Do You Believe In Magic?

Man, out of all the food “diets” that have come and gone, I think Paleo rubbed me the wrong way the most. I could post a few dozen articles explaining why it’s a bad idea to not eat whole grains and beans, and how a diet based on meat is, frankly, elitist. But I won’t. I will, however, take this opportunity to mention a former colleague who microwaved herself a sweet potato for lunch every fricking day, hogging the one machine on the entire floor. She sucked.

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If there is one good thing to come out of Paleo, it is that it brought coconut oil to my attention.  I have some Paleo cousins who swear by the stuff, so I bought a jar, and then forgot about it. The truth is, I prefer cooking my food in butter or olive oil, and I saw no need for its purpose.

But I am here to share with you the one recipe I use coconut oil for. It’s basically the opposite of what Paleo folks had in mind, and the irony only makes it more delicious. I’m talking about Magic Shell.

Yes, Magic Shell. You remember that hardened chocolate shell that covered the ice cream scoops of your childhood? One moment it’s liquid, but after it touches the ice cream (or after you tuck the bowl in the freezer for a minute or two) it forms a hardened shell, a thick varnish you have to whack away at with your spoon. Perhaps not as satisfying to crack as the crust on a crème brulee, but it’s loads simpler to make.

The magic in Magic Shell is the coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, but melts when heated, and then solidifies as it cools down, like when it hits ice cream. To make it, all you have to do is melt chocolate – in chip form or otherwise – with the coconut oil. That can be done in a double boiler on the stove, or in the microwave. Just zap on high for 30 seconds, check, stir and repeat until it’s melted enough to be stirred smooth with a spatula or spoon.

So, thank you, Paleo diet. Because of you I was able to recreate a beloved treat from my childhood in mere seconds. I guess you were good for something after all.

Magic Shell

The beauty of this recipe is that it’s done by ratios, so you can scale up or scale down depending on your needs.

Ingredients

1 cup of chocolate, chopped

2 Tablespoons coconut oil

Directions

Place coconut oil and chocolate in a microwave safe bowl.

Microwave, in 30 second intervals, stirring intermittently, until both are completely melted.

Pour or spoon the chocolate sauce over ice cream. Place your bowl of ice cream in the freezer for a minute or two to aid in the magic.

All Of Us Under Its Spell

Ever catch one of those Tasty videos in your Facebook feed? Mesmerizing, right? Lilli caught one over my shoulder a few months back, and ever since she’s been hooked on watching recipes on the Internet. It wasn’t long before she and I discovered that you can basically watch a recipe of anything on YouTube. Her favorites are the intricate cake recipes, of which she, and now I, have watched have watched far more times than I would like to admit.

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There are teen bakers, baking bloggers who do all sorts of incredible things with food coloring and pastry bags, an Australian baker who leans heavily on using chocolate bars on his cakes. Lilli likes this last one a lot, and so I promised her we would make our own cake using her leftover Halloween candy. This turned out to be a lie, because certain adults in the house have been nibbling away at it over the past three weeks. Ahem.

But we finally made our cake this weekend, and it went off without a hitch, just like we saw on the Internet. I didn’t use person’s recipe per se, but created one out of what I learned watching countless hours of online videos.

What I have prepared for you are directions on how to make a rainbow cake. I promise you it’s easy; it just takes a little bit of patience and time. (Ours took about two hours from start to finish.)

batter

First thing’s first: Find yourself a vanilla cake recipe. Make sure it’s a vanilla cake, not a yellow cake, because that will mess up the colorings. This is the recipe we used.

Next, secure your frosting recipe. I always vote for cream cheese frosting, and this is my go-to, but if you have a vanilla frosting recipe – remember, it has to be white – then use that one instead.  Take out the ingredients for your frosting to come to room temperature when you start preparing your cake batter.

Now, I had never used food coloring until this cake. I’ve always been a little skittish about such things, so I went to the nice kitchen store in town and bought them there. The ones they had on their shelf were the same ones that the online bakers all use. But if you have a favorite brand you use, then please, do what you feel.

We used Kit Kats around the outside of the cake and M&Ms to decorate the top. The Halloween sized ones would have been the right height for the cake, but fortunately the large bars we used also fit when cut in half. Skittles will work as well for the décor, but I’m the only one in the house that likes fruity candies, so I would be the only one who’d eat the cake. I’m actually not a fan of M&Ms, so this was a guarantee that I wouldn’t sit and eat the entire cake myself.

Now that you’ve assembled the ingredients, assemble the cookware and utensils you’ll need. Grab as many 9-inch cake pans as you have. I had three so I ended up using each one twice for my six separate colors. I had Lilli butter them, but then I sprayed a layer of Baker’s Joy on top of that.

If you are using six separate colors, then get out six separate bowls and six separate spoons. An ice cream scoop, if you have one, is very useful.

Now, it’s time to start making your cake. As you can see from my photos, it was six very thin layers. If you want a cake that will have your friends and family oohing and ahhing, I mean, even more than this, then double the recipe to make thicker layers.

Now that your batter is prepared, evenly divide it into the six bowls. This is where the ice cream scoop comes in handy. Next, add your food coloring. We had to mix colors to make the orange and the purple, and it was a fun way to practice our colors. I hope you’re wearing an apron!

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making-colors

Now it’s time to bake. Carefully scrape the first bowl of colored batter into your first cake pan. It’s probably very thin, so gently push the batter to the sides of the pan with the spoon.

I baked my cake layers three at a time in the oven. Please keep an eye on them; mine were done in about 13 minutes. When they are baked through, remove the pans from the oven and set them on cooling racks to cool, which they will do very quickly. Turn the cakes out, let the pans cool, wash them, then repeat baking the remaining colors of batter.

with-a-spoon

While this is going on, have a small child practice their sorting skills by separating the Skittles or M&Ms into small bowls. This is also when you can make your frosting.

sorting

Lilli, auditioning to be a roadie for Van Halen.

Once your cakes are completely cool, it’s time to assemble. I find the easiest way to frost a cake is by placing it on a plate covered in wax paper, and place that on a Lazy Susan, if you have one.

Layer of cake, little bit of frosting on top, spread with an offset spatula, then next layer of cake, and so on.

 

It’s honestly up to you to choose a design. Rich pointed out that I’d actually stacked my cake layer colors in reverse. Make sure you save enough frosting to cover the outside and sides of the cake; your frosting acts like a glue.

in-the-process

Once it’s assembled, put it in the fridge for about an hour to set and firm up.

And how was it? Very tasty, although Lilli simply picked off the M&Ms and Kit Kats, ate those, and left the cake.

PS – This was Lilli’s theme song all summer long.

Teach Your Children Well

My mother’s family is German-Jewish. They lived in a small village in Germany for hundreds of years. They were successful and a part of the fabric of the community. Some owned shops; one served as the headmaster for the entire town. My grandfather was a scholar, earning his PhD in Classics and Archaeology before he was 27. One of his brothers was a chemist; the other, a doctor.

One day in the early 1930s, my grandfather woke up to find he was no longer allowed to sit on park benches. So they left. During World War II my grandparents hid in Provence, France, taking on the roles of French peasants and ran a silk worm farm. That’s where my uncle and mother were both born. Thankfully, they survived, but the Vichy turned in my Great Uncle Freidl.

After World War II they were blessed with the opportunity to come to America in the late 1940s. My grandfather, who had two PhDs at this point, spent his days working in a factory. At night he taught Classics at Yeshiva University. Eventually, he secured a job as head of a language department at a small college in Springfield, Mass.

When I was a little girl, my sister and I would spend Shabbat with my grandmother, my Oma. I will never forget hearing her screams in the middle of the night. We’d run into her room, and she would say that she had a nightmare that the Nazis found her. “You’re safe, Oma. You’re in America.”

It’s been just about a week since Donald Trump was awarded the electoral votes he needed to become the President-Elect of the United States. Yesterday he appointed Steve Bannon, an avowed anti-Semite and white nationalist, as his Chief Policy Advisor.

And I am terrified.

I keep on thinking about my grandparents, my grandmother’s screams, and my own children’s safety. I worry about my sister, a gay Jew, and the status of her marriage and the status of her wife’s adoption of their son. I worry about my fellow Jews, Muslims, people of color, and especially women of color.

There are petitions going round, people encouraging others to take a stand and sign. But I won’t sign anything. I’m too scared to have my name on a list.

The recipe I have for today was chosen for a few reasons. The first is because it’s from Yotam Ottolenghi, a gay Israeli who is married with two sons and has a Palestinian business partner. I would worry about him if he lived in the United States right now, but he’s currently based in the United Kingdom, a country that is also going through a hard right turn.

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The second reason I am sharing this recipe is because it features sweet potatoes. When my family hid in France, they ate what they grew and had access to. Apparently sweet potatoes were a daily part of their diet. After they made it to America, my Uncle Marcel vowed to never eat another sweet potato. As far as I know, he has kept his vow for nearly 70 years.

I can only assure him that this dish is very delicious and the roasting of the fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs fills the house with a warm, lovely scent – very comforting after a terrible week.

Roasted Parsnips and Sweet Potatoes with Caper Vinaigrette from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Ingredients

4 parsnips (1 ½ lbs. total – I just used the entire bag)

4 medium red onions

2/3 cup olive oil

4 thyme sprigs

2 rosemary sprigs

1head garlic, halved horizontally

Salt and black pepper

2 medium sweet potatoes (1 ¼ lbs. total)

30 cherry tomatoes, halved

2 Tbsp lemon juice

4 Tbsp small capers (roughly chopped if large)

½ Tbsp maple syrup

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375F. Peel the parsnips and cut into two or three segments, depending on their lengths. Then cut each piece lengthways into two or four. You want the pieces roughly two inches long and ½-inch wide. Peel the onions and cut each into six wedges.

Place the parsnips and onions in a large mixing bowl and add ½ cup of the olive oil, the thyme, rosemary, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and some pepper. Mix well and spread out in a large roasting pan. Roast for 20 minutes.

While the parsnips are cooking, trim both ends of the sweet potatoes. Cut them (with their skins) widthways in half, then each half into six wedges. Add the potatoes to the pan with the parsnips and onion and stir well. Return to the oven to roast for further 40 to 50 minutes.

When all the vegetables are cooked through and have taken on a golden color, stir in the halved tomatoes. Roast for 10 minutes more. Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon juice, capers, maple syrup, mustard, remaining 2 tablespoons oil and ½ teaspoon salt.

Pour the dressing over the roasted vegetables as soon as you take them out of the oven. Stir well, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Scatter the sesame seeds over the vegetables if using and serve at the table in the roasting pan.

Take Me Down to Paradise City

More than once in the past few weeks Rich and I have turned to each other and remarked that we moved to Stars Hollow. I personally think there’s a touch of Cicely in there, too, but considering we were standing in The Pie Bar (amazing), and the fellow who poured Rich a cup of coffee was wearing a plaid flannel shirt with a backwards baseball cap, it was hard to argue with his logic.

robot-parade

Our Lobot (Lilli-Robot) getting ready to walk in her first Florence Rag Shag Halloween parade. 

 

We bought a four bedroom farmhouse, built in 1870, in the Village of Florence, which is part of the city of Northampton, my favorite place in the world. Our house has the things that both of us wanted: for me, a playroom for the girls and a guest room, so please come visit. For Rich, it is on the bike path and has solar panels, something that he was going to add to whatever property we ended up with. And, most importantly, it has a nice-sized yard, big enough for a swing set and a sukkah.

The yard was even bigger before the former owners subdivided it. (In-fill zoning and less lawn to mow — two other Rich things.) The lot was so big that it had served as a community garden for a while. It still has a nectarine tree, apple trees, pear trees, two cherry trees (sour and sweet), and bushes of blueberries and black and golden raspberries. In front of our house there’s an asparagus patch! It’s pretty scraggly looking, so when you pull up, please don’t judge. But springtime will be heaven.

 

Florence was an abolitionist utopia during the 19th century. Sojourner Truth actually lived here, and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Black lives have mattered for a very long time here. The views of the Holyoke Mountain range are so breathtaking that the valley became a destination for health respites. There’s a vibrant arts scene — the  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created in one of the art studios in town – and there several (vinyl) record stores.

We’re right outside of the center of Florence, which has everything you need: an utterly charming diner, a hardware store, some antiques stores, a flower and gift shoppe, a post office, a coffee shop (with a play area for kids), and the aforementioned pie bar. There’s an amazing Chinese restaurant whose produce is supplied by the local farms, and a great vegan café. For those in the know, it’s run by the same people behind Fire and Water Café. They have those incredible peanut butter noodles on the menu, and they’re still as good as you remember them being. The vegan café shares a parking lot with one of the two breweries in Florence; there’s a couple more down the road in Easthampton.

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We’re also very close to the swimming hole, and the Lilly Library, which is where they hold the farmers’ market on Wednesday afternoons. And even though we’re right outside of the center of town, it’s worlds away from living in Allston. When Bea wakes up at her usual 5:15 AM, I can see the Big Dipper, like bright rhinestones on black velvet, right outside my bedroom window.

As I mentioned, Florence is a part of Northampton, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s my favorite place in the world. I was trying to put my finger on exactly what it is, and all I could come up with is a word jumble: composting, sturdy Dansko clogs, Subarus, kale, baby wearing, street musicians, strong womyn, Pride, bakfiets, beer, art.

You’ll notice I did not put “gluten free” in my jumble. Northampton has some of the best bakeries in the country, including Hungry Ghost, a 4-minute walk from my office, and across the street from the pharmacy where the shopkeeper calls you “hon,” no matter your age. Hungry Ghost is actually in the process of creating a medicinal herb and plant garden in the front. And of course there’s Tart Baking Company, Bread Euphoria up Route 9, and Small Oven Bakery in Easthampton.

 

Main Street is full of galleries, and fun shops, and amazing restaurants and incredible beer. If you’d like to see a show, check out the Academy of Music, where I’ve seen John Waters; the Calvin Theater where I’ve seen Tom Jones; or the Iron Horse, where my mom took me to see Dan Hicks when I was a teenager. Alas, the club where Sylvie and I saw Patti Smith once upon a time is no more, but in its place is an amazing beer bar. Smith College, where I work, has an incredible art museum, and the Botanic Gardens are a wonder. It’s the mums show next week, although I prefer the spring bulbs show. And if you can, come on the second Friday for arts night, which takes over the entire downtown.

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Obviously Lilli delights in crossing Main Street. 

Northampton is where you move to when you realize you’ve outgrown your Boerum Hill two-bedroom, or if you love your brownstone in Park Slope but wish you had a yard for the kids. If you don’t believe me, ask Mo Willems, who did just that and now lives on the same street as Lilli’s preschool. Eric Carle raised his kids here. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore raised Coco in an old farmhouse in town. And it was probably a good thing it was Rich and not I who stood next Frank Black and his kids at The Roost. (The pastries there are amazing, although I found the coconut cake a touch too sweet.)

I can’t talk about Northampton without mentioning my favorite restaurant of all-time, Paul & Elizabeth’s. They sell day old wheat rolls for $3 a bag, which I bought and toasted in my own kitchen and ate with lots of butter and jam and realized that life couldn’t get any better. Our first night here, we went there to get Indian pudding, coconut cream pie, and some of their amazing creamy garlic salad dressing to go.

The Connecticut River Valley has some great soil for agriculture, and so there’s a ton of local produce. We’ve been to apple orchards and pumpkin patches already, but if you can’t make it to one, the grocery store sells produce grown by the students through UMass’s farming program. Route 9 going west into the Berkshires is lined with sugar shacks, but if you can’t make it out, you can buy local maple syrup at the grocery store. I counted five local brands last time.

I know I’m going on and on, but there are so many reasons that people call this the Happy Valley, and Northampton Paradise City. But let me leave it at that, and I’ll leave you with a recipe that makes use of some of that great local produce. If you come out to visit, I’ll make it (or something else in season) for you!

shabbat-dinner

Roasted Delicata Squash with Thyme Bread Crumbs from Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig

Ingredients

2 large Delicata squash, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into ¼-in/6mm half-moons

3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup/40g Panko bread crumbs

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C and line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the squash on the prepared baking sheet, drizzle with 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Toss the squash with your hands to coat. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender when pricked with a fork, 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together the bread crumbs, red pepper flakes, remaining 1 Tablespoon olive oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper in a medium skillet set on medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until toasted and golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the thyme and remove from the heat.

Transfer the squash to a serving platter and sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture. Serve hot.

Memory Aid

Last week Lilli used the term “feet wrists.” I almost didn’t want to correct her and let her know most people prefer to use the term “ankles.” After it happened, I wanted so badly to write it down somewhere, so I wouldn’t forget how precious my little girl is. And then I thought of this space. I come here to share recipes and stories with you, but I realize now it’s also so I won’t forget them.

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Cheap Beets turned 6 this week. I’ve shared stories, a birth, another birthjobs, and now a move. But it always comes back to the food, and I have so much more sharing to do. But for some reason, I forget to blog about it. It took me until nearly the end of June to remember how I love tossing coins of summer squash with more garlic than I think I need, some fresh thyme, olive oil, a pinch of kosher salt, and then roasting it all in a hot, hot oven. If only I wrote it down somewhere, I thought to myself.

And last night I thought to myself, if only I could write down somewhere that the perfect corn salad is three ears corn, half a zucchini, quartered, three radishes, chopped, and just a smidge of  chopped sweet Vidalia onion. (Honestly, it didn’t need the feta, although it was a nice touch.)

A friend was once flipping through one of my cookbooks and laughed when she saw my annotation about there being too much onion in the recipe as it was written. But of course you have to write notes in the cookbook! That way you’ll know the next time you read the recipe and think it sounds pretty good, you’ll be forewarned about the onions.

That brings me to this watermelon caprese salad, which I found in a Rachael Ray magazine floating around my mom’s house. It was a solid concept, but the 6 Tablespoons of EVOO was far too much. I ended up dumping much of it out and adding more vinegar and sugar, although that may have more to do with how much I like vinegar. My mom, on the other hand, could not be persuaded to try the salad because of the dressing.

caprese

Of course, the salad would have been better if I’d had basil on hand. I didn’t, but it was still wonderful, and it will make it onto our summer table for years to come. I think it’s easiest to taste the dressing as you make, or even leave it on the side, if you remember to.

Watermelon Caprese from Rachael Ray Every Day, September 2016 issue

Ingredients

4 Tablespoons EVOO (6 in the original recipe)

3 Tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar or white wine vinegar, or to taste

¼ teaspoon sugar

1 ball (8oz.) fresh mozzarella, sliced into 8 rounds

8 square watermelon slices (seriously though, the shape isn’t essential)

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Directions

In a medium bowl, whisk oil, vinegar and sugar to taste.

On platter, layer cheese and melon. Drizzle with dressing; top with basil.

 

The Happy Valley

By now you know the drill: I disappear for a while, then show up again talking about a new job, or sharing photos of a new baby. Nope, no new babies, but I do have news: We moved! After 20 years away from Western Mass, I finally made it back home late this spring. And I do mean literally: we’re living with my very dear, very patient, very generous parents until we find a home of our own.

My new gig is in the Donor Relations department at Smith College, where both Sylvie and Miriam went (although they actually met on JDate, for those keeping track). We were very lucky that Rich’s boss asked him to stay and telecommute, so he’s also based in Northampton at a shared workspace.

There were many reasons why I wanted to be in Western Mass: like being closer to my parents, having a house with a yard, and wonderful schools for the girls. Lilli goes to Fort Hill, the early childhood education center through Smith College where arts and crafts is referred to as “staging a provocation”. Bea is at The Little Schoolhouse, a home daycare where they provide the organic bamboo diapers that get composted via bicycle, the milk and yogurt are delivered every day from the farm, and they grow their own fruit. As my New York friend Jason quipped, “You’re living on the set of Portlandia.”

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My commute. I’ll make sure to snap some photos during peak foliage this fall.

When I can, I’ve been taking Lilli to Shabbat Shabloom, a Friday morning sing-along on Abundance Farm. Afterwards we pick flowers on the farm for the dinner table. And of course it’s great to have Shabbat with Oma and Zayde every week. So when I received an offer to review a book called A Month of Sundays: Striding Toward Spiritual Refreshment with Good Food for the Road, I smiled and said I’d love a copy. Sure, the book’s author Paula Hartman and I observe different Days of Rest, but I still get it. The book promises “food for the body as well as the soul” across 31 chapters of reflections and meals. To be honest, most of the recipes didn’t sing to me, and there’s no index, which is somewhat frustrating. But one recipe, for corn fritters, caught my eye.

Lilli at Emily Dickinson Museum

My friend Mark snapped a series of wonderful photos of the girls at The 19th Century Circus – Creatures of Mystery and Bliss, at the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst.

It’s August in Western Mass, which means there is fresh corn, tomatoes and squash wherever you turn. Honest to goodness, you turn down a street and there will be a sign for those foods, grown in someone’s backyard, for sale in the driveway. The farm stand my mom took me to growing up is still going strong, so now I take Lilli to get the corn and tomatoes.

I had actually asked my mom to pick up some corn for a braised corn recipe I bookmarked in another new cookbook, but since I had everything else on hand, I chose to try this one instead. And it was great! The recipe doesn’t call for salt, although I’ve added it, and Rich and Mom both agree it could benefit from some spice. I liked it as is, but I don’t disagree with their input. My mom doesn’t bake and only had self-rising flour in the house, which I knew would work perfectly. I actually had fancy corn meal on hand; someone gave it to me on the Fourth of July, although I have no idea who it was.

This last thing is very important so I will write it in BOLD ALL CAPS: PLEASE BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN FRYING THESE FRITTERS. Fresh corn spurts and jumps about in the pan. You’ll need to wear long sleeves while frying and keep kids and pets out of the kitchen while you make these.

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Mom’s Corn Fritters Adapted from Month of Sundays by Paula Hartman

Ingredients

½ cup (125 mL) of milk

2 cups (450g) of corn cut from the cob, or 16 ounces (450g) of canned corn

1 cup (225g) of flour

1 cup (225g) of cornmeal

2 teaspoons (9.2g) of baking powder

1 egg

2 Tablespoons (30g) of finely chopped onion

Two pinches salt

Cooking oil

Directions

Beat milk and egg. Add corn and onion to egg mixture. Add dry ingredients alternately. Batter will be stiff.

Heat oil in a large bottomed skillet with sides. (I prefer non-stick for my frying projects; Rich prefers cast-iron. I will leave that up to you.) To test the oil, drop a dot of the batter into the hot oil; if it sizzles, continue by dropping by teaspoons into the skillet. Cook until browned, then turn the fritters over and cook until that side is brown. This should take no more than 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels to remove excess fat.

The recipe says it makes approximately 12 fritters, but I got closer to two dozen using an actual teaspoon that you use to stir your tea.

 

 

Hipster, Meet Toddler

For the past dozen years I’ve lived in a neighborhood in Boston called Allston. Think Venice Beach, with maybe a touch of St. Mark’s Place. It’s full of students, mustachioed, tattooed hipsters riding bicycles, and there are still punks leftover from the 80s. This year a civic board I sit on for the community built a pop up skate park/vintage market/bike co-op/event space. It’s as weird and wonderful as it sounds.

bea, eating grilled cheese

Being the student enclave, Allston is where you go for cheap eats and to find food from around the world: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Taiwanese, hot pot, Venezuelan, Honduran, Korean, Burmese, Vietnamese, ramen, Lebanese and Indian. It’s got some of the best beer bars in Boston, and a thriving vegan scene. The girls’ day care is also in the neighborhood, in a building just behind some of the best restaurants in all of Allston. There’s Lone Star Taco, where I get my amazing nachos. Deep Ellum, which shares a kitchen and an owner with Lone Star, has incredible beer, remarkable cocktails and it cures its own lox. You’ll never have vegan ice cream like they sell at FoMu any place else. Whole Heart Provisions does this thing with a seared avocado and crispy lentils and za’atar that’s just… wow.

And then there’s Lilli’s favorite restaurant, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. The restaurant started as a food truck; they still are on the road and share the parking lot with Lilli’s daycare. We passed one of the trucks leaving the lot today, and she pointed and said, “Grilled cheese truck!” You can get a cup of tomato soup with your sandwich, or some poutine, or even grab a burger and a nice beer. There’s also an old school Ms. Pac-Man to play, along with a pinball machine.

grilled cheese

As you can imagine, getting out at all is tricky with a toddler and a baby, but I am here to report that, after close observation at Roxy’s, as well as making dozens of them in my own kitchen, I have perfected the grilled cheese sandwich. It’s kind of like America’s Test Kitchen around here, but for grilled cheese. (Rich could write much the same for French toast: frequently requested, hardly ever “actually” eaten, to use the toddler’s new favorite word.)

First haircut

Today I offer tips and tricks from extensive research, rather than a definitive recipe. This is not cave-aged gruyere on artisanal sourdough. My kid eats provolone (“circle cheese”) on challah or white bread. To my own taste, there’s something to be said for rye with a nice, sharp cheese. A college classmate of mine who’s now a junior doctor in London (damn you, Jeremy Hunt!) swears by Munster cheese, although she says it’s impossible to find over there. I know people enjoy caramelized onions, or maybe some mushrooms or sautéed greens. All are good.

On Making A Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I prefer non-stick and Rich prefers his cast iron. Whichever you do, go you low and slow. Put your stove top on medium, then turn it just a touch towards low. Your sandwich might take about 15 minutes to make, but it’s worth the time.

Here’s the big reveal: Instead of buttering the outsides of your bread, use a thin layer of mayo. (Hellman’s if you’re on the East Coast, Best if you’re out West.) Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to measure out how much that would be – a teaspoon? Two teaspoons? A tablespoon? — but I’ve realized it will really depend on what size bread you’re using. But the mayo is what makes the bread that deep brown, and greasy in the best way possible.

I also don’t assemble my sandwich on the counter. Once my bread is shmeared, I turn to my heated skillet, add a generous tablespoon of butter, watch it melt, then put a slice of bread down. Then I add my cheese – at least two slices – then top it with the second piece of bread. Fry that sucker for a good six minutes, then gently lift up a corner and admire how nice and golden it’s turned. Flip with a spatula, slide a second pat of butter on the pan, then cook until golden and gooey.

Finally, and this is key, once you’ve finished making your grilled cheese, quickly remove it from the pan, slice it in half, then prop the two pieces on their side on a cutting board. This will cool it down enough to eat, and will prevent the bread from getting soggy. Then you can proceed to cut it into toddler-sized triangles, or squares, or “squares and triangles” as has been the request this week. (The geometry on that one took me back to high school math.)

on its side

So, yes, fried, mayonnaise-slathered, grilled cheese, for the toddler. Judge away. She’s so tiny that she needs the calories however we can get them in her. And she barely eats half of what we give her, anyhow. Which means we (mostly Rich) gets to eat a lot of grilled cheese. And French toast.