Thursday, December 31, 2009

Crème Brulée for Two

This Christmas yielded a bumper crop of exciting new kitchen gadgets and cookbooks. Hint for those of you with under-stocked kitchens: start a food blog, and the gift-giving people in your life will really get the message that you are serious about this whole cooking-and-baking thing. It probably doesn’t hurt that I blatantly publicize my wish list before holidays and birthdays. This list has lately been stocked with lots of culinary accessories, but no more! I am pleased to report almost all of them were bestowed on me by generous friends and family. Listing them all would be tedious and slightly boastful, but I’ll definitely be highlighting various kitchen tools and cookbooks and their virtues in the weeks to come.

Today’s tool-du-jour is the Crème Brulée Torch. A Crème Brulée Torch is in the category of “things I’ve wanted for a long time that I’ve always been too frugal to actually purchase.” It seemed frivolous somehow, and frivolous things that you want but aren’t willing to invest in yourself make excellent presents. My cousin Ryan dispatched this charming tool to my house. In addition to melting and browning the sugar for crème brulée, the torch also provides hours of fun in the time-honored “playing with fire” tradition. We are fond of that tradition chez moi. Do note the ur-sophisticated use of French, because we are a fancy household, what with our food torches and French cuisine.

Other Christmas culinary gifts included real vanilla beans. I don’t know if these are the beans my husband bought for me, but he got me quite the substantial bundling of everyone’s favorite orchid pod. While I’ll continue to use vanilla extract for lesser baked goods, I thought that crème brulée deserved the real bean.

The biggest problem with Crème Brulée recipes is that they’re mostly designed to feed a crowd, and I really just wanted to make enough for my husband and me – and wanted smallish servings at that. I had more than my share of cookies this holiday season, and if I want to keep my figure (and I’m vain: I do) and don’t want to live at the gym (which I don’t: it smells), I need to be careful about my consumption of such decadent sweets.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cesare Pavese

Pavese was an Italian poet who had an unhappy life. This, of course, does not much differentiate him from many other writers discussed on this site. Born in 1908, he resisted Italian fascism and joined the communist resistance to Mussolini on behalf of a girlfriend. His subversion did not remain undetected, and he was thrown in jail for three years.

When he got out of the clink, he learned his girl hadn’t waited for him, and he didn’t take it well. Misfortune continued. He killed himself at the age of 42 after a failed love affair with the American actress Constance Dowling.

Pavese is not a poet whose works I’ve exhaustively studied. He was a favorite of my undergraduate advisor, and he tended to bring his poems into class from time to time as exemplars of good work. That’s how I became acquainted with the following poem, and it’s stuck with me over the years.

As an expression of pure despair combined with near-pathological paranoia, this poem is unparalleled. While the tone is grim throughout, the initial images in the poem are of simple moments of grace. The stanza beginning “You too will make gestures” functions as something of a rhetorical caesura, contrasting the fate of the beloved with that of the speaker. Respite and pleasure is possible, even destined for the lover, but the "I" of the poem possesses no capacity for redemption.

This absence underscores his desolation. The detached solitude of the cats mimics an inner darkness that creates separation from the world and its quotidian joys.

Oddly, I find this poem somewhat cheering, despite its bleakness. The speaker is connected to the inert and impenetrable cats; but others, including the lover and the rest of humanity, remain embedded within the physical world and can participate in the exhilarations of routine beauty. The speaker’s awareness of this, and his inability to be like them, are a greater tragedy than the thwarted love, which is either symptomatic of or precursor to this immutable isolation.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Whiskey Currant Walnut Cookies

I made these cookies because I wanted a third variety for the bins of Christmas Cookies I toted to my in-laws places this year. While flipping through the same magazine I used to find the recipe for my Chewy Molasses Ginger Cookies, I spotted a recipe for Currant Bourbon Cookies. I have a stash of currants in my fridge – still waiting to be turned into scones (I’ll get to them soon! Maybe ...) – and they sounded like a nice, simple treat that could be tucked into the crannies of my cookie tins.

I didn’t have any bourbon on hand and used whiskey for my booze flavoring. I was also halving the recipe, and the original called for two eggs, so I threw one whole egg right in without reading all the way through. Alas, the second egg was intended for an egg wash, and not for the cookie dough. I upped the amount of flour slightly, and the cookies came out just fine. In fact, I think the whole egg made the texture slightly softer and more tender, which is how I prefer my unleavened cookies.

Martha’s recipe doesn’t call for any nuts, but I thought they would be nice with the currants. Because I still had a ton of citrus on hand, I also threw in some grated orange zest. The orange is subtle and brightens the whiskey and currant flavors.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I, for one, will be celebrating the fact that most of my culinary ventures are more successful than the one depicted.

I had realized it was a bit  underdone, but hadn't realized how very liquid the center remained until I dropped it -- which had the effect of making that question rather moot.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chewy Molasses Ginger Cookies

I love the flavors of gingerbread, but too often, gingerbread turns out dry. Store bought gingerbread in particular suffers from this affliction. Cookies that should be warm and rich with spice have the flavor and consistency of chalk. I felt like I could do better.

This is a heavily doctored recipe based on one from a Martha Stewart Holiday Cookie magazine that my in-laws gave me a few years ago. Martha seems to prefer her cookies more chewy than cakey. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I was kind of hoping for the best of both worlds, and this isn’t it. I can’t say I wasn’t warned; the original instructions say “bake until flat,” and flat cookies are rarely pillowy of texture.

This is not to say that these cookies are a failure. They are flavorful and moist and have a delightfully appealing sugar crust. Instead of plain sugar, I rolled them in turbinado sugar, and the crunchiness that this added contrasts beautifully with the chewiness of the cookies. Most importantly, this cookie is full of the ginger molasses flavors that are redolent of Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was troubled. Good-looking in an intense, nervy, raw-edged way, she worked briefly as a model before marrying young and quickly having two daughters. She began writing poetry at the suggestion of her therapist. I suppose posterity should thank him, but her case rather illustrates the shortcomings of poetry-as-therapy: after repeated bipolar breakdowns and progressive alcoholism, she killed herself at the age of 46 through carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are often paired as the female ur-confessional poets. This impulse is understandable. Both had long involvement with mental health systems, to put it mildly; both wrote extremely personal and revealing poetry in which the “I” seems, generally speaking, to be located within the author; and both were eventual suicides. The women were contemporaries, knew one another, and apparently discussed ways and means of accomplishing their deaths years before either of them took the final step.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chocolate Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies

Even though I love chocolate, I tend not to bake with it often. I’m so enamored of plain chocolate, preferably of the darkest-of-dark variety , that there seems little cause to dilute its impact by mixing with flour, sugar, eggs, and butter. Feel free to remember this anecdote should you feel compelled to shower me with culinary gifts.

However, it’s also hard to go too wrong with chocolate. When I first spotted this recipe, it seemed like a likely candidate for my Christmas cookie tray. It called for Nutella, spread of the gods, and for hazelnuts, of which I still had quite a few leftover from my adventures in fruitcake.

Of course, when I went to actually *make* the cookies, I realized I didn’t have a couple of key ingredients on hand. I had forgotten to check my stores of cocoa powder, which were low, and I was also fresh out of powdered sugar (which had all been used for the icing of my Florida Christmas Cookies).

On the other hand, I did have a whole jar of Nutella, and Nutella, like love, can cover a multitude of sins.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Florida Christmas Cookies

This is a rare recipe that I’ve been making for my whole life. Since these are called “Florida Christmas Cookies,” and my family has been in Florida since the 19th Century, I thought it might be an old family secret. I’ve heard that my maternal great-grandmothers were both good cooks, so I used to imagine that this recipe had been lovingly handed down for the past hundred years or so.

When I finally asked my mom, she told me she clipped the recipe from Southern Living when I was a kid. That’s what I get for waxing sentimental. In any case, it’s a family tradition now.

These cookies call for substantial quantities of both orange and lemon zest. Before the advent of the micro-plane grater, making them was a chore. Micro-plane gratersare cheap, they work amazingly well, and they reduce the total zesting time from nearly an hour to around 10 minutes. On a slow day.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I always had to zest the citrus for these when I was growing up. I would drag the oranges and lemons desultorily across our box grater while my sister would be, I don’t know, adding food coloring to frosting, which seemed to be her privilege most years. My mother would never be satisfied with my efforts. She got me in the habit of shredding the citrus down to the end of the pith, which is why these cookies taste kind of bitter when she makes them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

W.B. Yeats (II)

Presented without comment for your Monday.

After Long Silence

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

William Butler Yeats I

Yeats on Wikipedia

Yeats on

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I feel as if I need to create a more comprehensive profile page in case you're wondering who I am or why you should care.

I would rather do this in a Q&A format rather than writing a couple of tedious paragraphs about myself.  This is a long way of saying: if you have any questions, please leave me a comment.  I'll try to answer these inquiries (or cleverly elide them) when I put up a real "about me" page.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Turkish Spice Bread II

Even though my last attempt at Turkish Spice Bread was pretty tasty, I knew I would be going back to the drawing board. The recipe I came up with was good, but it wasn’t as faithful to the bread we had in Turkey as I had hoped.

Last time, I omitted several key spices and honey. I hoped that adding these items this time around would give me something more “authentic.”

Of course, “authentic” in this case may be totally meaningless. For all I know, in Turkey what we had might be called “Slovakian Tea Cake” and bear no relationship to the native cuisine. But it was good. That was the main thing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Philip Larkin

Evidence suggests that Philip Larkin was a pretty miserable human being. A never-married librarian, he carried on simultaneous long-term affairs with several women, some of them his coworkers. He was misogynistic and racist – his extant letters are full of repugnant condemnations of blacks and immigrants – and apparently quite the collector of pornographic images, large stashes of which were found among his belongings upon his death. You can see it in his picture, too; he might as well be holding a big placard that says “I am a perv!”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Divinity (with Pecans)

I like to think of myself as adept in the kitchen. I whiff a recipe from time to time, but even when things don’t turn out just so, I can usually pinpoint the reason why – I’ll add too much salt or spice, for example, or ignore my batters’ warnings that I didn’t use enough fat or liquid. But I know better. My failures are more often the result of laziness than they are of ineptitude.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yellow Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

I do not come from a family of cooks. My mother has a handful of dishes that she makes well – most of them odd Adventist concoctions such as Chik’n Rice and fried Fri-Chik
– and she can even make a decent filling for an apple pie, though my powers are insufficient to persuade her that butter makes a much nicer crust than margarine. Old habits die hard.

My grandmother also has a handful of faithful standbys. Everyone loves her stuffing. She makes a good vegetarian chili, and I’ve always enjoyed her potato salad.

Still, neither of them are culinarily adventurous women. They are not philosophically opposed to processed food, and neither ever passes up an opportunity to combine condensed cream of mushroom soup with vegetables, pasta, or rice and call it a meal. And hey, even I like this sort of thing … sometimes. But given that these ladies live in Florida – where you can get excellent, farm-fresh produce all year long of the sort I can only wistfully dream of in Connecticut – their near-exclusive reliance on foods that could survive a nuclear holocaust continues to baffle me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Yamabe no Akahito

Today, I give you a short, perfect love poem by Akahito, a Japanese poet of the 7th Century. That's pretty much all I know about him.  The translation is by Kenneth Rexroth.

I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

The salt girl of the poem is one who gathers and/or processes salt, rather than a Lot’s wife-style person composed of it. All the same, I’m sure it’s no accident that one pictures an actual salt woman. The image suggests both the crystalline purity and unreality of salt, which exists in a state of perfection and simplicity to which no human can hope to aspire, and its dissolvability. These seem nice twin metaphors for love objects in general. This poem reminds me of a quote I read somewhere from (I think) Lacan: that to love is to give something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist.

I felt like you had to have a bit of darkness to balance so much sweet.

Akahito on Wikipedia

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Candied Citrus Peel

As promised, I wanted to provide instructions for making your very own candied citrus peel.  This process is mildly tedious, but the final product is so vastly superior to store-bought peel that I can only recommend it.

I used this recipe from as a guide in preparing the peels. The others that I found on the internet suggested boiling the rinds in plain water several times before candying them. Since I don’t mind a little bitterness in my life – and because the fruit cake was a big enough project without adding homemade candied citrus peel to its to-do list – I wanted to select a recipe that would be as short and simple as possible. However, if you don't like bitter flavors, you can reduce them by boiling the citrus peels in plain water for half an hour from one to three times before adding them to the sugar slurry that will candy them.

I used a slightly higher sugar/water ratio than they call for and added some triple sec to the slurry to give the citrus flavor a little extra oomph. I also threw in a little salt, because I’m totally on the salt-in-desserts bandwagon. Otherwise, I made this more or less as instructed.

Peeling the citrus is rather time consuming, especially if you’re as particular as I am about cutting down to just the right amount of pith and peel. However, it’s a soothing kind of task. Once you get into the dicing and peeling, you can kind of let your mind go while your fingers do the work.

I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so dirty.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet. Born in 1875, he was briefly and happily married, but his wife died young. Things didn’t improve from there: he fell ill while fleeing fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War and died shortly after scaling Pyrenees and crossing the French border in 1939.

Machado is reckoned to be the great Spanish modernist poet, but the translations of his work that I’ve read are uneven. The good ones absolutely persuade me of his brilliance; the bad ones remind me how dicey a proposition translating poetry can be.

This is another lovely poem from A Book of Luminous Things. The translator is Robert Bly, who is a noted poet in his own right.  I would be lying if I said I were a huge fan of Bly's own work, but I quite like his translations, which are graceful and economical.

I went to see my mother's family in Florida for Thanksgiving a mere week and a half after getting back from my Greece/Turkey trip, so travel poems such as the one that follows remain very much on my mind.  If anyone’s curious, my Florida Thanksgiving pictures are here.