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Saturday, December 13, 2003

Today I went to the farmer’s market and the health food store, as I do every Saturday, to pick up the various things for us to eat over the course of the week, as well as more supplies for this year’s procrastinated holiday bake.  At the farmer’s market I poked around looking for the guys who sell me my broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.  No luck; the season is over, time now to get my broccoli from California and South America, my cabbage from one of the other market guys.  Squash are still to be found, good ones, Hokkaido and Blue Hubbard and cheese pumpkins and my favorite, Delicatas, the sweetest, finest squash ever to hit the inside of a 500-degree roasting pan.  Tubers and root vegetables are still around, and plentiful:  turnips and rutabagas, somehow more delicious when you throw a lot of cream into them; celery root, which I use for making remoulade on Thanksgiving Day, wondering as I lick the plate clean why I don’t make it more often; potatoes in more flavors and hues than seem possible, including a pink-fleshed one labelled helpfully as “new potatoes $1.50”, which brings a deep buttery flavor to the frittata I will make with it; Brussels sprouts still attached to the stalk; carrots, carrots, carrots.  One stand has a bin of fat, muted, mottled carrots with a sign bearing the legend “Vole-Uptuous Carrots (Taste Tested by Voles!) $1.00/lb.” Since I believe in the Italian maxim that states if the bugs won’t eat your produce it’s no good, I buy a nice big bag of vole-uptuous carrots for my favorite beef stew, made with lean stewing meat, carrots, prunes, onions, flour seasoned with salt and mustard powder, and as much Guinness as it takes to cover the whole thing.

Today’s bake is a trial run for the big-deal holiday bake I will do next weekend, although if everything turns out nicely tomorrow, I may just send them out as gifts after all.  The general gift this year (for all but a few people, namely children, who like homemade caramels as much as the next person but tend to want something a little splashier to open up on Christmas) is an assortment of the jams I’ve put up through the year—cherry and almond, strawberry with mint and black pepper, strawberry with tarragon, dried California apricot with hazelnuts and brandy, rhubarb with apples and Gewurztraminer, greengage plum, damson plum—plus some rice flour shortbread from the new Alford/Duguid book; malted milk brownies, which I made last year and have been informed must be included in every Christmas basket for the rest of my life; maybe some cornmeal shortbread, as you can never have too many shortbreads made from too many grains; the aforementioned caramels; something with chocolate in it, because hell, that’s the law; and the money dessert, a pound-cake style fruitcake.  Because I’ve heard all the usual jokes about fruitcake—although, by all means, feel free to send me some new ones if you’ve got them—I have switched to a blond fruitcake made with dried California apricots, raisins, stem ginger in syrup, soft soft sultanas and the best glaceed cherries I have ever tasted, made with care and still containing a taste memory of the original cherry.  I also put in some cashews and bright green Sicilian pistachios, which are so expensive they make my chest hurt when I pay for them, but if you can’t splurge on other people’s presents, then when can you?  I love cutting into the finished cake, which looks like stained glass.  No orange peel, no lemon peel, no citron, no angelica.  Even a little fresh orange peel, to me, tastes invasive in this cake.  Bourbon, on the other hand, does not, so I make sure to soak the fruit in plenty of it.  (grin)

While I am the first to admit that baking gives me something few other things in life do, I don’t want to overromanticize it, give it mythic status.  It is not a religion; it is a craft, and it is work, albeit work of the best kind, absorptive and creative and capable of taking you in interesting directions as long as you are mindful of what you are doing.  While I agree that you can learn things in baking, or cooking, that are helpful to know for life in general (as in “never fight with your ingredients, because your ingredients always win"), I get nervous when I hear too many transcendent, supraworldly, hyperextended-metaphor-senses-of-being attached to food and the preparation of it.  Sometimes it can be a way to get you out of yourself and into the world around you, or into the lives of those who preceded you, the cooks of another generation on whose shoulders you stand.  On the other hand, sometimes it is just cooking, just baking.  Sometimes it is unutterable boredom, or pressure.  Sometimes it keeps you too grounded in your life, your work, your kitchen, which was fine when you walked into it but now just annoys you.  You can feed your child a plate of the chicken and rice you ate as a child, and she smiles happily, and you think, this is the way foodways start. But you can also give that same child that same plate of rice the next week, and she will turn her beautiful nose up at it, and if you take it too personally, if you weigh that plate of rice down with too many signifiers, you find yourself treading on dangerous ground, giving food a power it should never have.  I love the idea of family dishes, and food memory; I love the ones that I got from my family, and I could easily spend weeks listening to other people’s from their families.  But as soon as I hear someone say, “I’m making this so that I can create this food memory in my children,” I sense trouble afoot.  I know a woman who actually does this.  She has written several cookbooks and has a television series and an army of admirers and a bad attitude toward anyone who makes the mistake of crossing her.  She talks a big game about making certain dishes for when she or her husband or kids are in certain emotional states, which strikes me as a little creepy, that she is organized enough about her own family’s emotions to plan food around them.  (To my pal H, with whom I’ve had this conversation before:  no, it’s not Lidia Bastianich.  Lidia is the real deal.  I think Lidia is a crackerjack chef, a tough cookie and a splendid role model.)

In the end, I don’t bake to divine the secrets of the universe, or to create certain emotional states in the people around me.  I do it because it is fun, it is compelling, and it feeds my senses.  It feels good.  It smells good.  It tastes good.  It is alchemy, and it is fun to watch.  I like knowing that when the bubbles in the caramel pot hit a certain size, it is almost time to pour the caramel onto the marble slab.  I like knowing that when your bread dough smells like *this*, it needs more time, and if it smells like *this*, it has overripened and started to overacidify, so what you want to do is get it when it smells like *this*, and knock it down, shape it, get it ready for the oven.  I like making ganache, that dizzying mix of bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream, and pouring it over a cake, knowing exactly how fast I have to pour it to create a smooth, shiny, even, glistening surface.  I like running cherries and sultanas and chopped apricots and bourbon through my fingers, and I love that anyone who comes near me for the rest of the day knows exactly what I’ve been doing.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:05 PM in stuff and nonsense • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Why, Snowball, it’s funny you should ask.  By a remarkable coincidence, my mailing list is on the same server as my e-mail.  smile Just in case you’re interested.  And hey, I know what I should do:  I should embrace my new meme proudly, and I do.

Seriously, anyone who wants a little edible love this year (c’mon, guys, you *know* what I meant) should drop me an e, especially now that I have this crackerjack r&d team in Santa Cruz working on the cookie crumble conundrum.  smile

Bakerina on 12/15/03 at 11:46 AM  

Oh, my.  I sense a theme, namely the theme of How to Ship the Rice Cookies.  smile

Jen, usually when I mail cookies, I do wrap them individually in cellophane (brownies and “round” cookies like Mexican wedding cakes are wrapped individually; “flat” cookies are wrapped in two’s, bottoms together).  I usually spring for Rubbermaid containers, about $5/piece, and fill the dead space with bubble wrap, although I’m liking Courtney’s idea with cotton candy.

I just tried one of the cookies after fixing a plate for Lloyd, and it strikes me that as long as I wait until they are completely cool, they may not be as fragile as I’d feared.  In other words (insert Young Frankenstein voice here)!

Any takers?  wink

Bakerina on 12/15/03 at 09:08 PM  
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