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Narrative/Journal

I’ve Missed You Too–But Not That Much: Baking Cookies With Mom

A few years back....
A few years back….

Notice my spotty attendance here on my own blog, and in the “like” and “comment” sections of blogs I normally read?  Well, I’ve missed you too–but not that much.

I haven’t missed you because I’ve spent three of the past four days in a warm kitchen with my strange 72-year old mom baking Christmas cookies and talking and driving each other a little crazy, in no small part due to the half pound of coffee beans we’ve exploited in the name of powering this annual venture.  But hey, I’m baking cookies with my mom, the way she used to bake cookies with her mom.  And I’m man enough to brag about it.

The caveat: this woman is frustrating in so many ways I can’t detail here lest I destroy her reputation, and none of those things really matter because she’s also quite possibly the nicest person I know.  What maddens me is the reflection of my own faults that I see amplified in her–everything I would list on a New Year’s Resolution countdown is right there in her eyes, a syndrome I suspect is not unique to my family.  On the other hand, it could be that she’s pretty much all I’ve got–my family tree has been whittled down by divorce, attrition and complacency to the point where the biggest venue we’d need for a reunion is the corner booth at Denny’s.  (Do they still have those?)  Aside from mom, with the exception of one cousin, sentiment for me in that branch of the family ranges from smug indifferent to open hostility.

That sounds like whining, but I’m a big boy, I tried my best, and it’s no small mystery that I tend to be an acquired taste–like drinking cheap vodka: there’s some painful burning at the beginning, a few laughs in the middle, but ultimately you wake up sick. At least I have a paradigm.  Some guys can only dream….

But cookies.  My mom can’t cook for shit.  Sounds crude, but it’s the best way to say it.  As I’ve written here recently, I was well into college before I realized that roast beef isn’t supposed to be ghostly grey, or that most recipes don’t start with the phrase “First brown a pound of ground beef…” or that vegetables don’t mostly come from aluminum cans.  She learned everything she knows from her mother, but the both of them could sure as hell make some tasty cookies.  These weren’t fancy cookies, mind you, but nor were they the sort of self-consciously “colonial” bland molasses and raisin-filled shit you’d expect from folks who so stubbornly clung to their damp, English Methodist culinary flagellation.  No family in the history of the world has fetishized bad food like ours.

Except at the holidays, those few times of the year when they gave a damn; and that’s the key point: when they gave a damn.  It is the fault of my mother, and her mother before her, that I am a Christmas zealot, in turn weepy-eyed and jubilant over the “most wonderful time of the year.”

We made at least 10 dozen of multiple recipes including tollhouse, sugar cookies (both sugared and frosted), thumbprint cookies stuffed with frosting or jelly, snickerdoodles, peanut butter blossoms, peanut butter cup tarts.  So yeah, hundreds of cookies. At this point, we’ve consumed almost 20 pounds of flour, 12 pounds of butter, several pounds each of brown and granulated sugar, six ounces of vanilla, about 40 eggs.  Still, it’s not really about what we produced.

We spent a lot of time waiting for the stove to catch up to our cooking, but I got to hear all her best stories and–surprise–some new content while we were throwing back java and listening to the blaring Christmas Music.  It’s the thing we do–I mix, she cuts, shapes, or rolls, then I sugar or decorate. We talk.

I must admit that when I first started doing this, I was thinking she was an easy mark to exploit for labor–she’ll roll out and cut sugar cookie dough all day long,  like a harvester racing an approaching rain. Over the years, it’s become more about the time together, but not because she’s doing anything different.  At Christmas, I am patient enough, welcoming enough, to accept her, which is a good thing because, kharma-wise, I’m going to need ten times the patience from my children some day.

 

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I Dare You To Make A Pizza Night–Sauce

The Make a Pizza Night Post will appear Sunday around 7pm–at which point this sentence will turn into a link

I’m serious, man.   Make a pizza tonight.

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Picture stolen from some chick on tumblr

 

Sauce.  You can get some damn fine sauce at the store, but part of the joy of pizza is the path you take to get there, so I offer this.

Get a 28oz can of the best damn tomatoes you can buy.  San Marzano tomatoes.  Or, if you’re like us, get some frozen tomatoes from the deep freeze or a jar of self-canned tomatoes from the pantry shelf–if using the latter, a small can of good quality tomato past speeds the process.  In a pinch, you can use puree, but that’s cheating.  Of course, we’ll be cheating ourselves tonight on one of our pies–I’ve got a jar of locally made sauce from Labriolla’s Italian Deli & Grocery–and cheating is perfectly acceptable.  Abandon any recipe that calls for adding sugar.

While your crust is rising….

28oz tomatoes, fresh or canned, or puree
tomato paste if you want
olive oil
1 head of garlic
salt, pepper,
parsley, basil, oregano as desired
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium low heat in a large skillet, being careful not to scorch or burn the oil (you’ll smell it if you do, in which case just wash out the pan and start again being more careful and using less heat.)

Roughly mince about 4 cloves of garlic (or more if you’re feeling it, or less if you’re–well, there’s no need for insults) and toss it into the olive oil.  Cook it just long enough that the garlic releases its scent–I don’t know how else to explain it, because I’m not a trained cook, but sauteed garlic reaches a point where it releases a puff of sweet, garlicky goodness–pay attention and you’ll notice for yourself.  That scent means that it is perfectly done, and another 30 seconds will ruin it.  Get it off the heat, or get your tomatoes in there.

Put your tomatoes into the skillet and stir to mix in the olive oil and garlic.  Add an optional half cup of a hearty, clean wine–whatever you’ve got handy or open.  Then settle in, and stir every few minutes, until the sauce is reduced.  It will turn darker as you cook–that’s the sugars in the tomatoes changing.  I have an old Italian sauce recipe that calls for cooking all day until it turns brownish, the sugars partially carmelized, but we don’t need that for a nice, wholesome tomato sauce.  If the sauce does get too thick, simply add water a teaspoon at a time until you get a good consistency.  When you’re nearly done, add a tablespoon each of fresh finely chopped parsley, basil, and two teaspoons of oregano, a pinch of black pepper, and a scant teaspoon of salt–and cook it for about 5 more minutes–you’ll get a much better, fresher taste from your herbs this way than if you cooked them all along with the sauce. If you’re using dried oregano, leave it out of the sauce and just sprinkle it very lightly over the cooked pizza when you’re done.  Some people cook onions or peppers in their sauce–don’t.  Better to dice them and add them as a topping.