29 September 2009

I don't know

Every parent will tell you that getting one's children to take no for an answer is one of the more frustrating parts of this job. Equally exasperating, but less talked about, is the acceptance of I don't know.

I think this has something to do with the perception of parental omnipotence, which is something I'd like to preserve for as long as possible. On the other hand, I don't want to lie to my children, because lacking the ability to think quickly on my feet, I am a lousy liar, but also because I want to preserve the sacred bond of trust my children place in me.

This dilemma leads to many conversations like this one I had with Sarah over the weekend.

"When is Sean's birthday?" she asked.
"I don't know." I replied.
"Is it April 10?"
"I know it's near your birthday, but I'm not certain exactly when it is."
"Is it April 5?"
"Sarah, when I tell you I don't know when it is, it's not because I'm hiding anything from you. It's  because I truly don't know the answer to your question. Why don't we just ask him the next time we see him?"
"Do you think it's at the end of the month?"

This type of thing could go on for a while, and sometimes it does. For me, it captures perfectly the nature of this job, and perhaps, of life itself. Namely, the ability to be adorable, comic and exasperating in equal measures, while simultaneously, utterly defying logic.

23 September 2009

slinging hash: shortbread

I don't know if it is because my children are getting older, or I'm just paying better attention, but this year it struck me in an altogether new way how stressful the beginning of the school year is. Between whipping the kids back in to shape and figuring out everyone's schedules, it is like trying to fit together the pieces of an extremely complicated three dimensional Chinese puzzle, and it has me longing for the simpler days of summer.

But school is underway, and my clientele have demanded that I put my apron back on. Because I aim to provide the best customer service possible, that means the cookies are coming. I really don't have a lot of time or energy for weekday baking, so I turn to shortbread. They are as close to a no-brainer as possible; they come together quickly, with very few ingredients.

But my favorite thing about shortbread, aside from its simplicity and utter deliciousness, is that once you have the basic formula down, it is infinitely variable. This means you can perform all sorts of kitchen sorcery, and trick your children into thinking you are making a different, carefully crafted batch of cookies every week. They catch on eventually, but you can have a good run of it.

My favorite way to make shortbread is with instant espresso powder and chocolate chips, and that is how I prepared them for the first week of school. Predictably, Sarah issued one of her proclamations, heretofore unbeknownst to me, that she finds this particular shortbread disgusting — I believe her exact words were they hurt her throat. This was something of a surprise to me as she has happily eaten these for years, but I took it as a sign of the dreaded cookie fatigue. 

Because I am a good listener, this week, I made plain butter shortbread, and it was really no surprise to hear my kids complain about this. 

Gabriel: "They're so boring."
Sarah: "Why didn't you make the coffee ones again? Plain ones taste like nothing."
Sacha: "Cookies!"

Sometimes, a mother can't win, and in the best of circumstances, one's children have no idea how good they have it, and that is how it should be.

Espresso chocolate chip shortbread
adapted from Dorie Greenspan and Melissa Clark

The basic formula for shortbread is 2 sticks of butter, 2/3 cup sugar, 2 cups flour. I like confectioners' sugar because it gives the cookies a smoother, more tender crumb, but granulated sugar works equally well. To make plain butter shortbread, omit the espresso and chocolate chips. To this basic formula, you can add grated citrus zest (about 1-1/2 teaspoons), a spice or seed (up to one teaspoon), a tablespoon of chopped rosemary or lavender, the seeds of a vanilla bean, and so on, and so forth. 

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
generous pinch of salt
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Beat the butter and confectioners' sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, on medium speed until very smooth.
2. Add the espresso powder, mix until incorporated.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low, add flour, and mix until just incorporated. Fold in the chocolate.
4. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the dough to a gallon-size zipper-lock plastic bag. Leave the top of the bag open, and use a rolling pin to roll the dough into an approximately 9 x 10 1/2 inch, 1/4 inch thick rectangle. The dough may crease a bit. Smooth it out as you go if this sort of thing bothers you. Otherwise, don't worry too much about it. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible, and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
5. When ready to bake, position oven racks on second and fourth notches, and preheat to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
6. Slit open the plastic bag and use a knife to cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch squares and transfer to baking sheets.
6. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. The shortbread should be pale, rather than golden. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool.

16 September 2009

slinging hash: coconut macaroons with chocolate ganache

Last spring as I was planning the menu for my Passover seder, it occurred to me that I did not want to make yet another flourless chocolate cake. Delicious as they are, I was bored of them, and wanted to my menu to be a bit less predictable.

I happened to be reading A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg's lovely book. Wizenberg's blog Orangette, is a constant source of inspiration to me. And so I turned to her recipe for macaroons, that mainstay of the seder dessert plate. It had never occurred to me to make macaroons; when I think of them, they come out of a vacuum sealed can, and taste like sweetened sawdust.

In addition to being extremely easy to make, oh my, were they good, like the juiciest, most tender and sublime Mounds bar.

I filed the recipe away for next year, but at the end of the summer, I was going to have my friend Nicole and her fiance over for dinner, and Nicole is on a gluten and dairy free diet. As a cook, I love the challenge of satisfying people's dietary requirements and still making a delicious meal. Dessert was especially challenging. Poached fruit would have been easy and obvious but it wasn't striking my fancy. And then I realized that if if I left some macaroons naked, they would still be mighty tasty, and fit the bill.

And so I made them, and then Nicole had to cancel, and poor me, I was left with a dozen macaroons all to myself. It only took me a few days to finish them.

Since then I have not been able to stop making these, and it is really annoying my children, not to mention violating my two out of three rule on purely selfish grounds. I guess that is the nature of obsession.

As far as Sarah is concerned, I've already slacked off on baking for far too long. But she's a trooper, and let me know that she while she will eat macaroons under duress, they are not her favorite. Sacha, consistent with his approach to baked goods, eats the frosting, leaving behind its mutilated carcass. My macaroon obsession is most unfair to Gabriel though, because he is allergic to egg whites, cannot even partake.

I made these at the end of summer vacation for a party at the pool, and as I passed them around the table to a group of adults, the reaction was much like that which I remember from my college days, when you passed around a bong full of really good weed. And that is just about the best response a cook can hope for.

Coconut Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache
Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

3 cups lightly packed sweetened coconut
3/4 cup sugar
5 large egg whites
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt

4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I like Lindt Excellence Intense Dark 70%)
1/2 cup heavy cream

Place the coconut, sugar and egg whites in a heavy 2- to 3-quart saucepan and stir well. Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently for 10 minutes. The mixture will start off looking very creamy, and as it dries out, you will be able to see individual flakes of coconut. Stop cooking when it is still sticky and moist, not dry. If the coconut mixture begins to brown in spots, turn the heat down a bit and stir more frequently.

Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla and salt. Spread the mixture in a pie plate and refrigerate until cool enough to handle, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.

Use your hands to firmly pack the coconut mixture into small domes, about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, spacing evenly on the baking sheet.

Bake until evenly golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely on the pan on a wire rack.

To make ganache, put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan or the microwave until it is steaming, but not boiling. If you do this in the microwave, cooking in 20 second bursts. It should not take more than 45 seconds on high power. Pour the cream over the chocolate, let sit for 1 minute, and then stir until smooth.

Dip each macaroon into the ganache and lay back on the baking sheet. Refrigerate until ganache sets, at least 2 hours.

Yield: 14-18 macaroons

13 September 2009

Post #105, in which I discover that I am a hypocrite

We made a deal with Sarah that when she had $1000 in her savings account, we would allow her to withdraw money and purchase something significant, subject to parental approval. She reached her goal last spring, and immediately asked for an iPhone.


After being shot down so quickly, she deliberated for a long time. Eventually, she circled back to square one, figuring that if she could not have an iPhone, why not ask for the next best thing; the ne plus ultra of iPodery, THE TOUCH.

To her great surprise, we said yes.

Since that day in late August, she has been on a mission to fill her 8GB.

The first insult came when we invited her to peruse our iTunes library, and of the thousands of songs that she has happily listened to for most of her life, she chose two.

"What about Stars, I asked, or the Magnetic Fields?"
"How about Bjork or Mates of State?"
"Sleater Kinney?"
 "No thanks."
"Rufus Wainwright?"
"I downloaded Hallelujah." she replied. "Sorry, you just don't have any cool teen music."

Let's put aside for a moment that my daughter is ten, not thirteen. In one fell swoop, a decade of my daughter's musical education was dismissed, and I aged about a decade in both of our eyes.

And now, the floodgates are now open to the best and the worst of pop music, which leaves me looking forward to the heart to heart we will have any day now, when Sarah asks me, what a disco stick is.

Until now, we have tried to limit our kids' exposure to the full breadth of popular culture. I do not want my children to be naive, but to maintain their innocence for as long as possible. Lord knows I love a good curse word, and call me a prude, but I could not help but squirm this summer as I watched the 10 and under set dancing and chanting Shush, girl, shut your lips, do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.

You can rationalize by saying it goes over their head, but that does not give children due credit. Nothing gets past a smart child. I was listening to Push Push in the Bush when I was in fifth grade, and I knew exactly what it was about. That doesn't mean I should have been listening to it.

And so, with me now comfortably ensconced on my high horse, I came to find myself this week in the car with Sacha, listening to Humbug, the Arctic Monkeys new record. I have been listening to this more or less constantly since it was released a few weeks ago. I love this band with a passion bordering on teenage, but I try to keep myself under control as befits a woman of my age.

You know how you can sometimes listen to a song many times before you hear the lyrics? Well, I was listening to the first track, My Propeller:

when it dawned on me that the PROPELLER IS A PENIS. To wit: My propeller won't spin and I can't get it started on my own, when are you arriving? And that's just the chorus.

In retrospect, it seems so obvious.

Now, I can rationalize that the Arctic Monkeys are artistically superior to Lady Gaga, or 3OH!3. They are embarrassingly good for such a young band. Their lyrics are clever, not crass; part of the reason why I love them so is that never have I heard a bunch of lads be so articulate about how the male species is led around by their dicks. And if I am to be completely honest, although he is roughly half my age and I think he's let his hair grow a bit too long as of late, I wouldn't mind at all having a spin of Alex Turner's propeller.

So, I've come to realize my hypocrisy. Call it a disco stick or a propeller, but when you come right down to it, dick is a dick is a dick.

05 September 2009

The High Line

One bit of evidence that life with Sacha children is getting easier is that we are starting to venture again into day trips. In the past, every time we'd get to this stage of family life, I'd done go get knocked up again and set us back a few years, but NO MORE.

This week, we went to the High Line. I'd been looking forward to this because I felt a personal connection with the project, as less than a decade ago, I did some grant writing when it was in its planning stages. As I tried to monitor its progress through my young child rearing haze, I was amazed at how quickly such a large scale public work came together; you have to marvel at what money can do.

We found parking on the street, and had lunch at The Red Cat, where we had cocktails with lunch — David and I, not the kids; we don't let them start drinking until after 5.00 — and Gabriel impressed us by ordering chicken livers. Never mind that he didn't care for them, the fact that he is always willing to venture far from typical children's fare is gratifying.

Aside from the thrill of snapping photographs of your child providing the illusion of them perched above 10th Avenue, to your amusement and their grandparents' alarm, it was worth it on many counts.

The High Line encapsulates everything that is wonderful about New York City. More promenade than park, it is civilized, and urbane, and provides interesting and unexpected views of the city. The path ebbs and flows, meandering enough to keep things from getting monotonous, and there are many inviting places to sit along the way.

The day before we went, it did cross my mind that it might be dangerous for Sacha, or exhausting for us to keep him away from the edge, even though I realistically knew there was no way this was actually possible. He has so many creative ways of making the most mundane situations dangerous that it has permanently altered my way of thinking. As it turned out, walking the High Line was perfectly safe, but strolling through Chelsea Market afterward, we had a bit of a tussle.

Try as we might, Sacha does not always heel well. He is the child who will squirm angrily as he attempts to escape my grasp in a parking lot, the child who, when you tighten your grip a bit to indicate that YOU'RE SERIOUS, has no compunction about yelling STOP, STOP, YOUR HURTING ME, with enough conviction to make me worry that someone is going to call the police.

Consequently, I am the mother trying as best I can to casually saunter to school pickup with a sack of dynamite tucked under my arm, using all my yogic skills to maintain calm as other parents observe me with a mixture of pity, awe and disapproval.

I will not be at all surprised if in three years time, we are paying another visit to the expensive doctor to receive another ADHD diagnosis.

And so, as we walked through the market, we were experimenting with letting Sacha walk off-leash, and he was sauntering rather nicely, until the moment when he broke formation and walked right into a man's shins, knocking him to the ground. We apologized, and attempted to help the man up, but he was so angry, all he could do was shoot scowling daggers of disapproval at Sacha, and the unruly breeders who clearly flunked out of obedience school.

I couldn't entirely blame him for being so mad, but refusing to accept an apology? That I blame him for.

But the blessing of New York is you can be mortally embarrassed one moment, and in seconds, the crowd sweeps you up again in the tide of anonymity. So we quickly picked up the scraps of our dignity, and continued on our way.

The rest of the day continued uneventfully, with an unexpected and welcome bonus. We got three hours of this:

It started on the ride home, and survived the transfer indoors, as well as a diaper change. And he still went to bed by 10, which for a third child on a late summer evening, is downright civilized.

So if you need to run your dog child hard, I wholeheartedly recommend the High Line.

03 September 2009

I have my marching orders

Like every other family in the state, we are gearing up for school. This actually involves less preparation than people would lead you to believe. True, bedtime needs to be rolled back, while supplies and new shoes, and haircuts have to be procured, but all of this takes less than 5 hours, so getting ready to go back to school is more a matter of mourning the end of summer, and getting into the proper frame of mind.

For my children, that means, "Mom, get your ass back in the kitchen."

Just in case this was not entirely clear to me, earlier this week, while having a snack, my project manager Sarah diagrammed it for me:

In other words: you've really slacked off on the baked goods this summer, but I understand, because it's hot, and who wants to turn on the stove, and after all, you did allow us to have ice cream every day, so I'm going to let you off with a gentle reminder to get cracking.

(I especially like the reference to my "amazing" oreos, which I made once, and hadn't planned on making again, but I guess I was wrong.)

Aside from Sarah's well documented, and admirable ability to simultaneously work me and massage my ego, I found this amusing on several counts.

Gabriel is represented twice. I think this is because someone didn't like the first likeness, but an equally apt explanation would be his impressive appetite.

Sacha does not show up at all. He is the pickiest eater, so he didn't even rank. Instead, my next door neighbor, who happened to be over when Sarah made the drawing, gets billing.

While his mother is occasionally mortified by the way he slips into our family fold, I have told her on many occasions that I don't mind, because a) I adore him, and b) while my own children endlessly critique what comes out of the kitchen, it is so refreshing to feed someone who is unabashedly enthusiastic about whatever is being served.

So Ethan, we'll see you for dinner tonight at 6.

02 September 2009

slinging hash: zucchini bread

When I was writing my dissertation, I worked for an academic think tank that ran a yearly seminar, where literary technology geeks gathered from around the globe to learn about textual analysis and computer encoding for humanities texts.

One of my responsibilities was planning this seminar, and the most fun part of the job was working with the caterers to plan the meals. The caterer was Main Street Eatery, in Kingston, New Jersey, and I am pleased to learn that they are still in business, because all of their food was very good.

My favorite item on their menu, or at least the one that compelled me to buy their cookbook, was the zucchini bread.

I don't much go in for quick breads, or muffins, because I generally I find them too heavy or sweet, too filled with stuff, or all of the above. But I adored this zucchini bread. It's not too sweet thanks to generous amounts of nutmeg and cinnamon. Once on a whim — because I am notorious for risk-taking — I decided to add black pepper, whose pungency adds just a touch of heat, and complements the warmth of nutmeg and cinnamon. The bread also has a light, moist crumb. I think this has something to do with the zucchini, and the fact that the batter calls for oil, rather than butter, but don't quote me on that.

Almost 20 years later I still make this bread every summer. It comes together very quickly, in one bowl, because you can sift the dry ingredients right into the batter, and there is no butter to cream. The zucchini melts into the bread, making it especially tender, and it keeps very well.

But shelf life is not an issue for me, because the very best thing about this zucchini bread, aside from it being so good, is that all three of my children not only eat it, but beg for it, and that, is a rare thing indeed.

Zucchini Bread

adapted from Fresh Approach, Recipe, Menu and Home Entertaining Diary, Main Street Eatery

Makes 2 loaves

2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Lightly grease 2 5 x 9 loaf pans

Beat the zucchini, oil and sugar together.
Stir in the egg and vanilla.
Sift and add the dry ingredients

Bake at 350 for 50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean, turning the pans at the halfway mark.