Many thanks to Stef over at Stefoodie for tagging me on Nicky's cooking meme, The Cook Next Door, as part of a triumverate of food-writing Stephanies. All the answers for questions you never asked…
What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
Rolled butterscotch cookies from the Joy of Cooking, when I was maybe 8 or 9. They were those fussy ones, like tuiles, which you have to roll up while still warm. Everyone in the family liked them, but not me. This is typical; I’m my toughest critic when it comes to cooking. But I kept on; I was always angling to get the house to myself so I could cook. I still remember the injustice of my parents coming home early, when I was in the midst of baking a batch of herb bread. The kitchen was still a wreck—I wasn’t expecting them to come home for another couple hours—so I got in BIG trouble and got banished from the kitchen. Then everyone devoured the bread! Oooh, that still frosts me.
Who had the most influence on your cooking?
My mother and my grandmothers, definitely. My mom wasn’t a hippie by any means, but she definitely did the 70s make-your-granola thing; we had carob-and-acerola bars in our lunchboxes (which sucked for trading—no one ever wanted to give up a Ding Dong for a weird rosehip-jelly bar) and she baked her own bread and made homemade jam and mayonnaise. I loved hanging out in the kitchen with her, and so I grew up thinking that cooking was fun and that baking pie from scratch was no big deal. My family was also very adament about family meals; my mom cooked and we sat down for dinner together every night. Both my grandmothers were also good cooks and ace bakers. I have a lot of memories of frothing up egg whites with an old hand-held egg beater for waffles in my grandmother’s kitchen in the morning, and of her always adding a drop of almond extract to the batter. Being a good Jewish grandma, she never came over without a Saran-wrapped plate piled with homemade chocolate-chip cookies or rugalach, which may go far in explaining the number of times I’ve schlepped a hot-out-of-the-oven pie or batch of muffins on the crosstown bus.
Do you have an old photo as "evidence" of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
My mom has an excellent snapshot, circa 1976, of me absolutely bathed in watermelon, in the middle of a watermelon-eating contest at the Miacomet State Fair, in Nantucket. It wasn’t how much you could eat; just how fast you could get through one big slice of melon. As you can guess from the rabid intensity with which I’m attacking my slice, I won. (Sorry, no digital version--we're lo-fi at PQ Castle).
Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I can’t make brownies for shit, I don’t know why.
What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
Mostly, I'm of the one-knife/two-hands school; I love browsing through cookware stores but my kitchen is very low tech and mostly outfitted from garage sales. But I do have a deep fondness for a few weird little gadgets that do just one thing but do it perfectly: these big red jar-lifting tongs, made expressly for lifting hot jam jars out of boiling water; my cherry pitter, which makes pitting so fun that everyone wants to find something to pit; and my microplane zester--instead of the tasty citrus zest gunking up the little holes of the box grater and getting all dried out and crusty, now I can just glide a lemon over the microplane and produce lovely fluffy piles of shredded zest in two seconds.
The most glam thing in the kitchen is definitely my big wide copper preserving pan, which I splurged on after a marmalade-making class with the awe-inspiring June Taylor, Oakland jam queen extraordnaire. Besides looking gorgeous, its weight means the fruit and sugar rarely burn, and its width promotes rapid evaporation. On the other end of the glam spectrum is my cast-iron Dutch oven, which is old and homely but full of memories—my mom got when she was first married, and I learned all her recipes for split-pea soup and beef stew and spaghetti sauce using it.
For some reason, everyone likes to give me hand-held (stick) blenders. I know they’re swell, but I’ve never warmed up to them; they look too much like scary vampire vibrators to me.
Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like and probably no one else.
Peanut butter and cream-cheese sandwiches, on rye bread. These were in my lunchbox at least once a week, and I loved them. This was considered a completely normal sandwich in my family, but everyone I know recoils in shock and horror when I tell them this. However, that all-peanut-butter restaurant in Soho serves a variation—PB, vanilla cream cheese, Granny Smith apple slices—so I’m not completely alone in this weirdo fondness.
What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don't want to live without?
Dark chocolate, apricot jam, and decaf Peet’s coffee (a bag of Peet's is the price of a bed at PQ Castle for all West Coast visitors). I also have a thing for odd, old-fashioned fruits and vegetables, especially if they sound like something out of a Beatrix Potter book—rhubarb, quince, nettles, red currants...But I sleep well as night as long as I know that I can wake up to a kitchen stocked with a box of Grape-Nuts, a quart of plain yogurt, bananas (for the yogurt), milk (for the Grape-Nuts), and on a good day, a a six-pack of Kozy Shack chocolate pudding.
favorite ice cream Black raspberry; Mexican chocolate from Mitchell’s, in San Francisco (especially in a double scoop with their autumn-only pumpkin); caramel from Bertillon, in Paris; lemon granita, in Italy, anywhere
you will probably never eat Kangaroo. They’re too cute! And if at possible, I don't ever want to eat blue cheese, insects, or coconut.
signature dish Any kind of pie, especially apple. And cucumber sandwiches.