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les hungry

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Making food props for any theatre company has its own unique challenges, but making them for a high school adds another handful (and another unique, while we’re at it).

I’m in the middle of a run of Les Miserables, the much-loved opera with an unusually high body count. Most of its characters don’t make it to curtain call. I told the actors we could easily hand out pens with playbills and have the audience cross out characters throughout the play. When only Marius and Cosette are left, the French Revolution is over and so is the show.

Despite the loss and poverty depicted, there is also great wealth. When the above characters marry, they have a lavish wedding and cake. I asked what side of the stage the wedding cake will enter from, and when the director said stage right, I knew it couldn’t be too tall; that side of the stage has only shelves on which to store props. He agreed to a layer cake, so I made one (above) with three batches of homemade play dough, cake tins, mini tart tins, and paint applied with a piping bag and tips as if it were buttercream. Young Zak found a gold bead somewhere and pushed it into the cake. I’m not sure why. Being a freshman might have something to do with it.

But when I brought the cake in, the director said it was too low, and that if I built a taller one, we could store it somewhere off stage and bring it on just for the wedding.

Would that I had known this before.

So yesterday I built the below with three storage boxes from AC Moore stacked and glued together with wood glue, and painted using the same technique as above. My crew let me know that young David, who plays a police officer in the show, opened the lid of the top box to peer inside. I said if they see him doing that again to tell him Marisa is going to hide his billy club and he will never find it in a million years.

The cake is tall, and one of the young musicians saw me walk past with it and gasped, ‘Is that real?’ so my work is done.

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Actually, my job with food for this show isn’t entirely done; I have to feed four loaves of bread per night to the cast, who eats it on stage behind the barricade. I don’t want it to be stale, so I buy it fresh every day. The girls who bring it on from stage left eat most of it while they’re waiting to go on.

When I first brought bread to rehearsal last week the director skipped that scene, so I told Cristian, who plays Enjolras, to take the bread for his side of the stage downstairs to share.

Teenagers of every stripe don’t stop eating. It’s fascinating and almost eerie to witness. They always have their hands in a box of Cheez-Its. But this is a boarding school, which means the kids are even hungrier; and this was a sophomore boy I was talking to. He gaped at me and shouted, ‘We can have the whole thing?!’ When I said yes, he almost bit my hand off.

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Its hours are numbered.

chicken pot pie

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Just a photo this week, but it’s a cracker: Deep-dish chicken pot pie with peas, carrots, pearl onions, mushrooms, a creamy roux, and the meat from nearly a whole 3.5 pound bird. The buttery biscuit crust has chopped scallions and is made extra fluffy with lots of buttermilk.

I overfilled it like a greedy little thing and it bubbled all over the place, so then I had to judge whether the topping would cook fully before the wind from the oven fan, ceiling fan, and open window would fail and set off the smoke alarm. It never happened, and I ate and warmed my chilly bones.

Stay warm this week, everybody. Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case keep your balmy week to yourself.

😉

all in

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The little bits of chopped peanut on top didn’t hurt.

Notes from an afternoon in Princeton, last Wednesday. God, but I ate well, but I’ll come back to that.

Background: I went to a small boarding school nearby with students from all over the world. You couldn’t help but become friends with kids from Orlando, FL, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast, Bangkok, Taiwan, because that’s largely whom you bumped into in the halls and while brushing your teeth at night. A few years of living with a variety of faces and accents felt very normal, which I didn’t realize until I went to a college where everyone looked like me and was mostly from NJ or PA. It was a good college, but it felt bland as pasta straight out of the pot.

Foreground: Princeton was crowded, cold and grey though it was. A handful of us were ordinary Caucasian Americans. The rest? It was like the U.N. was on its lunch break and pouring down Nassau Street. Here, as at my high school, this was the rule.

I heard Cockney English spoken behind me outside the bookstore, Russian beside me at the crosswalk. A group of three—two young students of Middle Eastern and Latino descent and an African-American cop—were chatting idly and chuckling outside a falafel shop, their breaths puffing in the cold.

the bent spoon, my favorite ice cream shop in NJ, was closed for vacation. Which pained me, as it was Chocolate Day and I had planned to make it count, but on my way there I had spotted a sign outside Jammin’ Crepes advertising a Mousse Parfait special. It wasn’t chocolate, but it was probably worth trying my tears for. The place is fantastic.

I sat down and ate the above—that’s peanut butter mousse layered with homemade jam and whipped cream, with toasted sugared crepe chips on the side—very slowly. This was while listening to a couple speaking Parisien French right beside me (p.s., they ate every bite of their crepes, and they’d know from crepes) and another couple speaking the Queen’s English behind me.

Diversity reminds me of some of the best years of my life, simply put. I feel calmer when the people around me don’t look and sound just like me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually feel like I fit in better. It was an immensely peaceful experience.

And I noticed on my way back to my car that those two kids and the cop were still kibitzing in the cold about nothing in particular.

kitchen therapy

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I needed to be in the kitchen today. Too much work and too much abject crazy in the world made it absolutely, crucially necessary; and thank the universe, it chilled me right out (and fed me very well at teatime today).

The above is a sausage bread. I’ve never made a stuffed bread before, and looked online for a good recipe, but all I could find were recipes that started with a tube of Pillsbury. Then it occurred to me that a stuffed bread is a lot like pizza dough with, you know, stuff in it. So I used Bon Appetit‘s recipe and added anything I thought would taste good.

First I crumbled up 12 ounces of hot Italian sausage and grated about a cup and a half of mozzarella. Then I made the dough, adding some Parmigiano-Reggiano and dried basil and rosemary. (I’ve noticed when you buy stuffed breads, the bread’s flavor itself is somewhat neglected; the focus seems to be on the filling alone.) Then I let it rise, and worked it into a ball the way I learned when I did a brief stint at a restaurant. (I was one of two people who, on weekends, rolled 250 balls of pizza dough per day. It was strange rolling just one!)

Then with a rolling pin I rolled it into a disk, loaded it up with the cheese and sausage, then treated it as I do my chocolate-cinnamon babka: I rolled it up jelly-roll style, pinched the ends, twisted it, and coiled it. It got an egg wash and I popped it into the oven, figuring 350 degrees F would do. It did. Took Julia Child’s advice and took it out when I could smell it.

I sat down with it, hot, the whole thing, at my dining room table and pulled off steaming little pieces. Nibbled and looked out the window and was soothed. Sending all of you the same wishes, with or without a sausage bread.

the american black walnut

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Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

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An American black walnut.

the sweet life

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Toad-In-The-Hole, an egg, sausage, and rosemary dish baked inside Yorkshire pudding batter. My recipe was a gift from a Manchester, UK reader, and it’s so deliriously satisfying that I will never make another.

Hygge (pronounced like a tugboat’s horn: HOO-gah) is a old Danish word that’s difficult to translate into English. My best definition: It’s the well-being that results from surrounding oneself with comfort, safety, and, if Pottery Barn has anything to say about it, off-white bouclé throw pillows.

I’m not knocking Pottery Barn, mind you; once I learned about hygge, I realized my own North Star has been leading me toward the concept all my life, including my love for that store’s aesthetic, which is totally doable without the price tag. The New York Times recently advised people who were seeking hygge to take the following as a Step One: ‘Go home, and stay there.’ A fair starting point.

As someone who can get overwhelmed easily—a door prize from my childhood—I will probably always gravitate toward hygge. The photos below show some of my favorite things to eat to feel soothed and safe, but this is really a way of life, if you can swing it—a way to live more civilized life.

My methods (and you’ll have your own, and I would love to hear about them):

-Using only wooden, glass, or ceramic dishware. Plastic and metal are a no-go.

-Yoga every morning.

-Serving my most I’m-glad-you’re-here dessert to guests: a hot, fresh, fudgy brownie, a blop of melting homemade ice cream on top, served in a bowl.

-My fireplace, which is gas, but still way cool.

-Changing the feel of my place with every season; most recently, a fresh Christmas tree in my bedroom and vintage Advent calendars from my neighbor, long gone and much missed.

-Breathing in fresh cold air after a snowfall, and wearing my best snowball-making mittens from when I was 12 (I didn’t get much bigger).

-Foraging.

-Traveling on my bike as soon as it’s warm enough to, as much as I can.

-Getting virtually all of my furniture secondhand so it has a little soul to it. I find it in antiques stores, from friends, and from garage-sale lawns. I refinish it to make it my own, and sew my own pillows and curtains. (Not really good at it, but they hold together.)

-Vanilla extract made from vanilla beans and local vodka. Laundry detergent made from Borax, washing powder, and Ivory soap. Fresh herbs wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry.

-Reading the delicious essays in the weekend Times.

-Cooking from scratch. (Making sausage bread next. Yowza, and stay tuned.)

-Hanging my own work on the walls of my place—photography, drawings, and pebbles I’ve collected from all over the world.

-Very thick hot chocolate made with great-quality semisweet chips, milk (or make it with half milk, half cream, if you want to see me genuflect), and a smidge of cornstarch.

-It’s astonishing how much clutter stresses people out. I shoo it right out the door so it never has a chance to put up its feet.

-Relaxing in ten-year-old L.L. Bean flannel pajamas and blogging, like, say, right now.

-Laughing really hard with friends.

-Bringing a little bite of something good to share when I visit someone.

-Cooking to ABBA, or classical music, or the Mamas and the Papas, or The Cure. Any music.

-Celebrating Chocolate Day every third day (to stave off migraines), and eating organic dark chocolate on my favorite little 1960s-era plate that once belonged to my aunt.

-Opening the windows and leaving them open as soon as I can every season. I am happiest when the indoors feels as much like the outdoors as possible.

-Living where the ocean mist rolls down the streets on foggy mornings.

-The hiss and bubbling of old radiators.

-Feeling the charged energy in the air on Mischief Night and Christmas Eve.

-Reading fairy tales, different versions of each, and then studying the analyses of each. Scrumptious.

-Freshly laundered cotton sheets, a down comforter, and a cool, dark bedroom. A horizon I’m heading toward very soon.

Peace & love.

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Hot homemade sourdough bread with melting Kerrygold butter.

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Shepherd’s pie, properly made with lamb. The UK knows from hygge, even if it’s not their word. Chronically gloomy skies demand it to preserve the sanity of the people.

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Maple cream tart.

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Local apples on a reclaimed vintage farm bench.

 

 

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Mozzarella in carrozza, a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s battered before it’s fried.

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I think I put five pounds of apples in this dude. An avalanche of fruit every time I sliced it.

butter

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut