Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Something Amazing:  Whatever, Martha.  

If you get the Fine Living Channel (I have no idea if this is part of basic cable or extended or the crazy 500 channel package I have, because I had never heard of it before today, which is a travesty, because I am about to tell you about the best show in the universe), you need to watch Whatever, Martha.  This is a show where Martha Stewart's daughter, Alexis, sits around watching old episodes of the Martha Stewart show and being dirty and sassy about it.  No seriously, it is an amazing concept and actually very funny in real life.  Watching this show, I suddenly I realized that I am some weird middle ground hybrid between prissy, crafty Martha and inappropriate, snarky Alexis.  Further, Alexis pretends to hate all the fussy things Martha does on her show, but after Alexis proves she knows a recipe for pesto off the top of her head, when her dopey co-host talks about how the hardest thing she can make is scrambled eggs, the look of incredulous contempt that Alexis shoots her is worth ten million dollars.  Also, I like jokes about "rock hard" pillows.  So sue me.  Two thumbs up.  

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I started reading Laurie Colwin this summer because of an article I read on Jezebel about marketing fiction written by women. The article talked about how, in the current literary climate, a novel written by someone with breasts will likely be encased in a pink dustjacket and placed on a table of chick-lit even if its subject matter does not fundamentally concern underwear shopping, boyfriend analyzing, social climbing, strategic bed-hopping and all the other topics that made nasty Candace Bushnell a brazillionaire. While I think this would give most well-read girls pause, upon reflection, I'm not vehemently opposed to idea. I am happy if this strategy enables talented women to make a living at writing, and I like to imagine people looking for the next adventure of a shopaholic being tricked into reading something that potentially has intellectual merit. Laurie Colwin was offered up as an example of an authoress who wrote "serious" books that happened to be about women and also happened to periodically employ humor.

That was enough of an endorsement to send me to the library to borrow Happy All the Time and Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object. Colwin was quite prolific, and with almost ten novels to her credit, it was difficult to know where to start, but those two seemed to be the most frequently acclaimed. I blew through both stories in about 48 hours apiece. Both hovered around the 200 page range and were not particularly taxing to traverse. I had a hard time with Happy All the Time, because I didn't like any of the female characters. They were all such difficult women. One of them was a stay-at-home wife who would frequently disappear for months long chunks of time to "be alone in the quiet" or whatever with nary a substantial explanation to her beleaguered husband. The other main female character was always either being nasty, suspicious and snide to her husband or crying about how she was worried he didn't love her. Both of these women turned their noses up at a peripheral lady character who had the nerve to passionate about organic food. I suppose the point of this was to show that women do not have to fit into a traditional mold of femininity and domesticity, waiting at home with hot meatloaf on the stove. Meanwhile, the husbands were the sweetest, most jovial dopes I'd ever encountered. How did they find their way to these women? The entire time I was reading, I couldn't understand whether Colwin was trying to teach me a lesson embodying ideals I believed in in two very unlikable women, or whether she really thought she was creating Bohemian, modern paradigms for us all to which we should all aspire.

The second book, Shine On Bright and Dangerous Object, was about a slightly more likable woman my age who has just lost her husband in a sailing accident. Within the first ten pages of this novel, it was clear that she and her dead husband's brother are in love, that they are inherently more compatible than she was with her dead husband, and that the two of them are going to end up together. No, seriously, we had to wait through 175 pages of them pretending to not be in love while she grieved and built her new life on her own terms and blah blah blah until she finally got drunk and made out with her dead husband's brother. And then, in the last couple chapters, after she finally permits herself to be happy with the dead husband's brother, she goes away to a musical summer camp for grownups where she starts an affair with a married pediatrician from Tennessee. I had been on board with the whole stupid storyline until she boned the doctor from Nashville. That just made me mad. The character justified it by saying that her relationship with the doctor was something completely independent and special from her dead-husbands-brother-boyfriend at home, assumedly to prove the point that her love for her dead husband is something unique and unconnected to her love for his alive brother. I knew from the beginning she was going to get together with the brother, and I was rooting for it, but I guess I'm too rigid and monogamous to allow the logic to follow so far that one relationship pairing has literally no bearing on another one.

Not surprisingly, the book I liked even better than either of these was Colwin's non-fiction-memoir-cookbook, Home Cooking. Several hundred pages of anecdotes, advice and opinions about the kitchen, this book was all my favorite things. This afternoon I picked up the sequel, More Home Cooking, from the library and three chapters in, it is quickly winning me over. The introduction was all about how all her favorite books have vivid descriptions of menus and food, and as illustration of this point, she mentioned what a infuriatingly underrated author Jane Austen is. "Everybody thinks she's just darling, but she is not just darling, she's really tough." And that sentence helps me to understand Colwin's intentions with her women a little bit better; just as Austen wrote women that expanded conceptions of the abilities and interior lives of Regency women, Colwin wants to create women who challenge our ideas of the everyday pedestrian heroine.

That doesn't mean I have to like them, though, because, man, they sound annoying.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Very Scientific Experiment

Two months ago I read a story in the New York Times about chocolate chip cookies. Now, I could no sooner pick a favorite kind of cookie among the chocolate chips and peanut butters and sugar with buttercream frosting and linzer filled with apricot jam and chocolate sandwich as I could pick a favorite pair of shoes or color of dahlia or episode of Veronica Mars - I just love them all so much - but chocolate chip is right up there with my brown suede peep-toe wedges and deep violet and the one where Logan and Veronica get together for the first time after Logan punches JTT who is an FBI agent posing as a high school student. I was less interested in the overly prescriptive recipe in the Times article as I was by their assertion that the quality and taste of these cookies could be increased exponentially by letting the dough rest in the refrigerator for 36 hours before baking. I've read a lot of cookbooks and bossy, but well intentioned, advice about baking before and had never been told to do any such thing, so I was intrigued. No one, not even the New York Times, will be able to convince me that any recipe for chocolate chip cookies is better than my Grandma Mariel's, but I could potentially be persuaded to mix up the baking process. Obviously, the only way to proceed was to employ the scientific method and ascertain whether Jaques Torres was full of crap or truly on to something.

As mentioned, I would be conducting this experiment using my cookie gospel of choice, my grandmother's Cowboy Cookie recipe. Cream 2 cups butter (or margarine), 2 cups white sugar, 2 cups brown sugar, and 4 eggs. Slowly mix in 4 cups flour, 1 t baking powder, 2t soda, and 1t salt. Finally stir in 3 cups oats and 12 ounces of chocolate chips. My original plan was make the cookie dough at about 7am on Sunday morning when I usually wake up, so that I could bake test batches exactly 36 hours later when there would be a gaggle of boys at my house watching Monday Night Football, but that plan was thwarted when I stayed out until 3 am with my cousins on Saturday night. Instead, by the time I woke up, drank a carafe of french press coffee, talked to my mom on the phone for 45 minutes while laying on the couch with a pillow over my head, and finally got myself organized to make cookie dough, it was 11 o'clock. Luckily, I was a history major and thus am not particularly into "scientific precision." Close enough for government work. At that point, I baked one test batch of a dozen cookies for 12-15 minutes in a 350 degree oven and departed to Madison Park with Megan to eat a shrimp and havarti omelet for brunch.

Monday night I baked 4 dozen more cookies and put the rest of the dough in the freezer to use later. I let the 36 hour cookies cool so as not to tip off the cookie testers, and gave everyone a "Cookie 1" and a "Cookie 2," with no details as to their potential differences and the instruction to tell me which they preferred.

See "My Very Official Cookie Focus Group":

Both Witold and Kevin Hannifan preferred the cookie from the aged dough. Kevin Lind thought the cookies that had been baked right away were superior, but he is a hippie vegetarian, so his taste buds are suspect in the first place. The first cookie definitely had a softer texture, but the aged cookie had a much more distinct flavor profile, it was much sweeter and complex and had a crispy outside but a moist middle. I can not speak to whether the texture was a result of the way it dough had aged or just that I overcooked the new batch a little bit.

The Moral of The Story: I did prefer the cookie dough that had matured in the fridge. Luckily, this complements my cooking style because I frequently make dough ahead of time to be baked at different intervals. Granted, my focus group was quite small, and was cleansing their palette in between tastes with nasty Coors Light, so I don't know that we can take any hard and fast rules from this experiment, other than that cookies are totally delicious.