December 2009


This is a story about two snacks, similar in nearly every way. Both were addictively sweet, salty, spicy, and crunchy. They were inspired by the same blog—indeed, the blog post of one referenced the other. They were intended for the same festive New Year’s celebration. Spicy caramel corn and spiced pecans: they would seem to go together like New Year’s Eve and champagne.

Sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy snack #1

But tonight, on this fateful New Year’s Eve Eve, only one of these snacks would survive to see the celebration. One has been carefully sealed in a freezer bag and stowed away for the bus trip to New York. The other has been laid to rest, in the trash.

Sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy snack #2

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Merry Christmas, legions of devoted fans! I have a present for you: this soup. It’s an appropriate Christmas gift for many reasons—it’s warm, soothing, and complex, and it can be hastily assembled shortly before Christmas. This soup has long been one of my favorite comfort foods (second only to mac and cheese, my indisputable king of comfort foods) and I’m ashamed that it’s taken me til now to realize how simple it is to make for myself.

Doesn't that look comforting?

But I’m also here to testify about the Christmas Eve miracle this soup performed. You see, I actually made the soup on Christmas Eve Eve, and while it was tasty, it was nothing to write home about. Nothing, indeed, that I would write on this blog about. I was disappointed—I had hoped to write a triumphant blog post about tom kha gai, just in time for Christmas. I thought maybe it needed more coconut milk, or lemongrass, and I swore that next time I’d try to find real galangal, in the hope that maybe that would boost the flavor.

And then, one day later, I had the soup for dinner.

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For the past couple of days in Washington, it’s been Snowpocalypse, snOMG, Thundersnow, and so on. For the most part, I didn’t mind being a shut-in, as I have a brief to write.

hitting the town after a day of brief-writing

But the price of being snowed in is certain warm, cozy, culinary sacrifices we must force ourselves to indulge in, like hot chocolate, apple cider, and cookies galore. Such things are mandatory. There was just one problem: I was out of butter.

Out! Of! Butter! I had enough to bake Smitten Kitchen’s black bread yesterday, and a tiny bit more to ration out on top of the warm bread, but that was it. So no cookies for me. In ransacking the freezer for more butter, though, I came across a treasure I’d forgotten all about—a bag of frozen cherries left over from the summer. And sitting on the counter where I’d left it from making this cake was a nice bottle of bourbon. I clearly had no choice but to combine the cherries with some bourbon, vanilla, and sugar, stew them all together for a while, and devour them. The gods of winter demand no less.

I left that dribble of juice on the ramekin to remind you that I'm not perfect. And because I was too lazy to wipe it off.

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A few weeks ago, I was about to start baking this bewitching-sounding “whiskey-soaked dark chocolate bundt cake” for National Bundt Cake Day. I was planning on bringing it in to the office, as I frequently do when I find myself producing more baked goods than I could ever possibly consume on my own.  But then I decided that maybe I should read through the recipe before plunging in. And that’s when I learned that this cake has a full cup of alcohol in it—alcohol that doesn’t bake off, alcohol that remains fully present in taste and alcoholic jolt, alcohol in quantities contraindicated for pregnant women, alcohol that makes this cake probably inappropriate for my particular workplace.

But now that I’ve finally made this cake, I can tell you that it is amazing. Let’s start with this measuring cup, which contains espresso, chocolate, and the aforementioned cup of bourbon:

Elixir of life.

I took about a dozen photos of this measuring cup, hoping I could somehow capture the incredible scent of three of my favorite beverages gloriously combined together.  Eventually I just took a picture of the measuring cup from a low angle, to demonstrate the awe and deep regard I have for its contents.

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This simple, satisfying pasta dish is the kind of food I used to cook pretty much exclusively. It’s a quick, pasta-based, one-dish meal, with little to no meat, not fried, and containing not a smidge of butter. This kind of meal served me, my schedule, and my cholesterol well for many years. But somehow, over the past couple of years or so, I’ve transitioned into making multiple dishes that are never ready at the same time, launching into complex recipes requiring odd gadgets, experimenting with meat, and going through embarrassing quantities of butter and frying oil. While I’ve been loving every minute of it, it’s also nice to return to my one-bowl roots.

This bowl contains everything you need for a delightful meal.

As simple as this recipe is, however, it did contain one new challenge for me: anchovies. They’ve just always seemed so . . . strange. Fishy. And strange. But Simply Recipes promised that they would wow with umami goodness, so I decided to trust her and jump into the world of tiny fishes used as seasoning.

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There’s an especially funny episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie and Dee eat unusually delicious meat that Frank leads them to believe is human flesh. They then become hilariously deranged in their quest to get more human meat—before learning that they actually ate raccoon, and the reason they’ve been feeling so desperately hungry is because the raccoon gave them tapeworms.

I’m fairly sure I’m parasite-free (even though I am generally hungry all the time), but I’ve been feeling similarly meat-obsessed ever since I made this gloriously spiced lamb last night.

Baaaa, with spaghetti squash

I can’t stop thinking about it. While cutting the meat, I kept having to stop to lick my fingers. I wanted to eat the leftovers for breakfast this morning. I’m wondering whether my cat will get along with the herd dog in charge of my flock of sheep, and if I can get the dog to lead LED-wearing sheep in amazing formations that will become a YouTube sensation, and what I’ll knit with all my wool.

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One of the cooking skills I’m currently working on mastering is the delicate, elusive art of having multiple separate dishes ready at the same time. So far, no amount of advance planning or careful timing has been able to make this magic reliably happen. But one night last week, hallelujah! I had a protein, starch, and vegetable dish all finished within moments of one another. The gods of dinner were smiling on me and my humming little kitchen.

That is, they smiled on my timing. They did not so much smile on my food. Of the three dishes that were ready at the same time, only one was so rapturously good that I felt compelled to write about it here, because it is the kind of dish that will make your life better: cream-braised brussels sprouts.

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