Friday, May 28, 2010

Stuff That Molds

messy office
I often think that given the perfect organizational system, my life would fall into place.  Work would get done, books get written, stacks would disappear, gardens would grow, and languages would get learned.  The fact that I wrote that last sentence in the passive voice is telling.

Anyway.  My office space is a mess. The desk holds old receipts, scraps of paper, yesterday’s teacup, and a toy okapi.  A wire basket sorts papers into 4 compartments.  A dry erase board has lists, three calendars are spread over the wall and table areas, and a huge bulletin board is covered with odds and ends I might find useful. Books are everywhere. 

It’s the kind of space a person would admit is messy, but say “I know where everything is—I have a system.”

 desk okapi
Well, I don’t have a system.  Much less a clue where anything is!  I do have a handy daily schedule pasted on the coat closet door, made by Bronson Alcott for his family.  But I get thrown by his prescribed 5 AM rising time, 8:30 bedtime, and those bits about obedience and keeping work and play distinct.

 alcott schedule
Instead, I turn to an unlikely person for inspiration: my son.  Simon is not the kind of person most people would associate with organizational genius; he can be scattered.  But upstairs, there’s a filing cabinet.

 file drawer
Inside is a file folder, labeled simply (in Simon’s 6 year old handwriting), ‘Stuff That Molds’.

stuffthatmolds 1
Actually, it says 'stuf that moldes'.  Which makes it look as if it could have been Benjamin Franklin’s handiwork—another guy who could help me with organization.

 stuff that molds 2
Inside is this:

 stuff that molds 3
Never mind that the bread clearly didn’t mold.  Those are the kinds of chances you take when you embark on scientific inquiry.

But what that file folder does remind me is that when all else fails, gather up the odds and ends, label them succinctly, and put them in a folder, a box, or a drawer.  And forget about them.  You can always deal with them later.

Though I’d advise against using them for your morning toast. 

And do you wonder why, after 14 years, that bread didn’t mold?  It doesn’t have to do with preservatives; that slice came from a Grand Central Bakery loaf, made with only basic ingredients.  I suspect it was dried out before Simon put it in the plastic, otherwise it would have molded. 

We always buy our bread unsliced, and store it in a paper bag, never plastic.  It gets drier, of course, as it ages.  But I don’t ever have trouble with mold, and I actually like the flavor of bread as it ages a bit.  Or I can always make bread crumbs.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Going Home Again

 Summer at my parents, photo by C. Shere

I love visiting my parents.  Their house, which sits just below the top of a hill in Sonoma County, is small by today's standards, and just right by mine.  Wherever you look, you find something to think about: an old family photo, a painting, a book, a jar of jam.  The windows frame ever-changing snaphots: The old barn I looked at ten years ago is now a stack of wood; hills that are soft green this month will turn brown by summer; a quail family scratching for seed won't be there next time I look.

And then there's Mom and Dad's pantry.  It might just be my favorite room in their house.  I meant to take a picture while I was there last week, but forgot.  Luckily, my father wrote a blogpost about his pantry a few months back, complete with photo. 

For me, their pantry is about as evocative as the wall of family photos outside its entrance.  One pantry wall is covered with many of Mom and Dad's pots: the blue Le Creuset pans with singed wooded handles that heat the morning milk, the omelet pans my father cooked eggs in when I was a girl.  There's the same old bread basket we had, the chipped tin cups my siblings and I used for milk, and perhaps even some of the same jars of jam.

I'm always tempted in there, wondering if there's a way to break off a piece of chocolate without being heard, or wishing I'd thought to carry a pocket knife so I could cut off a hunk of my mother's panforte.  It's a clever room, with a sensor activating the light.  Unfortunately, the light also shuts off automatically, so whenever I visit I get much of my exercise doing silent jumping jacks in the pantry, trying to reignite the lights without drawing attention to the fact that yes, Giovanna is still in the pantry.

As I said, there's much to look at in the rest of the house.  The study is full of books begging to be taken down and read.  But there's so much to read in the pantry! Labels on marmalades and liquors, some handwritten by friends and family (some no longer with us), others in foreign languages.

Drying apricots, photo by C. Shere

But you can't rely on the labels.  That Lavazza can, for example, holds apricots, not coffee.  I have a hard time not raiding that can, though this time I only pinched one (honest, Dad!).  Dad dried them last summer, on a tray in his El Camino (previously my grandfather, Babbo's, El Camino).  Occasionally you have to pick off stray bits of cheesecloth (it protected the drying apricots from bugs), but it's well worth the effort.  Because those apricots hold all of last summer.

Their concentrated flavor is of summer sun and dust, sweetened by memories of long evenings.  Because they're so chewy, I had plenty of time while eating that lone apricot to think about my father continuing in Babbo's footsteps, drying the fruit he grew or gathered, putting it up in coffee cans (Lavazza for Dad, Medaglia D'Oro or Folgers for Babbo), and stowing it away (in Dad's pantry, or Babbo's workshop).

And how I love sitting at their table.  My father makes me a bowl of coffee each morning with his 50 year old Faema.  Sturdy toast gets spread with Dad's orange marmalade, or my mother's Damson preserves, or--a favorite of mine--her pear and pineapple marmalade (with a few unapologetic maraschino cherries, cheery, and not at all ashamed to be in the jar).  On Sunday mornings there are also soft-boiled eggs.  Most evenings, a little dish of nuts comes out before dinner, with a glass of sherry, or, if it's Friday or Saturday, a martini.

The week I was there we ate simply: a pot of chili, hamburgers with homemade chili sauce, and a lentil stew.  One night we walked down the hill to my sister's house, and ate in front of the fireplace: tuna grilled in front of us, roasted potatoes and fennel.  Another day, my brother came to lunch, stopping to pick up focaccia and a linzer tart at Downtown Bakery.  I am reminded of the lunches we picked up at Matteucci's when I was little and we came from the city to visit my grandparents down the road: packages of mortadella and salami, a loaf of bread.  A quick lunch to satisfy, and give us all a chance to sit down, together again.

There's always something delicious to eat at Mom and Dad's, a good book to read, a view to admire, and a story to be told or heard. I can't wait for my next visit. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Milk Toast Updated: Caffe Latte Toast

I can be contrary at times.  Perverse, even.

caffelatte toast4

Here in Portland, we’ve been deep into that in-between fruit season for a while now.  Apples are getting mealy, citrus is on its way out.  Rhubarb offers a springtime promise, but I usually spend this time of year complaining to whoever will listen.  Hurry up strawberries!  Will cherries, peaches and nectarines ever arrive?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m always grateful when the first rhubarb appears.  It’s just that I’m missing fruit bowl appeal, wanting to grab a piece of fruit and eat it.

So you’d think I would have been happy a few weeks back when the thermometer hit 70°.  I even had my first strawberries from the farmers market.  But what did I do?  I started to think about all the cozy winter foods I meant to eat and didn’t get around to.  Stews, lasagna made with Béchamel sauce, and milk toast.

caffelatte toast 5
Milk toast? Is she kidding?  Nope, just being perverse.  I never ate milk toast when I was a kid.  It had a bad reputation, kind of the way prunes did.  I knew better than believing bad prune propaganda.  But without once tasting milk toast, I accepted the notion that it was bland and repulsive.

Age can do wonders.  Life experience has made me more open-minded.  A while back I read something about milk toast, and decided to give it a try.  Come to think of it, how can bread, butter, milk, and a little sugar (especially when you’re using the best available) go wrong?

 caffelatte toast 1
Turns out a slice of chewy bread toasted, buttered generously, and sprinkled with sugar, floating in warm rich milk with bits of cream tastes pretty good.  Who’d have thought?

But I wasn’t done.  I’m not an invalid after all.  What I really wanted, as soon as Pavel returned from his business trips and could attend his proper post (that would be in front of our espresso machine), was a bowl of caffe latte toast.

After toasting the bread (I used Ken’s country brown), I spread it with butter and sprinkled (okay, it was more of a hail storm) cinnamon sugar on top.  While Pavel steamed the milk for my bowl o’latte, I ran the toast under the broiler, just to glaze it a bit. 


So what now?  You’d think I’d be happy with the return to cold weather.  But I’m still complaining.  Will the rain ever stop?  Where are the strawberries?  When will I get to have a peach?  Because I’m contrary that way.  Perverse, even.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Persian Love Cake for Grandma

Happy Birthday, Grandma

persian dreams cake 1

Last Saturday would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.  She’s been gone for a quarter century now, but I think of her often.  I wrote about Grandma last fall, so maybe you’re already somewhat familiar with her.  It seemed fitting to celebrate with a cake.

This is what you need to know about Grandma: she was born in Canton, China, 100 years ago, where she lived until she was 13 (her father was a teacher there).  Then she, along with her parents and brothers and sisters, sailed on the Empress of Russia back home to the United States.  Grandma was disappointed when they sailed through the Golden Gate—she’d been expecting a swinging golden gate.  The bridge, of course, wasn’t even there yet.

Grandma 1935

She was came of age during the 1920’s.  I imagine her head full of dreams, her life ahead full of nothing but possibility.  She went to college, and worked one summer in Carmel (where she fell in love with my grandfather) carving cameo rings.  The Depression and real life (hers was full of disappointment) would have knocked those dreams away for many people.

But Grandma just worked through it.  After raising four sons (her only daughter died at birth), she went back to school, worked some more, and then finally retired.  Finally, she had time to travel.

When I was little, Grandma visited often, bearing gifts from her travels: Struwwelpeter, a terrifying German book of cautionary tales for children, a clay whistle from Peru, fancy ink and brushes from China. And we visited her—I especially loved playing in her basement, where there was a built-in captain’s bed, complete with curtains and a porthole window, with a picture of a ship on the sea behind it.

She took her first trip back to China as soon as travel there was possible.  Reading over her notes about the trip, it’s a bit of a miracle she went.

Grandma was, well, stubborn.  The tour company required a physical for travelers over 65.  She would have none of it.  “Just because I was over 65 didn’t mean I was decrepit.  I could still stand on my head— so I told them if everyone has to get a statement I will but not otherwise.”  And she didn’t. And she went to China.

The Persian Love Cake, Finally

So what cake would Grandma like?  If you’ve read that last story about Grandma (about mincemeat and my great-grandmother) you know she wasn’t much interested in food.  Probably even less interested in cakes.  Luckily, one of the cakes I need to be making for my 10 cakes in 2010 is Persian Love Cake.  The name of the cake surely would have appealed to her adventurous side. 

cardamom with lemon

The chiffon cake is flavored with lemon and whole cardamom seeds (not pods!), and the whipped cream frosting is scented with rosewater and saffron.  Candied rose petals decorate the cake.  But I might change the name to Persian Dream Cake or Persian Adventure Cake for Grandma.


It would have been convenient if Grandma had been born a few weeks later; there would have been more roses to pick from for candying.  But I made do with one Joseph’s Coat (from a bush my grandfather gave me), one Hansa rose, and one Madame Alfred Carrière.  Turned out they were enough.

I first came across the recipe for the Persian Love Cake five years ago, in Bon Appetit magazine.   I made it then, with help from my mother, for Grace’s high school graduation.  Then it seemed like a cake full of promised adventure.  In the intervening five years, Grace has lived in the Dominican Republic, and gone to college in the Netherlands.  I think Grandma would have approved.

slice of persian dream

I have a book of poetry Grandma wrote when she was young.  Her love poetry is heartbreaking, with lines sadly echoing her life:
For love can live but a day,
And there will be years before me
When love has gone his way
I prefer lines from another poem, happily echoing her life:
‘Tis great to feel the winds that blow from all the ends o’ the earth,
And visit all the lands you’ve wanted most.
Just trail the winds from east to west,
From northpole to the south,
Just grubbing along in a cheery way
Living from hand to mouth.
For what’s a body’s comfort if your soul cries to be free
To trail the winds from north to south, from mountains to the sea.

persian dreams cake 2

Friday, May 7, 2010

Lovage and Potatoes

Lovage Forest
Yesterday I went out to my yard (honesty requires that I not call it a garden) and found a forest of lovage.  It was late in the afternoon, and I had no set plans for dinner yet.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, lovage is a wonderful herb to have in your garden, er, yard.  For one thing, you can’t buy it at the store, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it at the farmers market.  And none of my friends have any that I can borrow.

Lovage tastes much like celery.  The stalks of lovage plants are hollow—perfect straws for Bloody Marys (Mothers Day is around the corner, hint hint).  Apparently, some people cook the stalks as a vegetable—I’ll have to try that soon.  Once there are tomatoes, while everyone else layers theirs with basil, I’ll be strewing chopped lovage over mine.  Along with a good pinch of salt and some pepper.

Until the tomatoes come to the market (and my yard) I’ll be eating lovage with eggs, tucked in my cheese sandwiches, and, best of all, with new potatoes.

Happily, yesterday I did have a bag of new potatoes I’d bought the day before at the market.  Clearly they were going to have to meet my lovage.

Potatoes with lovage and thyme

New potatoes always make me think of my year on a farm at the northern tip of the Danish peninsula, Jutland.   I suppose, after a childhood in California—with its abundance of seasonal produce available throughout the year—it wasn’t surprising that eating seasonally would be so noticeable on a farm as far north as Sitka, Alaska.

View My farm in Denmark in a larger map

But at the farm I lived on we did just that.  We bought few groceries, mainly staples like flour and sugar (and the mysterious sauce used to flavor the nightly gravy served over the potatoes).  Milk and thick cream came from the milking barn across the courtyard; the butter was brought to us from the co-operative dairy, when they came daily for milk.  Meat was our own; chicken was bought from neighboring farms.  My mother made vats of leverpostej (liver paste) and thick rullepølse, a rolled sausage we took in our lunches.  In the winter we ate kale.  And every day we had potatoes.

vendsyssel from wiki commons
(c) 2003 by Tomasz Sienicki
Northern Jutland (Vendsyssel) Landscape

I arrived in July, when the potatoes were freshly dug, their peels barely adhering.  I was put to work almost immediately, the best way to make an exchange student feel like part of the family. 

Du kan skrælle kartofler,” my new mother told me (I quickly learned she was telling me to peel the potatoes).  That first time I looked in vain for the familiar swivel potato peeler.  My host sister handed me a small paring knife.

Like so often those first months, I felt awkward.  I gripped the knife for dear life, trying to scrape the peel off without dropping the potato.  By the time I had a potato properly peeled, my host sister had peeled four.  By the second day (we ate potatoes daily), my fingers were starting to get calloused.
 New potatoes b

And it was a good thing.  As the summer passed, the new potatoes gave way to stored potatoes, with much thicker peels.  I needed calluses and experience to peel those potatoes.

Outside the back door stood a shed, taken up completely by a pile of potatoes.  Throughout the fall my job was to fetch the potatoes for dinner, and to peel them.   Before I knew it, I could peel them just as fast as my sisters.

By the late winter, the mountain had dwindled to a small mound of potatoes.  The remaining potatoes were the ones I had been rejecting all year.  Picking them for dinner was an unpleasant task.  Often I’d reach in for a few and my fingers would go through a rotten one.  But just as my hands had become calloused, I had also gotten used to the less desirable farm tasks.

Just before it was time to return home to my family in California, the new potatoes were once again dug up.  Early summer suppers on a Danish farm are to be savored: tiny new potatoes with nothing more than butter; rhubarb soups, and finally strawberries served in cold soups, or, best of all, in soup plates with a pitcher of cream passed around. 

By the time the new potatoes came back to our table, I had learned new ways to see and think about things.  Like my hands, I’d toughened up.

My own daughter is finishing her year as an exchange student right now, and will be coming home in just 7 weeks (I’m sure she doesn’t want to be reminded of this!).  I’m excited to see her again, to find out what the year has given her.  I wonder what calluses she’s developed.

 cooked potatoes 2

And about last night’s dinner. It was my favorite kind, pulled together from what was on-hand, every part delicious.  After having my first gin and tonic of the year, I quickly boiled the potatoes, and tossed them with nothing more than butter and chopped lovage.  Under my lovage forest I found some thyme, so I made omelets with about a tablespoon of parmesan and a little fresh thyme.  After a salad with shallot vinaigrette, we had tea and chocolate chip cookies (from Kimberley Boyce’s new book, Good to the Grain—more on that soon!).

It was the kind of evening that reminds me how lucky we all are.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Flo Braker’s Heirloom Banana Layer Cake with Prune Plum Filling and Seafoam Frosting

Slice of Banana Cake
Boy, I love saying that.  It rolls right off the tongue, don’t you think? Heirloom Banana Layer Cake with Prune Plum Filling and Seafoam Frosting. Ahh.  The recipe is in Flo Braker’s latest book, Baking for All Occasions; A book worth having. I’ve also made the Signature Yellow Cake and the Eggnog Pound Cake, both with great success.

Last month, my oldest daughter came home from the Netherlands, where she’s been attending college for the last four years.  She’s been home for Christmas most of the those years, and summers.  But this is the first time in five years she’s been home for her birthday.

icing the cake
Good mother that I try to be, I asked her what kind of cake she’d like.  The poor girl has been living in student housing—the kind that doesn’t have proper ovens.  So she hasn’t had a nice tall layer cake for her birthday since her senior year in high school.

Good girl that she is, she answered: “Whatever you like”. 

Since I needed to tackle my 10 cakes to make in 2010 list, I looked it over, and picked this one—I’ll just call it the HBLCwPPFaSF for short. Catchy, no?

Frosted Banana Layer Cake 

The cake is a banana cake made with buttermilk (always a good sign in a cake), and sprinkled with chopped walnuts—unusual, I think, in a lighter cake.  It’s baked in three layers, that are then split in half.  I almost skipped that step, scared of likely failure (that caramel cake has me running scared).

banana cake layers
I’m so glad I gritted my teeth and went for it.  Because the way the layers are filled makes for a pleasantly complex cake.  Each of the three layers is filled with a puree made from prunes soaked in oolong tea, then chopped into purée, and finally mixed with Armagnac and sugar.

first layer banana cake
So you have three two-layer cakes filled with prune purée.  The top of each of those cakes is crunchy from the walnuts.

Can I take a second to tell you how much I love boiled icing?  Yes, it’s little more than sugar, egg whites, and vanilla. But what happens to those ingredients when visited upon by the right amount of heat and beating is one my favorite transformations.  The slithery egg white and grainy sugar suddenly is the lightest, fluffiest, and most easily spreadable (!) frosting I know.


Seafoam frosting? Well, that’s just a boiled icing made with brown sugar.  In my book, brown sugar is always good.  In boiled icing, it adds a depth of flavor that many people will appreciate (apparently everyone doesn’t share my appreciation for the subtle pleasures of sugar).

Back to the cake.  You’ve got your three layers, filled with prune purée.  Now you spread the first one with the seafoam frosting.  Put the second two-layer cake on top. Spread more seafoam frosting.  Finally, put the last two-layer cake on top and frost the whole extravaganza.

It’s kind of complex.  Here’s a little diagram, so you can appreciate all those alternating layers, flavors of banana, walnut, prune, seafoam; textures of crumb, crunch, stickiness, and fluffiness.

Banana cake diagram
The beautiful thing about a cake like this is it actually improves over a couple of days.  The flavors start to soften and meld, the seafoam frosting begins to have a subtle crunch, one I always associate with walking on frozen snow.

Banana Cake close up
Like I said, the recipe for this cake (and many other temptations) can be found in Flo Braker’s book, Baking for All Occasions.
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