Another 8766 Hours, Another Birthday Cake

Years ago, my old book club read Michael Cunningham’s brilliant Pulitzer prize winning novel The Hours. I absolutely loved this book, but I can still hear my fellow book club members groaning from here. Let’s just say everyone did not share my enthusiasm for The Hours. In their defense, it was rather depressing. I lent out my copy, so I can’t refer back to specific passages. But one in particular really spoke to me.

Laura Brown was an unsatisfied, depressed housewife in 1949 suburban Los Angeles. Like me at the time, she attached a little too much significance into baking (creating) her husband’s birthday cake. It was her job, her art, her lot in life. And no surprise, despite her ardent efforts, it came out imperfectly.

While thankfully I was never anywhere near the level of misery of Laura Brown (who winds up leaving her family), there was a lot of me who could relate to her struggles during that time of my life. Back in those days, a cake was one of the few pieces of evidence that I “did something.” And then the reminder that I once had so many more dreams for myself than just baking cakes.

She, Laura, likes to imagine (it’s one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren’t all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. — Michael Cunningham, The Hours

I am better now that my kids are older and I have crafted more of a balanced life for myself, but for every birthday cake I bake, I still remember that gray period of my life when the cake was such a powerful symbol. It represented my job, my worth, my abilities. While there are many times when I still mourn for my life with small children (usually when I see a cute one in the grocery store), I remember that it was also a difficult and sometimes dark time filled with much loneliness, isolation and boredom. Women don’t talk about that part, but they should. Despite my fierce love for my family, I was a little lost and unfulfilled as a person during my early years of motherhood.

It feels taboo to admit that. It feels whiny and self indulgent, and maybe it is. But I serve no one by pretending it was easy, happy and perfect. It wasn’t. Not for me, anyway. There were wonderful hours, for sure, but back then, the wonderful hours were much fewer and farther between than today. I don’t know that I would ever want to go back to that place.

This year’s birthday cake for my husband feels like a victory. Not because it will be perfect, but because it won’t be. It will just be a cake, and there is no such thing as bad cake. It will be sweet and a little messy but satisfying and made with love and good intentions, just like a cake and a life should be.

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An April Fools Story and a Tale of Redemption

Hello, Hello and Happy Almost April!

I hope everyone had a lovely Easter, Passover and/or Spring Holiday of Choice and enjoyed feasting with loved ones as much as I did. I have been working a lot more, so my time in the kitchen has been less than innovative lately, and I’ve been sticking to my usual repertoire of take-out family favorites. However, I did try this so-easy-it’s-not-much-of-a-recipe recipe from the Huffington Post for matzo toffee, and it was a pretty big hit. On the plus side (?), I consumed such a shameful amount that I don’t want to look at it for another 365 days at least. Too much matzo toffee + Too many marshmallow Peeps = Too tight jeans.

On a somewhat related note, it’s time for me to bust out my annual April Fools story. Now, if you’re a friend or family member, please forgive me. I know you have to hear this story every single year. But for all the rest of you, please enjoy this lovely April Fools cautionary tale.

When Logan was about ten, I thought it would be HILARIOUS to tell him that he was going to have another baby brother or sister as an April Fools joke, and this is how it all went down:

Me: Guess what, Logan? You’re going to be a big brother again! Isn’t that exciting? What do you think of that?

Logan: Yeah, I kind of thought you looked pregnant.

And that, my friends, is how it’s done. May your attempts at tomfoolery be more successful than mine.

On a totally unrelated note, I wanted to share with you a recommendation for a short HBO documentary I really enjoyed. Fall to Grace is the story of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 and came out as a “gay American” after he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.

As a bit of a cynic, I was prepared to not be taken in by McGreevey’s reinvention as a wannabe Episcopal priest and mentor at a women’s prison. I may talk like a tough guy, but I fell in love with him in less than five minutes. (And I really fell in love with his house! If you are dying to know what my dream house looks like, see this documentary.) Jim McGreevey radiates happiness. Working with these inmates is truly his calling. You can see and feel the connection they have, and it’s clear that these women have helped him as much as he has helped them.

This is a really sweet little documentary about a person who had it all, lost it all, and then got it all back in spades. I love the idea of Act 2 and second chances. I love Jim McGreevey’s radiant glow which comes from living openly, honestly and with vulnerability. But mostly I love that even though we’re all a little broken, we still possess the capacity to heal each other.

Buffalo Hummus

After a long week, Ed and I usually enjoy unwinding with wine and hummus on Friday evenings. We’ll either watch a movie or one of our shows (currently we’re enjoying The Americans on FX). But at the end of March, that changes.

Our household is currently in the height of March Madness frenzy. For the unaware, this means NCAA college basketball. In general, I am neither a rabid sports fan nor a gambler, but for a few weeks in March, I become both of those things. College basketball and wine just don’t go together as well as college basketball and beer. And what does beer go with? Wings, of course.

Tonight I decided to shake things up a bit and try my hand at Buffalo Hummus. I went into this blindly, but we were both very pleased with how well it turned out. Zippy and rich, but not too heavy. I won’t say this is exactly healthy, but it is definitely more healthy than buffalo chicken wings or dip.

Buffalo Hummus

Ingredients
1 can chick peas, drained
2 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup hot wings sauce, such as Franks Red Hot Buffalo Wings Sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions
Combine all ingredients in food processor until smooth.

buffalohummus

Dawn’s Wheat Berry Salad

There are few things I dislike more than salad bars and buffets. Public restrooms come to mind, but otherwise, I’m drawing a blank. So I’m not quite sure what came over me last week when I was drawn to the salad bar of my grocery store in an almost supernatural pull, equal parts hungry and lazy. Plastic clam shell container in hand, belly up to the Acme salad bar, I found myself evaluating my many rainbow colored options. It seems the middle-aged crisis manifests in many forms.

Obvious sanitation concerns aside, I become paralyzed by the selection process. Too many choices give me anxiety and harken me back to the days of toddler temper tantrums, where my children would melt down picking out what color cup to choose or a pack of gum at the checkout counter if I “rushed” them. Just. Pick. Something. Dammit.

I’m not saying I would have been happier in the days of Soviet Russia, but standing there contemplating the selection of egg salad and broccoli salad and beet salad and bacon — so much bacon in all of the “salads” — and some rather flaccid looking veggies and ten different dressings and six different crunchy toppings and none of it made sense when served together in one container all touching each other that I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off going next door to Bravo and ordering a cheesesteak for probably less calories than my salad.

But oftentimes inspiration strikes in the most unlikely places. One of the many things I plopped in my container that day was a little sample of wheat berry salad, and this alone was worth my ordeal. Hearty and flavorful, I was immediately enchanted with the humble wheat berry, which is high in fiber and rich in nutrients. Score one for the Acme salad bar.

I picked up these wheat berries from Wegman’s (but certainly use any brand or variety you can find), and I set out to create something healthy, delicious and satisfying for lunch. Mission accomplished. If you’re gluten-free, quinoa or brown rice would work.

Dawn’s Wheat Berry Salad
4 servings

Ingredients
1 cup wheat berries (red winter wheat) cooked per package instructions
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 – 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 pound good quality feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup black olives of choice, halved

Directions
Cook one cup of wheat berries per package instructions and remove from heat. In medium serving bowl, whisk together olive oil, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt. Add cooked wheat berries and mix well. Add all remaining ingredients, gently combine, and serve chilled or at room temperature. Refrigerate and use within three days.

Wheat berry salad

Countdown to Pi Day

Tomorrow Logan’s school is celebrating Pi Day (3.14, get it?) by serving lots and lots of pie. I signed up to make two pies, and our conversation went like this:

Me: Pi Day is almost here. I need to find a winning recipe because I’m bringing in two pies and I want them to be THE BEST!

Logan: Umm, Mom, you know it’s not a pie contest, right? No one will even know it’s your pie that they’re eating.

Me: Oh, honey, they will know, because they will say, “Who made this one? You have to try this one. It’s the BEST PIE I EVER ATE.”

Logan: Seriously, Mom, you can just buy two pies from Acme. No one really cares.

Me (blank stare): Huh? “No one cares?” Of course they care! They care and I care and I will win at Pi Day.

Unfortunately, pie is really not my thing. Talking smack, that’s my thing. Never one to let lack of skill or experience get in the way, I started pulling out cookbooks and magazines and Google searches, determined to create the best pie ever. There are over 61 million results on Google for apple pie alone. My head hurt. Analysis paralysis, as they say.

But then something happened. I stopped and asked why. Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? I certainly have enough things to do, so why am I making extra work for myself?

The answer, it turns out, is as infinite and transcendental as pi itself.

PeachPi

Carrot and Sharp Cheddar Gratin

I’ve had my eye on this recipe from my December 2012 Fine Cooking for a few months, and I finally decided to make it last week. No surprise, carrots covered in heavy cream, butter, cheddar cheese and panko were a big hit. Obviously, almost any vegetable covered with these ingredients would be a big hit, so go ahead and modify if you wish. Then you can be one of those braggy playground moms who says, “Connor just LOVES when I make <insert one> turnips, broccoli, parsnips, kale, etc.” They don’t need to know the whole story.

All kidding aside, this would make a lovely side dish for a holiday meal or a Sunday dinner. I was short on carrots and had a daikon radish which wasn’t getting any younger, so I threw that in there to make up for the carrot shortfall. You can also substitute parsnips for half the carrots.

Fine Cooking’s Sharp Cheddar and Carrot Gratin, original recipe here

1 oz. (2 Tbs.) unsalted butter; more at room temperature for the dish

1-1/2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/2-in. dice (about 1-1/2 cups)

Kosher salt

1 cup plain panko

2 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme

1 cup heavy cream

1 Tbs. Dijon mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

3 lb. large carrots (about 12), peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick half-moons

4 oz. coarsely grated sharp Cheddar (1 cup)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9×13-in. (or similar) baking dish. In a 12-in. skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and 1/2 tsp. salt and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, until golden-brown, 7 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and pour into a medium bowl. Add the panko, parsley, and thyme and toss well.

Whisk the heavy cream, mustard, 1-1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4  tsp. pepper into the onion, scraping up any browned bits, and then stir in the carrots. Bring just to a boil, cover, lower the heat to medium low, and simmer until the carrots are crisp-tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Spread the carrot mixture evenly in the prepared dish. Scatter the Cheddar over the carrots, top with the panko mixture, and bake until the carrots are tender when pierced with a fork and the crumbs are golden-brown, 30 to 40 minutes.

Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

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Sea Scallops with Rainbow Salad and Mustard Sauce

After unleashing the evil that is homemade Nutella on to the world, I feel compelled to repent and share something healthy(ish) but equally delicious.

Rainbow salad, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a mixture of shredded red cabbage, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower stalks. Beautiful and healthy! You can certainly make your own, but hopefully you can save some time and find it alongside the bagged coleslaw in the salad section of your grocery store.

This recipe serves two to three people. Ed and I enjoyed generously sized portions, and there was a wee little bit left over. At $17.99 a pound for good sea scallops, I wasn’t prepared to serve this to my sometimes-picky family of five, but it is good enough that I will double this recipe and serve it to adult dinner guests in the future.

Sea Scallops with Rainbow Salad and Mustard Sauce,
serves 2 to 3

Ingredients
1 pound of sea scallops, patted dry
salt, kosher and regular
pepper
all-purpose flour
12 oz. Rainbow Salad (shredded red cabbage, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower stalks)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons water
juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Directions
Pat scallops dry and season with salt and pepper on both sides, then lightly coat each side with all-purpose flour. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a 12 inch skillet over medium high heat. Add the rainbow slaw, a couple generous pinches of kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, and toss to coat well. Stir occasionally, about 2 minutes, and then cover with lid for one minute. Transfer to a warmed platter.

In same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the scallops, turning them at 3 minutes, and then cook another 2 minutes. Place them atop the rainbow salad on the platter.

Turn skillet to medium-low heat, and add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, juice of half a lemon, 2 tablespoons of water, and 1 generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard, stirring a scraping up any brown bits, until sauce is well mixed and thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and pour over scallops and serve.

rainbowsalad

scallops

Homemade Nutella

I don’t recall what initially inspired me to make my own Nutella, but I’m guessing it was a combination of PMS and something I may have seen in Bon Appetit. However, once I finally looked up the Bon Appetit recipe online, I saw the reviews were pretty terrible, as were the reviews from The Splendid Table recipe. Resolute, I startled googling like a madwoman, bookmarking dozens of recipes and reviews until my head was spinning. I did not buy these hazelnuts in vain, dammit!

I knew I didn’t want additional sugar or heavy cream or powdered milk in my Nutella, three ingredients which appeared frequently. I wanted to make sure it stayed smooth and spreadable and didn’t harden into a lump, but I also wanted to make sure it wasn’t overly goopy. Most of all, I wanted it to taste as good or better than the original Nutella. Pulling from many different recipes, I came up with something which made sense to me as far as flavor and texture.

I conducted a blind taste taste on my three guinea pigs children, and they all agreed that my Nutella was far superior. Sure, they know who butters their bread, but they are also a pretty truthful bunch when it comes to important matters of dessert.

Warning! Warning! Warning! Make this at your own risk. If you need to be in a bathing suit or a wedding gown in thirty days or less, stay away from this recipe.

Dawn’s Homemade Nutella

Ingredients
1 cup raw hazelnuts, skins removed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon peanut oil
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into small pieces

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a rimmed baking sheet, toast the hazelnuts for about 14 minutes, shaking sheet occasionally. Cool and remove any stray skin. In a Vitamix or other heavy duty blender, grind the hazelnuts into a fine powder. Add salt, peanut oil, vanilla, cocoa powder and honey. Mix in blender on highest speed until smooth.

In a double boiler, slowly melt the chocolate chips. Remove from heat and stir in the butter pieces until melted. Cool slightly and add to blender. Blend until completely smooth. Store in a glass jar, room temperature, for up to two weeks.

This does harden up a bit after 24 hours, but 15 to 30 seconds on high in the microwave (lid removed) brings it back to an easily spreadable consistency. Just be sure to store this in a glass container.

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Review: Sumo Oranges

I am fortunate to shop at Wegmans, a grocery store which makes the chore of shopping a real joy. Wegmans is one of my favorite places in the world, and the words “cult following” seem to describe the store often. I know some of the uninitiated my friends like to mock my passion for Wegmans, but I don’t care. I have hard evidence to back me up: Consumer Reports named it the best grocery store in the country (out of 50) and it has been on the Forbes “Best Places to Work” list every year since 1998. The quality of the food is second to none, the prices are not usually unreasonable, but the real wow factor for me is the selection. I always find something new or different there. Like today, for example.

Have you heard of the Japanese Sumo orange? Until I stepped into Wegmans, I had not. I was immediately intrigued by its giant size, unique shape and weird name. But at $2.50 per orange, I had my reservations. What sane person spends $2.50 for one single orange? Hello.

This truly was the best orange I’ve ever eaten in my life. It has the perfect texture, the perfect sweetness, and the perfect amount of juiciness. It’s easy to peel and not the least bit messy. The Japanese took over thirty years to develop this orange, a seedless tangerine-orange hybrid, and it was worth the wait. They are now grown in California, in the San Joaquin Valley, and available in the US from February until May. If you’re lucky enough to come across one, you should try it. I only wish I bought more!

sumo

Dawn’s Ninja Ginger Dressing

Our family has been hit hard with illness this month, but we are finally emerging from the fog of norovirus, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia. It feels so good not to feel bad! I tend to be a tad melodramatic and channel Emily from Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town whenever I’m very sick, proclaiming my love and appreciation for all the ordinary things in life from beyond my imaginary grave: Mama’s sunflowers, food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up! (Not that I’ve seen an iron or a dress in many years myself). Even the little mundane tasks like dishes, laundry and grocery shopping felt wonderful to accomplish once my energy returned.

As I languished in my sick bed, I made a commitment to healthier living. More salads, less cookies. I made this dressing for the first time last month in an effort to replicate the ginger dressing served at our favorite sushi place. Even though I didn’t hit the mark exactly, I’m still very pleased with the results. I made some again today and tweaked it a bit further. The peanut oil really gives it a nice richness and body, but there is only a 1/4 cup of it, so it’s not too unhealthy — especially compared to bottled dressings.

ginger

Dawn’s Ninja Ginger Dressing, yields 1 1/2 cups

2 inch piece of fresh ginger

1/2 medium onion

1 whole carrot

one clove of garlic, peeled

juice of half a lemon

1/4 cup peanut oil

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 tablespoon Sriracha

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

In a heavy duty blender or food processor, combine all ingredients until smooth.

gingerdressing