March 29, 2006

What I am about to confess, dear friends, will lead you to conclude that my brain is a wasteland of misfiring synapses.  You may want to sing to me the words of my late, lamented, much-missed pal Screamin’ Jay Hawkins:  “There’s somethin’ wro-onnng with you.”  Feel free to do so.  I will not argue.

I can always tell when I am long overdue for a visit with certain friends in certain cities when I have dreams about those cities.  That in itself is not an odd phenomenon; what makes it odd is that I dream, vividly and with overwhelming nostalgia, about neighborhoods that do not exist.  It has been close to eight years since my best friend and her family moved from England to New Zealand, but I still find myself dreaming of driving around a neighborhood that I know for a fact is not there.  As often as my subconscious finds itself in England, though, it finds itself in Pittsburgh a lot more, and the places in which I find myself are so resonant that I never fail to wake up in a state of utter confusion, trying to remember just where the hell I am.  I have had recurring dreams of living in a huge (nonexistent) room in the dorm where I lived during my senior year of college.  More often, though, my dreams of Pittsburgh follow the same plot:  I have driven out to Pittsburgh (an 8+ hour drive) to visit one of my best, dearest, oldest friends and her husband.  For reasons I can’t ascertain, I have to drive right back to New York because I can’t miss work the next day; I need to get right back on the road, but I’m either on a bus headed for a candy store in Squirrel Hill (on a street that does not exist, but runs parallel to Forbes Avenue), or on another bus headed for an office supply/stationery store downtown (or rather, somewhere between the Hill and Downtown on a street that – all together now!...); I haven’t had enough time with my friend, and I don’t want to leave.  You can probably guess by now that I miss my friend, and I do.  I miss Pittsburgh, too.

Those of you who remember my love letter to Philadelphia (a/k/a “the post so nice, I had to post it twice”), particularly those of you acquainted with the eastern/western Pennsylvania rivalry that runs through both cities, may be surprised that I can love both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with all my heart.  In general, Pittsburghers and Philadelphians are not each other’s biggest fans, although this is, of course, a broad generalization, and not certainly not applicable to all people in either city.  But I have heard a lot of griping from Philadelphians about the provincialism of Pittsburghers, and a lot of griping from Pittsburghers about the snobbery of Philadelphians.  To both I say Enough already, in much the same tone of voice that Antigone used with Oedipus at Colonnus.  And to everyone – there are more than six of you – who said “you have this vacation time and you’re taking it in Pittsburgh?  Why would you take a vacation in Pittsburgh?”, I say listen my child, and you shall hear.

First things first.  Here is what Pittsburgh is not.  It is not the ugly redheaded stepsibling of Philadelphia, or of Cleveland.  (I will not even begin to delve into New York Magazine’s recent statement:  “If Philadelphia is New York’s sixth borough, then Pittsburgh is Philly’s West Village,” a statement supposedly meant to convey Pittsburgh’s gay-friendliness.  I will make no comment on that reductive “sixth borough” designation, nor will I mention that Pittsburgh does not play second fiddle to Philadelphia, nor does Philadelphia play second fiddle to New York.  Careful readers, I am betting, will able to pick up the subtext.)  It is not geographically close to Philadelphia.  I know that it looks close, because Pennsylvania looks small on a map of the Lower 48, especially sitting underneath that geographical behemoth New York, but trust me:  the first time you drive across Pennsylvania, particularly if you’re driving northeast to southwest, it will boggle the mind just how much Pennsylvania there is out there.  It is not geographically close to Penn State.  Nothing is geographically close to Penn State.  A running joke among several of my pals is that Penn State is a minimum five-hour drive from everyplace else in the state, even the next town over. But I digress.  Pittsburgh is not a ghost town, although Downtown can get a little spooky at night.  It is not merely the city for people who can’t handle living in larger cities.  (I still remember one of my college classmates, a girl from Morristown, New Jersey, explaining to me that I probably considered Pittsburgh a city because my own hometown was so very small, and that if I had ever been to New York, I would know what a big city looked like.  The look on her face as I explained to her that my little hometown in the mountains was less than three hours’ drive from New York, and that I had grown up taking nearly-weekly day trips and weekends in New York, and yes, I still considered Pittsburgh to be a city, was pretty fine to witness.)

But I have had enough, as I’m sure you’ve had, of what Pittsburgh is not.  Here is what it is:  It is a beauty.  It is a city that sits at the confluence of three rivers, its various neighborhoods linked by bridges that are delightful to look at and even more delightful to walk across.  It is made of steep hills and long flat strips of land, and the views from the former are just plain superb. (If I were any sort of proper blogger, traveler or friend, this would be the point at which I would inundate you with photographs from my travels in Pittsburgh, but because I am none of the above, I will instead urge you to check out the photos at this site.  Scroll down past the driving information -- yep, there's a lot of it -- and you will see a nice gallery of photographs, which include some of my favorite vantage points in the city.)  It is the home of two of my favorite museums, and the place where I have attended some of the best concerts of my life, including R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Squeeze and Mike Watt.  (The first gig I ever attended was X, with the [very drunk] Replacements opening for them, at the sadly-long-gone Syria Mosque.)  It is the home of my alma mater and the place where I ate the first gyro I had ever eaten in my life, the first of many.  It is where I took baby steps into adulthood, where I first realized that I had unstructured time to spend as I pleased -- and where I learned, quickly, that at least a little structure and restraint were necessary.  smile  It is also the home of the singular food-shopping mecca known as the Strip District, where in one short block you can buy Italian meats and cheeses and pasta; Greek staples; Asian vegetables; Middle Eastern pastries and yogurt soda; Mexican groceries; and biscotti that makes me so happy that I float on a cloud with every single bite.  And it is the source material for what I think are the finest documentaries in the world, made by a native son, quirky little movies brimming with clear-eyed affection for the city, whimsical without ever being cloying, the kind of programming of which the Food Network only dreams.

In short, I really, really love Pittsburgh, and for that reason, it gives me a little chill to think of how close I came to never visiting it, and never discovering its myriad pleasures.  I started my long, long march of college applications with only one school in mind, New York University.  My parents wisely suggested that NYU might not be the best place for a 16-year-old college freshman, fresh from the Poconos, and gave me a choice:  wait a year after graduation before attending NYU, or picking another college and heading to school three months after graduation.  I didn't even think twice.  I drew up a new school list, putting Sarah Lawrence at the top, mainly because Grace Paley taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, and I longed to study with her.  Among the other schools I applied to was a small liberal arts women's college in Pittsburgh, a mile away from Carnegie Mellon, less than two miles from the University of Pittsburgh.  My stepdad, who had traveled to Pittsburgh on business, suggested that we take the school up on its invitation to visit, and off we went.  I will confess to being underwhelmed at the prospect of the visit, figuring that there would be little to interest me in Pittsburgh, and I would be spending my next four years at the library.  Then we drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and my jaw dropped.  It was a city, a proper city, with buses and giant buildings of steel and glass, with bookshops and record shops and libraries, with sprawling parks and public art and classes to take and things to do and places to be.  By the time I finished my interview and tour at Chatham, I knew that it would replace Sarah Lawrence at the top of my list; by the time we took our post-lunch trip up Mount Washington on the Duquesne Incline, I knew the other schools didn't have a chance.   Six months later I was at school, a brand-new freshman, when I saw a television interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, who had just completed a movie in Pittsburgh.  "You go through this Fort Pitt Tunnel," she told the interviewer excitedly, "and it just...shoots you into this city, and the view is unbelievable!"  I knew exactly how she felt.

Lloyd and I still talk about moving to Pittsburgh when the rents here in New York become too much for us; it is not a question of if, but when.  Eventually we will be done with all this, and we will run, not walk, west.  Two years ago I was writing a business plan for a bread bakery, and planning to open in Pittsburgh.  Then I blinked, and lost my nerve, and the business plan went into a drawer, where it has been sitting ever since.  There is a part of me that says I'm being smart by keeping it there.  The one big drawback of Pittsburgh is that it's a tough place to sell bread, at least the bread I like to bake.  It's true that Pittsburgh is home to BreadWorkS, a large-scale independent artisanal bakery that wholesales to just about every market in the city, and that there are enthusiastic bread-fressers all over town.  But this is a town with a real palate for underbaked bread, blond crusts with squishy crumbs.  There is a 100-year-old family bakery on the outskirts of town that makes billowy light Italian loaves, and they sell tons of them, mostly to people who line up for "the best bread in the city," but also to a restaurant that makes an iconic Pittsburgh sandwich with this bread.  I have been to this bakery.  The people who work there are some of the nicest people I have ever met, friendly and chatty and enthusiastic about their work, and I wish I liked their bread as much as I like them.  This is the bread that sets the standard, and I don't know if there is a place in the city for mine.  On the other hand, I know that I am not alone,* and that if there is in fact a place for me and Lloyd, for crunchy bread, for pies made from scratch and for cakes laced with rum and butter and risen with yeast, we will be there.

*Did I mention that in addition to one of my closest friends, and to all of the delights mentioned above, Pittsburgh also has this wonderful woman living, cooking, writing and blogging within its city limits, and that I would give my elbows to be allowed to hang out in her kitchen?

Posted by Bakerina at 10:52 PM in valentines • (3) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 26, 2006

Oh, dear friends, I am sorry.  I know that the observation that creative inspiration hits at the exact moment that life begins to get hectic is a hoary old chestnut of an observation, so I will not make big whiny-pants excuses about how last week I promised tales and recipes, only to be out after work nearly every night and then off to Philadelphia for the weekend.  (I am ashamed to admit that three days ago I meant to urge you to visit the Pie Queen for her tale of the superb dinner she made for me on Wednesday, as well as the preserved-lemon-based adventure that preceeded it.  While you're there, be sure to congratulate her on being named the 2006 Tyson Fellow at the Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow.  I know that she will love the Colony and the Colony staff will love her.  I'm so happy for her, and so proud of her, that I could just burst.  I am like a proud auntie here. smile

I am still in Philadelphia now.  As I told Kimberly in an e-mail, I'm so used to my parents' house being the Land of Dial-Up and Pay-by-Hour ISP's that I keep forgetting that they have joined the high-speed club, and it is not only possible but perfectly acceptable to blog from here.  My yutz-ness really knows no bounds.  Poor Lloyd.

At any rate, the rumors of my dying in a freak hangglider accident are not only exaggerated, but are also vicious, scurrilous, possibly actionable lies.  I will be home tonight, and unless my will to live is beaten into a paste by New Jersey Transit, I will be in a nice chatty mood.  Really.  I mean it.  Those of you who are laughing right now will *not* receive any apple butter.  Harrumph.

Posted by Bakerina at 01:45 PM in stuff and nonsense • (2) Comments
March 21, 2006

Dear friends,

I have been taken to task for not accompanying my tale of Saturday's baking adventures with visuals or recipes.  The recipes, alas, will have to wait.  The visuals, though, I can provide.

The focaccia:


The scourtins:


The kuchen, in early-rising and fully-baked states:



Confidential to the person who arrived at this site via a Google search on "edible glitter in bulk":  I hope you weren't too disappointed by not finding what you were looking for, because your hit made my day.  Don't ask me why the thought of being a source for bulk edible glitter made me smile:  it just did, and I thank you for it.  smile

Posted by Bakerina at 11:58 PM in • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
March 19, 2006

Here is a shortlist of what we didn't do this weekend:  We did not make grapefruit marmalade or apricot hazelnut conserve -- at least not yet.  We did not bake the famous cardamom-lime cake.  Although we discussed it at length, in the end we decided not to make Fanny's Special Chocolate Kuchen, the groaningly-rich, dizzingly-perfumed yeasted cake from Lora Brody's Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet.

Now that I've got what we didn't do out of the way, I can sing the song of what we did:  In my kitchen sits half a cake, a little over half a batch of cookies and half a focaccia, the other half of each sitting in Julie's kitchen, almost directly across the East River from mine.  Julie, for those of who have not been introduced, is the fine, fine mind behind A Finger in Every Pie, a website brimming with entertaining tales and superb recipes, all told by a woman who exudes full-bodied pleasure from every single word.  Julie and I have taken farmer's market crawls together; we have gone on wings-and-beer runs and giant-blue-drink runs with the lovely bunni, and I have even been to dinner at her house, where I was well-fed, watered and entertained by Julie and her fellow, a kind who we shall call G  (because that's what Julie calls him).  But Julie had never been to our neck of beautiful uptown Astoria, nor had we ever made good on our numerous, blue-drink-fueled plans to bake together.  Obviously, this situation could not stand.

I knew it would be a good weekend for baking on Friday, when, as I sat boring away from within at LuthorCorp, a nice big box arrived from  Inside the box was this wonderful book, a present from my sweet friend limine, who sent this to me just because she saw it and thought that it would make a perfect gift.  She has no idea how right she was on this score:  not only is the story sweet and funny, not only are the illustrations a world unto themselves, not only is there a little crash course on European baking embedded in less than five pages, but holding this book in my hand brought back memories of my younger, pre-bakerina self, when I worked as the children's book buyer at the now-defunct Tower Books in Philadelphia.  The pay was terrible, but in exchange for that terrible pay, I was allowed to work with children's books, everything from the sublime to the worthy to the ill-conceived to the just plain bad.  I chose the books for the store, and every once in a while, a nice salesperson would comp me a book.  As a result, I have a large bookshelf's worth of picture books and chapter books.  There was much to hate about that job, but there was much to love, too, and remembering it all is a bittersweet exercise -- in the very best way, of course.  Thank you, limine.  I would try the Ghost-Pleasing Cake recipe in the back of the book if I weren't so scared of smearing butter and flour all over the page.

My instincts were right:  It was a good day for baking.  It was an even better day to preface the baking with a walk around the neighborhood.  We have already hatched a plan for a food crawl, a non-baking day, so that we will have time to do the neighborhood right, to stop at the French patisserie and Indian groceries on Ditmars Blvd., at the half-dozen Greek supermarkets between 23rd Avenue and Broadway, at the Italian bakery/gelateria around the corner, at the bagel shop that was our very reason for moving to Astoria in the first place, and at the best little coffee bar a girl could ever hope to have on her block.  As it was, though, we did not do too badly.  We had time to walk around the block, and in that short time, in that short distance, we did very, very well.  We bought shells and gnocchi from the fresh pasta store, where the smell of durum wheat and water settles on your clothes and embeds itself directly into your bloodstream; we bought fresh mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes and a baguette for lunch, as well as feta and dried figs for a presentation Julie is giving to her class, at my favorite Italian deli, one of my two shopping linchpins in the neighborhood; we bought halvah and baklava and tahini bread and Russian salad and creme fraiche from the other linchpin, a deli run by a Turkish couple who will be retiring as soon as they can find a buyer (I have a rant about how unappreciated this wonderful store is in this neighborhood, but I will save it for another time); at the Greek store we bought an enormous loaf of tsoureki, a sweet bread enriched with eggs and butter and almonds, and perfumed with mastic (a sweet resin) and mahlepi (a spice made of dried, ground sour cherry pits) and split it in half; at the liquor store we stopped to buy a bottle of wine.  I am only a little ashamed to admit that my excessive impulses got the best of me, and I ended up putting down the rough equivalent of seven days' worth of lunch money for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.  It was an impulsive and excessive gesture, yes, but my feeling is that except for "functional" baking, like sandwich bread for your toast and lunches, or cornbread to go with your beans, baking is in itself an excessive gesture, and if you're going to follow that impulse, you should *really* follow that impulse.  smile

Fortified by our excellent sandwiches and gilded by our champagne, the baking portion of the day was just a dream on wheels.  The loaf of bread was the ubiquitous olive oil and white wine focaccia, the same one I made during Blogathon last August.  I will confess to a moment of agita about this focaccia, because the dough didn't really rise much during fermentation.  I had visions of an unrisen slab, not thick enough to be bread, not thin enough to be crackers, just a chewy, clay-like nightmare, but no, it was not a dead dough, just a sluggish one.  Once I got it into the sheet pan, it behaved as it usually does, and when I put in the oven, the yeast did its frenetic-burst-of-activity-before-dying dance.  I am still thanking the fates that we got it in and out of the oven, and cooled down, quickly enough for Julie to be able to take half of it home.  The cake portion of the day was Julie's; apparently the Ginger-Glazed Chocolate Cake has a lingering siren call, and the one she made was glorious.  Had I not panicked at the thought of her having to leave before the cake was finished, and had I not glazed the cake while it was still hot, it would have been French-patisserie-worthy.  As it was, the finished cake looked like a kind of sublime mud pie, which, to my eye at least, was even more beautiful.  It was hard to restrain myself from picking at our half of the cake all night long.

Both the focaccia and the chocolate cake are old friends, but the new friend we made yesterday was such a revelation that I really can't stop myself.  Until recently, I had never considered olives as an integral part of dessert,and if you had tried to tell me that they could be successfully incorporated into a sweet dough, I would have made some smart comment about taking two good things and making them worse.  I also would have revealed myself as a blinkered philistine.  It was the brilliant and singular Melissa at Traveler's Lunchbox who introduced me to scourtins, a sweet, shortbread-style cookie enriched with olive oil and punctuated by a generous amount of cured black olives.  I had read her recipe, thought to myself that I had to try them as soon as humanly possible, and then forgot about them in the maelstrom of Christmas baking.  Then the also-brilliant-and-equally-singular Lindy mentioned them recently, and sent them roaring back to the forefront of memory.  She mentioned that they might be a bit odd at first bite, but once you get used to the interplay of sweet buttery dough and salty fruity olive, it is hard to stop eating them.  Myself, I was hooked from the first taste of the unbaked batter.  The instant that they were out of the oven, cut into squares and decanted onto a cooling rack, I was already planning the next batch.  As soon as I stop typing, I will probably mix that next batch up.  The only thing that keeps these cookies from being perfect is that I ran my hands under water to help press the sticky dough into the pan, and I think that the water from my hands may have inhibited the browning of these cookies.  I'm betting that if I rub a little olive oil on my hands, that problem will solve itself nicely.

By the end of the day, it was only left to us to pack up all of the food, collapse in front of the telly with Lloyd and with our glasses of champagne, and wait for G's phone call announcing that he had found our neighborhood without going insane (a formidable feat if you've ever driven in Queens).  Julie and I lugged the bags to the car, she gave me a lovely parting gift of a bottle of Jersey-cow heavy cream from Vermont and two Cara Cara navel oranges from Fairway, she and G drove back to Manhattan, and I trooped home, stopping only to pick up some Thai food, contemplating a nice hot bubble bath and one of those oranges.  I could not have had a more perfect day if I had planned it.  Julie, I have not told you lately that you rock, but you do, you really do.

Of course, I could not leave well enough alone.  I started the kuchen dough this morning.  If you're going to follow that impulse, you should *really* follow that impulse.

Posted by Bakerina at 02:30 PM in • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks

Edit:  Dear friends, I have received a few e-mails from some of you who were puzzled by the difference in content and tone between this post and the one that followed eight minutes later ("Another Grand Day In"wink, so a bit of clarification is in order.  This was written by orionoir, who is both a close friend and an occasional guest blogger when I go out of town -- as well as an occasional prankster, hijacking my blog, pretending that he's me and writing scurrilous things that horrify my parents and amuse my husband.  The post that follows, though, is not a prank, and though I still believe there is a better home for this post than PTMYB, orionoir has reasons for not posting it on his own blog.  I don't want to move it until I know that there is a place for it, so for now, here it stays.  This might be the point where I would make vaguely threatening statements about how it's all well and good to hijack a blog until somebody puts an eye out, but considering that I did much the same to him in a futile attempt to curtail what became a two-month blogging hiatus on his part, I will not.  I will merely say, not only to orionoir but to the dozen or so other folks who still have their guestblogging privileges, that if you're going to break my heart, even with beauty, it is considered good and seemly to give me a warning first.  Thank you for your time and patience. Here endeth the lesson. -- Bakerina

No_heroics_pls on the second night of the puppies i dreamed i was flirting with a too-young woman, we were in an art room of some sort, it might have been a school or mental hospital.  even though i had my nice robin's egg blue shirt on, i started flinging black paint at her, and she at me, then we were raining through the high halls of an elegant prep school, shrieks echoing off the stone ceilings.  we found her room, an open triple, unmade beds, we were covering everything in paint.

an adult asked me if my daughter had gone on the walk to the lake; i realized i hadn't known of any walk; moreover, i'd given no thought at all to the whereabouts of my children.  he said a little girl had been crying, but then he said that all the girls were crying.  i found my way to the walkers, but i couldn't tell if they were departing or returning.  daughter was nowhere to be found.

in a reception room full of people wearing name tags, holding paper plates of vague food.  under a table was my dog grace, curled up in a fetal ball.  i'd forgotten about her too.

i held her in my arms.  she was wondrously light, as light as a baby.  i realized she was starving.  i looked into her eyes: what about the litter?  how are we going to keep them alive?  she could not go back.  she was all done.  i had let this happen.

my wife woke me up.  it's getting light so much earlier now, but still, the world was dark.  the day before i'd been up at two, clearly she was in labor then; at three i heard the first puppies yelping.  i got up lest there were any dead ones... my wife didn't want to find any, nor should the kids, i had to make sure.  that was the first morning.  this morning i was again making sure.

if not for the dream i would have done as i had the day before, retrieve the scrawny females from the cold wilderness, nudge a few fat males off the teats to give the frail at least a temporary chance.  even just a day into their lives, it seemed to me that it was always these same little girls who somehow ended up straying from the seething warmth of their sibs.

i could hear my son stirring upstairs: at ten, he's the earliest riser in the family, if you don't count my four-year old, who stealthily finds her way into our bed around two, often waking neither of us.  i moved quickly, efficiently, like a killer: a sturdy paper bag, what i hoped were the three smallest pups, a word to my deep-sleeping wife: three dead, i'm going to take them some distance.  bury them by the apple tree, she says.  i say, grace or the kids will find them if they're within a mile.  i'm taking the toyota.  she says, bring a shovel.

i do bring a shovel; i'll leave it in the car, my son especially is acute in his ability to know when a story doesn't add up.  the pups are in the trunk but their peeping kitten baby yelping barks penetrate everything: they've surely a lot of life in them.  i had planned to drop them off the first mount hope bridge, a deep, slow bend at wh the river flows into marshland, full of deer, beaver, large predatory birds.  the state has just started stocking trout, i'm sure small puppies will disappear quickly.  but i slept through that bridge and ended up a couple miles further downstream at the actual mount hope bridge, a new tressel over a long break of rapids.  i had kayaked this stretch once, had no idea what i was doing, this was during chemo, perhaps i was thinking nothing mattered.

criminals are always discovered by the unlikeliest passers-by, the world is rife with these wanderers.  remember the preppie rough-sex murder in central park, some cretin strangling a girl in the middle of the night in a very remote spot, a jogger just happens to come jogging by?  like, okay, it's a lurid crime, that i understand, it's a story, but i want to know about this jogger.  what's his story?

i left the car running with its hazards blinking grotesquely in the pre-dawn light.  the early spring birds were coming to life; nearby i heard the manic pulse dial of a woodpecker on a hollow tree.

the pups came cleanly out of the bag, falling in a tight group.  i heard no yelping.  the water took them slowly but definitely downstream, turning them in a tight triangle again and again, nose to tail, i wouldn't have thought the current would do that.

i watched until they were out of sight, it might have been a minute.  they were so much more beautiful than they'd been in the box.  little dog ears.  peaceful, too, alive but not struggling, perhaps doing the slightest amniotic dog paddle.  i wanted to be dispassionate, without compassion at all if that were possible, i tried to see what was and not what i would want: it could have been the motion of the water which moved their prenatal paws in that universal rhythm, left front, right rear, right front, left rear, all three of them, rotating together, impossibly together, as if it wasn't just the river which moved them along.

Posted by Bakerina at 02:22 PM in • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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