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cakewalk

20180807_122655*Not really—the below all took some doing—but that title’s the name of the bakery I would have if I were inclined to open a bakery.

I had three cake orders last month in quick succession. Show-and-tell time!

The first, up top, was an order placed by power-couple actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, from the TV show back in the late eighties, L.A. Law. My friend Adam is company manager at a theatre where I work and where they’re performing, and asked where he could get a good devil’s food cake. I said, ‘From me.’ 🙂 It was to be a birthday cake for two actors—men—so I steered away from the frilly stuff. Two layers of devil’s food with fluffy chocolate buttercream between them and around the perimeter, and Sacher torte ganache on top. All homemade.

IMG_0443The next was placed by my friend Dee as a birthday cake for her niece, who was turning 40 and loves chocolate and flowers. I have always wanted to do a seasonally decorated cake, so I had some serious fun here. Not going to lie; it took a week, all told. But it was fun, and I learned a lot. Lessonus maximus: Don’t think you can transport a three-layer cake without cracking the top, because you can’t. Once the smelling salts took effect I told Dee to grab a knife at the party and smooth out the top. It was fine, thank God. The above was shot pre-crack. Three layers of chocolate-buttermilk cake, with the first layer filled with vanilla bean pudding, the second with raspberry jam, and covered with more of that Sacher torte ganache. Decorations are marzipan late-summer flowers and fruits. From top: raspberry flowers and raspberries, dahlia, hygrangea blossoms, and black-eyed Susans. And dig the figs. 🙂 We’ll call this virtually homemade: the jam I bought, and everything else I made.

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This last is another Dee order. Birthday cake #3, for a girls’ beach weekend. Another devil’s food, but this is brushed with coffee liqueur, filled with chocolate buttercream, topped with a creamy chocolate ganache, and decorated with Graham cracker ‘sand’ and marzipan flip flops.

I came home after deliveries to find every surface of my kitchen edged in butter, chocolate, or both. Which is a happy problem to have.

 

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down the rabbit hole

My sister recently took the family china home with her. My great-grandmother had brought it with her on the ship from Germany, in a barrel, in the late 19th century.

The pieces below are our baby dishware. I think I feel the way my sister did when she put the new-old china in her own cabinets. You say to yourself, what are these doing here? They don’t belong here. They belong at Mom and Dad’s. And the realization of why you own them now sweeps over you. And it hurts.

Last Thursday I spent the day at my dad’s house with my sister, trying to get it in some semblance of order for a move, which was kind of a fool’s errand; it’s 6000 square feet and every drawer, closet, shelf, and cabinet is filled to capacity—the treasures and detritus of 50 years. A woman I grew up with put it succinctly: ‘Our parents’ generation were great accumulators.’

But it was more than that. Going through a parent’s house is a Category 4 of memories—from both ends of the spectrum. Truthfully? I was there not just to make the move easier. My childhood…let’s just say it was not all ice cream. I wanted to salvage some good, some tangible evidence of purer times. To extract the diamond chips from quite a bit of sallow earth. I found some.

That night I ate blueberries from the little bowl below. It was the first time anyone has eaten from it in at least 45 years. I remember eating cereal from it when I was very tiny, and watching those rabbits around the perimeter chasing each other endlessly. So many years have passed since I last saw them. So much of my life has been about chasing—sometimes the right thing, sometimes the wrong; anxious thoughts looping around the creamware of my head, trying so hard to make sense of stuff that never made sense, and never would.

I’ve learned a lot since I last saw these. I chase a lot less, and have learned, for the most part, to let rest what needs to rest. I can be the adult now. And I’ve learned not to judge all the time I spent chasing. What for? I did my best.

These bunnies remind me of when the world was new, and of my life since then. And I can guard, and regard, that time, all of it, with tenderness. They’re safe at home now.

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process

One fine day back in the early 13th century when I was an art student, my professor walked into class with an innocent smile and said this week we were going to draw with no particular result in mind. No still-life in front of us. No model posing. We were given a general and slightly vague concept to play with, but that was all.

Have you ever sprinted through LaGuardia, gotten in line to board, and made it to the front of the line—only to have the flight attendant tell you in very gentle language, lest you freak and send your carry-on and Sigg water bottle* flying, that you’re at the wrong gate? We were classically trained college kids. At this news, we looked like a dumbfounded still-life ourselves.

She said it’s not the end result that matters right now. It’s how you got there and what you learned along the way. Just let your hand do what it will, she said. Don’t worry about the result. Just draw.

Don’t…what…how am I supposed to…that’s HARD!

I still-lifed at my Strathmore pad for a few minutes. Like everybody else. Then I drew.

Then in Japanese ink I painted.

Do this enough, just let your hand move, and your mind stops chasing something in dim light Down the Road. It stays where it is, in the Now. After a while of this lunacy even the the nervousness subsides. And I ended up doing some surprisingly weird things—a cheerful by-product of the exercise.

Long story long, that’s how I’ve been feeling in the kitchen lately. I keep poring over my collection of recipes that I’ve culled from newspapers and magazines and chocolate-chip packaging and making them, only to want to make something again the next night. And I learned something: I love the food. But lately…it seems beside the point. I need to be making the food more than eating the food. This is evidenced by how full my freezer is right now.

Staying in the moment has always been a challenge for me. I’m always thinking seven steps ahead. I’m sure it’s why I can never find my car in the Target parking lot. Because when I’m parking I’m thinking about what I need to get inside, not where I parked.

Awhile back I read that everyone has an internal breaker system, one that trips when circumstances become too overwhelming. I think I’ve been gaining precariously close to that edge during the past few weeks, and cooking** has been the breaker’s voice telling me to stay in the Now. So I just let my hands do what they will.

It’s been feeling really good to sink into a recipe and paddle around in there with my wooden spoon for a little while. I came up with weird ideas out of the clear blue sky, too, even beyond swiping fruit from the neighbor’s yard, you’ll be proud to know. And I have a great selection for breakfast each morning.

*I dropped one on my foot once. That was plenty.
**And cooking and cooking and see note about the freezer.

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These are the sour cherries I liberated from the tree I found on a lawn that hadn’t been mown in a while. On a whim I added a handful of homemade marzipan to the crust and doused the fruit with Disaronno. It was an almond extravaganza.

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These are the wild black raspberries I found down by the lake. I have to pick them under partial darkness, because quite frankly, I’m greedy and don’t want to share. I made some choux pastry and loaded them with plain yogurt before sprinkling them with berries.

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This time of year is a mad scramble for parents scurrying kids to graduations and planning parties; for kids sitting shoulder to shoulder texting each other on the way to graduation and planning their own secret parties; and for me, heading to the hedgerows and planning secret wild edible heists. And everything seems to be growing at once this year, so I’ve had to act quickly (and often under cover of darkness or in early dawn—more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I had to dash to pick mulberries for myself and for a pastry chef before going out of town for a week. And now the elderflowers and wild black raspberries down by the lake are ready, and I found a sour-cherry tree on an abandoned property (!)

It’s go time.

(This will be the elderflower post. Stay tuned for what I do with the fruit. I haven’t completely figured it out yet.)

So Harry and Meghan had a lemon cake brushed with elderflower syrup, made from flowers growing on one of the royal properties. I absolutely adore both flavors but have never tried them together. Figured I can do this, and for far less (theirs cost an oxygen-sucking $71k).

I started with a lemon cake recipe in a French cookbook. It called for 1.5 cups of sugar, which also seems excessive. Instead I used 1/4 c of my elderflower simple syrup in the batter and saved the rest for apres-bake. Aside from that, I essentially stuck to the recipe: why not? I admire anyone who has you put four entire lemons, zest and juice, in a batter. I poured it into little tart pans, baked them, and docked them with a fork when they came out of the oven. Then they got a pour of that reserved elderflower syrup. Good God…a hearty cheers to the royal couple; this is an incredible combination.

Heads-up: This is the more civilized of the foraging posts I’m planning. I even listened to a bossa nova while I made these cakes. Next time I post the Chronicles of the Intrepid and Sometimes Ridiculous Forager of the Jersey Shore.

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outside inside

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I’m between full-time jobs now, freelancing in theatre and writing until The Next Big Thing lands securely in my lap, so I decided a few weeks ago to see just how full-on Laura Ingalls I could go. It’s spring and foraging time is in full swing, I have a stocked freezer of ingredients, and the brain of a techie.* I’ve restricted purchases to essentials–milk; eggs; produce; fish; chocolate; yes, it is essential; and stuff like toothpaste. I know it’s totally un-American and next they’ll be building a wall around me, but I’ve never been frivolous and actually quite hate shopping, so this really wasn’t much of a stretch.

While in Mode Resourceful I’ve been kind of knocked out with the cool ideas that have hit. Here’s what I’ve done so far and am currently doing.

Outside: Collecting garlic mustard, lilacs, wild chives, dandelion leaves, and (this week) honeysuckle. Some of the latter I’m drying for tea (Groovy Idea #1), as I did with the lilacs, and some (Groovy Idea #2) I’m steeping in some rum from my booze shelf. SO excited.

Inside: I have always hoarded bread crumbs pulled from the insides of rolls and blitzed in the Cuisinart, various kinds of flours and nuts, simple syrups made with flowers, homemade stock, yeast, that kind of thing. I pulled from them from time to time. Now I’m 99% seeing what I can make from what I already have. You’d think it would feel restrictive, but that’s actually where the fun has been.

Some of my favorite dishes have been banana bread (defrosted overripe bananas work best), pizza (with homemade crust and foraged veg), and most recently fish patties. I combine salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, in any proportion, in a bowl, throw in an egg and some of those bread crumbs, and from there you can add almost anything. Often enough I flatten them and fry them in olive oil, but yesterday I decided to treat them the same way I do meatballs: form them into spheres the size of racquetballs and bake them in about an inch of tomato sauce in a casserole pan. They have chopped black olives, onions, and a lot of white pepper, and are great at any temp.

On Saturday I went strawberrying. I like some whole grains in my pie crust and am out of whole-wheat pastry flour, so I used all-purpose combined with semolina flour and graham flour. Made strawberry-rosewater turnovers, and they rocked. Next I’m making strawberry shortcake with cream spiked with honeysuckle rum.

No, I don’t feel deprived.
🙂

*In my head, not the freezer.

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reviving

Doing one thing at a time is like butter on a burn. (Not actually. Don’t do that.) I figured this out circa Good Friday when I was making my annual breads. It’s weird to do just one thing. I’m so busy—we all are—that when I slow down just to the task at hand, just to the chopping, or to the texture of dough, it unravels my tangled-up thoughts.
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I bought the prettiest vintage yellow Pyrex bowl a few weeks ago at a garage sale. Even prettier was a successful go at haggling the seller down to 12 bucks. 12! I might forget where I parked at Target or leave my sunglasses at work for the 932,838th time, but I can still haggle like a goddess. I put it to work almost immediately, serving as a makeshift double boiler to melt chocolate for brownies. An honorable first task.
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Addicted lately to my cookbooks from the ’50s. I pick them up for a song at used book sales, so I have a bunch. I love that they assume the reader can just ask her butcher for a hog’s head and he’ll react like she asked him if they’re calling for rain that afternoon. I’m imagining the resourceful housewife of 1958 handing over $1.50 and smugly tucking this thing under her arm like a suburban Macduff, then splitting it in half and casually boiling it to make scrapple. It happened. It still happens. Why do I find this reassuring?
*
I decided from now on I won’t buy my greens in the springtime. It’s pointless; there are free and wildly nutritious greens everywhere (pun intended and savored). Dandelion greens, wild mint, wild chives. I think I found chickweed, too, but I want to double check. Every single time I go a-foragin’ someone pulls over, or walks up to me, or ambles by with a dog, to ask what I’m picking, no matter what it is. And you’d think everyone in cynical 2018 shops online at Blue Apron and doesn’t really cook and couldn’t give a flying Wallenda what a strange chick in a bandanna is doing, but I’m here to tell you they’re always fascinated, always hang on every word. And even better—and I swear this is 90% of the time—they pause and the pitch of their voices go down and they say something like, ‘…My grandmother used to make soup with those. God. I haven’t thought about that in years.’ Or a guy in a pickup calls over, ‘My dad used to make wine with those. What are they? Mulberries? I never knew their names. I lost him in 1980. Jesus.’ And they don’t want to leave. I’m not kidding.
*
I learned milk tart, a South African recipe that’s basically a custard pie, is a blissfully cooling thing to have right after a sweltering night, and we inexplicably suffered a few of those last week. This is a continent that knows how to handle heat, and I’m smart enough to take their advice. I had bought a variety of eggs, cute little Bantams and Araucanas (what they call Easter eggs, since they’re naturally colored blue or green or even tan), and wanted to give them special treatment. And I was out of sugar, so I used a splash of pure maple Grade B. Smooth sailing.

 

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Sat dumbfounded on my papered seat recently when my doctor told me I had to save meat for special occasions. I don’t mean red meat; I more or less already save that for the odd barbecue, and it’s not that big of a deal to me. I mean my mainstays—chicken and turkey.

But but but but they’re low fat, I said. They’re not as high in fat as red meat, but it’s still all saturated fat, she replied. I was in shock, although I did wake up to enjoy the little verse she performed for me next. Something about eating things that walk on all fours versus things that swim. Finger-plays for adults.

I love weirdo fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies. But I never imagined they would so easily replace poultry for me, and moreover, that it would not bother me that much. That was the second shock.

Now I’m eating mackerel with horseradish mustard stirred in, scooped up with organic blue corn chips like a bleeding hipster, and for breakfast like a crazy person. I love it. I’m having fun picking out new condiments to try as well. The mustard is great; so’s chipotle hot sauce. Trader Joe’s Thai Green Curry Simmer was a disappointment, as it’s almost flavorless and is the same stricken color of the chairs at the DMV to boot. Looking forward to making my own hot sauces again, along with a new recipe for spicy lemon pickle, a recipe from India. It calls for fenugreek seeds and has to sit in the sun for a week. Clearly I’m in.

I’ve been saving poultry, and eggs as well, for every now and then. Gave in a couple of days ago and made myself a new recipe, below. Cut the sugar back by half (see once again and unremittingly: crazy person), cut the eggs down from five to three, and enjoyed one of the smoothest, velvety-est desserts I’ve ever had: old-fashioned lemon pie. Can’t have fish for breakfast every day, after all.

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