January 30, 2006
I won't deny it: I'm a simple tool. But I'm a simple tool with 12 pints of apple butter in the fridge, waiting only to be decanted into sterilized jars and sealed. The apples are Pink Ladies, one of the only things about which I disagree with Gina Mallet. She finds them too sweet, soda-pop apples; I find them, sweet, and tart, and floral, and citrussy, with an ovoid shape that amuses me and a dreamy pink skin that catches my eye and doesn't let go. During the winter, when I make apple butter in quantity, I like to make both a batch of dark apple butter, the traditional kind full of cider and brown sugar and dark spices, and light apple butter, with not much more than apples and sugar, maybe a little lemon juice. Having eaten all the Pink Ladies I brought home for pie, I wondered if I could capture their tart brightness in a light apple butter. Dear friends, I think I just may have.
As for the eggs: no, they have nothing to do with apple buttering. I just think they're beautiful.
January 29, 2006
Well, so much for quiet mind, dear friends. You would think that a week away from regular prose generation, a week filled with new adventures in yarn-based meditation (interested readers may click on the "continue reading" link below, while those who feel a creeping sense of dread at any signs of incipient craft-based prose may ignore it), would send me back here tanned, fit, rested and ready to play. Alas, Nature hates a vacuum, and within 20 minutes of my arrival at LuthorCorp last Monday morning, quiet mind was officially over. The LuthorCorp (Funky Little Company packaging division) sales force spent the week at a sales meeting in Virginia, which, of course, was the signal for which the Furies were waiting to unleash chaos on me and my fellow cubicle-based workerbees. I won't elaborate here, simply because the various indignities of the week will only make you indignant if you work at a packaging company; since I figure that only covers about 12 of you, I'll spare the rest of you, and just reiterate that it was a crunchy, crunchy week.
Terrible as I felt at the time, though, I tried not let it sadden me overmuch, and to remember that all that box factory toil makes it possible for me to write silly longwinded essays about eggs without worrying about how I'm going to pay my rent. The best thing I could do was to get myself back to the library and get to work. Back to the library I went, only to be refused admission by a pair of grumpy coat check clerks. I had come to the library straight from the farmer's market; apparently, bringing a bag of apples anywhere within a 500-mile radius of the library is a big no-no, which I certainly would have respected if only the nice fellows at the two security checkpoints I had to pass had informed me. I also appeared to be giving off the vibe of a person who would check her coat and bags at the library and then just leave the building, because the senior of the two clerks informed me, without any inquiry on my part, and in the tone of voice saved for addressing people who pee on the floor, that such behavior was verboten.
In the end, those grumpy women did me a favor: once I returned home and had a good rant and a nice hot aromatherapeutic shower, I realized that I had a topic in mind for the Oxford Symposium paper, one that would require research in other venues, and that while I am not done with the Rare Book Room yet, not by a long shot, I would not be requiring their assistance with this particular topic. By the time I had taken a nice retail therapy crawl around the Upper West Side with my favorite retail therapist, my sense of humor had returned, and I was finally in that state of tanned fit rested readiness for which I'd been waiting.
Lest you think I spent the week doing nothing but grumping around and hassling overworked, underpaid coat checkers at the library, I assure you that I've never had a week so crunchy that it didn't yield at least one pearl, and last week I had at least three. My favorite retail therapist's mother, a/k/a Mere Lapin, had three theatre tickets she couldn't use, so she passed them along to Bunni, and Bunni kindly shared them with Lloyd and me. Those tickets were for The Odd Couple, and thus did I get to bounce back from the day by watching Nathan and Matty do their thing, which is a very funny thing indeed. As we rode home on the subway after the show, Lloyd mentioned that it was a shame that comic plays were not the fixture they used to be on Broadway. I thought about the near-instant clout that the phrase "a new comedy by Neil Simon" conveyed in the 1960's and 1970's, and how I wished that we had that kind of comic playwright today. Then I realized that we do have that kind of comic playwright in Joe Keenan, who was a playwright, lyricist and the author of two hysterical, madcap novels (Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz) before heading out to California to become a producer and head writer for several seasons of Frasier. His third novel, My Lucky Star, has just been published. I bought it last Saturday. I finished it last Sunday night. I have spent the intervening week trying to find the right adjectives: brilliant, silly, fast-paced, crackerjack and just plain funny -- they all come close, but don't quite hit the mark. In short, if you ever, ever happen upon a marquee, or an ad in your local paper, reading "a new comedy by Joe Keenan," run, don't walk, to the theatre.
There is more than this, of course. There is a small army of small pleasures that have come to me in my moment of need, including but not limited to some truly kind and thoughtful correspondence from both an old friend and a new one, both of whom will be hearing from me before I head back to LuthorCorp tomorrow. There is more happy-making comedy in the form of the NewsRadio dvd I gave Lloyd for Christmas. (I get the same feeling watching NewsRadio the way I do reading Joe Keenan, namely a sense of wonder that anyone could a) be so funny and b) be organized enough to actually write it all down.) There are the usual pleasures of the kitchen, this week's being in the form of apple butter, a couple of loaves of rice bread, pie if I feel so inclined, baked apples if I'm feeling more low-key, which is usually the case after a few hours of mucking around with boiling-hot preserves. There is the prospect of our weekend trip to Boston in two weeks, with more travel to come after that. There is the general pleasure of working side by side with Lloyd, while he writes and I go through all of my notes and spreadsheets, shaking my head at the machinations of competing egg cooperatives. Last, but certainly not least, there is my trip down the downward side of what had been a steep learning curve...but I'll let my tutor tell you about that. All of these things are mood elevators, and they'll be good to keep near me the next time I feel Nature start to fill the vacuum.
January 21, 2006
Dear friends, I have been uncharacteristically low-key this month, and for this, I apologize. It's not any of the usual suspects, namely overwork, fatigue, illness, egg research, travel, a vigorous social schedule or the Existentialism Virus. I've not been feeling particularly bad, nor am I wrestling with that old demon writer's block; there is plenty to write about, and I am as eager to write about it as ever I was, so why I seem to have so much trouble getting the words out is puzzling. One of my office pals has suggested that my new adventures in sock knitting, started under the tutelage of one of my dearest friends, has cut into my writing/baking/research time, but I have found that, if anything, I work better, write faster, and think more clearly after working on a sock for an hour or so. I am continuing my research on the egg book, preparing a section of it for possible presentation at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery, and preparing also for a series of five cooking lessons for my brother and sister-in-law, for which we've been trying to set aside time for years, and yet, I don't feel pressed for time, or overtaxed. I am not sad, angry, depressed, exhausted or existential. I am something I have never been in my life: quiet.
Since this is not a normal state of being for me (not for nothing was I called "Jabberjaw" as a kid), I'm sure it will pass quickly, maybe even by tomorrow, and I'll have some nifty, pointless stories to tell. Please, friends, bear with me for a bit longer.
January 18, 2006
You will need a 9" bundt-style tube pan (I used a tinned French pan, known to Maida Heatter fans as a "swirl pan"; this may seem like effete esoterica, but trust me, it makes a big difference in the outcome of your crumbs); butter and flour for the pan; 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, softened; 1 cup (7 oz.) granulated sugar; 3 large eggs; 1 cup (4 oz.) all-purpose flour; ½ tsp. baking powder, ½ teaspoon cinnamon; ½ teaspoon nutmeg; a pinch of salt; 1 jigger (2 fl. oz. or 4 tbsp.) brandy, rum or whiskey (I used a fragrant, sublime dark rum that a dear friend brought me back from Belize); 2 cups (approximately ¾ pound) golden raisins and 2 cups (a bit over ½ pound) whole pecan halves. No, "whole pecan halves" is not a contradiction in terms.
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4) and set a rack to the middle of the oven. Butter and flour your pan.
2. Beat butter and sugar together until mixture is white and fluffy. This is what is known as "creaming" the butter and sugar, which, to hear the various editorial foodweasels tell it, is a term too intimidating for beginning cooks and bakers to learn, so we'd best not be putting it in our recipes, "Dredging" and "folding" are suspect, too. But I digress.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until incorporated. Stop to scrape down the bowl if you need to.
4. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Most recipes will tell you to sift them together, and while sifting is good for aerating ingredients, I find that I have better luck blending them evenly with a whisk. A fork works well, too; just be sure to blend them for at least 30 seconds, so they're well-mixed.
5. Add the dry ingredients to the liquid in three increments; again, scrape the bowl sides as you need to. Add the brandy (or rum or whisky) and stir to combine.
6. By hand, stir in the pecans and the raisins. It will look as if you have far too many raisins and nuts, and not enough batter in which to suspend them, but I promise, if you are gentle, thorough and patient, you will have everything blended together evenly.
7. Pour the batter into the tube pan, tilt gently from side to side to be sure that you have an even distribution of batter on all sides of the pan, and send it to the oven.
8. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Check it after an hour, though; some ovens run hotter than others, and you don't want to burn your cake, which will make the kitchen smell like Heaven made manifest. If it looks done and is firm to the touch after an hour, but you still hear a faint "crackling" noise in the batter, send it back to the oven for five more minutes. If the cake is quiet, it's done.
9. Let the cake sit for ten minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack.
10. When you notice that it's not moving, run a knife around the edges of the cake, as well as the tube, and try again.
11. When it still doesn't move, remove the cooling rack and try inverting the cake again, this time giving the tube a gentle rap upon the table.
12. Stare mutely as only 1/3 of the cake falls from the pan. Check the pan again. Note that 2/3 of the cake is still in there.
13. Repeat steps 10 and 11 until the urge to sob uncontrollably passes.
14. Dig remainder of cake out of pan with spoon. Note how some of the cake releases in large, cakelike pieces, while the rest of it falls into moist, rum-scented crumbs.
15. Moosh the crumbs together into a cairn and take your pan to the sink. Reflect on the fact that this little French tinware pan is not like your Nordicware, nor even like its larger sibling French tinware pan, with the larger, easy-to-grease-and-flour swirls. This is a pan that requires lavish buttering and coating with breadcrumbs, not flour. You knew this, you knew from the beginning that you needed breadcrumbs, but no, you decided to take a shortcut. For shame, Doc.
16. Grab yourself a plate, hack off a bit of the mooshed cake and taste it. Know that even though it's not what you were looking for, you are still in the presence of a luscious, fragrant cake. Have I mentioned what good rum will do to pecans and raisins and butter cake? Would you like me to mention it again?
17. Try it again, this time with a properly greased pan (or with a less finicky one). When the cake drops beautifully and wholly from the pan, you will have made Rita (Mrs. Thomas Hart) Benton's Pecan Cake, as found in How America Eats by Clementine Paddleford. It will be a vision when you cut a slice of it, all those pecans and raisins bumping up happily against each other, and if you store the cake in an airtight tin and regularly dose it up with more rum, it will last you for a good long while.
January 16, 2006
Dear friends, I know I made no small amount of noise about not coasting on my archives, and I meant what I said. The return of this essay, which was originally published on January 12, 2005, is not a placeholding maneuver, but a necessary gesture. Queued up at the deli for my egg sandwich, I hear the fellow in front of me place the order that should not irk me, but does: "Egg whites with ham on a roll." I still want to know why.
In any case, the very idea of an egg endangering health was implausible. Eggs were the nutritionists' darling. The egg is packed with good things. It has the highest quality protein of all foods and is the source of eleven essential nutrients and fifteen important vitamins and minerals. They include B vitamin folate, which has been found to reduce birth defects, carotenoids (lutein and xanthophyll) that may reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, and half the required daily dose of choline required to protect memory. Of the 5 grams of fat in an egg, only 1.5 comprise saturated fat, the fat fingered as harmful to the heart, which makes eggs positively virtuous. An egg, moreover, is as slimming as a bottle of vitamins: it contains only seventy calories. An egg does lack vitamin C, but that can be added with a glass of orange juice, a staple of the American diet...
In the early 1970s, out of the blue, the American Heart Association declared the egg a threat to the heart. The egg contained 278 milligrams of cholesterol, and food scientists had just decreed that no one should consume more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day...When I learned this, I thought of course that the scientists, being scientists, had arrived at a safe level of dietary cholesterol through proof. How wrong I was...[in 1968] a group of food scientists got together and hashed over the idea of setting a safe cholesterol standard. Some thought the whole idea unnecessary, but others were adamant. So the debate went back and forth, and finally a compromise was reached. The average human intake of cholesterol is 580 milligrams (per liter of blood) a day, so let's just halve that. Make it 300 milligrams...So, overnight, as it were, and on the basis of an arbitrary calculation, the egg was in trouble, deep trouble.
-- Gina Mallet, Last Chance to Eat
Dear friends at NY1:
It's not that I mind that you devoted editorial air time to what turned out to be, basically, an advertisement for the Pump Energy Food restaurant chain. I've never eaten at the Pump, but based on what I saw on your report, they do at least make an effort to use whole foods, and prepare them carefully. I think they may be a bit stricter than they need to be on the whole salting-the-food issue, but considering how much some restaurants oversalt their food, I will allow that this might be a good thing -- and if it isn't, hell, I'll bring my own salt. Likewise, I'm not going to eat nonfat mozzarella any time soon, but I'll grant them that it wouldn't kill me to watch my butter intake. And certainly, if I bought more lunches from the Pump and fewer from the Daisy May cart on 47th Street, I would be healthier for it, and maybe I would lose my ass just a little faster.
I understand it all, even if I don't agree with it all, and I know that you have to get their message across in a short time slot, as concisely and efficiently as possible. I just wish, though, that you could have resisted the temptation to insert this little nugget of information into your copy:
Everything on the menu is baked, not fried; no salt or sugar is added; and egg yolks and soda are strictly off limits. (Emphasis mine. -- Jen)
It has been almost six years since the Hu-Willett study, conducted under the auspices of the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health, concluded that there was no link between the dietary cholesterol found in eggs and an increased risk of heart disease, and yet we are still so frightened of egg yolks, and the fat and cholesterol contained in them, that we are willing to jettison the healthiest part of the egg. Those nifty vitamins and minerals, those carotenoids that may protect us against cataracts and macular degeneration, that choline that may protect our memory, all of these are found in the yolk. The white, being pure protein, has none of these. And yet, we have restaurants that brag about not serving egg yolks. We have health reporters on local news stations mentioning these lovely little yolks in the same breath as soda, which, last I checked, did not contain any vitamins or minerals or anything to keep you alive but sugar -- excuse me, I mean high-fructose corn syrup. I'm trying to find words for how baffling and sad I find this, but all I can come up with is, well, nothing.
A postscript, to the guys with whom I stand in line at the deli for our breakfast sandwiches: If you are trying to watch your fat intake, then what is the point of ordering an egg white and sausage sandwich, or an egg white and cheese sandwich? (Or even the triple-dog-dare version, the egg white + cheese + sausage sandwich?) Do you really think that you are doing yourself any favors by skipping the yolks and then filling the vacuum with cheese? Do you really like the taste of egg whites? What do you get from these sandwiches? I'm not being food-snobby, or a crank. I am genuinely confused. I genuinely want to know.
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