Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Balance is one of the first things you learn as you learn how to cook. You add salt to bring out flavor. Acid to counter something leaning saccharine. It’s a relatively basic concept reinforced all the time on cooking shows like Chopped and Master Chef. You are always aiming for rounded, dimensional bites.

Over the last week, I realized the best food writers do the same. The best food writing is not one note. If writing solely about food's flavor and texture is the melody of a piece, nuance and cultural commentary should be applied like counter melody, exposition like harmony. Each component works in tandem and is featured in time.

As a writer I’m subconsciously thinking in circles and parallels and flow to help me resolve the chords of a narrative just so. It doesn’t always work, but it’s something to strive for. Cooking or writing, we constantly have to choose to pursue balance. There is a promise of greatness in it.

Molly O'Neill's Shelves and Sideboard

Molly O’Neill’s kitchen is not one you would find in a Pottery Barn catalogue. There is no cliche subway tile or granite countertops. In their stead you'll find pragmatism, sureness, and character. The floor is a terracotta tile. The appliances are industrial grade. Mesh colanders and ladles hang from the hood of the range and kitchen island is sturdier than my car. The island’s stone top is crowded with peaches and well-worn cutting boards. The first time I went into the kitchen I was overcome.  

If you’re like me and follow a few home design magazines (or blogs), open shelving is everywhere. The photos show off stark white shelves, which have been meticulously styled with air plants, brass pineapples, and vintage glassware. They are beautiful. They are aspirational and, although they are completely different, Molly’s well stocked and seemingly haphazard open shelving is something I aspire to. 

When I moved into my first apartment--my current apartment--those stark white interiors were my point of reference. I only have a few cabinets in the kitchen, which I’m sure most people would class as a kitchenette. I live in a studio and I like to cook and I need storage for pie plates, bundt pans, wine glasses, et al. With those magazines in mind, I whitewashed a shelving unit from IKEA. It is functional, holds what I have, and is vaguely charming.

Molly’s house, on the other hand, was built in 1802. There is no open floor plan kitchen/living room layout, but it feels large to me in the way it makes use of its space. The west wall of the kitchen is completely dominated by a massive, robin’s egg blue sideboard. I don’t know if this piece of furniture is original to the house, but I can tell by the chipped paint and the lackluster cooperation of the drawers that it has been standing a long time. At first glance I couldn’t find any semblance of order, but now I think I have successfully created a map. 

The sideboard’s sixteen drawers are cavernous. I have only ventured into one or two for forks and knives. Some are swollen from the humidity and creak with age. I haven’t dared to open the four cabinets beneath them. They can hold on to their secrets. 

The top of the sideboard is cluttered and serves as home to the oblong and ill-fitting. The layers have built up over time. I suspect they will disappear when we leave.  A set of plates are out of my arm’s reach even as I stand on tippy toes and I imagine their lives on holiday tables and photo shoots.

The second highest shelf holds jars of apple butter, dandelion jelly, and more jams than I can name. There are so many lined up I do not know how anyone could choose what to open next. Maybe this wisdom will come with time. Maybe if I stay in this house long enough I will know. 

I am just finding my way. I am just stocking my shelves. I will learn and admire and soak up all I can. Soon my fresh paint will chip away. I will hold multitudes and it will be obvious that I am beautiful and chaotic and ordered in my own right.  

Classic Sugar Cut Outs for Every Holiday

These are my family's classic Christmas cookie recipe, but they are too tasty not to make at other times of the year! There are cookie cutters for literally every occasion and with a little food coloring in the icing you have pretty  much endless options. While I'm fond of cute cookie cutters, these would be great even as simple circles with a smear of icing.

Sugar Cut Outs

A recipe from Pillsbury for every occasion. Icing is a family twist.

COOKIE INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

ICING INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 cups icing sugar
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • water (as needed)

In a large bowl, cream the butter sugar. Add the egg, vanilla, and milk and mix. Dump the dry ingredients into your wet mixture and stir until combined. Clump the dough into two slabs, wrap in wax paper, and refrigerate for at least an hour. 

Meanwhile, let's make icing! Measure out your powdered sugar into a medium sized bowl. Squeeze your lemon over a fine sieve to catch any seeds and blend the lemon juice with the sugar. If your sugar/lemon mixture resembles a thick or crumbly paste, add more liquid (lemon juice or water). If your sugar/lemon mixture is very very runny, add more sugar. You're aiming for a spreadable texture in the middle of the two extremes. As the icing is white, it's super easy to get colorful with some food coloring! I also like to prep a piping bag of white at this point. Set icing aside. 

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. On a well floured surface, roll out one of your dough hunks until about an eight of an inch thick. Cut your dough with cookie cutters/a biscuit cutter/a glass/whatever you have on hand. Place cookies on a baking sheet about an inch apart and bake for 5-8 minutes. Let rest for a moment when you pull 'em out and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Once cool, decorate to your heart's content! If the icing thickens up or dries out, add a tiny bit of water and stir to bring it back to a workable consistency. Let the icing set for at least an hour and then store in an air tight container.