There’s something uniquely intimate about the first meal of the day.
Lunch is always a more casual affair — a half-hour break from a cramped office that begs for a moment or two of fresh air; a quick bite with a friend you’re either close enough with that a conversation delving deeper than the week’s gossip isn’t necessary or one you’re distanced enough from that dinner would be asking too much.
And dinner, the date standard whose pressure is often eased with a glass or three wine, operates around reserved times and prix fix menus and first impressions.
But breakfast. I did a report on the importance of this literal break from a night’s fast in a freshman public speaking class, and quote scary dietetic statistics ad nauseam to the friends that still insist on skipping food until lunch. But breakfast to me is so much more than my day’s necessary protein boost.
Beyond being, truly, the most important meal of the day and one that I can’t function without a hearty version of, breakfast is the meal I most love to share.
Brunch in Burlington, VT is a religious experience, and I’m lucky enough to have friends that worship at this altar with me.
But whether it be for a roommate, your mother, or for an overnight guest, the gesture of making breakfast for someone else feels especially sweet. You’ve taken on the task of their nurturing, and whether that’s achieved via kitchen sink frittatas, dutch baby pancake, or a slice of toast matters less than the thought involved.
So make someone breakfast, and mean it.
If your breakfast-making endeavor is more on the surprise side, try scrambled eggs with dill (wait, am I the only person that keeps fresh dill on hand at all times?), berries and greek yogurt drizzled with honey, or quick biscuits with butter and jam or an egg.
Light candles, no matter who you’re cooking for.
(You know what’s severely underrated? Candles during the day. I studied abroad in Denmark. The Danes do it. They got legos and the breeding of perfect human specimens right, so why not this?)
Guys, this is a step-by-step guide to win over every heart you come in contact with. Also, a step-by-step guide to being a great all around human being.
A pot of coffee or tea goes a long way too.
Fingers wrapped around a mug on a bright weekend morning — there are few things finer. And sharing this moment with someone? There are few things as simple or sweet.
Of my food magazine debut!
The Spring issue of College & Cook goes live on Tuesday.
Springtime in Vermont is fickle. Having spent the past 5 months wrapped, tucked, and zipped into a multitude of incongruous layers, the first time the mercury peeks out over the 60° mark, every buried pair of shorts is retrieved from hidden closet corners and every possible inch of near-translucent skin exposed to sunlight.
But as easily as it comes, it never stays long. A record-shattering 81° this past Monday that sent every last sun-starved UVM student to our stretch of what passes for a “beach” in Vermont coupled with an expected 37° high an exact week from that date meant that I took careful measure to take full advantage of all the culinary glory this fleeting burst of Vermont spring had to offer.
And first and foremost, this means creemees.
Some with cold, dead hearts claim that a “creemee” is just the unjustifiable Vermont term for plain ol’ soft serve ice cream. But I refuse to believe the nasty rumors. If Wikipedia says creemees are their own unique brand of smooth, sweet deliciousness, then who I am to argue?
But what truly sets creemees apart is the king of all cones itself: the maple creemee. Sure, you’ve had your maple lattes, maple bacon doughnuts, and maple fudge. But there’s something uniquely satisfying about the deep, often smoky flavor of maple delivered via cold summer treat.
I’ve eaten four in the last week.
And even now as I sit curled on the couch in a sweatshirt, blanket around me and tea clutched in hand, I can appreciate that however briefly, spring came early this year, and it was especially sweet.
I am not a perfect person. I have never shown an interest in learning how to make a pot of coffee. I hate flossing. I’ve most likely lost more reusable water bottles than have been saved by my reusable water bottle usage.
And I used a cake mix to make my roommate’s 21st birthday cake.
But hear me out! I don’t like to bake. We know this. The necessary precision is stifling, and my very favorite plates are messy ones. Bakers value fondant flowers, not chaos.
Also, my apartment doesn’t have a mixer, which makes a from-scratch cake rather difficult.
And despite those suspicious cake mix lumps that will never disappear, no matter how much whisking muscle you flex,
I’d call this one a success.
And look how much mess I made. Just soak it in.
Cake mixes, I’m not ashamed that you hold a special little place in my heart, next to brownie mix (I’m sorry — I have never, ever, ever tasted a homemade / bakery brownie I thought was denser, chewier, or more chocolatey than good ol’ Duncan Hines) and soy egg nog (for obvious reasons. Right? Right).
But then things went downhill. I think I was being punished by the culinary gods, just a little.
I’ve been on a dangerous-in-its-devotion salted caramel kick, so in the spirit of doing something nice for someone else’s birthday, I thought I’d make a salted caramel cake. She requested yellow cake + chocolate frosting, which is really close enough, and who is this day about, really? Oh, right. But who doesn’t like salted caramel, right? Right.
I’d done some serious caramel-making Googling, only to be warned of the dangers of the amber nectar. But I aint scared of nothin’.
Except when the beautiful brown liquid I’d just laboriously stirred into submission spontaneously doubled in volume. (Rule of thumb: photograph first, clean later.)
And then I, after rhetorically asking another roommate whether I should actually touch the scalding caramel, touched the caramel. I didn’t take a photo of the blister that, four days later, is still noticebly throbbing. Apologies.
Caramel and I, we’ve sort of developed a love/hate thing.
Cake layer #1: Not so hot. But that’s nothing a little chocolate ganache (in theory made with heavy cream, but this milk-protein-allergic pseudo-baker extraordinaire used soy milk, and none the wiser) can’t help.
Thicker, denser, and with a truer chocolate flavor, ganache, though unconventional, creates an irresistible shell around a layer cake. It’s literally the inside of a chocolate truffle on the outside of your cake.
[The simplest ganache recipe I can offer you, which will easily cover and fill a two-layer cake: 2 cups heavy cream/milk/soy milk/whatever cow liquid or faux cow liquid you have on hand, brought to a boil in a saucepan. Turn off the heat, then add 16 oz (usually two packages) of semisweet baking chocolate, chopped roughly. Let it sit undisturbed for a minute or two, and then stir until smooth.]
But then I remembered that I wanted to add caramel too, but luckily my adorable roommate / baking assistant / general witness to the cluskerfuck of my baking adventures was there to lend a hand.
The almost-21-year-old roommate in question has quite the thing for trees. This was my attempt to make a caramel tree.
So as to not leave you hanging, everyone survived the 21st birthday festivities, which could only fairly be attributed to the cake. The magical, made from a box cake.
Consumed in my apartment for every meal imaginable and gone within two days, I’d call it a rousing cake success. And not a single one of my discerningly pallated friends guessed my dirty little secret. So fear not, fellow cheaters of the baking world. With a little inspiration and a bit of a daring streak, you too can fool the best of them.
Caramel, you’re as pretty as you are cruel. An ABC Family original series just waiting to happen.
I am not a perfect person. But I can still make a damn good cake.
These are not fancy, nor are they healthy. They’re not even that pretty. But they’re mixed with affection, and coated in nostalgia, and for that, they’re as deserving of a photo shoot as any other fancy, healthy, pretty thing I’ll make.
Legend has it that when those pioneers who settled in what is now the state of Ohio (the butt of every joke made outside of the Midwest, but little do they know we all just make fun of Indiana), they were so struck by the beauty and hardy nature of the buckeye tree (named for the nut’s resemblance to deer eyes) that they made it the official tree of the territory, and would carry the (apparently toxic) nuts in their pockets.
(Thanks, Ohio Nature!)
300 years later, us Ohioans are more in favor of sugar — pounds of it — chocolate, and peanut butter. And so we make these.
I don’t remember the first time I had a buckeye, or if there was a time I didn’t know what one was. Like the process of maple sugaring in Vermont, or that you’re expected to be a Red Sox fan until you die in Massachusetts; buckeyes, as ubiquitous as the football team that shares the name, are an expected piece of Ohio holiday tradition. And having moved to Texas two years ago and transplanting myself in New England for college, this year I felt the need to share the sugar coma-inducing splendor with the non-Ohio masses.
Behold the glorious ingredients.
That is not flour. Rather, 32 oz of powdered sugar.
Does Paula Deen know about these? I have a feeling she’d approve.
Hey there, beautiful.
(The peanut butter jar’s label, in bold letters, reminded me that ‘THIS IS NOT A LOW CALORIE FOOD.’ Much appreciated.)
My apartment doesn’t have a hand mixer, so I attempted to blend together 4 cups of powdered sugar, two sticks of butter, and a jar of peanut butter with a pastry cutter. Yeah, yeah, who on earth would own a pastry cutter but not a simple hand mixer? One of life’s greater mysteries, for sure.
Do you see that? The powdered sugar was basically smoking. And the air in my kitchen tasted (yes, tasted) like sugar for the next three hours.
We made it work.
Let me remind you, that is pure sugar, butter, and peanut butter. Rawr.
So you take that mixture, and press it into balls.
And try not to eat large chunks of the dough at this point. It’s bad form. And we haven’t even gotten to the chocolate yet.
There we are.
While the peanut butter/sugar balls take a quick trip to the freezer, help the three bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips into their most revered reincarnate.
Then a toothpick goes in, and we go to work.
Okay, so they’re kind of cute.
But sometimes the greedy ones will get stuck in the chocolate.
Yet you can kind of understand where they’re coming from.
You sort of look like deer eyes. Or tree nuts. Or whatever. Something delicious, nonetheless.
Packaged and ribboned, these little ambassadors of Ohio charm, cheer, and capacity for caloric intake are ready to be delivered.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. (GO BUCKS.)
One of those every-home-cook-has-their-own-prize-winning-version things, there is no one right ratio of peanut butter to sugar to butter to chocolate, but this is what has worked for me and has yet to send anyone into sugar shock, so:
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) room temperature butter
2 tbsp vanilla
1 jar peanut butter
Pinch of salt
Enough semi-sweet chocolate to coat (three 12 oz bags is usually safe)
Blend the sugar, butter, peanut butter, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. The mixture will be dry and crumbling.
Gently press together the dough to form small (a little less than an inch in diameter is what I aimed for) balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Insert a toothpick into each ball, and place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the chocolate chips in a glass or metal bowl placed over a boiling pot of water, stirring constantly. This will melt the chocolate gently, without burning it.
Retrieve the peanut butter balls, and quickly dip each ball in the chocolate, only partially submerging so they resemble a buckeye nut. Place back on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Its origins: fabled, but murky.
It began, in an official sense, in the throes of the Civil War, a stricken Abraham Lincoln using last ditch efforts to create a sense of unity among countrymen out for sticky, metallic, brethren blood.
Its date was solidified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an economic ploy during the most devastating financial crisis to date; a black line plunging red that sent men in suits soaring out of their storied windows, shaped lines that snaked around city blocks, left the trust of a generation squared securely beneath their mattresses.
And yet on the first day of November, a thousand miles away, on an island free from poverty, food insecurity, and social strife, the tradition was threatened.
“Pumpkins are October things.”
“What?,” my disbelief at the statement that so flippantly left my host mother’s lips poorly hidden.
“Pumpkins are for Halloween, no?” We were seated side-by-side at the dining room table, an Ikea number whose gleaming white plastic surfaces winked back at you with every sideways glance. A grocery list needed to be made, the cabinet staples I had come to take for granted necessitating a near-constant thumbing through the family’s Danish-English Dictionary.
“But pumpkin pie is Thanksgiving,” I asserted, more Thanksgiving than the four small turkeys we’d negotiated from the local butcher to whom a 20-pound turkey rang of animal abuse.
And yet the pumpkins I so happily spotted filling bins around Copenhagen a mere week before had altogether vanished, and in this strange country without a November holiday buffer, Christmas preparations were already being made.
Thanksgiving in the United States meant little to me. Each year a weekend was wasted in my Aunt’s musty basement, picking at Cool Whip-based desserts and interacting with the type of relative who would make Cool Whip-based desserts. The only part of the ritual I had ever enjoyed involved the paper hand turkeys we would craft in class the week before, prodigal with plastic safety scissors as I was.
But Copenhagen on those last October days was agreeably crisp, the air tart and ripe for plucking. And my homesickness, so pleasantly vacant the first two months of my study abroad experience, was finally getting cozy. “Can we host a Thanksgiving?” They’d all seen the movies, my host family delighting in the image of me blindly sticking an oversized plastic syringe into a steaming stove.
How strangely simple it is to switch into default mode, American children having been indoctrinated with the idea that a perfect Thanksgiving consists of candied yams piled sticky sky-high with marshmallows, cranberry sauce with the last memories of its can shaping its congealed form, herby stuffing confettied with celery and spices. Not that this in any way reflected my own previous experience.
But what better a place to perfect an American ideal than one where no one involved will know if you get it wrong?
Ways to get it wrong: marshmallows are only for summer campfires. Winter squash are native to North America. Chocolate chips aren’t a convenience item, sour cream is unheard of, spice names don’t translate easily, and beyond American borders, the concept of a family-sized frozen turkey does not exist.
How petulant I felt holding tears back, seated at that gleaming white table. “But we can still check?” my host mother offered. Though not tonight. It was past 17.00 (or 5:00 p.m., to those keeping track), and whatever humanitarian aspect of a mandated 35-hour work week I had admired as ever so progressive now just seemed to dictate that the grocery store was never, ever open.
Yet when the last Friday of November arrived (for this was Denmark, after all, and I had class on Thanksgiving), I made due.
A month of preparation led to a morning spent making cranberry sauce, piecrusts, and even marshmallows from scratch. Made mashed potatoes by hand, pie filling with a whisk, breadcrumbs with a rolling pin. From 7.00 to 16.00 (stretches of time do feel more consequential in metric units), I roasted and whipped and simmered and sautéed and, yes, even basted, my way to the most glorious Thanksgiving feast I had… never seen.
As if out of a postcard I’d never been sent, candles were lit, cutlery arranged in a precise order, and plate after plate after cutting board and drink tray and placemat because we ran out of plates, each bountifully filled, was placed on the table. And though we were expecting 25 guests, my host family was equally amazed and disgusted by the expanse of food that sat in front of us. But to me, in some deep, dark, dusty corner of my conscious being, it just felt right.
And in the moments before our guests arrived, I grabbed my 9-year-old host sister’s hand, tracing around her delicate fingers on a piece of paper. She scrunched up her freckled nose, finding me amusing as she often did but failing to grasp why I was tickling the space between her fingers with a pencil nub. “It’s a turkey!” I explained, her mother filling in the language divide. She was unconvinced. Perhaps to see a turkey in a handprint is a uniquely American ability.
There are foods that the mere allusion to, not to mention the sight or smell, can excite some deeply rooted force planted firmly somewhere between your navel and your knees.
And then there are foods like applesauce. Bland, mealy, cloyingly sweet without purpose. Like the least crisp apple you’ve ever had the unfortunate luck of biting into, spoonful after dread-filled spoonful.
But when my roommate had me taste her homemade version, it was like something else entirely.
I had to make my own.
My mother visited a couple weeks ago, and she had never been to Vermont in the fall. Apple picking was an obvious priority.
But she flew back to Texas, and I was left with a large bag of local beauties to contend with. What’s a girl without a penchant for apple binges to do?
The recipe I found called for four pounds of apples. I’m pretty sure I learned this trick as a child who obsessively weighed her growing puppy. But now he’s 9, and we’re roughly the same size. I don’t weigh him anymore.
I had a little over two pounds, so the recipe was halved, save for the spices. Too much cinnamon is still never enough.
I peeled and then chopped the apples, which was decently annoying, but much less so than I had gone into this process thinking it would be.
I’m a messy peeler. That is just who I am.
I chose this particular recipe because it was the only one I found that didn’t call for sugar. Let’s pause for a moment while I go on a rant concerning unnecessary sugar:
I’m morally opposed to sugar in foods that aren’t desserts, or aren’t supposed to be sweet. My family lineage is much too dotted with diabetes cases to warrant any excess sugar. Add to that an immense sweet tooth — I eat enough candy and chocolate that the sugar rarely absent from jarred pasta sauces, soy + almond milks, store-bought packaged bread, crackers, cereal, coffee drinks, instant oatmeal, “fruit” juice (the list goes on and on and on) has no place on my plate.
Read a few nutritional labels. You’ll be a little grossed out.
But back to (unsweetened!) apple sauce.
Into a large pot with the chopped apples go that unmentionable amount of cinnamon, and a cinnamon stick for good measure. (mmm. cinnamon.)
A half-cup of water, too, which barely looks like it covers the bottom of the pan but will work its magic just the same, and a squeeze of lemon juice to keep the apples from discoloring in the cooking process.
Brought to a boil and then lowered to simmer for a half an hour, those gloriously crisp apple chunks will break down, the juice expelling and the cinnamon infusing all the while.
And when time’s up, you’ll be greeted with something that looks like this.
(Say hi to the ricotta I had made right before this! It was an inspired Friday afternoon.)
The recipe I used was technically meant to be baby food (don’t give me that look!), so it instructs that at this point, you blend/mash/puree this soft but chunky apple bad boy into a silky smooth consistency.
But the thought of that (and, you know, baby food) sent me straight back to thoughts of that mushy stuff in the portable plastic tubs, and so I left the divine product of all that peeling, dicing, and simmering as is.
Plenty sweet in its own right thanks to the natural sugars (thanks, natural sugars!) released when the apples broke down, it tastes like a glorious apple pie filling. Without the distracting pie crust that’s really just standing in the way of me getting more filling.
A lot healthier, too.
In no way, shape, or form was this related to anything bearing the Mott’s label. If this is how apple sauce is really meant to taste, then my sincerest apologies. I feel a little tug somewhere deep just thinking about it.
The ‘I like to cook’ sentiment can be met with a surprisingly diverse number of responses, but my favorite has always been ‘Well, anyone can cook. You just follow a recipe.’
Beyond a disregard for the nuances of spice preference, variable cooking times, and general kitchen finesse, the statement almost seems akin to the assertion that anyone can be an artist, for all you’d have to do is paint in the numbers.
But sometimes I question my recipe reliance. The degree to which I depend on the inventiveness of the food blogs I religiously follow for inspiration. On my thick, weathered cookbooks for instruction. On Google, in desperation.
And so I decided to go it alone.
(Cue the melodramatic article of the same name I wrote for my study abroad magazine, which ran with this photo. Ask to see it sometime, I’m currently hoarding multiple prized copies.)
No cross-referencing online recipes. No scrolling through Mark Bittman’s NYT canon. No Gojee ingredient searching. (Have you guys used Gojee? You can keep stock of the ingredients you have on hand, or want to cook with, and they’ll give you food blog recipes that match what you have. It rocks.)
On this dreary, rain-soaked evening, what I fed to my friends would be my mine, and mine alone.
(The only child syndrome peeks out now and then.)
A friend who’d usually be joining us for Friday dinner was out of town this weekend. Oh, and she inexplicably hates sweet potatoes. So I knew these luscious gems had to be the main event.
And the 7-day forecast looked like this, so it had to be hearty.
Some sort of cheesy, sweet potato-y, carb-laden casserole was the only answer.
So it started like this.
(You go, farm share!)
And into the oven for a little pre-roast they went, for sweet potatoes are notoriously stubborn.
And because mushrooms are earthy and warm and universally delicious, a few tossed in couldn’t hurt.
I had help grating the hunk of Reggianno.
The best sort of friends are the ones that will grate your cheese.
Shallots! They make everything better, right?
Equal parts butter and flour into a stock pot, along with heavy cream, soy milk (I live on the edge), both the goat cheese and the reggiano, and tons of pepper. And yes, I own one of those potentially pretentious mini pepper mills. Get over it.
Also, forgive the terrible lighting. Florescent light bulbs suck.
I decided this would vaguely be a lasagna. So I vaguely started layering the ingredients like it was one.
Into the oven it went,
and with a little patience, we got this.
Don’t let the lighting fool you. This might in fact might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
As evidenced by this.
Why did we eat you so fast? Rest in peace, ridiculously cheesy, sweet potato-y creation.
Now let me get back to drooling over Smitten Kitchen backlogs.
Roasted Sweet Potato + Mushroom Lasagn(ish)
3 cups Sweet Potatoes, chopped into 1-inch cubes
2 cups Shiitake or Portabella Mushrooms, sliced
8 Lasagna Noodles, boiled according to the package
4(ish) oz good Goat Cheese
4(ish) oz Parmesan / Reggiano, shredded
4(ish) oz Fresh Mozzarella, torn
1 Cup Heavy Cream, warmed
1/2 Cup Milk / Soy Milk, warmed
2 tbsp Butter
2 tbsp Flour
Cracked Pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the sweet potato cubes with a healthy dose of olive oil, and spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until just darkened, about 30 minutes.
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. When it just begins to bubble, whisk in the flour, taking care not to burn the mixture. Once thickened (give it a minute or two), whisk in the warm heavy cream and milk, and let thicken again slightly, about 3 minutes.
Add the goat cheese and whisk. Once combined, add the reggiano, then pepper vigorously. There’s a lot of cheese to combat in this recipe, so now is not the time to hold back.
If the mixture is too thick, add a splash more milk. Turn the heat down low while waiting to assemble the casserole.
Start with a spoonful or two at the bottom of the casserole dish, spread thin to coat. Then layer as you see fit. I did lasagna noodles, sweet potatoes, shredded mozzarella, cheese sauce / noodles, mushrooms, mozzarella, cheese sauce, repeated until you end with noodles on top. Pour the last of the sauce over the entire dish, making sure it coats.
Lower the oven to 350°, and bake until brown and bubbling, approximately 20 minutes.
I would totally make this is I were you. I’ll just throw that out there.