28 May 2008

Birthday cake

My oldest child, who's about to turn 11, doesn't have a favorite birthday cake. For her birthday party sleepover last weekend I made a lovely three-layer white cake. I covered it with sweetened whipped cream, added coconut and slices of strawberries between the layers, and made a pretty design on the top. She loved it.

The girls ate nearly two pounds of bacon and a quadruple batch of pancakes for breakfast; too bad there wasn't any snow for them to shovel after that hearty meal!

24 May 2008


Pie. A perfect word. And what says spring like rhubarb pie? We had a long winter, really, and the colors and smells this spring remind us why we love, why we procreate and celebrate life. Earlier this evening, looking at a stupendous crab apple, its pink-white blossoms laid across a newly leafed-out maple tree, both of which were thrown against intense blue sunshine-filled sky.
Last weekend I made pie crust dough, planning on making a pie. Well, the weekend got busy and I didn't have any time. Making a pie crust takes ten to fifteen minutes, and there's no substitute for good pie crust. I make mine with a variety of fats; for this one I used four or five tablespoons of butter and a few dollops of duck fat. I used unsalted butter so the salt in the duck fat (which is fat that's still preserving a large batch of confit) was just right for the dough. Two cups of flour and a little more than a quarter cup of ice water and that's it.
This morning I bought strawberries and when I got home I went outside and picked rhubarb. That quick snap of a stalk releasing from the ground is a good feeling. We are right to lament how our diet no longer revolves around local and seasonally available foods, because rhubarb is a testament to the goodness of food that's only available when it's fresh and in season; eating rhubarb every spring is as perennial as Easter. Sugar, a pinch of salt, a little lemon and a sprinkle of cornstarch is all I use. I don't usually use cornstarch but strawberries shed so much liquid that I wanted to hold a little of it together. But, I let it all sit while I rolled out the crust, and I scooped the fruit into the shell and didn't pour the liquid, so it wasn't too runny.
So I called a friend and asked if she and her family wanted to come over and eat pie tonight. She invited me and my kids for dinner, instead, and said they were having brats on the grill. I said sure, and let her know I had a big bottle of heavy cream, too. Sitting in my fridge was a 2005 Toni Jost Barcharacher Hahn Riesling Kabinett, and I knew it'd be perfect for the evening's dinner. So, after cleaning up after a day of heavy chores (my wife is out of the country and I want to get a lot of house/yard projects done while she's away) I showered and we all walked over to our neighbor's yard, where early evening sun still forced us to squint at times. We just indulged ourselves, sitting around, talking and radiating the joy of real spring, drinking our local Summit Maibock, happy to be where we were.
Sandy cried out "What is this?" when she drank the riesling, and raised her hands and eyes to the sky. She took the bottle home (empty of course) because she wants more of it. Enough acidity to keep you awake, and fruit galore: apple and melon (and peach?) and when I lean over to take another sip my nose is pulled into the wineglass because it smells so alive on this late May late afternoon. A finish that feels full in the mouth.
And so we ate and laughed and talked and ate pie. Our kids made a marble maze that rivaled a roller coaster and we watched them roll their marbles down the precarious, well-engineered course. We sat around into the evening, sharing food and friendship, begun earlier in the day with a phone call and a simple word: pie.

14 May 2008

Hardening off tomatoes

Spring, and it feels like there won't be another frost. This morning, standing at the bus stop while my kids boarded their bus to school, I was reminded of Van Gogh's Branches of Almond Tree in Bloom as I looked at a huge old elm, the bark angular and dark against the brilliant blue morning sky, buds urging to burst into bloom and leaf out, but today just smudges of green pastel, soft against the hard lines of branch and limb. From morning until now, I've been inhaling this air, so sweet I want to drink it.
I just brought my tomatoes up from the basement. They've been sitting under 40-watt fluorescent shop lights for the past six weeks, and it's time to bring them outside to harden them off and prepare them for the garden.
If I put them into sunlight right away, the sunlight will scald the leaves and kill the plants. So, I bring them into the light of day slowly. Tonight, they're on the north side of the house, where they'll acclimate to the fluctuating temperatures and breezes of outdoor living. Over the next week I'll gradually expose them to more and more sunlight until they're ready to go into the ground.
I like to plant my tomatoes as deep as I can, leaving only a few leaves above ground. This helps them develop deep, sturdy roots; they start out a bit slow, but by July they'll be doing fine.
Meanwhile my roquette is growing vigorously; I'll be eating it in just a few more weeks. My fava beans are a few inches tall and if we have a few more days like we had today they'll take off.

13 May 2008

What kind of fat is in your icebox?

When I was a kid, there was always a can for drippings. My mom was born in the height of the Depression, and when she raised us she wasted very little. So now, I always have a jar of drippings in the fridge. Every time I fry bacon or brown meat, I pour the extra fat into a jar. For one thing, I don't want to clog my drain. More importantly, though, is that a spoonful of drippings makes for great sauteed greens, onions, or whatever else I might be cooking. If I'm making biscuits or a savory pie, I like to add a tablespoon or two of drippings to the dough. My friends now swear by the duck fat I use when making a pie crust for blueberry pie. I also cook with butter, lard, walnut oil, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and vegetable oil.

I like having an array of fats in my fridge. Bacon drippings are great, but when I make green beans I need duck fat. Butter is what I want for my asparagus, and olive oil is perfect for other things. When I cut up an animal, I save its fat. I like using as much of an animal as I can, and rendered fat is a treat you can't buy in the store.

A perfect spring recipe using drippings? A bunch of just-picked arugula, washed. A spoonful of bacon drippings in a hot, hot pan. Throw in the greens and let them sizzle for a moment. If any of the stems are getting tough or fibrous, cover the pan for thirty seconds or so. Salt if needed, and enjoy!

11 May 2008

Mother's Day

Friday was the second anniversary of my mom's death and I miss her a lot. Happily, around fifteen years ago my brother compiled the recipes my mom used when she was feeding her eight children, and printed up a little cookbook called Cooking with Jane. A few years later the second edition, More Cooking with Jane, hit the street, and it also had recipes by us eight kids and our spouses. All of us use it for classics like meatloaf, beef stroganoff, lasagna, salad dressing, and spice cake with caramel frosting, my perennial birthday cake.
This morning, my two oldest kids pulled out the family cookbook and made a large heart-shaped oatmeal scone with a big 'M' cut into the middle of it for their mother. We put it on our red "You Are Special Today" plate and brought it upstairs with coffee, the Sunday newspaper, cards, and a present.
For dinner, I made my wife's favorite dessert, pound cake. I make a very simple pound cake, with butter, sugar, eggs, a little salt, and flour. I usually add a teaspoon of vanilla but with spring in the air I added a bit of lemon zest instead.
After a good dinner of grilled steak, home fries cooked in bacon drippings, and sauteed bok choy, we all sat around the dinner table eating thin slices of pound cake, everyone with their favorite way to nibble the buttery edges on the way to the softest, finest crumb found on any cake.
Happy Mother's Day to my sweet wife.