about bliss

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:)