Archive for the ‘Food’ category

Sweetness from the Trees

February 23, 2009

Most winter mornings, breakfast for me is oatmeal with maple syrup. This time of year, I think about how the Iriquois had a Maple Sugar Moon, and I marvel that a tree can provide such sweetness.

We have a maple in our front yard, but I’m not sure if it’s a sugar, and besides, sap from one tree, once it’s been cooked down, doesn’t make much syrup.

When I was in sixth grade, I was in what was called “The Outdoor Team”–a class that, along with the usual math, science, social studies and language arts, went on camping trips, hikes, cooked outside, and, in February and early March, tapped the maple trees in the woods on school property.

Every day, we’d go out into the snowy woods and empty the buckets, bring the sap inside, and cook it down. You always knew when the sap was running because our whole wing of the school would be redolent with the burnt sweetness of it as it simmered and thickened.

The season always culminated in a sleepover in the gym. We’d eat pizza on a Friday night and play volleyball, stay up until well past midnight, then awaken later Saturday morning for a pancake breakfast.

My grandmother had woods behind her house, and each year, my uncle taps the trees. I always said I wanted to go with him to do it. But now, it may be too late, as time has passed, he has aged, and I … I’ve had a full life, and sometimes, it’s hard to find time for everything you want to do, and the first thing that gets pushed aside for “later” may, at the time, seem small and unimportant. Now, with my grandmother gone almost two years, the time for walking in her woods, savoring the sweetness that comes from her trees, is past.

But each morning, even if it’s not foremost in my mind, these memories come to me as I eat my breakfast.


The Magic of Chambord

September 21, 2008

It’s funny how a little liquor can dramatically change your perceptions.

I have a recipe for chocolate chip cake that I’ve been making for years. It’s made in a Bundt pan, and is pretty much fail-proof. It’s one of those recipes I fall back on when I need to bring something to a gathering and don’t have the time or inclination to make a big fuss or try something new and adventurous. Every time I bring it, it gets warm reviews.

But I’ve noticed something. If you’ve made the same recipe for years, you realize that, gradually, the sizes of boxes, cans, jars and other containers change. The original recipe for this cake calls for a “4.5-ounce box” of pudding.

The first time I decided to bake it, I dutifully went to the grocery store with my husband and searched high and low for a 4.5-ounce box of pudding. There is, alas, no such thing anymore, at least not in our grocery store. There was 3.8-ounce, and 4.9-ounce, but no 4.5-ounce.

So “The Conversions” began. I tried, in my super-scientific way, to guestimate how much to leave out when adding the 4.9-ounce box, or how much of a second box to add if I’d come home with two 3.8-ounce boxes.

And that didn’t even touch the subject of the recipe’s request for a “2-layer size package chocolate cake mix”. Maybe it’s in the fine print somewhere, but we couldn’t find one of these, either.

Well, about a month ago, I had finally had enough. I was sick of trying to guess how much 4.5 ounces of pudding was. And while I was at it, I really didn’t feel like measuring 1-3/4 cups of milk anymore.

So, I got the 5.8-ounce “family-size” package of pudding. Figuring “more pudding needs more milk,” I added two cups, TWO WHOLE CUPS, of milk and put the cake in the oven to bake. It was fail-proof anyway, right? So what did I have to worry about?

The first afternoon I made it this way, I checked it at 45 minutes (because the recipe says to bake one hour, but that it’s better at 45 minutes). But my cake tester only came out sort of clean, and the whole thing just felt a little squishy to me. So I left it in, thinking I’d be back for it in five minutes.

In the mean time, the dogs needed a walk. So out I went into the backyard. Ecko did his business right away (what a good boy). But Kiefer had to investigate the whole yard twice, sniffing long and hard in all sorts of nooks and crannies before finally selecting just the right bush to water. With each minute that passed, I kept thinking, “My dog is going to make me burn this cake!”

When I came inside, I took a deep breath. Was that singed chocolate I smelled?

When I took the cake out of the oven, the top was very crusty. I resigned myself to the reality of having to show up for a picnic the next day bearing a “burnt-bottom chocolate chip cake”. At least the name sounded interesting.

But it wasn’t burnt. In fact, it was better than any of the cake’s previous reincarnations, with a pudding and chocolate throughout. It tasted like a $6 dessert at a restaurant.

Later that week, we went to a liquor store for something and happened to buy a small bottle of Chambord that the owner recommended. Chambord is beautiful red and intensely raspberry. Even the bottle is fancy.

We drank it first and liked it. Then I said, “Hey, that would be really good over chocolate cake!”.

There were a few pieces of my unburnt cake left, so we drizzled them with Chambord.

The $6 dessert suddenly became an $11 dessert, and all because of a few drops of raspberry liqeur.

So if you decide to make this cake, do yourself and your companions a favor. Go get a little bottle of Chambord, and sprinkle a few drops on each slice before serving. It looks elegant and tastes even better!


1 box devil’s food cake mix (currently, I’m using Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate Fudge with wonderful results)

1 large package instant chocolate pudding (right now, the “family size” is 5.8 ounces)

2 cups milk

2 eggs (three if they’re small)

1 12-ounces package semisweet chocolate chips

Mix the first 4 ingredients, then stir in chips. Bake in a well-greased Bundt pan at 350 degrees for an hour or until done.

Mnemonic Devices

September 2, 2008

My grandmother was full of wisdom, and she passed much of it on to me. Not in the formal sense, but in the day-to-day, conversational way that many of the greatest lessons in life are given and received. We have to pay attention, otherwise we’ll miss them. Even then, with our eyes wide open, we often don’t realize what we’ve learned until much later, long after the person who taught us is gone.

My grandmother said I should take vitamins every day and keep a journal. I’d kept a journal off and on throughout childhood. But if I got angry or felt like I had too much stuff, even if the journal was a few years along, I’d throw it out, thinking in my convoluted teenage way that this act of defiance and destruction would hurt whoever or whatever I thought it was that was causing me such internal pain. But of course, internal pain is just one’s own emotional reaction to external events, and the only one I really ended up hurting was myself.

So in 2000, amid all the hype about the fact that, come January 1, the world as we knew it might come to an end, I started another journal.

Even with a move to an apartment, then to a house, it’s still growing. A few years ago, I mentioned to my grandmother that, because it was all in Braille, it was getting pretty big. She said if it ever outgrew its place in my home, she had a whole third floor in her house where I could store it. She figured that since it was in Braille, I could keep it there without worrying anyone would be able to read it.

My grandmother passed away last summer, and my journal is tucked in among the piano music that fills cabinets and shelves in my house. Rather than a straight journal, mine is more like an old-fashioned commonplace book. Poetry, quotations, recipes, lists, they all get copied in there if I find them to be something I think I might want to hold on to, revisit some day.

Funny, though, that while I look up information in the volumes from years past, I’ve rarely sat down and read extensively from the journal. In my searching for the occasional recipe, I’ll come across entries and read a few lines. Some are too painful, even after five years’ remove, and I don’t want to revisit the raw outpourings of my heart, now that I’ve at least started the process of covering over old wounds.

But also, I find that, at least for now, my memory gets triggered by things far simpler than a journal. For instance, my grandmother had a recipe for peach cake that she taught my mother, and then my mother taught her daughters. Two weeks ago, I decided to try a different recipe for peach cake that wasn’t my grandmother’s.

I didn’t have baking powder, so my husband assured me that I could just substitute baking soda, same measurements and all, no problem.

Well, the most charitable thing I can say about my peach cake was that, even if it didn’t taste very good going down, there was so much baking soda in it that you wouldn’t have to worry about getting indigestion. I’ll give it one more try with the proper ingredients some day, but I also can hear my grandmother, with a line she often used after she’d put down some incredible word in a Scrabble game: “There! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Our hearts and minds go through life searching for things to hold on to, anchoring points that allow us to make sense of a vast world that often is beyond our understanding. Just when we let down our guard and begin to love, our hearts and minds begin to search for all those little things we experience that capture the feeling of that love.

They can be so random and hit us so unexpectedly–the scent of a particular perfume, the way light comes slanting through a window at a certain time of day in a certain season, a few phrases of music. Even though we know that all things pass away and we leave this world as empty-handed as we entered it, still we try to hold tight to the people we share our journey and pieces of our hearts with.

We think to ourselves, once the loving has begun, “Aha! Here it is at last!” And yet …

The things we hold on to often make little sense to us. Why, as a blind person, do I keep a few photographs of people and events that I will never see myself and rarely have the inclination or opportunity to show to other people? They are pictures I can certainly call up in my mind, even adding layers of what I remember being said. Still, it’s sometimes a reassurance to have something to hold in your hands, as if by touching it, you can prove beyond the tenuous mists that inhabit our minds that, yes, those events did really happen.

As a concert pianist, I am constantly asking my memory to hold vast amounts of information, to recall it at any moment and, note by note, to create the world of sound that I have as the ideal I spend my life working to attain. Once the note is struck and the melody fades into silence, the only thing remaining for me and for any listener will be the memory of it.

Our written records and sound recordings and photographs are nothing more than crutches. At the end of our days, we will be left alone with only our minds to carry what we know, what we have learned, what we have experienced, as we make our way into the next passage of our journey. It will be the sounds, sights, feelings, emotions, dreams and stories and songs that sustain us.

Make Way for the Carrot Cake!

August 27, 2008

I’ve been on a cooking spree lately. Usually, my husband cooks. He’s really good at it, too. It’s not that I can’t, but when he was going to school and I was teaching, back when we first got married, he would cook because, if we waited until I came home after my last piano lesson, we wouldn’t have had dinner until something like ten or eleven at night! I realize this schedule works great in Spain, but they have a two-hour siesta right in the middle of their day, too, so …

Anyway, my friend Anne loves carrot cake. When I visited last year, she took me to a restaurant 30 miles from her house and said they had the best carrot cake she’d ever had. I tried it, and it was indeed really delicious.

Anne is a really good friend, probably the best I’ve ever had. So when I visited again this summer, I told her I would cook for her and would love doing it (although I wasn’t going to guarantee she’d love eating what I cooked).

One thing I did know, though, because I have a competitive streak. I was determined to make a carrot cake better than that restaurant!

I spent months searching in cookbooks and on-line for the best recipe. I don’t know what other people think, but I like my recipes fairly simple. Some cake recipes are really fussy. You know the ones I mean. They say things like:

“In a small bowl, sift the flour. Add cinnamon, baking soda and salt, and combine with a wire whisk.” (What other kind would I possibly be using? Or are they afraid I’ll just stop reading at “wire” and try mixing things up with an extension cord?)

“Make a well in the dough.” (I love this: Our nation’s addiction to foreign oil is solved, or maybe it’s just a shortage of water in the Southwest. Whatever it is, they never tell you whether to use copper or plastic for the plumbing.)

“Add flour mixture and milk alternately to batter, beginning and ending with flour mixture.” (So I just dump half the dry stuff in, then all the milk, and then the rest of the dry stuff. Hard to do when one hand is otherwise occupied with an unruly electric mixer.)

Anyway, this recipe I found is great. You take all the ingredients (except for the ones you use for making the frosting, of course), put them all in a bowl in no particular order, and then mix. I don’t care how many ingredients are on the list if I can do things like this.

The first time Anne and I made the cake, we somehow didn’t get started until something like eight at night. I’ve seen some well-stocked kitchens in my lifetime, but hers … let’s just say it’s so well-stocked, she knows she has whatever we could possibly need somewhere, she’s just not exactly sure where. If it’s not in the kitchen proper, it might be in the pantry, or the basement, or … the town hardware store! I’ve never in my life walked into a place that sells garden hoses and hammers and come out with two nine-inch round cake pans.

The first order of business was shredding three cups of carrots. Me and peelers and shredders have uneasy relations. But then again, if I was relegated to life in a dark, cluttered drawer where I was always being poked by potato mashers and sidled up to by spatulas, and my only excursions into the outside world involved rubbing up against cold, slimy vegetables or stinky cheese, I can’t say I’d be very soft and cuddly, either.

The recipe called for coconut, so we searched high and low. She thought she’d put it in the freezer, but couldn’t seem to locate it in there. The more she looked, the more annoyed she got. Finally, I convinced her to call off the search (they do this after dark when they’re in the mountains looking for lost hikers, so I figured it was OK to do it for coconut, too, even if it meant we’d find it in a few days, frozen and unresponsive).

We didn’t have the right size pans, so the batter ran over and made a nice toasty, burnt aroma in the house and a crispy, crusty thing on the oven floor that I had to clean out the next day (after all, I planned to bake other things and didn’t want all my efforts to have an air of carrot about them).

By the time the cakes were done, it was midnight or close to it, and my sides hurt from laughing. I also had an intimate knowledge of where I could find just about any cooking utensil imaginable in someone else’s kitchen. Kitchens are kind of physical representations of our minds. I’m convinced that with Anne, I’m in the company of someone who is absolutely brilliant. She’s got a lot of knowledge about a lot of different subjects. Just don’t ask her to recall any of it in a hurry or in any way that might make logical sense to anyone other than her.

I made the frosting the next day. As long as I live, I will always cherish the memory of watching Anne’s surprise and child-like delight at getting to lick the beaters and the bowl.

But that was nothing compared to her reaction to eating the finished dessert, which was nothing short of ecstasy. She’d be reassured to know that, if she ate the whole cake in one sitting or even over the course of one day, she might be really, really sick, but at least she’d met the Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily quota of five servings of fruits or vegetables (three cups shredded carrot, one cup crushed pineapple, one cup raisins). Fortunately for both of us, she stopped at … I’m not quite sure how many pieces.

It was good enough that she asked me to make it again the next week when she had a group of people over at her house. This time, the pineapple and coconut made it in, and there were a few slight modifications to the frosting.

The day before I left for home, Anne admitted that I had succeeded in outdoing the carrot cake from the nearby restaurant. I’m not sure if it’s because so much laughter and love went into it, or because she got to lick the bowl when we were done.

I do know that I’ve made it for my own family now, too, and, in the words of my husband, “That’s some high-level carrot cake”. He’ll take his straight, no chaser (meaning without the frosting). My mom took hers in a nine by thirteen pan instead of the two-layer round version I’d made earlier.

However you eat it, it is a good recipe. I’ve had others in the past, but they’re all retired now.

Make way for The Carrot Cake!


2 cups sugar

1-1/2 cups vegetable oil

4 eggs

2 tsp baking soda

2 cups flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1 cup flaked coconut

3 cups (about 1 pound) grated carrot (more can be added if desired)

1 cup chopped walnuts (or more if desired)

1 cup raisins (or more if desired)

1 can crushed pineapple, well-drained

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 to 2 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp vanilla (or more if desired)

4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350.

Grease and flour 2 8-inch cake pans.

Combine first 12 ingredients in large bowl and blend with a mixer just until a smooth, thick batter forms, about 30 seconds to 1 minute (do not overmix).

Pour into pans and bake 45-50 minutes or until tops are golden and toothpick comes out clean.

Cool completely.

For frosting: combine butter and cheese in a large bowl.

Add vanilla and lemon juice and mix well.

Gradually add sugar, continuing to mix until well-combined.

Place one cake layer on serving platter and frost the top.

Place second cake on top and frost top and sides of cake. Garnish with additional nuts and/or coconut, if desired.

Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Into the Woods: Blue Ebony (“But I Don’t Wanna Be a Chopstick!”)

March 18, 2007

When Ted first met Frank, the wandmaker, it seemed that anything and everything Ted touched that was made of wood could and might be made into a wand.

There’s a Chinese restaurant here called Dragon Buffet. It has the usual all-you-can-eat Americhinese items, like chicken chow mein, pizza, won ton soup, chicken fingers, egg rolls and French fries. But it also does a “Mongolian grill”; you put whatever raw ingredients you want into a bowl with your choice of sauces, then pass the bowl to a man who cooks it on a huge stir-frying surface. Also, on Friday nights, they have really good soup, made by an old man, and you know it’s good because all the Chinese people are lined up to get it. (Of course, the other thing the Chinese like is that it’s relatively cheap, but we Americans and Japanese like that, too.) They sometimes have pretty good sushi, and their desserts run the gamut from ice-creamlike non-dairy totally-artificial sweetly-flavored polymer (one of Ted’s favorites) to pineapple “tidbits” (yes, that’s really what they’re called on the can).

But back to the wands. About the time Ted first met Frank, Ted and I went to Dragon Buffet for dinner. We enjoyed the meal, but Ted also discovered that the restaurant had very high-quality bamboo chopsticks that he shaped into a couple of wands. I’ve still got mine, although bamboo technically is a grass, not a wood.


Anyway, months later, someone from Japan sent us two pieces of blue ebony that could be shaped into very fine chopsticks. It was beautiful wood, dark and smooth and shiny even before you polished it.

So, Ted took it to Frank’s and asked if he could use Frank’s power tools to shape the basic chopstick shape from each piece, to which Frank said sure.

While shaping the first piece, though, the wood had other ideas apparently, and instead of applying the sander to it, Ted applied it to his finger. He had to cancel clients for a day and complained that he wouldn’t be able to swing a sword. Maggie and I, trying not to seem too mean, kind of laughed because we knew the wood didn’t want to be made into a chopstick, at least not that piece, anyway.

Even after going home that night, his finger scraped and swollen, Ted mourned the loss of a perfectly good potential chopstick, especially since now there was no way he’d ever have a matched pair.

I took the piece of shaped wood in my hands. I decided I’d be the one to polish it. So Ted gave me sandpaper in various gradations of fineness (from 80 grains per square inch all the way down to 10,000 grains per square inch), and, following the instructions he’d gotten from Japan, I sanded, ran under water, oiled and sanded some more until I had a glassy smooth wand in my hand.


Every time Ted looks at it, he still sees “chopstick”, and, truth be told, it’s a rather suggestive length and thickness. But to me, it’s a wand, and it was the first one I polished for my own use.

Polishing wood takes time, so it’s a great way to clear the mind and quiet things down. You can’t be in a hurry when you’re doing it, and the only limits on how smooth you get the wood are those afforded by your patience and willingness to go over the same small area countless times.

Anyway, people seem to think that ebony is the obsidian of woods. I’m not really sure what I think. All I know for sure is that the story behind this blue ebony wand is fun to recall and fun to tell. Perhaps when I polish my next ebony wand, which never had any inkling of the possibility it might become a chopstick, I’ll get more insights into what the wood has to say. As for this little wand I’ve made, all I get when I pick it up is deep gratitude. Certainly that’s a good reminder to me.

“Stressed” is “Desserts” Spelled Backwards

March 10, 2007

I saw this title yesterday while I was browsing an on-line list of books and, while I don’t plan to read the book it came from, I do think it’s pretty cool.

I’ve always loved playing with words, and I’ve always loved dessert. “Having my cake and eating it, too?” Oh, definitely! Cheesecake, strawberry shortcake, chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, angel food cake … I could go on and on, and this isn’t even getting into my Grandma’s apple cake (which can just as easily be made with peaches or plums).

“The cream of the crop?” Hmmmm, lots of flavors to choose from here, although I think mint chocolate chip (ice cream, that is) is an easy favorite. It’s refreshing in the summer, and even in the bitterest cold of winter, I can find excuses to eat it. We used to make homemade ice cream from our goats’ milk, and while all that crushed ice and rock salt is a nuissance, the end result always more than made up for it.

“Pie in the sky?” Well, I’m not a huge pie fan, but my mother’s lemon meringue is one of my all-time top requests. Pumpkin pie is always great, even for breakfast. I also have a recipe for a coconut custard pie that you just put everything together for and don’t have to fuss with crusts and stuff; you put it in the oven looking like this gloppy mess and it comes out as a beautiful pie.

I can think of many, many cookies that are delights for me, and the usual suspects (chocolate chip, macaroon) all come up. But I think that fortune cookies are underappreciated. I had read about a company, Lucky Touch Fortune Cookies, that made these with Braille messages inside, and on my recent trip to California, I had a chance to try them. The first fortune in my life I was able to read by myself was: “Life is a gem.” I brought home samples for friends, including some chocolate-dipped ones I’m giving as a gift. Since they don’t include print on the messages, for once, I’ll be the one hearing, “Could you read this for me?”

You’d think, reading this, that I do nothing but eat sweets. Well, we’re still working on those Hershey Kisses from Valentine’s Day, so it can’t be that bad! I’ve gotten better; I used to eat chocolate at an almost unconceivable rate. But I once purposely ate so much that I felt sick, and that pretty much helped me rein things in.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the stuff and will gladly eat it in large quantities, but it’s not a daily necessity anymore.

Usually, when I do eat large doses, it’s because I’m stressed over something (surprise, surprise). Even if I don’t name what’s causing it, being aware of it has also encouraged me to pay more attention to my dessert-eating habits. Of course, with over eleven pounds of Kisses around, I’ve been eating more because they’re available. But once they’re gone, I won’t be rushing out to get more (my husband might, though!).

Life for sale!

March 4, 2007

The last Daily Automagical posting by Ted (this time around)
Halfnotes will reply to all the comments when she comes back on March 5th. Thank you!

I’m a consumer, just like everyone else on the planet. I want to eat well, smell good, look pretty, live happily ever after.

Well, that’s what all the marketers think, anyway. To them, I’m just a number: I’m the “female 18-34”, only slightly less valuable to them than the “male 18-34”.

According to them, I should be reading books to make my marriage sizzle. (Do they mean in the bedroom, or on the rare nights I decide to give my husband a break and cook dinner?)

My dogs will live longer, better, happier, healthier lives if they eat “Zen Puppy” biscuits. (Sorry, marketers; they prefer the box of Dunkin Donuts we accidentally left on our coffee table; they were super-Zenned over the chocolate and powdered sugar, not to mention the strawberry jelly.)

I should be buying programs like “Play Piano in 24 Hours!” (Shit, now they tell me I wasted four years and thousands of dollars on college when I could’ve had everything including the Carnegie Hall gig for $19.95 plus shipping and handling?)

They want me to consider “no-kill chicken” and “free-range lettuce”, or better yet, “angst- and cholesterol-free soy milk”. (Growing up, milk came from goats. I wanna know: How do you milk a soybean, and how many teats does she or he or it have?)

There’s way too much stuff for sale, and everyone is clamoring either to make me buy it, help me pay for it with “easy” credit, encouraging me to organize it with “Clutter-Busting Tips!”.

Here’s a thought: I have a roof over my head. I’m not hungry. I have clothes to wear, I’m healthy (OK, I could probably do more exercise, but ..). I have a job I love, a husband I love even more (most of the time, and especially when I’m traveling on business!). I have an old dog that adores me and a young one who is growing into a tremendous guide and friend.

What more do I need? Not much, and nothing I’m going to take out of a shrink-wrapped box and put on a shelf when I’m finished using it.

The best things in life, like love, peace of mind, and friendship, are free. No credit required; no standing in line; no “sorry, currently out of stock”. They’re there for us to take if we just put out our hands and open our hearts.