Categories
Essays

Oatmeal Done Right

If someone were to ask me what my favorite breakfast food was, they’d probably expect me to say something like pancakes, french toast, or waffles. Don’t get me wrong, I love something that’s fluffy and light on the inside and crispy on the outside once in a while. But I need something reliable, something that doesn’t feel too much like dessert. And when I’m in a rush or feel lazy, I need something that isn’t too time-consuming. My go-to breakfast is oatmeal. Not the plain, bland, mass of mushy-water-soaked oats that some might think of, but my special recipe. I love oatmeal because it’s so customizable. The oats can take on different flavor profiles depending on the different toppings and ingredients I throw in. It’s up to me to figure out what works best. The result is a breakfast that’s not too sweet or filling. It feels healthy, but it also acts like a comfort food as it warms me up in the morning. The oats are a blank canvas, and I can add whatever I want.

During the busy mornings of my middle school years, pre-packaged Quaker oatmeal made a frequent appearance alongside the always trusty Honey Bunches of Oats. I enjoyed the Apples and Cinnamon variety the most. But I definitely didn’t have enough cooking experience back then. Most of the time, the oats came out slightly overcooked, and I always ate them without toppings. Although the sheer sweetness of the added sugars provided enough flavor to mask the questionable texture, all those years took a toll on my favorite breakfast. There were only so many mornings of pre-packaged oatmeal I could take. I abandoned it for a while in search of a more texturally sound morning meal. For a long time, English muffins with peanut butter and different varieties of breakfast sandwiches replaced the sturdy oat. 

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.

Only the dark ages of quarantine could persuade me to change up my breakfast routine once again. Getting a break from smoothie bowls and omelettes gave me something to take my mind off of TikTok dances and whipped coffee. This time, there were no packages of oatmeal in sight. It was up to me to finally try to assemble the dish from scratch and find the right combination of toppings. I started by mixing oats and water and microwaving them until they soaked up all the liquid. Then, I topped them with chopped strawberries, almond pieces, and vanilla yogurt. It seemed like a good blend of textures and flavors. I placed the bright red strawberry pieces in one section of the bowl, spread the yogurt on the other side, and sprinkled the almonds in the middle. A scoop of peanut butter in the center was the final touch. The mix of colors and the perfectly arranged toppings combined with the natural light of the kitchen in the morning made for a great photo. But while the contents of the bowl were visually appealing, the combination of toppings didn’t taste as good as they looked. 

I soon discovered that the yogurt cooled down the temperature of the oats, making them lukewarm instead of nice and hot. The almonds added a certain dry saltiness that didn’t exactly pair well with the strawberries. And the oats, after all this time, were still overcooked. What had I done wrong? I thought that making my own recipe would improve this journey back in time— a blast from breakfasts past.  

It all came down to the oats. The foundation of the dish. If they didn’t have good flavor, the dish was ruined. The Quaker packaged oats had been too sweet, and the homemade oats too bland. I needed to find the perfect blend. I suddenly remembered a method that I had used a while ago to make overnight oats that would work for this recipe. Mashed banana and cinnamon would enhance the flavor of the oats as they cooked. First, I added milk to a bowl instead of water to make the oats creamier. Then, I whisked cinnamon into the bowl to infuse the milk with more flavor. After that, in went the oats and the mashed banana. The banana added the perfect amount of sweetness because of the sugars it released while cooking. It also added some moisture to the oats to keep them from drying out and overcooking, and enhanced the overall texture to make the oats less chewy. I topped the oatmeal with blueberries and peanut butter while it was still hot so that the peanut butter melted a little into the mixture. Since developing that recipe, I haven’t looked back.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Lexi’s Clean Kitchen.

Categories
Essays

An Open Love Letter to Wegmans

In one of my discussion groups, we start class every week going around the circle with our highs and lows from the week. My high is very often—nearly always—my trip to Wegmans on Saturday night. I said it jokingly at the beginning of the semester, struggling to come up with something interesting but not too personal to share with this group of mostly strangers, but it felt right. I am twenty years old, which most people associate with being young and fun and adventurous, and the highlight of my week is a Saturday night in a grocery store.

It’s not just a grocery store. It’s Wegmans. People are obsessed with Wegmans in a way I couldn’t quite comprehend when I moved out to Boston from my Midwest hometown. It’s consistently voted one of the top 100 places to work in America by Fortune magazine. Someone once proposed inside a Wegmans, because he and his now-wife spent so much blissful time there together. A group of Massachusetts high school theatre students wrote and performed an original musical about the store, which drew so much local interest that they expanded their performance schedule. People don’t care that much about grocery stores in Illinois. I’ve lived in Massachusetts and shopped at Wegmans for almost three years now; and I have fully, unhesitatingly joined the ranks of Wegmans super fans.

I love the person that I become in Wegmans. Suddenly, I’m not worried about the pile of readings on my desk or my essay due in two days. When I’m wandering the aisles, I become someone who has the time to bake her own bread, someone who thinks nothing of waking up on a Saturday morning to make a batch of wild blueberry scones, someone who might whip up homemade chicken soup for dinner. There is possibility around every corner, quite literally. After I come home from Wegmans loaded up with reusable tote bags and inspiration, the dopamine rush continues. My roommates will emerge from their rooms and say, “Something smells amazing!” I get to tell them that the banana bread will be out in twenty minutes or that there’s key lime pie in the fridge or that I’m just about to put double fudge brownies in the oven—courtesy of the Baking Essentials aisle. 

Everything feels the same this year. The days and weeks blur together. The only thing keeping me from completely losing my mind is the punctuation of a solid routine. I can count on Wegmans on Saturday nights. I can count on the comforting sameness of grocery aisles. Everything will always be in its place. I know that no matter what happened in my week, the fruit will be piled in the front of the store, and the bread guy will wink at me, and I will never, ever be able to find the artichokes.

My daily life as a college student in a pandemic is full of “no.” No parties, no seeing too many friends, no in-person classes, no going out to eat, no traveling, no seeing family. No fun.  In Wegmans, there are small delights that I’m allowed to say yes to, like honey goat cheese, a bunch of pale orange tulips, and sourdough that’s still warm. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.

Categories
Essays

A Special Ingredient

Like any other Swede who has moved out of Scandinavia, I have a special place in my heart reserved for Swedish food. Even though I have lived in Texas for the past seven years, I honestly do not think I have gone more than a week without either eating or making something Swedish. It not only brings me joy and a sense of security, but it helps me feel connected to everything and everyone back home.

During lockdown last March, I fell in love with baking. This was not so much because of the baked goods themselves, but more because of the joy it brought to my family. Baking provided me with the opportunity to connect with my brothers on a different level, which is something I was extremely thankful for since I would be going off to college in only a couple of months. I remember baking a cake with my youngest brother the weekend before leaving, cherishing every moment of our time together. 

As one can imagine, I had been completely deprived of baking after living in a 16-square-foot dorm room without a kitchen for three months. Since baking serves as a form of subconscious therapy for me, it was in the forefront of my mind when my plane landed at the airport the day before Thanksgiving. I was more than excited to try all the new recipes I had saved during fall semester.

Photo Courtesy of London Eats.

I wanted my first project to be something that everyone in my family would enjoy, so I decided to make a household favorite: my grandma’s famous drömmar, which translates into “dream cookies” in English. These crispy yet fluffy cookies are fragrant dollops of goodness, and I can guarantee that every Swede would say that they deserve a spot on their top five list of treats. Even though I grew up eating them at least every other week, I had never made them myself. Fortunately, the recipe did not ask for many ingredients; a simple mixture of sugar, butter, flour, vanilla sugar, and raising agent would do. The last ingredient in the recipe caught my eyes; it was something that I had never eaten nor heard of before. Surprised, and a little bit confused, I read it out loud to my mom: hjorthornssalt. In English this translates to “deer horn’s salt,” but it is not actually made out of deer antlers (anymore). Of course, the chemistry nerd in me decided to do some research. 

Photo Courtesy of Confectionary Tales.

As there used to be an abundance of deer roaming around northern Europe, people would pick up the antlers after they had been shed, and use them to make this type of salt. Nowadays hjorthornssalt is a synthetically made ammonium bicarbonate, and it can be found in a plethora of countries across Europe. Since I am such an avid baker, I was shocked to find out that it is actually a common raising agent in several Scandinavian recipes as well. I was a bit skeptical to use it at first due to its pungent smell. Nevertheless, I opened the bag, and a scent reminiscent of cat pee began to fill my nostrils. As the hjorthornssalt converted to gas, the dough turned into a porous texture and the cookies that covered the baking sheet began to look like miniature summer clouds. Thankfully, once the cookies were fully done, the odor was replaced by a wonderful smell of vanilla. The salt gave the cookies a texture that was different than anything I had tasted before. These Swedish delights were fluffy and light but still had a good crunch to them, and their buttery vanilla taste gave them a perfect ratio of sweet to savory. As the name implies, these cookies truly tasted like little dreams in my mouth.

I am currently back at college, so dreaming about these cookies will have to do for now. My next project is going to be mastering the skill of baking cinnamon rolls, but that’s a story for a different time, with a different special ingredient. 

Cover photo courtesy of The Culinary Jumble.

Categories
Essays

A Food Breakup and New Beginnings

“Dinner’s ready!” I yell to my roommates as I place down a homemade platter of fried chicken, buttered corn, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

After stuffing our faces full, Peter and Will glanced at one another and then turned to me. “Logan, we talked about this and we think we’re going to go on a diet.”

My heart sank into my chest. I felt like I had just been broken up with. I associate diets with no more sweets, no more carbs, no more fats, and definitely no more fried chicken. Eating always comforts me. Being able to eat whatever I want feels so liberating; to take those feelings of freedom away just felt cruel. 

To free up time, my apartment serves family-style meals where each roommate cooks at least one dinner a week. I suddenly worried that our pasta dinners, stir fry nights, and Taco Tuesdays would disappear, replaced with flavorless meals of chicken and two sides. Grilled chicken can only be eaten so many times before it becomes outrageously boring. Nonetheless, maybe I needed a change. 

“We only want to add more vegetables to our meals and cook with less oil. That’s all,” my roommates clarified. 

I was skeptical at first, but I begrudgingly agreed to try it out. Rather than view these guidelines as limitations, I took them as a challenge. From now on, I would use these suggestions as motivation and turn these bland dishes into something flavorful and tasty.

After decent meals of butternut squash soup and vegetarian Mapo Tofu, Friday night came around and it was my turn to cook dinner. While I was craving breaded pork chops and rice pilaf, I scrapped that idea for a more ‘roommate friendly’ meal. I opened the fridge to see what we had: chicken breasts, spinach, mushrooms, and some old pizza. I shuddered. I had a flashback to my middle school cafeteria lunches of dry chicken, spinach slop, and frozen mushroom stew. Bringing myself back to reality, I knew I could do better. I chucked the pizza slices in the trash, grabbed my ingredients, and got to work. 

I sliced the chicken into pieces and coated them with salt, pepper, and garlic powder before browning in a pan. We had no heavy cream to make a creamy sauce, so I had to improvise. The chicken was replaced with butter and garlic and I worked on the sauce. I sweated out the mushrooms and added some chicken broth. I added in my spinach and threw my chicken back in, letting it simmer until the sauce thickened and the flavors melded together. I added salt and pepper to taste, and as a final touch, I grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano all over the meal.

Photo Courtesy of The Kitchn.

I did it. I not only cooked according to my roommates’ standards, but I also finished in record time. I am notorious for underestimating how long my meals take to cook—an estimated 7 p.m. dinner often turns into an 8:30 p.m. supper. I turned a meal I despised into something filling and flavorful.

I realize now that I limited my opportunities for food excellence by ignoring multiple food groups. I challenged myself to make a bland meal taste better, and mushrooms, spinach, and even grilled chicken can be delicious if cooked correctly. Although I prepare dinner each week, I only cooked to my tastes. This process made me broaden my culinary range and adapt my meals for my roommates’ taste buds. Pushing these boundaries led me out of my comfort zone and took my culinary skills to a new level. 

Setting down the platter of creamy spinach and mushroom chicken, I yell, “Dinner’s ready!”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Salt and Lavender.

Categories
Essays

The Intersection of Memory and Food

There is an ancient Celtic belief that the souls of things lost and forgotten are not bygones. Rather, they are among us, concealed and hiding within objects, animals, plants. Here, they wait, quiet and patient. They wait for recognition. Often this never happens at all, and we forget them as things past. Yet, sometimes, these souls come back to us from hidden places. 

It is thought each of the different senses are associated with various functions of time and memory. Hearing, for example, is associated with the passing of time. Hearing is a purely linear experience. Sound begins at one point and ends at another. Sight allows us perception of movement—color and image, spatial understanding. But the sense of smell? Memory. 

Food is a hidden place. According to French author, Marcel Proust, it has two identities. One physical and one spiritual. Food has a spirit that hides within food’s physical shape. 

My grandfather loves lamb. He cooks roasted rosemary lamb when we visit him. The subtle scent of smoky herbs fills the living room as he pulls the sizzling chops from the oven. He first encouraged me to try lamb. I remember the initial bite I took, the earthy taste that lingered after. Years later, I cannot help but think of him when out to dinner and lamb is on the menu; he is there on the shelf beside the rosemary in my spice cabinet. Traceries of him spread out from that first time, that first bite, out from the past and into the future.

When referring to taste, the majority of our sensory enjoyment is evoked through sense of smell. While taste is not smell, and while tastes can be agreeably good or bad, smells are more subjective. This is because scents are steeped in memory. A scent can be recognized as familiar only when it has previously been encountered, stored away until the subsequent rendezvous.

Proust wrote a now-famous scene about a time he took a bite of a madeline, a small shell-shaped cookie, and how, suddenly, something immense and profound stirred within his soul. The taste of the cookie, the tendrils of smell which encircled him as he sat in sensory contemplation, removed him from his actual reality and transported him into a memory. The soul of this memory, it turned out, lay buried within the madeline. 

Photo Courtesy of Joy of Baking

Does food, then, become a memory? A metaphor harkening back to a past, only accessed through the golden ticket of sense? 

Proust’s childhood memories are hidden inside madeleines. 

It goes beyond cookies, though. Food as it is presented within cultures is the incarnation of memory itself.  This plate of lamb and potatoes, this glass of nice red wine accompanying it, the chocolate ganache dessert to come followed by a decaffeinated cup of coffee, is memory. The paring of meat and starch is memory. The wine is memory. The chocolate and coffee are memories. I know this because we do not cook meals without deciding to, and we make what we like to eat, and we like to eat what we have eaten for years: we eat our memories.

Amy Hempel writes: No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. 

Lamb is a castle. 

I bite into lamb, and the spirit within is released. I am with my grandpa, no longer at dinner alone in my apartment but with him at his house. A sheen of sweat hovers over his eyebrows after standing and cooking all afternoon. The cutlets lie on a bed of rosemary.

Scents of foods have mastered the practice of embalming. I eat lamb at 21 and am suddenly seven; I am as I was the first time. The rosemary cutlet, the deep, smoky aroma as it is pulled from the licking flames of a deglazed pan, the golden brown center outlined by a thin yet dark char, the green sprigs falling off to the side like stones or breadcrumbs leading to the center of the plate where the lamb now rests. I eat lamb and my grandfather’s beard is no longer grey but brown. I eat lamb and the arthritic swell of my grandfather’s knuckles retracts. 

Memories are strange because they are not things of the past. How can they be when I feel them here and now? How can they be as I even now impose them on experiences I wish to have in the future? 

To some, Proust is actually revealing that food, rather than separating, transcends the difference between a thing and its essence. In this way, food serves as the treasure chest within which the past lies dormant until it becomes again unlocked through sensual experiences. 

When I tasted my first petit madeleine, I closed my eyes for the initial bite. I had imagined the taste would take me to Combray, Proust’s childhood village. This is, after all, where the taste took him. I had imagined that I would see the pavilion and garden, the parish church. When I took that first bite, I closed my eyes and I saw nothing. 

Lamb is my memory palace. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinch and Swirl.

Categories
Essays

The Perfect Peanut Sauce

“Look, Alicia, I got another one!” my roommate called out to me. I looked up from my computer screen to see her unpacking a plethora of Wegmans’ bags. They consumed almost every square inch of our tiny dorm kitchen. She was holding a bottled brown sauce, and I immediately let out a laugh.

Another peanut sauce?!” I cried, “We have, like four now, Steph!”

“I know, I know,” she said, also laughing, “but this one is different because it is specifically for cold dishes.”

“Ah, so it won’t be a contender for pad thai, then?” 

“Probably not,” she said, “but it wouldn’t hurt to try!”

Since roughly the beginning of quarantining last March, I have made it a personal mission to find the perfect peanut sauce recipe—and my roommate has made it her mission to find the perfect bottled peanut sauce, apparently. Both my roommates at school and my family at home have been frequent taste testers of many a pad thai attempt, as I try out combination after combination of sauce ingredients.

They all call for roughly the same selection. Soy sauce is a must, of course, or tamari works as a gluten free substitute. Fish sauce is crucial for that authentic Thai taste, and rice vinegar to enhance the tangy flavor. Next, a sprinkle of lime juice for tartness and citrus flavor, and sriracha to add spice. To balance out all the salt and savory, I add sweetness in the form of brown sugar (maple syrup or honey are also options here). Now, recipes veer off from one another when it comes to peanut butter. Some say it is not necessary, while others call for it to give the sauce a creamy consistency. Personally, I always add it, as I love as much peanut flavor as possible.

While the ingredient profile and flavor palette is generally the same across sauce recipes, the measurements and ratios differ drastically. Often, when following one recipe or another I end up with sauces that taste too spicy, too sweet, or just off for some reason that I cannot put my finger on. 

“This is so citrusy,” Stephanie said after trying out one of my latest attempts.

“Really? There’s not even that much lime juice, though,” I responded, confused.

We both got up from the table to look through the ingredients, all still littering the counter with their half-closed lids. Clearly remembering that I had only put in a cap full of lime juice, I was stumped as to the source of the overpowering citrus flavor. 

“Wait, look,” she said, “the garlic has citric acid in it.” As a precursor to stir frying the chicken, red peppers, and bean sprouts, I always lightly toast garlic in the pan with sesame oil. 

“Oh, that must have been it,” I said, feeling satisfied that we had located the issue, but frustrated that it was a factor I hadn’t considered in the cooking process.

“Well, back to the drawing board, I guess!”

Sometimes, at lunchtime on lazy afternoons or dinners on busy nights, I make a peanut-based stir fry with roughly the same ingredients as pad thai, but I never grant it that name. These are usually the times I resort to the bottled sauces in the fridge, and skip out on chopping up scallions, peanuts, and lime wedges for garnish. I like to call these easy meals “lazy pad thai,” mostly because they don’t require the painstaking process of creating the sauce.

For me, the heart of the pad thai cooking process lies in achieving the perfect peanut sauce. Beyond this, it is a relatively simple recipe with a short cook time. While it is something I have made very often, I always hesitated to call it my “speciality” until I was satisfied with the sauce.

One Tuesday evening, my roommate asked if I could make a batch of pad thai for dinner. I quickly ran through the ingredient list in my mind to make sure I had everything. Chicken? Check. Rice noodles? Check. Eggs? Check. Peppers? Check. Bean sprouts? Check. Scallions? Check. Peanuts? Check. Now, for the sauce. I had never made it for this particular roommate before, so I really wanted to make sure it came out well.

“Can I help with anything?” she asked. 

“If you want to start the chicken,” I suggested, “I’m going to concentrate on the sauce for a minute.”

This time, it was Stephanie’s turn to call out to us from her laptop in the living room, “Why don’t you guys just use one of the bottled ones?”

“No, no, no,” I protested, “I got it this time. I promise.”

Staring at the ingredients placed neatly around a small bowl and measuring spoons, I scrolled through the familiar recipe options on Google. I tried, but I kept getting confused about which ones I had tried and not liked, tried and liked, or hadn’t tried at all—they were all mixed up in my mind.

You know what, I thought, why don’t I just try an equal amount of everything?

Smiling at how simple it was, I measured out two tablespoons of each of my seven ingredients—except sriracha, of which I did half this amount. Whisking everything up until the brown sugar dissolved and the peanut butter separated, I resolved to just go with this intuition, and not try to change anything. I always find that when I start adding more or less of various components, I lose track of the desired flavor profile and overanalyze the taste.

 After mixing everything up together in the large wok I had brought from home, I plated the steaming noodles and garnished them with scallions and peanuts.

“Looks good!” my roommates declared.

“I know, now let’s see how it tastes,” I replied nervously.

I watched in anticipation as Stephanie brought a sticky, light-brown noodle to her mouth with a chopstick. While chewing, I watched the corners of her mouth rise into a soft smile.

“It’s perfect!” she declared. “Much better than the bottle.”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinch of Yum

Categories
Essays

Backseat Musings

When I was in middle school, my Nana picked me up once a week to drive me to martial arts lessons. She always brought a snack to fuel me for all of the punching and kicking. I enjoyed the occasional banana, but there was usually a yogurt tucked into the backseat cupholder. Vanilla Greek yogurt made the most frequent appearance. I always looked forward to the special kind with the little pocket of crunchy, chocolate-covered rice puffs that I dumped into the creamy white base. It probably wasn’t the most nutritious choice, but I embraced it whenever I could. 

Sometimes, Papa tagged along. From the safety of the backseat, I watched the two squabble about everything from directions to driving techniques. 

“Watch out for that red light, Ann!” 

I know, John, I see it too!”

Image Courtesy of Eater.com.

Most of the time, he requested a stop at Starbucks so Nana could get him a small black coffee. In the winter, the windows were shut tight against the cold. Soon enough, the hot air from the heater wafted toward me and carried the strong, rich scent of espresso along with it. It sometimes made me want to drift off to sleep. Nana warned Papa not to drink the coffee in the car. I guessed she was afraid that a sudden stop would send the scalding liquid flying as he took the lid off to let it cool. But he probably snuck a sip or two in when her eyes were on the road. 

Bumpy roads and unexpected red lights didn’t always provide the best environment for snack enjoyment, but I tried my best. Peeling back the yogurt wrapper was the most difficult part. Just like Papa, I had to be sure not to spill anything on the car’s clean interior. Napkins were a definite necessity. Luckily, there were never any disasters. A plastic spoon did the trick so that I could easily dispose of the container and utensil together. 

Although I was preoccupied with the yogurt ordeal, the stop for coffee always appeared to me as a small, even inconvenient gesture. My younger, energetic self grew restless as we neared the martial arts studio. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and get to practice. Why did we have to delay the journey any longer? A Starbucks break seemed to pale in importance to getting where I needed to go.

All I saw back then was my grandparents coming to pick me up from school. What I didn’t realize was how selflessly they were acting. A stop for coffee wasn’t just for Papa’s enjoyment, it was an extra moment of time that we could spend together. Nana’s snacks and driving weren’t services provided simply because my parents were unavailable, they were a way for us to strengthen our bond. These were a couple of the many ways that my grandparents showed my cousins and me that they loved us. And I may not have told them that during all those times when I was anxious for the car ride to be over. I may not have relayed my appreciation as I rushed toward the studio doors, with a hurried “Thanks, love you” and a brief kiss on the cheek. But I know that they always put my happiness first. Spoken or unspoken, through car rides, yogurts, and coffees, the love was there. 

Eventually, the arguments over directions and red lights were resolved. I always got to my lessons with a leisurely ten minutes to spare, in true Mahoney fashion. I could take a deep breath. There was no need to be nervous in the first place. Now, I would gladly welcome another stop for coffee and a conversation about my day just to sit in the backseat of that old Toyota one more time. When I was a carefree middle schooler and my biggest worries were punctuality and what kind of snack I would get. Because my grandparents always made sure that I would never have to be concerned about anything else.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Dreams Time.

Categories
Essays

A Lost Recipe

My great-grandmother’s blueberry coffee cake is supposedly fantastic. This is according to my dad, whose words fell on overly traditional ears when he asked to make it for the family. My parents tend to use a core rotation of beloved recipes, unwilling to reinvent the wheel every time they pull out the mixer. 

We were able to stall Dad’s pleas for a good year, distracting him with tried-and-true crumb cakes and muffins. Then one day, there it was, in all its glory. A tiny recipe card scavenged out of the many cookbooks and recipe boxes he had taken on his trek across the US, from Oregon to New Jersey. My dad uncovered the tiny type-printed set of instructions and placed it triumphantly on the kitchen counter, where he was determined not to let it go ignored. My mom took it from him and skimmed the ingredient list, her nose wrinkling with just a hint of indignation. 

“It calls for Jiffy mix?” She asked. My dad brushed it off.

“Mmm-hmm.”

My sister and I jumped directly onto my mother’s bandwagon. Spoiled with the luxury of frequent homebaking, the superiority of scratch over store-bought had been impressed upon us from a young age. 

“A box?” our childish voices chimed in, with absolutely no regard for Dad’s feelings. We had seemingly forgotten the value pack of Ghirardelli boxed brownie mix, which rested as a staple on our pantry floor. None of us had an issue with tossing oil and an egg into a bowl of factory-packed chocolate powder. Family recipes were held to a higher standard, though. How could he gush over one that relied on such an obvious crutch? we wondered.

Image courtesy of I Am Baker

As a college student, box mixes are a lifeline that save many a sleepy meal. Sacrificing the label of “homemade” in order to fill a skillet with circles of pancake batter in less than five minutes is a triumph. There is a time and place for laborious recipes, and it certainly isn’t everyday. Like most life lessons, this was one that I had to learn with age. Ten-year-old me was much less gracious.

My mom was skeptical, but she made the coffee cake with him. I wandered through the kitchen from time to time, eyeing the dried blueberries that tumbled from the mysterious Jiffy box. I even tried one, a bluish candy-sweet ball of gel-like consistency. 

As the assembly came together, I learned that the cake had a thin layer of crumb topping, a pet peeve of mine. I typically like this layer to resemble small stones instead of sand. My favorite moment comes when slicing a square and launching an avalanche of crumbs, as the knife carelessly robs the next piece of its garnish. I like to greedily pile the extra clumps onto my own plate.

Perhaps my dad’s coffee cake had lost before we even tried it. Lifting forkfuls of the finished product to our mouths, my mom, little sister, and I weren’t willing to be awed. Chewing slowly, I could taste pieces of the blueberries that had melted into the batter unnaturally. It would have benefitted from a few boulders of butter and cinnamon topping. 

Suddenly guilty, I swapped sides. 

“It’s not bad,” I conceded, eyeing my dad. He was still excited, but a little sheepish.

“It’s not quite as good as I remembered,” He mused.

Image courtesy of Half Baked Harvest

Cover Photo Courtesy of Freut Cake

Categories
Essays

Grazie a Dio per la Glassa Balsamica!

We stood in a ring around our stove, looking down at the frying pan as it sizzled with olive oil and released a salty aroma into the air. Salt and salt variations are the principle spices we rely on. It was 6:40 on a Thursday, and we were about to consume the same meal we’d been preparing almost every night for a month: vegetables, meat, rice. 

“What could we add?” Katie, always the leader, looked from the kitchen cabinet to the burners and back again.

“Balsamic glaze?”

There were nods of agreement. All we carried to the table were our steaming bowls, forks, and the bottle of Nonna Pia’s. Poor Nonna. Every single one of our meals seemed to rest on her shoulders.

I had thrown the glaze, an exciting Costco find, into a box of kitchen supplies at the last minute. A few days before leaving home, my mom offered it to me and while at first I said no, I thought better of it. “That could actually be fun to have,” I’d said, somewhat absentmindedly. College and all of its many complications never seem real until you’re there. Cut to two weeks later: my roommates and I were sitting down to our first home cooked meal, and something seemed to be missing. It was then that I remembered the somewhat flexible quality of balsamic glaze, and I held it up in suggestion.

Since that night, the bottle has been more than adjustable; it has performed back-flips in many a last-ditch effort to jazz up meals. A part of its appeal, for me, is for the visual effect. Whenever I text my parents food pictures, an artful squiggle of deep black glaze garnishes the top. I like to think it looks like I might’ve made a red wine reduction or a homemade teriyaki sauce. Of course no one really believes that, but I get a rush of maturity from adding such an adult-sounding final touch to my plates. Balsamic glaze. It isn’t elementary like ranch or ketchup, but it isn’t aggressive like oil-and-vinegar. Over the last two months, balsamic glaze has served as a makeshift salad dressing, sandwich condiment, and replacement for soy sauce. Nonna Pia would probably grimace in disgrace, and authentically Italian grandmothers would be even more appalled.

You have to stop drizzling balsamic on top of everything you eat, I always tell myself as I flip open the cap on our beloved sauce. But by then, it’s always too late. Katie can recite Nonna Pia’s life story after many an afternoon spent reading the label while she eats. With each passing week of the semester, the bottle has grown more sticky (read: more loved) as time goes on. Black dribbles leave stains of residue on the side.

At the end of October, my mom drove up to Boston. I was heaving a bag of winter sweaters out from the car when she reached over to pull a fuzzy beige one from the top of the stack. Underneath rested four unopened bottles of glaze, still in their plastic shipping bags. 

“Oh my God,” I said, laughing. “We haven’t even finished the first one.” Did she think we’d been drinking it? I thanked her genuinely, but assured her we had more than enough. I love my roommates, I really do. But the taunting I would have received if I lined the back of our cabinet with tiny Nonnas waving out at us? It was unimaginable.

Some people associate college with a specific brand of liquor, or a take-out restaurant chain. I’m both embarrassed and amused to admit that I will forever associate my junior year with the essence of balsamic glaze. Just like our first apartment, it’s a sweet security blanket of a step into adulthood. Plus, it looks kinda pretty.

Cover photo courtesy of I Heart Naptime

Categories
Essays

The Forest’s Gold

Imagine taking the first steps into an ancient forest. You have just left the dirt road and entered into a kingdom filled with densely packed trees, occasional rock formations, and all sorts of animals and insects, many of which most people have never heard of. The sun has barely risen, and you can still see the morning dew on the grass beneath your feet. The air is thick from the scent of damp moss on the forest floor. The space feels shielded, like a safe haven on Earth. You take a deep breath and inhale all the goodness the forest has to offer, and it’s like your body immediately adjusts to the quiet and slow paced surroundings. As you continue deeper into the forest, it feels as though all your troubles magically disappear, and the only thing occupying your mind is the treasure you came for: the forest’s gold. 

After what feels like hours of walking, you see something yellow in the distance. Could that be it? No, just a couple of yellow leaves that do their best to mimic the forest’s gold. You suspect that someone might have already been here and taken the precious gold you came looking for. You are about to head back to your car when you fall over a tree stump. You land in a shrub of blueberries and decide to try some. They’re sour, not quite ready to be picked. Out of curiosity you look to the side, and there they are: yellow hats with lanky legs, partly hidden under soft green forest moss. The chanterelles are beautiful, golden yellow like the sun and soft to the touch. Thankfully the chanterelles grow in larger groups, so you quickly fill your basket until it’s almost too heavy to carry. 

image courtesy of The Spruce Eats

During the Texas autumn I sometimes long to be back in my favorite Swedish forest. Although it was often rainy, mushroom picking season was my favorite time of the year. My dad and I could be gone for hours on end, hiking in the deep green forest, carefully searching for the delicious golden mushrooms. My dad knew many secret spots that were great hunting grounds for chanterelles. For forest-loving Swedes, chanterelle spots are kept a secret; they’re not even disclosed to close friends and family. Thankfully my dad had found them when he was a young boy, so we always came back home with at least a half a basket of mushrooms. Covered in mosquito repellent and rain gear, we would try to search for what I referred to as the forest’s gold until our basket was filled to the brim. We could always spot some deer and forest rabbits, and if we were lucky, a moose or two would come across our path. We never saw a bear, but they were out there too. Everytime we came back from the forest, we would immediately begin cleaning our catch of forest chanterelles and other mushrooms we had picked. My dad told me how important it was that all the dirt came off, but we still had to be careful not to rub any of the skin away, as that would make it lose all of its hearty goodness. I remember it being quite a slow process, but the chanterelles’ lovely flavor made up for it. Their silky smooth texture and their peppery, but fruity, flavor was what made them so desirable. 

As we usually found several baskets full of chanterelles, we would parboil the mushrooms and let them cool off before freezing them for another time. However, we always saved the best specimens for immediate enjoyment. As we sautéed the fresh chanterelles with butter and salt, we heard our stomachs rumble. We were so excited about all the amazing food we would make during the coming year: chanterelle toast, chanterelle stew, steak with chanterelle sauce. The options were truly endless. I knew one thing for sure––no matter the occasion, you can never go wrong with chanterelles.

image courtesy of honest-food.net