Milk plus alcohol equals tasty holiday cheer

I am not a Christmas crazy. I don’t early observe. There is never anything Christmasy visible on Thanksgiving. The tree goes up late in December, just before the kids come home, and I save the decorating until they can join in. We are the last on the street to put up lights, and I am one of those last-minute shoppers. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the season. But with the kids grown and gone, and a job to work at, the preparation has lost its magic. (Relax. I am not going to complain about my empty nest again this month.)

The only exception I make to pre-Christmas revelry is the immediate tuning of the car radio to the station that plays Christmas music, and the regular purchase of eggnog. The way I see it, drinking eggnog with one’s leftover turkey-cranberry sandwich is totally acceptable. I love it so much.    

The eggnog selection at the grocery store is crazy right now. You can get eggnog to suit whatever stage of lactose participation you are in. And because it is so readily available, it has become a regular item on the December shopping list. Eggnog lets me feel the holiday spirit with very little effort, and without lining the pockets of Starbucks.

The eggnog that you buy in the grocery store is the descendant — or rather, the amalgamation — of several old-timey milk-based beverages. Granted, milk plus alcohol sounds gross on the surface. The combination always reminds me of the time I was served homemade “Bailey’s,”  then had to call in sick the next day. But in the Middle Ages, milk and booze was, as they say, fancy pants. In preindustrial Northern Europe, few people had cows, so moo juice was largely the privilege of wealthy landowners. The best chance to find one of these milky cocktails was after a fox hunt on the estate of Lord Rupert Brimblegoggin-Tricklebank.

The first written version of something similar to eggnog was called posset, documented in 14th-century cookery books as a beverage made from milk, wine and spices that would be curdled and strained. Yes, you are right if you think it sounds like whey that gets you drunk. To that I say, “No, thank you.” Fifteenth-century recipes saw the addition of sugar, cream and sometimes eggs, which sounds a little better. They even had special posset pots for this, which look something like a teapot, but with two handles. If there is a recipe that involves an obscure piece of crockery I can buy, then I am completely on board.

Nog was a 17th-century term for English ale, and wooden drinking cups were called noggins. There are English recipes from that century that mix ale and milk, but it is thought that the term eggnog was coined by American colonists who mixed rum — or grog — with eggs and milk. Egg-n-grog eventually became eggnog, because here in America we never use two names when they can be combined into one. (See “Bennifer”).

These drinks gained popularity in the American colonies, where, though there were few fancy estates, there were plenty of cows. Here, colonists mixed their milk with rum, not ale, because, thanks to the triangle trade, it was cheap and plentiful.

(Stop here for a moment and reflect on the terrible history of slavery before resuming blissful holiday reading.)

Even though I consume store-bought eggnog on the regular, I will, when the occasion arises, happily whip up a batch from scratch the old-fashioned way. Especially when it means I can dust off the punch bowl. I could very easily turn to the Internet for an eggnog recipe. But I am not interested in a lame recipe that involves cooking your eggs into a custard. This is a modern step that was added when people started freaking out about raw eggs. I do not condone such paranoia, as I have only ever gotten salmonella from old fish, and I know that salmonella is more easily contracted from cutting a melon than cracking an egg. Also, I know that agitation (a.k.a. “beating”) denatures protein in the same way that heat does, and therefore whipped eggs are technically cooked.

Also, I live on the edge.

So, instead, I like to thumb through my ridiculous cookbook collection and find something truly ancient. My new favorite eggnog recipe came from the crispy, browning pages of America’s Cook Book, compiled in 1938 by the Home Institute of the New York Herald Tribune. The eggnog recipe in the cocktail chapter is the same as the recipe from the beverage chapter, but the former’s title was changed from Egg Nog to New Year’s Egg Nog because it sounded mighty boozy. Apparently, the ladies (I’m obviously making a gender assumption here) of the Home Institute of the New York Herald Tribune wanted you to think they only drank on holidays. The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, ladies! Have at it!

Happy holidays!


Dust off your punch bowl or posset pot and try this for your next holiday gathering. I dare you! This recipe makes 24 1938-style portions, meaning dainty punch cups. If you are using larger cups, plan accordingly. Similarly, if you are just making this for yourself, cut down all ingredients equally across the board.


6 eggs, separated

¾ cup granulated sugar

1½ cups cognac

½ cup rum

4 cups milk

4 cups heavy cream

Freshly grated nutmeg


1. Whip the egg yolks and sugar until very light in color, and about as thick as sour cream (known in the biz as a “ribbon”). Slowly, while still beating, add the cognac and rum, then the milk and cream.   

2. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, then gently fold them into the yolk mixture. Top each serving with a generous sprinkling of grated nutmeg.   

Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

Waste not (Halloween candy), want not

Halloween has come and gone, and I still have a cupboard full of candy. You’d think I would have gauged the trick-or-treat traffic flow of the neighborhood by now (I’ve lived in this spot for 20 years). Our home is on the only uphill section of a very long, very straight and otherwise flat street. Most years we get only one or two costumed hooligans willing to huff-and-puff up a half block for free candy. One year I thought, “Eh, no one will come — we’ll just turn our lights off.” Of course, the doorbell rang for two hours, and I had guilt until Thanksgiving. That year I vowed to always be prepared. 

Another reason I have candy left over is that, although I have an empty nest, I still buy the kids’ favorite candy. It’s not that I think that somehow the presence of said candy will conjure them back home for the day. Rather, it is a test. Somehow, otherworldly spirits are testing me, and if I were to forget the kids’ candy, the spirits would make the kids forget me. 

I realize this is boo-nanas. But my favorite book as a kid was E.L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth, in which the protagonist, Elizabeth, must complete several tasks on her way to becoming a real witch with powers. I view the candy as a task I must complete to realize the full powers of motherhood. I don’t know what those powers are yet, as there are several more tasks to complete over this holiday season. I’ll be in touch.   

Anyway, this is why I have a ton of leftover candy. Again.

When the kids were little, there was no such thing as leftover candy. They ate plenty of it on Halloween night, after a long session of bartering. Once they were in bed, it was time for us to assess the loot and abscond with our favorites. Then, I would tuck a piece in their lunch box every day until it was all gone. Never did I ask, “Whatever shall I do with all this leftover candy?” More likely, the question was, “Who ate that Butterfinger I was saving?”

But things change, and now I find myself researching recipes that utilize leftover candy. The fare is about what you’d think. Mix it into cookies. Mix it into brownies. Mix it into rice crispy bars. Mix it into cheesecake. A lot of mixing, and not a lot of real cooking. I have even come across several suggestions to mix all the candy together for a pie, sandwiched inside a double crust of traditional pie dough and baked into a melty mass of diabetes on a plate. (It has been suggested by members of this family that it doesn’t sound half bad, but I should use a crumb crust and top it with Cool Whip.)

The issue one may have with leftover Halloween-candy recipes is that they are mostly for chocolate candies. It’s the hard, gummy, sour and slimy candies that present the challenge. But I have some tricks up my sleeve.

For hard and gummy candies, my most ingenious idea has been to use them in my sauce making. Anytime your sauce calls for sugar, use some hard candies instead. Add them to the simmering sauce, and stir them in as they dissolve. If they are sour, like Jolly Ranchers, their acidity can really help balance a sauce. I have done this with stir-fry and satay sauces, as well as the classic French gastrique. The other thing I do with hard candies is save them for Christmas to make stained-glass cookies. Use your favorite sugar-cookie dough, cut out shapes, then cut out a center hole in each shape. Lay the window “frames” on a parchment-lined baking sheet, then fill the space with crushed hard candies. As they bake, the candy will melt and create the window “glass.” This looks best with clear hard candies, but I’ve done it with red-and-white peppermints too.  (Although, if you received red-and-white peppermints in your trick-or-treat bag, that’s a legitimate excuse to egg a house. That’s a worse offense than raisins.)

A quick, easy and seemingly decadent use for any and all chocolate candy bars is super-simple microwave mousse. Use equal parts of chocolate candy and heavy cream. Melt the chocolates slowly in the microwave, stirring until liquid and smooth, then cool for 5 minutes while whipping the cream to medium peaks. Pour the warm chocolate into the whipped cream and quickly whip it again until well combined and stiff. Spoon into dishes and chill. You can use this mousse as a pie filling too. (Definitely a crumb crust — possibly made with leftover Oreos.)

Marshmallowy, gummy candies (including those weird candy hamburgers) melt easily into your favorite rice crispy bar recipe and can be zapped soft into Winter-Kitchen Microwave S’mores. I have also used these in conjunction with leftover chocolate bars in my best seven-layer bar recipe. 

This year, though, I’m going to make my favorite cookie, which I affectionately and unimaginatively call The World’s Best Cookie. To be clear, I named it that because I like it — not because everyone else does. It has a subtle crunch that comes from cornflakes and is usually studded with chocolate chips, nuts and coconut. (This evening the part of chocolate chips, nuts and coconut will be played by chopped leftover peanut butter cups, Milky Ways and M&Ms).  I will make these, then ship them off in care packages to the offspring, because I am pretty sure that is part of this mystic test. 

The onslaught of fall is an onslaught of these tests. Everywhere are reminders of my kids, and everywhere are reminders that I have turned into a stereotypical parent of adult children — reminiscing about their youth, telling the same stories over and over, grunting when I get up out of a chair. It comes as a shock every time, though, because in my head I still feel that I’m in my mid-30s, tops. (That damn mirror always ruins everything.) When I was a 30something parent, they were just toddlers, and I was actively counting down until their 18th birthdays, when they would no longer be my problem. (This was due, in no small part, to exhaustion.) Along the way they kinda grew on me. 

So, anyway, I hope you enjoyed yet another column about how I miss my kids. Maybe I should get a dog. (Except, nope. That’s another stereotypical move…forget it.) Anyway, they won’t be home for Thanksgiving either. I will be busy completing November’s mystical test, which has something to do with pine-cone turkey crafts. Luckily, using up leftovers at Thanksgiving is
much easier.


THE WORLD’S BEST COOKIE: Post-Halloween Edition

Although this recipe advocates the use of leftover Halloween candy, I am not averse to the notion of throwing in a handful of crushed pretzels or potato chips as well. Just keep the combined garnishes down to 3 cups.


1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups quick oats, uncooked

2 cups cornflakes

3 cups assorted candies, chopped into    chocolate-chip-sized pieces


1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with pan spray or parchment paper.

2. Cream together butter and sugars until smooth and lump-free. One at a time, stir in milk, vanilla and eggs. Be sure each addition is well incorporated before the next goes in. Stir in baking soda, baking powder, salt and flour. Mix until well integrated. Fold in oats and cornflakes. Stir in candies, then chill the finished dough for 10 to 20 minutes.

3. Scoop onto the prepared pan an inch apart (I use a small ice-cream scoop to get a uniform size). Bake for 10 minutes, until firm and golden brown. Serve with a tall glass of milk.

Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

The Netherlands boasts such delights as tulips, Rembrandt and stroopwafels.

My daughter moved to Amsterdam for grad school. She left partly because there are very few places in the U.S. that offer the program she wants, and partly because the U.S. is getting scary. I concurred with both reasons, and I am absolutely thrilled for her. Right now, while I am cursing at the news, she is taking a breezy bike ride through the Dutch countryside. She is clearly the smart one. 

So, anyway, I’m fine. I’ll just huddle here on the floor of her room in a fetal position for a little while longer. 

Thank goodness for texting and FaceTime. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the days before phones and airmail. What on earth did the Dutch East India Company sailors’ mothers do? I’ll tell you what they did. They stuffed their faces with stroopwafels.

Yes. My daughter sent me stroopwafels, and I will never be the same. How is it that I’d never had these before? I was a pastry chef for 30 years and traveled the world, including Holland (though to be fair, I was last there in 1987, and I was broke). I felt dumb. 

First created in Gouda in the 19th century, the stroopwafel is a thin, waffle-textured wafer cookie sandwiched with a cinnamon-caramel syrup. (Stroop means “syrup” in Dutch.) It is crisp but not crumbly, which makes it the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee, which is how they are eaten in the Netherlands. I am told you are supposed to set it on top of your coffee cup for a couple minutes to let the steam warm the filling a bit. Great idea — but I can never wait that long. 

As soon as the stroopwafels were gone (in one day), I started looking around for recipes to keep this party going (and to feel connected to my distant offspring). All the recipes call for using a pizzelle iron, which is a countertop appliance used to make thin Italian anise-flavored wafer cookies. I had a pizzelle iron once. I used it for a dessert I was working on when I was a pastry chef. I’m pretty sure I forgot it at that restaurant when I left. Unfortunately I can’t remember which job that was. 

One thing about being a professional cook (at least for me) is that the last thing I need is another gadget. I have so many cooking tools I don’t even know what I have anymore. So no, I am not going out to buy another pizzelle iron for this one recipe. But luckily, another thing about being a professional cook is that I can jerry-rig something else pretty easily. I have always been the kind of cook who prefers to wing it with what I’ve got, rather than make a special trip and spend more money on the proper thing. Some might consider it a fault. I find it endearing. 

My improvisation — stroopwafels on the griddle — worked great. I know all (both?) my Dutch readers will roll their eyes at this variation. But they should be happy I finally featured something from their homeland. In fact, thanks to my daughter (who abandoned me), I have a new appreciation for the Netherlands. Besides all the great stuff they’ve given the world — tulips, Rembrandt, cheese — they brought stuff to the New World that basically makes us American: cookies, pancakes, pretzels, coleslaw, Santa Claus and Christmas stockings, partying on New Year’s Eve, bowling, ice skating, the front stoop (front steps elevated in case of flooding), cultural tolerance (still working on that one) and democracy (New Amsterdam [later, New York City] was the first place on this continent with a bill of rights). All of these ideas were brought here by Dutch settlers, and I couldn’t be more grateful. So thank you, Netherlanders. Now just be sure you guys take good care of my baby.  ||||


This recipe is traditionally made on a very thin waffle iron. A pizzelle iron or an ice cream-cone iron will do the trick. But if you have neither, you can make these on the griddle. They will not have the traditional waffle pattern, but they taste just as good. When the recipe calls for placing dough in waffle iron, place it on the griddle instead, and press down on it for a minute with a grill press or metal spatula. Then flip for another minute until both sides are golden brown.



1¾ cups unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon milk

1½ tablespoons yeast

1 egg

cup superfine sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour


¾ cup brown sugar

1½ cups golden syrup or dark corn syrup

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons unsalted butter


1. Mix together melted butter, milk and yeast. Stir, then set aside for a few minutes until it starts to proof (achieve its final rise before baking). Stir in the egg and sugar, then the flour. When it comes together as a dough, turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes to combine well. Cover and set aside to rise for 2 hours.    

2. Meanwhile, make the filling. Combine sugar and golden syrup in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn up and bring to a rolling boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon and butter, then set aside to cool.

3. Preheat pizzelle iron (or griddle). Roll dough into walnut-size balls, and place onto the center of the iron. Close and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown. As soon as the cookie is done, cut it in half lengthwise to make two thin sandwich halves. Spread a thin layer of filling in the center, and close. Repeat with remaining dough. Store airtight, or (if you have more self-control than I do) freeze for extended periods.

Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

Don’t look to New York for tips on finding SoCal serenity. We’ve got your tips right here. By Leslie Bilderback

Arecent New York Times travel section article about finding quiet spaces of refuge in Los Angeles, away from the “gridlock and glamour,” drew a lot of scorn from Angelenos, and rightly so. In addition to sounding like an eighth-grader wrote it, full of clichés and generalizations, the story showed zero understanding of the area. When it appeared online early in the week, there was a flood of complaints. But the article was published in the paper the following Sunday anyway, only slightly edited. I was shocked that, after all the hubbub, it still found its way onto my driveway. The following week the paper printed an apology, but it was halfhearted, and less than sincere. In essence, their excuse was, “writing is hard guys, so give us a break.”
The problem with articles about L.A. written by outsiders is that they know not of which they speak. The rest of the world might think Los Angeles is miserable and phony, but we know better. (Just let them think that, and maybe they’ll keep their distance.) It may come as a shock to you, but Los Angeles is not beloved by the rest of the country. I know, because I was raised in the Bay Area, where we are taught to loathe L.A. at a very early age. (Angelenos have no idea this is happening.) When I moved here, I got condolence letters, and I still have friends who refuse to visit on principle. It took me a while to shed that brainwashing. Years. But now I love and appreciate this part of California. I love the history, the region and the tolerance. Given the state of our nation, I’m feeling fairly smug that I live here, in what is a relative bubble of tolerance.
The author of the L.A. piece, a well-regarded novelist and frequent contributor to The New York Times travel section, writes in a distinctive, flowery style. It’s not my cup of tea, but it is obviously someone’s because he is, as mentioned, a well-regarded novelist. Much has already been written about this piece (most humorously by LAist) — its generalizations, its disregard of culture and its lack of understanding of our diverse city. So I won’t pile on. Instead, I want to offer up a list of actual places offering refuge in the Pasadena area.
The NYT article featured the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, which I’m sure you are already familiar with. But not everyone has 25 bucks to shell out for entry (or don’t not know about the free day on the first Thursday of the month). For a similar excursion, you could spend only $9 to visit the Los Angeles County Arboretum or Descanso Gardens (free days are on the third Thursday and third Tuesday, respectively). These are fine places and make great outings when you have out-of-town guests. But when it’s just me, I prefer the free options. Luckily, in our vicinity there are tons of public parks and open spaces to enjoy. Pack a picnic and head out to one of these spots for a respite from outsiders:

Because you are reading Arroyo Monthly, I will start with our namesake river. It flows from the San Gabriels to the Los Angeles River (the confluence is under the junction of the 110 and 5 Freeways), and you can walk almost the entire way. There is a network of paths with many spots to stop and picnic along the way. Sections in South Pasadena, Pasadena and Altadena are tended, but there are many wild, secluded spots to stop at and enjoy. (And they are not all adjacent to freeways!)
The River Garden Park (formerly Lawry’s California Center — 570 West Ave. 26, between Figueroa Street and San Fernando Road) has plenty of picnic spots and an exhibition hall celebrating the river’s history.
The Arroyo Woodland and Wildlife Nature Park in South Pasadena (Pasadena Avenue, north of the York Boulevard Bridge) is a relatively new addition to the riverfront. It has winding paths, with interpretive signs indicating native flora and fauna. From here you can take an easy trail along the golf course and soccer fields to the popular Upper Arroyo Park.
Extending from just south of the San Pascual Stables in South Pasadena to the Colorado Street Bridge, the Upper Arroyo Park has several well-loved trails with rich vegetation, thanks to a low-flow stream experiment from the 1990s. The park has a picnic area, casting pool, archery targets and the occasional art installation.
Follow the trail under the Colorado Street Bridge, past the Rose Bowl, and over the Devil’s Gate Dam to access the Hahamonga Watershed Park. (Or you can drive and park at North Windsor Avenue and Mountain View Street — exit 22B off the 210 Freeway). This large nature preserve is a favorite of foragers and Frisbee golfers. Here, in the shadow of JPL at the base of the foothills, are several picnic areas and many trails, including a three-mile loop.

The San Gabriels
Most of our region’s history began in these mountains. They were first occupied by the native Tongva (dubbed Gabrieleños by the Spanish). When Europeans arrived, the mountains provided lumber for the early valley settlements, which quickly evolved into a hotbed of prospecting and home to world-renowned resorts. There are dozens of places to escape civilization, and a drive up California State Route 2 will reveal many pullouts with trailheads and picnic spots. If you are a hiker, you can start in Pasadena and wind your way across the range, past the ruins of the Echo Mountain House, up the Mt. Lowe Railway track to the remains of the defunct Ye Alpine Tavern and Inspiration Point. Trails head out from here to Chantry Flat and the Mt. Wilson Observatory, both of which can also be accessed by car and have great picnic areas.
Millard Falls, at the base of the foothills, is an easy hike to a great waterfall (when it rains). The trailhead has a picnic area and campground. Take Chaney Trail off Loma Alta Drive 1.5 miles to the parking lot.
The Cobb Estate, at the top of Lake Avenue, is the trailhead for the Echo Mountain hike, but it is also the remains of what must have been a splendid mansion built with Charles Cobb’s lumber fortune. After Cobb’s death the property was deeded to the Freemasons, who sold it to a religious order; the Marx Brothers bought it in 1956. The surrounding land is rumored to be haunted, and there have been Bigfoot sightings. What more persuasion do you need?! There is no formal picnic area, but there are plenty of places to pull up a log.
Eaton Canyon has long been a favorite family hiking spot — partly because the trails are fairly flat, and there is a waterfall at the end of it (sometimes). Best of all, there is a super nature center, with stuffed raccoons and the like. It’s a lovely spot, and there is a huge picnic area at the trailhead. The nature center also offers night hikes from time to time.
Within the City of Pasadena there are parks galore. One of my favorite spots is Arlington Garden (275 Arlington Dr.), a beautiful three acres of water-wise serenity. There is plenty of seating hidden throughout, making it a perfect spot for a quick dose of peace and quiet.
All across the region you can find open spaces with trails, tended and not. In my neighborhood there’s a huge undeveloped spot called Elephant Hill, with spectacular views for the price of a trudge up a fire road. And just as close is Debs Park, with more great views, a lake, a picnic area, an Audubon center and plenty of trails.
In short, there are ample ways for residents to get away from the city’s hustle and commune with nature. So pack a lunch (or buy one — there is no shortage of places to pick up a lunch-to-go, if that’s how you roll), get out of your car and see this town from a new, natural perspective.


I love a great picnic. I love cooking it, packing it and watching the look on my companion’s face as the unknown meal is slowly revealed al fresco. Although my search for the perfect picnic food is ongoing, I tend to fall back on those that are tried and true. This recipe is based on one my mom made when I was growing up. I think it originally came from the Pillsbury Bake-Off. These pies were my absolute favorite. When I discovered them in the picnic basket or, on the most wondrous days, my lunchbox, all was right with the world.


3 ounces ricotta cheese
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or chopped
1 small roasted red pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced sun-dried tomato
2 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or dried
Sea salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces of puff pastry, pie dough or
crescent-roll dough, rolled out into eight
rectangles, about 4-by-5-by-¼ inch
1 tablespoon melted butter
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese


1. Preheat oven to 350°, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl mix together the cheese and chicken until well combined. Add the pepper, tomato, scallions, parsley, herbs, salt and pepper, and combine thoroughly.

2. Spoon a half-cup of chicken salad onto the center of each dough rectangle, fold pastry over and seal. Brush the tops with melted butter, then sprinkle each with breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Place 2 inches apart on baking sheet, and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until dough is golden brown. Eat right away, or cool and refrigerate until your picnic.

Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

While Fleeing your hot kitchen this summer, be thankful for eatery staff stuck in theirs

Today it was 85 degrees at 7 a.m. And the air conditioner broke last night. So there is no way I want to cook.
Scrolling through Instagram I see images of my chef friends in their kitchens, showcasing their beautiful breads and pastries and creative dinners, and I am reminded of how horrendous it is to work in a professional kitchen in a heat wave. It’s right up there with dry cleaning, construction and Caltrans sign work. No one wants to cook at home when the weather is like this, so up-and-running restaurants are essential. I wanted to take a minute to remind you about these steadfast workers the next time you throw in the kitchen towel in favor of a night out in an air-conditioned restaurant.
First of all, it’s hard for anyone to look good in the heat, and your waitstaff is suffering more than most. Hustling from table to table makes one break a sweat even in the winter, so imagine what it’s like in August. They know that a clean, pressed waiter gets better tips — no one wants their meal served by a sweat monkey. So when the temperature spikes, your servers need a chance to cool their jets. In a heat wave there is no relief in the kitchen (which, on a good night, is 15 degrees hotter than the dining room), making it unavailable as the preferred spot to hide from customers. The only option is the back alley, which usually smells like cigarettes and dumpster.
Not a respite.
The walk-in refrigerators and freezers shift from being the place of clandestine rendezvous to being the de facto break room for the kitchen staff. That leads to a lot of opening and closing of the big door, which raises the temperature and makes its primary job (keeping food from spoiling) that much harder. I once had to make a run for dry ice in a heat wave because even the freezer could not set my panna cotta.
Not efficient.
And any kind of baking is particularly difficult in the heat. A shiver just went up my spine from a memory of reaching in and out of a deck oven to rotate a batch of baguettes on a hot day. In a hot kitchen the buttercream gets runny, yeast doughs ferment too fast and chocolate melts prematurely. Laminated doughs are particularly challenging. If you have ever tried to make puff pastry at home, you know it’s already anxiety-inducing. Now add volume and heat. We know y’all want your breakfast croissants, but folding layers of butter into dough in triple-digit weather is messy at best. Each layer needs to be chilled extra long, which makes the process longer and strains the fridge even more.
Not worth it.
By far the worst place to be in a heat wave is over the grill. Flipping burgers and patty melts is always a hot station. It’s not like your backyard, where you get an occasional breeze as, beer in hand, you tend to your four steaks. The grill station is a full-time job. It’s an entire shift of blistering heat. Dunking a neckerchief in ice water offers temporary relief, but the only real solution is to go back to school and get a degree, so you never have to do that again.
Not really always feasible.
I have never been a fan of the chef uniform, but it is extra awful in the heat. It protects the cook from fire and grime, but unless you are the boss sporting a special summer coat made of Egyptian cotton, it is usually long-sleeved and polyester. Even worse, uniforms are usually communal. “Lucky” cooks work in a shop with a linen service that provides a clean jacket every day. But in my experience, you are only really lucky if you have the early shift, when the regular sizes are available. Afternoon workers are either floating inside an XXXL coat or stuffed into the XS like an andouille sausage. Liberal kitchen managers allow tank tops and shorts in a heat wave, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Bare arms expose the cooks to injury and diners to our sweat and body hair. An unappetizing thought, I know. I wore shorts in a heat wave only once. My apron was longer, so I looked pantless, and at the end of the shift my bare legs had taken the brunt of spills.
Not a good look.
In a heat wave the ice machine is at a premium. Ice not only cools your beverage but also chills stocks, stores fish, shocks blanched veggies and keeps your crème anglaise out of the danger zone during service. On more than one hot night I have had to run out for auxiliary bags of ice.
Not economical.
The heat also tends to drive pests inside. In food service, that’s a code red. Ants are particularly ruthless and will go to any length to get to the sugar bin. (I would counsel against ordering anything with “poppy seeds” in a heat wave. They might have legs. I fully expect to find a line of those industrious bugs zigzagging through the kitchen every morning during a hot spell. But insecticides wreak havoc on the palate, so I have tried everything from chopped mint to magic ant chalk to keep them at bay. The only thing that ever really worked was moving the sugar to the walk-in (which hogs up precious breakroom space).
Not ideal.
There are times — many of them — when I miss restaurant life and question my decision to retire. But not in the summer. Not in a heat wave. I understand the inclination to dine out in this kind of weather. And you should, because these folks still need to make a living, even when they’d rather stay home and sit in a backyard kiddie pool. But I implore you — remember their suffering when you tip. Give ’em a little extra bump. They’ve more than earned it, just by showing up.

Coffee pods are bad for you, your wallet and the planet.

Ihave a coffee problem. I love it. I drink too much of it. And I most surely have a caffeine addiction. But today I’m not talking about me (for once). My coffee problem has to do with you. You, America, and your obsession, addiction and love affair with the Keurig.
Perhaps you thought that, since it is April, this might be some sort of jokey column. Sorry. Coffee has been banned throughout history — in Mecca for stimulating radical thinking, at the Vatican for being satanic and in Sweden for interfering with beer profits. But today it is the second-most-traded commodity in the world (after oil). Which is why I feel it is my civic duty to warn you:
Single-serve coffee pods are evil incarnate.
This is not an April Fool’s joke. This is deadly serious. This is a red alert. Here’s why:
Save the Planet
I will start with the obvious: Those plastic pods are killing the planet. The company responsible, Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, produces about 9 billion K-cups (each making only one cup of coffee) every year. Stacked up, they would circle the earth more than 10 times. Even if you personally use the 5 percent of K-cups that are recyclable, there are still 95 percent out there that aren’t. And you know where they end up, don’t you? In the fast-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch with the rest of the world’s plastic, swirling endlessly in a gyre, slowly breaking down, but never disintegrating. Actually there are now two patches in the Pacific, and they are each the size of Texas. Even the inventor of these pods, John Sylvan, has admitted he feels bad about that. Plus, because pod waste has a mix of aluminum, plastic and ground coffee, even if they do make it into the recycling bin, most municipal recycling plants are not equipped to process them. Even well-intentioned reuse of the pods is ridiculously difficult. Why even bother using a canvas grocery tote if you’re filling it with these planet killers?
Save Yourself
Even if you don’t care a fig about the planet, those K-cups are making you sick. They are made from #7 composite plastic, which, although BPA free, have tested positive for estrogenic activity, which interferes with natural hormonal cellular function. (I’m not a scientist, but I think that probably means you’ll grow extra boobs.) Plus, although composite plastic #7 is a secret proprietary product, we do know that it contains styrene, which is harmful to your nervous system. And don’t forget the aluminum top of each pod, which creates health concerns of its own, including links to a spectrum of neurological diseases.
Save your Money
Using K-cups is stupidly expensive. The average machine costs around $100. A typical drip machine is about $40. But worse than the pots are the pods, which The New York Times has calculated are costing you $50 per pound of coffee. Even the best coffee at the hippest coffee bar is not $50 a pound. (There is that $600-per-pound Sumatran kopi luwak coffee. But that’s because it’s fermented in wildcat poop. I am not making that up.) And what do you get for your buck? Most pods are two parts coffee to one part packaging, which makes it seem like you’re paying for garbage. Oh, yeah — you are.
Save the Coffee
You only want one cup? Three things:
• What’s wrong with you? Coffee is so delicious! I just sip it all day long. This is, I’m pretty sure, how I am going to die.
• You can buy single-serve drip makers (see Mr. Coffee) which use loose ground coffee and cost around $30.
• You can use leftover coffee in a number of delicious ways (see recipes below) including just chilling it and drinking it later.
Save Time
“But K-cups are so convenient.”
This is the part where my head explodes and I cry for humanity. Brewing coffee is not hard. You don’t have to grind your beans anymore. You don’t even have to boil water. Brewing a pot of coffee is literally the easiest thing there is to cooking. College kids can do it. Blondes can do it. Trump can do it. You are saving, at most, eight minutes with your planet-killing, money-eating pods. Of course, maybe you are using that eight minutes to save the world in some other way, like recolonizing honeybees or harassing the NRA. But chances are you will waste at least eight minutes staring at your phone later today, so I am not impressed.
Save Your Arguments
Sure, everything is plastic. Toiletries, tools, electronics, toys — they are all made and packaged with plastic, and we are drowning in it. But why opt for a product that exacerbates the problem, when there is a perfectly wonderful, tried-and-true method already in use? Using a K-cup is a corporate money grab that you have been sucked into because it’s cool, and that is just silly. Let me also mention that the company is testing K-cups for instant soup, which, if true, will mean an entire stupid system of products to create a food that no one voluntarily eats unless they are sick or broke.
So join me in shunning the K-cup trend. Stick it to the man. Just say no. Don’t be a sheep. Stand up for what you believe in — civic responsibility, smart consumerism and good coffee.

Coffee Pot Roast and Brisket
Replace the water in your favorite pot roast recipe with brewed coffee. The acidity will balance the rich, fattier meats.
Coffee Braised Chicken
Same as above. Coffee added to braising birds will not make it taste like coffee. Rather, it will add a layer of flavor complexity that will be your little secret.
Coffee Marinade
Tired of your usual marinade? Mix coffee with soy sauce or Worcestershire, garlic and herbs for a delicious alternative.
Coffee BBQ Sauce
Similarly, a good BBQ sauce perfectly balances sweet, salty, acid and bitterness. Use it in place of water.
Coffee Chili and Baked Beans
Use coffee in place of water in your best chili and bean recipes. That touch of acidity eases the richness.
Coffee Truffles, Frosting and Sauce
Replace half the liquid in your ganache recipe. The combination of chocolate and coffee is a tried-and-true pairing. And for bittersweet chocolate lovers, the coffee accentuates the bitterness in the chocolate.
Coffee Chocolate Cake and Brownies
As above, adding coffee to your cake recipes in place of the liquid makes the cake taste more chocolatey.
Coffee Pudding
Use cooled coffee for half the liquid in your favorite pudding mix.
Coffee Oatmeal
Use it instead of water, then add a little cinnamon, nutmeg and some chopped nuts. It’s the breakfast of champions.
Coffee Granita
Your guests will be blown away when you serve them refreshing granita for dessert. Just freeze the coffee in a shallow pan and stir it every 30 minutes or so, as the ice crystals form. Topped with a little whipped cream and a crisp cookie, it is a showstopper. (I confess; this is also a guilty-pleasure breakfast food for me.)
Coffee Ice Pops
When the summer swelter arrives, imagine how happy you’ll be when you remember you have iced-coffee pops in your freezer. You can use fancy popsicle molds, or the time-honored Dixie-cup method.
Coffee Caramel Sauce
Adding coffee to your caramel sauce recipe, or stirring it into ready-made sauce, makes it taste like toffee.
Make Tiramisu
Coffee is the most important ingredient in this Italian classic.

Feed Your Garden
For plants that crave an acid-rich soil, coffee fits the bill.
Clean Your House
Acid helps cut through caked on grease, and coffee works great on ovens, stovetops and outdoor grills.

Why are women chefs – instead of simply chefs – still a thing?


Iwas thumbing through the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago when I came across Jonathan Gold’s article listing the top food trends of 2018. My heart immediately sank. The number one trend of the year is women in the kitchen. This is possibly the worst timing ever. After a 30-year career I get trendy just as I am transitioning out of the job. But being a chef is like being a parent — you may not be actively participating in the work, but you still get the title. So I have no qualms about expounding on just how insulted I am to be called a “trend.”
Calling something a trend is pinpointing a general direction in which change is happening.
Jeez Louise! It is my understanding that women have literally been cooking for crowds since the Paleolithic epoch. But I see where you are going with this. Women becoming famous and important chefs is trending. Except, wait! To illustrate the point, the article used photos of chefs who have been around as long as I have, like La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton. You know what else is a trend? These newfangled horseless carriages I keep seeing around town.
I would argue that trendy is not a thing we want a career to be. Calling something a trend is indicating it is fashionable. I do not relish the idea of people making career decisions based on this. Have we learned nothing from history? When food television hit big, culinary schools trended and the industry was flooded. Most of those poor career fashionistas weren’t cut out for the job and are either back at their desk at the insurance company, or suing the culinary school for false promises. Those who stuck it out are not trending. They are talented.
Remember what else was trendy? Legwarmers. Rainbow bagels. Crystal Pepsi.
But more to the point, can we please stop making gender a thing? I have been fighting against being labeled a female chef my entire career. (See Arroyo, February 2016 and January 2015 at The label puts women at a disadvantage right away. It is tantamount to saying we are “pretty good, for a girl.” Even before we enter this career we are being judged for how we look, how fat we are, how thin we are, whether we are mothers or not mothers, whether we are ambitious or not ambitious enough, or too old, or too young and on and on. It is hard enough to defend one’s work without also having to defend our bodies.
To be fair, Gold is not the only offender — far from it. A recent Zagat article listed “15 Badass Female Chefs and Restaurateurs You Need to Know Around the U.S.” The same article would’ve been completely on point if they had left off the word “female.” Sure, it was a list of great culinary artists. But why-oh-why is being a woman still noteworthy? “Isn’t that cute! She can run a restaurant and have boobs!”
Paul Bocuse, who just passed away, famously said, “I’d rather have women in my bed than at the stove.” And if you saw the crowd of 1,500 mostly male chefs at his funeral in a Lyon cathedral you’ll see that many shared his opinion. That is the attitude chefs of my generation have fought to overcome. But when you point out that being a female chef is remarkable, you are also signaling that it is in some way surprising, and that sets us back decades. Isn’t it time to simply talk about the food, and not the fact that some of us have ovaries?
Perhaps what you meant by your well-intentioned list was to point out that we should be paying more attention to the females of our industry. Like the film industry did with the pro-diversity hashtag #oscarsowhite. If that is the case, may I humbly request that, instead of belittling our contributions as a fleeting fancy, you advocate for pay equity, safe workplaces and decent benefits. Let’s make that a trend — #chefsdeservebetter.
Also on the list of trends was “Fire.” If this is the kind of industry insight that constitutes award-winning journalism, let me add that I’ve heard water can be put into a freezer to get hard.
Boom! I’m a trendsetter.

When the Culinary Student Becomes the Teacher…

Facebook is mostly annoying, but it does have some perks — not the least of which is reconnecting with old friends. This is the story of one such incident that happened a few years ago.

A former student reached out via Facebook and invited me to eat at her restaurant. In my past life as a culinary instructor, I had hundreds of students, but this one stood out, as the best ones always do. She was not in love with pastry making, as I recall, but she passed it with a determined attitude.

My husband and I drove out to her kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, in Culver City and enjoyed what was surely one of our top five meals of all time. I was familiar with kaiseki but had never experienced it. It is the most formal type of Japanese dining, blending two culinary traditions — that of the temples and that of the palaces. From the Buddhist temples and tea ceremony comes an economically restrained preparation of food, intended to highlight the natural essence of each ingredient. The more opulent cuisines of the imperial court and the samurai household include multiple courses of ornate, costly ingredients. Modern kaiseki chefs weigh these two principles, mix in a keen awareness of local micro-seasons with a dash of foraging and highlight local ingredients to present a culinary story of a particular time and place. The meal typically hovers around 13 courses presented in a prescribed order, but the chef is free to add or subtract courses based on the season, region and personal style. Portions are small, delicate and presented on special dishes designed to visually represent the terroir. It is widely accepted that French nouvelle cuisine was inspired by kaiseki, and that is certainly possible, although I have never met a French chef as thoughtful as my former student.  Her work is intricate, deliberate and amazing.

After the meal, she came out and asked if I would offer her a critique of the meal, especially the dessert portion. I wrote up a short summary of observations, and we met for lunch. I learned that she was to be featured in a documentary series that was about to drop on Netflix, and she was expecting a surge in business. She was not happy with her current dessert offerings (she was still baking off the notes from my class some 20  years earlier) and, after hearing my suggestions, she asked if I could just come and cook for her for a little while.

I was stunned.

I’d been out of formal fine dining for decades. And although there were a few bakery jobs here and there, none of them featured tablecloths. I had mostly been earning my keep as a food writer and occasional culinary teacher. But I certainly knew how to do it. And it just so happened that I was between gigs, having tried, unsuccessfully, to switch careers with a newly minted masters degree in art history. Also, my nest was recently emptied. So I was happy to have something to do besides sobbing in a fetal position in alternating empty kids’ rooms. I agreed to help, intending to work for a few months to set up a pastry program, then move on.

That was three years ago. This month, with mixed emotions, I am saying goodbye.

I am finally getting a chance to use my new degree, teaching in a real college that gives degrees (unlike culinary schools, whose motives I will forever question). Though I will always keep my fingers (so to speak) in the food business, I am anxious to do something a little more personally meaningful. Not that cooking can’t be meaningful — it’s just that there is a limit to the satisfaction I can get from making fancy food for rich people.

There is another reason I am looking forward to stepping back. I am feeling my age. My feet, back and various bodily joints hurt more and more each month. My flour allergy (yes, a baker with a flour allergy) is getting harder and harder to manage. Also, I’m tired of getting up at 4 in the morning, and falling asleep at 7:30 at night — I basically have no nightlife (that is, it’s night when I never go out).    

My age has manifested also in the work I do. I have become a culinary curmudgeon. I was trained in the ’80s, which is a culinary light-year away from what’s happening on the scene now. I have never wanted to be an overly fussy tweezer chef, I am not interested in newfangled techniques, I fear fancy equipment and I loathe everything molecular and architectural. I don’t need a Thermomix to magically blend and cook my custards; I have a stove and a bowl and a whisk. I don’t need a silicone mat to line my baking sheets; I have parchment paper. I don’t want to use stabilizers or liquid nitrogen in my ice creams; I consider that cheating. I am not a chef who embraces change. I am the Grumpy Old Man of the restaurant world. Get off my (culinary) lawn!

That said, I have learned some things — a little about Japanese tradition, and a lot about myself. I became a faster and more efficient cook. I learned how to be more frugal in my work. I learned to appreciate ingredients in a new way and gained respect for the most mundane elements of my pantry. (I can work magic with rye flour and a lemon now.) I learned that greatness has nothing to do with size, or gender, or ethnicity, or funding; rather it is about heart, empathy, stamina and determination. I learned that I am not alone in my disdain for the “female chef” moniker, and that we’d all just like to be plain ol’ regular chefs. I learned that the student can, in fact, surpass the teacher. Often. And always in the sweetest, most delightful ways.

But most important, I learned that, despite everything, at 53 I can still throw down. And I probably still will. In a month or so I will miss it and have regret, because that’s how I roll. I try stuff, get bored and move on. I’m lucky I am able to do that, and lucky to have always loved my work. I realize most of the world doesn’t live that way, and I am grateful.

I have met my replacement. She is about 20 years younger than I am. She is well trained and well traveled. She has a great attitude and a sunny disposition. She’ll be amazing.

Thank you for everything, Niki-san.

n/naka’s Matcha Sablé

I’ve turned to this recipe time and again, because it exemplifies buttery shortbread while, at the same time, honoring the traditional flavor of matcha. In case you didn’t know, matcha is the powdered green tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. When I started my career, matcha could only be found in Little Tokyo or via mail order. Now you can get it at Ralph’s. 


12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1¼ cups powdered sugar

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon matcha powder


1. Don’t bother sifting anything. Just combine it all in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and blend slowly — for 3 to 5 minutes — until it forms a dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, press into a disc and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be stored in the fridge for a week, or if frozen, much longer.)

2. To bake, preheat oven to 350° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone mat — for you modernists). Remove the dough from the fridge, and knead it slightly until pliable. Roll out on a dusted work surface to a quarter-inch thick, and cut into desired shape. (Alternatively, you can roll the dough into logs, chill for an hour, then slice into coins.) Set onto prepared baking sheet a half-inch apart (they don’t spread much), and bake for 20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through baking for even browning. Cool completely before removing from the tray. Serve with a cool glass of milk, or a not-too-sweet dish of vanilla ice cream. Simplicity is delicious.

Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

Sexual harassment is widespread in the foodservice industry — and virtually everywhere else

am a woman working in the restaurant industry, so you bet I’m going talk about sexual harassment. I let you off the hook for the holidays with a fluffy little piece about cookies. But now it’s cold, harsh January, and I am exhausted. It has been a year of shenanigans, and my only truly happy hours are those in which I can completely unplug from news updates. 

I’m going to go out on a limb to say that if there is one silver lining to this rumpus, it is that women are being believed. Another president — say, one without an Access Hollywood tape — would probably not have prompted the surfeit of discontent that led to investigative reporting and the subsequent wave of accusations. As a woman, I say, “Finally!” As a chef, I’m going to stand here waving my arms until someone notices that these problems are still rampant in the service industry, and there is little being done about it. 

High-profile harassment and assault accusations get attention because there are famous, beautiful people involved. In comparison, the cases of hotel maids, prep cooks and waitresses still go unnoticed. They also get very little help. And it’s a hundred times worse for the undocumented. The New York Times is not exactly clamoring to interview your dishwasher and barback. 

I have friends with stories that are much more upsetting than mine, and I feel lucky to have passed through relatively unscathed. But we all have stories. Sure, I have had to look at a supervisor’s penis before. Who hasn’t? I was working as a hostess at a Big Boy.  It’s about as low profile a position as can be had in foodservice, which made it easy to immediately quit. (Side note to men — no one wants to see that junk. Even your mom didn’t want to have to look at it when you were a little boy.) Not everyone is so lucky. The ability to quit at a moment’s notice is definitely a privilege.

Waitresses surely have it the worst. Of course there is tableside groping. And propositioning. Why wouldn’t there be? You are there to serve, after all. And if you’re a good girl you can get a big tip. But the customers are not the only danger. When I waited tables at a Coco’s in college, there was a line cook who, miffed at my rebuff of a storeroom proposition, proceeded to repeatedly push every ticket I had to the end of the line. Just as my orders were about to be fired, back to the end of the line they would go. All my customers walked out that day, but there were no consequences for the cook. It was his word against mine. Yes, it was just a crappy diner, and perhaps he would have been penalized in a high-end restaurant. But it was the 1980s, so I doubt it. No matter where you are, there is always some jackass on a power trip. 

The human resources department at that company was a joke. But the fact that such a department existed at all was an anomaly. Most restaurants barely have employment policies, let alone an HR department. (Some high-profile chefs are taking it upon themselves to hire outside HR firms, but this is still pretty rare.) Even if there is a harassment policy, there is no guarantee you will be believed, or get any justice. The waiter spewing vulgar, demeaning, sexually charged threats to me at Postrio, where I worked in the ’90s, got a reprimand — but then continued to taunt me for the remainder of my tenure. I could have quit that too, except that Wolfgang Puck is a great resumé line that carried a lot of clout back then. My unwillingness to put up with abuse was challenged. The industry seems large but is connected. Everyone knows everyone, rumors spread and the “troublemaker” label is real. It’s not just the filing of a complaint that will give you a reputation — quitting without notice is possibly the most abhorred trait in foodservice. 

Groping, walk-in assault, storeroom rape, disgusting language and innuendo — these are all part of the culture. It is not made up, and it is encouraged by the glamorization of such behavior by the bad-boy chefs we see in the media. The seedy tales in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential memoir, the constant verbal abuse of Gordon Ramsey, the culinarily offensive and physically abusive movie Burnt and the cooking competition shows that pit contestants against each other in unsportsmanlike ways all portray the kitchen as a mean, cutthroat place to work. And it can be. 

By the time I was in my mid-20s I had it figured out: Develop a thick skin. Be one of the guys. Swear a lot. Laugh at dirty jokes. Don’t appear weak. It is a hands-off armor that I have perfected. I also began to consciously work mainly with and for other women; another option that I acknowledge is a privilege.

Still, when I go to work alone in the wee hours of the morning, I walk from my car to the kitchen with keys in my fist protruding like iron knuckles. I lock myself in behind gates and doors, and I keep a set of knives close at hand, in case I need a quick weapon. I don’t really live scared, but I do live prepared. It’s important that men understand this. I am not alone. Every woman lives this way.

The majority of people who work in this industry do so because they have to. Putting up with and dealing with harassment is a skill not everyone develops. Nor should they have to. I was willing to work through it, but not everyone is, which is another in a long list of reasons why American foodservice is a high-turnover, high-failure-rate industry.

So what is to be done? The first thing is to tell your stories. The more there are, the more they will be believed. And if more high-profile female chefs speak out, as has happened in other sectors, the neighborhood barista is more likely to feel empowered. Only when we feel safe to accuse will the accusers be safe.

More women in powerful positions would help, too. We are not all perfect, but at least we won’t flash you. 

An increased minimum wage, and an industry salary standard, would make it easier for workers to leave abuse for a more secure position without fear of a reduced income.  Similarly, universal health care would prevent workers from staying in dangerous situations for fear of losing benefits. 

Hand in hand with calling out the bad guys is celebrating the good guys.  Let’s see more supportive chefs in the media.  And how about some stories about female chefs that cook for a living, are not Julia Child and are not just trying to please a man?

Oh — and let’s try to raise some decent boys now, shall we? 

Animal crackers may be mundane, but they serve up tasty memories.

make cookies all year long. In fact, with few exceptions, every dessert I make at work includes some type of cookie as an element. That’s because my personal pastry philosophy requires that each plate have a variety of textures, and cookies provide the best crisp. But even though I make them all year long, December is when I embark on my real cookie tour de force. Even if I didn’t have family and friends with whom to share, I would still go through the holiday cookie ritual for myself because it is, without a doubt, my favorite dessert. (Accompanied by, of course, a tall glass of milk.)

And although I am physically and mentally equipped to create any cookie I want from scratch (not to brag, but, yes, I’m that good), in a few exceptional cases I defer to the superiority of the store-bought. Pepperidge Farm’s Mint Milano is one. I have been presented

on more than one occasion with attempts at the homemade version of this minty morsel, but they are never quite right. The Oreo is another. While the effect of ebony cocoa and Crisco cream filling can be approximated, the real thing is always better. Girl Scout cookies, too, are a must-buy. A homemade Samoa or Thin Mint is wrong on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it denies little girls their cookie sales. (I feel this way about marshmallows too. Yes, we can make them in cute shapes, colors and flavors, but it turns out that they taste exactly the same as a bag of Jet-Puffed once melted into your cocoa, or flaming on the end of your campfire stick.)

But of all the store-bought cookies in the world, my favorite is the very un-haute animal cracker. The recipe is easily duplicated at home (it’s not a particularly intricate cookie), but for me, the joy of eating it comes from its circus box, and the discovery and identification of the animals, which cannot be duplicated in one’s own kitchen.

I talk a lot about food-related sense memories — the way the smell or flavor of a dish whisks you back to a time and place. Nothing does that for me more than animal crackers. Carrying the box by the string handle as if it were a grown-up handbag.  Unwrapping the waxed inner bag to discover, hopefully, my favorite animals. Eating them in order of their hierarchy in the animal kingdom. Nibbling their body parts in a way that offers the animal the least amount of suffering (head first). Eating them now, I remember this ritual and am instantly sitting cross-legged in the sun in my grandmother’s yard, feeling the scratch of her perfectly manicured lawn on my bare summer legs. 

As it turns out, a lot of folks have similar animal cracker memories. Nabisco says that everyone eats its animal crackers head first, which is a relief to those concerned with what that might say about you — apparently we are all a little morbid. The string handle was not added to make little girls feel like fancy ladies, but rather so that the box could be hung on a Christmas tree. The original box looked much the same, but the wheels of the circus wagon were partially printed on the underside of the box and were perforated so that kids could punch them out after snack time and have a circus wagon toy. Simple joys.

Animal-shaped cookies were first imported from Britain in the 1870s, prompting many local bakeries to begin making them. The Brits called them “biscuits,” but here in the U.S. we preferred the term “cracker.” Like most products of the era, they were sold in bulk out of cracker barrels. Soon automation transformed small bakeries into large companies like Stauffer’s Biscuit Company and the National Biscuit Company. In 1902 Nabisco began using the infamous P.T. Barnum as inspiration — though there was never a licensing agreement between the baking company and the Barnum & Bailey Circus (a lapse we all know would never happen today).

The term “cracker” always confused me, because these were not salty like the crackers I crumbled into my Campbell’s Tomato Soup. To further confuse me, according to the 1935 film Curly Top, Shirley Temple liked the sweet cookies in her soup so much she sang about it. Animal crackers in soup still sounds yucky. After soup, sure. But in the soup? (I am making my best Shirley Temple wrinkly-nose face.)

Today there are several companies making animal crackers, but for me, Barnum’s Animals are the best. The taste is classic, and the animals are recognizable. Over the years the company has produced more than 50 different animals for the box, including a special 1995 World Wildlife Fund endangered edition, from which you could decapitate a Komodo dragon. There are 19 animals in rotation at any one time, with new animals chosen occasionally by popular vote. The most recent addition was the koala, which, thankfully, beat out the cobra. Despite the lyric in Shirley’s song “monkeys and rabbits loop the loop,” there has never been a rabbit animal cracker. This fact makes Shirley Temple a liar, which I hope was disclosed to Ghana before we sent her there as U.S. ambassador. Unlike me, Nabisco didn’t care and used the song for years to promote the product.

One final animal cracker fact: The monkey is the only animal in pants. Mull that over the next time you nibble off his head.

Despite the fact that I just railed against making these cookies at home, it’s actually sort of fun. You can buy mini circus-animal cutters, but I prefer to use some of the weirder random cutters I have accumulated through the years. Let’s just say, there are shapes that Nabisco would never consider.


1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup old-fashioned oats

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons honey

½ cup cream


1. Preheat oven to 350°, and coat a baking sheet with pan spray. 

2. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse to form a uniform powder. Set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter until smooth. Add the honey and cream and mix thoroughly. Add the flour mixture last, and mix until just combined. Divide the dough in two, press into a thick disc, then wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Dough can be left in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen for longer storage.)

4. Dust the work surface with flour, and roll out the dough to a quarter-inch thick. Cut out animal shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown. Cool before serving.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook  author.  She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at