about bliss

Monday, October 27, 2008

twd: chocolate-chocolate cupcakes

a single scary cupcake...

As I mentioned in my last post, the chocolate-chocolate cupcakes were the finishing touch to the first annual Wine Club gathering at Chez Dharmagirl...I imagined and inspired commingling of chocolate and pinot noir, as both meld heartbreak and bliss...

Friday night I mulled over the decorating possibilities, and reading Dorie's suggestions for filling the cupcakes with marshmallow cream put me in mind of a Martha Stewart cake creation, filled with 'mallowy meringue and a profusion of cute ghosts fashioned out of multi-sized marshmallows...

And so it was that I headed home from the store with a bag of classic jet puffed marshmallows, a bag of mini's, and a jar of cream (otherwise affectionately known as fluff). Buying commercial marshmallows forces me to willfully suspend my disbelief, or at least overlook my objections to these puffy delights on the grounds of vegetarianism (gelatin) and whole-unprocessed-foods-ism (corn syrup, likely of the high fructose variety). I know you can find vegan alternatives, gourmet products, or make your own...but when you have a bevy of tiny ghosts to make and you live in a small town some distance from gourmet foodstuffs, sometimes you have to compromise food values.

I set about making the cupcakes, selected for the indefatigable TWD bakers by Clara of I♥foodforthought. They came together nicely, and I was eager to taste the batter--a delicate yet rich, bright chocolate flavor, more nuanced than my standard 6 minute chocolate cupcakes from the Moosewood Cookbook. I poured my best chocolate into these cakes, using my the last of my Valrhona cocoa powder and bar chocolate. I baked them a tad long, as they were a bit dry, a problem many other bakers experienced. I take full responsibility for not checking them soon enough. I stripped the cupcake papers, filled their centers with the aforementioned fluff, and topped them with the shiny glaze.

As I talked to my college friend E., catching up on months of news, I fashioned 36 diminutive specters, drawing on eyes with leftover glaze. Arranged on stacked cake plates, the ghoulish cupcakes looked more kitschy than scary.

When my friends arrived, they marveled at all the little marshmallow ghosts and likely wondered at my sanity. What I realized an hour into the ghost assembling process is how much I love doing fancy detail work, and how I only seem to spend the extra time for a big event, like Wine Club or the holidays. I'd like to change that, and to allow my full creativity time to flourish. I suspect that the baking creative spirit will invigorate my writing and vice versa, much as it did when I was writing my dissertation those several years ago when I began baking in earnest...

As I look ahead to November and my participation in NaNoWriMo, I need all the inspiration I can find, through Dorie and Martha and, mostly, through all y'all:)

a towering ghoulish mass...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

return to race day

chicago half marathon, october 2006

Yesterday morning I laced up my trusty asics, grabbed my iPod shuffle, and drove to a local park to meet my friends B, K, and J for my return to "competitive" running...

My last race was October 1, 2006, when I ran the Chicago half marathon. Since then, my running has mostly fizzled out. This fall, however, my friend H and I decided we would run together two mornings a week, and soon I felt the peaceful easiness returning to my feet and lungs.

And so when I heard of this local race, I recruited a few of my guy friends who run to join a team with me...

And so on a chilly, colorful autumn morning, we set forth, battling winds, gravel hills, and the stench of a petting zoo (seriously. the trail wound behind the local zoo). I quickly lost sight of my friends and was fairly certain I was the last person in the pack, but I paid no mind...

This is your motivation to train longer, and harder. To make fitness a true priority once again. This is your moment to realize you don't have to be first, and you can even be last. To be in the now, to breathe, to know that all things change constantly.

As I picked my way up the steep gravel hill, I heard my friends cheering me on: "You're almost there! Keep it up!"

I rounded a corner and hit the straight away. The clock came in sight: 29:39. I can actually make it under 30 minutes! I sprinted to the finish line, with a race time of 29:50. Not anywhere near my best time, but so much faster than I thought I would be after such a long hiatus.

And, imagine my surprise to receive a 3rd place medal for my age group (okay, so there were only 4 people in my age group...). And, my team, the Hillside Hipsters, won first place in the team division, thanks to our ringer, J, who ran the race in 18:05. K and B ran in the mid 20s to round out our stunning finish (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that there was only one other team). We're already planning to enter another race in December--the question is whether I should run the 2 mile race or the 5 mile race...

heartbreak grape + brie en croute

brie en croute with homemade raspberry jam

My friends/colleagues spent many idle moments last year discussing our plans for a book club...we mentioned books we would like to read, shared horror stories of other book clubs we've known, and then proceeded to forget to make any plans. This summer my friend H. gave me an Andrea Immer Wine Tasting DVD and I decided that the solution to the book club inertia was to change the shared medium. Hence, Wine Club was born.

Last night was our inaugural session and since I was the host, I selected the wine varietal--Pinot Noir--and provided the snacks. I spent all afternoon making marshmallow ghosts á la Martha Stewart to top Dorie's chocolate cupcakes (you'll have to wait for tomorrow for the entire entry). And then, I created my very first Brie en Croute...

I used David Leite's recipe, which uses frozen puff pastry, and I used a supermarket Brie--the Light Brie from President. In another moment of Martha inspiration, I brandished my mini leaf cookie cutters and decorated the edge of the pastry with autumn's finest leaves. When the puffed, golden pastry encrusted cheese came out of the oven, I topped it with my homemade raspberry jam. Stunning in presentation and utterly simple in execution--party perfection!

My friends arrived, bearing bottles of Pinot Noir and even more cheeses (this is Wisconsin after all). We toasted the evening with a bottle of Larry Mawby's sparkling Wet, and then filled my living room to watch the inimitable Andrea Immer give us a brief history of this finicky, sensitive grape. Although the information was useful and interesting, the bubbles had already gone to our heads and we couldn't take a word she said seriously and spent most of the video taking her words out of context...merriment ensued.

We opened the four bottles of Pinot Noir and tasted them in turn while noshing on the various cheeses, crackers, dips, and olives. Laughter and warmth overflowed, and we managed to keep work talk to a minimum (something that is not always easy when we're together).

At the end of the evening, we enjoyed the cupcakes, and planned our next gathering, to be held at B and M's home between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Viva la Wine Club!

recipe: almond and michigan dried cherry biscotti

At long last, here is my favorite biscotti recipe. My best friend S's cousin J shared it with me after serving these rich, flavorful treats one summer morning. This recipe makes enough biscotti to send to far flung friends...or you can halve it and have enough biscotti to share with your family and/or co-workers. Enjoy!

3 3/4 c. all purpose flour (I use King Arthur, unbleached)
2 1/2 c sugar
4 eggs + 2 egg yolks
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract (I use Penzeys)
2 c. raw almonds, roughly chopped and toasted
3/4 c. softened butter
1/2 c. dried cherries or cranberries (I generally use more so the biscotti are chock full of fruity goodness)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a baking sheet or two. I use parchment paper; you could use a silpat or butter and flour the sheet.

Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the center of the bowl.

Place eggs, yolks, butter, and flavorings into the well; combine into a sticky dough.

Work in the almonds until the dough is smooth; add the cherries. Knead for 5 minutes.

Roll dough into logs 2 1/2 inches wide and 10 inches long. If you like larger biscotti, make the logs wider. I usually flatten the logs a bit before baking.

Bake the logs for 40 minutes; remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Cut the logs diagonally. Place cookies on their sides, and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Cool.

Enjoy with your favorite mug of rich, dark coffee.

Monday, October 20, 2008

twd: pumpkin muffins

an autumn still life

Something about this time of year, when the wind whips the remaining leaves on the hardwoods into a golden frenzy, when temperatures dive close to freezing at night, when I change my summer bedding for primaloft and flannel, when I hold more tightly onto pockets of sunny warmth and vibrant color makes me nostalgic.

Sunday afternoon I drove to S-town to purchase a few sundries from Target and to snap up any deals at TJ Maxx. Listening to Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits as I drove down the highway, I noticed the increasing paucity of leaves and the unmistakable thrust of bare branches. There's no more denying that autumn is upon us, and, in this little corner of the world, about to succumb to winter. My mind started ranging over losses--far flung friends who I talk to sporadically, former friends who are now strangers, and those who have passed on. Suddenly I wanted to be driving to meet my best friend S. at Starbucks in Eastwood Towne Center. I thought of our Sunday evening rituals two falls ago when we would share tears as well as coffee as every week brought worse news about S's father, who was losing a battle with liver cancer. But, alas, S. lives a state and a half away, and that Starbucks was closed in the massive shop closure several months ago. Loss.

I wandered around the stores drinking a tall vanilla latte, my classic 'bucks brew, and stopped at my favorite grocery store to buy the Libby pumpkin and chocolate chips I needed to make this week's TWD creation, pumpkin muffins, courtesy of Kelly of Sounding My Barbaric Gulp. I drove home and returned to the prosaic act of grading student essays (rhetorical analyses, always a horror) to bring my thoughts away from Autumnal Sadness and into English Professor Confoundment and Indignation.

And yet, these autumnal tracings lingered, bouncing around my head in lines of poetry I still remember from Humanities class in high school, some 17+ years ago:

Spring and Fall, to a Young Child
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

And, tonight, as I baked the muffins after a frustrating day at work, Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, a favorite from Dr O's class at A. College:

THAT time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day 5
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 10
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I mixed together the muffins as I talked to a colleague about foodie and English topics. I used white whole wheat flour--incidentally, you can replace it almost without altering the amount, with the only noticeable change being a bit more "crunchy" texture. And, following the suggestions on the TWD site, I used chocolate chips, the bittersweet Ghiradelli ones, as my add in.

The muffins are a delight--I baked them last year, using pumpkin I "rendered" from an adorable little pie pumpkin, and adding dried cranberries and candied ginger for jewel like touches. I like this year's version better--the consistency of the canned pumpkin is more to my liking (a difficult admission for this whole-foods slow-food foodie to make).

And lest you all be concerned about the melancholic turn of this post, and particularly the bittersweet poetry, fear not. Turning to poetry always signals to me a resurgence of creativity, a determination to seek out the best, to attempt new leaps of faith, and to revel in the beauty of the fleeting moment. As I watch the leaves cascade and the geese fly, I prepare myself for that first magical swirl of snowflakes, of floral frost etchings on my windows, of endless mugs of hot chocolate, soft fleece blankets, and a kitchen and pen full of inspiration.

the excess muffin batter in my favorite paper baking "pans"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

twd: lenox almond biscotti

chocolate almond biscotti, intelligentsia coffee, and my favorite black dog cafe mug

When I was working on my Master's degree at Michigan State, I took a fiction writing class for fun. I dreamed up the perfect heroine, named her Aurora (hoping to conjure up allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetic bildüngsroman Aurora Leigh), and placed her into fun situations, like playing saucy scrabble matches and munching homemade biscotti with the inscrutable, Kerouac-esque hero Sam.

A few months later, I moved to Auburn, Alabama to work on my Doctorate. Fiction writing courses weren't in my immediate schedule, and so I was thrilled to find a group of women who met every few weeks to workshop creative writing. With great nervousness and trepidation, I printed out eight copies of the Aurora stories and distributed them to the group. They liked the saucy scrabble game, and thought Sam was a suitable hero. But Aurora? She wasn't real. She made her own biscotti, and, really, who did that?

I do! I protested, revealing that the line between fact and fiction was slim at best.

I still make my own biscotti (and still write my heroines as bakers)...Double Chocolate Walnut; Dried Cherry and Almond; Lemon Poppyseed.

This week, TWD baked the Lenox Almond Biscotti, thanks to Gretchen of Canela & Comino. I decided that my playing around would take the form of chocolate chunks and slivers mixed in with the sliced almonds and almond extract. I used white whole wheat flour, without a noticeable difference. The biscotti spread out so much in the pan I was worried they would be too flat, but they turned out alright. After the second baking, the biscotti were still a little soft, so I decided to crisp them up again. This recipe includes cornmeal, which heightens the crunch and textural dimension of the cookies, and also, somehow, makes them seem a little more rustic. I like it, but I still prefer my Dried Cherry and Almond biscotti for overall flavor and texture.

Biscotti are easy to make, and a perfect treat because they last so long out on the counter (unless, of course, you have many hungry eaters roaming your kitchen). They're a moment of joy to accompany that afternoon cup of coffee, and maybe, they'll give you flights of fictional fantasy and help you connect to your inner Aurora--that slightly cooler, more endearing, and quirkily charming version of yourself who is ready to march through the pages of a novel, offering biscotti and poetry to all she meets.

Monday, October 13, 2008

baking, chefing, and chick lit

So I'm currently working on a project looking at baking and/or chefing heroines in Chick Lit novels. Do any of you dear readers have any book suggestions for me? Thanks in advance for any titles you can give me ♥

lasagna and autumnal musings

Fall continues to assert itself, with a profusion of colors, wildly fluctuating temperatures, and a certain distinctive quality to the air. As I step through crinkly leaves, I think of the song "This Time of Year" by Better than Ezra, evoking languorous Friday afternoons and football games. And when I think of football, I think of the Auburn Tigers: war damn eagle. Six years of graduate school, often tortuous, lonely, and hot, are now fading into blissful, social, and temperate as reality melts into memory...

Now that I live back in the upper Midwest, fall comes on a little stronger, a feisty coquette. And, though it's blasphemy, I don't follow Big Ten teams OR the Packers.

Instead, I measure seasons in my kitchen. Simple sautes and salads with fresh nearly raw ingredients give way to slow cooked soups and hearty pasta dishes. And so, tonight, inspired by fresh ricotta from Il Ritrovo and fresh mozzarella from Nala's Fromagerie, as well as abundant spinach and red bell peppers, I make lasagna. I bake enough to tuck away in the freezer for the even colder nights to come.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

butternut squash soup + bittman's biscuits

Today was a gorgeous autumn day--warm-ish temperatures, lilting breeze, multi-colored leaves lining the sidewalk, and nearly imperceptible waves washing up on the shore. After a long walk, during which I listened to a podcast of The Splendid Table and counted political signs (18 to 3), I set about transforming a ginormous butternut squash into soup. The first winter squash of the season...

I sauteed onion and garlic in olive oil and then added cubed raw squash, salt, pepper, fresh sage, and water to cover. Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble dissolved along with the squash as it veritably melted in the pot. I made a salad with roasted chick peas, shaved carrots, and red bibb lettuce, topped with Wisconsin Parm and balsamic vinaigrette. And, I mixed up a batch of Mark Bittman's yogurt biscuits.

Before dipping into the soup, I drizzled it with honey, walnut oil, and a few chopped walnuts. Quick, simple, and tasty. A crisp, minerally sauvignon blanc would've been a most lovely accompaniment, but, alas, I only have a bottle of L. Mawby Wet, which begs for company...won't you join me?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

locavore potluck + fighting the return to the produce aisle

Tonight was the final event of my campus' Locavore Challenge, two weeks of mindful local eating. I was impressed with the student turn out tonight, and the quiet joy of sharing our favorite foods with one another. By the end of the night, one student and one faculty member were named winners--they'll receive a Green Label Organics t-shirt of their choice. And, still later, we shared stories of childhood foraging and berry picking whilst swapping recipes.

I brought a simple apple crisp, as well as two tiny apple galettes and one jar of my homemade strawberry jam to give to the contest judges in thanks for their service.

I think the Locavore Challenge and programming was successful--on our campus reaching just a small handful of people is, unfortunately, a mark of impressive engagement. I had several thoughtful conversations with students about food issues, and connected with several of my colleagues on a more personal level through the process of planning and attending these events. And yet, I'm glad it's done. I need to think of a new Green Program, but for now, I'm taking a break.

And yet, I feel a deeper melancholy these days as farm stands close for the season and the first tentative fingers of frost creep over the gardens in the deep hours of night. My cucumber plants are finished, though the grape tomato plant is still laden with tiny green fruits. My geranium is gone--removed by my landord's son when he came to "winterize" the yard and porch. I missed last week's farmers' market and am scared at what little I'll find this Saturday. I'm not ready to transition to California veggies just yet. I need a few weeks of local late fall veggies first--broccoli, cauliflower, roasted root vegetables, and, my favorite, homemade butternut squash ravioli in brown butter and sage sauce...

Monday, October 06, 2008

twd: caramel peanut topped brownie cake

someday I will own a digital camera and take better foodie photos...

Coffee hour is an old-fashioned, even quaint concept--a tradition of building connections, of taking time out of a busy day to slow down over mugs of steaming java, whilst noshing a little something sweet. My friend B. started the school year with a big box of Starbucks coffee he brought in, and last week we decided it was time to bring in more outside coffee (industrial strength as opposed to the novice level served in our cafeteria). We also decided to make Coffee Hour a true event, complete with treats and a formal invitation. We invited all the instructional staff on our hallway and a few colleagues from other buildings who come to our hall to socialize. Though our campus is tiny, people tend to tread well-worn paths to the office, the cafeteria, and the classrooms. Our hall, located next to the gym and past the large lecture hall, doesn't see much incidental traffic. We wanted to reward those who made the trek on purpose.

I decided to bake this week's TWD selection, the caramel peanut topped brownie cake selected by Tammy of Wee Treats by Tammy, early, and so Wednesday night I was scrounging around my chocolate drawer to see what I could find. An 85% Lindt bar would have to do. Unsalted peanuts would work. I had cream left over from the creme brûlée last week. I also found a 6 inch springform pan I had forgotten about, so I greased, floured, and papered it and a wee 4 inch pan for the excess.

Since the cake is true to its name and a brownie style cake that doesn't see a mixer, the batter came together quickly, and in no time the scent of warm chocolate, that most comforting of fragrances, wafted through the house. Once again, I was grading papers, and checking the cake intermittently. The springform cake burned just around the edges--I belatedly remembered the rule about lowering the temperature 25 degrees for dark baking pans. Once the cake cooled, I used my new tomato knife (thanks, Grandma!) to trim off the burned edges, ridges, and even bottom. I hoped that with enough caramel topping, the cake would seem moist and perfect. I also suspected that hoping for the caramel alone to transform what I knew to be a slightly dry cake was akin to putting lipstick on a pig...

I left the student papers behind and set about making the aforementioned caramel. I love making caramel, though I'm always scared that I'll miss the crucial moment and burn the sugar into a disastrous mess. Caramel making, along with any kind of candy creation (besides the too-easy -to-be-believed ganache truffles) is a lesson in patience, in faith, and in observation. I could have cooked mine a tad longer, but I erred on the side of caution. The caramel took a good deal longer than Dorie suggested to turn a golden brown, but eventually it did, and I added the cream and butter to glorious effervescence. I ran my finger around the edge of the spatula and tasted one cooling dollop--like the buttery softness of my favorite cashmere sweater on the first nippy day of fall. I poured the peanuts in the caramel, gave it a swirl, and then spooned the nut studded topping on the brownie cake.

The next morning, my colleagues and I set up the coffee boxes in B's office, and the table full of sweets--naturally--in my office. We pulled chairs into the hallway, and tucked in for enough coffee and treats to arrive at our first morning classes with the java-sugar-jitters. Our conversation ranged near--the local geology of our campus and region--and far--relationship dynamics and who does the baking. Since then, everyone wants to know when our next Coffee Hour will be.

Incidentally, I toted the tiny 4 inch cake to Chicago to share with my best friends--we met for a weekend of shopping, eating, and sitting in coffee shops. After hitting Pops for Champagne, a truly sparkling bar, we headed back to the apartment where we were staying. We ate the cake with plastic forks as we watched the opening sketch on Saturday Night Live, then fell asleep, with sweet dreams for all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

happy birthday, bliss!

Hooray--today is the two year anniversary of my first tentative post.

I'll share (again) this beautiful cake, Dorie's Perfect Party Cake, page 250 of BFMHTY, with y'all in honor of this special day.