Athena Magazine

Fashion, lifestyle, passions

The Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever! Part One October 18, 2008

By Julia Pantoga

I don’t get what people love so much about decorating holiday cookies; everyone but me seems to think it’s fun. The benefit to you of my disdain for decorating holiday cookies is that I’ve thought about how to make every step simpler and less excruciating. (By the way, I did not decorate the cookies in the photo above; an artist friend of mine did.)

Okay, there are three parts to making decorated holiday cookies:
1.    Making the dough
2.    Rolling out and baking the cookies
3.    Decorating the cookies.

I like the first two steps; it’s the third step that gets me.


Make the dough now and freeze it.  When it comes time to make cookies in December, you will be really pleased you have that done.  Wait to roll and bake the cookies; however, because baked cookies are very delicate and likely to break before you have a chance to decorate them. (Although broken cookies are magnificent crumbled up and served over fruit.) Here’s the recipe I use. It works when you freeze it and roll it out later, and it tastes great. I divide it into three batches that I freeze.

Sugar Cookie Dough
1 cup butter (I like salted butter for this recipe)
½ cup sugar
1 egg (don’t forget to bring it to room temperature by putting it in a bowl of hot water)
3 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
½ tsp baking powder

1.    Cream butter and sugar.
2.    Add egg and vanilla, beat well.
3.    Measure and mix in flour and baking powder. (I mix the two together before putting them in the dough).
4.    Divide dough in three batches, label and freeze.

If you must know…  For 1/8” cookies, bake 5 min. @ 400 degrees.

You should begin shopping for decorating supplies now.  Go to a store that specializes in cake/cookie decorating.  There, you will find exactly you need.  The store will have the most interesting assortment of cookie cutters, colors of food dye and specialty icing spatulas.  The sales clerks will be knowledgeable and helpful about cookie decorating
The easiest cookie cutters to use are those with the fewest “appendages”.  For example, a bell shaped cookie cutter will make cookies that are much easier to handle than a fussy angel-shaped cookie cutter.  If you have young children, or if any of you are easily frustrated, easy cookie cutters are a must.
While you are at the decorating store, buy:  a small angled and tapered spatula that is designed especially for icing cookies, fantastic green, red, yellow and blue food dyes (they will be so much better and more complex than what you can buy at the grocery store), decorating paintbrushes (I’ve tried dime store paintbrushes, but the bristles fall out, which is unacceptable when you are making food.). Don’t buy anything that won’t “dry”.  “Gel” decorating products look great; but the next day, the cookies are still sticky. Make sure that everything you buy for decorating will eventually harden.  At a decorating store, the clerk will know what hardens and what doesn’t.

I’ll tell you what I know about rolling and baking cookies in Part 2 of this series and give you some ideas for decorating in Part 3.  Keep in mind though, that I don’t like decorating; so my decorating tips will be along the lines of easy-and-quick (but fabulous).

 

Giving away baked goods October 11, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 4:49 am
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By Julia Pantoga

I know you think it is early, but there are things you can do now to make your life easier in December…

I always give baked goods as gifts. The hardest (and usually most expensive) part of giving away baking goods is packaging them. You can come up with something more festive than baggies.

Suppose you know that you are going to give away cookies.  Start thinking now about how you are going to present those precious treasures. You need containers that are big enough to hold at least one dozen cookies, but not so big that you have to bake a double batch for each gift.  Containers will probably be cheaper if you stay away from holiday merchandise. To wit:  one year I was at the hardware store and ammunition boxes were on sale for some crazy-low price, like 50 cents each. I bought ten of them and fake pebble spray-paint, laid them out on my garage floor, painted them, then filled each with bags of cookies. I hope that these ammunition boxes were useful to my friends and family after the cookies are eaten—for storing sand paper, for example.

Some things that you will give away (like spiced nuts or homemade candy) need smaller containers. My favorite small container is a coffee mug. I begin shopping in October for inexpensive coffee mugs (my local Goodwill sells brand new coffee mugs for $1 each. Department stores donate them when they don’t sell at $6-10 each.)

You will find small gift bags in the candy-making section of a craft store. I must warn you though that going into a craft store is risky business—financially, at least. These stores have so many adorable gift containers that you may forget that one of the reasons you are giving away baked goods is to save money on holiday gifts and spend way more than you ever thought you would on containers.

Another tip for buying containers is to shop for them all year around. I often find great plain red, silver and gold containers on sale right after Valentine’s Day.

Finally, you will need is ribbon. I find that if I combine a red or green ribbon with a gold or silver ribbon, I can tie a simple bow and the result is quite elegant. If you are trying to save money, buy your ribbon at the craft store and don’t tempt yourself to do more spending in the fabric store.

Here’s how it all works together:
1.    Throw a handful of nuts (or homemade candy) into a small plastic bag
2.    Secure the bag with two ribbons that you hold together
3.    Put one little bag in each coffee mug.

I make a dozen of these early in December and keep a paper grocery bag of them in the back seat of my car, so I always have little gifts ready for people who help me all the time, like the clerk at the post office.

Another category of baked goods to give away are those that need to be baked in pans. A great discovery I made last year was the Paper Gift Bakers from The Baker’s Catalogue. These, combined with the medium size Clear Gift Bags that they sell also, have made my gift-giving-life a lot easier. I bake my gift cakes right in the pan.  Once frosted, I pop them in the gift bags. I secure the bags with a silver twist tie, then stick a bow on top of the package. Voila! A beautiful gift!

I make six gift cakes at a time and store them in the freezer once they are completely wrapped. One of the tricks to baking with disposable pans is to place all the pans on a pre-heated cookie sheet before you bake them. That way, there is only one thing to put into the hot oven and one thing to take to the porch to cool.

Usually, I don’t start baking for the holidays until mid-November (although this year I did some early to get photographs for you). October is really best spent starting to accumulate packaging materials.  In early November I’ll give you the recipes for foods that I like best for giving as gifts.

 

More Cooking 101: Chopping October 4, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 5:47 am
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By Julia Pantoga

Chopping rocks
Chopping is the cute 4-year-old of cooking. We could hardly tolerate 4-year-olds, if they weren’t so darned cute. I’d probably rarely cook, if it weren’t for chopping.
Remember all the mind tricks I encouraged you to use for housework? You won’t be surprised that I recommend some also for cooking.  The first trick I want you to play on yourself is to do all of your prep work and clean-up long before you will be cooking.  By the time you cook, you won’t remember errant spinach that stuck to the side of the refrigerator—that will be a distant memory of something you cleaned up long ago.

Principles of Chopping (right-handed instructions)

Let the tool do the work.  Human beings have been cooking since the dawn of time and, ever since they have been making tools, they have been making cooking tools.  It is very, very unlikely that you will try to do something in the kitchen (except open certain jars) for which there is not a tool that will do the work for you. If you are ever having physical difficulty doing something in the kitchen, you are likely using the wrong tool, or the tool you are using is not good (by the way, you all know that dull knives are much more dangerous than sharp knives, don’t you?).

Cutting tools

Cutting tools

Use the right tool for the job. Over the years, I have accumulated a lot of chopping tools, but my favorite, hands down, is a knife. As much as I love my knife, I must admit that sometimes other tools are better suited for the job at hand (for example, a food processor for chopping raisins).
Minimize the number of tools you use. Remember, each tool that you use is going to have to be washed.
Use several cutting surfaces. The purchase of a packet of four cutting mats was one of my best kitchen purchases. Having several cutting surfaces means that I don’t have to stop to wash my cutting board because it reeks of onions; I can throw it in the sink, grab a clean one and continue chopping and wash the five I’ve used all at once.

Chopping with a Knife

First of all, minimize your movements. Every time you lift the knife up completely from the cutting board, you are moving the knife. It’s safer and requires less energy to move the knife as little as possible. Whenever I can, I “rock the knife” (this has the added benefit of making you look like a real pro in the kitchen).  That is, I keep the tip of the knife on the cutting surface, push the vegetable through the knife blade with my left hand, then “rock the knife” up and down with my right hand to chop.

Rock the knife

Rock the knife

Flat surfaces on the cutting area make whatever you are cutting more stable.  Before I chop something, if it doesn’t have a flat side already, I make one. When things that you are chopping are rolling around, they are at their most dangerous; this is when it is the most likely that you will have vegetables and knives flying around.

Cutting carrot in half

Cutting carrot in half

So, here’s how I’d dice a carrot:
First, I’d cut the carrot carefully in half.  If it were a big carrot, I’d lay the flat sides down and cut the carrot halves into thinner strips.

Then I’d lay the carrot strips flat side down on my cutting surface and use the “rock the knife “ technique to dice.

Stay tuned for more chopping and cooking tips;. The holiday season is fast approaching (can you believe it?), so we need to move towards getting ready for that next week.

 

Cooking 101: Getting Started September 27, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 2:22 am
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By Julia Pantoga

Except for grating, I love everything about preparing food: from looking for recipes in my cookbooks to setting the table. Hopefully, I’ll be a good teacher for you because I relish every step—although I do run the risk of nauseating you with my enthusiasm. And because I am so detailed about it, I also run the risk of making cooking sound much more complicated than it is.

Many steps
Contrary to what you see on cooking shows, where all they do is cook, there are many steps to preparing a meal. There’s planning, researching, shopping,  getting the kitchen ready, prep cooking, cleaning up after prep cooking, cooking, cleaning up after cooking, serving the meal and cleaning up after the meal. Although not always possible, cooking is at its most “magic” when you can isolate that one step from the others.


Planning

The more you serve meals, the better you will be at this. I am sure that those of you who prepare meals several times a week for a family are better at this than I am; and I am sure that I am better at this than an 18-year-old living in a college dorm. Make a puzzle game of it.

First, think about the general composition of the meal in terms of nutrition.  Also, if one dish you are serving is particularly high in fat, try to have raw fruits or vegetables as a balance. Usually color is a good guide for nutrition. If you serve several different colors or foods in your meal, you will likely have a nutritionally balanced meal (isn’t that cool?).

Another thing to consider is what ingredients you have on hand. Be sure that you use those green beans that are about to go bad. One more thing to consider is preparation. Think through which pans you’ll use for each dish and try to avoid having to wash a pan in the middle of cooking. These are the things that take time. You’re buzzing along in the kitchen and you realize that you need the pan you just used to make a sauce for the vegetables to make the rice. You have to stop what you are doing, find a container to store the sauce in and wash and dry the pan, before you can start the rice.

Another component of planning is to never plan more than one dish that you’ve never made in a given meal. You really never know where the trouble of a certain dish is going to show up until you make it.  Finally, plan no more than one item that has to be cooked precisely right before it is served. Cooking shows make it look easy to talk while you are cooking and do several things in the kitchen at once. It is not.  The people on those shows are either professional cooks or professional actors or both. What they do is highly scripted. Don’t hold yourself to that unrealistic standard.

Researching
To many, the mark of a “good” cook is that he or she doesn’t use recipes. I’ll agree that the Italian grandmother who has been cooking for her extended family for fifty years probably doesn’t use recipes. But the truth of the matter is that, in America, at least, most of us just aren’t that good at cooking. We don’t have the same “feel” for food that the Italian grandmother does.

Also, we are used to a much wider variety than you would expect in an Italian kitchen. We expect to make an Indian feast one week and a pasta casserole the next. I use recipes for such common foods as deviled eggs, sloppy joes and chicken salad because I don’t have an instinctive feel for how to make them. The only reason I don’t use a recipe for vinaigrette salad dressing is that I memorized it a long time ago.  The really good cooks in America, the ones who really have a “feel” for food, are mostly found in professional cooking jobs, like cookbook writing.  By tapping into that expertise, my sloppy joes that taste the way I expect sloppy joes to taste.

Something else that is great about using recipes from cookbooks is that, usually, the recipes have been tested and are consistently notated. One method that is popular for finding recipes these days is to search the internet. Be careful about this, as the recipe may or may not be accurately recorded. The internet is a great source for ideas, but not a reliable source for precise recipes. The major exception I make to this is when I see preparation of a dish demonstrated on a cooking show and I go to the website of that cooking show to get that recipe. I print it out; make notes on it while I cook; and if it works well, I put it in my “recipes that work” file.

Getting the Kitchen Ready
I assume that you’ve been doing your daily housework tasks, so your kitchen is reasonably clean and your counters are clear. The first thing to do is get all the recipes you intend to use in the kitchen. Read them over and over again. Think about what utensils you are going to use and make sure that they are all clean. Like many people, I have favorite knives. When I am about to cook, the first thing I check is that I know where those knives are and that they are clean.

The next step I learned from Rachel Ray. (By the way, what she (supposedly) can do in 30 minutes, takes me at least an hour—she never has to wash vegetables!) Put a bowl for garbage on the counter where you will be working. If you go to stores that stock Rachel Ray cookware, there will be large plastic bowls for sale called, “garbage bowls.” That’s crazy. You don’t need to buy a special bowl for your garbage! Any large lightweight bowl will do. In my kitchen, the garbage pail is less than two steps away from the counter where I do most of my food prep work. You would not think it would make much of a difference for me to have a garbage bowl on my counter, but I was shocked at what a HUGE difference it made. I use my garbage bowl for all of my garbage, including packaging. If you compost, you will probably want two bowls: one for compostables and one for other garbage.

Next week we will talk about prep cooking, which includes chopping and preparing ingredients.  But there is one last step to getting your kitchen ready, and that is getting out the containers where you will store the things you chop until you are ready to use them. That way you can really get a rhythm going when you start to chop. Chop, chop, chop. Throw the ends in the garbage bowl. Put the chopped celery in the plastic container to use later.

 

The Domestic Goddess Has Entered the Building September 3, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 2:32 am
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By Julia Pantoga

I can’t take credit for the terrific title of this new “Domestic Goddess” column. Rosanne Barr originally used the term in one of her comedy routines, but I first heard it when Nigella Lawson, cooking celebrity and cookbook author extraordinaire, named one of her baking cookbooks, How to be a Domestic Goddess. When I saw that title, I had to have that book, regardless of whether or not any of the recipes were any good. As it turns out, many of the recipes are quite scrumptious, but the secret to being a domestic goddess, as Nigella obviously knows, and as the exquisite photographs in the cookbook illustrate, is to make everything look easy and fabulous.

There are tricks to making everything look easy and fabulous, and I intend to use this column to share tricks that I know with you. Not just baking, but lots of things around the house.

But I’ll start with baking. As Ruth Reichl, food writer and editor of Gourmet magazine, says, baking is a cheap trick.  It doesn’t matter how simple or complex the recipe, baking impresses people (The message here is to make the simplest recipes you can find.). I am not really a very talented baker, but people think I am because I like to bake, and I do it a lot. Here are some pointers to make baking work for you every time:

1.    Use your oven timer, so you NEVER burn baked goods.
2.    Whenever you take baked goods out of your house, make sure they look nice. Pick the broken cookies out, turn all of them right side up and put them on a good looking plate (I keep cheery and tasteful paper plates on hand for this sole purpose.)
3.    Don’t take baked goods that need a fork to an event where people will be moving around while they are eating. It is sooooo discouraging to watch your homemade key lime pie go uneaten!
4.    Unless you love to do it, and you are good at it, avoid complex decorations. A spice cake dusted with powdered sugar (which is easy), looks far more elegant than a sloppily frosted cake.
5.    Write in your cookbooks. When a recipe works, write it right on that page. When something goes wrong, write it down.
6.    Stick with the tried and true. Whenever you find a recipe that works for you and other people love it, make it over and over again. If you must bake something for the first time, packages are the best source of recipes. The brownie recipe that I used for over twenty years was from the back of the Baker’s Chocolate box. My oatmeal cookie recipe is from the lid of Quaker Oats.  I just found a fabulous cake recipe on the back of a raisin box. These recipes have been tested and tested and tested.

Last spring I broke my ankle, and I needed a friend to come to my house everyday and take care of everyday things like making my meals, doing my dishes and sweeping my kitchen. (Needless to say, I was quite unhappy with this turn of events. Taking away my ability to take care of my house is severe punishment indeed.)  Anyhow, after a few days of taking care of my house, my friend said to me, “Julia, I had no idea you were so domestic.” Now that’s a real domestic goddess compliment!

 

The very best brownies … ever August 29, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 1:24 am
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By Julia Pantoga

I’ve made brownies over a hundred times in the past thirty years, so you would think that I have mastered them.  I have not.  Believe it or not, I am still learning things about brownies—I just learned that using a plastic knife is best for cutting.

I’m anti-mix in general, but I’m really anti-mix when it comes to brownies.  For some reason though, brownie mixes are ubiquitous.  For that reason, as a policy, I won’t eat brownies unless I’ve watched them being made.  A mix might save you some unwrapping of butter and the clean-up of the pan you use to melt chocolate and, in a really insidious mix, there may be no eggs to crack, but it doesn’t save you from preparing the baking pan or clean-up, which is the true work of making brownies.

That said, brownies are trickier than they appear to be.  The recipe I like best has only six ingredients.  It’s a rookie mistake (which I’ve made many, many times) to think that the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the easier it is.  In general, the opposite is true in baking—fewer ingredients means that you have to handle each one precisely.

Brownies are almost entirely butter and sugar—and what do butter and sugar make?  Caramel!  Just like caramel, if you try to cut brownies too soon after baking it makes a big mess, but if you wait too long, the brownies are impossibly hard to cut or remove from the pan.  I’ve ruined entire pans of brownies by not cutting them at the right time and having to soak the whole thing in water in order to salvage the pan.  A good brownie recipe will tell you, not only exactly how long to cook the brownies but, how long to let them cool before cutting them.  Follow this part of the recipe as closely as you follow the cooking time.

Speaking of cooking time, most recipes say this but I’ll repeat it, DON’T OVERBAKE YOUR BROWNIES.  If you bake the brownies for the length of time specified in the recipe, they will appear slightly raw when you remove them from the oven.  They are supposed to be that way.

Whenever you are baking, bring the eggs to room temperature.  Room temperature eggs absorb flavor better than cold eggs.  If you know you will be baking later, take the eggs you need out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature naturally.  If you are in more of a hurry though, put your cold eggs in a bowl and fill the bowl with hot water from the tap.

I used to look for recipes that did not tell me to “prepare the pan” in the first step, figuring that if the recipe didn’t say it, I didn’t have to do it.  For brownies, in fact for most baked goods, this is just not the case.  You always need to prepare your pan.  No matter what the recipe says in that first step, this is how I prepare my pan for brownies:

First of all, I use a large shallow pan—a jelly roll pan or a cookie sheet.  I like the edge and corner pieces of brownies best, so I figured out a long time ago that I could make all my brownies have that texture if I made them extra-thin.

Next, line the pan with parchment paper.  I used to just generously butter the pan, but I’ve found parchment paper to be more foolproof.  Anchor the parchment paper by buttering the bottom of the pan lightly before you put the paper in.  (I keep a Swiss army knife in my utensil drawer for the sole purpose of trimming parchment paper.)  Once you have the bottom of the pan lined with parchment paper, butter the paper and the sides of the pan generously.  This is not only to keep the brownies from sticking, but to add flavor, so use good butter for this.  Put the pan aside, you have now finished the hardest part of brownie making.

The recipe I use and like best is as follows (with the steps in the order that I do them):

1 cup butter (two sticks)

4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon of vanilla

½ cup flour.

Bring the eggs to room temperature.
Melt butter and chocolate in double boiler, then set aside to cool to room temperature.
Prepare the pan.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Beat eggs and sugar together.
Add vanilla.
Add chocolate mixture.
Fold in flour, mixing only until blended.
Pour mixture into prepared pan.
Bake on the middle shelf of the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.
Cool brownies in pan for 30 minutes.  (Set your timer—this step needs to be precise.)
Cut brownies into bars with a plastic knife and transfer to cooling rack.

A friend asked me this morning if there is a difference between salted and unsalted butter.  There is, but it is fairly subtle.  As a rule of thumb, as long as the recipe does not have salt as a separate ingredient, I like to use salted butter.

One year for Valentines Day, I made these brownies with pink strawberry frosting.  What a hit!  (I used a heart cookie cutter instead of a knife for step 12.)  There were plenty of brownie scraps left over, which I crumbled up and put on ice cream.

Julia Pantoga is a writer, a cook and a Quaker. She’s also a collector of quirky domestic tricks and loves to share the wisdom she’s gathered over the years

 

My Voodoo Love Affair with My Spice Cabinet August 21, 2008

Filed under: Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 2:32 am
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By Ann Walton Sieber (Your Mandala Chef!)

Recipes below:
Annita’s Pepitas (spicy pumpkin seeds)
Homemade chili powder
Spicy cinnamon coffee

When Carlos Casteneda meets the mystic and teacher Don Juan, one of his first assignments is to intuitively pick where to sit in an empty room, the master explaining to the perpetually befuddled Casteneda that you must develop your intuitive powers in order to develop as a magician.

The same is true of us magician chefs. We taste a dish, our intuitive powers ask, “Hmmm, what’s it need. Hmmm. Cinnamon.” “Cinnamon?! In chili?,” the rational mind may reply. “Yeah, and maybe some raisins too.” You go with it and it is sublime.

I love my spice cabinet
Your spice cabinet is your best intuition training tool. I love my spice cabinet. It is a series of shallow shelves, painted bright China red. I bought it at a garage sale in the early ’90s. The bottles holding the spices do not match (I’m not a matching kind of girl). They all have lovely handmade labels with curlicues and swirls. I refill them when they get low with bulk herbs I buy from Whole Foods or the India grocery store or the Middle Eastern market, pouring them into the bottles with a little red funnel, one of those periodic kitchen maintenance rituals. It’s like brushing your hair—it needs doing, but it’s enjoyable. (Unlike many other dutiful maintenance rituals I can think of.)

I suggest having your spices out where you can see them. I’m still surprised at how many of my top cooking friends have their spices in bottles and baggies in a box stuck in the cupboard, where they have to tediously sort and poke to find what they want. I’m somebody who likes to see the useful items in my life—if something is hidden away, I’m likely to neglect it, deem it too much trouble, forget about it for years.

My mother alphabetized her spices—that’s one way. I group mine by affinity. The Mexican spices (cumin, coriander), segue into the Indian spices (cardamom, turmeric), the Italian (dill, basil). It is not entirely methodical, but instead organized by what feels right. Don’t know where paprika would fall, but it’s reddish and complex, so I put it up by the Indian spices.

Here’s what I have in my spice rack: paprika, tumeric, garam Masala, curry, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cumin (ground & seed), coriander (ground & seed), fennel (ground & whole), anise, cardamom (in pods, shelled, and ground), red pepper flakes (get these free from pizza delivery packets), cayenne, cinnamon (ground & sticks), cloves (ground & whole), mustard (ground & yellow & black seeds), basil, dill, rosemary, Italian seasoning, marjoram, whole dill seed, caraway seeds, onion powder, bay leaves, sage, thyme, oregano, lemon pepper, white pepper (ground & peppercorns), celery seed, garlic powder, homemade chili powder, pepper (ground & peppercorns), asafetida, Mrs. Dash, fenugreek, cream of tartar.

I mostly use all of these. Then have some even more obscure ones tucked away just in case some fool recipe comes up with something from left field (and I came upon a spice sale one day and stocked up).

Salt & Pepper
I love salt and pepper–I really get how they’ve been dubbed the king & queen of American spices. There used to be a diner in the blue-collar town of Lee, Massachusetts, that only served soup and was called The Salt & Pepper. I thought that was the greatest name.

I didn’t grow up loving salt, and I had a slightly snobby scorn for those who salted their food with gusto. But then I started using sea salt and everything changed. I started to crave salt in my food in what felt like a good craving, a what-my-body-really-needs-to-be-healthy craving. (How do you tell the difference between a hale-and-hearty craving and demon garden-path, addictive, running-from-your-emotions craving? Intuition, bien sur!) Now I love salt, and add it often, and it all seems to the good. (And my blood pressure is still on the low side, as before.) If you want some info on the difference between typical table salt and sea salt, here’s a link (Salt: What You Don’t Know Can Harm You – and What You Should Do Instead).

About pepper, I used to grind up a batch of peppercorns in my coffee grinder (more on this, anon), and then keep it handy for the next months. (I guess it’s better to have it absolutely fresh ground, but I couldn’t tell the difference enough to bother.) But recently, my gourmet good-cooking friend Hannah introduced me to coarse ground pepper. You buy it in a large bottle at your local grocery (regular grocery, not high end), and it’s more coarsely ground than what will come out of your pepper mill. You have to like biting into a big wake-me-up chunk of pepper, but it so happens, I do.

I keep my salt and pepper on the ledge right above my stove in little open dishes—beautiful creamy porcelain—so it’s easy to pinch a little here & there. For me, a big part of aiding intuition is having everything easy and appealing.

(Your sanitary practices may bristle at the open dish method, but that’s another one of those cooking judgment calls—are you a cook who tastes a dish with a spoon and rinses it off? Or do you keep tasting with the same cook-germy spoon? In my circles, cook’s germs are in a different category than mere eating mortal germs. Do you observe the three-second rule—if it drops on the floor for under three seconds, it’s okay to use—or do you disdain it for the rationalization it is? But it’s your call, of course.)

Your coffee grinder & why chili cinnamon cappachino may not be such a bad thing

Grinding spices fresh is a great way to really make them sing. Peppercorns, cinnamon, coriander seeds (yum!), cumin seeds, mustard seeds, cardamom, etc. You can have a designated spice grinder, sure (and actually, I’m in the market for one). But don’t be scared to use your coffee grinder. I wipe it out first, but not real carefully. (You may be getting the gist of how I cook here.) A little coffee flavor with the pepper may be a good thing. And then, after I’ve ground up my spices and I’m ready to grind coffee again, I rarely clean it out. I’m curious about how different spices may taste in the coffee.

That’s how I discovered my current “I can’t wait to go to bed, so I can wake up and have it” coffee.
I was making a fresh batch of chili powder and left some in the coffee grinder. Of course. When I put my coffee beans in the next morning, my little chef magician voice said, “Ooh, this is fun, let’s add a cinnamon stick.” I did, and oh my god. It tasted like chocolate. Sure it’s weird. But not yick weird—it’s yum weird. Try it and let me know what you think. I’ve drunk nothing else the past three weeks.

(By the way, cinnamon is the secret tip to making dreadful coffee kinda good. When I was a freshman in college, when we wanted an extra special meal, we’d save up our paltry student cash and go to this little French restaurant. We all told each other how especially wonderful the coffee was. One time I asked them what kind of coffee they used, expecting to be let in on some elite coffee roaster insider tip. “Folgers,” the French waiter replied indifferently. “Folgers with some cinnamon sprinkled on top.”

So ever since then, when I’m in some dreadful houseguest situation where all that’s available is the Folgers, I just give a healthy sprinkle of cinnamon into the coffee grounds before I start the Mr. Coffee dripping.)

Pepitas and chili powder

Pepitas and chili powder

RECIPES

Annita’s Spicy Pepitas

Pour some olive oil in the bottom of a pan (heavy bottom, if you have it) over a medium flame. Let it heat up a little, then pour in some raw pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and stir to coat. You be the judge on the amounts, but it’s okay to have the pepitas a half-inch or so deep in the pan, and they should be a little oily, but not swimming.

Now, go to your spice cabinet and do a little chef voodoo. What calls out to you? What’s your spice today? Gather a bunch of jars—for me, it’s usually 7 or 8. Here’s what I put in yesterday’s pepitas: cumin, coriander, pepper, chili, paprika, ground mustard, turmeric, salt, maybe a few more. They were yummy. I wasn’t in the mood for sweet, but I often add ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, anise, fennel, maybe curry, maybe even garam masala (which is a blend of spices itself).

Just sprinkle and dump the spices on top of the pepitas; don’t worry about measuring. Stir them in so they are evenly distributed over the oil-coated seeds. When the seeds start turning different colors, taste them & see if they’re done. Be careful not to forget you’re cooking and let them burn! (I hate having to pick the burned ones out.) If they are not quite done, you can take them off the flame and they’ll keep cooking a little in the pan, but you won’t have to worry about burning them.

Put them in clear jars on your shelf because they’re pretty that way. Use them on top of soups (especially Ann’s breakfast puree soups—cauliflower dill, zuccini-fennel, squash-ginger—upcoming in a future Mandala Chef blog!), salads, in omelets, just for munching. I gave a little jar to my new NIA teacher for her birthday and she nearly swooned.

Your very own chili powder
This is easy to do (if you can find the chilis), and is so worth it, to have freshly ground, complex pungent chili powder.

Buy a package of dried pasilla chilis—they come about 6-8 in a package here. These are easy to find here in Texas, but I don’t know about elsewhere. I assume that there are now starting to be groceries with Mexican specialties more widely available.

Roast in the oven or toaster oven. Not long, a few minutes, until they puff up and are fragrant. Easy to leave in too long.

Let cool a little, then break open, let the seeds slide into the compost, and then tear into smaller bits and grind up in your coffee grinder. (Or save some to make coffee with, see next recipe.)

Put in a little jar with a nice label, and use as you would chili powder.

Ann’s spicy cinnamon coffee
I keep a bowl of roasted pasilla chilis on my counter (see previous recipe). Tear up about one-third to one-half chili, put into your coffee grinder (compost the seeds), add half a cinnamon stick, and then the coffee beans. Voila! (Or if you don’t grind your beans, just add chili powder and ground cinnamon, it’s still great.) I drink it with soy creamer, and I swear it tastes like chocolate. I’m having a cup right now—it’s so good!