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Posts Tagged ‘October’

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Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

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An American black walnut.

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Above is a little maple cream tart I made—just flour, butter, eggs, cream, and pure maple syrup. Give me, any day, a tart that calls for five pronounceable ingredients that can fit in my little hippie purse versus a list full of multi-syllabic words containing the letter z.

Authenticity is a very deliberate running theme in my life. People, conversations, theatre props, ingredients, what have you. I like things whittled down to simple and straightforward, for the most part. No fussy or strange stuff added. (Although sometimes I eat peanut M&Ms. But I think if you’re going to fall off the wagon with something, that’s a worthy selection.)

I’m happier doing a lot of tasks by hand, too. My kitchen is overwhelmingly ungadgeted. Never owned a microwave. I make my own vanilla extract of plain vodka and split vanilla beans. Schnapps I make of crab apples I pick down by the lake every October, steeped in sugar and vodka. Herbs are dried and stored in little recycled glass jars. I bake bread and coffee cakes and make puddings for my breakfast. I keep a Hefty bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer, full of all of the middles of rolls that I scoop out. Foraging—now that’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be picking the first of the season’s dandelion greens, loving it to my very core, and taking fewer trips to Foodtown.

Out of the kitchen, I make laundry detergent with washing powder, Borax, and Ivory soap that I grate with a cheese grater into a big Pyrex bowl and mix with a spoon. I cut up clean old t-shirts and socks that can’t be darned anymore, and use them as rags instead of buying sponges and paper towels. (In other news, I darn socks.) When my shower curtains wear out, I wash them and use them as tarps. Lord knows they’re waterproof. And the purse I mention above is made of patched-together, raw recycled silk in dozens of colors. When it gets a tear, I mend it with any color thread I like and it doesn’t show. I bought the purse for $32 from a little company that started out selling t-shirts out of a van at Grateful Dead concerts.

Why would anyone who calls herself sane live like this? Well…it’s not because I’m some Luddite (note the subtle use of WordPress), and it’s not to make some sort of glib retro statement. I do it because I need to, because the more I strip away the redundancies and the cocktail-party, small-talk pretensions of the world, the saner I feel.

I’ve always been wired up this way, having grown up in a climate that felt largely put on, one that obliged me to smile for the camera whether or not it felt honest. It got old, as well it should. And it made me dislike—distrust is a better word—pretension of any kind. Because baby, if you scratch away at that shell, you usually find cracks.

I’d like to keep the instances of cracks to a minimum now.

My life when alone, I am convinced, is best spent living in the above manner. My life spent with others is best spent with happy people—ones who are as relaxed around me as I am around them, talking from the heart, feeling with passion, laughing like heathens, and putting away a few of those maple tarts. My life gets to be my authentic invention, made by my own hands. I won’t settle for less.

 

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In every story worth telling there comes a point when the narrative plateaus, and in order to advance the story to a new place a Something needs to happen. Sometimes the Something shows up as a whisper, sometimes as a Steinway to the head. Either way, it’s guaranteed to move things along; and with any luck, bring the story to a right and happy conclusion.

Narrative #1.

Last summer Matt, an awesome pastry chef I’ve worked with, told me he picks wild raspberries in a park nearby. And he was kind of nonchalant about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. I said something along the lines of ‘cool,’ and didn’t exactly rush out there. I figured he cleaned out the couple of raspberry canes he found, and either way, how would I find them in a 787-acre park? I didn’t know how he found them. At their thorny wrath, maybe.

Yesterday while parking my car I noticed the wineberry canes (a cousin to raspberries) I found last summer, and was reminded of the conversation I’d had with Matt about raspberries. I drove out to the park, thinking if I found them, I found them.

You might say I found them. 787 acres though there may be, 785 of them were prickly with raspberry canes. I’m serious—pretty much everything that wasn’t trees or skunk cabbage was a raspberry cane. I’ve never seen anything like it. Along the road. Deep into the woods along a scrabbly trail*. Even organized over a trellis. That’s why Matt was so casual about it. All of Monmouth County could pick them and have enough to sprinkle on their Frosted Mini-Wheats for a week. But this is one of those times when I’m glad John Q. Public tends toward the clueless, because I have big plans for when the fruit shows up this summer.

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See you in July.

As a bonus, I also came across four very old apple trees in blossom. Can’t wait to see what kind they are. I’ll be back for those in October.

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With four baskets.

Next narrative, and again it starts in the summer—many summers ago, actually.

I grew up at the beach, and the lagoon at the northernmost end of our beach was my favorite spot. It was sort of like a sunken living room, encircled with enormous rocks and containing powder-fine grey sand. My sister and I and our friends would play and hang out and dig for sand crabs there. People harvested mussels there, too, piling them up in pickle buckets to take home. It was a soothing and generous sanctuary.

Last summer it was announced that the lagoon would be filled in with sand as part of a massive beach replenishment project. Its intent was to hold back the ocean a few hundred feet and reduce the stress of the people who owned oceanfront property.

I cried the way I would for a death, because it was, as well as a 40-million-dollar waste. It’s sand, people. It moves. Filling in the lagoon destroyed ecosystems and ruined surfing along this part of the shore, and for what? It’s all going to wash back out to sea anyway.

Which is why I stopped crying, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go see the what the bulldozers have wrought. They filled in the lagoon a week ago, and since then I’ve taken my walks in the opposite direction, to the lake. Our public works guys cut back a lot of the overgrowth along the banks and I was hoping they didn’t take out the wild mint. They did, but no worries—it did what mint does: grow. Here it is, all new and tender and dark green.

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And coming soon to a tabbouleh near you.

That cheered me up a lot, seeing it so healthy and happy. Nature always wins.

So there we have it, a wineberry whisper and a lagoon Steinway, two Somethings that advanced my story and brought me straight to raspberries and mint (and hey—apples, too!). I’m stoked.

And I’m posting a shot of the lagoon—not as it is now, but the way it was, and the way it will be again. I can wait. And I’m not worried.

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*I cannot resist a scrabbly trail. The kind four white-tailed deer know about and no one else. Once I almost got lost in a Polynesian jungle because of this weirdo idiosyncrasy of mine. And brother, if you think everything looked alike in the park I’m talking about above, go hiking in the heart of Mo’orea sometime. Everything—trees, plants, the trail itself—is the same otherworldly green. And the deeper you go into the jungle, the darker it gets.

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I have never bobbed for an apple. Nor have I toilet papered, Silly-Stringed, made popcorn balls, or played that game with the suspended doughnuts which you eat with your hands tied behind your back. Not that I’m complaining. The Halloweens I had as a kid in the ’70s-’80s were pretty much unimproveable. I talked about them in last year’s late October post, which is quite the romp if you want to revisit.
But as an amateur folklorist, somebody who’s fascinated by old stories, old traditions and especially holiday lore, I love hearing the way things were. I asked my mom, who grew up in a tiny NJ beach town in the 40s and 50s, what the holiday was like for her back then. She still uses the archaic spelling ‘Hallowe’en’, with an apostrophe, which acknowledges the word’s origin (All Hallows’—or spirits—eve, or evening). She has the below to say.
‘Memories are of Tootsie Rolls and apples (Dad). We put our own costumes together as older children. Don’t think there were store-bought ones. Memories of Mischief Night are vivid. Can still imagine running thru our neighborhood with 7th and 8th grade friends and getting tangled in clotheslines (every backyard staple then). We didn’t do any mischief that I remember, but got to go out after dark with our friends for an hour. Very safe small town, patrolled by police, just in case. The police were mostly trying to catch the boy who successfully hung a dummy from the town water tower every year. Don’t think they ever did catch him, even though the whole town knew who he was!!’
(I should note that I asked if she still remembered the name of the kid responsible, and she said, ‘Of course.’ Mind you, this is some 60 years after the fact. He’s not even alive anymore, but I still won’t rat him out here; I’m haunted enough by Algebra II, circa 1984, and Rachael Ray’s voice.
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I know a local woman in her 90s who told me a few years ago that for all of her adult life she has made popcorn balls on Halloween for neighborhood kids. Growing up we all thought this woman had a big mouth and labeled her a witch with a capital B. But now, knowing she made these…wow. Making popcorn balls is a bear; it’s hot syrup, plus the work of forming them in a short amount of  time. There’s a narrow window between the time the syrup’s so hot that it will burn your hands and the time it’s gotten too cool to work with. It’s a very physical project. How horrible could she have been if she went through this every year for trick-or-treaters? Unless the syrup was sweetened with hemlock, she’s kinda saintlike to me now. And what’s wrong with a woman with a big mouth? Just keep the words honest and have some brains about you, and you’re fine, I’d say. Does anyone make popcorn balls for Halloween?
Back in the day, this holiday was a special treat; it was the first night when people dug into their winter stores of nuts. Nut-Crack Night! Does anyone have memories of this, or did your parents ever talk about it?
Write and tell me what years you were celebrating Halloween as a kid, and where. Who sewed their own costumes? Who went out on Mischief Night, and what did you do? Who remembers school Halloween pageants? Who sang Halloween songs? (Yes, they exist…I sang them in 1973.) Who told ghost stories on this night? Who knows the secret to bobbing for apples without soaking your melon? (There’s a way! There’s a way!) What was your favorite jack o’lantern, hand-carved, without a stencil, and holding a real, lit candle? Remember the smell?
Talk to me…the older the memory, the better. But I love it all.
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*Wordpress isn’t letting me caption, so psst! Here I am. These ghost candles are part of my small vintage Halloween collection. I was just going to buy one, but the antique store guy gave me a two-fer. Now they terrorize the populace together. Mid century. I like that the older the ghost, the pointier his hood gets.
**This is a metal noisemaker with a wooden handle from the ’20s. I like how they threw the Devil on there. (People used to think that pagans worshipped the Devil. But the Devil is a Christian thing, so why would they worship something Christian? Fun fact: They wouldn’t. And don’t.) It makes a cool clanging noise. Noisemakers were used on Halloween for the same reason people use them on New Year’s Eve—to chase away evil spirits.
*** This cute little dude is made of painted cardboard, also circa ’20s. The antique guy told me it was made to be a candy holder.

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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I love pumpkin pie as much as the next chick, really I do. But October has this treat written all over it.

Cider syrup does not come in a jar or a bottle (not that I know of, anyway; and even if it was, this version is probably better just because it’s homemade in your own cute little cucina). You can cook it up in about 20 minutes, your house will smell incredible, and your family will think you’ve been sneaking away for private lessons with the Barefoot Contessa.

Take out a small saucepan and put in 1/2 c sugar, 2 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg.* Mix it up.

Next add 2 c apple cider, and if you can get it with nothing added, all the better, because the flavor will be more intense.**

Add a couple of apples, peeled and sliced as thickly or as thinly as you like. Use different varieties, if you can get them. Any will do except maybe Macintosh, which tends to plotz in the pan. Hang onto those for applesauce.

Boil, stirring, for one minute. Take it off the heat and add a pat of butter for richness. Stir. Done.

The syrup should be goopy and gorgeously aromatic. It’s great hot over pancakes or waffles, which is how I grew up eating it (Dad would make pancakes with apples in the batter and then we’d spoon this stuff over it). Put a square of hot gingerbread or hot pumpkin bread in a shallow bowl and dump some of this, cold, on top, for breakfast, and you’ll feel like you have nothing to do all day but putter around the bed-and-breakfast wearing Ugg slippers and reading House Beautiful. Or do what I do: put the syrup in a Tupperware, stick it in the fridge until it gets good and cold, then take a spoon to it. Sometimes I feel guilty doing this, knowing full well how many other worthwhile ways I could be enjoying this, but it doesn’t last long.

I just bought little local, organic Bartlett pears from the farmers’ market and am going to try them in a riff off this recipe, with cardamom, my current obsession, substituted for the cinnamon, and pear brandy, steaming hot over vanilla ice cream.  Brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar would be good too. Any other riffs you can think of? I’m all eyes.

*Saigon cinnamon, available in my local supermarket and possibly in yours, makes such a difference in pungency and fragrance that I don’t bother using any other kind of cinnamon in any of my baking. Same goes for using nutmeg in its original seed form. It’s about the size of a hazelnut, and again, can be found fairly easily. Just grab a cheese grater, or better, one of those neato microplane graters, and grate some right into your bowl. Don’t fret too much about measuring. Yes, you can use ordinary cinnamon and ground nutmeg and get decent results. But only decent.

** NJ shore residents: Don’t fool around and just head straight to Delicious Orchards.

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