Category Archives: Home cooking

Comfort Food.

In the wake of a mass shooting in Tucson, sad stories and images have pervaded our airwaves for the past week. The smiling child who just wanted to meet her congresswoman. The neighbor who just wanted to help. The elderly man who died shielding his wife from bullets. The judge with the friendly smile. The promising young congressional staffer, freshly engaged. And, of course, news of Rep. Gabby Giffords herself, a brilliant and vivacious woman now struggling just to open her eyes or wiggle a finger.

Between that and the bone-biting cold and snow that’s hit every state but Florida, I think we could all use a little comfort food.

On days like this, I turn to old friends: Grilled cheese and tomato soup. Mashed potatoes with plenty of cream. Macaroni and cheese. Or just a generous helping of hot cocoa in my favorite blue pottery mug, fat enough to wrap both hands around and feel the warmth seep into my skin.

Then again, not all comfort foods are hot: One of the most soothing snacks in my memory is a plate of cold, crisp apple slices and cheddar cheese. Paired with a mug of hot cocoa, this was my mom’s signature dish to welcome me back from “ski school” on Sunday afternoons in winter.

I had a love-hate relationship with skiing as a kid. I hated the harried process of getting bundled up, buckled into my boots and bustled off to the mountain right after church, along with all the other kids. I hated not being the best in my class, like I was in regular school. I hated how my fingers went numb inside my mittens and my butt felt frozen to the chairlift. I hated how my breath fogged up my goggles and formed a crust of ice crystals along the top edge of my neckwarmer.

There were moments I loved, though. Tucking my body in to speed down a particularly steep section of one trail without fear, because I knew it would slope back up again just as steeply around the next bend. Skidding to a stop on the side of a trail in just the right way to send up a dramatic spray of snow. Completing a child-sized slalom course called “The Cookie Monster Race” and getting a chocolate-chip cookie shoved in my mouth as I skiied across the finish line.

I stopped taking lessons after grade school, but kept skiing, realizing that it was much more fun when I got to choose my own time frame and companions. Often it was just me and my dad, since my mom didn’t ski. (She tried in the Alps years ago, motivated by a handsome European, but after an unfortunate lesson in physics—wait, crouching down doesn’t equal slowing down on skis?—she decided it wasn’t the sport for her.)

Chairlift up Madonna Mountain at Smuggler's Notch (Jeffersonville, VT). Courtesy of Flickr user found_drama

Chairlift rides were interesting. Being trapped together, detached from all distractions, for a 10-15 minute stretch is a strange thing for two people who aren’t inherently chatty. But it turned out to be a good thing for Dad and I. We poked around topics we’d never explored before, like politics and current events, and when things felt awkward I asked him a question about his favorite topic, nature. (Why does the snow feel gravelly instead of fluffy today? What kind of cloud is that? Are those rabbit tracks down there?) Looking back, I think those captive conversations laid the groundwork for our adult relationship. (Although groundwork seems the wrong term, obviously.)

When we got home, Mom would insist that I go take a hot bath immediately, and since the part of my teenage brain that automatically argued with everything she said seemed to have frozen along with the rest of my body, I’d usually take her advice. I’d perch my snacks on the edge of the tub and slide under the froth of bubble bath, keeping my hands dry to read a book and nibble apples and cheese. It was a small tub, and the water cooled off quickly, and pretty soon my brother would be loudly wondering if I was ever going to get out of the bathroom. But it was more soothing than any spa I’ve ever been to.

What are your comfort foods?

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Now I understand why my mom was never quite as excited about baking Christmas cookies as I was as a kid.

Remember those cookies I stayed home to bake? Yeah, never doing that again. I’m still finding bits of flour and dough in random places like the toaster-oven knob!

The gingersnaps were fairly easy, and I discovered a little trick for making the tops get that nice crackly look: Brush the tops of the dough balls with maple syrup, then dip them in granulated sugar, before placing them on the sheet and baking. I think I used a gingersnap recipe from the Bon Appetit cookbook, but to be honest, I can’t quite recall.

Maple-glazed gingersnaps.

But the “Moravian White Christmas Cookies” were definitely not as easy as The Gourmet Cookie Book made them look/sound.

They lost me at: “Add sufficient flour to stiffen the dough.” (How much flour would be too much? How stiff is stiffened? Argh! Vague recipes drive mediocre bakers like myself crazy.) The first batch I rolled out stuck to the counter like paste. The second was only slightly better. Hearing my grunts of frustration getting louder, my dear husband intervened just as I was about to throw the whole mess out.

By the last batch, we’d worked enough flour in to make things more manageable, and had figured out that it was best to keep most of the dough in the freezer while rolling the rest. The points of the stars kept getting caught in the cookie cutter, resulting in lots of re-rolling and more grunts of frustration.

Sherry-flavored Moravian Christmas cookies from The Gourmet Cookie Book, before icing.

Still, in the end they looked decent with some basic white icing (confectioners’ sugar, corn syrup, water, and a few drops of sherry to match the cookie flavor). I took them to a friend’s Christmas party the next day, where they got added to a platter with approximately 17,000 other types of cookies. About halfway through the party, I crossed paths with a woman I didn’t know who was surveying the spread of sweets.
“I’m on a diet, but I’ve decided to let myself have just one cookie, so I’m trying to decide which one I want the most,” she said. Guess what she picked? 🙂

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