In which I find out what all the fuss is about

My birthday present this year was a real treat, as it turns out.

I am, as anyone who has spent any time here at all will have probably gleaned, an avid cook. And for many years I have done all of my braising and stewing and so on in a big blue Dutch oven – a sturdy Lodge, because that was in the Overton window of affordability for my twenty-something self.

And it’s been great. No complaints; I can heartily recommend it to anyone looking to experiment with cooking in a cast-iron piece like this. I’ve made all manner of stews and braises and pasta sauces in it; deep-fried things and baked artisan bread and tried out various culinary firsts like bourguignon and so on.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t still quite excited to try out the replacement for it that I got as a birthday gift this year – the Cadillac of Dutch ovens, a Le Creuset. It’s a tiny bit bigger than my Lodge, but lighter, strangely enough – the walls of it are surprisingly thin, making it quite easy to lift and use. And it is gorgeous. (I shall have to work to keep that finish as pretty as possible as long as I can.)

It’s also still blue. I debated going for the red or the orange, because those are both ALSO lovely. Perhaps if I splurge on one of those enamel-interior skillets one of these days.

Anyway, I’ve now at last got round to inaugurating it – with this recipe for braised Chinese-style short ribs with Soy, Orange, and five-spice powder.

I went ahead and shredded the beef for easy serving and packing-up.

The result is delicious – and, since it’s actually the second time I’ve made this, I got the salt balance right. (If you, like me, only have regular soy sauce around and not low-sodium, this is still quite doable – you just have to go very easy on salting the short ribs and whatever you’ll be serving the meat on top of; in this case, mashed potatoes.)

I feel a bit boring for not having something more interesting to say, but it was pretty fun to make!

Reason # who-knows-what why it is nice to be a regular

That up there is a special sushi tray put together by our local sushi place. In this our era of not being able to dine out anywhere ever, it made a nice birthday dinner, and I find it rather heartwarming that when my husband went to ask them if they did anything for special occasions they basically said they’d whip something up. Sometimes it is nice to be a regular.

(I think my favorite thing was the row of rolls at left, just below the edamame; that’s a lobster-and-crab concoction that was lightly broiled on top and just a bit spicy. It was also delicious.)

At left, my birthday-cake substitute, also from a local place:

Clockwise from top left: Vanilla with sprinkles, chocolate raspberry, lemon meringue, and chocolate hazelnut.

The bakery has a very cute interior, with little tables with cozy seating, and once again I heartily wished I could order a coffee and sit and look out the window for a while. Sigh. Maybe later.

The day itself was pleasant enough: I spent a chunk of it puttering around taking care of business the way one always seems to on the first day of a vacation, before settling in for an evening hangout in an online game I’ll be talking about a bit tomorrow. Got the usual round of text messages (from younger friends and relations) and phone calls (from older friends and relations); got a walk in; took a little time to meditate.

Overall, it was a pretty good day.

My anxiety did show up in the middle of the night to torment me a bit about this and that – some upcoming paperwork, that creeping 5 a.m. feeling of existential meaninglessness, unease about some of the relationships in my world and whether they are okay – but at least it had the decency to leave me alone on the big day itself.

Today, feeling a bit tired from all that, with a nagging sense of longing that doesn’t seem to want to settle. Doing my best to let it go and re-center; I have a loaf of bread to make, and tonight there will be a mildly ridiculous kitchen experiment wherein I saw a recipe for salisbury steak and thought “you know, I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten one of those” followed by “wouldn’t it be hilarious if I reproduced one of those old-school TV dinners with, like, the mashed potatoes and peas and so on?”

And then of course I had to do that. So that will be tonight.

But first, another coffee.

Delightful thing of the day, via Boing Boing: Marginalia, a search engine that focuses on teeny-tiny sites. Its “random” page is quietly charming/addictive, a little peek into the weird corners of the internet where webrings are a thing and people are still creating shrines to their favorite ships.

Resisting the urge to title this with a baking pun

So this last week it was a friend’s birthday.

I like celebrating friends’ birthdays, even if it is by doing something little, and happily they were coming round to visit anyway (they’ve been in our pandemic bubble since forever, I think). So I quietly began scheming to try and make a little treat for after dinner that they might enjoy.

No chocolate this time around; noted. Nothing bitter. Fruit flavors, creamy things, boozy flavors: all good.

Somehow from there I hit on the idea: Let’s make cream puffs. I haven’t got a proper piping bag so we’ll need to build them using the “sandwich” method anyway; we can tuck some berries into them along with the filling. (For the curious, I’ll link the recipes I used at the end of this post.)

Once, a few years back, I took a class at a Toronto spot (now sadly closed, at least for a while) on making choux pastry. It’s not something one needs very often, but it’s an interesting thing to have tried at least once, because unlike most other doughs I’ve worked with you cook it before you bake it: heat your wet ingredients (minus any eggs involved of course), then dump in the flour and stir until your dough comes together, leaves a thin film on the pan, and/or (for the food scientists among us) comes to about 175 degrees F.

This part is a bit like making a roux, except of course we’re absolutely not trying to toast the flour – so one does need to stir fairly energetically.

Let it cool down a bit (so as not to cook the eggs prematurely), add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next…and that’s it; you’re ready to fill up a piping bag (or a Ziploc-style bag with a corner snipped, in my case) with the resulting dough and go to town. This is pretty similar to the technique I used for the cheese puffs I made for New Years (though obviously in this case I’m not adding cheese to my dough before baking.)

Pipe your dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, and then bake for about 20 minutes or so. The dough won’t seem to do very much for quite a long time, but don’t panic; so far the steam has always eventually kicked in and fluffed up nicely. If the puffs seem hollow and have crisped on the outside, great; pop them back into the turned-off oven, leaving the door open a crack, and let them sit there for about half an hour before removing to cool.

Here we see that my piping technique still needs work. I’ll get it eventually, I’m sure.

Meanwhile (or in my case, the night before), make some pastry cream for the filling. In my case this was classic vanilla, from a scraped and steeped vanilla bean; on the evening of the visit I whipped some cream and folded it gently into the pastry cream base to make creme legere for a lighter, fluffier interior.

Once the puffs are cool, just slice and pipe in your filling. (A warning to anyone trying this with creme legere: the lightened pastry cream IS lovely and smooth and delicious and will also spill right out of that piping bag the moment you snip it and turn it upright. Fill cautiously; the tiniest bit of pressure goes a long way.)

In our case, we then topped the filling with a few mixed berries for a pop of flavor…et voila:

A light sprinkle of powdered sugar helps them feel more “fully dressed.”

I think these went over pretty well – not too sweet, despite the looks (I think the lightened version of the pastry cream really helped here.) They disappeared with a quickness as well, which is always nice.

Anyone wishing to give this a try at home, here are those recipe links:

At least call the recipe what it is.

Shameful confession of the day: I know a number of people who are very into Final Fantasy XIV. No, that’s not the shameful confession; I haven’t tried the game yet (but might someday), but those who love it love it a lot and let no man cast shade upon them for so doing.

Apparently, there was recently a cookbook published featuring a bunch of various in-game foods. Neat idea, right? Sure. No problem with that either.

However, I overheard some discussion of a recipe for almond-cream croissants. I was quietly a bit impressed; croissants can be a Worthy Challenger for many home bakers, and I haven’t tried them yet myself. I wondered if the recipe might be interesting to take a stab at.

And then someone actually posted it, and the first ingredient was “6 croissants.”


As someone who is sitting here planning to spend part of her evening making pastry cream in preparation for a later project involving choux: really?

So, yeah. The shameful thing is I am being a food snob about something from a cookbook based on a video game, what is wrong with me?

…I don’t know. There are plenty of shortcuts in cooking, and I do not usually judge people for taking them. But this is not a recipe for croissants, it’s a recipe for croissant filling. And the notion of someone putting in that labor and looking for uncommon ingredients like birch syrup only to sandwich it into one of those industrial grocery-store croissants is…just depressing really. A quality croissant from the bakery/patisserie down on the corner or something, sure, that’s probably going to be decent, but there are plenty of places I have lived where one of those “well, it’s not UNcroissantlike” options would be all there was.

Shouldn’t the authors at least have provided the instructions to make your own if you wanted to? Then the crazy folk like me who might actually want to give such a thing a shot could do it, and the people who look at that kind of thing and go “I cannot even, no thank you” could go in search of an acceptable-to-them alternative.

An offense to aesthetics and to the ambition of the audience, then, I suppose; perhaps that’s why it seems extra-irritating. I mean. Why assume the people who are interested in buying a cookbook in the first place wouldn’t want to at least consider making the thing?

The cookbook as teacher

Today’s episode of 99% Invisible is a worthy listen; it features a cookbook, and its role in Soviet cuisine: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.

And it’s fascinating.

I’ve always thought of changes in cuisine as more of evolutions, something that happens slowly – spices going in and out of vogue, the gradual adoption of foods that were once new and freaky into something essential. At some point, there were no tomatoes in Italy; now it’s impossible to imagine Italian food without them.

This is the story of a different kind of food change; an engineered one, in which Josef Stalin sought to bring the Soviet Union together under a new and different cuisine…and sent an aggressive micromanager over to America to learn the ways of mass production. He came back with lots of ideas – and an accompanying problem: How do you teach people to eat all this new food?

Well, you make them a cookbook, for a start. And the resulting volume is apparently something of a nostalgic staple…though of course the reality of Soviet life may not have resembled what was in all those fancy food pictures all that closely.

If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting, go and give the episode a listen. If you’re craving more afterward, check out this article from the Guardian for some pictures, as well as a history of the book across various editions.

…Maybe it’s the photos, but I’m thinking about those cookbooks from the 70s with their Jello desserts and their Ambrosia salads and whatnot. Perhaps people have been teaching folks how to eat various foods by using cookbooks everywhere, longer than I think.

The Moosewood Cookbook for vegetarian food? How To Cook Everything, for…well, for people like me who grew up on tinned food and boxed macaroni and cheese and odd concoctions of burger patties and tomato soup and processed cheese food and then had to be re-taught how to eat whole ingredients?

…because that’s what I was learning when I started experimenting with it. How to walk into a grocery store and choose decent produce, what to do with that produce when I got it home. How to use butter instead of margarine.

I often think of cookbooks as inspirational, but they are just as often didactic, as well. They show us ways of eating, and we absorb them because it’s Wednesday and we have to cook something.

I am still learning, of course. Only last year did I finally crack what my problem with stainless-steel skillets was, and now I can cook things in them without welding them to the pan.

I watch a lot of food folks on YouTube. Some of them make fascinating historical goodies I don’t really see myself trying as a rule but that are awesome to watch. Some of them make gorgeous things it’s probably safest for me to admire from afar, lest I gain about 300 pounds and one or more health conditions. Some of them are engineering types, ruthlessly fine-tuning their own food science.

I wonder what ways of eating we in their audiences are absorbing from them.