The 10 Most Important Things That Happened In My Kitchen This Year

Baltimore Museum of Art, September 11th. Friday field trips, a lovely tradition from this year.
Baltimore Museum of Art, September 11th. Friday field trips, a lovely tradition from this year.

I won’t lie: I am a sucker for a listicle.

Perhaps it’s because I am myself a prodigious maker of lists. Or maybe it’s because I am old and have the attention span of a fruit fly these days. It’s hard to focus on big words and long sentences sometimes, and yet this blog is filled with them.

Ah, well.

But lists.

I love them.

And I especially love lists that apply to cooking, kitchens, food, or anything otherwise involving comestibles and their preparation.

And now is the time of year when everyone puts out their top ten lists of everything (movies, songs, celebrities, etc). While I won’t lie and pretend that I haven’t ever read a tabloid in line at the supermarket (or on an airplane, or while at the beach. Ahem.), I will say that in general I couldn’t care less about those sorts of lists.

However.

I love top ten lists of cookbooks, like the one from Bon Appetit or this one from Paste.

I love a solid how-to list for ingredients or supplies of a particular cuisine (hello, Korea! You are happening in my kitchen in 2016!).

I especially love lists about stocking a bar (although I would swap out the absinthe in this list and add in a very expensive bottle of sipping whiskey of your preference. Mine is bourbon, and it’s a bottle of Pappy. What else is there?).

Lists create order out of chaos. They gather, organize, and distill crucial information. While I still enjoy reading a page-long sentence every now and then (hello, Kerouac!), and I very obviously enjoy writing them, lists have become a crucial part of my writing, cooking, and daily life.

So. To that end, it only makes sense that I end the year on this, my very new food blog, with a list. I will call it The Ten Most Important Things To Happen In My Kitchen This Year. In no particular order, here they are.

1. I actually got a kitchen

Call it the rehab that never ended, but we bought the house in October and didn’t move in until mid-May. That’s SEVEN MONTHS ON AN AIR MATTRESS. But who’s counting? I am tremendously grateful to be in this house, in this kitchen I designed, regardless of how long it took.

2. Shared my expensive bourbon with a gentleman caller

Because my friend Mark has a lovely liquor store connection, he was generous enough to snag me a bottle of 15-year Pappy Van Winkle. On the interwebs, these bottles are going for upwards of $800. Although I didn’t pay nearly as much as that, I sip it with reverence, and I am not prone to sharing. I shared a wee sip with a gentlemen. It is both the sharing itself and the person with whom I shared that makes it an item on this list. #Standby

3. Acknowledged the importance of vulnerability. Using cake

I decided that moving forward would become impossible and fruitless were I to continue in the manner in which I was traveling prior to death of my spouse. SO. Time to open up to the possibilities. Cake teaches lessons.

4. Got to know a candy-apple red stand mixer

This is my first stand mixer, and it was my Mother’s Day gift to myself. I LURVES it. It marked a new era of spending money on myself, something that I have previously had difficulty doing, and it allows me to make ALL OF THE THINGS.

5. Reaffirmed my love of mise en place

I am mise en place-ing like a boss these days. It just makes life in the kitchen easier. Turns out, having everything in place makes the rest of life easier also. #KitchenLessons

6. Learned how to sharpen my knives (and actually sharpened them)

Yeah, turns out this makes a huge difference. I knew, but lazy took over, then crazy took over, and finally we settled down in Baltimore, and I did it.

7. Mounted my own magnetic knife rack

I dug my standard Ikea magnetic knife thing out of a box when we finally moved in to our permanent house, kicking myself for not having the contractor install it. So it languished in the box for awhile until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I mounted it myself. With a level. #LikeABoss

8. Decided to dig into the shadows 

In keeping with the trend of #3, shadow work has become a focus over the past six months. Uncovering the darkest parts of my experience, examining them, and letting them go has made a profound difference in the quality and depth of my ability to grieve and then move forward. Not nearly done, but the process has been eye-opening.

9. Made a cooking video

But guess what? It was crap, so I am not posting it. I am okay with showing the process, but this was just not even close to what I was going for. So maybe this time next year.

10. Re-designed this website

I said I would not do another website ever again, but I bit the bullet and did it. While it is not exactly what I want yet, it does represent a certain amount of tenacious ferocity that I have learned lurks deep within me. So there’s that.

These go to 11: Got to know The Teenager better

So The Teenager and I are at this amazing place in our relationship where we are transitioning from a straight mother-daughter thing to more mother/daughter friends. This can be very difficult for both parties, as The Teenager sometimes struggles with understanding that I am still her mother (and as long as you are living under my roof….), and I may have difficulty believing everything that comes out of her mouth (the working motto: Trust but verify). In the end, she is becoming a strong, intelligent, opinionated, passionate human who is an excellent friend and an all-around good person. I have realized that it is up to me in many ways to treat her in such a way that allows her to continue on that road, and I did it during one of our long, after-school chats. That she still wants to have them is such a gift.

So that’s my top ten list for 2015. What’s yours?

 

 

Snacks With Friends: Toasted Cashew Hummus

Hummus

Turns out, I drink a lot when I am happy. I also drink a lot when I am sad, but that’s a different type of drinking altogether, usually accompanied by a large measure of self-loathing and inappropriate texting and writing that I burn or tear into small, tiny pieces so no one could possibly read what I have written. Although I have been sad, I have avoided that type of drinking for obvious reasons, but also because it is hard to pull back from the edge when that gets started. #ItsInertia

But I digress.

As I write this, I am having my third glass of wine today, stirring cranberry curd, and thinking about my friend Bonnie. I just stopped by her house earlier in the day to see if I might catch her at home. She has a job that takes her all over the world to Africa and Asia and South America, and then she comes home and is a single parent to three kids. In short, she is a SUPERWOMAN.

Today when I stopped by we drank wine, caught up, and I sat in her kitchen and watched her cook.

Did I mention that she is an excellent cook? Like, a completely and amazingly intuitive cook with a wide range of culinary knowledge, picked up the way it should be picked up: through experience. She has managed to bring home all of the flavors (and many of the native spices) of the places she has traveled, and today she shared some of it with me in her toasted cashew hummus.

This stuff is AMAZING. Like, so creamy and delicious, with the cashews elevated by their brief sojourn in the oven. The spice is subtle and balanced, and people of all dietary stripes can dive in without reservations. I am not a huge fan of regular hummus; it is somehow rather pushy, and I get sick of it after a few bites.

This hummus, though. THIS. it’s more of a sly wink than a gaping leer. And it was seductive as hell.

Toasted Cashew Hummus

Note: Make this hummus at least a day in advance, refrigerate, then allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Ingredients

1 cup jumbo cashews, roasted in sea salt

2 garlic cloves

3/4 c. water

1/4 c. tahini

2 T. fresh lime juice

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 tsp. chopped fresh cilantro

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Spread cashews in a shallow baking pan and toast for approximately seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool.

Pulse garlic in food processor until minced. Add all other ingredients, including cashews, and mix until smooth. Chill overnight, then bring to room temperature and serve with chopped cilantro.

I like it with anything gluten-free, but it’s hummus, for god’s sake, and should not be taken too seriously.

Other than bourbon cocktails, this may be my new favorite snack with friends. What’s your favorite snack?

 

 

Chocolate Salami

I maybe should have taken more pictures, but I couldn't wait to get this in my face. DELICIOUS. Indulgent, but there's nuts and fruit, so GOOD FOR YOU
I maybe should have taken more pictures, but I couldn’t wait to get this in my face. DELICIOUS. Indulgent, but there’s nuts and fruit, so GOOD FOR YOU

You heard me.

Chocolate. Salami.

I had a sleepover with my very best friend in all of the land, Kerry, this past Friday. An earlier post on this blog had a picture of us in college, standing by the coffee pot, both quite the worse for wear. She’s the one that looks perkier than she perhaps ought to be, and I am the giant who looks like I might kill someone. We have known each other forever, through moves and tragedy and joy and everything else that happens over 30+ years.

This Friday I took the dogs, myself, and some chocolate salami over to her house to sit around, drink too many bourbon cocktails expertly prepared by her husband Mark, and to work on a puzzle.

You heard me. A PUZZLE.

Livin’ la vida loca.

But it’s not the puzzle. It’s the company.

When you are young and unencumbered by children, real jobs, and mortgages, you think nothing of sitting around in your pie pants all day, doing nothing. You have nothing really to do and all day to do it, and much of this lounging about is done in the company of good friends. As an adult, although I see Kerry often, I miss those days.

Plus, I need to tell her about a boy.

So it seems that chocolate salami is the thing to do, especially since my girl Kerry lurves her some white chocolate.

I used this recipe, with some modifications.

  • Gluten-free animal crackers took the place of shortbread, and crispy rice was also gluten-free
  • I used unsweetened dried cherries from Chukar Cherries in Washington. I could take a bath in these things.
  • I have a kitchen scale so I utilized the weight measurements, but if you don’t they translate into about a cup each of the fruits and nuts
  • Mise en place makes the recipe come together very quickly
  • In hindsight, I would make two salamis. One was awfully big and difficult to handle.

(Insert off-color sexual innuendo here)

Serves 1-? depending on how long the conversation goes, how freely the drinks flow, and how many like white chocolate. Next variation will utilize dark chocolate and a different variety of fruit and nuts and be equally delicious.

What do you bring to the table for long conversations with old friends?

Pickled Beets And Thieves Oil

Beets

It may be the holiday season, but right now it’s 70 degrees outside in Baltimore.

I am no Californian. I like four seasons. It should be cold for football, and there should be at least two decent snowfalls per winter. I don’t need Massachusetts-level weather, but snow is imperative.

I have welcomed this weather this week, though. December 14th to the 21st is the darkest week of the year in the northern hemisphere. The last little bits of daylight get swallowed by the darkness well before the dinner hour, and by the time seven o’clock rolls around all I want to do is go to bed. At least the warmth helps.

Still.

“I love the stars too much to be afraid of the dark.” ~Anonymous~

This weekend at yoga teacher training we talked about shadow sides, the darkness that we all have, and how to embrace it just as much as the light. The darkness is what makes people so complex. It is the thing that makes people who they are.

What does this have to do with beets and thieves oil, you ask? Isn’t this supposed to be a food blog, you say?

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen~

For me, when it gets dark outside, and I have trouble finding the crack, it is the smallest of gestures that brings me back to humanity. This weekend I was sick. Weird sick, like feverish with no fever, weak, dizzy. The teacher training went for three and a half hours on Friday night, with two hours of yoga, nine and a half hours on Saturday, with four and a half hours of yoga, and five and a half hours on Sunday, with two hours of yoga.

When I dragged myself to the training Friday night, one of my fellow students handed me a gift, a Mason jar with thieves oil Epsom salt bath soak. I had commented on this delicious combination of rosemary, clove, lemon, eucalyptus, and cinnamon on her Instagram, and she saw that I was sick.

This simple gesture stuck with me. It doesn’t take much.

If thieves oil brings me out of the darkness, beets remind me to hunker down. Putting up or preserving seasonal food is primal for me. In times of financial strain, I tend to buy two things: food and books. Entertainment, knowledge, sustenance. Mason jars on the pantry shelves remind me that I have everything I need and give me permission to hunker down until spring.  In the case of pickled beets, they are really in the back of the ‘fridge, but you get the idea.

Here’s how the magic happens.

Thieves Oil Epsom Salts (Scrub or Soak)

Thieves oil has a grisly history. Legend has it that it allowed thieves to rob sick people during the Black Plague without getting sick.  Every recipe I have found has had different proportions, but the one I like best is this:

10 drops of clove essential oil

9 drops of lemon essential oil

5 drops of cinnamon essential oil

4 drops of eucalyptus essential oil

3 drops of rosemary essential oil

Add as much or as little of the above as you like to one cup of Epsom salts. Dissolve salts in a hot bath, or use as a scrub. While there are some claims that thieves oil protects against illness, kills Ebola, and prevents you from contracting the Black Plague, I will settle for the fact that it smells delicious, and the transdermal magnesium provided by the Epsom salts soothes sore muscles, helps all organs of the body function, and relieves insomnia.

Spoiler Alert: Some of you local people will be receiving these. Act surprised.

As for the beets, the recipe is very, very simple. I love pickled beets, and I do them a little differently.

(Quick) Pickled Beets

The three jars above used to following ingredients:

Two bunches of beets (living in the drawer of my ‘fridge with their greens cut off for approximately three weeks. I generously call this an “aging process,” but it is highly unnecessary and was more like four weeks. Maybe five. They were none the worse for the wear.)

Pickling brine in the following 1-2-3 ratio: One part vinegar, two parts sugar, three parts water ( I used slightly more vinegar because I love it. White or cider vinegar is fine.)

One cinnamon stick per jar

Method

Peel beets. Wash hands constantly, use gloves, or live with a pinkish hue for awhile. Cut into “hearty matchsticks,” which just means don’t worry too much about uniformity. Call it “rustic” if anyone questions your knife skills.

Pack beets into Mason jars. Add one cinnamon stick for each jar.

Boil pickling brine ingredients for several minutes, then carefully pour over beets. Leave some room at the top.

Cool with the lids off until just warm, then put them in the back of the ‘fridge. Wait until they are completely cool, then start snacking. When the beets start to run out, slice an onion up and throw it in the pickling liquid.

I bet the pickling liquid would make a delicious cocktail. Give it a try and let me know.

These stay delicious forever. They are crispy, crunchy, bloody purple deliciousness that are great on their own, in salads, as part of a relish tray or…? I usually eat them standing in front of the ‘fridge while I decide what else I want to eat.

What brings you out of the darkness? What helps you see the light?

Piecaken And The Art Of Vulnerability

Hiding a yummy little secret.
Hiding a yummy little secret.

When I initially started this recipe, I thought it was a revelation about taking time for yourself. How we often feel guilty for doing it, or how what we consider “self-care” is actually not really good for us (drinking, splurging on treats both edible and non-, etc.). I was coming off a week out of town, and the only thing I could bring myself to do was to bake. This, for me, was self-care.

I continued to think about this post this way as I carefully made the piecaken over two days. Two days of happy, humming baking, apron on (for real) and Florence + the Machine in the background. Two days of crossing my fingers because really, as with life, any stage of this piecaken could have taken the whole week completely off the rails.

But then I stumbled across this TED Talk. If you have never seen or heard of Marina Abramovic, go ahead and take a second and watch this.

I’ll wait.

Done? Because after I watched this video my whole week changed. Funny, that, how I started out making this weirdly named, #trending cake and then suddenly the whole thing became a metaphor. The fluffy outside, vanilla flavored and sweet-smelling, followed by the almost crusty exterior of the vanilla cake and finished with a sweet, tart, creamy pomegranate cheesecake (with a final bite of its sugar cookie crust).

This cake is like me. Like many of us, really. On the outside it is just a beautiful bit of cake, snow white with smooth, glossy frosting.

On the inside, things change. Get more complex. Marina Abramovic talks about vulnerability as the thing that connects us all. Our willingness to truly show ourselves is what brings us together, not our common hobbies or politics, the fluffy white frosting of life. Vulnerability is where real change lies, where the art is made. Our insides don’t always match our outsides. We hide behind The Facebook and a carefully cultivated online brand that has us posting only the happiest bits of ourselves.

’tis the season for the happy horseshit group Christmas letter where the ENTIRE FAMILY was EXCEPTIONAL this year.

But that’s not real.

Which is sometimes okay because I know I don’t always want an intimate relationship online. And not everyone needs to know my business.

I have a friend (who shall remain nameless but who will know clearly who I am talking about if he reads this) who was a raging asshole in his younger years, angry and obnoxious and crappy to pretty much everyone. We didn’t like each other much at first but somehow became close. I got to know him. He showed me his cheesecake-like insides.

Gross, I know. But it’s the cake metaphor, people. Keep up.

Once when we were both deeply in our cups and he had just finished being a total douche to someone, I told him that if he would stop being a dick maybe more people would realize he wasn’t, well, a dick. If he would just let them know the person I know.

He said (or yelled, really, because this was the kind of drunken argument that happens in full voice), “But I don’t WANT them to know me that way.”

And that’s where it is. And that is where the art lies. My friend is an artist (in a genre I will not name, again, for his protection), and in his art he is completely and totally himself. Absorbed. Dare I say…vulnerable. He shows his squishy places to the world if the world will just look and see.

This cake, and the writing about it, and the sharing of it, is my squishy place. As noted in a previous post, food, to me, equals love.  So I research it, I make it, I write about it, and I give it away.

And just as complex as we are as humans, this cake is also complex and time-consuming to create. But totally, utterly worth it.

Pomegranate Cheesecake With Sugar Cookie Crust Wrapped In A

Marshmallow-Frosted Vanilla Cake. You know, #PIECAKEN

Make these elements in this order. Read each recipe through before you begin.

Pomegranate Cheesecake

Ingredients

Crust 

1 1/2 c. finely ground sugar cookies (I used gluten-free cookies, but graham crackers, Oreos, or any other crunchy cookie works)

4 T. melted butter

Filling

2 – 8 ounce bars of cream cheese, room temperature

3/4 c. sugar

1 t. cinnamon

2 eggs

1/4 c. heavy cream or half-and half

1/2 c. cooled pomegranate syrup (2 cups of pomegranate juice reduced to 1/2 cup. Apple cider works here, too)

1 t. vanilla extract

Method

For the crust: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter the bottom of two 6″ springform pans and then line with parchment paper circle. You could also use a regular 6″ cake pan and line the whole pan with parchment.

In a food processor, crush cookies. Or put in a freezer bag and bash with a rolling pin until you get finely crumbled cookie. Add melted butter, and mix to combine. Divide between pans and press firmly. Bake at 300 for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely.

For the filling: In a food processor, thoroughly combine cream cheese, sugars, and spice. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the heavy cream, pomegranate, and vanilla. Mix completely.

Pour into cooled pie crust and bake at 350 degrees until custard is completely set (about 35 to 40 minutes). Let cool completely. You can prepare these the night before you make the cake.

You could also make this in one regular spring form pan and stop here. But why would you?

Plain White Cake

a.k.a., possibly the best white cake you will ever put in your mouth

NOTE: You are making TWO of these. Make them one at a time. Do not double the recipe. Or give it a whirl and let me know how that goes.

Ingredients

350 grams (about 2 1/2 c.) gluten-free all-purpose flour mix (or cake flour if gluten isn’t an issue)

1 T. baking powder

1/4 t. salt

1/2 c. butter (one stick), softened

1 t. vanilla extract

330 grams (about 1 1/2 c.) sugar

2 eggs

1 c. milk

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare pan: butter bottom of 9″ cake pan, line with parchment circle, butter the entire pan and dust with flour. If you skimp on this step, your cake will stick and all your hard work will be for naught.

While you are making this cake, pop your cooled cheesecake out of the pan and into the freezer. This makes it easier to work with.

In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl with hand mixer), cream butter with sugar and vanilla extract. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until smooth. Add dry ingredients and milk, starting and ending with dry (flour, milk, flour, milk, flour).

Pour approximately 1/2″ of batter into prepared pan. Place one cheesecake into the batter, crust side facing up. Pour remaining batter over cheesecake and level the batter in the pan. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean (test on the sides and in the middle until it hits the cheesecake crust), between 40 and 50 minutes.

Cool in the pan for ten minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely. You can cool on the rack in the ‘fridge.

Make second layer, and while it’s cooling, start on the frosting.

Marshmallow Frosting 

Ingredients

250 grams (approximately 2 c) powdered sugar

1/4 t. cream of tartar

2 t. light corn syrup

2 egg whites

1/4 c. water

1 t. vanilla extract

Method

Combine ingredients in a metal bowl and whisk to combine. Place metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and beat with a hand mixer on medium until the mixture begins to thicken (like marshmallow Fluff). Continue to beat on high until mixture stiffens (stiff peaks). This whole process takes 10-15 minutes.

Remove from heat and add vanilla. Continue to beat the frosting until it is completely cool.

Assembly

Frost as you would a regular cake, with a generous hand. A rotating cake stand and offset spatula make the process easier but are not requirements.

Recipe notes:

This is a time-consuming affair, but the resulting cakes serves 16 people, easily, and is impressive as hell. Make it over two days to take the pressure off.