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The little bits of chopped peanut on top didn’t hurt.

Notes from an afternoon in Princeton, last Wednesday. God, but I ate well, but I’ll come back to that.

Background: I went to a small boarding school nearby with students from all over the world. You couldn’t help but become friends with kids from Orlando, FL, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast, Bangkok, Taiwan, because that’s largely whom you bumped into in the halls and while brushing your teeth at night. A few years of living with a variety of faces and accents felt very normal, which I didn’t realize until I went to a college where everyone looked like me and was mostly from NJ or PA. It was a good college, but it felt bland as pasta straight out of the pot.

Foreground: Princeton was crowded, cold and grey though it was. A handful of us were ordinary Caucasian Americans. The rest? It was like the U.N. was on its lunch break and pouring down Nassau Street. Here, as at my high school, this was the rule.

I heard Cockney English spoken behind me outside the bookstore, Russian beside me at the crosswalk. A group of three—two young students of Middle Eastern and Latino descent and an African-American cop—were chatting idly and chuckling outside a falafel shop, their breaths puffing in the cold.

the bent spoon, my favorite ice cream shop in NJ, was closed for vacation. Which pained me, as it was Chocolate Day and I had planned to make it count, but on my way there I had spotted a sign outside Jammin’ Crepes advertising a Mousse Parfait special. It wasn’t chocolate, but it was probably worth trying my tears for. The place is fantastic.

I sat down and ate the above—that’s peanut butter mousse layered with homemade jam and whipped cream, with toasted sugared crepe chips on the side—very slowly. This was while listening to a couple speaking Parisien French right beside me (p.s., they ate every bite of their crepes, and they’d know from crepes) and another couple speaking the Queen’s English behind me.

Diversity reminds me of some of the best years of my life, simply put. I feel calmer when the people around me don’t look and sound just like me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually feel like I fit in better. It was an immensely peaceful experience.

And I noticed on my way back to my car that those two kids and the cop were still kibitzing in the cold about nothing in particular.

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I’ve been doing a lot of observing lately. And not to go all Dragnet on you, but just the facts, as I’ve witnessed, are:

1) Kids today have never eaten a brownie made from scratch. This kind of freaks me out. Or a cookie, or a cupcake, for that matter. How can I make such an assertion? Well, I work with a lot of kids, of all ages, in theatre. During the run of every show I’ve done since 2009, I’ve treated the cast and crew to some sort of homemade sweet. And when they bite into whatever it is I made, their eyes go all saucery. They make loud, happy noises that invoke the names of traditional deities. Sometimes they jump up and down.

One kid shoved a cookie into his mouth and said, ‘Seven.’

‘A seven on a scale of one to ten?’ I asked.

‘No—this is my seventh one,’ he said.

It’s not that I’m some wild baking talent. I just use real ingredients, with no chemicals, and put them together. They simply aren’t used to it.

A couple of summers ago a teenager took a bite out of one of my Kahlua chocolate chip brownies and asked if there was fruit in it. There wasn’t, but I used organic chocolate, and the flavor was so pure, so undiluted, that he might well have been tasting the ambient flora and fauna from the tropics where it was grown. Who knows.

A few weeks ago I offered another young actor a chocolate brownie. He loved it, and I asked him if he had ever had one made from scratch. He looked at me quizzically, then asked, “Oh, you mean with like eggs and flour?” That’s the bad news—that he had to think about what ‘scratch’ meant. But the good news is now he can say he knows the difference between homemade and from a mix.

Which leads me to my second point:

2) People my age aren’t cooking.  When it comes to variety of ingredients and availability, and still more choices within those categories (including free range, organic, all natural, and so on), people today have the greatest food options the world has ever known. There are even several networks devoted entirely to food shows—how to cook it, how to plate it, how to eat it—and they’re making money spatula over fist. Someone‘s watching.

And yet, despite this abundance and our clear interest in food, why is it so many people, kids and adults alike, still think making something from scratch means starting with a box or a series of pouches and assembling? What gives?

Conversely, I’m noticing many people my parents’ age (born +/- 1940s) are cooking. Not all of them, mind you; people who were not inclined to cook in their youth probably aren’t going to want to spring for a Viking range in their later years. But the ones who have been cooking all of their lives, who you’d think would want to rip off their aprons forever and just sink into their goldenrod-colored recliners with an order from Quizno’s…aren’t.

My mom belongs to a garden club in the town where I grew up. Once a month, one of the ladies takes on the task of providing lunch and dessert for the 20 some-odd members. Mom was telling me all of the wonderful things a lunch hostess had brought recently. I asked where she had bought it.

She hadn’t. She made it: hearty sandwiches of chicken and curry, side dishes, and a homey apple-caramel cake. The ladies loved it—and thought nothing of the fact that their hostess didn’t have it catered. That really struck me, that someone would elect to cook for others, to have fun doing it, to take pride in doing it. It did not occur to her, or to the other members, otherwise.

After lunch, they all complimented the hostess and asked her to share her recipes. People used to do that, too.

I thought back to all of the gatherings I have been to in the past few years, all of the dinner parties, barbecues and celebrations given by friends and family my age or thereabouts. I can think of only a couple of instances in which the hosts prepared any part of it, and only one in which they prepared all of it. I can understand not wanting to cook for a huge crowd; you’d have to be a lunatic to work that hard. But some casual get-togethers included just five or so people total.

What happened? Did we take a wrong turn at Albuquerque or something and forget how to chop carrots? Or did we never learn?

Man alive, this is depressing.

The above photo cheers me up. It’s grape jelly made from scratch (for real), and it was made by my friend’s grandmother. I call the flavor ‘Granny grape.’ Granny is in her eighties and lives outside Pittsburgh in a house that’s blessed with a Concord grape vine growing out back. Every year in late summer she makes grape jelly, pours it into old Smucker’s jelly jars, and labels the flavor and the year with those little half-inch labels you get from the drugstore.

And this thought further cheers me up: I’m reading about dinner clubs that are springing up all over the country, with no goal loftier than cooking together and enjoying what you make. Maybe I’ll start one of my own. I think this is a step back in the right direction.

Granny would approve.

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When I was a high school student away at boarding school, I ate a lot of something called Sun Country granola. My mom mailed me happy orange boxes of it, dozens, that I would consequently plow through. One Halloween I even dressed as a flower child and carried a bag of it with me as I trick or treated.  Sun Country has since disappeared from the planet (granted, it’s totally plausible that I ate it all). And I haven’t found anything that comes close to its flavor and richness.

But I do make granola, and have come up with a recipe that’s so delicious and so versatile that it helped to dry my tears. Actually, I’m not even sure you can call it a recipe. It’s just rolled oats (the Quaker oats-in-a-canister type), a sweetener of some sort, a pinch of salt and a bunch of other stuff you happen to like, in whatever quantities you like.

In the granola in these photos I used oats, honey, Turkish apricots that I snipped into bits with kitchen scissors (an admirable Nigella Lawson trick), walnuts that I toasted in a skillet first, and, because my will is so weak, dark chocolate chips. I currently have a huge crush on ground cardamom, a spice that smells like it was poured out of the flowers growing in Eve’s window box in Eden, so I added a few teaspoons of that. A pinch of salt, and that’s it.

Set your oven to 350. Take out a cookie sheet and cover it with parchment. (Don’t use a black cookie sheet or you risk charbroiling your granola.)

Next, get out a big bowl and a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Dump your oats, a few cups’ worth, into the bowl. Stir in your sweetener, then your spice and your salt, and spread the mixture onto your cookie sheet.

Chop up your dried fruit and toast up your nuts, if you’re using them.

Pop your cookie sheet into the oven and bake for about half an hour. You want to dry it out. Stir the mixture halfway through. When it’s done, let it completely cool on a rack, and then add the rest of your stuff.

Ideas for fun taste sensations:

-Real maple syrup, pecans, cinnamon and dried apples

-Brown sugar, Karo syrup and dried figs (this’ll make it crunchy, just so you know)

-Honey, macadamia nuts, dried pineapple and toasted coconut (hel-lo)

Add a few pats of pure melted butter to your mixture, and tell me how good it was.

To get more ideas, take a road trip to a specialty store that’s famous for their fantastic supply of dried fruits and nuts. I love Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck, NJ; Whole Foods is a bang, too.

Personally, I avoid using fresh fruit in my granola because I’d have to keep it in the fridge, which would dry it out too much and make it too crunchy (I have TMJ disorder. If you have to google it, consider yourself lucky). But the stuff’s yours. Do what you want.*

I snack on this right out of the big Tupperware I keep on top of my fridge. But tonight I ate the specimen pictured below, with milk, in my favorite bowl that I bought in a whack little store in Cambridge, MA. The best cereal ever!

*Keep in mind, always and forever, that a recipe—even the ones from fancy-schmancy chefs or publications—represents only a very small consensus on what tastes good to a few particular people. Their preferences are no more important than yours. Doesn’t matter if it’s cooking, teaching a class on Aztec culture, or carving walrus figurines out of soap—design of any kind is your gig. You really can say, “Do I like this? Good, great, it’s going in.” If you like it, it works. That’s the only rule there is.

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December was fattening-food drop-off month at my house when I was growing up. Friends and family descended upon us like the best kind of locusts, and by Christmas, half of the dining room table was covered with butter cookies, fruitcake, and zucchini bread, along with my mom’s additions of apricot brandy-soaked tea cakes and cranberry bread.

The hands-down favorite, I think, was our next-door neighbor’s cake with the chocolate chips and cinnamon. Made by a lovely grandma known for her tendency toward indulgence (redundant?), it soothed every frazzled holiday nerve like a blanket over chilly shoulders.

The bad news: my parents moved. Far enough away that the cake never made it to our new house.

A few years passed. I was working in a nursery school. December rolled around, and on the last day before winter break, the teachers’ room filled up with homemade desserts. I took one bite of the humble chocolate chip cake from the corner of the table, and I had my own Christmas miracle…right there at the Jewish Community Center. It was The Cake. I asked the teacher who made it for the recipe—the hapless woman had to hear the whole story, like you all did—and she very kindly gave it to me. This year I’m baking cakes for my brother and sister.

This cake is homey, but festive, and best of all, it’s a cinch to put together…even this week when we’re all feeling the pressure.

Mrs. Rothbard (that’s the neighbor) and Mrs. Kirk (that’s the teacher), aren’t with us anymore. But the below is a delicious legacy to leave behind.

Sour Cream Cake

In a large bowl, cream together 1 1/2 sticks of butter. Add  1 1/2 cups sugar, 3 eggs, 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla, and mix well.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp baking soda, and 1 1/2 tsp baking powder.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture, alternating with 1 pint sour cream.

In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1 small package chocolate chips.

Pour half of the batter into a 9″ square brownie pan and onto it sprinkle half of the sugar mixture. Add the remaining batter on top, and the rest of the sugar mixture on top of that.

Bake at 350 for an hour or so, until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

You can make this very successfully with plain yogurt instead of the sour cream. But do go for good-quality chocolate chips. And you know my stance on cinnamon: Saigon rules.

This cake needs nothing. Another of its charms. It’s heavenly served warm, when the chocolate chips are still melty. Cold works too, if you want to put it in the fridge for a day or so. And of course it’s good room temperature, right off the dining room table.

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