The make-up drawer

It’s always been my nemesis. Every few months or so, for years and years, I have taken everything out of it and discarded what’s outlived its usefulness or gone the route of what-could-I-possibly-have-been-thinking. I have meticulously cleaned out the drawer and the organizer and carefully put everything back in a tidy, logical way. Each clean-out always felt like an end to chaos… a fresh, new start that surely, this time,  I would be able to sustain.

Nonetheless, in a matter of days, that tidy, logically organized drawer had morphed into a mess. Note the chaos in the photo above.

Yesterday, after poking through the mess to get my face on, I unwrapped the latest free-gift-with-purchase cosmetic bag, Then it hit me. Why not just pitch the organizer and use the bags to store the make-up? After all, those compartmentalized organizers come and go—they break easily and the nooks and crannies are hard to clean. And they’re plastic, which is really not such a good thing. Moreover, I always seem to have cosmetic bags coming out my ears.

I did the requisite cleaning and pitching, then cleaned out the drawer itself. I put lipsticks and glosses in one bag; mascara, eye shadow, and liner in another; foundation and concealer in the third; blush in the fourth; brushes in the last. Absolute inspiration.

IMG_3548

Well, maybe. On day one, everything is still in its tidy little packet. We will see how long that lasts

Martha Pearl to the rescue

When I volunteer to “bring something,” my contribution is invariably an “old chestnut” whose outcome is never subject to question. For July 4th, a chocolate cake seemed the logical all-American choice. Given a miserable heat wave and the three loads of wash in progress, you’d think I would simply have thrown together my go-to, never fail “easiest chocolate cake.” But in a wave of what I can only characterize as heat-induced madness, I didn’t. I found a similar recipe in my Canadian Living: The Ultimate Cookbook—which had never disappointed me—and went for it, fully confident that it would be perfect and delicious.

Dumb.

I can’t blame the recipe because I took liberties with it. Forgetting that chocolate cakes are typically sturdier, I used the Southern-style soft wheat flour on hand, whose selling point, delicacy, is probably the polar opposite of the texture I would have gotten otherwise. Still apparently in that heat-induced fog, I sifted instead of whisked.

Dumber.

The batter was gorgeous, but the cake split in the last five minutes of baking. Meanwhile, despite having the AC at full tilt, the whole house felt dense and muggy. I took the cake out, confident that I could cover the veritable gorge sufficiently with icing.

Dumbest.

The cake was supposed to be cooled for 10 minutes, then inverted on a rack to cool completely, and inverted again on the serving platter to ice. I wouldn’t normally do this for a picnic–I would just leave it in the cake pan—but I wanted it to look nice and thought I’d give it a go.

I think you know what came next: the deconstructed chocolate cake, a messy plate full of crumbs and broken pieces. There was a time when I might have burst into tears, but at this point in life, I have finally learned the virtue of keeping calm and carrying on, as the saying goes. Plus, I knew I could rely on Martha Pearl.

IMG_3536IMG_3541

My Mother’s Southern Kitchen was the first cookbook of the southern collection that I started back when Nathalie Dupree had a southern cooking show on the then-new Food Network. James Villas’ book is a loving compendium of his mother Martha Pearl’s recipes, the best of which is her coffee cake. I threw it together in no time at all, as I’d done a week or so ago for a neighborhood event. This time, I knew that the soft-wheat southern flour would be perfect. I substituted buttermilk for whole milk, and threw in some fresh blueberries instead of walnuts. I suppose you could also use butter instead of shortening, but shortening does something lovejly for the texture, so I never mess with it.

IMG_3542

Martha Pearl’s coffee cake has a cinnamon streusel topping. 

The coffee cake was a hit, as I knew it would be. Unless you leave something out, it’s one of those perfect old chestnut, never-fail cakes—as Villas describes in the narrative. We’re munching on the deconstruction today, while I look for ways to “repurpose” it. I’ll update you if I find something.

All is good.

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.

‘Celebration’ cookies: a memory

Many moons ago, in another life and after something of a rough patch, I rang the doorbell of a modest, flat style home to present myself to a prospective landlady. I’d just seen the listing for a three-bedroom apartment in a solid city neighborhood, with church and school and people I knew all within a few blocks.

I was greeted by one of those smiling “map of Italy” faces so common in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She invited me in and excused her appearance—she’d been baking. Noting that the upstairs apartment was identical in layout, with a flourish she pointed me to the living room. I almost said yes on the spot, not because of the apartment or the affordable rent, but because on literally every surface in front of me were lined cookie sheets and platters full of gianette, the Italian anise cookies that in my family always signaled a celebration, always in the spring. They were iced in a rainbow of pastel colors, and the unmistakable perfume of anisette was everywhere.

Of course, my future landlady offered me a cookie. Of course, I accepted. That sealed the deal. True confession: I never told Mom that my landlady’s gianette were just as good as her own.

I remember that day, that experience, as a “Godwink“—a little message from heaven that this was a good fit, and that everything would work out just fine. When I shared the tale of the gianette with my parents, who lived several hours away, I could almost hear them trading worry for delight.

We lived there for five years before I bought a house a few miles away. There was a lot of up and down the stairs—sharing food, recipes, stories, landmark moments for the kids, the ups and downs of jobs and relationships, and a penetrating, real-life sadness when our landlord became very ill and passed away. I was glad we could be there for them then, and that my children had this valuable, if painful, life lesson. My landlady is gone now, too, but her darling daughter is raising her beautiful family in that same house.

Last week, I spent most of a day making two big batches of gianette for a family First Communion. They’re shaped like tiny doughnuts or little knots, then lightly iced with an anise-flavored glaze (I opted for anise oil instead of anisette—anisette is more authentic, of course). My mother often added colored sugar or sprinkles, but I’m all about not gilding the lily. In some Italian-American communities, they’re called Nonnie cookies, by the way. That’s pretty precious.

I packed the lion’s share of the two batches for the luncheon and most of the remainder into goodie bags, which I delivered to some of our neighbors early Sunday morning as a Mother’s Day treat. A dozen or so went into the freezer, to be tapped one-at-a-time to quiet the occasional craving. Giving most of the bounty away assures me the pleasure of baking without the danger that Hubby and I will consume all of that sugar and butter on our own.

IMG_3270.jpg

Alas, you won’t find a recipe, or even a link to one, in this post. There are several different gianette recipes in my collection, but I’m still not sure on which, if any, my mother relied. Although the cookies I made this time were delicious, I’m still not entirely satisfied that I’ve absolutely duplicated Mom’s texture—or my landlady’s. When I find the right one, I will be sure to share it with you.

By the way, if you like to give away the goodies you make, consider signing up for King Arthur Flour’s Bake for Good initiative. For everyone who pledges to bake something to give away, King Arthur will donate the cost of a meal to the Feeding America organization. Funding for more than 41,000 meals have been provided since KAF started this program. Just another reason to love King Arthur Flour

 

 

Sunshine on a cloudy day

Spring is being to seem like the “skipped season.” Winter stalked us right through April. Since then, the temperature has been fluctuating wildly: high 80s one day, then plummeting 20 to 30 degrees the next. I hate those wild swings. They’re as hard on my temperament (sorry, everyone I love) as they are on my bones, joints, and sinuses.

But who’s complaining? Our early rhododendron were the loveliest they’ve ever been. I had to replant rosemary and parsley, but all of the other herbs soldiered through the winter and are looking just fine. The Irish yews in the back, the ones Hubby calls “shrimpies,” are bolting. The roses are budding and stretching out across the trellises. The hostas are gorgeous. Everything in the pots looks happy and stable, at least so far.

Here in the US, the second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day.

We spent it with the kids. The plan was brunch, then an excursion to see the azaleas in full flower at Jenkins Arboretum. It was raining—not pouring, not storming, but the kind of slow, steady you’d beg for in mid-July. I wasn’t overly anxious to tramp around in the rain, but the kids convinced me. We’d been there before on Mother’s Day, several years ago, and I remembered well what a lovely place it is. We pulled out the umbrellas and set out.

Azalea Hill, it turns out,  may have been ever lovelier than it is on a sunny day. First, we practically had the arboretum to ourselves. Other mothers, apparently, were not as willing to tramp around in the rain. Second, sunshine, much as we all crave it, can be a distraction. More than one gifted photographer I’ve known has expressed a preference for the subtle light of a cloudy day. The colors were not only beautifully vivid against the gray sky, but also impossible to miss.

Note to self: Even the grayest day holds pleasures. Don’t be an old you-know-what.

Note to readers: Jenkins Arboretum is a stunning, calming oasis. If you’re within a few hours of Philadelphia, check the link above and plan a visit.

 

 

 

 

Village views

We haven’t been north in nearly two years, which is atypical for us and much too long between trips. As I’m fond of saying, real life sometimes gets in the way. Hopefully, we’ll be back on track with a northward journey in the next few months. In the interim, the dry spell, I’ve gotten by with photos from past trips and that delightful Weekends with Yankee series I mentioned in a recent post.

Today, I’m sharing a visit to that quintessential New England village, Woodstock, Vermont. While the town has a green, multiple inns, and the expected charming shops, I prefer the “less traveled” views. Naturally, I am ever mindful of the need to preserve privacy and respect private property; the photos below were all taken from a public street or walkway.

IMG_4257

Note the book sale sign; we patronized it, and I brought home two fun cookbooks. A library book sale will stop me in my tracks any time!

IMG_4253

The flowers up north always look more vibrant to me.

Who doesn’t love a carriage house?

IMG_4249

Or any of these magnificent houses, for that matter?
Note: I’m a bit behind on my posts—it’s been a busy time. Hoping to catch up with some fun future musings, from grand hotels to a “biscuit test”. Thank you for following… I hope you’ll stay tuned and also share posts that you enjoy with your friends.

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.