Carrot cake for someone special

Carrot cake is my mister’s favorite. I like carrot cake all right, it’s pretty good. But favorite cake? Really? Live and let live, I guess. But as a result, I’ve had the opportunity to try a few carrot cake recipes, not to mention a few fun offshoots like carrot cake whoopie pies. This cake recipe is definitely a keeper.

I first made this into cupcakes for my mister’s birthday in June this year and brought them to a park near our house for a laid back cookout. Luckily, I snapped a quick photo before a dog trotted by and snagged one, turning the birthday message into “Happy Birthday Ndrew.”

carrot cake for someone special

Then my mom asked for carrot cake in her birthday in July, so I got a chance to make it into a layer cake as well. Which I of course forgot to photograph. There are a few differences between making the cupcakes and the layer cake, which I’ve outlined below.

I use buttermilk powder in this recipe for one reason — it lasts a lot longer in the fridge. I can never get through a whole quart of buttermilk and it always ends up sitting in my fridge until it turns into a solid block of curd. The powdered stuff (I use Saco) lasts for years in the fridge. So if you have it on hand or it’s easier for you to get, you can certainly use regular buttermilk.

I’ve never made this cake vegan, but my suggestions are as follows: soymilk/apple cider vinegar for the buttermilk, flax “eggs”, a caramel sauce made with brown rice syrup (there’s a good recipe in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World), and Tofutti and Earth Balance for the frosting.

Carrot Cake for Someone Special
Adapted from Best Carrot Cake of All Time by kpurwin

Candied Carrot Garnish:
2-5 carrots, the biggest you can find
1/2-1 cup sugar
1/2-1 cup water
sugar, to coat

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons buttermilk powder (or 3/4 cup buttermilk)
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups grated carrot (4-5 medium carrots, or 2 monster mutant carrots)
1 8 ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
3 1/2 ounces grated coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts

Buttermilk Glaze:
1/2 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon buttermilk powder (or 1/4 cup buttermilk)
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream Cheese Frosting:
3/4 cups butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
11 ounces cream cheese (almost 1 1/2 packages), softened
3 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

So, first you’ve got to make the candied carrot garnish. This has to dry overnight, so plan ahead. I’ve made this cake for birthdays, so I use this letter fondant cutting set to cut out a happy birthday message. You can use any shaped cutters you want, but fondant cutters are recommended because they are smaller than cookie cutters.

Slice your carrots into 1/8″ to 3/16″ wide rounds. You’ll probably only use about half of each carrot, depending on how wide they are and how big your cutters are, so the rest can be saved for another purpose (like grating into your cake). Cut as many garnishes as you want out of the slices. If they get stuck, use the blunt end of a bamboo skewer to gently push them out. If you’re using letters or other fairly detailed cutters, I recommend making doubles of every shape you’re going to need. Some of them don’t turn out quite right, so this gives you the option to choose the best looking ones. Plus, the leftovers make a good snack. Ask my sugar-hyped two year old niece.

So you’ve got your shapes. If you’re into waste not, want not, you can save those scraps from the rounds and chop them up to make mirepoix.

Stir your sugar and water into a small or medium saucepan, depending on how many shapes you’ve got. This should also dictate how much sugar and water you use — just make sure they are equal amounts. Stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is lightly simmering, then toss in your carrots. Cook for 5-15 minutes, depending on the size of your letters. They should be slightly softened with a bit of give, but if you cook them for too long they will become shrunken and wrinkled.

Remove the carrots from the syrup and spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet. If you’re into weird cocktails, you could save this carrot simple syrup and experiment — carrot caketini? I don’t know. You can also mix it with powdered borax to use as roach bait! (What? I live in a city rowhome.)

Anyway. Let carrots cool slightly, then toss them in granulated sugar to coat. Spread back out on the baking sheet and keep an eye on them. If you don’t let them cool enough the first time, the sugar coating may melt a bit. It’s not a huge deal if this happens, just coat them again.

Let your beautiful candied carrot garnishes dry out on the baking sheet, uncovered, overnight.

Okay, onto the cake!

Preheat your oven to 350. Spray or butter two 8- or 9-inch pans, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper as well, then set the pans aside. For cupcakes, prepare two muffin pans with liners. You’ll probably have enough batter for 4-6 more besides those, so if you have another muffin pan you can have that at the ready, or you can wait for the first batch to be done and then bake the remainder. You can spray the liners if desired but it’s not really necessary.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, salt, buttermilk powder (if using) and chopped walnuts. Sift mixture into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve, reserving the flour and coated walnuts in separate bowls.

At this point it’s a good idea to grate your carrots, weigh your coconut, and start draining your pineapple. I peel my carrots, then grate them with the grating disc on my food processor so it takes about 30 seconds. You could use the pre-grated stuff in a bag I guess, but I find it to be really dry and not as sweet. For the coconut, I generally use the dehydrated super-finely grated stuff, because I have some friends that don’t like coconut. I figure it’s a texture thing and use this, which all but disappears in the cake, and I just don’t tell them it’s in there. If you use this, it will look like a lot of coconut! It’s fine. Then I dump the pineapple in a fine mesh sieve and let it sit for a little bit to get all the excess juice out.

Dump the eggs, sugar, oil, 3/4 cup water (if using buttermilk powder — otherwise add buttermilk), and vanilla into your mixer bowl. With the paddle attachment, slowly stir until it starts to incorporate, then gradually raise the speed to medium. Mix until smooth and fully blended.

Add the dry ingredients, then stir at low speed until blended, scraping down the sides as needed. Fold in grated carrot, crushed pineapple, coconut, and coated walnuts with a spatula until, once again, fully blended. Pour batter into prepared cake pans (split evenly) or muffin pans (2/3 full).

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes (cakes) or 20 to 25 minutes (cupcakes). It’s a good practice to swap your pan positions halfway through the cooking time, especially if they are on different racks. Give each pan a quick 180 degree spin, as well, just in case your oven is cooking unevenly. Test in the center of the cake with a toothpick — when it comes out clean, they’re done.

When you have about 10-15 minutes left on your timer for the cake, begin making the buttermilk glaze. For the full cake, the full recipe applies — for the cupcakes, you’ll only use about half of it. Feel free to eat the rest with a spoon, I won’t tell. (I’d be implicating myself, too.)

So, the glaze: In a large pot, mix sugar, baking soda, butter, corn syrup, buttermilk powder, and 1/4 cup water (if using buttermilk powder — otherwise add buttermilk). Stir to combine and bring to a boil over medium heat. It will bubble up a bit from the baking soda, so I really must stress that you should use a pan that is bigger than you think you might need. Boil, stirring often, for 4 minutes — it’ll get a bit of a caramel color to it. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Right about now, your cakes should be done. Remove them from the oven and set, in the pans, on a wire rack. Use a bamboo skewer to poke holes throughout the (cup)cakes. I usually just start from the tester hole I made in the middle, and work my way out in a spiral. For cupcakes, I’ll stab it around 5-8 times… for layer cakes, a lot of times. I didn’t count. Sorry.

Drizzle half of the glaze over each cake layer, or for cupcakes, drizzle a heaping spoonful over each one. Spread with an offset spatula to make sure it covers the cakes evenly, then let it soak in for 15 minutes.

Remove cakes from pans and allow to cool completely, right side up, on wire racks.

I usually make the cakes the day before I need them, and then frost them the next day. For layer cakes, put a piece of parchment paper on top of each layer. You should still have the parchment paper on the bottom from baking. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Use too many pieces because it keeps sticking to itself. Curse gently to yourself. Can be refrigerated overnight, and probably frozen but I haven’t tried it.

For cupcakes, I just slip them into ziplock bags — not willy nilly, but about nine cupcakes per bag, stored flat in layers in the fridge.

Onto the frosting: With the whisk attachment on your mixer, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed until fully combined. You’ll likely have to scrape the sides and the whisk a few times before this happens. Add 1/2 of the sifted powdered sugar, then turn the mixer to stir — too fast and you will end up covered with powdered sugar. Once it is combined, scrape down the sides and add the rest of the powdered sugar, repeating to get it integrated. Once it is fully combined, add the vanilla extract and turn the mixer up to medium. Let it whip until it becomes light and fluffy — a couple of minutes, at least.

Note: If you want to pipe the frosting onto cupcakes, especially if you are piping this onto cupcakes that you are ill-advisedly bringing to an outdoor birthday party in June, I’d recommend adding a bit more powdered sugar — maybe about 1/2 cup. This is a very creamy, dreamy frosting without a whole lot of structure.

Unwrap your cake layers (remember to remove the parchment paper from the bottoms). Put the first layer of your cake on a platter, tucking strips of parchment paper underneath the edges to protect the plate. Put a big old glob of frosting on the middle and spread with an offset spatula so it is almost to the edges. Place the next layer on top, and then frost the top and sides. Generally, using a crumb coat is recommended when frosting layer cakes, but this cake is so dense and moist that it doesn’t really need it. Once your cake is fully frosted, remove the strips of parchment to reveal your squeaky clean plate or cake stand!

For cupcakes, spread frosting on with an offset spatula, or pipe on (keeping the above note in mind).

Back to the garnish. Remember the garnish? You may notice that letters or other detailed shapes look very strange, because of weird clumps of sugar or general disfigurement. Pick through to find the best looking ones, then get to work re-shaping as needed. Use a bamboo skewer to poke out sugar clumps that have formed in the holes of your P’s and D’s. Use (clean!) hands to gently massage off sugar clumps on other areas, and to gently stretch and squeeze any malformed letters back into shape. Once you’ve got everything accounted for, gently lay them on top your (cup)cake(s)!

This concludes the longest recipe ever. Make it for someone you really love.

Miniature garlic

You know how people will complain about having garlic breath? I like having garlic breath. I mean come on, free tastes after you’ve already finished the food! What’s not to like about that?

Knowing of my garlic obsession, my mister’s mother gave us some of her homegrown garlic harvest last year. It was delicious, and we ate almost all of it.

Almost, because I decided to save one head to plant in containers on our patio. I read up a bit, and learned that apparently garlic is pretty difficult to kill. This is important to me, because I am really talented when it comes to killing plants. Animals, I’m fine with. But plants can smell my fear.

Of course, I can be creative in how I sabotage my attempts to grow things. I don’t have to kill them outright by forgetting to water them, or giving them too much/not enough shade, or what have you. With this garlic… I just plumb forgot to plant them. After countless reminders to my mister of, “Don’t use that garlic! I’m planting it!” I just didn’t manage to actually get them into some dirt.

As a result, instead of planting them in the fall like you’re supposed to, I just said screw it and decided to plant them after the last frost around April of this year.

So, what happens when you plant garlic in the spring?

Miniature garlic!

miniature garlic

Maybe I should have a party where I serve mandarin oranges, forelle pears, lady apples, quail eggs, and intact roasted heads of my tiny garlic to spread on bitty melba toasts? Then I can pretend I did this intentionally.

miniature garlic

Sweet Corn/Black Bean/Avocado Big Salad

Slicing sweet corn off the cob always reminds me of my great grandfather. He supported his family as a farmer in Iowa, growing soybeans commercially (sup farm bill). But when he retired to northern Minnesota, he kept a large “garden” which was really more of a mini-farm. His garden had no soybeans — he only grew the things he’d actually eat. Being in the midwest, of course he grew sweet corn. And whenever we ate that fresh corn, he always sliced it off the cob.

I thought this was the best thing ever, and so of course I had him slice my corn off the cob too. I liked not getting corn stuck in my teeth, but mostly I loved picking up the sheets of still-connected kernels and stuffing them in my mouth.

Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I realized why he sliced his corn off the cob; let’s just say, getting corn stuck in his teeth was not a problem for him.

sweet corn/black bean/avocado big salad

This is definitely a meal salad, not a wimpy side meant to be put next to the “real” food. The combo of greens, starchy sweet corn, and beans are a complete and healthy meal all on their own, and it’s a perfect summertime meal for when you can’t bear to turn the oven or stove on.

Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Avocado Salad
Inspired by Fresh Corn and Avocado Salsa by The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Serves 4

2 ears fresh sweet corn
1 ripe but firm avocado, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 of one 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 lime
3/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper
7-9 oz baby spinach
cilantro, if you’re into that sort of thing

Shuck, de-silk, and rinse your sweet corn, then carefully use a sharp knife to slice the kernels of the cobs. That’s right, we’re eating it raw. Trust me, it’s delicious. It helps if you cut a small slice off the top of the cob so you have a flat surface to balance it on while you hold it by the stem.

Dice your red onion to about the same size as your corn kernels, then put in a small bowl of ice water. Let this sit while you prepare the rest of your ingredients. This will help cut the sharpness of the raw onion which can be a little unpleasant.

Dice your red bell pepper the same size as your onion. Cut the top off of your jalapeno, and remove the ribs and seeds to your preference to dial down the spice. Cut it in half, then cut one half into thin matchsticks. Rotate your matchsticks and chop again so you end up with a very fine dice.

Cut your avocado into a medium dice — a bit bigger than your corn, red onion, and red bell pepper. This is where having a slightly firm avocado comes in handy — it will hold its shape better than a very ripe one. An easy way to dice is to cut that avocaddie in half, pop out the pit (carefully!), then score it with the knife while it is still in the skin. When you use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, it will come out already diced.

Dump the avocado pieces in a medium bowl, and juice the lime right over it. Depending on how acidic you like things, you might want to hold back a little bit on the juice — start with one half of the lime and work up once you’ve made the rest of the salad to taste. Toss well, making sure it is well coated — this will prevent the avocado from browning. Drain your red onion and dump it on top, along with the bell pepper, jalapeno, and half a can of rinsed black beans. Add the apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper, and toss it up! You could conceivably add a bit of olive oil in there too, to make it more “dressing-y,” but I think the avocado is more than enough.

Let this bowl chill in the fridge as long as you can stand, at least 30 minutes. A couple hours is best, but who has that time on a weeknight? If I don’t have dinner ready within a half hour of when my mister gets home, he starts snacking. And nothing chaps my ass like pre-dinner snacking. (Of course, on his nights to cook I wait what I think to be very patiently, then get hassled for getting hangry. Which is actually completely legit.)

When it’s time to serve, dump the baby spinach in a large bowl, dump the corn on top, and toss until everything is beautifully intermingled. I suppose if you want to save a dish you can make the corn in a big bowl to start with, and mix the spinach in… but I always find that I end up with all the good stuff falling to the bottom no matter how much I toss.

Of course, this is the kind of dish that people want to put cilantro on. I realize this. So go ahead and do it. Just don’t put any on mine.

Pickled Bee Sting, aka the perfect summer drink

pickled bee sting

In my opinion, a hearty amount of pepper makes everything better. And honey, the sweetness countered with a delicate floral taste, not to mention the fun of trying all the different varieties. And lemon juice, the perfect accompaniment to make anything taste a bit brighter.

Then there’s the gin, which I somehow manage to enjoy despite my history with it. I must have been about ten years old, and my dad was sitting on the sofa watching television, holding one of the mason jars we used as drinking glasses. I climbed over and sat next to him.

“What’s that?”
“Can I have some?”

Yep, my dad was and still is a major trolldad. So, I took a hearty gulp. Of straight gin. Thinking it was Sprite.

In his defense, he expected me to smell it and maybe take a tiny sip and realize my mistake. But he told me it was Sprite! And I was a very trusting child.

Anyway, this drink is very ginny. If your dad pranked you when you were a kid and you haven’t yet recovered, I would recommend against it. If you want to make this drink, you should enjoy gin.

The original recipe called to muddle black peppercorns. I tried this a few times, but it never quite worked — muddling a dried spice, especially when it’s spherical, is difficult. Peppercorns are pretty hard. I graduated to coarsely grinding black pepper into the drink, which tasted good but gave it an unpleasant grittiness. I still drank them from time to time, but wondered if something could be done to improve the situation.

Enter pickled green peppercorns.

pickled green peppercorns

I’d been intrigued by them on my past five or so trips to the Asian market, but couldn’t think of a reason why I needed them. Finally, I said screw it and bought them… and immediately came up with plenty of ways to use them. Revisiting this drink was one of them.

Pickled Bee Sting
Adapted from the Bee Sting by John Gertsen

Honey Syrup:
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup water

12-15 pickled green peppercorns
1/2 shot honey syrup
1/2 shot lemon juice
2 shots gin (I like Hendrick’s)

So, first you’ve got to make your honey syrup. I’ve had some in my fridge since our annual Christmas cocktail party and it’s still fine, so you might as well make a good bit. Combine honey and water in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring frequently, until honey dissolves into water and you’re left with a homogenous syrup. Put it in a little jar, and label it so you remember what the hell it is six months down the line.

Pluck your peppercorns off the stalk, and rinse the brine off of them with cold water. Go ahead and pop one in your mouth if you want to get an idea of how spicy they are — they taste basically like black pepper, but a bit more mild and with a juicy pop.

Muddle the peppercorns in the bottom of your cocktail shaker, then top with honey syrup, lemon juice, and gin. Fill with ice, then shake shake shake. Strain into a cocktail glass, or if you’re me, a rocks glass, because you don’t have cocktail glasses. If you’d like, throw another couple rinsed peppercorns in there so you have something to chomp on at the end.

Sip and savor the floral, citrus, and spicy notes, preferably while sitting on a porch.

Seitan guisado

This is another recipe from my cousin that I spent time adapting to be vegetarian instead of making my sister’s wedding gift. What can I say? It looked intriguing.

seitan guisado

I’ve tried this with a few different types of seitan, and my favorite is Companion Cha’i-Pow-Yu, or braised seitan tidbits. It kind of looks like dog food when it comes out of the can, but please trust me when I say it’s chewy yet tender, and intensely flavorful. The tidbits are packed in oil, so for almost all applications I choose to rinse them before use. The soybean oil that they’re packed in is probably not as tasty as whatever I might marinate or cook them in, so it’s an important step.

I bought the Cha’i-Pow-Yu at one of the Asian markets in my neck of the woods, H-Mart, but you can also buy it online. If you can’t find it, or want to use something you already have, you could use 16 – 20 ounces of any vegetarian chicken substitute, from fried tofu cubes to Quorn or Morningstar Farms.

Seitan Guisado
Adapted from a recipe from my cousin Katie

Serves 4-6

2 cans seitan tidbits (I use the 10 ounce Companion Cha’i-Pow-Yu)
1 large lime
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons chik’n seasoning
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
salt, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (brown is better but white is fine)
2 tablespoons tomato paste

Squeeze the juice of your lime into a large bowl. Toss drained and rinsed seitan chunks in lime juice until covered, then drain most but not all of the excess juice. Add chik’n seasoning, red onion, green pepper, celery, garlic, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and a pinch of salt; toss to coat. Let sit for 30 minutes. (This is a good time to start cooking the gandules con coco.)

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until oil shimmers and easily coats the bottom of the pan. Stir in sugar and cook one to two minutes.

Dump your marinated seitan and veggies into the pot, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften.

Reduce heat to low. Add tomato paste, then measure 1/2 cup of water and add a little bit to the pot, stirring to combine. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until veggies are completely softened, stirring in more water from the 1/2 cup as needed to extend the sauce and prevent it from thickening too much. If you finish this before the gandules, keep it warm over super low heat until they are ready — it’ll be fine!

Serve with gandules con coco over rice.

Gandules con coco and gift procrastination

My sister got married in September of 2010, at the courthouse. On her and her husband’s one year anniversary, they had a “wedding,” commitment ceremony, whatever you want to call it. I guess my sister regretted never having a “real” wedding. (I so disagree with that mindset, so I won’t even get started.)

Anyway, I never got them a wedding gift the first time around. (I was actually five minutes late because of traffic, so I missed the whole thing!) I figured I’d make up for it and give them a good gift for the commitment ceremony. My brother-in-law is a chef and my sister can’t cook worth a damn, so I thought it’d be fun to make a family cookbook — collect recipes from all of our family members to compile them into one of those printed photo books. Throw some photos of them and the kids in there and boom, instant keepsake.

Yeah, I haven’t finished it yet.

I tell myself “you have a year after the wedding to give a gift” but technically their “wedding” was a year after their wedding and oh god if I think about it too much my head starts to hurt.

I just haven’t had the time to perfect it. I’ll find the time eventually.

However, I somehow already found the time to adapt this recipe my cousin sent me for their book, in order to make it vegetarian-friendly and more coherent, and cook it. Twice.

gandules con coco

Gandules, also known as pigeon peas, can usually be found canned in the Hispanic section of better stocked grocery stores (I found them at the nice local Giant, but not the horrible Safeway that never has what you need). I also found them at a nearby Asian market, H-Mart, which has a pretty large Hispanic section.

On a side note before I get on with it: I am generally not a cilantro person. I guess I’ll blame it on some genetic thing, since that’s what people always say when I say I don’t like it. So, while I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy it for this dish, it doesn’t ruin it for me either. Since I had it on hand, I used it, and it cooks down so much that it doesn’t have the gross “what rotted in the bottom of the crisper” taste that I generally think it has. (“But it tastes so fresh and crisp!” Sorry, my tongue is broken in this regard.) So for the other haters out there — try it in this, you might like it?

Gandules con Coco
Adapted from a recipe from my cousin Katie

Serves 4-6 as a side

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/4 green bell pepper, diced
1 15 ounce can gandules, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon chik’n seasoning of your choice (or a crumbled veggie bouillon cube)
1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, oregano, thyme, and cilantro and saute for two minutes.

Stir in gandules and two tablespoons of water and allow to cook for about five minutes, or until the water evaporates.

Stir in chik’n seasoning and an additional 1/2 cup of water. Mash with a potato masher while simmering, still over medium heat. Allow to simmer, stirring frequently so the bottom doesn’t stick, until the liquid cooks away.

Reduce heat to medium low, then add coconut milk. Bring to a simmer and cook for about twenty minutes, stirring often, until thickened to a creamy consistency. Add salt to taste.

Remove from heat and let sit five minutes to thicken up a bit.

Serve over rice. This is technically a side dish, but could easily be enjoyed as a full meal. However, I like to eat it with seitan guisado.

Stuffed Grapes

Imagine an appetizer made of globe grapes, sliced in half with the flesh scooped out of the middle. The rim dipped in toasted chopped walnuts, the cavity filled with herbed goat cheese.

If this sounds like an unnecessarily fussy Martha Stewart appetizer, that’s because it is.

I also tend to credit this dish as the genesis of my love of cooking, especially of recipes that are “unnecessarily” complex.

“Why are you making deviled quail eggs? Why not just use regular ones?”
“This isn’t any worse than stuffed grapes!”

I’ve always helped my grandmother in the kitchen. She loves to host dinner parties, sometimes for family, sometimes for friends. Her dining table seats twenty, maybe more, and she likes to fill every chair. She even sells seats for a dinner party at her church auction every year, and it is well-attended. Despite being a Gentile, she hosts a Seder every year — in my opinion because it’s one more dinner party she can throw, but also because one of her dear old friends Maury isn’t able to do it on his own. The woman loves to feed people.

And of course, she loves having little sous chefs.

One of the most frequent assignments was adding butter and sour cream to the mound of boiled potatoes before turning on the Kitchenaid mixer — which admittedly, as far as cooking tasks go, is… small potatoes (sorry). But it’s a great task for kids. I also did a lot of stirring: simmering gravy, brownie batters, soups. When it came to putting things into things and maybe stirring it some, I was a champion.

Then there were the stuffed grapes. I was about ten years old, sitting on the step stool at the kitchen bar while my grandmother prepared for one of her parties. She mostly goes for the veggie trays and hummus these days, but fifteen years ago she was going for the gold, yo. She sliced dozens of grapes, and may have scooped them too. But then she put my little fingers to work: dipping the grapes in the nuts, rolling tiny balls of chevre, then placing them in the divot without disturbing the crunchy halo.

The thing is, I rarely cooked at home. My father was never much of a cook, and was busy working and raising three kids on his own. With all of that, plus trying to carve out some time where he could relax, home cooking wasn’t high on his list. So we relied on a lot of convenience food. Yes, I helped my grandmother cook at her house, but it never seemed like a thing that regular people did. Food came out of boxes, cans, and drive-through windows. Even when I became a vegetarian at thirteen, it was still easy enough. After all, there was a KFC/Taco Bell combo a few miles away; I could get a bean burrito and my siblings could have chicken fingers.

In college, I cooked nothing but scrambled eggs with various things on top, pasta with various things on top, and heated up canned soup. I was trying to eat less junk food, but my kitchen skills were limited to the very basic on one end, and then special occasion foods that I had made with my grandmother on the other. Something had to give.

So what else could I do? I learned how to cook. Without the internet, I don’t know what I would have done. But with YouTube videos, food blogs, and some calls to my grandmother, I started my transition to making and eating real, good food. Following and then adapting recipes, learning techniques to transfer to other foods, and acquiring a few too many kitchen gadgets. And luckily, my early training in watching my grandmother improvise in the kitchen seems to have paid off.

At the time the stuffed grape incident, I think I scoffed at my grandmother — all this work for a grape! It’s gone in one bite! I didn’t even get to taste the creation, because as a picky child I was not down with the goat cheese (thankfully, my palate has matured).

Now I get it. The interplay of sweet, juicy, crunchy, salty, tangy, creamy, all in one bite. Worth it.

I still love making cocktail vittles, but the lesson applies to so much more. Cooking is a process. It takes time and effort, and then it’s gone in a blink. Sometimes I get home from work and am so exhausted that all I can do is boil some pasta and throw some gross jarred pesto on top. And you know what? I’m usually disappointed. Taking the time to make food that looks and tastes extra special, food that delights and sometimes surprises? So worth it.

This is not to say that everything I make is complicated. I work a full time job, have hobbies, maintain personal relationships, and spend way too much time playing with my ferret. I’m not making extravagant meals every night of the week. But still, I try to eat well, and eat tasty.

So there you go. Vegetarian food, sometimes fancy, sometimes modest, always delicious.