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Adventures in Cooking with Mother Rhonda

Welcome to our new Reality Writing Series!!  You all know that I am an indifferent and occasionally lethal cook.  But this past week has been unusually spectacular in the kitchen, even for me.  So I am taking a break from the sermons, articles, and prayer cards that I am supposed to be writing to bring you the first – and hopefully the only – installment of Adventures in Cooking with Mother Rhonda.

Before we go any further, I must ask you to raise your right hand and solemnly swear that you will not share this with any one in any form, without my permission, or you will be excommunicated from the church.  (I tried this with my swimsuit pictures from the Dominican Republic, and you know how well it worked.)  Have you sworn?  If you have, then you may read on.  If you have not, you have been warned of the consequences.

Also – the usual disclaimer:  don’t try any of this at home.  I was fortunate that I wasn’t injured or kicked out of my apartment building.  You may not be so lucky.

Ready?  Here we go!

Part I – Burning Woman Pancakes

Last Tuesday, I woke up inspired to do something special.  I rolled out of bed at 5:30 am, toddled into the kitchen to fix breakfast, and remembered that I had a box of Fairway Multigrain Pancake Mix I bought at the end of last winter.  I had made these pancakes last year with partial success – they tasted really good but they also tended to stick to the pan (I don’t own a non-stick skillet).  So this time I decided to use some cooking spray to help facilitate pancake removal.

It’s a simple recipe:  an egg, some milk, a little butter, and the dry batter.  Mix the whole thing together and make pancakes.  So I sprayed my all-clad skillet and got going.  I did not turn on the vent fan under the microwave out of consideration for my neighbors – it is noisy and I thought maybe it would wake them up at an early hour.  Besides – it was just pancakes.  What could happen?

What I did not realize was that cooking spray gets really smoky really fast.  I also did not realize that the smoke alarm just outside of my newly renovated kitchen is very sensitive and that instead of just shrieking a little bit, this smoke alarm has the full package of special effects: shrieking alarm, strobe lights, AND a woman’s voice yelling “Fire! Fire! Fire!!”

This charming alarm cannot be shut off – you can’t just grab it off the wall and rip the battery out, like you could with the nice old ones.  This one is recessed into the ceiling. And oh yes – it automatically and helpfully calls the fire department as it sets off the strobes and alarms in the entire building.  So instead of waking up a neighbor or two with my vent fan, the whole building (all 300 units) was blasted awake at 6 am by my alarm.

I am wearing scarves over my face in the elevator for the foreseeable future.  And I have given up pancakes.

Part II – That’s Why They Call It a Dutch OVEN

A few weeks ago, Williams-Sonoma emailed out a pre-Black Friday special on stoneware: a little Le Creuset Dutch oven with lid, a little gratin dish, and a little rectangular casserole thing, all for under $100.  Now, I’ve had my eye on a small Dutch oven forever, but they are usually way more expensive than $100, so I ordered the set in pretty French blue.

After it arrived I went looking for suitable Dutch oven recipes on the web, and found a nice, simple, sausage and vegetable stew recipe.  It starts off on the stove and then transfers into the oven.  I checked on the web to see if you could use Dutch ovens on the stovetop, and everything I found, said, sure.  Maybe you would get some burn marks on the bottom of the pot, but it was fine.  On the Food Network they use Dutch ovens on the stove all the time.  So this past Thursday, I confidently assembled all the ingredients for my little stew – I even bought a whole bag of all-purpose flour, although the recipe only called for a couple of tablespoons.  I was determined to get this right.  So I rinsed out my brand new pretty blue Dutch oven and set it aside to dry.

After I got home from work I got going on the stew, chopping, mixing, seasoning.  I heated the olive oil in the Dutch oven, and threw in the garlic and onions.  A few moments later I heard a funny pop, but didn’t think much of it; this was, after all, the first time I was using the pot.  Maybe it was just stretching.  I added the flour and the paprika and the salt, then I heard a snap.  But I looked at what I could see of the pot, and didn’t see anything amiss.  So I added in the vegetables, sausage, and chicken broth, brought the whole thing to a boil, lowered it to a simmer, put the lid on, set my timer for 20 minutes, and walked away.

It was a good thing I did.  The moment I hit the living room there was a very loud, sharp crack, like a whip snap.  I bolted back into the kitchen to see the whole stew coming out of a massive crack on the side of the pot, dripping into all the burners, and down the front of the stove.  I grabbed a bunch of towels to shut of the burner, turning my head away in case the thing decided to really blow up.

Everything was far too scalding hot to be touched, so I waited for the whole mess to cool down before even attempting to clean it up.  In the meantime, I was really ticked:  everybody on the web said it was fine to use a Dutch oven on the stovetop! I got online and checked the Le Creuset website – which I hadn’t before.  It turns out you can’t use this kind of Le Creuset Dutch oven on the stovetop!  It’s not safe!  It will crack!  Did they tell you this on the pot?  No.  Did they put a warning on the box, in the box, or around the box?  No.  I am very angry at Le Creuset.  I suggest – demand! – a Le Creuset boycott!

I did manage to save some of the stew, which tasted pretty good.  The pretty little French blue Dutch oven went into the trash, but I saved the lid to remember it by.  Quelle tristesse, mais c’est la vie.

We hope you enjoyed this two-part pilot episode of Adventures in Cooking with Mother Rhonda!  Hopefully there won’t be a need for another installment.

We can only hope . . .

Part III – For Whom the Cookie Tolls

When we last met, I told you that we could only hope that we would not need any more installments of Adventures in Cooking with Mother Rhonda – but I have been steadily experimenting in my new little kitchen since I penned Parts I and II, so of course there is a new Adventure to report!  (Remember:  you are still under oath.)

In the year of Our Lord 2015, when Barack was President in Washington, Andrew was Governor in the State of New York, and Bill was Mayor in the Metropolis, the Word came to Rhonda of the Hall of Butler:  bake cookies, it is time.

Now this Word did not come from the Lord. Rather, it came from Juliet (called “Jewels”), our church’s Parish Administrator/Facilities Coordinator.  Since I had been baking fruit pies with some success (!!!), I wondered out loud what I should try next.  Maybe cookies, I mused.  “YES” came the answer from Jewels, who is very fond of cookies.  Okay, what kind of cookie would you like? There was a pause while Jewels considered a universe filled with cookie options.  “I’d like chocolate chip – but only if they are soft and chewy, NOT hard and crunchy, and also oatmeal cookies, but only . . . ”  I cut her off:  In your DREAMS are you going to get two kinds of cookies!  Remember, I’ve never even baked ONE cookie! (You should know that Jewels is an only child and takes things like cookies and their texture very, very seriously).

So the next day I set out for Whole Foods (aka “Whole Paycheck”) to do my weekly food shopping.  The weather was lousy so I took the bus, and on the way down I Googled around on my phone for chocolate chip cookie recipes.  Later, I found out that this was not necessary, that you can buy pre-made cookie dough in a kind of log that you can just slice, toss on a cookie sheet, and bake.  But since I was merrily ignorant of this fact, I searched my iPhone for recipes for cookies from scratch.

Almost instantly I found one for “Nestle Toll House Cookies” – Bingo!  A recipe for a cookie I had heard of, even ate, as a child!  And it was labeled “Easy” (that’s for me) with a 15-minute prep time and about 9-minutes baking time.  My speed and cooking fitness level exactly.  So when I got to Whole Foods I bought the ingredients I didn’t have, including baking soda and chocolate chips (Yum! – and since Whole Foods doesn’t carry low-end – i.e., reasonably priced – anything, I bought Ghirardelli chocolate chips.  Definitely an upgrade in both price and quality).

I got home and stashed away all the healthy stuff I had bought – like the vegetables – then pulled out the flour, sugar and vanilla from the pantry and fetched the butter and eggs from fridge.  I pulled up the recipe on my tablet and took a closer look.

Uh, oh.  What I hadn’t seen when I found the recipe on the bus was that this recipe was for 60 (60!) cookies, and that a MIXER was required.  Who has a mixer?  Certainly not me.  And I definitely was not planning to bake enough cookies for a Girl Scout Troop plus their families.  In addition, even though I do now have a functioning kitchen, it is still a very small kitchen with a tiny oven for which I had just bought a single “compact” cookie sheet.  Even if I figured out the mixing part I was still going to be baking for hours, which certainly was not my original intention.

Well, I grimly thought, time to hunker down and rise to the challenge.  People baked cookies for centuries before the mixer was invented, right?  That meant that even though a mixer was a modern convenience, bakers must have combined ingredients without it in those less technological times.  So I would be the mixer! Proud of my determination, I grabbed a potato masher in my right hand, a wire whisk in my left, and starting to “mix” the butter and the dry ingredients.

I admire folks who lived in less technological times.  How they did it, I don’t know.  It turns out that a mixer is an invention with life-transforming qualities, like the Singer sewing machine and the Otis elevator.  Mixing butter and eggs by hand into a bowl filled with powdery ingredients creates a disaster with both dry and wet consequences:  the flour and the sugar escape the bowl in clouds of particles, and the wet ingredients tend to blob and burp out of the bowl – the whole thing reminiscent of a volcanic eruption of both ash and lava.

But that wasn’t even the worst part! – the worst part was that my masher/whisk “mixer” collected heavy clumps of butter covered with flour, sugar and egg, so both tools needed to be unclogged after nearly every single mash.  This could most easily be accomplished by smacking them against the side of the bowl, but this in turn sent the greasy, sticky, barely-combined batter flying everywhere.  Within minutes I had batter bits hanging from the bottoms of all my kitchen cabinets, and I had to stop to clear the batter from my eyeglasses. Of course, some batter escaped the kitchen and made it into my entranceway, even into my bathroom – as I write this, it is two weeks after my cookie making adventure, and I am still finding blobs of now-fossilized batter.  The house looked like it had been hit with a batter-bomb.

Eventually, after over a half-hour of struggling and mess-making, the batter was reasonably combined.  Time to bake the cookies!  I grabbed my tiny cookie sheet and began dolloping out the cookie dough, or trying to, anyway.  It turns out that since this is very sticky batter, it is difficult to make reasonably consistent sized cookies.  Exhausted and covered in glop, I didn’t care.  Some cookies wound up normal-sized at about 2” diameter, others were about the size of coffee saucer.  No matter.  I baked the first batch and gave them a taste.  Super yummy! – chewy, soft, and very chocolatey.

So I kept baking – and baking – and baking . . . This was a challenge all by itself – especially since I own one lonely, small wire rack suitable for cookie cooling.  Cue Mother Rhonda covering every empty flat surface across the apartment with wax paper over paper towels, which gave me yet another opportunity to make a further mess by elbowing goopy, chocolatey cookies off of the end table next to my sofa on to the Pakistani area rug (no, I didn’t serve these to anyone.  But I did eat one or two, even with the coating of fuzz).

Was this huge amount of effort and mess worth it?  Juliet, the founder of this feast, chewed her first cookie slowly, carefully considering all of its qualities.  She then announced that it was “okay, for a first try.”

I love Jewels, but I she’s such an only child.

Now it’s time for an exciting “Adventures in Cooking” flashback!!

From time to time, we will reach back into the hallowed Archives of Awful Cooking Experiences for an historic Adventure.  This one dates from 2006. 

Part IV – The Pumpkin Pie to Make for Folks You Don’t Like

One of my favorite things on earth is pumpkin pie – even the words “pumpkin pie” sound like music to my ears.  So back when I still had a “kitchen” that was formerly a walk-in closet (equipped with a dorm refrigerator and what looked like an Easy-Bake Oven), I decided to try to create my dream pie myself.

My first thought was to try to make a healthy pumpkin pie, so I decided to replace the highest calorie ingredient – the sweetened condensed milk- with almond milk!  I congratulated myself on my healthy-living, gourmet-forward recipe alteration, and baked what I hoped would be a delicious, lo-calorie pumpkin pie.

Needless to say, it came out as a rather disgusting pumpkin soup, the very unappetizing filling a broken mess of eggs, pumpkin, almond milk and clots of spices.  I called my mother, who could be impatient and somewhat direct about my culinary choices:  “What is wrong with you?  You can’t make a pumpkin pie with ALMOND MILK!!! Please just buy and do what it says in the directions!”

Got it, Mom. Time for Take Two.  I sheepishly bought all of the exact ingredients for a new, even more up-scale recipe that I found online:  a Vanilla Pumpkin Pie! –  and I made sure that they were all of the very highest quality , including ground ginger that cost about as much as a college education, a whole nutmeg (plus a grater!), cloves, and the finest pure vanilla extract – this was going to be a pumpkin pie for the ages.  I lovingly removed the store-bought pie crust from its box, mixed together the canned pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk, eggs and all the spices, following the directions as carefully as my non-culinary brain would allow: 2 eggs, 1 can pumpkin filling, 1 can sweetened condensed milk, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, 1 ½ tablespoons vanilla extract, etc.

I poured the carefully mixed filling – which smelled delicious – into the pie crust.  There was too much filling for one shell, so I refrigerated the remainder, for what purpose I wasn’t quite sure.  I carefully placed the filled shell into the Easy-Bake Oven, and baked it as directed at 450 degrees for 20 minutes – the apartment filled with the delicious aromas of vanilla, pumpkin, and other spices!  Then I lowered the temperature to 350 degrees and baked for another 20 minutes, exactly as the directions said.

With some trepidation I opened the oven to test the pie with a toothpick – and to my amazement it looked fabulous.  A glossy, smooth, golden brown surface, perfectly done crust – the toothpick came out clean as a whistle.  Success!  I removed my professional-looking masterpiece from the oven and set it on a rack to cool.  I could hardly wait to try it! – but I forced myself to wait an hour for it to cool.  Then I cut myself a healthy slice – really a slab – and dug in.  It was delicious! – moist and very tasty.  The oddball thing was that it tasted rather strongly of vanilla, but this was Vanilla Pumpkin Pie after all.

As I was finishing my slab, Yvette, who (the housekeeper in my building who had the misfortune of being assigned to my apartment), rang the doorbell.  I opened the door and Yvette immediately smelled the pie.  “Mmm.  That smells delicious.  What did you make?”  (Yvette is very kind and indulges my cooking attempts, usually with a healthy amount of trepidation.  But this really did smell good.)  “Can I have a piece?”  Of course!  I cut her a much smaller piece than my own (out of pure selfishness, more pie for me!), which she genuinely enjoyed.  Then she straightened up the apartment, made the bed, and left.  Filled with the taste of my success and the afterglow of my pumpkin pie, I sat down at my desk and began paying bills.

About fifteen minutes later, I felt a bizarre burning sensation underneath my breastbone.  It started low in my chest, and then rose – slowly, inexorably – to the back of my throat.  Heartburn! – with the emphasis on the “BURN” – and it was flavored very strongly of vanilla!

Huh? What on earth is going on?  I gulped down a glass of water – that didn’t help.  I ate a piece of bread – that didn’t help.  I took a handful of Tums – and all that did was give the vanilla-flavored heartburn a weird, chalky aftertaste.  The vanilla kept rising up, up, up – through my mouth and up into my sinuses – even into my ear canals (seriously).  I was on vanilla fire.

In my agony, I looked at the recipe – and immediately recognized my mistake.  Like something straight out of This Is Spinal Tap, I had transposed one measurement for another – but instead of inches for feet, I had substituted tablespoons for teaspoons.  Instead of creating a midget-sized Stonehenge set, I had created a hyper-vanilla pumpkin pie.  And it was awful.

All of a sudden it hit me – Yvette!!!  I hope she’s okay!  I tried texting her.  No answer.  I tried calling her cellphone.  No answer.  I used the house phone in my apartment to call down to the housekeepers’ room – and Carmen, the supervisor, said that Yvette had left suddenly just a few minutes before, saying she had an emergency.  Uh oh.

I didn’t hear a word from her for the rest of the day, and I barely slept that night, tossing and turning in vanilla agony and fright over what I had done to Yvette. Then when Yvette didn’t come into work the next day, I was beside myself – oh, no, I thought – I killed Yvette!

Just when I was about to start phoning area hospitals to see if someone was getting treatment for a rare case of vanilla poisoning – Yvette called Carmen to say that one of her teenage daughters had suffered an asthma attack the day before, so she had spent the afternoon and night in the emergency room; they had just gotten home.  Thank God her daughter was now fine – and Yvette was fine, too, evidently saved from the vanilla-heart burn thing because I selfishly gave her such a small piece of pie.  (BTW, this was the only time in my life that such incredible selfishness was rewarded – although I did include the whole episode in my confession the following Lent.  The priest looked very confused.)

Whew.  Once I learned that Yvette was fine, I relaxed and decided to do a little experiment:  the pie was evidently non-lethal in small doses, and I hated to throw it out, what with all of the expensive ingredients and effort.  Plus, it was so pretty!  So I started by eating a very small piece, with the aim of slowly upping the size of the slice to find the exact tipping-point for the vanilla heartburn.

I called my mother, and told her the whole story, ending proudly with my experiment, now in progress.  “What is wrong with you!!  Just throw the thing OUT!!”  I did.

Now when I hear the words “pumpkin pie,” I no longer hear music.  Instead, I have Vanilla flashbacks.



Part V – How to Make “Jewish Ham”

Good news! – The recipe for Jewish Ham is the simplest you will ever find.  There are only two steps.  They are:

Step 1:  Be Jewish

Step 2:  Cook a ham

I sense restiveness amongst my loyal reading public:  But Mother Rhonda, how can I be Jewish?  And how should I cook the ham?  Details, details.  But in deference to my J.K. Rowling-sized fan base, I will elaborate.  The simplest answer to Question #1 is:  get a Jewish parent (traditionally your mother, but there are plenty of Biblical examples of Judaism being passed down through the father, so Daddy will do, too).  The less simple answer is:  convert to Judaism, which is much more time consuming.

Now that Step 1 is accomplished, we move on to the actual Cooking of the Ham.  When I first began experimenting with Jewish Ham years ago, I was disturbed to find that there are an intimidating number of choices for our ham-base in supermarkets.  The ham galaxy is surprisingly large, what with whole, half, bone-in, shank, spiral-cut, ready to cook, ready to eat, water added, natural juices, blah blah blah.  Who knew that a pig could generate such confusion?

Since we here at Adventures in Cooking strive for simplicity, I will make the choice easy for you:  buy the ham thing in the funny, bishop’s-mitre-shaped can that says, “Ready to Eat.” You can purchase the big one or the small one, depending on how many folks you will be experimenting on, oops, I mean, “serving.”

Even though your ham is, in theory,  “Ready to Eat,” our first challenge is breaking into the can to remove the food article entombed within.  For this task the manufacturer helpfully provides a metal key that looks like a tool included with the screw and peg packet that comes with Ikea furniture.  Remove this key, glued onto the back of the can, and stick it in the little ring on the lid.  Then we carefully roll back the strip of metal binding the lid to the can.  Keep your fingers away from the barbed-wire sharp ribbon of metal that winds around the key! or you will wind up with unwanted condiments in your meal.  If you are like me (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t), sometimes the metal snaps off, leaving a key, some razor wire, and the tantalizing sight and smell of a still-inaccessible ham beneath a partly removed lid.  Then it’s time to break out the manual can opener! (remember those?  You certainly have one in the back of your kitchen drawer) –  and carefully negotiate the bends and curves of the bishop’s-mitre-shaped lid.  If that fails, don’t hesitate to break out the metal saw or the Dremel power tool. At last, when ham freedom is attained, we remove the remaining shards of metal from both our bodies and the ham.  After we treat and bandage our wounds, we can concentrate on the real showpiece – the glaze – and cheerfully leave behind our minor concerns about unintentional maiming.

At the glaze we meet more pitfalls!  Recipes for ham glaze can include some confusing and potentially dangerous ingredients, like “whole cloves.”  Years ago, when I first tried a glaze that called for “whole cloves,” I spent almost an hour in the supermarket circling around the produce department, looking for something that looked like a garlic head (you know, something that has, well, “cloves”).  Since I hate displaying ignorance in the marketplace, I refused to ask anyone for help (outward signs of inward pride and obstinacy, I know), until the whole thing got ridiculously time consuming.  I finally broke down and asked the guy spritzing the lettuce heads where the “whole cloves” were stocked, fully convinced that they must either be out of season or that the supermarket had to be out of stock.  Instead of either of those two respectable outcomes, the Spritzer looked at me like I had two heads (possibly made of lettuce), put down the hose, led me over to the spice section, gave me a box with about a thousand little cloves in it, and sent me on my way in the same supercilious manner with which the Grinch sent Little Cindy Lou Who off to bed after giving her a glass of water.  It was very humiliating – don’t let this happen to you!  You are now armed with the necessary information.

Cloves are also one of those ingredients that are easy to overuse (see the Vanilla Extract Debacle in Part IV above).  This is due to the fact that sticking the little cloves into the ham is so much fun, kind of like acting as your own Food Bedazzler.  Also – and this is important! – remember to remove these once your ham is cooked!!! – or you run the danger of injuring your experimental control group, oops, I mean your “guests,” as they can swallow the tiny, sharp, pine cone-shaped objects that will almost certainly lacerate their digestive tracts.  Emergency endoscopic procedures are not the desired festive holiday dinner outcome.

Other ingredients pose danger as well, mainly of overdose.  Nutmeg falls into this category, because grating your own whole nutmeg is also so much fun, the amount needed so infinitesimally small, the taste of too much nutmeg so awful, and the idea of having 99% of a nutmeg thing left over (what is a “nutmeg,” anyway? a funky acorn?) offends one’s sense of kitchen frugality.  If you are like me, you will have not have the need to use nutmeg more than once or twice a year, if that often.  Although I’ve read that the thing keeps forever, it still bothers me to have it sitting around, looking at me like I should be using it.  Cooks like me are then enticed to use it in foods in which it might not be appropriate, like, say, scrambled eggs, just to make it go away (please look forward to a forthcoming episode that involves the use of a banana in soup for further illumination of the Principle of Inappropriate Food Pairing).

Apart from those minor caveats, glaze recipes are generally simple and involve nothing more than some liquids (like orange juice), some dry ingredients (like brown sugar), and don’t involve tools any more exotic than a mixing spoon and a brush (although you must make sure not to the use the paint brush that you have cleaned with turpentine, another possibly lethal mistake).  Finally, do not overcook the glazed ham, or you will wind up with something that looks, tastes, and feels like an oddly shaped, very greasy football.

I hope that I have convinced you that making a Jewish Ham is fun, delicious and, as we have seen, incredibly easy, even for the dreadful home cook.  With proper care, it can even be safe!  L’chaim, my dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ!  Enjoy your Jewish Ham!