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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

concessions

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The above is what happens when you’re hungry, you’re about to crew an enormously demanding show (The Who’s ‘Tommy’), and you need energy to make it through to 6pm (or later if we’re striking, or breaking down, the show. We were).

I have been wanting to try this newish place nearby, called Broad Street Dough Co., but held off until I had an excuse to consume such calories. This was one. That, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on this treat-everything-like-a-sundae food trend that’s been going on for some time. Cupcakes, muffins, doughnuts, even coffee drinks have become bases for piling on heaps of candy and icing. It seems mildly hysterical, and is often a cheap way to disguise a poorly-made product beneath.

But I am always elated to support the exceptions, and yesterday’s doughnut was one. It’s essentially a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (with black raspberry jelly), on a doughnut that’s been sliced in half standing in for bread. The doughnut was hot, tender, and right out of the fryer; it softened the creamy peanut butter and jelly and made them gooshy. A bit heavy on the fillings, but delicious. I ate it in maybe four bites.

A place with integrity will be proud to offer their product in the simplest manner, as an ice-cream shop that makes their own ice cream will be as proud of their vanilla as of their Rocky Road. The shortest distance between you and determining the quality of a place that cooks from scratch is to try that vanilla (or the simplest version of whatever they make) first. It’s a rule I made that has never failed me. I’m going back to Broad Street for a maple-walnut doughnut, which looked lovely, and I’m going to try out what they call old-school doughnuts—plain, sugar, and cinnamon—per my rule.

Crewing shows and doughnuts. I can live with this.

recovery

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Feeding people gives comfort to the feeder as well as to the fed.

—Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet Magazine, oft-lamented-on-this-site publication

So the world’s been a bit of a hullabaloo lately. Not in a good way, either. But Ruth’s quote above (written in the face of 9/11, when magazine staffers were too stunned to do anything but cook chili and lasagna for relief workers), is as true as ever. After the shock—multi-shocks—of 2016’s most recent events, I got into the kitchen as soon as possible.

Comfort food is in order when people are wounded. Physically, spiritually, doesn’t matter. I think it’s safe to say none of us are in the mood for anything tartare, or made with carob. I was heading to rehearsal for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ so I made Elvis’s favorite pound cake. I still giggle at the breathtaking self-indulgence of any cake that calls for seven eggs, three cups of sugar, two sticks of butter, and a cup of heavy cream*. But darned if it doesn’t do the trick.

I brought it in and fed it to actors, who are not generally a picky bunch. But they really loved it, in particular, the actor who plays the reverend. He told me it was outstanding, and that he’s spent his life in the food business, so the statement wasn’t coming out of left field.

When a portly, older African-American gentleman who used to run a business making cakes and sweet-potato pies out of his church basement tells you your cake is outstanding, it’s probably the best compliment on that cake you’ll ever get.

That recipe is a pretty good one. We all felt a little better; good food does this. It warms and unites. And I was cheered further upon his promise that he’d bring in a sweet-potato pie for me to try.

*As a matter of fact, that’s almost the entire recipe.

 

the yard

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The people who own the house across the street bought a mini-moonwalk for their kids and put it in the front yard, full time. The English call them ‘bouncy castles,’ these inflatable once-darlings of the carnival world, now available for rent or, apparently, purchase. They’re fun. I just wonder why parents don’t remember that if you put kids in a plain yard, they make their own fun. It tends to be the long-standing, great-memories kind, no less.

I want to reacquaint yard-owning adults with the possibilities of empty space.

Remember digging through winter-wet leaves for tulip shoots, hiding behind the rhododendrons during hide-and-go-seek and being half-afraid half-thrilled at the proximity of spiders, slurping the nectar out of honeysuckle in spring?

Going barefoot on the cool grass and the hot pavement, nibbling onion grass, being nose-to-nose with gypsy moths and inchworms, catching fireflies in summer?

Lying in the softest ever of beds, a leaf pile, and looking up at the intense fall sky?

Smelling wood smoke, crunching glass-like ice in the sidewalk wells, watching the snowy world turn palest blue when the sun went down?

What games did you play in your plain yard? We used every inch of ours. I was a kid in the ’70s, so for us it was a lot of Mother-May-I?, Mr. Fox, Red Light Green Light. At our neighbors’ we staged plays and concerts, jumping off the picnic table singing ‘On Top Of Spaghetti.’ At ours we climbed the Japanese maples and practiced gymnastics. Once we raked all of the leaves into a grid, creating a house with separate rooms. I think we even brought food out there to eat in the kitchen.

Parents, hold back from manicuring every blade of grass in the yard. Manicuring announces DON’T TOUCH. But it’s in access to that space, and in the imperfections, in the hollows in the bushes, that kids discover and create worlds for fairies and goblins (and both are equally important. How will they be able to face the latter in the adult world if they don’t practice? The spiders in the rhododendrons are essential.)

Parents, don’t underestimate your kids. They need very little to amuse themselves. Let them surprise you. Grass-stained knees are essential, too. Listen for the laughing.

About the moonwalk across the street…

I never saw them in it. I’m sure they went in for a while. But for the rest of the night I saw them just goofing off on the grass. Heart warmed.

ice cream sunday

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My life since Thursday has been a blurry flurry of appointments, a steady regimen of eye drops, and cavorting nose-to-screen with my laptop after having corrective eye surgery. There’s a certain degree of weepiness and photo-sensitivity with the territory, like yesterday, when I looked as though I’d just emerged from an E.T./Schindler’s List double-header. And the sharpness of my vision keeps fluctuating while my eyes heal, making it take twice as long to write anything.

But it’s all cool. Spending 20 some-odd years backstage, in darkness or near-darkness, prepped me well to trust my other senses. I made spanakopita and lemon curd pretty much by instinct. And today my vision’s pretty decent. To celebrate, this evening I put on my wide sunglasses (to block the wind and dust) and rode to Ocean Grove for my first cone of the season. I have a system and everything.

  1. I go to Days, a 140-year-old, seafoam-green, outdoor ice-cream-garden, for its utter beauty and peace.
  2. I let myself have as many cones as I like in a summer, *provided* I ride my bike (about 2.5 miles distance).
  3. I go at night; ice cream has always been a post-dinner thing, and judging by how long the line gets every night after 7:30, it’s not just me.
  4. I get a kiddie cone (they call it a ‘short shot’).
  5. I sit on the steps to people-watch and eat.

No one waiting in line for ice cream is ever in a bad mood. The news lately has been appalling. No matter. People of every conceivable age and background are there, they are not thinking about the debacle du jour, and they are happy. In an ice-cream line is a good place to be.

Tonight I read the selections through the big glass window as I always do. It was blurry, but I still made it out, with no glasses or contacts. This is miraculous for a girl who’s been wearing glasses since 1979 and contacts since 1982.

I got a scoop of Key Lime Pie on a sugar cone. And I sat in peace enjoying it, as the old normal cavorted with the new normal.

elderflowers

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Last spring my friend Teresa told me about her boyfriend’s passion for St- Germain, an elderflower liqueur. She asked if I ever forage for elderflowers, because she’d love to give him a homemade bottle of the liqueur—or a close facsimile.

I’d never sought them out, didn’t even know if they grew in central New Jersey, but when I consulted the oracle of Google I learned they did.

Then I discovered three more factoids:

1) They start blooming right around the time honeysuckle is at its peak, so I need to hustle with honeysuckle so I can hit the elderflowers before they go to seed. Last year I missed the window.

2) Once you start looking for elderflowers in season, you start seeing them everywhere. Every major roadside in my area has clumps here and there, white pom poms waving at me from the street. They like to grow near water sources, from lakes to nearly-dry waterways deep in thickets. Where there’s water, there’s the elderflower. Often enough. And goodness knows New Jersey is a watery state, so yay.

3) You have to smell them to check if they’re sweet. They’re not like honeysuckle, which is consistent as the day is long. Some elderflowers hardly have a scent at all; others might even smell like the lake they grow beside. You want a sweet/grassy fragrance.

I brought my pastry-chef friend Matthew a few to work with, and he used them to flavor a cream topping. The rest came home with me and became syrup. For every four cups of flowers, I matched it with four cups of water (1 quart), and 3 cups sugar. Dissolved the sugar in the water in a heavy-bottomed pan and brought it just barely to a boil, then I put the flower heads in (rinsed in running water first), face down. Then I took it off the heat and let it cool.

After that, I set cheesecloth in the bottom of a colander set over a big bowl, and strained the flowers out. The syrup is a lovely light golden color and delicately sweet.

I loaded it into a freezer bag and added it to the freezer. Some collect salt-and-pepper shakers and skinny Elvis dishes. I seem to collect homemade syrup. The elderflower has taken its post with lilac, honeysuckle, wild mint, and wisteria, and are the divas of the frozen world.

Teresa is getting a bottle of the latest to give to her boyfriend to play with. She wants it to be a surprise, so I told her about it in code on her Facebook page:

‘Soooooo I might have some yrup-say that I made from owers-flay which you requested last ing-spray:)

Pig Latin never goes out of style.

gardening

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Today after hearing about the nightmare in Orlando I came across a New York Times article about a man who bought several acres of land in arid northern Morocco. There he built a house and created a lush garden full of fig trees and flowers. Not only did it require thousands of man hours hauling away tons of dry, depleted dirt and replacing it with arable soil, but the area also has its share of scorpions and vipers near the rocks.

So while I’m reading this and marveling at the beautiful job he did, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Yeah, but jeeeez! Scorpions? Vipers? One bite is lethal! Why on earth would you choose to live there?’

The answer’s simple: It’s because there are scorpions and vipers everywhere. We have to live in the mess. But we still, all of us, have a chance—I’d argue an innate duty—to make *anywhere* we live better, even if it’s just committing to smile at one person on the street per day.

(Caveat: this is not about tolerating abuse. If you’re in a place where one or more vipers are always in your face, make a change. Exhausted and demoralized serves precisely nobody.)

Building beauty, even in little tiny bits.

Steering clear of the rocks as best we can.

Finding peace under the fig trees.

Hell’s bells…such a caring climate might even make the lurkers more docile. Could it hurt?

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