Friday, December 25, 2009

Gone Ice Fishin'

Enjoy the holidays! Hope you'll join me for some more (un) domestic adventures next year...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Muffin Meltdown

It was a muffin emergency. The first batch of muffins I made for Ruby's class' holiday celebration were passable, but I had to ditch the second batch, which were deflated and undercooked.

What to do?

Like any reasonable person, I trudged through the snow to the local bodega to pick up a pumpkin-flavored Pillsbury "Quick Bread" mix (hoping nobody would see me in my moment of shame).

I added milk, oil and eggs to the mix. The directions on the back of the box said I should "stir 50 to 75 strokes," but I admit I lost count after 35 or so.

The good news is that I managed to produce respectable looking pseudo-homemade muffins.

"My mom made these muffins," Ruby bragged to her classmates this morning.

I didn't let on that I had a little help from Pillsbury and the pre-K kids couldn't tell the difference.

But don't worry -- I haven't given up in my quest to make the perfect muffin from scratch.

Please send in your muffin making tips. Clearly, I could use some help!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Muffin Mania

Now that I know how to make muffins, I no longer have to purchase the overpriced muffins at our local bakery.

Even more satisfying -- I can bake my own muffins to bring to the girls' school for their breakfast "winter celebrations" this week.

Now I'm playing the role of the happy homemaker who vies to outshine the other parents with her homemade contributions. But don't feel bad if you didn't have time to make your own croissants or fresh szueezed orange juice. I'm just overcompensating for all of the years of bringing in napkins or plates.

The only catch is that Avo is out of town snowboarding and I'm stuck inside with a sick kid and only three eggs and one banana (luckily, I stocked up on butter!). I just used two eggs for the sour cream muffins I baked for Ruby's class. Now I might have to get creative and make a pseudo-banana muffin for Jesse's class with one egg and one banana, rather than the 2-3 bananas called for in the recipe.

I learned a couple of tips about muffin-making (forgive me if you already know this):

1. Don't over mix muffin dough. It should be clumpy or else your muffins will be too dense.

2. If you're not going to eat the muffins right away, add more butter or oil than the recipe calls for or else they'll get too dry.

3. You know your muffins are done when the tops are golden and spring back lightly when touched, a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Oops. Apparently, you're supposed to put the muffin pan on the middle rack in the oven. I didn't do this, but the muffins still turned out okay. Still, it seems like good advice.

Another tip I learned too late for this batch: Sift flour for best results and use fresh baking soda and powder since so muffins rise nicely. I just checked and my baking soda expired in 1993!

Luckily, I knew enough to let the muffins sit in the tin for a few minutes after removing them from the oven. Usually, I rush to take them out and they fall apart.

But I didn't know that some muffin experts advise setting the pan on a cool wet towel to prevent the muffins from sticking to the bottom. Just be careful that you don't keep the muffins in the tin for longer than 5 minutes or else they might get soggy.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn about baking muffins! Still, the first batch came out pretty well.

"It tastes like cake!" said Jesse. I think that qualifies as a good review. Personally, I think they're a little too bland, but I doubt that the pre-K kids will be too discerning.

Aside from the pride I take in bringing in homemade goods, I'm also appreciating the warmth that the oven is generating since it's freezing here in Brooklyn!

UPDATE: That'll teach me to get too cocky about my muffin-making skills. The banana muffins were a disaster. Since I didn't have enough bananas, I poured in some milk. To compensate for the lack of banana sweetness, I tossed in some chocolate chip cookies. I forgot that unlike cooking, baking requires that you follow the recipe. I paid for my "creativity."

Instead of the nice, puffy muffin tops I aspired to, my muffin tops turned out deflated and basically concave. The inside is gooey and undercooked.I think even the pre-K kids are savvy enough to notice that these muffins suck. Jesse agreed that the muffins are inedible. Sadly, I just tossed them in the trash.

Now it seems I might have to patronize the pricey bakery around the corner. Maybe I should have volunteered to bring the napkins and plates after all.

Meanwhile, if you have muffin problems and need to diagnose what went wrong, check out this helpful site.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Childhood Favorite

It's freezing out. Much too cold to schlep to the co-op to replenish the fridge.

Luckily, I've learned how to scavenge the pantry for potential dinner ingredients.
Last night I discovered we had penne pasta, tomato sauce, chicken breasts, and bread crumbs waiting to be used -- just the right stuff to make chicken parmigiana, a childhood favorite of mine.

Although I was a picky kid when it came to food, I loved chicken parmigiana, which is basically -- let's face it -- a big chicken nugget topped with pizza.

After proving I can make chicken cutlets, I decided I was ready to go the next step.

Conveniently, Avo had just made mozzarella cheese using a cheese making kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. The cheese came out looking more like ricotta or cottage cheese than mozzarella, but I had a feeling it would be perfect on top of my chicken parmigiana.

I loosely followed Mark Bittman's recipe for chicken parmigiana, but basically, here is what I did:

I fried up some chicken cutlets, plopped them on a baking pan with some tomato sauce and topped with some more tomato sauce, mozzarella and shredded parmigiana. I baked it for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. What do you know? It looked -- and tasted -- like the chicken parmigiana of my childhood.

Ruby and Jesse ate the chicken cutlets without the "parm" on top, along with some penne.

"This is the best meal ever!" declared Ruby. "And my mom made it!"

(Seriously -- she said that.)

"It's so-so, but for me, that's pretty good," said Jesse. "I still like regular chicken nuggets better though."

Served with a nice green salad and a glass of wine, the chicken parmigiana and penne made a nice romantic dinner for me and Avo.

"This chicken parm holds its own against any deli chicken parm," said Avo.

That's high praise.

I am still marveling at the fact that I can cook at all. Will there come a time when Avo and I take it for granted?

Meanwhile, tonight I plan to use up the bunch of broccoli and seitan in our fridge. Then it's time to go food shopping before we find ourselves trying to make a dinner out of butter, yogurt and carrots.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Undomesticated Bloopers

It's taken me years to discover the the simple pleasures of meal planning and preparation, as well as the satisfaction that comes from nourishing friends and family.

But, even though I now know the difference between a whisk and a spatula, I've still got a lot to learn. Just this week, I made two major gaffes:

1. When I tried to duplicate Katherine's delicious hamburgers in my own home without a "hamburger helper" looking on, I made a terrible beginner's mistake. The outside of the burgers were burning, but the inside meat was still rare. Instead of lowering the flame, I tossed the burgers in the microwave. Yes, the meat cooked, but it also turned barely edible. Ruby happily chowed down on the burgers, but Avo opted for a frozen Indian meal instead.

2. I'm getting better, but I still have a problem following recipes. Just today, for instance, I ignored the very clear instruction to "let butter soften" before mixing the batter for oatmeal cookies. The butter was too hard and the batter got stuck to the mixing blades. At least I knew better than to toss the bowl into the microwave! Instead, I turned the mixer on high until most of the butter splattered off. I scooped the rest out with my fingers. No harm done. The cookies turned out tasty, but it was a close call nonetheless. (And, yes, I'm still baking. I can't stop myself!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Joy of Baking

I know Avo and my mom are right. I have to back away from the Bundt pan and cookie tins for a while. But it is hard when baking is so satisfying.

For one thing, although people can get pretty fancy with pastries and cake decorating, for the most part, baking relies on a few basic ingredients: generally sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder. And the directions are pretty straightforward – you mix the ingredients and then you bake them. Not at all like cooking, where you’ve got to double-check the shopping list to make sure you’ve got the right ingredients and then decide whether you’re going to steam, sautee, smoke, roast or fry your food.

For another thing, apart from a few freaks who don’t like anything sweet, most people appreciate a tasty cookie, cupcake or cake. You don’t have to worry that your guests are vegetarian or don’t like onions or won’t eat fried food.

On a day when I’m procrastinating about articles to write and toilets to clean, it’s satisfying seeing the result of my labor – in the form of a muffin.

So when my friend Kathryn invited me and the girls over for a cookie baking bonanza on Saturday, I didn't hesitate.

In addition to the Butter Spritz dough I prepared, Kathryn prepped the dough in advance for Swedish Tea Cakes, Gingersnaps, Chocolate crinkles and rolled sugar cookies. Where did she get the recipes? From the Pillsbury Kitchen Family Cookbook circa 1979. It's great if you're looking for recipes featuring onion soup mix or for classic cookie recipes. Unfortunately, it's long out of print and is available used on amazon for nearly $90! So take good care of that cookbook, Kathryn.

Even with the dough prepared in advance, it took Kathryn, me and assorted children six hours (!) to churn out five batches of cookies. The kids especially enjoyed decorating the sugar cookies with multi-colored sprinkles -- by the end of the day, the kids were coated in a thin layer of flour and "snacked" by licking the sugar off their hands.

Just to show that even a pro can make an honest mistake, Kathryn accidentally used the Spritz dough for the Swedish tea cakes.

"That's okay. We can paint them with egg yolks and sprinkles. Kids go wild for anything with sprinkles," said Kathryn.

Kathryn was right about the sprinkles, but unfortunately, the Spritz/Swedish tea cakes didn't hold up. They were a crinkled, sprinkled mess. Not one to be discouraged, Kathryn quickly whipped up some more spritz dough, which produced perfectly spritzy cookies. Light, sweet, and buttery.

A helpful baking tip from Kathryn: "Remember, use parchment paper for everything except for the Spritz cookies since they need to stick to the pan."

Aside from the initial batch of botched "Spritz" cookies, the rest of the cookies were delicious -- and so colorful too. The Ginger Snaps were Jesse and my favorite, while Ruby preferred anything with sprinkles. Apparently, this was the most cookies Kathryn has produced in a day. I was proud to be a part of the production process.

The girls and I went home with a nice stash of assorted holiday cookies -- which somehow managed to disappear before the weekend was over.

Perhaps it really is time to take a break from baking or else I'll have to buy a whole new wardrobe -- in a bigger size.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Baked A Cake!

The economy is rocky. There's still a war overseas. But all is right in the world -- for the moment, at least. Why? I baked a cake.

For the first time ever. Yes, believe it or not, it took me 41 years to learn to bake a cake and then to go ahead and DO IT.

After my disastrous Nanaimo Bar experience, I was skittish about trying to make my mom's famous Coffee Apple Cake, but I was not going to let a little unsifted and sugar intimidate me -- especially not after finally managing to hunt down a Bundt pan.

Mixing the ingredients was a breeze. Everything was going smoothly until I poured the gooey batter into the greased bunt pan without flouring it first.

Oops. It only reached about halfway up the pan.

What to do? Call mom, of course.

"Mom, it doesn't look as if I have enough batter."

"It will rise," mom assured me. "That's why you flour the pan."

"Um, do you need to flour the pan?" I asked.

"Yes," said mom.

"Oh well, I didn't flour it."

"It might not rise very much, but it should be okay," mom assured me.

"I can pour the batter out now and flour it."

"No, it's too late. Hopefully, it will be okay. You just may have a low cake."

Luckily, even though I neglected to flour the pan, the cake reached the top of the pan. After taking it out of the oven, I quickly flipped it over and onto a plate.

It looked okay, but was I was supposed to wait until it cooled before flipping it?

I phoned mom to find out.

"Do I flip it out right away?"

"No, wait for it to cool."

"Oh. I already flipped it out," I said.

"Why did you ask me after the fact? I hope you at least remembered to peel the apples. And you brewed the coffee, right? You didn't just put in coffee grinds."

Phew. Luckily I peeled the apples and brewed the coffee. And even though I didn't wait for the cake to cool before flipping it, it held together.

I drizzled on the glazing in time to hurry over to Dori's Hanukkah party, where the cake was a big hit. I foisted it upon a couple of foodie friends.

"Very moist!" one exclaimed.

"Tasty!" said another.

"I like the texture," Avo added.

I was fishing for compliments, but they seemed genuinely impressed.

One party guest who had brought a packaged (albeit yummy) apple pie asked, "Did you make that cake by scratch?"

"Yes and it's the first cake I ever made!" I told her and anybody who seemed mildly interested.

Buoyed by my apple coffee cake success, yesterday I started shopping online for Bundt pans.

"I'm sort of hoping this baking thing is just a phase," said Avo. "And that you'll start focusing on the main course."

He's got a point. Baking is fun, but it doesn't help feed us at dinnertime. Then again, 'tis the season for sweet stuff.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Baking Tips for Dummies

"Do you have a Bundt pan I can borrow?"

Yesterday, I phoned all of my domestically-minded friends in the neighborhood in a desperate attempt to locate a Bundt pan.

Not long ago, I didn't even know what a Bundt pan was.

Luckily, my friend Katherine came to my rescue just in time for me to bake my mother's famous apple coffee cake for Dori's Hanukkah party tonight.

Yes, this is the same apple coffee cake that I spurned in favor of the failed Nanaimo Bars (in case you're keeping track of these things).

Meanwhile, my friend Kathryn (not to be confused with the aforementioned Katherine) is a super-duper cook and baker has invited me and the girls to a holiday cookie baking bonanza tomorrow morning. She is baking Russian Tea Cakes, Gingersnaps, Chocolate crinkles and rolled sugar cookies. I'm impressed (and a bit intimidated!).

When I asked if I could bring anything (maybe some extra butter?), Kathryn replied:

"Oh, here is an idea: find a recipe for spritz cookies, make the dough and bring that. I have the cookie press for them and kids think this is the coolest thing since Playdoh."

So in addition to scrambling to find a Bundt pan yesterday, I was also searching for an easy Spritz cookie recipe. Here's what I found (courtesy of the Food Network):

Butter Spritz Cookies


1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups sifted flour
Sprinkles for garnish


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixer with a paddle attachment, add the sugar and the butter. Mix until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and mix to incorporate. Sift together the baking powder and the flour. Add the flour mixture. Mix until combined. Using a cookie press, press cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets. Top with the sprinkles of your choice. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, or until firm, but not yet browning.

When I got to the bit about the paddle attachment, I panicked. But Kathryn assured me I can use my hand mixer as long as the butter is softened first.

"It's the key to cookies: leave the butter out till it reaches room temp and always use non-salted so you can adjust salt accordingly."

My mom e-mailed me another basic baking tip:

"When you measure flour for baking, lightly spoon the flour into a measuring cup, then level off with a knife or spatula. Don't pack it down into the cup as this will make your cake too heavy. That goes for all baking unless they say to firmly pack (which is very often the case with brown sugar)."

Believe it or not, I remember this tip from when I was a kid and I would help my mom bake cookies.

I've got the spritz cookie dough ready to bring to Kathryn's tomorrow for the mega-baking session and today, Ruby and I will tackle the apple coffee cake. Hopefully, it will turn out better than the Nanaimo Bars. Wish us luck! And feel free to share any more baking tips with me (I could use the help).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Oh No Nanaimo!

Perhaps my first mistake was not following my friend Sam's recipe for Nanaimo Bars. After all, as a native Canadian (from Vancouver), she should know her Nanaimo Bars. Instead, I trusted my friend Dori, a native New Yorker (from the Bronx), to supply me with a recipe for the famous British Columbia treats.

I'm not sure what my second mistake was, but clearly I made one because the bottom layer of the bars I produced pretty much crumbled in my hands. And the middle layer was just an ooey gooey mess of sickeningly sweet goop.

I can't blame Dori since she was just trying to make my life easier by presenting me with an Americanized version of the Nanaomo Bar (translated by Kraft). After all, I could barely decipher Sam's recipe, which called for vanilla custard powder. It took me several days before I realized that custard powder is the same as instant pudding.

Since I didn't have any Graham Cracker Crumbs around the house, I had fun crumbling graham crackers by hand. Ditto for the walnut pieces, which I smashed to bits with a potato masher. So it was a good recipe for working through any excess aggression.

I also liked the fact that I didn't need to use the oven for this recipe. Otherwise, I'd say it was pretty much a disaster.

The middle layer -- which consists of dry pudding mix, softened butter and powdered sugar, was sickeningly sweet (not surprisingly, that was the girls' favorite part). The bottom layer was a crumbly mess and the top layer was too bitter (I mistakenly used bittersweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet).

Jesse and Ruby enjoyed squeezing out the inner goop, dipping their fingers in the mess and then licking it off. But even they lost interest when it came to the chocolate.

I forced Avo to try just one bite.

"Well, it's better than anchovies," he said. Avo hates anchovies.

This morning I was about to dump the messy creation in the trash, but Jesse asked me to hang on to it so she could play with it after-school. So I may not have succeeded at creating a delicious dessert, but I did make an after-school activity!

After a heavy week of baking, I am getting heavier by the minute. I think it's time to get back to some lentil and bulgur dishes!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nanaimo Bars Win!

I guess it wasn't much of a competition -- yummy, gooey, exotic-sounding Nanaomi bars vs. my mom's apple coffee bake. The deck was stacked pretty much in favor of the Nanaimo Bars and not surprisingly, Nanaimo Bars won. So they will be the next sweet treat I will try to bake (sorry, mom).

I'm gathering the ingredients and promise to report back as soon as I've done the deed.

Meanwhile, with so many holiday parties ahead, it's a good thing I've learned the basics of baking. Now I don't have to fret about what to bring to the upcoming festivities.

Then again, Nanaimo Bars don't exactly shout "Hanukkah!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Color-Coding Crayola

As you all know, I've been on a domestication bender for the last six months or so. In addition to learning to cook and clean, I'm trying to just generally organize my life more smoothly (I say this as the timer for my laundry goes off and I'm pre-heating the oven for brownies!).

Jesse and Ruby are starting to get with the program. Ruby has always loved to clean. In fact, she often says that when she grows up she wants to be a cleaning woman (if she's not a "nail painter.") She's happiest when she can help me "fold" laundry, vacuum or unload the dishwasher. But, Jesse's notion of tidying up means tossing her candy wrappers in the trash.

Maybe all of my neatening efforts have gotten to Jesse because last night, she decided to color-code her enormous crayon collection and enlist Ruby as her helper. I was all for it. It gave us an excuse to weed out the nubby stumps of colored wax masquerading as crayons. Plus, it was a good way to kill time before bedtime.

Maybe I'll ask Jesse to color-code her clothes too -- it might be a good way to convince her to clean out her dresser.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What's For Dessert?

Thanksgiving is so last week. I've ridden the wave of apple pie success for long enough. It's time to tackle another challenge.

After all of the fun I had baking sweets for Thanksgiving, now that's all I want to do. Last night, I swear I dreamed about brownies.

Maybe my friend Sam could sense I needed a new goal because she e-mailed a suggestion:

This might be a little bit over-the-top complicated - but the Nanaimo Bar is a seriously delicious native-to-British Columbia treat. Now that you have baked an apple pie (which looks gorgeous, btw), perhaps you are feeling ambitious enough to try something like this. They're so yummy...

I know a challenge when I hear one.

I checked out the recipe for Nanaimo bars and Sam is right -- they look pretty tricky. They also look insanely good. Note that they're referred to as both "sinfully rich" and calorie-laden." Plus, they've got a mildly interesting history, if you care about that sort of thing.

Just when I was all set to take on Nanaimo bars, my mom e-mailed with a much less intimidating dessert idea:

Coffee Apple Cake

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

2 Cups Unsifted flour
1-1/2 Cups sugar
2 tspn cinnamon
2 tspn baking soda (not baking powder)
1 tspn salt
1/2 Cup oil OR apple sauce
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup strong brewed coffee
1-1/2 Cups peeled, sliced apples - (about 1-1/2 large Rome, Gala Or Fuji apples)
1 Cup chopped nuts

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl.
Stir in wet ingredients and blend.
Stir in apples and nuts
Pour into greased and floured 9" tube pan or bundt pan
Bake at 350 degrees for 55-60 minutes or until tester is clean

1 Cup powdered sugar
2 Scant TBSP milk
Whisk until thick and drizzle over cake.

Serve warm or cool, sprinkled with powdered sugar or glazed (see above). Serves 10-12.

It doesn't look nearly as decadent as the Nanaimo bars and it looks a lot easier to bake. I can't decide which to try first. Can you please decide for me?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Yes I Can!

"I can't believe how far you've come," my dad said this morning.

Honestly, I can't believe it either.

If you had told me a year ago that I would be baking pies from scratch, I would have called you a liar.

Am I finally getting over my fear of the oven?

If so, it's about time. It's only taken me 41 years!

So in case you're wondering, Thanksgiving was a big success. Avo cooked up the bird and all of the fixings, and I tackled dessert. I ditched the snickerdoodles at the last minute and came up with dessert menu:

1. Homemade Apple Pie (a la mode, with vanilla ice cream, of course)

2. Pumpkin pie (using a frozen pie crust and canned filling)

3. Brownies from scratch

4. Freshly whipped cream (to top the brownies or the pies)

5. Sugar cookies which the kids decorated with disgusting store-bought pink frosting and then topped with equally disgusting "chocolate" sprinkles (this recipe was more for entertainment than culinary value)

Everyone was stuffed after Avo's amazing meal (turkey, gravy, Brussels sprouts, roasted veggies, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce). Still, we mustered up the energy to pack in quite a bit of sweet treats. I've got to say that the apple pie was the real crowd-pleaser.

The consensus was that it was perfectly done -- not too sweet, not too runny, not too tart, not too chunky. Just right. And Crisco fans, take note: the all-butter crust was nice and flaky. The only thing I might do differently the next time is add some more apples.

Maybe it was just beginner's luck, but I'm starting to think this may become my signature dish. I can't wait for the next holiday, just so I'll have an excuse to bake another pie. Then again, who needs an excuse to bake a pie?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Easy As Pie!

Friends and family members have been calling and e-mailing to find out how it turned out, so I figured I'd announce it publicly: I made an apple pie today and it looks darn good (see picture). The verdict won't be in until tomorrow, but I'm optimistic.

I don't want to get all cocky about it, given I haven't even tasted it yet. But it wasn't so difficult to make. Even the homemade crust wasn't such a big deal.

In case you're wondering, I ended up using a variety of apples: Cortland, Winesap, and Gala.

I guess I've caught the baking bug because after I finished the pie, I baked sugar cookies with Ruby. We both had fun using her toy-sized cookie cutters to make various shape cookies: stars, hearts, little people. But eventually, Ruby lost interest and turned to Play-Doh to bake a "birthday cake." Sadly, the sugar cookies were pretty tasteless. Her Play-Doh cake probably tasted better.

"Think I should serve them tomorrow?" I asked Avo.

"Are you proud of them?"


"Then don't serve them. I wouldn't."

Good advice.

Instead of wallowing in my minor failure of the afternoon, I decided to bake brownies. Nothing too fancy. Just basic brownies. Once I whip some cream tomorrow, they'll be delicious. Of course, I'm hoping all eyes will be on the apple pie!

I'll report back.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Easy As Pie?

The anticipation is killing me. Thanksgiving is two days away and I'm antsy to bake my first ever apple pie. But I want to wait 'til tomorrow so it's fresh for the big day.

In the meantime, the dough is already ready and waiting in the fridge. And I've been busy listening to advice. Everyone, it seems, knows the best way to bake the tastiest pie.

I made a couple of bold decisions: I opted for an all-butter crust rather than using lard or Crisco (despite advice to the contrary from some well-respected foodies). Instead of investing in a pastry blender, I relied on the food processor.

Now comes the next big decision: which type of apples to use and how thinly do I slice them?

My cousin's wife passed on some advice from her Aunt Viola, who apparently makes an amazing apple pie.

"Her trick is to use many different types of apples (red delicious, granny smith, Rome apples, Macintosh, etc). In addition, when she cuts up her apples instead of using thin slices (which she says turns into applesauce) she uses big thick slices (which yield nice chunks of apples after cooking)."

Sounds like good advice. I might even follow it!

Friends and family have rallied together to bolster my confidence (although my mom suggested I go out and buy a frozen crust).

One friend e-mailed her support.

"May there be many flaky, flaky crusts in your future," she wrote.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Thanksgiving Countdown

It was all set. Yesterday, my foodie friend Katherine K. (not the Katherine who taught me how to make burgers) invited me over for an after-school cooking lesson. She was going to teach me how to roast pork and veggies. More importantly, she was going to give me a lesson in the pie-baking basics.

But, alas, Jesse came down with a fever and we had to cancel. So now I'm on my own when it comes time to bake my first ever pie. Yikes!

It's the 4th year in a row that we are hosting Thanksgiving Dinner at our house. But this year is different. Usually, Avo is in charge of planning and preparing the meal and all I do is show up, eat, and clean up. But now that I've learned a thing or two about cooking myself, I want to help Avo out. Then again, I'm not sure he wants my help!

To make things easier for Avo -- especially given that we have a small kitchen -- I will make the desserts and leave the rest to him. I plan to spend the day before Thanksgiving baking, so he can have the kitchen to himself for the big event.

I've decided on making apple pie and snickerdoodles. Apple pie is classic Thanksgiving -- and it goes well with vanilla ice cream. picked the snickerdoodles because the kids will have fun making them with me. Plus, I like any excuse to say "snickerdoodle!"

Recently, I've become intrigued by the pie-making process, especially after an especially gripping "pie" episode of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on the Food Network (Bobby beat the Maine "Pie Moms" with his Peach-Blackberry Pie.

Katherine K. warned me that the biggest challenge is the crust -- it's difficult to get the crust flaky and to be sure that the bottom isn't soggy.

"Do you have a pastry blender?" she asked.

"Um, no. What's that?"

"You can use forks for the pie crust, but using a pastry blender makes it easier to cut the butter into the flour."

Katherine also tipped me off that many apple pie recipes call for Crisco.

"They taste good, but I refuse to eat anything with Crisco in it," she said. "Same goes for lard. I'm all about butter."

Indeed, it seems as if every recipe I find calls for Crisco.

Butter or Crisco? Pastry blender or food processor or by hand? What apples work best? How small do you cut the apple slices? What's a girl to do?

Who knew there were so many choices were involved in making apple pie? Everyone insists that their way is the only way!

I've got to make some decisions and fast because I don't want to have to resort to buying a store-bought crust -- or be forced to pass off a store-bought pie as my own!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why We Cook

In past generations, people learned how to cook by watching their elders in the kitchen. Nowadays, people learn how to cook by watching TV or listening to their ipod. Yes, you can now download countless free cooking shows to your ipod so you can learn how to flambe, saute, and broil while you commute to work.

I'm not pointing fingers or assigning blame for our country's poor eating habits. In fact, I'm addicted to The Next Iron Chef. And my good friend Muffy recently turned me on to "Why We Cook," a weekly radio show and podcast (on the Heritage Radio Network) featuring Chef Erica Wides (see photo), who teaches at the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan.

In thoughtful, conversational segments, Wides, who is down-to-earth and informative, answers the basic question "Why do we seek out interesting foods?"

The half-hour show isn't for anyone looking for quick and easy tips about how to get dinner on the table. Rather, it's for people who enjoy asking questions about why we cook the way we do and contemplating the sociological, historical, and cultural issues related to cooking.

Wides bills "Why We Cook" as a virtual cooking school on the radio, focusing on techniques, seasonal dish how-to’s, ingredients, and philosophical musings about the industry. Each show Wides features a different style and technique of cooking and answers listeners' questions about food. Occasionally, she interviews special guests from the culinary world.

When I type "How to cook" into the itunes search engine, I am amazed at how many free cooking podcasts are available, including "Food Done Right," "Bluewater TV" from the Bluewater Grill, and "Under the Tuscan Gun," featuring gum-cracking New York actress Debi Mazar and her Tuscan born hubby Gabriele Corcos.

The only problem with all of these options is that if I get hooked, I may not have anytime to actually cook.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eco-Me Fun

First, a disclaimer: my old sleepaway camp buddy is married to the founder of Eco-Me, Robin Kay Levine (see photo), who has since become a friend of mine. Robin was kind enough to send me a package of free samples. But it takes more than a shipment of swag to get a good review from me.

What first impressed me was the product packaging -- simple, yet eye-catching. Then, I was struck by the product names. In the few days since they've arrived at my house, I've already grown fond of Bill, Emily, Kate, and Emma. Now when I'm scrubbing the tub, doing the laundry, or washing the dishes, I don't feel so alone. I've got my Eco-Me buddies alongside me.

Seriously, the products -- which are derived from natural ingredients like vinegar and baking soda -- work well and you don't have to worry that you're poisoning yourself and your family with chemicals every time you clean.

My favorite thing about Eco-Me is that if you want, you can use one of their DIY kits to make the products yourself at home. My kids loved these "chemistry experiments" and I got a kick out of watching housework turn into an after-school activity. If you can't figure out how to make these cleaning potions on your own, Eco-Me provides video instructions (starring my new friend).

The girls were excited to take a bath so they could use the body scrub they made out of sugar, olive oil and essential oils. The only trick was preventing them from eating the stuff!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pretend Soup

You may recognize Mollie Katzen's name from "The Moosewood Cookbook," once of the best-selling cookbooks of all time. Published in 1977, "Moosewood" earned its strong following with its conversational tone and precious pen-and-ink illustrations. But, the biggest draw was the easy-to-prepare vegetarian recipes. The book became an instant classic on college campuses and in hippy, crunchy towns around the country.

Until recently, I had no idea that Katzen has also penned many other cookbooks, including "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes," which is geared to the kid set.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how I want Jesse and Ruby to learn how to cook. For one, I'm hoping if they help prepare the food, they might be more interested in eating it. Another thing, I'd love it if at some point they could start preparing dinner for me and Avo! Finally, I figure if they learn their way around a kitchen at this age, they won't do what I did and wait until I was 40 to learn how to cook.

Like most kids, they enjoy helping me bake cookies or other sweet treats. But I'm trying to segue into more savory dishes.

Pretend Soup is still pretty sweet, but at least it teaches the concept of measurements. It may be pretend soup, but it's real something.


2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 small banana, sliced
1 cup berries (any kind, fresh or frozen — if they're frozen, defrost them first, and use all the juice it'll add)


1. Place the orange juice in a bowl.
2. Add yogurt, honey, and lemon juice.
3. Whisk "until it is all one color.".
4. Place 5 banana slices and 2 tablespoons berries in each bowl.
5. Ladle the soup over the berries and bananas.
6. Eat!

Note: You can add other kinds of fruit as well. Slices of kiwi are especially pretty.

The kids had a lot of fun following the directions. Of course, they fought over who was going to add the honey and then begged to lick the spoon afterward.

The soup itself was sort of funky tasting -- I'm not crazy about the yogurt/orange juice combo. The kids weren't either.

I dumped the whole bowl of "soup" into the blender, tossed in some more bananas and frozen berries. Success! We made ourselves a delicious fruit smoothie. So now, in addition to learning how to follow a recipe, the girls learned how to improvise.

"If you don't want to be a writer anymore, maybe you could work somewhere making smoothies," Jesse said.

I guess she liked her smoothie.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Banana Muffins to the Rescue

As I've mentioned before, Avo has one major pet peeve: He can't stand to see bananas go uneaten. It pains him to watch them get so dark and ripe that he knows they are destined for the trash. Before they reach that dire point, he is generally driven to make a banana smoothie or banana bread (in fact, he baked some just last week).

To save him the angst and the effort of baking again, I beat him to it.

Since I knew he'd be seriously bummed out if he came home from last night to find the darn bananas still hanging around, I baked banana muffins (for the first time ever).

Lucky I found this easy, kid-friendly recipe online.


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup butter, melted


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat muffin pans with non-stick spray, or use paper liners (I like the liners). Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

2. Combine bananas, sugar, egg, and melted butter in a large bowl. Fold in flour mixture, and mix until smooth. Scoop into muffin pans.

3. Bake in preheated oven. Bake mini muffins for 10 to 15 minutes, and large muffins for 25 to 30 minutes. You know they're done when the muffins spring back when lightly tapped.

The most fun part of the process was mashing the bananas. I used a potato masher and really enjoyed pounding the bananas to a pulp.

The least fun part was melting a frozen stick of butter in the microwave. Apparently, I left it in for too long because when I opened the door to the microwave, it smelled like popcorn and there was very little butter left in the glass measuring cup. Where had it disappeared to? Was this some sort of strange magic trick? Unfortunately, not.

Rather, the entire microwave was coated in a thin layer of butter. In case you're wondering, cleaning butter off the inside of a microwave is a real pain.

The muffins, however, turned out perfectly (once I melted more butter, of course). I gave a couple of muffins to Ruby's teachers and in return, they gave me the ultimate compliment.

"Can you bake these for the entire class?" they asked.

"Um, sure. Why not?"

So it looks as if I've got more banana mushing in my future.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Simple Question

It was a simple question that required a simple "yes" or "no" answer. But really, the only acceptable answer was "yes!"

The question?

"Can you vacuum the bedroom carpet?"

It was the first time my husband -- the domestic guru -- has ever asked me to do anything around the house. This is after nearly 10 years of marriage.

Until recently, Mr. Perfect has done pretty much everything on his own -- the food shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, everything.

When I first started to do some food shopping and cooking, he admitted he felt a bit threatened. But he's quickly grown accustomed to coming home to a freshly cooked meal.

The only problem is that now he's starting to expect more of me -- not only does he want dinner on the table, but I'm getting the feeling that he wants the place to be clean and tidy too.

Is that too much to ask?

Definitely not. He's carried more than his weight for the last decade. I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Sure, I'll vacuum the carpet. But first I've got a few e-mails to return.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's a Boar

I've learned how to cook rice. I can cook chickpeas and lentils too. Maybe even some chicken or fish dish. But cooking meat still freaks me out.

Sure, my friend Katherine taught me how to make a simple burger. But I haven't tried it on my own and I certainly haven't expanded my culinary repertoire to include any steak or pork.

I've never been a vegetarian, but I've also never been a big eater of meat. Like me, Avo generally prefers a vegetarian dish over a juicy steak. But, occasionally, he likes to experiment with exotic meats.

"What's for dinner, honey?" I asked yesterday since he pretty much takes over on cooking duty on the weekends.

"Wild boar!"

After all of the silly puns I could make (that sounds "boaring!"), I figure since Avo doesn't watch sports on TV, he's got to assert his masculinity somewhere -- and occasionally, that somewhere is the kitchen.

Since Avo bought the boar at the Park Slope Food Coop, I like to think the boar was humanely raised in a free-range wild boar sanctuary with his friends and family. I'm sure they lived a plush life -- taking two baths a day and dining on wild mushrooms and other delicacies. Or at least that's what I like to tell myself.

I took the kids out to enjoy the lovely weather yesterday while Avo dedicated himself to prepping the boar (he marinated it in a secret concoction which involved sending me out for fennel seeds).

If you're curious about how to cook wild boar, don't ask me. You can look here for some tips. Or some boar recipes here.

It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately, it was disappointing. Too tough. Too chewy. Too meaty.

Back to tofu, tempeh and seitan for us.

The truth is I'm just not wild about wild boar.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rice Cooker = New Best Friend

You've heard me vent my frustrations about my crock pot. I like it in theory, but in never really works out for me in practice.

My new favorite kitchen appliance is my rice cooker. Amazingly, I've had it for nearly 20 years now and we've just gotten better acquainted.

Until recently, the only thing I did with it was cook rice -- and even that proved too tricky for me (Avo always had to remind me it's two cups of water to every cup of rice and still I sometimes confused the measurements).

I didn't even realize that you could cook complete meals in a rice cooker. What a revelation!

I've been feeling too crummy this week to cook or even to eat much, but last week, I had great success with this rice cooker recipe:

Spiced Lentils and Rice
(thanks to Fat-Free Vegan Kitchen)

2 cup brown rice
3/4 cup lentils
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
6 cloves
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt (optional)
1/4 cup minced parsley

I put all of the ingredients (except parsley) into the rice cooker. Then I added four cups of water, stirred and turned on the rice cooker. By the time the cooker shut off, the rice and the lentils were tender.

I dug through the rice to recover the cinnamon and cloves, fluffed the rice, and added minced parsley. Voila. Dinner -- or at least a tasty side dish -- is served.

"I like that you're trying out all of these vegetarian dishes," said Avo," but I think it's time to move beyond the Middle East.

Okay, I get the message, honey. No more lentils and chick peas for a while.

Meanwhile, I bet you didn't know that Roger Ebert is a big fan of the rice cooker.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Grossest Recipe Ever

As you might have guessed, the recipe exchange I recently participated in, was a total and complete bust. I received only one recipe -- and I'm honestly not sure if that one was a gag.

Here it is so you can judge for yourself:

Broccoli Slaw

1 lb. bag shredded broccoli slaw
1 cup toasted slivered almonds
1/2 cup craisins
1/2 red pepper, diced
1/3 cup sugar
2 pkgs. ramen noodles crumbled by hand
1 cup soy or pignoli nuts
1/2 bunch scallions - dice with scissors
3/4 cup canola oil
1/3 cup white rice vinegar

Combine all above ingredients. Season with salt and pepper.

First off, what the Heck is broccoli slaw? A combination of broccoli and cole slaw? The name itself turns my stomach. Secondly, are there any decent recipes that call for craisins? Finally, do any decent chefs dice scallions with scissors?

What really tipped me off to the fact that this might be a friend playing a joke on me is the part about "ramen noodles crumbled by hand." That sounds like the sort of thing I might have "cooked" in my truly undomesticated days. I'm assuming they're referring to raw ramen noodles and not cooked!

Needless to say, I won't be trying this one out anytime soon. Not only does it sound disgusting, but I've been sick with the flu and haven't felt up to cooking anything anyhow.

I'm wondering if anyone knows of a more unappetizing recipe. If so, please let me know. It might be fun to collect them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

An Undomesticated Halloween

Aside from dressing up as an over-sized M&M and eating tons of candy, my favorite thing about Halloween as a kid was eating homemade roasted pumpkin seeds.

Until recently, I was always too timid to turn on the oven and try this out for myself. When Avo carved the pumpkin Wednesday night, I summoned the courage to roast the seeds (instead of tossing them in the trash like I usually do). In case you're wondering, here is how you do it:

How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Dig out the innards of the pumpkin. Search for the seeds. Don't be timid. Once you get over the initial "ick" factor of having your hands covered with pumpkin pulp, it's sort of fun.

3. Toss the seeds -- and any leftover muck -- into a colander and rinse will cold water.

4. Spread the seeds in a single layer on baking sheet and toss with oil (canola will do). Coat lightly and sprinkle with salt.

5. Bake for 25 minutes or until nicely toasted. Let them cool and then store in an air-tight container. You won't be keeping them for long since they're too yummy to resist!

It's a good idea to make them a couple of days before Halloween since once the candy comes out, all bet's are off and nobody will be interested in the seeds -- no matter how good they taste.

And if you want to get really fancy about it, you can toast pumpkin seeds with sugar and spice or curried pumpkin seeds.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Cooking Emergency

Many people I know -- including Avo, Dori, my dad, and my brother -- find cooking relaxing. It's the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day at work (or in my dad's case, a long, relaxing day of horseback riding and dog walking).

Me? I almost had a nervous breakdown yesterday trying to make broccoli soup. I am not exaggerating. Let me explain.

I was halfway through Giulia Melucci's recipe for Broccoli soup when I realized I hadn't yet added the 1/4 cup of cream required. I scanned the directions, but didn't see anything specified about when to add the cream.

Take a look for yourself:

Giulia Melucci's Broccoli Soup


1 tablespoon butter, plus another for finishing (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
cups broccoli florets
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 cup cream
1 lime, juiced


1. Melt the butter in a large heavy pan over medium heat, add the onion and carrot and salt. Saute until soft, about five minutes.

2. Add the broccoli, stir to coat, then add the chicken broth and cumin. Raise the heat to medium high, bring to a simmer, return heat to medium and cook until broccoli is very soft, about 15-20 minutes.

3. Puree the soup in a food processor, or with an immersion blender. (My preferred method, so much easier than transferring to a machine, if you don't have one, you should.) You might want to add another tablespoon of butter here for a richer soup--that's not where I'm at today but I think it's a good move. Add lime juice and a few grindings of pepper and your virtuous meal or first course is ready.

Perhaps a cooking pro would innately know when to add the cream, but I'm still a novice. Panicked, I e-mailed Giulia, whom I met recently after stalking her on Facebook. My broccoli was already pretty soft and I was ready for step 3, but I didn't want to proceed without the cream. What to do?

Things were rough going before they took a turn for the worse. I realized with horror that the cream leftover in the fridge from when I made my parents chocolate mousse a week and a half ago had curdled. I'll spare you the description, but it was not a pretty sight.

I hurried out in the rain and stopped at several bodegas before finding one with cream. Would Half and Half do? I wondered.

Still, no word back from Giulia, so I made a move and dumped in 1/4 cup of cream.

The next challenge was transferring the soup into the food processor since -- no surprise here -- I don't have an immersion blender. In fact, I don't even know what an immersion blender is. It sounds like some sort of SCUBA gear to me.

I poured the entire pan full of soup into the food processor before noticing that the soup was seeping out onto my kitchen counter.

By this point, I was dripping sweat into the soup. Taking a deep cleansing breath, I mopped up the mess and managed to salvage some of the soup. Good thing I moved my laptop off the kitchen counter before this step!

I tried the soup and it's pretty tasty (I didn't add lime to it). But I'm not sure it was worth all of that stress. And I realize now that Avo is probably sick of broccoli dishes -- especially since I just made orecchiette and broccoli with walnuts yet again!

Maybe one day I'll find cooking relaxing. But for now, I'll stick with Tension Tamer tea.

Update: I heard back from Giulia who was baffled by my message. "What cream? I didn't say to add cream, did?" Apparently, she made the soup with cream last week, but this week, she cut the cream and added lime. All that stressing for nothing! Well, not nothing -- I have the soup to show for my efforts, and it IS nice and creamy. I'm just pleased that I knew better than to add the lime to the cream. "You've got natural instinct," said Giulia. Well, I'm getting there.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If I Can Cook, So Can You

For the first time in my life, I am experiencing the satisfaction that comes from having a refrigerator full of food that I made.

In addition to the hummus and Ful Mudammas that I made recently, I also have leftover orecchiette with broccoli and walnuts (yes, that's my favorite dish lately). I felt amazingly satisfied watching Avo pack lunch with food that I had prepared. It sounds corny, but it feels good to nourish the people you love.

I was planning to make Giulia Melucci's broccoli soup and Dori's moujadara (bulgar & lentils) today, but Avo said we should work our way through the food in the fridge.

Since it's raining out and I've already bought some ingredients, I may go for it anyway. I can't believe it might actually reach the point where Avo will have to tell me to take a break from cooking! Boy, have times changed.

Mujadarra can be made with either rice or bulgar. Here is Dori's recipe, which she made up herself:

1. Saute a thinly sliced onion in about 3-4 T olive/safflower/veg oil over med-low heat til carmelized (not burned), about 15 minutes.

2. Add in ... a cup each bulgar/lentils (you could do 1/2 cup lentils, too, which might be better)

3. Add in about 2-1/4 cups water (maybe 2 cups if 1/2 cup lentils; I just kept watching and adding water as needed at the end) and bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 mins. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Yesterday, while walking through Prospect Park, I ran into two fellow moms I know from the neighborhood. We got to talking about cooking and they both confessed they've fallen into the old mac and cheese/chicken nuggets routine for their kids.

I started telling them about my recent experiences cooking and they seemed impressed.

"Seriously, just six months ago, I didn't cook anything. If I can cook, so can you!"

Suddenly, I'm like a recent convert to the gospel of home cooking. I want to share the good word with everyone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My First And Last Recipe Exchange

Call me a dork, but I'm sorta excited that my friend Sam invited me to join her e-mail recipe exchange.

Yes, I realize it's a chain letter, but at least there is no financial scam involved. The goal is to get lots of new recipes, which sounds like fun to me.

Here's the deal:

You email a favorite, easy recipe to the first person on the list, move the second person up, put your email address in their place, and then send the email out to 20 or so of your friends. If no one breaks the chain, you’re supposed to get 20 recipes sent back to you.

I quickly sent out my recipe for my new go-to recipe Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts.

Most of my friends e-mailed back immediately politely declining. Apparently, these e-mail recipe exchanges are quite popular and they've already received a ton of these requests. But, it's a novelty for me since nobody has ever asked me before -- until now, I wouldn't have had a recipe to contribute.

Luckily, a couple of people have taken pity on me and though they declined to officially participate, they've passed on some fave recipes.

Here is one I'm looking forward to trying:

Terry's Ful Mudammas (Broad Beans in Sauce)


• 2 cans (15-ounce each) cooked fava beans

• 6 cloves garlic, or to taste

• 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

• 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 1 1/2 Tablespoons parsley, minced


1. Press the garlic cloves through a garlic press into a medium bowl.

2. Mash the garlic and salt together.

3. Next, add the lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley to the garlic mixture and combine thoroughly.

4. Drain the beans well, rinse, and put beans into a large pot over low heat.

5. Add garlic mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to combine thoroughly.

6. Serve warm with the garnishes arranged on a platter.

In fact, I'm heading out now to buy some fava beans. I'll let you know how it goes.

And I promise not to send out anymore e-mail chain letters! I don't want to test the bonds of friendship any further.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sex and Housework

Pick up that broom if you want some action in the bedroom. According to today's Wall Street Journal, doing housework helps your married sex life.

The new shows that for husbands and wives alike, the more housework you do, the more often you are likely to have sex with your spouse.

Earlier studies have hinted at this connection for men; the sight of a husband mopping the floor or doing dishes sparks affection in the hearts of many wives. But the more-housework-equals-more-sex link for wives, documented in a study of 6,877 married couples published online recently in the Journal of Family Issues, is a surprise.

Scrubbing the floor is no aphrodisiac, and seeing your spouse doing it usually isn't either. "My husband loves doing laundry, yet I don't get any thrill out of his doing it," says Chicago writer Julie Danis. And "I don't think he thinks it's sexy when I go around gathering the detritus of his daily life."

But for some high achievers who take a "work hard, play hard" approach to life, researchers say, working hard in one domain produces more energy for others. The study also found a correlation between hours spent on paid work and the frequency of sex in marriage.

"Rather than compromise their sex life" because of time demands at work or at home, "this group of go-getters seems to make sex a priority," says Constance Gager, lead researcher and an assistant professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University, Montclair, N.J. The study doesn't measure what proportion of spouses fall into this group, but she believes "they are on the leading edge of couples we expect to see more of in the future."

Many husbands and wives I interviewed offered an additional explanation—that housework may be a proxy for a general willingness to invest in shared interests, a symbol of commitment to home and hearth. Perhaps "working on the same task … makes the couple remember why they married—to be on the same team, to build a life," Ms. Danis says.

Maybe there's a connection between this study and the other study I wrote about recently which suggested that doing housework produced the same level of the feel-good hormone serotonin as being in love.

On the downside:

The study defined housework as nine chores: cleaning, preparing meals, washing dishes, washing and ironing clothes, driving family members around, shopping, yard work, maintaining cars and paying bills. Wives in the study spent an average 41.8 hours a week on these tasks, compared with 23.4 hours for husbands—a split that is fairly typical, and often regarded by wives as unfair. However, the effects of any fairness concerns among wives weren't measured in this study.

Let's hope that word of the study inspires husbands to do more laundry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Unexpected Delicacy

Remember when I was obsessed with Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Salads for the Season? It was fun working my way through Bittman's list, but then the season changed and I moved on to heartier fare.

Although I won't be able to get all of the fresh produce required for the 101 Salads, some of the salads can work even in Autumn. In fact, brussels sprouts are generally better this time of year.

70. Shred brussels sprouts in the food processor, preferably with the slicing disk. Toss with vinaigrette and crumbled bacon.

On Sunday night, Avo tried out the recipe, adding his own twist. After shredded the sprouts and frying the and crumbling the bacon, he threw them both in a wok and stir fried them. He tossed the mix with a vinaigrette dressing and the result was surprisingly tasty. Then again, anything tastes good with bacon.

It re-heated amazingly well for lunch yesterday.

Since Ruby is home sick and I strained a muscle in my back, I don't plan to do much cooking (or cleaning) today. But Avo is excited to make a meat lasagna when he gets home tonight. Can't wait.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kasha Spells Comfort

It's been a dark, rainy week here in Brooklyn. Just the right weather for comfort food.

And when I think "comfort food," I think "kasha varnishkes."

Never heard of it before?

Kasha is toasted hulled buckwheat and varnishkes is the Yiddish term for farfalle or bow-tie pasta.

It's a classic Eastern European dish that was imported to America (and, in particular, the Lower East side), by Russian Jewish immigrants (like my grandparents). Even though I was a picky eater as a kid, I had no problem finishing off a plate of my mother's kasha varnishkes.

Then, in my post-college years in the East Village, I regularly ordered kasha varnishes at Ukrainian restaurants like Veselka.

So now that I've become a bit more comfortable in the kitchen, I thought it was time I see if I can make the dish myself.

People are very passionate about their kasha varnishkes. When I posted on Facebook that I was making them, old friends came out of the woodwork to announce that it was their all-time favorite dish.

My idol Mark Bittman wrote about kasha varnishkes in The New York Times:

To make a completely authentic dish, you must cook the onions in chicken fat. (You can use olive oil, but it’s not the same.) You can buy chicken fat, but it’s easy enough just to save the excess fat from a few chickens that you are using for other dishes and freeze it. When you have about a cup, cut it up and cook it over very low heat until the fat is rendered and the solids crisp up (save those solids, and eat them on crackers). Onions are never better than when cooked in chicken fat.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any chicken fat, but thanks to Avo, I had fresh chicken stock to cook the kasha. You can't have everything!

Kasha Varnishkes
(adapted from Mark Bittman)

3 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn (not olive oil!)
1 egg
1 cup kasha
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 to 2 tablespoons butter (optional -- I skipped it)
1 pound of farfalle (bowtie pasta)

1. Put the onion in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Cover the skillet and cook for about 15 minutes, until the onion is dry and almost sticking to the pan. Add the 3 tablespoons oil, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring, until the onion is nicely browned, another 15 minutes or so.

2. Meanwhile, beat the egg, then toss it in a bowl with the kasha. Put the mixture along with some salt and pepper in a heavy, large, deep skilled over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture smells toasty, about 3 minutes.

3. Turn the heat to a minimum, carefully add the stock, and stir once. Cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes (it took me much longer because my stock wasn't entirely defrosted). Turn off the heat. Stir in the onion, taste, and adjust the seasoning.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. When the kasha is just about done (or is already resting), cook 1 pound of farfalle pasta until it's tender, but not mushy. Drain it, reserving some of the cooking water. Use a fork to toss the pasta with the kasha and onions, adding some butter (if you want) and enough of the reserved cooking water to make the dish a little creamy.

The steps are simple enough, but it was hard for me to manage the timing of it all. Also, I realized too late that I don't have enough covers for my pans (so I used a large serving plate instead).

My other mistake -- I forgot to reserve some of the cooking water from the pasta and didn't add butter. So the result was not as creamy as Bittman recommends, but it still hit the spot.

Avo, who has never been a fan of kasha varnishkes, said that mine was even better than Veselka's. It would have tasted even better if I had made a pot roast and gravy to serve with it!

As if that wasn't enough comfort food for one day, I went ahead and baked oatmeal cookies (without the chips) with the kids.

A very comforting day!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More Deep (Funny) Thoughts

Way back in June, I shared some of my favorite quotes about housekeeping. It was so much fun that I'm doing it again. Enjoy!

Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?
- Phyllis Diller

Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.
- Erma Bombeck

Housework is the only activity at which men are allowed to be consistently inept because they are thought to be so competent at everything else.
- Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Housework is what a woman does that nobody notices unless she hasn't done it.
- Evan Esar

I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.
- Joan Rivers (see above picture)

I think housework is the reason most women go to the office.
- Heloise

There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.
- Quentin Crisp

Now I better go make the beds and do the laundry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dinner for the Folks

Thanks to everyone who voted in my "What Should I Make My Parents for Dinner?" poll.

The resounding winner was: Chicken cutlets. Reservations came in a distant second. I'm glad to see you've got some faith in my new cooking abilities.

My parents arrived at our apartment Monday morning. As usual, they were early -- so early, in fact, that I hadn't yet arrived home from my work shift and food shop at the co-op. I finally showed up lugging two big bags of groceries, including ingredients for the big dinner I had promised them.

After months of reading about my cooking, my parents wanted to actually witness my domestic transformation for themselves -- and taste my cooking.

I had prepared the menu in advance:

White bean puree with baguette
Arugula salad with cherry tomatoes and crunchy sprouts
Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts
Chicken Cutlets
Chocolate Mousse

Nothing so overwhelming I would get performance anxiety. In fact, I had already tested all of these dishes except for the Chocolate Mousse.

Since I had never hosted a dinner party before, it was intimidating enough cooking for six adults and two children. My parents are not gourmands and I felt confident they would be impressed with nearly anything their darling daughter prepared. But my brother, Steve, is an experienced cook who has strong opinions about food. I didn't want to disappoint him or his lovely wife, Francesca (what was I thinking cooking pasta for a real Italian?)

I cheated on the bean puree by defrosting the white beans and garlic I cooked last week. But when I tried to puree them in the food processor, I couldn't get it to turn on. My mom helped me transfer them to the blender, but the frozen bean block seemed jammed the blender.

My dad got the bright idea of using a potato masher to puree the beans.

"Don't panic. Improvise," he wisely advised.

Since my dad likes to be busy, I assigned him the job of chopping garlic for the pasta dish. It was a father-daughter bonding moment!

For my birthday on Friday, Dori gave me Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. How did she know it was just what I wanted? I left her a phone message detailing my b-day wish list! She also came through with a bar of Mast Brothers chocolate, which is worth the outrageous price tag (especially when it's a gift).

I relied on Bittman for my chocolate mousse recipe:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (or use chips)
3 eggs, separated
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Bittman recommends using a double boiler or a small saucepan over low heat to melt the butter and chocolate together, but I cheated and used the microwave. Just before the chocolate finishes melting, remove it from the stove (or microwave) and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth.

2. Transfer the chocolate mixture to a bowl and beat in the egg yolks with a whisk. Try not to nibble at it too much. Refrigerate.

3. Beat the egg whites with half the sugar until they hold stiff peaks but are not dry. Set aside. Beat the cream with the remaining sugar and the vanilla until it holds soft peaks.

4. Stir in a couple of spoonfuls of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit, then fold in the remaining whites thoroughly but gently. Fold in the cream and refrigerate until chilled. If you are in a hurry, divide the mousse among 6 cups, it will chill much faster. Serve within a day or two.

Top with Whipped Cream and shaved chocolate if you like (I like!).

"It will take forever by hand. You can beat from today 'til tomorrow and it won't work," said Mom as she watched me try to complete step 3. She took control and starting whipping with the hand blender. Still, it wore out her arm pretty fast.

"The cook book said this would be easy, but this is a pain in the ass!" I said.

"That's why I don't make stuff with peaks," my mom said.

Meanwhile, my dad urged Ruby to join me in the kitchen.

"Watch your mom, so you can learn how to cook and you won't have to start a blog about cooking when you grow up."

Ha ha.

Ruby watched closely as my mom instructed me on how to fold the chocolate (I don't even know how to fold clothes!).

Then, I got the inspired idea to serve the mousse in the champagne flutes we got from our wedding registry.

"Well, even if the rest of the meal is a disaster, at least you've got the dessert down," said my dad.

Just about then I realized that the one table cloth I have was too small for the dining room table once it's opened up to seat so many people. Also, I didn't have enough cloth napkins and chairs for everyone. Oh well. I took my dad's advice and improvised, rather than panicked.

The meal was prepped and the table was set by the time my brother and Francesca showed up, but I was still in serious denial about the chicken cutlets. I hadn't thought through how I was going to cook up so many in my small kitchen.

Luckily, my brother, a musician and high school English teacher who spent his post-college years working in various kitchens, is handy with a frying pan.

I felt like a little kid again having my big brother come in and save the day.

We knocked out the (perfectly tender) chicken cutlets just in time for Avo to walk in the door. I handed him a glass of wine and we all sat down to a lovely family meal.

And what do you know? It was delicious.

But tonight I'm making my parents take us out to dinner.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hot Men Do Housework

Why is it newsworthy when a man does housework?

Nearly every day, there seems to be an article profiling yet another hunky Hollywood star who -- gasps -- helps out around the house.

Most recently, Clive Owen, bragged about his housekeeping skills.

"I do my fair bit of chores," says Owen, who has been married since 1995 and has two daughters, 12 and 10. "I'm very hands-on when I'm home. It's not alien to me to be washing up and doing the laundry."

And not long ago, Eric Bana declared housework the ultimate "aphrodisiac." The "Time Travelers' Wife" actor revealed the way to win a woman's heart is by keeping a clean home.

I'm good around the house. I'm not stealing my wife's thunder, but I do clean. Housework is a bigger aphrodisiac to women than a set of abs, I've found!

Are these proclamations designed to drive women to buy movie tickets or to bug their husbands to help out around the house?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How to Do Laundry

Do I really have to separate colors when I do laundry? Generally, I toss laundry in and wash in cold. The process is easy, but the results are mixed at best.

Now The New York Times weighs in and it turns out that separating colors before washing really does make a difference. Cheryl Mendelson, author of “Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens," shares her tips for keeping clothes looking bright. Don't ask me how she managed to write a 416 page book about doing laundry! Seems my time might be better spent by doing laundry rather than reading about it.

Keeping like-colored clothing together maintains its brightness, Ms. Mendelson said. She recommends separating clothes into five categories: whites; lights and almost-whites (yellows and whites with prints); brights (reds, oranges and light blues); darks (purples and blues); and blacks and browns.

Sot now I'll feel guilty when I don't sort by color. Maybe my family will just have to accept their drab clothing.

Read the article for yourself.

How many of you separate your laundry before washing? And what do you do about plaids?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pot Lucky

Until recently, nothing struck fear in me as quickly as two simple words: POT LUCK. Just the thought of a pot luck made me cringe and cower.

For a non-cook like me, a pot luck was just an opportunity to apologize.

"Sorry, I didn't have time to cook, so I picked up these bagels."

"I tried to make cookies, but they burned."

It go so bad that I would either refuse the invitation or take credit for someone else's dish.

"Oh, you like the chicken salad? Thanks, I made it myself."

But now that I have sort of learned how to cook, I've had enough with lame excuses.

So when my friend Amanda invited me to her synagogue's pot luck in honor of Sukkoth on Sunday, I jumped at the chance to show off my new skills.

The only problem was that after a morning spent at the Atlantic Antic and then Ruby's swimming class, I had less than an hour to whip up something marvelous.

Here's what I came up with:

Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts
(from Real Simple)

12 ounces orechiette (3 cups)
1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
1/2 cup walnuts, roughtly chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water, drain the pasta, and return it to the pot.

Meanwhile, on a rimmed baking sheet, toss the broccoli, walnuts, oil, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Roast, tossing once, until the broccoli is tender, 18 to 20 minutes.

Toss the pasta with the broccoli mixture, butter, and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water (Add more water if the pasta seems dry). Sprinkle with the Parmesan before serving.

I finished just in time to hurry over to the Pot Luck only to find I was the first one to arrive.

When I presented my dish to the pot luck's organizers, I was overcome with pride at how far I have come in my quest to become domesticated. I am beginning to see myself in a new light. Apparently, I am the sort of person who cooks orecchiette with roasted broccoli and walnuts for a pot luck.

I tried my best not to judge my fellow pot luckers who contributed store-bought hummus and Pepperidge Farm cookies.

The only bummer was that my dish went so fast, Avo never got a chance to try it.

But he'll have a chance on Monday when I re-create this dish for my parents. I still need a main dish to impress them. Any ideas? Take my poll above or post your own suggestions in the comment section below.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Love with Housework?

When I started this blog six months ago, my intention was to write about my hapless attempts to learn to cook and clean. Recently, I have been devoting my efforts almost entirely to cooking (much to Avo's chagrin).

Why? Cleaning is pretty boring and writing about cleaning is even more boring (unless you're writing about the political and personal issues involved in cleaning as in the recent anthology, Dirt, edited by Mindy Lewis).

Occasionally, however, I will continue to update you on cleaning-related issues and news. For instance, I just read about an incredible study -- or rather, I should say that the results of the study strained incredulity.

According to the study of 2,000 Britons, who were quizzed by cleaning materials firm Vileda, cleaning 20 minutes a day produces the same level of feel-good ­hormone serotonin as a new love.

And the reaction applies to both men and women, reports The Daily Express.

Psychologist Donna Dawson said: "It's the same feeling as sharing that first kiss. It make us feel good about ourselves."

The study also found that mopping was people's favorite chore.

Seriously? If cleaning produced the same level of serotonin as a first kiss, people would scour their floors a lot more. Personally, I can't stand mopping.