Give the People What They Want

My husband the pollster tells me that those snap online polls that pop up on news websites after political debates are pretty much worthless as a gauge of public opinion. That’s because the people taking part in the poll are self-selecting, and there’s no way to know if they represent the public as a whole. Also, campaigns can hijack an online poll by directing their supporters to take it. Some diehards will even delete the cookies in their web browsers so they can take the poll again and again!

sitting

But I’m running a food blog, not running for president. My time is tight and blogging is getting harder and harder to do with a nearly three-year-old, a seven-and-a-half month old, and a full-time job. So when I was trying to decide if the next recipe should be my favorite challah, our go-to pizza, or homemade Cheez-Its®, I took the question to Facebook and asked my friends for their opinion.

The clear winner was Cheez-Its®, although folks made it clear they like the looks of the pizzas we’ve been posting to Instagram. I’ll get to all of them, I swear, and I’ll also share the cupcakes and frostings from the build-your-own cupcake bar we made for Lilli’s birthday party. Sometime before Lilli gets to middle school, at this rate.

I first made these crackers when Lilli wasn’t quite two. It was that golden era when she still ate everything she was served, and gobbled up things like broccoli and mushrooms. It was that naïve time in my life where I actually believed she’d be better off if she only ate things I had personally cooked and baked myself. No puffs for her, and certainly no Goldfish. Obviously she had no interest in these crackers, and, as it turned out, any cheese cracker served to her. No Goldfish, Penguins, or Bunnies. Serves me right for being a Sanctimommy. (Second kids are very different; Bea gets puffs, frozen waffles, and, as of tonight, Nutella.)

eating

The recipe comes is from Classic Snacks Made from Scratch by Casey Barber, which is where I got the Nutter Butter recipe. This one is much simpler, and comes together very quickly in a food processor, although there is a little bit of effort transferring the crackers to the cooling rack. I like this recipe because the ingredient list is very short, far shorter than on a box of Cheez-Its®. And even though it does call for two tablespoons of vegetable shortening, using Earth Balance instead of say, Crisco, just feels better.

Barber makes a big deal of warning that the crackers’ high fat content makes them easy to burn. But I’ve had some come out on the darker side, and I swear they were even better. Sometime in the past year the Cheez-Its® people decided that was truth and marketed a dark brown version of the cracker for a limited time.

The second time I made these crackers I ended up not having the time to bake them immediately. Instead of chilling the dough for an hour, it sat in the fridge for about five days. No harm came to the crackers. They were thicker and seemed to rise a bit more in the oven.

I’ve photographed this recipe twice, something of a record for me at this point. But obviously I have no idea where any of those pictures are. Sorry about that. If you want the crackers’ signature pinked edges, Barber suggests using a fluted pastry cutter. I don’t own one, but my pizza wheel did the job. If you don’t have a pizza wheel, just use a sharp knife.

Cheez-Its® from Classic Snacks Made from Scratch by Casey Barber

Ingredients

1 (8-ounce) block extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, coarsely shredded

1 ounce finely grated Parmesan cheese (about ¼ cup)

2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½ – inch cubes

2 Tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (4 ¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

2 Tablespoons ice-cold water

Directions

Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, blend the cheeses, butter, shortening, and salt on medium-low speed, OR pulse in the bowl of a food processor until soft and homogenous. Add the flour and pulse or mix on low to combine; the dough will be dry and pebbly.

Slowly add the water (through the feed tube, if using a food processor) and continue to pulse/mix as the dough coalesces into a mass. Depending on the brand of cheese used and the humidity level at the time, you might need a small dribble of water or the full 2 tablespoons. Pat the dough into a disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces on a floured surface and roll each into a very thin (1/8 inch or less) 10 by 12-inch rectangle. Using a fluted pastry cutter or pizza cutter, cut the rectangles into 1-inch squares, then transfer to the baking sheets. Use a toothpick or the tip of a chopstick to punch a hole in the center of each square.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until puffed and browning at the edges. Watch carefully, as the high fat content of the crackers make it a fine line between golden delicious and burnt. Immediately move the baked crackers onto wire racks to cool.

Store your Cheez-Its at room temperature for up to a week.

 

A Fair Bargain

We’re raising the girls Jewish. It was non-negotiable for me, and Rich was fine with it.  This means we have Shabbat dinner every Friday night, attend services most Saturday mornings, and celebrate all sorts of holidays no one’s ever heard of. Rich did ask we celebrate two of his holidays – Christmas and Halloween – and given how much he’s agreed to do, it seemed like a fair bargain.

Shabbat Christmas

This mixing of traditions has had some funny side-effects. For instance, earlier this year I had to explain to Lilli that, no, we do not open the door for Elijah the Prophet on Passover because he’s trick-or-treating. It also means my almost three-year-old thinks Santa is magic. I was actually a little taken aback by this one, and I suspect she learned about it from Connor at daycare. It certainly wasn’t from Aziz, whose mother wears a hijab.

It’s hard to explain Christmas to someone who didn’t grow up with it. The outpouring of generosity and thoughtfulness is incredible; I’ll probably never fully get used to all the gifts that come with the holiday. Even though Lilli received something for every night of Chanukah, each candle in the menorah just meant we were one day closer to Christmas.

This year Christmas fell on a Friday, and we all gathered on Christmas Eve morning at Rich’s brother’s home for a festive breakfast and gift exchange. The presents we all received were amazing, although I did start to break out in a sweat as I stared at the four massive bags of treasures that I somehow had to find a place for in our 1117 square-foot condo.

Frying pancake

For Christmas on Friday, we marked the holiday the way my people do – Chinese food and a movie. Rich and my tradition is to watch Badder Santa – the Bad Santa director’s cut – to mark the holiday. I also borrowed Die Hard from the library, something I’d never seen before. It was great, in case you were wondering.

For Christmas/Shabbat dinner we made a Chinese banquet: veggie potstickers, scallion pancakes, green beans and Chinese eggplant. The scallion pancakes have become a bit of a holiday tradition for us. It’s from Joanne Chang’s flour, too, although we saw her make them on local public television cooking show a few years ago and took it from there. The recipe yields three pancakes, which was far more than we needed for our guest, Eric, and us.

You can use Chang’s focaccia recipe, which is the same as her pizza dough, which I owe you guys because that’s become our recipe and it’s a great one. But you can also use store-bought pizza dough to make it easier on yourself. That’s what we did this year. Mind you, there’s still a bit of work: The dough has to rise, and there’s the frying, of course.

Plate

Even if you don’t end up using the pancake recipe, bookmark the dipping sauce recipe. It’s a keeper.

Scallion Pancakes from flour, too by Joanne Chang

Ingredients

8 or 9 scallions, white and green parts, minced

¼ cup/60 ml sesame oil

1 ¼ tsp. kosher salt

½ batch Flour Focaccia dough, or 1 lb./455 g. store-bought pizza dough

About 1 ½ cups/360 ml vegetable oil, for frying

Soy Dipping Sauce

3 Tbsp soy sauce

½ tsp Sriracha sauce

½ tsp sesame oil

1 Tbsp peeled and finely minced fresh ginger

1 tsp rice vinegar

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

1 scallion, white and green parts, minced

Directions

In a small bowl, mix together the scallions, sesame oil and salt

Cut the dough into thirds. On a well-floured work service, roll out one portion of the dough into a thin 5-by-10-in/12-by-25-cm rectangle. Repeat with the remaining two dough portions. Spread the scallion mixture evenly over the dough rectangles, leaning a ½-in/12-mm border uncovered on all sides. Starting at a long side, roll up each rectangle jelly-roll style and pinch the sea with your fingers to seal. Spiral each cylinder into a tight coil and tuck the ends under the coil. Place in a warm area, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for about 2 hours to allow the dough to proof and relax. (At this point, the dough can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge overnight or in the freezer for up to 1 week; thaw in the fridge overnight before using.)

Line the baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Set aside.

On a generously floured work surface, press each coil into a flat circle, deflating any air pockets and squishing the scallions gently into the dough. With the rolling pin, slowly and carefully roll out each flattened circle into a 10-in/25-cm round. Flour the dough and work surface as needed to prevent the dough from sticking. (It’s okay if some of the scallion mixture comes out.) As you finish rolling each round, set it aside.

In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering.

While the oil is heating, make the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, Sriracha sauce, sesame oil, ginger, vinegar, sugar, and scallion until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside. (The sauce can be made up to 1 week in advance and stored in the fridge in an airtight container.)

To check if the oil is ready, sprinkle a bit of flour into the skillet. If it sizzles on contact, the oil is ready. Carefully add one pancake to the hot oil and fry, turning once, for 1 to 2 minute per side, or until golden. Transfer the pancake to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pancakes, always allowing the oil to return to temperature before adding the next one.

Cut the pancakes into quarters, arrange on a platter, and serve hot with the dipping sauce.

The Second Time Around

Man, things are so different the second time around. With Lilli, we were so clear with our rules: No sugar until her first birthday, no screen time until she’s two. And now with Bea? She had Fluff last week and has seen every presidential debate to date. (And let’s just say Lilli is making up for lost time with the screens.)

20151108_143157 (1)

Now, now, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We’d made Lilli a Fluffernutter which she obviously rejected after one nibble. Since we’d been given explicit directions by the pediatrician to expose Bea to all the allergens that trip kids up – her first bit of peanuts was mushed-up Bamba a month ago – we figured, why not give her a little? And she loved it. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s all sugar.

fluffernutter

We’re not doing that much better for our own dinners. We ate nachos for dinner last week. To be fair, it was National Nachos Day, and the nachos involved roasted butternut squash that had been tossed with maple syrup and sprinkled with cayenne and cumin. There were also sweet balsamic onions that did a perfect job of balancing the spice of the squash. They were phenomenal, and would have been even better if I’d used the gruyere that the recipe called for instead of the shredded cheddar we have on hand for Lilli’s quesadillas. (She likes them best with stars and moons carved into them. Thanks, Ranger Rick Jr. magazine for that pro tip.)

quesadilla

The recipe comes from The Ultimate Nachos cookbook, which is home to the horchata recipe I just shared with you guys. Some might be surprised to hear how much use a nacho cookbook gets used in my kitchen, but I’m really serious about my nachos. There’s a taco shop very close to us, Lone Star Taco, that makes my favorite ones in town. I went there solo on my birthday for them, and that’s where I’ve chosen my Mother’s Day brunch two years in a row. What can I say, I really dig nachos. Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured the place on his Boston show and we once totally sat next to some fans of his who had come specifically on his recommendation. And yes, I told them to get the nachos.

nachos

Being a nacho recipe, it’s pretty straight forward, except that I found the directions for prepping the squash a bit confusing. After I peeled the squash, I cubed half, then sliced each piece thinly, and saved the other half for this recipe. It honestly didn’t take very long to do.

Autumnal Nachos

½ butternut squash

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

7 ounces corn tortilla chips – approximately half of a store-bought bag, or, if prepared fresh, use 15 corn tortillas, each cut into 6 triangles

6 ounces shredded Gruyere cheese (about 1 ½ cups)

¼ cup sour cream

Directions

Preheat oven to 425F

Peel the butternut squash and then cut it in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and fibers from the center. Thinly slice the squash and then cut it in half again lengthwise.

In a medium bowl, toss the squash with the maple syrup, cayenne, and cumin.

Place the squash on a parchment paper or aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Roast the squash for 20 minutes, or until tender.

While the squash is roasting, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until a deep brown color, 10 to 15 minutes. Be careful not the burn the onion.

Stir in the sugar and balsamic vinegar and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Cook the onion for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350F.

Layer the tortilla chips on a 9×13-inch baking sheet. Evenly distribute the squash and onion over the chips. Cover the chips with the shredded cheese.

Bake the nachos for 10 to 15 minutes until the cheese has melted.

Serve the nachos with sour cream on the side.

A Spoon Also Works

Last week I made a terrible curry. Well, maybe terrible is too strong a word, but not by much. Lately I’ve been testing out different slow cooker cookbooks that have made their way to my mailbox. With the full time job and two little girls, I’m trying to find just the right recipes for our weeknights, with the hope, of course, to share the really good ones with you.

Bea in a Bjorn

The big issue with this curry was the carrots. The recipe called for thin slices of the vegetable to be cooked for five or six hours on low, but they were still crunchy when it was time to have dinner. Rich had less of an issue with the recipe than I did and dutifully ate all the leftovers for the following week. Lilli, who I have taken to calling “Picky Picky”, ate the rice.

Still, the curry wasn’t a complete disaster because it meant I had a leftover cup of coconut milk in the fridge. I had bookmarked a recipe a year ago that called for a scant cup of coconut milk, which had I promptly forgot about until last week. So the recipe I have for you today is for coconut curd; yes, like lemon curd, but with coconut instead. And yes, it’s just as amazing as it sounds. I think when I licked the spoon while I was working on it I actually said out loud in my empty kitchen, “Oh dear God, this might be one of the best tasting things I’ve ever made.”

It’s from Artisan Preserving, a really beautiful cookbook I was sent last year. It’s full of really incredible sounding preserves and jams and curds, like black pepper and cumin jelly, gingered plum chutney, and, irony of ironies, Thai curry paste. Apparently coconut curd, also known as Kaya, or Coconut Egg Jam, is a popular preserve in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The authentic version calls for screwpine, or pandan, leaves which apparently have a pine and citrus taste. I am including it here, just in case you happen to have a screwpine tree growing in your backyard. If you do have a screwpine tree growing in your backyard, can I come over in say, mid-February? Coconut curd is served on toast, although I think a spoon also works.

robot

The recipe calls for a balloon whisk, but I just fudged it with the whisk I had in my kitchen. I’ve always fudged on sterilizing, but Ms. Macdonald made it sound so simple that I went and did it, and it was! She offers several ways to sterilize a jar, and I am only including the version I chose as it was the easiest. My sister Amanda gave me these bright green rubbery heat resistant oven gloves for my birthday, which were absolutely perfect for handling the hot metal lids and glass jars.

As for other ingredients, I still had palm sugar in the house from when I made this secret eggplant salad. I found the bag in the food section of Home Goods, a wonderful aisle full of goodies like fresh vanilla beans and pink peppercorns. Please don’t let not having palm sugar stop you from making this; I think brown sugar will make a fine substitute.

Coconut Curd from Artisan Preserving by Emma Macdonald

Ingredients

Scant 1 cup coconut milk

¼ cup palm sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

4 fresh screwpine (pandine) leaves (optional)

4 large eggs

Makes about 10 ounces (1 cup). Preparation time: 20 minutes Cooking time: 25 minutes

Sterilize enough small jars in the oven so that they are ready to use (directions to follow)

Put the coconut milk, palm and granulated sugars, and screwpine leaves, if using, in the top of a double boil set over gently simmering water. Stir the mixture until the sugar has dissolved.

Break the eggs into a bowl and, using a balloon whisk, beat together well. Whisk the eggs into the coconut mixture.

Heat gently and cook about 20 minutes, whisking frequently, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Do not let the mixture boil or it will curdle. If the curd does start to split, remove from the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth.

Remove the screwpine leaves, if you have used them.

Pour the curd into the warmed, sterilized jars. Cover immediately with sterilized lids. Let cool completely before storing in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Once opened, eat within 3 days.

Sterilizing Bottles & Jars

The importance of sterilizing cannot be emphasized enough; it is essential so that your preserves do not deteriorate during storage. Always sterilize an extra bottle or jar in case it is needed. Remove any labels if you are reusing bottles or jars, and wash all in very hot, soapy water.

Do not dry the washed bottles or jars but put them upright on a baking sheet, about 2 inches apart, and put in the oven. Turn on the heat to 350F and once the oven has reached this temperature, leave the bottles or jars in the oven 20 minutes to ensure they are completely sterilized. Most preserves will be hot when they’re canned so it makes sense to keep the bottles or jars in the oven until needed; reduce the temperature slightly. Wear protective oven mitts when handling the hot bottles and jars.

Sterilizing lids: Put the lids in a pot of water, bring to a boil and boil 10 minutes. Make sure they are dry before using to avoid condensation forming. An alternative method is to fill the hot sterilized bottles or jars with the hot preserve, screw on the lids and then turn the bottles or jars upside down 1 minute. Wear protective oven mitts or cover the bottle or jar with a kitchen towel when you do this to avoid burning yourself. This effectively sterilizes the insides of the lids.

Return Again

We lost my Great Uncle Harry this year. He really was great. He always had a fun story to tell, or a perfect song to sing. He was a vegetarian and for decades built these wonderful, multilayered Dagwood sandwiches for Shabbat breakfast. We were all lucky enough to visit Uncle Harry and Auntie Julie about two months before he died, because we went to a family reunion in London right around New Year’s. We flew in from Boston; Sylvie, Miriam and Leo flew in from DC; my Cousin Larry and Ashley flew in from New Jersey; and my dad came in from Jerusalem. It was Sylvie’s idea, really. She wanted the kids to meet the British relatives before it was too late — a good call on her part.

Weinbergfest

We were only in London for a couple of days, but we were able to score a table at NoPi. We ordered every vegetable dish on the menu, and a perfect piece of fish. I had a kumquat and passionfruit mocktail and rhubarb Eaton mess. It was everything I wanted it to be. Pro tip: They only have two high chairs in the whole restaurant, and no changing table in their amazing mirrored bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Lilli and I caught something on the plane on the way over, and because I was 20 weeks pregnant and had no immune system, I couldn’t really do much touring. Or stand. Or make conversation. But Rich did get to see a real football match with my cousin Jonah. By the time I made it to my doctor’s office on New Year’s Eve, my temp had spiked to 102.8F. But the trip was still well worth it, and I really miss my Cousin Jenny. Hopefully we’ll get to see Jonah soon; he is in Philadelphia for the year studying at Temple and drinking American beer.

Nopi

It was never the right time to talk about finally eating at Ottolenghi’s restaurant, because it never felt right to talk about Uncle Harry. But it’s Day of the Dead on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to joining my friend Tania and her family for her holiday, so it seems appropriate to honor Harry, as well Rich’s Uncle Tommy and Auntie Ruthie and his professor Svetlana Boym, all of whom we lost far too soon this year.

If I find my blanched almonds in time, I’ll be making this horchata for the occasion. It’s a traditional Mexican sweetened rice drink, and it has become my litmus test of whether a Mexican restaurant is worth my time. Aleza introduced me to the beverage when we stumbled into a real hole in the wall in Williamsburg. This was in 2002, back when there were still holes in walls in Williamsburg.

mirrored bathroom

This particular recipe is from the Ultimate Nachos cookbook, also the cookbook for these pickled red onions I use all the time. The drink is vegan, and you need a blender and an overnight to make it work. Sure, it’s really meant for a hot summer’s day, but I think it will also work at the ofrenda.

Horchata from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained

1 cup blanched almonds

4 cinnamon sticks

1 quart water

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups ice cubes

Ground cinnamon, to taste

Ingredients

Put the rice, almonds, and cinnamon sticks in a blender. Blend the mixture into a powder.

Add the water, sugar, and vanilla and blend for 90 seconds.

Chill the mixture overnight in the fridge.

Strain the liquid into glasses over ice cubes and serve, sprinkled with ground cinnamon to taste.

Twenty Years in the Making

Lilli has taken to carrying her stepstool around the house to help her reach things she isn’t supposed to reach. Of course, she rarely uses it for its intended purpose, which is to reach the sink to wash her hands after she uses the potty. She does, however, use it to reach the stickers that are supposed to be rewards  for when she does use the potty.

bea at 4.5 months

Last night Rich made the unfortunate decision to walk away from the bath he was drawing, and set down the bottle of bubble bath on a shelf. He came back to find her holding the bottle upside down and dumping it into the bath. All of it. She used up the whole bottle, and yes, it was like in cartoons with bubbles floating around the bathroom. She was in heaven, but the joke’s on her because this means no more bubble baths for a while.

The silver lining to the bubble bath debacle was that it reminded me that I’d wanted to share this recipe for green beans I finally nailed down. Of course, right now you’re probably asking yourself what an out-of-control bubble bath has to do with green beans, and I’m getting there.

When I was in high school my mom used to make these wonderful stir fried green beans. They were full of fresh garlic and ginger and tossed with a mixture of soy sauce and honey. The soy’s saltiness was balanced out by the sweet honey glaze. They were great. My best friend, who was originally from Latvia, would come to our house and eat them directly from the serving dish. That was fine by me because I would go to her house and eat insane amounts of beet vinaigrette, Salad Olivier and napoleon cake.

green beans

I called my mom this summer to get the recipe. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. It was 20 years ago.” Undeterred, I set out to recreate the dish. I remember the beans being very limp, crinkly and blistered by the time they were served, so I started by steaming the beans for a few minutes. I used chunks of shallots and fresh ginger and garlic – I actually even took a photo to so you could see for yourself. But I could not figure out the glaze at the end. I consulted Aleza who suggested corn starch. It didn’t sound right, so I called my mother again. “Still with the green beans?”

But then I had a flash to when I would make these in college. It was a vision of me holding the bottle of honey directly above the pan, just like Lilli held the bottle of bubbles over her bath. And it worked! Glaze achieved. When I posted the finish photo to Facebook my best friend chimed in immediately saying she loved those beans when we were teenagers. Success!

Lilli on hayride

A few things: I worked in half pound batches to nail down this recipe. I know it will double and triple just fine. The garlic, ginger and shallot pieces should be much bigger than a mince (see photo); you want to really taste the flavors with each bite. If you’re up for it, make it a tablespoon and a half of each. A little heat would be a nice contrast to the sweet honey. I steamed my green beans in the microwave, but if you feel prefer the stove top, go right ahead. My mom always used a wok, and even though I have one, I rarely, if ever, use it. A large saute pan will do just fine. I am convinced red pepper strips often made their way into this dish, and sometimes walnuts topped it. My mother, again, swears she has no idea what I’m talking about, but feel free to experiment.

Green Beans with Soy-Honey Glaze

½ lb. green beans, cleaned

1 heaping Tablespoon chopped shallots

1 heaping Tablespoon chopped ginger

1 heaping Tablespoon chopped garlic

3 Tablespoons honey, plus about a Tablespoon-and-half more for the pan

3 Tablespoons soy sauce or tamari

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 Tablespoons canola oil

Directions

Steam the green beans for four minutes.

In a large sauté pan or wok, heat the oils until they shimmer. Once they are shimmering, add the shallots, garlic, and ginger. Stir them for about a minute. Add in the green beans and toss them with the contents of the pan.

In a small bowl, stir together the three tablespoons of soy sauce and three tablespoons of honey. Pour the mixture into the pan and over the green beans. The whole pan should be sizzling. Cook everything down for about 7 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so. But please use your best judgement – if it looks like something is going to burn, cut off the heat.

The beans will begin to wrinkle. At this point, grab your bottle of honey and pour about a tablespoon and a half directly into the pan. The heat of the pan will have the honey sizzling. The glaze should form in about a minute.

Serve over rice.