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I think I can

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Preposterously late in blogging this week due to crewing, writing deadlines, and—most of all—the little engine that finally could, pictured here. It was a gift from a bride to her new husband, a FDNY fireman.

This was my first effort in combining cake (technically brownies, and stick around for the story on that) and candy (rolled fondant, ditto), and let’s just say there was a bit of a learning curve. It was due April 23. Let’s look at the timeline.

April 1-April 21: Buy ingredients for a chocolate sponge cake, which would be sturdy enough to handle the heft of icing on top as well as the trip into Brooklyn, and all extraneous supplies. Review two Youtube videos, especially the one with the woman who sounds like an Australian flight attendant, for clues on how to get this structure standing. IM two bakers and a fireman to pick their brains. Create lists upon lists.

April 22: Noon. Bake chocolate sponge cake in shallow pans per the flight attendant, and figure that anything with 16 eggs in it will surely rise. Gloat a little on how well you’ve planned. Once baked, note that it more closely resembles a brown Fruit Roll-Up than a cake. Stop gloating.

2p: Bake again—another 16 eggs, mind you—in a 9 x 13″ pan. When it’s cool two hours later, remove it from the pan and find a distressing semi-dried eggy pool at the bottom. Panic. Taste a smidge. Re-panic when, eggy weirdness aside, it also tastes like a Sealy Posturepedic. Tuck entirety unceremoniously into a giant plastic bag and freeze, not having the heart to throw it away.

4p: Pull out my no-fail brownie recipe. Head to store for a second 9 x 13″ pan as well as more eggs, and hope I don’t continue to insult the nation’s chickens.

5p: Bake and let cool. Start making fondant details for the engine. Make buttercream icing and tint with red gel paste. Stack up brownies with raspberry jam and cover with buttercream, which I was assured would lie smoothly. After two coats, it still does not. Re-panic, realize I have to cover the cake with fondant if it’s ever going to lie smoothly, and hope I can do a decent job, since I’ve never covered a cake with fondant in my life.

8p: Pull out every fondant package I own. Re-re-panic when realize have run out of red gel paste. Too tired and busy making fondant details to head back out for more, and besides, the store is probably closed. Continue making details while doing something resembling Lamaze breathing. It does not produce new jars of red gel paste, let alone a completed fire engine cake, regrettably.

April 23, 8a: At the store the very minute it opens, grab three red gel pastes, dash home, add 2.5 entire jars of it to a whole package of fondant, and cover the cake. Be grateful that it looks better, if not great. Brownies are bumpy little buggers. Finish accessorizing. Deliver 45 minutes late.

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I do kind of dig my little hose. It looks like a Claymation graphic.

I learned a crucial lesson: planning for a month doesn’t always mean smooth sailing. But it’s cool. I also punted problems left and right. The cake didn’t collapse on the way to Brooklyn. I knew, if nothing else, my brownie recipe wouldn’t fail me.

And let’s face it: I heard the groom and his buddies took the cake back to the firehouse and devoured it. A gaggle of happy firemen with their faces stuffed with homemade brownies is reward enough.

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So’s a Dalmation that bears a striking resemblance to Snoopy.

I’ve slowly been eating the sponge cake broken into pieces. After a few days and doused in plain vanilla yogurt, it’s not half bad.

power to the cookie

 

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My past week could be accurately weighed in butter grams.

I made snickerdoodles (cinnamon sugar cookies common in the midwest U.S.) along with my extra-rich chocolate-chip cookies and handed them out to several audiences. They both contain a staggering amount of butter (the latter especially; it calls for 2.5 sticks of it, and its batter must be refrigerated for four hours so it stiffens enough to hold up in the oven), and consequently both were well received.

First on the docket: what I called Random Acts of Cookie. I’ve noticed there seems to be a general malaise in the world lately. Election year or some such nonsense. So on Wednesday I went on the offense and planned to fight back by handing out snickerdoodles to anyone I came upon.

I’d like to say I handed them all out. The truth is, only one person accepted one, though they were individually bagged and all. I’ll still say it was a success, though, because I drove some out to my friend Jim at work and he laughed and ate them right up. Then I gave another to my friend Mike, who’s from Ohio, and told him the cookie was his birthright. He conceded without an argument.

Next up I made chocolate-chip cookies for the cast of a show. My friend Tom plays a conniving, comedic pope in it (the script actually says, ‘with atrocious Italian accent’), which is reason enough to celebrate. That’s the box above. I also gave him a piece of chocolate cinnamon babka—my Easter bread—yesterday which, oddly, he ate on his way to dinner. I got a voice mail telling me to stop everything I’m doing and make only that, for the rest of my life. It is a good recipe. And the cast made appreciative little mmmm noises as they ate. It’s hard to disappoint actors.

Today was my last cookie visit, and it was half altruistic and half bribery: I returned some props to a rental company that can be as disorderly as a petting zoo inside Grand Central on Christmas Eve at 4:55pm. I bypass this by bringing them treats, and they got a dozen of those extra-buttery chocolate-chip cookies. As I told my friends on Facebook: It conveys moving past slights and misunderstandings, which I’m above, and also conveys a healthy dose of manipulation, which I’m not.

Also: Every time I bake, I try to hold back a few and set them aside for later. This way, when I know I’m going to meet a friend who loves chocolate, or has had a bad day, I can bring one along. It’s a very small gesture and very easy for me to do, but I have never met anyone who didn’t love it. Right now my freezer contains freezer-safe Hefty bags full of cookies, babka, two kinds of homemade Nutella truffles (those with a little added sugar and those without), and wedges of brownies. Treats in the freezer are my money in the bank. I’m armed. Make a lunch date with me and you’d find out.

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

consider the crumpet

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Seriously buttered.

I’ve been considering it for quite a long time, starting from when I read the chapter on tea-time in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cooking of the British Isles (1969, Time-Life Books). Great Britain has a reputation for producing dreck,* I know. But I’ve made over a dozen classic dishes so far, in and out of the cookbook, with nothing but great results.** To my (increasingly educated) mind, this is a simple cooking tradition that has put centuries of practice into fighting against the rain, and has figured it out. It warms the belly and fortifies the soul. I’ll believe the reputation only if my winning streak runs out.

In the tea-time chapter, the author tells of a conversation he once overheard between two elderly Englishmen. One loves crumpets, crackled and steaming on a platter. He always went for the bottom crumpet, knowing it would be utterly saturated with butter.

I’d never made crumpets before, let alone eaten them; New Jersey doesn’t really know from British food.*** But that visual was enough to sell me. Here’s what I did.

  1. The recipe calls for short, round tins, top and bottom lids removed, as you are to butter them and set them right in the pan as molds for the frying crumpets. Flan rings or large, round cookie cutters are recommended. I have neither, but it also suggests tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Three cans of Bumble Bee Chunk Light later, I learned that tuna cans aren’t made with identical tops and bottoms anymore, as presumably they were in 1969****, and the modern rounded bottoms are virtually impossible to remove with a can opener.
  2. But! I had individual tarts with removable bottoms. That sounds very saucy, I know, but the truth is, they worked.
  3. The recipe is very easy to put together; it’s basically yeasted pancakes with a pinch of sugar, just enough for the yeast to snack on. What was a half-plastered Cirque du Soleil act was cooking the crumpets one by one, since I (also) don’t own a flame spreader (is that that term?). I have a huge skillet I could have used but only an average-sized burner. The butter in the pan kept wanting to burn, so I switched off between two average-sized pans. By the time I finished drips, splats, and assorted smears decorated much of the stove top and the big bowl. Dried, the batter is much like Gorilla Glue. Same color, no less.
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You just sit there and think about what you’ve done.

4. You’re also supposed to remove the molds once the crumpets set, but they’re scalding. The recipe just says to remove them, but offers zero clue as to how to do it. It’s worth noting that this cookbook was written for an American audience. I’m picturing the English author and staff giggling as they thought of the panicked antics we’d use remove those hot molds, trying not to burn our fingertips. ‘Make fun of our cuisine, will you? Yank wankers!’

This wanker used a set of tongs, which kept slipping and dropping the mold back into the gooey raw crumpet.

Most did turn out lovely, though, those I didn’t drop or dent, and I buttered them all. Look at the pretty scalloped edges; that’s the fancy tart pans. As far as taste and texture, I don’t agree with what I’ve read about crumpets, that they’re similar to an English muffin. These are very light, crisply browned on the outside and fluffy and tender inside, with a pleasantly sour taste. But I must agree with the Englishman who always went to the buttery crumpet on the bottom. He’s right on.

*Points for working a Yiddish word into a post about British food? Anyone?

**Okay, once, but it’s because the recipe wasn’t explicit enough. I’m trying it again.

***Our claim to fame is the three Ss: Sinatra, Springsteen, and summer traffic.

****I was in utero for all but 2.5 months of that year, but should have had the foresight to have taken notes. Curses.

pause

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With all due respect to the believers out there, my hallelujah news this past week was only peripherally due to Easter Sunday. Most of it came from putting my overworked, overwhelmed hands into a bowl of bread dough, where I was able to dispel the stresses of the past month with a few turns.

2016 marks something like my 25th year of making Easter bread, a 100-year or so tradition my sister and I assumed, and I took it over entirely a dozen years ago. Chocolate-cinnamon babka is what I make. It is sticky and goopy, with spiced dark chocolate twirled throughout layers of buttery, eggy dough. No one argues with this recipe.

After a March of solid writing, phone calls, candy making and delivering, stage prop hunting and more delivering, I was beat from every angle. The crazy thing is, when the world spins too quickly and it feels like I can’t catch up, I crave the kitchen. I need to make something…and specifically, to put my hands in something.

When I flour my hands and first put them in the dough, an enormous calm washes over me that says this I can do. My heartbeat slows to match the motion of my hands. It’s probably akin to knitting, music-making, or any number of things that have a beat. But this has the added bonus of that raw yeasty smell and the cool feel of dough. Dough-working is instinct and skill: discerning when the dough needs more flour, how many turns it should take, when it’s springy enough to stop kneading. And I love dropping it into my parchment-lined, secondhand wooden bowl. I love covering it with more parchment and a dishtowel, and setting it to rise on the cooler end of my kitchen radiator.

I think back to our grandmothers and their aunts, sisters, cousins who bent over bread bowls in the middle of their chockablock lives, and wonder if their heartbeats slowed to a sane pace as well. I think about the unique stresses of their lives—illness, war, foreclosure, rationing—and wonder if they were able to breathe in yeast and and breathe out the cares of the day and the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. All I know is it puts heart back into me in a way nothing else quite does, letting me resume the world with a clear outlook.

Bread dough—now that’s a religion I can stand behind.

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real

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Above is a little maple cream tart I made—just flour, butter, eggs, cream, and pure maple syrup. Give me, any day, a tart that calls for five pronounceable ingredients that can fit in my little hippie purse versus a list full of multi-syllabic words containing the letter z.

Authenticity is a very deliberate running theme in my life. People, conversations, theatre props, ingredients, what have you. I like things whittled down to simple and straightforward, for the most part. No fussy or strange stuff added. (Although sometimes I eat peanut M&Ms. But I think if you’re going to fall off the wagon with something, that’s a worthy selection.)

I’m happier doing a lot of tasks by hand, too. My kitchen is overwhelmingly ungadgeted. Never owned a microwave. I make my own vanilla extract of plain vodka and split vanilla beans. Schnapps I make of crab apples I pick down by the lake every October, steeped in sugar and vodka. Herbs are dried and stored in little recycled glass jars. I bake bread and coffee cakes and make puddings for my breakfast. I keep a Hefty bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer, full of all of the middles of rolls that I scoop out. Foraging—now that’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be picking the first of the season’s dandelion greens, loving it to my very core, and taking fewer trips to Foodtown.

Out of the kitchen, I make laundry detergent with washing powder, Borax, and Ivory soap that I grate with a cheese grater into a big Pyrex bowl and mix with a spoon. I cut up clean old t-shirts and socks that can’t be darned anymore, and use them as rags instead of buying sponges and paper towels. (In other news, I darn socks.) When my shower curtains wear out, I wash them and use them as tarps. Lord knows they’re waterproof. And the purse I mention above is made of patched-together, raw recycled silk in dozens of colors. When it gets a tear, I mend it with any color thread I like and it doesn’t show. I bought the purse for $32 from a little company that started out selling t-shirts out of a van at Grateful Dead concerts.

Why would anyone who calls herself sane live like this? Well…it’s not because I’m some Luddite (note the subtle use of WordPress), and it’s not to make some sort of glib retro statement. I do it because I need to, because the more I strip away the redundancies and the cocktail-party, small-talk pretensions of the world, the saner I feel.

I’ve always been wired up this way, having grown up in a climate that felt largely put on, one that obliged me to smile for the camera whether or not it felt honest. It got old, as well it should. And it made me dislike—distrust is a better word—pretension of any kind. Because baby, if you scratch away at that shell, you usually find cracks.

I’d like to keep the instances of cracks to a minimum now.

My life when alone, I am convinced, is best spent living in the above manner. My life spent with others is best spent with happy people—ones who are as relaxed around me as I am around them, talking from the heart, feeling with passion, laughing like heathens, and putting away a few of those maple tarts. My life gets to be my authentic invention, made by my own hands. I won’t settle for less.

 

pulled pork

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Gosh, I hope you’re all braised meat fans, or I’m about to bore you.:)
Pulled pork for lunch was my buddy Casey’s* idea (and he’s actually prepared it umpteen times before, and has a fancy-schmancy Cuisinart slow cooker), so he took the reins on that. He rubbed the meat (pork butt, which is pork shoulder, but saying pork butt is far more appealing) with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and salt. Then he plopped it into the Cuisinart on a cozy bed, bath, and beyond of sliced yellow onions, fresh sliced garlic, and chicken broth. It dozed in there for a blissful five hours. I know they were blissful because when we sliced off the first piece of meat and tasted it, it was nearly liquid.
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Here it is, singing ‘Swanee River’, in a very happy puddle.

Wait…let’s back up to that morning. Case assigned rolls and barbecue sauce to me. Finding the sauce was easy, thanks to another buddy, Ray, who makes BBQ Buddha Memphis Mop sauce**. The rolls I wanted to make myself, so I used a recipe from my well-worn, duct-tape-spined Joy of Cooking, adding whole-wheat pastry flour in place of some of the all-purpose flour called for. I also tossed in a handful of yellow onions that I caramelized in olive oil.

Every time I make bread I forget how easy it is.

I packed up the sauce; all of the rolls in a half-opened Ziploc (because they were still cooling); my laptop (because Casey also offered to help me design a postcard); and a box of homemade Nutella truffles (to thank him for the aforementioned), and headed north.

We kibbutzed and worked on the postcard, during which it became more and more obvious that my computer skills took a decade-long sabbatical sometime in the ’90s. Then we ate.

I pulled out the fluffy underside of the top of the bun and popped it into my mouth, then I piled on the meat. This is what my sandwich looked like…for about four minutes.

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*Just as an aside: Case’s blog—part snarky, part poignant essays on modern relationships—is here.

**Local guy makes good! If you want to try this, and/or Ray’s other barbecue products, his site is here.

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