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.

magic-shell

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.

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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.

done

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!

use-a-scoop

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.