You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Cooking’ tag.

The Boulder Book Store is one of six independent bookstores on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder, and with its exposed brick walls, creaky wooden floors, well-stocked oak bookshelves, tin ceilings, and tall windows, it’s a beaut! The only thing missing is a big, ol’ yellow tom cat roaming around.

The Boulder Book Store and the BookEnds Cafe

The Boulder Book Store and the BookEnds Cafe

Located at the west end of the mall, the Boulder Book Store boasts three floors filled with more than 150,000 glorious new and used books. Even better, everywhere you turn you find knowledgeable, helpful staff. Right next door, with easy access from the Book Store, a cafe called BookEnds offers tasty pastries, coffees, teas, and lots of outdoor seating on the mall.  A reader’s Shangri-la. I could have spent hours there. Well…actually, I did.

Doesn't it look inviting?

Doesn't it look inviting?

The Boulder Book Store

The Boulder Book Store

The "Grand Ballroom" on the Third Level

The "Grand Ballroom" on the Third Level

The Book Store also offers writing workshops and author events. While I wasn’t able to attend a writing workshop, Tom and I did get to attend a very informative presentation by local author, Elana Amsterdam. Amsterdam has written a marvelous, recently published cookbook titled The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook of which I now own a signed copy. Self-satisfied smile. She also has a terrific website called Elana’s Pantry with hundreds of gluten-free recipes. Be nice to me, and I might even let you sample some of the goodies I’ll be making from her cookbook and website—that is, once the almond flour arrives from the supplier. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about my gluten-free baking and cooking adventures soon in my other blog, Mary’d With Children. Amsterdam has some truly inspired ideas. I can’t wait to get started!

Amsterdam's New Cookbook

Amsterdam's New Cookbook

This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

“Hi, I’m calling to enroll in the Basic Cooking Skills classes—all four of them. I’d like to enroll my husband, too.”

“Great! Have either of you taken classes here before?”

“Well, my husband hasn’t, but I took a cookie baking class about a year ago.”

“So neither of you has taken the Basic Knife Skills class?”

I was afraid she was going to ask me this, “Ummm, No.”

“Well, we do recommend that you take the Basic Knife Skills class before starting the Basic Cooking Skills series.”

Nuts. I’d read this in the course catalog, but I really didn’t want to pay $120 for the two of us to take a class on how to use a knife. I mean, come on. A knife? Maybe a food processor, but a knife? So I opted to play dumb. “Really? Do we have to take the Basic Knife Skills class before we can enroll in the others?”

She wasn’t going to give me a break. “Truthfully, you don’t have to, but we strongly recommend it,” she said patiently and with great emphasis on the words “have to” and “strongly.”

Rats. Time to come clean. “Yes, I read that in the catalog, but I was hoping to just jump right into the cooking courses. You see, we’re both well over 40 and have been using knives for years. It seems a bit unnecessary.”

“Yes, ma’am. Most people feel that way. But I promise you won’t be sorry if you take the class.”

Big sigh. Not wanting to have a black mark next to my name before ever even starting the classes, I enrolled us in the stupid Basic Knife Skills class.

Crazy, but true, it’s one of the smartest things I ever did.

For years, my mother had been giving me the business about my dull knives. She lived on the other side of the continent by then and wasn’t in my kitchen often, but when she was, she’d mention the inadequacy of my knives every time she cooked with me. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. I managed to put meals—facile meals, but meals—on the table with those knives every single day of the year for twenty-some years. Why couldn’t she just suck it up and use them without giving me such a hard time?

Why, indeed. Once I took the Basic Knife Skills class, I understood why, and I marveled that Mom hadn’t been more militant about the whole thing than she was. Ye gods, she showed restraint!

The course description of the Basic Knife Skills class read, “Any chef or serious cook will tell you there is no substitute for proper knife skills as the foundation for all other cooking skills.” In hindsight, all I can say is, “Amen.” And after taking the class, I would go one step further and add, more specifically, there is no substitute for the right sharp knife, either. For me that knife is a Wüsthof 6½ inch Santuko knife, a knife I learned about in class that night. I seriously can’t cook without it or, at least, without something comparable.

Need an onion diced up? No sweat (and usually only a few tears). With my beloved Santuko and the techniques I learned in the class, I can dice up an onion—or any other veggie or piece of fruit, for that matter—without any drama whatsoever. That was not true BTC (before the class). BTC, it routinely took me way too much time to prepare the ingredients for something as simple as a stew or a salad. Not surprisingly, I often went to great lengths to avoid preparing certain dishes all together just because I didn’t want to go to the hassle of cutting up all the ingredients. Even worse, when I was truly desperate, I would resort to the more expensive and way-less-nutritious option of buying the already-cut-up-and-frozen versions of the ingredients. How silly.

Today, I can mince garlic, dice red peppers and tomatoes, chop carrots and fennel, slice avocados and mushrooms, and chiffonade basil without thinking very hard or spending much time doing it. I have found I truly enjoy the time I spend standing at my cutting board, mincing, dicing, chopping, and slicing. Even though I have since purchased a number of other kitchen gadgets designed to help me cut up ingredients, I still, more often than not, reach for my Santuko.

And I love using words like “chiffonade” and “Santuko.” Tossing the word “chiffonade” into a sentence makes me sound like I know what I doing in the kitchen, even when I don’t (which is often). It impresses my non-foodie friends and gives me the confidence to try new things with food that I would never have attempted BTC.

Today, I live in my kitchen and love experimenting with new recipes and new foods. I’m mortified to think I might not ever have expanded my vocabulary nor my culinary horizons had I insisted on skipping that one class or had I failed to treat myself to the one kitchen gadget I now know is essential to any serious cook.

The woman on the other end of the phone that day was right. The Basic Knife Skills class was a game changer for me. I will be forever grateful. But you must excuse me now. My roasted vegetable ragù is ready to come out of the oven.

Years ago, shortly after advanced age forced Tom’s grandmother from her beloved farm and into town, the women in the family descended upon Grandma’s three-story brick farmhouse to pack her belongings and deep-clean every inch of the house from baseboard to ceiling. I was assigned to the kitchen, starting with the cabinet under the kitchen sink.

Clearing that particular space was an all-together unremarkable task until I got to the back of the cabinet. There, hidden behind the bottles of Fantastik®, Windex®, and Drano®, obscured by the boxes of mouse traps, mothballs, and Brillo® pads, and wedged behind the water and drain pipes, I found a saw. Not a dinky saw. Not a small hand-held hacksaw one might possibly use to cut through chicken bones, but a three-foot long rusted rip saw with half inch teeth from its nose to its handle. A manly saw for manly tasks like building barns or cutting huge branches out of 100-year-old oak trees. What on earth was it doing in Grandma’s kitchen? I couldn’t imagine. I certainly couldn’t imagine tiny, petite, little Grandma ever using the sinister looking implement. It was nearly as tall as she was. I carefully extracted the brute from behind the pipes and stood with it in my hands, staring at it, my mouth open. Then I heard a snicker.

I looked up to see Tom’s cousin, a farm girl, watching me, a smile curling her lips. She waited. My mind raced. What could you possibly use this huge saw for in the kitchen? I have to admit, several of the possibilities—including the ones involving human limbs and deep wells—that danced through my cranium curled my toes. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted, “What in the world is this saw doing here?” By then, others in the kitchen were watching events unfold, and my outburst triggered gales of laughter. Unfortunately for me—however, not unusually when it comes to anything having to do with the farm—I was the only clueless one in the crowd. Luckily, Tom’s cousin was happy to educate me. Too bad she couldn’t stop laughing.

Seems it’s not at all unusual for a farm wife to have just such a saw under her sink. Apparently, she might need it to saw through hog and cow bones when she’s fixing dinner. WHAT?! More laughter. Hey, short of having “City Slicker” tattooed on my forehead, every inch of me screams City Girl. I don’t deny it. And where I come from, meat comes on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane. It had never occurred to me that anyone ever got that close to the actual animal. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Which brings me to cheese. Last summer for my birthday, a dear friend, who had listened to me rave on and on multiple times about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in particular the chapter on cheese-making, very thoughtfully gave me one of the cheese-making kits from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company that Kingsolver talks about in her book. Yes, I freely admit. I did tell this friend (repeatedly) I thought it would be fun to make cheese. Yes, I suppose I did lead her to believe I intended to tackle making a batch of cheese. Was I overstating my intentions? Did I really mean it? Well…

Both Kingsolver and Ricki Carroll, the owner of the Cheesemaking Supply Company, swear making cheese—particularly mozzarella cheese—is child’s play. According to them, you can make up a batch of mozzarella in the afternoon to serve at dinner that night. Uh-huh. I refer you to the paragraph before the last one and the sentence starting, “Where I come from…” only substitute the word “cheese” for “meat” and eliminate the Styrofoam tray. In my world, cheese comes in plastic wrappers. With labels. And nutrition information. Maybe a re-sealable closure. It’s made up in Wisconsin by some fifth-generation Northern European dairy farmer (artisanal) or in a factory (Kraft). In my world, cheese does not come from a pot of hot milk. Jeez. Me and my big mouth. What had I been thinking?

Months passed. Periodically, I’d get the kit out, spread the contents on the counter, read the directions, and then, overwhelmed, shove it all back into the box. From that vantage point, nothing about cheese-making seemed easy. Clearly, Kingsolver and Carroll had been noodling around in the medicine cabinet. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

Then one day early this year, I was having lunch with some other friends, and we got to talking about Kingsolver’s book. The subject of cheese-making came up—much to my chagrin—and I sheepishly admitted to having been given the kit but never having the cojones to try making the cheese. Being the good friends they are, and always open to being bribed with wine, they offered to come over and help me. So, a few weeks later on a cold winter night, with a big metal pot, metal spoons, strainer, cheesecloth, rennet tablets, enzymes, milk thermometer, rubber gloves, a gallon of whole milk, full wine glasses, and the directions before us, we began.

I’ll not go into the step-by-step cheese-making process here, but suffice it to say—with help from my friends—making cheese really was easy. Admittedly, we had one point where we debated whether or not to continue because—based on the dubious looking contents of the pot—we were certain we had screwed up royally, but the wine gave us courage and we decided to plow ahead anyway. I’m certainly glad we did because less than 20 minutes later we had a real honest-to-goodness blob of mozzarella cheese to show for our efforts. Really. Real mozzarella cheese. We even ate it.

Brief pause for a free cheese-making tip: curds and whey do NOT look appetizing; do not be put off by what appear to be little white lumps floating around in dirty water; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, you’ve screwed up; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, more wine is required—for you, not the cheese.

I’ve since made five more batches of mozzarella. Two of them by myself. It’s made me cocky. I’ve started telling everyone I want to try making cheddar next. I don’t learn.

And now my aunt in Australia (my culinary muse) tells me that in an effort at one-upmanship, she and a friend have enrolled in a class to learn to make Camembert. Damn. I guess I’m going to have to put up or shut up about the cheddar. Time to restock the wine rack and call my friends.

Just know, I may make my own cheese—at least mozzarella—but you’ll NEVER find a rip saw under my sink.

I’m pleased to report that the Sticky Date Pudding I served to my book club Thursday night once again elicited moans. I have to be honest, not as many as the last few times I’ve served it, but moans nonetheless. It was a tough crowd. Six of my friends were gathered around the table, juggling at least three conversations, their heads swiveling in an attempt hear every word and morsel of gossip. Under the circumstances, the Sticky Date Pudding was a distraction, albeit a notable distraction; still, The Pudding was not the center of attention as it has been on previous occasions. That’s okay. I had fun making it…and eating it. The next time I make it, I may experiment with a variation of the recipe that I found on the Internet–a titillating version that calls for adding rum to the caramel sauce. That can’t be bad!

Friday night, Tom and I went to Cascone’s, one of our favorite Italian restaurants here in Kansas City–favorite because of the food and because of the memories we’ve made there. Unfortunately, it’s on the other side of the metro area. Every time we go, we say we need to go more often, but then, of course, we rarely do because of the drive. Our loss. Their tiramisu may be the best in the city. I say “may” only because I have yet to try all the other contenders in these parts. I can’t imagine that anyone else’s version of tiramisu is any better–maybe as good or nearly as good–but certainly not any better. I’ll continue my research and let you know. While I’m at it, I’ll sample the lasagnas and cheese raviolis along the way. I know. I’m a giver.

Anyway, Cascone’s is where my parents took the two of us and my future in-laws to celebrate shortly after Tom and I got engaged. Tom and I had only dated a couple of weeks before we got engaged, so our parents hadn’t had an opportunity to meet. Shoot, Tom and I barely had an opportunity to meet. From my vantage point today–28 years later–I can see that the evening was ripe for all manner of disaster, but then I was young, dopey, and head-over-heels in love, and that night, all was right in my world. If any of our parents felt differently, we never knew it. From the beginning, the evening was lovely. Frank Sinatra music played in the background, wine was poured, glasses were raised, and the conversation flowed until the waiter started placing food on the table. We fell silent only long enough to savor the pasta and meatballs and sauces and bread and…Everyone smiled and laughed and got along beautifully. No one pointed out the incredible ludicrousness of our pending nuptials. No one suggested Tom and I might want to slow down before jumping into marriage. No one asked us how we were possibly going to survive on our laughable salaries. No one.

It was the Italian food. Seriously, how can anyone not see the world through rosy, marinara-tinted glasses while enjoying the tang of ricotta and the velvety smoothness of melty Parmesan stuffed between ruffly layers of al dente noodles? You can’t. You simply cannot. The combination of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and cheese is magic, so it was a no-brainer deciding where we would take everyone to celebrate our 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. We were not disappointed then, nor were we disappointed Friday night. Cascone’s is guaranteed memorable evening every time.

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m still dopey, head-over-heels in love which, I suppose, also makes me very lucky.  Even so, I’m grateful my daughter and son-in-law had the good sense to date for a couple of years before getting married. I hope my son will be as level-headed. If he isn’t…if he comes home and tells us he’s marrying a girl he’s only known a few weeks, I’ll…I’ll..I’ll have to head to Cascone’s.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14 other followers