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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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!

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The flowers up north always look more vibrant to me.

Who doesn’t love a carriage house?

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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.

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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

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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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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.