The turkey carcass has been thoroughly picked clean, the tupperware container drained of its gravy, and the pie plate emptied of all but a few pumpkin-scented bits of crust. The time has come to rouse myself from the slumber of leftovers, strap on my apron, and cook something.
If the coming and going of Thansgiving has affected your cupboard as it has mine, you probably have some bits and pieces of holiday ingredients lying around. A bit of rummaging turned up an extra bag of cranberries, a slimy box of pre-cut mushrooms, some croutons, an unopened bottle of karo syrup. Not much in the way of dinner inspiration. But then, with a bit more rummaging, I discovered several nearly empty bags of nuts: walnuts that didn't make it into the cranberry sauce, pecans that didn't make it into the pies, and a handful of chestnuts that my dad bought at the local grocery in a bout of nostalgia for the chestnut trees we left behind in West Virginia over 15 years ago. There was also a pound of brussels sprouts.
And brussels sprouts call for a bit of a digression.
There are certain vegetables that, to my mind, suffer an undeserved amount of prejudice. Whether you know of a vegetable that has been profiled as foul tasting or whether you yourself are a hater of a particular leafy green thing, I think you know the phenomenon of which I speak. A certain ilk of green vegetables have been...disenfranchised: cabbage, broccoli (when not smothered with a mask of melted cheddar), peas, and spinach (and well before the e coli scare). Brussels sprouts, God bless the them, have had it the worst. They have, in recent years, been defamed as England's most hated vegetable. According to some food popularity meters, they are making a comeback, but I've yet to see evidence of their regular appearance on family tables in the English speaking world.
And, it is not their fault. Brussels sprouts have been relentlessly steamed and boiled into bitter little army fatigue-colored balls from which generations of innocent children have recoiled with a shudder and a gag. And these youngsters have grown up, as any psychiatrist might have predicted, to be (a) brussels sprouts haters themselves--perpetuators of the crimes of their parents, or (b) overly protective of their children, determined to break the abusive cycle by banning the traumatic greens from their homes. These cycles must be broken.
Full declosure: I was spared abuse in the form of brussels sprouts as a child. Perhaps my parents were the (b) overly protective type when it came to sprouts. Perhaps brussels sprouts didn't reguarly make their way into rural West Virginia. I did have to face chicken livers, and I swallowed whole with gulps of milk my fair share of peas in order to have my nightly request of liberation granted: "May I please be excused from the table?" I discovered brussels sprouts baggage-free a few years ago when cookbook writers were already beginning to sing their neglected praises. And now I'm trying to slip them onto the plates of my parents and sisters.
Which brings me back to Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving holds a special place in the hearts and stomachs of my family members. We like to gather. We like to drink. And we really like to eat. In past years, the holiday went like this: Mom makes the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, and the rolls; my sisters make the pies, my brother makes the mashed potatoes, my dad pours the Beaujolais, and I, well...I cook a vegetable. Nothing on the Thanksgiving menu ever changes...except my vegetable. I've tried a reinterpretation of dried-onion-topped green beans and various forgettable vegetable casseroles. One year there was something with cinnamon, sage, and squash. Each Thanksgiving, my vegetable dish gets politely eaten; and later, I take home most of it, reluctantly pick at it for a few days, and throw it away.
Well, this was the year of the brussels sprouts. I knew it was risky. But what, really, did I have to lose? I was pretty sure I would be hitting the cookbooks for vegetable recipes when next November rolled around. I had bought an obscene amount of brussels sprouts, suffering as I do from an impairment in vegetable poundage estimation. In a moment of doubt about their favorable reception, I stuffed about half of them back into the refrigerator, and cooked the other half. Then a Thanksgiving miracle occurred: before my very eyes, my vegetable dish started to disappear. And then it was almost gone. What little there was leftover had vanished within 24 hours. Eventually, my family headed back down to North Carolina leaving me with the pound or so of hastily reserved, raw brussels sprouts in the fridge.
Which brings me back to leftovers.
As I cobbled together my leftover nuts, I recalled the taste of my first Thanksgiving vegetable success, and savored the fact that it tasted like brussels sprouts. The roasted nuts and maple syrup bring out the sweetness in this vegetable. The crunch of the nuts provides a nice textural contrast. Don't fear excessively browning the sprouts...the crispier you can get their outer leaves, the yummier. It was brussels sprouts de ja vu all over again, but this time with a hodge-podge of nuts. Though not prejudiced myself, I was a bit surprised to find myself scooting them out of the way to get to the sprouts.
Thanksgiving Leftovers Mixed Nut Brussels Sprouts
Serves 4 brussels sprouts lovers. In smaller portions, may convert brussels sprouts haters.
some combination of raw, shelled nuts to equal about 1 1/2 cups
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2-3 grinds black pepper from pepper mill
1. Toast nuts: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread nuts on cookie sheet in a single layer. Toast in oven until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Make sure they don't scorch...this can happen very quickly. (If you're using unshelled chestnuts as I did, cut an X on each one with a sharp knife and toast them separately for about 25 minutes.) Cover them with a kitchen towel until they're cool enough to handle, and then peel away the shell and the inner fuzzy layer. Chop nuts into smaller pieces, if you want.
2. Heat butter and oil in a large, heavy skillet (cast iron is good here) over medium-high heat. Add brussels sprouts, cut sides down, in a single layer. Salt and pepper them, and cook the little green gems without stirring until they are nice and browned on the bottom, 8-10 minutes. Give the pan a shake and cook a few minutes longer until the sprouts have browned to your preferred hue.
3. Add maple syrup and nuts. Stir to combine. Serve 'em up.
I served these (leftover) sprouts with Sweet Potato Fritters.
Here is the recipe, adapted from Every Day Food, November 2006.
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
5 scallions, finely chopped
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
coarse salt and ground pepper
3/4 cup vegetable oil
sour cream for serving, if you like
1. Coarsely grate sweet potatoes on the large holes of a box grater into a large bowl. Stir in scallions, eggs, flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
2. Scoop out 1/4 cup of potato mixture with a measuring cup, shape with hands into a call; transfer to a baking sheet and flatten with palm into a 3/4 inch disk. Repeat with remaining potato mixture.
3. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat until hot. Using a spatula with a thin blade, transfer as many cakes as will fit comfortably to skillet. Flatten slightly with spatula. Cook until golden brown, 4-5 minutes per side. Transfer fritters to a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle with coarse salt. Repeat with remaining fritters. Serve with sour cream.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
The turkey carcass has been thoroughly picked clean, the tupperware container drained of its gravy, and the pie plate emptied of all but a few pumpkin-scented bits of crust. The time has come to rouse myself from the slumber of leftovers, strap on my apron, and cook something.
Monday, November 20, 2006
This last batch gurgled near my heating vent for a full 24 hours, and the loaf came out riddled with an almost fluffy, air-pocket riddled interior. I had to stop myself from jumping up and mixing up another batch when I tasted it.
I used to sort of pride myself on my culinary adventurousness. What, Sarah, will you cook for dinner tonight? Squid? Anchovy stuffed flowers? Trout custard? But these days, all I can think about is: what will go with the bread? Yes, that proverbial "crusty loaf of bread" that is regularly suggested as an accompaniment to this or that dish has become, in recent weeks, the main course. Once I have a batch of dough rising, I start thinking about what to serve with it. The answer has become a welcome refrain: Soup. Soup. Soup.
Whether you're of the dunking persuasion (as I am), or the alternating slurp of soup, bite of bread persuasion (as my husband is), you can't go wrong with soup and bread. Well, all of you no knead bread aficionados, I've had the fortune of hitting upon the ultimate bread accompaniment. It's a sort of measly looking soup...maybe even unappealing. But if the smell doesn't have you salivating in the kitchen, the taste will have you licking your bowl. Or sponging it clean with your no knead bread.
This soup packs a mean punch, and behind its fist are no fewer than 44 cloves of garlic. I found it on epicurious.com where it has earned a remarkable amount of reviews. Its the sort of soup, I suppose, that inspires commentary. While it earned an almost unparalleled amount of rare 4 forks ratings (epicurious readers being on the stingy side of online recipe reviewers), many fans nevertheless felt that caveats were in order:
"I must add the discouraging fact that you will smell like garlic for 24 hours after eating this. I had this last night and still only taste garlic when I eat anything. BEWARE!!"
"I was the only one in my house who ate it..and all I got when i came into to contact with anyone..my husband..kids..mom etc...was.."boy do u smell!!""
"I loved it but my husband (who normally loves garlic) did not! He threatened to sleep on the couch my dragon breath was so bad! I will make it again for myself when he is away on business."
One reviewer remarked on another one of this soup's olfactory effects:
"Wowza, if the Queen of England was coming over for dinner, I would feel proud serving this phenom soup!"
"I have made this several times and get nothing but raves, as a matter of fact we have renamed it "Sex in a soup.""
"I made a grown man cry with this soup. But he is one of my more enlightened friends."
Be your friends enlightened or not, I fully recommend this soup. In the words of one reviewer, however, I do suggest you "insist that BOTH partners of a couple partake."
Roasted Garlic Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit, February 1999. Recipe from Charleston Grill, Charleston, SC.
Serves 4. To be eaten with No Knead Bread.
26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 1/4 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
18 garlic cloves, peeled
3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
4 lemon wedges
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 26 unpeeled garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 35 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.
2. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.Rewarmm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)
4. Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve to accompany bread.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
A recent article in the New York Times has thrown its readers into a flurry. Complaints and praise of the article have clogged the NYT online recipe discussion forums; websites unrelated to the newspaper have picked up the story; bloggers have published their own rants and raves. This story was not about the recent democratic takeover of congress, or the unconscionable number of deaths in Iraq, or even the discovery that insane amounts of red wine have lengthened the lives of mice. No, this story was about another controversial subject: bread.
A few weeks ago, Mark Bittman sang the praises of a certain Mr. Lahey's bread recipe from Sullivan Street Bakery. Mr. Lahey called it no-knead bread, and insisted that not only was it as good as the bread that the best bakeries turn out, but a six year old could make it without any trouble at all. My interest was immediately piqued as I have almost given up on making homeade bread. I've turned out a decent loaf or two, but not without battle scar burns and a smoldering resentment for recipes that call for baking tiles and bread peels and cornmeal and complicated shaping techniques.
I had been experimenting with a promising recipe I found on epicurious.com, and with pretty good results. The dough is mixed and rises inside of a food processor...which keeps the kitchen counters free of sticky dough and the sink free of dishes. The recipe produced a nice crust (via the rather counterintuitive method of a water bath), but the interior was dense and sort of bland. So, Mr. Bittman's article seemed like an oasis in a desert of disappointing bread baking experiences; but when I set about to replicate his results, I began to worry that I was reaching for yet another bread mirage.
The trouble first surfaced in the NYT online recipe forum when hopeful bread bakers began to realize that Mr. Bittman's written recipe differed from the recipe given in the illustrative video. Either 1 1/2 cups or 1 5/8 cups of water were to be added to the dough, which was or was not to undergo a second rise on a cotton towel, and was to be baked at either 450 or 500 degrees. Faced with such discrepancies, what is a six year old to do?
This recipe is so hands-off and the ingredients so inexpensive that I had just about nothing to lose. Following the written recipe, I mixed up the ingredients into a messy lump, set the stuff in a bowl next to a heating duct, and waited. And waited. At 8 hours, I had a bubbly dough. At 12 hours, I had a ripe-smelling, tan-colored dough. At 18 hours, I had a swollen, gurgley heap of dough unlike any other I had formed into loaf shape in all of my meager bread baking experience. As instructed, I wrestled the thing onto a floured cotton towel, let it swell again, and then tossed it into a pot, threw on the lid, and stuffed it in the oven. No peels, no shaping, no smoking pizza stones, no burns, and no kneading. But, really, the no-knead bit is just a gimmick. Is it really the kneading that keeps people from making bread? Seems to me it's bad bread that keeps people from making bread. But if kneading isn't necessary for baking up a good loaf, and apparently it's not, the kneading can go.
The crust of this bread is a crunchy, crispy wonder, while the interior is chewy with an air-pocket-riddled crumb. Patrick, who would rather eat bread than just about anything else (despite his reservations about white-colored foods), moaned and groaned over this bread to the point of making dinner conversation nearly impossible. It really is that good.
The second time I made this bread, I increased the water a bit, and the rising time by 6 hours (I wanted that bread sooner!). The second loaf might have suffered just a bit in that yeasty, almost sourdough flavor that comes with a longer rise, but the texture was just as good, and the crust even better.
Really Good Bread
from Sullivan Street Bakery (courtesy Mark Bittman for the NYT). Makes one big round loaf.
3 cups all purpose flour, plus a lot more for dusting
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups, plus 1 tablespoon water
1. Combine flour, yeast, and salt in a big bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups, plus 1 tablespoon water. Stir it all up until blended. The dough will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place to rise for 12-18 hours.
2. When the dough surface is dotted with bubbles, it's ready for the next step. Lightly flour a work surface and scoop dough out onto it. Sprinkle a but more flour over surface of dough and fold it over a couple of times. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes.
3. With floured hands, quickly shape the dough into a ball. It won't really hold a "ball" shape at this point, but that's ok. Coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with lots of flour and put dough seem side down on the towel. (Or, better yet, dust a silpat liner with flour and put the dough on that. Less sticking trouble that way.) Dust with more flour, cover with another towel, and let rise for about 2 more hours until it is doubled in size. One of my loafs needed about 3 hours to double in size.
4. At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a 6 to 8 quart heavy pot with a lid in the oven as it heats. I used a ceramic pot the first time, and a large oven-proof dutch oven the second time. When dough is ready, carefully removed pot from oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn dough over into the pot. Give the pot a shake or two to even out the dough. It doesn't matter if it looks like a disaster.
5. Cover pot with lid and bake 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 15-30 minutes, until the loaf is browned. Dump out the loaf and cool it on a rack. I know this is hard--and I almost never succeed at it myself--but try to let the bread cool for at least 30 minutes, or it will squish as you cut it and make the interior more dense.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
You know as well as I that we have had, well...how shall I put it...a sweet and sour history. I admit it, I've called you pale and bland, and looked the other way as you sulked in the freezer for months on end. I've edited you out of recipes, making lentil curry instead of chicken curry, pork kebabs instead of chicken kebabs. But, hey, we've had our good times, right? Remember chicken and dumplings? And that thing we did with the artichokes and sundried tomatoes?
Look, I know I've been distant...I'm just going to come right out and say it: I think we have a trust issue. When guests are coming for dinner, I just feel more comfortable with lamb shanks or beef ribs or even shrimp cakes. It's not that I don't like you...it's not that other people wouldn't be happy to eat you. It's that you can be so volatile, moody, either undercooked or dry, rarely inbetween. And, even then, I never quite know when you'll turn out just...blah.
I want to make things work, I really do. I know you'll never make me break the bank, you're versatile, you're popular... I've never denied you those things. Last night, though, I saw how you could be so much more. I've never quite seen you like that...so dark and juicy and...complex. There was an earthy depth about you...something about those root vegetables, I guess. But then, there was this bright tang, too. The cinnamon gave you an exotic air, while the parsley and cilantro made you seem so fresh. Chicken, I think I had a revelation. I've been too focused on your mediocre parts. I mean this in the best way, but your breasts just aren't anything to get too worked up over. But your thighs...your thighs have never disappointed me, and I'm sorry that I haven't given them their due. I knew that they were dependable, good in a comforting sort of way; but last night, it was like I was experiencing them for the first time...unusual, sassy, provocative...worthy of being showed off.
Sweet and Sour Chicken with Carrots
adapted from Gourmet, April 2005. Serves 4.
4 large chicken thighs with skin and bone
2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 1/4 teaspoons paprika
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion cut into thin strips
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 pound carrots cut on the diagonal into 1 inch pieces
3 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons mild honey
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
1. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Mix together 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, paprika, cinnamon, and pepper and rub all over both sides of chicken thighs.
2. Heat olive oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Brown chicken, turning over once, about 10 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a plate.
3. Discard all but 3 tablespoons fat from skillet, then add onion and carrots. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and beginning to brown, 8-10 minutes. If spices on bottom of skillet start to burn, add a bit of the lemon juice and scrape up brown bits. Add garlic, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
4. Return chicken skin side up to skillet and nestle pieces among vegetables. Stir together water, lemon juice, and honey until well blended, and then add to the skillet. Cover skillet, reduce to medium-low heat, and cook until carrots are tender and sauce is thickened, 25-30 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped herbs right before serving.
Monday, November 06, 2006
This post requires a confession of sorts. You see, despite my claims to care fairly little for sweet, chocolate confections, I have a certain history with fudgey brownies. Sadly, I must say, it is a discreet history that ended abruptly with my move to Pittsburgh. After an hour or so spent in my kitchen this afternoon, I'm beginning to think that this history can be relived, but only in part. The story goes something like this:
My sister, Mary, and I--who differ in age by a mere 13 months--enjoyed, shall we say, an ambivalent relationship for the first 20 or so years of our lives. A childhood insomniac, I tormented her nightly with pleas for entertainment...puppet shows, scary stories, even fights...anything to keep me from lying in the dark thinking about disembodied hands crawling up the side of my bed. By day, Mary took her revenge by squealing in pain when I passed her in the house and claiming with tear-filled eyes that I had pinched her. I called her pip-squeak until she went into hysterics. She brandished the love-letters she regularly received from 2nd and 3rd grade suitors, while I had none. These games went on, though perhaps in more sophisticated forms, until sometime in 2003 when we found ourselves living within a few miles of each other and, to the surprise of us both, suddenly compatible. That's when the TV + Brownies = Bliss equation began to exert its influence in our lives.
As a dedicated graduate student, married to a likewise dedicated and highly ideological graduate student, I owned no TV. I didn't terribly miss it, but when I started visiting my sister's apartment once a week for dinner, I soon found the periodic TV fix these visits afforded absolutely essential. Here's where the confession begins...
The now good-humored Mary tivo'd Iron Chef and What not to Wear for my Wednesday viewing pleasure. Sometimes I watched Everybody Loves Raymond because she liked it; and then I watched it because I liked it too. In the final days, we watched The Colbert Report, hoping each week that the Dead to Me segment would appear. But the show that defined our weekly rendez-vous was...let me take a deep breath...American Idol. I won't go into the messy details here, but let's just say that Bo Bice, Bucky Covington (and his twin brother, Rocky), Chris Daughtry, and--my sister's fav and the Idol of 2006--Taylor Hicks, took up special places in or hearts. And as they did, brownies and butter pecan ice cream took up special places in our bellies. I don't expect the readers of this confession to fully understand the power of this combination. I have even asked myself how the combination of American Idol and warm brownie sundaes shared in the company of one's sister could taste so sweet. But I have concluded that these experiences leave no room for ruminations on calorie content and the corruption of American youth. There are only so many sources of pure pleasure in this world, and I am happy to have, proudly and without doubt, known one of them.
Mary used to make boxed brownies in her microwave, and they tasted like heaven. The brownies that I made this afternoon taste just about as good, but minus the aforementioned TV show, it is really hard to compare the two. They are, to be sure, dense and fudgey. Do not make these if you like spongey, cake-like brownies. These will stick to your teeth and send you searching for milk to wash them down. I had no butter pecan ice cream, but Breyer's Double-Churned Vanilla did the trick. And, really, weren't we pushing the limits with that combination, Mary? In keeping with the frugality of the TV + Brownies = Bliss equation, this recipe won't strain your budget as it calls for cocoa instead of chocolate. If you find yourself a good-tasting brand (I used Ghiradelli), you'll never miss the solid stuff. In addition to making a really rich brownie, the cocoa and butter combination creates the fudgey texture which, in my opinion, is the sine qua non of excellent brownies. If America could vote on this recipe, I think it would stand a good chance at becoming the next American Brownie Idol. Now, without access to an American Idol broadcasting television, I'll have to make due with half the equation. But this , I think, is the sort of deprivation I can handle.
Make these, Mary. And call in your vote.
from Bitter-Sweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life of Chocolate, by Alice Medrich.
Makes 9 good sized brownies
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8x8 inch baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, allowing edges on two opposite sides to overhang by a few inches.
2. Set a wide skillet half-filled with water over medium heat. Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heat-proof bowl and set bowl in skillet of water. Adjust temperature so that water barely simmers. Stir every few minutes until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot to the touch. Remove the bowl and set aside until the mixture is only warm, not hot.
3. Stir in vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well-blended, add the flour and stir until it is no longer visible. Beat mixture for 40 strokes with a wooden spoon. Spread it evenly into the lined pan.
4. Bake until a toothpick stuck in the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20-25 minutes. Let cool on a rack, lift edges of parchment paper and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 9 squares.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
As a child I begged to be told scary stories. And not just at Halloween or beside a campfire, but daily, hourly, at any moment I thought my pestering might produce something that would give me nightmares. Papaw, as he is called, was always willing to indulge this taste for fear. And he didn't hold back. From the age I could sit still long enough to hear an entire story, he filled my mind with genuinely horrific sounds and images.
Needless to say, I was a very frightened child. Certain that the beast under my bed would take advantage of every chance to pull me down and noisily devour me, I made sure to never allow my feet to dangle over the edge of the bed. Each night I fought to fall asleep in my blanket cocoon, trying to banish thoughts of the moaning corpse that might, the moment I closed my eyes, stumble from the closet door. Monsters lived in the basement laundry room and the attic as well. Sometimes I even thought that the glowing eyes of the cat that sat on my window sill at night showed devilish signs of intelligence. The first "adult" books I checked out of the public library were written by Stephen King. Pet Cemetery tormented me by day and by night. I read it twice.
The scariest story in Papaw's rotation was about a man named Jack who worked at a saw mill. A railroad ran right by his station, but he hardly noticed when the coal trains rushed by. His eyes had been ruined by flying splinters, and he had become near-deaf from the buzz of his saw. One evening when he was working late, he failed to hear the train coming and wandered too close to the tracks. He was dragged down by the train and his hand was cut clean off under a wheel. Jack's corpse was discovered the following morning by one of his coworkers, but his hand could not be found. A few people claim to have seen it, though, dragging itself along the ground by its fingers through train yards, searching blindly for the driver of the train that severed it from its body.
At this point, Papaw would demonstrate how Jack's hand slowly moved. Then his hand would turn towards me, and I would squeal, run out of the room (leaping past the door to the cellar which I knew was populated by giant rats), take a few deep breaths, and then start begging for another scary story.
I wonder now and then how these stories shaped my current feelings about bones (of both the edible and venerable sort), and my academic work which, to the discomfort of friends and family, concerns body fluids, monstrosities, illness, corpses, and wombs. Fortunately, my fear of the dark, disembodied hands, and hairy forest-dwelling creatures has been channeled into the pursuit of post-graduate degrees...and cookie baking.
I may in future years attempt pastry in the form of Jack's hand, but this Halloween I settled for lady fingers.
Although I find this photo disturbing, I didn't think that it quite captures the freakish quality of my Jack's Hand nightmares. This version gets closer:
Pretty scary, huh?
The recipe for these almond-flavored cookies with red-tinged almond nails can be found (along with other gruesome Halloween edibles) here. They are nice with morning coffee if your stomach can tolerate fingers at that hour.
My Lady Fingers started out all knobby and spindly like I imagine witch fingers to be, but once I put them in the oven, they started to swell to monstrous proportions. Obese Lady Fingers may, in the end, be scarier.
Ms. Stewart has a recipe for pretzel Lady Fingers here. Should you own a cast-iron, cauldron-like pot, you might prefer this recipe, as it calls for the fingers to be boiled before baking.