Thursday, November 22, 2012

Easy pumpkin pie

Two weeks ago, I had never made a pumpkin pie in my life.  Now I've made six: two of each of the three recipes I'm featuring on the blog.

Why the sudden urge to master pumpkin pie?  I think it had something to do with my stepmother's horror at my bringing cornbread to Thanksgiving last year, which she regarded as strange. I hate to admit it, but in the deep, primitive recesses of my brain, I felt that if I could master the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert, somehow I would redeem myself from a lifetime of being the strange girl in the corner of the room who read odd books and never had Tastykakes to trade with the other kids for lunch.

Six pies later, I am by far not the master of pumpkin pie.  However, I will say that I have become the master of EASY pumpkin pie.  And, although you can make life as complicated for yourself as you want, there is something to be said for having an easy pumpkin pie in your baking playbook.

The first pumpkin pie recipe I attempted was Libby's, mainly because when I mentioned to people: "I am making a pumpkin pie," all of them said that was the one they used and it was foolproof, even people who only baked once a year.

My first attempt was a total disaster.  Note: when they say on the back of the can: 'use a deep dish pie pan,' they mean it..  Make sure it holds at least 4 cups. 

My first Libby's attempt bubbled all over the baking sheet.  Amazingly I had the foresight to put the pie on a baking sheet.  I was actually still able to salvage some of the pie, but it looked rather uneven and strange.

I used a larger pie tin for my second attempt, which was successful. (I was giving the pies away, hence the disposable cookware). Of the three pie recipes I tried, Libby's was by far the runniest and the most orange.  I can't explain the runny nature, because the recipe involves almost no measuring, and I didn't alter it at all, other than using a 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg rather than cloves.  I think it just needs a large pie tin of a specific dimension (in other words, the first time I did not FOLLOW THE RECIPE that has been tested and developed for, oh, nine billion years in an incredibly professional test kitchen).

Instead of using a traditional pie crust, I decided to use a homemade graham cracker crust for all the pies.  I tried using both a baked and an unbaked crust with all three pie recipes. The baked crust got harder when I refrigerated the pie, but quickly softened to room temperature.  I would recommend using a baked crust with the Libby's recipe because it was SO moist, the baked crust held its shape much better.  With the other two recipes, it didn't matter that much.

I realize that not making a butter crust could be classified as 'wimping out' but, in my defense:

1. I did make the graham cracker crust from scratch (or at least according to most people's definition of scratch).
2. Although I love, love a good pie crust, I've always found even the best pumpkin pies tend to make the crust taste rather wet and doughy, and the flavor of graham crackers goes so nicely with pumpkin.
3. These are easy pies, and I am admitted newbie, so I wanted to focus on the filling. No crust stress!

The second pie recipe I tried was Emma's favorite pie.  Emma is my friend Anna's daughter over at Cookie Madness.  This pie was MUCH less runnier than Libby's and came together so much easier.  It uses sweetened condensed milk (in contrast to Libby's, which uses evaporated milk).  It is so easy, you don't even have to add sugar.

Unfortunately, my pie doesn't have an adorable eight-year-old's thumbprint in it, but I really loved the texture of the pie--the condensed milk gave the pumpkin batter a nice solidity and it spread less. It cut very easily and professionally.

Finding my third pie came about by accident. I was listening to NPR (of course) and heard an interview with Melissa Clark in which she mentioned her new pumpkin pie recipe with browned butter and bourbon.  I don't drink but I love browned butter and when I saw the recipe on the radio showpage, I said: "hey, that looks easy, and I bet that would be fantastic with a graham cracker crust."

This pie had a smooth, unctuous texture and the batter was very thick.  I used my small, more shallow pie pan and it didn't spread at all!  This is my new go-to easy pumpkin pie recipe!  Next year, I can conquer more Olympian pumpkin heights, perhaps, but I'm satisfied with this one.

I did make some modifications to Melissa's original, so I am including mine below.

Browned Butter Pumpkin Pie (with a graham cracker crust)

Graham Cracker Crust (make this first)
--adapted from Allrecipes--


6-6 1/2 tablespoons of melted butter (you may need to use the extra half tablespoon if your graham cracker crumbs are especially dry--I used this brand because it doesn't contain any HFC)
1 1/2 cups finely crumbled graham crackers
1/3 cup white OR light brown sugar (I used both, both work fine, but the brown sugar will give you a more moist crust; don't use dark because it will be too crumbly)
1 teaspoon of cinnamon


1. Very easy--after melting the butter, sift the crackers, sugar, and cinnamon.  Mix the dry mixture into the wet mixture and pat firmly into a 9-inch pie pan.

2. Either bake at 375F for 5-7 minutes or chill for 1 hour, unbaked

Browned Butter Pumpkin Pie


6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups canned pumpkin puree (or 1 standard 15 ounce can)
3 large beaten, eggs
1/2 cup half and half
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt


1. Preheat oven to 325F.  Brown the butter in a pan until it is just foaming, remove from heat.
2. While the butter is cooling, mix the pumpkin, eggs, half and half, sugar, spices, and salt together.  Add in the browned butter.  Stir thoroughly.
3. Pour into your prepared graham cracker crust.
4. Bake for 50-60 minutes until center is moist and edges have begun to solidify.
5. Cool for two hours.  Then refrigerate.

Monday, November 19, 2012

And the winner is...

And the winner of my first-ever blog contest is...


"My favorite unusual holiday is ... today! Today is Pocky Day! (Also today is Veterans Day, but there's no snack associated with that.)"

I haven't had Pocky in ages!  Pocky is a snack that does not need to be doctored up but in case you  feel like baking something else, you have 365 recipes to try (and 365 or so new holidays to celebrate).

Flurrious is the author of a hilarious blog that often has food-related posts, so I suggest you check it out.  She recently answered all of the 'NaBloPoMo' questions of a challenge designed to help bloggers blog a single it seems fitting that she is rewarded with a book that celebrates the equally daunting challenge of baking a cookie a day.

I know from reading Flurrious' blog that she isn't a 'daily baker' but there are also cookies in this book which use mixes and are actually 'creative assemblies' of existing cookies, so once again the book has something for everyone.

Send me your address (home address or P.O. is fine) at:


pagones721@gmail. com

And of course, for all non-winners, you can pick up a hardcover or Kindle version at Amazon.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hostess RIP

Like just about every American who was a child in the late 70s and early 80s, I have a Hostess memory.  I never understood the appeal of Twinkies any more than I understood the popularity of vanilla ice cream, Jolly Ranchers, or other super-sweet things, but I did love the Hostess chocolate products and pies. 

My elementary school didn't have a cafeteria but whenever my class went on a field trip, I'd always use my lunch money to buy a pack of chocolate, cream-filled Hostess cupcakes, a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and a soda (orange, grape-flavored or root beer if available).  Other kids would bring their sandwiches and buy a snack or buy pizza, but I went straight for the Hostess.

My mother was pretty sugar-phobic but when my parents were getting divorced and I was being bullied in school...I still remember how for at least one week straight she bought me Hostess pies, and included a pie a day in my lunch. I seriously remember nibbling at the thickest corner of the pasty, glorying in the peeling suntan texture of the pie crust and knowing with greater certainty than at any other moment in my life that my mother loved me and would do anything for me. And sometimes she'd allow me to have a pie as an after school snack, versus Green Giant creamed spinach, or celery and carrot sticks.
In college, I discovered Suzy Qs, HoHos, and Ding Dongs at the school convenience store and on really bad days, I'd skip eating real food entirely and just get a packet of them for dinner with some candy from the bulk bins.

I'm rather embarrassed to say, contrary to the stereotype, I don't drink or smoke dope, so my unhealthy eating habits were completely due to my own lack of self-control, not to any pharmacologically-induced cravings.

But even when I ate Hostess stuff fairly regularly, when given the choice between a really good piece of cake and a packaged snack cake, I would ALWAYS choose the regular cake from a good bakery.  Not because I was born with healthy appetites--I threw out the red apple my mother faithfully included in all the lunches she made for me FOR YEARS.  But bakery cake ALWAYS had more frosting.

So it surprised me to see the outrage over the loss of Hostess-brand foods.  Haven't people's eating habits been changing?  Has all the stress on home baking and all the press given to baking your own food on television been for naught?  To quote one of my friends on Facebook: "most of the people who are complaining haven't eaten a Twinkie in twenty-five years."

Even people I know who regularly post articles like: "McDonald's and KFC are the evil slaughters of baby chickens" as part of their Facebook feed were mourning the loss of Fluffernutter sandwiches on Wonderbread.

But my all-time favorite response regarding The Death of Hostess was: "now what ethnic slur are people going to use to criticize Asian students for acting white?"

More seriously, aside from the tragic loss of jobs around the holiday season and perhaps hypocritically given my former passion for them, I can't get too broken up over the death of Twinkies.  They seem to belong to another era in my mind, when eating McDonald's was guilt-free and McD's was a happy, wholesome place to go after softball games; when Ragu tomato sauce was just as good as the real thing from scratch; when it was okay to watch the Smurfs and eat cereals that featured prizes at the bottom of the packages on weekends; and when I ordered all of my clothes and Christmas from the Sears catalog.

Not that I don't look back upon these things with fondness, sometimes, but I don't want to go back to DOING any of those things, any more than I want to substitute eating Ding-Dongs for a snack, versus a good slice of cheese.

However, given the escalating prices of Twinkies on eBay, I am clearly in a minority.

I think the appeal of Hostess nostalgia is that, as we grow increasingly fragmented as a nation in terms of the foods we use and crave--which is a product of greater ethnic diversity (a good thing) and also a growing class divide in the US (a bad thing)--we look back to the past when everyone seemed to be eating the same sort of food. Now, Hostess products (along with McDonald's, KFC, Carvel, and the other cherished brands of my childhood) have a kind of trashy, retro appeal, but when I was a kid EVERYONE ate that stuff, regardless of where a family was on the economic ladder. No kid brought in sushi in their lunchboxes or had sculpted gluten-free birthday cakes from Whole Foods.

Of course, there were some partisan divides--I noticed as well on my Facebook feed there was a small minority of people who loved Tastykakes and regarded them as far superior to Hostess and an even smaller but equally vocal minority of Little Debbie proponents.

(Full disclosure: I was an equal-opportunity snack cake lover, I should note, but I liked Hostess the best because of the peelable frosting and greater abundance of fluffy cream filling, and Little Debbie was a bit too sweet, even for me).

But personally, I think the time for Hostess and the type of foods it makes is coming to an end.  It's possible someone will buy the brand and 'save' the Twinkie, but in ten or twenty years, the Twinkie will not have the cultural cache it has as a symbol today.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Daily Cookie: A Cookbook Review AND A GIVEAWAY!!!

Sometimes the best ideas for cookbooks aren't the most complicated ones.  Reading the best cookbooks feel so necessary and natural you can't believe they didn't already exist.

Even if I hadn't been reading Anna Ginsberg's blog Cookie Madness for years and didn't know that Anna was a former Grand Champion Winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, I would have needed to buy the Daily Cookie: 365 Tempting Treats For the Sweetest Year of Your Life. 

I think it's fair to say that everyone who loves cooking also loves holidays.  The only problem is that there really aren't enough major holidays to justify special occasion-worthy baking to satisfy the appetite of most bakers.  Anna's cookbook satisfies that need!  Because there is a holiday for EVERY day of the year, even if you didn't know it--and a cookie to celebrate the day! Of course, we all know about Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. But what about shortbread for Robert Burn's Birthday (January 25th) or Double Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake Bars for World Nutella Day (February 5th)?  

The great thing about all of these cookie recipes is that most of them are reasonably easy to whip up, and run the gamut from the fancy (like Chocolate Tiffins for April 29th, the day of the Royal Wedding of William and Kate) to the exotic (Alfajores on August 29th to honor the Death of Atahualpa, the last Incan King of Peru) to the goofy but yummy (Double Trouble Chocolate and Potato Chip Cookies for July 21st, National Junk Food Day).

True confession: my birthday is July 21st, and I'm a little embarrassed to learn that my birthday falls on National Junk Food Day.   But that illustrates one of the great, unique pleasures of this book--as well as looking for great cookie recipes you can also have fun paging through the different birthdays of friends and relatives, to see what holiday and cookie is associated with that special date.

For parents, scout leaders, and people who work with kids like teachers, I have to say I think this book is essential.   You know how sometimes you're stuck with a bunch of bored kids, and you have no idea what to do with them?  Or are stumped for lesson plans or activities?  Just open up the book and you have a holiday to teach them about and a cookie to bake to celebrate that holiday!  Mission accomplished!

Another amazing thing about this book is how accessible it is for cooks on a every level. When I started reading Anna's blog, I had no experience whatsoever in baking, and needed to learn everything.  Her blog had everything from easy, accessible quick recipes that didn't intimidate me to complex but oh-so-worth it special occasion 'project' recipes to show me what I could aspire to as a baker.  This book is filled with new recipes that run the same gamut.  A novice or an expert baker would love this book just as much and everyone will 'grow' as a baker who uses this book because Anna's instructions are so detailed and thorough.

I am in awe how Anna is able to post a new recipe every day, and yet was also able to create 365 NEW recipes for this book.  Plus, she has a wonderful guide at the beginning of the book discussing techniques of cookie baking, demystifying everything from the optimal ways to measure flour versus brown sugar, what types of equipment you absolutely need (and which ones are not necessary but are nice to have), and other baking tips.

I still have so much to learn from this book, and it took me FOREVER to pick a recipe to showcase.  I finally decided on S'mores Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies.  It seemed like the perfect introduction to Anna's style--a flawless chocolate chip cookie recipe that was classic, but given an extra-special twist for Juliette Gordon Low's Birthday (October 30th), the founder of the Girl Scouts.

Now, I know you won't be satisfied with just one of these 365 recipes.  So hurry over to Amazon and order your copy!  Thanksgiving is on the horizon, which means the holiday baking season will be in full swing.

I am also giving away a copy of The Daily Cookie, here--my first giveaway ever!

Just leave a comment on this blog post telling me your favorite 'UNUSUAL' holiday.  (I'll leave it up to your judgement as to what is an unusual holiday).  Leave a comment before midnight on Friday, November 16th and I will announce the winner on Monday, November 19th on my blog.  If you submit your name, please check back so I can get in touch with you to send you your copy. Winners will be selected at random.

(U.S. and Canadian addresses only--sorry to any international readers).

 S'mores Chocolate Chip Cookies
--From page 335 of The Daily Cookie: yields 32--

1 1/4 cups (5.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg 
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup miniature marshmallows
1 (1.4 ounce) milk chocolate bars (Hershey's or other), broken into pieces

1. Preheat the oven to 375F and place a rack in the center. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick foil.
2. Mix the flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking soda, and salt together in a medium-size bowl; set aside.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl [I used a large mixing bowl], using a handheld electric mixer, beat the butter and both sugars on medium speed until creamy; add the vanilla and egg and beat for another 20 seconds. Scrape the sides of the bowl.
4. By hand or using the lowest speed of the mixer, sir in the flour mixture [I did this by hand]. When the flour mixture is incorporated, stir in the chocolate chips.
5. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of dough about 2 1/2 inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. bake one sheet at a time for 8 minutes or until the cookies appear almost set. Remove from the oven and quickly press a couple of marshmallows and a few small pieces of milk chocolate into the cookies. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 3 more minutes or until the marshmallows have puffed up and the cookies appear set. [Watch carefully--it took my oven about two minutes.]  If you are concerned about timing it just right, bake one cookie as a tester and repeat.
6.  Let cook on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.              

Monday, November 5, 2012

Heath Bar Crunch Cookies

When a hurricane is scheduled to arrive, it's a bit like the inverse of Christmas.  Does it exist?  Will it come?  You half-believe and don't believe.  You watch the television simulcasts, read the stories. You make lists.  You go to the store frequently, but keep forgetting things. Half of you thinks that it's all a myth to make you behave and buy lots of canned goods and DD batteries; the other half of you is scared to death.

The days before Hurricane Sandy made landfall at the Jersey Shore, even people states away from me were posting about how the skies were lowering.  But I didn't really think it was going to hit until the Monday of the storm. We've had so many false alarms at the shore before.

The winds the day before had been crisp and invigorating, but overnight they began to pick up, and by daybreak they were a firm, sustained 40-60mph.  But I live about 10 minutes away from the beach, not at water's edge, so I wasn't concerned.  I did get gas, more out of custom than fear and I bought my usual shopping order, rationalizing that if I kept the refrigerator closed, the yogurt, broccoli and turkey would keep just fine for a few hours.

They said 90mph winds and that I was only a county away from where it was making direct landfall.  I wasn't even sure what that meant.  Coal in my stocking, definitely.

The day after, when I awoke to a cold, powerless house, I opened up the window to look, much as you would after a snowstorm. My entire fence around my pool area had been blown clean through.  Not just a few fence poles down, but as if a giant hand had punched it like paper. I had no idea what to do.  I usually run in the morning, but it was far too dark.  I couldn't make coffee.  I waited, colder and colder by the minute.

Eventually, at daybreak I threw on my clothes, and, just to break my mental and physical frozen-ness I ran.  Ran 'till I was sweaty.  Ran past the massive trees snarled in power wires like cat's cradles.  I knew enough not to run to the beach, although I hadn't heard the stories of the people trapped on the top floors of their condos with their cats, staring at three feet of water on the first floor. Hadn't heard the stories of houses swept out to sea or seen the pictures of bars and restaurants which were familiar landmarks when I was growing up utterly destroyed.

My trees had seemed fine in the dark, but when I came back I realized that one tree was LEANING on another tree, entirely uprooted.  My neighbor, thank heavens, was willing to help me safely bring it down away from my house, cut it up and I dragged the pieces to the curb.   I called my fence guy and within a day or two he came and fixed the fence.

The major ordeal was being without power. The first day I was so exhausted by the cleanup effort, it wasn't too bad. The second day, I helped my riding instructor muck out stalls, mainly to keep myself warm and busy. But I work from home, so the fear of losing money was constant, as well as the racy, anxious sensation of being cold all the time. On Wednesday, the thermostat read 55F and I decided not to look at it after that.

My father has a gas fireplace, so every night I would go over to his place with the dog.  He had no power either, so we would play with the dog and talk in a civilized manner that I thought was impossible for the three of us--myself, my stepmother, and father.  Then I would go home, put on my great-aunt's long johns, which my mother had given me (they were made in an era before centralized heating and were the most hideous and warmest things I owned), throw on a wool sweater and parka, and go to bed around 6:30pm, exhausted and bored. My battery-powered radio didn't pick up NPR, only 880AM (a news channel) and ESPN radio.  I had envisioned myself writing and reading great things, with no work to do and with it being too cold to do housework, but mostly I slept.  Woke at dawn, went for a run to keep warm. More yard cleanup.

By Friday, I was growing desperate.  I had heard that my section of town might not get serviced for another 10 days, yet everyone else (including my father) was getting their power back.  I was growing hysterical, and thought of my Harvard Divinity School classes on the book of Job.  Part of me felt terrible being so miserable about being without power (I mean, I wasn't dead and my house was still standing) but then I thought: isn't that the nature of Job?  He accepts the mightiness of God, but he still allows himself to be sad?  He doesn't plaster on a fake smile and say, "gee, life is swell, I've just lost all my loved ones and money and health," he admits his sorrow but he also admits the powerlessness of us all....

And then the lights came on, as I slid to the floor from my sofa, like flipping on a Christmas tree.

It's so strange when the lights go on after a long time.  You're suddenly reminded: hey, I was at the computer/ in the bathroom/ in the kitchen all those days ago when your house gasps to life again.  It is as close to a witnessed resurrection that most of us will ever experience....And I really did have no hope because frankly, the nature of a power outage and a storm reminds us how arbitrary who is deprived of life-giving light can be.  In terms of money, we can pretend life is a meritocracy, but with death and acts of nature (acts of God, if you will) being very, very nice to people won't necessarily get your power back more quickly, as the poor neighbor who helped me with my tree is still in the dark. Being a good person won't protect your house from being swept away.

Anyway, I am very grateful to be back on the grid, a productive member of society once more, and eating cooked. food. And I was far away from the flooding.

My oven is gas, but does not operate without electricity, so I ate mostly almond butter, avocados, canned tuna and salmon and the occasional sprig of broccoli (raw). And lots of nuts. It sounds really healthy, but my philosophy is, if I'm going to eat fattening foods, they are going to taste good, versus stale Oreos in a freezing cold kitchen while drinking instant coffee made with warm tap water.

One of the things that surprised me the most was how much better I felt, physically, when running, riding, doing yoga and just about anything. Even though I was freezing, not sitting hunched in front of my computer 10 hours a day, doing yard work, and talking to people did seem to have a beneficial effect. Unfortunately,  giving up technology is not a viable option for me, financially, even though my spine might thank me for it...

These were the first cookies I baked after the power was restored. It's a great way to get rid of Halloween candy, although these are so good, I'd say even if you don't have leftover Heath bars, it's worth going out and buying them!  An early Christmas present to yourself...


Heath Bar Crunch Cookies
--yields 12-18 cookies--


1/2 cup room temperature butter
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 large, beaten egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup caramel baking bits
 1/2 cup peanut butter chips
 6-9 mini Heath bars


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

2. Cream together the butter and sugar.  Add egg and vanilla.
3. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.  Incorporate wet and dry mixture.  Fold in caramel baking bits and peanut butter chips.
4. Snap mini Heath bars in half.  Scoop dough out into 1-inch balls on the parchment sheets. Insert 1/2 a candy bar into each ball of dough.
5. Bake for 10-12 minutes until just set. Do not overbake.  Cool and remove from baking sheet.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Browned Butter Cardamon Cookies

I know I didn't read the forecast before I went to the Wellseley debate tournament in college. I had returned home from Wesleyan University for spring break my freshman year, and within a week I was bored and frustrated. 

T--, a senior on the debate team lived near Wellesley and it seemed like a great idea to hitch a ride with a friend of mine up to Massachusetts so I could debate with T--.  Now, that would be a true vacation, I decided.   T-- was the president of the debate team, and would never have agreed to debate with me, a puny little novice, under normal circumstances.  But no one else was crazy enough to debate on spring break but me.

The day before the tournament, I went to sleep with visions of trophies dancing in my head.

Unfortunately, the morning I was supposed to leave, I heard that my friend had hit a deer.  Or rather, the deer had hit her.  M-- was a very good driver, and back then, deer were a far rarer sight on the roads of New Jersey than they are today, so I can only conclude that it was an act of deer suicide and the deer flung itself onto her car, saying "goodbye, cruel world."

M-- was distraught and decided not to go.  Now, this also dates the story, because today an enterprising foodie would simply have scraped the deer off the car, rendered it into steaks, and popped it into a cooler with a grill and some homemade bbq sauce, delighted for a good excuse to escape the dreadful food that debate teams always served between rounds.  But this was a simpler time, long before the Food Network and Man versus Food.   However, still determined to get the hell out of New Jersey, I managed to finagle another ride with a nearby debate team in a car.

The ride up did not go well.  I was driving with a senior and a junior, and when the car was low on gas somewhere in New England they pulled over to a rest stop and told me it was my responsibility to pump the gas.

Now, although we were coming from New Jersey, I must note that the people I was driving with were not FROM the Garden State.  Which explains their following reaction.

Me: I don't know how to pump gas.
Them: What?
Me: I have never pumped gas.
Them: Do you mean you WON'T pump the gas?
Me: I have never used a self-serve station in my life! 
(Cue tears). 

Apparently, the phrase 'Jersey girls don't pump gas' had not made its way to Canada or New Mexico, where the two debaters were from and they weren't the type of people to suffer fools gladly.  One of them pumped for me, but for the next ten minutes he muttered. "I don't understand how you don't know how to pump gas.  It's not that hard."  I felt totally stupid and if I had known who Snooki was, I would have felt like her at the time.

Things got better at the tournament during the first day of competition. I don't remember how I did, but I remember liking Wellseley at first sight. I always loved the slightly fussy, mannered New England schools that reminded me of the Victorian novels I loved to read.

However, that illusion of decorum was quickly broken at the debate party that night.  Most debate parties were held in frat houses, but Wellseley had none, so it was hosted in one of the debate team member's halls a large girl named F-- who wore flowery dresses and had, even at the age of 21, what I can only call a 'bosom' (as opposed to breasts). Midterms had just ended and suddenly the hall was filled with males so everyone was feeling festive.  The air smelled so heavily of booze, even though I didn't drink, I felt slightly spacey.

F-- told me where to put my bags where I would be sleeping and went on with her conversation.  "I would totally fuck Jared over John, because Jared is really arrogant and I only fuck arrogant men."  Two other girls were holding forth on the off-rounds debate topic of: 'based on comfort alone, is it better to go braless or wear a bra.'  Within about twenty minutes I was thoroughly bored with the fuck and bra talk and wanted to go to bed, but there was nowhere to lie down and television had been appropriated by a debater named J--, who was watching a Ren and Stimpy marathon on MTV. Every time I drifted past the room he was in, he would turn to me with a sort of glazed expression on his face and say: "genius, pure genius" with the exact same inflection and look back at the TV.  He was one of those people who was always remarkably successful in the debate arena but mysteriously incomprehensible outside of it. The TV sang: "It's log! It's log!  It's big, it's heavy it's wood!" again and again.  

The atmosphere was a bit like a David Lynch film, and if the Log Lady from Twin Peaks had wandered past me, I wouldn't have been particularly surprised, particularly if the log was wearing a DD bra.

The next day, the surreal atmosphere continued as we were all served GREEN bagels for St. Patrick's Day, the perfect shade to match the hung-over debater's faces. I can't remember how T-- and I did that tournament, but I do remember that around the time of the awards banquet, great puffy clouds of snow began to fall.  I wobbled in the high heels and tights I always wore for debate (panty hose ripped too easily, and I didn't feel like buying it new every week).  It was one of those sudden New England late winter-early spring snowstorms that sweeps and by the conclusion of the tournament the roads were impassable for most of the debaters living in the Southern states.

I still needed to hitch a ride back to New Jersey, so I was stranded.

It was imperative that we hit the dining hall to steal food before they closed down for winter break.  Dazed, I wandered in and out of the fluorescent lights, looking for something that wouldn't spoil. Some kids took dishes of cereal and crackers.  I made a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Then we all ran back.  Someone--I don't remember who--tripped over me, and I fell face-first into the snow.  I lay there for a few seconds, wondering if anyone would help me up.  Eventually, I managed to totter upright, and realized that one of my precious provisions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches now had thumbprints.

All night, the debaters played 'I never' with the Wellseley girls.  For a dorky freshman, 'I never' requires a great deal of strategy.  You don't want to be too honest, because then your completely lame sex life in high school will be grossly apparent.  But you can't lie and be too raunchy, because then all of the sex-starved, unattractive senior males will follow you around for the rest of the year.  Fortunately, the alcohol was strong enough that true to good 'I never' form, everyone was too drunk to remember what was said the night after except for me, since I used water rather than booze to play.

The next morning I awoke to a throbbing headache, not from a hangover, but because of the lack of caffeine. I asked the girl in whose room I had crashed if she had any coffee. "I have herbal tea" she said brightly. 
I looked at her.  
"It's hot and it's just like having regular tea."
"Coffee?" I said, hopefully as if saying the word again could make it magically appear.
 "You can trick your body into thinking it has caffeine," she said and smiled.
I knew I was being an ungracious guest and the expression on my face said: NO, MY BODY CAN SURE FUCKING TELL HERBAL TEA IS NOT COFFEE! GIVE ME ESPRESSO NOW.

Fortunately, for Miss Perky Herbal Tea, the roads were clear enough for us to return to New Jersey by mid-morning.  Someone had eaten my peanut butter sandwiches, except for the one with the really deep thumbprint in it that I didn't even want because it didn't have enough peanut butter so I was starving as well as had a throbbing headache.

We stopped at a diner on the way back.

"Coffee," I said to the waitress, and ordered pancakes, what tasted like the best pancakes I had ever eaten.  I was unusually aggressive at the restaurant in asking for refills and for once had no compunction using butter as well as syrup on the stack. It's coffee! It's coffee! It's black, it stimulates, its good!  It's coffee, it's coffee, it kicks herbal tea's ass and it should! Some people said they were 'too hungry to eat' and picked at their food.  I didn't even know what that meant.

I pumped gas under supervision on the way back, but you know what?  Jersey still doesn't have self-serve, and I don't feel bad about that at all.

These simple butter cookies are great with coffee. Because, sometimes in the morning the only two food groups you  need are coffee and some butter-related substance.

I only made two modifications in the recipe--the comments complained that in the original, the cardamon taste was nonexistent, so based upon the recommendations I upped it by a teaspoon and eliminated the second 'rolling' in powdered sugar, so the flavor of the spice would be more intense.

Browned Butter Cardamon Cookies
--yields 24 cookies--

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 cups all-purpose flour + some extra
1/2 cup powdered sugar


1. Brown butter in a large saucepan until just foaming.  Remove from heat and refrigerate until solidified (approximately 30 minutes).
2. Preheat oven to 350F.
3. Cream butter and sugar.  Add yolk, vanilla, cardamon. Stir in flour, one half cup at a time until a stiff dough is created.
4. Scoop into 1-inch balls. Bake for 10 minutes and sprinkle immediately with powdered sugar.  Remove from pan when fully cooled and hardened.