Wouldn’t you like to go to bed so that Mama can eat out of the pan?

Plated-Only-for-Show Apple Crisp

Day three of Mr. P’s absence finds a bleak Peña household, indeed. I hide in the office for a few stolen puffs off my unnecessarily long cigarette, and count eighty minutes until the first round of bedding, and one hundred forty until the last. Someone wearing sneakers and underpants is stomping on something metallic, and someone else is whimpering, but not out of pain. I don’t wonder why. Because in one hundred forty minutes, I will covertly prepare my second apple crisp of the season, and then I will eat the entire thing. Last week I found the best apple crisp recipe ever — I’d stake my life on it — and my glee is only barely dampened by the awareness that a third of my existence has passed without its weekly consumption. The “crisp” is like the perfect oatmeal cookie: virtually no chew, caramel undertones, and just enough salt if made with salted butter. I used Cortlands for my first pass, but opted this time for Grannies, as the Cortlands shrunk so much I wound up with more crisp than apple. I expect, however, the good green lady will stand up loudly and proudly.

One of the hardest things to do when my charming husband is away is grocery shopping. Since Mr. P usually gets home from work around 7, I make two dinners on the nights I can face it. The first happens at 5:00 and has several minimally-seasoned components, never touching each other, and no more than one is cooked. The second dinner is the kind of food real people eat, and if the brood is still awake they sit with us and look suspiciously at their auxiliary meal. But after meeting the needs of three all day long, I’m happy to opt out of real-person classification if it means I can call it a night. So today, instead of getting food from which I could make myself a real-person dinner, in my solitude I bought a bag of Granny Smiths, a brick of Muenster, and a shrimp cocktail ring. The second and third items will be my appetizers while I wait out the half hour of baking time for my dinner of delicious shame.

Since I’m admitting to my gluttony, I’ll take a moment to justify it with a list of things that have triggered tantrums or breakdowns over the last thirteen hours. Getting dressed X3. Putting on shoes X6. Not being “the picker” during TV time X∞. Not being allowed to wear Halloween costume to bed X3. Being out of cinnamon bread and having to make due with strawberry waffles X2. Having Band-Aid party discovered and ended X3. Crayon issues X4. One-offs include having to get out of the bath, denial of shirt removal in public, denial of pants removal in public, and the cat not being in the mood for pets. I’ve only raised my voice twice so far, which is twice more than I’d like, but I’m going to take a B+ for the day. Academically, that grade would drive a dagger into my heart. But in the world of best-intentions parenting, I can sleep at night with anything above a C.

Night Baking: Never a Good Idea

Waker-Upper Animal Crackers

I usually don’t begin thinking abut Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, but after stumbling upon the yuletidiest cookie I’ve ever tasted, I’m ready to start the season before we even hit Halloween. Billy the Kid has a knack for randomly remembering items we used once, over a year back, and last night while we had some “us time,” waiting up late for Mr. P after the ladies retired, BK declared he had a great idea. Indeed, it was the perfect time to dig out the five small animal-cracker cookie-cutters/stampers from Williams-Sonoma we bought two summers ago, our singular attempt thwarted by an inappropriate dough that melted over details and puffed out when baked, yielding cartoonishly cloud-shaped cookies. But Mrs. Peña runs a tight ship, and they were exactly where they should have been, as I had already learned when BK was one that throwing away anything he deemed “his” was a very bad idea.

In my end-of-day haze, I quickly scanned several holiday baking magazines until I saw a picture of a cinnamon cookie that looked like it could stand up to our stampers with a few slight modifications. I only noticed the call for espresso grounds once I had started assembling the mis-en-place, but it was already late, so how bad could one small coffee-infused cookie be for a toddler at 9:00 PM? Gleeful cries of “my feet  can’t stop running!” finally tapered off around 10:30 when BK fell asleep while talking, and a steady stream of the little “crackers” kept me fully alert until Mr. P’s arrival around midnight.

If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient or partaker of a Pepperidge Farms Entertaining Cookie Collection, you’ll recall the thin, unassuming, simple Bordeaux wafers, and the uncomfortably urgent desire to put all of them in your mouth at the same time. The following recipe produces the same flavor and crisp consistency, but with more heft than flake, and if you bake for just a minute less than indicated, a hint of chew. The combination of small and thin with the descriptor “cracker” will encourage gluttony, so keep a mental count as you visit the plate throughout the day in case you need to shame yourself into restraint.

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso grounds
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour

Assemble the dough in the standard manner. Shape it into two discs and refrigerate them for an hour. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness before cutting out shapes, and bake single sheets at 375 degrees for 6 minutes (check every minute after 4 during the first batch to determine exact baking time). Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a sealable plastic container or bag before hiding them under your bathing suit in the corner of your top drawer.

I hadn’t stealth-baked since I was twelve.

The Only Oatmeal Cookie

As the weather in southern New England threatens to break into the 50’s any day now, I’m wrapping up my winter bake ware, but not before a final run of my favorite waist expanders. And what do you know, after years of fine-tuning and this particularly insidious past winter, I seem to have perfected the oatmeal raisin cookie. I made the good-bye batch in secret late last night; Billy the Kid is convinced that oats are an attempt to pass off a vegetable in snack form and refuses to allow any baking time to be wasted on hippie health food. BK’s free will is coming in at full speed and it’s battle-picking season at the Peña house. I can sympathize with his resentment of vegetables (and hippies), so I’m letting him choose what we bake for now. While these contain a satisfyingly concerning amount of sugar, the salt cuts it down perfectly, encouraging a rapid cycle of consumption. I despise a cakey oatmeal cookie; this one is barely a solid when first removed from the oven. I’ll go right ahead and claim full credit for these bad Larries since a second egg apparently has never occurred to anyone else. If you’d like to comment on my method of pluralizing “Larry,” feel free to drop a hand-written note right in the garbage.

2 sticks salted butter, softened
1 C dark brown sugar
3/4 C sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
3 C old fashioned oats
1/2 C golden raisins
1/2 chopped, toasted pecans

Assemble the ingredients as you would any normal cookie dough. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto cookie sheets with at least 2 inches between each pile and bake single sheets at 350 for 13 to 14 minutes. Once removed from the oven, let the cookies sit on the sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer them to a wire rack for 10 more. As soon as they hit room temperature, cover them up to preserve the chew.

A note on the raisins: I prefer the golden variety, as they lend an element of surprise to each bite. Unless you look closely, they blend right into the golden-brown cookie, and I, for one, need something to look forward to.

Professional finish be damned, my sweet tooth was aching.

My, That Was a Lot of Work Cookies

During my recent bake-a-t(h)on with Jess D, from which emerged the ostentatiously delicious Oreo-stuffed chocolate chipper, we also knocked off our first batch of these mint and ganache-filled whoopie pies from Epicurious. I made Round II today with Billy the Kid, who acted as my enthusiastic emergency finger-licker, since this batch is reserved solely for Peña bellies. Jess generously contributed a new essential to the tiniest functioning kitchen on the Eastern Seaboard: a whoopie pie pan! Finally, there is officially no excuse for cakelette disks of any other kind than perfect circles.

I’m not a huge mint fan, and Mr. P knows that he’ll always find his packages of Girl Scout Thin Mints untouched, no matter how long they wait in the cupboard. These ladies, however, wear mint so delicately that my palate was refreshingly unjarred by the often abrasive essence. The consistency of the filling is similar, I imagine, to whipped angel, and the semisweet chocolate “glue” edges the whole thing into oeuvre territory. They’re embarrassingly unconcerned with undoing gender stereotypes, however, and take forever to get dressed. So if you have a few free hours and inches in your pants, you’ll want to take advantage of yet another opportunity to assert that no one should feel badly; you’re just better.

I told you boys like pink food.

Billy the Kid’s Pink Cookies

I had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies last week. Since Billy the Kid has requested them each of the last ten times I’ve baked, I thought I’d win an easy point by letting him think it was his bright idea. “What kind of cookies should we make?” A pause and a hilarious pensive finger to the lips were followed by: “pink cookies!” I took a second to process a mental sad trumpet sound bite, then hopped on-line looking for any easy sugar cookie recipe. If I wasn’t going to get my chocolate chippers, my heart just wasn’t going to be in it. The oreo-stuffed monster-god still fresh in my mind, I started at BeckyBakes, and found this recipe for iced sugar cookies. I’ll admit the icing won me back, and both BK and I were soon groaning over the four-hour chill time. (I added two drops of McCormick red food coloring once the butter, shortening, sugar, eggs and vanilla were combined, and added two drops more to the icing to get this particular pink).

Of course we weren’t about to use any remotely Christmas-related shapes this far into the new year, so out came the bin of 101 cutters that Santa brought us, temporarily forgetting the difficulty a three-year-old has with deciding between even two of anything. The project now involved multiple days. We finally filled two cookie sheets (you’re an adult now; act like it) with five Spring/Easter-related shapes after some hardcore negotiating, and Billy went AWOL as soon as they hit the oven, regaining interest only once the final iced product was ready for consumption. I was dangerously cranky from being marooned by my sous chef, denied chocolate chippers, and faced with cleaning flour off of everything, so it was fortunate for everyone involved, including Becky, that they were surprisingly worth the effort and agonizing patience I had invested. A hint of lemon really does elevate the old girl to a new class rank. Having tried about a hundred different sugar cookie recipes, I was impressed in spite of my grim expectations, so much so that these are now my standards, though I was never completely content with my previous go-to.

A note on the quantity produced: the reasonable, slightly health-conscious (as in, what will keep me from dying this year) adult in you will appreciate the modest batch-size; the plump, sugar-addicted ten-year old girl in you who just learned how to make half a batch of vanilla cake batter to eat raw in an emergency snack-attack will curse the measly yield even as she gloms down the first dozen. I discourage you from inferring any whisper of autobiography in these last lines.

Remember when “America” was synonomous with “exotic?” Neither do I.

Charlatan Cookies

I wondered what would happen if Jess D and I ever got together and did some baking, and now I know: five extra pounds and some blood sugar tests. She posted this link from BeckyBakes to my Facebook page several weeks ago, and I had the same initial impression as the author, a Bart Simpson-like shudder at the conceived marriage of a home-made and a store-bought cookie. We agreed that they’d either be awesome or inedible. Unfortunately for our waistlines, they fall into that can’t-have-just-one category, which would be fine, except that they’re gargantuan.

I decided to attempt the recipe with mini-Oreos instead, aiming to achieve a three-inch diameter at most, but what is meant to be a cookie-covered Oreo became more of a “surprise cookie,” suggesting that the original is perfect in its enormity, rather like Jeff Garlin.

This is a few of my favorite thing.

Chocolate Covered Popped Corn

Will wonders never cease, it’s winter in New England and it’s snowing. A lot. As I scroll through the endless Facebook griping, I’m reminded of this past summer, sitting on my porch in the stifling August heat, contemplating my edema-induced upside down piano legs, as my father would say, begging gods and nature for my promised Goreian deep freeze, or even just the tip-over of a truck carrying liquid nitrogen in which I could dip my sausagey toes. So forgive me my utter delight with 1) my now permanently non-incubatory midsection, and 2) our current weather. You know, the snow. In winter. But for anyone who views shoveling as a treat-worthy activity…

This recipe for a weapons-grade deceptively light “snack” hails from allrecipes.com, but I found out about it through one of Mr. P’s lovely coworkers. While enjoying the tin-full she thoughtfully gave him/us during the holidays, I directed him to bring me either the recipe or her head, and I received the link within 24 hours. The sludge with which you coat the popped corn is well worth the fillings you’ll sacrifice as you snack on whatever quantity doesn’t quite make it into the pan. I had planned on shipping the maiden batch to my debonair brother, C, but looking at the remains this morning, I realize that’s just not going to happen. Perhaps if I double the recipe, eat half, and quickly drive to FedEx while still uncomfortably distended to ship the rest…

The only ingredient you probably don’t have is corn syrup (I keep it on hand, but I know that’s a lot to expect of everyone else). Do not attempt to make your own corn syrup; this enigmatic substance is synthesized in factories for a reason. I recommend using a microwavable popcorn, but get one that’s unsalted and unbuttered. Then proceed to add as much salt (disturbingly omitted from the recipe) as necessary. You’ll have to constantly taste — quel horreur! Do yourself a favor and don’t make plans for your first round, nor for your evening.

As a postscript, Mr. P pointed out to me that his lovely coworker used kettle corn in her version, not regular popping corn. Mr. P’s contribution was given due consideration.

Let them have their pink!

Boys-Love-Pink-Food Robo-Cupcakes

Since males are expected to completely renounce a specific color from the moment they’re born, they inevitably find it alluring when it makes a rare appearance through a socially accepted vehicle. Food, more specifically dessert, is one of the only times straight men get to enjoy pink, unless they’re brave enough to wear pastel button-downs during the Spring. Even the most adamant “hands off my gender role” manly man will be drawn immediately to anything covered in pink frosting, especially if you reinforce the unisexiness with, say, robots. Manly men tend to enjoy robots. Billy the Kid was beside himself when he found the robot cupcake kit Santa left in his stocking; we used Amy Sedaris’s recipe for the cake and my cherry-vanilla buttercream to frost, flecks made possible by vanilla paste as opposed to extract. I suggest that anyone partnered to a surly lumberjackian type provide a monthly pink dessert; otherwise he may be tempted to look in unsavory places for his taboo color fix.

Cherry-Vanilla Buttercream

1/3 C butter
3 C powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp maraschino cherry juice
Milk as needed

Melt the butter. Stir in one cup of sugar completely. Add the vanilla, another cup of sugar, and a restrained splash of milk. Stir until completely combined. Add the cherry juice, the last cup of sugar, and another splash, stir until completely consistent and lumpless. Stir in a little more milk if the frosting seems too greasy and it will smooth out quickly.

Thank goodness that’s over with.

Triple-Chocolate Bullies

Two weeks after the extraction of my new minions and I’m back to my old self, though with a bit more on my plate. My second c-section was even more pleasant than the first, if that’s possible, and I took advantage of the hospital nursery during my stay this time, returning home delightfully rested and cheerfully perc’d. I’ve just made the switch over to Tylenol, bidding adieu to the two-week prescription party, and my taste buds have fully recovered. Billy the Kid and I celebrated the grand reopening of the oven last night with a brand new cookie that quickly took all the Peñas down a few pegs. A thin crisp shell immediately yields to a brownie-cake hybrid that keeps the sweetness understated and spotlights the saltiness sublimely.

1 C butter, room temperature
3/4 C sugar
3/4 brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 C flour
1/2 C cocoa
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
12 oz chocolate chips

Set your oven to 375. Melt 1/2 stick of butter with the unsweetened chocolate over low heat. Cream together the remaining butter and sugar until fluffy, then blend in the brown sugar and mix until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat vigorously until even. Stir in the melted chocolate and butter. Dump the dry ingredients in and mix the dough until everything’s incorporated, resulting in a rather unseemly dark brown, sticky mess. Finally, stir in the totally unnecessary chocolate chips. Drop the dough by rounded teaspoons onto sheets, and bake these bad boys one batch at a time for 9 minutes. Cool on wire racks, and impress the hell out of anyone who said you’d be too busy with babies to make any goddamn cookies.

Practically perfect in every way. Except for always being early.

Because You Know Better Lemon Meringue Pie

Many people assume they dislike lemon meringue pie because they’ve never had one done well. Mine, wouldn’t you know, happens to be a prime example of this classic American dessert at its most stately. Why anyone would forgo freshly squeezed lemon juice in favor of a bottled extract is beyond me, yet a disheartening number of diners and bakeries misguidedly boast sickly-sweet, cough-syrup-reminiscent pudding-pie bastard cousins of our refined and tasteful heroine. I consider a graham cracker crust to be essential, but then again, I refuse to acknowledge a marriage between custard and pie crust. If you must go with pastry, at least have the dignity to make a decent pat
é sucrée.

While I take enormous pride in my lemon meringue, I’m duly ashamed of releasing it so inappropriately early in the season. My current craving situation is similar to that of Ray in Ghostbusters when he summons the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man; any dessert I picture materializes immediately (or as soon as I can get to the market and back). I’ve been eating cakes as fast as I can to make room for the new ones that haunt my dreams, and I’ve distracted myself with the previous four posts, but my fever for the Citrus Siren refused to be quelled for another week. I’m a little worried that I won’t properly sate my desire with this particular unit, since I’m making it for a meet-the-baby get-together with some friends, and it’s in rather poor taste to take food back from a new mother. Still, I may be able to sneak away unnoticed into the garage with the plate for ten minutes at some point…

The Crust:
1 1/4 graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp butter, melted

Set your oven to 350. Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Once the butter has moistened all crumbs, press the mixture into a glass pie plate or similarly-sized springform, as far up the sides as is worth the effort. Bake the unfilled crust for about 7 minutes, then let it cool while you prepare…

The Filling:
1 1/4 C sugar
1/3 C cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 C room temperature water
4 lg egg yolks, beaten
1/4 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp grated lemon zest
2 tbsp butter

Combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan, then stir in the water. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring it to a boil while stirring frequently. This takes a while, but eventually it will thicken up quickly; just keep stirring and you’ll avoid a bad case of perma-lumps. Once thickened, remove the pan from heat and carefully scoop out a quarter cup of the goo. When I tell you this is hot, I mean that getting even a splatter on your hand will ruin the rest of your day. Whisk that into the beaten yolks, then whisk the yolk mixture back into the pan full of goo. This prevents the eggs from heating up too quickly and scrambling disgustingly.

Put the pan back on medium-high heat once you’ve whisked everything into an even consistency and color, and bring it to a boil again to further thicken. Once bubbling, stir in the lemon juice, zest and butter, and keep cooking and stirring for 2 more minutes. Go ahead and pour it into the crust, leveling it around with a rubber spatula. And now we move onto…

The Meringue:
5 lg egg whites
1/4 tsp cream or tartar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c sugar

Throw the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt into the bowl of your stand mixer and kick it into high. Once soft peaks form, slowly pour in the sugar over the course of about a minute. Once she holds a nice sharp point, pile the meringue onto the lemon filling, and use a fork to fluff it up proudly, as high as your cake-saver will allow. Bake it at 350 for 5 to 7 minutes, until you get a nice golden-brown on just the peaks of the meringue. Chill it for at least 3 hours, but aim for consumption within 24, as meringue tends to seize up unattractively over time.

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