Friday, November 23, 2012

On style and food and love

When I was a kid, having dinner at my stepmother’s parents’ house was one of the fanciest elements of my life. Their house was big and beautiful. There were always jazz records playing and vases of fresh flowers adorning side tables. A baby grand piano, not a TV, was the focal point of the white carpeted formal sitting room. And instead of eating dinner in the kitchen or on TV trays, like we did at home, we sat at an elegant dining room table set with fluted crystal stemware and china plates and cloth napkins and engraved silverware. Napkins always on laps. Elbows never on the table. After dinner, the adults lingered over dessert and coffee and witticisms. This, I thought, is what it means to be sophisticated.
When I had dinner last week with that same grandmother (whose name is Sue), I told her how much I loved those formal dinners at her house. I told her how fancy and refined they seemed to my nine-year-old sensibilities. She laughed and told me it was all part of the show: She always hoped that the fanciness of her dinner parties would distract guests from the fact that food wasn’t very good.
Now, in her defense: I think the food was fine. But now that I do think about it, I don’t really remember. When I think about those dinners, I have no recollection of actually eating. My memories center on the silverware and the glasses and the plates and the people; there might not have been any food at all. And so I say to her: Mission accomplished. I was duly distracted.
Now that I throw my own dinner parties, I use the opposite approach. I hope my food will serve as a distraction from the hard water spots on the drinking glasses, and from the bookcase cluttered with cookery books and gadgets, and from the little hole that I repaired on our kitchen curtains. I hope the food will erase from my guests’ collective memories the fact that the end of the rubber serving spoon was melted flat because I accidentally left it on the hot stovetop. I hope the food will make them forget that our cat jumped from the railing of our upstairs loft and onto the kitchen table during Easter brunch, landing right between the quiche and a pitcher of mimosas. (Yes, this really happened. And I guess no amount of good food will make anyone forget it.)
I know that Sue set her table this way because she loved us and wanted things to be as beautiful as possible for the people she invited into her home. And now, I hope that Chloe and Brian and my family and friends know that when I make the pudding and the whipped cream from scratch; when I pour you another glass of wine; when I bring a casserole to your house because you’re sick or sad; when dinner and dessert lasts for two hours; when I give you homemade peppermint bark and ginger cookies and hot cocoa mix…it’s because I love you so much. And that’s how I say it best.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tricks and treats

Greetings after a vacation hiatus from blogging! I considered filing food dispatches from warm, sunny Florida, namely about the weird fact that there are no knives at Golden Corral, which seems to cater to the nursing home crowd with an "endless buffet" of soft, institutional food. But living through the experience once was quite enough.
So instead, I’m back with tales of Halloween. Chloe went trick-or-treating and had a Halloween party at school, which of course got me reminiscing about Halloweens of yore (and by “yore,” I mean the early 90s).
As I have mentioned before, athletic endeavors were never my strong suit, but I have always excelled at food-based competition. In middle school, while my friend Kristine was forcing some witless male classmate to do her sewing projects, I was busy winning the Home Ec. award every semester (yes, there was such a thing).
But my skills really shone on Halloween when it came time to eat a donut off of a string or get an apple out of a bucket of water using nothing but my face. I employed a deadly apple-bobbing trick (which I’ll reveal, possibly, when Carly Simon reveals who is so vain) that literally blew my competition out of the water. The other kids never stood a chance.
I have vowed that when Chloe is old enough for Halloween parties, I will resurrect bobbing for apples, fears of germs and wet heads be damned. I never drowned or contracted any deadly pathogens in an apple-bobbing bucket, and I doubt anyone ever will. This is New Hampshire. Live Free or Die, bitches!
For now, though, Chloe’s still only three years old, so her school Halloween party was limited to decorating pumpkins and dancing around to a kid-boppish version of “Thriller.” But, as one of the moms tasked with helping out at the Halloween party, I was determined to tear that shit up with an awesome craft project and snack: real mini-pumpkins for the kids to decorate and homemade pumpkin-shaped marshmallows coated in sparkly orange sugar.
Since a gigantic bag of marshmallows will only set you back about a dollar fifty at the grocery store, making homemade ones may seem like one of those pointless “why would you do that?” kind of things. My answer to that question is four-fold:
  1. I can see how never buying store-bought bread would be a pain in the ass, but how often do you eat marshmallows, really? Unless you do a ridiculous amount of camping, I would guess not very often. In which case, create a special occasion the few times a year you indulge in marshmallows and make them yourself!
  2. Bagged marshmallows suck.
  3. It’s fun and impressive.
  4. It’s chimp-easy.
I used the very simple recipe from the Food Network’s Good Eats, then spiffed it up with a few add-ons at the end. In this case, I used food coloring during the whipping process to make the marshmallows orange-tinged. After spreading the marshmallow on the baking sheet, I coated the top with orange-colored sugar, which I picked up in the cake decorating section of Wal-Mart. When the marshmallows were set, I used a pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter sprayed with cooking oil to stamp out thick, fluffy marshmallow pumpkins. Then I dusted the sticky edges with some powered sugar and a little cornstarch (see recipe below). Of course you can do this for any holiday with different colored sugars and cookie cutters.

Put each marshmallow in a festive candy bag and distribute to the grateful masses.
There will be leftover pieces from around the edges if you use a cookie cutter for shaping, so just cut the excess pieces into chunks, dust them with the powdered sugar mixture, and bag them. They’re yummy for snacking, floating in a mug of homemade hot cocoa, or whatever else you can think of. I'm currently testing how well they freeze; I'll update when I find out.
Good Eats Homemade Marshmallows
  • 3 packages unflavored gelatin
  • Ice-cold water
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • Nonstick spray
Place the gelatin and ½ cup of cold water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
In a small saucepan combine another 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cook, covered over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.
Turn the stand mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high (be sure to lock your stand mixer head or it will jump all over the counter!). Whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 15 minutes. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping.
While the mixture is whipping prepare the pans:
Combine the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly spray a 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Add the sugar and cornstarch mixture and move around to completely coat the bottom and sides of the pan, like you’re flouring a cake pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.
When it’s ready, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. (OR SEE MY VARIATION, ABOVE, USING COLORED SUGAR) Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners' sugar mixture. (OR SEE MY VARIATIONS, ABOVE) Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with more of the confectioners' sugar mixture. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

UPDATE: These marshmallows freeze beautifully, and actually have a nicer texture after defrosting. However, we used these homemade mallows to top Brian's famous sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving, and the result was not so pretty. Unlike commercial marshmallows--which puff and brown in the oven, but retain their shape--homemade ones melted into a yucky-looking froth. The taste was good (and I don't really want to think about why commercial marshmallows don't melt), but looks-wise, it was wasn't their finest hour.