Category Archives: entertaining

Loaf Lost

If we were a restaurant, we’d have been shut down by the health department today.

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Yes, it’s a meatloaf. Don’t laugh.

That’s the final version. There was an earlier incarnation, which tasted mystifyingly raw inside, even though it had cooked for an hour and a half. I ate a small slice, and got so freaked out I fed the rest to the dog. It was creamy, like polenta. I don’t know much, but I know meatloaf isn’t supposed to have the “mouth feel” of creme brulee.

So I put the remaining half back in the oven. Because Mike would need dinner, too, when he got home. And I was not feeding him turkey pap.

An hour later I remembered to get it out.

“What did you do to it?” Mike said, when he saw it.

I shook my head. “I don’t know, exactly.”

“Oh, well. I’m sure it’ll taste great,” he said, in that game way people do when they know they are about to step off of a culinary cliff.

Later, after he’d eaten all of it–good man!–we talked about what had gone wrong.

“It just wouldn’t cook,” I insisted. “It was in there forever. It tasted like oatmeal. And then it got burnt.”

“Was the oven temperature right?” Mike asked.

“Yes.”

He shook his head. “Then I don’t know what to tell you.” There was a pause. “Did you follow the recipe?”

“Yes,” I snapped, rolling my eyes exasperatedly. Then I thought about it. I’d used a bit more ketchup than was called for. And a bit less meat.

I mentioned this.

“How much more ketchup?”

I counted in my head. “Maybe four times?”

His eyes widened.

“It was a mistake!” I stammered. “I read the recipe wrong. And then I forgot–and I had to–anyway. Maybe five times. Do you think that could’ve been the problem?”

“It’s a lot of extra liquid.”

I cocked my head. “Ketchup is a liquid?”

He ignored this. “Of course it tasted creamy. It was soaked.”

Whatever. What’s done is done. But I’m renewing my vow–first made after the Mark Bittman chicken debacle two years ago–to never again cook a recipe that calls for a meat thermometer. It’s not worth the pain, the humiliation, or the attendant mild nausea.

As for our home-restaurant? The one Myra-Jean is now calling “Food?” We will simply go vegetarian. Or vegan. Or better yet, raw. I suspect I have a knack for that.

Reservations, anyone?

Stabbed In the Book

To add insult to injury, I’ve been betrayed by my book club.

After months of reading excellent choices, all of which resulted in at least slightly substantive conversations–OK, when we weren’t talking about dolphin rape, sea sponge tampons, and the like–we’re now reading something so dim, unappealing and insipid I’m  embarrassed to admit what it is.

A hint: Annie Hall.

Yes, it’s the Diane Keaton biography. I can’t even remember the name. “This Is It?” “What Have You?” “Nevermind?” No, that’s the Nirvana album. Honestly. Am I going to have to lug myself out of this chair to go get it? Is the name really that forgettable?

Sigh. I’ll be right back.

“Then Again.”

Look, I don’t mean to be unkind. I’m aware of google alerts, and I don’t want Ms. Keaton to be offended if she stumbles upon this post. But on the other hand? I think she’ll have to be. Because I so don’t want to read this thing. Here’s how much: I happen to own a copy, because my mother read it a year or two ago and insisted on leaving it with me when she flew home. I told her the only thing I would use it for was kindling. That I’d rather be cut up with a pizza roller than read a single page. That if it was the last book in the world I’d gouge my eyes out rather than–

“Read it,” she interrupted. “It’s about her mother. It’s cute.”

Cute is something I like in my bunnies, not my books. I’m not going to cuddle with the thing. I’m not going to tickle it under the chin. I’m going to read it.

Sadly.

Because I am reading it. I read everything my book club chooses. It’s Pavlovian at this point. But man, am I pissed about it. Every time I pick it up and see Keaton lying there on the cover, her legs up the wall like some yogi on her cycle, I just want to puke. Instead I curse and curse.

This is not what book clubs are for. Give me Catherine the Great. Give me Cleopatra. Give me Henrietta Lacks, even, who was only heroic by virtue of how sick she was. Just please. Don’t give me kindling.

We may need it if the gas gets switched off.

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Along Party Lines

Note to self: tres leches cake? Not a good choice for a three-year old birthday party. The kids will pick at it, lick one piece tentatively, and walk away disconsolately. You will feel like a selfish beast for choosing a confection that the adults find delectable, but the children think is repugnant.

Other that that? I’d have to say that MJ’s do was a great success. Thank God for friends who are crafty, kind and willing to show up indecently early on a Sunday morning to help set up. Thank God for their husbands, who have even less reason than they do to be so generous. Thank God for weather forecasts that don’t come true. Thank God for public parks. Because kid’s birthday parties? Expensive. Even if you do nothing but serve homemade food, have a grocery store cake the kids hate, and offer a silly craft from Michael’s. Thank God for ebay, where you can buy new/old Beanie Babies, (which — musty or not —  turned out to be the best idea ever for a party favor), insanely cheaply. Thank God for my mom, without whose extra helping hands Mike and I might’ve ended up in divorce court before the weekend was out. Just kidding, honey. Kind of…

And thank God for the day after the birthday party. Thank God for sleeping ’til 8, keeping your kid home from school, going to the Audubon Center with your mom and daughter to listen to the hawks, and feeling 100% satisfied with the celebration that is now, blissfully, receding in the rear view mirror of your life.

 

Genghis Can’t

Genghis Kahn killed between 10 and 60 million people. Now he’s after my to-do list.

I can’t stop listening to this podcast about him. It’s 5 hours long; I’m already on my second go-around. It’s fascinating. Gripping. Horrifying. Awe inspiring. But listening to historical podcasts, especially of the intense variety, is not conducive to doing anything else well. Except for ironing. Which I, of course, have not done — the 10 million shirts awaiting my attention notwithstanding.

I’ve tried multi-tasking. The results have been universally poor. Listening to the podcast has hurt my driving, (“he chopped their what off with a battle axe?” Beep BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP! Screech!!!). It’s been awful for my grocery shopping, (“excuse me, stranger in the nut aisle? Oh, no, I’m fine. It’s just — um — 60,000 virgins just killed themselves to avoid him, see, and — oh. Ahem. Have a nice day too.”) I learned this morning that it’s disasterous at Ikea, where the furniture names sound vaguely Mongol, the meatballs look like little severed heads — I ate twelve, mind you — and the chair displays look like great, heaped up piles of bone. Lastly  — as I said in my previous post — it’s inappropriately distracting while shopping for toddler birthday presents. Three-year-old girls don’t want swords. They want tea sets. Or maybe they don’t. I have no fucking idea, and none of it seems to matter when you think of the scale of destruction the 13th century people went through.

Then there are the things that can’t be done with earbuds in. These are being fully neglected. I need to call my mother, a few old friends, and my mortgage company. Not happening. I need to locate a party rental place. Because, did I mention? Myra-Jean’s birthday party is in two weeks and I’ve invited the equivalent of a small town in Nebraska to come. I should be planning food, considering themes, preparing gift bags. But how can I? It’s too sad. It’s ridiculous. These kids today. They have no idea how good they have it. Gift bags? They’re lucky not to be chattel! Maybe that should be the theme. Non-chattlement. “What’s in the sack? Your freedom. Now quit whining, kid.”

It won’t make me popular. It will, however, make the get-together memorable.

If it happens at all. Because right now it’s not looking good. All I want to do is sit on the couch — an Ikea Säter, I might add; gah! — and stare into space as I listen, shake my head, and try to imagine what it was all like. It’s a weird kind of imprisonment: totally self-imposed, but effective nonetheless. Maybe I need one of those gift bags myself.

Or maybe I just need to give in and head for the ironing board.

Happy Birthday, Stinkie!

It’s Mike’s birthday today. He just went outside to take a call from some well-wisher, lost track of Mina, and next thing you know? She’s been skunked again. It’s incredible. Who needs a blog about anything else when you have a dog that, every day, gives you sixteen new reasons to throw your hands up in despair?

Although I might add that birthday boy screwed up this time. Leaving that dog unattended in the out-of-doors is a (small) step from total insanity. But we won’t mention that. As a special gift to him. On this very special day.

Now go take a shower before your guests arrive, honey! And maybe we’d better make the candles on your cake scented.

A Boulder Approach

When we first moved in to this house I immediately dubbed the back yard “The Hellhole.” It’s not hard to see why. I’ve written here about its abundance of concrete, sickly aloes, and scrap-yard soil. One thing I haven’t described — until now — is the behemoth that was left sitting in the middle of the first terrace. It’s actually a boulder. Well, maybe a rock. Whatever it is, it has presented a formidable obstacle to improvement.

The thing is huge. It’s also sharp — made of a jagged, pumice-like substance — so getting a feel for how heavy it was turned out to be tricky. When I approached it to gauge its weight it scratched me viciously before I could get a good handhold. Trust me to inherit the Freddy Kreuger of garden globes.

I am no spunky heroine. I decided to leave it alone.

And so it sat. Preventing any progress at all being made on the terrace. What can you do, gardening-wise, when there is a mountainous crag in the middle of your plot? Surround it with climbing plants and call it a trellis? Grow lichen on it and dub it a moss garden? No. You simply give up and cede the territory. Or say you’ll get to it later. When you have more help. Like — when a bunch of weight lifters come over for a barbecue.

Which you won’t have, because your back yard is unpresentable.

Back to ceding territory. Sigh.

But, we have been doing some demolition in the Hell Hole. Most of the bushy, thorny, plants are gone, and the cement slab is getting broken up, slowly but surely. In order to accomplish such work Mike recently acquired a pick axe.

Today, for some reason, he decided to attack the boulder with it.

When he did, (over my shrieks of “eye protection! Please!”), he found that it was crumbly and porous, like an Aero bar. After a few more whacks, he realized it actually wasn’t even that heavy. It seemed to be rolling with each concussion. So Mike stopped trying to chop it up, and instead tried in earnest to budge it. And it budged.

With much encouragement from me and MJ, he proceeded to roll it…

then drop it…

then roll and drop it some more…

and roll it some more…

And finally relocate it.

I think it should be made into a table. (What will serve as appropriate chairs is an open question. Why we would want to sit in a narrow, concrete-walled corner is another. Prison fantasy, anyone?) Mike says we will have to “deal with it for real” eventually. But as far as I’m concerned that day is far away.

Speaking of far away days, I know it’ll be a long time before our back yard is even a little nice. Weight lifters waiting for your BBQ invite — don’t hold your breath. In fact, I recommend you hit a taco truck. We have much, much more work to do before we’ll be flipping burgers in our welcoming little oasis. A frightening amount more.

But not quite as much as we did this morning.

So — and I’m sorry, but it must be said — rock on, Mike!

And if anyone wants a boulder, cheap — you know where to come.

Let Them See Cake!

I’ve commented before on the high caliber of kids’ birthday parties here in L.A. But I may not have mentioned one of the specific aspects that keeps hitting new heights: the cakes.

A couple of months back we went to a pizza-themed party for a two-year-old. It was held in a pizzeria; the parents were both dressed like pizzas; the kids made little individual pizzas as their activity; the favor bags were filled with pizza-related toys (yes, these exist). Last, but not least, they brought out a cake  — baked by the mother —  that was really an extraordinary rendition of a Domino’s Deep Dish with the works. (Its verisimilitude was particularly humbling to those of us who can’t draw a cat without our child assuming it’s a school bus.) The mom had crafted “toppings” of sugar and food coloring that might have fooled even an accomplished chef. (Until he ate them, of course, and nearly keeled over from the glucose surge.) I wish I had taken a picture, but in that case I was too busy rushing MJ out of there before she realized that what she was seeing was, indeed, a confection. Why deal with the sugar psychosis if you don’t have to?

This weekend, as I mentioned in my last post,  we attended another 2-year-old’s birthday party. This was a much mellower affair, with no theme, parents dressed –remarkably — as themselves, and no chef hats for the kids. (Thank God. Try keeping one of those on your two-year-old for longer than a millisecond.) But even these laid-back hosts had a cake that was absolutely ingenious. Made by a neighbor! Alright, she’s a pro, but still! The bar is getting too high, people!

Here’s what this friend just tossed together in her kitchen:

Sorry it’s out of focus. My hands were shaking with envy. Not really, but Jesus. It was gorgeous! And the entire thing, down to the fire hydrants, was edible. One little girl walked around nibbling on the ladder for a solid hour. She looked like Gollum with his ring. “Preeeeeciioooouusss!”

And on top of everything else, it was delicious. Not, as I half-expected, cardboard-y, like a wedding cake three weeks in the making, but light, flavorful, and moist. I, myself, ate an entire slice. Plus a door handle. Vroom! I always thought you had to choose between flavor and appearance, and God knows I would take the former over the latter any day of the week, but this turns out not to be the case. More the shame for me, who has provided her daughter with delicious but, ahem, humble representations of the form at each birthday.

This year, in particular, we hit a low. It was only partially our fault. True, we chose a banal looking (but delectable) round layer cake from Delilah’s. But then the day of the party their “writer” called in sick. The counter-person was forced to fill in, and, from his work, I’d have to guess than penmanship wasn’t his top subject at school.

It was supposed to say “Happy 2nd Birthday Myra-Jean!”

Instead, we got:

You see why my self-esteem is teetering, here?

Next year I’m thinking we’ll see if we can get Chris Burden cheap. I feel like he’d do a cake we could be proud of. As for the flavor? Well, you can’t have everything. We can hit Delilah’s for cupcakes some other time.

Jelly Cookie Recipe — With Footnotes

Per a reader’s request, here is the recipe for the jelly cookies we made on Christmas Eve. It comes from Mike’s Polish grandmother, who, before her passing, made them every year for the holidays. For my husband, eating them is a Proustian experience. For the rest of us, well, it is simply very pleasant. I have never been a fan of this kind of confection, but I must admit these are delicate, not too sweet, and rather delicious.

The aunt who forwarded this recipe to Mike is a genius. Literally. She therefore places a great premium on inference, being well capable of it herself. I have taken the liberty of adding a few comments — most of them meant to flesh out the process for those of us (lesser mortals) who may need more help. A couple of them help no one, but are of interest — at least to me. They are all in italics.

GRANDMA W’s JELLY COOKIES

Dough:

½ lb. butter (softened)

8 oz. cream cheese (softened)

Pinch salt

2 c. flour

Cream together butter, cream cheese and salt.

Add flour gradually, mixing until smooth.

Form dough into ball, and wrap in waxed paper. (Why waxed paper and not plastic wrap? Who knows? My mom has an old cookie recipe that, at one point, instructs you to stir the batter “with a wooden spoon.” My sisters and I have spent our lives in fear of not having the correct appurtenance for this activity when needed. Superstitious? Perhaps. But they are damn fine cookies. So, stay away, all metal!)

Chill overnight or at least 3 hours.

 Apricot Filling:

1 c. dried apricots

¾ c. water

¼ c. sugar

Plum Filling:

1 c. dried plums

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

Cook dried fruit/water/sugar mix for ten minutes (*in a pot you’re not deeply attached to) and then puree. 

*According to feedback I have gotten since this post was published, I would have had far less trouble had I made sure I was using very low heat, and kept the pot covered. 

Assembly:

Use ½ dough at a time, leaving remainder in refrigerator.

Roll very thin with confectioner’s sugar.  (This is the only sweetening the dough gets, so don’t be shy. Also, roll even thinner than you’re inclined to. The dough puffs up quite a bit in the cooking).

Cut into 2 inch squares. (If you have a cooking partner like my husband, have a tape measure handy).

Place small amount of jam in center. (What is “a small amount?” Excellent question. It turns out that people have differing ideas on this point. Suggestion: when co-baking these cookies, discuss said amount with partner before commencing process, as the occurrence of said discussion in the middle of the baking process can lead to serious delays and even mild disagreements).

Fold two opposing corners towards each other, so that one overlaps the other slightly.  This part was left out of the recipe entirely, as Mike’s Aunt seemed to feel it was common sense. And in most cases it would be. My sense, however, is anything but common. I probably would have rolled them up like little carpets and called them “dead people cookies.” Fortunately Mike was able to fill in this bit.

Seal edges with milk. (Do this more assiduously than this offhanded instruction implies. Otherwise your cookies will all come open in the oven, resulting in open-face sandwiches instead of rolls — most undesirable.)

Place on ungreased cookie sheet. (Or parchment paper. Saves having to wash the sheet. But make sure you do not accidentally use waxed paper. I have done this, utterly ruining a batch of roasted chickpeas and causing my husband to ask, worriedly, “why does it smell like burning candles in here?”)

Bake at 375° F for 15 minutes. (Ten is plenty. At least in our rather over-zealous oven).

When cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. (A lot. Otherwise they aren’t sweet enough).

Makes 5 dozen cookies. (*No it doesn’t. Makes about 2 dozen. Then the jelly part runs out, and you decide to try using storebought jam for the rest of the dough, and then you find out that doesn’t work at all. Then you say, “next time I’m going to double the jelly recipe.” Then you throw away the entire second batch, because even your two-year-old won’t eat it, and it’s too rich for the dog.)

Enjoy!

* Turns out you’ll be fine if you make both the apricot and the plum filling. We thought you were supposed to choose one or the other, so ended up with half the quantity we were supposed to have.