Gimmie Some Salt.

This morning I worked in my snowy backyard, making pee-paths for the dog. I leaned against my shovel and glanced up as a black-tipped white seagull floated high above the maple tree. The bird looked strangely perfect against the cloudless wintry sky, crisp and flawless and startlingly beautiful. In that moment, I felt ridiculously capable and adept, the mistress of my destiny and of my shovel. Then I went inside and ate about ten chocolate chip cookies.

So much for being healthy.

In my opinion, the best dessert recipes should have a generous pinch of salt. The salt makes you that much more aware of the other flavors, and intensifies the essence of each ingredient. I think the salt makes you salivate, and thereby activates all the taste buds covering your tongue.

(I kind of made that up, because what do I know about taste buds, but it sounds good.)

This Christmas, amongst other things, my husband gave me Cookie Love, the debut collaborative cookbook from chef Mindy Segal and food writer Kate Leahy. The next day I went through my favorite “new cookbook” ritual of reading the contents cover to cover and marking with brightly-colored Post-Its the recipes I most wanted to try.

Even though I have a few go-to chocolate chip cookie recipes, I’m always interested in giving others a chance to supplant the frontrunner. The recipe in Cookie Love is my new favorite. The results are crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, caramel-y and salty. Two different kinds of salt are required, on to flavor the dough and one to surprise you with a fun little jolt of salt. It’s a great curveball, and very much appreciated.

Do yourself a favor and do not skip the refrigeration stage of the recipe. It allows all the flavors to intensify, and when the cookies bake they won’t lazily sprawl across your baking sheet like a bunch of apathetic teenagers. Instead they’ll carefully and considerately stretch their chocolate-y little arms into well thought-out and self-actualized versions of themselves.

If only we could all be so fine.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Cookie Love by Mindy Segal with Kate Leahy
Makes about fourteen cookies

1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup firmly packed light muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups (8 ounces) chocolate discs (53% to 64% cacao)
sea salt, preferably the Cyprus variety, for garnish (optional)

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium speed for five to ten seconds. Add the sugars and beat until the butter mixture is aerated and pale in color, approximately 4 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.
  2. Crack the eggs into a small cup or bowl and add the vanilla.
  3. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, kosher salt, sea salt flakes, baking powder and baking soda.
  4. On medium speed, add the eggs and vanilla to the butter mixture, one egg at a time, mixing the first briefly before adding the second, until the batter resembles cottage cheese, approximately five seconds for each egg. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together. Mix on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds to make nearly homogenous.
  5. Add the dry ingredients all at once and mix on low speed until the dough comes together but still looks shaggy, approximately 30 seconds. Do not overmix. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. With a plastic bench scraper, bring the dough completely together by hand.
  6. With the plastic scraper, fold the chocolates into the dough until evenly distributed. Transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and wrap tightly. Refrigerate overnight.
  7. Heat the oven to 350°. Lightly coat a couple of half sheet (13×18 inch) pans with nonstick cooking spray.
  8. Using a ¾-ounce (1 ½ tablespoon) ice cream scoop, portion the dough into twelve mounds. Be mindful that the chocolate pieces are evenly distributed among the mounds. Evenly space the mounds on a prepared sheet pan. Bake for eight minutes. Rotate the pan and bake until the edges begin to caramelize and the tops set, approximately four more minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pan for one to two minutes. Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
  9. Repeat with the remaining dough. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. Dough can be refrigerated for up to one week.

One last thing: I really like the use of chopped chocolate here, as opposed to actual chips. They look nicer and so much more fun, all speckled and freckly like Pippi Longstocking. Oh, and if you really want to go the extra mile, you can chill your cookie sheets in the fridge too. It makes quite a difference.

* “Gimmie Some Salt” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
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I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).

I’m at my best when I’m cooking. By this I don’t mean that I’m the best cook; I am just the best version of myself when I’ve got a knife in my hand and a pan over a fire. There are few things in life that keep you focused as searing heat and a very sharp blade.

I think part of the reason why it’s so hard for me to diet is because I just love food so much, and I like to cook. There are millions of people across this world who feel as passionately — if not more passionately — than I do about food yet can remain slim and can moderate what they eat. To those people I say, without a single trace of irony and from the bottom of my heart, Good for you. I’ll never be one of you.

That’s all right, though. I am used to not being a part of things. I’ll just have to figure out how to do this my own way.

My own way, something I’m still sussing out, will have to include some sort of contingency plan because my downfall is always me. I’ll have a bad day, or a good day, or a bored day, and the remedy is always going to be food-based. And — let’s be serious — the food is likely going to be butter- or sugar-based. (An apple isn’t going to cut it, unless it’s floating amongst other fruit in a tumbler of white wine sangria.) Then, once I fail, I have a hard time getting back to making smart, healthy choices. I become lost in the woods of full-fat milk and a never-ending chain of garlic bagels and sneakily-purchased barbecue potato chips and raw cookie dough quietly eaten while my dog and husband sleep upstairs.

Something I need to remember: only I can do this for myself. If I lose track of myself, I can find my way back.

Something else I need to remember: I’m working towards an intangible goal. It’s hard to visualize what a healthy body looks and feels like when your mind —your thriving, boundless, wild mind — lives deep within layers of underutilized, settled and slumped-over mush.

So.

Here’s to looking ahead, keeping a mind open to success and failure, and moving on from both.

I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” by Jamie xx

I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.

Here’s a dream I have — and by dream I don’t mean the kind where you close your eyes at night and your mind takes you somewhere strange and unfamiliar against your will. When I say dream in this instance what I mean is the kind that you have when you rest your cheek against your palm and give life a solid ponder, like an angel.

I dream of going to LA. I dream that I rent a little apartment in the middle of the city. The apartment is white and tired, but clean, so although the linoleum is peeling and cracked like an old sunburn, it also seems fresh. In this LA dream I don’t tell anyone I’m in the city. Instead I anonymously walk the same streets as my grandparents: Harvard, Vermont, New Hampshire — names I never realized would conjure up entirely different landscapes for my adult self. In my dream I place my feet in the same exact spaces my grandparents’ once occupied on the concrete sidewalks and I follow their footprints to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the fruit stand. I buy apricots by the pound, bags and bags of them. When I get back to my clean white and empty apartment, I sit on the floor and swallow them whole.

I don’t know if my grandfather was a sweet man, since we were never really able to communicate. His English wasn’t a strength, and I was too embarrassed to use the Armenian I had when I was a sour and ornery teenager, but when I was a young child visiting LA he used to take me to buy fruit from a street vendor. The man had apricots, always, and he sold them from rectangular woven baskets on the sidewalk. My grandfather would let me pick as many as I wanted, and when we got back to the orange and brown apartment he shared with my grandmother, he and I would eat the apricots right out of the paper bag, along with baby almonds, which are encased in a fuzzy pistachio green shell and taste bitter. I didn’t know my grandfather well, and we were never able to get to know one another well, but he always fed me well.

When he died, I was in Hawaii with my mother’s family, embarrassed to be chauffeured around Oahu in a white Hummer limousine alongside eighteen relatives chattering away in Visayan. My brother and I eventually rented our own car, a marigold-yellow 4×4, because apparently mainlanders are forbidden from driving anything that isn’t laughable.

I’ve never seen my father cry, not really, but on the phone he keened and I imagined him sitting desolately on his great big brass bed, his sweatshirted arms around himself, the dog on a cushion in front of the TV. That day there were five thousand miles and five time zones between us and even if he had been five steps away I imagine my father would have felt just as alone. He forbade us from flying home. Years later I visited my grandfather at Forest Lawn, where his grave marker lay alongside my grandmother’s and great-uncle’s. There was a drought, unsurprisingly, and the grass was crunchy and brown underneath our feet.

Today I sat in traffic on 93 South, drinking coffee out of a paper cup and talking to my father on the phone. I let the conversation drift before asking him for a good memory of his father. Without even the skimpiest of pauses he said his father encouraged him to excel at a trade. Another great-uncle had been an exalted judge, my father explained; when he and his family arrived in Syria as refugees from the Armenian Genocide, the great-uncle had been unable to find work since he didn’t speak Arabic.

It was a cautionary tale my father took to heart, but he added his own addendum: education. His dream, as a man who never set foot in a high school as a student, was college. When he was unable to fulfill it, he adjusted his aspirations and instead imagined the colleges my brother and I would attend. He didn’t know us yet, of course, but he dreamed to one day be so successful he could send his theoretical children to schools of their choosing.

That, he told me, was the best memory of his father: learning how to plan for us.

* “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” by Otis Redding.

This Will Be Our Year.

Ten years ago today I stood shivering in pointy-toed flats on an icy Montpellier street. I wore Wolford Adelia tights under my jeans and a cashmere wrap sweater under my beryl-blue wool coat and a wine-colored scarf around my neck and it just wasn’t enough. My clothes, which seemed posh and chic at home, felt dowdy and unsubstantial in France, and like me they were astonished by the cutting wind whipping inland off of the Mediterranean. We were in Europe for a wedding and I spent the week simultaneously enamored by and uncomfortable with everything.

The groom’s sister had made chocolate mousse for dessert after a family dinner; it was the first time I’d ever eaten it outside of a restaurant and the realization that something so luxe could be made so effortlessly at home was astounding. Later I learned that she’d been making mousse since she was a child and the idea that this was a trifling little thing French children did as though it was as simple as peeling a banana — a task for which I sometimes need a knife or help, even as a full-fledged adult — all but bowled me over. I ate as much as I could without calling attention to my gluttony. Later in the evening I wrapped myself in the quilt at our chambre d’hôtes and swallowed one tablet of Pepto-Bismol after another, knowing full well that if the opportunity for more mousse presented itself tomorrow I wouldn’t have learned my lesson.

I wore a dusky slate-colored draped jersey dress to the wedding and a fuzzy off-white bolero-ish sweater with a hidden hook-and-eye clasp. Before the trip I had road-tested my outfit with opaque tights and a pair of tweed-and-metal Prada heels of which I was especially fond. In Boston, my reflection looked stylish and festive, perfectly dressed for a winter wedding; in France, I looked ridiculous, a girl playing dress-up in an incomprehensible mélange of clothes. Helpfully, the hairdryer at the chambre d’hôtes had gone against its nature; rather than blowing heat out, it sucked air into itself — along with a hunk of my hair. My husband of four months borrowed scissors from our host family and cut me free, leaving me looking like a second-rate Robert Smith impersonator. That said, even if I had managed to recreate the Thandie Newton curls I’d been going for, there’s no way I would’ve been able to come close to matching the natty elegance of French women.

Slim and hipless gamines, curvaceous and bosomy bombshells, all of them at once elegant and louche. Each smoking cigarettes and drinking champagne and speaking in nimble quick-fire English with ridiculously cartoonish and alluring accents. Later, in the bathroom, I caught one straightening after leaning over a sink, wiping powder prettily from her nose. Part of me was aghast, the prudish American, but a larger part of me, likely my insatiable and growling gut, was jealous of her recklessness, her audacity.

On New Year’s Eve we prowled the boulevards and alleyways of Montpellier, heading to a party. The streets were strung with a latticework of white lights overhead and everything was impossibly romantic. Strangers called out to one another — bonne année, bonne santé — waving bottles of champagne out of windows. In a crammed studio apartment on the top floor of a courtyard building, I sat with another ill-at-ease American. Neither of us had anything to say to the other. Eventually he pulled out a notebook and after a time I realized he was drawing pictures of penises. Dicks in coats, dicks riding bicycles, dicks eating pizzas, dicks kissing dicks. Most were uncircumcised. Two days prior, I had sat across the dinner table from this man’s mother, listening with a terror-stricken smile on my face as she genially told me how much of a disappointment he was to her.

“Yup,” he agreed, just as genially. “It’s true.”

Today I took the dog for a long walk while I waited for my chicken to come out of the oven. I had crushed garlic, rosemary, sage and thyme into butter, which I’d then spread in a thick layer underneath the bird’s skin. The chicken would roast over potatoes, sunchokes and carrots; my hope was that the chicken would be generous and share its herbs and fat and seasoning with the vegetables. It’s an easy dish to make, and one that requires little effort from the cook, so the dog and I went for a really long wander, rambling through our neighborhood without a specified path.

This has always been my approach to resolutions and the new year and life, really. I think obliquely about what I want, or about what I think will make me happy, but I rarely have a solid plan in place. It’s not a system that’s gotten me far, though I have accidentally stumbled upon success and a degree of prosperity by sheer happenstance and luck.

I met my husband at a college I chose arbitrarily — I was waitlisted for my top pick; my second selection was in the-middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin and as a New Yorker that kind of terrified me; my “safety” school was truly a last resort option. So I chose a college in Boston that proclaimed everyone was welcome, the weirder the better.

And people were weird in college. They were weird and strange and bizarre and like every other college student in America, except this group had more green hair and nose piercings. They threw parties and hooked up and smoked clove cigarettes and were pretentious and used the phrase post-modern way too much and worked hard and slacked off and were ambitious and wrote papers and missed class and had grand ideas and talked late into the night about everything and everyone and nothing and no one all in one big collective breath as though if their thoughts didn’t come out right that very second they would dissolve like the sound of a siren suddenly screaming to life and fading just as quickly into silence.

Silence is something I’m familiar with. It’s easy to not say anything substantial when you don’t have a set objective, and from there it’s easy too to be a disappointment, even if you don’t spend a lot of time drawing anthropomorphized dicks. So it’s time to establish some goals, after so many years of doing a unintentionally great impersonation of a dust mote. (A loveable dust mote with decent hair and excellent eye liner, but a dust mote nonetheless.) I’m putting them out there, and trying not to think of any of you who may be reading this — no offense, but in order to write this, I can’t think of anything but honesty, and sometimes being honest means being selfish.

Get healthy. I am lazy and I am fat and I am too old for this. Also, I’m tired of catching sight of my stomach reflected back at me in a floor-to-ceiling window and being both embarrassed and surprised. And I would like, for once, to choose to not to get my picture taken because I simply don’t want to, as opposed to feeling too fat to.

Write something. I was going to say write more, but write something is more accurate. I have had a partially formed idea in my head for years now and it’s time for me to do something about it. It could be something truly great. It could also be something truly mediocre but considering that right now it’s truly nothing I figure there’s nothing to lose.

Make bread. Yeast is scary, you guys. Not scary in a it’s-got-a-lot-of-teeth-and-is-evolutionarily-perfect like a shark, but it creeps me out. And, unlike a shark, I’m pretty sure I can conquer it.

There they are. Three seems like a good number. It’s a place to start. Let’s see what I say about 2016 in ten years.

* “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies.