The Side Effects of Old-Fashioned Cookery

Yesterday after I put the ingredients together in a bowl for meatloaf, I asked Samuel if he would mix it up for me since my shoulder was acting up pretty bad. He washed his hands, stuck them in the bowl and began mixing up the couple handfuls of oats, two eggs, milk (to moisten the oats), a small hunk of finely grated asiago (for the cheese this time because I didn’t have any romano – I figured it was close enough), a small bunch of chopped fresh parsley, a pound of ground beef (it came in a weighed package!) and salt and pepper.

He squished and turned and squished some more and then said, “Seems wet to me. Is it always this wet?” He was right. This is a risk when you pour the milk directly from the gallon.

I reached for the breadcrumbs in the pantry, said, “This’ll fix that,” and sprinkled some in. He mixed some more, it still looked a tad wet, so I sprinkled some more breadcrumbs in. Good now. He formed the loaf in my cast iron skillet, and I turned on the oven a while later so that everything would be ready when he returned home. I misjudged and the meatloaf baked a while longer than was perhaps ideal, but that meant a very delicious crispy bottom crust – and the inside was certainly not dry!

At one point during meatloaf-making, Samuel had said (half under his breath), “Do you measure anything?”

Of course I do! But it got me to thinking about measuring, about “cookery,” about ease in the kitchen – the trial and error of learning to make food, the imprecision, substitutions and playing around that often work, the times I make do or figure out what’s for supper by looking in the fridge and seeing what speaks to me, the side effects of being as old-fashioned about it as I am.

I also thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, how he says in Outliers that those who have achieved a high level of competency in any area – whether a concert pianist, a hockey player, a computer programmer – have simply, over the years, put in the time. “Highly competent” is a subjective assessment in the kitchen (and I myself have miles to go before I’m close to that), but I wondered if my ease, my sense of when it looks right or feels right or smells done, my willingness to flex with ingredients sometimes (such as using a different cheese in the meatloaf this time) has to do simply with having spent a lot of time over many years preparing food in a kitchen. It’s probably why my mom and my sister are such great cooks.

This past week my dear friend John gifted me a book called The Lost Art of Real Cooking.

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He mentioned it was coming by saying, “I’m sending you a hard copy of a book that reminded me of you…. When I read part of it I could hear you talking 😊”  Now that I have it, I wonder which part. Maybe, knowing my meatloaf methodology, he liked: “This book is an effort to loosen up.”

Maybe, knowing how much joy I get from feeding people: “There is, it cannot be denied, unspeakable pleasure in providing sustenance for others with the labor of one’s own hands.”

Maybe it was this part (because I have said as much!): “Yes, this will be hard work. But can you see the irony of people who save time and energy with electric gadgets and then traipse off to burn calories in the gym? Why not boldly brandish a whisk instead? Your egg whites will be all the more happy for it, as well as your biceps.” (Myself, I would like to add an exclamation point after biceps!)

Maybe this part (because I have also said as much!): “We are not averse to measurements per se, they are often necessary, particularly with baking. But to insist that a quarter teaspoon of some particular seasoning is correct while anything more or less, or, heaven forfend, a substitution, altogether amounts to culinary heresy, this is just too much to bear.”

Maybe he’s thinking of how much time I spend making homemade manicotti (including the crepes that wrap up the cheese) or waiting for bread to rise or watching the tomato soup slowly cook down to the point of straining out the seeds and skins, or how delighted I am that the basil I planted in May gives flavor to our pizza in August, or how satisfied I feel when the granola comes out crunchy because it sits in the oven overnight. “So before you continue, Gentle Reader, if you cannot abide long hours in the kitchen, this is no book for you….Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining and the food it yields tastes better, costs less, and connects you with the people you feed in a way that a prefabricated meal can never hope to do.”

Beyond that, I’d say that “cooking slowly with patience” connects you to the earth, to the seasons, to your own senses, hands, arms, legs, back and brain, to the real plants and animals that keep you alive and to the many who came before you, patiently working with what they had, feeding the people they loved, honing the skills they learned valuable, far-reaching lessons from. In a broader sense, isn’t that what life is all about: making the best of what you have, taking care of the people you care about and increasingly gaining knowledge and understanding that better equips you to carry on (let us hope) with grace and compassion?

Imagine my joy when, just a few days ago, while still digesting the comforting and (truth be told) vindicating message of this book (thank you, John), I read the following poem by Sarah Silvey (yes, the same Sarah who drew the teeth-brushing/berry-eating bear peeking/peeping in on Mom). Out of the blue she produced a perspective on working in the kitchen that took my breath away, so closely did it mirror my own experience, so well did it express the unspeakable pleasure and unexpected benefits that come from a simple task in the kitchen. Thank you, Sarah.

Sometimes I enjoy doing things the hard way
The long, difficult way
By hand
Without electricity
Without advanced tools.
It connects me to the past
To ancient humans
Struggling to make ends meet
To those who worked hard perfecting a craft.
I tried to saw dovetails with hand tools
When I made my desk.
It was hard work.
It took days.
I was sore, my carpal tunnel flared
And when I finally tried to hammer the pieces together
It didn’t fit.
But I learned
how much work
Every piece of furniture should be.
I can appreciate
The ease of modern living
Machine made items shipped to your home.
I can appreciate too
What we’ve lost.
You forge a connection
With things you built
With food you grew, harvested, and processed.
Even doing something as simple as washing your car by hand
You learn more about the state that car is in
Notice its scratches and weak points
Restore the sparkles in its paint.

I processed five gallons of grapes by hand.
When I sat in my kitchen
Peeling grapes
I mimicked the motions of my ancestors.
Women have peeled grapes
Into bowls in their laps
For thousands of years.
They spent hours upon hours
Processing the bounty of summer
To stave off winter’s bite.
They told stories while working
Sang songs
And some just worked
Alone, in quiet thought.
Every grape I handled
Taught me more about this food.
I learned to tell a wormy one by feel
Its rough scar tissue
Sent a shudder through my marrow.
I learned what every color tastes like.
I learned to love the Concord smell
Rich and strong and sweet and tangy.
If I’d used tools
I wouldn’t have had to stand at the sink for so long.
I wouldn’t have had the quiet thinking time
I wouldn’t have been able to practice my working posture
Relaxed enough to fight fatigue, yet always moving.
I noticed I was taking much longer than necessary
Due to my need to get every grape, save every grape, not waste
And I knew someone watching me would have felt frustrated
Just as I felt
When I watched my mother process peaches for the freezer
Always graceful, always painfully slow, yet inevitable.
After two days of work
The peaches would be all blanched, peeled, sliced, sugared, and frozen.
I felt her echo in my slow fingers
Of her, and a million women before her
All of us preparing the harvest
So we might have something sweet
For winter.



Mountains and Molehills

Have you ever been driving eastward in the morning and found yourself blinded by the rising sun? Or by the setting sun going westward in the late afternoon or early evening? You put down the visor, you wear sunglasses, you extend your neck this way and that or hold your hand up flat against the piercing light to try to shield yourself from its powerful interference in your field of vision. I’ve done these things a thousand times myself, looking like a chicken that can’t figure out which way her neck should be angled off her body, but it never occurred to me to do what Carolyn did.

She cut out the side of a cereal box, glued it to a paint stirring stick and put it in her car, readily accessible, for those moments when the sun is right in her eyes and too strong. Her no-cost, highly effective solution does the trick every time.

sun shield.jpg

I watched her do this as we drove from Underhill to Cambridge (Vermont) one bright morning when I was there. I was struck by the crazy simplicity of it.

It made me think about the mountains we make out of molehills sometimes, the money we spend, the time we take, the ways we fret – when the situation has an easy fix. And I don’t mean just sun-shields. Not everything is complicated, expensive and difficult. Oh, if only I’d thought of that! My own clunky, roundabout process (if I even have one, to say nothing of looking like a chicken) seems so un-brilliant in contrast.

If we can manage to get smarter over time (study, read, watch, learn and do the thing that’s helpful/expedient/sensible), we can uncomplicate and unclutter our lives a little. From working in hotel kitchens I learned about CAYGO Clean As You GO – so I don’t end up with a gigantic mess of dirty dishes and pots and utensils at the end (important especially in my tiny kitchen). If something I use can be just rinsed, say, the knife I just cut up the cabbage with, I rinse it and stand it up to dry. If the spoons, beaters and measuring cups are all over the counter, they are going to get in my way. Instead, I put them in the mixing bowl, in the sink, with water and a little detergent, and when I pop the cake in the oven, I do these up quickly instead of waiting till, say, after dinner. Well, most of the time – no one wants to be obsessive, right?

Yeah, but…

Why do some things seem like nothing and others overwhelm us?

The old saying is Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. A mole, the size of a mouse, tunnels in the ground right under the surface, loosening the dirt, creating a slight ridge as it pushes along that might (might!) be half an inch high. Hardly a mountain.

All well and good. All easy to say. All sensible until we encounter something we somehow can’t fix or keep up with so easily.

Like the inside of my fridge. I open it numerous times a day and recently realized there were things in there that 1. Had been in there quite some time and/or 2. I didn’t know what they were. I am not in college. I don’t share a fridge with random people who were assigned to live with me. It’s my fridge. But okay, this is a portion of what I took out (and I’m glad the photo is dark!).

fridge stuff.jpg

I don’t remember the occasion I bought Reddi-wip for. I do remember buying/opening horseradish spread for roast beef sandwiches for a neighborhood event maybe four years ago and that’s still here. And that white wine, oh dear. It says 2017. Is it still good? There’s an open can of coconut milk we used for something a month or so ago (or was that right after Christmas?), a re-zipped bag of shredded coconut of a kind I never buy (who bought that? when?), the little lemon juice squeezie-bottle (or is that lime because it’s green, and why do I have it?), small unlabeled mason jars with vaguely sweet substances of unknown origin…

Here I am, Miss CAYGO-CAYGO (and proud of it, thank you very much!), able to keep up with and tout the virtues of washing up the dishes as you go along so you don’t have a big mess at the end, clearly unable to avoid old items, mystery items, no-longer-fresh items in my fridge.

We are so very inconsistent, we humans. Just this week I was thinking about how being organized and efficient in one arena should mean we are organized and efficient in another arena. More broadly speaking, if we exert control over one area of our lives (and most of us can manage this), why can’t we exert it over another? Shouldn’t the same principles apply? Pick a system, adapt it for whatever situation, practice until it’s habit, and voila(!) one less thing to be mucking about in, one less thing to struggle with all the time. Right? Shouldn’t we see the parallels and be able to say A is just like B, so I’ll just do for A as I do for B? Is it that hard? Yup! It is that hard, we are that complicated, situations do vary, personality does plays in, life is complex. We are not little robots that can just see the thing, do the thing and carry on.

And I might need the Reddi-wip!

…All right, fine, I’ll buy more next time…


It’s Too Early to be Attacked by a Dish Mat

Years ago I owned a house in Maine. Originally built in the 1920s as a rustic getaway for wealthy people from Boston, this solid log home with a 20-foot granite fireplace, a pot-bellied stove in the kitchen area and numerous other very cool features had been well cared for by its previous owners. I wasn’t there long, but always wished I could airlift that house onto my current wooded property Virginia – if only airlifting houses were a thing!

The market fell through the floor around the time I needed to sell that house. It took me five years to find a buyer and I lost way more tens of thousands of dollars than one would ever want to lose. But I sold it and have the paperwork to prove it. So why do I have a recurring dream about owning a house in Maine?

Last night it was so real. There I was in the house, fretting about needing to sell it, troubled by the repairs that an un-lived-in house incurs, desperate to stop the leaks and inevitable other breakdowns while at the same time admiring the old and gorgeous woodwork. In my dream I even hired a chef to prepare a spread for potential buyers – the last thing in the world I would do because …(people don’t do that anyway, right?)… I love to cook!  I woke around 4, agitated by all this, and found myself telling myself that if I owned a house in Maine I would have to be paying taxes on a house in Maine, and I didn’t remember doing that any time recently, so I must not own a house in Maine.

At 630 I awoke cold – 59F in the house as it turned out because it was so warm yesterday there was no heat on and I forgot before going to bed that it was going to dip into the low-30sF during the night. While attempting to avoid having to get out of bed, I also again had to push away the house-in-Maine worries, play the broken record, reiterate reality: “You would have paid taxes, and you haven’t paid taxes, therefore you don’t own a house in Maine.”

That’s it, time for tea. Thank God for a warm robe and my super cute “Haflinger” woolen doggie slippers.


Having run out of propane (that runs my cookstove) the day before, I was grateful they had come to fill the tank and I could turn on a flame and know there would be hot water soon, one of the small comforts in my little world.  My new doggie cup was in the back of the cabinet…

new cup.jpg

(do I need a dog of my own one of these days or what? do you see the text inside: “all you need is love and a dog”?) … and having been hounded all night with false-homeowner fussing, I had no kind of temperament at that moment to patiently look for it. A person can take only so much.

Yeah, just when you think you’ve settled the question and it’s time to relax, you turn around wrong and the dish mats make you aware of their presence by somehow poking you. How did they do that? I don’t know. Yes, dish mats. I hang mine on the old dishwasher that doesn’t work. It makes a good hanging place because it has a lever (that presumably locked it for its dishwashing cycle, back when it had such a thing) that acts as a hook. The mats have to dry in between their jobs of being useful for standing wet dishes upon, and here they all were, inexplicably adding to my discombobulated morning.

I said to them out loud, “It’s too early to be attacked by a dish mat!”


One of those days. D’you know what I mean?

I’ll Get Around To It

How many times have we set something aside that needs doing and thought: Yeah, someday, not today, but someday I’ll get around to it. Life is busy, we are bombarded with demands constantly, “stuff” clutters our attics, basements and closets. The jobs of sorting, organizing, fixing and refurbishing often don’t make it to the top of the list. Yet some things are hard to throw away. Some get buried, covered, boxed up or otherwise hidden. Some are just waiting for their day.

Ten years ago I worked at a restaurant where Laguiole steak knives were part of the tableware, appearing only when someone ordered an expensive steak. The type we had were sleek, elegant, wooden-handled and costlier per knife than the steak. I remember the servers carefully polishing the sharp blades and setting them side-by-side in perfect rows on napkin-lined trays in preparation for dinner service. Laguiole’s signature bumblebee, affixed at the uppermost portion of the handle, seemed to all of us a mark of authenticity.

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(Little did we know that there are no regulations prohibiting the use of the Laguiole name or bee on cutlery. Imitations abound. Chances are decent that the ones I have are not authentic knives from the village of Laguiole in the department of Aveyron in France. For my knives and their purpose, does this matter? Probably not.)

If you have ever worked in a restaurant of any kind, you know that some people are more careful than others with plates, glasses and silverware. Some are gentle, some bang things around. Some have a better sense of the replacement cost of such supplies. Some understand that certain items are best washed by hand rather than put through the high heat and pressure of an automated dishwasher. Some forget they have been told not to put the wooden-handled Laguiole steak knives in the dishwasher.

Ours got bad. Their fine finishes were blasted off and they began to look shabby. A restaurant serving roasted rack of herb-cured lamb with pomme purée or king salmon “sous vide” or classic iced grand marnier soufflé cannot expect guests to use shabby knives. As a manager was about to throw them away, I asked if I could have them. Sure, he said, why not?

I promptly wrapped them in a napkin, bound it with a rubber band, brought them home with the very good intention of refinishing those handles, put them in a drawer and forgot about them for ten years or so.

Oh, look, those old steak knives! While rummaging around in a drawer recently for something else I hadn’t been able to locate in a while, I came upon the knives. They looked as shabby as I remembered, but my intention was revived. Today seemed like a good day to remedy their finish. (Perhaps the doll mender from the story of Edward Tulane was whispering in my ear?)

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon. Eppie was sleeping off a sickness, Rise was amusing herself with learning how to braid, practicing with shoelaces and clothesline, which work well for this purpose, in case you wondered.


I had a few moments for a little job so I went to my shelf of paints where a can of marine grade polyurethane sits front and center. In the last few weeks I used it on some funny little garden signs that are not yet finished and I lightly sanded and then refinished the ash handle of a very fine Smith and Hawkin garden fork that Peggy gave me (and doesn’t that look nice now, thank you, Peggy!).

I nabbed the poly, found some super-fine-grit sandpaper, laid out the steak knives, prepared a small old brush by snipping off the tips of its bristles (that somehow had dried paint clumped on them),


sanded and dusted the knife handles, then devised a way to prop them to dry. A cooling rack set up high and anchored with a bear-shaped jar of vinegar worked beautifully. Imagine my delight as I brushed the first strokes of poly on the parched wood. Look at that rich color!


Polyurethane can bring out the gorgeous grain in wood the way salt brings out the amazing flavor in food. See the difference between done and not-yet-done in another way? These two are propped in my makeshift drying rack.


Completing all five gave me a sense of accomplishment that the ten-year delay on this job only heightened.


There will always be more undone than done in my world, always more to do than I have time to do, but the truth today is that I DO sometimes get around to the things (some of them anyway, a small fraction of them anyway) about which I seem to be always saying: I’ll Get Around To It. And when I do, it’s a victory like no other.

Do I need these steak knives? No. Would anyone else like them? Maybe. Was this a necessary task? Hardly. But seeing the wood go from sad, rough and dull to smooth, shiny and richly colored was a thrill. Knowing the knives have life and use yet in them and that someone may be glad to have them makes me smile. Making a checkmark on the mental list I keep is also satisfying (even if I did forget I had them!).

Remember that old saying “You can’t please all of the people all the time”? Personally I think it’s ok to settle for pleasing a few people as often as I can because my experience tells me it’s better to devote my energies to fewer people for maximum effect than spread myself over many people to little effect.

Along parallel lines, I’ve also always told myself: “You can’t tackle all the little jobs all the time.” They will wait for their day. I settle for small victories when I can – a little job here, another little job there. Over time I chip away at my list, even if more things get added to it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I sometimes even find some little treasure hidden in a box, or something I can finally bring myself to part with – like these knives that need a new home…

Anyway, now I can say I Got Around To It!

Cut Marks

When I was a kid, we had pizza every Sunday night. Tradition on Sunday was: Eggs for breakfast, then a mid-day dinner invariably including macaroni with red (tomato) meat sauce, often with Italian sausage or meatballs or eggplant parmigiana and a tossed salad on the side. This was a more formal meal than during the week, thus Sunday night being Mom’s night off from having to cook.

If we got a couple of pies at the local pizzeria, my dad asked for them uncut. He would slide them out of the box and into our preheated oven, straight onto the rack. In this way he attained optimal crispness (to his own point of perfection), a thin, crispy crust being a requirement. Plus, he always wanted his food hot (not warm, hot). If we didn’t order out, he would make pizza from scratch with purchased frozen bread dough that we let thaw and he then rolled out himself. And even though we only ever had cheese on pizza – freshly grated of course, and heaven forbid we spoil it with pepperoni or any veggies – it was of course delicious.

Maybe I learned to love pizza then, maybe I would love it anyway. No matter, it’s an all-time favorite for sure. I’ve made it more times than I can count. When my kids were growing up, I often made it for lunch, once a week at least I’d say. All three of my pans look like this, confirming way more than a few uses.

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While my friend Fred was here last week, we made pizza one night because he wanted to practice making the dough himself. When I pulled the pans from their storage place alongside the cutting boards, I offhandedly called attention to the many, many cut marks as evidence of the many, many pizzas having been made on them over time.

You know how it is with offhand remarks. You forget you even said anything. I never gave it a second thought.

When he returned home to Kentucky, he wanted to make pizza. He made the dough himself and was super pleased with how it came out. Bravo, Fred!

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Our little pizza lesson paid off, I thought, and now he can make his own whenever he wants, and perfect his dough and play with toppings (using my recently developed pizza pile method of course!). Good for Fred! Good for his family!

Then he sent me a photo of his two slices on a plate, and later a photo of his cat licking the drippings off it. Clearly this is a man who enjoyed his pizza!

Hours later I got this photo.

Fred's pan.jpeg

Yes, that’s a pizza pan. When I saw the holes I thought he was going to tell me about whether the crust was crispy or not on account of those holes, or maybe how they affected the slide-off onto the oven rack. I was not expecting thoughts on the cut marks. He said:

My first cut marks.
I didn’t have a pizza baking pan so I bought this one today. After using it and cleaning it my first thought was that I shouldn’t cut pizza on it as it leaves cut marks. Then I thought of how you proudly reminisce of the cut marks on your pans. Sometimes we leave marks where we have been, better than shiny things with no history or attachment. 

Amen. Leaving marks where we have been is a thing to ponder. Cut marks are perhaps not the best analogy, but if you can get past the sharp-object implications and onto the idea that the blade connected with the pan in such a way as to leave a permanent reminder of that connection, then maybe we are onto something.

First of all, yes, better to connect and be left with a mark than to stand alone – perhaps even shiny! – but still lonely, untouched. So what if we look perfect or have a perfect job or eat a perfect diet but have no meaningful relationships. The marks we gain through valuable personal interactions, through caring for someone besides ourselves, make us only more attractive – especially and most importantly to eyes that can see beyond the surface.

But, pizza-pan-cut-marks analogy aside, the marks that matter are often not visible.

I’m thinking about the people I know and the marks they have left on me, more than I can possibly list, but for starters: those who don’t just wait for me to finish speaking so they can say their bit, but instead really listen (how many people really listen?), those who brought (and continually bring) laughter into my world, those who taught me to get outside of my own little box and consider the needs around me, who encouraged me to think a little more (and not just swallow the party line), to slow down and look at the stars on a clear night or listen to the soft rain pattering, to find something nice to say to someone because maybe it’s the only nice thing that person hears all day.

I am the grateful student of those who taught these things, encouraged these things, modeled these things and much more. Their shining examples, their admirable character, left permanent impressions on me. I want to be like them when I grow up. They have countered and helped push away the prevalent me-first stand of so many others who also tried to leave marks.

They say you become like the company you keep. We keep company in lots of ways these days – not only in person but also through our computers and phones. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the marks we subject ourselves to and concentrate our people-time with those who are likely to leave good marks. Likewise, what about the marks we ourselves leave – now there’s a sobering thought…

The Icing on the Cake

I don’t mean Icing on the Cake in the figurative sense. You know, the way people say Oh that’s the icing on the cake when they mean the best part of an already good situation, something added that makes a thing better, an enhancement that you don’t actually need but takes the thing up a notch. Such as: My trip was already perfect in every way. The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake.

Notice that the phrase is not, generally, the frosting on the cake. There are exceptions of course, but the idiom that slips off the tongue for most people is the icing on the cake. The difference between icing and frosting is at the kindergarten level of understanding for pastry chefs and aficionados, but I daresay most people would be hard-pressed to articulate their particularities. That might be because the similarities are more striking. They both are 1. Sweet, 2. Spreadable, 3. Useful for enhancing/decorating/topping a cake or cupcakes.

Giovanna Zavell of Drake University begs to differ. She says they although they are commonly confused, they are in fact are “very different” and each have “their own personality.” Icing is thinner, glossier and gets a harder surface after it sets, as when you get eight inches of snow followed by a 40-degree day (so that the upper half inch or so melts) followed by a 10-degree day which makes that melted part form a crust on the surface that cracks as you walk through it. Icing is also called a glaze.

Frosting has more cream/butter, is fluffier and holds its shape. It is also called buttercream. You can spread it with a knife or you can squeeze it out of a pastry bag. Zavell says, “If you want my opinion, choose frosting. Always go with frosting.” But when it comes to food, there is really only one hard and fast “Always go with…” and we all know what that is. Always go with chocolate is just so obvious once you have tasted vanilla ice cream and then chocolate ice cream (I mean, seriously, who can argue with that?).

Now that we’re hopefully clear on icing vs. frosting (you will never mix them up again, right?), you will see that I am not focusing today on icing (though it’s what slipped out of my mind for a title (see how those idioms plant themselves deep in our brains and just spill out!), but rather on frosting. I ended up making two chocolate cakes recently, one for Sandy and one for John. On your birthday around here, you get the kind of cake you want, and both of them asked for chocolate, just sayin’!!

They wanted two different frostings though. Sandy, bless him, wanted chocolate. I know I will disappoint those who need/want exact instructions, but I was in a hurry that day and on autopilot. I mixed (with my new, handy-dandy electric mixer) half a stick of softened butter with some confectioner’s sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) (maybe two cups?), a few drops of vanilla, and enough milk (a teaspoon, two? three?) — oh and a couple heaping tablespoons of cocoa! — till it looked like this…

frosting needing more sugar.jpg

…at which point I said to myself No, that’s too wet and added more sugar…

frosting with more sugar.jpg

…to make the right consistency. By right consistency, I mean it is not dripping from the beaters, nor is it so stiff that you need to be Hercules to scrape it out of the bowl and spread it on the cake.

Sandy did not want further decoration on his cake – no silly sprinkles, sadly no coconut and thank God no crushed nuts of any kind. So his cake looked simple and tasted yummy. You can’t go wrong with chocolate + chocolate.

finished cropped.jpg

John, a few days later, wanted cream cheese frosting. For this (since I had better be a bit more specific), I checked with Fanny Farmer.

recipe cropped.jpg

I never put egg white in a frosting before! But hey, Fanny is reliable, and I must say, there was a nice fluffiness to this frosting when it was done. My mixer was wonderful again (what did I do without it??) and gives me the opportunity to show what I mean by drippy.

not enough sugar

This is what it looks like if you have not yet added enough sugar. It drips from the beaters and doesn’t hold the the beautiful shape of the beater swirls in the bowl. With enough sugar, it stays where it lands on the beaters, and the swirls hold their shape in the bowl. Gotta love those swirls!

not dripping


To frost the cake, first put a bit of frosting on the plate like this.

frosting on plate


That way, when you put your first layer of cake on the plate, it doesn’t tend to slide around as much. By the way, frosting a frozen cake is easier than frosting a non-frozen cake. So if you have time to plastic-wrap those layers and put them in the freezer for a while before the frosting stage, do that.

Frost the top of the first layer. Use a non-serrated knife if you want a smoother surface. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s going to get covered with the second layer.

frost middle


Add the second layer and frost the sides before the top. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s a homemade cake. Imperfections are part of the appeal.

sides first


When you are finished, defy expectations (John didn’t specify further decoration either) and add some prettiness such as colored sugar. There is already so much sugar in this – what’s a little more? It doesn’t change the flavor (or irritate anyone who doesn’t eat nuts and then could not enjoy this cake). I happened to have purple sugar on hand, which is a little more festive than it being plain, but not over-the-top. I hope he approves!

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Batter Beauty

I am not being paid to say this, but I love my new mixer.* I haven’t had a hand mixer (that works) in at least ten years. I’ve had my hand, my wrist and a good whisk, yes. And I’ve had a powerful stand mixer, the kind you keep in the cabinet and lug out for big jobs. But I haven’t had that in-between, lightweight kind that’s as easy to take out from a drawer as a spoon is and that in no time at all whips up cake batter or heaven knows what else I will discover in the coming months.

For now, the cake batter has my attention. Chocolate cake particularly.

I do not consider myself artistic either on the being-an-artist side or on the recognizing-good-art-when-I-see-it side. The beauty/appeal of modern art, including pretty much everything in the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C., touted “as a leading voice for contemporary art and culture,” completely eludes me. Nonetheless I stand ever in awe at sunrises and sunsets, smiles on the faces of children, majestic landscapes, creatures large and small, and colorful, delicate flowers. I think we humans have an intuitive sense of what is truly lovely, even if we each identify different examples, even if we can’t articulate very well exactly what’s amazing about what we are looking at. There’s something about shape, gleam, patterning, movement, authenticity and that very fine line between familiar and unique that catches our eyes.

The chocolate cake batter had me utterly entranced! And no, I was not under the influence of any mind-altering substance.

The mixer did it. The mixer has thin but strong wire beaters. They don’t look particularly powerful.

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But oh, what they do to cake batter!

Understand, I repeat, that I have not had an electric hand mixer in a long time. I have been managing just fine with the baby and the beast – my whisk and my stand mixer. So I was a little skeptical. I beat the butter and sugar together. Okay, nice. “Fluffy,” as recipes like to say.

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I added two beautiful eggs. (Look at those eggs, huh?)

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The butter-sugar-eggs combo developed a smoothness that started to look kinda pretty. But, hey, I’m just here to make cake, right?

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My recipe calls for the rest of the dry ingredients to be added alternately with the buttermilk. This is the recipe by the way: Best-Ever-Chocolate-Cake-From-Scratch. It might have been on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin years ago, but I cannot be sure. The chocolate cake recipe that’s now on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa carton (no longer a tin) is different. (My note of praise in the upper right hand corner was from when I made copies of my favorite recipes for my children and put together cookbooks for them, but that is another story.)

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Anyway, I got to the part where you add milk and then flour, then more milk and then more flour. That’s when it started getting interesting.

Do you see what I see? Do you see the swirls, the cake-batter-landscape of little hills and valleys and possibly river gorges cut through in an age gone by? The random spatters just above the land mass on all sides? Now watch. Depending on where the beaters are within the bowl and what angle you hold them, the batterscape changes.

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For the record, I love chocolate. Vanilla ice cream doesn’t hold a candle to chocolate. Cake of any flavor but chocolate is trying, I know, and I give it credit for trying, but the competition is simply too great. Chocolate wins for me every time. This fact could perhaps contribute to my increased delight as I went from the batter above to its better (i.e. chocolate) version.

If you decide to try this recipe, please note that even though the recipe calls for you to get to the stage above and then mix up the cocoa and boiling water into the positively glistening paste that results, I suggest you do that at the start so as to let that mixture cool a bit.


And if you don’t already have a mini-scraper like this, you might want to get one, even if it is not as cute as this. I find this size comes in very handy.

You add the chocolate to the beautiful swirly batter in the bowl. (Just imagine how excited I was at this point anticipating! If the pre-chocolate batter patterns moved me as they did…)

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Here we go, folks! Let the marbling begin, even as you know that the two will become one glorious mixture.

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I just loved the velvety smooth, different-every-second designs in my bowl…

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…the way the light shone here and there…

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…the kaleidoscopic variance.

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Call me crazy (and you may be right), but I had fun making this cake! Beauty is all around, isn’t it?


*My new mixer is a Kitchen Aid model KHM512MY in majestic yellow.

Pierogi Production Party in Virginia

Lynn and Billy are Pierogi Pros. There is no thinking required following the question: How about if we make pierogies when we come to your house? Yes!

The first question is How many cans of sauerkraut? Lynn routinely uses 15 or 16 for her own party (and made 974 pierogies last time!), but that seems excessive for me and Mom. In February we used five cans. For the December party we settled on three (and maybe we’ll be sorry, but we’ll adjust next time if we are). Imagine the difference in the number of little footballs you have to make ahead of time and the number of pierogies you line up on the pan. Here’s Mom doing an excellent job! Look at those perfect rows!

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Making pierogies is not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed. It’s complex, time-consuming and has various nuances of technique that Lynn and Billy have perfected over the years. Nonetheless, as they say, if we can do it, so can you! What follows is a brief pictorial overview of the process. You are invited to ask questions of me or Lynn if something doesn’t make sense.

Day One:

Make the potato-cheese filling and the little cabbage rolls. You do this the day before because 1. It spreads out the work and 2. It allows time for the fillings to cool, making them much easier to work with.

Filling for Potato-Cheese Pierogi

Sauté 2 large onions in 2 sticks (1 cup) butter until just golden. Add 3-4 cups mashed potatoes, 2 (8-ounce) packages softened cream cheese and salt and pepper to taste. An electric mixer is great for this. We used the stand mixer. Let mixture cool, put in a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Filling for Cabbage (Sauerkraut) Pierogi

Melt 2 sticks (1 cup) butter in large pan. Add 2 large (27-ounce) cans sauerkraut that has been rinsed and drained, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook slowly (low heat) for about 45 minutes until sauerkraut is soft. Let cool, put in a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Day Two:

First, make little cabbage footballs using your hands like this. Lynn calls them rolls or logs, but their ends do tend to taper down like footballs, just saying…

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These little footballs will fit in the form like this.

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But let us not get too far ahead.

Once your cabbage footballs are formed, clear your workspace and gather your tools. You never saw my butcherblock so clean! This is, in fact, a good opportunity to get the dust and you-know out of those corners and crevices, a bit of pre-production deep-cleaning, one might say…


You see three rolling pins. Billy’s is the big, black, marble, heavy, hefty one. You will see why. Mine are the two rather average wooden ones. I didn’t know which one of those Samuel would prefer, and he did not show up until the last minute, being involved with his coding during every other possible minute, so I brought them both out.

The potato-cheese mixture in the bowl on the butcherblock is clearly an ingredient and not a tool, but since it didn’t get its own set of photos while being made (and secretly thinks it’s better than the cabbage footballs), it snuck into the photo here to make sure, at the very least, that it is not forgotten.

Now you are ready to call the troops in and get going with the full operation. These are the ingredients for the dough, all set up in their own space. We are nothing if not organized! Okay, Lynn is nothing if not organized!


The recipe says:


Combine 4 cups flour, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, ½ cup water. ½ cup milk. and roll out thin. Transfer to pierogi forms. Fill with filling. Top with another thin layer of dough. Press with roller. Trim away excess dough.

I mean, how simple is that?

Here it is again, starting just before “roll out thin…” This is enough mixing in the bowl. Billy did the rest with his hands.

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And then he divided that amount of dough into four pieces.

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Then “roll out thin.” When we say thin, we mean thin. You go from this…

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…to this…

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…to thin enough to fit on the 14×14” form.* Move it gently and carefully.

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Billy is the Official Dough Roller. This task requires strength, endurance and no small amount of organization (is this the dough you rolled out twice already? – all looks the same to me!). This guy knows what he’s doing. His smile really says Trust me, I rolled out that dough twice already. You don’t argue.

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For the record, Samuel followed Billy’s dough-rolling lead (which dough was that again?) and will someday be glad he participated in this craziness, even if right now he would rather be coding.

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I squeezed out potato-cheese filling and placed little cabbage footballs in the form and pressed edges together and in general tried to be useful when not temporarily holding up the works with my (frequent) “hold, hold, hold!” while I stopped to take pictures, a habit I expect was not altogether appreciated at the time, but here we are with (yes, folks!) pictures!

Once you have placed the first layer of dough on the form, you milk the edges (with milk) to help the top layer of dough stick better…

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…and put the fillings in. Lynn, Master Organizer (aside from deferring to Billy on the question of Has this dough been rolled out twice already?), presides over the squeezing out of the potato-cheese filling.

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You see in the next photo that the portions are not exact and the shape of the dollop is not the same in every one. They are not perfect. We are not perfect. This is not an automated production line in a pierogi factory. We are not automated machines making every dollop the same. That squeezie thing has a mind of its own sometimes, and getting it to break off the desired quantity is a practice-makes-respectable kind of thing. This is my home and we are perfectly at ease with (at least certain kinds of) imperfections. Imperfections make it real and fun and challenging and wonderful and everything a store-bought pierogi can’t be.

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Once the form is filled, you put the second layer of dough on top

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and take the mini-roller and press against the semi-circular edges of the form. You could manage with one of the regular rolling pins or even a straight-sided glass jar.


Lynn likes the wider side of the roller and I like the narrower side. Either way, the job gets done and the edges are pressed together enough to hold.

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You have to press hard enough that the pierogies practically break away from the form on their own (see the orange of the form showing through?).

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And then you can remove the excess dough, which gets re-rolled once and once only, thus the previous “which dough was that again?” to keep track of the dough’s cycle.

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You remove the excess dough carefully, then take the whole thing over to Mom and her waiting tray, and flip them out. (Not the standard usage for the phrase “flipping out,” I grant, but the right phrase nonetheless.)

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See how wonderful they look! Like Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way!

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We kept track of numbers this time by writing with a sharpie on a corner of the waxed paper that divided the layers (three layers max). C=Cabbage  P=Potato  (But you knew that.)

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Layering the pierogies with waxed paper and using a little cornmeal on the surface helps keep them from sticking to one another. You freeze them right on the pans like this. When they are frozen solid, you put them in bags and label them.

We of course couldn’t help it and had pierogies for lunch. How does one say YUM most emphatically!!?? And between my freezer and Mom’s we have the remainder. To give you an idea of quantity, we made 67 cabbage pierogies using 3 cans of sauerkraut and 166 potato-cheese pierogies using 4 pounds of potatoes. That’s a far cry from Lynn and Billy’s 974 total, but Mom and I and everyone who eats at our tables over the next half year or so will enjoy every last bite of these. Plus, we know it won’t be long until Lynn plans a trip and says How about if we make pierogies when we come to your house? Yes!


*In case you are interested in this form, here is the info on it.

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Making 974 Pierogies

Granted, not everyone wants to make 974 pierogies. But if you do, I suggest a party. It works great for Lynn and Billy, who have been doing it for years. The deal is: you come, you work a few hours getting your hands sticky and/or your shirt spattered with flour, and you go home with zip-lock bags full of deliciousness. It’s worth every minute!

Getting a bunch of people together to make good food is, all by itself, a fun idea. Getting together to make a family favorite, something that is best made with lots of help, something everyone is happy to take home – that’s even better. The party invite should say Bring an apron.

Pierogies,* a filled dumpling, are part of my brother-in-law Billy’s Polish background. They make two kinds, potato-cheese and cabbage.  The potato-cheese kind is creamy and comforting in the same way as mac and cheese is creamy and comforting, and the cabbage ones are filled with slowly sautéed (in lots of butter) sauerkraut, i.e. fermented cabbage cooked down to tender sweetness. Both kinds are amazingly good.

Traditionally, you boil them as you would any filled dumpling (or pasta, if you think along Italian lines), douse with melted butter and serve. I like to sauté some onions in a pan over a low flame, lay the frozen pierogies on top, add a little water, cover, and let them steam into tender puffs …

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…then flip to get the other side just a little crispy.

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It is not a piece of cake to make pierogies, but here are several good reasons to venture into the Pierogi Party Production arena: 1. Many hands make light work. 2. Food is a powerful motivator, meaning you can get people to do work when food is the reward. And 3. Assuming you have someone like my sister Lynn in charge, you know it’s going to be good. She is a master organizer and keeps things going with admirable efficiency and poise. Anyone who can get 12 people to show up at 10:00 on a Saturday morning to do four hours of work with zero monetary compensation deserves applause.

Lynn gets all her ingredients ahead of time. This last time, just before Christmas, they weren’t aiming for 974 pierogies, but they were aiming high! She got six pounds of potatoes, five pounds of butter, 16 (!) large cans of sauerkraut, six large onions, three dozen eggs, a gallon of milk and 35 pounds of flour. The day before, she gets out her recipe (it’s fairly straightforward, you’ll see) and prepared the potato-cheese mixture and the cabbage footballs. Then when her “guests” – all of whom want in on this action because they’ve had these before and they want them again – start coming, she gives everyone a task according to age, ability and stamina, and organizes the steps in such a way as to crank out large quantities in a very short time. It’s a model of productivity.

Four-year-old Brea isn’t going to roll dough, but she can help crack eggs into each batch of dough.

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The rolling out of the dough Lynn assigned to the strong and energetic. If my calculations are correct, Evan and Matt needed to roll out 108 pieces of dough about the same size you’d need for a deep-dish pie.


The pierogi form, this thing…

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…makes 18. That’s 54 times you need to flip pierogies out of it to make 974 total, but 108 times you roll the dough because there’s a top and a bottom. That’s a workout!

Some people press the mini-roller on the pierogi maker to seal the edges together (go, Erika!), some separate the finished ones and some wait their turn.


In the end, they ran out of room inside the house and set up tables out on the porch until these made it to the freezer. 974 is a lot of pierogies! If you don’t believe me, I am sure one of them will confirm the truth of this statement.


The mere 233 we made last February when Lynn and Billy came to my house to visit pales in comparison, but we had our own Pierogi Production Party. We had so much fun (and the pierogies were sooooo good!), we did it again when they came in early December. Tomorrow I’ll give the specifics…


*In case you were wondering, pierogi = pierogies. Both are plural. Both are correct (or at least in our modern English usage correct). I use the -es ending for the plural because that’s how I learned it.

The Right Knife for Slicing Biscotti

Yesterday I quadrupled my biscotti recipe. That’s a lot of biscotti! But I like giving them as gifts, and in this gift-giving season, a pile like this comes in handy.

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I have made these lemon-anise-almond biscotti many times, but this time I had a problem. I formed the loaves and baked them until they were firm to the touch, but I’ve got things to do, you know, so when they came out of the oven, still hot, I wanted to slice them right away.

This has been a challenge for me before, but it was worse today – as I sliced the hot loaves, every time my knife hit a larger almond piece, the piece started to break apart, especially at the edges. You don’t want this. See how some of them are full pieces and some have broken edges?

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You want full pieces. You want all full pieces. Why was this happening?? I was not using my ordinary, everyday serrated knife, the one that fits in my wooden block holder, the one I’ve been using so long that its teeth are worn down (which would surely jam up against the almond pieces and cause breakage).

Instead I was using what I consider my best serrated knife, the one I hold in reserve for special jobs. It lives in the drawer because there’s no slot for it in the wooden block. It’s hefty and shiny and has very sharp teeth (for making short work of almond pieces) and I think it was expensive. It looks expensive. (It was a gift so I can’t be sure.) I was being very careful. Okay, the loaves were still hot, but that shouldn’t matter so much.

But I can’t have broken pieces. It’s true that they would taste just as good, but c’mon, I am not going to give them as gifts. And I am not going to eat them myself (no nuts for me, and almonds are the worst). And I would feel pretty bad saying to someone Here, would you like the broken ones? Yet they seem too good for the chickens!

Then I looked at that gorgeous knife as if it’s the knife’s fault that I had this problem, and I realized: It’s the knife’s fault! It’s too fat! Heft in a knife is perhaps not always ideal. I then remembered another serrated knife that I got at the county fair decades ago, you know the kind: “This knife will slice through wood” and some guy behind a table is demonstrating the amazing strength and sharpness of a $5 knife with a plastic handle. You can hardly believe it’s that good but you see the proof for yourself. I had bought the knife. It didn’t fit in the holder either so it too lived in the drawer. And there it was.

These are the two knives side by side, the poor cousin and the rich uncle.

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Standing up on their teeth, look at the difference in their thickness. And see what a difference in the slicing!!

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That cheapo knife made perfect slices for me every time. See how each piece on this baking sheet is a full piece, like the one I’ve outlined in red, no broken edges?

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Needless to say, I was very happy I had kept the cheap one, very happy to have the right tool for this job. Bigger, heftier, pricier and stronger is not always better. Only one question remains.

What should I do with the broken pieces??