november koan

maybe if i were walking in your direction, i could tell you what i had to say

Photo is by Daniela Edburg.

out of the rafters came the barn owl

"The breezes taste of apple peel. The air is full of smells to feel..." - John Updike

And barn owls, Mr. Updike. Don't forget about the barn owls, who swoop down into October, defining it.

Or steaming cups of coffee, which come into their own on October mornings, as if the rest of the year, those black sips are lent to us from the crisp tribe of days they more naturally inhabit.

While I was in San Fran for a wedding last month, I ended up at Sightglass coffee roastery with good intentions of using their warehouse + token coffee shop as a place to write.

The writing progress was not significant, but this picture of my Americano and Owl's Howl espresso blend spilling out of my bag ended up being the only serious photographic evidence of my trip.

Which made me realize something. Something that I knew, but this was the Exhibit A - Z that sealed it: San Francisco and I - years have not stirred up my fondness for a spark that went cold and grey. No. That place. It's all hills and food and diversions. A veneer of sites I've already taken a million pictures of, only now, along with the endless wind, there's the alarming smell stagnation.

Yet when I got home and had October rising in my backyard, I was so pleased to have this brown paper bag with an owl on its tag, filled with decadent beans to grind and savor. A souvenir of where I'd been, of what season was ahead.

There's something to be said for the pleasure of noticing age; of feeling the sharp drop in temp following day after day when the fluctuations smoothed out over each other like endless pavement. Where coffee matters beyond its single varietal notes and you need its warming; need its native company as you get grounded and watch the leaves flush their sugar; burn for a vibrant flash. Of being able to settle into a turning that asks for more gratitude than enjoyment, where owls brave the night instead of children, and their song marks the ushering in of wisdom.

"everything sings and dies,
but it could be, too,
everything dies and sings."
-Galway Kinnell

make this bread

I'm a week late for Rosh Hashanah, but the faux challah (no eggs - but honey! hence it's appropriateness!) I made in honor of the Jewish New Year is simply too great not to mention. And since October is the Friday (TGIO!) of the holiday baking season, I'm sure you'll have ample reason in the crisp weeks ahead to warm up your kitchen with the fragrance of this honey-sweetened raisin walnut bread baking in your oven.

Now, let's level for a moment. I don't hear much about this, but I'm of the opinion that far too many of the recipes that get talked up on food blogs (and I mean respected, well-executed food blogs) are only marginally above "meh."

For the most part (let's be honest) people read food blogs for the same reason my mom subscribes to Condé Nast Traveller: pure voyeurism. It's an escapist fantasy with more drool. The likelihood of you making that mouthwatering Salted Caramel Brownie with muscovado sugar and pink Himalayan salt is about as high my mom embarking on that four-star caravan through Rajastan. (Statistical Deviation: if I'm plugged into the immediate equation of anyone's life, I think the chance of the salted caramel brownie being made *and* the excursion to Rajastan happening goes up dramatically).

So maybe it's because my food gawking extends to the kitchen, and a good 90% of what I eat, I make from scratch, but I feel like I've been duped one too many times by a blogger's tantalizing photography and their just-right homey anecdote trumpeting some new (or old) nifty thing to do with say, tomatoes or rhubarb, that they insist you try *now, Now, NoW!*

To which I have said, "OKAY!" and put it to the top of my "to make" queue - only to end up with a pan of underwhelming rhubarb cake, which left me seriously calling into question what the hell the blogger was banging on so rapturously about.

Could it be a mere difference in taste? Or does their need (especially as a food blog is a very very hungry animal) to prettily showcase their culinary achievement overshadow its actual merit?

The fact that I'm still regularly seduced by blogger's food stories must mean I at least latently (or partially) believe the former (as in, at some point, surely, we'll see eye to eye). I mean, I have a hard enough time working up the initiative to compose multiple complete sentences about things I feel passionate about, let alone dress up the experience of that so-so orange olive oil cake I made.

So... with that rather long detour of exposition in mind, what I'm intending to convey to you is the extent to which I think this bread is worth talking about. And it's easy. So take notes.

Beth Hensperger is known as a bread maven. Her book The Bread Bible does not invoke the name of Evangelicals' most-revered volume lightly - she's clearly out to win converts. Anybody can see the light! The divine art of breadmaking is not a blessing reserved for a mere chosen few!

She is very encouraging about the ease with which people can learn about flour and yeast and kneading - it is something she spends the beginning of her book trying to demystify. And I dare say, she took great care throughout the rest of the book to include only the best of the best, most tried-and-true bread recipes - likely to prevent potential new followers from defecting prematurely.

Mostly, she argues, like everything, it's really just about practice.

I'm not very practiced, but the evidence of the ease of Beth's Italian Walnut-Raisin Whole-Wheat Bread recipe (don't tell me you read all the enticing words between those hyphens and didn't feel transported to some rustic Tuscan farm) is apparent from how recklessly I managed to (successfully!) throw it together last Wednesday eve.

A short rundown of the night's events:

Yoga starts at 8pm.
I finished reading through the recipe at exactly 7:06pm.
Realizing that the dough would potentially need to rise for 2 1/2 hours, this bread novice (me) went to work.
I proofed the yeast, combined it with flour, kneaded the mixture into a sticky dough, covered it and left it to raise...
And was *still* on a yoga mat a short 55 minutes later.

Seriously, that's how easy it can be.

A few things to keep in mind when you try it:

This dough is *sticky* -- waaay more sticky (or tacky, as you will) than you think it should be. Beth says to turn the dough out for kneading and only add 1 T of flour at a time - I bet I used 1/4 cup of all purpose at a time! But only because it was ridiculously sticky (high elevation? high % of moisture in the air? the fact that I didn't use a mixer? who knows?)

However, (a little like pancake batter) I was very very conscious not to add too much flour and make it too "done" and smooth. Even when I put the dough into the bowl to rise, while it was "springy" to the touch, it was also extremely sticky and could have easily become glued to the counter top. If you're a bread maestro, maybe you know something better than I about how this was a sign that it was very wrong - however - it came out marvelously - so I'll not aim for any less tackiness in the future!

If you haven't kneaded bread before - maybe try and seek out Beth's tutorial. But basically, push the dough away from you with your full body (stretching it out in the process), then fold the two sides in together like you're wrapping a child in a blanket or making a filled pastry, then push it out again. Repeat.

Also, the recipe says 4 cups of raisins and walnuts combined! 4 cups!! I don't know about you, but even with the amount of dough (two baguette loaves) that seemed excessive. Not to mention, when I went to press all that fruit and nut into the dough, I have no idea where it would have fit given the oval's surface area. Use your discretion and taste (obviously), but I used 1 1/2 cups of plumped raisins and maybe 3/4 cups of chopped walnuts. It still sliced up looking like a luxurious loaf.

Mmmm... think I'm the only die-hard health nut out there who considers bread the most excellent excuse to consume butter (my equally health-conscious sister just shuddered)...Enjoy!

Italian Walnut-Raisin Whole-Wheat Bread from Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible

[my notes are in brackets]

2 ½ cups warm water
2 tablespoons (2 envelopes) active dry yeast
pinch light brown sugar or 1 teaspoon honey [I used honey!]
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups fine-grind whole-wheat flour, preferably stone ground
1 ½ -1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups (10 ounces) dark raisins, plumped in hot water 1 hour and drained on paper towels [there wasn't room in my dough for all of these... I made 2 cups, but bet I only ended up studding the dough with 1 1/2 cups]
Scant 2 cups chopped walnuts [are you kidding? that's a LOT of nuts! bet I used 3/4 cup and did not feel cheated one smidge.]
2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour, for sprinkling
2 tablespoons, wheat bran, for sprinkling [I didn't have this]

In a small bowl, pour in ½ cup of the warm water. Sprinkle yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy, until 10 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl (or in the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine remaining 2 cups warm water, olive oil, honey, salt and 2 cups of whole-wheat flour. Add yeast mixture. Beat vigorously until smooth, about 1 minute. Add remaining whole-wheat flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Add unbleached flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl is formed. Switch to a wooden spoon when necessary if making by hand. [I never (well, rarely) use machine mixers for anything - so I did this all by hand - in my experience, the dough may have gotten drier quicker (e.g. needed less flour) if I'd used a mixer]

Turn dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface and knead about six minutes, until soft and springy yet resilient to the touch, dusting with flour only 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to prevent sticking [See notes above, I used significantly more - like 1/4 cup at a time]. Dough should retain a smooth, soft quality, with some tackiness under the surface, yet still hold its shape. Do not add too much flour, or loaf will be too dry and hard to work.

Place dough in a greased deep bowl or container. Turn once to coat the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2- 2 1/2 hours.

Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet. Sprinkle whole-wheat flour and wheat bran on the baking sheet.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down. Pat it into a large oval and sprinkle even with half the drained raisins and half the walnuts. Press nuts and fruit into the dough and roll dough up. Pat dough into an oval again and sprinkle it evenly with remaining raisins and walnuts. Press in and fold dough in half, sealing ends.

With a dough cutter, divide dough into 2 or 3 equal portions. Shape into 2 tight right round loaves or 2 baguettes about 14 inches long. Gently pull surface taut from the bottom.

Place loaves on prepared pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes-1 hour.

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a serrated knife, slash the loaves quickly with 2 parallel lines and one intersecting line no more than ¼ inch deep.

Place baking sheet in oven and bake until loaves are brown, crusty and sound hollow when tapped with your finger, 35-40 minutes for round loaves, 25-30 minutes for baguettes. [I think my cooking time for the 2 baguettes was slightly shorter - say 20 minutes (and I actually ended up covering them with foil to prevent burning at about minute 17), but I think my oven also runs a touch hot.]

Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing.

cardboard box algebra

it's mabon... which you probably only know if you are a pagan.
or if you've been clinging to the equinox - looking forward to the balance of dark and light.

the picture above is by samuel palmer, who was only recognized for having any talent in death. an artist's reality that is too-frequently the reality; greatness realized in darkness, when it is too late to do its creator any good.

there is a certain bravery in being the moon in the night sky - illuminating nothing; a world asleep. and yet, without it? without the moon? what would become of the tides?

i feel sorry for those artists who thought their struggle was in vein. what reward did they ever have? save being true to themselves? likely, because it was impossible for them to do anything else.

i came across a charles simic poem the other day. it's unrelated, but maybe, in some future moon-tense, where the y's and z's balance out, it's actually the answer...

nearest nameless (by charles simic)

so damn familiar
most of the time,
i don't even know you are here
my life,
my portion of eternity

a little shiver
as if the chill of the grave
is already
catching up with me --
no matter.

descartes smelled
witches burning
while he sat thinking
of a truth so obvious
we keep failing to see it

i never knew it either
till today.
when i heard a bird shriek:
the cat is coming.
and i felt myself tremble.

absence & space holders

You can forgive me for the irreverent gruesomeness of the photo - can't you? You can forgive me because it's in the middle of the night and I leave on a plane in a few hours and could so easily have not written anything. But there were a couple of things on my brain and so rather than squirrel them away in a single private email to a friend, or protect their lop-sided form in my journal, I decided to be more deliberate and accountable by going public with them here.

So... two seemingly unrelated things from this week:

1) The philosopher Derek Parfit was profiled in The New Yorker and it so happens that he can't recall images from his past; he does not think, nor does he remember anything visually. Apparently, this is a bona fide condition and it is normally correlated with people who think very abstractly.

While I can't claim to never ever be able to summon up an image from my past, nor is it impossible for me to "picture" something -- it isn't easy. I tend to think in a stream of words. It takes concerted effort for me to imagine, say, a scene of an ocean, in my head, and even when there is a picture, it tends to be captioned... like I'm watching a foreign film, or looking at an editorial in a magazine with a catchy Helvetica headline.

The odd thing about reading about Parfit's condition is that I've been bringing up my odd mode of thought pretty often lately -- usually in conjunction with an explanation as to why I think I struggle with Utah's "grid" number-based address system. Interestingly, Parfit also struggled with math and numbers -- he thought maybe it had something to do with trouble in processing the visual representation of symbols.

So in spite of recognizing that there might be some lacking-visuals / struggle-with-number correlation, I never thought of my "visual problem" as having any relation to my tendency to think in ways that are extremely abstract. Tres interesting.

2) Discovery's Curiosity series featured Stephen Hawking talking about The Big Bang and God and such. He says that through the creation of *positive* energy (e.g. *us*) there is an equal amount of negative energy generated (think an absence... the space left in the indentation of a hole dug to make a mound). As such, every creation, indeed, the entire universe, when plugged into a plus and minus equation adds up to zero. Basically karma, but on this massive scale.

E.g. :

Me + Residuals from What It Took to Make Me = 0

Universe + Every Absence of Energy Required from Forming a Universe = 0

So despite the apparent incompatibility between numbers and abstractions, in this instance, they appear superimposed, since zero seems like the ultimate number and the ultimate abstraction, in which, it is neither a true number nor a true abstraction. The right shakes the left's hand, fused at the same indiscernible point in this conceptual conundrum.

And that's what the bird picture above has to do with. I was at the Spiral Jetty when I took it... I wasn't supposed to be looking at skeletons of dead birds, yet there it was, just as much on display; just as artfully formed as a spiral of rocks. An eroding frame of bones unintentionally laid out next to something that took effort and purpose to erect -- both structures transient in their exposure.
Which was more valid? Life vs. Art - now both eternally inanimate.

So that's what's on my mind as I head west. This idea that perhaps zero is the one place where we all think congruently. Doesn't matter that we arrive there through different concepts and modes and means, we all get there eventually...

in honor of august: squash cake

I looked at the calendar today and I saw that August is over.

August. Over.

How can that be? I had no sense of it coming. This is what happens when your schedule is your own and you have no real use for calendars - or clocks for that matter - just days and nights. Back and forth, up and down, an endless side-to-side sashay with no context.

But seeing we were on the very tip-end of August, I thought - Aha! This explains everything! And I became certain that a craving I had a few nights back must have signified the exact moment when summer ran out of breath; when she finally reached up to rub the blood from her eyes due to that last sweaty full-cylinder sprint.

It happened three days ago. I was working through that ambiguous hour past 3am when the night bottoms out, and you're looking down the barrel of dawn, when suddenly I had an overpowering yen for a desserty-something. August has been my month of frozen desserts and my freezer had seen different versions of peanut butter icebox pies in pretty steady rotation to cater to exactly these type of moments.

But no, after wanting nothing but slivers of peanut butter icebox pie for *weeks* - smoother and more slippery on the lips than ice cream, delivering an up-front punch of sweet/salty peanut butter with a dark chocolate finish - this had no appeal. I wanted something toothsome. Something dense, with....spice; I wanted stodge - I wanted... a *baked good*

"In this heat??" I asked myself.

"Absolutely," said the something inside of me that knew summer was downshifting... it could already taste what was on the way.

So sensing that we were starting to nip at early autumn, I was craving layer cake.. I was craving Nigella's Chocolate Gingerbread Brownies (which I'm not allowed to make unless I'm in a position to rapidly give away 3/4 of the pan...)... I wanted anything frosting-topped that I could sink a fork into.

But I had nothing suitable on hand, so I did that decoy grazing thing we probably all do when we have a very particular taste for something, but don't have it. I tried to appease the Craving Gods with some Ryvita with raspberry jam, some Nairn's ginger biscuits... but they weren't having it. Finally I said to myself, "either *make* something, or get back to work, or go to bed, but whatever you do, get your hands out of the granola!"

I think I ate another handful of granola and *then* went to bed.

Happily, like magic, seasonal produce and my cravings have a way of syncing up even when I'm oblivious to the calendar. Yesterday a massive yellow squash appeared at my house. We don't know who its original owner was (poor squash, they are much like the fruitcakes of summer season... and so hastily orphaned), but I was very happy to adopt it and just *knew* that like zucchini (there was actually a zucchini too - but that was rapidly set aside for *the best pickles ever*) it could probably lend itself to a splendid cake.

I was right. This cake is everything I wanted that night when neither peanut butter pie nor granola would suffice: substantial, moist, a little bit spiced, and oh-so-satisfying to carve a fork through. I hate to even bring it up, but it could also be argued that it's healthful too. It's so good, I'm actually wishing a little bit that I could spruce this up with some molasses and fresh ginger to have it at Christmastime -- not sure that the squash will comply...

So make this while you can!! And enjoy!

The garnish(which I realize looks a little like onion rings & moths) is a combo of ground cherries (they come with little flowery wings like - huh?) and thinly sliced yellow squash - sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and put in the oven at 200 F for about an hour (which tastes *surprisingly* good!)

Adapted from the Squash Cake Recipe via The Meaning of Pie

1 1/2 C sugar
1 1/2 C flour (I used a mixture of half all purpose, half whole wheat)
1 T cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 C grated yellow squash
2 eggs
1/2 C apple sauce
1/4 C olive oil
1 tsp vanilla

Mix everything together and pour into a well-greased 9-inch cake pan. Bake at 350 F for approximately 40 minutes or until golden brown and until tester comes out clean.

I made frosting with a cream cheese base, plus butter & confectioners sugar (oy! sorry! I never measure these things...)

berlin, part ii

Toward the end of Wings of Desire, there is a sort of Psalm recitation. A soliloquy voice-over about what we long for and think about as children that remains a thruline throughout our lives.

"On every mountaintop," the voice says, "the longing for a higher mountain yet." And, "in every city, the longing for an even greater city."

This rang so true for me. I've lived in many many places, and in each one, after I've "conquered" them, I've thought - Onward! Upward! And whenever I've returned for a visit, I've often thought, "However did I live here??? [e.g. Boston, San Francisco] It's just so *small*!"

But Berlin seems different. I think it's quite ironic that a movie about Berlin claims that no matter the city, there is a longing for an even greater city. As I mentioned in my last post, I found Berlin rather impenetrable; a great unfurling metropolis... with so many layers.

After all, there isn't a spot of geography without history, but few have been emblematic of so many diverse ideologies in such a short span. This is the place of Prussia! Of Wiemar! Of Nazism! Of Sovietism! Of the Cold War! Of squatters! Of art! Of engineering!

So many elements, all heaped upon the next and then pushed out from the center into a sprawl of districts and neighborhoods so far-flung I couldn't begin to try and get to them. How could anyone really truly long for a greater city than this one? It seems the ultimate in challenge, in riddle. Berlin seems like a place that needs years of deciphering.

So with that as a caveat, since I had days, not years, I bring you some additional promised pictures from my journey there. Enjoy!

The predictable first pic - no? The Berlin Wall...

"Madness" - think that sums it all up nicely.

This footpath could not have happened a few decades ago...

There's a continuous line of cobblestones throughout the city that indicates exactly where the wall once stood.

Brandenburg Gate 50 years ago, when they rolled out barbed wire before the wall itself went up.

And Brandenburg Gate today.

Toys for tots in East Germany during the Cold War... Grenades are fun!

A luxury stretch Hummer going through the site of Checkpoint Charlie (which has all been recreated... and according to my tour guide, is now manned by Eastern European immigrants...)

No idea...

Love the options here.... "Do you vote?" Ha. "No - I don't care for nothing!"

Couldn't resist... a new cartoon character for 'Don't Walk'!

And walk!

Am I an idiot for not fully realizing that Berlin has a river running through it??

My hotel (a former bank) - the building beside the green dome (thank you corporate expense accounts that aren't mine). This is also the square where books from a university were burned during the Nazi-rise.

And where I spent a good dealing of my Berlin evenings... a few lovely receptions on top of this roof... (need to get my camera lens cleaned, clearly).

So this wasn't quite as fantastic as the to-die-for breakfast at the hotel, which consisted of every variety of fruit, muesli and yogurt you could possibly imagine (in an atrium setting, no less) but it also didn't cost 40 euros (whoops!)... Rhubarb Kuchen and Caffe Americano by the river.

This bird was seriously interested in my Rhubarb Kuchen... had to enlist that fork to try and fend him off!

The mall, Quartier 206, which looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher.

Nice pic from one of Berlin's many many wonderful parks. Which happens to go well with the last line from the Wings of Desire monologue:
"When the child was a child, It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today."

oh & hey, i went to berlin

Hello there. Long time. This post is brought to you by Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire - I had very little to do with it. Frankly, until watching Wings of Desire last night, I'd thought about shutting this whole blog down (so silent, for so long... it was becoming atrophy). But the film's message and setting jolted me.

See, a couple weeks ago I rode to LA with a filmmaker, a trunk full of art and the art's maker, a certain Jared Lindsay Clark, who'd lived in Berlin for a stint. A subject that came about because, oh hey, I just went to Berlin.

I told him how impenetrable I'd found it. He told me how much he loved it. I talked of Soviet culture. He talked of art scene rapture. I told him he needed to see The Lives of Others. He told me I needed to see Wings of Desire. "Okay," I said, "I will."

And being the sort of person who does what she's told when somebody with an artistic bent glows about a film, I did. (Had he mentioned that it was particularly timely given the recent passing of Peter Falk, I might have been even quicker about it).

Peter Falk. Berlin. Death. Life. Change. The film's subject matter. Its inspiration taken from the work of Rilke. Angels longing to be mortals. The incalculable value of eternity compared to the precious handhold we have on the current moment. The fact that I'd just been there; walking circles around the very same landmarks featured in the 1987 film, but in a vastly different political context. And yet, it was the same. Within the film's context, they felt the same.

Serendipity. Serendipity and footfalls.

I dug out my camera today and uploaded photos I hadn't bothered with yet. Just to prove to myself that what I'd seen had been what I remembered it to be. Felt no different. That I wasn't imagining it.

I wasn't.

If you've seen the film, you'll recognize the pic of Lady Victory at the top of this post. A guardian angel of military triumph built when Germany was still Prussia.

And the Mercedes sign [spoiler alert] such a prominent backdrop for the lovelorn man's suicide. An association I viewed with irony, since the familiar revolving car ornament was the first thing I'd recognized (with an internal yawp of glee) after getting a little lost around Tiergarten mere hours before my departing flight.

And Maxim Gorki Theater, like a linen-draped saint heralded with celestial glory.

Gorky's Theater wasn't in the film (it's in former East Berlin), but this seemed a fitting parting image for a post about angels and serendipity.

See... I hardly think Gorky's Theater is a landmark many people seek out. I didn't seek it out myself. It was just something I stumbled into during my directionless wanderings. Though once I saw it, I went right up to challenge its existence, head-on, like a windmill, saying, "Oh yes, Gorky, there you are! But of course! I know what you're here for! I know what you're after!" The theater stood steadfast, blinking back with no statement beyond its gold letters and embellished classical majesty, a messenger from Olympia, knowing that just by being there its point had been made.

For no matter where I go, its seems there are Russian playwrights whom I'm constantly bumping into, who stare at me... with knowing glances about the things I am to write -- and how they figure into it.

More Berlin pics forthcoming.... promise x

oh, marie.... vanities of queens & cake

Spring is here! See all that green grass laying cushion for the cake plate - who would have thought such lush life was hiding under those last crusts of snow and grey skies! Our toe-dip into spring came just in time to blow March out the door like a lamb... which also meant it was just in time for my mom's birthday.

Ahhh... birthdays. I think I love them mostly because they give me a really good excuse to make cake - or rather - (and slightly more importantly) to *decorate* a cake. I'm a bit odd, I know, but for me the cake part really is secondary to the the decorating of it. If I were less of a last-minute person, I'd probably spend days decorating my cake masterpieces, but I rarely find myself with such a luxurious amount of time - and birthday deadlines simply can't be pushed - so I'm usually working under the pressure of people impatiently waiting with candles and forks in-hand, murmuring with their lack of understanding as to why the perfectly delectable-looking cake ISN'T READY YET!! (and yes, I've been known to shout that)

As a long-time cake decorator extraordinaire, I have inordinate amount of respect for frosting. You may not realize, but it's the secret to any good-looking cake you've ever seen. Those thick drifts of sugar-infused butter is the baking equivalent of duct tape - the MacGyver-like answer for magically transforming unruly, lopsided, mind-of-their-own layers into something neat and eminently presentable. Sure, there are wooden dowels, and tricks for shaving off uneven bumps with floss, but at the end of the day, it's the frosting that reliably rises to the occasion for any problem that might look too big to handle.

I mean, really there's nothing else that could have transformed this Inside-Out German Chocolate, let's face it, *mess*...

...into (a few short hours later) this prim, fit-for-a-queen-mother's birthday layer cake.

That's why every baker should have a recipe for saving-grace frosting mortar that will never fail. The one for chocolate glaze that went with this cake is well worth remembering (dare I say, more worth remembering than the cake recipe itself). It's a chocolate glaze that tastes a little like salted chocolate caramel (mmmm - can't argue with that!), mixes & firms up quick, but most importantly, is *sturdy* - like, it's going to hold things together you are worried might not stay together (though don't forget that setting up your layers up in the refrigerator can also be a big help).

So there you have it. I'm not sure how much looks had to do with it (or if it was the oodles and oodles of chocolate happening), but my mom said it was the nicest cake she'd ever had.

Voila! Fit for a Queen!

Inside-Out German Chocolate Cake (via the Bridge Street Bakery, Waitsfield, VT as featured in Gourmet)

**Notes: My cake layers cooked quicker than the 20 - 25 minutes recommended. I would say cook as little as 15 minutes. For the German chocolate, I went Dulce de Leche style and simply put a can of sweetened condensed milk in a sauce pan filled with water, brought the water to a boil, then reduced the heat and let the can simmer for a little over an hour. Also, though the recipe didn't call for it, I made a chocolate ganache (ha - nobody ever said I don't do overkill on my cakes) and spread that on the layers before the German chocolate filling AND then topped the filling with a handful of raspberries, which I HIGHLY recommend. Definitely serve this cake at room temperature - it can seem a little dry otherwise.

For cake layers

* 1 1/2 cups sugar
* 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
* 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
* 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
* 3/4 teaspoon salt
* 3/4 cup whole milk
* 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
* 1 large egg
* 1 large egg yolk
* 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
* 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
* 3/4 cup boiling-hot water

For filling

* 7 ounces sweetened flaked coconut
* 4 ounces coarsely chopped pecans (1 cup)
* 14-ounces can sweetened condensed milk
* 1 tablespoon vanilla

For glaze (which is what I raved about above!)

* 2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
* 10 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate
* 3 tablespoons light corn syrup

Make cake layers:
Preheat oven to 350°F and oil cake pans. Line bottoms of pans with rounds of parchment or wax paper. Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk together whole milk, butter, whole egg, yolk, vanilla, and almond extract in another large bowl until just combined. Beat egg mixture into flour mixture with an electric mixer on low speed, then beat on high speed 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and beat in water until just combined (batter will be thin). Divide batter among cake pans (about 1 1/2 cups per pan) and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of pans and rotating them 180 degrees halfway through baking, until a tester comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes total. **I would suggest 15-17 minutes cooking time, as mine definitely cooked in quicker than 20 min!!

Cool layers in pans on racks 15 minutes. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove parchment or wax paper and cool layers completely.

Make filling: **See my note about doing this Dulce de Leche style below...
Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.

Spread coconut in a large shallow baking pan and pecans in another. Bake pecans in upper third of oven and coconut in lower third, stirring occasionally, until golden, 12 to 18 minutes. Remove pans from oven.

Increase oven temperature to 425°F.

Pour condensed milk into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate and cover tightly with foil. Bake milk in a water bath in middle of oven 45 minutes. Refill baking pan with water to reach halfway up pie plate and bake milk until thick and brown, about 45 minutes more. Remove pie plate from water bath.

Stir in coconut, pecans, and vanilla and keep warm, covered with foil.

Make glaze while milk is baking:
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate and corn syrup, whisking until chocolate is melted. Transfer 1 cup glaze to a bowl, reserving remaining glaze at room temperature in pan. Chill glaze in bowl, stirring occasionally, until thickened and spreadable, about 1 hour.

Assemble cake:
Put 1 cake layer on a rack set over a baking pan (to catch excess glaze). Drop half of coconut filling by spoonfuls evenly over layer and gently spread with a wet spatula. Top with another cake layer and spread with remaining filling in same manner. Top with remaining cake layer and spread chilled glaze evenly over top and side of cake. Heat reserved glaze in pan over low heat, stirring, until glossy and pourable, about 1 minute. Pour glaze evenly over top of cake, making sure it coats sides. Shake rack gently to smooth glaze.

Chill cake until firm, about 1 hour. Transfer cake to a plate.

passover, with apologies, & oh so many liberties

My mom recycles calendars. She estimates that she's saved a little over $30 for every year that she has done this. It's an eccentric and slightly sheepish revelation that gives you a really good glimpse into how my family thinks about money. Expenses are evaluated, not on their one-off cost, but as they are projected over a lifetime.

For instance, my preferred Wallaby yogurt isn't $2.69 - $2.99 a pop - on no, it's $12.50 a month, nearly $150 a year - hence the recent $28 investment for a yogurt maker. Which might sound like a hassle to you, but it sounds like half a ticket to Iceland to me.

Not to stereotype (as I now proceed to stereotype), but this penny-pinching attitude is part of why this Shiksa and the Jewish men I've dated have always gotten on famously well in this regard. They seem to get it; spend on extravagances, on indulgent luxuries - and scrimp on the mundanities - like calendars - that don't really effect your life quality. If you do, when it comes to frills, you'll usually find that you have the money.

The only trouble with spending money on, say, international travel instead of this year's calendar, is that some pesky holidays don't stay fixed to a constant date. No, they go roaming around various months and make it difficult to pin them down if you're not watching carefully - which I wasn't.

So I'd half-planned a Seder feast for March 27, before I realized that while Passover happened on March 27 in *1994* - in *2011* Passover won't be making an appearance till April... sigh... oops... & oh well...

But it was too late - I'd already started in on the Matzoh Balls.

Despite the many Seders I've been to, as a function of me being vegetarian, I've actually never had Matzoh Ball soup. Though I've always been a little dubious that I'd actually like it - sodden bread is very far from my favorite texture and I don't particularly enjoy things with an eggy flavor - and since that's basically the two things Matzoh Ball soup has going for it... well... you can see the rationale behind my skepticism.

Nonetheless, I love traditional dishes and was quite keen to try a veggie variation and do my damnedest to turn this into a dish I might enjoy. I adapted this version of Sarah Kagan's Vegetarian Matzoh Balls, which basically means I made a moderate attempt to mask the 'egg' taste.

No doubt, people raised on their grandmother's plain matzoh ball & chicken consomme might balk, but I think it turned out well. Next time, however, I'll make an even grander attempt to make those balls super-savory and thus palatable to my palate (think more onion, more garlic, more turmeric, more cayenne, hmmm... maybe some rosemary?) - I'll call it Anne *Spiced* Matzo Ball Soup!

Till then, if you don't mind egg, and are looking for a veggie Matzoh soup dish that's a few steps left of the traditional, you'll probably really like the below recipe:

Slightly Bastardized Vegetarian Matzoh Ball Soup

2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
2 dashes cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp grated yellow onion
1 clove minced garlic
3/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp butter (leave this out if you're aiming for kosher!! & use a full 1 T of olive oil instead)
1/2 T olive oil
2 T chopped spinach
1 T grated carrot
2/3 cup matzoh meal (or approximately 2 sheets of finely blitzed matzoh crackers, which I felt *very* fortunate to find in this wholly gentile community where every store clerk responded to my inquires about matzoh meal - "What? You're looking for Malt O' Meal?")
5 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup carrot
3/4 cup cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup spinach

Separate the eggs and beat the egg whites in a small bowl until they hold stiff peaks. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, cayenne pepper, onion, garlic, turmeric, carrot, spinach, butter and oil. Gently fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture until just combined. Fold in the matzoh meal (or finely blitzed crackers) in 4 separate additions. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate one hour.

In a large pot, saute the onion for 3-4 minutes, then add the celery and saute for an additional 3 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and carrots and bring to a boil. Shape the matzoh mixture into 3/4 inch balls and drop them into the boiling stock. Return to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer for 25 minutes, turning the balls occasionally. Add the spinach and chickpeas, cover and cook for an additional 5-7 minutes. Serve warm with those extra Matzoh crackers you now have on hand! (Some people take their Matzoh balls out and serve in 'fresh broth' - so you know, do this if you don't like the idea of 'cloudy' - but from my perspective, the more that's going on besides those eggy dumplings, the better!)


when at rope's end.... bake

do you remember when this blog was sing-songy and all i wrote about were things like candy drawers, wild unexpected jaunts and baked goods?

i do.

it was years ago. before notorious men, one cosmically so, irreverently bucked through my life like a bull-in-a-china-shop tornado. since then, once i'd dusted off the shards of glass and dabbed the blood, i looked around at my world and thought, "oh wow - we are most definitely *not* in kansas anymore."

was the world so different? of course not. but i looked at everything with different eyes. gone was my buoyant optimism. my belief in magic, in life, in... anything.

BUT - i've grown weary of digging my heels into the poisoned earth of this abandoned fairground that i've built. i'm tired of picking stale peanuts off the ground, hoping like jack & the beanstalk that one of them will conjure back an irretrievable past - make people and circumstances behave & turn out differently.

people have done & will do what they do. even when their actions are good for nobody - not even themselves. which is tragic, but that doesn't mean my life needs to be a tragedy.

and so... first step, for me. is to start where i began, and bake my way back. baking is magic. it's starting from precious little nothing & turning all those separate elements into something. it is creation rather than destruction.

my young cousins and i were all in desperate need for a cheery diversion on monday and so we tackled peter reihnart's bagels - which had been featured by luisa of 'the wednesday chef' *and* tim of 'lottie and doof' (i trust these bloggers implicitly) - the kneading of which is *highly* recommended for emoting, whether you be a 12-year-old, or, uh, slightly older. **(there wasn't time for us to refrigerate the dough overnight - so my genius sister suggested we let them raise in a warm dark place for an hour instead, which worked *perfectly* - but i plan to make them again properly and take a pic to show you).

and last night i made the vegan chocolate tahini cake pictured above, suggested by my friend molly of 'the particular kitchen' (good for gluten-free baking or if you have a load of tahini on hand - which i did... but if not, and if you're not doing it for health, i'd suggest this loaf by nigella instead!)

it's been a good start.

so... here's to more baking... more great adventures... more living life in a way that's full of creation and gratitude. that's my promise to you from here on out. maybe i'll even get around to writing about candy drawers again.

the long ago, but not forgotten, ms. spice

the last chapter

The weekend was a train wreck.

We'd come all this way, but not journeyed an inch of distance.

And I knew that my life, what I expected, what I accepted - needed to drastically change.

"Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you've been given, the door will open." — Rumi

Top photo is by Alex Prager.... bottom photo is by me... the palms of Los Angeles, mid-summer.

you & me

Michelle Williams stared at me in the night-quiet of a Brooklyn apartment. Lifted from a coffee table, she was shorn and reduced to 10 questions within Time's red and black oil-slick pages. One question - the obligatory question du jour - What helped you prepare for Blue Valentine? - was sourced from an anonymous John of Montana (Ryan Gosling once compared Michelle to Montana. She's like Montana were his exact words - did you know?)

Her answer: it was a performance bled out of poetry and song. She stitched together the character's outline with banjo notes; reached her bone-thin arm, like a needle through the ice, into the words of Galway Kinnell to fish out its soul; a paper doll stuffed entirely from the wrist and pulse skating atop Kinnell's white pages.

"There's a line in one of his poems, 'Being forever in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.' [...] The poem is called "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight." Go find it."

Go find it she said. So I did.

And after I found it, I also found Galway's take on finding love:

"It takes a lot of living to grow fully into your own wrongness. And it isn’t until you finally run up against your deepest demons, your unsolvable problems — the ones that make you truly who you are — that we’re ready to find a lifelong mate. Only then do you finally know what you’re looking for. You’re looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person—someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, 'This is the problem I want to have.'"

I sat in bed chewing on this. I wondered if I'd grown into my wrongness fully enough yet - or if I still needed to wrangle my deepest demons to the ground in my very awareness of them. How well did I know the topography of my darkest and most unsolvable problems? Enough to know the shade and silhouette of the right wrong person I ought to be on the lookout for? Perhaps there was still living I needed to traverse to know who I was, which would explain everything - my singleness... the fact that I was alone, awake at night, contemplating such things.

When then, of course, he texted. He who has (self-confessed) run to and from me for a very long time.

"You should write alongside me," he said.

I'd been anticipating his text - not this text, but a text from him - it's always only ever a matter of time. I even had a planned response - the gist of which was to be something like, "I'm sick of this - If you can't run to me without running so long and so far from me - Please don't come back."

But I was feeling particularly melancholy - wondering about my wrongness, you see - so it was well-timed (boys always know), and this opener was also a little outside the scope of the usual pattern - it had different tone, was striking at a slightly different chord... but also (probably especially) because I knew what he meant, as a would-be writer himself he wasn't merely proposing that I write alongside him in the sense of 'you do your thing & i'll do mine,' but that we might be something more simpatico...

So instead of an eternal sayonara, I responded, "Shall I...."

For when it comes down to it, right or wrong, my imagined picturesque future has always consisted of a house or a cabin or a room with another writer in it. A person I sense is there, but who is quiet, as we spend our days tapping, thinking, spinning impossible threads naked to the mortal eye - reconvening at a regular time near dusk to murmur about what we didn't accomplish, or what we hope we did - saying "and what do you think of this?" with a bizarre sort of wild delight I think only a person with one foot in their imagination and one foot on this planet who is constantly trying to merge the two can.

But is this - or he - the right problem for me? Writers as a species are notoriously neurotic, self-absorbed, off.... And when it comes to him in particular, I may never know since I'm not sure there's a chance we'll ever get past his see-saw of approach and retreat long enough to have a real shot. But still - it's a question in my heart.

Particularly since so much of the reason I began speaking to him again some time ago can be ascribed to a coincidence related to Blue Valentine - a theme that now seems to be recurring. In the film, Michelle Williams' grandmother says, in essence, how you much you owe it to yourself to trust that the person you choose to fall in love with is worth it for you..for all it will cost. Which makes me doubly wonder when I see such blue flags.... what they mean... and how they relate to the problem I ought want to have.

Photo is by Henri Cartier-Bresson

the trouble with insomnia

"The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing."
- Elizabeth Bishop

i'm up till 5 & 6 am these days... i can't sleep, i can't sleep...

i know what the root of the problem is - my third eye won't close since there's another place it'd rather be confronting its dangers - on a computer screen, or a piece of paper - its been pining away for those white dreamscapes now for too long. i must. resolve. to write.

the photo is by ballestreros + marot.