Thursday, December 29, 2011

Banana Gingerbread Muffins (with vegan option)

I remember the last time I made a New Year's Resolution. The grown-ups were deep into their second or third glasses of table wine on New Year's Eve, when they started to make resolutions.  I wanted to feel included, so I read my resolutions, which I had written down in a book called Amazing Days, a holiday craft and activity book for kids. One of my resolutions was to eat my tomatoes, a vegetable that I loathed, except on pizza or in ketchup. It was the 80s, and even President Reagan said ketchup was a vegetable, after all. My resolution lasted all of a half an hour, until my mother served the salad course.

"What happened to your resolution to eat your tomatoes?" she asked.

"I resolved to eat my long as they were not MUSHY," I protested.  I ate the croutons and the green olives from my salad, and left the rest.

An observer would be inclined to think I had a faulty and irresponsible character--and they could be right--however, in retrospect, given angry food writers' fulminations against store-bought tomatoes, I would prefer to just see myself as a budding foodie with good, discerning tastes. I rejected the pink ping-pong balls doused in Wishbone Italian because I was a seasonal eater.  Except for pimento-stuffed olives.

Despite my allergy to resolutions, I have to say that I have accomplished some things this year.  Other than Fage yogurt (which doesn't 'count' in my eyes), I've pretty much eliminated all processed foods from my diet.  I've gone back to eating dairy on a regular basis, along with some fish and chicken, and feel better for doing so. (No more soy mystery meat).  I can sort of prop myself up doing a headstand in yoga, which is better than when I started practicing.  I'm more confident in my horseback riding, even though I still feel I should be farther along, based on how much I love horses and riding horses.  I'm not a famous published author but I've been reasonably consistent about updating this blog. I run. I floss. I try to do stuff, even if I'm not good at stuff. I eat broccoli and I recycle.

I do have goals but I don't make New Year's resolutions. My resolutions tend not to come at crisis points though, but tend to evolve over time.  Almost as a shock or surprise, I realize: "hey,  I've kinda made progress to getting to X."  I keep wanting to have an accomplishment that is gold-star, blue-ribbon good, though.  I have no trophies to put on my mantlepiece, except dusty second and tenth-place debate trophies from college.

I actually don't even have a mantlepiece, so when I get a trophy, I guess I'll have to fix that as well.

These are pretty healthy muffins.  I've made them both with milk and also almond milk, the latter for a vegan friend of mine.  The original recipe is a quick bread, but I'd suggest muffins instead because this batter is so sticky and dense it's difficult to check if the bread is cooked thoroughly inside at all points of the bread. With muffins, it's much simpler to be sure.

Banana Gingerbread Muffins

--yields 1 dozen muffins--

Adapted from Baking Bites


2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup banana (2-3 large, brown, mashed)
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup almond milk (vegan) OR buttermilk (non-vegan)
4 tbsp vegetable oil


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line or grease 12 muffin cups

2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices, and sugar together

3. Combine mashed banana, molasses, egg, almond OR buttermilk, and oil together.  Spoon in dry mixture until well-combined.

4. Pour in muffin tins.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'  Can be eaten after cooled, or, for best flavor, wait a day, giving the flavors time to 'set.'  Of course, this takes discipline, which I have very little of, regarding food.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Anna's Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies (small batch)

The first baking blog I ever read was Anna Ginsburg's Cookie Madness.  Anna has a wonderfully scientific approach to cooking which is combined with an unpretentious and eclectic attitude.  In my own baking, I've gone through various phases ('healthy,' vegan, small batch, and so forth) and now I'm pretty much focused on just making stuff really well that people like to eat, and not eating too much of it.  Throughout these 'periods' I have been able to find recipes on Anna's blog that suit virtually every specification imaginable--and all of them work.

Cookie Madness has such a wide variety of recipes that just about everyone can benefit from reading it, from serious from-scratch cooks to busy moms who want something to throw together before the kids get home.

It's often said that the best cookbooks are the ones that are the most disgusting and food-stained.  If Anna's blog was a cookbook, it would be smeared in cookie dough and the corners would have that odd, transparent quality that paper gets when it's stained with melted butter.  Fortunately for Anna, her blog can't get covered with food every time people use one of her recipes! 

Anna is coming out with a book...soon...though, so I'll have to find some way of preserving it.  Until then, I'll have to content myself with geeking out on her comparisons of different Italian rainbow cookie recipes

Just as a side note, from a purely unscientific poll of one, Anna's blog has inspired more of her commentators to blog (based upon what I've read over the years) and more of her commentators to try her recipes than just about any blog I am aware of--you know what I mean, if you read lots of food blogs.  There are blogs with pretty pictures that get lots of random comments like "yummy!" and "I love chocolate!"  But Anna's readers tend to ask questions about substitutions, or unusual aspects of techniques and ingredients. In other words, they really make and test her recipes.

(Oh, and did I forget to mention that Anna is a former Pillsbury Bake-Off Grand Prize winner)?

Anna has a wonderful recipe for old-fashioned oatmeal cookies, but it had a rather high yield, so I scaled it down a bit and made a few minor substitutions. I also increased the proportion of raisins and nuts based upon personal preferences and availability of ingredients.  The original is here.

Anna's Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies

(scaled-down batch)

 -yields 36 large cookies-


2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins (1/2 cup golden raisins (sultanas), 1/2 cup brown raisins)

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup rolled oats

1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped


1. Don't preheat your oven.  Instead 'marinate' the raisins in the eggs and vanilla for approximately one hour.

2. NOW you can preheat your oven to 350F and line two baking sheets with parchment.

3.  Cream butter and sugars.  Sift flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.  Gradually spoon flour into butter mixture. Add vanilla/egg/raisin mixture. Add oats, then nuts.

4. Scoop onto parchment, bake for 12-15 minutes.

Flourless peanut butter cookies

December 26th is Boxing Day, which means that you should really give the servants a day off, and present them with their Christmas boxes of leftover food from your feast, and some alms as well.

I personally have never had a maid, or lived in a house serviced by a maid.  My mother kept house, and also cleaned and maintained my grandmother's home for her entire life, including when I was very small. I know people who have maids now, but when I was growing up I only knew two families who had maids: The Brady Bunch and the nice rich lady I took art lessons from in my neighborhood.

The live-in maid at the rich lady's house wore a starched blue uniform (just like Alice) and would answer the door when I came with my mother after school.  I'd go to the lady's basement, which was set up as an enormous studio.  There was (and the memory is so clear I know that my mind isn't creating a retrospective fantasy) a ceiling-to-floor reproduction of  Georges Seurat's masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte on an entire wall.
There was every art supply imaginable, spanning from canvases of every size, to poster paints, to tissue paper, acrylics, oil paints, smocks, brushes, and clay.

Art was this woman's passion, and although she certainly didn't need the spare change she got from giving lessons, she wanted to share that passion with others.  Despite the fact she was giving art lessons to kids she took her work very seriously--the beginning of the sessions she would show us examples of techniques in famous paintings that she liked, and then we could create works of our own, using whatever medium we chose, as she guided us.  I remember painting lots of unicorns, hearts and rainbows (it was the 80s, and I was a little girl) and making lots of clay horses.  She never censored me, but instead showed me how to use different media, brush strokes and techniques so I learned from painting what was then my favorite subjects.  Then I'd wash my hands before I went home.  I remember first realizing that she must be rich because she had perfumed liquid soap (we only had bars of Ivory at home) and the bathroom sink had hand-carved, rose-shaped soaps she had made herself, which I knew instinctively not to use.

Since I have a rather asocial disposition, I've never wanted a maid, but the idea of an in-house art studio has its attractions. Although, after a certain point, unless you're very, very talented and dedicated indeed, attempts at art are no longer seen as cute crafts but instead as another 'c' word, with 'p' substituting for the 'ft.' 

I am very grateful for those art lessons--particularly since it was not something this woman 'needed' to do in a material sense, but rather was her way of taking advantage of the opportunities she had been given and using them well.

Baking for me, I suppose, absorbs some of my crafty energy. I made these cookies as a Christmas present for a gluten-intolerant friend. One of the nice things about flourless desserts is that they are so 'safe'--although there are gluten-free baking mixes and flours out there, not everyone can tolerate them equally well.

I made a version of this recipe when I started baking several years ago (called 'one-two-three-peanut butter-sugar-egg cookies'). It wasn't that impressed, but these came out much better. The addition of baking soda, cinnamon, and vanilla seemed to help give the cookies a bit more structure and body.

There are many variations you can try with these cookies, so long as the add-ins don't contain gluten. Chocolate chips, peanuts, even jam 'thumbprint' cookies would work, as would topping it with a Hershey's Kiss for a classic peanut butter blossom.

Because this is such a fast, one-bowl recipe, it's also very easy to clean up, which is nice even if you do have a maid and don't observe Boxing Day. On some nights Alice needs to have her date with Sam the Butcher.

Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies

-yields 12-15 large cookies-


1 cup of peanut butter (smooth, not a natural, separated variety)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 beaten, large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Incorporate peanut butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla in a bowl, slowly stir in vanilla, baking soda, and cinnamon.

3. Scoop out dough onto the parchment sheets, make a 'criss-cross' shape with the tines of a fork.

4. Bake 12-15 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges.  Cool before removing from baking sheets.

Warning: these cookies are more fragile and delicate than 'normal' peanut butter cookies.

Ginger Plum Jam Banana Bread

Merry Christmas!


I'm sure that most of you are with friends and family right now, enjoying your presents.  However, when you return to the virtual world from the real-life world of Christmas (or in case you have some Christmas downtime), I thought I'd share one more holiday recipe.

I have to say that baking cookies and other treats for people has really helped me feel like I am in the holiday spirit, in a way I haven't in a long time. I was also lucky enough to get a care packages of treats, including some lovely plum jam, from a good foodie friend who cans her own preserves. So in the interest of sharing and caring, it seemed fitting to use some of her jam for this Christmas post.

Of course, I realize that not all of my readers are lucky enough to have access to ginger plum jam.  But any slightly tart-fruited jam would work.  Of course, you're also free to use strawberry, which someone decided long ago is the 'go to' pairing with all things banana. But with ginger spices, I think that cherry, quince, cranberry, and slightly more astringent-tasting preserves would work even better.

I must admit, as I wait until I am 'allowed' to go over my father's and stepmother's house at the appointed hour of 1pm, I am nostalgic even for the most imperfect Christmases of my past.  I remember one Christmas, the first after my mother's divorce, we went to Washington D.C. on Christmas Day.  Although people who deal with the real politics of Washington may chuckle, I loved the pristine serenity of the temple-like monuments, which stood in such stark contrast to my chaotic life at age 13.  The next day, I adored the orderly nature of the museums along the Mall. Walking in museums makes you feel as if you are a part of something very important, even if you have nothing particularly important to do.

I remember that Christmas Day, I ate a fruit platter in the hotel dining room as my main meal, wearing red Snoopy Christmas sweats.

I also remember many Christmases with my mom, eating in diners, going to the movies, stopping at the drug store so I could get some extra paperback books or candy as an extra present for myself...and one particularly unwise decision on my part to eat nonpareil mints for my Christmas Day dinner.  I used to love mint chocolate before, but now I have, if not an aversion, a slight, nauseating feeling about the flavor combination that everyone else loves so much.  Still, it was a memorable Christmas meal, nonetheless!

So eat, drink, be merry, and make this for breakfast tomorrow, since you probably have the day off.  Just take it easy on the nonpareils.

Ginger Plum Jam Banana Bread


1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger

3 large, overripe bananas
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

6 tablespoons plum jam


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Butter or oil a 8X4 loaf pan.

2. Sift the flour, baking soda, sugars, and dry spices together.

3. Mash the bananas, add the eggs, oil, and vanilla and gradually spoon in the dry mixture.

4. Dollop half the mixture into the loaf pan, top with three tablespoons of the jam.  Add the rest of the mixture, spoon on three tablespoons of jam.  Swirl with a knife, dragging the blade vertically through the loaf.

5. Bake for approximately an hour until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Be careful to impale the bread in an area without jam, for an accurate reading. Cool and serve.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

In praise of stuff: Chocolate- stuffed Chocolate Snowballs

If I was suddenly given $200 and relieved of any and all obligations to spend that money in a practical fashion, I'd sink that money into leasing a horse or to buy more riding lessons.  More practically, I'd buy some new shoes (although knowing me, I'd mysteriously find a way to buy riding boots, rather than professional shoes).

But even though I liked Sex in the City when it was popular, my immediate instinct upon seeing Carrie Bradshaw's stable full of Manolos was not 'how cute,' but 'thank goodness I don't need to wear such overpriced and expensive shoes.'

So you might be expecting a rant about stuff this Christmas Eve. I admit that I am the type of person who shops at T.J. Maxx rather than Saks and doesn't see the point of buying name-brand items full price. But I will also say that having certain types of stuff has made me a better, more open-minded person, a person more willing to take risks. 

Like having a reliable car, finally, for an entire year,  encouraged me to take more road trips and explore different areas of my state.  Having a home rather than a tiny flat with neighbors who routinely set off the smoke alarm cooking sausages at 11am like I did in my 20s has made me significantly more productive as a writer because of the privacy this engenders.

 Being able to pay for lessons to learn to do stuff, entertainment about stuff, and the clothes to wear while doing stuff is all important. I don't agree with the great George Carlin that the purpose of life is finding a place for stuff, but I do think that deciding what is the RIGHT stuff to buy, rather than doing away with buying stuff at all--taking a kind of quasi-Buddhist Middle Path approach to stuff--is the wisest one.

I wouldn't say that more money is the only key to happiness. After a certain point and a certain salary level, the marginal utility one derives from every extra dollar probably does decline (I can't speak from personal experience about that experience, though).

But it is important to acknowledge, without platitudes, that those of us who have some stuff are lucky and not to over-romanticize a lack of stuff.  Because a life without any stuff but the basic necessities at all--without the opportunity to seek out new things, to stretch out of your comfort zone--is very bleak indeed.

So don't be judgmental of your friends who get their kids stuff for Christmas--you never know what kind of creative and new interest just the right present might spark in a child's mind. The best gift I ever got was the Sindy Dream House. My parents didn't really like me to play with Barbies:

Despite the fact that Sindy didn't have the anatomically incorrect proportions of Barbie, Sindy didn't save me from body issues--running shoes did, when I started exercising in my mid-20s. Still, she and My Friend Jenny inspired me to write stories at a very young age, even though I find dolls way creepy now. (Although not, oddly enough, stuffed animals, when I buy chew toys for my dog).

Possibly the most 70s photograph of two dolls, ever

In honor of a holiday about stuff,  I made a chocolate-stuffed cookie,inspired by the Hershey's website.  I have to admit that I'm not much of a fan of most Hershey's chocolates, but again, much to my surprise, the website actually has quite a few really good 'from scratch' recipes.  When I made it for my yoga studio, the tasters gave it a 'best ever' rating.  And it's almost embarrassingly easy.  No, there is no eggs in the recipe--that's not a typo. I halved the yield but kept the level of chocolate the same in my version.

Chocolate-stuffed Chocolate Snowballs

Adapted from the Magical Kisses Recipe by Hershey's

--Makes 24 cookies--


1 stick of melted butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened dark cocoa
24 (more or less) unwrapped Hershey's dark chocolate kisses
Powdered sugar


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Unwrap Hershey's kisses.  Line two sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix the butter, sugar, vanilla, flour, and cocoa together in a bowl.  A dough will quickly form.  Scoop out 24 lumps of dough (approximate) and make a depression in each ball, inserting the 'kiss' into the center.  Shape so kiss is completely covered in dough.
3. Bake for 8-10 minutes.  Cookies will not spread very much.  Cool and roll in powdered sugar.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pumpkin Chocolate Loaf (Vegan): Darkness meets light

The winter solstice is the darkest day of the year, scientifically speaking. If you are a parent, of course, the darkest day of the year is the first full day of Christmas vacation.  For some, tax day, April 15th looms large and dark.  For me, Thanksgiving rates high as the darkest day of the year (and I am sure many turkeys feel the same way).

However, today is also the first full day of Hanukkah, a holiday that celebrates the persistence of light even in darkness.

The weather outside is warm, and pleasantly spring-like, but the coming solstice is inescapable. So celebrating with some dark, dense chocolate bread seems appropriate. I'm not a big fan of the 4pm darkness, not since I was a tot and found it vaguely exciting to see my digital clock illuminated for as long as possible before being forced into bed.

However, in the region where I live, it's pretty much solstice 'lite.' I had a friend who was from a rural area in Finland, and she always talked about the oppressive darkness of the country when she visited her relatives for Christmas.  "Basically, we drink to forget that we can't see the sun," she said. She was almost translucently pale, the only person I've ever met whom I would describe as having a strawberry-and-cream complexion.

I've always felt an affinity for literature written by Scandinavians and Russians.  I even took Russian for a semester in college, but at the time, the brooding, self-loathing introspection that I affected which made me so much like the characters of Chekhov didn't really lend itself to learning a dense, difficult language.

I'd like to think I'd have the discipline to learn Russian now, if I didn't have so many adult obligations, but to make this bread doesn't take a lot of discipline at all.  I made it for a vegan friend of mine. But because it's so easy and made with no dairy and oil, you could even pass it off as something nice to have on Hanukkah.  To be really traditional, of course, you'd have to deep fry it.

But I don't suggest that, because this is one of my healthier holiday recipes. Pumpkin and unsweetened cocoa are actually full of antioxidants (and Vitamin A).

Pumpkin Chocolate Loaf

1 15 ounce (small) can of pureed pumpkin
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons boiling water (measure the water after boiling to avoid loss of volume by steam)


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Oil and flour a 8x4 or 9X5 loaf pan.
2. Mix pumpkin, oil, and vanilla in one bowl.
3. Sift flour, cocoa, sugar, spices, and baking soda together
4. Bring water to a boil. Alternate spooning in boiling water, dry mixture, and pumpkin mixture, as outlined here, in my original 'inspiration' for the recipe (I changed quite a bit)
5. When mixture is incorporated, pour in loaf pan and bake for 70-90 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Cool for at least an hour before extracting from the pan and slicing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dark Chocolate Creamy Peanut Butter Blossoms

When most people write that they were 'born to bake' or 'born to cook,' they usually mean that there was a serious cook in the household that guided them on their way from a young age.  I love reading anecdotes about people who learned how to make Christmas cookies by their mother's or grandmother's side.  However, the main sugary treats I recall baking at home were:

1. Chocolate chip or chocolate chocolate chip cookies made from a mix or from a sliced log
2. Golden cake with chocolate frosting (NEVER chocolate cake with white frosting) from a box and from a spreadable tub, respectively
2. Blueberry muffins from a mix
3. Pouring chocolate pudding into a graham cracker pre-made crust to make pie

That was pretty much the rotation, and even then, using these items was quite rare.  I remember watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the cartoon version) when it was aired for the first time around Christmas and seeing incessant advertisements for Pillsbury sugar dough 'slice' mix, which you could cut into shapes to make angels, and there was great reluctance in my household to reify sugar in such a manner. I guess that's why I ended up taking a class called 'Animals: Realms of Power' in graduate school and ate a lot of snack cakes while doing so.

I also remember once begging to make some really decadent cookies when my Brownie troop had a 'bake-off' contest, and my mother insisting on making a low-sugar variety, much to my displeasure.  Shockingly, I lost to a girl who made something studded with M&Ms and laced with chocolate.

Needless to say, when I was growing up, I never made these classic Christmas treats--peanut butter blossoms.

I used the recipe from the Hershey's website but I modified several things, and other than the kisses, I didn't use Hershey's products.

Dark Chocolate Creamy Peanut Butter Blossoms

--makes 24 large cookies--

1/2 cup butter (I used salted, but I am a salt-o-holic when it comes to nuts)
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 beaten, large egg
2 tablespoons milk (I used skim, because that's what I had on hand)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

24 unwrapped dark chocolate Hershey's kisses (or more or less, depending on how you size your cookies)

1. Preheat the oven to 375F, line two baking sheets with parchment paper
2. Cream the butter, peanut butter, and two sugars together.  Gradually incorporate the egg, milk, and vanilla.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together.  Incorporate the dry and the wet mixture until dough is formed.
4. Scoop out dough into approximately 1-inch balls.  Do not flatten.  Bake for 8-12 minutes until dough is slightly browning and 'crackling.'  Press kisses immediately into the center of the cookie upon extracting from the oven.

Monday, December 19, 2011

White Chocolate Chunk Ginger Cookies

Swimming was pretty much the only normal suburban kid thing I learned how to do when I was growing up.

When my mother was getting married to my father in Greece, my profligate aunt convinced my grandmother to get an in-ground swimming pool. My mother would have never permitted such a thing--she knew that nothing says trashy like getting a swimming pool before a much-needed new roof. But I'm very grateful, in retrospect, for that pool, because I know my mother at the time would never have allowed me to swim in a public pool or (gasp) the ocean because of 'germs.'  And while I never took gymnastics or learned to play soccer and learned to ride a bike very late, compared with normal early 80s kids, I could swim, unassisted, by the time I was three or so.

I continued to swim in my grandmother's pool every summer, and while I didn't swim enough to burn off all of the ice cream I ate, I swam enough to be able to swim a half a mile very comfortably.  I knew, although I would never have admitted to myself that I wanted to be athletic, like the cross-country runners who could fly through the woods like deer or like the heroines I loved in the 19th century novels I read who could 'follow the hunt' on their horses or simply play a game of pick-up basketball with some cute guys.  So perhaps it was the sun, but one year I concocted a plan: since swimming was the only thing I could do, I would join the swim team.

The swim team, unlike most athletic teams, did not 'cut' anyone from its ranks.  And to understand why, let me explain something about swimming.  Swimming is a sport with zero spectator appeal.  Now, you're going to say 'omg!  Michael Phelps.'  I ask you: what does a pool look like with Michael Phelps in it?  Splashy water. What does a pool look like with a mediocre swimmer in it? Splashy water.
Is he cute?  I can't tell, but I think it's a he.

Phelps has eye-candy appeal (hell, eye-candy, eye-CAKE and PIE) appeal out of the water.  But swimming is not really a glory sport for most athletes, and the high school swim team was willing to take anyone able to swim for a an hour and a half or so, four or five days a week after school.

With dreams of participatory glory, I practiced swimming all summer.  Realistic as ever in my aspirations.

Band kept me sort of in shape, or at least prevented me from hitting the couch and the refrigerator after school for the fall season.  When winter began, I was so excited...and even, my first few practices, passed a number of my fellow novices in the 'beginner lane.'

Quickly, this honeymoon period ended.  Quoth Coach B: "Now we have to teach you how to do a flip turn and dive.  It's easy.  Like doing a handstand in the water, head-first, like when you were messing around as a kid."

Given my overprotected childhood, he might as well have said: "It's easy.  Like standing on your head and translating the Rubaiyat from the original into Urdu, just like you did as a kid."

All of the other newbies learned how to do a passable dive and flip turn within one session.  I never did.  And what I quickly learned was that succeeding at short distances in swimming (and all distances in high school swimming are relatively short) is really about having a high-quality dive and flip turn, just as much as the actual swimming.

Instead, I would just sort of flail hopelessly into the pool, grab the edge of the pool when I completed a lap, and then make my sorry way back. Crawling, metaphorically and literally.

One day, before practice, Coach B was recapping the previous meet: "Hey, Mary, I think you musta discovered a new psych-out strategy. 'Cause I took a look at the girl's face in the lane beside you when you were doing that thing you're doing to get into the water, and she was like what is that girl doing."

I crouched and hid (which is hard to do when you're a pasty chick in a bathing suit).  I huddled beneath my bad 80s mall hair and my towel.

To make things even more mortifying, after practice I heard two 'popular' girls talking:

"That was SO MEAN for him to say that about HER."
"Omg!  He was just being FUNNY."

Then they saw me. "Haha, I'm totally okay with it," I said.  Kind of like Hamlet says: "Haha, I'm totally okay, mom, that you've just married my uncle." That night, I didn't bother to dry my hair underneath the hand towels like the other girls and instead sat in the activity bus, waiting to be driven home, as my wet hair froze white in the icy late November air.

I think even the very best swimmers--even the ones who had prescription goggles so they wouldn't have to wear their contacts in the water--probably got mad every now and then when they watched the diving team, who also practiced at the same time.  Diving was like the antithesis of swimming.  All of the diving team, seemingly without effort, had about 2 percent body fat.  They spent most of practice talking to one another and laughing, showing off their muscles, while the swimmers were grinding their shoulders against the waves.  Occasionally, the divers would practice flipping off the high board, and then, as a reward for their efforts, nip out into the cold to smoke a few cigarettes.

Swimming did meet the requirements I needed to get into the National Honor Society in high school (I was vice-president, just in case the president was assassinated, presumably).  But after that one season, I never practiced it seriously again as a sport.  I am a daily runner, and I ride horses, and do yoga, and I'll do casual laps in the summer, but I still can't do a flip turn or dive.

However, unlike competitive swimming, I'm willing to give ginger cookies a second 'go.'  This is my modification of Ina's recipe a few posts ago. The dough is much less sandy and dry and easier to work with, plus I added some white chocolate.

White Chocolate Chunk Ginger Cookies
Adapted from Ina Garten
--makes 24-28 large cookies--

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves and nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup of oil
2 large, beaten eggs
1/3 cup molasses (mild, not blackstrap)

2 cups of good white chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment.

2. Sift the flour, baking soda, spices, and salt together.

3. Combine the oil, eggs, and molasses. Spoon the dry mixture into the wet.  Gradually fold in the white chocolate chips.

4. Spoon onto the baking sheets (dough is still sticky, so I suggest using  a cookie scoop if you have one). Bake for 12-14 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookes: Because chocolate goes with everything

They say that all a woman needs is a little black dress.  I beg to differ.  I wore a black and white dress to my prom in the early 90s.  I don't have a photograph online, but a quick glance at a 'little black dress' from that era will clearly illustrate that black and white gowns can go out of style.

Party dresses date quickly, as do party foods. Although many people wax profound about tradition, and how certain foods ALWAYS appear around the holidays, I have to say that despite seeing these at parties during my youth, during the 1980s, I have not seen them served recently for quite some time.

Of course, people still EAT these foods.  But serving them to guests would take a bit of retro 'gall.'

1. Jell-O Molds
Flickr: bdunette

For the love of all that is holy--no Jell-O.  The sight of artificially sweetened and colored collagen rendered from boiled animal bones, tissues, intestines and other offal makes me shudder.  People who don't cook are allured by the ease of assembling 'creations' and seeming 'creative' with Jell-O.  Much like people who feel compelled to write their own free verse poetry on greeting cards, this trendy type of creative non-cookery has fortunately been quashed.

2. Ritz Crackers
Flickr: Palmetto Cheese

Growing up, any 'fancy' party boasted a tray of Ritz crackers. Ritz crackers offered a variety of topping possibilities, spanning from cheese hunks, to pepperoni, to peanut butter, to butter, to cream cheese, jam, to honey.  They were the universal bestower of goodness--anything tasted better on a Ritz. Now, they seem hopelessly dated, and a true foodie makes her own crackers.  But oh, they were so good! Like freebasing crunchy butter!

Chicken-in-a-Biskit was also popular, with cream cheese. I recall liking them, even though they were confusingly crackers, and neither chicken nor biscuits. And misspelled.

3. Sliced Pepperoni (with or without cheese)

As a kid, I wasn't a big meat eater. This was one of the few meats I would consume willingly.  No appetizer tray at my grandmother's was complete without sliced pepperoni and salami, perhaps in deference to the fact that she was briefly married to an Italian. I mean, it's good for you because it's protein, right?

4. Liverwurst

Flickr: cheeseslave

Going with the processed meat theme, Liverwurst was another staple.  My aunt's very deaf white cat had a particular fondness for it, and I liked to share slices with it.

5. Cocktail franks wrapped in Pillsbury dough or Pillsbury crescent rolls or biscuits

Yet again, another processed food item that gave you the impression of cooking, but not really. Of course, people still serve Pillsbury, but I seldom see that trademark puffy dough when the bread basket comes out.  Come to think of it, the bread basket is being threatened by the passage of time, much like the relish tray (I remember those, too).

6. Highly processed cheese products.

 I can recall when the first Cool Ranch Doritos came out--and the first incarnation of Combos.  Cheetos were never a favorite of mine. Although they were frequently served at wholesome Christmas parties, despite their disturbingly phallic appearance.

7. Dried fruits

Some older folk still remembered when dried fruits were a big deal when I was a kid, so dates and figs were often served on trays. I liked dates because they were sweet, so it was kind of like being allowed to eat as much candy as I wanted only because it had fiber it was supposed to be good for me.

8.  Need I say more?

Chocolate never goes out of style.  These chocolate white chocolate chunk cookies are as elegant and timeless serving martinis to your guests to ensure they don't remember any awkward conversations the day after.

Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

With some adaptations, from Ina Garten

-yields 48 small cookies, 24 large-


1 cup (2 sticks) of room temperature butter
1 cup of dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large, beaten eggs

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon salt

2 cups of white chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.
2. Cream butter, sugars, and vanilla.  Add eggs.
3. Sift cocoa, flour, baking soda, salt together.  Slowly spoon into wet mixture.  Fold in white chocolate chips.
4. Bake 15-17 minutes, depending on size of the cookies.  Cookies will be soft at the end of the bake time. Remove from baking tree when the cookies have solidified.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

'Tis the season to be offended: Chewy Ginger Cookies

Recently, a blogging friend of mine posted how he was tired of the whole 'Merry Christmas/Happy Holiday' debate--in other words, that some people take it as an affront to the 'true' spirit of Christmas if you utter the words 'Happy Holidays.'  I have always pursued a very simple policy:

1. If I know the person celebrates Christmas, I say: "Merry Christmas."
2. If I know the person celebrates Hanukkah, I say: "Happy Hanukkah."  
3. If I am a) unsure b) know that the person celebrates neither Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, or c) know that the person has Issues About Religion, I say: "Happy Holidays."

However, I did always think that "Happy Holidays" is nice to say if you're not going to see the person again until after the New Year, since the phrase seems to imply: "I hope you have a nice December holiday of your choice and the New Year doesn't leave you particularly hung-over."

I never realized as a child that there was any reason to get upset because people didn't celebrate holidays 'correctly.' It seems that so many people have a kind of Platonic vision of how the holiday season should be honored, and they are mercilessly critical of their friends who don't live up to this standard. (And yet Plato never celebrated Christmas.  A paradox). They say their friends are too materialistic, and only care about giving and getting cheap toys. Or their friends aren't getting their kids the right toys or enough toys. Or their friends are hypocritical because they celebrate the holiday BOTH with spiritual devotion and the giving of presents. Or their friends are making too big of a deal about Hanukkah just because of Christmas. Or their friends are celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. Or their friends aren't celebrating anything at all and are going to the movies and ordering Chinese food.

Everyone thinks that their vision of the holidays is the right one, like they had as a child.  Well, let me tell you mine.  This is exactly how I think the holidays should be celebrated: the holidays begin in September, when you're supposed to be obsessively combing over the Sears Wish Book, and weighing the doll with long hair versus a stuffed kangaroo.  You watch all of the Christmas specials live, then on tape, using the brown-paneled VHS your father bought because he has to have every new form of technology possible.  You weep for Charlie Brown because you identify with him, and Rudolph and his little friend the dentist. You decorate the tree with red and green feathery tinsel, sparkly balls and wooden ornaments, and ornaments in the shape of cartoon characters. You use big, bright colored lights, not those pretentious teeny white lights that your stepmother will use many years later. You invite your friends over and make chocolate chocolate chip cookies from a mix and order in pepperoni pizza because cooking is so totally not the early 80s. You do not blot the oil-filled little discs of meat.

You sing Christmas carols, and even though you've never been educated in religion, you like the religious ones best because they sound the most haunting and dramatic.  On Christmas Eve, you get to open one gift from your parents.  On Christmas Day, you are in a frenzy of present-tearing ecstasy and nothing will ever make you so happy again. You go to your grandmother's Christmas party, your mother pulls you on a little red sleigh over the ice, since it's only one or two blocks away. You try homemade eggnog (barf) and fruitcake from a tin with extra maraschino cherries and green candied something and you love that. You eat dates, provolone cheese, pepperoni slices, suck on a candy cane, and try to avoid the healthy aunt that pours water in your root beer.

For some people, this vision is utterly alien.  My cousins would go to Mass, for example, on Christmas Eve.  Years later, my single mother and I would exchange cards, one or two gifts, go to the movies, and then eat at a diner (my great-grandfather would have been so proud, if only mom liked Chinese food).  For others, a holiday without serious cooking and the Feast of the Seven Fishes would ruin their year.

This VHS-Rubik Cube-in-a-stocking-Speak n' Spell-under-the-tree holiday of my youth will never be again.  Holidays change.  Christmas, its date born of the proximity of the solstice feast in Roman times, has changed and will continue to change with the years. And so will Hanukkah. The holidays have both personal and sacred components, and the degree to which this is important will vary for every family.  There is no single point in time where the perfect 'holiday' ever existed. And holidays bleed into one another. Irving Berlin (or Israel Isidore Baline as he was born) wrote the most popular Christmas tune of all, "White Christmas."  People give certificates for yoga, an ancient Eastern practice, for both holidays. Herbie, the persecuted dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is probably Jewish. Many devout Orthodox Christians don't celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but around New Year's Day.  My spirituality is anything but conventional, but I still cry at the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and the Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol, and when "O Holy Night" is sung by someone who can really sing (not me, alas).

Dates and customs are as mutable as memory. But from what I DO know of etiquette, the correct response to "Happy" or "Merry" anything is "thank you,"  or a polite, "I don't celebrate XYZ, but thanks" if the person guesses what holiday you happen to celebrate 'wrong.'

Since this post might sound sour, I will try to end it with something sweet.  Alas, I first tried Ina Garden's Ultimate Ginger Cookie recipe and was quite disappointed.  It was very dry (only using a scant 1/4 cup of oil for  2 1/4 cups of flour) and not even a feeble stab at decorating could improve it.

Oh Ina!

I preferred this recipe.  Be forewarned, this is a true American cookie, not a ginger biscuit.  But there is a time and a place to be chewy, a time and a place to be crisp, and the world is big enough for people with a wide variety of tastes and preferences in ginger-flavored desserts.

Unless you don't like ginger.  In that case, woe unto you!  Woe!

Chewy Ginger Cookies
--yields 18-20 cookies--


3/4 cup melted butter (6 tablespoons)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 beaten large egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
(1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and/or cloves optional--I left them out because they were so expensive when I went to stock up on baking supplies)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (although I added a bit more, because of my personal preference)
granulated sugar for sprinkling


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
2. Mix butter, sugar, molasses and egg together.
3. Sift flour, spices, baking soda, and salt together.  Spoon slowly into wet mixture.  Batter will be somewhat dry and sandy in texture.
4. Form 'balls' of dough, sprinkle or roll in granulated sugar. (I opted for sprinkling, since the dough is sticky).
5. Bake cookies for 10-13 minutes. Cookies will seem underdone when taken from the oven.  Remove from cookie sheet after thoroughly cooled and hardened, and store in an airtight container.