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Posts Tagged ‘strawberries’

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. 🙂

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A fatty!

Very, very few things give me as much pleasure as picking the first strawberries of the season. And after a number of years of picking after it had rained the night before (which was gross) and going at noon in the heat (only to plotz), I’ve worked out a practical system.

1) Per my first lesson above, choose a day after a sunny day to go. Mud is a bit of a bummer.

2) Wear jeans, an old t shirt, boots, a hat, and sunblock. Tuck your pant legs into your socks to ward off ticks. Bring a water bottle and more sunblock for the ride home.

3) Go to the farm first thing in the morning when it opens. If there’s still mist floating by, you’re on time. This guarantees the coolest weather of the day as well scarcity of crowds. Besides the farm staff, you’ll probably be the only one there.

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In repose. And about to be macerated in sugar. Don’t breathe a word.

4) While we’re on the topic, introduce yourself and remember to be respectful of everyone who works there. Barring Red Cross relief workers in Uganda, few people work as hard, amid as much uncertainty, while maintaining optimism, as a farmer. And besides that, they feed us.

5) Take a flat out to the fields instead of a basket if you can. Laying the berries in one layer means they won’t get crushed.

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Sliced and lightly sugared for the freezer.

6) Sit your sweet self right down onto the straw path between the rows of strawberries, which is dry because it didn’t rain last night, and pick and scootch along as needed. Sounds nutty, I know, but the benefit of sitting is twofold: it saves your back and quads from pain tomorrow, and you’ll see berries you would have otherwise missed standing and bending.

I’ve written before about taking the time to look beneath, and how much you can reap in doing so. It’s true whether you’re looking for berries or a loyal friend or pretty much anything of value. You need to look, to be deliberate. You need to have your eyes open and reach where others won’t.

You won’t always find something. But you usually will—that I can promise. You’ll get to the counter to pay for your berries and people will flip out. ‘How did you find so many? I was just out there and I only got a pint!’ Just smile enigmatically and whisper, ‘Look beneath.’

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Buttermilk biscuits pipin’ hot.

7) Choose berries that are evenly red, with as few white ‘shoulders’—that’s the top of the berry, by the stem—as possible. Get the darkest red berries you can find for deepest flavor, and eat those up first, since they’re the ripest. Get shiny red ones for firmness and bright flavor; they’ll be the ones that stand up in your showboat recipes like decorative tarts.

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They got creamed.

8) Eat a warm fat one right off the plant. There are many glories gone to us, never to return. This remains. Enjoy it.

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The best thing you can do with a heap of strawberries. Classic Americana: the strawberry shortcake.

 

 

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

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The one I ate after dinner.

I had to dash out for more eggs mid-recipe, my ladyfingers ended up looking like amoebas with a gland problem, but I’m happy to report this totally off-the-cuff recipe was still a rousing success. It started with me trying to think of other breakfasty/snacky/desserty ways to use my honeysuckle syrup. Many readers gave me some killer ideas—mix it in with white sangria, add it to barbecue sauce for ribs, drizzle it into fruit salad. (I still plan to make marzipan cake or pound cake and soak that sucker in it.)

Then I remembered Umbrian reader Letizia’s beautiful recipe for ladyfingers, the one she offered for part of my cooking project, and everything came together in my head on the drive home from the farm today: ladyfingers soaked in syrup and layered with tart yogurt.

At first I was thinking of including strawberries (not that I’m ruling it or any other fruits out down the road and now that I think about it, slightly unripe apricots would ROCK). Then I thought of how good the simplest European treats are, like crepes filled with just a thin layer of jam and dusted with powdered sugar, and decided to ease off. The ladyfinger batter calls for lemon, and that was going to be a good, kind friend to the honeysuckle. The tangy yogurt would be checks and balances to the sweetness.

Ladyfingers, those dense, spongy cookies made structurally sound with lots of egg, are used most famously in tiramisu. Here in the States people throw that name around so often with stacked dishes that you can hardly order a club sandwich these days without some whack chef calling it a turkey tiramisu. We Americans are an obsessive lot. Let’s call this dish a trifle. A little tiny one that you could make enormous if you wanted to, for a summer shower or other party.

Parenthetical comments are Letizia’s; mine are in brackets. Click the honeysuckle syrup link above for my recipe.

*
Ladyfingers

75 gr (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
3 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
75 gr (2/3 cup) 00 or pastry flour [I used all-purpose]
1 scant tablespoon plain yogurt or milk [I used goat’s milk–awesome]
2 tablespoon powdered sugar plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, mixed in a small bowl

Preheat oven at 150°C (300° F). Line a large baking sheet with buttered parchment paper. If you don’t butter the parchment paper you will have to eat it as it’s hardly possible to remove it from the cookies after baking. [Somehow I missed her note, twice, about greasing the parchment. Please heed her warning.]

Whisk or beat egg whites until firm. Cream the sugar and egg yolks, add lemon zest, vanilla extract, flour and milk or yogurt and keep whisking to obtain a very thick batter. Fold in egg whites using a metal spoon. Make sure to incorporate them lightly, with circular upward movements so to obtain an airy mixture that will not deflate while cooking.

At this point, using a pastry bag, you should pipe the batter into 10 cm (4 inch) long strips on the baking sheet. (I hate pastry bags, so I use a soup spoon making sure to keep the strips at least 3 cm (1 inch) apart. One spoon of batter is enough for one ladyfinger.) [My hat is off to Letizia. I was sad crap at this. Using a pastry bag next time.]

Now sprinkle half of the sugar mixture onto the strips. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden around the sides. Makes about 2 dozen.

Letizia Mattiacci
Umbria, Italy

incampagna.com

*

This is so simple, so delicious, it’s almost lyrical. Funny how a flower can do so much for a dish.

Grazie, Letizia!

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Whites beaten to stiff peaks can sparkle like snow. Kinda cool.

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Whites folded most of the way into batter.

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Amoebas baked to a golden brown and sprinkled with sugar.

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The one I’m having for breakfast. Layered with the yogurt and sitting in a happy pool of syrup.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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Hot sourdough bread with butter.

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Same slice. I just couldn’t decide which was the purtier.

So maybe it’s because I went from making a 12-ingredient* fruitcake over Christmas to drizzling Baileys into snow last week that’s really making me appreciate the value of simplicity. Or maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, and stripping the superfluous out of everything from copy to my Facebook friends list to food ingredients appeals to me. Or—this is probably it—it’s that the simpler the ingredients and prep, the more satisfying the dish.

People usually assume that since I’m a food writer I put all of my focus on fancy restaurants, but to be honest, the opposite is true: I don’t care about fine dining. I care about ingredients. Choose the best ingredients and don’t mess with them too much. Why should you? They already had big plans to speak for themselves.

Years ago Dr. Andrew Weil said his idea of the ultimate dessert was good-quality dark chocolate along  with fruit, in season (this matters) and perfectly ripe. It’s both healthy and heavenly.

For a real challenge along those lines, for a week (or more) keep recipe ingredients down to the bare minimum—three to five, tops. Pared down just to the essence of themselves, offered in the best possible light with the matchmaking** of your two sweet hands, and people start to call you a good cook. It’s nutty.

The shots here are bloody good memories of mine. Every component of every dish is of good quality and consequently didn’t fail me. And none have more than five ingredients.

I’d continue, but I don’t want to shoot my premise in the foot.***

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Just-picked organic strawberries and cream.

Mozzarella in carrozza: a cheese sandwich dipped in egg, dredged in flour, and butter-fried.

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Organic figs I picked, then dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel.

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Scotch Woodcock: toast smeared with butter and anchovy paste, then topped with very softly cooked scrambled eggs and a couple whole fishie cuties.

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Lemon curd: lemon zest, juice, sugar and eggs, plus a little pat of butter.

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Gianduja (homemade Nutella): dark chocolate, toasted hazelnuts, sugar, cream and butter.

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Popovers: all-purpose flour, eggs, milk, butter and salt.

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A pineapple kebob-like thing I came up with: fresh cut pineapple doused in Malibu rum and dusted with sweetened shredded coconut.

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Another invention of mine: mulberries picked from the tree outside my balcony and cooked down into a jam with sugar, several hefty splashes of Petite Syrah, and ground cardamom.

*And it would have been 13 but I couldn’t find candied angelica.

**I couldn’t think of this word. I could only think of ‘shiddoch’. True story. So I Googled that to get me to the English word. The nine remaining drops of my sanity are going to fall out of my ears one of these days.

***I also mix metaphors the way good things come to those who take the bull by the horns.

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