I made this recipe for our January Cookbook Club meeting to see if it could be added to the holiday treats list next year.
Although I am a fudge snob and didn’t think it counted as “real” fudge (because no soft ball stage, no candy thermometer, needed to set in fridge, etc.), the FIve-Minute Fudge Wreath was a big hit at Cookbook Club.
The recipe called for optional decorations with red and green candied cherries, which I couldn’t find in my last-minute dash to the supermarket, so I decorated my wreath with the leftover walnut halves and butterscotch chips.
I would definitely make this again, and think it would be perfect for a dessert buffet or holiday potluck offering.
Something I’ve always thought would be fun would be a cookbook club where everyone would try a recipe from a cookbook, bring it to the meeting, and the group would talk about the good and bad of the cookbook, the recipes we tried, and the recipes we still wanted to try.
So I got the Good Taste Cookbook Club started at my library last September, and it’s going strong! Except for meeting every other month instead of monthly, it’s just like any other library book club, except that the books we read are cookbooks. Oh, and we also eat extremely well at every meeting!
My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl was the January selection. It’s a combination memoir/cookbook that the longtime restaurant critic ended up writing after Gourmet – the magazine she had edited for ten years – was suddenly shut down, with everyone on staff laid off. Its format, design, and recipe layout are unusual for a cookbook (e.g. loose, conversational-style, sometimes inexact, instructions; ingredient lists divided into “Shopping List” and “Staples”; personal notes woven into the recipe directions) which some of the group didn’t care for, but others enjoyed.
“For the past six months, cooking had been my lifeline, and I was grateful for everything I had learned in the kitchen. Most cookbooks, I thought as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you’re not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You’re a traveler, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want. If it doesn’t work out – well, there’s always another meal” – My Kitchen Year
I made Lemon Panna Cotta for my contribution to the meeting, which was a very simple recipe from My Kitchen Year, having just three ingredients: heavy cream, sugar, and three lemons. As an example of the inexact directions, the recipe calls for the juice and zest of three lemons, but doesn’t tell you approximately how much juice and zest you should end up with. So I wondered if I had it right as I mixed the lemon juice and zest together and plopped it all into the hot cream, but the recipe worked – simple as it was! Even people who don’t particularly care for lemon desserts raved about it.
I put the Lemon Panna Cotta into plastic shot glasses for individual servings, with the remaining amount filling two ramekins. During the meeting, we discovered that it would probably be best kept refrigerated right up until serving time, because it got a little soupy in the bottom of the shot glasses. (The thinner layers in the ramekins seemed to stay firm, though.)
I also wanted to try the recipe for Food Cart Curry Chicken before the cookbook club met, but didn’t have time, so my personal chef (aka Mr. BaystateRA) kindly made it for me. My photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was delicious! Mr. B. complained about grinding spices when we had ground spices in the spice cabinet already, but I think the extra work – his, that is – was definitely worth it, for the flavor explosion.)
I’ve read many of Ruth Reichl’s other books, including the novel she also worked on during this year of unemployment (Delicious!). My Kitchen Year is divided into seasons – Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer – and chronicles her time spent in two residences, a New York City apartment and a country home, upstate.
My Kitchen Year happened to resonate with me, personally, because I had an unexpected six months of unemployment starting in the late fall of last year, which caused me to reevaluate my career and how I spent my time. Like Ruth Reichl, who found so much comfort in the kitchen during her year at home while looking for new employment, I did more cooking than usual during those months and also found it soothing. Although, unlike Ruth Reichl, I didn’t write a book (much less a cookbook AND a novel) during my time of unemployment, I discovered that preparing healthful meals can be as relaxing as baking, and got a lot more creative with salads, so I count that as an overall plus.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is a short book that everyone should read. The author writes not only with an expertise in medicine (surgery) — as a doctor who has talked with many patients over the years — but from personal experience with family and family friends.
The awful choices that people face when given a terminal diagnosis are much more tragic when the sick person is young. The author acknowledges this, but the main focus of the book is on people who, with advancing age, are faced with choices (both for themselves and for loved ones) between what all appear to be poor options (because returning to an earlier state of health and vigor — the only really good option — isn’t an option.) Dying is a sad time, even if the dying person is 100 years old, but medical professionals’ approaches to dying tend to be institutionalized or textbook (doctor/patient), rather than time-consumingly tailored to the needs and desires of an individual who is sick or whose body is wearing out.
An excerpt from the middle of Being Mortal:
“The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.
More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, ‘You let me know when you want to stop.’ All-out treatment, we tell the incurably ill, is a train you can get off at any time — just say when. But for most patients and their families we are asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come — and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.” — Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
Being Mortal is about
how to figure out what is most important to an individual at the end; how perspectives change and continue to change as the end of life approaches;
how medical professionals can help patients make decisions when available treatments don’t exist yet, are risky, or have already failed;
how to talk with each other about what we value most;
and, most of all, how to listen to what patients and loved ones are trying to tell us.