My mom has this infamous story about peas from back in her single days.
A busy New York Times reporter, she didn't really learn to cook until she had kids and a husband to feed, so until then, cooking was just something you did for dinner parties to impress people. It was the 1980s and Martha Stewart had just released her game-changing book "Entertaining." My mom was enraptured by the lifestyle presented so intoxicatingly in those pages. She spotted a recipe for Boursin-stuffed snow peas and thought, "How cute!"
Friends, I want you to picture an inexperienced cook individually opening and filling peas — peas! — for a crowd. On a deadline. Standing in the kitchen for hours, she trimmed both ends of each pea and removed the tough string in the middle, split it open at the seams, piped in some goat cheese, sealed it up and repeated for a towering mound of peas that seemed never to diminish. Her guests arrived before she had even showered, let alone gotten dressed for dinner. And still she finished stuffing those peas. But telling that story makes her choke up a bit.
A few decades and many lessons learned later, my mom is an expert entertainer, and she's taught me the skills to be a confident cook, too. And still this is the kind of kitchen project I wouldn't normally undertake in a million years. These days, we want sheet-pan dinners, one-bowl brownies and one-pot stews. Fussy is out, comfort is in — and that includes the comfort of the cook. I'd plonk down a bowl of Boursin and tell my guests to have fun dipping in the peas themselves.
Until — until! Coronavirus came along and canceled all our plans and so much of what we do for fun. If you were lucky — and we were — this was the summer of nowhere to go, nothing to do. And suddenly I found myself entertaining the idea of cooking projects I would never normally have the time or inclination to take on. Homemade English muffins? Why not? Ice cream sandwiches with every element made from scratch? Sign me up! In part, I was looking for ways to fill my time on weekends and inject a little extra pleasure into daily life wherever I could. A breakfast that's just that much better can really give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning when you're stuck at home and mornings bleed into afternoons that bleed into evenings that bleed into weekends ... and you have to check your calendar to figure out what day it is ... once, even to confirm the month.
Anybody who's ever spent an afternoon forming pasta shapes — or at least watching Pasta Grannies on YouTube — knows how soothing and meditative that kind of busywork can be. Hands occupied, mind free to wander. Some music playing, maybe a partner or kid by your side, or some precious time alone with your thoughts. It's a beautiful thing — and that's before you get the reward of something really special to eat. During this strange period when I haven't been commuting an hour and a half to work every day, I've had more time to try out bucket-list projects. They have certainly all kept me busy, but results-wise, some have been far more successful than others. Let's start with the failures, shall we?
4. Homemade pasta
Making pasta from scratch seems so simple when you're not the one doing it; the well of eggs in the middle of the flour, the kneading, the repetitive movements of forming each shape. I had some chestnut flour left over from a baking project and thought chestnut pasta sounded like the kind of dish that could make me miss restaurants less.
Unfortunately, my dough didn't come together very well. I wanted to make capunti (the pea-pod shape called out to me), but after forming the tapered ends, I had a really hard time getting it to roll to create that folded middle. I figured maybe I could pass off the results as a sort of funny-looking gnocchi, but I had to handle the dough so much to get it to stick together that it ended up being almost inedibly tough. Knowing that this wasn't really working kind of ruined the fun of spending a day making these, and my suspicions were confirmed when I cooked them. I tossed a few my dog's way and it took her a minute to chew them, if that tells you anything about my texture issues.
My only consolation is that the stakes weren't very high. Plus, I kept telling myself, if making pasta is the kind of thing you need to practice before you get it right, well, I've got one disaster under my belt now.
Fun factor: 1/10
Distraction power: 10/10
Was it worth it? I honestly, don't know. I need to get my confidence back before I attempt this again.
3. Cookie Crisp from scratch
I made cereal for Valentine's Day this year (using frequent TODAY guest Molly Yeh's recipe) and swore I would never do it again. It was super delicious, but I think my soul left my body at some point while I was stamping out every tiny cookie heart. But that was pre-pandemic.
When my friend Samah Dada of Dadaeats food-blogging fame recently posted a recipe for homemade Cookie Crisp, I felt an immediate urge to give it another go. She's known for putting healthy spins on indulgent treats, and her version of the cereal is vegan and gluten- and refined sugar-free. Not normally qualities that would call out to me in a dessert recipe, but when you're rationalizing eating a bowl of cookies for breakfast, it's a different story.
There are few things cuter than teeny tiny cookies. I was in total zen mode while I made my first batch. The recipe said to bake them for 20 to 25 minutes, so I set a timer for 20 minutes and lost myself in preparing the next sheet of cookies. But when the alarm went off, this is what they looked like:
Reader, I screamed. You know what is the most devastating thing that can happen when you purposely take on a time-consuming recipe? Burning it beyond redemption. This is the downside of screwing up something that took a lot of effort: you are really, really upset when things go wrong. I watched the next batch like a hawk and took them out when I could tell they were done (less than 15 minutes, for the record). By that time it was evening but I didn't care: we had breakfast for dinner. So good.
Fun factor: 10/10
Distraction power: 10/10
Was it worth it? Yes
2. English muffins
Everyone and their mother experimented with sourdough this year. Unfortunately, I can't seem to keep a sourdough starter alive (just me?). But I have had success with this recipe for no-knead bread (I always recommend it because I think it's pretty un-mess-uppable). Homemade bread is the kind of ordinary luxury that's just a delight to have around. Plus, it's cheap, and the only thing you need to make it is time ... and we have lots of time right now (apologies to my friends who are parents). Then I saw this article on no-knead English muffins. It had never occurred to me to make English muffins but they seemed like the perfect next step in my carb journey. It's a very hands-off, two-day project, and boy, are the results good. If you can stir ingredients together and know how to shape a hamburger patty, you can do this. Highly recommend.
Fun factor: 8/10
Distraction power: 2/10
Was it worth it? Yes
1. Ice cream sandwiches
Like the English muffins, ice cream sandwiches are something it never would've occurred to me to make before I began working from home. But when Half Baked Harvest blogger Tieghan Gerard posted these malted milk cookies 'n cream ice cream sandwiches, I was enchanted by the idea of making my own.
First of all, the flavor combination really spoke to me, and it's a definite upgrade from what you can buy at the store. Second of all, ice cream sandwiches are fun. They remind me of being a kid, when I didn't know what coronavirus or calories were. The ice cream in this recipe is kind of a cheat and relies on whipped cream and condensed milk to achieve a smooth texture without an ice cream maker, so it's doable even if you don't have one. The sandwich part is basically a thin brownie-cookie hybrid. It was fun rolling that out and using my measuring tape to cut out the pieces. Even so, I was a little sloppy in my measurements, so after they baked, I just matched up pairs that were most similar in size. Putting it all together with the ice cream is fun and messy, and this one got absolutely rave reviews from my family.
Fun factor: 10/10
Distraction power: 8/10
Was it worth it? Yes
As COVID-19 follows us into fall and the days get shorter and colder, the need for comfort and pleasure feels more pronounced than ever. Crowded indoor dinner parties may be out for now, but for me at least, pandemic projects continue to offer creative ways of relieving boredom and stress.
Someday, we'll all be able to gather again for cozy indoor evenings with our friends, but in the meantime, we can practice with hope for the future. I'll take on any cooking challenge while I have this luxury of time, even if the results are a mess and only my dog reaps the benefit. Fortunately for both of us, she's very discreet — and not the least bit fussy.