Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Here's pie in your eye!

My freezer is still filled with cookies. For every box, bag and plate I handed out they returned two fold accompanied by baklava, caramel layer cake and Maui Caramacs. Ah... if only my muse would be so forthcoming.

But the cookies are a relatively new addition to my holiday Huzzah. Until now I have slid softly through the Wisconsin winter in a warm pan of sweet potato pie.

(It's how I got my in-laws to love me. I am not above bribery.)
Just after Thanksgiving of this year, I caught a morning show on public radio that was discussing holiday baking. I'm going to cut to the best part: Vodka in the pie crust.

According to the guest and several online sources that could not be wrong, ice cold vodka in place of water adds a necessary ease to the pie crust rolling process. Once the pie is baking, the vodka evaporates away leaving a flaky, tasty crust.

It had to be tested.

Julie Jeff's Oil Pie Crust

One crust pie:

1 C + 2 t. Flour
1/2 t. Salt
1/3 C Oil
2 t. Ice Water (Don't forget to substitute some chilly vodka)

Mix flour and salt, blend in oil with a fork (it ends up looking like a bowl full of pea sized crumbles). Sprinkle water (vodka) over mixture and mix well (till it holds together). Roll between pieces of wax paper.

For a pre-baked shell, prick thouroughly with fork and bake for 12-15 minutes at 400 degrees.

It rolled out beautifully

Now I have to tell you something important. I first tried this nifty vodka trick on Christmas Eve about three and a half hours before an engagement. Just as I was ready to roll out the dough I realized the damn cookies used up all the wax paper. I tore my kids and husband away from the new microscope where they were concentrating on candy cane shards and cat whiskers and sent him off to the store. In the time that it took it seems all the precious vodka had done evaporated away and I was left with a crumbly heap of oily flour.

So if you try this at home, remember to roll the crust out right away, or you may just end up drinking the vodka.

Have you tried vodka in your crust, and if so, how did it turn out? When have you been surprised by an unlikely ingredient and how did you feel about it?  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Far beyond the moon and stars

by Lisa

“Hello, Beautiful,” whispers Max, as he gazes at a cupcake with pink frosting. Anyone already familiar with the bunny named Max and his older sister, Ruby, the lovable creations of children’s book author and illustrator Rosemary Wells, knows that Max has a sweet tooth. In Max and Ruby’s Midas, Ruby tries to teach Max some lessons about good nutrition, in the guise of a somewhat revised but famous Greek myth:
Once upon a time in Ancient Greece there was a little prince named Midas who hated his fruits and vegetables.
The prince Midas scorns such foods as his mother’s olive loaves, prune whip, spinach soup, and carrot muffins, even though his mother warns him, “You must eat a good breakfast, my little pomegranate.” Soon he finds that by focusing “laser-beam eyes” on the detested dish and muttering some magic words, such as “hot fudge sundae,” he can turn the food into sweets. Unfortunately he also turns his mom into a cherry float, his dad into lime Jell-O surprise, and his sister Athena into a slice of birthday cake.

Midas learns his lesson, but does Max? You’ll have to look carefully at the last page of the book to find out.

I still remember the day when our children’s librarian introduced our family to Rosemary Wells, nearly twenty years ago. Throughout our son's childhood, both he and I enjoyed the emotional depth of her characters, the warmth of her illustrations, and the beautiful simplicity of her stories. Of her extensive list of works, which includes several Max and Ruby stories, our favorites were her Voyage to the Bunny Planet Trilogy (First TomatoThe Island Light, and Moss Pillows), all of which feature in some way food as a source of comfort and emotional healing.

In First Tomato, Claire begins her morning by spilling her cornflakes and having her shoes fill with snow on the way to school. At school, she endures two hours of math, and lunch is her “least favorite—baloney sandwiches.” In gym class, she is the only girl unable to do a cartwheel. As Claire sits on a bench in the snow, waiting for a late school bus, we are told that Claire needs a visit to the Bunny Planet:
Far beyond the moon and stars,
Twenty light-years south of Mars,
Spins the gentle Bunny Planet
And the bunny queen is Janet.
Janet says to Claire, “Come in.
Here’s the day that should have been.”
The second half of the book is written in delightful verse, as Claire spends a slow and peaceful summer day picking fresh garden vegetables for her mother, who uses them to make First Tomato Soup.

Each of the other two Voyage to the Bunny Planet titles follows the same pattern. In The Island Light, Felix suffers through being “sick in front of the whole art class,” getting a shot from the doctor, and having his parents forget to kiss him goodnight. On the Bunny Planet, he and his father spend the day together on their lighthouse island, his mother prepares apple pancakes and gingerbread, and Felix falls asleep holding his father’s hand.

Introverted Robert is the featured bunny in Moss Pillows. He is forced to visit his Uncle Ed, Aunt Margo, and their four boys, who all pile on top of Robert at once. He is served cold liver chili for dinner and is forced to hide in the bathroom to be alone. On the Bunny Planet, he is by himself in his
house in a sweet-gum tree,
Where I sing to myself in the whispering woods,
And nobody’s there but me.
He makes a secret recipe for toasted tangerines and lies on a pillow of “emerald moss.”

What foods help you or your children to have the "day that should have been"?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Novels and Cookbooks, We Love Them the Same

On the shelves or in the kitchen, favorite books are easy to spot, with their tattered covers, marked pages, and hand-written notes stuffed between pages.

On our shelves, certain books take up permanent residence because the stories inside grabbed us and lingered, or because their words burned their way into our psyches at pivotal times in our lives. A cracked binding proves the books have been read again and again, and still, we never tire of them. Pages are earmarked, passages are underlined, notes are scribbled in the margins.

Cookbooks in our kitchens often hold the same affections. At least, they do for me. The recipes themselves may not hook me the way a good novel will, but the stories that revolve around each book or each favorite dish listed within are enough to keep those books front and center in my cabinet.

written and illustrated by Linda Allard

The Story: Me, living on the East Side with my good friend living in the apartment building next door. She lived alone, and my boyfriend (to-be-husband) worked second shift. We decided dinners alone were ridiculous, so we shuffled our pantry items together and met up a few times a week to make, and eat, a meal. Communal cooking, except she did most of the cooking. After a while, our meet-ups grew less frequent, but she knew I needed more direction. She gave me this book, with the inscription, "I'm counting on some good meals." I wanted to cook and bake well, if only for her.
My favorite recipes: Basic Tomato Sauce (so easy, I should be cooking some tonight), Marianne's Brownies (I've never found another brownie recipe even close to this good), and Jill's Favorite Pancakes (now our signature dish on breakfast-for-dinner nights).

The Story: Me, twenty-five years old, newly married, working in a small office, still struggling in the kitchen. A Sales Associate, who was new to the office and older than me, wanted to talk one day. She asked me questions about cooking and favorite dishes and such. She must have recognized the look in my eye, must have known that I fumbled in the kitchen most nights. Maybe she remembered her own self and what it was like to want to cook a meal from scratch but not know where to begin. I barely knew her when she gave me the book at that year's Christmas exchange, but she knew me all too well.

My favorite recipes: Honey Mustard Vinaigrette (I feel fancy with my homemade dressing in a glass carafe), Curried Chick Peas and Tofu (a recipe good for sharing), Lemon Date Bars (it's just about time to whip a batch of those babies up again).

presented by the Utility Club in Griffin, Georgia

The Story: Let's just say this book is near and dear to my heart. In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I played dinner hosts to a couple of bachelors from time to time. Our friend Greg brought this book over one night and said his mother gave it to him. "I don't cook, but you're pretty good. I'll loan this book to you if you invite me over for dinner." Pretty good was good enough for me, flattery at its best. I took him up on his offer, promising to give the book back to him when he got married. Years later, after his "announcement," I panicked. I had loved this book dearly, spilled batter on the pages and accidentally torn a few from the binding. I searched online for a replacement, willing to pay $100 if I could only hold on to the book I had. Lucky for me, those ladies in Georgia still kept the book in print.

My favorite recipes: Pumpkin Bread (three whole loaves made from one can of pumpkin, best tasting bread ever), Banana Bread (now affectionately named "Bottom Bread", after the year I added chocolate chips to the mix for my husband's hunting trip and all the chips landed in the bottom of the pan for some strange reason. I've only been able to duplicate that baking feat on purpose), Snickerdoodles (full of butter, so easy, substituting for eggs in this recipe only makes them taste all the more de-lish).

Now, tell us about your favorite cookbooks.
What's your story? 
"Cooking is more than preparing food. Cooking to sustain those you care for, cooking a favorite dish for a favored person, cooking special foods for special occasions -- all involve thoughtfulness and love." ~ Linda Allard, in Absolutely Delicious!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bonus to the Giveaway: A Guest Post by Sandra Beasley

On Tuesday, I gave you a sneak peek at Sandra Beasley's memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. Today, I have something even better: a guest post by Sandra herself, in which she gives us a taste of her poetry, more of her memoir, and a glimpse into her life on the road.


photo credit: Matthew Wordman
I love to eat. And I love to cook. Please trust me on those two things before I tell you the rest: I have severe and lifelong allergies to to milk, goat's milk, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, mango, cucumber, some tree nuts, mustard, some melons, and swordfish. So while yes, I love to eat--and yes, I love to cook--my palate and my recipe book might be a little different from yours.

Since spring 2010, I have been on an endless if exhilarating book tour. Anyone who travels will tell you how merciless it can be on the belly. But when you're traveling with food allergies, the risk goes beyond the realm of gaining five pounds. Whether in New York City (this week), or Madison, Wisconsin (last week), or Miami, Florida (the week before that), I am constantly talking business over lunch or joining hosts for a dinner before a bookstore reading. There is often pressure to try a local specialty or share a plate. In these moments I live in fear of being reduced to a hivey, wheezing, anaphylactic mass. Where will the nearest hospital be? Will my health insurance cover me there?

In "Allergy Girl," a sequence that appeared in my first poetry collection, Theories of Falling, I describe the helplessness my parents felt in trying to feed a newborn while on the road:
My parents agree on one rule: Don't break the baby.
They pour quarters into the arcade game of adulthood,
working the mechanical claw right, left, right, back,
aiming for the stuffed bear, missing. A clutch

of cheesecake. A buttermilk biscuit. Each time
my lips swelling, breath skipping. They pace the E.R.
Did we break the baby? My mother dissects labels:
casein, protein, lactylate. Easier to cook from scratch.
Later, revisiting the incident in Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I filled in the narrative details:
Take the Biscuit Incident: On a trip through Nashville, after hours of
driving with a squalling, hungry three-year-old, they checked into Opryland
and tried to figure out how to quell my growling stomach. My
father’s plate came with a plain-looking biscuit on the side.

“You barely had a crumb,” my mom said, still defensive after all these
years. “We didn’t know it was buttermilk.” I began wheezing and hiving,
spluttering at the liquid Benadryl they tried to ease down my throat. They
waited, watching closely, unsure what to do. After an hour, I calmed
down—probably as much from exhaustion as recovery—and fell asleep.

The next day my father was tied up in a conference, and my mother
would not drive in an unfamiliar city. “The worst part was going back to
that same hotel restaurant the next morning,” she admitted, “and having to
try again. We didn’t know where else to take you.”
Over the years I've developed my collection of short cuts for eating meal after meal after meal on the road. Make sure the server knows "tree nuts" includes pine nuts and pestos. When in doubt, order the french fries. Don't even step into a pizza joint. I've accepted that my cravings might have to yield to my common sense, and I've gotten used to paying full price for an entree stripped of the chi-chi garnishes that justified the $5 upcharge in the first place.

I've spent the last four days in New York. On one level, my index of the trip's adventures reads...

-Food Allergy Initiative's ball at the Waldorf Astoria;
-Meeting with my editor at Crown;
-Date on Cornelia Street;
-Meeting with my assistant editor at W. W. Norton;
-Meeting with my literary agent;
-Interview for TRIP CITY, an online Brooklyn-curated arts salon.

On another level, my mind indexes...

-safe halibut, fancy dessert fruit plate (picked around the cantaloupe);
-hijiki and salmon maki (success!);
-pasta with mussels (convinced the kitchen to switch out an egg-y pasta for linguine);
-quinoa salad (sent back for de-cucumber-ing);
-fried plantains (the Cuban equivalent of my standby, french fries);
-hummus & carrot sticks (good but for $11, I wish I'd been able to eat the pita).

Soon I'll be home, this time for a month. That is an eternity in the vagabond's world. I can't wait to fill my refrigerator with arugula, peppers, avocados, roasted chicken, wild rice. Breakfast? Almonds, bananas, orange juice. Every day: the simple and the Sandra-friendly.

My favorite meal of the last month on the road was not in New York at all. It was actually a bowl of potato-leek soup at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse in Madison, Wisconsin. Not because it was exotic or rich; it was rustic and, if anything, it could have used a little salt. But before ordering I got to look at the hand-lettered index card where the vegan chef had written down the handful of ingredients. I felt taken care of with each hearty, safe spoonful.

Sometimes, your appetite is not for what's exotic or rich. Sometimes, it's the comfort food you need--the comfort that, wherever else the day takes you, it won't be to the emergency room.


Don't Kill the Birthday Girl was a finalist in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Food & Cooking, and Publisher's Weekly calls it an "intelligent and witty memoir." Sandra Beasley is an award-winning poet and the 2011 Writer-In-Residence Howard County's Poetry and Literature Society. Check out her website here, follow her on Twitter, or like her page on Facebook

And, for you Readers...We're still giving away a copy of this excellent book, but you don't have to go clicking around town to enter. To make it easy, leave a comment here if you haven't already dropped your name in the comment section on Tuesday's post. We'll draw for the winner on Monday, December 12th.

How's that for hospitality?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Food Allergies: A sneak peek at a memoir, a chance to win the book.

"...[Food] allergies can be a mere footnote to life -- not the title of the story."

Me and Sandra Beasley at Mother Fool's cool Coffeehouse.
That's what Sandra Beasley wrote in her message to me when she signed my copy of her memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. We'd only just met last Saturday night, but she must have recognized something familiar in my eyes: the angst expression of a mother who's child suffers from food allergies.

Mention birthday party, pot luck, or small-town diner, and my heart skips a beat, in a panic sort of way. Parties, tables of mixed dishes, and a one-griddle restaurant mean one-on-one time with the hostess or the cook. On occasion, I've been known to interrogate a waiter or two, shooting off question after question about menu items and ingredients. I'm still learning the art of being a proactive mother with an air of collaboration. I can learn a lot from Sandra Beasley's calm, "let's work together on this" kind of attitude. I already have.

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl mixes memoir with science and the history of food allergies. I saw myself in passages where she describes her mother ("My mother, the lab scientist. . . . My mother, the detective."), and I so appreciated seeing life with food allergies from the perspective of the person dealing with them directly. When I heard that Sandra would be in Madison, Wisconsin to read at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse, I knew I'd go. It didn't matter the distance, the babysitter fees, nor that nasty rain storm.

My husband and mother-in-law came along, and we met up with (fellow blog author) Victoria. Before Sandra took to reading, she sat down with us, and we shared experiences. Sandra said that she's beginning to meet with camps to help them find ways to meet the needs for kids with food allergies in a way that moves beyond just playing it safe and focuses more on those kids feeling completely a part of...well, everything. I love that. I want my son to go to camp, and he doesn't want me to tag along.

Later, on stage, Sandra read from her memoir and even gave us a sneak peek into her poetry. I was reminded that 1) I will be reading her book again and again, and 2) writing about life experiences helps us see them in a new light, understand them better, and move through the discomfort that sometimes surrounds those experiences.

Here's an excerpt from the introduction in her book:

Don't kill the birthday girl. Leftover omelet clings to the edge of a breakfast plate. Butter greases the stir-fry. Walnuts go commando in an otherwise tame brownie. There's a reason they're call allergy "attacks"; you never know where a food can be lurking.

But those with food allergies aren't victims. We're people who - for better or for worse - experience the world in a slightly different way. This is not a story of how we die. These are the stories of how we live.

I love this book, so much that I'm giving away a signed copy (not my copy, mind you. I barely let my husband hold my copy long enough to read it...). Just drop your name in the comments below and I'll choose a winner on Monday, December 12th. So easy. This book is one you'll want to have on your shelf -- if you're a writer, a person with food allergies, that person's parent or partner, or if you're a cook.

And, we're all cooks, right?