The Nature of Comfort

The other day I found myself singing a song to Lilli that I never in a million years ever expected to be singing to her. It was “Getting in Tune” by The Who.

I’m not going to lie: I am a big Who fan. I even have a tattoo inspired by Pete Townshend. And no, I am not joking either.

I am also not joking when I tell you that I recently started making my own brown sugar. Because I didn’t want to pay for someone else to mix molasses into my white sugar when I am perfectly capable of doing that myself. An extra bonus to saving money is that it tastes more molassesey. I don’t think that’s a word, but it is a real thing.

Anyway. That song isn’t really a kids song, but it did fit the moment. We were not getting along particularly well, and then she asked me to sing her a song and that’s what came out. (By asked me to sing her a song, I mean that she picked up a candlestick, put it to her mouth like a microphone and said “do, do, do” and then put it up to my mouth. Toddlers are hilarious.)

The song was an opportunity for me to take a breath and get closer to her, which was what she needed in the first place so that she wouldn’t be so toddler-ish.I took my cue.I’m trying very hard to be a better mother than I feel like I am some days. I know this is all part of parenthood, but for somebody who has been doing it for an extra 6 years before I ever actually became a real-life mom, I get down on myself because I am a perfectionist and I feel like I should be doing it better already. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it doesn’t really matter at all if I’m perfect, and that really, nothing is.

(That is sort of a confusing sentence. Sorry. I’m totally failing at having a working brain right now. Bare with me…it’ll pay off in the end.)

What it really comes down to is comfort. I am uncomfortable feeling vulnerable, which is what being a parent to kids who aren’t my own makes me feel. They are uncomfortable feeling close to someone who isn’t their actual Mom, so they take it out on me. Lilli gets uncomfortable when she sees that there is tension between the boys and I, and then she acts out because she doesn’t know how else to handle the situation. And then I fall back into my very old and very ingrained habits and seek out comfort the only way I know how. To Eat.

I’m very good at comforting with food. I comfort myself with it, and I comfort others with it. I have slowly started to back away from the tendency to comfort with typical comfort foods and to try and replace them with snacks that are lighter, or even walks. I am struggling lately though, not least of all because I sense that others in my life also need comfort.

This week I made a pie for a friend who recently returned home from a prolonged anti-vacation. He was stuck somewhere he didn’t want to be stuck, and he was stuck there for a long time without any friends of family to feed him. So when he got back, we decided to fill him with comfort by being there to entertain him with wii Pictionary and Thanksgiving-esque foods.

I brought dessert, of course.

There is nothing about apple pie that doesn’t say comfort. Especially not this apple pie. This is a pie that is rich enough to take you shopping at all the bougie Pacific Place shops and then take you to a light supper and the symphony after. But, it isn’t so rich that you’ll feel weird wearing holey jeans while you eat it. The tart green apples are just beyond soft, and the all butter crust has everything you could ever want–as long as all you could ever want is deliriously perfect pie crust with no lard in sight. The extra molassesy brown sugar doesn’t hurt either.

I recommend that you do like I did, and share this pie with many people. Otherwise, you might need a more comfortable pair of pants, and that’s just not the sort of comfort I am going for here. I think I’m going to share it again this weekend, with my Mother and Grandmother, who appreciate good pies and are my original comforts.

Deep Dish Caramel Apple Pie with Oatmeal Streusel

For the Crust:
(Totally optional. If you don’t want to make pie crust from scratch, just add the cinnamon from this recipe into the filling itself)

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes and frozen
6 oz all purpose flour
1 big pinch salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4-1/3 cup ice water

For the Filling

3 lbs tart green apples, such as granny smith
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
pinch salt

For the Streusel Topping:

1/2 cup each brown sugar, all purpose flour and rolled oats mixed together in a small bowl. Add 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon. Take about 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) very warm-melty butter and mix with your fingertips to combine, until the topping starts to form lumps that stick together when you squish them. (Don’t hate. Squish is a scientific term, I can assure you.) Set aside.

For the Crust:

In a food processor, pulse the dry ingredients for a few seconds, just to combine. Add the butter and pulse about 5-6 times, until the chunks have become about the size of garbanzo beans. Next, add a couple Tbsp of water and pulse again 2-3 times. Keep adding water and pulsing just once or twice until the dough starts to look lumpy and the largest butter pieces are about the size of small peas. Dump all the dough into a quart size sip-top bag and mush it all together until it roughly forms a disc about 5″ across. Set in the fridge to chill and relax for at least 1/2 hour, but up to overnight. (The dough can be frozen for up to a couple of months at this point, if need be.)

When you are ready to assemble your pie, take the dough out of the fridge and put it between 2 sheets of parchment paper at least 12″ square. Roll out the dough, making 1/4 turns every couple of strokes with the rolling pin. Use flour if the dough starts to stick to the paper too much, but you want to limit the amount of extra flour as much as possible. Once the dough reaches about 11″ across, remove it from the paper and gently fold in into quarters to transfer it to a 9″ deep dish pie pan, or a 9″ cake pan with at least 2″ sides. Let it hang loosely as you ease it down into the corners of the pan, and then leave the excess dough hanging from the edges. Put the whole thing into the fridge while you prepare the filling.

For the Filling:

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Place a rack in the top third and another just underneath that.

Peel and core the apples, and cut them into 8ths. In a heavy bottomed skillet, melt the butter and sugar until golden and bubbling. Add the apples, cream, flour and salt all at once. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon to coat the apples and encourage the caramel to emulsify. Cook, stirring occasionally, just until the apples start to become tender, about 5-6 minutes.

Pour it all into your pie crust, being sure to scrape all the caramel out. Put the topping over the apples, then fold the overhanging pie crust up over the edges of the pie. Bake on the top rack with a cookie sheet underneath to catch drippings, about 45 minutes, then check for doneness. You want the apples to be soft enough for a fork to pierce with no resistance, but not so soft they’re mushy. Rotate if necessary for even browning, and give it 5-10 minutes more if you feel like it needs it.

Allow the pie to cool for several hours before slicing, to let the caramel set up and for the pectin in the apples to come back together a bit. I heartily encourage you to eat this pie a la mode, even though a slice by itself is plenty indulgent on it’s own. After all, if you’re going for comfort, you might as well go all the way.

Tomato, Tomahto

My step-sons are way way into Garfield comics. And Joe told me he thought Garfield was like the funniest thing ever, when he was a kid.

Well I thought he was funny too but not like they do. Maybe it’s a boy thing. They almost always get a new Garfield book when we go to the library and then they battle over who checked it out so that they know who gets to read it at bedtime. It’s such a kid thing.

Well what I am way way into is comfort food that is comfortable in it’s own skin because it’s healthy without skimping on the good stuff. Like lasagna with a whole bunch of veggies.

I made a really amazing version of this classic last night, and I think Garfield would have approved even though it wasn’t your traditional tomato and ricotta style dish.

The kids approved too, considering how many unlasagna-like things were in it. Pine nuts, kale, onions. And squash. A big heaping serving of it: as much as the noodles or more. Because I like to go easy on the noodles, even though they are really my one true love. They even asked for seconds.

And you know, what would a lasagna night be without a big bowl of Caesar salad, complete with homemade croutons (made from a few rolls leftover from the first time I baked with my sourdough starter) and freshly grated parm. I normally don’t eat this kind of salad because I like salads with a lot of stuff in them, but we had it last week when we went for dinner at a friends and I just needed more, you know? If that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right. I made myself feel better about how bad it can be for you by making the dressing myself. The boys wanted seconds on croutons too, of course.

And I couldn’t say no because I’d been eating them straight off the pan for like 10 minutes before dinner.

There might be some lasagna purists out there among you, who say that it should always be the traditional thing. And maybe you would say that this is just a casserole with some noodles in it. But I say to you “Don’t be so quick to judge! Lasagna loves you no matter what.” So you should try this dish, no matter what. After all, potato, potahto. Let’s just drink a glass of wine.

What? Those aren’t the lyrics?

Butternut Alfredo Lasagna
Makes one 9×13″ pan

2 lbs butternut squash, peeled and sliced in 1/8″ slices. You could sub another squash here, but the butternut makes nice big slices so that’s why I went with it.
1/2 box lasagna noodles
1/2 bunch kale of choice, or about 4 loosely packed cups, roughly chopped or torn
1 jar alfredo sauce (Yeah, I cheated. Sorry.)
2 medium sized onions
2 cups grated parmesan, more or less depending on your tastes
freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/2 a nut
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
salt to taste
white wine, about 1/2 cup

Heat a large skillet oven high heat, and when it’s good and hot add a splash of olive oil. Toss in the squash slices, add a pinch of salt and the grated nutmeg, and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften and some of the pieces are getting browned. Put into a bowl and set aside.

While the squash cooks, prepare the noodles. Just follow the directions on the box for al dente, but subtract like one extra minute so they are very al dente. After draining them run cool water into the pot so that they don’t stick together while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

After taking the squash out of the pot reheat it and add another tiny splash of oil. Toss in all the onions and cook till nice and brown and soft. Deglaze the pan with the wine and let it reduce by about half. It will go pretty fast, so add more if it evaporates too quickly. Then add the kale. Cover and let steam for a couple of minutes, until it’s just soft, then give it all a good stir and turn off the heat.

Coat the bottom of your dish with a couple of table spoons of alfredo sauce and top with a layer of noodles. Next add half the kale and onions, 1/2 the pine nuts, then a handful of grated cheese following that with a layer consisting of 1/3 of the squash. Spread the pieces of squash out to make a flat surface for the sauce to go on, then spoon about 1/2 a cup of alfredo, more if you need it, on to that and spread it thin. Next go back to noodles, and do another round all the way through, using the remaining half of the kale. Once you get to the top layer of noodles, add the remaining squash, top with whatever sauce you have left in the jar and the rest of the cheese. Give it another good grating of nutmeg all over and let it sit for 1/2 hour or so, at room temp, so the noodles can absorb some of the sauce.

While the lasagna sits, heat up the oven to 350ºF. Put the lasagna in the lower third of the oven and bake for about 1 hour, or until it’s bubbly and getting browned on top. Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving. I know it’s hard to wait, but seriously the lasagna will be sooo much better if you do. Mostly because you won’t have burned your mouth with molten hot cheese and you’ll be able to taste it.

It’s even better the next day. Promise.

Comfort Win

I am not the ashamed to admit that I am unafraid to serve my kids some convenience foods. Sure, our diet is undeniably “homemade” for the most part, but even the best “home-made homemaker” has a few tricks up their sleeve.

I try to limit the foods I serve that fall into that category and to do this I follow a simple guideline. Condiments aside, I pretty much only serve it if it’s something my mom would have served me. I mean, if my mom fed it to my sister and I as kids, chances are it’s ok to eat, because she was eating organic foods before it was cool. Sure, times and food manufacturing processes have changed, but it’s what I know so you can take it or leave it.

Generally this also means that these foods are guaranteed to be comfort foods. They are things like Stouffer’s StoveTop stuffing, Lipton’s chicken noodle soup from a box (which is just about the best hangover food ever invented BTW. Why else would it have like 40% of your daily allowance of sodium?) and frozen fish sticks.

So to make a long story about my eating habits as a child short(er) I’ll just tell you a story about today.

Today it was very snowy in Seattle, with more snow predicted overnight. The boys were headed out the door literally at the crack of dawn to go snowboarding in the closest mountain pass. Lilli and I had to go to the grocery store, sans car. Her in the sled, me pulling.  I didn’t want to spend a ton of time on dinner but I wanted it to be warm and filling and comforting to the hilt. So I settled on kind of a cheesy potatoes au gratin type of thing. And frozen fish sticks. I guess I had frozen things on the brain.

I have to say that this is one area where I have never used a recipe and I know that this is kind of crazy. I don’t know why. I can’t even remember looking at a recipe. Ever. But I just kind of dug my heels in and went for it anyway. The results were not pretty but they tasted amazing.

I used too much cheese and not enough liquid, and for some reason I decided to add a couple of eggs. I guess because you put them in kugel, and they were so fresh I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, it went very very well with the frozen fish sticks I served, alongside a heaping salad of butter lettuce and sweet pink grapefruit. That salad might have been the only redeeming part of the meal, it turns out, because Joe decided he needed to have an apres ski bevvie in the style of the lodge at Steven’s Pass, where he didn’t go today, and so I had to have one too. The recipe is my new project, so more on that in a couple of days.

All in all it was a good day and a good dinner. But if you have a recipe for sort of cheesy potatoes au gratin, do pass it on.