Sugar sandwiches.

If you read a lot of parenting blogs or websites (and oh, for the love of all the things please don’t), one of the myths you might encounter is the one about how if you do everything right, in your fourth month post-partum the pounds will literally melt off of you and you will suddenly weigh what you did in high school. It’s almost month five, and I did everything according to the literature but noticed this morning that my top is more muffin-like than it ought to be and my chins are more numerous than I remember. So you know what? Screw it. Sugar sandwiches.

By this point it’s well established that most of my happiest memories involve food, so it makes sense that some of my earliest recollections of my grandparents involve treats. My Dad’s mother died when I was very young and I don’t recall very much about her but I do remember sitting at her kitchen table, and the way my skin felt beneath my thin cotton undershirt against the cold vinyl of her kitchen chair, and the way my spoon scritched on the bottom of my bowl of Rice Krispies. I remember scraping brown sugar off the bottom of the bowl, my spoon holding more sugar than cereal, and how much better these Rice Krispies tasted than any I had eaten before.

More than 25 years later there is no more unhealthy breakfast cereal for me than puffed rice, because I can’t have it without adding too many heaping tablespoons of brown sugar – there is more sugar in my Rice Krispies than in five bowls of anyone else’s Cap’n Crunch. There can be no breakfast cereal in my cupboards.

My Mom’s Dad had as much to teach me. His penchant for sweets remains unrivaled by anyone I’ve ever met. Around my grandparents’ house there were always dozens of boxes of chocolate, some stashed in his usual spots – the kitchen, the living room, other parts of the living room, every container or drawer on his side of the bedroom – and some stored in the freezer for when his reserves ran low. At the end of every visit he would send me home with a sandwich bag full of the better flavours – hedgehogs, caramels, and never the gross orange cremes.

It was watching my grandfather that I learned about sugar sandwiches.

To make a sugar sandwich, you need good whole-grain bread (the whole-grainier, the better), non-fancy peanut butter, and brown sugar. After admitting on Twitter that I really don’t like natural peanut butter, I was comforted to discover that most people have strong feelings about, or at least have considered, what makes good peanut butter, and most of the time one remains loyal to the peanut butter of her childhood. And while natural peanut butter makes a good ingredient in other things, in sugar sandwiches we do not mess around. Use the kind of peanut butter you are faithful to.

You must smear a tasty amount of peanut butter evenly upon one entire side of each of two pieces of bread. Then add the sugar to one of the pieces of bread, spreading evenly over the peanut butter, even to the edges of the slice. How much sugar you use depends on you, but I have the kind of weak character that compels me to unapologetically don footed pajamas for company, so I use a little more than a rounded tablespoon.

At that point, you can slap your bread together and shove the whole thing in your mouth, or you can get a little bit fancy. You can add a few flecks of fleur de sel which will make your sandwich quite lovely if your peanut butter isn’t salty. You can jump back in time and toast each slice before peanut-buttering them up. You can shove the whole deal in a panini press, or you can put the sandwich under the broiler. I like the last option, because the effect of a crunchy exterior giving way to a soft interior is a sensation I enjoy. Warm, a sugar sandwich tastes very similar to fresh peanut butter cookies but it only takes two minutes to make.

Eat your sugar sandwich on the couch, with your feet jammed between the cushions and your legs covered by a blanket. You may want to have a book handy. A glass of milk or a cup of tea will complement the sandwich nicely. Linger long over your snack, drink, and book, and then indulge in a nap afterward. Calorie-counters and diabetics will take issue with this luxury, but the important thing is that Grandpa would heartily approve.

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Kasha varnishkes.

I like clutter. I like my visual field to be jam-packed with stuff that sparkles or is brightly coloured or that I can look at and instantly conjure some memory of some time or place, whether real or fictional – I’m beginning to wonder how many of the things I remember actually happened and how many I invented or just read. In the recklessly unencumbered pre-baby era, Nick and I would spend many of our weekends flitting from brunch to thrift stores and flea markets, picking through piles of junk to find what we believed to be treasures. I once joked to my friend Dan that it wouldn’t be a big deal for us to move cross-country, as everything we own could be replaced in thrift stores when we got there. He agreed, which should probably be kind of insulting. I mean, some of our stuff is from Ikea, so it’s not all junk … right?

Among the beer steins and vintage “art,” one of my favourite things to discover among the rubble was cookbooks, especially the kind from the 70s and 80s with their deliciously terrible food styling and orange-tinged photography. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t buy the 1987 edition of Vogue Entertaining when I saw it at the VGH Thrift Shop for $13 – the jellied salads! The all-brown buffet of “Indian food!” The palm fronds in crystal vases! (Side note: That this is one of my biggest regrets speaks either to a total lack of ambition or a history of unapologetically not giving a shit. I can’t decide which is worse.)

One of my favourite cookbook finds to date came from the Cloverdale Flea Market, where we spent one sunny afternoon searching for more beer steins, kitten art, and light-up statues of Jesus. In a pile in the back of one man’s trailer, I found a collection of six paperback books on “international cuisine,” which continues to delight all these years later. My favourite is the book on Jewish cookery, which does not contain a recipe for matzo ball soup, but which boasts recipes for both Cantonese Chicken and Chicken Chow Mein.

Not knowing a lot about Jewish food, this book has been my introduction to a cuisine that only seems to get airtime in December and April. And while I have yet to follow a recipe to the letter, a few recipes have been jumping-off points. One of these, for kasha varnishkes, is an excellent (if not beautiful) dish (“delicious and nourishing beige noodle mush” is a pretty accurate description) that uses pantry staples for a cheap starch alternative.

Buckwheat is one of those super-healthy things you’re supposed to eat to lower cholesterol. It’s high in fibre, it’s cheap, and it’s quite tasty. And it has diverse applications – Food52 has a compiled a pretty thorough list. You can find roasted buckwheat groats, also known as kasha, at natural foods stores and Eastern European delis and groceries. Kasha varnishkes are lightly sweet, thanks to the onion and apple, and are best served alongside sausages or roast meats and pickles, or with veggies for a full and hearty meal. You can use vegetable stock to make it vegetarian-friendly.

Kasha varnishkes

(Serves four as a side-dish.)

  • 6 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup roasted buckwheat groats
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 lb. small egg noodles, such as spaetzle
  • 2 cups chopped apple, diced to about 1/2″
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt two tablespoons of butter and stir in apples and onions. Cover, cook ten minutes, then remove lid and reduce heat to medium. Stir frequently for 20 to 30 minutes, until apples and onions have caramelized and shrunk down considerably.

Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium-high heat. In a bowl, stir buckwheat and egg until thoroughly combined. Pour into pot, stirring to keep groats from sticking together. Keep stirring until egg is cooked and appears dry. Add garlic, then chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is absorbed and groats are fluffy, about 15 minutes.

In another pot, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add noodles, and cook until just al denté (refer to cook time on package). Drain.

Stir cooked groats and drained pasta into the apple and onion mixture, add an additional tablespoon of butter, stirring to coat. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in parsley, and serve immediately.

A recipe for apple cake.

My mom sent me home with big bag of apples last Sunday, and though I eat a lot of fruit and put apples in Nick’s lunch bag each morning this week, I still have quite a few left over. I also had the last of a bag of oatmeal in my cupboard, and a few handfuls of pecans left in my freezer. I have currants, and they’re drying out. And Nick’s dad called to ask if he could come see the little pork chop this afternoon, as it’d been awhile and he was headed out of town so it would be a while longer before we’d see Nick’s parents again. Last night some friends came over for fried chicken, and this morning my apartment smelled like fried grease and dirty dishes.

The situation was ripe for cake-baking, and oh, I thought I was clever. I would whip up a quick cake batter, toss in a couple of those apples and nuts and maybe the currants, and maybe throw an oaty, streusely topping on the whole thing so when Nick’s dad arrived at least there would be something to go with a cup of tea, and maybe it would seem like Nick and I have our shit together a little more than we actually do. I shoved most of the dishes into the sink and covered them with soapy water and got to baking.

And then I pulled my well-worn copy of Fannie Farmer off the bookshelf to check one little thing, and the book flipped open to a spot I use quite a bit, to a recipe for an apple cake with raisins and walnuts, one so close to what I was doing that I am certain I didn’t invent it after all. I make the sour cream spice cake on page 344 quite often, and there was the apple cake, just the other side of the page on 343 where it’s been all this time, where I must have seen it a million times but never thought about it.

In high school, Hunter S. Thompson was my favourite writer. I bought every single one of his books, including an exorbitantly priced used copy of Curse of Lono – illustrated by Ralph Steadman, it cost a little more than I made in four weekends working the cash register at Farmer Ken’s. Every night I would fall asleep watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I replaced my VHS copy three times, and the DVD twice. I own a copy of the not-popular Where the Buffalo Roam, and even if it isn’t brilliant, it’s still important to me.

It was reading Hunter S. Thompson that I began to understand how a literary voice could be distinct, and I poured myself so deeply into his writing that when I typed my own words, they were accented with his. Without practice and spending the time to figure out my own voice, I emulated his (poorly). I became editor of my high school paper as part of my journalism class in Grade 12, and though it started as a respectable publication, I was unjustly handed a C+ at mid-term for my efforts by a teacher who graded on personality. I stopped caring about journalistic integrity and by the end it was my own personal tabloid and rant rag, a tribute to my misunderstanding of Gonzo Journalism. The school’s administration refused to approve publication the last issue due to the amount of questionable content, which I thought meant I was totally badass. In hindsight, I was probably just a jackass.

By the time I finished university, I had fallen under the sway of Kerouac and Vonnegut and Whitman and Ginsberg, as one does, and went through phases of trying to be more like each of them, with predictably little success. The hardest thing about learning to write is learning to write simply and honestly, and to learn to distinguish the difference between being influenced and copying outright.

Like a lot of people, until 2008 I was pretty certain the Internet was for nerds (forgetting how big a nerd I have always been). I didn’t know what blogging was, but it sounded lame. And then I discovered The Bloggess, and I related again to a weird person doing awesome things with words, and it was like I was 17 again – “I can do that!” I thought. And so I started this blog, and again couldn’t help but copy another writer’s tone, her syntax, her delicious use of profanity and run-on sentences and sentence fragments. I am a little embarrassed about the whole first year or so of this site, because I was trying so hard to write in a way that I thought sounded good and that I thought people would like.

I feel like I have grown with this little blog, and now the words you read are written the way I would speak them. If in three years this embarrasses me, I’ll let you know.

Learning to cook is a lot like learning to write. You find recipes that suit you and what you have in the fridge, and you practice them, and eventually you think you have what it takes to ditch recipes and go it alone. And maybe you do. But if you are passionate about something you immerse yourself in the culture of the thing and soon you are using what you’ve learned, applying other people’s ideas and techniques and style to your work.

Every day I learn something new about food by eating in restaurants and watching the Food Network and reading food writing in magazines and books and on blogs. I cook almost every day, and I often write about it, but I would be lying if I said that every dish I’ve ever posted here is a complete original. Maybe there was no recipe in front of me, and maybe I wasn’t even thinking of a specific thing I’d seen or read about or tasted, but the influences are there. I’ve used thousands of recipes, and I don’t know the point at which the ones I’ve memorized and remade hundreds of times and tweaked and recreated become mine. Any recipe I’ve written myself has likely been touched by something I experienced somewhere else, or something I saw but thought I could do better.

Maybe you own a recipe the first time you change the recipe. Maybe a recipe is just a list of ingredients, and the ownership comes with the instructions and the presentation and the story you tell alongside the dish. Recipe ownership has been a topic of discussion on Twitter and at Dianne Jacob’s website (here, here, and here) about this, and I don’t know what’s right. There are only so many recipes for any one thing (for example, lemon bars), and chances are that if you search the ingredients for the thing you invented or that you make all the time without a recipe, Google will produce a match. Cooking is derivative. Writing can be too. And if you knowingly reproduce a recipe on your blog, you have a responsibility to give credit and link back to the original (or to where you can buy the book online) the same way that if you use prose that someone else has written, you would place the text in quotation marks and provide a reference.

Every English teacher I ever had claimed that there are only seven plots. In spite of this, people keep telling stories. So maybe there are no original recipes, and maybe every dish is just a creative re-telling. Maybe all cooks and all artists steal and the magic is not in making it look like you have created something when you haven’t, but in showing the way in which you’ve made something old new.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for apple cake. It’s kind of like this other apple cake I know. If you’ve got the Fannie Farmer Baking Book, it’s on page 343.

Apple Cake

Adapted from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book

Cake

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. maple extract (no maple? Vanilla’s fine)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 medium firm-fleshed apples (such as Gala, Granny Smith, or Red Delicious), diced to 1/4″
  • 1 cup whole pecans, toasted and roughly chopped (divided)
  • 1/2 cup dried currants

Streusel:

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter an 8″x 8″ cake pan.

In a medium bowl, combine butter, sugar, oats, and half of the pecans. Mix with your hands until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating continuously until batter is smooth. Add maple extract.

In yet another bowl, add both types of flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Whisk to combine.

Stir flour mixture into wet ingredients until just moistened. Fold in apples, remaining pecans, and currants.

Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle oat mixture over top of the batter, and then bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Serve warm, with tea or coffee. You can say you invented it, if you like.