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Posts Tagged ‘Easter bread’

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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With all due respect to the believers out there, my hallelujah news this past week was only peripherally due to Easter Sunday. Most of it came from putting my overworked, overwhelmed hands into a bowl of bread dough, where I was able to dispel the stresses of the past month with a few turns.

2016 marks something like my 25th year of making Easter bread, a 100-year or so tradition my sister and I assumed, and I took it over entirely a dozen years ago. Chocolate-cinnamon babka is what I make. It is sticky and goopy, with spiced dark chocolate twirled throughout layers of buttery, eggy dough. No one argues with this recipe.

After a March of solid writing, phone calls, candy making and delivering, stage prop hunting and more delivering, I was beat from every angle. The crazy thing is, when the world spins too quickly and it feels like I can’t catch up, I crave the kitchen. I need to make something…and specifically, to put my hands in something.

When I flour my hands and first put them in the dough, an enormous calm washes over me that says this I can do. My heartbeat slows to match the motion of my hands. It’s probably akin to knitting, music-making, or any number of things that have a beat. But this has the added bonus of that raw yeasty smell and the cool feel of dough. Dough-working is instinct and skill: discerning when the dough needs more flour, how many turns it should take, when it’s springy enough to stop kneading. And I love dropping it into my parchment-lined, secondhand wooden bowl. I love covering it with more parchment and a dishtowel, and setting it to rise on the cooler end of my kitchen radiator.

I think back to our grandmothers and their aunts, sisters, cousins who bent over bread bowls in the middle of their chockablock lives, and wonder if their heartbeats slowed to a sane pace as well. I think about the unique stresses of their lives—illness, war, foreclosure, rationing—and wonder if they were able to breathe in yeast and and breathe out the cares of the day and the fear of the unknown. I don’t know. All I know is it puts heart back into me in a way nothing else quite does, letting me resume the world with a clear outlook.

Bread dough—now that’s a religion I can stand behind.

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Pyrex bowl from the late ’60s-early ’70s. Bought it from a vintage Pyrex vendor (both were vintage) under a very crowded 8×8 booth in Ocean Grove, NJ.

Title flagrantly swiped from food writer Laurie Colwin, God rest her salt- and butter-loving soul. She and I, kitchen sisters, subscribe to the doctrine of secondhand utensils. Think of it this way: They’ve lasted this long. How many neon-green kitchen toys at Bed, Bath & Beyond can go up against a Pyrex pan from the fifties?

Everything below is practical, long-lasting, and has a story to boot. I need as much resilience and soul as I can get in my kitchen.

Here, thus, is a family album of the kitchen equipment that I bought used, was given used, or just plain found. I will always cook this way.

First: Copper pans bought for $10 (total!)* from a parking lot tag sale in Asbury Park in 2011. The seller said she bought them in France, which may or may not be true. But they have never failed me, so the French can be proud either way.

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One of many German aluminum springform pans that I inherited when I took over making Easter bread. They are at least 45 years old, probably older, and live above my refrigerator with my Christmas china.

Vintage springform study

Two of several glass votives and a baking pan I bought at an estate sale in nearby Oakhurst, NJ, in 2010. I went into the living room, decorated straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and found four long folding tables covered with vintage glass—regular, ornately cut, and Pyrex. The pan is several decades old but has no scarring. The votives I use for occasional imbibing and frequent desserting.

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Clockwise: What look like milk glass bowls, bought from a house sale in Bradley Beach, NJ. Wildly useful as prep bowls, mini snack bowls for chocolate buttons or grapes, or for a quick sip of milk. The lauan box I found at my aunt’s next door neighbor’s yard sale, in the town where I grew up. It nicely corrals my measuring cups, spoons, and a tiny spatula. The aluminum spatula has a very slim blade, and slips ever so cleanly under s’mores and brownies. I bought it in Oakhurst, at my realtor’s yard sale.

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Both from sales in my hometown. The white dish, one of two, I use as often for food styling as I do for sandwiches. If you’ve seen one of my photos of something tasty on a white dish, you’ve already met. The top dish, also one of two, is not much bigger than a saucer. It is my teatime dish—just the right size for a cookie or muffin. It belonged to my favorite aunt and her family. When I went to their garage sale, my cousins just started handing me things. This dish reminds me of the ’70s—a really good time growing up with them. One of my cousins laughed and said his mom probably bought the set from Foodtown for $1.95. And he’s probably right, but I don’t care.

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Farberware hand mixer, I think from the ’80s, that I bought circa 2006. Still going strong. From Oakhurst again (wow…that’s really the spot, isn’t it?), at my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale, $5.

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Can’t remember the yard sale for the box grater, but I like it because it’s a little smaller than typical. The salad bowls (which I use for everything) I got from my hometown as well. They’re teak and were made in Thailand. The muffin tins are from Wanamassa, NJ, and are an ideal example of something you can always find for sale on someone’s lawn. They last forever, are nearly indestructible, and thus are downright silly to buy new. I think I paid $.50 for four 6-cuppers.

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Some of my wooden-handled corn holders, purchased for something like $1.00 for a handful wrapped in a rubber band. One I accidentally rinsed down the sink—another sound argument against spending too much. The wooden bowl I bought from a yard sale in Allenhurst, NJ. The seller told me she bought it in Vermont many years ago and it was handmade, so she wouldn’t let me haggle down for the split in the side. It’s my foraging and bread-rising bowl.

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Rolling pin, which very likely has seen more decades than I. Pulled it out of a bin filled with cookie cutters at the Red Bank Antique Center.

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Massive hand carved wooden spoon, a recent hand-me-down from a friend. Still have to use it. I put a penny next to it for scale. Look at the size of it! For stirring soup, stuffing, or anything with eye of newt.

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‘Special Gelatin 50% Strength’ three-paneled vintage wooden box from the antiques store downtown. I load it with potatoes, onions, and garlic. The cashier asked what I was going to use it for and got a bang out of the answer.

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And lastly: a brick I nicked from the property of an abandoned 17th-century farmhouse near me. I think the original homeowners would be proud to hear it’s my low-tech panini maker.

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A couple of weeks ago I read about a grandmother who, when covering her rising bread dough to hold in moisture, called it ‘veiling the bowl.’ And this is where it gets bizarre. From then on, I kept seeing veils everywhere.

A reader posted a photo of blue-veiled Indian women. I saw more veil references in my reading. One described illusion as a type of veil. Another called tears a veil. Still others discussed the role of veils throughout history. A woman in a veil is often a woman in transition—in mourning, in travel, about to be wed. She is in a liminal state, poised in a soulful world of her own, all the while walking in the topside world. There’s a certain power held by a woman who wears a veil; she stands among us, but is to a great extent untouchable. Everyone who beholds a veiled woman senses this power. It’s a silent warning that she is not to be disturbed, much like dough rising. She has work to do. And it can be mesmerizing to behold.

I spent a good portion of the winter under the throw that I mention often, writing, snoozing, thinking, and generally being soothed. It’s a fleecy sanctuary…and another veil. There’s more: I’ve felt most comfortable with my hair almost entirely down. (Another.) I’ve felt compelled to stand at the ocean’s edge and dip my fingers in the salt water, much like my own tears, and run them across my cheeks. (Yep.)

But then, it’s been a long and tough winter. From old to new thinking, from cold to warmth, from illusion to the not-always-comfy chair of reality, I’ve been incubating. For good, I hope.

There’s a Puritanical and misguided rule among many women (and men) that to allow time and peace to incubate is wasted time, or even more damning—frivolous and self-indulgent time. No. It’s in these moments that we can discern what works in our lives and what doesn’t, dispel truth from illusion, administer medicine to the hurt places, and cultivate strength for what’s ahead. The topside world can and will dry you out. Don’t ever apologize for going under the veil.

Last Friday I baked Easter bread, a three-generation tradition. There it is incubating, above and just below. This was one of my more successful years, despite my own liminal state. With a veil (a well-used cotton cloth), some warmth, some moisture, and some peace, the bread became just what it was meant to be: tender and spicy and resilient—quite the revelation, if I say so myself.

And there I am, incubating far below. Shooting for the same result.

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silly putty

Figure drawing, college. We had to draw a hand grasping something. This is a Silly Putty egg. I spared you the one with the Lady Speed Stick.

I used to have this problem with talking. It wasn’t a larynx thing, mind you—it was a chicken thing. But while the universe gives us locusts and Ann Coulter and Ebola, it also gives us many ways to express ourselves besides talking. This is a plus.

Here are the ways that worked for me. Feel free to swipe any or all.

1) Art

If you have a good teacher, and I had a lot of them, you can learn a lot more than art in art class. Miss Lieneck, for example, used to say, ‘draw with your eraser.’ In other words, get comfortable with taking away as well as with adding.

Lesson: Editing is crucial to quality.

I was used to drawing my still-lifes small, in the center of the paper. In another class, Katy made me draw to the edges—to cover every inch of the 18×24″ paper.

Lesson: Think big. Force your brain out of that tiny space.

Katy also had us set up our own still-lifes, and we were told to draw them from unorthodox vantage points. She was an ex-hippie who let her two-year-old daughter stretch masking tape all over one side of the room while we drew on the other side. In other words, she was exactly what I needed. I drew the below sitting cross-legged from the top of a three-drawer file cabinet, perched on a paper cutter.

At one point Katy suggested I go with the plant’s curved stem and make something new out of it. Blew my mind, honest to God, that I could actually choose to do that. Wait, I’m in charge of what I create?

Lesson: Make yourself look at the world from a new perspective. If you’ve never tried your own, give that a whirl.

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Be kind. I was 17.

2) Writing

It can be fun, not to mention ferociously lucrative, to BS around with writing, but my teachers giggled at that prospect. In high school we were constantly nabbed with the red pen when we weren’t clear with our assertions. Probably the most common school-wide margin scrawl on our essays was ‘Proof??’ This is why I’m not writing for Philip Morris.

Lesson: You can say anything you want as long as you back it up. Death to ambiguity.

3) Cooking

Then the spoken word finally burst forth! Like Bruce Banner’s biceps out of his shirt sleeves when he was served a grande instead of a venti!* Right? Nope. Not yet, anyway.

That took time and piles of therapy. But the reason why I didn’t implode and make a disaster all over one portion of the Jersey Shore is because I was nevertheless talking—through my drawing, through my writing. And through cooking.

Cooking is something I’ve done since I was a wee child, working my way up from cookies and muffins to being the go-to Easter bread dough kneader. I don’t draw every day (not even close, considering for the first half of my life I drew as often as I brushed my teeth, or more). I don’t write every day. But I cook every day. It’s helpful when one wants to eat. But it’s also valuable and powerful expression. I’m untrained, but I picked up a few things on my own.

I cook when I want to sort through a dilemma, or when I need to step away from a problem. I cook when I want to celebrate, or when I want to connect with someone. I cook when I’m upset, and also when I’m feeling all nesty and cozy. I cook when I want to speak but it’s not the right time, or it’s just not appropriate. I cook when there seem to be too many loose ends in my life that I can’t control, and I need to do something that has a concrete start and finish so I can sleep. This generates an awful lot of food, but darned if it doesn’t work.

These days I don’t usually have a problem with talking. But I’m saluting the universe for giving me options in speaking, and for the teachers who insisted that every expression be strong and clear. And I can’t forget the people around me who help share the spoils. My freezer’s only so big.

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*I’m clear, but I didn’t say I was good.

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Fall is such an evocative season. Since it happens to be fall, and you caught me mid-evoke, let’s expound on that.

Last week I was walking by the realtors’ office downtown, housed in a 100+ year-old building, and their door was open. The scent coming out of the office was one I haven’t smelled in 30 years: it brought me back to my aunts’ and uncle’s immaculately-kept house. Quite inexplicably. And awesomely.

Then there was the time I heard Mario Batali on TV rhapsodizing about marjoram, an herb not used in my house growing up, nor in my own as an adult. I bought a jar of it, opened it, and time-travelled again: I was a toddler, it was 1973, and I was looking at a storybook that featured a bunny and scratch and sniff panels, one of which must have featured marjoram.

I never saw that coming. I hadn’t even remembered that book until I smelled that herb. Curious as to why the author included it; what an unusual choice. Again, though, not complaining. It was incredibly cool.

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The smell of

…Grand Marnier will always and forever remind me of the copiously-spiked whipped cream my dad used to make.

…hot French fries and salt air means home.

…yeast means Easter bread. (I talk about this adventure a lot. Like a whole lot.)

…balsam brings me back to the living room of one of my childhood best friends.

…cinnamon means many things, but topping that list is my mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It won an honorable mention at the county fair one year; the judges’ only real quibble was that they wanted more of the gooey filling inside. (I have since, and wisely, doubled the filling. I know you’re all relieved to hear.) The picture above totally doesn’t do it justice because I don’t have a Bundt pan, which I’ll admit is egregious.

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Where do smells take you?

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

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