When I went to the library recently, the brightly colored cover of Allie Rowbottom’s Jell-O Girls caught my eye. I took it down to flip through it, and the blurbs proclaiming it as “an artfully crafted feminist excavation of an American legacy” and “an important and honest feminist history for right now” sealed the deal.
The book is part family memoir and part nonfiction. In turns, it focuses on Allie’s family history and the so-called “curse” that plagued their men — the family’s fortune earned when her great-great-great-uncle bought the patent for Jell-O for just $450 in 1899 — as well as Jell-O’s history through a feminist lense.
It’s wonderful to have someone so enthusiastically recommend a book to you one day and then, because they know you’ll love it, present it the next day for you to borrow. I am forever recommending books to others, and often pushing my own copy on them unbidden at the next opportunity, but it’s rare that I have someone do the same to me. I am forever grateful to my new coworker, who upon learning about my loves of reading and cooking (and subsequently my blog), shared one of her favorite books with me during her first week on the job.
Aside from recipes – admittedly, the cover looked delicious – I had no real expectations when sitting down with Shauna Niequist’s popular food memoir, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes. As the title suggests, Niequist’s essays are overflowing with rich descriptions of food and the community it can help create. The memoir touches on not only her family and friends, with whom she loves to share meals, but also on her relationship with God and how that nourishes her in other ways.
In a memoir peppered with meaningful recipes, it can be challenging to choose the one that most represents it. While so many of them sounded appetizing, I went with the one Niequist had me wondering about from one of the very first chapters. She mentioned bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with goat cheese, at least twice (and maybe more) before she finally revealed the recipe on page 171. The book is only 288 pages, so I was starting to get nervous it would never appear…when suddenly, there it was!
Niequist herself says in her introduction to the recipe that this appetizer is not the most practical thing to choose, if you’re only going to make one recipe from her book. Thankfully, since my heart was already set on them, she goes on to say that “practicality has never been my strong suit, so I think you should make these.” With her blessing, I did.
She describes them as a “go-to, serve-at-every-gathering, take-to-every-party treat” that people adore, so I decided to share them at Thanksgiving dinner this week. With only 3 ingredients and a strong suggestion to serve at room temperature, they were the perfect no-fuss thing to bring to my in-laws’.
On Thanksgiving morning, I gathered my ingredients – pitted dates, goat cheese, and bacon.
I started by slicing the bacon in half and then slicing the dates open to make little “date books” (pun intended).
I stuffed each date with a proportionate spoonful (using the teaspoon from our flatware set). I recommend using the date itself to help scrape the cheese off the spoon as you close it up.
Finally, I wrapped each date with a half-slice of bacon and placed each one seam down on a foil-lined baking sheet (with sides).
I placed the pan in a 400-degree oven and let them bake for 25 minutes, until they were crispy and brown. I let them cool for a moment before transferring them to a paper-towel lined plate to drain off a bit.
Before we left for our Thanksgiving dinner, I put the still warm bacon-wrapped dates into a serving dish to bring along. Of course, they were served on a much prettier platter (thanks to my mother-in-law), but here they are just before we left the house – looking delicious and tantalizing.
Thankfully, they were as delicious as promised and everyone enjoyed their addition to the appetizer selection. I would absolutely recommend adding these to your repertoire.
I’d also recommend picking up a copy of Niequist’s memoir, so you can read about all of the other recipes that had me drooling as I read. I can’t wait to try more of them myself.
Last but not least, I hope all those celebrating had a Happy (and food-filled) Thanksgiving! If you’re following along with my Thanksgiving Readathon, I’ll be wrapping that up with a post on Monday.
Slice alongside one side of each date, from the top to the bottom, so you can open it like a tiny book. Scoop a small amount of goat cheese into the center of each one, and then close it back up.
Cut the whole package of bacon in half, so that each long strip is now half as long. Wrap a half-slice of bacon around the outside of each date.
Arrange seam side down in a baking dish or on a baking sheet with sides to catch any grease. A foil pan is really nice for no cleanup.
Bake at 400-degrees F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until well browned and crispy. Drain on a paper towel, and serve warm or at room temperature, but definitely not hot, unless you want to burn the roof of your mouth so badly you don’t taste anything for days.
Every November, my Good Reads & Good Eats book club reads a spooky book. Since we meet on the first Tuesday of each month, this allows us to read it during October and our meeting usually ends up being right around Halloween. This year’s selection was Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. The thriller was released in January but it made for an excellent read this month, just creepy enough throughout with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming.
Thanks to the success of Gone Girl, the oft-called domestic thriller has become more and more popular, and generally, I try to avoid them. Gone Girl was so well-written and its twist both genuinely surprising and believable (which is harder to achieve than it may seem) that I’m usually disappointed in those that follow.
That being said, Behind Her Eyes was an intriguing read. I did get caught up in the story and it kept me wondering what exactly was going on and who to be skeptical of, but the devices it used (particularly toward the end) seemed over-the-top and unbelievable. Overall, Sarah Dickinson does a great job summing up how I feel on her blog, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t read the book and still want to.
Pinborough’s novel begins in the middle of David and Adele’s troubled marriage. After a recent move to London, David almost immediately begins an affair with Louise, who turns out to be his new receptionist. It’s not clear how Adele discovers his transgression, but she makes it a point to befriend Louise and tension begins to build. As more about Adele’s backstory is revealed, more questions arise. In the present day narrative, we’re left wondering who we can trust. I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers, but I think it achieved what it needed to for our book club in that it was mostly riveting and twisty and will certainly make for interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about it.
In an attempt to create some domestic bliss (or at least throw David off her scent), Adele continues to make impressive home-cooked meals almost every evening. On one such evening, she whips up the deceptively easy Spaghetti Carbonara and serves it with a simple arugula salad. I grabbed a recipe from one of my favorite blogs, Damn Delicious, for the pasta and found one for the salad from Everyday Maven. The whole meal took about twenty minutes and only requires a minimum number of ingredients for one so impressive; it makes a perfect weeknight meal.
First, I set a large pot of water to bowl and then prepped the salad. I chopped a half cup of cherry tomatoes in half and tossed them in a large bowl with arugula and the lemon zest. I love Trader Joe’s arugula because it’s the perfect amount for a dinner salad and it’s already pre-washed. In a separate small bowl, I combined the ingredients for the dressing – olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. With the salad mostly set, I turned to the pasta.
Once the water was boiling, I salted it and added the spaghetti to the pot. In a small bowl, I whisked together the eggs and Parmesan and set it aside. I added my diced pancetta (or bacon, if that’s what you’re using) to a heated skillet and allowed it to crisp up for several minutes, before adding my minced garlic.
You’re going to want to make sure your pasta is cooked and drained before you add the garlic. Here is where you need to begin working quickly. Even though this recipe is easy, the eggs leave some room for error. You don’t want them to scramble; they should become a part of the creamy sauce, indistinguishable from the pasta itself.
To my pancetta and garlic, I added my pasta and the egg-Parmesan mixture, using a pair of tongs to toss and combine everything. I seasoned with salt and pepper, before adding a bit of pasta water, tossing and checking the consistency.
With that all set, I re-whisked my dressing, poured it on the arugula and tossed my salad. Best dishes are both served immediately.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions; reserve 1/2 cup water and drain well.
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and Parmesan; set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add bacon and cook until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes; reserve excess fat.
Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low.
Working quickly, stir in pasta and egg mixture, and gently toss to combine; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add reserved pasta water, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
Serve immediately, garnished with parsley, if desired.
Based on the title alone, Kitchens of the Great Midwest seemed like a book I, lover of food, resident of the Midwest, would thoroughly enjoy. The Goodreads description also seemed promising: “When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine–and a dashing sommelier–he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter–starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota…Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life–its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises.” I tracked it down, dug right in and…
If you don’t already know where I’m going with this, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it, or really like it all. I think it’s one thing if a story doesn’t live up to the hype – in this case, I’d heard good things and it had almost a 4.0 on Goodreads – but it’s another thing entirely if the blurb is completely mismatched with the story that’s actually told.
Each chapter did delve into the story of a single dish and character, as promised, but unfortunately, the way it was done felt very disjointed. Eva, as much as I wanted to like her, was hard to rally behind. Her success felt inauthentic, and her presence as she flitted in and out of chapters felt forced. I also found myself wishing for more recipes, or perhaps, recipes that were a bit more central to the story.
In the end, one of the chapters I enjoyed the most was the one featuring Pat Prager, a very Midwestern mom who enjoys cooking for a crowd and does so from the heart. I also thought this chapter provided a stark contrast between the world Eva now cooked in and the world of everyday Midwestern food. In Kitchens, Pat is locally famous for her wonderful, award-winning peanut butter bars that sounded amazing even on the page. I knew I had to make them too.
Though they were very central to the story, no recipe was included, so I found a 5-ingredient recipe from Chef Savvy that was no fuss and no bake – perfect for the warm weather we’re somehow still having in October. True to Pat’s tendencies, I also made them for a crowd; I brought them to work for a coworkers birthday. (And, yes, they were a hit!)
I started by melting the 2 sticks of butter the recipe requires in a large bowl.
While that melted in the microwave, I got some aggression out by crumbling up 2 cups worth of graham crackers (this was about 12 crackers, or half a box). You can do this however you prefer – a food processor will provide the most consistently-sized and likely finest chunks – but I opted to toss them in a plastic Ziploc bag and crush them with my hands. (You could also use a rolling pin.) My chunks weren’t consistent, but I liked the way it added texture to the finished product.
To the same bowl where I’d melted the butter, I added the crushed graham crackers, a cup of peanut butter and 1½ cups of powdered sugar.
I combined them all well with a large spatula and spread the mixture into my prepared 9×13 pin. Then, in a smaller bowl, I added the other half cup of peanut butter and 1½ cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips. These too went in the microwave to melt.
Once the chocolate was melted and combined with the peanut butter, I poured that mixture over the peanut butter mixture already spread in the pan. I smoothed it with a spatula and set it in the fridge to set.
After a few hours, I took the peanut butter bars out of the fridge to taste-test before bringing them to work the next day. (You can’t bring a birthday dessert to work without first knowing that it’s worth bringing.) This was a bit hard to slice right out of the fridge – you’ll want to use a sharp knife, and make sure you have a good grip on the pan.
As I said before, these were an absolute hit at work, and luckily they were easy enough that I could bring them again! Keep this recipe in your back pocket – it’s great for family get-togethers, potlucks or book clubs.
I never read George Orwell’s 1984 in high school. I also never read Animal Farm until my boss recommended it to me as an adult, and while it was fine, I wasn’t particularly moved to seek out other Orwellian novels. But, like many Americans, once Trump was elected and “alternative facts” became a thing, I got interested. Suddenly, it was selling out everywhere – even Amazon – and I had to backorder my copy.
For those of you who don’t know, 1984 is a dystopian novel that imagines a world where Big Brother watches over your every move, the Thought Police have jurisdiction and the news is altered on a regular basis to better correspond to reality and/or change the past. It was written 35 years prior to 1984, and now, another almost 35 years later, it is more relevant than ever.
In the bleak world Orwell paints, the main character Winston Smith is a member of the Outer Party, and since he actively participates in spreading propaganda and revising history, he lives a decently comfortable life – even if it’s under constant scrutiny. While we primarily follow his journey for the truth, I found the “Proles” to be the most interesting, and Winston too, thinks of them as the best chance to overthrow the ruling Inner Party. Though they are roughly 85% of the population, they exist only to supply labor and grow the population.
I’m not sure I would’ve fully understood this book, let alone appreciated it had I read it in high school. It’s not a book that I like even now, as alarming as it was, but it certainly respect its message. I think everyone should read it once, and it was certainly worth it for me.
I could’ve made something decadent to represent the Inner Party, who always seem to be enjoying chocolate and wine while the rest of the country is told there’s a shortage, but I felt like a rustic bread was more representative of those who struggle beneath them – the Outer Party and the Proles. Outside of culinary school, I haven’t attempted bread, so I found a recipe for Unbelievably Easy Artisan Rolls and set to work.
As promised, the rolls were unbelievably easy to make. Just before going to bed one night, I whisked together the flour, salt and yeast before adding 2 cups of room temperature water. I mixed it all together with a rubber spatula, covered it with plastic wrap and set the bowl on the stove to hang out while I slept.
In the morning, I removed the plastic wrap to see how much the dough had risen. It wasn’t a crazy amount, but it definitely had expanded and there were bubbles on top.
With the oven coming up to 425-degrees F, I began coating the large ball of dough with flour and then used a bench scraper to divide it into a dozen smaller pieces. With each well-coated with more flour, I formed them into balls and placed them on the parchment paper with the pinched side down (to make a smooth top). They rested for another 20 minutes before going in the oven.
I baked them for 15 minutes, rotated the pan, and baked for an additional 5 minutes. Mine probably could’ve spent another few minutes in the oven to get some more color, but I pulled them and allowed them to cool at that point – mostly because I’m impatient and they looked done enough to me.
More importantly, they tasted delicious! They were great alongside soup, salad and pasta – all of our meals for the rest of the week. With rolls this easy, I probably don’t have any excuse for not making my own ever again.
4 cups bread flour, plus extra for shaping [I used all-purpose flour because it’s what I had at home and the rolls still tasted delightful.]
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2 cups room temperature tap water
In a medium-large bowl, whisk together the bread flour, salt, and yeast. Make a well in the center and add the water. Mix with a sturdy rubber spatula until all flour is incorporated. Don’t worry, the dough will be wet and sticky, that’s how it should be. Cover bowl with a plastic wrap and leave to rise at room temperature overnight or for up to 12 hours.
The following morning (or after 8-12 hours), the dough will have risen, but it may still look shaggy and it’s surface will be covered with bubbles.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper*. Preheat the oven to 425ºF.
Spread a generous ¼ cup of flour on a work surface. Dump the dough out onto the floured surface and turn it several times to coat with flour. I like to use a bench scraper for this.
Divide the dough into 12-16 equal portions, turning each piece in the flour to coat. (The bench scraper is also great for cutting the dough). Shape each piece into a ball, pulling edges under and pinching together to make a smooth top. Invert balls and place on prepared pan, pinched side up. This will give you craggy, rustic textured rolls. If the dough is sticky as you’re shaping, just roll the piece in more of the flour. Let shaped rolls rise for 20 minutes.
Transfer pan to the oven. Bake 15 minutes. Rotate pan. Bake 5 minutes more or until nicely golden. Transfer rolls to cooling rack to cool completely.
If making in advance, remove from oven when pale golden brown (about 3-4 minutes less). Cool completely, then freeze on a baking sheet. Once frozen, transfer rolls to a large zip lock bag and store in the freezer. To serve, allow rolls to thaw, then heat for 8-10 minutes at 350˚F.