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Finding heart

Right before the inauguration, a woman I didn’t know wished me a happy new year as we passed each other in the library. Something about the cautious way she said it made me wish it back to her with a wry twist we both acknowledged: neither of us felt we had much to look forward to in the coming administration, and both of us were worried for our families, our children, our community, ourselves. “We’ll keep on,” she said and I nodded. Both of us were a little grim.

And although it’s spring and Passover started Monday night, I am still a little grim and on standby. Every so often I feel a bit lighter in spite of the news, but to tell you the truth, I still often feel like hiding under a table. With a big tablecloth on it. In another, better, saner country. I kind of wonder if Iceland’s available. Are there Jews in Iceland? I hope so. Do they have enough matzah? I could lend them some…

But it’s spring. You can’t just hibernate for 4 years (or 2, hoping for a reversal in Congress in 2018 and a brain transplant for pretty much everyone in the White House, starting not with Trump–may not be possible–but perhaps Spicer? no, again, not possible–stick the oversized bunny suit back on him, make him hop around the WH lawn–would you be able to tell the difference?)

Ahem! As I was saying, you have to get back out there and see how your neighbors are faring and talk to them. If you’re not naturally extroverted and you work alone (double-ahem!), it’s even more important to take a breather and reconnect in the real world.

Despite my wariness about the immediate future of American government and my repeated incredulity at the daily headlines, there is reason for hope in this country. All kinds of people, business leaders and employee groups, religious leaders and congregations, public officials, judges, entertainers, and most of all, ordinary citizens have started speaking up and donating money and time to support the safety and rights of threatened and persecuted minority groups, whether their own or someone else’s. Citizen or not. Same religion or gender or race or not. California’s not the only place where this is happening. If it can happen in North Carolina, in Kansas, in Pennsylvania, in Texas–it can happen anywhere.

These surprising oases of sanity, civil contribution and decency give me heart that we can take steps in our own neighborhoods and states to protect the progress and community we’ve recovered since 2008.

But I do have to ask, is there really still room for a food blog like mine? Is this what I should be doing this year? Can I help anyone by talking about food and trying to seek pleasure in it when we’re all worried about bigger things? It’s taken me four five whole months to get to the point where I can say I think so.

A few weeks ago, still wondering, I went to Shabbat services for the first time in a while and tried hard to find heart and figure out what to do with it. And I did. I looked around at my neighbors and friends, I joined in the prayers and singing, sat with my husband, said kaddish for my brother and father and grandmother, whose yahrzeits all fall in the same week, got an aliyah, heard my daughter chanting the longest possible maftir in the book (usually we’re tawkin’ 3 verses at the end of the Torah reading, this time it was 20-plus). I found myself thinking both how proud I was of her, how beautifully she sang it, and how rusty my Hebrew reading had gotten through neglect these past months.

Being with my community and my family, seeking something not posted in the daily news headline deathspiral, put me in a more expansive frame of mind.

I decided not to let the current occupants of the White House and their make-America-hate-again tactics continue to ruin my or my neighbors’ life and drain all the color out of our days. I decided not to hide under the table–it was too much like duck-and-cover, and that’s only good for ducks, and only if it’s Wabbit Season.

We can be better and more powerful together than our current representatives in Washington think. Although I would personally like to thank MY congressional representatives, Judy Chu and Adam Schiff, as well as my senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein. Keep doing the right thing, and Chazak v’Amatz (strength and courage).

Living well and supporting each other is the best revenge.

(Chasing recalcitrant rightwing congressional reps down with pitchforks or at least cellphones at various town halls and telling them to do their jobs is starting to be tempting too, don’t get me wrong. Plus it’s aerobic.)

So anyway, back on track. Because Civility 101 demands community, and community includes good food. Even if it occasionally has to be served up with a pitchfork. And, as I mentioned somewhere up in the wilderness above, it’s Pesach. Time for a taste of freedom.

Passover Links

Passover Pareve, Eggless Chocolate Torte (Sacher Torte) with Dairy-free Ganache

Assorted Passover cakes (apple/almond, banana ginger) and breakfast schemes

Macaroons, mandelhorns and almendrados

Homemade Horseradish (but I’m not bitter)

Not gefilte–better fish options

Microwave shakshouka

Not-chicken soup

Israeli spinach-feta casserole

Microwave Tricks: Shakshouka

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Marinara plus a pepper makes a good start.

Sometimes during Passover you just can’t take any more matzahnola. Or matzah with jam, or matzah brei. Or cake. Or macaroons. Anything for breakfast that doesn’t involve at least one vegetable (other than yourself, before coffee). Your tolerance for sweet stuff has been exhausted, and as for the leftover gefilte fish and hrein…no. We are not going there. No matter how much my husband insists it’s “perfectly good” (and I notice he hasn’t schlepped the rest of the jar with him to the office!)

Forget all that. There’s a pretty good cure for the Pesach blahs–you need some chile peppers and you need them now. Not in 20 minutes, no major cooking involved. You have a microwave, some cheap microwaveable soup bowls or the like, and you’re not afraid to use ’em for an increasingly popular Israeli brunch dish–shakshouka. Which is basically the Jewish version of huevos rancheros, only without beans or potatoes. Or lard.

Yotam Ottolenghi has made shakshouka popular and photogenic in at least one of his famous cookbooks, probably prettier than what I’ve got here. But it takes longer too, and I’m impatient.

To make shakshouka, you usually need a frying pan, olive oil, some tomatoes, peppers and onions, plus garlic, cumin, chile peppers, maybe a couple of oregano-or-thyme-and/or-cilantro-type herbs–sounds like the makings of salsa, no?–and some fresh eggs to crack into the resulting sauce. The sauce takes some 20-30 minutes to cook down, the eggs another 5-7 to cook more or less sunny-side-up in the middle of the sauce. That’s a lot of time for breakfast. I wanted a shortcut this morning.

Most jarred salsas are not kosher for Passover–it’s the distilled vinegar thing. That’s okay, because yesterday in a fit of domestic planning (uncharacteristic, I swear) I decided to make a batch of microwave marinara from some unsalted canned tomatoes. I don’t have a kosher-for-Passover food processor this year, though, so I decided, after trying to chop up some pretty tough Roma tomatoes (even with the skins off!) that I should just do as the Sicilians do and break them up with my hands as Tony Danza advises. A little chunkier than usual, but just fine. And actually ideal as a base for shakshouka–both its readiness for a mid-morning fridge scrounge and its rusticity made for a good start. A good dollop in a microwaveable soup bowl.

What else do you need? Maybe a bell or Anaheim-type pepper that needs to get used up. Cut it up (I got whimsical, you don’t have to potschky around with flower shapes). Add more onion if you feel like it; I didn’t. Stick it in the microwave for a minute or two to wilt the pepper and possible onion pieces.

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Then crack an egg or two into it, sprinkle on a bit of feta or panela or queso fresco as desired, maybe a pinch or so of chile pepper flakes or z’khug (I’d run out) and/or chopped cilantro as desired.

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Put another soup bowl on top as a lid, and microwave another minute or two until the eggs are cooked to your liking–check and add 30 seconds if you think it’s still got a raw spot somewhere, and/or leave the lid on for a few minutes and let it finish cooking in the residual heat of the sauce.

Obviously if you’re having people over for brunch, the standard frying pan method is better and quicker–more eggs and salsa means more time in the microwave, and no one wants to sit around as you microwave individual portions. But if it’s just you, or you and your partner, the microwave method works pretty well. Just add a little time (maybe another minute or so in 30-second increments) for four eggs as opposed to two.

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Hafla! (celebratory remark when there’s something good on the table and you didn’t have to wait an hour for it) Grab some matzah and a cup of hot coffee and b’te’avon (mangia bene/bon appétit/eat nice)!

Breakfast without Matzah Overload

Last night we were very much in the spirit of Pesach–a total rush job at home, to the point where I realized I was supposed to have a boiled egg somewhere on the seder plate just as it was getting pretty far past sundown. Organization isn’t always our strong suit, especially on school nights. Last year I posted my Bart Simpson-style Passover Chalkboard Litany of kvetches and survival tips. This year: how to deal with matzah when they won’t sell you anything less than enough for 70 people for $2.99–such a deal! (well, okay, it is). You could feed nearly the whole Sanhedrin (because in our family, everyone argues about everything and I’m sure my 13-year-old is ready for law school as we speak. Good thing I can’t afford it yet!)

As with any style of food, too much of a good thing is still too much. I think I learn that the hard way every Passover. How to eat mostly vegetables and lean proteins and fresh fruit and yogurt…and not just sit there eating matzah like it’s going out of style? There’s more than enough matzah to go around–even in gefilte fish, especially in gefilte fish, which I’ve lost my taste for over the years since discovering how to cook regular fresh fish well, aka “not-gefilte”  (though I still buy a jar for my noncooking husband for lunches during the week.)

I don’t do matzah kugel, sweet or mushroom (a waste of mushrooms in my jaundiced opinion). I’m not a huge fan of matzah brei (exception: matzah brei “blintzes”), matzah lasagne, mina de espinaca, or any of the other matzah-plus-egg-heavy adaptations of regular food. Although I have seen one attractive-enough looking picture of a mina de espinaca, I’d still do it without the matzah sheets…

I try hard these days not to make matzah balls either, though this year I might make an exception–once–for my poor daughter who never gets any because she’s vegetarian and the “not-chicken” soup at Shabbaton this March didn’t have any flavor and there were no matzah balls in it like there were in the yes-chicken soup. Oy! Maybe it’ll be a weekend project to figure out a good from-scratch version–we have school and taxes this week. A lot of school and taxes.

My mother, who is famous for not cooking more than necessary, taught me how to make pretty-good fresh-tasting haroset Russian Jewish style (’cause that’s what we were). Apples, walnuts (though almond flakes are also just fine with me), cinnamon, sweet wine or grape juice, maybe or maybe not honey, chopped coarsely so it stays crunchy. But I’ve been to a couple of community seders out here in Pasadena where the haroset was mashed down like baby food and to add insult, had matzah meal in it. I know, matzah bits probably started out as a less expensive alternative to nuts, and I can’t blame anyone for that in their own homes. A professional caterer is quite another story. There’s really no excuse in California, where nuts are pretty plentiful (both the human and the arborial kind).

Well, anyway. Second seder is tonight, but what about the rest of the week–after taxes, as it were? Passover brings on a lot of nutritional challenges if you eat dairy or vegetarian. How not to eat too many eggs in a single week? How to stay away from the canned coconut macaroons and other assorted “Kosher for Passover” horror sweets my husband brings home because he thinks that the kashrut labeling makes up for the “nutrition” labeling (which really oughtta say, “WHAT nutrition?! This is pure sugar and potato starch, buddy! And palm oil! And artificial colors and flavors! Almost as good as Froot Loops!”) I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s because he’s a boy, and there’s nothing much to do about it except shudder, put the box of “goodies” in some inaccessible place on a low shelf, preferably behind the broccoli, which is merely green and mysterious or better yet, okra (which he fears more than taxes, and that’s saying something).

Note it down: ALL the packaged cake and cookie substitutes are a bad deal for anyone diabetic or even marginally thinking about becoming diabetic–very, very spiky, and almost never worth it. Also guaranteed to induce repetitive eating and the false sensation that you’re “starving” about three seconds after you eat them. And in the last 20 years, they’ve been faked-up further–even the kichel, a dry, stiff, barely-sweet puff halfway between an empty creampuff shell and a biscotti, has had artificial flavorings added recently–why bother?

Do we really even need such matzah-filled “delights”? Nowhere is this poverty of product more evident than in the kosher-for-Passover cake “mixes” (for which I always hear Julia Sweeney’s line “Where are yer mixes, hon?” from God said, Ha!). Last year’s example, which I’m not letting happen again: the Manischewitz Blueberry Pancake mix box my husband proudly brought home one day “on sale! it was 99 cents!” And naïvely suggested I could make for breakfast–this upon seeing that I’d just finished making cheese blintzes from scratch with real ingredients, and real raspberries. Don’t squint at me like that–he’s still breathing. I just decided his sudden brainfreeze in the wife department had been caused by jetlag, and contented myself with reading the ingredient box back to him.

The man is not a cook and is pretty happy not to be. Still, he does like to eat. And read. Somehow it never occurred to him to read in service of eating by checking what’s actually on and in that pancake mix box. It had 20 ingredients, no nutrition, and no blueberries. “Blueberry bits” contained–are you ready?–food coloring, sugar, artificial flavor, and sodium alginate. So suddenly you can’t tell the difference between berries and blue goo?

I had to go into extra innings with the cauliflower and broccoli and eggplant and asparagus and tomato/artichoke heart salads just to overcome the unusually high crap factor, even though I didn’t use the mix. Just reading it was enough to require emergency grapefruit. I was too ashamed to donate it to a food pantry, either.

So….real is definitely the best way to go with food for the week. Breakfasts can be tricky–matzah and jam, matzah and cream cheese, matzah and almond butter…it gets pretty tired pretty quick. And on the other hand, blintzes are for weekends only and frankly? I’m still annoyed about that pancake mix incident a year later! Nu…

Three relatively low-crap, moderately-low matzah alternative breakfasts that are (most important!) low-labor for those post-Seder mornings when you are Done and Off Duty to your nearest and dearest (except for coffee):

1. Matzah-nola, what it sounds like, ingredients straight from the cupboard or freezer. There is actually a product out commercially this year called “Matzahnola”; my version I invented a year or two ago out of desperation against the nutrition-free Passover version of Cheerios my husband brought home, but I didn’t think it was that good a name–who knew? Anyway, I’m not bitter (though the fresh-grated horseradish is still stinging my sinuses from last night).

2. The old-style Israeli breakfast, not the modern endless hotel breakfast buffets–more like the kibbutz specials where you’re expected to get out there and weed a cotton field right afterward. Which I have actually done in my less cynical youth.

3. The bonus “I can haz CAKE?” breakfast, a favorite of fridge-scrounging champions everywhere Continue reading

Post-Passover and the Unholy Host(ess)

gratinghorseradish

Grating horseradish (at least for a small quantity) is not really the big deal I once thought because I saw a superhostess friend of mine struggle with it every year. While you’re admiring my diligence and handmade everything, just like my friend but slightly saner, please go ahead and dig the groovy paper plates. The only way to do Passover, or any obligatory celebration, in my humble opinion.

Last week a friend at shul asked me, tongue in cheek, whether we could use an extra couple of boxes of leftover matzah. What can you say to an offer like that?

I asked him if he wanted to trade with us–we both seemed to have the same amount and brand.  He sighed and said that even his chickens, which eat almost any kind of scraps, are still sick of matzah at this point. So’s our cat (do not ask why cats think matzah is interesting. It makes no more sense than why they go after taco chips).

This is all by way of explaining why I haven’t been blogging so much lately. Is there still something new to discover about Passover cooking? Other, I mean, than the tentative trend to re-include legumes and rice. This year, unpleasantly, the bag of rice I bought turned out to be rancid (you don’t need me to explain this. The sour or barny smell will clue you in if you ever get a bag that’s off, and no it won’t rinse or cook out. Take it back to the store).  Was it a Message from the Almighty ™ or just a bad bag of rice? Only the potato knows. In any case…

The week before Passover, I tend to feel a lot more like Bart Simpson than usual. Even my hair gets spikier (though not blond, never blond). I envision Bart standing before the chalkboard at Pesach, having committed yet another farfetched classroom sin. Only my litany goes something like this:

  1. I will eat mostly vegetables.
  2. I will not eat any foods containing hidden matzah after the seder.
  3. I will not eat foods adding up in practice to six eggs a day OR anything made mostly of potato–except for an actual  plain steamed potato.
  4. I will not just scarf canned coconut macaroons when I don’t know what I really need to be eating or am too lazy to find it.
  5. I will not let my husband buy fake Passover cheerios for a zillion bucks a box when five full boxes of whole wheat matzah are staring at me, I have sliced almonds AND steam-defatted organic coconut shreds in the freezer, AND brown sugar and cinnamon, and that’s all you need to make matzahnola from scratch in five seconds flat. Or we can just eat plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam or some berries.
  6. I will eat yogurt.
  7. I will make soup.
  8. I will resist the temptation to buy yet another fresh unopened can of potato starch. I still have 95 percent of last year’s.
  9. Next year I am launching the Paschal answer to the Washington Post‘s Peeps Competition. I think I’ll call it The ‘Roon Run. Dioramas made from canned macaroons in any configuration, with or without goggle-eyes, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, construction paper in many forms  and (of course) glitter. Almost like the real thing, only not purple, pink or yellow…

Sigh. Now that Pesach is over, except for the three boxes of matzah we still have and which we are supposedly allowed to eat any time of the year….I can add one or two more items to my chalkboard manifesto.

Number one, I will not cook seventy-two times a day. For anyone. Which is what it often feels like when your husband and child are both at home the whole week, or nearly.

And really, what great things was I making? Mostly the same stuff I always make, only with potatoes instead of pasta or rice.

Well, there were a few improvements this year:

Zucchini latkes–Grate a zucchini or two and about a quarter of an onion or just add a couple of chopped scallions into a bowl, then a clove of garlic, then crumble some feta and add chopped basil or a bit of thyme, stir in an egg and a spoonful of matzah meal, and fry in patties in olive oil. Quantities? Quantities are for finicky people who actually follow recipes. I’m not sure I qualify anymore.

More refined whole-wheat Passover blintzes: Whole wheat matzah cake meal still tends to be a bit gritty if you use it straight, and it doesn’t have as much cohesiveness as you’d like for crêpes. I found I could grind it finer successfully by dumping half a cup at a time in my poor abused coffee grinder and whizzing it a few seconds.

Crêpes for 10 blintzes should be about half a cup of “Turkish grind” whole wheat matzah cake meal, a spoonful of potato starch, a cup of milk and two eggs mixed in. Then you have to let the batter sit because matzah meal is so much drier than regular flour that it will thicken much further than you expected. Add more milk to thin it out to a drizzle, about the texture of cream. A spoonful of sugar and a small shake or pinch of nutmeg will give it that French flair.

What else? Oh yeah:

Hrein. Horseradish. I’ve never made it by hand before, and whenever we go over to a super-cook friend’s house for Passover, she makes a blenderful of excessively potent horseradish and says how tough it was to grind up, so I always figured it was more trouble than it was worth. The fresh roots always look awful and muddy, too. But this year there wasn’t any horseradish in the supermarket without either dairy or odd ingredients. So I bought one of the huge foul-looking muddy roots on sale in the produce section.

I have a very sharp paring knife, and the peeling went much easier than advertised. I cut a two-inch chunk of the peeled root and grated it on the small holes of my trusty cheap plane grater (note, not “microplane”, which might not hold up under the pressure)  by hand over a plate. It took only a minute or so. I piled the shavings into a cup, poured just as much apple cider vinegar over them as they could absorb, added a pinch of salt (Joan Nathan and most others say add a pinch of sugar and some black pepper as well, but I didn’t bother), and stir and cover and chill.

Verdict: pretty good!

–  –  –  –  –

But back to the chalkboard litany. My second hard-won lesson, which I assure you I will exercise much past the final sundown of Passover, is to pick my guests carefully. 

I got an eye-opener as to why hostesses with the mostess use white tablecloths and cloth napkins and those awful cut-glass olive dishes when they have people over. Turns out it’s not just to be fussy. No. All that formal crap I always hated is very important protective armor to keep the guests in line via mild intimidation and prevent them from taking advantage of you. Same strategy as used by all the major French restaurants.  To wit:

We had friends over for the 7th night. Stressful enough without it also being a seder they had suggested–and somehow it ended up being at our house! Which meant I had to do the cleaning and yelling at my nearest and dearest to help get the bathrooms and living room cleaned up somewhat in advance of the guests’ arrival…and it meant doing most of the cooking! How did I let this happen?!

It would never have worked at all if our friends hadn’t been reasonably unpicky, and to be honest in the aftermath, it mostly turned out okay. It was still stressful in unpredictable ways, though, ways I am planning to learn from for my daughter’s bat mitzvah celebrations in a couple of months.

What exactly went wrong? Despite a simple but pretty decent menu for 6 Continue reading

Excuses, excuses

Sorry everyone, I’ve been out of it for 3 weeks this time, due to:

1. Moving (last week)

2. Illness (started with tonsils, ended with a swollen ear from cellulitis, a strep infection of the skin when you get too rundown), right the day of the move. You go in expecting them to hand you a packet of smelly antibiotic capsules and they take one look at your red ear and the redness is starting to march across your cheek hour by hour like Attila the Hun invading Europe, only redder, and instead they sweep you up on a gurney in the ER and hook you up to an iv with the big-guns antibiotics pronto and tell you you’re lucky it hasn’t reached your eye yet and you’re in the observation unit for the night. Verdict:  get more sleep and don’t send your kid into the mountains for two retreats (one regional, one school) in one week right before you move.

3. Moving some more–the movers took only about 3/4 of our stuff the first time around because my husband didn’t have what it took to pack it all himself and he didn’t call them to move the date or ask for extra help when I ended up in hospital. I was flat on my back with an iv in my hand and a phone bleating my husband’s panic at being stuck with it all himself and what should he do with the…I was actually GLAD not to be on the scene. But he took me there the minute I got home so I could see how bad it was and calm him down. Usually it’s the other way around–he’s the calm one in the family. Mostly. So a week later some of the movers came back on their own to finish for pickup work. Still ended up less than we were expecting to pay.

4. Garage full of boxes–where are my daughter’s dress clothes? where’s the other piece of the vacuum cleaner? whose pots are those and are they milk or meat?

5. Cleaning out whatever passes for our old townhouse is like Hercules mucking out the stables of the gigantic horses. Only with fewer shovels and more muck. But we’ll do it to get what we can of our old deposit back. Don’t ask about the local, woman-owned maid service we tried (twice!) to engage for this work and whose owner blew it not once but twice. We tried. Next! Molly Maids.

6. It’s still Pesach come Monday night. Advantage: new kitchen is tiny and unsettled, so we don’t have that much hametz to get rid of. And we’re paying someone else to clean the fridge at the old place.  (but I still did a preliminary scrub yesterday because it would be too cruel, and too expensive, for the maid service to have to face that fridge without help).

7. Freedom? No, it’s not just another word for nothing left to lose. It’s the taste of matzah and parsley and horseradish and haroset after I’m finally done with the antibiotics and can stand to eat anything more exciting than toast and eggs. Even though that’s mostly what matzah balls are made of, I’m really, really looking forward to it.

Up next, as soon as I can actually read my way through it, Joan Nathan’s newest book, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous” about looking for the Jewish foodways of France and the Jewish roots still discernible in French food today. I’m kind of excited about it because Nathan is a friendly as well as intrepid explorer in the world of food and culture, and she finds ways to visit people in their homes and see what they really cook and eat. So the food may not be highbrow but the stories are looking good so far.

Have a great weekend if I don’t post before then and Chag Pesach Sameach!

Mastering Mandelhorns

Almond horns and macaroons

Jewish and Greek bakeries often have big, chewy almond horns somewhere in the pastry case, sometimes with the ends dipped in dark chocolate, and whenever I can find them they’re what I home in on. Babka isn’t bad, nor is baklava, don’t get me wrong. I love them both. But neither of them comes anywhere close to mandelhorns in my world. And don’t get me started on mandelbrot–not the same thing at all. AT ALL. Even my great-aunt Tessie’s, which as I understood from my dad were the pinnacle of the form.

Almond macaroons and marzipan confections in general all have three main ingredients–almonds, sugar, and eggs–plus or minus almond extract, rosewater, orange blossom water, or lemon peel, depending on your era and country of origin. They’re very basic sweets that go back at least to medieval times and were made everywhere from the eastern edges of Persia (maybe in China too) to the western edges of Spain and Morocco. You can find recipes for them in The Form of Cury, Richard II’s chef’s cookbook from the late 1300s, and they’re mentioned in early Spanish literature as “Jewish pastries” dating from before the Inquisition.

For years I’ve tried with limited success to make almond macaroons. They always come out flat or hard with shiny bottoms (not that we didn’t eat them all anyway, but really). Over the years I must have collected more than a dozen variations–they’re always listed in the newspapers for Passover, since we traditionally ban baked goods made with flour and other grains during that holiday. Which is coming up.

Right before winter break, I wanted to try and make mandelhorns right for a change, so I could bring some up to my husband’s family. I went back to my cooking file with all the variations and actually looked at them carefully.

There are a couple of ways to make almond macaroons and almond horns right, and I’d been doing none of them. The first is to make an “Italian” or “Swiss” meringue Continue reading

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