SALTED PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP GRANOLA BARS

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Kid fell asleep tonight as soon as we got home from the gym, too tired even for dinner, asking “Hold you, Mama?” and after less than five minutes on the couch, his little snores began.

Blue Jean Gourmet | Salted Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

The air feels different tonight.  One of the most important people in my life is in a hospital room right now, sitting by her mom’s bedside, the unfolding of today’s story but just one page in a whirlwind of a book that didn’t even exist a few weeks ago.  Life can do that, you know.  I know.  I know the way the texture of the air changes: with a diagnosis, with the appearance of paperwork, with the utterance of just a few words by someone wearing a white coat.

We forget, though, don’t we?  Too easily.  We are pushed, and we push ourselves, to heal, to “feel better,” to move on.  But being cracked open by grief, fear, and uncertainty creates a certain kind of sight—it’s not a gift, mind you, but perhaps an opportunity—to see what we otherwise miss.

Burdens are plenty in this world and they can pull us down in lamentation.  But the good Lord knows we need to see at least the hem of the robe of glory, and we do.  Ponder a sunset or the dogwoods all ablossom.  Every time you see such it’s the hem of the robe of glory.  Brothers and sisters, how do you expect to see what you don’t seek?  Some claim heaven has streets of gold and all such things, but I hold a different notion  When we’re there, we’ll say to the angels, why, a lot of heaven’s glory was in the place we come from.  And you know what them angels will say?  They’ll say yes, pilgrim, and how often did you notice?  What did you seek?

Ron Rash, Above the Waterfall

As I carried my sleepy boy from the car to the house, we stopped to look up, the sky dark but still bluer than black, the night clearer than usual, the stars charting their constellations.  “Look, bub,” I said, “the stars are so far away, but still they send us their light.”

“They sharing it,” he said, nuzzling his cheek against my shoulder.  “They share the light with us so we can have some, too.”

And by that light, tonight, I glimpsed a few stitches in the hem of the robe.


Blue Jean Gourmet | Salted Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars

SALTED PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP GRANOLA BARS

recipe slightly adapted from Standard Baking Co. Pastries, via Remedial Eating

I got to this recipe via Instagram, when Shauna Ahern commented on Molly Hays’ photo of granola bars, asking for the recipe.  Molly obliged with a link, which I promptly followed.  Following the recipe yielded a very large quantity of the sturdiest homemade granola bars I’ve ever encountered; I mailed some to the aforementioned friend, took some on a road trip, fed many of them to my not-so-small child, used them as my contribution to book club brunch (where I was asked for the recipe by several), and consumed a good handful of them myself, as mid-morning and pre-/post-gym snacks.

Note: these are not “health food” granola bars in the sense that they are unapologetically sweetened and filled with naturally caloric & fatty things, like nuts and nut butters.  I am okay with this, but you might not be.  Think about them as wandering in the territory just shy of dessert, but a good distance from the town of overly virtuous.  And if it helps, know that we really only eat half of one of the rectangles pictured here at a time, with even a nibble or two serving as a nice foil for a cup of tea or a sweet-thing-after-dinner that successfully allows me to avoid hitting up the ice cream in the freezer.

As Molly notes in her original post, these are swell to have around if you have a child experiencing a growth spurt.  Bonus points for how well they hold up in lunch bags!

ingredients:

I found this rule of thumb from Molly’s post helpful: “I’ve fiddled with these bars endlessly, and have found most any substitutions work, so long as the following ratio is adhered to: 3 cups sugars (liquid + solid) : 9 cups grains (oats + germ/seeds) : 4 cups “chunks” (walnuts + chocolate chips) is a good balance, for a sturdy final bar.”  I will add that you could easily use dried fruit instead of chocolate chips, to make these more “breakfasty.”

1 cup salted butter (I only had unsalted, so bumped up the salt in the dry ingredients)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups crunchy, salted peanut butter (I used a mix of regular peanut butter & almond butter)
1 cup light corn syrup or brown rice syrup (I used a mix of corn syrup & honey)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 1/2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup wheat germ (I used flax seeds)
1/2 cup sesame seeds (I used hulled sunflower seeds)
one 12-ounce package mini chocolate chips (I only had regular sized chocolate chips, used about 1/2 cups)

oven: 375°

Melt butter in a medium-sized bowl; stir in brown sugar, nut butter(s), liquid sweetener(s) of your choice, and vanilla.  Mix well and set aside to cool.  Butter concoction needs to feel cool before you mix it with the chocolate chips, so that it doesn’t melt them! 

Line a rimmed baking sheet (13 x 18” or as close as you have to it) with parchment paper, then butter the paper (also helps to dot the sheet with butter before laying the paper on top, so it will stick). 

In a very large bowl, stir together all of your dry ingredients: oats, nuts, salt, seeds/germ, and chocolate chips.  Pour in the cooled butter mixture and stir very well to combine thoroughly.  I used a spatula, then finished off with clean hands – you want the oat mixture to be very well coated, because any dry bits will keep your granola bars from sticking together. 

Spread the mixture out on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and distribute evenly.  Cover the top of the mixture with a second sheet of parchment, and use a rolling pin or the bottom of a measuring cup/water glass to level out the mixture and press it firmly into the pan.  You want the mixture to be tightly compacted.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the edges are golden brown.  Allow the mixture to cool fully—I left my sheet pan in the oven overnight—before cutting into bars.  According to Molly, these keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3+ weeks, but I made them a week ago and we only have 5 left, so you’ll have to take her word for it!

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THINGS WORTH SHARING

Last night I lay in bed trying to fall asleep but thinking instead about rockets falling in Gaza and the great luxury that it is to not live in fear the way that so many human beings on this planet do.


my loves - July 2014 | Blue Jean Gourmet

I keep thinking also about the bus loads of children and women showing up at our border and the people whose impulse is to stand there with signs and protest their presence, instead of offering them shelter and sympathy.

I thought about these things on Sunday, as Shiv fought off a little fever and wanted only to be in one of our arms, alternating naps on each of our chests while we snoozed with him or read, one-handed, the way we used to a long time ago, when he weighed a third of what he does now.  As I often do, I think about the strange lottery of birth, the hand of circumstances that each of us are dealt and which determines so much about what is and isn’t available to us down the line.

I don’t really know what to say, except that I am really freaking tired of people who try to imply that those of us with the privilege of having first-world problems have done something to deserve or earn them, and that those who struggle with more have done—or worse, not done—something to deserve their fate.  This mythology is so pervasive and so damaging that I’ve lost what little patience I might have once had for those who subscribe to it.  It takes decency and courage to own up to the fact that we have no earthly idea how hard it is to walk around in someone else’s skin, but I think it is the absolute least we can do.

Sometimes the wisest thing a writer can say is that she has no idea what to say: no conclusions, no answers, no sense.  That’s where I am today.  But I do have a few things that might offer some meaning, the words and work of others:

Sister Norma, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was quoted a few weeks ago in TIME magazine as saying: “Jesus did not say, ‘I was hungry and you asked for my papers.’”  You can make an online donation here to assist their refugee relief efforts.

(Non)Secular Girl took a blog break for the past year, to focus on book-writing and baby-making.  Joyfully, both are in healthy stages of development and she is back with her smart, poignant weekly sermons that will slay you in the best possible way.

Alec Wilkinson has a piece in the August 4 issue of The New Yorker about poet Edward Hirsch’s forthcoming book-length poem, “Gabriel,” which is an elegy for his son, who died at age twenty-two.  I am anticipating a September afternoon, after the book comes out, in which I read it all in one sitting, with tea or coffee to start, and bourbon to finish.  (My friend Julie originally posted this, and I am grateful she did.)

This long read, Before You Know It, Something’s Over, captures, in perfect and sometimes painful detail, what it’s like to lose a parent young.  Should you share that experience, or know someone who does, I recommend it.  (Thanks to Jill for passing this along to me.)

Last but not least, the indomitable Anne Lamott, who somehow always knows what to say, even when the rest of us don’t, posted this status update yesterday.  I’ve read it through about three times in twenty-four hours.  (My dear friend Marynelle is responsible for sharing this one, because she is the best.)

And now, some food for the body.

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THE DEFINITIVE GRANOLA RECIPE

I have abandoned my previous efforts at homemade granola in deference to this recipe–it is simple, it is perfect, it requires one bowl, and it is freaking good.   I’ve made and gifted it to several folks and they’ve all, to a person, asked for the recipe, so I figured I needed to share.  This is a barely-adapted version of Molly Wizenberg’s most recent granola recipe, so I can’t take any credit for it except for that I may now be disseminating it to folks who may not already know its glory.

In the original, Wizenberg measures her dry ingredients by weight, which allows for a wonderful flexibility and consistency, but in case you don’t have a kitchen scale, I’ve listed rough volume measurement equivalents.

I have halved her original recipe because the original just makes so damn much; I prefer this scaled-down version because cook it all on one baking sheet and still have enough granola to last us a good week with enough extra to pass along a few small jars to friends & neighbors.  Of course, you can easily double the amounts I’ve listed here and end up with a very generous amount of granola, either to hoard in your pantry or share with all of your friends.  Who will not mind, believe me.

ingredients:

300 g oats – approximately 3 ¼ cups

50 to 75 g unsweetened coconut flakes – approximately 1 to 1 ½ cups

200 g raw nuts or seeds of your choice (I like sliced almonds & pecan halves, but you can use whatever you prefer) – approximately 2 cups

1 tsp. Kosher salt (if substituting table salt, cut to ¾ tsp.)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup olive oil

½ cup good-quality maple syrup (I love the organic maple syrup from Costco—affordable & very flavorful)

*pro-tip: if using a glass measuring cup, measure your olive oil in first, then the maple syrup—the sticky stuff will slide right out and make the measuring cup a lot easier to clean.

Preheat oven to 300°F & line a baking sheet with parchment.

Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  Pour in wet ingredients and stir very, very thoroughly with a spatula, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides; you want to make sure all of the dry ingredients are coated with the wet, and that the liquid ingredients are distributed evenly throughout.

Turn the mixture out onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and spread it out evenly, pressing down to form a tight layer.  Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes, checking on it a few times but leaving it alone.  Remove from the oven when the coconut flakes have toasted and the whole mixture is a nice, light golden brown.

Cool on a rack completely before breaking the granola into clumps and storing in airtight containers.  You’ll get crisper, tighter clusters if you wait until it’s truly cooled down before messing with it, but you can always snag an initial snack bowl for yourself (or for your two-year-old son, say).

I love this granola the most when it’s atop a bowl of plain yogurt & sliced summer fruit—peaches and blueberries in particular, as pictured here—but plenty of my friends prefer it plain, or swimming in a bowl of milk.

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HOMEMADE CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

Is it just me, or is there a lot of competitive holiday-ing going on out there?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest and food/style blogs and Instagram and gift guides as much as the next girl, but sometimes I think that all of this display can mess with our heads. Maybe it’s not meant to be competitive, but when everyone else’s life appears to be perfectly packaged, in cute recycled cardboard boxes festooned with washi tape and organic baker’s twice, then photographed using the perfect vintage filter, it’s easy to feel like your life doesn’t measure up.

This is not what the holidays are about.

The holidays are not a competitive sport. They are not meant for comparing your life (or holiday card or wrapping job or homemade toffee) to everyone else’s. They are not about feeling obligated to whip up magazine-page-worthy meals from scratch or addressing your custom typography/photo collage holiday cards in metallic pen calligraphy or making sure that your tree ornaments are all in the same color family or festooning your mantle and door with homemade decorations from pine boughs you chopped yourself.

You don’t have to host the most charming holiday party or have just the right present picked out for everyone. If you don’t do these things, the holidays will go on, and they will not lose any of their real meaning.

I’m all for making this time of year special, but when we make it so damn significant that every inch of it is up for inspection and ornamentation, we’ve defeated the point.

HOMEMADE CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

Okay, it may seem totally hypocritical that I waxed on about resisting the holiday pressure to do it all and now I’m offering you a recipe for making your own crystallized ginger. I know, I KNOW.

Please know I’m not implying that you ought to be making your own crystallized ginger, just that you can make it at home should you be planning to do some holiday baking or would like to give some away as gifts. But if you care not for the stuff or can’t be bothered to do one more damn thing right now, then ignore me.

ingredients:

2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1/8” strips or coins

Bring the water and sugar to a boil over high heat, then add the ginger pieces. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to boil the mixture until the ginger becomes translucent, 25-30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the ginger pieces to a drying rack set over a cookie sheet (to keep drips off of your counter). Allow the ginger to cool and dry for half an hour before rolling the pieces in granulated sugar. In the meantime, reduce the leftover liquid down until you have yourself a nice ginger syrup (perfect in tea or cocktails!)

Return the sugared ginger to a clean rack and allow the pieces to dry out thoroughly before storing them in an airtight container. The finished crystallized should no longer feel tacky and should “ping” when you drop the pieces into a jar.

Looking for a recipe to use your ginger in?  These ginger-macadamia nut cookies are a favorite.

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SPICED NUTS

I’m learning.

I’m learning that being a perfectionist does not serve me well as a mother.  My child is a human being, not a machine, and I do him and myself a disservice when I forget that.  As it turns out, I am not a machine, either, and if I go along long enough pretending that I’m one, I might get the wind knocked out of me one Tuesday morning.

I’m learning that I can’t do everything, and it is exhausting to try.  Turns out I don’t actually want to have it all; I want to have a few things, fully.  I’m learning not to be so hard on myself, because I’m doing this mother job for the first time, and it’s okay that I haven’t figured out exactly how it works yet.

I’m learning that anxiety is not rational and that emotions can hit you like a truck.  And sometimes you just have to say “I am having a hard time today,” and let that be what it is.  Then maybe call the counselor you saw a while back and make an appointment, because taking care of yourself means giving up the silly notion that you shouldn’t need any help.

I’m learning, newly, how blessed I am to have an incredibly patient partner, a wonderful mother (who just bought a house that’s less than two miles from ours!), and rock-solid friends who stand at the ready with wisdom and love on the days I don’t quite measure up.

I’m learning just how much gratitude I can feel when the next day is better than the last.  I’m learning that there’s some merit to being completely disoriented, because it means I can’t get up to my usual tricks.  And I’m learning that there is nothing quite so good as coming home to this sweet face.

SPICED NUTS RECIPE

from Bon Appetit 

We’re getting close to that parade-of-holidays time of year, where visitors come and go and there are lots of festive occasions that warrant snacks.  Here’s one that will work nicely from Halloween through New Year’s, I think.

The original recipe calls for a full pound of pistachios, but since they can be kind of expensive to buy already shelled, I opted to go half-and-half with cashews.  I also think this treatment would work well with almonds!  The egg whites allow you to get a very crunchy finish on the nuts, as well as distribute the spice mix evenly.

Jill & I have found that the flavor of these nuts goes quite well with the round, deep, malty, pumpkin-y beers of fall; perfect for Sunday football watching, in fact.  They’ve kept extremely well in a sealed Mason jar for over two weeks.

ingredients:

1 lb. unsalted mixed nuts (I used a combination of shelled pistachios & cashews)

5 egg whites*

½ cup sugar

½ tsp. dried thyme

½ tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. ground ginger

¼ tsp. cayenne

4 dashes Angostura bitters

salt

vegetable oil

 

oven: 350°

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites, sugar, spices, & bitters.  Fold in the nuts and stir to coat.

Brush a rimmed baking sheet with a thin layer of vegetable oil, then spread out the nuts on top; sprinkle with salt.  Bake, stirring to break up clumps every 10 minutes or so, until golden brown and beginning to crisp, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool the baking sheet on a wire rack before eating/transferring to an airtight container.  (The nuts will crisp up further as they cool.)

*If you’re wondering what to do with the resultant 5 egg yolks, you can use 4 of them to make these alfajores or 2 of them to make this almond pudding.   I also like adding yolks to a batch of scrambled eggs to make them extra rich!

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PUMPKIN DOG TREATS

Jill is on a belated vacation this week with a good friend, so it’s just me, the cats, & this one at home right now.

Dolly Marie Carroll Mehra (credit for the above photo goes to Sonya Cuellar) is our approximately twelve-year-old, spoiled, demanding, loving, ridiculous lap dog/rat terrier/child.  We adopted her from a rescue organization just over three years ago, after she had been found, emaciated, wandering the streets of Portland, Oregon and eating trash.  As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember, Jill and I had just said goodbye to our sweet old yellow lab, and our house ached with that absence.  We knew we wanted to adopt an older dog, the ones who often have the hardest time finding a home.  The minute Jill received a text message from Dolly’s foster mom, we fell in love.  A week later, we had her flown to Houston and she’s been our girl ever since.

The dog is profoundly thrown by the fact of Jill’s absence; since Jill works from home, Dolly has grown accustomed to having a lap to lie in pretty much all day.  And someone to throw the ball for her whenever she wants.  Not to mention someone to feed, cuddle, walk, & pay near-constant attention to her.  My mom, who works with infants for a living, swears she has never met a human baby as high-maintenance as our dog.

Of course, as any crazy dog person will tell you, our little creature gives to us at least as much as she requires of us, probably more.  While Jill was doing her chemotherapy treatments last winter, Dolly protected her like a fierce little jackal, snuggling with Jill on the couch for hours.  When I drive home later today, her head will be in the front window, ears up, barking to announce and trumpet my arrival.  We’ll walk out to get the mail, throw her favorite two-tennis-ball rope toy, build a fire, and cuddle on the couch while watching Glee.  I’ll sing one of the dozens of silly songs I’ve invented for her, with one of her equally ridiculous nicknames woven in: BooBoo, Doll Boo, Boo Bear, Boo Bear McScoo Bear, Wina Bina Augustina & Sabrina, Punkin’ Boo, etc.  It’s entirely possible that we will dance around the kitchen to Lady Gaga.

Our little dog lived a hard life before she came into our life.  Lord only knows what she’s been through or seen.  She’s an old lady now, and we are all too happy to be her retirement home.

PUMPKIN DOG TREATS
courtesy Marilyn Naron, Simmer Till Done

I cook for the people in my life, in order to show my affection for them.  Why should the dogs in my life be any different?  These were a snap to make and Dolly, who as I’m sure you gathered by now can be quite choosy, LOVES them.  I plan to make another big batch this weekend to send out along with other (human) treats for the holidays!

These have kept for two weeks in an airtight container (I doubled the recipe).

ingredients:

2 eggs

½ cup canned pumpkin


2 tablespoons dry milk


¼ teaspoon sea salt


2 ½ – 3 cups brown rice flour *

oven: 350°
pan: cookie sheets, no need to grease or line

In large bowl, whisk together eggs and pumpkin to smooth. Stir in dry milk and sea salt.  Add brown rice flour gradually, combining with spatula or hands to form a stiff, dry dough. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and if dough is still rough, briefly knead and press to combine.

Roll dough to ½ inch thickness and use a biscuit or other shape cookie cutter to punch out the dough, gathering and re-rolling scraps as you go. Place shapes on cookie sheet.

If desired, press fork pattern on biscuits before baking, a quick up-and-down movement with fork, lightly pressing down halfway through dough. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until they are firm and lightly brown on the top. Remove from oven and carefully turn biscuits over, then bake additional 15-20 minutes.  (I checked mine at 15 to see that they weren’t getting to brown).  Allow the biscuits to cool before feeding to a dog!

*In the original recipe, Marilyn points out that many dogs have a gluten insensitivity that makes brown rice flour a better choice.  I had no trouble finding a Bob’s Red Mill version in the Natural Foods section of my regular grocery store, but you could also use whole wheat flour if your dog has no trouble digesting wheat.

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CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

My friend Coco is amazing.  She’s going to blush when she reads this, one of her many endearing quirks.  She will say, “I am not amazing, I’m just me!”  But that’s how it is with the people we love; they amaze us simply by being themselves.

Courtney is many things: the English department chair at my school, a passionate, gifted teacher, a non-cutesy crafter, a baker and a cook, the mother of the cutest dachshund in the world, a voraciously intelligent nerd.  She is married to a very tall cycling enthusiast named John, for whom I will be making this blackberry-upside-down-cake many times this summer, because it’s his favorite.

She has an unabashed laugh, a mama who makes a mean gumbo, and some beautiful, literary tattoos: Whitman on her wrists—Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes—and when she finished her rather brilliant Master’s thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses (who voluntarily writes a thesis on Ulysses? Coco does.), she had the book’s final line, “Yes I said yes I will yes” inked on her pale inner arm in a curling, celebratory script.

If you are like me, you look back through the catalogue of your friendships and relationships and see each one banded with a distinct hue, like library bindings or an email inbox.  The timing and the circumstances lend a particular flavor to each.   We can’t help but associate others with the ways we ourselves have changed in their sight, the life events they watched us navigate, time passed with each other.

And then, because we cannot separate out what course our life might have taken without the particular influence of say, a Courtney, the edges and the colors start to bleed and the narrative shifts.  We become new through them.

I realized today that my impulse to act like I always, totally have my shit together has waned, that I am more willing to ask for help than ever before, and that’s probably due to the fact that my friend Coco is willing to march past any protest and call BS on my “I’ve got it” act and just start washing dishes in my kitchen.  She picks up the heavy things that I’m not supposed to, takes it upon herself to buy beautiful plates, platters, & bowls for this blog, buys me iced coffee, and talks me back to myself time and time again.

It has taken some time, and a friend with untiring generosity, for me to realize that what’s happening over there is exactly what’s happening over here.  Courtney has managed to convince me that what she loves about me is me—because she is, quite frankly, exactly what I love about her.

CHEDDAR COINS OF CHEESY GOODNESS

This is a recipe Coco discovered and adapted from Epicurious about a year ago, and it has become one of her signature—and winning—baked goods.  The name, of course, is our addition, but one taste and you will agree, “cheddar coins of cheesy goodness” is exactly what they should be called.

Don’t feel limited by their nickname, though; while sharp, aged cheddar works extremely well here, so do Dubliner and double Gloucester.  Any hard, distinctly flavored cheese would fit the bill.

Paired with sliced apples and salami, plus the beer or wine of your choice, these babies will disappear fast.

ingredients:

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. extra-sharp cheddar or cheese of your choice, finely grated
1 cup flour
½ tsp. salt
generous grinds of black pepper
(optional) pinch of cayenne pepper

oven: 350˚
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter & seasonings before adding the cheddar and flour.  Mix on low until just combined—do not overmix!

Courtney’s tip: turn the mixture into the middle of a large piece of plastic wrap.  Fold the wrap in half over the dough and twist the ends like a Tootsie Roll to form a manageable log of dough.  Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Slice the chilled dough into ¼-inch rounds (thinner if you’d like them to be more crisp).  Arrange on baking sheets and bake until they just brown at the edges, 10-15 minutes.  Cool on racks before serving warm, or cool completely and store in an airtight container.

MATZO TOFFEE

Last year, I was asked to be in charge of desserts for a renegade Seder.  Such is the path by which I discovered Matzo Toffee, which is what baby matzo hopes it will grow up to be someday and what you, once you make it, will be unable to stop eating.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the combination of all good flavors—the richness of bittersweet chocolate, the butteriness of toffee, the earthy snap of almonds, the crunch of matzo, & the edge and texture of quality sea salt—but if you are Jewish and observing Passover next week*, it might be exciting to discover that matzo can actually be delicious.

What is a renegade Seder, you might ask?  Well, consider that our hostess was a Jewess whose Twitter bio claims she is a “kosher pork authority.”  Her sweetheart is a Muslim and for Halloween, they dressed up as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (she taped settlements to his shirt as the night wore on).  For the reading of the Haggadah, we had gift bags full of “plagues” represented by various craft-store-acquisitions, including red foam cut-out boils.  There were Red Sea cocktails with drowned Egyptian ninja figurines.  (Please note: we love Egyptians.  We do not wish them any violence.  We were just going along with the Bible story).

And I, the Hindu, was unable to eat the desserts I had made for the Seder because I had given up desserts for Lent.  Heh.  But the toffee went over so well with the rest of the evening’s guests that they convinced me to save a bag for Easter Sunday, upon which occasion I promptly devoured what was left.

Before we dash off on vacation, I’ll be making up a batch of this good stuff in solidarity with my Jewish friends and students.  Now that I’m back from the 8th grade Washington, D.C. trip—a whirlwind, exhausting and unbelievably fun four days—I’m relishing the spring break life but already kinda miss my students.  Just don’t tell them that!

*To make this recipe kosher-for-Passover, ensure that all the ingredients are certified kosher-for-Passover and that the kitchen you’re cooking in and utensils you’re cooking with are as well.  Since this recipe contains a large amount of butter, serve it with a meatless meal or make it with kosher margarine.  You may need to omit the vanilla.

MATZO TOFFEE
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz

You can also make this recipe with Saltines or another plain cracker, omitting the sea salt.  You might want to double the recipe, while you’re at it—it’s incredibly simple to make and very, very satisfying.

6 sheets unsalted matzo

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup packed light brown sugar
1

½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips

½ tsp. vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

optional toppings:

1 cup almonds or another nut, toasted & chopped

a few generous sprinklings of coarse sea salt

oven: 350˚
pan: Baking sheet(s) lined very well with foil, then top the foil with parchment paper.  Yes, this is necessary.  Toffee is messy business, you know.  Delicious, but messy.

Place the matzo along the bottom of the baking pan, breaking it up to cover the whole bottom.

In a big, thick saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat.  Bring up to a boil, stirring regularly, for about three minutes, as the mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and stir in the salt & vanilla.  Pour over the matzo, distributing the caramel mixture evenly and quickly.

Move the baking sheet(s) to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, watching to make sure that the caramel doesn’t burn.  (If it begins to get too dark, remove from the oven & turn down the heat to 325˚.)  Once everything is nice and golden brown, remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the matzo with the chocolate.  Wait a few minutes, then smooth out the now-melted chocolate with a spatula.  See how you just made the recipe work for you?  Love that.

As the chocolate is cooling, sprinkle with the toppings of your choice—in my case, some almonds & good sea salt.  Let the matzo toffee cool completely before breaking into pieces and devouring it.  If there’s any leftover, it will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.

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GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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VEENA’S CHEX MIX

Please forgive me for lapsing with my posts this week, but to make it up to you, I’m letting ya’ll in on a coveted family secret: the recipe for my mom’s incredibly addictive Chex Mix.

Often surfacing around the holidays, this stuff has long been a staple at holiday parties & in college care packages, one of the many things my mom makes which always forces the question, “Oh my god, did you put crack in this?”

I tried my hand at this goodness for the first time the other night and was pleased to find that I was able to replicate her magic pretty easily in my own kitchen.  In a few days, I get to see my mom, spend my twenty-seventh birthday with her and Jill, eat through Thanksgiving, even sleep late if I wish.

There are many, many things, both big and little, for which I am grateful, but today I’d like to acknowledge you, reader of this blog.  Little did I know when I launched this blog just over six months ago that I would “meet” so many kind and generous folks, that so many of you would be interested in what I have to say about food and living joyfully in the world, that many of you would be willing to share your stories, ideas, recipes, & genuine enthusiasm with me.

Thank you.  It has been, and continues to be, a privilege.

VEENA’S CHEX MIX

½ box each, corn & rice chex cereal

1 cup assorted nuts and/or pretzels

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup Worcestershire sauce

1 T each: garlic powder, dried chives, & dried parsley

1 tsp. each, salt & black pepper

oven: 235°

In a large metal bowl, toss together the cereal, nuts, and/or pretzels.  In a separate and much smaller bowl, stir together the melted butter, Worcestershire, and spices.

Pour the butter mixture over the cereal, using a spatula to make sure all the pieces are evenly coated.  Bake the mixture in the bowl for an hour, stopping to stir every fifteen minutes.

After an hour, turn off the oven and let the mixture sit overnight.  Store the mixture in an airtight container—it will keep well for several weeks.

CARAMEL CORN

Various ways I know I got it right:

•    Jill goes back for seconds
•    My students pay attention
•    It smells the way my mom’s version does
•    Courtney says “oh yes MA’M!”
•    I have no trouble falling asleep
•    Someone asks “Did you put crack in this?”

caramel corn

I actually read a story some years ago about a restaurant in Japan; it had a cult following, lots of regulars, did fine business.  The thing was, no one could really articulate why the restaurant was so popular.  Was it their unique culinary offerings?  Homey atmosphere?  Friendly owners who knew your name & order as soon as you walked in the door?

Nah. It was liquid opium, trace amounts of which the kitchen laced into all of the food, as discovered by the Japanese health inspector.

There aren’t any illegal substances in this caramel corn but it’s so good you’d swear there were.  Make it for weekend munching, mail it to your favorite serviceman or woman, take it along to work as a sweet afternoon snack.  Be warned, though, if you should chose to share it, there won’t be any left for you.

CARAMEL CORN

What I especially like about this recipe is that the caramel isn’t fussy; no candy thermometer necessary here.  When the mixture starts to get dark, take it off the heat.  It’s really that simple!

8 cups plain popcorn*
1 cup mixed nuts (almonds, pecans, macadamias, peanuts, etc.)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup butter
¼ cup clear Karo (corn) syrup
½ T vanilla
plan or sea salt

Combine popcorn & nuts in a large bowl (one that will clean easily).  Prepare two baking sheets by either greasing or lining with parchment.

Melt the butter, then add sugar and Karo syrup.  Stir regularly until the mixture comes to a boil.  Turn down the heat and watch the mixture, stirring occasionally until it takes on a caramel color (10-12 minutes).

Remove the caramel mixture from heat, then stir in the vanilla with a heat-proof spatula.  Pour the mixture into the bowl of popcorn & nuts, stirring vigorously until coated (much as you would when making Rice Krispie treats).

Spread the popcorn mixture onto the two baking sheets, then sprinkle generously with salt for a lovely flavor contrast.  Let  the corn harden before breaking into clumps.   Enjoy right away or store for up to a week in an airtight container.

*It’s not required to pop your own popcorn, but it’s so blazing easy, cheap, & delicious, shouldn’t you?

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