Friday, December 16, 2011

Yes, Benjamin, There is Possibly Not a Santa Claus

The gig is up. Or could be. It's hard to say. After dinner, Doug calls out to me from where he is putting Benjamin to bed. I trudge upstairs begrudgingly (Why can't he put the boy to bed by himself? Doesn't he know I'm doing the dishes/checking Facebook/playing a round of Angry Birds: Seasons?) until I see Doug's sad little pout at the top of the stairs. "Benjamin would like to ask us a question," he says to me, in a loud mock-conversational tone that parents use on each other when they're trying to impart hidden information.

I enter the bedroom. Benjamin is under the covers, but rolling around. He's not nearly sleepy.

"You're Santa. Right?" he asks me, point-blank.

Ahh, this conversation. "Why do you say that?" I ask, in that loud mock-conversational tone parents use on their children when they're trying to buy time.

"Because how can Santa Claus go to everyone? It doesn't make sense. So you guys are Santa Claus, right?"

I look at Doug. It's about time. Ten years old. About a third of the kids in his class, I figure, already know the awful truth, and most of the rest are on the verge. To be honest, I'd be happy if the gig were up; it would save a lot of time on subterfuge. I  hedge, asking him the question we've used several times before: "Do you really want to know?"

"Just tell me!" He's already over the cliff, there's no turning back.

We look at each other and then at Ben. We nod. "I knew it!" he yells triumphantly. But, almost immediately, I see a slight widening of his eyes, an inward stare as he processes his new-found knowledge. "So you guys give me the presents and stuff?"


"You eat the cookie!"

I shrug and nod sadly.

Repercussions begin seeping into his brain, supplanting the thrill of discovery. "But... it can't be true."

"Why?" Doug asks.

"Because... you guys don't lie to me."

Ooooo. Ouch. I want to point out that we didn't actually LIE, that if he read the transcripts of our conversations re: Santa he would see that we have sidestepped every direct Santa identity question with an adroitness that is positively Clinton-esque. Comebacks like, "Why do you think that?" and "How could I be Santa?" and "Is that a Pokemon under the table?" have always kept us technically lie-free, but such parsing of intent is not going to wash, here.

Doug fields the question as I die a little inside. "We don't lie. But we play games. Parents play this game with their kids on Christmas."

I recover. "To make it more magical, more special."

But something has short-circuited in poor Ben's brain. He's sitting with Leonardo DiCaprio in "Inception" and the café is blowing up around him. And then, another dread revelation prompts him to blurt out another question: "Are you the TOOTH FAIRY?"

Oh dear. Benj has a long and intimate relationship with the Tooth Fairy. Really, she's more alive to him that Santa. They've exchanged pithy correspondence (written by Doug on fancy artisan paper). 
He knows her name, for God's sake: Edith. When Ben lost a canine at his grandma's in Illinois, he prepped doll furniture for Edith so she could rest after the flight from California.

I begin to see the downside of our creative and extensive lying.

I give him a frown smile and say, "What do you think?"

But it's too much. He's gone too far. A panoply of iconic holiday characters fall, like dominos, in front of his eyes. And he can't lose Edith."No, I know you're not Santa Claus."


"Because... you're not!  How could you get presents here when we're in Hawaii? And... you're not Santa. I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in Santa Claus."

"Okay... if you want to believe in him, that's great," Doug says.

He's backtracking furiously. "Yes, I believe in him because the reindeer, they're real, Donner and Blitzen and Dasher... and his handwriting, I know your handwriting and Daddy's and he has different handwriting."

We've had our friend Sherrie wrap the presents (with different, new paper), arrange them under the tree and write the notes all these years. Damn my attention to detail.

We nod, as if he's made a reasonable request. "Okay," we say, and edge out the door, leaving him teetering on the brink of discovery, and maturity. He's pulled back because, more than losing this iconic character (and said character's gifties), I think he realizes that giving up Santa (and Edith) will bring him that much closer to growing up, a place where, at this point, he firmly does not wish to venture into. He already knows, instinctively, that entering into adult reality means losing—I don't think he'd call in innocence— the possibilities of childhood.

Edith has saved Santa for another year. Maybe.

Ben has since dropped the subject. He talks about Santa and it's not ironic, or sly. It's as if we never had the conversation. He's willing to suspend his disbelief for at least another Christmas. Which is fine with us. 

After all, he's got about 15 teeth to go.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Baking With Disaster

I almost entered into a baker's hell this weekend; you know, that particular lower circle where you're asked to make a birthday cake for a 40th birthday party and you spend hours on a new recipe and then find that it's becoming an utter catastrophe and you might have to start over from scratch and then you discover your cake shrinking just as your find out that almost double the amount of people are coming and you just might have to impale yourself on your offset spatula? That hell. Don't worry, it won't be a horror story; there will be a feel-good ending to this post. Eventually.

Why did I choose a recipe I had never done before? I violated one of the basic rules of baking for others: NEVER MAKE A NEW RECIPE FOR A SPECIAL EVENT (actually, this is one rule I break regularly; you'd think I would have learned). I decided on a Marquis au Chocolat, which is a chilled chocolate mousse cake, because the birthday gal was a lover of chocolate AND a Francophile, what could be more perfect? And, no baking! Here, this is what a Marquis looks like:

Yeah, well, what kind of parchment paper
makes that lovely cross-hatch design,
huh? HUH?
Notice the precise, clean lines; the delicate touch required for this simple-looking dessert. Precise & Delicate: two words which have no point of reference in the James Sie world of baking. Haphazard & Sledgehammer-like— that's more my style.

Still, I forge ahead, oblivious to my own limitations. I use a recipe from "Pure Chocolate" by Fran Bigelow— a cookbook I've used many times, but with varied results. I mean, I love all the gorgeous recipes in there and want to make them all, but I think it's one of those cookbooks that pre-supposes a finesse that comes from years of trial and error. Because, as my sister Allison pointed out, baking is a lot like woodshop. It takes a lot of dowels of wood on a lathe before you can come up with a perfect candlestick holder. You shouldn't expect to be able to figure out all the nuances on your first go. Yet here I am, melting my chocolate and separating eggs. Hubris, thy name is Marquis Au Chocolat! 

Once you make the mousse, after all the whipping and folding, whipping and folding (and an unfortunate over-processing of egg yolks and chocolate which threatens to granulate and break but which I manage to save with some hot whipping cream) you pour it into a loaf pan which has been lined with two sheets of parchment paper that have an overhang which you will use to lift out the cake after it's been chilled. Unfortunately, I've got parchment on a roll, which is hard to cut precisely, and a sloped glass loaf pan. "Eh, it'll be fine," I think, trying to fit the curling paper into the pan, "It's just chilling in there, what could go wrong?"

Here's what could go wrong:
What have you done to my baby??
The next morning I take out the cake, and, oh, it's a poor, poor thing. The wrinkles and folds in the parchment paper has created a brick of sadness. It's not an elegant birthday cake, it's a birthday TURD. Allison puts it more colorfully, if not more kindly: "It's like a literal Yuletide log, like after a big Yuletide feast." Yes, thanks for that, Ali. Oh, the cake looks like it should be floating in formaldehyde. Cutting the edges away is not an option; there are some deep gashes and it's too little as it is. I stare at it in horror, much like Mia Farrow does at the end of Rosemary's baby. What can I do with my runty chocolate abomination? 

I'm paralyzed. I could make another cake. I HAVE to make another cake. I'm Julianne Moore and I'm going to throw the cake in the trash and go to some hotel and take pills while water washes my bed away and Philip Glass will JUST NOT STOP with those violins. Surprisingly, it's Doug who comes to my rescue and talks me back from the edge. He quietly takes the knife from my hand, wets it in warm water and starts gently, slowly, smoothing the sides of the cake. Where the hell did he learn to do that?  Being mousse, it's quite malleable. Soon, he's ironed out most of the egregious slashes and has even mortared up some of the dents. It looks much better:

Still, what to do to make it, well, presentable? There's no frosting to hide behind. A Marquis' strength lay in its simplicity and elegance. I have a boatload of options in my head, but no clear path. After about fifteen minutes of babbling ("I could do cocoa powder, or chocolate shavings, what do you think about topping it with a cloud of whipped cream? Raspberries?") Doug is clearly at his limit for culinary empathy. You can tell by the glazed look in his eyes. Luckily, there's another ally. I hop into my X-wing and dart over to the Dagobah System to seek advice from a Jedi Master; or, less floridly, I send a message via Facebook to my friend Dawn Bach. 
"Help me, Obi-Dawn Kenobi,
you're my only hope."

I know Dawn as an actress and a musician, but I've discovered, via Facebook photos, that she's a wonder at fondant and cake design. Don't know is she sells them or gives them away or stuffs them in an attic with her embalmed mother but if precision and elegance is what I need, she's the Master. 

Luckily, she seems to be as happily obsessive about baking as I. After about twenty messages back and forth, she comes up with the idea of toasted almonds strewn at the base and some raspberries for color. Strewn...? THAT'S my style! I can strew! And then I think of my sister's scatological log comment, and  it clicks...

It was my "make it work" moment. I got very concentrated, and careful. I went with a more rustic woodland theme. Some shaved chocolate, some toasted almonds, and voila:
Doug made me lose the grape leaves:
"All Top Chefs need to learn to edit."

I guess it takes a village to make a cake. And it reminds me of another essential baking rule: YOU CAN ALWAYS COVER UP YOUR MISTAKES. Especially if you're being rustic.

When I got there it turned out to be more like seventeen people, up from 10-12. I didn't know if this pound cake-size cake would stretch that far, but, by god, it did! A small half-slice, a dollop of hazelnut whipped cream dotted with chocolate pieces and raspberries and a half-Pirouline lain in between; it was more than enough. There were even a few slices left! Most important, everyone loved the taste, which, in the end, is what really matters. 

"And to think I was going to throw you away!
Now Mommy loves you!"
I averted catastrophe, but if you'd like to see those who did not, check out Cake Wrecks, a VERY entertaining site. And if you want to be truly creeped out by a cake (I mean American-Horror-Story-kind-of-creeped-out) check out this icky baby and especially this one (don't say I didn't warn you!).

Now, I just need to make about 19 more of these puppies, and I'll be able to get it right!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Dinner with Two Hot Tamales

It's official: I've become a Top Chef whore.
I watch all the incarnations: "Top Chef," "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and "Top Chef: Masters"; if there was a "Top Chef: Reheating Lean Cuisines" I'd probably program that into my DVR as well. But, I swear, I've gleaned many useful directives from these shows. Contrast salty and sweet. Transform mistakes into inspiration. Don't add popcorn to a lamb dish. And never get thrown under the bus, if you can help it. I would never have known about this common public transportation hazard, had I not watched "Top Chef"!

Taking advantage of my residence in a major American city, I've taken my obsession to a new level: attending cooking classes taught by "Top Chef" luminaries. So far it's been three: a class by Fabio Viviani, the charming, English-mangling Italian alumnus of "Top Chef," and two classes headlined by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the self-proclaimed Too Hot Tamales and Top Chef Masters. These are demo classes, meaning that for an all-inclusive price you get a meal and drinks while watching the chefs prepare the food you're eating. The audience is divided up between serious foodies and celebrity chef groupies. Predominantly female, with a smattering of gay men and reluctant husbands. The restaurant is always packed.

These classes are as much about entertainment as instruction. There's a reason we are sitting here at these restaurants instead of getting our hands dirty in a "Sur La Table" cooking class: we want the personality. We've spent time with these people on the screen: we've experienced the heartbreak of Fabio's failed "hambooger"; we've cheered the caramel-filled churro of Mary Sue. And, most exciting— we get to actually taste the food we've heretofore only viewed and salivated over on television.

The atmosphere of the classes are in synch with the individual style of each chef. They are very much the personalities you've seen on the screen; or, rather, they know very well the personnas they've created, and how to enlarge them for an audience.

Fabio, teaching at his restaurant Firenze 
Osteria in Toluca Lake, is unfailingly charming, casual and apparently hung-over. He demystifies risottos and sauces, scoffs at recipes and teaches very much the way an old-world Italian mamma might: a pinch of this, a handful of that; if your hand is smaller, a hand and a half. His insouciance is his charm, and you come away feeling like you could really make these dishes without a recipe.

Mary Sue & Susan are old pros, and it shows: in their casual but lightning fast technique; the seamless way they can work (and talk) over each other; the way they can push that food out. Their classes are at their flagship restaurant Border Grill in downtown L.A. Upon entering the old "Ciudad" space, you're presented with a margarita, and it feels very much like you're joining a party, with two very gracious and loquacious hosts. Susan is warm, funny and constantly digressive; Mary Sue is a little quieter but sly, and no less opinionated. She is also hung over (do all chefs drink like fish?).

They've got decades of experience together and miles of fascinating stories to tell, and if you've heard some of them from a previous class, you don't mind, they're so engagingly told. With all their banter you can't believe they'll get through the instruction, but somehow (with the help of a very attentive manager/producer) at the end of the two hours they've gotten through the menu. The last class was pre-Thanksgiving, and we learned how to make a complex turkey mole and an incredibly simple but flavorful kabocha squash soup that I've since made several times. The most recent class was also holiday-themed, and I've got many recipes I'm going to be trying out this Christmas, including a spinach pomegranate salad, a cheese-filled date with bacon wrapped around that is to die for, and a pear/cranberry crisp. They also prepared a spicy shrimp cocktail, Yucatan pork with shake salsa, a couple of simple sides plus a very festive cranberry Manhattan cocktail with brandied cranberries. You can't help but fall in love with these two. 

In both restaurants, you get a distinctive taste of what it must be like to be a celebrity chef; namely, the amount of hustle that goes into running a culinary fiefdom. Fabio's hawking for Bertoli and Domino's pizza and Michelin Tires, for all I know. He's also got a cooking app which I got mainly because, well, I thought he'd be so disappointed if I didn't. He's happy to pose for photos but doesn't want you saying something nasty about him on Facebook. The Red Hot Tamales are constantly shilling just about everything: the cookbooks, the coffee, the pepper/salt mills, the Spanish paprika, all for sale at the bar, book signing to follow. It is charming and self-deprecating shilling, but shilling nonetheless. There seems to be no rest for even two such established icons. 
My sister-in-law and her hubby got to
schmooze with Fabio last year.
There's such a remarkably thin barrier between these chefs and their customers. I imagine it's a symbiotic relationship; with so many new restaurants popping up every day it's important to create loyalty, to get the butts in the seats. And I'm happy to be the remora clinging to these culinary sharks. You get something from watching the pros in action that can't really be gleaned from any cookbook. It's the little nuances, the way they cook.  Observing just how Fabio throws ingredients into the pot, having him show you exactly how the risotto looks when it's ready. Having Mary Sue tell you why she loves sherry vinegar over balsamic, why they love their Takayuki knives (which they don't even sell!) and being able to hear the swish swish of Susan sharpening her knives on the whetting stone. When Mary Sue grated ginger over a cheesecloth and then gathered the cheesecloth together and wrung ginger juice over a bowl I gasped so audibly she looked over and smiled. 

Cooking class: $75. 
Parking: $5. 
Imagining yourself an apprentice to a Top Chef?: Priceless.

Friday, November 25, 2011


First of all, Doug is not carrying around a little joey in his gut. That's just silly. You look just fine, darling.  Just fine. Now grab another piece of pumpkin pecan pie and come to bed. Don't forget the whipped cream.

The day began with military precision. Counters cleared, dishes put away, utensils at the ready. Stel and I hastened everyone away from the kitchen and made them eat breakfast out. Turkey out of the brine, and... into the oven. The race begins! Dinner rolls shaped and proofed. Mis en place arranged. And then, an eerie calm descended. With so many of the dishes already prepared and ready for final heating, all was quiet on the western front.
The troops are assembled, ready for deployment. 
A quick Scrabble game during a lull.

We had some deviled eggs to prep, some green beans to trim, but no major cooking until the turkey came out of the oven. It was odd, like we were in the trenches, waiting for the battle to begin.

"The final breath before the plunge..."

Three hours later, the thermometer reads 165. Show time. Even then, there's no major crazy running around like a turkey with its head... you know. The gravy is easy to make since the base is already done. Stel sautées the green beans. Casserole dishes get shuttled in and out of the oven. I carve the turkey. Cranberry sauce gets unmolded. The table is beautiful. We made it.

Rolls? Not so hard!

The surprise hit: NYT Mashed Potato Casserole

Desserts on the way to decimation.

And yet... my plate is piled high with fabulous food but as I raise a fork I can't help but feel it's all a little anticlimactic. A  week of work, culminating in a plate of food. Really? What meal could possibly not disappoint with such expectation? It is, after all, just food. 

Ah, I have to remind myself. It's not just about the food. It's about the process, and the intent. It's like those sand mandalas created by Buddhist monks: painstaking and temporary, except the mandala is created out of sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. I also realize I haven't eaten properly the whole day and put maybe a little too much Gran Marnier in my mulled cider. I take a bite. Oh wait, I think, I was wrong.

It is all about the food.

The meal rises and falls with the turkey, and our little Heritage Tom did not disappoint. Moist, flavorful, and lots of dark meat for me. Sides were delish. The stars? The mashed potato casserole, and, surprise surprise, the peach-berry pie, which was largely improvised. 
I'm thankful someone spiked my mulled cider.
Oh wait, that was me. 

I'm thankful to  Martha Stewart, for the turkey advice. And thankful to Dorie Greenspan for her desserts. Most of all, I'm thankful for the friends and family who have traveled far to sit at our table and share a meal and let me create obscene amounts of food for them. For Stel for being as obsessed as I am. And my own family, who know to stay out of the way and let baba cook. It's been a pleasure.

Mission accomplished. Now I just need to sleep for about three days.

PS. See what Doug thought of the food at 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve

What, how can this be? 12 am and already done for the night, and this with going out to dinner AND watching "Top Chef"? It's a Thanksgiving miracle. Usually I'd be working on my second pie right about now, with stock simmering and miles to go before I slept. Ah, but this year I have a little Elf assisting me, my dear, dear friend Stel who has flown all the way from Chicago to mash potatoes and toast pumpkin seeds with me.
Stel displaying her highly-snackable
 roasted pumpkin seed and dried cranberry concoction.
We've been in the kitchen all day, but it's been collegial and relatively more leisurely. Started out the day making the potatoes: I worked on sweet potatoes (to be topped with marshmallows and finished off tomorrow) and Stel assembled the mashed potato casserole from a NYT recipe. Ooooh, nothing like the sight of Yukon golds steaming from the pot. The casserole saves you from having to make the mashed potatoes at the last minute; it has all the elements of mashed potatoes but with the inclusion of a parmesan/bread crumb topping. I could have eaten it all right there, baking be damned. That's what makes Thanksgiving so alluring (and dangerous): every dish is Comfort Food personified.
"Yes, yes, it tastes good on the masher, but could you
pass that pot over here anyway?"

The other thing I wanted to devour right away was the stuffing Stel made— cornbread, apples and bacon. It's a holy triumvirate.
I have seen the Face of God, and It looks like cubes of cornbread
tossed with celery, apples and bacon.
Time for a little table tennis break.

I blind-baked the pie crust for the Two-for Pumpkin/Pecan Pie. A sad disappointment, this crust. Working with a new recipe from Ms. Greenspan, and while it rolls out well I've been finding that the crust shrinks mightily. I'm trying not to stretch the dough while putting it in the pan, but I think maybe the top of the crust is too heavy and sinks down while baking. The recipe calls for folding the extra dough under rather than rolling it. Could that be my problem? Must work on this, or I'll have mighty small pies...

Also had a bit of a snafu with my peach pie. Turns out one of the peaches I had gotten from the Farmer's Market was going bad—I was down a peach. And no peaches to be had at the local market, and no car to find one further afield. I imagined Tim Gunn coming by to tell me I needed to "make it work." Here's a recounting of the situation, done à la "Top Chef":

I ended up wussing out and using the raspberries and some blackberries we had left over from breakfast. Cross your fingers. Here's the final result:

My dough for the rolls was supposed to rise slowly in the refrigerator for two days! Instead, it grew monstrous overnight.
Yipes! Someone stop that thing!

Gently deflated it and put it in a bigger bowl. Hope it's okay for tomorrow.

What was next? Boiling eggs for the deviled egg appetizers. Started the gravy (roux & stock & butter) so we don't have to be scrambling for it tomorrow. Made the pumpkin/pecan pie, which tastes delish but whose crust burned a little. The pie gods were not with me today. I can make pies that taste good, but they always look so... rustic, to put it nicely. They is ugly. Where's the finesse? Sigh... perhaps if I make them over and over again I'll get the hang of it.

Tomorrow morning at 9:30: It's Turkey Time!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Thanksgiving Side Trip to Italy

Doug is the devil. Today he casually mentioned to me that "brining turkeys is out. Dry brining with salt is what they're doing now. Didn't you see it in the New York Times?" Doug, who wouldn't know a dry brine from a dry brisket, telling me this three days before Thanksgiving? Diabolo.

2 AM. What am I doing up now, listening to Cree Summers? I'm waiting for my lasagni to finish cooking. The lasagna is my idea for a simple meal to serve to guests the days before Thanksgiving. It just got... a little out of hand.

Started the evening making brownies. Katherine Hepburn's, to be exact. Pulled the recipe from a book from one of my best college friends, Frank DeCaro. "The Dead Celebrity Cookbook" is his compilation of the best recipes of the deceased, and it's burning up the Amazon charts. Dead talk show hosts, dead guest stars from the series "Batman," dead Golden Girls, all of them apparently liked to cook. Very funny and kitschy, and occasionally, as is the case with Ms. Hepburn's brownies, quite helpful as a cookbook. I once performed a monologue from "Suddenly, Last Summer" in Katharine Hepburn drag in front of a crowd of drunk, post-Gay Pride Day revelers in Chicago and got stranded without my real clothes— but that's a story for another day. Let's move on. 

I had the look, but not the Italian...

On Sunday I thought ahead and made up an Italian ragu, a dish from the many Sunday ziti dinners I had growing up. It's incredibly easy to make, but tastes like Mamma loves you. Basically, you sear big chunks of meat (pork, beef, lamb, sausage, or a combo of these things; I used chuck meat), throw in some onions, red wine and two cans of Italian plum tomatoes, and then cook for many hours—four, to be exact— until the meat capitulates at the touch of a fork. I was left with this:

Which was to be the base of my lasagna. 

I Shredded the meat, made a bechamel sauce, and got out my Kitchenaid pasta attachment. Making pasta is a little miracle. To start out with a dough that is so course, ill-mannered and intractable—

—and have it transform into a pliable, silken ribbon of pasta, is like alchemy. 

There's also something meditative about feeding the lump of dough into the machine, over and over again, and watching it smooth and lengthen. Unfortunately (and this I forget, time after time) it's also time-consuming. Then I did the layering (sauce, pasta, ricotta, bechamel, meat, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, more sauce; rinse and repeat) and created a behemoth. 

Had just enough ingredients to make another small one, to bake and freeze for another day. Once the layering was done, it was the point of no return. I didn't think I could assemble the lasagna without baking it. Wouldn't it break down the noodles, if I didn't cook it? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was too tired to trawl the internet and figure out who to believe. so I popped them in the oven.

Ah! The brownies have cooled! The taste is heavenly. One batch without nuts, for those so inclined:

And, finally, in the wee hours, the lasagna is done, ready to be cooled:

Rustic, but packed with flavor. Hopefully it will hold it's form. My mother used to live or die on whether her lasagna was firm enough for her father on Sundays, but for me, as long as it tastes good, I don't mind if it devolves into some kind of pasta stew.

A lot of you have been inspiring me with your comments on cranberry sauce ingredients— Grand Manier! Tangerine! Horseradish! (really? I need to taste this one) and on your own preparations. Ace, I admire you for making a stuffing no one but you will eat. I'd do that too (roasted brussel sprouts with hazelnuts and corn!) but Doug not so gently reminds me that I'm already overextended, and I know he's right. It is, 2:30 now, yah? For those of you who can't believe so much could be written about one meal, well, my hubby has this to say on the subject. 

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving prep starts in earnest... Need my comfortable shoes. And yes, Doug, you will hear about it.

James Sie

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gettin' My Turkey On

For me, there are two culinary High Holy Days: Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year's Eve. These are the pedal-to-the-metal, grueling, marathon cooking holidays that truly test your skill and endurance in the kitchen. I love the challenge. This year we'll be hosting Doug's entire family, plus a couple of friends, and I've already begun preparing, with the help of some cool high tech gizmos, starting with the cook's best friend: Monsieur iPad.

Who knew this touch tablet would be so good in the kitchen? Imagine— no clunky cookbooks taking up space on your counter, with grease-spattered and flour-dusted pages held down by bowls to keep your place. The iPad is an elegant solution, as long as you have the right apps. The ones I'm using for Thanksgiving include Pepper Plate and Baking with Dorie.

Pepper Plate is a recipe holder and menu planner; you can import recipes from a lot of cooking websites like Epicurious and Gourmet, and then you don't have to be online to use them. It can compile shopping lists for you, set a timer, scale a recipe up or down, and, most importantly, plan menus and put them on a calendar schedule. Bingo! I know what I'm prepping ever day up to Thanksgiving. With my limited memory capacity, this is very helpful. Added bonus: once you start a recipe in Pepper Plate is has a function that stops your iPad from going to sleep. Handy, though now with real cookbooks I find myself jabbing them to wake them up.

Baking with Dorie is an incredible app by Dorie Greenspan, whose cookbooks I've already raved about. Here she presents only 20 recipes (three of which I had already planned to use for Thanksgiving: the pie crust, the twofor Thanksgiving pie & the apple cake), but the format is truly inspired. Each recipe can be viewed as a simple step-by-step written recipe, a video recipe (starting with preheating the oven) or, for the practiced chef, a simple visual flow chart. It's crazy. Her videos are informative, even if you know what you're doing. It's like attending a mini master class. The most basic videos have great nuggets of information, like how to tell when your dough is mixed enough, or why baking soda is used with buttermilk. Highly recommended.

(Martha Stewart has a similar app for baking cookies; I'm not using it this go round but it deserves a mention. Hey, Martha & Dorie, if you're ready to throw some promotional bucks my way, feel free.)

With my hands full of flour and butter, how am I not greasing up my iPad? Ah, this has been solved thanks to an early birthday present from some thoughtful in-laws. Belkin makes a Chef Stand for the iPad that includes a big stylus that looks like a pestle. You jab that at your iPad and it keeps the gunk off your screen.

Okay, enough about the doo-dads. On to the food!

Started the season with turkey potsticker dumplings for my son's Thanksgiving feast (his choice). A big hit with the kids. My sister Michelle was right: if you have the right non-stick pan, fried dumplings are dream. I got a Scanpan from Sur La Table. Worked perfectly; the dumplings slid right out. Don't forget the lid!

This year I found a great blog in the New York Times about what foods to prepare when in advance of Thanksgiving Day. I'm going to try making my gravy ahead of time and add the turkey drippings while reheating instead of doing it all last minute, a time when I'm usually rushing around with the turkey trying not to slip on grease.

The blog's author, Melissa Clark, also has a good video if you're having trouble getting your cranberry sauce to gel. Cranberry sauce is incredibly easy to make! Why aren't you doing it? Made two cranberry sauces already, one that's chunky and one that looks like it shlooped out of a can, both in maybe half an hour, tops.

Today I got up early to arrive at the Farmer's Market at 7:45. Had an order there for a local Heritage Turkey but was hoping to snag a slightly bigger one. I was in luck. My turkey is beautiful, all 19.75 lbs of it. Heritage turkeys are turkeys that look like ye olde turkeys from days of yore, before they got all Pamela Anderson-ed. More leg meat, smaller breasts. It may shock some of you, but I am not a breast man. Dark meat all the way. One Thanksgiving at my in-laws it was decided to forego the whole turkey and just heat up a breast "because that's all that anyone wants anyway, without all the fuss." This breast also had NO SKIN. My bitter, salty tears could have brined a whole turkey, had there been one. Which there was not. Did I mention I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner now?

At the market I also got all my veggies, tons of fruit, cider, flavored pistachios and flowers.

Took the neck and gizzards out of the turkey and made stock for the gravy (got to use my China cap!).
This is a China cap.
This is also a China Cap. 

Made my pie crusts and refrigerated them. Baked and dried my cornbread for the apple-bacon stuffing.

Tomorrow, we take a detour: lasagna!

How is your Thanksgiving prep doing?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Give Me An Hour of Your Time

This has got to be my favorite day of the year— the annual Death of Daylight Savings Time. It's the glorious retreat of an hour. Fall back! Fall back! The one day of the year where I can get up to find the Time Fairies have miraculously given me another sixty minutes to rest. It helps that my son is old enough to fully appreciate this phenomena and not ruin my precious hour of repose by daring to awaken at the usual time. Of course, it's important not to squander said saved time by anticipating it the night before and staying up an hour later, but even then: to rise with more light and still be perpetually early! I go through day savoring this gift anew: "It's ten o'clock now, but I'm saying it's nine!" "Now it's lunch, but we're really eating at one!" It's like we are able to plunge the hours itself into our own personal crucible and bend them to our will. Hephaestus, eat your heart out!

Of course, it also helps if you skip your meditation at the Zen Center because it's raining and you can't find a parking space (bad Buddhist! Bad Buddhist!) so you arrive at the Farmer's Market early and miraculously it stops raining as soon as you arrive and you walk through the shiny streets where the market is uncrowded, the produce is glistening with rain, the air is crisp and clear and life is beautiful. Could this day be any better?

Hmm. It could also be that the cafe mocha which I drank before I was going to go meditate (bad Buddhist! Bad Buddhist!) is causing this euphoria. Eh, let's just roll with it. 

Good news for a good day: the long-awaited, much anticipated (at least by me) "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness" is finally making it's official debut tomorrow on Nickelodeon. They're playing a new episode twice a day (5:30 and 8:30pm) for the whole week, and then airing it weekly after that. 

Here's a review from Variety which is pretty fair:
Variety Reviews - Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness - TV Reviews - - Review by Brian Lowry
Interestingly, as oppose to other entertainment reviews, I'm usually not anxious at all about what is going to be said about me in TV show animation. This is because (non celeb) voice actors are rarely mentioned at all, and if they are, it's usually en bloc. We're the Invisibles behind the cartoons, and that's fine by me. Now, message boards are a separate matter... we'll see. 

Speaking of which, remember that "Chicago Code" I did last summer, where I had to speak Cantonese on a day's notice? The producers didn't really care what I sounded like, but apparently a viewer did. On a message board for my entry on IMDB, one "indigojiu wrote under the banner "incredibly bad actor": 
<<Jut [sic] saw him on Chicago Code> What language was that??? Definitely NOT Chinese.>>
Can't say I disagree, indigojiu. That wasn't  Chinese. Let's call it— an homage to William Shatner-ese. Is that so wrong??