Monday, November 23, 2009

Macrina Bakery

The salon where I get my hair done in Seattle is in the neighborhood of Belltown. That means that immediately after my appointment I head straight to Macrina Bakery. Usually I get a cup of coffee and a piece of coffee-cake, my all-time favorite being the Lemon and Sour Cherry one. (And I seem to recall getting a lavender coffee-cake once upon a time, but I may have hallucinated that. On second thought, maybe it was a scone.)

Anyway, I remember several years ago after I first discovered Macrina, leaving the shop without buying their cookbook, cursing myself as I drove across 520, and heading straight to the bookstore, where I managed to successfully procure a copy. Thank goodness for that, too, because the cookbook is marvelous. Not only have I made the Lemon and Sour Cherry Coffee-Cake, but I've also made the Brown Sugar & Almond Coffee-Cake (several times, and I usually freeze half of it with great results); the Bittersweet Chocolate G√Ęteau, which is my idea of the perfect birthday cake; Tuscan Tomato & Fennel Soup with White Beans, divine; and the Ribollita, equally divine. I've never delved into making any of the breads — rather, I buy them from Whole Foods or Pasta & Co. (We've just discovered the Rosemary Semolina, which is so good with Butternut Squash soup.)

Another nice touch for me is that Leslie Mackie, the owner and operator of Macrina (also the author of its cookbook), was part of the whole Baking with Julia project. And, as always, anything pertaining to Ms. Child is very near and dear to me. (However, that is only part of Mackie's rather impressive background.) So just remind yourself of this fact as you walk into their shop, and get not-the-best-customer-service you could have hoped for (at least they are consistent), but a lovely Roly-Poly for tea at home later and a loaf of bread for dinner.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trophy Cupcakes, Revisited (Again and Again and Again)

A few nights ago after dinner and a bath, Emilia (dressed in her fuzzy pajamas) announced that she was 'Ready Go!' She proceeded to grab my purse and the car keys, and stood waiting by the door. Since we didn't move fast enough for her, she began shouting, 'Open garage!' and 'Buy tuptates!' Clearly this girl had some place to be — bed. Cupcakes would have to wait until the next day.

It is rather funny because I've never been one to grab my purse, keys, and baby and head off to buy cupcakes. Instead I make them, and I actually make pretty good ones. (Although my sister completely trounced me with her latest recipe — she got it from Cooks Illustrated and she uses vanilla bean paste instead of extract. They are so good they nearly make you weep. And in all honesty, they could give Trophy a run for their money.) However, making cupcakes yields too many for us to eat without being gluttons. Whereas buying cupcakes yields as many as you want. Plus, you get different flavors, and Miss Milia gets a balloon, she gets to go on both the escalator and the elevator — 'Going up!', and it is really a lot of fun. Which is why she was standing at the door a few nights ago demanding we go and get some.

It makes me laugh knowing that Emilia recognizes the Trophy Cupcakes logo now — on the boxes, bags, what have you. And right when she sees the shop she yells, 'Tuptates! Balloooon!' Another nice touch is that the little minis they sell are just the right size — perfect for her little hands. And tonight before her bath and her jammas, she just might get one — a Hummingbird for her, a Chai Cardamom (not a mini, thank you very much!) for me, and a beer (not being much of the cupcake sort) for Michael. Although he did enjoy the chocolate stout one he had last month.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Young Housewife

At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband's house.
I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

— William Carlos Williams, 1917

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wild Mushroom Risotto that is Dining Room Table Worthy

Last week our new dining room table and chairs arrived; a gorgeous Lorts farmhouse-style table and chairs that we ordered from a shop in North Carolina several months ago. Now before you start saying, 'Well, la-di-da!', let me tell you about our old table. It was a tiny, tiled affair that I 'borrowed' from my mom right after I graduated from high school and somehow never managed to return. It sat four people, rather uncomfortably, and two of the chairs were so rickety that you had to quite literally pound them back into place before anyone sat on them. That meant that whenever we would have people over for dinner, we would all essentially plop on the floor in the living room — there being nowhere else to go.

However, we have discovered that since Miss Milia came along, for the first time ever, we have people coming over to the house — and actually staying. This is all very strange for us. We are very much used to getting into the car and going to my sister's house for any kind of gathering. Because even though our table was always small (and, therefore, unaccommodating), our house is not much bigger.

So anyway, now we have a lovely (and rather la-di-da, I admit) table. It is perfect for our small little family and maybe two or three more. Any more than that will be back on the living room floor again, I'm afraid. And that's alright.

A few nights ago I decided to make a delicious mushroom risotto that actually warranted sitting at the new dining table. So after toiling away in the kitchen for goodness knows how long, dinner was ready. And what did we do? We sat on the floor in front of the telly (that's in the study), the way we always do when Dancing With the Blasted Stars is on, of course. (I know. I should be embarrassed to admit that we watch that show. However, Derek Hough's Futuristic Paso Doble was a work of art, if I do say so myself.)

As far as the risotto goes, it may be some of the best I've ever had. (Odd, considering the recipe came from a French cookbook.) Because many of the key ingredients cook separately (retaining both textures and flavors), it allows for the dish to maintain its flair. Also, it is beautiful to look at once you actually put it on your plate.

The risotto is simple enough to make, but it requires several separate steps; difficult to do when you are also trying to get your 20 month old down for bed. However, Emilia ate every bite for lunch the next day and even asked for more. And, to be perfectly honest, nothing warms my heart more than that. Incidentally, it is the perfect dish to make for company, which I fully intend to do next time anyone comes in town. And I would even go so far as to say that it should probably be enjoyed while sitting at a proper table.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Importance of a Decent Robe; Or, How Not to Scandalize the Neighbors

A few nights ago, Michael and I took Governor out on the deck in the backyard to give him a quick manicure and a pedicure. How it works is this: Michael holds the grumpy little guy (who absolutely refuses to be still) while I traumatize him with the dremel. It works marvelously well. And it is much better than that old guillotine-style-nail-cutter we used to have, until the fateful day it broke while still attached to one of Governor's toes. (That is back when it was my job to hold him while Michael trimmed his nails.) After running around looking for a screwdriver (it's really terrible, we know) to get the thing off poor Governor's bleeding paw, Michael refused to ever have anything to do with the contraption again. Rightly so. However, it now falls on me to do his toes. (Not fair, as I'm also the one to give him a bath, as well as the rest of his beauty routine.)

Using a dremel on dog toenails is a rather nasty endeavor. You end up covered in toenail dust: on your face, in your nose, all over your clothes. That is why I opted to put on an old-nasty-bathrobe I've had for over 300 years, at least. The very same bathrobe I've actually retrieved out of the Good Will pile a few times. It is 'white' terrycloth and it has an enormous stain down the front of it. (Blasted British tea does NOT come out of your clothes very well. So I don't recommend dropping a full cup of it down the front of yourself — unless you were already planning to replace said garment anyway.)

So here we are, dremeling away, while Emilia looks at us from behind the sliding-glass door. Next thing I know the door clicks, and Emilia is scurrying away as fast as her little legs will take her. Michael starts to panic, 'She's locked the door! We're locked out! I can't see her!'

While Michael is running around the house trying all the windows, I stood tapping on the glass door, yelling, 'Emilia!', causing all the dogs in the neighborhood to bark. In turn, their owners began to look out the windows at the commotion — undoubtedly witnessing me going berserk in a tatty old bathrobe. Meanwhile, Emilia kept running back to the door, smiling at me and then running off again. Little twerp.

Michael eventually got in the house (not sure how comforted I am by this fact), only to discover Emilia in the bathroom with the pink rubber gloves, a bottle of Windex (not good), and a cleaning cloth. Apparently she thought it would be a good idea to get a bit of cleaning done while we were out of her hair. Next time Governor gets his beauty treatments, Emilia goes in the highchair with Mr. Potato Head.

What is ironic about this is that the last time I remember wearing that robe (which ultimately caused me to put it in the Good Will pile to begin with) was when our social worker came over to the house for the finalization of Miss Milia's adoption. No, I did not pull it out for 'special', as they say. Rather, she showed up at the house an hour early. Since Michael was in the shower, I was forced to answer the door; which meant I was wearing that gorgeous robe, brown stains intact, hot rollers in my hair, and socks. (Why?!) I suppose all I needed was some blue mask on my face, a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, and Miss Milia screaming about a dirty diaper — just to complete the look.

I still don't think that enough time has gone by for me to easily laugh about that incident. Namely because I'm still not convinced that the whole hour-early nonsense, was, in fact, an accident — despite what our social worker may have claimed.

As for the incident on the deck a few nights ago? I was already laughing at the time. Michael, on the other hand, was not. However, once I wash that dreaded robe, I have decided that I will finally retire it. Having worked in a lingerie shop once upon a time, I probably own about 6 robes in all. It must be some perverse side of my personality that keeps reaching for that paticular robe.

If you do happen to find yourself in the market for a new robe, Natori makes fabulous ones. Not cheap, mind you — there is, after all, a price to be paid for looking dignified. Or if you prefer something on the warm-fuzzy side, you may want to opt for Barefoot Dreams (either of which can be found at Nordstrom).  However, next time I am in the market, I am going to look at the lovely Hotel line at Macy's, as we are already big fans of their bathtowels.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Johnny Boden is a Dream

When I was in both elementary school and junior high I had an enormous crush on Ralph Macchio. And, as always the arbiter of good taste, I had pictures of him hanging all over my room. (He looked absolutely smashing next to my Strawberry Shortcake wallpaper, believe you me.) My sister Kari, on the other hand, had pictures of Boy George and Duran Duran. My other sister Tracy was apparently too dignified for such things, and opted to put her name, spelled in little pillows that she made in Home-Ec, across her wall. That being said, Tracy seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time yelling and threatening to literally kill whoever changed them from 'Tracy' to 'Ratcy'. Ahhh, that still makes me laugh. (Oh, and it was my brother Jim who was the culprit, by the way.)

Anyway, who qualifies as dreamy for me nowadays has changed a bit. Obviously I love Edward just as much as the next girl (yes, I realize I am practically old enough to be his mother). But you could also add to the list: Lyle Lovett, the lead guy in Bella, Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, Peter O'Toole in How to Steal a Million, Bishop Eusebio (of the Seattle Archdiocese; don't judge me, I'm only admiring God's work), and Johnny Boden.

I suppose you should know that as I write this, it is thundering and lightening outside. Emilia has spent the day saying, 'Brrr! Noisy, Pouring, Rain!' But this storm really started yesterday: grey; dark; obscene amounts of rain; and so windy that the power went out last night. Today, lo and behold, has been more of the same. And it certainly doesn't help matters when you consider the fact that it now gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, thanks to daylight-savings' ending.

Knowing that the weather will be some variation on this theme until May (or thereabouts), it is easy to let it get you down; as it feels very heavy, and very bleak, and very dreary. And if you have a pre-disposed penchant for wearing a lot of black clothing, then you may as well throw the towel in now.

Enter Johnny Boden.

I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I still remember the first Boden catalogue I received in the mail. (Michael probably does too, as his list of hotties typically revolves around the Boden models — oh, and Sophia Loren.) We hadn't been living in our apartment in Bellevue very long, so it must have been about 8 years ago. (Yikes.) Anyway, it was their winter catalogue — and it was filled with color. That's right, I said it — color. It probably hurt my eyes, no doubt. But keep in mind that Michael had taken to calling me a ninja due to the amount of black I supposedly wore. So, after a pause, I opted to call the colors cheery rather than loud. And I still stand by it, all these years later. Somehow half my wardrobe seems to come from the pages of Boden. (The percentage goes even higher for Miss Milia — MiniBoden is fabulous, so cute and fits well.) Whereas the other half of my wardrobe is still black/grey/or jeans. All about balance, as I've said time and time again.

Truthfully, there is something about Boden that makes me smile. (Maybe now would be a good time to fess up to the fact that I don't know if I've ever actually seen a picture of my dreamy Johnny. But that is neither here nor there.) Anyway, I can't seem to put my finger right on it. Oh, that's a lie. Yes, I can. I like Boden because, not only is it cheery, it's also gorgeous clothing that completely caters to my anglophile side. (There, I've said it.) But I'm not the only one who appreciates the anglophile aspect. My mom was recently looking through my closet and pulled out a green polka-dot dress from last summer and immediately said, 'Oh, I love your spotty dress! Is it Boden?' To which we went on to discuss the many merits of Emilia's baggy turn-ups and her tea-pot top.

One of my most recent Boden favorites is my socks. (It is their dresses that I typically am willing to sell my soul over.) They are the perfect cheery splash of color to wear with my black/grey/jeans ensemble. (Note: I said ensemble — not uniform.) Anyway, they are the grown-up version of what Emilia wore last year — who, by the way, won't seem to leave my new ones alone. I suspect I should have ordered her a box of her own socks. In fact, why I haven't done that already is beyond me. So, if you'll just excuse me...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Soul Cakes

It is All Souls' Day today. And, in honor, I decided to make Soul Cakes. Soul Cakes are an Old English custom, being little cakes (half cake-half biscuit, really) that were given out for 'souling', as it was called, in the 8th century.

Unlike All Saints' Day, All Souls' is not a Holy Day of Obligation. While both days are essentially 'Days for the Dead', as it were, they stand in stark contrast to each other. All Saints' is a celebration of sorts, whereas All Souls' is a very somber day. On All Saints' we ask that the saints pray for us. All Souls', on the other hand, is when we are asked to pray for the dearly departed — to pray for their souls in purgatory, to be precise.

As a convert to the Catholic Church, I always had a not-so-nice view of purgatory, owing entirely to the fact that I simply did not understand it. In my defense, it is rather easy to misconstrue this concept! Strangely enough, now I actually derive comfort in the thought of purgatory. To put it in the most simplistic terms, purgatory is where most of us go after we die. (Some are lucky enough to go straight to heaven. However, I do not anticipate being one of them.) If you have not gone through a purification of the soul before you die — this is your shot. I guess you could say that purgatory is a 'purging' of sorts (it's where the word comes from, after all) — getting rid of the yuck we have accumulated along the way, and purifying both our hearts and minds in the process.

Purgatory (Purgatorio) is not a level of hell in Dante's Inferno either. Rather it is a separate volume comprising The Divine Comedy (along with Paradisio). For some reason, there seems to be a bit of confusion about this. So there is no need to fear pushing a boulder up a hill for all time and eternity. Or even getting your eyeballs plucked out over and over again by some nasty ol' bird. Although, interestingly enough, a level of hell in Dante's Inferno is apparently dedicated to a member of my own family. That's right — I am descended from the line of a horrifying mass-murderer. On par with Hitler, from what I can gather. The story of this lovely 'uncle' can be found in a book called Studies in Ferocity: A Book of Human Monsters by Raymond Rudorff. Ahhh, such pride I must have, I know.

Anyway, back to Soul Cakes. Rumor has it that this is the way that trick-or-treating began, oh, so long ago. In Old England the poor and the children (why do they always get lumped together, I wonder) would go knocking door-to-door, and in exchange for a Soul Cake, they would offer prayers for the dead. One Soul Cake for one soul, or something like that.

Making Soul Cakes is very easy. (Not at all like my disastrous Hot Cross Buns last year.) And I was more than a little surprised to discover that they were, in fact, not just edible — they were actually pretty good. Michael ate his with an oatmeal stout (probably the perfect compliment, truth be told), While Emilia first picked off all the raisins (which she promptly ate), and then proceeded to polish off both hers and most of mine. For some reason, she much preferred these to yesterday's Sweet Beans.

Soul Cakes
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
generous pinch of saffron
½ cup milk
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
2 egg yolks
½ cup currants or raisins

Preheat oven to 400°, and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Combine the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl. Mix well.

Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan. Turn on the heat to low and warm the saffron just until barely fragrant. Pour in the milk and heat until the milk is hot to the touch. Remove and set aside. The milk will have become bright yellow. (Something tells me that the saffron is a modern addition, as I can't imagine it being an ingredient readily on-hand in England back in the day. Although, maybe I'm wrong.)

In a mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. The dough will be very dry and crumbly.

Add the milk, one tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition, until you have a nice soft dough. You should not need all the milk.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently. (I had to add a bit of flour here because, apparently, I went nuts with the milk.) Using your scone or biscuit cutter, make as many rounds as you can. You should get about 12 in all.

Transfer to your baking sheet, and stud the tops with the currants. I made little crosses on the tops of mine, but feel free to be creative. Maybe try your hand at fashioning my evil uncle, or something. Although something tells me he would have needed more than a few soul cakes.

Brush the tops with the beaten egg yolk (I added a bit of the extra saffron milk to my egg yolk, to good effect.) Bake for 15 minutes until golden. Serve warm. (Recipe from T. Susan Chang, for NPR, October 24, 2007.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sweet Beans for All Saints' Day

Today, being the Feast of All Saints, is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church. (However, since it fell on a Sunday this year, it did not require any more church-going.) That means that yesterday was Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, or even Hallowmas, depending on how far back into history you want to go. 'Hallows' meaning 'saints', while 'e'en' and 'eve' are short for evening, and 'mas' is 'mass'. So, therefore, Halloween is technically the vigil for All Saints' Day. I suppose that is a lot of decoding simply to tell you to get your tokhes to church, but there it is. And I hope you made it, because one of my favorite things in the world is listening to the Litany of the Saints.

However, it is 2009. So unless you are a nerdy history buff (or worse, a Catholic), Halloween is more of a day to dress up in costumes, go to a party, and eat a whole lot of garbage — which is also fun. Alternatively, you can run door-to-door going trick-or-treating.

One of my erstwhile careers was that of a professional bra-fitter in an up-scale department store. I still remember a young woman and her boyfriend coming into the lingerie department to pick out her costume. She needed a black push-up bra and a thong to wear with her black leather chaps for their Halloween party. She kept running out of the fitting room to get her boyfriend's opinion of her 'costume'. Oi. And another time a high-school girl came in dressed as a cheerleader, wearing a very short skirt and apparently not much underneath. She bought a pair of Calvin Klein boyshorts, and then stood right there in the lingerie department and put them on. Talk about some classy dames! Anyway, I digress.

I know I have said many times before that I like to eat in season; meaning asparagus in the spring, watermelon and raspberries in the summer, butternut squash in the fall, snickerdoodles in the winter, and that sort of thing. Lately we are also trying to eat in the spirit of the season, which is why I decided to make Sweet Bean Cookies for All Saints' Day.

Sweet Beans, or Fave Dei Morti as they are more appropriately called, are an Italian cookie. They are traditionally found in bakeries in Italy, Rome in particular, on All Saints' Day (which is often referred to as I Morti, meaning the dead). The cookies are shaped like fava beans which held an important role in ancient Rome. For the Feast of Feralia, people (typically the head-of-house) would toss a handful of favas over their shoulder for the wandering spirits to pick up in the night. Finding the beans quite sufficient, they would then take their leave. Also, fava beans were placed over the eyes of the dead before burial.

As much of a fan as I am of all things Italian, I have always found their cookies to be a bit suspicious. So when I saw this recipe for Sweet Beans, it did raise my eyebrows a bit. The main ingredient is nuts (almonds and pinenuts, to be exact), and there is no butter, no chocolate, no brown sugar, no vanilla extract — you get my point. However, being in the spirit of the season, I made them anyway. And then I proceeded to eat about 20 of them; Michael was a respectable close second, while Emilia held one in her hands for about an hour before finally throwing it away. In her defense, her new favorite food seems to be salt and vinegar chips. She does not usually have much of a sweet tooth (unless it is a cupcake, and by cupcake, I mean frosting).

Anyway, the cookies are so good. And they are very easy to make. I even peeled the almonds myself because PCC did not have blanched almonds. I was very grumpy with the idea of this until I did it. Honestly, it took 10 minutes, and half that time was letting the almonds soak in hot-hot water. So if you can't find blanched almonds, stop whining and just do it yourself.

The cookies are perfect with a cup of tea or what have you. And since they have no butter or chocolate or anything in them, they are practically a health food.

Sweet Bean Cookies
2 ½ cups blanched almonds
½ cup pine nuts
1 cup sugar
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon grappa, rum, or brandy
confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 325° and line a baking sheet with parchment. (Alternatively, you can butter and flour the baking sheets.)
In a food processor, combine the almonds, pine nuts, and ½ cup of sugar. Blend until the nuts are very finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the remaining ½ cup sugar, flour, lemon zest, and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and the booze. (I used Grand Marnier because we have no grappa, and the idea of rum made me a little queasy. Besides, the label on the Grand Marnier says it is an 'orange and brandy liqueur'.) Add this mixture to the nuts and stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. It should be moist throughout and beginning to form a ball.

Begin to form the cookies by pinching off a bit of the dough — no more than the size of a grape. Using your hands, roll it into a ball and shape into the form of a bean. Place on the baking sheet and keep going. I found it was easiest to rinse my hands every so often, otherwise the cookies became sticky and lost their 'smooth' appearance, making them much more difficult to work with. Place an inch apart on the baking sheet.

At this point you are supposed to take a knife and, using the dull edge, form a long groove lengthwise on each cookie. My cookies looked extraordinarily daft when I attempted this step, which is why I skipped it after seeing the first batch.

Bake for 15-17 minutes. (If you are doing 2 sheets at a time, then rotate 10 minutes into the baking time.) Cool on a wire rack.

Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving. And store the remainders in an air-tight container. (Recipe from: Italian Holiday Cooking, by Michele Scicolone. Harper Collins, 2001.)