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Disney World’s EPCOT is one of my favorite places on earth, which should confirm any suspicion about my sanity; and when I go there, I head straight to their Living With the Land ride*. It features a farmhouse so beautiful and romantic that I want to move into it. Tall shade trees planted around it, gracious front porch, friendly mongrel wagging his tail, chickens warbling. It is late afternoon; the family bustles around after a long day.

The drive out to my job slices New Jersey in half, like a belt across its waistline. The road I take, Route 33, used to drive my mom crazy. A serious point A-to-point B driver, she derisively called it ‘that little two-lane farm road.’ But I like it. When you’re an earthy type who’s at a desk all day, it’s nice to have reminders all around of earthiness.

I started foraging for wild Concord grapes two years ago. Before then I never saw grapevines anywhere. Now I see them everywhere — especially on the little two-lane farm road. It’s not far from where I harvest grapes every August, actually. I also see elderflower shrubs and lots of beautiful rich green corn. I’m sad to see For Sale signs in front of huge cornfields. Development has hit farmland hard in the Garden State. New farmers are starting to take back the land, some of it, but it’s not fast enough for me. I fantasize about the corn slowly surrounding the For Sale signs and swallowing them up in a massive leafy maw.

The Route 33 extension in Freehold was built across more farmland. Back in the eighties my dad used to buy corn there on his way home from work in the summer. Mr. Matthews knew my dad from a distance and they’d speak to each other in code across the fields: My dad would get out of the car and hold up fingers for however many ears he wanted; Mr. Matthews, on his tractor, would nod and pick that amount. Next to hour-old corn, supermarket corn is ridiculous.

The road runs right through Mr. Matthews’s farm. I think of him every time I drive over this part of the highway. I don’t even know if he’s still alive, this farmer I never met, and wonder what he’d think if he heard the daughter of that guy who held up fingers for corn remembers him every time she drives across his land, and so many years later.

In the distance just before the extension is a beautiful old farmhouse with shade trees planted around it. I think about how high and healthy they are, that the way they are now is what the owners had in mind when they planted them, and how lucky I am that I get to see them as they were intended, surrounding a gracious front porch. And I imagine a friendly mongrel wagging his tail and chickens warbling. If I walk across the cornfield and peek in the window in the late afternoon, will I see the ghost of a family busy getting dinner?

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*Google it; it’s awesome, but it’s probably not kosher to post a link. I don’t want to mess with the Mouse.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve never met anyone who said no to a cupcake. You can make it out of any kind of cake, top it with any kind of frosting, and people won’t even ask what those flavors are before slurping them down. A cupcake is like a new puppy: You don’t care if it makes a mess or comes with a questionable pedigree. It’s adorable, so you say yes.

This month I baked two kinds of little beauties by request. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even remember where the recipe to the top cupcakes came from, but I’ve been making them for about 10 years and have gotten utterly and undeservedly spoiled by the reactions. Chocolate cake spiked with Guinness stout, filled with chocolate ganache spiked with Jameson whisky, topped with buttercream spiked with Baileys Irish Cream. Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes. Sometimes I wrap the pastry box in Caution tape.

Last weekend I brought a dozen to my production of ‘Young Frankenstein’ in order to treat one of the guys who runs the fly rail. The last time I made them was easily five years ago, but he has never forgotten them; nor does he forget to remind me how long it’s been every time he sees me. I gave in.

Our sound op, a 21-year-old kid, ate three, calling them ‘those liquor brownies.’ Not worth correcting. The actor who played the monster poked one in his face and said, ‘OHMAGAH.’ And he wasn’t even in character at the time. The fly guy went off by himself to eat his. Whoever devised this recipe, if you’re out there, I am your humble servant.

The below was an order for a Disney-maniac actor who was celebrating a birthday. His wife wanted to give him Dole Whip cupcakes, a nod to the latest maniacal Disney trend, the frozen pineapple dessert. But he can’t have dairy. I made pound cake loaded with pineapple, and substituted Earth Balance for butter. Instead of buttercream, I made seven-minute frosting, adding pineapple juice instead of water, and topping it with candied pineapple. My friend Teresa, who never lies to me, deemed them ‘not bad’ — a chilling review for a baker. Without butter, I’m sure the cake was too dense. I probably should have made angel food, which has no fat at all and you never miss it. But they’re cupcakes, so I am also sure the guests polished off the box either way.

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If you’re ever driving through a town and the streets are lined with sycamore streets, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re in an old town. Where I live, in an area built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there are lots of these beautiful trees. No one plants them any more because they’re considered messy trees; they drop bark and fuzzy mossy seed pods.
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Same goes for apple trees, crab apple trees. I read a column a few years back that featured a question from a guy who was ticked off at the apple tree he inherited when he moved to his new house. He asked the columnist what he could do to keep the apples from dropping, short of cutting the tree down. The columnist politely suggested he go completely off the cuff and maybe eat the apples.
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Every year I seem to lose access to another mulberry tree. The towns either cut them down or cut them back. People complain that they drop too much fruit. But last year I found several mulberries growing along a back road. I’ve noticed they tend to grow alongside waterways. And one magnificent old tree offered quarts and quarts of fruit last year, enough for me, enough to sell to my pastry chef friend, and enough for the geese to nibble at. One day I was picking the fruit quietly, up on a stepladder, while a goose family enjoyed themselves on the other side of the tree. A little gosling ambled by, eating, and didn’t notice me until I moved a bit, at which he squeeeeeeed and skedaddled to the other side of the tree.
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When we were little we used to peel the loose bark from the sycamores in the fall and watch for the earthy ambers and mossy greens underneath and crunch the bark under our shoes
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And I look for the purple mulberry splotches on waterway roadsides so I can come back with my bag and stepladder and stain my fingers
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And I drive on Route 66 and look for the roadside apple trees that remember the farmers who planted them and still drop their fruit for whatever hungry creature needs them
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I am always one of them and always will be

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Baking is not the terrifying thing people make it out to be. Truly, this week you dealt with health insurance, nursed a cold, got rear-ended on a major highway, and had your umbrella blow inside out twice.* After that, putting one’s hands in flour and chopping chocolate is a proven way to set everything to rights, to regain control and start over. And it soothes like nothing else right now, during what can be the coldest month of the year.**

I actually made two soda breads this month. Every March I dream of what soda bread riff I want to do. This year I added blood orange juice and zest, cloves, cinnamon, 65% cacao chocolate chunks, a dose of Grand Marnier, and instead of cow’s milk yogurt I think I used goat’s. The juice added to the yogurt made the dough faintly pink, which I thought was hilarious, and was sorry to see the color kind of fade in the oven. But it was a winner. That’s it above. I pulled pieces off and munched on them warm.

Then for my sister’s birthday I made another soda bread and added unsweetened coconut flakes, 72% cacao chocolate, and a few glugs of Malibu. It was basically a boozy Mounds bar tucked inside some bread. An unorthodox birthday cake. She was a fan.

Today I made a pizza I’ve been wanting to recreate since 2008, when I visited Mo’orea, an island off Tahiti. The shack on the side of the road is called Allo Pizza. Mo’orean locals are generally French speakers and French food eaters with a healthy hunger for fish and their lovely tropical produce. It’s not a combination that calls to mind pizza, but there it was. I wasn’t a food writer then, not officially, but I kept a journal that documented what we did and what we ate; and praise Jesus, or I wouldn’t remember the toppings on this pie: fresh tuna (they call it ‘lagoon fish,’ caught across the street), capers, anchovies, Parmesan, garlic, and herbes de Provence. It’s an unlikely combination, but so was being halfway around the world and eating on the street while dodging guys doing wheelies on mopeds. We did notice that no one wore gloves while handling the toppings, and that there was no refrigeration for the fish. So only we ate there for lunch, as soon as it opened. And just the same, we waited to get sick, but it never happened.

The tuna below was not caught across the street but caught from behind the counter at Whole Foods, a reasonable substitute. It was great fun to make, warming and delicious, wheelies or no wheelies.

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*Yep , right here.
**Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa used to say, ‘When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.’ I can never remember when I parked at Target, but this I remember.

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soft sell

Week two of my new job (yay) and I already had to take a day off to have dental surgery (bleah). Told my friends to Google ‘apicoectomy’ if they have a taste for the grotesque, and I invite you to do the same. I’m currently typing with one hand, as the other has a Ty-D-Bowl-colored ice gel-pack pressed against the jaw beneath my unfortunate #30 tooth. I must have been given a gallon of Novocaine at midday, because it’s nearly 10 hours later and my face still looks like I was bested in a bar fight.

But because my stomach rarely cares about trauma from the north (or elsewhere), it needed feeding today, which meant soft foods. I ate lovely bits of wild salmon, olive-oil pound cake, and lemon-meringueless pie: popped each between my lips, then used a long-pronged fork to shove them into the left side of my mouth, the more gentrified region.

Enough toothiness. Let’s talk bread.

At the start of the year I decided I would bake my bread this year instead of buying it, and I am loving it. Found a recipe in my trusty, be-duct-taped Joy of Cooking from the late ’90s. It’s called Fast White Bread, and it lives up to its name admirably. I add half whole-wheat flour—I find all white doesn’t keep me full—and like to goof with additions and toppings.

This loaf has turmeric baked into the dough (a bright yellow spice that has anti-inflammatory qualities. Thinking of mailing a batch to Congress) and topped with caraway seeds (the kind on rye bread), poppy seeds, and Maldon sea salt.

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This was just silliness, made on the spur of the moment, but great fun. Gourmet Magazine called it Algerian flatbread, and it is identical to a traditional Arabic bread called msemmen. All whole-wheat pastry flour, rolled thinly, spread with sweet paprika, cumin, more turmeric, and olive oil; then rolled up, coiled into a spiral; and then rolled again. It gets baked stovetop in a dry pan until it bubbles and browns. Delicious, especially with eggs tucked inside.

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And just for fun, here’s a slice of that beautiful pie. Pucker up, kids—Spring is almost here.

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oddness: a celebration

I’ve been seeking out weirdness lately, more even than usual.

In advance of his nationwide temper tantrum here in the U.S., in which the president shut down several government agencies yet again, I checked out a tidy pile of books to read over the holiday. So far I’ve read Eric Idle’s Always Look On the Bright Side of Life, which was just exactly as charming and irreverent as I would expect of the author, as well as a rereading of Gaiman’s lush, eerie The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’m also watching my beloved Doctor Who, most recently ‘The Christmas Invasion’ and clips of the Slitheen. And I am curiously drawn to the music of Donovan. My morning yoga is to Jersey Thursday and Epistle for Dippy.

-A sortabiography from a Python, probably the most subversive comedy troupe in history.
-A novel by another guy who spins lyrical hauntings on paper.
-A series that has no problem featuring alien spaceships crash-landing into the Thames.
-Dippy.

There’s comfort in weirdness for me, counter-intuitive though it seems. Why would I not reach out for the routine? The predictable?

Not surprisingly, all of the above are products of Mother England. I’ll say with no qualms that they know comedy better than anyone else. I once heard that comedy is a moment of chaos remembered with fondness. And the UK is famously known for being a logical, (what I call) neck-up culture.

But the human heart can only be repressed for so long. Then out comes expression—in a rush and a flood, of that torment—in song and words. And it’s often beautiful. Or quirky. Or hilarious. Or all three and more.

This year has been pretty ghastly. Reread the first paragraph, or just guess, who has been getting the goat of so many Americans since late 2016.* Maybe my attraction to the odd, especially now, is about connecting with others who have experienced torment, and not only were able to express it, but came out of it all right as well. Maybe they’re my conduit, something to channel through until sanity is restored. My keystrokes to the universe’s ears. You listening, Universe?

Edible weirdness counts, too: a few days ago I made a chocolate fruitcake. Fruitcake (a sort of plum pudding) is still popular in the UK. But here in the colonies it’s largely a joke. My dad used to make one every year in October, and let it cure until Christmas. But I never went for that type, with its luridly colored candied fruit and enough rum to stupefy the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house an hour after their probation was lifted. Admittedly that kind of fruitcake is jokeworthy.

I’ve made several kinds, from a light-colored Martha cake, to a traditional English cake, to Irish and Blasket Island cakes, with real dried fruit and light touch with sugar and spirits (that’s my reticence in action). And they were all different and all wonderful.

This is a Nigella recipe. It’s full of raisins, chopped prunes, dried figs, ground almonds, and orange peel. I loved my little sliver yesterday, and true to any spiced cake (and any chocolate cake, for that matter), it will improve with age.

*Hit the buzzer when you get the right answer.

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out of the darkness

My college roommate Terry worked part time at our campus health center. Sounds fairly innocuous until you hear the rest: we went to Gettysburg College, which sits at the edge of 500-plus acres of unlit Civil War battlefields; we all knew dozens of ghost stories that are set there; she worked overnights; and—cheeriest of all!—her desk was right next to the window that faced them. Meaning from dusk to dawn, you’d better believe the view through that window was a solid, impenetrable, terrifying black.

(Reader: Wow, Merry Christmas to you, too, Maris. Where are you going with this?)

This time of year wants to be cheery, but there’s a dark side as well. We might as well admit it. The 1963 television special ‘Rudolph’ has a palpable melancholy about it that only dissipates in like the last seven minutes when Burl sings and the Misfit Toys get dropped from the sleigh with the aid of umbrellas. I suppose it didn’t help that it aired a month after JFK was killed. There’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, when beautiful little Margaret O’Brien’s eyes shine with tears as Judy sings. There’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas, anthem from World War II. My aunt decorated her tree with blue glass ornaments her whole life, echoing the past when many did the same, remembering those who could not make it home for the holiday, and those who never would again.

I love Christmas, but it’s not always happy; and if we’re forcing our families to imitate the people in Target commercials and eating fruitcake when we’d rather not*, we’re just papering over the cracks. Besides, there really is an eerie gloom this time of year which I quite like. People used to tell ghost stories around now; they believed the solstice was a time of transition, when the doors to other worlds were ajar, when anything—good or bad—was on the table. Dickens knew this, and managed to make the world’s greatest ghost story at once cheerful and enormously poignant in its sadness. I’ll go so far as to say the interplay of yin and yang is why it does its job so well, and has stayed relevant.

For me, this year has been like The English Patient: long and preposterously maddening, although the cast was pretty good. For much of the country, the year been like a four-hour wait to go on Space Mountain, only to have the moving seats jam and render us stuck in a freakishly colored head fake.

And I’m thinking of Terry’s view out the health center window. Which is where we all are right now, where we all are at the end of every year. No one can predict the future, and that ambiguity looks awfully black, leaving our imaginations to run amok until dawn.

But I’m ready for next year, and God knows I’m working toward an upswing. I’m sending love and good vibes to those compelled to paper over the cracks this season. And I’m looking for a Here Comes The Sun moment next year, like my shot of dawn over the horizon below. From now on our troubles will be out of sight. Better days for all of us.

*Oh, shush. It’s great as long as it’s made with real fruit. And mine is! Ha! Stay tuned for pics, which I’ll post just as soon as I actually make one.

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