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Did the research: I can’t have chocolate more than every four days. If I do, I get on the express train to Migraine City. It’s a fairly new caffeine intolerance that does not have me aflutter with happiness, but there it is. First world problems. And I have a reader out there who can’t have cocoa at freaking all, so I’m not whining.

Having realized this, Day Four is a lovely day. One I cherish. One I don’t fritter away on crap chocolate. I’ll have a third of a bar* of the good stuff, or a great-quality chocolate chip cookie, or a great brownie. That last gave me the incentive to find the best in the state. This I sweated through, dauntless, because I am a hero, and heroes don’t do the daunt.

Some like their brownies cake-like. Others like them with a bit of moisture, what the English call ‘squidgy.’ I’m an easy sell; either is fine.

The one up top is the clear king thus far. It’s from The Flaky Tart in the Atlantic Highlands, the bakery that kindly sells my marzipan creations, but it rules nonetheless, I promise you. Thick, very dark, and (most importantly) not too sweet. It’s a European’s brownie.

Below is my favorite downtown brown. It’s at The Grateful Deli. A little on the sweet side and with chocolate chips, neither of which are a requirement for me, but delicious—squidgy and unfussy.

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Next is one of the varieties sold at Whole Foods, sourced from an outside bakery. You all know I’m not a bells-and-whistles girl (dolling up food is often done to disguise poor quality underneath), but I liked these toasted coconut brownies even better than the plain. Wonderful, not sweet, and cakey.

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There are actually two places where one can buy a brownie in my little town of 500 residents, because we have our priorities in order. This is from the second place: Cravings. A peanut butter and chocolate brownie with peanut butter chips on top. This will be a noble choice for my next fourth day: Thursday. I’m stoked.

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*I have to ration amounts as well. This took more research. But when you believe in something, by golly, you make it work and suffer the migraines. This post would be sponsored by Imitrex if the stuff worked on me.

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Blackberry blossom.

Picked blackberries last week. The plants (canes, they’re called) are long and trailing, and are trained to grow in rows across strong cables. This forms a kind of cavern of blackberry canes.

Most visitors to the farm go for the front-and-center fruit, which makes sense. It’s pretty. It’s right there. It’s an easy get. But experience has taught me that the berries on the outside of the cavern tend to be too tart. You’ll occasionally find ripe berries shimmering in the sunshine. But the tenderest and sweetest ones are not usually outside. They’re inside.

Out of the glare of the sunlight, it’s surprisingly dark in there. I have to lift the cumbersome canes even to see inside. And this is an organic farm, so it’s not like it’s just berries living inside. Many’s the time I will be about to pick a berry only to see a fruit fly on it. (Somehow he manages to look thoroughly irked, even when I say, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’) There are spiders and their webs. Dragonflies, which can pinch. I get tired and sweaty and sore, contorting into odd positions to reach. A cane will slip and knock my hat over my eyes, or smack me across the face. I’ll lose my footing as I reach in, and slip. Luckily I tend to be alone when I pick, which is good, so people don’t tend to see me emerge with purple stains all over me like a virulent tropical rash and with a fistful of leaves in my mouth.

I do it because the berries inside, in the dark, with the spiders, are better. They’ve had longer to ripen because no one sees them. Because no one’s looking. I do it because they’re bigger, often twice the size of the berries in the sunshine. I do it because they’re sweeter and mellower. Invariably. Yes, sometimes I get bit; yes, sometimes I fall; yes, sometimes the berries are so overripe that they fall apart in my hands. But enough don’t. I do it because it’s worth it.

The good stuff is underneath. Every time I pick blackberries or peaches or whatever I’m picking I think of this, but last week it hit me especially profoundly—one, because we lost Robin Williams to the ravages of depression, and two, because I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of friends recently about stuff that’s bugging them, stuff that you can’t tell by looking at them because they’re so good at keeping it under wraps.

And curiously—or heck, maybe it’s not actually a stretch at all—I’m finding that among the most expressive, the most brilliant (on the outside) in my own circle there is often great sensitivity (inside). They knock me out with their talent and charm, all of them. That’s the topside world that they show, and it really does shimmer in the sunshine.

But I’m lucky that after a while they trust me enough that they want to show the bottom-side world inside—the sweetness, the whole 3D person. I’ll lift the canes and come into the dark with them. Get cobwebs in my hair. I don’t mind. It’s nourishing. I have fallen, to be sure, sometimes when I get into the messy stuff with friends. I have run out of energy. I’ve had friendships fall apart in my hands. But I never wanted a life that was too sanitary. I’m shooting for sweetness.

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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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Finley imagining the possibilities.

I know, the most famous great equalizers are death and taxes, but let’s not be gruesome. It’s still summer, after all. No, I’m talking ice cream.

Ice cream may be the one thing everyone can agree on. Amazing, really, how all demographics love it—babies, old-timers, thirty-somethings. Even those with strict dietary restrictions still eat it, whether they really ought to or not. One 4th of July I witnessed a group of heart transplant patients downing bowls of the highest-fat, homemade stuff, their mates watching, lips pursed, tut-tutting at them. But the spouses didn’t stop them. Maybe it was because they understood that, like it or not, ice cream is something everyone actually needs once in a while. Let’s face it—no eats ice cream because they’re hungry.

So why do we eat it? Why do we crave it, body and soul? I think a combination of factors are in play: it’s cooling (lovely in the summertime); it’s sweet (a rare find in nature); it’s full of fat (again, rare in nature) which makes it feel luxurious and indulgent (and who doesn’t like to feel special?).

Also—and maybe most importantly—since we’ve all eaten it for as long as we can remember, it evokes childhood memories. And they’re usually happy ones. My own include trips to Carvel with my family after dinner most summer nights. To this day, I think of ice cream as a nighttime thing.*

When I was a kid, I went through ice-cream phases in which I got the same thing every time for weeks on end. First it was brown bonnet cones, soft vanilla ice cream quickly enshrouded in chocolate goo, which solidified to a candy shell on contact. Then it was soft vanilla in a cup topped with Bing cherries. During my overweight/painfully self-conscious teen years, it was Carvel’s Thinny-Thin. As unsatisfying as it sounds, but better than nothing. At the Beach Plum, where they made their ice cream on site, I got Straw Cheese (strawberry cheesecake) or blueberry, which had fresh blueberries mixed with vanilla ice cream. Incredible.

Last week my friend Lauren and the cuties above and below joined me for ice cream at Days in Ocean Grove. For years now this has been my favorite place to get ice cream, for the yummy stuff itself and for the entire experience.

Shane and Finley, with post-ice cream happy faces and sticky hands.

Days is also the town favorite, especially after evening shows at the Great Auditorium just across the lawn. The ice cream is high in fat, which you know as well as I do translates to big flavor and wonderful mouth feel. The patrons know it too, as evidenced by the long line of people you see below waiting to get in.**

The atmosphere at Days is calming, nostalgic and cozy, much like the whole town, which feels as though Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the original planning board. Days was established in the late 1800s. It features bentwood chairs and gleaming dark wood tables. The seating area is outdoors, roofed in most areas, and its tall windows are always open to allow the ocean breezes as well as the ice cream to cool you. A antique fountain bubbles in the middle, among the plants. Forgoing harsh neon lights and signs, to this day, Days is happily, entirely illuminated by light bulbs. At night it glows like a giant birthday cake and smells as sweet.

Once the sun goes down, locals and vacationers begin to amble over to stand in line—sun soaked, clad in loose faded t shirts, bikini tops, flip flops, hair freshly rinsed of salt water and slicked down, laughing, and very, very relaxed. Neighbors share adventures of the day with neighbors; newcomers chat with returning patrons about whose kids are starting kindergarten and about the virtues of Coppertone Babies lotion.

Parents of the tiniest children hold them up to the glass counter to see the choices. Teenagers love chocolate chip mint cones and sundaes with piles of whipped cream. Older folks get dishes of their favorites from childhood. The proprietor tells me that on nights of the immensely popular Doo-Wop shows, whose audiences are Baby Boomers, he always puts out classics like rum raisin and pistachio and butter pecan.

If all of this sounds like a page out of 1926, or out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, it’s not. We’re all lucky that it’s not. And even better: we know we’re lucky.

A vintage sign and scoop.

I shot the below scene last Saturday night at around 10:30. Click on it to enlarge and see how many ages are represented.

There’s something comforting about eating a timeless treat at a venue that’s older than all of us.

For the past few years I’ve been partial to ice cream with a lot of stuff in it. Texture, lumps and bumps. My current favorite, two years running, is the below—peanut butter moose tracks. Peanut butter ice cream with peanut butter ripples and chunks woven throughout, and studded here and there tiny peanut butter cups. In other words, my pipe dream.

A new contender, chocolate midnight cookie, is vying for its place, though. No matter. Choosing a favorite ice cream is one of the happier dilemmas in life, I’d say.

*Which is not to say that if someone offered it to me during the day that I’d fight them off with a stick.

**The line you see in the photo was only half of it, by the way. If you go, go on the early side.

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This is the time of year when peach season is just ending and apple season is just starting. Kind of a bonanza if you’re a cook. You get to ask yourself: Do I want to pretend summer isn’t ending soon and make a peach cobbler, or do I want to stick it to the relentless heat waves of Summer 2012 and make a crumb-topped apple pie? Either way, you get to be stubborn and either way you end up with something yummy, so I’ll salute you for either choice. Or heck—do both.

Trudging through the orchard, something I’ve done for a lot of years now, I’ve noticed most people go for pretty. Strictly. And pretty can taste just fine, it’s true.

But lean in—I’ve got a secret for you. Two, actually. We’ll start with peaches: The somewhat bruised, or split, or overripe, or not-uniformly-rosy-but-instead-yellow-streaked will taste sweeter than the pretties.

That streak is the mark of the leaf that lay across the peach, where the sun couldn’t touch the skin.

When it comes to apples, you want to look for rough brown splotches on the skin, called russeting. It looks a little strange to us, who are used to supermarket apples that are so perfect they practically start singing Good Ship Lollipop when you get close, but russeting is harmless. It’s an indicator of an apple that hasn’t been rejected because of arbitrary rules about perfection, and it’s an indicator of sweetness.

I’m not a botanist, Lord knows. I told you once how well I did in bio, right? But there’s something undeniably good that happens to a fruit when it’s been scarred—by the wind, by the farmer’s shoulder, by the branches that surround it. It’s almost as if, for what it loses in pretty, it gains in character.

And of course there’s a metaphor in here about people, too, one I like to remember as I’m collecting my flawed fruit, getting dusty and grimy, and after an hour, pretty much looking like the dog’s lunch, and that is, collect pals who have some scars. They’re a whole lot more interesting than people who have had the perfect childhood, the perfect education, got the perfect job—people whose whole lives have been smooth sailing ever since they first opened their little mouths and said wah.

And just as important: Respect your own scars. Own ’em, because they’re probably why those cool pals keep you around, too.

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I was wandering around in Red Bank’s Galleria last Sunday morning, looking for a little tiny snack to have before going to the farmers market out in the lot adjoining (very dangerous, waistline-wise and wallet-wise, to shop there while hungry), when I passed a little eatery called The Danish Cafe. Immediately I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was an actual Danish place, as in Denmark Danish, with Scandinavian cuisine, instead of doing what it probably does, which is to offer scary yellow ‘Danish’, sodden and leaden, with that ghastly colored gel in the middle?”*

But guess what? It actually WAS an actual Danish place! As in Denmark Danish! Totally brand new to me, unless you count the cute little Scandinavian bakery in EPCOT.**

This place—wow. Smorrebrod! Red cabbage! Rye bread! But now, remember–I was just there for a snack. So I didn’t try any of that (this time), but instead asked the server about the pastries in baskets on the counter, all of which looked as though they had advanced degrees in integrity. There were nicely-browned cinnamon buns and Danish, with several varieties of filling in the latter. I asked if all had been baked that morning. He nodded. Good answer.

I chose a cheese Danish and took it outside. Maybe you’re the same; when I think of Danish, besides the gruesome descriptors above, I think of it as sort of doughy and malleable, as if you could, with a few squeezes and pinches, make an ashtray out of it for your auntie. One bite of this told me otherwise: It crackled and shattered in my hands, revealing it was made of many, many buttery layers. And the cheese within was soft, fresh-tasting, delicate and tangy; in other words, it did not taste like an afterthought, as I am (and I suspect most of us are) used to.

Nothing puts a smile on my face like finding out people care. Nothing makes me GRIN like knowing where those people are. Looking forward to an open-face roasted pork on rye.

*As any qualified mathematician can tell you, jaded + hungry = cranky.

**Which I love, and I gobble their lefse (sweet dough slathered with butter and cinnamon sugar and rolled up) without fail every time I get down there.

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There are times during this chronicling that I play the arrogant card and tell you I have a recipe that trumps whatever it is others are making. I’m afraid this is another one of those times.

I grew up eating banana bread. It’s one of my mom’s specialties, but it’s not her own recipe or a family one, either. It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s. Mom clipped it from our local paper, The Asbury Park Press, sometime in the 196os. I like to picture old Lyndon padding downstairs to the White House kitchen in his jammies on sleepless nights during Vietnam to have a slice of this. Any port in a storm, I guess. I imagine the bread also made a nice dessert if Lady Bird’s guests still had an appetite after all of that barbecue.

While pregnant with my brother, my mother had a nauseous reaction to the smell of fresh bananas. Some forty years later, the smell still turns her stomach; but she can eat banana bread, and was always able to make this as long as she added the bananas to the batter quickly enough. Which she did, and often, for which I’m grateful.

The bread cooled on the kitchen island and there it stayed, still in its loaf pan, with a piece of Saran Wrap over it. We ate it all week for breakfast or for a snack. It was probably the first thing I ever baked. Once I got cocky and added toasted walnuts to the batter and made it into muffins, much to my dad’s delight (and indeed, I was not allowed to make ordinary banana bread ever again). Toasted walnuts, as opposed to those just shaken out of their bag into the batter, make a marked difference in flavor, by the way.

This banana bread recipe is the best because unlike others, which are simply generic batter with chunks of banana here and there, this batter is permeated with banana. Your taste buds don’t have to hunt for bits and pieces of it as you go, which is a sorry way to eat anything.

I substitute whole wheat pastry flour for some or all of the flour it calls for (all-purpose works well) and cut back the sugar. Can’t taste the difference. The recipe calls for sour milk, a quaint addition that hearkens back to when people used everything, even milk that had naturally gone a little sour. (Regular milk, what we buy today at Shop-Rite, was called ‘sweet milk’.) You can use buttermilk or plain yogurt instead of sour milk if you like. Mom used regular whole milk.

The recipe calls for soda. This means baking soda.* It also says a ‘moderate oven’; 350 degrees works fine. (People also used to describe oven temperatures as low, slow, moderate, hot or fast. One imagines chasing their giggling ovens down the street, swearing and balancing a pan full of batter.)

As far as bananas go, the recipe is extremely forgiving; fresh yellow bananas work fine, spotty old bananas even better. Or you can be lazy and put them, in any state, right in the freezer until you want to make banana bread. They’ll turn the color of your bedroom armoire, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, put them on a plate on your counter and let them defrost for an hour or so. Now this is fun: Just tear open one end of each banana, hold it upside down over the bowl, and it will slide right in with a satisfying sploop, just like a boat on the Log Flume.

Here’s the yellowing, stained original recipe Mom cut out of the paper. Note the word written at top, in caps, lest we forget to add them.

This is a wet batter, so it takes a while to bake in a loaf pan. Use a tester to be sure it’s fully cooked. If you don’t feel like waiting, bake it in a shallower brownie pan or make muffins. Bake for 20 minutes to half an hour. Just like cupcakes, they’re ready when you can smell them, when they’re a little golden around the edges, and when they spring back when gently pressed in the middle.

A final note: Adding great-quality semisweet or dark chocolate chips to the bread makes a perfect house gift for people you really, really like or a luxurious treat for you should you not be able to part with it after all.

Here’s the bread the way my mom used to slice it, when we ate it for breakfast on school mornings.

* My cousin once passed along a cake recipe to an aunt who apparently wasn’t much of a cook. The aunt called her and asked, “It calls for soda. Do they mean…like…Coke?’

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