about bliss

Saturday, December 31, 2005

au revoir, year of the cake

The smell of my now famous Better-Than-you-Know-What Cake fills my home, the sound of my talented friends playing old-time music on a just-released CD fills the air, while outside large wet flakes of snow fill the sky. I’m making the cake for my friend S’s- second annual New year’s Eve Dinner Party. I spent a good portion of the morning buying the necessary ingredients, as my baking larder was spent from previous holiday baking. I searched for silver dragees to adorn this last cake of the year, but alas, none can be found. Instead I may drizzle “2006” in white chocolate, topped with a cinnamon-sanding sugar mixture for high glamour.

This noon, when I was taking my last run of 2005, I was thinking of the past year in terms of what I baked, and indeed, this was the year of the cake, in its many forms, and particularly, sizes. I started the baking year with the very first Mexican Chocolate cake on MLK weekend (a post-holiday celebration with my best college friends). I made chocolate cupcakes for my friends M- and B-, visiting from Chicago, in February--these were a preview of the cupcakes to come at their wedding in May. For that blessed event I baked 175 total, a melange of flavors and frostings; we had a frosting party the day before the wedding, complete with margaritas and glue guns (to construct the cardboard towers to hold the diminutive cakes). I made a chocolate cake for S’s birthday in February, and another for H’s birthday in April (though we celebrated on May day). I baked the chocolate layers here and toted them (and the non-perishable frosting ingredients) via airplane for J’s graduation party in AL, finishing the cake the night before the celebration. There’s the tiramisu I made for my brother L’s birthday in May, the chocolate and meringue frosting cake I created for E’s bridal shower, the chocolate cake I gave to S’s parents, the cake I made for Grandpa C’s Christmas gift, and assuredly many more that I’ve forgotten.

So now that I’ve reflected and reminisced, I’m thinking ahead to ‘06--what will this be the year of, culinary speaking? Cookies? Breads? Puddings? Muffins? Pies? Candies? I’m undecided (not surprising, if you know me well), but I’m leaning toward breads. I already know that I’ll be creating a King Cake from scratch for Mardi Gras, in honor of that great city with its amazing people and traditions, which will survive that which nature has wrought. The cake is more like a bread, a brioche, I believe, which is twisted into a wreath, glazed, sprinkled with the tri-color sugars of green, yellow, and purple, and, best (and rather oddest) of all, stuffed with a little plastic baby Jesus.

For now, I drink in the warm, comforting smell of hot, chocolate cake, and think of all of the cakes I’ve shared with so many family members and friends, near and far, and I feel content, calm, and cared for. Ahh, the magic of chocolate and the wonder of loved ones. Be blissful, each and all y’all:)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

gifts from the kitchen

To loosely quote the romantic comedy classic *When Harry Met Sally,* I’ve desperately wanted to write but have been trapped by something heavy: a combination of end-of-the-semester grading madness, final days at the cafe, and my characteristic end-of-the-semester cold. But, I’ve posted course grades, have been freed from the high-drama dysfunction of the coffee shop, and have shaken the last of my upper respiratory distress. I’m free! I’m baking! I’m thinking of witty and funny additions to my novel! I’m reading novels! I’m running and yoga-ing! I’m staying up late to watch syndicated *Sex and the City*!

I recently hosted a Christmas Tea Party for my family and friends, complete with dainty sandwiches (cucumber, white bean pâte, pimento cheese), tea breads (cranberry walnut, banana, made by Mom and H-, respectively), parmesan puffs (made by K-), cream biscuits with homemade strawberry jam, chocolate peppermint sandwich cookies, and the most amazing mocha slice cookies (from the December Issue of Martha Stewart). I also made Robert Linxe’s (of La Maison du Chocolat fame) truffles as party favors. Yumm! We sipped Moscato d’Asti and Castelton Estate Darjeeling. To quote old sorority reports, “a good time was had by all.” I thank my guests for their delightful presence, entertaining conversation, and overall kindness.

I enjoyed a delightful Christmas with family. I gave a variety of foodie gifts--from kitchen tools and vintage cookbooks to handcrafted mini-chocolate cakes. And, I have many new additions to my kitchen: Reidel “O” tumblers for Pinot Noir, a bottle of Zingerman’s 10 year balsamico condiment (yummm), the *Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating*, and a nifty pump-action pepper grinder with premium pepper corns. I can’t wait to rearrange my kitchen, add the new goodies, and dream up lovely meals and occasions to welcome 2006.

One of my goals for 2006 is to write more regularly all around, including this poor neglected blog. I almost doubt anyone’s reading this anymore! If you haven’t given up, know that I’ll be back with more regular posts in 2006.

Happiest of holidays to all!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

maple, maple everywhere, dripping out of the pan

Last Wednesday I headed out on the snow-skiffed roads to a local Sugar Bush to buy a jug of maple syrup for my Thanksgiving concoctions. The showroom was an unassuming room filled with maple sugaring supplies and a small selection of maple goodies. I chose a large jug, added it to my crowded backseat, and navigated the snowy roads across the state to my parents’ house.

Once I arrived, I set about finishing my baking. I unveiled the cake I baked for Grandma, which was disappointingly leaden. I then turned to my pie, rolling out the pastry I made the night before, and stirring together butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, and pecans for the filling. Several weeks ago mom and I found these nifty pie pans at Williams-Sonoma that had a few holes in the bottom, to help crisp the crust. I assembled my pie into the pan, placed it in the oven, and set about making cinnamon rolls with the leftover pie crust. When I opened the oven to bake the rolls, I noticed a trickle of caramel leaving the pie and splattering on the oven floor. The maple filling! Dripping in a steady stream! From all of the holes in the pie pan! I laughed and cussed and Mom came running to investigate. We lined the oven floor with foil to collect the candied drippings, which began to burn and smoke. I was worried the pie would absorb the smoke, and I was prepared to declare it an avant-garde “hickory smoked pie,” taking a hint from chocolatier Katrina Markoff, whose Vosges Barcelona bar is a masterpiece of melded and unexpected flavors (hickory smoked almonds, grey fleur de sel, enrobed in dark milk chocolate). The pie lost about a third of its mapley goodness, and I joked that it was a low-sugar pie. Luckily, the pie tasted nutty and sweet and scrumptious and not at all smoked.

Now, I’m looking ahead to Christmas baking, which I will keep a veiled mystery since many of my readers will be receiving these goodies. To tease your palates a bit, I can promise chocolate (of course), as well as cranberry and orange, and perhaps some of that Alabama gold: pecans

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

cookie grandma

Mmmmm. My home fills with the mingled scents of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, all baking together in a two-layer spice cake I’m making for Grandma C-s birthday, which just so happens to be on Thanksgiving this year. It will be topped with a maple meringue frosting--woah! Tomorrow morning I’ll stop at the local maple sugar bush to buy the syrup for the aforementioned frosting AND for the maple pecan pie I’m making for Thanksgiving.

Something about the smell of the cake reminds me of my Great-Grandma V-, who my brother dubbed “cookie grandma” when he was a wee lad. I don’t specifically remember her baking anything with these spice flavors, but she must have. She was a great baker, and I have her sugar cookie recipe (which is nice because it uses brown sugar and is a drop cookie rather than a rolled cookie). We would drive to her house every Sunday around 11:30 or so, after church if we had gone, or we would ride our bikes since she lived just down the road. Different cousins would be there every week, but we would always have home baked treats, Koolaid for the kids, and coffee for the adults. She kept a jar of pink things (as wee little L- used to call them), pink peppermints. I can taste them now...

I just removed the cake from the oven and am a bit concerned because the layers seem quite dense, more bread-like than cake-like. Hmmm. The adventures of trying a new recipe...

Today I bundled up and ran 3.5 miles, soaking up the sunshine for the brief time it made a definitive appearance today. Once I start running, the cold doesn’t really bother me, but those first few tenths-of-a-mile are a bit brutal. No one else was out today, which made me feel brazen (or crazy, as the case may be).

Friday, November 18, 2005

running with the flurries

The delectable smell of cookies wafts through my home and I’m happy. I’m listening to my Dad’s “Pure 70s CD,” boogie-ing around to the likes of “Sweet Home Alabama” (my tribute to my former home, and a good luck charm for my Auburn Tigers tomorrow; War Damn Eagle, she says, mustering up her best Southern accent) and “Hooked On a Feeling” (which reminds me of dancing with cute boys at fraternity parties in college).

Tonight I had a simple feast of a baked sweet potato, a “white” one, which I had never seen before. I’ve since discovered in my research that white sweet potatoes are not quite as sweet as their orange-fleshed counterparts. It was quite delectable with butter and salt. I also ate steamed cauliflower with sharp cheddar (2% as my compensation for this evening’s cookie eating), and cranberry sauce/jelly that I made for the first time. I followed the directions on the Ocean Spray bag; basically, the formula is the same for making other fruit jams/jellies, though with a bit more sugar to temper the cranberries’ extreme tartness. The fun aspect of making cranberry jelly is that the berries pop as the heat splits their skins, and they turn such a vibrant crimson color!

It’s hard to believe that last Saturday was a sunny 68 degrees! My friend M- was in town and we ran a bit over 6 miles (a new record for me) at a local park that has woodsy trails. I decided running with someone who completed 2 marathons in a little over 2 weeks is great incentive to not give up when I can keep on running. The day was gorgeous, and I was happy to be back in the woods--it was about the closest to hiking I’ve had since my last trip on the AT with friends J- and M- back in March 2004. I miss the rhythms of the woods.

So while my marathon running friend was here, I was asking his advice on cold weather running. I had asked one of my cafe acquaintances, who suggested hot showers pre-run and warm socks. M- said that layers are good, and he noted that B-, my friend and his equally inspiring marathon running wife found warmer running tights essential. Today I wanted to run and didn’t want the 32 degree temps and even lower wind chill keep me inside, so I headed to our local running/outdoorsy specialty store. This store’s customer service brings me back time and again, as I know I can count on the staff to help me find the right gear. I bought a pair of black Patagonia regulator tights, a soft, fleecy pant that is both lightweight and toasty warm. I try to buy Patagonia when I can, as they still make many of their fleece items in the USA, and their corporate philosophy convinces me that business can be quite profitable and adhere to ethical principles of sustainability for not only the environment but for employees as well--hoorah! I also bought a pair of pink and grey Smart Wool running socks.

I came home and excitedly changed into my new clothes, as well as layered on my Patagonia Capilene tops and Regulator wind-blocking fleece jacket. I laced up my trusty Asics, pulled on my silly Nepalese hat and black fleece gloves, scrolled my iPod to Usher and ran out the door. The clothes worked well, though my booty was cold most of the time (a common problem I had backpacking in the colder months. Is not fat an insulator?!? Hmmm.). I ran 4.5 miles fairly easily, enjoying the quiet stillness and the occasional flurry, though I am now thoroughly exhausted. I think it must be more strenuous to run in the colder weather, as my body has to work harder to keep warm? I treated myself to a short yoga practice to stretch my muscles, followed by a bowl of homemade old-school popcorn with butter and salt and a mug of Valrhona and 1% mile cocoa. Yumm-delish! What fun! I’m going to add outdoor running to my list of strategies to keep SAD away this winter.

Now, I must store away my goodies, packing some up for lucky recipients!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

the snow bunny returns

I’m curled up in my favorite pink Ralph Lauren velour “leisure suit” and a pink fleece blanket, wearing old wool hiking socks and drinking Stash Green and White Fusion Tea. Winter has presented its first blast of flurries, ice, and cold temperatures. I hauled out my white down coat, hand-knit pink accessories, and pink suede Ugg boots from last winter. Suddenly I want to eat endless chocolate and read long novels of realism.

Yesterday I met my Mom and we enjoyed a lovely lunch at our favorite bookstore/cafe. We split the house quiche (spinach, basil, and feta) and a Greek salad, and warmed up with hot Darjeeling tea (my all-time favorite!). We visited a few of our favorite foodie spots, including one that features a variety of imported wines, cheeses, chocolates, and just lots of nifty specialty items. I was excited to find Codice, a Castellian wine I enjoyed when I was visiting my friend S- in Alabama in May. And they have a wide array of liquors and liquers in tiny bottles; I selected a few varieties (Godiva Chocolate and Bailey’s Irish Cream) to slip into my homemade hot chocolate on these chilly winter nights.

When we left the foodie mecca, the snow was swirling everywhere and we had to scrape our cars. We headed to our respective homes, and I made a stop at a Starbucks drive-through for their most perfect beverage: non-fat vanilla latte. I’ve had many a vanilla latte, my favorite comfort coffee beverage, at many a coffee shop and cafe, and the only place I’ve had a better one is at Zingerman’s, where they use real Mexican vanilla and organic milk. But the Starbucks vanilla latte brings me such simple happiness. Yesterday’s beverage was not a disappointment, and as I munched my snack sized Toblerone bar, sipped my latte, and listened to my mellow mix CD, the snowy miles unrolled under my tires.

Tomorrow the holiday baking commences; I’m treating my students to cookies, and I have several other outstanding baking projects to tackle. The warm smells of chocolate, butter, and sugar melding together will combat the gloomy cold outside.

I’ll leave you with my favorite winter poem, Wallace Stevens’ “The Snowman”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

lyrical realism

There’s something there is that loves a Sunday morning, in which she realizes that peace must be found within herself (how was that for a blended allusion to Frost and Stevens in one sentence?). This morning I graded papers whilst listening to Organic X online, one of my all-time favorite radio programs and one of the main ways I discover new singer-songwriters. Since I’m no longer anywhere near the metro OTP ATL area, I listen online. Today I fell for the songs “Pink Moon,” by Nicke Drake, “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt, and “Bones” by Charlotte Martin. I’m in the process of downloading them to iTunes.

While having the pain of empty sentences and quasi-analysis soothed by the likes of Ben Folds and Ray La Montagne, I started thinking about my absolute favorite restaurant in ATL, which is Tamarind, a classy Thai place located off of 13th St. (or is it 10th? I know it’s that exit off of the expressway). Because I first ate Thai food at Tamarind, its significance is sealed in my heart. My friend S- and I first went there several years ago, when I still lived in Alabamy. We had spent the day shopping at Lenox and Phipps (my favorite shopping spots) in Buckhead, and after I secured the perfect red lipstick at Saks (Chanel, Coco Red), we drove through rain-laden streets to the restaurant, which was on the aforementioned road that was quickly flooding. Inside awaited a tranquil oasis, where efficient and personable wait staff whisked linen napkins onto our laps. I enjoyed a Tsing Tao beer, the most scrumptious spring rolls I’ve ever eaten, and Tofu curry. The presentation is lovely--the curry is served in a copper bowls set over warming tea lights and garnished with Thai basil and purple and white blossoms. Yumm.

When I visited the Southland this summer, I made a special trip to Tamarind for lunch, only to discover that I had arrived right at 2 when they stop serving. I was desperate and pleaded my case; when I quickly ordered without a menu, the obliging waiter whisked me to a table and once again the blend of heat and sweetness evoked bliss.

Now I need to find somewhere a bit closer to indulge my desire for Thai curry. I’m meeting my friend H-in AA this week and we’re hoping to find somewhere.

Today I went to see the film *Shopgirl*; I read the novella earlier this week and something in me was so taken with the story. The movie is quite good, and because Steve Martin also wrote the screenplay, it’s an honest rendering of the book. The film is quiet, rather “slow” (which I like about films, contrary to popular belief that never-ending action is the only filmic technique du jour). One of the qualities I most like about both texts is their lyrical realism...on the other hand, the 20something girls sitting behind me were quick to announce to the theater that “this movie sucks” as the credits rolled. I, on the other hand, smiled while dabbing at the salty tears that had trickled down my face with the sleeve of my fleece coat. Someday maybe they’ll too see that, well, this lyrical realism is life.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

paying for foodie fun with indigestion

Thanks to K-for her sweet comment. I drive past Berryhole on my way to work twice a week and remember fondly our old feasts which involved copiously amounts of garlic, improvised tunes accompanied by unknown chords strummed on S's school guitar, and silly stories about our super sexy maintenance men Jeff and Cid along with an errant weasel.

Today I’m recovering from last night’s repast at what is arguably the nicest “foodie” restaurant in the greater “metro” area. I’d been scoping out the online menu for well over a year, long before I moved back here, actually. And so last night S- and I went to ostensibly order appetizers and drinks and check out the social scene. However, upon surveying the daily menu, S-fell for the whitefish special, and I turned my eager eyes to the vegetarian options on the regular menu (even though I had memorized them all months before). I decided that I would order the lighter of the entrees, a sweet potato “taco” with honey, cilantro, and winsintigo (Wisconsin) parmesan and cheddar served on a smoked tomato cream sauce. My rationale was then I could order dessert, without being as full or feeling as guilty as indulging in piles of cheese (like the chesse fondue or the Bolivian Mac and Cheese). Oh, and how could I forget the wine? I started with a taste of the Menage a Trois white (very nice, if a tad too sweet), and then graduated to a La Recougne Bordeux (one of the best wines I’ve had in ages. Lush. French. Yumm.)

So my quite large taco came, plated very architecturally. I ate one half and enjoyed the mix of flavors. I forgot I was eating sweet potato (though I do love them in all preparations). S’s whitefish was similarly displayed with a vertical height and diagonal display, on a bed of mashed potatoes, and a plate sprinkled with roasted carrots and olives. She very much enjoyed her meal.

I then selected creme brulee as my dessert since I haven’t had any in ages, and it sounded SO good. I also ordered a french press pot of coffee. My dessert was wonderful--the creme brulee exhibited the correct balance of supple custard to perfectly brittle crust, that wonderful yin yang that makes the dessert the marvel it is. They must have a helluva torch in their kitchen to make such a perfect crust. The coffee was rich and smooth. I didn’t finish my dessert either, as I could sense I was slipping into the dangerous arena of overfullness...

But indeed, it was too late. By the time I arrived home, my poor tummy was feeling stretched and unhappy. I sat up for hours, watching *Sex and the City* (a very touching episode in which Carrie sees Big again and he’s read her book), scoping out warmer running gear online, and waiting for my indigestion to subside. I finally gave up and fell asleep propped up on pillows, only to awaken an hour later to a kinked neck and upper back.

This morning I was crabby, thinking of how this scrumptious meal, and the last phenomenal one I ate this summer in Chicago (Cafe Spiaggia, where I dined on papparadella with zucchini, mint, and ricotta, multiple glasses of wine, and some chocolatey dessert) made me feel so awful afterwards. I felt/feel much the way I do after imbibing that one extra glass of alcohol on occasion and waking to cotton head and rumbling stomach the next day: it’s simply not worth it. I also realize how healthfully I must eat on a daily basis, how little richness of cream and fat and all those seemingly addictively delicious substances pass through my system, when one indulgent meal can so throw off my balance.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

john cusack takes the cheese

My kitchen has been quiet this week, filled with simple meals of roasted fall veggies and leftover Halloween snack size candy bars. I did make cheese grits the other night, using artisanal grits from Logan Turnpike Mill in Blairsville, GA, that my friend M-sent several months ago. The funny truth: I never ate grits when I actually lived in the South. It was only this summer that I first enjoyed them in all their glory at the Zingerman’s roadhouse in Ann Arbor (I also tasted a most divine pulled pork barbecue, made even more transcendent because I’m a vegetarian and the rich fattiness of meat has escaped me these 8 years). So now I make cheese grits occasionally when I need a warm, soothing dish to smooth out my blues. I like to use a pinch of cayenne pepper and generous amounts of extra sharp Vermont cheddar...which leads me to my first top five list:

Dharmagirl’s Top Five Cheeses
1. Extra Sharp Cheddar: Cabot (Vermont) is tasty, as is Black Diamond (Canada), but the 5 year aged cheddar at Zingerman’s is beyond.
2. Parmigiano-Reggiano: the real stuff, with the name carved into the side. Amazing how a little lasts ages.
3. Triple Cream Brie: yumm. It’s practically butter, with a heady richness.
4. Havarti with Dill: the first “fancy” cheese I ate.
5. This position rotates: right now I’m remembering a imported Italian marscapone I used to make Tiramisu for my brother L-for his birthday in May.

My inspiration for these top five lists is twofold:
1. Rob, the lovable semi-lost Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s “Lad-Lit” ur text *High Fidelity*: Rob is forever making top five lists to organize his life and create meaning.

2. Road trip/Slumber Party activity: My friends and I used to play a game called “would you rather,” in which we would list two possible dates, and one would have to choose one or the other. The fun of this game was picking either two horrid combos or two dreamy combos and forcing a decision to best judge one’s affections. We often used celebs, such as “would you rather date John Cusack or Patrick Dempsey?” So I decided to pick up on the John Cusack thread (he played the aforementioned Rob in the film version of *High Fidelity*--the book is better, as usual), and segue into creating top five lists. A slightly more sophisticated game, S-, H-, and I first played this as we tooled around Prince Edward Island in a Ford Focus Wagon (and, to return to John Cusack, he’s one of S-’s favorite picks:)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

elegy to the farmer's market

Saturday was the last hoorah for my local farmer’s market for this growing season. I bought 18 heads of garlic and bid the garlic man adieu. I bought a pound of Amish butter and bid the Amish man adieu. I bought a bag of baby bok choy and bid the all-organic woman adieu. I bought a little “bear” full of honey and found out I can go buy honey throughout the winter from the honey man, so no adieu necessary. I walked slowly to my car, my hands full with the last of the harvest; I sighed to think of the grocery store offerings awaiting me...

But then I drove to my childhood hometown and went to the farmer’s market there, which has a few more weeks to go, and I added a bag of red peppers, winter squashes, two kinds of potatoes (the ubiquitous russet and my favorite, yukon gold), leeks, and a gi-normous head of cauliflower to the back seat of my car and I didn’t feel quite so sad. Now begins the season of heartier fare and neverending soups, two of my favorite culinary aspects of winter (the other is my self-prescribed dose of how ever much chocolate I deem necessary to keep my serotonin levels in balance on endlessly gray winter days). When I lived in the South, I tended not to eat so seasonally, largely because the seasons were largely indistinguishable beyond hot and not hot.

Speaking of the South, I’m quite excited because pecan season is nearly upon us, and this year I’m stocking up. I ran out of pecans back in March or April, and had to supplicate my Mom and Grandma for a few extra bags. This year I plan on ordering 6 pounds, which should last me a year if I keep to the rate of a half pound/month. We order from a small family farm on the outskirts of the town where I used to live in the South--I would drive to the farm on pecan lined drives, where a Southern man who sounded a lot like my Grandpa would sell me the finest pecans in the Southeast. Now, we order them in massive quantities. I can’t wait to taste the caramelly nuttiness of the fresh pecans...

So there is good in the changing of the seasons. I recently read a quote of Santayana, which suggested how much better it is to deal with the changing seasons than to glory in an endless spring. How true, though in a few months I’ll be disgruntled and suffering from the winter blues and I’ll be wishing that spring would hurry and appear and never end. For now, I’m enjoying the pleasures of autumn--today I turned my face to the warm-ish sun, ran through my childhood neighborhood, walked in a woodsy park, and raked leaves. What a wonder of life in the process of photosynthesis and dormancy. All of life in one fallen leaf...

Friday, October 21, 2005

friday night paramour

A racy, coy title, I realize. Don’t be alarmed (or too terribly titillated, my dears). Yesterday my students read a chapter from Ruth Reichl’s *Garlic and Sapphires* food memoir, in which she admits to an affair with cooking--which is problematic because she was, at that time, a restaurant reviewer at the NYTimes. Looking back on past entries, I realized that Friday nights are seemingly my nights to fully indulge in the pleasures of the kitchen.

This Friday’s paramour project: butternut squash soup. I poured over several recipes, and decided to create something new. Why can I never just follow a recipe? I wanted to emulate M-’s soup I mentioned in a previous post, but I decided to play around with the ravioli by making my own. Ambitious, yes. Once again, I perused several recipes featuring butternut squash and came to the conclusion that ricotta, parm-regg, sage, and toasted hazelnut would make an intriguing filling. Lacking a pasta machine (as well as that level of home-made dedication), I used wonton wrappers and experimented with several ravioli shapes. To make the soup, I roasted the squash in the oven ‘til tender. Meanwhile, I carmelized a sweet onion with a few cloves of garlic. I tossed in the roasted squash wedges, added water and salt, and brought the mixture to a boil. (note: I wanted some vegetable broth concoction, but Kroger only has Knorr veggie cubes and the first ingredient is sodium, the third MSG!!!). I reduced the heat and simmered until the squash fell apart in a glorious mess and the soup created those huge internal bubbles that threaten to explode all over the kitchen. I used my immersion blender and pureed, briefly cooked the ravioli, and then assembled the soup and ravioli in a bowl, with a bit of finely grated parm-regg and a few toasted hazelnut bits as garnish. Some fresh sage would’ve been a nice touch, but alas, I only had rubbed sage. The combination was most delicious.

Now, I have a pan of brownies in the oven to bring to my friends M- and B- tomorrow, who are in Michigan for the Detroit marathon. I had hoped to make an apple galette for them but ran out of time so brownies will be a fair substitute, especially when frosted and ganached with the leftovers from last weekend’s cake adventure. B- is running her first marathon! Yesterday there was an article in the NYTimes about a Nike sponsored women’s half/marathon in CA which includes goodies like massages and facials the day before the race, and Ghiradelli chocolate pick-me-ups mid race. The coup de grace, however, is that at the end of the race each runner receives a little blue box from a tuxedoed hottie. Yes, a little bling from Tiffany’s. I told B- this is a race I could consider:) A half-marathon is reasonable, right? Only 13 odd miles...I’m up to 4.5 now, so I’m a third of the way there...

Today I also settled on what I think is a brilliant Halloween costume for J- and K-’s party next Friday (no cooking paramour for me next week, alas). I am going to don a crisp, perfectly pressed oxford and jeans, a grey/black poncho, an ankle “bracelet,” some pearls, and my best imitation of a Connecticut accent. I will carry a basket full of good things, and attempt to fashion my long hair into a pseudo-bob. Since my family lovingly (mostly) calls me “Martha” anyway (and my brother L- “Emeril”), this seems a natural costume. I had been considering Julia Child, but couldn’t think of what to wear and how on earth I would ever approximate her warbly, trilling voice.

There’s the timer--my brownie creation awaits!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

layers o' choco-bliss

When I was a MA student at my current University, I spent many dreamy afternoons in one of the local coffee shops, reading endless novels, drinking bottomless cafe au laits, and chatting philosophically with friends. Today I decided to return to my old haunt, though it’s not quite the same since it’s in a different building, and is in many ways completely transformed. When I walked through the outdoor seating area, complete with a fireplace, clouds of clove cigarette smoke and the scent of patchouli drifted around me, singalling boho status. The mellow indie rock playing over the sound system was also a contrast to the more mainstream musics played at the Starbucks down the street (not that I don’t enjoy Starbucks coffee and music, though everything there seems commercial and some days I want to escape that ubiquity). I planted myself on a plush sofa and delved into Edith Wharton’s *The Custom of the Coutry,* an amazing novel. I have so many ideas to develop, including a comparison to Theodore Dreiser’s *The Financier,* (that is if the books pair well, which I’ll only know once I actually read the Dreiser tome). Anyway, the coffeeshop ambience, complete with TA’s discussing ethics and philosophy with bookish undergrads, and thin hippie boy baristas was quite a pleasant change of scenery.

So I keep promising to tell the story of the chocolate cake, teasing you with bits of story and then leaving blogland for days, so today I will actually share the history of the cake...

I’d been baking the Moosewood Six-Minute Chocolate Cake for years, with a few slight modifications with frosting. About a year ago I began baking in earnest, and starting thinking that I could really have some fun with this cake since the cake part is SO simple. In January, my friends and I gathered for a belated holiday celebration, and I made what would become THE chocolate cake: two six inch layers with a generous filling of cinnamon buttercream and enrobed in a dark chocolate ganache. My friends and I loved the combination of flavors, and my friend H- declared the cake to be better than sex, to much collective giggling and joking when her husband P- wandered back into the dining room. Since then, the cake has made several other high profile appearances: in cupcake version (with the cinnamon buttercream only) for my friends’ M- and B- wedding, for my friend S-’s parents (a thank you for a trip to NYC), and for my friend J-’s graduation party. Whereas the name Heather bestowed on the cake is funny, I’ve decided to rename it Chocolate Bliss Cake, because it seems to evoke just such an emotion in most who partake in its seductive chocolate layers.

Now, a few secrets about this cake. Although it’s so incredibly simple that anyone could follow the recipe and meet with relative success, I do improvise a bit. I use a few heaping teaspoons full of espresso powder along with the cold water (though I used real espresso last week and WOW, the cake was even more dense and intense...one word of warning: consuming the cake late at night, in large quantities, can make falling asleep difficult. I once unintentionally lengthened a poker game by serving an espresso laden Kahlua chocolate cheesecake to unsuspecting friends. I wish I could claim that was part of my gaming strategy). I use Valrhona cocoa powder (once I made a three layer cake, using a different cocoa for each layer, which was fun...Hershey’s, Ghiradelli, and Valrhona). My favorite vanilla is La Vencedora, which can be ordered from chocosphere.com, an amazing resource for you chocoholics. For the buttercream, I use Vietnamese Cassia as my cinnamon of choice (bold, smooth, with a hint of heat), and instead of milk I use whipping cream. For the ganache, I use Organic Valley heavy whipping cream--so yummy and fatty--along with a high quality dark chocolate, Valrhona 70% if I have it, or else the Lindt 70%, both of which I like because they use real vanilla and not vanillin (an evil artificial vanilla flavored chemical residue from the paper making industry--egads!). And I add a hint of cinnamon to the ganache too.

Now, I’ve been thinking that to make this a true Mexican chocolate cake I also need to add chilis in one form or another...I need to do a bit of research to figure out the best way to do so. I had Mexican (actually, Aztecan) hot chocolate in Chicago this summer at Vosges, this amazing haute chocolate boutique...the blend of rich, smooth, and slightly spicy was simply passionate. I understood all of the legends about Motezuma and his predilection for drinking just such a concoction as a nightcap... And so we’re back to bliss and my story’s come full circle, and though I could write about my choco-passion for hours, I’ll save some choco-talk for other entries.

Friday, October 14, 2005

hip hoppin', joggin', and improvin'

I have high expectations for a day when I don’t have to set my alarm clock. This morning I reveled in a lazy morning, lingering over my coffee--the last of the Zingerman’s special Indian import--and the last of my organic half-and-half. I looked outside for my *New York Times* and once again on a Friday it wasn’t there...ugh. Instead I finished reading yesterday’s paper, and called in a pledge to our local NPR station. I updated my iBook to run the latest version of iTunes so I can finish my mix CD for my class. I kicked off the semester playing music while students are writing and doing group work, and I’ve played Jack Johnson, Billie Holiday, Samuel Barber, and, of course, Dave Matthews. A week or so ago I mentioned making a mix CD and students started listing artists/songs and running to their rooms for their CDs. So now I’m trying to compile this random list by importing some music from CDs I borrowed from Dad, my own collection, and the few songs that I need to purchase. I was saddened to discover that iTunes doesn’t have “Stairway to Heaven.”

So between grading neverending student essays, I finished the bake sale cake. I decided to make cinnamon buttercream to go between the two layers and on top, but skip frosting the sides (I didn’t feel the level of patience needed to flawlessly frost the sides with buttercream). I topped the cake with a single cinnamon stick, placed it in a pink-wrapped box, and slipped a handwritten copy of the recipe in before I covered the box with saran wrap. Despite my moment of laziness re: frosting the sides of the cake, I find I must attend to the aesthetics of food as well as the taste, especially when I'm sharing my creations with others.

When I was at the cafe dropping off the cake I bought a house pour, which is 3 shots of espresso, to make the second cake for myself, as I used up my espresso powder on the first cake. I then went to the health foods store and bought spinach, noodles, ricotta, and mozzarella for the lasagna, and organic whipping cream for the ganache for cake number two. I came home, deposited the groceries in my tiny galley kitchen, and headed out for a run.

I run the same sidewalk everyday, which might sound boring, but isn’t really, because I notice the tiny changes that each day brings. Today, a few more leaves line the sidewalk, and now they’re crinkly and dying, turning brown. When I ran down the hill by the first stop light and between two barns, I smelled Nag Champa incense wafting out of the abandoned barn that’s painted with “Animal Liberation Front” graffiti...what’s going on in there?!? I continued running down the sidewalk, enjoying the warm air and the fact that I had my shorts and tank on with my fleece tied around my waist! In October! As I ran across the bridge I passed two smiling Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I smiled back and giggled because at that very moment Usher’s song “Yeah!” was bumping on my iPod...now for those of you not familiar with Usher, he writes confessional rap/hip-hop songs, often about how he likes to keep company with the ladies, yes, ladies plural. I continued running, and Nelly came on next, singing about how hot it is and how he’s WAY overdressed for the heat;)

I made my lasagna from the bottom up, and, well, it’s disappointing. I didn’t have enough garlic and I used a tad too much sauce...such is the danger with improvisation in the kitchen. I’m hoping it tastes better tomorrow. And my second cake, well, let’s just say it has some issues, in that the centers sunk and the bottoms stuck to the pan when I tipped them out. Ah well. Nothing a little/lot of frosting and ganache can’t repair, and since this one is for me, I’m not quite as worried about the aesthetic factor.

Tomorrow I’ll tell the history and share all the intimate details of my chocolate cake...Now I’m off to rescue my sad layers.

days of wine and chocolate

Ahhhh...some space to breath, to spend time in the kitchen, to catch up on my grading, my writing, my sense of well being. This past week was one of those challenging weeks in which I lose sight of the world outside of my responsibilities and everything seems just on the edge of spinning out of control and shattering into 73 million pieces. When this happens, all I usually need is a day to regain my balance, to remind myself that “nothing is as important as this moment,” a very zen quote, the author of which I cannot remember.

Yesterday I was walking from my office to my car, headed off to teach two long classes in a row, and something about the greyness of the sky and a smell of coming chilliness in the air turned my thoughts to winter. I was composing an elegy to all that is not winter, including my cheery self, when I saw a professor from my department across the parking lot, and without my glasses on he looked exactly like this eccentric female professor at my last job (who was known to crawl into tangled bushes to rescue yet another feral cat), and suddenly I had one of those odd moments where I wondered where exactly I was...

Last night after work I went to World Market to buy Valrhona chocolate bars to make my aforementioned Better-Than-You-Know-What Cake. I spent a considerably amount of time browsing the wine selection--I love their prices and their selection is phenomenal. I was wavering between my summer favorite, La Vieille Ferme Rose, a bargain at $6.99 a bottle (dry, crisp, and simply lovely on a warm summer night). I decided that I needed a nice red to accompany the Lasagna I planned on making this weekend (which is bubbling to completion as I type this missive). I chose a Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti, and I’m quite pleased with the balance of fruit and spice. I was tempted by the Pinot Noirs, of course (no, not because of *Sideways,* though I had a colleague last year who would only drink “Pinot” after seeing the film, and insisted on repeating dialog from the film, bemoaning the fact that there weren’t any Asian women in our department to fill Sandra Oh’s role. I hear he’s now engaged back in Texas, much to our collective surprise). No, my love of Pinot Noir traces back many years, when I was first enchanted with how the name of the wine sounds filling the mouth and rolling off the tongue. And it helps that the wine itself embodies a lovely balance between delicacy and fruit. Some wine experts call it the heartbreak grape because of how sensitive it is to growing conditions.

So. Last night I baked the first of two cakes, and the first was to donate to J-, who I work with at the cafe. She’s involved with a local riding center that does equine therapy, and the center lost its state funding so they’re having a bake sale. The smell of the cake alone immediately soothed my rough edges. I ate the moist bits that clung to the pan after I tipped it out and then stored the cake overnight, to finish frosting today. I went to bed, after staying up to watch *Sex and the City* (since for once I could sleep in again this morning!), to the scent of transformed Valrhona chocolate wafting through the house...Ahhhh.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Parisian Chic, American Geek

Today's one of those introspective days when I wished I didn't have to interact with 80 students. This feeling is magnified by the fact that I have to have "a talk" with each class regarding etiquette and responsibility and so on. But, the good news is that with the chillier weather I can wear my fall clothes, and I love my look today. I'm wearing my full black anthropologie skirt that I bought in Ohio this summer when I was visiting my friends J-. J-, and S-. I've paired it with my favorite button down blouse, a crisp white with tiny black pindots that I bought 2 falls ago at the Ann Taylor Loft in Peachtree City (and which my aforementioned friend J- suggested would be nice with the skirt). I feel Parisian chic, which is heightened by my favorite Coco Red lipstick (nothing better than Chanel) and black heels. One of my students told me I looked so cute, just like the 1950s. All I needed was a vaccuum and some obscure cocktail like a sidecar in hand instead of a piece of chalk and a stack of papers to look the quitessential June Cleaver:)

At lunchtime I headed home straightaway instead of going to the YMCA because I needed to do my 75 minute yoga tape--I felt that Baron Baptiste himself was calling me to unroll my mat and work out the kinks that running has created. Something about the weather, the smell of the Nag Champa incense undulating through the cool air in my guest bedroom/study, and my reflective frame of mind connected me to what I can only call an autumnal sense. I felt moments of past falls swirling through my mind..."memories, through the corner of my mind..."

Tonight I went to see Ken Burns speak. I only had 30 minutes after class before the talk began, so I ate peanut butter (simply Jif) and jam (homemade raspberry chambord) on honey whole wheat bread in the car. Peanut Butter is another one of those comfort foods, evoking childhood when I enjoyed pb and j nearly everyday for so long that I had a decade long peanut butter hiatus. About the time I decided to be a vegetarian (1998) I decided to give peanut butter another chance, and since then it's been a quiet staple in my cupboard. Now, this jam I made tastes like pure raspberry--because it is, with only sugar and a splash of Chambord to amplify the fruity expansiveness. I love to spread it on yeasted waffles on langorous weekend mornings, though I haven't had many of those with my new schedule.

So, on to Ken Burns. He approached the stage and I thought, "He's so cute!" wearing blue jeans, a crisp white shirt, subdued navy patterned tie, and navy jacket. His shoes: a dark brown casual loafer, slightly shiny. He began by spinning a tale of the dawn of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and continued to cover his three biggies: Baseball, the Civil War, and Jazz. Such eloquence, and engaging storytelling...he repeated "listen, listen" throughout his speech, urging us to hear the stories that make us who we are. My favorite line of the night was when he was discussing the modern crisis facing America, and said that he is worried about the kind of fundamentalism that is eroding the separation of church and state "intelligently designed" by our founders. He nicely used the Katrina tragedy to segue into the power of jazz and improvisation to help us rebuild our world. I feel inspired and happy to be American, devoted to making this American life something amazing...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

daily practice and a bowl of soup

My friend M- is running the Chicago marathon today, and I know he’ll run an amazing race. I managed to run 4 contiguous miles yesterday, my personal record. I’m running right around 10 minute miles, which pleases me. A month ago I ran my first 5K and finished in just under 30 minutes, a complete surprise and major accomplishment. I attribute much of my success to carefully crafted iPod playlists...I’m especially fond of a 9 minute long mix of the Killer’s hit song “Mr. Brightside,” with its sweeping strings and soaring melancholy. I remember thinking a few years ago that I would never be one of those “runners,” and now I here I am, feeling my feet itch for that expanse of sidewalk or trail. I recently read an article about finding the fitness outlets that best fit one’s personality, and running and yoga, my other passion, fit my introspective type. I like the space of mind that running creates, not to mention the feeling of connection and harmony from yoga...

I have that same feeling when I’m in the kitchen, carefully yet creatively combining ingredients into something (hopefully) harmonious. Now, some days the exercise and the cooking is much more mundane, a necessity to suffer through so I can rest after a long day of explaining the sheer joy of certain punctuation marks (my top three: the dash, ellipses, and exclamation mark) or to explain that the one word summary of Thoreau’s philosophy is not, indeed, “boring.” But when my daily practices are at their best, I’m at my best.

I’ll sadly miss the farmer’s market today, as I’ll be pulling espresso drinks for caffeine crazed customers at my part-time job. But Mom’s selecting some veggies for me from the farmer’s market in my hometown, and either she or Dad will bring them to me, and I can’t wait to see what transformation they inspire. The weather’s just about right for butternut squash soup, one of my relatively new favorites. I have a delicious recipe from a friend, which includes a swirl of molasses, cheese ravioli, and a butternut bisque. I’m looking forward to making the soup largely for the memories it recalls--a celebratory luncheon with dear friends in the southern town I called home for 6 years. I will call forth their laughter, wit, and kindness in a steaming bowl of soup.

Friday, October 07, 2005

low-riders have no place in the kitchen

Last night, I fixed an inaugural mug of hot chocolate, that post-prandial herald of cooler nights. Since I didn’t have to awake before 6 a.m. for once, I stayed up to watch *Sex and the City* in syndication, only to discover one of my favorite episodes, the one in which Big announces his engagement to the “stick figure with no soul,” and the girls have a *The Way We Were* epiphany. Here’s to all of the k-k-k-Katie girls...

Back to my chocolate elixir. I make hot chocolate the old fashioned way, with milk, sugar, and, obviously, some form of chocolate. Last night I decided to use cocoa powder, largely since my bar chocolate supply is running dangerously low; I’ve been waiting for the weather to cool to restock, since the summer heat wreaked havoc on the chocolate’s temper. My favorite cocoa powder is Valrhona, that mahogany treasure I use for my trademark Better-than-You-Know-What Cake (a story for another entry). I love Valrhona for its depth without much sweetness. I heat the milk (1% organic), sugar, and cocoa on the stovetop on low, allowing the flavors time to meld. For fun, I added a splash of Frangelico to my mug. A slice of honey whole wheat toast with a slathering of Amish butter finished off my treat.

I do love fall, though some days the grey skies are too ominous a harbinger of the endless winter to come. But as I pulled up my down comforter and settled into a deep sleep, I was content. This morning, the absence of the alarm was a blessing, and I lingered in bed deciding what to make for breakfast and when I would fit in my run between grading essays and writing job application letters. This summer I sprang out of bed and ran before breakfast, while the morning retained some coolness, but one of the glories of fall is good temps for running throughout the day. I walked past my running shoes, pulled on my pink velour hoodie, headed toward the kitchen and selected my *Gourmet* cookbook from the shelf.

“Puffed Apple Pancake,” a treat described as perfect for a weekend at a ski lodge, was a decadent breakfast I’d been wanting to try for some time. Usually I eat oatmeal with fruit, nuts, and flaxseed, or a breakfast burrito with vegetables, eggs, and cheese. The apple pancake, noted as “more custardy than cake-like,” seemed to combine the benefits of both of my usual breakfasts with a decidedly dessert-like quality: a splash of vanilla. I followed the simple directions and brewed my morning coffee, Indian single-estate from Zingerman’s.

I pulled the puffed pancake out of the oven, impressed with the souffle-esque height, and set the skillet on the stovetop. As I cut a wedge of the pancake, the hot pan handle met the patch of skin between my low-riding yoga pants and short hoodie. I now have a puffed patch of skin on my stomach, and a conviction to always wear an apron when cooking, especially when I’m tempted to dress like a teen-age rock star:)

But back to the pancake...I’m tempted to write that the taste is heavenly, but I remember my rant against such abstract analogy in class this week. The texture is indeed custardy, and the vanilla flavor reminiscent of creme brulee (the real dessert, for those of you familiar with “The Truth About Creme Brulee,” a certain theory my friend S-lo and I developed, as well as the name of my latest chick-lit novel in progress). With the apples and the eggs, the breakfast seems somewhat healthy (if one can overlook all the foamy butter and two kinds of sugar). I’m ready to pick up my trademark green grading pen and tackle the seemingly endless pile of student food culture narratives. And, once my pancake settles, lace up my running shoes and watch the leaf-strewn sidewalk unfurl beneath my feet.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

dave matthews, foodie

I wasn’t planning on writing multiple entries on my first day in blog-land, but I’ve been inspired by good food and by Dave Matthews. For dinner, I prepared what I call “Farmer’s Market Dinner,” which includes simply prepared veggies from my trip to the local farmer’s market earlier in the day. Today, my treasure was tiny, thin green beans--picked so small because the farmer wanted to get them out of the field before the inevitable cold snap returns us to fall. I cooked these with small, white potatoes (also a farm market find), and dressed them with Amish butter (ditto), sour cream, salt, and pepper (a dish that my Mom makes for our family in the summer, and which I love for its perfect simplicity). I made a salad with a mix of farmer’s market carrots, local organic Macintosh apples, organic red leaf lettuce, walnuts, and gorgonzola crumbles. The coup de grace: homemade croutons (crafted of Paesano bread I dug out of the freezer from my last trip to Zingerman’s--more on them later--Italian herbs, olive oil, and garlic) and the salad dressing (balsamic vinaigrette made with 10 year aged vinegar and fruity-smooth Spanish olive oil).

I flipped to the article on Dave Matthews in the October issue of *Food and Wine,* eager to read about his winery. As my friends would attest, I have a bit of a thing for Dave. Not like some fans I know, who boast of attending 23 DMB concerts and sport tattoos of the DMB’s trademark Firedancer, but in that quiet, yet utterly respectful AND lustful way that translates into loading my iPod with every Dave CD I own (favorite song? I’m partial to “Tripping Billies” and “One Sweet World” for groovy bliss, and “Lover Lay Down” for sultriness). The article has only intensified my admiration for the man behind the sexy tunes. Not only does he have a winery in Virginia (that thankfully eschews new oak barrels--I’ve recently watched *Mondovino* and have many thoughts on wine, but more on that later), but he also is creating an organic farm. His food philosophy is slow (more on the slow food movement later), and he’s using his position of wealth and power to model new-old ways of working the land and relating to our food. A man after my own heart (and stomach).

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” from “Tripping Billies,” a little hedonistic, a little zen.

I turned then to the NYT (New York Times) Dining section, my journalistic highlight of the week, and was happy to see that Nigella Lawson’s back from a summer respite. Her article on baking inspired me to whip up a batch of her pear and ginger muffins, and now the fragrance of the just-baked treats promises a sweet night-cap.

The article and recipe can be found at:

[the mufffins are delicious, a subtle taste of fall and unexpected fruit. they “pear” nicely with Earl Grey tea]

welcome to my table!

Today, an unseasonably warm day, I walk around my college town and think of fall and food and the end of summer pleasures and settling into those autumnal delights...bi-color sweet corn on the cob and ripe, heirloom tomatoes (which I've only just taught myself to love) are replaced by cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and the various hard-shelled winter squashes. It's a bittersweet moment when the leaves give one last burst of color before tumbling to the ground, and when my produce drawer transitions to heartier fare.

I've started this blog to share my musings with far-flung friends, and to rededicate myself to writing by taking advantage of a public forum. I write personal, fictional, and scholarly pieces and now I want to try my hand at creative foodie nonfiction to commit my pursuit of "a delicious life" into narrative form.

My days are shaped by a sense of the narrative potential of life, and also largely determined by food and the pleasures of the table. I feel comfortable and inspired in my cramped kitchen, equipped with standard rental housing quality appliances and my hodge-podge of kitchenware, including a few treasured kitchen tools: a Wüstof Classic Chef's Knife, pink Kitchen Aid stand mixer, two small All-Clad pots, a small collection of crystal stemware. Creating a delicious meal for myself, and, even moreso, for others, brings no small amount of joy to my life. Food sustains us in innumerable ways, and I want to recover the good in all that food culture has to offer. This is where we begin to craft a delicious life.