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Not creamy caramel pudding, not creamy at all

Note: Thanks to everyone who showed up to the Eat Real Lit Fest on Saturday and listened to me read. I didn’t end up telling a story about sunnies at all, but instead told the tale of the disgusting mess you see above. For those of you unable to attend, I’ve conveniently posted the reading below. To those in the U.S. of A., enjoy the upcoming long weekend. I’m taking one myself. See you back here next week!

Documenting all my cookbooks and food magazine archives last spring for Edible San Francisco lit a bit of a fire in my belly. I’ve been cooking some of those recipes over the summer and it’s been fun cooking from recipes instead of for recipes.

Or it was until last Tuesday. When I decided to make the Creamy Caramel Pudding I pulled from Food & Wine last March. (Of course in terms of my “recipe file,” of course, last March is March 2009. I mean, in terms of my recipe file “last march” could be March 1999, but I digress.)

Anyway… I was suspicious of the recipe because it has you add low-fat milk to a hot caramel. But made it despite myself. And guess what? The milk curdled, just as I thought it would and I ended up trying to work this cornstarch-thickened curdled mess through a sieve in a sad and desperate attempt to salvage “dessert.”

Please see the result above. Disgusting, right? I would like to add that, out of professional curiosity I tasted that mess. It didn’t even taste good, even when the curdled aspect was factored out in my professional taster’s brain.

A bad recipe from Food & Wine. What the hell? I know mistakes can slip through a test kitchen, but this was ridiculous. This wasn’t “it wasn’t as delicious as it could be” this just didn’t turn out, plain and simple.

The thing is, I looked it up online. The photo is a bit bigger there and I could see – in the goddamn photo – curdled bits in the pudding.

The Creamy Caramel Pudding recipe is exactly the type of recipe I hate.

I mean, a disgusting sticky mess to clean up is a demoralizing experience for me, and I’m pretty confident in my general cooking abilities. I can only imagine what it does to people less sure of themselves in the kitchen.

So what do I care if it demoralizes other people?

I’d like to say it’s because I believe deep down in my soul that if everyone loved cooking and make their own delicious food the world’s problem – or at least some of them – would slip away.

If I’m honest, though, the reason I care is that I love cooking and if other people love cooking too that helps validate my obsession and love of cooking.

I mean I really love to cook. I’ve loved it since I was a kid and became what can only be described as addicted to it during grad school. It was my reward at the end of the day. Something concrete, that other people appreciated, and that disappeared and I never had to see again. It was the perfect antithesis to the abstract work that interested no one on which I slaved away at day after day with no end in sight.

People who hate cooking—who want to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible—used to baffle me. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to fill the house with the scent of homemade paella?

Then I had a kid. I also acquired a 70-mile round-trip commute that ate up at least two hours a day and much of my will to live. And I got it. All of a sudden I wasn’t cooking, I was getting dinner on the table. I was “cooking” like all those people who hate cooking cook. I was throwing together whatever was quickest, whatever was at hand. And I was doing it while complimenting my son on each and every one of his 42 robot drawings, jockeying with my husband over who would cancel their Thursday night plans since we’d accidentally double-booked ourselves, and jotting down next week’s shopping list as I wondered if I’d responded to yet another pre-schooler’s birthday party invitation. If the whole thing went down without tears or third-degree burns I considered it a grand success.

As much as I love to cook, I found I hated getting dinner on the table. Dinners made in a frenzied, uninspired rush that matches the “less than 30 minutes” time frame so many of my fellow Americans are willing to devote to the task are no fun to make day after day.

As someone who knows what cooking is, let me tell you: That ain’t it.

There is little pleasure or satisfaction to be found in that activity. It is a chore. It is a worthwhile chore, in my opinion, but if it’s someone’s only contact with their kitchen, it’s no wonder they hate cooking.

The ridiculousness of how much my cooking habits, and hence my family’s eating habits, changed was made all the more difficult to swallow since the job to which I commuted hours each day was as a food writer at Sunset. My days were spent discussing, dissecting, and perfecting recipes designed to tempt readers into their kitchens, yet my own small kitchen sat increasingly un-used as we became dependent on test kitchen leftovers for our dinners. There were cases of Chinese take-out containers in the pantry at work for just such purposes. It got to the point where my son would request dinner from the “little white boxes.”

Cooking – the focused, rewarding, from-scratch kind I love – became something I rarely did.

Yet experiencing what “cooking” is for so many people made me wonder about widespread claims of not liking it.

Then we tested a Three-Hour Thanksgiving at the magazine (note: it was not for the magazine, it was for an external project that was being tested in the test kitchen). I witnessed the recipe testers, people who loved nothing more than a few hours in the kitchen, people who made caramelized sugar cages for desserts and de-boned legs of lamb without a thought, rendered flustered, miserable, defeated, and actually sweaty by the task. Yes, it was possible to do the whole thing in three hours, but it wasn’t fun. One cook kept mumbling “why would anyone do this?” as she worked. Another cook, our chattiest and cheeriest member, didn’t say a thing during the entire three-hour process, but finished the final dish, set it on the table, sat down, and firmly declared: “That was the most unpleasant three hours of my life.”

I thought of all the people who don’t really like to cook, who would be the people tempted by the promise of a relatively quick homemade Thanksgiving feast. The idea of them venturing into the kitchen with these recipes and punishing timeline in hand just broke my heart. The worst part, as you might imagine, was that the result was what could be at best deemed a serviceable holiday meal. Edible but not delicious. Unremarkable in every way except its speed of preparation. The whole thing seemed designed to make anyone hate cooking.

When our only approach to cooking is as something to finish and be done with, is it any wonder so few people do it on a regular basis? And perhaps even fewer find pleasure in it?

Like exercise, we know it’s good for us. Like exercise, however, cooking takes time and effort. And if you’re not used to it, it takes even more time and effort.

There are people who truly don’t like cooking. I can accept that. I get that. It’s like me and gardening. I have gardening books. I like the idea of gardening. I do, in fact, take care of a small but pretty yard. But I don’t like gardening. I do it, but it’s a chore. I like the result, but not the process. I can accept that for some people cooking is the same.

If, however, someone’s only experience in the kitchen is getting dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, it’s a but like deciding you don’t like gardening if you’ve only ever pulled weeds.

Or, an even better analogy comes to mind. Cooking is like sex. If you’ve only ever had a quickie in the storage closet, can you really say whether you like it or not? Quickies—of all sorts—have their place. But they shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

And cornstarch-thickened puddings? They just aren’t worth the shortcut.

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Spicy peanuts

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Hold onto your hats. These puppies are yummy. If they manage to sit around your house for more than a day, I salute you. We scarfed ours down. We made ourselves ill, actually. And after we made ourselves ill we then ate the rest of them. My dashing husband has asked me not to make any more, at least not any time soon. He finds them addictive. He wants help. These peanuts are perfect for cocktail parties, beer-thirst-inducing for sports watching, and – what with being nuts -  pack-able homemade gifts, too.

You can use the chile to add spicy heat, without the chile the peanuts have a lot of flavor from spices, but they aren’t hot spices. So they’re spicy but not spicy. I have a feeling you know exactly whether you want to use the chile or not already. Most folks do.

Spicy seeded peanuts

1/4 cup vegetable, sunflower, canola, or other neutral-tasting oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 fresh hot chile minced (spiciest version) or 2 – 3 small dried hot chiles such as arbols (some heat but less than the fresh chile), optional

2 cups peanuts (raw is best, roasted works just dandy, roasted and salted means you won’t need to add the “salt to taste” further down this list, dry-roasted are already flavored and aren’t quite right for this snack)

2 Tablespoons lemon juice (sounds weird, I know, but stay with me)

1 teaspoon sugar (again, I know it doesn’t sound right but it works)

1/2 – 1 teaspoon garam masala (an Indian spice mixture you can find at specialty stores or you can make your own – my version in below)

Salt to taste

Heat a wide saute pan or large pot with a fitted lid over high heat. When the pot is hot, add the oil. When the oil shimmers, about 30 seconds, add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium high, and listen for the mustard seeds to start popping. Then listen for them to finish popping – it should take a minute or two. Remove the lid (things can get a little smokey at this point 0 it’s fine! solider on!), add the chile if you’re using it, and stir as it sizzles.

Add the peanuts and cook, stirring frequently, until they get toasty and plenty of browned bits. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the lemon juice, toss to combine, sprinkle with the sugar, toss to combine, sprinkle with the garam masala, and toss to combine completely and utterly thoroughly. Add salt (and more sugar or garam masala, if you like) to taste. Spread the peanuts out onto a few layers of papers towels and let them cool, drain, and dry a bit before serving. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. These peanuts keep in an air-tight container very well overnight. I imagine they keep much longer than that – a week at least, maybe more – but at my house they only lasted about 18 hours.

I like a fairly cardamom-y, peppery garam masala and make it by whirling the following in a spice mill (I use a clean coffee grinder): seeds from 10 cardamom pods, 3 Tablespoons black peppercorns, 2 Tablespoons cumin seeds,  1 Tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 2-inch stick of cinnamon, 1 clove. I keep some in a spice jar in the cupboard and any extra in the freezer in a tiny ziploc bag. I have no idea if I should keep it in the freezer, but it always smells and tastes great when I take it out.

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Macaroni and cheese

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Macaroni and cheese, the kind made with actual cheese and not orange powder from a box, makes me think of one thing: the time right after my son was born. A dear friend made me a double batch (one for eating, one for freezing) of some kick-ass, creamy, luscious, rich macaroni and cheese. I was just home from the hospital, trying to nurse this tiny bundle of screams and coos, and – despite what books and doctors had promised – he was awake all day except for 20-minute dozes he would take after a feeding if I was lucky. Instead of sleeping 20 out of 24 hours, he used that time to eat. Everyone said I needed to nurse him on-demand, so I did. His demand, however, was insatiable. I was tired and hungry and so so so so very thirsty all of the time. It seemed like there would never be enough sleep or food in the world to fix my state.

That mac and cheese sure helped, though. I ate it for every meal one day – the breakfast included three scrambled eggs on the side which I maintain is the best nursing mother breakfast possible. Fortifying to exhausted body and weary soul.

In one sense I can still feel everything from that time – the magic of the new born, the feeling of a cascade of spit-up running down my chest, the pit of hunger that gnawed on me day and night as the life was literally sucked out of me, the ability to fall fully asleep while sitting up if given just 10 seconds of quiet and stillness – and in another sense it’s all a blur. But this I know: for better or for worse that time ended, or at least it morphed into other times. And those times quickly blur into one another in my memory and mainly what I see is the six year old beside me now. The six year old who leaves this on my desk:

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Here is how the note came about:

“Mama, the chicken at Good Frickin’ Chicken is good, but the macaroni and cheese is also really good.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” I nodded as I drove to school.

“Mama, don’t you think their macaroni and cheese is really good?”

“Uh, it’s okay, I guess. It’s not my favorite.”

“What IS your favorite then?”

“Well, I suppose the kind I make.”

Silence. Stunned silence as Terry Gross murmurs over the airwaves.

“Mama, you can MAKE mac and cheese?!?!?!”

I like this about six a lot. Ernest knows I cook as part of my job. He knows I’m a good cook (mostly from people constantly telling him and trying to make him talk about how lucky he is, but to him it is just food and he wishes there was more fried chicken gracing the table, thank you very much). Yet he hasn’t quite figured out that if it is food, I can make it. So each new item is like a gift offered down from the heavens. As with crêpes, as with baguettes.

So I said I’d make mac and cheese for dinner and then forgot to go buy cheese, and the next morning the above was waiting for me when I returned from dropping him at school – a process that involved several verbal reminders to buy cheese. Cheese was bought, grated, and baked, all were happy:

Just Plain Delicious Macaroni and Cheese

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This makes a decidedly Spartan version of macaroni and cheese – that is, the pasta-to-sauce ratio is a tad sparse. For a richer, saucier version, simply reduce the amount of macaroni to half a pound.

1 pound elbow macaroni or other small tube-shaped pasta

5 cups milk (sometimes I use a cup of white wine for a grown-up flair, adding that first to the butter-flour mixture, then adding four cups of milk)

1/2 cup cream (or increase milk to 5 1/2 cups)

7 Tablespoons butter

About 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (about 6 slices of white sandwich bread or similar)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon dijon mustard (optional)

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 cups shredded cheese (about 20 ounces total) – I like to use about half aged gouda, and half regular gouda but there are infinite possibilities

Preheat oven to 375. Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until just tender to the bite – drain it and set it aside.

If you’re feeling precise, gently warm milk and cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat or, I imagine, for about a minute in the microwave. If you add it cold to the roux the whole thing will seize up and you’ll have to really whisk a lot of lumps out of it – work now or work later, it’s your choice.

In a large pot over medium high heat, melt the butter. While butter melts put bread crumbs in a medium bowl. Pour out 2 tablespoons of the butter and toss with the bread crumbs. Set aside. Return remaining butter to the heat. When it stops foaming, whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until you get a slight cooked pie crust smell, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly. Stir in salt, mustard if you like, nutmeg, pepper, and cayenne.

Add cheese, one handful at a time, whisking or stirring between additions so you have a smooth sauce before adding more cheese. When all the cheese is melted into the sauce, remove from the heat. Add more salt, nutmeg, pepper, or cayenne to taste. Add pasta and toss to thoroughly coat the noodles with the sauce. Pour macaroni into a 9-by-13 baking pan. Cover with bread crumbs and bake until bubbling and golden on top, about 20 minutes.

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Green chile stew

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Anyone else remember all that green chile I ate last spring in New Mexico and West Texas? I imagine the memory is less compelling, less sweet for someone who just read about it instead of digesting it.  Still, perhaps you remember all that talk about how I was going to figure out how to make it?  I used all of my stew-making knowledge and sha-zam: delicious green chile stew.

I was cooking for two families, and children besides my own relatively omnivorous son were involved, so I kept the whole thing on the mild side. To punch it up I served the stew with a serrano-jalapeno-red onion relish for the grown-ups to dabble on top of the stew. It’s a relish that I would happily swathe on pretty much anything (2 jalapenos, 1 serrano, 1 small red onion – all very finely minced – with about a teaspoon of lemon juice and salt to taste). A few warm corn tortillas (for the grown-ups to eat with their stew and for the children to make masks out of with strategic hole-biting) rounded out the delicious, soul- and gut-warming creation.

Feel free to add  few hotter chiles to the stew for an all-in-one spice fest.

Green chile stew

12 large mild green chiles, such as Hatch chiles

1 large onion

2 Tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste (if you’re using commercial broth, reduce this amount to about 1/2 teaspoon)

2 lbs. well-trimmed pork butt or shoulder cut into bite-size pieces

2 Tablespoons flour

1 cup beer or broth or water

2 cups broth or water

First things first, you need to roast and peel those chiles. You can roast the chiles over a gas burner or under a broiler. Then put the chiles in a bowl and cover with a pot lid or foil. Let them sit and steam and cool down a bit for at least 15 minutes. Scrape off and remove peels, pull off stems, remove seeds, and chop. Set chiles aside.

Then peel and thinly slice the onion. Heat lard or oil in a large, heavy pot. Add onions,  chiles, and salt and cook, stirring when you think of it, until soft, about 3 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl, leaving as much fat in the pot as possible.

Brown the pork, working in batches just large enough to be in the pot in a single layer of pieces that don’t touch. This step adds extra flavor and helps melt some of the fat off the meat.

Once you’ve browned all the pork and have transfered it out of the pot, sprinkle the remaining fat/oil in the pot with the flour. Cook, stirring, until flour smells cooked, about 3 minutes. Add beer, broth or water and scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot. The mixture should thicken up fairly quickly. Add the 2 cups of broth or water and return vegetables and pork to the pot. Everything should be covered by liquid, add more broth or water if necessary.

Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook, covered until pork is extremely tender, about an hour. Alternatively, you can put the whole covered pot in a 350 oven and bake for about an hour.

Remove lid and simmer to reduce and thicken liquid, if you like. Add more salt to taste, if you like.

You can cool the stew and remove the fat that will congeal on top, but that would be very silly of you because that fat is just amazingly delicious.

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Thanksgiving crabs

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I am no blind California-phile. I am not a San Franciscan cheerleader. I see plenty wrong with this state (many of which start with the word “prop” – 13 and 8 you know I’m talking about you) and even with this beautiful city (I would not at all mind a food market of some sort where I could go and, without parking or tourist hassle, just get all my groceries), but one bandwagon I can hop on with glee is the Northern California tradition of Dungeness crab at Thanksgiving. That’s right, the locals here eat crab at Thanksgiving – usually before but sometimes alongside the bird. Some families have it the night before, some the day after, but crab is *often* part of the feast. Brilliant.

I had my crab early this year. My Very Tall Cousin and his Viking Goddess Girlfriend called on Sunday offering to bring crab, fresh off the boats in Half Moon Bay, over for dinner. The answer, of course, was yes please.

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They brought not just the crabs, but crab-sexing knowledge, expert crab-cleaning skills (My Very Tall Cousin was raised in Dungeness, Washington – yes, like the crabs), and the traditional Norwegian accompaniments of garlic-y herb mayonnaise, red onion, and fresh baked bread. I did not even have to melt butter. I boiled some water for them, opened the wine, and watched.

My son got pretty into the crabs – learning how to pick them up, moving them around, claiming one was his “pet” – but also had no trouble when they all got lowered into the pot. They were relatively cooperative. We had the pot really hot, so I like to think their demise was swift. The banging was minimal and there were no escapees. (I bring an inch or two of salted water to a violent boil in a very large pot, add the crabs, cover, and cook for just under twenty minutes – pull the crabs out and get them in very icy water to stop the cooking and chill them at least slightly for eating. The sharp edges are enough of an eating hazard, no one needs to get burned too.)

My Very Tall Cousin iced them down and cleaned them. My dashing husband helped, querying about the edibility of various parts along the way (that man will eat anything inside a shell – even the weird bitter gross parts I’ll run across a room to pull out of his gaping jaw to throw away).

Then we brought everything to the table and started picking. Picking the crab meat is, of course, one of the great appeals of crab eating – it extends the meal, gives you an obvious conversation topic if you find yourself wanting, and forces you not just to touch, but actually to play with your food.

Everyone has their own crab-picking style. My son picks and eats, picks and eats. My dashing husband, Very Tall Cousin, and I all had the patience to pick for a bit to build up enough crab to try it Norwegian-style, piled on the fresh baked bread with a slather of the yummy mayo, before devolving back to pick-and-eat-and-suck on the shells, extracting every bit of crab and crab-flavored juice.

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The Norwegian at the table was the most impressive, however. Calm and civilized, she picked an entire half a crab, acquiring a mound of crab meat on her plate, before assembling her sandwich and eating it at leisure. The rest of us were like wild dogs in comparison, slurping and grabbing at our food, bending fork tines with our desperate need to get into those shells fast enough.

No matter our crab style, though, we all agreed that the first crab of the season (crab season here starts in November – hence the Thanksgiving tradition – and runs into May) are always the sweetest and meatiest. These fine creatures were excellent examples of their kind.

I have much to be thankful for this year, I hope you do too.

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Mushroom cream stuffed squash

bluepumpkin

I’ve got the blue pumpkins blues. See the pretty blue pumpkin? See how it almost glows in the dull light of my kitchen? Now, I know that the inside of blue pumpkins isn’t also blue. I know the inside of blue pumpkins is just as bright orange and non-blue as any other pumpkin, but the naive child inside me is always a wee bit disappointed when I cut in and see no blue, no deep purple, no shimmery gray. Take heart, though, I cheer up almost immediately because that orange has a magical power all its own.

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So I cut the top off the blue pumpkin, much as one would for a jack o’lantern, had my weird let down at the sight of orange winter squash flesh, scooped out the fat pumpkin seeds (again, as for a jack o’lantern), put about 6 oz. of fresh shiitakes (trimmed and halved) inside, sprinkled them with 1/2 oz. porcini that I’d soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and then chopped up, added a pinch of salt and some generous grinds of black pepper, and then drizzled on about a 1/3 of a cup of cream.

That all got popped in a 375 oven until the squash was tender and everything was bubbling and yummy looking, which took about an hour. It all seems a bit soupy because the mushrooms have let off their liquid into the cream:

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It is quite tasty just like that, no doubt. But, if you can control yourself and not eat it while it sits (covered with foil to keep it warm) for 20 or 30 minutes, the cream and mushroom liquid gets all soaked up by the squash and the mushrooms and something magical happens:

bluepumpkinmushrooms

You get this creamy, sweet, floury, earthy, savory delight. I liked mine with a poached egg and a bit of spinach salad. A great shared side dish – with everyone scooping their share from the baked gourd at the table – for Thanksgiving, no doubt. Also, in a smaller, individual, acorn squash (or similar sized) halves? I’m thinking that is a pretty sweet vegetarian main dish for the annual feast.

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Almond tart

almondtart

I learned several things this weekend. First, there isn’t much of a reason to add roasted winter squash to fresh pasta dough. The pasta turns a barely perceptible darker shade of yellow, not the brilliant orange a person might imagine.

Second, a 10 x 15 lasagna feeds ten people just fine, as long as you have five pounds of roasted brussels sprouts on the table too.

Third, whole wheat pastry flour makes a perfect crust for an almond tart.

Fourth, said almond tart makes a very tasty breakfast.

Almond Tart

Yikes but this is an easy, crowd-pleasing dessert. I’ve changed it over the years and am thrilled (thrilled!) with the magic of this crust with the almonds. I’ve served it with store-bought vanilla ice cream, homemade ginger ice cream, fresh berries, and spiced pear compote.

1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

8 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons ice cold water

1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

1 cup cream

3/4 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon whiskey [totally and completely optional]

1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and work the butter into the flour mixture with a fork, pastry cutter, or – my favorite- your fingers until the mixture looks like cornmeal with some small chunks of butter still visible and some bits of cornmeal-like flour starting to cling together into large pieces.

Drizzle water and vinegar over the dough. Stir until dough starts to hold together. It will still look shaggy, but if you gently squeeze it into a ball most of it should hold together. Pat dough into a six-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and chill at least half an hour (and up to three days).

Preheat oven to 400. On a well floured surface, roll out dough to fit a ten-inch tart pan. Line the pan with the dough, trim edges, and lay a large piece of buttered tin foil, butter side down, on the tart crust.  Chill the covered crust about 15 minutes. Weigh down the foil with beans or pie weights, put the tart pan on a baking sheet, and bake until crust is set and starting to turn golden, about 20 minutes.

While crust par-bakes, combine almonds, cream, sugar, whiskey, and almond extract in a medium bowl. Let sit, stirring once in a while, until sugar dissolves and the whole mixtures thickens a bit, about 15 minutes.

Remove foil from crust, pour almond mixture into the crust and bake until crust is browned, filling is bubbling, and the surface is starting to caramelize [about 40 minutes]. Let tart sit at room temperature to cool for at least an hour before serving.

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Baguette and hot chocolate

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All those crêpes last week made me think of French camp and the awesome breakfast of baguette and chocolat chaud we got to have every morning. I got to thinking, why not? I am a grown-ass woman who eats a giant piece of leftover almond tart from a dinner party for breakfast if I feel like it. Why not have a tranche of baguette slathered with butter and dipped in hot chocolate like I did when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…. yeah, yeah, I became a counselor. I told you, I loved French camp with an ardor that scares me now. I went every summer from eleven to seventeen. It was my glee club.

As luck would have it, I’ve been experimenting with baguettes.

“Experimenting” is, perhaps, a strong word. Last week I started baking some French bread. My dashing husband and son both love baguette, and after the whole “Mama can make crêpes?” episode, I’ve been in a bit of smack-down mode. “Yeah, not only can Mama make a mean crêpe, but she can bake a baguette, too – booyah.”

The problem is, I’m not so terribly great at baking a baguette. They were tasty enough, but look at those things! They stuck to the floured kitchen towel on which they were raised, I had to untangle them to get them into the oven, and I ended up with these mangled, twisted sticks. But wait – what was that first part? – oh yeah, they were tasty enough. That is what matters. The family gobbled them up – I ate mine with plenty of butter. Dipped in hot chocolate.

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Clean the fridge soup

cleanoutsoup

It is, perhaps, unfair to characterize this soup as a “clean the fridge” creation. It was really terribly delicious and satisfying – neither my dashing husband nor grade school son said anything other than “more please” about it – but I was using stuff up. Using it up fast. Using it up before I’d have to throw it out. So I hacked a hunk of bacon that had been sitting in the back of the freezer into pieces and put it in a pot and sweated out its fat – adding a bit of water now and then to keep it from scorching before all the fat had melted. While that went down, I sliced a small onion that looked like it was thinking about sprouting, chopped a small savoy cabbage that needed a few wilted outer leaves pulled off of it first, and diced a carrot that was holding its own but I couldn’t remember when it had made its way into the fridge in the first place, which is never a good sign.

All of this was sauteed in the pot with the bacon and a bit of butter and a bit of olive oil (I was hedging all fat bets) until they softened a bit, then I threw in the potatoes that needed some trimming as they were chopped, a bunch  of chicken broth, and brought the whole thing to a boil.

I simmered it all down, cooked it until everything was tender and the flavors had all blended together nicely – about 25 minutes or so, and served it up with some chopped parsley on top for color. So pretty! So fresh!

A whole grain baguette and two half-eaten hunks of cheese were placed on the table along with the soup and we had ourselves a tasty, frugal, quite French (although the potatoes would have been peeled and the whole thing likely pureed) dinner. And the fridge? It’s all ready to be filled, yet again.

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Crêpes and galetes and nutella, oh my!

crepes

Did I mention that fall is always a wee bit crazy around our house? My dashing husband tends to have lots o’business travel during these warm-and-golden turns gray-and-chilly months and it’s all as school is getting going and cooking turns from slicing tomatoes and tossing salads to actually cooking things that take more than ten minutes to pull together. Sooo… my fall gets a little insane. A bit busy.

While I’m busy roasting things he – for work, mind you – gets to run off to London and Paris. He returned and gave our son a jar of Nutella. Ernest was pretty intrigued. Then my dashing husband explained that the best way to have Nutella is in a crêpe. Then he said that I would make crêpes.

“Mama can make crêpes?”

Yes she can.

Like a champion, so I won’t go into how now I’m somehow making crêpes as part of his “sorry I was gone for two weeks but I was thinking of you” gift.

I learned to make crêpes when I went to French camp at age eleven. Have I mentioned French camp before? It was awesome and is, possibly, the geekiest thing about this very geeky girl. French camp itself isn’t nearly as geeky as my deep and abiding love of it is. Folk dancing, wine drinking songs, lace making, Mille Bornes, berets – I loved it all. I’d like to say my favorite thing was learning to make crêpes, but my favorite thing was actually the hot chocolate and buttered baguette we ate for breakfast every morning which was a far far cry from the whole grains and sensible lean proteins of breakfasts at home most mornings. Even when my mom made a treat (like German pancakes), it wasn’t hot chocolate for breakfast.

I did, however, learn to make crêpes at French camp and I still use the recipe I learned when I was eleven – with the optional brandy.

Crêpes

2 eggs

1 1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 Tbsp. butter, melted and cooled plus more for the pan

1 cup flour

2 Tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 – 2 Tablespoons brandy or liqueur (Grand Marnier if making crêpes suzettes, for example) – optional

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest – optional

In a blender, whirl the eggs, milk, and cream until combined. Pour in butter and whirl to combine. Add flour, sugar, and salt and whirl to combine – you may need to scrape down the sides so all the flour gets incorporated fully. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and chill for at least two hours and up to two days. Just before you’re ready to make the crêpes, stir batter – it should resemble very thick cream. Stir in brandy and/or lemon zest, if using.

crepebatterpouring

Now, if you have a crêpe pan that is awesome. I have one and I love it, but I have made dee-licious crêpes in the crappiest most random pans you can imagine. A soup pot, a dented aluminum piece of s***, a cast iron griddle over a wood-burning stove – they all work if you want it bad enough. A frying pan is better that other options – a smaller one better than a bigger one.

Heat the pan over medium heat and melt a generous amount of butter in it – like a full tablespoon. Pour off the excess butter into a small dish or measuring cup ( you can use it as you make more) and ladle in three to four tablespoons of batter for an eight-inch pan. If you don’t have an eight-inch pan, you’ll need to experiment with the amount that works for your pan. Quickly swirl the pan to spread the batter in a thin layer over the whole pan, then swirl a bit more to spread any extra batter evenly over the batter that has already started to set, or cook, against the hot pan.

crepecooking

Let the crêpe cook until bits start bubbling under the middle and the edges turn from golden to almost brown. Then you need to flip the crêpe. This is when a thin wooden crêpe spatula can come in handy, but a fork gently used or fingertips that aren’t too sensitive work too. Treating the crêpe like a regular pancake and trying to flip it with a metal spatula will, in my experience, only lead to heartbreak. The crêpe will tear easily at this point, but practice will make perfect and you’ll figure out how to flip it using a method that makes sense to you. Before I had my thin wooden crêpe stick, I would slip a fork under one edge and sort of lift and flip it with my fingers after lifting the edge off the hot pan.

You may need to straighten or flatten the crêpe a bit to get it to lie flat after flipping. You can do this with your fingertips (notice my weird monkey paws doing just that below). Let it cook on the second side until both sides have brown spots, then slip or flip the crêpe onto a plate. Repeat with remaining batter. You should end up with about a dozen eight-inch crêpes.

crepecooking2

Be warned: the first crêpe will not turn out. It will be a disaster. You will think “oh no, I can’t do this.” Find comfort in this: every first crêpe of every batch of crêpes I have ever made hasn’t turned out. It’s been ripped, uncooked, and often landed on the plate in a weirdly pale and gloppy looking heap. Sometimes that’s happened with the first two or three crêpes if it’s been a while since I made them. Just keep making crêpes and you and the pan will get used to each other and it will all work out.

This is why, however, you may choose to make the crêpes before you want to eat them. They keep, covered with plastic wrap, at room temp for several hours very nicely and reheat to perfection. Just pop a cooked crêpe in the hot pan, lay on any fillings, and fold and heat and serve in a snap. Everyone will think you’re  genius.

If you’re feeling really crêpe-tastic, you might even consider making galettes – buckwheat crêpes that are pure perfection for savory items. I was feeling nothing if not crêpe-alicious the other night, so after I flipped all the crêpes to fill with Nutella, I busted out the galette batter and filled those puppies with ham and cheese, blue cheese and walnuts, and smoked salmon and crème fraîche. Same method, nuttier result.

galettes

Buckwheat Galettes

2 cups whole milk

6 Tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoons sugar

1 cup flat beer

4 eggs

3/4 cup buckwheat flour

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

In a small saucepan, warm the milk, butter, sugar, and salt until butter melts. Let cool slightly and pour into blender. Add beer and whirl to combine. Add eggs and whirl to combine. Add buckwheat and all purpose flour and, again, whirl to combine. Cover and chill at least two hours and up to two days. Cook as crêpes.

cooked it
crepes

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