I’ve been thinking about the difference between cheating and taking a short cut ever since I started working and found myself shorter on time than I’d like. I’m sorry, I know I keep talking about my reaction to the Not Enough Hours in the Day syndrome commonly experienced by so many who must think I’ve landed here from another planet. And I guess in some ways I have—emerging from working on your thing at your own pace, and finding yourself in an office with expectations of arrival time and output is a bit of a shock to my system. Anyway, after I made my pie with Trader Joe’s pie crusts last week, I started wondering why I’ve always been so judgmental of those I think have tried to get away with something or haven’t made a complete effort.
I’ve mentioned my mastery of the Art of the Lie, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I have some cheating incidents in my past. I can remember my first time. When I was seven the school I attended went bankrupt. The headmistress fled town and the whole place closed for good at the end of my second grade. If you haven’t experienced the world of private schools in New York first hand, you’ve probably read about the cut-throat competition to get into these schools, even the ones considered “meh.” So imagine the parents of an entire elementary school confronting the reality that their little Lisa or Michael needed to get accepted somewhere ASAP or else. Oh, and it was way past the deadline for applications. So amidst all this panic I toured various schools and took various admission tests.
Sitting at a table with other second grade test-takers at the Ethical Culture School, I was presented with a page of math problems and confronted something with a + sign I didn’t understand. Let me refresh your memory and tell you that the school that was going bankrupt should have been shuttered for taking parents’ tuition money and teaching their children nothing but flower-child anthems and occasionally taking them to the movies (remember my Sounder trauma?), none of which prepared me for an entrance exam of any kind much less one with…double digits! So the problem involved adding a double digit figure to a single digit one. The only problem was I had no idea how to “carry the” whatever number and just stared at the page while the curly headed girl next to me was busy scribbling. There was only one thing to do. I slyly glanced at her page and copied exactly what she had written. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I thought the humiliation of displaying my ignorance with a big blank spot in the middle of the mimeographed piece of paper was worse.
Despite my efforts, my cheating did not pay off and I was not accepted to the school. Maybe the girl next to me was dumber than I was? But the guilt was really too much and I never copied a classmate’s answers again. So we’ve established that cheating is always wrong.
Meanwhile, my parents always disapproved of short-cuts or perceived laziness. There wasn’t a single mix used in my mother’s kitchen (except for the Kraft Mac & Cheese we begged for as tweens) and I don’t know what would have happened to the vein in my father’s forehead if he’d ever spotted the yellow cover of a Cliffs Note. But the ethos went deeper than that. Taxis were for special occasions because taking one meant you were too disorganized to get yourself out the door and on the bus on time. (Not to mention they were expensive and it was important to understand the meaning of the dollar). If you wanted something you saved your allowance which you earned by doing chores or you babysat on a Saturday night instead of going out. Now none of what I’m describing is unusual, except the part when you’d report knowing families who lived a different, easier life filled with Duncan Hines and yellow cabs and receive a wholly derisive response from Mom and Dad.
In many ways I wish those lessons hadn’t stuck because they made me even more judgmental than I am naturally. So years later when I was at a dinner party and could tell the host (who had a demanding career and new baby) had smushed Pillsbury refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough into a frozen pie crust in a tin foil pan, baked it and passed it off as a “homemade” Toll House pie, I felt superior and disdainful. Until now.
I’m pretty sure if you polled the eaters of last week’s strawberry-rhubarb pie they all would report, “yum,” and not, “the filling was great but what was up with that crust?” Okay, the survey might be affected by the fact that some members of my family chose to have their slices a la mode and how bad is anything with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into it? But still, I think the votes would be unanimously favorable. And really, isn’t the point that I made the effort with what little free time I have to turn out something tasty? So I bought a crust, big deal. It’s not like I dug out my opener and attacked a can of Comstock pie filling. I’m sorry, but short-cuts are one thing, canned anything is another. And what we’re talking about is whether reducing your time commitment will result in a loss of quality.
In the meantime, I was looking for a way to use up my left over strawberries and rhubarb and continuing on my quest to determine the pros and cons of the short-cut, I seized on a recipe for a small batch of jam you make in the microwave. I couldn’t believe it—I had all the ingredients in my apartment, including the same box of pectin I used to make grape jelly several years ago (does that stuff go bad? If the jam kills me, it was because of rotten pectin). The instructions seemed easy enough, lots of quick zaps in the machine after which you should have two jars of jam in less than 30 minutes. Okay, not really. It took me closer to an hour but that might have been because I couldn’t figure out the wattage of my microwave, which I inherited from the past owner of my apartment. I can tell you that it was manufactured in 1991 but I have no idea how powerful it is, or isn’t. But regardless, after zapping and stirring and testing the hot liquid on a cold plate to see if it firmed up, I had two jars of gorgeous red jam! It felt like a successful science experiment and definitely took less time than my experience with the grape jelly or blood orange Meyer lemon marmalade I made last year.
So I’ve answered my question—you can reduce time and not reduce pleasure. And most importantly, I will not judge other hard workers who take the short-cuts they need to take in order to stay sane. This sweet-tart jam was delish spread on my favorite toasted health bread. The only problem is it needs to be consumed within three weeks and I’ll never finish both jars by then. Maybe I’ll leave one for my Pillsbury Toll House Cookie “homemade” pie making friend and let her know how delicious her dessert was, even though she cheated. And lied.
Taking a Shortcut Strawberry Rhubarb Microwave Jam
from Simple Bites
1-1/2 cups chopped rhubarb (½-inch pieces)
2 Tbsp water
1 cup crushed strawberries (about 2 cups sliced)
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp powdered pectin
2 cups granulated sugar
In a 12-16-cup microwave-safe bowl, combine rhubarb and water. Partially cover bowl with plastic wrap, leaving a gap for some of the steam to escape. Microwave on High for 2 minutes or until hot. Remove and discard plastic. Drain off any liquid or blot with a paper towel.
Stir in strawberries and lemon juice. Stir in pectin until dissolved. Stir in sugar until dissolved.
Microwave, uncovered, on High for 2 minutes; stir and scrape down sides of bowl. Microwave on High again for 2 minutes; stir and scrape down sides of bowl. Repeat in 1-minute intervals for another 2 to 4 minutes, or until jam froths up and thickens; stir and scrape down sides each time.
Test for setting point (see details below). Microwave in additional 1-minute intervals as needed.
Remove from microwave. Stir slowly for 2 to 3 minutes to prevent floating fruit.
Ladle into clean jars; wipe rims. Apply metal lids and rings, or use plastic lids; tighten until snug.
Transfer to a towel-lined surface and let rest at room temperature until set. Refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.
Testing for setting point
Place about 2 tsp of jam on a chilled small plate and place it in the freezer for a minute or two, until cooled to room temperature. A skin will form on top. If you gently push it with your finger or a fork, it will wrinkle if the mixture is done.
Tips from Simple Bites
Use a 1200-watt microwave with a turntable.
If wattage is higher, cook on 70% power, or if wattage is lower, cook for longer.
Do not double the batch.
Use caution when moving the bowl for stirring as the steam will be very hot.
Since they are heat-resistant, use a silicone spatula for scraping down the sides of the bowl.
There is no need to leave headspace at the top of the jar, as jam will be neither precessed or frozen.