Elizabeth Bruenig’s Grub Street Diet

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An illustrated portrait of a brunette in a black turtleneck against a background of pumpkins and cups of Siggi's yogurt.

Liz Bruenig is not above pumpkin spice.
Illustration: Margalit Cutler

“I work on morality and public life, which is kind of douchey,” says journalist Elizabeth Bruenig, who in June moved from the New York Times Opinion pages to a staff gig at the Atlantic. A Texan Christian socialist, Bruenig is known for many things: her reporting, obviously, as well as her podcast (The Bruenigs, which she co-hosts with her husband, Matt), her robust Twitter presence, and, lately, her constant baking projects; for the past year, she has been on a (well-documented) tear of macarons. “You can do all kinds of ridiculous crap with them!” she raves, explaining the meticulous multi-step process and all the things that can go wrong.

Thursday, September 9
Dawn broke and the kids came marching up the stairs, little pilgrims with offerings in their arms. My oldest, now 5, is into breakfast in bed — which meant, on this day, a pack of peanut-butter-filled Ritz crackers and a tube of strawberry GoGurt she’d decanted into a recycled-glass ramekin swiped from a low shelf. She was like, “There you go — I’ve plated it!” She’s very hard-core into being a cook. The younger, freshly 2, can’t keep up in the kitchen, but she still wanted in on the gifting: She presented me with a miniature pumpkin she found recently at Stop & Shop.

We whisked the kids downstairs to get them scrubbed and shod for preschool and school respectively, and by the time they were off, my phone was already ringing. I’m doing some capital-punishment reporting right now, and working on more sexual-assault stories. I’m interested in the ways that we think about these big questions that are, well, subterranean. Good and evil. Right and wrong. This stuff that’s floating around the periphery of everything we’re talking about. I’m always trying to bring those things to the fore.

Around nine, I broke for breakfast. There’s a habit I’ve had since I was a teenager, and I’ve honored it every place I’ve ever lived, every continent and country I’ve ever visited: The day begins with a frosty Coca Cola Zero, or a Diet Coke if I must. It’s the combination of caffeine, carbonation, and icy cold that really gets the day going for me. And though I skipped the lukewarm cup of yogurt my oldest whipped up, I did take her up on the peanut-butter crackers. Those things are good.

It was one of those days where I wound up inadvertently skipping lunch, both because I was engrossed in work and because I’m regrettably back on my epilepsy medication, which is notorious for killing appetites. I was born with epilepsy and I’ll always have it, but most of the time I don’t take medication for my seizures because the side effects are so awful. (Don’t worry; I don’t drive.) But it’s critical I keep my ass out of the hospital for the time being seeing as other people are using it, so I’m back on the stuff. I figured out that I was hungry and not just some kind of sick around seven in the evening.

By then, I’d fed the kids their dinner — pigs in blankets, which is to say cocktail weenies in puff pastry. One of them dipped them in ketchup, the other skinned them and mainly ate the dough, and then they haggled for grapes, yogurt, and a sugar cookie each. I’m always like, “But wait, what about things that have some amount of vitamins or minerals or protein?” And they’re like “no.” So that’s the debate. We wrestled them into bed, and then I consulted the fridge for my turn.

Around this time of year, Siggi’s, the Icelandic skyr brand, starts selling their Pumpkin & Spice flavor — an orange, faintly cinnamon joint that feels more than a little like an indulgent sop to their white-girl-customer core. What can I say? They get me. I cracked one open along with a sleeve of cinnamon graham crackers and scooped the skyr out with the little cracker quadrants, sort of an autumnal cheesecake-esque Dunkaroo. I pioneered this, uh, meal in college, and I’ve been obsessed since.

When I was done, I puttered around downstairs for the requisite hour of tidying, organizing, and preparing for the next day, and then it was back up to bed. I struck a match, lit a candle, lit a jay off the candle, and fell asleep. Used to be that when people found out I have epilepsy, they’d ask if I’d ever tried weed — the industry has done a great job evangelizing on that count — but nowadays people just ask me if I’ve tried keto. I haven’t, and I wouldn’t, not even if it worked.

Friday, September 10
I had to drop a birthday cake off in Hartford — no time to explain! (I volunteer with this group that matches home bakers with cake requests from foster kids.) This one was a six-layer princess-themed chocolate birthday cake filled and frosted with milk chocolate buttercream, and wrapped in pink ombré buttercream ruffles. I made a gold fondant crown for the top, which took three or four days to dry. I thought the thing was going to feel like play-doh forever.

Before we dashed out the door, I made some oatmeal. The Silver Palate has started selling this incredibly thick, toothsome, hearty oatmeal at my local Stop & Shop, and I’m hooked. All it needs is a spoonful of sorghum, a handful of chopped pecans, a dash of cinnamon, and a whole banana sliced into coins. Delicious.

I was on the phone with sources about an impending story all the way to Hartford, but we did drop off the cake in time. I can’t drive, as I said, so my husband, Matt, was my ride — and has been since we met on our North Texas high-school debate team.

Once we were back in town, we stopped at this out-of-the-way diner, the Stamford Diner — they deserve some recognition. They have this “Provençal style” seafood soup that’s so good. It’s, like, $10, which is crazy, because you get a quart of soup full of scallops, shrimp, mussels, and calamari. You think, Okay, I’m getting seafood soup from a diner; the calamari is going to be like biting through a rubber band, but no! The scallops are falling-apart tender. It’s just remarkable. They also hit it with a bunch of cilantro, which is nice. Matt got a Reuben. And hey, I’ve got nothing against a Reuben either.

Friday night is Planet Pizza night in the Bruenig household; both the kids know it, and there was a thick tension in the air as soon as they got home. I’ve never failed to deliver on the deal, and I don’t want to know what would happen if I did. The pizza showed up, the kids dug in and then they requested their dessert du jour: chocolate milk. Again, resistance is futile.

It’s a funny thing, being somebody who makes a lot of fancy cakes and cookies and macarons and whatever; you’d think the kids would be all over that stuff, but they don’t care how it looks — they just want something yummy, accessible, and familiar. A glass of chocolate milk with a blast of canned whipped cream and a smattering of sprinkles is worth more to them than a double batch of apple-cider-salted caramel macarons, which suits me, at the end of the day.

I make a lot of macarons. I got into it about a year ago just watching YouTube tutorials. They’re so damn fancy — they’re just the fussiest little bitches. There’s so many things that can go wrong. They can be lopsided, they can crack, they can stick, they can fail to have feet, they can get discolored, they can be too dry, they can be too wet. I think that what’s so special about them is they’re labor-intensive — they’re kind of a labor of love. When I make a batch for someone, every hour I have spent learning to do this right is part of the gift.

After the kids were asleep, Matt settled in for some Friday-night sports entertainment, and I headed out to Parkway Diner to hang out with one of my closest friends. This spot is great — unassuming, cheap, un-self-consciously retro, with red vinyl booths, mirrored walls, and a menu to match. They’ll serve you a Waldorf salad in half a pineapple like it’s 1964! I ordered it. Waldorf salad and half a pineapple — it just can’t be missed!

Saturday, September 11
Coke Zero and buttered wheat toast. I also shared some goldfish with my two-year-old as we watched her older sister kick ass on the misty soccer field. We used to pick up munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from soccer practice, but this created too much chaos within the organization (i.e., the kids would be fucking berserk for hours or even days afterward). We settled for getting ice cream after lunch later on.

Before that, though, we hit the Whole Foods. I don’t really care about organic this or that; I figure crops and animals are changing genetically all the time, so who cares if humankind has a hand in it? Haven’t we always? As for pesticides and the like, I guess I’d rather roll the dice with that shit than peel a banana full of spiders or something. Anyway, what I’m mainly here for is the dairy: I prefer the goat- and buttermilk they stock around here for my baking, though I was bummed to see there had been some kind of run on the seasonal Siggi’s.

Back at home, I made grilled cheeses for the kids and a turkey sandwich for myself, heavy on the tomato — I was thinking this was gonna be sort of my last shot for the season, but when I bit in, I realized the moment had already passed. Just a few weeks ago, they were full of life and acid with flesh like ripe peaches. Not anymore.

As luck would have it, I’d already reconciled myself to this somewhat by planning a low-key end-of-summer dinner with friends tonight. BBQ pulled pork for the main event, and I threw together some soft white dinner rolls using a King Arthur Flour recipe so we could make sliders, preferably with thin-sliced white onion and pickles. I blackened some poblanos under the broiler for some smoky, homey mac ‘n’ cheese and tossed together a funfetti cake out of batter scraps and leftover buttercream piped into roses. It’ll do, I thought.

I love to cook. I think people on the internet sometimes get mad at me about the optics of it — not that there aren’t perfectly good reasons to get mad at me. I just think the cooking gets misinterpreted, because, y’know, being from Texas, being a Christian. But I think where they kind of read me the wrong way is that they mistake my happiness and joy with my home life — enjoying my kids and my cooking and my husband and just kind of keeping house — with an expectation that people inhabit certain gender roles. But if you know me in real life, that’s not the case. I mean, I think about Martha Stewart a lot because she also loves keeping house, she loves cooking, entertaining, giving gifts, wrapping gifts, yadda yadda, but she’s a bad bitch, right? Like, she did time. If you’re a man, you can be Anthony Bourdain, and you can be a cooking person who also loves travel and is a gentle, generous soul, and at the same time be, like, a cool rock-and-roll motorcycle guy. But if you’re a girl and you like cooking and you’re a gentle, generous soul and you’re religious and you love your family, that’s a problem. You’re a pussy. You know, you’re betraying the feminism and so forth.

For me, it’s like, no, this stuff is great. It’s work that sucks. I thought the socialists were all on board with, like, screwing around at your house and doing your hobbies. It’s going to work and doing shit for your boss that sucks. Read your Oscar Wilde, guys! But that’s the problem — so many people think of liberation as having cooler work. And I do think my work is very cool. It’s a passion for me, too. But this stuff is life. Work is work.

Sunday, September 12
It was early, so I broke the glass and I wolfed down the last Pumpkin & Spice Siggi’s while flipping pancakes for the kids. They had a birthday party to go to, a fact of which I was keenly aware because I was supplying the cupcakes — all 48.

It’s not as tough as it sounds. Cupcakes freeze well and defrost quickly. A week or so ago, I made royal icing 1’s for the tops of the cupcakes — those little decals last damn near forever once they’re dry — and then I made a batch of cupcakes a day last week until I had a solid 48 (which took some doing, seeing as the kids kept stealing them). I left the buttercream work for today, which doesn’t take much time at all. A little butter, a little shortening, some vanilla, some magic — and I’m packing the treats into boxes and sending the girls on their way.

Granted, I was a little worn out from the week, but nothing waits, you know? That’s the thing about being a mother. It can feel liberating in a surprising way. It doesn’t really matter what chaos gets ahold of you. You stand in a suddenly quiet house on a Sunday wondering what to do, but then the dust motes floating in the sun settle and you put one foot in front of the other. The dishes have to be done, the lunches have to be packed, the laundry washed, the clothes folded, the homework checked, the shoes paired and put near the doorway.

In the late afternoon, a friend dropped by to chat, and I made us lunch: Fuck it, a cheese plate. Sliced Honeycrisp apples, red grapes, Ritz crackers (they’re good), some salted mixed nuts I buy in five-pound increments from Costco, buttermilk bleu cheese, a nicely aged cheddar, and — a personal favorite — a wedge of sweet Prairie Sunset. I finished it off with butter snap pretzels and a cup of Mustard & Co.’s heavenly honey-curry mustard and Rare Bird’s peach-lavender preserves. There were some chocolate-covered almonds on there, too, but we never got around to them; I just always feel obligated to include dessert.

Eventually my husband got home with the kids, and they bounded all over the place telling me and my friend about the cupcakes they ate and the birthday party they attended and the crime they saw in the woods (apocryphal and unconfirmed). We all grazed on the cheese plate until night fell and then we ordered sushi.

My order’s always simple: just salmon maki, cucumber maki, and maybe asparagus, if they have it. Miso on the side. I was ready for bed, though the kids were still bouncing off the walls and would be for a few more hours. I should frost those cupcakes with Benadryl, man.

Monday, September 13
Another Monday, another day I woke up not totally sure who or where I was, in part because I had consumed an eighth of mushrooms the night before. Both kids started sleeping happily in their own beds years ago, and yet 50 percent of the time we wake up with both of them wedged in between us. We herded them downstairs and got them fed — Special K Red Berries tricked up with two extra bags of freeze-dried strawberries per box of cereal for the older kid and buttered toast for the younger — and off they went.

Here’s where it got ugly. It was a busy day, okay? We hit the ground running. He had his shit going on; I had mine. I ate three packs of peanut butter crackers for breakfast and two more for lunch. Then we went to Home Depot in the afternoon, because he’s doing God knows what to the garage, and in the checkout line, while he was scanning infinite plywood panels, I threw a bottle of Diet Coke and a sleeve of Twizzlers on the heap. I’m not holding myself out as a role model here!

The rest of the day I was on the phone for work and writing in between calls. Before the kids got home from school, I made the easiest baked ziti on earth: Salt the pasta water until it’s seawater-salty, boil the ziti, dump it in a colander and then dump a whole 28-ounce can of tomatoes over it with a bowl underneath to catch the liquid. Then I snatch up the tomatoes one by one and squash them — just squeeze all the liquid out, huge stress reliever — and toss the smashed corpses into the now-empty pasta pan, leaving the tomato-y noodles to chill. Toss a knob of butter into the pan with the tomatoes, set it all over medium heat, and cook the tomatoes a bit to concentrate their flavor, maybe even getting some caramelization on there — at the end, I add in a little sweet oregano and grated garlic, though you can go bigger if you’re not cooking for kids.

Once the tomatoes are cooked down, add the liquid from the bowl underneath the colander to the pan, stir, and stir in the noodles. Get it all nice and coated. Tomato chunks will remain. Perfect.

For the cheese portion — who could forget? — grate as much mozzarella as you want, decant as much ricotta as you want into a bowl, hit it with an egg yolk, and mix the two cheeses together until you’ve got a somewhat unwieldy modeling-clay situation. Now all you’ve got to do is get a baking dish out and layer: noodles, cheese, noodles, cheese.

Bake at 350 until you can see some really desirable crunchy noodle action happening on top. And if your kids, like mine, have some kind of objection to tomatoes in principle, tell them there are no tomatoes in this dish, only ketchup. They won’t know. They’re very gullible. Ketchup and cheese. Just ketchup, noodles, and cheese. That’s right. Nirvana.

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