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December baking

Coming up for air after baking eight pies (sold seven, ate one) last week for Thanksgiving. Coming up for air, that is, just in time for Christmas baking, which is like going to a water park on Tuesday and on Wednesday thinking it might be fun to swim the English Channel. For some reason I’m not wired up to hit the bakery for holidays. I have in my collection recipes that wait politely all year for their moment in the (waning) December sun, and I can’t say no — sleep and sanity be damned.

This month I’m making profiteroles for a going-away party, gingerbread reindeer for gifts, and chocolate-Grand Marnier cake for New Year’s Eve orders. For me, I’m making Irish fruitcake, my former neighbor’s cinnamon chocolate-chip coffee cake, and my mom’s sour-cream coffee cake for Christmas morning.

But today I opened up the month with the stollen below: a very tender, not-too-sweet German bread made with toasted almonds, chopped orange peel, lemon zest, and raisins I soaked for an hour in my honeysuckle vodka. It’s supposed to evoke the swaddling clothes wrapped around the Baby Jesus, but I never get it right. It always looks rumpled, like he was caught off-guard and jumped out of the manger to validate the Wise Men’s parking. I ate warm wedges of it for breakfast, and luckily the flavor never fails.

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time & tide

My new car has this wild heating/ac system that lets you decide precisely what temperature you want in the car. I love dialing it up and down to see what year I land on. 79: got my ears pierced! 72: West End Nursery School! 84: “Footloose” came out! Make no mistake: I’ve never been a numbers girl. But I am a memories girl.

October’s my month. Birthday. Halloween. The brown smell of damp leaves. Of all the months of the year, this one feels the most wistful. It’s the time when my inner mirror shifts between what is and what was, back and forth, now and then, flick flick, flick flick.

I like to walk through my hometown on Halloween night, scuffing through the leaves the way I did when we were trick-or-treating, pretending they’re once again sticking to the hem of whatever garish polyester gown I had on. This town has 100-year-old trees, and last Halloween night the wind was warm, but blowing like mad. It was fantastic.

I like to see the kids tearing across their neighbors’ lawns with power and abandon. This is the night kids rule the world. I like saying Happy Halloween to everyone, and humming the Halloween songs we learned as tiny children.

Walking down a sidewalk I pass two pre-teen girls chatting and munching, and I stop and turn to watch them walk away. I want to call to them, stop! right now, look around, take it in, this is what you’ll remember so many years from now, you are in your memories this very second, pay attention, but I don’t, because no one said it to me, and it’s best that no one did. They walk farther away and vanish into the shadows and fierce wind.

I turn the corner to the house where I grew up. The current owner took too many liberties with landscaping and it’s too tidy. Only two trees remain from when we were kids, ancient oaks a solid yard in diameter. I lean against one and scan across the lawn, watching us build leaf forts in another October, ride our bikes on that sidewalk, walk to the bus stop on cold January mornings, seeing snapshots of my brother’s fifth birthday party in September 1973. The tree remembers it all, and it remembers me. And it’s strong, which helps, because it’s overwhelming. Not everything since those rides and walks and leaf forts turned out well. Maybe everyone who visits their childhood home feels this way.

One more corner to turn, and I see in lamplight a gentleman up on the walkway to my old friend’s house. He’s just standing there looking out. What are the chances her dad never moved? I ask if he’s Mr. Layton. He is. We talk for a long while, me and this man whom I have not seen nor spoken to in … Christ. 40 years. It was butter on a burn. And if he saw the earlier tears on my face, he didn’t say anything. He was always a good guy.

I woke up the next morning and did what I always do: looked out my kitchen window to see the sun rise over the water. It was just as rewarding as it was yesterday, and I’ll lay down money that it will be tomorrow, too.

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pause

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This is been a milestone summer for me. I’ve had to learn to balance a new job and commute, which provides what I need to survive, with time in nature, which provides what I need to live.

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, late afternoon- and weekend-warrioring. But man, those moments have been sweet.

This summer I found wild blackberries growing along banks I’ve wandered since I was a kid, but never noticed. Made tea from flowers and leaves I dried, made lattice-topped pies from olive oil crusts instead of butter (never thought it would work, but guess what), and made sure to throw a pebble into the lake just to hear the PLUNK that always, always satisfies.

For the first time, I saved my molars and got every pit out of the wild Concord grapes I found, smacking my lips on their tartness. Swapped in my beach plums for cranberries in my favorite crisp, and they were fantastic. Sneaked onto footbridges in the woods and onto the lawn of my shamelessly absent neighbor, where in the dark of night I shamelessly picked enough fruit to make sour-cherry tarts.

I sank my tired feet into powdery sand and let the wind and 360-degree pink-and-grey sunsets wash the stress off me. There were 17 seagull tail feathers at the beach the other night, perfect quills for my next production of “1776.” Was serenaded by a Russian mulberry-lover, very much off-key (don’t ask. Actually, do. Great payoff.). Discovered that honeysuckle blooms in fits and starts all summer, just right for drying, and jammed May-fresh ones into a bottle of Laird’s to flavor the whiskey. Twice I sat and watched the yellow sunlight sparkles chase each other over the lake, and once I saw a fleet of catfish making kissy-faces at the surface of the water.

Walked the trail at Monmouth Battlefields, the Revolutionary War site, and marveled that Washington and the boys withstood 90-degree heat on that day in June while in wool uniforms (many couldn’t, and succumbed to heatstroke). Sat down to take a shot of a lone apple, looking like a dropped musket ball, and spent the next 15 minutes plucking vicious grassy needles off my bum. Freedom has its price.

Yesterday I really felt the sun and wind and crunch of sycamore leaves as I trudged along the banks of my lake. Today, driving home, I really loved the different greys of the clouds, layered like deckled pages in a book, and felt the coolness — new to the season but old, coming back.

So the wheel starts its descent, so the fall of the year has begun. Falling with it.

 

 

the land

 

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Disney World’s EPCOT is one of my favorite places on earth, which should confirm any suspicion about my sanity; and when I go there, I head straight to their Living With the Land ride*. It features a farmhouse so beautiful and romantic that I want to move into it. Tall shade trees planted around it, gracious front porch, friendly mongrel wagging his tail, chickens warbling. It is late afternoon; the family bustles around after a long day.

The drive out to my job slices New Jersey in half, like a belt across its waistline. The road I take, Route 33, used to drive my mom crazy. A serious point A-to-point B driver, she derisively called it ‘that little two-lane farm road.’ But I like it. When you’re an earthy type who’s at a desk all day, it’s nice to have reminders all around of earthiness.

I started foraging for wild Concord grapes two years ago. Before then I never saw grapevines anywhere. Now I see them everywhere — especially on the little two-lane farm road. It’s not far from where I harvest grapes every August, actually. I also see elderflower shrubs and lots of beautiful rich green corn. I’m sad to see For Sale signs in front of huge cornfields. Development has hit farmland hard in the Garden State. New farmers are starting to take back the land, some of it, but it’s not fast enough for me. I fantasize about the corn slowly surrounding the For Sale signs and swallowing them up in a massive leafy maw.

The Route 33 extension in Freehold was built across more farmland. Back in the eighties my dad used to buy corn there on his way home from work in the summer. Mr. Matthews knew my dad from a distance and they’d speak to each other in code across the fields: My dad would get out of the car and hold up fingers for however many ears he wanted; Mr. Matthews, on his tractor, would nod and pick that amount. Next to hour-old corn, supermarket corn is ridiculous.

The road runs right through Mr. Matthews’s farm. I think of him every time I drive over this part of the highway. I don’t even know if he’s still alive, this farmer I never met, and wonder what he’d think if he heard the daughter of that guy who held up fingers for corn remembers him every time she drives across his land, and so many years later.

In the distance just before the extension is a beautiful old farmhouse with shade trees planted around it. I think about how high and healthy they are, that the way they are now is what the owners had in mind when they planted them, and how lucky I am that I get to see them as they were intended, surrounding a gracious front porch. And I imagine a friendly mongrel wagging his tail and chickens warbling. If I walk across the cornfield and peek in the window in the late afternoon, will I see the ghost of a family busy getting dinner?

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*Google it; it’s awesome, but it’s probably not kosher to post a link. I don’t want to mess with the Mouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve never met anyone who said no to a cupcake. You can make it out of any kind of cake, top it with any kind of frosting, and people won’t even ask what those flavors are before slurping them down. A cupcake is like a new puppy: You don’t care if it makes a mess or comes with a questionable pedigree. It’s adorable, so you say yes.

This month I baked two kinds of little beauties by request. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even remember where the recipe to the top cupcakes came from, but I’ve been making them for about 10 years and have gotten utterly and undeservedly spoiled by the reactions. Chocolate cake spiked with Guinness stout, filled with chocolate ganache spiked with Jameson whisky, topped with buttercream spiked with Baileys Irish Cream. Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes. Sometimes I wrap the pastry box in Caution tape.

Last weekend I brought a dozen to my production of ‘Young Frankenstein’ in order to treat one of the guys who runs the fly rail. The last time I made them was easily five years ago, but he has never forgotten them; nor does he forget to remind me how long it’s been every time he sees me. I gave in.

Our sound op, a 21-year-old kid, ate three, calling them ‘those liquor brownies.’ Not worth correcting. The actor who played the monster poked one in his face and said, ‘OHMAGAH.’ And he wasn’t even in character at the time. The fly guy went off by himself to eat his. Whoever devised this recipe, if you’re out there, I am your humble servant.

The below was an order for a Disney-maniac actor who was celebrating a birthday. His wife wanted to give him Dole Whip cupcakes, a nod to the latest maniacal Disney trend, the frozen pineapple dessert. But he can’t have dairy. I made pound cake loaded with pineapple, and substituted Earth Balance for butter. Instead of buttercream, I made seven-minute frosting, adding pineapple juice instead of water, and topping it with candied pineapple. My friend Teresa, who never lies to me, deemed them ‘not bad’ — a chilling review for a baker. Without butter, I’m sure the cake was too dense. I probably should have made angel food, which has no fat at all and you never miss it. But they’re cupcakes, so I am also sure the guests polished off the box either way.

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the case for messy

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If you’re ever driving through a town and the streets are lined with sycamore streets, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re in an old town. Where I live, in an area built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there are lots of these beautiful trees. No one plants them any more because they’re considered messy trees; they drop bark and fuzzy mossy seed pods.
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Same goes for apple trees, crab apple trees. I read a column a few years back that featured a question from a guy who was ticked off at the apple tree he inherited when he moved to his new house. He asked the columnist what he could do to keep the apples from dropping, short of cutting the tree down. The columnist politely suggested he go completely off the cuff and maybe eat the apples.
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Every year I seem to lose access to another mulberry tree. The towns either cut them down or cut them back. People complain that they drop too much fruit. But last year I found several mulberries growing along a back road. I’ve noticed they tend to grow alongside waterways. And one magnificent old tree offered quarts and quarts of fruit last year, enough for me, enough to sell to my pastry chef friend, and enough for the geese to nibble at. One day I was picking the fruit quietly, up on a stepladder, while a goose family enjoyed themselves on the other side of the tree. A little gosling ambled by, eating, and didn’t notice me until I moved a bit, at which he squeeeeeeed and skedaddled to the other side of the tree.
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When we were little we used to peel the loose bark from the sycamores in the fall and watch for the earthy ambers and mossy greens underneath and crunch the bark under our shoes
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And I look for the purple mulberry splotches on waterway roadsides so I can come back with my bag and stepladder and stain my fingers
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And I drive on Route 66 and look for the roadside apple trees that remember the farmers who planted them and still drop their fruit for whatever hungry creature needs them
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I am always one of them and always will be

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Baking is not the terrifying thing people make it out to be. Truly, this week you dealt with health insurance, nursed a cold, got rear-ended on a major highway, and had your umbrella blow inside out twice.* After that, putting one’s hands in flour and chopping chocolate is a proven way to set everything to rights, to regain control and start over. And it soothes like nothing else right now, during what can be the coldest month of the year.**

I actually made two soda breads this month. Every March I dream of what soda bread riff I want to do. This year I added blood orange juice and zest, cloves, cinnamon, 65% cacao chocolate chunks, a dose of Grand Marnier, and instead of cow’s milk yogurt I think I used goat’s. The juice added to the yogurt made the dough faintly pink, which I thought was hilarious, and was sorry to see the color kind of fade in the oven. But it was a winner. That’s it above. I pulled pieces off and munched on them warm.

Then for my sister’s birthday I made another soda bread and added unsweetened coconut flakes, 72% cacao chocolate, and a few glugs of Malibu. It was basically a boozy Mounds bar tucked inside some bread. An unorthodox birthday cake. She was a fan.

Today I made a pizza I’ve been wanting to recreate since 2008, when I visited Mo’orea, an island off Tahiti. The shack on the side of the road is called Allo Pizza. Mo’orean locals are generally French speakers and French food eaters with a healthy hunger for fish and their lovely tropical produce. It’s not a combination that calls to mind pizza, but there it was. I wasn’t a food writer then, not officially, but I kept a journal that documented what we did and what we ate; and praise Jesus, or I wouldn’t remember the toppings on this pie: fresh tuna (they call it ‘lagoon fish,’ caught across the street), capers, anchovies, Parmesan, garlic, and herbes de Provence. It’s an unlikely combination, but so was being halfway around the world and eating on the street while dodging guys doing wheelies on mopeds. We did notice that no one wore gloves while handling the toppings, and that there was no refrigeration for the fish. So only we ate there for lunch, as soon as it opened. And just the same, we waited to get sick, but it never happened.

The tuna below was not caught across the street but caught from behind the counter at Whole Foods, a reasonable substitute. It was great fun to make, warming and delicious, wheelies or no wheelies.

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*Yep , right here.
**Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa used to say, ‘When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.’ I can never remember when I parked at Target, but this I remember.