24 March 2008

Easter cooking

I like Easter.
We spent most of Saturday in the kitchen, and the rhythm of rising dough, reducing onions, dyeing eggs and preparing chocolate kept everyone in a good mood as we cleaned the house and watched more snow fall. Our kids helped a lot in the kitchen, finding aspects of the holiday cooking that they enjoyed doing.

My wife doesn’t like a too-sweet coffee cake in the morning so we made an egg-and almond-rich gugelhopf. I let the starter ferment overnight, giving the final cake a lovely soft tang to it. Mixing the starter with the egg-rich dough makes for beautiful kneading, and my son loved working the dough. I’d say our gugelhopf was more of a bread than a cake. The round loaf was encrusted with almonds, and the dark and golden raisins added a soft sweetness to the festive bread.

We headed to a friend’s home for Easter dinner and thought an onion tart would be a nice accompaniment to the ham they were serving. I love slow cooking onions, watching two or three pounds of onions reduce to a sweet mass of marmalade. My youngest hovered by the stove and regularly stirred the mixture. I added a bit of sweet red pepper for color and a little heavy cream to celebrate. I thought the cream would add the right amount of fat to the tart, and that would make for a good onion tart and wine combination. We drank a nice riesling with it, a 2001 Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett. I love riesling with a few years on it. They age so well but it seems that few people give the wine the time it needs to mature. Even a few years like this makes for a beautiful, elegant bottle of wine. The pale yellow color deepens a bit, and the nose is rich with a mineraly smell; one could almost extract petroleum from it. And then bam! and I’m floored by the balance between acidity and a gorgeous pineapple and green apple fruit. My wife always laughs at my obsession with matching a certain dish with a specific bottle of wine, but sitting there yesterday with my family and friends, eating ham and an onion tart and drinking this riesling, I thought, “Ahh, another perfect combination.”

Chocolate Easter eggs

A few years ago my daughter wanted a cake decorating kit for Christmas, which she loves using. But, for our chocolate Easter eggs, she preferred the simpler plastic bag: because she was only writing our names on the eggs she didn't have enough icing to fill her larger contraption.
She has a steady hand and the rich blue icing is a beautiful contrast to the paraffin-laced chocolate that coats the chocolate eggs.
My mom, keeper of all holidays and traditions, made these every year, and in the days after Easter we'd all cut slices of our egg for dessert, savoring the fudge-like inside and the brittle chocolate shell.
The eggs are made in a simple plastic mold, well-buttered so the hardened eggs can be removed with ease. They're then dipped in a semi-sweet chocolate coating.

21 March 2008

Hot Cross Buns: Good Friday

Just as fresh vegetables and fruits mark certain seasons, hot cross buns mark Good Friday as strongly as any food/holiday combination. Even though it's snowing hard and four or five inches of snow cover the ground and each tree branch, spring is here. Last night, as I ground cloves in my mortar, and as I kneaded the egg-rich dough laced with cinnamon and nutmeg, the zest of lemons and oranges, I felt like a kid again. Easter is almost here! I put the dough in the large stoneware bowl I always use for dough, covered it and let it rise overnight. I woke up early this morning and punched down the dough. A few spice aromas lingered in the air as I kneaded and then cut the dough into smaller and smaller pieces.

The kids hovered by the oven to see them come out and to claim the one that looked just right for them. We quickly put them onto a cooling rack and put the next batch into the oven. Our glaze was enhanced with a little more lemon zest and a bit of lemon juice, and enough confectioner's sugar to make a decent cross on each bun.

And that's how I end my Lenten abstinence of sweets and baked goods. The kids and I ate a few together, and then I put on my boots and winter coat, and walked to work eating a still-warm harbinger of spring.

20 March 2008


We’re allowing a fast-food corporate mentality to shred and dissolve one of our strongest familial and cultural and social bonds – that of sitting down together and sharing a meal. We’re crazy to accept this and ought to assert the importance of sitting down to a homemade meal every evening. How can we not value time spent at the dinner table, eating food we’ve prepared and talking with each other about all things of the world? When we light candles and say grace, we acknowledge our needs and give our thanks, and we have a sense of how small and fragile we are, and how important the meal before us is. Who knows, maybe Christ’s message at the Last Supper was quite simple: maybe He was saying we should sit down together and share a meal because it’s such a basic part of life, and when we share it with others we create a bond that’s not easily broken. We expand our boundary of family when we include others at our table. Christ didn’t share a Last Breakfast or a Closing Lunch; He chose the Last Supper as His time to be with His disciples one final time and to share them with His final instructions and commandments.

We choose to eat dinner. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious, like saying we choose to sleep at night in beds. What choices are there, really, and does it matter if you’re conscious of your decision or not? Heck, we eat breakfast together, too, although our food choices are more limited and we never light candles. But when we’re all sitting with our bowls of shredded wheat or our stack of pancakes, we’re still just getting ready for the day. It’s hard to summarize or reflect when you’ve just woken up. I liked Thailand, where breakfast often consisted of the previous evening’s leftovers, whether it was a hot curry or a fried fish. Cook some rice, and a little nom prick, and you’re good to go. Here, we have pretty strict lines separating our meals, and while I’m happy to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, I rebel vocally every time my wife tries to serve sandwiches for dinner. (The exception to that is the August BLT, a seasonal favorite that transcends meal categories when made with a thick slice of a still-warm Brandywine tomato.) And while a big bowl of oatmeal with raisins and cinnamon and maple syrup is a very satisfying breakfast, I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten it for dinner. But, if we sat around the dinner table with lit candles and bowls of oatmeal, would the mood change? I don’t think so. So what do commentators and writers mean when they use dinner and its falling prominence as a symbol of the American family’s disintegration? Maybe because if we don’t spend at least that hour together, talking about the day and whatever else happens to come up, then where and how are we defining the family? Can you be a good family if you all eat crappy food and never sit down together? Does the dinner table become a proxy for time spent together in general, and if we’re not spending time here then where are we? There are probably lots of families with kids in athletics or music that don’t eat dinner together yet function as healthy, communicative families. Am I just nostalgic? What is it that makes sharing a meal special? We’re grazing like cattle yet we imbue mealtime with the sentimental hope that we’ll end up with kids who can talk about politics and European history and know the difference between a fava bean and a runner bean and are ready to engage in serious debate or light banter.

But does it matter? With three children in a typically busy house, dinner is still part of every evening in our home. But what is dinner’s purpose? I’ve read that for many families it’s their one time each day to be together and communicate as a family. The lead-up to dinner is just as much part of the ritual as anything. While the kids are playing or fighting or reading or practicing clarinet, either my wife or I starts dinner. I’m home most days by five-fifteen, so unless one of the kids has a six o’clock practice, I can make dinner as easily as Meaghen. On quick nights, we sometimes pull out a bag of pasta sauce from the freezer and make an easy pasta dish and we’re good to go. When our sauce supply runs low I make a batch that’s big enough to store about ten bags worth of sauce – one bag per dinner, with maybe a little left over for the next day’s lunch. The kids all help with dinner. They set the table, bring out water for everyone, and light the candles. Candles are the quickest, easiest way to make dinner seem like dinner. As we approach summer we’ll stop eating dinner in the dining room and eat in the family room; it’s filled with light and has a big door that we keep open to let fresh air in, and it’s more informal. But, we still have lots of snow on the ground and hard frozen earth, so it’ll be awhile before we shift to the family room for dinner.

So why is dinner important? Sometimes we’re rushed, sometimes the kids are fighting or being rowdy, sometimes we all talk about interesting things. I don’t believe that quality time is an effective substitute for spending lots of time with your children -- I think quantity time is more important. We have to spend enough time together so that a single evening with a cranky kid doesn’t make dinner seem like a futile effort, which could happen if we did it only once a week and had it “spoiled” by a fight or argument. No, we’re in it for the long haul -- talking, hashing out problems and disagreements, talking about plans and the most recent day or upcoming weekend. There’s enough time for quiet dinners and raucous ones, simple ones and fancy ones. We all matter to each other, and at dinner we experiment with that. Kids learn to talk and listen, to wait their turn, to exhibit good manners, to express likes and dislikes. The dinner table in a miniature society, and kids learn how to interact in it. We have spelling bees before dessert and ‘fast math’ contests to see who empties the dishwasher. Burps and farts are part of the learning curve too – what’s acceptable and what isn’t? How far can I go before I’m reined in?

Or, you can look at a dinner interpreted by Will Ferrell:


02 March 2008

30° and drizzling

There are times when food is just that. Maybe because we’re nearing the end of a cold winter and the snow is beginning to look as grey and dirty as Lake Erie in 1970, but we haven’t eaten much other than plain food for awhile.
Today, after we ate our Sunday morning pancakes that Madeline made, we packed a few peanut butter sandwiches and headed up to the HHH Metrodome to watch the Minnesota Gophers play against Pepperdine in the DQ Baseballl Classic. 30° and drizzling as we drove to the Cities, and 30° and drizzling when we left the Metrodome, so we went and got a bowl of phở before dr
iving back to Northfield.
Although we make a lot of phở at home, it’s one of our family's favorite foods, so we eat it frequently at restaurants, too. Meaghen usually doesn’t like to eat in a restaurant something she makes at home, but phở is an exception. The kids love it and split a big bowl among themselves, although my youngest daughter still needs her noodles cut into smaller lengths. After our bowls of
phở the car was quiet with sleepy kids for the ride home.