Welcome…

When I began writing this blog, I expected it to be about the need to create some structure in retired life. Over time, however, blogging about the stage of my life and career —I am “demi” retired—became less interesting than writing about the pleasures and occasional frustrations of everyday life in general. Another way of putting this is that while time marches on, life around you, if you allow it to, also becomes more interesting, more stimulating, and even a tad freer… and age, in fact, matters less and less. 

The weather outside is frightful

April is more than half over, and while I haven’t kept an actual  log, it’s probably safe to say that we have had gray skies, cold rain, howling wind, and snow flurries most days this month.

Tradition has it that the last snow of the season is the signal to plant the onion sets. For roughly four weeks now, I have been looking out the window and dutifully reporting, “Ah, it’s the onion snow,”only to be the victim of déjà vu all over again, as the joke goes. Two 80-degree days last week provided momentary exhilaration but left us all with achy joints and sinus headaches when the temperature plummeted more to the low 40s overnight.

My daughter says that we should all stop complaining about the weather—that our whining has created bad juju, only making things worse. January and February are supposed to be cold, but it’s not supposed to be snowing and below freezing here in the Mid-Atlantic,  in the third week of April, when the daffodils and cherry trees are in full bloom, the willows are yellow-green, and the maple trees are about to leaf out.

Earlier today, driving through a snow shower, Hubby said, “This feels like December.”

Hallmark Christmas movie, anyone?

The easiest chocolate cake

The easiest chocolate cake, from my college roommate Suzie.

That’s my notation on Midnight Cake in my messy binder of recipes collected over decades from friends, magazines, newspapers, and various online sources.

I  lost track of Suzie, one of my short-term roomies, long ago; but this chocolate cake, otherwise known as “that black one with the coffee,” has remained a staple for I-will-not-say-how-many years. It’s a one-bowl method that goes together in a flash., You can use a 9×13 pan, fill two nine-inch layers, or make two dozen cupcakes.

The coffee creates another layer of flavor and gives the cake its deep, dark “midnight” color. It also provides that acidic touch that takes any cake from good to better yet, or maybe even over the top. Consider the classic French yogurt cake and the many recipes that call for buttermilk or sour cream, or just souring the milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

On Easter Sunday, I was up early to get the cake made and out of the oven before church. Because I was still dragging  from the prior day’s Easter bread marathon, I knew I’d be at risk of forgetting something if I didn’t set out the ingredients first. Measuring and lining everything up before baking—called mise-en-place, or put in place—is another sheer-genius gift from the French culinary canonI first noticed all those ingredients lined up neatly on the work surface in the early days of Food TV. After my daughter, then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, reminded me of this useful habit, I went to a local kitchen store and bought a bunch of those cute little glass dishes. You can use this prep technique for anything—and I do—but since baking is chemistry, forgetting or mis-measuring can produce disastrous results. The risk of goofing definitely goes up when you’re extra busy or tired or prone to frequent interruptions (young mothers, take note!). I take everything from the pantry and fridge at once and set the eggs and milk aside to come to room temperature while I measure the dry ingredients. As each is measured out, with my mother’s oft-repeated advice to “clean up as you go along” ringing in my ears, its package returns to the pantry or fridge.

IMG_3105.jpg

Note that this recipe calls for sifting the dry ingredients, then adding everything else. I know that many home bakers argue that flour is pre-sifted. Sifting, however, isn’t just about the flour. Other both ingredients, like cocoa and baking powder, can get lumpy. Ergo, when a recipe says “sift,” I do as I’m told. By the way, any recommendations for a really good sifter are welcome. Since my last one conked out, I’ve been using a mesh sieve, which is a bit of a pain.

 

Midnight Cake
Preheat oven to 350; grease a 9×13 pan and dust it lightly with cocoa.

Sift together:
2 C flour
2 C sugar
¾ C cocoa (I use Dutch-process but any will work)
2 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Add:
2 eggs
½ C vegetable oil
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 C hot coffee

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Notes
1) The truth is that the “Whacky Cake,” a World War II relic that you make in the pan, without butter or eggs, is really the easiest chocolate cake. Or maybe the easiest and fastest cake of any sort. You can use coffee in place of or mixed with the milk or water to give it more zing. See the King Arthur cakepan cake recipes if you’ve never tried it. The problem with that this cake, however, is that it’s a smaller cake, so it won’t work if you need more than six servings.

2) A flavorful chocolate cake can stand on its own. I’ve often opted out of icing and just dusted this cake with powdered sugar.

3) Many recipes now recommend whisking the dry ingredients as an alternative to sifting. The reasoning behind this is that whisking will combine the dry ingredients effectively,  get rid of lumps, and  aerate the flour. If a recipe says “whisk,” I do so. But I don’t feel that whisking improves the texture of a cake as much as sifting. For more information, check this article on the Epicurous website. I’ve seen the same thing done with a food processor, but that seems like overkill and way too many pieces to clean up.

4) There’s no photo of the finished cake because I was in such a rush. I made cupcakes a few days ago—some for us, some for friends—but they disappeared before I could say “Cheese.” Best laid plans and all that.

Easter bread woes

IMG_3103

For all but a few of the last 20 or so years, I have faithfully used the same recipe for Easter bread, from my beloved Roseto Cookbook,* Anna Marie Ruggiero’s culinary homage to the life and times of the Italian immigrants, their children, and their children’s children, in a tiny town in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Read Adriana Trigiani’s Queen of the Big Time and you will understand the community and the culture; use the cookbook and you will eat not lavishly but very well. Peasant food, la cucina povera, is always the best.

The Roseto Cookbook contains two recipes for Easter bread, or pane di Pasqua**.  I chose the second, because it seemed more direct. Recipe #2 always gave me great results, and even though it called for loaf pans, I was able to braid the loaves and insert the colored eggs for a more festive presentation. Recipe #1 always seemed too involved; it starts with a sponge that requires proofing time and three subsequent rises—one after kneading, one after the “punch down,” and the final for the formed loaves. In other words, an all day adventure.

This year, however, I wanted a bigger yield. Forgetting the lesson of roughly five years ago when I defected to a disappointing recipe on a popular Italian cooking website, I decided to try Recipe #1. Let me just say, to begin with, that it was no mean task to isolate four pounds of flour without having to weigh it all out on my teeny tiny kitchen scale. Flour, flour everywhere, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

The sponge frothed up nicely, but despite all the flour, the dough was very wet. Sweet dough is sticky, but this dough was trickier and wetter than I was accustomed to with good old reliable Recipe #2. It was also a LOT of dough to manage, and my awkwardness made me feel like a rank amateur. Eventually, though, it came together and successfully went through the next two rises. When it came time to shape the loaves, I worried that the dough would be too sticky and wet to shape the braids. But as the gluten developed it became a bit easier to work with. As long as I gave the dough a rest now and then, I was able to create the ropes and braid them, and to nestle the colored eggs in between.

One more rise and a few hours later, the loaves came out of the oven. They are BIG. No, they are HUGE. They are CLUNKY. They are too BROWN. There is nothing delicately pastel and Easter-y looking about them. There’s a split in one of the bigger loaves, and that egg I dipped in juice from a can of Wyman’s Wild Blueberries basically sank***. Although I’ve never been a picture-perfect baker, this is definitely not my best work.

Hubby graciously said he thought the four loaves looked great. When I grimaced, he said, “How do you want them to look?” “Not like that,” I muttered. This conversation was not unlike one we might have had if I’d come home from the salon unhappy with a haircut I’d just paid through the nose for. “But I think it looks great,” he would say, ostensibly trying to make me feel better but with a tentative quality in his voice, as if he were about to walk on hot coals.

There’s nothing really wrong with Recipe #1—this was a matter of my lack of skill in handling a huge quantity of sticky dough. Next year, please remind me that change for the sake of change isn’t always a good idea. In the time I spent today, I could easily have managed two batches of good old reliable Recipe #2. I might have ended up with less of mess, a better looking product, and some spare energy to make the cake I promised. All these things considered, though, it will taste fine.

I know that many of you wonder why I would go to so much trouble. I could certainly buy a picture-perfect loaf of Easter bread at the grocery store and no one around the table tomorrow would be likely to care, or even notice. But, of course, it’s not about the bread at all. As I made those not-so-perfect-looking loaves of Easter bread today, my mother, my grandmother, my Auntie Teresa, and my Auntie Anna were all right there with me. This is a tie that binds.

Wishing you and yours a blessed Easter… or a blessed Pesach. Easter bread, it turns out, is a lot like Challah.

* You can purchase this gem of a cookbook from Ruggiero’s Market in Roseto, PA. Anna Maria Ruggiero did the painting on the cover, too. http://www.ruggierosmarket.com/the-roseto-cuisine-cookbook.html

**  Easter bread is called by many other names from region to region—for example, in Calabrai, cuculi.

*** Nor were my “natural” dyes a huge success this year.  

IMG_3095.jpg

 

Growing up with Yankee

I fell in love with New England—technically, my native New England—not on those tedious trips north from Pennsylvania when I was a tiny child, but month by month, on the pages of Yankee magazine.

I’ve mentioned before that my father, a first generation Italian-American, grew up in a papermill town in Western Maine. Think Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or Monica Wood’s stunning memoir, When We Were the Kennedys. As a kid visiting family on summer vacation, I had trouble connecting with those visits—everything just felt too different and far away. (I got over that as I grew older, of course.)

My parents loved magazines, and I absorbed their addiction, lapping up every Life, Look, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, or whatever the minute it arrived. But one magazine was extra special, for on its covers and in its pages the idea of New England began to take shape in my imagination.

Back then, Yankee was half the size it is today, which in and of itself set the magazine apart. I still miss the old book-size format, with its distinctive original cover art. Sometimes fanciful, sometimes near photographic, the covers invited you into village life or mountainscape, stormy seas or apple orchard, lighthouse or schoolhouse. Beatrix Sagendorph, wife of Yankee founder Robb Sagendorph, was responsible for many of those inimitable illustrations, starting a tradition that other talented artists would follow in the years to come.

Between those covers, black-and-white newsprint pages bore stories of “Old Salts” and boiled dinners and folk remedies, general stores, and regional history, of famous Yankees important to history and literature. There were poems and recipes and little jokes here and there, and pages of classifieds that this school kid read from beginning to end. If you could read the tiny type, you could find anything from farm equipment to a fishing camp on a lake, a sure-fire mosquito remedy, or a priceless heirloom recipe you could call your own for just a dollar and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Come to think of it, the pages of Yankee were probably the first virtual general store.

With the changing times, Yankee has changed as well… first adding inside color, then giving up the compact, book-size format, then developing online content. Nonetheless, there is still much to love: enough “zip” to attract younger readers and sufficient  old-fashioned sensibility to keep long-time readers like me happily engaged. Subscribers these days have access to a website that offers free downloads of tourist information, recipes, and other good stuff.

The most recent innovation has been the addition of the WGBH-produced TV series, Weekends with Yankee. The show, just now beginning its second season, airs on public stations; you will need to check your local outlet for day and time. The content has been delightfully varied thus far. If you love New England, or, if somehow, you’ve never been there, watch this show. Writer-explorer Richard Wiese and Amy Traverso, Yankee’s senior food editor, are enthusiastic yet relaxed hosts with the savvy to let the stories unfold naturally. It’s a great half hour. And if, like me, you still like something you can hold in your hand, try subscribing, and you can enjoy the varied pleasures of New England year round.

 

Cover photo: Rumford Falls, Oxford County, Maine.

Chaos theory

There is chaos in this house. While to a degree it is organized chaos, it is chaos nonetheless.   

When we moved into our newly built, suitably downsized home nearly five years ago, I naively thought we were done with home improvement projects and the chaos they impose. Fat chance.

Here I sit, with the contents of two closets  piled, stacked, and hung throughout the house. Hubby, to whom I am deeply thankful, used the mercifully snowless snow day to do all the heavy lifting. I give his very ordered brain complete credit for giving some well thought out method to this madness. The coats were removed from the guest closet and layered neatly on the loveseat. My clothes were hung in the guest closet in perfect order, and most of his are upstairs. The sweaters and tees are on the bedroom chairs. The contents of the linen closet are lined up on a towel on the dining room floor, against a row of luggage. Impatient as I am, I freely admit that I would never have taken such pains.

This is largely a painting project: the closet, master bath, foyer, and a few other odds and ends. The closet had never been painted; we were in a rush to move in. Attempting to make both the bathroom and foyer brighter, I’d picked shades so subtle that they’re just about disappearing. So, five years hence, we are correcting my goofs. Temporary inconvenience, as the highway sign goes, permanent improvement.

The real killer, though, is that straight-as-an-arrow ceiling crack that appeared out of the blue several weeks ago. It crosses the great room from the fireplace to the kitchen. Over the furniture. Over the mantle and its assorted pretty stuff. Over the rugs and hardwood floors. Over the kitchen island and counter. There’s give in the sheetrock, which means there’s no joist above it. The repair is guaranteed to make an awful mess. I fully understand that this is a very small problem in a world fraught with real ones, but it shouldn’t have happened in a house this new.  They don’t build houses the way they used to, do they?

Once all the work is done, though, we’ll do a down-to-the-bones spring cleaning and put everything back in its proper place. Perhaps the threat of snow will have passed once and for all by then, too. That would be welcome indeed.

 

Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rearranging

I hit the ground running early this morning when inspiration struck. Move the love seat from the den back to the living room, and move the wingback to the den.

There is nothing unusual about this urge, as most women know. When the kids were itty bitty, I was always moving furniture around. In those days, though, upholstered furniture was big and heavy and hulking. Like that little engine that could, I would push and pull and edge until the room had yet another new look—not always, I fully admit, a better one.

Whenever those very same itty bitty ones would lock horns over nothing,  this only child, who had always longed for a sibling, would cry out in exasperation, “Why on earth would you fight over that? You should love each other. Why would you fight at all?” Once, in response, my daughter, who was seven or eight at the time, looked up at me and said simply, “Because it’s not boring.”

Which is precisely why we rearrange the furniture.

Today, I knew I had to break this news to Hubby, who, like every other husband on the planet, doesn’t get it. I did so gently, but this time I added, “Every woman likes to rearrange the furniture. It’s just what we do.” Remarkably, he agreed. I was stunned. Not one to push my luck, I decided to tell him about the new pillow plan–for color, of course—some other time.

A few hours later, he advised me to check the “to do” list on the counter. This is what I found:

Move TV room furniture. 
Move 2nd floor to 1st floor in June.
Move basement to 1st floor.

I’m not sure what happens to the first or second floor in this scenario. Oh well. Neither is he.