No More Gwyneth Envy Blueberry Muffins

When the May issue of Bon Appetit arrived in my mailbox last month I couldn’t wait to rip it open. The tempting cover featured a big bowl of silky pasta al pomodoro that sent me into a craving tailspin. Adam Rapaport, the magazine’s new editor, was off to a delicious start.
Yet when the June issue of Bon Appetit arrived several days ago I almost threw it across my kitchen. What a difference a month makes. The cover also featured a big bowl of silky pasta, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, who seemed to have made the spaghetti she was about to enjoy. What was a person doing on the cover of a food magazine? And why did it have to be Gwyneth? Ugh.
What is it about GP that made me react so violently? She seems perfectly nice. I thought she was great on her recent Glee spree, she appears to love her kids and rock star husband and, most importantly, she’s never done anything to me. So what’s my problem? I suppose if I were honest with myself I’d just say I’m jealous. There is so much to be jealous of (see above list and add rich, Oscar winner and wears clothes like no one else). In fact, I’d say she has quite enough going for her and frankly I don’t understand why she couldn’t just be satisfied with her current state of success. Being a Vanity Fair, In Style and Vogue cover-girl isn’t enough for her? She also had to write a best-selling cookbook and grin from the pages of Bon Appetit? Give it a rest Gwynnie! (Again with the hostility.)
But here’s the thing about Gwyneth; she seems to strike a chord with almost every woman I know. I have one friend who refuses to see any film she’s in on the basis of her being in it. I have another who relishes tales of GP’s mean-girl high-school antics that she’s heard from friends of friends of friends. Another searches supermarket tabloids for signs of non-existent cellulite in grainy photos taken of Gwyneth frolicking in the sands of Barbados with her kids. Could we all be green eyed monsters? Waiting for our moment of schadenfreude? I hope not. It’s not nice to begrudge the success of a sister. I guess it’s just that she seems to have won the game of life and it would be nice if more people felt like winners. (And not in the creepy Charlie Sheen sense.)

Gwyneth has been on a publicity tear since her cookbook, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness hit the shelves. And given the changing of the guard at Bon Appetit I can kind of understand why they would want to shake things up with a controversial cover. (I know, this is all ridiculous when put in the larger context of what is going on in the world but your computer didn’t rest on this page because you want me to discuss tornadoes or the Middle East.) And no, controversial is not an overstatement. I am a Facebook “fan” of Bon Appetit and as soon as the Gwyneth issue hit the stands the comments were flying. A sampling:
I have every Bon Appetit Magazine from the past 5 years on a shelf in my living room. This month’s magazine with Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover is going straight in the trash. I subscribed to a food magazine, not Redbook or People. This amounts to nothing more than a promotion for her book. Please never put a living thing on the cover of your magazine again. Or Gwyneth Paltrow. Thanks.

I have subscribed to Bon Appetit since I was 15 back in 1985. NEVER has the cover of your magazine ever upset me. Gwyneth Paltrow? Seriously? I love the art of food... NOT celebrity. So she published a cookbook. BFD. There are REAL chefs who deserve this honor - living and posthumously before she does! Even then, the dishes are the star of the magazine. Why sell out now? Things that desperate there? I'd never display this issue on my kitchen counter like I have past ones. Awful guys... Don't do this again. PLEASE!

Really? You put HER on the cover? I tore it off and threw it out. She is not welcome in my home.

As you can see I am not alone in my violent urges. But really, it does seem a bit much, right? Such venom and so much time invested in complaining. Reading the rest of the comments gave me that sick feeling I get whenever I take an adult education class and look at all the other losers in the room. What separates me from them? Um, nothing. I don’t want to be the kind of woman with so much time on her hands that she reacts to magazine covers in the first place, certainly not publicly. Joining in on the Gwyneth hate-fest? I’ll pass, especially because some of the recipes look really good. Although I do take issue with her grilling halibut in short shorts mere inches from the raging fire of her professional grade oven. That’s just dangerous. No, I didn’t buy her book but curiosity got me Googling and reading the Amazon excerpt and before I knew it I wanted to make several things.
Gwyneth’s love for her late father is known to anyone who knows about this stuff. She speaks about him adoringly whenever she is given the opportunity and you have to respect a daddy’s girl. (At least I do, since I am one.) However, I feel a little bad for her mother. If I were Blythe Danner I might be wondering where I fit in this patriarchal love affair and why I wasn’t being more acknowledged. When I was a kid our apartment was two blocks from the Paltrow’s house and our local pizza parlor hung Blythe’s head-shot prominently over their giant ovens. Kind of ironic that she was the one in the kitchen, figuratively speaking.
Anyway, with all the press Gwyneth has been doing I didn’t have to do too much internet fiddling to find a recipe that appealed to me. And wouldn’t you know it was one attributed to her mother. These blueberry muffins are bursting with fruit, which is the way I like them. They couldn’t be easier—gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry, fold in the berries and bake. They’re fluffy and just rich enough to be delicious but not so buttery to be mistaken for a cupcake. They’re perfect for the upcoming long weekend and any house guest you deem worthy of a freshly baked breakfast. Although the lemon zest was my little twist I really recommend it—blueberries and lemons are very good friends. Best of all, their sweet, fruity scent broke my Gwyneth-envy spell and I have decided not to waste my time on pointless jealousy. Unless of course she winds up on the cover of Food and Wine. In that case, all bets are off.
No More Gwyneth Envy Blueberry Muffins
Adapted from My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness, Gwyneth Paltrow 2011
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1 stick butter, melted and just cooled
2 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest of one lemon
One pint of fresh blueberries (about 2 1/4-2 1/2 cups)

Preheat oven to 375. Line a 12 cup muffin tin with paper liners. Set aside.
In a medium bowl or measuring cup whisk melted butter, eggs and milk.
In large bowl whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and zest.

Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir just to combine. Do not over-mix.Gently fold in berries. Don't worry if some break.

Using standard ice cream scoop, portion out generous scoops into each muffin cup.Bake 25-30 minutes until tops are golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool slightly and serve warm or at room temp.
Yield: 12 muffins


Searching for Youth Rhubarb Compote

The other day I woke up looking like Marla Hanson. No, I hadn’t been slashed in my sleep, but somehow my pillow case had left a cross-hatched pattern of deep, scar-like creases all over the right side of my face which took three hours to fade. Luckily, I didn’t have to be anywhere because if I had I would have needed to hide under dark glasses and a wide-brimmed sun hat which would have looked almost as strange as my pleated face since it was raining.

Oh, in case you don’t know who Marla Hanson is she became a household name (in New York anyway) in the mid-80’s after two thugs hired by a rebuffed wannabe suitor attacked her with a razor. Her model face required over 100 stitches and her career obviously needed some reconsidering.

Before I turned 40 my face was never this sensitive. Sure, once in a while I’d wake with a pillow line on my cheek, and maybe some puffy eyes after a sushi dinner, but neither of those afflictions took longer than a half hour to fade away. Oh, how I long for those days. Aging is really annoying. And I am a total sucker for anything that will stave off the signs that at this point I am heading north of 45. I can thank my grandmother for helping out, in that my genes have done a decent job of conspiring to fool the masses, but I’m still plagued by troublesome lines that appear out of nowhere and the feeling that my right eye-lid seems borrowed from a Shar-Pei. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything topical will help in this area, which is why my bangs will continue to get thicker and longer until someday I am forced to take drastic measures.
When you think about it (you probably don’t but I often do) 45 today bears no resemblance to what it did just 20 years ago. The other day while channel surfing I stumbled across an episode of The Partridge Family. Can you believe that Shirley Jones was only 36 when she took the role of their tireless, widowed mother? You know who is 36? Kate Winslet and Drew Barrymore. Imagine either of them as a mother of five, one of whom is in college. Crazy. Then there is Sunset Boulevard, One of my favorite movies in which Gloria Swanson plays a past-her-prime faded movie star whose close-ups are far behind her. She was 50 at the time. To put 50 in context today think of both Julianne and Demi Moore. Um, neither woman seems in any way faded to me which helps when my stomach sinks at the idea that chronologically I’m closer to Gloria than I am to Shirley.
With so many gorgeous women showing us how to stay vibrant and fabulous far longer than in the past, I am inspired to find ways to keep Father Time from knocking out Mother Nature. Serums, creams, scrubs and potions are rubbed (but not too vigorously!) into my skin. Water is consumed. Fitness is a priority. I’ve never smoked and I only drink in moderation. Of course the pitfall is sugar which has been shown to accelerate the aging process. But what’s a girl to do? I have to have some vices and sweets will be the only one left after All My Children vanishes from the airwaves in September.
To offset my insulin spiking eating habits I try to eat anything anointed as a super-food. A few years ago I went to an acupuncturist in the hopes of reducing my anxious state. The problem was that being left alone in a room covered with needles, with instructions not to move, only exacerbated the issue that brought me to the office in the first place. Also, the acupuncturist looked like one of Carmela Soprano’s best friends—not exactly the crunchy, Zen image I had in mind when seeking some Eastern calm. After I filled out a lengthy questionnaire the big haired practitioner prescribed an increase in my consumption of “red foods.” I’m still not sure why but I was to eat as much of anything red as I could, from blood rare meat to raspberries. I’m not much of a carnivore so the job fell to fruits and vegetables. (I should note that my emotional state hasn’t changed in the three years since I upped the red dosage.) Anyway, when rhubarb made the super-food list it was a great double whammy, good for me both inside and out. Although it’s been used in Chinese medicine forever, is filled with disease fighting properties as well as digestive encouragement, it was my vanity that was piqued when I learned it is a great source of lycopene—an antioxidant in the carotenoid family which firms the skin by helping to build collagen. Take that sheet wrinkles!
Ordinarily my instinct would be to bake a strawberry-rhubarb pie. But I have no reason to make a pie right now and the red stalks have been in the market for a few weeks now, beckoning me to buy some. The next best thing is this delicious compote. Rhubarb is pretty sour on its own but cooked with some sugar and lemon juice it becomes bright and sweet and so great spooned over yogurt (or vanilla ice cream or pound cake if you just want to ignore the sugar/aging correlation) that you’ll forget about how good it is for you. And until someone hands me a map to the fountain of youth you’ll find me at the market with a basket full of red and a pair of dark glasses.
Searching for Youth Rhubarb Compote
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1 pound rhubarb stalks cut into 1/2"-3/4" pieces (discard leaves, they are poisonous)
1/2 cup sugar
Juice of medium sized lemon (will yield about 3-4 tablespoons of juice)
Combine all of the ingredients in a medium sized heavy saucepan

Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally so sugar doesn't burn
Reduce heat to low and cook for 5-7 minutes till rhubarb is soft and tender but not completely mushy

Remove from heat and let cool completely. Compote will thicken up a bit.
Yield: 2 cups compote


Crabby Mother's Day Toffee Dried Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Last Sunday while taking out my trash I ran into Joyce, my neighbor from down the hall. Joyce is a psychiatrist, late 50’s, single, a bird-watching enthusiast and one of those women blessed with the most optimistic of dispositions. It could be pouring with rain for the fifth day in a row and there she is, setting out to walk her tiny dog in a monsoon with a smile and a, “It’s good for the flowers!”
You know that thing when you are feeling sad and vulnerable, but don’t want to feel sad and vulnerable and then someone sweetly says something that taps into the thing that is making you feel sad and vulnerable? It just knocks you over. That’s what almost happened with Joyce in the hallway.

“Hi Joyce,” I said with my hand on my apartment door about to re-enter.

“Happy Auntie’s Day!” she cheered.

Joyce knows about Nieces One and Two and has a grown one of her own. “We’re important women to them too,” she continued.
I almost burst into tears.

Much like my hesitation over bringing up the “M” word in relation to Kate marrying Will, I’ve also steered clear of the “K” word. I’ve never talked about not having kids for fear of coming off as a defensive child-hater or a depressed, barren spinster. Neither of which I am. Really. But children were very much on my mind this Mother’s Day. When you are single, and the only children in your life are those who belong to others, confronting a holiday that says, in the words of my dear friend Wendy, “Look what YOU don’t have!” kind of stinks.
Luckily I held it together and we discussed her grown niece and what she was up to and other pleasantries that helped me push my swelling feelings back where they belong, repressed into the deepest recesses of my soul.

I know that I’m fortunate because there are plenty of people who, whether or not they have children, don’t have mothers. To them I say, “I am so sorry.” That really stinks too. But my mother basically laughs when I say “Happy Mother’s Day!” because she thinks the whole idea is so silly. I then wind up in a weird no-man’s-land where I am denied both celebrating her and being celebrated myself.
The thing is I don’t usually have to confront Mother’s Day in this way. Often I visit my parents’ at their weekend house in an effort to get a jump on the summer sun, one of my favorite springtime activities. So, even if I’m not taking my mother to brunch at the country club we don’t belong to I am spending the day with her. And on occasion my sister has brought the nieces and the day just passes as chaotic, family fun. But this year was different. I had tickets to see Jerusalem on Friday night (excellent by the way) and spent a really lovely evening with friends on Saturday going to the movies and yakking way too late over steaming bowls of mussels. But there was an undercurrent of this looming thing on Sunday that I knew was going to make me crabby.
The dread had started after several friends over the course of the days leading up to the weekend asked me what my Mother’s Day plans were. “Um, I’m childless and have no plans!” I wanted to snap. But then I realized they assumed I’d be with my mom and were just making conversation. Hmmn, guess I was feeling sensitive and defensive, a most unattractive duo.

So how to deal with the day after Joyce almost unwittingly brought me to tears? When in doubt, exercise. Endorphins are always good for a few hours of cheer and running in the sunny park did the trick, despite the slow moving tourists who don’t seem to understand that walking four abreast around the reservoir makes any runner want to push them onto the ground and run over them. (I guess you can add “hostile” to “sensitive” and “defensive.”) After my usual breakfast I met up with my Daisy, one of my closest friends for the past 30 years, for a stroll and a few hours of gossip and laughs under the shade of Barclay’s Grove at Lincoln Center. I think spending time with someone who really knows you is essential when one is feeling a little glum. Being honest about the day, and life in general, instantly lifted my spirits—I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to fake it with an acquaintance. But by admitting my crabitude I was able to identify it, accept it and move on.
When Erica, the teenage daughter of my friend Nancy, recently asked me for a stress-relieving recipe to help her get over the pressure of picking courses and testing for her junior year in high school, I recommended dried cherry toffee chocolate-chunk cookies. As far as I’m concerned baking anything relieves stress but these cookies are an all-time favorite. Actually, I used to take them to the hospital to my friends who were brand-new mothers. The recipe makes a ton and they are perfect to have on hand for all the many people who think it is their place to stop by mere hours after a woman has given birth. I decided to take my own advice and end my child-free Mother’s Day by making a batch of these chewy, tart, sweet, and salty crowd pleasers. And I started thinking about my weekend—a great play, evenings and afternoons with lots of friends—and all the children that are in my life who, whether or not they are mine, love me as much as I love them. And I felt very lucky.

And on Monday I spent the afternoon with my mother and felt even luckier.
Crabby Mother's Day Toffee Dried Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Adapted from
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1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup dried cherries (if you aren't a fan, substitute dried cranberries or omit completely--but the tart chewiness adds a lot)
4 1/2 ounces (3/4 cup) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped or chocolate chips
1 cup Heath Bar or Skor bits (the bags are usually sold with the chocolate chips. If you can't find them, chop up a few candy bars)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together flour and baking soda.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice during mixing.
Add the egg; mix on high speed to combine. Add the vanilla; mix to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add flour mixture to egg mixture, and mix on low speed until well combined. Add the oats, cherries, chocolate, and toffee pieces; mix to combine after each addition.

Using two teaspoon scooper or 2 teaspoons, drop dough onto a lined baking sheet. Repeat, spacing 2 inches apart.
Bake cookies until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Store in an airtight container up to 2 days.
Yield: 6 dozen cookies


Not for Breakfast Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread

It is a truth universally acknowledged that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Having accepted this information as fact I am always stunned by the offerings our food manufacturers seem to find appropriate in their efforts to get us to start the day with their products. With obesity levels heading towards infinity, why would anyone even invent a way to ingest high levels of saturated fat and sodium soon after waking? Take Jimmy Dean. Please. What idiot thought a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich on a croissant was a good idea? With 45% of your daily intake of fat consumed by 9am what are you supposed to do the rest of the day? Chomp on lettuce and carrots? Not likely.
My experience with starting off on a less than nutritious note is that it signals the beginning of a terrible day. When I used to endure monthly breakfast meetings I handled the tray of pastries like a mouse with an eating disorder. First I’d pile on the fruit salad, thinking it would edge out all the other bad options. But then maybe just that mini blueberry scone and how about that tiny, baby cheese danish? It’s so cute! Then I’d finish the fruit and start picking at the two treats with my fingers, nibbling tiny little pieces as if I planned on leaving some left over, which I never did. By the end of the meeting the scone, danish and ½ a blueberry muffin that somehow found its way onto my plastic plate would have disappeared down my gullet and two hours later I was starving.
Now listen, I’m not some breakfast Nazi wielding an oatmeal coated wooden spoon. I’ve had my share of frosted raspberry Pop-Tarts and I’ve never met a slice of Entenmann’s Pecan Danish Ring I didn’t like. You don’t need me to pontificate on the evil chocolate(y) dripping fangs of Count Chocula or the blood glucose spiking 410 calories of a Mocha Coconut Frappucino. But recently two commercials have caused me to press pause on my DVR in disbelief.
I am as grumpy as the next person if I don’t have my morning cup of coffee and I completely appreciate taking pleasure in a big mug of joe. But despite my childhood obsession with General Foods International Coffees (they seemed so sophisticated!) the smell of fake flavorings makes me sick. And that’s why I can’t wrap my head around a new product that seems truly foul, Baileys Coffee Creamers. At first I assumed they were made to enhance after dinner coffees, assuming Baileys=after dinner drink. (The plural “coffees” makes me cringe, by the way.) But the commercial (click yellow link to watch) proved me wrong. A woman wakes up, makes her java and sits outside on her porch watching the sun come up with her hands wrapped around her steaming cup of non-alcoholic Irish coffee. Can you think of anything more disgusting? Who would want that taste to be their first of the day? Not to mention Baileys is a little creepy whether the sun is up or down. And why do people on TV always hold their hot drinks like they’re trying to warm their freezing hands? She’s only wearing a sweater so presumably it’s not that cold where she lives. And who has time in the morning to sit outside pondering the day?
Meanwhile, while this woman and her coffee seem to be enjoying a very leisurely start, another woman is busy trying to get her kids fed and off to school. Who knew it was so hard to find a child pleasing breakfast? Even my finicky nieces scarf down a toaster waffle (organic and whole-grain of course) or a bowl of Kashi Heart to Heart without a fuss. But this poor mom can’t think of any other way to get her children to eat other than to slather a piece of toast with Nutella. (She makes a point of using the word “multi-grain” as the bread is the only nutritionally valid part of her planned meal.) Click here to watch. I was so taken aback by the positioning of Nutella as a breakfast food for children that I just had to consult the jar I had in my cabinet. (Yes, I keep it on hand for when I want to make that decadent and totally delicious pound cake.) Okay, I kind of wish I hadn’t done that. The ingredients are sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, lecithin and vanillin (fake vanilla) and the suggested two tablespoon serving delivers 200 calories, 11 grams of fat and 21 grams of sugar. How’s that for a breakfast of champions?
But even more important was my Nutella…wake-up call. For some time now I’ve been a little turned off by the oily sheen that sits on the surface and it kind of freaks me out that it doesn’t need to be refrigerated if in fact it contains milk. Also, why does palm oil come before nuts if it is a hazelnut spread? That can’t be good. (Isn’t it funny that when hazelnuts are buried in a nut-mix they’re called filberts and are usually abandoned to rot at the bottom of the can with the despised, waxy Brazil nuts?) All of this was running through my mind the last time I dipped a Pretzel Crisp into my jar of Nutella (sweet and salty, the best combo) and led me to tackle the make-your-own chocolate-hazelnut paste printed last March in the Times. It is so easy and truly sublime: the semi-sweet chocolate enhances the nuts in a way cocoa just can’t compete. It’s more like true Italian gianduja and the texture is a little thicker than the stickier goo of Nutella. But what you lose in ooziness you gain in flavor—this spread is so rich and intense that I’m tempted to toss my Nutella into the trash. Or maybe I’ll just make one last pound cake. And nibble on a tiny slice for breakfast.
Not for Breakfast Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread
Adapted From The New York Times, March 15, 2011
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1 cup skinless hazelnuts, toasted and cooled
4 ounces chopped semi-sweet chocolate (don't use chips, break up a large bar)
4 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon nut or vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Either in a microwave or double boiler, melt chocolate and butter together.
Transfer to measuring cup with a spout for future easy pouring.
Stir in vanilla, condensed milk and salt.

In bowl of food processor, pulse nuts until smooth, 3-5 minutes. (Really do it for that long unless you want a chunky spread).

Using chute of processor, add vegetable oil and then chocolate/butter mixture.
Transfer to a jar or plastic container and refrigerate.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups