The Opposite of Fool-Proof

lemon knots

Some things you can only learn by feel.  Making lemon knot cookies is certainly one of those.

First of all, these Italian cookies are super temperamental. You are making a cookie dough which will have to become springy and stretchy almost as if you were making pizza.  The reason the gluten needs to develop is that this will get rolled into a snake shape, knotted, baked and glazed with lemon juice and powdered sugar. There are about a million points along the way where the whole process can go terribly wrong.

The weather can be bad.  If the air is too dry, if the humidity is very low or the heat has been on too much, the dough will break apart as soon as you try to roll it into a snake.  Add more liquid to make it stretch, and you could end up with a gluey mess instead of something malleable.  Overcorrect with more flour and you have crumbs that will never come together.

So, assume that you get a good, moderately humid day to bake.  The dough comes together just right, or so you thought.  You grab a ball of dough to fill the palm of your hand.  To get the right amount, you imagine you are trying to cup as many grains of rice as you can, fingers folded over your palm so none escape.  The dough should fill that space.  As you begin rolling out the snake you realize it is just a tiny bit too powdery and it will not stick at all to the kitchen table but scoots back and forth like an air-hockey puck, refusing to roll out.  You need to wet the dough, or your hands, just a tiny bit.  Too much and the dough will smear.

You now need the right amount of pressure worked evenly along the rope so that one end isn’t thicker than the other, so there aren’t lumps.  Once I fan my fingers along its length as far as they will reach, the rope is long enough and the right diameter.  As you try to knot the rope you need to make a gentle loop and thread one end through, watching for breaks along the length of it.  If it begins to split it will pull apart from itself, like loose bark on an old tree and it is ruined.  You have one more chance to smush it together and reroll.  If that attempt fails you are done, because reworking it again will make it tough and dry and inedible.

While they bake you have to be careful not to leave them in too long.  They are supposed to be quite pale.  In fact, if they start to get golden brown you’ve most likely let them go too long.  The only solution for those cookies is a good cup of coffee or tea.  However, underdone cookies are just soggy and dense as the places where the dough knots on itself stay wet much longer then the edges.

When it does work out, you are rewarded with a light, almost-cake cookie that tastes faintly sweet and faintly of citrus and it will remind you of your Nonna if you are lucky enough to be part Sicilian.  And when relatives ask for your recipe you’ll feel proud when your father reminds them that it isn’t just the recipe, it is also the cook who matters.

Occasionally I don’t want a recipe that is fool-proof, I want a recipe that takes a good deal of attention.  I want a recipe that takes problem-solving and technique, grace and patience.  I want to get frustrated and stare sullenly into the flour-powdered air.  I want to do something that does not involve can openers, coupons, crock-pots and a timetable.  I want to take on something challenging that is totally frivolous, and ultimately rewarding.

I keep waiting for a long humid day, one that can absorb the time and effort and irritation that will surely come with these cookies-that will give me the time to let my kids mess around trying to master all the tricks you have to master to do this right.  Hopefully, at least once I’ll be able to before this summer is out.  It is worth it.

Ramona Quimby and Bedtime

Ramona the Brave

      This summer I started reading the Ramona Quimby books to my boys, books I absolutely loved as a girl and had not thought to read at bedtime, yet.  I could not remember what order they were supposed to go in, whether Ramona and her Mother came before or after Ramona and Beezus or Ramona Quimby, Age 8.  I lucked out and picked Ramona, the Brave in which she is six and about to begin the first grade.  Perfect for my five-year-old who is nervous about starting kindergarten, and my seven-year-old who has just finished that school year.

Oh my goodness, thank you Beverly Cleary!  Thank you for remembering so clearly what it was like to be a young child, one who feels insecure when she says something her parents think is funny or who cannot decide which is worse, a tattletale or a copycat and that being the girl who scrunches up someone else’s paper owl is worse than either.  I don’t know if you have ever read this book, or if you remember it well if you have.  In one chapter Ramona, who is already feeling terribly misunderstood, has worked very hard to make a really lovely paper bag owl for Parent’s Night.  The girl in the desk next to her copied every detail of Ramona’s, owl making Ramona angrier and angrier.  She tries to shield her owl from the copycat but only succeeds in hiding it from her teacher.  The other girl is praised for her lovely, wise owl.  Ramona scrunches her owl into a tight ball.  My boys literally gasped when I read that part out loud.

A week later in the story, when Parent’s Night rolls around, when the girl who copied draws attention to the fact that Ramona does not have an owl to display, when Ramona has to lie to her teacher that she, “Does not care for owls,” even though she does very much, Ramona’s feelings boil over and she destroys the other girl’s owl and runs home.  My boys cried. They felt absolutely horrible for her.  And for themselves, I suspect. There is an all too real possibility that something like this could happen to them, that they might get so upset that they would do something they know they shouldn’t.  That they might feel like they aren’t good kids, or that no one understands, or that they might be even more upset with themselves for doing this naughty thing than any teacher or parent could be.  And they get to see Ramona come to terms with this awful thing she has done, and that she is not a thoroughly rotten person for doing this one thing.  We cried and we talked about it, I told them about times I had gotten in trouble in school and how it felt.  That it was normal to feel all of the things Ramona was feeling.

I guess books like this are why, though I appreciate fairy tales and superheroes, Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings I am more in love with stories that feel real and may look small on the outside.  Those small, real stories do not feel small when you are in them, when you live them.  Those stories, short on special effects, show great respect for ordinary moments and the experiences of real people.  My boy’s reaction to Ramona crushing her own, then someone else’s owl was stronger than their reaction to the ending of almost any Disney movie.  And that made me happy.

Watermelon Mush


When I was a new mother and had a six-month-old who had begun trying solid foods, some overly concerned women who worked with my husband exclaimed, “She’s home all day and doesn’t make her own baby food?” He relayed that conversation to me with a shrug and support, “You know I don’t care if you make baby food right?” Then he handed me the baby-food cookbooks these women passed to him, to pass on to me and I stared up at him hard. My heart sank so far down. Here was another way I was failing as a mother, how I was wasting hours and giving my baby less than he deserved. Not to my husband, thankfully. Again he said, “I really don’t care one way or the other. They mean well. I brought them home only to shut them up and…well you did like to cook, before.”

I did like to cook before, before I had post-partum depression, before I felt cocooned from the world. The only news from the outside came from women who were preoccupied with how my baby was bottle-fed or how I couldn’t keep my child from mouthing cart handles or how I didn’t steam and puree organic fruits and veggies. But, cooking had always been a way for me to enjoyably fill the hours; sharing a meal with someone I loved made me happy. Maybe I would ignore the books (especially the one which advocated for brewer’s yeast as a snack) and pick some foods that my baby couldn’t get it a jar. I would cook for him.

Pureeing watermelon was an all day project, or else sleep deprivation just made it seem that way. Hacking away the rind, mopping up the pink juices before the ants could find it on the kitchen floor, digging out the food processor and figuring out how to get it put together took too long. Maybe it was the prospect of keeping my baby safely away from sharp objects while entertaining him that may it seem intermitable. Eventually I had a small mound of fuchsia mush I felt somewhat proud of.

My baby took one bite, shot a look up at me that said, “What the hell is this?” and refused to open his mouth again. As I think back now I’m sure the coarse texture paired with an unusually sweet juice startled him and felt wrong. Or perhaps he just knew that this is never what was meant for this poor melon-a spoonful made of loneliness and self-consciousness. I stared at him for a moment before getting up slowly and retrieving Gerber sweet potatoes, which he devoured happily.

I felt just hopeless, because this had failed, because I couldn’t prove to anyone that I was a worthy stay-at-home mother, because I hadn’t saved any watermelon in large juicy crunchy pink triangles for myself. All I had was this slushy, lukewarm pile that not one of us was going to touch. Down the garbage disposal it went.

Today he is seven and a half and just ate about half a watermelon with dinner. I feel vindicated that I hadn’t ruined him for good food. And, I feel extremely angry that I had let some random woman make me feel that I had, that I was not doing enough, that I wasn’t enough because I bought a few, tiny, glass jars once upon a time.