Merry Christmas Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa with a Christmas tree in the background
Grandma and Grandpa with a Christmas tree in the background
with Dad, Grandma and Grandpa in the 80's
with Dad, Grandma and Grandpa in the 80’s
with my pal Grandpa
with my pal Grandpa
classic family photo
classic family photo

I wrote this in October and I’ve been saving it for Christmas.

There are many stories to tell about my Grandpa and food, so let me start with the basics. He was a real character, larger than life, very opinionated, and made a better friend than an enemy. People had strong feelings about him, although I think mostly positive. He played the piano and was the life of every cocktail party he ever attended. He took me for sailboat rides, taught me how to fish (which I did one whole time, but still!) and my childhood memories of him are all wrapped up with blueberry pancakes covered in local maple syrup, warm, sun ripened raspberries eaten straight from the vine, apple pie with raisins, homemade popovers, and best of all, the most delightful crusty Italian bread with sesame seeds on top. The bread was best hot out of the oven dripping with too much butter and homemade jam someone gave him, or topped with extra sharp Cabot cheddar and homegrown tomatoes and toasted under the broiler. Grandpa passed away in January 2011 and I continue to be overwhelmed with sadness when something small reminds me of him.

A few weeks before we moved to Miami I made my yearly pilgrimage to Northeastern Vermont to visit family and the land where I have always felt the most at home, even though I’ve never lived there. Thankfully my parents had the good sense to make sure I was born up there, so I can still claim Vermont as my own. I was a little hesitant to go to Grandpa’s house since it had been mostly packed up and cleaned out. The removal of stuff from this house was no small feat. It was stocked to the gills with an array of oddities along the lines of singing trout, real stuffed and mounted trout, books that I’m not sure if anyone ever read, hundreds of my Grandmother’s paperweights, and about 20 candy dishes probably filled with 20 year old candies. I was nervous about saying goodbye to the place because so many of my joyful childhood memories lived there. I waited as long as I could until just a few hours before we were leaving when I finally went in and looked around. Even though so many things were gone, I was relieved that the house still felt like his.

My aunt and uncle who had done the work of removing most of the junk encouraged me to look around and take anything that was left. I decided on a few beautiful paperweights to remind me of my Grandma, Grandpa’s Greensboro Award (an engraved blue glass pitcher made by local artists), a few tiny crystal vases, and a bright yellow cookbook I spotted on the bottom shelf, “How To Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman. You may recognize the name from his New York Times feature, The Minimalist, which I have always enjoyed but I had never actually tried any of his recipes. The cookbook is both basic and expansive, with many ideas for variations to make each recipe your own. I will be honest and say that it is largely the style of cookbook I wanted and tried to write when I created a book proposal this past year. Mark Bittman is extensively more experienced and knowledgeable than I am, so I’m glad he wrote it instead. I trust his recipes much more than my own, especially because part of my concept is not to use recipes at all. Bittman’s book is really helpful with learning basic skills and techniques which is the beginning of cooking confidently and experimenting. I think he says something along those lines in the introduction.

Truthfully, I’m not sure why my Grandpa had that book on his shelf, I don’t know if he ever used it because the pages are not caked with any tell tale food remnants. There were a few pressed leaves between the pages which got me a little choked up. I don’t remember seeing him ever open a cookbook, but I do recall a hand written recipe for the delicious Italian bread. Anyway, I brought the book to Miami and have been cooking my way through the yeast dough section, partly in honor of Grandpa, partly in celebration of having my own kitchen not full of toxic mold (in Israel our kitchen was kind of disastrous), and largely just because it is something I have wanted to do for years but have been inexplicably afraid of. Now that we’re living here in Miami, a place I never wanted to even visit, I figure I might as well face the unknown and get real with myself in every possible way. For me, cooking is a great place to get real because I can’t afford take out anyway and I find it both relaxing and exciting. Bread making reads more at the exciting/terrifying end of the meter for me, maybe because the yeast needs special conditions and is kind of a partner in the process. I don’t work so well with others, or give up control in my kitchen very easily. Just ask Mo. Actually don’t, I’m kind of embarrassed of my inner kitchen control freak. Anyway, I didn’t want to let some pesky, unpredictable yeast come in and mess up my cooking ambitions, so I waited to make my own bread. Waited for years! I made a few forays into the genre, with pizza dough and sticky buns. There was even one botched batch of challah while we were living in Israel last year. My friends Leigh and Rachel could not believe that I turned out fresh doughnuts for a party of 30 people but couldn’t begin to fathom making a loaf of bread. Rachel encouraged me by memorably declaring that she is a terrible cook and even she makes bread every week. Well, thanks to my friends, my Grandpa, Mo, and finally, an article about the terrors of modern wheat, I finally bought some fancy organic flours from Whole Foods, took the leap and made some bread.

First, spelt challah, which was dense but delicious. Then, whole wheat pitas, which are even easier than making pizza dough, and like 10 times more impressive. You’re impressed, right? My four year old son helped me with my second batch of pitas by punching down the dough with about as much happiness as a puppy with a new chew toy. His face crinkled with real or imagined anger and frustration as he beat the dough into submission and said, “You guys should really get me a punching bag!” Well played, sir.

I would like to leave you with a toast to the unknown. I used to think that if I could get over my fears of the worst, the best would be waiting for me. The truth is that sometimes our fears are realized. Sometimes our imaginary worst case scenario is true. Sometimes the best case scenario is true and it turns out not to be what we really wanted after all. There is only one way to find out, and even if the worst is out there, an unexpected best is walking with it hand in hand, and in my case, it’s carrying a loaf of homemade bread in a picnic basket. Here’s to discovery!

Mark Bittman’s Cinnamon Buns

(from How to Cook Everything)

I substituted whole wheat flour and didn’t make the frosting, but I did sprinkle each bun with a little extra sugar before I baked them.

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