I am in no position to dispense advice this week. I’m writing this to you with my right wrist in a brace because I typed at a dumb angle for two hours straight yesterday and now I have tennis elbow despite never ever having played “tennis” in my entire life. I don’t want to cook anything, cooking is dumb and for suckers. I can’t believe my flesh prison is doing this to me four months before I turn 30, existence is meaningless, etc.
When I’m in this mood, reclining on my divan (couch) in my satin smoking jacket (ancient robe) and slippers (slippers), I like to make myself what I call Snack Dinner, or Charcuterie for Bums.
Charcuterie for Bums is every snack food I can get my hands on that has some modicum of protein or nutritional value and doesn’t involve actual cooking. This includes but is not limited to: apples and peanut butter, cheese and crackers, carrots and ranch, slim jims, pretzels, salami, etc. The only thing I will turn the stove on for is popcorn.
Quitters never win, but sometimes winners make the entire package of pasta out of sheer noodle-based gluttony and then, well, what are you going to do with half a pound of perfectly good cacio e pepe? Throw it out? Give up on your dreams?
Fritatta is something I can never spell right on the first try, but it just means “fried” in Italian. The Pinterest People are posting recipes for “easy frittata” that start with frying bacon and wilting spinach and chopping healthy things like butternut squash and beets and arugula, but to me a frittata is always the answer to “how can I de-sog this pasta”, and also “how can I make something tasty in 15 minutes or less without trying that hard.”
Fritattas where you have to do a bunch of work are, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb. I’m not chopping extra stuff or finishing anything under the broiler to make what is essentially a glorified omelette. Fritattas are about two things: the cheap thrill of successfully flipping an entire pan of leftover pasta, and elevating your sad soggy leftovers into a crispy treat.
As far as I’m concerned, EVERYONE should have to account for their pizza sins. I’m sick of just comparing New York and Chicago – why is no one yelling at Detroit, where they’ve been selling what is essentially defiled focaccia since the dawn of time with seemingly no consequences?
The UK’s pizza landscape is a blasted heath full of wet, flappy crust and weird tiny sweet peppers and something called the “American Hot”.
Their “deep-dish” only comes frozen, sold by a company called “Chicago Town” (EXCUSE ME, WHERE?). This is, chillingly, “The UK’s #1 Frozen Pizza Brand!”, a fact which fills my soul with enough terror and pity to make an entire Greek chorus die barfing. (“In Chicago Town [again, where?], we don’t just make pizza, we go to town on it!”).
I have seen one sit-down deep-dish restaurant here, in Shepherd’s Bush. It was called “Chicago Grill”, and when I looked at it reality blinked in and out like I was in the Upside Down.
It is for this reason that I have decided Chicago-style pizza should immediately be submitted for protection under UNESCO World Heritage standards, like Champagne, and every other place that sells it should be forced to call it “big dish pizza”.
On a random Tuesday during my first year in the UK I walked into a grocery store CHOCK FULL of panicked dads cleaning the place out of Nutella and yelling into their phones about “which KIND of flour, Helen?!” Apparently, here, Mardi Gras is Pancake Day. This is one of the essentially useless but culturally vital aspects of British life my mother failed to introduce me to, along with The Wombles and Eurovision. There’s an entire day here devoted to pancakes, and it’s this coming Tuesday, and also pancakes are crepes, and, at least in my experience, the dads have to make them.
British people are now trying to make American-style fluffy pancakes happen, which is cute, but they’re running into the same problem that’s plagued America for years: pancakes are deceptively tricky to do well.
Most American restaurant pancakes are deeply tragic: insipidly sweet, gummy, and/or dry. Because pancakes are simple in principle, people think they’re simple to make, which means most people eat and make mediocre pancakes as a matter of course. And listen, Bisquik is fine, if you are camping or otherwise deprived of the trappings of civilization. Otherwise, give pancakes a try from scratch. I promise you can do better than Bisquik.
Were you ever kind of jealous of the boy in Matilda who had to eat an entire chocolate cake with his hands in front of the whole school as a punishment? I know I was.
I used to take every chocolate option at the sundae bar – ice cream, sauce, M&Ms, even chocolate sprinkles. Chocolate sprinkles: what sadist thought those up? You’re just gonna make these things brown and pretend it’s chocolate? Are you kidding me?
Making Stuff Brown and Pretending it’s Chocolate: The Story of All Chocolate Cake Everywhere. You can’t stop me now, I’m already up on my soapbox.
The dominant cultural narrative is that chocolate cake is the best, the richest, the most decadent. Restaurants are selling huge slabs of Seven-Layer Death By Chocolate Devil’s Food Indulgence cake, with ganache filling the approximate taste and texture of brown shoe polish. I have seen grown adults take dry little square nubs of brownie from the spread in the breakroom, just to feel something during an all-day meeting, even if that “something” is disappointment. (It was me, I took the Sadness Brownie.) Red velvet cake was a trend: that only happens in a culture deeply divorced from what actual chocolate should taste like.*
Think about the chocolate cakes that you like best. Answers on the board, please, Family Feud style:
Flourless chocolate cake
Chocolate lava cake
Some kind of cream cheese brownie situation?
Flourless chocolate cake is just a mousse on steroids, and I’m not mad at that, but it doesn’t count. My grandad makes a chocolate whiskey gateau that’s essentially a large creamy slab of alcoholic truffle filling, with ladies’ fingers stuck on the outside for modesty’s sake. Is it perfect? Yes. Is it cake? Uhhhh…
Chocolate lava cakes – or fondant cakes as they’re called here – only work because you get the tender comfort of cake wrapped around the gooey richness of a chocolate fudge sauce. They’re hot, they’re tasty, and they’re disqualified: you can’t defend chocolate cake when your favorite kind is 70% sauce.
Cream cheese brownies are amazing, but 1. Brownies aren’t cake and 2. They’re good because of the contrast (we’ll be coming back to that).
It makes sense! The essence of chocolate, which is rich, luxurious intensity, is diluted by the essence of cake, which is light, tender delicacy. This relationship is just doomed to fail. These two love each other too hard and their child… sucks. There’s a reason the best brownie recipe in the world only calls for ¼ cup of flour.
But why were we promised a perfect chocolate cake that just doesn’t exist? Where does that leave us? Where is the rich, dark, soil-damp chocolate cake of our Augustus Gloop dreams?
Fried chicken is one of those foods that you’re just straight-up “not allowed” to have as an adult, according to bullshit diet culture. You learn to convince yourself it’s not that good. Fried chicken is for children, drunk college students, and people stuck at bowling alleys.
You can have chunks of over-breaded industrial protein composite, aka “boneless wings” (they’re NUGGETS, just call them what they are!!!) while “watching the game”, or you can have an artisanally-priced sandwich with too many garnishes and breading that slips right off that greasy thigh like a stocking off of an overheated lady at a brothel in the Old West.
What is even the point. This is why everyone gets all riled up when the good chicken sandwiches come from people who suck (Chick-Fil-A).
The best fried chicken is, of course, homemade. Having a Southerner in the family means that all of a sudden you have access to an entire repository of new powers, like being able to make fried chicken from scratch. This is why I love my brother-in-law Dave’s fried chicken: you just cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts (yeah, I know, spare me your gasps of horror) into tendo-sized strips, coat them with milk, egg, and flour, and fry them until they’re “brown enough” (his words), which usually means just a hint browner than golden. Boom. Done. Good.
I don’t want to hear it about how you’re only supposed to fry bone-in chicken. That is terrifying and I do not want to, even though I have seen it done well with my own eyes (at the best house party I’ve ever been to, because said party featured a beautiful handsome man frying bone-in chicken for everybody because he “didn’t want to talk to anyone.” Marriage material. Anyway.)
Frying stuff in a vat of hot oil is scary enough, and I’m not here to tell you the “right” way to cook. I’m here to tell you how I cook. I want you to be able to have fried chicken as god intended: hot, fresh, light, crispy, with the Right Amount of breading and a Minimal Amount of fuss.
Every person who has or ever has had a “functioning” uterus understands that there comes a point in your life when it becomes very clear that you are nothing but a soaked sponge held in the vice grip of cruel fate. You are merely a tragic bag of hormone-laced seawater being systematically wrung out like the sweaty gym towel of some uncaring god. You are both metaphorically being squeezed in the iron grip of and also punched in the gonads by that stupid giant steel fist statue they have in Detroit.
Cheer up, they tell you. It’s not so bad, they say. After all, what could possibly compare to the beautiful, mystical, earthy dignity of having your viscera vigorously pumped like a straining accordion in the meaty hands of a busker who thinks people tip by volume. It only happens every month!
But you did not come here to read about the cosmic injustice that is menstruation. This is, ostensibly, a food blog. “Gross”, you may be thinking to yourself. “Yuck. This is, as recipe preambles go, decidedly unappetizing.” And you would not be wrong.
But, as my insides are performing an orderly evacuation via their nearest emergency exit, I am here to extol to you the virtue of patience and to remind you that this blog is free. During the course of my current agonies, only two things adequately soothe: watching people die crunchily on various supernatural television soap operas, and meat sauce.
Well. Are we having fun yet? This week I feel, more than usual, like a bug smashed on the windshield of world events.
Usually the cure for stress is to take a bath or read a book on the couch. But sometimes all you want to do is whip your phone at the wall like a dodgeball, which is when you have to get up and take a walk.
Kierkegaard says there’s no bad mood a long walk can’t cure, and I also say this. Some weeks, though, you can’t go anywhere. Some weeks you get bee-booped by the government on your COVID app and you have to self-isolate for 14 days (I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine.)
So you find yourself wearing an apron over a nightgown over a hoodie over a different nightgown and thinking, “Yeah! This is what people wear! Let’s make some brioche.”
Sometimes you freak yourself out, and you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re going along, doing all the right things, going for walks and doing yoga and eating vegetables and it’s all fine, and then you go into a crowded corner store (that WASN’T crowded when you went in but then like 8 people showed up out of nowhere and the owner guy isn’t wearing a mask and oh God) and your whole equilibrium is fucked.
Other times, there’s a violent insurrection/coup attempt in the city where your sister lives and works and which is also the seat of your government. Cool.
There is a particular cake I turn to when everything is fucked, when your plans aren’t going according to plan. When you need both a pick-me-up and a sit-me-down. Meet coffee walnut cake.
I understand being intimidated by bread. Some doughs require you to have the patience of a saint, others need quick thinking and quicker hands, but all of them need you to have the courage of your convictions. Much like flipping a pancake, making bread only gets easier with practice.
In my humble o, there’s no better bread to practice on than this one. This recipe comes from a 70’s synagogue fundraiser cookbook that my parents got as a wedding gift. The page is marked in my mother’s perfect handwriting with a little star and the phrase “THIS ONE!”, because there are a billion different challah recipes in there. (No one wanted to be the Tzimmes Lady, apparently.)
Mum’s right, though. It is this one. This is the recipe.