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I recently saw a meat thermometer that has Bluetooth technology and is iPhone, iPad and iPod compatible, leading me to consider whether we’ve all gone absolutely barking nuts.

Or have we? You know I’m old school when it comes to cooking. I’m not above corner-cutting from time to time, especially nostalgic corner-cutting (I grew up slurping on canned Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and I still dig slicing it along the handy grooves courtesy of the aluminum). And I’m not above getting an education on what’s truly useful.*

But that’s the issue, really:

1) How much time and effort does all of the gadgetry really save, and

2) How much of our sensory and instinctual skills get surrendered to Calphalon?

We’ve discussed the second question, especially after I wrote this post last summer and this one a few weeks ago. And I alternate between ‘How did our great-grandmothers cook so well, with nine kids and without non-stick casseroles?’ and ‘But if they had Amazon Prime, wouldn’t they jump on it like Bond on a blonde?’ Still, it’s worth more discussion, especially this time of year.

I love my candy thermometer. I’m glad I don’t have to drop a little water into my syrup to see if it forms a ball. I’m further glad I don’t have to determine the temperature of my oven by sprinkling flour on the underside of a pie plate and watching it go from tan to brown, or doing the same with a sheet of paper, or—surely for the asbestos-skinned among women—plunging my hand into its depths and counting how many seconds I can stand it before having to pull my hand out.**

When it comes to Thanksgiving, a friend put it well when he asked why we should ‘spend a boatload of money when just a pan, a dollar store baster and a good recipe is all you need.’ For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. I like becoming pretty well engrossed in the experience. I need to get my hands dirty and create. But I’m curious about your standpoint.

Does it depend on the gadget, the skill or even the person in question? How far back do you scale when you cook a holiday meal? If you’re a gadgeteer, tell me truthfully whether you simply appreciate the newness and coolness of the state-of-the-art utensil (I understand), or if you find it significantly more helpful than the low-tech one.

And to me the bigger question is how much technology to accept, because it stands to reason that for each new gadget, a skill is often enough left behind. As I told my friend, spending money aside, I’m worried that buying devices we don’t necessarily need may be training us to trust them instead of our own five senses and instincts; and that it will be a dark day when we don’t know if something’s cooked (or raw, or burned) unless a device tells us so. That would be a millennia of human understanding in the toilet. The fact that GPSes sometimes tell people to drive into lakes and people bloody DO it tells me we’re on that road.

In my mind, we’re already detached from so much that is elemental. By buying and buying into everything new for the kitchen, do we risk losing part of the wisdom of our ancestors? Part of our humanity?

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*At a height of five foot three, I’m not above much.

**Seriously. These methods were as common as smallpox.

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So begins the first installment of my cooking project! I chose Anita’s cookies because every ingredient in them is like butter on a burn* to me, and because right now I want to expend only the barest amount of effort while still getting a fat payoff. What we cook should work for us. And for where I am right now, these cookies do that.

To be more specific, this month I’m backstage, crewing two theatre shows. And while I love it, it’s hard physical work. Factor in the frosty 95-degree weather, and my head feels like drywall. I hope you’re all less in the mood to dig into Big Thinking and more in the mood for goofing off a little, because I sure am.

I took a page from Anita’s book with this recipe and did my own thing in a few places: I added good-quality 60% cacao chocolate buttons instead of chopping up chocolate (zero energy for that today) and toasted the walnuts before adding them (a very nice thing to do to a nut). I also used organic whole wheat pastry flour for half of the flour called for.  Stirred it all up, scooped it onto cookie sheets, put the sheets in the oven, then I…

…Oh, you think that’s it?

No, right about here let’s throw in a monkey wrench, something completely screwed up, like having my oven refuse to go past 300 degrees, then slowly shut itself off and start emitting gas, like something out of a 1970s made-for-TV movie starring Dirk Benedict.

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Bring on your Battlestar Galactica plastic weaponry. I smite thee with stink.

The NJNG tech told me the igniter in the oven was busted and needed replacing. I asked my downstairs neighbors if I could use their oven. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t want the extra heat on a day like today. They did offer to see if they could relight it, something about kneeling on the floor, reaching through the broiler drawer with an Aim ‘N Flame and brute ambition. I know nothing about this method. It might have worked finely and dandily. But I couldn’t stop picturing a Hiroshima-styled mushroom cloud over the spot where my house had been and brioche tins flying out over the Atlantic. So I called my friends Kim and Doug, who are endlessly amiable and happy to help in a cookie crisis. Within an hour both batches were done.

These cookies are hearty, homey, flavorful, and textured in a very appealing lumpy bumpy way. As Anita points out, they lend themselves well to additions and substitutions. They’ll keep well frozen, I’m sure, and will defrost to keep my stomach full this week as I zip around the county. Thanks, Anita.

Here she is:

This is based on my mother’s oatmeal cookies, but I changed it up. Instead of cinnamon, I added cardamom. Instead of raisins, I used home-dried apricots (although commercially-dried apricots would do as well). I substituted chocolate chips (which I think are rather tasteless)** for chopped dark chocolate. I also added coconut.

I can’t keep these in the cookie jar. Heck. Half of the time they don’t even make it that far—they are eaten right off of the cooling rack.

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

2 c all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 c butter, softened

1 c brown sugar, packed

1 c granulated sugar

1/4 c molasses or barley malt syrup

4 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 c old-fashioned rolled oats

1 c chopped dried apricots (if unsulphured, slightly reconstitute by soaking in warm water)

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 1/2 c shredded coconut (unsweetened)

1 1/2 c chopped dark chocolate. (I put the pieces in a big plastic bag and whack the bejeezus out of it with a meat tenderizer.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a separate bowl combine flour, soda, salt and cardamom, and set aside. Cream butter and sweeteners together. Add eggs to butter and sweetener mixture, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Add vanilla. Add oats, flour mixture, apricots, walnuts and coconut. Mix on low speed. Add chocolate. Combine.

Scoop by spoonfuls, about 2-3 tablespoons each, onto cookie sheets, leaving a couple of inches in between. Bake for 11-13*** minutes. Cool on a rack, then feast.

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

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Do I seem obsessed with shiny chocolate?

 

*Especially the butter.

**Absolutely the case with Nestle.

***Mine took 18 minutes.

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I’m feeling inspired.

Many, many of you have generously offered up your gorgeous recipes since I started writing a couple of years ago. I’d love more.

So here’s what I propose: A cooking tour—your recipes, me cooking and writing about them here on Eve’s Apple, and both of us talking about them afterward. I want to celebrate home cooks and what they make. And I think it would be fun to cook my way around the world if I can.

Here’s how you come in:

1) Send me your favorite recipe if you haven’t already.

A photo would be great, too, so I know what I’m shooting for. If I like it, I will add it to my list and cheerfully contact you to let you know. Please, no follow ups.

2) Stick to simple home cooking.

Most of you know this about me, but just to emphasize: I am far, far less impressed by the fancy, the fussy, the contrived and the eye-popping than in authentic, regional, humble dishes that focus on quality ingredients.

Soft-boiled eggs with dippy soldiers from Great Britain, melon jam from Greece, and fried zucchini blossoms from Rome are ideal examples of what I’m looking to cook (and I’ve received wonderful recipes of all three—thank you).

3) Send clear instructions of the recipe and the history behind it.

In other words, please tell me this sauce was your mother’s or grandmother’s favorite, or that your cousin has been making this potato salad for your family Labor Day picnic since 1956. I do love a story.

4) Allow me to do some light editing of the recipe if necessary.

5) Perimeters and no-go’s:

Please avoid…

-Recipes that call for cake mixes, MSG, processed foods and other artificial stuff. Chemicals can give me migraines.

-Anything too pricey, huge or difficult to find. If you’re a Laplander and want to offer your recipe for reindeer steaks, please know I’d dearly love to try it, but unfortunately, suburban New Jersey, USA doesn’t feature such things.

-Recipes that were found online, from a magazine, etc. I’d like ones from your own collection.

I’ll eat most foods. But some I won’t, because of flavor, politics or allergies, like: fennel/anise, veal, Chilean sea bass, swordfish, turnips, mint, eggplant and red radishes.

And p.s., I don’t own a grill or a microwave. I have an oven and 4 stove top jets. Old beach house.

6) Provide your name, city and country.

Message me one of two ways: via LinkedIn, or via email at mcproco@gmail.com. If your recipe is selected, I will credit you with your first name only, city and country.

*

Just an FYI: I will not be cooking a new recipe every single day of the year because I gave up masochism for Lent. My plan is to cook as many as I can in a year’s time. But I’ll balance writing about this project with writing about other topics so nobody gets burned out and everybody stays chomping at the bit.

Deadline for recipe submissions is midnight EST, June 27, 2013.

Sound good?

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The first batch set to rise by my radiator.

I was at it again for the past two days, baking and delivering bread as my family has been doing for close to a century. My Italian grandmother (who died before I was born) made one recipe, my dad made another, and true to the pattern, I make still another. Mine’s Martha Stewart’s chocolate cinnamon babka, which I describe in my last year’s post.

Here’s my photo album of the past two days.

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A cool photo, but I’m hoping you’ll be more impressed by the fact that I shot it lefty.

Once the unbaked breads are in their buttered springforms, I put them onto my dining room table, next to a radiator. It’s there that they’ll rise overnight.

When I was growing up, we set the pans between layers of our sleeping bags. Now I use this vintage blanket. It was on my grandmother’s bed at my aunts’ and uncle’s house, and it was the one my sister and I slept beneath whenever we stayed there. Kind of works here.

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Waiting to go night-night.

There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and pulling back the covers to find the bread dough puffy and sweetly fragrant.

Woo hoo! Risen breads in the morning light!

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Right before they go into the oven, I brush them with egg and a splash of milk (an ‘egg wash’). This makes them brown up to a glossy mahogany color.

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Below, the first batch cooling while the second batch is in the oven.

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Then they get loosely wrapped in aluminum foil, oozing chocolate and all; schlepped to the car; and delivered around the county. All recipients used to live in Interlaken, where I grew up, but there’s only one there now. I’ve been bringing him bread since I was old enough to walk it to his house without dropping it, since about 1974. He’s in his eighties now and uses a cane, but still stands at the door not just to watch me walk to my car and see that I get in, but stays to watch until I drive away.

One more nice story for this year…

I mentioned in my last post that this was the first year I bought eggs from a local farm. Not just local, but organic; and not just a farm, but growers whom I consider friends—Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ.

I used almost a dozen of their brown and Araucana eggs*, just under two days old. Next year I’ll try to get them even closer to the time I bake, but the breads still turned out lighter than usual, light as foam. This was the first time since my grandmother’s day—from the 20s or earlier to the 40s or 50s—that a family member used fresh, local eggs to make Easter bread.

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Happy Easter, everybody. Now go eat some chocolate. Show some discipline.

*Click the ‘eggs’ link for pretty pictures; they’re sometimes called Easter eggs because of their lovely colors. So it was fitting)

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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Help me out here. Something’s not making sense to me, it hasn’t for a while, and I want to pick your collective brains to try to get back on the trail.

I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and ordered ‘carrot cake in a jar.’ It was a charming presentation, cake layered with icing, but the cake was dried out and the icing tasted like really sweet chemicals.

Last week I met a specialty foods store owner who apologized for the way some of his multi-grain loaves looked. The oven was acting up lately, he said, and was turning out loaves that were browning unevenly. None were burnt. He was just worried that I’d be upset that some parts of the loaf I’d bought were mahogany while others were tan.

Many local, hardworking farmers I know don’t set out produce that has so much as one flaw—a nick, natural russeting, a lopsided bottom—because they say the public won’t touch it. Some stores wax their organic apples to make them look more buy-worthy.

My favorite ice cream shop sells artificially dyed green chocolate chip mint ice cream. I asked the owner why he didn’t seek out a variety that didn’t, since I know they’re out there. He said he did, and set it out, ‘but no one wanted it. They won’t buy it if it’s not green.’

The affluent parents of the nursery schoolers I used to teach chose Go-Gurt—those brazenly colored tubes of chemicals—instead of pure yogurt for their kids’ lunches.

My local bakery makes luscious, three-layer chocolate cakes with Jamaican rum. But if one comes out of the oven with a crack across the top, no matter how slight, the proprietor doesn’t put it in the display case because she says it won’t sell.

Yet.

We pay top dollar for low-quality supermarket-made cakes, and we feed them to appreciative partygoers who gasp over the design but don’t pay attention to the flavor or to the fact that they are poking forkfuls of powdered head fake into their mouths.

We buy massive, brand new houses in developments in the middle of farmland, bells and whistles from the sun room to the butler’s pantry, but the basement floods as soon as it rains because when the mason was given instructions to make sure the foundation was tightly sealed, he just shrugged.

We spend $45 for a shower curtain at a big box store, so enamored with the cute embroidery at the base that we don’t actually FEEL the fabric to be sure it’s good quality, and it begins to fray after a month.

We pay six men to haul out the vintage cast iron clawfoot tub that came with the house, consistently holds its toasty water temperature for the length of time it takes to read Eat, Pray, Love, and has never leaked in all of its 80 years, then we install a five-figure plastic Jacuzzi (in ‘Creme Brulee’) whose finish begins to peel by the end of September. And after each use we see little pools of water at the corners.

So it goes.

What is UP with us? Why are we so preoccupied with perfection, even if it’s—absurdly clearly—just the look of perfection, a solar system’s throw from the real thing? Why don’t we see the manipulation that’s going on here?

And a more insidious thought comes to mind: If we DO see it, why don’t we give a flying Wallenda?

We used to care, I know we did. I have cookbooks that prove that people wanted, and ate, honest, delicious food made from real ingredients. I’ve seen old-time ads touting goods made with care and attention, with ‘family-owned’ splashed across them. But when I wrote for radio (18-35 demographic) a few years back I was told not to include ‘family-owned’ in my spots. ‘This generation doesn’t care about that,’ the head sales rep told me.

But I can’t shake the image—and the flavor—of farm-fresh chard so full of rainwater that it snaps apart when bent…of a funkily shaped Sugar Baby melon that’s so ripe that at the gentlest prick with the top of a chef’s knife it cracks and splits open in two on my counter top. Real tastes better than perfect.

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for convenience; I’m not saying every restaurant serves chemicals for dessert (and to be fair, the carrot cake was at a chain restaurant, so I wasn’t exactly surprised); and I’m not saying there aren’t notable exceptions to what I’ve outlined here.

I’m saying there seems to me to be a dismaying prevalence of choosing fancied-up crap over quality, and it’s a behavior that does not seem to be changing. There have been staggeringly positive advances in the food industry; maybe we all just need time to appreciate foods grown and made with integrity over ‘perfection’, or eating locally and in season, or what have you. And there will always be those who don’t care what they buy or eat. I get that.

But barring those who don’t know better or don’t care, I’m wondering where our predilection for mindfully choosing crap over quality comes from, and when and how the change took place. Thoughts?

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