Mixology Month

Rev up your summer cocktails with the freshest mixers.

These past six months of examining the National Day Calendar have made me realize that, for certain causes, certain  awarenesses, the calendar is a brilliant way to get the word out and expand their reach.  For instance, July 1 is National Postal Worker Day, and I think we can all agree that it’s nice to honor these dedicated workers.  However, the calendar is also clearly a place for loonies. Do the nudists of America really expect us all to strip on July 14 for National Nude Day? (Probably not coincidentally, it is the same day as National Tape Measure Day… I do not make this stuff up.) Some of these days have clearly been created by certain groups just to show off how smart they are. I had to look up the meaning of National Yellow Pig Day (July 17), which has something to do with calculus and the number 17. (Even after I looked it up I’m still not sure what that’s about.) And I’m betting not many of you know who Edmund Clerihew Bentley is, yet July 10 is National Clerihew Day, during which you are urged to write a Clerihew –- a very specifically formatted biographical poem. It has four rhyming couplets (aa/bb), must use a person’s name in the first line, must say something about that person and must be humorous. Let try it, shall we?

Leslie Bilderback writes
And sometimes picks fights
Occasionally about food
Or whatever her mood
Okay, well, that was fun, and now I can see why they made it a National Day.    

Although July is the season for grilling and patriotism, there are relatively few such days in this month’s National Day Calendar. There is, however, a lot of booze. So much booze, in fact, that it’s doubtful anything will get done this month. Stay hydrated, everyone, because we have Anisette Day (July 2), Piña Colada Day (July 10), Mojito Day (July 11), Grand Marnier Day (July 14), Daiquiri Day (July 19), Wine and Cheese Day ( July 25) and Scotch Day (July 27). All these boozy days are certainly a clever way for companies to boost sales, though I am a bit worried that national productivity may find itself in a slump as a result. Nevertheless, I have pledged to celebrate the National Calendar this year so, in response, I am offering some homemade cocktail elements for your summer soirées.

Cocktail mixing has taken on a new life in recent years. In fact, bartenders have taken to calling themselves mixologists to emphasize new creative aspects of this vocation that have evolved. No longer is it simply the martini and gin and tonic. In finer restaurants, cocktails — and the unfortunately named “mocktails,” without alcohol — are being paired, as wine has traditionally been, with each course. Unique mixers, fancifully decorated rims, clever garnishes and artfully molded ice cubes are all a part of the cocktail arsenal now. So, to ensure you don’t look like a rookie this summer, I offer not drink recipes, but homemade cocktail ingredients that will boost your cocktail game.

The easiest cocktail mixer to make is simple syrup, which is nothing but equal parts sugar and water. (Combine them and bring the liquid to a boil until the sugar dissolves. That’s it.)  Simple syrup is the reason why drinks taste better at the bar than in your kitchen. It has long been a component of cocktails, making its way into such classics as the old-fashioned, the whiskey sour, the daiquiri, the julep — and many more. But today, the best mixologists are infusing simple syrup with flavors, opening up infinite cocktail possibilities. I love flavored syrups because, not only do they make interesting cocktails possible, they make great homemade sodas. Just combine with soda water and ice for a refreshing offering your guests will really appreciate.  (FYI — designated drivers are really sick of Diet Coke.) I’m giving you below not only my favorite summer soda syrup — strawberry rhubarb — but also lots of variations for you to try. 

The second cocktailing recipe is for homemade bitters. Bitters are another classic bar ingredient, comprised of alcohol flavored with botanical aromatics and herbs. It is designed to bring balance to your cocktail. The bitterness, which varies by brand, enhances the other flavors of the drink and helps align the ingredients, much the way salt and acid work in cooking. There are many bitters on the market, and most keep their ingredient list secret. But homemade bitters are easy to make and, like simple syrup, can be concocted to suit your personal bitter preferences. 

Both of these recipes are just examples. There are hundreds of variations to be made of and I encourage you to experiment. With these in your pantry, your summer barbecue will be the talk of the town.

Syrup and bitters from scratch
Whip yourself up a big batch
With these in your bar
I declare you a star ||||


Strawberry—Rhubarb Syrup
If you have trouble laying your hands on rhubarb, replace it with a full 2 pounds of strawberries, or substitute another tart ingredient, such as raspberry or cranberry. In addition, you can use this same basic recipe with any number of fruit, fruit-and spice or fruit-and-herb combinations. Use your imagination, and get creative. You’ll find some variation ideas after the recipe.


Ingredients

1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into half-inch pieces
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 cups water
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt


Method
1. Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce to a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has softened to the point of mush. It should take about 20 to 30 minutes.   

2. Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl, and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the fruit purée into the strainer and let it sit and drain slowly. For clear syrup, it is best not to force or press the purée free of liquid;  let gravity do it for you. After an hour, if it appears there is still liquid suspended within the pulp, squeeze it gently. Transfer the clear syrup into sterilized jars or bottles, and store in the refrigerator. Syrups should last you through the summer. For longer storage, pack in plastic containers and freeze for up to a year. (Defrost slowly in the refrigerator for best results.)

Here are some of my favorite fruit syrup variations. You may need to adjust the amount of sugar, depending on the ripeness of the fruit: plum–sage, peach–basil, cherry–vanilla, mango–lime, papaya–lemongrass, pineapple–black pepper. Once you start syrup–making, it won’t be long before you come up with your own signature syrup.


Homemade Bitters
This is a basic bitter, close in form to Angostura. But Angostura uses ingredients such as cinchona bark and gentian root — not something you can pick up at Ralphs.  Here I use accessible ingredients, but the end result is equally effective.   If you catch the bitters bug after this, the more exotic elements can be ordered online.


Ingredients
Dried peel of 1 orange (remove with a potato peeler, and set in the sun for a day, or place in a dehydrator or very low-temp oven for an hour or so, until stiff and shriveled)
2 to 3 pieces dried apple or apple skin
6 to 8 pieces dried cherry
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 whole cloves
3 to 4 allspice berries, crushed
3 to 4 juniper berries, crushed
3 to 4 coffee beans
2 to 3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon cacao nibs, crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seed, crushed
¼ vanilla bean, scraped
1 quart neutral alcohol, grain alcohol or vodka (Rye or bourbon can also be used, but will impart their flavors to the finished product.)
2 to 4 tablespoons simple syrup


Method
1. Combine all ingredients except alcohol and simple syrup in a large, sterilized canning jar. Cover the ingredients with the alcohol, then cover with the top and place in a cool, dark space for 2 weeks. Shake the jar once a day to help distribute the infusion. 

2. After 2 weeks, strain out the contents of the jar, and combine the infused liquid with simple syrup to taste. (The sugar is not to sweeten as much as it is to neutralize the bitterness.)

3. Return to a sterilized jar, and set aside again for another week. At this point the bitters can be used, bottled and shared. 

The Beefless Summer

Save the planet and your taste buds by grilling veggies and topping them with dressings and marinades.

It’s officially summer, which in Southern California (and most of America) means outdoor activities. The beach, the park, the public pool and, of course, the backyard. This is the season when entertaining officially moves outside.

But lately, especially here in California, summer outdoor activities have faced a number of obstacles. Though we’ve had a record wet spring, I am bracing for a repeat of last year’s extreme heat, which drove me back inside more than once. A sky full of smoke from wild fires, which experts warn will become the new normal, also kept me in. And all that rainwater has produced an unusually large crop of mosquitos, which made hanging outside in the cool dusk — prime BBQ hours — miserable and hazardous. But even if none of those elements keep you inside this summer, these environmental changes are going to force us to reevaluate our idea of summer fun.There is no doubt that climate change has altered our environment. That I can see it in my lifetime is upsetting enough. What lies in store for my progeny is what keeps me up at night. Sure, your canvas tote bag and solar-powered phone charger are totally helping. But if you really want to make an impact, there is one significant thing you can do right now. 

Stop eating beef. 

By now, everyone is aware that factory farming is killing the planet. Numerous studies, international political movements and films have been highlighting the dangers for over a decade. (The 2008 film Food Inc. changed the way I sourced product at work.) There have been moderate attempts to offer planet-friendly alternatives to the masses, such as cage-free eggs and grass-fed meat. Chefs are creating plant-based menus, and the faux “Impossible Burger” is available from the best white-tableclothed joint to Burger King. But we still drool at the first whiff of charring meat. I’m fairly convinced that the Char Boy burger joint in my neighborhood doesn’t need to vent its grill smoke onto the street — but doing so is advertising genius. 

What will it take to get Americans to lay off cows? Perhaps the best incentive is fear of planetary extinction. 

While the “they’re coming for our hamburgers” rhetoric has been used as fodder for the anti–Green New Deal faction (the deal that, by the way, mentions nothing about beef), it is true that switching to a plant-focused diet is the single biggest thing we can do to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. In fact, of the four most important changes humans can make — eat plants, limit air travel, go car-free and have smaller families — giving up meat will have the largest impact, and it is the only one I am readily able to do. (Reminder — broccoli is cheaper than a Tesla.)

A recent National Academy of Sciences study on the environmental impact of animal foods looked at five of the most consumed animal products — beef, dairy, pork, poultry and eggs. It makes perfect sense that beef, the largest of the factory-farmed animals, is 10 times more damaging to the planet than other animal foods we consume. Beef production is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting out red meat would do more for the planet than abandoning cars. It would also be easier and faster. (Which is a relief, because I love driving my manual transmission way more than I love beef.)

Although total livestock is the largest land user worldwide, the beef production uses 28 times more land, and 11 times more water, than each of the other four animal products. This means that you don’t even need to go as far as veganism to make an impact. Although, when compared to plant food production, beef uses 160 times more land, and creates 11 times the emissions. And because we live in a drought-familiar part of the country, you might find it interesting that one pound of beef requires 2,400 gallons of water, while one pound of wheat uses a mere 25 gallons. So, yeah, thanks for putting that brick in your toilet tank and turning off the faucet while you brush, but how ’bout you lay off the carne asada this weekend? It will save more water than a year of skipped showers.

I know. It’s grilling season. And grilling is as ’Merican as hamburger. And while I am encouraging you to lay off meat completely, I will settle for a temporary abstention from beef. To facilitate this, I am offering some suggestions for beef-free grilling that will not only make your smoke-choked, mosquito-infested barbeque a success, they will also help stem the tide of global warming.

My biggest peeve regarding vegetarianism is the compulsion many feel to make it seem like meat. Plants taste good as they are, and to disguise them does Mother Nature a disservice. Literally anything can be grilled, and everything is improved with the taste of the grill. Vegetable grilling is not rocket science, and there are a plethora of ideas in cookbooks and on the Internet for you to sift through. I have rounded up some of my favorites, with the caveat that you can easily create your own versions. I routinely grill all kinds of vegetables in the summer — not just the standard Portobello mushrooms and corn (which are perfect and delicious). Try quartered cauliflower, skewered Brussels sprouts, sliced winter squash, asparagus spears (place them perpendicular to the grill slats!), whole cherry tomatoes, hearts of romaine or radicchio and avocados (halved and pitted with skin on). Once the veggies are charred, they can be tossed with a dressing, chopped and stuffed into flatbread or sandwiched between buns.

Giving up meat altogether would be the ideal. But asking 400 million people to go meatless without some sort of immediate incentive (because it’s obvious that saving the planet is not enough of a motivator) is going to be challenging. What I will ask, though, is for you to give up red meat, at least a couple days a week. By doing this, you can still significantly reduce your carbon footprint.


GRILLED VEGETABLE DRESSINGS AND MARINADES

All of these marinades are prepared by simply mixing all the ingredients together and macerating with your chosen vegetables for about 1 hour before grilling. When the veggies hit the grill, cook them until they are marked and a little charred. No need to check internal temperatures! Times will vary depending on the vegetables, but nothing will take longer than five to 10 minutes. You can grill veggies individually, lock them into a grilling basket or thread them on skewers. It’s easier, healthier and more conscience-soothing than a steak ever was.


Indian Curried Yogurt Marinade
Try this with quartered red onion, cauliflower, halved new potatoes, green beans and pumpkin. It’s great for chicken too. Scoop it up with some garlic naan.

Ingredients
2 cups plain yogurt
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons grated ginger
3 tablespoons tandoori or garam masala spice blend
¼ cup coconut or canola oil


Middle-Eastern Pomegranate Marinade
Try this with halved parsnips, turnips, carrots, romaine hearts or summer squash.  Not bad with lamb either. Serve with some grilled pita and fresh hummus.

Ingredients
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup pomegranate juice
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 chopped shallot
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of sea salt


Thai Green Curry Marinade
Try this with red or yellow bell peppers, zucchini, whole green onions, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus and wedged green or Savoy cabbage. Toss them into a dish of noodles or over a bowl of rice. It’s also great for shrimp.


Ingredients
1 cup coconut milk
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons coconut or canola oil
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
2 to 4 tablespoons green curry paste


Provençal Marinade
Perfect for zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, fennel and artichokes. Chop them and layer onto a grilled flatbread, then top with goat cheese for a decadent summer pizza.


Ingredients
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon prepared pesto
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (or ½ tablespoon each of thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender)


Soy Balsamic Marinade
Use this for summer squash, eggplant, whole baby bok choy, green onions, broccoli and carrots. It’s also perfect for your favorite firm fish filet. Finish with fresh chopped cilantro and black sesame seeds.


Ingredients
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced


Sesame Peanut Marinade
Try with bok choy, cauliflower, whole small or halved large carrots, parsnips, zucchini, sweet potatoes and even pineapple wheels. Terrific on pork too.


Ingredients
¼ cup peanut butter
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 to 2 tablespoons chili garlic sauce or Sriracha


Spicy Marinade for Tropical Fruit
Try this marinade for mango, pineapple, kiwi and bananas, firm melons and cucumbers. Then serve the finished fruits over cool sorbet with a coconut macaroon.


Ingredients
½ cup maple syrup
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne


Honey Port Marinade for…
Try this with whole figs, peaches, plums, pears and, when the season arrives in the fall, persimmons. Spoon over vanilla ice cream, or into a crispy meringue cup.


Ingredients
1 cup Port wine
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cardamom

Auto-Theater Season

With the longest day of the year landing on June 21, the school year winding to a close and, of course, Father’s Day (June 16), the National Day Calendar for June is (mostly) all about summer. To help relieve the stress of triple-digit temperatures, this month’s calendar thoughtfully includes National Hydration Day (June 23), National Iced Tea Day (June 10) and National Bomb Pop Day (June 27 — Bomb Pops are those red, white and blue rocket-shaped popsicles). Several celebrations (more than is necessary, frankly) revolve around ice cream, including National Ice Cream Soda Day and National Vanilla Milkshake Day (both wrestling for attention on June 20 as best ice creamy drink), National Chocolate Ice Cream Day (June 7), National Rocky Road Day (June 2) and National Ice Cream Cake Day (June 27). If you’re not into sweets, the calendar has you covered with National Sunglasses Day (June 27) and National Flip Flop Day (June 14).  All signs point to a season of sweating outdoors. 

Another summer outdoor activity gets its due this month with National Drive-In Movie Day, coming to a theater near you on June 6. This revelation had me swooning in a nostalgic stupor for a couple of hours, remembering all my personal drive-in moments.  As a kid, the drive-in was a regular summer weekend outing. Dressed in my PJs, I’d screw around in the adjoining playground, then settle into the backseat with my sleeping bag and pillow to watch a movie that was certainly less interesting than the fact that I was out in public in my PJs. In high school, the drive-in was the place to realize all our American teenage dreams. Cheap movies (or free, if we were willing to hide in the trunk), junk food, beer and boys — all far from the watchful eyes of adults. Once, in high school, we went in my convertible Volkswagen Thing (my first car — a classic), with the top down, to see An American Werewolf in London.  We were so captivated by the film that we forgot that the region was under attack from fruit flies and therefore subject to nightly spraying of malathion by pesticide-wielding helicopters. I’m fairly certain there were no ill effects. (I mean, my kids have gills, but that’s normal, right?) One of the first dates I had with my husband was at a drive-in, in a car he borrowed from his job at the university library. (Not sure if the loan was sanctioned.) I think the movie was Young Sherlock Holmes, though to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to the film.

I love the history of the drive-in, because it’s all about a son pleasing his mother. Richard Hollingshead, sales manager of Whiz Auto Products, was a movie fan, but his mother was too large to sit comfortably in theater seats. His experiments in comfort seating led to a projector mounted on the hood of the family car, illuminating a sheet tied between two trees in the yard. That led to a patented idea, and the first “Park-In” theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933.

Hollingshead’s first theater, whose slogan was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” had a 40-by-50-foot screen and 400 car slots, with ramps at different heights so every car had a clear view. The soundtrack was initially played on three RCA Victor speakers mounted near the screen, which sounded as bad as you’d think it did. Several other “Auto-Theaters” sprang up, but it was not until the 1940s, when the in-car speaker was developed, that the renamed “Drive-In” theater really took off.  By the late ’50s there were 4,000 drive-ins across the United States. 

The first film shown at Hollingshead’s drive-in was Wives Beware, a British film about a man who faked amnesia so he could screw around on his wife. Not exactly Academy Award material, despite having run in theaters for one week (but not a second more). And that was the quality of film historically offered at the drive-in. They showed strictly B-movies, because Hollywood’s prime material was reserved for theaters that could screen a film several times a day, not just once after dark. To help boost attendance, the drive-ins started offering X-rated films too, which helped keep many afloat into the late ’60s.  But by then, with the advent of television, and then VCRs, the drive-in culture slowly disappeared. 

In California we had our first drive-in in 1938, and at the height of the trend there were 220 across the state. Today there are about 350 still operating in the United States, with 16 here in California, thanks to an aging population of car-culture kids and an obsession with nostalgia.  Several have recently been reopened and refurbished with digital projection, which makes first-run movies available faster and easier. No more speakers, though. The soundtrack is broadcast via FM radio. (If you no longer have one of those, most theaters will rent you one.) 

Sure, open-air movie screenings are all over the place now, and I have enjoyed many over the years. Movies outside will always be a little magical. And a community coming together in a park to share a beloved classic over picnic dinners is delightful. But these are very popular events, and thus super-crowded. And when people start encroaching on my picnic blanket, I am no longer having fun. For me, the drive-in is the perfect alternative. Watching a movie outdoors, private seating that no one will step on, a picnic dinner (or classic snack-bar food, of course) and my sweetheart — it’s the perfect summer evening outing. 

Also, when I inevitably fall asleep halfway through the film, I can simply recline the seat.

May the Fourth Be With You

Nerds of the world, rejoice! Star Wars has its own national day in May.

As my regular readers know, I am exploring the National Day Calendar this year. And so, it is with great pleasure that I inform you that May, besides being  a graduation month, and mother’s month, and a labor month, is an incredibly important month for space nerds. I’m guessing you might know one or two, given our proximity to both JPL and Hollywood. National Space Day is May 3, National Astronauts Day is May 5 and the holy grail of nerd holidays is May the Fourth, commonly known as National Star Wars Day.

May the Fourth hasn’t been National Star Wars Day for long. It was initiated in Canada for a 2011 Star Wars film festival, and the date was chosen for the play on words — a brilliant move that I can’t believe wasn’t conceived of earlier. On this day, you should greet everyone with “May the fourth (or force) be with you,” and if you are a real fan, you will don your May the Fourth T-shirt, and serve up some blue milk.

Unfortunately, blue milk (served up by Luke Skywalker’s Aunt Beru in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is the only real food that can be positively associated with the films. Because, unfortunately for us recipe writers, there is little in the way of eating in any of the other 10 films associated with the franchise. Sure, there are the power-bar-looking things Luke eats on Dagoba (when he first meets Yoda), and there is the magic-towel food Rey eats in Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but there is nothing really significant. No great feast with scenes of our heroes digging in, or extended meal preparation that would inspire a chef-fan. Okay. Aunt Beru does make something with roots; there are incidental fruits (Anakin makes a pear float in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which is supposed to be sexy but isn’t), and there are many creatures eating other creatures (Chewbacca roasts the adorable Porg over a campfire in The Last Jedi).  But if you want to throw a Star Wars Party on May the Fourth (and why wouldn’t you?), you will have to resort to the hackiest method of menu writing — pun foods. There is simply no resource for thoughtful insight into foods of the galaxy.

There is one series of cookbooks officially licensed by Lucasfilm, and it is full of recipes that are amusingly clever plays on words. And that’s totally fine — more power to the authors. They scored gold with that deal, and I would have 100 percent done the same thing. In fact, I have tried and failed to sell franchise tie-in cookbooks over the years. It ain’t easy.

But for me, when creating a themed dinner, I prefer that the recipes tie into the theme’s universe. I want to look into the fictional material and imagine what agriculture would be like, what spices might be available, what cultural cooking methods might be employed. It’s all made up anyway, so why not make it interesting and delicious, rather than simply cute? And for me, a meal must first and foremost be delicious. Wookie Cookies (which are just chocolate chip cookies, and aren’t even hairy), Death Star Cheese Balls, Princess Leia Cinnamon Rolls and Luke Skywaffles are all very amusing, but not really related to the Star Wars universe. And frankly, they wouldn’t make a very nice dinner party.

But that said, I have little to offer because, although it has happened in the past, this year I will not be throwing a May the Fourth party. Mainly because the biggest fan in the family is far away. But also, although my family is incredibly nerdy (which, if you are a regular reader, you’ve already figured out), I’m really not. Once, long ago, I met a guy I thought was cute. I wanted him to like me, so I watched all the sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows he liked. They were fine — but I was not moved emotionally by their content to the same extent. I was, however, moved by him. Eventually this nerd fandom progressed to attending conventions and spawning baby nerds. Still, throughout all this I have remained a nerd by association — a contact nerd.

Fast-forward 30 years, and suddenly being a nerd is cool. When we were kids, admitting you were a nerd was super lame, and it almost certainly guaranteed you a swirly (a teenage method of torture too gruesome to describe in a food column). But today being nerdy is sexy. So much so that people just say they are nerds without even really knowing what that means. It is a cultural phenomenon that has lost all meaning because it became ubiquitous — and I won’t do it.

Not really being a nerd, I suppose I ought not be so irked by the appropriation of nerd culture. But it bugs me just as much as sports teams doing Native American chants, and Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It doesn’t belong to you. Find your own culture, then flaunt that. I don’t suppose it is exactly the same thing, but the inauthenticity annoys me. Then again, who am I to say what makes a nerd authentic? I’m no one, that’s who. But it has been interesting to watch the cultural shift from my vantage point. Having caught the my fifth-grader secretly watching all the Star Wars movies back to back in the middle of the night in preparation for the release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces to better understand Luke Skywalker instead of doing math homework, I feel I have at least some insight.

But I suppose that if you are truly a nerd, you’re thrilled that all the cool people are wearing “nerds are sexy” T-shirts. Or perhaps true nerds don’t even notice, or care. And
I think there is something very appealing about people being true to themselves, and liking what they like without the need for cultural validation. Which is why I married one of them.  ||||

The Bambino, Bats and Snacks

There is nothing I look forward to more than baseball season.

Well… that’s not true at all. I look forward to a lot of things more than that — payday, kids coming home for a visit, Jeopardy at 7 p.m. — but I do really enjoy baseball. If you read this column regularly, you already know this, as I have written about it at least a hundred times.

Baseball is the one sport I really enjoy watching, live or on TV. For one thing, you can multitask and not miss a thing. Many wrong people consider baseball boring, and I get it. There’s no blood, no concussions, no brawling (usually) and no spectacular half-time show. There is, however, skill and strategy, and statistics, and rivalry, and seemingly endless anticipation.

For me, it’s the anticipation that I love. Anticipation for the season, for each time at bat, for the playoffs — the entire game is one long sequence of high hopes. And to be honest, for me the anticipation of everything is always better than the actual thing. The excitement of upcoming holidays, dessert, even weekends, is always better. Once they start, they’re almost over, and that’s just a bummer. Baseball season, thankfully, will last over half a year, which means the depression won’t set in until November — which is good news for the rest of my team. 

So you can imagine my excitement, when, while perusing this month’s National Day Calendar (yes, I am still doing that), there were a couple of baseball-centric days. First and foremost is National Babe Ruth Day on April 27. To celebrate I plan to watch The Babe Ruth Story from 1948. (Not 1992’s The Babe, which received two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert.) William Bendix plays the Sultan of Swat in all his child-curing, dog-rescuing glory. I will probably also watch the overly schmaltzy biopic Pride of the Yankees because, although it’s not National Lou Gehrig Day, Gary Cooper is fun to look at, and the real Babe Ruth plays himself, as do a handful of other real Yankees. (Gehrig doesn’t have a National Day, although Major League Baseball does celebrate Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4 — as if we had nothing else to do that day.)

And because April 6 is National Caramel Popcorn Day, I will watch The Babe Ruth Story while snacking on my very own secret recipe for homemade Cracker Jack. The song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is responsible for my enduring love of this snack. It was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, two Tin Pan Alley composers looking for a hit. They got the idea from a poster on the subway advertising a baseball game at the Polo Grounds, then the Upper Manhattan home of the early Mets and Yankees. The duo had never been to a game, but that didn’t stop them. The song hit it big in vaudeville but wasn’t heard in the Major League until the 1934 World Series. Norworth didn’t make it to a game until 1940, when he was honored at Ebbets Field by the … wait for it … Dodgers!

I was also very excited to see that April 17 is National Bat Appreciation Day. Except it turned out to be about flying rats (bat aficionados probably won’t appreciate that I called them that) and not about the Louisville Slugger (MLB’s official bat, incidentally, was created in 1884 by Bud Hillerich, whose prototype pulled the Louisville Eclipse star Pete Browning out of a slump). 

Play ball! ||||

Cookie Fever

So far, in my ongoing attempt to follow and observe the National Day Calendar, I have concluded that March is a strange and cruel month. Directly following Awkward Moments Day (March 18) is National Let’s Laugh Day (March 19). Everything You Do is Right Day comes after we must suffer through Everything You Do Is Wrong Day (March 15 and 16). There is the bad-luck-taunting Open Your Umbrella Indoors Day (March 13), and the dismissive Get Over It Day (March 9). Food holidays are not much better. Cheese Doodle Day (March 5), Taters Day (not potatoes, but “taters” — March 31), Cold Cuts Day (March 3) and Chip ’n’ Dip Day (March 23). This is not the month to focus on healthy eating. At least Corned Beef and Cabbage Day coincides with Saint Patrick’s Day.

The one day I did get excited about, though, is March 12, Girl Scout Day. I assume it is timed to coincide with the annual cookie sales. I had never heard of it but will gladly celebrate. It is not the birthday of our founder, Juliette Gordon Lowe (which every good scout knows is on Halloween), but rather the day in 1912 of the first organized troop meeting, of 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia.

I have a long and nostalgic history with the Girl Scouts. I followed the example of my mother, who cherished her memories as a scout. As was the case with her, all my closest friends were scouts with me. My leader was my friend Kathy’s mom, and it was through her that I learned to love camping. She taught us to light a fire with a spindle and bow, identify poison oak and make tea out of manzanita bark and a salad out of dandelion greens. Sure, we had s’mores; but more important, we learned to make doughboys — ready-to-bake biscuit dough on a stick, browned over the fire, then rolled in melted butter and cinnamon sugar. We went backpacking and horseback riding, learned archery and kayaking and discovered that sliding down a dirt hillside is easier on your jeans if you ride on cardboard.   

We were a diverse group — African-American, Jewish, Asian, Arab, Latina  — and from elementary school to junior high we were thick as thieves. If not for scouts I would probably never have gotten to know them. And although by high school our interests had changed (hello, boys!), we all remained friendly. I’m still in touch with some of them, and we all share great memories of that time. So you bet I signed up my girls when they were little, and I jumped at the chance to be a leader. But it wasn’t the same for them. I tried getting them jazzed about the outdoors, but the camping trips we took were never as miraculous as the ones I remembered from my childhood. It was always too hot, or too cold, or too dirty, or too windy. The thrill of fireside skits, lanyards and tie-dyed T-shirts wore off for them fast. I like to blame the age of the Internet, but in reality I just wasn’t as good at selling these activities as my leader had been. 

The one thing they did love, though, was selling cookies. Cookie time was their favorite time of year. They loved setting up tables in front of stores. If we were lucky, we would get the coveted Friday and Saturday night Blockbuster Video spot, which was the most profitable cookie-sales spot in town. Rain or shine, my troop was great at pressure sales. They made up cookie songs and cheers to entertain the shoppers and danced in cookie costumes, like a giant Thin Mint mascot. (This was a favorite costume, which they would fight over routinely.) I believe they gained some skills over the years, like rising above rude people, avoiding creepy ones and working together as a team to meet financial goals. 

And they definitely had financial goals, though it was not to secure funds for our troop activities. They were all about the “incentive prizes.” Good sales could get you dolls, T-shirts, key chains, beach towels, backpacks (I still have many of these items floating around my house) and the coveted trip to Disneyland, which required selling at least 500 boxes (yeah, we did that). Some of the girls in my troop were ambitious, but mostly they were good at talking their parents into selling at the office. My husband was hands-down the best seller in my troop. 

The cookie sales began in 1917 as a way to finance troop activities, and it continues to be thus. In 1922 American Girl magazine published a simple sugar-cookie recipe for Girl Scouts to bake at home and sell to neighbors. By the 1930s demand was high, and the girls had trouble keeping up with the demand, resulting in the first commercially baked cookies in 1934. Due to food rationing during World War I, the girls raised money by selling calendars. When my mother was a scout in the 1950s there were three flavors (shortbread, chocolate mint and peanut butter), and boxes sold for a quarter. When my girls were selling in the 2000s, there were nine flavors that sold for $4 a box (customers were outraged). Today there are 12 varieties (availability depends on where you live), including gluten-free and non-GMO varieties, and they sell for $5 to $6. If you don’t have any girls in your area, you can get them online now through the official Girl Scout website (or on Amazon, for a substantial markup).

Scouting is not perfect, nor is the cookie sale. And while I have many problems with it (too much packaging, too much focus on prizes, more money spent on the sale than on the girls), I still think the program upholds Juliette Gordon Lowe’s vision — empowering little girls. She started the program before the 19th Amendment — before girls could feasibly wear pants. Sure, girls today are less likely to go camping. Then again, they are more likely to go to robotics camp, and I think Juliette would be fine with that. ||||

The holidays may be over, but that’s no excuse to stop celebrating

Sometimes, after the holidays, I feel a little low. The build-up to the new year gets so hectic that when it’s all over, it’s not uncommon for me to experience a little post-season funk. Having just spent the last month cooking and decorating and entertaining, I need something to look forward to. While searching around for a reason to get excited, I was reminded that nearly every day of the year is a national holiday! Or rather, a National Day. 

There is no federal committee declaring National Days. In fact, there is no official way to get a National Day. You can simply decide to start celebrating something. The key is getting your day to catch on. That’s what friends John Baur and Mark Summers did, after they decided talking like a pirate was super fun and cool. They shared their Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) idea with humorist Dave Barry, who wrote about it in his syndicated column. Now, all the cool kids talk like a pirate that day.

There are, however, some private enterprises that recognize and publish National Days in a semi-official capacity. Chase’s Calendar of Events is considered the definitive guide to National Days. This almanac was founded in 1957 by two brothers, one of whom was a librarian looking in vain for a single comprehensive listing of annual observances. When none could be found, they created their own. The first Chase Calendar (for 1958) had 364 entries. Today there are 12,500. Also included are special weeks and months as listed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chase Calendar receives 10,000 requests annually for new national days, from which they select about 20. (The most popular request is a day named after really great girlfriends.)

There is also a National Day Calendar, which began publishing in 2013. This group selects 30 new days annually from nearly 20,000 applications. They currently track about 1,500 National Days. If you think the National Day idea has gotten a little crazy, you’d be correct. (Hence, National Crazy Day, Oct. 24.)

What I like best about National Days is that there is always something to celebrate, and you can find a day to celebrate pretty much everything — Kazoo Day, Heimlich Maneuver Day, Harvey Wallbanger Day, Multiple Personality Day, Proofreading Day, Bowling League Day, Mud Pack Day, Clerihew Day (a Clerihew is a funny biographical rhyming poem; e.g. “Sir Humphry Davy, Abominated gravy, He lived in the odium, Of having discovered sodium”).

Of course, as a former chef, I particularly enjoy the food days. What a joy to discover that everything I love has a day — anchovies (Nov. 12), pecan pie (July 12), eggs Benedict (April 16), coffee (Sept. 29). This first month of the year has some doozies, including marzipan (Jan. 12), granola bars (Jan. 21) and croissants (Jan. 30). But the best is Jan. 2: National Cream Puff Day! It is my hope that everyone will partake of a little cream puff action, and to encourage this, I offer you my best pâte à choux recipe. Make a batch for you and yours, and rest easy knowing the holidays are not over, after all. There is so much celebrating still to do!


Cream Puffs

You don’t actually need a National Day to enjoy these puffs, but it certainly helps with your justification. (The rumor that puffs eaten on their national day are calorie-free has not been authoritatively confirmed.)

Makes about 1 dozen large puffs

2 cups water

5 ounces unsalted butter

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

  cup all-purpose flour  

7 eggs    

1 extra egg

Sweetened whipped cream

Chocolate sauce

Powdered sugar


Method

1. Combine water, butter, sugar and salt in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. At the boil, add the flour and stir for 3 minutes over high heat. (This is going to be hard, so just tough it out. Three minutes is crucial, or the flour will not be properly absorbed, the gluten in the flour will not be activated and your puffs will not puff.) The mixture should resemble mashed potatoes when ready. (It’s best not to use wooden spoons — they have a tendency to snap in half during this step. Use metal.)

2. Remove from the heat, cool slightly (about 5 minutes), then add the eggs, one at a time. (I always do this by hand. It is hard, but worth it. Some chefs take it to a mixer for this step, but I find that the mixer overworks the dough and makes it a bit runny, which makes it hard to shape your puffs. Mixing by hand yields better product and puts you [or at least me] into a zen-like oneness with the cooking process.) It’s okay to rest for a minute in between eggs if you must.

3. Preheat the oven to 400° and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Use an ice cream scooper, or two teaspoons, and scoop large-walnut-size pieces of dough onto the prepared pan, about an inch apart. Fill up the whole pan. You’ll probably need to make several oven batches. Whisk up the extra egg with a pinch of salt and brush it lightly over the puffs, then pop them into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake another 5 to 10 minutes. They should be dark golden brown, firm and well-risen. If they aren’t, reduce the heat to 350° and continue to bake until they look done. If they are not golden and firm, they will deflate once cooled. Repeat with the remaining dough.

4. When cool, cut the puffs in half horizontally, and fill the bottoms with sweetened whipped cream. (Try it using pastry cream or chocolate mousse too!) Replace the top halves, drizzle with chocolate sauce and dust with powdered sugar.

Unfilled puffs freeze really well, and will last for several weeks. To refresh, simply reheat in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.

P.S. Filled with ice cream, these puffs become profiteroles. When piped 2 to 3 inches long, they become éclairs. Filled and piled into a pyramid they become a croquembouche. You can even use this same recipe to make gougères, my favorite savory cheese puffs. Fold in a cup of grated Gruyère cheese and a couple of tablespoons of chopped chives just before baking. Sadly, gougères don’t have a National Day…yet!

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!

NEW YEAR’S EGGNOG

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.

Ingredients

6 eggs, separated

¾ cup granulated sugar

1½ cups cognac

½ cup rum

4 cups milk

4 cups heavy cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Method

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 culinarymasterclass.com.

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.

INGREDIENTS:

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

METHOD:

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 culinarymasterclass.com.

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.  ||||

STROOPWAFELS

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.


Ingredients:

Wafer:

1¾ cups unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon milk

1½ tablespoons yeast

1 egg

cup superfine sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

Filling:

¾ cup brown sugar

1½ cups golden syrup or dark corn syrup

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Method:

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 culinarymasterclass.com.