Cutout Sugar Cookies

In Making Food on November 9, 2014 at 8:18 am

I read an article a while ago about a guy who used his computer password to reinforce intentions or resolutions. He had to type his password dozens of times a day, so figured he might as well make it something purposeful, meaningful. He started out with something like “forgive her,” as he was trying to work through a breakup, then moved to topics like exercise, save for travel, eat less, call mom.

This seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t have any reason to change my password. The one I’d been using since freshman year of college — skanking, a relic from my not-so-brief, all-too-intense rude girl phase of ska worship — had reliably proven hackproof since the mid-90s.

Then, like a week after reading the article, my email got hacked.

I was a glass or two into a bottle of wine when I discovered the breach, so promptly changed every single password to everything I could think of — Etsy, my bank account, Netflix, my email accounts, our iPass — picking memorable catchphrases and quips, mixed with meaningful numbers. None of which I could remember the next morning. So I changed everything again to something boring and memorable: my work address.

But typing that in to dozens of accounts, including my personal ones, rapidly wore thin. I hated thinking about work when I was trying to request a book on my library’s website, check my email, buy something on Amazon.

So I changed them all again, this time to something meaningful: Dig Deep.

I have (as those of you who know me personally can attest) a finite amount of patience. It’s a shallow pool, and it’s often dry. I’ve become much, much more patient since having a kid — but I know my limits, which is why we’re stopping at one.

So, when I feel the rage coursing through my veins at work (like when a vendor e-replies to a statement like “I can meet you at our corporate office on X day at X time; address is below my signature” with something like “great! when and where would you like to meet?”) or when I feel overwhelmed by daily-chore-despair (like when I can’t move a load from the washer to the dryer because I haven’t folded the dried clothes yet, and there’s also a huge pile of dry-but-unfolded clothes on the living room floor), I say to myself: Dig Deep.

Feel free to adopt this as your own. Because let me tell you: when baking with a toddler, you’re gonna need it as a mantra.

When your kid sticks her hand directly in the butter: dig deep.

When she dumps flour all over the counter instead of into the mixer: dig deep.

When she pours half a bottle of vanilla into the cookie dough: dig deep.

When you realize that the awesome cookie cutters the two of you picked out on vacation — an octopus! a unicorn! a flamingo! Wisconsin! – are actually too intricate and multifaceted to make actual, recognizable sugar cookies: dig deep.

When you have to explain, for the seventh time, which side of the cookie cutter to use: dig deep.

When you reach into the fridge to grab the eggs and knock over the poorly sealed tupperware of pancake batter: dig deep.

When you hear, from the bathroom (where you were foolishly counting on 30 seconds of peace), the sound of sprinkles being spilled all over the kitchen floor: dig deep.

When you emerge from the bathroom to find that the sprinkles are now commingled with the 10,000-piece Milton Bradley Cootie game your child dragged into the kitchen: dig deep.

When the oven timer starts going off as you’re sorting the Cooties from the sprinkles: dig deep

When the towel you use to pull the sheet pan out of the oven turns out to be wet: dig deep.

When, in your burned-hand haste, you set the pan on the counter and accidentally burn a hole in the ziploc bread bag: dig deep.

Because in parenting, as with life, for every one annoying thing that happens, approximately/at least ten more awesome things happen.

Like when your kid sees a sugar cookie removed from the cutter for the first time.

Or when she hears the opening strains of “Call Me” on Pandora and shrieks at the top of her lungs, “Mama! It’s Blondie!” then sprints out into the living room to dance.

Or when she makes small talk confessions — “One time, at school, someone bit me. Well, actually, it was me.” — while piling hot pink sprinkles on top of a cow-shaped cookie.

Or when she pokes her head into the bathroom, post-sprinkle-spilling, to annouce, “um, something terrible just happened in the kitchen.”

Or when you discover that she’s awesome at holding the dustpan while you sweep, and can actually dump it into the trashcan without spilling the contents everywhere.

Or when the two of you sit down, for the first time, to a snack of milk and homemade cookies.

Or when she suggests that, because the homemade sugar cookies are “so delectable,” that the two of you go door-to-door to sell them to the neighbors.

Rich Rolled Sugar Cookies (adapted* from The Joy of Cooking)

In a stand mixer, beat on medium speed until fluffy and well blended:

  • 1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Add and beat until well combined:

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (or one-half bottle, if you’d like to replicate our variation) vanilla

Stir in until well blended and smooth:

  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Divide the dough in half. Place each half between two large sheets of waxed or parchment paper, then roll out to 1/4-inch thickness**. Keeping the papers in place, stack the dough onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until cold and firm, about 42 minutes or the length of two Yo Gabba Gabba! episodes.

Preheat the oven to 375, and line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Working with one portion of dough at a time, carefully peel off one of the parchment sheets and replace with a new one. (This’ll make it easier to lift the cookies off.) Flip over, peel off the other piece, and start cutting out the cookies. Place them on the baking sheets about an inch apart, and continue cutting until the dough’s used up.***

Crucial decision point: you can either put these into the oven now, if you’re planning to ice-then-decorate them, or just put the sprinkles on directly and skip the icing step. I’d bought a jar of Amoretti neutral icing, but was already exhausted — and we’d already used up all the vanilla — so I just hid it in the cabinet and told The Burger to put the sprinkles on the unbaked cookies.

Bake for 6 minutes and check. The cookies should be lightly colored on top with just a hint of golden brown at the edges. You can keep baking, checking every two minutes, to the desired color/level of doneness.

Remove from the cookie sheet and let cool on a wire rack, but be sure to eat a couple while they’re still warm. Let your kid decide which shapes you both get to eat. The Burger chose a unicorn and a star for herself, and assigned me Wisconsin and a heart. She’s no dummy.

* Adapted mostly because I let a toddler do the measuring. This was a mistake. My suggestion would be to pre-measure the ingredients into small bowls, then just let your kid dump the bowls into the mixer.

**next time I’d do 1/2″, because I like them a little chewier, plus I think they’d be easier to work with.

*** You can gather up all the scraps and re-roll them, and go through the whole process all over again — or do what I did, which was smash them together into a ball, flatten it slightly, wrap it in parchment, put it in a labeled baggie, and shove it in the freezer for another day.

Just Shut Up and Cook. And Then Write About It Already. Sheesh.

In Thinking About Food on November 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm

I’m not sure why it’s been so hard to just sit down and write a blog post. I mean, yeah, there’s the usual there’s-no-time stuff: working full-time, parenting a preschooler, doing all that boring, soul-sucking grown-up shit (laundry, dishes, flossing, getting gas, vacuuming, etc etc ad nauseum), being down-to-the-bone-tired all the damn time. But there’s something bigger, more paralytic, going on here.

This is something I ostensibly want to do, right? No one’s making me write a blog. This isn’t a job (because believe me, I am definitely not getting paid for this), an obligation. So why all the dread/doubt/inertia?

Well, for starters: I’m out of practice. For the past few years, we’ve been in culinary survival mode. We joked that the theme of The Burger’s first birthday party should’ve been Frozen Pizza and Espresso, since those were the two things that essentially underwrote our first twelve months of parenthood. Then for the next two years, we either ordered takeout, went out to eat, or, on our more ambitious nights, went into dump-and-stir mode: sprint home from work, open the jar of Creole/Asian/Indian/Italian/American sauce, add protein, simmer, eat, bath-book-blah-blah-blah, collapse into bed.

But a few months back, things suddenly, magically, unexpectedly got easier. This coincided with our exit from what a friend of mine calls The Gear Phase. No more strollers, diapers, diaper bags, playpens. Free and easy. Easy enough to spend more than 15 minutes on making dinner. Easy enough that we actually had a couple of dinner parties with actual grown-ups, where I planned a menu! came home from work early! made several courses! felt like my old self (albeit not the old self who spent two full days making bao for a Chinese New Year dinner party) for an evening!

But really: who are we kidding. Fifteen minutes is still about all we’ve got some nights, and we still rely on dump-and-stir way more than I’d like to admit, especially for someone who writes a freaking food blog. And here’s the thing: sometimes I don’t even dump and stir. The other night Lulu and I ate Applegate chicken tenders and sweet potato puffs and drank apple cider on the couch while watching Charlie Brown movies because I was too tired to move (and to be perfectly honest, the tenders looked awesome when I pulled them out of the oven, way better than the salad I was pretending I was going to eat instead, so I put the salad back in the fridge and then dumped a bunch of rum into my apple cider to prove that I’m actually still a grownup). So really: who (besides my parents) wants to read a food blog written by a fraud who doesn’t even cook from scratch all the time?

AND, the whole premise of the blog was to try a new food every week. And even though we’re making dinner at home nightly now (I honestly can’t even remember the last time we went out to dinner or got takeout), even when I’m cooking from scratch, I’m not really trying anything new. At this point, it’s easier to pull out a bunch of dishes I know in my bones that I don’t need recipes for than to pull together a complex shopping list, go get all the ingredients, prep a bunch of mis-en-place, and have to consult a recipe every three minutes while simultaneously trying to make sure whatever’s on the stove doesn’t burn and that my kid doesn’t liberally salt the entire couch, living room carpet and foyer (which only happened once, but once was enough). Stuff with inside-joke names like Chicken Pile, Pasta Bake, Six-Hour Nachos, That Bean Thing. Nothing fancy or elegant or even anything you’d make if anyone other than your family was coming for dinner.

(Also also, which doesn’t really stop me from writing but does keep me wondering: isn’t this kind of a dumb name for a blog? I mean, really. Who even cares about Mark Twain any more? I don’t even care about Mark Twain any more.)

So here’s what: I’m just going to write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, and it doesn’t matter if you’re reading it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s new either to me or to my family (though The Burger’s young enough that almost everything is still technically new to her) or to you.

Because here’s the thing: pretty much anything is new if you’re making it with an almost-four-year-old helping you. It’s either going to take ten thousand times longer to prepare than you’d anticipated it would, or you’re going to forget (or add) an ingredient that is (or isn’t) supposed to be in the recipe so it’ll taste different than the last time you made it, or you’re going to realize anew how much fun it actually is to make the damn thing. Or, most likely and ideally, all three of the above.

So maybe Smart Cabbage’ll be taking a different tack in the coming weeks/months/years. Maybe it’ll be more narrative driven than instructionally focused, and a better tool for people who want to cook dinner for themselves and their families but don’t have a ton of time, energy or ambition — at least at this point in their lives — to experiment than it will be for the bold culinary adventurer. Maybe you’ll get stories about how The Burger and I made a bunch of theoretically boring junk like applesauce, or mashed potatoes, or meatballs — but see how those old warhorse dishes can be shockingly, incredibly fun when made with a tiny sous chef experiencing them for the first time.

Stuffed Whole Trout

In Making Food, Shopping for Food on October 14, 2014 at 6:48 am

I used to be cool.

You know the drill. Lived in the city. Had friends in bands. Hosted epic dinner parties. Had hidden-gem, independently owned choices for everything: fishmonger, bookstore, coffee shop.

Then we moved to the suburbs, and in a mere one week’s time, I acquired jeggings, a station wagon, and a Costco membership.

(You know what? Jeggings are actually super-comfortable. I’m sorry I made fun of them for so long. So much time: wasted.)

The Burger, who harbors no suburban antipathy (and no memories of living in the city, for that matter), loves going to Costco. Looooooves it. Admittedly, she’s the kind of kid who loves everything. I’m going to the mailbox; are you coming with me? Yeah! You wanna walk to the dumpster? Yeah! How about we go to the post office? YEAH! But Costco generates some serious enthusiasm, mostly because The Husband finds empty aisles then does wind sprints and donuts with the cart to keep her occupied. When the novelty of that wears off, she gets to pick out her favorite snacks, the boxes of which totally dwarf her. Look, kid! A four-foot-tall box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies!

We usually don’t buy much meat or seafood there, but on our most recent trip, we pushed the cart past the seafood bunker and there it was: a single tray of four whole glistening rainbow trout, scaled and gutted. Crazy — why do they have this? It looks really good.* And why’s there only one package left? Is this seriously flying off the shelves? And how is it so cheap? Fourteen bucks for four whole trout? I picked it up and showed it to The Husband.

“We should buy those,” The Burger said seriously. “What are they called?”

Here’s the thing: The Burger never says anything seriously. She is joyful, she is goofy, and like any other 3.5-year-old, she can occasionally be whiny. But I’ve never heard her say anything in such a firm, calm, serious tone.

“They’re trout,” I replied, taken aback by her tone. “You want these?”

“Yes,” she said solemnly. “We should buy those and cook them tonight. I can help.”


“Yes,” she said. “Put them in the cart, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, and duly added them to the cart, a little weirded out by her gravitas. But what the hell, right? We all like fish. I’d steamed and roasted whole ones before. No bigs. We’d have it tomorrow night. (We’d already bought a rotisserie chicken, and I was planning on making our go-to quick dinner when we got home — a cheater’s enchilada casserole. You pull a rotisserie, toss it with a couple cups of salsa verde, layer tortillas on top, sprinkle with chihuahua cheese and run it under the broiler. So easy you don’t even need a recipe. You’re welcome!)

We rolled through the checkout line. The Burger made a point of telling the cashier we were going to cook trout for dinner. Twice on the way home, she asked, “we’re going to make those fish tonight, right?” I lobbed a distracted we’ll see – the parents’ timeworn I’m not going to actually say no to you right now — into the backseat, the week’s dinner lineup playing out in my mind. Casserole tonight. (Yes. I’m from the Midwest. Even with salsa verde, it’s still called casserole.) Fish tomorrow. Pasta Tuesday. You get the idea.

She asked again when we got home. “Can we please make these tonight? Please?”

The Husband looked at me. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” he said. “We said we were going to teach her to cook, right?”

So I rinsed the belly cavities, sliced some lemons, got out the shallot salt**, lined some baking sheets with foil, and sat on the floor. The Burger helped me pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels, then asked if she could touch the fish for a minute. She moved the fins around; opened and closed the tail, accordion-style; checked inside the mouth; then said, “I’m gonna poke the eyeball.”

“Go nuts,” I told her. “Some people eat the eyeball after it’s cooked.”

“I’m going to do that,” she declared, then rammed her finger into the fish’s eye socket. “It squirted and tickled me!”

Ocular destruction complete, we moved on to rubbing the inside and outside of the fish with salt and olive oil, and stuffing the cavities with lemons. The Burger also shoved a lemon slice into each trout’s mouth. The doorbell rang while we were working; it was one of The Burger’s little pals from the neighborhood.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Making fish for dinner,” I replied, half-hoping this would repel her. This was not my favorite of The Burger’s neighborhood pals. But she earned some major points by exclaiming, “Cool! Are those real? Can I help?” I sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands, and the two of them worked earnestly, making patterns of thinly sliced lemons on top of the fish and finishing each one with a chef-ly flourish of salt.

We slid the trays into a preheated 400-degree oven, sent the now-slightly-more-tolerable neighbor girl packing, and The Burger and I called her grandparents for the weekly update while The Husband monitored fish doneness***, sauteed some spinach in garlic-infused olive oil, and portioned out the plates.

“I made trout tonight!” The Burger reported to my dad.

“You did? What kind of trout? Rainbow trout?”

“Ummmmm…Costco trout.” (The next day, confusing her big box retailers, she told her daycare teachers that she’d made Target trout for dinner. They already think we’re strange; I’m sure this sealed the deal.)

Dinner was a hit. The burger cleaned her plate, spinach included, and asked for two more helpings of trout. Despite her voracious appetite, we had a ton of trout leftover. It was a Costco-sized package, after all. The Husband repurposed it into a spread/dip kind of thing (lemon mayonnaise, sour cream, minced red onion, parsley and capers) that we ate ourselves sick on the next night while watching football.

But you know what? We forgot to eat the cheeks. And the eyeballs.

Next time.

*How do you tell if a fish is good? It should look healthy. Look at the eyes — they should be shiny and bright, not sunken or cloudy. The skin should glisten, and if you poke the flesh, it should be firm. And it shouldn’t smell, well, fishy; it should smell clean and briny.

** Shallot salt. It’s awesome. It’ll change your fish life. It’s just sea salt mixed with crushed dehydrated shallots — an allium, a cross between onion and garlic, but milder and sweeter than both. I bought my first bottle from Penzey’s, my second bottle from Savory, and now I just make it myself with The Burger’s help. Just put a bunch of dehydrated shallots in a zip-top bag, have your toddler smash them with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer, then mix them with fine sea salt. Boom.

*** How do you tell if a whole fish is done? Try to pull the fillet away from the bones (use a knife, not your fingers) — it should pull away without too much resistance. If you’re not worried about appearances, you can also break through the skin with a knife or fork and see if the flesh flakes easily. Remember, too, that your fish’ll continue cooking for a minute or two after you remove it from the heat, so if it seems a shade underdone, you’re actually right on target. This goes for portioned fillets, too.


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