The Incompetent Chef & the Legendary Hippo Cake

Last night, I cooked meat and I didn’t kill anyone.

The truth is that every time I cook with meat of any kind, I’m convinced that I am endangering someone’s life. When it comes to cooking, I am insecure, unconfident and a generally a klutz. It’s as if my hands turn into giant lumps, unable to coordinate, cut or stir with precision. Timing several items to be ready simultaneously causes me to break out in hives.

The fact that I am married to a professionally trained chef just makes matters worse. “Just make a roux,” he’ll suggest. Like I know how to make a roux and what you do with one? “That’s the wrong knife!” is a common complaint. Scuse me, it’s metal, it’s sharp, it cuts – so what is wrong with that? Also, I need to improve my stirring technique, apparently.

Unlike my husband who is very patient with me and who can whip up a gourmet meal in a jiffy without breaking a sweat, I need the following conditions in place to even attempt cuisine success:

  • A recipe to follow, preferably with 4 or less ingredients and steps
  • A timer – and plenty of time for mistakes and do-overs
  • No husband within 10 metres
  • Plenty of space for things to spill, get dropped, messed up
  • No children within 5 metres
  • Alcohol
  • Clorox wipes

Many of my cooking miss-haps are now the stuff of legends among family and friends. This one, for example, has become fondly known as the Hippo cake. (It was supposed to be a honey cake.)

The Hippo Cake

I guess only practice can make perfect, right? As long as I don’t kill anyone in the process.

Coffee or Wine?

Your dental hygienist knows a lot about you, I’ve discovered. During my first few years here in the US, when I was either single and partying, or dating my soon-to-be-fiance, or enjoying the life-before-kids times, my dental hygenist would often remark about the red wine stains on my teeth. “Hey, I’m young (ish) and having fun,” I’d retort. And yes, I’ll brush more thoroughly, I’d promise as she hacked away at the stains with her evil implements.

(On a side note, may I just say that dental hygiene here in the US has been a real revelation to me. Y’all are way more serious about having sparkly whites that we were/are back home in the UK. I now feel it a necessary part of my acceptance into American society to have remarkably white teeth. But I digress.)

Dental visits over the last eight years have painted a different story. In large part, because the red wine stains on my teeth have mostly been replaced with coffee stains. Strong, black coffee stains. My dental hygienist always points this out and then, with an almost nonchalant non-sequitur, asks “So, how old are the kids now?” She knows, she gets it.

The thing is, my relationship with red wine has changed. Flash back to 1997-2000, three glorious years living in France when the wine was abundant, cheap and good. I became more knowledgable about wine regions and my preferences but, quite frankly, if it was red and in my glass, I’d drink it. Lots of it. No matter how much it cost or where it came from. And then I went and married someone in the wine industry. My supply of good wine became perpetual! Hoorah! And I became better educated and much more picky and wines I like and wines I don’t.

And then I had kids.

Child birth will do strange things to your palette (among other things.) After kid #1 was born, I went off red wine altogether, much to the chagrin of the husband. Fortunately, after kid #2 “popped out” (hahahaha) my desire for wine slowly returned and, in the almost six consequential years, has remained. But with new terms and conditions, namely:

  • I only drink the wines I like
  • I can only drink when eating
  • No more than a glass and a half or I get heartburn and/or an upset stomach
  • There will be wine on Friday evenings when I crave it most—or else
  • Cheese = wine

On the flip side, my relationship with coffee has remained consistent. While red wine is a select pleasure, enhancing specific moments, coffee is my lifeline. I cannot start the day without coffee. It is the very first thing I think of the moment I awake. I cannot exist without a large steaming cup of strong black coffee within approx 10 mins of my neurones firing up.

I was pondering my absolute and profound need for coffee the other morning and comparing it to my relationship with red wine. If I had to, I wondered, which would I give up? The answer was quite simple. But, just to be sure, I thought I’d conduct a brief poll with a few of my Twitter and Facebook pals. So I lobbed the seemingly innocuous question out there. Within nanoseconds—maybe even less—I was met with a barrage of visceral reactions! Before I share them, here was the final count:

  • Votes to keep coffee: 5
  • Votes to keep wine: 7
  • Undecided: 4

But it was the comments that cracked me up the most, including:

Are you kidding?

Is nothing sacred?

What am I being threatened with?

If my world no longer included those things, it wouldn’t be much of a world 😉

I feel like this is a trick question somehow.

I don’t know this Samantha but I don’t trust her 😉

I plan on giving up both…shortly after I give up oxygen.

So, you, yes you over there sipping your Sunday morning coffee – which would you give up, if you had to: coffee or wine?

P.S. Get your teeth cleaned.

My Avocado Dilemma

I woke up super early this morning. Actually I was awakened by my five-year who was evidently dreaming about something that didn’t work out for her and was crying out “I want it my way,” in her sleep. Well, don’t we all, sweetheart? After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep, my mind racing through the never-ending to-do list. So up I got and went downstairs.

As my coffee was brewing, my eye was drawn to an avocado sitting alone on the windowsill, where we had placed it about five days earlier to catch the sun and ripen. I gave it a squeeze.

Tell me, what is better than a perfectly ripe avocado?

But then dilemma set in. What to do with this solo avocado in the next 24 hours before its splendid green turns to mushy brown?

I figure I have two options – one involving my stomach and one involving my face.

First, the face. Winter is a bitch to my pathetic British skin. Put simply, my face is falling off, no matter how much water I drink, moisturizer I slather or how long the humidifier runs. I’m thinking this avocado could easily be mixed with some honey, oatmeal or yogurt to make an unctuous face mask that might salvage my skin. After all, it’s Friday and I’m working from home so there’s no-one to notice how strange I might look, sitting at my desk resembling a green monster. Fortunately, no Skype meetings today and hopefully no-one will FaceTime me!

But then again, there’s my tummy. All the different, glorious ways I could eat this delightful avocado! Maybe I could just slice it in half and drizzle it with the heavenly dark chocolate balsamic vinegar I recently bought? Or maybe I could squirt some lime on it and  grill it, loaded with cheese (recipe here.) Or, or …

Choices, choices.

Happy Friday folks, hope there’s a perfectly ripe avocado in your future.

There are Two Kinds of People …

Those that like anchovies and those that don’t. Which are you?

And while we are talking anchovies, I have to tell you that they are on my top ten of foods I love. What are the other nine, I hear you clamor? Well OK then, I’ll tell you.

  1. Anchovies
  2. Bacon
  3. Cheese (any cheese, I mean it…. well, actually maybe not smoked cheeses.)
  4. Avocado
  5. Olives
  6. Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut
  7. Pumpkin anything
  8. Cheesecake
  9. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
  10. My Mum’s trifle

Truth is, though, I’ll eat pretty much anything. I love to eat. I cannot understand those people who don’t enjoy their food, who think of eating as a necessary duty. In fact, there are only 5 foods I won’t eat. What are they, you ask? A rather strange and eclectic list that includes:

  1. Licorice
  2. Watermelon
  3. Borscht
  4. Aubergine (that’s eggplant for you American folks)
  5. Goulash

Bon appetit!

My Pumpkin Obsession

I am obsessed with pumpkins. Not the whole orange ones that people here in New England decorate their porches with come October, but pretty much any food item that is made with pumpkin. This will not be a big surprise to my family and friends. In fact, to quote a friend:

There is probably not a Brit alive who likes pumpkin as much as you do!

Fall is the favo(u)rite season of many a folk and especially here in New England when the leaves turn incredible shades of orange and red, the sun glows a little stronger in the sky, and the temperature starts to dip as the air turns crisp. The humidity in which we’ve drowned all summer disappears and with it, the challenges of frizzy hair. I too appreciate these things but for me fall promises one thing – PUMPKIN! – and I am always ridiculously thrilled when this time of year comes around again.

It’s rather ironic that my first encounter with anything pumpkin happened half a lifetime ago in 1986 when I was an au pair in Paris. Now, France is not the typical place for anyone to find pumpkin pie, I know. But I was actually working for an American family at the time and they were celebrating Thanksgiving. And so began my pumpkin love affair.

Fast forward to 2000 and the opportunity that I had to move stateside with my job. There were positions for me either in San Francisco or Boston. I had already been to, and very much liked, San Francisco but Boston – and the whole East Coast thing – beckoned. There were many reasons why I decided on Boston – a shorter flight back to London, proximity to my brother’s family in Pennsylvania. Not to mention Ally McBeal, because she was the only real reference point I had for how life in Boston would truly be and look like. Reeses Peanut Butter Cups were another very persuasive reason for moving here. But what won out was the knowledge that, come November, there would be pumpkin pie. And pumpkin bread. And pumpkin muffins.

Yum.

Then one bright and sunny late September day about eight years later, while the hubby and I were enjoying a rare weekend away from the kids in Newport, Rhode Island, we treated ourselves to a scoop or two of some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Pumpkin cheesecake ice cream, to be precise. HOLY COW! Now, I’d always loved cheesecake. I’m ok with ice cream, not a huge fan. But, the trifecta of cheesecake, ice cream and pumpkin together and boy oh boy, sparks flew! Cupid had struck.

This experience kindled what has become a seasonal quest to taste as many different varieties of pumpkin ice cream in order to verify that Ben & Jerry’s flavo(u)r is, indeed, nirvana. I’ve tried several varieties that have come close, like Edy’s and a homegrown version which was totally delish from the Milky Way Farm somewhere in PA but alas too far away for regular consumption. Trade Joe’s brand disappointed, as did the pumpkin ice cream made by a local purveyor. I’ve yet to try Toscanini’s so have to take @eric_andersen‘s word that it’s good.

I also have to totally give kudos to Ben & Jerry’s social media responsiveness as I’ve been haranguing them regularly for updates as to when this season’s limited batch will be distributed and in stores. I may have to bulk purchase this year. Hey, if you can buy a case of wine, why not a case of ice cream?

Anyhoo, in the meantime, I’m making do with this.

And this.

Until I can get this!

Honey Cake & Hypocrisy

As I write this, a honey cake bakes in the oven. The air is sweet, fragrant with notes of syrup, spice and ginger.

This cake is more than just the do-over of my last, rather  disastrous and entertaining, attempt at baking a honey cake a few years back (fondly known by friends and family as the “Hippo Cake” or the “Georgia O’Keefe cake – see picture below.)

This cake is my tenuous, perhaps feeble, nod to my heritage. Traditionally baked by Jewish mothers around the world at Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – the honey cake represents the sweetness that we wish for one another for the new year ahead.

I do not celebrate Rosh Hashanah in any other way; I have not attended High Holiday services at shul (temple) for almost 20 years now, a personal choice I made with conviction and a heavy dose of guilt. Ah yes, the guilt. At this very moment, my far-flung family is together, with their loved ones, marking this special day. They are not a particularly religious bunch – in London, in Philadelphia, in Australia – but they take the time to be together to celebrate the New Year. For them, I think it’s less about the prescribed prayers and more about stepping out of the routine and business of the every day, to embrace being together, to recognize the passing of a year and to welcome in the next with optimism and honey cake.

If I was with them at this time of year, as maybe I should be, I’d also be celebrating.

But I am not with them. So instead, I bake honey cake – my mother’s recipe – and say hello again to feelings of hypocrisy and homesickness.

The Infamous Hippo Cake

Honey Cake 2012 – better, right?

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