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Posts Tagged ‘marzipan’

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

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With the sole exception of peanut butter, I hated nuts growing up. All of my Halloween Snickers bars and Almond Joys went directly to my sister (and she hated peanut butter, so I got her Reese’s). Peanut butter was my glory. It had to be smooth, though; crunching through nuts appalled me.

Then I outgrew it—all of it and then some. Now there is no nut I won’t eat, although I draw the line at adding them to cookies and brownies. I work in marzipan, grinding my own almonds. And I want my peanut butter as crunchy as they’ll make it.

But recently I read that peanut butter is carcinogenic in high quantities, which is essentially how I was eating it. Peanut butter and homemade jam on hearty bread makes a filling breakfast, no matter how old you are. Same deal on apples and bananas. What could ever replace it? I like almond butter, and I like my homemade walnut butter, but neither touch my heart quite like peanut.

Enter cashews—and it occurs to me now that there was one nut I ate growing up: this one, salted. To me it’s the most assertive, richest, heartiest nut there is. It’s the Bradley Cooper of nuts, if he put on 35 pounds or so.

But I couldn’t find it anywhere in chunky, and why I still haven’t figured out. So I bought a jar of smooth with salt from Trader Joe’s, took a spoonful in the parking lot and tested it. Win for flavor, but very runny. So I went back inside and bought a bag of raw cashews, brought them home and toasted them, ground them up a bit. Then little by little, added them to the jar.

People often tell me how resourceful I am, which is very nice. A lot of my food ideas flop, or take forever to get right, so when an idea nails it from minute one….well, this is the kind of resourceful I am proudest of.

That’s it. All I wanted to tell you. Just how GOOD this is. Better than peanut butter, much as I love it. I can’t wait to dunk some good quality dark chocolate in there. Happy Mond…oh crap. Tuesday.

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Oma is 97 years old. Born in Germany, she escaped the Holocaust and lived most of her life in Manhattan. Today she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and lives with her daughter (my friend Peggy) and her family near me.

Peggy told me her mom grew up loving marzipan—not a surprise for a German girl—and asked me if I’d bring her a little piece of my homemade stuff. Last week I did.

When I arrived her mom was still out at the doctor’s office. Peg walked me around the sunken living room and showed me all of the shelving she’s had to clear off because Oma likes to take things down and move them to new places. We came upon books and knickknacks in odd spots, hand towels and garments neatly folded and set down on the carpeted steps. I put the candy on a higher shelf, figuring I’d give it to her later.

Oma came home and joined us in the kitchen, all smiling wide blue eyes and wispy white hair. She asked who I was. I told her I was Peg’s friend from long ago. Peggy asked her in German if she had found a candy and eaten it, but she didn’t respond.

The candy was, in fact, missing from the shelf. We peered around every table and chair and into every corner of the living room, looking to see if she’d moved it. Finally we found the empty wrapper, carefully folded. Well, she must have liked the candy; it was gone.

I thought about the fact that it was likely her last piece of marzipan, and almost certainly her last piece of homemade candy. (Truthfully? It was the only homemade food I’ve ever brought over, since Peg and the rest of the family keep strictly kosher. But Oma renounced Judaism years ago.) And I thought about the honor of treating a Holocaust survivor to a taste of her youth.

But mostly I thought about this: It’s entirely possible to derive pleasure from a single bite and fold it up neatly and tuck it away into a corner of one’s mind—maybe to be retrieved later, maybe never again. And that later or never is beside the point; the pleasure is the point.

When it was time to go, I asked if I could give her a kiss goodbye, and she nodded.

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What’s the difference between what truly satisfies and what doesn’t? We’ve heard about determining what’s enough; that’s been posed at least since the ’90s, when the Benetton and zircon-brooch* excess of the previous decade got to all of us. The threshold of enough is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it’s pretty easy pickings.

It’s being in reasonably good health (check), which I don’t take for granted after many years of stress-related illnesses and a further-cheering car accident chaser. It’s people around me who want to be there (check). A non-leaky roof over my head and warm walls within a safe town (check). Having a few electronics and a car that behave (check). A well-stocked kitchen (checkity check check). Grains, olive oil, good quality chocolate**, milk, yogurt, some protein. An avocado ripening on the dining room table is a lovely thing. It’s having a freezer with butter and snoozing yeast, slices of my homemade coffee cake, tubs of chicken broth, Ziplocked fruits I’ve bought, foraged, or picked at the farm. That’s close to what constitutes enough, at least for me.

One step farther. What’s the difference between enough and plenty? What constitutes plenty? Because as I see it, if we’re operating from a place of plenty, it significantly changes our experience of the world. It feels a lot different than enough.

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I saw this book in Anthro as soon as I started thinking about this post. Riddle: How many Plenty books are plenty? Answer: JUST ONE. Ha! I slay me.

Lest you think I’m advocating the spend-happiness of our culture, no. When it comes to buying extras, I generally don’t. I’m not a stuff person. Small and manageable is my thing. (To further amplify: I don’t have a kazillion dollars, but if ever I did, I wouldn’t build an 11-bedroom monolith to myself with two sun rooms and a cat porch.*** Plenty might mean torso-high vases in a color West Elm calls ‘aubergine,’ but I’m skeptical.)

Plenty, like enough, is in the eye of the beholder. The Danes have a word that comes closest to what plenty means to me: hygge (pronounced HUE-gah). There’s no clear-cut translation into English, but here: it’s the well-being that comes from creating and living in a place of warmth, coziness, and safety, of enjoying the good things in life with the people who matter most. That’s a different planet from enough; that’s letting the peace that comes from plenty wash over you, and deliberately and consciously sinking into it. I think it’s worth seeking out, for ourselves and for the old ripple effect of it, you know?

The last time I felt a sustained sense of plenty—I narrowed it down—was in the late ’80s when I wore Benetton and zircon brooches and was sent to a small boarding school with my brother and sister. It was an unusual place, one in which I felt constant, enthusiastic, and unconditional support from the staff. And the food was decent to boot. I remember crossing the grounds at night on my way to the library, looking up at the winter sky, and feeling deep peace, of being right where I wanted to be and with the right people.

I’ve felt a sense of plenty in bits and pieces many times since then, and have made a point to suck the marrow out of each instance. It hit most notably a few years ago when I had a surge of creativity that brought me squarely into food writing as well as bigger leaps into marzipan-making and theatre. I’ve always been a project person, but I was unexpectedly gobsmacked with a whoosh of new and cool and way more fulfilling. The Mad Hatter told Alice that she’d lost her muchness, and so had I. I got it back. I had to slay a few Jabberwocks to get there, but all in a day’s work.

It hit again recently when I had a windfall of sorts and felt a calm ooze over me like warm blackberry honey. That evening I zipped off on my bike. And with no plan at all I felt my feet take me to places I’d never been before, found new foraging grounds, and came within a few yards of one seriously surprised white-tailed deer.

My years of working with children taught me that the more secure kids feel, the more adventurous they are. It does not fail. That night felt like a crazy and delicious head trip, but it wasn’t drugs. It was the plenty.

I’m still looking for that elusive sustained plenty, that sense not just of having enough but of being sated. I’ll know it when I see it.

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Macy’s, for example, spells it wrong.

Here’re a few ways I feel the plenty, when I find it in bits and pieces.

-A shamelessly exuberant, burst-open flower.

-A really good conversation.

-Harvesting anything, especially foraging, and really especially finding new plants.

-The beach—its smell, its textures, its ever-changing and unabashed wildness.

-Nailing a cue onstage. The tougher, the bloody well better.

-Kneading and punching down bread dough.

-Celebrating every season.

-Making something with my hands.

-Warming someone who’s been cold inside.

-The magic in a genuine connection.

-Watching a small-town parade.

-Dramatic weather—being utterly immersed in snowflakes, blowing leaves, or fog.

-Noticing something beautiful amid the ordinary.

-Writing this piece. It’s been banging around in my head for months.

-A full-fat ice cream cone.

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*I had a bunch of these and wore them with a shoulder-padded black jacket and looked FLY, dude.

**Hey, I made that the third item and not the first. Impressive!

***I have no idea what this is. I hope I just made it up. Please don’t google it. If you do, please don’t tell me it exists.

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As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen. Right now it’s 12 degrees F at the New Jersey Shore, and everyone on Facebook is comparing our temperature to that of Anchorage, AK (32F) and Davis Station, Antarctica (31F). It’s totally whack.

I’ve been staying warm working backstage which, with the stage lights lending their colorful gusto, is about 85 degrees. Outside, the ice has been a femme-fatale combo platter of treacherous and strikingly beautiful. Most people don’t stoop to take pictures of the snowflakes trapped in the ice at the bottom of their driveways.

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But I’m not most people.

And a recent fire destroyed some of the stores and homes in Ocean Grove. I did my laundry in the laundromat a few doors down. It was intact, but smelled strongly of smoke. People did what they did when 9/11 struck and when Hurricane Sandy struck: wandered a little, stunned; collected provisions for those who has lost their own; and cleaned up. Water from the fire hoses froze in the trees in the foreground—an eerily beautiful counterpoint to the burned debris behind them.

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And I’ve been in the kitchen, for a change. I love Valentine’s Day, and filled orders for European-style chocolate truffles (55% semisweet Ghirardelli chocolate, cream, and sweet butter rolled in cocoa powder or topped with fleur de sel). I am told hearts were warmed, which makes me happy.

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And I made marzipan. The candy hearts were sold at The Flaky Tart in the Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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The Japanese maple branches and dragonflies (detail below) were pitches for Confections of a Rock$tar in Asbury Park…

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…along with a little (2″) dinosaur egg. This little guy warms my heart, as he did for the shop proprietor. Hey, it’s almost hatching season.

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Marzipan is a pale cream color until you add gel paste. This is destined to be chick yellow.

I’ve been making marzipan from scratch for a good long time, and talked about it awhile back during a particularly gloomy time of year in order to get the grey out my mind. Used it in 2012 for my Traditional English Christmas cake, too. Big success there.

Around the same time, I had contacted local baker Marie Jackson to ask her for a couple of recipes for publication in Edible Jersey magazine. I’d been by a few days prior on a reconnaissance mission to try her croissants. She made them from scratch, which, as an 8-hour process, is not exactly something you can mail in. After poking huge crackly buttery wads of it into my face, I deemed them fabulous.

When I called Marie for recipes, she was champagne-bubbly and fun to talk to—easily as memorable as her croissants. I’ve reviewed her and her shop (theflakytartnj.com) a few times since.

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Future peas. They look a little blue here. Hm.

This year I approached Marie to have a taste of my marzipan, and was gratified to hear she liked it well enough to offer me a spot in her shop to display and—with any luck—sell it.

Today I gave The Flaky Tart a test drive of a dozen boxes of candy in springy pastels: cherry blossoms, lop-eared bunnies, pea pods, and chicks. The bunny and chick look like Weebles. I quite dig them that way.

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Chick assemblage.

I wrote the below awhile back as part of my promotion for the candy, and I think it sums up the spirit of this work…and play.

*

so whatever happened to that little kid who slurped popsicles until there was a ring of orange around her mouth that hung on for a day

?

who was unbeatable at hide and seek (something to do with not being creeped out by the spiders who lived behind the rhododendron)

who sat up straight at the dining room table while dreaming of revolution
and who never ever turned down an opportunity to be ludicrous?

is she gone? in hiding? or stuck in line again at the post office, late for the dishwasher repairman, up to her eyeballs in grown-up clutter?

so wendy from peter pan grew up. so you did too, maybe not even noticing until two years ago Christmas, when your upper arms started to resemble ed asner’s.

no need to panic.

the post office line, the leaky dishwasher, your upper arms…they’re just details. and details aside, you add up to a lot more now than you did back in the day. your youth became tenderness, your cleverness became smarts, and your sass became chutzpah. way the hell better off than wendy.

all she did was mourn the changes. you’ll avoid that at all costs. you’ll celebrate them (yes, even the changes to your arms) because they’re what make you delicious.

besides,
that fearless, sometimes hare-brained, always wildly creative, good-time-charlie kid is no further away than one of your belly laughs. treat her to one. treat everybody who hears, too. why not?

you’ve still got the edge on.

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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