Stupid Christmas tricks

We’ve been making Christmas cookies with our cookie gun. A gen-u-wine Ron Popeil invention, as-seen-on-TV battery-powered cookie gun. It cranks out dough in cookie shapes. For a device from the early 1970s, it’s made like a Swiss watch and performs like a dream.

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I think my mother-in-law bought it years ago at a garage sale. The back if the box actually says “As seen on TV.”

Anyway, we listen to Christmas radio while we work, and after you’ve heard a song 20 times, you notice there are some stoopid lyrics out there.

Start with Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”

    1. So here it is Merry Christmas

 

    1. Everybody’s having fun

 

    1. Look to the future now

 

    It’s only just begun

I’m pretty sure, and people will back me up on this, that the future has always just begun. You’ll have a hard time finding a moment when the future isn’t, in fact, beginning. How this time/space miracle connects to Christmas is another matter altogether.

    • And then there’s Santa Claus, the oppressor, is Coming to Town

You better watch out/You better not cry/You better not pout/ I’m tellin’ you why…

What kind of emotional blackmailer IS this guy? Crying — it’s a sign there’s something wrong, see. You’re supposed to figure out what is making kids cry, rather than brush it off. Santa? Oh, he’s the guy who makes you repress negative feelings and then rewards you with presents.

And finally, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, which begins

    1. …but do you remember

 

    the most famous reindeer of all?

Ummm. Isn’t the definition of “famous” “having a widespread reputation”? Is that how short the American attention span is? You don’t remember the renowned large flying scarlet-proboscised mammals of yesteryear?

Anyway, we had fun, the cookies looked great and we gave them to friends, which felt good.

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Let’s Hope a Picture is Worth A Thousand Words Because I’ll Have a Lump in My Throat

I live on the same street where I grew up. Different house, other end of the street, and 30 years later, but same street.

    It’s one of those epic streets: hidden in plain sight near two excellent schools, close enough to shopping but not close enough to be part of the gridlock at holidays, a great sledding hill, spectacular autumn foliage, older houses, nice but not flashy, not too distant from downtown. Some of the neighbors have been here  more than 30 years.

My three-doors-down neighbor here is … my backyard neighbor from back then. Andrew and his brothers were friends of my brothers. Our back yards adjoined and our doors were always open. They were great neighbors then, and they’re great neighbors now.

    The lady of the house, Andrew’s mother, was from the Northeast US originally, and when I was visiting one day, she was baking blueberry buckle. This was the 1970s, and I was maybe 12 years old and had never eaten a fresh blueberry, so it seemed like the most exotic food ever. I went home and asked my mom to make a blueberry buckle. She called the neighbor and got the recipe.

A lot changed after that.  My parents’ marriage ended and my mom’s life went into a slow-mo trainwreck that scattered her possessions across several states. My neighbor married someone very nice, and after 20 years, moved into the house 3 doors down from mine. His wife and I have become close enough friends that we swap gifts often.

    I recently found the original recipe card of the Blueberry Buckle recipe, written in my deceased mother’s hand. I’m giving her the card (or a really good copy of it — I can’t decide) for Christmas.

When I look at it, I think of a time when we were all happy. It isn’t just a piece of paper to me — it’s an artifact from a long, shared past. Besides the associations, there’s the intimacy of a handwritten recipe in this day of recipes printed from the Internet and torn from magazines.  And if none of that meant anythingto my friends, it’s still her mother-in-law’s recipe, and makes a really good Blueberry Buckle.

Let’s Hope a Picture is Worth A Thousand Words Because I’ll Have a Lump in My Throat

I live on the same street where I grew up. Different house, other end of the street, and 30 years later, but same street.

    It’s one of those epic streets: hidden in plain sight near two excellent schools, close enough to shopping but not close enough to be part of the gridlock at holidays, a great sledding hill, spectacular autumn foliage, older houses, nice but not flashy, not too distant from downtown. Some of the neighbors have been here  more than 30 years.

My three-doors-down neighbor here is … my backyard neighbor from back then. Andrew and his brothers were friends of my brothers. Our back yards adjoined and our doors were always open. They were great neighbors then, and they’re great neighbors now.

    The lady of the house, Andrew’s mother, was from the Northeast US originally, and when I was visiting one day, she was baking blueberry buckle. This was the 1970s, and I was maybe 12 years old and had never eaten a fresh blueberry, so it seemed like the most exotic food ever. I went home and asked my mom to make a blueberry buckle. She called the neighbor and got the recipe.

A lot changed after that.  My parents’ marriage ended and my mom’s life went into a slow-mo trainwreck that scattered her possessions across several states. My neighbor married someone very nice, and after 20 years, moved into the house 3 doors down from mine. His wife and I have become close enough friends that we swap gifts often.

    I recently found the original recipe card of the Blueberry Buckle recipe, written in my deceased mother’s hand. I’m giving her the card (or a really good copy of it — I can’t decide) for Christmas.

When I look at it, I think of a time when we were all happy. It isn’t just a piece of paper to me — it’s an artifact from a long, shared past. Besides the associations, there’s the intimacy of a handwritten recipe in this day of recipes printed from the Internet and torn from magazines.  And if none of that meant anythingto my friends, it’s still her mother-in-law’s recipe, and makes a really good Blueberry Buckle.

Flour arrangements for great bread

I’ve written before about Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Whole Grain Breads, which has been my best baking buddy for more than 15 years. We’re like an old couple that know each other well: I know that when I prepare a recipe, my dough will require about 20 percent more flour (or less liquid) than the recipe calls for. Her standard formula is between 2 and 3 cups of flour per 1 cup of  lquid. At that ratio, my dough is very sticky, almost like batter.

    Ojakangas lives somewhere in the great northern Midwest, where flour is grown and processed, so I’ve thought maybe her flour is fresher than mine and absorbs less water.  But it was this way even in England, where food is fresher and more local.

At the last IACP conferenceShirley Corriher and Harold McGee held an open question and answer session. I submitted my question about the recipes being so consistently different from my experience, and it was selected for answering. I wasn’t present at the session– a colleague of mine attended that session  while I attended another – but the answer was that it must be the age of the flour or the formulation.

    Flour formulation does make a difference in bread texture. There are  hard wheat flours (better for pasta and sturdy peasanty breads) and soft wheat flours (better for biscuits and cakes) and mixtures of the two, such as all-purpose flour. Non-wheat flours are a whole other ball game.

Even within wheat flour, there are a couple dozen grades of flour, based on color and texture, and different processes, too, like stone-grinding, which supposedly grinds the grains without  … I don’t know, exactly. Something bad. I heard a couple of years back about a process that shatters whole grains rather than grinds them and is supposed to be better.

    At every step, processing differences yield a slightly different result. White Lily flour is (or was, anyway, before the company was sold) so fluffy and velvety because chlorine bleach was used for bleaching it, and the chlorine broke down a cell wall in the starch so the contents — pure wheat starch — could spill out.

You could bake a dozen loaves of bread with a dozen different types of flour and get as many results. I find that I get consistently superior results by sticking with Harvest King flour. It has every attribute to make it the right tool for the job: the right wheat mix, extra gluten.

    Speaking less scientifically and more poetically, I love everything about Harvest King: the fresh, wholesome, wheaty smell, the serious but attractive packaging, its position on the bottom supermarket shelf, where the cognoscenti seek it out. I love having it in the cabinet, like guys love having a coping saw or other specialized tool.

 

Dough made with Harvest King is gluten-y and springy and powers upward in the oven. And it turns out the best damn bread, light and chewy, whatever recipe you use.
I get great results from it, but still with the ratio problem. I still don’t see how formulation could account for a 20 percent variation in a liquid-to-flour ratio. If you have an answer, I’d be curious to hear about it.

Celebrity Recipes Circa 1850

I have a recipe habit. They come and go on stray bits of paper, or lurk in electronic files buried in electronic folders. I try to post them either here or on Recipezaar.com so I can find them later.

    I didn’t act fast enough with this wonderful apple recipe in time, and now it’s lost. Also, I have no idea where it came from. But I do remember the name: Countess Tolstoy’s Apple Charlotte. It had a slight orange and lemon flavor, a good meringue, and as good as it was  hot, it was even better chilled.

Once I’d come across the picture, snapped in August at the beginning of apple season, the first place I looked for the recipe was Please to the Table, because it’s a comprehensive Russian cookbook, and, you know, Countess Tolstoy and all. And any excuse to open Please to the Table, which I think is the finest Russian cookbook in print. Only I don’t think it’s in print any longer — it dates from the early 1990s. It collected thousands of recipes from the old Soviet Union, from the skyscrapers of Moscow to the yurts of Mongolia. I put a link there to the book on Alibris.com.

    Countess Tolstoy is not on recipezaar.com, in my accordion file of dessert recipes, or lurking in the guts of the computer. (But I did find a fantastic buttermilk syrup recipe that I’d been hunting for ages). It’s just gone. It helps to think of recipes as fun people you meet at parties, or one-night stands: a lovely thing never to be repeated.

It may bob to the surface one day. Or if you know the recipe for Countess Tolstoy’s Apple Charlotte, chime in.

    And come to think of it, was she was really even a countess?

Chinese fire drill

Between the last version and the current version of several beloved kitchen and other gadgets I own, I can read the history of the manufacturing shift from the US to China, and it’s a story that is a real letdown.

    • Say your company makes blenders and has a great product. But to produce the blender in the US would cost $40. Sell it to the department and discount stores for $60 and they have to sell it for $120. Since you aren’t Waring, and you don’t want to spend the money on a retro-modern design to justify the price, you can’t charge that much. People

say

     they want Made in America products, but they vote with their wallets.

So you put out feelers to China, where you can manufacture it for $15. Your problem seems solved. You outline rigorous specifications, make factory visits and arrange for someone to be on hand occasionally for the manufacturing. The first samples look great. Maybe the housing seems a little thin or brittle, but by this time, the schedule is running out of days, so you green light it.

    The blender shipment floats on the slow boat from China to Long Beach for 80 days. During that time, the lab discovers that the blender’s seal doesn’t really seal properly, because even though the right rubber/polymer was used, the tensile strength of the seals made in China doesn’t quite meet what’s needed. So liquid leaks when the unit is set on “low.” But by the time someone discovers this, it’s too late.

I just made up the scenario, but consider it a myth — not true itself, but generally speaking, truthy.  I’ve seen it in my kitchen and in the bath, where a set of hot rollers identical to the previous, 10-year-old set, failed within months. Oh, they still get hot, but the velvet layer covering the searing hot metal wore off within a couple of months. I kept the old rollers, still velvety after 10 years, and threw out the new ones. I couldn’t even find a consumer number for the hot rollers, and I can understand why. You only need to visit Amazon and read page after page of product reviewsto see that the China problem affects all kinds of products.

    I’ve seen the same thing in book printing, so much of which has shifted to China. Besides price, there are attractive reasons to print in China: hand work is cheaper, meaning die-cut books shaped like frying pans or t-shirts are affordable. Sewn-in bookmark ribbons are cheaper. China hasn’t outlawed dioxin or inks with heavy metals, so the paper is blinding white and the colors are rich and saturated. You can see the seductive logic.

But what if the lavender tablecloth in the cover photo that’s perfectly coordinated with the flower arrangement sitting on it actually prints closer to lilac? If you think the Junior League president won’t notice, then you haven’t met many Junior League presidents in the throes of a book project.

 

  • What if the end sheets are technically the right paper, but it’s got a more open molecular structure than paper used by US printers, and absorbs all the ink so the color doesn’t match the chip, and isn’t even close? Hold it up next to a Rainbow endsheet, and it looks like school children tinted unbleached paper towels with food coloring.
  • What if the colored sidebars are varying shades of the PMS color, rather than all identical?
  • And if you get a sample that’s unacceptable, well, it was sent via FedEx three days ago, and by the time you call, it will be day after tomorrow, so if you want to hold on to your scheduled print slot, you’re under pressure not to make non-critical changes.
        The Oster toaster in the photo above actually does a good job of toasting, but the LED indicator light for “toast” burned out after 1 year of occasional use, and now you have to push the button twice so you can be sure you’re not accidentally setting the toaster for a frozen bagel. Again and again in testing equipment for Fine Cooking, I encounter  major brand-name products whose shoddy workmanship must cause eye twitching and insomnia among the executives who approved the prototype.
  • I can only lay it at your feet, consumers. Quit cheaping out on appliances and buy well-made things. Everyone will be happier in the end.

 

Leading Index

I’m very particular about cookbook indexes. It’s not something most people think about, and you could say it’s a little strange to beobsessesd with indexes. But at a cookbook company, it’s not.  I want to find “barley pilaf” under “B,” even if it’s called Burlington Barley Pilaf or Joe’s Aunt Cindy’s Barley Pilaf. I wanted it to be listed as “Barley Pilaf, Aunt Cindy’s.”

    For years, I’ve tried to hone my vision of a perfect index into a few sentences, such as “pity the poor reader” or “help a cook find things no matter how her thought process works.” I’ve also spent a lot of time explaining and justifying it to someone who thinks every dish should be under a heading by shape (casserole, burger, salad, pie), function (starters, side dishes, brunch) or flavor  profile (lemon, parsley, cheese), and that headings should be very general rather than very specific. Unfortunately this person controls the means of index production so the indexes appear with barley pilaf listed under “grains” or “side dishes.”

Some recipes should be listed by their full name, like “Passover Spice Cake,” in the “P” section or “Larb Gai” in the “l” section, in addition to a listing under “Cake” or “Salad,” for reasons that seem logical. Passover cakes need to stand out, Larb Gai is what it’s called on menus. The other indexing professional insists that if some recipe are to be listed by their titles as a single entry, then all recipes should be listed that way. Consistency is the hobgoblin — you can look up the rest of the quote, and it’s no less true, even if it was uttered by the lightweight Algernon Swinburne. You can sense that I’m treading carefully here.

    • This book,

Jewish Cooking in America

    , has my favorite index. Dishes are listed under their full name, whether it’s Brooklyn Egg Cream, Grandma Lina’s Roast Goose, or Tschav, so if you happen to know the full name or the original ethnic name, you can find it there. But they’re also listed under “egg cream” and “sorrel.” Rather than a category called “Soup” that lists the soups, the category says “Soups, pages 305-310. And see individual listings.”

Here’s my cookbook withthe worst index.

    One rule of indexing that is pretty indisputable is that if an ingredient is in the title, the recipe is indexed under that ingredient. Even a computer program can do that. Somehow, Spicy Tofu Omelet is indexed under “spicy” and “eggs” but not tofu. Since “eggs” isn’t in the title, it’s clear a human hand indexed this book. How could it have missed Tofu? Or did someone decide that tofu wasn’t a valid heading? Or did they run out of space?

Space is always a problem in an index, and when it is, the first thing to go is the entries by recipe title. Yet here, every recipe is listed by its title, no matter how unhelpful. Two dozen recipe titles begin with the word “Spicy,” so they’re listed that way. The word tells you something about the dish but doesn’t help identify it in the same way that adjectives like “Passover” or “Singaporan” help.

    Recipes with “Name” titles like “Violet Oon’s Chile Sauce” or “Thai Cucumber Sauce” are listed under the name, and under “sauces” but not under chile sauce or cucumber sauce, as some other chile sauces and cucumber sauces are.

 If you feel queasy about people writing in books turn away, because the way I solved the index problem in the Southeast Asia Cookbook is to mark up the index myself. It looks like hell but I can find things.

I know it isn’t just me — you have a favorite or least favorite index, or at least you know what you like. I know you do.

Bread: It’s All in The Hooks

For everyday miracles, nothing can match homemade bread. A little flour, water, salt and yeast transform into a a loaf of springy, warm, edible food. A miracle every time. It’s like watching a great movie: you know how it ends, but you enjoy it so much anyway.

    • For about 15 years, my favorite book has been

Great Whole Grain Breads by Beatrice Ojakangas

    . Of the 200-odd recipes, I’ve prepared maybe half of them. For ten ears until 2007, I baked a loaf almost every week.

And that’s partly because of dough hooks. I wouldn’t have done it without dough hooks. The directions “Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic”? Might as well be in Norwegian for all I follow them. I just put it in the bowl and let the dough hooks do the rest.

    This oat and wheat loaf has been my workhorse because it has all the qualities you could ask for in a loaf of homemade bread. It’s easy to mix, hard to mess up, and the recipe doubles perfectly. The bread is multigrain and also tastes great, the loaves keep well, freeze well and when it goes slightly stale, it makes great toast.

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread

2/3 cup rolled oats

2 cups boiling water

1/2 cup nonfat dry milk

1/4 to 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (more if you’re a sweet tooth, less if you’re not)

1/4 cup butter or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 package (2 teaspoons) yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

6 cups flour, white or a combination of white and whole wheat

Combine the oats and water in a large bowl. Add the milk, sugar, butter and salt and cool for about 20 minutes until you can hold your finger in the mixture for a count of 20.

Combine the water and yeast and let stand until foamy. Add to the oat mixture, then stir in 5 to 5  1/2 cups of the flour to make a stiff dough. Knead or use dough hooks, adding remainingflour as needed to make a soft but not sticky dough. Knead 5 minutes with dough hooks until bread is smooth and satiny.

Shape the dough into aball and place in a greased bowl. Spray the top with cooking spray. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside to let rise until nearly doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough, divide into two and shape into loaves or rounds. Put into two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise until puffy, a bout 45 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool completely. Makes 2 loaves.

Acey Juicey

If you loved the Pla-Doh Fun Factory as a child, then you’re a great candidate for a juicer. Feed something in and it comes out as something else. It makes work feel like play.

    • Days of meticulous work squeezed into one long evening late in the summer when some beloved old friends gathered to

test juicers

    •  for

Fine Cooking magazine

     (the issue is currently on the newsstand). We put a mountain of fruits and vegetables into the maws and hoppers of more than a dozen of these contraptions. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Seriously, it’s like a Fun Factory that turns out the healthiest imaginable beverage.

Here was the oddest looking juicer, dubbed Marvin, the paranoid android in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

With the weather so hot, and so much juice on hand, what else could we do but make refreshing bellinis, watermelon daiquiris and cherry popsicles? Kale juice and beet juice, though — we had to draw the line. Beets are very dirtlike in flavor , so we crossed them off the happy hour menu, and kale juice is just the very taste of extreme personal self-discipline.  Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what January is for.

The competition came down to factors like ease of cleaning, size of footprint and perceived sturdiness. Because every one of those juicers made floods of juice in seconds, which is basically what you want in a juicer.

In which a computer is compared to a fish, and our Name the Egg Dish winners announced

Our computer has been gutted and hosed out like a fish, flushed out like a spa client, and gotten a new brain like Frankenstein.  It’s never felt or behaved better, so thank you for your patience while the ole Mac had an E-enema.

Tupperware Avalanche’s “Name the Dish” game has a three-way tie! Cyclops on Toast by 1050 lb come one down! You’ve won a grill wok! One-Eyed Egyptian by Nicole, come on down and get your grill wok! And a laurel, and hearty handshake to Claudia for Moon Over Miami.

Thanks to everyone for your entries. Send me your contacts and I’ll get your grill wok to you. We will soon resume our normal programming schedule.