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Brauhaus Schmitz

Brauhaus Schmitz, 718 South St.

What better way to end an afternoon at Macy's, the Comcast Center and the Christmas Village than with Glühwein and Knödel at Philly's newest German restaurant? I've wanted to visit since I first learned of Brauhaus Schmitz this summer.

We arrived early, near to five, and were seated in a booth next to the bar. The dining area on the upper level wasn't yet open. The bar area had the feel of a Kneipe, and is fine, other than the horrible acoustics, which seemed to amplify every sound around us, causing nearby diners to shout to be heard over the horrible acoustics and other shouting diners. So now I know there's one woman in Philadelphia who's decided to show her devotion to the Lord by not drinking, smoking, or, er, doing other things, on Sundays. (If that's you, you might want to find a better class of friends; ones who won't shout about you in restaurants.)

The beer selection is excellent, with nary a Beck's in sight. Warsteiner and Franziskaner look to the be the beers always on tap (a dark and a light — but not lite — of each), with a rotating cast of casks. Jorj had a beer, Jake had an apple Schorle (apple juice with seltzer) and I went straight for the Glüwein. It was made with a Merlot and lots of cinnamon, and was not sweet. Different, but good.

The bread basket had slices of rye and crusty baguette, with a house-made herb butter with parsley and dill. It was delicious enough to skip the appetizers.

I had the venison special with bread dumplings and the vegetable of the day: crisp, tasty green beans. Jorj hat roast pork in beer sauce, with Spätzle and cucumber salad. Jake hat Kartoffelpuffer and apple sauce, because Hanukkah was over and I still hadn't made latkes. The standard side dishes are the stereotypes of German food: Spätzle, Knödel (bread or potato dumplings), sauerkraut, red cabbage, and potatoes three ways. But Brauhaus Schmitz reflects the newer style of German cooking: the cucumber salad is made fresh with a light vinaigrette; the green beans were that elusive "crisp-tender." The Knödel were fluffy, not heavy and doughy. The venison was cooked perfectly; the currant sauce naturally sweet.

For dessert, I had apple strudel with a Riesling, and Jake ate the ice cream that accompanied it.

Will I go back? Hope to make it there this week with a friend!

I hate to cook (updated)

(With apologies to Peg Bracken.)

I'll say it now, in public, I hate to cook.

Every night when I stare at that empty stove, despair settles in my growling stomach and I decide I'm not really hungry. What can I cook that we didn't already eat this week? Is anything identifiable in the freezer? Anything in the fridge that isn't fuzzy? The cabinet holds so many Asian sauces, pastes, and noodles that something should just spring forth nearly complete therefrom, and yet this miracle does not happen.

I'll read a recipe that sounds delicious, and will get all fired up to make it. I have cookbooks and magazines full of delicious recipes, so many it's easier to measure them in linear feet than count them. But when it comes time to cook, I'm tired, and facing an hour of cooking. The realization finally dawned that the recipes really make me want to eat the dish, but not cook it.

I would much rather be baking. Or eating take out.

I'm not picky. No really, I'm not picky about dinners. Cakes, cookies, breads, breakfast, brunch, dessert, kaffeklatsch — my standards are high. Lunch and dinner? I could (and do) eat the same $3 burrito two or three times a week for lunch (I'm also cheap). Other people may complain of eating Chinese food twice a week, but I figure if over a billion people can eat Chinese food all day every day, I can eat it for lunch and dinner. I'm not picky at all, especially if I'm cooking.

Part of the dread comes from our tight family schedule. As soon as I walk in the door, the clock starts counting down to "get the dinner on the table" time. With two kids asleep by 8:30 (one is four, the other is 16 and up at 4:30 for swim practice), deadline is 6:30, 7:00 if they snack on cashews.

When foodies (and foodiots, the new term for the must document everything in my mouth — ew!) sneer that anyone can whip up a nice vinaigrette, why would anyone buy dressing, it's so awful or that no-one who truly cares about food/their family would serve ... whatever, all I can think is, Get a grip. I am serving a salad, a vegetable, a major portion of which may be home grown or local or organic or at least not going to kill anyone. Some of us had to start by drowning our salads in bleu cheese dressing before we could face a bare lettuce leaf. And I will forgo the five minutes to whip up a nice vinaigrette so that I can spend the time with my kids, playing an extra hand of crazy eights, or reading one more book, or discussing Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.

One hard-learned wisdom is to cook the same ten things over and over for weeknights. (I might be up to 15 or 20 dishes now.) You'll memorize the recipes and hone the skills for that dish (like slicing or chopping); the preparation will go that much faster. You'll know what you need for those dishes, and won't forget to write one ingredient on the grocery list. Some of those ingredients might become staples, so that you can almost always make that dish. Of course, the recipes must be food you like, with luck something even the rest of the family will eat.

Most food magazines have section on quick and easy cooking. I especially like BBC Good Food, and Gourmet's section was attractive (although I never cooked from it). Good Food magazine's whole focus is quick every day cooking, and mostly delivers on this promise. The editors compiled their favorite recipes into Good Food Fast, which I turn to when I tire of those same ten or fifteen recipes. Shortcuts are taken and ethnic recipes are Americanized, but the food is tasty and the preparation times are accurate.

My own inclination is for single dishes that have both protein and vegetables (fajitas, pork with peppers, chili) and need only rice, or dishes that need only a salad (penne a la vodka, penne puttanesca, Spätzle with lentil soup).

Two of my favorite go-to recipes, both serving six people:

Penne Puttanesca

Everything but the garlic comes from the pantry in this recipe, and garlic lasts a long, long time. We make sure to have everything for penne puttanesca on hand, just in case. Everything is really "to taste," and this is my taste. You won't taste the anchovies, but they give the sauce some extra oomph. This freezes well, but be sure to label it, as it looks a lot like chili.

  • 1 lb. penne (or as much as you will eat that night)

  • 1 can crushed or chopped tomatoes

  • 7 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed or chopped, divided

  • 1 Tbs dried basil

  • 7 anchovy filets or 1 Tbs. anchovy paste

  • 1/2 Tbs hot pepper flakes

  • 24 Kalamata or other brined olives, pitted if desired

  • 1/4 c. capers (the small ones)

Remember to start boiling salted water for the penne.

Open the can of tomatoes and stir in 3 crushed cloves of garlic and the basil.

In a 10-inch frying pan (non-reactive, not cast iron), heat 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil over medium high heat. Add the anchovies; if whole break up with the back of a spoon or spatula. When the anchovies are heated, add the hot pepper flakes and garlic; cook until fragrant and golden. Add the olives and capers; cook until heated through. Reduce heat and carefully add tomatoes to avoid splattering. Simmer until the penne is done, at least five minutes.

Penne a la Vodka

Again, we usually have most items on hand, even the cream, which makes pretty swirls when stirred into the tomatoes. Also freezes well.

  • 1 lb. penne

  • 3 cloves garlic

  • 1 can crushed tomatoes (not chopped)

  • 1 tsp dried basil

  • 1 cup heavy cream (or light if you prefer)

  • 1/3 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes.

  • 2 Tbs vodka

Remember to start boiling salted water for the penne.

In a 10-inch frying pan (non-reactive, no cast iron), heat 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil and the garlic over medium high heat until the garlic is golden. Carefully add the crushed tomatoes and basil; stir and reduce slightly. If the tomatoes are spattering, reduce the heat. Add the cream and sun-dried tomatoes; stir and reduce slightly. The sauce should be a bit thick. Stir in vodka. Serve.

What I really think is unprintable here because my mother and I maintain a fiction that I don't curse.

Team Jacob, because he encouraged her to go to college.

November publications

From one viewpoint, the November issue is the easiest issue of the year for a food magazine's editor to publish. Unlike, say, April or August, the focus will be on Thanksgiving, the turkey, the side-dishes, desserts and appetizers. There will be a nod to the vegetarians. Of course, finding something new to do with turkey and mashed potatoes must be rather nerve-wracking.

Bon Appetit

I have perused BA's Thanksgiving issue every year since 1993 (except one year that I didn't think to look for it until — gasp — November, and it had been pulled from shelves by then). It's the most popular cooking magazine in the country, and its current focus is "68 recipes to mix and match: turkeys stuffings potatoes sides breads" (or: meat, starch, starch, token vegetable, starch). The focus is on finding recipes for this year.

Cover: Turkey. And a "new" style for the magazine title I still haven't accustomed myself to.

Pro: Regular columnists Dorie Greenspan and Molly "Orangette" Wizenberg. Both write one recipe and about a page of supporting copy for each issue. Greenspan wrote about Fougasse, and Wizenberg about butternut squash and cheddar bread pudding. Both look yummy.

Con: No other focus on the culture around food. They've had a "learning" feature (now called Prep School) throughout the years that has shifted in status and position within the magazine. Right now it's on page 148, after the main copy (can you say, afterthought?). The travel feature was for downtown LA — I guess the travel budget has been slashed to nothing. The shopping feature now looks like every e-commerce site; at least on the web you can see a larger version of the miniscule photos. Photography on the feature articles is terrible: blown out with sharp, near-black shadows. Typography is ugly — very 70s. Are they trying to be hipster?


How could I pass up the final issue?

Cover: Turkey. Over the life of the magazine, the logo changed only in size and color. Final editor Ruth Reichl enlarged it, and for this issue made it an unattractive safety orange. Teaser headlines worthy of Woman's Day.

Pro: Thanksgiving in rural Pennsylvania, with lots of Germanic-descended dishes. The regular feature Gourmet Everyday Quick Kitchen is the best designed and very attractive, and doesn't look like an afterthought or filler. I'll make either the fig crostata or cranberry-apple crumble from the God Living section to go with the pumpkin pie. The blurb about tablespoons measuring different amounts has inspired me to calibrate all my own measuring spoons. The back page featured dips, one of which may grace the Thanksgiving hors d'œuvres.

Con: "Rural Pennsylvania" really meant "Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonite"; most of rural Pennsylvania isn't Amish. The two recipe-focused features had no background or history of the cuisine. Unreadable, two-column layouts. Pushing all the photos to the front of the article, disconnecting them from the text. Photos are dark. (Is it that hipster look again?) In the photos for Southern Thanksgiving feature, the turkey seems to move from room to inappropriate room, for example, it sits on the coffee table in front of a sofa. Really. The desserts article seems misplaced in the Good Living section; I'd expect it to be a feature article.


Cover: Turkey. I didn't buy it.

Cook's Illustrated

In some ways, Cook's has it easier than the other magazines. First, Cook's is one man's focus on developing the best recipes, buying the best ingredients, and using the best equipment. Essays on food are limited to "how I developed this recipe" and Chris Kimball's own folksy reminiscing on New England life. Secondly, this is a Thanksgiving and Christmas issue, thus a somewhat broader scope. Not every November/December issue has a turkey recipe; some years it's ham, or a beef roast. The overall number of recipes is much smaller. Articles often focus on a single dish (green beans, cranberry sauce, winter salads, spiced nuts) with a master recipe and variations, and run only a page or two.

Cover: Pomegranates! Back cover is always a "poster" of related foods or dishes; this year it was holiday breads, holidays ranging from Rosh Hoshana through Mardi Gras. Bread was stretched to include plum pudding, mooncakes and buche de noël.

Pro: One of the baby peas recipes will find its way into this year's dinner, and many weeknight dinners too. Should I become fearless enough to cook scallops myself, I'll turn to this issue. Cook's product reviews are one of the best features of the magazine, and they compare cinnamons, and had the good sense to award Penzey's top honors.

Con: A turkey recipe, beef tenderloin, (chicken) bouillabaisse, scallops and cassoulet: two holiday centerpiece recipes with three more main dish recipes? The cinnamon review compared only one of the four cinnamons that Penzey's offers, and my least favorite at that. This issue, Cook's recycled past product reviews into "The Best Small Appliances." All of which I think you could skip, unless you bake, and then you should have either the stand or handheld mixer (but not both). If you bake with ground nuts, yes, the food processor is damn useful. I do love my blender, but not necessary. Waffle maker? Rice cooker? Crock pot (sorry, slow cooker)?

A freebie

What most readers seem to want (or what most editors think readers want) is recipes, recipes, recipes. But, if anyone cares what I want to read, here are some free story ideas for any food editors reading this:

  • Pick any region of America and any time period, and describe Thanksgiving or the typical family gathering/celebration then: New Orleans, Seattle, Texas; during WW II, the settlement of the west, the Great Depression. Bon Appetit did entire Thanksgiving and Christmas issues structured around a theme in the 90s: Thanksgiving in the colonies and Christmas around the world. New England would have to be represented, but any time other than that first Thanksgiving. But what about pre-Columbian native American harvest feasts?
  • Immigrants in America. My own off-the-boat grandparents had a very American Thanksgiving; now my cousins' children demand Spätzle from my aunt because that's special, only-at-grandma's food. Is the meal completely American, or are some foods from their home countries served too?
  • Celebrate Thanksgiving abroad, like embassy staff. How easy is it to make the traditional dishes? Can you even find a turkey?

Fall into Baking

[Blue bowl with deep brown horse chestnuts, copyright Susan J. Talbutt.]When the leaves turn and the temperature drops, my baking passion returns from its August exile. By summer's end, the lure of sunshine keeps me out of the kitchen and in the garden: mowing, planting, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The heat thrown off by the oven in a kitchen with a substandard connection to the house heat and a/c also squelches any enthusiasm for fruit pies. I'd rather sweat in the sunshine with a breeze and my flowers than over the stove while baking with flour.

But now, aside from bizarre weather patterns giving us 70-degree days, the kitchen is so cool I wrack my brain for something to bake to make use of that radiated heat.

Philadelphia's many farmers' markets provide, if not a glut, then a bountiful supply of crisp apples of many varieties. Jewish apple cake has been my favorite cake since my childhood. It's an easy cake to make, and only gets tricky when layering the apple slices and batter in the pan, and it's none the worse for simply mixing the apples into the batter before pouring into the pan. There's traditional, two-crust apple pie; for a change, there's this single-crust Apfelkuchen with almond glaze or a caramel-apple phyllo tart. When there are simply too many apples, Anne Mendelson has the perfect recipe for applesauce (which freezes well).

[Molassess spice spritz cookies, copyright Susan J. Talbutt.]Pumpkin is always appropriate to the season, especially this super-moist, nearly creamy pumpkin bread; I like to substitute some brown sugar for the white and add a bit of allspice. If Fall means gingersnaps to you, try some molasses spice spritz or gingerbread.

Sometimes what makes a Fall cookie is more the shape: a good cut-out cookie like Ausstecherle (sour-cream cut-outs) or Mürbteigplätzen (rich sugar cookies) or even shortbread. Most cookie-cutter sets will have something for Fall. The really old sets had a turkey, which was easily mistaken for a Christmas rooster. When your grandmother uses every cookie cutter in the set, you don't question a rooster in the Christmas cookie tin any more than you question the Presidents' Day axe or the Pentecost fish. My inherited cookie press was limited to mostly Christmas motifs and the card suits — they must have played a lot of cards in the 50s — but the newer models from Wilton have patterns for most major holidays, including a cute pumpkin.

Waller Divide Road, central Pennsylvania, in Fall colors, copyright Susan J. Talbutt.]Anything brown can be decorated with red, orange or yellow jimmies or colored sugar and proudly declared to be a Fall cookie. New-this-year chocolate-orange lebkuchen, chocolate-oatmeal truffles, and my favorite cake, chocolate roll, all fit this bill. The lebkuchen are an my personal version of a century-old German tradition. The chocolate-oatmeal truffles are quick and easy, and don't even require an oven.

When an oven full of cookies just isn't enough to warm you up quickly, a hot drink is called for. Sure, there's always hot cocoa, which, when homemade, has the benefit of you controlling how much sugar and cocoa you put in, and whether you want a splash of cream or opt for skim milk. You can even make a vegan version using soy or rice milk, but be sure to heat it only to steaming.

Minty white hot chocolate was all the rage in the chain coffeeshops and cafes a few years ago. It's easy enough to make at home, and you can use the $4 you would have spent on a good bar of chocolate, and miss all those chemical tastes. (I know some people do like artificial flavors. More power to them.)

[Toddler in yellow slicker peering in barn for kittens, copyright Susan J. Talbutt.]To really get into the mood for the season, choose hot apple cider or Glüwein, a German spiced wine. I serve hot apple cider as a "special something" at Thanksgiving when everyone is arriving, or even just for my son and myself when we get a break from a too-busy week. Germans serve Glüwein at outdoor fall and winter festivals. There are many, many outdoor festivals, from the Fall flea market to the Christkindlmarkt to New Year's Eve. All are that much more gemütlich with a warming glass of hot, spiced wine.

Of course, there are some people who think that Fall is the time to start readying for Christmas. These are not necessarily the people who put up their lights the day after Halloween, or set up the tree (complete with presents) Black Friday. They are planning what to bake, and what ingredients they'll need. They quietly candy peel to be ready to bake fruitcake the next weekend, or mix and freeze Pfefferkuchen dough.

But I wouldn't know anyone like that.

Seven tools to avoid at all costs


Most magazines and blogs will, with zombie-like regularity, publish a list of the "Ten Must-Have Kitchen Gadgets!" or "Eight Small Appliances We Can't Live Without!" or "What Every Baker Wants This Arbor Day!" or "Brains! Brains! Brains!" This is all so much horse pucky.

Tools are good only if they serve a purpose — your purpose. For example, I own a Spätzle press. For me, it's very useful. That's my favorite food, and I make them at least every other week from Fall through Spring. This same press gathered dust in my mother's kitchen. Useless in her kitchen, invaluable in mine.

There are tools that no-one uses or will ever use, like a chestnut knife (because we don't have chestnuts in America since the blight wiped them all out) or my Granma's nut grinder, which do serve a purpose; it's just that the purpose is just long gone, due to improved technology or arboreal plagues.

There are, however, tools that no-one will ever, ever use, because they just don't work. Some of these tools are in my kitchen.

Im-meausrably bad

Worst measuring cups.jpg

Not only do I have one, I have two of the worst measuring cups. It is impossible to measure accurately with either. The older of the two, on the left, belonged to my Granma and is solid aluminum. To measure, you must look down into it. You can't sweep off excess. I keep it in memory of her and because it looks good.

The second is a gift and is incredibly inaccurate. It has a flipper that slides up and down "with the touch of a button!" The button has markings to indicate cups. The sides have ticks for ounces on one side, tablespoons on the other.When I took the photo, I'd set it to 1/3 cup by the top indicator, which showed 2 fluid ounces on one size (that's 1/4 cup), and 3 1/2 tablespoons (less than 1/4 cup) on the other. The flipper has a rubber or silicon edge, and would be great for measuring honey or molasses, if only it were accurate.

Scraping the bottom

Worst spatula.jpg

I bought this spatula hoping to replace my old Viennese spatula, which are great for folding, spreading, lifting and scraping. It's the same shape, but with a silicone rubber over a metal body, and that hole. Now, I have other German spatulas that have a hole in the head, and I think it's there for beating stiffer batters (like Spätzle), but this one doesn't seem to beat well. When scraping, the batter falls through the hole and back into the bowl. When spreading, the icing or batter pushes out of the hole. It's heavy. It's awkward. It's sitting in my drawer. It was expensive.

Card-carryingly useless

Worst recipe storage.jpg

Yeah, recipe cards. Unusable, and not because I keep all my recipes on the computer. I don't. Most are in books by my stairs or in magazines under my window seat. My own recipes are in a notebook on my counter. But when I want to share a recipe with someone, then I put it on the web and e-mail the URL. If I have to write out a recipe (and I love writing longhand), it's written onto a full piece of paper. The ingredients alone take up most of the first side of the recipe card, and then you're flipping back and forth between the ingredients and the directions.

Pick your poison

Worst chopsticks.jpg

I have to admit, that one can use the chopsticks. But. No one ever does. People who don't use chopsticks want a fork, or will try with real chopsticks, before switching to a fork. No one uses the giant plastic tweezers. They are billed as "learning" chopsticks, but using real chopsticks is nothing like wielding giant tweezers.

The bowl is actually great; it's a rice bowl from a Japanese restaurant near an old job. I love it. I'd keep using it, but it freaks my pre-schooler out. He tries to set it straight.

Get a grip

Worst potholder.jpg

Silicone may not melt at high temperatures, but that doesn't mean it doesn't transfer heat. When I use my cast iron and anondized aluminum frying pans, I like to keep a handle pot holder on the handle so that I can work without hunting for a potholder. It needs to sit on the handle for up to half an hour, without catching on fire (I set something on fire about once a year), and without absorbing so much heat I burn my hand.

Well, it doesn't catch on fire.

It's also too big for the handles, and prone to slipping off all but my largest pan. But it's a lovely blue and I like to hang it from the stove hood.

Crushingly ill-designed

Worst blender.jpg

This is the world's worst blender, mostly due to the square jar. Whatever is being blended can't get going before running into a glass wall and losing all its momentum. The end result is that without a lot of liquid, most of the top ingredients stop moving, and an air bubble forms at the bottom. There's lots of banging to push everything down into the blades, lots of stopping and starting, lots of noise from the blender and me.

The worst part is that it's not really broken. The design is broken, but the engine works fine, and, after an insane amount of time and banging and scraping and restarting, the soup or the chutney is blended. I keep it because I can't bear to throw out things that work.

Thankfully, friends gave me their fabulous Kitchen Aid blender they'd gotten as part of having their kitchen remodeled for a TV show (no, really), and I can crush ice, puree soup and make milkshakes in under 20 minutes. But I still have this thing, because I also can't give it away without pointing out that it is, in fact, the worst designed blender, ever. Without the caveat, I feel I'm cheating the potential recipient.

I gotta list it on Craigs List.

Gourmet, going, gone

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Considering that they had the consultants in there, Conde Nast's closure of Gourmet (and Cookie, Elegent Bride and Modern Bride) shouldn't be too surprising. There is, too, a bit of elitism, especially when it's noted that sister publication Bon Appetit was spared the axe1. For now.

It was the early 90s when I first got interested in cooking and baking, and could afford to buy magazines. At least where I was living, the choices were Gourmet and BA. BA seemed friendlier. Normal people cooked from BA. As far as Gourmet was concerned in those years, good food was to be found in California and New York City. (I think this shows Gourmet's NYC bias; NYC was so much the food capital of the country that it could only be rivaled by an entire state.) As a native Philadelphian, this irked me. Fifth largest city in the country, top-20 largest metro areas in the world, birthplace of the country, first capital, home of Ben Franklin and you know what we're known for? Cream cheese that's actually named for Philadelphia, New York (state)2.

At 22, I don't know that I could even have read M.F.K. Fisher with any appreciation. I certainly didn't appreciate her heirs. It was detached from my grandparents' immigrant background, my own relative poverty, my non-New York-ness. Although BA was even then very recipe-centric, it had more writing about food and food culture.

Under Reichl, it was supposed to have changed for the better, focussing more on regional American cooking. (Not everyone agrees.) That almost makes me wish I'd picked up an issue, but the covers were still un-enticing: the close-up of some dish of food; the "best of ..." and "top ..." teasers. I'm not young but even I thought Gourmet was old.

(What I really want is Saveur, which was full of food essays, oddball photography, American regional cooking, unknown-in-America international cooking. The founder proudly stated that they'd never featured a turkey on the cover for the November issue. The first November after he sold the magazine, the new owners proudly featured a turkey. It was appropriate. The zing was gone.)

I often judge a magazine by the last page; I read most magazines back to front. Editors usually reserve the last page for a one-page feature. Saveur's was an archival photograph of people enjoying/experiencing food; BA's is a brief interview with a celebrity about food; Cook's Illustrated puts its index and equipment source information there; Good Food runs the Cookie of the Month (or is that Martha Stewart Living? MS Living might have done that while MS was in jail.) I have no clue what Gourmet does, and I do have a few issues. It was just not memorable, and yet I have issues, articles and recipes from other magazines burned into my brain.

So I pulled out all five of my back issues of Gourmet — June '09, December '05, December '99 (all under Ruth Reichl), December '94 and November '93. The covers are immediately different, with more teasers . Unfortunately, the teasers read like Women's Day, even this summer's issue: "Special All-Grill Issue" "20 Burgers You Must Eat Right Now".

I briefly wondered why I'd bought it, then remembered that Maricel Presilla had written an article for the issue. It is thin. The content is good; the layout is modern; the photographs super-saturated with a shallow depth of field. Modern, attractive but those teasers! Couldn't they get whoever designed Saveur's covers? And the neon colors; were they sharing a graphic designer with Wired? The cover doesn't do any justice to the content within.

Some have argued it's impossible to sell Gourmet's quality when everyone can get schleck for free. Food bloggers, they're looking at you3.

To answer Tyler Florence's question: I don't think they were out of touch, but damn, those covers didn't show it. But I don't think the competition is much better; or rather, if Conde Nast had owned any other of BA's competitors, that they wouldn't have shut them too. Saveur was and Cook's Illustrated is excellent, but both are works of passion by very talented but modestly insane owner/editors who are content not to dominate the market. Good Food is (or was) geared to people with jobs who want a tasty, home-cooked meal that isn't the same ten things, but lets them eat before the kids fall asleep at the table. It too, has a passionate and modestly insane founder. BA is what it is, but even it has added more essays (Orangette) and a regional focus; the October issue was, in fact, all regional American cooking, which might reflect the budget more than a commitment to American cooking.

But once the consultants came in? Little to no chance without a strong profit margin.

1According to the LA Times, BA had more subscribers and was cheaper to produce.

2On vacations out of the country, I spend a lot of time saying "like the cheese" to strangers.

3This is not a blog. Call it what you want. I call it a collection of essays.

My kitchen is about to be famous

Well, famous at least to Ursinus alumni. The alumni magazine is profiling author Anne Mendelson for the success of her book, Milk, and will photograph her in my kitchen.

How did I get so lucky? Anne is my husband's aunt, and our house is much closer than New York to Ursinus.

Thus, today I have been frantically cleaning my kitchen with a thoroughness usually reserved for Thanksgiving preparation. Clearly, the daily/weekly cleaning wouldn't be enough, not even the monthly, it's-a-rainy-weekend-might-as-well-clean cleaning. The walls and baseboards are scrubbed; the windows windexed; the stone counters oiled. I've evicted two spiders. A bottle of Pedros Oranj Peelz bike degreaser awaits the stove hood.

(No, really, it's much better than 409 or any "kitchen" product. Strips all the moisture out of your hands, of course, but wipe it on, let it sit a moment, scrub it off with a sponge, toothbrush or scrub brush and rinse. It uses orange peel oil, so the whole kitchen smells like a citrus grove when you're done. Or a bike shop.)

Soon, the kitchen should be ready for its close up.

When Anne was discussing the photographs for the article, the reporter from the alumni magazine suggested posing with a "colorful" pot. Which has become a problem in and of itself.

Color isn't really a problem. When we bought our house, I painted all the rooms in the house a nice, neutral white. Then we lived with rooms like white boxes for six years, and I went a little crazy from all that white. As I've repainted, our rooms are combinations of burgundy, sage, moonlight, sterling, cobalt and wheat. The kitchen was renovated into "baby turtle" with lots of wood, stone and stainless steel. Not colorless, but not colorful either.

So I have pulled out every colorful kitchen item in the house. My pots are stainless steel (Farberware), the dishes are white (Corelle) or black, my tablecloths white. This leaves: one red cutting board, some silicone spatulas, a bowl that Anne gave us, some very 90s colored glass bottles, and three pitchers.

Clearly, I need to sell the car and run to Fantes and buy a small set of copper cookware or perhaps Le Creuset. I know, I know, I skipped the whole no-knead bread baked in the cheap Target Le Creuset. It's not that I don't follow the trend, it's that I'm mostly unaware until they've come around two or three times. Also: I'd rather spend the money on new bakeware.

Back to getting ready for the close-up.

Here's one of our shots:

[Anne 'prepping' some greens while Jake plays with horse chestnuts, Jorj stares at the gleaming counter, and I do something odd with my hand.]

Noble, an American Eatery, 2025 Sansom Street, Philadelphia

It was time for another dinner with Gabe, former co-worker and boon dining companion. Gabe suggested Noble because of his passion for cocktails; bartender Christian (he of the vests) is a friend. Going in, we knew we could get a good cocktail, even if everything else fell to pieces for us on their second day in business.

The three bartenders were not unduly busy while we were there. Both Christian and Melinda had time to chat with us. Gabe had a Manhattan and Last Word, and Christian came through for my "surprise me" request (I swear I don't do that to strangers) with a nice bourbon-based concoction. We had the cheese plate to keep me sober until dinner, and were rewarded with three luscious cheeses, a soft, semi-soft and hard. (And if I could read the photo I took on my iPhone, I'd tell you what they are, too.) Melinda warned us the hard cheese was "strong," and I would agree, but would not go so far as to say "stinky." This is not an Eppoises.

We could have eaten at the bar (the menu is distinct from the dining rooms), but decided to free up a couple stools and check out the dining room.

The dining room menu is divided into First, Second and Sweet. The bread was a rustic white or an olive loaf, served with house-made ricotta, better than any store-bought ricotta. Our waitress said Chef Steven Duane Cameron plans to serve a different spread each day.

I first picked the duck, but was so attracted by the sweetbreads, that I switched to the ladies' standard of two appetizers, adding in the Barnegat scallops. Gabe had the white asparagus with fried egg. The egg is really quickly boiled to set the outside two or three milimeters, peeled, breaded and deep fried. The center is warm, but certainly not set. It was delicious, and I hate eggs without cheese to mask the taste. The scallops were fresh and soft. The sweetbreads were the best (and only) I'd ever had; even on its second day, the kitchen was good enough for diners to try foods that are good only when cooked properly. Gabe had the perfectly-cooked chicken; I find chicken (and fish) impossible to cook — too often it goes from raw to rubbery in five seconds.

We split a bottle of Italian white, and had a blast choosing it with our waitress, who had an admirable grasp of pairing. The service overall was very friendly and attentive. On the one hand, the dining room was not busy at all; on the other it was only their second day of business, and the flow was very smooth.

Gabe finished with a cocktail and espresso (he was not impressed, but he roasts his own coffee beans). I had a glass of icewine and the bread pudding with gooseberries and white chocolate. I did not taste any white chocolate, but had drunk one very strong cocktail, half a bottle of wine, and was sipping a lovely glass of dessert wine.

Would I go back? Yes! I can't wait to see what the menu will be in the summer.

"Not Italian?!"

Once, my mother asked me, "what's your favorite cuisine?"

"German," I said, leaving "isn't it obvious" unsaid but understood.

"Not Italian?!" She was astounded.

"They don't have Spätzle," I said.

I was just as astounded that my mother, whose parents were off-the-boat (and a real boat at that) German, would like Italian as her favorite cuisine. Perhaps because she grew up eating German food every day, like I grew up eating American food, and well, no, because cheesesteaks are the reason I'm not a vegetarian. (I love cheesesteaks so much that I eat so fast as to give myself the hiccups.) (And yes, really, it was the thought of giving up cheesesteaks that turned me from vegetarianism.)

My mother's preference for Italian food is just inexplicable. Where are the fasnacht? The spätzle? The leberkäse? (Mom's reaction, "You like Leberkäse? Since when?")

[Produce market in Darmstadt]I'm reading Mark Vetri's cookbook, il viaggio di vetri. Having bought five vintage German cookbooks and cooking magazines today, it's impossible not to compare Vetri's operatic work with the workaday cookbooks. Food culture is not something once a month in a fancy restaurant; it's what people eat every day.

Surely it's an unfair comparison. Vetri is not only a restauranteur, he's one of the best in the country. His namesake restaurant, Vetri, is up for a Beard award this year, and Osteria was a semi-finalist. Restaurant cooking dösn't translate well to the home. Restaurant cookbooks give me the same feeling as high fashion — lovely, but it will never make it into my day-to-day.

On the other hand, three of my get-it-on-the-table dinners are classic Italian pasta dishes: penne a la vodka, penne puttanesca, and spaghetti carbonara. My German go-to dinners are Käsespätzle, lentil soup and Spätzle, sausages with good bread, cold cuts (this is the traditional German supper; Germans have a big meal at lunch), and pancake soup (less weird if you eat French toast for dinner too).

[My son has loved bread from an early age.]Perhaps it's the American interest in savories when considering cuisine versus my own interest in baked sweets, and Germans have a lot of interest in baking. The recent Culinaria Germany said it was the land of 300 breads; I simply say the Germans never forgot that a chewy, whole-grain bread is a damn sight tastier than something that can be compressed into a ball. Germans start and end the day with bread-based meals (although our current German exchange student eats cereal for breakfast here and at home). Often they throw in an extra meal to get a slice of cake; it happens at 3 p.m. and is called "coffee," but the cake is the star. Glorious cakes, with fruit or cheese or cream or chocolate or nuts and every combination thereof, with sides of freshly whipped cream, tortes and kuchen and biskuit and rolladen. Light, fruity cakes in summer, rich and heavy cakes when it's cold. Whatever fruit is in season makes an appearance at coffee.

Christmas is a baker's heaven. Not just the country, but each region has its own special cookies, which may be unknown elsewhere in Germany. Home bakers might specialize not only in Christmas cookies, but in a particular Christmas cookie, like women who make three or four kinds of delicious Lebkuchen. The baked specialties also include breads with nuts or dried fruit, like Stollen and Hutzelbrot.

As far as Italian cuisine in America is concerned, baking starts with cannoli, runs through biscotti and ends with tiramisu, with a quick detour into focaccia. This is as accurate a picture of Italy as Black Forest cherry cake is representative of Germany (never seen it there). One of Nick Malgieri's many fantastic books is Italian Desserts, with dozens of recipes. Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo, is up for a James Beard award for her book, Dolce Italiano. But. I've delighted in the nuances of German bakeries and Konditereis for 30 years; how could I not prefer that over a half-hearted tiramisu or gloppy cannoli found at "Italian" chain restaurants? (America needs a German chain restaurant: Schnitzel Schnak, anyone?)

Germany has the most misunderstood food culture (and I've always loved an underdog). German specialties will often be passed off as Alsation (a region that has been switched between German and French rule for centuries) or Swiss; Spätzle usually gets this treatment. As much as Americans love their starches and fatty meats, they seem put off by the stereotypical German wurst. In reality, German food is great bread and cakes, salads of seasonal vegetables (often home grown), flavorful cheese and butter, wild game, and fresh fruit or excellent preserves.

German food is at once familiar to me and exotic. It doesn't hurt that our German friends and family are excellent cooks, with their own gardens, living near excellent butchers and bakers. It is the comfort food from my childhood or a dish I've never seen before.

Misc thoughts

A good chevre (or maybe even a not-so-good chevre) will smooth out the harshness in Pinot Grigio. Must try the Pinot Grigio with some rosemary.

Another recipe from the site might find its way into a published foodie book. We'll see. The author has asked permission (of course I said yes -- I always say yes if asked), but it will be at least this November before publication, if not next November.

After I find a few good recipes in a cookbook, I keep returning to those recipes, no matter how intriguing the other hundreds of recipes are. I could probably stop buying cookbooks if I used all the books I have now.

Hot cocoa really is better with Valrhona. And cream. But everything is better with cream.

If you host a party at a restaurant, order (better: pre-order) a red and white to be served by the bottle during dinner. In the long run, it's cheaper. Also have an open bottle of bubbly and glasses to hand with the appetizers.

Wonder why you can never fit four chicken breasts in your 12-inch fry pan? That's because it's a 10-inch pan. That took 15 years to figure out. Loving my new Farberware pan.

Microwaving an underdone cake will not help. Better to cut the center out and make a ring cake.

If the recipe doesn't say what to do with that one-and-a-half cups of water, don't add the water until you're sure the recipe needs it. Otherwise, you will turn your dough into batter.

Wilton Cookie Press

Spritz are usually one of the first cookies I bake at Christmas, only because they were one of the cookies my grandmother always baked.

It certainly wasn't because they were easy to make. Although the batter is a straightforward butter, forming the cookies sometimes had me scraping up and flinging malformed cookies back into the bowl of dough. I used my grandmother's screw-top press. Legions of American bakers had made wonderful cookies for Christmas and bridge games (one set of discs is the card suits) with the identical press what was wrong with me?

Eventually, I thought I'd see if it were me, or the tools.

The Wilton press really does make it that much easier to form spritz cookies. I made a double batch of spice spritz for Valentines Day and let the kids (4 and 16) pick the shapes to make. The 16-year-old picked hearts; the 4-year-old picked Christmas trees, pumpkins, and circles. All three of us had no problem using the trigger-style press; the pre-schooler had to use both hands, but was able to press out cookies.

Each trigger delivered sufficient dough to stick to the (ungreased, unlined) pan and still separate from the press and form the shape without turning into a blob.

All the discs and most of the press are made of plastic. I'd prefer metal so that I won't have to buy a new one in 20 years. The new press adds some shapes the old press didn't have (pumpkins), keeps some (trees), but is missing some of my favorites (camel, dog, card suits). I'll probably keep my grandmother's to make those shapes.

And this is the low end model. Cook's Illustrated reviewed cookie presses, and recommended the Wilton ultra manual model, but unless the high-end model also does dishes, I wouldn't spring for it. [I was wrong about this, see below.]

Will I keep using it? Yes. It was fast, fun, and the kids had a blast.

Some recipes:

One year on, how is the press holding up?

Not well at all. The plastic body that had concerned me proved not to be up to the task of pressing cookie dough when the over-eager four-year-old packs the flour into the measuring cup. The dough was far, far too firm, almost a rolled cookie dough. The press could force the dough out, but I was over eager, and eventually the plastic holding the screws cracked. It made it through one more use (with very soft dough), but is now unusable. One more half-broken thing sitting around my house!

This means I did upgrade to the ultra model, which contained extra "mini" dies, but disappointingly enough, no extra larger designs. The tube is a more rigid plastic, hopefully better able to withstand my son's measuring technique (which I will be watching more closely).

Technically, it was my step-father's first wife's press with some of my grandmothers discs, but my grandmother had the identical press, which went to a cousin.

    You can follow me @ChristmasBaking on Twitter.

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