It’s been my week for trying to do new, unfamiliar things. It took me two days to add a subscription service to this blog. I’ll post something on that in a day or two. Suffice it to say I was a little frustrated when I picked them up from school. And when Delaney suggested that since it’s Chanukah, we should cook something from her children’s “Jewish Holidays Cookbook,” I should have known better. But I said yes. I thought it would be fun.
I thought wrong.
See, the problem with Chanukah is it’s a story about oil. Heated oil. Lighted oil. Lasting longer than it was supposed to. And all of the foods associated with Chanukah are oil based. Potato Latkes (which have always tasted to me like what I imagine a mouthful of hot liquid rubber would taste like), homemade doughnuts, and schmaltz. (It’s a real thing; not just a fun word meaning “corny and melodramatic.”)
Delaney chose cheese sofganiyot, which is a fancy way of saying fried cheese in bread. In the cookbook, there’s a really nice picture of a smiling girl delicately pulling apart a beautiful, golden pat of fried cheese.
Yum. My arteries jumped for joy.
So we went to the store, cookbook in tow because Delaney wanted to get the ingredients right. Pillsbury biscuits and cream cheese, mostly. We had the parsley. We had the cheddar. We had the oil. We were OK.
But when I got home, I suddenly realized that the “350 degrees” I saw in the cookbook was not setting your oven to 350 degrees. It was heating the oil to 350. Fine, I thought, I have a thermometer. But as I pulled out the knife drawer where, for some reason, the meat thermometer lives, I realized it only goes up to 190. Should I go back to the store? It was cold outside. And I had two kids to bundle up. (See story in Chicago Parent or elsewhere on this blog.) So I called a friend.
My friend is pretty resourceful and speculated that there had to be a time-tested way to figure out how hot the oil is without a thermometer. After all, did the ancient Hebrews have thermometers? Her mom, who camps a lot, can bake a cake in a pot by lighting a certain number of coals, that, apparently, equals 350 degrees. So there must be an equivalent setting for a gas stove, right?
My friend didn’t have an answer, but she gave me courage, so I looked it up—and scored on my first try.
“I'm too cheap to buy a thermometer. What's the best way to tell the temperature of oil for frying?” That was the question on Yahoo. Nevermind that thermometer’s are like, a buck. Here was a question that could yield potential answers. And, as I scrolled down, I found some:
• Set it to medium. Put a cube of bread in. If it sinks to the bottom, it’s too cold. If it stays in the middle, it’s getting warmer. If it sizzles and spins on top, it’s hot. And if it burns immediately, it’s too hot.
• Set it to medium. Toss in a drop of water. If it sizzles and dances, it’s just about right.
• Set it to medium. Throw a match in. See if it will light. (I’m serious. This was an answer.)
That, of course, led to some pretty sanctimonious people sure that without a thermometer, the kitchen was definitely going up in flames. One even went so far as to say, “Smooth move, exlax.”
And I thought, “What ever happened to civility?”
I figured I’d try the water thing.
So, the three of us measured out three ounces of cream cheese (which equals six tablespoons, if anyone wants to know) and added in the cheddar and parsley, and patted down the Pillsbury biscuits and put two together with the cheese mixture in the middle and repeated. Then I turned on the oil.
And I fretted. Finally, I ran downstairs and found the fire extinguisher, still in the box from when we moved in 8 1/2 years ago. I brought it up. I set it in the middle of the kitchen. Ready to go.
For some reason, Dixon chose this moment to practice piano.
Suddenly, I’m stuck between, “Mom, how does this go?” and waiting for a pot of oil on my stove to explode into flesh eating flames. And the noise coming from the music room, which is the house’s dining room and, thus, right off the kitchen, is not soothing my nerves. But I have a tough time getting her to practice. So, I let her plunk along.
“Go over that third section again,” I said, running back into the kitchen, filling up a 1/4 teaspoon with water and tossing it into the oil. It did more than sizzle. It popped. It looked like a volcano about to blow. So I took the pot off the stove, and found myself thinking, “I’m standing here with a pot of boiling oil.”
I imagine that’s the last type of thought for people who posthumously win Darwin Awards.
It seemed to be calming down, though, and I finally put it back on a lowered flame, and scooped the bread and cheese mixture into the oil. It was too hot, and I’m glad I abandoned the 2 minute dictate in the recipe and just watched the food. The first three came out a little dark. The last two, perfect.
Then, as Delaney took her fist bite, she ran up to me and said, “Mom, this is great!”
I wish I could deliver some schmaltz and say that compliment made it all worth possibly burning us alive. It didn’t. But they were pretty damn good.