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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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For those readers outside the U.S., the election season here in the colonies has been pretty rife with stress—almost tangibly stressful, as if we’re brushing away ions of hate speech and rhetoric and illogic as we walk through streets and scroll through social media. I’m grateful that my friends are the kind type, and consequently I’ve been able to hamster-ball my way through most of the nonsense. Today I took a walk on the beach as I always do in times of chaos, walking in the wind and sunshine, and I felt safe. The ocean doesn’t care about any of this mishagoss. It’s bigger than all of it, and far older, and will remain nonetheless, let’s hope.

But the negative ions are still out there, and on this, the night before the election, I’m just glad tomorrow we’ll have an answer in stone.

Last night I warmed up a bowl of my homemade chicken stock. As I moved through the kitchen, I felt compelled to move very slowly—not my usual style. I chose a footed bowl, poured the stock into my old copper-bottomed pan that I bought from a sale in a lot a half-block away, and waited to hear the soup hiss as it does when it’s just starting to think about boiling. And I felt warm honey-colored peace flow over and through me. Then I drank down the soup slowly—no seasonings, no spoon even. It was perfect.

I have only felt that kind of peace a couple of times in my life. It’s always unbidden, but it also always seems to surface when I need it most. It didn’t last. But I like that word, surface. Implies it’s always inside. It’ll be back.

E Pluribus Unum, everybody. Remember that, and drink it down to the very bottom. Out of many, ONE.

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Pyrex bowl from the late ’60s-early ’70s. Bought it from a vintage Pyrex vendor (both were vintage) under a very crowded 8×8 booth in Ocean Grove, NJ.

Title flagrantly swiped from food writer Laurie Colwin, God rest her salt- and butter-loving soul. She and I, kitchen sisters, subscribe to the doctrine of secondhand utensils. Think of it this way: They’ve lasted this long. How many neon-green kitchen toys at Bed, Bath & Beyond can go up against a Pyrex pan from the fifties?

Everything below is practical, long-lasting, and has a story to boot. I need as much resilience and soul as I can get in my kitchen.

Here, thus, is a family album of the kitchen equipment that I bought used, was given used, or just plain found. I will always cook this way.

First: Copper pans bought for $10 (total!)* from a parking lot tag sale in Asbury Park in 2011. The seller said she bought them in France, which may or may not be true. But they have never failed me, so the French can be proud either way.

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One of many German aluminum springform pans that I inherited when I took over making Easter bread. They are at least 45 years old, probably older, and live above my refrigerator with my Christmas china.

Vintage springform study

Two of several glass votives and a baking pan I bought at an estate sale in nearby Oakhurst, NJ, in 2010. I went into the living room, decorated straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and found four long folding tables covered with vintage glass—regular, ornately cut, and Pyrex. The pan is several decades old but has no scarring. The votives I use for occasional imbibing and frequent desserting.

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Clockwise: What look like milk glass bowls, bought from a house sale in Bradley Beach, NJ. Wildly useful as prep bowls, mini snack bowls for chocolate buttons or grapes, or for a quick sip of milk. The lauan box I found at my aunt’s next door neighbor’s yard sale, in the town where I grew up. It nicely corrals my measuring cups, spoons, and a tiny spatula. The aluminum spatula has a very slim blade, and slips ever so cleanly under s’mores and brownies. I bought it in Oakhurst, at my realtor’s yard sale.

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Both from sales in my hometown. The white dish, one of two, I use as often for food styling as I do for sandwiches. If you’ve seen one of my photos of something tasty on a white dish, you’ve already met. The top dish, also one of two, is not much bigger than a saucer. It is my teatime dish—just the right size for a cookie or muffin. It belonged to my favorite aunt and her family. When I went to their garage sale, my cousins just started handing me things. This dish reminds me of the ’70s—a really good time growing up with them. One of my cousins laughed and said his mom probably bought the set from Foodtown for $1.95. And he’s probably right, but I don’t care.

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Farberware hand mixer, I think from the ’80s, that I bought circa 2006. Still going strong. From Oakhurst again (wow…that’s really the spot, isn’t it?), at my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale, $5.

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Can’t remember the yard sale for the box grater, but I like it because it’s a little smaller than typical. The salad bowls (which I use for everything) I got from my hometown as well. They’re teak and were made in Thailand. The muffin tins are from Wanamassa, NJ, and are an ideal example of something you can always find for sale on someone’s lawn. They last forever, are nearly indestructible, and thus are downright silly to buy new. I think I paid $.50 for four 6-cuppers.

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Some of my wooden-handled corn holders, purchased for something like $1.00 for a handful wrapped in a rubber band. One I accidentally rinsed down the sink—another sound argument against spending too much. The wooden bowl I bought from a yard sale in Allenhurst, NJ. The seller told me she bought it in Vermont many years ago and it was handmade, so she wouldn’t let me haggle down for the split in the side. It’s my foraging and bread-rising bowl.

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Rolling pin, which very likely has seen more decades than I. Pulled it out of a bin filled with cookie cutters at the Red Bank Antique Center.

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Massive hand carved wooden spoon, a recent hand-me-down from a friend. Still have to use it. I put a penny next to it for scale. Look at the size of it! For stirring soup, stuffing, or anything with eye of newt.

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‘Special Gelatin 50% Strength’ three-paneled vintage wooden box from the antiques store downtown. I load it with potatoes, onions, and garlic. The cashier asked what I was going to use it for and got a bang out of the answer.

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And lastly: a brick I nicked from the property of an abandoned 17th-century farmhouse near me. I think the original homeowners would be proud to hear it’s my low-tech panini maker.

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)

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Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.

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Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.

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Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.

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Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.

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Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?

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Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.

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The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.

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Are you sick of hearing about my kitchen screw-ups? No? Awesome, because here’s another one. It’ll also be good reinforcement for those who say they can’t imagine me fouling up a recipe. Plus, it features colorful language and is therefore a shot of truth for those who don’t think I ever swear. I’m all altruism today, aren’t I?

It started with a request from an actor friend of mine. Some time ago she had posted about her love of peanut butter fudge on Facebook. I told her I had a fantastic recipe and would treat her to some during the run of our upcoming show.

The day before I planned to bring it in, I looked for said fantastic recipe and couldn’t find it in my recipe files. No worries, I thought. I’ll find it on Martha’s site. It’s hers. But it wasn’t there. She had a different one, but not MINE. My printer has been chewing up paper lately, so I wrote it out by hand. It was simple, but it did say not to overcook.*

That night I was out late with the cast, then proceeded to yammer away in the restaurant parking lot, as theatre types tend to do, until it got even later. Got up around 9 all the same, and began. I had to leave by 6 for the show and knew the candy would need to set awhile. Here’s how it went.

1) Blinked blearily into the exceedingly bright light of the fridge. Saw I had no milk for the recipe. Mumbled the first of the day’s colorful language.

2) Decided I needed to double the recipe since we had around 21 actors, who typically are hungry creatures, plus crew and staff. Doubled it. Set it into a pot that still had a good half-capacity empty space above it. It was only about a quart of goo. Harmless.**

3) Had to bring the mixture to 236 degrees. Began to worry when I hit 220 and it started to foam up like a Chow-Chow watching a Sizzler commercial. Turning down the heat to medium didn’t help. Also, turning down the heat to barely on didn’t help. More colorful language ensued.*** Brown, sticky, and continuing-to-bubble peanut butter goo erupted all over jet #1.

4) It did smell nice, though.

5)  Had just a few seconds to decide if I was going to chuck the whole sorry pan or figure out what pan I was going to switch it into. Candy is a diva; you let the temperature fluctuate just a little bit and it gets all ‘I can’t work like this.’ And I already had a strike against me lowering the heat as quickly as I did. I had a great enamelware pot that would be perfect to use, but I used it last week to make mulberry compote, and parts of the bottom still had cheerful berry-shaped burns on them. I had neglected to stir the compote as often as I should have. I also very purposely neglected to tell you about it. All I had left to use was my turkey stockpot, which could accommodate a watermelon. If you set it on end, it could also accommodate a Chevy Impala transmission.

6) Pushed aside everything on the counter and set down the oozing pan. Grabbed the step ladder and pulled the stockpot down from the shelf above me. Poured all of the goo into it, set it on jet #2, and started it up.

7) Waited for the goo to come back to temperature. Wet a dishtowel and began cleaning the melee off the stove. ‘Why’s the dishtowel smoking?’ I’m thinking. ‘Wait, what’s this jet still doing on?’ My stove is only about 2 weeks old, and the jet dials are opposite of my old one. Which meant the dishtowel was smoking for a very good reason**** , and I had turned off the heat on the candy again.

8) Turned it back on. Realized using a really deep pot means your candy thermometer will be too short to reach into the goo. Held it myself with the traumatized dishtowel in one hand, and a rag in the other to wipe off condensation so I could read the numbers.

9) Still hard to read due to the above. Hit 236. Well, 7. Okay, 8. Poured the goo into the parchmented pan, which turned out to be too big a pan. So much for doubling. Lifted the whole shebang into a smaller one. Twice. Took an extra 10 minutes trying to scrape out the remains from the godawful big, and 238-degree hot, pot.

10) Since I messed with the temperature too much, the fudge predictably Patti LuPoned, and the edges turned out as chewy as caramel.***** Chopped them off, and thanked the universe, asteroids and nebulae when I found the interior still soft. Not as creamy as it should have been, but at least I wouldn’t have to contend with any backstage lockjaw. Tasted it. It didn’t have that kick of salt that I think peanut butter needs, so I sprinkled some fleur de sel on top. Then I crashed on the sofa until my 6:30 call.

The actors loved it. One quoted the movie Big Night and told me she had to die now. The girlfriends of the actors loved it. One told me she wanted to marry it. It’s gratifying knowing my cooking can inspire drama, but then again, I was in the right place for it.

I cleaned the kitchen today. Was this close to opening my windows and asking the boys next door at the fire house to let rip the water hoses.

*Words to live by. For someone else.

**And I’m not even done.

***On the ROYGBIV rainbow scale, we’re somewhere around cadmium yellow.

****Turquoise.

*****Ebony. Oh, we’re way over the rainbow.

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‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.

The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.

Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.

To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.

For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.

For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.

For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.

I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.

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For the ice cream:  The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.

To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.

Good times.

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*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.

**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.

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