What’s Cooking?

My Father, good man that he is, is not what I would call, kitchen savvy, and he’ll admit to that freely. For the most part, to him the kitchen is a place containing cupboards, various utensils, pots, pans, and boxes of stuff that magically transform into delicious things to eat. As he sees it, if the right person enters this place and does steamy things over the stove, wonderful dinners and desserts appear which he most enthusiastically enjoys. It’s not that he doesn’t’ appreciate good cooking. He most definitely does! But quote him, “When I look in the kitchen, it just looks like boxes of stuff to me.” And he’s in awe when others take these things and create lovely food. It’s just not how his brain reacts to canisters of flour, sugar and baking powder… with a single exception that I can recall…

Pancakes. Dad and I made a lot of pancakes together when I was a kid. He’s good at those. It was in the Betty Crocker book.

I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in the little galley kitchen at my home in New Hampshire. Most of those memories are of me standing on a chair at the edge of our tiny stretch of counter, asking my Mom if I could have a turn with the rolling pin or the cookie cutters or kneading the dough. She was always happy to have me there hogging up what little extra room the tiny kitchen provided. Now that I have inquisitive young children of my own, I utterly and completely understand how paining it often is to answer, “Sure. You have a try.” when all you really want to do is get whatever you’re making into the oven and sit the heck down for a couple of minutes after you race through clean up. She frequently let me have a go at what ever she was doing and I’ll always be thankful to her for that.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the counters covered with dustings of flour, measuring cups spread across the back like little Russian nesting dolls awaiting their chance to be filled, scraped flat at the rim and upended into the big crockery mixing bowl. It was a lot of fun for a kid who was always up for messing about with ingredients and hot surfaces and my Mother has told me on more than one occasion that I informed her from an early age that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.

Though that never happened professionally, (at least not yet, anyhow) the kitchen has remained one of my favorite places to spend my day, exhausting as it often is. I like cooking and very much love baking and do both often.

In a little, low cabinet in my Mother’s kitchen live the recipe books, and there are many to choose from. Some bound, most assembled with hand written cards and others from torn out magazines articles or snipped from newspapers, but growing up, her master reference tome was always the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. It had been a gift from her own mother when she and my father set up house together.

Betty Crocker

I can clearly picture it laying open on the counter, scraps of paper protruding from the top to mark various pages dusted with the puffs of errant ingredients. To me, the best part was looking in the margins, many filled with notes in her beautiful cursive script noting substitutions, thoughts on cooking times or more often, when to double the laughably small quantities of frosting allotted for various desserts. On more than one occasion upon revisiting this tome as an adult, I have taken a moment to poke through and see what can be found as far as Mom’s kitchen thoughts. It always makes me smile and there is one recipe in particular I tend to look for. It’s located on the left hand page and it’s for a cookie called “Jubilee Jumbles.”

Jubilee Jumbles are a wonderful little puff of dessert with a delicious butter icing to cap it all off. They have the consistency of something between soft bread and cake but the sweetness of a glazed doughnut… but better. They are special to me for more than just their deliciousness, however.

This is where my Dad comes in. With the approach of some mom specific celebration day, (Mother’s Day or possibly her birthday. I forget now), my kitchen novice Father had the great idea that we should make Mom chocolate chip cookies. Who doesn’t love those, right? Both of us had seen her make them dozens of time and we were sure we could pull this off before she came home from where ever she had gone for the afternoon. After all, we had Betty to guide us! Mrs. Crocker would never let us down! We’d follow her recipe to the letter and it would be great!

With the confidence that only comes from naivety, my dear Father and I launched into the project with gusto. The book was found and “chocolate chip cookies” was looked up and the book propped open to the page. Within minutes, ingredients were pulled from their hiding places, the oven was preheated, mixing happened and flour flew. My Dad, who is not known for his studious direction following ability, bent hard to the task and, against his nature, forced himself to focus with laser like determination on not getting his eye off the ball and winding up with a bowl full of batter only good for setting fence posts or spackling the ceiling. He was going to follow this thing to the letter if it killed him and I did my best scurrying about to fetching him whatever the book said to add next.

We first became suspicious when, as he slid the tray into the oven, one of us pointed out that there had been no chocolate chips added to the chocolate chip cookies. Neither of us were experts in the culinary arts, me being a kid and Dad being… Dad, but we were both pretty sure that chocolate chips were a fairly fundamental part of chocolate chip cookies. It’s right there in the name, after all. This required some reflection. Did we forget a step? Dad looked over the cookbook. He examined the chocolate chip cookie recipe and noted that, yes, it did indeed call for chocolate chips, but… that the recipe for those particular cookies was located on the right hand page, while the recipe we had been following so studiously was indeed, on the left. We were off the map! What had we made?!? This was uncharted territory. Dad’s laser like focus seemed to have been focused on the wrong page.

So, we did what we had to. We kept on rolling and soldiered on and out of the oven came Jubilee Jumbles, just as Betty Crocker had intended. We followed her every instruction and the result was a beautiful and delicious, if albeit, unintentional cookie. When Mom heard the story, she loved it so much that she noted it right there in the margin of her cookbook and it has provided our family an entertaining chuckle for all these years.

In my own kitchen a few days ago, I found my self rummaging around in the cookbooks for something new to make. I was feeling in a rut with my dessert selections and thought it was time to find something else. When this happens, rather than turning to the internet, I tend to look backwards in the browning pages of forgotten recipes. I find that very comforting somehow. I reached for my own copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook to see what I could find. My addition, a gift from my Mother some time ago, is a copy from 1950 and she inscribed to me in the front cover in her fluid, perfect handwriting and I love reading that whenever I open its cover. Thumbing through its delicate pages, I stumbled across a cookie called “Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing” and paused to read the ingredients list. I read it again and then skimmed the directions. Ironically, this particular recipe in the Betty Crocker’s “Picture” Cookbook had no picture but since I love to bake and do so often, in my mind I could see what this would make. These were the family famous cookies! These were Jubilee Jumbles! I hadn’t thought of them in years and having long moved from my Parent’s home, hadn’t had those little delightful cookies in decades. Gleefully, I set out to make them and was eventually rewarded with the puffy, sweet cakes that I remember from that day Dad and I followed the wrong recipe. The burnt butter icing, as I quickly found out, was far too little to cover all the cookies and after making a second batch, I pulled out my pencil to scribble just that in the margins.

My handwriting is nothing compared to my Mother’s.

I’d have to call her to ask for the exact wording of what she has written in her own copy of Betty’s book, but I can tell you this, I bet that in addition to the short note about how Dad and I made these for her by accident, it says to double the icing. As I looked at the page in my own book, I decided to add an additional editorial of my own.

“I know these as Jubilee Jumbles. A favorite in our family for decades. -2013”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think its time for some cookies and milk.

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Eating Out of the Ice Box

Well, it finally arrived. Summer has descended on our little island and the thermometer has finally managed to stay in the 80’s for more than two days in a row. For me, that’s quite hot enough, thank you very much. It’s not that I haven’t’ experienced hotter living, I have. It’s just that loath it. My blood is made up of equal parts molasses, crude oil and taffy and hot weather just makes me more and more sloth like until I finally fall whimpering from my tree branch and sizzle to death in the sun. It’s sort of the reverse of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather than melt when doused with water, I simply combust in direct sunlight.

Naturally, I had carefully chosen a profession that would keep me in close proximity to insanely hot industrial kilns for days at a stretch. I maintain that I managed to keep my weight down mainly through water loss and since I sold my business some time ago, I think there might be something to that. I seem to be getting rounder by the day.

It might have been the sweating, or it might be the fact that I’ve been enjoying being at home with my kids and have made a concerted effort to keep the cookie jar full at all times. It’s not easy. I seem to be just as adept at emptying the thing as filling it.

With the warm sun pounding on the roof like a troublesome neighbor who knows you’re home and won’t go away, I was confronted with the fact that I… I mean, WE needed more cookies, but what? I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for firing up the oven and the no-bake cookies that I love tend not to fair so well in the jar if it’s hot for too long. Then I thought of a childhood favorite that I hadn’t had in ages.

I love remembering half forgotten stuff from my childhood because it gives me a chance to introduce it to my kids. Lulu Belle is still too young to remember things that happen in her life at the moment, but Short Stack will. It was time to introduce him to Grammy’s Ice Box Cookies. I had him in mind with this recipe for a variety of reasons.

First, they are his size. Perfect for small hands.

Second, they are fun because they look like little hamburgers.

Third. Chocolate.

To those whom know him, I need say no more.

So what is an Ice Box cookie, I hear you ask (Thanks for asking, by the way)? It is made of just three ingredients, requires no baking and is delicious simplicity.

Melt one bag milk chocolate chips with one can sweetened, condensed milk.

Once mixed, remove from heat.

Lay out most of a box of Nabisco ‘Nilla Wafers (and I hate to say this, but Nabisco ‘Nilla wafers are really the way to go. The other vanilla wafers just don’t do it justice) and put a blob of chocolaty goodness on a wafer and then top with another wafer. When you run out of chocolate and wafers, (it will take close to two boxes) toss them in the fridge and let them sit for an hour or so.

This is what you get.

iceboxcookies

On the list of great moments in kitchen Olympics, this hardly rates even as a warm up. These things are pretty much the definition of “stupid-easy” but MAN, are they good on a warm summer day! The name alone ought to give you an idea how long they have been around in my family. “Ice box cookies” was the name given to them by my Great-great grandmother and though I never met her, I am eternally grateful to her for concocting them. The recipe is so basic that whether she came up with them on her own or copied them from someone else is impossible to prove. I don’t care. I just like to eat them.

As it turns out, Short Stack does too! I’ve never known my boy to back away from a chocolaty treat and if he does, I’ll know that the aliens has swapped him with a spy robot. Short Stack has now fully embraced the notion of “helping” whenever I’m doing something and cooking, as with most kids, really gets him excited. The beauty of these little morsels is that they are the perfect first recipe for young kids. He’s not old enough to use the stove alone, but with supervision, he has a blast and later, can enjoy “his” cookies.

So summer cookies from his Great-great-great grandma, direct to his happy, round belly.

Now all I have to do is explain what an “ice box” is to him.
That ought to be interesting.

On the other hand, given enough cookies, he might not care!

Eating to Live or Living to Eat

Part of my job as a father of two young children, is to dispose of perfectly good peas.

As a general rule, I loath waste and though my wife professes to as well, she is also very skittish about any food item that could have possibly come in contact with an individual mold spore or, God help us, was over a week old. This is a personality trait that often times come in direct, diametric opposition to my own edible food criteria. For me, so long as it’s not trying to escape or is three distinct shades paler than it was when it was newly made, I’m pretty much game for eating it.

The root of our individual viewpoints comes, I believe, in the way we view food in general. Though I can appreciate, even wax poetic, about some meals (an octopus soup enjoyed in Belgium, springs to mind), I tend to view food as fuel. Though I prefer delicious fuel to cardboard flavored, I’m of the mind that both will get you where you want to go, so it’s no big deal to say… eat the exact same peanut butter and honey sandwich for sixteen days straight or to simply go for the english muffin with peanut butter every single morning for four years. It’s fast, easy, and fits the bill, though I do tend to go though a hell of a lot of peanut butter. I call it being practical. She calls it, “Eeeaugh”

Not so, Action Girl. She is of a different sensibility. She would rather go with out rather than eat the wrong thing. This is manifestly, a bad idea and though I love my wife with all my heart, if there is one thing that will transform the bubbly woman I’m married to into a blond haired, blue eyed hand grenade, it would be “lack of food”.

Action Girl is one of those individuals whose attitude toward the word is directly connected to the contents of her stomach. If it is filled with a fine meal, delicately made and thoughtfully assembled, then she could pretty much shrug off the house burning down. Let her skip lunch and then be foolish enough to enter the room, and the best you can hope for a swift and moderately painless death.

I have two sets of photographs to back this claim; both taken over seas when eating patterns were erratic and unpredictable. The first was taken on a trip to Bavaria where we were staying in a small village, nestled in an Alpine valley. When we discovered that bicycles could be rented and that you could pedal to Linderhof, a palace built by Ludwig II, we jumped at it. It wasn’t a hard ride on paper, only about ten kilometers. What they didn’t point out was that it was all up hill. Not a huge incline, to be honest, perhaps only about three or four percent, but it never once let up. Couple that with less than optimal bikes, a somewhat rough gravel path and you get a tougher than expected ride. We weren’t creampuffs when it came to biking and did manage the ride without having to wuss out and take breaks, but it was harder work than we had anticipated doing, fueled only by a light breakfast. Once we arrived, we immediately toured the palace and grounds, partly to beat the bus loads of camera toters that we saw in the parking lot but also for the sheer joy of walking on our own feet and giving our beaten-up our behinds a rest from sitting.

By the time we had exited the palace and seen the famous gardens and grotto, it was well past lunch. I had been nibbling on granola bars and though Action Girl had one too, she opted to wait for a proper lunch.

Bad plan.

Here’s where the photos come in. The first I took is of my lovely wife sitting on a bench in an amazing garden. If you look very, very closely, you can almost make out the black cloud that is hovering inches over her head. There might have even been flickers of lightning in there. In short, she does not look like a person enjoying things. Only the most inept and unobservant pan handler or pigeon would attempt to beg something from her. Not doubt with dire consequences. The next photo on the roll is of Action Girl again. This time she is swinging, one armed from a lamp post a la Fred Astaire. A joyful smile spreads across her face and the rain cloud is nowhere to be seen. Between these two photographs… was a hardy and delicious German lunch.

The other set of photos, this time taken in Alsace, lacks the “before” black cloud picture that so perfectly bookends the no-food / food equation. They are, however, very telling as well. To anyone who doesn’t know my wife, in these two pictures, she just looks like a happy traveler, walking towards me and wearing a smile. To those of us who know her well, we notice two things. In the first photo, you can see that she is just leaving a chocolatier’s shop. In the next picture, she is closer in the frame and you can now make out two important things. First, the yellow bag containing something like forty Euros of fine, hand made dark chocolate, clutched lovingly to her chest. Second, her enormous smile, possibly visible from space, which was put there by the anticipation of getting into that bag.

Food is heavenly to her and it needs to be done right or not at all. Very French of her, I’d say, which is odd since I’m the one with the French and she’s mostly Irish. All in all, our two ways of dealing with food match pretty well. Being a gifted cook, she routinely makes meals that would be at home in the best restaurants and kitchen stadiums. I firmly believe she could easily win “Iron Chef”. On the other hand, once the apple roasted chicken is more than a few days old or the raspberry torte is getting a bit stale, she is all for pitching it and starting anew. She’d rather make something else than warm up a plate of less than perfect leftovers. So, since we don’t have livestock at our house and I hate to see what I view as “perfectly good food go to waste, it has fallen to me to hoover out the fridge in an effort to keep up with the wonderful bounty of foods that we didn’t finish the first, second or third time around. Now with the addition of kids, my job and diet has expanded.

Short Stack’s attention to his dinner plate can be less than laser like on any given night. If food items are easily stabbed with a fork, he does pretty well, all things considered. Peas and chopped carrots are another matter though. The cooked carrots, though delicious, are hard to keep on the fork and tend to slip off the tines en route to his mouth. Peas, ever the tricky vegetable, are all for going on brief and exciting excursions across the table, into his lap and eventually, onto the floor where they find a final resting place under his chair or crushed flat under our feet. Because of their inherent difficulty, they tend to be eschewed and purposely forgotten. That’s where dad comes in.

Initially, I would simply clean off his plate and dump the forgotten peas down the drain. The waste bugged me a bit, but it was high summer and fresh vegetables were plentiful. Autumn is now heavily upon us, and with the changing of the season, so had come a change of my attitude. It’s almost as though I view these once frozen vegetables as bits of the warm, bright summer, and I cringe at thoughtlessly dumping them in the sink. As I walk away from the table, holding a ladybug shaped, plastic dinner plate, I scoop up the lukewarm leftovers with his miniature fork and shovel them in. Though some of the peas might have been dribbled with ketchup or a few of the carrots, marinated in soy sauce, I don’t mind. It’s all good fuel.

Tonight Acton Girl is making a roast and there will be leftovers-a-plenty. I will no doubt eat the loin’s share of this wonderfully prepared meal, but that’s okay. She won’t want more than two servings of it any way.

I bet, in the following week, it will go very well with cast off peas.

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