Archive for July 2006

Ben’s Essay about Cashews

I was wearing one of my old Berkeley summer sessions t-shirts today–my bit of schwag from teaching there–and when Ben commented on it (“Nice shirt, Mama!”) we got into a brief conversation about my past life as a teacher. Mostly, he’s fascinated by the idea of kids living in the place where they go to school (and a little worried about it, too). But for the first time in the hundreds of times he’s heard me use the word essay, he asked what an essay is. An essay is a piece of writing that tells people what you think about something, I said. Now, my own students never quite understood it so well, but this is the essay Ben dictated to me:


You can eat them. They taste like salt. Maybe they have salt sprinkled on top of them, like saltines do. When you eat them, they’re not there any more.

My other bookish boy

At 14 months, Eli is coming around to reading later than other members of the family, but lately he’s been asking us to read to him, too. He’ll pick up a book, crawl over with the book clutched in one hand, clamber headfirst into a lap, and hand over the book. At first, I thought it was a funny coincidence that he always handed over the book upside down, but no matter how many times I turn the book right side up, he always turns it back upside down. So now I read to him that way. This must suit his precocious brain development in some way I don’t understand. Or so I like to think.

Ricotta Cheese

There was no reason at all to make ricotta cheese this weekend. Most of the family doesn’t even like it. But there was a back-of-the-book recipe in Gourmet recently, and it got me reminiscing about Tony’s and my glorious trip to Italy, the summer between our marriage and my first pregnancy. We travelled with good friends, gorging on art and wine and food.

In Bologna, we ate in a small restaurant that was dominated by a dark wood, marble-topped hutch. It held bowls of beautiful antipasti: roasted peppers, olives, ricotta cheese, and more. The waiter brought us a selection while we waited for our entrees, and we ate the sweet, creamy ricotta by the spoonful. It was unlike anything I’d ever had before; as similar to American grocery store ricotta as clotted cream is to Dannon yogurt .

So I had to see if making it at home was a) as simple as advertised (“Got 5 minutes?” is the Gourmet headline) and 2) as delicious as the Bologna ricotta.

Simple, yes, though it takes more than 5 minutes. Maybe 10. As delicious? Well, the Bologna ricotta had a whole lot of atmosphere going for it that we can’t really reproduce here, but it’s pretty darn good. We ate it with grilled vegetables for dinner. I think tomorrow I’ll grill some peaches, and serve the ricotta on those with a drizzle of maple syrup. It’s not cheap to make; I used Strauss (a local dairy) organic milk and cream, so my half pound of cheese probably cost $10. To compensate for that, I did not discard the milky liquid that I strained off the curds. I figure it’s basically a rather thin buttermilk, and I’ll turn it into a few loaves of bread or biscuits or something. I’m cheap that way.

Since embarking on this recipe, I’ve found a couple more; one in Suzanne Dunaway’s No Need to Knead (a great cookbook for bread and random tasty accompaniments), one over here. I’m curious to try these different recipes and compare them to what I did (particularly Dunaway’s, since she calls for yogurt — a staple in my house– instead of cream or buttermilk). The one fussy bit of equipment you need is some cheesecloth, though probably you could make do with a well-loved dishtowel.

The recipe:
2 quarts whole milk
1 c cream
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp lemon juice (I just used the juice of one lemon)

Line a large sieve with a layer of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.

Bring the milk, cream, and salt to a boil in a heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. The milk can go from nearly-boiling to boiling over very quickly, so don’t totally ignore it. Add the lemon juice and reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles. This only takes 2 or 3 minutes, but mine didn’t seem quite curdled enough at that point, so I simmered it for 4 or 5 minutes longer.

Now, pour the hot milk mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain for an hour. Serve as is, or cover and refrigerate.

My bookish boy

It’s still light out at Ben’s bedtime these days, so the deal is that after I read him one book, he can read in bed a little bit. I’m always curious, when I check on him on my way to bed, to see what he’s fallen asleep with. Lately, it’s been his picture encyclopedia; he’s interested in the planets, can name them in their proper order, tell you which one’s a gas planet, etc. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, gas planet? did they know that there were gas planets in the 70s? because that’s certainly not something I picked up in elementary school.

Tonight, I could barely see Ben in his bed for all the books he had stacked up next to him. Books we haven’t read in ages, like Margaret Wise Brown’s My World; Who Am I? and What Am I?, his riddle flap books; Kipper; Bob the Builder: Scoop; all his Dan Zanes cd cases (which are nice little picture books themselves); and Puff-Puff, Chugga-Chugga. I wanted to scoop them out from under his arm, but I hesitated. Maybe he’s absorbing some information while he sleeps. Maybe he’ll surprise me in the morning with some new riddles.

Quick and Biscuity Breadsticks

I saw this recipe in Gourmet, where it’s trumpeted as a good option for the yeast-averse. That doesn’t describe me in the least, but the prospect of something so quick and bready for dinner is always appealing. I had the breadsticks assembled in less time than it took the oven to preheat, and it was about 45 minutes from getting the recipe out to putting the finished product on the table. And they’re tasty. They’re really biscuits in the shape of breadsticks, though, and while they’re very tasty, I guess I’m not southern enough to want biscuits for dinner very often. Happily, it occurred to me to sprinkle half of them with sugar & cinnamon; those were delicious reheated for breakfast this morning.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs, each in a separate bowl, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream (I used plain yogurt)
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp sugar & cinnamon (optional)

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 450°F.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. Whisk together butter, 1 egg, and sour cream in another bowl, then add to flour mixture and stir with a fork until a dough just begins to form (dough will be very moist).

Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead gently 6 times. Pat out dough on a floured surface with floured hands, reflouring surface if necessary, and form into a 12-inch-long log.

Cut dough into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece into an 8-inch-long rope using well-floured hands, then fold rope loosely in half and twist it once, holding both ends of twist.

Arrange twists 2 inches apart on 2 ungreased large baking sheets, pressing ends against baking sheet to prevent unraveling.

Brush tops of twists with remaining egg and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds or sugar & cinnamon. Bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer twists to metal racks and cool completely.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

If you’re anywhere near San Francisco between now and the end of the year, get yourself over to the deYoung Museum to see the exhibit of quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These quilts just knocked me out. I’ve always thought quilts are beautiful and interesting. I like the combination of utility and art; I like thinking about the community of women making the quilt, sitting around stitching (and also, in this case, singing) together; I like the combination of individuality (each quilt is unique) and the fact that when a woman sits down to quilt, she can use, refer to, or improvise from quilt patterns that stretch back generations. I don’t know how to quilt, but it strikes me that it’s a lot like cooking. Or writing. One of the quilters in the exhibit’s accompanying film says, “That quilt would cook in my mind.” I love that.