Thursday, April 23, 2009

Midnight Celebration Gingerbread

Papers were finished and gingerbread was in order, even though it was midnight. This gingerbread is the perfect post-paper celebration cake because it is easy (I mixed it in one bowl when I was exhausted) and because its dark spicy flavor, smooth crumb and gooey center are such a welcome wonder after the dry dullness of a paper. You might ask, why gingerbread? It's not Christmas. I know. But a few days ago, procrastinating, I wandered into the blog of The Wednesday Chef and saw the gingerbread cake she made. Instantly I had a desperate longing to make that cake, and I promised myself that whenever I finished writing, I would. Plus, I love ginger, in anything, at any time of year and have a weakness for gingerbread of all kinds. Unfortunately, I realized late last night that I didn't have the requisite amount of molasses, so I went in search of another gingerbread recipe.

Found: "Moosehead Gingerbread" from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts. Ms. Heatter promises at the beginning that "people [in Moosehead Lake where the recipe came from] said it was the best gingerbread they ever ate." I was sold. Still only one egg and no mustard powder, so I decided to make a half recipe and improvise a bit. Perfect.

Midnight Gingerbread
adapted from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts

I've changed one minor thing--taken out the mustard powder (it called for 1/4 tsp) and added a pinch of cayenne. I can't say which is better because I've never tried it with mustard, but it sounds good. I made this in in a 6 1/2 inch square pan (an odd size I had lying around that I often use when I want to make only a little bit of something), but you can double the recipe that appears here and put the batter into an 8 or 9 inch square or round cake pan. You will probably need to bake it for a few minutes more.

1 1/4 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper, ground finely
4 T (half stick) butter, soft enough to mash by hand
1/4 c firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 c dark molasses
1 1/2 tsp (rounded) instant coffee
1/2 c boiling water

Butter and flour your pan. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix together the dry ingredients (flour through black pepper). In a separate bowl, mash the butter with a spoon and mix until creamy. Add the sugar and mix. Then mix in the egg and stir well. Add molasses. Stir again. Dissolve the coffee in the boiling water. Then mix the dry ingredients and coffee into the wet ingredients in five additions: three for the dry ingredients and two for the coffee. Begin and end with the dry. Mix only until smooth. Pour into pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top of the cake springs back when lightly pressed with a finger. Do not overbake! Cool for about 5 minutes in the pan, then eat with a glass of cold milk.

Happy caking!

The last bite.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lemon Bars to Please Anyone

Once, when I was in college and reeling from a breakup that was at least half my fault, I bought a whole bag of lemons, netted together like many suns. It was springtime in Los Angeles, and the lemons were bright and somehow comforting. What to do with them? I wondered. And then it came it to me. Lemon bars. I called up my sister, who I knew had the recipe my mom always made, and I did the only thing I knew how to do when the world had turned upside-down. I baked. Squeezing all those lemons seemed to carry some kind of promise that the rest of my life could not. When life gives you lemons, I thought, make lemonade.

Now, as I sit at my desk trying to write final papers, I am also trying to keep this adage in mind. You see, I had high hopes for graduate school. I had these romantic visions of me sitting in the dimming light of my “office,” writing endlessly interesting papers and agonizing over ideas that mattered. When I read The Namesake I thought the main character’s girlfriend-the Indian one with the long name that started with an M-was amazingly dark and intellectual and interesting. I envied her life surrounded by endlessly interesting people, cooking food and talking about writers and art and theory. Because that’s what you do in grad school—right?

Instead, I am learning about procrastination. This—my boredom—is not what I expected of graduate school. I thought it would be entirely fulfilling; instead, I am disappointed. I have never been so bored in my life, in fact, and so I have learned the ancient skill of procrastination. This is actually a relief because I was starting to feel left out for never having done it; people always talk about it like something they secretly love. Now I see what they mean, and I’m suddenly rather adept at it. While I am supposed to be reading about how the “academy is in crisis,” “examining my own place” in this intellectual cave and the “nature of the discipline of English,” while I should be analyzing classroom transcript and planning my tutoring sessions, I am instead thumbing through cookbooks, stopping at each glossy photograph that lures me onwards, begging I give myself up to its pages.

But here, today, is an assignment that is bright, lemony yellow, and, finally, interesting. I am supposed to make lemon bars. These I am to bring to my last Discourse Analysis class at my professor’s house. A year ago, this would have sounded thrilling, this gathering of graduate students to discuss conversation theory at a professor’s place, but I know better now. And so, lemon bars. I chose them because they are fast, and easy, and that is what I needed on a day when I had 30 pages left to write before California and not enough time. So lemon bars. What a beautiful thing. Instead of finishing my paper for Discourse Analysis I will get to mix sugar and flour and egg yolks and freshly squeezed lemon juice and do what makes sense to me when the rest of the world has not delivered what I thought it had promised—bake.

Lemon Bars to Please Anyone

One of my mother’s friends gave this recipe to her in 1976, and me, having been born just a few short years later and having enjoyed these bars throughout my life, have been thankful ever since. Despite never having known where the recipe came from (it was one of those mysterious cards in my mother’s blue and white checked recipe box), in 2003 I tracked down the source: they come from the Portland, Maine Symphony Cookbook, or so my mom’s friend thinks. I imagine there is a person attached to this recipe who probably submitted it to the book, but I can’t begin to give that person credit, unfortunately.

In any event, I recently visited my mom’s friend in a magical place in the mountains of New Mexico, a “town,” if you can call it that, about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. Really, it is a collection of clearings with burnt sienna and sandy beige colored houses that must match the earth in summertime. A Buddhist stupa sits in a clearing in the woods where people go for spiritual gatherings, and now the lemon bars are somehow tangled up in my mind with this place, Buddhist goodwill filling their centers and oozing out when you eat them. My sister promised me, years ago, that they are guaranteed to please anyone, and I can see now that she was right: they can even please disillusioned graduate students who might just be in the wrong profession.

For the Bars:

2 c flour
½ c powdered sugar
1 c (2 sticks) melted butter
4 eggs, beaten
2 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
4 T flour
4 T freshly squeezed lemon juice*
More powdered sugar, for the tops

*My mom says that you must use freshly squeezed lemon juice for these, and she’s right. If you are not going to do so, don’t bother making them.

In a large bowl, mix the 2 c of flour with the powdered sugar and butter. Press into the bottom of a 9x13-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in the same bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, baking powder, 4 T flour, and lemon juice. Pour filling over baked crust and bake for another 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then cut into squares. Sift powdered sugar lightly over the tops of the bars. The bars will keep about 3 days at room temperature or longer in the refrigerator.

Cutting tips: Use a long, sharp knife and wipe it off after each cut. I like to cut the first several strips in the pan and then move them to a plate until I have enough space in the pan to slip a spatula under a large piece and put it on a cutting board. This keeps the crust in-tact.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

First-Warm-Day-of-the-Year Margaritas with Chips and Guacamole

Thank you, God.

I have been suffering through the winter months and asking myself if I should not do what I always thought I would do and move to California, where all sane people in this country live. But I think God has other plans for me, because it is finally warm in Ann Arbor, and my mental health may be returning. Or at least it will be. On Friday. When I arrive at the San Jose airport and begin my warm trip down the coast of California, with each little glorious stop reminding me that I am, indeed, alive. Big Sur, Monterey, Carmel. Santa Monica. San Diego. Ahhh. First, I have to write papers, which I've finally discovered bore me to death. Hence the recent feeling that I'm just not quite as alive as I should be. Analyzing discourse isn't nearly as thrilling as scooping out the supple green flesh of avocado on a warm day in April and eating it on my balcony with my husband while I secretly spy on people on the street below (I am ostensibly reading but really I have staked out one of the best people-watching spots in the neighborhood.)

Like it or not, though, when I wake up the guacamole will be gone and I will have to write papers. Ugh. That is why right now I'm celebrating the things that matter most, like warmth, and people-watching, and eating cool green avocado, and reading Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me with Apples on my balcony while my husband gets the grill ready on a Saturday evening in Spring. That is why I like to celebrate these things with events, why I invented First-Warm-Day-of-the-Year Margaritas with Chips and Guacamole. My papers will get done, interesting or not, and the Pacific ocean will be there soon. In the meantime, however, I have this, at least.

First-Warm-Day-of-the-Year Margaritas with Chips with Guacamole

For the Margaritas: (Recipe from the May 2008 Martha Stewart Living Magazine...yes, I do subscribe.)
*This recipe serves 1, so just multiply it by however many drinks you want and ta-dah! A perfect margarita for everyone.

1 oz (2 T) silver tequila
1/2 oz (1 T plus 1 1/2 tsp.) Triple Sec
1 oz (2 T) fresh lime juice
Ice cubes and salt for serving

Mix ingredients in a glass or pitcher and serve over ice.

For the Guacamole:

This recipe comes from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbook, and is simply delicious. She says you can add cilantro, but I have never done that. The recipe will serve 2 as an appetizer, but be careful, because you just might eat all of it and not have room for dinner. I recommend serving it to at least 3 people, or saving some for the next day. It becomes even tastier when it sits in the fridge for a day or so and the flavors have time to meld together.

2 Haas Avocadoes, very ripe
1 1/2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
4 dashes of Tobasco sauce
1/4 c red onion, finely diced
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 medium tomato, diced finely

Scoop out avocado flesh and put it into a medium-sized bowl. Use a fork and knife to finely dice it, or else mash it with a fork, depending on the consistency you prefer. You can also do a little of each, which is how I like it. Immediately add lemon juice, salt, pepper, Tobasco, garlic, and onion. Mix together well. Add the tomatoes and mix again. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. Serve with tortilla chips.

*I invented this celebration last year when the temperature hit above 70 for the first time that year. It was actually about 75 for an entire week in mid-April. So, the one rule for this celebratory event is that the temperature must reach 70 or above. 75 or above is preferable, as that is sufficiently warm. The guacamole and chips should also be followed by a grilled meal, though you may not be very hungry for it.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wedding Season: It's That Time of Year Again

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again...Wedding Season!! Congratulations to all of you recently engaged (my cousin, for one) and to those of you getting married in the near future (Steve's cousin, our friends Rob and Nicky and Tim and Sophia) and those just married (Steve's cousin). While many people may come up on wedding season with an "ugghh" frame of mind (another dress, airline ticket, hotel room, gift, etc.), I think everyone in their heart of hearts loves weddings. They are sort of like cake--enticingly extravagant yet necessarily so. What a killer combo.

I am lucky enough to be off to a wedding this weekend and it has me thinking about weddings, of course. Although I wish Steve and I could get married all over again because being engaged and planning a wedding was so much fun, I don't think anyone would really appreciate that as much as I would or if that's even allowed, sadly. Instead, I will have to live vicariously through others' come on, get engaged!

One of the best things about being engaged was all of the tastings. My mom, our fearless wedding cake baker, baked many cakes during the year we were engaged (you see where I get my baking prowess from, and that goes back to my grandmother and probably my great grandmother and so on). It was the Year of Cakes. There were almond cakes and pistachio cakes and buttercream frostings to try, as well as mocha fillings and chocolate fillings and buttery yellow fillings. We also tasted wines--reds, whites, pinks, proseccos and drys, Michigan wines and Italian wines. So much work!

A slice of one of my mom's cakes during the Year of Cakes

The Fearless Mother-of-the-Bride Wedding Cake Baker in Her Element

I also remember the two weeks before the wedding when summer school was done and I just got to focus on planning. I would stay up late, take my Wedding Craft Box (yes, I had one of these with a little handle I could carry around) to the living room where I would unpack its contents and sprawl out on the floor to make paper goods. I had a custom stamp made from Impress Rubber Stamps ( of the dandelion top from the invitation drawing that Steve made, and I used this to make everything. (Sidenote here: I also had a thank you card stamp made with our dandelion drawing and not long afterwards I noticed that Impress Rubber Stamps now has their OWN dandelion thank you card that looks mysteriously similar to ours. Personally, I think we should be getting royalties for our design.)

I made place cards and lined them up on the floor to dry like little soldiers at attention. I made tags for my bridesmaids' tote bags and tags for the goody bags in guests' rooms and table names and escort cards. I made cheese name cards for the cheese table and thank you cards and programs. If you are even remotely into crafts and have the time, I would suggest this. At the very least, definitely find your own "symbol" (you can keep this symbol for the rest of your life) that is special to the two of you and have a custom stamp made. One of my co-workers at Amistad had her father draw a lighthouse (they got married on the Cape) which the invitation company printed on their invitations (this is what I did too, and it's only a small, one-time extra cost...definitely worth it). She sent the same drawing to Impress Rubber Stamps and then used the stamp for paper items like I did. It's immensely satisfying to have someone you care about make the drawing and then use that image for all of your wedding items, knowing that it is uniquely yours. Plus, you can have the invitation framed and give it to your fiance as a wedding gift (the one I had framed for Steve includes a series of three items: the actual dried dandelion flower that I picked from our yard one day for Steve to use as a prop, the pencil drawing he made of it before tracing it in fine black ink to send to the invitation maker, and the final product--the invitation). This framed invitation was the second gift in a series of three wedding gifts I gave him (the first on the night before the wedding, the second on the morning of our wedding, and the third on the night we were married after the wedding was over). The three gifts represented the past, the present, and the future. Clever, if I do say so myself--feel free to not invent the wheel by stealing my idea.

Soldiers ready for wedding battle

But, I digress about my own wedding...get to work on yours! Or, of course, on helping whoever is lucky enough to be one of the soon-to-bes (Steve and I were lucky enough to have TONS of help from a truly ENORMOUS number of people, something that made our wedding a family and friends affair, as well as very, very special to us.) I think I owe many people payback, so, on that note, if anyone would like my free and impassioned help, give me a holler.

Holla! Holla! (Sorella, that's for you!)

Happy Wedding Planning Bliss to all of you.

And here's a little endnote for you:

The Father of the Bride force-feeding his homemade apricot liqueur to the Bride on the morning of her wedding (yes, this really happened...go figure, it's my dad we're talking about and here's a picture to prove it). I've got one hell of a talented family, people.