Trail markers (part two)

grandma-isabelle-sam-grandpabernieFrom what everyone tells me, my Grandpa Bernie’s slides have always been in their square white boxes. The boxes are nondescript, the kind you probably picture when you think of slide boxes, if you think of slide boxes at all. They are the ones that stack easily into garage corners and attics, that protect their contents from dust while becoming thick with it themselves. If these boxes are notable, it is only for their sheer number: my grandpa had thousands upon thousands upon thousands of slides. Some of them show old old images of relatives, from the days when he himself would have been just a boy. Some show my dad and my aunts and my uncle as kids. Some show surgeries he performed, or an ongoing stream of family trips, family houses, family dogs.

bernie 1943

My favorite ones show a glimpse of my grandparents’ love story.  Continue reading

That which I cannot do


(Dahlias from my garden. And peas too. A beautiful morning!)

There is something deeply fulfilling and peaceful for me in cooking.  Not always (certainly not, for example, at those moments when my kids are screeching like wild banshees as they race circles around me). But often enough. When I am really able to immerse myself and focus on what I am doing in the kitchen, time flies by and I emerge with a clear head and a happy heart.

Back in my former life, I had a job that I really enjoyed – a job where I got to meet and work with amazing people, attend lavishly catered parties in spectacular locales, and independently manage big creative projects. I had a great boss and believed in our agency’s mission. It was a dream job, really, or at least it was for me.

But from the moment I first saw Jacob’s face I knew I wasn’t going back. Admittedly, after the three days of labor and no medication that led up to his 3 am arrival on a cool and clear fall morning,  I was more than a little delirious. Actually, I remained slightly delirious for months afterwards. But through all that delirium I never once felt pulled back to my job. Every instant with Jacob felt important, precious, revelatory. I was engaged in a whole new way with the work that was before me.

In a sense, I had found my calling.

Which is not, by the way, the same as saying that I know what I am doing. Not by a long shot. Continue reading


(Did anyone else have crazy birds up all night on Cinco de Mayo with that huge full moon? I woke at three am and thought it must be morning – light streaming through the windows and birds going wild with chirping, screeching, chittering and chattering … almost makes you wonder if they broke into the tequila!)

The question of why we in California, and really nation-wide, make such a big deal about Cinco de Mayo is a good one. Here is one response worth reading. Here is another:

J: “Daddy, why are we celebrating Cinco de Mayo?”

K: “Because if the Mexicans hadn’t defeated the French, we would have to eat crepes all the time instead of burritos.”  Continue reading

Really real

Our simplest and most joyful kitchen adventure this week took a few dollars worth of cream and about five minutes of our time. It resulted in the most delicious butter we have ever eaten – and the most talked about mixing experiment we have ever undertaken.

I don’t know what it is about fresh butter, but I’m not the only one to sense the magic, and I can guarantee you making it will blow your three year old’s mind.

In five minutes, you’ll have something gorgeous, and inspiring, and delicious, and useful … and all you need is cream and a mixer, meaning it’s even simpler than the magical ricotta we made earlier this week. No heating, no measuring, no worrying that the curds won’t form and the whole thing will be a waste. All we had to do was put the cream in the mixer, and watch (and taste) while we passed through whipped cream, overwhipped cream, and then – broken cream! Boom! We had butter – and buttermilk!

But for Jacob, the best was yet to come: the rinsing, and squeezing, and squishing of the butter. I am pretty sure we had the most-pressed butter ever to come out of a Kitchen Aid Artisan. Not a drop of buttermilk could have possibly remained when he was done.

Jacob’s grin was relentless, and so was his commentary. “Mommy! It’s BUTTER! Really real butter that we made – it’s BUTTER!” Well, yes. Yes. It makes sense that this exclamation about really real butter would need repeating approximately nine hundred times before bed. It was pretty cool.

It costs more to make your own butter than it does to buy it. Any Farmer’s Market regular can tell you that there is an argument to be made about freshly made butter’s delicate golden color, and about the way the flavor of cream comes through. But the better argument for making your own butter is about the return you get in pure happiness for your sous chef. We will definitely be making more butter soon – if you doubt me, just look at the really real delight on Jacob’s face.

Really Real Homemade Butter
We followed Alana’s butter recipe, omitting the salt. Butter making is so easy that I have actually done it accidentally (though at the time it was sort of a tragedy and I called it ruined whipped cream instead of butter). Put heavy cream in your mixer and whip it (use the paddle, not the whisk) until it is whipped cream. Then keep whipping. After a minute or two it will ‘break’ (see photos) and you will have butter, and buttermilk. Drain off the buttermilk and save for baking. Then wet your hands with cold water, rinse the butter, and squeeze and squish it so any remaining liquid comes out.

It will keep in the fridge for at least a week, but with some warm muffins or a loaf of crusty bread on hand, it probably won’t last more than a day or two!

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Yep, that’s homemade ricotta, swirled with a touch of honey, sprinkled with a smidge of sea salt, and smeared on ciabatta … The deliciousness is only one of several things that blow my mind about this ricotta a little bit. Other things include the facts that the cheese was made in my kitchen, by my three year old and me. And that we did it with a thermometer ‘situation’ to boot.

Let me back up. For over two years now, I have been eyeing Alana Chernila’s small-curd ricotta posting, and wondering … But somehow, making cheese in my own kitchen, no matter how easy the recipe appeared, seemed terribly unlikely. Dan and Kate know the woman who is the head cheesemaker for Cow Girl Creamery (yes! I know! total rock star connection!) and every time any one mentions this fact, cheesemaker is said in a special voice, with a sort of reverence … But I imagined that in my own kitchen, if there were ever any whispers of cheesemaker, instead of reverence we would hear only echoes of Monty Python.

Then, in the mail this week, I received something I have been waiting for with baited breath. Alana’s first book, The Homemade Pantry, makes me want to sing. It is beautifully produced – the paper, type faces, images and stories come together in lush harmony, and actually make you hungry. But of course, what really makes it a wonderful cookbook are the recipes. Followers of Alana’s blog are familiar with many of them, and with her terrific ability to take seemingly out-of-reach pantry staples and make them totally kitchen-able, not to mention packaging-free and relatively healthy. The treats are the most impressive, somehow. Pop-tarts? Check. Twinkies? Check. OREOS? Really? Amazing.

Having the book in my hands, the tangible weight of it, the printed words on the page, made this long-admired recipe seem more accessible somehow (milk, lemon juice, cheesecloth, that’s it … yes, really, that’s it!). So, we went for it. Kyle loves ricotta so much that I was fairly confident he would eat whatever mess we came up with. We are also staring down a week of lousy weather again, and needed some new activities. If the cheese making failed (and I admit, I was pretty much thinking it might) I could pass it off as kitchen science – milk measuring, thermometer reading, curd separating! At least we were filling a few minutes of our long afternoon with something worth while.

After what Alana would call a tense moment with the curd-making, we regrouped, re-acided, and were triumphant. Some milk, some lemon juice, a MacGeyvered thermometer, and a little kitchen magic – and we had done it. Just like that, Jacob and I became cheesemakers. *

* “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” :)

Homemade Ricotta Cheese
We adapted from the recipe and technique used in The Homemade Pantry, with just a couple changes; we used a combo of lemon juice and a little bit of white vinegar. We also didn’t want to make one and a half cups of cheese (remember, I didn’t actually think it was going to work) – so we started with only a partially full half gallon of milk instead of a whole half gallon, and adjusted our acid accordingly. Finally, we had a thermometer ‘issue’ – with no cheese thermometer on hand, we used a strange thermometer that we found in the drawer that had a meat spike. While it had the temperature range that we needed, there was no obvious way to attach it to the pot. Garden twine eventually did the trick quite nicely (see photo above). 

1 quart plus one cup whole milk (NOT ULTRA PASTEURIZED) (original recipe calls for one half gallon whole milk plus a half cup cream if you’d like)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (original recipe calls for 1/3 cup)
(1 teaspoon white vinegar if needed)
Optional: salt, to taste

Ice a large heavy bottomed pot by letting an ice cube melt in it, swirling the ice all around and then leaving the thin layer of ice water that forms. Pour in your milk and add the lemon juice and vinegar. (I actually added the vinegar later, when my milk didn’t curd, but when we do this again I will add it when I add the lemon juice – make the whole thing less stressful). Stir gently a couple times. Attach a thermometer (that has a range including 175 F and 205 F) so that it is submerged in the milk but not touching the pan bottom. Heat over low heat until the milk reaches a temperature of 175 F, stirring gently once or twice (Alana says this should take 40 to 50 minutes, but it took us not quite 30 on our very lowest setting, probably because of the reduced milk volume). Raise heat to medium high, and watch carefully while the milk comes to 205 F – almost, but not quite boiling. This will only take a minute or two. Take it off the heat.

[At this point, I didn’t have as many curds as I wanted so I added a teaspoon of vinegar – instant curds. Vinegar supposedly makes a tougher curd than lemon juice, but our cheese was soft and creamy and delicious – per Alana’s original blog post, using this slow-heating method protects you somewhat from tough curds]. [UPDATE: having now made this recipe multiple times, the original recipe’s proportions work perfectly. My initial mistake, I think, was in using lemons from my yard for the juice – that is, Meyer lemons, which are prized for their lower acidity ;). But if you do have a curding issue as I did originally – a dash of white vinegar seems to be the go-to trick people recommend.]

Let the pot sit for ten minutes, then strain through a double layer of dampened cheesecloth set into a colander over a pan to catch the whey if you want to save it (purportedly good for baking – I’ll let you know later this week!) or over your sink if you don’t.

We made impromptu egg noodles tossed with fresh ricotta and caramelized onions for dinner, alongside roasted asparagus and poached fish in an herb cream sauce. A meal to remember (see below). But the best by far was the ricotta, mixed with a drizzle of honey and a dash of salt – Kyle and Lucas and I ate it smeared on bread as in the opening photo, but Jacob just went for it, spoon to mouth. Blessed be that little cheesemaker. And thank you, Alana, for creating such a beautiful book.