19 January 2011

On my nightstand

I'm knitting more than reading away these cold January nights but, as always, I'm picking my way through several books at once. Given the tenor of the tomes, you'd think I was lazing about a beach in warmer climes. Alas, I'm slogging through the snow with the rest of you (f you're reading this from someplace pleasant, just go away). My current stack includes:

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, Louise Murphy
A shock that I would be reading yet another novel about the Holocaust, I know. I can't help myself. And this spare-but-vivid novel of wartime Poland is worth every wrenching turn of the page.

Insignificant Others, Stephen McCauley
Candy for the gays. I love reading McCauley's funny, nervous romps, but this time he tackles gay relationships and the thorny issues around monogamy in a real, unsparing way. Still fit for the beach, but I can't shake the questions the book poses.

The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson
I'm a sucker for an award-winner, and Jacobson won the 2010 Booker for this novel. More Jews. I don't know what my deal is.

The Essential New York Times Cook Book, Amanda Hesser
Nobody reads cookbooks cover to cover, and Amanda Hesser's new baby is ginormous. But Hesser has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I so admire the breadth and depth of this project (building a cookbook culled from the entirety of the Times' food archives) that I started on page i and am reading it like a novel. A dense, delicious 1,000-page novel.

Now you. Reading anything good? I feel shaky and nervous if I don't have dozens of unread books on my shelves.

14 January 2011

Hoarders: Poetry Edition

Gratitude was short-lived, no? Ann, our Poetry Curator-in-Residence, sent another perfect gem—on my birthday no less—and I have held onto it all this time, unwilling to let it go (as if posting it here means that Mr. Reznikoff didn't write it just for me). But now I must share, on this perfect, quiet day. Snow is gently falling, I have the day off and refuse to get out of bed just yet: a poetry kind of morning. If only one of you would stop by and pour my coffee, which I can't reach from here.

Thank you Ann, and thank you Charles Reznikoff, for this:

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

10 January 2011


: the state of being grateful

That is exactly the state in which I found myself (a much warmer state than Minnesota, bytheby) on January 4. My birthday was one of the nicest I can remember. American Teacakes from A Baker's Wife, a lovely lunch out with Doppelgänger, a convivial gathering of friends in the evening, and so many warm greetings from friends and family all day (God bless Facebook). I loved it all, and more importantly, felt loved the entire day. 2011 is going to be a very good year. It has to be.

I wish that I could knit something lovely for every single person I heard from on my birthday, but since I almost have a life, that isn't possible. Instead, I knit a handsome neckwarmer in a gender-neutral color (it's more blue than the photo shows), using soft Malabrigo wool from Uruguay.

I wrote all your names on little slips of paper, everyone who offered me birthday greetings in some form. That was about 175 of you! The best part is that—for just a moment—I got to think about each one of you, and be thankful to know you.

And now, right at this moment, I have all those slips of paper in a big envelope, and when I type the period at the end of this sentence, I'll draw out a name.

Esther! When I go to work tomorrow, I'll take the neckwarmer with me, and give it to my good friend and colleague. And I'll be giving a little bit back, remembering all that you have given me.

03 January 2011

The Great Cake Giveaway



Tomorrow is my birthday + I make good chocolate cake + You're already tired of your restrictive new year's resolutions.

So I'm going to bake a giant chocolate cake, and you are invited to stop by anytime after 7pm, Tuesday, January 4, for a piece of birthday cake. You can take it to go, you can say hi, slam the cake and leave, or you can stay and chat. Whatever you'd like. I'd love to see you, love to share a piece of cake, and then we can all get on with our year. It's not dinner, there will be no accompanying folderol: just cake.

If you don't know where I live, I'm happy to send you directions. But seriously, I'd love to see you. Happy Cake Day!

02 January 2011

Pistachio-Orange: The Cake

I'm beginning to feel like the American Pistachio Council owes me a kickback.

Yes, the inspiration for the 2011 new year's cake was the infamous cookie. I liked the flavor combination, and since one of the party's hosts put me up to the cookie contest in the first place, it seemed reasonable to pay homage. I can safely say I don't need to see another pistachio anytime soon. You'll agree, I'm quite sure.

People ask me what makes a cake delicious, and I reply, "Love." But I don't really believe that. Ironically, the key to a good cake can be found in my least favorite word: moist. We achieve the proper texture of a cake by a) baking it not one second longer than it should be baked (I am so not kidding about this; I have been known to set the oven timer to 30 seconds when checking doneness); and b) hedging our bets with tasty camouflage. But you don't want to know about My Cake Philosophy; you simply want to see if this one turned out, and you're sort of hoping for an epic fail. Sorry, didn't happen.

The basics: 12-inch white cake rounds, brushed with Grand Marnier syrup, layered with pistachio-orange filling and frosted with orange buttercream.

In case that seemed not rich enough, each slice would be served with a spoonful of orange curd.

I conjured these key words for decorating the cake: tree branches, hoarfrost, mosaics. I have no idea why, as the invitation to the party arrived in the form of a hot pink coaster, printed with a mustache on the 0 of 2011.

To create our* edible mosaic, I candied orange zest, made pistachio brittle, and ground raw pistachios. Using a graduated sieve, we had ten different textures of material to work with.
*Yes, our. I conscripted M to help with the decorating, because a) he's quite the artist, b) he has kitchen skills to spare, and c) I whine well.

M painstakingly created the tree adorning the top of the cake, using a template cut from one of his several sketches. My love for him was confirmed when he looks at me, kitchen tweezers in hand and says, "For this lower branch I need a pistachio sliver with a slightly more golden hue."

It wasn't until working on the border that we realized we were essentially creating state fair crop art. This pleased us both quite a bit.

Several hours later, with legions of pistachios sacrificed for the cause, I delivered the cake to the party, only a bit behind schedule. Carrying the cake in is always a bit nerve-wracking, but the exclamations of delight seemed genuine.

And then it was gone. And it was delicious.

A brief history of cake

My good friends E and B have been hosting a New Year's Day open house for many years (even though they're really young). When I first got to know them, six years ago, E asked if I'd bake a cake for the party, to help celebrate B's birthday as well. I happily obliged, and a tradition was born (either that or the party hosts are too kind to ask me to stop bringing cake). Others go out on the town on New Year's Eve; I bake.

The first year, 2006, I baked a small cake, covered in fondant snowflakes.

For 2007, a chocolate cake the size of the earth.

We rang in 2008 with a 3-tiered pink affair.

In 2009, I created an unbelievable mess in the kitchen, but the spun-sugar cloud on a spice cake with cardamom buttercream was worth it.

Last year's was my favorite to make, causing an even bigger mess in the kitchen; a forest of faux-bois birch logs made of meringue and cocoa powder, nestled in espresso buttercream.

I thought I might retire after that, but I was back at it this weekend, and yesterday presented yet another cake. Stay tuned for the story of this year's Ode to OCD.

They shall be called my disciples.