travel

Mueller’s Bakery

by Lisa

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It isn’t the Cinque Terre, nor is it Venice, and it’s definitely not Paris, where Caroline & her gang are lucky enough to be on vacation, but Bay Head, NJ still has quiet, clean beaches, flanked by stately homes, canals, and Mueller’s Bakery— which has got to be one of the best small bakeries in the country.

Our rental was just around the corner from Mueller’s, which we knew about thanks to my brother, who lives the next town over. Every morning, the youngest girls would descend from their sleeping garret in the attic, find me and Finn in the second floor sunroom watching Cyberchase and drinking coffee, and we’d throw on our swimsuits and walk around the block to the bakery.

Inside was everything a butter-sugar-flour addict could dream of: the best jelly donuts I’ve had in 30 years–powdered and sugared both; chocolate donuts; powdered and glazed cake donuts; melt-in-your mouth apricot and berry danishes; bear claws; cheese claws; apple bars; turnovers; sweet pretzels; cinnamon rolls and twists; fresh bagels; fat muffins stuffed with blueberries; fancy cakes; everyday cakes; loaf breads and long breads–including sweet and savory varieties like Irish Soda; tray after tray of cookies, including decorated, themed ones as well as more traditional ones; cupcakes; and the major reason for my family’s swooning: the crumb cake–the recipe for which is unchanged since the Bakery’s inception over a century ago.

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Suffice to say the crumb cake has a dense, rich layer of incredibly moist cake, and an even richer, not-to-sweet thick layer of buttery crumb, topped with enough powdered sugar to lightly dust your shirt while you eat. They’re impossibly good, the Platonic ideal of a crumb cake, and if you’re craving one right now, Mueller’s ships them. Anywhere.

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We’d grab our cakes or donuts and cross the street and sit on a bench in front of the canal, where we’d unwrap the cakes and donuts from their waxed paper bags and eat, happily, while the morning woke up around us.

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It was just like eating croissant on the Seine, Jersey Style.

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Only in NJ

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By Lisa

Only in NJ because we literally can’t buy Yoo-Hoo where we live, but also because, well, it’s so full of crap and so unhealthy and downright gross that I would never buy it if we weren’t on vacation. But buy it I did, and a six pack at that, for my son, and his sister and their 2 cousins, partly because I remembered it as a rare treat from my NJ childhood and because the packaging is still so iconic, and it’s sort of good and sweet and cold.

Suffice to say Finn had a quintessential NJ food moment, sitting in one of the country premiere delicatessens, eating a bagel that had literally come straight out of the oven, and sucking down a Yoo-Hoo in maybe 60 seconds flat.

But he can also do a mean dance to Rosalita. Both feats prove he’s my son.

We might not have Paris…

by Lisa

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Not long ago, on a family trip to San Francisco, Ella, Finley, and I found ourselves staring at the counter of a French bakery, at a pile of croissants.  They didn’t know what they were, and as I explained to them the wonder that is a croissant, I found myself telling them not about croissant, exactly, and how good they can be, but about the summer I spent working in the French Alps at  a summer camp.  They know many stories from this time, including the fact that no one, not a soul, spoke even a word of English, so I was forced very quickly to abandon all pretense of speaking, looking, or acting even vaguely English-speaking.  They know that we ate baguette and cheese, or sugared candy or chocolate every day for afternoon snack.  They know that my first night, on the all night train, the youngest child, an adorable little 4-year old, looked up at me and said, “But you don’t speak French” (in French, of course), when I had uttered what I thought was a perfectly comprehenisble sentence in French.  Things changed quickly and by the end of the summer, I could enter the mountain village store and be served and local restaurant and be served without disdain; I dreamed in French, and upon my return to Paris functioned like a native speaker. Sadly, this is no longer true.

France was also the place where I learned to eat meat again, but that’s another story. The anecdote I found myself telling my children a we stared at that golden counter was about breakfast.

On the counselor’s mornings off, we got to order from the bakery, which meant croissant–plain, chocolate, etc.–and whatever we wanted would be brought to our room, with our choice of cafe au lait, chocolate chaud, etc…It was quite wonderful to wake up to perfect croissant and eat them and go right back to sleep while the French children screamed.

And every morning we drank big bowls of cafe au lait or chocolate, too, which Ella and Finn found really funny.

Not long after, as I was marketing I spied a box of frozen TJ chocolate croissants, so of course I bought them, and for some reason had the impulse to sneak them into my cart so Ella didn’t see.  Of course, Caroline and her family were fortunate enough to travel and eat in France last summer, and you can read about it all beginning here, but for the forseeable future, I’m going to have to recreate a little bit of France in our California home, so I bought the box.

We were in the midst of a rainy long weekend, and while many were away on ski weekends, I had been baking, and braising and nesting and so that night, I planned a petit dejeuner. The croissants are frozen, and you place them out on a cookie sheet overnight to proof, or rise.   I did this, set the table, boiled some eggs, set out bowls for the chocolate and coffee, prepped the espresso machine, and filled a bowl of fresh fruit.

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I also left a sign that said “Do Not Touch! Not Cooked!” on the croissants, since Ella and Finn are known to be curious when it comes to food, and they were bound to be up first.

The next morning, Ella was exuberant: “I can’t wait to taste my first croissant!” she said, and while they were baking, I made the chocolate and coffee and whipped some cream.  They thought the bowls of chocolate chaud were hysterical, but they happily slurped them up just like a child should on a cold, rainy holiday morning.

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When the croissant came out, Finn knew right away he was on to a good thing, because the moment he picked one up–before putting a single bite near his mouth– he exclaimed, “Mmmmm!  They’re so buttery and warm!”  And even though they are not the best croissant you will ever have, they were lovely, and that is all you really need to know.

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Learning to Eat Alone

by Caroline

When I was a baby and my family lived in Japan, my parents took me along with them to attend a conference in Hong Kong, leaving my three older siblings in the care of a childless couple from the church. The pair fed my brothers and sister liver. This has never been forgotten, nor, I think, have my parents ever been quite forgiven this breach of trust.

When I was nine or ten, my mom went back to work full time. By this point my two oldest siblings were away at school, but every once in a while my mom had to travel for work, and my dad, brother and I were left to fend for ourselves. We knew our way around the kitchen. My dad spent most of his summer evenings processing the garden’s fruits and vegetables for the freezer; my brother and I, less healthily, spent our after-school afternoons, on our own, building tall stacks of peanut butter and jelly on Ritz crackers, or secretly baking and eating Stir n’ Frost cakes fast so that my mother would never know (except of course she knew). None of which should have instilled a whole lot of confidence in my mom that we could cook in her absence, but as far as I can recall, while she might leave ingredients and suggestions for meals, she did not cook meals for us in advance. I knew how to make meatloaf and minute steaks, there were plenty of vegetables in the freezer (thanks to my dad’s summer labors), I could follow a recipe. So we did not starve. Of course, there was the time we tried to bake potatoes, and didn’t know to prick them all over in advance. After a time, we heard a dull thud and opened the oven door to find shards of potato innards scattered all over the walls and floor of the oven. We turned off the oven and went out for pizza. But mostly we did just fine.

Now I’m about to go away on my first business trip as a mom, and while I’ve organized school pick-ups for my days away, supervised early Valentine-making and left my husband reminders about swim class and the school fair and a Saturday playdate, I haven’t done a thing about meals. He knows how to cook, and in fact while I’m gone, the three of them will probably experiment a bit in the kitchen; maybe I’ll come home to a new variation on puttanesca, or some leftover Saturday morning scones.

The big story here isn’t the family left to fend without the mom – in our house, dinner is every bit as likely to be cooked by my husband as myself – but the mom on her own for seven (of course I’ve counted) restaurant meals, seven meals without children. I’m both happy and anxious about exploring this unfamiliar terrain. I’ve assembled my airplane snacks and head off to Chicago with a list of restaurants and a couple of good books. It’s time for me to learn to eat alone.

Feeding 3 Generations

by Caroline

My parents are visiting from Connecticut this week, and for me it’s a good excuse to slow down and spend a bit more time in the kitchen. I won’t spend every free minute writing or editing; instead, I’ll go through the binders full of torn-out magazine and newspaper recipes, page through the dozens of cookbooks on the kitchen shelves and look for renewed inspiration. Instead of spending all of Eli’s preschool hours at my desk, I’ll probably go to the market.

My parents don’t ask that I do this; for them, simply gathering around the table, all six of us, is really more important than the food we eat. They like a nice meal but aren’t terribly picky.  And this is why it’s such a pleasure to feed them. My children lately drop foods from their diet more quickly than they add them. Ben is down to only one kind of cheese, even a particular brand of that cheese, and will only eat it cold, in slices (not grated nor melted). I know this stage will pass, and so I’m not pushing the boys to be what they aren’t. Tony and I will keep trying to set a balanced, interesting meal on the table every night, and hope that the boys will taste what we offer before filling up on plain pasta or bread. But of course, the discussions of what they won’t eat get wearying, and more often than not, Tony and I don’t have the energy to make something creative that we know the boys won’t even touch to their lips. So we fall into a rut of the few simple pastas and vegetables the boys will eat without complaint.

My parents’ visit offers me renewed energy. Here are two eaters who will try almost anything, who don’t at all mind our vegetarian diet, who can be counted on to help prep and clean. They even eat leftovers.

But their first night, I didn’t expect any of that from them, nor did I try out any new dishes. You never know when you pick people up from a flight if they’ll be starving or full of airplane snacks, but either way, I figured they’d want a simple warm meal.  I made soup. I’ll post the steps here — it’s hardly a recipe, since I eyeballed everything — and the result was delicious (and unlikely ever to be replicated). The boys didn’t eat it, as I expected, but they were happy with the salad and bread and cheese on the side, and the meal was a nice way to start our visit.

Squash Soup for Travelers at the End of a Journey

Preheat oven to 400.

No matter what direction I’m taking the squash soup (curried, spicy, etc) I always start by following the procedure Deborah Madison suggests in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: halve the squash, scoop out the seeds, and then put 4-6 unpeeled cloves of garlic in the cavities. Drizzle some olive oil on the cut edges of the squash, and then set them, cut sides down, on a large roasting pan. Roast until the squash is tender, 30-60 minutes, depending on the size of the squash.

While the squash is roasting, you can saute some diced onion with herbs (thyme, sage, bay leaves are all nice) or without, until the onion is nice and soft. For the soup I made this week, I skipped the herbs, planning instead to grate fresh ginger into the soup. Perhaps deglaze the pan with a big slosh of wine. Remove the bay leaves (if you used them) and put the onions into your blender.

When it’s finished roasting and cool enough to handle, scoop the cooked squash into your blender. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of its skins into the blender, too. Blend, adding some water or stock if necessary to thin it; you can always add more water, stock, wine or (if you’re feeling decadent) cream when you’re heating up the soup.

Transfer the pureed squash to a sauce pan to finish warming. Thin with stock or water to taste, and season with salt and pepper. At this point, I grated a thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger into the pot, which melted nicely into the soup and gave it a gingery warmth without getting spicey.