Off the charts

My first first day of kindergarten was in Armonk, New York, a hamlet of Westchester County. I don't remember that day at all. My second first day of kindergarten, halfway through the school year, was in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and I do remember it, because I thought I was losing my mind.

That morning, we circled up on the rug, and our teacher handed out laminated disks of construction paper. A girl across from me held up her red circle and a kid to my left held up his, which was blue. Okay, a game about colors. Hers was red, and his was blue, and weren't we a little old for this? "PURPLE!" the class shouted, all at once. Purple? My cheeks burned hot. Where? But we were on to the next round, a yellow circle, a blue one: "GREEN!" they crowed. These Ohioans were advanced.We hadn't learned color mixing at my old school. I was five years old, and also, me, so on a scale of no big deal to really quite a very big and stressful deal, this situation was off the charts.

Another source of confusion - though, thankfully, of a less stressful variety - was the buckeye. Someone brought one in for show-and-tell that year, a glossy brown knob with a yellowish circle on top. He said it was good luck. We passed it around and our teacher explained that it was the nut from Ohio's state tree. I slid my thumb along its smooth skin. One day after school sometime after that, a friend's mother offered me a buckeye of my own. I held out my hand expecting one of those lucky nuts, and at first that's what I thought I'd gotten. But the dark part of this "buckeye" was chocolate, and the lighter round bit on top (and inside!) was peanut butter. My mind raced back and forth between buckeye number one - that wasn't candy... was it? - and buckeye number two. There was the twinge of discomfort at something not being what I'd expected, but after giving it some thought and figuring out what was what, I was delighted.

This recipe doesn't take much which, as one year slides into the next, is the kind of recipe I like best. You don't even have to turn on the oven.

Wishing you all good things for these final hours of 2012 and better things still for the year to come. We're cooking at home tonight with friends. There will be bread, and bourbon balls, and the return of a salad. I'm looking forward, very much.

Adapted from another Ohio transplant at Remedial Eating, who adapted the recipe from Saveur.

Please note that this recipe calls for 2 cups of sifted confectioners' sugar, which is not the same thing as 2 cups of confectioners' sugar, sifted. (2 cups unsifted is considerably more than 2 cups sifted; I checked.) So even though it's a little bit of a pain, you'll want to sift the sugar first, then measure it. For the peanut butter, I'd stay away from the natural stuff, here. I think even well-stirred, it could give you trouble. As for the vegetable shortening, I use Spectrum.

2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (sift first, then measure; see note)
¾ cup smooth peanut butter
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
½ teaspoon vegetable shortening

Put the sugar, peanut butter, melted butter, vanilla, and salt into a mixing bowl. Give it a few stirs with a wooden spoon to get things going, then knead with your hands until smooth. Roll into 1-inch balls, place them in a single layer on a plate, and freeze for 15-20 minutes.

Stirring often, melt the chocolate and shortening in a double boiler or heatproof bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Remove from heat.

Line a cookie sheet with wax paper and set aside, next to the bowl of melted chocolate. Take a few peanut butter balls from the fridge. One by one, insert a toothpick into the center of each ball and dip into the melted chocolate, leaving a circle of peanut butter showing at the top. Twirl the toothpick to toss off the excess chocolate and place on the lined cookie sheet. Repeat with the remaining peanut butter balls.

Freeze the buckeyes until firm and smooth out the toothpick holes with your finger. Store in the refrigerator. They'll keep for a couple of weeks. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes about 30. 


How it works

Hello and happy winter solstice from the rainiest afternoon I've seen in a while. The days only get longer and lighter from here. Thank goodness.

I have one more recipe for you before the year is out, but I have a feeling that the last thing you need this week is another something to do in the kitchen. Because of that, and also because it's long overdue, I thought I would tell you some more about Eli's company, Directr. When I announced the project back in July, I had to keep the details under wraps. It was fun sharing some of the big ideas behind it, but nowhere near as fun as telling you exactly how it works, which is what I finally get to do today.

Directr is an app, a free app, I should say, that helps you make beautiful short films with your phone. It takes just a few minutes, and there's no editing required. You choose a storyboard from the Directr library, shoot the frames however you'd like, add in your own titles, and hit print. The app stitches your shots into a clean film - backs it with music, too - and you're done. That's it! If you're looking for inspiration, there are suggestions and camera angle ideas included on each frame. Or you can go ahead and shoot what you please. There are holiday-specific storyboards (UPDATE: holiday cards!), storyboards for your walk to work, for your awesome baby, your awesome dog, your awesome morning coffee, and a few blank slates, too. And of course, there's plenty of food. The Directr team is hard at work creating hundreds of storyboards; a new one pops up on the site (and in the app) every day. You can see them all here.

Directr launched softly, quietly, as if on tiptoe, really, a couple of months ago. Now, after much ramping up and steadying of the ship, they're ready for all of us. I've said before that Directr reminds me a lot of what we do here in blogland, making something out of the stuff that surrounds us all the time, looking for the stories in our everyday, and doing our best to get them down somehow. It has been such a thrill to watch as people start doing just that with this thing that Eli and his team are building. Here's a film called Grateful: Finger Dancing that a user named He Ren made earlier this week.

I don't know who you are, He Ren, but I like your style.

And here are some of the other storyboards that I find especially lovely, stirring, and fun:

:: This is me.

:: A snowstorm.

:: Autumn.

:: Stripes in the wild.

:: Baby bathtime and baby eating. (Starring Mia, when she was just a pup!) 

:: And finally, dessert.

(with a side of my friend Jonah, who loves to dance.)

Eli and I would be honored - and that really is the word - if you'd try out the app and make some films. We've heard from some of you who already have, and it means the world to us.

And hey, if you do make a film, would you share it here in the comments? Pretty please? Or shoot me an e-mail with the link? I do most of the sharing and the showing around here, but I treasure the conversations we've had in this space over the years. It would be such a treat to see a few corners of your world, and of you. Oh, and please don't be shy about speaking up if you run into any glitches or bugs, or if there's something you'd like to see. The Directr team is just getting started, working on new builds all the time, and would be grateful for your feedback.

Thank you, friends, for being here. Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating, and glad tidings to all.


A whole chicken to stay

On Wednesday afternoons, when Mia wakes up from her nap, we go swimming. Last Wednesday was business as usual. I wrangled Mia into her bathing suit. (A tankini. A pink and green halter top. I die.) Mia grabbed a floating dumbbell and bobbed around the pool, as is her custom, smiling and waving at anything that moved. She drank pool water, also her custom, drifted along belly-up for a while, got sufficiently wrinkled and shivery, gave me the evil eye when it was time to get out, then cruised naked around the changing room shutting locker doors. Typical. We showered. I dressed myself. I dressed Mia. I stuffed her into her jacket, strapped a fuzzy hat (with ears, obviously) onto her head, and locked the whole squirming package onto my chest for the walk home. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What came next happened so quickly - it was a matter of seconds, really - I keep thinking that perhaps it didn't happen at all.

We pass through a hotel lobby on our way home, and as we neared the door last week, I saw a woman in a wheel chair. She was African-American, dressed all in black, with long silver dreadlocks. At once I had the feeling that I knew her. Mia started smiling and waving frantically, and I swear they locked eyes for a moment, and just as it's hitting me that whoa, WAIT A SECOND, I do know her, another woman rushes up, introduces herself as professor so-and-so and, breathless, looking like she is either about to faint, or cry, or sprint around the block, says, "Hello, Ms. Morrison. It is a pleasure to meet you. I'll be escorting you to your speaking engagement tonight." (I forgot to mention that I was in the middle of dialing Eli when this whole scene transpired, and at the precise moment when it all clicked, he'd picked up, and was now waiting patiently while I said slowly, shakily, over and over into the phone, "Hold on... Hold on... Hold on...") I am at this point blinking furiously, feeling that I might spontaneously faint, or cry, or sprint around the block, and Mia, still in that damn hat with those damn ears, is still waving, then clapping, then blowing kisses at Toni Morrison's back as she's wheeled across the lobby and out the door.

Well. You cannot wave and blow kisses at Toni Morrison, or have the miniature human strapped to your chest wave and blow kisses at Toni Morrison, and then just go home. So we went to the bakery instead for two slices of Boston brown bread, heavy with molasses and serious flours, lightly sweet, speckled with dried blueberries that steam and swell as the dough bakes. Mia loves it, and so do I. While we were waiting for our slices, the guy behind the counter told me about a man and a woman who come in once a week, order a whole chicken to stay, then sit down across from one another and eat the entire thing with their hands, tearing it apart as they go. He called it primal, mildly disgusting, and one of the most romantic things he's ever seen. The person by the register handed Mia a star-shaped cracker the size of her palm. It had anise and almond and citrus in it, and I'm sure a bit of sugar, too, though it wasn't terribly sweet. It's probably safe to say that it was more a cookie, but Mia doesn't eat cookies yet, officially speaking, so I'm going with cracker. It was a real treat.

That morning, I'd read that it was Joan Didion's and Calvin Trillin's birthday. Walt Disney's, too.

Also that morning:  Mia walked.

Brown bread all around.

p.s. Emma Brockes on Toni Morrison here.

Boston Brown Bread
Adapted from Hi-Rise Bakery and Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer

Traditionally, Boston brown bread is steamed in coffee cans for a crust as moist as its crumb. They do use cans at Hi-Rise, but leave them uncovered for a crisp crust. I folded dried cherries into the dough instead of blueberries because they're what I had on hand, and I really liked their deep, winy flavor with the rye flour, molasses, and cornmeal. You might also try dried currants. You'll need two 28-ounce cans or two 8 x 4-inch loaf pans for this recipe. I used a couple of 9 x 5-inch loaf pans (and shortened the baking time), so I ended up with shorter, flatter loaves. It wasn't ideal, but the bread still came out fine, with a damp crumb and extra crust. Please note: I baked this bread according to the weight measurements listed below. I have not tested the volume measurements and, as is always the case when converting from weight, they're approximate.

8 ounces (about 1½ cups) all-purpose flour
8 ounces (about 2 cups) rye flour
4½ ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour
4 ounces (about 2/3 cup) medium- or coarse-grind cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1¼ teaspoons salt
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup honey or maple syrup (I used honey)
2 cups whole milk, plus a bit more, if you end up needing it
1 cup dried cherries (or dried blueberries, or dried currants)
Butter for the pans

Heat the oven to 300 degrees and butter your cans or pans.

Whisk together the dry ingredients (flours, cornmeal, leaveners, and salt) in a large bowl. Add the molasses, honey, and milk, and mix with your hands until the dough just comes together. Do not overmix. If it's crumbly, add more milk, a tablespoonful at a time, until you have your dough. Gently fold in the dried cherries.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans or pans, and bake for 60-90 minutes (my 9 x 5 inch loaves were done in 50) until deep brown with a hard, crisp crust. You can stick them with a toothpick, if you want to make sure their insides are cooked through.  Remove from the cans or pans while still warm and transfer to a rack to cool.

Serve with cream cheese.


Mostly tomatoes


My friend Molly turned 30 last week, and we – oh, hey, there she is now! Hi, M. Many happy returns to you! That's our friend Mary in the middle with the party eyes and backwards lips. Get your lips on straight, woman! Sheesh.

All right, who's that little mustachioed dudette, and who let her in here? Little bugger must've sneaked in through the back door while I was frosting the cake. Crasher.
Anyway, as I was saying, Molly turned 30 last week, and we had a dinner party to celebrate. Molly and I cooked up a storm roasted squash with cardamom, lime, and a yogurt-tahini sauce; eggplant with buttermilk dressing and pomegranate seeds; soup; whipped feta with sweet and spicy peppers; anchovies; olives; bread I baked a cake that I'm dying to tell you about, but I can't, not yet, because it's for the book; and my sister Kasey made (amazing! spicy! chocolate!) ice cream. Before the party, my friend Steph and I set up a makeshift photo booth (surprise, Molly!), and while Mia napped, Eli hot-glued 22 paper mustaches, glasses, bow ties, and hair pieces to 22 wooden sticks. Goooo team!

I love cooking with Molly. And that's saying something, because I very, very rarely enjoy cooking with anyone. There are people, I hear, who crowd into the kitchen, crack open a cookbook and a bottle of wine, divvy up the tasks at hand and get down to it. There's conversation and multiple knives in action, and music, maybe something like this. There are no lists or maps at all, just good food happening, and the mean heart rate in the room is andante, at most. It pains me to tell you that I am sooo not one of those people. But I often wish I were, and when I cook with Molly, I get to be. (Minus the wine. I'd never make it to the table.) Molly is unflappable in the kitchen. She's a scientist; her brain is packed with a boggling amount of information about how cooking works, thanks in large part to the book she put together for Cook's Illustrated. (Seven weeks and counting on the New York Times best sellers list! Yesssss!) But all that book learnin' (and writing) aside, Molly is an incredibly intuitive cook. She has fabulous taste, and I've learned so much from her. Molly said that for her 30th birthday, she wanted us to cook a meal together for her friends. I couldn't have been happier about that. 

Molly started in on the squash when she arrived, and I got going on the soup.

It was a tomato soup, a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's new book, Jerusalem, but different from the tomato soup, also Ottolenghi's, that I shared here last week. This one's lighter, more devotedly tomato, with a flavor that's delicate yet deep. The ingredients are mostly tomatoes, plus sourdough, which I thought was kind of weird, and more cilantro than I thought was wise. But the sourdough breaks down completely, pulling together all those tomatoes, smoothing them out, and the cilantro is cooked, so it does something different, something quieter, than I expected.You purée the soup before serving, but only about three-quarters of the way, so that chunks of tomato remain and there are still plenty of seeds to burst between your teeth. It's a magnificent soup. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was eating the best tomato sauce I'd ever had, only from a bowl, straight. Fine with me. At the last minute, we decided to toast some pumpkin seeds to sprinkle on top. I suggest you do the same.

Happy December, friends.

p.s. - More photos here. 

Tomato and Sourdough Soup
Adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

This is intended to be a summer soup, I think – the recipe calls for some fresh tomatoes, some canned – but I've winterized it by using only canned. It might seem strange to hand chop a can of tomatoes when you're also using another can of already-chopped tomatoes, but the variation in texture between the hand-chopped and ready-chopped is very nice. Use the best, most flavorful canned tomatoes you can find. We went with Muir Glen organic tomatoes and they were excellent. A note about the cilantro: The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, not 2 tablespoons of cilantro, chopped, which would be significantly less cilantro. That may feel like a lot, but it mellows considerably when cooked. I don't typically have sourdough on hand, but my new plan is to buy a loaf, slice it, and store the individual slices in the freezer so that I'll be able to make this soup on a whim.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (1 2/3 cups, or 250 grams)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 cups vegetable stock
1 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved
1 14-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon sugar
1 slice sourdough bread, crust removed (40 grams), torn into 1- to 2-inch chunks
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus extra to finish
1 teaspoon salt, plus more, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted in a hot dry skillet, then salted (optional)

Heat the oil in a medium pot over a medium-high flame and add the onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is translucent. Add the cumin and the garlic and fry for 2 minutes. Give it a stir every now and then to make sure nothing is sticking.

Stir in the stock, all of the tomatoes with their juices, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a couple of grinds of black pepper – everything but the sourdough – and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stir in the sourdough, then cook for another 10 minutes. Add the cilantro, and purée with an immersion blender. You’re after a soup with varied texture; you want some tomato chunks and definitely some tomato seeds here and there. It’s a thick soup. If it’s too thick, add a little water.

Serve drizzled with olive oil and scattered with fresh cilantro.

Serves 4-6.