Earlier this month, upon realizing that I had officially become my mother, not only in my preferences, but also in how I impose my preferences on others — dark meat chicken, cakes without frosting — I decided it might be wise to branch out a bit, to bake a cake with not one but two layers and to guild it not with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar but with a slathering of silky frosting.
It was a healthy exercise. You see, I didn’t know that frosting — chocolate buttercream in this case — has the ability to silence a table surrounded by both toddlers and adults and afterwards to elicit unprompted comments such as: “You are such a good cooker.” This cake, made with buttermilk and oil — no butter — and exclusively cocoa — no melted chocolate — is incredibly light and moist and stays this way — tasting freshly baked — for days. It’s another Ina Garten recipe, one she begged for from a friend, the grandson of Beatty, after taking one bite.
So, as you can see, I’m kind of on a Barefoot Contessa kick right now. And it’s not stopping here. I’ve got one more recipe coming, something sweet and chocolaty and festive, and I can’t wait to share it.
In the meantime, let’s talk about this chicken, which has become a favorite around here, both piping hot right out of the oven for dinner and cold straight from the fridge for lunch. Like the vodka sauce, this one comes from Foolproof; unlike the vodka sauce, this one wasn’t entirely foolproof, for me at least.
Most often, when I see recipes with quantity-ingredient combos such as one cup heavy cream, two sticks butter, a quarter pound cheese, I don’t give them a second look. It just never seems necessary — comfort food can succeed at comforting without heavy doses of heavy ingredients.
But after reading the preface to this pasta alla vecchia bettola recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Foolproof, I had to make it despite the cup of cream. More than being a mainstay on the menu of one of Ina’s favorite restaurants for 20 years, what struck me about the recipe was the method, which calls for sweating onions and garlic, reducing vodka, adding canned San Marzano tomatoes, and baking the mixture in a covered pan for one-and-a-half hours. The recipe originates from a restaurant in Florence, and Ina likens the dish to the classic penne alla vodka “but with so much more flavor.”
When my friend Anne announced she was getting married in my neck of the woods and asked if I might be interested in making some apple pies in place of a wedding cake, I immediately called my aunt Marcy to consult. I hadn’t made a pie in a long time — years! — and I not only needed a refresher on the basics — how many apples? what spices? tapioca or flour? how much sugar? — I also needed help with the logistics: would I realistically be able to make, bake and store enough pies to feed an entire (albeit small) wedding? Could I face this challenge with grace and dignity?
The conclusion we came to pretty quickly was no. Absolutely not. In my wise old age I have learned that sometimes it just makes sense to accept my limitations. Deep thoughts by Ali.
After explaining to Anne that for the wellbeing of everyone in my house I would have to decline, we came up with a saner solution: I would make two ceremonial pies for the pie-cutting ritual. Two pies I could handle. Nobody in my house would be harmed.
Friends, I opened the mailbox this morning and found a hand-written note from a dear old friend. I had to transcribe it and share it with you.
I hope this letter finds you well. I just wanted to write because with the holiday season rapidly approaching, I know you and I and many of your friends will be spending a lot of time together. I feel awkward reaching out like this, but I think it’s best I voice my concerns now. You see, while I love that you and so many others have discovered my versatility — really, I mean it, I loved those blondies — I’m feeling a little torn about all of the attention I’ve been receiving in recent years.
OK, I’ll just say it: the truth is is that I miss sage. And I miss crisping up its leaves in a pan filled with butternut squash ravioli. And I miss being tossed with ribbons of pappardelle and toasted pine nuts. And I miss bathing with fillets of sole.
There. I said it. I just wanted to remind you of, well, what I once considered my strength. I think you will understand. And I hate to impose, but if you wouldn’t mind sharing this with anyone you think might be interested, I would so appreciate it.
We passed Saratoga Apple en route to Argyle, but the stand’s happening scene — hordes of people, cider in hands, pouring in and out; live music; wood-fired pizza; alpaca petting — lured us back on our way home. We soon discovered the main attraction: apple cider donuts. Made on the premises, these warm, cinnamon-and-sugar coated, crispy on the exterior, feather-light donuts disappeared by the tray-full about as quickly as they emerged from the fryer.
Upon returning from the stand, I read online that Saratoga Apple’s donuts “have been known to inspire jealousy, ecstasy, and even inter-state travel.” I wasn’t surprised. I have never tasted anything so delicious. And of course I immediately had to tell everyone I knew — new friends, my neighbors, the mailman, everyone at the Niskayuna Coop — about my experience. I quickly learned that apple cider donuts are kind of a “thing” around here. And that you don’t need to travel 40 miles to find a good one. And that one of the most popular spots in the area is, as the crow flies, two miles away. So much to learn, so little time.
Last Friday, Ben and I arrived at our friends’ house to find a beautiful scene: a rice cooker sitting on the counter, a serving dish spilling with pickled bean sprouts, a plate towering with sheets of roasted seaweed, and a jar glistening with brilliant red pickled cabbage. All week we had been looking forward to Korean bbq, a meal we learned to love many years ago at Kim’s, a hole-in-the-wall in North Philadelphia.
At Kim’s we could always count on a few things: a blazing hot charcoal grill, replaced several times over the course of the evening; an array of banchan ranging from spicy pickled daikon to steamed egg custards to scallion pancakes; and a table surrounded by a crew — friends, family, coworkers, anyone willing to spend an evening charring whole cloves of garlic, slices of jalapeno, and platters of paper-thin beef.
More often than not, the gathering at Kim’s had been organized by Thien, the chef of Fork at the time, who found any excuse to cab north for Korean food, and who somehow managed to pack into his messenger bag both wine (for everyone) and glasses (for everyone) — as much as Thien loved his cheap eats, he pooh-poohed plastic cups. We always stayed at Kim’s for hours. We never left hungry, and upon exiting, we never felt more grateful for fresh air — Kim’s ventilation system (or lack there of) could use some work.
This time of year I suspect few of you are thinking about summer squash. Many of you are more likely celebrating the last prune plums of the season or refusing to eat anything but tomatoes before they disappear for too many long cold months. And some of you may have already moved on to pumpkins and apples.
But it’s been an odd summer for me. I just haven’t had my summer squash fill. So last Sunday at the Schenectady farmers’ market, I stocked up — they’re practically free at the market these days — with visions of spending the week making bread and fritters and spaghetti and salads with shaved Pecorino.
If I were to look back on my life and find myself eating a bowl of muesli, it would most likely mean I was with my brother and sister at my dad’s house for the weekend. We would have found the box, the only cereal option, nestled with the Jaffa Cakes, the After Eights, and the Earl Grey tea in the kitchen cupboard, and it would likely be several months old, its powdery contents stale, any dried fruit petrified.
If we were in luck, there might be some milk in the fridge. If we were in more luck, that milk might be just a day or two past expiration. And if the stars were really aligning for us, we would avoid getting our fingers pinched in the mousetrap set in the silverware drawer while searching for a spoon. My English father is many things: a man of the kitchen he is not.
I often read about how well children do in routine, how structure makes them feel secure, how a schedule offers comfort. But the older I get — just celebrated a birthday — the more I realize how well I do in routine, how happy I am when my life feels like Groundhog Day, how I thrive when my schedule looks like this: breakfast, park, lunch, naps, park, dinner, bed.
But every time I find the gumption — I know, pathetic — to get away, I realize how important it is to get away. Last week, while Ben finished up work in Virginia, I trekked across Massachusetts with the kids to meet up with a college roommate home from Abu Dhabi for the summer, living with her two boys in the seaside hamlet of Duxbury, a well-kept secret so I’m told by the locals.
It felt like such an ordeal — packing the car, timing the traffic — but had I never braved that drive, my summer would have passed without squeezing lemon over a Snug Harbor lobster roll, without commencing the cocktail hour with a Mount Gay and tonic, without satisfying the post-dinner sweet tooth with a scoop of Farfar’s Danish sweet cream.