Into the Cave

Last night I wrestled insulators onto our outdoor faucets with my stiff fingers and thought about winter. I struggle at this time of year. I never seem to click over to the scourge known as daylight savings time; I nod off early in the evening – even for me – then awaken in foul temper, a couple hours before the sun can be bothered to appear. Though, with the recent cold, there have been clear days – a sweet reprieve from our usual long, sodden darkness.

Besides the shivers, I have also had writer’s block, but thankfully, not Eater’s block. The season has provided opportunities to feast in fashions both lavish and restrained. Yes, you can feast with restraint; as I edge ever-nearer to the half century mark, enjoying a meal while keeping my corset laced yields more positive results.

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Vanilla cake with ganache and my sister’s lavender cake

The late fall began with a party at my sister’s – a send-off for a beloved housemate and friend. I was charged with bringing cake. You won’t be surprised to hear that I am similarly charged, with some regularity. I made an old favorite: chocolate ganache drenched vanilla cake filled with marzipan and apricot jam. I sound like I am showing off, but I hardly ever make this, and after all the labor, the results were underwhelming.

Topped with candied lemons

This cake has been an opiate of the masses in the past, but on this occasion, it was dense and gluey. This let-down inspired me to research a new white cake recipe. I was happy with the resulting amalgam of two Mark Bittman recipes, and decked it with roasted rhubarb frosting,* creating a pink sensation for my dad’s birthday get-together with his siblings. You may notice the frosting is not completely emulsified, and I am open to advice about this. I am MaryCake, but my icings can be decidedly un-merry (still delicious though).

The Big Day

And then Thanksgiving came and I slaved, and shlepped, and…actually I did no such thing. I gave up on holiday martyrdom years ago. I did make fresh cranberry-pineapple salad, which remains as thrillingly zesty as when my mom first made her rendition, thirty years ago. I was in charge of stuffing, (it’s theoretical stuffing, since we don’t stuff our turkey) and I was working on the curd for our now traditional key lime pie, when my oldest took over and finished it. We used crushed meyer lemon cookies for the crust this time. My husband assumed responsibility for the turkey years ago and he does a perfect job. My oldest also made pumpkin biscuits, adorable pecan tarts, and mashed potatoes. Next year I will spend the holiday alone in Barbados – they don’t need me!

At the risk of sounding like the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving, (Don’t we all have some grudging admiration for that guy? Talk about a heist!) I don’t actually like pumpkin pie anymore. Pie crusts are meant to contain berries and custards, not tubers and gourds – for me anyway. But our guests are always horrified at this, and will bring a pumpkin pie, rather than suffer through the meal without one waiting at the end with its confusing texture and odd color. We are now a BYOPP house. Unless you love baking pumpkin pie, try threatening your guests and family with its absence. Someone will rise to the occasion.

I don’t want to miss the season; I want to be alive to every frosty sparkle, grateful for every ice-coated leaf. But then, as I told my husband, I also want to take part in a scientific study of human hibernation. I picture myself in a cave, snoring away in an ursine heap, looking like an enormous muppet in my green, fuzzy robe. Everyone would be terrified to disturb me for fear of my ensuing rotten mood and bared teeth.

Shhhhh. Nudge me when it’s Spring.

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*The frosting recipe comes from Yottam Ottelenghi and Helen Yoh’s Sweet.

 

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Queer Eye for the Straight Salad

Do any of you watch Queer Eye? I find this show occasionally eases the pain of life, mostly because it’s a relief to watch people be nice to each other. And of course, I enjoy makeovers. Part of me questions their lasting impact on the made-over person; part of me just doesn’t care. That part of me that’s dying to be soothed and entertained says YES! Yes to the haircut, the wardrobe rejuvenation, and the complete revamping of rooms. Also: yes to green-tinted concealer and a bonfire of old bedspreads! Yes to all of it. Hey guys! Make ME over!

The Fab Five are just that, and the scenic Antoni Porowski in particular, gets a great deal of attention. And, because God sometimes gives with both hands, Lil’ Tony can cook.

bonappetit.com

Porowski is opening a fast-casual restaurant in Manhattan. Bon Appetit featured an alluring photo (besides the one above) of one of his salads, but without a recipe! I pounced. My looks, marital status, lack of celebrity, advanced age, and gender might make Antoni unattainable, (hey, I’ve played with worse odds) but his salad was well within my greedy grasp.

photo by Emma Fishman, bonappetit.com

I could surmise from the photo that it contained avocado, fennel, oranges, limes, grapefruits, pomegranate, pistachios, and…some kind of herb. I thought mint, but my food-savant friend Kai suggested basil, and it ended up being just the thing. It clearly has chili powder on it, and must have salt and (I decided) honey and olive oil. And I think I made up the lime part, but I am insisting. It’s tart, spicy and juicy. That’s the ingredient list, so make it however you want. I didn’t get a recipe either!

I took it to a Halloween party and the remains rejuvenated me as I made my way back to my car, parked miles away. In my haste to get the last of it, I tipped the tray into my mouth as I dodged a group of…perhaps zombie librarians(?). As I rounded the corner to my vehicle and hopped in, narrowly dodging what I hoped were Spice Girls, I decided I would make it again the next night. Really, it’s hard to get too much of Antoni, or his salad. Though I am actually partial to Jonathan…

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The Terriblest Place

My mother pointed out that my last two posts haven’t been very entertaining. Tell me about it. It’s much more fun to write about food than its avoidance.

Just to review: I (a notorious Eater) spent three weeks on a diet that forbade the consumption of…most things. During that time I consumed nuts by the wheelbarrow load. I broke out in hives, and it seems I am allergic to nuts.

No?!

Yes!!

But which ones? The savory cashew (how I love it!)? The buttery macadamia? The adorable filbert? Not sure.

A week ago, (after I was told to stop eating nuts) I was munching mechanically on some dark chocolate almonds, making my way through the package with bovine determination when I paused, mid-chew. I was eating nuts. Be they ever so enrobed in a silky chocolate shell, these were nuts. And apparently, I was nuts. I know it seems obvious that they were nuts, but I got excited/distracted by the word “chocolate,” and I am new to food avoidance.

My husband reminded me that no matter how a nut comports itself, whether in oil and salt or lurking in toffee, it’s still a nut. This harks back to my initial tense conversation with the naturopath, when I told her that I am unused to not getting everything I want. It also puts me in mind of when my oldest was a tiny two-year-old and – in the throws of a particularly unsatisfactory day – she wailed, “This is the TERRIBLEST place EVER…EST!” “Why?” asked my reasonable husband, “Because you can’t get everything you want whenever you want it?” “YES!!!” she wailed. Sister, you said it! It’s the terriblest place.

Here’s a link to a nicer, nuttier time. These bars were delicious:

marycakeblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/still-nutty/

Is There Ever Really a Good Day to Diet?

I mentioned, at the end of my previous installment, that my husband was out of town on urgent business, coinciding with my participation in an elimination diet (he assured me it was coincidental). My friend Keith asked, with some comical concern on his face, if my husband ever came back to town. Yes he did come back, and he tries to show concern for my pitiful plight, while avoiding me. There must be a back staircase on this house that I didn’t know about because he disappears into – I swear it – thin air. I am left to wander alone, munching my rice cakes with a dour expression; as my youngest said, “Mom, your diet makes me sad.”

But have you noticed that no matter how miserable your petty, first-world problems are, someone always has it worse? I was telling a friend about the elimination diet and she said, “Wow, you get to eat fruit huh? That’s nice. And only for a few weeks? Huh…” She trailed off, but the implication was clear. Her diet had been three months and strictly meat and vegetables. Yes well, I had to concede she had it worse. Then my neighbor told me she was once on a diet of rice and turkey for three weeks. Okay! She’s the winner! I am not even very good at being sufficiently pitiable. My friend Jesse had to swallow some gravel-sand mixture on one of her regimens. Maybe it was ground-up mirrors? I can’t recall.

I have to admit, despite my extreme, vocal skepticism about the diet, I did think I might experience some increased energy, mental clarity, perhaps a youthful spring in my step once my entire body wasn’t beset by poisons. Here I am on day 22 and…still waiting…cakeless.

I really want to write about the chocolate mousse I made for my friend Kirstin for her birthday. She assures me it was top-notch. I couldn’t try it, but I could tell, just by looking, that it was perfect. I have already planned to make it for myself on my next birthday. It’s out there in the near future, spurring me on.

marycakeless (for now)

P.S. I don’t like these all-text blog entries. I want pictures! Here are some from the archives to cheer us, Eaters.

 

P.P.S. Looks like we have our “before” pictures all set for the wall of fame at the orthodontist’s office.

A Good Day to Diet

I don’t talk about diets here, mostly because I have been lucky enough to avoid them. I have a list of bodily insecurities a mile long, (Why are my eyes freakishly close together? A nasty boy in first grade always called me “Cyclops,” which seemed excessive) but I haven’t experienced much of a weight struggle. Following my two pregnancies, I decided I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, but that I also wouldn’t fight very hard. I settled for facing the fact that I would never be my pre-pregnancy weight, but it would be a cold day in hell before I wore mom jeans. So I suppose I settled for pretending, and that has worked pretty well.

I don’t think I have to treat my body like a temple. It’s more like a well-kept municipal park that occasionally gets overtaken by skateboarders. But my naturopath disagrees, (they always do) and has insisted, for years, that the whole place is a toxic waste dump. Ok, I’m offended, yes, but also curious. I am beset by foggy fatigue and allergies – could my brain and body be mired down in dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts, gluten, grains of every stripe, plus tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers? Also citrus fruits? Oh, and refined sugar and alcohol? So, mired down in fun and joy then.

I like to think of myself as open to new ideas, (not really) so I decided to go on this month long hell-ride of an elimination diet (the name alone…).

After Dr. Meanypants got through the list of foods I couldn’t eat (this took way longer than telling me what I could eat) I said, “I am just not used to…um…how can I say this? Not used to…” “Not getting what you want all the time?” she finished my thought. “Yes!” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! Ya, I don’t like that.” She made her “get used to disappointment, Princess” face. It’s built into the cost.

I have quoted George Bernard Shaw here before: “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” To that I would add: and the love of drink. I realized that popcorn, treats, beer and wine were like special friends to me. But they are all gone now, to the houses of other people they like better.

My daughters agreed to release me from my morning baking duties since I am not inclined to churn out cream scones that I can’t eat. They are doing fine on Dave’s bagels so far, but it’s only been a week – poor things. They are sweetly sympathetic to my plight.

I assured them that the diet is not for weight loss, because it’s important to me to raise girls in an environment that doesn’t assume everything is wrong with the way our bodies look and that they are in constant need of tweaking and deprivation. “Oh Mom! We know!” I was pleased that they found the very idea of a weight loss program absurd, (this seems the best way to feel, at their ages) but I sensed something else in their tone. It was this: “We certainly hope it’s not for weight loss, because we all know that is never going to happen.”

Okay, fair enough. It’s no secret that I can murder a cauldron of popcorn. But not today. Today I am doing this. I am going against everyone’s (especially my own) conception of me as a person devoid of willpower. Oh, I am doing this. Stay tuned. Send flowers – I can eat those.

marycakeless

P.S. Today’s wacky meal combo consisted of: brown rice, garbanzos, watermelon, olive oil, butter lettuce, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds and kiwi berries.

P.P.S. My husband just left on urgent out-of-town business. Go figure.

Burmese Melon Salad

Given the depth and longevity of my feelings for watermelon – and this recipe in particular – it is strange that I have never written about it. Years ago, I had a friend named Ken with whom I would exchange words of mutual passion for (not each other) watermelon. “If you knew it would take five years off your life, would you still eat it?” “Yes, the whole melon.” And so forth, on into the night. There may have been a little marijuana involved, but that was decades ago, before I drove Toyotas and lusted after other people’s Roombas.

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Around that same time, I was living in a graduate dorm with a roommate from Nepal. She was in an arranged marriage to the owner of several Burmese ruby mines, though she repeatedly professed to have no interest in money or gems. I repeatedly professed interest in both, but she never gave me any. She did make me some fantastic rice pudding (it was mostly cream with some fenugreek and a little rice).

Probably the closest I will be getting to Burmese jewels is this remarkable recipe. It is from the June 2010 issue of Oprah’s magazine that is in my summer rotation of is-it-a-salad-or-is-it-a-main-dish-do-we-really-care standbys.

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I like to construct this in generous layers as opposed to a tossed pile. There is so much going on in this dish (too much, my older daughter asserts): The herbalicious greenery! The richness of the peanuts and coconut! The juicy sweetness of the melon! BUT WAIT, there’s more! Fried shallots and gingery, limey, salty dressing! It makes me glad that exclamation points are an endlessly renewing resource(!).

This dish has it all; it’s a jungle on your plate. That is why I have selected it as my desert island dinner. Marooned in a remote but paradisiacal locale, I would live on it until, well, death. Or I would eat it until my eventual rescue by handsome navy seals, possibly bearing Burmese rubies. And I can’t even guarantee I would be willing to set down my plate (presuming my grandmother’s china made it through the shipwreck, though I would happily eat this off the back of an armadillo) to follow them back to bejeweled civilization. It’s that good.

Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette

2 Tablespoons unsweetened finely shredded coconut (or as much as you want)
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/4 cup peanut or neutral oil, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 limes)
1 1/2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons flour
kosher salt to taste
3 cups melon (cantaloupe, honeydew and/or watermelon) peeled, seeded and cut into cubes or rectangles (I have been known to use way more melon here)
1/3 cup (again, or more!) chopped peanuts, toasted
1/4 cup (or lots more) mixture of chopped basil, cilantro and mint

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add coconut and toast it, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.

To make the dressing, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add sesame seeds to skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until golden, about two minutes. Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and ginger; Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and whisk in lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar.

In a medium bowl, toss shallots with flour, shake off excess flour. Heat remaining 1/4 cup peanut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, about 30 seconds. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to plate and season with salt to taste; set aside to cool.

To assemble salad in the fashion that I favor, layer melon pieces on platter, drizzle with dressing, peanuts coconut, herbs, and shallots; salt to taste. Then repeat one or two more luscious layers.

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Berries Gone Wild

The blackberry bushes are ever upon us, their profligate vines grasping our legs, snagging our clothing, encroaching on what’s left of our backyards. They bramble their way into any unclaimed – or claimed – space, fairly knocking down other plants, so rapid is their growth. The canes thrash about in the air a bit then actually plunge into the ground to take root, creating a bulbous tuber that you can’t remove without a pick-axe, blood, tears, and your lifetime quota of profanity. The vines can grow at a rate of 20 feet every year. Yes, that’s right. But for a brief moment in that year of unchecked advance, they offer us berries. They are a member of the rose family, so they will mercilessly cut you as you harvest; but nevertheless, we are grateful. It’s Stockholm syndrome, but we want pie.

 

Blackberries show up right as summer is poised to fade, (even earlier this year, since it’s been about 145 degrees) so unlike the promising salmonberries of June, these fruits always make me feel a bit wistful and desperate. But it doesn’t take much to inspire that feeling in me – it’s my superpower.

Hopeful early summer salmonberries

I corralled the daughters into picking with me, using my standard rallying cry: “Three people for ten minutes equals a pie!” It was one of our don’t-tell-me-there-isn’t-major-climate-disruption sizzling hot days, so morale was waning before we even began. But we got our haul, despite #2’s desultory harvesting.

“Come on honey,” I enthused perkily, acting against type, “Let’s abolish the stereotype of lazy child berry pickers!”

“That stereotype exists because of me!” she said. Okay, that’s pretty good. She can’t pick berries worth a darn, but she’s funny. Humor could stand her in better stead than competent foraging, unless there’s an apocalypse.

I am starting to think you can make a topping for berry crisp out of anything. I am confident I could bash one together with twigs. I have never made the same one twice. This time I dumped 1 1/2 cups of cashews in the Cuisinart with roughly 3/4 of a cup of oats and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. I whirred that around, adding a couple pinches of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla (almost the last of my precious, real vanilla!) and 3 tablespoons of butter. This formed a crumble to cover the berries, which I mixed with honey and a pinch of salt. We like a tart crisp around here, since we are given to eating it for breakfast, but you can add more sugar/honey/maple syrup to suit your own household of not-great berry pickers.

This crisp was scrumptious, and everyone descended on it with much more vigor than they had for the actual berry acquisition. I reproduced it the next day, and it wasn’t quite the same, but such is the uncertainty of life – mine, anyway. Whatever summer offers you, I suggest you go out and grab it now. Even if I live a very long time, I have passed the midpoint of all the summers I will see. I find this so unbelievable and sad – yet what can I do? Brave the thorns, pick the berries, bake the crisp, eat it with gratitude, forgive myself for past failures in the kitchen and countless other rooms, and start again –  as long as the season lasts. If I am lucky, (I accidentally typed “plucky” first, and that’s applicable too) I will machete my way through a few more bramble patches, and desserts, before I am done.

marycake