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The little bits of chopped peanut on top didn’t hurt.

Notes from an afternoon in Princeton, last Wednesday. God, but I ate well, but I’ll come back to that.

Background: I went to a small boarding school nearby with students from all over the world. You couldn’t help but become friends with kids from Orlando, FL, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast, Bangkok, Taiwan, because that’s largely whom you bumped into in the halls and while brushing your teeth at night. A few years of living with a variety of faces and accents felt very normal, which I didn’t realize until I went to a college where everyone looked like me and was mostly from NJ or PA. It was a good college, but it felt bland as pasta straight out of the pot.

Foreground: Princeton was crowded, cold and grey though it was. A handful of us were ordinary Caucasian Americans. The rest? It was like the U.N. was on its lunch break and pouring down Nassau Street. Here, as at my high school, this was the rule.

I heard Cockney English spoken behind me outside the bookstore, Russian beside me at the crosswalk. A group of three—two young students of Middle Eastern and Latino descent and an African-American cop—were chatting idly and chuckling outside a falafel shop, their breaths puffing in the cold.

the bent spoon, my favorite ice cream shop in NJ, was closed for vacation. Which pained me, as it was Chocolate Day and I had planned to make it count, but on my way there I had spotted a sign outside Jammin’ Crepes advertising a Mousse Parfait special. It wasn’t chocolate, but it was probably worth trying my tears for. The place is fantastic.

I sat down and ate the above—that’s peanut butter mousse layered with homemade jam and whipped cream, with toasted sugared crepe chips on the side—very slowly. This was while listening to a couple speaking Parisien French right beside me (p.s., they ate every bite of their crepes, and they’d know from crepes) and another couple speaking the Queen’s English behind me.

Diversity reminds me of some of the best years of my life, simply put. I feel calmer when the people around me don’t look and sound just like me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually feel like I fit in better. It was an immensely peaceful experience.

And I noticed on my way back to my car that those two kids and the cop were still kibitzing in the cold about nothing in particular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An American black walnut.

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No preliminaries from Little Miss Chatterbox this time. Let’s go:

1) Be skeptical of any dessert served with an amorphous heap on top—whipped cream, raspberry sauce, spark plugs, whatever. It usually means the kitchen is trying to distract you. Remember: if the dessert could stand on its own, it would.

2) Smile at your restaurant server even if he or she doesn’t smile back.

3) If you loved your meal, send your thanks to the kitchen. It’s not pretentious or old-fashioned; expressing appreciation will never be thus.

4) If your Filipino friend invites you to an authentic Filipino meal made by her mom, say yes.

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Lumpiang shanghai—homemade spring rolls filled with ground pork, carrots, and onions. Piping hot and crisp. I couldn’t stop eating them, which was rude because my hosts and friends kept trying to engage me in conversation, but I got a little delirious with these.

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This is is monggo, and lovely comfort food. Beans, broth, shrimp, and vegetables. Again, I needed to exercise better portion control and likely didn’t.

5) If a friend who grew up in Wisconsin tells you that a local ice cream place is fantastic, go.

6) Never refuse a cookie made from scratch.

7) When in a burger joint or chain restaurant, don’t order the pasta. Doesn’t matter if the place has an Italian-sounding name.

8) It’s okay to hate marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs. Get in line with me. We’ll hang out.

9) Always pull over to buy lemonade from kids selling it in front of their houses.

10) When trying an exotic dish for the first time, make sure the people preparing it know it like they know how to inhale and exhale.

11) Own a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Every single standard dish is in there, and it’s plainly written.

12) Eat fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and you’ll find out how they’re really supposed to taste. Watermelon delivered to New Jersey in March is, for example, a disgrace. In August, purchased locally, it’s celestial.

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Organic Sugar Baby.

13) Shop at farmers’ markets. Ask questions. The guy behind the fold-out table most likely grew those sweet grilling peppers himself and loves talking about them.

14) Recognize that your tastes can change. Something you used to hate might taste very differently to you today—or you simply might learn that you hate broccoli when roasted, but love it when steamed.

15) Put your hands in soft bread dough at least once. Making bread is easy. Really really.

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Babka dough…on the rise.

16) Just because a recipe looks difficult to make doesn’t mean it is, or that you won’t enjoy every second of making it.

17) When traveling, eat where the locals eat for the best value and flavor. If you want fancy, ask a local butcher where to eat; he or she will know which restaurants buy the best cuts. If you want simple and hearty, ask a policeman where to eat.

18) Along the same lines, try foods that the place is known for. Taste an artichoke in Rome, heather honey in Scotland, flying fish on Barbados, sharp white cheddar in Vermont.

19) Go strawberry picking. Go anything picking. Wear decent shoes. Flip flops aren’t.

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20) Own a proper set of knives. They should be weighted evenly, with the metal running straight through the handle. I firmly maintain that if you own cooking equipment that you don’t have to fight, you’ll enjoy cooking far more.

21) On the other hand, don’t spend much for ordinary things. An aluminum muffin tin has a design that’s hard to foul up. I bought a few sets for something like $7 at an ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale in 2006. I also bought a hand mixer for five bucks. Both were at least 10 years old when I got them and they’re still chugging along fine.

22) Try different ingredients together, different textures together. If you don’t like it, so what? You can always chuck it if it doesn’t work out. Or you might come up with something wildly groovy.

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This was a weirdo idea I had for a breakfast sandwich: roasted local peaches with my fresh ricotta, basil leaves, and a drizzle of honey. It was too sweet. Next time I’m going to try balsamic vinegar instead of the honey.

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My honeysuckle syrup. One to one with plain vodka over ice was OUT of this world.

23) Eat with your hands. Not at a posh spot with your district manager, but as often as you can. It will taste differently. It’s grounding.

24) Find out what’s growing wild in your backyard, research it, and be clear on it. I’d bet there’s something edible there you can throw into your salad.

25) Eat good-quality chocolate, pure maple syrup (Grade B!), fresh garlic. Spread Irish butter on your English muffin. (Sure, they’ll be fighting in spirit, but in your mouth it’ll be divine.)

26) Try making pumpkin muffins with fresh-baked pumpkin at least once.

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Above: Cinderella pumpkins; below, cheese pumpkins. Highly recommended.

27) When at a Jewish deli, order the hot pastrami sandwich.

28) If you ever come across a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, try it.

29) Ditto for homemade hot chocolate. Ix-nay on the blue packets.

30) Adding a little sprinkle of sea salt to the top of homemade brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped figs, and peanut butter fudge gives them a happy little punch.

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Baby maple cream pie. Sunshine in a brioche tin.

Maple doesn’t get much press. But the real thing deserves it, holding its own against any other flavor, and it’s just as addictive. Mind you, if you’ve been searching the Internet for a decent addiction and you landed here, first, welcome aboard; and second, please note that real maple syrup is not the stuff you find in cabin-shaped or Butterfly McQueen-shaped bottles. Their contents are pretty much tinted corn syrup. The real thing is simply boiled-down sap, the purest essence of a tree.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but Grade B is the only maple syrup worth your time. Grade A doesn’t taste like much of anything, and I’ve heard New Englanders concur: ‘The closer to tar, the better.’ I’m happy to stand by their statement.

I think I was a Druid in another life. It would explain my devotion to this stuff. I’ve had pure organic syrup from Vermont and from Canada, and both are outstanding. Canadians are awfully proud of their proficiency with a maple tree. I remember holding up a bottle of syrup to a shopkeeper in Quebec City and asking, ‘C’est local?’ (‘Is it local?’) and she was completely taken aback. ‘Mais oui!’ (‘As IF we’d eat anyone else’s syrup, eh!’)

Late winter is sugaring-off season in the colder regions of the U.S. That’s when the sap of the maple tree starts to run in order to feed the soon-to-arrive leaves, and when sugaring-offers tap the trees with small spouts, buckets beneath.

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Antique wooden spout, northwest New Jersey.

When the buckets are filled with sap, they’re emptied into huge vats where they’re boiled down to syrup. Grade A is produced earlier in the season, B later. B is typically used in cooking because of its pronounced flavor, but you like pronounced flavor, so give it a whirl on your waffles and tell me what you think.

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Remembered to dock the crusts before putting them in the oven so they don’t bloat up like balloons in the Macy’s parade.

I have never tasted maple cream, the stuff northerners spread on their pancakes, but just typing that sentence is making me kind of insane to do it as soon as possible.

Another favorite of mine is maple sugar candy. It’s usually sold in little boxes and shaped like teeny maple leaves. They dissolve happily in your mouth and you don’t want to talk to anyone while they’re in there, making them inherently an anti-social candy. You can always make new friends. Find ones that like maple sugar candy and then you’ll be golden.

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About to meet its fate.

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Tomorrow’s breakfast: chunky applesauce with Grade B stirred in. One of my readers, Angie, gave me this idea. I always knew I liked her. That white blop on the bottom left is vanilla organic yogurt, but I wouldn’t argue with whipped cream or creme fraiche, either.

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Maple shortbread. Quite the hit with the cast, crew and staff of the Moliere farce I’m working on now. I’ll have to make more in order to stay in their debt.

I wanted to try making Laura Ingalls-style maple taffy this year by pouring hot syrup onto fresh snow, but the latter melted recently. If we get another storm, I’m making it. In the meantime, I have lots to eat.

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Grade B, baby.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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With the Zig Zag (L), at a Red Bank, NJ dance studio.

Some of the weirdest food choices I’ve ever made were made while working a show. Any theatre person can attest to this: there’s something about the combination of a gnawing stomach and having worked your caboose off that steers a person, oddly, toward malnutrition. Counter-intuitive as it is, what’s chosen for a really-late-night dinner is often enough in the orange food group (the fried banana pepper rings with ranch dressing, the fried calamari with Thai chilies) and it’s about as useful for your body as drywall spackle.

Then again, starvation plus long hours occasionally steers a person toward something he or she would never so much as sniff otherwise. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I detested mushrooms up until one day in 1995, when I hadn’t had breakfast. It was 1 in the afternoon, my magic partner and I had been working for hours, and he ordered a Domino’s pizza with mushrooms. I took a bite and pronounced them Not That Bad. The frozen, synthetic crust was a different story, being Domino’s; but again, hunger won out. And now I love mushrooms—any kind at all. If Domino’s ever offers porcini as a topping, I’ll forgive them their crust.*

I worked with this magic troupe for a few years after college, moonlighting as a magician’s assistant. We’d get the gig and start planning immediately. Everything needed to be taken into consideration: the venue, the audience, the amount of set-up time and performance time, backstage space, and on and on. Many of the illusions we used were bought or rented, but a couple, like the Asrah and Sword Basket, were built by a theatre tech who was also a great carpenter. Those needed us for paint, bells and whistles. And for most of the gigs it was just the illusionist (Doug) and me, but occasionally we brought in a stage manager who would help us load in illusions, run sound and lights, help strike (break down the illusions and the set) and load everything out. Many’s the New Year’s Eve I’ve loaded out at midnight wearing sweats and sneakers over fishnets and sequined Lycra, still in stage makeup and fake eyelashes, and with my hair teased out to one of the more affluent Cleveland suburbs.

While magic was some of the best fun I ever had, it was also some of the dumbest food I ever ate. After days and nights spent like the above, we got hungry. REALLY bloody hungry. (And tired. I have memories of going to a restaurant, wordlessly plunking ourselves down into a booth, ordering our dinners, then sitting in silence for the rest of the meal. This is the standard definition of zonked.)

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During a strike.

One of my better memories of dumb food is of going to Ruby Tuesday’s with Doug and ordering a Tallcake. This was taken off the menu a while ago, sadly. Do you remember it? It was an oversize goblet filled with cut-up cake, ice cream, and a few toppings. Doug and I are chocolate people and loved the chocolate cake one that came with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and a crazy pile of whipped cream. It contained absolutely nothing even remotely healthy; I’m sure of it. Everything in that goblet came from a box or a squeeze bottle or a spray can, full of enough chemicals to melt an average-sized four-door Suburu. But (and this is coming from me, Miss Authentic Ingredients) that’s all right. Crap now and again is okay. It is.

We would easily destroy a Tallcake between the two of us after a show or a long day of sewing, painting, or building. Our most shameful hour—or finest, depending on your perspective—was the time we ate an entire Tallcake, then looked wide-eyed at each other across the table, and ordered and ate ANOTHER one.

The strawberry ones were pretty good, too.

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*That’s what it would take. Get on it, boys.

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Hot chocolate is something almost everyone likes. Even those who aren’t fans of chocolate cake or brownies will usually accept a hot chocolate. There’s something so comforting, so nostalgic, about it, the way it conjures up memories of being drawn into the safety of home and kitchen, where any negative stuff that happened during the day floats away in the steam of what’s brewing on the stove. Those of us lucky enough to have had a cup of hot chocolate waiting when we got in from wet January school days or from snowball fights don’t forget.

This perfect little time machine of a drink can come from a blue packet and hot water. If that’s what you remember, and want to remember, knock yourself out. If that’s something you’d rather not remember, and rather want something celestial, here it is.*

This recipe makes one intensely thick, velvety mug of hot chocolate, one you could feasibly drink without a spoon, but having a spoon really helps.

First, take out a good mug—something worthy of what it’s about to contain. Nothing wussy for this. Thick earthenware or ceramic does the trick best. If it has little stenciled snowflakes on it, all the better.

Next, take out a small, heavy saucepan. Set it on the counter and put in a cup of milk**, 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch that you’ve put through a strainer (just to get any lumps out), and a little handful of very good quality chocolate***. I know hand sizes are different. Mine is dinky, and the amount I use, about 1/4 cup, works well for me. But if you have big hands and/or a tendency to speak in tongues after consuming too much chocolate, scale back.

Here’s what it looks like when it’s all in:

Turn on the heat to medium and stir with a whisk to help melt the chocolate and bring everything together. This takes a minute or so. Keep stirring.

Here it is when it’s getting hot and is almost combined:

Next it will boil a little, even though you’re still whisking. That’s okay, but turn the heat down slightly to medium low so it doesn’t get crazy. Burnt milk in a pan is a drag to clean. Once it starts boiling and you’ve turned down the heat, stir for two minutes. It will look like this when it’s done:

Take the pan off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes to regroup. Then use a rubber spatula to pour it into your very appropriate mug. If you have a homemade marshmallow on you, by all means, grace your drink with it. A blob of highly slurpable real whipped cream is nice, too.

Now take your drink and spoon and sit and look out at the snow falling. If it’s not, imagine that it’s snowing. You’re already halfway there.

*That sounded judgmental, I know. But you haven’t tried this yet.

**Faithful reader Dawn is an advocate of organic milk, and so am I. It really does taste creamier, not to mention you won’t be ingesting pesticides, hormones and steroids. Doesn’t matter if you use whole or low fat milk—the higher the fat, the yummier, of course—but I regularly use 1% and love it.

***I used 60% bittersweet chocolate buttons here, but I actually like semisweet better for hot chocolate. It has a really appealing tang that bittersweet doesn’t. Organic chocolate will taste cleaner, if that makes sense. Purer. You can also use good quality white chocolate. Really good, and if you save some to drink cold in the morning, it tastes a little like a milkshake.

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