pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: joy of cooking

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

img_8727

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. 

img_8732

proper porridge

IMG_7123

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

fullfridge

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.

WendellBerry

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.

zenceci

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? 

heartbeat of this old house

old garland

coming home stirs deep appreciation. seeing through fresh eyes. as i wander about the house, sink back into the rhythms of living here, unfolding my day here, i find myself drawn, day after day, to particular sounds, particular light patterns. i open windows, just to flush the house with outside sounds. the chirping of the cardinals. the trill of someone else. i tiptoe into rooms, stand there, watching the way the sunlight plays through vines that have trespassed across the windows.

but more than anywhere, i am drawn, near suppertime each day, back to the old garland, my not-so-shiny stainless-steel dowager of a cookstove. she feeds us amply. she feeds me deeply.

i think of her, it appears, in the feminine — muscled, un-fancified, generous, forgiving.

weighty, she holds down the kitchen. she offers heat, flame at the turn of a knob. she is this old house’s heartbeat, and not just because of the click-click-click she sputters while the flame prepares to catch.

broad-lapped, with six burners and a grill top, she whispers no pretension. she was anchored here back in the 1970s, long before it dawned on anyone that an industrial-grade stove might belong amid a hungry family.

she was born to feed masses. and masses she did feed. first up, a family of seven, then a family that huddled three generations under this old roof. and for the last decade, merely us. with but two growing boys, i hardly feel deserving of her generous proportion, her capacity to provide. i’d always dreamed of a gaggle. but, as wise people sometimes say, God gives you what you can handle, and i suppose i was cut off after my lucky bookends, my eight-year span of boy.

so i up my ante through invitation. stay for dinner, i tell the little boys who wander by. the little boys with hand under cake dome, come three or four in the afternoon.

in recent afternoons, after long days reading and writing, i find myself stirring as the clock ticks toward five. i start poking around the fridge, seeing what’s available (or more often, what’s on the verge of wilting if i don’t use it maintenant). i eye the cutting board, and hear a beckoning. i’ve room aplenty, near acreage, it seems, after a year in the not-so-sprawling apartment kitchen. i’ve got my drawer of accoutrement again, a gaggle of whatchamahoojies and thingamabobs that help me get the job done. the cucumber peeler, the garlic crusher, the strawberry huller (a new addition, inspired by the little fellow who HATES a leafy cap adorning his juicy fruit and finds it a sport to sink in the hungry teeth of the huller and glide out the nettlesome middleparts).

after a year in which i confined cooking to a rare few nights (otherwise it was more along the lines of dumping trader joe’s oft-frozen magic in a skillet, and calling it dinner), i’ve rediscovered the therapeutic balm of chopping to the tune of NPR’s “all things considered.” although the syrian backbeat to the sauted apples last night proved a wrenching side dish.

i find i hum when cooking for my boys. and my old stove sings right along.

she and i, we’re quite a pair. she steams ahead where i stumble. tries not to scorch when i forget, get wooed away by the ringing telephone, let things blacken on the pot.

last night i was cooking merrily. whipped up all my little one’s favorites. straight through to baby peas in butter sauce, the fancy kind that come tucked inside a see-through pouch, one that bobbed along in boiling vat — deep-sea peas ensconced in thermal safety suit.

and, one by one, i was cooking for no one. the little one called to say he’d been invited out for dinner, and he was so so sorry, he really wished he could be there. then the tall fellow, the one now back to newspapering, he called from the chambers of city hall, whispering that he was elbow-deep in witnessing a landmark debate, and wouldn’t be rolling in till at least the 9 o’clock train.

no worry, no chagrin. i smiled at my cooktop, crowded with pans that were going nowhere. the buttered noodles with my grandma’s butter-bathed bread cubes, they were happily napping off to the right. the apple sausages swimming in cinnamon-spiked apple slices, they dozed. and the baby peas, ala jacques cousteau, they couldn’t have cared less.

by 10, the pots were cleared, their contents tucked in tupperware. no one had been around for the duet, me and my old stove. but that didn’t detract, not one iota, from the joyful percolating deep inside.

i was home, back at lady garland, and she and i twirled splendidly, all alone, entwined again.

what part of your house makes you hum? performs a lively duet with you, day after live-long day?