A Day of Snow (not to be confused with a Snow Day)
By March I’m sure I’ll be complaining as loudly as anyone, but today is New York City’s first snowfall of the 2003-2004 winter season, and I am as happy as anyone who is inside a warm building on a cold day can be. I have the great good fortune to work up the street from Grand Central Terminal, so when I step out of the building and face south, I get a great, dramatic view. Actually, what I have is a view of the New York Central building, which is not technically Grand Central Terminal, even though, unconsciously, I look at the clock face on the building and automatically register it as a part of the station in my mind. Whatever it is, it looks great in the snow. It looks a New York Christmas gingerbread fantasia, the source of dreams in which you come into the city via a gorgeous old railway terminal, walk in the cold (but not too cold), snowy (but not too snowy) air, doing all of your Christmas shopping at elaborately-decorated department stores bustling with holiday activity (but not with a crowd big enough to get on your nerves, and with a ruthlessly efficient sales staff and a perfectly-modulated thermostat). You finish your shopping trip with a visit to one of those little French chocolate shops or patisseries where they make hot chocolate by heating up a pot of cream and dissolving a chocolate bar into it. If you had to set this scene to music, you’d set it to “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.
Of course I am old enough to know better. Half the Christmas-shopping visitors in New York have this same fantasy, and surge into the city to find it. The other half are not troubled with fantasy; they want to go to the big Toys ‘R’Us in Times Square, the one with the Ferris wheel, or they want to go to FAO Schwarz, where the crowds surge to near-Beijing proportions. The cold is always too cold, the snow is always too snowy, and the natives want you to know that they’re fed up with it. (I know I’m risking the wrath of my fellow New Yorkers, but really, when did we get so soft about a little cold weather? It’s a northern city on the freakin’ East Coast! It is supposed to snow in the winter! It is supposed to be cold, and painfully so, so that when May finally rolls around and those soft sweet May evening breezes roll in, we can sigh happily and know that this is our just reward for three months of subzero wind chills! For God’s sake, you’re New Yorkers, you’ve made an industry out of bragging about how we’re tougher than anyone on Earth, even Mongolians, even Texans, and yet as soon as the temperature drops below freezing, the first thing you do is whine and lose all sense of peripheral vision as you’re walking down the street? Sheesh. Move to Boca with your grandparents, already.) Because they’re fed up with it, their tempers are even more on edge than usual, and they are more inclined to a) shove you, b) pick a fight with you if you shove first. (More risking of wrath: Why is it that during the big, potentially panic-inducing moments like the WTC attacks and the blackout, do we all show each other such kindness and forbearance, and yet when a subway platform floods and two people bump into each other, those two people come to blows? Are we really social idiot savants as far as our fellow man is concerned?) If you had to set this scene to music, you’d set it to something from Einsturzende Neubaten or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. It is the reason that I talk fondly of the Christmas shopping trips to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia that I took as a child, and yet my actual Christmas gifts are either bought online or are homemade. (I justify spending ridiculous amounts of money at the farmer’s market in the summertime by telling myself that today’s $40 flat of strawberries is tomorrow’s gift basket o’jam.)
So I know better, and yet I still succumb, just because it’s so beautiful. There’s something about that first snow, the moment that it falls, before we get a chance to drive over it and turn it grey, or walk over it and turn it to ice. That snow, it makes a loud place quiet, and a quiet place quieter. When I lived in the country, in a deeply rural, isolated stretch of Pennsylvania, I would go outside during snowstorms and the air would be so quiet that the quiet was almost a sound itself, a sound without sound, in the same way that the scent of snow is a scent without scent. In Midtown, nothing ever gets that quiet—or unscented—but it still takes on its own peacefulness, a sense that things are slowing down, and while you are certainly welcome to bitch about how you hate to slow down, still, wouldn’t it be nice, just this once, to slow down a little, to feel that you have fallen into a painting that has been painted just for you?
What we’re eating
I am at heart a baker, not a cook, so I don’t have bragworthy cooking skills. While I certainly know how to put together something that I like to eat, and while I know that Lloyd likes just about everything I’ve ever made him, in general I see baking and preserving as the place where I can flex a little creative muscle, whereas cooking is, well, cooking. It’s a nice way to relax after a day at LutherCorp, and it is a source of creative-muscle flexing on holidays like Thanksgiving, but otherwise it is a doddle, a trifle. (Well, not a literal trifle.) Having rabbited on thusly, I will confess to being inordinately proud of the turkey a la king I made this week with the last of the Thanksgiving birdy and a quart of the stock. I think it’s because after spending half my life reading about proper technique, I am finally picking some things up. I was able to make a nice thick rich clear sauce without having to resort to the 5 tablespoons flour: 1 cup liquid that so many recipes resort to, a technique that, in my opinion, produces a gluelike horror of a sauce. Instead I made a beurre manie (paste of equal weights of flour and butter) and added it in dime-sized bits, after a technique I read in Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point. This is not particle physics, it certainly isn’t anything new, and it’s not the exclusive provenance of French chefs—Karen Hess refers to it frequently in The Taste of America—but for some reason I was surprised to see how well it worked, and I felt like it was a reward for being patient and mindful: pay attention to your sauce, and that sauce will pay you back for that attention. To go with the a la king, I made little baking powder biscuits, using the recipe on the back of the Bakewell Cream tin. (Bakewell Cream is a cream of tartar substitute that is sold in New England; I order mine through the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue. If you’d like the recipe, please feel free to e me.) It had been a long time since I baked anything on a weeknight, and I had forgotten what a pleasure it was. Although I am more of a yeast baker than a chemical leavener baker, I have to admit that I love a well-made baking powder biscuit. Usually I make them with buttermilk, but I ran a little short of buttermilk, and thus was forced to substitute heavy cream for the rest of the liquid. Gee, what a shame. grin
Courtney has asked if I would be interested in doing a TypeList of worthy cookbooks. Honey, I’d be glad to, but do you know what you’re getting into, asking me a question like that? I mean, yes, I’d be glad to. Until I actually get my act together, let me start by recommending this one. I have a lot of baking books. I have four books dedicated to just pies and pastry, and I use them all. But Ken Haedrich’s book is the only one that I am bound and determined to bake my way through. There are 100 recipes for apple pie in this book. I’ve made 5 of them. Tomorrow I’ll be making the caramel-nut version. At LutherCorp’s Thanksgiving potluck, I made an apple-cherry-vanilla bean pie with a blond streusel top, and the resulting pie was so good that everyone who tried it kissed and hugged me. If this sounds like hyperbole, I promise you that it is not.
In other news
Dream Company in Vermont has called me about a job opening and asked if I will be available for a phone interview next week. I am not going to comment further, simply because I am afraid of seeing something pretty dangled in front of my eyes, only to see it pulled away as soon as I try to reach for it. I will keep my fingers crossed, nothing further. This is also the case for a culinary writing fellowship at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow Farm in Arkansas, for which I applied last month. Fellows are being announced on December 15. I will cross my fingers and maintain an aura of bland Zenlike calm, at least until 3 in the morning when my eyes snap open and I don’t fall back to sleep until 1/2 hour before I want to wake up.
Because I know I never thanked them properly, proper thanks to Snowball and Orionoir for bringing me into the blogging fold. Snowball in particular deserves a MacArthur grant for answering my questions and listening to my general angsty ramblings without once threatening to kill me or change her e-mail address. And if you have not already done so, do take a moment to visit Orionoir’s page and pay homage to his baby daughter. I think that there is a taproot of beauty that runs through (almost) all children, but this particular child is one of the few I’ve seen that can be judged by adult standards of beauty. There is such a brilliant future reflected in those eyes of hers.