mamma mia, and maybe a return to form?

::knocks on door, dusts off furniture, peeks around corner into dark hallway, promptly falls into large hole created by rotten floorboards::

….. ow.

Uh, hi guys? Hi. It’s been a minute. But, you know. Y’all still love me, and probably no one is still reading this anyway, SO. Let’s talk about Mamma Mia! I’ve talked about my love for this stupid movie before. It’s basically the most concentrated dose of joy you can get for less than some price per gram. But watching it recently for the first time in years, I saw it through a different lens than I had before.

Mamma Mia!, a musical based around ABBA’s hits, has the unauspicious designation of basically being responsible for the wave of jukebox musicals currently dominating Broadway. It was massively successful in both New York and the West End, and apparently 40 other countries. None of those traits are …. you know, good. They are not promising. But somehow, whoever wrote this thing managed to sneak some seriously progressive shit under the radar. Not only is it the happiest movie in the world,  it’s also an unashamed, unabashed celebration of female sexuality – particularly older female sexuality. Which just makes me love it more. Obviously.

The basic story, strung around 20+ ABBA songs, is that of Donna (Meryl Streep, who has maybe never been more beautiful) and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried at her most charming). Donna owns a hotel on a Greek island. Sophie is getting married. She doesn’t know who her dad is, but based on a very old diary of Donna’s, she has three guesses, and she’s invited them all to the wedding without telling Donna. Right off the bat – literally, the song about this (“Honey, Honey”) is the second number in the show – we have an opportunity for shittiness and slut-shaming that gets turned on its head. Donna fucked so many dudes the summer she got pregnant that she doesn’t have any idea which of them is the father of her kid, and no one gives a shit – least of all her kid! Sophie’s pissed she doesn’t know who her father is, but she’s not mad about the ho’ing around. It’s not even a thing. And that’s the premise of the entire movie. At no point does anyone, including Donna’s three former paramours (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård), say a word about it – except Donna, briefly, before her friends shut her up.

Donna’s two best friends, Tanya and Rosie, are played with abandon by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and let’s take a sec to do a quick check-in on actor ages, because we all know they’re one of my bugaboos. When Mamma Mia! was filmed, Streep was 58, Baranski was 55, Walters was 57, Brosnan was 54, Firth was 47 – a mere babe! – and Skarsgård was 56. All the leads in this film were within 11 years of each other, the youngest actor was a dude, and the oldest was a lady. Take a moment and really let the remarkableness of that sink in, given the landscape. And (spoiler) who winds up together? 58-year-old Meryl Streep and 54-year-old Pierce Brosnan. It’s one of the great joys of Mamma Mia! to see actors playing to their actual ages and romancing their peers.

…. Mostly. Because I gotta say, it’s also a joy to see women in their fifties being portrayed as sexual objects for folks of any age. The high point of that is Christine Baranski’s killer version of “Does Your Mother Know,” sung to the much younger bartender who thinks she’s the hottest thing he’s ever seen and during the performance of which she manages to seduce a beachful of men.

Baranski is a trained singer and dancer, not to mention a consistently magnetic screen presence – I’d personally listen with great interest to Christine Baranski Sings the Alphabet and Dances the Times Tables – and she sells every inch of the number. But just as critical to its reception is the obvious adoration she’s met with by every man who looks at her, all of whom are considerably younger. She’s not just sexual, she’s powerful. Watching her is a rush.

But as a viewer, I think the biggest rush comes from the staging of “Dancing Queen,” which is a surprisingly empowering son as it turns out! (At least, surprising if you never thought about the lyrics, which I never had.) “Dancing Queen” is something of a love song to a young girl who’s coming into her own and playing with her sexual power (“You’ve come to look for a king / Anybody could be that guy ), but is ultimately more interested in her own good time. The protagonist in “Dancing Queen” isn’t anyone’s object except her own, and for that, the song celebrates her.

So. Rosie and Tanya start singing it to Donna to cheer her up, but it very quickly becomes more than a bonding moment between three friends. 

At 1:50 they bound into the courtyard of Donna’s hotel, where a bunch of locals are helping with the preparations for Sophie’s wedding, and as they dance towards the waterfront they rapidly collect a following of women of all ages, singing, dancing and leaping with them in an expression of pure joy. There’s one moment in particular that stands out. At 1:55, a young woman watches them pass through the courtyard with naked longing on her face – seriously, whoever that chick is, she’s doing some serious face acting – and the moment she runs to join the growing mob feels like a triumph. At the end of the number, when all the girls and women in the village are dancing on the dock with Donna, Tanya and Rosie, they point outwards, singing, “You can dance, you can jive,” and it’s hard not to feel that they’re singing to you, the viewer. It’s hard not to feel buoyed by their joy.

“Dancing Queen” manages to be both a celebration of women as powerful, sexual beings (just watch Streep during the second verse, but particularly “Looking out for another / Anyone will do”); a statement of ownership of that identity; and an assertion that it’s only one part of what it means to be a woman. I’m not one for sisterhood pretty much ever, and I’m certainly not one for dancing, but when Meryl Streep calls me the dancing queen, I almost believe her. I definitely want to be on that dock with her.

There are a thousand other things to love about Mamma Mia! There’s Amanda Bynes’ sweet, high soprano and ebullient performance. There’s the total focus with which Pierce Brosnan bravely tries to sing (and even hits the right notes, more or less), an attempt which three different film reviewers independently compared to three different animals. There’s the electric chemistry between Streep and Bynes as mother and daughter, whose relationship felt deeply familiar to me as a young woman whose mom is her best friend, and their devastatingly beautiful rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers.” (Guys. Major, major tearjerker warning on that. I underestimated how much it would make me cry even having seen it already and legit found myself pushing down sobs on an airplane. It wasn’t classy.) But for me, the selling point is the joy it finds in 50-year-old women. How many movies can you say that about?

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yet another way to cook chicken.

It’s officially winter. So let’s talk about warm, cold-weather-tasting, stick-to-your-ribs food. We have to, because the next several recipes I have to share with you are only appropriate for the summer months, because I am a monster.

Chicken with apples in honey mustard sauce is a gem by the wonderful Elise at Simply Recipes. As you might have guessed by its name, Simply Recipes is a low-profile, non-fancy food blog serving up highly delicious recipes without bells and whistles. It’s one of my all-time favorite blogs, and this recipe is a great example of why. It’s simple to make, requires no unusual ingredients, and is incredibly delicious. It’s the poultry counterpart to this pork dish that I wrote about in 2011, and I must say that I strongly prefer Elise’s take on these same elements – mustard, apples, cider, meat – to Jenny and Andy’s. Here’s how she makes it, with my own tiny changes included. You’ll need:

1/2 cup apple cider
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 apples
Salt
Pepper
Olive oil

Start by prepping your sauce: whisk together cider, chicken broth, cornstarch, honey, and Dijon, and set aside. Let the flavors marry. You’ll definitely have to whisk again before adding to the pan, as cornstarch has a tendency to turn into cement if you let it sit, but don’t worry, it will quickly re-mix.

Slice your chicken breasts in half longways to make four thin filets (and pull off the chicken fingers too, if they’re there). Salt and pepper them in the pan – this is a great way to kick up your flavor base, as opposed to doing it on the plate – and brown in olive oil on each side, about 4 minutes per side (if your oil was hot enough to begin with).

Once the chicken is brown, turn the heat down to medium and add the apples, which you’ve previously prepared: core, don’t peel, slice thin, bam. Mix them in around the chicken and let them soften for a few minutes, then add your cider mixture. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and let it cook for about 15 minutes or until the chicken is done and the sauce is reduced and the apples are lovely.

This is great cold weather food. Cook it ASAP.

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my recipes: corn, chicken, and potato stew.

In my quest to use up some motherfucking corn, I created a stew of corn, chicken and potatoes, inspired as loosely as it is possible to use the word by some excellent-looking corn stews in Good Maine Food, a borderline insane cookbook I acquired on a trip to Maine last summer and which I should probably tell you about at some point because it is just delightfully batshit. Anyway, here’s how you make my stew. I came up with it using my own brain. You’ll need:

3 slices bacon (I tell you what brand you want here)
1 small onion
1 green bell pepper
1 fresh hot cherry pepper (not the kind from the jar!)
2 good-size boneless skinless chicken breasts (or whatever part of the chicken you prefer; I like BSCB, as I’ve decided to call them, because they’re super easy and chunk up nice but you can do your chicken however you like)
3 – 4 large ears of corn, kernels stripped
Two handfuls of potatoes
Chicken broth
Heavy cream
Salt
Pepper

Obviously, these quantities can be monkeyed around with in whatever way you see fit (though I don’t recommend fucking with the aromatics until you’ve made this at least once). Add whatever veggies excite you. Go buckwild.

But start with bacon. Cut your three large (because you were sensible and bought the kind of bacon I told you to buy) strips of bacon into small pieces and render them until crispy. Lift your little crispy bacon bits out of the pot – I like chopsticks for working with bacon better than any other kitchen utensil – and set aside. Into the bacon fat put your diced green pepper, diced hot cherry pepper, and diced onion. Breathe deeply for several minutes.

Once you’ve acclimated to how fucking good your kitchen smells, go ahead and add your chopped chicken. Again, I like boneless skinless breasts because they are incredibly easy to work with, particularly in a preparation like this where you’re just adding them into a mix of stuff, but you could definitely level this soup up by making chicken stock with a whole chicken, using the chicken you used to make stock in place of the BSCB chunks, and using the stock you made as the base for this soup. But I’ve never made chicken stock and I certainly wasn’t going to start on COOK ALL THE CORN Day, so I used BSCB.

Mix your chicken chunks all up, then add your corn kernels (stripped from the cob aggressively, using a chef’s knife to get all the awesome corn goo out the cob) and your potato chunks. Oh, and just for the record, you chopped everything beforehand because this is soup, and soup is one of those things where actually doing a mise en place will legit save your dumb ass. So you add your corn and potatoes, and then over everything in chicken broth. I would say two cartons should do it? You might need more than two cartons, but you can always top off with water. Anyway, cover everything, add a good slug of heavy cream (maybe 1/2 cup if you feel like measuring) and boil! Then cover, simmer until the potatoes are donezo, and you’re done.

Make this now. Thank me later.

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corn muffins twice.

I mentioned to you earlier that I joined a CSA this summer? One of the …. consequences? I’m comfortable with the word “consequences” – has been a staggering proliferation of corn in my kitchen. There is no recipe that can use up this much corn. There are no two people that can eat this much corn. I spent an entire Sunday cooking almost exclusively recipes involving corn and the pile did not appear to have reduced at all. I think right now I have approximately twenty ears of corn in my fridge. Would you like some corn? I’ve got some corn.

In the spirit of, you know, having a little corn, I tried two corn muffin recipes. (Pro tip: corn muffins are a terrible way to get rid of a gangfuck of corn in one’s fridge. One batch typically calls for the kernels from one ear of corn, and that is insufficient to my needs.) One was smitten kitchen‘s corn, buttermilk, and chive popover recipe; the other was Melissa Clark‘s Fresh Corn Muffins with Maple Syrup. Let’s start with the popovers.

Popovers, if you’ve never had them, are light, fluffy creations, full of air and meant to be eaten hot. As such, they’re not a great candidate for a make-ahead breakfast, and that’s on me. I also didn’t have chives by the time I finally got around to making these, so who knows – maybe they were the missing ingredient that would have put the dish over the top. What I can tell you is that the finished product was seriously Not Great. First of all, as I alluded to earlier, these don’t keep for shit. I made them hoping for a week’s worth of breakfast at best and a few days at worst, and they were hard as unappetizing rocks by the next morning. Worse, though – they didn’t even taste that good. The black pepper did not complement the corn, but it did dominate the flavor profile of the popovers.

These were a failure. I ate one. Maybe try them if you’re making popovers for a crowd to eat immediately and you take out the pepper. Otherwise, avoid.

Melissa Clark’s muffins are a different story! Let me tell you right off the bat, they don’t taste like maple. Foolishly – foolishly! – I thought this meant I could leave the maple syrup out with no effect on the flavor as long as I boosted the sugar. You guys, I was so wrong. It might be because the maple-less batch I made was also made in a loaf pan large enough to swaddle a baby in and I’m pretty bad at figuring out how to adjust recipes for larger pans, but the maple-less batch did not hold a candle to the enmapled batch, despite the fact that the enmapled batch did not taste at all like maple.

It did, however, taste delicious. These muffins are fantastic. You should make them. I made no adjustments to the recipe, except that I don’t know where Melissa Clark lives that she can get maple yogurt in large enough quantities to put 1 1/4 cups in her muffins, I’ve only seen maple yogurt once and I bought it because it had a water buffalo on it and it didn’t taste like maple at all. So I did what she said to do and mixed some more maple syrup into the recipe along with plain yogurt. Next time I might use extra maple syrup, because goddamn right am I making these again.

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Pie Cook-Through #5 and #6: Sugar Plum Pie & Banoffee Pie

I’m not entirely sure sugar plums are a thing. The farmers’ market definitely sells something it calls sugar plums – they’re about the size of a half dollar, scarlet on the inside and sweet as all hell, I eat ’em like actual candy – but Wikipedia and the Google machine, when asked, kick up only sugar plums the weird British candy and sugar plam the Tchaikovsky tune. In First Prize Pies, the cookbook from which I’m sure you remember all these pies are drawn, it seems pretty clear that author Allison Kave is drawing more on her fond memories of The Nutcracker in naming this pie than any sort of nod to actual plum physiology. (Do plums have physiology? I’m thinking no, but I’m also thinking that I’m really enjoying that use of “physiology.”)

Anyway: Sugar Plum Pie is a basic plum pie seasoned with cardamom and honey, and I have to say, I wasn’t wild about it. My assessment of the pie was definitely colored by the fact that pitting plums is a gigantic pain in the ass and I had to pit something like twenty, given the size of plums with which I was working. For me, that sort of time investment demands high return, and flavorwise, it just wasn’t here. I did not think the plums were improved by cooking, and cardamom …. I really, really love cardamom, and I think part of the problem here is me. The recipe calls for 1/8 teaspoon of cardamom, and I have not yet got through my head how powerful cardamom is, so I doubled it to 1/4 teaspoon. And the flavor was overwhelming. So while this pie was not a winner, I wouldn’t hold it against it just yet. I’m sure this is an entirely solid recipe for plum pie that I’d turn to again. If I felt moved to make it again. Which I don’t.

ON THE OTHER HAND BANOFFEE PIE.

If you, like me, are American, you can be forgiven for having one solitary reference to banoffee pie in your world, and that’s Keira Knightley in Love, Actually. You know, the part where she goes to visit Mark at his apartment to forcibly befriend him/get her wedding video and she says, “Bdlkjgvadf pie?!” and he says “no” and she says “It’d have broken my heart if you’d said yes” and then later she references her terrible taste in pie? You know exactly the scene I’m talking about, don’t front. Anyway, that gibberish word she says is “banoffee,” which is an English dessert pie combining bananas and toffee. I’d never had it, but my pie companion requested we make it for her birthday.

I’ve talked about this cookbook being fussy, and the banoffee pie recipe is a prime example. For the “toffee” component, just folded into the recipe, not printed in red or all caps or anything, no warning, Kave instructs you to boil a can of sweetened condensed milk, unopened, FOR FOUR HOURS. Now, if you read the wikipedia entry for banoffee pie you will learn that that is in fact the traditional way to make banoffee, but if you make one more click to dulce de leche, you will learn that that ubiquitous South American dessert which you can get at literally any market with a Hispanic clientele is just boiled sweetened condensed milk. So what I’m saying is that in the name of veracity, Kave has you spend FOUR HOURS PLUS TIME TO COOL on making something that you could probably get within ten minutes of your house with the exact same end quality.

So that’s fun.

Pain in the ass cookbook fussiness aside, this recipe is fucking flawlessly delicious. I wouldn’t have thought Carr’s Whole Wheat crackers would make a good crust for a sweet pie, but in reality they taste like what a graham cracker crust wants to grow up to be. The mix of fresh bananas, soft toffee, and whipped cream is perfect. I would eat this every day and twice on Sunday and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a reason to stop.

Because of the extent to which I intend to blog about this cookbook, I will not be publishing the recipes. However, if a particular pie speaks to you, let me know and I’ll be happy to send the recipe along privately.

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Pie Cook-Through #4: Ginger-Peach Pie

So you might remember I had a crust situation.

After making that pie, I was mad, you guys. Making the crust made me mad. I didn’t want to be mad. I wanted to eat delicious crust wrapped around a fruity filling (that is, “pie”). So I did what I always do when some aspect of cooking kicks my ass: I went to my friends. I believe what I said was something along the lines of “FUCK PIE CRUST help me make it less enragingly.” My friends are smart and skilled and had many tips, and when I sat down to make this pie, I had all of their advice open in my browser, ready to be referenced at a moment’s notice.

My watchword was “calmly.” I decided I was going to have faith in the process. I was going to trust that this recipe would work, given that its creator is a fucking professional pie baker. And I was going to accept that pie crust is not something I can make in twenty minutes and be thrilled with the result.

So, that crust situation I had? I don’t have it anymore.

The crust for this pie was fucking impeccable. For days, it maintained a crisp texture and excellent flavor. It cut easily with only a little brittleness in the outer edge. It looked pretty. It was everything I’ve ever wanted my crust to be. Here’s how I did it.

* Everyone always says that EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE COLD and now I believe them. I didn’t keep my dry ingredients in the freezer, but I did keep my butter in the freezer until the moment of incorporation. I took it out to chunk it, and I then wrapped it all up in a dish towel and put it back for the intervening minutes so it would be as cold as possible when I put it in the food processor. I mixed my milk and vinegar in advance and stored them in the fridge until the moment I added them to the dough. I think this definitely contributed to the level of crispness I was later able to achieve. (For those of you who don’t know, colder ingredients steam when they hit the hot oven, creating pockets of air that lead to fluffiness/flakiness. Here is an article about butter. For those of you who are facebook friends with me, you can see me learning all about this in the Note titled “serious baking questions.” from 2011.)

But I didn’t stop there. I refrigerated this bitch after I took it out the food processor and pulled it together (more about that in the next bullet). I then refrigerated the half I wasn’t rolling out (once I remembered I’d made a double crust recipe, which was ten frustrating minutes into the rolling out process. Amazing how much easier it goes when you’re not doing double work). And then once it was rolled out, I refrigerated the large rolled-out sheet. And then after it was pressed into the pie dish, I refrigerated the pie dish. Basically, I refrigerated for at least ten minutes and at most thirty minutes after every step and I am glad that I did.

* One of my biggest sources of frustration last time I made crust was that the quantity of wet ingredients called for in the recipe did not seem scientifically capable of moistening the quantity of dry ingredients. This time, I did add probably 2 tablespoons more milk than the recipe called for, but I really tried to stay minimal and stick to the recipe. I turned the dough onto the counter and, as last time, felt strongly that there was no way this was enough wet, but I forced myself to stay calm and trust the process, and I started working the dough. I didn’t full out knead it, conscious of introducing as little body temperature as possible into my COLD!!! dough. I just sort of pulled the dry bits at the edges into the middle and prodded and pressed and lo and behold it started to come together. I did this for a few minutes and then I refrigerated. Faith in the process, you guys, faith in the process.

* For rolling out, one of my friends recommended saran wrap between the crust and counter and more saran between the crust and rolling pin. I didn’t have saran, but I did have wax paper, and I foolishly assumed there would be no difference.

So, um. Wax paper is … waxed. It doesn’t have traction. And if you try to roll out a pie crust between two pieces of wax paper, it will slide all over the counter and you will become enraged.

Packing tape is your friend. It was mine. Just tape all your wax paper to the counter, get back to rolling out, and put saran on your shopping list.

* Remember you are making a double crust and do not try to roll out the entire dough ball as one crust. You will be mad.

I think that’s it. I think that’s everything. It was a long process but the resultant crust was so, so worth it.

Oh and the pie. Ha! The pie was fine. You toss peaches with fresh ginger, powdered ginger and sugar. I definitely prefer Deb’s peach pie filling, but this is my go-to crust, now and forever.

Because of the extent to which I intend to blog about this cookbook, I will not be publishing the recipes. However, if a particular pie speaks to you, let me know and I’ll be happy to send the recipe along privately.

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it’s summer. eat vegetables.

Today I would like to tell you about two vegetable salads that I have been devouring recently because I am in a CSA and absolutely drowning in delicious fresh vegetables. Seriously you guys, I drastically overestimated my household’s ability to eat vegetables. And I love vegetables! I’m known for it! But holy mother of God. They have sent me two heads of lettuce per week. Yesterday was my third pick-up, we got a double share because we’re out of town next week, and we still have a whole head of lettuce from last week! No human can eat this much lettuce.

Anyway. Let’s discuss the humble beet.

I love the humble beet. I know people who think it tastes like dirt, but that mostly makes me think they’ve never tasted candy (which is, for the record, what the humble beet actually tastes like). I mostly eat beets steamed and plain. They don’t need anything else; they’re perfect. However, I’m trying to branch out and get creative with my vegetables, so I decided that I would use my CSA beets in a beet salad. I chose one from Jenny and Andy’s list of top ten side dishes: roasted beets with honey, thyme, and feta. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of those three flavors together, but the salad is fantastic. The freshness of the thyme pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the beets, and the feta adds a nice savory kick. Here’s how you make it.

1) Roast beets. The recipe says to roast them at 425 for 40 minutes, but I got weird results – my larger beets were undercooked and my small beet was overcooked. I might stick to steaming in the future.
2) Cool and chop.
3) Add a drizzle of honey, a drizzle of olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. Add generously of fresh thyme and feta cheese crumbles. Toss. Refrigerate. Devour.

The other salad I’ve been eating is a green been and potato salad, the brainchild of my best friend’s boyfriend’s family, who were kind enough to invite me to join them for their July 4th celebration. I ate it, loved it, asked for the recipe, and promptly made up a batch. Here’s how you make it. You’ll need:

Small potatoes (you can buy little potatoes in bags at the grocery store)
Green beans
Garlic
Salt
Garlic powder
Fresh basil
Olive oil

Boil your potatoes until done (it’s nice to boil them close to the state you’d want them in for mashing, because then when you assemble the salad potatoey goodness gets all over everything). While you’re doing this, blanch your green beans. This means: submerge them in boiling water for 1 – 2 minutes, then pull them out and throw them violently into a bowl of ice water. (This sounds like more trouble than it is. I did it for the first time for this recipe and found it to be very easy and an excellent method of cooking green beans.) Also while you are boiling your potatoes, sautee a couple cloves of garlic, chopped fine, in a fair amount of olive oil with some salt. This is your dressing, so be generous. Cook the garlic until it’s reached the level of doneness you like best – mine browned, which is not what I wanted to happen.

Now we assemble! Slice your potatoes in half longways and toss together the potatoes, green beans, garlic and oil, black pepper, a shake or two of garlic powder, and a healthy amount of chopped fresh basil. Let it sit for a few minutes and then taste it. Mine definitely needed more salt, yours may have other needs. Doctor it up, let it cool and enjoy!

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