results. Putting browned meat into a pot with wine and a few aromatic vegetables and letting it braise slowly for hours in your oven will give you an amazingly complex, beautifully textured dish, without a long list of exotic ingredients. It is the care and attention you put into your meals that will give you the best results, not bottles of truffle oil and jars of caviar. These things are all well and good, but they are certainly not necessary for you to feel like a queen when you sit down to dinner. Knowing that you created something that will tempt and delight you will give you a satisfaction that no bottle of expensive wine ever could. This is what I learned this weekend when I made my humble yet not-so-humble simple salad of arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, and vinegar.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Easter dish that's perfect for every day of the week

Happy very-belated Easter! And what a beautiful Easter it was here in the Northeast. The temperatures were in the low 70s, there was a lot of sun, and it was breezy. It really was a lovely, pleasant weekend.

Easter has never been a very big deal in my family. We usually gather at my aunt's house for a half-hearted egg hunt in her tiny backyard, chocolate bunnies, and a dinner of meatballs and ham. I think one reason I've never been very keen on Easter is those dreadful spiral-cut hams people have on Easter. A big, pink lump studded with cloves, covered in sweet sauce, and topped with pineapples is not my idea of how to honor a beautiful ham. To me, ham should be salty, because the natural subtle sweetness of the pork will shine through the brine. To cover a ham in sugar AND cloves AND fruit AND syrupy sweet stuff is just a crime. An absolute crime! Putting a bit of sugar on ham is okay by me ONLY if you are also putting savory spices on it, like cumin and paprika, and using the mixture as a nice rub. None of this gooey sweet ham nonsense. Honor your ham and lay off the pineapples! (I despise pineapples, mostly because they make my mouth incredibly itchy, but if they're your thing, go for it. Just don't let me see you putting them on a ham.)

Jeremy and I kept it pretty casual on Easter Sunday, but because I did want to at least do something a bit Eastery, I decided to make penne with asparagus and ham. It includes a lean ham steak, which you cut into tiny bits and add in at the end. This dish is lovely and light, yet lemony and flavorful, and it's also really healthy because it's pretty low in fat. In fact, it's a dish I got from a Weight Watchers cookbook, and Jeremy and I just love it. The best part of this dish is that you can also eat it cold, like a pasta salad, something that came in handy last night when it was freakishly hot (90 degrees!) and we couldn't even muster the energy to heat our leftovers, let alone actually stand in front of the stove to cook anything.

To make this delicious meal vegetarian friendly, swap the chicken stock for vegetable stock and consider adding some tofu stir-fried in a bit of oil and garlic in place of the ham, or else add some nice sliced mushrooms.

Penne with Asparagus and Ham (depending on your portion sizes, this makes about 4-6 servings)

- 2 cups whole wheat penne OR linguini broken into 2-inch pieces
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves
- 1 lb bunch of asparagus, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces (snap off and discard woody bottoms of stalks)
- 1 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 diced lean ham steak
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Prepare pasta according to package directions and drain.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tomato and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato has softened, about 5 minutes. Inhale the delicious aroma of garlic and tomatoes cooking together and wonder to yourself what you did to deserve such a treat.

Add asparagus, broth, and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until asparagus is tender, about 3 minutes. Use a fork to poke about at the asparagus and make sure it is to your liking.

Add pasta, ham, and basil and toss to combine. Allow everything to heat for a minute or two and then serve.Top each dish with Parmesan. (You remember my rant about fresh Parmesan, right? And you're not cheating by using that stuff that comes in the green tube that shall remain nameless, correct? Okay, good. Just making sure!)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nutella bread pudding

Nutella! What glorious stuff, this chocolate hazelnut spread. It's the perfect flavor combination. The sheer genius of the stuff is that it pairs well with just about anything. You can have it on fruit, you can have it on toast, you can have it on a pretzel. It goes with most any dessert. Really, it is so versatile. It's like the friendly and amenable popular kid of spreadable foodstuffs.

I still remember when I first discovered Nutella, back when I was 22 or 23 and living on my own for the first time. I shared an apartment with two school teachers in Doylestown, PA, and I often went with one or the other one to the local supermarket to get groceries. Our closest supermarket was a Redner's Warehouse, which sold most things on the cheap, and which often carried somewhat odd brands of things. Next to the cans of Dole vegetables you'd find bizarre brands you'd never seen anywhere else, like Golden Medal sliced carrots or something. Most of the merchandise and the floor had a thin film of dust. It was a pretty ghetto warehouse supermarket, but we were young and poor, so it was fine with us. It was here that I first discovered Nutella, on the shelf with not-quite-Jif brands of peanut butter and not-really-Smuckers jars of jam. I loved Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates, and really anything that Ferrero makes (Kinder eggs have a special place in my heart), so I figured, why not?

Oh, chocolately glory on a spoon! From the first, I was hooked. It was miraculous. You could eat it on anything! You could even eat it off the spoon and not get bored. I remember a ridiculously caloric concoction I would make involving toast with a layer of cheesecake-flavored cream cheese and another layer of Nutella. It was one step away from self-induced diabetes, and it was heavenly.

I don't always keep a jar of Nutella in the house, mostly because I know it wouldn't last long and would go straight to my thighs (what doesn't though?), but it is an indulgence I like to have around now and again. I recently discovered the Tuscan Pane loaf at Trader Joe's, and it was simply divine spread with a layer of Nutella.

I had some friends visiting this weekend, as I mentioned in my last post, so I decided to feed them some individual Nutella bread puddings that I found on the absolutely fantastic website Baking Bites. If you're ever in the mood to bake something and don't know what to make, go to that site and you will most certainly be sated. Trust me. It was while browsing the site one day that I discovered the glory that is Nutella bread pudding, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

I'm not even really a huge fan of bread pudding. Sometimes it's too soggy and custardy for my taste. But these are really a delight. They bake up thick and dense and yet simultaneously fluffy. The custard is the perfect consistency, especially as I tend to be jumpy around gelatinous foods. I made mine with half a loaf of challah bread and I'll probably use the rest of the loaf tonight to make more. And I was fortunate enough to find six adorable ramekins of the proper size at Marshall's to put them in.

They were a big hit with the ladies and with Jeremy, who shares my wariness of traditional bread puddings. They are the perfect portion size and are fantastic with a little dollop of vanilla ice cream. They are also easy to stash in the fridge. I think they taste amazing warm, so definitely nuke them for about a minute each before eating your leftovers. The best part of these is that they are impressive and delicious, and yet so easy to make that you can whip them up while you're waiting to serve dinner. In fact, that's just what I did. They take about 7 minutes to assemble, and that's including the 5 minutes it takes to let the bread soak in the custard mixture. (To be honest, I had cubed my challah bread ahead of time and stashed it in a large baggie, and that's what I recommend you do too.) While we ate dinner, they baked in the oven. (I found that mine took about 25 minutes to set and get gloriously puffy.) While we had seconds and chatted, they sat out and cooled and the ice cream thawed out a bit. And when we ate them, they were deliciously warm, rich, and melty. The Nutella flavor is not overwhelming, so if you want more of it, I'd say go ahead and add some more dollops to the custard batter. But they are truly delicious and so simple that I cannot recommend them highly enough. Get yourself a loaf of bread and a jar of Nutella and get baking. (That is, if you don't first eat the whole loaf of bread slathered in Nutella.)

UPDATE: Here is a poor-quality cell phone picture of one of my bread puddings in one of my new ramekins.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Braise the Roof! Beer-braised pork butt

Last night I had a friend to visit from out of town. She used to live in Boston, so this was like a homecoming for her. Like a good Cubana, I decided to celebrate her visit in style and serve up a mouthwatering feast. Traditionally, Cubanos roast a pig in order to celebrate special occasions. Since I live in a shoebox in the middle of a city and don't have a purveyor of whole pigs on speed dial, I decided to use my beloved Dutch oven to braise up some pulled pork. If you can't have the whole pig, have a piece!

I found a great basic recipe on The Kitchn, which is for braising a bone-in pork shoulder. I've never looked for a pork shoulder before, and I was initially sadly disappointed, because neither the local Shaw's nor the butcher shop down the street had bone-in pork shoulder in the 4 to 5 pound range. The butcher shop had boneless pork butt but it was about 8 pounds. I was already trying to wrap my head around the size of a 5-pound piece of meat, so I had to decline. I ended up getting a 4.5 pound bone-in pork butt roast, figuring I'd just make due, but then I realized I did the right thing after all. The butt, I later discovered, is not the butt at all, but the upper part of the pork shoulder. What? The butt is not the butt? Whatever. I'll take it.

The website I linked to above was helpful in instructing me how to remove the excess layers of fat (of course, I left some bits of fat because braising just melts them away and turns everything into a pile of soft scrumptiousness), and it also provided a nice, basic but delicious recipe for braising the pork. I made it in my 5-quart Dutch oven, which fit the pork and veggies quite snuggly. The hardest part of this recipe is honestly the browning, because you have to use tongs and a giant fork to hoist a multi-pound, squiggly piece of meat and flip it around in a pot of hot oil. But it was worth it because this pork was astoundingly delicious.

I love braising! I love it. It is hands-off cooking. I spent four hours doing other things around the apartment, preparing other food, tidying up, showering, while my oven did all the work. The low and slow cooking procedure makes the meat soft as butter and also fills your house with a positively delectable aroma. And there is something immensely satisfying about pulling the pork off the bone. There are honestly very few of the "fatty" bits mentioned in the recipe above, because most of the fat melts and moistens the meat. I'll probably toss the fattier bits into a pan and saute them before adding them into a soup or something.

I made this for dinner and dressed it in the braising juice, served with potato-spinach casserole with individual Nutella bread puddings for dessert. (I'm saving those for another post!) Was it good? Well, considering that everyone got seconds, yes, it was a success. Tonight I'm going to toss some pork with barbecue sauce and serve them with slaw on rolls. NOMS. Yes, this will give you a lot of leftovers, but it is so versatile that it's hard to get sick of. I'll probably also make some carnitas tacos too. Yay, pork!