Law & Order: Pregnancy Brain Unit

Well then. Now that a certain almost-one-year-old is walking, I thought I’d share another story from my pregnancy.

Whether or not pregnancy brain does exist is an argument people have been having for years. But the week I lost both my wallet (on the T, no less) and my keys, I started to become a believer. First, I should say that my wallet was brought to a manager at the T and I was able to pick it up at the end of the line. And not a dime was missing; I didn’t have to replace my monthly T pass or any of my debit cards. It’s nice to know you can still count on the kindness of strangers.

And the keys? Well, the keys were a different story. I was picking up some groceries at the local market one Sunday afternoon last fall. I usually use the self-checkout, but that day I went to a cashier aisle. I unloaded my cart, handed her my key ring with the savings card looped through it, and turned to let the bag boy know that I’d brought my own bags. I turned back around, paid my bill and walked to the car.

When I got to the car I realized the cashier hadn’t given me back my keys. I went back in and walked right up to the register. “No,” she said, “I gave you back your keys.” I honestly couldn’t remember if she had, and since I’d lost my wallet less than a week earlier, I took her at her word. But the thing is, I really didn’t remember her handing them back to me. The cashier then very dramatically passed keys back to her current customer. I knew we did not have that interaction.

slurp slurp

I went back to the car. I dug through my bag. Nothing. I went back inside. “Could you please just check around your register? I know I might have pregnancy brain, but I swear you didn’t give me back my keys.” And round and round I went.  For over fifteen minutes it was in and out, in and out, searching my bag, and hounding the cashier.

Outside the supermarket was a table of Boy Scouts selling bags of popcorn as a fundraiser for their troop. And so, every time I went in and out, these two Boy Scouts, Tommy and Nicky, would introduce themselves. They were either working on their perseverance merit badge or had some sort of short-term memory problem, because Tommy and Nicky must have reintroduced themselves to me at least five times! There was a point when the mom standing with them asked them to stop pestering me.

Finally, after several rounds with the cashier, my Law & Order training kicked in. I looked down at my receipt and went to the manager who had been watching my back and forth. “My receipt is time-stamped. I know you have cameras in here. Could you please go to the video in the back room and rewind the film to this time on the receipt and see what actually happened at this register?” DUN DUN.

He took pity on me, this sweaty, out-of-breath pregnant lady, and went to the back room doors. A few minutes later he emerged. “OK,” he said to the crowd that had formed, “here’s what happened: You gave her your keys, and then you turned to talk to the bagboy. While you were turned, she put your keys down on the counter, and the person in back of you put his wallet on top of your keys. He unloaded his cart, and picked up his wallet, and unwittingly, your keys, at the same time, and pocketed them.” DUN DUN.

Thank goodness the unintentional key snatcher came back to the store within a half hour and returned my keys to the Courtesy Desk. I finally had my keys back. And, on the way out of the store for the final, final time that day, I stopped and bought a grossly marked-up, five-pound bag of popcorn kernels from Tommy and Nicky. Their mother assured me that 70% of the sale went directly to their troop, but I still felt pretty gouged by the price, which I’m not going to bother mentioning here.

buttered popcorn cookies

So long story short, I had my keys back, but I also had a very expensive, five-pound bag of popcorn. And so what does a frazzled pregnant woman do with all that popcorn? She goes to the smitten kitchen cookbook, which had just come out at the time, and I made these Buttered Popcorn Cookies. DUN DUN.

Buttered Popcorn Cookies from the smitten kitchen cookbook

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil

¼ cup (45 grams) popcorn kernels

¼ teaspoon table salt

1 Tablespoon butter, melted

½ cup (115 grams or 1 stick) butter, softened

½ cup (95 grams) packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar

1 large egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Make Popcorn: Pour the oil over the bottom of a large saucepan that has a lid and add the popcorn kernels, shimmying the pan around so the kernels land in one layer. Cover the pot, heat it over medium-high heat, once the kernels begin to pop, keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 to 7 minutes total. Toss the table salt and then the melted butter over the popcorn, then transfer it to a bowl so that you can fish out any unpopped kernels. You should have about 4 to 4½ cups of popcorn. Let cool.

2. Mix Dough: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour and baking soda together. Stir the combined dry ingredients into the butter-sugar mixture. Fold in the cooled popcorn so that it is evenly distributed through the batter, which will seem like a ridiculous instruction because there is so much popcorn and so little cookie batter, but it works. Don’t worry if the popcorn breaks up a bit. The mixed-size pieces are part of the cookie’s charm.

3. Bake cookies: Scoop heaping-teaspoon-sized mounds 2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are light brown. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up before transferring them to a rack to cool.

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He Had a Hat

Let me begin this with a classic Jewish joke: A Jewish grandmother takes her baby grandson to the ocean for the first time. For the occasion, she has dressed him in a smart little sailor outfit. Without warning, a large wave folds over the young boy and swoops him out into the ocean. The grandmother looks up at the sky, “Please God, save my grandson. I will do anything if you return him to me. I will pray daily, I will volunteer weekly. Please God, I will do anything.” In a flash, another wave hits the beach, and the grandson washes up on the sand. The grandmother looks the boy over, then looks up at the sky and says, “He had a hat.”

gooey cinnamon bars

For Chanukah this year, my parents sent me The Smitten Kitchen cookbook. (My dad in Jerusalem sent me Jerusalem; more on that later.) Deb’s magnum opus really is fantastic. We’ve enjoyed the cranberry crumb bars with mulling spices, and the slow-cooker black bean ragout. And last Friday, I made the gooey cinnamon squares. These really are a revelation. They are part snickerdoodle, part gooey butter cake, with a cinnamon top that’s a bit like crème brûlée. As Deb explains, “The base is slightly more cake than cookie, the topping is a cross between a toasted marshmallow and cinnamon toast, and if you just read that and haven’t shut this book to make this happen in your kitchen immediately, I’ve failed.”

So I made them. They were fantastic. But I have one quibble. The way the recipe is laid out in the cookbook is, well, it’s frustrating. On the first page is Deb’s wonderful story about her love of snickerdoodles, and in a column running alongside the story are the ingredients for two parts of the recipe. But to see what to do with said ingredients, you have to turn the page for the actual recipe directions and the cooking notes. So, I found myself flipping back and forth to make sure I had all the right ingredients for each section.

So yes, these bars are a miracle. But Mr. Cookbook editor, he had a hat.

Notes: If you’re feeling a little queasy at the thought of using corn syrup, or if you’re in England (Hi, Bloom cousins!), both golden syrup and honey work equally well.

cat and bars

Gooey Cinnamon Squares from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

Ingredients

Soft Cookie Base

8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature. Plus more for the pan

1 ½ cups (188 grams) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

½ teaspoon baking soda

(Or, Deb says, substitute 2 teaspoons baking powder for the soda and the cream of tartar.)

¼ teaspoon table salt

¾ cup (150 grams) sugar

1 large egg

¼ cup (60 ml) milk

 Gooey Layer

¼ cup (60 ml) light corn syrup, golden syrup, or honey

¼ cup (60 ml) milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

12 Tablespoons (170 grams or 1 ½ sticks) butter, at room temperature

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) sugar

¼ teaspoon table salt

1 large egg

1 ¼ cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour

 Topping

2 Tablespoons (25 grams) sugar

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

Directions

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch cake pan with at least 2-inch sides with parchment paper and either butter the paper and sides of the pan or coat them with a nonstick spray. Set aside.

Prepare the cookie base

Whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the 8 tablespoons butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and the milk, and beat until combined, scraping down bowl and then beating for 10 seconds more. Beat in dry ingredients until just combined.

Dollop cookie base over the bottom of the prepared pan and spread it into an even layer with a butter knife or offset spatula. Set pan aside.

Prepare the gooey layer

Whisk liquid sweetener, milk and vanilla together in a small bowl and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, scrape down the sides of bowl, and mix for 10 seconds more. Add 1/3 of flour and mix, then ½ of vanilla mixture and mix. Repeat again, twice, until all of the flour has been mixed until just combined. Dollop over the cookie base and spread carefully with an offset spatula or butter knife.

Make the topping

Mix the sugar and cinnamon in a tiny dish and sprinkle it over the entire gooey layer. It will be thick but will come out of the oven almost like a crème brûlée lid, i.e.m awesomely.

To bake and serve

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the cookies have bronzed on top. The gooey layer will rise and fall in the oven but will still be a bit liquidy under the cinnamon crust when the squares are done. Let cool completely on a rack, then cut into 1-inch squares.

These square keep at room temperature for at least a week.

It Rises to the Top

In September, right around the time that my friend Gayle wrote to tell me about a hand-me-down cookie contest in Edible Boston, Nana Parr had a mild stroke. She’s OK, really she is, but she had to move into an assisted living center, which meant giving up her oven, and, with that, her cookies.

cream scones

I’m really thankful I baked with her last fall, and I guess Edible Boston was too, because Nana’s cookie recipe was one of the winners of the contest. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a physical copy that I can bring up to Nana, but we were able to track it down online for you all to see.

As delicious as those sugar cookies are — and I promise you, they really are something — they are a bit involved. There’s the pastry cloth and all the rolling, but they’re totally worth it, a crowd favorite since my husband brought them to kindergarten nearly 30 years ago.

But when I’m squeezed for time and still want to bring a pastry somewhere, I’ve been turning to these scones. I’m embarrassed to admit how simple they are. Let me put it this way: By the time I clean up the food processor and wipe down my counter, they are ready to come out of the oven. It’s a 20 minute recipe, from start to finish. You can keep it proper and use currants, like I did in the photo. I’ve also used chopped candied ginger and some lemon zest, and baked one batch with chopped dried cherries.

making scones

They were a hit at a baby shower I went to a few weeks ago. (Hi Lucas Lee Gideon! Can’t wait to meet you!) You don’t need a pastry cloth to make these, although a food processor does make this recipe a cinch. (And no, I still haven’t found the missing piece.) It’s an ancient recipe from Smitten Kitchen, who found it in The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It’s become a go-to recipe of mine, and now it’s time to share it with you.

A couple notes: Because the recipe calls for chilled butter, I always cube mine and toss it in the freezer as I assemble all my other ingredients and preheat the oven. Also, if I know I’m bringing these for a crowd, I cut each scone in half an additional time so that I end up with 16 cute mini-scones.

Cream Scones

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 Tablespoon baking powder
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup currants
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425°F.

Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in large bowl or work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Whisk together or pulse six times.

If making by hand, use two knives, a pastry blender or your fingertips and quickly cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few slightly larger butter lumps. Stir in currants. If using food processor, remove cover and distribute butter evenly over dry ingredients. Cover and pulse 12 times, each pulse lasting 1 second. Add currants and pulse one more time. Transfer dough to large bowl.

Stir in heavy cream with a rubber spatula or fork until dough begins to form, about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough and all dry, floury bits to countertop and knead dough by hand just until it comes together into a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Form scones by either a) pressing the dough into an 8-inch cake pan, then turning the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, cutting the dough into 8 wedges with either a knife or bench scraper (the book’s suggestion) or b) patting the dough onto a lightly floured work surface into a 3/4-inch thick circle, cutting pieces with a biscuit cutter, and pressing remaining scraps back into another piece, and cutting until dough has been used up.

Place rounds or wedges on ungreased baking sheet and bake until scone tops are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.