Sunday, December 19, 2010

Happy Holidays with love and cheese

A couple of days ago, I was in a mad rush to get everything done pre-Christmas. We don't celebrate Christmas, but plenty of people we know do, so I was racing around our kitchen, trying to make brownies and cookies to give to everyone we know who has ever been nice to our kids. That includes the piano teacher, wrestling coach, Spanish tutor, all of my kids' teachers, the postman, our housekeeper and my stepfather.

In years past, I've made batches of brownies and cookies and packed them in little white boxes with cheery red lettering on them that I ordered off the Internet. (If this all sounds a little too homey and too-good-to-be-true, know that many of the cookies were burned and I often got sick from all the brownie batter I ate.) This year, I was trying to do the same baking gymnastics, except I had a serious handicap: One of our ovens was broken.

The one that was working is small and narrow, and could only accommodate two narrow cookie trays, or two baking pans. Each pan could hold two batches of brownies, which meant I could theoretically make four batches of brownies at a time. But every batch required sifting two cups of flour with baking powder and salt, and our mixer can't handle more than two batches of brownie batter at a time. I wasn't about to start sifting all that flour and then mixing huge bowls of brownie batter by hand, so I made a few batches over the course of two days and made the cookies in the toaster oven. Then I gave up and wondered what someone saner than I am would do.

I thought about calling the people we bought the house from, who still live in town, and asking them for advice. They took beautiful care of this house. The wife is a fabulous cook and the husband is extremely organized, and when we moved in, they presented us with a clean, white, three-ring binder that was filled with instruction manuals from all the appliances they had installed.

Everything worked so well for so long but then all of the sudden, it all started to break. First the dishwasher, then the dryer, then the garage door opener, then the toilet, now the oven. The oven, which had been so large and so reliable for so long, started to burn stuff---cookies, steak, chicken, whatever we put in it. I called the repair guy. He came and said he couldn't replace the thermostat because the oven was an old model and the company (Thermador) wasn't making parts for it anymore. I went on the Thermador website. There was a picture of Julia Child: She had used a version of our oven. How encouraging! I called Thermador to confirm the repairman's story. It was true, they had been taking over by Bosch and the nice lady on the phone said they didn't make parts for the old models anymore, but she happily emailed me a 50-page document, listing where I could find some parts dealer who might replace our broken part, which had been manufactured sometime back in the early Nineties. She sent me the list upside down. I immediately started to feel glassy-eyed. I sent it to my father-in-law, who is a German scientist and can fix pretty much fix and find anything. He tried to help me out and called parts dealers near him, but he couldn't find the thermostat either.

My husband, of course, wants me to spend a large chunk of time Googling the parts. In my next life, I promise to do that. My mother has a friend who used to be in the appliance business and Mom guarantees that this woman will be able to track down the part, in whatever warehouse it is hiding. I'm sure that some version of Tony Soprano could find or steal this part for me, but in the mean time, I decided to just bite the bullet, and go out and buy bags of candy and present them as Christmas presents, rather than continue to kill myself in the kitchen.

I also made a mental note to keep looking for recipes that only required a toaster oven and/or the stovetop. Then my older son's French teacher invited parents in to help the class prepare Croque Monsieur on the the day before Christmas break. I love my son's French teacher. She has been teaching at the school since I went there some thirty years ago. As is the way of French women and French teachers everywhere, Madame R. actually looks better than she did when I knew her in middle school. On the day the class was making Croque Monsieur, she wore a chic little black suit, black tights and those high ankle boots that not everyone can get away with (she did.) Two other Moms showed up too and we stood around chatting while the students got busy buttering their slices of white bread, and layering them with slices of ham, cheese and mustard. I had never made Croque Monsieur before but it was fanastic: Layer of fat upon fat upon fat, all hot and melted. We only had two toaster ovens going and it took a while to get everyone fed, but by the end of the period, the kids were happy, and we were all festively swimming in cheese and butter. Here is the recipe, and you only need a toaster oven to do it. Merci, Madame and may the New Year be filled with everything warm and delicious.

Les Ingredients
Pour faire deux croque-monsieur, il faut (To make two croque monsieurs,you will need:
- 4 tranches de pain (four pieces of bread)
- 2 tranches de jambon (two slices of ham)
- 4 tranches de gruyere (four slices of cheese)
- un peu de beurre (a little butter)
- un peu de gruyere raoe (a little shredded cheese)
- de la moutarde de Dijon (Dijon mustard)

Preheat broiler or toaster oven.

Lay four slices of bread on work surface. Divide ham and cheese slices among them. Spread butter and mustard on each bread slice. Spread butter on top of ham and cheese, cover with a slice of bread, and then butter the top of the top slice of bread. Add shredded cheese on top. Place sandwiches in toaster oven and cook for about three to four minutes on "broil." Serve immediately.

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