What I Did on My Summer Vacation, 2018 edition

Some of you might know this already, and maybe a lot of you don’t. Blogging is actually hard.

It’s especially hard for writers like me, who have periods of creativity and then periods of drought. (I actually think of it less like a drought and more like living life, priming the pump, re-filling my stores.) I’m also an Aries sun sign blessed with Virgo SOMEwhere in my chart, which means I get excited about my projects, organize the hell out of them, start them, and then get tired. I’m also a Scorpio rising, which means a lot of my projects stay private, so no one ever knows what the fuck I’m doing.

I digress. What I was saying: blogging is hard for writers like me, who started out writing so many years ago with notebook paper and pen. Who carried notebooks and binders around with them everywhere so whenever they had an extra minute or an idea, they could sit and physically write everything down.

I used to be a prolific writer. Poems used to come easily, and prose even more so. The real work was in the revision, and I did it, but not with so much attention. Because I was also busy being young and living and not understanding that revision is not only about what’s on the page — it’s also about reading the self and understanding what it’s trying to say to you. These days, I sit with poems in their revision phase for months at a time. Sometimes years. I think about intent. I think about voice. I think about character. Who is the voice that is speaking through me? Why are they speaking through me? Is it me? Is it someone else? What do they want? (What do I want?) How are they saying it? What matters about how they say it?

So anyway. I forget where I was going with this. Oh yes. My point: blogging is hard for me. When I’m writing for the page, I do not (and cannot) blog. When I am not able to write for the page for whatever reason, I blog instead. And when I cannot do either, I live. I try to stay present, in the present.

This summer, I’ve been doing a little bit of everything. I went on my first-ever writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. I stayed at Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Firefly Farms, caring for a dear donkey named Jayne, a sass-machine goat named Munchma, tons of sheep, and some pesky (but entirely relatable) chickens. And when I wasn’t throwing down bales of hay or hand-feeding Jayne treats, I was reading and writing. I wrote pages and pages of prose about food and family and memory and relationships and everything in between. I wrote more poems than I’ve written in the past year. And I’m excited. I finally feel like my full and actual writer self again.

***

M and I moved to a new place. It’s a townhouse in the same neighborhood we’ve been in for the past 6 or 7 years. We weren’t expecting to move, but when we made the decision to do it, it felt like exactly the right thing to do. We hit hiccups here and there, and there was sweat and there were tears, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you can, hire movers. I can’t tell you what joy I had watching two young college-aged men efficiently carry all our furniture and all our heavy boxes out of our old apartment and into our new place. If you can afford it, it’s well worth it, even if you can only afford to hire them to move your heavy stuff. I swear to you. Worth. All. The. Pennies.

***
We also took a spontaneous trip to Seattle to see Pearl Jam. I came home from work one night, and M said, “So…you want to go to Seattle tomorrow? To see Pearl Jam?” It’s been a dream of M’s to see Pearl Jam in their hometown, so we did it. We spent 36 hours in my favorite city, and we didn’t get to see or do much outside of waiting in a merch table line for 4 hours, or actually watching Pearl Jam perform a truly epic 3.5 hour show, or getting within an arm’s length of Eddie Vedder.

But we did have some delicious and unexpectedly comforting noodles though. I still think about them.

***
What else did I do this summer? I got a new job. At a bakery.

Do you remember that scene from Office Space? The one at the end when Ron Livingston’s character is finally free of his cubicle job, and he’s relishing in his new job as a construction worker? That moment when he stops shoveling for a minute, smiles at the sunshine, takes in a deep breath of fresh air, and finally looks content?

That’s me these days. It’s not easy work, and some days I come home with my body aching and cramping in places I didn’t know could ache and cramp. Sometimes I find gigantic bruises on my legs that I don’t remember getting, but then I vaguely remember that something happened and it hurt a lot, but I kept moving and then I forgot about it. (Kind of like life.)

But I learn something new every day. How to make neat-edged cookies. How to wrap treats and box them neatly. Remembering complicated orders. How to work quickly without fucking up, which I am not always successful at, but I’m learning. All of these are little things that, if you’ve never worked in the service industry, you take for granted.

(Also, an aside: tip your servers. Always. At least 20%. If there is an option to tip (do you see a tip jar? when you pay with your card, does it give you the option to tip? etc.), always do it. The people who serve you bust their asses every fucking day and they don’t get paid enough to do it with the amount of patience and grace that they do. Believe me. Okay, stepping off my soap box now.)

So anyway. I’m doing something completely new and different. It’s hard work, but I like it. It’s teaching me a lot in terms of tangible skills, but also more important things about truly and actually caring for the self physically. I’ve learned so much over the years about emotional and psychological self-care, but physical self-care has come as an after-thought. This new work is forcing me to pay attention to my body and listen to it. If I don’t, I literally cannot do the work.

***

What’s ahead? I don’t know yet. I’m working on some things. After the heat and excitement and ever-changing days of summer, I’ll be shifting my attention to writing projects outside the blog for awhile. Friday Bites will not be making its regularly scheduled appearances, but I’ll still be writing about cooking and baking and sharing my home creations on the blog. Scary movie season is upon us (although it’s really year-round for me), so I might jump back into my Days of Horror series soon.

The name of the game these days is staying open and flexible, working with what I have, and, as always, staying grounded amidst the vast fields of uncertainty that life is made of. Stay tuned.

The Plague, Birthday Donuts, and Labors of Love

So, here’s what happened: I woke up on my second to last day in Nevada with my throat on fire. It was as if some kind of tiny rat had crawled into my sinuses and used the inside of my face as its clawing bag. Everything inside my face felt swollen.

For the last two days of my visit, I was on the maximum dosage of DayQuil and NyQuil, just so I could make it through the day without collapsing into a heap somewhere and screaming for someone to just rip my sinuses out. And when I traveled back to Indiana, I was heavily dosed on DayQuil and kept my fingers crossed that my sinuses were clear enough to keep my eardrums from exploding.

When I finally got home, all I did for the rest of the week was sleep, eat, and watch television. That’s how you know I’m actually sick: my body forces me to do nothing but sit around and watch my favorite romantic comedies, guilt-free. I guess you could call my love of romantic comedies a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel guilty about them.

I dragged myself out of bed for a wedding dress fitting that first Saturday after I’d come home, and I barely made it through. I felt entirely like shit, a cough had added itself to my symptoms, and I couldn’t even muster up excitement for my dress.  Afterward, I came home, changed into sweats, and fell asleep on the couch for 4 hours.

***
Finally, I went to urgent care after another few days of feeling like shit, and after M and my mom bugged me repeatedly to go get checked out. The doctor put me on an exciting 14-day rotation of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and codeine cough syrup.

I finished up my cycle of antibiotics two weeks ago, and I finally, FINALLY feel 100% like myself again.

***
So, being ridiculously sick for almost 3 weeks has meant no Friday Bites (though, believe me, I tried to write them). It’s meant no writing at all. I’ve been cooking, but haven’t had the wits about me to document my dishes properly.

It also means that instead of spending my post-plague time preparing action-packed Friday Bites posts, I’ve been wedding planning instead. Since emerging from my plague-cocoon, I’ve been doing almost nothing but wedding planning and cooking.

More on weddings in my next post.

For now, I’m celebrating chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

And birthdays. And good friends. And chocolate.

***
I am not saying anything new by saying that baking is a labor of love. I bake for the people in my life that I love the most — my family, M, my friends. I used to be shy about sharing my baking with friends because I was afraid that whatever I made wasn’t good enough. I don’t know at what point that changed.

When I bake, I am thinking of the person for whom I am laboring, whether they are near or far. My fondness for each person goes into the whisking, the kneading, the mixing, the scooping, the shaping, the cooling, the sprinkling, the glazing. It probably also goes without saying that I don’t bake for just anybody.

One of my very closest friends’ birthdays is 3 days after mine. She’s a fellow Aries, and she is one of the best people I know. For her birthday this year, I made Joy the Baker’s double chocolate cake donuts.

***
When I discovered I could bake donuts instead of deep fry them (I am wary of the deep fry), it was game OVER. I have Joy the Baker to thank for that. For a period of time, I made all kinds of donuts, including browned butter and pistachio ones (also a Joy the Baker recipe).

The recipe I return to the most, and the one that gets the most requests, is one for the double  chocolate donuts.

***
Donuts are so magical. If you’re making cake donuts, they’re really easy to make.

I whisked together all my dry ingredients: flour, dark chocolate cocoa powder (Joy’s recipe calls for unsweetened cocoa powder, but I love the depth of flavor that dark chocolate cocoa brings), baking soda, salt and brown sugar.

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In a separate bowl, I whisk together buttermilk, an egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. I love the smells that come out of this particular bowl at all stages — the tanginess of the buttermilk, the smoothness of that butter, and the punch of sweetness from the vanilla. YUM.

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After the buttermilk, egg, butter, and vanilla are whisked to smooth, you pour them into the dry ingredients and fold the wet ones in with a spatula. Fold everything together until combined into a glossy, dark, and glorious cake batter. My batter was a little bit dry, so I added a splash more buttermilk to soften it up.

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Then, using a spoon, I spooned the batter into a well-greased donut pan. This is probably the trickiest part for me, and the reason why I didn’t get a photo of it — because my hands, somehow, got covered in batter. After wrestling the batter into the pan, I popped it into the oven for about 11 minutes.

After taking the donuts out and waiting for them to cool, I made the glaze by mixing together powdered sugar, more dark chocolate cocoa powder, salt, coconut milk and vanilla extract.

This is not a picture of the glaze, but it IS a picture of the donuts waiting to BE glazed.

This is not a picture of the glaze, but it IS a picture of the donuts waiting to BE glazed.

***
Honestly, the glazing and the sprinkles are the funnest part of donut making (aside from licking the bowl). The glaze makes the donuts look so dressed up and classy. On its own, with just the glaze, the donuts look amazing. The sprinkles though…they make these donuts a party. Every time I use them, I get so excited. I also feel like I’m being transported back to the ‘90s for some reason. If someone were to film me every time I made these donuts, they could probably put together a montage of me saying, “YAAAAYYY!” every time I throw sprinkles on the donuts.

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***
My favorite part of baking is the act of giving the finished product to a loved one, whether it’s M or a friend, or my mother, or whoever. I boxed these donuts up for my friend in a cute little cupcake box, wrote her a card, and put it in an envelope that matched the donuts’ sprinkle party perfectly.

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***
I made 10 donuts — 6 for my friend, and 4 left-overs for M and me. By the end of the evening, those 4 donuts were settled very comfortably in M’s and my bellies. I love sweet treats, but I don’t like sickly sweet ones — the dark chocolate cocoa powder made these babies just the right amount of sweet.

***
By the time I post this, there will be only 5 days left until our wedding. (!!!!!!) Stay tuned for a super fun wedding-themed Friday Bites this Friday. It won't necessarily be food-related, but it will have LOTS to do with weddings.


Bread, Bread, Bread.

Friday Bites is coming to you a few days late. I guess technically it’s a “Monday Bites,” at this point, but here we are. I spent my writing days last week running wedding errands and traveling across the country to visit my parents. Since I booked a 12:30pm flight, I thought that I would have the gumption and energy to write either on the 4-hour plane ride to Vegas, or during my 4-hour layover there.

Unfortunately, all I had the energy to do was sleep, eat, read a romance novel, and ignore the uber-Christian wedding party that surrounded me on the plane. (They talked over me, handed each other jelly beans and inspirational literature in front of my face, and, at one point, a bridesmaid crawled over me (without permission or even acknowledging that she was being rude AF) so she could sit next to the bride for 5 minutes while the groom used the restroom (he, on the other hand, was very polite). What did they talk about for that 5 minutes? SCRIPTURE. Whyyyyyy.)

***

In the days leading up to my trip, I decided it was time to make something completely new to me: bread. While searching for Great British Bake Off cookbooks at the library, I stumbled across Paul Hollywood’s new cookbook, A Baker’s Life. Depending on your tastes, Paul Hollywood is either an attractive man or a creepy one. For some of us, he’s a little of column A and a little of column B.

Regardless of how you feel about Paul’s blue eyes or the cryptic looks he gives GBBO contestants, this is a beautiful cookbook. He writes about growing up the son of a baker, and includes lots of pictures from his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The book divides the recipes into sections, beginning with childhood favorites or uncomplicated bakes and then progresses into more and more involved recipes. Paul does a lot of explaining between chapters, which is always my jam. He says novice bread makers should start with soda breads and then go from there.

So, I started with his Caramelized Onion Soda Bread. Easy enough.

***

Have you ever caramelized onions before? Like, really caramelized them? It takes a hundred years.

Okay, maybe not that long. Maybe it takes an hour or so. I’ve always heard that actually caramelizing onions takes a long time, but when you’re actually caramelizing, you start to realize that maybe you should have started doing this much earlier in the day. Maybe you should have started this at a time when you’re not super hungry and maybe you shouldn’t have thought that you could also make a soup that needs at least 90 minutes to simmer tonight.

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Did you know that, when caramelizing onions, you throw in brown sugar at some point in the process? I didn’t. It’s magic. At Paul’s suggestion, I also threw in leaves from “two bushy sprigs of thyme.” Which, who knows what that means. I’m not Barefoot Contessa enough to just pluck two fresh sprigs of thyme out of my garden. Not yet, anyway.

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Cooking those onions slow and low, though, pays off. When the onions start to get soft and juicy and golden is when you start smiling and stop being upset with yourself for your errors in time management judgement. This shit is going to taste GREAT, you whisper to yourself.

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After the onions are done and cooling on a plate, you start your dough. It’s simple: two kinds of flours (plain white and whole wheat), baking soda, and buttermilk. Paul advises that you mix everything with your hands. He doesn’t tell you whether you should actually knead the dough or not? And he also doesn’t tell you if it’s possible to “overwerk” soda bread? I can’t remember the details of that particular episode of GBBO.

What I do remember is that you have to make the cuts in your dough fairly deep. Why? I can’t remember that part. I just remember that Mat the firefighter in season 3 didn’t make the cuts in his soda bread deep enough and he got schooled on it by Paul during the judging. I wasn’t about to make that same mistake.

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Paul says the soda bread should be ready in about 35 minutes. You should be able to tap the bottom of the loaf, and it should sound hollow. I made my cuts too deep maybe, and the loaf began to break in half when I tried to pick it up. When it did, I could see that it wasn’t baked through yet. Also, the bread was really hot, and I don’t have what Nigella Lawson calls “asbestos hands” yet.

I finally took the bread out after 50 minutes or so. I did what Mary and Paul do on GBBO, which is cut a slice out of the middle of the loaf and press a finger into it to feel the texture and see if it springs back.

So I did it, too. It didn’t spring back. The outline of my finger stayed molded into the bread.

I’m not quite sure what went wrong — did I put too much oil in with the caramelized onions? Was there just too much moisture from the onions in the bread? Did I not mix the onions into the dough well enough? Was my conversion of Paul’s Celsius oven temps to my shitty American Fahrenheit oven off? Did I overwork the dough?

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I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what happened to my soda bread. I do know, however, that despite it all, that bread was delish AF, and I ate at least two and a half slices while I was cooking soup and then ate another slice with my soup.

The caramelized onions have a deep, complex, savory sweetness that is unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Honestly, caramelize onions the right way whenever you get the chance — it’s worth it. You don’t have to put them in bread. You can put them on a burger, or eat them on their own if that’s your thing, or whatever. They’re incredibly delicious, and I’m converted.

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Though I’m home with my parents right now, stuffing myself with all kinds of good food (guess what this Friday’s bite is going to be ALL about), I miss that caramelized onion soda bread a little bit.

Okay, a lot.


This Week's Recipe:

On Comfort: Chicken Soup, Chocolate Cake, and Ani

This week has been full of paradox: sunshine and non-stop rain, feeling stuck while also feeling propelled forward, feeling exhausted and also feeling energized, weather warm enough to not need a jacket and needing a jacket, enjoying my favorite feminist musician and being annoyed by the douchy white guy behind me. Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve been trying to accept the contradictions. Embrace all the things that are opposite but true at the same time.

I did double duty and frontloaded my week by making two things in one night. Who am I?!

***
The craving for something brothy and healthy struck again. M requested a chicken soup of some kind, so I pulled out an oldie but goodie: Immunity Soup from the January 2017 issue of Cooking Light. (I was actually looking for a spring vegetable chicken soup, but had to settle for this one this time around.) Indeed, another soup that purports to boost your immunity. It certainly can't hurt.

When the weather is 70 degrees one day, and cold enough to snow the next day, it feels like my body is constantly trying to find its bearings. Am I warm? Am I cold? Do I need to wear 4 layers and wool socks today or can I show off this cat print short-sleeve shirt I just got? Am I feverish or is it allergies? Am I achy from sickness or am I sore from yoga? It’s impossible to tell these days.

***
This soup starts out with your favorite soup base layers: a tablespoon or two of oil heated in a Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), then diced onion, sliced carrots and celery tossed in. I used olive oil, but you might use whatever you’ve got — vegetable oil, canola oil, whatever. The sizzle of the veggies as they hit that oil is so satisfying, along with that continual sizzle as they cook gently, getting soft and releasing their juices (*insert a sly Nigella look here*) into the pot.

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As I chopped and diced and minced the veggies, I decided to turn on some of my favorite Ani DiFranco tunes. Ani has been a part of my life since I was 16 or 17. I don’t actually know how many times I’ve seen her live. Her music has been formative for me in so many ways — politically, emotionally, artistically, interpersonally, worldview-ally. Her music was friend to me through hard times, and was, at times, one of the few things to get me through whatever darkness I was in.

***
Next comes the pound of sliced mushrooms (I got pre-sliced ones this time around, though I usually don’t mind buying a pound or so of them in bulk and washing/drying/slicing them myself) and 10 entire cloves of garlic, minced. I may have thrown in an extra 2 or 3 cloves because however much garlic a recipe calls for, it usually isn’t enough for me.

Toss these into the pot, and let the mushrooms release their moisture. Savor that sharp smell of the garlic and let it fill your kitchen. I mean, you don’t really have a choice.

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I sang along to every single Ani song that came into my kitchen that afternoon, though I haven’t listened to many of them for years. I haven’t forgotten the airiness of Both Hands or the clipped turns of Swan Dive and those lines about pulling out your tampon and splashing around in shark-infested waters. The ambitious moodiness of Gravel (“I stood out on the porch, thinking ‘Fight, fight, fight at all costs’/ Instead, I let you in, just like I’ve always done/ and I sat you down/ and offered you a beer” and “Maybe you can keep me from being happy/but you’re not going to stop me from having fun”). The raw anger and anguish of Dilate.

***
Next come the chickpeas, the broth, the thyme, and the bay leaves. Stir, and bring it all to a boil. Once it begins to boil, throw in two pounds of uncooked chicken breast, along with some salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.

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The very first time I saw Ani perform live, I burst into tears as soon as she stepped onto stage. The song she started that show with was “Shy.” I started crying and didn’t stop until 20 or 30 minutes later. The sobbing was uncontrollable; I didn’t know it was coming and when it came, it hit me like freight train.

That trend would continue every time I saw Ani, and it seemed that she always opened with a song that was particularly meaningful for me in the moment.

***
As I started making the frosting for Nigella’s Dark and Sumptuous Chocolate Cake, I could feel the sobs building in my chest as I sang along to Fire Door. I still knew every word and belted them out along with her as I combined water, espresso powder, cocoa, brown sugar, and butter in a saucepan, heated, and stirred.

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These songs felt like a homecoming. They felt like being able to finally breathe big and full in a completely safe space.

***
And then something happened. It occurred to me, as I was mixing the dry ingredients for the cake and checking on the soup, that I was a different person listening to these songs. The songs that got me through my adolescence and early and mid-twenties were still gorgeous and clever and everything that I remembered them to be — but I understood each song differently. I was hearing each song through ears of wisdom? Experience? Through a body and mind and heart that had finally found dry land after weathering storm after storm in a shitty, disintegrating lifeboat? I related to each song completely differently. It’s like… looking back and realizing that when I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I knew what Ani was talking about. And now, in my early 30s, I see that I actually didn’t know shit back then, but I do now.

I guess that’s just part of being a human. Growing up. Maturing.

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***
The Ani concert was the centerpiece of my week. Everything revolved around it. I braced myself for the tears and the swells of emotion.

I was excited, for sure. But this time around, the sobs stayed put wherever they were hiding out. Ani opened with Names and Dates and Times, a song that I actually don't know all the words to (*gasp*). She played Napoleon and Shameless and Anticipate and To The Teeth and Hypnotized and My I.Q. and Not a Pretty Girl. She played a lot of newer stuff that I didn’t know.

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The crowd was also different from any other Ani show I’ve been to. The Ani shows I’ve been to have been attended by mostly women and women-identified people. Dudes in the audience have been few and far between. In between songs, people shout things at her, like, “We love you, Ani!” The audience usually sings along so loudly that she has to stop at least once and tell everyone to stop so she can hear herself play.

At this show, some things were the same. Audience members kept yelling “We love you, Ani!” People recited My I.Q. along with her so loudly that she had to stop in the middle and say, “Oh, honey, you have to let me do this one.”

But a lot of things were different. Someone yelled, “I love you, Annie!” (Ani responded, “It’s Ah-ni, but thank you, I feel the love anyway.”) Men were everywhere. A drunk-off-his-ass douchebag know-it-all guy sat behind us and talked loudly over Gracie and Rachel, the opening act, and then continued his tone-deaf, useless commentary during Ani’s performance. When Ani sang, “I’m gonna take all my friends/ and I'm gonna move to Canada/ and we’re gonna die of old age,” he shouted, “Yeah! Let’s go!” (I stopped myself from turning around and saying, “You’re not invited, bro.”) Some people got up to leave immediately after Ani finished the main set, not realizing there’s a thing called an encore because you should and will never get enough of being in the same room with her.  

***
After the show, I stopped by the merch table to buy a t-shirt. When I made my way through the crowd, made eye contact with the merch table person and bought my shirt, I had apparently “cut” in front of a group of (white) women. After we left, M told me about all the passive aggressive shade they had thrown in my direction while I was buying my shirt.

One woman had said, “WELL. You know what happens when you ASSUME…”

Yes. I do know what happens. I get to buy my Ani t-shirt before you.

(Also: like, please. There are no lines at merch tables. You see your opening, you get in there and buy your shirt before they sell out of your size. It’s not hard. How many times in my 32 years have I waited politely for everyone to go before me, and when I finally get to the front, the t-shirt I want is sold out of my size. Sorry, not sorry. Get yours. I'm gettin' mine. Like Ani says in 32 Flavors, "I'm not between you and your ambition." What a metaphor/analogy this shit is in so many ways.)

***
After the soup simmers, covered, for about 30-35 minutes, you place the chicken on a cutting board, shred it, and dump it back into the pot. You take a bunch of kale, rip it into smaller pieces and stir it into the soup. You let it all simmer for another 5 minutes or so. It’s done when that kale is wilted just a little bit.

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***
Now, this cake. Nigella’s instructions tell you to make the frosting first because it needs time to cool. She says that the time it takes to make the cake, bake it, and let it cool, is the perfect amount of time to let the frosting cool. I’ll be honest — I had my doubts. When I couldn’t wait any longer to finish the cake, I took a look at the frosting and shook my head. “Nigella, I don’t know about this. This frosting seems a little stiff.” But I gave it a stir and poured it over the cake.

It was perfect.

On Nigella’s instruction, I joyously decorated with chopped pistachios. No edible rose petals or edible flowers even, but just the pistachios were perfect.

(Baking notes: Nigella's recipe is vegan -- she uses coconut butter and coconut oil. I, however, love regular butter too much to go vegan, so I used regular unsalted butter and canola oil for this recipe, and it turned out just as dreamy.)

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***
This week seems to have been all about comfort — the food and music of it. Chicken soup, chocolate cake, Ani. They all came as I remembered them, but with twists. Chicken soup with mushrooms, chickpeas, and chili pepper flakes. Chocolate cake with espresso and salty, savory pistachios on top. Ani with the same good songs (as well as new ones), a wiser me, and a weirder crowd.  

It’s good to go home. To bring your older, wiser self there. To love the same things, and to love how they’ve changed. To love the same things, and love them differently.

Ani sings in Good, Bad, Ugly, "Strangers are exciting/ Their mystery never ends/ But there's nothing like looking at your own history/ in the faces of your friends." It feels a little bit like that, but...different.

***
I'll end this week's Friday Bites with some vintage Ani. Happy eating, happy cooking, happy being, y'all. 


This week's recipes:

Banana Cream Pie, Miso Salmon, "Mole" Tacos, and Instinct

FINALLY. It is here. (At least, it was here.) That blasted Banana Cream Pie.

After I posted last week, I realized that I was actually ready to make the damn thing. My bananas had been doing the last of their browning in the freezer, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I took them out to thaw.  

***

If you know me at all, then you know that I follow recipes TO. THE. LETTER. In order to be able to cook any recipe with any amount of confidence, I need exact measurements, exact ingredients, exact equipment. None of this a pinch of this, a splash of that nonsense. If the recipe calls for baby bella mushrooms, but the store only has creminis? Forget it — the whole thing is ruined. If the recipe says I need to use a chinoise, but I only have a regular ol’ mesh strainer? You best believe I’m ordering that unwieldy chinoise off of Amazon.

This is why I love the Milk Bar cookbook. Christina Tosi writes with so much of the detail that I crave — not only is she very specific about the ingredients and equipment and temperatures, she also is very specific about why each of these details matter. I love that I get to learn exactly why all of these things matter to Tosi, so I can figure out whether it matters to me. Sometimes it’s a matter of chemistry; sometimes it’s a matter of preference.

***

So I started off with making a chocolate crumb on Friday night. I mixed dark chocolate cocoa powder (which, I’ll note, was NOT the fancy Valrhona cocoa powder that Tosi insists on) with some salt, a little bit of sugar, some flour, and some melted butter. Once it all came together to make little clumps of dark chocolate-y goodness, I spread it out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and popped that bad boy in the oven for about 20 minutes. Once it cooled down after coming out of the oven, I put those little flavor nuggets in a Tupperware container and hid them (because they were in danger of getting snacked on until they disappeared into M’s and my bellies).

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The next morning, I used the chocolate crumb to make the pie crust. I threw the crumb into the food processor to grind everything down to a sandy mixture, and then mixed the sand with some melted butter. Once the mixture held its shape, I transferred it to my pie dish and smooshed it around until it resembled something like a pie crust. (This is only my third pie crust ever -- these kinds of pie crusts have lots to teach me about patience, presence, and a gentle touch.)

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And then came the banana cream part. Those god damn bananas were so slimy, and smelled sweet with a hint of rot. It sounds alarming, but I put all my trust in Tosi and threw those bananas in my blender along with heavy cream, milk and some other stuff.

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I won’t describe the rest of the process because it would be tedious and probably boring for you. The highlights, though: heating the cream mixture slowly on the stove and whisking the hell out of it and also feeling like I was on the Great British Bake Off. Blooming gelatin for the first time ever. The heavenly smell of the banana and the cream and the butter, all combining to create something magical. Using food coloring for the first time in literally decades.

The final product was divine and well worth the wait. The banana cream was packed with banana flavor (from only two bananas!) and sweetness with a hint of butteriness. Paired with that salty dark chocolate crumb crust to cut the sweetness a bit, it was a perfect-tasting pie.

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The pie was demolished in two days.

***

I love Nigella Lawson and her show, Nigella Bites. (And, as I write this, I’m realizing that I’ve been inadvertently inspired to name this project after her. Honestly, I didn’t mean to do it, but it’s a lovely homage, I think.)

Nigella is deserving of her own ode entirely, but I’ll briefly say that I had no idea who she was until about a month ago. I had an episode of Iron Chef America on in the background, and became captivated by one of the judges, who turned out to be Nigella. I asked M if he’d ever heard of her, and he looked at me like I’d just asked him if he'd ever heard about a delicious treat called chocolate. So we watched the entire second season of Nigella Bites (it’s all we could find on YouTube or any streaming service), and I proceeded to fall in love.

Now, if you don’t know about Nigella, here’s what you need to know: she’s not a classically trained chef. She started out as a journalist and somehow fell into having a cooking show. She delights in the process of cooking, as well as the end result. For her, taking the time to run a finger over the “crocodile skin” of a bowl of capers as she pours them into a bowl or marvel at the brilliant red “jewels” of pomegranate seeds as she drops them over a platter of shredded pork is as important as the finished meal itself. She emphasizes that the process of cooking should bring you as much joy as eating it does. In Nigella Bites, she does not give the viewer exact measurements and she does not measure exactly, except when she bakes. She adds spices to her dishes without measuring, and tells you, “Don’t be apologetic with the spices.” I actually don't know what that means, but I like how it sounds.

If you know me, you might think that Nigella’s style might drive me nuts. And in an earlier version of my cooking self, she might have. Now though? I love her.

***

All this is to say that I fucked up no meals this week, and one of the meals that I did not fuck up was Nigella’s Miso Salmon recipe from the Simply Nigella cookbook. While I was making preparations, I muttered something like, “Nigella says I need xyz for this, buuutttt…I’m going to do this instead.” M looked at me and said, “Whoa. What’s going on here? Look at you, going off script!”

What can I say? Nigella gives me confidence.

Since we bought double the salmon, I doubled the marinade with no problem. And then — and then — I improvised the sides. I cooked up some quinoa with leftover vegetable broth and some smashed cloves of garlic. I sautéed some on-the-edge kale and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

The salmon was perfect — the miso, fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic all combined to make a dish that was savory, with a depth of flavor and salt that only umami can give. It was so delicious, and so easy to make. It also felt healthy. You know those meals that just feel satisfying and clean? This was one of those.

Alas, I took no pictures because I was too busy eating. I’m terrible at writing about food, aren’t I?

***

My other success of the week was Slow Cooker Chicken Mole Tacos from the January 2018 issue of Cooking Light.

I’m 100% aware that the stuff I made is not mole. BUT! It’s still super tasty and was so easy to make. I simply salted a little over 2 pounds of chicken thighs and put them in the slow cooker.

Then, in my food processor, I put a can of whole tomatoes, a diced onion, smashed cloves of garlic, some chopped semi-sweet chocolate, raisins, toasted sliced almonds, chicken stock, cumin, cinnamon, adobo sauce, and chipotle chiles.

Nowhere in the recipe did it say, “Oh, by the way, this is a lot of stuff and you might need to process this shit in two batches.” I also ignored the maximum liquid fill line on my processor because who pays attention to that stuff anyway. I turned the processor on, and the mixture leaked out of the lid and all over my counter and the base of the processor. So, I'm here to tell you that you should pay attention to those markings. Unless you really enjoy cleaning red sauce out of every nook and cranny in your prep space, which I do not.

And then I poured everything into the slow cooker, put the lid on, plugged it in, and turned it on low. 8 hours later — tacos. They were delicious. The sauce is not mole, but it really wants to be, which is to say it is more like a hearty smoky salsa sauce with mole-esque undertones.

The result? Tasty-ass tacos. The recipe makes a lot of extra sauce, and I’m excited to use it in something else. (More cooking improv?! Who am I?!)

***

While making food this week, I thought about instinct. Trusting my gut and my knowledge.

The banana cream pie wasn’t perfect. The filling didn’t hold its shape, even after a good chilling in the refrigerator. As soon as we cut a piece of pie, the filling oozed all over the plate. It oozed deliciously, of course, but oozed just the same.

The recipe had told me to heat and whisk the cream until it became a really thick glue, almost like cement. I whisked until my arm got tired and then kept going, and the mixture wasn’t thick like glue, but I thought it was good enough. I thought about continuing to heat and whisk, but I didn’t want to overdo it. I had a conversation with myself in the kitchen: “Should I keep going? No, I’ll stop here. Well, wait. Yes, maybe I should keep going. Hmm… no, I’m going to trust myself. This is good enough.”

Instinct isn’t coming out of the womb knowing how to do everything right the first time. So much of what we call “instinct” is just trusting your gut, your knowledge, your resiliency and ability to learn. It’s trusting your gut and what you know, and knowing that if you fail, you’ll figure out how to get it right the next time. Or the time after that, or the time after that. We get “instinct” from learning from others, from following directions, but also, paradoxically, from taking risks. The only way we can develop a gut instinct and build our knowledge is to learn the basics, make mistakes, adjust, and try things over and over again.

While I was heating and whisking that banana cream, my gut feeling wasn’t correct and neither was my knowledge. But that’s okay. I’m already planning the next banana cream pie, and, fingers crossed, it’s not going to fall out all over the place.

More Disasters, Stubborn Bananas, and a Meditation on Creating as a Response to Violence

Wow, y’all. I have not fucked up this much food this many times in recent memory.

I started this week off with a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook, Simply Nigella: Thai Noodles with Cinnamon and Shrimp.

It sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to make this and then eat it. My mouth watered just imagining the umami flavors of the soy and oyster sauces fusing with the sweetness of the cinnamon and cloves to create a flavor bomb of awesomeness.

What I made was the exact opposite of that. I had double the noodles and double the shrimp, so I thought I would just double the sauce, which has large quantities of light and dark soy sauces (??? I don’t know the difference ???), oyster sauce, a concoction of dark soy sauce and brown sugar, pepper, chicken broth concentrate, and water.

I thought I had everything under control. I marveled at the darkness of the sauce and the smell of the garlic and ginger and the cinnamon sticks and the star anise as it simmered and bubbled in the pot. It truly smelled incredible. Then, I dumped in my shrimp. I stirred them around and realized I had made a huge mistake. The shrimp were so coated in the sauce that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the shrimp turned pink because the sauce was so dark.

I shrugged and thought, oh well. Shrimp don’t take too long to cook, and when I put the noodles in, they will soak up the sauce, the shrimp will turn back to a normal color, and everything will balance out.

I dumped the noodles into the pot, and they also turned dark. The more I tossed the ingredients together, the more everything simply turned full dark, no stars.

And not only was every ingredient of the dish just the same shade of dark, they were amazingly, incredibly salty. I tasted one shrimp and thought it wasn’t too bad. When I ate an entire bowl, though, I had to chug water every couple of bites because I was afraid of shriveling up like those aliens in The Faculty

Even through the saltiness though, I could taste the sweetness of the spices. I could taste what the dish was like under all its darkness.

***
These goddamn bananas are driving me nuts. They are still ripening.

So still no banana cream pie this week. My baking fingers are itching to make something.

***
I’ll be honest. For the past week and a half or so, my body has been preparing to shed its uterine lining. (Yes, I’m going to talk about periods. Deal with it.) This means that my energy has been super low, my ovaries have randomly felt like they were trying to rip their way out of my body, and I’ve been hungering for moderately salty foods  (i.e. NOT the monstrosity I made of Nigella's recipe) and deeply chocolate foods. Sometimes, even at the same time. (Gasp.)  

On Wednesday, I could feel the cramps coming. It’s like watching a train come down the tracks really slowly. I can hear its whistle, I know it’s on its way, and I know I have only a brief amount of time before it flattens me on the tracks.

So I hurried and made this Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light. Cooking Light reports that the soup is immune-system boosting. It’s brothy, it’s spicy, it cleans out your sinuses. It’s got a million cloves of garlic in it (okay, fine, it actually has only 15+ garlic cloves), it’s got little nuggets of beef, crisp baby bok choy, and earthy mushrooms. It’s delicious.

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Two hours after I finished the soup, my cramps hit. I spent the rest of the night on the couch with my trusty heating pad and a comfortably full belly.

***
Usually, when I mess up a dish, I want to forget it ever happened. I want to bury the recipe and my mistakes in a cemetery along with all my other botched things (food and otherwise). I usually make notes on the recipe for myself, for when I've forgotten the disaster at hand and want to try again. But that amnesia and ensuing motivation usually comes long after. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years.

I was so disappointed in my Thai noodles miscalculations. I was disappointed that I didn't get to enjoy what I could tell was a tasty dish underneath all that salt, and I was disappointed in myself for not trusting my intuition (which had been yelling and waving its arms at me frantically as I ignored it and continued to pour unthinkable amounts of salty ingredients into the pot).

This time, however, I wanted to get right back on the horse. I wanted to try again. I want to try again.

***
I’ve been waiting around for these bananas to ripen because I really want that banana cream pie. But it occurred to me that I don’t have to wait around to bake, just because the bananas aren’t ready. I can bake something else while I wait.  I don’t have to deprive myself of baking for however many weeks, just because these bananas are taking forever to rot.

So simple a revelation, and so duh, but, man.

And so, I’m ending on another culinary cliffhanger this week. I’m going to make a Nigella chocolate cake. I have no idea where I’m going to find edible rose petals for this thing, but I trust that I will find a suitable substitute somewhere. 

Who knows. Maybe next week’s Friday Bites will chronicle the making of a dark and sumptuous chocolate cake and the world’s tastiest banana cream pie. Here’s hoping.

***
I’ve realized that cooking is nice and all, but baking is what makes me feel like everything is going to be okay in the world. The precision and order of baking is comforting in times of chaos and violence, which is the world we live in. It's not a coincidence that my need to create something tangible and nourishing reared its head after I read the news about the18th school shooting of year. When I feel powerless and devastated, the instinct to do something comes.

There are so many things to do. Call your representatives. Protest. Petition. Lobby for change. Write op-ed pieces. Tweet angrily.

I often struggle with what feels like the most effective thing to do in the moment. What if the thing that feels best and right is to create something? To bake a fucking cake? Does it do anything to create something - a dish, a cake, a pie, a pastry, a poem, a blog post, an essay - and put it out there? What if you create it and put it out into the world with love and revolution in your heart and mind? Is that something?

Soup Disasters & Banana Cream Pie

Friday Bites is my new weekly blogging experiment, where I write and reflect on the food I’ve made during the week. It will be published every…you guessed it…Friday. Let’s see what happens.  
***

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re…full? Not full of joy or gratitude or feelings or whatever. I mean like, you’ve been eating lots of meat and cheese and carbs and you feel like you are just…full. Like kind of bloated, but fuller? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

When I get to feeling full in the way I just attempted to describe, I crave soup. Brothy soup. This week, I wanted to make some soups that were brothy but hearty enough to keep me satisfied.

So I went for Chrissy Teigen’s vegetable tortilla soup from her cookbook Cravings. It looked bright, healthy-ish, and tasty. I skimmed over the part of Chrissy’s recipe blurb that said the soup had “the perfect kick” and went about my business.

Without question, I chopped up an entire jalapeño and threw it into the soup pot (seeds, membrane, and all). A memory flashed through my mind of the time when, barehanded, I chopped up a fresh jalapeño from a friend’s garden, and the ensuing flames of pain that came when I got the jalapeño juice (alright, fine, the capsaicin) all over my hands and just inside the rim of one nostril. My fingers and nose burned for days. I wish I were exaggerating.

But I dismissed the thought because I would never make that mistake again. And anyway, store-bought jalapeños are fairly mild, in my experience.

As I measured two entire tablespoons of chili powder into the soup, the thought crossed my mind that this might be too much for me. I double- and triple-checked the recipe, and thought, “Okay. Two whole tablespoons? Really? Alright, Chrissy. I trust you.”

The soup simmered, and I fried up some tortilla strips with excitement and anticipation. My kitchen smelled amazing, and I was so hungry. When I finally got a chance to taste the soup, my mouth had exactly two seconds to enjoy the flavor before the spicy heat hit me. I felt like the chili powder had gotten into my sinuses, and my nose started running. I started sweating after two bites, and a few minutes later my eyes started watering. I felt like I was on an episode of Hot Ones, trying to make it through one of the hottest hot wings. I kept eating the crumbled cotija cheese because it felt so cool in my mouth. I started laying pieces of cold tortilla on my tongue. M poured me a glass of coconut milk (because the only actual milk in our house is saved for baking). My skin felt hot. I was turning inside out.

Now, what really bums me out? The “perfect kick” for Chrissy Teigen is 30 minutes of sweaty, teary torture for me and additional digestion problems that come by later at an unexpected time.

Thankfully, M can hang with the spice level of this soup, so it’s all his.

And because I’m sad about the soup, I didn’t take any pictures of it. Oops.  

***

I don’t know what it is about barley soups, but I can’t resist them. Beef barley, vegetable barley,  vegetable and beef barley, mushroom and barley. When I was a kid, I loved the Progresso beef barley canned soup and hogged them all for myself when my parents bought them from the store.

So this week, I made a mushroom barley soup using a combination of ingredients and process from The Kitchn and Real Simple recipes. (Look at me! I'm out here, just winging it!) There were no jalapeños in this recipe, no tablespoons of spice. Just some good old-fashioned onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and barley.

There’s not much to say about it, other than it was tasty, beautiful, and exactly what I needed on a Wednesday.

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***

The real piéce de résistance of the week hasn’t been made yet, and it probably will have to wait until the weekend. What is it? It’s banana cream pie, recipe courtesy of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar cookbook.

Why banana cream pie? Well, there are a few reasons.

  1. Banana cream pie is delicious. Why would I not want to make it?
  2. I’ve been watching the first season of The Mind of a Chef, and saw the episode where Christina Tosi makes a tasty-looking banana cream pie with ripened-to-black bananas. I was intrigued and, also, extremely on board.
  3. Last weekend, M told the story of the best banana cream pie he’s ever had. It was so good that since then, he’s measured all banana cream pies against That One Pie. I’m up for the challenge of making a banana cream pie that will blow that one out of the water.

But when we went grocery shopping, all the bananas — and I mean ALL of the bananas — were green. And not just yellow with a hint of green. They. Were. All. GREEN.

So I’m waiting. The bananas are in a paper bag, ripening extremely slowly. It’s the first time I can think of where the making of the delicious treat is not on my timeline — it’s up to the bananas.

So maybe I’ll get to make banana cream pie this weekend. Maybe I won’t. It’s really just up to the bananas. 

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