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smooth landing

Vintage springform for Easter bread.

I’ve been making Easter bread on my own for years, but somehow every Good Friday I find myself blanking on some of the processes. 2017 examples: ‘Wait–if I put the chocolate mixture into my one big mixing bowl, what do I use to mix the dough?’* ‘Wait–can I start batch #2 before batch #1 is completely done?’** Seven years of talking myself into corners with questions like this are really beyond all reason, all good sense.***

But I do have consistent system for buttering the pans I load with dough: Every time I use a stick of butter, I lay open the wrapper and save it. There are at least five by the time I finish both dough batches, and I rub them liberally on the insides of the pans, in and out of every crevice.

Butter owns a dual role in baking bread: It adds incomparable flavor, and it allows the bread to be removed from the pan. The project can move from development to completion with butter on the team. Without it, the project would be at best compromised, and at worst, damaged. What good is a stuck bread?

I am a project person; I considered the other projects I do every day, for work and on my own, and thought about what facilitates the process through to completion—what gets them out of the pan. And there are many factors, but this is a good start.

-Making a point to stop for a treat to keep my spirits up. A Fluffer Nutter gelato today at Whole Foods was right bloody on. A nap sure doesn’t hurt, either.

-A full larder, a full gas tank, and a warm apartment. Deprivation is a brutal thing.

-And mostly…friends. There’s Grace, who writes to check in or just to say hi and leave a heart; Teresa, who’s so funny and expressive and always wants to talk about food; Casey, who also wants to talk about food when he’s not half asleep (okay, even then); Roger and Diana, who slam-dunk great conversation and huge laughs every time I see them. They and many more are my butter. They get me from point A to point B. They keep me from getting stuck in the pan.

I heard once that you should wear life like a loose garment. It’s a lovely expression, but it can’t be done without creature comforts and without people around you who care.

Tonight it was 76 degrees, a shock for Easter Sunday in NJ, so obviously I had to go to the beach after dinner. I came across a series of sand castle tunnels, presumably made earlier today by kids burning off the effects of marshmallow Peeps. We made many, many tunnels such as these as kids, on this very beach, and the way to make them is this:

You begin digging the tunnel at one side of the castle, and a pal begins digging opposite you. It can take time, but it’s a singularly magic moment when you feel each other’s fingers. From that point it just needs smoothing. Then it’s done.

*Transfer into smaller bowl after mixing.
**You can, but it’s a pain.
***Although next year I can refer to this post to answer at least two questions. Silver lining.

priorities

Everyone I know is getting sick. I guess it’s Winter’s last villainous hurrah. Or mwahahahaha and a flicking together of the fingers, as is typically the case with pointy-chinned Scooby-Doo villains.

I did the only sensible thing and made lemon squares. Been eating two a day like a good girl.

What, it’s citrus.

🙂

earthy

Elderflowers, a mid-June treat.

Today I stopped into my friend Leslie’s new shop downtown. She’s an herbalist who grows much of what she uses in her products, and created a place where she can sell them.

As far back as I can remember, the spot has been a watering hole, or a cocktail lounge, or something along those lines. I’m being generous, actually. The word seedy comes to mind, and with good reason. I was curious to see what she’d done with the place.

I opened the wrought-iron gate and asked Stefanie, the day’s proprietor and maker of the teas, for a tour. The space is breathtaking for people like me who love turn-of-the-last-century details like a lovely, very high, hammered tin ceiling and trim, now painted a deep bronze. The sweeping, curved bar runs almost the length of the room.

Teas, herbed bath salts in enormous glass confection jars, salves, tinctures, supplies for making stuff at home were here and there throughout—all natural, made by hand, and mostly with local ingredients. Two huge posters Leslie made featuring dried herbs and their names and properties made me yearn for warmer days when I can prowl the countryside again for plants.

On another level I spotted a metal pole running from floor to ceiling and asked Stefanie, ‘Is this what I think it is?’ ‘Yep,’ she said.

For centuries, women (it’s usually women) have combed the earth for plants that can feed and heal. And we’re still doing it. Fascinating, isn’t it, to be in a place where women gave up their power, and to have it reborn as a place where we took it back?

soothsaying

Not to brag, but I’ve really been rocking Chocolate Day lately. When, to keep migraines at bay, you can only have it every third day (today! today!) it’s a big deal, so I bust my bottom to make it count. It’s always good quality, it’s always dark chocolate, it’s usually 65-or-so % cacao, and it’s often organic. With standards like that, eating it straight up is a big enough treat, but gilding the lily now and then is even more fun.

Every year around now I make a soda bread, and riff off the traditional made with raisins. I have two recipes I love, one from Gourmet Magazine, God rest its soul, and the other I happened upon on YouTube–we’ll call it the Bread From Some Guy Online. It’s fantastic, though, made with two full cups of buttermilk (though I use plain organic yogurt because it’s easier to find than organic buttermilk, if the latter even exists); moreover, he recommends eating it slathered with Irish butter, a suggestion that cannot be criticized to any degree.

I mixed up the dough, then soaked dried sour cherries in warm Baileys Irish Cream. The whole goopy thing went into the dough along with a bar and a half of thick-chopped Belgian chocolate. Then I sliced the top into a cross as per tradition—‘to let the devil out’—though I can’t say it did much good, as once it was baked I pulled it apart like a heathen anyway.

The tart cherries + the heady Baileys + the smooth, smoooooth chocolate + the tender crumb—I just want to emphasize that luxury is sometimes a necessity, and should not be met with shame. Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes urges her clients to be good to themselves, to ‘have pity on the thing that wants and needs.’ It’s cold. Winter has overstayed its welcome. Stand by Clarissa.

I think I ate a quarter of the above bad boy today, steaming hot, and made a happy mess. With very cold milk it soothed everything. My freezer’s full of the rest, to be messily devoured four days from now, and four days afterward. And on.

halfsies

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I was prop designer recently for a show that takes place in a house garage, and the main two characters were an Italian father and son from blue-collar Providence, RI. At one point during the show, the son asks his assistant what she wants for dinner, and the father suggests she get “a ‘One and One’—half meatball, half sausage—the best of both worlds.”

I made the “sandwiches” for the show by rolling old t-shirts up and wrapping them in butcher paper. But the notion of that sandwich, a real one, invaded my waking and non-waking thoughts until last Friday, when I finally made it for myself. I bought the roll, hot sausage, and Fontina (a riff off mozzarella, and a solid one). I made the meatballs and heated up the last of the tomato sauce from last summer’s crop. And of course I toasted the roll.

I was heading in to work another show that morning and it was a great late breakfast. Convention goes right out the window when you have a long and physical day ahead. That dude held me till mid-afternoon.

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The set of the show. The car (an actual 1967 Jaguar sedan) and a few other pieces were provided by our incredible set designer, but virtually everything else is me–found, borrowed, or created. I tell people I’m a professional seagull.

Oh, and if you want to giggle, it wasn’t just a half-and-half kind of day with regard to sandwiches. Theatre life being what it is (read: wildly nit-picky directors and loony hours), laundry tends to take a backseat. On Friday I looked in my sock drawer for matching knee-high pantyhose and instead found one charcoal and one tan. That made two secrets, along with the Italian sub I’d eaten for breakfast.

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cold cure

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Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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.