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The Hot Mess

So, today was Thanksgiving, and I did indeed bake some Babycakes goodies and made The Soup Of Enlightenment. (YUM!!) I also made some Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas on page 42 of Barefoot Contessa Foolproof. It’s similar to hummus, but no tahini (sesame paste.)  It’s literally two cans of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) some chicken broth, added to some cooked tomatoes, minced garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.

I also walked for 90 minutes tonight. And did some pushups. Envy me. Especially in a little black dress. (One of these days.)

Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas was one of the samples from the book they served to us in line at Sur la Table when I went to see Ina Garten on November 12th. I didn’t remember it being watery. . .not sure what I did, but I think I might have accidentally a) over-processed the chickpeas and b) didn’t cook the tomatoes long enough. Oh, well–turn the heat up and let it boil out? Yes, in a cast iron frying pan. It worked. Now I have some delicious stuff in my fridge to nibble on with celery. (The book recommends “shards of grilled country bread;” that’s not something I normally have around.)

I’ve heard a new slang term that I think truly describes many a kitchen disaster: The Hot Mess. I was watching the first episode of the new Hot In Cleveland season online (on TVLand.com, OK?) and heard Valerie Bertinelli’s character Melanie use that term to describe her new job situation. What it came from was describing someone, usually female, who is, well, a mess–bad dresser, drinks too much, whatever. Lindsay Lohan fits this description perfectly; so does Britney Spears. A “hot mess.” Bigger mess than the usual.

We’ve all been there, right?

While making my delish Tuscan Smashed Chickpeas, I started thinking about many a “hot mess” I’ve had in the kitchen, and while they were not fun when they were going on, they’re pretty amusing now. . .and better with no witnesses. Like the Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when I was slicing onions to brine a turkey the day before. My aunt called, and I wanted to talk to her, so I did. While using one of those mandolins to slice onions. I forgot to pick up the holder thingy, and when I got to the bottom of the onion, my thumb hit the blade. Sharp blade. Sharp hit. Lotsa blood. None got anywhere else but the two dishtowels I grabbed to stop the bleeding. Didn’t go to hospital, and it healed up all by itself. Eventually.

I did that once before, slitting open the middle finger of my right hand–not my driving finger, thankfully. I was trying to separate frozen sliced cheese so I could make my new husband a sandwich. No, I didn’t bleed on that, either. But I did go through some bandages that week.

A couple of years ago I bought a head of cauliflower because it was on sale, and finally decided to just roast it in the toaster oven on the convection setting. Well. . .it roasted all right. It was burned to a crisp. DARNIT. A whole head of cauliflower into the trash. I set it aside to cool, and I just idly picked up a piece and ate it.

DELICIOUS.

I’m serious–if you don’t like cauliflower, BURN IT! It gets rid of the chalky taste and it’s SOOOO GOOD. That was an accident that turned out good. They don’t all turn out that way.

“Hot mess” would also be a good way to describe the last attempt I made at making gravy from the turkey. I don’t LIKE gravy, therefore, I don’t MAKE gravy. Every year someone *else* has made gravy. I stay away from it, because it truly was a mess the last time I tried it. And they never let me forget it, either.

About ten years ago, I had just moved in with my very good friend in La Marque, TX (formerly known as “ex-boyfriend,” but that’s another story.)  He’s a widower, and we were going to his mother-in-law’s place for Thanksgiving. Me, nervous. A week or two before, I made some sweet potato frites from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living for dinner, and they were SO GOOD! We couldn’t stop stuffing our faces! I decided I’d bring them to Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, expanding a recipe like that doesn’t *always* work. And it doesn’t help that his comment was, “Oh, yeah, that top oven needs to be recalibrated.”

My delicious sweet potatoes were a hot mess. Ditto that goat-cheese and fig salad I brought, with the balsamic dressing. The hostess, a very nice lady, brought me some Wish-Bone; she didn’t realize that I’d already dressed it. And I never did THAT again. . .but at least I tried.

Whenever I cooked him breakfast, it became a game to see if I could get his eggs “over easy” just the way he liked them. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. There was one day that I made a breakfast that, he claimed, stunk up the whole house with the onions, and he had to leave the doors open to get the cooking odors to go away while I was working. That’s when the stray cat got in the house, and my brave feline Kismet ran that cat up the street. Oh, and I never made that one again.

Another time I decided to try a Suzanne Somers recipe for Beef Curry. I admit that I’m not completely familiar with Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but this looked pretty simple. I found curry paste in my local HEB, and went to town on this 20 minute beef curry.

Let’s just say that HE went to KFC for dinner that night. Oh, that’s a recipe I’ll never try again. Nobody could tell me what curry was hot and what wasn’t, and of course, the one I got was BURNING HOT. I try to be frugal, but this went out. Neither of us could stomach it, so KFC it was that night.

And, believe it or not, we’re friends today. Amazing.

Then there was the day I roasted my own garlic in the oven. I bought one of those little clay bakers, and did not, at the time, own a countertop (aka “toaster”) oven like I do now. Well, after an hour in the oven, the garlic wasn’t the soft, smushy thing the box said it would be. So I put it in the microwave to bake a little longer.

We’ve all done this, right?

A few minutes later, the light is off, or so I thought. The microwave oven was filled with smoke. I opened the door and smoke came billowing out, and the garlic was ON FIRE. Yes, it ignited, and all I could do was grab it with metal tongs and dunk it in some water in the sink. And that was the last time I attempted to roast garlic.

Around 1990 or so, I decided to make something fancy for a family holiday dinner (Easter, I think.)  I still have my first-edition copy of the 1984 Avon International cookbook, still in the jacket, with native-country recipes from representatives from all over the world. I have long had a fascination with Australia, although I’ve never been Down Under. (I do have friends in Melbourne who have long invited me for a visit; one day, I really am going to go.)

So I decided I would make a fancy Pavlova for dinner, a recipe from the Aussie Avon Lady. If you’ve never had one, it’s basically a large baked meringue with fruit and whipped cream on top. Whipped egg whites that are baked and left in the oven for some time after you turn it off. Turns out crispy. You have to assemble it right before serving so that the bottom doesn’t go soggy. It *should* look something like this:

Aussie Pavlova

Unfortunately, mine didn’t. That bottom layer, the meringue, went flat. As in pancake flat. So I chopped up some fruit and took it as is. Over the river and through the woods to the folks’ place. Tasted pretty good. Fortunately, nobody but me knew what it was, and that it was not supposed to be flat. I have since made pavlovas successfully, albeit not for family members.

Do you eat microwave popcorn? No, I don’t–not anymore, for a couple of reasons, namely the toxins that make the stuff taste good. But I admit, I did buy it at one time, oil, toxins and all. I was not at home, and not alone, with a friend of mine and we were going to have some. It didn’t all pop; a significant amount ended up un-popped. So we put it back in the microwave and tried again.

Flame. In the microwave. Any questions?

She swore she would never tell anyone what happened, and she didn’t; she passed away about a year later, but not from the popcorn. There are some things we do NOT try, and they don’t tell you about stuff like that on TV. Especially not cooking shows. Then again, I’m sure there’s a blooper reel from every cooking show on The Food Network. But one it ever got out, I bet Giada de Laurentiis would sue!

Just kidding, Giada. I know you don’t make mistakes on camera.

Speaking of Giada, just earlier this year, when her new book came out, Weeknights with Giada, I bought it ahead of time to get the much-desired ticket to get into the signing. I tried one of her recipes, and, well. . .I screwed it up. Used a garlic-flavored oil when I shouldn’t have, and did something else or forgot something else. . .it was edible, but didn’t taste the way she intended. So when I got to talk to her, I said, “Hi, Giada. I screwed up one of your recipes last night.” Giada said, “Uh, oh, what’d  you do?” I told her. My bad, I know. But it wasn’t as big of a hot mess as some have been. And I made that recipe again, the RIGHT way.

What *was* a hot mess was another Giada recipe, Lamb Ragu from Giada’s Kitchen. The first two times I made it, I didn’t quite get that at some point you turn the heat down. The second time I did that, I took a pink highlighter and went over the line that says to TURN DOWN THE HEAT. Never made THAT mistake again. (Delicious recipe, BTW.)

Oh, and when I cook with tomato sauce, especially a lot of it, my kitchen looks like a crime scene. I am proud of this. Yes, I clean it up, too.

Numerous mistakes have been made by NOT reading the recipe, but for the most part, I over came them. Thank heavens.

I have a brother who will tell you to never eat my cooking, because “Amy can’t cook.” I can, but. . .well, I tried to cook for him a couple of times, Let’s put it this way–he sent me an apron for my birthday that says, “Last time I cooked, almost no one got sick!” He even writes songs about my cooking. Or rather, he re-writes songs about my cooking. Maybe I’ll post the lyrics to one he re-wrote for me, called Amy’s Back in Austin. Maybe I should send it to the group who wrote the original, a band called Little Texas. It’s actually a pretty good tune, even though I’m not a country fan, but I don’t think they ever thought someone would parody it like that.

Why would a brother say such things about his sister’s cooking? After all the fabulous desserts transported over 350 miles to New Orleans for holidays? Well, it goes like this. . .

When I got married in 1996, my friend JS gave me a copy of Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook Menus. I still have it, and even used a recipe from it just recently. Well, I still lived in New Orleans, and my brother, his wife and daughter lived here in Houston. (We’ve swapped since then.) They visited for a week, and I made sure I not only invited them for dinner, but made something fantastic from that book. The Chicken Cacciatore with angel-hair pasta. The salad with the creamy balsamic dressing. The garden soup from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living. The raspberry cobbler with the biscuit topping. It was FAAAABULOUS, I tell you.

In my world, it was. The Queen would have been very pleased. But this wasn’t the Queen I invited to dinner.

The next day, I got a call from my brother: “What was in that soup?” Seems that my niece, who was then about 15 or so, was, well, hurling all night. Didn’t affect anyone else, just her. Ahhhh. . .then my sister-in-law tells me that she’s allergic to raspberries. . .but she forgot that she was allergic until after she’d eaten some.

Needless to say, I’ve never cooked for them again, and he continues to write songs about my cooking when the muse visits him.

Others have told me of their kitchen disasters. My good friends in Australia have also had their share of them. The wife, a teacher who graduated from LSU in Baton Rouge, told me that she’d once made a birthday cake for her husband when the beaters broke in the cake. She thought she got all the parts out, but just to be safe, they were very careful when they ate it!

My mother told me one of my favorites–she always baked birthday cakes for kids’ birthdays; ours as well as relatives, since she was the best at it, particularly the decorating part. (Mom also convinced me that I would not be able to bake my own wedding cake. I could have, but. . .it was easier to let someone else bake it.)  For my 17th birthday, I requested, and got, a chocolate rum cake–but no, it wasn’t boozy or anything.

Mom had a stand mixer from Sears, (circa 1975, I think) and didn’t use it every day, so it was in a cabinet most of the time until it was needed. Well, it was nearly May 9th, her own mother’s birthday, and Mom made a cake for her, too. She put all the ingredients into the mixing bowl, turned it on, and out the other end was a big roach! It had been living in the motor case for an indeterminate amount of time, and turning it on rattled its cage. Nothing got INTO the batter, it ran in the other direction. Thank heavens, or one of us would have been sent to the store to get more cake mix.

I suppose the last hot mess was the last toaster oven I had. I killed it. Six years after I received it for a Christmas gift from the aforementioned very good friend, it stopped working, and I bought another one. I really don’t want to be without one, and of course I bought the newest Cuisinart model with the convection setting, timer and exact-heat sensor on it. (On sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond, with a coupon, of course.) I use it more than the one in the stove–you can roast a whole chicken in it! Yes, I do it, too.

That’s enough for tonight. I’d love to hear about your kitchen disasters, the ones you can laugh at now. (Someone losing a finger or toe is NOT funny, really.)  Post them below in the comments. . .if you dare.

Happy Dining!

Stuff I hate (and won't eat)

I’ve told you about things I LIKE to eat, but I think it’s time to talk about what I DON’T like. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’m sure someone will bring the thing I don’t like, but on a day to day basis, I eat what I like and eschew everything else.

“Eschew” means to reject. No pun intended. But seriously folks. . . .

Yes, though it seems I will eat anything, there are some things I won’t–or will do so just to be polite but never enjoying it. (Exception: soy, because I’m allergic, more later.)  I admit to being a bit heavy on the salt sometimes, but at the table after I’ve tried a bite. Lately I think most anything needs a bit more salt, but that’s probably just me.

Make no mistake, there are some things in this world that I do not like to eat, so here we go.

Candied Sweet Potatoes. At Thanksgiving, one thing I won’t eat is anything that combines sweet potatoes and brown sugar, marshmallow and/or pineapple. “Candied,” they call it. I call it something else less polite. Yes, it’s a “southern tradition,” but you know what?  I, too, grew up in the south, and we never had that abomination. Absolutely disgusting. You can have mine.

You want good sweet potatoes? Roast them like you would white ones until they’re soft, cut them open while hot, put real butter and salt in the flesh and mix. Want something fancier? Here you go. And use regular or smoked paprika, if you don’t want it hot (and I don’t.)

  • Canned sweet potatoes. Equally dreadful stuff. Save it for the fallout shelter.

Liver. What can I say? It tastes awful no matter what you do to it. Know what a liver is for? The defense rests.

Kidney. See Liver, above.

Eggplant. My mother used to do all kinds of things to eggplant to make them taste like food. They don’t. I once made an eggplant lasagna. What a waste of cheese. Eggplant Parmesan is slightly passable, because there is enough other stuff on it to kill the taste of the eggplant. Keep that slimy, fish-gut-like Baba Ganoush on YOUR side of the table please; I’ll have the hummus.

Chayote squash/mirlitons. In Texas and the west, they’re called chayote squash or Mexican pears. (Like Mexico has its own pear as France does, right?)  In New Orleans, you will find them called “mirlitons” (locals pronounce it “melitons”) growing in backyards. Nobody knows how they got there, they just grow on the fence. My parents were the recipients of endless paper grocery bags of those hard green things “because they had four kids.” (In other words, nobody else wanted them either.)  I always thought they would eventually ripen and turn another color, like say, tomatoes. Nope. They are also tasteless and useless, unless you’re trying to break a window. Try as one might, one cannot make them taste like manna from heaven. No, I never tried to, because I hate them.

My grandmother once made stuffed mirlitons, cutting them in halves like avocados and making a meat/rice stuffing that used the flesh taken out of the shells. I ate them because the meat/rice part of the stuffing was really good. Otherwise, it was that waste-of-space green thing that grows in the backyards of relatives. We were required to eat them no matter what. But I bet my parents haven’t seen one in years. . . .

Beets. My parents LOVED these icky, red-bleeding root vegetables out of a can. YUCK. About ten years ago I made a chopped salad for a Thanksgiving week get-together and it involved roasting red beets. This was from Martha Stewart Living, no less, so I did everything to spec. Everybody told me how delicious the salad was. Then I took a bite of it. First words out of my mouth were, “Oh, God, this is awful!” Boy did I get some funny looks that day. But it’s because I really don’t like beets, and I never will.

  • I recently went to a very nice dinner buffet, and the salad was gorgeous. I picked up what I thought was mango. Nope–yellow beets. AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

Soy. Let me say up front that I discovered in recent years that I am allergic to soy. But when I moved to Houston, I found stuff in the regular grocery store that you could only find in far-flung tiny health food stores in New Orleans (back when the Internet was just getting started as a shopping medium.)  I found soy milk and dried soy beans with recipes right on the package! I started having soy milk daily and vegan soybean chili for lunch.

Any Texan will tell you that you do NOT put beans in chili under any circumstances.

I have tried soy-derived fake dairy and tofu-based meat-alike products as well, in order to eat “low calorie” and “healthy.” Know what? I kept eating that stuff thinking it was good for me. It wasn’t.  And the veggie crowd keeps telling me it so healthy!  NOT.

Beans, beans, good for your heart. . . and I’ll leave it at that. You do NOT want to be standing behind me in line, OK? It’s that bad. That’s how I eventually realized that I’m allergic to soy (which is why you shouldn’t stand too close if I’ve eaten it) and it’s what made me increasingly hypothyroid as well. Don’t insist that I eat soy, because I will not. Ditto for soy milk; almond milk is so much better.

Potted Meat. The salty stuff with the pate-like consistency does not hide the fact that this is a product similar to Spam. Unless there is an emergency, such as a tornado, hurricane, or other disaster, I’m leaving this stuff alone.

Spam. See Potted Meat, above.

Tuna. Having been a cat parent for nearly 20 years, I have inhaled my share of cat food aromas. I grew up eating tuna fish salad, but  at some point as an adult, I became intolerant of tuna. I have bought it on occasion for my elderly cat to try to get him to eat; he has since passed on, but even he wouldn’t eat it.

I believe all tuna sold in the United States should be clearly marked as CAT FOOD. Sorry, but that’s what it tastes like, no matter how much mayonnaise and other stuff you glop into it.  Segway into. . . .

Sushi and other Japanese foods. I’ve been around Japanese people for 26 years, and I love ’em. But I did *not* take to the cuisine the way others have. I once met a friend in New Orleans for lunch on a visit, and we ended up at a Japanese restaurant. She told me what to order, and I kept sticking it with the chopsticks to make sure it was dead. I believe any raw  fish bait should be on a hook at the end of a fishing line, not decorated with rice and called an “entree.”

  • Green Tea. Go mow the lawn and brew the grass clippings in hot water. Same thing.

Cabernet Sauvignon. I like wine, but I don’t drink it too often. I just don’t. I have a wine bar that’s loaded. But much as I’ve tried, I don’t like this stuff. For red, I like Merlot or Shiraz or Red Truck’s red table wine. In white, I’ll take a Reisling, Chardonnay, maybe a white Zinfadel (which is actually pink, for some reason.) But Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like Balsamic vinegar drunk straight from the bottle. Would you do that? Me either.

Pinot Grigio. Tastes like the grape juice went bad. Mold optional.

Persimmons. Thankfully, these beautifully deceptive fruits are not available all the time; not that I’ve seen, anyway. I’ve had them just once, at a Buddhist activity where they were served after the meeting was over on New Year’s Day. UGH. I had to be nice to the Japanese ladies, I didn’t want to be rude. But no more of these things for me. It was so bad it seared away the memory.

Cream of Mushroom/Chicken/whatever soup. Don’t get me wrong, I like soup. Especially a good home-made soup. Canned soup isn’t bad under certain circumstances, like you’re way too sick to cook. But at some point in the mid-20th Century, it became a commonplace thing to add a can of cream of something to a dish to make it do something else. I am not one of those people who believes a can of cream of something will improve a dish. And I do NOT want it in my pantry.  Which leads me to. . . .

Casseroles. My mother used to boil some shell pasta, put some gravy in it, throw some cheese on top, bake it for an hour and call it a “casserole.” I was never sure exactly what that word meant, especially when I left home to marry and cook on my own.  However, other interpretations include the aforementioned tuna (a/k/a “cat food”), beef, chicken, liver, and a thousand other various ingredients.

I have a rule: I do not cook, bake or create anything called “casserole.” I don’t care how good it looks, I don’t *do* casserole.

  • Green bean casserole. A big deal at the holidays, I have yet to find a good recipe for this that is not similar in texture to sherbet mixed into punch. I’m not in a hurry, either.

Jello. Ah, the edible rubber of youth. Included in every church social and holiday dinner I can remember. (Now the bane of hospital and nursing home food as well.) Shaped in Bundt pans and things called “Jello molds,” with canned fruit cocktail thrown in the bottom, its ubiquitous texture and potent artificial color now nauseates me. You can have it, and those desserts made with Cool Whip mixed with Jello. I’ll make my own fresh gelatine desserts from scratch. (Here’s a real tasty one.)

Cool Whip/Reddiwip. OK, these are two entirely different products, but they are intended as dessert toppings. Why does dessert HAVE to have a topping? If it does, why must it be loaded with petrochemicals? Cool Whip is “non-dairy,” but it’s not “healthy” by any means. If you’re going to have some delicious ripe strawberries, why not just put some whipped motor oil on top? It’s nearly the same thing–hydrogenated vegetable oil.

You pay $3.50 for some beautiful ripe Texas-grown strawberries, or worse, gorgeous, red raspberries, and you put *that* stuff on top? Shame on you.

Reddiwip is cream in a can, but. . .how natural is it? It does have real cream, as well as sugar and corn syrup, “natural and artificial flavors,” plus a propellant to “whip” it and get it out of there. Is it that much trouble to whip your own REAL cream fresh, whenever you want some? They sell it in little bitty containers, folks. Get out your hand mixer or whisk and get moving.

Margarine. For the same reasons as I don’t want Cool Whip and Reddiwip, I don’t mess with margarine. I grew up on Parkay Margarine, and later, we had Diet Parkay. When I married, I bought the same thing. Then one day I was introduced to real butter and never looked back. Always unsalted butter, since salt can ruin your cake frosting.

Jello-style canned cranberry sauce. Having made the most incredible cranberry sauce ever for a few years now, I do not see any justification for buying this. It’s sold all year around, but. . .why? Here’s a quick, easy cranberry sauce that will knock your socks off, using minimal tools and time. First time I made it, folks were licking the hot pan clean. For a crowd, better make at least a double batch. It’s sweet, then it whacks you upside your head.  It’s THAT good.

Sherbet in punch. A few years ago I found a really good punch recipe that everyone at work liked, and was simple to do at the office. Eventually, I became known for this punch and where I ordered the cakes for retirement and other parties. One day a very nice lady said to me, “For a baby shower, you could put a quart of sherbet in it.”

YUCK.

Much as I admire this lady, that was one awful suggestion! I’ve had that before–thick, viscous and cloyingly sweet. If you’re going to have punch, have punch. If you’re going to have sherbet, have it. Don’t mix the two, that’s disgusting.

Boiled cabbage. Stinks up you and the house. DAYS before either smell goes away. Fresh raw coleslaw is better. Make your own.

French’s fried onions in a can. Eeeeewwww!!! Don’t even want to KNOW what’s in those. Perfect for the top of the green bean casserole that I won’t mess with.

Yogurt. I gave up most dairy a few years ago. I confess, I used to eat the little fruity yogurt cups. When I started looking at the calorie counts, sugar grams, and additives, I decided ice cream was a better option–especially when I found that some ice creams have HALF the sugar of the allegedly “healthy” yogurt. Besides, wouldn’t YOU rather eat ice cream?

If the yogurt goes bad, how will we know? Fruit, lots of sugar and other additives are there to kill the taste of the yogurt. Eat ice cream, for Pete’s sake!

Well, that’s enough for tonight. More as I think of it, but this is a pretty good start. Actually, I think it’s most of the stuff I don’t like. There’s a lot of stuff I do like, it’s just that this is a good list of stuff I don’t.

Next post will be all about roasting your Thanksgiving turkey so that you will be giving thanks to ME for telling you how to do it. If you are intimidated by the idea of the turkey, I will help you get over that and happily await any opportunity to have a turkey.

And as always, you’re welcome to comment, just be nice, please. What don’t you like to eat?
Happy dining!

Cupcakes and Capitalism

Oh, aren’t cupcakes a wonderful thing? Your very own CAKE. And if you have one of those smaller cupcakes (“minis”) you can have more than one. Especially if it’s got a foot of icing on top. Don’t you love those?

I recently attended the annual “Bootcamp” for copywriters writers put on by American Writers & Artists, Inc. in Delray Beach, FL. AWAI does a fantastic job with the entire conference (this was my third attendance), but the end is always a great one. This time, it was over the top.

After the awards banquet on Saturday (10/27) there was a dessert reception. And in addition to a beautiful tiered cake celebrating their 15th year in business, we were treated to these amazing and incredibly beautiful. . .cupcakes.

Delicious. . .just pick one!

Ahhh. . .I picked this one, with peanut butter icing:

This delicious item has lots of creamy peanut butter icing on top.

It was a tough choice, believe me. One of my fellow attendees got one that was white cake and a creamy top that was dipped in the chocolate that hardens. I had a tiny bite of that from a spoon. And THEN I had a small slice of that cake. . .making sure I had a healthy dinner with lots of green stuff that night.

I don’t do this every day. I knew I’d regret it if I passed. I call this sort of thing “The Bootcamp Bulge.”

Cupcakes, after years of being the bane of school bake sales and church socials, have become “hot” in the last few years. Martha Stewart published an entire book of cupcakes, including a picture of cupcake tier that can stand in as a wedding cake, or be served instead of sliced cake. I also attended a wedding a couple of years ago that was done rather quickly, and my suggestion of cupcakes was heeded. They didn’t even stack them, they were served right out of the huge boxes. The happy couple didn’t care about that part, they just wanted to be married–and everyone had a cupcake, no cutting and less mess than a whole cake.

I was sort of “engaged” at one point recently, and decided that my “wedding cake” would consist of cupcakes and we would have a giant one for the cake-cutting. However, since there is no longer a groom, there was no wedding. (That’s OK–I’ve had enough of them, and better things to do.)

Why do we in America suddenly elevate something ordinary to an elite status? Who picks the idea and runs with it? Something as lowly as the cupcake, long considered lowbrow and below the standards of elegant dining, now finds itself in exclusive shops and perfectly chic and elegantly dressed for any occasion. How did this happen?

Simple. Capitalism.

Say what?

Yes, Capitalism, the thing we studied in high school that is now under fire. It’s not my intent to start a debate on it, but only to point out that cupcakes are what they are because someone had an idea. And it worked. And it took off. Now everyone loves cupcakes and bakers are happy and making money.

Last year, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s book Of Thee I Zing  took on current American culture, and what’s wrong with it. The byline is “America’s Cultural Decline from Muffin Tops to Body Shots.”

Mostly, I agreed with the book, and I consider myself a fan, but on page 104, she took on. . .cupcakes.

What’s wrong with cupcakes, for heaven’s sake?

Ms. Ingraham’s beef (pardon the pun) is that the cupcakes you get from Georgetown Cupcakes, Sprinkles, and other high-end places is that they’re roughly the same thing you get at home with a box of Duncan Hines, and that it’s ridiculous standing in line outside a shop for over an hour to get a cupcake–at $3 to $5 each. Well, that’s technically true, but with a “boutique” cupcake, you’re buying a) the cupcake already made, b) fancier than the average person would make at home, c), the artistry of the person who made it, i.e., labor, and d) only one, which is likely what you wanted anyway.

Someone realized that maybe one cupcake would be a good idea. Make it fancier than a Duncan Hines cupcake made with frosting from a can. Make it bigger, make it better, see what happens, and they started a business. And it grew. The idea spread. And now there are cupcake shops all over the country. Like the one in Delray Beach, FL, Cupcake Couture, who made the fabulous beauties pictured above.

Disclosure: although I have had the occasional high-end cupcake, if I’m going to make them for an activity, I make them from scratch. Frosting included. It’s just the way I am. Butter is always better than hydrogenated anything.

Capitalism is simply this: I make a cupcake, and you want to buy it. If you don’t, maybe your friend wants a cupcake. I sell your friend a cupcake. Your friend is happy, because he or she got a cupcake that is as amazing to look at as it is to eat. (That peanut butter number sure was.) I have made a profit from my work, including labor as well as parts/supplies (ingredients, in this case.) Why is this a bad thing?

Most of what we complain and hear about is what gets called “corporatism,” or the misbehavior of folks in companies. Enron is a big deal here in Houston, and well, they messed it up for everyone else.

Capitalism is the same whether it’s me baking a cupcake and selling it to someone individually, or a car company building and selling cars. Capitalism is what allows Sophie and Katherine to start their own business and do well enough to be given a TV show. (Disclosure: I have never seen this TV show, but I am not knocking it.) The TV show increases their business, and they do well enough to make a bigger profit.

Why is that bad?

A lady here in Houston many years ago found herself gluten intolerant, when there were limited options for folks with that problem. She founded a company called Gluten Free Houston.  She started off small, and now stocks not only local grocery and health food stores, but her gluten-free buns are sold at Astros games, and gluten free pizza crusts are available at local California Pizza Kitchens. She now ships nationwide.

That’s capitalism. She found a niche and started a business to help other gluten intolerant folks.

Here’s another example: Erin McKenna, owner of BabycakesNYC, found herself having issues with food allergies after scarfing down baked goods of all kinds as a teenager. Over time, she began experimenting and working with nonstandard ingredients to create allergy-free vegan baked goods and treats. The result is nothing short of amazing: she now has four locations, the NYC flagship store, two in the Los Angeles area, and one at Walt Disney World in Florida. Additionally, two books add to the number of fans, including me. I’ve not been to any of the bakeries, but if ever I am able to visit them, I will. I’ll have to be happy with using the cookbooks until then. From the site:

BabyCakes offers all-natural, organic and delicious alternatives free from the common allergens: wheat, gluten, dairy, casein and eggs. Rest assured, all sweeteners have been chosen responsibly and used sparingly. White sugar will never be found in our bakery, nor will we ever use toxic chemical sweeteners. Instead, most products are sweetened with agave nectar—a natural syrup from a cactus which is low on the glycemia index and often a safe alternative to most non-insulin dependant diabetics. Occasionally, unprocessed and unrefined sugar is used in certain goods, although sparingly.

Erin McKenna found a different niche–people who have allergies and can’t have the usual cupcakes, muffins and cakes, and turned it into a business that provides her and her employees a good living. Make no mistake–not everyone who is a fan of Babycakes has gluten or other allergies, me included. Babycakes treats are a healthier option than something from a “regular” bakery, and that’s why I love baking from those books. The waffles and maple-flavored agave syrup from her second book are FANTASTIC, and will hold up against anything out of a yellow box and a plastic bottle.

That’s capitalism, folks, and a lot of gluten-free vegan cupcakes. There is NOTHING wrong with Ms. McKenna doing something she loves and making a living–not to mention a profit–with it. She makes a lot of people happy, too.

Look at it this way: I am babysitting a cat named Jezebel. She prowls around, sharpens her claws on a little thingy I bought at Petsmart, eats a meat-based diet, has whiskers, paws, sharp senses, and a tail that’s an extension of her spine, used to keep her balance.

A mighty tiger (my favorite animal) prowls around, sharpens his claws on a tree trunk, eats a meat based diet, has whiskers, paws, sharp senses, and a tail that’s an extension of his spine, used to keep his balance.

Size doesn’t matter. They are essentially the same animal. One is just bigger than the other. Both are equally fierce when confronted.

Same thing with capitalism: whether it’s a guy with a taco van, a cupcake shop, or a company selling cars, an oil company, or whatever. . .it’s the same animal. It’s ALL capitalism, no matter how you, um, slice it. Whether it’s a guy fixing computers out of his garage for extra money or Apple Computers, it’s all capitalism, too. Some folks don’t seem to get this.

Cupcakes are just one delicious part of it.

Sure, you can do what Laura Ingraham says and buy a boxed mix. You can do what Martha Stewart & Co. do, bake them from scratch. That’s your choice under the free-market, or “Laissez Faire” system. This is not a bad idea. It’s worked well all this time, even with the problems that have come with it. Best part: anybody can do it!

Be a capitalist, that is, not just bake cupcakes.

Now I’ll leave y’all with some pictures of delicious cupcakes from Central Market, taken just this afternoon, who started making them this way after they became popular. Enjoy some tasty capitalism!

Central Market always has a variety of delicious cupcakes.

Ahhhh. . .such deliciousness.

Orange Cranberry cupcake. Very seasonal

A Cranberry-Orange cupcake. Very seasonal.

Love the raspberry!

Oh, yeah. . .more tasty cupcakes. Ifi the raspberry ones had chocolate cake, I would move someone out of my way to get to it!

Isn't he cute?

How about this cross-eyed cutie?

And here's his brother! And here's the whole family.

His brother and the rest of the family.

One more gratuitous cupcake picture

Yum. Take your pick, or two and split each with someone else.

I love capitalism. Don’t you?

Happy Dining!

Welcome to my blog! (Introduction to Heat Cage Kitchen)

Well, here I go, writing about something I know best: food. No kidding. I mean, who doesn’t these days, right? Since Food Network and Cooking Channel are likely the only clean channels left on TV, it’s safe to let kids watch it, so they want to start cooking. That’s a good thing.

What’s in a name? More importantly, what’s NOT in a name. Specifically, someone else’s. There are countless Amys, Tygers, and other taken names that I had to come up with something unique. Heat Cage Kitchen. It’s hot, and it can be a cage. But it’s a kitchen.

My mother would never let me cook when I was a kid, but when she started working in about 1976, I started sneaking it. No kidding, I would “get away” with cooking when I could. Of course, I read Seventeen magazine in those days, and they actually had some pretty good recipes in it. Eventually I got to cook now and again, but that doesn’t mean I had an appreciative audience.

One brother, who will not be named, said when he saw my tempura-style fish bites (from the latest issue) with some kind of sauce, “I think I’ll make me a popcorn sandwich.”  I asked the other brother to go to the grocery on his bike and get a small bottle of vinegar, which cost about twenty four cents. He nagged me for years about that “debt.” However, after I finished the cooking, everyone begrudgingly admitted that it was a pretty good meal, we just needed to make more of it. I don’t know where to find that recipe, I guess it was somewhere between 1977 and 1979. Check your local library and let me know if you find it, if you’re interested.

BTW, I  have made dinner for the same brother who demanded that repayment after he married and had a family. Twice. He was in town visiting and I opened Martha Stewart Quick Cook Menus book out and assembled what I thought would be a delicious meal. Twice. Also included was a garden soup from MSL that I was told made my then-teenage niece hurl. I thought it was pretty good, and I made quite a bit of it, according to the recipe. After that, however, I garnered a reputation for being a precarious cook, and stuck to desserts at the holidays. My Auntie L still talks about the apple cake I made from the November 1996 MSL, right on the front cover.

So today I receive this apron as a slightly belated birthday gift. From the same brother. Who writes songs about my cooking skills, or lack thereof. One day I’ll post the lyrics.

Gift from the brother who swears I can't cook

Really. . .I can cook. Early kitchen disasters never leave the minds of the fast-food junkies.

I first heard of Martha Stewart about 1986 or 1987, when she did her first campaign with Kmart. “. . .with lifestyle expert Martha Stewart.” Who?

About 1994, I started to see her more on TV. In 1996, I watched a full show, and bought one of her magazines. It was the 1995/1996 holiday issue with the cranberry wreath on the front. I still have it (somewhere.) Shortly thereafter, I subscribed and still get it. I’ve made countless recipes from MSL, from Everyday Food, and other magazines. I have a wall shelf full of cookbooks, some of them autographed (but not by Martha.)  I even have a few copies of Donna Hay’s magazine from Australia, and I admit to making one of the delicious cakes from the first one.

I got married in 1996 for the last time (I hope.) While I was only married for a little over 4 years, I did my best to make high-quality gourmet meals for my, uh, “husband.” He constantly complained that he was afraid to come home for fear of what I’d made from the current MSL. Oh, well. One day I made sure he found another home, but that’s another story. Since then I’ve cooked for a number of others (and a few men), and am often asked to bring something special to an activity.

Once again I will be making the turkey for our Thanksgiving open-house, hosted by a vegetarian. No kidding. Long story. Despite that, everyone drives miles for my turkey. Why? I know how to make the best turkey you’ve ever eaten. Only Martha Stewart makes better, because I learned from her. And the Barefoot Contessa. And Tyler Florence. And one or two others. Tip: brining a turkey makes it unbelievably tender and delicious. A little extra work, and it’s worth it.

I can’t say how often I will be posting, but will try to write at least a couple of times a week. If not, email me and remind me to DO something.

Note that I’m not an expert, a chef, a critic, or a well-known anything. I’m just me. Comments are welcome, just keep it polite and nice, OK? Lest you will be banished and your digits will rot off after I cast an evil spell.

Welcome to Heat Cage Kitchen!

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