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Posts Tagged ‘Martha Stewart’

I’m going to talk about friendship, loss, and candy. It’s a tall and improbable order and it’s also late at night, but I’m going to try anyway. Let me know how I did.

Once upon a time there were two families whose houses were just a few yards away. The kids were pretty close. Holiday parties, birthday parties, in and out of each other’s houses, falling out of each other’s trees, playing Atari and street games until dark, waiting for the school bus.

The two boys in the two families were especially tight. When the green-haired clown at one kid’s birthday party would call him up to the stage, the other would go up in his place. Not just once, either. No one ever really figured out why, but it was pretty funny.

One time, while talking on the phone, one of the little guys was eating jelly beans and wanted to share with the other, so he put a jelly bean on the receiver. It didn’t work and he was bummed. They were pretty young.

And remember when we all had land lines, and when you called someone, there was a split second before the phone rang? Once one of the boys picked up the phone and dialed the other…who was right there on the other end in that split second, ready to call as well.

The little girls in the one family delivered, then got older and made and delivered, holiday bread to the other family. This has persisted, without fail, since the late 1960s.

Everyone grew up, as these things go. The boy in the one family married, moved across the state, and became a dad to three daughters. One of the girls in one of the families became a kitchen fiend, the kind who makes Grandma-style treats and talks about it a lot. Once she made Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows, which makes eleventy-hundred of them, and gave the boy some for his three daughters.

Suddenly the boy with the three daughters fell sick and didn’t recover. I know it looks like I just dropped that into the story out of the clear blue sky, but that’s actually how it happened. Everyone was blindsided. The families, both of them, kind of went numb, as these things go, too. At the wake the kitcheny girl spent a good amount of time wiping her eyes and hugging his dad and his sister. And she met his three daughters, now teenagers, for the first time.

In the hallway of the funeral home were cards on which visitors were asked to write a favorite memory of the boy. The kitcheny girl remembered, in writing, the time she asked him if his daughters might like some homemade marshmallows. How could she forget? His reply was, ‘…Is this a trick question?!’

His sister said goodbye with a last hug and said, “Allie, Vicki, and Stephie remembered you. They said, ‘It’s the Marshmallow Girl!'”

Life’s story, right? We’re lucky if it starts sweet and ends sweet.

RIP Johnny.

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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A few years ago I compiled a list of ways to counter the inevitable individual crises that pop up from time to time. When I was hit by a car in 2011, after I got my bearings (literally and figuratively), I very gingerly worked backstage*. When Hurricane Sandy hit, after we got power back and I could put gas in my car and drive, I went to the big, quiet antiques store near me and just tiptoed around and wrapped myself up in the comforts of years past. You find what works for you.

And after this past hairy week that featured no hair but a burst water pipe in my bedroom ceiling and a blizzard…I got into the kitchen as soon as I could. The kitchen is pretty much a no-fail as far as countering crises. There is something profoundly reassuring to be in the midst of a debacle and have the means to calm yourself, and be rewarded with something lovely. If you have ingredients, a working oven, and a decent recipe, you’re good.

This was my decent recipe: Maple Bundt Cake. It’s a Martha. It’s almost maple season, and I couldn’t wait. It calls for a half-cup of maple syrup and I used Grade B, that gorgeous dark elixir that I could, and have, drunk straight from the bottle. No Grade A fancy for this girl, especially after the week I’ve had. The cake is pillowy and buttery and soothing. While it bakes, the house smells so good that you forget you’re surrounded by debacle debris.

Here’s the cake about an hour after it come out of the oven, when it’s still a little warm. Found my calm.

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*My physical therapist said, ‘Why did you wait six weeks to have the surgery?’ I fudged an excuse because she wouldn’t have been keen on the truth: that in those six weeks I crewed two shows. I needed to in order to feel normal again. Few people know this. If you ever run into a tiny woman from South Africa named Sheila, be a lamb and keep this to yourself.

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Like an army, if the army was attacking with cuddles and butterfly kisses.

I know a guy who is not a sweet eater, yet recently rhapsodized about these as he chatted with friends and relatives all night at a party. It was pretty entertaining watching him nurse one as if it was 100-year-old brandy instead of a s’more.

This recipe has been in my repertoire since 1998, which I can tell you for sure because I still have the Martha Stewart Living Magazine from whence it came.

I do not make it because it is easy (it is in fact a bear to make. A bear, a leopard, and a three-toed sloth on an off day, to be precise). I don’t make it because it’s quick (nope again; it takes several hours). I make it because even people who aren’t sweet eaters dig it, even people who swear by Walgreen’s marshmallows stacked on Hershey’s chocolate dig it, and everyone else as well. S’mores, like foot rubs and Maltese puppies in teacups, are one of the human race’s common denominators of happiness.

And these are especially special because the ingredients are a few boosts up from the campfire classics. Broken down:

The marshmallows: Homemade. They take a long time to cool and set, but making them isn’t hard. And the result is not even in the same hemisphere as the Walgreen’s variety—pillowy, squooshy, pully, and far lighter than store-bought.

The chocolate: It’s mixed with butter and melted, making an already rich thing richer. Go high-quality. Ghirardelli is a good jumping-off point. Gritty, off-tasting basic supermarket brands are not going to cut it.

The graham-cracker base: That’s Honey Maids (or whatever you like best), ground and mixed with butter and sugar.

A big also: Once assembled, Martha suggests putting the lot under the broiler to caramelize the marshmallow tops. But really, this recipe is a good excuse to treat yourself to a small but powerful butane torch.

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Me with my weapon of destruction.

Some tips I’ve learned along the way, lifted from my pencil scribbles in the margins:

-Spread out the process over a couple of days, or give yourself the day with an early start (and if you can snag a little nap before the event, take it).

-Grind up the graham cracker mixture in a food processor.

-Brush the marshmallow pan very well with vegetable oil, add parchment, and brush that well with oil, too. Marshmallow is like a two-year-old: sweet, soft, sticky, and stubborn. It is wonderful, but it will fight you. Placate the beast ahead of time and things will go far more smoothly. Oil everything very well.

-I really like to taste the vanilla, so I use quite a bit more extract than the recipe calls for—up to twice as much. If you’re the same, I encourage you to do the same.

-Spread the powdered sugar into a rimmed cookie sheet, and use plenty of it. Then put the whole marshmallow on top. Decide whether you want large or small s’mores (I’ve done both) and cut accordingly. When you cut them, turn them on all sides into the sugar to coat and de-stickify.

-You may have marshmallows left over. This will not be a problem for any children in your household, nor for most adults. They’re delicious plain, on a sandwich with really good-quality peanut butter (yes, it certainly exists), dipped in chocolate, or—this is the best—floating on top of your hot chocolate.

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My cooking class (one of many), circa 2003, hopped up on sugar. I made classic s’mores with them under a strict agreement that when I turned on the torch, they had to sit on their hands (little kids will reach for anything). They did it.

Despite the extensive list above, do make these. Then eat them slowly. They are not to be rushed.

And do spring for a butane torch. Tell the kids to sit on their hands and have at it. You will be the rave of the schoolyard (not a bad position to be in).

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It’s blurry, but still conveys all the love, wonder, and tragic beauty of a dish that’s about to be devoured. This was our inaugural s’more effort, made for Thanksgiving dessert.

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.

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Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.

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Another one. When you see these…

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(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.

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(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission

wrongplanet.net/postt63638.html

budburst.org/

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