Since being laid off in April, I’ve been renovating nonstop. DONE, but a week until my house of 34 years goes on the market. Am I finally retired or what? Can’t fathom the idea, but change is coming and it is both scary and exciting. Today: 1. After I cleaned some windows, sewed a table runner, and caulked a couple of sinks, a bunch of neighbors showed up and wanted to see the house. Some great comments; gratifying – I think maybe I did good. 2. Made some killer guacamole with generous dashes of habañero sauce (recently discovered when I visited my daughter in Mexico – soooo tasty), now watching the Super Bowl to try to better understand American culture (mystifying), and being reckless by having not one, but two margaritas. Does this presage what retirement will be like? Food exploration, maybe more margaritas? Anything is possible. Deep breath. Exhale.
Three cycles – and full circle on all of them, putting me back to square one. I don’t think DC has another beginning for me, so for the last six months I have been renovating my home of 34 years and will move to another state in a few months. I finished the work on my house this week.
So here is the Big Question: How do I be a real beginner again, like I was 45 or so years ago when I was a young 20-something with all the potential in the world? How did it feel to be open to whatever might happen? How was I able to live in the moment? After 45 years of responsibility, intense scheduling, and above all control, how do I slow down, drop my defenses, and let new experiences and people into my life again?
I have no idea, but I hope I can do it.
A bit over a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. This is not uncommon – 1 in every 8 women will have breast cancer at some point in their lifetimes. This morning, I stumbled across a New York Times blog that solicited personal stories from those who have or have had breast cancer. I have a lot to say about this disease, its treatment, and the long-term consequences, but this is the story I submitted:
“My story is not one of heroics. Breast cancer did not move me to start a foundation, become an advocate, or discover reawakened joy in existence. My story is much more mundane and much more common.
What breast cancer did was to add 20 years to my functional age, leaving me with significant long-term mental and physical issues that the mainstream medical profession does not yet acknowledge because few studies have been done to prove that such long-term side effects occur. Because chemo brought about poor short-term memory, inability to multitask, and lack of stamina, I lost my job. Because of lack of support from the medical profession, I lost my disability income. Because I cannot in good faith apply for full-time work until these issues resolve, I have not yet qualified for unemployment benefits.
At 64, living alone, the only heroics I can muster are to prepare my home of 34 years for sale and churn up some excitement for a new life with different opportunities in a more affordable location. I’m sad about this. I loved my fast-paced and creative profession in the big city – I’d just been at it 5 years after having gone back to school to get a masters degree – and wasn’t ready to give it up. I love my home of 34 years, where I raised my children and lovingly tended a gorgeous garden. I have friends here.
However, I’m getting my head around the idea that this move will be positive in many ways. I won’t have to work, but I may find a new niche in my profession in a slower-paced smaller community. A new house means I can start a new garden and have some fun renovating. I’ll meet new people.
My first task is to let go of my needling anger with the medical profession and other institutions that should have provided better support during and after my chemo. One more appointment, then I’m washing my hands of these bad vibes. My next challenge will be to tip over the line from nostalgia for my old life to excitement for my new one. I’m almost there – I can feel the momentum. Then I’ll make the big move. I genuinely believe that this change, as difficult as it has been, will be positive. Change almost always is.”
By popular request, here is my adaptation of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Ginger Pennies from Rose’s Christmas Cookies, my most-used cookbook ever. This book is so beloved that it is no longer a book, but a pack of loose pages.
Piping out these cookies is tedious, but they are delicious – crisp, buttery, and flavorful – and worth the effort.
Equipment: buttered or greased cookie sheets (strongly suggest you use insulated sheets, not the thin ones); reclosable gallon-size freezer bag or a pastry bag and 1/4″ tip.
Place 2 oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To mix the dough in a food processor:
In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, and salt until they’re mixed evenly.
Process the sugar, egg, and molasses in the food processor. Cut the butter into 1″ pieces and add to the processor with the motor running. Process until smooth. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula if necessary. Pulse in the dry ingredients until well blended.
To mix the dough in an electric mixer:
Soften the butter to room temperature. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, and salt until evenly mixed.
In the mixer bowl, cream together the sugar, egg, molasses, and softened butter. Add the dry ingredients on low speed until well blended.
Forming the cookies:
Scrape the mixture into the gallon freezer bag, close securely, and cut off the corner of the bag to create a 1/4″ diameter hole (or you may use a pastry bag with a 1/4″ round tip). Pipe very small 1/2″ mounds on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 1″ apart. The small peaks that form on the mounds are ok. (If you want to use parchment instead of greasing the sheets, tape the parchment down while you’re piping. If you don’t, the parchment lifts up with each piping and this slows you down a lot. Parchment seems to yield slightly better shaped cookies.)
Bake for about 5 minutes or until browned. For even baking, rotate the cookie sheets from top to bottom and front to back half way through the baking time. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 3 minutes then slide them off onto wire racks to cool and crisp. Keep them separate as they are cooling or they will stick together. If they don’t get crisp, add bake for just a little longer, but don’t let them burn.
Allow the baking sheets to cool completely before using for the next batch.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature. They will keep several months at low humidity.
Yields 25 dozen tiny cookies.
This refreshing and delicious salad is adapted from Giada De Laurentiis’ cookbook Weeknights with Giada.
Toast the almonds by arranging them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 6-8 minutes until lightly toasted. Check them after 4 minutes to make sure they aren’t browning too quickly. Take them out as soon as they are lightly brown. Don’t let them burn. Cool completely.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Have ready a bowl filled halfway with ice and water.
Use a small paring knife to separate the leaves from the sprouts (reserve cores for another use). Add the sprout leaves to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Drain and transfer the leaves to the bowl of ice water. When cool, drain in a colander. [Giada says you may core quarter the sprouts instead of cutting off the leaves. In this case, blanch for 2 minutes instead of 1. I haven't tried this.]
Combine the sprouts, arulula, endive, and almonds in a salad bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the dressing to the salad and toss. Use as much dressing as you like – I usually use less than recipes call for. Sprinkle with the cheese and serve.
This delicious salad, adapted from Sara Foster’s Fresh Every Day, was a big hit at a recent Thanksgiving-themed potluck at work. It is refreshing and surprisingly light. It was yummy with the roast turkey we had at our luncheon and would be good with other roasted or braised meat dishes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Put the beets on a baking sheet with sides or in a glass baking dish. If you’re using a combination of beets, separate the colors into two or more baking dishes to keep the red beets from coloring the yellow ones. Pour the orange juice, olive oil, vinegar, maple syrup, and the water over the beets. If you’ve separated the beets into multiple baking dishes, distribute these ingredients equally over the dishes. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the baking sheet or dish tightly with foil and roast the beets until they are tender when pierced with a sharp knife. This will take from 40 to 75 minutes, depending on the size and type of beet. Remove from oven, uncover, and cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking liquid to use as a dressing.
Peel the cooled beets. Don’t peel the beets under running water or wash them because this will wash away some of the flavor. Slice the beets into 1/4″ rounds or quarter-rounds.
Arrange the beets, oranges, fennel, and onion on a platter or on salad plates. Don’t toss the veggies, just arrange them. Make it pretty.
Pour the reserved cooking liquid over the vegetables. You will not need to use it all – add to taste. If you’ve separated the beets by color, taste the two cooking liquids and use the one you like the best. I ended up using about half of the red beet liquid and none of the yellow beet liquid. Season with salt (a nice finishing salt if you have it) and freshly ground black pepper and top with the crumbled cheese, chives, and mint. Garnish with fennel or mint sprigs.
Notes: You can substitute other cheeses. Foster recommends Stilton or blue cheese as an alternate. She also says you can roast the fennel and onions instead of using them raw and serve the salad warm.
The best comfort food. Guaranteed to make your friends and family love you.
The chicken and the stock:
Make chicken stock. Pick the cooked chicken off the bone, tear into bite size pieces, and set aside. Strain the stock and set 2-3 cups aside. Save the rest for another use (freeze it if you can’t use it right away) and discard the bones and vegetables.
When you are ready to make the pot pie, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Make a single recipe of pie crust. While it is chilling, make the filling. You can substitute your favorite biscuit recipe for the pie crust.
Heat the stock in the microwave or a small saucepan.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic (if using) and saute over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, but not brown, about 10 minutes. If adding mushrooms, raise the heat to medium high and stir in the mushrooms. Saute until mushrooms are softened and any liquid they’ve exuded is evaporated.
Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute, stirring. Mix may be lumpy, but that’s ok. Whisk in 2 cups of the stock and cook, stirring, until sauce is smooth and thickened. Stir in the cream and/or sherry, if using. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste. Add the peas, if using. Stir in the chicken and the parsley. The filling should be somewhat saucy, not dry or really thick. Add some additional stock or cream if it needs to be thinned a bit.
Assembling the pot pie:
Pour filling into a buttered 2 quart baking dish. Roll out the pie crust and drape it over the filling. Have fun with the edges. Cut a few slits in the crust to let the steam escape during baking. You can do this ahead of time and bake just before serving.
Bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly, about 30-40 minutes. If you assembled the pie ahead of time, bake longer to ensure that everything is hot. Either way, keep an eye on it. If it’s getting brown before it’s getting bubbly, lay a piece of foil on the top. If it’s getting bubbly but not brown, increase the heat to 425 to brown it.
(James Beard’s recipe for “Old-Fashioned Rich Chicken Pie” in James Beard’s American Cookery says to bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. You can try it that way if you want. He also brushes the crust with some beaten egg yolk blended with a T of cream. )
If you want to substitute biscuit dough for pie crust dough, place biscuits on top the filling instead of crust. Biscuits can be drop biscuits or rolled biscuits.
If you end up with a lot of chicken and veggies and the filling seems to need more sauce, you can also make another cup or two of veloute sauce or bechamel and add it to the filling before assembling the pot pie.
You can make these in individual baking dishes as well.
This is a basic sauce, similar to Bechamel, but made with stock instead of milk. This recipe is for one cup.
Warm the stock in the microwave or on the stove.
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or so to take the rawness out of the flour. Whisk in the hot stock and continue whisking until the sauce comes to a boil and is smooth and thickened. Taste it and add salt and pepper as needed. Nap with heavy cream if you want a creamier sauce.
This is my favorite pie crust recipe. It was adapted from The California Heritage Cookbook by The Junior League of Pasadena and The Complete Book of Pastry by Bernard Clayton, Jr. The Clayton book is a good one for your cookbook library and it is still in print.
This recipe is for a single 9″ or 10″ crust. Make two recipes if you need a double crust.
Food processor method:
Pulse dry ingredients together. Cut butter into cubes and add to dry ingredients. Pulse for 3 seconds several times until butter is the size of grains of rice. Don’t overmix.
With motor running, add just enough ice water to make the mixture start to lose its dry look. Don’t add so much water that mix actually comes together in a ball. Mix should still be crumbly, but no longer powdery. Pay attention, as the dough can turn from dry to too wet pretty fast.
Dump the dough out and very gently press it together into a ball. You want it to come together, but use a light hand and don’t knead the dough much. If you do, the crust will be tough, not tender. If the dough is not coming together with gentle pressing, sprinkle some more water on it and try again. If it is sticky, you added too much water, but just let it be and sprinkle extra flour on your rolling-out surface. Don’t put it back in the food processor again.
Hand mix method:
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with two table knives or a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of small peas or large rice grains. You can also kind of flick the fat between your thumb and fingers to break it down into small flakes. I like doing it this way, but your hands can’t be warm and you need to maintain a light touch.
Sprinkle on ice water while you gather the ingredients together with your fingers. Add only enough water to bring the dough together into a ball. You can gently knead it two or three times if necessary, but use a light touch and don’t work the dough too much or it will be tough.
For both methods:
Flatten the dough ball slightly and wrap the dough in waxed paper or plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 minutes before rolling out.
Dust your countertop or pastry board with flour and roll out the dough into a circle 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick, large enough to cover your baking dish. Roll from the center out to the edges. Don’t use a back-and-forth motion. Roll the dough onto your rolling pin or fold it in quarters and transfer to your pie pan or to the top of your pie, depending on your recipe.
For a single crust recipe, trim the edges, leaving about an inch of dough overhanging the pan. Fold this overhang under along the edge of the pie pan and pinch it into a nice decorative edge. For a double crust recipe, follow the directions in the recipe for filling the unbaked bottom crust, then roll out a second crust and drape over the filled pie, tucking in the overhanging dough and pinching into a decorative edge. Follow your pie recipe for further instructions.
To bake blind – If your recipe calls for a pre-baked crust, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Prick the crust with the tines of a fork in several places. Line the crust with aluminum foil and weigh it down with pie weights or dried beans if you have them (if you don’t, just fold over some extra foil into the center and sort of crumple it up to support the sides of the crust against the pan). For a partially-baked crust, bake for 15 minutes, then lift out the foil and weights and allow to cool before filling. For a fully-baked crust, take out the foil and weights and return the partially-baked shell to the oven for an additional 10-20 minutes until the dough becomes light golden brown. Different ovens will require different times, so watch the crust and don’t let it get too dark.
Sometimes I use 5 Tbs of butter and 4 Tbs of shortening or lard. The key is to have a total of 9 Tbs of fat for this amount of flour. You can also use all butter (crust can be a bit tough and somewhat oilier) or all shortening (crust will be flaky, but less flavorful).
The key to flaky, light crust is to keep everything very cold and to handle it as little as possible. I keep shortening in the freezer for this purpose and use it directly from the freezer. If you have hot hands, cool them before you handle the crust. Some cooks roll out their pie crust on a marble slab, which stays cool.
The basic white sauce. Use for everything.
Warm the milk in the microwave or stovetop. Don’t boil.
Roux: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two, whisking constantly, to take the rawness out of the flour. Whisk in the hot milk, whisking constantly until it comes to a gentle boil. Simmer gently for a minute or so until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Variation: Put a sprig or two or thyme or other herb in the milk when you warm it. Remove the sprig when the sauce is done.
More variations: Add grated cheese to make a cheese sauce (with a tsp. of Dijon mustard added for macaroni and cheese, for example). Use chicken stock instead of milk (or half stock and half milk) to make a veloute sauce (for your chicken pot pie, for example). Add some heavy cream to enrich the sauce. Add a dash of sherry at the end.
For a really thick sauce, use 3 T butter and 3 T flour. For a thinner sauce use 1 T butter and 1 t flour.
Ideas: Add cooked chicken and put it over toast. Mix in some tuna and cooked veggies and put it over noodles. Endless possibilities.