Screen Lovers Cups of Carrot Cake

When I was a kid TV time was limited to one hour a day. That restriction was put into place because of my tendency to zone out in front of the small screen and let the hours pass without so much as a meal break. And of course, like anything that is forbidden, the act became even more appealing. Just tell someone they can only have one potato chip and the next thing you know that same person will be foraging through the garbage can in search of a crumpled bag of Lays. Not that I would ever do such a thing. Finding a loophole in our household TV law became as important to me as actually being able to watch My Three Sons, Father Knows Best, The Patty Duke Show and Gilligan’s Island undisturbed. Did it count if I was watching someone else’s TV? As far as I was concerned, certainly not! I picked my friends wisely. Who knew other people’s parents didn’t notice what they were doing at all? That was nice. Or so I thought at nine.

I was thinking of screen-time limitations when I accompanied my sister and Nieces One and Two to the Apple Store on Monday. While their mother was busy picking out a case for her new iPhone, the daughters happened upon Mecca: a perfectly pint sized table and stools outfitted with four fully loaded iPads. Oh boy, we were in trouble. Niece One, aka the Expert, announced she had iPads in her school’s computer lab, so she knew exactly what to do. Niece Two, aka the Button Pusher, just started tapping away at the screen until Dora appeared, asking her what she wanted to play. She has always been fascinated with buttons and sounds, more so than her sister. TV remotes, cell phones, iPhones and calculators all cause her eyes to lock and her will to become even more fiercely and ferociously focused than it usually is. Woe to the person who tries to pry any of these devices out of her vise-like grip. I’ve been one of those people and it’s not fun, which is essentially what happened the other day. We must have said, “Come on guys, last game!” 50 times and it was as if we weren’t speaking at all. I could have screamed, “Look! It’s Big Bird!” and they wouldn’t have flinched. There was a bit of a wrestling match to unfurl Niece Two’s tiny four-year-old fingers from the filthy screen. (And yes, I swabbed both girls down with Sani-Hands for Kids before shoving their mittens onto their mitts).
I’d imagine it was this sort of behavior that prompted my parents to institute the one hour rule all those years ago. But the thing that struck me was when we all got back to my apartment to finish up last week’s crepes, the girls settled into my couch post-snack and watched Rio, a movie they have seen umpteen times, which I had recorded for them on my DVR. When I asked my sister why it was permissible for them to passively watch a movie but not okay for them to interact with a game on an iPad she said there was something addict-y about their responses to video games, no matter how educational. There is a frenzied lack of attention to what’s going on around them. As proven by their inability (?) to hear us say, “Game over.” Her other issue with electronic games is how solitary they are. Her kids are locked into a private, solo activity, whereas when they’re watching TV they’re doing it together, sometimes joined by my sister and brother-in-law. So, yes, just like our parents, she limits the video stimulation she sees as more evil as much as she can. And let’s face it, having them calm and quiet while enjoying the company of talking tropical birds allowed my sister and me to thumb through some magazines and do a little Facebook mockery, I mean online window shopping.
But just like they do for my nieces, when I was a kid movies fell in a different category. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was my first and to this day I am terrified of the "Child Catcher". But even if we weren’t trekking to the Trans Lux or Loew’s 83rd Street, watching a movie on television didn’t fall under the one hour rule. My parents saw no harm in a Sunday afternoon spent with the TV tuned to Channel 5 while Shirley Temple and Bojangles danced up a flight of stairs. It kept us quiet and smiling and they could read The Times in peace.
All this is to say, the judgment scale that deemed movies OK and television Not OK seeped into my psyche. Although I am old enough to decide to keep my TV on 24 hours a day if I want, I can’t. Working from home I am always asked if I happened to catch Ellen or could you believe what happened on The View? No, I can’t because I don’t watch television during the day. It would make me feel so pathetic and unproductive and that somehow my parents were right, my brain had indeed rotted with too much exposure to the Showcase Showdown and Match Game ‘74. But, just as they felt movies were exceptions to the one hour rule, I have a few exceptions I’ve created for myself. I’m “allowed” to turn on the Today Show when I am having my essential immediately upon waking cup of coffee, so I can catch up on the important things our country is talking about, like Kim Kardashian’s wedding, I mean divorce, or Donny Deutch’s insights into the male psyche. Then the other exception is when I’m on the treadmill. Since the onslaught of new members has made my gym unbearable during post-work day hours, I sometimes go midday. Which is where I was when I watched The Chew, the food-focused show ABC chose to air instead of All My Children (a subject for another post, when my personal pain over the cancellation has subsided). Anyway, Michael Symon, one of the host/chefs, was making individual carrot cakes in the microwave and I knew I had to try them out. First of all, I love carrot cake. And second of all, I am always on the look-out for recipes that make just a few portions (see the nieces still helping me work my way through last week’s stack o’ crepes).
Everything came together so well with these cakes in a cup. They are really good—and not nearly as sweet and oily as traditional carrot cake. I would even call them healthy. The dollop of yogurt on top makes a great alternative to the cream cheese frosting we all love but our arteries do not. And there is something kind of thrilling about “baking” something in the microwave, without it being some creepy offering from Betty Crocker’s Warm Delights line. I was sure the results would be gummy and off but there really was a cake-like crumb. The pecans offer a nice toasty crunch, the golden raisins some squishy sweetness and there’s just the right heat from the spices. Do eat it promptly because as it sits the texture does change a bit. But the best part of this new discovery is I’ve solved the question of what dessert to have on Oscar night! Now that Rich’s eating habits have been forever influenced by his stay at Rancho La Puerta, our days of scarfing down an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies before they’d presented the award for Best Costume Design are over. This recipe will be perfect for my most anticipated night of the year which brings together my two favorite things—I get to honor the movies by watching TV, and for a lot longer than an hour!
Screen Lovers Cups of Carrot Cake
Adapted from Michael Symon, The Chew, ABC-TV
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1 Egg (separated)
6 tablespoons pastry flour (or all-purpose if you don't want to go to the store)
1 medium carrot (grated)
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons toasted pecans (crushed)
2 Tablespoons golden raisins
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of 1 orange
2 ounces buttermilk
Sour cream or Greek yogurt and a shake of cinnamon for garnish

In a small bowl whip egg white with a whisk or hand mixer until soft and fluffy.
In another small mixing bowl, mix egg yolk, pastry flour, shredded carrot, brown sugar, baking soda, olive oil, buttermilk, toasted pecans, raisins, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest.
Combine until all ingredients are just incorporated, then add egg white
Fill two microwave-safe mugs or jars (or four smaller cups/jars) about 2/3 full (to allow for the cakes to rise) and microwave on high for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes

until the cakes are firm but the tops are still a bit moist.Top with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, sprinkle with a little cinnamon and serve immediately.
Yield: 2 good size or 4 small servings


Mindful Crepes

Every Wednesday I look forward to reading the Times dining section while eating my lunch. Last week’s feature on Mindful Eating caused a personal psychic crash of irony in which I realized I had read the article at the same frenetic pace at which I had inhaled my arugula, turkey, pear, fennel and tomato salad. The only reason I know what I was eating is that I eat it every day. Talk about Mindless. I was flying in the face of the principles espoused by the thoughtful eaters and knew there was really nothing I could do about it.
I understand why there are so many calls to get our culture to slow down. How many of us have freaked out when our internet service provider fails us, even if for just 10 minutes? “But I need to Google a synonym for Mindful?!” “What time does my train leave for Bronxville?!” Never mind that I have a thesaurus on my book shelf and a printed train schedule in my wallet. Once you adjust your expectations to jibe with technological innovation there’s no going back. Can you imagine saying to people who were finally used to their newfangled telephones, “Oh, sorry. Ma Bell is taking a nap. You’ll have to use the Pony Express.”

But what I liked about the article was just how many different ideas and points of view were expressed. Several scholars noted that, given our modern life, eating every single meal in a slow and mindful way is almost impossible. Better to tune in to your food and eat in silence for the first five minutes of a meal, or take three quiet sips of tea than to continue feeding your pie-hole in an inattentive way. Another said, “What’s on your mind when you’re eating: that’s mindful eating to me.” I like that. What I didn’t like was what they do at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY. They eat in complete silence. I could never sit at a table with others and not say a word. (Except of course if I were really mad at my dinner partner and felt the silent treatment was in fact the only way I could get through the meal. And there are probably a few Thanksgivings that would have benefited from a collective vow of silence vs. a heated debate that divided the group into teams and sub-teams.)
I think we all have our own ideas of what it means to eat mindfully. Enjoying the company is such a big part of the experience when I am dining with friends. That’s mindful to me. The conversation and the laughs are more important and life affirming to me than contemplating my quinoa and chewing my food 20 times before I swallow. That would be torture.

All of this was on my mind the other day when I was walking to the post office and stopped to look at the menu of the newly opened Vive La Crêpe on Columbus Avenue. Among the Sweet Fillings options of sugar and butter, marmalade and dulce de leche was my favorite, Nutella. I started to laugh to myself at an insane food memory. 17 years ago my sister and I went to Paris for a week in August. We had a free place to stay, frequent flyer miles donated to us by our generous parents, and two broken hearts that needed mending. Now at the time it didn’t occur to me that going to the most romantic city in the world without a romantic partner might not be the best way to cure oneself of being romance-free. But at least we were two people in the same position (from experience I know how annoying it is to be with someone way too cheerful when you are in the middle of processing your suffering), looking to shake off the blues with a change of scenery.
As anyone familiar with Parisian streets, there are crêpe stands everywhere. Almost like the pretzel and hot dog carts in New York. For days we’d walked passed them, ignoring the seductive scent of the sizzling vanilla batter, in the pursuit of getting in all the museums we wanted to visit, shops that needed our attention and neighborhoods we had to explore. But we were nearing the end of our week and on the one drizzly, surprisingly raw day I decided if I didn’t have a Nutella crêpe I would just die. The problem was that I had this I-Want-Crêpe-Now attack 15 minutes before we were due to arrive for dinner at the home of a friend of my sister’s who was known for his skill in the cuisine and his generous pours of vin rouge.

My eyes were focused on one thing, the ladle of batter being expertly poured and spread on the giant round griddle. “Une crêpe avec Nutella s’il vous plaît.” I requested while my sister screamed, “Are you crazy? We have to be there now and Jake is an incredible cook!” It was as if I couldn’t hear her. I had one goal and it was to shove that rolled pancake in my mouth immediately. Mon dieu, it was amazing. I still remember the first bite, the warm slick of Nutella oozing out from the layers coating my mouth in a symphony of chocolate and hazelnuts. I ate the entire thing in less than five minutes without pausing to take a breath or offer any to my sister. When it was over I wiped the chocolate spread from my mouth, threw away the paper wrapper and said, “Oh no. I’m so full.” My sister wanted to kill me.
But I knew I had to rally. We climbed the four flights to her friend’s apartment where he plied us with the most delicious tomato rosemary soup, a fantastic roast salmon with fines herbes, a tarte aux pommes and glass after glass of white, red and sweet wine. So many years later I still remember those three hours and all the deliciousness that was consumed within them. (I tried to forget how sick I felt after the gluttony). All of our senses were ignited: the smell of the rosemary, the sound of our host’s rapid fire French when speaking to his girlfriend, the rickety charm of his très bohème garret apartment, the heft of our wine glasses and of course the tastes of his incredible meal. To me it was a totally mindful experience. Even the speed at which I devoured the crêpe spoke to a mind filled with desire and excitement.

So, just as I had in Paris, after too many days passing the crêpe place I had to have one or I would die. My policy of not buying a sweet I could make myself kicked in, except I hadn’t made a crêpe since I was in pastry school when my results were really pathetic. But without the pressure of other students and the Chef Instructor I was able to easily churn out a stack of perfectly formed thin pancakes. And the most exciting thing was being able to flip them over by flicking my wrist up forcefully, releasing the crepe from the pan and catching it on the other side. It was fantastique! I folded my crêpe around a relatively thin and civilized layer of Nutella and a few sliced strawberries, sprinkled the little envelope with powdered sugar and inhaled it in four bites without taking a breath or uttering a word. That’s my kind of mindful.

Idea: How about a make your own crepe bar? Put out the stack of crepes, and offer Nutella, jams, nut butters, sugars and fruit.
Mindful Crepes
Adapted from Dave Lieberman, The Food Network
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3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
2 eggs
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon butter, melted plus more for pan
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, stir flour and salt together. Gradually whisk in the milk. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the sugar, melted butter and vanilla.
Whisk until very smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for an hour or longer.
Heat an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Melt a small bit of butter in the pan just to lightly grease it and swirl the pan till the butter coats the surface.

Pour a scant quarter cup of batter into the pan and move the pan in a circular pattern to coat with a thin layer of batter.
Cook for about one minute till the underside browns lightly then flip (I really flipped it like a short order cook! It was very exciting. Try it! Or use a spatula or your fingers) and cook 45 seconds-1 minute longer.
Slide crepe onto a plate and repeat the process with remaining batter.
NOTE: If you are making the crepes for future use layer a piece of wax paper between each crepe. Let the stack of crepes cool completely, wrap the stack in foil and refrigerate if using within a few days or store in freezer for up to a month. To reheat place crepe in hot pan for a few seconds till pliable and warm.

Spread the crepes with filling of your choice. Fold circle in half
and then in quarters, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired and serve.
Or if you like, over-stuff the crepe with Nutella, roll and shove it in your mouth right before a dinner party.

Yield: 9-10 crepes


Moving Day Mom Coffee Butterscotch Bars

If you are a regular reader of this page (and if you’re not, please be) you know that last June my parents moved out of the apartment they'd lived in for 15 years to return to the neighborhood where they’d set up house when they were first married. What you do not know is that until last Friday they had yet to move into their new apartment. Given that the previous owner was 96 years old you would be right in assuming the place wasn’t in the most, or any, updated condition. So for the past eight months they’ve been living and commuting from their weekend house while waiting for their relatively straightforward renovation to be completed. Because of the hell that is the New York co-op, various rules, approvals and paperwork conspired against them and the result was a feeling of rootlessness, disconnection and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder so familiar to those of us in these parts. Yes, their circumstance falls under the "we should all have such problems" category but as any New Yorker knows, the Gods of Real Estate don't care what percentile you are in; it is their job to torture you.
You would have thought they were renovating Buckingham Palace what with all the delays and helpers gone missing and an architect who thinks it’s okay not to have email or answer his cell phone. In August my father made the mistake of stopping by the apartment/construction site. He was so traumatized by the mayhem that he vowed not to return until everything was done, leaving most of the decision making to my mother. Maybe “decision making” isn’t the right phrase. Really what he meant was, “you do the leg work and I’ll point to what I like.”
Anyway, I won’t bore you (or me) with the reports of the baby-steps and minutiae my brother, sister and I had to endure over these past months every time we made the mistake of calling our parents. I will tell you that their aversion to moving in general has infected their children and through osmosis the importance of creating a safe nest has been firmly implanted in all of us. And so it was we found ourselves pitching in to help our Aged Ps (Great Expectations reference, look it up) get settled last weekend.
I would like to pat my siblings and myself on the back for slapping on cheerful attitudes and smiles in the face of what is as anxiety producing for us as it is for Mom and Dad. Walking into their new building was more than a little unsettling. They’ve always lived in areas where young families seem to multiply. When I arrived Friday afternoon there was a woman being pushed through the lobby in a wheelchair who frankly should have been dead. No, really. She must have been 107 and honestly looked like a cadaver, albeit one wearing a fur coat and quite a bit of sparkly jewelry, but still. My stomach sank. Then walking into the apartment it sank even further. Boxes were teetering in stacks to the ceiling, the toxic smell of fresh paint and carpeting and wallpaper hung in the air, dusty paper protected the floors, furniture was shoved against walls, wiring hung from ceilings awaiting fixtures and I couldn’t find anyone I knew. Movers were grunting, work men were on ladders and I smiled wanly while yelling, “Mom?” “Dad?” Finally I heard “I’m in here!” And there was my poor mother, in the middle of the kitchen, standing on a pile of packing paper and surrounded by open cartons of glasses, dishes, gadgets, cups, and small appliances. “Hi honey.” Just looking at her made me want to cry. She seemed so alone, even though she wasn’t.
Where was my father? We all have ways of coping with stress. Some of us try to expel what is producing the pit in the stomach by tackling the issue immediately, say by opening up a few boxes and maybe unpacking. Others choose to set up a little private space on a couch in the living room with a pen and the Times crossword puzzle. You may remember that was essentially what he was doing eight months ago on moving out day. Hey, whatever works.

Ultimately when my brother and sister arrived I think Dad realized his retreat technique was causing too many exchanged glances between his offspring and he got to work in the dining room while the rest of us dealt with the kitchen. Okay, you know how one of the only good things about moving is the opportunity to purge all the stuff you know you should throw out but never get around to? Yeah, that didn’t happen in June. Again, thank God for my siblings. I don’t know what I would have done if we weren’t in this together. Here is a random list of items that were packed up by the movers on the West Side in June, stored in a warehouse in Queens for eight months, and unpacked by us on the East Side:
A bag of hooks for a pot rack that was left hanging in their old kitchen
15 empty mustard, mayonnaise, and jelly jars in assorted sizes and shapes
A small Ziploc bag containing 3 squashed dried chili peppers
A box of coffee filters for a coffee maker no one could find
A broken Rabbit screw pull
A carton containing the contents of a gadget drawer filled with mysterious items purchased for one-time only cooking projects
And, my favorite, a very large plastic container housing 10 Triscuits
The crackers just about did us in. I can’t remember laughing that hard in ages and it was so my mother not to have been in the kitchen when everything was being packed up to begin with. She tends to get vague when stress comes along and often wanders away to focus on stuff no one is thinking about. Like, “Who took my camera?” No one took your camera. We’re unpacking, and changing light bulbs, and consolidating the two practically empty jars of fennel seeds you moved across town!
When much of the dust cleared we could make out the outlines of what will be our parents’ new home. And, as always, my mother did a beautiful job. And the best was when a few days later she reported she really thought their move had been the right decision. She’d run into people she knows on the street, their best friends live three blocks away and one of their favorite couples is moving into the building in a few months. And even better, there was a recent spotting of a blessedly age spot-free female resident. So this week it is Mom’s turn for a treat. Like so many mothers she passes on dessert and “just picks.” But I think she deserves something just for her. Also, with Valentine’s Day fast approaching it feels right to honor my very first love. These bars pay homage to all of my mother’s favorite flavors, coffee, toffee and chocolate. And after tasting them she said, “How many ways are there to say divine?!” That too is so my mother. Happy Valentine’s Day Mom and welcome home.Moving Day Mom Coffee Butterscotch Bars
From Food & Wine, Flo Braker, December 2008
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2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely ground espresso or dark roast coffee beans

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon strong-brewed espresso or coffee
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt
40 chocolate-covered espresso beans or Trader Joe's Espresso Pillows

Preheat the oven to 300° and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter with the sugar at medium speed until fluffy and very pale, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and salt.

In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the ground espresso beans. Add the dry ingredients to the mixer in 3 batches, scraping down the side of the bowl and beating just until the dough is combined.
Press the dough into the baking pan in an even layer. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the dough and, using a flat-bottomed glass, smooth the dough into an even layer.
Remove the plastic wrap and bake the shortbread for about 50 minutes, until very lightly browned on top and firm but not solid to the touch. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.Using a ruler, cut the warm shortbread lengthwise into 8 strips, then cut crosswise into 5 rows. (I screwed this part up. This means you need to make your 8 cuts on the 9" inch side and your 5 on the 13" inch side). Let the shortbread bars cool completely.

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, espresso, corn syrup and salt and bring to a boil over moderate heat, swirling the pan. Boil just until slightly thickened, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes; remove from the heat. When the bubbling subsides, immediately pour the hot glaze over the shortbread.

Working quickly with a small offset spatula, spread the glaze in an even layer. Using the tip of a lightly oiled paring knife, score the glaze between the cuts, without dragging.
Press an espresso bean into the center of each bar. Let cool slightly, then carefully lift out the bars and transfer to a plate.The bars can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.Yield: 40 bars or squares