People Pleaser Banana Pudding

What is it about hard to please people that makes us work even harder to please them?  Okay, maybe I shouldn’t say “us,” maybe it’s really just “me.”  Regardless, it’s kind of a neurotic pattern and one I wish I had analyzed away years ago.  Not surprisingly, the People Pleaser in me is most on duty when it comes to The Nieces.  Sure it’s the job of the aunt to do whatever it takes to put a smile on their faces, but it’s also the job of an adult to realize when jumping through hoops for a child is not only inappropriate but also unhelpful if the overarching goal of raising healthy children is to give them the tools to become self-sufficient adults.

My history of trying to please Niece Two dates back to the first time I baked her birthday cupcakes when she turned one.  She couldn’t have been less interested and essentially I decided then and there that it would be my job to lure her over to the sweet side no matter what.  But as in so many relationships, it’s been a sort of one step forward, two steps back.  Just when I think I’ve “won” (as in the cupcakes I made for her 4th birthday), she spits out something  else I’ve made and I’m right back where I started.  Rather than giving up I become more determined to unlock the key to her palate with a treat so perfect she never rejects me again.

I was sure I had her figured out when she recently announced how much she loves bananas.  After she was done doing a pitch-perfect imitation of a monkey (easy when you are flexible and weigh 30 pounds), I asked her what she thought would be the best thing we could make with them.  Part of me still feels terrible guilt over the allergic reaction she had when we baked banana nut muffins last summer and I thought if we made a sweet together I’d be able to cleanse myself of my rash inducing sin.  “Banana cupcakes?”  Nah.  “Banana bread?”  She shook her head.  “Banana pudding?”  “Yes!!!” she cried.  “That would be so yummy!”  I believed her and took to researching the perfect recipe.
At this point it is significant to note that personally, I don’t really love bananas, or monkeys for that matter.  It also bears repeating  that my goal when choosing a fruit is to have a juicy experience, not a creamy, mushy one that leaves me thirsty.  So you know love was making me blind (and selfless ) when I offered to create a dessert I have completely ignored every time I have been in Magnolia bakery over the last 15 years where the bowl of Nilla Wafer-ed pudding sits front and center in the refrigerated display case.  I should also add that the banana baked goods I have made, and enjoyed , in the past are often created because of a surplus of bananas in my mother’s kitchen that are about to be past their prime.  Rather than eating them, I bake with them.  But in this instance the recipe required me to actually purchase a bunch in order just to make the pudding.  Anything for love.  Or winning.  Or both. 

So last weekend when the rest of my family went to visit a friend’s baby pig, I set about cooking the vanilla pudding that was to form the base of Niece Two’s made-to-order dessert.  I have to say, making pudding is incredibly satisfying—as you stir and stir what had been milk, sugar, a vanilla bean and egg yolks miraculously turns thick, rich, and creamy.  Plus your kitchen smells like heaven.    By the time the pudding had cooled to lukewarm Niece Two had returned and after a hand washing order issued by her aunt, we started to assemble our creation.  Using all-natural and completely nut-free Mi-Del Vanilla Snaps instead of Nilla Wafers, and allowing her to cut the bananas (the knife was dull and harm-free), put a smile on my niece’s face. We both thought it looked amazing when we placed it in the fridge to chill overnight. 

I was fully confident in our efforts and when the time came to spoon out the pudding at lunch in the back yard the next day, I was completely prepared to sit back and bask in the glory of her swooning.  You know where this is going.  I don’t think an entire spoonful made it into her tiny (yet somehow capable of immense verbiage and volume) mouth before she dramatically let her head drop to the table and said into her place mat, “I hate it.”  I was crestfallen.  Not even the kudos from my Southern-born (and therefore banana pudding familiar) brother-in-law helped soften the blow.  Even when Niece One smiled a big pudding grin and chirped “this is SOOO good”, the dent to my wounded ego was not repaired.
And so I kicked into my people pleaser mode.  “You don’t like the pudding?  What do you want instead?” I offered.   “A blueberry popsicle,” she said firmly.  I ran inside and pulled one from the freezer.  Two licks later she gave me such a pained look and groaned, “it’s making my back hurt.”  “Alright, how about a cookie?  Grandma bought chocolate Oreos.”  “Okay,” she responded flatly.  I ran back into the kitchen again and brought her a plate of Newman’s version of America’s favorite cookies.  One bite later and it was “I don’t really want this. I want ice cream.”  And so for the third time I high-tailed it inside and returned with an individual cup of Haagen-Dazs vanilla with the built-in spoon.  At last, Goldilocks was satisfied.
And here’s the thing.  I realized that she was doing what I always do, except I have the ability to hunt, gather and prepare for myself.  My kitchen often looks like a mouse has been picnicking—Milanos are missing a bite or two, Carr’s Whole Wheat Crackers sit crumbled in their box, ginger snaps purchased to satisfy a long forgotten craving grow stale in a container. And that’s just the cabinet.  Open the freezer and you’ll find a container of Breyer’s Vanilla (into which I crumbled my last two Girl Scout Thin Mints) with the tracks of a mindlessly wandering tea-spoon as well as an open box of Junior Mints with only two “very refreshing” candies left shivering.In other words, I bite and reject as much as Niece Two does, searching for the right treat to hit my sweet spot until I find it. 

I wish I could say I could give up this neurotic pattern but I know I won’t.  As the aunt it’s not my job to say things like, “Fine.  If you don’t want your pudding you don’t have to have anything else!”  It’s my pleasure to keep trying in the hopes that one day I get it right on the first try.  But yes, I’ll keep the freezer stocked with individual ice cream cups—but I have to remember, she now wants strawberry.

People Pleaser Banana Pudding
from Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family, Art Smith 2001 

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3 cups milk
2 vanilla beans , split lengthwise
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter , cut up
12 ounces vanilla wafers
5 ripe bananas , peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar (optional--I thought the pudding was sweet enough without the extra sugar)

Bring the milk and vanilla beans to a simmer in a medium saucepan over low heat. Using tongs, remove the beans from the milk. Using the tip of a small sharp knife, scrape the tiny seeds from each bean back into the milk.

Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl. Add the egg yolks and whisk well.
Gradually whisk in about half of the hot milk, then pour the yolk mixture into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the pudding comes to a full boil. 
Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter until melted. Transfer to a medium bowl. Cover the pudding with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface and pierce a few holes in the wrap with the tip of a knife. Let stand until tepid, about 30 minutes.

Spoon about 1 cup of the pudding into a 2- to 2 1/2-quart glass bowl
. Layer the cookies, bananas and pudding in the bowl, ending with the pudding. 
 Cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.
Whip the cream (and optional confectioners' sugar) in a chilled medium bowl until stiff. Spread the whipped cream over the pudding. 
Serve chilled, spooned into bowls.
Yield: 8 servings


Losing My Temper Ballet Recital Chocolate Lollipops

Like a lot of first born children, I knew my parents had high hopes and big dreams for me. Wanting their little girl to have the opportunities to discover a passion or talent, they enrolled me in what seemed like an exhausting list of after-school classes; modern dance, ice skating, swimming, art appreciation, etc. There was no budding Dorothy Hamill waiting to be unearthed and certainly no Very Young Dancer. And yet, despite my mediocrity, I enjoyed skating and dancing and even swimming. I was a happy participant in all of my activities, until...The Recital.

I had started piano lessons with Miss Chen when I was in kindergarten. She’d come to our apartment and sit next to me on the piano bench in her A-line plaid wool skirt, her long ponytail wrapped in a pretty bow, teaching me how to form my hands over the keys, explaining the notes, and giving me practice homework each week. The most exciting part was that I got to fill in a “work book.” When you’re five, and don’t know the homework hell that awaits you in the years to come, anything expected of you that involves using a pencil and paper is very exciting. Or at least it was for me. All was good in kindergarten and at the end of the school year Miss Chen’s students gathered in her apartment to play what they’d learned for their parents. I don’t remember being nervous and I don’t think there were more than four other kids and their families sitting in her living room. Summer vacation came shortly after and I was on to the next fun chapter in a happy child’s life.

With the arrival of fall came the news that Miss Chen had returned to China and her cousin would be taking over her classes. My mother met with the cousin and I was told my lessons would be starting up again. From the first time my new teacher, whose name I have blocked to protect my soul, entered our house I was not happy. This lady was very serious and didn’t smile very much. She had a firm voice and high expectations. And ugly glasses. My practice homework was twice as much as the year before and the workbook didn’t have colorful cartoons next to the sheet music—it was black and white and no-nonsense, just like her. The between lesson practices that I used to do happily sitting next to my music reading father on the piano bench, became torture. The pieces were challenging and as I kept screwing up his patience began to wane, quickly. The piano thing had become fraught with pressure. And then came the news that the recital would not be held in anyone’s apartment. Rather, I’d be performing with the many other students in a church.

As we approached Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian I felt a pit in my stomach which only grew when we entered the church. It was huge! Every seat was filled. My heart was beating so quickly while various kids played (perfectly) before it was my turn to walk down the aisle where the grand piano stood in front of the pulpit. I curtsied as Cousin of Miss Chen had instructed, and sat down to play the first of my two pieces. All was fine. The audience applauded and then I brought my hands back to the keyboard to start on my second piece. And just like when Cindy Brady was a contestant on “Question the Kids,” I froze. Or maybe I had a stroke. I had absolutely no idea what the piece was that I was supposed to be playing. I stared straight ahead, unsure of what to do when Cousin of Miss Chen yelled from the upper deck, “A! A! Press A!” I pressed “A.” Nothing. No memory was triggered, no moment of redemption. Just silence. Well, not really silence. There were titters and muffled giggles from the audience and the sound of my heart thumping out of my chest. I curtsied again, walked back to my seat as quickly as possible, avoided my parents’ sympathetic gazes and stared straight ahead until the whole recital was over. I didn’t break down until we got in the cab to go home (you know it must have been a harrowing occasion if Dad flagged down a taxi for the short trip back to our apartment) when the tears flowed and my family did everything they could to comfort me. I closed my piano books forever in the first grade.
Based on this horrific experience the word “recital” still gives me the shakes. So when my sister announced the date for Niece One’s first ever ballet recital my quick to trigger projection kicked in immediately. I pummeled her with questions: where was the performance? How many kids were in it? Was Niece One nervous? Did she have the right costume? Where will we go for lunch? (That one was just for me—the nieces are on the Starch and Cheese Diet which is found on every menu.)

My sister did everything to reassure me, promising me that her daughter seemed fine and wasn’t even really focusing on it what with the newly hatched chicks in her first grade classroom and her loose bottom tooth. I tried to believe her but couldn’t help identifying with my saucer eyed tiny cutie. I burdened my 40 pound niece with an extra 100+ lbs of aunt anxiety. Luckily, I had enough self control not to share my feelings with her because even I am not that bad. Instead I used my nervous energy to take on a project from hell in order to give her a treat worthy of the recital occasion. I bought chocolate lollipop molds in the form of ballet slippers (cute, right?) and was determined to properly temper good chocolate in order to make them look as professional as the pops I used to buy at Li-Lac before my one-woman boycott.

What. A. Mess. I tried two different techniques (which you can read below if you care). The first resulted in uniformly dull chocolate slippers. The second achieved the desired sheen and snap but were striated with crystallized cocoa butter.
I never claimed to be a scientist (which frankly I think you need to be to temper at home easily and properly), I just like things to taste good. That they did, thank God. Really, how bad could melted and cooled Callebaut chocolate be, even if it’s dull or stripey?
None of this mattered at all to the little ballerina whose performance was a triumph. She remembered every step, glided across the stage like the graceful sprite that she is, and beamed with almost as much pride as I did. I have to remember she is her own person and not an extension of her nutty aunt. But lord help me—she just announced she wants to take piano lessons.
Losing My Temper Tempering

The instructions that left my slippers dull:

From about
If you are using high-quality chocolate that is already tempered, you might be able to use a shortcut and avoid going through the whole tempering process. By carefully melting the chocolate at low temperatures, it is possible to retain the temper. First, ensure that your chocolate is indeed tempered: carefully examine the surface, making sure that it is glossy, smooth, and without streaks or blemishes. Next, break the chocolate, making sure that it has a crisp “snap” when broken, and that the texture of the inside of the chocolate is uniform. If all of these conditions are met, you can attempt to melt the chocolate while keeping the temper.

To use this method, chop 1 pound of tempered, semisweet chocolate in coarse chunks. Microwave it at 50% power for 3 minutes, stopping every 30-45 seconds to stir the chocolate with a rubber spatula. Remove the chocolate when 2/3 of it has melted, and stir the chocolate until the remaining chunks are fully melted. If the chunks do not melt, warm the chocolate again very briefly.

Check the temperature with a chocolate or instant-read thermometer. If it is less than 90 degrees (88 degrees for milk or white chocolate), it is still in temper and ready to be used. Remember to do a spot test to make sure: spread a spoonful thinly over an area of waxed paper and allow it to cool. If it is tempered, the chocolate will harden within 5 minutes and look shiny and smooth. If it is dull or streaky, it has lost its temper, and you should temper the chocolate again.

The instructions that left my slippers shiny but striated:

From David Leibovitz
1) The first step is melting the chocolate in a clean, dry bowl set over simmering water, to about 115° F.

2) The second step it to let it cool to the low 80°s F. I drop a good-sized chunk of solid (and tempered) chocolate in, which provides insurance by ‘seeding’ the melted chocolate with good beta crystals. While cooling, stir frequently. Motion equals good crystallization, aka, tempering.

3) The last step is the most important.

It’s bringing the chocolate up to the perfect temperature, where it’s chock-full of those great beta crystals. This occurs in most dark chocolates between 88° and 91° F. (Check with manufacturer if unsure about your particular chocolate.)

4) Remove what’s left of the chunk of ‘seed’ chocolate, and your chocolate is dip-worthy: you can dip all the chocolates you want and all will be perfectly tempered. Don’t let it get above 91° F or you’ll have to begin the process all over again. If it drops below the temperatures, rewarm it gently to bring it back up.

Either way, if you have successfully tempered your chocolate, or you don't mind dull or striated chocolate pops, pour the melted chocolate in your lollipop mold, place a lollipop stick into the slot in the mold and leave the pops to set. When they are completely hard you will be able to easily pop them out.


Almost Mugged Oatmeal Raisin Squares

A couple of Sundays ago I was wandering around SoHo with my sister and Niece Two.  While looking for a place for a quick bite we found ourselves on the corner of Wooster and Prince and I realized that just one week before the block had been surrounded by news vans and police tape.  The investigation into the disappearance of Etan Patz had made headlines again when the police had information that brought them back to the street from which the then six-year old vanished 33 years ago.  I mentioned it to my sister and we both got the chills. 

A lot of people bemoan the loss of the gritty days of New York City in the 70’s.  They feel it seemed “real-er” before gentrification/mall-ification buffed the edges off of almost every neighborhood in Manhattan.  I hate high rises and mega Best Buy’s as much as the next person, but I don’t miss the fear that accompanied the grit, especially post-Etan.  It’s funny (strange, not hah-hah) that when the city was more dangerous parents were less restrictive.  I’ve talked about my teenage late-night bus rides home from dicey neighborhoods but even when I was younger I had freedoms that children don’t have today, when the city is safer than ever. At nine years old I took the cross-town bus home from school alone and at 10 I was babysitting for a child who was five.  Ok, it was during the daytime and yes, I was always a responsible kid, but still, I was ten! 

But the thing is, my childhood was essentially incident free.  Meanwhile when my brother was eight he was shoved off his first curly handled bike and watched the robber speed away into the park.  Then he got to ride around in the squad car looking for the perp.  And my friend Nick, who was walking those same Upper West Side streets during those same years, was mugged at least 5 times (although he used to inflate that number by two-fold just to make his badge of honor even puffier), once out-running the thug who threatened to steal the new size 7 Puma Clydes off his feet.  Those sneakers came in handy.  Believe me, it’s not that I wanted to get roughed up or have my allowance stolen, but I wouldn’t have minded just a little drama, a reason to run breathlessly into the house with a, “you’re not going to believe what happened!”

Actually I sort of did have one moment which, when I think about it now, makes me laugh.  There was a period when the petty crime du jour involved snatching the gold chain off of someone’s neck with a quick yank and a sprint.  One afternoon when I was around 14, I was sent to the Sloan’s supermarket two blocks from our apartment to pick up some groceries for my mother.  As I was paying I noticed a guy hanging out at the end of the check out area.  At first I thought he was a bagger but then he followed me outside.  As I headed north on Lexington Avenue he came along side of me and looked like he had something to say.  I should add that it was summer and it was also the late 70’s so the fact that I was wearing both a lavender polo shirt and a thin gold necklace made sense at the time.

“Hey you!” he said.  I walked a little faster, my arms wrapped tightly around the paper grocery bag.

“Hey you, Bitch!” he said in a loud whisper.   My heart started to beat quickly.  I kept walking and he was right next to me, as if we were friends taking a stroll in Carnegie Hill.  I knew the moment of truth was coming. This was it.  I was going to be mugged.

“Take off the chain.” He said through gritted teeth.  “Nice.  And.  Slow.”

I tried to hold the bag with one arm (he wasn’t the most effective mugger—why didn’t he just push my groceries to the ground, pull the chain and run?) and with the other pretended to be looking for the clasp.  As we walked and I fumbled around my neck the clerk at the news store stepped out to sweep the sidewalk in front of his shop.  I gave him a panicked, wide-eyed look and mouthed a silent, “HELP! HELP!” with a subtle tilt of the head towards my new “friend.”

the news store!
“Hey!  What’s going on here?!”  The nice clerk yelled. “You bothering her?!  Get lost!”

At which point my would-be attacker fled to the corner, made a quick right, and disappeared towards the scarier streets of Third Avenue leaving me, my groceries and my chain intact.  I almost kissed the clerk but instead bought a Milky Way to calm myself down.

By the time I got home I had the breathlessness down, and the sufficient, “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe…” etc etc.  Maybe because the crisis had been averted my tale didn’t garner much of a response.  It was my brother who seemed to care the most, wanting to know every detail, which I shared with as much embellishment as possible without going so far as to say the guy held a knife to my throat.  However there was one crucial piece of information I withheld until relatively recently.  The “guy” was actually a “kid.”  If I was 14 he was probably 12 and if I was 5’4” he was about 5’2.”  Even in my scrawny teenage state I probably could have taken him.  But then I wouldn’t have had the excitement of running up 93rd Street and bursting into our apartment armed with an amazing dramatic tale!  How pathetic is that?!

By telling this story I have probably jinxed my safety record but I had been thinking about it and that period of time a lot since finding myself on that SoHo corner.  During those darker years I used to watch soap operas at a nearby friend’s house whose mother often had treats from the Well-Bred Loaf, a bakery that introduced our neighborhood to amazingly rich and enormous blondies, brownies, cookies and oatmeal chewies.  I have never found their recipes anywhere, so as part of my time traveling I tried to recreate the oatmeal squares doing my own research and tweaking.  I baked three different formulas and none were as decadent, moist and chewy as theirs.  After offering a square from the first attempt to my mother in an impromptu taste test she said, “Tastes like health.”  (A negative review in her book.)  But I realized the situation was as it should be.  Revisiting the past, and 1970’s New York, isn’t really a good thing for a variety of reasons.  And even though my city is safer, I still think twice every time I fasten a necklace.
Almost Mugged Oatmeal Raisin Squares
adapted from Quaker Oats

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2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4  cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2  cup granulated sugar
2  eggs
1  teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2  cups all-purpose flour
1  teaspoon baking soda
1  teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2  teaspoon salt
2  cups old fashioned oats
1  cup raisins


Heat oven to 350°F
In large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed of electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. 
Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add oats and raisins; mix well.

Press dough onto bottom of ungreased 13 x9-inch baking pan.  Bake 25-30 minutes or until light golden brown. 

Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars. Store tightly covered


Pick One Quick Tea Cookies

I’m a firm believer in equality—meaning I think health, good fortune, opportunity and talent should be fairly distributed among everyone.  This thinking is kind of a problem when, as we all learn, life isn’t at all fair.  Of course there are the obvious, horrible examples of lives visited by too much tragedy—the segments on the local news that have you gasping with a combination of sympathy, and a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.  But I’m talking about the hogging of success.  Think about it.  Why is it fair for a performer to be a “triple threat?”  Isn’t it enough to be “only” a great singer?  Do you also need to be a wonderful actress and superb dancer?  Or think of Oprah who, after taking home the trophy umpteen times, took herself out of competing in the Daytime Emmys.  That was a classy move and one some other actors and hosts might want to contemplate.  The amassing of accolades becomes unseemly and a little unfair to so many others who are working just as hard.  Sure you could say “may the best woman win” but after you’ve been awarded for doing the same thing more than once isn’t it time to let another best woman win?
It’s just so annoying when the scales seem to be tipped so far away from so many who are deserving.  There should be enough hosannas to go around for everyone.  Like people who are really good at more than one career.  One of my favorite books of the last year, Rules of Civility, was written by the successful founder of a hedge fund who somehow found time to write a best-selling novel during his off-hours.  Are you kidding me?  If I hadn’t liked the book so much and if he hadn’t been wonderfully charming and self-deprecating when I heard him interviewed, I would hate him.  But you get my point.  I think the childhood instruction to “just take one” should apply to adults and success.  Pick your one thing and leave some opportunity for the rest of the world.

This psychic trip down injustice lane came to the forefront of my brain most recently when I heard that Elizabeth Gilbert, she of the insanely successful Eat Pray Love, had published a story-filled cookbook.  I’m sorry, it’s not enough that her book was on the bestseller list for years and Julia Roberts played her in the screen adaptation, but she also needs to be a great cook?!  Back off lady!  But still, I had to read it.
Well, it turns out I was kind of wrong.  She had unearthed a cookbook slash memoir written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter, (aka “Gima” to her family) a food writer for a Philadelphia newspaper in the 1940s who published it in 1947.  She’d found it only recently and, thinking that “Gima” had a before-her-time take on cooking and entertaining, Elizabeth decided to “present” it.  Yes, I take issue with the word “presenting.”  It sounds like she’s PT Barnum or something.  But from a publishing/business standpoint I can understand using her name in any way conceivable hoping her golden light will shine on whatever project she is affiliated with. 

While I was reading the book I kept thinking about Katharine Hepburn for some reason.  Maybe because of The Philadelphia Story?  But I had her face in my head the whole time while paging through the story about a dinner party gone haywire after the guest of honor showed up late, the electricity went out and the help got sick, only to be saved by a rousing game of craps played on the living room floor in the dark.  The book is totally charming and evokes the author’s life in a refreshing, honest and funny way.  It’s a breezy narrative peppered with recipes buried in the text.  In a sense, it assumes the reader knows her way around the kitchen, which is a fair assumption if you were a woman in the 1940’s I suppose.  Casual mentions of change in financial fortune don’t depress but just enhance the sense that Gima rolled with the punches while maintaining a really high level of cooking and hospitality.  Leftovers are used creatively, options for less expensive substitutes are offered, all while a certain kind of life is presented: snapshots of afternoons spent on “a cheap hired motorboat” with weekend guests, BLTs, pie and coffee; specific cocktails are included in menu planning (martinis with Indian food?  Of course!); every meal starts with an appetizer and ends with dessert—there is no skimping.  But what I found fascinating was how contemporary the message ultimately is.  Sure there are recipes I would never want to make, (calf’s tongue hash anyone?) but they are of a time.  And in fact, Gima’s forays into international cuisines seem advanced for the early days after World War II. 
Two of my favorite moments involve smoking and drinking.  While sharing the joy of bread making with her reader, Gima says, “Now relax.  Sit down, light a cigarette…” while we wait for the dough to rise.  After the appointed passage of time she says, “Is your cigarette finished?  Let’s go.  This is fun.”  I love that.  And although instructing anyone to smoke is a terrible idea, I appreciate her tone.  Same goes for her chapter on cocktails.  She acknowledges that although tending the household bar is usually a man’s job, “when the hostess lives alone and likes it…" "any halfway intelligent woman should be able to produce a drinkable cocktail...." I think that is incredibly modern thinking and obviously speaks to me personally.

But here's the catch. Although I really enjoyed reading At Home on the Range, the one recipe I tried was a disappointment.  You see, at the end of the book Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled some of the recipes from the narrative and “presented” them in today’s standard recipe format.  "Quick Tea Cookies" caught my eye since I am a tea drinker and they seemed easy and yielded only 8-10, no temptation hanging around the house.  But I needn't have worried about being tempted.  Okay, hot out of the oven and dipped in tea they weren't half bad.  But as my sister said in response to that statement after taking a bite an hour later and making a displeased face, "what isn't?"  So it looks like the fates were fair in this case--Ms. Gilbert's uber-skills are limited to one thing.  Or so I choose to believe.   But still, my cookies are better than hers and the next time I’m thinking of making some to go with my tea I’ll opt for my favorite Orange Sabl├ęs, sink into my favorite chair and read more about Gima. 
Pick One Quick Tea Cookies
from At Home on the Range, Elizabeth Gilbert, Margaret Yardley Potter 2012
1 Tablespoon brown sugar + extra for sprinkling
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, well-beaten
1/2 cup flour, sifted
1 pinch of salt
1 pinch ground cinnamon
2 pinches ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
8-10 walnut halves or almond slices (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Grease a medium cookie sheet and set aside.

Using a hand-held mixer or elbow grease and a spoon, cream the brown sugar and butter together until smooth. 

Add the egg, flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Beat well until smooth.  If using caraway seeds, stir them in now.

Drop by rounded teaspoon or use small, two-teaspoon ice cream scoop, sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of brown sugar.  If desired, place a half-walnut or sliced blanched almond on top of each cookie before baking.
Bake for 8 minutes.  Cookies will be pale, puffy and cake-like.


New Job Quinoa Pudding

One of the best ways to avoid things that make you uncomfortable is not to do them.  Like in that old joke about the patient who says, “Doctor, it hurts when I turn my head like this,” the doctor’s response corroborates my theory, “then don’t turn your head like that.”  I will do almost anything to avoid certain feelings, like the “new girl,” first day of school jitters and “Sunday Night Feeling.”  So how have I been handling these anxieties endemic to office work?  By not looking back when I left my last big-girl career, many, many years ago.

In all fairness to myself, I was beyond burnt out and had been working non-stop since I’d gotten out of college.  I’d turned into someone I didn’t much like, which wasn’t an opinion held only by me.  Just ask my father and brother who enjoy imitating the way I used to take their calls; not “Hello!” but rather, “What!”  Pleasant, no?  When my last gig crashed and burned around me I took it as a sign that it was time to move on, reinvent, rediscover and reconnect with myself.  And here’s the thing.  The adjustment to not working couldn’t have been easier.  I have friends whose lines of work involve hiatuses (hiatae?) and they don’t know what to do with themselves during breaks that come with the promise of going back to the job in just a few weeks.  To me, having a nice chunk of time to reclaim oneself without the anxiety of starting something new, but with the knowledge that you’ll be making a living again in familiar surroundings, would be ideal.

When I was working full-time I wondered what people who didn’t did all day.  Now I wonder how I ever got anything done when I was employed.  You see, like all good things, my stretch of working from home and convincing myself that really, I could live without a regular income and write all day while looking out the window as the leaves changed over the months, er, years, had to come to an end.  The tax man waits for no one to finish writing a book she isn’t writing.
So, back into the job market I went.  And when I was offered a job that seemed to fit my bill in that 1) it wouldn’t cause me to scream “What?!” anytime my phone rang and 2) it was in line with my interest in food and writing, I was thrilled.  Until I realized I would be confronting the above mentioned anxieties.  When you work for yourself from home the only jitters you have are the few times when the wool you’ve pulled over your eyes slips and you remember that unless you start to make some money you will be homeless and how did you let this much time go by without a job and what’s going to happen to you and you used to have a corner office and now you wear exercise clothes all day and the only people you see at the gym at 10AM are retirees.

Obviously, I wasn’t living a completely stress-free existence.  But I was quite well-skilled in the art of denial and managed not to let little things like not being financially rewarded for a job well done get in my way of pretending everything was all good.  And the fact is I was redirecting my life.  I didn’t set out to change things up but found myself wanting to do things I hadn’t tried. Thinking about it now, it never occurred to me that I was being brave, but maybe I was.  Reality television has debased the use of the word “journey,” taking it from meaning a voyage or trip to implying a personal growth spurt.  But I think that’s kind of what happened to me. 

If only old habits were easier to break.  Just as I had played it safe by staying in my last job for so long that I never had Sunday night feeling and was far from the “new girl,” I got very comfortable in my routinized, unemployed life.  Probably in an attempt to place order on my unacknowledged psychic chaos, I developed a schedule and planned out every day.  It worked very well in making me feel like I was busy and in fact, I was.  Writing, baking, keeping my household ducks in a row, trying to be a good daughter, sister, aunt and friend, I never had so much as a minute of boredom.  Unlike my friends who freak out when they are on hiatus, I didn’t think twice.  Until I had to.

Last Sunday, before the Monday on which my current state of life was going to change,  I was preparing to face the anxiety trifecta of Sunday night/new girl/first day of school jitters.  I kept myself busy with my nieces during the day, making sure to get home in the late afternoon because I knew I’d want something comforting—“nursery food” as my father calls it—as my cozy sweet that night.  So I decided to make a healthier riff on a rice pudding, using quinoa and skim milk.  The constant stirring put me in a zen state and the warm scent of cinnamon was totally soothing.  But here’s the crazy thing.  I didn’t need to be calmed down.  I was really okay.  I got a good night sleep, didn’t have a pit in my stomach, made it to work on time and maintained my sense of self all day.  And then I thought, maybe the last too many years really were about a journey that helped unfurl my knotted head and gave me more strength than I’d given myself credit for.  Now I have a ton of quinoa pudding without needing to be tranquilized.  But luckily you don’t have to be a neurotic mess to appreciate a delicious, creamy treat, brought to life with spice and dried fruit.  I’ll be eating it every night this week, except Sunday.  I won’t need it.

New Job Quinoa Pudding
Adapted from Body & Soul, 2008
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3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed
4 cups skim milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots 

In a large saucepan, bring quinoa and 3 cups milk to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 12 to 14 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, honey, eggs, cinnamon, and remaining cup of milk. 

Reduce heat to medium-low. Stirring constantly, slowly pour egg mixture into quinoa; add raisins and apricots.

Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 3 to 5 minutes. 

Pour pudding into a 2-quart dish and let cool slightly. Cover surface directly with plastic and refrigerate until cool, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.