May 28, 2008

(Note:  Yes, I am that cheesy and unsubtle.  The title of this post is indeed a reference to the Frank Capra-directed World War II propaganda film series, Why We Fight.  The movies in this series are in the public domain, viewable on the internet, and well worth watching.)

It was pure coincidence, a choice among a plethora of Memorial Day weekend movie choices, 100% political-agenda-free, that led Lloyd and me to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad on Memorial Day.  In hindsight, though—and I know I will probably make more than a few people unhappy when I say this—I find it a perfectly appropriate, if heartbreaking, way to honor our fallen troops in Iraq, as well as to acknowledge the terrible, terrible price Iraqi civilians have paid over the past five years.  At first glance, it might seem frivolous to think about the war in the context of a documentary about Iraq’s only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda, but Heavy Metal in Baghdad is far from frivolous.  This is not to say that it isn’t fun, because at times, it is.  The music is terrific, the concert scenes are a hoot to watch, and the band members (Firas Al Lateef on vocals and rhythm guitar, Faisal Talal on bass, Marwan Reyad on drums and the lightning-fast Tony Aziz on lead guitar) are all affable, funny, smart and Very, Very Metal.  It is also, by turns, painful, sad, infuriating, suspenseful and just plain nervewracking.  Directed and shot by the creative team behind VICE magazine, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is both an exuberant fan letter and a street-level view of the most dangerous place in the world.  I am worlds beyond impressed at the movie Alvi and Moretti have made, but I’m even gladder that they made it home alive.  When you see this movie, you will understand just how remarkable a feat this is.

I do beg your forbearance, dear friends, if I belabor the point more strongly than necessity might dictate, but I do want you to see this movie, as many of you as possible.  At the noon screening that Lloyd and I attended, there was one other person in the theatre with us.  I hope that the turnout was better at the later showings, but I’m not holding my breath, especially considering that just up the street Iron Man is playing on an IMAX screen.  (This is not a poke at Iron Man; we plan to see that, too, but we’re betting that that one will be around for a while, whereas Heavy Metal in Baghdad probably will not be.) If you are a metalhead—I know there are at least two of you out there who read PTMYB—you should see this movie.  If you are not a metalhead but you appreciate a well-made documentary produced by smart filmmakers, you should see it.  If you are a VICE reader, you should see it (and depending on where you live, you probably already have).  If you oppose the war, if you support the war, or if you’re exhausted by the very thought of the war—particularly if you’re the latter—you should see it.  If you plan to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, it is absolutely imperative that you see it.

By the argument for invading Iraq as presented to us by the Bush administration, the four members of Acrassicauda were exactly the Iraqi-on-the-street whose hearts and minds we would win by removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Interviewed in 2003, the band recalls how, when they applied for performance permits from the Ministry of Culture, they were asked “so what do you have for Saddam?” At the time, not having at least one song proclaiming Saddam’s greatness could land your band in jail, so they dutifully included a song with “yay, Saddam!” lyrics, which Marwan acknowledges were “fucking lies,” to keep themselves out of jail.  Even with pro-regime lyrics, it was still a dangerous thing to be a metalhead in Saddam’s Iraq.  Long hair was forbidden, beards even more so.  (Faisal acknowledges, bluntly, that he is playing a dangerous game with the goatee he sports.) Wearing T-shirts silkscreened with the legends of American bands—or with any English on them—was dangerous.  Headbanging was outlawed outright, supposedly for its resemblance to the motions of Jewish prayer.  In early concert footage, you can see enthusiastic but subdued crowds, longing to cut loose and bang their heads, almost none daring to do so.  By 2005, in the midst of spiraling post-invasion chaos, Acrassicauda staged a concert at the Al Fanar Hotel.  (VICE had worked to organize this concert, but the day before the show, Eddy and Suroosh were stranded in Beirut, 500 miles from Baghdad.) Despite the power cuts, despite the logistical nightmares, the show went on.  60 Baghdad metalheads showed up, and their sheer frenzied exuberance, caught on video by their segment producer Johan, is a blast to watch.  When the band launches into their incendiary song “Massacre,” the crowd goes nuts.  The driving beat and opening power cords are thrilling, even as the lyrics, depicting civilian casualties of the war, are devastating.  I could have listened for days.

If pre-invasion Iraq was dangerous for metalheads and critics of the regime, post-invasion Iraq is lethal for everyone who lives and works there—or tries to.  VICE’s next attempt to enter Iraq, in 2006, is successful, but fraught with danger that almost defies belief:  Having hired a security detail that includes a translator, two drivers and two gunsmen (as well as flak jackets and a truck full of guns), by the end of their stay, the security company has added 13 gunsmen to their detail.  Tony and Marwan have left Iraq, crossing the border into Syria; Faisal and Firas are still in Baghdad, living 15 minutes apart from each other, but unable to see each other due to the danger inherent in just walking down the street.  To speak English on the street, or to be seen with anyone speaking English on the street, is to invite gunfire.  When Suroosh calls Faisal to arrange a meeting, Faisal’s only response is a whispered “okay;” to say any more, any louder, is unthinkable.  At night Eddy and Suroosh stand on the balcony of their room at the Al Mansour Hotel, smoking, looking out over the city as bombs explode, gunfire peppers the air and Apache helicopters fly overhead.  By day they ride down the streets of Baghdad, taking increasingly risky field trips as their translator grows visibly agitated.  One such trip is to Acrassicauda’s old rehearsal space, tiny and dimly-lit, where the band used to write and play for 12 hours a day.  A missile has destroyed the building, the rehearsal space and the band’s instruments, which are buried in the rubble.  The exuberant young men who packed their jubilant show at the Al Fanar are either dead or have fled the country.  Midway through one interview, Firas looks visibly pained.  What I took for depression, or deep sadness, was actually anxiety.  Curfew is four hours away, and the two hours before curfew are the most dangerous in Baghdad.  “Can we go now?” he asks.  This simple question is loaded with dread.

Acrassicauda’s tale is one that defies happy endings.  This may seem a facile understatement, and in fact it is, but I think it’s worth noting because the desire for happy endings, or at least a measure of satisfaction, is strong, particularly among Americans.  I’ve mentioned this story before—apologies to those of you who are tired of hearing me tell it—but about 10 years ago I read an interview with Daniel and Susan Cohen, who wrote children’s nonfiction readers until 1988, when their only child, Theodora, was killed on Pan Am 103 over Scotland.  Daniel Cohen observed that one difficulty he and his wife found in their fight for justice was that people (not exclusively but mostly Americans) need, if not a happy ending, at least some purpose to their suffering.  We want to know that someday our lost loved ones will be waiting for us over the horizon, but if we can’t know that, at least we should have something to show for our pain.  Let us be better, stronger, more resourceful, more appreciative of small pleasures.  It is enormously difficult for us to hear that sometimes there is no measure of satisfaction, that the only thing that can be found in loss and ruin is more loss and ruin.

This brings me back to Acrassicauda.  In 2007, all four members of the band have reunited in Damascus, where the only work they can find is menial, under-the-table, illegal work, as Iraqi citizens are enjoined from working in Syria.  (In an attempt to stop the flow of Iraqi refugees into the country, the Syrian government has imposed new entry requirements on new refugees, and regularly attempts to repatriate existing refugees.) There is a flash of the old Acrassicauda glory when they play a concert in a Damascus internet cafe—no mean feat when Faisal points out that there are no metalheads in Damascus—but the reality is harsh:  They are poor expatriates, unable to work legally, forced to pawn their instruments to pay bills, missing their homeland desperately but knowing that returning is lethal.  When, with VICE’s assistance, they are able to record a three-track demo, it is a psychologically rousing boost, but it is not enough of a leap forward to give their lives any stability.

Thanks to charitable donations that bought their plane tickets and covered some living expenses, Acrassicauda are now living in Istanbul.  The cost of living in Istanbul is high, however, and the band is in much the same position as they were in Damascus.  Entry visas into Europe or North America have not been forthcoming.  The band was unable to attend the screenings of Heavy Metal in Baghdad at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival or the 2008 Berlin Film Festival.  When the official film website calls Acrassicauda “literally a band on the run,” it does not exaggerate.  The possibility of an entry visa to the U.S. appears beyond remote.  (Among the appalling statistics offered in the film is that of the four million Iraqi citizens displaced by the war [two million displaced internally within Iraq, two million refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon], less than 500 have been granted legal entry into the U.S.  Unfortunately, given the current rancorous debate over immigration in the U.S., I know that to mount an argument that more Iraqi emigres should be allowed in is an extremely difficult task, but I do hope that someone will pursue it.)

Yesterday morning, as I drank my coffee and perused the news, I found, via the Associated Press, a challenge issued by John McCain to Barack Obama, inviting him to join McCain on a trip to Iraq, so that he could see what has been accomplished on the ground in Iraq.  If Sen. McCain’s offer is sincere, and if Sen. Obama accepts the offer, I would recommend that they watch Heavy Metal in Baghdad before they go.  (Since I do not have a hotline to either the McCain or Obama campaigns, I suspect that my recommendation will go unheeded.) I’d be keen to know what they think of what they will see.  I’d be particularly keen to ask Sen. McCain if turning Baghdad into a surreal and ultraviolent no-man’s land is considered an accomplishment on the ground, if the liberation of Baghdad was worth the lives of over 4,000 young Americans and over 600,000 Iraqi civilians, worth the homes and health and livelihood of millions of others, worth the safety and creativity and freedom of four young men whose dearest wish is to play fast, loud music together.

Going to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad on Memorial Day was not a political statement, but this is:  If you live in New York or Los Angeles, please see this film.  If you cannot travel to New York or Los Angeles, please consider buying the DVD when it goes on sale on June 10.  If you don’t want to buy the DVD outright, please rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster or the rental outlet of your choice.  Please watch this movie, please look at what one of the oldest places in the world has become, and then ask yourself, your family and friends and neighbors, your elected officials, and your presidential candidates:  Is this why we fight?

(If you would like to make a donation to the band, or if you would like to learn more about the Iraqi refugee crisis, which the U.N. has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world, the Take Action link on the Heavy Metal in Baghdad website has links to various organizations, along with a PayPal button for donations to the band.  You can also access the band’s blog and MySpace pages via the HMiB website.)

Posted by Bakerina at 05:16 PM in • (1) Comments
May 18, 2008

It has been a long time since I’ve had a really good—or, depending on your point of view, really bad—foodish rant around here. It’s certainly not for lack of cause.  It’s not as if, once the thousand-dollar frittata and the P.B. Slice surrendered their fifteen minutes of fame, there were no other outrageous foodstuffs to replace them.  From squeezable yogurt in a tube to those scary glop-filled Bowls O’Food that KFC rolled out last year to Paula Deen’s batter-dipped, deep-fried orange cake recipe that a dear friend shared with me, there has been a wealth of nonsense that should not have passed without comment—and yet, I had bugger-all to say about any of it. I could blame it on the law school follies, or on the months of unemployment torpor that preceded the law school follies, or the two last miserable years at LuthorCorp, when I basically lost interest in everything that makes life worth living.  Or I could just jettison all the excuses and admit it:  I got lazy.  I got soft.  I didn’t have the attention span required to get my knickers in a twist, much less spend a thousand words untwisting them.

Of course you know that couldn’t last.  wink

Credit is due to Pam the Beancounter, who, if you are not acquainted with her, is witty and wry and thoughtful and a consistent source of amusing conversation. (If you are acquainted with her, of course, then you already know this.) Last week Pam was at a supermarket in Modesto, California, where she found—oh, heaven help me for using this phrase, even in a tongue-in-cheek way—a display of value-added russet potatoes.  I am thankful that Pam has a blog, a camera and a well-honed sense of the absurd, because honestly, if she had tried to explain this to me, I would have refused to believe it.  It would have been beyond my ken to believe it.

Apparently a venerable West Coast produce concern has discovered that if you take a crop of russet potatoes, sort them by size, wash them twice, shrinkwrap them individually and slap both a heat-sensitive tear strip and a double-sided label on the shrinkwrap, you can sell the resulting potatoes at 99 cents each.  For 99 cents, you can buy one single, modestly-sized russet potato, the same modestly-sized russets that my neighborhood fruit-and-vegetable market, several thousand miles away from Idaho potato country, sells in five-pound bags for $2.50.  (If I want bigger russets, I can buy them loose for 59 cents a pound.  The big ones usually weigh around 9 or 10 ounces).  This new generation of potatoes, branded as Micro Baker, are essentially twice the price of bagged potatoes.

So what exactly is the added value in these value-added potatoes?  If you’re going to pay double the price for your spuds, particularly in an era of $4.00/gallon gasoline, certainly you should get something for your money—something, that is, besides more plastic in the supply chain/water table/landfill.  A little research revealed that the produce company in question is Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, a frequent fixture in my food magazines, well known for sourcing exotic fruits and vegetables worldwide.  Okay, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Inc., I thought, sell me.

Hmmm.

Apparently the main selling points of these potatoes are a) they are foolproof to cook in the microwave, b) you leave the shrinkwrap on during the microwaving process, so that your hands never have to touch the potato and c) thanks to the heatproofing on the tearstrip, you can open the shrinkwrap without burning your fingers.  They also have “consistent sizing,” “a label filled with valuable information,” and “a neat, clean appearance,” which, granted, is something the big loose dusty russets don’t have, although, really, it’s pretty quick work to scrub a potato clean.  If these selling points were underwhelming, though, the last ones were mindboggling:  In seven minutes you can have a “‘tastes just liked baked’ potato flavor!” You can have a potato just like the ones served in gourmet restaurants!

This, dear friends, is where they lost me, and where I got my lunatic, muttering food crank idiom back. 

Those last two selling points are just plain wrong.  When you microwave a potato, you are essentially steaming it, cooking it via wet heat.  When you bake, or roast, a potato, you are cooking it via dry heat.  Both are worthy cooking methods, but they are not interchangeable, and to claim that you can create a baked flavor via steaming, or a steamed texture via baking, is a pernicious fiction that does neither the produce merchant nor the cook any favors.  Baking a russet does more than cook it through:  it contributes to the fluffy, floury, mealy texture that makes it unparalleled for absorbing butter, sour cream or olive oil.  It also encourages gentle browning and caramelization of the sugars in the skin, giving it a deep, roasted flavor that contrasts so nicely with the fleshy interior of the potato.  To show off a russet at its best, it’s not enough to cook it; you need to dry it out as well.  There is something inimitable and fine about taking a nice big russet, scrubbing it clean, rubbing its skin with a little bit of salt and tossing it into a hot oven (preferably on the rack above or below the roast you’re roasting or the bread you’re baking), pulling it out of the oven an hour later and feeling how light it has become.  Wrap it in a towel so that you don’t burn your fingers, thump it once, hard, against your work surface, and unroll your steamy potato into a bowl, where it will happily soak up whatever you want to put on it, be it a quantity of butter or a little tub of cottage cheese.  It is soulful, restorative food. 

When you microwave a russet, you are not drying it out.  You are steaming it in its own juice.  This is a terrific thing if you are steaming a fish, particularly a lean fish, or vegetables:  you are keeping the food nice and moist, with pure, clear flavor, unmuddied by caramelization.  It is not terrific for a potato that derives its best flavor and texture from dry heat.  Yes, the potato will cook through evenly; you can cut it open and dress it with butter or cheese; you can even eat the skin, although it won’t taste like anything and the texture will remind you of a wet paper towel.  At best, you’ll have something nice enough to eat.  But it won’t have a “tastes just liked baked” flavor, and no amount of exclamation points will give it one.

Most likely it will, however, taste like a gourmet restaurant baked potato.  This is because, with few exceptions, gourmet restaurant baked potatoes are steamed, too.  I don’t know who first lit on the idea of wrapping russets in foil before baking them, but it was a terrible idea.  All of the moisture that would dissipate in the oven remains contained within the foil.  The result is the same as that of microwaved potatoes:  flavorless, paper-towellish skin, waterlogged flesh.  But hey, it certainly looks snappy in its little foil bunting when it sits on the plate next to your steak, and if the kitchen is lucky, you consider that potato to be an afterthought, little more than a vehicle for that little plastic tub of sour cream they give you.

Admittedly, I might be taking this whole potato methodology rant a bit too far.  I am not a martinet.  I realize that sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to run the oven for an hour, particularly on a swampy day in August.  I have also spent years working in offices where baking a potato wasn’t an option, but microwaving a potato was, and if the resulting potato wasn’t perfect, it was still tasty, filling, cheap and probably healthier than most of the takeout hot lunch options available to me.  I have done it before, and one day I might have to do it again.  I will not, however, be fooling myself into thinking that I’m getting something that tastes like the perfect potato of my dreams—and I’m sure as hell not going to pay twice the price for it.

Posted by Bakerina at 04:49 PM in • (0) Comments
May 08, 2008

Dear friends, I’m working on two separate posts.  This post is neither of them.  This is a housecleaning post, the kind of post I hate to post, the kind where you’re having a good time, mingling with your guests, listening to party jokes and eating excellent hors d’oeuvres, only to notice that somebody from the kegger next door has wandered onto your lawn and started puking in your birdbath.  I do not like writing these any more than you like reading them, but alas, sometimes the jackassery of others makes them necessary.

Dear Others, As my boyfriend Bruce Campbell once said so famously:  All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up.  I do not care how well-intentioned you might be, or how good you are at pretending you read this page:  If you come here by way of a Google search on a word, any word, plus the phrases “Remember my personal information” and “Notify me of follow-up comments,” I will delete your comment the instant I find it.  If you post it while I’m asleep, I will delete it the instant I wake up.  If you post it while I happen to be online, well, just watch my smoke.  This includes you, Mr. or Ms. University of Connecticut, Storrs-Mansfield campus. I have your IP address, I have your server name, I have a whopping great brace of nerve, and I have plenty of time on my hands.  Your efforts are for naught here.

Cheez Whiz.  In the time I spent writing that, I could have been making barley sugar cookies.  I hate it when I have to use cookie time to clean the house.  rasberry

Posted by Bakerina at 06:32 PM in • (1) Comments
May 01, 2008

There is no way I can do justice to the past week without resorting to hyperbole, or, conversely, understating the case.  The response from friends, family and well-wishers to our news has been illuminating, and, for the most part, deeply gratifying.  It might sound disingenuous, particularly coming from someone who checks her stats as many times in a day as I do, but I honestly had no idea that so many people had been following our story and wishing us so well.  I want to thank you all, properly, and I will, at a time when I am not quite so addled by the speed at which things are progressing—and yes, now that we have made this decision, things are progressing very, very rapidly.  “I guarantee that even though it feels like a long wait, you will be shocked by how fast the time will go,” said Lloyd as we went to bed last night.  He’s not kidding.  Things are still happening, but because they’re up in the air, I have to be kind of cagey about disclosing them.  (Since there’s such a thing as being *too* cagey, though, I will say this:  it’s not pregnancy.  I’m not pregnant.  It’s nothing like that.  Whew.)

Truth be told, I’m in something of an overstimulated state right now.  Most of it is due to happiness, excitement and the promise of change, but I’d be lying if I said that no tears had been shed.  There were tears, and plenty of ‘em, this weekend, and I’m not entirely sure that they’re behind me yet.  There’s also, to be frank, some laziness in the mix.  The next three months are going to be busy, busier than the past five months have been, and as a result my engines seem to have ground to a complete halt, as if I were a hibernating bear.  If I weren’t going to Maryland Sheep and Wool with Momerina this weekend, I could easily see myself sitting around my living room, watching the fourth season of Alias on dvd with Lloyd all weekend long, with only occasional breaks for food prepared for us by other people.  ("How morally opposed are you to pizza again?") It’s a weird sensation, this combination of racing brain and torpid work ethic, and I’ll be glad when these extremes stop feeling so, erm, extreme, when they move toward a convergence point that will enable me to get some damn work done.

Until I get to that point, though, I’m going to be a scoundrel, and resort to cheap, easy methods of entertainment.

ka salted cashew crunch cookies

Yes, it’s cookie porn, but it’s really excellent cookie porn.  (I am fully aware that by adopting this terminology, I’m inviting the attention of degenerate googlers, but considering that on any given day I get hits from searches on “ballerina shoes spanking” and “do the hairs on the back of your neck stand up during orgasm” [is that the editorial “your,” or me specifically?], to say nothing of the infamous “humiliating games with duct tape,” I figure that things can’t get much more degenerative around here.)

Ahem.  Sorry.

Ever since the magnificent Bee sent me a copy of the hilarious and inspiring A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down (from the blog of the same name!), I’ve never been without at least one type of cookie/biscuit (waves to the Commonwealth readers) on hand to dunk in my tea.  From time to time I’ll buy a box of Petit Ecolier or Choco Leibniz biscuits from the Italian deli where I shop almost every day, but for the most part I’m still baking my own.  My cookie of choice has been the French honey wafers from Maida Heatter’s Brand New Book of Great Cookies, which are terrific made with orange blossom honey and even better made with tupelo honey, but I bet will be outstanding when made with the Tasmanian leatherwood honey that is once again available in my neighborhood.  I’ve also had a constant supply of Maida’s Cornmeal Shortbread Fingers from the same book, partly because they’re so good when dunked into tea, but also because you get to pipe them through a pastry bag, which, in my opinion, is about as much fun as you can have while still standing up. 

I could probably live happily on both of these all spring, or would have, if I’d hadn’t spent a weekend at Momerina’s reading her copy of King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, which filled me with a blinding desire to buy my own copy immediately, and then make every single recipe in the book.  Eventually I *will* make everything, but I keep finding myself getting stuck on the Salted Cashew Crunch cookies, which might be as close to my own perfect cookie as anything I’ve found.  I love them so much that I have not even succumbed to the temptation to bake a batch, temper some chocolate and then coat the bottoms, to see if the chocolate enhances the sweet/salt idiom of these particular cookies.  A little chocolate might make a good thing even better, or it might be overkill, or worse yet, acceptable but unnecessary.  My natural tendency to fiddle is not tweaked by these cookies.  They really are close to perfect on their own.

The recipe is not at all complicated, but you do need some equipment.  The cookies are made from rolled oats that have been ground in a food processor for 30 seconds.  If you don’t have a food processor, or a blender, you can use oat flour, but in that case I would definitely recommend that you weigh, not measure, the oat flour, so that you can be sure you’re getting exactly 7 ounces of oats.  (I have not tried leaving the oats whole; my sense is that it would produce a lacier cookie, one more prone to spreading and burning, but that’s just a guess on my part.  Maybe one of these days I’ll try it.) If you have two cookie sheets and can fit 15 cookies on a sheet without cramming them too closely together (about 2” between cookies should be fine), you can bake the whole batch in one pass through the oven; no waiting for cookie sheets to cool down, no trying to find space for additional cookie sheets *and* cooling racks.  It takes less than 10 minutes, including the grinding of oats and chopping of cashews, to put the dough together, which means that you really can go from no dessert to “ooo!  cookies!” in half an hour.  The recipe yields about 30 cookies, which sounds a bit small for a batch of cookies, but these little gems are rich, so a little goes a long way. 

We will not talk about the day I missed lunch, and ate half a dozen in one sitting.  No, we will not.  I do not make a habit of this, and certainly don’t encourage it in others.  wink

Salted Cashew Crunch Cookies (from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking:  Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains [Countryman Press, 2006])
makes 30 cookies
(As always, the recipe is that of the good folks at King Arthur, paraphrased and annotated by me.)

7 ounces (2 cups) old-fashioned rolled oats
8 ounces (2 cups) salted cashew pieces or whole cashews (if you use whole cashews, you may need more than 2 cups to make 8 ounces, although I wouldn’t sweat this too much)
4 ounces (1/2 cup, 1 stick) unsalted butter
5 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup) granulated sugar (unbleached sugar is nice here, but not necessary)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I used double-strength vanilla from Penzeys, which gives an unbeatable vanilla flavor)
1 large egg
salt for topping (The King Arthur folks recommend extra-fine salt.  Because I’m a big showboater, I decided to use pinches of fleur de sel, which is an appellation-controllée sea salt from Brittany.  It is considered a “finishing” salt, something you put on your food before you eat it, but not really for cooking or baking.  I think it’s the perfect salt for sprinkling on these cookies, but by all means, use what you like best.  If the thought of baking an expensive salt gives you the vapors, then a nice basic fine sea salt from the supermarket will still work beautifully.)

Preheat the oven to 350F/160C/Gas Mark 4. Place oven racks on the upper and lower third racks.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Grind the oats in a food processor for 30 seconds.  If you are using whole cashews, chop them roughly in the food processor—four or five pushes of the pulse button should do it.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter, sugar, salt, baking powder and egg together.  If your butter is soft enough, you can do this by hand, if you’d like.  Stir in the ground oats (I usually do this with a cake whisk) and the cashews (I always do this with my hands; it pretty much ensures that everything is evenly blended.)

Drop the dough by tablespoons onto the cookie sheets.  Flatten the cookies into rounds, either using the bottom of a glass or your fingers, to a thickness of about 3/8”.  Sprinkle the cookies with a light, light dusting of salt.  (The original instructions call for salting the cookies before flattening them; if you use a fine salt, this will work well.  If your salt is a little more coarse, like mine, you might find it easier to flatten, then salt.)

Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, reversing the sheets top-to-bottom and front-to-back after about 6 minutes.  Once you pull them from the oven, leave them to cool completely on the baking sheets.  Decant into an airtight container.

Note: The original recipe specifies baking them until they’re “light golden brown.” The first time I did this, I got nervous, and ended up with cookies that were delicious, but slightly underbaked.  On the next batch, I baked them for 15 minutes, until the bottoms were slightly darker (not burnt, though).  By pushing the baking time a bit, I was able to get a deeper, more caramel flavor from them, reminiscent of salt caramels, which just might be my favorite sweetie of 2008. A cookie full of the things I love—oats, cashews, butter, sugar, vanilla and salt—baked to a salt caramel flavor palate:  what more could a nice cup of tea ask for?

extreme cashew, salt and oat closeup action

Posted by Bakerina at 01:35 PM in • (0) Comments
April 23, 2008

Note: Dearest friends, the following post comes on the heels of a tremendous amount of deep thought and emotional blood/sweat/tears.  Since I announced that this year would be the year for law school, and that I’d have to make some tough decisions about what to do and where to go, I have received a staggering amount of comments, emails and phone calls offering advice.  Some of you have known me for a long time; some of you are new friends.  To say that I am gratified and moved by your concern and your care is to grossly understate the case.  I thank everyone for caring enough to share their experiences and advice with me.  Having said that, please know that Lloyd and I came to this decision after hours and days and months of talking and weighing and planning.  We’ve made up our minds.  We’re happy with, and excited by, our conclusion.  It is entirely possible that, were you in our place, you would come to an entirely different conclusion, and think that ours is dangerous and ruinous.  By all means, you are certainly entitled, nay, encouraged, to come to your own conclusion.  But if I receive any incendiary commentary about how our conclusion is stupid and wrong and marriage-ruining—seriously, I am not exaggerating when I say that I have received email telling me just that—I’m going to cut it off at the knees.  We have made our decision.  If we change our minds, it will only be due to factors that affect us, and no one else.  Thank you all, dear ones, for respecting our decision.

Additional note: This is *not* the official travelogue I keep promising.  That one is on the way. Really.

Where does one begin?  If that one is me, one begins with fits, starts and hiccups.  Three times have I drafted an opening sentence; three times have I deleted it, muttering “no, no, no.” I returned home from California yesterday morning, bringing with me some brilliant things, all of which will be described in the lavish and overwritten style you have come to expect from PTMYB.  (I also brought home a little sunburn on my chest and a mild head cold, which are somewhat less brilliant, but I have applied Lush Dream Cream to the former and Theraflu to the latter, and am now just fine for going out and playing in the fresh air with Lloyd, who is off from work this week.) So I’ll start with a teaser and a confession.  Here’s the teaser:

grace on the slide

This would be my adored and splendid hostess, Grace Davis, sliding down one of the neatest hidden gems of a city ever to be found, the Seward Street slides, a concrete slide situated in a lot between two buildings in the Diamond Heights/Castro area of San Francisco.  There is a story to tell about this slide, and about the other wonders my dear friends shared with me so generously, but it will take me some time to tell, particularly since I also came home with 207 photos to sort and catalogue and dream over.  So for now I will limit my observation to say that it was a clear joy and an unadulterated hoot to watch and listen to Grace as she rode down the slide on a piece of corrugate.  On her first trip down, she cried out “ohmygodohmygodit’sfastIT’SFAST!,” and we’ve found a hundred reasons to say it ever since that moment.  smile

Did I ride down the slide myself?  Nope, I didn’t.  Even as I know how berserk this sounds, I’ll confess:  I thought the contours of the slide were a bit narrow.  I am not narrow.  I was afraid that I would get stuck.  Grace thinks I need to get over it and just ride the slide already.  She’s right, of course.  I do need to get over it, and I will.

Now for the confession:  Whatever virtues I might have, patience is not one of them.  (That clicking sound you might be hearing now is the sound of a thousand foreheads being smote by a thousand friends and readers.  “Tonight’s contestant is Bakerina.  Her chosen subject:  That Which is Manifestly Obvious.") Every time I sit down, take a deep breath and get into the quiet writerly space, a noisy little gremlin pops into my head:  “Come on, come on, get to the good stuff!  Why are you writing about the taxi ride to the airport?  When do we get to the news?  You have news!  Say it!  Say it!  Sayitisayitsayitsayit SAY IT.” It’s obnoxious, that gremlin, but it’s right:  I do have news, and I don’t want to barrel breathlessly through a narrative that deserves full attention and care in an attempt to get to the good stuff.  If I’d wanted to do that, I would be a scriptwriter for the adult film industry.  (Cheez Whiz, that sounds like a setup for a joke.)

Dear friends, I am happy to announce that after a lot of discussion, trepidation, tears, laughter, questions, answers, travel and a liberal dose of crossed fingers, the geographic smackdown is over.  Bay Area wins.  Come August, I will officially matriculate at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Although I am thrilled with the decision, particularly since Lloyd and Momerina are thrilled right along with me, I hasten to add that this was not an easy decision to make.  It was not a battle among unequal opponents.  Northeastern is a terrific school in a terrific city with a singular law curriculum.  If you are contemplating a law education in an East Coast city, I can, and will, recommend Northeastern with enthusiasm.  I met some truly smart and funny and impressive people there, and yes, I regret that we will not be playing together in the fall.  Likewise, the decision not to attend Pitt Law doesn’t come easily, either.  If anything, that was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in this whole process.  I received my undergraduate degree from Chatham College (now Chatham College for Women, the undergraduate school of Chatham University) in Pittsburgh.  I adored the city then, I adore it still, and I know that I will feel more than a little pang when I visit my dear friend Sharon (who was my roommate at Chatham) when I visit Pittsburgh later this spring.

By now you’ve probably guessed that I am well-embedded in the concentrated urban milieu, and you would be right.  You might also have guessed that the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are a far, far piece, both geographically and emotionally, from everything I have ever known.  You’d be right there, too.  You might think, further, that for me to pursue a strenuous education in a new place, I’d have to find the school in question to be pretty damn special—and there, dear friends, is your hat trick.  I’m not only East-Coast-born-and-bred, I’m citified to the core.  My family is from Philadelphia, a place embedded in my blood, bone and marrow.  Even when I was growing up in the Poconos, a good three hours’ drive from Philadelphia, I still felt that Philadelphia was my true place, and that all this small-town nonsense was getting in the way of finding my authentic self.  Neither Boston nor Pittsburgh are Philadelphia—I will assert until my dying day that East Coast cities are *not* interchangeable, and that they’re not all wishing they were New York City or Washington—but they do share enough of a common taproot that, with a little time and patience, one can find one’s feet and comfort zone pretty easily.  Santa Clara (and San Jose and Santa Cruz and Redwood City and the other towns I visited last weekend) are a far, far piece from my own visceral landscape.  (San Francisco, by virtue of its citified nature, comes closer, but the geography of the city is so unlike that of any city I have ever lived in or visited that it still counts for me as a completely new milieu.) The quality of light is unlike anything I have ever seen.  The geographical markers, the vegetation, the very air itself is different, and I went into instant sensory overload, disoriented and enchanted all at once.  It is spectacular, but it is not yet comfortable.  It will be, though.  I know it will.

Of course, brilliant weather and splendid food and lush vegetation and sunsets that break your heart open, while lovely, are not the stuff for which law firms look when you come to them with your spiffy new J.D. degree and your bar certification in hand.  You still need a decent education, and based on what I saw on Law Preview Day, Santa Clara provides much, much more than a decent education:  if the 3L students I met on Saturday are any indication, the education it provides is not decent, but magnificent.  If my fellow 1Ls are anything like the crowd that was in the moot Ethics Law class in which I participated, I’m going to have to work hard to keep up with my peers.  These people are *smart*.  Why, no, I’m not intimidated.  I’m challenged in a healthy manner.  Really.  (breathes into paper bag) Seriously, though, I was impressed, deeply, with the moot classes, the faculty lectures, the current students and the incoming students.  And yes, I did have a moment of worry ("These people are too smart for me!  I don’t belong here!"), but it turned almost instantly into something more exciting and, ultimately, powerful ("That was *cool*.  I want to learn how to think like that").  I haven’t had that “I want to do that, too” moment since my restaurant externship after culinary school, when I saw pastry cooks bake cakes, freeze semifreddos and do complex chocolate work simultaneously, exhibiting the coolheaded grace of dancers, or air traffic controllers.  As soon as I had that moment, felt that desire, I knew what my answer would be.

This is not to say that I felt any kind of finality, or certainty, at that moment.  There was still plenty of wheel-spinning.  ("What about not seeing Lloyd every weekend?  What about the distance from my family?  God, I miss Lloyd so much right now—what will this be like when we can’t see each other for six weeks at a time?  What about all the flying?  My god, I’m going to have to make peace with flying once and for all! [Those of you who’ve known me for a long time know that I’m not the most phlegmatic of flyers, and that “peace” and “flying” are often mutually exclusive where I’m concerned.  That shit stops right now, though.] What if I want to quit?  What if Lloyd wants me to quit?  What if I end up alienating everybody I know and love?  My god, my god.  Maybe a beer would help.") Poor Grace was a witness to a lot of this wheel-spinning; for this, if for no other reason, she deserves a Purple Heart for letting me live in her house for four days.  She held my hand, literally and metaphorically, she walked me through a lot of this anxiety, she hugged me tightly and put me on the plane and assured me that, whatever I decided, good things will follow.  I spent the next six hours reading and dozing and watching tv and turning over my thoughts as the plane zipped over our motley landscape, riding home from JFK in Tuesday morning rush hour traffic, navigating the cabdriver who took a wrong turn on Astoria Boulevard and damn near took us onto the Triborough and into the Bronx, and finally hurtling myself, missile-like, into Lloyd’s waiting embrace.  I held on like I would never let go.  He held on with me.  And then we sat down and made a plan.

There was once a time when we had thought that regardless of where I went to school, we could keep our home base in New York.  I would go away, I would come back, we would always have a home here.  We’re not blind, though.  We can see what’s happening in New York.  The economy is in the tank, the job opportunities available for us are largely terrible cubicle-farm jobs where the retention prospects are tenuous at best.  You can’t walk two blocks in this city anymore without running smack into construction on new buildings full of apartments we can’t afford.  The neighborhood in which we live has officially been discovered by real estate watchers.  Our neighborhood message board, and the coffee bar from which much of the discussion generates, is full of commentary from young New Yorkers who have tried for months, years even, to find an affordable apartment in Astoria from a landlord willing to rent to them.  All around us, we see signs of tightening, the best of New York being parsed for those who can pay extravagantly for it, the rest of us being squeezed out.  Eventually we will be forced to leave.  We’d just as soon go of our own free will, thanks.

So this is our immediate future.  I will scramble for loans and scholarships and any other means to pay for school.  (Thankfully, I will not have to scramble for work.  I have a part-time job waiting for me in San Jose.  A nifty prize awaits the first reader who can ascertain where I’ll be working.) wink I will cross my fingers and hope that on-campus housing comes through.  School starts August 11.  To get there, Lloyd and I will go on our long-discussed, long-desired cross-country road trip at last.  We will share the driving and eat road food and look for real homemade pie, much as I wanted to do after reading Pascale Le Draoulec’s American Pie four years ago.  He’ll get me settled in, he’ll fly back to New York, we’ll talk every day, we’ll fly to each other as often as time and money will allow...and then, once he is fully vested in his pension next spring, we will pursue transfer and/or new job opportunities, anything it takes to bring him to me.  It may be later rather than sooner, but Lloyd is coming to California, too.  Once I’m finished with school...well, there’s the bright shining question mark.  In general, where one goes to school determines where one will stay to practice, so the odds of living permanently in California are good...but they’re not a given.  We could end up in Seattle.  We could go back to Philadelphia, where Lloyd and I met as bookstore clerks on a day that feels like yesterday.  We could see the world.  We could go anywhere.

Where does one begin?

because i never fail to be fascinated by lemons on the tree...

Posted by Bakerina at 10:33 AM in • (0) Comments
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