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now and then

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I’ve spent the past five days in the house with a skin infection, slipping out when the sun goes down to breathe fresh air and wander under cover of darkness. It sounds more superhero cool than it actually is.

Still…I’ve been worn out from the inside out for a long while, and needed some down time. It’s probably good that I was forced to stop. And there have been some happy by-products: I revisited some of my vintage cookbooks and baked new stuff.

With the contents of my larder reducing each day, especially fruits and vegetables, I opened up the last of the mulberry-Petit Syrah compote that I made last June. Then I pulled out The Food Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, clearly titled by someone paid by the word, and looked for a muffin recipe I could use with the mulberries.

I found one from The Crescent Hotel in Arkansas, which is still in operation (and apparently is haunted. Someday I am going out there to eat their ghost cookies and to go on their ghost tour.). Their huckleberry muffins looked easy. I followed the recipe to the letter, except I used butter for the fat instead of shortening; and I live in New Jersey, and hence don’t have any huckleberries lying around. I love that it says to bake the muffins in ‘a moderate oven’ (350 F), plus this mid-century charm: ‘Pop a batch into the oven for a Sunday morning breakfast surprise.’

Verdict: They could have used another egg or two; the recipe called for just one. As pretty as they are (see above), they’re so heavy that when I put them on a plate you could actually hear them land. I probably chipped half my counter. Hope I didn’t lose my security deposit.

Oddly, and also, the recipe also didn’t call for sugar. (Maybe huckleberries are very sweet?) But this I didn’t mind; my compote was made with brown sugar and wine, which came through like little troupers. Unless something I make is completely burned*, I can always salvage it. Treated the muffins the same way as I did my mattress-like chocolate sponge cake in April: I cut a couple of muffins into pieces, tossed them in a bowl, chipped the other half of the counter, and doused them with plain yogurt. It was a great, if chewy, breakfast.

Today I climbed down from the walls long enough to leaf through The Williamsburg Cookbook (1975) that I dug out from under a folding table at the Ocean Grove Ladies’ Auxiliary book sale a few years ago, and made a loaf of something called manchet bread. It dates back to 14th-century England, so they say, because it calls for unbleached flour. Back in 1975 that wasn’t very easy to come by, is my bet. Today, thank goodness, it’s fairly commonplace. I used a mixture of unbleached all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. This recipe maker also had the sense to use butter. No salt, though.

Verdict: It mixed up easily; and baked, has a crusty crust and nubbly, tender insides. Despite the sunken center. And it needed salt. So I buttered some slices and sprinkled on some dukka, an Egyptian spice mix I made of cumin seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt, all toasted and ground up with a mortar and pestle. On the bread, it was freaking glorious.

So here’s what I learned this week: 1) Resourcefulness is key, even when you’re tired and worn out and moderately itchy 2) There are times when the present becomes just too darned much, and the past offers a sweet refuge. Even if your muffins end up like Timberlands and your bread shows signs of economic collapse, it’s kind of heartening.

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*If you burn a slice of toast, grab a butter knife. Hold the toast over the garbage bin and use the knife to scrape off the top burnt layer. It’s golden underneath. Little trick I learned from reading Louise Fitzhugh’s 1970s comic jewel, Sport. Go Young Adult lit!

mid-may

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

lilacs

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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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cashew better

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With the sole exception of peanut butter, I hated nuts growing up. All of my Halloween Snickers bars and Almond Joys went directly to my sister (and she hated peanut butter, so I got her Reese’s). Peanut butter was my glory. It had to be smooth, though; crunching through nuts appalled me.

Then I outgrew it—all of it and then some. Now there is no nut I won’t eat, although I draw the line at adding them to cookies and brownies. I work in marzipan, grinding my own almonds. And I want my peanut butter as crunchy as they’ll make it.

But recently I read that peanut butter is carcinogenic in high quantities, which is essentially how I was eating it. Peanut butter and homemade jam on hearty bread makes a filling breakfast, no matter how old you are. Same deal on apples and bananas. What could ever replace it? I like almond butter, and I like my homemade walnut butter, but neither touch my heart quite like peanut.

Enter cashews—and it occurs to me now that there was one nut I ate growing up: this one, salted. To me it’s the most assertive, richest, heartiest nut there is. It’s the Bradley Cooper of nuts, if he put on 35 pounds or so.

But I couldn’t find it anywhere in chunky, and why I still haven’t figured out. So I bought a jar of smooth with salt from Trader Joe’s, took a spoonful in the parking lot and tested it. Win for flavor, but very runny. So I went back inside and bought a bag of raw cashews, brought them home and toasted them, ground them up a bit. Then little by little, added them to the jar.

People often tell me how resourceful I am, which is very nice. A lot of my food ideas flop, or take forever to get right, so when an idea nails it from minute one….well, this is the kind of resourceful I am proudest of.

That’s it. All I wanted to tell you. Just how GOOD this is. Better than peanut butter, much as I love it. I can’t wait to dunk some good quality dark chocolate in there. Happy Mond…oh crap. Tuesday.

shake it up

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I ate goat for lunch today.

Those from tropical cultures find this about as unusual as your basic American would find eating a burger from Five Guys. This particular goat came from a homey Filipino restaurant. Mixed with some of my roasted vegetables it was fatty, rich, meaty, and lip-smacking. The first goat I ever ate was a few years ago in a tiny Mexican restaurant.* It was just as delicious and I never forgot it.

Exotic food can be daunting, granted. The late food writer Laurie Colwin said she would never eat fish eyeballs, and I’m right with her. I’ll add to that the Filipino delicacy balut, a duck embryo eaten directly from the shell.** This is not a criticism of this traditional food, mind you; I just know what I can manage and what I can’t.

But I do want to push my luck as much as I can, not just because there is a world of magnificent food out there (and there is), and not just because sharing brings us all closer together (and like smiles, or music, food can do that), but because it’s important to pull the rug out from underneath ourselves sometimes.

(It’s also fascinating not just to see what people eat, but how they eat. I recently read about a native of Guam who happily munches right through baked chicken—bones and all. My Filipino friend Teresa loves picking at fish bones, slurping every tasty morsel from them, while her brother picks out the choicest pieces of cartilage to chew on. I’m a nibbler myself. Isn’t it reassuring to think that despite Louis Vuitton handbags and Tru-Green manicured lawns and eyebrow threading treatments that humans still, miraculously, maintain vestiges of our primitive selves? Could anyone plausibly argue that food doesn’t taste better when we get good and sticky-fingered with it? Sticky-faced?)

How much poorer I would be had I not found that little Mexican grocery store almost-restaurant, where the ladies sliced fresh limes behind the counter and grinned at this porcelain-white girl and her Japanese buddy licking our fingers over goat and tripa in homemade soft tacos. Or pulled over on the scrubby road just outside Gainesville, Florida to try spicy crocodile jerky. Or tasted Teresa’s mom’s wonderful monggo (traditional Filipino mung bean soup, complete with little shrimp heads). I love it; I love it all.

*’Restaurant’ might be pushing it, actually; it was in the back of a narrow little Mexican grocery store, and you had to go through the store to get there. The joint wasn’t much bigger than a box of Froot Loops, and I don’t even think it has a name. But they sure knew what they were doing.

**Man, if the goat didn’t drive my mom to the edge, that sure did.

 

 

 

 

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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