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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Happy Mail and Homemade Caramel

When Isabelle went off to college earlier this fall I was fully prepared to weep because I had seen it happen to so many other parents. After all the nurturing and guiding and teaching and helping them to become independent - poof – they were gone. You said goodbye to your child/ren and then fell apart because suddenly they weren’t there anymore and you had this big hole of emptiness and quiet in your life after 18 years of busy and chaos and togetherness (6,570 days give or take). Over the last few years I noticed my church friends come to service in August or early September after dropping off their kid at college and the tears would be streaming down their face during the Psalm or the readings or the Gospel. I am sure the weekly messages meant something to them, but mostly they were crying because they were missing their kids so much that their hearts ached. My friend Martha told me how it now hurt to even go to the grocery store because whenever she found herself reaching for the extra large tub of hummus to add to her cart she realized she didn’t need the jumbo hummus because the person at her house who ate hummus by the bowlful – her daughter Emma – wasn’t there right now, she was off at college. I wept just hearing the story.

Isabelle had also seen these men and women mourning the college transition as she sat next to me in the pew. She witnessed these silently weeping people, these “empty nesters” who were her youth leaders and former Sunday School teachers and the parents of her friends who had gone off to college and it made her wonder. I remember her asking me if I too would weep when she left for college. She asked this question long before she had decided where to go or had written a single word of her application. I recall her query because on that day my answer was a curt “No!” I was cranky with her for something that was so inconsequential I can’t even remember what it was and college seemed like such a long way away so in that moment I thought a little separation seemed like a really good idea, but in my heart of hearts I knew I would probably cry when she left. I started secretly stockpiling Kleenex every time it went on sale.

handmade envelope happy mail

It turns out I didn’t cry. I didn’t have to as we drove down to college because the heavens opened up and it poured. Torrentially. The sky was crying, so I didn’t have time to as we scuttled back and forth from the truck carrying in all her boxes of stuff up to her dorm room, including three months worth of now worthless tampax which had become completely soaked in the back of the truck as it teemed rain on the drive down. On the way back there were so many idiot drivers that I was grateful A) just to be alive and not in an accident and B) thankful that it was Shawn and not me who was doing the driving. I was too scared by all the jerks, who should never have been given a driver’s license in the first place, to cry. However it was when we got back to our house and had our first Skype call with Isabelle that my tears really dried up because the first thing I saw as her face appeared on my computer screen were tears. She missed us, and missed the happy valley, and wasn’t really sure she wanted to be at UNH after all. I knew that we couldn’t both cry so since she was crying I didn’t. Instead I went into survival mommy mode and made it my mission to do what I could to take care of my sad kid from afar.

origami crane happy mail

Around a year ago I had stumbled upon AmberLee Fawson’s blog post about Happy Mail. The basic premise is you can send anything through the US Mail if it is 13 ounces or less. An empty water bottle filled with a pen and mad libs, a box of tea bags, a package of twizzlers, a gelato container with refrigerator magnets, a plastic salad container filled with origami swans, a deck of cards, a package of Kleenex. If you can slap a stamp and label on it and the weight is under 13 ounces then into the mailbox it can go. All you need is a scale, an assortment of stamps, and an eye for things that are big enough to put a mailing label on, but light enough to come in under the weight limit. I became the queen of Happy Mail.

green bottle happy mail

I also visited West Haven as often as I could and we signed Belle up for Amtrak rewards. We called and texted and Skyped. I wrote actual letters, not just emails. Some weeks it felt as if I were single handedly keeping the USPS open with all the snail mail and happy mail I was sending. I discovered USPS gives you a discount if you print your own mailing label for their flat rate boxes at home (who knew?). So I stocked up on flat rate boxes (which means the weight is irrelevant – you can send anything you want as long as you can manage to close the lid), set up an account, and started baking. Our mail lady picked up boxes of brownies and several batches of these homemade caramels.

homemade caramels

Homemade Caramels

I’ve been making these caramels for a few years now as the outer wrapping for homemade bulls eye candies (caramel wrapped around marshmallow). This year I didn’t feel up to making the marshmallows so I went with the simple, but yummy caramels – straight up. I include a dipping bowl or small package of sea salt for those who enjoy a salty-sweet taste. The original recipe came from this blog, though sadly the blogger hasn’t posted anything recently. My one main tweak is that I prefer to use organic corn syrup because I personally am not a fan of GMO corn syrup. You’ll have to search to find the organic version, and when you do you’ll need to dig deep into your pocketbook because it is 4x the cost of regular corn syrup. For me it’s worth it but know that the regular corn syrup works just fine. Also be very careful when making candies as boiling sugar can really burn.

2  cups granulated sugar
2  cups heavy cream, divided (I use a local jersey cow heavy cream with a high milk fat)
1  cup light corn syrup, 11.2 ounces
1/2  teaspoons sea salt, plus extra for dipping or sprinkling
5  tablespoons unsalted butter
1  teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

In a large, heavy duty pot (I like enamel covered cast iron) mix the sugar, 1 cup of cream, corn syrup, and the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. Turn the corn syrup bottle upside down in the measuring cup to completely drain while you start stirring the mixture of sugars and cream over medium heat as you bring it to a boil. Make sure to use a spoon that can withstand some heat (wooden or silicon).

Once the mixture has come to a rolling boil slowly add in the remaining cream and any more corn syrup which has drained out of the bottle. Try not to have the mixture stop boiling by pouring it all in at once. Stir in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, then insert your candy thermometer and allow mixture to continue boiling. Set up a pan to pour the caramel mixture into. I use a 12″ x 9″ glass baking dish lined with a piece of parchment. Some folks say to butter the parchment, but honestly there is already so much butter in these caramels and parchment really is non-stick that I think you only need to butter the sides of the pan where the parchment isn’t (or use 2 pieces and cross them).

pouring heavy cream into caramel

You now have time to wash some dishes, or read a chapter of a book, or pay a few bills, but not so much time that you can take a nap or get lost surfing Pinterest. The mixture needs to reach the Firm Ball stage which is 250ºF. We’re talking molten hot caramel at this point, so as I said before be careful. Turn off the heat and if you want stir in the vanilla. I sometimes get so excited I forget, and frankly I don’t really taste the difference. Pour the mixture into the waiting pan but DO NOT SCRAPE the bits of caramel which cling to the sides of the pot. Once your caramel is in the pan then you can scrape the clinging bits onto a plate, wait for them to cool down, and taste test.

250ºF

caramel scrappings

After the caramels have cooled cut them into squares or rectangles and wrap them in pieces of parchment (which is guaranteed not to stick). If you’re going to mail them wrap up a package of sea salt and put everything in a plastic bag with a napkin or two, since they are buttery. Don’t forget to mention what the salt is for. Otherwise wrap up the caramels and when you go to serve them set out a little bowl of sea salt for those who are so inclined.

caramels and sea salt

twizzlers happy mail

Did all of this mail and communicating make a difference? Yes it did. So did the fact that Isabelle worked hard to overcome her homesickness and find things she could love about UNH. Starting with a great roommate and two wonderful suite mates. Her criminal justice teacher Professor Schroeder made a difference by reminding her with each one of his amazing classes why she had wanted to go to UNH in the first place. Hitting the gym and working out when things were stressful got those endorphins going plus it introduced her to her new workout buddy. Making new friends helped, as did staying in touch with her old ones. Slowly as the weeks went by she wasn’t as sad, though by the time that transition happened I was hooked on finding little things to send via happy mail.

Ebroidered Happy Mail 1

Happy Mail felt letter

My pièce de résistance of happy mail came about shortly after Thanksgiving break. We got a robo call from the university telling us an unidentified male had been spotted on campus with guns. This is absolutely the last call any parent wants to receive. Thankfully a Good Samaritan spotted the young man with his weapons and called it in to 911. One person, who was in the right place at the right time, did the right thing and notified the authorities. The police were able to quickly apprehend the suspect, and a building-by-building search found no accomplices. How to express your overwhelming gratitude for what could have been a horrid situation? I baked some more and then spent a few days embroidering a letter to Isabelle. My inspiration was this piece of pigeon mail.

Williamsburg Postmaster

Embroidered happy mail 2

The ladies at my local post office loved it. So did Isabelle. She is now home for winter break. I’m taking a small hiatus from happy mail to focus on the holidays and the fact that everyone is home and safe and happy. I will slip a box of these caramels into the mailbox for the ladies at the post office who made sure everything I put in the mailbox, no matter how weird or crazy it was, found its way down to the mailroom at UNH. I’ll also send a box down to campus security because they deserve something sweet for doing such an awesome job of keeping everyone safe. And I’ll make a donation to the homeless woman who made that very important 911 call.

Happy Mail Skype

homemade vanilla caramels

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