28 November 2010

On the first day of baking . . .

. . . my true love baked for meeeee: absolutely nothing.

Taking matters into my own hands, I proceeded to make a relatively new favorite, the frosted cardamom cookie. I was surprised to find myself out of cardamom, but neighbors B & L accidentally bought four quarts of it recently, so stealing a couple tablespoons from them was no big deal. Incidentally, do you ever read the comments section on epicurious.com? So ridiculous: "The recipe called for two lamb shanks but I hate lamb so used broccoli instead. Delicious." (I embellish, slightly.) I'm sure one of those commenters, faced with a similar catastrophic lack of cardamom, would simply substitute cherry pie filling. But I digress (which, let's face it, should be the title of this blog). Also, if you're going to have a drink while you bake, and there's nothing wrong with such a time-honored tradition, make sure it isn't the Washington Chardonnay that almost ruined Thanksgiving and that I'm polishing off now. Hiddy.

For those of you who hang on my every word and action and are even now beginning to bake these at home, a couple notes:

First, most recipes by sentient beings include salt. Those that don't had better have a really good reason (a recipe for cinnamon toast, for instance, may omit the salt). This recipe does not qualify to go saltless, so either use salted butter or throw in a dash of salt with the dry ingredients. Umami.

Second, the yield is given as two dozen. Ridiculous. We're fat enough, America. If you roll them in chestnut-size balls, you'll yield more than four dozen, they'll look prettier on the buffet, and you can give more away. The only time we need to be eating giant cookies is when we're a) writing maudlin angst-filled poetry at an independently-owned, patchouli-scented coffee shop, or b) stuffing an entire package of Kowalski's iced ginger cookies down our gullet as a substitute for dinner on our way to a rehearsal. Or so I'm led to believe. If you do make these cookies smaller, reduce the baking time to 11:11, my all-time favorite oven timer setting. I usually resist putting that in writing.

Third, the frosting directions are a little weird. There is no reason not to proceed my a more standard way, alternately mixing the powdered sugar and milk in batches to the creamed butter. You'll end up with a more pleasing, even texture.

With that, and even as is, this is a great cookie. Several neighbors will be demanding theirs soon, so it's time to shut off all the lights and pretend I'm at the country house.

27 November 2010

Thanksgiving, haphazardly reviewed

We'll cut to the chase, because blogging takes away from holiday laziness opportunities. The morning dawned, as it always does, with me baking sticky buns. This year's orange pecan rolls were about the best ever. I started using the recipe for Rich Rum Sticky Buns from The New Basics Cookbook many years ago. I have modified it beyond recognition (for starters, I use no rum), and I'd guess that all dozen people who ate them this year were fairly content. Post-breakfast was then a long stretch of me doing nothing (except to eat a big bowl of white bean and kielbasa soup that I'd made a couple days earlier). I finally got the turkey in the oven about 3pm (I may have missed the hordes of people on this holiday, but I did not miss the day-long trudge through food prep). I threw some aromatics in the roasting pan, stuffed the bird loosely with the same (celery, garlic, herbs, citrus), smeared it with butter and roasted. Out by 6pm, it was moist, juicy, tender perfection. Mashed some potatoes, roasted some broccoli: done. Oh yeah, and rockin' gravy (no gizzards, no starting 19 days ahead: I'm that good). The Lebovitz apple cake was a huge disappointment (the east coast contingent of the family made it as well, and reports a similarly desultory result). Little fuss, plenty of leftovers: a great easy day.

And like magic, it's time for holiday baking. The first cookie of the season to come out of my oven this year (later tonight, if I get myself off the daybed into the kitchen) will be frosted cardamom cookies, a 2008 finalist in the Star Tribune holiday cookie contest. The Strib keeps a handy online index of all the cookies from the past seven years of the contest. The winners of this year's contest will be published Thursday; it's always fun to see what cookies make the cut, and which are worth adding to my baking lineup.

Here's hoping your holiday was similarly stress-free.

23 November 2010

'Tis winter now

With the freezing and the sleeting and the snowing and the icing, our Poet-in-Residence comes forth with an early winter offering. And just in time: reciting "Now has come, an easy time / I let it roll . . . " seems completely inappropriate as I go hunting for my wool socks. Once again, Ann has curated the perfect little poem for us to savor over the next few weeks. Let's recite it together, from memory, this Thanksgiving weekend, shall we? Thanks, Ann.

Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

—Howard Nemerov (1920-1991)

17 November 2010

Thinking about Thanksgiving, because we must. It's in about five minutes.

My youngest sister emailed asking for Thanksgiving menu advice. She doesn't really need any, because she's a very good, adventurous cook. She'll have four meat eaters (God's chosen ones), three vegetarians (who should, frankly, sit Thanksgiving out), and, "one annoying vegan who is pretty much crashing so I don’t care if I don’t have anything for her (and my other guests are more courteous than I and are willing to bring vegan items)." Have I mentioned that I love my sister?

Her menu so far: sweet potato bisque, rosemary parmesan bread, turkey using Alton Brown’s method (I don't know what that means and can only assume she'll have to do a lot of zooming camera close-ups as she cooks), saffron butternut squash risotto, and sweet potato pie. Others are bringing a vegan roast (Lord knows what this is, but it sounds revolting and inappropriate and she's not happy about it), and mac and cheese (she lives in the part of the country where that's expected, like a carafe of water, at every meal).

Given that M and I intend to hide from the world that day, reading in front of the fire and watching a Lost Season 3 marathon, this all seems very ambitious. I've cooked approximately four thousand Thanksgiving dinners in my life, because I am old, so I admire her youth and pluck. She wants another dessert, asking if tiramisu would be too weird [YES], or perhaps something apple but not pie. She also needs something green, and an appetizer.


If I had to make an apple dessert today (and only being stuck at the office until 9pm prevents me from doing so), this French apple cake of Dorie Greenspan by way of David Lebovitz is the one I would try; easy and pretty, and a nice antidote to pie.

Completely inappropriate for the vegetarians in the group, and therefore delicious, this ramekin of queso fundido seems like a perfect and unexpected appetizer (the others in the article look good, too). I'd make it for sure, and not just to piss off the vegan; that's just bonus. I would also source my chorizo carefully because horrifyingly gross animal parts end up in it. Seriously. Do NOT read the label on pre-packaged chorizo at your neighborhood mercado.

As for vegetables, the boyfriend and I can't seem to stop roasting broccoli this fall. It's super easy, takes no time, and is completely addicting. Just toss a bunch of broccoli florets with some olive oil, kosher salt, pepper, and a few red pepper flakes. Put it in the oven at whatever temperature you've got going on and check/toss the pan every few minutes. It doesn't take too long: you want to get a little caramelization without charring them (though I eat them charred, too). When the broccoli is as done as you want it you can eat as is, or toss a variety of good stuff with it: toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, some grated hard cheese, a splash of balsamic vinegar. People think you've done something, and you really haven't. We eat it at least once a week. You can do the same thing with cauliflower, and if you add a little anchovy paste to the olive oil all the better.

I think I've just talked myself into cooking on Thanksgiving.

15 November 2010

The Efficient Baker

The assignment: a first-birthday cake for forty guests, suitable for adults but still smashable by the guest of honor, using Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar as inspiration. Piece of cake (I crack myself up).

Spice cake with caramel frosting appealed to the mom, because she's cool like that. A Saturday afternoon party? The efficient baker knows the smart thing to do is complete the shopping Friday afternoon and bake the layers Friday evening, giving them plenty of time to chill (makes frosting that much easier). You know what else is nice on a Friday evening? Hanging out at Leaning Tower of Pizza with your boyfriend. Two margaritas later, those who know Going40 know that two margaritas = alcohol poisoning. No shopping, certainly no baking. No problem; we've pulled off tighter schedules than this.

So, Saturday morning means an early wake-up call, to the store post-haste, cake in the oven by 8am. But such pretty snow! Much better to sleep in and take a blustery walk down to the coffee shop, reading in the cozy warm window seat. By 9:30am, definitely time to head to the store.

Spice cakes are easy: let the milk and vinegar make sweet 'n sour love for a few minutes while you mix the rest of the ingredients together. Mix everything on high speed using your still-working handheld mixer (foreshadowing) because your stand mixer broke during The Time of Calamity last winter. Two 12-inch pans require a double batch, for those of you playing at home.

While the layers are baking, make the caramel frosting. Caramel frosting should win the Nobel peace prize. Seriously. Spread it around a battle field; soldiers will drop their weapons and start licking the ground. Place a bowl between a warring couple in divorce mediation; five minutes later they're smearing it all over each other, their petty troubles forgotten. Want a lazy coworker to finish a project? Set some caramel frosting just out of reach: job done right, and fast.

The layers have popped out of the pan beautifully, because that's how we roll. While they cool, it's time to make the beautiful cake decidedly more kid-friendly. Out come less elevated ingredients for decorative icing (NEVER eat the colored frosting).

Colors not found in nature. Even more insidiously, the trusty handheld workhorse of a hand-mixer breaks in the last seconds of whipping the frosting. I am now a prolific home bake with no. mixer. of. any. kind. I may as well live in Australia (inside joke for an Aussie-living cook who doesn't understand they sell appliances there, and that at this point in her nascent lovelife that boyfriend will buy her a.n.y.t.h.i.n.g.). On the upside, it's only noon. NOON! Easy. Except that it's time to drive in the wint'ry grossness to Roseville for a music gig. Super fun. But all goes well, and home by 2:30. Plenty of time to somehow stack and frost a big cake and pipe it in a pleasing manner (even though there's no real plan formed in Going40's brain for that). The party's not until 4.

And somehow, for the eight millionth time in my life, I deliver a cake to its intended with minutes to spare. The best moment is handing it over to the friends who are, without exception, grateful, complimentary, and relieved that it doesn't look like total crap. I am always sweating bullets: will the frosting slide? Is the cake dry? Why didn't I add _______ to the filling? And so on. But I'm also neurotic.

Time to enjoy the day! This part I missed, because instead of cleaning up the disaster of a kitchen (one of my cake-baking specialities) and heading to the party, I have a boyfriend who a) owns a house with lots of sidewalks; b) broke his arm, an affliction rendering him useless in many key ways; and c) I totally forgot to break up with before the first big snowstorm of the season. Off I go to shovel. In the meantime, the kid ate a lot of cake. Whenever I bring another child to sugar addiction, an angel earns its wings.

Happy first birthday, Anna. Here's to many more delicious (it totally was) cakes in your future.

10 November 2010

And also?

If I had to be a 55-year-old woman, I would want it to be like this.

Families moving forward redux, or, I don't end my day going down the hall to an institutional bathroom

I wrote about Families Moving Forward last spring, so you can read that post to catch up. My workplace is again hosting several families, and it's my turn to be overnight host. This is not a tough gig: I finished my rehearsals, grabbed some barbecued chips knelt in prayer, and hauled an air mattress into my office. Now I'll stay up too late reading people.com The Economist online, and wake up early to start my work day early so I can go home early and resume my regular good, full, rich life. I need to be reminded more than twice a year about how much I have, especially when I am too often focused, the other 363, on what I don't.

08 November 2010

Going forward, exhaustedly

So the concert was a smashing success, judged by the following subjective criteria:

~ The programs were beautiful, professionally printed, with original art on the cover painted for the occasion. I like things to be just so.
~ The church looked amazing, with big white streamers hanging from the rafters, votives flickering from the organ casework, and late-afternoon sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows.
~ Standing in front of 75 talented, well-prepared musicians, singing gorgeous music, in a superb acoustic, is so. fun. I wish everyone could have a turn on the podium, baton in hand, to experience what it feels like (but then again, I'm not likely to cede that spot). Alas, it's also terrifying. There are moments when I look down at the score and see all the cues I have to give and think, wow, they should really get an adult up here to do this.
~ There were shaky moments but those don't stick in my mind, so they can't have been all that bad. Rather, I remember the perfectly blended voices of my choir singing William Beckstrand's setting of the prayer of St. Francis (Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace . . .), with the sweet solo voices of Matt and Hannah joining in from the balcony. Or the massed choir nailing entrances and cutoffs that had been an earlier source of, um, concern. Or my dear friend Jen Sylvester, she of the impossibly perfect soprano, singing the Pie Jesu better than I've ever heard it anywhere. Or six violas making a rich, gorgeous sound right where I wanted it, and the four cellists responding in kind, not to mention the superb organist, solo violin and pitch-perfect horns. Or the sustained applause from a grateful audience. Or the many friends who said so many nice things afterwards.
~ The bars at the reception were plentiful, varied, and delicious. And even better, because there were many left over, I have brought a selection up to my office and am tasting each one, so that I can be knowledgable before thanking the bakers for their contributions. I am a selfless giver.
~ This was also the weekend of Meet the Parents, and M's mom and dad are sweet, friendly people, and I was reminded over and over again why I love their son. I was glad to have them at the concert and even more glad to join them and M and M's Foster Parent Equivalents (though so far he's avoided the group home experience) at Loring Pasta Bar for brandy sidecars (and food) after it was all over.

And now I'm back in the office, writing thank you notes, cleaning up from the hectic weekend, and reflecting on non-stop music-making, realizing how much I have to practice for trio rehearsal tonight, and two quickly-approaching accompanying gigs. It doesn't stop, does it? I will begin by tasting another bar.

04 November 2010

Too many notes

Am I working as a church musician, or do I manage a small civic concert hall? I can't really tell this week. The building is so overbooked with concerts and rehearsals; it's fun to walk down the hall and hear the university men's chorus warming up in one room, a pianist in another, and an orchestra tuning up in the sanctuary (or main concert hall, as it were). Another choral group in town rehearses at our church weekly, I have my usual grab bag of rehearsals during the week, and all these people have needs. Lots of them. But this week if you need a musical fix, head to Dinkytown. Big university concert Friday night, a Bach Society cantata workshop all day Saturday, and our very own concert Sunday. Which you should probably go to. I'll be conducting Gabriel Fauré's Requiem with a chorus made up of the two university-area Lutheran church choirs, chamber orchestra, organ and soloists. Sunday, November 7, 4:00pm at University Lutheran Church of Hope, 601 13th Ave SE, Minneapolis, 55414. There will be bars.

02 November 2010

Kitchen essentials redux

Back in the day, when I was writing the blog that made me a household name (it only takes one household, folks), we discussed kitchen tools we simply couldn't live without. I was rereading that post a few days ago, mostly because I seemed to remember a whole lot of useful, funny comments. I remembered correctly. I also got to thinking about cooking now, in a new era. Had bachelorhood changed me (how I loathe that word bachelor; I can't make myself fit any of its definitions or stereotypes. Besides, I only managed to remain unencumbered for about five minutes. I envy real, honest-to-goodness bachelors; I even know one. So insouciantly sexy. [See, that's why I could never be called a bachelor—I say insouciant.])?

The fact is, once I left the group home (where cooking involved eating, gratefully, whatever Foster Dad put in front of me [we won't speak of the straight-line vomiting of DQ milkshakes during The Recovery from the Unpleasantness {but don't you wonder whatever happened to Dr. MacDreamy? I do.}]), I cooked quite a bit. Cooking has changed; for one thing, I don't have all the gadgets I used to (not worth another post, but things I really miss: a KitchenAid stand mixer [which, really, given the amount I bake, seems a bit like a dentist without a drill, or a stripper without a pole], a digital kitchen scale, and the big Epicurean cutting board. And really, those three things are all I miss. Not too bad.). Because M and I both cook, a lot and well (until he decided to take a graceful dive off a ladder in either a foolhardy show of manly bravado or super pathetic attempt to depart this world), I have come to realize even more that a good working kitchen is much more about efficient space, a few basic, high-quality tools, and a whole lot of common sense.

Today, I consider these my five kitchen essentials:

Lodge 12-inch skillet   More and more, I'm leaving the Calphalon and even Le Creuset behind in favor of humble, solid, easy-to-clean (and cheap!) cast iron. How often do I use it? Its storage spot is the stovetop. That's right, I never. put it away. And I pretty much put away everything.

Melamine bowls   They're light-weight, nestable, come in a variety of useful sizes, they're from friends I love and miss, and most importantly, they're pretty.

Ginger   Whole, powdered, crystallized, aled, and liqueured up. One spice, many forms, as useful in a savory curry as in a buttery baked good. And the GinGin is a most satisfying cocktail.

Oxo bottle opener   Let's be real; it's been a rough year.

M   I can only describe his knife skills as savant-like. When the big orange bent-arm cast comes off, I expect him in the kitchen chopping onions for a solid week. Or else.

Now. Yours?

01 November 2010

When the day bites. Or, girls in white dresses can take their blue satin sashes and . . .

So, it's Monday and you've had a bad day? Yeah, me too. It doesn't matter why really, and that's not the point. The point is, when theworldisshittyandbadthingshappenandyourcuteboyfriendhasplansfortheeveningandyourpianostudenthasnotpracticedinaboutthreeyearsandyourexstopsbyandnothatisnoteventheshittythingsoquittryingtofigureitout,
so anyway, when that happens, you need good coping mechanisms, right? While I would love to hear yours, you have to read about mine first, because of the neediness. And it's my blog. Herewith, how I made sour watery lemonade out of this major lemon of a day:
  • After 3 (three!) scary days of fiction misfires (Andrew Solomon, your little novel started out with promise until I realized you were the same guy who had an unabashedly tacky gay wedding featured in the Times. There is forgivenes, and then there is shame for one's people), I jumped on the bandwagon of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Heavens to Murgatroyd the man can write (and be all evocative about place; it almost makes you like St. Paul). I will see you all in two weeks when I'm finished.
  • Luckily I made a batch of the nuns' good chocolate chip cookies. After panicking at the thought of eating five dozen cookies myself, I gave many away. Even more luckily, I was not so stupid as to give them all away. I had a little Rickie Lake moment about 3pm.

  • White beans, rosemary, and greens. Enough cooking to feel virtuous, but not so much that I had to work for it. Thank you, cookbook project.
  • Hard cider. No photo necessary.
  • If you never sign out of your foster parents' Netflix account, you're always signed in. Season 4 of 30 Rock, you so funny.
  • I totally thought about going for a run.
  • I'm totally thinking about going for a walk. To Jackson's for black chocolate gelato. Because Liberty Custard is too far away. Dang, now I'm sad again . . . 

They shall be called my disciples.