The Failure Files: Peppermint Cheesecakes

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I ran out of “cute” cupcake liners about nine mini-cheesecakes into this recipe. For about a minute when this happened, I considered going out to buy new liners, holiday-appropriate pieces of paper, instead of using the Halloween themed ones I still had in the cabinet from (last?) October. I didn’t because some sane part of my brain realized that having treats wrapped in pinterest-perfect cuteness would not, in fact, make them taste better. It was that same part of my brain that saved me when I overfilled the first batch and the cheesecakes ballooned up and out of the mini-muffin tin. And when I proclaimed them a failure and threw myself dramatically on the couch, that part also told me to shut up and quit being such a drama queen. It’s just dessert.

Baking between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not always the fun process it is during the rest of the year. I get stressed out about whether what I make is good enough, cute enough, worth bringing to a party or giving away. And at my best I can get out of my own head enough to just enjoy the it anyway or to laugh at the abject failures before going out to buy something instead. It doesn’t happen like that every time – sometimes I just stay flopped on the couch, muttering to myself about how terrible things are – but more often than not these days I embrace the failure. Or at least I deal with it cheerfully. Because failures happen in every kitchen – even if blogs and magazines don’t advertise that fact very often. Cakes sink, rice burns, flavor combinations just don’t work out – it happens. It doesn’t mean anything negative about you, or your cooking, or your ability to think up new recipes. You live, you learn, you eat something else for dinner.

At least there were some valuable lessons in this whole experience. No, this cheesecake recipe can’t just be baked in mini-muffin tins – it doesn’t work right in such small quantities. And no, candy cane Joe-Joe’s can’t just be substituted directly for the biscuits I usually use for the crust. And no, the sky does not in fact fall when I make sub-par baked goods with the intent of serving them to others. Shocking, I know. I still took the cheesecakes pictured above to the office cookie swap. They weren’t a total failure – although I did manage to turn off the oven while baking the last batch (just in case I hadn’t made enough mistakes). They weren’t worth making again and the recipe isn’t worth sharing. But they were sweet, and minty from the chocolate peppermint, and festive in a weird way. And if anyone says they like them, I’ll just say “Thank you.”

A New Family Thanksgiving

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I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about the word “family” over the course of this year. Sometime early in our engagement a friend said that one of the big meaningful things about getting married is that it is, in a lot of ways, the start of a new family. And despite the fact that Jeff and I lived together for more than five years before getting married, our wedding really did feel like the beginning of the two of us as a family. We’d traveled together. We took care of each other when we got sick. We’d celebrated holidays and new jobs and graduations together. But we didn’t really call ourselves a family. I mean, let’s face it, getting married is the first time you can think a family member is sexy without feeling dirty about it.

This is also the first year that other people have asked if we’re going to have new family traditions now that we’re married. As if the rings give us a new privilege to break free and celebrate Thankgiving our own way. I’m always a little mystified by this one since Jeff and I started our own traditions when we moved away from home. Distance makes a much better impetus for change than a marriage document, and by this point we’ve pretty much established our Thanksgiving tradition.

We, or rather I, start planning for the holiday early. Often as early as April, although this year I got a late start and only began in July. I go through notes of past years, look up new recipes, start thinking about what I want to make for this year. It’s an almost entirely different meal every year – except for this cranberry sauce which Jeff has decreed must appear at every Thanksgiving. A month in advance we have a menu, a few weeks in advance we have an idea of the guest list (which varies from four to our all time record of 21), and the weekend before the holiday we start cooking. We’re in the thick of it now, fridges bursting with every dairy product you can think of. It’s wonderful. It’s exhausting. It’s our first family Thanksgiving. Sort of.

If you’re curious about what made the cut for this year’s menu, indulge your nosiness: Stuffing, Salad, Cauliflower, Corn, Potatoes, Rolls, Cranberry Sauce #2, and Desserts 1 and 2

And if you’re in need of more last minute inspiration from around this site: Mushroom Casserole, Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Hashed TurnipsCranberry Blueberry Cobbler, Gingerbread Cake

Food for Being Sick at Home

I spent most of the week after our honeymoon lying on the couch. Sick. Sniffling, runny nose, congested, with a stomach bug thrown in for good measure. Tissues piled up around the apartment as I moved from bed to couch, blowing my nose, napping, coughing, generally being as pathetic as possible. Eating was not a priority and the things I did eat were hardly noteworthy. When I’m sick I like to eat specific things: brothy soup, saltines, applesauce, and sliced hard-boiled eggs on toast. Bland, unchallenging food. Food that almost never makes an appearance when I’m healthy, or at least not in the plain Jane variations that I subsist on during a bad cold.

What we eat when we’re sick seems to be equal parts conventional wisdom and nostalgia. Bland crackers, plain toast, watery soup, all seem to be universally agreed upon. The applesauce is bit more unusual but understandable. But, to date, my brother and I seem to be the only people fed hard boiled eggs on toast as “easy on the stomach” food. The toast was always dry, the eggs sliced on a little device made exactly for that purpose (also great for evenly slicing mushrooms) and sprinkled with salt and a little black pepper. Like any good sick-day food it tastes delicious while you’re snuggled up in bed with a box of tissues and disappointingly bland when you’re back to feeling healthy. And it’s terribly unphotogenic to boot (plus who wants to drag out the camera equipment when they feel sick?). But when you’re stuck on the couch, sniffling, and generally feeling sorry for yourself, it’s a pretty ideal plate of food.

And what was the first thing I ate when I was feeling better? Fried eggs with toast. Obviously.

Kitchen Tips and Tricks

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Tip #1: A spoonful of mustard will brighten up a slow cooked stew.

My dad is a stew man. He’s a fan of any pot of food that makes its own gravy, which can be sopped up with slices of bread one the juice is all that’s left. Or maybe even before, alternating bites of soaked bread with slow cooked meat and vegetables. But that slow cooking process also mutes bright and punchy flavors so that by the time you’re ready to ladle it out everything is a bit flat, a bit one note. It’s a common problem and recipes suggest adding one or another ingredient to liven things up.

Let’s just dismiss all the suggestions that involve cooking or preparing something extra before serving, like some finely minced herbs or lightly sauteed garlic. There are times when I have the patience to do that but in general, stew is something I serve when I’m short on time or energy. The cooking happens days in advance (or weeks if I’ve stashed some in the fridge) and when it’s on the night’s dinner menu mostly I want to just heat it up. Nothing more. The other option for sprucing it up is to add something, either at the beginning or the end of the process, to refresh the flavor.

Adding at the end doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t solve the problem of having a one note dish. The stew becomes too overly tart or acidic to the exclusion of other flavors and you end up with a different version of the same problem. The secret weapon I’ve found over years of trial and error is a spoonful or two of mustard, added to the stew at the beginning of cooking. The strong nose-tingling kick mellows during cooking but it doesn’t disappear entirely. Unlike vinegar or lemon juice which have distinct “cooked” flavors that can be off-putting, mustard tends to cook out into an indefinable yet noticeable brightness that cuts through the rich slow-cooked flavor without unbalancing it. It works for just about every stew recipe I’ve tried and when I leave it out, I notice the difference. Given the negligible extra time it takes and the fact that I always have mustard in the fridge, it’s a no brainer.

The Last Melon of Summer

By 5 pm, there were only two slices of melon left. We went for a walk around 2:30 to buy “treats.” I bought a chocolate bar flavored with coffee and studded with pieces of buttery toffee. Jeff bought a crenshaw melon, bright yellow and weighing at least five pounds. It smelled floral and sweet, and he happily lugged it the few blocks home. Split open, it was even more fragrant as he scooped out the interior seeds and went to work breaking it down. He cut up half of it, piling the slices into a bowl that he demolished over the next hour. I had a slice. It tasted like summer, aromatic and heady and sweet without being cloying. A clean flavor, “as close to juice as fruit gets,” Jeff told me.

The melon’s gone now, was gone before dinner time. It’s probably the last melon of summer. Even San Francisco’s delayed summer is wrapping up although this week still promises some hot days. Even in California, melons worth eating are only around in the late summer. Now is the time for plums, pears, and dark purple grapes.

But, if you happen to find yourself with a late summer melon like we did, don’t hold back. Let the rinds pile up over the course of the afternoon. I’ve never found a better way to eat a melon than by the slice, although on the rare occasion we end up with more than we can finish plain I’ll chop it up into a salsa with jalapeno, red onion, and cilantro. Mostly though, it ends up eaten fresh, plain or with salt sprinkled on top (the salt! If you haven’t tried it, please do; it changes everything) and maybe a little chili powder. Slice after slice, until it’s gone.

Dinner Dreams: Rosh Hashanah

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I won’t be in synagogue tomorrow, observing Rosh Hashanah. You wouldn’t have found me there last year, or the year before. When family have asked over the last few weeks what we’re doing for the holiday that answer has mostly been “nothing”. But that’s not really true either. It’s just that after years of celebrating the holiday with a day spent in synagogue, the things that I find the most meaning in is the food and the togetherness it creates.

The standard joke is that most Jewish holidays can be summed up in three lines and the last line is always “let’s eat.” Each holiday has it’s own special foods and Rosh Hashanah is all about sweetness. Crisp apples dipped in honey (Palo Alto honey this year, from a friend’s hives). Raisin studded and sweetened challah, from this cookbook, wrapped into a round for the start of a new year. My father-in-law asked if there will be brisket, perhaps the most iconic Jewish holiday meal. Well, there won’t be a brisket, but there will be a roasted chicken. And maybe some chipotle carrots to balance out all that sweetness. If there were more of us there might also be a noodle kugel, Jeff’s mother’s recipe most likely although I’d love to try this one.

I made the honey cake pictured above with Rosh Hashanah in mind although I don’t think it will show up at tomorrow night’s dinner. It’s just a banana bread recipe, this one in fact, with the banana swapped out for 1 cup of honey and the sugar reduced by about a quarter cup and without the chocolate and ginger. So really it’s a wholly different thing built from the roots of original tradition. Kind of like how this Rosh Hashanah will be. There won’t be hours of prayer or long sermons. There won’t be uncomfortable itchy tights or squashed toes from all the people getting in and out of their seats all morning long. There won’t be a lot of people at all. What there will be tomorrow will be two people spending time together, making a meal, celebrating the last year of accomplishments, and thinking about how to grow from here. L’Shanah Tova.

Eggplant Parmesan for One

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I don’t often find myself alone in the house for more than a few hours. I prefer it that way. I like the companionship of having other people around, of being together even if that means sitting quietly on opposite ends of the apartment doing different things. It’s comfortable for a psuedo-introvert like me to “spend time” with people without always having to interact. There were and are always people coming and going in my home. Someone arriving, someone knocking on your door to chat, someone to sit and watch tv with at the end of the day. Now there are three of us: Jeff, me, and our roommate living in this relatively small apartment. And while the extreme rents of San Francisco are certainly part of our decision to live together, that’s not the whole story. It’s nice to have someone else’s perspective around, to have someone else’s thoughts and ideas and friends and presence filling up the house. Like now as we sit in different parts of the house, working on separate projects, listening to someone’s music in companionable quiet.

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The flip side of that is there are rarely more than a few hours when I’m the only one home. A few weeks ago I found myself home alone for a whole weekend and it dawned on me that it might be the first time even in this apartment that it’s happened. And naturally I took full advantage. I blasted my most embarrassing music (Backstreet Boys and LFO) without worrying about someone coming home and catching me mid-lip sync. I curled up on the couch with a pile of blankets and a new TV show to binge on. I left my dirty dishes on the living room floor for far longer than I would have gotten away with if someone else was home. It was wild and crazy times around here. Or at least indulgent and selfish times. It was good.

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I ate a lot of eggplant that weekend while I had the time to myself, which seemed like a kind of weird craving. I mean, I like eggplant roasted or fried or blitzed into baba ghanoush, but it’s never at the top of my favorite foods list. But I also almost never eat it. No one else in this house likes it much and so it’s never really around. There are too many other foods that come first on my “you must eat this” list to bother much with eggplant. But with a house to myself and no one else to feed it was what I ate for at least four meals over the weekend. Two eggplants go a long way when there’s only one person eating. And sometimes, it’s nice to just sit and eat eggplant for one.

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Eggplant Parmesan for One
Inspired by the roasted eggplant dish in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

1 small eggplant, about 1 lb, stem removed and cut in half
1 cup cherry tomatoes or half cup tomato sauce
A few spoonfuls of pesto
Grated cheese (optional)
Kosher Salt
Olive oil
Fresh thyme (optional)

PREHEAT the oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with foil and rub it with a few spoonsfuls of oil. Place the eggplant halves on the baking sheet, cut side up and sprinkle them with salt.

TOSS the cherry tomatoes in a medium bowl with some salt and olive oil, and thyme is you’re using it. Then set the bowl aside.

ROAST the eggplant halves for 15 minutes, then flip them cut side down and add the cherry tomatoes to the pan. Roast for another 15 minutes until the eggplant is soft and the cut side is browned. At this point the tomatoes should also be softened and burst. Remove the pan from the oven.

TRANSFER the eggplant halves to a plate and top with the cherry tomatoes or tomato sauce. Add grated cheese if you’re using it, I like provolone or parmesan. Then top with pesto.

Since it’s a solo meal, it’s best enjoyed with a stack of magazines or a trashy TV show. You can also roast several eggplants at once and reheat them as needed. They’ll keep for a week or two in the fridge.

Dark and Stormy

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Old habits die hard. I still think of Labor Day weekend as the end of summer even though I finished up my schooling several years ago and my vacation isn’t tied to the seasons. Nevermind that San Francisco gets hot in late September and October and that it’s never really beach weather here. That tomatoes and peaches will still be available for another month and that strawberries practically never go out of season. That over the last few months I’ve left the house with a sweater or coat more often than not. I’m still sad to see the summer go.

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My family always had a lobster dinner to send off the summer around Labor Day. Sometimes neighbors joined us, sometimes it was just the four of us. There were lobsters for each of us, dishes of garlic butter all over the table, a lot of mess and piles of cracked shells at the end. I thought of that a lot last month when Jeff and I were eating lobster in Maine after our wedding. Not so much about the lobster, but about saying goodbye to summer. It’s not something I think of often here where summer bleeds into fall and fall into winter with little change in the weather.

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This year I’d planned to toast the end of summer with my favorite summer cocktail given the general unavailability of lobster. I don’t know what exactly I planned on toasting – the end of three day weekends until Thanksgiving? The end of weekday evening frisbee because even though it’s warm, the sun goes down too early? I’m still not sure. The feeling that something is over even without the start of a school year or the end of vacation. Sort of like Christmas in the Grinch, it comes without all the expected trappings or accompaniments. And unlike Christmas, it comes without the excited anticipation beforehand and instead brings a sort of sad resignation. It’s an ending and those always require a bit of send off. And if we can’t have lobster, at least we can raise our glasses, maybe make a toast, and drink to the end of summer.

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Dark and Stormy
Makes one drink

Traditionally this is made with ginger beer and dark rum. But I don’t usually have dark rum around, so I used a mixture of bourbon and a medium rum which makes this almost appropriate for fall.

1 bottle ginger beer, I prefer something spicy but ginger ale would work here too
½ shot bourbon
½ shot rum
A quarter of a lime plus additional slices for garnish
Ice

FILL a pint glass with ice and pour the bourbon and rum over the ice. Squeeze in the lime and either add the lime wedge to the glass or discard it and add a fresh slice to the glass.

POUR the ginger beer into the glass to fill it the rest of the way. Give it a quick stir with a straw and then enjoy. Cheers.

Summer Tomato Pie

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In the summer of 2009 I treated myself to a subscription to Gourmet magazine. I was one miserable year into law school and all I wanted was to escape. I imagined the collection of Gourmets that I would have one day, stacks of magazines from years of subscriptions that I could pull out and flip through in my obviously spacious apartment. Or maybe in the day dreams it was a house with a whole room dedicated to books and a whole bookshelf to old issues of Gourmet. Except that dream is no longer. I don’t have much interest in collecting back issues of magazines now that the old recipes are all available online and I still don’t have an apartment spacious enough for a whole bookshelf of them anyway. Plus, Gourmet magazine went out of print later that year. I only had time to collect a handful of issues.

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I’ve pored over all of those issues, but especially that first one I received. Over the few months after it came in the mail I took it off the shelf at random intervals to flip through the pages, reading it again, tagging recipes I wanted to try. But I only ever made one recipe from that book and it didn’t take a dog eared tag to convince me to make it. Tomato and corn pie. For the past few years we ate it every summer when heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn appeared in the market at the same time.

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This year though, I skipped the corn. California corn just isn’t as good as what I remember growing up in New England. It’s not as sweet as what I remember growing up with in New England. The kernels aren’t as plump and juicy as the corn Jeff and I have with our patents if we get the chance to visit in the summer. Add to that the challenge of cutting corn off the cob which always means chasing kernels as they leap off the cutting board. I skippd the whole issue, simplified the recipe to the essentials – tomatoes, mayo, parmesan cheese, crust. No corn needed.

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Summer Tomato Pie

One recipe flaky pie crust, with an added 1/2 cup of cornmeal in the dough plus some extra water to bring it together
4 medium to large tomatoes, heirloom preferred, thickly sliced; discard the top and bottom slices
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp dried thyme
2-3 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp kosher salt
2-4 tbs mayo
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper
Large flake sea salt, to taste

MAKE the dough and let it rest, covered, in the fridge for at least a half hour.

PREHEAT the oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Flour a counter or cutting board liberally. Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thickness. Transfer the dough to the sheet.

SPRINKLE the dough with the bread crumb mixture, leaving the outer two inches of the dough clear. Then layer the dough with tomato slices. As you add the tomatoes, sprinkle them lightly with salt so each slice is well seasoned. Spread the mayo over the top of the slices and sprinkle with the parmesan cheese. Fold the dough over the tomato slices and season with the pepper and flaky sea salt.

BAKE the pie for 40-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Remove it from the oven and let it cool to room temperature before serving. As a bonus, cold slices of this pie make a hell of a breakfast.

The Basic Burger

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My parents used to have a burger shaping device that we used to make our own patties in the summer. It was a patty-sized cylindrical mold with a flat lid used to press a handful of seasoned ground beef so that it’s perfectly even and flat; so it comes out looking like one of the patties you can buy in bulk from the freezer section of the grocery store. I loved using it, putting my entire body weight into flattening the meat into a uniform disc. I ruined countless burgers, turning loosely packed ground meat into a dense circle sure to cook into a tough and chewy hockey puck. It would be years before I learned that a tender and juicy burger is the result of gently handled meat.

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In my vegetarian years I traded over-pressed patties for veggie burgers, most of which had a uniform texture and tough chew reminiscent of what I grew up with. Then a few years ago burgers became a hot menu item. Besides the craze for fast food done slightly better, a la Shake Shack, Five Guys, and In N Out, gourmet versions were everywhere. They came oozing cheese, stuffed with caramelized onions, served with no fewer than five condiments. They were great and Jeff and I ate them until we could eat no more. But they were never really about the burger. In most of those creations the meat could have been removed entirely without any real change in taste to the meal.

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There’s certainly a time for the blue cheese and bacon burger with onion rings and barbecue sauce eclipsing the obligatory lettuce. But if I’m making them at home there’s probably not much going on between the buns; lettuce, tomato, something pickled, mustard, maybe some mayo. I make my own patties without the help of any shaping or mushing tools. It’s just salt, pepper, sometimes Worcestershire sauce but usually not, and a light hand. The only pressing is the little divot in the middle, supposedly to prevent the middle from puffing up as it cooks. There’s not much of a recipe below because there’s not really a lot that goes into making a simple burger. It’s what you leave out that makes all the difference.

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The Basic Burger

Makes 3-4 burgers

1 lb ground beef
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tbs worcestershire sauce (optional)

COMBINE the ground beef with the salt, pepper, and worcestershire (if using) in a large bowl. Loosely toss the mixture together so that the seasoning is evenly distributed. A folding method, similar to incorporating beaten egg whites into a batter, works well here.

DIVIDE the meat into three or four equal portions, depending on how many burgers you’re making.

SHAPE the meat into patties gently, patting it into place with your hands – no need to squeeze. The patties should be a little loose when you’re done and feel like they might fall apart if you’re not careful with them. When you have the shape you want, lightly press a thumb into the center of each patty to create a little divot.

GRILL the patties on a grill set to medium heat – too hot and they will char on the outside before they’re cooked, too low and they won’t get nice caramelized bits. It may take some testing to find how how your grill should be to achieve this. I like to cook mine about 7 minutes on each side, flipping them at the four minute mark so each side gets cooked for a four minute period and a three minute period. If you like your burger closer to medium than rare, add a few extra minutes. You could also cook these in a pan on medium high heat, following the same steps when it comes to timing and flipping. If you don’t use a non-stick pan, grease it a little before cooking. While the burgers will give off some grease as they cook, it won’t be fast enough to lubricate the pan while the first side cooks.