Margaret’s new skirt is missing a button, and if you give the hem the gentlest tug, it is likely to slip right down off her hips.  Her new sweater has lovely gold sequins, except on the left elbow, where several are missing, mashed or halved.  Her new boots fit best with thick socks, and her new, red, sparkly shoes will fit perfectly, hopefully by next September.  But the very best thing about these clothes is how they reached us: on an airplane.  Seated at the computer in the kitchen, we opened up Google maps and traced the route Margaret’s new outfit took, all the way from Seattle to our doorstop in Pennsylvania.  These are her favorite clothes ever, thanks to my college friend’s daughters whom she’s never even met.

The contents of the package from Seattle, perhaps not meant to be worn all at once?

Little siblings rarely wear new clothes, but we only got away with dressing Margaret in worn, blue, racecar pajamas for just so long.  My sister-in-law, who has two much-older girls, drew the line when baby Margaret showed up in a baseball-themed onesie emblazoned with the ridiculous: “Daddy’s Little Slugger.”  Suddenly, the attic door opened and the cousins’ clothes started flowing.  Friends with older girls similarly took pity, and it is now hard to shut Margaret’s closet door.  Since then, it is a rare week when Margaret sports all new clothes, and not just because she can still fit into some of her own baby clothes.  She parades around school in Charlie’s friend Molly’s old threads; the lovely and kind-hearted Molly will stop her in the hallway, do a quick once over, and summarize: “Margaret, those were my shoes and sweater.  They look so nice on you!”  What could make a little kid feel cooler?

Wearing hand-me-downs means someone has your back, or at least that they gave you the shirt off their own back.  It makes you feel cared for, whether you are three, or several decades older.  And the hander-downer feels the love just the same as the recipient.  I adore seeing my Brooklyn hipster nephew decked out in Charlie’s preppy baby duds.  His parents would never have selected embroidered seersucker, but if it belonged to Charlie, Dylan will wear it with pride.  Margaret’s baby clothes (or at least the girly ones) are, as of last week, now being worn by the second baby girl of one of my good friends.

This is not just for kids.  Hand-me-downs have always been cool, and the reason I know this is that marketers have told me so.  Clothiers adopt the language of hand-me-downs to sell brand new clothes: there is a whole genre of clothing that, they will have you believe, once belonged to an anonymous “boyfriend,” cast-offs from some imaginary Ken doll with perfect taste.  The clothes slide off the hanger, intentionally weathered, a bit slouchy, designed to hang off of you and make you feel svelte and teeny, enveloped in the garments of some beefy, generous beau.

These clothes may feel cool, but only in that they remind you of the real deal.  Hand-me-downs are sexy, in a slinking-across-campus-while-the-sun-comes-up sort of way.  True “boyfriend jeans” are the ones that, in fact, once belonged to your boyfriend.  There was one particular pair that fit me beautifully, faded and worn in all the right places, outlasting by decades my relationship with their original owner.  To be honest, I retired them only recently, fearing I had become somewhat, eh, matronly for them.  My favorite workout shorts in college bore the logo of a California prep school I have never seen in person, but they were bequeathed by a favorite sorority sister and I wore them until the elastic ripped.  I always felt a bit smug in them, anointed by the big kids, something eternally cool.  (Ever notice how the youngest kid in the family is the coolest?  I say this as the oldest; my younger brother is beyond smooth, having learned from my many gaffes.)

Even Cinderella rocked her mom’s old dress, with a few tweaks.  You say vintage; I say hand-me-down.  My all-time favorite dress is not my own wedding dress but the chic, a-line mini that my mom wore to her 1968 wedding and that I proudly wore to my rehearsal dinner.  And at my husband’s family reunions, my engagement ring goes by its maiden name, “Grandma Hertha’s Ring.”  Call me sentimental, but he had me at “Hertha.”

But surely you knew all along where I was going with this: food.  When it comes to dinner, we all have some favorite hand-me-downs.  Our current go-to is an old recipe from a new friend, who got the recipe, in turn, from her friend who brought her a meal when her first baby, now in kindergarten, was born.  Did you follow?  As with any good hand-me-down, she tweaked the recipe – itself a modified coq au vin – to fit just right, and I have followed suit.  It’s a keeper; just as she asks to wear her “Kathryn-and-Whitney sweater” or her “Molly dress”, Margaret asks for this dinner by name:

Juli Stew

Adapted from http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/recipe_views/views/102665

Serving size: 4 -6 adults, 2 kids

Prep time: 15 minutes (chopping aromatics, opening cans)

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4 bacon slices
  • 2 – 2 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 14 1/2-ounce cans diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen fire-roasted)
  • 1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 6 ounces mushrooms, diced (optional, but so good)
  • 2 15-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney beans), drained

1.  In a Dutch oven, brown bacon over medium-high heat until crisp.  With tongs, remove bacon and drain on paper towel.  When bacon has cooled to the touch, crumble.

2. Remove pan from heat while prepping chicken.  In a shallow plate, mix flour with about 1 teaspoon salt and 10 grinds of fresh pepper.  Dredge chicken thighs lightly in flour, shaking off excess.  Return pan to heat and warm for 1 minute.  Add chicken pieces, a few at a time without crowding, to rendered bacon fat in pot and brown, about 3 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer chicken to large bowl.  Repeat until done.

NOTE: You could omit Step 2 and instead purchase a rotisserie chicken, shred the meat, and add it along with the tomatoes in step 3.  I like the meat cooked in the bacon and then simmered along with the rest of the ingredients, but I, too, have those evenings when it is just not happening.  I know several families who likely would not eat if it weren’t for the miracle of the rotisserie chicken.  I say embrace what works for you.

3.  Pour off all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat from pot. Add chopped onion and minced garlic to pot; sauté 4 minutes. Add bacon, stewed tomatoes, chicken broth, red wine, basil and thyme.  Season with salt and pepper.  Bring to boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Return chicken and any accumulated juices to pot.  Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes.

4.  Add cannellini (and mushrooms, if you are using); simmer 10 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

As with any stew, this keeps beautifully for 1-2 days in the fridge and arguably tastes even better on Day Two.  Shred the chicken once it’s cooked and it will be more like a hearty soup.  Finally, this recipe lends itself nicely to riffs.  Play with any combo of beans, herbs, spices, liquid and charcuterie (i.e., black beans, chorizo, Dos Equis, cilantro and peppers) in roughly the same proportions.

 

Please don’t tell my kids this, but I hate Play-Doh.  I hate the challenge that is removing it from its innocent-looking yellow container without getting it stuck under my fingernails for the rest of the day.  I hate that my children immediately mix at least three different colors together, resulting, after mere seconds of play, in a deep, muddy brown, which then makes them recoil in horror and surprise: “Why is it yucky?” Play-Doh dries out the instant its molecules encounter air, and small pieces of it refuse to adhere to the bigger blob, instead getting tracked into the cracks between the boards in our hardwood floor and stuck in the grout between the tiles on our countertop.  I have found traces of Play-Doh stuck shamefully to the seat of my pants at the end of a long, homebound day.  And although Play-Doh masquerades as a toy that your children can play with by themselves – you know, while you are trying to do something selfish like cook dinner or organize a play date – in fact it requires regular and rigorous parental involvement (“Mommy, please take the lid of this green one!”  “Mommy, I can’t get the Play-Doh spaghetti to come out of the machine!”).  And then there is the inevitable and aggressive parental clean-up required.  Do you know a good way to get the Play-Doh out of the joints of the Play-Doh spaghetti maker so that it will work more than once?  I don’t.  I even hate how Play-Doh is spelled.  Doh?  Were the U and the G somehow too formal, not playful enough letters to include in the name?  Don’t be cute with me, vile carpet-wrecker and stainer-of-all-things-not-black.

Plotting a joint marketing strategy

While I’m on the topic, and despite fond memories from my own childhood, I also hate Legos.  Hate the 94-page instruction manuals that come with the “easy” Lego sets.  Hate that there is no good way to store them.  Hate that nowadays, you can’t just buy a Lego set but instead have to buy into a particular Lego franchise: Ninjas!  Castles!  Star Wars!  Hate that each product doubles as an advertisement for the larger, cooler (read: more expensive) Lego set with which it coordinates.  Hate that the key piece, the one that makes the propeller turn or allows the wheels to spin, is inevitably the one that rolls under the radiator, lost forever in the unfinished section of the hardwood floor around the hot water pipe.   Hate the fragility of the finished product and the fact that if played with in a way appropriate to its design (i.e., flying a plane around the room), the Lego set will surely and tragically crumble.  Being forced to read tiny directions with no words is more than irksome, as is being asked to distinguish between two very similar shades of grey, an error over which will require you to tear apart the set you have spent three hours assembling and start from scratch.  And then there is the dreaded Lego Nail Split, when you use your fingernail to jimmy two sandwiched Lego pieces apart and, in doing so, peel the top layer from the already trashed nail on your pointer finger.  Like Play Doh, Legos require extensive parental assistance, from set up to clean up, and have the added curse of temporarily maiming you should you step on one, barefoot, while kissing the forehead of your sweet, slumbering child in his dimly-lit bedroom at night.

(As a somewhat-related aside, my friend Barrie once posited a toy rating system that would involve the ratio of child fun to parent set-up to parent involvement to parent clean-up, with a number in there somewhere for just how long your child is likely to play with this toy at one sitting, by herself.  I am too spent from picking fluorescent orange Play Doh specks out of our imitation Sisal rug to attempt the math, something I try to avoid even when well-rested, but if she ever comes up with this formula, I will be sure to pass it along.  Thanks to the recent arrival of their third child, however, don’t expect this anytime soon.)

But there are many things from childhood that are pretty darn terrific, and despite my lamentations – dare I call it whining? – I have found one of the many incidental gifts of parenting to be the chance to play again.  For each of us, there is that tummy-fluttering sensation of getting another turn, the chance to build a bigger tower, to sing along, loudly and off-key, while tapping a tambourine on your knee, the satisfying thwack of a soccer ball booted right on the sweet spot, a favorite story read aloud after years trapped in the back of your mind, never fully recalled yet always with you, a genie released from its bottle.  Parents weep when they watch the “Toy Story” movies not because of the toys they know their own children will one day discard.  That hurts only in the wallet.  Instead, it is the memory of that sweetly-smiling doll, tucked forever in a box, or that broken pirate sword, the one-eyed bear, the Sorry board ripped in two and returned to the box, minus the yellow game piece which rolled permanently, unnoticed, under the couch, your own, personal Rosebud.  With your kids as your cover, you get one more whoosh through the Hot Wheels loop, one more hurtle down the Slip-n-Slide, one more hands-in-the-air “BINGO!”  They think you are playing with them; you just feel lucky to be playing.

The fun doesn’t end with the toys.  Revisiting favorite foods can be equally gratifying.  Although many kid foods taste better in your memory than when consumed with an adult palate – Twinkies taste like nothing so much as sugary Nerf foam balls, and I know only one adult who can stomach marshmallow Peeps – some still deliver.  For example, Cheetos.  Despite the fact that they, like Twinkies, have no expiration date and thus should not be trusted as actual food, Cheetos are the bomb.  (Sorry, Mark.)  Finger-suckingly, outrageously delicious.  And I have yet to taste a chocolate-mint combination as compelling as a Thin Mint.  Perfection, brought to you by pigtailed girls wearing jogging shoes, mismatched socks and brown, badge-covered sashes.

My absolute favorite, though, is the Oreo.  Despite the fact that they now come in more varieties than Charlie has Matchbox cars, the original chocolate cookies with the creamy, white middle bits are as good as you remember, if not better.  Not only are they scrumptious, but they can also, in my humble opinion, be considered pioneers in the recent and welcome trend to up the salt content in many desserts.  In her excellent baking bible, Flour, pastry chef Joanne Chang admonishes the home baker to use more salt in sweet pastry recipes.  She’s right, but she goes even further, reinventing the Oreo as a grown-up refrigerator cookie with a bittersweet-chocolate-and-salt kick in the cookie (the cookies would be delicious on their own as wafers to accompany, for example, a homemade vanilla-bourbon ice cream) and a decadent vanilla cream filling.  Even little kids can help assemble these bake-ahead cookies, spreading the icing in the middle with a rubber spatula, screwing on the top, and then immediately devouring the finished product.  Dunk one of them in milk and you’ll feel just like a kid again, although might I suggest that you plan to wear an elastic waistband the next day?

Homemade Oreo Cookies

Adapted from Flour (Joanne Chang, 2010).  As a former non-baker, I am obsessed with this cookbook and the detailed advice that it imparts.  Chang is not alone among bakers in suggesting that you weigh, rather than measure, baking ingredients for greater precision.  As Chang does in her book, I’ve included both measures.  Pick up a simple, digital scale and you may find yourself baking with better results.

Serving Size: 16 sandwich cookies

Prep time:  15 minutes

Resting time: 3 hours

Cooking time: 20-25 minutes

Cookie Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks, or 228 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly*
  • ¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (200 grams) semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled slightly*
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • 1 ½ cups (210 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup (90 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda

* I melted the butter and chocolate chips in my microwave.  If you’re not sure how quickly your microwave melts things, I would suggest setting it at 30-second intervals on high and stirring in between intervals, so you don’t end up with burned butter or chocolate.

Vanilla Cream Filling Ingredients

  • ½ cup (1 stick, 114 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 2/3 cup (230 grams) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 1 generous pinch kosher salt

In a medium bowl, combine melted butter and granulated sugar with a whisk.  Add in first the vanilla and chocolate, and then the egg, whisking until combined.

In a second medium bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda.  Use a wooden spoon to stir the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture.  The dough will seem quite dry, and Chen suggests that at this point, you use your hands to bring it together until it is the consistency of Play-Doh.  And you thought I chose this recipe at random!

Leave the dough in the bowl at room temperature for 1 hour, to firm up.  After one hour, dump the dough onto a long sheet of parchment or waxed paper.  Mold the dough into a rough log about 10 inches long and 2-3 inches in diameter, or slightly larger than the diameter of a packaged Oreo.  Placing the log at the edge of the paper, roll it up so that the paper covers the log.  Using the paper as a guide, roll into a smoother log, taking care not to make it get any skinnier.  Cover the paper-covered log with Saran Wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, re-rolling every 15 minutes or so until really firm, to keep it from settling on one side and losing its round shape.  You can keep the firm, chilled log in the fridge for up to one week, or you can freeze it for one month.  If frozen, thaw overnight in the fridge before slicing and baking.

Move the oven rack to the center position, and preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

Remove log from fridge and unwrap.  Cut into ¼-inch-thick rounds.  Place the rounds about 1 inch apart on the baking sheet.  Ideally, you will cook all 32 wafers at once.   Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cookies are firm to the touch.  Chang suggests that you start checking at 16 minutes and poke the cookies in the middle, since the dark color of the cookies gives you no visual assistance in testing doneness.  Blame her, not me, if, like me, you burn yourself when you try this!  Let them cool on the baking sheet to room temperature, resisting the temptation to fill them hot, lest the icing melt.

While the cookies cool, make the filling.  With a mixer (standing or handheld), beat the butter on low for 30 seconds, or until smooth.  Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth.  Add milk, salt and – you guessed it – beat until smooth.  Chang says it should look and feel “like white spackle. . .  like putty.”  You can store the filling for 2 days at room temperature in an airtight container, or up to 2 weeks in the fridge.  Bring to room temperature before using.

Spread about 1 tablespoon of filling onto one cookie, bottom-side up.  Top with a second cookie, bottom-side down.  Squeeze ‘til the filling oozes out the sides.  Repeat 16 times.

 
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