There's a Butternut Squash Contest at Food 52!

And I've got a dish in it. It's so easy, it's rich, and it's vegetarian. We all liked it. And I won't be upset if you like some of the other recipes better than mine. They look amazing. 


I surrender to baking bread--and other stuff

I am a semi-stepmother. The Man has an 11 year daughter, whom I've known since she was 7, and whom I adore with the kind of mushy adulation I thought possible only in real parents, which I am not.

I will say that she is a great eater, but--and maybe this is because I am not connected to her genetically--I will not say that she knows all the waiters at Spiaggia and keeps a cheese diary and eats (or even knows about) foie gras and makes a better omelet than I do. She is very adventurous, and she does have friends who eat only bagels, which makes me feel outlandishly superior, but the truth is I knew she was my kind of kid not when she ate my early Thai experiments but when I found her hiding a big ball of bread in her hand, stuffed with butter, during my first dinner out with her. It was like a butter-filled baseball that she was waiting to pitch, handcrafted right there at the dinner table when no one was looking. She was clearly trying to break my heart.

Bread is one of her favorite foods, and I think butter is one of her second favorite foods. When we go to Trader Joe's, she heads for the coffee sample station so she can drink the cream, straight up. 

Anyway, she just left us for two weeks, and I find myself with the kind of empty time I used to relish. And I freeze at 2:30 thinking I've forgotten to pick her up at school. What the hell am I going to do with myself? I'd say "bake some bread," but I just did that.

Because for her going-away present, she asked me to make her favorite, Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey's super-simple loaf. She took the whole thing, which I pulled out of the oven last night, along to school wrapped in plastic and shoved into her giant bag along with her books and extra clothes and vampire fangs, which she collects. This, of course, breaks my former lump-of-coal heart in two, yet again.

Five years ago, if you'd told me I'd be baking, I would have . . . I don't know, punched you in the nose? I've always cooked a lot, but baking seemed to symbolize the whole sad Hilary Clinton trap: how can you take yourself seriously if you bake cookies? Well, guess what, I've been baking cookies, too. And I haven't melted into a puddle on the castle floor. And I'm not going to stop, either.

For those of you who have grown a heart, as well, I give you the recipe for this amazing, never-fail loaf, for which you'll need a dutch oven, but that's about it as far as equipment goes. And: no kneading, no proofing, no talking about your dough like it's a person. Just mix it up, let it sit for about 18 hours, then, practically, throw it in the oven. It's great to bake with kids, because it truly does seem like magic. I've changed a few things regarding getting the bread from the counter into the oven, but this recipe is otherwise almost as I found it, in the New York Times.

No Knead Bread, adapted from Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey
  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1¼ teaspoons salt
  • water
  1.  In a large bowl stir the flour, yeast and salt together, then add 1 5/8 cups water. Stir this together, too, until it comes together in a shaggy, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. I usually put it on the back of the stove.
  2. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over like you are folding a towel, once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
  3.  Flour your hands, then quickly shape dough into a ball. Place it, seam side down,  on a floured sheet of tinfoil;  dust with a little more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with a cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
  4.  At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Pick up the tinfoil like a tray, and  turn dough over into pot, seam side up. Shake the pan once or twice to more evenly distribute the dough in the pot. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until browned. Cool on a rack.


A Doily-Worthy Dessert

Here's a dessert that I got from my Aunt Mariah's recipe box when I went down to Galax to cook with her and my cousin Toni, whom I grew up with, and their cousin Martha.  Toni and I were planning on photocopying whichever recipes we just had to have, but I was so taken with this recipe in particular that I wrote it down on the spot on a scrap of paper (no one ever writes anything down on a sheet of paper; it's always "a scrap"). And after coming back home and making it in my Chicago kitchen, I felt like a goddess for having the great ability to know a terrific recipe when I see one. I'm still patting myself on the back. 

Aunt Mariah was planning to make these lemon sponge cups for her book club meeting coming up the next week. "I serve them with whipped cream and a slice of lemon," she told me in her slow Tidewater Virginia accent, which is so lilting and pretty and which she has always maintained in spite of the fact that everyone in my family has attempted, it seems, to tease her out of it by imitating it. Which must be maddening for her, and which is hilarious since we all have Southern accents, just different kinds of Southern accents. (Hers is quite remarkable though. Apparently, she once said: "Ahm about ta perish for a Co-cola." However, this is a teasing story that gets repeated, along with her pronunciation of wha-tah, aka water, and sofer for sofa, to the point that such tales no longer seems quite plausible. Until you hear Aunt Mariah speak.)

Anyway. . .  these lemon sponge cups are wonderful and also quite easy. They make you feel fancy: you pour the batter into individual souffle dishes or ramekins, and when they come out of the oven they have cute puffy-brown tops, with a layer of lemon custard on the bottom. Without whipped cream, they are perfectly light and sour-sweet; but a spoonful is nice for company. 

Lemon Sponge Cups
Serves 4-6

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons flour 
  • 1 lemon (grated rind and juice)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter. Add sugar, flour salt, lemon juice and rind. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks; stir in milk, then add slowly to first mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff; gently fold into mixture. Pour into custard cups and place in pan of hot water. Bake in "moderate" oven (350, in my case) for 45 minutes. You will have a layer of lemon custard, with sponge on top. Let cool a bit. Turn out and serve with whipped cream, or serve in the dish. You can also bake this in one large souffle dish.