Sunday, November 26, 2006

Cooking: Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake

I was willing to bring any dish to Thanksgiving dinner that my host requested, but I absolutely insisted on bringing this Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake. I first saw this recipe a few months ago over at (the recipe is HERE) and immediately knew I was going to have to make it. Luckily, there was very little resistance to adding another dessert to the menu--especially one with an ingredients list like this one.

Speaking of the ingredients, my only real worry with this recipe was that it would be a complete sugar overload. I easily envision the ingredients mingling together into one uniform 'sugar!!!' instead of retaining their individual flavors. And the verdict? It's a sweet dessert to be sure, but I was surprised and pleased to taste distinct layers to the sweetness and real depth of flavor. The sour of the cream cheese complimented the buttery caramel. The graham cracker was a nice balance to the sugar and vanilla. I think with a little more experimentation and refinement of the various steps, the caramel flavor could give the whole cake a roasted, smoky flavor that would really bring it all together.

My mom asked me how many Weight Watchers points each slice of this little doozy was and I just laughed at her. Honestly, folks, I didn't even bother to figure it out. This is just one of those occasions when you just need to relax and be a glut without guilt. Having said this, I do have a few ideas for making this cake a bit more waist-friendly (see below).

Some thoughts for improvements and future variations:

  • My caramel ended up with little chunks of sugar suspended in it. They weren't rock hard, didn't pose a threat to any one's dental work, and we didn't even notice them once I added the pecans, but the perfectionist in me was disgruntled. My suspicion is that I didn't stir the butter and sugar as thoroughly as I should have (I was in a bit of a rush seeing as how the Engineer's mother was arriving in about ten minutes). I've done a bit of research on the properties of sugars and making caramel sauce since making this recipe and have decided that, as you might suspect, making caramel is a bit more tricky than this recipe would lead a gal to believe. I'm actually really intrigued by the whole process since it has to do with chemical reactions on the molecular level and all sorts of science-experiment type things. I'm planning to do some more research and experimentation, and will be sure to share my findings with y'all!

  • Another caramel note: I was happy with the final flavor--it really did taste like caramel!--but I think it could have had more depth. As my pal Harold McGee says in his book On Food and Cooking, "The aroma of a simple caramelized sugar has several different notes, among them buttery and milky, fruity, flowery, sweet, rum-like, and roasted. As the reactions proceed, the taste of the mixture becomes less sweet as more of the original sugar is destroyed, with more pronounced acidity and eventually bitterness and an irritating, burning sensation." Thanks, Harold! Since my caramel could definitely be described as "buttery and milky," my suspicion is that I could have let the syrup boil for a little while longer to deepen the flavor before adding the butter and taking it off the heat.

  • I love pecans, but I'm not sure they really added very much here. The Engineer suggested briefly dry-frying or roasting the pecans before adding them to the cake. This is something that is often suggested in other recipes I've come across in order to activate the oils in the nut and enhance the overall flavor. I also think that roasting the pecans would bring out similar flavors in the caramel.

  • I also wondered about doing away with the pecans all together and instead sprinkling roughly crumbled graham crackers on the top. This would add a bit more crunch and bite in the mouth, would mirror the graham cracker crust (of course), and would also reduce the number of ingredients competing for precedence in your mouth. The taste of the cheesecake and caramel is complex enough, and unless the pecans are really enhancing the flavor in those components, I think they're just distracting. Again, I think graham crackers could compliment the flavors just as well if not better.

  • I am curious to make a lower-fat version of this cheesecake. A recipe for New York Cheesecake in The Best Light Recipes by Cook's Illustrated suggests replacing the cream cheese with a combination of light cream cheese, drained cottage cheese, and drained low-fat yogurt. The recipe is described as definitely tasting different than regular cheesecake, but just as excellent on its own merit. I've tried several recipes from this book and have been well pleased with many of the recipes, which don't just rely on using the "Low Fat" version of a full-fat product. Worth a try anyways.

  • It would also be fun to experiment with different flavors in the caramel. This could be done by either infusing the syrup while it's melting or by adding flavors to the final caramel as it's cooling. Cook's Illustrated has several mouth-watering suggestions: Orange-Espresso Caramel Sauce, Coconut Ginger Caramel Sauce, and Dark Rum Caramel Sauce, to name a few.
Some serving suggestions:

  • I think that this recipe could translate really well into a finger-food, buffet-table item. My thought is to make the cheesecake as normal, but then cut out mini-cheesecakes (either in square or in circles using a biscuit cutter) that would be about an inch or so across--small enough to be eaten in one single bite. Then use a chopstick or other poking-device to dowel a little hole in the top of the cake. Fill the hole with caramel and top with one whole pecan or a fragment of graham cracker.

  • Another serving option would be to make several mini-cakes in individually-portioned ramekins. This would be fun for a dinner party and would be a bit more elegant than cutting slices of cheesecake.
Ok, ok, enough jabbering. Here's the recipe itself:


Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake
Adapted from


1 1/4 c. graham cracker crumbs (5-6 graham cracker rectangles)
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
3 tbsp granulated sugar


2 lbs (4 8-oz packages) cream cheese--at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg yoke--at room temperature
3 whole eggs--at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Caramel Topping:

1 c. granulated sugar
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
1/2 c. heavy cream--at room temperature
1 c. roughly chopped pecans
1 large pinch sea salt

To begin:

Place all ingredients (included refrigerated ingredients) on workspace. Allow refrigerated ingredients to come to room temperature. The butter should be soft and malleable. Eggs can also be placed in a bowl of hot water to bring them to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the crust:

To make graham cracker crumbs, break several squares of graham crackers into rough pieces in a bowl. Use the bottom of a cup or a pestle to grind the crackers into uniform-sized crumbs. This was one of the most satisfying parts of the process--I may start crumbling graham crackers for stress relief. Mix sugar into the crumbs. Mix in the butter with your hands, squeezing gobs of butter together with the crumbs with your fingers, until thoroughly combined. Press into the bottom of a 9- to 10-inch spring form pan. (If you don't have a spring form pan and want to make this cake in a regular pie dish, make sure to use a deep dish pan at least 2.5 inches deep. There's lots of toppings that go on this and the cheesecake with rise quite a bit in the oven!)

To make the cheesecake:

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or medium-sized bowl if using hand mixers), roughly combine sugar and cream cheese with a spoon. Once the sugar is adhered to the cream cheese, beat with a mixer until light and smooth--about the consistency of ganache frosting. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until the egg is completely blended in (but be careful of over-mixing; the egg should just be barely blended so you can no longer see strings of the yellow yoke). Add vanilla extract and mix.

Pour mixture into the spring form pan on top of the graham cracker crust. Bake until a toothpick or a cake tester comes out clean and the center is set. The instructions say this will take about 40 minutes, but mine ended up taking about 55 minutes, so just monitor your cake carefully. It will rise significantly in the pan and turn a deep golden color around the edges. It will also likely crack along the top--this is not so desirable in normal cheesecake, but fine for this one--just more nooks and crannies for the caramel!

Let the cheesecake cool completely on a cooling rack with the spring form still attached to the base. As it cools, the cheesecake will sink a bit into itself. Ultimately, the sides will be sloped slightly higher than the middle.

For the caramel:

Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan and stir until you make a thick sugar paste. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. At this point, the recipe says to allow the mixture to boil until it is amber in color. While this is true, I think it's a bit misleading about what you should expect.

In this first picture (left), the sugar/water paste has just come to a boil. It looks a bit shiny, but is still a grey color. This will boil furiously for a few minutes without changing color and the boiling will slowly begin to stop. In my first batch of caramel, I kinda panicked at this point and assumed that I had done something wrong since it wasn't changing colors. I stirred it a bit, and the mixture started to reform itself into granules of sugar (the middle image). I waited for a while longer and noticed that the sugar on the bottom was melting again, and the re-melted sugar was indeed turning an amber color. However, the sugar was really clumping together and looking more like rock candy than sauce, so I dumped it into a pan to cool (far right picture) and started over again.

My recommendation is DON'T STIR the mixture--a crust will form on the top and you'll see it pushing and dipping here and there as the sugar melts into a liquid again. Eventually (in about 5 minutes or so), the crust will melt as well and you can stir it a bit. I wasn't sure exactly what constituted an 'amber' color, so I erred on the side of caution and called it good when the sugar was about the color of browned butter.

Add the butter to the pan, and be careful because the mixture will pop and bubble and generally behave like a spoiled brat of a sauce. Stir until the butter is completely combined with the sugar. Remove from heat and add the cream in two batches. Again, the mixture will boil and bubble, toil
and trouble, for a bit. Keep stirring until everything is well combined and the caramel is a milky tan color. As you stir and the sauce cools, it will thicken slightly into a more familiar caramel consistency. The milk and butter also stabilizes the caramel, so it won't harden into rock-candy and will stay a thick syrup.

When the caramel has cooled to room temperature (you should be able to dip your finger in for a taste test), pour it over the cheese cake. Sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt over the top and then sprinkle on the pecans.

Once the bottom of the pan is cool enough that you can touch it with your bare hands, cover and let the entire cake cool in the fridge. The longer it sits, the more the caramel will absorb into the nooks and crannies of the cheesecake. If you like this effect, let it sit for a few hours (for instance, while you're eating turkey n' stuffing). If you like your cake pristine and the layers separated, serve it a bit sooner.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Food: Last Minute Ideas

Here's some spin-on-the-traditional dishes that would be most excellent for Thanskgiving or just about any time between now and spring (click on the food name to link to the article or recipe):

Ok, so this went from a list of yummy Thanksgiving-esque foods that I've come across recently to "Foods I Want to Eat Right Now" that I came across as I was finding the links to all the first foods. Ah, well. S'all good!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Books: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

Quickie Synopsis: A man and his son journey south--always south--through a barren, desolate, post-Apocalyptic world. The landscape, the air, the sky--they are all filled with ashes. The vegetation is dead, burned to a crisp and frozen in time. Along the road are abandoned pieces of humanity: cars with melted tires, empty houses falling inward upon themselves, luggage abandoned and picked over by people moving south. It is always raining and cold. There are no birds or deer or animals of any kind, and the only humans that the boy and his father meet are either near death, insane, or predators.


This is not a light-hearted or uplifting book by any kind of standard. And I read it in great big gulps over the course of about two days. Even when I put it down, I felt myself constantly pulled back toward that world, its struggle for survival, and Cormac McCarthy's stark, biblical language.

The Road is a book that must be read all at once to be truly appreciated and understood. It is told in short snippets no longer than a paragraph or two and in one long continuous sequence with no breaks for chapters. The effect reinforces the feeling of disjointed, confused reality, a reality that feels like it begins in the middle of a sentence and ends before the speaker has finished speaking. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, the writing, the pace, the structure of the book: all these aspects work together in perfect harmony to continually reinforce the themes of the book like a symphony or a force of nature that builds on itself without any seeming effort on the part of the crafter. The reader walks next to the man and his son, sees what they see as they are first seeing it, feels what they feel, judges their actions and experiences just as they judge themselves. McCarthy has achieved a work of master craftsmanship in this book.

This is a story of apocalypse--the worst apocalypse imaginable, the one that is preached by every present-day prophet with a bullhorn, and the one that is often dismissed as being alarmist. I am also guilty of the dismissal, and yet as I read McCarthy's book, I found myself constantly thinking, "Yes, this is how it would be. This is how humanity would end."

But the book is not just a warning of some possible dystopian future; The Road can also be read as commentary on the increasing soullessness of human society, the psychic wasteland of the spirit as evidenced by shootings in schools, corruption and immorality at the highest levels of our government, increasing incidences of suicides and mental illness, bystanders to violent crime who turn away or--worse--take pictures on their camera-phone instead of stepping in. The wasteland is both literal and metaphorical: a city ghetto, a suburb of perfect green lawns, a refugee camp, a prison, a person's mind. I'm not saying--and nor do I think McCarthy is saying--that we all need to get a little more of that old time religion. Rather, by putting his reader directly into this terrifying landscape, I think McCarthy aims to bring the apathy and despondency into focus and to show us what's really at stake here. And what's at stake is our souls.

I feel that it is just as crucial to have books like The Road as it is to have books like Savage Inequalities and Manufacturing Consent because it tells what is real and true without artifice or angles or even statistics. The nightmare being told in this book is alarmist, but it's a nightmare that needs to be faced in order to be understood. It's already around us and choosing not to face it only makes the nightmare more real. The Road will never be a best seller. It will be read quietly, alone, and then slipped back on a shelf while the reader walks away--thoughts turned inward, steps slowed, tongue softly touching lips, fingers checking all the locks.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Books: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
by Kim Edwards

Quickie Synopsis: When his wife goes into labor during a freak March snow storm, Dr. David Henry is forced to handle the delivery himself. The first baby is a fine, healthy boy; but the second infant, a twin girl delivered moments later, shows obvious signs of having Down's Syndrome. Dr. Henry makes a split-second decision to send the infant to an institution and tells his wife that the baby died. The nurse charged with the baby girl finds herself unable to leave her at the institution, and in a split-second decision of her own, decides to disappear to another city and raise the child on her own. The Memory Keeper's Daughter is the chronicle of these parallel families. Dr. Henry's son Paul is raised in a household filled with grief over the believed death of his sister and layers of deceit between his parents. His "lost" twin Phoebe thrives in the unconventional family that surrounds and loves her, and she grows into a happy, well-adjusted young woman.


Kim Edward's debut novel is born of those "what if?" questions that lurk at the back of every parents' mind: What if my child is born with a disability? What if my baby dies? What will I do then? In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, each character is forced to confront a different 'what if?" scenario: Dr. Henry gives away his child in an effort to spare his wife and himself greater suffering in the future; Norah, his wife, finds herself suffocated with grief from the death of a child; Caroline raises a child with Down's, constantly afraid of doing something 'wrong' or failing in her devotion. Each character represents the life of "what might have been" for each of the other characters had different decisions been made, but unlike Sartre's version of hell in No Exit, these characters gradually do find a kind of peace.

This is a technically ambitious novel, as is any novel that attempts to span entire lifetimes and catalogue each small triumph and failure of all its characters. As a result, the pace constantly oscillates between slow motion and giant leaps--I often found myself totally hooked into a particular situation only to turn the page and discover that we have leaped forward five years and the event I was so enthralled by is now ancient history for the characters in the book. This left me feeling disconnected from the characters and vaguely annoyed at Edwards for constantly wrenching my attention somewhere else. I got the feeling that Edwards didn't believe that her characters or the world she had created could stand on their own without having every detail meticulously plotted, right down to the last arch of an eyebrow and existential crisis. Instead of seeming to evolve naturally, the plot and character development felt more like an over planned road trip. I really think this novel could have benefited from a little less control on the part of the author and a little more trust in her own abilities as a writer.

And her abilities are many! I respect any author who can make us genuinely care about characters who we'd pass on the street without a second glance and who can take the story of those common characters and create a saga of personal identification and revelation. Edwards has all the earmarks of a masterful storyteller, and I look forward to seeing how she evolves.


Other good reads in the category of "ironic novels that chronicle the lives of middle-class families and their strained interpersonal relationships":

Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Charles Baxter, Saul & Patsy
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Ali Smith, The Accidental

Friday, November 10, 2006

Knitting: Laptop Cozy, Take...4?!?!

All right, y'all, I don't think there's anything else I can do to tweak, fiddle, or otherwise alter my little laptop cozy. I think it's actually finished. For reals this time. I ran it through the washer again, sans chickpeas, to try and felt the little baubles. It was a mixed success. Here are the before and after shots:

Here's the before (click on the picture to enlarge):
And here's the after:
The biggest problem was inconsistency in how the different sized baubles felted. The larger ones near the bottom of the bag (like the one in the foreground of the 'after' picture) didn't really felt very much but just kinda...spread out. There are a few other large baubles on the bag that spread out so much that they don't really poof anymore and really just blend in with the background. The baubles in the middle felted the best. They are just a little felty and still have just the right amount of poof:

The smallest baubles near the top of the bag felted well, but were so small that they tended to sink into the fabric of the bag and all but disappear. Meh. So now I know. If you want to felt the bag but not the baubles, go with medium sized baubles with 2-5 chickpeas. If you want baubles with a more felted look, do medium sized baubles with 4-8 chickpeas and then felt the bag a second time.

The bag itself did end up felting more. The fabric will eventually reach a point where it's as felted as it will get and not shrink further. Apparently I was not at that point with my bag. The final bag is a big smaller than I'd hoped for, but still completely serviceable. Again, so now I know. If you want to felt a second time, be sure to stop the felting the bag a little sooner on the first round, take out the chick peas, and then felt again until you're satisfied with the size.

Ok, so now I need some handles on my bag to complete my crafty-metro-girl-on-the-go! ensemble
I was initially nervous about cutting the handles because it's, you know, permanent and all that, but I took a deep breath and did it.

First I laid a piece of clear packing tape across the bag approximately where I was going to cut it. My bag just so happened to be exactly 12 inches across and a 4 inch handle sounded good to me, so I measured 4 inches on either side and two inches from the top, marking this on the tape:
I almost had to close my eyes while I cut through the felt. I was so paranoid that it hadn't felted enough and the whole thing would just start to unravel. (If it's felted properly, the fibers will be so twisted that you can literally cut it like fabric.) :

Voila! Cut felt! You can see here that the felted fabric is really quite thick--that's a good quarter of an inch thick and quite sturdy. Whew.
Now for some action pix! Here's the crafty-metro-girl-on-the-go! ready to swing by the farmer's market or pop by the public library for some good weekend reads:But this is a laptop cozy after all, so does my laptop really fit inside?! I was nervous since the bag felted so much more the second time. While it was drying, I kept stretching it out, trying to get it to keep as large a shape as possible:Ok, it fits sideways, but will it go all the way in?!
Ah, just barely. My laptop fits inside, but I can't pick it up by the handles. But you know what? That's actually just fine because the only time I'm transporting my laptop, I'd actually prefer to carry it in my backpack. This laptop cozy will be an extra protective sleeve inside my bag.

So final verdict? Complete satisfaction, plus inspiration to knit more bags and continue experimenting with the bauble idea. I've been thinking about enhancing the baubles during the initial knitting stage by doing some short row shaping. Not only would this make the bauble more pronounced and less susceptible to flattening out during the second round of felting, but it would enable me to knit the baubles in different colors from the background. Oh, man, I love knitting.

For the evolution on the laptop cozy:
Part I: Click HERE
Part II: Click HERE
Part III: Click HERE

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cooking: NYTimes article on the "Secret of Great Bread"

I'm so shocked, I don't even know what to say. Bread? That you don't knead? And it's baked in a dutch oven? Wa-huuuh? My dad forwarded me this article from the New York Times earlier today and I'm still processing. And of course I have to try this immediately--anyone have a handy dutch oven I can borrow?!

"The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work" by Mark Bittman:

P.S. Let me know if that link doesn't work or if you're asked for a password.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cooking: Il Lasagna Perfetto

You should all know by now that I love to cook. No doubt about it. But what I do not love is cooking every day. In fact, if I have to cook two days in a row, I get a bit cranky and start taking out my frustrations on the unsuspecting Engineer by muttering things under my breath like, "Though I may look and occasionally act like a 1940's housewife, I am not a 1940's housewife, mister." * He usually grins and says, "Pizza, then? Where are my keys?"

This is why I love love L-O-V-E love making humungoid meals
one or two times a week that will feed us both for lunch and dinner over several days. Luckily, the Engineer and I are both fairly monogastronomic (yes, I made up that word) and don't require a lot of variety in our diet to keep us satisfied. Throw in a few meals of eggs n' toast and a coupla stir fries and we're happy clams.

Whenever I come across a new recipe that I think has potential for deliciousness, I immediately begin to consider of two things: 1) How can I double or triple the amount of servings in this Bad Larry, and 2) How can I make it healthier? (The answer to both questions, by the way, is usually "add more vegetables." Just don't forget to adjust the spices.) I typically follow the recipe exactly one time and then modify on subsequent repetitions.

I've been working on my lasagna for about two years now--how's that for tenacious? My family was staying in a rented cabin tucked into the woods somewhere near Lake Superior--a winter vacation tradition in my family. The cabin came equipped with hand sewn quilts, a gorgeous view of one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, and a little kitchen of its own. After we were settled into our various cozy nooks, my mother started making "I'm-cooking-who-wants-to-help?" noises in the kitchen and organizing the various ingredients for lasagna.
Lasagna was a regular meal in our house--in fact I think it was my all-time-favorite food for a good chunk of elementary school, much to my mother's delight and disbelief. But this was the first time I consciously helped my mother make lasagna and recognized it as a meal that I could replicate for myself. It was a light bulb kind of moment.

At this time, my mother had been on WeightWatchers for a few years, but I hadn't yet started. As we got everything together, my mom explained the various substitutions she made to make the lasagna WeightWatcher's friendly: substituting lo-fat cottage cheese for
ricotta, using only 10 lasagna noodles over two layers, fattening up those layers with lots of veggies, and using a tomato sauce like Healthy Choice. I was intrigued, if skeptical, and was incredibly surprised at how fabulous it turned out. This lasagna did not taste like the lo-cal, limp, healthy-shmealthy dish I was expecting, and I was very relieved to see that the servings were much larger than a postage stamp. Mom's technique of using dry lasagna noodles in the layers rendered noodles that were al dente and richly flavored with absorbed tomato juice. Every bite was full of perfectly cooked vegetables, a bit of meat, a bit of noodle, and a bit of cheese--chewy and moist and perfect.

When I went on WeightWatchers myself a little over a year ago, I made Mom's recipe for lasagna often, but somehow it
wasn't quite as good as I remembered it. And although it was already significantly healthier than regular lasagna, I still grumbled about how much of my daily food allowance a slice would use up. Did I really need to use tomato sauce, or would crushed tomatoes work just as well? Did I need to use a whole pound of hamburger, or could a smaller amount still give that same meaty flavor and chew in every bite? To the kitchen I scurried.

I didn't go completely bananas and make 10 batches of lasagna in a weekend, but I kept notes on each batch I made and tried new little tweaks and twiddles each time. Crushed tomatoes does indeed make a good substitute for tomato sauce, though the flavor was a bit metallic and acidic until Mom suggested sprinkling just a touch of sugar over each layer of tomatoes. You don't taste the sugar specifically in the finished lasagna, but the metallic flavor was gone. Turns out that you can also get away with less meat (or meat-substitute if you're a veggie)--about 3/4 of a pound was good, and if you were really gung ho, you could happy reduce that further
or even cut the meat out all together. Just veggies makes a terrific lasagna on its own. I also tried using non-fat ricotta cheese and decided that I liked that traditional Italian flavor and mouthfeel. These three changes, along with experiments on spices and amounts of spices, has given me a purty darn near perfect lasagna, which I've now happily eaten for two weeks straight. But hey, that's monogastronomic ol' me.
Il Lasagna Perfetto

10 dry lasagna noodles (not 'no boil')
1/2 - 3/4 lb of ground lean turkey, lean beef, or meat substitute
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 tsp sugar
1 onion--diced
1 small eggplant, zucchini, or summer squash--diced
1 red bell pepper--diced
1 pkg baby bella mushrooms or portabella mushrooms--diced
1 c. non-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 c. low-fat cottage cheese
2 c. low-fat shredded cheese
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1/8 cup of water or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1. Mix all the chopped vegetables together in a large bowl and combine with all the spices. Taste a piece of eggplant or mushroom and adjust the spices if necessary--the mix should actually taste a bit too salty at this point.

2. Combine ricotta and cottage cheese together in a small bowl

3. In a 9x13 casserole dish or baking pan, spread a light layer of crushed tomatoes and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of the sugar over the top. Arrange a layer of 5 noodles--in my pan, I can fit 4 noodles length-wise and then have to break off about one inch on the fifth to fit it in along the side.

4. Spread half of the ricotta-cottage cheese mixture over the noodles. Then spread half of the veggies and half of the meat. Finally layer on about 1 cup of cheese and half the can of crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sugar over the tomatoes.

5. Add another layer of noodles and repeat step 4. Reserve a bit of cheese for the topping.

6. Swish the water or chicken broth (I prefer stock) in the empty can of tomatoes and dribble evenly over the top of the lasagna.

7. Cover the lasagna with a double layer of tinfoil and bake for 1 hour. After an hour, check the to see how done the noodles are and the onions are. I usually need to bake it covered for another 15 minutes. When the onions taste just a bit under done, uncover the lasagna and top with the reserved cheese. Bake uncovered for another 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and a bit brown.

Let the lasagna cool for about 10 minutes and then cut into 12 portions.

WeightWatchers: If you made any substitutions or adjustments, I recommend tallying everything up for yourself to be on the safe side. Made with the above ingredients,12 portions is about 4.5 points per portion. If you're being really strict, you can cut it into 16 portions for about 3.25 points each, but, honestly, those portions are a bit measly--ok for lunch, but probably not enough for dinner unless you were also eating a side dish.

*For the record, I would like to state that while I definitely do the lion's share of the cooking in our household, the Engineer is always a willing and able sous chef. I admit to having tendencies toward control-freak-ism and have been known to hyperventilate if the onions are not diced to proper proportions. I'm much better than I used to be, mostly because I was came to realize that I needed to chill out or my sous chef would not be quite so willing and able. Still, we find it works best to divide tasks by type: I'm in charge of cutting and stir frying, and the Engineer is in charge of the pilaf; I'm in charge of toast and the Engineer is in charge of scrambling the eggs; and so on. *shrug* It works for us.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Saturday morning rambling

This morning--right now--is my ideal morning. The Engineer woke me up with a rub on my back at 7:30 (good lad, that Engineer), and we went out for coffee. It's sunny and crisp outside. I wore the blue felt mittens my cousin gave me for Christmas a few years ago and a burgundy-colored stocking cap, which I love despite the fact that the seams always leave unbecoming ridges pressed into my forehead. On the way to City Feed Coffeeshop, the Engineer and I talked about circuits (which the Engineer is studying right now) and the series finale of Six Feet Under (which we finally watched last night). I held my coffee in both hands the entire walk home, just smelling the coffee as I listened to the Engineer jabber and occasionally adding a comment or two of my own. A perfectly made americano is an ideal morning all on its own.

Back home, I toasted bread while the Engineer scrambled eggs, and then we parted ways for the day--the Engineer to his office in the back room, and me to my nook in the front room with blanket and coffee and toast and book. I just started reading Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter and so far I'm loving it. It's been a while since I've read a good, solid work of fiction that isn't trying to be anything except a good, solid work of fiction. It's a nice breather. In fact, I think this book, which is set in a tiny Midwestern town and profiles the lives of a quirky young married couple, is partially responsible for putting me in this nostalgic, idyllic mood.

Soon I will get antsy and feel compelled to move on with the events of the day, but that's the charm of an ideal morning: it doesn't last forever. And it doesn't happen every day. It happens just often enough for you to really appreciate them. In fact, the ideal morning is less of a destination than it is an oasis that you unwittingly stumble upon. And when you've had your fill, it will gently propel you back into the wilderness, sated and ready.

A few tasting notes and miscellany:

*A perfectly made americano really is an ideal morning all on its own. Americanos are shots of espresso diluted in hot water. One story I heard during my days as a barista says that this drink got its name because Americans travelling in Europe found the taste European coffee--essentially shots of espresso--too strong for their palate, and they asked for water to be added to the cafe
so consistently that a new drink was born. It's deliciously bitter and dark, and I recommend drinking it black. Unlike regular brewed coffee that can have a harsh acidic aftertaste, an americano leaves a slight taste of caramel that sits on the tongue between sips. I also find americanos smoother and slightly thicker than regular coffee, a texture I enjoy because it makes me more conscious of what I'm drinking and aware of the drink as more than a convenient way to wake up in the morning.

*Scrambled eggs are one of those great American dishes that is in essence quite basic and yet everyone you talk to has a slightly different way of making them and a slightly different opinion about what qualifies as The Best. The Engineer is the Master Scrambler in our household. He pre-heats a flat pan over low heat for several minutes while he cracks and mixes the eggs. He adds about one tablespoon of cottage cheese per egg being cooked, which makes the scrambled eggs more fluffy and moist. He melts about one tablespoon of butter in the pan and then adds the eggs. Instead of stirring the eggs frantically, the Engineer scrambles by scraping the eggs in long even strokes from top to bottom and side to side, and they're done in about a minute. Perfect every time. But then again, he is the Master Scrambler.

*Some of you--especially those of you who knew me in my teenage years--might be wondering about and slightly disbelieving of the fact that I got up at 7:30 am on a Saturday. This is no lie, my friends, but the latest development in my transformation from an insomniac to a normal sleeper.
I've been taking sleep medication (first trazedone and then amitryptolene) to help me sleep for about seven years. At various points, I tried to wean myself off of it, but always ended up back on them. I find Western medicine to be generally a fine thing, but my doctors have been particularly unsupportive of going off of this medication and didn't have much advice for how to sleep normally without it. This past August, I called it quits. One night I had a pill in my hand and just...couldn't do it. I decided that I wasn't sleeping very well on the medication, so how bad could it be off of the medication? Sure enough, the medicine wasn't making much of a difference and I found my sleep about the same before and after. I would have 'good' nights of sleeping solidly through the night, and then several nights in a row of lying awake for hours before finally falling into a fitful sleep.

A month or so ago, I came across a book called Say Good Night to Insomnia by Gregg Jacobs, and despite the EXTREMELY ridiculous title, decided to give it a try because it sure couldn't hurt. Indeed, there are some bits in the book that are a bit on the ridiculous side, but there are also some real gems that I've duly tried and that have seemed to help. The main messages I have gotten from it are "you're probably sleeping more than you think," "you'll always fall asleep eventually," and "no one has died from insomnia." If you're already a normal sleeper, these three concepts won't be that revolutionary to you, but they drastically altered my thinking and negativity about insomnia. Instead of being this thing that ruled my life, insomnia was something that sure sucked but that could also be dealt with.

The main strategy in dealing with insomnia, according to the book, is to keep a sleep diary tracking when you went to bed, how many times you got up in the night, how long, what time you got up, how many total hours you slept and how good quality that sleep was. To my surprise, I found that I was sleeping more than I thought--an average of 6.5 - 7 hours per night--but that the quality wasn't very good. The next step in the book is to reduce the number of hours you allow yourself for sleep each night to the same number of hours you typically average for sleep. The reasoning behind this is that if you know you're only going to be sleeping [X] number of hours, you might as well only be in bed for those [X] number of hours--the average sleep is the same regardless of time spent in bed. This will make your bed a place associated only with sleep and only associated with sleep in a positive way, will theoretically increase quality of sleep because the sleep is condensed, and will also increase the number of hours you are awake during the daytime and thus make you more sleepy when bedtime comes. So this is why I'm going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7:30 every day--weekdays and weekends. And it's going pretty well so far! I still wouldn't call myself a normal sleeper, but I'm definitely less of a sleep-deprived zombie during the day. Thus ends my Long Winded Speech on Insomnia (whew--I really got going on that subject, didn't I?). For any insomniacs or restless sleepers out there, I definitely recommend this book. It might not be The Answer but it's certainly a beginning.

*A sneak preview of some upcoming posts:

  • a recipe for My Favorite Lasagna
  • adventures in home-made crackers
  • muffin recipe tests for a contest I'm entering
  • book reviews of Blankets, The Nasty Bits, and The Memory-Keeper's Daughter
  • introducing The Engineer's Christmas present--the boyfriend sweater
  • and finally--as promised--I am going to felt that laptop cozy again--and I rilly promise to do it this time