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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.

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Along with food and props, I make maps for people—personal ones showing a physical or emotional journey. The above, a recent work, is my third. It was created for an unusually resilient couple: A few months back I approached my friend about making one for his wife. She is a fierce and loving mom to their little boy, who has autism. He is feisty and smart and charming, and he is often up at all hours and is non-verbal, so this family has its share of challenges as well as joys. The map was meant to serve as a sort of voice for him, showing his personality and the roads he takes every day with his mom, depicted on a 19.5 x 25.5 sheet of card stock.

As I was collecting information about this little guy, which included his favorite things, I was struck by how often food plays into his life.

Above, the header statement’s left and right borders are filled with tiny yellow rings. These are Cheerios. The base of the statement is lined with pretzels.

The puzzle pieces at the right of the map, detailed below, are a nod to the autism logo. They show Oreos, a sippy cup of juice, Goldfish crackers, and an apple. This kid has good taste.

And to make his mom laugh, I added a travel stop to Dunkin’ Donuts. She loves her coffee, and deserves every drop. 🙂

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Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

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I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

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Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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It’s at the most impractical times that I feel compelled to get into the kitchen and cook something new. I’ve never made one of these but, burned out after a stressed-out week, there I was. And I very firmly told myself that first I needed to deal with the tax forms I’d spread out on the table or I’d have no room to put the recipe together. This did not stop me.

Anatomy of a Strudel

  1. Ignore two cookbooks and wealth of recipes online and wing everything, right down to setting on the oven. Set at 375 F.
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  2. Peel and chop six apples. Dismiss hunch that traditional strudel apples are minced because too tired to mince. (Actually think apple mincing, whether tired or wide awake, is refuge for the anal.)
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  3. For every three yawns, say ‘apfel strudel,’ as did Schwarzenegger when he put it on the Planet Hollywood menu like a good Austrian. (He’d visit guests with the dessert menu, saying ‘Try the apfel strudel,’ and the people would hmm and sigh and say the chocolate cake looked good, and he’d lean in menacingly and say TRY the APFEL STRUUUUDEL, faux glaring at them. They’d order it. I ordered it once myself; it was pretty great, to tell you the truth.)
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  4. Cook apples on stove top and shake in cinnamon and cardamom. Measure nothing. Grab jar of unlabeled, thickened honey that your sister got from a north Jersey farm last summer and said she’d never eat, and add in three spoonfuls.
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  5. Add about a half-cup of Trader Joe’s chopped pecans to saucepan to toast. Read label, see that this is 410 calories, blanch with panic, and pour half back into bag.
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  6. Push tax forms and last year’s receipts aside on table and set up cookie sheets, box of phyllo, olive oil, apples, and nuts. Fold phyllo sheets in half, brush with oil, sprinkle each sheet with seven miniscule pecan pieces, and envelop apples in center. Use hands instead of large serving spoon, leaving the odd appley drip to land on Industry Magazine 1099 form.
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  7. Roll up and bake strudels. Let cool, slice one, and chase down hundreds of tiny shattered pieces that fly off knife and onto tax forms like mosquitoes at a church picnic, if both mosquitoes and church picnic were same shade of slightly off-white. Start thinking was supposed to layer apples and nuts in all of the layers.
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  8. Probably.
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    Anyway. They’re pretty good, despite the heaping mouthfuls of phyllo necessary to penetrate first. I also like thinking my accountant, trying to organize the labyrinthine tax forms of a freelancer, will sniff and be blissfully transported to Austria, and not know why.

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Next up on my British (kitchen) invasion: The meat pie. It’s a dish that, when prepared well, altogether dismisses the region’s poor reputation for cooking.

I’ve had two meat pies—shepherd’s pie (made with lamb) and cottage pie (made with beef)—and love them quite dearly. But both are topped with mashed potatoes, and I’ve always wanted to try a meat pie enveloped in crust. This desire became more pressing after seeing a gorgeous one that Nigella posted last week on Facebook. It doesn’t take much with me.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday here in the States, and while I don’t share my countrymen’s enthusiasm for watching chilly gentlemen chasing a ball, I do share their fondness for extravagant treats. This year I would not have a veggie burger or some such nonsense for dinner. I would have my meat pie.*

I went to my trusty The Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life Books, 1969) and opened up to a recipe that has had me mooning like a lovesick groupie since acquiring the book some eight years ago: pork-and-apple pie, with chunks of seasoned meat, apples, and onions baked under potatoes. I tweaked the recipe, baking the mixture under a short crust instead.

The Cooking of the British Isles was my go-to for the ingredients and the pork, apple, and onion proportions (I halved them). And I layered them per the recipe (the British charmingly like to layer things). But after that, I winged everything.

First, I cut a yellow onion into thick slices and tossed the slices in salt and dried sage. I cut up two pounds of lean pork into chunks, sauteed them, transferred them to a bowl, and stirred in a good amount of ground black pepper, salt, and more sage. Then I peeled and sliced a couple of apples into thick chunks.

I really wanted this pie to be high and mighty, and one of my Easter bread spring form pans served very well. I rolled out 2/3 of the pie dough for the bottom crust, layered in pork, then onions, then apples, and made a second layer.

Then I rolled out the 1/3 pie dough remaining and plopped it on top. My crimping skills are less than spectacular. (The result is above. Let’s call it a rustic look.) And because I read that way, way back in the day, bakers distinguished savory pies from sweet pies by decorating the top crust, I pulled a little bit of extra dough off one side of the pie and made a sticky little apple for the center. Then I slashed the top crust a few times to let steam escape. Last of all, I brushed on an egg wash—one egg with a little water added—to help it brown up in the oven.**

It smelled delectable. It tasted delectable as well, save one issue: the pork was a bit overcooked. Me being chicken, I was worried that if I only half-cooked it, it might not cook all the way through in the oven. Nope—for 30-45 minutes in a 400F-degree oven, it would have been fine.

I’m having a slice for breakfast tomorrow. Laugh all you like, but I’m following in the grand and ancient British tradition of a meaty breakfast. My favorite quote from the cookbook is courtesy of an English army general before taking breakfast at a London eatery.

‘Will you start with porridge, sir?’ the waiter asked. ‘Or would you prefer cornflakes?’

‘Cornflakes!’ roared the General. ‘Cornflakes be damned! Bring me a plate of cold, underdone roast beef and a tankard of ale!’

You have to admire the guy.

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*I actually woke up excited that today was the day I got to make this. Simple pleasures.

**You can use milk instead of water for the egg wash, or even cream if your cholesterol is dangerously low.

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