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Posts Tagged ‘spatula’

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)

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Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.

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Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.

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Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.

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Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.

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Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?

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Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.

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The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.

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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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Storms (both) over! Power (twice) restored! Things getting back to normal! But oh, just kidding, November had one more banana peel for me to slip on.

Last night at around 7p I went down my hallway and heard a…well…watery noise. Turns out the boiler in my building had gone kablooie and my radiators were delivering the message. And continued to do so for the next six hours, until the emergency plumber arrived.

I think it would be simplest to describe the horror event with statements from all involved.

Me: OHNOOHNOOHNOOHNOSTOPSTOPSTOPSTOP

Downstairs neighbors: HOLY F***

Radiators: SPLURT SPLURT SPLURT

Landlord: …crickets.

Plumber: $215 even.

I created the below contraption in an effort to coerce the continually dripping water to do my bidding instead of its own. Low dripping valve to funnel to skillet to long metal cylinder I found in the office closet to my biggest stockpot.  I was exhausted but undaunted, figuring maybe I never took physics, but I sure watched The Goonies enough times as a kid.

I should have taken physics.

And this is what I caught out of my bathroom radiator—rusty water. I call it Gross Soup. Mmmmmmm nummy.

So.

Once I got everything more or less under control—it only took till about 12:30a—I did the only sensible, rational thing I could think of. I sat down and chipped cooled, dried bittersweet chocolate out of a Pyrex bowl with the small plastic spatula that came with my Cuisinart Mini-Mate Chopper and ate it all with very cold milk. Then I roasted hazelnuts in the oven and rubbed their skins off with a kitchen towel. It was surprisingly relaxing.

Today I learned I will not have heat until early next week.* The gas company guy offered a sweet expression of folksy wisdom: ‘Don’t try lighting the pilot light or you could blow this place sky high.’

After hearing this, I ate a wedge of my homemade gingerbread, finished a dopey novel, and shopped for supplies. Knowing the house was going to be cold, I made a point to wear my stage tech boots all day, which make me feel powerful. There are many ways to suit up for battle.

Don’t think for a minute that I am some saccharine-soaked Pollyanna, dismissing the indignity of what happened last night, which was due entirely to my landlord’s negligence**. I took out my frustration by duct taping my radiator valves. And I plan to deliver this guy his comeuppance with shameless abandon. Though not with duct tape, because it’s too good for him.

It’s just that I know people who don’t have entire houses right now, post-Sandy. Or their cars were totaled by ocean waves while sitting right in their driveways. Or their possessions, after gulping 500 gallons of seawater, were totaled as well. Plus…being cold is work enough. Bellyaching about it just makes hard work harder.

Tomorrow I am going to a party, finishing my hazelnut recipe***, tagging my Christmas tree at the farm to be cut next month, and working on my Christmas cards. Here’s the shot. That could cheer anyone up.

Truffle cookies. Way prettier than Gross Soup.

*This is not a repeat from 10/29-11/9.

**His name is Jim. I call him Jimmy Crack Corn, from the old Southern antebellum song, because he doesn’t care.

***It’s called Better Than Nutella. Hello and yes I need to make you.

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Almost a year ago I got into an accident which broke my collarbone, put my dominant arm into a sling, and forced me to give up cooking anything that was too physically demanding. All last fall and winter I was surprised at how much I missed cutting up apples and slicing into fresh pumpkins to make pies and cakes, and at how deprived I felt of those lovely flavors. I know, I could buy other people’s creations, and I did. It wasn’t the same. I wanted to taste my own recipes. And what surprised me most was that I actually craved the process of making them, the actual work, just as much as the tastes.

I met a new friend recently who put it perfectly: She said making things yourself makes you feel like more of a person.  And to put an even finer point on it, I think it’s the labor-intensive stuff that does the job the best. After my accident I lost the ability to do lot of what made me feel like a person. I like the physicality of cutting into a cheese pumpkin. I like feeling—through the resistance of a chef’s knife—the difference between a crisp Empire apple and a soft Macintosh. I was amazed at how much the work I put into baking flavors the pie.

My shoulder and arm have been strengthened in the past year by physical therapy and theatre therapy (in other words, crewing shows, mostly recently one that required me to lift antique gramophones that weigh as much as a Chevy Impala), and I have been swooning with excitement at the thought of working with fall fruits again. So a couple of days ago I got started with the above. It’s a hot sandwich that I made with apples and a sharp Jack cheese.

Take an apple. Wash it well, cut it in half, core it, and cut half into thin slices. Eat the other half while you work. Grate or slice up some of your favorite cheese.* Take out two slices of your favorite bread and put them side by side on a plate. Heat up a pat of butter in a wide skillet** over medium heat and swirl it around. Put half of the cheese on one bread slice. Top with apple slices. Put the rest of the cheese on top of them. Put the other bread slice on top.

Using a spatula and your hand to balance, lower your thing of beauty into the skillet. Let it sit there for about 30 seconds. Then slide the spatula carefully underneath it, put your hand on top of it, and invert. Give yourself points if nothing falls out. Gobble up whatever does fall out. Let the sandwich sit on the heat for another 30 seconds, then slide it onto a plate, cut and keep eating.

For gooier fun, make a panini*** using the low tech method: Find a brick, wrap it in parchment paper, and plop it on top of your sandwich while it’s cooking. It’s way, way cheaper than one of those fancy-schmancy presses from Williams-Sonoma, you don’t have to clean it, and it can live in your oven. Pressing the sandwich flattens it a bit and melds the apples and cheese together into a most appealing crunchy/oozy combo.

This is the simplest of sandwiches. It celebrates one of the season’s iconic flavors, and in my case, regaining the ability to cook the way I love.

Can’t wait to work with pumpkin next.

Standing by.

*The sweeter the apple, the sharper the cheese it can take. It’s like a spirited debate between friends. Go for an aged cheddar or something along those lines.

**Don’t get cocky (like me) and use a little saucepan and burn your ring finger and pinky while flipping the sandwich (like me).

***This is actually the plural of the famous pressed sandwich. Panino is the singular. Whatever.

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