35. Z’s Sugar Cookies

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Cookie dough!

Z and I worked together when I used to work for a summer camp – it was my last year working there and his first, and spending time with him and the other new counselors made me feel young and amused and happy that such jobs existed. There were very difficult things about working at camp that bonded all the workers together, and there were wonderful moments, like when Z’s friend P set up a telescope after the children went to bed and we all took turns looking at the moon.

When I started this blog, I asked for recipes from many friends, and Z surprised me by responding even though we haven’t seen each other in years. He’s making a name for himself as a musician, and it was so nice to hear about his childhood story (quoted here below) about making cookies and growing up.

I’m always looking for excuses to eat cookies, and I took these over to my friends J and E, where we ate them while passing around their little baby. I hope the story warms you the way eating cookies and cooing over a child warmed me up.

Mom’s Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
2 ¾ cups flour

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add baking powder and flour, one cup at a time, mixing after each addition. The dough will be stiff, blend last flour in by hand. Do not chill dough. Divide dough into 2 balls. On a floured surface, roll each ball in a circle approx. 12” in diameter and ⅛” thick. Dip cutters in flour before each use. Bake cookies on ungreased cookie sheet on top rack of oven for 6-7 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned. (Mom recommends parchment paper on pans)

Icing (not mom’s recipe) made with 4 tsps. milk and 1 cup of powdered sugar.

“Here’s my mom’s sugar cookie recipe. My first memory of this recipe was when I was three or four. I was in the kitchen one day when my mom was about to start making a batch, and I begged her to let me help. I think this experience set my predilection for baking which I retain to this day. I learned how finicky eggs were to crack, how impossible it was to keep flour off of the counter and your clothes, and the difference between measuring cups and measuring spoons. I distinctly recall being unable to wrap my head around the concept of two and two-thirds cups (I was four, after all…). Regardless, I found a great joy in the mess that ensued when one endeavors to bake. I became acquainted with mom’s collection of old cookie cutters passed down from her grandparents. We rolled out the dough on the counter with my mom’s old rolling pin, which bore faint signatures of departed family members, and made great art with our array of cookie cutters: hearts, alligators, wolves, angels, dinosaurs, flags, trees.

“This recipe lives with me still, bearing a heartfull familiarity. I enjoying making them for friends who need a bit of warmth in their lives. After all, as Emma Thompson says in Stranger Than Fiction, “Sometimes, when we loves ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies.” Though this recipe isn’t necessarily Bavarian, the same sentiment applies. Curiously, I’ve found little to no success when I use any sugar cookie recipe other than my mom’s. You stick to what you know, I suppose. Or perhaps certain recipes are meant for certain people. Either way, this recipe is one of my most cherished, and I do hope you enjoy it”(Z’s words).

Do you have a favorite recipe that started you towards knowing how to cook? Feel free to share in the comments, and I’ll give it a shot.

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Bread and Other Grocery Hacks

Due to an amazing stroke of luck, a friend of mine is selling a stand mixer – I’ve been thinking longingly of dough hooks since my bread attempts have all been somewhat lackluster, even when edible. She barely used it, and it’s only 50 bucks – still a chunk of change but if you see what top-quality mixers go for, you know that’s a steal.

It reminded me, as I was daydreaming about the upcoming summer months when I work less and will be at home more, that I really want to cut grocery bills a little, hopefully by getting to enjoy the cooking/baking process. I like making bread, and it costs much less per loaf if made at home, and we tend to eat slightly less of it b/c my loaves are never as big as the store-bought kind, so it’s really all benefits. I’m wondering if there are other aspects of the baking/cooking I do now that could be cost-cut.

I’ve thought of things like buying bulk dry beans and soaking them ahead of time instead of cans, as well as making sauces and things mid-summer when veggies are cheaper to use in the winter, but I really am still trying to figure out how being more intentional might lower the grocery bill. We tend to buy in a somewhat haphazard way, mostly picking things that appeal in the moment or that we’ve been eating lately. For instance, Husband and I both love bagels and they run us 4 bucks a pack, so if I could get a bagel recipe to work well, it’d be awfully fun to make our own.

Hopefully I’ll also be supplementing with garden things, but that won’t be for months yet. So here’s my call to readers: what do you do to keep the grocery bill down? I’m not a big or faithful coupon-cutter, so it’s more ‘pick a new kind of food’ or ‘make it at home’ kinds of solutions I’m searching for. Thanks!

A Pecan Praline Dreams of New Orleans

Husband and I are going on 6 months together this week – our half-aversary or whatever you would call it. We went to see a beautiful modern dance company yesterday, and I am feeling particularly grateful to have him lately, and it always makes me daydream a bit of our honeymoon.

The morning after the wedding was rather ethereal – I couldn’t believe that all the planning was done, that I’d really gotten through the whole thing and it had gone well – my family and friends had enjoyed themselves and met my husband. That morning, though, we took a few hours to eat and unwrap some presents, but fairly soon we set off for New Orleans: half-way across the country but actually even more of a world away.

New Orleans looks to me like a European town, somewhere in France, maybe. The tropical air of the place still clung in those early days of December, and we settled into a little cottage on Esplanade and began a lovely week of wandering, eating, wandering some more, listening to music in small jazz clubs, looking out at the water, and discovering dusty bookstores and strange antique shops all over the city. I know we barely covered any of the city, but it felt like we saw so much in those days.

While the savory staples – jambalaya, shrimp etouffee, gumbo – filled our bellies, I picked out sweet, nutty pralines to bring home for Christmas. The other day, during a sweet tooth craving, I mixed up a batch of pralines and have been breaking off bits of it for days, satisfying a little sweetness and a little crunch.

I started by roasting pecans in butter, keeping an eye on them while I worked on the rest of the praline. Based on whatever recipe fits your fancy, mix brown sugar with butter and heat on high; the goal is to get the mixture dissolved and heated to the ‘soft ball’ stage with a candy thermometer. You can also just drop a bit of the mixture into ice water; when it stops splatting into the bottom of the cup and instead retains a ball form, you’re ready. Add the now-roasted pecans, remove from heat, and set to stirring. Once you notice that the mixture is thickening, you pour it out on a buttered piece of tin foil, and let it harden. Once finished, it’ll be the consistency of fudge or maple sugar candy, crumbly but with the crunch of the pecans.

I got my recipe from 101 Classic Cookbooks by the Fales Library – a present from my cousin J who lives far away but surprised me by coming to the wedding anyway – her sweet words and calm smile were so helpful to me in the sea of faces that day. She sent the cookbook later, and it felt like some kind of sign – she is in no small part the reason I started this blog! The book contains multiple praline recipes, but the brown sugar recipe seems most reminiscent of the ones we tried from New Orleans.

I cannot ditch home and run off to eat shrimp at outdoor cafes right now, but I can at least bite off a morsel of sweetness that I associate with a time of great relief and simple happiness.

 

 

 

34. J’s Sausage Gravy

I don’t remember when I met Husband’s aunt J – it feels like I’ve always known her. She’s the family member who lives closest to us (though she is moving away soon!) and one of the sassiest, strongest women I’ve ever met. She works a management job, which I have very few female role models who do this; she’s also a blast to hang out with and provided us with a good bit of the furniture in our house. Clearly, a wonderful person to know.

For breakfast last weekend, I whipped up this sausage gravy – I was worried that using coconut milk would make it weird and it sort of did; the mixture was a lot thicker than I expected from my Mom’s gravy as a kid, and the tiny back-of-throat sweetness of the gravy was not normal, but the flavor over all was so good that I devoured those biscuits like they were going out of style. I was never a big gravy girl, always a little picky and dubious about sauces, but I’m coming around to this one, especially when it has so much actual sausage in it and isn’t just a roux made of drippings. I would see this as part of a main course over biscuits or toast, not just a sauce on the side. Kept me full and happy for a whole morning of gardening and cleaning.

J’s Sausage Gravy

 

 

  • 1 lb. spicy pork sausage
  • 2-3 tablespoons flour
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • ½ to 1 cup of milk
  • salt and pepper, cayenne pepper.

 

Brown sausage; when fully cooked add butter and let it melt. Add flour 1 tbsp. at a time until all sausage covered lightly. Slowly add salt, pepper, cayenne, to your liking. Cook over medium-low heat; serve over biscuits/toast; top with your favorite hot sauce.

33. J’s Chicken Scampi

I didn’t really have a bachelorette party – Husband’s father, brother, and uncle wanted to take him out for a night of go-karting and eating hot wings. So that I’d have something to do, my future mother-in-law, her best friend J, and Husband’s grandmother all took me out for pedicures and a night of chatting and enjoying the beautiful scenery around their home. It wasn’t some kind of rager, but it bonded me to my mother-in-law’s best friend, J. She generously bought the bouquets for my wedding, which were insanely beautiful and somehow all the exact perfect shades for the wood of the barn and the green grass for the outdoor ceremony and the sunset over the mountains. She, like many others I met or got to know better because of marrying Husband, reminded me how honored I was to be joining the family, and how undeserved so much kindness really is.

Her recipe, written in her beautiful script, told me that I could make it ahead of time for an impressive dinner party food – I intend to make this one for a dinner party soon but I also wanted to test it out. I bought some panko breadcrumbs and used lemon juice from a bottle, but the recipe still turned out so flavorful, rich, yet light that I totally understood why it was a favorite for her. The wine and the olive oil combine to make a light sauce that infuses the lemon into the chicken. I made this alongside the one-pan pasta and it makes for a wonderful balance – a lot of veggies and pasta on the one side, a flavorful protein in the other.

I made the chicken in a pyrex dish with a plastic, tight-fitting lid, so I admit to having enjoyed mixing everything up before leaving it to marinade by shaking it a bunch. After that part, the whole thing is really quite marvelously simple. I recommend giving it a quick broil right at the end for browned breadcrumb topping, but make sure you watch it so it doesn’t burn – one or two minutes will do it.

J’s Chicken Scampi

3-4 chicken breasts cut in about 1 inch pieces

1 clove garlic

1 cup olive oil

½ cup white wine

parsley (a dried tablespoon or so)

salt and pepper
Combine this and then squeeze the juice of two lemons and let marinade a couple of hours. Take this mixture and put it in a baking dish and sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Serve over pasta. This is a great dish for company because it can be made ahead of time and is ready to go in the oven!

 

Sprouting

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Not my photo, and far more enthusiastic sprouts than I have right now.

Guys, gardening is hard.

Not that I didn’t know that, but this weekend has been a weekend full of sun and warm weather and I’m hoping, really hoping, that some of our little green shoots will turn into something recognizable. So far, here’s what we’ve got:

Potato barrel: two tiny little green nubs are sticking a bit out of the soil, which gives me hope for the rest of the little guys. When we have a full leafy carpet in there, we’ll add more potato slips, more dirt, and let them all just keep growing up in layers all season. At the end of the summer, you dump the barrel and pull out the potatoes… in theory. This is new for us.

Carrots: We have planted the wimpy little wisps I started indoors, and I’m hoping the high temperatures and sunlight will bring out the best in them.

Lettuce: Our first batch of lettuce and spinach languished under the snow flurries of last weekend, so we’ve planted seeds directly into our boxes for these and are hoping for the best. Only a few sad sprouts survived the cold so we’re hoping to see them pep up.

Tomatoes and Peppers: We’ve started the seeds, but they only get to stay out overnight when it doesn’t get below 50… we don’t want to shock them this early in the season.

Squash: This is a summer crop, but we’ve had such large and happy seedlings (and we really didn’t want this many squash vines… gulp) that we went ahead and planted four of them just to see what happens. The others will hang out with the tomatoes and peppers till fear of frost is gone.

I am mouth watery about making salads with fresh picked greens, dipping crisp peppers into hummus, blending my own tomato sauces to save for the winter, eating gallons of butternut squash soup… but I am SERIOUSLY ahead of myself. For today, I have got to hope these little guys can get out of the ground. We’ve also got a bucket planter filled with herbs, but they haven’t sprouted at all in a week… so we’re a little worried.

Projects like gardening put into stark contrast the difference in project style between Husband and I: I like to plan everything out and then make small tweaks to the plan; he is far more happy just deciding to do something today and laughing about it if it dies tomorrow. He knows a lot more about gardening than I do, but I think we both fall into the realm of novices at this point, at least in this new place where we’ve never gardened before. We’re getting used to each other’s rhythms, though a lack of communication at one point this weekend caused us to each plant seeds in the same square of our planting box; we’ll just have to see whose seeds actually win!

I’ll be back in a couple of days with more recipes; working through a backlog of cooked but not written-up recipes. Enjoy the sunshine, if you have it where you are.

32. C’s Banana Bread

When we were kids, my mom would make banana nut bread that she gave to the neighbors for Christmas. She also made some for us, thankfully, but I remember that while she wouldn’t necessarily stand at the fence and chat for hours with our neighbors, that one time each year she ventured over with foil-wrapped loaves and shared with them. My mother taught me how to have neighbors, which I’m now learning in my own house, in a new city, where that can sometimes be a challenge.

I really don’t know how to make friends with people just because they live next door to me, it turns out. What I do know, however, is that the outside of banana nut bread, when done right, is chewy, not really crunchy or soft but instead almost caramelized. It’s the best part of the bread, though obviously the moist interior is as good or better than any fancy-store muffin or sweet bread you can find.

From my kitchen, I can see my neighbor’s dog tearing around the square of lawn like a banshee. From my kitchen, I can see my other neighbor working on his truck, or another neighbor grilling some dinner. From here, I can take the overly ripe bananas that have somehow survived Husband’s fruit obsession and mash them with other foods, creating the pasty mixture that browns up into that enviable chewy crust. 

This particular recipe isn’t my mother’s; I found one online, substituted pecans for walnuts, and made a brown butter glaze to make sure the top was extra rich. It turned out thick and sturdy, able to hold up in a toaster, and because I had only one banana ready, I added applesauce and so it’s a two-fruit treat.

C’s Banana Bread

2 Bananas, very ripe (or one banana and one little single-serving tub of applesauce)

2 Eggs, large

1 1/3 cups All-purpose flour

1/4 tsp Baking powder

1/2 tsp Baking soda

3/4 tsp Salt, fine grain

2/3 cup Sugar

1/2 cup Pecans

5 1/3 tbsp Butter, unsalted

Combine sugar and butter; cream together. Add the eggs one at a time, and mix the baking powder, baking soda, and flour in a separate bowl. Add slowly while stirring to the butter mixture. Mash bananas and add with the pecans to the mixture; put into a loaf pan and bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes.

 

If you want to brown butter, here’s a technique to use; I added sugar to mine once it was done, to make a glaze, but I just eyeballed it and would suggest you do the same. http://www.thekitchn.com/basic-techniques-how-to-brown-77018