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Category: cooking

baking bread: essential communion

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i baked bread a sunday ago. all day. with a beloved friend. and in the rhythms of yeast and friendship — yeast leaping into action, yeast rising, yeast resting, interlaced with the pas de deux of courage instilled, folly shared, revelation of heart — i found an elusive blessing, one necessary, curative, in these steep and shaky times.

it began with the humblest of offerings (as all friendship, all holiness does): wheat milled into flour; grains from the field; seed from the sunflower; honey, the bees’ sweet contribution; and yeast, God’s gift to the belly — and parable, too.

by the time the oven was blasting its gas-fueled insistence, we’d savored the blessing of pushing up old sweater sleeves, one friend reciting instruction, the other (uncertain and seeking conviction) following along, the blessing of slow time, of deep unspooling conversation, and an afternoon in which the slant of light slipped imperceptibly away. all punctuated with a thick slice of grain, slathered in soft salty cheese.

it’s as determined an equation for healing as any i’ve stumbled into of late. it was the gift of the sharing of hours — not a phone call squeezed in between errands, not a text passed in the night — that held the miracle. it was the rare chambered nautilus of friendship, a structure within which we could burrow, nestle into sacred uncharted spaces.

perhaps, too, it was the particular alchemy of shared labor — engaged task — across those hours. we’d started from scratch and were working our way — together — toward shared triumph. it was altogether richer than my usual preferred art of sitting side-by-side or foot-to-foot under blankets, sharing words and stories and mugs of spiced tea.

indeed, the tea kettle would sing before the afternoon ended, before two toothsome loaves would be pulled from the oven. and ever since, each time i pull a slice from the loaf, each time i sit down to lunch, i return, at least a part of me does, to that fine afternoon and the knowledge that i can bake my own bread, leaning all the while on the sturdy friendship of the rarest of companions.

there is something breathtaking about baking with a friend. something in sharing a kitchen, a cookstove, something in finding our way together. i grew up afraid of two things (my inventory here is confined to fears in the kitchen): yeast and pie crust. the former i thought i could kill, a notion that felt murderous to me; and the latter i thought would crumble in my indelicate fingers. so i did what any deep-fearing girl would do: i stayed away. steered clear. bought my bread, more often than not, from the very nice baker who shared not my particular fears.

for me to enter the kitchen, to haul out the mixer with bread hook and paddle, to tear open the packet of yeast, to try not to wince when i submitted said yeast to the bath my friend promised would not kill it, leave it gasping for breath, well, that was, in fact, a small act of courage. and i find i’m in need of courage-building these days. there is a world that needs our voice — our calm and gentle and deeply considered voice. and there is a world that needs our conviction, our conviction put into action.

it came as something of a surprise that my starter class in courage, my beginner’s curriculum, unfolded in the kitchen. yet there i found steadier footing. it all came in the certain embrace of a friend to whom i could bare my uncertainties, my qualms about yeast and life far beyond. it’s friendship that weaves the strong with the faint. none of us come to the kitchen, to the world, with all threads emboldened. we are, each one of us, tapestries; some threads glimmering, some threads too thin, too easily frayed. and in the submission to friendship, the willingness to say aloud, “i’m scared of this” (be it yeast or life or speaking up in the face of opposition), and then dive in anyway, well that’s what finding courage looks like. and courage is the thing we need — in double doses, at least — if we stand half a chance of making a difference, making our one small life matter, of leaving this world more filled with even one drop of grace, of goodness, of kindness, of light.

and so i started with wheat + yeast + the dearest of friends, and i wound up with two fine loaves, and the wisp of knowledge that i’d moved a baby step or two closer to finding my way across the rocky landscape.

in these times that tear at my heart and my soul on a daily or hourly basis (depending on the news of the day), i found something holy, i found essential communion, in the baking of two loaves of power bread. and i did not kill the yeast.

my annotated recipe: power bread from food52
by someone who goes by the name boulangere

makes 2 large loaves

1/2 cup kamut*
1/2 cup buckwheat groats*
1/2 cup pearled barley*
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups tepid water
1 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
2 ounces canola oil
2 ounces honey
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup golden flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
1/4 cup polenta

*my dear friend tells me that you needn’t follow precisely the rules (see why i love her); any combination of grain will work, as long as you start with a total of 1-1/2 cups uncooked. i for instance skipped the kamut altogether and then forgot to double the buckwheat, and all ended well anyway.

Place barley, kamut, and buckwheat groats in saucepans with ample water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until not quite done through. They still want to be a bit toothy when you take them off the heat so that they retain their integrity in the dough. Kamut will take the longest, about 1/2 hour; barley about 15 minutes; and buckwheat groats about 10. When done, strain off water and allow to cool a bit before adding to the dough.

img_8884To mix dough, pour water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. (my dear friend tells me 25 seconds in the microwave gets water to just the right non-murderous temp.) Add yeast and whisk to blend. Add all other ingredients, including slightly cooled grains. Mix on lowest speed until dough comes together and looks homogenous. This will be a sticky and fairly soft dough, but it should generally leave the sides of the bowl, so add some bread flour if necessary; just don’t add so much that it is too firm. (here we have the debate on whether to use the bread hook or the paddle on the super-stand mixer; we tried both, first hook, then paddle, then quickly back to hook.)

When dough comes together, stop the mixer and wrap a piece of plastic wrap around the top of the bowl. Let the dough have an autolyse for 20 minutes. (that’s a scary word to me, but my friend tells me not to be afraid, just let the dough have at it.) This will allow the whole wheat flour to become fully hydrated, and also allow the water in the grains to settle down. If you overknead this dough, you’ll essentially start squeezing water out of the grains.

After the autolyse, remove the plastic and again begin kneading on the lowest speed. Within a few minutes, the dough should come fully together, leaving the sides of the bowl. Knead for 5 minutes, then test for a windowpane. It will not be as thin as what you’d expect from a dough without all the grainy content, but it will form a general windowpane.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl large enough to contain it as it doubles. (my friend tells me to use the largest possible bowl. i used one that might have bathed a plump tot.) Turn dough over once, then cover bowl with plastic, not a towel. Let it proof at room temperature until doubled in size.

img_8892Flour your work surface – remember, this is a sticky dough! Gently turn dough out onto it. Keep your piece of plastic! Divide dough in half, and shape each as you wish: either shape it for conventional bread pans (my friend says don’t forget to oil your pans), or shape as hearth loaves. Dust the top of each with flour (I love that rustic look!), then drape your piece of plastic over them. While your bread is proofing again (and the second proofing goes faster, so keep an eye on it), preheat oven to 375 degrees.img_8893

Just before putting bread in oven, decoratively slash the tops a good 1/2″ deep. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating loaves halfway through. This bread is deceptive – it tends to look done before it is. When done, an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle should read 180 degrees. (or, says my friend, who is now your friend, anywhere between 190- to 210-degrees Fahrenheit.)

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Because of all those great, moist grains, and a touch of honey, this is an excellent keeper, and also freezes just fine. While it is still warm, cut a slice, butter it, maybe add some honey or your favorite preserves, and get ready to power up!

notes from food 52 and boulangere:

Food52 Editors’ Comments: Boulangere’s multi-grain bread is hearty and delicious. The combination of grains and seeds makes the bread both flavorful and texturally appealing. I had to use the upper end of the water amount for my dough to have a good consistency. I was unable to find chia seeds, so substituted millet instead. One of the beauties of this recipe is its ability to accommodate different grains and seeds based on what you have in your pantry. It makes 2 pretty huge loaves of bread. I made mine 2 days ago, and have been nibbling on it ever since. I highly recommend giving this bread a try — you won’t regret it! – hardlikearmour

I developed this bread originally using spent grains from a friend who is a gifted and endlessly creative artisan brewer, along with a mix of seeds, depending on what I had on hand. I never knew exactly what the mix would be, but it always made bread so deeply good that people would call ahead on bake day to reserve loaves of it. I adapted it for the Bulk Bin project to replace the mix of spent grains with some of my other most favorite grains and seeds. I still call it Power Bread for the intrinsically wonderful protein, fiber, and EFA qualities of kamut, buckwheat, pearled barley, chia and golden flax seeds. And I always toss in some uncooked polenta for a bit of crunch in every bite. It makes great toast, and a killer grilled cheese sandwich! As you read through the list of ingredients, if you think the water measurement seems unclear, bear in mind that you’re going to cook the whole grains, and though you’ll also drain them, they contribute a lot of hydration to the dough, depending on how thoroughly you drain them. Don’t press water out of them, in other words. And feel free to add additional water to the dough if need be. – boulangere

and a note from me, not about bread but about the state of the world and what i write about here: dear beloveds, because long ago i set out to make this a sacred place, a place that keeps close watch on the world, and close watch on the soul, i am trying to thread a very fine needle here and keep politics off the table. i know we come from myriad perspectives, and because i want to preserve the sense of shared communion, of a place where we can all breathe deeply and purely, away from the everyday noise and congestion, i am aiming for matters of the soul. you might have gleaned that these are hard times for me, and that would be an accurate assessment. but because i can’t stand the dissolution of conversation i see in so many places, because i can’t stand the sense that division is the math of the moment, i’m trying for inclusion, trying to weave and not tatter, staking my hopes on the deep faith that we have many places in our hearts that spark to the same beauties, crack at the same shatterings. i hope we all speak up for justice and never ever muffle our outcries against what we see as injustice — and i won’t muffle here. i emphatically aim to live a gospel of love, an instruction found in every holy book of every world religion, and, yes, in the books of those who claim no religion but follow a sacred light. as a journalist i have long practiced the art of keeping my politics out of my stories, and so even here, especially here, where my aim is deeper and higher at once, i continue to pray that this is a sacred place, a place for everyone of gentle heart, fierce belief, and carefully considered thought. 

your thoughts? or if you prefer, your bread baking tips? or, perhaps, what you’ve found as the most delicious ways to deepen a friendship. xoxox

baking en masse: when you need to jumpstart your holiday heart

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the calendar was cajoling. winking, taunting. counting down the days till Christmas. and there i was, slumped in my red-checked armchair, curled in what amounted to the fetal position that even the president (the one still dwelling in the white house) advised was not a wise position (and not because he was worried about my posture or my crooked spine). no matter how hard i tried, i just could not muster the oomph the holidays demand.

so i did the surest thing i know to beat back the mid-december blues: i cranked the oven. i hauled an armload of oranges from the fridge. grabbed the canisters of flour and sugar. soon found myself slamming my grandma’s rolling pin against a sack of walnuts (therapy with a mighty bang!). already, i was starting to feel a little oomph in my kitchen dance. i grated. i measured and dumped. i inhaled the sweet scent of orange. delighted at the garnet bits swimming through the mixing bowl of batter. i was baking my way to Christmas. and on the way, i found my merry heart.

there is something deeply therapeutic about not just baking, but baking en masse. making like you’re a factory of one. i lined up all my baking pans. buttered, floured in one long sweep. i found it much less onerous to tick through required steps in quadruplicate, so much more satisfying than one measly loaf at a time. there was some degree of superpower in seeing my butcher-block counter lined in shiny tins, a whole parade of Christmas possibility. i found a magic in the multiples. in not just joy times one, but joy by the dozen.

i made a list of folks i love, and folks i barely know. folks who might do well to find themselves cradling a still-warm loaf of cranberry-orange-walnut (sometimes pecan) holiday bread. it took hours, of course. because each batch demanded an hour in my crotchety old oven, the one that deals in approximation rather than precision. the one that might respond to Fahrenheit, or might play in Celsius. it seems to change its mind day by day. all the while i cranked the Christmas tunes (truth be told, i played “Mary, Did You Know?” till even my little radio called it quits, fritzed out from all the times i clicked “replay”).

and therein came the joy. the simple act of drumming up a recipe, ticking off the short list of recipients, wishing more than anything i could wander down the lane to souls i love who live miles or time zones away. suspended in a day’s long animation, in the act of making plump golden-domed loaves from scoops of this and pinches of that, it was december’s holy balm.

this seems to be a season, in this particular whirl around the sun, when old tried-and-true rhythms and routines just aren’t working. but scooping your way through a whole sack of flour, grating the zesty peel off a whole orchard of oranges, it held out hope. it nudged me from the dark shadow of ho-hum into the more glimmering terrain of well-it’s-Christmas-after-all. and at every house where i rang the bell, and left behind a loaf, i felt a little thump inside my heart. every once in a while, someone was home, which led to invitation to step inside, to shatter the cloak of isolation that harbors all of us inside our solitude and day-long silence.

it’s a merry tradition, the merriment that’s spread by the baker’s dozen. the simple act of creation — not just for me or mine, but for folks beyond my own front stoop. the simple equation of making to give away. addition through subtraction.

midday i found myself thinking i should take this up for all sorts of holidays, for groundhog day, perhaps, for flag day. for the annual first wednesday in september (a holiday i just declared). point is, sometimes the distance between loneliness and shared company is no farther than the few footsteps from my front door to a door across the way, or down the block. it’s no farther than the mailman’s empty hands once he drops off my daily pile of circulars and bills. no farther than the garbage fellow whose heart-melting smile is carrying me through these days.

it’s not escaping me this year that the deeper i burrow into my own silence, the harder it is to extricate my soul.

and sometimes a simple place to begin the cure is with the canisters that line my kitchen corner. and that cranky oven that lives and breathes to warm my kitchen — and, indeed, my soul.

what’s your recipe out of the doldrums this year? 

and merry almost Christmas to each and every one of you, and happy blessed almost Hanukkah, too. here’s hoping you find scraps of joy, and bundle them into just enough to carry you through these ever-longer, darker nights till the solstice comes, and light creeps in, minute by minute, day by day.

by the way, here’s a link to the cranberry-nut-bread recipe (from gourmet magazine, via epicurious) that got me started. i vamped, as always, from there: more orange zest. more nuts. 

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pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?

 

when a scone is so much more than delicious

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the other dawn, at the start of a day that had long been circled on the calendar, at the start of a day when a young lad i love was about to strap on his soccer cleats and pour his considerable heart into tryouts for the high school team where he wants — more than anything — to be the goal keeper, i began my mama ministrations, the ones that begin when you drop to your knees at the side of your bed, and whisper a plaintive petition.

you then descend to the kitchen, often the high altar of mama-dom. you pull out the red plate saved for days marked “high alert.” you survey the shelves of the fridge, pull out the juices and the various species of protein. you grab for a balsa-wood basket of super-food berries. and then, if you were me the other morning, you remembered that tucked at the back of the freezer was a zip-top bag of ready-to-bake, made-from-scratch, farmers-market-blueberry scones.

they happen to be scones that come with a story. scones delivered with love and out-of-the-blue kindness, the sort for which the world is so hungry these days.

i happen to be blessed with a friend named amy. she’s an art teacher in the chicago public schools. and she’s hilarious. and she can bake like nobody’s business. she’d once come for a morning’s respite in that sacred space that is our summer porch. as i poured the coffee, she pulled from her satchel the MOST amazing, buttery, crumbly, golden-domed scones i might ever have known. that was a year or two ago. i must have been emphatic in my proclamations of their excellence. because my friend amy remembered.

just a few weeks ago, dear amy was at the farmer’s market and, as one is wont to do, she went overboard at the blueberry stand. not one to waste a fine berry, she hauled out her mixing bowls and her flour and butter and cream so dense you might dollop it out with a spoon. as she mixed and patted and started to cut the butter-lumped dough, she says she suddenly thought of me (was it the buttery lumps, i wonder?).

she remembered how vociferous we were in our proclamations of her scone excellence. so, out of the blue on a summery morning, she pinged me a message, asking if i might be willing to come to the door for a load of just-made-but-not-yet-baked blueberry scone triangles, ones i could pop straight into the freezer so that when the spirit moved me, i could make like i’d been the one stirring and sifting and patting my cakes, and infuse my kitchen with buttery-blueberry olfactory whirls.

at first, i demurred — not wanting my friend who lives 20 minutes away to take such a detour. but she insisted, and i caved — more than delighted to partake once again of her scone excellence. it wasn’t till i cranked the oven, not long after she rang the doorbell and ran, that i was klonked over the head by the fact that this truly was a russian doll of gifts: inside the gift of out-of-the-blue scones, there was the gift of getting to make like i’d made them myself (if plopping the scones on parchment and sliding a baking sheet into and out of the oven amounts to “making them”).

and so this week, at the start of a very steep climb, i pulled the remaining half dozen dough triangles from out of the freezer bag, cranked the oven, and by the time the would-be goalie sauntered into the kitchen, a pedestal of deliciousness awaited. a pedestal of i’d-do-anything-to-help-you-make-this-team. if only i could make you grow six or 12 inches.

instead, i’m confined to buttery lumps of blueberry deliciousness. and the hope that each morsel fuels the pit so deep in his belly.

amy’s scones were merely one thread of the love blanket we’ve been weaving here all week. the young lad’s big brother, who had no reason to awake before dawn, set his alarm for six on the first of three days of twice-a-day tryouts. he climbed groggily into the would-be goalie’s four-poster bed. and there they lay, side by side, the big one whispering brotherly courage into the younger one’s ear. we’ve made it our job to be his bumper pads for this roller-coaster of a week. steaks have been grilled; silence, honored. ben-gay has been rubbed up and down legs, and water bottles have been filled and filled some more. word comes tonight. 

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i’m telling you, friends, these scones are blessed. and that magic of having them at-the-ready, with the bonus of hot-from-the-oven-ness, prompted me to beg my friend amy for the recipe, so i could bring them to you, here at the table. she calls them “life’s a butter dream,” because that’s what her son sam said when he took his first bite. 

Life’s A Butter Dream Scones

provenance: amy manata, baker, art teacher, glorious good and generous soul.

4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries ( or whatever you like, I’ve used apricots, choc. chips, anything)

Directions

-Use the Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt.
– Add in the cold butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in small pieces.
-Mix the eggs and heavy cream and add them to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended.
-Add the blueberries, and mix quickly. ( I freeze the blueberries so they don’t smoosh) The dough may be a bit sticky.
-Put the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined.
-Flour your hands and flatten the dough 3/4-inch thick, and rectangle shape. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.
-Cut into squares and then cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.
-Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
This is when I freeze them on a baking sheet so they don’t stick together.

To Bake:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with cream or milk. Sprinkle with “Sugar in the Raw,” and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

because these scones came to me in an act of sublime out-of-the-blue kindness, i’m convinced they beg to be passed along in that very same spirit. so consider them next time you’re in the mood for committing an act of random kindness.

i know that for lots of reasons this was a tough week for chair folk. here, too. sending love and prayers to everyone who faced — and faces still — uphill climbs.  

what’s the latest act of random kindness that’s come your way? and how, precisely, was it pulled off?IMG_8066

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

rx for the end-of-winter blues

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i’d not realized as i ambled through the grocery aisles that i was stumbling on a cure for the end-of-winter blues.

or at least a hearty inoculation against its jagged edge, the one that leaves you nearly flopped over, drained of all vims and vigors.

i filled my cart merrily, madly, picking up speed as i tossed in accoutrements i don’t normally pluck from shelves with such abandon. there were crunchy things in a thousand shapes. there were bottles to be quaffed. there were the makings of icing-slathered cinnamon rolls (those makings, truth be told, came in a tube that is merely slapped against the counter’s edge, disemboweled, tucked in a 9-inch-round, and baked till the morning kitchen fills with heaven-scent of butter, cinnamon, vanilla, the holy trinity of essential deliciousness. and who really minds if those smells emerge from cardboard tube; is not the point simply that somehow they emerge?).

a crew was descending on this old house, a crew of men six-feet-tall and taller, and they are hungry men, young men, twenty-somethings who flew in from three east-coast cities to poke around the middle of the country they’ve, until now, ignored.

they are the best pals of my recent college graduate. and they chose this snowy, cold march weekend to make a slumber party of our house. there were limbs strewn everywhere when i awoke this morning. and not long after, morning groans, the noises young men make when they are hoisting selves from sleep.

i’ve now fed them, quenched their thirsts, and sent them all southbound on the early-morning train. it’s quiet now, but in their wake i realize they’ve all shot me through with just the things i needed: noisy distraction. unbridled merriment. disruption of the old routine.

there is nothing quite as curative as a house that’s filled, a house in which the shower runs for the better part of an hour, as one hops in and one hops out. a house in which the sink is swiftly piled. and even better, all the pillows from the couch are madly strewn.

i once longed for a flock of kids to call my own, but i’ve realized over the years that The One Who Pulls Those Strings must know me better than i do, for truth be told i might collapse under the weight of more than two. so i get my fill in occasional blasts of multiples.

over the years: the gaggle of sleepy-eyed second graders who emerged from sleeping bags to squeeze around the kitchen table, hands flying, syrup spilling, as they pulled their portion from the flapjack stack i’d plopped before their hungry eyes. the nights the basement hit capacity, with every bean bag occupied, and i was tapped from slumber to be the designated driver for the winding roads to half a dozen homes. or the lunchtimes when the backdoor flung open and kid after hungry kid piled in, testing my capacities in the griddle-flinging challenge.

it heals me every time. i get lost in the reverie. of their secret codes. the jokes i only half hear. the kicks under the table i seem to never miss.

i love the mad swirl of company. i love a room where the rafters ring with human hum. i even love a kitchen that seems to have been overtaken by a team of poltergeists. and messy ones at that.

while i might more naturally be a girl who loves her whispered tete-a-tetes, knees huddled under cozy blankets, i can spring to full-throttle animation when the ones i love are surrounded, buoyed, pole-vaulted by the ones they call their nearest and dearest.

the next 60 hours in this old house will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of cacophonous company. i’ll breathe deep, inhale the whole of it. i know, too soon, it will be but a memory, a long tucked-away soundtrack from that one glorious weekend when this old house opened wide its rooms, and invited in a slew of dreams come true.

***

and in other news, dear beloved chairs, i must pass along this bit of blessing: i signed this week a contract, a long-awaited contract, for another book, one that comes from the deepest place in my heart. its title, for now anyway, is motherprayer: lessons in loving, and it’ll be out a year from now. it’s coming from the same publisher as slowing time, although i’ve a new editor for this one, and she is a dreamy dream if ever there was. more details as they emerge. having done this once, it might be even scarier the second time round, but i steady myself with the dear and deep souls who ring this table. it’s all been keeping me tap-tap-tapping away for months now, and it promises to keep me at it.

as the world beyond our tables feels more and more inhospitable, tell me who taught you the fine art of hospitality, and what’s your dream equation for great good company, and the ways you make each and every someone feel deeply much at home?  

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proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

after the feast

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if there was one slice of time to slip-slide into a bottle, to save for a rainy day, to relish, it might be that hushed and sumptuous moment when you tiptoe down the stairs and round the bend into the still-dark kitchen, first thing the morning after a very big feast.

the kitchen counters are cleared, the cookstove is sighing a deep sigh of relief, of exhaustion, of having been put through the holiday paces; all burners now still after blasting for hours, the oven now deep in a post-prandial sleep. there might be a bottle tucked off to the side, or the one lonely crescent roll that wasn’t torn into, the odd stack of plates that never got called for duty. open the fridge, though, and the shelves nearly groan, now pressed into service in hopes of preserving just a wee taste of all that was stirred and sautéed and browned and baked and roasted and mashed and pureed and, finally, dolloped over the course of a five-day kitchen maneuver, one mapped out with lists upon lists and timelines and charts and post-its galore.

as i sit snug at the old kitchen table, keeping watch on this blustery drizzle-drenched day, sipping my mug of the one hot liquid that catapults me out from under the covers, i find myself soaked in the grace of a year stitched with sadness, yes, but just as emphatically sewn with a hundred thousand shimmering threads of blessings for which my heart whispers thank you.

i’d start, sure as could be, with the three beds upstairs filled with long lanky boys who come in three sizes — small, long and longer. (while we’re at it, i’d add a long note of thanks for the post-feast delirium that more likely than not will fuel their sweet dreams — and my all-alone quiet — till long past midday.)

it wouldn’t take long — not far from the top of my roster of thanks — till i ticked through the deeply-loved friends who keep me aloft through whatever storms try to yank me down under.

i am thankful, so thankful, for this arthritic old house, and its creaks and its groans. for its doors that won’t close, and the window or two that refuse to budge open. i’m grateful of course for my unruliest garden, the one that paid little mind when i left it (mostly) to its own devices this much abandoned summer. thank God, yes and yes, for my little birds, the ones who buoy my heart with every flap of their wings, each chirp that rises up from their lungs and their throats and their short little beaks. thank you, especially, for the scarlet-robed cardinal i’ve lured back to my roost with scoop upon scoop of sunflower seed.

thank you for the crotchety old cat, the one who decides most nights around 3 in the morn that there is a world beyond this old house through which he must roam; the very old cat, by the way, we’re convinced we’re keeping alive through super-strength doses of love and not a few cans of high-grade tuna.

thank you, heavens above, for brothers strung across the country, and sisters-in-law i could not love more. thank you for mothers, by birth and by heart, ever my back-up squad, at home or afar. thank you for fathers, now resting in heaven. thank you for little niece and adorable nephew, proof that growing up loved is hope for the world.

thank you for books. and thank you for nuggets of time to burrow deep into pages, to contemplate a thought or a word — an old friend of a word or one newly unearthed. garner modern usagethank you, specifically, for my brand-new “garner’s modern american usage,” a genius of a roadmap through the vagaries and tight spaces of vernacular language (the late and ever-brilliant david foster wallace claimed it “eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar“).

and thank you just as deeply for the gem that arrived in the other day’s mail, wendell berry’s “sabbaths 2013,” a small-press edition of 20 poems, signed by the master, and filled with wood engravings now etched into my soul.

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thank you for sacred hours in light-dappled woods with a long beloved friend whose hours, we knew, were numbered. thank you, months later, for the minutes i sat at her deathbed. and thank you, yes thank you, for the long hours since, as we grope through the dark, wrapping our hearts around her left-behind beloveds, as we cry with them, make room on the couch, share blankets, pile plates with good eats, and blessedly utter her name amid the swapping of stories and deep belly laughs, and believe — even when they cannot — that the light will someday come again.

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my list of thank yous is long. my list of petitions seems to never grow shorter. so before i sign off, the ones that top this season’s beseeching: a friend and a sister i love, both still facing cancer head on. and another friend whose ankle, of late, is shot through with screws and rods and titanium plates, and who finds herself recliner-bound, though she’d never complain, not even a whimper.

lest i linger too long, before i rummage through the fridge, pile my plate with a spoonful of this, a swift taste of that, these are a few of the prayers that rise from my heart, on this, the glorious morn after the feast.

thank you, and bless you, amen and amen.

at my house this morning, one of the somethings left on the counter is a tumble of string from a box from the bakery where my husband bought brownies to stack into a tower in homage to his papa, whose november-25th birthday was often shared with the turkey, always nestled nearby, and always punctuated with thick-frosted brownies, bedecked by my sister-in-law. this year, far from new york and new jersey, my sweet mate stacked the chocolaty tower with architectural precision and not-often-seen tears in his eyes. it was a son’s salute to his bakery-born papa.photo 2photo

happy blessed birthday, dear AZK, among us always in heart — and in teetering chocolate.

what’s cobbled onto your list of thank yous this glorious day after the feast? 

when all else fails…turn to page 200

mac n cheese

for two decades now, ever since may of 1995 when i was plotting my firstborn’s second birthday fete, and i flipped open the pages of my monthly infusion of delicious, gourmet magazine — before it was ruth reichl’s gourmet magazine, before it was defunct, folded into the crypt of long-gone magazines, magazines that shaped our culture and then withered and died, the sad fate of so much of what’s printed in ink on the page — page 200, the page where the binding is coming unglued, the page crusted with splatters of roux, it’s been my no-fail, last-ditch, best-hope-of-filling-a-hole-in-a-heart-by-way-of-the-belly cookery map.

so it was yesterday, a crisp october day, when the sun poured in as if from a flask of molasses, so it was on a day when the boy who’d loped from the car at the school house curb was a boy with a leaden heart. he had so much homework, was so worried about homework, that he’d decided to skip the end-of-the-season soccer gorge on pasta and pizza. instead of hanging with friends, he’d decided he should come home straight after practice.

to make matters a tad bit worse, i wouldn’t be home when he got there. i try hard to keep my nights away to a serious minimum, but last night was a night i’d promised to be elsewhere, in a dim-lit watering hole and song hall, actually, reading words from a page for a very fine purpose, all to raise funds for a most noble cause.

i’m always torn when tugged away from my boys. and at the end of this week, this week when the lights in the kitchen never went out before midnight, because a young soccer player was trying hard to finish all of his homework, often accompanied by the sadness that lingers in our house, it was especially hard to be away.

so i reached for my holy salvation: the plainly-named “Baked Macaroni and Cheese,” ala page 200. it’s a cheesy-buttery bath stirred round and through tubes of wide-mouthed pasta, each tube filling with ooze as much as being wrapped in it. it vies, in our house, with bread pudding, as the neck-and-neck nos. 1 and 2 comforts on a spoon.

over the years, the making it — for me, anyway — is as soothing as it must be for my boys to polish it off in one sitting. assembling its components — the butter, the cheddar, the flour, the milk, the salt, paprika, bread crumbs, and parmesan shavings to finish it off — i slip into priestess mode. my old black cookstove — an industrial-grade contraption that somehow slipped into this old house in the 1970s, never to be removed — is my altar.

i begin my incantations and prestidigitations right there, where the flame is cranked, and the concoctions in my pots begin to bubble, not unlike vats of heavenly potions. with the oven cranked to 375, the kitchen begins to warm. everything about this kitchen ritual is warming. soon, my old sweater is off, and as i stir i imagine my sweet boy coming home to find the big white ceramic souffle dish perched atop the stove, my hand-scribbled note just to the side.

is there a more certain way to say i love you than to have cooked all afternoon? to have reached for the cookery shelf and pulled out the one thing a kid asks for on those nights when his sleepy head hits the pillow but the worries won’t be extinguished?

because a big old vat of mac n’ cheese wasn’t enough, not on this particular day, in the thick of this particular passage, i pulled out the produce bin and piled a mound of apples atop the cutting board. i chopped honeycrisp and granny smith, i didn’t peel — why bother? — and i tumbled the slices into the pot, added a splash of honeycrisp cider, a shake or two of cinnamon, and once again, applied flame to the equation. wasn’t long till the whole house was swimming in eau de apple and buttery-cheese. even the cat ambled back in from the garden.

then i set the table. is there anything that says i was thinking of you quite so quietly, certainly, as coming home to a kitchen table that awaits you, that has your very own napkin and napkin ring at the place where you always sit?

it’s the rhythms we carve into the grain of the day, of the months and the years — simple rhythms, unadorned rhythms, nothing so fancy as a napkin and fork at a place that is yours, set by someone who thought about how it might be to come home harried, and worried, and tired to the bone — that makes coming home feel as if someone just handed you your oldest, comfiest slippers. and a fuzzy sweater to boot.

i’d left the stove light on, and the mac-and-cheese under a foil dome, as i slipped out the door and turned the key. then, not a block from home, i got a message: the soccer player had decided, after all, to skip coming home. he’d hang out with the soccer team, inhale store-bought pasta and delivery pizza.

such is a mama’s existence.

so much for stirring and chopping, in hot pursuit of healing a tattered heart.

but here’s the holy truth: i was the one whose heart was soothed in the long hours of love at the cookstove.

and, besides, mac-n-cheese cold makes for excellent bedtime snack. when the lights go out at midnight.

what’s your when-all-else-fails cookstove concoction?

red bird pie: a recipe of courage

red bird pie before

perhaps its name is misguided, a culinary blunder nearly as stark as the dough with the mind of its own.

perhaps in calling it red bird pie, instead of the more ingredient-precise — say, peeled-granny-smith-with-occasional-appleseed pie — i’ve sent you and your brain cells tumbling down the very wrong path. perhaps you envision a meat pie. a pie filled with bird. i can’t even bring myself to type “red bird” when typing in this particular vein. for that would be a slaughterous pie, and we’ll have none of that here, not in this teetering-on-greens-only house.

it’s all just poetry, the poetry of pie naming. and once i discovered i could play with my pie dough, could press my old tin cutter, a wee red-bird cutter, you see, well, i was suddenly in joyful terrain. i pressed and i lifted and plopped. i was going gaga for the red birds i pressed in my pie top.

and deserving was i of this romp and reckless dough-cutting. for it had been a long way to red bird.

and thus is the story of the red bird of courage.

you see, as long as i’ve been alive i remember the words of my mama: “i’m afraid of pie dough,” she once said (though the minute i type that, i expect the phone to ring and denial to ring out across the land). for the sake of maternal peacemaking, let’s just say that someone once uttered the words, pie dough = fear, and they stuck.

if my forebears in the kitchen were fearful of dough, well, then, i too held ancestral right to be fearful.

so, all these years, i’d never done it. not until the day before yesterday, that is. the day before thanksgiving 2014, the day my dough dread crumbled. and the red bird rose to my rescue, served as my bent-tin medal of courage.

red bird cutter

it so happens that this happens to be my season of conquering fear. and one of the very last bastions was the one splayed across the now flour-streaked pages — clear from page 24 to far yonder 44, a full 20 sheafs of schooling in butter + flour + water! no wonder i shook in my tattered-and-splattered over-head apron!

i’d turned in my hour of fear-mounting to “the hoosier mama book of pie,” a nestled-to-the-bosom book of pie tutelage if ever there was (though ms. paula haney, the hoosier mama herself, does seem to revel in raising the rolling pin higher and higher with each and every pie-baking instruction).

pie page instruction

why, before the day was done — and it was a long one — i would have fumbled my way through these fine kitchen verbs: i macerated. i reduced. and i chilled. i would have pulsed, but the food processor also is among the kitchen wares i dread (or simply hate to haul from the pantry shelf), so i rocked with old-fashioned half-moon pastry cutter. i sprinkled “crust dust” (who knew?). and before i’d so much as frozen the butter, i’d stalked the grocery store shelves in search of tapioca starch. (i went with minute tapioca. oh, well. chalk it up to kitchen transgression.)

apparently, i’m not so good with numbers, either. at least not when it comes to butter. i grabbed two sticks, but promptly forgot that the wee little fraction tucked alongside the 1, there in the ingredient roster, spelled out 3/4 — as in less than a whole, as in fraction of buttery stick. so my virgin voyage of pie dough had an 2 extra Tbsps. of land o’ lakes unsalted butter.

you might wonder why if i started this whole rigamarole at 2 in the afternoon, i didn’t pull that ol’ bird-pocked pie from the oven till half past 10 in the night? well, it seems ms. hoosier mama believes in slow baking. meaning every step was punctuated with full stop — freeze for 20 minutes, rest for 20, macerate at least 25, drain for 25, chill for 20, freeze for yet another 20; 130 full minutes of pause, pause and more pause.

in which, i suppose, the ponderous baker is supposed to deep breathe the wonders of all this mindful attention to butter and flour and water laced with red wine vinegar (the better the chances to shorten the protein strands, ms. haney explains, the ones that make your pie dough tough to the tooth).

seeing as this was my first run-through, i more or less sighed deep sighs of exasperation at each and every prescription to pause. by dinner time, when everyone’s tummy was growling, and i was still pausing to freeze or to drain, i’d gotten to calling this “apple pie interruptus,” for the way i seemed to take two steps fore and one step to the side.

and i flubbed plenty along the way: besides the mistake with my buttery math, and despite the fun i had thwopping the cold ball of dough with the girth of the rolling pin (lest all the rolling toughen it into one hard-bitten bird), my dough circles never did reveal themselves (more like a raggedy-edged oblong was the best i could do).

so i did what any self-respecting virgin pie baker would do: i scrimped. scraped the doodads of dough right off the cutting board. dabbed droplets of water there at the seam, where dough met dough, and i made like a band-aid.

and then, at last, i got to the side note, the one about cutting to vent, and that’s where all my years of flipping glossy pages in foodie tomes came to bear: i plundered my mostly-unused-but-abundant collection of old cookie cutters, and there, at the way bottom of the basket, lay a toppled wee red bird.

and that’s how i wound up reveling in pie dough, just before the 10 o’clock news. i pressed myself a whole flock of dough birds. i had red bird holes in my pie top. and red bird doodads of dough, rising up to a second dough layer. i had so very much fun with my birds i barely noticed the disastrous crimp to my crust. nor did i mind the splotches of dough bandage.

which leads me to think that, as with all acts of courage, the recipe reads something like this: shove up your shirt sleeves, take it one step at a time, don’t flog yourself for dumb mistakes and necessary U-turns, and let rip when it comes to the part where you’re in your glory.

in the end, does anyone other than you give two whits that you’ve mastered the thing that you feared?

but once you find yourself grabbing the hot pads and oven mitts, and you’re yanking your prize from the sizzling oven rack, all you need do is deep breathe the truth that, step by step, blunder upon blunder, you’ve inched your way over and across the very terrain that once made you tremble.

life is like that. pie-baking is too.

red bird pie after

and what fears have you conquered of late? the ones you’ve batted down with rolling pin, or ones of whole other ilk? and how did you muster the courage?