The meadow down the road

Sometimes, a pretty picture is enough.

There’s a  meadow near us that’s destined to become a township park. The acreage was graded clear some time ago, but since then tall grasses, thistles, and Queen Anne’s lace have sprung up, creating an oddly lovely border. Against that what-is-so-rare-as-a-day-in-June sky, the bright green contrasts so nicely with the patches of soil.

All of that graceful rawness against the cloudless, brilliant blue seems almost intentional. It’s ours to enjoy till the bulldozers return, to make it tidy and planned and useful, I’m grateful for the permanently preserved green space but will miss that bare-bones meadow, which this time of year is resplendent with fireflies. I expect we’ll lose that bit of magic when the park is complete. More’s the pity.

Easter bread woes

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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.  

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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.

 

Carolina blue

Continuing an earlier theme that amounts, basically, to “sunshine on a cloudy day,” on this snowy afternoon I invite you to enjoy a petit gout of Carolina blue… North Carolina’s signature blue sky.

 

We had a house in North Carolina for a very short time, in an almost too well planned community between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro—a study in contrasts if ever there was one. Chapel Hill, home of UNC, is cool and sophisticated and well-groomed. Pittsboro, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Southern small town, complete with a Piggly Wiggly and friendly as all get-out.

We thought we would eventually retire there, but, in the end, it didn’t take. In defense of the area, we didn’t fully commit. We weren’t ready to retire, not by a long shot; and we were constantly running back and forth to Pennsylvania—which is one thing if the drive is two hours and entirely another if it’s eight.

While our decision to give up the idea had more to do with loved ones and work, there were some—shall we say—cultural issues that helped it along.  The de rigueur coffees with the neighbor ladies felt forced, and I was downright allergic to the subtle expectation that anyone who lived there would naturally have the same opinions about everything from restaurants to books to the quest for world peace. Kind of like seventh grade all over again.

At least for me—Hubby loves hot weather—the summer heat was almost as unbearable as this morning’s 17° wind chill. Plus—and this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back—there was no escarole in the grocery store.

But more important, there was the lingering feeling that if we did retire there, new acquaintances, no matter how friendly and welcoming, would be no substitute for the kids and grands and family we weren’t seeing enough of, or the friends of a lifetime we would have left behind.

And so, we sold the house. On many of our coldest days here in the Mid-Atlantic,  Hubby wistfully recalls the balmy North Carolina winter and those spindly southern pines swaying against a stunning blue sky.  I get it. It’s a beautiful place.

 

 

 

 

Open concept

If you’re anything like me, you fairly gag at the monotonous “one script is all” banter that occurs on House Hunters and all of its variations:

“It’s a good size.”
“I love the granite counter tops.”
“It’s pretty small for a master.” (What would you expect in a house built in 1920, folks?)
“This would fit my furniture.” (One of the most offensive and awkward misconstructions I have ever heard. The furniture fits into the room, House Hunters, not vice versa.)
“I could see myself sitting here, having coffee.”
“This would be great for entertaining.”

“I wanted open concept.” 

It’s the last that’s on my mind right now, as I sit here surrounded by a pre-holiday mess. “Open concept” is an invention of the last 30 years. There was virtually no “open concept” until roughly the last decade of the 20th Century. The point was to HIDE the mess in the kitchen. And for the cook to be able to concentrate while making the soufflé or Beef Wellington—or tuna noodle casserole, for that matter—without the distractions of a blaring television or bickering siblings.

Now, everyone on House Hunters, and, apparently, everywhere else, prefers not to be isolated from the rest of the household while working in the kitchen. That’s a nice idea in theory; it’s true that an open concept living area allows you to keep an eye on the kids, participate in family discussions, and enjoy your guests. But unless you are one of those people who thinks the only real dream kitchen is an unused one,  an “open concept” living area also means a mess for all to see. And while the perfume of bread in the oven may be pleasant and comforting, it is not necessarily pleasant or comforting to get a whiff of the sausage and peppers—or worse, fish—that you made for dinner when you’ve settled down for the evening in the den. Trust me—you can’t open a window when it’s 20 degrees, and the fan on full force and the candles don’t always do the trick.

I like living on one floor. I really do. And I love my house. But do not expect to see kitchen counters cleared of clutter and punctuated with fascinating decorative items à la Joanna Gaines (of whom, incidentally, I’m a committed fan). That’s fine for people who don’t really cook in a big way. And since Christmas is an especially messy time of year, you will at any given time this week find, in our lovely little home, not only a floury mess in the kitchen, but also a tangle of gift wrapping in progress on the dining room table—wide open to all who cross the threshold. Some time between now and Christmas Eve, all will be put in order. But until then, let’s just say we have that “lived in” look, right out there in the open.

PS That’s Adriana Trigiani’s delightful new edition of Cooking with My Sisters in the photo above.. The stories are wonderful, as you would expect.

‘You’ll shoot your eye out!’

Before you read this, please note:
1) The following is NOT about my husband; but, just as in reading a great work of literature or studying a famous painting, you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like.
2) It may sound “sexist.” It is.

A hospital stay can really knock it out of you even when you’re not the patient. Running back and forth to the hospital is in itself exhausting even without the associated stress. When you get home, you still have to walk the dog, put the trash out, go to the store, and—worse case scenario–water the lawn or shovel the snow, depending on the time of year. All you want to do is sleep, but you are wide-eyed at 2 AM, watching Frazier reruns. You seek distraction in oddly considered chores. All things considered, however, this is not the best time to sharpen your knives or climb a ladder to dust the top of the refrigerator. No household needs two recovering patients.

You think you will be so much better off when your patient is discharged, but going home is even more challenging if your patient is a male.

You’ve seen those cartoons of the “ER for men with colds” circulating on Facebook. Annoying though a whiner may be, you are actually in more trouble if your patient is one of those stalwart soldier types. If you’ve twisted your face in chagrin to scream, “WHY ARE YOU LIFTING THAT?” to a husband recovering from hernia surgery, you will understand why I’ve adopted that priceless line from A Christmas Story, borrowed for the title of this post, as my own code for, “What are you, nuts?” Sometimes, it even works.

You may be accused of sounding like a broken record (does anyone under 50 even know what that is?) or being a shrew, nag, or know-it-all. If he’s too polite and considerate to say any of those things (which the men in my life, fortunately, have always been), you will still see that sentiment very clearly written across his face. If you firmly believe you are always right in such circumstances, you are.

The behavior I’m describing has nothing to do with how smart they are; in fact, the smarter they are, the worse they are at applying common sense to situations involving their own well-being. They may tell you they just want to feel normal again, which I agree is understandable, or—much worse—they still think they can do everything they did at 17. Sadly, the restoration of health after illness or injury does not include time travel.

Fighting this battle does wear you down. After all, you are watching someone do exactly what sound reason and people who know better have said he shouldn’t do. As a result, you imagine one worst-case scenario after another—for example, checking repeatedly to see if he’s still alive when he falls asleep in the middle of The Ballad of Josie Wales. (Clue: If he falls asleep, it’s probably because he’s seen it 75 times.)

The only possibility of an end to this frustration is that at some point in the far distant future, your husband, father, or any other recuperating male in your care, may turn to you and say, “You were right.” And to a woman who knew she was right all along, that’s almost—mind you, I said almost—as good as jewelry.

Photo: One of the hospitals in our area. Sadly, even the Fourth of July dress can’t compensate for the fact that it looks like a computer card.