a cake worth requesting

One thing I learned early on about Ed is that he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. But when he likes a dessert, he means it. He’s planned meals around the towering napoleon at Central and he’s been known to beat me to the bottom of the Gifford’s Toasted Coconut Ice Cream. For a long time, though, there weren’t any homemade desserts that grabbed his attention. Sure, he appreciated the key lime pie I made and he happily ate the banana bread I shared, but there was nothing that he ever requested. This was slight torture for me because I was dying to woo him with my own version of his favorite homemade sweets. Imagine my delight when he came home from work raving about a cake his boss baked and he wanted me (!) to make it for him.

This romantic scene was quickly interrupted—he didn’t have the recipe. Or the name of the cake. Or anything more than “it was SO good” and “it had almonds.” He said he asked for the source of the recipe, but didn’t remember the answer. Really good cake will do that to a memory. With so little to go on, the cake request faded to the background and was almost forgotten.

Flash forward a few months. Ed sends me a midday email: “hi. try this. bellaeats.com. search for swedish visiting cake. yum!” A cake. The cake! He’d had that cake on his mind again (see what I mean? the man likes what he likes) and he remembered to ask his boss for the recipe. She sent him to Bella Eats, a gorgeous food blog from Charlottesville.

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jane house chicken

Up until three years ago, I rarely ever cooked for just myself. If I was doing anything more    complicated than toasting a bagel or making ramen, there was a good chance I was sharing–with my college roommates when we moved beyond the dining hall into suites with kitchens (bliss), with the boyfriend who could eat enough for four, or with my family when I was home and eager to show off my skills. I love cooking with and for people–it feels like one of the best, most comforting and concrete ways to show care. But pulling out multiple ingredients and making dinner (and a mess in the process) just for myself is a different story.

When I started living alone for the first time in the fall of 2009, one of the biggest adjustments was how to approach food at home. How much to buy at the grocery store so I wouldn’t continually waste food, something I’ve become fanatical about–even now, when I do think I have a system that works, my fridge usually looks, as one friend put it, like I just got back from vacation…all the time. What I really wanted to eat when it was just up to me. And, how to prioritize making actual meals for myself instead of relying all the time on insta-food and delivery. To my delight, I’ve learned that when I actually take the time to do it I really enjoy cooking just for me. Standing at my counter, sipping wine and snapping the ends off of green beans feels, just as it does when I cook for someone else, like a concrete way of showing care.

But, it’s just too easy not to do it. To instead have a cliched one-off meal of popcorn (one of the true joys of living alone), to order Thai food yet again, to just go out every night of the week. What makes actually taking the time to cook easier, I’ve found, isn’t so much about the meal in the moment–it’s about the leftovers that will make my life easier for the rest of the week. So often, what I have for dinner is motivated by what it will turn into for lunch. Like a recent Monday, when it was just me for dinner but I made a whole pan of Jane House chicken, enough to serve four. At the end of my meal I packed up three little boxes, and just having them in the fridge made me feel so on top of the week.20120925-103507.jpg

This recipe, for chicken baked in a ridiculously easy sauce, is one of the best ways I know to make a dinner that feels like a lot of care for just a little work. I’ve made it for myself, for my sister when she visited me in New York during her freshman year of college and I wanted her to have a taste of home, and for guests. The sauce comes together in minutes, and then all you have to do is let it bake, with an occasional basting. And if you’re a person like me who rarely cooks meat and always wonders if it’s done, this recipe is very forgiving–the sauce keeps the chicken so juicy that you can definitely extend the cooking time (as you check yet again to see if it’s maaaaaybe still just a little bit pink?) .for as long as your worry requires.

Jane House Chicken
before posting this, I checked in with my mother about where the recipe came from. She reckons that she first came across it around 20ish years ago, in the Washington Post. The origins of the name “Jane House” remains a mystery.)

3/4 to 1 lb boneless chicken breasts
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tbs curry powder
1 tbs soy sauce
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/3 cup honey

Preheat oven to 350. Combine sauce ingredients and pour over chicken in an oven-safe dish. Bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, basting occasionally, until chicken is cooked through. Done! I love it over couscous, which soaks up the sauce perfectly, but any favorite grain would do.

out of season comfort food

One of the things I was most looking forward to when I moved to Brooklyn (other than everything) was that I’d finally be able to host the BK friends who’ve had me over for so many delicious meals over the last few years…but who I never really wanted to ask to trek to Harlem for dinner. So I was thrilled to have two of my girlfriends over for dinner just a few weeks after I moved in, and had a lot of fun planning what to make. I decided on a family favorite soup that’s perfect for that part of summer where zucchini seems to be everywhere, and a baked goat cheese dip recipe from Martha Stewart that I had pulled out of a magazine a few months earlier. It would be easy, comforting, and perfect for a mini dinner party.

What I hadn’t considered was that comforting of the creamy soup and baked cheese variety is maybe not what one wants in the middle of the summer in Brooklyn. And that having both the oven and stovetop going when your guests walk into your one air conditioner apartment in July is maybe not ideal hostess behavior. Luckily for me, I have fantastic friends–they laughed, kindly, about how ridiculously steamy the kitchen was and both assured me that they had just been craving “fall food,” being sick of light summer fare. Like I said, fantastic friends.

Happily, the dip (easiest recipe ever: preheat the oven to 350, crumble half of a 4 oz log of goat cheese into a shallow oven-proof dish, pour on enough marinara sauce–I used storebought–to just cover the cheese, sprinkle the rest of the goat cheese on top, and bake for 20-25 minutes until everything is browned and bubbly) was delicious, the soup tasted just as it does when my mother makes it, and we had enough rosé wine to stave off heat stroke. All in all an un-seasonal success, with the addition of one very seasonally appropriate element: the ice cream sandwiches I had made and tucked into the freezer earlier that day, using fresh baked Toll House cookies and vanilla ice cream. A saving grace for any slightly ill-planned meal.

One of the best things about this dinner was how many more meals it made easy: I froze two portions of soup, and cooked the leftover squash (I always seem to buy too much–looking at squash and guessing how many cups I can get out of it is not one of my strong suits) and onion in the rest of the jarred sauce, then froze that as well. And what was left of the goat cheese dip made a fabulous pasta sauce the next day.

Zucchini Soup
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 tbs butter
4 cups cubed yellow squash
5 cups cubed zucchini
2 cans chicken broth (my mom insists on Campbell’s, I’m more flexible)
1/2 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
lemon slices and fresh basil for garnish

In a large pot, saute onion in butter until soft. Add both kinds of squash and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce to a simmer and cook until squash is tender. Let cool slightly, then blend–I use an immersion blender, but you can also use a blender. Return to pot, add about half of the cream and salt and pepper to taste…and keep on adding til you love it! Top each bowl with a thin lemon slice and basil (I always just do lemon). Can be served hot or cold.

broccoli salad beta

I try to follow the rule that you never serve something to guests unless you’ve tested the recipe. I learned my lesson the hard way when I tried to improvise crab dip for an apartment full of people and ended up with gritty mush that tasted like old crabstick. Ever since that wasted tub of lump crab, I practice recipes before banking on them.

Sticking to this rule almost always requires breaking it. Unless you’re content to taste test a vat of lasagna solo, you have to have a hungry audience willing to give an opinion before the dish’s coming out party. The special circle of testers has to be honest, have good taste, and be really forgiving. And nice. Very, very nice, especially to young cooks who are deeply insecure about their cooking chops. When I present a new dish, I like to pretend that I’m all cool and “oh, it was nothing. So easy. I’ll send you the recipe!” Really I’m thinking, “pleasepleaseplease like this. I know it’s too salty/sweet/creamy/dry. Is it too late to take this back? What if there’s a dog hair in there?!?! Why am I blushing?” But then I take a breath and relax. I’ve been through the routine before. As trite as it sounds, I know that even if they don’t love it, they’ll still love me.

My discerning and unfailingly kind boyfriend, Ed, is my primary taste tester. I know I have a winner when he declares, “I could eat this once a week. It’s that good.” I know it’s back to the drawing board when he says something “has a nice spice.” It’s his gentle way of saying, “there’s only one flavor in here that’s borderline tolerable and I am teetering on that border.”

My parents have been my taste testers for years and have done their best to protect my feelings. My dad, a lifelong picky eater, has a lot of experience avoiding food he doesn’t like. He mushes and minces his serving to create enough white space to fool the unwise into thinking he’s had a few bites. On the other hand, if he likes it, he actually cleans his plate. My mom will sing and dance and mmm-mmm-mmm through every bite if she’s a fan. If she’s not a fan, she has two moves: 1. she evades giving a thumbs down by playing the objective reporter: “when did you add the onion?” “Is the baking powder old?” or 2. she goes silent. While everyone else is chatting, she will take a bite or two, sneak to the trashcan, and scrape her plate.

Ed’s family is my newest set of taste testers. I haven’t decoded each member’s tells yet, but I have certainly tested the bounds of their politeness. They have cheerfully gnawed through rubbery corn muffins and remained stoic after being socked by too-garlicky potato salad. Despite some near misses in recent memory, my average with them must be over .500 because they didn’t hesitate to heap mounds of this beta version broccoli salad on their plates. We settled in to eat and my inner weakling started her whining, “the garlic is too brown – it’s bitter! This tastes like oil! Why are my palms sweaty?” I told myself to please be quiet. I fiddled with my silverware, trying not to stare at the family as they took their first bites. I listened with hope/fear: crunches, followed by mmmmms, followed by forks hitting plates to spear more, followed by a flood of praise. Success. This recipe’s a keeper.

I adapted this slightly from one of my favorite cookbooks, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark.

Garlicky Sesame-Cured Broccoli Salad
Makes about 5 side servings.

1 ½ tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
About 2 lbs broccoli (that’s about 2 heads or 1 freakishly large head from your CSA), cut into bite-size florets
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed or minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1. Dissolve the salt in the red wine vinegar. Pour over broccoli and toss to combine.

2. Flavor the oil: heat the oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Don’t let your garlic get too brown or it will taste bitter. A little toasty is okay.

3. Remove from heat and add sesame oil and red pepper flakes. Pour over broccoli and toss.

4. Chill until ready to serve, at least 2 hours. Taste for salt and more red pepper before serving. (If you’re going to serve it in the short term, Clark recommends leaving at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving. For long-term planners, Clark advises chilling it up to 48 hours.)

very large broccoli

sharing food while far away

Today is my little sister’s 30th birthday, which I can’t quite believe–she’s the baby! Tho, given that “the baby” is barely 20 months younger than me and I’m rounding 32…here we are. I wanted her to come to New York so I could throw her a fabulous party, but instead she had to go to Germany for a science conference. So I can’t do what I would like to do to celebrate her (see her in person, bake her a cake, chat all day) but I can send her emails and fbook messages, and I can make this recipe she taught me for eggplant parmesan.

Growing up together on our mother’s awesome home cooking and the special food we only had when our father was in charge of dinner (cut up hotdogs fried in butter spring to mind…), my sister and I have endless food associations and memories. I learned to love mushrooms when she was a vegetarian and wondered how on earth she could dislike coconut and peanut butter when we were kids. We twirl our forks in the same way when we’re fidgety at the table. And since we’ve gotten older, we’ve shared cooking successes and failures, talking on the phone while we grocery shop or make dinner. Our recipe repertoires overlap so much that we often find we’re making and craving the same thing–I remember visiting her in Alabama for the first time and realizing that, tho we’d never talked about it, we both kept our recipes in white three-ring binders on our counters, and that each of us had my friend Molly’s mother’s recipe for sausage and cream pasta on a handwritten card stuck into the cover of the binder.

And, we share new recipes. Whenever one of us makes something delicious for the first time we pass it on, as Joie did with this eggplant parm recipe she picked out of one of our mother’s healthy cooking magazines on a visit home. She’s a much more experimental and adaptive cook then I am (I stick like obsessive glue to recipes, but I’m working on it), so when I ask her to share a new favorite I know I’ll seldom get an exact copy of someone else’s recipe. And sometimes, she rewrites recipes in a way that is almost more fun than the food itself…as demonstrated by the recipe below that she emailed me several years ago. So tonight I made her eggplant parm, along with some kale (sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice), and toasted my sister who is far away in Germany, but also as close as the next thing I cook.

joie’s eggplant parm, in her own words

you take mr. eggplant-1 medium to large good lookin’ fella will do ya, and slice him up into about 1/4 inch thick rounds.

then you brush the slices w/ the olive oil, sprinkle them w/ the garlic salt and the pepper.

then you apply the storebought italian breadcrumbs to the slices via your own chosen method, i favor shaking a bunch of breadcrumbs out onto a plate and then pushing the eggplant slices into them.

do both of these steps on both sides.

thennnnn you wanna lay out all of your slices on a cookie sheet & place them under the broiler (i think the recipe says something like 5″ from it?) for about 5 minutes per side (you’ll need to watch them rather carefully because they do like to burn a little on top, but if they do, it’s not that big of a deal, you can’t taste it, really).

then you take about a fourth of a cup of storebought marinara sauce and spread it around on the bottom of your 9×13 glass baking dish.

then you layer your eggplant slices on top of that.
then you toss on top as much of a jar of drained and chopped up roasted red pepper slices as you desire (I think they call for a full jar, and that is a LOT).
then you sprinkle around 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes if you’re into that sort of thing.

then you spread around some more marinara then you top with about 2 cups shredded mozzarella and however much parm you desire for i cannot remember how much it is supposed to be.

and then bake him uncovered, at 325 until delicious, or somewhere around 40 minutes. mostly you just want the cheese good and melty.

et voila!!

an unintimidating little cake

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About four years ago, I had my food blog awakening. I wish I could remember how I first came across food blogs, but all I recall is a bleary-eyed period marked by hours of searching and clicking and bookmarking. I was drawn in by voices coming out of kitchens in NYC, Paris, and Seattle, among other places. These bloggers were humble and they seemed to intuit novice cooks’ insecurities, yet all of their recipes looked. So. Good.

That’s also when I started cooking somewhat regularly. I was in the middle of my twenties, had just adopted my sweet pup, Tenley, had a 9-to-5-ish job, a properly upholstered couch, and was starting to feel like an adult. Prior to this time, although I loved food, my appearances in the kitchen were sporadic: a random batch of cookies here, some chili there, and a whole lot of microwavable Amy’s. Now that I had a regular schedule and evenings in with Tenley, I started spending quality time in my kitchen…and hours down the food blog rabbit hole.

tenley at a young age

I had enough cooking experience to know that I loved baking, but I also knew that there were a lot of sweets out of my league. Luckily for me, the bloggers I admired (and still admire) had plenty of simple treats tucked into their recipe archives. I trusted myself with loaf cakes and their brethren: tea bread, busy day cakes, and quick breads. These little cakes are usually fairly basic in their ingredients and technique, so they didn’t intimidate me. I still love cakes in loaf form. I regularly star them on my reader, pin them, and dog-ear them in magazines. For not a lot of effort, you get something homey that’s perfect for breakfast, snack, or dessert. The french yogurt cake here is just the sort of thing I would have tried in 2008 and it was the first thing I bookmarked in last May’s Bon Appétit.

The magazine described this as a “tender, lemony riff on a simple pound cake.” That’s about right. It’s moist with a subtle lemon tang, but the pound cake in its DNA makes the texture less delicate than its flavor. That can be a good thing if you need a vehicle for blueberry sauce, as this cake will hold up under a heavy pour. I found that on its own, the cake had a bit more chew than I wanted. Some of the comments on the Bon website criticize the cake for being too salty, but I liked how the salt made its presence known every so often. This cake won’t knock your socks off, but it is satisfying, both for cake cravings and baking urges. I don’t know that I will make this again anytime soon, not because it wasn’t tasty, but because there are so many other sweet little loaves out there to try.

You can find the recipe for this french yogurt cake here. It’s best on its first day, when the top is sweet and crunchy, but it’s also dandy on days two, three, and four, when the top softens and the cake seems more moist.