Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Strolling in Nantucket
What’s cooking? Mmmmm Meat Loaf

One of the great pleasures of winter weather is comfort food. I’d almost lost track of that need – there being not much call for it in Austin – until last weekend, which my husband and I spent on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. The island hosts a celebration called Christmas Stroll, which I think is mostly a gimmick to lure north those of us who’ve sworn off snow and ice, but turns out to be a rather lovely gimmick just the same.

In a span of three short days, we encountered every type of weather available, from sunny and mild (for December in Massachusetts) on Friday, to howling wind and horizontal rain on Saturday, to frigid but clear on Sunday. And while I must admit that we didn’t participate in any of the island events, we nevertheless had a great time. I’m not sure how much more you need than a fire in the fireplace, a few good bottles of wine, and football on the television (even for non-fans like me, it’s amazingly enjoyable among friends). The experience is even more intensely satisfying when the weather outside is, well, frightful (apologies to Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne), as it was on Saturday, and you don’t have to go out in it. I don’t know why that is, but it’s clearly the case. Maybe we just need to be reminded of how bad conditions could be before we can fully appreciate where we are.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Your Newsstand Now

Just a tiny, ahem, personal promotion: the December issue of Ladies' Home Journal carries a reprint of my essay on my obsession with sprinkles, which originally appeared in The New York Times in October 2008. (Note that the photo here is of the November 2009 LHJ -- I couldn't find one of the December cover, which features Nicole Kidman.) The LHJ piece is titled "Sugar on Top," but the NYT version is "For This Baker, the Cookie Is a Canvas." I'll put a link in the column to the right here, or you can pick up the magazine to see it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The First Thanksgiving
What's cooking? Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

This year, my son and daughter-in-law -to-be are hosting their first Thanksgiving. Her family will be joining them, but we’ll be in Texas, so I’m not there to help, which pains me, as I count group cooking as one of the most fun activities. Desperate to contribute, I sent cookies.

What cook doesn’t remember that maiden voyage? My first attempt was fraught with anxiety over the bird in particular, so more than anything that year, I was thankful for the turkeys with those little pop-up thermometers that tell you when the meat is done. And in that vein, I recommend to my DILTB (and to any other anxious cooks) the excellent op-ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “Thanksgiving Recipe: Just Chill,” which more elegantly elaborates on something I’ve told many of my friends over the years: Most people – especially those who cook regularly – are just happy to have a meal that someone else prepared. And as for doing it all yourself, you need to keep in mind that the people on Top Chef and its ilk have not only years of training but – and this is important – ASSISTANTS. Moreover, someone else went out and bought the ingredients. Think of Giada and Martha and Rachel and Mario (who I really feel I know on a first-name basis), and just imagine how many choppers and slicers and dicers they’ve got making ready in the studio. Now, don’t you feel better?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Bit of Cranberry with Your Pinot
What's cooking? Cranberry Sauce with Pinot Noir

My current favorite cranberry sauce recipe calls for two cups of pinot noir. You can get a buzz just from the fumes as it cooks.

In addition, however, I almost always have to make that classic relish – from cranberries and oranges and sugar – regardless of what else is on the menu. When I was little, probably in elementary school, my Aunt Marcy – long known as the cook in the family – began a tradition of letting me help her make it every year. Those were the days before food processors, so we used a big, clunky meat grinder – the kind that clamp onto the table and then drip juice all over the floor. At least, that was the way it went when I helped. Somehow, I managed to keep my fat little fingers out of the grinder part, which seems like nothing short of a Thanksgiving miracle to me at this point.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Desserts R Us
What’s cooking? Rustic Pear Galette

A friend and I drove down to San Antonio this weekend, to the Culinary Institute’s Texas campus for a one-day seminar on baking desserts. I got less from it than I had hoped – after the fab two-day courses this summer in basics and hors d’oeuvres (see August 28 and September 3 postings), I had some idea that this one would transform the way I think about desserts.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Case of the Spurious Sprinkles
What’s cooking? Best Rollout Cookies and Powdered Sugar Icing

After Christmas, I believe Halloween must be my favorite holiday. Candles everywhere, the heady, fall smell of slowly charring pumpkin in the jack-o’-lantern, and the kids in their costumes – just thinking of it makes me want to bake cookies. I’m a huge fan of roll-out cookies, mostly because I enjoy decorating them, and the Halloween shapes are among the most fun. (You’ll notice here that I’ve included stars, which aren’t particularly Halloween, but to my mind, stars belong in every holiday celebration.) But what to do with them? I make them for any group of friends getting together – my book group, a dinner party – and then I spend an obscene amount of money sending them to my two sons, because even if I bake them with enough time to spare (the cookies, not my children – the children are still in process), that effort to package them up and get them to the post office is more than my feeble brain can schedule, so I end up at FedEx with an overnight need. Just ridiculous, but there it is. My husband, bless his heart, doesn’t bother complaining. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

My obsession with sprinkles is well-known among my friends. My builder even constructed a special “sprinkles cabinet,” recessed into the kitchen wall between studs. The door is painted just like the wall, and it closes with a press-latch, so there’s no knob or handle to stick out; it just about disappears when not in use. The shelves are only three inches deep, and the inside of the door is covered in pegboard, where I hang my cookie cutters.

Decorating the cookies is an all-day task, but with any luck, I can find a marathon of one of “my shows,” as my husband refers to them. CSI, NCIS, Murder She Wrote, Monk,... the list is fairly long and always involves a murder mystery, which I’ve been hooked on since fifth grade when I discovered Perry Mason. Something about stories in which the bad guys always get caught and the mystery solved gives me a sense of order and purpose in the world. Strange as it may seem, I’m not really into violence. By the time the story line in my shows starts, the violence is often over – at a minimum, it happens off-stage – so I can be absorbed in the solution process. This love of mystery extends to my reading habits: I started with Nancy Drew as a child, and have since devoured the entirety of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Lee Sayers, Rex Stout, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh – and the list goes on.

This week the marathon was Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which ran most of the day until that magical time when the USA channel runs NCIS for three hours. Sitting at my kitchen island, surrounded by sprinkles and sanding sugars and edible glitter and gold and silver dragées, with the members of the Major Case Squad making the world safe, I am a happy camper indeed.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Lee’s Best Rollout Cookies

Makes about 6 dozen.

1 cup sugar
½ cup Crisco
½ stick unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 eggs
2½ cups flour (use the dipping method to measure)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Cream together sugar, Crisco, and butter, letting the mixer run for a couple of minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. (I know, Crisco is that bad kind of fat, but let’s remember, folks: these are cookies. And you need a fat with a higher melting point to keep the cookies from losing their shapes.)

Add eggs, mixing in one at a time, and vanilla and lemon juice. Sift together the dry ingredients and add them to the wet. Mix until the dry is completely incorporated, then wrap the dough in a sheet of wax paper and refrigerate at least a couple of hours. (I try to let this be overnight.) Have a glass of wine.

The dough rolling part is what always put me off until my mother-in-law suggested I roll it between two layers of wax paper dusted with flour. What a difference. And the dough is more manageable if you divide it into two parts, refrigerating the scraps in between working with each half. I like my cookies crisp, so I roll the dough to a thickness of about one eighth of an inch, but you should experiment and see what works for you. Bake 8 minutes at 400º.

Kitchen Goddess note: By all means, invest in a roll of baker’s parchment – you don’t have to grease the cookie sheet, and you can re-use the parchment for the whole batch of cookies. Let the cookies cool completely on racks before icing them.

Powdered Sugar Icing

1 cup sifted powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water

This is the best icing I’ve ever worked with, and you can use more or less water depending on how thick you want it to be. Add food coloring to suit your mood or the holiday. Add sprinkles to the cookies while the icing is still wet.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Own Wrecked Cake

A fun and interesting article in The New York Times this week cast a spotlight on a website – which turns out to be a blog – called Cake Wrecks (, by a woman named Jen Yates, with photos and stories of professional baking (mostly icing) efforts that went off the rails. If you’ve ever ordered a cake and had it come out not quite as you’d hoped, this site will definitely make you feel better.

Some of the featured disasters reminded me of the first cake I ever made for a boyfriend. It was Valentine’s Day and I was in college, and while my sorority house only had six women living in it, we had a full-scale kitchen that served meals every night to those six and a few other lucky seniors. But for much of the day, the place was empty, and the kitchen available for discreet projects by sorority members.

So I decided to make a Valentine cake. I had a mix, so the baking part went fairly smoothly, and I got the icing on without incident. And I had bought one of those squirt cans of red icing, with which I drew a large heart and wrote Happy Valentine’s Day on top. All that was left was to deliver it to my current heartthrob.

I hadn’t thought to get a platter for it, and I wasn’t comfortable borrowing from the kitchen, but I found some heavy cardboard that I wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil. I had placed the cake in the middle of my makeshift plate before I decorated it, and when I was done, I carried the whole thing to a corner of the kitchen where it would be out of the way. At least that was the plan. But as I crept carefully across the kitchen with my labor of love, the cardboard bent in half and I watched in horror as the cake slid onto the floor with a soft plop.

With all the time and energy I’d put into the project, I was determined not to allow this misstep to foil my efforts. Carefully avoiding any cake that was actually touching the floor, I scraped the whole thing up, put it back on its flimsy platform, and drew a giant heart with the red squirt can. And I gave it to my boyfriend.

I asked him the next day if he and his roommates had enjoyed it, and he said it was terrific. But he said it hadn’t looked like the sort of cake that one cuts neatly into pieces, so they had simply eaten it with their hands. I was glad to have missed that part.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

R.I.P. Gourmet

It’s been a week of mourning: Gourmet magazine is dead.

I’ve spent these days browsing wistfully through my collection of issues, which goes back only as far as July of 1995, and I don’t have anywhere near a complete assemblage. But I started reading the magazine back in the early ‘70s – my single days – even before I could actually cook many of the recipes. For years, I bought it to fantasize about the spectacular table settings and to try desperately to absorb the mix of colors and flavors and textures that made up their meals. Then at some point, I gave up. I despaired of ever understanding the techniques and the eye-popping lists of ingredients. I couldn’t tell scallions from shallots, and rutabaga was just a word my dad’s best friend used as an expletive. And as I moved into The Years of Small Children, anything stranger than broccoli was a waste of time.

But as the children grew up, so did I as a cook. I’d hear the magazine’s luscious covers calling to me from the grocery store checkout line, and I’d think, “Maybe.” At the same time, periodically, I’d want to expand the family palates, offering up an unfamiliar dish at dinner with the words, “Just try a bite and then I’ll tell you what it is. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to have any more.” I threw a few finished dishes out, and took comfort in the notion that not all of their ideas worked, either.

Sometime after 1991, when Gail Zweigenthal became Editor-in-Chief, I realized that the tone of Gourmet’s pages suddenly seemed a bit less elitist, a bit more accessible than in the past. It might just have been my own exposure to the world, but I don’t think so. In any case, I started noticing low-fat recipes, recipes for the time-challenged, and those little sidebars on “How to Select and Store Pomegranates” (Dec ‘97) and “Citrus Know-How” (Jan ‘99). I stopped feeling inadequate, and started experimenting more.

Then in the summer of ‘99, Ruth Reichl took over and completely sucked me in. I loved the Kitchen Notebook, which expanded on those little sidebars in a way that got me comfortable with various exotic ingredients (high-end baking chocolate, miso), unfamiliar terms (ganache, confit), and simple stuff like different cuts of beef. I soaked up the dissertations on the best knife, and a history of the fork, and the occasional essay like John Thorne’s “One Knife, One Pot.” And if my Fourth of July celebration still didn’t feature Smoked Salmon Tartare on New Potato Slices, I forgave myself.

So now I feel abandoned by Conde Nast, cast adrift on a Wasa cracker with the barest bit of smoked trout to sustain me. Must be time to go back to the beginning and see what I’ve missed over the years.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Too Many Recipes
What’s cooking? Wonder Bread Pastry Cups

Summer collided with fall here in Austin yesterday afternoon, in the form of a downpour that has managed, in less than a day, to take the temperature down twenty degrees. Welcome to Texas. Even before it started, the sky was overcast and the air heavily humid, so it seemed like just the sort of day to go through my recipe files and winnow out the unworthy. I’ve been meaning to do it for at least a couple of years, but only realized the other day how bad the problem had gotten when I could barely lift the plastic folder out of its storage drawer. Probably just too many recipes with butter in them.

You know that file – you’ve all got one. It’s where you put the recipe for chicken cacciatore that you saw Giada making last week and it looked so good. Never mind that your neighborhood Italian restaurant makes chicken cacciatore to die for (and available for takeout) or that your child is allergic to tomatoes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Seasonal Differences
What’s cooking? Minted Water

Today I spent the morning in my garden, which, as often happens toward the end of the summer, has taken on some rather unruly aspects. Sort of like my hair after a two-hour drive in a convertible. My Sun Gold tomato plants are still producing like rabbits, but the vines have moved well beyond the confines of either the tomato cages at the north end of the garden, or the trellis at the south end. (And just to show you how little shame I have, here are the offenders in all their messy glory.) If the fruit weren’t so tasty, I’d be tempted to rip the plants out and start over.

Which is apparently what they do down here in Texas. I’m told that there’s actually a spring growing season and a fall growing season, separated by the inevitable scorching summer – as opposed to New Jersey’s single non-stop season from May to October, punctuated by a frigid winter. I’m not sure which I prefer, but they’re an interesting contrast.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Empanadas for Justice Sotomayor
What’s cooking? Shrimp Empanadas

This week, I hosted my book group – an eclectic group of women ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s. Many of us know each other exclusively through these meetings, so the conversation tends to be well focused on the readings; and most either are now or have been professionals of some stripe, so opinions are strong and vocal. Needless to say, these are lively evenings.

September’s selection was The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. It’s a fascinating overview of the workings of the Supreme Court in general, and the justices who’ve made up the Rehnquist/Roberts courts in particular. Warts and all, as my grandmother would have said, but I am nevertheless impressed with the thoughtfulness and intelligence of at least most of the justices, and once again persuaded that the system will keep us moving forward in spite of ourselves. Not all of my group loved the material, but even those who didn’t admired the writing, and the majority thought Toobin did an outstanding job of weaving character analysis and personal histories of the justices with clear explanations of the major cases before them.

In honor of the newest member of the court, I screwed up my courage and tackled shrimp empanadas a la Culinary Institute. Empanadas are the Latin answer to Hot Pockets, and can be filled with just about anything; and while the recipe says you can fry them or bake them, those of you who’ve read earlier entries on this blog know that the Kitchen Goddess doesn’t do frying. Also, they’re a bit large for hors d’oeuvres, but what the heck – they’re delicious. For a smaller version, I’m thinking of trying the filling in pre-baked tartlet shells, with a sprig of cilantro on top.

Chef had told us we could use Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts, but I was intrigued by the beer in the dough recipe, so made my own. (Ok, ok, so I forgot to buy the ready-made stuff. Whatever.) In any case, the dough was really easy to assemble in the food processor, and not nearly as sticky as cookie dough, so the rolling out part was also pretty simple. Sort of the consistency of soft Play-Doh. Of course, I also forgot to buy a 4-inch biscuit cutter, and had to fall back on the top to my coffee canister, but it worked fine. It’s always something. And if you drink the rest of the beer while you cook the filling, it really takes the edge off the process.

Shrimp Empanadas (Makes 20)

For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup butter, cold and cubed
½ cup cold beer
egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water)

For the filling:
2 tablespoons butter
1½ cups onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup plum tomatoes, chopped
1½ tablespoons parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (or regular sweet paprika, if that’s what you have)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
¾ pound shrimp, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper

For the dough, combine the flour, salt, sugar, and butter in a food processor, pulsing until well mixed. Add the beer and pulse until the dough forms a ball in the bowl. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Cook onions and garlic in the butter over medium-low heat until soft, about 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes, parsley, paprika, cumin, and cloves, and cook until the liquid has evaporated, 15-20 minutes. Add the shrimp, salt, and pepper. Cook just until the shrimp are done, 1-2 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a floured surface to pie crust thickness and cut into 4-inch rounds. Brush one side with egg wash, fill that side with a tablespoon of the shrimp mixture, and pinch closed. (You’ll have a little shrimp mixture left over for the chef to nosh on. Yum!) Bake at 375º for 12-15 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess Tip #1: Truth be told, I bought the small (51/60) pink shrimp already cooked, chopped them up, then cooked them another minute with the filling.

Kitchen Goddess Tip #2: These freeze – uncooked – really well. Freeze them on a baking sheet, and once they’re frozen, store them in a plastic bag. You can put them frozen into the oven; just add another 10 minutes to the cooking time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spy School, Part 2
What’s cooking? Thai Meatballs with Green Curry Sauce

Here we are – my cousin Helen and I – with Chef. It’s hard to compress the learning that takes place at the CIA in a mere four days, but I’ve tried to focus on the most memorable. What follows then are five pearls of wisdom from my time at the CIA.

1. Beware the toque. Everyone in the CIA kitchen wears one, ostensibly because it keeps the sweat of your brow from splashing down into the food. My own experience is that they make you sweat more, because even with the air conditioning, it’s about 102º in those professional kitchens (really, that’s what they told us) – and you’ve got a hat on! Worse than that, at the end of the class, you have a terrible case of hat head.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Spy School, Part 1
What’s cooking? Smoked Trout Canapé

Have I mentioned that I signed up for four days at the CIA? Of course, it’s not really spy school, but that sounds so much more exotic than cooking school. On the other hand, I did feel a bit like a spy, uncovering at least a few of the secrets of the fraternal order of chefs. The CIA in question is the Culinary Institute of America. In anticipation of my move to Austin (I feel sure they were thinking of me), they opened a new branch at the former home of the Pearl Brewery, on the fringe of downtown San Antonio. Against what should have been my better judgment, I took back-to-back two-day courses: the first in Basics, the second in Hors d’Oeuvres. (Trust me, four days in a row of cooking is a lot.)

I arrived late for the first day, as is unfortunately my style. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Mostly, I tend to schedule several more tasks than there’s really time for, in some vague notion that everything will go like clockwork. Then I read recently that people who are On Time as a rule actually plan to be early. Imagine. So I’m working on redesigning my internal clock, and have had some success, but my problems with packing for these four days (see 7/31 post) put more than the usual stress on my efforts.

I needn’t have worried. About the packing, that is. All I wore for the four days was the standard chef’s uniform (black-and-white houndstooth checked pants; white, double-breasted long-sleeved jacket; and the tall white toque) and my jammies. PJs at night, chef’s uniform during the day. By the time I got back to my hotel at night, I had barely enough energy for a glass of wine (ok, maybe two glasses of wine) and then bed.

And now a word about those uniforms. They’re unisex, which means made for a straight-up-and-down physique, which mine is not. The woman on the phone when I signed up had assured me that the uniforms are huge – “Made for men” – and given my dress size, she suggested a Small. So that’s what they handed me as I crept – late, remember – past the classroom and into the Ladies’ Room, figuring it would only take a minute to change. The pants fit fine, and then I put on the jacket. Couldn’t button it, so I changed back into the shirt I’d had on, tiptoed out to the front desk and asked quietly for a Medium. Back to the Ladies’ Room, where the Medium fit except for the part around my, um, hips. (The Medium is, of course, longer in the torso.) Back to the front desk, waving cheerfully to the other students as I passed, I retrieved a Large, which fit my hips but had sleeves down practically to my knees. But I was out of options, so I rolled the sleeves up and slipped into class, where I noticed that almost all the other women had their sleeves rolled back. The short ones also had the pants rolled up. No wonder there are more men than women as professional chefs.

Meet the teacher: a 6'8" blonde with a heavy German accent. I’d guess early 40s. In the lecture portion of the class, we called him by his first name. In the kitchen, he was Chef – no first name, no last name – much like Your Highness. Definitely intimidating. And no matter how nice he tried to be there – and I know he was trying to be nice – his standards are naturally higher than we were used to. As he roamed the kitchen, where he had divided the 13 students into four teams, he would periodically stop at a station and announce, “Anyone who’s interested in learning how to chop an onion/shape a dumpling/...whatever.., look here.” It happened as I was cutting carrots. “What is this?” he asks. “I’m julienning carrots,...sort of.” I replied. Whereupon he announced, “If you’d like to see how to julienne carrots, look over here.” Then he picked up the pieces I had cut and with a look like he had just smelled something very bad, dumped them into the garbage. So I learned that in a professional kitchen, ego must take a seat waaay in the back of the bus, unless you are Chef.

I know, it sounds brutal. It turns out that cooking school is not for sissies. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself (if in a sadomasochistic sort of way), and I learned an enormous amount in each two-day class. And while I was briefly embarrassed, the other students sympathized immediately, and we all moved quickly on to the lesson. Later that night, with my jammies and my wine, I thought about those carrots, and realized how much more efficient the professional methods are than the homespun style.

More on the CIA with my next post; but for now, a simple but wonderful canapé.

Smoked Trout Canapé (yields about 30 pieces)

15 ounces hot-smoked trout
1 loaf rye bread, cut into 1½-2-inch rounds or squares and toasted
1 cup horseradish butter (see recipe below)
10-12 large pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced
6 or so cherry tomatoes, cut into 4 or 8 wedges, depending on size of the tomatoes

Separate the trout (following natural seams) into pieces ¾-1 inch square. Spread each toast thickly with horseradish butter. Top with a piece of trout. Garnish first with a slice of olive, then with a wedge of tomato. Arrange neatly on a platter.

Horseradish Butter (yields 1 cup)

3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, excess liquid squeezed out
1 cup softened butter
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix until thoroughly combined (butter will expand and fluff, but do not allow it to melt). Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and roll into a 1-inch cylinder. Store in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Soften at room temperature to use.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gladys!
What’s cooking? English Scones

I know, I know, my previous two postings have contained birthday greetings of a sort. And now here’s another. What can I say? Maybe I have a thing for people born in August. I promise to stop...after this one.

Today is my mother-in-law Gladys’s birthday – 98 years young. And as I am now a mother-in-law-in-waiting (one of my sons is engaged), I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons she has taught me.

She doesn’t get to visit us any more, as the travel is too hard, but when she did, she always looked for a way to help. Setting the table, chopping vegetables, mending anything or sewing on buttons. (Sewing would be the least of my skills – once when I offered to put a button on for one of my sons, his eyes opened wide as he said, “You can do that?”) The best was that she’d make up our bed every day – what a treat! And while I’m sure she must have occasionally despaired at my inability to get dinner ready on time, she kept all those thoughts to herself.

I learned what a blessing she would be early on, when our first son was born. I was a mess – exhausted with the demands of new motherhood, recovering from a Caesarian delivery and a mildly disastrous visit from my own mother. When Gladys arrived, I had struggled just getting downstairs to say hello. But I wanted to be polite. “Let me get you a cup of tea,” I offered.

“You sit right there,” she said. “Let me get one for you.” And I know it seems like nothing in the telling, but I just about collapsed with gratitude at that simple gesture.

Gladys is a terrific baker, though she doesn’t do much of that either these days. I don’t ever hope to replicate her genius with apple pies, but she taught me the trick of rolling out dough between two pieces of floured waxed paper, and she gave me her mother’s recipe for scones. Their family had emigrated from England – of the five children, Gladys and her brother were the only ones born in the U.S. – and her mother kept a very English household. So these scones are the real thing. They’re easy to make, great for breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack (tea, anyone?), and they freeze wonderfully – just split the frozen scones, smear a little butter on the cut face, and toast lightly. Jolly good. This recipe makes 8 large scones or 12+ small ones.

Gladys Hilton’s Scones

Kitchen Goddess note: The scones pictured are made with raspberries instead of raisins. It's a very flexible recipe as regards the fruit. I also sometimes use candied ginger, which is yummy!

⅓ cup butter
⅓ cup sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten
⅓ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup raisins (or other dried fruit)

Topping: 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400º.

Mix together butter, sugar, and eggs.

Combine milk with vanilla. Separately, combine flour with baking powder and salt. To the butter/sugar/egg mixture, gradually and alternately add the milk/vanilla and the flour/baking powder/salt. Finally, stir in raisins.

Drop tablespoon-sized mounds onto a greased cookie sheet. (The Kitchen Goddess hates the mess of greasing cookie sheets and always uses baker’s parchment instead. No muss, no fuss, no cleanup.) Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mixture on top. Bake 10-12 minutes in the top half of the oven. Serve warm with butter and jam, or clotted cream if you’re feeling terribly English.

Kitchen Goddess note: When making scones or muffins or cakes, whipping the butter and sugar together until the color turns very pale adds air to the batter and will make the end product lighter.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Julia’s Birthday
What’s cooking? Cottage Cheese Pancakes

I have learned today from The Wall Street Journal of all places that this date is Julia Child’s birthday, so I plan to raise a glass of champagne to her later on – not before lunch – and invite any others of you who are fans to join me.

Having just arrived back in Austin from our whirlwind tour of the Northeast, I was sure we would be the last people on the planet to see Julie & Julia, which is were we went last night. If you have not been, go now. It’s fun and funny, even to a non-foodie like my husband, with an admirable performance by Amy Adams (imagine the challenge – sort of like cooking next to Julia) and the usual magic by Magnificent Meryl in her platform shoes as she takes on Julia’s physical size as well as that voice. I loved the book (Julie & Julia), but nothing can compare with la Streep. She made me want to run home and...chop onions. I am now committed to trying the Boeuf Bourguignon as soon as the temperatures in Austin drop into the 70s, which at this rate could be a while.

In the meantime, I spent a delightful half hour or so picking wild blueberries with my friend Ann in Martha’s Vineyard – a painstaking process that yielded only about a cup of the tiny berries, but wholly satisfying as an activity for a foodie. We didn’t have the ingredients for pancakes, so we ate the blueberries with fresh yogurt and a spoonful of honey, which was yummy. But Ann gave me her favorite recipe, which she says makes the most amazing pancakes ever:

Cottage Cheese Pancakes (adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book)

6 eggs
6 tablespoons whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups cottage cheese (Ann says the non-fat variety makes a lighter, fluffier version; low/whole fat cottage cheese makes a cheesier version – your choice)

Separate eggs. Beat whites until stiff and set aside. Mix remaining ingredients (including egg yolks) together and fold in egg whites.

(The recipe doesn’t include blueberries, so I will just append a reminder to add blueberries to taste.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Zucchini Everywhere
What’s cooking? Cold Zucchini Soup

Today is my friend Gusty’s birthday, so I hope any of you who are interested in writing will check out her posting about Sno-cones and writing over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Or take a look at her own site:

One of the great pleasures of visiting Nantucket is my friend Laurie’s garden. And while the excess of cool, wet weather they’ve had in the Northeast this year has inhibited her crop of tomatoes, her zucchini plants are spreading like gossip in high school.

At dinner last night, I made an eggplant-free ratatouille of sorts (the purple stuff being the only veggie I don’t like), sauteing an onion and garlic in some olive oil, then adding chopped zucchini and local tomatoes, with a few sliced sun-dried tomatoes for sweetness. Cook just until the zucchini is done to taste (I like mine on the firm side), then season with salt and pepper (we used lemon pepper, which worked really well). Sprinkle pecorino romano over the top at the end. Cover it for a minute to let the cheese melt, and dig in.

Yum. As with most of these concoctions, the best part is adjusting the ingredients to your own tastes. (Like, for instance, leaving out the eggplant.)

But my favorite squash recipe is Laurie’s cold zucchini soup. Just right for lunch or a light start to a summer dinner from the grill.

Laurie’s Cold Zucchini Soup

1 ½ pounds unskinned zucchini
1 medium onion
4 tablespoons butter
3-3½ cups chicken broth
½ cup half-and-half
salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste

Slice zucchini and sauté in butter with onion for 5 minutes until just soft. Add broth and salt and reduce heat. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Stir in nutmeg.

Ladle one-third of the veggies and broth into a blender, add half-and-half, and purée. Add remaining veggies and broth and purée until smooth. Refrigerate until chilled. Serves six as a first course.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Extreme Packing
What’s cooking? Basil Pesto

What a summer of extremes – cold and damp in the Northeast, hot and dry in Texas. In our years of living in New Jersey, we took very few extended vacations during the summer, as it’s normally a glorious time in the Garden State for gardening, golfing, and my favorite food-related activity: trips to the farmers’ market. But in Texas, you can just take so many days over 100º before even “cold and damp” starts to sound really attractive. So this year, in honor of the heat and the economy, we planned a tour of our friends’ vacation houses: New Hampshire, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Sounds easy, right? But something about the process of packing for a trip sends my psyche into overdrive. I have to have all my clothes clean and ironed before I can decide what to take, and I seem incapable of starting that process until, say, the day before we leave. So the final 36 hours before the plane takes off become a marathon of washing, ironing, and last-minute pleas with the dry cleaners.

And what about the contents of the refrigerator? I hate throwing out food, so in addition to packing my clothes, I sliced jicama and washed a container of Sun Gold tomatoes which, together with a pound of blackberries, went into a shopping bag to carry onto the plane, in case we got stranded at the end of the runway for a day. (I think these tendencies are genetic – my grandmother always used to take a banana and a PB&J to the airport, until my mother started taking it away from her with a "Really, mother.") Then I had to freeze the 2 pounds of blueberries I bought before the season runs out on me, and trim back my basil so it doesn't bolt (if basil does that) before I get back. Which of course meant I also had to make two batches of pesto.

Pesto is one of those dishes I find endlessly flexible. Of course, it makes a yummy pasta dish (mixed with cream and a little pasta water), but I also spread it undiluted on bruschetta (thick slices of Italian or French bread, brushed with olive oil and garlic and toasted), or drizzle it over sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, or use it as a dip for fresh veggies, like the tiny Sun Gold tomatoes from my garden. And it freezes really well. The best recipe I’ve found for it is from the original Silver Palate Cookbook. Sometimes I make it with pignoli nuts, and sometimes I stick with the recipe, which calls for walnuts and produces a slightly nuttier taste. Both are terrific. The only really important guideline is to use good quality olive oil. I visited an olive oil company in Italy once, and the owners talked about how expensive it is to make olive oil well, so you should never buy cheap olive oil. Then on a trip to California, I discovered the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufactory, and now I order the stuff from them by the case.

Basil Pesto (adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook)

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup walnuts or pignoli nuts
1 cup good quality olive oil
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
salt/freshly ground pepper

Combine basil, garlic, and walnuts in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground. With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream, then scrape the sides of the bowl down and process another 20 seconds. Add the cheeses with a pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper, and process again briefly. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

* * *

Back to my trip preparation, the final pre-boarding task is to straighten up my office, which usually begins around 1 a.m. the night before the flight. But that’s a story too ugly for words.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sage Advice
What's Cooking? Fried Sage Leaves

There’s a reason I don’t deep fry, and it’s not the calories. Ok, more than one reason, and you can include the calories. The heat, the mess – before, during, and after – and then what to do with the leftover oil. I’m sure my San Antonio grandmother, Minnie Lee, would sit up in her grave and berate me at the thought of life without fried chicken or fried okra or fried catfish, or that hallmark of southernness, fried hush puppies. She was a Louisiana girl, and I can still hear her soft, lilting voice as she talked to those little balls of cornmeal in the skillet, saying “Hush! Puppies,” as they spit and sputtered in the hot bacon grease. Mostly, though, I remember her perspiring in the heat and wiping her brow with a tissue she kept in a pocket of her apron. The heat would have been particularly intense because there was no air conditioning in her kitchen, only a big ceiling fan that pushed the air around.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Asparagus and NCIS – Perfect Together
What's cooking? Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus season is about over, so I’m trying to figure out how many times I can serve them to my husband in the span of a week, without generating a mutiny. Most of what I see in the grocery store are those microthin spears, and although I much prefer the heftier stalks, I’ll take whatever size shows up.

My fondness for asparagus blossomed once I learned that you could scrape off the tough skin with a peeler before cooking them. It’s a laborious process, but it turns out the USA channel carries re-runs of NCIS for three hours, starting at 4pm (CST), so I now save my time-consuming kitchen tasks for the period between 4pm and 7. I’ve seen all the episodes several times, so if I miss something, it’s not a problem. And on those rare occasions when they surprise me with an episode I haven’t seen, well, then, dinner will be just a bit late. It’s not that the story lines are so endlessly fascinating. No, I think it has more to do with the camaraderie among the cast – it reminds me of my days on Wall Street, where I worked in research with a bunch of really smart people. Part of the fun of going to work – and I did love my job – was being surrounded by smart, creative people who talked to each other, bounced ideas off each other, and occasionally goofed off together. So when I turn on NCIS, Tony is always flirting or making jokes, Abby is always doing something cool in the lab, and Gibbs is always being Gibbs. We’re all together in my kitchen, and everyone is busy.

Roasted Asparagus

Back to the asparagus, I’ve roasted them three times in the past ten days – brushed them with my best olive oil, sprinkled on a bit of tangy balsamic vinegar, and finished with a dusting of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Then 15-20 minutes at 400º, and they’re done. Winner, winner, lobster dinner, as my kids used to say. No lobster last night – we grilled giant shrimp instead, marinated in a lime vinaigrette.

I made a double batch of those green lovelies, and am still trying to figure out whether to chop up the leftovers and mix them with some pasta, or just eat them cold with my fingers as I figure out what else to make for lunch.