Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Daring part of Thanksgiving Break

It was a series of fortunate events:

1.  I had assigned myself dessert duty for the feast.*
2.  I said I would bring cheesecake, pecan pie and pumpkin pie.
3.  Our hostess sent around a list of who was bringing what, and there were three other people bringing pumpkin pie, too.
4.  I graciously offered to swap out my pumpkin pie for an apple tart**.  Nobody else was bringing anything with apples, so the coast was clear.
5.  On a whim, I checked to see what the Daring Bakers were up to this month***.
6.  This is what they were up to:  "The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well."
7.  It turns out that Crostata means "tart" in Italian. Hmm...
8.  My apple tart was now an apple cream crostata. And a mighty fine one, at that.

Apple Cream Crostata

For the Pasta Frolla
(this is the Daring Bakers part)

Scant 3/4 c. powdered sugar
1 3/4 c. unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 stick of cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten together in a small bowl

Place powdered sugar, flour, salt and lemon zest in a food processor, and pulse to combine.  Pulse in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Turn mixture out onto a work surface, forming a mound.  Make a small round indentation in the mound, and add the beaten eggs.  Use a fork to incorporate the egg into the dry ingredients, then use your fingers to bring it together into a smooth dough.

Knead a few times, then form into a disc and refrigerate for an hour.   Roll out between wax paper to a thickness of about 1/8th of an inch, and press into your tart pan.  From here, depending on your choice of filling, you can use right away, or bake with pie weights for 15 minutes, then uncovered for another 5 minutes.  This is known as "blind baking" or "par baking" the crust, and it's good when using custard or cream fillings for your tart.

For the tart:
(this is our family recipe part)

Par-baked crust
5-6 tart-sweet apples, peeled, cored and sliced thinly
Fresh lemon juice
1 pint heavy cream
3/4 c. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 c. flour
1 egg

Preheat oven to 350.  Squeeze lemon juice over apples, then place apples into the pan with the pre-baked crust.  Use more or less apples to make pan nicely full but not mounded.   Mix the remaining ingredients together with a whisk until well blended.  Pour over apples until cream mixture is about 1/4 inch below edge of pie.  Discard any extra.  Bake for 40 minutes, until set.  Serve to raves at your next potluck, or just gobble it up by yourself.

*This was well before I knew that baking therapy would very much be in order.  I'm a dessert person even when times are good.
** Even though I make a really good pumpkin pie.
*** I did this guiltily, as I fully expected to be pummeled upon login for being such a flake. Fortunately, there are now so many DBs that my delinquency may have escaped notice, at least until I called attention to it in this footnote.

Thanksgiving Break

This usually means my kids getting outrageously excited about having four days in a row off from school.   In my case, it was me getting a much-needed four hours off of hospital duty for a Thanksgiving celebration with good friends.   Not to mention my good friends' great food...

The party kicks of with Mindy's kick-@#! hot artichoke dip.  Spicy, cheesy and TASTY!
A genuine Vermont ham has crossed the country to join us in Encino.  It brought some cheddar cheese and spicy mustard as company.   Good plan.  In the foreground is my roasted cranberry sauce.  By the way, this was like a snack.  The real dinner hadn't even started yet.

Gary carves his maple-glazed bird.  It should be noted that he special-ordered a Kosher turkey, and then covered it with bacon.

Oh. My. GOD!
Our hostess creates the Martha Stewart of kids' tables.

There were happy kids to go with it. 

I now understand where the phrase "the table was groaning with food" comes from.  Four kinds of stuffing.  Two turkeys.  Sweet potatoes two ways, including one with a brown-sugar pecan topping that was crazy good.  Carrot-ginger puree.  Creamed onions.  Mashed potatoes with sour cream and leeks.  I could go on, but I might pass out.

In a tight race, this wins for my favorite bite of the night.  Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Pancetta.  Out of this world!

They had a little bit of dessert, too.  My pecan pie, cheesecake, and apple cream crostata were only a few of the choices.  Fortunately, the plates were very sturdy.

I can share a few of the recipes, but I can never truly share how much this particular Thanksgiving break meant to me and my family.    The fact that there was all this incredible food was just a really nice bonus.

Mindy's Artichoke Dip
She doubled the recipe for our big group.

1 10 oz. pkg of chopped frozen spinach
2 14 oz. cans of artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1/2 c. sour cream
1 c. freshly shaved Parmesan cheese
1 c. grated pepper jack cheese (Trader Joe's has a nice blend in a bag, so it's easy)

Preheat the oven to 350, and grease a casserole dish with butter or cooking spray.  Microwave the spinach on high for 5 minutes to thaw, then squeeze dry.  Combine with the artichoke hearts, the mayo, the sour cream and the Parmesan in a bowl and mix well.   Place in the prepared casserole dish, then cover with the jack cheese.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, until bubbling and a little brown on the edges.  Serve with tortilla chips.

Laurie's Sweet Potato Casserole

1lb. 12 oz. canned sweet potatoes, drained (or about 3 cups of cooked fresh sweet potatoes)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1/4 c. melted butter
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

3/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. chopped, toasted pecans
1/4 c. melted butter
3 Tbs. flour

Preheat oven to 350, and butter a medium sized casserole dish.  Beat together the potatoes, salt, eggs and melted butter, then add the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Pour into prepared dish.  Combine all topping ingredients and cover the top of the potatoes.  Bake for 20 minutes.

But wait...there's more:
Gary's Maple-Roasted Turkey
Mom's Easy Cranberry Sauce
Those Incredible Brussels Sprouts
Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust
Apple Cream Crostata

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cold Comfort Food

I'm expecting a phone call in about 20 minutes.  It will be the ambulance guys, calling to let me know that my mom is on her way to a board and care facility with hospice services.     With this call, three days of nearly continuous bedside drama will come to an end.

A steady stream of social workers, clergy, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, blood specialists and hospice reps have come through with professional counsel. All of them have urged her to get treatment.   Mom responded by thanking them for coming.   Accepted their prayers and good wishes, seized on scraps of information that suited her, then ignored their advice.   Instead, she regaled them with amusing, proud anecdotes about her grandchildren and her deep admiration for Dr. Oz.   Mentioned that she drank her milk that day and asked for something to help her sleep.    Smiled benevolently and wished them a happy holiday with their families.

A drawing by my niece. My sister's note:  "Mom is on the 5th floor of the hospital, Fiki is near the window meowing to her from your house (the one on the left) - and our house is the one on the right with hope written next to it.   All we can do is hope."
A parade of grieving, confused and frightened relatives descended.   They berated her, prayed with her, cried with her, out and out begged her, listened to her attempts to dispense wisdom (To a niece: I hope you find a good person to take care of you, and that you have beautiful home and a wonderful life).  She relived fond memories of childhood and early days, sighed with regret over things she's not proud of (I could have handled the divorce so much better) and marveled at things that amaze her (how does Hallie Berry look so good all the time?  Her stylist really does a great job!).    Siblings caught flights, her phone rang off the hook.    She reveled in the attention, seemed to thrive on every new face that came around the door.  She beamed.  She teared up.  She asked for some water and maybe a little turkey leftovers?  If it's not too much trouble?  My 90+ year-old great aunt told her in no uncertain terms that she had gotten out of line, and that she (my great aunt) was supposed to go first.

She toyed with the idea of the transfusion.  She seemed to consider it.  She was so grateful for her family.  For the care she was getting.  For everything.   Let me sleep on it, she said.  Let me imagine what it would be like to get well.  I'll do that.  I will.

And then today, she decided.


I drove home through the dark, empty freeways.  I stopped at the store.  I got heavy cream.  I got cheese.  I got bacon*.   I got tonic and limes.

Even piping hot from the oven, it's all cold, cold comfort at this point.  But it felt good going down.

Potato Gratin
from Around my French Table by Dorrie Greenspan
A good dish to have when you've been to hell and back.

Pancetta...not in the original recipe, but required tonight
I break out the mandoline I bought a year ago.  I am an instant convert.  
My perfectly sliced taters are layered with garlic-infused heavy cream, salt and pepper.  
Every other layer gets a little Italian bacon
The book says "dust with the cheese".  I say "blanket with the cheese"
Yes, it is just as tasty as it looks.

I balance out the heart stoppage with a green salad.  I balance out the salad with a heavy dose of gin (not pictured)
* I didn't need to buy potatoes because Mom reminded me last week that they were on special at Ralphs: 10lbs for 99 cents.  I stocked up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Overheard at St. Josephs

My mom is in the hospital.   She got there by ambulance, thanks to the incredibly kind and efficient paramedics at the Burbank Fire Department.    I have spent the better part of the last two days there with her.     Here are some of the highlights:

Man in waiting room:  We were going to renew our vows, you know.  This year would have been our 50th wedding anniversary.
Hospital volunteer:  Oh, my.
MIWR:  Yes, yes.  But she had breast cancer.   For a long time, it was in remission.  No symptoms at all.  Then one day, she's feeling a little short of breath.  We go in, and they tell us it's back.    She was gone within the week.  Not even a week.  A few days.   But you know, I prayed to God.   I said to him, if its her time, take her quick.   No suffering.  Just quick-like.   And he did, and I was grateful.  Yes, I was.   But I miss her.   Yes, I do.
HV:  You surely do, Sir.  Let me go check and see how things are going in there for you.
MIWR:  Thank you.  Thank you kindly.

Man in the bed next to my mom in the ER:  GOD DAMN!  I hurt SO BAD!  HELP ME!  HELP ME PLEASE!  Somebody!  Oh Lord!  This is awful.
Me (who has been to the restroom and come back to this):  Um, Mom?  Do they know about him?
MIBNTMM:  Jesus CHRIST!  Why does this hurt so much?  *%##!@
Me:  I'll just go find someone and ask.
Mom:  I'm sure he'd appreciate that.
Me: (to nurses on duty):  Excuse me?  The guy in there seems very upset.  Is anybody...?
The Nursing Staff:  Yeah.  We know about him.   Sorry about that.
MIBNTMM (audible through open doorway):  Is my LIFE not worth another 2 MILLIGRAMS to you people?  Does ANYONE out there have an ounce of pity on them?  I'm DYING here!

I now realize Mom (who really may be dying) and I are now extras on the episode of ER where the crazed drug addict comes in and begs George Clooney for meds, falsely claiming to be in the throes of pancreatitis or yellow fever.  I go back in and Mom and I work on the crossword puzzle until the police come.

Nurse:  Here's your pill, Mr. X!
Patient:  What is it?
Nurse:  Your pill.
Patient:  What's it for?
Nurse:  It's [complicated drug name]
Patient:  But what does it DO?  Why am I taking it?
Nurse:  You know how they said you might get a burning sensation when you pee?  Well, this prevents that from happening.
Patient:  Oh. Like the clap.  Man, I need that medicine.

Doctor (rapping on door):  Knock, knock!
Patient:  Go away.
Doctor:  Hello?
Patient:  I don't want 'em.
Doctor:  What don't you want?
Patient:  Whatever you're selling.
Doctor:  But I'm here to tell you that you get to go home!
Patient:  Oh.  Well.  That's good.
The doctor explains the discharge plan to the patient, congratulates him, reminds him to complete the course of antibiotics, and turns to leave.
Patient:  Can I get some sleeping pills to go with that?

Doctor (to my mom):  You need an immediate blood transfusion.  Your red blood count is dangerously low.  It's one of the lowest I have ever seen in someone who was still conscious.
My mom:  Do I have to?
Doctor (perplexed):  No, I suppose not.  But if you don't have the transfusion, you're going to die.  I can't be any plainer about this.  Your condition is very, very serious.
My mom:   I see.
Doctor:  So, should we go ahead and get that started for you?
My mom:  No, thank you.  I'm good.

I'm not good.  But it's helped to write this down.  And to have an incredible sister and husband and kids and cousins and aunts and dad around to help figure out what do to next.   I've already used up almost two pounds of butter and all the sugar in the house.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cream of Wheat: It's not just for breakfast anymore

When our family first moved to San Diego, my sister was about 9 and I was 11.  We'd been uprooted from our home in DC, driven miles across the country in an old Volvo station wagon loaded down with luggage, pillows, and guinea pigs, then plopped down in a strange town full of palm trees, surfers and a lot of bald guys in sailor hats.   Perhaps sensing that some form of transition plan was needed*, our parents devised "Sundays".

The rules were simple.  Every Sunday, a different member of the family was in charge for the entire day.    You got to pick the meals.  You got to pick an outing.  And everyone else had to go along for the ride.

It was kind of genius.   We went all over town in the first few months, horseback riding (my sister), beach combing (me), apple picking (my mom), and antique car racing (my dad).

But it was also an opportunity for two sisters to exact cruel and unusual punishment on each other.

My Sundays:  Oatmeal for breakfast, every single time.
Her Sundays:  Cream of Wheat for breakfast, every single time.

To this day, she hates oatmeal.  I've come around on Cream of Wheat.

Especially now that I know you can have it for dessert.

Caramel-topped Semolina Cake
This is the first of many from the new cookbook Around My French Table, by Dorrie Greenspan.  The book has already inspired nearly 1000 fans to join together to try and cook their way through it, a different recipe every Friday.  Given my miserable record with the Daring Bakers, don't count me in for the full marathon, but if I had to start somewhere...

Unfortunately for my visions of a warm, buttery, slightly nubby cake dripping with thick, rich caramel sauce, it turns out that the title is actually in code.

Caramel-topped means Syrup-soaked
Semolina means Cream of Wheat cereal
Cake means Pudding

If you put the whole thing together, the recipe was actually for...
Syrup-soaked Cream of Wheat Cereal Pudding.
And that I might have skipped.  But like our family Sundays, I went along for the ride.

The recipe couldn't have been easier.  Cook the cereal in milk until thickened, add sugar and vanilla.

While that's cooling, make caramel** and put it in the bottom of a baking pan.     

Beat eggs and, in my case, chopped fresh cranberries tossed with a little sugar and orange zest, into the cooled cereal mixture.

Pour batter over caramel sauce.  Bake.  Watch it puff in the oven, then fall flat the minute you take it out.   Turn upside down on a plate.

Pray.  Lift.  Ooh! Ah...Um.  Hmm.
I think I made flan*** by mistake.

Oh well.  I like flan.  In this instance, the caramel flavor has soaked through completely, and the contrast with the bright berries and the smooth vanilla pudding is oddly well matched.    The stuff melts in your mouth.  Not something most cakes do.

Let's just say that while I might not choose to make this again when my Sunday comes around, I never left my plate this clean when my sister fed me Cream of Wheat.

* The reason we moved to San Diego in the first place was that the White House was going through a transition plan of its own back in DC, and my dad and the rest of the political appointees from the prior administration  had been summarily swept out of town.
** Just sugar, water, and a bit of corn syrup.
*** A nicer way to say "Syrup Soaked Cream of Wheat Pudding"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bread Fairy: A real life, feel-good, fantasy for the whole family

There's a cliche about how story ideas are pitched in Hollywood:  An eager young writing team goes into a meeting, says, "It's Harry Potter meets Avatar"* or "It's The Hangover meets Wall Street"**, and the next thing you know they have a seven figure movie deal and Will Smith attached to the project***.

Not being in the biz, I have no way of knowing if there is a grain of truth to this idea, but I will confess to you now that this post is, in fact Challah Back, Camelback Girl meets A Really Inspired Kitchen.

Here's the longer pitch:

A carb-addicted blogger goes berserk at a school auction and purchases a bread baking class taught by a culinary master chef.    The impossibly organized and talented hostess guides the group through the finer points of making bread from scratch.   Braiding happens.   There is spontaneous parental bonding over a gourmet lunch, complete with delectable desserts.   Our heroine returns home, stuffed to the gills, bearing a huge tub of dough.   In an inspirational ending, she is seen distributing loaves of warm, golden, yeasty bread throughout the community, engendering feelings of happiness and goodwill from all mankind.**** 

You can send that seven figure paperwork over anytime.

The "goody bowl" for each guest included the bread recipe, a whisk, measuring spoons, and a sack towel.

The counter was loaded down with ingredients...a basket of fresh eggs, bags of bread flour, oil and sugar.  In the foreground is my yeast, proofing in warm water.

Whisking in the eggs and sugar

Our hostess, Leah, demonstrating.  By the way, there was not a speck of anything on that apron at the end of the day.

The whisk is now useless.   The only thing that works is to get in there with both hands and go for it.

This part is pretty fun, actually.

The dough gets a coat of fruity olive oil.  Kind of like a nice spa treatment.

Now resting under a soothing damp towel (told you it was like a spa treatment!), the dough has a little nap. We get snacks.

Cinnamon chocolate chip bread and lemon walnut bread.  I know.  It's just not fair that I was here and you weren't.

Turning out the dough after it has risen.  It is bubbly and airy, almost like a sponge.

A minute later, it's collapsed into a smooth, round ball.

The recipe makes enough to feed a small village for a month.  Leah is cutting the dough into four parts.  Each part will make a full sized loaf of bread, with bonus leftover dough.  Keep reading to see what happens to that!

Making "ropes" for braiding.  Leah's advice is to roll "up" from the center to elongate the dough.  Like everything else about Leah, it works perfectly!

Preparing to braid.  Did you notice there were six ropes?  It's gonna be complicated!

Here's how I remember how to make the right pattern:  The octopus (or in this case, sextopus) is doing calisthenics.   You are his coach.  He folds one arm over to the side  Then he puts his other arm across.  The coach is happy.  Two crossed arms look good to you. But then, the creature reaches to the middle with the first arm.  He's missing a side arm now, so you pull one over for him.  He stubbornly puts the arm that was out to the side in the middle.  You pull over an arm to replace that one.  He defiantly puts the other side arm in the middle.   This is one stubborn sextopus. You repeat this back and forth (side, middle, replace side, middle, replace other side...) until you run out of arms and he's just a fat braided stump.

After the bread has gone back for a second damp towel treatment (all those calisthenics!), we apply an egg wash and toasted sesame seeds

Leftover dough balls are rolled in cinnamon sugar to make decadent breakfast buns.

Or get tied into knots for dinner rolls.  These have a touch of fennel salt on top.

As the house fills with the aroma of baking bread, lunch is served.   Moroccan Lentil Soup with Gruyere Crostini.  Mediterranean Orzo Salad.   Green salad with Pears.  Assorted cheeses. 

...and a bread basket.

Yeah.  She made these, too.  It's just nuts.  The lemon tart, on the right side there, was INCREDIBLE!!!

* Young, hormonal British wizards are sent by train to a school on a distant, lush planet full of beauty, peril, and a wise but dying shrub. They wear striped scarves and are distrusted by the natives. An evil NASA accountant runs amok on earth, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem of the universe. He is thwarted by extremely tall, flying blue people and some insects, but only after the shrub unites the wizards and the natives, and then dies meaningfully. The blue people turn out to be naturals at Quidditch.
** A group of young wall street analysts get blind, stinking, drunk after work and accidentally do a hostile takeover of Microsoft. Hilarity ensues.
*** Thereby neatly illustrating both the industry's complete self-obsession and its utter lack of originality. 
**** I really did go home with my big tub of dough and feed all mankind.  I made two loaves with toasted sesame seeds, three smaller loaves with golden raisins folded into the dough and rosemary sugar on top, and my masterpiece, a large loaf with bittersweet chocolate chips tucked into the braid and alder-smoked salt on top.  When my son's carpool dropped him off after basketball practice, the house smelled incredible.  Three kids and three grown ups dove into the fresh sesame loaf, I sent my friend home with a bag of dough for her family of four, and then I took three warm loaves to a packed board meeting.  I dropped the last raisin loaf off with a friend this morning, and the dog somehow managed to scarf down a handful of dinner rolls that got left on the counter.