Category: valentines

May 09, 2006

Dear friends, I meant what I said about not shamelessly poaching from the archives anymore, but the writing is not going well tonight, even by my own gritchy, slow-brained standards.  In the end I decided that I had a choice:  I  could post a subpar piece of navelgazing cobbled to a few recipes and a sheepish comment that today is my brother's birthday, and even though I will be late with both his birthday card and his birthday present, I have been thinking about him all day long.   (Have I mentioned that my brother is a superb fellow, and I think the world of him?)  Or I could revisit a little valentine, originally posted on April 15, 2004, to one of my favorite novels, which I am rereading right now, and which is leaving me quietly and happily teary-eyed.

Regular text will resume shortly -- after all, dear friends, I have promised a cheese pie recipe.

I call it a Fisher King moment. Not long ago in this very space, I mused at how it could be possible for me, a die-hard Terry Gilliam fan, one who has seen Brazil about 15 times, one who has lost count of how many times she has seen Jabberwocky, who still brags about the time she and Lloyd went to see 12 Monkeys at the Ziegfeld, not knowing that what turned out to be the Blizzard of 1996 was raging on the other side of the exit door, to have waited 13 years to see The Fisher King. I didn't do it on purpose; it wasn't as though I were trying to avoid the movie. Everyone I knew who had seen it not only loved it, but they all made the same comment: "Every time I see that scene in Grand Central, I think of you." And yet, somehow, I missed its theatrical run, I kept missing it on HBO, I never rented it once we got our VCR. Then Lloyd picked it up on DVD, I watched it, I adored it, and I thought, where was I during all this time? How did I let this get away from me?

I had another Fisher King moment on Tuesday. A few weeks ago, on an egg-research-book-buying trip to Kitchen Arts and Letters, I picked up Bobby Freeman's wonderful book about Welsh cookery, First Catch Your Peacock (Y Lolfa Press, 1996). This book is worth a post all its own, as it is such delightful, charming reading and the research and recipes are solid, but tonight I just have to share the following passage, which she said was the only written record of a dish for which she'd only been able to find verbal confirmation. It is a quote from Richard Llewellyn's 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

Out to the back to mix the potch, then. All the vegetables were boiled slowly in their jackets, never allowed to bubble in boiling, for then the goodness is from them, and they are full of water, and a squash, tasteless to the mouth, without good smell, an offence to the eye, and an insult to the belly. Firm in the hand, skin them clean, and put them in a dish and mash with a heavy fork, with melted butter and the bruisings of mint, potatoes, swedes, carrots, parsnips, turnips and their tops, then chop small purple onions very fine, with a little head of parsley, and pick the leaves of small watercress from the stems, and mix together. The potch will be a creamy colour with something of pink, having a smell to tempt you to eat there and then, but wait until it has been in the hot oven for five minutes with a cover, so that the vegetables can mix in warm comfort together and become friendly, and the mint can go about his work, and for the cress to show his cunning, and for the goodness all about to soften the raw, ungentle nature of the onion.

Dear friends, it makes my heart trill to read this, and my fingers tingle as I type it. Not only is it one of the most glorious pieces of food writing I have ever read, but it is practically a textbook on vegetable cookery in one paragraph. I can see that creamy pink; can smell the mint, onion and watercress; I marvel at the elegance of both the cooking technique and the description of it, at the love, honor and respect contained in here for the plain-yet-grand traditions of Welsh home cookery. I consider the vegetables becoming friendly together, snug in their warm comfort in the oven, and I am in love. All this in a book that has been sitting quietly on a shelf somewhere all my life. This is a novel written seven years before my mother was born. It was made into a film in 1941, directed by John Ford and widely considered to be one of his best films. How did I miss this? How did I get to be 36 years old without having read this book?

I went to Coliseum on Wednesday morning. There it was, sitting on the shelf as though it were waiting for me. I picked it up, opened it to Chapter One.

I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.

This cloth is much too good to pack things in and I would keep it in my pocket only there is nothing else in the house that will serve, and the lace straw basket is over at Mr. Tom Harries', over the mountain. If I went to to Tossall the Shop for a cardboard box I would have to tell him why I wanted it, then everybody would know I was going. That is not what I want, so it is the old blue cloth, and I have promised it a good wash and iron when I have settled down, wherever that is going to be.

Where was I during all this time? How did I let it get away from me? I don't know, but I do know this: I have it now, and I will never let it go.

Posted by Bakerina at 09:48 PM in valentines • (0) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 29, 2006

What I am about to confess, dear friends, will lead you to conclude that my brain is a wasteland of misfiring synapses.  You may want to sing to me the words of my late, lamented, much-missed pal Screamin’ Jay Hawkins:  “There’s somethin’ wro-onnng with you.”  Feel free to do so.  I will not argue.

I can always tell when I am long overdue for a visit with certain friends in certain cities when I have dreams about those cities.  That in itself is not an odd phenomenon; what makes it odd is that I dream, vividly and with overwhelming nostalgia, about neighborhoods that do not exist.  It has been close to eight years since my best friend and her family moved from England to New Zealand, but I still find myself dreaming of driving around a neighborhood that I know for a fact is not there.  As often as my subconscious finds itself in England, though, it finds itself in Pittsburgh a lot more, and the places in which I find myself are so resonant that I never fail to wake up in a state of utter confusion, trying to remember just where the hell I am.  I have had recurring dreams of living in a huge (nonexistent) room in the dorm where I lived during my senior year of college.  More often, though, my dreams of Pittsburgh follow the same plot:  I have driven out to Pittsburgh (an 8+ hour drive) to visit one of my best, dearest, oldest friends and her husband.  For reasons I can’t ascertain, I have to drive right back to New York because I can’t miss work the next day; I need to get right back on the road, but I’m either on a bus headed for a candy store in Squirrel Hill (on a street that does not exist, but runs parallel to Forbes Avenue), or on another bus headed for an office supply/stationery store downtown (or rather, somewhere between the Hill and Downtown on a street that – all together now!...); I haven’t had enough time with my friend, and I don’t want to leave.  You can probably guess by now that I miss my friend, and I do.  I miss Pittsburgh, too.

Those of you who remember my love letter to Philadelphia (a/k/a “the post so nice, I had to post it twice”), particularly those of you acquainted with the eastern/western Pennsylvania rivalry that runs through both cities, may be surprised that I can love both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with all my heart.  In general, Pittsburghers and Philadelphians are not each other’s biggest fans, although this is, of course, a broad generalization, and not certainly not applicable to all people in either city.  But I have heard a lot of griping from Philadelphians about the provincialism of Pittsburghers, and a lot of griping from Pittsburghers about the snobbery of Philadelphians.  To both I say Enough already, in much the same tone of voice that Antigone used with Oedipus at Colonnus.  And to everyone – there are more than six of you – who said “you have this vacation time and you’re taking it in Pittsburgh?  Why would you take a vacation in Pittsburgh?”, I say listen my child, and you shall hear.

First things first.  Here is what Pittsburgh is not.  It is not the ugly redheaded stepsibling of Philadelphia, or of Cleveland.  (I will not even begin to delve into New York Magazine’s recent statement:  “If Philadelphia is New York’s sixth borough, then Pittsburgh is Philly’s West Village,” a statement supposedly meant to convey Pittsburgh’s gay-friendliness.  I will make no comment on that reductive “sixth borough” designation, nor will I mention that Pittsburgh does not play second fiddle to Philadelphia, nor does Philadelphia play second fiddle to New York.  Careful readers, I am betting, will able to pick up the subtext.)  It is not geographically close to Philadelphia.  I know that it looks close, because Pennsylvania looks small on a map of the Lower 48, especially sitting underneath that geographical behemoth New York, but trust me:  the first time you drive across Pennsylvania, particularly if you’re driving northeast to southwest, it will boggle the mind just how much Pennsylvania there is out there.  It is not geographically close to Penn State.  Nothing is geographically close to Penn State.  A running joke among several of my pals is that Penn State is a minimum five-hour drive from everyplace else in the state, even the next town over. But I digress.  Pittsburgh is not a ghost town, although Downtown can get a little spooky at night.  It is not merely the city for people who can’t handle living in larger cities.  (I still remember one of my college classmates, a girl from Morristown, New Jersey, explaining to me that I probably considered Pittsburgh a city because my own hometown was so very small, and that if I had ever been to New York, I would know what a big city looked like.  The look on her face as I explained to her that my little hometown in the mountains was less than three hours’ drive from New York, and that I had grown up taking nearly-weekly day trips and weekends in New York, and yes, I still considered Pittsburgh to be a city, was pretty fine to witness.)

But I have had enough, as I’m sure you’ve had, of what Pittsburgh is not.  Here is what it is:  It is a beauty.  It is a city that sits at the confluence of three rivers, its various neighborhoods linked by bridges that are delightful to look at and even more delightful to walk across.  It is made of steep hills and long flat strips of land, and the views from the former are just plain superb. (If I were any sort of proper blogger, traveler or friend, this would be the point at which I would inundate you with photographs from my travels in Pittsburgh, but because I am none of the above, I will instead urge you to check out the photos at this site.  Scroll down past the driving information -- yep, there's a lot of it -- and you will see a nice gallery of photographs, which include some of my favorite vantage points in the city.)  It is the home of two of my favorite museums, and the place where I have attended some of the best concerts of my life, including R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Squeeze and Mike Watt.  (The first gig I ever attended was X, with the [very drunk] Replacements opening for them, at the sadly-long-gone Syria Mosque.)  It is the home of my alma mater and the place where I ate the first gyro I had ever eaten in my life, the first of many.  It is where I took baby steps into adulthood, where I first realized that I had unstructured time to spend as I pleased -- and where I learned, quickly, that at least a little structure and restraint were necessary.  smile  It is also the home of the singular food-shopping mecca known as the Strip District, where in one short block you can buy Italian meats and cheeses and pasta; Greek staples; Asian vegetables; Middle Eastern pastries and yogurt soda; Mexican groceries; and biscotti that makes me so happy that I float on a cloud with every single bite.  And it is the source material for what I think are the finest documentaries in the world, made by a native son, quirky little movies brimming with clear-eyed affection for the city, whimsical without ever being cloying, the kind of programming of which the Food Network only dreams.

In short, I really, really love Pittsburgh, and for that reason, it gives me a little chill to think of how close I came to never visiting it, and never discovering its myriad pleasures.  I started my long, long march of college applications with only one school in mind, New York University.  My parents wisely suggested that NYU might not be the best place for a 16-year-old college freshman, fresh from the Poconos, and gave me a choice:  wait a year after graduation before attending NYU, or picking another college and heading to school three months after graduation.  I didn't even think twice.  I drew up a new school list, putting Sarah Lawrence at the top, mainly because Grace Paley taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, and I longed to study with her.  Among the other schools I applied to was a small liberal arts women's college in Pittsburgh, a mile away from Carnegie Mellon, less than two miles from the University of Pittsburgh.  My stepdad, who had traveled to Pittsburgh on business, suggested that we take the school up on its invitation to visit, and off we went.  I will confess to being underwhelmed at the prospect of the visit, figuring that there would be little to interest me in Pittsburgh, and I would be spending my next four years at the library.  Then we drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and my jaw dropped.  It was a city, a proper city, with buses and giant buildings of steel and glass, with bookshops and record shops and libraries, with sprawling parks and public art and classes to take and things to do and places to be.  By the time I finished my interview and tour at Chatham, I knew that it would replace Sarah Lawrence at the top of my list; by the time we took our post-lunch trip up Mount Washington on the Duquesne Incline, I knew the other schools didn't have a chance.   Six months later I was at school, a brand-new freshman, when I saw a television interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, who had just completed a movie in Pittsburgh.  "You go through this Fort Pitt Tunnel," she told the interviewer excitedly, "and it just...shoots you into this city, and the view is unbelievable!"  I knew exactly how she felt.

Lloyd and I still talk about moving to Pittsburgh when the rents here in New York become too much for us; it is not a question of if, but when.  Eventually we will be done with all this, and we will run, not walk, west.  Two years ago I was writing a business plan for a bread bakery, and planning to open in Pittsburgh.  Then I blinked, and lost my nerve, and the business plan went into a drawer, where it has been sitting ever since.  There is a part of me that says I'm being smart by keeping it there.  The one big drawback of Pittsburgh is that it's a tough place to sell bread, at least the bread I like to bake.  It's true that Pittsburgh is home to BreadWorkS, a large-scale independent artisanal bakery that wholesales to just about every market in the city, and that there are enthusiastic bread-fressers all over town.  But this is a town with a real palate for underbaked bread, blond crusts with squishy crumbs.  There is a 100-year-old family bakery on the outskirts of town that makes billowy light Italian loaves, and they sell tons of them, mostly to people who line up for "the best bread in the city," but also to a restaurant that makes an iconic Pittsburgh sandwich with this bread.  I have been to this bakery.  The people who work there are some of the nicest people I have ever met, friendly and chatty and enthusiastic about their work, and I wish I liked their bread as much as I like them.  This is the bread that sets the standard, and I don't know if there is a place in the city for mine.  On the other hand, I know that I am not alone,* and that if there is in fact a place for me and Lloyd, for crunchy bread, for pies made from scratch and for cakes laced with rum and butter and risen with yeast, we will be there.

*Did I mention that in addition to one of my closest friends, and to all of the delights mentioned above, Pittsburgh also has this wonderful woman living, cooking, writing and blogging within its city limits, and that I would give my elbows to be allowed to hang out in her kitchen?

Posted by Bakerina at 10:52 PM in valentines • (3) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
February 14, 2006

Mollys_valentine

Every time I forget just what a lucky girl I am, the universe is kind enough to remind me.  Today I came home from a long and glutinous day at the box factory and found this valentine in the mail, made by the beautiful and brilliant Molly Goatwax.  Oh, Molly, thank you.  How lucky I am to have you as a friend.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:36 PM in valentines • (0) Comments
February 13, 2006

It was not the Baking ExpoFestO'Rama I had envisioned on Friday morning, once the trip to Boston was officially postponed.  I'd had visions of cherry pie, buttermilk pie, cherry and buttermilk pie, new sandwich bread to replace the loaf I'd taken out of the freezer that morning, maybe a focaccia -- hey, maybe I'll bake two, one with a straight dough (i.e. with the yeast added directly to the dough), one with a sponge, with a few thousand words on the difference in the crumb and flavor!  I usually go a bit berserk like this on, say, Tuesdays, when I start fantasizing about the weekend ahead.  Normally reason returns to me by Friday afternoon, when I realize that if I do all this baking, I will have no time for anything else, but because I had spent this week planning what we would be doing in Boston, I hadn't got all the silliness out of my system.  In the end, I did scale back, but not out of a desire to restore normality; what should have been a weekend of happy kitchen puttering and boy snuggling  was instead spent munching on Excedrin like Pez, applying compresses to my head and muttering "oh, the hell with it.  I'll just knit my sock."  Nevertheless, even with all the muttering and the compressing and the knitting, I still managed to turn out these:

Little_rye_breadlets_1

If you're thinking that these particular breads are a bit on the small side, you're right.  Even at their full rise, they are not big loaves.  These little beauties would have been bigger had I not slipped up and given the rising dough a double turn instead of a single, resulting in a tightened crumb.  I had also used a light hand with the yeast, as the new block I just bought was a particularly jackrabbit strain, prone to aggressive fermentation.  I should not have been so shy about using it.  By the time I pulled the bread out of the oven on Saturday night, I was terribly nervous.  I had never made this bread before.  What if I had taken a simple, beautiful recipe and screwed it up to the point of inedibility?

I am a silly people.  Save for overproofing to the point of collapse, or for underbaking to the point of raw-centeredness, it is extremely difficult to do anything to bread that screws it up to point of inedibility.  I ate the heel of one loaf for breakfast on Sunday morning.  Lloyd and I ate the rest of that first loaf, and a portion of the second loaf, as part of our ploughman's lunch, along with Asiago cheese, bread and butter pickles and sour dills from this nifty company, Dijon mustard, sweet German mustard and banana chutney.  We've just finished a big dinner tonight, chicken and short grain rice, pickled cabbage and carrot salad from the Italian deli, fresh gingerbread for dessert, and it is still all I can do to not head into the kitchen and polish off the rest of the bread, with nothing but a little butter and salt for company.

Yes, I'll stop being coy now:  The bread is Cucumber Pickle Juice Rye Loaf, made from rye flour, toasted in the oven until brown and gorgeous; all-purpose flour, salt, fresh dill, yeast and the leftover brine from a jar of pickles.  It comes from The Handmade Loaf: Contemporary European Recipes for the Home Baker by the brilliant Dan Lepard, a book that I picked up last weekend and have not been able to put down ever since.  It deserves a longer, better post than this one, but until I write that longer, better post, I will say that I'm already wishing for another snowstorm, the kind from which it takes two or three days to dig out.  I haven't lost my mind, no; I just crave enough time to try the cucumber pickle juice rye bread again, and then take a bash at the sweet brandy buns, the apple and oat bread, the Golspie loaf (a whole wheat, oat and barley bread), the cherry, fennel and rye bread, the saffron loaf, the currant and cassis bread, the salt and sour berry crispbread, the prune and rye babas with Armagnac syrup, the onion-bay bread, the white potato stotties...and this is just the beginning.

Rye_toasted_and_un

Posted by Bakerina at 11:21 PM in valentines • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
January 06, 2006

Hoppinjohn

In the Americas rice-and-bean dishes are associated primarily with peoples of African ancestry, and with justice...Hoppin' John is the signature dish of South Carolina, black and white.  As Helen Woodward wrote in her receipt for it in Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking (1976):  "South Carolinians, like my husband, who have been away from home a long time, if they feel a culinary homesickness, always long for something called Hoppin' John, with the accent on John."  Yankee though I be, I too get yearnings for it because it is such a satisfying dish; if, in addition, it had associations with home and the days of my youth, those feelings would be even more intense, I'm sure.  Fortunately, although it seems so rooted in its home territory, it is a dish that travels well, always supposing that one can find the proper peas -- and black-eye peas are everywhere available in the United States -- and the proper receipt, which must be a home grown South Carolina receipt.

          -- Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen:  The African Connection (University of South Carolina Press, 1992)

Posted by Bakerina at 11:51 PM in valentines • (2) Comments
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