What I did this summer

I’ve been erratic about writing these last few months. That tendency, to be erratic, is probably one reason why I’m never likely to write the Great American Novel. Serious writers, in my experience, are highly disciplined and highly routinized—and that’s never been quite my cup of tea.

First of all, I probably ate too much ice cream, at Leo’s in Carlisle, PA. But if you had a taste of this luscious stuff, you probably would have indulged too much, too.

Save for a single weekend getaway—a reunion with some dear friends in Annapolis— we’ve spent summer at home. Considering that time with our precious Miss Puppy turned out to be so limited, I am very glad that we were home with her. Still, going into fall, everything feels a bit… fractured… which is a good word to describe today’s post.

I’ve been reading steadily, but after Frances Mayes’ masterful Women in Sunlight, everything has fallen short and—excepting my foray into Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie stories—has seemed way too sad. Thus, I’m really looking forward to Adriana Trigiani’s newest, Tony’s Wife, due in November. If you don’t know her writing, and you love a beautifully told story that is poignant and warm and always rings true—just as she does—you’ll want to put it on your reading list. See my previous post about her and her website, adrianatrigiani.com, where you can also read about the wonderful, life-changing Origin Project.

In the garden, the extraordinary amounts of rain have resulted in huge growth spurts for our shrubs and trees. For the first time in years, thanks to my daughter, we have tomato plants. I’ve rediscovered their unique scent and decided that, fo me, it’s the quintessential smell of summer.

 

There was quality time with kids, grands, cousins, and girlfriends—long walks, a picnic, visits to nearby gardens (one the work of fairies, as you can see in the cover photo), and an alpaca farm.

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For entertainment, we finished the six seasons of Republic of Doyle. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed this tightly written, sometimes hysterically funny nail-biter. The Doyles are father-son private investigators who get themselves and their entire family into all sorts of hair-rising trouble. The series was shot on location in Newfoundland, with fabulous ensemble acting headlined by Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley. All six seasons are available on Netflix although you can catch the first four on Acorn. Another winning Acorn series is Rake, starring Richard Roxburghan Australian series about a brilliant criminal defense attorney who is, to say the least, his own worst enemy. You will laugh copiously at this one. Both shows, by the way, have great soundtracks, and—like many other out-of-country programming—are better by leaps and bounds than 90% of typical US TV offerings.

In the kitchen, I’ve been determined to get out of my comfort zone. My next-door-neighbor Jamie joined me to try this zucchini galette, a King Arthur Flour recipe you’ll find here. It was a huge hit and went together in a flash.

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And that’s what I did this summer.

Just a note… I have always provided links to books via Amazon because it’s convenient and worldwide. After this post, however, I will be concentrating more on direct links to author pages and independent booksellers. Amazon has gotten way too big for my taste.  I’d rather support the writers themselves, or the “little shop around the corner”.  

 

 

 

Summer brain

Hot, sticky days fracture my attention span and–quite frankly–make me flat-out lazy.

I hate that feeling.

Today I decided that I absolutely MUST get something done. So that I don’t feel like a complete slug, I’m going to recount just about everything I did today.

I. Fed Miss Pup.
2. Walked Miss Pup.
3. Went to our farmer’s market with Hubby. Brought home those gorgeous peaches.
4, Made us grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. The farmer’s market tomatoes were sweet as candy.
5. Registered my new Nespresso Citiz and ordered capsules.
6. Successfully completed two online jigsaw puzzles of French chateaux, a meagre consolation prize for not being on the banks of the Loire.
7. Continued reading a pre-publication copy of Booked by my friend Marina Rezor. Happy to report that it’s every bit as charming as Fowled, her debut novel released last year.
8. Dusted the living room tables and washed the ornamental glass.
9. Shelled limas for dinner.
10. Walked Miss Pup.
11. Fed Miss Pup.
12. Contemplated whether I should make peach pie or peach cobbler or both with those gorgeous peaches. They won’t be ripe enough till Sunday, so I’m off the hook for now.
13. Signed up for a Netflix free trial so we can watch any episodes of Republic of Doyle that weren’t available on Acorn and catch the new release, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I loved the book.
14. Wondered if I should iron. Maybe later.

So that’s it so far. Oh, yes, I made the bed. I always make the bed.

Here’s Miss Pup telling me to get off my duff.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.