Sunday, March 25, 2007

Coconut-Pistachio Shortbread with Caramel and Chocolate

My co-worker, E, was eating a Girl Scout Cookie the other day (the kind with caramel and coconut), and I decided I had to come up with some sort of home made version. I came up with this shortbread awhile ago, and then saw the caramel and chocolate layers in a Donna Hay cookbook. In the end, these bear very little to resemblance to a Girl Scout Cookie, but they are still crunchy and coconutty mixed with chewy and chocolatey, so they managed to satisfy that particular sweet tooth for me.

The Shortbread:

- a generous 1/4 cup of salted pistachios
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup corn starch
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut, toasted in the oven until golden
- 3/4 cup cold, salted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

Oven at 300 degrees. 9x9 pan, lightly buttered, and lined with parchment paper (leave overhang for removing bars later - see picture in Lemon Bars post).

Put pistachios into food processor with 1/2 cup of flour and process until the pistachios are finely ground. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and mix, then scatter butter cubes into mixture. Pulse until mixed and dough begins to come together. Press into the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for about 40-50 minutes, until beginning to brown. Cool in pan for at least 30 minutes.

The Caramel:

- 1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)
- 1/2 cup salted butter
- 3 Tbsp brown sugar
- pinch of salt

Mix over medium heat, stirring non-stop until caramel is thick and smooth, about 10 minutes. Don't panic when it starts to look a little chunky - just keep stirring and eventually it will became smooth again. Pour over shortbread and quickly spread to cover. Cool, then chill in frig.

The Chocolate:

- 6 ounces chocolate
- 3 tsp vegetable oil

Mix over low heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Pour over caramel and quickly spread to cover. Cool, then chill in frig.
Lift bars out of pan with handles. Slice into squares and dispense to friends and co-workers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lemon Bars with Ginger Snap and Pistachio Crust

For some reason, it is refusing to warm up here in Seattle - the flowers have arrived, but you can't even smell them because it is so freakin' cold. This is all making my summer fever that much worse. I think that is where my hankering for citrus treats is coming from.

The original recipe for these bars uses lime and graham crackers, and came from Martha Stewart's Food magazine. They are quite fabulous done that way too.

For the crust:
-4 Tbsp salted butter, melted and cooled
-2/3 cup roasted and salted pistachios
-4 ounces VERY gingery ginger snaps
-1/4 cup sugar
-lemon zest from lemons used in your filling

Oven at 350 degrees, 8x8 pan lined greased and lined with parchment. Pulverize your gingersnaps in your food processor, then add everything else except the butter. Make a fine powder, then add the butter. Mix well, then press into the pan. Bake for about 7-10 minutes until it smells good and is beginning to brown. Cool on a rack for about thirty minutes.

For the filling:
-2 large egg yolks
-14 ounces of sweetened condensed milk
-1/2 cup lemon juice (about four small lemons)

Mix yolks and milk, then add juice. I found a fork works well for this. Pour the filling over the cooled crust, then bake until set, about 15 minutes, also at 350 degrees. Cool in pan on rack, then chill in refrigerator.

When it is time to snack, pull the entire slab out of the pan with parchment handles. Then slice and eat.

Yum. The filling is creamy - not rubbery like custard. The texture is what I always hope for with key lime pie. But the crust is truly the best part: spicy cookies and salty pistachios held together with butter...I'm not sure what else I can say.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yesterday I went to a beautiful Vietnamese restaurant, and had a very tasty, and rather large, lunch. Then I went home and took a nap. When I woke up, my lunch was exactly where I left it - sitting like a brick in my belly. I wasn't hungry again for the rest of the day, but for some bizarre reason I developed an ENORMOUS craving for these cookies. The craving was still there when I got up this morning, so as soon as I had my morning cup of Earl Grey, I pulled out my mixer.

Not only are these cookies whole wheat, but except for the chocolate chips, they are vegan. Also, they are sweetened with reduced fruit juice concentrate rather than refined sugar. There are a couple ways of acquiring reduced fruit juice concentrate. Method #1: buy a jar of Wax Orchards Fruit Sweet at a health food store. Method #2: buy a 12 ounce can of apple or white grape juice concentrate, and simmer on the stove until it reduces to 1 cup. I have used both and could not differentiate between the two in the end product.

Right out of the oven, these cookies taste like you forgot the sugar, but after they have cooled, they taste less like health food and more like kick-ass peanut butter cookies. I'm not super happy with the grain sweetened chocolate chips, but it seems like regular chocolate chips would be overwhelmingly sweet in the context of a fruit-sweetened cookie. These cookies have a satisfying chewy texture when you get them out of the oven in time; otherwise they are crispy.

I found the original recipe in Mani Niall's Sweet and Natural Baking: Sugar-Free, Flavorful Recipes from Mani's Bakery. The only changes I made this time were to add the chocolate chips, and to use salted peanut butter, rather than unsalted (I take every opportunity to add salt to my baked goods - I swear that it makes them better.) I also usually use almond butter rather than peanut butter when baking these cookies, but I am planning on gifting them to a peanut butter lover, so I figured I would try the traditional flavor this time.

To make the cookies:
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup natural style nut butter (I can attest to successful cookies with both almond and peanut, but have yet to try anything more exotic. I have been reading interesting things about cashew butter - I think that may be next) I prefer to use roasted and salted as opposed to raw, unsalted.
- 3/4 cup fruit juice sweetener of choice (see above)
- 1 generous tsp vanilla
- About 3/4 cup grain sweetened chocolate chips

Oven to 350 degrees, parchment paper on two cookie sheets. Mix wet ingredients in mixer, add dry ingredients, beat until combined. Stir in chocolate chips. Make balls with 1 Tbsp of dough, then squish with a wet fork to get the traditional pattern. Grain sweetened chocolate chips behave a little strangely; it is best to remove the chips at the edges of the cookies, and stick them in the middle of the cookie before baking, otherwise they burn. Bake 7-10 minutes (these are easy to overcook due to their color - watch closely, and take out when they are just barely browning on top.)

ps - With the leftover dough I made three jumbo cookies. Each cookie used about a quarter of a cup of dough, which I flattened to a half-inch thick disk. Definitely the way to go if you like your cookies chewy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Buttery Brioche Biscuits to Be

I love Ina Garten. Admittedly, I’ve only very recently discovered her. Shamefully, I’ve only watched her show on The Food Network a few times. But it only took one episode of The Barefoot Contessa to reel me into her perfect world, and now I want desperately to be a guest at her Hamptons house. I’ll run to the market for her! I’ll even get up early and make the coffee – I would become a morning person for her! I love her philosophy of simple ingredients, preparation and elegant but easy presentation. And she seems like the kind of host who would let you sleep in if you wanted. The favorite aunt who encourages you to just flip through magazines in her sunny kitchen while she prepares a picnic lunch that you nibble on later after a walk on the beach. Now that I think about it, this fantasy is probably more likely the life I want, than one she actually lives. In any case, her show reeled me in. And these fresh buttery brioche she effortlessly made for her husband as a welcome home breakfast were what catapulted me into this reverie.
I had the recipe sitting around the house for a couple weeks before I was able to schedule the various phases of its preparation. I had hoped to follow her lead and have warm buttery brioche for breakfast.
A friend of ours is gutting and re-building a 100 year old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s a big job, and he is in a transitional phase of having moved his belongings into the basement, and is making do with a mattress on the floor of his soon-to-be master bedroom. We’ve assured him that our lumpy, uncomfortable, eye-sore of a futon is always open to him, and after a long day of labor and dust inhalation, he’ll occasionally acquiesce. He came by last weekend, and I figured it was the perfect time to share the carbo-load, and send him on his merry way Sunday morning with warm buttery brioche. Things, as usual, didn’t quite work out the way I imagined. The brioche came out of the oven on Sunday at about 4PM (taking the setting of the clocks forward into account, my day had disappeared).
I assembled the dough on Saturday night, just like Ina. It was pretty straight forward – she’s pretty precise about the temperature of the water used with the yeast, and I don’t think our tap water was warm enough (I had just finished a ton of dishes), but I forged ahead. snss 015
The dough was a rich buttery yellow (thanks to the 2 sticks of butter and the 6 eggs– go figure), and the only problem I encountered was how stubbornly it clung to the paddle attachment of my Kitchen Aid mixer. snss 008Once I switched to the dough hook, it seemed to be getting a better workout.
I left the dough in the fridge over night as instructed, and pulled it out first thing in the morning to sit at room temperature for an hour. Well, by “first thing” I mean noon. Then because I was out of eggs, we collectively decided to go to a diner for breakfast. So its one hour counter time turned into probably two. Once I cut the dough into 20 pieces, and set them inside the baking tins, I allowed them to sit for about an hour and a half, rather than the two hours suggested - a fair compromise, I thought. snss 018
After 20 minutes in the oven, they were crispy and golden looking, and filling our loft with such a heavenly smell I couldn’t wait to test the results.
It’s not that I was disappointed, they were certainly satisfying, but in a home-made biscuit kind of way. A few posts ago, I mentioned a potato roll recipe I had wanted to get from Mallow for Thanksgiving – in the end, I used a recipe I found on-line. These would have been the PERFECT substitute for the dense homemade potato rolls I ended up serving my guests. I think next time, I’ll use a round biscuit cutter, and serve them as Buttery Brioche Biscuts instead. snss 035
Luckily, book club was on Sunday evening, so I pawned the majority off on my friends. But not before I had 4, and my husband about 8.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Yeasted Sopaipillas (baked, not fried.)

I love fried dough. Truly. I don't think I have ever met a version that I didn't like. Indian Fry Bread. Donuts. Beignets. Sopaipillas. But the reality of making these things at home has always been a deterrent - after spending that much time with a vat of spattering hot oil, the end product is always somewhat less appealing.

Therefore, I was very intrigued when I found this recipe for baked sopaipillas in Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible. I attempted to follow it to the letter. I still become nervous whenever yeast enters the baking picture, and this recipe contained plenty of tidbits to intimidate a novice bread-baker (for example: "the dough can stay at room temperature for up to 5 minutes..." So, does that mean you will have hockey pucks rather than sopaipillas if they get into the oven at 6 minutes?) I'm sure my dough spent at least 15 minutes at room temperature while I attempted to roll the dough correctly, and then slice it into sopaipillas. But in the end, my clock-watching caused me to frantically slice my dough into haphazard looking rectangles, rather than a more traditional shape.

Preparing the dough (nothing unusual in the ingredients - yeast, flour, salt, an egg, and a little milk, butter and sugar) was pretty straight-forward, but there was an emphasis to not over-knead, and to leave the dough soft. However, I believe that I over-kneaded, and left my dough too soft.

But as for the results: I ended up with tasty, soft, puffy squares of doughy bread, that were quite lovely when brushed with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and served with honey. However, the thing that draws me to a sopaipilla in the first place is fact that it is FRIED DOUGH. These baked sopaipillas were more like tasty mini-dinner rolls, and even with all the additions I mentioned, my sweet tooth was never quite satisfied. I keep thinking they would make a good home replacement for naan, if left in larger pieces, then brushed with garlic and butter.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cheesy Gooey Carbtastic Goodness

I don’t know the last time I had pasta – I don’t cook it as a rule. I’m the kind of person who has ONE meal with pasta and gains 10 pounds. It’s not that I’m anti-carb, I believe deeply and profoundly in their comforting qualities. For my own health purposes, I have to avoid them unless it’s an emergency. By “carb” I mean pasta, rice, four, sugar, fruits – most things yummy. The problem becomes one of self control. Given a box of cookies (in this example, Chocolate Covered Nutter Butters, the cruelest and most disasterous invention known to this woman), I will close my office door, and covertly, with a mug of milk, consume the entire box in one delicious, self-induced stomach-aching, fell swoop. Fruit? Why stop at a couple slices of pineapple? It is so juicy and sweet, I might as well eat the whole thing - stomache ache from the high-acid content be damned. (Am I the only person who feels the need to "hide" while I do this? Who am I hiding from? Maybe I've just revealed far too much about my own psyche...) For this reason, you will see most of my recipes on this site being of the high-protein and savory variety. Mallow is a genius with the sweets – she has self control, and the treats can make it over-night in her house so she can take them to work. A batch of cookies in my house means dinner, or a snack.
However, when I saw this dish being made on the Food Network, I felt an inspired need to re-acquaint myself with the comfort only certain foods like pasta can induce.
I decided to vary the recipe a bit, making it a little healthier, but maintain its integrity. I used whole-wheat macaroni, and I happened to have some extra veggies in the house, so I threw them into the mix. The end result was hearty and healthy, full of cheesy goodness. Macaroni and cheese purists would probably miss the creamy cheese sauce of the more traditional recipes, but in the end – this is just a different use of the Americanized pasta.
The best part? If you have kids who hate eating their greens, this is the best way to hide them. They’ll have no idea that they’re eating a veritable smorgasbord of antioxidants and vitamins. The cheese will trick ‘em.
Oh, and make sure you ask for help if you need it when draining the pasta from the heavy pan. I tried to be brave and strong, and my I Love Lucy moment of the day meant spilling a quarter of the pan of boiling water onto my bare-feet. Ouch.

Hearty Healthy Spicy Baked Macaroni and Veg
1 pound whole-wheat organic elbow macaroni pasta
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound mushrooms (I used button mushrooms)
½ cup chopped white onion
1 medium sized red bell pepper, chopped
1 small zucchini, chopped
2 cloves chopped garlic, minced
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes (make sure you buy a brand that doesn’t add sugar)
1 (10 oz.) package frozen spinach, thawed and drained (I squeezed the moisture out)
½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes (more if you like spicy; this amount yields pretty mild kid-friendly amount of spice)
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan (plus 1/3 cup)
¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano (plus 1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons softened butter
12 ounces mozzarella cubed (about 2 cups, one standard sized package)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. About 8-10 minutes. Drain.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic and red bell pepper. Cook until tender – about 7 minutes. Add tomatoes, spinach, zucchini and red pepper flakes. Stir until combined and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes.
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In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, ¼ c. Parmesan, and ¼ c. Romano. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with cooking spray, and sprinkle half the mixture inside the dish to coat.
In a large mixing bowl combine the vegetable mixture with the cooked macaroni, cubed mozzarella and the remaining Parmesan and Romano cheeses.
sns 098
Add nutmeg. Stir until combined, and the mozzarella is evenly distributed and beginning to melt.
sns 101
Spoon entire mixture into the prepared baking dish, and top with the remaining bread crumb mixture. Dot the top with the softened butter, cut into quarters.
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Bake until the top is golden brown, about 30-40 minutes. Great as a side or main dish!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Meet Mallow

My mom says it's in my genes. My grandma also had a tendency to trudge home from the library with her arms full of cookbooks. I got a late start, but sometime a few years ago I developed the same habit. Thinking back, I'm really not sure what got me started. I remember getting the bug to try making a cheesecake...or maybe it was the biscuits I made while visiting a friend in New Hampshire? But whatever it was that got me going, I believe nursing school solidified the habit. Baking was a fabulous form of procrastination, and during the busiest weeks at school, you could be certain that I would arrive at home with a new stack of cookbooks, only to show up at school with the product of my latest experiment.
Now that I am no longer in school and my free time is my own, I have only gotten more enthusiastic about food. Baking is what gets me truly excited (although every now and then I venture into the world of cooking "real food"), and I am usually drawn towards old fashioned comfort food - layer cakes, biscuits, pies, cookies, and bread. Sugar is usually involved in large quantities. My days off are spent offering diabetes-inducing treats to everyone in my path, then I go to work as a nurse and curse how rampant diabetes is becoming...I haven't quite figured out how to reconcile that, but the fact of the matter is that I can't stop baking. So there you have it.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Raspberry and white chocolate goodness

I found the recipe for these cookies in a Martha Stewart magazine a year or so ago. I couldn't resist the colors - the beautiful pink middle with golden cookies was enough to make me overlook the fact that I don't like white chocolate. The cookie is buttery and chewy, and would be heavenly enough on its own. And it turns out that I DO like white chocolate when it is mixed with heavy cream and raspberries and stuck between two tasty cookies. The recipe calls for vanilla beans, but being a poor student, I left them out (like I said, the cookies were amazing anyways). The recipe also calls for fresh raspberries (I used frozen), and for straining the raspberry puree so that you are left with just the juice. I did not have a sieve, so I just used the puree. In the end, this resulted in a very tasty raspberry cream, but I had a difficult time determining quantities, and the filling turned out a little on the runny side. Next time I will strain.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
10 Tbsp butter, softened (calls for unsalted, but I always use salted)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla
(1 vanilla bean, halved, seeds scraped)

1 1/3 cups (fresh) raspberries (1/2 pint)
2 tsp sugar
7 1/2 ounces coarsely chopped white chocolate
1/3 cup heavy cream

Make the cookies as you would expect - beat butter and sugar until fluffy, add egg, vanilla (and seeds), then add dry stuff. Use a 1 inch ice cream scoop and bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden and beautiful.
For the filling, puree raspberries and sugar in food processor, strain, set aside. Make a ganache with the cream and white chocolate, then add raspberry puree. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then assemble.

The Bollito Misto That Never Was

I started with this recipe: (Bollito Misto). My first “mistake” was the meat I purchased. In my little neighborhood of Brooklyn, it can be hard to find good meat. We have a corner grocery that I like to call “Third World” because for some reason there is often sawdust on the floor, and the only thing I feel I can safely purchase there are canned goods. Other than that, it’s kind of a haul to the better grocery stores, and even then I mostly find what I call “questionable meats”. In New York, we have something called Fresh Direct - an amazing online grocery store where you order your goods, and they are delivered right to your door. The only problem is that they have yet to add our zip code to their delivery area. So I often end up buying meat and other specialty items in Manhattan on my way home from work, at the usual Manhattan marked-up prices. I found a beef brisket at Food Emporium, a pre-packaged national brand, and figured it was worth a try.
I got tied up in the hell that is Manhattan on the weekend – I had to go to Bed, Bath and Beyond for some things, then Macy’s for some sheets (hell-on-earth any day of the week in NYC, even if you use a non-Perfume Department entrance). So after hauling 5 bags home on the crowded train, I categorically refused to go back out again for special ingredients for this recipe, and decided to make do with what I had in the kitchen. As I had promised Ms. Mallow that I would cook and take pictures this weekend with my inaugural Sweet and Savory site recipe trial, I scoured the refrigerator for appropriate substitute ingredients to try this yummy looking recipe.

I pulled out green cabbage, red cabbage, red onion, chicken bouillon cubes, and some leeks. Then I pulled out the package of beef brisket, and noticed it actually read “Corned Beef Brisket”. A different beast all together. sns 013

But then I realized what a great combination the cabbage would make with the Corned Beef! My German ancestors sang "Jawohl!". I also figured the leeks would make it even heartier. Even though using chicken broth with beef was in my mind a horrible faux pas, I was determined to make this meal.
Over-all, it was very simple. I hadn’t planned on making a dipping sauce as the original recipe called for simply because I lacked the ingredients. Since it was a completely different recipe now anyway, eliminating that last process made it all the easier.
After the initial searing of the meat (my apologies in advance to Mallow and other vegetarians for the carnal nature of these the pictures), sns 005it was just a matter of chopping and adding. I have to admit I’m very ignorant about herbs and spices. I have a general idea of which types of spices go with which cuisines (like, cardamom and curry are Indian, basil and oregano tend to be Italian…) but I am clueless otherwise, and probably tend to create ridiculous interpretations of what would otherwise be very sensible aromatic dishes. In this case I think I added Mexican Oregano, for no other reason than I was emptying a bag of the imported herb into my new magnetic spice containers, and had some extra I didn’t want to throw away. Not sure if that counts as a method when it comes to my madness. sns 003
The purple and green cabbage, combined with the deeper green of the leeks sure looked pretty in the red Dutch Oven (One of my favorite wedding gifts. Thanks Rose!) sns 021(Speaking of leaks, does anyone have a suggestion for getting these really clean? I chopped them into big chunks, and then rinsed each piece as thoroughly as I could. Is there a better/smarter way?) sns 016Once boiling, I lowered the temp to simmer, then covered the pan, and went on to more important things; drinking a beer and watching an episode of The L Word with my husband. As I sipped, I considered that adding a beer instead of the chicken broth may well have been genius! Ever cooked meat with beer?
Once the timer went off, and I had removed the meat and veggies, I boiled down the broth. It was a deep brownish-purplish color, very pretty, but a little too watery to be “gravy”, even once reduced. I ladled a little over the serving dish, and decided to save the leftover broth in case I am inspired later (suggestions anyone?). sns 068
The end result was very flavorful, though the cut of meat was horrible – there was a layer of gristly fat on the bottom of each slice that we had to cut off before taking a bite. My husband’s earlier “Leeks? Blech!” and my “You love leeks. I’ve cooked them before” were cancelled out by his “you’re right, I do like leeks. These veggies are good.” I always know I’ve done well by him when he shoves food down his gullet so fast, it’s as if he has never eaten.

The flavor of everything was great, but overall because of the bad cut of beef, it was a little disappointing. Also, looking at the pictures now, it looks kind of vintage East German, a little...grey. sns 066
I wonder what a real Bollito Misto would taste like? Once I track down a good cut of meat, I’ll give it a proper and less-improvised, whirl.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Nina Roux's Introduction: T'day 2006

I would say my cooking journey started around Thanksgiving 2006. After my wedding the previous July, I had a fully stocked kitchen – dishes and appliances I never imagined in my moved-about-once-a-year-all-through-my-twenties, twenties. I never even had a set of plates. Well, I bought 4 matching plates once at Fishes Eddy, but then promptly broke one. Or a room-mate did. (Isn’t that always the way? Now, thankfully my “room mate” is my “husband” and he only goes into the kitchen to see if there’s something to drink). Three isn’t a set, right? So anyway – for a creative-in-the-kitchen type, I was barely getting by using recycled pickle jars for Tupperware (still do, if they’re cute - or as vases), and using the wok with the ill-fitting lid my grandma gave me 8 years ago to cook EVERYTHING from steamed artichokes to tomato-meat sauce. Always making do - and rarely making anything - out of sheer frustration and a stubborn refusal to buy anything that I might someday get a better version of on a gift registry, meant that despite my greater inclinations, I was a bore in the kitchen.

So there I was, last fall, a married-lady-grown-up-person, post wedding-gift registry with a Kitchen-Aid mixer, a Cuisinart, a beautiful shiny SET of pans (thanks Mom and Dad!), matching silverware, mixing bowls, and an assortment of wooden and OTHER types of spoons, and absolutely NO excuses remaining to not cook on Thanksgiving.

There was one year, my first year in New York, in my Harlem apartment with the crooked floors, when I hosted an orphan Thanksgiving. I bravely offered to cook the main course and host the pot-luck party for friends stranded without family in NYC for the holiday. The sweet potatoes arrived, the stuffing arrived, and the mashed-potatoes arrived. My room-mate made deviled eggs. (She was an adorable, still adorable, vegetarian who ate nothing but junk food meals considered healthy simply because they lacked meat). I ventured to near-by Fairway to get the turkey, and instead brought home a delectable alternative; Pre-cooked maple ham! It was delicious! But when asked “why did you opt to serve ham instead of turkey for Thanksgiving?” my response was something like “it was easier.” What I was really thinking was just a longer version: “I’ve never cooked a turkey, wouldn’t know where to begin, don’t have the utensils or a cookbook or a pan to my name, and don’t they take like, all day to cook? Plus I had to work a shift waiting tables today, and I hope you also enjoy the leftover dishes I carted all the way up here from my SOHO restaurant job for you ingrates.” So ham it was.

In the years following that first T’day away from my family, I was spoiled by my boyfriend-now-husband’s parent’s gracious invitations, and his mom’s Thanksgiving spread (ham AND turkey! Leftovers to take home!) These holidays were much quieter than I was used to, as my husband is an only child. I was accustomed to the cacophony of 3 siblings, 2 nephews, a niece, various uncles, aunts, girlfriends, hanging out downstairs and watching a movie so as to not overwhelm the cooks, "who let Pepper in the kitchen? That dog is always underfoot!”, fights, laughter, tears, doors slamming, cars peeling up and down the gravel driveway, wind-storms blowing a branch through the dining-room window spreading glass all over the table, barbecuing the turkey because there is no power type of Thanksgiving. I ADORE these holidays, and miss them horribly - but haven't found the means to fly to Seattle for Christmas and Thanksgiving over the years, so I've had to settle for once-a-year cacophony. In the end, a peaceful South Orange, New Jersey table for four with formal china was a pleasant alternative. Then my boyfriend-now-husband’s parents moved to Virginia.

The year after they moved (2005), I talked my youngest brother into coming to NYC for the holiday, and we had a charming meal in an intimate bistro in Carol Gardens, Brooklyn. But four months after my wedding, with my well-stocked kitchen, I couldn’t justify another Bohemian Thanksgiving. I invited my brother to NYC again, summoned 3 other orphaned friends to join our table, and asked only that they bring the booze.

I started researching recipes in September. I decided on a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving, with a few variations; I was going to cut a few corners – like, no table decorations, and no soup course, and add a few touches – some family recipes, and vegetable broth instead of chicken broth for my vegetarian guest (my adorable old room mate had graduated from mac and cheese and pizza, and offered to bring green bean casserole, but I insisted on doing everything myself. A control-freak streak I didn’t know I possessed – likely handed down from my German and English generations past – introduced itself to my household. I have since worked with and continue to work with shamans and Exorcists to excise this trait, hoping to eliminate the newly mastered “martyr sigh” from my vocabulary.)

The choicest recipes in hand, I began scheduling my cooking and shopping. I made a weekly calendar, and sorted the dishes and chores by what could be prepared ahead. I estimated preparation time, considered cooking times, planned out re-heating times, and did all the grocery shopping in stages. Not owning a car makes this last chore such a pain. And for some ridiculous reason, Fresh Direct does not yet deliver to my zip-code in Brooklyn.

So here’s about how the week went (I’ve since burned the preparation calendar in a cleansing ritual, so this is a rough estimate based on my memory):

Saturday before T’day: Purchase non-perishable groceries
Emotional State/Surprises: Feeling confident, accomplished, organized. When did Target run out of roasting pans, and why didn’t I buy it last week when I first saw it?

Sunday before T’day: Clean house
Emotional State/Surprises: Feels good to have a clean home! Good thing I found all the extra things I needed, including roasting pan, twine, cheese-cloth, gravy boat, and turkey-baster in one spot! Thanks Bed, Bath and Beyond!

Monday before T’day: (After work) More non-perishable groceries
Emotional State/Surprises: Man, my back hurts from carrying all these groceries. Wait, why didn’t I send my husband to get a few of these on his way home from work? Oh, he doesn’t cook, so he doesn’t know the right things to buy, and it’s just “easier and faster” if I do it myself. Even though I wasn’t able to find everything, I’ll round up the last few items in my neighborhood.

Tuesday before T’day: (After work) Make and freeze pie crusts. Cut loaf of bread into cubes and let dry for stuffing. Make cranberry-pear chutney using fresh cranberries. Iron table cloth/napkins. Ethan arrives from Seattle. Send Ethan and husband to friend’s house to pick up Fresh Direct-delivered organic fresh turkey and brine mix. Clean turkey and put in Brine mixture in fridge. Cube celery and pears for stuffing, roast, peel and chop chestnuts for stuffing.
Emotional State/Surprises: Dishes. Why didn’t I consider how much extra work there would be with washing dishes in between each project? Why don’t more NYC apartments have dishwashers? What am I supposed to brine this huge freaking turkey in? I can’t leave it on the fire escape, can I? I think it’s too warm out. I guess I’ll use a garbage bag – I’ll rinse it out first, then put in all the water and the brine mix, then put the whole heavy mass in the fridge. It wont taste like garbage bag, will it? What am I going to do with all the crusts left over from the bread crumbs? I know, I’ll make pumpkin bread-pudding! I have all the ingredients! It’s not on my schedule, but it’s a fast recipe. Why am I light-headed? Oh my god, it’s 10PM and I haven’t eaten since 10AM. Let’s order some Mexican. Just get me some black bean soup – I’m too tired to eat. My back is killing me, I can only wash dishes by leaning my elbows on the counter at the sink. I’ve changed from my clogs to my slippers and back 3 times, trying to be comfortable. Man this kitchen floor is slippery. Why doesn’t my husband like washing dishes? Well, he cleans the bathroom. Boy, does my back hurt. I hope you brats are enjoying your burritos. I’ll get to my soup as soon as the damned chest-nuts are peeled. My soup is cold; I’ll put it in the microwave. Ah…let me just carry it to the counter to pour into my bowl…AAAAGH!! I’ve spilled boiling hot black-bean soup all over my hands, and in reaction have thrown it’s container into the air! It lands on the floor, splashing BLACK bean soup all over the kitchen! It burns! It burns! Rush to sink in tears, run hands and arms under cold water, crying “I just wanted to eat my soup!” Husband and brother rush to kitchen (for a change) to clean up soup for me. I decide to skip dinner. The pumpkin bread pudding was good though!

Wednesday before T’day: (After half day of work) Make home-made potato rolls. Assemble then bake Apple and Pumpkin pies. Make pecan tarts. Peel potatoes for mashed potatoes. Make Sweet potatoes, prepare for reheating tomorrow. Buy green salad ingredients. Make hummus. Assemble stuffing to prepare for baking.
Emotional State/Surprises: My back hurts. Dishes, dishes, everywhere. My hands are cracked and nearly bleeding they’re so dry from dishes. Thank god I only had to work a half day. The damned rolls are too dense, but taste pretty good – not sure where I went wrong, other than not using the recipe I wanted from Mallow…The pies are pretty, but look very “home-made” – I guess that’s the idea? I ended up NOT using fresh pumpkin for the pie – I’m such a loser. I ended up NOT doing twice-baked sweet potatoes. I’m so lazy. Sweet potato puree it is! Marshmallows will make it look legit. Hummus is my only appetizer, people are going to starve. I’ve already sent my husband to the store 4 times for items I forgot to buy. Hopefully someone will ignore my instructions and will bring some cheeses and bread. Should I go to the store? So tired…so…very...tired.

Thursday/T’Day/Emotional State/Results: Wake up at 9AM to remove turkey from fridge to let stand. Not a lot to do today!! Just have to schedule re-heating and cooking times. Once the turkey is room temp, I have to improvise a bit; since I’m not cooking the stuffing inside the turkey, I guess I should put something else in the cavity. I cut an orange in half, and poke cloves into the peeling, and sprinkle a bunch of cinnamon and nutmeg inside (genius!). Folks are arriving at 4, and hopefully everything is done and ready on time! Should I use the cheese-cloth soaked in white wine turkey recipe, or the maple glaze recipe? In the end, I forgo the cheesecloth, thinking the white wine might taste wonky with the cloves and cinnamon. Today is mostly about setting the timer to remind me to check/baste the turkey. Cook and mash the potatoes; sour cream or garlic?
The turkey thermometer popped up. The turkey is done at 3:15!? Gasp! Can I let it “sit” for longer than a half hour? Everything is re-heated. The salad is assembled. SALAD DRESSING!? Throw some olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper on and toss. My guests are seated at the table and I try to force them to eat their salads while I struggle through the gravy. EASY AS GRAVY MY ASS! I have no idea how it tastes. I sit down and realize:

Everything looks beautiful.
Everything came out on time.
The table looks beautiful.
I’ve out-done myself.
Everything tastes exactly how it should, and is amazing and flavorful.
I did this all myself.
I’m never, ever, ever, doing this again.

Mainly, I tried to understand how people do this every year, and mostly, why do they do this every year? I get that it tastes good, and you want to please the people you love. But I nearly broke my back and I still don’t know how I got away with just one melt-down (the black-bean soup debacle). I realize I didn’t cut any corners – didn’t have guests bring dishes, made my own rolls, didn’t use pre-cubed bread, made my own pie crusts…also, I didn’t have a dish-washer. I also imagine some people have hired-help. Also, I don’t think every person doing this has a full time job!!! Isn’t the point of Thanksgiving to come together and share a meal? And shouldn’t that include the cook? And why does it seem to be in my genetic make-up to NOT ask for help? As wonderful as everything tasted, next year I’m making dinner reservations at that charming, intimate bistro in our neighborhood, and tipping our server generously.

What I ultimately learned from Thanksgiving 2006, is that I do enjoy cooking. I can follow a recipe and can even improvise here and there. I tend to have creative solutions and alternatives at the ready in my mind. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, because I was so tired and cranky from over-extending myself. I enjoyed planning the meal and researching the recipes. I tend to enjoy this even on weeknights when I have the energy to make dinner. So with the encouragement of my best-friend-since-Jr. High, Mallow (far my superior in the kitchen), I’ve decided to challenge myself, and to share my kitchen foibles, fiascos, I Love Lucy moments, and the occasional success stories and happy mistakes with others. And the best news? My Christmas present from my in-laws: a beautiful, efficient, shiny portable dishwasher.