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Baking is not the terrifying thing people make it out to be. Truly, this week you dealt with health insurance, nursed a cold, got rear-ended on a major highway, and had your umbrella blow inside out twice.* After that, putting one’s hands in flour and chopping chocolate is a proven way to set everything to rights, to regain control and start over. And it soothes like nothing else right now, during what can be the coldest month of the year.**

I actually made two soda breads this month. Every March I dream of what soda bread riff I want to do. This year I added blood orange juice and zest, cloves, cinnamon, 65% cacao chocolate chunks, a dose of Grand Marnier, and instead of cow’s milk yogurt I think I used goat’s. The juice added to the yogurt made the dough faintly pink, which I thought was hilarious, and was sorry to see the color kind of fade in the oven. But it was a winner. That’s it above. I pulled pieces off and munched on them warm.

Then for my sister’s birthday I made another soda bread and added unsweetened coconut flakes, 72% cacao chocolate, and a few glugs of Malibu. It was basically a boozy Mounds bar tucked inside some bread. An unorthodox birthday cake. She was a fan.

Today I made a pizza I’ve been wanting to recreate since 2008, when I visited Mo’orea, an island off Tahiti. The shack on the side of the road is called Allo Pizza. Mo’orean locals are generally French speakers and French food eaters with a healthy hunger for fish and their lovely tropical produce. It’s not a combination that calls to mind pizza, but there it was. I wasn’t a food writer then, not officially, but I kept a journal that documented what we did and what we ate; and praise Jesus, or I wouldn’t remember the toppings on this pie: fresh tuna (they call it ‘lagoon fish,’ caught across the street), capers, anchovies, Parmesan, garlic, and herbes de Provence. It’s an unlikely combination, but so was being halfway around the world and eating on the street while dodging guys doing wheelies on mopeds. We did notice that no one wore gloves while handling the toppings, and that there was no refrigeration for the fish. So only we ate there for lunch, as soon as it opened. And just the same, we waited to get sick, but it never happened.

The tuna below was not caught across the street but caught from behind the counter at Whole Foods, a reasonable substitute. It was great fun to make, warming and delicious, wheelies or no wheelies.

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*Yep , right here.
**Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa used to say, ‘When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.’ I can never remember when I parked at Target, but this I remember.

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I’ve been eating strawberries close to three meals a day for the past week. This time of year we must, and must not apologize, because winter is long, my friends. Often enough it’s berries in a bowl with plain yogurt, but I also made two recipes to take me through breakfast with aplomb.

The top is a Martha recipe, originally written to accompany late-season summer fruits (which it does very well), but it sure doesn’t hurt with June’s best, either. This is a nubbly, buttery, tender pound cake that calls for semolina flour, ground almonds, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I didn’t slice the berries because I’m a heathen, but you could. Someday I’ll try the cake toasted with butter, but for now, it’s been soaking up berries and some of that plain yogurt, making it lovely and pink and damp.

Then there’s my never-miss, never fail traditional strawberry shortcake. The recipe is from my 1968 Time-Life cookbook, American Cooking. It’s the author’s grandmother’s, and she used to make it with woodland strawberries that grew in the brambles on her farm in upstate New York. I try not to think about how deliriously good it would be with wild strawberries and just take what I have, which is fine enough indeed. (Though I can’t lie: when I someday get my hands on woodland strawberries, their fate is sealed with this recipe.)

Take a hot, fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuit. Split it with two forks, butter the fluffy insides, close it back up, set it in a bowl, and top with sugared strawberries and cold fresh cream. Sweet fancy Moses, but that’s a good breakfast.

Okay, the below isn’t a strawberry recipe or any recipe for that matter, but I thought you’d dig it. In fact, disclaimer: all but the very top pastry (a chocolate-covered cream puff) are pretend. I made this tray last week for a production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ carried by the goofbally Gangster Bakers. They say stuff like ‘You biscotti be kidding me,’ ‘You’re really in truffle!’ and ‘One cannoli hope.’ I could go on, but I don’t want to lose readers. There are fortune cookies, too, containing theatre platitudes I made up like ‘Cold free pizza is still pizza.’

Made of craft foam, white Model Magic, homemade play dough, glue, gel paste, paper, and paint. I guess technically that’s a recipe. Got a bang out of making this, and there’s muffin you can do about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Raisins, Dots, chocolate buttons, mini marshmallows, M&Ms, shredded coconut, Junior Mints…and my brother-in-law’s fantastic concoction (supervising): apple cider, white rum, dry curacao, and orgeat syrup.

Yesterday was spent with my family, making and decorating Christmas cookies, opening presents, and generally chilling. Here are the takeaways, in no particular order.

  1. A small child will never tire of putting her hands in bowls of candy.
  2. And she will extract as much as she can in the manner of the claw machines at the boardwalk.
  3. You may have to tell her that the M&Ms are edible, and not, say, beads. Once you do, you’re on your own.
  4. If you give her two ornaments off the tree as gifts for her and her brother, she will continue removing the rest of the ornaments.
  5. After opening a handful of art supplies, she will want to play with them all. Simultaneously.
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This is Santa, created by my 2-year-old niece. He is either waving a Merry Christmas to everyone or imploring help for a severe Junior Mint injury to his right shoulder. I think we’ve all been there.

6) When offered two different kinds of homemade cookies, grownups will eat one after the other quite mindlessly, as if the room is a zero-calorie-emission zone.

7) Even after going through two pizzas.

8) The floor is a totally acceptable place to sit.

9) After a bottle and a tummy rub, a five-month-old will demonstrate the best way to enjoy life: by falling asleep in the corner of a sofa.

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Mommy at left; tiny artist at right.

10) Whether decorated perfectly or somewhat less so, a cookie made with good ingredients will always taste good.

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Snowflake with red royal icing and mini marshmallows, skillfully applied.

 

 

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Strawberry blueberry mulberry clafouti–a combination I threw in the pan one day, and now it’s my favorite.

I recently read Gaiman’s Coraline, in which a ballsy little girl outsmarts, outruns, and hands assorted monsters their rear ends; but this same little girl won’t touch anything her dad cooks.

I’ve been trying to make sense of Little Miss Paradox, and think I might have it: she doesn’t like that he cooks from recipes, that they always produce freakish chicken with tarragon or some such nonsense. This is a child who goes looking for adventure, and when she can’t find any, looks harder. She gets scared, she gets into trouble that’s far more whack than her dad’s chicken, she gets herself out of it, and she goes looking for it again. It follows that she wouldn’t want food made according to a set plan, dinner that’s made on a tidy little track going from Point A to B.*

My kitchen sees both, when it comes to me. I’m equally comfortable with a recipe and with winging it; and admit with zero shame that I have found trouble at the end of both wooden spoons.

On the other hand, there are those who are thrilled with a set plan. My octogenarian uncle had absolutely no problem having a weekly dinner schedule—precisely the same dinner on Monday, and another on Tuesday, and etc., for his entire marriage. When another elderly family friend goes to his favorite Italian restaurant, one that has been around since the 1940s, he gets the ravioli. And I mean every single time. Yet another family friend (gone now) had pizza every Friday night—the same kind of pizza, no less, and it had to be from the same pizza place—for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s a male thing. I don’t know. But I don’t think so.

What makes a person choose recipes versus routines? And what makes others scoff at both?

*Neil, if you’re reading this, correct me. And ohmygod, hi. And wow.

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Americans have never been ones to linger at the table after meals. Much more often it’s take off, wash up, on to the next thing. Compare the ants in our pants to the lack thereof in places like France and Italy, where two-hour lunches, with wine, are a scant minimum. Or Spain, where people take after-meal conversation so seriously that they have a specific word for it: sobremesa. These are the people who invented sangria. They’re not itching to get back to work.

The quality of the food and drink counts, it should be noted. (I just read a study in The New York Times that showed a clear correlation between the prevalence of fast food and our ability to slow down—not just while we eat, but across the board. Shocker.)

Even when it comes to proper restaurant food and home-cooked food, I believe people are more likely to stay to talk after enjoying a well-made meal. That’s not to say average food will thwart any chance at good conversation later; it’s just that especially good food relaxes people. Relaxed people want to sit in the moment. They want to make it last. Relaxed people aren’t obsessing with their phones. They like being there, right there. And relaxed people feel safe and satisfied enough to want to contribute to, absorb, and prolong the conversation.

Gathering (after dinner especially) in front of the stove or fireplace—historically, that was the time to share stories. In earlier pre-literate times, when all of the stories anyone knew were told aloud, many, many were told after dinner. Ghost stories, didactic stories, funny stories, tribal stories, hero stories—these were most often told around a nighttime outdoor fire. Beowulf comes to mind again, the oldest literary treasure to come out of England. It was written down sometime before the 10th century. But before that it was part of an oral tradition, told around fires for some four centuries, as sparks sailed upward toward night sky after night sky, thrilling generations upon generations. Some of the world’s best literature is borne of the hours after dinner.

Today, I am happy to report here are exceptions to the scarf-and-split rule here in the U.S. They are all my people. And we always feel closer afterwards.

Start with my sister and brother-in-law and our friends Kim and Doug and their two little boys. Continue with awesome pizza at our favorite spot or one of our friends’ comforting home-cooked meals,* and end with dessert and drinks. Our sobremesa always lasts way longer than dinner.

Then there’s theatre people. We have a tendency to linger not only at tables but in restaurant parking lots after post-show dinners, just kibbutzing until the clock hits the single digits. If you have actors in the mix—and you usually do—add ‘goofing off’ and ‘howling laughing’ to the list. Does it matter that it’s seven degrees out, the lot is a sheet of ice, and we’re all getting up to work in four hours? It does not.

Mind you, we’re not usually contributing to the Great American Works of the 21st Century. (Unless you count fiction; there’s a lot of that :)) It’s typically just garden-variety lunacy. Most recently I was talking in a local restaurant parking lot with three actors who are also brilliant comics. One was having a problem with her Mercedes and was getting no help from the mechanics at her dealership. Given the subtle hints above, which of the below is the likeliest scenario that followed?

a) Thoughts were shared on how the problem could have started

b) Advice was given on how to repair the problem

c) The conversation deteriorated into animated, farcical German accents and much feigned kicking of tires

d) Suggestions were made to try another dealership

Right.

There are many ways to feel hungry, and many ways to be fed. Among them: a good dinner, which nourishes the body…and paired with a good, long conversation afterward, much more is nourished, even healed: the spirit (whose isn’t wounded, even a little?), the outlook (whose can’t benefit from a new way of seeing things?) and the group (it doesn’t need Krazy Glue? Then it always can stand a bit of reinforcement: a laugh. A chill. A sweet reminder.)

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Nutella pizza, Porta, Asbury Park, NJ,

Statement out of the clear blue sky: I created a marzipan page (all the way above) as a portfolio of my work. Visit and enjoy, and if you have any ideas for future designs, please do tell. Wouldn’t marzipan LEGOs on a cake or cupcakes be the grooviest? Now I have to talk someone into ordering them so I can try it out. Totally can’t wait ๐Ÿ™‚

*Guys. I’m still dreaming about that creamy seafood stew.

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Overblown saplings–a miniature Terabithia.

When I was a kid, people took care of their yards, made them look nice, but not to obsession. No one was shooting for the front lawn of Versailles. What was the point? People had better things to do, and besides, they had four kids and eleven nieces and nephews and consequently were going to host barbecues and egg hunts. You mowed your lawn, maybe you planted a few flowers or a vegetable garden, but that was it.

In our yards we’d tear around under the sprinkler a lot. We played Hide and Seek behind the azalea and rhododendron hedges and climbed the Japanese maples*. We played Red Light Green Light, Midnight, and Mother May I. In the fall we once mapped out leaves in a grid on the grass to make pretend rooms, and played house. At my aunt and uncle’s place we’d amble out to the ground cover at the southern end of the yard where our cousins said little men lived, and they told us stories about them. It’s one of my earliest memories.

Ubi sunt, a motif in medieval literature, comes to mind.** The Latin translates to ‘where are?’ As in, ‘Where are the people we used to hang with, where are the places we used to love to visit, where did the old times go? Why does everything have to change? What gives?’ This brand of nostalgia is just as applicable in the poems of our daily lives as it was in Beowulf. Some days I feel the old chain mail rattling on me a lot.

It’s true that much is different today; and back to yards, when it comes to them, I can’t imagine that those differences are good for anybody. I mentioned in a recent post that the current owners of my cousins’ house ripped out almost everything—the sour cherry tree, the loosely growing hedges, the tree house, even pulled the patio right off the back of the house—and covered the holes with Astro-Turf green sod. It’s as soulless as the eyes of a Rodeo Drive mannequin.

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Woodland strawberry leaves, early winter.

I know a couple whose yard is a self-imposed leaf-free zone. I mean all year. I mean in a town with enormous, century-old trees. The kind with leaves on them. To put it plainly, keeping the yard free of leaves is a combo platter of futility and insanity. One time the wife spotted six insurgent leaves in the front flower bed and asked her husband to get rid of them before company came that day ‘because they didn’t look good.’ I swear to you I’m not making this up.

Forsythia hedges, meant to grow with extravagant wide shaggy yellow arms every spring, are now often shaved into somewhat unnerving spheres. At the school bus stop across the street from the house where I grew up, another massive hedge, covered in spring with sweetly perfumed white blossoms, has been chopped down to a waist-high nub.

Why does it seem everything these days has to be senselessly tidied? Prettified? I’ve talked about this a lot—with food and otherwise. It seems to be pervasive everywhere, this notion of showboat over substance. Creeps me out, quite frankly.

Well, I’m not poopy by nature. Bash on, regardless! as the English say. So. Below, my personal recommendations.

Mind you, now, I am not suggesting you stifle your creativity. If your yard is your proverbial canvas, have at it. But…I am gently but firmly asking that you don’t create yourself into a box—a predictable, restrictive, limiting box. Creativity is supposed to make the world bigger, not smaller. Hint: If you routinely call out things to the kids like, ‘Don’t touch the hydrangeas,’ ‘Stay away from the garden arches,’ ‘No Aquasocks near the day lilies–you’ll elevate the pH in the soil,’ you’re in a box. Take a note from my boy Jim Morrison and break on through.

How To Keep A Yard

1. Let it be a little rough here and there. Let the hedges get a little overgrown. They’re hiding places. They’re necessary.

2. Let the paint on your deck steps be imperfect. Rough spots are the scrapbook pages of stories told there, after-school cuddles, lunchbox parking spaces, jumping games.

3. Teach the kids how to apply bug spray, show them what poison oak and ivy and sumac looks like, and then leave them alone.

4. Value the romance in the edges of a yard, where the cultivated meets the wild. They are the places where the wondrous and the scary and the huge and the tiny and the improbable can dance. I don’t believe there is anything in the universe—even the universe—bigger than a kid’s imagination. Spending time in the shadowy crevices, in those places where human order bumps up against natural disorder—that’s where imagination can spin, that’s food for the soul. The best kind.

5. Let kids have a little patch of earth that’s all theirs. They get to choose what’s on it. A pizza garden with basil, oregano and any vegetable they deign worthy of eating, or just a dusty tableau to imagine onto, with or without props. And when it rains it’s mud. Tell me what’s better than that. Want to create? Want them to create? Start with mud.

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Happily, ubi sunt holds off from time to time. It’s a relief. I visited the nubbed-down hedge at the bus stop today. There are flower buds on it. Only about 16, but I’ll take it.

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And the ground cover at my cousins’ house remains. When I walk past I think about what my cousins said, about the little men who lived in it. Who knows? Maybe they did. Or still do.

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*Oops. Just outed us after 35 years ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry, Mom.

**I love how a literary motif I learned in 1989 will never be lost to me, but I couldn’t tell you the license plate number of the car I’ve driven for 11 years.

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I ate a slice of apple pie at a restaurant on Friday night. It sat on a plate that was predictably be-squiggled in caramel. It had such sharp edges you could have used it to slice diamonds. It looked perfect—but it was in fact a triangle of sugar.* Heavens to Mergatroid, was it sweet. That was all I took away. Call me a zealot, but apple pie is supposed to taste like apples. Right?

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For hire.

This pie? Pump Gully Washer Slurpee intravenously into Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island while tossing yellow Skittles** into her mouth at nine-second intervals, and it will be a few degrees shy of how sweet this was.

And there was no butter in it. Twist the knife.

Sondheim’s Into The Woods hammers home a crucial point in the song ‘I Know Things Now’, Little Red’s post-mortem of her famous scuffle with the wolf. He’s a real smoothie. ‘Even flowers have their dangersโ€ฆ.Nice is different than good,’ she tells the audience. There’s a difference, and it’s important to be able to discern one from the other.

You know what I mean, right? Go to any bakery and you’ll see offerings all pretty pretty inside glass cabinets. Many are over-the-top fancy, squares on a platter with Pollack-like splatters or anti-gravity curlicues hovering above. Not until you try them do you find out if they’re quality or schmutz.

Over-the-top is fine. It is. Go nuts, really. But make sure the quality is there.

The chicken noodle soup below, from Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, is a good example of this. Everything in it is from scratch and is homey, honest and real. It just happens to be served in the dinner dish of a full-grown Rottweiler.

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Woof.

Then there are places that have the decency to offer quality but insist on gilding the crap out of the lily. (Exceptions in the dessert realm are rare, in my experience. Here’s one. And I typically order desserts without toppings, which unnerves the wait staff, which I quite enjoy, and which I describe here.)

But while it’s usually desserts that chefs overdoll, it’s not just desserts. The below pizza was made with homemade crust, fresh homemade ricotta and prosciutto, and it all went into a wood-fired oven flown in from Italy. It was gorgeous, just as it was. So why did they need to pelt it silly with arugula? I ended up dragging the greens off with every bite, looking like a sheep with an iron deficiency. My friend’s little daughter didn’t even know it was a pizza. When it arrived she took one look and asked, ‘Can I have some salad?’

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Demands a lawyer.

How screwed up is the food business? Last point of exasperation: inventing stuff that looks cute but makes no conceivable sense in your mouth, like peanut-butter-and-jelly sliders. These are on the menu at a place near me. Adorable little hamburgers—charmers!—topped with…yeah.

Audible sigh.

The American public (and others as well, for all I know) is smitten with nice instead of good. What gives, and what prompted this?

*Corn syrup, more likely, actually.

**Slurpees and Skittles are corn syrup tenants as well.

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