Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You'll Thank Me For This Recipe

About a year ago, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, two of my sixth-grade son's friends showed up at my door holding what appeared to be a black velvet riding hat for an American Girl doll. “Hi, Peg,” said Johnny. “We were walking by your house and found this on your lawn. Is it yours?” Considering the fact it was obviously way too small for my head and there are no girls in my home who might own a horse-riding doll, I was a little perplexed by the question. I thanked them for their concern and even balanced the little hat on my head to show them why it wasn’t mine. I asked them how their first year in middle school was going and figured they’d be on their way. But Johnny and his pal stayed put, swaying from foot to foot and staring down at their feet as middle school boys tend to do.

They couldn’t have been looking for my older son—his bus wouldn’t get him home for another hour yet. They didn’t want my little one—I mean, he’s cute and entertaining, but he was 8. And then Johnny spoke up. “You know, I really liked those pumpkin muffins you had on the kitchen counter when I was over Saturday. Do you have any left?”

For a second there, I stepped out of my body and swore I was staring down at Mrs. C from Happy Days chatting with Potsie and Ralph Malf. I mean, the neighborhood boys are coming around to taste my wares? Could The Fonz be far behind? What’s even scarier is that, after telling Johnny that the muffins had long since been polished off, I immediately offered to bake another batch and have fresh muffins waiting for him if he came around at the same time the following day. “You see,” said Johnny. “I told you she’d do it.” They tromped off and eagerly returned for their muffins 24 hours later.

When I shared this little episode with DH, he nearly blew his lemonade out of his nose he was laughing so hard. He couldn’t believe what a sucker I was and how goofy I am that I actually seemed delighted by the whole caper. But I was. I know it’s totally stupid and anachronistic, and I don’t care. Just like I don’t care about the fact that the single most used garment in my wardrobe is a faded yellow apron. Do I care that it makes me look like a domesticated she-creature? Bah. I think I wear an apron just to put that issue out there. It says “Go ahead! Make your assumptions! Decide that the woman whom you are looking at likes to cook! And she cooks a lot!” Actually, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. And I think women are losing the battle if we avoid doing things like cooking simply because we are afraid we’ll turn into June Cleever. I’m as comfortable in my kitchen as I am at the computer. I’m no less proud of my culinary accomplishments than I am of what I’ve written during my career. I love the fact that after a near fruitless, shapeless, and open-ended day spent producing maybe two sentences, I can come down into my kitchen and create something wonderful simply by following directions. I treasure the fact that I can wake up early on Saturday mornings, whip up an apple cake, and rouse my family into the day with the fragrance of cinnamon and browned butter. I relish the idea that my two sons love to cook with me as much as they love to eat with me. And that—when my family is driving me insane or I am so bitchy I’m downright scary—the simple act of making a meal shows them I love them.

So, that's why I plan to share many of my favorite recipes with you in this blog. And I give you my word that these won't be random, risky formulations I'm throwing out at you just to fill a blog page. What you are getting are road-tested, just-can't-fail dishes and desserts that I've cooked up countless countless countless times in my kitchen and served to a staggering and varied array of hungry souls.

So, I know you must be curious about those muffins Johnny loved so much. They truly are unspeakably moist and delicious. My kids love them. Their teachers love them. My neighbors love them. Complete strangers love them. And, yes, I--who hate pumpkin pie and just about everything gourd-related--love them to pieces, too.

"I Love Autumn Pumpkin Muffins"
(I know I should have saved these for next Fall, but tuff)

1 ½ cups lightly packed light brown sugar
1 ½ cups white granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 15-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup raisins, optional (if hard, soak in warm water, drain and pat dry)
Turbinado Sugar as needed (sold as Sugar in the Raw, nice but optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour 2 muffin tins that hold 12 muffins each. (I use Pam for Baking, which does the job of buttering/flouring in a couple of squirts. I urge you to follow suit. I also use oversize muffin tins that hold six muffins each. There's something so wonderful about sticking your face into a huge fragrant pumpkin muffin.)

Beat sugars and oil in large bowl to blend. Mix in eggs and pumpkin. Whisk together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, and baking powder into another large bowl. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in raisins, if using.

Generously fill muffin tins almost to the top. Fill as many as the batter will allow. Sprinkle the tops of each with a little bit of Turbinado Sugar;. This coarse sugar (commonly sold as "Sugar in the Raw") gives these—and all muffins—a fantastic crunchy top. Not a must, though. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25-35 minutes (this isn’t exact, but start checking at about 25 minutes). Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Using a sharp knife, cut around the edge of the muffins. Turn onto racks and cool completely. Invite neighborhood boys over for a party.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Break During a Dark Winter

I don't think I'm alone in my feeling that this is one heavy winter we're slogging through. It's cold cold cold--at least up here in the Northeast--and the dreary economy is adding an extra chill. I know that in this house, my husband and I have been working overtime, making every penny we can before the oncoming train hits us. We've passed on making vacation plans and have been eating in a whole lot. I am absolutely positive we are among those who--by virtue of our fearful cutbacks--are only making the economic disaster worse. It's that self-fulfilling prophesy thing.

Anyway, DH had to take yet another trip out of town last week, which meant the boys and I would be alone over their February break. Usually, I'm okay with hanging out at home but I think I had just had enough. I needed to get out of the house and they had to get away from the Playstation. I started looking into airfares to any place warm, but it all ended up costing too much. I thought about taking them skiing, but I'd already done that solo with them once this season and macho I may be, but I'm not macho enough to tackle that endeavor twice in one year. Plus, I've been just plain pooped lately.

So, on a lark, I dialed up Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, just to see what a room might cost for a couple of nights. As I expected, it was pricey--a total of about $500 per adult per night. But when I started rolling the numbers around in my head, it began to sound sorta doable. Here was my thinking: That $500 was the charge for me, the adult. The kids (both under 13) were free--as part of a package the resort tends to offer when it's not high season. The charge included everything--all meals (including afternoon tea, a fancy pants dinner each night, dinner the night of our arrival, and breakfast and lunch on the day of our departure), all activities (and equipment) including skating, cross country skiing, hiking, swimming in the gorgeous indoor pool, and full run of the sprawling resort. That price also took into account all tips and taxes the hotel automatically adds to your bill.

Now, if DH had been around, this little jaunt would have been a thousand dollars a night, since we'd have to pay another $500 for an additional adult. But because I was alone with the boys, $1,000 for a full, three-day vacation all-in seemed very fair. I signed on and was psyched.

We took off in the morning on Monday and spent the early part of the day at Hyde Park touring FDR's family estate (perfect for President's Day, huh?). We arrived at the resort just in time for tea, which we snarfed down before heading up to our room. And what a beauty it was: Fully renovated with a working fireplace, deep carpet, a full bed and day bed, and a balcony overlooking Mohonk's mountaintop lake and famed stone tower. This was a HUGE improvement over the last time I had stayed at Mohonk about 9 years ago, when their upgrading endeavors had begun but the still-extant kinks didn't merit their already high room rates. Those old scratchy sheets and blankets have finally been replaced. The doors to the terraces no longer leak cold air. The good news only got better: We headed to the new indoor pool, located in the new spa wing, and found ourselves in a spectacular vaulted structure that spared us that icky, soggy, chloriny feeling you usually get when swimming indoors. We came back to the room and dressed for dinner, which turned out to be not just acceptable resort food. It was truly excellent--I had a 2-inch -thick piece of snapper in a horseradish crust that can rival just about any fish entree I've had anywhere lately. After dinner, we played a little Ping-Pong, stopped in at the evening Victorian Lantern show (just okay, don't even ask me to describe) and headed for bed. The next day was equally lovely--highlighted by hours upon hours in the new outdoor skating pavillion. Long a skating hater, I have found a new love. I just wonder if skating indoors at our local hockey arena will have the same magic. I was able to squeeze in a brisk walk while the boys hung out and explored the resort and its countless game and sitting rooms. Because check out time the next day was at 2 PM, we truly felt like we had another nearly full day at the resort before we left on Wednesday, fully rested, fully fed, and very very happy.

My final thoughts? Mohonk has really found its way. I grew up visiting New Paltz and peering around the grounds of the hotel, which always looked a little worn at the heels and stodgy. I can say now that, though the price tag is high, this resort finally delivers on all its promise. It has one of the most spectacular locations anywhere, on a mountaintop in the Shawangunk Mountains, surrounded by acres of trail-laced nature reserve. It is unbelieveably close to home (1 hour, 15 minutes from our NYC surburb) yet feels like true mountain country. It has tons to offer, day and night, cold weather and warm, rainy or sunny. The service was terrific. The food was very good and bountiful. I'd say it's a particular value for a single parent who wants to get away with his or her young kids--since, if the resort is offering the package I got, you're only really paying for yourself. But any time of year, for anyone who has a little cash to spare, Mohonk is a treasure and a true value that's not be missed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

It all starts here....

I guess the appropriate--if cliched--phrase I should use to kick off this blog is "better late than never." If I look way way back, long before the web changed our world, I can see that I was already blogging. I did so through letters....long funny obtuse letters, short strange ones, flirtations, suggestions, you name it. And I remember explaining to someone, somewhere that I loved letters because they were spontaneous and were unencumbered by high expectations. I didn't need to present an argument or clean organization or even a cogent thought. Whatever I decided to slam down at any given was acceptable to throw it in an envelope and call it "mail."

I've been watching the blogosphere from the sidelines for a handful of years now. Each time I pull up a post, I see that same unfettered writing inherent in my old letter writing. I scan the stories, laugh a little, write down some recipes on occasion. And then I get a little uneasy. A little pissed off. Because there's that voice saying, "I should have done this. I could have done this." And then, of course, that clincher rises up through my gut, "it's too late."

Well, maybe it's not. For years, I've been writing a cookbook and sharing it via the internet with a web of friends, family, and acquaintances. For years I've been reporting for countless women's magazines about health, fitness, food, nutrion, travel, and god knows what else. And for years, I've been aching to share what I've learned about relishing all of these aspects of life with friends, family, and just about anyone who will listen.

Well, I'm making this blog on this ordinary February day my official mouthpiece. And I welcome anyone to read along and relish life with me. Enjoy.