Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Simpler times

Did your mom ever make this for you? Mine did. It's an icebox cake made with Nabisco chocolate wafers and whipped cream. The recipe's on the box. My electric can opener-loving mother would make real whipped cream (a miracle, really) with her hand-held mixer, and add just a little sugar and vanilla. Then she'd let the whole thing sit in the fridge for a good few hours so the crunchy wafers would soften into cake. In those few hours, a mysterious alchemy would transform two disparate elements - thin crunchy cookies and billowy whipped cream - into a cold, dense torte, the edgy cocoa cutting the unctuousness of the cream. It was a marvel, especially when made by someone with a deft hand and an innate sense of proportion. My mother had both with this cake. 

The flavor is somewhat bland, as many desserts of the 20th century were. There's no salted caramel or puckery yuzu or bitter cocoa nibs. Just one note chocolatey wafers and a blanket of cool dairy cream. It's probably the single most comforting dessert I can think of. I'm going to make it for my kids soon, knowing that its simplicity might be lost on them as they measure it against the exotically flavored cupcakes to which they've become accustomed. Then again, they might fall in love with it. Like I did. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

A lifetime of steamed broccoli

Sometimes I think my palate has died a thousand deaths. Having kids can do that to you. You realize after 10 or 11 years that your well-intentioned plan of offering up only food that you, yourself, would eat has failed. You have six different kinds of chicken nuggets in your freezer and you rationalize that at least you buy them at Whole Foods and they are all white meat - really, they are. When that's a win for you, you know your soul has been siphoned out of you with a bendy straw.

I had high hopes for my daughter when her first solid food was wild mushroom risotto and brussels sprouts. She ate it. All of it. At that point I thought I had won. This child, unlike my first who only ate things with a crunchy brown coating, would embrace culinary adventure. Or at least sauces that extended beyond ketchup. Today, 10 years later, she won't even eat ketchup.

To be fair, they each have their own culinary thrill rides. They both eat octopus, even knowing what it is. My daughter especially likes the baby ones with all the tentacles. They like sushi. My son prefers pasta with green sauce to pasta with red. My daughter has just started eating red meat. Woo!

These are little victories for me, but still, I know I have caved. And it cuts even deeper when I find myself excited by food again, or a cookbook, like the Ottolenghi series by Yotam Ottolenghi. He's an Israeli Londoner who, along with his Palestinian partner, owns several high-priced food shops and who has electrified dishes of the middle east with a modern take. But I know if I make chickpeas with caraway seeds, chard and Greek yogurt, I will immediately be asked, "But what am I having for dinner?"

Remember when you would never ask that question? In the dark ages, one dinner was made, and you were expected to eat it. If you didn't like something, eat around it. Eat the bread. Scrape off the sauce. Figure it out. We were tougher then, with fewer choices if any, and there were no chicken nuggets in the freezer.

Last summer, when we were in London, we took our kids to Ottolenghi. It was exquisitely beautiful, but like a minefield for my kids, filled with the scary and the unknown. Beef filet (at like $25 a pound) worked, as did the bread and desserts. But the things that make Ottolenghi Ottolenghi - the abundant salads that sparkle with mint and cilantro, cumin, sumac, and oddly shaped vegetables (three of which are pictured above) - went untouched. Even the potato salads got the cold shoulder - too many weird bits. So I steamed some broccoli for them in our rented apartment kitchen. Because that's what I always do.