Toaster vs. Toaster Oven

For many years my friend Jessica collected toasters. They were fun and often inexpensive to buy, plus toasters seemed to satisfy the curator in her since they were objects where form followed function. I grew up with a toaster, or rather a series of toasters. I even had a toaster when I was first married, but years ago I traded in my two slot chrome classic for a toaster oven.

toaster oven

The thing about toasters is you have to put them somewhere. Certain kitchen appliances can be cleverly stowed. I remember my sixteen-year-old mind being blown the first time my friend Marisa pushed a button in her Mom’s kitchen counter which triggered the mixer to majestically rise up from somewhere below. It was as if Judy Jetson and Marcella Hazan had designed a kitchen together where space age met Italian American. It was beyond cool.

For most of us we have to choose. Food processor up or down? Stand mixer tucked into a corner or sitting on a shelf in the pantry? The decision often follows this equation –

How often you use it + How much the dang thing weighs = Where it lives

My husband and I don’t drink coffee anymore so all our coffee paraphernalia is tucked away. We do not own a microwave (which I’ve been told is somewhat un-American of us but I really don’t feel the need) so that is not a contender for the limited amount of counter real estate. However our toaster oven is a major appliance in our daily lives so we gave it its very own counter.

Honey & toast

I love this toaster oven. In fact it is so great that in conjunction with a two burner hot plate I once made a lovely Easter dinner of asparagus, creamed potatoes, and a tiny glazed ham the year our kitchen was being remodeled. Toaster ovens take up more space than a regular two slot toaster but in my opinion the added functionality more than makes up for their larger size. I can reheat a bit of last night’s lasagna, toast a thin slice of bread as easily as a bagel half, or make my favorite late night snack of toasted bananas and cheese. Not having to worry about possibly electrocuting myself as I extract a burning bagel which wedged itself too tightly in the slot is a bonus. Think of a toaster oven as the Easy Bake Oven for grown-ups.

I was introduced to toasted bananas and cheese when I was living in Scotland. There were many things I loved about Edinburgh – getting mail twice a day, incredible scones, milk delivered in glass bottles to your doorstep, the smokey peat of single malt whiskey, haggis (yes I really do love it), hard cider on tap, plus the proliferation of tiny stores for various edibles. Without a car I almost never went shopping at a big chain supermarket, instead doing my shopping by foot. There was a fruit and veg store a few blocks away, several good bakeries, as well as a fish shop for swimmy things, plus a lovely Italian store on Leith Walk which had a delirious assortment of pastas as well as regular shipments of fresh ricotta and mozzarella. Two things that didn’t seem to exist back then were central heating and large fridges, at least not in any of the apartments/houses I lived in. The lack of central heating meant I drank gallons of tea plus found myself acquiring an extensive selection of jumpers (sweaters). Meals were planned on a daily basis to accommodate the limited amount of fridge space.

Cheesey bananas on toast

On nights when we’d go out to the pub we’d walk back home after last bell and if we were feeling peckish but didn’t have enough money to stop for fish and chips we’d go home and make ourselves something to eat. Between the teeny dorm size fridges and our limited income we often didn’t have much more to work with than part of a loaf of  bread, the end of a chunk of cheese, and some bananas. I just had no idea the three could be combined.

The first time my friends Alan and Sid offered me one of these late night sandwiches I was pretty sure it would be disgusting. Toast topped with banana slices and cheese melted on top? Ick and double ick, but I knew after my first bite I was wrong. It is good, in fact better than good. Put away your prejudices (if you have them) and try it. I truly can’t remember if we made these in an oven with a broiler or not, but they are perfectly suited to a toaster oven. In less than ten minutes you have a crunchy-melty-sweet-savory late night snack. Good before going to bed but you don’t have to save them for when the moon is out, they’re also yummy in the morning.

Bananas and cheese on toast

Toasted Bananas and Cheese doesn’t really need a recipe. You toast a piece or two of bread for each person, then top each piece of toast with slices of half a banana, and slivers of some sort of melty cheese – cheddar works a treat. Once you’ve piled everything together pop it into a toaster oven (on a small tray or piece of aluminum foil) and bake until the cheese starts to melt and drip down the sides. Take it out then wait a few seconds so you don’t burn the roof of your mouth when you gobble it up. I’m pretty sure you’ll want more. You may even decide to get a toaster oven just so you can make these.

Photos – Toast and Honey by Jim Scherer

All others by Cynthia Allen

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Custard for After a Cold

I’m not superstitious, not really. Black cats don’t worry me and the only reason I don’t walk under ladders is because it is just plain dumb. I wouldn’t knowingly break a mirror but if I did accidentally break one I don’t believe it would result in seven years of bad luck. Despite my pragmatism when it comes to superstitions and wive’s tales I have spent the last two months trying not to jinx myself. You see there was something really big and wonderful that I wanted to share, but I thought that if I told anyone it would no longer be true. This thing was so great (in my opinion) that I tried hard not to even think of it too often. Not once did I let the words slip past my lips. The amazing, fabulous secret I tried so valiantly not to jinx was this –

For the first time in eighteen years it seems as if I might make it through a New England winter without getting a single cold.

You see one of the things none of the baby books will tell you is that after you have kids you enter into what my friend Tom calls “a walking, talking petri dish of germs”. Kids have to build up their immunity systems. We send them off to school where they learn to read and write and share things and one of the lovely results of this societally accepted socialization is they share every germ they come in contact with. After decades of being fairly healthy adults my husband and I got the opportunity to rebuild our immunity systems when we had our two offspring. As our kids got older and better at hand washing and covering their sneezes I started teaching Sunday School to preschoolers, which meant I had to go through the whole cycle again (for the life of my I do not know how teachers or doctors manage this with their overload of exposure to germs). Just after I convinced the parents at our church that if they kept their sick kids home on a Sunday morning God and I would both be okay with it, my own body betrayed me with allergies. My allergist explained that it was a bit like peeling an onion. You take off one layer only to find another below it. He thought my constant colds were caused by my compromised sinuses which had been weakened by my allergies. Last year I finished a long, drawn-out series of allergy shots and was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming winter. I made it through the holidays, my birthday, even as far as Valentine’s Day. With March only a few weeks away I almost said it out loud but I held my good news in. I knew if I blabbed I would get sick. So I stayed silent and then got sick anyway. Not a bad cold, but my almost healthy-all-the-way-through-winter record was kaput.

Delicious home-made vanilla pudding

Now aside from having to wait until next year to see if I can make it all the way through winter without a single cold I had to cope with the stupidest of cravings. My head was stuffed up and I wanted custard because everyone knows that a huge dose of dairy makes all that nasty icky stuff clogging up your nose go away. Problem was I wanted it anyway (I am such an illogical baby when I am sick – just ask my husband). I made do with the ready-made stuff from the store because I could grab a container, a spoon, and my box of kleenex then head back to bed, but when I got better I put away my kleenex and got out my saucepan.

This is a simple custard. The kind my grandmothers both made. I really don’t know why anyone would bother with the other stuff unless it’s because there is a cranky sick person in their house demanding pudding right now!!!

Easy to make vanilla pudding

Pudding for After a Cold

2 cups cold milk, divided

1/2 cup sugar, divided

4 egg yolks *

4 Tablespoons cornstarch **

pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

In a small saucepan combing 1 1/2 cups milk with 2 Tablespoons sugar. Gently stir then heat until the milk is quite hot and beginning to steam.

With the remaining milk stir in the rest of the sugar (1/2 cup minus the 2 Tablespoons), egg yolks, cornstarch and salt. Beat this cold mixture until thoroughly mixed and a bit frothy. You’ll want to temper the cold mixture (heat it up a bit before starting to actually cook it). Just pour a bit of the steaming milk into the milk-sugar-eggs-cornstarch as you whisk wildly. Why all the vigor? To keep your custard from clumping up into a mass of milky-sugary scrambled eggs. Once you’ve heated up the cold mix a bit you can then pour it back into the saucepan and cook until it thickens up into pudding. Keep whisking the whole time – it should only take a couple of minutes. Once it is thick, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla and butter.

Let cool a tiny bit then pour into custard cups or small glasses (make sure the glasses can take a bit of heat or wait for the custard to cool more). If you are not serving immediately cover with a piece of plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming on the top and refrigerate.

Home-made vanilla pudding

In the future when someone asks if I am superstitious I’ll pick up the black cat strolling by and pet him as I stand next to a ladder and answer, “Maybe just a little.”

All gone

*  Don’t throw away the egg whites. Freeze them and when you have enough they can be used to make an Angel Food Cake.

** Cornstarch clumps if you try to mix it into hot liquids without first mixing it into something cold. Once you’ve turned it into a slurry you can then add it to hot liquids to thicken them up.

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Jeepers Peepers

One of the facts about middle age is that your body changes. You can’t eat as many calories as you once could – unless you want to live at the gym. Staying up all night becomes impossible, even if you could do it with ease and caffeine in your 20s. And if you’re like me your eyesight eventually deteriorates enough so that you need glasses.

I did not grow up wearing glasses, other than the occasional groovy pair of 70s mirrored sunglasses, but I always wanted to. There were three things I desperately wanted when I was younger – curly hair, braces, and glasses. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Sometimes I would mold my gum up over my teeth to pretend to myself that I had braces, which in retrospect was completely lame. For years my mother assured me that if I ate all of my bread crusts my hair would become curly, but it didn’t. Occasionally she would wind my hair up in strips torn from old pillow cases to give me rag curls, probably because she felt guilty for lying to me about the bread crusts. I owned a curling iron for a short period then in my 30s I broke down and got a perm, which was frightful. I went back to straight hair and curly hair envy. Finally in my late 40s one of my dreams came true and I got glasses. I loved them.

The trick was I only needed to wear my glasses sometimes. My husband has worn glasses since he was two and because of his eyesight he wears them from the time he gets up until just before he goes to bed. It’s hard to lose your glasses when they’re always on your face. At first I would have the kids help me find my own glasses, offering cookies as a reward. Often they were on top of my head where I used them like a headband to keep my hair back. Eventually my friend Rick told me that his eye doctor had a solution for people like us who only need glasses for certain tasks. His doctor recommended having a pair of glasses everywhere you might need them. So now I have a pair next to the computer, by the side of my bed, in my car, in my purse, in my food styling kit, and most importantly in my cupboard next to the vanilla.

chocolate, vanilla and reading glasses

Yup, I’ve got them in the kitchen because while I can cook without my glasses on, I can no longer read recipes without them. Turns out I can’t even go to the grocery store without glasses because while I can tell the difference between an apple and a tomato I can’t read the ingredient list on most boxes or discern the code numbers you’re supposed to write when you’re bagging up bulk items. One time, before I succumbed to the glasses-in-every-nook-and-crany school I forgot to bring my glasses to a photo shoot. I could not see the food I was styling well enough to work. The photographer loaned me a magnifying glass from his prop room just so I could see to put all the nuts in place with my tweezers on the hot fudge sundae we were shooting. Talk about embarrassing.

reading glasses

Looks like I got one of my childhood wishes in multiples.

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Black Gold for my Valentine

With Valentine’s day right around the corner all I can think about is how good it would feel to be a little bit warmer. Don’t get me wrong I love winter and for the most part I whine loudly when it gets too hot (like I did here and here and here) but come on Mother Nature – give us a break. This morning it was -11ºF and tomorrow there’s another snowstorm scheduled to slam into the northeast.

Tapenade ingredients

So I decided to make something sunny for my Valentine. Something that when you take a bite of it you taste the hot mediterranean sun on your tongue even if you can’t feel it on your back. I made him a bowl of tapenade. Olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil, and lemon juice – it just sings of summer in the south of France or Italy or Greece. Right now I wouldn’t be picky about visiting any one of those places, but alas I am not, instead I am in mid-winter Massachusetts. So I’ll put on another sweater, then scoop another spoonful of this edible black gold onto a cracker as I reach for a glass of wine.

Black Gold (Tapenade)

2 cups pitted olives (mostly black but a few green ones are fine too)

1 Tablespoon capers, rinsed

2 cloves garlic

2 anchovies

1/4 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Pitting the olives is as easy as placing them under the flat side of a chef’s knife and leaning your hand onto it. The slight pressure cracks the olive and allows you to fish the pit out. I find it meditative, though if I had to make gallons of tapenade I’m sure I wouldn’t feel the that way. As with much of my cooking I like to layer the flavors so I use a mixture of olives – kalamata, niçoise, lucques, alphonso, gaeta, and a few hondroelias. I am able to find a nice selection at many supermarkets near the salad bar.

Once you’ve pitted the olives (and the measurement is a guideline) zap the garlic, capers and anchovies in a food processor for a few pulses then add the olives, lemon juice and some of the olive oil. Continue to pulse until the olives are mostly smashed up, but not baby food. Adjust the oil until the mixture is smooth and scoopable.

This is a wonderful hors d’oeuvre but don’t save it just for then – throw some into pasta along with chopped up parsley and a tablespoon or two of the pasta cooking water, spread a few dollops onto a pizza in place of the usual red sauce, try it as a condiment for broiled fish.

Tapenade for hors d'oevre

While I’m enjoying some tapenade I’ll also be dreaming about my other favorite type of black gold – compost – because when the compost arrives it means that spring is here (and winter is gone). It will be time to plant my summer crops and perhaps, if it gets really hot, wish that it were winter again.

compost - black gold

Until then stay warm!!!

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Fight the Fire with Some Green

I remember the Brazilian dish washer screaming, “Don’t take off your clothes!!! For God’s sake keep your pants on!” before he turned away and started muttering to himself in Portuguese. He was horrified because I was standing in the middle of the restaurant’s kitchen doing a strip tease. It wasn’t to entice the kitchen staff with what was under my apron, rather I was desperately trying to remove my polyester work pants, which I’d just spilled two gallons of boiling chicken stock onto, so that they wouldn’t melt into the flesh of my thighs. I kept shucking my clothes while I yelled for my sous chef to get some ice water – and fast. I could already feel the beginnings of a really bad burn.  Continue reading

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What to do when the Candy Cane Joe-Joes are gone

I believe in eating seasonally so from mid-November to just before Christmas that means munching down a whole lot of Trader Joe’s Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s. If you’ve never had a CCJJ imagine this – an Oreo cookie that has crushed candy cane bits mushed into the creamy filling. That my friends, is a candy cane joe-joe and they are only available from just before turkey day to a couple of weeks before Christmas. Once they’re sell out they’re gone until next year!

candy cane joe joe

I love these cookies so much that this past year I even took a walk on the wild side and tried their dark chocolate covered peppermint joe-joe’s. Talk about gilding the lily. Yowser!!! But then the inevitable happened and I ran out. No more candy cane joe-joe’s unless I want to pay $30/box to some entrepeneur who stockpiled candy cane joe-joe’s and is selling them on Amazon or eBay. No dear readers, I will not be scalped for a box of cookies. I say no!

Instead (well, after some whining and gnashing of teeth) I sucked it up and waited for candy canes to go on sale. I scored a few bags of Hammond’s Pillow Peppermints at my local co-op and armed with some heavy cream and a box of chocolate wafer cookies I went about transforming Nabisco’s classic Zebra Cake into a Peppermint (not Joe-Joe’s) Zebra Cake. While it is not a candy cane joe-joe, it is pretty darn good. 

peppermints

Peppermint (not Joe-Joe’s) Zebra Cake

If you want to make this cake in its traditional long log form you’ll need a long skinny plate or platter.

1 pint heavy cream

1 Tablespoon sugar

1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract (if you have it)

1 box Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (9 oz)

2/3 -3/4 cup peppermints*, crushed

Whip the cream and sugar until it holds a soft peak. You don’t want to turn it into butter. I crush the peppermints by pouring them into a heavy plastic bag then bashing them with a hammer or metal spoon. Don’t do this on a wooden counter as you can leave dents. Fold in the peppermint extract and most of the crushed peppermints. Then start layering your “cake” by spreading a heaping spoonful of whipped cream onto a chocolate wafer. When all the wafers are sandwiched together cover the entire outside with the remaining whipped cream. Sprinkle some additional peppermints on top (crushed or un-crushed if you have the Hammond pillows) and refrigerate 4-10 hours.

To serve cut on the diagonal so you can see the stripes.

peppermint whipped cream

building peppermint zebra cake

Peppermint Zebra Log

peppermint zebra cake

* While I love the flavor of Hammond’s if you can’t find them or don’t want to order them you can use candy canes or peppermint starburst candies. Adjust the amount you add to the whipped cream to your taste.

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Fèves Part 2

With epiphany eight days away I am getting out my fève collection and trying to decide which piece I will use in our King Cake* to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. A couple of years ago when I told our French exchange student Charline I was a bit of a “favophilie” (a person who collects fèves) so when she went home she sent me a box of fèves from Paul, a French bakery. I loved seeing the historical evolution of their delivery vehicles rendered in porcelain with one very small slice of pie. While Paul and Ladureé both have stores in America I’m not sure they carry fèves in their shops on this side of the pond. This company in Lyon sells quite a few different sets (including naughty fèves!!!). I have not purchased anything from them so I can’t attest one way or another to how they are with overseas sales. If anyone has ordered from them I’d love to hear about your experience. There also seem to be several folks selling fèves on Etsy and eBay.

Paul Bakery feves

What surprises me is that in France, a country known for its King’s cakes, the fève of choice (at least according to my friend Alexis) is often a cartoon or tv character. I feel like such a fuddy-duddy saying I’d rather have one of the three wise men or baby Jesus in my slice of cake instead of a porcelain dinosaur, duck, or wizard. I wonder what Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar would say?

funny feves

“Bonne Fête des Rois”

*Here is a French video on how to make a Galette de Roi

Here’s my previous post on fèves.

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