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Category: cooking

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?

when the writing tide rises around you…(so of course you think of cookies)

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gulp. that’s the sound of me deep against a deadline. i’m a wee bit underwater here, with a 2,500-word story in the works. and a clock ticking loudly, telling me to crank it up, crank it up.

whatever leisurely tale i might have told you here this morning, it’s being scuttled by the overdrive that writing brings. when sleep becomes a playground for sentences that romp around your head, and you rise to gurgle coffee and down it by the mugful.

tis advent time, the season of quietest anticipation, a season i love and will enter deeply, once the clacking on the keyboard quells.

because i wouldn’t want to leave you high and dry, while i pull verbs and nouns and nifty transitions out of a hat, i thought i’d leave you something rather earth-shattering: we’ve a  new cutout cookie recipe over here, and after decades making my grandma lucille’s rolled cutout cookies, the ones she blanketed in wax paper sheets, tucked inside her cookie tins, her cutouts swapped for seasonal appropriateness, she’s been one-upped. there’s a new cookie in town, and my cookie-scarfing 17-year-old (a kid who knows) has deemed them better than the best.

this fine road to buttery perfection came to me — why, of course — at a hanukkah baking workshop on a recent rainy saturday afternoon at our synagogue. i was enticed to sign up because i’d thought i might learn the secrets to old jewish cookie treasures, some hanukkah morsel to bring to the table when we light the menorah on the first night of the festival of ever-burning light. instead, i got an ultra-upgraded butter cookie, one whose magic might rest in the milk (or cream) or vanilla my grandma never used, or perhaps it’s the baking powder, one of those cooking alchemies whose magic i don’t quite grasp. because i’m a girl who likes to get to the bottom of things, and maybe you do too, i’ll leave both recipes here on the table for you to peek at, pore over, and perhaps dive into.

but i’ll let you in on a secret that might amount to family treason: the new one, the one from marlene, my best new baking buddy, who all week checked in on me to make sure i’d not run into any lumps, is — shhhhhhh — the one i’ll reach for from now on. i baked these in the middle of the week, shortly after turning in my first draft of that darn story i’m still writing — or rewriting, to be precise. and i tell you, pulling out the cookie-cutter basket, remembering the tale of how each cutter came to me — a double bass for my longtime bass player, a teddy bear for, well, my very own TB — it was sweeter to me than the three and three-quarters cups of sugar i dumped into the mixing bowl. but those are stories for another day.

(a recipe note: i’m particularly charmed by the little asides in marlene’s instructions. you can almost hear her peeking over your shoulder, gently pointing out a better way, a shortcut, a trick she learned from years and years behind the rolling pin. i hope you’re as charmed as i am, and ever will be…)

Sugar Cookies from Marlene Carl (Directions 2018*)

*p.s. i love that marlene dates her directional revisions, as this cookie baking science is not to be taken nonchalantly…

3 and ¾ cups of regular flour a bit more if using egg beaters instead of regular egg

1 and ½ cups of regular sugar

2 teaspoons of real vanilla

1 and ½ teaspoons of baking powder

1 stick of unsalted butter and 1 stick of Can’t Believe It’s Butter margarine.  You can use all butter but the batter seems to roll better with the combination of half of each.  However, I do use all butter as I love the more delicate taste.

1 large egg or I use ¼ cup of egg beaters   (when baking with children who like to taste the raw batter, egg beaters are a safer option than real egg.)

2 and ½ Tablespoons of milk, (there are 3 teaspoons in one tablespoon)

Cream the butter until soft and blended, add the sugar and blend well. Then add the egg or egg beater, followed by the vanilla.

Mix the flour and baking powder together in a bowl, then add some of the flour, then some of the milk blending on low speed, continuing adding and blending until thoroughly  blended and mixed. The dough will begin to form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Add a bit more flour if the dough seems very sticky.

Form three balls with the dough and press flat.  Wrap in plastic wrap and put into fridge until ready to use.  36 hours is the longest I have done so and it was perfect. You can also freeze the dough until ready to use.  Be sure it is double wrap and use within a month.

Bring the dough to room temp when ready to make the cookies.  Flatten one ball of dough between two pieces of wax paper the size of your cookie sheets and roll to about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick.

Using cookie cutters form into shapes, then remove as much of the extra dough around the cookies as possible. When you have done so, place in freezer or fridge (freezer about 10 minutes, fridge maybe a little longer amount of time).  When the cookies are cold it will be easy to pick them up and then place the cookies on a different cookie sheet and repeat the process.   Smaller cookies can often be removed without chilling them.

Leave about ½ inch between cookies.  I usually wait until I have used all the dough and made all the cookie forms before baking two trays at a time in a preheated 400 degree oven.  I use convention mode and they bake in about 6 to 7 minutes the edges turn a nice golden brown color.  Regular bake mode will take longer maybe 8 to 10 minutes.

Take the cookies off the tray immediately and place on cooling rake.  I usually only bake two trays at a time as the cookies are hard to get off the tray if they cool too much. If that occurs, place the tray back in the oven for about 30 seconds and the butter will soften the cookies and they will become easy to remove again.

When you roll the dough between the two pieces of wax paper, (if the dough seems to be sticking to the top piece of paper), you need to add one heaping tablespoon of flour.  Then knead the flour into the circle of dough.  It should not leave any particles of dough on the wax paper.

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and because i promised, here’s my grandma lucille’s. like my grandma, it is clipped and to the point, no frilly asides in this one. my german grandma meant business, and business we got. even in her recipe tin.

Lucille’s Famous Rolled Cut-Out Cookies

1 cup shortening

½C. brown sugar

½C. white sugar

1 egg

2 Tbsp. lemon juice and grated rind

2 C. flour

¼tsp. baking soda

¼tsp salt

Cream shortening. Add sugar. Cream well, egg, flour, soda, salt, lemon juice and rind.

Chill about 3 hours (or overnight).

Roll ¼-inch. Use cookie cutters {Editor’s note: most notably turkeys, bunnies, Santa on sleighs, at appropriate seasons of course. Put raisin in turkey’s eye; same for bunny’s nose.}

Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

cookie baking wintery blessings

do you have a stand-out family cookie recipe in your tin, one that comes out at least once a year, or perhaps every other week? how does your family favorite stand up to the one dear marlene just bequeathed me? 

not your mother’s pot roast

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back when i was peeking into the kitchen, the room where my mother ruled, what happened to pot roast happened once every couple weeks. and, seeing as my papa was an ad man in the mad men days of american advertising, a three-piece-suited man who came home on the train with a brief case sometimes spilling with mystery boxes, boxes marked X, boxes we were meant to try, i came to count myself on the front line of the post-industrial-space-age kitchen revolution. which means i was among the first to suspiciously nibble hamburger helper, bundt cake in a box, and — our favorite — space food sticks, those tootsie-roll-like batons sheathed in crinkly silvery paper; “breakfast in a bite.”

is it any wonder my culinary quirks got cross-wired?

back to the pot roast. as best i recall, pot roast meant my mama was ripping open packets of dehydrated onion soup (thank you, NASA), spinning off the lids of cans, exercising her dumping skills. (i’d like to imagine that when no one was looking, she poured in a glop of old red wine, but that was likely the kitchen down the street, where my best friend’s mama was likely to pour a little red wine into, well, her first mug of coffee.) the whole pot-roast caboodle was entombed in aluminum foil, and set in the oven till the 6:30 train pulled into the station, my pa motored home, and we all sat down together to hear the highlights of the day downtown where the ad men re-wrote the national narrative, in 60-second pitches with the catchiest tunes.

another thing about the pot roast: i’m pretty sure we never called it pot roast. i think it had a name that ended in “steak.” when you were feeding five kids, and trying to stick to your weekly grocery budget (those were the days when my ma prided herself on a week’s worth of groceries for seven, paid for with $100 bill — and change to tuck back in her pocket, change that became her “funny money,” money to spend as she darn well pleased), you named whatever you could a name that ended in “steak.”

which is how i came to not really know what in the world a pot roast was. all i knew was that it sounded like something donna reed or dick van dyke’s laura petrie would make.

which is all an even longer-winded way to say i was mighty intrigued when i spied a food52 instructional guide for something called “pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic.” if you ever want to grab my attention, toss in any sort of big number. i’ve always liked playing with numbers, and 40 cloves of garlic had me, truth be told, at 10.

as i count down the dinner hours with my sweet senior in high school, i seem to have slid into an ulterior plan of feeding him in ways he’ll never forget. ways that might seep in as he stands in yet another cafeteria line with a dishwasher-splattered cracked plastic tray, awaiting a ladle of whatever swims in the hot metal bins. (it’s sneaky, i know, but we mothers must out-think our offspring, especially when they grow to be big enough that they don’t like to be smothered with our hugs and our kisses and the little red hearts we used to scribble onto their lunch bags.)

which is where we arrive, at last, and once again, at the pot roast. something about “pot roast” seemed to ping that place in my brain that’s on the prowl for unforgettables. a boy who sits down to dinner on a thursday night, or — back up the clock — a boy who walks into a house where 40 cloves of garlic have been infusing the kitchen, front hall, heck, making their way down the whole dang walk, all backed up with notes of grass-fed beef, and chunks of carrot, onion, and vegetable broth (with a splash of red wine, because i learned watching my best friend’s mama….), well that is a boy who might remember his mama — or at least her pot-roasty roast once in a while.

so i set out on my mission. secured me three pounds of grass-fed beast, peeled garlic till my fingers called for time-out, chopped and seared, and cranked up the oven.

because i never want to keep these little miracles to myself, i am herewith sharing my secrets. this comes from my friends at food52, those geniuses of community recipe gathering, where so many cooks have their fingers in the pot, you’re assured that whatever makes it onto the site is vetted up, down, and sideways. and usually delicious.

pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic

Serves: 6 

Prep time: 30 min 

Cook time: 4 hrs 30 min

Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola (or other neutral) oil
3 pounds boneless beef chuck, patted as dry as possible
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
40 peeled garlic cloves
4 cups vegetable broth

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Set a large Dutch oven on the stove over high heat. While it’s getting good and hot, season the beef all over with salt. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Sear the beef all over—figure 4 minutes per side—until the outside is deeply browned and crusty. Transfer the beef to a plate.
  3. Add the onions and carrots to the pan. Toss in the rendered beef fat and season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, another pinch of salt, and toss. Cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Nestle the seared beef on top of the vegetables, then pour the broth around the perimeter. It should rise about halfway up the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pot and get in the oven.
  5. Roast for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, flipping the meat halfway through. You can start checking the meat at 3 hours—exactly how tender or toothsome you like it is totally personal.
  6. Before serving, remove any butcher’s twine (if it was there, holding the meat together) and use 2 forks to tear and pull the meat into big hunks and shreds. Season with more salt to taste.
  7. Serve with something starchy. This keeps perfectly in the fridge for leftovers all week. I also love freezing portions for pat-on-the-back weeknight dinners down the road.

so there you go. have at it. i can gleefully report that for a minute there last night dinner was silent. silent in that way that the taste of what’s at the end of the fork is so unusually good, the taste buds take over and the vocal cords go mum.

and that’s the story of pot roast. and how i added one notch to the score board, the one marked, “reasons to come home from college. or at least miss my roast-searing mama.”

what’s your secret sure-fire hit to lure those you love back home to your kitchen?

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aretha + eggplant + me

there oughta be a soundtrack here. because there is in my kitchen these days. i might have found a cure for my MSNBC addiction. i spell it R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

the other morning, not long after a raucous ride to the schoolhouse door, i decided there was no better cure for the late-summer blues than cookin’ up a feast for the boys i love, especially the one whose days at my kitchen table are now in official countdown mode (i’m in the slow lane on these matters, so i make sure i get a long head start, and yes, the countdown is roughly in the 350-and-subtracting stage — and, yes, i realize this puts me squarely in the odd zone). but anyway, back to the kitchen. i decided that one more night of grilled chicken might send the kid bawking from the table, so i upped my ante. i decided lasagna — from scratch and in two modes, meatless and otherwise — was the hurdle i’d leap.

and that’s when i turned to two mavens: the barefoot contessa, who nimbly guided me through my cooking instructions, and the goddess of soul, who every time i plug her in takes my heart and turns it up a notch. or three notches.

30 greatest hitstwo minutes after i heard aretha had died, i turned toward motown and bent not my knees but my finger, the one that clicked on the iTunes. the one that bought me two hours of instant therapy. (since i seem to play it on infinite shuffle, 30 greatest hits over and over and over, i figure it cost me — in the first day alone — less than a dollar an hour.)

i rocked and rolled through “baby, i love you,” and “chain of fools,” and, oh yes, “i say a little prayer” (please, aretha, say one for me…). and all the while i read through ina’s instruction. and then, in keeping with the queen of soul, i began to scat. through my roadmap for roasted vegetable lasagna, with a side (a whole other pan) bursting with plenty of beef.

because i tend not to keep eggplant and whole-milk ricotta on hand, my efforts entailed a trip to the grocery. my simple feast wound up costing me a whopping 45 bucks, by the time i plucked top-of-the-line tomatoes and beef off the shelves. (no one said blues-breakers come without cost.)

and then, for the better part of an afternoon, i amazed myself as i roasted and stirred, chopped and dumped, plucked and sautéed. by four bells, i tell you, i was more than humming….i was wailing right along with the queens…

call me “old-fashioned” (you won’t be the first), but by the end of that long afternoon, when the sweet boy bounded through the door, took a big whiff, and exclaimed, “what in the world are you making?” i smiled a little smile deep down inside.

i’d taken a day — an otherwise unremarkable do-little day — and i’d dialed it up a fine notch. i’d used a bevy of produce — eggplant and zucchini, red pepper and mushrooms and spinach and onions and garlic and basil and parsley galore — and great glops of olive oil. i’d sizzled up beef, and stirred marinara. i’d hot-water-soaked whole-grain lasagna ribbons (a trick of ina’s i might not repeat). and then, come dinnertime, i plopped onto the kitchen table, two 8-by-8 squares of oozy, cheesy deliciousness.

there are plenty of days when words alone can’t say what i want to say: i love you like crazy. i miss you already and it’s not even september. and i fully intend to make the most of this one last hurrah of a year.

this week aretha chimed in, she belted it out for the both of us. we served up a feast, me and the queens. and we finished it off with “baby, i love you.”

should you be inclined to play along, here’s where we started. feel free to scat or to vamp or to add your own notes….(and here’s your soundtrack, to boot!)

gettin started

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna 

(from Barefoot Contessa) SERVES 6-8 

1-1⁄2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick 

3⁄4 pound zucchini, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick
2⁄3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano 

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

10 ounces lasagna noodles, such as De Cecco 

16 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta 

8 ounces creamy garlic and herb goat cheese, at room temperature 

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided 

4-1⁄2 cups good bottled marinara sauce, such as Rao’s (40 ounces) 

1 pound lightly salted fresh mozzarella, very thinly sliced 

veggies*bam note: besides the eggplant and zucchini, i decided to sauté onions, red pepper, mushrooms (two kinds) and spinach. i made that yet another layer on top of the eggplant and zucch.

** in my meaty version, i ditched the veggies and sautéed one pound of ground chuck, with onions, garlic, oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. then i added a can of whole tomatoes, a few squeezes of tomato paste, and let it all come to a fine pitch. in the instructions below, i  layered my beefy concoction in place of each veggie layer. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the eggplant and zucchini in single layers on 3 sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Brush them generously with the olive oil on both sides, using all of the oil. Sprinkle with the oregano (I crush it in my hands), 1 tablespoon salt, and 11⁄2 teaspoons pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, sprinkle the garlic evenly on the vegetables, and roast for another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees. 

Meanwhile, fill a very large bowl with the hottest tap water and add enough boiling water to bring the temperature to 140 degrees. One at a time, place the noodles in the water and soak them for 15 -minutes, swirling occasionally so they don’t stick together. Drain and slide the noodles around again.  noodles

Combine the ricotta, goat cheese, eggs, basil, 1⁄2 cup of the Parmesan, 11⁄2 teaspoons salt, and 3⁄4 teaspoon pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. 

Spread 1 cup of the marinara in a 9 × 13 × 2-inch baking dish. Arrange a third of the vegetables on top, then a layer of the noodles (cut to fit), a third of the mozzarella, and a third of the ricotta mixture in large dollops between the mozzarella. Repeat twice, starting with the marinara. Spread the last 11⁄2 cups of marinara on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of Parmesan. Place the dish on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes and serve hot. 

what’s your sure cure for the late-summer blues? and, more emphatically, what’s your soundtrack?

mangia!!!

p.s. so sorry i was a tad late this morning: i had two boys who needed a few hours of my time, and thus the chair had to wait in line. 

i’m-not-sure-who-it’s-comforting-more food

peach-blueberry bread pudding.3

in which we momentarily retreat to the comfort kitchen as the world wears us ragged, and sometimes our sphere of true influence has shrunken to a concentrated radius of one (maybe two on a good day…)…

the leftover challah called to me, as it so often does. every friday the braided loaf of eggy dough finds its way to our shabbat table, and every morning thereafter the mostly untouched loaf (for we tear off only a few shabbat chunks on most friday nights) whispers louder and louder from the basket where it idles in quasi-retirement.

it begs to be rescued from its shoved-aside status, to be transformed in miraculous ways. bread pudding, most often, is the solution.

this week, once i plunked the getting-staler challah onto the cutting board (my tangible reminder to do something with it) my getting-taller-by-the-hour almost-senior in high school chimed in. “oh, mom, could you make it with peaches and blueberries this time? remember you said you would?”

this was not such a radical advance, this seasonal iteration of the bread-egg-and-milk puddingy pablum. but it was a certain departure from the same-old, same-old in which i chop up apples, throw in handfuls of shriveled-up raisins or cranberries, await cloud-like perfection. this called for summery attention to be paid, called for a trip to the produce bin where i found white-fleshed peaches in all their colorless glory, and blueberries by the bushel-load.

wasn’t long till i was sinking into the familiar rhythm of this recipe i know by heart (though for good measure i nearly always pull mark bittman off the shelf — or, specifically, his “how to cook anything” bright-yellow-covered cookery volume).

once i sliced into the peaches, though, my grandma entered the room. there she was, in pure imagined vapors, standing just behind my shoulder, urging me to reach for the brown-sugar canister, where i would partake of one of my grandma’s signature summery moves: douse the sliced, moist peaches in spoonfuls of deep-brown granular sweetness, allow the peachy juices to swirl with the sugar; tuck aside while golden-hued syrup emerges, the taste of summer defined.

and that was precisely the moment i realized that this comfort food for my sweet boy was just as much comfort for me in the making. there i was alone in my kitchen — me and my bread and my cream and my summery peaches — when all of a sudden i was visited by my long-gone grandma, i was swooped back in time and in space to her cincinnati kitchen in the ivy-covered brick house as sturdy and ample as was my grandma.

i was, for one sweet interval, far far from the news of the day, far from the grown-up worries that some days so weigh me down. it was just me and days-old bread, and the alchemy of sugar and peach. who knew such potency lay just beneath the fuzzy-fleshed skin of the fruit?

it’s the one room where this summer i’ve found a joy that might make me hum. that and the porch where i read.

should you want to play along, here’s my roadmap to summery joy — the blueberry-peach bread-pudding rendition thereof….

teddy’s bread pudding, the peachy summer edition*

  • 3 cups milk (or cream)
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, more for greasing pan
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ loaf sweet egg bread like challah or brioche, torn into 2-inch cubes (about 5 to 6 cups)
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 3 peaches, sliced
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup blueberries
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Over low heat in a small saucepan, warm milk, butter, 1/2-cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and salt. Continue cooking just until butter melts. Meanwhile, butter a 4-to-6-cup baking dish and tear the bread into bite-sized bits. Place the bread in baking dish.
  2. Slice peaches into separate medium-sized mixing bowl; stir in brown sugar. Set aside (wherein magic ensues, and syrup emerges). Rinse blueberries, and allow to drain.
  3. Once peaches are bathing in their brown-sugary juices (anywhere from five to 10 to even 15 minutes should do it), dump fruits atop bread chunks. Stir gently.
  4. Pour hot milk over bread, peaches, and blueberries. Let it sit for a few minutes, poking down the occasional chunk of bread that rises to the top. Beat the eggs briefly, and stir them into bread and fruit mixture. Mix together remaining cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle over the top. Set the baking dish in a larger baking pan, and pour hot water into the pan, to within about an inch of the top of the baking dish, effectively making a bath for your bake.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

inhale the endless comfort vapors….

*thank you, mark bittman, for your endless guidance and your recipe on much-splattered page 662.

what foods bring you as much comfort in the making as in the consuming?

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when roots are called for, the big red pot comes through

big red pot

i’m in-between and somewhat out-of-sorts. i’m not certain we could riffle through a diagnostic manual and find it written just that way, the malady. and maybe it’s not a malady, just simply stating fact. maybe it’s merely the lull in human undulation, the dip between the rises.

and, truth is, it’s not so bad — the in-between part, anyway. the in-between part is liberation, defined. a long line of assignments is behind me, and i’m in the fertile ground where new ideas begin to rumble in the distance. for months now, i’ve been applying fingers to keyboard day after day after day. so this week, without so much as a whistle being blown, i seem to have declared it deep-breathing time. i found myself roaming anywhere except the keyboard. i found myself clipping shriveled vines in the garden, plucking last-gasp bouquets and tucking them — one last time — in the old milk pitchers that duly serve to hold their pirouettes. i found myself reaching for the big red pot. and all the roots — the parsnip, carrot, turnip — that are ours with one swift tug on their leafy tops.

i seemed to be swirling in whole body immersions. in tactile acts that drew me close to earth, and thus infused with heaven’s fumes.

i needed rootedness this week. and my big red pot came through. it’s there, thick-walled and heavy enough to shatter toes. to yank it from the cupboard is no small feat, one that usually calls for rearrangement of the entire teetering tower of lids and bottoms. but once planted atop my old crotchety cookstove — the one whose burners must take turns deciding who will burn today, and who will sit it out — the rearrangement is all worth it. that pot all but begs to put me back together. it sits wide-mouthed and waiting. all it asks is that i get to work: peel away the earth-stained skins of all those roots, chop them into chunks, toss with abandon. all whirled in olive-oil glisten. all softened, surrendered, through minutes on the flame.

i made a root stew this week because i needed roots. i simmered it all day, with a pinch of this, a cup of that. it was alchemy, all right. the sort that heals me every time. i set out to root the ones i love, the ones whose week wearies them. but all day long it was me who inhaled the essence of autumn, of doors closed, and furnace rumbling once again. chamomile

as long as i was ambling down the road to roots, i clipped a fat fistful of chamomile, the very essence of becalmed. i set the table, put out fork and knife and napkin. i awaited the return of those i love, the ones who’d shuffle down the walk long after dusk, and into night. there is something sacred about keeping watch for comings home.

there is something sacred about immersing yourself in the offerings of earth: in roots and fat fistfuls of bloom.

sometimes the shortest route to blessing is setting out to bless the ones we love. along the way, we find the sacred tapping us in our translucent parts, the ones where our heartbeat all but shows.

the susurrations of the sacred catch me every time.

and may they catch you, too. how do you carve your path to groundedness, what’s your certain route to simple daily blessing?

p.s. my out-of-sorts-ness is simply being ground down day after day by the national vitriol. it’s a toxic drip, and it’s rubbed me raw. it reminds me of being a kid keeping watch on the schoolyard bully, tempted to plant my hands firmly on my hipbones and let rip a mighty spew! (stay tuned….)

postcards from summer: a poem, a “cake,” and three very fine books

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sometimes in summer you merely want to dip your toe into the puddles. or the very cold lake. a little of this, a little of that. summer, it seems, is by definition the season for idling. no deep exertion needed. nor called for.

and so this week, with our old house bustling, and me trying to squeeze in any minutes of writing time i can muster, we bring you a little of this, a little of that: a poem, the “world’s best” no-bake upside-down cloud of sweet summeriness, and a roundup of books for the summery soul.

first, the poem, a quiet one from mary oliver, who is something of a patron saint of this old table. one that will rustle something deep inside, perhaps, and make you think thoughts you might not have thought ever before…

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
happening
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.

From West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, by Mary Oliver. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Copyright 1997 by Mary Oliver. 

oh, mary, mary…

“let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine….”

in fact, that might be all the morsel you need for this day. a morsel that’s as much a prayer as a poem, in my book. truth is, the poems i love best are the ones that work as a prayer: spiraling deep down under the hard shell of the everyday numbness, stirring, rustling, awaking the sleeping bits of the soul. the bits that long to be fed, plumped, removed from their starvation diet.

“let the immeasurable come…”

have you felt the immeasurable of late, did it touch the buckle of your spine?

and because i promised, here’s the summery treat we made at our house this week. especially since our house is filled this week from our beloved friend jani from munster, in germany. jani was here five years ago, when he was 12. and he and i sat side-by-side every morning, making our books. he will be 18 next week, and he is here, working downtown, taking the train every morning and night with dear blair. we are feting him with all things americana. he claimed this, “the best dessert in the world.”

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best no-bake upside-down dessert in the world* (*so says jani)

1 box belgian buttery waffle crisp cookies

2 – 3 cups whipped cream

vanilla extract, a dollop

1 pint fresh raspberries

1/2 pint fresh blackberries

3/4 cup white chocolate chips

you’ll need a loaf pan, lined in plastic wrap.

stir vanilla (or almond) extract into your bowl of whipped cream (psst: i used cool whip).

this is all about layering, so begin with a few plops of whipped cream at the bottom of your loaf pan.

IMG_9495next, lay down a row of belgian buttery crisps. press gently into the bed of whipped cream.

add a layer of whipped cream, dropping in dollops, and smoothing with a spatula.

add raspberries and white chocolate chips (or dark chocolate chips, or almond slices, if that more emphatically tickles your fancy).IMG_9496

begin again with your belgian cookie brigade, then whipped cream, then more berries and white chocolate chips. repeat one or two more times, till you’ve reached the tippy-top of your loaf pan. then begin your berry art. i made a flag, or an impressionist rendition thereof…..have at it.

cover with plastic wrap, and tuck in the fridge for eight to 12 hours. theoretically you flip the stacked loaf onto a serving plate (thus, the plastic wrap lining the loaf pan), but i didn’t think about that when i went with my flag, so we served flag side up, and jani didn’t seem to mind. there were two slices left for the very next day. and jani proclaimed it even better after its long night’s nap in the fridge.

***

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and finally, as promise, the latest roundup of books for the soul. my latest assignment from the chicago tribune. this time: Islamic Jesus, Jewish holidays, and exquisite poems infused with Chassidic sensibilities.

so there you go. do as summer insists: savor these lazy days. and if so inclined, tap out your thoughts to the question above, the one about the immeasurable. or share your favorite no-bake summery sweetness. or the books whose pages you’re turning these steamy days of july….

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?