Tag Archives: cookbooks

BookloverCook Reviews: Slices of Life by Leah Eskin

One of my favorite kinds of books, there have been so many of them over recent years that they might constitute a genre by now, is the food memoir. A book that explores, pokes, prods, and marinates in the connection between food and our internal lives. Because sure, food nourishes our physical bodies, but it also nourishes our souls – or at least it should – and thus the experience of it can be emotional, memorable, important.

Slices of Life by Leah Eskin, published in early April, has this connection at its heart. A compilation of her Chicago Tribune column, “Home on the Range,” this book packs a decade of such exploration into a single volume that can be enjoyed in quick bites or as long, leisurely meals. And speaking of meals, each column includes a recipe – 200 overall. These recipes are, for the most part, very accessible to the home cook. They aren’t fancy or complicated; they are the dependable, comforting fare that you cook for your family, which is, of course, what Eskin was doing during the years she was also writing the column.

Slices of Life

I have to admit that upon first receiving the advance copy of this book to review, I thought I wasn’t going to like it. The idea of a whole book of newspaper columns just didn’t sound like it would be up my alley. As much as I like to read about food, I need a story. Fortunately, Eskin is much more adept with her form than I gave her credit for and this book has a definite story – one that is funny, relatable, and touching.

In a creative and masterful way, Eskin arranges her columns – supplemented here and there by sections of new writing to provide necessary linkages – in a way that I like to think of as a mosaic. Through each essay you get a close-up, intimate view of individual moments and events in her life both big and small: a summer beach trip with her family, the death of her grandmother, a bad haircut, a move across the country, a storm that knocks the power out. And then through reading them all you can pull back and see the big picture of her life with all her identities: as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, pet owner, professional writer, and more. I loved reading one at a time when I could, finding pockets of reading time here and there to read one or two, but I also spent a few multi-hour sessions devouring scores of them.

Another aspect of this book that I admire, as a person who writes and adapts recipes, is Eskin’s recipe writing style. The only thing that can make a recipe “yours” (both figuratively and legally) is unique writing, especially in the method/instructions section. Eskin has this type of unique recipe writing down to a science. Take this recipe for Sparkling Salad, a celebratory dish Eskin includes after a poignant column about a breast cancer scare:

Serves any number (count about two pieces of fruit per person). Scrutinize the fruit drawer; gather all your citrus options. Lots of oranges, plenty of tangerines, some clementines, a grapefruit, a lemon, a lime. Relying on your sharpest knife, cut away the peel and pith of each. Slice into translucently thin rounds. Arrange the circles in a shallow bowl (glass would be traditional). Scatter with a handful of pomegranate seeds, if the arrangement is lacking color. Douse with Champagne. Chill until stunningly cold (if your fridge isn’t up to the task, consider a few minutes in the freezer). This recipe is a descendant of that culinary classic, Orange Ambrosia, also called, endearingly, Bride’s Dessert. In other words, exquisitely simple. Also bracingly delicious. And full of early-morning optimism.

Slices of Life speaks to precisely what I love about food writing and what makes food so important in all our lives. “I write about food,” she says in the Introduction, “so I write about home, about family, and about love. It’s not always Strife or Injustice; it’s rarely Paris. But it is, I’d say, Important.”

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Brussels tops from The Oxbow Box, my new best friend

The Oxbow Box ProjectLast week, I was lucky enough to be given a box of produce as part of The Oxbow Box Project. Oxbow is an organic farm and education center here in Washington state, and I am thrilled to be able to help get the word out about them.

The box of produce I got was from Oxbow’s CSA program. For those who may not be familiar, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and essentially means that you – as an individual or family – buy a share in the harvest of a particular farm. Once you’ve signed up for a share you receive a box at regular intervals containing produce that is currently being harvested at the farm. It is a wonderful way to eat seasonally, and to learn about fruits and vegetables you’ve never used in your cooking before.

The Oxbow Box

My first experience with a CSA box was several years ago when I was living in DC and had decided to go vegan. Once I made that decision, I quickly realized that much (MUCH) of my regular diet did not fit the restrictions of a vegan diet, and that if I was going to do this thing and still be healthy, I needed to eat more vegetables. Lots more vegetables.

So, I signed up for a CSA as a way to force myself to do just that. Sure, I could have not eaten the produce and let it go bad in the fridge, but the combination of being a semi-impoverished early twenty-something and having an aversion to wasting food basically guaranteed that I would eat all the dang vegetables come hell or high water.

This period of enforced vegetable eating led to a much more veggie-focused diet that I have happily maintained, even though I am not vegan anymore. I decided to treat this CSA box the way I treated my boxes back then – as my week’s allotment of produce, the challenge of which is to make it last the week without letting anything go to waste.

This can be a really fun challenge…at least if you have a good attitude about it and like to cook. It can also be stressful if you just want something you know you can turn into dinner. To get myself into the right mood, I like to pretend like I am on Chopped or Iron Chef America!

Ahem, anyways… This is what I found when I opened my Oxbow box:

  • Carrots
  • Purple Romano beans
  • Brussels sprouts tops
  • Broccoli
  • Walla Walla onion
  • New potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Apples
  • Lemon cucumbers
  • Tomato

A pretty good haul, right?! And only a few things that I don’t generally use (whew!) The carrots and tomato I used in salads throughout the week, and the apples I happily just munched on for breakfast or a snack. The broccoli I roasted one night – my favorite way to eat broccoli – and the potatoes I used in this DELICIOUS potato and green bean salad from The Garden of Eating.

All of that was easy enough, because they were vegetables and fruits that I use on a regular basis. By the middle of the week I had to start getting creative. (I mean, what are Brussels sprouts tops anyways?)

My bible when I need to cook with an unfamiliar vegetable – or even want to try something new with a familiar one – is the book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Not only does it contain hundreds of mouth-watering vegetarian recipes, it also devotes a page or two to explaining each vegetable, enumerating cooking techniques that can be used with it, and listing flavors that go well with it. It is a life-saver.

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Using this treasured tome as a guide, one night I prepared the Romano beans topped with a spicy, bright olive tapenade sauce. Another night I created a variation of this quinoa dish with pickled radishes, using the radishes, radish greens, and lemon cucumbers.

Olive tapenade sauce

But those Brussels sprouts tops were still staring me in the face whenever I opened the fridge. I returned to Madison for inspiration, and this time really made use of her complimentary flavors lists to figure out what could potentially go well with the Brussels tops. After ruminating on that list, it struck me to create a riff on this favorite pizza I told you about a few weeks ago.

Let me tell you people, I am really happy I made this pizza. It is crazy good. A little weird? Yes. But so, so good. Here it is…stay with me here: shredded Brussels tops and spinach cooked with onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes, fresh mozzarella, and capers, topped with parsley and lemon juice. It’s creamy, it’s spicy, it’s tangy and a little salty, and it has that lovely roasty-toasty taste of roasted Brussels sprouts.

Brussels tops pizza

A traditional pizza it is not, but I will be making it again. The best part is that it turned Brussels tops, a vegetable (rather, part of a vegetable) I’d never heard of or used, into my new best friend. That’s the beauty of a CSA. Thank you Oxbow, for giving me the chance to cook with these wonderful ingredients!

Spicy Brussels Tops Pizza with Capers and Parsley

Inspired by Smitten Kitchen and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Makes one 12-14 inch pizza

In order to shred the Brussels sprouts tops I ran them through the slicing blade of my food processor. The grating blade made the shreds way too small, but the slicing blade did the trick. Admittedly, Brussels sprouts tops are not an incredibly common ingredient. But, you could easily use actual Brussels sprouts in the same way and I think it would taste very similar – and similarly delicious.

  • half of this pizza crust (I left the honey out this time and it worked well for this pizza)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • one small onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups shredded Brussels sprouts tops
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
  • 1 tbsp capers, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • lemon juice from 1/2 a lemon

Preheat oven to 500°F.

Sauté onion over medium-low heat with 2 tablespoons olive oil for 3-4 minutes until translucent. Then add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the garlic is fragrant.

Add the shredded Brussels tops, spinach, salt, and red pepper flakes, and sauté until the Brussels tops are tender (5-10 minutes).

While that is cooking, roll out the pizza dough into a 12- to 14-inch disk and transfer to pizza pan or stone. Lightly brush the dough with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edge dry.

Evenly sprinkle the cheese on the oiled dough. When the greens are done, spread them over the cheese, then top with the capers.

Put the pizza in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, until the crust is brown and crisp.

Remove the pizza from the oven, sprinkle with parsley and lemon juice. Slice and serve.

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Bake sale bestseller: Snickerdoodles

It’s 1986. It’s my first solo shopping trip. I’m walking through aisles of canned foods, boxes, bags, filling my basket with the makings of a wonderful feast.

This particular shopping trip, and many more that followed it, was on the floor of the kitchen in my childhood home. The wares I was choosing from consisted of nearly every single dry food item from our cabinets, which my mom had taken out at my request and neatly organized in rows. My mom was a very patient woman.

me at 8

As I got older, in addition to “shopping” for food, I liked to help cook it. Well, actually my particular interest was in baking. Around age eight I had also developed my entrepreneurial streak and decided I wanted to have a bake sale. So, my mom and I set about making half a dozen different treats (again, I’d like to mention the patience) that I then bagged up and sold from behind an orange and yellow plastic table in front of the town post office.

Most of the bake sale items came from a thin, tattered (even then) cookie cookbook. I’ve never forgotten that cookbook – the look of the pictures and drawings, the way the pages felt, even the few oft-made recipes whose pages were dotted with grease and chocolate stains.

When David and I visited my family a few weeks ago I asked my mom if she still had that cookbook, fully expecting she had tossed it years ago. But she thought she did indeed still have it, and after digging out a pile of cookbooks that filled the dining room table she had retrieved it for me (the patience is still there). She also gave me a couple other cookbooks that she said I used to like to cook from as a kid and said I could have them all, including the well-loved cookie book.

kid cookbooks

I don’t know what this cookie cookbook is called or where it’s from – the front and back covers are gone, along with most of the introduction and index, and the spine is barely holding. But to me, it is a treasure.

Once I got home and had a day where I could actually bake something from it, I knew immediately what cookie I wanted to make first. The Snickerdoodles. The Snickerdoodle is the cookie that stands out in my memory of my bake sale days. I’m not quite sure why, because when flipping through the cookbook I found other recipes that looked more popular with my child-baked-goods-selling self.

The Cocoa Brownies page is particularly grimy and covered in stars, check marks, and other marginalia that leads me to believe it was a favorite. The recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies is furiously circled and includes meticulous notes, in my mom’s handwriting, on measurements for a double batch. I’m assuming these were for the benefit of an ambitious eight-year-old who didn’t know her multiplication tables yet.

But maybe, just maybe, the humble Snickerdoodle was the bake sale bestseller, because it is the one I remember most distinctly. There’s something about it – it seems simple, just a plain sugar cookie dough rolled in cinnamon-sugar. It’s really so much more than just the sum of its parts though, isn’t it? At least it is to me.

Snickerdoodles

First, there’s the magic that every kid knows as cinnamon-sugar. It can make even the plainest foods delicious (read: sweet). I loved to eat it on buttered toast, which now that I think about it has a very similar flavor profile to Snickerdoodles. And then there’s the texture of the Snickerdoodles: wonderfully soft and chewy, with just the slightest crust on the outside from the cinnamon-sugar.

cinnamon-sugar

There’s something else about Snickerdoodles though, at least this version from my youth. They have a distinct savory, umami-like taste to them that is really what makes them memorable for me. I ate a lot of cookies in order to be able to describe this taste (oh the things I do for you!)…and the best I could come up with is that it is almost metallic in quality. Ha! So much for that research. But I promise it’s not unpleasant. Please for the love of god, someone tell me you know what I’m talking about!

cream of tartar

Anyways, in the course of eating a couple (dozen!) of these cookies, I decided that the source of this unidentified taste had to come from either the cream of tartar or the shortening – or the combination of the two, plus the dash of salt? I drew this semi-conclusion because they are the only two ingredients in this recipe that are not in the other cookie recipes I’ve made in the recent past.

Cream of tartar is in there to act as an acid that helps the baking soda do its thing, which I assume is what causes them to puff up into thick little burgers instead of spreading out into a flat cookie. And, as we all know from the dilemma of pie crust, the shortening makes the cookie tender. Luckily though, there’s still enough butter to make sure they taste good.

creamed

Whatever this specific combination of ingredients is doing, when added all together they equal my childhood. One bite of one of these soft, savory-sweet cookies and I am back in the kitchen of our little trailer in Colorado.

I can feel the cold, hard countertop under my hands. I can see the sink underneath the kitchen’s only window that looks out into the street. I can see my mom there, doing dishes, watching my sister and brother play through that window. I want to walk up to her there, her past-self, and give her a big hug – for the patience she had already showed me at that point, and for all the patience that was to come. Thank you mom, I love you!

childhood cookie

Childhood Snickerdoodles

Adapted from the name-unknown cookie cookbook of my childhood
Makes about 2 dozen cookies

I hemmed and hawed a bit about posting these cookies. I mean, there’s shortening in them! What kind of hip foodie uses shortening?! Well, it turns out that a) I am not really a hip foodie and b) these cookies are just too nostalgically good for me not to share. That being said, if you have a Snickerdoodle recipe that is a bit more modern, but still retains that nostalgic taste, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. In the meantime, I will be enjoying these and maybe tinkering with them to create such a recipe myself.

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 400°.

Cream 1 1/2 cups sugar, butter, shortening, and eggs together in a stand mixer, or with a handheld mixer, until light yellow and fluffy.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Then add dry ingredients to wet, mixing until just incorporated.

Mix remaining sugar and ground cinnamon together in a shallow dish.

Shape dough by rounded teaspoonfuls into balls. Roll balls in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Then place about an inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake until set, 8-10 minutes. Immediately remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack.

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Food Books I Love: the French edition

At any given time since I was 16, you could have called me, quite accurately, a Francophile. Lately though, this interest/mild obsession has been reinvigorated by some lovely books about France and – more importantly – French food.

I can trace my love of all things French back to high school when I made the romantic and wildly impractical decision to take French class instead of Spanish to fulfill my mandatory language credits. Those classes led to my participation in a high school trip to Europe (still not sure how I got my parents to pay for that one). It was three days in each of three cities: Edinburgh, London, and Paris.

Paris was my favorite and those three days are solidly etched in my mind as three of the best days of my life. Could this dramatic distinction be the result of the haze of nostalgia and hyperbole of teenage emotions? Possibly. But I did have a wonderful time.

There was one afternoon in particular that has always shined the brightest in my memory. It involves getting lost, as I often was before the age of smart phones. But this time, as my friends and I wandered the streets of Paris with little to no idea where we were, instead of nervously trying to figure my way back to something I knew and recognized, I embraced the adventure of the unknown.

In my memory, which is vivid if not 100% accurate, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, Paris has put on its finest garb to greet the wide-eyed Alaskan high school students that wandered in its midst. Wandered with only a few francs each, I might add. After a couple of hours blissfully walking the streets looking at everything, but looking for nothing, we happened upon a bakery. Like you do in Paris. I’m not sure if it would have been up to snuff by Parisian standards, but to my taste buds it was ambrosia. We sat at a little round table out in the afternoon sun and shared a couple different pastries between us (remember the dearth of francs), each more delicious than the next.

I sat there outside that pastry shop, in my own version of heaven, and remember imagining myself living this life. Imagining what it would be like if I lived in this neighborhood, in that building up the street where each apartment has its own little balcony – mine would be the one with the overflowing flower pots that left just enough room for someone to stand among them and look out over the city. Imagining that this was my neighborhood bakery and that every evening on my way home from work I would stop in to buy myself a sweet treat for dessert. It was intoxicating, this imagining.

This experience, small (and a tad naïve) though it seems now that I retell it as an adult, was pivotal to me as a teenager on the road to becoming an adult. It opened my eyes to another way of life, to a big world that existed outside of my own experiences. I might have known, in theory, that there was a big world out there that I hadn’t seen, but the reality of it hit me like a smack in the face and left me dumbfounded and grinning.

This one afternoon, My Afternoon in Paris as the file in my brain reads, made me want more of that big world. I talked about this afternoon in college admissions essays, it inspired me to study abroad my junior year, it was one of those moments that shapes your life. And all over some pastries. Some damn good pastries.

The women in the books I review this week are certainly very different, from me and from one another, but they too embraced France, welcomed it into their lives and their imaginations, and it changed them.

My Life in France cover

My Life in France is beloved and iconic chef Julia Child’s autobiography. It spans her life, but really focuses on her time in France while she got her culinary education, both formally at Le Cordon Bleu and informally on the streets of Paris, and spent almost a decade writing her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

After reading this book, I wanted to be Julia Child’s best friend. And I wanted to move to France. Since neither of these things is likely to happen any time soon, I treasure the presence of this book in my life. I can pluck it from my bookshelf (or, ahem, check it out from the public library) any time I want and be instantly transported to Julia’s France – and oh! what a France it is. I defy anyone not to fall in love with the French locales described in this book. The colors, the smells, and, most of all, the tastes of all the places Julia and her beloved husband Paul lived and visited – from Paris to the port city of Marseille – will stay with you long after you finish reading.

And then there is Julia herself, whose character simply bursts off the pages. She has this big, fun, boisterous, passionate personality and you really come to feel as if you know her – as if she is speaking straight to you from across a little, round, Parisian table, telling you her stories.

Many of these stories are about her cookbook, her life’s work, and contain all the right kind of fascinating details about the process of its creation – making you feel like you are a lucky observer peeking into a wonderful, secret world you were never meant to see. Many other stories are personal ones of her life with her husband Paul. Their tender, solid relationship is the part of this book that I was least expecting, but most enjoyed. Their life as described in these pages – despite unavoidable hard times, including a brush with Senator McCarthy and a depressed period of living in Germany – is truly enviable,  full of adventure, laughter, mutual respect, and intense devotion.

This book was also, of course, the inspiration for the Julia-half of the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, written and directed by the late Nora Ephron.

Lunch in Paris cover

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard, is in many ways a similar tale of a woman who finds herself, both physically and symbolically, in France.

Elizabeth falls in love with a French man and moves to Paris where, after some hemming and hawing, she marries him. In many ways, however, this is just the beginning of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to love in the recounting of this early phase of Elizabeth’s relationship with her eventual husband, Gwendal, including some very seductive recipes that I wanted to rush to my kitchen to make immediately.

The parts of Elizabeth’s experience that really spoke to me though, are the ones that go beyond the romantic ideal she seemed to be living. These are the stories about her struggles to build a new life – a stranger in a strange land. Her accounts of the loneliness she felt, how difficult it was to make friends, her attempts to understand French women’s nuanced attitudes toward food and body image, her integration into a new family. All told with an honesty that is inviting, an optimism that is inspiring, and a graceful wisdom that instructs.

The method of sharing her experiences in vignettes can sometimes feel a little choppy, simply because they can make the reader feel like there are parts of the story that are missing and you don’t want to miss one second of this engaging tale. The overall structure of the book is a success though – it is narrative and reads like a novel, but includes recipes at the end of each chapter that pair perfectly with the theme of what preceded.

Don’t forget that you can find reviews and rating for these, and other books for food-lovers on my Good Reads page!

Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I go find a pastry…

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The one cookbook I held out

I’m going to just get right to it today and show you this. This is the Macaroon Tart from Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson, well my version of it at least.

Blackberry Macaroon Tart

Yum! Now for more context. This post could also be titled: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Cook Every Single Thing Heidi Swanson Tells Me To…Every. Single. Thing. I didn’t call it that because it’s actually a lesson I learned months ago when I bought her second cookbook, Super Natural Every Day.

Her first cookbook, Super Natural Cooking, has been on my wish list for a while, but I just never pulled the trigger to buy it. I also, of course, love her blog 101 Cookbooks, which is one of the first blogs I read regularly when I started getting back into cooking after the desolate years – when it came to food anyway – known as College and Post-College Poverty. But her second cookbook. Oh man, this is where it’s at.

Super Natural Every Day

I know that much has been said about it already, but I can’t help adding by voice to the chorus. The photography is stunning, so I was immediately pulled in and excited to start trying the recipes. After cooking 5 or 6 recipes that came out absolutely delicious with surprisingly little effort, I realized I had something special on my hands. Since then I’ve made 24 (!) of the recipes in the book and they have been, almost without exception, incredible and not at all difficult to make. And it’s vegetarian! Just perfect.

The Yogurt Biscuits? Sublimely flaky and layered.  The Kale Salad w/coconut and sesame oil? Nutty, crunchy, delightful. The Whole Grain Rice Salad w/cherries and goat cheese? Surprisingly bright and expertly textured. The White Beans & Cabbage? Homey, savory goodness. The Chickpea Stew? Rich, luscious and comforting. The Buttermilk Cake (I made mine w/strawberries)?! Subtly sweet, just delicious. You get the idea.

When we moved cross-country and I faced the fact that I couldn’t have all my cookbooks with me in the temporary place we would be living for a month while we looked for a permanent house, there was one cookbook that I held out from the boxes to cook from during that month and it was this cookbook. (In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I think you should buy this cookbook!)

The 24th recipe I made from SNED was this Macaroon Tart. I know, I know it’s another blackberry recipe. I promise this is not actually a blog solely devoted to blackberries. But, ’tis still the season (for blackberries that is) and that won’t be the case for much longer, so I am taking advantage.

Blackberries

This time I bought my blackberries from the farmers market that I went on and on about in my last post. They were just so plump and perfect…and I so very very lazy. So instead of picking them myself, I bought a pint at the market and skipped gleefully home (metaphorically at least) to make this tart that I have had dog-eared for months.

Mise en place

It came together in no time and is a trifecta of textures and flavors. The crust is crunchy and buttery, the macaroon filling is soft and chewy, and the jammy pockets of blackberries burst with equal parts sweet and tart. Whether it’s the first or the 24th recipe you’ve made from Super Natural Every Day, it is a winner.

Finished tart

Macaroon Tart

Adapted slightly from Super Natural Every Day
Makes one 8 x 11 inch tart, or one 9-inch round tart and two mini tarts (if you, like me, do not have the former)

I didn’t have all the ingredients that are called for, specifically the healthier options for flour and sugar, so I made some substitutions. Because of that, my version is perhaps more accessible, but not as wholesome. If you’re using this much butter in a recipe I can’t imagine health is the first thing on your mind, but by all means use the called-for ingredients if you have them.

Here I’ve listed my notes on the recipe, but to view the entire recipe and instructions for baking it, please click here to visit the blog Tartlette where the recipe is posted with permission of the publisher.

My recipe notes:

  • Instead of 1 1/2 cups of white whole wheat flour, I used 1 cup AP flour and 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour.
  • Instead of finely shredded unsweetened coconut, I used large flake unsweetened coconut.
  • Instead of natural cane sugar, I used regular white sugar.
  • Also, a note on the egg whites: I used egg whites that I had in the freezer from when I made lemon curd a couple weeks ago and had lots of whites left over. Have you ever done that? It’s so great not to waste the whites! And they freeze and thaw out again beautifully. Just remember to set them out and give them enough time to thaw – you can’t warm them in the microwave without risk of cooking them!

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