Cooking is Magic, Part 4: Cooking is Community

Serving lamb-in-a-pumpkin supper

A Halloween Meal with lamb-in-a-pumpkin stew

I live in a cohousing community, an intentional community designed with extensive common spaces to foster community interaction. It’s not a commune; we all own our own apartments and townhouses. It’s more like a condominium association with a big clubhouse that the members own and run. It should come as no surprise that my favorite part of the community is the common house kitchen and dining room, where we dine together as a community at least once/week. I love cooking for big crowds, and here I get to make large, elaborate meals I’d never be able to do at home: Cinco de Mayo, Italian Carnivale (not my meal, I just helped out), paella made in a table-sized pan over a wood fire. The photo above shows a Halloween meal I made: lamb-in-a-pumpkin stew. I love the challenge of it, but also the economies of scale. The cost of my meals rarely exceeds $4/person.

Even more, I love the effect my meals have on my neighbors. We gather to eat and drink and talk and laugh and share experiences past and present. We swap recipes, collaborate, cook together and clean together. Studies have shown that people who dine together, and in particular, those who eat the same foods together, are more likely to compromise and reach agreements (gastrodiplomacy). Meals are an integral part of society. We break bread together, we chew the fat, we kill the fattened calf to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. In some countries, it is unthinkable not to offer tea to visitors, and “tea” may range from a cup of warm liquid to a lavish dinner. No wedding is complete without a reception dinner. No holiday goes unmarked by food: the Thanksgiving turkey, the Christmas goose, the Passover seder, the Memorial Day cookout. Food binds together our society with shared experiences. It gives me no end of pleasure to provide that opportunity to my friends and family.

So it seems natural to me to write about food, because ultimately, I’m writing about people, how they interact, how they grow and develop and change together, and sharing meals is a vital part of that process. After all, writing, too, serves to bring people together. We chat about newspaper columns, join book clubs, recall the classics we were forced to read in school, perhaps with fondness, but certainly with a sense of camaraderie. Writing, too, weaves people together.

Here is one of my favorite vegetable side dishes to serve at large meals. If you’re scaling this up for 20 people or more, I recommend using a food processor or mandolin to slice the vegetables thinly for rapid roasting.

Roasted Root Vegetables

  • 1 large or two medium potatoes
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 1 large or two small sweet potatoes
  • 2-3 beets
  • 1 large parsnip
  • 1 turnip or rutabaga
  • 1 medium onion
  • ¼ c. olive or sunflower oil
  • ¼ c. melted butter
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • fresh thyme and sage to taste

Preheat oven to 425˚F. Chop all vegetables into ½ inch cubes. Finely chop herbs. Place vegetables and herbs in a bowl and drizzle with oil, butter, and salt. Toss to coat thoroughly. Place in a single thin layer in a shallow baking pan or sheet. Roast for 20 minutes or until all vegetables are tender and slightly caramelized but not crisp. Makes 4-6 servings. Note: you don’t have to have all of these vegetables. Use whatever subset you can find. If you’re feeling adventurous, add half a celeriac. It’s a strange root vegetable and will require a lot of paring to remove the bumpy outer skin, but it’s well worth the effort for its mellow celery flavor.

For more recipes, consider preordering A Pixie’s Promise on Kickstarter. It’s chock full of recipes simple enough for a child to make with adult supervision. But you’d better hurry. The Kickstarter ends at 11:30am EDT on Wednesday, May 23rd..

Cooking is Magic, Part 3: Food for the Body, Cooking for the Soul

Mother's Day Flan

Reminder: Less than four days left to preorder my next novel, A Pixie’s Promise, through Kickstarter! We’re just $500 short of reaching our goal, so if you’ve been on the fence, now’s the time!


For Mother’s Day, my husband made me flan. That’s it at the top of the page, with my portion already gleefully consumed.

I love flan. I love all things custardy: flan, crème brulee, those Danish tarts with the glazed fruit on top. If it jiggles, ever so slightly, that’s my bowl of cream. But for the life of me, I cannot make it. The custard curdles, or it won’t set, or it somehow sets too well and cracks apart.

My husband hates all things jiggly: custard, pudding, Jell-O, and nearly everything that appears in a dim sum cart. But he got it into his head that flan was what I wanted, so flan I would have. He checked recipe books. He watched The Great British Baking Show and Alton Brown videos. He consulted the Internet at large. And then he coated a pie plate with caramel, poured in a perfect custard, and made me flan.

It was so delicious, even he liked it.

We can’t live without food. It nourishes us, it gives us energy, it provides us with the building blocks we need to grow and maintain our bodies. It allows our muscles to contract, our heart to pump blood, our lungs to pump in the air we need to process that food. It keeps our greedy brains, which consume 20% of the calories we eat, running smoothly.

And yet, food represents so much more. It’s the tortillas my abuela made by hand, the deep dish pizza I first tried in Chicago, the face pancakes my mother always made for our birthdays. It’s the fried clams that taste twice as good after sailing across Boston Harbor to Hull and the chai latte at my favorite café and the cream sauce my father-in-law invented and the challah I braid because my daughter loves it. It’s the salad I made from my very first garden and the zucchini I grew bigger than my forearm and stuffed with deliciousness and the raspberry rhubarb crumble made from raspberries I picked fifteen minutes before. It’s the terrible sandwiches my husband and I took on our first date when we got lost hiking in the Blue Hills and ate in the rain. It’s the first time I made tortillas by myself in college.

Smells trigger memories. The smell of mint takes me right back to my student days when I walked past a candy factory to get to class, and the smell of green chile puts me on the streets of Albuquerque in July, when you can smell roasting chile everywhere. Food becomes a road map through our lives, and we tend to remember most clearly the worst (all the pickles I begged off my classmates and ate on one hamburger, more pickle than meat) and the best (the chicken cacciatore Mom made for my birthday every year). And now flan.

Good writing is like this. It’s more than just entertainment. Good writing connects with the reader. Most readers I know can recall vividly the first time they read a particular book and map their lives through those books. I certainly do: the Black Stallion novels I loved when I was eight, that day when I was nine and the children’s librarian led me into the adult section and put The Fellowship of the Ring in my hands, my eighth grade teacher knocking Lord Foul’s Bane out of my hands with a well-aimed chalk eraser. And writers often say they write a particular novel for a particular person, hence the dedication page. I wrote my first novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, for my children, packing into it my love of cooking along with many of the lessons I wanted to them to learn, as well as all the love I have to give. To my surprise, more than one parent has told me it brought them to tears. Stories are more than just words.

Cooking is more than just food. Food nourishes the body. Cooking nourishes the soul.

Here is the recipe my husband adapted from Alton Brown’s Flandango.

Flan

½ cup water
1 cup raw or light brown sugar

1-1/2 cups 2% milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup raw sugar
6 eggs

Prepare the caramel: combine water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook 10-15 minutes, swirling the caramel, covering all sides of the pan, until the mixture is a deep caramel color. Coat a 9-inch pie plate with the caramel and place in a roasting pan. Fill the pan with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the pie plate. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Prepare the custard: In a separate saucepan, combine the milk, cream, vanilla, and remaining sugar. Bring to a bare simmer over medium-low heat. Separate 3 eggs, reserving the whites. In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, combine the yolks and remaining whole eggs. Whip the eggs with a whisk until slightly thickened and light in color. While continuing to whisk the eggs, drizzle in about a quarter of the hot milk mixture. Do this SLOWLY to prevent curdling. Now whisk the tempered eggs back into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture.

Place a fine mesh strainer over a glass or stainless steel bowl with a spout. Pour the egg mixture through the strainer in order to catch any curdled egg bits or particles. Pour the custard into the pie plate, and place the roasting pan in the oven. Cook for about 40 minutes or until they wobble slightly when the pan is wiggled. You can also insert a paring knife midway between the edge and the center. If it comes out clean, the flan is done.

Carefully remove the pie plate from the roasting pan – silicone mitts or gloves work well. Let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight or for at least four hours. To serve, run a knife around the sides of the pie plate. Place a plate or platter on top of the pie plate and quickly flip over. The flan should slide neatly onto the plate. Serves six.

Cooking is Magic, Part 2: Cooking as Chemistry, Cooking as Alchemy

whole_wheat-bread

I love going to schools and teaching baking as science – particularly bread. We make batches of sandwich bread, varying the amount of yeast. As they’re rising, we make batches of soda bread and vary the amount of baking soda. While the soda bread bakes, we watch the sandwich bread rise, and I get to explain the chemical processes that make each bread delicious: the simple chemical reaction with the baking soda that releases carbon dioxide, the more complex process with yeast that yields the same result, the fact that the yeast also eats sugars in the flour and releases additional chemicals that give yeast breads their distinctive flavor. And then there’s gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt that gives bread its stretchy, springy texture. Students are always fascinated by this. Who knew how complicated bread could be?

And yet, for all that, knowing the precise scientific processes that produce tasty bread, I find there’s also an art to making bread. You adjust the amount of flour you add to account for the humidity of the air. You knead it to line up the strands of gluten so that they trap bubbles of carbon dioxide. Too little kneading, and you get flat, shapeless bread. Too much, and you can exhaust the dough, making it tough and chewy. You gluten cloak it, stretching a flat layer around the loaf, to give it a nice crust. You add water to the oven to make that crust crispy. And kneading dough is deeply therapeutic and satisfying. This is the alchemy of cooking, the small, unquantifiable details you add to make it more that mere bread. I love the challenge of it, to balance all the elements of the recipe to produce a delicious work of art.

This is the most basic recipe for bread I know. You can easily double it or halve it. I have bad wrists, so I knead my dough in a stand mixer, and I know it’s ready when the dough just pulls away from the sides of the bowl and peels neatly off the dough hook.

White Sandwich Bread

1-1/2 Tablespoons instant yeast
1-1/2 Tablespoons salt
3 cups lukewarm water
6.5 cups flour (bread flour is best, but all-purpose will work as well)

Combine the yeast, water, and salt, then add the flour and combine. If it’s a rainy or humid day, you may need to add as much as a cup of extra flour. Knead the dough by hand on a floured board or in a stand mixer with a dough hook until the dough just ceases to stick to anything and becomes a smooth ball. Place in a container and cover but DO NOT seal. Let rise for two hours.

While the dough rises, prepare two loaf pans by coating with butter or spraying with a neutral-flavored oil such as canola or sunflower oil. When the dough has risen, cut it in half. Gluten cloak each loaf by shaping into a rough ball and stretching the surface of the dough from top to bottom and side to side, tucking the ends underneath. Lay the loaves in their pans and allow to rise another 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the bottom of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and place another rack in the center of the oven. When the loaves have risen, slash them three or four times across the top. Place on the center rack of the oven. Pour one cup of water into the broiler pan CAREFULLY. Watch out for sudden steam. If you prefer a softer crust, you may omit the water and brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter or oil.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn them out onto a cooling rack immediately or condensate will form inside the loaf pan and make the loaves soggy. Wait ten minutes or so until the loaves have cooled a bit before slicing.

For a healthier version of this, you may replace up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour. I like to replace one cup with whole wheat and one cup with rye for a rich, complex flavor.

For a more complicated, enriched bread, see my recipe for Molletes.

For even more recipes, pre-order my new novel, A Pixie’s Promise.

Cooking is Magic, Part 1: Start with Fresh Ingredients

Hi, all. Sorry I have again fallen down on Wednesday recipes. The Kickstarter campaign has been taking up most of my spare time, but I’m going to make it up to you. Every day, for the remainder of the campaign, I’ll be posting about cooking and writing, and I’ll include a recipe with each post. Here goes!

raspberry-rhubarb-crumble-web

Many of my friends accuse me of being unable to write anything that does not somehow involve food. This is untrue; I’ve written several short stories with no food in them whatsoever. Only one of them has been published, though (a very scary horror story), so I think all the food writing must be a good plan. I love food, and I love cooking. To me, cooking is magic. How can I help but write about that?

Cooking is Magic, Part 1: Start with Fresh Ingredients

It begins with the first planted seed. Gardening/farming is a separate but complementary magic, a slower, more deliberate one. Good gardening requires planning over multiple years: planting fruit trees and asparagus roots that will not produce food for a year or two, pruning back the old raspberry canes to make way for new ones next spring, rotating crops in the field to promote nitrogen fixing and deter pests. Then there’s the yearly cycle of sprouting and planting and watering and weeding and, at last, harvesting. This complex and intricate dance of cycles has given me many years of pleasure.

Anything you cook is only as good as its ingredients. I often say that I cheat, and that my meals and desserts are good because I use the best ingredients I can find, ideally sourced locally and directly from farmers. Anything that doesn’t have to be shipped hundreds of miles before it reaches me is going to be fresher and riper and far more delicious. Of course, it takes some skill to use those ingredients well, but they certainly give a good boost to any meal you make.

I’ve largely given up gardening, as that part of my brain seems to have been taken over by novels. They’re similar skills: the lengthy planning, the careful balance between all the different elements of plot and character and theme. And using the best ingredients carries over, too: deep research, careful character development, and the support of your local community of writers and readers are all necessary ingredients in my writing. I have no regrets about leaving my garden behind, but I still have tremendous respect for all magicians of the soil.

The first farmers’ market in our neighborhood opened for the season yesterday. I missed it, but I’d intended to go looking for the fresh, delicious goodies of late spring, including asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, and rhubarb. Here’s a simple recipe using rhubarb to celebrate the beginning of the season. You will need to use frozen raspberries, as those won’t be available fresh until late June. Parents, the oat crumble is really fun for kids to make, squishing all the ingredients together with their hands and pressing it into the pan.

Petunia’s Raspberry-Rhubarb Crumble

1 c. rhubarb, diced
1 c. raspberries, fresh or frozen
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice

1 c. quick cooking oats
½ c. flour
½ c. packed brown sugar
¼ tsp. baking soda
6 Tbsp. melted butter

Preheat oven to 300 ˚F. Put the rhubarb, raspberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan and cook on medium high heat until the rhubarb and raspberries have completely dissolved, then simmer until the mixture thickens to jam consistency, for about an hour total, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, stir together the oats, flour, brown sugar, and baking soda. Add the butter and mix thoroughly. Press about half the oat mixture into a 9×9-inch or 8×12-inch baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Pour the fruit mixture on top of the baked oat layer, then crumble the remaining oat mixture on top. Bake for an additional 20 minutes. Serve warm, topped with whipped cream.

Next, Part 2: Cooking as Chemistry, Cooking as Alchemy

A Pixie’s Promise eBook Giveaways!

pixie-twain-kickstarter

Heads up! Want to win a free eBook copy of A PIXIE’S PROMISE? I’m running three contests, giving you three chances to win!

April 27-29: BAD JOKE CONTEST – Come up with an answer to that age-old question, “Why did the dragon cross the road?”

pixies-promise-nora-sketchMay 4-6: FAN ART CONTEST – Draw your favorite characters and places from A WITCH’S KITCHEN and post them on my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds.

May 11-13: FANTASY BAKING COMPETITION – Think no cake is complete without twizzler sea serpents or unicorn horns? Make your fantastic confection and post photos on my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds.

Contests begin at noon Friday and end at midnight Sunday each week. You may enter as many times as you like. For each contest, one entry will be selected at random to receive a free eBook. Winners will be announced on our Kickstarter campaign page the Monday after the competition (April 30st, May 7th, and May 13th).

So get your creative juices flowing and stay tuned for further developments.

A hideous lineup of monster balls

Wednesday Recipe: No-Bake Nutella Tart

Nutella tart with brownie crust

I am super busy with the Kickstarter campaign, so no time to bake, let alone test complicated recipes. Let’s go with something really simple this week: No-Bake Nutella Tart. The original recipe for this claims to require only five ingredients (also has much prettier pictures. I’ve whittled it down to four. It’s the perfect dessert to whip up in a hurry. Just keep Oreo pie crusts in stock (never a bad idea). In the photo above, I actually ran out and used a brownie mix as the base, pouring the ganache on top. Decadent!

NO-BAKE NUTELLA TART

  • 1 Oreo crust pie shell
  • 6 oz Nutella
  • 10 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 oz heavy cream
  • raspberries (optional)
  • chopped hazelnuts (optional)

In a small saucepan, heat heavy cream until just starting to boil. Add chocolate and reduce heat to a simmer, stirring until the chocolate is fully melted. Remove from heat and add Nutella, stirring until fully blended. (Note: you can also just heat the cream and chocolate in the microwave, but I like the stove for finer control.) Pour into pie shell. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes or in the fridge for 2 hours. Decorate with raspberries and chopped hazelnuts, if desired, then serve.