Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Almond Sugar Cookies

There was never a time when I wasn't tall. In fact, proportionally, I used to be even taller. It was noticeably uncomfortable for both kids and adults around me. It was only somewhat uncomfortable for me -- I never wanted to buy clothes at Limited Too anyway, and sometimes I got to use the teacher bathroom because people thought I was a teacher.

My dad was thrilled, because my height meant one thing: basketball. It was somewhat irrelevant that I have limited hand/eye coordination and run like I have weights attached to my hips. (I mean, in a way, I do?) I started basketball when I was 6, in a community rec league. My dad coached and we always "tied" (bullshit). In 5th grade, I started playing traveling basketball for the St. Louis Park Orioles. Tournaments consumed our weekends. My parents shuttled me to outer suburban gyms, to places like Inver Grove Heights and Minnetonka and Coon Rapids (real). I played basketball with the same ladies for years and years, and most of them became the "popular girls" when junior high rolled around. Socially, I stayed where I was. I have this weird memory of hanging out between games -- they were talking about boys and eating concession nachos and I thought, Wow, if I ate nachos right now, I would not look as cool." 
7th grade Emily showcases her inner thigh meat

It was fine. I was a generally nice girl, in the process of cultivating a sense of humor, but I didn't know my own strength. So, for many years, I would foul out of almost every game. That's five fouls. Five times I physically accosted a stranger in less than an hour -- and got caught. One time, I hit a girl really hard on the head when she was trying to shoot because I either thought her head was the basketball or it felt like the right thing to do in the moment, and she had to sit out the rest of the game because she was "potentially concussed." Another time, I was fighting over the ball with a very tiny girl who definitely had not gotten her period yet and when I pulled the ball towards me, she came with it. I "shook her off" and she hit the wall. "Stay away from 33!" Other moms would shout. Of course I felt bad. I felt like this giant, uncontrollable beast who was out for blood -- kept in a cage during the week and only released to play in the Moundsview Winter Hoopz tournament. In reality, I wanted to ask my opponents if they had ever seen Saturday Night Live and if the glow-in-the-dark rubberbands on their braces brackets also turned yellow.

I quit basketball my sophomore year of high school and it broke my dad's heart. I had never seen him so sad. I quit to focus on improv, which was his nightmare. But also, I kept injuring my knee and my coaches were incredibly mean. One coach made fun of the fact that I was an editor for the high school newspaper -- I think she called me a nerd? I was over it.

Recently, basketball reentered my life in a disproportionately big way. I was invited to play with some wonderful ladies on the Lucille Ballers, part of an LA women's rec league. Out of the 12 registered teams this season, 8 are made up of mostly improvisers (and actors and writers and general comedy ladies and... models?). It's so fun and we are all very serious about it. We seem to be good enough to make the games interesting, but not as good as the other 4 teams in the league who are apparently very passionate, professional athletes. What was most surprising to me was how much I had missed team sports. It fills a void -- provides a really perfect outlet for exercise and competition and teamwork and goals. I mean, I'm not moving my body unless I have to, and when you want your team to win, you have to move your body. Am I still fouling a lot? Yeah. I am. I become aggressive, despite being a generally nice person, and still don't know my own strength. I'm more comfortable with my body now*, though, so it's fine. Also, the women I get to play with are truly the best, some of the loveliest people I've met in LA. They would look very cool eating nachos.

*...not true.

The Lucille Ballers <3

When I re-injured my knee earlier this summer, my physical therapist (Julius C.) thought I was a college athlete for our first three sessions because of the intensity in which I spoke about basketball and "getting back on the court." My dad is very proud, and will hopefully get a chance to see a game when he visits with my mom in January. Until then, I'll continue to hear him in my head yelling for me to box out and post up. We have a game tonight vs. The Kimmy Dribblers. I'm hopeful.

Unrelated to basketball, I made some really amazing almond sugar cookies this week! These are so, so easy. Don't buy sugar cookies at the store. Don't!! Make these instead, and feel like a champion.

Almond Sugar Cookies


1 stick of soft, unsalted butter (8 tablespoons)
3/4 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla 
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons boiling water
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
food coloring 


With a standing mixer or hand mixer, blend the softened butter and sugar until it's sort of creamy. I think it helps to intermittently use a spatula to press/cream the butter and sugar together.

The coffee is so I don't add baking soda instead of baking powder.
Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract. It should get pasty.

So many extracts!

Add the flour in increments, blending in between. 
Add the baking powder and salt.
This dough is pretty sticky and somewhat unwieldy, but don't be afraid to really blend until it's well-mixed.
Eat some of the dough, because the dough is unbelievable, and the raw egg is probably fine. 

Because this is why we bake.

(Fun fact: my mom used to put raw eggs on my cereal when I was a baby because my grandma told her it would help me grow. I am 6 feet tall, so, who knows.)
Cover the bowl in cling wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Dough disc

When you're ready to cook these puppies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Grease your cookie sheets in whatever fashion you prefer (lately, I've been using vegetable oil and a paper towel and it feels old-fashioned for some reason and I like it).
Flour a clean surface. Flour it again. Flour it so much, because this sticky dough needs it.
Roll out the dough -- because I had a smaller surface, I preferred to roll out just a little bit of dough at a time.

Rollout! (This is a reference to Ludacris, circa 2001)

You'll need to use flour on the dough, on the rolling pin, your hands -- everywhere. Just, like, so much.
If you like fluffier cookies, roll to about 1/2 centimeter thick. If you like crispier cookies, roll it thinner. You do you.
Use a cookie cutter (or a glass rim) to create fun and delightful shapes. I used my Minnesota cookie cutter because it's not a Christmas tree and I love my homeland.
Bake the cookies for about 5-8 minutes, depending on how thick you made them. They will stay the same color -- perhaps brown slightly around the edges. 
Cool the cookies on a wire rack, and when they are completely cooled, eat them all or ice some of them.

And then I ate all of them.

These cookies are fairly sweet (read: delicious) and you definitely do not need to ice them for flavorful fun times. Up to you!
Bring some water to a boil.
Put the sifted powdered sugar in a bowl.
(I didn't sift because I'm lazy, and there were some little powdered sugar blobs in the final product. I have so many regrets.)
Add about 3 tablespoons of just-boiling water to the powdered sugar and mix.
Add food coloring, if you'd like! 

Again, feminist bowl optional.

Once the cookies have cooled, use a spoon to ice them. Hopefully, you will do a better job than I did, as the icing is gloopy and requires an artist's touch. I always fall short on presentation. :(

These cookies are incredibly easy to make and are, frankly, dangerously addicting. This has been the one Sunday when I haven't had leftovers from my baking adventures. The almond extract makes them just a little bit fancier than regular cut-out sugar cookies. I always want the dough to be in my fridge... but at the same time, I don't. I can't. That would be a bad idea, right?

Happy baking!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cheese Curds

My mom likes to say I'm very "food-focused." I can't argue with that. She's right. I love food. I love talking about it and eating it. I get excited about it. A few summers ago, I was at a lovely backyard BBQ, having a very nice conversation with friends, when someone announced that more brats were done. I got so excited -- got up so quickly -- I dislocated my knee and "made the most horrifying sound anyone has ever heard" and an ambulance came and carted me out. So, yeah. I guess I am "food-focused."

This is why the Minnesota State Fair is one of my favorite things. Sure, I love seeing all of the 4-H animals (and my awesome family members who do a bang-up job showing Brown Swiss cows). I love people-watching and counting kids on homemade leashes (because this is very amusing to me). I love visiting the different barns with various activities and free things (lots of buttons and pencils -- arguably too many). The Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter heads are a favorite -- my second cousin Nicole even earned herself a butter head this year. We are very proud.

That's 90 lbs of butter. And Nicole.
But the best part of the fair is the food. For ten glorious days at the end of summer, everyone gets as excited about food as I do. The newspaper publishes lists of new fair fare -- disgusting and disconcerting and deep-fried -- but delicious, if you're willing. There is no "balanced meal." You can't "count calories." You follow your heart. You make sacrifices.

You apply strategy. Is the all-you-can-drink milk stand close to the Sweet Martha's Cookies booth? Of course not. You get your first cup of ice cold, frothy dairy deliciousness and drink it on the way to the cookies, preparing your stomach for the onslaught of dairy. You let it know you're just getting started. When you've procured your cone (or bucket, if you're hardcore) of chocolate chip cookies, you return to the milk stand for a refill. You try to avoid standing near un-chaperoned 4-H farm boys holding informal milk-drinking contests with each other. And you enjoy your milk and cookies like a goddamn American hero.

The best fair food, though, is the cheese curd. It's not even debatable. Recently, Minnesota restaurants have started adding cheese curds to their appetizer menus, but it's really hit-or-miss. The fair curd is rare and specific. It is not heavily-breaded. The cheese melts, encased in a crisp jacket of batter. When you've had a fair curd and a layman curd, you know the difference, and it's... striking.

So... when I moved to LA -- to this state that claims to have "happier cows" -- I assumed I'd still be able to get curds somewhere. Anywhere. But this is not the case. And, to top it all off, I've missed the fair twice now. This is maybe even more depressing than the 2007 State Fair, when I attended a Goo Goo Dolls concert at the grandstand by myself and tried to start a conversation during "Black Balloon" with the couple next to me, who had started making out without my knowledge. Maybe.

Me and my pronounced underbite enjoy some curds, circa 2008!
I have one option: make my own cheese curds. Last year, I used the recipe below with a big ol' vat of oil and nothing to lose. This year, thanks to the wonderful Katy Baker, I now own a little deep-fryer and could make my relationship with curds more official. Either way, though, this modified recipe will leave you with authentic State Fair cheese curds, and I'm the person you can trust with that kind of assessment.

Cheese Curds

2 quarts corn oil for frying (I used Mazola)
1 cup flour
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup beer (I used PBR)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 lbs. cheese curds, broken apart
If you live in Minnesota, you know this is no problem. To acquire curds, you can go literally anywhere -- grocery stores, gas stations -- your fridge, if you enjoy a sensible snack of squeaky cheese. Californians, we struggle. I know there is a stand at the Santa Monica farmers' market that sells them, but when I went last year and informed her that I was going to deep-fry them, she was legitimately hesitant to sell them to me. This year, I went to the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City. They were $10/package. But they did the trick. If you are still confused about what a cheese curd is, here you go.

Made Possible by the Grace of God!

 Let the curds sit at room temperature until they sweat. This will help the batter stick.

Sweating -- just like me, every day, in LA.

Heat the oil to 375 degrees. (If you have a candy thermometer, it helps to check the temp, as that matters.)
Whisk together the milk, beer, flour, salt and eggs until it becomes thin. Yeah, this mixture is sick and seems like something a bully would weaponize in the lunchroom. Just trust it.

Don't smell this. I'm not kidding.

When the oil is ready...
Coat a curd in flour, getting in all of the crevices. This will help the curd stay intact during the frying process. 
Dip the flour-coated curd in the batter, allowing it to soak and become fully immersed.
Using the deep-fryer basket or a thin metal strainer, dip the curd in the oil for about 2-4 minutes. 
A finished curd should be golden brown, visibly crispy, not white. 
If you notice the cheese slipping out of the shell, try coating the next curd in more flour before battering.
You can fry many at once, if you'd like, just adjust the time and be aware that clumping will occur (not necessarily a bad thing). 

This time around, I noticed the curds clung to the bottom of the basket. I don't know how to avoid this. If you experience this, try to let go and let God. Someone in your party will enjoy picking the burnt pieces off the bottom of the basket and you will make them very happy. 

Curds do not last. They must be eaten immediately. This is a great snack if you're having a few friends over and you can easily go from fryer --> mouth. 
Never offer anyone a cold curd. That's, like, very rude.

Some people scoff when you try to explain a deep-fried cheese curd. They are repulsed. Let them express their disgust, but then casually mention mozzarella sticks, or french fries. Say curds are similar but one million times better (this is an accurate mathematical statistic). Then give them a cheese curd and watch their face light up with joy, because cheese brings people together.

Happy baking!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Princess Torte (Prinsesstarta)

My birthday is in early October, and since I was a kid who liked to plan ahead, my party was on my mind from early September. I would look around at the new faces in my classroom and wonder which kids -- kids I didn't even know yet -- would agree to forge lifelong bonds of friendship with me/attend my birthday party. Because I love friendship. And I have some control problems/anxiety.

My most eventful birthday party was my 10th -- 5th grade. It was so eventful because it lasted over 12 hours, and spending over 12 hours with fellow 10 and 11 year old girls means you will experience every single emotion your underdeveloped brain has to offer. You'll change friendship alliances multiple times. It's a reality show without the promiscuous sex. Instead, the cast members do not understand/are generally afraid of sex.

It was a sleepover party, which I had asked my parents for since I knew what a sleepover was, and they had finally relented, which they definitely shouldn't have. I invited a lot of the girls in Mrs. Gorman/Mrs. Chapek's 4th/5th grade classroom: Susie Shapiro, Sammy Worthingham, Kelli Ashmead, Sophie Klein, Laura Phillips, Brynn McConnell, etc. It was our lunch table in my living room, and it was going to be so much better than last year's birthday party -- bowling-themed, thanks to an American Girl magazine's party idea spread. Sure, we had fun, but three games is too many and the mozzarella sticks were soggy and some girls left their party favors at the alley, which was really the only attempt at American Girl influence. This year was going to be epic, because I made it clear: we weren't going to sleep. Everyone was on the same page. We would be staying up all night, because we were young and invincible and just had so much to do.

The night started with a highly-anticipated viewing of Titanic. Everyone else had already seen it, but my parents were wary of the PG-13 rating (in some moments of parental indiscretion, Joy Luck Club had become my favorite movie, and I had started writing stories about abandoning babies in the Chinese countryside). But, as a special addition to the sleepover, my dad purchased Titanic at Sam's Club and shit was going down. Everything was generally fine until we put in VHS #2 and, you know, the ship sinks and it's very realistic and there's a frozen woman holding her frozen baby and I full-on freaked out and hid behind a curio cabinet in the dining room. This was sort of alarming for all of the party guests, who had seen the movie already and also could handle fictional death. It really set the tone for the rest of the night: intense, emotional, confusing.

When you're 10 or 11, and it's after 10pm, time changes. There are no longer 60 minutes in an hour, but 60,000. There's no way to occupy all of the time. You can only play Truth or Dare and Never Have I Ever for so long -- especially when it's, like, "never have I ever seen a penis." The game goes quickly. We were exhausted and crazed. And since I was so goal-oriented, no one was going to sleep. I got into a fight with Brynn and to cool off, I went down to the basement and literally played violin for several minutes, just to reflect on things like my new age, friendship, and solitude -- and to practice "Snowflake," which I was playing in the upcoming talent show.

Finally, we realized we were stronger as a group than as individuals, and we decided to band together to plan an intricate breakfast-in-bed scenario for my parents. It was probably 2am. But we figured it was close to morning. It had to be. It had to be. I meandered around the backyard in total darkness, trying to find flowers to pick from my parents' garden to present to them on a tray of homemade breakfast. No more American Girl for this 10 year old. I had moved on to full-on Martha Stewart Living shit.

All 8 of us crept into my parents' room (a major violation), holding trays of probably... Malt o'Meal? And glasses of milk? Surprisingly not well-received.

"What the hell/it's 4am/why aren't you asleep/why is this happening/half of you need to go to Hebrew School in four hours and we promised your parents you'd get a good night's rest." All fair points.

It was honestly a relief. No one protested as we finally climbed into our sleeping bags. We knew we were in trouble, but we didn't care -- we were ready to be embraced by sweet slumber, for at least four hours until half of my party needed to go to Hebrew School.

This year, I was a lucky gal and had birthday celebrations in Minneapolis and LA. I have the best friends in both places. One day, everyone will meet. Do I have to get married for that to happen? Um, fine.

I endeavored to make one of my very favorite -- albeit daunting -- cakes: The Princess Torte. It can be ordered from Wuollet Bakery in Minneapolis and it's very Swedish and gorgeous and light and delicious. Haley Hepworth, my partner-in-crime in college and now in LA, volunteered to help me -- because she is an angel and I had an improv audition in the middle of the day/middle of the baking and prep time. When I got home from the audition, she had finished it and CRAFTED MARZIPAN ROSES because, as I've already said, she's an ANGEL. Don't let this cake intimidate you -- it's worth it, and really not that difficult.

Princess Torte


2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 cups half-and-half (split in half) (half half half)
3 large egg yokes
1 tablespoon vanilla

Fine, dry, bread crumbs for the pan
 1/2 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 large eggs, separated
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar

2 boxes of marzipan (7 oz. each, available in the baking aisle of Gelson's, but not Target)
green food coloring
powdered sugar for dusting

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup seedless raspberry jam


In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, sugar, and egg yokes. Add 1/2 cup of the half-and-half, mixing together.
Heat the remaining half-and-half in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it is just boiling.
Slowly pour the hot cream into the cornstarch/sugar/egg/cream mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. If you notice the eggs start to scramble... stop. And start over, because... gross.
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and, over medium heat, stir constantly. The mixture will start to thicken to a custard. Make sure you are stirring to the bottom to prevent curdling. If it curdles, you can use a strainer and throw up.

Haley goes to town on some almost-custard.
 After about five minutes, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.
Once it cools to room temperature, put it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap (this will prevent the custard from forming a skin -- yum!) and stick it in the fridge!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Coat a 9-inch spring form pan with PAM.
Coat the bottom of the pan with fine bread crumbs, tapping out the excess.
Feel like an old Swedish woman, because that bread crumb trick is 100% old-Swedish-woman.
Sift together the flour, cornstarch, and baking powder. Set aside.
In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and salt on medium speed until the egg whites are shiny and stiff, but not lumpy. This will take much longer than you think it ever could. If you are mixing by hand, get a friend to help.

These egg whites have NOT peaked.
 Add about 1/3 of the sugar and one egg yoke, then continue to mix for about 10 seconds.
Repeat this process 3 more times, then continue to mix for a few more minutes.
Fold in the flour in about four additions, gentle folding the batter around the flour. Basically, no need to over-mix.
Pour the batter into the pan.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until it's golden brown and passes the toothpick test.
Cool the cake on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before releasing it from the pan.
Carefully release the cake, using a knife around the edges, if necessary.
Let it cool completely on a wire rack, naked and begging for marzipan.

Make sure your hands are clean, because you're about to get intimate with some marzipan.
Break the marzipan into little pieces in a medium bowl and knead together with your hands.
Your natural body heat will soften the marzipan. It's very convenient.
Use about 3 drops of green food coloring, working the color in so that it isn't concentrated or streaky. You're going for a lovely pale green, not something aggressive or neon or bright. Be careful.
Dust a work surface with powdered sugar.
Roll the marzipan into about a 16 in. disc (less than 1/8 in. thick), using a rolling pin -- or wine bottle, if you like to keep it fun.

 Don't be stingy with the powdered sugar -- use as much as you need to prevent it from sticking.

Cut the cake into three equal layers and set aside. No one is perfect, so just do the best you can.
  In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip the cream until sensually thick.
Put about 1/3 of the whipped cream into a small bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
Remove the custard from the fridge and whisk it around, since it will be extra thick. Once it is smooth and creamy, fold in the remaining whipped cream and blend until it's some kind of amazing, smooth, custard/whipped cream hybrid.
Set the bottom layer of the cake on a platter, cut side up.
Spread the raspberry jam onto the cake.
Spread half of the custard cream deliciousness on top of the jam.
Add another cake layer, and spread the remaining custard cream on top.
Add the final cake layer.

Every caption I come up with is accidentally very gross.
Spread about a quarter of the refrigerated whipped cream along the edges of the cake, and use the rest on top of the cake.

Silky smooth.
 Refrigerate this beautiful masterpiece for about a half an hour to an hour. This will firm it up so the marzipan doesn't destroy its delicate sensibilites.
When ready, drape the marzipan over the cake, gently pressing it to the cake. Trim the excess marzipan. This is where it helps to be a naturally gentle and patient person. I'm glad Haley did this part.

You could hide literally anything inside that blanket of marzipan.
If you are Haley Hepworth, you'll use the remaining marzipan to craft beautiful roses. She says she used a YouTube tutorial. And her heart.

The Swedes know what they're doing -- Ikea, healthcare, and Princess Torte. It makes a really wonderful birthday cake, especially if you're not into traditional frosting/enjoy turnt-up angel food cake.

Special thanks to Haley Hepworth and everyone who helped celebrate my birthday in both cities. 26 is off to a great start and I can't wait to see what baked goods this year will bring!

Happy baking!