Saturday, November 27, 2010

Peanut Butter Bars

I'll do a full write-up on the debacle that was Thanksgiving at some other point, because I'm swamped with work from my less sexy, non-blogging life.

A few people asked me about what I brought as a hostess gift to T-Day (as opposed to D-Day, although for me Thanksgiving is more Dunkirk-like, in terms of survival)

All Recipes Peanut Butter Bars

  • 1 cup melted butter(but not 'hot)
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs (I didn't use gluten-free crackers, but you could easily use them, if you are gluten-sensitive or wish to make a treat for someone who is gluten-intolerant). The crumbs must be PULVERIZED. They should have the texture of sand, otherwise the dough will be lumpy.
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar (I have tried this recipe with regular and brown sugar, and again--the dough becomes too coarse and lumpy--it needs the fine powder of confectioners' sugar).
  • 1 cup peanut butter (chunky or creamy)--PLUS four extra tablespoons (So, 'divided' use.  Yes, that's as technical as I get in my terminology.)
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
However, I'd add a few 'notes' to the original--first of all, don't do what I did, and just mix everything in a big lump--make sure to cream the butter, sugar, and peanut butter together first, and then add the graham cracker crumbs to the mix SLOWLY--otherwise it takes forever to fold into an incorporated 'dough.'

Getting the food to the destination is often harder than actually making it
  1. Cream the butter, sugar, and the 1 cup peanut butter together, then (I'll say it again) SLOWLY incorporate the crumbs.  And I do mean slowly--don't do what I did, and throw everything in a lump, because the mix will take forever to combine.  This might be more important with gluten-free crackers, depending on the texture.  You may need an extra tablespoon of butter or peanut butter to get everything 'wet'--the dough will still be gritty and crumbly, kind of like sand.
  2. Spread mixture onto the bottom of 9x13 inch pan (you can use a slightly smaller pan for thicker bars--in fact, that might work better, as it will be easier to spread).
  3. Panic because dough is weird and sandy and hard to spread across the bottom of the pan.
  4. Melt the chocolate chips with the four tablespoons of peanut butter, either in a bowl over boiling water or in the microwave (heating, pausing, stirring, and heating) until incorporated.
  5.  Spread over the prepared crust.  Realize that you now have peanut butter over every single surface in the kitchen.  The chocolate peanut butter mix will be super, super sticky. It was hard to get it to cover everything--I think I should have tried to let it get more like 'liquid' although I was afraid the chocolate might 'seize.'
  6.  All Recipes says to "refrigerate for at least one hour before cutting into squares."  My experience: check after one hour. See that mix is still a crumbly mess. Panic. Cry.  Wake up the next morning.  Realize that it has set.  Fall on knees and thank the heavens.
  7. The All Recipes site says 12 bars is the yield.  Unless someone is really, really hungry, these are very rich--almost like fudge.  I cut them in tiny pieces (about 30-40, I forget which) and garnished them with Reeces Pieces and M&Ms in the little cups
  8. Take to Thanksgiving.  Have everyone ignore them and eat store-bought goods instead.
Question: Does anyone have a good method for measuring peanut butter?  I always find it very sticky to worth with and make an incredible mess?  It sounds so easy on the page: "measure one cup of peanut butter."  And I say to myself: yeah, measuring cup of peanut butter in the cup, one cup spread all over the kitchen.
What actually got eaten at Thanksgiving
Sometimes I heat the jar to make it less adhesive, but no matter what,  I always end up looking like a very messy toddler at the end of any recipe that contains more than a tablespoon of the Great American condiment.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving Scrooge: C’est moi (Or why I don’t like traditional Thanksgiving food)

                The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving  special was the first Peanuts cartoon I ever watched.  I must have been three at the time, because I didn’t really coherently remember the Thanksgiving of the previous year. I became really excited about having salty snacks and jelly beans for a meal, along with pumpkin pie and was vaguely disappointed with the blandness of the beige turkey.
Flickr: Lorianne DiSabato

                My family ate out almost every Thanksgiving, usually at an old-fashioned English restaurant called Squires Pub, the type of place that still offered you a ‘relish tray’ of cottage cheese, celery and olives served by an attending waitress in a blue uniform with an apron, and cheese as well as butter with rolls and crackers. The waitresses would wheel over a dessert tray full of tricked-out French pastries after the meal.  On Thanksgiving, all the kids would be given a chocolate turkey-shaped lollypop upon departing.

                Some families should eat out on Thanksgiving. Mine was one of them.  That way, my grandmother could sit and smoke (which she enjoyed far more than eating), my father could scowl and order fish, my mother didn’t have to cook, and I could pick my way through my stuffing in anticipation of gorging myself on sugar.

                The one time we did go to a family member’s house, it was that of my aunt, then on her second husband. The parking lot of the beautiful condo she lived in was filled with water—there was a No Parking sign, I remember, suspended in the midst of the lake, and it was a fitting metaphor for the apartment itself and her life. My cousins’ insane ferret raced around the house in a frenzy, and tried to bite every guest with its needle-sharp teeth. People yelled at me because I didn’t like turkey. All of the pumpkin pie was pre-served with whipped cream. I spooned off the whipped cream and a helpful family member came over and dolloped some more on.
Flickr: bvcphoto

                However, the true green bean casserole, the Turk-pocolyse of my bad Thanksgiving memories is when I was in college. I was in a fight with my mother, and I didn’t want to come home. A girl from another college I knew from debate who lived in a nearby Connecticut town invited me to her house, and although I barely knew her I jumped at the chance.

                I admit it was a bit because she was rather WASPY, and I had this vague sense of entering a Katherine Hepburn-like world, very different from home and my shrieking, barely coherent grandmother, who was by then on oxygen and painkillers for emphysema and shingles, respectively.  I packed a beautiful, long black watch plaid skirt to wear and a green, scoop-necked shirt to match. I thought it complimented my unprofessionally dyed red hair.

                “My parents don’t know that I’m gay, but I’m going to tell them this Thanksgiving,” said Miss Connecticut Story, as we rode to her house.

                Little did I know that would be one of the least awkward moments of the trip.

                I discovered upon arriving that WASPs from New England don’t believe in turning on the heat until AFTER Thanksgiving. I’ve never tolerated sub-freezing temperatures well, but after living in an overheated dorm for several months, at that point I was as tolerant of the cold as a hothouse orchid. I was led to the spare room, which had a sewing machine in it and was located at the back of the house. It had no windows. The narrow bed had only a thin blanket of a sickly shade of green, sort of the color of Linda Blair’s vomit in The Exorcist. Apparently, the room had never been insulated or renovated at all, unlike the rest of the house.   I wore all of my clothes that night. 
Flickr: x-ray delta one

                The next day, Miss Connecticut said she had a yeast infection and needed to go into town to buy some products to remedy this state of affairs. I eagerly jumped at the chance to go, wanting to see some of the local color, and rationalizing that the pharmacy was likely to have heat.  We also rented a ‘seasonal’ video (as we old folks called DVDs back in the day), The Muppets’ Christmas Carol.

                The girl’s parents were both psychotherapists, and radiated a calm and steady charm as they stomped around the house, wearing two L.L. Bean sweaters, thick wool socks, and lined flannel jeans. Far from the conservative people I anticipated, they seemed thoroughly aware that their daughter wanted to date women. Their younger son, who went to an accelerated high school where students could graduate with an associate’s degree after two years, had long black hair, wore lots of silver jewelry, and seemed to delight in baiting his uptight sister.

                “I don’t think they like my girlfriend,” said Miss Connecticut.  However, it was fairly obvious that their dislike had nothing to do with prejudice, and everything with the fact that said girlfriend rolled in through the door two hours late on Thanksgiving Day, and almost immediately began leaving her belongings all over the spotless, perfectly orderly household. 

                Truth be told, I wasn’t very fond of The Girlfriend either, who reproached me for not eating enough for dinner. At this point, I was shivering so much in my flimsy skirts and light sweaters I felt my digestive tract had shut down.  

                Friday morning, Miss Connecticut’s mother made the family’s traditional post T-day breakfast of waffles for the two girls. I could only manage cereal. “You can’t judge your body by the standards of the patriarchy,” said The Girlfriend.

                I explained I had a lot of work to do, and Miss Connecticut and her girlfriend drove me back home to my college.
Flickr: avlxyz

                I went to the pizza parlor near my school, and ordered a slice of the ‘Snowball’ (ricotta cheese, spinach, and sliced whole tomatoes) and the ‘Primavera’ (plain crust with tomatoes and sprinkled parmesan cheese).  I felt like I was the protagonist of a Jack London story, like “To Build a Fire” only instead of freezing to death in the middle of the Arctic tundra, a pizza delivery guy shows up and everyone lives happily ever after, eating pizza, jelly beans, popcorn, and pretzels with the Peanuts gang, followed by a slice of pumpkin pie without whipped cream.
Flickr: trainman74

                And that’s why I don’t like traditional Thanksgiving food.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Grandma's apple pie

Flickr: Benimoto
I know I seem like the type of screwed-up person who should be in therapy. But I learned why I am the way I am at a very early age, when my mother told me the story of how I was named. My mother wanted me to name me Celeste—after HERSELF (which is pretty weird, although it is a pretty name), and my father wanted to name me a weird, unpronounceable Greek name AFTER HIS MOTHER (you see where I’m going with this one).

Fortunately, they compromised and named me after a crazy relative who got pregnant at sixteen.  But more on that subject some other day…

My early life was a three-way war: my mother wanted me to be more like herself and my father seemed to wish to superimpose his complex feelings about my his mother onto me.

My Greek grandmother, despite living in America for many years before returning to her homeland, never learned to speak English. She rarely left the confines of the Greek community where she lived in Illinois.
Every time I expressed a fear of doing something, my father would say with great appreciation that it was because I was “like my grandmother” and that the fear of the silly things that most children occasionally dread (like escalators sucking me under) was genetically encoded.

I first ‘met’ my grandmother as a photograph: she was a stout, short bell-shaped woman with pebble eyeglasses, thin white wires of hair at the crown of jet black hair, a potato shaped nose and calves thrust thickly into shoes as square as herself.  “You look just like her,” my father always said.  I was terrified of that image, haunted by it.

I also heard from my mother that she was married twice—once in a civil ceremony in America, unbeknownst to my Greek parents—then later in Greece, in a church. Because my father wasn’t supposed to marry a non-Greek woman, my parents eloped. Then my father had a change of heart and he said he had to at least marry my mother in a church, for appearance’s sake—after my mother converted to Orthodoxy. My mother said that the trip she made to Greece to meet her ‘future’ mother-in-law, secretly married to my father, was one of most uncomfortable journeys of her life.

I knew all this, so needless to say, my impression of my grandmother wasn’t the best when she came to visit.
I also knew that grandmothers were supposed to make apple pie, but my maternal grandmother was famous for saying she’d baked you a pie, and then whipping out a box of Sara Lee.  I didn’t know what to expect of my Greek grandmother.  She didn’t speak a word of English, and her eyes and gestures were impenetrable to my nine-year-old, intensely verbal American self.

A box containing an apple pie waited in the refrigerator. A holiday was coming, a fancy dinner. I remember that. I dreamed of that white box, with it red and white cotton thread. I had a conviction that all pastries were best that came in boxes tied with red and white string.

Then the day of the feast came and—nothing.  “Where’s the pie?”I said, looking in the refrigerator.

“Your grandmother ate it,” said my mother.

“SHE ATE THE PIE?”  Imagine a short, chubby, bespectacled sweet-deprived child…waiting for the day, a celebratory dinner where no one could deny her pie. 

I knew that my mother and father didn’t care about the missing pie. They didn’t even like apple pie—not even Delicious Orchards apple pie!

I was so angry—angry at myself for wanting a pie that I knew, deep down, would make me more physically resemble my grandmother if I ate it  Angry that the iconic American apple pie that a grandmother was supposed to give me had been snatched away by a grandmother I barely knew!  But most of all I was angry because DELICIOUS ORCHARDS APPLE PIE WAS SO FRIGGIN’ GOOD.
Flickr: mysterymoor

Many years later, my father told me a bit more about his mother. How she struggled to get the family enough to eat during World War II. He also stated, very matter-of-factly, that his father left to settle in America before the war, leaving my father and grandmother to live in Greece alone. During the war there was no way to for them to cross over the Atlantic, and my young father and grandmother had to wait for the Allied victory in Nazi-occupied Europe for many years.

My father came from a culture where mothers give all to sons, always nurture their needs—food was always bountiful at the table after the war—even during the occupation my grandmother still found a way to mill and bake hard, dry brown bread. When they did finally come to America, to join my Greek grandfather, my grandmother made sure that my father was always fed, and fed some more…eating was so important, and to stop eating was a sign of a lack of love, I supposed.

So l learned a bit more about the hungers that drove my grandmother to eat. Still, I wondered if she longed, after so many years, a freedom of the body that had grown thick from compensating the hungers of famine.
 I know I’m very lucky to be slender now, a slenderness that partially comes from knowing I don’t have to eat everything, all at once, to feel satiated.

I don’t really crave apple pie anymore.

Photo: Mary Pagones

Wegmans’ recently released an apple pie bialy for the holidays, a kind of salty, oblong unsweeted bagel topped with some apple pie filling. I tried it, and while it was less sweet than pie, it was still too sweet for my adult palate. I have come to prefer brown bread.