Umm, November 1st? All Saints Day? Seriously? Shouldn't all Halloween activities be, uh, dead and buried, so to say, by that date?
No, they're definitely a little lost when it comes to the ghoulish night and all the trappings that go with it. Of course, since this is a quasi-capitalistic system, the merchandisers are aiming for it to catch on here, so you'll find promotional displays here and there, but it all feels a little misguided - like the stores know they should be pushing this holiday for the purpose of profit, but haven't entirely grasped the overarching concept and how they could should be going about doing it. So while you may find obscure decorations and a smattering of foil-wrapped chocolate pumpkins, it pretty much ends there.
No matter. Just because the British are little clueless doesn't mean Kasey and I can't properly carry on with our own traditions. And with the definitive smell of fall in the air, and the darkening nights, we felt almost compelled to do so. It's just the sort of thing that must be done to usher in and welcome a new season.
So first we made a batch of warm candied popcorn to sustain us through the night's activities.
Then carved some pumpkins (much more difficult without all those intricate patterns and special tools that are now so en vogue in the States - we had to go back to more simplistic traditional designs... I ended up with a cat and Kasey, a toothsome Jack). And after we were done scooping out our endearing goblin-lanterns' insides, we even roasted their seeds.
Ta da! I guarantee we'll be the only ones in the building with glowing gourds on our balcony come Halloween. Happy (early) All Hallow's Eve!
It seems by engaging with the playwright's timeless work in this setting, you'd inevitably hear actors of old whispering forgotten lines and their favourite verses as you silently scanned them... or, more likely, that the essence of Shakespeare himself would float past and react wryly when you reached a certain passage, or express a gentle hush of fondness for another, declaring, "ah yes, now that was a scene."
Yet, hopefully by invoking the Bard in this manner she was not unwittingly defying Shakespeare's wishes - possibly articulated in King Lear's final scene like some foreshadowed request:
"Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer."
Then again, it may simply be Shakespeare's unplanned fate to be stretched out longer and through grander homages than he ever dreamed possible.
"Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern."
-Louise Bourgeois (perfectly embodying her quote in the portrait above)
Ah. The multi-edged sword of selfish-modernity. Can we overcome? Or will we find it easier to destroy ourselves?
The only problem with this attitude is that if you seek out a satisfyingly excessive brownie recipe, the list of ingredients usually reads something like this: one pound of butter, six eggs, 2 melted Valrhona chocolate bars - oy! I just can't bear to do it. That sort of concoction not only clogs heart valves and welcomes the expansion of your girth, it will also cost you the equivalent of a gourmet meal (although, considering the first two, perhaps if the monetary outlay forces you to forgo the gourmet meal, maybe that's a good thing).
Yet, since I'm an uncompromising sort of person who still wants to make brownies worth calling brownies, but would rather not use 4 + eggs and a month's worth of butter to do it, I am indebted to chocolate dessert expert Alice Medrich. Medrich's "New Classic Brownie" recipe is a godsend that involves an incredible freezer trick: the batter is cooked at a high temperature for a short while before the pan is immediately transferred into your freezer, or, if you'd rather, an ice water bath. This technique produces a pleasingly flaky top-crust that readily gives way to a texture of illustrious chocolate.
Like most magic tricks, I have to warn you, the recipe can be a little finicky - you must make it exactly as written (this took extreme self-discipline - but after messing it up once, I learned my lesson), pour it into the right sized pan (an impossibility this go-round - and I noticed the difference), and have your water bath prepared or your freezer cleared; there is no negotiation on this, or you risk ruin of the "prestige." But, follow the recipe to the letter, whisk it into a deep freezer as soon as you take it out of the oven, and voila... appropriately fudgy, uncompromisingly rich brownies. The result may even please those strange people out there who like to eat brownies that taste like cake.
Alice Medrich’s New Classic Brownies
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts or pecans (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line an 8-inch-square metal (NOT glass) baking pan with foil. In top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, or on low power in a microwave, melt butter and chocolate together. Stir often, and remove from heat when a few lumps remain. Stir until smooth.
2. Stir in sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir in eggs one at a time, followed by flour. Stir until very smooth, about 1 minute, until mixture pulls away from sides of bowl. Add nuts, if using. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare a water bath (or make room in your freezer): Pour ice water into a large roasting pan or kitchen sink to a depth of about 1 inch. Remove pan from oven and place in freezer or in water bath, being careful not to splash water on brownies. Let cool completely, then lift out and cut into 1-inch squares or wrap in foil.
P.S. It probably goes without saying, but again, definitely do NOT use a glass pan! I used the silicone one you see above - I'm generally cynical when it comes to these state-of-the-art floppy forms, but their indestructible nature was born for recipes like this.
The Op-Ed columnists in the New York Times are all brimming with pat-answers for the wide-eyed populace's desperate woe-is-us quizzicalness about the current credit crisis; doling out pointed accusations regarding our avarice, our binging, our reckless and freewheeling ways. No doubt they all feel a little like proverbial Noahs, since these admonishments seem a good deal like heightened versions of the same sort of dispatches I've heard from them over the past few years.
Redundancy aside, I enjoyed Maureen Dowd's recent piece, primarily because a good half of it was written in a nouveau version of Latin. To me there is something rather magical (dare I say, romantic?) about Latin, it verges on art in its ability to so beautifully and succinctly convey the most complex of philosophical thoughts and sentiments. Being the dilettante that I am, I've never been able to take my study of the language beyond the level of a faux-hobby (faux since I can't rattle off much more than the common phrases and State mottoes), but I have the utmost reverence and fascination for it nonetheless.
Anyway, Dowd's article referenced Seneca, and exalted the classics for their illuminations on living the dignified good life. This stirred up memories of my own substantial brushes with "the classics" in my university studies, and in recalling some of the solid words penned by those wise men, I immediately went in search of more; forget the NY Times and their repetitious "I-told-you-so" denunciations of our government and our lives, I wanted something more substantial and meaningful to consider. What you find below is a small excerpt from Seneca's essay entitled On the Diseases of the Soul. I hope you find it a thought-provoking distraction from some of the other news headlines.
"And I shall remind you once more: the diseases are hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. To give a brief definition: by “disease” we mean a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or, if you prefer, we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all. [...]
There await us, if ever we escape from these low dregs to that sublime and lofty height, peace of mind and, when all error has been driven out, perfect liberty. You ask what this freedom is? It means not fearing either men or gods; it means not craving wickedness or excess; it means possessing supreme power over oneself. And it is a priceless good to be master of oneself. Farewell."
To cap off the curious evening, as Kasey and were leaving the event, who was making her way inside, but Tracey Emin. Yes, the same Tracey Emin I wrote about on this blog not-too-long-ago. Our timing was impeccable, we were practically forced to share breathing space with her as we each made our respective ways through the jostling crowd.
When we were out the door Kasey gasped excitedly, "Tracey Emin looked at me!"
And so she did - looked at both of us in fact.
My, what a small and strange world it is. It is so incredibly odd to write about someone so seemingly lofty and inaccessible, and then literally rub shoulders with them a week later. I wonder if she could see as much written on my face?
Poppy seed and plum kolache were an essential part of my culinary upbringing; an edible reminder that I was Czech. I think there's something very great to be said about honoring your heritage via the food you make. And so, when Kasey and I phoned our Mom and Dad this past Sunday, and they started telling us about their great plum harvest, and how all the people nearby with a spot of Czech blood were asking with anticipation when they could come by to collect a treasured bag of fruit, and then, how nostalgically delicious the plum kolache was that they'd just made - well? Even with regular, shelf-ripened, Tesco "credit crunch special" plums at our disposal - how could we resist making a pan of our own?
While traditionally, "kolache" is a sweet yeast dough molded into individual rounds, then flattened with indentations to accommodate a filling, the root word "kolach" actually just means, generically, "cake." And since we got this recipe from my Grandmother, who never had qualms calling any number of traditional Bohemian baked goods simply "kolache," I believe we can authentically deem this particular creation "Bohemian Plum Kolache." As you can see from the picture of the half-demolished pan below... devoured by just Kasey and I... it's addictively delectable... Czech soul food, if you will. I'm sure we'll polish off the rest before the week is out. The recipe follows. Enjoy!
*History lesson: For those of you as confused by this reference to Bohemia as my Mom was when my Dad first introduced himself to her as a "Bohemian" ("What? Where's your black turtle neck and bongo drums?"), Bohemia was a region that found itself with enlarged borders and a new name when it became part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War - to date, the people who live in the area still very much identify themselves as "Bohemian."
Grandma Vi's Bar Kolache
1 1/2 Cups Flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp Vanilla
1/2 Cup Butter
1/3 cup sugar
2 T Milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all above ingredients together till dough is formed. Press down into a 8 1/2 X 12 to make crust. Prick crust and slightly brown in oven - about 15 minutes.
Plums... lots and lots of sliced plums. "As many as will fit." Kasey cut up six rather large plums, but in the end, didn't think that was enough. ("We should have made at least two layers of plums," she said.)
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
(We also added about a teaspoon of cinnamon).
Once crust is slightly cooked, evenly spread out the sliced plums onto the crust, then sprinkle with streusel on top. Return to oven and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
It's a quote from Ashleigh Brilliant, seen here in the window of the newly-opened School of Life in Bloomsbury. This shop offers access to great minds, town hall meetings, trips, and well-chosen books... all in an effort to provide answers to the hard questions and help you live a fulfilling life. If you're still struggling to grasp what it is exactly these folks are trying to "sell," their pitch materials provide a spot-on allegory - we used to call institutions purveying such things "religion."
As of late, I've also been pouting mutinously (and having a few bemoaning outbursts) in response to an unwanted and rather aggressive tutorial I'm getting in the British's nonsensical approach to legal dealings and customer "service." This means that not only am I still homeless, I am also getting menacing emails from lettings agents written ALL IN CAPS with statements like BREACH OF CONTRACT and WE HATE YOU AND WANT YOU TO DIE. All I can say is, well, at the end of the day, at least I'm still getting invited to underground pizza parties.
The particular event in question (at an undisclosed location in Soho - oooh) was a relatively swanky launch for the new autumn menu at Pizza Express (I mean, swanky relative to a pizza chain, but there was live jazz music and a recognized chef in the house). Chef Theo Randall, known for his rustic Italian food, who trained with Alice Waters and was at the helm of The River Cafe when it won its Michelin star, recently accepted Pizza Express' invitation to add four crusty creations to its menu.
If we had let the PR girl drag Randall out from behind the stove to speak with us (as she happily would have done, but we sort of chickened out/dismissed the idea/what truly intelligent and interesting question could we ask?) we definitely would have brought up the subject of fish, since three of the four pizzas he created centered around seafood. Kasey's favourite was Theo's Gamberettini, which was generously scattered with teeny tiny baby shrimps, shredded zucchini and creme fraiche. It looked delicious. But the only one I could eat was the vegetarian version of the Favorita, which, with fresh oregano and olives was a pretty typical pizza if you ask me, but hey, with some Prosecco - why not?
But perhaps the highlight of the evening was when the pizza dough creator/entertainer, Dane, somehow talked us into learning how to appropriately form and throw pizza dough. So there Kasey and I were, in the corner throwing misshapen disks of pizza dough and getting coated in flour while everyone else was behaving refined and enjoying the piano music. Even though I dropped my uncooked crust on the floor (he assured nobody would have the misfortune of eating it later) Dane said I had picked up on the technique rather well.
Our teacher impressively tossing (and catching) his crust.
Ah, at least I take some of my lessons without much of a struggle!