A voice of reason and … crackers!

Hankerings come in handy. Yesterday in the afternoon a colleague called me. “I have a personal favor to ask. I need about an hour of your time. Things with my daughter right now are…let’s just say…I need a voice of reason.” I said How about dinner? We settled on tonight.

Last week we had had a conversation about who pays for dinner when friends go out. We had agreed that the person who holds the ball and runs with it is the one who asks or suggests in the first place. I realized I did just blurt out How about dinner? A case could be made otherwise, but I owned this one.

The simplest, most straightforward thing to do would be to just go out. Most people would just go out. It would be good sometimes to be like most people. I might have been able to in this case if I had not had a hankering for crackers.

Crackers had been a lifesaver for me during a particularly demanding stretch of months some years ago when I was writing my book on my old laptop, comfy on the couch next to a good fire, poring over sentence and paragraph construction and dealing with the too-hot computer resting on my lap which was burning the tops of my thighs more and more as the fan in it became less and less effective over time. I remember the red marks. I graduated to using a pillow between my lap and the steady warmth. It was a happy day when I got a new laptop. Thank you, Mom and Dad!

But not just any crackers. Back in the day I had been one of the lucky ones who got a first edition of King Arthur Flour’s 200th anniversary recipe collection in a smart three-ring binder. And one lucky day Ken Haedrich’s recipe for Cheddar Cornmeal Crackers on page VI-43 had caught my eye. Samuel had fatefully experimented with that recipe one day, found a clear winner (you never had store-bought crackers like these), and obliged himself henceforth to provide them as sustenance when I was too occupied with transcribing interviews or piecing together disparate pieces of text to have time to cook dinner. To be fair, he did enjoy cooking and did volunteer for this service. I will remember his willingness and skill fondly, always. The crackers hit the spot on numerous occasions before the book was done. I especially liked the darker ones — still do. When you make them yourself you can take them out of the oven at exactly your choice of the right golden color. Or you can tell the very kind and loving son who is making said crackers for you the exactly goldenness you are longing for, and he will take them out at the right time. Bless him forever.

For a long time after the book was done and after Samuel left home, I did not make these crackers. Fond as my memories of them were, it was as if they were his crackers, not mine, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I elevated them in my mind to a place where they downright intimidated me. My crackers couldn’t possibly be as good as his. One Christmas I hinted that he might fill a tin of them for me, and oh joy! He came through! But those didn’t last overly long, naturally, being as good as they are, and I finally realized that if I wanted these, I would have to make them myself. And did, now and then, over the last year or so.

So, dinner with a friend combined with a hankering for crackers. The grocery store is not far away, but I like working with what I have on hand. The recipe calls for cheddar cheese, but suggests you can also use swiss, monterey jack or parmesan. How handy that I had just — the very night before — grated (with the very fine grater) a hunk of parmesan enough to nearly fill a quart mason jar. The image of this jar in my fridge triggered my Brain of Debatable Reason to say Well, I’m halfway there already, so why not make crackers?Serve them with some good cheese, a few nice salads, a bottle of wine and a bit of chocolate for afterwards, and voila — dinner!

Anyway, I had had a rough day and there is nothing like getting busy in the kitchen as a means to decompress. I started with the cucumber salad because they were still warm from having sat still attached to their vines in the hot sun all day. Cucumbers don’t get fresher than this, I assure you. I grated them with the not-so-fine grater, layered it with salt and put the bowl in the fridge to cool.

On to the cracker dough. Having already grated the parmesan saved me all of five minutes in this process, but hey, we count our blessings. All I had to do was dump the contents of that jar into the bowl with all the other ingredients and carry on. Thankfully there was a bag of whole wheat flour in the freezer, which is of course where you keep it when you use it infrequently. I tripled the recipe and therefore did not have enough corn meal, but just put that much extra regular flour in instead. It worked out fine. Here is the recipe. I forgot the pepper but it worked.

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If you decide to make these, remember olive oil is the best. And add enough water (which might be a little more than the recipe calls for) to make the dough just shy of sticky. It has to hold together when you roll it out, and there is a fine line between too much water and not enough water. I tried a new way to roll these out this time to save myself time. It was, after all, 7pm already when I started all this. I cut two pieces of waxed paper as big as my sheet pan, laid them flat on the counter, floured the center area, and rolled the dough right on the paper. Then I was able to slide the whole big flat piece of dough up and over the lip of the pan, trim the edges, brush with beaten egg, cut shapes with my little zigzag wheel, salt them and pop it right into the oven.

This is my cutter. My mother had marked it GRANDMA when she gave it to me because it belonged to my grandmother. You can see that the letters are wearing off, but that only makes it better.

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The recipe calls for a 375 oven, but as I said, I like them dark, so I bumped it to 400. Two of my three pans have the silicon liner,  which did not by the way affect the crackers or the clean-up in any perceivable way. Tripling the recipe gave me a lot of crackers. Having a lot of crackers is not a problem because 1. They keep. 2. They do not last long anyway. This is half of them:

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While the crackers were baking, I used the not-so-fine grater to shred the beets that Sandy had pulled from the garden the night before. They had been rinsed, boiled in water until soft (skins and all),  put in a bowl, covered with water and chilled until I decided what to do with them. It was handy that they were there waiting there in the fridge for such a time as this. I love sticking my hands in the water and easing the skins off. The beets are smooth as velvet underneath. Now shredded, they again sat and waited. Next thing was to squeeze the water from the grated cukes. It’s a good thing vegetables are patient.

I smiled as I thought about this upcoming dinner that would include cucumbers and beets from the garden made into yummy salads and crackers that brought fond memories. As I grated the veggies and squeezed the cukes and rolled out the stiff dough, I looked at my bare arms (it is summer after all), realized how much they were working, and thought This is how women burned calories in the old days. Who needs a gym when you have an agenda like this?  

Over the weekend, in my favorite grocery store in Charlottesville, Food of All Nations, I had bought two items that also evoked fond memories. Beemster is a hard cheese with little pockets of salt and sharp, delicious flavor. It used to be a staple on the cheese board during Villa Lunch at Keswick Hall. Quark is a German dairy product that makes the best cheesecake you ever had. It’s like a cross between yogurt and sour cream. This one comes from Vermont besides. Be still my heart.

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The word here is Providence. There is not a lot in my fridge, but there was Beemster and there was Quark. Slices of Beemster would be handy to go with the crackers along with Jarlsberg and Manchego. Quark would work in the dressing for the cucumber salad. Quark plus lemon juice and a bit of salt, pepper and sugar. The beet salad I dressed with olive oil, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano which, shame on me, I did not go get fresh from the garden (it was dark by then, really).

Into an old tin went the crackers. Into a basket went said tin, two plates, two forks, two knives (for pushers), two wine glasses wrapped in white cloth napkins, a wine key, a bottle of pinot noir (always keep a bottle of red on hand), and a small cloth for the tabletop.Into the fridge went a small container of cut up cheese, a mason jar of cucumber salad and a mason jar of beet salad.

I am ready for dinner. There is a park in town that has a pavilion with picnic tables. It will be quiet there and hopefully a good atmosphere for good conversation.  I hope I can be a voice of reason for my friend. One could argue that I did not demonstrate much reason in the preparation of this dinner. It would have been easier to go out. But I had a hankering. 

My galette

I never heard of a galette before yesterday, but my mom led me to think about it. We were talking about being stuck in a food rut, and that made me think about food. Thanks, Mom.

Some people, as they think about food, eat some. But yesterday was the kind of day when, as I thought about food, I wanted to make some. A week ago I bought a bag of plums — beautiful purple plums. I had a hankering for Pflaumenkuchen, a wonderful German plum cake made on a sheet pan. This is not your ordinary sheet cake, especially if you have 9×13 with gooey frosting in mind. This is a sweet yeast dough (like a giant, flatter hot cross bun without the candied fruit) rolled out to fit the big (true half sheet size) pan, then topped with sliced fresh plums and a crumbly streusel and baked till it is golden. Heaven.

Pflaumenkuchen  was on the docket. It’s very tasty, and it’s been a long time since I had it. The bag of plums sat patiently in the refrigerator all week, waiting, as perfect plums do, knowing that glory is to come. Then, surprise! Thirteen (13!) cucumbers appeared before my eyes when I went to the garden to get lettuce on Friday night.  There was nothing to do but pick them.

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You don’t need 13 cukes to make a cucumber salad for dinner. Two will do, and did. (And it is really easy to make, by the way: Grate the cukes, squeeze the water out, and mix in a bowl with half an onion, very thinly sliced. For a dressing use lemon juice, sour cream, S&P and a little sugar to taste.)

After dinner, eleven gorgeous cukes remained in a row on the counter, rejected for salad but nonetheless happy to serve. I know it is not what every person would think of when faced with this image, but what came to my mind was pickles. There was nothing to do but make more pickles. I’ve made pickles three times this season already, once at Millicent’s and twice at home. Last year when I made them with my sister Lynn, I discovered how easy and yummy they are. Thanks, Lynn!

Here I am with Millicent’s pickles. I would be surprised if she has any left.

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Yesterday was beginning to look like a busy Saturday. I won’t get into the sewing, or the flipping of the cottage for new guests, or the long overdue brushing of Bridget. We’ll get right to the kitchen. I have a huge white Pfalzgraff bowl that I have used a thousand times. It is the only bowl for eleven sliced up cucumbers — one of which was a whopping 13” long on account of having hidden itself under massive leaves — all layered with salt and topped with super thinly sliced red onion. The salt draws out the water from the cukes and the red onion adds flavor and makes the pickles prettier in the jar. Millicent’s pickles had red pepper in with them, which is prettier than red onion in my opinion. But we work with what we have.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to put the sugar in the brine, which I almost did one time. Bread and butter pickles are not the same without the sugar, you can take my word. I remembered the sugar this time, and was grateful to Millicent for having gifted me with a jar of pickling spice last weekend in Charlotte.  So I had everything I needed, mixed together in a pot waiting for a flame: vinegar, salt, sugar and spices.

But you have to let the cucumbers sit a while in the bowl with the salt, and a person needs breakfast.

Three critical factors conspired and led me down The Road to Galette.

  1. It was Saturday.
  2. I was by myself in the house.
  3. Fine Cooking magazine came this week (thank you, John).

If it were not Saturday, I would not be sitting with a leisurely breakfast.

If I had not been alone, I would not have been reading while eating.

If that particular magazine had not come, I would have been reading something else.

This month’s issue has a wonderful article on both sweet and savory galettes, and wouldn’t you know, the featured sweet galette was “plum, ginger and poppy seed galette.” Well, well. So much for Pflaumenkuchen.

Seriously though, who ever heard of a galette? What is it? If you are a chef, you know these things. My chef friend Danny didn’t miss a beat when I told him what I was doing. “My favorite is an apple galette with a little almond paste in it,” he said. “But I love all of them.” The rest of us have a thing or two to learn. A galette is basically an open, free-form pie. You roll out the pie dough, lay it on a flat sheet pan that has a short rim to it (to catch any oozing goodness), put the filling in the middle of the dough, and bring up the sides any way you want, fancy or not (in my case clearly not). The dough holds (almost) everything in and has that tender/crispy/flaky combo going for it. In the case of “plum, ginger and poppy seed galette,” poppy seeds are mixed into the dough, adding a texture you don’t encounter every day, which pairs perfectly with the sweet plums touched with the flavor of ginger and cinnamon.

The pickles happened while the galette was baking and I was wishing for a bigger kitchen. Soon the jars were cooling and the aroma of sweet baking plums filled the house.

My galette is not as pretty as the one in the magazine, but for a first try, I was pleased. In fact I was so pleased that I immediately took a picture of it still on its baking sheet.

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Then I wanted to stage it better, so I slid the galette onto one of my favorite glass cake plates. I always loved the ring of hearts etched into the glass on the bottom of this one. In my mind, hearts = love. When you make delicious food, you present it with love to those you love. Anyway, this made a better photo.

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But it was a bad idea. I did this same thing a long time ago, but the lesson sat in a dusty file too far back in the recesses of my memory. I hereby pass along a simple rule to keep in mind in such situations: Don’t slide hot objects onto cool glass plates. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my mother, some time back, off-loaded some cake plates she no longer needed. The crack I heard a few minutes after the fateful transfer told me in an instant that henceforth there would be a shorter stack of cake plates in my cabinet. I then transferred the galette to a different, flat (metal!) surface and in we dug. Oh, how I wanted to share with everyone I love! Of course if they were all here, this one galette would not be enough. But that is a problem I would love to have.

This morning as I put the pickles in the fridge, I discovered two half-full jars of yeast, and proceeded to combine the two into one to be efficient with space. Two did not quite fit into one, however, and I had a little yeast left in one jar. Lo and behold, there was just enough for… a sweet yeast dough! I used the plums yesterday, so Pflaumenkuchen was out of the question, but while getting the vanilla for this delectable dough, the box of currants in the cabinet caught my eye.

These sweet rolls aren’t exactly hot cross buns, but with a little honey and butter, I am very happy. It’s a good weekend!

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