surprise!

I’m going to be frank, universe: the whole medical-crisis thing, with two separate ER admissions, two separate emergency surgeries (including one on my birthday), and five nights in hospital, each day ending with the empty promise that “we’ll release you tomorrow”? WORST SURPRISE PARTY EVER. Maybe next year, run your plans by me, huh?

single-handed in the kitchen

My injured finger is healing up just fine, but the odd position and length of the cut (and the swelling and pain from the tetanus shot) means my right (non-dominant) hand was useless for a full week, and not much better the second week.

This long stretch of one-handedness fell inconveniently during a busy celebrating season, with two birthdays and several other parties to cook for. To my delight, I discovered that a little ingenuity and planning makes it easy to entertain one-handed; a trip to Trader Joe’s makes it even easier.

These are recipes — heck, not even recipes, just templates and ideas and products — that I plan to use again and again when time is tight or inspiration is lacking. Here’s just a few of the festive dishes I whipped up with one hand tied behind my back.

for The Fella’s birthday party, a twelve-hour open house:
– goat cheese with store-bought tapenade, served with grape tomatoes, roasted red peppers from the grocery store’s olive bar, and crackers.
– store-bought hummus topped with Trader Joe’s eggplant & garlic dip, served with pita bread, cucumbers, and olives.
– brie topped with a palmful of brown sugar and a sliver of butter, then baked until bubbly and served with baguette, water crackers, and cold grapes. Also good with dried cranberries.
Trader Joe’s spanakopita triangles, spread out on a baking sheet, not crammed into their tiny tray, brushed with olive oil or melted butter, sprinkled with coarse salt, and baked much longer than instructed, until deep golden brown and crispy. They weren’t as delectable as homemade spanakopita, and no reasonable person would expect them to be — but they were pretty darned good.
pulled pork. The Fella diced up the fixings for a taco bar, and I contributed a big mess o’ pulled pork, which required me to open 1) a butcher’s packet; 2) a bottle of BBQ sauce; 3) a tetra pack of cheap red wine. It is fannnnnntastic.
– marble cupcakes. (Yeeeah, this one was tricky to do one-handed, but it’s not a birthday without cake. I didn’t make the cake from scratch, just bought one packet of chocolate cake mix and one packet of yellow cake mix, whipped them up with cooled melted butter in place of the oil, and spooned them into the cupcake tins, then swirled with a skewer for delicate marbling.)
– ganache for frosting: just heavy cream brought to a boil and poured over good chocolate, then stirred until smooth. My professional-baker fancy-pants sister even gave me instructions for whipping it (much better instructions than Cooks Illustrated cookbook, by the way), but in the end I realized that dipping cupcake tops into the warm ganache would be faster and easier than any other method.

For a birthday dinner:
– baked brie again, because WHY ON EARTH NOT?
– more store-bought hummus spiked with lemon, topped with eggplant spread, and then sprinkled with the last of the tomatoes from the taco bar, seared with olive oil and chili powder, served with pita.
– my simplest, best black bean soup. (Instead of mincing an onion, I whacked one up roughly and processed the entire pot of soup, then added some reserved beans at the end.)
– oven-baked frittata with frozen spinach and caramelized onions, using up the last of the onions from The Fella’s taco bar.
– a perfectly simple salad: greens topped with cranberries and toasted almonds and tossed with good balsamic vingar, superb olive oil, cracked pepper, and Polish finishing salt.
– a half-baked loaf of bread (from TJ’s again), finished in our oven.
– buttery cake (on The Fella’s birthday, I baked the excess yellow-cake batter in tiny loaf pans and froze it), stabbed with a fork and soaked with orange syrup (simple syrup spiked with OJ and triple sec, reduced until thick), then glazed with the last of the ganache. I served three tiny slices on each plate, fanned out and drizzled with another spoonful of orange syrup… and I am converted: syrup-soaked cakes from now on!
– a final dessert garnish: chocolate-covered orange jelly sticks.

for assorted other events:
– goat cheese with good balsamic vinegar —the thick, expensive syrupy kind — and toasted slivered almonds, served with crackers or baguette. I made this twice, and not the same evening as I served the goat cheese with tapenade.. and by “made it,” I mean “tore open a packet of goat cheese, poured balsamic over it, and toasted some nuts.” It’s crazy-easy and crazy-good — so crazy-good that I made it twice in the last two weeks to take to some pretty ritzy doings.
– various permutations of hummus-with something: hummus with lemon and roasted red peppers and olives, hummus with tapenade, hummus with eggplant spread and tapenade, and so on.

and a few ideas I brainstormed up but never did try out:
– mushroom caps rolled in olive oil, filled with spoonfuls of frozen spinach souffle and baked.
– Whole Foods dumplings or gyoza warmed in sesame oil and scattered with scallions.
– vegetarian meatballs heated with chili sauce, red currant jelly, and white wine. (I’ve made these retro darlings with frozen actual-meat meatballs and people go INSANE for them.)

These last few ideas sounded so good it’s a shame we didn’t get to try ‘em. Oh, well, maybe the next time I inflict a horrible injury upon myself, we’ll get around to these.

many happy returns

You know, I can turn down a piece of cake.*

(I mean, in theory I can; it seems well within the universe of possibilities. I don’t recall that I ever have turned down cake, but that’s a different question.)

But my neighborhood grocery/delicatessen has hit upon a remarkably effective marketing scheme that renders me powerless to resist their cake. In the bakery case next to the carrot cake, the chocolate cake, the cheesecakes and brownies and other moderately tempting slices, they display a few pieces of cake frosted as Birthday Cake.

Oh. The humanity.

It’s plain old dark chocolate cake with vanilla-esque frosting, a thick slick coat of frosting as white as snow, as white as virtue, as white as shortening and corn syrup and confectioner’s sugar can make it. This fatty white canvas is bedecked with swags of Windex-blue scalloped edges and punctuated with leaves and fat frosting roses, sometimes yellow, sometimes pink.

It is Birthday Cake. I cannot resist it. I keep buying it. When I examine this logically, I admit to myself that my sweet tooth would be better satisfied with a candy bar or an orange or a cookie or or or.

But this has nothing to do with logic. It’s Birthday Cake. I want Birthday Cake.
They are geniuses.