Originally Posted February 9, 2020 in the Archive
A little late, I know, but I promise I have not forgotten about you, the January Cookbook of the Month, or the February Cookbook of the Month. The final review of Binging with Babish will be coming shortly, but even with the leap year, February is a short month. I don’t want to cheat you on the time to cook out of our February Cookbook of the Month with me: Overwatch, The Official Cookbook by (You guessed it) Chelsea Monroe-Cassel.
If you’ve been around awhile, you know that I usually hit up a video game cookbook at least once a year. Two of the three have now been gifts from some of my best friends and supporters, the Cox Family. Overwatch is no different. This came to me as a Christmas present, and it patiently awaited the moment that I had a free month to put it on the table and get to work. February sounded like the best time to crack it open since Overwatch league started this weekend. (I cannot tell you how excited I am for Overwatch League. I never thought I’d be into E-sports but here we are.)
I am an avid player of the game. It’s been a huge part of my gaming experience with friends from across the world, and for two years now, I’ve obsessed over the competitive gaming scene associated with it. When I heard last year that they were working on a cookbook, I have to admit that I was excited. The characters from the game hail from across the globe, so the possibilities were endless.
The format of the book confirms what I thought would be coming: recipes for every character out at the time. I don’t think I have it in me to do a recipe from every single character over the month of February, but I know that I will visit my personal favorites for a taste of their home countries and what our author believes these beautiful creations would be eating.
I have something to confess. In the modern meta, I am a Moira main. Skillless and terrible, I launch my little orbs (even the gold ones) across the screen with little aim. Its because I CANT aim. I’ve been a gamer for my entire life, and yet any computer game that requires me to aim usually ends poorly. Moira’s recipes are of keen interest to me because of this fact as well as my Irish heritage. Can you believe I have never tried to make my own serious Beef stew in my entire life? I will this month.
That said, the book is first broken down by continent and then by character. Anyone from Europe will be in the same section, etc. I appreciate this breakdown since it does appeal to fans that have even a working knowledge of the game’s lore and characters. Just from my first peak at the book, I have a few complaints.
I will admit some disappointment with Tracer’s recipes when I opened the book. I haven’t cooked anything from this yet, but know that Tracer is a British character. Her major recipes are dead ass Sticky Toffee Pudding and Beer-battered Fish and Chips. Every single human being who has ever watched a cooking show knows a recipe for either of these things. She immediately became the LEAST interesting section in the cookbook.
She isn’t the only laughable member of the crew upon first glance. Soldier 76, the Captain America of Overwatch, is literally tasked with being the man to hold the pancakes, the sugar cream pie, and the tater tot hot dish (AKA CASSEROLE). I say again: Boring. At least the more diverse characters like Lucio and Sombra have recipes that make me actually want to cook them. I’ve never in my life made Pao de queijo or Conchas.
The rest of the cast more than makes up for some of the mediocre recipe choices by bringing something unique to the table. It bares repeating that this is a cookbook surrounded by the individual characters, including the robots. There are some pretty great 'joke' recipes for Bastion, seeing as he doesn't eat. The characters from different parts of the world that often receive less culinary attention in my kitchen will come to the forefront though. These are the characters I will be focusing on as I try at least one recipe a week for the rest of February.
As I said at the beginning, your review of Binging with Babish will follow shortly. It’s been a very strange year already, but I appreciate you sticking around. Let’s make the rest of it good.
Originally Posted February 15, 2020 in the archive
Here’s the thing. I love Binging with Babish. His presentation during his videos is frankly incredible and so different compared to most of what’s out there in food media right now. Recreating both nostalgic and new dishes from media touches a wide audience, and those videos are great ways to make myself feel better. The cookbook is a similar experience. While January was a hard health month for me, just reading the book had many of the same markers as the youtube channel.
Much of what is in that cookbook is going to be a weekend project for a home cook. Very few recipes are what I would call weeknight dinners. Having watched Binging with Babish for a long time, I had a feeling that would be the case. I mean, never in a million years am I going to wake up one morning and tell myself I want to make timpano, which appears to be a fucking nightmare of hardboiled eggs, fresh pasta, hella cheese, salami, and more fresh pasta that has to cook in a dutch oven for two hours and then rest for an hour-- much less go through the effort of making the pasta and sauce on the same day.
Timpano is impressive on camera. It looks crazy, and it IS crazy. What isn’t crazy is his Philly Cheesesteak recipe a few pages away from that hellish concoction, and that IS achievable in a single evening. The easier and more accessible recipes that are peppered into the cookbook are well worth the time it takes to find them, but let’s be honest with ourselves. This is not a cookbook you are going to pick up because you are looking for new recipes.
No normal person is going to sit down and loyally recreate his rendition of Eggs Woodhouse from the TV show Archer, which consists of practically an entire paycheck’s worth of truffles, caviar, Iberico ham, and KASHMIRI saffron. No one is going to sit down and make Buddy the Elf’s horror show of candy pasta, but he did it for you. That’s part of the beauty of it.
Babish publishes his recipes on his website with every video. You can access a lot of this for free by watching what he does weekly or just going to said website. You buy this book for the same reason I bought it-- you want to support the creator and read the story behind what he does. Every recipe comes with a short blurb from him about his process or the significance of the recipe itself. There is both good reading and good food here. You just have to dig a bit to find the good, accessible food.
The most controversial video he ever did (and perhaps the quintessential Babish viewing experience) centered around Pasta Aglio e Olio, was one of the few recipes that I actually did select from the book and recreate. It’s easy to do in a short evening after work, and regardless of what Italian chefs on the internet have to say about it, it was delicious. The garlicky sauce takes minimal effort if you don’t mind slicing six cloves of garlic as thinly as possible-- and that’s it. Counting the time it takes to get your pot of water boiling for your pasta, you might be in the kitchen for a max of thirty minutes.
This is the cookbook for a true fan. Whether they be lovers of movies or lovers of Babish himself, it’s a good gift and a great read. It is not, however, a cookbook I would recommend for someone who wants to fill their shelves with cookbooks of pure utility. This is a book meant to be savored as a reader, and occasionally, as a cook. Maybe you are one of those people who loves Big Night so much that you really do want to spend your entire weekend making that insane timpano monstrosity. Maybe you love the Office so much that you’d make your own chili paste in order to lovingly recreate Kevin’s famous chili-- sans the dank office carpet fiber. Maybe you’re a Game of Thrones fan so insanely dedicated that you’ll find a way to source squab, rabbit, and wild boar in order to try your hand at Sansa’s favorite pigeon pie (or the pie that killed Walder Frey). But if you aren’t any of these things, there are diamonds in the rough to satisfy both hunger and curiosity.
March: Japanese Home Cooking
Originally Posted February 28,2020 in the Archive
So begins a journey that I started with an impulse Amazon purchase after listening to a Bon Appetit Foodcast interview with cookbook author Sonoko Sakai. Rappaport waxed poetic about Japanese Home Cooking, and the author herself sounded like a knowledgeable and thoughtful author. I remembered the struggle to work out of the Momofuku cookbook more than a year ago, and I wanted to give Japanese food another try through another vehicle. I am hoping this will be the one that makes it easier for the average home cook.
Bon Appetit has yet to lead me down the wrong path when a cookbook recommendation has come up in their podcast, so I am trying to keep the faith while looking down the barrel of a cuisine that I am personally intimidated by. Dining In by Alison Roman, Indian-ish from Priya Krishna, and Where Cooking Begins from Carla Lalli Music have all been favorites of mine, and every single one of them came down from the internet’s premiere food media source. So I pulled the trigger on Japanese Home Cooking, and I swallowed down the fear.
Just holding the book in my hands made me think back to the same feeling I had when I first cracked the spine of Momofuku. It’s gorgeous. The artwork and photographs are all super powerful in invoking the central idea of the book- japanese home cooking. Gorgeous scenery any western person associates with the island nation is peppered in among the introductory chapters of the book, and I love them. Still, the fear remained.
Given the nature of the material, the biggest hurdle that was present with Momofuku still exists today. The ingredients are not widely available at the average supermarket, so if you decide to go down this path with me, you will need to use Amazon to fill in the gaps (or better yet, find a local Asian grocer and see if they lean Japanese or not). I live in a much larger city with a large immigrant population, though most of the Asian markets my husband has found in my stead lean Thai or Hmong more than Japanese.
While writing this article, I put in an order for wakame seaweed, mirin, yuzu juice, dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried sardines. There will probably be more orders to come. As of right now, this is probably the largest amount of money I have spent on base ingredients for a cookbook. We’re at a fifty dollar ingredient barrier, which is not present when considering cookbooks like the others we have looked at so far this year. This is before I have even chosen a recipe to begin.
The ingredient barrier leaves me concerned that this may be yet another cookbook that is for the enthusiast only, but we’ll see once we get cooking. Sonoko Sakai front loads the cookbook with a list of many of these ingredients she considers essential in her pantry, so if you do decide to try your hand at this well received book, you won’t have to flip through every recipe to figure out what you need in order to have the basics available.
Our initial order will be in before March actually begins, so we’ll be ready to cook on the first weekend and keep you updated about every recipe as they land on the table. I’m excited to share this journey with you as we tackle our first SCARY cookbook of the year.
February: Overwatch Finale
Originally Posted March 1, 2020 In the Archive
February is over, which means its time to retire our Cookbook of the Month: Overwatch: The Official Cookbook. I’ve come to a conclusion after spending some time with this recent tome from nerd cookbook legend Chelsea Monroe-Cassel. Video game cookbooks are among some of the most accessible cookbooks to ever land on my counter. When we started the month, I talked a great deal about how much I love the game that inspired this book, and I believe that love that gets anyone into one of these cookbooks helps get them into the kitchen.
Because of the multicultural characters within Overwatch itself, there is a large variety of food here for a novice to explore under the careful tutelage of the author. The recipes are easy to read, and most of the ingredients can be found in just about any grocery store. There are easy recipes and hard recipes, drink recipes and dessert recipes. No fan will be disappointed since all of the playable characters (aside from Sigma and Baptiste, who came out during the year of publication) have a section dedicated to their favorite meals and snacks. You’ll find something no matter which character you main.
I’ve got to admit that I did not do as much cooking from this book as I would have liked. For about three weeks of the Overwatch League, I made it a mission to try to do one recipe from a character each weekend. The Guinness Stew for Moira turned out great. I made modifications to the recipe because our author calls for browning the meat and the veggies in a separate pan before adding it to your stew pot. That didn’t jive with me. I wanted the fond in the bottom of the pot to continue building flavor, and I believe that I created something superior as a result. Leaving the flavor behind in a separate skillet wasn’t something I could let myself do.
The next week, I tried to make Reinhart’s Kasespatzle, and I did not thin out the dough enough to be able to force it through my colander. It was a complete failure, and I couldn’t get myself to rebound. (depression is a bitch sometimes) This doesn’t mean that I won’t try it again. I still believe there is a lot of potential in Kasespatzle to bring something different to the table for a weekend dinner. It may very well be a dish we revisit just to try again and see if its as good as it looks.
Literally the day after the Kasespatzle failure, I dedicated my afternoon to Kroppkakor, Swedish potato dumplings stuffed with bacon and onion. These were dedicated to Torbjorn, and God bless Torbjorn. I made these as a snack for the Saint Louis Battlehawks game, and I ate two before kick off even started. This was a problem since there were only eighteen total dumplings to make it through four quarters of the XFL. I can only imagine how good they would have been if I added the allspice that’s called for in the recipe to the filling.
I’ve got to admit that I was ridiculously entranced by the recipes for the Germanic characters like Reinhardt, Torbjorn, and Mercy. It’s the time of year in Wisconsin where I want something heavy and cheesy and potatoes, so while I approached this book initially interested in what the South American characters brought to the table, I bought for completely different things when it came time to make the grocery list.
As far as cookbooks from this particular author go, I enjoyed this one much more than the Skyrim cookbook from last year. The options allowed for a wider, more interesting selection. I could have gone a million different ways in how I approached this book, but for whatever reason, I focused on European characters. Maybe we’ll return to some of the recipes from the more diverse cast later in the year as Overwatch League continues.
If you missed it, our March cookbook of the month was announced Friday. You can check the article out here.
We are also going to start ratings next month, so these reviews will become more critical for the rest of 2020.
Please keep an eye on our other social media for more updates
March: Making Milk Bread
Originally Posted on March 25,2020 in the Archive
This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread aggressively within the United States. Please keep that in mind while reading.
Saturday morning came. It was the one day this week where I wouldn’t hate myself for heating up my kitchen with my oven for an hour making bread. Wisconsin is about to get its first taste of spring with some near 50 degree weather, and my second story apartment heats up like no one’s business the minute the weather gets over 35. I couldn’t start a Japanese cookbook in good conscience with anything but the milk bread recipe, especially when it is actually present in the book.
Milk Bread has hit its stride in the United States in the last few years, especially on the West Coast where the Japanese immigrant population is much more dense. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never had it made by a professional. My stint on the East Coast was short, and we never made it to any kind of joint in the big cities where they might serve it. This will be my first taste of milk bread, and my first attempt at making a bread so reliant on dairy.
The strangest thing about it is starting out with a milk/water/bread flour roux that has to be heated to a boil and whisked until it becomes thick. This isn’t something I have done with any western bread recipe that I’ve tried over the last four years. Dairy comes into play for me in western breads mostly for flatbreads and that’s about it. I don’t pull out my whole milk for anything that’s going into a loaf pan-- until today.
This roux has to cool to room temperature before you can move on to the rest of the recipe, so there is a shocking amount of downtime early on before you even have to start proofing your dough. This was cleaning time for me. I’m the WORST at keeping up with my dishes, so while I waited for the roux to cool, I tackled the growing stack of pans I created making Katsu from Bon Appetit (more on that later).
A few clean pans later, and I began combining the rest of the ingredients in the bowl for my stand mixer. I couldn’t find buckwheat flour, but the recipe in this cookbook is flexible enough to allow any ‘heritage’ grain such as rye, so my rye flour was finally used. The dough pulls together super easy, and you just let it go in the standmixer for about ten minutes until its a nice, smooth consistency.
The dough goes through two different proofing sessions, first in a bowl and then in the loaf pan. Prior to putting it in the loaf pan, you split your dough, ROLL IT, and then fold the two sections separately into logs. Those logs are laid in opposite sides of your loaf pan, and then proofed again. I forgot to brush the top with milk before baking it, so I brushed it halfway through. This might be enough of a problem that I’ll make myself do the recipe again to see if it mattered.
Spoiler alert: It definitely mattered. I made this bread again several times over the course of March and found that the majority of my problem was because i did not allow my stand mixer to knead the dough for a long enough amount of time to allow for elasticity within the dough so that the yeast could do its work. Every attempt afterwards came out much better.
This recipe has become one of my favorite project bakes for the weekend since I don't have to have my oven up at ungodly temperatures to come out with a good loaf of bread. I would honestly recommend this book if only for the Milk Bread Recipe. I love it so much. We use it for sandwiches and egg in a basket, and I imagine it would turn into some great breadcrumbs when it goes stale. I can only hope to have milk bread made by a professional one day.
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March: Preparing the Staples
Originally Posted in the Archive March 31, 2020
This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread aggressively within the United States. Please keep that in mind while reading.
Japanese Home Cooking relies upon a number of essential preparations that often need to be done ahead of your actual cook time, not the least of these is the quintessential Japanese stock, dashi. Sonoko Sakai discusses having these ready before you begin cooking, and I could not agree more with this statement after having had them available for my use during the regular weekday. As of writing this particular article, I’ve done nothing from this book but make milk bread and get these pantry ingredients ready. What I have already taken from the book, however, has made an abundant difference in my cooking.
The beauty of these pantry ingredients is that they are usually quick to assemble for future use. The first of these that I took on was the sauce known as shoyu tare, a reduction of soy sauce, cane sugar, and mirin. It takes very little babysitting, and it keeps for longer than the dashi. After reducing the ingredients together, I stored it in a mason jar for whenever I would manage to get to actual recipes from the cookbook.
I had the flu in the second week of March which has hamstringed my cooking progress in this book significantly, but the shoyu is able to outlast any illness that sidelines the cook. I had it available for a weekend meal that I quickly prepared for my husband, adding it to a fried rice that apparently blew his mind. The seasoning it brings, while slightly sweet from the cane sugar, is much different than if you added a normal soy sauce. That alone is a point in favor of keeping the shoyu tare around even after I am finished with the book.
Dashi, on the other hand, has sat in my fridge up until now with very little cooking having been done with it. It was, however, an interesting experience to bring it together. I don’t have any experience cooking with kombu kelp or kastuobushi, AKA bonito flakes. I had no concept of what dashi should taste like or the kind of flavor profiles that its base ingredients could create. I didn’t know that bonito flakes danced in hot water when you added them. All of this, I learned on dashi night.
Sunday evening, I was finally fever free and felt like I would be safe cooking anything that would also be consumed by my husband that date or later. The bonito is time sensitive, and while I know the new bags I got wouldn’t go bad within the month, I didn’t want to make the mistake of letting them age in my cupboard like I had the bag that I purchased during the Momofuku debacle. I had high hopes for dashi.
Sonoko Sakai includes a recipe for what she calls secondary dashi, a lighter and weaker dashi that’s made from the spent ingredients that you use to make your first stock. I created this one immediately after so I didn’t waste anything. This is something about cooking that I love. If an ingredient can be used more than once in order to reduce waste, I will advocate for that until the end of time. Knowing I could get three mason jars worth of stock out of the ingredients made me very happy.
Dashi is a base ingredient in soups and noodle bowls of all kinds, some of which I intend to get to before the end of the month. It may very well require that I make a second batch if I continue to let my current batch sit in the fridge unattended. Given the current climate (the literal climate, as well as the political and health climates), food waste of any kind feels something like a special crime. Being in northern Wisconsin, I don’t anticipate that my husband and I will face any real quarantine, but my anxiety tells me not to waste anything-- just in case.
This just in case mentality (AKA anxiety) has me turning to many recipes like these from within Japanese Home Cooking to make sure I have everything I could ever want or need-- whether it's to cook on a normal weeknight or to make a nice soup for my husband or myself if we do get sick. It’s a strange time to be living in, much less cooking in. Having this to fall back on when there is so much uncertainty is a small gift from the author to me. This is one of the things I love most about cookbooks.
These very basic things that the author takes the time to teach a western audience about are perhaps some of the most valuable aspects of the book. I’ve heard of dashi all my life, but I never really understood how to make it. Some Japanese cooking programs online treat it like an instant stock, which I’m sure exists, but this is the way we can make it here. It’s a unique connection to a culture that has infiltrated our American cuisine in the form of sushi and now noodle shops.
April: Nothing Fancy Introduction
Originally Posted April 5,2020 in the Archive
It wasn’t all that long ago that I picked up Dining in by Alison Roman and regarded it as one of my favorite cookbooks of all time. During the great cookbook release of October 2019, she dropped another cookbook on me in my most trying time: Nothing Fancy. I couldn’t get it. I waited patiently until I started a new job, and here we are, visiting Alison Roman for another cookbook of the month: Nothing Fancy. April won’t be anything fancy, that’s for sure.
‘Unfussy food for having people over’, says the first page. I don’t have people over very often. I most certainly won’t be having people over when my entire state is under a Stay-at-Home order during COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean this cookbook isn’t for me. I learned that pretty quickly when I picked up Dining in with a degree of skepticism before it completely blew my mind. I thought that a big time New York Times cooking writer would be a pretentious asshole, but her writing is among my favorite about food.
So I know right off the bat that my expectations are going to be high for Nothing Fancy. I crack it open and smell that new book smell. I look at the pages, and I know that if you told me it was Dining In, I’d believe you. She’s landed on a brand, and it works. It’s a magical combination of professional and friendly. Pure white page, minimalist font. Beautiful photography.
I haven’t been paying much attention to the press for this one, so I don’t know if there are any recipes that I should focus on. I’m just going to do what I’ve done for every other cookbook that I’ve cooked out of for you. I’m going to wing it. I feel much more comfortable about that coming into a cookbook from an author that I already know and trust. Whatever i pick, I can rest assured that it will likely go over well in my house.
The only problem is of course our current environment surrounding grocery shopping and food. My only complaint of Dining In was the call for things like preserved lemons, labneh, and other somewhat specialist ingredients that are difficult to get in a traditional American Grocery store. Blessedly, Alison has started to offer alternatives that people can use that would normally be in the grocery store.
It’s pretty food meant to serve a crowd, so I expect that i’ll come out of each recipe with a good amount of leftovers to stretch over a few days with just my husband and I in the house. This would be true with or without COVID-19 stopping any kind of social visits. We very rarely have company, but if we did, I’d trust Alison Roman with feeding them. I haven’t even cooked out of this book yet.
I will try to post at least one article a week about my cooking experience with Nothing Fancy similar to what was done toward the end of March for Japanese Home Cooking. I had so many articles for that, and yet my pandemic anxiety kept me from just logging on and putting the articles online.
Originally Posted April 7, 2020 in the Archive
This month is the beginning of our rating system. You will find the actual ratings at the bottom of the article. Please let me know if this format works for you, or we can move them to the top.
If you told me a month ago that my favorite bread recipe of all time would come out of a cookbook that I considered at first glance to be the book for a specialist, I might have laughed at you. Here we are, a month into Japanese Home Cooking by Sonoko Sakai, and I can safely say that Milk Bread may be my favorite type of bread in the history of baking. This is, of course, not a book devoted solely to the creation of milk bread, so we have to look at the whole before we consider how to score our first rated cookbook on Eating Normal.
I’ll admit that I didn’t do a ton of actual cooking-cooking from this cookbook right out the gate. I used the milk bread and the dashi for my own concoctions rather than turning to a lot of the prepared recipes once I got past the kitchen essentials portion of the cookbook. That being said, I felt that I learned a lot from those very early portions of the book that I did not already know about Japanese cooking. This cookbook became a tome of knowledge for me instead of a recipe reference, really.
I’ve always had a deep love for Japanese anything. My earliest memories of cartoons revolve around the Americanized Sailor Moon anime with all of those little life lessons tacked onto the end for little girls to make you forget that there were lesbians. I wanted bento boxes for lunch and sympathized greatly for the always hungry Usagi (AKA Serena, as I grew up calling her). It’s this love that intimidated me out of the more serious recipes within Sonoko Sakai’s cookbook. I was afraid to tarnish a memory. I was afraid to fail.
I think that will be a barrier for most home cooks when they consider a book like this. It’s well beyond the regular reading we might do while looking for a meal, quick or otherwise. It’s clearly titled, so we have at least an idea of what to expect when we peek inside. The unusual ingredients coupled with the sheer reverence that people of my generation have for this type of food can make us all hit the breaks.
I wish I could say that I cooked a recipe from every portion of the cookbook and wandered bravely into the unknown, but I didn’t. Some of this is my own fault. Some of it is the fact that I’m a midwestern cook surrounded by midwestern supermarkets, and some of it is the fact our Asian Markets are decidedly Thai-leaning. I couldn’t get my hands on lotus root, yuzu, or ume plums. Taro roots and yam cakes aren’t something that anyone in my nearby vicinity would know how to find.
I did manage to make a tonkatsu toward the end of my time with Japanese Home Cooking, and like any deep fried food, my husband and I loved it. The hardest part was actually the tonkatsu sauce which required me to make a fresh batch of dashi, and then assemble the sauce. Still, it’s likely another recipe that will stick around after this book has been shelved.
That said, this is NOT a cookbook for someone who wants to be able to try every damn thing in the book. It’s much more of a book for the cook that likes to research. I found a lot of value in the earlier chapters of this cookbook for precisely that reason. I had no idea how to make dashi or what goes into it. I had no idea what milk bread was or that I’d fall in love with it as deeply as I did. The pantry ingredients that she teaches you to make early on have innumerable uses in any kitchen, and from this month forward, I will probably always have a container of Shoyu Tare in my refrigerator.
Accessibility: 2 out of 5
The ingredients are difficult to find in most parts of the country, and with the current environment surrounding grocery stores and online shipping, it will be even harder. It is, however, an easy read with clear instructions that a curious cook will be able to follow.
Difficulty: 2 out of 5
Most people in the United States do not have a lot of experience with this style of cooking, so there is definitely a learning curve when you crack the spine. Sonoko Sakai has a clear writing style that will help to guide you along the way, but a complete novice will find themselves lost from time to time. The ingredients likewise add a degree of difficulty since there are so many layers to the cooking.
Originality: 5 out of 5
In this respect, I will highly recommend this cookbook. What you get here isn’t something you can get in an everyday cookbook. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do. You won’t find these recipes in a Pioneer Woman cookbook. It’s a wonderful addition to your shelf if you are looking for something different, but it is not for most home cooks.
April: Lemon Turmeric Tea Cake
Originally Posted April 17,2020 in the Archive
I opened Nothing Fancy during my third week of self isolation, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to cook as I flipped through the pages. It’s literally a book about entertaining, AKA having people over for dinner, and neither you nor I will be having people over for dinner anytime soon. I have so many chicken recipes that I don’t want to cook another whole fucking chicken for the rest of this quarantine thing.
One of her most famous recipes from Dining In was a dessert, and Nothing Fancy has an appropriately sized dessert section for anybody looking for something different during their quarantine baking. I stumbled upon a recipe that I had every possible ingredient I needed without needing to make my husband go pick up another grocery order, and that was her Lemon Turmeric Tea Cake.
The idea of turmeric in a cake is a new one for me. It’s been a trendy spice for quite awhile, touted for health benefits while white people appropriate turmeric lattes and shit in the big cities. What I found was that the turmeric coupled with the lemon zest helped add a bright color to the cake which makes it very appealing once it’s come out of the oven, so perhaps it wasn’t such an odd ask for a baker.
The actual process of preparing the cake is very easy compared to some of the bread projects I’ve been working on since the start of our COVID-19 isolation time. Zesting a lemon into some sugar and distributing the zest through the sugar with your hands is perhaps the hardest part. The rest is very typical, wet ingredients and dry assembled separately until you need to make the batter.
Cut some thin lemon slices to distribute on the top of the cake as you see fit, dust it with granulated sugar, and throw that baby in the oven for about an hour. What comes out is a lovely, table center worthy cake that would be a temptation to look at through an entire meal, much less another week of time without seeing anyone but your immediate family.
This is part of why I have such a great love for Alison Roman’s first book. The recipes come together easily, and the final result is something to be proud of. I have only struggled with her recipes once, and frankly it was probably my fault. This time, I found no struggle. This time, I made a pretty cake for the first time in my adult life. I don’t bake cakes. I might now.
My husband and I did not cut into the cake immediately, so we wrapped it up for consumption the next day. It’s still a very pretty thing to look at even if the warmth of the oven has passed from its gentle exterior. The row of lemon slices I assembled on the top descend by size, and I love it.
It’s a simple dessert that can be made from things that a lot of us have just laying around the house, and that’s the special part of this dessert for me in the time of COVID-19. I’ve got lemons most days if my grocery order went through okay, and I do not go through turmeric fast enough to be concerned that I have depleted my little spice shaker more than maybe once a year. This is one of the few recipes I have ever tackled for Eating Normal where I required zero pre-emptive shopping.
April: Nothing Fancy Finale
Originally Post April 30,2020 in the Archive
Nothing Fancy has survived to the end of the month with us, and while it may have been a poor choice for this moment in time where none of us are hosting dinner parties anymore, Alison Roman remains an American powerhouse of cookbookery. We did a recipe a week, and while I did not manage to cover every section of her cookbook during my time in the kitchen, I found a lot of enjoyment in her recipes.
In her first book, Roman guided the reader carefully through each of her recipes, and this method was not forgotten. Her recipes are easier to read and follow than some that we’ve covered during our cookbook of the month process. This remains true in Nothing Fancy. Most people are not going to struggle, especially if you have some previous cooking experience.
That being said, the last recipe I did encapsulates my feelings on the cookbook pretty well. I fucking love stuffed pasta anything. Lasagna, manicotti, stuffed shells, all of it. I want noodles and cheese for all things all the time forever, so when I found a recipe for ricotta stuffed shells with burrata and mushrooms in Nothing Fancy, it was one of the first I marked for testing in the Eating Normal kitchen. The introduction to the recipe gives you the option to make it however you like, as far as stuffed pastas go. I went for the shells per the title, but as I sat down to cook, I found myself wanting more.
The ricotta mixture is pretty vanilla. Ricotta, salt, pepper, cream, and parmesan. I want MORE than that in my stuffing, and it was hard to resist the temptation to crack a can of artichoke hearts or cut some herbs to throw in. This first run is always about the original recipe, so I told myself a hundred times that I could not start freestyling yet. Cooking is about freestyling a lot of the time, but not now.
Another barrier to this recipe is the sheer amount of good mushrooms called for. You don’t realize how much two pounds of mushrooms is until you go to pick it up. I must have cut and cleaned about four whole little tubs of mushrooms to get a mix that I liked to go on top of this sucker, but when they came out of the oven after their initial roast, I was pleased with them.
This is a multistep process that begins with those mushrooms and a little roasting. They’re snug in your oven while you mix your cheese and get your shells to al dente. The recipe is simple if a little labor intensive with cutting a ton of mushrooms and stuffing as many giant pasta shells as your little hands can shove into your baking dish.
The result, however, is a pretty fucking beautiful vegetarian plate of pasta. Like much of what Roman provides for your consideration, it looks great on the plate, in the dish, and on paper. There are, however, times where I felt like I needed to make personal adjustments to the recipes to find some more satisfaction. The ratings are as follows:
Accessibility: 4 out of 5
Ingredients are not hard to find, and I often had all of what I needed already in my pantry since I started stocking up for quarantine pretty early. This is a blessing as far as cookbooks go. The less special trips to the grocery store I have to make even in normal times, the better.
Difficulty: 2 out of 5
It’s easy to read, and the writer does well at guiding you through each individual step in the recipe. As always, you should read the whole recipe before you start cooking either way. There are enough difficult recipes in the book to challenge a veteran, but she also has a great deal of recipes to start you down a path to better cooking.
Originality: 3 out of 5
Nothing Fancy is the spiritual successor to Dining In in ever way, shape, or form. Roman leans on chicken recipes as much now as she did then, and that’s okay. The only difference is that many of these recipes are meant to be shared with a larger number of people. I would probably suggest you get one or the other unless you are, like me, a big fan.