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Tag: baking

riding the COVID-coaster*

U.S. Hits Another Record for New Coronavirus Cases: New York Times graphic

we are all — all of us, red states, blue states, striped states, star-dappled states — strapped into this unplotted, unprecedented, unpredictable pandemic roller-coaster ride (*aka “COVIDcoaster,” a term introduced to me by my brilliant friend amy). the season of COVID, long past its toleration date, is gearing up for a wallop. or so it seems as summer cranks up the heat, and what’s ahead grows hazier.

we seem to be lurching upward and off-the-charts at breakneck speed, as if some giant-sized foot is pressing the proverbial pedal to the floorboard.

at this old house, the summer feels a bit like a COVID chess game. us v. the invisible virus that takes our smell and taste away. i need to put on speed dial a beloved ER doc friend of mine, the one who answers every inane puzzle and quandary i conjure. (and, believe me, i conjure.)

just this week, boy No. 2 found out his best friend’s sister — and another dear friend’s cousin — had tested positive — fever + sore throat, the sweet girl’s symptoms. of course, boy 2 had been out hitting golf balls the two previous nights in a row with her brother. and, to double the trouble, one of those nights he’d taken a long sidewalk-straddling walk (without masks), with the COVID girl’s cousin, who’d just gotten back from a week of sharing a summer cottage — and a bedroom — with the newly diagnosed one.

from the minute boy 2 got the news — at the end of a hot sauna of a day mowing grass and chopping trees for the park district — he had his KN95 mask strapped on so tight it musta made it hard to breathe. he insisted on eating his dinner on the far side of the kitchen, a good 12 feet from the rest of us. and he holed up in his room as if protecting me from nuclear fallout. just now, as he loped out the door for another day of tree-chopping, he triumphantly announced his test (taken yesterday afternoon at one of those one-day testing sites) just came back negative, as did his best friend’s and the cousin’s. halle-holy-lujah! i’m thinking it was a close-enough call to maybe add an extra 20 seconds of hand washing to the regime from here on in, though the perceived invincibility of teens prompts me to hedge that bet.

then there’s boy 1: the one who is here, asleep under this very roof, spending his days studying for the bar exam and waiting to move to portland, oregon, where a federal clerkship awaits. you might think — with five scheduled cross-country flights and two separate moving crews, a new job, new apartment, and that bar exam — that we set out to plot the most complicated itinerary imaginable in the age of COVID (though we assure you we did not). as it stands now he is due to fly back to new haven on monday, where the first of the two moving crews will crate every last fork, spoon, and tome in his law school apartment, and ship it all oregon way. the plan had been to come back here for the duration, till it was time to meet the movers in portland, but with the COVID charts skyrocketing in the exact wrong direction, we ditched plan B. and have moved on to plan C in which the poor kid will wait it out for 10 days in a stark empty apartment (save for the old lumpy mattress he is not moving), fly new york to portland, meet the movers, and then — drum roll here for the most mind-bending part of the plot — fly four-and-a-half hours back to chicago to take the bar exam, which in itself is a legal petri dish of COVID waiting to engulf the entire law school class of 2020. the geniuses who plot bar exams are currently planning to stuff 2,000 illinois test takers into a ballroom for two long days at the start of september. some of those test takers, like our very own, will be fresh off airplanes, having flown into chicago for the exam. others, waiting to take the exam before they can start drawing a paycheck, might well be inclined to go ahead and take the test even if, say, they can’t smell a thing, feel a wee bit hotter than usual, and might have started sniffling or coughing. how this is allowed to happen is beyond me, but then it’s the COVIDcoaster, and we are all whipping around the course, bracing ourselves through all its undulations.

so i do what i do best: i worry the night away. i pony up for the higher-cost health insurance, haunted by visions of the kid sick as a dog and turned away from the best hospitals in town if he doesn’t flash the right insurance card. we canceled the plane ticket on the airline that no longer keeps the promise to not fill every seat on the plane, and grabbed a new one for an even-longer ride on a plane that promises a few inches more breathing room. and we are leaving the kid to sleep in an empty apartment for 10 days — all because we’re haunted by the very real fears that COVID is a fire-breathing, smell-stealing dragon that’ll come up and nab you from behind.

meanwhile, we watch germany and south korea mostly trot back to work, no longer so encumbered by this awful terrible invisible virus.

by the hour, awful terrible numbers are flashing before our eyes — cases climbing, death rates certain to follow.

and those of us who swear allegiance to masks and 75-percent isopropyl alcohol hand sanitizer, we begin to wonder when, oh when, will it end? and who of the ones we love will be caught in its vice — snuffed out, or left with lingering scarring for who knows how long?

it’s enough to wear you down, and wring you like a soggy rag. we’re weary of all the lysol-wiping of every last milk carton. and navigating the variations of rule-following among those we love is no summer picnic. (i’m among the self-avowed scaredy cats who takes tony fauci at his every last word; if he tells me to mask up and not share even a fruit bowl among friends, i’m wearing two masks and lysol bleaching like nobody’s business.)

it all makes for strange times. surreal times, really. but, thank God, we are — so far — living to tell about it.

and in the meantime, i’m baking.

almond joy cookies, hot out of the oven

here’s the latest summer joy from the cookie jar, and they couldn’t be easier. four ingredients, stir, scoop, press flat, await the slightest gilding of the coconut edges. then watch ’em fly.

almond joy cookies

these wicked little coconut cushions, studded with semi-sweet chocolate and bits of sliced almond, are what happens when your favorite grocery store peddles a similar confection at $5.99 for five of ’em. because those pricey little mounds are practically inhaled in this old house, i was determined to make ’em myself. a bit of prowling around the internet, my cookbook without end, led me to these, courtesy of some lovely someone named trish on momontimeout.com

she writes: “These easy Almond Joy Cookies take just four ingredients and don’t even require a mixer! No beating, no chilling, just mix ’em up and throw ’em in the oven EASY! You’re going to love these ooey gooey fabulous cookies!”

Prep Time: 5 mins

Cook Time: 12 mins

Ingredients

  • 1 14-oz bag sweetened coconut flakes
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup chopped lightly salted almonds (trish used Blue Diamond Low Sodium Lightly Salted – light blue bag, but i couldn’t find, so i used sliced almonds and added 1 teaspoon salt)
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk regular or fat-free works

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 325F.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  • In a large bowl combine coconut, chocolate chips, almonds, and sweetened condensed milk.
  • Stir until combined.
  • Scoop out dough with a cookie scoop onto prepared baking sheet.
  • Moisten the tips of your fingers with water and shape into discs. Pat the tops flat.
  • Bake cookies for 12 to 14 minutes or until tips of coconut are just starting to turn golden brown.
  • Let cool on baking sheet.
  • Store cookies in an airtight container.

Notes

Parchment paper is critical for these cookies to turn out right. Silicone mats, waxed paper, etc. will yield a slightly different result.

chime in and spill your COVID-coaster stories. do tell. misery loves company. and by now we are all worn thin from the red-ringed worries.

(p.s. i am not making light of one drop of this, merely recounting with a journalist’s eye the absurdities of what the summer’s bringing….)

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?

when the writing tide rises around you…(so of course you think of cookies)

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gulp. that’s the sound of me deep against a deadline. i’m a wee bit underwater here, with a 2,500-word story in the works. and a clock ticking loudly, telling me to crank it up, crank it up.

whatever leisurely tale i might have told you here this morning, it’s being scuttled by the overdrive that writing brings. when sleep becomes a playground for sentences that romp around your head, and you rise to gurgle coffee and down it by the mugful.

tis advent time, the season of quietest anticipation, a season i love and will enter deeply, once the clacking on the keyboard quells.

because i wouldn’t want to leave you high and dry, while i pull verbs and nouns and nifty transitions out of a hat, i thought i’d leave you something rather earth-shattering: we’ve a  new cutout cookie recipe over here, and after decades making my grandma lucille’s rolled cutout cookies, the ones she blanketed in wax paper sheets, tucked inside her cookie tins, her cutouts swapped for seasonal appropriateness, she’s been one-upped. there’s a new cookie in town, and my cookie-scarfing 17-year-old (a kid who knows) has deemed them better than the best.

this fine road to buttery perfection came to me — why, of course — at a hanukkah baking workshop on a recent rainy saturday afternoon at our synagogue. i was enticed to sign up because i’d thought i might learn the secrets to old jewish cookie treasures, some hanukkah morsel to bring to the table when we light the menorah on the first night of the festival of ever-burning light. instead, i got an ultra-upgraded butter cookie, one whose magic might rest in the milk (or cream) or vanilla my grandma never used, or perhaps it’s the baking powder, one of those cooking alchemies whose magic i don’t quite grasp. because i’m a girl who likes to get to the bottom of things, and maybe you do too, i’ll leave both recipes here on the table for you to peek at, pore over, and perhaps dive into.

but i’ll let you in on a secret that might amount to family treason: the new one, the one from marlene, my best new baking buddy, who all week checked in on me to make sure i’d not run into any lumps, is — shhhhhhh — the one i’ll reach for from now on. i baked these in the middle of the week, shortly after turning in my first draft of that darn story i’m still writing — or rewriting, to be precise. and i tell you, pulling out the cookie-cutter basket, remembering the tale of how each cutter came to me — a double bass for my longtime bass player, a teddy bear for, well, my very own TB — it was sweeter to me than the three and three-quarters cups of sugar i dumped into the mixing bowl. but those are stories for another day.

(a recipe note: i’m particularly charmed by the little asides in marlene’s instructions. you can almost hear her peeking over your shoulder, gently pointing out a better way, a shortcut, a trick she learned from years and years behind the rolling pin. i hope you’re as charmed as i am, and ever will be…)

Sugar Cookies from Marlene Carl (Directions 2018*)

*p.s. i love that marlene dates her directional revisions, as this cookie baking science is not to be taken nonchalantly…

3 and ¾ cups of regular flour a bit more if using egg beaters instead of regular egg

1 and ½ cups of regular sugar

2 teaspoons of real vanilla

1 and ½ teaspoons of baking powder

1 stick of unsalted butter and 1 stick of Can’t Believe It’s Butter margarine.  You can use all butter but the batter seems to roll better with the combination of half of each.  However, I do use all butter as I love the more delicate taste.

1 large egg or I use ¼ cup of egg beaters   (when baking with children who like to taste the raw batter, egg beaters are a safer option than real egg.)

2 and ½ Tablespoons of milk, (there are 3 teaspoons in one tablespoon)

Cream the butter until soft and blended, add the sugar and blend well. Then add the egg or egg beater, followed by the vanilla.

Mix the flour and baking powder together in a bowl, then add some of the flour, then some of the milk blending on low speed, continuing adding and blending until thoroughly  blended and mixed. The dough will begin to form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Add a bit more flour if the dough seems very sticky.

Form three balls with the dough and press flat.  Wrap in plastic wrap and put into fridge until ready to use.  36 hours is the longest I have done so and it was perfect. You can also freeze the dough until ready to use.  Be sure it is double wrap and use within a month.

Bring the dough to room temp when ready to make the cookies.  Flatten one ball of dough between two pieces of wax paper the size of your cookie sheets and roll to about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick.

Using cookie cutters form into shapes, then remove as much of the extra dough around the cookies as possible. When you have done so, place in freezer or fridge (freezer about 10 minutes, fridge maybe a little longer amount of time).  When the cookies are cold it will be easy to pick them up and then place the cookies on a different cookie sheet and repeat the process.   Smaller cookies can often be removed without chilling them.

Leave about ½ inch between cookies.  I usually wait until I have used all the dough and made all the cookie forms before baking two trays at a time in a preheated 400 degree oven.  I use convention mode and they bake in about 6 to 7 minutes the edges turn a nice golden brown color.  Regular bake mode will take longer maybe 8 to 10 minutes.

Take the cookies off the tray immediately and place on cooling rake.  I usually only bake two trays at a time as the cookies are hard to get off the tray if they cool too much. If that occurs, place the tray back in the oven for about 30 seconds and the butter will soften the cookies and they will become easy to remove again.

When you roll the dough between the two pieces of wax paper, (if the dough seems to be sticking to the top piece of paper), you need to add one heaping tablespoon of flour.  Then knead the flour into the circle of dough.  It should not leave any particles of dough on the wax paper.

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and because i promised, here’s my grandma lucille’s. like my grandma, it is clipped and to the point, no frilly asides in this one. my german grandma meant business, and business we got. even in her recipe tin.

Lucille’s Famous Rolled Cut-Out Cookies

1 cup shortening

½C. brown sugar

½C. white sugar

1 egg

2 Tbsp. lemon juice and grated rind

2 C. flour

¼tsp. baking soda

¼tsp salt

Cream shortening. Add sugar. Cream well, egg, flour, soda, salt, lemon juice and rind.

Chill about 3 hours (or overnight).

Roll ¼-inch. Use cookie cutters {Editor’s note: most notably turkeys, bunnies, Santa on sleighs, at appropriate seasons of course. Put raisin in turkey’s eye; same for bunny’s nose.}

Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

cookie baking wintery blessings

do you have a stand-out family cookie recipe in your tin, one that comes out at least once a year, or perhaps every other week? how does your family favorite stand up to the one dear marlene just bequeathed me?