Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


The butteriest rolls ever


Something unremarkable happened last week: I turned 41. It’s not exactly a landmark birthday because, well, that was last year. When you topple over into a new decade, everyone knows it’s worth taking a moment to reflect and observe, whether you want to or not. And when you’re getting close to a decade mark (like 37, 38, 39), you sense the need to savor it, to roll it around in your mouth for as long as you can, to let it linger on your tongue.


My birthday tulips, spent and ready for the trash, but still lovely.

But turning 41 or 31… or 42 or 32 …or 43 or 33? It just seems hardly worth commenting on. The last time I had a birthday that fell in the early part of a decade, I was too busy to notice that it wasn’t worth noticing. When I turned 31, I had a 6-day-old baby. When I turned 32, I had a high-strung 1-year-old who still didn’t sleep through the night. When I turned 33, I had a high-strung 2-year-old, a 3-month-old, and (probably) a terrible headache. And so on.

But last Friday, I had the time to think about just what it means to be 41-year-old me, here and now, and why it’s pleasantly unremarkable:

  1. It snowed. On my birthday. When I was a kid, I hated a snowy birthday because it often meant a cancelled birthday party: no one was going to wind around the curvy Kentucky roads in the snow to celebrate the monumental event of my turning 11. But now, snow means a quiet morning walk after I drop the kids at school, bright red cardinals plucking the remains from the skeleton of our crab apple tree, and children who will immediately take themselves outside when they get home. What’s more, the snow reassured me that  this is the same planet Earth on which I’ve always lived. I require that reassurance from time to time.meat41

2. My kids sleep through the night now, and my husband still looks like this…just, you know, accidentally, in the back yard, on, like, a Tuesday. (This photo was actually from the pumpkin carving carnage of the globally-warmed October of 2016, but I happened across it recently.) So, beat that, 21-year-old, me.


3. My kids are growing up so nice…and so nicely. And while the oldest is still high-strung, most of his vibrating-with-misery now occurs at school, while I listen to the silence humming in my house. I’m always ready to see them when they come home in the afternoons, but I do love a quiet house. When I was 31 and 32 and 33…and 34, 35, 36, and 37, everywhere I went people said, “You look like you have your hands full!” Now, I radiate the calm of empty hands, strolling casually through the grocery store with the baby-seat portion of the cart full of fragile grocery items like avocados and leafy greens, smiling absently at the women whose kids are pulling cans off the shelves, and usually listening to a podcast while a shop. 41 is a form of silent meditation…only, with podcasts, when I want them.


4. (OK, this one is a forced add-on to the list, but I needed a segue between life and kitchen.) My mad bread-baking skills keep getting madder. There is an argument to be made that the further one progresses past the age of say, 23–or whatever age is the peak of metabolic efficiency– the less bread one ought to bake and eat. But there is so much in this world I can more easily live without than bread. And really good bread is worth foregoing dessert, in my opinion. Furthermore, my kids are growing up in a home where the smell of rising bread is the smell of home, and I’m doing my best to wear that groove deep into their little souls so that I’ll always have a way to call them home when the silence starts to hum a little too loudly. Like, maybe when I’m sixty-one.

These are the butteriest, flakiest rolls ever. The recipe comes, almost unchanged, from Cooks Illustrated‘s 2016 Annual collection, which I purchased in the grocery line one day toward the end of the year. Since then, we’ve become obsessed with these little rolls. They remind me of Pillsbury crescent rolls without the pop-open can, the crescent roll shape, and the mildly chemical undertone. All flaky layers and buttery melt. Not quite as quick as Pillsbury, but definitely more wholesome, and with the added bonus of giving your home that lovely yeasty smell of rising bread in the afternoon. That’s not nuthin.

Now: recipe. 


There’s one weird thing here. This recipe begins with a paste of cooked flour and water. I’m not entirely persuaded that is necessary, but I haven’t messed around with it to find out because it’s easy enough to make cooked flour-paste and, I guess, why mess with a good thing? But I suspect these would would work without the paste, if you’re wondering.

Flour paste

1/3 cup water

3 tablespoons flour


1/2 cup milk

1 egg

2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons yeast

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, softened

  1. Mix together the flour paste ingredients and micowave them (or cook them on the stovetop) until they look like the paste we 40-somethings used to use in elementary school (the paste in the jar with the paddle?).
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flour paste, milk, and egg and beat with the whisk until smooth.
  3. Switch to your dough hook and add the flour and yeast, mixing on low until moistened. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. Let stand for 15 minutes or so.
  5. Add the sugar and salt and mix on medium-low for about 5 minutes until your dough looks like dough.
  6. One tablespoon at a time, add the butter, mixing well to incorporate after each addition.
  7. Cover your bowl and let the dough rise until doubled, 1 hour in a warm house or 2 hours in my cold one.
  8. On a lightly floured surface, turn out your dough and roll it out with a rolling pin until it is a good-sized rectangle. How big is up to you. Bigger rectangle, thinner layers in your rolls; smaller rectangle, thicker layers. Either way: yum.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  9. Cut the dough into 12 strips. I did mine like this, but you do yours however you want. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                It occurs to me you could even make them look like crescent rolls if you cut them into long right triangles.
  10. Roll them up.

  11. Arrange them in a buttered round baking pan and let them rise, covered, until about doubled, another hour or so.
  12. Bake them at 375 degrees until deeply golden, 25-30 minutes. The Cooks Illustrated recipe says to let them cool for 20 minutes before serving, but I believe in eating my bread warm. Anything else seems foolish to me. But, your bread, your call.







Homemade “Magic Shell” (or How Three Ingredients and a Dash of Culinary Wizardry Saved the Day)

December+three kids+one sentimental husband=nonstop Christmas hullabaloo.

On Saturday, that hullabaloo included the annual Festival of Lights Parade, a ritualized enactment of small-town holiday joy, complete with baton twirling, marching bands, light-strung tractors, Shriners driving tiny cars in crazy circles, multiple Santa Clauses, fake snow machines, beauty-queen-style waving, teensy horses, and lots of candy canes being tossed willy-nilly at mittened children. It’s adorable. Usually.

But this year’s parade was kind of a bust…at least for our family. We arrived a little later than usual–in part because my daughter couldn’t decide what to wear. She is 8. And she’s not a priss, I swear. Proof: Recently, she created a “princess test,” consisting of a large piece of cardboard with Disney princess stickers arranged across it, kind of like an eye chart. She administered this test to her brothers and all of her dolls. If the test-takers liked any of the princesses except for Merida, they failed the test and were declared “too fancy.” So, yeah: That seems definitive. But for some reason, ever since she was knee-high and stomping around in her Robeez, she has been periodically seized by the desire to exercise extreme control over her attire. This urge hit hard on Saturday evening. Eventually, with only a modicum of door slamming, she was dressed and bundled up, and off we went.

When we arrived, we tried to nestle into a spot that was more or less our normal one. But the organizers (for some reason) had decided to reverse the parade route this year, which left us at the tail end of the parade rather than the nose end. And that wouldn’t be a big deal except that our little guy definitely thinks the acquisition of as much candy as possible is the primary objective, and by the time the floats started floating by us, most of them seemed to have exhausted their resources.

There were also inexplicably large gaps in the flow of the parade, and those gaps gave all the nearby kids–mine included–enough time to decide, over and over again, that 43 degrees is miserably cold. (Not so.) Eventually, about a dozen floats/tractors/trucks/bands into the thing, it came to a stop. My husband wandered back up the parade route to see if anything else was coming–the parade is usually 4 or 5 times that long–but he couldn’t see anything. All around us, people started packing up. About this time, an officially dressed woman riding a little parking-patrol scooter came squealing down the parade route shouting into her walkie-talkie “No units on Washington! No units on Washington! People are leaving!”

We looked at each other and one of us said, “Let’s call it.” Our little guy had, by this time, fallen off the curb multiple times–why?– and spent so much time trying to open cellophane-wrapped candy with his gloves on that it was really driving me crazy. No one seemed particularly invested in the enterprise except him (because he was still waiting on the gobs of sugar to begin falling from the sky), and I prefer to feed my kids candy that hasn’t been, you know, dropped in the crumbly road dust along the curb.

Furthermore, one of the last parade entries that had paraded by consisted of two guys carrying AR-15s and walking in front of a Hummer. No Christmas lights, no Christmas greetings, no smiles, no candy canes, and–most importantly–no explanation. No kidding. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.

So we bailed on the parade, promising the kids peppermint milkshakes and a drive around town to look at Christmas lights. We took our time winding toward the DQ, and when we pulled up to order our milkshakes, we realized neither of us had a wallet. So there went the back-up plan. All three kids dissolved into misery and disappointment and pleas.

We assured them we had peppermint ice cream at home. They whined.

We promised to make the peppermint ice cream into milkshakes. They moaned.

We said, fine, don’t eat anything then. They wailed.

Then I said I knew just the thing: I would make them special homemade magic shell. They sniffled, tacitly consulted one another, and conceded. Of course, they didn’t really have a choice. The adults were definitely done.

Of course, when we got home, I couldn’t find the recipe. I had torn it out of a Food Network Magazine last summer and stashed it…somewhere. (Our organizational skills are legendary.) I couldn’t locate it on their website either. I tried to reinvent it and did a fairly good job. The kids were amazed at their mother’s ability to just dump some things into a small pan without measuring and have it turn out alright. (I take my props where I can get ’em.)

It’s not, strictly speaking, “Magic Shell,” of course. I’m pretty sure Magic Shell is liquid in the squirt bottle in the fridge and then turns crackly hard when you squeeze it over ice cream. This stuff is solid in the fridge, liquid when you heat it, and firm when you pour it over ice cream. It does taste better than Magic Shell, though–probably because all of its ingredients are real food and it contains no…wax? Or whatever it is that gives Magic Shell its magical properties. In any case, it saved the day for us on Saturday, and the fact that I wizarded it up on the fly without so much as a recipe or measuring cup was magic enough–especially after the streak of minor fails that had led us to that point.

Next time, I’m going to start with a recipe, though. (I did eventually locate the original one using my library’s online magazine archives. I tell ya: Now and then all those hours perfecting my academic research skills really come in handy):

Homemade Magic Shell-ish Ice Cream Topping

6 T butter
6 T bittersweet chocolate chips (or semisweet ones)
1 1/2 T corn syrup

(optional add-ins: a splash of good vanilla and a pinch of salt)

In a pan with a heavy bottom over low heat (or a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave) melt the ingredients together. Stir them up really well. And pour them over the ice cream. Ooh and ahh and eat.



Fall Fruit Crisp

It’s fall, and I can prove it…

  • It’s anniversary time:

Somewhere there is an actual photograph–non-digitized, I mean, like on photographic paperdeveloped at a store (???)–of the two of us on our first anniversary trip, at the top of Chimney Top Rock in Smoky Mountain National Park. I would like to be able to find it and put it here for a couple of reasons: 1) Because that was 11 years ago, and I don’t think we look SO terribly different. In any case, we’re both still smiling. 2) Because my husband professes to hate “selfies,” but I distinctly remembering holding that old camera up over and in front of our faces as the sun started sinking ominously behind the trees, and taking a picture of our goofy, smiling, newlywed-ish selves. So, you see my love, we were doing selfies long before selfies were cool. Which means we’re cutting edge. In flannel shirts and blue jeans.

  • It’s cross-country season. How am I old enough to have a child running cross country? This astonishes me.

He ran so fast–notice the blur!–that he ran right out of one of his shoes on the homestretch. (If you look closely, you’ll see his left foot is shod in only a sock!) That is so perfectly him. I just love it.

  • Things are getting spooky around here.

This is the Cyclops from Percy Jackson, book 2. This mask is a part of his October book report.  For Halloween, he and his brother are dressing as Power Rangers…a fact which is scary in its own way.

(Thanks, Nana and Papa, for teaching my children to “sing” this song. I find it disturbing to watch my beautiful babies go all wonkily-eyed and zombie-ish.)

  • Finally, the Johnny Apple Peeler has been sitting on my counter for like 6 weeks. And I do NOT like “things” on my counter. I like “things” put away. I like counters empty and vast and clean. But this guy has been seeing some serious action.pa082971

Which brings me to the recipe in question:

Fruit crisp. This is something I make ALL the time. I make it so often that I almost-but-not-quite know how to make it without a recipe. Problem is I  no longer really follow the recipe. AND, to be honest, I typically make this on a Friday or Saturday evening, when I’ve just drunk a couple of glasses of wine on an empty stomach, and, so, trying to remember the exact adjustments, omissions, and additions can get kinda dicey. I’m happy, right now, to put that whole system out of business once and for all.

This recipe works great with apples–TART apples, like Granny Smiths (which I’ve used in the pictures below) or Lodis (which cook down in the pan to a deliciously chunky applesauce)–or with cherries. Canned tart cherries work best because they’ve already had much of their juice cooked out of them; frozen tart cherries (which my freezer is full of) taste amazing BUT they release so, so much juice when you bake them that you should really probably cook them on the stovetop before putting them into the crisp. Even if you have drunk two glasses of wine on an empty stomach, don’t forget that step unless you secretly prefer cherry sog to cherry crisp.

(Quick aside: When we picked the aforementioned cherries in Michigan this summer, they were hanging heavy on the trees. I swear to you, you can just reach up and grab a handful of them and then grab another and another and another, without moving from your spot, and without even leaving a detectable hole in the canopy. At one point, our big boy called outo his daddy, “Come in here! I’m in a world of red!” And his daddy ducked under the branches of the tree, looked up, and said, “You aren’t kidding.” To which our son responded, totally deadpan, “Daddy, I do not kid about fruit.”)

Fruit Crisppa082985


5-6 medium apples, peeled and cored (about 5 cups) OR 5 cups of tart cherries

1/3 cup of white sugar, if using apples or 1/2 cup if using cherries

1 tablespoon flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup water (for apples only)


1/2 cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats

1/2 cup white flour

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup butter, melted

  1. Peel and core your apples.

2. Toss them with the sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, and cinnamon.


3. In a separate bowl, combine the crisp ingredients, using a fork to mash the butter into the rest.

4. Place the fruit in an 8X8 inch baking pan which has been greased with cooking spray or butter. Then top with the crumble.

5. Bake at 350 degrees until it’s bubbly and crisp–about 45 minutes to an hour.



Serve warm, topped with vanilla ice cream or not. (I like mine naked.)

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Speed Round Recipe #2: Old-fashioned buckwheat pancakes

Yes, I already have one buckwheat pancake recipe on here, but I don’t use that one anymore. My mom and dad introduced us to old-fashioned buckwheat flour, the kind that comes from grist mills instead of grocery stores.

Dad gave all of the “Lowe kids” a bag of his favorite buckwheat flour for Christmas last year, and the handwritten-by-Mom recipe that came with it has been handily (but untidily) stored in the center of my kitchen island for the last 10 months. It’s looking a little worse for wear, at this point.

But we’ve eaten lots of “buckwheats,” as Dad calls them, and gone through quite a bit of flour. In fact, we ran out of Woodson’s Mill and tried to order more, but they were out for the season (I guess that’s another difference between grist mills and grocery stores). So we ended up ordering some from a different grist mill. It’s pretty good, too, but, Santa, if you’re listening, I need another bag of Woodson’s in my stocking this year.

Buckwheat Pancakes, Grist-mill Style

This recipe makes enough for two hungry adults…or two adults and three kids who are too busy dashing around to eat much breakfast on a Saturday morning. About 12 pancakes. If your kids are hungrier, double it. (Quantities included at the bottom)

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, beaten

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons buckwheat flour

2 tablespoons white flour

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt.

  1. Combine wet ingredients in a little bowl.
  2. Combine dry ingredients in a bigger bowl.
  3. Add the wet to the dry and stir only until combined. Let stand 5 minutes to thicken.
  4. Cook in a medium-hot skillet coated with cooking spray and melted butter.

Doubled recipe: 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1 egg + 1 yolk, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 1 cup buckwheat, 3 tablespoons white flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 3/4 teaspoons salt. 

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Speed Round Recipe #1: Sourdough sandwich bread


A few years ago, when the kids watched The Incredibles for the first time, our big boy (then, perhaps 6 years old) fell off the couch, convulsing with delighted laughter at that moment when Dash hits the water and finds he’s moving far too fast to sink, skimming across the water on his lightning feet.

Somehow, seems we’re doing our best Dash impersonation around here these days.

Literally. They are running and running and running. These kids inherited their father’s speed, which is fortunate for them.

I. do. not. run.

But I’m dashing in different ways, for reasons I don’t fully understand: All three kids go to school all day five days a week, and yet I seem busier than ever. Sure, I have a full-time job and a house to run (which means that I constantly pick up and stash away the flotsam and jetsam generated by three dashing children and a handy–but badly disorganized–husband), but what do I really have to show for myself at the end of each day?

A couple dozen graded English assignments. A few marginally well-maintained potted plants. Flooring that is mostly free of grit and stickiness. And a well-fed family.

Not a lot of long, meandering blog posts to accompany that well-fed family, though. (Try not to be too sad.) So here goes…A speed round with two recipes I use all the time, two recipes whose whereabouts and adjustments always require more cognitive dexterity than I really want to give them when I’m cooking at the end of a oddly dashing day. (Lately, I just google my own recipes when I’m cooking. Because I trust myself so much. What a world!)

Sourdough Sandwich Bread (adapted from thekitchn’s Beginner Sourdough Sandwich Loaf)


2 cups sourdough starter, moderately soupy

1 cup lukewarm water

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or melted butter)

2 tablespoons sugar

4-4 1/2 cups flour (less if using some whole wheat, which I often do)

1 tsp. yeast

1 tablespoon kosher salt

  1. Mix together the sourdough culture, water, and oil in stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  2. Add the 3 1/2 cups of flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt. Mix with the dough hook, adding more flour if necessary–it will need more flour if you’ve used some whole wheat or if your sourdough starter was thinner than mine–to form a fairly firm dough. It’s fine if it’s slightly sticky, but it should be a ball. Keep the mixer running for 5 minutes or so.
  3. Dump out the dough and coat the bowl with some butter or oil. (No need to wash it first.) Let the dough rise, loosely covered, on the countertop of your reasonably warm kitchen until doubled in bulk. This seems to take about 2 or 3 hours in my kitchen. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it again briefly to deflate it. Divide it in two balls and place the two balls into two buttered loaf pans. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  5. Allow it to rise in the pans, loosely covered, for another 60-90 minutes, until it nearly rises to meet the top of the pans.
  6. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slash the tops of the loaves with a super-sharp knife and place them into the preheated oven along with a pan containing about 1/2 cup of water. (This will turn into steam and help your oven give you lovely moist bread.)
  7. After 10 minutes of baking, reduce the heat to 400 degrees and bake for another 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Bread is baked fully when the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees, so check it with a meat thermometer, if you have one sitting around.
  8. Serious bakers would tell you to allow the loaves to cool fully before you cut them, but, honestly, bread is so much better when it’s warm and steamy…why not cut it while it’s still able to melt your salted butter. You can cool it before you turn it into sandwiches for lunchboxes or toast for breakfast, but go ahead and eat some warm with melted butter for dinner.