I Vote for Cookies

Halloween has never been my favorite holiday since I don’t like vampires, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and adults in costumes that amount to the public declaration of a sexual fetish (zombie firefighters in devil horns? Yup, me too). And yet, the holiday has its charms.

In years past, I have beheld my children dressed as: a Feagle, Merida, Princess Leia, A Few of My Favorite Things, (this costume included raindrops on roses, warm woolen mittens, and the like) a ladybug, the weather channel, an autumnal goddess, A Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream, Anni-Frid Lyngstad from ABBA, The Dread Pirate Roberts, a bumblebee, and the occasional witch thrown in. Each year I am grateful for their innovation, high spirits and willing post trick-or-treat surrender of all taffy (it sticks in teeth). Despite the holiday’s ambient creepiness and dangers to tooth enamel, I get a chance to appreciate my frisky daughters anew, from my perch in a staid, uncostumed adulthood.

I would love to say all that changed this year and I finally got myself kitted out as Poison Ivy, the villain I think I could really warm to. I’ve said I’d do it for so many years that now, on the cusp of my 50th, I would have no choice but to be Poison Ivy Senior (You think the daughter’s nasty? Just wait…).

I told my friend Samantha that I was going to tie candy in the trees in our front yard so children could pick it like fruit. It seemed like a wholesome farm-to-table activity.

In the end I could not find any twine, it was getting dark, and it was time to listen to War of the Worlds, performed by the drama students of Olympia High School. Invading Martians wait for no woman, so I settled for chumming the sidewalk in front of my house with mini Twix, assuming these could be harvested like windfall apples. I made a trail of them leading up to my front door where I lit a skull candle. My youngest – impressed – pronounced this: “not lame.” I may not be fun, but I’m not not fun.

I definitely love this Lucy

Though my husband and I have been notoriously dull on holidays where my daughters long for festivity, we used to do well on Halloween by hosting a dinner before trick or treating. But since indoor events are not feasible this year, the day was shaping up to be added to our list of holiday crimes against fun. But thankfully, my oldest took a breather from writing college essays and threw together a Chicks (formerly Dixie) costume to watch a movie with a friend. My youngest retreated to her friend’s grandmother’s farm where she enjoyed a bonfire, slept outdoors, and took part in a seance.

Feagle (see the novels of Terry Pratchett)

From my night of listening to Martians invade the U.S., (don’t worry, they’ve since lost interest in us because of our galaxy-wide reputation for xenophobia) I descended into Election Day. Now that is spooky; talk about a hair-raising parade of tarted up zombies. Four years from now, when we suffer through the torments of the damned again on election night, I will not go into it without a coping dessert. We didn’t have one on Tuesday and it was a mistake.

So the next day, I made cookies. I’ll be darned if I could find anyone to put me in a medically-induced mercy coma, so if I had to be conscious for this week of counting, I needed a delicious distraction. Warning: these are fantastic.*

Post-Election Day Blues Cookies

1 cube unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 egg (room temperature)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup flour (I prefer whole wheat pastry flour)
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cherries
approximately 1/3 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (amount depends on how chocolatey you like your cookies)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat butter and sugars together for about 30 seconds. Beat in the egg until smooth. With mixer running, drizzle in the maple syrup, vanilla and almond extracts.

Mix flour, oats, coconut, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl then gradually add this mixture in with the mixer on low. Blend just to combine, then mix in the cherries and chocolate chips.

I like to chill the dough for at least an hour and then use a cookie scoop to portion the dough onto a baking sheet. Bake these for about 10 minutes until the cookies are just lightly browned on top. As ever, cooking time will vary with the whims of your oven. With a muffin dough scoop this makes 16, but who’s counting?

*I approve this message.

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Juicy Flowers

“I’m going to use flower essences to adjust your pulse until it gets juicy,” the acupuncturist helpfully explained to me. I had no idea what she was talking about, and what’s more, I didn’t care. Just fix me, use petals, whatever. This talk of juicy, pulsing flower essences was making me thirsty, and possibly eager to dip into a romance novel. As she stuck a needle into the top of my head I thought: my life is crying out for a floral cocktail.

I like floral notes in drinks and food because they can cause you to pause and wonder. For me, “That’s intriguing,” is preferable to “that’s weird,” which is why I don’t think of myself as a foodie. I like a bit of mystery, but I don’t want to detect notes of nail polish remover.

My favorite of my husband’s coworkers brought me quinces from his personal orchard again. This peculiar fruit has to be cooked, and is not edible otherwise, even to the most desperate and foolhardy of eaters. But as is often not the case, cooking creates, rather than dulls, their unique color. I’ve written before about this peculiar fruit and its distinctive rosy scent. Quince jam seemed just the ingredient for a floral margarita, the acupuncture-inspired, wellness-adjacent cocktail I was looking for. Is it good for you? Sure, if you want it to be.

I let the quinces sit for a week – it’s important that they cure. Actually I was just lazy. On Saturday I finally set about making membrillo, or paste, which involves hours of stirring. It’s labor- intensive but a lite, floral-scented labor, if a sticky one. You can watch a couple episodes of Grantchester as you stir, if like me, you are good at doing several things – not at all well – at once. Last night my husband laughed at me getting into the tub with a glass of whiskey, a bowl of pasta, and Sydney Chambers (the dishy main character on Grantchester, served up via my iPad). “Think how long it would take if I did each of these things one at a time,” I said.

I didn’t have any pretty photos of quinces

When the acupuncturist said she was going to use flower essences I wondered where she was going to put them: in the air? on my temples? The answer: under my tongue. She told me that after discussing the most personal of bodily complaints and anomalies, it’s the revealing of one’s tongue where patients often balk. It’s one thing to tell, it’s another to show, I suppose. I suggest you give that unsightly muscle something useful to do in the form of a quince margarita. A couple sips and you will willingly show anyone your tongue. But best to refrain.

Quince Margarita from The Splendid Market

Use a blender to mix together equal (more or less) portions of:

fresh squeezed lime juice
fresh squeezed lemon juice
quince paste
simple syrup

I realize this is not precise. I used about 1/4 of a cup of the first three, and then poured the mixture over ice with one shot of tequila. You can forego a blender if you place the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and do some vigorous shaking. I realize not everyone has simple syrup handy – I did not so I skipped it (warning: TART). I would advise adding sugar, a teaspoon at a time. Again, vigorous shaking or blending is called for. A sugared rim would not hurt this situation at all.

If you omit the alcohol, I suggest fashioning a sort of Quince Fizz,* using sparkling water. Adjust the other ingredients until it’s flavorful enough for you.

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*Not to be confused with a Quince Gin Fizz, which I discovered while doing my cocktail research. I can’t wait to try this one too.

Adult Thrills

Years ago, I was visiting my best friend in San Francisco, when she introduced me to the “Adult Brownie,” from Andronico’s, a Bay Area grocery chain. The rest of my life, since that moment, has been just…so-so.

I had that “Adult Brownie” high again at the Wake n’ Bakery near Mount Baker (no, the baked goods do not actually contain cannabis). I stopped there with friends on the way to the slopes and almost didn’t leave. One of us bought a Dream Bar and shared a few bites with the other adults. We locked eyes and closed ranks. I’m pretty generous with my children, but they were not getting this bar.

Recently, I had a similarly fateful experience on our return drive from Crater Lake. I had skipped second breakfast, and was in my default state of ravenousness. My family descended on Whole Foods like locusts. You’ve heard not to shop when you are hungry, or have P.M.S., and grocery chains everywhere have -wisely – tried to hush up that bit of conventional wisdom. I filled my basket with hummus, potato chips, grapes, blueberries, quince-elderflower cider, yogurt, a vegan donut (for my daughters!) sesame tofu, and…truffle brownies.

The first ingredient listed on the brownies was butter – this generally foretells delight. The other ingredients weren’t out of the ordinary, and flour was low on the list – also a good sign since I hate a cakey brownie. I could see by the texture (dense, moist, no air bubbles) that they leaned more to truffle than brownie and that’s my favorite direction to lean. I was going to try these at home.

Soy lecithin was the only ingredient listed that is not readily available to home cooks and furthermore, kind of creepy. I assumed it made them oilier. Do I like brownies to be oily? I wish I could say no, but in any case, I was omitting it. It was obvious not all the ingredients were listed since I detected hints of coffee, dopamine and something more subtle…oxytocin? I decided to put my friend Susie, the flavor scientist, to work on this recipe.

I dropped off one of the brownies and told her, “Pay attention while you eat.” “Oh, you want me to reverse engineer it?” she asked. Yes, preferably in a lab coat. I assured her she’d thank me later, but that I was open to receiving gratitude anywhere in the process.

It has been years since I’ve had any kind of success at homemade brownies. After a few tries that were always too airy, too cakelike, I threw in the apron. I want a brownie to have that dense, chewy texture and crackly top. I’d sworn off trying, but at this point, the universe had sent three messages. All the important communications I’ve ever received from the universe have been about treats. Who to marry? Where to live? Oh please. Just close you eyes and point to one! But regarding baked goods, wait for a sign.

Susie’s batch

Susie tried a recipe from Tasty.com that included espresso powder. They were splendid, but we agreed they needed to be more bitter and dense. I decided to reduce the white sugar by 3/4 of a cup, and the flour by 1/4 cup. At Susie’s suggestion, I eliminated an egg; six eggs seemed excessive. My batch contained chocolate that was 72% cacao and therefore, less sweet.

My rendition

I don’t know what to tell you about the time this recipe takes, except that the ten minutes of egg whipping is a good chance to do calf raises. Why I did not simply put my kitchen aid on this job instead of standing there with the hand mixer, clock watching and telling myself to try meditation, is entirely due to my desire to be a martyr. What would I do for the perfect brownie? Anything, up to and including standing for a full ten minutes.

We were also engaged in this project in the midst of the filthy cloak of smoke that overtook the West. Susie and I both knew that if we needed an oxygen tank to complete this, so be it. We had itchy eyes, scratchy throats, and a slightly woozy feeling, but we were MAKING THOSE BROWNIES.

All I can say about what we ended up with is this: they were beyond perfection. You didn’t know that was possible did you? It reminds me of a church I saw in Spokane called Beyond Grace. The name of it made me laugh. What’s beyond grace? Well there’s something beyond it, and it’s these brownies.

Link to the Tasty.com recipe here, bearing in mind our alterations if you want a darker, denser, less sweet brownie. I know you do; the universe said so.

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At the Rim

And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

from The Swan, Mary Oliver

I wonder how many visitors Crater Lake has drawn over the years. How many people have beheld it, to find their habitually flapping jaws suddenly good for nothing but gaping? I assume its magnetic beauty has pulled pilgrims from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Though it is a lake in a crater, perhaps it deserves a better name. I wonder if, after trying on and discarding Big Lake, Big Hole Lake, and Lake in the (Big) Hole, someone settled on Crater Lake because, though it may defy language, everything needs a name. “Crater Lake“ is adequate, but I think even the simple, “Big Blue Lake“ would be a slight improvement.

But it’s not just blue. It’s bu-loo; the blue from whence all other blues sprung when the world was new. When we walked up to it for the first time at an overlook, both my daughters backed away, saying they felt woozy. We had the sensation we were flipped over and staring down into the sky. It seemed the heavens had been distilled to their deepest indigo and poured into the crater, creating a molten blue, illuminated from beneath. See, even there, I can’t really say what it looks like. My eyes kept trying to readjust as the spectacle tapped the “Not Real” button in my brain. I kept getting restunned.

I’ve long believed I need regular exposure to beauty for my mental health. Much of my adult life has been spent seeking equilibrium. I mean, I do pretty well, but when I’m old, I may need to take up residence on a mountainside overlooking a glacier. My brain might need to be barraged with beauty on a constant basis to keep my cluttered mind sorted.

And is that what beauty is for? So an outer stillness can penetrate our inner havoc? So we have to give in, and surrender our internal dialog of ego, anxiety, and vain ridiculousness?

I figured it might be my only chance.

Beauty has alway left me both satiated and wanting. I’ve spent hikes planning the next hike, thinking ahead to when I might break free again and burst into the trees. Every encounter with the sublime gorgeousness of the outdoors begets longing for another.

But then, I’ve never loved anything that I felt was enough. I’ve never said okay, that’s the perfect amount. I’ve wanted more than I could have every time, of most every thing. I’m not selfish so much as….greedy? So, I’m human, perhaps. If you read The Fault in our Stars, you may recall John Green’s words: The universe wants to be noticed. I tend to be extravagant in my noticing.

And after a steep one mile descent down the Cleetwood Cove trail, I got to notice from close up, as you can see from the photo. Because, if we cannot immerse ourselves in beauty, then what’s it for? What’s any of it for?

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Vegan Pavlova (You Heard Me)

Okay, stop rolling your eyes, because that’s what I did when my youngest daughter said she wanted to make a vegan pavlova* for a dairy-free friend, and my eyeballs got stuck that way for awhile. She then made it clear to me that it would be nice to not have to deal with my negativity toward vegan desserts. I raised her to be a forthright woman, and now I’m reaping an annoying harvest.

A pretty good faux pavlova

The basis of the showy, scrumptious national dessert of Australia that I have proselytized about in the past, is egg white that you whip into a frothy frenzy. The whites give substance and pleasing texture, but don’t offer much in the way of flavor. A pavlova, like its sister the meringue, is simply a sugar shell, possibly flavored with vanilla, or citrus.

Aquafaba (not the name of a band, but rather, the sweat of a 1000 garbanzo beans and an ingredient I swore I would never use) can be whipped, and then baked into the same lofty, sugar delivering shell. You end up with a white, sugary froth, eggs or no eggs. I saw it with my own eyes, just as they finally popped back into place from their rolled back position.

As I’ve previously explained, pavlovas almost always collapse. They also can get overtaken by ants, but don’t let that stop you. You have to be open to multiple outcomes when you make a pavlova. This dessert exists to coax you into embracing the wonder and unpredictability of life. And you thought it was just there to intoxicate you with whipped cream? Speaking of whipped cream:

The topping on this version is tricky, since whipped cream in the essential worker of the dessert kitchen. But for a dairyless friend, a topping made of coconut cream is the answer. I love all things coconut, though I don’t think of it as a substitute for whipped cream, simply because nothing is. You can say foods like avocado or coconut are creamy, but I would assert that only cream is creamy. Other foods can be smooth, or gooey, or delicious, just not creamy. Feel free to contradict me in the comments section (which I may neglect to approve and post).

My daughter tried mightily to make a whipped coconut cream from scratch, but this ended with my kitchen coated in greasy tears. The answer lies (I need to stop swearing I’ll never use certain ingredients) in coconut Reddi Wip. This stuff is not bad, it’s just toothache-sweet. Thankfully, the crowning glory of this whole woke-yet-retro mash-up is still raspberries or strawberries. Just make sure they are raised without the use of fossil fuels or worm cruelty, and it’s best if they cost a fortune.

In the morning my daughter got up, regarded her cooled pavlova with pride and said, “Hello, Calliope.” Then she explained, “I named it while it was in the oven, even though I told myself not to get attached because anything could happen.” Kid, welcome to life. Tell yourself that all you like, but it’s always too late.

Giving me a look

Since my baby is a teenager now, I get teary when I look at her braces, or watch the PowerPoint she created to explain why she needs Snapchat. I get choked up remembering the first time I saw her on an early, precautionary ultrasound. There she was. My heart lunged toward her, and clung to the rapidly flowering idea of her life; I couldn’t wait to love her.

Here she is. And anything can still happen: to her, to all us. Life is a Gilligan’s Island of quicksand and tiger pits. It’s the best and worst thing about living. Since it could be anything, I hope it’s something good: more Mary Ann with a coconut cream pie, (not vegan) and fewer shipwrecks. Maybe not a pandemic this time! But I probably shouldn’t get too attached to that wish. Ah! Too late. Always too late.

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*My daughter used this recipe: https://bakedbyclo.com/vegan-pavlova/

Our most recent effort included some foraged berries, and was not vegan.

LGBTQ Salad

This post is dedicated to everyone who struggles for the safety and freedom to be who they are. And to everyone who, in the midst of their fight, reaches out in kindness and solidarity to create a community. 

”It’s supposed to be sooo great to have babies but it sounds like it causes a lot of problems that I keep hearing about,” said my youngest the other day in a cheeky tone. She may have overheard a conversation I had with my physical therapist that went something like this, “Can you fix this? TELL ME YOU CAN FIX THIS!”

I told my daughters that though I hesitate to give advice, (false) and we don’t always have control over life’s events, (true) it would seem that it’s preferable to have children at a younger age – younger than I was, anyway. I had my second at 35, so I was presented with a brochure titled, “Questions You May Have about Your Geriatric Pregnancy.” First question: where can I burn this brochure?

“So now would be a good time to have a baby?” said my 17 year old, “Because I literally have nothing else to do.” Okay, why didn’t I think of that?! Remember when I said that pandemic deprivation had made me long for either a basketful of kittens or a fertility loan so I could get pregnant with one of those 3 remaining eggs that are past expiration (what’s after a geriatric pregnancy?)? Clearly, we need something to focus on and cuddle.

My daughter is young and healthy, likes babies, and really, when is she ever going to have this much time again? She’s a high achiever who wants to study neuropsychology…wait, bioneurology?…phychoneuroses? Anyway, something that involves endless hours in a lab getting rickets because you haven’t seen sun since your high school grad party. Now is the moment! My husband is working from home. If he can use words like “process-oriented” in zoom meetings, while drinking coffee, he can change a diaper and Skype.

And what a brave, new, weird, world we will be bringing my grandchild into. In terms of social inclusion, it’s a drastically altered landscape from the one I grew up in. Marriage equality? Who’d have thought it? A woman president? Who’d have…oh wait, scratch that. It’s a step forward and three back: America is also a nation at war with itself, fractured over social issues and (because there’s always something new to hate over) even fighting over the best way to combat a virus (we’re all scientists now – no degrees required!). On the upside, there’s the widespread use of cilantro.

I was raised in a world where cilantro was either unheard of, or suspect. The use of quinoa would have outed you as a communist sympathizer. The other night my children gleefully pointed out to me that I had just made an LGBTQ salad, and just in time for Pride month! In this case, LGBTQ stands for: lettuce, (roasted) garbanzos, bacon, tomato and quinoa. Make it with pride! Or even wear it with pride, when you spill a little on your “Make America Gay Again” shirt.

The salad is simple, and the ingredients are contained in the title, though I did add avocado. This one had turkey bacon, but use what you like. Here’s a version of green goddess dressing that really makes this salad sing. And what will it sing? “I Will Survive,” of course.

Pride Dressing

I cup plain yogurt
2 cups of herbs such as parsley, mint, lovage, tarragon or cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped chives (approximately)
juice of half a lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add a bit more olive oil if needed. You may want capers in the dressing, or as a topping. If you use them, wait to add salt until you determine how much saltiness the capers lend to it. Adjust the tartness and saltiness to your taste.

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The View of Nowhere is the Same Everywhere

Last week, I drove to Mount St. Helens for a hike. I parked at the Hummocks trailhead and walked up five miles through increasingly ominous damp and chill. The Johnston Ridge Observatory is a place typically blanketed in tourists, but that day, only in clouds. It was built directly in the blast zone, and serves up a stunning view into the crater. This year it’s deserted and eerie with echoey parking lots and one cynical and desperate chipmunk.

The mountain held captive the imaginations of young Washingtonians in the early spring of 1980. I was nine and I remember the cloud, the ash, the terror, and finally: the pride. We had our own volcano! Add that to Bigfoot and you get a very cool state.

It’s a weird year for the outdoors. I’m glad some trails are open and that many hikers are polite, trying to obey the rules by stepping six feet off the trail for others to pass. Though stepping off trail goes against other rules; do you want to crush delicate native plants or get someone’s potentially viral breath coating your mucous membranes? Lately, life is full of lousy choices.

As I walked along, I realized that I wasn’t getting to that flow state I longed for. My mind was up to its old tricks, hamster-wheeling through my fears and frustrations in an endless, squeaky loop to nowhere. I longed for that elusive, pure absence of thought, to be attuned only to my pounding feet and hard breathing. I pictured my mind as an expanse of clear blue to which I kept trying to return, even though I wasn’t sure I’d ever been there.

Coldwater Lake

I knew then that I’m always searching for something when I hike. Typically at the end of it I have figured out what to cook for dinner the next night. While that’s useful, I’d like to emerge with more than that for an epiphany.

I was there because I wanted the meaning of all of this revealed to me. Not so much the meaning of it all, but the meaning that I was supposed to make out of it, the story I was compelled to tell. Why was I living in interesting times?

Indian Paintbrush

I wanted to ascend that walkway to the observatory, come to the edge, behold the obliterated side of the mountain, and see my story written there in the destruction. If I’m fortunate enough to have grandchildren to regale with stories from my life, (please God, give me grandchildren to simultaneously spoil and bore) then what will I tell them about 2020?

The cloud smacked me in the face and I stood shivering, gazing out at nothing, and hoping for a miracle clearing. I ate my lunch hastily, ignoring the dour chipmunk, and descended in record time (it was my first time, therefore, a record). I had cell reception on the way down so I could send my family my preferred Mod pizza toppings. The clear reception also enabled me to text my daughters about emptying the dishwasher. I could tell they were missing me, and I just wanted them to know that even when I’m gone, I’m always there.

And that’s it. No view. No revelation. I drove home through the groves of Douglas Fir that appeared, with their shelved branches, to be straight out of my daughter’s Minecraft village. I listened to podcasts about our broken country, sinking under COVID 19 and racial injustice/unrest. I felt lucky that, in all this, I had a place to return to. As I said last time: give thanks, even if it’s because there’s nothing else to do.

I used to run road races now and again. The two half marathons I did were difficult for me, mostly because I always felt like my legs were going to detach at the hip and simply clatter to the ground. In the monotony of pain, I cast about for a mantra; the one I settled on and returned to through several races was: “Gratitude is what I came for.” When nothing is clear, when the meaning of everything is clouded over, then I can only drop to my knees. This is all I get; I have to love it, even the pain.

P.S. My husband found it funny that I listed my toppings in the exact order they would get placed on the pizza in the assembly line at the restaurant. I know how it’s done. If you don’t have Mod’s app, I recommend it. Here’s what goes on my pizza:

red sauce
mozzarella
parmesan
arugula
basil
hot and sweet peppers
artichoke hearts
roasted garlic
rosemary
pesto drizzle
and finally: Thank you

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Giving Thanks: What Else is There to Do?!

When all this is over, I may, in my euphoria, forget to show gratitude. I only say this based on my, and all humans’, past behavior. I tell myself I will be shouting “Hallelujah!” whenever I get to hug someone, sit in a restaurant, or go to a concert, for the rest of my life. But chances are, when Covid-19 is a memory, I will be the same self-serving person I am now. Plus all that shouting might be a little too eccentric. So let me take this time to say some thank yous.

Thank you to Dr. Teal’s: your pink Himalayan bath salts are on my top five favorite scents for any body product. Bergamot! Who knew? Thanks for 72 quarantine baths and counting.

I didn’t know my husband took this, but it works. My knee has an alarming bruise.

Thank you to my therapist. Don’t ever retire (call me!).

Thank you to my daughters for never asking to break the rules. I broke the rules and you scolded me, but please trust me that I needed to give that hug to my sister. I hope you would do the same for each other. Side note: the opposite of thank you to you both for becoming vegans. I did not see that coming. Way to keep me on my toes.

Thank you to my dad. Remember that time you handed me a 20 dollar bill and I lost it in the store and came out to the car looking sheepish and you silently handed me another one? Or that time I careened across our pasture in reverse and bashed into the only object in our whole field, which was your car? And you didn’t make a big deal out of it? Thank you. I love you and I miss you.

Thank you to Fred Meyer curbside grocery pick-up. You allowed me to stay clear of your store full of maskless children and seniors coughing with moist abandon. I forgive you for the time you had nothing I ordered, except grapefruit and radishes, because I realize you were encouraging me to practice clean eating. Thanks for looking out for me, but you can forget it.

Thank you to the Wordscapes app. I can’t believe I was this far along in life and didn’t know that “leu” is a unit of currency in Romania and Moldova, equal to one hundred bani. How was I carrying on verbal discourse before this?

Which brings me to my final thank you. Many thanks to the enduring, dependable love of my life: food. Thank you food, for being something to look forward to. I’ve been fortunate that my relationship with you isn’t addictive, like mine with Wordscapes (Slipe? It’s a word!). A vibrant, crunchy salad; a batch of ginger cookies cooling on the rack; a soup topped with fresh herbs – all of it continues to give me something to do. Someone, somewhere, said that without writing we’re just stuck with life. Without the pursuit and creation of delicious food, I would be stuck with (little to do, and) nothing to write about.

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Serve me Cookies in a Tree

My morale seems to have washed away gradually with my hair color. Initially, I didn’t really notice. Then one night I went to bed a gently aging Rita Hayworth, and awakened a full-blown Miss Havisham, complete with her sunny outlook. The only thing missing was a cobweb-encrusted wedding cake. I know what I said when I looked in the mirror, but feel free to insert your favorite swear word here: ________.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, BBC.com

Thankfully, the natural world is doing the inverse of my root job. Sometime in April, I was typing away, regarding the maple tree outside my window: “That tree isn’t at it’s fullest,” I thought testily, “what ever happened to Spring?!” Fortunately for us, nature gently goes about her business, ignoring the inelegant humans who bask in her beauty like ungrateful slobs. Soon after I made my disparaging observation, I sat down at my computer to behold the tree exploded into verdant leafage, filling the window. She pulls this off every year, independent of my moods.

The waning of my morale isn’t surprising, given the recent death of my father. I told friends that I keep getting hit by the grief bus, but upon reflection I’ve decided it’s a horse-drawn carriage. There’s a distinct trampling sensation. Predictably, it’s pulled by four horses: sadness, exhaustion, irritability and hunger.

I’ve spent much of my life anticipating the next meal; maybe I’m just more aware of it now that every strong feeling, like hunger, transmutes into another strong feeling, like sadness. Emotions have ceased keeping to their stalls. I thought I was angry, but I was actually exhausted. I thought I was sad but…no, I was hungry – seriously hungry. It’s a cavalcade of overlapping emotions, galloping unbroken in every direction.

Bereft and scattered to the four winds though I am, I can still order groceries on the Fred Meyer app (a virus-free but joyless way to shop because it lacks a rendezvous with the in-store Starbucks). And I can get a meal on the table in some fashion, at predictable intervals.

My sylvan walking path

I’ve also been asking my daughters to cook once a week, which is how I’ve been able to eat tacos so delicious that the ghost of every taco I’ve ever made cried out in jealous despair. My oldest is attentive to detail, and the sautéed peppers were a revelation. It reminded me that I don’t sauté often enough. It’s meditative work, conducive to sorting through untamed emotions.

I don’t want to include a taco recipe because there are so many out there, and I think everyone should put whatever they want in their taco shells. But the same daughter also made cookies that blew the doors off, so I’m linking this Food Network “Top Secret Chocolate Cookie” recipe. If I had made them, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to top them in sparkling sugar. But she attentively dipped each one, and it made them extra delightful, in taste and optics.

So if I’m looking for some hopeful, quietly persistent beauty it’s always around. Observe that tree, I remind myself; eat that artisanal sparkling cookie (I don’t have to remind myself); feel happy when your husband generously refers to your hair as “blond.” And now have just one more cookie, which is known in our house as the “last, last one.”

marycake

 

 

 

La Tristezza è Solitaria

What is it with women my age and Italy? Have we all read too much Eat, Pray, Love? Do we think it’s a place where, in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert’s friend upon hearing she’s headed there, the men are still “digging the old babes?”

There are evenings when I say to my husband, “it’s going to be an Under the Tuscan Sun night for me.” He has no wish to join me, though I’m not sure why he wouldn’t want to look at gorgeous Diane Lane. But he knows I’m not inviting him. I go into my room, clad in a robe that whispers not “come hither,” but “go thither,” to cheer on Lane as she restores her crumbling house, flirts with the handsome realtor, and has amorous adventures with a man so beautiful that, like that sun, he will burn your eyes if you behold him directly. Diane, you are doing this for all of us.

I have a collection of cat-scratched wicker my husband has threatened to burn.*

The last few weeks have been difficult. I said goodbye to my father, and though I feel blessed to have had the chance to do so, I feel a sense of unfinished love, something trapped in my throat. There’s always more to say, isn’t there? Is there an “enough,” when you know it’s your final conversation?

I’ve heard you are not supposed to make big decisions in the midst of traumatic events. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it might be true for me. I don’t have revelations like: it’s time to finally clean out the garage. I float brilliant intentions like this: I’m going to move to Tuscany.

Thankfully, all my girlfriends – even the quirkiest – are at their core, quite sensible. When I mentioned my plan to a couple of them they cautioned me about the high number of COVID cases in Italy. Thanks for looking out for me, ladies. And I probably shouldn’t clean the garage either, right? No need to tempt fate.

I simmered down a little, but grief is unwieldy. I do have a constant sense of “what now?” Now that I’m halfway to being an orphan, I should have my life sorted and not be chased by the dogs of longing, right? As usual, I have more questions than answers. And the handful of answers I do have are only about food. Ah yes…food; the last refuge of the grieving quarantiner.

I told my husband that I feel like after quarantine is over I am going to make a great contribution to science. What happens if you keep your activity level the same and double your consumption of calories from fat? Has anyone ever researched this? Because I feel like it’s uncharted territory; anything could happen! I have no hypothesis. I’m going in with an open-mind/mouth.

Here’s a recipe I found in Bon Appetit that will ease your pain (not forever, but perhaps for tonight). And if you are going to eat pasta, you might as well watch Under the Tuscan Sun while you are at it. That yoga Zoom can wait.

Spicy Baked Pasta

Ingredients

Kosher salt
1 lb. rigatoni, ziti, or fusilli
8 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced into half-moons
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. (or more) crushed red pepper flakes
2 bunches broccoli rabe or 3 bunches baby broccolini, trimmed, coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
12 oz. sharp white cheddar, coarsely grated (about 3 cups), divided
1 cup chopped chives, divided
1 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs or panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425°. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add a generous amount of salt. Cook pasta, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking together, until just barely al dente, about 2 minutes less than package directions. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.

While you are cooking the pasta, get the broccoli rabe going. Heat 5 Tbsp. oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium–high. Add leeks and season with salt and black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are softened (but not so much that they don’t have any texture left) and starting to brown, 8–10 minutes.

Add red pepper flakes to leeks and stir to incorporate. Add broccoli rabe by the handful, stirring to combine and allowing each addition to wilt before adding more. Season with salt and black pepper. Once all of the broccoli rabe has been added, cook, stirring occasionally, until bright green and wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat and set aside.

Add pasta to reserved broccoli rabe mixture along with cream, three-quarters of the cheese, ½ cup chives, and reserved pasta cooking liquid; mix well. Season with salt and black pepper and add more red pepper flakes if you prefer more heat (keep in mind that the saltiness and spiciness will increase as the pasta bakes).

Transfer pasta to a 3-qt. baking dish (or, if your Dutch oven is ovenproof, just leave it in there). Toss breadcrumbs and remaining 3 Tbsp. oil in a medium bowl until coated; season with salt and black pepper. Scatter over pasta, then sprinkle evenly with remaining cheese. Bake until pasta is bubbling across the entire surface and breadcrumbs are deep golden brown, 30–35 minutes. Let cool slightly. Scatter remaining chives over pasta just before serving.

Cook’s Note: I have made this with garbanzo pasta and was pleased with the results. Because broccoli rabe is not widely available, I have used broccoli and broccolini. I used butter instead of olive oil, but only half the amount, and then drizzled olive oil on the finished dish.

marycake

*cartoon by Roz Chast, goddess of hilarity