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Tete-a-tete: Youngest Brother finds a hobby thanks to ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Over the past few years, I have developed a talent for finding binge-worthy shows on Netflix and getting the rest of the family sucked into them. Often, the only result is hours of entertainment, but my recent discovery of “The Great British Baking Show” has led to tangible benefits for 20-year-old Youngest Brother.

If you have not had the pleasure, “The Great British Baking Show” features a dozen talented amateur bakers vying to be named the U.K.’s best. Each week, the show’s judges, renowned cookbook writer Mary Berry and top artisan baker Paul Hollywood, assign a new set of challenges to test the bakers’ skills.

With the exception of the final week of competition, which is among three remaining finalists, one competitor is eliminated each week and one earns the distinction of being that week’s star baker. The tension is diffused by the wonderfully dry observations of hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc.

What makes “The Great British Baking Show” so delightful to watch is the attitude of the competitors. Though all of them want to be the last baker standing, they want to win because they baked well and proved they deserved that honor rather than because others baked poorly and were eliminated.

There seems to be a genuine air of camaraderie among the bakers. They cheer each other on, sincerely compliment each other’s work, offer comfort over the judges’ criticism and even lend a hand if someone else is in trouble. It’s quite refreshing, especially when you’re used to competitive cooking shows like “Hell’s Kitchen.”

When I first began watching “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, there were no takers among the family. I eventually converted Mom, who found it absolutely enchanting after she realized it wasn’t an instructional cooking show.

Enter Youngest Brother, home from college on his winter break and looking for quality time with the family and a quality viewing experience. Quickly swept up in the British baking awesomeness, he found one competitor particularly impressive: Andrew, a 25-year-old aerospace engineer.

In the course of a single episode, Andrew modified his rolling pin to achieve a more uniform thickness of dough, used the word “tessellate” properly and constructed a three-dimensional gingerbread scene according to detailed schematics he drew up himself, accompanied by a checklist that allowed him to track the status of all his gingerbread components.

Youngest Brother, a second-year electrical engineering student, was inspired.

It must be said that Youngest Brother is no stranger to the kitchen. He started cooking as part of Boy Scout campouts in elementary school, and in high school, one of his merit badges required him to plan and prepare three days’ worth of meals for at least two people.

I was one of the beneficiaries of the fruits of his labor, and I still remember the tuna salad he made that had shredded cheese and raisins in it. Youngest Brother, please consider this my official request that you make this again the next time you’re home.

His cooking skills fell by the wayside during his first year of college due to his dining hall-based meal plan and adjusting to the rigors of the electrical engineering major, so last semester was his first time being responsible for his own meals. Regrettably, he wasn’t able to do much advance planning on that front and ended up getting by on cereal, instant ramen, and smoothies purchased at a beverage stand on campus.

When he came home for winter break, he had hopes that perhaps he could recalibrate and get organized enough to eat better next semester, but given how stressful his course load was looking, he wasn’t very optimistic.

And then, he watched Andrew bake a set of savory, hot-water crust pies inspired by a da Vinci spiral. The gear-shaped pies were of different sizes and presented on a series of platforms in such a way that when he turned a mechanism, the pies all rotated like an interlocking set of gears – and they tasted wonderful, too.

If Andrew could accomplish such an incredible feat of pie engineering, why not Youngest Brother? At the very least, he felt confident he could manage more than instant ramen and was excited to explore the possibilities.

It helped, too, that Mom and Dad were supportive of his culinary aspirations. A few days before he went back to school, they reminded him of a cookbook of simple recipes they had given him when he started college and took him to Costco to stock up on easy-to-prepare staples like tuna fish and oatmeal.

Youngest Brother expressed a desire to pick up some ingredients for baking, so Mom suggested they stop at Sauders in Seneca Falls, NY on the drive back to school. It was his first time in what is essentially the Mennonite equivalent of Walmart, and he was astounded by the variety of spices he could buy in bulk – and their very reasonable price tags. He may be the only student on his campus whose post-vacation move-in involved huge sacks of flour and brown sugar and a tub of apple butter.

Cooking has now become part of Youngest Brother’s daily life as well as one of the ways he manages stress. In addition to making his meals, he’s made apple streusel muffins for his friends and a pumpkin Swiss roll for a party. He’s become quite popular at his on-campus job (everyone loves a good and generous baker), and his roommate even bought him an apron.

Should anyone try to convince you that there are no benefits to binge-watching a TV show, please feel free to present Youngest Brother as a binge-watching success story. Thus far, there have been no negative effects.

Well, except for his tendency to speak with a British accent while baking, but that’s a consequence we’re willing to live with.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 1, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: Blue Apron – a Pandora’s box of weekly culinary adventures

We enjoy the humorous situations on TV shows, but truth be told, they often seem a little far-fetched. The grains of truth are certainly there – for example, a child leaving an important school project until the last minute – but surely they exaggerate for comedic effect.

At least, that was what I thought until I found myself in a situation straight out of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

In the pilot episode of this long-running sitcom, Ray buys his mother, Marie, a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club as a birthday gift. As the name of the club suggests, each month, she receives a box of a different kind of fruit.

Rather than seeing this as a thoughtful, enjoyable gift, Marie panics at the amount of fruit she has in her house and how on earth she and her husband, Frank, will be able to eat it all. When she realizes this first delivery isn’t a one-time thing and this scenario will be repeating itself every month for a year, she has a meltdown, demanding to know why Ray would do such a thing to her. He apologizes, completely bewildered.

When I first watched that episode, I found it entertaining but thought Marie was overreacting a bit. A subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club was a pretty creative idea for a birthday present, and it was hard to imagine how the presence of a dozen pears could be so stressful.

And then, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law gave me a subscription to Blue Apron as part of my Christmas present.

Blue Apron is a service that sends you just about everything you need to make a meal – the recipe, the ingredients, and the seasonings. Everything is perfectly portioned and pre-measured to make cooking as easy as possible, and the ingredients are farm-fresh and sustainably sourced to boot.

After choosing three meals from the website, I anxiously awaited my first delivery. I am not the most skilled or experienced cook, and I had my doubts as to how this experiment would play out. I am, however, very good at following directions, a trait I hoped would be my culinary salvation.

When the box arrived, I opened it expecting to see the ingredients for the first meal I had chosen. To my surprise, I found the ingredients for all three meals. I proceeded to have a mild conniption.

How on earth did the Blue Apron people expect me to cook everything in this box before it spoiled? Who did they think I was, Julia Child? Apparently not, given that there wasn’t any wine included in the box.

Mom assured me the produce would keep and that the meat and seafood could be frozen and then thawed when I was ready to use them. She also promised to help me if I wanted her assistance – a truly generous offer, given how much Mom dislikes cooking.

I cooked the first meal, Spicy Shrimp and Korean Rice Cakes, on my own, and Mom and I made the second meal, Seared Chicken and Couscous, together. Each meal took about an hour and a half to two hours to prepare. Everything turned out surprisingly well, thanks to Mom being a helpful extra set of hands and my refusal to let her add or substitute any ingredients.

The biggest challenge we faced was neither the endless washing and chopping of produce nor zesting a lemon while overseeing a pan of sizzling chicken but the simple fact that the Blue Apron meals made two servings and there were six of us at the house at that time, some of whom had dietary restrictions. As such, the Blue Apron meals had to be cooked in addition to whatever else was being made for dinner that evening, making it tricky to plan.

While we were figuring out when we could fit in the Potato and Artichoke Quiches, another box, containing three additional meals, arrived. These meals, I should add, were selected by Blue Apron without my input. You should have seen my face when I unpacked a tray of raw catfish filets.

In that moment, I completely identified with Marie’s panic over the Fruit of the Month Club. How could there already be more food? I hadn’t finished making the food from last week! How am I going to cook everything before it goes bad when I still have to meet my work deadlines and manage all my other responsibilities?

To quote Marie, “I can’t talk, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

Mom took pity on me and made the quiches herself. But before I was able to make any of the meals from the second box, a third box of Blue Apron-selected meals arrived.

There is nothing quite like the guilt brought on by the combination of a busy schedule and a fridge full of sustainably-sourced fresh produce. The famed Irish Catholic guilt pales in comparison.

Since the arrival of the third box, I’ve managed to make two more meals on my own – well, apart from that panicky moment when Younger Sister had to race into the kitchen and help me open a package of ground beef because I couldn’t do that and stir a pan of sizzling aromatics at the same time.

Though the Blue Apron subscription has been a source of stress, it’s been an excellent learning experience and an opportunity to broaden my horizons. My peeling, coring, and chopping skills have improved, and I now know what a fennel bulb looks like. When I first took it out of the box, I thought I had accidentally been sent a heart transplant for the Jolly Green Giant.

I also have more confidence in my ability to determine if meat or seafood is appropriately cooked and of course, Boots, our family cat, loves her concurrent subscription to the Box of the Week Club.

I’d offer a bit more of a wrap-up here, but it’s getting toward dinner time and I need to cook Lemon-Caper Catfish with Spiced Lentils and Collard Greens because I don’t know if there’s a fourth box currently in transit. I’ve been so busy cooking, I haven’t had time to contact Oldest Younger Brother and ask him how long this subscription lasts.

And I just discovered that the all-important lemon has mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club is in order.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Feb. 2, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: Serve up a slice of family traditions, new or old

As children grow up and leave the nest, long-held family holiday traditions change. Sometimes they’re replaced with new traditions, and sometimes the old traditions evolve to accommodate the current shape of family life.

Since their marriage nearly three years ago, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law have alternated holidays between their families, spending Christmas with one and Thanksgiving with the other. Since they spent Thanksgiving with us in 2015, they celebrated Christmas with us in 2016.

Though we certainly miss their presence on Christmas, their absence on Thanksgiving is considerably more challenging as it affects the logistics of our annual pumpkin pie-making competition. Historically, the four of us siblings split into two teams and compete to see who can make the best pumpkin pie, using the same recipe that Oldest Younger Brother and I have used since childhood.

We aren’t the greatest bakers, though Oldest Younger Brother has shown marked improvement since moving out of the house and learning how to cook for himself. Making the “best” pumpkin pie means not making too many mistakes in measuring out the ingredients and coming up with a result that is generally edible.

Now that Sister-in-law has joined our family, we split up into one team of three and one team of two. But when Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law aren’t with us for Thanksgiving, there’s no fair way to divide the remaining three siblings.

This past Thanksgiving, Dad proposed a novel solution to our dilemma. Instead of us siblings competing, he and Mom would duke it out for best pumpkin pie bragging rights. They agreed that Dad would make the recipe we traditionally ruin – I mean, use – and Mom would make a recipe from one of her cookbooks.

Mom made her pie first, and her efforts quickly began to mirror that of myself and my younger siblings. She somehow managed to cut herself without having anything sharp in the vicinity, with the possible exception of a broken eggshell. It had been a while since Mom last used the mixer, so she had forgotten which direction to turn the dial to shut it off. Regrettably, she chose the wrong direction and pie filling sprayed across the counter.

Dad surveyed the scene and commented, “I made the turkey, and I didn’t use that many dishes.”

“You may have made the turkey, but I made the mess,” Mom cheerfully retorted.

Dad cleaned up the kitchen before starting his pie, for which he used one bowl and no mixer. Mom kept a close eye on him, jokingly criticizing his cooking process: “He’s looking a little messy over there.”

She nudged me. “Don’t have anything to drink before dinner. It might make Dad’s pie look better.”

Dad finished his pie – and both his and Mom’s cleanup – in 15 minutes. Mom’s pie preparation took about half an hour to 45 minutes.

In Mom’s defense, one reason it took her so long to make her pie was because she was simultaneously having a conversation with me, which impacted her ability to focus on what she was doing.

The other factor was Mom’s proclivity for substituting ingredients. Her theory is that if two ingredients are roughly the same color and texture, they are interchangeable. This has led to such occurrences as the Savory Muffin Incident, in which she substituted cilantro for parsley.

Cooking also brings out Mom’s natural creativity, which can lead to her adding ingredients that seem like they’ll mesh well with the rest of the recipe. Given her theory about substitution, this does not always end well.

In the case of the pumpkin pie, she was thinking about adding some additional spices. I ultimately talked her out of it, making the argument that she didn’t want to lose to Dad because she had strayed from the recipe.

Finally, it came time for the moment of truth – which, I must admit, was somewhat anticlimactic. Mom was especially eager to know our thoughts on the pies and which one we preferred, but it was hard to choose.

To my palate, both pies were excellent but similar, with Mom’s tasting a little bit sweeter and Dad’s having a slightly stronger pumpkin flavor. Youngest Brother and Younger Sister didn’t taste much of a difference either. To Mom’s great disappointment, it ended in a draw.

I will confess that my perception of the pies’ flavors may have been affected by the sizable amount of whipped cream I had automatically placed on my slices. After nearly three decades of eating burnt pies with incorrectly measured ingredients, it’s a reflexive act of self-preservation. Without a hefty serving of whipped cream, you might taste the pie, which isn’t always a good thing.

Though Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law are slated to spend Thanksgiving with us this year, it’s hard to say if the pie-making competition will revert to its previous format. Youngest Brother will be a sophomore in college and might study abroad, and Younger Sister will be a college freshman and may or may not come home for the holiday depending on her location. More changes will come over time as spouses, children and job changes continue to enter the picture.

Cherish the traditions you have while you have them and embrace the ways in which they evolve. It might require some adjustment on your part, but the new memories you make and the new adventures you have will be well worth it – especially if they involve your parents mocking each other’s pies.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Jan. 5, 2017


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