about bliss

Thursday, April 30, 2009

daily bliss: "thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird"

drawing of the common blackbird, from the 1905 book *natural history of the birds of central europe,* courtesy of wikipedia

My favorite stanza of my second favorite Wallace Stevens poem:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

to read the other 12 ways of looking at a blackbird, courtesy of Stevens, American poet extraordinaire, click here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

daily bliss: lunchtime talks

Today I shared the presentation from New Orleans with my colleagues, friends, and students during our free lunch hour. As I walked upstairs to the library, I fretted: what if no one comes? What if my talk sounds dumb? What if people wonder why I'm paid to write papers about books and present them to other scholars? I mean, how do you justify humanities research that isn't transparently practical?

I can always think of things to worry about.

But I had my pink patent leather pumps on, and so I continued walking towards the library at the end of the hall.

The librarians made coffee and hot water for tea, and set out a platter of cookies.

Students--including some not in my class (who were cajoled with the promise of extra credit and therefore may have ulterior motives) lined the couches. My circle of faculty and staff friends pulled up chairs. More faculty and students came.

Now I was really nervous. I tried to make a few jokes. I warned them that Jenny Crusie's novels are racy. I passed said books around the room. I talked about vampires being hot (note: my presentation had nothing to do with vampires, though my trip to NOLA did).

And I started in with my paper, which was very well received. People asked questions, others followed up on the questions. Staff members who couldn't come stopped by to see how the talk went.

After feeling "meh" about my work last week, I felt heartened today. People are interested in ideas, in humanities research.

With all the talk in the newspapers about the demise of the University as we know it, and the humanities in particular, I question my relevance beyond the writing classroom. What good is literature? Is it necessary? Does it save lives? I would say yes. What role does the literary scholar have in society? How can this seemingly esoteric act be meaningful? Does my emphasis on popular culture texts (popular romance fiction) and the stuff of daily life (food, fashion, relationships) help understand this society that we live in and create?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

twd: chocolate cream tart

It's Monday night (although I'm not posting until Tuesday--don't worry--I'm following the posting rules!). I'm watching Jon Stewart (viva la France!) and Stephen Colbert (the Decemberists!). I've just eaten the penultimate wedge of chocolate cream tart. I'm happy, happy, happy.

Confession time: I licked the plate clean of shortbread crust crumbs. And then ate a spoonful of the chocolate custard with a dollop of whipped cream. All in the dark of my kitchen. I nearly swooned.

I did this all in the name of science. I'm nothing if not interdisciplinary. I may not do math here, and I may fuss a lot with words, but I'm down with the scientific method:)

And the results: this tart, and its individual components, are absolutely phenomenal.

Readers, I licked my plate. I may live alone, but I have certain standards of civilized behavior here, and licking the plate, well, it's just not usually done here.

The tart is that good.


I made the tart Saturday afternoon when rain poured and Mom and Grandma sat in the chairs at my kitchen island, watching me bake, and reconciling themselves to the fact that apparently when it comes to baking, I really don't like help. Adoring fans? Yes. Pleased eaters? Yes. Dish washers? Sure (though my dishwasher made speedy work of cleaning the baking bowls and pans). I thoroughly understand and appreciate that this trait is less than desirable. I'm working on it.


I followed Dorie's recipe fairly closely, with two exceptions: I substituted 1% milk for the whole milk in the custard with nary a problem; I made the whipped topping with vanilla bean and a spoonful of Greek yogurt folded in for a rather creme fraiche-y tang. I also served it in small dollops atop the tart rather than frosting the whole pastry.


This tart is made for sharing--Grandma and Mom loved it, and I sent home wedges for Grandpa and Dad. Today I brought a slice to my colleague A, who was particularly kind to me when I had an especially bad day last week. The rest I'm eating myself.


Thank you, Kim of Scrumptious Photography (check out her gorgeous pics!), for choosing this recipe, which is now one of my favorite Dorie creations of all time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

impromptu ravioli

Yesterday's cool, drizzly, foggy weather put me in mind of soups and heartier fare, and I decided it was time to finally use the last butternut squash sitting on my kitchen counter. I dug through the mysterious packets in my tiny freezer space and found a disk of pasta dough, and set about making my favorite ravioli. However, upon slicing into the squash, I realized it was tinged with mold around the stem area, and the neck was spongy. My mind, however, was already on ravioli, so I considered the ingredients at hand and decided to experiment.

Here's my ravioli filling:
caramelized Vidalia onions (the first of the season!)
roasted garlic
sauteed Swiss chard
pan-toasted walnuts
dried cherries
Wisconsin Parmesan
salt and pepper
a white wine deglaze

And the finished ravioli:
served over wilted spinach, with walnuts, parm, and walnut oil

They were delicious, but missing a little something--I'm not sure what. I do, however, love the combination of flavors in the filling and will definitely experiment again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

daily bliss: spontaneous visits

This past week was long and lonely, and I needed to be reminded of my roots. Mom emailed me Friday morning to propose a quick visit. I called Grandma and invited her to come along, and within 3 hours, Mom and Grandma hit the road. They arrived at my home at 6:00pm on Friday night, and we settled in for a short, lovely visit, much of which revolved around food: deciding on meals, cooking meals, discussing meals, cleaning up after meals.... We also challenged one another to yoga stretches (I know, yoga is not supposed to be competitive), trying to meet or beat the women we saw in magazines. We watched Funny Girl on TV and stayed up a little too late.

They left this morning amidst raindrops but before the fog descended.

My home is quiet once again, but I don't feel nearly as alone as I did a few days ago.

Thanks, ladies, for a heart-felt visit!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

daily bliss: muffin day

Every class has a distinct personality and a specific energy level that coalesces throughout the semester. My current composition II class has a kind of personality that can only be described as chaotic. Every session demands careful management of this chaos--allowing it to flourish into paths of creativity without devolving into utter randomness. Somewhere along the line a few months ago, muffins became the default rallying cry when I cajoled students to talk, to dig deeper, to move beyond their comfort zones. And so we declared today, incidentally (and totally unrelatedly) Shakespeare's birthday, muffin day.

And so, last night, while I was overcoming the mid-week and end-of-the-semester blues, I baked two batches of oatmeal cranberry muffins. Topped with cinnamon sugar, these muffins are deceptively luxurious, when really they're quite healthy.

Oat Muffins
originally appeared in the Holland Sentinel
with adaptations by moi

1 c rolled oats
1 c buttermilk
1 egg
1/3 c brown sugar
1/3 c canola oil
1/3 c dried cranberries
zest of 1 orange
1/3 c whole wheat flour
2/3 c white flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
cinnamon sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix oats and buttermilk--let stand for 10 minutes. Add egg, brown sugar, oil, cranberries, and orange zest: mix. In another bowl, stir together the dry ingredients, and then add to the wet ingredients. Mix until just combined. Place in prepared muffin pan--the recipe makes 12 muffins. Top each muffin with cinnamon sugar. Bake 15-20 minutes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

daily bliss: stirring up silliness and de-bunking stereotypes

So yesterday, after receiving some rather sexist comments whilst wearing skirts, my friend B and I had the brilliant idea that we needed a little experiment on campus. We want to know if the comments are only directed at women wearing skirts or if they also apply to men wearing skirts. Not that any men on campus wear skirts...yet. To this end, we've convinced a cadre of our male friends/colleagues to wear skirts on the last day of class. All in the name of science. And feminism.

There are times when I not only love my friends/colleagues, but also really love my job. Where else can men wearing skirts be such a teachable moment, I ask.

soup au pistou

According to one Thomas Stearns Eliot, "April is the cruelest month." I believe way back in February I declared him wrong. February is, indeed, the bleakest month of the too-long winter.

Now, April is not so much cruel as it is a major tease. Flirting with sunshine and ascending temperatures, only to smack us down with cold rain turning to snow. ON APRIL 21.

And so, it seemed time to cook another pot of soup to dispel the returning cold. But the old soups of winter--the chili, the heavy vegetable soups, the thick and creamy bean soups--already seem a thing of the past. Flipping through the latest issue of Gourmet, I was intrigued by the soup au pistou, a recipe I've seen before, in various incarnations. This was it, my soup for the big April tease.

I drove to Festival Foods in hopes of finding some greens, which are a key component of this soup, and which are shamefully not available at Copps where I usually shop. I had been scared away from this newest grocery store way back in October, when my Mom, who was visiting for the weekend, and I went to check out the new store. This is what we do for fun in small-town Midwesternland. The store was packed with gawkers, and it was nearly impossible to assess the offerings through the throngs of people, all clad in green and gold, because it was also a big Packer game weekend. It was all a little too much. I was scared and scarred, and it took me six months to return.

Score! Festival stocks swiss chard! I came home and made the soup, with a few variations and additions, and am enjoying it as the temperature begins to creep upwards again. It's rather like a spring minestrone, except the French make their spring vegetable soup shine with a variation of pesto that you swirl into the hot soup, creating a luxurious, silky fragrance.

twd: bread pudding

Would you believe that I've never baked nor eaten bread pudding before? My friend S has waxed poetic about this dish, and I often wondered, as I did about rice pudding, what the big deal was.

The big deal, historically, is about being resourceful. And frugal. Stale bits of bread could be salvaged with liquid, and turned into a sweet treat with a little extra love and care. Think about how magical bread pudding would be when the pantries were nearly empty. When layer cakes and goodie-studded cookies were a rare occurrence. (There are some interesting stories and quotes about all manners of pudding on this website).

And so, instead of throwing up my hands in frustration at my town, in which eggy, buttery breads like Challah and Brioche are non-existent outside of home kitchens, I was resourceful. I remembered the slightly stale loaf of Zingerman's farm bread stuck in my freezer. While it's not a delicate, rich bread--it's tangy and earthy--it fits the original spirit of this dessert. Combined with some delicious chocolate--a little Ghiradelli 100% and Scharffen Berger 62%--from my chocolate drawer, and a handful of Michigan dried cherries, this could be good. Lacking cream and only having skim milk on hand, I worried that the custard would be too thin, but I was being frugal. And resourceful. The custard *was* thin before baking, but it thickened nicely in the oven.

Thank you, Lauren, of Upper East Side Chronicle, for choosing this recipe that I likely never would've made otherwise. I thoroughly enjoyed putting my resourcefulness to the test, and realizing that dessert can be a simple matter of transforming old scraps into something delicious.

Please check out my TWD blogging friends for more tales of bread pudding.

Monday, April 20, 2009

twd: rainy days and mondays

Please let this be the last cold snap of the winter/spring bridge season...

Please let this rain not turn to snow overnight...

Please protect the newly bloomed bulbs--mini daffodils and crocuses--from the cold...

Please use this rain to nourish the dry land, and to move beyond this, the cruelest of months.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

daily bliss: routines

When I started daily bliss back in January, I envisioned it being a daily practice, a moment of writing, and a fun discipline. The daily bit worked well until life started to unravel with trips and illnesses and overall burnout. I've been thinking lately about the benefits of routine and spontaneity. I seem to want to carve my days into rituals--the 6 sun salutations upon rising, followed by the ubiquitous oatmeal breakfast, followed by 15 minutes of journaling, then the checking of email and facebook and blogs...and that's just the first hour of my day. Is it surprisingly, then, that I have been shifting between routines and spontaneity? I'm trying, as always, to find that ideal balance that creates calm and bliss.

And so, if daily bliss isn't literally daily in practice, it's part of the theory.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

daily bliss: long chats with old friends

Tonight my friend E called and we chatted for an hour and a half. We have a marathon talk session every other month, and catch up on the big news and the quotidian details that keep us connected. We're already planning summer visits, and dreaming of warmer days when our group of friends can travel out to Iowa to see E and S's home for the first time.

Last night, my colleague and friend J and I talked at length about how to survive life on the tenure track, and how to pace a career. J is wise and optimistic, and I value her candor and her compassion:)

Last week in New Orleans, S and I had a wonderful long talk in Starbucks, skipping out on a conference panel as our conversation wended to cover the different terrain of our lives--the new mother and the single woman. And, over a delightful dinner at Bacco, K and I talked about creativity and tranquility and how to make our lives more in line with our ideals.

The list of friends I need to call or sit down with is long, as it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain those stronger connections over space and time, but I will slowly work my way through the list and gather my friends close, if only for an hour or two on the phone.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

daily bliss: roller skating

Tonight I drank a late cafe au lait and headed out to the local roller rink for a student activity night. Amidst disco lights, fog machines, and a huge video screen, students and faculty skated around the wooden floors to music, most of which I didn't recognize as I don't listen to much contemporary pop music anymore, opting for indie instead...

As I sailed around the rink, I remembered the otherwise nerdy, shy bookworm with a navy blue skate case decorated with white stars, protecting a pair of gleaming white skates with pink wheels and three sets of pink and white pom poms. This girl never felt quite so cool as she did at the roller rink, even if she was never once asked to skate on couples only. Then, she'd buy a frozen coke and talk with her friends, and wait for the next all skate to be called, and dream that the cutest boy in class just might ask her to skate later.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

daily bliss: jazz singers

It's one of those nights, my friends. At the close of a looooong day at work--11:30am-9:00pm, during which I more than once wanted to say "wtf" to students (bad, bad professor!)--I looked into the inky darkness and despaired at going home to an empty, slightly messy, and mostly dark home. My chipper persona dissolved into mascara rivulets. I trudged up the stairs, checked my messages--a cheery hello from my friend S, who I haven't talked to in a week--popped in a Joni Mitchell jazz standards CD, took a hot shower, made hot chocolate and a whole wheat English muffin, and blogged. Things are looking better, and the house doesn't seem quite so quiet, though it still seems less than tidy.

twd: chocolate amaretti torte

I can't seem to write a fabulous narrative this week, much in keeping with my haphazard preparation of the cake in order to meet the deadline. Sigh. I'm sure this cake is lovely, transcendent, even, in its simplicity and speed. My version is so-so, because of hasty construction and random improvisation: no amaretti to be found in this little outpost, and no time to travel far and wide to gather the goods as I was out of town for nearly a week. What's a dharmagirl to do? I used Mi-Del ginger snaps in place of the amaretti, and realized for a second time (the chocolate ginger bread being the first), that chocolate and ginger isn't my favorite flavor combination. Now chocolate and almond, that's a winning pairing. And so another day, another week, I will craft this cake with Dorie's favorite amaretti and swoon. And, I shall glaze it and adorn it with cream, not leave it naked like I have here.

Thanks to Holly of Phe/MOM/enon for choosing this darling recipe. This has been a crazy few weeks and I'm trying to finding balance...I'm afraid that will really happen only after this semester is finished.

Monday, April 13, 2009

daily bliss: kitchen witch cookbooks

This little gem of a store, Kitchen Witch Cookbooks, is located in the heart of the French Quarter. Of course, I was drawn in by the name alone, but doubly curious at the "Welcome Pop Culture Conference" sign hanging on the door. I had a lovely chat with Philipe, who gave me a NY Times article about a new foodie romance memoir, and a free book! I also bought another foodie themed novel, as well as a jar of creole seasoning. I could have spent hours perusing all of the culinary curiosities in the story and chatting with the proprietor, but, alas, there was only so much time in each day and only so much room in my suitcase. On your next trip to New Orleans, make sure to add this place to your list.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

daily bliss: beignet

The other half of the Cafe du Monde equation...beignet. Puffy fried dough obliterated with powdered sugar that has a habit of sticking to fingers and clothes (prompting my friends and I to "verb" this action beigneted, as in "I got beigneted."). Served burn-your-fingertips-and tongue hot, the treats' crispy outsides give way to a soft inside with a lingering vanilla note.

As I told my friend K yesterday, on my THIRD trip to CdM, I ate more fried foods in New Orleans than in the entire previous year, and most of those foods were these delectable wonders. K and I went yesterday afternoon after my presentation; K, S, and I went on Wednesday to welcome ourselves to the city, and I went with the whole group of Romance Fiction scholars on Thursday to talk about romance novels!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

daily bliss: cafe au lait

So very much daily bliss to report, but little time between panel sessions and spotty internet access will require me to save all the tidbits until I'm back in the frozen tundra after a balmy sojourn in New Orleans.

Here, you see a cup of cafe au lait from cafe du monde, the classic French Quarter coffee stand where powdered sugar and pigeons fly and the coffee is strong and thickish, laced with chicory. Mmmmm. A great place for old friends to sit and plan an exciting book project...a great place for a group of romance scholars to sit and discuss the sweet and steamy novels they read and write.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

twd: banana cream pie

Eating the last piece of pie on Sunday afternoon whilst writing my conference paper. My TWD blog is late because yesterday I traveled to New Orleans to present said paper and couldn't access the internet:(

"That was some love cream pie."
"It was awesome."
"What are those spices?"
"That crust looks amazing!"

So cooed and cajoled the wine club, as I debuted Dorie's banana cream pie last Saturday night. My friend B's husband S explained the mystique of Dorie's recipes, hyping the pie to the pinot grigio soaked crowd.

In short, the pie was a hit.

And this was despite a lumpy, sticky, thick custard. While I can toss together a pie crust in five minutes, ribbon butter and sugar without alarm, and whip egg whites to towering heights, custard remains my bete noir, that little devil that inspires fear and loathing.

It started so well--the smooth yolks and sugar tempered ever so carefully with hot milk. And then, half a minute into the cooking, the custard instantly hardened. I stirred and whisked frantically, to little avail. I moved the pan off the heat. I worried that the eggs weren't fully cooked and moved it back on the heat. I tasted the lumps, which were luckily not scrambled eggy bits, but just globs of goo.

After a nice rest in the refrigerator I stirred once again, as Dorie suggests. Now it was even lumpier. I splashed in milk. The custard appeared like pebbled concrete.

I sliced the bananas, splashed them with bourbon and layered the custard and fruit in the slightly shrunken but crispy crust. I swirled on the topping, a delicious whipped cream concoction I altered with florida's natural raw sgar and greek yogurt. It beautifully covered the lumps, and no one was any the wiser.

Thanks to Amy of Sing for Your Supper for choosing this recipe. And thanks to my friends for enjoying the pie.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

daily bliss: in the writing groove

At the start of every semester of my first year writing classes, I share my writing process with my students. I begin by discussing the writing seduction--that is, how to create a mood in which writing will flourish. Then, I talk about the myriad steps and missteps I take en route to a finished work.

Today I tried to apply my own lessons, as I attempted to write a presentation that I will give next Saturday in New Orleans. I brewed coffee. I lit incense. I played mellow CD's: Ray LaMontagne, The Decemberists, Sarah McLachlan, and, because the characters in the novel I'm writing about listen to them, the Dixie Chicks. And, I shut out all thoughts of the 16 rough drafts needing my responses, and the 130 pages of The Bluest Eye needing reading, all before class tomorrow.

I took a look at the novel again, dug up a few more sources, and then plotted out my main points. Since this is a conference presentation and not a published article (yet), it can be light on secondary sources and heavy on personal interpretation. Eight hours later, I have 12 decent pages.

Here's my Intro. If I've done my work, I'll have hooked you and you'll be begging for more:)

We might say that romance novels are a lot like wedding cakes--sturdy of foundation, and delectably adorned on the outside, draped in frosting and embellished with flowers or pearls or fountains or any number of fanciful gewgaws. In Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s adventure romance Agnes and the Hitman, heroine Agnes Crandall spends the entire novel attempting to write her column on wedding cakes, searching for the right words to engage readers and speak truthfully to the symbolic power that wedding cakes wield. Agnes’ inspiration comes from a complex marriage of nurturing and violence, emanating from her very own “kitchen of doom.” While food is often used in romance novels to provide handy tongue-in-cheek metaphors for sex, to substitute for sex, or to reinforce traditional gender roles, Crusie and Mayer, not surprisingly, take a different turn. In Agnes and the Hitman, food and its associations are as liable to be a weapon of destruction as of seduction, a means of forming unconventional families, and a medium for challenging traditional formulas. Crusie and Mayer effectively deploy the food-romance-sex trope, but subvert the traditional associations and show readers how to re-write their own recipe for romance by using radical improvisation.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

daily bliss: allergies

I started my claritin regimen last week, and while I'm *not* looking forward to the allergic moments still liable to break through the drug's shield (tree pollen does me in every year), this is a very clear sign that Spring is asserting herself stronger every day, and Winter is cowering away to a dark, lonely place. Perhaps we should be frightened by my personification of the seasons...but today, I can feel Spring and Winter like two quibbling siblings, fighting for attention.

I bet on Spring.

Friday, April 03, 2009

daily bliss: gershwin tunes

Tonight the local NPR station featured songs by the Gershwins, classics I used to listen to frequently during my early grad school jazz phase, and classics I really adore.

Someone to Watch Over Me. 'S Wonderful. The Man I Love.

As I worked on my conference paper, I listened, tapped my toe, and remembered.

daily bliss: warm and calm

I had the luxury of spending time with several poets on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it did my soul some serious good. One, a local poet, exudes warmth and openness, encouraging others and establishing connection through arm touches. The other, my friend and colleague, is quiet and calm, with a wry sense of humor and an almost meditative like conversational style.

Having felt a little insular and high-strung lately, especially after the existential soul-searching brought one by illness in the sterile anonymity of a hotel room, I needed a little warmth and a little calmness. I need to reclaim my inner poet. I need to feel my soul expand. I need to invite others in, and, most of all, I need to feel AND radiate peace.

daily bliss: family time

Last Thursday, my Mom and I drove to Ann Arbor, where we met my brother L, coming from his southeastern Michigan home, and my Dad, coming from his Detroit suburb office. Where to meet, where to meet?

the next door bakery


It was time for Big Al's Saturday Night, my favorite sandwich: smoked mozzarella, piquillo peppers, tomato, lettuce, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar on a slightly grilled Paesano roll.

And, it was time for us to spend together, in the middle of the state, in the middle of the week, taking time out of our lives to just be with one another.

me and Dad

I'm so very blessed to have such an awesome family. I miss them everyday!

Mom and brother L

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

daily bliss: one day at a time

It sounds very cliche to take each day as it comes, one day at a time, but my recent illness has reminded me of this simple truth. At a particularly busy point in the semester--planning a campus poetry day (today), preparing for a conference in New Orleans (next week), and grading papers from 3 of my 4 classes (this weekend)--it's easy to be wrapped up in the stress of projection and wondering how I'll ever accomplish everything. I've been taking each day as it comes and trusting that everything necessary will somehow be done on time, and this new mindset is working fairly well, and my stress is minimized.