Reliable

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Ah, pray make no mistake, we are not shy. We’re very wide awake, the Moon and I. So declares Missus Kitty, accessorized with exotic fan, but also claw paws and sharp teeth, albeit casually exposed. I don’t know why, but I think of her as on her way to the opera – but I guess in reality she is getting ready to give a full moon caterwauling performance of her own instead. She is our star performer this evening. Perched on a snowy rooftop chimney, her supporting cast in the form of a parasol-wielding kitty behind her, she is ready to tear into it.

In the newly quiet Manhattan, during these pandemic days, the occasional spring and summer evenings brought the disturbing sounds of cats howling. It did make me reflect on how often I write about these types of images, (for one of my favorites have a look at the sing-a-long portrayed in a post that can be found here), but that I rarely actually hear it. Since I moved to Manhattan a few decades ago now, the number of stray cats has been drastically reduced which is a good thing, and not that many cats have sanctioned outdoor space to meet other cats. I can’t say I like the racket – I’m always concerned that someone is getting hurt or is in trouble. My ears remain attuned until it ceases, contributing to my growing tendency toward periodic insomnia.

Meanwhile, occasionally Blackie will begin his own evening muttering and wailing in the apartment and has to be asked to keep a lid on it. Cats will be cats.

The back of this card is interesting. ADMIT BEARER To any Grocery Store, to examine the beautiful assortment of Imported Ware, such as Bohemian Vases, Decorated Fruit Plates, China Cups and Saucers, and China Cream Pitchers. And TWO of these articles and one pound of “SAFE AND RELIABLE” Baking Powder for only 50 cents. Ask for it. and added at the bottom, Chas. W. Smith.

The somewhat grimy back of the ancient card.

As someone who has recently rediscovered my baking muscle I have a newfound appreciation for the reliability factor of baking powder, although I wonder a bit at the safety part – what does unsafe baking powder do? Early on in my baking efforts I used some very old stuff and we had a very low rise on a loaf of cheesy olive bread – which we consumed regardless of course because all cheesy olive bread is good. (The recipe can be found here. I cannot recommend it highly enough.)

Weirdly baking powder and its kissin’ cousin baking soda have remained a tad hard to find in the store since the big pandemic shutdown. Much like the fact that I can still only buy paper towels and toilet paper in packs of a dozen. (If you live in a studio apartment a dozen rolls of each of these is a bit like adding a coffee table to the apartment.) Yeast seems somewhat unobtainable although I admit I have stopped trying.

My wonderment at these exotic early advertising efforts remains unabated – yes, I am making the argument that there should be more operatic felines advertising baking powder today. (I have posted about another series of cat related advertising from this period and some of those can be found here and here.) I regret I find nothing as entertaining these days. Meanwhile, I am equally charmed by the mental image of this general store where I had the opportunity to buy Bohemian Vases, Decorated Fruit Plates or China Cream Pitchers as well as baking powder. (I also find the somewhat creative use of capital letters of note.)

Despite continued social distancing (places in line marked supposedly six feet apart, mask wearing, etc.) going to the grocery store has become something less of an ordeal here, although we continue to get most of our food delivered from Fresh Direct (as we have for many years – it is the rare thing I was an early adopter of), I head over to Fairway or Whole Foods every other week or so. For the first time the other day it actually felt…crowded, like the Fairway of old. Perhaps it was the upcoming holiday weekend, or that more people are returning to Manhattan with kids in school and a nascent return to offices. There is a nip in the air, the days are getting shorter again and forward we go it seems, into Fall.

Egged On

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today is a bit of an unusual post – this egg carton presented itself in my inbox early Saturday morning and captured my imagination. The folks at Ruby Lane make sure I get a daily email with a cat purchase option. These range from cat theme pins even your grandmother would be embarrassed to wear to things I want, but are already sold (um, what is that about?) and yesterday, this egg carton. Now, devoted though I am, even I couldn’t really see spending $25 on it, but it stayed with me and perhaps one of you Pictorama readers will feel differently and purchase it.

First, I was just tickled that an egg company actually had the inclination to plop Felix on their carton, contributing to the idea that Felix could and did sell anything and everything. Then I realized that, hard to read, down in the right corner below one dozen it reads Felix T. Wright, Silverton, Oregon 97381. So he played with his name and added this jolly off-model (free-hand we might say?) Felix. A nice way to get around any copyright issues should they have arisen.

I have to say though that it was the term cackle fresh under the eggs which made me chuckle and made this a little irresistible. The lines emanating from the eggs lend a pleasantly cartoon-y feeling to this happy little Faux Felix who is presenting them for our consideration. (Kim suggested that perhaps instead small black cats would come dancing out of the hatched eggs – an image I love.)

Additionally, even as a saver and a keeper, the idea that somehow this egg carton survives entertains and surprises me greatly. Of course there is no way of telling how old (or not) it is, but an internet search does not turn up a surviving company by this name. And, really, who keeps an egg carton? Even a really fun one?

As someone who stopped eating meat decades ago, the question of eggs is always in play. While I currently eat eggs there were times in my life when I did not and I remember having a discussion on an airplane where my vegetarian breakfast was eggs and I pointed out that eggs are not a vegetable. (There are so many things about this memory that seem unimaginable as I sit here – eating breakfast on an airplane meaning they served food – and when will I be on a plane eating breakfast again?)

This leads up to the oddity of dairy – animal product, yet eggs somehow pushing a line in a way let’s say cheese does not. Kim, a generally utterly intrepid and un-fussy eater, does not eat eggs and therefore I rarely have them in the house.

This self-imposed egg moratorium has lead to some creative alternatives for my recent baking experiments (posts about my poor man’s cake, a one-bowl chocolate cake and most recent rather splendid cheesy olive bread can be found herehere and here, complete with recipes) which have largely grown out of quarantine cooking ennui. All of these have egg alternatives and at least two could be made vegan. I have, for the first time in my life, realized the value of buttermilk and yogurt as binders. (Thank you Google!) I will consider a vegan version of matzoh ball soup in the fall with miso broth. Fascinating.

Iicing

One-bowl chocolate mayonnaise cake.

 

Meanwhile, I was taught a thing or two about cooking eggs. As a culinary school graduate I can remember omelet lessons where the class went through a truly extraordinary number of eggs as we were trained on proper execution. It was a French restaurant school and they took their omelet technique very seriously and assured us that even master chefs were tested for their omelet making skills when interviewing for positions. You can imagine at first how many misses there were in omelet flipping. Yikes!

After graduation I narrowing missed taking a position in a hotel on Fifth Avenue as an omelet line chef, standing around making omelets to order for guests. I occasionally wonder how taking that position might have changed the course of my life Instead I ended up at another hotel, the now extinct Drake Swiss Hotel, as the garde manger for a young Jean-George Vongerichten and his first restaurant there, The Lafeyette. For all of that, I am sure whatever omelet skill I had (I was middle of the pack at best) has long deteriorated and I also prefer mine more thoroughly cooked than the French seem to preach.

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Overgrown dumplings, made with pancake mix, in a yummy root veggie stew early in my quarantine cooking adventures.

 

I am thinking more about my nascent cooking career these days as I dust off some of my skills and tools in the interest of entertaining myself and Kim a bit with pantry provender and a new house cuisine à la Pam. I made a (very) nice angel hair pasta the other day with a lemon juice sauce. In the process I scrounged up a zester I purchased during my cooking school days and hadn’t used in decades. Cooking again, with zest no less, a turn of quarantine events I had not anticipated.

Glorious Food

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have generally always had a good relationship with food. Despite a few allergies in early childhood, eventually resolved on their own – horrifyingly chocolate was briefly among them, followed by a reaction to animal fat triggered by a vaccine as a toddler. However, I was never an especially picky eater (it should be noted that I did have an odd and specific loathing of meatloaf, to my family a well-known aversion), although the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in suburban New Jersey did not exactly encourage fearless experimentation. During my college years, I eventually wandered toward eating only fish and dairy on the animal side of things.

I did grow up around good cooking (some of my posts about my ancestors, their restaurants and cooking here and here), and despite coming of age in an era of tv dinners and frozen vegetables, the local bounty of the Garden State plied us, at least seasonally, with fresh vegetables (nothing like a sun warmed Jersey tomato or corn right off the vine), and locally fished seafood right off the boat.

Even the sandy soil of our backyard, not immune to fall and winter’s hurricane flooding of salt water, still managed to provide us with a not insignificant annual bounty of tomatoes and herbs at a minimum. Strawberry vines grew wild and these were generally tiny, but sweet – however, you had to beat the bunnies and birds to them and in later years we surrendered them to that cause. Sunflowers grew even taller than my father and there was often a strange annual surplus of squash. Corn and cucumbers would not grew there, despite my periodic attempts. We Butlers were casual farmers at best however – our interest waning as the summer grew longer and hotter, however by that point everything pretty much ticked along as long as you were attentive about watering during the long hot days.

My mother reduced her efforts largely to containers in later years and even then the luxury of fresh herbs from the garden, only picking what you needed, spoiled me when I was visiting and cooking there. By that time I had already had a (albeit brief) career cooking professionally. However, despite having been around it plenty as a kid, I really learned to cook by doing it with friends who knew more about it than me – eventually fueled by a very real interest in cookbooks which at one point in my life I read on my long daily subway commute during an internship while living in London.

If I have a talent for cooking (and I would volunteer mine is modest at best really) it is that having grasped the fundamentals of a recipe I can then riff on it and make it my own with variations on a theme. (For me this is less true in baking which I approach as alchemy and a science not to be messed with – although there are people who are amazing at this, I have long recognized that I am not one of those magicians.)

My interest in cooking has long been submerged and drastically subdued over the years by long hours and travel for my job in fundraising. Without really being aware, our food needs were increasingly being met by a variety of easily made or semi-assembled meals. Kim is not a fan of eating out (and back in normal days I ate out a lot for work), and we generally limit even our take-out eating to Friday night. Until recently that was Mexican food. Taco Today, owned by a Korean family and less than a block away, was our Friday night destination after a long week. I would sometimes meet Kim there after working out at the gym, although gym after work not happening in the past year or so as my hours at work grew ever longer.

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View of First Avenue from inside Taco Today, waiting for our Friday night order last year.

 

Those were of course the sylvan pre-pandemic days. Taco Today closed for renovation in early March and therefore avoided the dilemma of deciding whether they could stay in business. We have stuck to our Friday night take-out and supported our local pizza place (love you Arturo’s!) and first one and now another Mexican establishment somewhat further afield. There was briefly a sandwich shop on First, just opened pre-Covid, owned by an Indian man who would occasionally slip some native Indian fare into the offerings. He closed sometime in late March, but I just noticed yesterday they seem to have re-opened.

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Arturo’s Pizza is the best and we are very grateful for their effort to remain open during the Pandemic. This fellow greets us each time at this tiny hole-in-the-wall Yorkville establishment.

 

Working from home has involved even longer hours, but well, at home. I have already written some about the beehive of activity here in this one small room we call Deitch Studio and home. (I outlined some of the details in my recent post, We Work Each Day: Clivette Cont. which can be found here.) Thankfully our kitchen renovation (which still gives me horrors, the details can be found in a few posts that start here) was completed last fall. It has been put to excellent use.

It should be noted that I have always indulged in eating copious fruit and working from home during a pandemic I have allowed an unfettered consumption of oranges, apples and berries. Meanwhile, slowly the cooking memory muscle has begun to grind back to life. First a renewed interest in how to use leftovers, then wandering over to pastas. Fish fillets now enjoy blankets of sauce and dinner rarely has fewer than two vegetables. I replaced my broken food processor. Kim’s birthday saw the production of an actual, if simple, chocolate cake (recently documented here) and suddenly the itch to bake and cook is beckoning. (And yes, for those of you who are paying attention, I really only have one size of loaf Pyrex so everything is uniformly coming out the same size and shape!) I think I feel gazpacho coming on next.

The ever present worry about health living in quarantine during a pandemic has presumably fueled this interest beyond the additional time spent at home. What greater defense has there ever been against falling ill than eating right? Concerns about dieting seem absurd when considered in the context of pandemic, people falling ill and dying all around. While I have controlled a nagging desire to let loose with a barrage of baking (visions of chocolate chip cookies lurk in the corners of my mind), I made a decision early on that if I was going to be in quarantine I was doing it with dark chocolate and good ice cream. (Other folks thought this way and for a time ice cream was hard to find here.)

Frankly, if you are going to be marooned somewhere for several months, having continued access to excellent bagels (shout out to Bagel Bob’s on York Avenue) and pizza (another huzzah for Arturo’s, also on York) goes a long way to making up for the lack of access to outdoor space and well, space in general. Yay Manhattan!

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Messy crowded counter which I did not have time to clear off when the urge to make this cheesy olive loaf yesterday. 

 

Meanwhile, this week the desire manifested itself in another recipe from The New York Times, this time for an olive cheese bread. Bread in general presents a problem for me as I have arthritis in my hands and kneading has been out of the question for decades already. I more experienced baker might be able to substitute some aspect of the Cuisinart for this activity. (If you are one of those folks and want to enlighten me, please do.) I have not figured it out. This sort of faux bread skips that step and requires only a firm hand with a spatula mixing.

I have long thought that if I had stayed in the professional cooking business I might have moved into baking and not fancy pastry, but more down to earth things like bread, muffins and loaf cakes. I have never had a significant sweet tooth really and it is those savory items I might have spent my time concocting in another life. These are more forgiving than the French pastry of my training as well and allow even my somewhat ham-handed invention and variation.

Back to the cheesy olive bread. It is very simple and it is really delightful. Somehow it reminds me of my grandmother’s somewhat cake-y loaves. Kim is not a fan of eggs so I replaced them by doubling the buttermilk (I could have done the same by using yogurt and doubling it, but I couldn’t find yogurt I liked at the market) and it worked just fine, better than expected. (Now I have half of a container of buttermilk to use – any ideas out there?) I went the route of rosemary for herbs and included the suggested fresh ground pepper.

The smell while cooking was heavenly and a bonus is that you experience it all over again if you heat your slice before consuming which I also recommend – although oddly it doesn’t seem to actually toast. Might be my lack of eggs in the recipe but not sure. Meanwhile, mmmm! I am looking forward to slicing up some tomatoes, perhaps with some fresh basil, to put atop of slabs of this.

The recipe can be found on the NYT site here or as below. Thank you Melissa Clark!

Savory Olive and Cheese Loaf by Melissa Clark

2½ cups/320 grams all-purpose flour (or a combination of all-purpose and some whole-wheat or rye flour) 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1½ teaspoons baking powder ½ teaspoon baking soda ¼ cup/60 ml olive oil 1 cup/240 ml fermented dairy product (buttermilk or plain yogurt) 2 eggs ¾ cup/110 gr sliced pitted olives 1 cup/8 ounces grated cheese cup/8 ounces grated cheese (Gruyère, Cheddar or other hard grating cheese), divided (7 ounces & 1 ounce) 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, oregano, marjoram or rosemary OR 1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.

DIRECTIONS: Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan (or line it with parchment). In a large bowl, whisk together dey ingredients. In a large measuring cup, whisk together olive oil and buttermilk/yogurt. (If using thick Greek yogurt, thin it down with a little water, milk, or whey from yogurt-making.) Whisk in the eggs. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry to form a heavy, thick batter. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the pitted olives and ¾ cup/7 ounces grated cheese. Finally, add the herbs and seasonings. Spread the batter in the pan and scatter the remaining ¼ cup/1 ounce grated cheese on top. Bake until the cheese is browned and the top of the loaf springs back when lightly pressed, 45 to 55 minutes. Serve warm as soon as you can unmold it (about 30 minutes after baking).

Letting Us Eat Cake

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Baking makes an unusual post, but that is today’s and I know there are those of you who will not find this of interest. I promise toys and photos will return soon enough.

Making even a simple cake exercised a rare cooking muscle for me yesterday. I saw a recipe for a one bowl chocolate cake in the paper a few weeks ago and it stuck with me. (The recipe, from the New York Times can be found here, or below.) It looked delightfully simple, but in these strange pandemic days it took a little while to accrue what I needed. I gave myself the deadline of Kim’s birthday, several weeks ahead, to pull it together. Luckily I had flour which has been difficult to find. (There was an article recently about the “obscene amount of flour” being consumed in Britain. I say get a grip and let these poor people bake!)

Recently I was looking for Bisquick (a self-rising flour that can be used for pancakes, biscuits, dumplings and the like) and it has utterly disappeared from all available sources here. This leaves me wondering, as I do about many things, is it not being restocked or is it being bought that quickly? If it isn’t being restocked is it because it isn’t being made, or it isn’t being delivered? We do not know. Hopefully, like some other things, it will reappear over time. Meanwhile, I scored a box of pancake mix, realizing that all pancake flour was likely to be self-rising which turns out to be true and it made delightful dumplings.

Cooking cocoa proved the biggest barrier. Although cooking chips were available, cocoa powder was not to be had and it would work better. After reading an article about acquiring food in bulk I was reminded of a site called Nuts.com which has, in addition to nuts, beans, pasta and cooking cocoa. I bought a bag of perciatelli, hibiscus flowers (to make cold tea which is lovely), dried mushrooms and my cooking cocoa. (I feel compelled to warn you that most everything is sold in enormous quantities, although the cocoa was a reasonably sized bag – we have a lot of pasta however, and the hibiscus flowers will make enough tea through the summer.)

One of the joys of cooking during the internet age is the ability to figure out and calculate substitutions so easily. I didn’t have baking soda, only baking powder, and in seconds I had the conversion. You can find cooking substitutes for just about anything. The whole basis of this cake is substituting mayonnaise for eggs and as I said, I could have used just about any chocolate in a pinch.

Over a year ago I posted about another one-bowl, eggless, butter-free cake that I remembered from childhood, one we called a Poor Man’s Cake. I recreated the recipe from a combination of the internet and memory. (That post can be found here.) That was before we renovated the kitchen (that episode was depicted here and in several other posts) and I was seriously challenged by both my own lack of organization and a lack of space in the kitchen. As a result this time was much easier and more pleasant. (The only item that has utterly disappeared are my measuring spoons – they are blue and I have owned them for decades and they have utterly gone missing.)

I decided on a medium-sized, rectangular Pyrex dish which I think was a good choice. In a loaf pan it might be hard not to have the edges dry out a bit. It was the first time baking in this oven and I should have turned it at the mid-point in cooking as the oven is a bit uneven. It cooked faster than anticipated (about 20 minutes) so I didn’t get the chance.

cake

 

You will note that the use of chocolate chips (I went the full 2 ounces), coffee (instead of water) and brandy are optional and I used all, substituting Jack Daniels for brandy. (I had no vanilla.) In retrospect I think the cake benefitted from all of the above if you have them. I choose the simple confectionary sugar topping although a true vanilla or cream cheese frosting would upgrade this to a real dessert as opposed to a snacking cake.

It whisks together quickly and has a satisfying poof! after adding the baking soda/powder in. This reminded me that what I always enjoyed about baking – or much of cooking in general is the alchemy. You start with such disparate materials and end up with something so remarkably different. It is truly like magic.

Bowl

My first time reading a recipe off of an iPad while cooking. That Fresca in the background was also hard won. For some reason it too has disappeared in recent months and just came back on the shelves of the market. 

 

For me baking is a rarely indulged in pleasure. Our diets run to the pescatarian, with an emphasis on veggies – and pastries are a truly rare occurrence, let alone homemade ones, despite my deeply buried background in professional cooking and baking. During the months of quarantine it has taken some discipline not to embrace becoming a cookie and bread baking, cake making and eating machine! Hence the scarcity of certain items as we all think alike. There is comfort in what you can make yourself with your own hands and the thrill of smell wafting through the apartment as it bakes.

From the New York Times, One-Bowl Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake

INGREDIENTS

  • ¾ cup/180 milliliters boiling water, or use hot coffee, Earl Grey tea or mint tea
  • ¼ cup/25 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch-processed or natural)
  • 1 to 2 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate (optional)
  •  cup/160 milliliters mayonnaise
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • ¾ cup/150 grams granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or a dash of bourbon or whiskey (optional)
  • 1 ½ cups/190 grams all-purpose or cake flour
  •  Confectioners’ sugar, for finishing

PREPARATION

  1. To a large mixing bowl, add cocoa powder and chopped bittersweet chocolate (if using). Pour in boiling liquid, and let it sit for a few minutes, then whisk until smooth. The chocolate will have melted, if you used it, and the cocoa dissolved.
  2. Whisk in mayonnaise, salt, baking soda, 3/4 cup granulated sugar until smooth. Then whisk in a teaspoon of vanilla extract, if you have it (or a dash of Bourbon or brandy or just leave it out entirely). Finally, whisk in 1 1/2 cups flour (either all-purpose or cake flour), mixing vigorously to eliminate any lumps.
  3. Grease an 8- or 9-inch pan (square, round, star-shaped, anything is good). Pour the batter into the pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 22 to 40 minutes, until the top springs back when the center is lightly pressed. The deeper the pan, the longer it will take to bake through.
  4. Let cool, and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar to finish.