Archive for ‘Stories’

November 6, 2014

Gluten-Free Gleefully: Tips for How to Host a Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

by Jen Wanous

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be a complicated dance with dietary restrictions. A gluten allergy is a new food red flag to pop up around many dinner tables. In this post, we’ll figure out how best to host a gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner so that you and your guests strike a savory samba, without too much stress.

It may seem daunting at first to make an all gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner, but let’s think about it, really all you have to worry about is the stuffing, gravy and pie. The turkey, cranberry, vegetable side dishes- even the mash potatoes are all already gluten-free. Great. Feels more manageable already, doesn’t it?

Here are some general tips for making a gluten-free Thanksgiving meal and following is how to modify the traditionally gluten-full dishes: stuffing, gravy and pie.

  • Keep it simple: choose to make the whole meal gluten-free. That way you won’t have to worry about cross-contamination and you’ll be making fewer dishes overall.
  • Don’t skimp on the fat. You’re already taking out one comfort food, gluten; you don’t need to take out the other, butter.
  • Have store-bought rolls available to appease your guests who eat gluten.
  • Be careful of hidden gluten ingredients. Gluten is in some sausages, gravy thickeners, bullion mixes and is in cream of mushroom soup. (Make fresh roasted vegetables instead of the traditional green bean casserole.)
  • For your vegetable sides dishes, always start with the highest quality, fresh, organic vegetables you can find. A simple side dish is olive oil, salt and rosemary roasted root vegetables (like carrots, yams, potatoes and beets).
  • Be open to creating new family traditions. It may be hard for you or other family members to adjust to new recipes for such a traditional meal but they will prove to be delicious in a whole new way.


Forego stuffing your turkey, besides the bacteria risk of possibly undercooking your poultry, your bird will cook faster and you’ll avoid any potential gluten cross-contamination. Bite the bullet and make your own stuffing. Of course it’s not as easy as the classic Stove Top, but you can make something much more robust and flavorful. I recommend making a gluten-free cornbread a couple days before and using that cornbread to make your own stuffing. Easily make your corn bread gluten-free by substituting a gluten-free flour mix, like Bob’s Mills in place of regular wheat flour.


Could there be anything more flavorful than roasted turkey drippings? It’s a great place to start! Add onion, carrots and celery to your roasting pan for an even more flavorful gravy. You can make your gravy just as you would before, by using pan drippings and turkey stock-only switch out the flour with an all-purpose gluten-free flour mix to thicken your gravy. Be careful when using a brined turkey, it can make for a gravy that is too salty. Be sure to taste your gravy as you go along, being careful not to add additional salt.


In my family, the guests always brought dessert. We would end up with plenty of pie, (enough for our tradition of pie for breakfast the morning after). You can ask your guests to bring dessert too, this way there will be lots of options for everyone. Just make sure you have at least one that is gluten-free. You can make a gluten-free version of pumpkin pie by foregoing the crust all together to make a personalized pumpkin flan in a ramekin. Or you can also make a nut crust to go with most any pie filling. For a basic nut crust add 2 cups of roasted nuts, a little sugar and some melted butter into a food processor. Press into a pie plate and add your desired filling.

thanksgiving 14

January 8, 2014

A Dinner Out at: Take Root

by Jen Wanous

A bitter cold night greeted us as my date and I stepped out of the subway and made our way to Take Root, a tiny Brooklyn restaurant somewhere between Caroll Gardens and Red Hook. We eagerly entered the warm, homey interior and quickly found our seats.

Chef Elise Kornack and her life and business partner, Anna Hieronimus, make up the entire Take Root team. Anna welcomed us, making sure we had everything we needed, while Chef Elise plated food in the tiny open kitchen in the back. We felt more like we were at a friend’s house for dinner; that is, until the food arrived.

We were about 10 minutes late for our 8 pm seating, which meant the three other tables in the dimly-lit dining room already had pillowy slices of bread in front of them and heavenly caramelized brown butter. It also meant we would get a sneak preview of each of the seven courses on the pre-fixe menu that Anna delivered.

Each dish got a well-deserved eyebrow raise and an appreciative nod from my date and me. The colorful drizzles, perfectly placed micro greens and poised crackers wowed us, almost as much as the bold flavors and textures on each artistically plated offering. Dishes like a Jerusalem artichoke, chestnut, eucalyptus and mushroom ravioli had us from the first creamy bite of “hello.” And the beef heart with black garlic, lentil and brassica proved that a creative cut, in all its earthiness, can still enchant — even if we didn’t know what brassica was!

We were serenaded by the likes of Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell and more subdued Sapphic favorites like Beach House and Cat Power. Swayed by the music, dim lights, wine pairings and dessert, we wondered if we could just stay there all night instead of braving the cold again. Luckily, cabs were in good supply and as we headed home, we savored the gift of love and attention that only a good meal, so beautifully attended to, can bring.


Check out other great blog posts by my friends at Put a Egg On It zine:

April 24, 2013

Voilà: Vegan Steak Frites

by Jen Wanous

I often cook for people with dietary restrictions. These restrictions have ranged from no dairy, soy, nuts, to the stricter, no gluten, sugar, or refined carbohydrates. I look at these restrictions as fun challenges. It’s kind of like being on Survivor (though with access to the greatest organic coop in the country) and trying to make the best out of what you have within the parameters you’re provided. (Wait, is this already a Food Network show?) I particularly like to make oxymoronic dishes like vegan and gluten free lasagna or, like I was most recently asked to create, vegan steak frites.

It was a French themed party, after all, and what is more reminiscent of a late night café rendezvous in Paris than steak frites? The berets could stay on their shelf; I had tofu to work on! From my vegan stint in the redwoods of Santa Cruz, I recalled a thing or two about dressing up tofu. One trick I learned there was that freezing tofu gives it quite a meat-like texture.

According to Cooks Illustrated, May and June 2013, “Tofu is about 86% water; as it freezes, the ice crystals expand, pushing apart the protein network. When thawed, the water drains away, leaving the tofu with a spongy consistency that is highly absorbent.”

With this in mind, I fashioned a solid block of tofu into three “steaks”. First, I sliced the block into thee planks and rounded the corners. (This made for wonderful meaty dramatic effect!) I then popped the planks into the freezer and left them to their meat-tastic transformation. In the morning, I took them out to defrost in the fridge and added a steak-like marinade, invoking the help of the flavor classics of A-1 and Worcestershire sauces.

For real dramatic effect, you could grill the tofu steaks on a slated grill pan. I opted to bake mine with the frites. You guys! Making French fries is so easy;  you, too, can enjoy this comforting snack at home with just a little bit of knife precision. The mini-recipe for the frites is as follows:

Slice two large potatoes into ¼ inch planks then slice again into ¼ inch sticks. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil, toss, sprinkle with salt, and bake for 25-30 minutes at 425 degrees, flipping after 15 minutes. Top with Maldon flake salt, truffle oil or minced fresh parsley, if available.

The next time you find yourself caught between two conflicting culinary worlds, let the accommodating versatility of tofu come to your rescue. Et Voilà! C’est parfait.


vegan steak frites

Vegan Steak

Serves 3

Time, active: 30 minutes; inactive: 7 hours


1 Block of firm tofu

2 tablespoons A-1 steak sauce

1 teaspoon vegan Worcestershire sauce (Amy’s brand makes one and so does Trader Joes)

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 clove garlic, smashed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, groun


1. Slice tofu length-wise into three planks. Fashion into any meat-like shape that appeals to you. (I like to round off three corners and keep one end pointed.) Place in a large Ziplock bag and place in the freezer until frozen, at least five hours.

2. Add to the bag the remaining ingredients to make the marinade. Mix well, making sure all sides of the tofu are covered in the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 10 hours.

3. Heat the oven to 425. (Cut your potatoes now for the fries.) Place the tofu planks on a baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, flipping halfway through. Serve with frites!

January 22, 2013

Finding Ramen in Tokyo

by Jen Wanous

The guidebook weighed heavily in my hand as I attempted to navigate Tokyo streets. I couldn’t read a single sign, but thanks in part to my gumption but mostly to the overwhelming generosity of the people in my host country, I always found my way. Food destinations topped my itinerary. I planned to hit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Ramen Museum, a Michelin star-rated sushi restaurant, and any Seven-Eleven I came across. (They have the most interesting snacks and sell cute socks too!) Sure there were temples, shrines, and architectural gems to pursue as well, but these were mere cultural diversions to fill my time between meals.

Turning off the main drag onto a crowded street, I found myself wandering through a maze of market stalls selling various aquatic creatures. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest in the world. I had to stay on my toes, dodging speeding forklifts, flying fish guts, and rushing merchants. I had expected a pungent olfactory experience but every smell I encountered was fresh and salty like the ocean. The busy scene was all very “Where’s Waldo” and I fit into it all perfectly with the camera strapped around my neck and the big goggling grin on my face. The fish lay out on ice in all of their clear-eyed glory. Crabs were neatly tied together; salmon roe was bright popping orange. The tuna was the most remarkable though. Fetching the prettiest penny (well, yen) in these parts, tuna is sold in an early morning auction. But the steep price comes as no surprise. If you’ve ever had sushi, you know how special taro is. Melty, soft, yielding—there is hardly any better sensation in your mouth.

I had heard that this fish market was the best place to eat sushi, but as much as I wanted to rally, it was 9am. I just couldn’t bring myself to breakfast on slices of raw fish, no matter how fresh. Plus, the temperature hovered around 35. I needed something warm. I decided to ask one of the fish merchants wearing a full rubber jumpsuit where to go. “Ga,” I said—which means “where”—and then gave my best try at “eat” in a universal gesture (One hand cupped, the other going from hand to mouth with a chomping motion and a big smile.) Seeing his puzzled look, I squeaked out, “Ramen!?” This he understood. Laughing a little, he said something in Japanese. I looked at him earnestly (but probably a little blankly), desperate to get his recommendation. He repeated but I obviously had no clue what he was saying. Taking mercy on my poor hungry tourist soul, he motioned for me to follow and I trailed along behind him. He hopped in a forklift and motioned for me to get on back. Without hesitation, I jumped on and, heeding his safety advice, grabbed on to the back metal pole. It was ice cold but I held on tight as he sped off and we zipped around the market. I was laughing at the absurdity of the moment and somehow managed to snap a picture while riding. We zoomed over to an outdoor ally where he stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Ramen!” I hopped off, patted him on the back and said “Arigato!” He nodded and off he went.

I stood at the mouth of a row of small eateries. A piece of fabric with Japanese characters flagged each short entrance.  After passing several sushi places, my gaze caught on a steamy window bustling with activity. Inside I found a low diner counter and stools enough for ten. The customers, all men, sat in front of steaming bowls of ramen, quickly slurping up the noodles. I saw one stool open, so I went in. The waitress and all three cooks in the back welcomed me with a resounding, “Irrasshaimase” I took my seat in the quaint throwback of an eatery and when the waitress came over to ask what I wanted, I pointed to what the man next to me was eating. She said, “Oh, pork ramen?” I said, “Hi” (which means “yes”). It still was early in the morning, but I could handle soup.

When she brought out my breakfast, the intermingling of language, cultures, and eras seemed to coalesce into the giant bowl of ramen before me—like some sort of holy cultural moment had found me there and I partook by slurping up the sacrament.

The trip was far from affordable but when I find myself subsisting on ramen of the instant variety at home in the coming months, at least I’ll have plenty of fond culinary moments to look back on and savor.

October 15, 2012

When Directing a Culinary Event for 3,000, Try This

by Jen Wanous

With walkie-talkie in hand, I entered the raw space that took up an entire city block, as ready as I could ever be. The task at hand: to set-up a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people. Set up included: six kitchens for 140 chef presenters, seven different workshop rooms, one main stage that seated 400, two walk-in refrigerators, one freezer, a tradeshow floor room for 50, two pop-up restaurants, 24 different food cart chefs, electricity and plumbing to it all…and two days to do it.

When the opening day hit, like meat in a grinder, time crunched down hard. With a year of planning now behind me, hours transformed into minutes as every request that came in needed immediate action. Crises were near boiling points around every corner. Everyone needed solutions and I was in a role to give them. Like being a chef in a kitchen, this was trial by fire. My mind ran at a fevered pace as names and schedules flew around. There was no time to write down notes; everything was one long mental note demanding immediate action. Bruises on my toes told of my speedy pace, just shy of running for the 100 hours I worked that week.

With problems popping up left and right, I honed my skill of bringing solutions. Here are a few examples.

Problem: Chef Morimoto (read: uber famous chef, aka: “The Iron Chef”) needs wasabi powder in 15 minutes.
Solution: Instruct assistant to go to the nearest store stating, “Seriously, like Super Market Sweep style, run and get it and run back now.”

Problem: Your boss, and CEO of the company (during the second hour of the event), screams at the top of her lungs at you, bursts into tears citing a myriad of crises. Problems like a sign that is not hung and a walkway that is not wide enough. Oh and also during this moment, she threatens to fire you if you take another Instagram picture.
Solution: Fix all noted problems (it takes five minutes) and definitely hold off on posting Instagram pictures until after the event. (Discovering that deep place of compassion for her helps, but may take up to a week to attain.)

Problem: Your only dishwasher breaks.
Solution: Pray.

Problem: Unions threaten to blow up the rat in front of your event and set up a picket line.
Solution: Hire a union member to be your liaison (aka: Wonder Woman) and have her negotiate the union labor needs so that everyone is happy.

Problem: Upset stomach.
Solution: Don’t eat a doughnut covered in peanut butter, thinking you’re getting more protein that way. Eat a Clif Bar instead.

Problem: Your production assistant decides to drink and then has a diabetic crash, passes out cold on the floor, and refuses medical attention then insists on going to the drug store to get meds. You don’t think that’s a good idea but then a few minutes later, you realize he’s already left. Having visions of him passed out in the street, you leave your event and run after him.
Solution: Get an umbrella (it had to be raining), call your mom (because she always knows what’s best), follow your mom’s advice to go back to your event (he can take care of himself) and then when he returns, put him in a cab home and tell him not to come back. (Did I mention cry? Crying is definitely a factor in the solution.)

All in all, I was given a job to manage something that was unmanageable. This was a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people in a completely raw space on a shoestring budget with very little infrastructure. This gargantuan feat was only made possible by the amazing talents of the team I had assembled. I gave them my trust and they gave me their absolute best.

As the Event Director, I could sure sling a walkie-talkie, but what good was that if the people on the other end were not ready on the draw?

If this were a novel, this would be my page of thanks: Candy, the kiwi intern who worked for free (free!) and added value beyond measure. Jacquie who made more than her fair share of super-market sweeps. Amy–another stellar volunteer–caught the pieces before they hit the ground. Sam was the saving grace and saving sass of this event. Layla, was the backbone of the event, her victory (and mine) lied in not needing anti-anxiety meds! Renata, Renata!, my mentor and confidant. Her grace under fire inspires me like none other.

The whole Wizard crew including, Dana, Matt, Sarah, Caryn, and the redheaded guy John. You all bolstered our faith when you helped come up with solutions and powered through each day. To the electricians, the dishwashers, the carpenters, the film crews, the security guards, the cleaning crews, the volunteers, you all are the foundation of this event.

And to the StarChefs crew, everyone rallied! Thank you for humoring me, trusting me, and helping me.

This has been one wild ride of a culinary adventure. Oh, the highs, you ask? Well, eating a deep-fried pizza made by a chef from Naples, *just* happening to be there when the wining pastry champion passes around his cake for a taste; getting Richard Blais his liquid nitrogen (and getting his cell phone number); and tasting and interacting with 140 of the worlds best chefs. Amazing. These are the things that will feed me moving forward.

Check out the official event wrap up here:

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June 30, 2012

Fear Not Formal Dining

by Jen Wanous

As an event planer and a culinary event planner at that, I have had the pleasure of dining at some of the best restaurants in the country. Not only am I enjoying the food, but often times, I am evaluating the food to decide what will be the best option for the guests of the event. One time, I had the option of choosing a dish with the most buttery, yielding cannelline beans or a close second in flavor with deeply rich morel mushrooms. My personal choice would have been the beans, but thinking of 700 people eating beans in one small space made me opt for the mushrooms.

These “tastings” are certainly perks of the job. I recently attended a James Beard dinner with a chef from California, Sondra Bernstein of the Girl and the Fig. When I entered the room and saw the intricate table setting before me, I thought back to how intimidating this used to be for me. Growing up in Southern California, we were more likely to have a barbeque at the beach than a formal dinner at a restaurant.

Learning what fork to use, what to do first and in general how to be polite has been an on-going learning experience. I have gathered some tips along the way that I would like to share. The next time you are in a fine dining situation, you can focus more on the food and less on what you should or should not be doing. Make Lady Grantham proud.

Silverware Simplified: Start on the outside and work your way in (see the diagram below).

Napkin Know-How: as soon as you sit down, unfold your napkin and place it in your lap. When you get up, and you’re coming back, leave your napkin on your chair (some fancy places will fold it again for you) and when you’re all finished, place the napkin to the left of your dish.

Silent Service Code: When you are finished with your meal, place your knife and your fork together, between 10 and 4 o’clock. This tells the server that you are finished and they can clear your plate. (See the picture below.)

Hot Hands: When drinking wine, hold the glass by the stem. (You don’t want to heat up the wine with your hand.)

To Wait or Not to Wait: When you are served hot food, it is more polite to eat it when it is served then to wait for everyone to be served first. The chef has prepared your food at a specific temperature and to wait and have it cool down is an insult. If it is cold food, you should wait for everyone to be served to then eat.

Diagram credits: Tanya Hutchison

March 28, 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons: Make a Citrus Dipping Sauce

by Jen Wanous

I have been on a bit of a hiatus for the past few weeks, and with good reason — I took the plunge and submitted myself to a 9-5 (or 6, or 7). You see, post-culinary school I enjoyed my days of piecemealing jobs together, working with a variety of small food businesses- from cookie baker, to Korean taco restaurant consultant, to ice cream sales person. I loved this exposure, but I needed something more consistent to pay for the Le Creuset I’ve been wanting (paying back my culinary school loan and health insurance would be nice too). I was excited to see the posting for a job as an Events Director at StarChefs because the position perfectly combines my background in event management with my culinary training.

I started the position a few weeks ago and, as ideal as the position sounded, it has proven to be a hard transition. I have been taking big gulps of air to stay afloat in a work culture that is filled with chaos and urgency (think The Devil Wears Prada meets Top Chef). It’s a small office of 18 people with an open work space — no walls. I have been tasked with executing a 3,000 person, three day culinary symposium with workshops, demos and culinary competitions. The event will host 90 star chefs, 80 sponsors and a large staff and vendor battalion to keep everyone full and happy. The event is called the International Chefs Congress and will be held in the last week of September.

I am confident in my ability to execute this major production and I even get glimmers of optimism when someone from the office brings a daffodil for everyone or has a staff tasting of homemade beer. Wading through a new workplace environment can be very complex. Trusting myself and staying hydrated has been key.

Through all this, I am definitely learning a ton, which I am grateful for. I consider this to be another great chapter in my culinary adventure book. So, stay tuned for more posts, from workplace triumphs to kitchen adventures, I hope to write now once a month now.

Sushi Party on the Fly

I recently had a couple friends over for dinner and we had an impromptu Sushi Party. With a few simple improvisations to the traditional methods, it’s fun and easy to host your own.

The idea is to do a build-your-own sushi hand roll. Hold the sheet of nori seaweed in your hand (like a diamond), then smear the inside quinoa (not too much) and fill with fresh accompaniments. Fold the tip of the diamond (closest to you) in (like a burrito) and drizzle on different sauces. Every guest will be having fun making their own unique sushi hand roll.

Serves 4


Package of Nori sheets (big sheets of seaweed)

Quinoa sticky rice sushi-style (recipe below)

Optional Accompaniment Ideas

– Sushi grade raw fish such as salmon or tuna

– roasted tofu (recipe below)

– avocado

– mango

– cucumber

– threads of green onion

– pickled carrot (recipe below)

– Sesame seeds (toasted)

– thin slices of jalapeño

– Suracha mayo dip (1/4 cup may plus 1-2 tbs Suracha)

– pickle ginger (click here for how to make)

– wasabi (can reconstitute powdered wasabi)

Quinoa – Sticky Sushi Rice Style


1½ cups quinoa, rinsed

3 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup brown rice vinegar


1. In a medium pot, combine the quinoa and salt with the cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 20 mins. Remove lid and stir in rice vinegar with a fork.

Citrus Dipping Sauce

This recipe was inspired by a favorite cookbook author and blogger: Heidi Swanson.


Zest and juice of 1 orange

Zest and juice of ½ lemon

2 tablespoons agave syrup (or sugar)

2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar


1. In a small pan, combine just the citrus juices and agave. Bring to a boil. Cook for 1-2 mins, add the soy sauce and vinegar. Return to a boil, cook another min or two. It will be slightly thick. Stir in the zests.

Tahini Dipping Sauce


½ cup tahini (ground sesame seeds)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 inch ginger minced

1 clove garlic, chopped



1. In a mini food processor, combine all ingredients. That’s it.

Tofu Planks


1 block firm tofu

2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon olive oil



1. Preheat oven to 350. Cut the tofu block into ¼ thick pieces that are about 1×3 inches.

2. On a rimmed cookie sheet, combine all ingredients. Slather on the tofu. Bake on 350 for 20 mins, flipping half way. Cut to thin threads (about the width of a chop stick).

Quick Pickled Carrots


2 carrots, julienned (cut long and thin)

¼ cup brown rice vinegar

couple drops sesame oil

salt to taste


1. Combine ingredients and let sit for at least 15 mins, up to a few days.

January 26, 2012

Getting Oh So Fancy at the Fancy Food Show

by Jen Wanous

Think of a Costco on steroids. Take away the tire shop, keep only the gourmet food section and add a sample table for every product—then you have the Fancy Food Show. I visited my former hometown of San Francisco last weekend to attend this very convention.

The expansive convention center floor stretches out for easily 50 stations per row, amounting to a total of over 1,500 vendors. Each vendor has a gourmet food product and offers samples of their fancy food, almost cafeteria style (minus the hair nets). It is a prime opportunity for procurers of fancy foods to connect with major (and small) buyers from around the world.

With an aspiration to one day market a food product of my own, I went to the show to be inspired, to have an insider’s look into the industry and to meet new people in the fancy food world.

On the first day, I was wowed by only a small fraction of the 1,500 exhibitor’s goods. I went station-by-station tasting everything from Spanish prosciutto to sea salt caramel truffles to panda bear cookies to cardamom ice cream and soy chips (all in that order). Needless to say, I had a tummy ache within 15 minutes.

For round two on the second day, I had more of a game plan. I had a light breakfast and came fully prepared to gorge myself. There were many foods that caught my attention. One was a “guacamame” which was an edemame and tofu based dip that tasted (and looked) just like guacamole. It’s so much cheaper than avocados and keeps much longer. Genius. One of the clients for whom I currently consult on menu development is an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant. You better believe that I’ll introduce this brilliant idea to them.

With a full smorgasbord waiting, I gravitated to the oils. I don’t know about you, but the price tag on most oils at the grocery is enough to scoff at—here, oils were displayed in all their glory in a plethora of flavors, all ripe for the pickin’. For the first time, I sampled hemp oil. Its grassy earthiness would go with any salad dressing. I had always wanted to try avocado oil, but sadly was disappointed by the flavor tasting like a turned avocado. What wowed me was a wok oil that boasted of lemongrass, Thai basil and chili.

Moving away from oils, another impressive sample was a chocolate cracker topped with goat cheese and peppered raspberry jam. Paired with a California Pino Grigio, it was a surprisingly perfect match.

Gluten-free products could have had an entire section to themselves. From GF sweet and sour sauce to GF crackers, it’s obviously the biggest current trend. In terms of marketing and branding, “natural” is plastered all over packages. Few were actually “organic” but the ones that were seemed to be the highest quality and best tasting. A great example of this was Jenis Ice Cream (I was a bit partial to the name), which comes from grass-fed cows and has a delightfully creamy texture.

Below are some pictures that I took while I was there, enjoy.

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December 29, 2011

My Grandma Clea on How-To Make Raviolis

by Jen Wanous

Ah, the holidays. It’s a time like none other to come together with relatives and chosen friend families alike. We risk our cozy comfort zones for the promise of the magic we find in connecting with others. There is so much hope (and quite a lot of pressure, too). There is the gift-giving, the long travel days, the money issues, the inevitable tensions and, of course, the self-medication (food, alcohol, shopping, TV-watching, Xanax, you name it). Congratulations, you have survived!

Through all of the stress that surrounds holidays, perfect moments peek out. So many times I’ve wished I had a camera in my hand to capture these moments: my niece growing from a toddler into a Justin Beber-obsessed girl, for instance, or my mom recounting stories of my family’s history. In 2004 I spent the last Christmas with my grandmother and happened to record one such moment. We made our traditional raviolis for Christmas Eve dinner. In the video, my grandmother explains how to make the pasta and (with some prying) the filling—as well as how not to dry out the “noodle dough.”

As the oldest of two in a first-generation Italian family in New York City, my Grandma Clea thrived, survived her many bumps in life’s road, and still managed to answer the phone with a cheery, “Good afternoon!” As a career seamstress and master chef she took homemaking to a professional level. After she moved to Florida, I visited her in the summer months and we spent time mapping out road trips, exploring new places, and visiting friends and family. If I was lucky, we would stop and get Reese’s peanut butter cup sundaes at Friendly’s. We packed lunches with plums and nectarines wrapped in paper towels. We made homemade ice cream with rock salt. And the special treat for breakfast was always French toast.

Multiple sclerosis slowly claimed her active life. I was so blessed to be with her the day she passed in the 84th year of her life. I miss the times when I would call her to ask how to make a meatloaf or other times just to hear about how she was feeling. My grandma Clea is my greatest culinary inspiration and her raviolis are perfection stuffed into a pocket of pasta, memories of which will always fill me.

My grandma Clea would always bring people together with her food and it’s her spirit of culinary adventure and culinary love that continues to inspire me on my path.

December 15, 2011

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

by Jen Wanous

She took a bite and her face crumbled. “I know my cookies and these are not my cookies.” I took a deep breath, searching for a solution.  “Throw them all away.” I braced myself in disbelief. One hundred pounds of cookie dough, a day’s work: trash. I stared at the mounds of chocolate studded dough, baffled. Although the taste was still fine, the little cookies were fluffier than they should have been and for the owner of this cookie company, that was unacceptable.

I arrived at Hope’s kitchen early in the morning, eager to work. My job was to make cookie dough in preparation for her busy holiday season. She handed me a recipe and showed me where things were. I started by weighing out the sugars, flour and other ingredients to the ounce, carefully taking out a teaspoon of flour if needed. I leveled the cup measurements to ensure everything would be exact. Each egg I cracked, I made sure to catch any stray shell fragments.

The one little word I failed to read correctly was “soda.” Instead, I thought, “powder.” You see, in my experience, when baking most cookie recipes, one always needs baking powder because of the lack of acidic ingredients. The chemical in baking soda will not activate fully unless there is an acid introduced. Come to find out, (through writing this post!), the molasses in brown sugar is acidic and activates the baking soda.

Here is a breakdown of how it works:

Baking Soda

– It is used in recipes that contain an acidic ingredient (e.g. vinegar, citrus juice, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, cocoa (not Dutch-processed), honey, molasses (also brown sugar), fruits and maple syrup).

– Is four times as strong as baking powder.

– Baking soda starts to react and releases carbon dioxide gas as soon as it is added to the batter and moistened.

Baking Powder

– Has baking soda and one or more powder acid (cream of tartar and/or sodium aluminum sulfate)

– Most baking powder is double-acting which means it reacts to liquid and heat, in two stages. The first reaction takes place when you add the baking powder to the batter and it is moistened. The other acid reacts with the baking soda and produces carbon dioxide gas. The second reaction takes place when the batter is placed in the oven.

– You should replace your baking powder every 6-12 months as it loses its effectiveness.

Both are chemical leavening agents that give rise to baked goods.

When the mistake was realized, instead of losing my shit, I thought back to my culinary training: baking powder has baking soda in it. I could just add three times more baking soda to equal the chemical amount that was in the recipe. I was panicking inside, but still thought it could be pulled off.

Hope suggested I test bake a tray to see if they would still rise. Great idea! I popped a few rows on a cookie sheet and patiently waited the 10 minutes it took to bake. Through the hot glass window of the tall industrial oven, I saw the little cookies rise up and when I took them out of the oven, I thought, “Thank god, they look good!” Then I showed them to Hope, she took one bite and said they had to go in the trash. I tried and it tasted like a dang good cookie to me. Apparently, they had risen too much for Hope’s taste (because of the additional acid that was in the baking powder.)

It felt like a rash decision to throw them all away, but I understood it too.  She is a business owner, with a product brand to protect. On top of that, she had the stress of a ton of holiday orders and some serious lack of sleep. It was simply a nuance of fluffiness that sealed the fate of these cookies. Through her frustration, Hope was reasonable saying that she should have stepped through the first batch with me and she even offered to pay me—which I quickly refused.

As I walked back to the predestined cookie dough before me, I fought off tears. A boisterous New Yorker named Gloria, who also baked in the shared kitchen space, came over, grabbed a pinch of the dough and said, “Ooh, I’ll use some of this! My customers aren’t that picky!” Then a fellow cookie maker named Gael came over and gave me a hug, saying not to worry, that it happens to the best of us. You could tell that she had royally f*ed up a batch or two in her day too. These two women were the type of good graces that you can only hope for in a time like this.

It pained me to actually throw away perfectly delicious chocolate chip cookie dough—and in the middle of December—so with the remaining 50 pounds strapped in my bike basket, I took it home. I have now become Jonny Cookieseed, spreading holiday cheer in the form of cookies galore. I’ve baked dozens, the first batch going to my local bar. They love me there. It promises to be a chocolate-studded Christmas this year!