Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sour and Sweet

Grief isn't a new story. Its remedies, the flimsiest of bandaids, aren't original or unique. Tonight, after a big dinner, I offered a simple dessert enjoyed over silly games and loud music. Tonight, we all laughed hard in a way we needed to.

Lemon Sorbet

You will need:

3 Meyer lemons, preferably from your tree or your neighbor's
3 cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
1 Key lime, see the note for the lemons
1 tablespoon of citrus flavored vodka (I use Hangar One Buddha's Hand)

To make the sorbet:

Use a sharp, fine-toothed grater to grate the peel off of the lemons. Combine the peel, sugar, and water in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a rapid boil, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture reaches a bowl, remove the pan from heat and let it come to room temperature.

In the meantime, juice the now peel-less lemons and the Key lime. Strain the juice into a lidded container. Once the sugar and peel mixture has cooled, pour that mixture through a strainer into the same lidded container. Add the tablespoon of vodka, stir to mix, place the lid on top, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, at least three hours before serving, freeze the sorbet according to the directions of your ice cream maker.

For a tasty variation, add a couple healthy sprigs of mint to the mixture of grated peel, sugar, and water. Follow the rest of the directions, making sure to strain out the mint leaves as you strain out the peel. This will add a springy, herbal dimension to the bright flavors of the sorbet.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Pottery and Peas

A terrible thing happened this week. A friend died.

On Tuesday nights, I usually go to the pottery studio. I'm flaky about going during the school year because I'm so often tired and just ready to call it a night by the time 7pm and my studio hours roll around. But this Tuesday night, after receiving the sad news earlier in the day, I went. Although I didn't feel like going, ECG pushed me out the door, knowing (as he does) that it would be the best thing for me.

It was. I sat down at the wheel and threw lots and lots of mug bases, simple forms, but mindless. I played with my new texture tools. I talked to my friend MS, and even took her picture as she trimmed a pot.

After throwing this bowl last week, MS let it dry to leather-hard to work with on Tuesday. Attached with soft clay to the wheel head, the bowl spins fast—the faster, the better—while MS's hands hold still, cutting away the extraneous clay. We call this trimming.

On Tuesday, after hearing the news, my world became incredibly small. I called ECG and my parents. My close friends and I called each other. For a few hours, only 13 people lived in my world: ECG and my family, these friends, and three children. All beyond that was at least temporarily trimmed away.

It's hard to live in such a small world, and though I have a feeling that for a while at least, these 13 people will often spin with me while everything else blurs, every once in a while, we'll be able to step off the spinning wheel and see the whole world, still and full. My friends and I will be able to step off the wheel completely soon, but the children may be stuck on for a while. May a steady, still hand guide them back from the trimmed down spareness, cradling them in the open air.

At dinner with the kids last night, I noticed one of them push the peas out of his rice and into a pile.

I think in the next few days, a pile of sugar snaps from my plot needs to appear in front of him. Will he love them? Will he hate them? I don't know and I don't care. I just know they're not on the spinning wheel, they have nothing to do with what gets trimmed away, and maybe they'll hold his attention long enough not to blur.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Wacky Folks and Crazy Cakes

So, this year started off with the regal tradition of the Rose Parade. Now, a couple months into 2008, Pasadena has already reached the point where it feels compelled to show off its wacky side with the DooDah Parade. Most years (I write most for there are some years where the DooDah Parade never gets going), a set of nonconformist Pasadenans rally together and parade down Colorado Boulevard with a collection of unusual cars, hopped up bicycles, various drag costumes and trucks towing live bands, like our local cover band, Snotty Scotty and the Hankees. We also get to see groups like this one, a band of men and woman wearing French sailor shirts, berets, and carrying baguettes as batons.

Good bread is, after all, a mighty powerful weapon.

For the most part, the DooDah Parade is more for the people marching in it (who seem to be having a swell time) than those watching. As one who watched the latest version of the parade this Sunday, I admit to not "getting" every joke. I don't mind—sometimes I'm just happy to watch people have fun.

But for ECG's birthday, another event of last week, I wasn't satisfied to sit back and watch the fun happen. No, I had to make it happen. As a surprise to him, I pulled together a last minute happy hour that lasted multiple happy hours at a local bar. Fun ensued, the type of fun that involves lots of beer and good jokes. However, with finals looming ahead, I was short on time and didn't get to his celebratory birthday dessert until this weekend, days after his birthday. Even the dessert had to be fun, so I opted for cheerful little bites of cupcakes rather than an elegant tower of a cake. There is something sweetly nostalgic about the combination of chocolate cake and cream cheese frosting, so that's what I set out to bake. Hopefully, these little numbers made up for their tardiness by their I-want-to-eat-ten-at-a-time-ness.

To make the cupcakes, I used a recipe I've made so many times, I know it by heart and can make it without thinking. Although the recipe is now second nature to me, it hasn't always been. The first time I made this cake recipe on my own, without my mother's guidance, I was ten years old. It was to be my last day at school because my family was moving yet again. My best friend at the time, Alison, and I set out to throw our own goodbye party for me, and we decided to bake a cake. We'd bake the tried and true Crazy Cake recipe, so named for it's lack of eggs and its leavening provided by the chemical combination of baking soda and vinegar. I had scribbled my mom's well-worn, handed-down recipe on a piece of paper, for we were to bake at Alison's house while her mom was busy grading papers.

I remember reading the ingredients out loud and the two of us stirring the chocolate batter. I remember pulling the cake, having risen tall and beautiful, out of the oven and admiring it's wonderful warm rich fragrance. I remember proudly bringing it to school and slicing a piece for everyone. And, I remember the grimace on the face of the boy that I had a mad crush on, Alex, as he said, "Man, this cake tastes horrible."

And it was horrible. Dreadful, actually.

In my haste and inexperience, I had written all spoon measurements as tablespoons. It wasn't teaspoons of baking soda Alison and I added, it was tablespoons. Tablespoons of salt. Tablespoons of vanilla. After one bite of the cake, my teacher, usually a very kind woman, didn't even know what to say.

That is how I spent my last day at that school before moving to an entirely different state. I wonder if any one remembers the wacky girl who made the horrible crazy cake that one time in fifth grade.

Rest assured, I've got my units of measurement figured out now, twenty-odd years later. This recipe, when not followed by a confused ten year old, works like a charm, every time. It's moist, chocolate-y, and not only makes great layer cakes (doubled or tripled, depending on the number of layers you're making), but makes pillow-soft, tender-crumbed cupcakes as well.

Crazy Cupcakes

You will need:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup high quality cocoa
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 cup of water

To make the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sift together the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Make three wells in the dry ingredients, pour the vanilla in one, the oil in another, and the vinegar in the last. Pour a cup of water over all, and stir with a large fork until combined and smooth. Pour into prepared muffin tins or liners, filling each about two-thirds. Bake 18-20 minutes, or until the centers of the cupcakes bounce back when pressed lightly. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.

Cream Cheese Frosting, The Way I Make It

You will need:
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
6 tablespoons softened butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
powdered sugar—you may need up to 13 ounces, depending on how soft your butter is and how much humidity is in the air
pinch of salt

To make the frosting:
After the cupcakes are completely cool, make the frosting.

Beat together the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt together until the mixture is smooth and homogeneous. Sift in powdered sugar, a half-cup at a time, beating after each addition until the frosting is the consistency you like.

Spread a thick dollop (because everyone loves cream cheese frosting) on each cupcake. If you are feeling like adding a little funky bling, sprinkle a smidgin' of edible gold powder on the top of each.

This recipe makes 12 cupcakes, enough to make quite a few people happy.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Go Go Gadget Problem-Solver

Problem Number 1:
My fava beans are blooming away, sweet as sweet peas, but they just haven't been setting fruit. Why grow fava beans if you're not going to get fava beans?

I've read that favas can be attacked mercilessly by blackfly, but so far I have had no bug problems. My plants have been healthy, apparently happy with plenty of rain and good soil, but in no hurry to reproduce. Frustrated by my lack of beans, I turned to a local authority, Pat Welsh, in her book, Southern California Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide. Here is what she had to say:
In some climate zones fava beans will bear crops without the aide of the gardener, but for a variety of reasons (including too much shade, water, or fertilizer) they may bear flowers but no beans. If that happens, pinch off the growing tips of the stems. [. . .] Withing a week of pinching, the favas will start to bear beans. Wait until the pods are between 5 and 8 inches long and filled with beans before you begin to harvest. (The tips of the stem you pinched off are very good to eat; steam or stir-fry them.) (60).
The greens are edible? Another food that I haven't ever eaten? I had to try out this tip. So, the next day at the veggie plot I pulled out my garden scissors and snipped off the very tip of a few of the stalks that were already blooming. I made sure to leave four or five flower clusters on each stalk so that there would be flowers left to set fruit.

Two days later, this is what I found:

Yup, my first baby fava bean, and more have come since then. But what is even better than setting beans is the fact that fava bean greens are delicious. They're sweet, a little beany, and have a wonderful, succulent texture. Apparently, there is a reason to grow fava beans, beans or not.

Problem Number 2:

I'm 5'7". My pea towers are 8' tall, and my sugar snap vines have outgrown the towers by at least another foot.

I do not have extendo-arms or superpowers that can teletransport the peas directly into my harvest basket. I can't drag a step ladder into the garden for the soil is too soft. My peas are producing like mad, but if I can't get to them, what good does that do anyone?

If I let the vines grow any taller, I won't be able to get the peas that set on them, so the solution is clearly to not let the vines get any taller.

Gently, I pulled each vine down towards me and I trimmed off the top 6" of each, flower buds and all. I hope that trimming off the growing tops of the vines will encourage growth lower on the vines, thereby leading to peas that are within my reach. What to do with those pea vine tops? Eat them, of course.

Left with a basket of fava bean tops and pea vine trimmings, I hit my kitchen, inspired. Mike had violet-tinged young garlic, a treat I couldn't pass up, at his stand on Saturday, and I knew that would complement the sweet greens beautifully. I added the pungent zing of preserved lemon, and I had a dish that was more than an unexpected solution to my garden problems, it was also mighty-fine eating.

Sautéed Fava Bean and Pea Greens, with Green Garlic and Preserved Lemon

You will need:
A generous handful of 2"-4" fava bean tops
A generous handful of 6" pea vine trimmings
5 green garlic shoots
½ a preserved lemon, flesh discarded and rind sliced into fine slivers
Olive oil
Coarse salt to taste

To make the dish:
Wash and dry the greens and garlic. Cut off the roots from the garlic, cut each garlic shoot into 4" lengths, slice them 4" pieces lengthwise in half, then in quarters. The slender pieces of garlic will curl, imitating the pea vine tendrils.

Place a large frying pan or wok over medium-high heat and pour in a generous slick of olive oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the greens and garlic shoots, quickly stirring the greens around the pan so they don't burn. Cook the greens in this manner for 2 minutes or so, or until the greens, even the inner reaches of them, have turned bright green. Toss in the slivered preserved lemon and stir to incorporate the flavorful golden bits throughout the mixture. Sprinkle with coarse salt to taste, and serve.

Serves two problem-solving gardeners.

I'm submitting this post to the talented Susan at The Well Seasoned Cook for her event, My Legume Love Affair.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Tuesday night, it was great. Wednesday, even better. And as for tonight, I'm practically panting for it.

Yes, you know what I'm talking about: butternut squash, but this time in a lasagna.

You know those meals where the leftovers keep getting better and better—the kind that you don't get sick of eating more than twice in one week? This is one of those meals. I'm holding this meal close to my heart (and my belly) because it is so good and becoming increasingly better.

I'm tired at work, a tiredness that seems more extreme than past years. I'm tired of grading mountains of essays, tired of school politics, and tired of getting up so unhappily early. (I mean, c'mon,
everyone knows that teenagers are nocturnal. Why start school at 7:45? Why have meetings before school starts? It's just cruelty, I tell you.) In spite of this physical and emotional fatigue, so many things really are better and continuing to improve. One of the things that has grown in clarity and importance to me is my relationship with my students, and in this particular realm, I can see remarkable improvements in my 11 years of teaching.

My job is to remind students how much they like to learn, give them opportunities to learn, support them through difficulties in learning, and get the heck out of their way when they're on a roll. When a student learns in my class, really learns, fibers of silver curiosity sprout from each of us and grow towards the other, tendrils eventually meeting and tangling, weaving the both of us into a rising cord of inspiration. This cord moves both student and teacher into new intellectual risks, into new ideas, and into whole new ways of looking at the world. Every year, I grow new cords, tying myself to the dreams and unclear, shimmery futures of students. Each year of experience has led me be able to find more ways to get that first silver leaf-curl to emerge, and now, after 11 years, I feel a thousand little threads of hope tying me to all corners of the world.
I'm so lucky I get to be part of these people's lives.

Before break, I chatted after school with an incredible person, one of those thousands of people I'm lucky to know. I'll call her B. She had been my student for two years (as a freshman and as a junior), and is now a senior and suffering the "January and February Wait." You may or may not recall having been there yourself, but December is a deadly month for high school seniors, for it's the month that college applications are due. A brutal month for teachers as well, December is the month we have letter after letter of recommendation to write. However bad December is, January and February are even worse, because, after that incredible effort of writing application essays, collecting scholarship information, surviving interviews, and generally putting one's best face forward every single day, there is no nothing to do but wait. Sometime in March, those fat envelopes of acceptance or skinny envelopes of rejection are going to arrive, but in the meantime, there is nothing to do to help the process along. Seniors just have to wait.

B. had asked me to write a recommendation letter for her to send to her schools of choice. Here is an excerpt of that letter:

But what I love most about B. is the balance that she maintains between her sharp drive for excellence and her good-natured friendliness that puts all around her at ease. B. never ceases to improve herself. She reflects deeply on her areas for growth and sets specific goals to achieve them. As a writer, she knew she needed to continue to tighten up her paragraph organization and make her style a little more concise, so she set out to do just that; her writing lately is reaching new levels of brilliance as a result. In the same manner, she knew that she wanted to gain some experiences helping others, so she asked our principal last year about community service opportunities. Our former principal—a wise woman herself—recognized a fellow leader in B. and asked B. to help her figure out a system by which the school can organize and keep track of community service. Last year, partly as a result of the connection between B. and the principal, our school offered its first community service recognition awards at graduation. The best part about this drive for self-improvement is that she always brings others along with her towards success. The community service award is the perfect example of how, to B., success means more than just satisfaction with herself.

Can't you see how lucky I am? But wait, I'm not even finished yet.

B. had told me that her grandmother grew a lot of the produce that B.'s family consumed, as well as many herbs for traditional Chinese medicine in her backyard. As we sat on the tops of desks and talked that day, I asked B. more about her grandmother's garden. I asked her to detail crops that I wanted to know more about. What about asparagus beans, does your grandmother grow those? What about bitter melon? Chilies? Yeah? What kind?

She didn't know the name, but she knew that her grandmother grew them from seeds that she collected and that they were hot. And yesterday, she brought me a generous sampling.

Oh, they are hot indeed: fruity, flavorful, and
hot. I wonder how I'm going to use them all. I have some ideas, perhaps trying one tonight in a green side-dish for the lasagna. I wonder about the growth habit of the plant, how productive the plant is. I guess I'll have to save some seed and try growing them myself; that crazy silver cord of curiosity links from B.'s grandmother to B. to me.

The learning, it never stops. It just keeps getting better.

Butternut Squash Lasagna With Rosemary and Garlic
(Adapted very slightly from an Epicurious recipe)

3 large butternut squash, quartered, seeded, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch dice (it's a whole lotta squash)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups milk (I used 1% milk, to make up for the addition of cream later)
1 dried red chili
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1 whole clove plus 2 tablespoons minced garlic
½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
12 7- by 3
½-inch sheets dry no-boil lasagna pasta
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan (about 5 ounces)
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt plus more to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F. and oil 1 large baking pan.

In a large bowl toss squash with oil until coated well and spread in the large pan. Roast squash in oven 10 minutes and season with salt. Stir squash and roast 15-20 minutes more, or until tender and beginning to turn golden.

While squash is roasting, in a saucepan bring milk to a simmer with rosemary, whole garlic clove, and red chili. Heat milk mixture over low heat 10 minutes and pour through a sieve into a large pitcher or measuring cup.

In a large heavy saucepan cook garlic in butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Stir in flour and cook roux, stirring, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in milk mixture in a stream until smooth. Return pan to heat and simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, about 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in squash and salt and pepper to taste. Sauce may be made 3 days ahead and chilled, its surface covered with plastic wrap.

Reduce temperature to 375°F. and drizzle a little more oil into the large baking pan to grease the bottom and sides.

Pour 1 cup sauce into baking dish (sauce will not cover bottom completely) and cover with 4 lasagne sheets, making sure they do not touch each other. Spread half of remaining sauce over pasta and sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan. Make 1 more layer in same manner, beginning and ending with pasta.

In a bowl with an electric mixer beat cream with salt until it holds soft peaks and spread evenly over top pasta layer, making sure pasta is completely covered. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan over cream. Cover dish tightly with foil, tenting slightly to prevent foil from touching top layer, and bake in middle of oven 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes more, or until top is bubbling and golden. Let lasagna stand 5 minutes.

It's wonderful the first day, and reheated the day after that, and the day after that, and even the next day. This makes 8 generous servings, so plan accordingly.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

What is Tradition?

What is tradition?
Is it the absurd, tender nickname my fiance calls me? After spending too much time away from him, when he picks me up at baggage claim, hearing that name makes my heart squeeze love out of my eyes. And as I spend more time with his mother, I realize that she has absurd, tender nicknames for those she loves as well.

What is tradition?
Is it the way I surround myself with animals? There hasn't been a moment in my life when my family home hasn't housed madly-loved animals. Is it why I've chosen a man who, when he wakes before me and goes downstairs to make coffee, I can hear singing to our cats?*

What is tradition?
Is it the way I cultivate whatever land I can get my hands on, even if it isn't my own land?

What is tradition?
It certainly is the cardamom bread my family eats every Christmas. My Swedish great-grandmother, the one who worked as Clark Gable's cook, baked it regularly, and my great-grandfather liked it sliced thinly and toasted until it was dry as hardtack. He'd eat it with his black coffee. My family, however, likes it warm and soft and sticky with sweet icing, and we look forward to it for months before my mom bakes it at Christmas-time.

What is tradition?
It certainly is how and when I bake and serve cardamom bread. Living so close to the Rose Parade route, every year I watch the parade and marvel at the feats of floral engineering. Every year, I bake cardamom bread on the 31st, and the friends who stay overnight at my house feast on it with me as we watch the parade make it's slow, majestic, and cymbal-loud way down the street.


What is tradition?
Is it the way a small, poor nation, when making it to the Rose Parade, draws a big crowd, a giant cheer, and pride enough to fuel the generation of hope?

What is tradition? Is it genetic? Is it habit? Is it time-dependent or permanent? Is it something lying dormant in our souls, only waking when we need it most? Does it shape or emerge from whom we are?

Traditional Cardamom Bread

For the bread, you will need:
2 ¼ teaspoons (1 package) of active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 ½ cup milk, scalded and cooled
¾ cup butter, melted and cooled
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 ½ - 2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
7 cups all purpose flour (plus extra for shaping dough)

For the icing, you will need:
2 T melted butter
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
A few drops of almond flavoring
Lemon juice

To make the bread:
Grease a large bowl with butter and set it aside.

In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, blend the yeast with the water and let stand for five minutes, until the mixture makes foamy islands on top of the surface. Stir in the milk, butter, egg, salt, sugar, and cardamom. Gradually add the flour, mixing either with a heavy wooden spoon or on a low speed of your stand mixer. The dough will be very difficult to manage—it’s sticky and gooey. Knead until the dough is and elastic and shiny (it will still be sticky), a process that will take about 10 minutes. Once you are confident in the elasticity of the dough, use a dough scraper to transfer the dough into the greased bowl. Grease your hands with the butter and gently flip the dough over so the surface is greased as well. Cover the bowl with a greased plate or pot lid, and let the dough rise in room temperature 1 ½ - 2 hours (or overnight in the refrigerator), or until the dough is nearly doubled in size.

(If you’ve left the dough in the refrigerator overnight, remove it from the refrigerator and let the dough come to room temperature before you go on to the next step.)

Punch the dough down, transfer the dough to a well-floured surface, and divide into three large portions for one huge (I mean HUGE, approximately 14” in diameter) wreath loaf or into six portions for two medium (about 10”) loaves. Roll and stretch the portions into ropes about 2’ long. Place the ropes on a silicon lined baking sheet, pinch the ends on one side together, and braid. Take one end of the braid, pull it around, then tuck it into the other end. Gently adjust the dough into a round, well-shaped braided loaf. If you are making two loaves, repeat with the other ropes. Lay a clean dish towel over the surface of the loaf and let it rise until almost double, about 40 minutes at a comfortable room temperature. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the dish towel(s) and place the baking sheet(s) into the oven. Bake for 35-40 minutes (if baking two, switch the baking sheets halfway through), until the loaves are lightly browned. The bread will have risen even larger, expanding to fill the center hole, so the loaf will look more like an opening flower than a braided wreath. It’s such a beautiful bread.

Remove the bread and transfer the loaf to a wire rack and cool until still warm, but no longer hot, about 10 minutes. Mix together the first three ingredients for the icing in a small bowl and add lemon juice, little by little, until you have come to the consistency of heavy cream. Spoon the icing over the top of the loaf, letting it drizzle into the center and down the sides.

Serve this loaf in large slices, slathered with soft butter at the Rose Parade, or wherever else you may celebrate a tradition, new or old.

*ECG is the talented photographer in our little household. The three cat pictures are a taste of of his beautiful work.