Archive for October, 2011

The mouthwatering “Art of the Menu”


Sometimes I’m just looking for inspiration on a Thursday afternoon.  Today I found it by perusing The Art of the Menu, the newest member of the groovy design blog enterprise, Under Consideration.  Devoted to “the underrated creativity of menus from around the world”, this site catalogs menu images and is a delight to behold.  One of my favorites, Eleven Madison Park, is included as well as the beautiful menus produced by the Brooklyn Edible Social Club, where I had the good fortune to find myself dining in August.

The beauty of this site isn’t just in the menus themselves, but in the way they are cataloging them into a searchable database (yes, I am a librarian).   So if you like to geek out on typography and food, and love certain restaurants for their attention to this detail, you must pay them a visit.  Even cooler is the fact that they welcome submissions, so if you have a restaurant you love for their menu (as well as their food), submit it to the site and participate in building one of the most delicious databases out there.

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Kitchen Cosmetics: Honey Lemon Body Butter


It all started innocently enough… with an article about the Environmental Working Group’s study on kids and sunscreen.  As I possess both of those things, I was curious.  One thing led to another and soon I was looking up ALL our products in their extensive database, Skin Deep.  I am a big fan of the EWG and their efforts to demystify information about toxins in our environment. I’m also a big fan of databases, so Skin Deep was perfect for me.  Maybe too perfect.  Down the rabbit hole I went, tossing out shampoos, lotions, and makeup along the way.  This is not to say I went “no poo” or started wearing patchouli, but over the past year I have radically changed what we apply to our skin and hair in this house.  Thanks in part to an excellent book, No More Dirty Looks,  that outlines the history of the cosmetics industry, the primary toxins in our products, and how to avoid them, I streamlined what I actually buy and started making some things myself.

There is a wealth of information and recipes on the web for DIY cosmetics, but let’s face it – many of them are either too complicated (calling for ingredients more suited to science experiments than organic beauty products) or result in the cosmetic version of clothes you sewed yourself when you’re just not that good at sewing.  They do the job, but are a little off. Or some just don’t do the job. Like DIY mascara.

But lotion is a different story.  I had a hard time finding something I liked that rated lower than a 3 (moderate hazard) and was game to try a recipe. For awhile, I was just using coconut oil –  which I loved –  but left me feeling like a macaroon. Lotion is something you use almost every day and your skin is your biggest organ, so it seems logical to try not to slather chemicals all over it on a near constant basis. Just sayin’.  Plus, my youngest daughter has sensitive skin and I wanted to try making something she could use, too.  The answer came from Pure Natural Diva, a website devoted to non-toxic living.  This recipe uses only 5 basic ingredients and can be made in 20 minutes.  Here’s how:

HONEY CITRUS BODY BUTTER

STEP 1:Gather your ingredients.  You will need:

2 Tablespoons of Beeswax (You can buy cosmetic grade beeswax from Amazon – the pellets are easier to work with than the blocks).
1/2 Cup of Grapeseed Oil
1 Capsule of Vitamin E Oil
2-3 Tablespoons of Distilled Water
10 Drops of Citrus Essential Oil – or to preference

STEP 2: Combine the grapeseed oil, beeswax and vitamin E oil and heat until the beeswax has just melted.  You can either do this in a double-boiler on the stove, or in a pyrex bowl in the microwave (2 minutes).

STEP 3: Aerate!  Using a hand mixer, beat the oils on high while adding the distilled water a little bit at a time.  After a few minutes, a curious transformation will take place:

The mixture will turn from oily to milky!  You can control the thickness of your lotion by how much water you add, but the recommended amount is 2-3 Tablespoons.  Once you have achieved your desired consistency (after about 5 minutes of beating) add 10 drops of whatever essential oil you choose (I tend toward lemon).  Turn off the mixer and let the lotion sit for 15-20 minutes before putting it into the container of your choice.

It’s that easy and makes roughly 1 cup of lotion.  Although it is recommended to store the lotion in the refrigerator (which is nice in the summer), I have kept it in my bathroom for up to 2 months without it spoiling. This winter, when it is really dry, I suspect we will use up each batch in well under a month. It’s cheaper than any lotion I like and I know exactly what’s in it.

I must add that the success of this endeavor has been somewhat of a gateway drug for me.  Just last week I was boiling up flax seeds to squeeze through knee-high panty hose on my way to making a hair product that didn’t turn out so well on the first try – more on that later.  And my friend, Alexa Wilding, who has her own alchemical kitchen of potions loaned me her copy of Pratima Raichur’s book, Absolute Beauty, which is chock full of recipes made from ingredients you should have in your kitchen (if you don’t already). “Hurricane weekend” was spent mixing up powders and oils – the perfect thing to do in your kitchen when you don’t actually feel like cooking.

Lotion is easy.  Believe me, it’s the hair products that are a challenge!  Any advice?

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What’s better than a freshly baked loaf of Challah?


The answer is: nothing.  Nothing. is. better.  Perhaps I am overstating, but as general rule, you can’t go wrong if you show up on someone’s doorstep with a freshly baked challah in hand.  Challah, the ritual egg bread that is the cornerstone of every Shabbat meal, is also a delicious and impressive bread to make any day of the week.  When I started baking bread way back when, I quickly added challah to my repertoire and I find few things are as satisfying to make and eat.  There are about a million variants on the recipe, but all call for flour, water, yeast, eggs and some kind of sugar.  I have always used the same recipe, published by the inimitable Mollie Katzen, in her book, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  Recently, a friend expressed frustration at the results of her challah-making attempts, so we decided a tutorial was in order.  When I arrived at her house, she pulled out her copy of the Enchanted Broccoli Forest and – lo and behold – the recipe was completely different from the one I had been using!  Apparently, somewhere between the 1982 edition and the 1995 edition, the recipe was radically updated.  The earlier version called for less water, more yeast and lots of kneading – no wonder she was frustrated!  The newer version is almost the opposite,  double the water, half the yeast and less kneading.  Go figure.  In any case, of the many challah recipes in the world, I am still loyal to this one (available on Mollie Katzen’s website) and it is virtually no-fail if you make it like this:

STEP 1:  The recipe says to dissolve one package of yeast (about one scant tablespoon) into 2 1/2 cups of “wrist temperature water”.  If you are unclear as to the temperature of your wrist, you can use a thermometer.  For yeast to activate, the water should be between 105° and 115°, which is actually warmer than you might think.  Too hot, and the yeast will die, too cold and it will just sit there, infuriating you with its indifference.  Once the yeast is relaxing in its perfectly calibrated bath, it will want something to eat:



STEP 2: All yeast needs some kind of sugar to activate. Feed your yeast 1/2 cup of honey for this recipe.  Mix it in with a wire whisk and then add the rest of the liquid ingredients: 2 room-temperature eggs (I like to beat them a bit before adding them) and 4 T. melted butter or oil.  If you want a kosher challah, use oil, but I think the butter adds to the flavor.  Just make sure it isn’t too hot when you add it or it may harm the yeast. Last but not least, a tablespoon of salt to help it along.

STEP 3: With your liquid ingredients all mixed together, it is time to add the flour (8-9 cups total), one cup at a time.  Use a wooden spoon to stir (otherwise the dough will get caught in the whisk) and thoroughly mix in one cup before adding the next.  By about the 6th cup, the dough will start to look like the sticky bread dough it’s meant to be, and you can knead it in the bowl with your hands.  While it is still loose, you can pour it onto a floured surface for kneading:

STEP 4: Knead dough for about 5 minutes, adding the last cup or two of flour as you go.  Once your dough is firm and not sticky, it will be ready to rise.

STEP 5: After the dough has risen for 1 1/2 hours, it should have doubled in size.  To prepare it for braiding, you need to punch it down. This is fun and if you have any kids around, ask them to do it:

STEP 6:  Turn the deflated dough onto a floured surface (this is my unnecessary, yet arty photo):

STEP 7: Knead for a few minutes and then cut into two halves.  Knead each of those two halves for a few minutes, these will be your loaves. Take each half and divide it into three equal parts to make a basic braid.   Roll each piece into a long snake, letting it rest awhile.

STEP 8: Braiding.  For this challah, we are doing a simple 3 part braid, but there are a bunch of fancy ways to shape your bread. For better directions on braiding, check out “The Secret of Challah” website (there are also a myriad of YouTube videos on this topic).  But suffice it to say that if you know how to braid hair, challah is no different.  Normally, I just braid it into a simple loaf, but at Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – the custom is to shape your challah into a round loaf to symbolize the circle of life.

STEP 9: Second Rise and Egg Bath:  Once the loaves are braided, place them on a parchment covered baking sheet, cover with a towel and let them rise for another hour or so.  During this time, you can preheat your oven to 375°, spacing the two racks to accommodate rising loaves. (note: when I moved into a new apartment, I noticed that my challah seemed dry and a bit burned on the bottom, although I hadn’t altered the recipe.  When I finally bought an oven thermometer, I found that my oven is a full 50° hotter than the dial says – so I now set my oven for 325° and wish for a new oven). Once the dough has risen a second time, beat an egg and paint the bread:

STEP 9:  Bake!  Place your loaves in the oven.  Set the timer for 15 minutes.  At that point, take the half-baked loaves out and rotate them so the top is now on the bottom.  Set the timer for another 20 minutes.  The bread is ready when the crust is hard and makes a hollow sound when you tap on it.  Take it out of the oven and place it on a cooling rack for at least 30 agonizing minutes while you wait to slice it.

Voilà! Time for the payoff.  You have two loaves of warm bread – one to eat and one to give away.  Take a slice, dip it in some honey and take a bite.  At that moment, there really is nothing better than a freshly baked loaf of challah.

L’Shana Tovah!

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