Longing for a Home Cooked Meal

Let me introduce myself. I’m Rebecca LaPier, and I’m doing some work with the folks at Culinary Underground. One of my tasks is to write the occasional blog posting, and one of my pleasures is to attend the occasional cooking class. Recently, it was Dessert Buffet. Yum!

Now for the blog post. I grew up on a farm in Upstate New York, where my mother fed us three very hearty meals a day. Each meal involved meat – my dad has his own personal butcher – milk, vegetables from our garden, fruit, and some kind of homemade biscuit or bread. Truth? My mom’s cooking was delectable. I was her little helper in the kitchen. She taught me all the basics, which she had learned from her mother. Pie making was especially fun for us and we continue to enjoy this tradition.

I never knew how much work planning and preparing three meals a day took until I was out of my parents’ house. In college, food was cooked for you and easily accessible, and I could still go home on holidays for my mother’s feasts. Then I moved in with my college sweetheart, Oliver. We lived in Framingham, five and a half hours from my parents. Visits grew less frequent and my longing for home cooked meals grew stronger. I realized how lucky I was to have a mother and father who truly valued homegrown products prepared by their own hands.

At first, Oliver and I subsisted on fast food and processed, microwave meals. What complete blasphemy given how I was raised! Working full-time made me lazier and more apt to swing by the combination KFC/Taco Bell for a Famous Bowl and some value tacos. It is unbelievably easy to fall into this pattern.

As we settled into the area, however, and grew more accustomed to living in our apartment, we decided we needed to familiarize ourselves with the kitchen. It isn’t the biggest, most functional kitchen, but it has the essentials. We actually could make those home cooked meals I missed so much.

And what fun we’ve been having! We get out the wine, throw on some music, and talk about the workday while preparing a real meal. Now, every time I go to my parents’ house, my dad loads me up with various meats – including my favorite, venison – and homegrown vegetables like sweet corn, potatoes, and tomatoes.

It seems like a small thing, but I’m proud that Oliver and I have gotten back to home cooked meals. It’s something so precious, so economical and practical that seems to have been lost. Thankfully, places like Culinary Underground are bringing back home cooking. After taking Lori’s dessert seminar, I realized what a great team Oliver and I make in the kitchen.

The Secret of Peanut Butter Eggs

One of the continuing kitchen pleasures for me is the challenge of doing things from scratch. And I’ve noticed that our classes in cheese-making and artisan bread baking are more popular then ever. Maybe it’s the recession, maybe it’s awareness about our compromised food choices, but people are very interested in knowing what goes into what they eat these days or just how to do things for themselves.

Working with chocolate falls into this category. Every year, I vow to skip making the candy eggs around Easter, and every year I cave. The commercial peanut butter eggs are just re-configured peanut butter cups: they just change the shape at the factory, wrap ’em in pastel paper, and ship ’em out. When we were kids, my mother would order homemade peanut butter and coconut eggs from the local UCC church. Church lady Easter eggs! Always dark chocolate, with a little sprinkling of finely crushed peanuts on top of the PB eggs to distinguish them from the coconut eggs. (Some people seem to loathe coconut – “it’s the texture”. These are the same people who devour flotillas of maki-nori at the sushi restaurants.)

Fast forward about 20 years and 300 miles from home. Finally, after one Reese’s inferior pb egg too many, I got the craving for the real thing, had to duplicate the churchy eggs. My first attempts were okay – good texture, good chocolate, JIF premium, forming and drying the centers overnight, etc. But the taste was…meh. It was definitely the filling – the peanut butter just wasn’t right. And it wasn’t just the taste, but “the texture”. A confirmed JIF fan, I reluctantly tried the rival brand, Skippy, and was somewhat relieved at the resulting similar result. Okay, maybe it was all those fillers and added sugar; my next attempt was with homemade peanut butter. What a disaster! The oil separated after enrobing in the chocolate, oozing out of the microscopic chocolate pores like some kind of hemorrhagic fever had struck. They were too gross to even think about eating. Exit – compost heap.

Okay, once more unto the breach, but this was gonna be the last time. The money spent trying to perfect the damn things, I could’ve bought a Fabrege egg. At a disreputable convenience store, I purchased the cheapest, dustiest, no-name jar of PB out there at a disreputable convenience stor and, lo! Success! The secret was non-premium pb, the kind you wouldn’t want to eat straight because of it’s dry, grainy, overly-peanutty taste. But those qualities of texture and taste were perfect for the eggs.

And so, the code broken, I continued to make the eggs, along with their coconut counterparts. I didn’t make them every year, but often enough to gather a following of pb egg addicts. Namely, my husband, my parents, and my kid sister. This year, the folks are watching their weight and Chuck begged me not to put temptation in his path. So I’m sending them to my sister, who’s always biking and hiking and doing other calorie-burning things. I think they call those things “exercise”. Hey, pb is a great protein and dark chocolate is practically a health food, so they work as part of a healthy lifestyle regime. Or at least, I think that’s what she will tell herself – I certainly do.

Pancakes and Dwight, RIP

This Tuesday is, for those who keep track of such things, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday – the last day of celebration before Lent. Being a Pennsylvania Dutchie, I celebrate it as Fastnacht Day. Fastnachts are potato doughnuts, which sound ho-hum but they are the best, the best, doughnuts you will ever eat. I could eat a dozen of them right this second, with butter and King table syrup. In our house, the last person out of bed that day was “the fastnacht”, a shameful thing to be. But doughnuts are good, right? To me, to be “the fastnacht” is to be an Oscar Meyer wiener.

The day is also celebrated in places like England as Pancake Day; Olney, England is home of the famous pancake race. And thinking about religious holidays and pancakes got me thinking about my father-in-law, who died recently and suddenly. Dwight and I had a…well, a strained relationship. But we always found common ground in food talk. (Mostly this was a reaching-out effort on his part, which I lately came to realize and appreciate; regrettably, I never got to tell him so.) Over the years, I taught him to make granola, which he did religiously and helped him with his bread-machine issues. Another recipe we explored together was buckwheat pancakes. He remembered that his mother would mix up a huge bowl of the batter and have it resting in the icebox; in the mornings, she would fry up the cakes. Dwight wanted to recreate them and turned to me for help.

Well, I had never had them; most Americans hadn’t really eaten them after WWII when white flour replaced it and other whole grains in pancakes and most other baked goods. Buckwheat is enjoying a renaissance because it is gluten-free (and therefore great for people with wheat allergies). Ergo, I assumed that Dwight’s mom’s pancakes were yeast-raised. I had made Russian blini and the Brittany buckwheat crepes before and figured buckwheats would be similar. A little research found that most of the old recipes called for making a starter, much like sourdough, and letting the batter ferment overnight. Newer recipes call for mixing white flour with the wheat flour and using eggs and baking soda and all kinds of other leaveners – forget that. So, I got out the buckwheat flour, sour milk, yeast, and some other stuff and mixed up a smelly sour mash. So many recipes describe buckwheat as tasting like mushrooms – this stuff definitely had that fungus-among-us thing going on. “These’ll be great!” I thought to myself that night, taking care that the batter bowl didn’t come into contact with anything edible.

The next morning, I made a test batch of pancakes for Chuck, my husband and lab rat. Success! The resulting cakes were sternly Presbyterian: heavy, grim, and gray. John Knox may not have feared any flesh, but even he wouldn’t have sermonized about the amount of maple syrup necessary for us to choke them down. I sent the recipe on to Dwight, with detailed instructions.

About a week later, he phoned, happy as a boy, to tell me about them. They tasted just like Mom’s! He ate them with sorghum syrup, the sweetener of his youth. I was pleased that he was happy, but even more delighted to hear my mother-in-law yelling in the background about how awful they were. I’m willing to bet he never got to make them again. Dwight’s mom wasn’t the only formidable missionary lady in that family.

I’m saddened by Dwight’s passing. Years ago, he took us to a Korean restaurant in Atlanta. In fluent Korean, he ordered some really nasty things for me, including an octopus dish that was so hot, it took off the top of my head. Recently, a friend and I discovered a Korean family restaurant nearby. We couldn’t read the menu, but the food was great. Among the banchan was a little dish of quivering turquoise squares floating in a fiery-looking sauce. They positively glowed. We tried it immediately. It tasted like hazelnut-quinine Jello. The server told me it was dotorimuk – jellied acorn flour. As I chased the stuff with water and more rice, I thought how much fun it would be to take Dwight to lunch here – to share the experience of blue jelly squares with him, to hear him converse with the owner in Korean, to listen to him expound on the evolution of the Korean language, and to hear him laugh as he tells another story from a life very well-lived. And now that will never be.

Stacks o’ Mags

This year, I’m letting all foodie magazine subscriptions expire and am going virtual. Curling up with a stack of food porn and a glass of wine used to be a pleasure; nowadays, it seems like work (because it is). It’s also less pleasurable because of all the print advertisements. Looking back at some old Bon Appetit magazines (circa 1986), the ads were all food-related. Now, these rags accept glossy, multi-page ads from automakers, jewelers, whatever. Most annoyingly, the food ads are often indistinguishable from the articles – was recently halfway through a great article on cheese before realizing it was an ad for a middle-of-the-pack brand I wouldn’t buy anyway.

For years, my favorites were Gourmet and Bon Appetit. The former was glam, globe-trotting, and snobby (“tinned” tomatoes, always), like a girl crush-worthy upperclassman at a ritzy boarding school, destined to marry well and often. The latter mag was by contrast the homebody little sister, a little plain, a little bit the rube, but the food was real. Over the years, the two became almost indistinguishable (having the same publisher helped) as home cooks began cooking more globally and regular restaurant forays became the norm for most middle-class families. Now, Gourmet is defunct and you’ve gotta wonder how long the rest of these glossies will survive. My current favorites are Eating Well (resurrected after a few years out of print) and Dessert Professional (a girl can dream…and drool).

My biggest problem is letting go of the damn things because there’s always one recipe that intrigues, or a technique that looks interesting, or an interview that I keep meaning to read. So I hang on, intending to revisit it and it ain’t gonna happen. Here’s hoping that going paperless will take care of the packrat problem. (A couple of viewings of A&E’s Hoarders usually puts me in the mood to clean up and out.) Will probably just wind up bookmarking the one recipe, the technique, the interview – thus recreating the same problem. Paperless doesn’t mean less hoarding; it’s organized hoarding.

Welcome to the new blog…

Happy New Year, and welcome to the new blog.

The old blog died a very sudden death. Originally, it always included a recipe per entry, with accompanying photo. This involved researching the recipe, gathering ingredients, testing the recipe, photographing the results, then blogging about it. Basically, I just stopped posting because all that got to be too much with classes and other commitments.

So, with the new website (almost) ready to launch, I’m resurrecting the blog in a new format. Since the new website includes a separate section for current recipes, the blog is devoted to my two passion: cooking and teaching. We will be writing about classes here and on the road, other cooking schools, the home cooking vogue, favorite (and not-so-favorite) cookbooks and magazines, other cooking teachers in the area, food history, trends in culinary education, thoughts about the whole sustainability, locavore thang, and cooking in the media. Sounds like a lot of stuff, huh? Well, I can always find some culinary topic to flame about: a trip to the grocery store can amuse or outrage me.

The old blog didn’t have a name. A food history buff, I named this one “Cacklefruit”. For the uninitiated, it’s diner lingo for “eggs”. As somesone pointed out, isn’t it faster for the waitress just to say “eggs”? Of course, but then life wouldn’t be as colorful or interesting. Brush up your hash-house shorthand with this list.

Rainy Day Pizza

When it’s a rainy night and I’m tired and I don’t feel like driving and I’m hungry, it’s nice to have food delivered to the house. But I’m in a new apartment and there are no pizza places within a 10 mile radius that deliver. And the menus at these places are very limited, too. We’re not talkin’ Pizza Hut or Domino’s; we’re talking Steve’s Pizza and Greendale Pizza. Do those names sound Italian to you? For example, none of these places offer mushroom marinara sauce on their pasta! Furthermore, salads are never available. And if I feel like a sandwich, I can’t go the nearest D’Angelo’s (which is actually in walking distance) because I think they have three registered sex offenders working there.

Oh, there is a Domino’s that delivers; however, they will not deliver to me. See, I live on the second floor of a triplex and if they knock on the door, we can’t hear it. Oh, we don’t a doorbell. Well, there is one, but it hasn’t worked since 1948. I told them to call me on my cell when they get their, but they won’t take the number, because they’ve never done business with me before. Ever hear of “Catch-22″? They suggested that I pick up the pizza instead, but I was thinking to myself, “Hey, your pizza ain’t good enough go out and pick up”. In fact, pizza isn’t worth picking up unless it comes with a side of fries and a salad.

Guess I stay in, snuggled with my cat, and eat dogmeat spaghetti — that recipe is the subject of another post!