snowy day at the office

Comfort

snowy day at the officeIn all my crêpe cake sadness, I overshadowed one great culinary success. The day after my birthday, I came home and just threw together a simple mac and cheese based on a vague craving and no recipe. It was really good, and it was even better leftover for lunch, especially on the seriously snowy day we just had.

I used rainbow chard, which was the only one at the grocery store, but other chard varieties, or any other hearty leafy green, would work well, too. You can also vary the cheeses as you like. I wanted something vegetarian, but I suspect bacon would be amazing in this. Maybe next time.

Blue Chard Shells and Cheese

Blue Chard Shells

  • 1 pound shells, or other short pasta of choice
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1½ cups milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 8 ounces shredded mozzarella
  • 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, stems and leaves separated, washed and chopped
  • salt
  • pepper
  • bread crumbs

Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and whisk briskly until smooth. Slowly add the milk and cream (I put them together in a measuring cup), whisking continuously. Lower the heat and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until thickening. Add the mozzarella and blue cheese and cook, whisking frequently, until the cheese melts and the sauce is thick and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

In the pasta pot or a skillet over medium heat, cook the shallot in a little olive oil until translucent (a minute or two). Add the Swiss chard stems and cook until tender. Add the leaves and cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the pasta in the baking dish. Top with the chard-shallot mixture. Pour the sauce over the top and stir until evenly mixed. Sprinkle the top with a light layer of bread crumbs.

Bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 20 minutes.

Lamy A.L. Joy

The Big 3-1

I celebrated my birthday this past weekend. More precisely, I enjoyed several little celebrations over several days. I told M that I wanted to do three things: go out for Japanese food, bake myself a cake, and play some uninterrupted Skyrim. His reply? “Going big for the 3-1, huh?” I think he was being sarcastic.

In truth, I’ve never been a big birthday bash person. I don’t dislike parties, but I’m not fond of being their focus. It took a fair amount of faking comfort to get through the baby showers last summer. Something about opening all those presents in front of everyone.

Anyway, the festivities started early, thanks to a snow day last week. Since work usually gives the final say around 07:00, the baby and I were already up. I got a shower, saw the happy email, and decided to settle in for a little gaming. Something about snow just makes me want to play Skyrim. Incidentally, is there a mod to remove all the nonessential dragons? Fast-traveling is becoming a major pain. (Yes, I know dragons are basically the point of the game. I’m a scaredy-gamer, and I really just play to collect and craft. Or kill bandits. I can do that.)

baby and socktopus

Japanese food was Saturday’s task, checked off at Hana Japan in Newburyport. We gingerly took Little Bear with us, and, to my shock, he lasted the entire nearly-two-hour dinner without fussing once. He couldn’t seem to get enough of the charming ladies in kimonos, the paper lanterns, the carp streamers hanging from the ceiling. I, on the other hand, could not get enough of the food. Their rendition of nabeyaki udon was different than the one I used to order at Mr. Sushi in Brookline but was still excellent. The noodles were perfectly chewy, the broth was rich, and instead of cracking in an egg, they topped it with slices of tamago, or Japanese omelet. It added a great sweet counter to the savory. I also had agedashi tofu for the first time. I’ve wanted to try the dish for years, but I dragged my feet on making it myself. I can now add it to my repertoire without fear. Deep-fried tofu is wonderful.

agedashi tofu at Hana

My present from M arrived earlier than expected. Because I’d asked for it specifically, it wasn’t a surprise like he prefers (and is very good at). But it was eagerly anticipated and joyfully received. I’ve been dabbling more and more in writing, both everyday and decorative, so I asked for my first real fountain pen. This pen works for calligraphy, though I fully intend to use the 1.1 Italic nib I selected for everyday cursive. I chose this pen especially because it includes a converter, and I am mildly obsessed with bottled ink. I also got samples of this ink and this ink. I look forward to spending a messy hour learning how to swap them in.

Lamy A.L. JoyThe last step of my chosen fun was the cake. For some reason, I started getting really particular about baking birthday cakes once M and I moved in together. Except last year, when I prioritized homemade bao, though a blizzard nearly derailed that. Two years ago, I made almond champagne confetti cake. This year, I wanted something green tea and simpler, though you wouldn’t know it from how it turned out. I wanted something made with green tea. In googling, two cakes really stood out: a swiss roll and a mille-crêpes cake. Having never made génoise, I decided the modular style of a crêpe cake might be more forgiving this time. (Silly me.)

On a hunch, I thought chestnut might be really good with green tea. However, all I had on hand was sweetened chestnut spread, and I couldn’t find a pastry cream recipe that used sweet purée. I really didn’t want to try my hand at reducing the sugar when I’d never even made crème patisserie before. So I figured the chestnut spread could be its own component and flavored the pastry cream with white chocolate instead. As happens with a six-month-old in the house, I wound up making the components separately and in advance. I actually assembled the cake on my birthday night.

It was not great.

Mille-Crêpes messThe pastry cream was too thin, so things started sliding, then it essentially started weeping down the sides of the cake. The white chocolate seemed heavy to taste. The chestnut was strong and had to be mixed with cream to spread easily. The crêpes turned out well, at least. I’m adept at making American-style pancakes, but I’d always heard the first crêpe or two off the pan comes out badly. This was not the case for me, somehow. A small victory amidst the mess.

green tea crêpesI didn’t realize how badly I wanted a win until I didn’t get one. I don’t make a huge deal about birthdays, but it was so disappointing to work hard on my birthday cake and have such a subpar result. (Note: the flavor the next day was good, but it never really firmed up. I basically ate my cake with a spoon.) But hey, there is some silver lining. I discovered a taste for chestnut. My love for green tea continues unabated. And I’m a surprisingly dab hand at making crêpes. Just don’t ask me to layer them with pastry cream again.

The night of the cake, I was feeling a bit bleak. I don’t cook or bake often enough these days to be unperturbed when an effort goes awry. But I’ve had some time to reflect. Reading back over this post, I realize that this birthday was full of things that I love. Which means, despite the culinary disaster, it was a total success.

Miscellany: Sick Days

January has not been particularly kind to our little family. It seems like the baby and I have spent more time at home than at daycare/work. I have worked just a single full week since early November! A month or so ago, I found the part-time thing relaxing. Now I am nearly crawling the walls with impatience and a slight anxiety about how far behind I am at work.

Well, I’m mentally impatient, anyway. Physically, I’m struggling through a horrifying cold to which I succumbed as the baby went through pneumonia. Thankfully, a hospital stay and plenty of TLC have him on the mend. It was not easy to see such a little lad hooked up to an IV and getting chest x-rays. But he was a trooper and it was all for the best. Now I just hope the recovery days I’ve had helped me. I badly want us all to be well for awhile.

The various illnesses and ailments of the last few weeks have subdued my usual monkey mind somewhat. I would characterize my recent desires as almost pathetic longings for spring that isn’t here and athletic pursuits I cannot manage just now and fresh produce I don’t have the energy to fix up for meals. The things on my mind are a little less ambitious, a bit more dreamy than usual.

Understandably, I’ve been thinking about wellness. One of the first things I miss when I’m ill is physical activity. Before the latest bout of illness, I’d been trying to reconcile my desire to finally resume workouts with my desire for sleep. (I truly do not know how to squeeze them in without getting up even earlier.) Now, however, I’m thinking of restorative activities. I used to do yoga every day. The associated inversions, however, conflict with my current congested state. How about tai chi? It’s been a long time since I did that regularly, and I’d love to advance to sword style

I also want to get a massage. I’ve never had one before, and I always figured I’d go for acupuncture. I do want to try that sometime, but I’ve been craving something more physical to work out the winter and baby-carrying kinks. I need to do some research, though; there are so many types.

Having spent a lot of time in sweats this week, it occurs to me that I need to freshen that part of my wardrobe. So, skinny sweats? Classic fleece? Super wide leg? Or go big with cashmere leggings?

Since all the sickness started, I’ve been sleeping on the futon in Little Bear’s room, both to watch him and to try to keep M from falling ill. Consequently, I am starting to fantasize about our bed (in a safe-for-work way, I promise). We need a new comforter, lighter because M gets warm. And why not some new sheets? Next time I get sick (and I’m sure there will be a next time sooner than I’d like), I want to have a better nest.

On a more spiritual plane, I have wanted to get a jizō figure for my child since before I had a child to whom to give it. I wasn’t raised in a saint-focused religion, but I like the idea. In Western traditions, I suppose it’s a continuation of pagan patron gods. I like correspondences. I like the way Jizō is typically represented in Japanese statuary. It projects a more earthly calm than a typical Buddha figure. I chose this one to watch over LB.

My reading of choice for the recent run of days home has been the blog Manger by Mimi Thorisson. Sometimes her life seems impossibly lush and beautiful. The style is more colorful and rich than I usually gravitate toward. Yet somehow, I have devoured the entire run in a matter of days, noting recipes to try, immersing myself in the stories of French life and food memories. It reminds me of Béatrice Peltre’s La Tartine Gourmande in the lyrical descriptions of growing up French and foodie. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t had the energy to cook much lately that I want to hear so much about others doing so. On a more materialistic note, the gorgeous photos of her gorgeous kids make me wish American children’s clothing designers took it as seriously as those in France. I get tired of the cartoon pictures and silly sayings. I don’t need my baby to wear a suit, but there must be middle ground between that and a onesie that says “I only cry when ugly people hold me”.

Finally, I’ve started to allow myself to think about spring. Right now, this means gardening. I’m thinking very ambitiously, but I know I will be hard-pressed to manage more than a couple of pots on the patio. I have rosemary and parsley over-wintering in a sunny kitchen window. I’d like to add a few more potential staples. I have a thing for atypical varieties. So French breakfast or daikon radishes. A French variety of squash. Yellow or purple carrots. And plenty of leafy greens. I love salad, but I dislike dealing with the store-bought produce.

Okay. I’m feeling a bit better. The light is certainly visible at the end of the sickly tunnel, anyway. Little Bear is chipper and giggly, and I think I’ll be that way soon. Well, maybe not the giggly part. That’s not really my style.