Almondines – A Classic

Good morning my fellow quarantinettes!

I imagine that you’ve cleaned the pantry, weeded the garden, binge-watched your shows and taken the kids on maybe a million walks around the block by now. How about a change of scenery? My girlfriend and blogging-buddy, Mary Knight, offered a peek into her world of food and fancies and agreed to share the following recipe with us! Mary travels the world, making friends, creating recipes, and curating mouth watering photos. She’s interviewed Julia Child herself and that will get a girl inspired, wouldn’t you agree?

Mary’s blog is a cornucopia of glorious photos of recipes and travel. SpoonAndSuitcase.com will take you on a tour of Portugal, Sicily, or Santa Fe without leaving the living room and is a breath of fresh air in a world afraid to inhale. Let’s take some time to relax.

Grab some almond paste from Amazon and clear the kitchen, because we’re going to make Almondines!

While cleaning out an upper cupboard in my closet last week, I discovered a forgotten box. A treasure full of old recipes I had created when I taught cooking classes, as well as letters and postcards I’d sent my parents from La Varenne in Paris, France. It was like opening a present on Christmas day. The “missing pieces” from my life suddenly inspired me to go back to the recipes I’d embraced many years ago. Early in my cooking career, ideas for recipes came like lightning strikes, unexpected but exhilarating, followed by cloud bursts of extended creations. It all seemed so easy. I almost couldn’t get the ideas down fast enough, not to mention implement them.

Here is one of those recipes for Almondines that I’ve adapted. The results impressed me more than I’d expected. The tart is made delectable by the inclusion of almond paste. Rich and tender, the almond filling almost melts on the tongue and the unifying light almond crust is the accent mark. Divine. It’s been a hit with all my taste testers. The best part is you can fill the tarts with the almond creme, sprinkle on the sliced almonds and freeze for an impromptu breakfast or tea time. They only take about 18 minutes to bake or about 25 if frozen. I’m making a batch to freeze for weekend guests and neighbor thank you’s. Enjoy!

Almondines

Course Breakfast, Dessert
Cuisine French
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 18 minutes
Servings 11

Equipment

  • small tart tins
  • food processor (optional)

Ingredients

  • 4 oz butter (this is equal to 1 stick or 100 grams of butter)
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 100 grams
  • 7 oz almond paste or 198 grams
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour or 65 grams
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Pâte Sucrée (Sweet Pastry Dough)

  • cup flour
  • tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 4 oz unsalted, cold, cubed, butter (this is equal to 1 stick or 100 grams of butter)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • 3 Tbsp ice water
  • ½ cup sliced almonds

Pate Sucree

(This is my favorite from A French Chef Cooks at Home by Jacques Pepin) I added the almond extract. Feel free to use your favorite crust recipe too.

Instructions

  • Combine the flour, salt and sugar.
  • Cut in the butter pieces until size of small peas.
  • Combine the egg yolk, almond extract and water.
  • Drizzle into the flour mixture and combine gently.
  • If the pastry feels too dry, add a bit more water.
  • Knead lightly to form a ball. Pat the ball into a 6” round, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least a half an hour.

Notes

I use a food processor to make my crusts.

Almondine Filling

Instructions

  • Cream the butter, sugar and almond paste together.
  • Beat in the eggs one by one.
  • Beat until light in color and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes.
  • Slowly add the flour and salt. Stir in almond extract. Mix just until combined.
  • You can refrigerate the filling at this time or use immediately.

Notes

  1. I made this recipe using organic sugar with crystals much larger than the white C&H variety. The crystals melted into the butter and did not whip up into a fluffy mass. The filling was much denser than I like. I prefer using regular white sugar for the filling for a lighter crumb.
  2. I prefer to weigh my ingredients. There is a tiny bit of discrepancy in the measurements when you use Standard vs Metric measuring. This is not enough to alter the recipe.

Create Almondines Like A Rock Star

Instructions

  • Roll the dough out to ⅛”-1/4” thick. Cut into rounds appropriate for your tart tins. I used 4” tart tins and the recipe made 11 tarts. You can also make one large tart using a 9” quiche tin. If the dough seems too sticky, you can pinch off pieces of dough and fit them into the tart molds.
  • Pat the dough into the tins and put in freezer to chill.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • When the pastry crusts are cold, fill with almond mixture and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Pat the almonds down slightly to help them adhere to the filling.
  • Bake for 15-18 minutes. They are done when deep brown on top.
  • Brush with strained apricot jam when warm to create a beautiful glaze.

Notes

These can also be frozen after they are baked.

Believe in your heart that you’re meant to live a life full of passion, purpose, magic and miracles.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Caio for now,

Sweet as Pie Winner

Congrats to our Pie-in-a-Jar Giveaway drawing winner! Mark Ishman will be enjoying a personal sized Five-Spice Pear-Apple Pie made by “The Peace of Pie” bloggess, Jessica Gelineau. A huge ‘Thank You!’, Jess, for helping us kick off the holidays with sweetness and fun. And thank you to everyone who played along, we’ll do it again soon!

Jess has been years working her way through Ken Haedrich’s pie book and savoring every bite. For the rest of us longing to sample this recipe, we include it here with Jess’ notes sprinkled throughout.

And if you just can’t get enough, visit Ken Haedrich’s Pie Academy website to access how-to videos, recipes, and all of his books. Happy Baking!

Crust: Ken Haedrich’s Basic Flaky Pie Pastry

Single Crust:

Cut up 1/2 stick of cold unsalted butter into small pieces and set aside. Measure out 1/4 cup of cold vegetable shortening and set aside.

Combine 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp sugar, and 1/2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Toss well, by hand, to mix. Scatter the butter pieces over the dry ingredients and toss to mix. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until it is broken into pieces the size of small peas.

Add the shortening and pieces and continue to rub in until the fat is all in small pieces and very much incorporated into the dry ingredients.

Fill the 1/4 cup you were using for shortening with cold water. Sprinkle half of the water over the mixture. Toss well with a fork to dampen the mixture.

Add the remaining water, 1 1/2 to 2 tbs. at a time, and continue to toss and mix, pulling the mixture up from the bottom of the bowl on the upstroke and gently pressing down on the downstroke. Add a little more water, 1 tsp at a time, if necessary, until the dough can be packed together in a ball.

Once it is packable, make a ball and press down to flatten it somewhat into a thick disk. Wrap the pastry (I use a piece of wax paper and fold all the corners under) and refrigerate until firm enough to roll.

Filling:
3 and 1/2 cups peeled, cored, and sliced Granny Smith, Cortland, Northern Spy, or other apples
3 and 1/2 cups cored and sliced ripe pears, peeled or unpeeled
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
Cornmeal Streusel Topping:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup fine yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1. If you haven’t already, prepare the pastry and refrigerate until firm enough to roll, about 1 hour.
2. On a sheet of lightly floured waxed paper, roll the pastry into a 13-inch circle with a floured rolling pin. Invert the pastry over a 9 1/2 inch deep-dish pie pan, center, and peel off the paper. Tuck the pastry into the pan, without stretching it, and sculpt the edge into an upstanding ridge. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
3. Combine the apples, pears, lemon zest, lemon juice, orange juice, and 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar in a large bowl. Set aside for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4. Mix together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the cornstarch, and five-spice powder in a small bowl. Stir the mixture into the fruit. Turn the filling into the chilled pie shell and smooth the filling with your hands to even it out. Place the pie on the center oven rack and bake for 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, make the topping. Put the flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse several times to mix. Scatter the butter over the mixture and pulse until it resembles fine crumbs. Empty the crumbs into a medium-size bowl and rub them between your fingers to make large, buttery crumbs. Refrigerate until ready to use.
6. Remove the pie from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 375 F. Carefully dump the crumbs in the center of the pie, spreading them evenly over the surface with your hands. Tamp them down lightly. Return the pie to the oven, placing it so that the part that faced the back of the oven now faces forward. Just in case, slide a large aluminum foil-lined baking sheet onto the rack below to catch any spills. Continue to bake until the juices bubble thickly around the edge, another 30 minutes.
7. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and let cool for at least 1 hour before serving.

In the beginning…

You can almost smell it

Made by hand

Crumble topping

Happy ending!

Pie Giveaway Time!

Thank you everyone for putting up with me last month. NaNoWriMo is no small thing.

To reward your patience, and to celebrate THE END, we’re having a drawing for a giveaway! Pie eating contest Pie throwing contest Pie-in-a-Jar Gifting is a great way to kick off the month of December, and it’s so much better than Figgy Pudding.

By “we”, I mean a collaboration with my favorite pie baker, Jessica Gelineau. Her luscious pie blog, “The Peace of Pie“, has kept me company for years. The stunning visuals are almost as good as tasting, and calorie-free. Jess is a wife, a mom, a math teacher. She wears as many hats as most of us do, but tops it off with a baker’s hat. Read her story here. I’m just saying that if you were born with a “pie thumb”, it’s a sign. And the world is holding their cuppas and waiting. For pies. On your front porch, Jess.

Now, I’ve been known to exploit the mason jar epidemic back in the day, as you recall. I will never eat a salad in a jar. But Pie-in-a-Jar, as she puts it, is as exciting as it sounds:

  • They’re pies. In JARS.
  • They’re so super cute.
  • What’s better than a slice of pie? A whole pie to yourself.
  • What’s more socially acceptable than eating a whole pie? Eating a whole mini pie.
  • What’s easier to transport than a jar with a lid?…Nothing.

To enter your name in the drawing, please make a comment in the Message box, below. You have until Sunday, December 8th, 2019, at midnight to add your comment. On Monday, into the sorting hat you’ll go and the lucky winner will be announced the 10th.

The winning Pie-in-a-Jar will be a Five-Spice Pear-Apple Pie from Ken Haedrich’s pie cookbook, because she just bought a big fresh jar of five spice powder – the one alluded to in the Butternut Squash pie in her latest post, here. This is how the story begins, and this is how the story ends.

You really, really, want to be a part of this story. I mean, these things inspired poetry!

Stay tuned, ya’all. Even if you don’t win, you’ll win. Next week I’ll post the recipe, links, and more festive pie fun so we can all raise a cuppa together.

 

Zucchini Daze

It’s finally happened! After a solid six years of trying, I grew a single, perfect, fuzzy zucchini!

Stop laughing.

Yes, they grow like weeds and turn into fat old gourds if you don’t pick them the very minute they arrive, and after paying actual dollars for dirt (dirt, people) and building a shrine to hold it in, and covering it with a critter-proof cage, and faithfully watering, and singing songs of hopeful longing to little sproutlings, I have managed to grow…this.

This being the sum total of four months of labor. This year.

I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong. It used to be so easy.

But the zucchini was beautiful. I discovered it an hour before we left on a family vacation and packed it gently with a towel into my car. There was no way I was not going to eat it. This little veggie cost me a lot of money and a few tears and I deliberated how to do it proper justice.

Enter Ziggy. Ziggy was not technically camping in our particular hut but he came over all the day long to cook his own food in the little kitchen we had, the cafeteria not able to furnish his dietary requirements. Ziggy is also not technically his name, because I protect the identity of happy campers who cook with wine and wield large knives. Furthermore, Ziggy was always barefoot. I told him we were going to lose our “A” in the window.

As the fam and I trudged off to the cafeteria for meals, heavenly aromas drifted on the breeze as Ziggy made himself smoked salmon omelets and lamb shank stews. He hummed the occasional melody. Carrot peels festooned our trashcan. I realized then that he was a Hobbit. I dubbed him Siegfried Wanderfoot.

My little triumph sat on the counter, blending in with the coffee grounds, pondering its fate. Days went by.

Finally, Ziggy asked, “Are you going to eat that?”

“Um, yes. I just can’t decide how.”

“Too small for bread,” he agreed, “too large for a pickle. What are your thoughts on garlic?”

And this is how the most triumphant zucchini dish ever prepared materialized out of actual thin air.

And also how I ended up with a personal chef who is also a Hobbit who can survive at an altitude of 5,400′ above sea level. If you ever used to have a plethora of zucchini and disguised them in a multitude of recipes, you have forgotten what a squash tastes like. Heaven. It tastes like fresh, green, heaven with little clouds of garlic butter. Enjoy.

Ingredient List: hand-reared organic zucchini, pure butter, fresh garlic, Oakwood smoked black pepper, pink Himalayan rock salt, Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and a machete.

No shoes, no hairnet, no facenet, no “A” in the window…Ziggy living the life.

Ziggy’s Zippy Zucchini
Hand tended organic zucchini sauteed at altitude in pure butter with finely chopped fresh garlic and seasonal herbs.
  1. Plant organic zucchini seeds and tend and water daily.
  2. After many weeks, and in the height of summer, pick one fresh zucchini and carefully transport to a mountain over 5,000′ in elevation.
  3. Let zucchini rest for a minimum of three days, soaking up the wild scent of pine.
  4. Slice zucchini lengthwise into 5mm thin slices with a sharp knife. Put aside to rest.
  5. Grind both pepper and salt over both sides of zucchini slices with love.
  6. Finely chop fresh garlic cloves and place in saute pan with a sizable portion of pure butter.
  7. Put gas stove on high heat and melt garlic butter, adding herbs in small doses as it melts.
  8. Lay zucchini slices in hot pan and saute, turning every two minutes to ensure an even cook.
  9. When zucchini starts to caramelize and crisp up along the edges, remove from pan to rest for one minute.
  10. Arrange on plate in floral pattern. Enjoy with a glass of Layer Cake cabernet sauvignon.

The Plated Wonder

A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband

To every other little bride
Who has a “Bob” to please,
And says she’s tried and tried and tried
To cook with skill and ease,
And can’t! – we offer here as guide
Bettina’s recipes!

To her whose “Bob” is prone to wear
A sad and hungry look,
Because the bride he thought so fair
Is – well – she just can’t cook!
To her we say: do not despair;
Just try Bettina’s Book!

It’s been 100 years, ladies. And I want to know. Can you cook yet?

This little gem, circa 1917, is on my bookshelf, a wedding present from Hubby’s younger brother who stole it, I am sure, from a distant great-aunt’s box of cookbooks, gifted partly in jest and partly in fear that I would try to cook a chicken without looking inside of it first…again.

Written in chapters with roman numerals, the book follows the first year of Bettina and Bob’s wedded bliss as they keep house in a bungalow during the roaring ’20s, somewhere in America. Through dialogue with friends and family, we discover that “new fashioned breakfast foods are for feeding the stock, not human beings!” We learn what Bettina keeps on her “emergency shelf”: cans of pimentos and tuna, jars of dried beef, marshmallows and macaroni, a one-pound box of salted codfish. With a thousand ways to please a husband and three of them are “Jellied Beef”, “Radishes”, and “Peanut Butter Sandwiches”, I’m confused.

But what can you expect? When an engagement is announced, it’s toasted with…grape juice. Like. Until 1933. And, fresh out of World War I, “dainty, delicious, and simple” are the words of the day. This can be interpreted as: tiny little portions. Her flower arrangements are bigger. Good thing dessert is included almost every night. Bettina meets Bob on the porch as he returns from work each day, she in her apron, he in his spats. Recipes for “Tuna Loaf”, “Prune Souffle”, and “Ham Timbales” support their complete happiness.

Bettina is quite accomplished in economy (“I always try to use the oven for more than one dish if I am using it at all”), so you won’t find her spending all her allowance on the gas bill (“open fires are so nice”), and full of advice on how to use up those leftovers in the icebox (croquettes, salads, molded, or en casserole). She can remove ink stains with sour milk, heal burned fingers with olive oil, and cleans her steel bread knife by dipping it into the dirt in a flowerpot. I laughed at her newfangled “fireless cooker”, then pondered her jars of jellies and pickles, but when I read her conversation about how to get rid of ants…I got in line. Talk to me, Betty.

“Mrs Dixon was dressed in a trim street costume, but under her veil Bettina could see that her eyes were red, and her lips quivered as she answered, “Forgive me for coming so early, but I just had to. I know you’ll think me silly to talk to you confidentially when I met you only yesterday, but I do want your advice about something.”

“Why my dear, of course. I like economizing; it gives me an opportunity to use all the ingenuity I have.”

“Frank and I’ve lived in a hotel but – lately he’s been so different. Why – he hasn’t been at home with me two evenings a week – ”

“You must be dreadfully unhappy,” interrupted Bettina, “Why, Bob doesn’t like to be away from home any evenings at all.”

“But you’ve just been married!” said Mrs Dixon tactlessly. “Wait and see how he’ll be after a few years! Why, I can’t cook a thing – I can’t even make coffee! Frank says if he could only have one breakfast that was fit to eat – ” and she buried her face in her handkerchief.

“Why Mrs Dixon!” cried Bettina, cheerfully, although her heart was beating furiously. “Your trouble is the easiest one in the world to remedy! Your husband is just hungry – that’s all! You do just as I tell you for one month and I’ll guarantee that Frank will be home every single minute that he can!”

Coffee

7 T-coffee
3 T-cold water
1/2 T-egg white
4 1/2 C-boiling water

  1. Scald the coffee pot
  2. Add the coffee, cold water and egg-white
  3. Mix thoroughly, add the boiling water
  4. Boil two minutes
  5. Allow to stand in the pot one minute
  6. Serve
  7. Brace yourself

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Limoncello

Sorrento” and “Limoncello” are interchangeable concepts. Outside of Sorrento, only groves in neighboring Capri are accepted to create this specialty liqueur. You should not buy it outside of Campania. Even Pompeii boasts a mural celebrating the Sorrento Lemon. Locals are fiercely proud of their limoncello, and you can purchase it on every street corner.

The terraced lemon groves in Sorrento have been organically cultivated for generations, surrounded by fencing and protected with overhead canopies and 60% of the harvest is reserved for making limoncello. Lemons are hand harvested when they turn from green to yellow: they never touch the ground. Once harvested, they are carefully cleaned, then kept away from human touch thereafter because limoncello is made from peel. The thick, intensely perfumed peel is distilled in vodka or Everclear, with a little sugar syrup added towards the end, completing up to a three month long process.

A shop owner gave us a brief education, showing us how to read the labels for quality limoncello. The bottle must have the Sorrento seal, and the ratio of lemon to alcohol should be high. 30% alcohol is acceptable, less is for the tourists, and 33% is ideal.

It is served chilled in a shot glass at the end of a meal as a digestive or as an aperitivo.

If you linger at all in a shop, you will be plied with samples. The limoncello speaks for itself.

The rest of the lemon is put to good use: you can buy lemon cookies, lemon candy, lemon balsamic glaze, lemon chocolate, marmalade…and don’t forget the complimentary kitchen baubles. After a few samples, it feels perfectly reasonable to pack it all up and bring the happiness home with you.

It smells and tastes like lemon candy with a tart kick beneath it. It makes you think of sunshine, bright blue ocean water, and good friendships. This is something you drink together, adding a sparkle to great conversation.

After we came home with our bottle, I went out to check our Meyers Lemon Tree. Sure enough, it’s cycling into bloom, with little green lemons being born on the branches. Winter in SoCal is citrus season. Now, my research informs me that the only other place – in the world –  you can cultivate a real honest-to-goodness Sorrento Lemon Tree is right here in San Diego. The lemons are here, if you look hard enough. I am not at all surprised. We may not be volcanic, but as I told you earlier, a lot of Italy sure feels like home.

I’ve never made limoncello but there are plenty of recipes online. I’ve gathered some of them together for us, below. If you have experience in the process, I’m interested in hearing about it.

For now, we will focus on our Italian treat and have you all over for sharing.

Salute!

 

From Sorrento Food Tours, Recipe #1

From Nonna’s kitchen, Recipe #2

From allrecipes (worth reading all the comments), Recipe #3

From Genius Kitchen, Recipe #4

And another from The Chew, Recipe #5

Rip van Forty Winks

Y’all need to sit down and buckle up, because the last two weeks feel just like Rip van Winkle waking up in Lilliput. Or was that Buck Rogers?

This isn’t happening.

Maybe I’ve been living under a rock – aka working a full time day job – but crawling out from under it hurts my eyes. And my heart, just a little.

It’s the toilet paper that sent me over the edge.

I’m cleaning the guest bathroom because company is staying for the second weekend in a row but this time I can’t trust it to the kids because they left actual used Qtips in a drawer last week, so now I’m scrubbing the toilet and notice that the toilet paper is unrolling and wisping into the trashcan below it.

My sister-in-law will admit to being a paper snob. She insists on paper plates that hold food without bending and paper cups that won’t melt at the first touch of your lips and never in a million years would she allow single-ply toilet paper near her house.

Apparently, my guests last week were fine with it, as it was never mentioned, but I feel like if they had any common sense, they would have reached for a Qtip which is more absorbent than an entire roll of single-ply.

I’m wondering if my boys just air dry but I’ll be darned if I ask them at this point.

I pulled a dozen rolls out of the pantry before finding the last of the proper-ply old stock. I guess I grabbed the wrong case during my last shopping spree.

Before you go judging, let’s all sit back and rethink the whole “day job” situation. A shopping spree in that lifestyle consists of running through Target after work in your heels, desperately grabbing TP, shampoo, and tortillas because you promised the family a meal and a can of refried beans is going to save the day.

Again.

And let me tell you that once I got home, I did not notice that we never replaced the broken microwave plate, that the dishwasher no longer cleaned dishes, or that the oven door had never been repaired.

Rounding out the kitchen appliance alliance, although our fridge had not had a working water dispenser for years, it now was no longer making ice.

None of this was noticed until last week, when I lost my job on Tuesday and kid #5 broke his ankle on Wednesday. On Thursday, I was really really wishing we made ice.

“Self,” I said, “This is not a good week.”

And ever since, I have been looking around me and noticing that I have not been home for over two years.

The freezer has a top layer of microwaveable fake food and just below it are layers of real ingredients. I pulled out a chicken with an expiration date of over two years ago. Worried that I may have forgotten how to cook (gasp!), I fluffed it up and put it in a pot. Chicken soup does not discriminate against old age. When I dusted off a can of tomato juice to add to the pot, I noticed the date: May 19, 2016.

Good enough. Don’t tell my mother.

And because I know you were wondering, marshmallows over two years past the date on the bag will not melt into the butter in the pan when you want to make the rice crispy squares you thought of making circa 2015.

They sauté nicely into little buttered, rubbery cubes.

Even old reliable – my faithful mop bucket – gave up on me. Full of cracks, it was thrown into the trashcan, along with five pairs of broken shoes, two dead houseplants, and every single rusted ring that had graced my traveling tea mugs to the office and back.

I will never drink out of a mason jar again.

But that is a story for another day.

Reaching into the freezer like….

Wonder Pot

Things are getting very quickly out of control.

I just went to the store and bought dried seaweed, the neck bone of a lamb, coconut water, and stood for five minutes seriously considering a package of chicken feet, toenails included.

If that’s not a sign of shopping under the influence, I don’t know what is.

Somebody stop me. I bought an InstantMagicWonderPot last week, and I think the rest is history.

I blame my girlfriend, which is where most of our peer pressures come from, right?

She’s a young, hip, trendy gal who raises her app-wielding toddlers on quinoa and paints her walls gray, so already I was suspicious.

“It will change your life!” she insisted, and texted a photo of a salted caramel pretzel crust cheesecake.

I hit the Amazon button.

Because my life could definitely use a change in the cheesecake department.

When the box arrived, I danced happily into the house singing, “Guys! My Magic Pot is here!”

From around a corner I heard, “Mom, you shouldn’t do drugs…”

“Hey! That’s legal now.”

“In that case, how magical is it?”

Such kidders in my family.

Half of the instruction book is in honest-to-goodness Chinese, the other is in Canadian, so I called that girlfriend up and she came over to play Interpretive Cooking Channel.

I had the ingredients to one recipe: lemon chicken. It’s citrus season in San Diego.

I got to work, GF coaching me while her toddler and baby roamed free-range around the house.

What I learned was that this pot is basically a pressure cooker: it forces the food to cook at gunpoint (as opposed to the microwave which is insidious with X-rays) and if you disturb it while it’s got a death-grip on your chicken and lemon juice, it gets very nasty and hisses at you.

It holds the pressure of a thousand mommies trying to make dinner.

It may very well blow up your house if you look at it funny.

Which is why I spent the whole time spying on it from around the corner, confirming that I am my mother’s daughter after all. Explosions are her favorite specter.

The pot spent twelve minutes coming up to pressure, one minute steaming into the kitchen, and another twelve minutes cooking. I watched GF flick the button to quick-release the pressure and the top blew. I jumped five feet, and the toddler looked at me with disgust.

“It’s just steam, Jolie,” she said, “You don’t have to be scared.”

From the mouth of babes.

The chicken was perfect. I decided I still had time to get fancy, so I spread them under the broiler in my oven for another six minutes to brown up, and made gravy in the pot with what was left seething in there.

Rice was fifteen minutes on the stove top while the chicken cooked, but the Pot – so it says in Canadian – can do it in five.

We had chicken and rice and sort-of gravy and salad and girl scout cookies and tea and if I sound a little giddy, it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve cooked real food.

It just gets me…right here.

GF laughed, and drove away bragging about spaghetti squash and pot roasts.

After cleaning up the kitchen, I decided to give it the real test. It’s one thing to cook in broad daylight, with plenty of time and no starving children under foot, it’s another entirely to come home from a long day at work and stare into a messy kitchen at the witching hour and try to not eat Cheetos.

I had a house full of teenage boys, aka: guinea pigs.

I set the pot back up.

I dumped a pound of frozen, cooked ground beef into it. I dumped a jar of spaghetti sauce into it, and another jar and a half of water. I broke a pound of dry spaghetti noodles in two and piled them on top.

The lid went on, the display lit up, and I backed away slowly.

Twelve minutes to warm up, five minutes to cook, five minutes to cool down.

The boys began sniffing, and walked in to investigate.

I flipped the vent and jumped away, crying, “Stay back boys, she’s gonna blow!”

That was the cue for them to surge forward and do facials:

“Stop!” shrieked my own mother’s voice from my mouth, “That steam will burn you! It’s not a toy!”

Which is teenage for: Step right up and steam-iron your shirt; instill a lovely Italian scent to your wardrobe.

It looked like this when we took off the cover:

“Fine,” I said, “after those shenanigans, you deserve uncooked spaghetti for dinner!”

The problem is, once I stirred it up, it turned into this:

And it was lovely.

I’m sold. The pot fits in with how we roll around here: less dishes to wash, less time spent babysitting a stove or oven.

I’ve been following an entire community of pot lovers, gleaning recipes.

That’s seaweed in the mac n cheese, stop looking at it funny.

Mason Jar Goggles

Latch-key kids have two parents that work in jobs for actual paychecks. These kids come home after a long day at school and let themselves into an empty house.

There are no warm cookies and mommy hugs waiting for them.

Who helps them with their homework?
Who do they call if they hear a spooky noise upstairs?
Who do they tell about the mean girl at recess?

As a child I felt sorry for my latch-key friends, so when I went to work full time I had an automatic pity for my own high school boys…the ones with sad little faces who got the fuzzy end of the lollypop because certainly their elder siblings had a mother who loved them…

I let myself into an empty house after a long day at work. There were no warm cookies or kid hugs waiting for me. A faint light from the kitchen was the only thing keeping dusk at bay through windows that hadn’t been cleaned in forever.

What was that noise?

I held my purse at the ready and came around a corner to find a kitchen in the throes of pizza agony.

My neglected CPS children had come home, raided the fridge, made a frozen pizza, an eight-pack of hotdogs, a couple of protein shakes. A banana peel and dirty socks on the table stared me down.

“Kids?” I called out.

“We’re in the den doing homework!”

That’s code for “We’re playing video games because we’re pretty sure you won’t come all the way in here to investigate.”

And they’d be right.

“Didn’t you miss me at all?”

Nothing but chuckles drifted down the hall.

Whatever.

I added my pile of debris to the kitchen counter: four or five dirty mason jars.

Surprisingly, this was a comfort.

When I began working full time, questions about 401Ks and how was I supposed to make dinners paled in comparison to the tea question.

Even the Queen Mum stops ruling the world at Tea Time.

My new job, not so much.

The challenge: make a portable tea party, ready at the snap of a finger but of a quality that will conjure up warm cookies and kid cuddles for a latch-key mom.

Three generous mugs of tea during a ten-hour day, two minutes to make a cup on the fly, and containers that are leak-proof, microwavable, and do not taste of metal, silicone or paper.

There has to be enough that, should I choose (and I do) to not wash a single dish during the week, there are still clean ones handy.

As a matter of fact, whatever it is had better darn well be disposable if necessary.

Enter the mason jar.

I brew three pint jars at home, add just the right bit of sugar, and pack them into my bag. I fill another jar with 2% and add it to the pile. I pull jars from the office fridge during the day and keep right on moving.

And all day long, I get teased.

Everyone else walks by with adorable mugs or manly stainless steel. I creep out of the lunchroom with my jar of moonshine and within two steps someone wants to know what I’m having because it looks sure enough suspicious.

Now mason jars, in all their crafty glory, are supposed to make even weddings look attractive. People put Christmas gifts into them for crying out loud.

Why does my jar of tea look so much like a lab sample?

Once again, practicality wins over style and even my own dignity, because they get the job done. My hands are toasty and every sip makes me smile.

They work so well that I’ve started throwing other things into them.

This is homemade chicken/rice soup and the other is my morning oatmeal, made up fresh with brown sugar and cinnamon and ready to snack on at my 6:30 in the am desk.

Things aren’t always what you expect them to be, but mason jars are pretty transparent.

Things are different now, but they are also a curiosity.

Looking at life through the bottoms of these jars, my job becomes a swirling kaleidoscope, my home appears comfortable despite its residual mess, and the bottom of my cup isn’t empty, it runs over with new possibilities every day.

The Pig in the Pot

I just crammed an eight pound pork roast into a three pound Crockpot.

I’m guessing here because the darn pig piece wouldn’t quite fit. I was putting a square pig into an oval hole.

Why do the butchers do this?  Does anyone make a square Crockpot? Would it still be a “pot” if it had corners?

My mom used to bake bread in large coffee cans. The loaves were round. It’s still “bread”.

Don’t they know we’ll be getting the kids out the door to school in the morning and then remember we were going to toss something into old faithful because it’s going to be “one of those days”? So we yank open the freezer door, rip open the rock hard meat chunk and go to plop it in, and….it comes screeching to a halt because the thing won’t fit.

Just a corner is still sticking out.

The clock is ticking.

“Get in the car!” you shout to the kids, “I’ll be right there!”

Now it’s down to you, the pig, the pot, and a kitchen variety of options.

I did the only logical thing that didn’t involve a hammer or a blowtorch. (You have those too, right? Mallets are for beating a chicken breast into chicken fried submission, and the torch is for lighting the birthday candles or caramelizing Barbie’s feet when she needs to be tortured when Mom’s not looking.)

Turning the pot to “High”, I gently balanced the lid on top of the roast in the pot and put the heaviest thing handy on top of the lid.

Then I ran out the door.

There’s a good 2-3” of water in the pot. The hot steamy water should melt the pig just enough to bend that corner into the pot. Or at least enough so that when I return I can whack that non-conforming pig bit off and commence the cooking.

It feels good to have a plan.

Later, upon kitchen re-entry, I discovered that the pig had melted just enough to leak juice over the edge of the pot as it plopped into submission. Naturally.

After cleaning it all up and claiming victory for dinners everywhere, it occurs to me: I legally had this raw meat sitting “out” for three hours. Sort of frozen, sort of steamed. This is where my mom’s voice runs across my inner forehead like a ticker-tape, all in capital letters.

STOP! FOOD POISONING ALERT! WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT! ALWAYS KEEP COLD FOODS COLD! KEEP HOT FOODS HOT FOR ONLY TWO HOURS! C.A.Y.G.! REFRIGERATE PROMPTLY! WARNING! SALMONELLA! IMMINENT DOOOOOOOOM!

If you think for one minute I’ll be starting over here, you’ve got another think coming.

I could season it with a couple dashes of Lysol and essence of bleach, but instead we’ll go with the original plan and cook the phooey out of it all day.

I’ll call it a luau. If I were to be authentic, we’d be pulling this bad boy out of a pit dug in the ground where it was surrounded with rocks and dirt and the bare feet of natives.

You’re lucky we’re not pulling bits of gravel out of our sliders tonight, so there.