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Posts Tagged ‘brownies’

I haven’t had a second to write since I pulled the Easter bread out of the oven! This is a first, and I’m not jazzed about it. Being a contractor means you’re never bored and always busy. Which, as any contractor can tell you, is simultaneously great, and blows. Today was the first day in months that I haven’t gone Mach 2 with my hair on fire.* I’ve been so happy to relax a little, to start cooking again (brownies for my teenage cast and crew)…

Three sticks of butter plus cake flour mean they’re essentially a semi-solid.

to eat ice cream (hoooo doggy. Twice this week, actually, and both bloody spectacular)…

Chocolate-orange and coconut ice creams plus hot fudge sauce, all homemade, at the bent spoon in Princeton.

My beloved peanut butter moose tracks, greedily gobbled an hour ago.

I am unusual in that I am oddly, inextricably connected to nature; I must see and smell and touch everything new each season. This past month I missed my ephemerals. I only barely nuzzled the Kwanzan cherry blossoms before the rain took them down. I’ve never missed these, and the lack of them has affected me powerfully, like trying to breathe with the only one lung’s capacity. Subtracting them has not been not healthy for me.

But I’m dreaming about visiting the farm (finally open), foraging (wisteria right now, and much more to come). And I had the loveliest surprise a couple of days ago:

I thought I had missed the lilacs, too, blooming so early this year. Drove in between rushed errands to try to find some blossoms that weren’t spent so I could bury my nose in them, and didn’t have much luck. Then I happened upon a huge, lush group of bushes next to the art building at my alma mater, where I was finishing a prop contract. The school is at the opposite end of the state, and I’d forgotten that flowers there bloom later. The wind off the lake blew their fragrance around me before I even saw them, fresh and sweet as could be. I remembered the strange miracle of more: my theory that whatever we miss, somehow the universe makes it back up again. And then some.

*Gratuitous Top Gun reference.

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Preposterously late in blogging this week due to crewing, writing deadlines, and—most of all—the little engine that finally could, pictured here. It was a gift from a bride to her new husband, a FDNY fireman.

This was my first effort in combining cake (technically brownies, and stick around for the story on that) and candy (rolled fondant, ditto), and let’s just say there was a bit of a learning curve. It was due April 23. Let’s look at the timeline.

April 1-April 21: Buy ingredients for a chocolate sponge cake, which would be sturdy enough to handle the heft of icing on top as well as the trip into Brooklyn, and all extraneous supplies. Review two Youtube videos, especially the one with the woman who sounds like an Australian flight attendant, for clues on how to get this structure standing. IM two bakers and a fireman to pick their brains. Create lists upon lists.

April 22: Noon. Bake chocolate sponge cake in shallow pans per the flight attendant, and figure that anything with 16 eggs in it will surely rise. Gloat a little on how well you’ve planned. Once baked, note that it more closely resembles a brown Fruit Roll-Up than a cake. Stop gloating.

2p: Bake again—another 16 eggs, mind you—in a 9 x 13″ pan. When it’s cool two hours later, remove it from the pan and find a distressing semi-dried eggy pool at the bottom. Panic. Taste a smidge. Re-panic when, eggy weirdness aside, it also tastes like a Sealy Posturepedic. Tuck entirety unceremoniously into a giant plastic bag and freeze, not having the heart to throw it away.

4p: Pull out my no-fail brownie recipe. Head to store for a second 9 x 13″ pan as well as more eggs, and hope I don’t continue to insult the nation’s chickens.

5p: Bake and let cool. Start making fondant details for the engine. Make buttercream icing and tint with red gel paste. Stack up brownies with raspberry jam and cover with buttercream, which I was assured would lie smoothly. After two coats, it still does not. Re-panic, realize I have to cover the cake with fondant if it’s ever going to lie smoothly, and hope I can do a decent job, since I’ve never covered a cake with fondant in my life.

8p: Pull out every fondant package I own. Re-re-panic when realize have run out of red gel paste. Too tired and busy making fondant details to head back out for more, and besides, the store is probably closed. Continue making details while doing something resembling Lamaze breathing. It does not produce new jars of red gel paste, let alone a completed fire engine cake, regrettably.

April 23, 8a: At the store the very minute it opens, grab three red gel pastes, dash home, add 2.5 entire jars of it to a whole package of fondant, and cover the cake. Be grateful that it looks better, if not great. Brownies are bumpy little buggers. Finish accessorizing. Deliver 45 minutes late.

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I do kind of dig my little hose. It looks like a Claymation graphic.

I learned a crucial lesson: planning for a month doesn’t always mean smooth sailing. But it’s cool. I also punted problems left and right. The cake didn’t collapse on the way to Brooklyn. I knew, if nothing else, my brownie recipe wouldn’t fail me.

And let’s face it: I heard the groom and his buddies took the cake back to the firehouse and devoured it. A gaggle of happy firemen with their faces stuffed with homemade brownies is reward enough.

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So’s a Dalmation that bears a striking resemblance to Snoopy.

I’ve slowly been eating the sponge cake broken into pieces. After a few days and doused in plain vanilla yogurt, it’s not half bad.

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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No preliminaries from Little Miss Chatterbox this time. Let’s go:

1) Be skeptical of any dessert served with an amorphous heap on top—whipped cream, raspberry sauce, spark plugs, whatever. It usually means the kitchen is trying to distract you. Remember: if the dessert could stand on its own, it would.

2) Smile at your restaurant server even if he or she doesn’t smile back.

3) If you loved your meal, send your thanks to the kitchen. It’s not pretentious or old-fashioned; expressing appreciation will never be thus.

4) If your Filipino friend invites you to an authentic Filipino meal made by her mom, say yes.

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Lumpiang shanghai—homemade spring rolls filled with ground pork, carrots, and onions. Piping hot and crisp. I couldn’t stop eating them, which was rude because my hosts and friends kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I got a little delirious with these.

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This is is monggo, and lovely comfort food. Beans, broth, shrimp, and vegetables. Again, I needed to exercise better portion control and likely didn’t.

5) If a friend who grew up in Wisconsin tells you that a local ice cream place is fantastic, go.

6) Never refuse a cookie made from scratch.

7) When in a burger joint or chain restaurant, don’t order the pasta. Doesn’t matter if the place has an Italian-sounding name.

8) It’s okay to hate marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs. Get in line with me. We’ll hang out.

9) Always pull over to buy lemonade from kids selling it in front of their houses.

10) When trying an exotic dish for the first time, make sure the people preparing it know it like they know how to inhale and exhale.

11) Own a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Every single standard dish is in there, and it’s plainly written.

12) Eat fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and you’ll find out how they’re really supposed to taste. Watermelon delivered to New Jersey in March is, for example, a disgrace. In August, purchased locally, it’s celestial.

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Organic Sugar Baby.

13) Shop at farmers’ markets. Ask questions. The guy behind the fold-out table most likely grew those sweet grilling peppers himself and loves talking about them.

14) Recognize that your tastes can change. Something you used to hate might taste very differently to you today—or you simply might learn that you hate broccoli when roasted, but love it when steamed.

15) Put your hands in soft bread dough at least once. Making bread is easy. Really really.

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Babka dough…on the rise.

16) Just because a recipe looks difficult to make doesn’t mean it is, or that you won’t enjoy every second of making it.

17) When traveling, eat where the locals eat for the best value and flavor. If you want fancy, ask a local butcher where to eat; he or she will know which restaurants buy the best cuts. If you want simple and hearty, ask a policeman where to eat.

18) Along the same lines, try foods that the place is known for. Taste an artichoke in Rome, heather honey in Scotland, flying fish on Barbados, sharp white cheddar in Vermont.

19) Go strawberry picking. Go anything picking. Wear decent shoes. Flip flops aren’t.

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20) Own a proper set of knives. They should be weighted evenly, with the metal running straight through the handle. I firmly maintain that if you own cooking equipment that you don’t have to fight, you’ll enjoy cooking far more.

21) On the other hand, don’t spend much for ordinary things. An aluminum muffin tin has a design that’s hard to foul up. I bought a few sets for something like $7 at an ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale in 2006. I also bought a hand mixer for five bucks. Both were at least 10 years old when I got them and they’re still chugging along fine.

22) Try different ingredients together, different textures together. If you don’t like it, so what? You can always chuck it if it doesn’t work out. Or you might come up with something wildly groovy.

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This was a weirdo idea I had for a breakfast sandwich: roasted local peaches with my fresh ricotta, basil leaves, and a drizzle of honey. It was too sweet. Next time I’m going to try balsamic vinegar instead of the honey.

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My honeysuckle syrup. One to one with plain vodka over ice was OUT of this world.

23) Eat with your hands. Not at a posh spot with your district manager, but as often as you can. It will taste differently. It’s grounding.

24) Find out what’s growing wild in your backyard, research it, and be clear on it. I’d bet there’s something edible there you can throw into your salad.

25) Eat good-quality chocolate, pure maple syrup (Grade B!), fresh garlic. Spread Irish butter on your English muffin. (Sure, they’ll be fighting in spirit, but in your mouth it’ll be divine.)

26) Try making pumpkin muffins with fresh-baked pumpkin at least once.

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Above: Cinderella pumpkins; below, cheese pumpkins. Highly recommended.

27) When at a Jewish deli, order the hot pastrami sandwich.

28) If you ever come across a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, try it.

29) Ditto for homemade hot chocolate. Ix-nay on the blue packets.

30) Adding a little sprinkle of sea salt to the top of homemade brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped figs, and peanut butter fudge gives them a happy little punch.

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Two upper-classman girls helping a freshman into her costume belt.

I’ve worked with kids for half my life, usually nursery school kids, and usually in the classroom. About 10 years ago I started working with teenagers in theatre. Then things got a little nutty. I mean, I stopped getting barfed on*, but I inadvertently added in drama onstage, drama backstage (if you want real drama), and much illumination.

Adults like to moan about the shortcomings of kids, and teens in particular. This is nothing new. Back in 20 BC Horace was kvetching to the same tune, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Yeah, there’s vanity and techno obsession and laziness among teens. But so is there among adults. I’ve worked with both backstage, and quite honestly? If I were to assemble a dream team of ideal colleagues**, the scale would tip heavily in favor of the teens. In my experience crewing roughly four shows a year, they’re the reliable, enthusiastic, and hardworking ones. Most consistently.

They’re also fascinating—wonderfully, sometimes heartbreakingly, candid. I like to engage them, and am humbled to be rewarded with a lot of trust.

Everyone wants to feel seen.

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Actors waiting on stage right for their entrance cue.

Story time. Seriously, I have tons. And I haven’t forgotten this is primarily a food blog. Don’t worry; food and teenagers are inextricably linked.

…There was the boy who spent most of his time grinning and jumping off things—easily the most high-octane kid I have ever worked with. Once, after he told me about a beef stir-fry he’d made and was very proud of, he revealed to me—still grinning—that he was a hemophiliac. He hated feeling captive by it and knew risking injury was stupid, but said it kept him sane—like giving the disease the middle finger from time to time.

…Seeing two freshman girls reassure, and embolden, and wipe the tears from an eighth-grade girl’s cheeks when a classmate had said something mean to her.

…The girl who loved acting but became almost paralyzed with stage fright. She said once she got out there, she would forget her nervousness and enjoy herself. So every night at places, she would come to me and I would say, ‘You just have to make it for 10 more minutes. In 10 minutes you’ll be fine.’ A year later I bought a ticket for the winter show, which she was stage managing for the first time. I went backstage to see her because I knew she was nervous. When she spotted me she squealed, ‘OH IT’S MARISA OH I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!’ And I reminded her that she’d be golden in 10 minutes.

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Lest they forget.

…The boy who raced down the hallway with a pan of brownies, stopped in his tracks, held the pan out to me so I could pull off a piece, then kept going. He didn’t speak because his mouth was stuffed.

…The girl whose mother died just a few days before the run of the show. I was stunned when she arrived to rehearse. The staff said she did not want to talk about her mom yet, but just wanted business as usual. And every single kid in the show respected it. Every now and again I’d see one of them walk past and squeeze her shoulder, but not say a word.

…Once I brought in a big box of homemade cookies, and another day a bigger box of chocolate truffles. I have no pictures because crumbs and empty candy cups dusted with cocoa powder don’t make stellar shots.

…I asked two students what topics they chose for their senior theses: (1) the history of the transgender movement; 2) the wisdom—or folly—of knowing the future, with citations from the movie Dune and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). How cool is that, really?

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Costumes for set dressing.

…I asked an actor where he was from, and he told me Virginia. A few minutes later he asked what my last name was. I told him, and asked why he wanted to know. He said he wasn’t sure what he should call me. I assured him he could call me by my first name. He grinned a sheepish grin and fidgeted a little, and said he thinks he’d feel better calling me Ms. Procopio. This was new. Then I remembered: he’s southern. 🙂

…One actor confided he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, and was on the outs with his family about it. He also confided an injury, and when he came up with a new way to dance that kept him from pain he was so excited to share it.

…I learned that the kids who are the shining stars, the most charismatic, the most beautiful, need more TLC and a shoulder to lean on more often than the average kids.

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My most recent crew kids liked to mark the number that was next up so they could look ahead to their cues. They were new to crewing, and I’ve never seen this idea in action before. It’s a good one.

…Asking a sound tech who studied in Spain for a year to tell me what he ate there. His eyes lit up as he told me about octopus eaten at every meal, about fresh anchovies skewered in fire and smoked, and how they charred, and crackled in his teeth. He was from Oklahoma, though I couldn’t tell from his accent (though it explains why he called me ‘ma’am’ when he first met me). He spoke glowingly about game-hunting and how he can tell from the taste of the venison if the deer nibbled trees a lot: ‘It tastes twiggy.’

…High-fiving an actor every night when he came off stage for not incinerating the building in a scene in which he held a Zippo up to a travel-sized can of hairspray. An admirable accomplishment.

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Actors will be actors. Dressing room tidiness.

…When I complimented another kid, from Korea, on the stones it takes to go to school halfway across the world when you’re only 14, and asked why he did it, he said, ‘Do you want the brutal truth?’ I said yeah. And he replied that kids in his home country were expected to study 8-12 hours a day, and by going to school in the U.S. he could do ‘all this,’ and waved his arms across the stage. ‘It’s much better,’ he said. A little later he went to the concession table, bought two Sprites, and gave me one.

…The crew girl who hurdled actors and set pieces to make her cue on time. She lost her house in Hurricane Sandy and was displaced for a year while her family built a new house, but was unfailingly upbeat and worked just as hard as she ever had. She would be on my dream crew.

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A crew girl waiting, tie line in hand, to pull at her cue.

*To be fair, that only happened to me once. Poor kid.

**Because regardless of age, that’s what they are, since we’re all working toward the same goal: a good production.

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Warm marshmallow frosting for Devil Dog cupcakes. Random. Not in the post. Whatever.

I’ve gotten the impression, after talking to people about food and and reading a lot about food (which is what I do in my spare time when I’m not eating), that many people avoid cooking for two reasons. It’s because they’re either lacking proper information, proper equipment, or both.

Here, then, a list. Above all, please keep in mind the helpful words of the late and much-lamented Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’re not supposed to loathe cooking. My goal here is to make the kitchen more approachable. This stuff you can do.

1. Get over your fear of freezing. I was taught that freezing any food besides uncooked meat ruins it. Freezer burn was a yucky reality in days of yore, and everything else from the freezer had a weird taste. Pretty sure most of this was due to poor-quality storage containers. But today you can safely freeze almost anything as long as you make sure it’s a) completely cooled and b) use plastic freezer zip-close bags. Make sure the box says ‘freezer’ on it. Slice up your fresh babka or bagels, squeeze the air out of the bag, close it and chuck it in the freezer. In the morning, take a slice out of the bag and set it on a plate.* Then go blow-dry your hair and find your shoes. By the time you’ve done that, your breakfast will be ready to eat. It will taste the same as the day you baked or bought it.

2) Repurpose utensils. I use my kitchen scissors to snip scallions and pieces of bell pepper; I smush up apples into applesauce with a potato masher; I whisk with a fork. Don’t buy any utensil that has just one purpose (garlic press, ice cream cookie sandwich mold). You’ll use it once, then it will clog up your drawers. Go low tech and open up the format with how you use your utensils.

3) Buy three good-quality knives and give away the rest. This is huge. I’m convinced that a lot of people who think they’re no good at cooking or get frustrated just at the thought of it aren’t using decent equipment. Knives are first on that list. You need a paring knife (to cut small stuff that you can’t snip with your scissors), a chef’s knife (to chop big stuff, herbs, or chicken) and a serrated knife (for slicing bread, tomatoes, and chopping chocolate or nuts). Knives should be somewhat heavy and the handle should not be made out of crap plastic. Be sure that the metal of the knife extends right down through the handle for good balance. If your knife is flimsy, you’ll be fighting with it to chop, it’s going to break by Thursday, and what’s more, it’s dangerous.

4) Unless you’re serving a cake to company and are excessively precise, ignore recipes that tell you to both butter and flour the pan. Wow. Okay, that one’s done.

5) If you’re a novice cook and want to have people over, go with simple, straightforward recipes. Novices tend to make pheasant under glass and petit fours with spun sugar, usually with nose-dive results. They want to impress their friends. Their friends, on the other hand, want to eat. Ask around for recipes that are tried and true, pace yourself, and read the recipe all the way through before starting so you know what ingredients and utensils you need. Make brownies for dessert.

What did I leave out?

*If you’re lucky enough to have a radiator, put the plate on it. I have a cookie sheet on top of my kitchen radiator for just this purpose. Me efficient.

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I love to make treats for the casts and crews of my shows, and to give as holiday gifts and thank-yous. 99.44%* of the time people love it. But that itty bitty percentage** left over gets all judgmental on me.

‘How can you make these things knowing there’s such an obesity problem in this country?’ they ask. I’ve even had people ask how I can live with myself, as if baking with butter and sugar is akin to mooning a Gymboree. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, a massive pile of Americans are obese. But they didn’t get that way from having a brownie at a Saturday night barbecue, or a couple of Bubbe’s latkes at Chanukah, or Cadbury eggs on Easter. And goodness knows I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. But I have mambo’ed with weight gain and loss my whole life. As my ninth grade biology teacher said, if you consistently eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. That’s how it works. So with a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure those suffering with serious weight issues got that way from consuming too much, or consuming rich foods too often—foods that are meant to be once-in-a-while treats.

Your Great Anye’s German stollen, that wonderful buttery dried-fruity holiday bread—that’s a treat. You’re not supposed to live on it. It’s a Christmastime joy, along with goodwill and empty parking places. The problem comes when the line between treats and everyday healthy foods becomes so blurred that for breakfast we grab a doughnut made with shortening and fake colored sprinkles instead of scrambled egg whites and whole wheat toast, or for lunch we choose Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a turkey sandwich. Many of us have forgotten the difference, forgotten to be discerning.

And so we get fat, and we judge ourselves and others for it. We forget that eating, like most things in life, is about balance. We’re supposed to make healthy food choices most of the time. And we’re supposed to celebrate with indulgent foods at special times. Yes, supposed to. If we can decide to live by that tenet, maybe we’ll work out this obesity epidemic (or at least come closer to doing so). And I can’t think of a better time than now, holiday time, to emphasize balance in eating.

Please, have some of your mom’s killer lasagna bolognese and your best friend’s oatmeal cookies this holiday season. Just go easy the rest of the time. Get your veggies in there. Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself.

The really good news is when we choose to live this way, choose to eat healthy foods*** most of the time and blow it out a little on the weekends and on holidays, we’ll look forward to those special treats that much more. Remember anticipation? We’ll feel like kids again.

Full disclosure:

1) Last week I overdid it: I drank hot chocolate every single day without fail. Even with 1% milk, that’s a lot. This week I have to do better with balance.

2) I’m totally in the mood to make my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, but it’s something that we kids grew up eating on Christmas morning. I am making myself wait, just like I did last year, and I know I’ll be glad I did.

I’m so excited for that cake. It’s something, like the stollen, that says yesterday is gone, tomorrow is later, and I am living for this flavor, this texture—this luxury—right now. And there’s no crime in that.

*With apologies to Ivory soap. You’re doing a fine job.

**Don’t make me do the math.

***Which doesn’t mean it should taste like a loofah sponge, by the way. Find recipes that use spices, herbs, garlic, the good stuff, and you will not deprive yourself.

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