Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Death by cheesecake

My mother is the type of the person who would have a heart attack over a cheesecake. We'd call 911 and they'd ask how it happened:
"Yes, cheesecake."
"I don't think one piece of cheesecake would cause a heart attack."
"No, she didn't eat the cheesecake, she didn't even make the cheesecake yet. She was so stressed out over making it that she had a heart attack."

This amazes me because my mother and father ran a pretty successful catering business. It was a branch off of my father's butcher shop, Mario's Gourmet. I remember as a kid platters of food being loaded into our red GMC van. Pasta dishes, chicken francese, veal marsala, platters of cold cuts. I would always help arrange the cold cuts into little rolls of turkey or folded triangles of genoa salami. I could arrange a mean cold cut platter before I learned my times tables. I may have been too young, but I never knew my mother was on the verge of a coronary every time the four burner pot came out. My mother grew up around food, and large quantities of it. My grandfather, being a restaurant chef, had --and still has-- no concept of portion control. He could feed fifty on any given Tuesday.

My parents, too, usually over shoot portions by about twenty to thirty heads, but not without much stress and over analyzation. My mother can discuss whether or not she should make meatballs as an appetizer for weeks. We've come to coin the term "analysis paralysis" (which we may have heard on Oprah), but it describes my mother perfectly. She will sleep on a decision until she's in a coma.

But back to the cheesecake. My mother hasn't made a cheesecake in a while, but since its the holidays, she likes to keep enough cream cheese in the house "just in case." My mother thought she was in the clear this year until 2 days before Christmas. There was a call from my uncle telling my mother that my 12 year old cousin, Raffaella, asked if she could make her cheesecake. And that's when the panic began to settle in. Running to the store to get more cream cheese (my brother and I started eating the extra cream cheese that was lying in the fridge), running to the store again to get a fresh tub of sour cream. Baking a graham cracker crust, burning a graham cracker crust, then re-baking the graham cracker crust. Finally, after it all came together, tip toe-ing around the kitchen to make sure the cheesecake wouldn't fall. Under normal circumstances, the cheesecake probably would have been baked to perfection without a misstep, but because of the short notice and self-induced stress it took a little more effort for it to be baked to perfection.

The cheesecake ended up delicious and light. Scrumptious in every way. But overstressed bakers take heed. Learn from my mother's distress, take a step back from your mixer for a deep breath. You'll only over mix the flour or burn the first batch if you engage in baking under stress.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Table for one

As much as food is something that brings people together, I sit here on this cold December evening in a little cafe on Avenue B, my hot cup of tea at my side, watching the sky change its colors alone. I know a table for one is sometimes much needed. At a table alone with a cookie and a cup you have license to do all those things you can't do at a big meal with lots of company. Eavesdrop on the people at the next table, ignore social graces, be completely comfortable in your own skin. Its my time, to have to myself, I can clear my mind, think about books, astrophysics, lady gaga, and no one will change the subject. I can think about people I'm not supposed to remember and imagine the lives I could have had. I can exchange glances with the boy in the gray sweater across the room, or stare intently into my notebook. Its on my terms. Because of my cup and cookie.

These are the little sweet moments when I have no one to check in with, no one that's worrying about me. Alone time with my food, to enjoy coffee harvested in a warm South American field. There's no one here to tell me its too strong, no one to tell me it was made wrong. Alone time with my food, to pick the crumbs from an oatmeal cookie off my plate with my finger tips, and savor each last morsel. No one to tell me the calorie content, no one to tell me the grams of saturated fats.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A pound of shortening

The bright yellow tub of Crisco® on my grandmother's counter meant it was going to be a good day.

When I was a child, we lived in a two family house above my mother's parents. Each morning I would thump down the flight of of brown carpeted steps to my grandparent's ground floor apartment to play in the yard. Most days my grandparents would be busy about their chores, fixing things, going to the post office, trimming the roses. On rainy days I would help my grandmother clean the pantry, take all of the cans and boxes out, categorize them by building little canned pork and bean towers and tea tin towns, and then re-arrange them all neatly back in the pantry. Then there were those special mornings where the Kitchen Aid mixer was pulled out of its dark corner, and the tub of Crisco® stood boldly on the counter top. Those were the morning when I knew the sweet smell of vanilla would follow shortly and my grandmother would be making her pound cake.

There are still few things that make me more happy than my grandmother's pound cake. I love cutting a thick slice out of its perfectly dense, pale flesh, and dunking it into my morning coffee, saving the moist top to nibble at last. Its both heavenly and sinful. It was magical, we would gather all the ingredients and add them one by one into the mixer until the sweet, buttery batter was smooth. We'd then each take a little scoop of Crisco® in our hands to grease the heart shaped bunt pan we always used. After the pan was covered in a thin layer, we'd pick up the bowl with our shortening softened hands and poor the batter in, then place it into the oven and wait for the magic to happen. As a little girl, baking seemed like the closest thing to magic I could find in the real world. Some days I would pretend to shrink and grow like Alice in wonderland while nibbling on little squares of Elio's pizza. But this, this was real. Here we made a pasty liquid out of flour, shortening, sugar and eggs and in 45 minutes we had a heart shaped masterpiece. A buttery delight, that could bring happiness to all who were lucky enough to be offered a slice.

I'm definitely a purist when it comes to this pound cake, I don't believe in frosting, or adding a sauce to it. Some pleasures are meant to be simple, and unchanged. I still ask for my grandmother's pound cake every year for my birthday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

For the love of Le Creuset

The Christmas holiday has left me exhausted. With so much happening, its been hard for me to settle on one particular story to share. My thoughts have been scattered, crowded by the gatherings of old friends, impromptu visits, crowded shopping centers, and the memory of Christmas dinner (an event where the main course included both filet mignon and roasted quails...flight and turf?). Despite all of the wonderful holiday memories I have, I've found it hardest to write a "holiday" post.

The holidays for me always meant waking up to the smell of onions being sauteed in olive oil. Even now, when we've passed on the task of Christmas dinner to my aunt and uncle (my mother's brother), there's still some dish, some specific task we're asked to accomplish that involves onions at 8am. Although it sounds unpleasant, its really one of the many the scents of my childhood tied to happy memories of company, piles of coats stashed on mine and my brother's beds, and an acknowledgment of our commitment to a meal done right. A meal that takes all day to prepare, and a never ending flow of wine. Its a type of cooking that takes all day, but doesn't involve a slow cooker -- my parents will never "set it, and forget it". This specific task for my mother has become the sugo (Sugo [Italian] - Juice , gravy, sauce, essence). I have never tasted a better sugo than my mother's made from deer meat. I believe that our cast iron Le Creuset french oven was engineered specifically for the purpose of bringing forth into the world my mother's deer sauce. The heavy white enameled pot finds its way back to our stove year after year during the holidays to relish in the spatterings of the deep brown juices. We gathering around the little pot any moment it's left unattended with a piece of crusty bread to dunk and steal a taste.

My mother and her sugo have a long history, its taken her years to get it right, and oh is it right. In europe, several old men insisted she had been helped, that a woman born in America could not possibly have made this fantastic "essence" on her own. But mainly I believe its so good because its a pot filled with love. Hours over the stove, sauteeing onions, then browning the meats, then re-introducing the onions, snipping fresh rosemary and bay leaves from the bushes now spending the winter warm and safe in our hallway. Watching as the juices cook down to the perfect thickness, and the meat become tender and sweet. Its that kind of love that makes onions at 8am a memory full of love, its that kind of love that makes Christmas dinner magical.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Sorry for the lack of post on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I've gotten sucked into the holiday vortex. I WILL be back with a new entry tomorrow! For now hope you all had a holiday filled with yummy food and good times.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cook with Me!

"Ladies and Gentlemen across America, welcome to 'Cook with Me!' A show dedicated to teaching you how to make delicious meals in your very own kitchen. I'm your host, Christina, and I'll take you step by step, using ingredients right out of your pantry."

When I was eleven, I hosted a cooking show, broadcast from my kitchen, in my head. Those precious days of winter break just before Christmas when my parents were still at work, or shopping for last minute gifts. I would stay at home and bake. I gathered every little bowl and mug I could find and measure out the ingredients to display across our counter tops, a pinch of salt, two teaspoons of baking powder, a tablespoon of vanilla extract. As I added each ingredient, I made suggestions.

"Some grated orange zest in this mixture would work well to balance out the bold flavors of the dark chocolate."

"I always add an extra splash of Vanilla to give it a little bit more flair."

"Nutmeg would be a great addition to this recipe, if you happen to have any in the house."

I was a conductor, blending all of the movements to create a symphony for your taste buds. I was teaching America to cook by heart, and bringing them into my home by imagination, experiencing the excitement as the oatmeal cookies start to fill up the kitchen with with sweet, nutty cinnamon as though each time were the first time.

When I reached middle school, I somehow took to roasting chickens. It was amazing to me how simple it was to roast a chicken. I would massage the naked, little bird with olive oil, then make little slits to stuff with garlic and rosemary. I would fill the bottom of the pan with potatoes and onion, it was the perfect one pan meal that fed the whole family!. I could revolutionize the way America felt about cooking, one pimply, little chicken at a time.

As I write this, I remember my younger self. When we're younger, we always look forward, it doesn't even occur to look to the past. I can recall that driving force that has faded, and hope that there's an eleven year old out there right now, who's revolutionizing the world in his or her own mind. Sometimes I can feel myself at eleven yelling at the 24 year old me to get moving, everyone is waiting. Go teach them that they can do anything. Tell them at the very least, they can learn to cook with me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Saturday night snow-in: A discourse
Part 2: The Olive and The Cow

(continued from yesturday's post)
As Kristin and I sat, we began to talk about our childhoods and our parents and grandparents, and their different cooking commandments. And we fell into a topic which is the crux of a much heated debate: Butter vs. Oil. Kristin, herself, is in the school of butter. Where as I'm from the school of oil. The mason-dixson line which seperates the two sides lies across the center of europe, splitting the northern butter lovers, from the southern olive oil enthusiests.

In my house, we never run out of olive oil, my parents buy it by the case at a restaurant supply shop (along with full wheels of parmiggiano reggiano -- and no, we do not own a restaurant, this is for our household). Butter was the little tub that sat eternally in the butter keeper on our refridgerator door reserved only for toast and cookies. My mother substitutes butter with oil in her cornbread, my father drizzles it into his pasta water. We've even used olive oil in baking cupcakes when we've run out of butter-- not something I would recommend. What it ultimately comes down to is the type of fat you're looking for. The super market variety of butter his a blank slate quality about it. It will get you a nice, flakey crust without changing the taste. (I recently had my butter awakening on a trip to Ireland, but that's a story for another post.) Oil, on the other hand, has a distinctive flavor, particularly olive oil. Nutty, bold, unapologetic. It announces itself.

Growing up under the influence of the olive, I've learned to treasure the little moments when it shows up unexpectedly. The little white bowls filled with tick, dark, green, extra virgin. The puddle of oil and balsamic left behind after the company has finished the caprese salad. The occasional bottle infused with rosemary or lemon rind in a gift basket.

As far as Olive Oil-phelia goes, there are different degrees. Some, like my father and Lidia Bastianich are, for the most part, strictly olive. They add it to everything. With chopped garlic and parsley over grilled fish, drizzled over potatoes, and probably wouldn't be opposed to a mug full of it (this, I am told, is how they serve it up at olive oil tastings). Then, there are the medial purists, which is where I would most align myself. I love my olive oil, but there's also a place in my heart for pasta con burro, however, never the twain shall meet. Then there are the omni-lipids. Those who float every which way when it comes to their fats. They believe that butter and oil can be mixed. I've tried this method, and I understand that the butter is supposed to lower the smoking point of the oil, however, I never found any real advantage to doing this, and the taste I'm not that fond of.

The last category has as permanent club president, the majesty of the churn herself, Ms. Paula Deen. Paula raises the bar (lest we forget this is the woman who deep fried lasagna). And sometimes it is beyond my comprehension as to how she is still alive (I would love to know her cholesterol...but back to butter!) Butter is the one and only when it comes to crusts, you can't get good crumb without butter. But for savory dishes, it has just never been my thing. I will never caramelize onions or fry a piece of chicken in butter.

In conclusion, I haven't really come to all that many conclusions in this long winded dissertation. But perhaps, I'll just leave the debate open. After Kristin and I discussed the matter in the context of eggs, we did come to one agreement....when it comes to eggs, bacon fat trumps both oil and butter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Saturday night snow-in: A discourse in 2 parts.
Part One: A Wallop

A friend of mine threw a holiday dinner party on Saturday night. Kristin, a kitchen master in her own right, presented a spread of chafing trays (yes, she owns chafing trays) filled with home made creations emitting a scent so delicious you couldn't keep your fingers out of them. I, for one, may have eaten an entire platter of stuffed mushrooms on my own, but I'm not admitting to anything. As the night wore on, and we stuffed our hungry little faces with the delectable spread, outside the snow began to rise. We continued, playing reindeer games, paying no heed to the "winter wallop" of 2009. As the other local guests began to leave, calling cabs (and getting hung up on several times) or walking through the winter wonderland that Brooklyn had become, I settled in for the night (Brooklyn to New Jersey is no easy fete in 10 inches of snow).

In the morning, Kristin and I walked down for breakfast in our PJs and broke out the box of cookies I had brought with me as a hostess gift Molly Wizenberg's "Jimmy's Pink Cookies" which were a total hit, despite the fact that I ran out of powdered sugar and had to omit a full cup from the frosting (I believe it was a sign from the diabetic Gods, because they were perfectly sweet, and didn't cause my blood sugar to soar). This was the first time I had made a cream cheese frosting, scented with cherry liquor -- and I think this is the best one I've ever eaten. It will definitely not be the last one I make, and I look forward to trying it with different flavors. I also happened to realize halfway through that we were out of food coloring - it's difficult to make pink cookies, with nothing to turn them pink.

I scoured the spice cabinet for something flavorless that would make my sinfully delicious white frosting rosy. I finally found a bottle of red sugar crystals which I dissolved (you don't want that texture in the frosting) and ended up turning them the perfect shade of pink (Christina: Kitchen Crisis Master).

At the bottom of my little white box of cookies, was a layer of my old stand by, the biscotti. The recipe lies typed with the broken lettering of a type writer on a yellowing, butter stained piece of paper. It was given to my grandmother by one of her neighbors, Rose, on the little New Jersey street where my mother grew up. It was one of those streets with matching houses, where I imagine tupperware parties and jello molds were all part of a Sunday afternoon. This sheet of paper, contained measurements in grahams, carefully converted to cups by my mother's handwriting. My hand was responsible for doubling the amount of Sambuca. The recipe called for 6 cups of flour and 6 large eggs, and I always made it in triple batches because they vanish. My mother takes a tin full and hides it so at least they'll last through the holidays. But, at present, we were in Kristin's living room, dunking them into hot mugs of coffee.

To be continued in Part Two: The Olive and The Cow

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why I'll never be a ballerina

When I was nine, my mother signed me up for tap, jazz and ballet classes at the local community center. I was so excited to start classes and get my first pink leotard and set of tap shoes. I remember the brown speckled tile floor of the town center, the yellow light that washed the dance room, and the click of my shiny tap shoes. My lessons, however, were short lived, and I never really knew why. One day, later in life, I finally asked my mother why she had stopped taking me. "I could have been a ballerina at Julliard"
"You were more interested in the vending machine than you were in the dancing"
I should have known the answer before even asking. It all came back, begging for quarters during class breaks, running to the dinky, old machine filled with the types of foods forbidden from our kitchen cabinets. The glistening bags of royal blue filled with wise potato chips, the yellow rays emblazoned on the dipsy doodles, all within my grasp, separated only by 35 cents and plexiglass. The eventual sweet reward nibbling on cheeto's, cheese puff by cheese puff. Licking the atomic orange synthetic cheese power from my tiny finger tips. Laughing in the dimly lit girls room at our orange hued tongues. It's in reflecting on these kinds of moments that I realize how much meaning they really hold.
I believe that the very fact that my childhood was particularly lacking in junk food is the reason why I'm not a food snob now. I understand the gravity and significance of a crispy chicken on a sesame seed bun from a drive through eaten hot out of the bag sitting in the car. The crispy chicken meal is a force not to be reckoned with. And that's ok. I've come to terms with the fact that I'll never be a ballerina

Saturday, December 19, 2009

By way of introduction

I've come to a crossroads of sorts in life, where I've decided its important to set aside time to do the things that I love, mainly to write. Simply for myself, and the pleasure of writing. I've long stood by the mantra of "write what you know." I've spent a lot of time thinking about what it is I know. We're taught through high school and college to become "well rounded" human beings. Play sports, join the environmental club, take a dance class, learn how to sew. But this seems to just create a list of mediocre hobbies, there are a lot of things I can do, but what is it that I KNOW.

What I know is food. Food was a part of my life before I was even born. My grandfather got his ride to America by becoming a waiter and eventually cook on a ship. He made his way across the Atlantic via the kitchen, and eventually found himself a head chef in Manhattan. It only seems fitting then, that his daughter, my mother, married my father, a butcher, who had such a deeply engrained passion about meat that to this day I still don't comprehend. Because of this, I spent the first years of my life playing with Barbies in the back of a butcher shop. The scents of my childhood were composed of the tangy cheese that hung from the ceiling and the sweet metallic smell of raw meat. I had liver patte sandwiches in preschool for lunch and knew how to make mozzarella from scratch by my seventh birthday.

Using food as my guide, I hope to be able to write what I know, and maybe, if its interesting enough, a few people will enjoy the ride as well.