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Posts Tagged ‘coffee’

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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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Last weekend: Saw a post on Freecycle offering six gallons of black walnuts from a guy’s tree, just 15 minutes away. Squealed like a birthday girl with her hands in a Rapunzel cake.

Wrote to guy asking if could possibly have three gallons; he agreed, which is good, as am strong but small, and disdainfully imagined self hauling two heaping black Hefty bags up two flights in manner of underpaid North Pole intern.

Still plenty heavy. Required walking horizontally as if through strong winds. Set bag on kitchen floor, slashed it open, and stood somewhat dumbstruck. Remembered freshly fallen black walnuts are comprised of two layers, and containing brown staining ink—the reason why the buggers are so pricey. Also remembered my tendency to jump at chances and think later. This was the later part.

Emailed loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm wife who grew up on black walnuts. Obviously was in good hands. Her advice: Let them all go dark, take them outside, put on shoes I never wanted to wear again, and stomp them silly to get the outer shells off.

Curses. Not a lawn owner. Toyed with notion of dragging heap to local park to stomp, and children’s class trips being shooed away to teachers’ warning words about liberals with free afternoons, or witnessed by local deer who would roll their eyes contemptuously at my technique. No crappy shoes, either.

Bought rubber kitchen gloves, and sat down on kitchen floor on Friday. Peeled thick, spongy outer shells off to reveal damp, coffee-ground color beneath, and hour later gloves looked as though I’d just delivered an Angus heifer. It was not the first time I marveled at how I spend my Friday nights. The right thumb ripped, too. But got the job done.

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Wait about a month and turn them every day to let them dry, says Angie. Hanging them in a grass sack is best. I have none. Drying and turning a burnished chartreuse-bronze every day. The goal: that they are not damp on the inside (useless) but light and dry (perfect). Hoping. If I don’t like the flavor, Angie generously offered to take all of them off my hands. Such a true friend. 🙂

Here they are, with outer shell off. Nutwatch 2016 is underway.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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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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Halloween was the one night a year when it felt as if kids ruled the world. And we did.

Below, a step-by-step description of what, to me, makes a perfect Halloween—and which is what I lived every year in the ’70s and into the ’80s.

Step 1: Be lucky enough to be raised in a small town—for example, Interlaken, NJ—that has 1000 residents, pretty much all of whom are extended family members, or are neighbors of extended family members, or go to school with you. Either way, they’re moms who work with your mom on the PTA and have your back. Your town will have hundred-year-old trees that grow together in the middle of the street just like Ray Bradbury described in the town of his youth, and which, despite a handful of streetlights, make the town inky black at night and heap it with fragrant leaves, rich and musky, to shuffle through.

It was Mayberry—and it still is, 30 years later.

Step 2: Choose your costume at the 5 & 10 one town over. It will be acrylic, make no mistake.

Three years old, across the street at the Boyds’ house.

Or, if you are seven and your two front baby teeth have recently come out and you look three-quarters of the way to a jack o’lantern as it is, your mom might be inspired to put you in the pumpkin costume she sewed for your little sister a few years back, stuff it with bunched-up newspaper, and draw triangles around your eyes and nose and an exaggerated smile around your mouth with black eyeliner. Hypothetically speaking.

Step 3: After school, your mom sends you and your brother and sister outside to play because you’re too hopped up to be inside. You meet your friends to go trick-or-treating after dinner. Unless you’re five, you don’t go out before dark. We lived in a safe town and helicopter parents then were few. My mom had just one rule: Don’t cross Westra. (That was the one moderately busy street in our town.) The rest of the town was fair game. Once you were old enough to go trick-or-treating alone with your friends, you did—and your parents did not fret, fuss, insist on coming along in their own costumes, tell you not to eat the candy you got, make you wait to eat any until you got home so they could check it for tampering, or text you incessantly—because, saints be praised, it hadn’t been invented yet.

Pendant of candy corn encased in Lucite, circa 1973. Yes, I do still wear it.

Step 4: You stop at every house with a porch light on. You make a point to stop at the Maguras’, because Mrs. Magura makes homemade popcorn balls, and Mrs. Panes’s house, because her family owns Criterion Candies on the Asbury boardwalk, and she always gives out gorgeous candy apples. And you stop at your cousins’ because your aunt gives out the yummiest candy and the most generous handfuls. When you pass other friends on the sidewalk, you stop and brag about how much more candy you have than they have, and then you tell each other which houses have the good stuff and which have the raisins. When you’re in the mood for candy, you eat it. When you’re full, you still eat it. Because you and your friends don’t eat like this on a regular basis. It’s one night a year. It’s okay.

Card from Auntie Phyllis, circa 1977. Each of us kids got our own Halloween card.

Step 5: Once your candy bag starts getting too heavy and a thick layer of leaves has attached itself to the hem of your acrylic dress, you say goodbye to your friends. You don’t walk home, but to your other aunts’ house, where your parents and your aunts and uncles are gathered around the dining room table. After a certain point that night, they stop handing out candy to neighborhood kids, turn off their porch lights and head over to relax together with coffee and apple cider and cinnamon-sugar apple cider doughnuts. It is always the same cider and doughnuts from the same place, Delicious Orchards, because nothing—to this very day—beats them for quality. We grew up on this cider, which is unpasteurized, murky and intensely flavored (and may be why none of us has allergies) and the doughnuts are crackly and delicately crumbed.

Cider doughnuts from Delicious Orchards, on one of my beloved aunt’s dessert dishes. Worth clicking to see it bigger. Seriously.

Step 6: Go home and dump all of your candy on the living room rug, making stacks for each variety and counting how many you have of each. This was a time when there were not many ‘fun sizes’ except maybe for Milk Duds, which came in tiny boxes and you got three to a box, and Hershey Miniatures. Most other candy came in full size—big Krackels, big Charleston Chews, big Chunky bars.

Give your sister all of the Snickers and Baby Ruths because you hate peanuts and she likes them, and she will give you all of her Reese’s peanut butter cups (because you do like peanut butter and she hates that). Your dad roots around for the Mounds bars and Hershey Special Darks, which is fine because you also hate coconut and dark chocolate. (What was I thinking?) Milky Ways, Skor Bars, Rolos, Whatchamacallits and $100,000 bars (their real name) get place of privilege. Mary Janes—these you and your sister and brother throw at each other just because they’re weird, always smushed, and aren’t chocolate. If it’s not going to be chocolate, at least have the decency to be Chuckles, those luscious half-dollar sized gumdrops, or Twizzlers.

Small ceramic witch I received when I was very young. My sister has a blonde one, with a pumpkin instead of a cat.

Step 7: Eat some more. Your mom does not rush you off to bed because you go to Catholic school and tomorrow, November 1, is All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ is the result of Christianity trying to co-op the pagan holiday and is kind of a weasel move, but I’m not about to quibble with a day off, especially the day after Halloween. You put all of your candy back into your candy bag. And finally you head to bed.

I bought some Mary Janes this year just to taste them, since I never had before. They’re peanut butter-molasses chews, and I was underwhelmed. I don’t know why I was expecting a miracle. Did that stop me from sticking the rest into two envelopes and mailing them to my brother and sister? It did not.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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