Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pain in the Bundt

Most of the time, I am over the fact that I'm not a domestic diva. I have a history of collapsed soufflés, glue gun misfires and scrapbooking debacles attesting to my status as perpetual home ec reject.

Hey, we can't all be good at everything, right? It really shouldn't bother me that the only kitchen appliance I've mastered is the microwave. I've got a family that loves me despite the fact that I repeatedly misunderstand recipes, which, in my opinion, leave way too much open to interpretation. (Like when it comes to "lightly beating" eggs, don't we all have a different understanding of how much force to use? Your version of "lightly beating" might be my version of "briskly smacking.")

Barry likes to tell people how when we were dating, he came over for dinner one night and found me in the bathtub of my tiny studio apartment, crying, with a bowl of potatoes in my lap and the handmixer plugged in where the hairdryer usually was. (I was 22; I didn't know you had to soften the potatoes by boiling them before trying to blend them, and hard shards of potato had been flying all over the kitchen, so I took the entire operation into the bathtub to control the mess.) I've gotten better (a little) since then, but still, it's not without good reason that Barry begs me not to bake, when I'm "so good" at picking out exactly the right dessert at Publix instead.

But every now and then, I just want to be Rachel Ray. I just want to take the power of the immerser blender into my hands and create something decadent, fattening and perfect. I just want to see the fruits of my labor, in the form of the perfect fruit tart, formed by my very own fingers. (Part of my problem is a cake mix box won't do it for me, so I either am strictly a take-out kind of chick, or I'm attempting exotic pastries from scratch.)

Tonight's the night before Thanksgiving, and I had been hopeful to see once again whether there might be a gourmet goddess lurking within me, despite my track record with recipes for disaster. I'd secured the recipe for a truly decadent Bundt cake that seemed pretty much idiot-proof: eggs, butter, milk, shortening, baking powder, sugar, and five types of extract (vanilla, butter, coconut, rum, lemon.) My coworker had made this for a bake sale recently and it was seriously one of the most simple yet exotic desserts I'd ever tasted, and I wanted to share this find with my family. (I'm not sure if rum and lemon go well with turkey and cranberry sauce, but again, this is not my forte.)

So I bought the extracts (I already owned all of the other ingredients), dusted off the Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer (which hadn't been used since last Thanksgiving) and thought, "piece of cake." Singing a little ditty ("Mama's little baby likes shortening bread" if you must know), I followed the instructions--this time to the letter of the law.

"Beat five eggs until they are as yellow as butter." I dropped each one in, turned on the mixer, and voila! Yellow-as-butter raw eggs. I went to remove the mixing bowl from the base of my Kitchen-Aid so I could move onto the next step in the recipe...and this is when the rest of my evening went kaput.

The bowl was stuck to the base. As hard as I wriggled, jostled, cajoled and cursed it, I couldn't get it out, and the eggs were in there! With sweat bursting across my forehead, I had a flashback to 12 years ago and remembered the mashed potato/bathtub scene. That was when I had the sinking feeling that this cake was headed for a similar fate. I called in Barry, and after calmly asking me--yet again--if I wouldn't rather pick something up at Publix--he tried to release the bowl, and failed as well.

Then I spent a good half hour on the phone with Kitchen Aid tech support, and employed the following tools, unsuccessfully, in my attempts to free the bowl: Pam spray (to lubricate the bowl), a hot wet towel, changing the surface I was using from the countertop to the floor.

Finally, they told me to get out a hammer, and that worked.

So that obstacle was cleared, the rest of the recipe went smoothly, but I suspected the jammed bowl had been merely Act I of this domestic misadventure. I felt a flash of hope when I took the Bundt pan out of the oven an hour or so later, and saw how perfect and lightly browned my cake was. Jacob and Rebecca smelled the cake and came running into the kitchen to see if they could have a piece, but I just smiled and explained no, this was a Thanksgiving treat.

Act II occurred when it was time for me to free the cake from the Bundt pan, so I could apply the home-made frosting. I must have not greased the pan thoroughly enough (I just used Pam, not butter) because as soon as I turned it over onto the cake plate, it fell apart into big chunks.

I let out a sob as I tried--in vain--to piece the cake back together again. Fragrant from the rum-coconut extracts, buttery and velvety, the harder I pushed them, the more they crumbled.

My little protector, Jacob was by my side instantly, as soon as he saw my distress. "Can I have a piece now?" he asked.

Defeated, I handed him one giant crumb and said, "Sure, why not? The whole thing is ruined now."

Jacob quickly gobbled it, like a squirrel devouring a chestnut, and said, "Mmmm, Mommy, this is delicious! Who cares what it looks like? It tastes great!"

Awww, mama's little baby did like shortening bread! Which instantly cheered me up. What a sweetie. "Do you want a bigger piece?"

"Oooh, yes, Mommy! Thank you!"

I sliced and frosted the least messy remains of the Bundt cake into squares that I will serve tomorrow night. Then I dished out the sloppy, gooey, rummy part for us. We definitely enjoyed it. As far as culinary disasters go, this one was rather exquisite.

Jacob said again, "Thank you, Mommy, for this delicious cake!"

"You're welcome."

"And Mommy," Jacob added, "you should say thank you to me, too."

"Oh? Why?"

"Because I made you feel better when your cake fell apart."

I laughed. "Yes, you sure did. Thank you, Jacob."

Happy Thanksgiving to Jacob. To you, Rebecca and Barry I am indeed very grateful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving Gothic

Most American children grow up celebrating Thanksgiving in the traditional way: football game on in the background, mothers and grandmothers arguing about how long it takes to cook the Butterball, the kitchen smelling of Crisco. You know, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go…”

But my Thanksgiving as a kid was more along the lines of “Over the river and through the woods to a strange gothic-themed restaurant with surly serving wenches we go…”

This restaurant, the now-defunct Stokesay Castle in Reading, Pennsylvania, was more about celebrating the reign of Henry VIII than commemorating the first time the Pilgrims and Indians broke bread, but until recently, Tudor-inspired tapestries and parchment menus were my only associations with the great American holiday.

As the story goes, my parents got married on Thanksgiving in 1969 and had their first newlywed dinner at Stokesay, thus beginning a multiple-decades-long tradition of traveling several hours by car to eat pre-sliced turkey at a restaurant complete with its very own dungeon. (If you were restless during dinner, you could go downstairs and play in the dungeon, which had a very realistic looking mannequin stuck in some kind of authentic torturing device straight out of the days of Bloody Mary’s reign. It really was fun.)

Initially we were there to celebrate both Thanksgiving and my parents’ wedding anniversary. But after they divorced 19 years after their first turkey day together—which, if you’d been stuck in the car with them for hours during our increasingly angst-filled yearly treks to Reading from the Philly suburbs, you’d have seen coming—my stepmother and eventually my half-siblings began coming along.

And by that point I am not sure if the travels to Stokesay were even about Thanksgiving anymore…I think it was just the kind of thing that if you do the same thing 19 years in a row, do you really give up on the twentieth year? And if you can do it for 20 years, why stop after 21? The Green family name was quilled into Stokesay’s reservation book until the grand palace closed its heavy doors for the last time in 2006.

Our tradition certainly wasn’t about the food. I’m sure the dining experience was decent enough in the late 60s and early 70s for my parents to decide to make going gothic an annual event, but by the time I was old enough to distinguish good food from bad food, Stokesay’s cuisine registered right up there with Ikea meatballs and my mom’s occasional experiments with cabbage. (The last year I went there, I ordered the lobster instead of the Thanksgiving special because I had come to think of a turkey dinner as a barely palatable entrée—since then, I’ve discovered the real deal is definitely worth replicating November after November.)

Like I do every year since I moved away from Pennsylvania, I will miss my Green roots this Thanksgiving when I break bread in South Florida surrounded by my husband, children and in-laws. Sitting at my dinner table and enjoying my own made-from-scratch cranberry-walnut-mandarin orange sauce, Grandma Betty’s matzoh stuffing and my mother-in-law’s turkey, cooked not a minute too long, I will not be missing Stokesay itself, however.

Although, if the kids fidget halfway through the meal, it sure would be nice to send them to the dungeon to play, at least until the dessert arrives.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Can't Believe It's Not Better...

…for you to consume I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter fat-free spray, the way water, fruit and other things consumed in high volume are good for you.

And, I can’t believe the high volume of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter I actually consume.

I can’t believe it…and yet I can’t stop it.

My name is Jorie, I am an ICBINB-aholic.

This, in fact, is my most unique distinguishing trait. Attempting to describe me, you could refer to me as, “the girl with the dark hair,” but there are lots of girls with dark hair; you could refer to me as, “the mom with two kids” but there are lots of moms with two kids. Say, “the one who puts I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray on her oatmeal, cous cous, saltines, pumpkin pie filling and apples” and yep, anyone who knows me will know who you’re talking about.

Why do I ingest so much of it, I’m often asked. I don’t know why…I just know I can’t stop. I gave up alcohol and caffeine during my pregnancies, but my kids probably have yellow liquid soybean oil coursing through their veins.

Another question I hear a lot, especially among the calorie-conscious: Do I really think it’s “fat free” when I go through one bottle a week? Nope, along with the rest of you scale stalkers, I’ve seen the post on claiming that one bottle of ICBINB has about 900 calories.

I’d love to be skinny—seriously, I’m like Bridget Jones on steroids when it comes to yo-yo dieting. But while I can give up carbs, Alfredo sauce and mayonnaise, I can’t deprive myself of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. (Which is why I can believe I’m not thinner.)

It’s not just the taste: vaguely salty, somewhat buttery, but not in the rich, filling way real butter is buttery.

It’s certainly not the aftertaste: pure chemicals.

It’s the sound. Spritz-spritz.

And it's the history. I’ve been spritz-spritzing for years, after all, since it came out in the peak of the lowfat madness of the 1990s. This sound is actually what my husband has awoken to for more than seven years now, as I’ve found I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to be quite a tasty addition to a plain bowl of Quaker Oats, Farina, wheat toast or even eggs. If I didn’t spritz-spritz it, he’d probably oversleep, so much is it a part of our daily routines.

One day, I’ll do it. I’ll kick the habit once and for all. I’ll give up on yellow chemicals and start eating my food naked.

But it’s a bit early in the year for New Year’s Resolutions. I can’t get through Thanksgiving without my ICBINB spray. So until then…


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"I'm not a giant, Mommy."

I truly savored my kids' baby days. Those squishy legs and arms, softly swaddled in Dreft-scented rompers. The way they'd sleep with their little tushies raised in the air, legs tucked under, and wake up from naps with their fine downy curls damp from sweat.

(Okay, I'd better cut it out, before I find myself in the throes of my third bout with baby fever; right now, at least, we really like our guest room strictly as a room for guests.)

As Jacob and Rebecca head further and further away from babyhood, the one thing that will occasionally inspire me to look away from their baby pictures is their fresh, surprising and often hilarious take on the world. Aside from a few isolated incidents (get me drunk and one day I will tell you about how the Culligan Man found my daughter, shortly after she learned how to walk, waddling down our street alone) surely they weren't so funny before they could talk like little grown-ups.

A few tidbits from Jacob, who at age 5 (and a half! he'd be quick to remind me), tackles some pretty weighty topics ranging from competitive birthdays to love to morality:

On why he's excited for Rebecca's upcoming birthday, "After Rebecca's birthday, I won't be the third one in line to have a birthday next! I'll be in second place!" The poor kid's been waiting since April 23 (his birthday is the 22nd) to be first in line again for a birthday.

When asked what he ate for lunch: "Bad news. I didn't eat my lunch because it was a ham sandwich."

The school cafeteria's offerings often get Jacob talking. On his first day of school what he wanted to talk about most--much more exciting than the new school, new teacher, new friends or even his new Superman backpack--was the experience of buying his first school lunch: "Mommy, it was like a giant chicken finger, but it was a big circle, and it was in between two pieces of two big round pieces of bread. It was called a chicken patty sandwich, and I loved it!"

He doesn't just care about his own food--he wants to make sure we're all happy with what we eat. We were just at an ice cream parlor and I ordered the fat free coffee frozen yogurt. Jacob asked me, "Is that your favorite kind of ice cream, Mommy?" Looking longingly at his full-fat rocky road, I admitted, "Not really." He said, "But you're a mommy and mommies LOVE coffee! Try it again, I know you will love it."

On good vs. evil: "Who is worse, Haman, King Pharoah or King George? I know Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but King George made everyone pay taxes."

On the rule preventing siblings from marrying: "But why can't I marry Rebecca? I don't love any other kid as much as I love her. I will miss her if I have to marry someone else."

On why he wanted Obama to be the next President of the United States, "He's probably better at sports than McCain, because McCain looks like he's really old. Plus, he's on the blue team and blue is my favorite color."

Rebecca, meanwhile, is quite a chatterbox at age 3.

She's very concerned about emotions these days. She always asks me, "Mommy, you happy?" If I answer in a less than emotional voice, "yes," she corrects me: "No, say yessssssssssss!"

I was squinting over the New Yorker recently (I know, it might be time for reading glasses) and Rebecca asked me, "Why are you a little bit mad at your book?"

It just cracks me up to see the quirky way she strings words together. Like when I told her to wash her hands after using the bathroom, and there was no stepstool in front of the sink: "I'm not a giant, Mommy."

Trying to explain that the episode of"Little Einsteins" she was watching had recently ended: "Little Einsteins is only a little bit over."

Staring at her fingers: "This one's the Mommy finger," pointing to her middle finger, "and this one's the baby" (the pinkie.) [So next time you flip someone the bird, what you're really saying, according to my daughter, is 'your mama.']

* * *

Now, it's not always "Kids Say the Dardnest Things" in our house. Occasionally it's "Oh Where Did Mommy Leave the Duct Tape" like when Jacob asked me, "Mommy, do you have the biggest tushy in our whole family?" Or Rebecca, in a public restroom with me, "You a big girl, too, Mommy! You not wear Pull-Ups either, you have big girl panties like me!"

But then there are other moments, when I'm lying in bed with Rebecca, reading her her favorite bedtime book (the exceedingly politically correct "No Hitting" by Karen Katz, which teaches children to scribble on their art pads instead of writing on their big brother's homework and to lick a fruit pop when they have the urge to scornfully stick out their tongues at their parents).

Petting my arm like she's petting a dog, she says softly, "I like you, Mommy." Which, when she says it, is seriously more moving than the most profusely passionate declarations of love. Jacob turns me to mush as well when he says, "Chocolate pudding!? Wow, you really ARE the best mommy in the world! And, I really like your nail polish."

I guess that's payback for all those sleepless nights and diaper blow outs. Which, as much as I'd love to hop into a time machine once again hold my kids when they were squishy-limbed infants, I can't say I miss all that much.