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Posts Tagged ‘hot chocolate’

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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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Toad-In-The-Hole, an egg, sausage, and rosemary dish baked inside Yorkshire pudding batter. My recipe was a gift from a Manchester, UK reader, and it’s so deliriously satisfying that I will never make another.

Hygge (pronounced like a tugboat’s horn: HOO-gah) is a old Danish word that’s difficult to translate into English. My best definition: It’s the well-being that results from surrounding oneself with comfort, safety, and, if Pottery Barn has anything to say about it, off-white bouclé throw pillows.

I’m not knocking Pottery Barn, mind you; once I learned about hygge, I realized my own North Star has been leading me toward the concept all my life, including my love for that store’s aesthetic, which is totally doable without the price tag. The New York Times recently advised people who were seeking hygge to take the following as a Step One: ‘Go home, and stay there.’ A fair starting point.

As someone who can get overwhelmed easily—a door prize from my childhood—I will probably always gravitate toward hygge. The photos below show some of my favorite things to eat to feel soothed and safe, but this is really a way of life, if you can swing it—a way to live more civilized life.

My methods (and you’ll have your own, and I would love to hear about them):

-Using only wooden, glass, or ceramic dishware. Plastic and metal are a no-go.

-Yoga every morning.

-Serving my most I’m-glad-you’re-here dessert to guests: a hot, fresh, fudgy brownie, a blop of melting homemade ice cream on top, served in a bowl.

-My fireplace, which is gas, but still way cool.

-Changing the feel of my place with every season; most recently, a fresh Christmas tree in my bedroom and vintage Advent calendars from my neighbor, long gone and much missed.

-Breathing in fresh cold air after a snowfall, and wearing my best snowball-making mittens from when I was 12 (I didn’t get much bigger).

-Foraging.

-Traveling on my bike as soon as it’s warm enough to, as much as I can.

-Getting virtually all of my furniture secondhand so it has a little soul to it. I find it in antiques stores, from friends, and from garage-sale lawns. I refinish it to make it my own, and sew my own pillows and curtains. (Not really good at it, but they hold together.)

-Vanilla extract made from vanilla beans and local vodka. Laundry detergent made from Borax, washing powder, and Ivory soap. Fresh herbs wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry.

-Reading the delicious essays in the weekend Times.

-Cooking from scratch. (Making sausage bread next. Yowza, and stay tuned.)

-Hanging my own work on the walls of my place—photography, drawings, and pebbles I’ve collected from all over the world.

-Very thick hot chocolate made with great-quality semisweet chips, milk (or make it with half milk, half cream, if you want to see me genuflect), and a smidge of cornstarch.

-It’s astonishing how much clutter stresses people out. I shoo it right out the door so it never has a chance to put up its feet.

-Relaxing in ten-year-old L.L. Bean flannel pajamas and blogging, like, say, right now.

-Laughing really hard with friends.

-Bringing a little bite of something good to share when I visit someone.

-Cooking to ABBA, or classical music, or the Mamas and the Papas, or The Cure. Any music.

-Celebrating Chocolate Day every third day (to stave off migraines), and eating organic dark chocolate on my favorite little 1960s-era plate that once belonged to my aunt.

-Opening the windows and leaving them open as soon as I can every season. I am happiest when the indoors feels as much like the outdoors as possible.

-Living where the ocean mist rolls down the streets on foggy mornings.

-The hiss and bubbling of old radiators.

-Feeling the charged energy in the air on Mischief Night and Christmas Eve.

-Reading fairy tales, different versions of each, and then studying the analyses of each. Scrumptious.

-Freshly laundered cotton sheets, a down comforter, and a cool, dark bedroom. A horizon I’m heading toward very soon.

Peace & love.

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Hot homemade sourdough bread with melting Kerrygold butter.

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Shepherd’s pie, properly made with lamb. The UK knows from hygge, even if it’s not their word. Chronically gloomy skies demand it to preserve the sanity of the people.

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Maple cream tart.

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Local apples on a reclaimed vintage farm bench.

 

 

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Mozzarella in carrozza, a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s battered before it’s fried.

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I think I put five pounds of apples in this dude. An avalanche of fruit every time I sliced it.

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Neptune Avenue heading east, Deal, NJ.

I am lucky enough to live so close to the ocean that on some mornings sea mist tumbles down the streets. It rolls past houses and cars until the sun gets higher, sending iridescent streaks of light through it and, eventually, burns it all away.

Other days are just solid fog, no sun, and it lingers. These are the days when I tuck my point-and-shoot into my pocket and walk straight to the beach.

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Bench overlooking the jetty, Allenhurst, NJ.

Days like this, there is no horizon. No ‘you are here: X’ to pinpoint you on Earth’s map. With nearly every reliable view I count on gone, the landscape eerie, the seascape all but vanished, I might as well have been snatched up and plunked down onto another planet.

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Fisherman on the jetty, Allenhurst.

Or it’s as if I am in a 1950s B movie.

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Jetty and waves, but no horizon.

But I don’t find it terrifying; I find it the opposite of terrifying. To stand on the beach and be utterly disoriented, not to see anything beyond 20 feet in any direction, is fascinating. I grew up here and could walk this beach blindfold—and am. I’m wearing Harry’s loose and misty invisibility cloak, and it extends for miles up the windswept coast.

Wait wait wait…or is it less a cloak than another veil the universe sent me?

If so, it’s the wildest ever. Sold.

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Dune and fog.

To get my bearings, I look down and see what the waves and weather have produced.

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Skate (a type of ray) egg case.

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High tide patterns on the powdery dark lagoon sand.

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Taking the veil home with me. Here it is clinging to my black wool pea coat. It’s nice to be enveloped now and again.

Afterward it’s warm-up time. I know, it’s late in the season for hot chocolate.

No, it isn’t.

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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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This is the time of year when my uncle’s cherry tree would be starting to sprinkle its petals like powdered sugar over the yard. The tree wasn’t a tidy, perfect, Martha Stewart-esque magazine deal. You’ve seen those, the kind that are practically sparkling in some verdant pasture. This was planted a few yards from the tree house, next to the driveway, and almost hidden among other shrubs and trees. But those cherries—sour ones—made the best pies and cobblers I’d ever tasted.

Once my uncle lost interest in harvesting them, some ten years ago, he’d let us go over with a ladder to get them down before the birds or rain got to them. The pie above is reminiscent of the tree itself—not perfect—but like so many things in life, it was galaxies better than perfect.

A few years ago my uncle sold the house he and my aunt and cousins had lived in since the early 60s. The current owners must not have known what they had, because they took down the tree house and my uncle’s plantings and the tree with them. The yard is now tidy and prettified. But I remember it all, and can still taste those pies.

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Wildly gorgeous lilacs that still grow at the edge of the honey guy’s driveway.

Next stop on the sweet memory train is the above. I finally turned into the low gravel driveway one day to look around. What I found was an old man in an older building, in a small room lined with honey jars. He’d collected it all. The hives—weathered, seafoam-green wooden painted boxes—were stacked like lopsided sandwiches the end of the steeped gravel driveway. There were no decorations on the walls; it was plain shelving, the jars, and him. It might as well have been his garden shed.

And I never got his name, but haven’t forgotten his Steven-Wright delivery.  “This is the best,” he said, handing me a jar of blackberry honey. The local bees knew where to source the berries—there was a blackberry field just a few yards away. And the guy was right—that honey was impossibly spicy-fragrant with blackberries. “You’ll be back for more,” he said.

A month later I walked in and and he didn’t even say hello. Just looked at me and smirked, “Told you you’d be back for more.”

It’s now a women’s clothing store or some such nonsense, because there aren’t enough of those in the world while we can barely cross a Wegmans without tripping over jars of local blackberry honey, right?

Grr. And to further emphasize: Grrrrr.

Never had anything like that blackberry honey, before or since.

 

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Last stop is another regret, but thank goodness I had the foresight to take pictures before the owner ripped out his Christmas tree farm way off the road within an old-growth pine forest in order to build a cluster of houses with aluminum siding.

This place was a dream. A pine-soaked, wood-smoky dream. Your gloves and boots would be stuck with sap and pine needles and your coat would be dusted with the remains of funnel cake and then you got to take home a Christmas tree. The look and the feel and the smell of this place—I swear it was like Scandinavia or Iceland (wait–is it Iceland that’s covered with ice and Greenland that’s covered with green or the other way around? Crap.), not that I’ve ever been to either place. But that was the thing about it—you were there anyway. It was a dream. The particulars didn’t matter. That’s a picture of the view on the drive in to the center of it all, and the owners’ kids’ tree house overlooking the lake. Can you feel it?

They had a suckling pig twirling around on a spit. You’d pay for your tree at a cute little shed and the girl would give you loose apples to take home. And their hot chocolate was served in yet another cute little shed amid a bunch of others that sold greenery and the funnel cake. The hot chocolate was basic stuff, but it was creamy and hot and good; and the experience of drinking it just amplified the delicious sensory explosion going on around and above.

What are you still tasting?

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Shut…

I know, I get it—technically the holiday season ends tomorrow, if you’re going by the Twelve Days of Christmas schedule. That’s January 6, which some call the Epiphany, which my mom calls ‘Little Christmas’, and which is purported to be the day the Wise Men finally pulled in and dropped off their symbolic goodies*. Do just one tidbit this year, or save these up for next year. Or maybe you’ve done all of these already. Rock on. You win Christmas.

1) Attend a small-town tree-lighting. Big fun. Applaud when the big guy in red arrives, and again when he throws the switch and the town glows.

2) Open the doors on an Advent calendar. The kind that gives you a chocolate every day is okay, but I like the picture kind the best. The photos here are from one of the three 1960s calendars I own and adore.

3) Watch the old Christmas specials. The classics aren’t just nostalgia trips; many are also beautiful examples of stop-motion animation (anything Rankin & Bass) and hand-rendered animation (A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its luscious watercolor skies, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! with its sly, Bugs-Bunny-esque Chuck Jones direction).

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a shift from mindless holiday cheeriness, and I’ve always found its wistful yearning to be sort of appealing. It was first aired in 1963, when the civil rights movement was just starting to heat up, and this might explain how emphatically the theme of conformity vs. non-conformity is pushed. It also aired a month after JFK’s assassination, and I’d be surprised if this didn’t have had a hand in its sense of melancholy.

Oh, it’s fun you want? Then watch The Year Without a Santa Claus to see Heat Miser throw awesome red-faced hissy fits, and Snow Miser (voiced by comedian Dick Shawn, who played LSD in The Producers a couple of years earlier) blithely instigating every one of said hissy fits.

4) Blow off one thing on your list. I have always made my own Christmas cards and loved sending them. This year, for some inexplicable reason that will probably come to me a decade from now at 3:15am, I just wasn’t feeling it. So I didn’t. Unless it’s a non-negotiable (like maybe the tree), opt out of doing something. The world will continue to spin on its axis, and you get to relax that much more.

5) Eat something real. A piece of real fruitcake, a cookie with real butter in it, real salt-cured country ham. I don’t need to elaborate on this point, right? I do that all year.

6) Same deal for a mug of hot chocolate that wasn’t shaken from a blue packet.

7) Walk through your neighborhood at night and see the assorted twinkliness. +1 if you find a window display of vintage moving figures holding candles or song books. Those are really cool.

8) Collect one can, or more, of vegetables every week you go to the supermarket during December. On 12/23, drop it all off at your local food bank. Include a plate of cookies just for the workers.

9) Read, or reread, A Christmas Carol. Unabridged. Do it to feel the lovely sense of connection with every other human on the planet washing over you, do it for Dickens’s delicious playfulness when it comes to words, do it to find new meaning every year. But do it.

10) Turn on the lights on the tree, turn off all of the other lights, turn on some Christmas music very quietly, and just rest.

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Open 🙂

*Gold, because according to Scripture the newborn was a king; frankincense, because he was a god; and myrrh, because he was destined to die (myrrh was an embalming fluid). Do I win the new Toyota Corolla?

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You’d have to be a contortionist to take on all of the demands commercialism imposes upon people at Christmastime. This year, whittle away at all of the unholy crap until you’re left with what supports the most basic premise of the season: connection.

Huddling together against the cold, treating each other to gifts, bringing evergreens into the house to enjoy together, cooking special foods to share, making toasts, looking into a flickering fire and wondering what the new year will hold for all of you—these rituals predate Christianity by thousands of years. They still matter, and they always will.

Melville emphasized human interconnection in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale when he wrote, ‘A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.’ You can draw the same parallels between nineteenth-century sailors working waist-deep in whale blubber in the belly of a ship, occasionally, accidentally grabbing each other’s hands in the muck; tired, corporate-America soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the subway, singing a Christmas song and laughing; and standing fifteen deep in the checkout line at Nordstrom, a future Christmas gift draped over your arm, bloody hot in your Miss Sixty wool pea coat, wishing you’d had the sense to leave it in the car,* when the woman in front of you sees you only have one thing and lets you go ahead of her. Sometimes the frazzle of the season get distilled down in this way, to connection alone. When it does, it can stay with you, heartening you, for days.

You don’t necessarily have to seek out connection, though it’s kind of fun to do that. Just being open to it can drop you right into it. Some of my favorite and most genuine connections this year were surprises. They happened in the middle of an idle Facebook chat with a friend, or in a conversation backstage during a show as actors and stage techs swarmed past, or after eating big warming bowls of Vietnamese soup.

If, on the other hand, you’re inclined to seek out connection, give one of the below a try. I’ve road tested them all with great success; maybe you’ll have the same—or better.

1. Make a cake. An easy and yummy one. Like this. Share a warm, gooey piece with a family member, friend or obliging squirrel.

2. Serve at a soup kitchen, then cook dinner for yourself afterward. Whatever you make will taste better after you serve hungry people—I promise you.

3. Have a pal over for hot chocolate one morning and just dish. Leave your holiday stresses, work BS, ego, phone, everything, in the car. Laugh. Slurp. Goof off.

And so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

-Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

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*My college boyfriend always left his coat in the car when he went Christmas shopping at the mall. He’d take it off, throw it in the backseat, and dash across the parking lot into the store. Then he was comfortable the whole time shopping while I sweated to death in my coat.

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