Saturday, April 30, 2011

Goes together like...

First of all, I have to say thank you so much Shay Bocks at Dumplin Design Studio for this fabulous new template for my blog!

Shay is one of those awesome women who is balancing a career as a web designer with being a mom. If anyone is reading this blog and looking for a 'new look'  for their own website, check Shay's studio out.

And even if you're not, for a truly 'I can't click my mouse fast enough' read, check out her story on her own blog about giving birth to her second son.  Let's just say that it tops the story of my own birth, as described by my mother--and I was over 9 pounds, 17 days late--in sweltering July.  Shay's story also involves hot wings.

As well as designing, I'm sure that Shay, like many mothers, makes quite a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Upon contemplating the subject of peanut butter--something I do quite often....I decided it was time to make a pbj recipe....

My life's peanut butter obsession has remained constant despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that I've never had a normal peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

My mother did not believe in white bread, so she made my pbjs with Skippy creamy, using grape or (to be very daring) strawberry or blueberry jam on rye, seeded bread. If she hadn't used Smucker's jam her pairing of an intensely bitter bread with this American classic might be considered daring.

However, my reaction to this sandwich was predictable.  I'd take a bite, grimace at the mouthful of seeds (when she used seeded strawberry jam, the paucity of peanut butter was particularly noticeable) and deposit my entire lunch in the trash basket. I'd take a longing look at Katy Ash's perfect half of a white Wonder Bread, Jiff, and grape jelly concoction, and then buy some ice cream.

Later, for a snack at home, I'd secretly devour Reece's Pieces by the handful, and in the absence of any sweets to mooch, I'd happily spoon chunky pb an inch thick on cinnamon raisin bread, topping it with orange marmalade. But the regular pbj sandwich always eluded me, and now I'm far too much of bread, peanut butter and jam snob to go back and try 'the classic'


Of course, the absence of a normal peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just a symbol of so much in my life.  For example, what movie did every kid see in the 1980s?  E.T.--and they ate Reece's Pieces while doing so! My parents took me to see Victor/Victoria, presumably thinking that the movie's theme of the transvestite 'Mary Poppins pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman' plot would go over my head and I would just really enjoy the songs and the popcorn.  Which I must confess I did....

My parent's weren't unconventional at all, and were actually quite overprotective.  But it didn't seem to register to them that I wasn't a miniature adult.  This did wonders for my development in reading and knowledge of cinema.  Not so much for learning how to play kickball and make boys like me...

I'm afraid this post won't end with my consuming and loving a slice of Skippy-slathered Wonder Bread. Instead, I have to share with you my twist on a recipe by Ina Garten.  Because of my traumatic no-E.T., no-Wonder Bread, no-seedless strawberry jam childhood, the perverse baker in me decided to tamper with even an Ina recipe--but I was very pleased how it turned out....

Additionally, for those kids who can't consume wheat and have a 'normal' bready childhood, this recipe is wheat-free and uses oat flour for a nice, healthy twist.  All of Ina's original ingredients are given a bit of a crunchy spin to suit my hippie sensibilities, but it's still chocked with peanut buttery, buttery, and jammy goodness...

Wheat-free Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars


1 stick of butter (1/2 cup), softer than room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large, beaten egg
1 cup creamy, all-natural peanut butter
1 1/2 cups oat flour (you can also use white whole wheat or all-purpose, if that is what you have and a gluten-free diet is not of concern)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cups natural fruit spread (I used strawberry--seedless of course)
1/3 cup salted peanuts
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and line a 9X9 or 8X8 square pan with parchment.
2. Cream the butter and brown sugar. Add the vanilla, egg, and peanut butter.
3. Sift the oat flour, baking powder, and salt, and slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet.
4. Spread 2/3 of the mixture into the pan, top with the fruit spread, and then 'dollop' the rest of the dough over the jam. Ina notes that not all of the remaining mixture will cover the jam--the effect will be more like that of a 'crumble' than a perfect covering.
5. Sprinkle the peanuts on top.
6. Bake for 45 minutes until golden. Cool for several hours, then chill the bars overnight if using the oat flour.

These bars will be slightly more crumbly than bars made with wheat flour, so I strongly advise chilling overnight before serving to 'set' if you're not using wheat flour.  Chilling will also make the natural fruit preserves less runny.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Easters (and some wheat-free, dairy-free bread)

Easter has always been a season of highs and lows for me. How befitting, given that the holiday encompasses both the saddest and the most joyous days of the Christian calender.

Of course, as a child, any type of family or school stress was entirely blotted out by two thoughts: 


And a cute stuffed rabbit.
I have gleaned, from reading other food blogs, that some families debated the tradition and virtues of eating ham versus lamb, but all memories of the real food I ate are completely blotted out by my fixation on sugar the week before and week after, as well as the day itself. It took a great deal of brain power to decide what order to eat my cream-filled eggs (usually I would begin in order of preference: maple, followed by caramel, chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and then finally the large, gummy marshmallow bunny) and what flavor jelly beans to consume after eating the red ones (my favorite color).

I only have vague Easter-related memories not connected to the basket, such as a local Easter egg hunt when my grandmother and mother specifically directed me AWAY from the candy, for fear I would get too much of it and eat all of it, and having to wear an itchy, home-knitted dress given to me by one of my aunts.  But only looking back at photographs do I see how angry my father looks in all of the pictures, sulking and scowling.

My father is Greek Orthodox, and I later discovered how much he resented having to celebrate 'American' Easter.  But more so than an issue of faith, I think he hated the delicacy, femininity, and childishness of the holiday. To him, Easter should be about eating massive amounts of meat and cheese, to break the Lenten fast, and as for childish rituals that took attention away from the head of the household--let's just say that the Greeks have a word for it, and it's called the 'Oedipal Complex.' He's happier now with my stepmother, eating fresh-killed goat in an Easter basket-free world.

Of course, just to inflame family tensions a bit more, the quirks of the calender usually mean that Greek Easter and my Easter don't coincide.  I usually forget and one year when I did ask my stepmother and father out to eat on 'my Easter'--at their favorite restaurant, no less--my stepmother spent the afternoon saying things like:

"The food ees usually verrry good, but because it's fake American Easter, they only have a special menu."
"Our favorite restaurant--ees so crowded--ALL BECAUSE OF YOUR FAKE AMERICAN EASTER."

So, I've stopped trying to ingrate myself with 'the Greeks' at Easter-time. Beware of bearing gifts to Greeks!

I do like to bake for others around the holiday and one of my friends is eliminating wheat and dairy from his diet, so this presented a bit of a challenge. I found, while trying to conform to his diet, I gained a new appreciation for oat flour. It adds wonderful, wholesome, slightly sweet quality to this banana bread.  There is nothing fake about this bread, and it's good to renew and reset something--dietary or otherwise--this time of year.  Accept the new, and challenge at least a few of your conventional assumptions, even while you honor your traditions.

Happy Easter to all who celebrate!

Wheat-free, Dairy-Free Intensely Cinnamon Honey Oat Banana Bread

The bread

1 1/2 cups oat flour (or whole wheat, white whole wheat or all-purpose if you're not avoiding wheat and don't feel like buying a new bag of flour)
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 medium-sized 'oops, I forgot I bought those a week ago' mashed, overripe bananas
2 large beaten eggs
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water

The topping
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon


1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and line a 9X5 loaf pan with parchment, leaving some of the paper overlapping to make removing the bread easier. Reserve the 'topping' ingredients for later.

2. Sift the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.

3. Blend the bananas, eggs, oil, honey, and water in another bowl.

4. Slowly fold in the dry ingredients, mix, and pour into the pan. Mix the reserved sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle on the batter.

5. Bake for approximately one hour, until a toothpick can be withdrawn 'clean.'  Cool for at least 30 minutes, preferably slightly longer.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Will run for Tastykakes

I cannot tell a lie, dear readers.

I made this clone of the Tastykake Peanut butter Kandy Kake.  And while you could probably put peanut butter on shoe leather and I'd lick it off, I did NOT have 100 percent success with this recipe. A number of bloggers stated that you could use chocolate chips with a teaspoon or two of oil stirred in as a substitute for the candy bars when making the topping. But I found, like one of the reviewers on All Recipes, that this created a chocolate 'shield' on top of the sponge cake. When I tried to cut the bars, hideous cracks appeared on the surface of the Kake.  The effect was tasty but unless you were eating it as a 'serving for one,' I'd have to rate my attempt as a fail.

One of the reasons I started running many years ago was that I wanted a way to deal with failure.

I reasoned that, regardless of how bad the day might be, if I went for a run, it couldn't be rated as entirely wasted. I started running when I was sixteen, and was still ashamed by the guys who would shout "fatass" at me as they whizzed by in their cars. I ran the year I wasn't speaking to my parents and stayed over Thanksgiving break at Wesleyan to work on my senior honors thesis. I circled the track as a family that looked like it had walked straight from the L.L. Bean catalog played in the woods beside the gym, complete with puffy vests, flannels, duck boots, and two Golden Retrievers. Working up an appetite before their feast. 

I ran around the reservoir  in Birmingham, England, padding my way on streets crunchy with condoms and needles from my apartment, 'round the water where I had to be careful not to breathe at a certain specific point because of the hordes of flies that made their home in that area of the marsh.  I ran through the months of April and September the year my mother died.

"You're so dedicated," people will tell me.

People rarely compliment me--since I work as an editor and pretty much everyone thinks they can write, and write well (I've had people ask me why I can't suggest their retired mother to some of my clients, so she can pick up extra income), I'm usually greedy for praise. However, the idea that I'm dedicated because I run 6-8 miles seems very odd to me.

First of all, I genuinely love running so it isn't a chore. How can you be dedicated at something you love? I love the rush of ideas that comes to my head, I love being in nature, and I love what it has done to my body--because of running I'm no longer the dorky, fat girl who refused to participate in gym class because she was afraid of looking foolish if she tried.

Second of all, I suck. The reason that I've never tried to run a marathon is that I'm so slow, I'm sure I'd only serve to confirm the opinion people who hate running that they'd be better off on the couch.

Thirdly (can you tell that I used to debate), if I could be good at a 'sport,' running would be the last activity I'd pick.

Note the quotes around the word 'sport.' Because truthfully, unless you're racing at a very high level and strategically pacing yourself, running is a conditioning exercise, not a sport. It's wonderful for losing weight and increasing your endurance and mental toughness. But it won't increase your agility, upper body strength, flexibility, coordination, ability to communicate with your body, and all the sorts of important things other sports can teach you.  And teamwork--most people who only run are serious Introverts, and not in a good way...

If I could pick a sport in which to excel, it would be horseback riding. Followed by figure skating, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, gymnastics--hell, even field hockey.

I know there are some runner-types who 'just run' and become ultra-marathoners, running races in excess of 120 miles or running a marathon a day.  But I question making such an investment into 'just running.'

Don't get me wrong, if I couldn't get in my 6-8 miles a day, I would be miserable. But for me, running is a way of enhancing my other activities in my life, and my life in general. Although some day I may run a marathon, I can't imagine giving up the other things I enjoy doing--riding horses and even my bike or yoga--just to run as long as I possibly could, every day.

Ask yourself: who runs?  Usually, it's not the most talented kid in gym class. He's off winning glory on the football field, or she's beating up football players with her field hockey stick after school. Runners are usually total dorks like me.  To me, running doesn't say 'how dedicated' but 'yes, I am so physically inept I have chosen a sport that requires no more coordination than putting one foot in front of the other.  Please don't hurt me because I have minimal upper body strength.'  Especially distance runners like myself, who can't even run away quickly if you chase us.

Running, I love you. But even some of America's greatest runners only chose the sport because they were too thin and frail to play football and the other 'glory sports' and took up cross-country and track instead.  Or they didn't have the financial means or time to pursue other activities.

Running is, after all cheap (another big plus in running's favor).  All you need are shoes and a place where you won't get shot or slip on ice to do it.

So yes, I did run this morning and I'll run tomorrow, and more importantly I will enjoy my run--which means, no matter how slow I am not a failure and I have still won something in my daily struggle to maintain my sanity and make my life better--but I am under no illusions that it makes me a great athlete.

In fact, most genuinely talented athletes I know find running quite boring and do the minimal possible to stay in shape play their totally badass sport of choice. I could tell you some good running stories, but all pale in comparison to the rugby player I knew who got one of his ears bitten off while playing his freshman year.

Any additional suggestions on cloning the perfect Tastykake and increasing my coordination are always appreciated.  Enjoy the day--enjoy some sport, please--but run only if you feel like it and actually like to run.  Oh, and if you play rugby, please remember to tape your ears properly before heading out onto the field...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Better-than-therapy Oatmeal Double Raisin Cookies

I am a great believer in the value of games.

Scrabble and Solitaire saved my relationship with my mother.

I know, reader, what you’d like me to say—that my mother and I had an intense, Oprah-eque conversation that solved all of our problems.

Instead, we played cards. Long, complicated games of Solitaire that required an entire kitchen table to unfurl. After we grew luckier and more adept at coaxing the deck back into order, we shifted to Scrabble, a game of greater skill and subtlety. We used the Official Scrabble Dictionary for ‘challenges.’ We memorized all of the u-less q words.

When we tried to have Serious Discussions instead of playing Scrabble or cards, our conversations would grow more heated, far nastier than any debate over the existence of a word. I would blame my mother for overprotecting me as a child, she would blame me for wasting the expensive opportunities I had been given. Scrabble was safe, with clear rules, unlike our relationship.

Too many girls do not play Scrabble with their mothers. They converse with their mother while shopping for clothes, or think that somehow if they can find the answer to why they fight with the woman who loves them the most, they will be released from all emotional pain.

Perhaps this is why men tend to have a better relationship with their fathers—men can fish with them in silence, or better yet, play sports. Sports drains you of the physical as well as mental and emotional energy to remember what your parents did wrong, what you did wrong.

After I begin working with students, I developed a fascination with college basketball—while researching so many programs for aspiring athletes, I began to enjoy reading about kids from schools with stories that seemed so similar to my own experience—campus, cafeteria, classes—and so different—50 hours a week of practice, recruiting scandals, cash in suitcases.  I loved the nail-biting endings to NCAA tournament games in the same way I loved to read the last pages of a mystery or adventure story.

My love of college basketball has brought me closer to my father than any attempt to probe my psyche with him. He’s invited me to participate in the NCAA tournament of his work friends (almost entirely older and male) two years running.  When told that one of the other women in the pool was asked to participate “to make sure none of us guys come in last,” of course I was determined to win.  And I did, last year. And this year as well.

Truthfully, winning his NCAA office pool two years in a roll has made my father respect me more than all of my writing awards, more than my master’s degree from Harvard. 

So thank you NCAA for giving me the ability to sit side-by-side my father in peace, quiet, and love, watching a bunch of guys half-kill one another over a ball.

I made these cookies to thank the man who has the thankless job of tabulating all of the scores for the tournament pool. I adapted this recipe slightly from Anna's recipe at Cookie Madness. I can’t promise that they will help you win a scholarship from a Division I school. But sharing them with someone could save you a fight or two. They’re so moist and chewy it’s hard to speak very loudly as you wolf them down.

Better-than-therapy Oatmeal Double Raisin Cookies

 -Makes 20-25 cookies-

1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

4 ounces of unsalted butter
1/2 cup organic light brown sugar
1/2 cup organic raw sugar (I used Florida's Crystals)
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon real vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats
1/2 cup dark-colored raisins
1/2 cup golden raisins

1. 'Plump' the raisins. I usually do this by boiling about a half cup of water, turning off the heat, then soaking the raisins in the warm water for about 10-20 minutes, depending on the dryness of the fruit. I didn't use flavored raisins for the recipe, but you can also use orange or other juices to 'plump' them. Don't boil them in the water, otherwise you'll get raisin jam rather than fat raisins.

2. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sea salt, and cinnamon together.

2. Cream the butter and both sugars, add the egg and vanilla.  Slowly fold in the flour mixture, followed by the oats, slowly.

3. Fold in the raisins.   Make sure the raisins are well-drained before incorporating them in the dough.

4. Chill dough for at least an hour. I chilled my dough overnight.

5. Preheat the oven to 350F. Roll the dough into balls about the size of a ping-pong ball or slightly smaller.  Bake 12-15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for approximately 5 minutes, then remove and transfer to a cooling rack or a cool plate. The cookies will be chewy, so cool for at least an hour to avoid them crumbling.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Vegan Hypocrite: Scrambled eggs with vegan mayo

I'm not a vegan, only a vegetarian, but I love vegan mayonnaise.

I grew up in a Miracle Whip household. For some strange reason, my mother felt that Miracle Whip was healthier than regular Hellmann's, despite the fact that Miracle Whip is loaded with far nastier stuff than even the most processed commercial mayo.  I think my mother liked the subtle hint of spiciness in the Whip, although when it came to food with a 'bite,' Miracle Whip was as intense as my Mexican, Chinese and Indian-food despising mother would tolerate.

Vegan mayo has a kind of a pleasant tangy quality that regular mayo lacks, at least to my palate. Yet I have to confess, although I eat very little dairy, I don't feel quite motivated enough to give up eggs. There are certain things I like to bake that don't come out quite as well egg-free (cookies and brownies). I'll go for long periods eating hardcore vegan (scrambled tofu and vegan mayo is another favorite brekkie). But every now and then I feel a need to have scrambled eggs slathered with vegan mayo.

So I suppose vegan mayo on eggs is as close to 'the hypocrite' as my vegetarian self will venture.

The Omnivore's Hypocrite, of course, is the sandwich test-tasted by the staff of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (my favorite radio program)--bacon on a veggie burger.
Photo credit: NPR

My mother would laugh if she saw me eating eggs--for many years she was always trying to convince me that I loved eggs. I have a vague memory of eating soft scrambled eggs with pepper as a baby, scooped from a dish that had pictures of nursery rhyme characters on the bottom, to encourage me to eat. But as soon as I had any control over my food intake, I went on an egg strike. I would eat buttered toast and Sizzlelean or bacon. I'd order pancakes and sausage or a sausage biscuit from McDonald's.  But I turned my nose up at the Egg McMuffin.

"You loved eggs once," my mother would wail.
"I had no choice," I would whine. "I didn't know any better."
"Eggs are the perfect food," said my mother.  "They're high in protein!"  Protein, the Holy Grail Nutrient of the 1970s! How could I refuse?

The Greek side of family, of course, takes a different view. "Eggs will kill you," said my father, thinking of all of the American Heart propaganda he read in 1962. Given that the traditional Greek breakfast is coffee and the four-course dinner still digesting in the belly from the night before, my father feels virtuous in his abstention from eggs. A single egg could stop your heart cold!  My father has often warned me of the dire consequences of eggs and butter while eating a brick of cheese or a loaf of bread dunked in a cup of olive oil, so I take his dietary advice with a grain of well, salt.  Which I also eat.  Sprinkled in moderation on real food. Not in super-saturated foods from cans and boxes that have several times the suggested daily allotment of sodium, but don't taste salty.  (Progresso Soup, anyone?)

 I must confess I only began to love eggs after my mother passed away, so perhaps there was some subconscious adolescent rebellion to my previous aversion.

The recipe? I could make my own vegan mayo, but Nayonaise lasts longer than the homemade variety. Thus, I usually buy the commercial version, which is reasonably free of unpronounceable ingredients and contains no artificial sweeteners. And is only 35 calories for a heaping tablespoon.

I would include a recipe, dear reader, but frankly when it comes to eggs I do everything wrong. I add no milk. I allow the pan to get hot, crack the eggs, scramble them on the skillet, and as soon as they start to turn into curdles, I turn off the flame and cook the eggs on the retained heat. I don't add salt, I use black pepper. I eat them with mayo rather than ketchup. I like them that way--and dipped in a heaping tablespoon of mayo.  The one thing I do do 'somewhat' right is that I eat eggs from free-range, cage-free chickens (although that term is somewhat problematic). I'm afraid that eggs will continue to be a source of personal turmoil, as I never seem to feel good whether I am eating them or not eating them--I am always displeasing someone.  What came first, the guilt or my taste for eggs?  I shall never know.