Chunky Applesauce

We all have different ideas of what is comforting: familiar movies, certain songs, a big bed piled high with blankets. When I’m lonely, comfort might come through a friend dropping by. When I’m tired, an afternoon nap. But when it’s early October and I’m feeling overwhelmed or discouraged or just like I miss someone very much, point me to the kitchen.

Cooking is such a gift, you know? You can walk into the kitchen with a million things on your mind—the client you lost at work, the list of things you have to finish by Monday, the way that long phone call just ended—and grab something off the counter, say, five green apples, crisp and tart and beautifully tangible, able to be held in your hand in the way ideas and anxieties and conversations can’t. You can peel them, one long and curly strip after another, watching their bright skins fall into the trash even as your shoulders relax, focusing on your knife slicing the exposed flesh rather than focusing on whatever was on your mind a few minutes ago.

wedding apples

And you’ll find repetition can be wonderfully soothing: pour the ingredients, stir the apples with spices, take a minute or so to blend everything into a sauce. While you do these things, you can think, of course, or you can be quiet. You can sing, or pray, or pray out loud. I do those things when I drive or when I clean; I do those things when I cook. I feel the apples softening as I stir, and I tell God I love having afternoons like this one, good gifts from Him. I add extra cinnamon, and my mind shifts from conflict to the things that make peace.

applesauce

Applesauce, in particular, is a kind of kitchen comfort: not only is it simple to make, with few steps and easy-to-find ingredients, but it’s delicious, like the inside of an apple pie or a more mashed version of Passover’s charoset. Warm and fragrant, this version shows something very important, that sometimes an hour in the kitchen is the very definition of comfort, especially when it ends with something good to eat, and you can follow its steps almost mindlessly—freeing you up to, you know, think, pray, sing or, do nothing else at all, while your hands lead your mind in the very important task of mixing together something sweet, spiced and, most importantly, able to be eaten with a big spoon.

Read More

How to Make the Perfect Apple Strudel

apples

After three attempts, two days and one satisfying result, I can honestly say I know something today I didn’t know a week ago—well, make that, I know a lot of somethings, and they all have to do with one thing, the kind of thing that’s no small feat, especially when you’re a slow learner (hand raised!) and prone to catastrophe (why yes, that was me that put wax paper in the oven on attempt #1)—I now know how to make the perfect apple strudel. There are bigger accomplishments to be made in life than this, I know, but there are few I’d be more happy about and few I’d be more excited to share with you.

So here is the story.

green apples in basket

You could say things began last Saturday, at an evening wedding on the lake, where all the tables in a big white tent in Michigan were topped by gorgeous, green apples and a certain beautiful bride insisted we take a whole basket home with us, because have you read her blog? she’s always generous like that and, our arms full while we walked to the car, we brainstormed what to do with them.

chopped apples

But in another way, you could say the story starts even earlier than that—decades earlier—in a small Maywood kitchen where my grandma liked to bake and in the house I grew up in, where my mom liked to make her recipes. I found the original version of this strudel, one in Grandma’s writing, one in Mom’s, tucked into an overflowing cookbook, the kind you have to hold carefully or papers start falling out, and although there were many [crucial! important! why-don’t-you-guys-write-this-stuff-down?] instructions missing, my third attempt at following it was a charm, particularly when I enlisted my mom’s trained eye for help.

strudel filling

Secret #1: With apple strudel, it’s all about technique.
There are many things you can fudge on: slice the apples, dice the apples; add nuts and raisins to the filling or leave them out; make one strudel or make them two at a time (the way the women in my family liked to). But one thing you can’t alter is the way you roll out the dough and spread the filling in a compact, uniform mountain right in the center. It should be high and even and just in the center of the dough. This is key.

strudel ready to bake

Secret #2: You don’t have to chill the dough. This is mind-blowing. I mean, the original instructions insist you refrigerate the dough, in wax paper, for eight hours or overnight, but: Mom has never done this, and now I’m just guessing Grandma didn’t either. I could launch into a long aside here about how home cooks really should write their recipes down accurately! for posterity! for struggling granddaughters! But I already whined about this to my mom, so I’ll just assume you all know this and we’ll move on.

baked strudel

Secret #3: You control the dough. I could have called this one, Use lots of flour or This is why you don’t have to chill it, but I like mentioning control because it emphasizes how the power is in your hands, literally. The dough will seem very sticky and elastic when you first work with it, but you are free (as free as can be!) to add flour to get stuck pieces off the parchment paper, to make the dough move around better, to just get it feeling the way you want. You’ll know when it’s the right amount because the dough will roll out easily and yet not stick uncontrollably. It’s magical.

slice of apple strudel

Secret #4: It’s OK if it leaks in the oven. Listen, the pastry dough is thin (that’s what makes it all flaky and buttery and mmmm), and the filling is wet, so you may have some leakage. That’s totally fine. Use a rimmed baking sheet, and make a little parchment paper wall around the strudel if you want, rolling up the edges. It will still taste good.

apple strudel and a fork

All these secrets would mean nothing if it weren’t for the results: a long, golden strudel with flaky crust surrounding hot, apple-pie-like insides with nuts and raisins and gooey sweetness. Have it with hot coffee! Top it with vanilla ice cream! Eat it on its own! This is an apple strudel to be excited about. And I am.

Read More

thin, chewy pizza crust

thin and chewy pizza crust

You remember what it was like when you were a kid and you hated to go to bed? You could have just had the best day in your life—a birthday party, playing with friends, swimming, riding bikes, building pretend houses, eating fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, whatever—but when the sun went down, you knew what was coming. No matter how great the last few hours had been, no matter how much joy you’d been offered—and especially no matter what anyone else had told you about thankfulness—there was only one thing on your mind when your mom said to put your pajamas on, and it was a disheartening thing indeed: all this fun had to end.

That’s a little how I feel this morning.

adding mushrooms to pizza

It’s funny to think about, really. I mean, we all look at a child throwing a tantrum before bed and see precisely what he doesn’t, the very factors that would take his fear away: Morning will come, we want to say to him. There’s more fun to be had. And besides, you have to rest; you need it. We know he doesn’t see these things yet, that to him, today feels like eternity, Right Now feels like all that matters. And we know too that he’s greedy, the way we all are, the way I am about many things. Give me a good, long weekend like this last one, for example, filled with pure enjoyment every step of the way, and come Monday morning, Right Now is all I see. It’s not gratitude I’m filled with; though some gratitude is there. What I most fight and what I most feel is the same thing a child deals with who keeps hopping out of bed: wishing I had more.

I also get greedy about food—certain types more than others. Like when I bake a fresh batch of cookies, it doesn’t matter if I’m full, it doesn’t matter if it’s 11 PM; I eat at least four. Really. Or garden vegetables: offer me something from your garden, anytime, and I will take it, gladly, arms wide open, whether or not I know what to do with it, whether or not my fridge is full.

neapolitan-style pizza

But mostly, there is pizza. Is it terrible to admit, in this world of gourmet recipes and expensive ingredients, that it’s still my favorite meal? I won’t eat just any kind anymore, but I’ll eat the kind I like every day of the week. I promise if you give me a slice from Spacca Napoli, I’ll want more. That’s just how me and pizza work.

In my opinion, the key to the right pizza is the crust: it should be thin and chewy, slightly charred around the edges, with dough so translucent you almost see through it and moist enough to fold in half like they do in New York. Toppings are flexible. There’s the classic: tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, also known as Margherita. Or you can go cutting edge with potatoes! or arugula! or a white bean pesto like I had at this restaurant Friday night. Yesterday, after making our crust with white spelt flour (why? results identical to all-purpose but better for you) and in a free-form shape (why? because why not!), we topped it with diced green peppers, thin wisps of onion and sauteed mushrooms, with large rounds of mozzarella throughout.

The idea came from a post at The Kitchen Sink Recipes, which I’d read last April (!) and not forgotten about, and Kristin draws her crust from The Fresh Loaf, where the instructions are so thorough, I really have to point you over there directly.

slices of homemade pizza

We set the oven to 500F, then 525F, then eventually to 540F (who knew my oven went that high?) for our second pizza. Don’t be afraid to do the same: high temperatures are key to getting that blistered, still chewy crust. Other keys I picked up from Kristin: paint the sauce on very thinly, use parchment paper beneath the pizza for an easy lift out, keep your eye on it after five minutes (our first one took 10 minutes at 500 degrees) to watch for golden cheese and browned bread.

I’d also add that vegetables work beautifully as toppings in this style of pizza because the high temperature essentially roasts them, right on the crust, and you know how much I love roasted vegetables.

And anyway, this Monday, while I work on remembering the things that children can’t (I am thankful for the weekend I had, other good weekends will come, today is also a gift and I probably need it just as much as children need sleep), I will do it with at least one reminder of what we just had: a few more slices of this pizza.

Read More

Curried Coconut Chicken & Peanut Butter Noodles

Listen, it’s not like I never do adventurous things. I mean, you know: I ride roller coasters. I cut 11 inches off my hair. I launch out into self-employment. And hello, there was that mountain in Maine I won’t let anyone forget about. Remember?!

But when it comes to my kitchen and new types of cuisine, even I will admit that I stick pretty close to the basics: American, Italian, sometimes Greek, but pretty rarely anything outside that. And if it weren’t for my friend Stacey, who came over Tuesday night to, at her suggestion, try making Thai food, that would all be exactly the same.

peanut butter noodles

Our plan of attack was simple: pick two recipes, adapt the ingredients to be fully natural, follow the instructions and cook.

Read More

Spelt Carrot Cake

Speaking from a history of impatience, I can tell you it helps, at least a little, if you can mentally psych yourself up for the things you have to wait for. Like, it takes time to learn things, have you noticed that? It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up a new instrument, taking driver’s ed, meeting a stranger or experimenting in the kitchen: nine times out of ten, you’re not going to get it the first time—ten times out of ten, if you’re me.

Then there’s the post office. It will be crowded, trust me, no matter when you go, so bring your iPhone and catch up on Words with Friends games while you listen for your number to be called. Rush-hour traffic? We all know what that’s like. Expect delays or, you know, quit your office job to avoid traffic altogether.

Just knowing these things, simply anticipating the waits, makes it easier to push through them, easier to handle. At least for me. That’s why I wish I could always know time frames beforehand, I really do.

It’s kind of like this carrot cake.

Read More

and here we are, with babka

kite blowing in the breeze

I’m not going to ask where the time went. That’s what everyone says, halfway through summer, after the fireworks and before back-to-school, when we’re finally settled into the heat and humidity, when our arms are bronzed and our long-daylight days have begun to seem commonplace, when we’re looking at the calendar and saying, July 20? July 20! More than halfway through 2010? I am just getting used to it not being 2009! and we think of all the things we still want to do and we think of all the people we want to do them with, and our hearts start to race a little bit. OK, hang on.

How about instead of rushing ahead we just stop, right here and now, and take a look at this day, this July 20, this Tuesday we have and will never get again, and appreciate what’s brought us here?

I’ll start. With chocolate babka.

braided chocolate babka

Read More

finally getting it now

fresh strawberries

I don’t remember the first time I ate a strawberry. Do you?

I wonder if I liked it right away or if it took some time. I wonder if it was like tomatoes, where at first I hated the texture, and then I had some sliced on pizza and didn’t hate them, and soon started to want them (on pizza, on sandwiches, growing more plants every year). I kind of feel like I always liked strawberries, but who knows? I mean, some things take time to warm up to.

soaked spelt berry muffins

For example, I do remember the first time I soaked flour, and it was no strawberry. Remember that bittersweet soaked whole grain bread experience, the one where I was never quite sure if I’d done it right and the yeast plus my inexperience added up to ho-hum? I could have given up right then. I could have said no more soaking! It’s not easy to like! But then again, where would that attitude get me? I’ll tell you where: to a world without tomatoes, cherries, cheese, kefir, eggs, exercise and, heck, even some of my favorite people.

So I persevered. And go figure! I think I’m finally getting it.

Read More