Molly on the Range
BREAKFAST AND BRUNCH
Everything about 4-year-old me was round: my belly, thanks to a hobby of hollowing out entire loaves of Wonder Bread in one sitting; my plump spherical tongue that stuck out perpetually (which somehow led to not one, but two diagnoses of mental retardation); and on top of my head the most fantastic and embarrassing bowl cut that took advantage of my Asianness to always hold its shape as perfectly as a Lego person, no matter how many trees I fell out of.
I grew up on a quiet old street in Glenview, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, with my chocolatier-turned-homemaker-turned-school-social-worker mom, clarinetist dad, and older sister, whose name is Jenna, but for as long as I can remember we have called each other "Stoopie," which is possibly short for "stupid," but neither of us can remember. We had a rotating selection of goldfish, a couple of Westies named Polly and Phydo, and because I was a textbook kid of the '90s in suburban America, a Furby and a gaggle of Tamagotchis.
I went to public school and played AYSO soccer. My childhood smelled of normalcy and Fruit by the Foot.
During our summers, Stoopie and I regularly walked down the street to our neighbor Emily's house, where we would pee in her pool, sneeze about her pet bunny, and eat many many Town House crackers. Our evenings were spent with my mom on the lawn of Ravinia, where my dad played his concerts with the Chicago Symphony. On a good night, I would demolish a baloney Lunchable and chocolate ice cream from the carousel-shaped parlor long before the trumpet calls from Beethoven's Leonore Overtures played over the loudspeaker to signify that the concert was about to start. On a mediocre night, everything would be the same, except my Lunchable would be turkey. At intermission, I changed into footie pajamas, and the chances were slim that I would still be awake for the final movement.
When my dad got time off from the orchestra, he and my mom and Stoop and I would pile into our white station wagon to vacation at Lake Lawn Resort in Lake Delavan, Wisconsin. Our resort of choice was a rustic sprawling lodge that had a very large great room, perfect for somersaults, and the snappiest breakfast buffet sausages that were perfect for sopping up syrup. Our drive there always required a stop in Richmond, Illinois, at Anderson's Candy Shop, a creaky Victorian house that sold nuggets of nougat, marzipan, and caramel dipped in thick layers of chocolate. Each one came in its own wax paper bag, blue letters for dark chocolate, red letters for milk. Dark chocolate-covered marzipan was Stoop's bar of choice; milk chocolate- covered marzipan was mine. And we would savor the life out of those things, taking little bite after little bite, making them last until they became gross and soggy.
When we tired of the horses, mini golf, swimming pools, and lake activities at our resort, our parents drove us down some very dusty gravel roads to Dam Road Bears, which sat in the middle of cornfields. Dam Road Bears was a crowded, warm house filled with stuffed animals and real animals, and you could make your own teddy bear. This was at least five years before Build-A- Bear surfaced, and it was way more advanced. It required building joints for your bears, which were structured and pastel colored, and sewing each one by hand to seal in the stuffing that you'd just spent a while fluffing. Each step was demonstrated by a calm old woman who lived cozily in her house of teddy bears. As someone who regularly took Amy the Teddy Bear to preschool, it was a magical little place.
The space between Lake Lawn Lodge and Dam Road Bears was the first real farmland I'd ever met. It was so flat and peaceful. The handful of houses we'd pass on the drive were classic white farmhouses that were, in my imagination, furnished with antique skillets and rocking chairs for their plump owners who all probably wore overalls and woke up before the sun. They'd have chickens who crowed at sunrise and one or two cows to milk. Maybe they had electricity, or maybe they didn't and just read by candlelight at night and used a weathervane for whatever weathervanes actually do. This is what I formulated in my mind from the back seat of the car with my new teddy bear. That's where the image associated with "farm" in my head was created, on a weekend getaway from the suburbs.
It was helpful because at school we'd often discuss the three places where one could live: a city, a suburb, a farm. City kids, in my mind, had slightly frizzy hair and moms who wore fashionably aggressive eye glasses; farm kids were all homeschooled and wore knitted sweaters. The world, I thought, revolved around my strip mall-covered suburb of Glenview, where all of my friends lived in two-story houses and had names that ended with an "ee" sound, Gracie, Lindsey, Gigi, and who shopped at Limited Too and wore flared denim and body glitter.
I was equally close-minded about my eating preferences. For the first 11 or 12 years of my life, the only foods that made it into my belly were white, orange, or brown. (Cheese, bread, matzo balls, etc.)
Miraculously, my mom took to this with grace. She mastered the hole-in-the- middle, which I'd eat twice daily in the name of protein, tapped Martha Stewart for the best ever homemade mac and cheese, and drove two towns over to Fresh Fields, before it became a Whole Foods, for nitrite-free Applegate baloney. She even read D.W. the Picky Eater to me every single night because it was my favorite book. If my pickiness freaked her out, she hid it from me well. Eventually she discovered that I'd eat carrots (they were orange, just like cheese!) and started requiring that I eat some before my after-dinner sundae cup. But really, she never forced me to eat when I wasn't hungry, and when I was hungry, I would eat. Even if it meant three Fuddruckers grilled cheeses right in a row during the major growth spurt of 2001. I was down with that. While my diet might not have been the healthiest at times, my mom saw a bigger picture that resulted in me having an excited relationship with food. The fact that she never forced me to eat things like broccoli meant that when I finally really came around to it (during college, at the No. 7 Sub in Manhattan, where a broccoli sandwich changes lives), I could approach it with a clean, excitable slate, free of any haunting childhood memories. Or when Brussels sprouts had their big moment, I could order the Má Pêche ones with glee without flashing back to not being able to leave the dinner table without finishing them.
The point is, everything my mom did went against what some Fancy Experts say about how you should force a food on a kid so many times until they eventually develop a taste for it. And alright, maybe that might have resulted in me liking green vegetables a few years earlier, but her way was awesome and brought about the enjoyment of some of the greatest ever snacks in the history of snacks, like bread and butter "sushi," Wonder Bread bread balls, and the embarrassing yet delightful Hot Dog Cheese.HOT DOG CHEESE
Makes 1 serving
This is the first recipe I ever mastered. It was taught to me by my childhood neighbor Stephanie, probably during a Baby-Sitters Club-themed slumber party. It spurred a years-long obsession with hot dogs, which included an Oscar Mayer-themed birthday party and a failed audition at an open casting call for the Oscar Mayer commercial.
1 precooked hot dog, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 slice American cheese, ripped into
Ketchup, for serving
Put the hot dog slices on a plate. Top them with the cheese pieces. Microwave until warm and the cheese is melted. Eat with ketchup. Celebrate your 6th birthday.THE IDEAL HOLE IN THE MIDDLE
Makes 1 serving
You know those macho men who act all tough and they're like "I'm not gonna fight you, I'm not gonna fight you, I'm betta than that," blah blah, and then you say one thing about their mother and they sock you in the face? That's how I feel about the hole in the middle (or eggs in a basket, or toad in the hole, or if you're frisky, a one-eyed jack). Insult my omelet game or my bacon game, but don't go near my hole in the middle because just like Judy's hot chocolate in The Santa Clause, I've been perfecting it for 1,200 years.
Starting from when I was 8, I'd watch my mom make two of these suckers every single morning. Together at the breakfast table, we'd informally analyze them. "Is the yolk too firm?" "No." "Is it too runny?" "Maybe." "I'll put it back on the stove. What happened, did I flip it too soon?" "Nah." "Oy, the yolk didn't break, did it?" And so on and so forth. Ninety percent of the time they were perfect, with a firm white, a runny yolk, toasty bread, and coarse granules of salt sprinkled on at the end. And over time I've learned to be particular about a few things in order to increase the likelihood of perfection: I crack the egg into a bowl before pouring it into the pan to make sure the yolk doesn't break on the way out of the shell, and once the egg is in the hole, I don't flip it. I simply cover the pan and cook. A broken yolk is very bad news, y'all.
Unsalted butter or oil
1 slice of bread
1 large egg
Kosher salt and black pepper
Additional toppings, as desired (I like Tabasco sauce and a sprinkling of za'atar and sumac or a smashed avocado.)
In a large skillet, heat a thin layer of butter or oil over medium heat. Cut a round out of the bread using a biscuit cutter or a glass: A thinner 1/2-inch slice of bread will need about a 2- to 21/2-inch round; a thicker slice, like 11/2 inches, will need closer to a 11/2-inch round. Place both pieces in the skillet.
When the bread is lightly toasted on the bottom, turn it over, add a tiny bit more butter or oil to the middle of the hole if the pan is dry, and then add the egg. If you're dealing with a thick slice of bread, reduce the heat to low. If your slice is thinner than that, keep it on medium.
Cover the pan and cook until the white part of the egg is firm but the yolk is still runny. Check it often to avoid overcooking the yolk or use a glass lid so that you can keep an eye on the egg. Remove it from the heat, salt it ferociously, add a few turns of pepper and any desired toppings, and enjoy.EVERYTHING BAGEL BOUREKAS WITH EGGS, SCALLIONS, AND CHEESE
Makes 6 servings
Every year my birthday begins with a breakfast sandwich and ends with fries (page 170). They're my two guiltiest pleasures, and I allow myself that one day a year to indulge in them shamelessly, pig-in-mud style. The breakfast sandwich doesn't have to be fancy; in fact it's the birthdays when I've woken up early enough to get to McDonald's in time for their breakfast (pre- 2015 problems, amiright?) that have been up there on the list of tastiest birthday breakfasts. I like a fluffy egg, lots of cheese, maybe some sausage, and a croissant. Ooh I love it on a croissant. Or a bagel. And ketchup and hot sauce. And presents!
Anyway, we don't have bagels in Grand Forks, like, at all. There was a rumor floating around that in the early 2000s there was a bagel place in town that had bagels flown in every day from New York. Can you imagine?! It probably felt like that fake Prada store outside of Marfa. Only real. But I get by in the absence of bagels--knowing that I'll appreciate them so much more when I visit New York--by letting puff pastry sprinkled with everything bagel topping kind of fill this void.
So here's my puff-pastry ode to the breakfast sandwich, and we're going to call it a boureka because you feel a lot less guilty filling puff pastry with your favorite breakfast sandwich fillings if you call it a boureka and reminisce on your fun times in Israel as you eat it. Bourekas are a common snack throughout the Middle East and they're traditionally filled with cheese, potatoes, or meat. This one is a variation on the cheese type that takes a nod from the bagel in the form of scallion cream cheese and "everything bagel" topping, and plays the role of breakfast sandwich courtesy of a pile of fluffy cheesy scrambled eggs. These reheat well in the toaster, so go ahead and make a big batch so that you can have leftovers tomorrow for breakfast.
5 large eggs
2 tablespoons chopped chives
4 ounces shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed in the refrigerator overnight
6 ounces scallion cream cheese, at room temperature (or 6 ounces plain cream cheese mixed with 2 scallions, finely chopped)
Everything Bagel Topping (recipe follows) Ketchup, for serving
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together 4 eggs until homogenous, then stir in the chives and mozzarella.
In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Pour the egg mixture into the hot skillet and cook until the bottom is set. Use a spatula to gently pull the bottom cooked parts to the sides of the pan to make space for more of the mixture to cook. Repeat this gentle pulling process one or two more times until a majority of the mixture is set and then transfer them to a bowl. The eggs should still be quite wet, as they'll continue to cook in the oven. Season them with salt and pepper and a few shakes of Tabasco sauce.
On a work surface, roll out the puff pastry to a 10 x 15-inch rectangle. Cut it into six 5-inch squares. Top each of the squares with a schmear of scallion cream cheese and a spoonful of the scrambled eggs, distributing them evenly and leaving a 3/4-inch border around the edges.
In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash. Brush the edges of the puff pastry squares with the egg wash, fold them in half, and pinch the edges to seal them well. Transfer them to the baking sheet, placing them 1 inch apart. Brush the tops with egg wash and top with the everything bagel topping. Bake until golden brown. Begin checking for doneness at 30 minutes. Let cool slightly and serve with ketchup.
Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated in a toaster oven.