Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Black Cake II

Two ovens of black cake

Let's just come right out and state the obvious here. Making a double recipe of black cake is dumb. And it's dumb for multiple reasons. To begin with, a single recipe of black cake already makes two hefty cakes. The recipe says something like two nine-inch cakes, but that's only true if your nine-inch cake pans are also four inches deep. Otherwise, you're really talking about two ten-inch springform pans or perhaps one ten-inch springform pan and one nine-inch springform pan, if you like life on the edge. And a black cake is dense: a ten-inch black cake will give you twenty-five or thirty servings, unless you've starved your guests for a six or eight hours beforehand and serve dessert before the rest of the meal (Which is not necessarily a bad idea, because, really what's more annoying than a guest who shows up at your table with an insufficient appetite? And who can object to dessert first? It's Christmas, for crying out loud.) So with that single recipe, what you'd ideally make would be three eight-inch cakes and perhaps a ramekin-sized cake with the extra batter.

A double recipe also involves a lengthy soaking of ten pounds of dried fruit in 3 liters (total) of wine and rum. It is not easy to find a container big enough to hold all that, and once you've found such a container, it is not easy to convince your territorial partner that your container of macerating fruit deserves space in the pantry for two or three months. This is the sort of disagreement that can lead to your vat-o-fruit making multiple trips up and down the basement stairs (hopefully not under its own power), which hurts the fruit not at all, but is annoying and will, justifiably, make you feel ridiculous.

And then, of course, when you've managed to retrieve your vat-o-fruit from the basement for the last time, while simultaneously carrying up your extremely large metal mixing bowl Envy my giant bowl!(twenty-four inch diameter, I'm talking here; I'll post pictures, but it's difficult to tell just how big it is because it just makes everything else look smaller), and you've gotten about halfway through the pan preparation that you need to do before you can begin mixing up the batter, your partner is liable to walk through the kitchen and say "Are all of those pans going to fit in the oven at the same time?" and you will realize that they probably will not, and if you then suggest that right now might be a good time to add a second oven, you will be greeted with derision, bemusement, exasperation, anger, or some combination of all of the above.

All of which is to say that if you really need that much black cake (and why wouldn't you?), you can just do everything in two batches instead of one double batch. Two jar-o-fruits, one set of pans, one oven, and two batter preparations, the second of which can be done while the first batch is baking.

I had intended to bake my black cakes on Black Friday, but it's a very good thing that I wasn't actually ready to bake until the next day because, as I may have mentioned (several times) before, my springform pans are missing. I have looked all over the basement, kitchen, and study for them, but I have not found them. When I mentioned this to V. for the third time (he knows enough not to pay attention before then), he said that I was surely mistaken and that he was nearly certain that he'd seen me use the pans in his kitchen and that they must, therefore, be somewhere in the basement, and then he trundled down the stairs (I hope that's an appropriate use of "trundle" because if I were to look it up and find that it wasn't, I'd be entirely heartbroken, so I'm not going to look it up. Ignorance really is bliss.)
to find the missing pans, but he reascended panless. His (and my) failure to find pans meant that I really needed to procure some, a process that I knew would be painful, and I was not disappointed. I went first to the local consignment shop, where I found exactly nothing. Then I went to (oh, the shame) K-Mart, where I found incredibly overpriced springform pans with you-know-who's name on them. I also, however found a deep, non-springform cake pan that was significantly less overpriced (but also with you-know-who's name on it), though it was, sadly, not as much less overpriced at the register as it was on the shelf. But I was, by this time, already a defeated man, and I wasn't going to argue over another dollar or two.

Leaving K-Mart (oh, the shame), I proceeded to the mall, which really was not all that crowded, presumably because all of the hardcore shoppers had exhausted themselves on Friday. I started in Target, where I immediately found a three-pack of springform pans for about half of what I would have spent for one of you-know-who's springform pans over at you-know-where (oh, the shame). Although the pan sizes were not ideal (8.5, 9.5, 10; why, oh why, can you not find a six-inch springform pan these days? Oh, don't ask why. Oh, don't ask why.), I picked them up and left Target at small expense to my wallet, though at an enormous cost to my soul, which I then further abused by going to three different department stores in the same mall in search of something more appropriate. I did not find anything, so I limped home, a broken man.

(I got better.)

What would have worked very well, I think, were some six-inch Pyrex or Corningware pans that I saw in the Hecht Company, but these were, apparently, part of a set, though they were displayed as if they were open stock (with a half-off sign, yet). The next time I am driving by Hagerstown, I will stop at the outlet center, where they almost certainly have a Corning outlet, and I will pick up several of them and then hide them in the basement, preferably in a location that I can actually find again.

Black Cake

1.5 liter Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine
1.5 liter dark rum
2 pounds pitted prunes
1.5 pounds dried pitted tart montmorency cherries
1 pound dried pineapple chunks
2 pounds Thompson seedless raisins
8 oz. organic candied ginger chunks
2 pounds currants
8 oz. candied orange peel
8 oz. dried apricots

2 pounds butter (plus extra for greasing the pans)
2 pounds dark brown sugar
2 T. vanilla extract
2 dozen large eggs
36 ounces flour (plus extra for flouring the pans)
2 T. baking powder
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground nutmeg
1 c. burnt sugar essence

Several months (or at least a couple of weeks) before you're ready to bake the cake, cut the dried fruits into itty bitty pieces, toss them in a great big jar, and cover them with the spirits.

Allow time to pass. I hear it waits for no man.

On the day that you're going to bake your cakes, set your butter out to come to room temperature, and then get your pans ready. My pans were two four-inch ramekins, one eight-inch Corningware souffle/baking dish, one eight-and-one-half inch springform pan, one nine-inch, extra deep cake pan, one nine-and-one-half inch springform pan, and one ten-inch springform pan**. Butter the pans thoroughly (even though the springform pans are have a non-stick coating) and line the bottoms with circles (cut to fit the pans) of brown paper. If you are wise, you will also line the sides with brown paper, though this is not especially helpful for the ramekins or the souffle dish; otherwise, you may later worry, perhaps needlessly, that the edges of your cakes are slightly overdone. Butter the inside of the brown paper, then flour the pans.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

In the bowl of your Kitchenaid, with the paddle attachment, beat the room temperature butter until it is fluffy. Add the brown sugar and beat until it is well incorporated and again fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape this mixture out into your giant bowl.

Stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Break the eggs into your Kitchenaid bowl and beat them until they are well combined.

Add the macerated fruit mixture to the butter and sugar mixture and stir together as well as you can. Add the flour mixture, the eggs, and the burnt sugar essence to the bowl. If you have not already done so, roll up your sleeves, make sure your hands are clean, plunge them into the bowl, and work the batter around until it's all well mixed.

Fill the pans to a depth of about two inches. Smooth the tops and place in your preheated oven. Bake for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, until they're done.*

This bowl has a twenty-four inch diameter.I baked my two ramekin-sized cakes (they're so cute; a friend in California asked me specifically for a "black cupcake," and that was as close as I was willing to get. I'm going to eat the other ramekin-sized cake this weekend, I reckon) in the toaster oven, but I could still only fit four of the five larger cakes in my regular oven at once. I covered the fifth with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for about an hour, then pulled it out to come to room temperature while the first four were finishing baking.

I moved the cakes around every twenty minutes. I started out with cakes on the left rear and right front of the upper rack and on the left front and right rear of the lower rack. After twenty minutes, I moved the front cakes back and the rear cakes forward. After forty minutes, I moved the bottom cakes to the top and the top cakes to the bottom and changed front to back so that the layout was the same as when I'd started, though the cakes in each position were different. After sixty minutes, I moved the front cakes back and the rear cakes forward again. This probably slowed the baking significantly, but this is not a delicate cake that will fall if it doesn't sit in an unopened oven for the entire baking time, and when your oven is crowded, if you don't move things around, you're likely to get uneven baking.

In the beginning.Just before it turned into a volcano all over the old stove.If you can't find burnt sugar essence (and you can't), get out your cast iron skillet and put a cup of white sugar in it and place it over medium heat. Stir it more or less constantly with a wooden spoon until it melts and then darkens. When it is very brown and has begun to bubble profusely, turn the heat off, and -- quickly but carefully -- add a half cup of cold water to it. You should probably wear an oven mitt for this last step, which is somewhat frightening. When it stops acting like an angry llama (don't ask me; ask Mimi Smartypants), stir it well with a wooden spoon. You should have about a cup of something that, I am told, is very like burnt sugar essence.

You will want to avoid making the burnt sugar essence in your six-inch iron skillet because if you do, when the caramel gets to the profuse bubbling stage, it will overflow the skillet and make quite a sticky mess on your oven top by the time you have turned off the heat and poured in the water, and then you will have to clean it up. Caramel might even get down inside the stove top, underneath the cooking surface, but if you're fortunate enough to know that your very old range is about to be replaced (rather than added to, alas) with a brand new range the following week, then you can get away with only cleaning the surface. Not that anything like that has ever happened to me, you understand.

When you think the cakes are done (and, alas, there will be some uncertainty; you just have to do your best and take them out when they feel relatively firm when you press on the top and when the toothpick comes out without crumbs on it), remove them from the oven and set them on racks to cool. When the pans are cool enough to handle, remove the outside of the springform pans, and unmold any non-springform pans. Do not remove the brown paper from the bottom of the cake. Put them back on the racks to cool entirely, then wrap in aluminum foil.

I have not yet gotten to the point of shipping any of the cakes, but now that they've been out for a few days, I will wrap them in rum-soaked cloths before rewrapping them in aluminum foil. Black cake needs to be frosted, and I'll post about the frosting in another post. You don't frost them until you're about ready to eat them, though, and in any case they can only be shipped in their unfrosted state. I am certain that any of the people I'm sending them to can handle the frosting and decorating.

* Determining exactly when a black cake is done is not, alas, an easy task. I was simultaneously convinced that they were overcooked and undercooked. I did eventually convince myself that they weren't raw on the inside, but even after cooling for many hours or overnight before wrapping, the cakes threw off a significant amount of moisture during the first couple of days they were wrapped in the aluminum foil. I think that the best way to deal with this phenomenon is to treat them as if they were regular fruit cakes, which they sort of are anyway, and to sprinkle them liberally with rum and wrap them in a layer of cloth taken from old cotton bedding (this also allows me to tell V. that I have a very good reason for not throwing things away even when I don't have an immediate use for them; though, of course, it also allows him to ask me why I'm washing bedding that is no longer useful) before rewrapping in foil. At least I know they won't be dry. Perhaps before next autumn, I will be able to find some guidance on the internal temperature at which a black cake is optimally cooked. I'm sure Alton Brown knows.

** Because both the area and the volume (assuming a constant depth) of a cake are directly proportional to the square of the cake's diameter (or indeed the square of its radius, the area of a circle being πr2 or (πd2)/4), you can evaluate the relative amount of cake batter that pans will hold by considering the squares of their diameters. This calculation will, for example, tell you that three eight-inch pans will hold slightly less batter than two ten-inch pans of the same depth because 3x82 < 2x102. Using this methodology, I can report that for evaluation purposes, if I were to put a double recipe of black cake into four ten-inch springform pans, I would have 400 units of cake volume (where, to be horribly pedantic and dull, [I will occasionally opine that "dull pedantry" is an oxymoron, but when I say that, I am generally just being a wag] a unit is the height of the cake multiplied by one-fourth of pi and would be expressed in cubic inches, or at least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it). A somewhat, but not very, rough calculation of the cake pans I used indicates that I ended up with 439 units, which means that either the height was not constant (which it wasn't, I'm sure) or the average height was less than I've used in the past, or I somehow ended up with more batter than I have before, or some combination of the three. I have always believed in full geometric disclosure.

Monday, November 28, 2005

In Praise of Leftovers

The management is aware that, in its pre-cooked state, this preparation appears less than entirely appetizing.  It is, nonetheless, yummy.
I am, for the most part, entirely happy to eat Thanksgiving leftovers in the same form that I ate them on Thanksgiving. A former roommate of mine told me that there is a verb, presumably Yiddish, pronounced grizhen which means to pick the meat from a carcass, and I am perfectly happy to grizen (I'm just going to decide that's how it's spelled. If you know better, please tell me. Every once in a while, though not often, I think that "grizen" is a word that Rob made up to play "Fool the Goyim," as a way of getting back at me for threatening to ask "Where are the glasses we use for the pork liver milkshakes?" when his orthodox friends were coming over. I never actually did that, of course. I don't believe that anything is sacred, but some things are, you know, sacred.) the turkey when I happen to be hungry and walking by the refrigerator at the same time.

But it can also be amusing (and delicious) to transform the leftovers into something else. Something that my ex-wife apparently learned from her mother was turkey patties. To make turkey patties, you get out a meat grinder (or the grinder attachment to your Kitchenaid) and you feed it more or less equal parts of turkey, stuffing/dressing/savory bread pudding, and mashed potatoes. Then you bind this all together with an egg, form it into patties, and fry it in a pan. Serve them topped with cranberry sauce. Yummy.

One of my favorite one-pan meals is something that I call leftover pie. It has no crust, and it's made in a skillet instead of a pie plate, but I still call it leftover pie, and you can't stop me.

Leftover Pie

Leftover turkey, chopped
Leftover stuffing, broken into pieces
Leftover gravy
Red wine

Put about a half cup of leftover gravy in the bottom of a nonstick skillet. Add the stuffing and then put the turkey on top. Mix another half cup of gravy with a few tablespoons of red wine, and pour over the top. Set on a medium flame, cover, and heat until it's bubbling. Serve.

This dish doesn't look like much before it's cooked, and it continues to not look like much after it's cooked. You could sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top, but I wouldn't bother. Don't even think about adding peas. This is not haute cuisine (I do not mean to imply that the addition of some frozen peas is haute cuisine; this sentence begins an entirely new line of thought); it is an infinitely superior version of the inexplicably yet undeniably delicious open-faced turkey sandwich that your school cafeteria served when you were a child. Or at least when I was a child, back in the days when I could handle the idea (and even the reality) of white bread. Having used a multi-grain loaf in the savory bread pudding makes a world of difference, and, of course, the wild mushrooms don't hurt, either. The gravy looks like canned cream of mushroom soup, but that can't be helped, and the tastes are not at all similar.

You should accompany this dish with leftover cranberry sauce and leftover green salad. The cranberry sauce (V. tells me that there is new research showing that cranberries remove plaque and are therefore good for your gums. Hooray.) and green salad sitting next to each other on the plate will remind you that there is less than a month left to Christmas. End the meal with some leftover pie, if there is any. (I know, I know, I still haven't written about the pies that I made on Thanksgiving. I will try to do a pie post later in the week. If it's any consolation, I also haven't written about the Black Cakes that I made over the weekend, and the only reason I haven't written about them is that I enjoy making lindy wonder whether I'm really going to get around to baking them, so at least I'm ignoring everyone more or less equally.)

I too often hear people complain about their Thanksgiving leftovers. This seems like a lack of gratitude to me and a violation of the spirit of Thanksgiving, but then I think that perhaps the turkey that these people are sick of wasn't all that good in the first place and why would you want to eat again something that you didn't enjoy the first time? The turkey I roasted is completely delicious, so I'll be very sorry when it's gone.

One of the simplest, and best, ways to use your leftover turkey is in a turkey sandwich. You may not need me to tell you how to make a turkey sandwich, unless you're using mayonnaise, and then you need to be reeducated. You can spread your bread with dijon mustard or butter (or mustard on one slice and butter on the other), but mayonnaise is not the right thing to eat with sliced turkey. (You may, however, use it when you make turkey salad.) I am generally pro-mayonnaise, but making a turkey sandwich with butter (softened butter at room temperature, please) will change your life. Forever after, you will think of every event in your life as having occurred either before or after you discovered the turkey sandwich made with butter.

I was turned on to using butter on my turkey sandwiches by redfox, raising the question (but not begging the question; don't get me started) of why someone who claims to be a vegetarian knows so much about turkey sandwiches. I can't answer that question, (She would say that, at the time, she was talking about sandwiches generally and about tomato sandwiches in particular, but I don't buy it. You just know that when no one's looking, she runs out to some hole in the wall and orders steak tartare and washes it down with a high-fructose-corn-syrup-and-soda, hold the soda.) but I will note that the best way to deal with truly undesirable leftovers (I'm thinking of the half cup of butternut squash puree that was left over when I baked and pureed a whole squash to make a pie) is to offer them to your partner who likes such things. My method of doing that is to shriek "I'm mellllltinnnnnng" when he takes the container out of the frig and shows it to me, but you might just want to offer it to your significant other and hold the drama for a more appropriate moment.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Aunt Glegg Learns the Breadth of Bob’s Thumb

Before I head off on a tangent, I should mention that this post is meant to be my entry in the IMBB-SHF virtual cookie swap, and that there is an actual recipe (an easy and good recipe, even) contained in this post. I am a big fan of actual cookie swaps, having done a few at various work places over the years. Inevitably, one walks away from such swaps with a mixed bag, in more than one sense of the word, but it is a good thing to instantly diversify your cookie portfolio, even if some of the cookies aren't necessarily something that you'd make for either yourself or your worst enemy.

I have horribly misnamed these cookies as "thumbprints" when, in fact, I did not use either of my thumbs to press the balls of dough down into the appropriate shape. I had, however, originally intended to use my thumb, which, for some reason that could not be determined without undertaking the hideous and thankless task of plumbing the depths of my subconscious, made me think of a chapter title (which I have appropriated as the title for this post) in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, which reminded me not only that I have still not seen the version of Pride and Prejudice that is now in the theatres, but also that when I was as old as nineteen, I still considered George Eliot a superior novelist to Jane Austen, and while that opinion might be defensible if I had based it on reading, for example, Middlemarch and Northanger Abbey, I had, in fact, based it on reading The Mill on the Floss and Pride and Prejudice. Ah, my misspent youth. I comfort myself by thinking that Jane Austen would have been impervious to the insult. (I do not wish anyone to think that I do not find Ms. Evans a very fine writer. When I was finally able to wrap my mind around Middlemarch, I found it a wondrous accomplishment, indeed, but when I think of a perfect novel, I still think of Pride and Prejudice, except on the days when I think of Emma.)

Anyway. I think it is highly unlikely that either Elizabeth Bennett or Maggie Tulliver (or their respective cooks) would have made these cookies because I don't believe that they would have had access to a substantial, ready supply of chocolate, but I may be mistaken on that account, in which case, I shall appreciate corrections from any culinary historians who happen to be reading. Fortunately, I can lay my hands on the ingredients for these very simple cookies just about any time I want to.

Orange Almond Shortbread Thumbprints with Ganache

1/2 cup toasted blanched almonds
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
zest of one orange, grated
1 stick butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup heavy cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate (chopped or chips)

In the bowl of your food processor, process the almonds until they are very finely chopped, but not oily. Add the sugar and the orange zest, and process again. Cut the butter into six to eight pieces, add to the bowl, and process until the whole deal masses up into a ball. Add half the flour and process again until well blended. Add the vanilla and process again. Add the rest of the flour and process until the mixture works itself into a cohesive mass. Take it out of the food processor and knead it very briefly, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into small pieces of more or less uniform mass. You should have approximately forty pieces. Roll the pieces into balls and place them on your cookie sheet. The centers do not need to be more than two inches apart. All forty of them will fit on a half-sheet pan.

Using either your fingertip or an implement that is round and blunt and shaped much like your fingertip, press a depression into each ball. This will also flatten them out. You can repair major cracks, but just ignore minor ones.

Bake in the middle of the oven for approximately twenty minutes. They will be golden brown on the top and if you carefully lift one off the sheet, it will be slightly darker brown on the bottom. Remove the pan from the oven to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, make the ganache. Put the cream in a pyrex measuring cup and heat for one minute on high in the microwave. Dump the chocolate pieces into the cream and stir with a fork until smooth. If the chocolate does not melt completely, put the mixture back in the microwave on high for another fifteen seconds and stir again. Repeat if necessary.

Using a teaspoon, fill the cookie hollows with ganache.


The ganache in this recipe is very thick, so that you can overfill the cookies. You will, after filling all the cookies, still have some ganache left. What you do with it is between you and your conscience.

If you do not have turbinado sugar sitting around, you can use either white or brown sugar instead.

You could, of course, fill these cookies with something other than chocolate (especially if you're one of those unfortunate people who don't find the combination of fruit and chocolate pleasing; I once made a friend a chocolate oblivion truffle torte for his birthday, and I was preparing to serve it to him by putting a pool of raspberry puree on the plate, and he informed me that he did not like chocolate and fruit together, so I gave him the torte alone, he ate it with much pleasure, and I had twice as much sauce for myself: a win-win situation). Raspberry preserves or orange marmalade for example. Lemon curd. In some of those cases, you may want to consider whether orange zest or lemon zest is the better choice. The orange and the chocolate make a very rich, very good combination that is positively decadent. Miss Bennett would surely not approve, and her superior judgment would keep her from indulging, but Miss Tulliver would likely eat it with relish (this very difference was, in fact, the reason I initially preferred The Mill on the Floss to Pride and Prejudice, but it no longer seems reasonable to judge a novel entirely by whether the heroine would fully appreciate my cooking). The cookie is very crisp, and the ganache is very tender, and I find the contrast in textures especially pleasing.

Because the ganache is tender, if you want to store the cookies in more than one layer, you should put one layer in the bottom of your cookie tin and then put the cookies in the freezer for eight minutes to make the tops firm enough to stack. Cover the first layer with a round of waxed paper, then add a second layer of cookies, and repeat the process until all of the cookies have been placed in the tin. Then store them in the refrigerator, but let them come to room temperature (remove them from the tin and place them in a single layer first) before serving.

If you want to give these cookies as a gift to a host at a holiday party, you will not want to purchase a special tin for the task. Instead, present them to the recipient in a regular butter cookie tin (that you will have cleaned out, of course). That way, he (or she) will first think that you are horribly cheap and lazy for having brought her (or him) a three-dollar tin of store-bought cookies. Then, upon opening the tin, he (or she) will next think that you have made the common (and good, but perhaps ordinary) peanut butter cookie topped with a milk chocolate kiss. Only upon actually tasting a cookie will your recipient find that she (or he) has been given something homemade, delicious, and rare. And then he (or she) will both appreciate your cleverness in having pulled one over on her (or him) and your thoughtfulness in having concealed your riches in a plain wrapping, making it acceptable for him (or her) to put the tin away for herself (or himself) without offering any to his (or her) other guests. I suppose that this sort of maneuver might be considered devious, but if we learn anything from reading Jane Austen it's that polite society is little more than a cover story for vicious parlor intrigues, and if you want to acquire for yourself a handsome gentleman with ten thousand a year, you're going to have to be either beautiful, charming, and clever, or (and I may be paraphrasing just a little bit here) have a collection of damned good recipes and know how to use them.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Thanksgiving Dinner Post

No flies on you, reader. You have evidently noticed that my Thanksgiving dinner post is appearing not on Thanksgiving or even on the day after Thanksgiving, but on the day after the day after Thanksgiving. How, you may ask, have I the chutzpah to do such a thing? I have no idea. But I can say that I was so incredibly overstuffed (because, you know, I don't believe in stuffing the turkey, and something has to get stuffed, and it might as well be me) on T-day itself that I couldn't even think of blogging, and then on the day after Thanksgiving, I had a very busy day with the girls. We did not participate in Black Friday, but A. wanted to go thrift shopping, so after L. and I caught a perfectly forgettable matinee, the three of us went to the thrift store that has the largest selection of clothes (at least among the thrift stores that I know about, which is doubtless a minority) and that is somewhat local. After more than an hour there (and you have no idea how painful it is for me to spend more than an hour to shop for anything that isn't either kitchen equipment or comestible), we left with a large bag stuffed full of clothes, including a red wool overcoat that, when A. tried it on, caused one of the other patrons to remark "shut up," which I believe is the highest praise that one woman can currently offer another in regards to her clothing.

Thanksgiving itself was a great success, and dinner was very good and much appreciated. I did not quite make everything I had hoped to make, but one of the great pleasures of having only my two daughters for guests is that anything besides the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and an appropriate beverage (this year it was equal parts pomegranate juice and ginger ale: a big hit) is considered superfluous (they will eat the green vegetable, and they will at least try any Jell-o-based foods, but anything beyond that is pushing it), so the fact that I didn't get around to making the deep-fried sweet potato chips went unnoticed by the girls, and had I mentioned it, they would only have been relieved.

The eventual menu:

Roast Turkey
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Green Salad
Steamed Broccoli with Browned Butter
Cranberry Sauce

Butternut squash pie
Chocolate pecan pie

I roast my turkey pretty much exactly the way that Alton Brown told me to. His method involves brining the turkey, and I am now convinced that there is no better (or even half as good) way to prepare a turkey. Some people will say that brining a minimally processed turkey is no different from buying a turkey that has had some sort of saline solution injected into it, but that is crazy talk. While it is true that both processes have the same goal, God only knows what they inject into those turkeys or how long ago they've had that stuff injected into them. By brining yourself, you control exactly what goes into the turkey and when it goes in.

You can put whatever you like into the brining liquid (though it's not a brine if it doesn't have something close to the right amount of salt in it). The preferred proportion of salt to water is one cup to one gallon. I generally need a gallon-and-a-half to fully submerge my turkey (I would need a great deal less if I had some large food-safe bags sitting around that I could wrap the turkey and the brine in, but I don't, alas) in its big pot, so I start with six quarts of water and 1.5 cups of kosher salt. I put this in the big pot, and bring it to a simmer, and I add a large onion, cut in half, several ribs of celery, a few carrots, two bay leaves, and a teaspoon of black peppercorns. I let this simmer for an hour or so, covered, and then I take the whole pot, still covered, and sit it outside the back door, where the very cooperative weather cools it down within a couple of hours. Then I free the turkey from its packaging, remove the giblets, etc., wash it thoroughly, dry it, and submerge it in the big pot.

At this point, I make a heroic, but ultimately futile, effort to find enough room in the refrigerator for the big pot, and then I take my trusty digital thermometer out to the garage, where I determine that the temperature is in the fifties, so I open the garage door and let the colder outside air in, while I go back inside and check on something else. Then I go back out and note that the temperature is down in the low forties, so I bring the pot outside, and put some packing tape on the lid to make sure that it doesn't come off, and go back inside. Then I worry that low forties might not really be cold enough, so I go back into the garage and open the door again, and take the pot just outside the garage door and cover it with the inverted recycling container, just to make sure that if the imaginary rabid squirrels come around, they won't be able to get into my big pot of brining turkey.

You should, of course, feel free to adapt the above procedure, if you aren't fortunate enough to be as batshit insane as I.

The next day, when you're about ready to cook your turkey (about two to two-and-a-half hours before you want to serve it, for a twelve-pound turkey), preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Dry the turkey off and put it in a shallow pan, on a rack. Rub the turkey all over with a flavorless oil. Take a fifteen-inch square of heavy duty foil and fold it in half to form a doubly thick triangle. Oil one side of the triangle, and fit the foil, oiled side down, over the turkey breast, as if you were making a breastplate. Remove and reserve the breastplate, and stick a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast meat, and put the turkey in the oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes, and when it goes off, reduce the heat to 350, put the breastplate on the turkey breast, and set the temperature alarm on your probe thermometer (if you don't have one, you need one) to 161 degrees. When it goes off, remove the turkey from the oven and let sit for fifteen minutes. Remove the breastplate, carve and serve. Absolutely delicious.

And that's all there is to it. Do not baste. In fact, you need open the oven only three times: once to put the turkey in, once to put the foil on, and once to pull the turkey out. (Except that you will likely have to open it to put one or more side dishes in, unless you have two full-sized ovens, which I have not.)

Keep in mind that because your turkey has been brined, the drippings will be very flavorful but also very salty. When you go to make gravy with them, let them sit for a bit, then pour off as much fat as possible. Mix some of the fat with a quarter-cup of flour in a saucepan, cook for two or three minutes, then stir in the remaining (partially defatted) drippings and bring the mixture to a simmer. It will be far too thick and far too salty to eat, so stir in milk and continue to simmer until the gravy has achieved a desirable level of thickness and saltiness. Grind in some pepper if you like.

You cannot use my (ok, Alton's) roasting method if you want your turkey stuffed, but you don't want your turkey stuffed. You may think you do, but you are, I regret to inform you, mistaken. If you want stuffing, make it separately. You can still call it stuffing, and no laws will have been broken, though some people will say that you've really made dressing. I am not sure that "dressing" and "stuffing" (both being gerunds) come from verbs that are sufficiently different, with respect to turkey, that the nouns are really distinguishable, but I leave that matter to my linguistic betters. I don't especially want to call my bread-based side dish either stuffing or dressing. To me, it's really a savory bread pudding, so that's what I call it.

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

20 oz loaf multi-grain bread, cut into cubes (approximately 3/4" dice)
12 oz. wild mushrooms
12 oz. white mushrooms
1/2 stick butter
1 shallot of decent size, minced
1/3 cup chopped celery
1 t. salt
black pepper
1 t. dried rosemary, crumbled
3 eggs
2 cups milk

Melt butter in a skillet over low heat. Add shallot and cook until soft.

Turn heat to medium and toss in the wild mushrooms, cook until there is enough room in the pan for the cultivated mushrooms and add them. Cook until the mushrooms have stopped giving off water and have absorbed all or nearly all the butter. Stir in the celery and cook over low heat for another five minutes. Add 1/2 t. salt and grind some pepper on. Let cool.

Put the cubed bread in a bowl. Whisk together the eggs and milk. Whisk in 1/4 t. salt. Pour the liquids over the bread and stir to coat well. Add the rosemary and stir again. Cover and let sit for at least 1/2 hour. About an hour before you want to serve it, add the mushroom mixture to the bread mixture and stir well, then pack into a buttered pan and put in a 350 degree oven for forty-five minutes to an hour, or until it's done the way you like it.

When I went to Costco earlier this week, they had fresh oyster and shiitake mushrooms as well as regular white mushrooms, so I got a package of each. I used six ounces each of oyster and shiitake in the bread pudding, but you can use whatever you like and is available. Dried mushrooms will work just as well, but you'll need to reconstitute them in hot water before cooking them.

You can add anything else you like to the bread pudding. Diced apples, currants, chopped pecans, etc. Any of the things that you'd normally add to stuffing or dressing. You can also use a different herb, if you prefer.

I baked my savory bread pudding in a rectangular glass baking dish (9x13, I reckon), but afterwards, I wished that I'd baked it in a bundt pan, even though it's not clear to me that a bundt pan would have fit in the oven, since I had it on the rack under the turkey. Still, I think it would have looked cool unmolded in that shape. Since I hadn't done that, though, I served it directly from the pan.

When A. and L. arrived on Thanksgiving morning, A. came into the kitchen and saw the mushrooms cooking in the skillet, and said, "You know we're not eating that, right?" and I replied, "I know. More for me."

I eventually decided that the right name for the molded gelatin salad that is similar to what Mom always makes (and made again this year; we talked for a while on Thanksgiving morning) would be "Molded lime Jell-O salad after the fashion of Mom's salad, which is, in turn, after the fashion of 7-Up salad." As I am not in favor of overly lengthy names unless they poke fun at Redfox, I decided to go with "green salad," which is at least visually accurate. There are those who would say that "green salad" is the name of something that already exists, but to them I say "pshaw!" The really good thing about naming this salad green salad is that when you're having a post-Thanksgiving leftover-based meal, you can serve green salad as your vegetable. It does, after all, have at least two plant-based components in it. And if anyone dares to complain that it's not really a vegetable, you can say, "Nonsense. It's green salad." (I apologize for not having a picture, though it isn't all that great to look at. I did not think to recharge my batteries [or find the spare set] prior to Thanksgiving morning, and the ones I had in there died very early in the day. Sic transit gloria mundi.)

Green Salad

1 6-ounce package lime gelatin
1.5 cups water, boiling
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1.5 cups cold ginger ale
1 20-ounce can juice-packed crushed pineapple
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

In a metal bowl, dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water. In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese until it's fluffy, then slowly add the dissolved gelatin, beating constantly. Stir in the ginger ale, pineapple (including the juice), and pecans. Pour into a prepared mold, and refrigerate for at least four hours. Unmold and serve.

You don't have to mold the salad, of course. You can just serve it in a bowl, but don't tell my Mom, unless you want an earful. I am sure that my recipe is not the same as Mom's, but it tastes the same to me. It tastes like nostalgia. The good kind.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Memories of Thanksgivings Past: 7-Up Salad

My mother (who, it must be acknowledged, is a very good cook) has a philosophy of cooking that is very different from my own, and just as most of my Thanksgiving dinner never repeats, hers almost never varies. Surely most cooks are the same way: while you frequently hear "What smells so good?" when a guest arrives at Thanksgiving, no one really has to ask "What's for dinner?"

When you sat down at my mother's Thanksgiving table, you could count on seeing roast turkey, bread stuffing (always the same bread stuffing), mashed potatoes (which were really whipped potatoes because Mom would not, could not abide lumps in her mashed potatoes), candied yams (canned yams covered with butter and some sort of syrup and then baked and topped with mini marshmallows; it's the sort of thing that as a child I would eat only for my mother -- because she was the only one cruel enough to make me choke it down), green bean casserole, 7-Up salad, cranberry sauce (oh yes my friends: from a can; Mom sliced it crossways to make little disks that would have made excellent projectiles if only we'd dared), gravy, and the relish tray (sweet gherkins, green olives with pimientos, black olives from a can, celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese).

Not only did Mom make the same thing every year, she served the same things in the same serving dishes so that when I think about candied yams (though I try very hard not to), I always picture the 8.5x4.5 Pyrex loaf pan that she would bake and serve them in. Similarly, the 7-Up salad was always poured into, and unmolded from, the same mold.

If you were to google "7-Up salad," you would find that in many, if not most, recipes, it is not made in a mold at all. It is some sort of bi-layer affair that is produced in a 9x13 pan and whose top layer involves the cooking of some sort of juice with an egg and some flour. This, friends, is not what my mother made. My mother's recipe (and here I have to admit that I am a bad, bad son because I have gotten this recipe from her no fewer than three times over the past fifteen years, and each time I get it, I somehow manage to lose it, and even though two or three copies of it are probably floating around a box in my basement somewhere, I could not now lay my hands on it; also, I don't telephone nearly enough, apparently) involved pineapple and pecans and lime jell-o (but you can substituted strawberry or raspberry jell-o at Easter time because, so Mom says, that is much more springlike) and cream cheese and ginger ale, but it most certainly did not involve either an egg or two tablespoons of flour.

Did I say ginger ale? Why, yes, I did. I am certain that for all the years I saw her making her 7-Up salad, she never used 7-Up. So we know that she was really, at best, making ginger ale salad and misnaming it. We also know that she wasn't even using a 7-Up salad recipe; she was using some other recipe entirely.

Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but if you can't trust what your own mother put on the dining room table at Thanksgiving, then what can you trust? What other lies did my parents tell me? Am I supposed to now understand that I was neither delivered by the stork nor found under a cabbage leaf (and, really, folks: let's get our stories straight because, upon being challenged with an obvious inconsistency, looking uncomfortable and then saying that the stork either left me or found me under a cabbage leaf is frankly pathetic)? Am I supposed instead to understand that my parents created me the old fashioned way? Because, I'm telling you, that is a thought entirely too unpleasant to be contemplated. Spontaneous generation from a cabbage is an altogether more pleasant way to have come into existence, though I suppose that it would technically make eating cole slaw cannibalism, which would present me with an unfortunate moral/culinary (as if there were a difference between morality and cuisine) dilemma.

Anyway. 7-Up salad was always one of the big hits of the Thanksgiving table. You will of course be entirely reasonable (commendable, even) if you turn up your nose at jell-o salad as a necessary ingredient of the Thanksgiving table, but you'll have to trust me when I say that Mom's 7-Up salad (albeit a big fat lie, apparently) was some seriously good stuff. A large part of its appeal is that it's essentially a dessert, but it gets served as a side dish during the main part of the meal (it was simply unfathomable after one of my mother's extremely ample Thanksgiving dinners to proceed directly from the meal to dessert), I suppose, but whatever the reason, I always had seconds.

I haven't made 7-Up salad for a number of years, but I am going to make it this year. I have not yet decided whether to change the name. Balancing truth and tradition is a tricky thing, and since my own children are currently 16 and 9, I'm not sure that I want to tip my hand about the whole honesty thing. I rarely, if ever, lie to the girls, but there is always the chance that I'll need to tell a fib or two for the sake of convenience or to spare someone's feelings, and if that becomes necessary, I need to maintain credibility. I have not yet decided whether renaming or not renaming better supports the current policy of plausible deniability.

In either case, I'm going to have to make up my own recipe this time because I'm just too embarrassed to ask Mom for it yet again. I do, however, have a pretty good idea where she keeps the recipe, and if I ever get down to Florida to see them in their house there, I can probably get them out of the house and search for it while they're gone. Desperate times, desperate measures, and all that, you know.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Yogurt Apple Cake

There is no reason for this bottle of wine to be here.  Why ask why?
I found myself with just over an hour to kill on Friday evening. I had already dropped A. off at church, where she was meeting the youth group to go and see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And just before I'd done that, I'd taken L. her dinner at her ballet rehearsal. She is going to be a toy soldier in The Nutcracker this year, and she had a class from 4:45 to 5:45, followed by a rehearsal from 6:45 to 7:45. In the intervening hour, the girls sit in the dressing room and eat dinner and, I suppose, giggle, though probably not too loudly, as the ballet teacher (does one call such a person "the ballet mistress"?) is quite the disciplinarian.

Anyway, after dropping off the girls, I reckoned that I had enough time to run up to Costco (about six miles away; nothing is convenient in the suburbs) and pick up a few things, maybe including the first of items for Thanksgiving. And I found a big refrigerated bin full of fresh (never frozen), minimally processed turkeys. Hooray. I exercised an inordinate amount of self-restraint and got a twelve pounder (they had even smaller ones, but there are limits), and then I headed off to the produce section.

This time of year, as you must know, is the best season to get fresh apples, the crop having only recently been harvested. In addition to the usual varieties, there were twelve packs of Cameo and Jonagold apples, so I got one (dozen) of each. I had never used either kind before, but some quick research indicated that I probably wanted to eat the Jonagold out of hand and cook with the Cameo (though before I did that research, I had already eaten a Cameo, and it was yummy).

V., unsurprisingly, thought that I'd taken leave of my senses when he saw me come home with two dozen apples. I may, it's true, have something of a history of buying produce and not using it before it's no longer usable, but I assured him (hopefully truthfully) that I'd find uses for them.

So tonight I made an apple cake with two of the Cameos, which turned out to be as good for cooking as my research had indicated. Hooray. This is really a very simple cake to make, and the real preparation time, including chopping the apples, is not much more than five minutes, though, of course, you have to preheat the oven and then you have to wait for the cake to bake. It is somewhat casual in appearance, and I think that it is ideally suited to lunchboxes or afternoon noshing, but you could certainly pair it with some whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, and it would make an entirely satisfying dessert for your dinner.

Yogurt Apple Cake

1 stick butter
2 apples
1 lemon
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt (if you're using unsalted butter)
1 c. plain yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a bundt or other ring pan.

Let butter come to room temperature, or microwave on defrost until it is soft.

Cut the apples in quarters, remove the cores, and dice. Leave the skins on.

Remove the zest from the lemon with a grater and add it to the apples. Add the juice of half the lemon to the apples.

Put the whisk attachment on your mixer. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl and whisk for two minutes. With the whisk running, add the softened butter by tablespoons. With the whisk running, add the yogurt.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla together. With the whisk running, add the egg mixture to the other ingredients.

Fold in the chopped apples, lemon juice, and lemon peel by hand. Turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for ten minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool all the way.

The texture of this cake is something like a cross between a cake and a pudding. It is very dense and moist, sort of like the texture you'd expect if you'd weighted it the way you do with a paté after you've cooked it. If you want a more cakelike texture, then increase the dry ingredients by 50% without increasing the other ingredients. I like the texture and moistness just the way it is. My only problem with the cake was that there really wasn't enough batter for a standard bundt pan, so while the cake is delicious, it seems a bit deficient in the height category (also, a shorter cake has farther to fall when you invert it onto the rack and is more likely to crack, both from the fall and from the relative lack of mass). So the next time I make it, I'll probably increase all the ingredients by 50% (but I might stay with two eggs: decisions, decisions), and then it will be more the size I want. Alternatively, I may find a smaller ring pan to bake it in, but that might be difficult. I was down in the basement over the weekend on yet another fruitless search for the missing springform pans, and I came across the box with my collection of (mostly) copper molds. I found the giant crab mold (I use it for salmon mousse, just because), but the smaller ring mold is either in another box or has been lost to the cosmos.

I still have a pound or two of Whey Low on hand, so I used that for my sugar. If you're going to use ordinary sugar, then brown sugar might be a good choice. I think that the cake is improved by chopping most of the apple into relatively large chunks but chopping a quarter or so of it into smaller bits. I could be wrong about that, though. You could easily substitute pears for the apples in this recipe. You could even do that without changing the name, if you're the sort who likes to stir up trouble.

I did more Thanksgiving shopping at Giant over the weekend. I don't feel like it's truly Thanksgiving unless I've shopped for groceries at least four times before the meal. I purchased both canned pumpkin and a fresh butternut squash so that I can have a battle-of-the-gourds pie contest. This will likely leave me with two pies that are only good (I regret to inform those of you who don't already know that I believe Ann Hodgman was right when she said "the very best pumpkin pie you've ever eaten is not that much better than the very worst," or words to that effect. I know plenty of people who prefer pumpkin pie to all others, and I suppose that they're entitled to their own opinions. Of course, I also know people who prefer Barbara Cartland to Jane Austen, so you do the math. [And, no, no one has really ever said to me that he or she likes Barbara Cartland, but you know those people are out there somewhere, and they like pumpkin pie.])

I also got some chestnuts, with the intention of trying some marons glacés, and two packages of cranberries. Some person who evidently found himself highly amusing had slit open a package of cranberries and replaced it, slit side down, on top of the pile of cranberries, so that when I picked it up, cranberries scattered all over the floor. No doubt this prankster expected me to be nonplussed, but I only found it festive (oooh, pretty! and red!). It was all I could do to keep from bursting into a rousing rendition of "We Gather Together."

Speaking of which, and finally (yes, he does shut up eventually), I was in church Sunday morning enjoying a multigenerational (i.e., kids present, so keep it light) Thanksgiving service, and when the minister told us to open our hymnbooks and sing "We Gather Together," I completely ignored the bogus Unitarian words ("we gather together in joyful communion ..." or something like that) and sang the traditional words. For both verses. I'm a rebel. (But not a loner. The reference is to The Crystals, not to PeeWee's Big Adventure. I didn't want you losing sleep, wondering.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Honey Balsamic Chicken Breasts

There is something depressing about the ubiquity of the skinless, boneless chicken breast. The very things that make it popular -- its convenience and relative healthfulness -- also seem to make it a bit soulless. It has become too much of a blank canvas, and too many people just leave it blank. They toss it in the oven or on the indoor grill substitute, cook it, and serve it without so much as worrying about proper seasoning or even a soupcon of presentation. If you caught Broken Flowers earlier this year, you saw a very unfortunate Bill Murray sit down to a meal prepared by a former girlfriend. Plain (and overcooked) grilled tuna (or maybe swordfish) with plain rice and some cooked frozen carrots. Despair on a plate. I'm pretty sure that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she serves the same thing, except with a chicken breast and lima beans in place of the anonymous seafood and the ridged carrots.

The fact that it's so easy to overcook a chicken breast doesn't help either. The trip from tender and juicy to tough and dry is a very quick one indeed. Part of the cooking difficulty comes from the shape of a chicken breast, with its nice plump rounded side tapering off to a thin point. You can get around this problem by pounding. Put the breast between two pieces of plastic wrap (or don't) and pound with a mallet or a pounder. I'm sure the pounder has a real name, but I don't know what it is. In any event, it is a flat round of smooth metal with a handle sticking out of its back. You grasp it in your fist and pound the chicken breast (it also works on various other types of meat) until it's even. The pounding is a very satisfying action, and it's a great way to work out your aggression, though if you have too much aggression to work out, your chicken breasts may lose their structural integrity.

Anyway. The chicken breast really is a great convenience, and if you want to put together a dinner quickly, it's a very useful thing to know how to cook properly. (And, let's face it, the lack of fat is a very good thing because then you can put extra butter in your mashed potatoes and still feel virtuous.)

The French name, in case you were wondering, for a chicken breast is something like suprême de volaille. I'm not sure why you were wondering that, but I'm happy to have appeased your curiosity. I live to serve.

Most of my chicken breast dishes share a common basic preparation with many variations in a few of the details. While I'm pounding my chicken breasts, I'm preheating my skillet. When I'm just about ready to go, I pour a small amount of olive oil in the skillet, then I as many chicken breasts as I can comfortably fit into the pan into the pan. I am generally using a nonstick skillet, so flipping them only once is not absolutely critical, but you should really cook them on one side, flip them once, cook them on the other side, and then remove them from the pan. You can either salt and pepper the breasts before you start cooking, or you can season them in the pan. Season side B while side A is cooking, and then when you flip them over to cook side B, season side A. The breasts are done when they're just firm throughout. I have no trouble cutting into one of my breasts to check, if I'm not sure, but I don't usually need to. If they are very slightly undercooked, you can just reheat them for a little longer than you normally would when you get to that part of the preparation.

When you've cooked all of your breasts, then you'll want to deglaze your pan. My favorite simple preparation is to deglaze with a shot of red wine, then quickly cook some minced garlic or shallots and perhaps a handful of mushrooms in the pan. When those have cooked a bit, I will usually add another few ounces of wine and a spoonful of dijon mustard and put the breasts back in to get coated in the sauce and finish cooking. The whole thing takes very little time indeed, and it tastes very good. You can make innumerable different sauces this way. Put in some chopped fresh herbs. Whisk in some softened butter. Add some fortified wine. You get the idea.

If you want to cook the breasts quickly, but you can plan ahead a day or a few hours, then marinating them works very well. (This is a very good strategy to use when you know on Sunday or Monday that you're having a guest for dinner on Tuesday.) There are any number of potential marinades. The one I used last night was reminiscent of the rabbit dish I had when I was in San Francisco a couple of months ago. I didn't use juniper berries in mine, and I (obviously) didn't use rabbit, but it was still very good.

Honey Balsamic Chicken Breasts

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 t. dijon mustard
1 t. grated fresh ginger
1/2 t. kosher salt
ground black pepper
a sprig of fresh rosemary (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

6 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded to an even thickness

Olive oil
Additional salt and pepper

In a saucepan, combine the honey, vinegar, mustard, ginger, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Let cool.

Put the chicken breasts in a one-gallon ziplock bag. Pour in the marinade. Press as much air as possible out of the bag and seal it. Moosh the breasts and marinade around a bit so that the breasts are all coated. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Put a skillet over medium high heat. Take the breasts out of the ziplock bag, taking as little marinade as possible with them. Reserve the marinade.

When the skillet is good and hot, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil in it, swirl the oil around and add three breasts. Cook for four or five minutes on one side, then flip them over and cook until they're done. Season with salt and pepper during the cooking. Repeat with the other three breasts.

While the breasts are cooking, put the marinade in a saucepan and bring to a boil. (Alternatively, put it in a large pyrex measuring cup and microwave on high.) Cook until the marinade reduces by about a third and is thick.

Pour the sauce into the skillet, add the chicken breasts and turn to coat well. Remove the chicken breasts to a platter and serve, garnished with additional sprigs of fresh rosemary. Serve the remaining sauce on the side.

As it happens, I used white balsamic vinegar because I had a big jar of it in my pantry, but you will want to use the regular dark balsamic vinegar. You do not want to use a very expensive balsamic vinegar, but if you want to use something that's a step or two above the really cheap stuff, that's probably a good idea.

If you like, you can bake the breasts in the marinade instead of cooking them on top of the stove. You can do all six at once that way, but you will also find that it's easier to overcook them, and I don't think the flavor is quite as nice. On the other hand, if you're doubling this recipe for a party, the oven is probably the way to go. In that case, you might want to cook the marinade down first and then bake the breasts in the reduced marinade to get a nice glaze.

This recipe would also be splendid with bone-in breast quarters (made in the oven). Because you'd have the skin on, the chances of drying the breasts out in the oven would be much reduced. I would use a higher heat (maybe 400 as opposed to 350 for the skinless, boneless breasts) for the breast quarters.

Friday, November 18, 2005


It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that I'm a huge fan of Thanksgiving, and I have been for as long as I can remember. As you might expect, much of my longstanding fanaticism comes from the close association of Thanksgiving with an abundance of food. Food is, of course, an integral part of many holidays, and I'm sure that all of you can name specific foods that are associated with particular holidays, though the lists of both foods and holidays would vary somewhat from reader to reader. But, in America at least, Thanksgiving is the only real feast day that many of us have.

This post could run long, so I'm going to put the recipe towards the front. I reckon that over the past couple of months, I've punished those of you with short attention spans enough.

Cranberry Sauce

1.5 cups water
1.5 cups sugar
A 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries
Zest of two oranges, grated.

Put the water and sugar in a saucepan. Cover and place over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the water boils. Add the cranberries and simmer for five minutes. The cranberries should have all popped by then. Remove the saucepan from the burner and stir in the orange zest. Chill. Serve cold.

Ten or more years ago, I considered Thanksgiving a complete success if a) there were at least a dozen people at the table, and b) I had won the fight to be the host for the meal that year. The former was not much of a problem, but the latter was difficult because the person that I was most likely to be fighting with was my mother. Mothers do not fight fair in such matters, and I suppose they shouldn't have to. I always tried to be gracious in defeat (I would occasionally lose out to more distant relatives, but in those cases, a whole bunch of us usually ended up traveling to the Norfolk area to visit some of my mother's relatives, and since these Thanksgivings generally involved a whole roast pig [as well as a turkey, of course, and a ham, because what's a southern Thanksgiving without a ham?], you could hardly call it losing) and to make sure that under the terms of the armistice I got to supply the cranberry sauce and the pecan pie.

A lot can change in a decade. In 1995, I was married and had every reason to believe that I would always be married. My parents lived in the next county, my brother and his family lived less than ninety minutes away, and my sister had not yet begun to have children, so she and her husband would at least sometimes fly in for the holiday. Nowadays, my parents are in Florida, my brother's in Texas, my sister's in Washington (state), and I'm divorced. V. generally goes to visit his mother in New Jersey for major holidays, and while I occasionally have other guests, for the past five years there have usually been just three people at my Thanksgiving table. The girls always show up shortly after noon on Thanksgiving Day and stay through the end of the following day, and sometimes for the entire weekend.

Fall, of course, is the season of fruition, but it is also the time when things come apart. The harvest gives way to a riotous death, and then follows the long sleep of winter, the rebirth of spring, the increasing maturity of summer, and over and over again, yadda, yadda, yadda. It is a story so old that I can find no original way to speak of it: the triteness of the language about the seasons is a reflection of their comforting predictability. But while the cycle of nature looks regular on a grand scale, it is made up of innumerable individual births and deaths. While there will be another tomato next year that grows from the seeds of the plant that's dying now, that particular plant will long since have become compost. Annual plants make poor metaphors for a person's life: when your life falls apart, there is an expectation that you can and will pull it back together. But there remains always the cruel possibility that you might not.

During the fall of 1999, not seemed like the likeliest outcome to me. I could, if I wanted to go back and look through some of the tens of thousands of pieces of paper that my ex-wife's attorney filed during the divorce (sadly, I am not exaggerating), pinpoint the exact date that my then-wife said to me "We need to talk," far and away my four least favorite words in the English language. By the time the talking was over, I had explained to her that I had come to the conviction that I was gay. You will understand that I am understating the case when I say that it was a difficult conversation; there was, however, a great sense of relief associated with having made the revelation, and I was actually holding together pretty well for almost a whole day.

In those days, if I was going to sing a solo or duet at church, I'd rehearse a long while in advance. The music director and I had decided that for Advent, I would sing the baritone part of the two duets from my favorite Bach cantata, Wachet Auf. There were two very fine sopranos at our church at that time, and I was to sing one of the duets with each of them. Even though Advent was nearly three months away, I had begun to rehearse, and I had started my preparation by loading midi files of the duets some music software, programming an oboe simulation to play the soprano vocal line, and leaving the bass vocal line out (with all the accompaniment still in, of course).

So there I was, on the evening after the big revelation, standing next to the computer, with the cantata on the music stand, listening to the extremely beautiful introduction and then the first soprano line, and when I opened my mouth to sing "Ich komme, dein teil," my usually robust bass baritone had been replaced by a squeaky little boy's voice with no intonation and even less resonance. I thought that perhaps I was having some problems with allergies, so I started the piece at the beginning again, but the same thing happened. I don't know why I didn't just give up, but I tried again and again, and there was nothing like music coming out of me, and finally I started to sob. Not weep, not cry: sob. The way distraught children do when they completely lose control of themselves.

I like to sing maybe even more than I like to cook, and I like Bach more than any other composer, and I had wanted to sing those duets for a long time, so trying to sing them and failing in such a spectacular manner was excruciating. At the time I was only aware of despair, but it later became apparent to me that I'd distanced myself from the horribleness of the situation and the complete sense of loss that I was feeling and that Bach had reached in and forced me to experience consciously what I was feeling unconsciously.

One of the things I experienced most acutely during the period shortly after it was clear that my marriage was over was the loss of any sense of the future. I reckon that anyone who's experienced major life trauma has experienced the same phenomenon, but I had not received the memo. I had to devote so much effort to getting through that very minute and that very hour that I had tremendous difficulty looking even a day ahead, let alone a week or a month. Part of this temporal distortion was, no doubt, a desire not to think about what might lie ahead, but mostly it was the difficulty of finding what I needed to survive right now.

As days and weeks passed, the situation eased, and I was able to look farther down the road. One of the first somewhat distant things I had to deal with was that I wouldn't be able to sing Bach at Advent, and a few weeks after I lost my voice, I spoke to my music director at choir practice (fortunately, I could still sing almost anything that wasn't Bach and/or a solo), and, once I told her the whole story, she was very sympathetic and said that I could sing them another year. (I should add that while I worried tremendously about telling my parents, my children, my siblings, and my friends that I was gay, I never had to worry about the folks at church. The Unitarian Universalists are an extremely enlightened lot.)

I think it was actually three more years before I felt comfortable enough with the Wachet Auf duets to sing them at church. The resonance of Bach with my subconscious continued throughout that time. Perhaps a year into the divorce proceedings, I was sitting in the choir during a music program that I had thought was all Mozart (the choir was singing a Missa Brevis; I hadn't looked at the rest of the program), and a very fine cellist who was also a church member began to play, and I began to cry, and I thought to myself, "Oh shit. He's playing Bach." And Bach still does something ineffable to me, though since I'm happy these days, it isn't anything that I have to fear, and if I want to enjoy something indescribable but very peaceful and deep, I will shut myself away and put on the solo cello variations.

But back in 1999, autumn was tough. There were certainly times later in the divorce (when I first realized there was going to be a custody battle, for instance) where I felt more anger, and to an outside observer, those times would probably look a lot worse, but by then I had figured I'd get by, so I was much better equipped handle the viciousness. Back in October and November of 1999, survival seemed a good deal less than assured.

I was sitting in church one mid-November Sunday morning, and our interim minister, the Reverend Mark Edmiston-Lange, was in the pulpit talking about Thanksgiving. As I recall, he began by teaching all the kids to say "Schleiermacher." As with many things that happened that fall, details remain fuzzy, but I do remember (correctly, I hope) that the starting point for the sermon was Schleiermacher's contention that "all religion begins with gratitude." Mark went on to talk about the first Thanksgiving, but not in the usual way. He talked about the first, very cruel winter that the pilgrims faced when they got to America. He talked about how most of them did not live to see the second winter. And he talked about how, in the face of so much death and despair, the pilgrims were grateful.

I wish I had a copy of that sermon. Reverend Edmiston-Lange was a very good speaker and he had a great deal of insight, and I'm sure that he made explicitly, and in better terms than I can, the point that I apparently internalized that morning. I think it may have been that if you can look into the abyss and still be grateful, you can find something (faith, perhaps) to help lead you out of the abyss. In any case, his sermon was a watershed moment for me, and when it was over, I found that I was both grateful and hopeful. And that was enough to get me through the very hardest of the hard times. There were still a few years of really tough going to get through, but once you believe you can, then you can.

I found a great deal to be thankful for that Thanksgiving. As I have every Thanksgiving since (it's not really much of a challenge to find things to be thankful for these days, and I try not to take that for granted). If there's a silver lining to major life trauma (and, believe me, with all that pain, there'd better be), it's that you learn to concentrate on what's truly important to you, and you learn how not to worry about everything else. It's important to have the love of your family. It's not so important (though of course it's very, very nice if you can manage it) that they all be at the same table as you. I can call my parents and my sister next Thursday and talk to them and the nephews, and they can all talk to the girls, who will be at the table with me. V. will be visiting his own family in New Jersey that day, but he'll be back Friday night, so we can have leftovers together by candlelight. With a bottle of the Gewurztraminer we got in Northern California. Very romantic.

Whether or not there are other guests (and it's kind of up in the air at the moment) on Thursday, I will still prepare a feast, so if there's a freak snowstorm and five weary travelers show up at my door, there'll still be plenty of food. I will do most of the marketing this weekend, and I will likely begin brining the Turkey or making the pie dough for the pecan and pumpkin pies on Monday and end up with an all-morning cooking session on Thursday.

Partly because I cook for my own pleasure (and partly because if anyone should be free from the shackles of tradition, it's a guy who didn't come out until he was 38), my Thanksgiving dinner changes a lot from year to year. Crucial stuffing decisions will not be made until the last minute. The green vegetable(s) is(are) anyone's guess(es).

But tradition also needs to be represented at Thanksgiving, and not only because the girls will mutiny if there are no mashed potatoes (they don't know about the garlic). One thing I never mess with is my cranberry sauce. I am a big fan of other sorts of cranberry sauces, relishes, molds, and chutneys, but not on Thanksgiving. You cannot improve on my orange-flavored, thick but liquid, ruby red cranberry sauce, as delicious poured over the post-Thanksgiving turkey burgers as it is on the Thursday bird and stuffing.

For the sake of completeness, I will mention, even though you will be wrong, wrong, wrong if you try it, that you can turn my cranberry sauce into a moldable cranberry sauce by simmering the cranberries for a lot longer. Solid cranberry sauce, no matter how nice the mold, inevitably reminds me of the people who slide their sauce right out of the can and onto the serving dish. Ridges and all. That's just wrong. Unless, of course, that's the way your mom did it when you were a child. Then it's a tradition, and you shouldn't change it for anybody.

You could, of course, also make my cranberry sauce and serve it along with your red, ridged cylinder of whatever the hell it is that they put in that can. Then when people want to eat mine, you can wrap the blob in plastic wrap and put it in the deep freezer until next year, when you can bring it to the table as if you'd just opened the can yourself. I promise not to tell your mom.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Don't Cry for Me, Commercy

Through a series of events at once unlikely and unremarkable, I came to be standing in my kitchen today, staring into the bowl of my Kitchenaid mixer, when I was struck with the realization that I will probably never read all of Proust. Most readers will likely not have to wait for the recipe to figure out what I was baking that set me to thinking about M. Proust. I suppose that it's fitting that this particular preparation set me off on a mental journey, and I further suppose that in most senses, I'm lucky that it ended up with a short, sad recognition of literary shortcoming rather than seven volumes of, let's face it, dense prose. (I am making an assumption here. I have only read Swann's Way and a short bit of volume two. I read them twenty or so years ago, and then I got sidetracked and didn't get back to them. Still, I imagine that volumes two through seven require the same sort of diligence and absorption that I needed to enjoy Swann's Way enough to get all the way through it with some pleasure but not enough to feel that I needed to read the rest of the series.)

I also ended up with some cookies. On Thursday evening, V. and I had tickets to go into DC and see Porgy and Bess, the opera that had the highest place on the list of operas that I have not yet seen but very much want to see. I have also not seen (live, that is; I've seen some of them on TV), in roughly descending order of need-to-see-before-I-SoTMC Carmen, Il Nozze di Figaro, La Bohème, or Madama Butterfly. Porgy and Bess is at the top of the list because back when I used to sing a lot more, I had sung both "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" (this last one along with a soprano, naturally) with great success, so while I do find the story very moving, I also wanted to see if the baritone had to take as many breaths as I did during the duet. (I don't think he had to, but he did anyway, and it was exceedingly kind of him to so reinforce my fragile vocal ego.) The performance was fantastic on all counts. All of the parts were well sung, the music (obviously) is fabulous, and -- perhaps best of all -- every one of the singers was dramatically convincing in his or her part. Too often I go to the opera and see (for instance) a Tamino who is far too rotund to have survived the trial by fire or one of a number of sopranos who are not convincing in the part of one or another Italian courtesans. But on Thursday night, Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin' Life, and Serena were utterly believable as a cripple, a hussy, a murderer, a low life drug dealer, and a church lady. Respectively, of course.

Anyway, before the opera, I was downstairs in the Starbucks on the ground floor of my office building, waiting for V. to drive by and pick me up. I will not join in the popular sport of Starbucks bashing at this point. I do not, in point of fact, frequent the chain during most of the year, but I am entirely unable to resist a gingerbread latte (with an extra shot of espresso) in November and December. And since I wasn't going to be having dinner before the opera, I looked around for a snack to go with my latte, and I saw a basket of small packets, each containing three madeleines. There were plenty of other options, and most of them looked like they had probably been baked that same day, but I have always liked madeleines, so I bought a packet, reasoning that if they weren't that good, I could put bits of them in my mouth and then let them dissolve in gingerbread latte, which, while not precisely Proustian, would at least be in the right spirit.

The madeleines were very good, however, and I thought that I really needed to come up with a recipe at least as good as what I could get prepackaged from the counter at Starbucks.

Which, as you now see, is how I came to be standing in my kitchen, facing the fact that, if I were a betting man, I would have to put my money on death coming for me before I got around to reading the rest of Proust. Most men start to think of their mortality when their fathers die (I suppose the upside here is that I can call Dad and tell him that I've learned the lesson, so he's free to live forever; I think he'll be pleased), but I saw the reflection of my own transience in my Kitchenaid bowl. I didn't dwell too long on it, though. As it happens, mortality is a lot easier to face in the presence of unsalted butter. Besides, the oven was already preheated, and there were cookies to bake.


Melted butter
all purpose flour

1 lemon
2 c. all purpose flour
1 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 eggs
1/2 t. almond extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush your madeleine molds with melted butter, then dust them with flour. Set aside.

Grate the zest from the lemon. Juice the lemon. Reserve the zest and the juice.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and almond extract together.

In the bowl of your mixer, put the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. With the whisk attachment, mix the dry ingredients for two minutes.

With the mixer still running, whisk the softened butter into the dry ingredients, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all well incorporated. Add the egg mixture and mix well. Then add the lemon zest and juice and mix well again.

Transfer bits of the batter to the prepared molds in whichever manner you like best. I use two tablespoons.

Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, until the edges are well browned. Let cool in the pans for five minutes, then invert onto a rack and let sit until cool.

I must apologize for the lack of pictures. The sad fact is that while the madeleines tasted great, I buttered the pans but did not flour them, and they neither browned nor released as well as they might. I have two madeleine pans, and when they were both filled and baked, I had some batter left over, and I wanted to try another pan, so I got out one of my cornstick molds and filled four of the troughs with the last of the batter. Those browned and released marvelously, but I ate them before I could get the camera.

I will try to do better with the photography next time. The results today were good enough that (with better mold preparation), I could really abandon the search for the ideal madeleine now. But, really, what would A la Recherche have been if Proust had found whatever the hell it was that he was looking for after only ten pages? And I know there are other good recipes out there. The Starbucks madeleine tasted a lot like a small piece of pound cake. The recipe I made up today was a hybrid of pound cake and butter cookie recipes. I have, in the distant past, had great success with Julia Child's recipe, which is basically a genoise.

If you feel the pull of the madeleine, and you don't want to spend as long looking for the perfect recipe as I'm going to spend not reading Proust, then by all means try my recipe. You may want to consider nonstick or silicone molds, or you might want to leave out the third egg and use a cookie scoop and drop them directly on a greased cookie sheet or a silpat. Make sure to leave some room for them to spread out, and start checking after ten minutes or so because they'll cook more quickly. They'll still be very good, though, and you'll get a higher proportion of crisp to tender, if that's what you like. Or you can go old school and prepare your molds well and bake until they're nice and crisp.

Either way, you're still going to die someday. So, bon appetit!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

This Time, America, You've Gone Too Far

Yesterday, readers, was not a good day in the kitchen. It was not the sort of bad day that includes the making of actual bad food, but it was the sort of day where the eventual production of very good food has been preceded by obstacles and outrages small and large, leaving me wondering if the master plan (you know, the one that culminates with the publication of The Cuisine of the Anapest [foreword by Mireille Johnston], which then spends sixteen years in the number one spot on the Times bestseller list -- yielding its position only after every man, woman, and child in the industrialized world has purchased three copies -- and propels me to the first ever Nobel prize in literature for a cookbook author; in case I forget later, I'd like to take the opportunity now to thank my Swedish translator) is really workable.

In my neverending quest to stimulate the economy (and the economy doesn't seem to appreciate my generosity; I drop loads of money on it, and it never calls), I visited no fewer than five stores last night. Trader Joe's was my first stop. I found most of what I needed for the prune cake (that never got made), and I got both some raw sugar and some organic cane sugar (which, as near as I can figure, is sort of minimally processed white sugar; whatever), but I suffered two disappointments. Through either a temporary shortage or a change in policy (I didn't ask: y-chromosome in action), there were no 70% dark chocolate Pound Plus bars. I grumbled to myself and got the regular bittersweet (48%, not that I'm keeping track, mind you). But then, I was ambling through the aisles, and I came upon the package that you see in the picture at the top of this entry. And I thought to myself "Woohoo, the lebkuchen is here!" but then as I reached to put the package in my cart, I read the label, and it said "Soft Gingerbread Cookies chocolate-covered." Leaving aside (but only for the moment: I've got you on the list!) the bizarre capitalization and the highly inflammatory misuse of the hyphen, when did lebkuchen become "[s]oft [g]ingerbread [c]ookies"?

While I certainly do not share it, I have largely resigned myself to the unfortunate American tendency towards political and cultural xenophobia. When people wanted to say "freedom fries," I just laughed at them. When people decided that they could no longer drink French wines, I reasoned that most of those people probably weren't drinking much French wine in the first place, and if they were, well, fine, the prices would fall and more for me! I dislike, of course, tariffs on French cheeses, but perhaps they'll help the domestic cheese market develop the Great American Chevre.

But now we're picking on the Germans? I thought that the selection of Angela (which, by the way, I pronounce properly, with a hard g) Merkel was supposed to mark a new era of political cooperation. So why can't we just call lebkuchen "lebkuchen"? You may well infer from the emptiness of the package in the picture that I did not let my outrage keep me from buying the poorly named, but otherwise superlative, cookies. I can neither confirm nor deny my eventual purchase of said cookies, but I will say that if I bought them, I ate them defiantly.

Anyway, after stops for other items (some related to food, some not) at The Guitar Center, Bed Bath & Beyond, and some store whose name I can't remember but which bills itself as a "discount party super store" and which did not have any cake boxes of the appropriate size, I arrived home ready to bake. I'm going to momentarily (but only momentarily, a fact that I repeat pointlessly merely to widen the split of this infinitive) suspend my tale of woe and insert here the recipe. Attentive readers will note a similarity to a preceding recipe. They are not identical, but they are close relatives. Sorry about that.

Lemon Pound Cake

One pound butter
Three lemons
One pound sugar
One pound flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. mace
Pinch of salt
Eight whole eggs
1 t. almond extract

Confectioner's sugar

Take the butter out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter so that it can come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

If your tube or bundt pan is not a non-stick pan, then butter and flour it.

Remove the yellow zest (no white pith) from the lemons. Put them in the bowl of your food processor with the sugar and process until the lemon is cut up very fine. Put the mixture in the bowl of your Kitchenaid. Juice the lemons and reserve the juice.

Add the flour, baking powder, mace, and salt to the bowl. Fit the whisk attachment on your mixer and mix for two minutes.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs until they are well mixed, then whisk in the almond extract.

Check your butter. If it is soft, proceed. Otherwise, put it in the microwave on defrost briefly or just wait until it is soft. When it's soft, turn the mixer on again and add the butter bit by bit until it is all incorporated. Add the egg mixture and continue whisking until the batter is well mixed. You are not looking to beat air into the batter, though, and if it isn't well mixed after a minute or so, then take the whisk attachment off the mixer, scrape the batter off it and into the bowl with a spatula, and fold the batter together with the spatula.

Put the batter in the tube or bundt pan (you can use two 9x5 loaf pans instead), getting it as evenly distributed as possible. Put the pan in the oven. A tube-shaped cake will take approximately 75 minutes to bake, but begin checking after an hour, and remove it from the oven when a cake tester (i.e., toothpick) inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in its pan for ten minutes, then invert it onto a cooling rack.

Put about 1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar in a bowl. Mixing with a fork, add lemon juice until the mixture is no longer opaque and is too thin to be used as an icing. Brush this glaze all over the top and sides of the cake. Wait a few minutes and brush again. Wait a while longer, brush a third time, and then let the cake cool.

Put another cup of confectioner's sugar in a bowl and stir any remaining glaze into it. Add more lemon juice until you have something that looks like thin icing. It should be opaque, and it should drop slowly from a spoon when you lift it out of the bowl.

Put some waxed paper under the cake and the rack. Pour a stream of icing along the highest part of the cake and let it drip down the sides.

Naturally, a good deal of the icing will drip off the cake and onto the waxed paper. Don't worry about it. You don't really want the icing to be all that thick anyway, and I'm sure you can find something to do with the leftover icing. Rumor has it that I got out some of my own lebkuchen and dipped them in the icing, but there are no pictures, and you can't prove it.

The above recipe presumes a level of organization on your part that I did not myself possess last night. It is an unfortunate side effect of sharing a house with someone who cooks breakfast for himself after you've left for the office that the many eggs you bought some time ago will slowly go away, and if you've not done your mise en place with your usual rigor, you may find yourself visiting a fifth store when you have to run out to the Giant at the last minute.

And then when you get home and start to beat the eggs, you may find yourself face to face with the unfortunate reality that even the pint-sized bottles of vanilla extract that you get from Costco will run out eventually, and they might run out when you're not there, or you might just have forgotten (unlikely) or, well, heck, let's just blame the French. Regardless, you might find yourself without vanilla extract despite repeated (and re-repeated) searching, and even though you will then use almond extract and even though almond extract is a better choice with a lemon pound cake, you will still find yourself entirely out of sorts by the time you finally get the cake into the oven, and any hopes you might have had of making a second cake (which will, it must be acknowledged, have mostly been lost when you saw the egregious price of bundt pans and decided to buy only one) will fly out the window. Goodbye Nobel prize, hello kitchen full of dirty dishes still needing to be cleaned at midnight.

(The whole long evening's journey into slovenliness may have been accelerated by my determination to get a few other things done in the kitchen. To that end, I descended to the basement and fetched a real food processor and brought it upstairs, only to find that a vital element was missing and that I could only make it work by holding a butter knife on the switch. Also, there was a nearly constant difficulty getting the blade to come off the little shaft that makes the blade go around, so processing the ten pounds of macerating fruit, already a somewhat tedious process, became a good deal more tedious. Still, fruit that's been soaking in alcohol for a month or so and is then processed into an alcoholic fruit paste smells really terrific, and now where I had a giant container of individual dried fruits, I have the true beginnings of black cake and a great sense of accomplishment. Grinding the fruit greatly increased the mess, though.)

This morning I woke up, and V. made breakfast for us. The cake was on the counter, wrapped in aluminum foil, and when I unwrapped it, it looked great. I put it on a stiff paper plate, wrapped it with plastic wrap, labeled it, and took it off to the church, where it was gratefully received. While I was at the church, there was a couple, presumably of Norwegian descent, who were selling Norwegian waffles. L. was there (she's a great salesperson), and she insisted that I try a waffle. I think the waffle had lost much of its crispness, but it was still good. It was really a heart-shaped fifth of a waffle, but it only cost me twenty-five cents, and they had various toppings to spread on it. One of these toppings was labeled "Norwegian Goat Cheese Spread," and it had the color of gjetost, so I asked if it had gjetost in it, and they said, "Yes, it's a gjetost-based spread." You will no doubt admire my incredible restraint when I tell you that I didn't scream in horror. I just took some of the honey butter spread and went over to the used book sale.

Here you see most of what I picked up in the used book room. The cookbook section was rather more meager than in previous years, but I'm pleased with what I found. I have, of course, other copies of Joy of Cooking, but how could I pass up a vintage copy for two bucks? It would be like abandoning an orphan in a war zone. And while I may have read pieces of the book in other formats, I have never owned a copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, so that was also a must have.

Obviously, however, the real jewel in the crown is Dawn Wells' Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook. Not only is it full of recipes such as "Skipper's Skillet Bread," "Howells's Stuffy Stuffing," and "Little Spuddy Gnocchi" (just to quote from pages 68 and 69), but there are pictures of the cast members on the set and a short essay about each of the other characters (as well as a separate essay about each of the actors). I won't spoil all of the content for you (since I know that you'll all be seeking out copies of the book for yourselves), but I will reveal that while Mary Ann Summers was from Kansas, the real Dawn Wells was from Reno. I know you're shocked to learn that a Nevadan could so fully inhabit the persona of a Kansan, but it's right there in black and white. I briefly considered throwing a dinner party using only recipes from Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook, but perhaps, after having read the recipes, I'll merely view it as an interesting cultural artifact. I may have to try one of the coconut cream pie recipes, however. The book has thirteen.