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.