Week 2

It feels like January lasts forevvvvverrrr. But I'm trying, as I do every year, to embrace it. My latest angle for appreciating this month is that there is no pressure. I don't need to buy stuff, I don't need to plan...anything, really. January is a month to do what I feel like doing, if I let myself. This week I didn't do much at all! And now we're pretty much halfway through the month and I get a three-day weekend. Woo hoo!

I did start this past week off right, with an impromptu wine tasting downtown with gal pals, followed by hosting a friend for dinner and the Golden Globes.

About a month ago, I started taking the Sunday New York Times and I think it is making our Sunday mornings that much more luxurious and allows me to stay off of various devices for as long as possible.

As for the rest of the week, weather comes to mind. The snow started to melt, then the fog came, then the sun came out for a spell and made us forget what month it was, and then on Thursday morning, we got hit again with a thick, fresh sheet. This is the stuff of January.

We celebrated a friend's birthday at Durkin's on Friday, and on Saturday, our trivia team unexpectedly won at Geeks Who Drink trivia at Geno's.


I finished The Winter Hours. It spoke to my tired brain in a way that helped me return to a place of joyful observance of nature, to appreciating - relishing - the written word, and to a general feeling of hope. I plan to re-read a few passages before returning it to the library next week.

The morning hours


Despite our better judgment we watched Netflix's The Polka King. Mildly funny at points, but Jack Black will always be Jack Black. True story.


We were all in for Dark this week. Guess we got hooked into the time travel. I'm also on episode 3 of Alias Grace. Should I continue?
Birthday party Friday night

New Recipes:
This week brought a lot of old stand-by meals, including this stir-fry without the cashews and adding red bell pepper and mushrooms, as well as made-up ones, such pizza, chicken burgers, and my economical hodge-podge of tomatoes and beans on rice with sliced and browned chicken jalapeno sausage and other spices. Joel made a to-die-for Pasta alla Norcina - a cream sauce with mushrooms, wine and homemade pork sausage.

Marion Cunningham's recipe for lemon yogurt muffins (from The Breakfast Book - a gold standard, IMO) saved our Saturday morning when our breakfast cupboards were bare. Quite a tasty way to tide things over.

Cookie of the Week:

This is just as good as it sounds, if coffee and cardamom sound good to you. You taste them both and it's unlike any cookie I've made or eaten before. I loved it.

The other day I heard David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes" and it sounded so good. I learned later that day that it was the anniversary of his death. Heavy coincidence!

We went to see a local group called Tango Volcado at the Bartlett on Thursday night, which brought back warm memories of Argentina on a snowy Thursday. That act was followed by the premiere of a composition written by a friend of ours based on Willa Cather's book My Antonia, called "Prairie Songs: Remembering Antonia." It's easy to say it was the the best thing I've heard all year at this point, but I do expect it will stay with me for awhile.

"This was the dome of Heaven
All there was of it. 
The earthly wind blowing through me
Bringing the smell of ripe fields,
The dust and the heat
The burning wind
The grass is the country as the water is the sea."
-excerpted lyrics by Brent Edstrom, based on the novel My Antonia 


Everything I know about making pizza

I make pizza at least every other week, if not weekly. If I don't know what to make for dinner, it often ends up being pizza. It's always satisfying, pairs perfectly with a salad and glass of wine, and in my opinion, it's fairly healthy because you get to control the ingredients. And despite how often we eat it, it somehow still feels like a special treat. I was thinking about this while making pizza the other day because for many people, making pizza at home feels like an undertaking. I'm here to tell you it's not!  Like a lot of things in life, you just have to decide you want to do it - then do it a few times and realize it's not that hard.

If you want more pizza and less stress in your life, then this is a guide for you. I hope it helps you realize that you can make delicious pizza from scratch in as little as an hour.

And yes, this post is long, but only because I've gone into great detail, not because it's complicated.

Flour, water, yeast and salt

Set yourself up for success, i.e., have these things on hand at all times 

Whenever I go shopping, I make sure to pick up these things if I don't already have them:
  • Canned diced tomatoes: these can be fire-roasted, fancy gourmet, no salt added, etc., but I do try to avoid any that include green chili peppers or anything other than garlic or basil. 
  • Mozzarella cheese: buy it in a ball. It can be the cheap, shrink-wrapped low-moisture kind (Frigo, Kraft, etc.), but I highly recommend stocking up on the fresh mozzarella (also shrink-wrapped) from Trader Joe's. It's cheap and it lasts a week or two in your fridge unopened. Don't worry about the moisture - we'll address that later. But whatever you do, don't buy pre-shredded cheese. If it's all you have, then use it, but if given the choice, make the best one and buy your cheese whole. 
  • Canned olives or other things that come in cans or jars (like anchovies, peppers, artichoke hearts) that keep a long time and you enjoy on pizza
  • Salty meat, if you like it: Cured meats last a good while in your fridge so they're good to purchase for your future pizzas. My favorite is Stockmeyer Prosciutto (also found at Trader Joe's), and again, if left unopened in the fridge it's good for a while. Bacon is also always great on pizza, and many people have that in their fridge already. Or of course, packaged salami (pre-sliced makes it easier) or ham works, too. Here's a tip: go to your deli counter and get 4-5 slices of whatever salami or sausage product looks good. You end up spending about a buck, and you can cut the salami into smaller bits and it's plenty for one pizza. 
  • A variety of vegetables. You should be eating more vegetables anyway, and if you're finding you're not eating them, then make a darn pizza. Onions are a staple for me, and if you have nothing else you'll still have a great pizza. Mushrooms are important to me, too. But it's fun to experiment with a few wild cards, like thinly sliced Brussels spouts, broccoli, kale, scallions, etc.
  • Flour and yeast. Because you can't make dough without them.
Broccoli and pancetta with cream sauce

  • A cutting board (to knead dough on, prep toppings, and to cut pizza)
  • Parchment paper
  • A rimless baking sheet or pizza peel
  • A baking stone
  • Rolling pin - experts can get by without one, but we're not experts yet
  • Fine mesh strainer
  • An oven (any ol' electric oven will do - you do NOT need to remodel your kitchen to put in a wood-burning pizza oven. Go out for that kind of pizza.)
  • A bowl and something to cover it, preferably plastic wrap or a large plate
  • Long, sharp chef's knife or some other thing to cut pizza with (I just got one of these for Christmas and it's wonderful). I'm not a huge fan of rolling pizza cutters because it often drags the toppings around, but if you have one, use it!
  • Optional: standing mixer with dough hook
  • Optional: cooling rack

How far to plan in advance

This seems to be the hurdle for a lot of people. You don't need all day - but I would plan for at least an hour from start to finish if you're making dough (10 minutes to make the dough, 30 minutes to let dough rest and prep toppings, 10 minutes to bake, a few minutes to relax). That said, dough made a day or two in advance will taste phenomenal and save you time. Dough made 30 minutes ago will still taste good so don't let time be a barrier! If you absolutely don't have time to make dough, or just don't like making it, then find out which of your local pizzerias sell dough balls. I used to get them from Bennidito's before I got over my mental dough hurdle. Trader Joe's has dough, too. 


There are a couple different methods I use to make dough, and both work beautifully. 

1. Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day: I started using this no-knead method for pretty much all of my bread products a few years ago, and because of that I often have dough in the fridge ready to be used for pizza or whatever else. Here are the dough instructions from the geniuses who came up with it. You just need a large enough vessel to keep the dough in your fridge, and when you're ready to make pizza, just flour your hands and pull off a grapefruit sized ball for a single pizza, round it into a ball, place it on a lightly floured board and cover with a bowl for about an hour (assuming it's been refrigerated. You can also make the dough the same day, take the dough you need when you're ready, at least a couple hours later, and stick the rest in the fridge and start making your pizza). This dough is the tastiest and has the most satisfying chewy texture of any pizza dough I've used at home. Beautiful air bubbles, crusty edges - it's never failed me, even when I doubt my skills. Another note on starting with cold dough: My kitchen is cold and drafty, so I tend to set my oven to warm for 5 minutes, turn it off, place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the warmed oven for 15 minutes to give it a head start.

2. Day-of dough. Because sometimes I don't always have dough in the fridge, and my idea for pizza comes to me as I drive home from work, Deb Perelman's recipe for Rushed Pizza Dough is my standby. I often use the dough hook in my standing mixer to knead the dough, but because it's such a small amount of dough, it's actually a little easier to knead it by hand. Use this recipe, but when you're ready to let it rise, decrease the waiting time by warming your oven for 5 minutes (use the Warm setting, i.e. 170-200 degrees F), turn it off, place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap and place it in the oven for 30 minutes (similar to above). This dough tastes more like a bland cracker compared to the other dough, but as a vehicle for delicious toppings, it still satisfies.
Prep station

Prepare for pizza

I always bake my pizza on a baking stone. You can use a sheet pan or whatever, but I never do that so my instructions are for using the stone.

At this point, you have risen or mostly risen dough at room temperature, resting somewhere on a lightly floured cutting board or in a bowl.

Next, put the baking stone in the oven on a middle or lower rack and crank the heat to 515-525 degrees F.

Get your rimless sheet pan or pizza peel and place a layer of parchment paper to cover it and set aside.

When the oven has told you it's preheated, it's probably still not quite there, so I don't even begin the next steps until the preheating beep has beeped - that way I always give it a few extra minutes to get good and hot while I assemble the pizza.

On top of the pizza, mis en place

The biggest revelation I've had about pizza toppings is that less is more. Take-and-bake pizza chains led me to believe I needed to completely cover my pizzas with sauce, gobs of cheese and a million toppings, perfectly layered and arranged all around the pizza. When you make pizza at home, this just creates soggy, gross pizza. A modest ladle of sauce, spaced out blobs of cheese, and sprinkles of everything else creates a delicious pizza that allows you to appreciate everything you placed on it once it's cooked.

1. Sauce: RED: Making my own tomato sauce is so easy and so much better than canned or jarred tomato sauce. It's bright and fresh and tomato-y, and you don't need to cook it before slathering it on the pizza. You just need those canned diced tomatoes I mentioned above. (I've used whole, stewed and crushed as well and all work just fine.) One piece of equipment that is helpful in making the sauce is either a mini food chopper or blender or food processor or food mill. Open the can and drain the tomatoes using your mesh strainer. To the drained tomatoes, add either a small clove of garlic or a few shakes of garlic powder, a healthy pinch of salt and another pinch of red pepper flakes. Blend together with whatever machinery you have. Put the blended tomatoes back in the fine mesh strainer and let it drain for a few minutes while you prep the other ingredients (this helps prevent soggy pizza if the tomatoes are especially juicy). After it's drained, taste the sauce. Sometimes I need to add a dash of vinegar for a little more acid, or sugar, but that's rare. Season to your taste and place the sauce in a small bowl. Note: you won't use the whole amount on one pizza.

2. Sauce: WHITE: If you have milk, flour, butter and garlic powder, you can make a quick white sauce. Melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in a tablespoon of flour until smooth. Add a 1/2 c. of (ideally) whole milk, a splash at a time, whisking smooth after each addition. Add salt and garlic powder to taste (you can always use fresh garlic, too), whisking until the mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon, just a couple minutes. Set aside until you're ready to assemble.

3. Cheese: Pull and tear your mozzarella rather than shred, or use the largest holes of your cheese grater. If you're using fresh cheese, get your hands a little dirty and tear the cheese into inch-or-two pieces. If it feels especially wet, it doesn't hurt to dab it with a towel to remove excess moisture. If you like adding other kinds of soft cheese here, like goat or ricotta, go for it. Or experiment with stronger cheese like aged provolone (divine if you can find it) or fontina or a combination. You'll want to shred or grate those and layer them sparingly.

4. Meat: I don't like biting into large rounds or strips of meat, so I cut it into bite-sized pieces. This way I end up using less, too, because I can sprinkle it more evenly across the pizza. In the case of bacon, I chop it, cook it, and drain it before adding to the pizza. This option is better if you have a bit more time, of course.

5. Vegetables: For the most part, you can just slice, dice, and chop your vegetables and let them cook with the pizza in the oven. When I have more time, however, I enjoy caramelizing the onions.

6. Everything else: Sliced olives, etc. should be at the ready, too.

7. Fresh herbs: I sometimes add fresh thyme or minced rosemary to the toppings, but always add basil after the pizza comes out of the oven, otherwise you won't taste it.
No cheese? No problem. Just make focaccia. Potato and rosemary with flaky sea salt.

Roll it, bake it, mark it with a P

I roll out the rested dough on that floured cutting board, and sometimes I stretch it a little by hand. Generally, I end up with a 12-14" thin crust round. Sometimes I almost break through the dough - if that happens, just pinch it back together. Then carefully lift it and place it on your parchment-lined sheet or peel, reshaping it if needed on the paper. I keep the sheet nearby so I don't have to carry the fragile dough across the room.

Spread the sauce. As I mentioned, you really don't need to coat the pizza with it. Use less than you think you need. It will all kind of blend together through the magic of baking.

Add most of the cheese. I use about half of one small mozzarella ball (the TJ's one). Again, use less than you think you need. I add a little bit more cheese to cover any blatant holes after I've added the rest of the toppings.

Add your other toppings however you'd like, being a little stingy but making sure that any slice will have all the ingredients you want on it in the end.

Feeling fancy? Add a tiny drizzle of olive oil, add any extra cheese you deem necessary.

This is the part that might make you nervous: sliding the pizza in the oven. One of the benefits of not putting a gazillion toppings on a pizza is that it remains somewhat light and fewer things are at risk of hurdling over the top of the pizza when you swiftly slide it on the pizza stone. A couple tricks I've learned:

1. Cut the parchment paper to fit the finished pizza with an inch overhang. This allows it to slide freely but also prevents the paper from charring as it bakes.

2. Position the pizza where you want it to ultimately end up on the pizza stone - don't try to make it fly. This means putting the end of the sheet at the back of the peel, angling it down slightly (careful not to burn yourself on the element above) and then gently jerking back on the sheet as the pizza slides off with the parchment paper. The parchment paper is your best friend in this step. I've tried it without, using cornmeal or flour on the bottom, and have failed and/or ended up with a weirdly shaped pizza.

Bake it for 10 minutes. It always takes 10 minutes. If it doesn't, you might want to get your oven checked out.
Prosciutto and basil

Final moments before eating pizza

While the pizza bakes and cools, I usually have enough time to do the dishes and assemble a quick salad. If nothing else, clear/scrape off your cutting board and make way for cutting the pizza and get your knife ready. And hang onto your pizza peel or baking sheet because you'll need that again to get the pizza out of the oven.

If you're adding fresh basil, or my favorite, arugula (lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon and Parmesan), get that ready to go, too. I sometimes get a small mound of Parmesan ready to sprinkle on the pizza right after it comes out of the oven.

When the pizza is ready, put on an oven mitt, then take your sheet or peel and carefully slide it under the pizza (with or without parchment). The parchment is sometimes strong enough to help you pull the pizza onto the sheet. Place it on the cooling rack (or leave on the peel/sheet) to cool for a couple minutes as you ooh and aah and set the table. Place anything fresh on top after these two minutes have passed. Then slide the pizza from the cooling rack to the cutting board and slice away.
Leek and bacon

A note about moisture and soggy crust

My guide includes steps to reduce the amount of moisture on a pizza, but sometimes, depending on toppings, there may still be small pools of liquid on top. If possible, I dab with a paper towel after the pizza has cooled a couple minutes to help absorb it and prevent that thin, crispy crust from turning to mush. For added insurance against soggy crust, once I cut the pizza I separate the slices to keep them from sitting in a soggy center.

Mistakes make great cooks

Ultimately, this post is built on mistakes I've learned from. There are many great ways to make pizza, but my biggest advice is to find a recipe - for pizza or something else you love - and make it enough times that it you know it all by heart. Memorizing a process opens you up to trying all sorts of variations on the theme. And suddenly you're that person who's pretty good at something, at least enough to write a blog post about it.


Week 1

Let's see how long I can keep this going in 2018: a weekly account of the past seven days.

Taking on this level of enthusiasm in the new year
The first week of the year brought some sunshine - long enough for me to get my car washed without it feeling like a wasted effort - and then rain, which made the roads and sidewalks an interesting jumble of ice crusts.

I went back to work and felt OK about it. It's good to be back in some sort of routine, but I wasn't as ready to resume my early bedtimes.

With the new year, I'm game to try some new resolutions, but this year I'm thinking of them as projects. Among them is building a cardio routine into my weekly workout. The Bar Method gets my heart rate up, but I need something more to get my lungs in shape for future bike rides and hills. I learned of an app called Aaptiv (eye roll...these names!) that's an audio-only workout you can bring with you to the gym or on the road. I've done one so far on an elliptical machine and it was actually fun. I might try one today that is purely for stretching. I'm on a 30 day free trial so my main concern is that I remember to cancel it if I don't end up using it after this week.

This weekend I put the Christmas decorations away but left all the Christmas cards on the mantle. I'm not ready to part with those sweet sentiments of the season yet.


The Lives They Lived: I spent a solid hour on the couch on New Year's Eve reading through these short tributes to people who left us in 2017 - people I knew of, like Mary Tyler Moore, and others, like Delia Graff Fara, whose names are less familiar but who left a unique mark on our society and contributed something to the ways we understand the world, and whose lives were tragically too short.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee: "Might the most fulfilling times be those spent solo at your tasks, literally immersed or not, when you are able to uncover the smallest surprises and unlikely details of some process or operation that in turn exposes your proclivities and prejudices both? And whether or not there is anything to be done about it, you begin to learn what you value most."

I appreciated this column about keeping resolutions. Exerting willpower is taking a toll on our psyches. Turns out, like seemingly everything, cultivating gratitude, compassion and even a certain amount of pride is the answer.

Winter Hours by Mary Oliver at bedtime, filling my head with comfort and reflection before sleep. "All things are meltable, and replaceable. Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself."

Having fun with my new brush pens!

Movies (technically watched Dec. 30/31 but still worth noting)

The Darkest Hour: I've never had so much Winston Churchill in my life until this past year. If you love The Crown, The King's Speech and/or Dunkirk, you'll probably enjoy this one. Or perhaps, like me, you say, "That's enough now."

Downsizing: While the concept of this movie provides much food for thought, I spent a lot of time trying to find holes in the plot. I didn't find Matt Damon's character all that sympathetic (and maybe he wasn't supposed to be), and while I love Christoph Waltz in pretty much anything, this was an odd fit. It was a weirdly tedious movie to watch. Nothing about it was convincing to me.

Playtime: I came across this somewhat randomly while picking out stuff for the DVD queue and it turned out to be an unexpected gem from 1967. According to some, a masterpiece. I loved the reflections, literally, of Paris in the modern world, the physical comedy, the recurring themes, and the memorable Monsieur Hulot. There were so many scenes that make you wonder how on earth a director could direct such chaos. This video provides a fun view.


Black Mirror: We're giving it a shot. So far it reminds me of my beloved Amazing Stories of the 1980s by Steven Spielberg for it's one-off storytelling and bizarre twists, but way more disturbing.

Planet Earth 2: I just have to look away when the animals eat each other, but otherwise I love this up close and personal stuff - even when it means looking at a Komodo dragon's drool.

Call My Agent! (Netflix), Season 2: I have a love/hate relationship with this French show about a talent agency in Paris. My ambivalence about the characters ultimately changed to a genuine warmth toward them by the final two episodes of this season.

Dark (Netflix): I love watching something in German for a change. The plot feels like a mash-up of other shows like Stranger Things and The Returned (French), but I'm not sure if I'll be able to get into it as deeply as those.
Can you see the kids playing in the field down below?

Hey, can we get a move on?

New Recipes

Red Wine Risotto with Beans (Paniscia) from Cook's Illustrated: This is a new favorite. It's so full of vegetables (lots of cabbage) and flavor (salami!). Though it takes a bit of prep work, it makes enough for several meals, which in our case is a good thing.
White Negronis because I gave Joel some Suze for Christmas.
Someone forgot to take the sticky off the lemon (me). Classy.

Black Eyed Peas. A nice reminder of our trip to Napa this past year when the fine folks at Rancho Gordo gave us last year's crop of black eyed peas for FREE! to make room for the new, and a New Year's Day tradition for good luck.

Baked Chicken Tenders. This was apparently the most popular recipe the New York Times published in 2017. It's not groundbreaking or life-changing, but it is a solid go-to weeknight meal. I'm always looking for recipes we can throw together somewhat quickly after I get home from the Bar Method, and we had the meal on the table within 30 minutes (thanks to some initial prep work administered by Joel). Paired with a green vegetable and maybe a few other dipping options, it's heaven on a Tuesday night.

Cookie of the Week

Because afternoon espressos must be accompanied by a cookie, and because I received Dorie's Cookies for Christmas, I'm embarking on another Official Project of 2018: Cookie of the Week. (In case you're worried, losing weight is not on my list of resolutions.)

For week one, I made Biarritz cookies. I found the recipe daunting at first because it required a pastry bag (I used one of these) and instructed me to press almond meal through a fine mesh sieve (I didn't believe it was possible!). But I did it, and the cookies turned out splendidly thanks to Dorie's helpful instructions, like, "Whisk the batter more vigorously than you normally would." They remind me of Milanos by Pepperidge Farm, and as it turns out, PF used to make Biarritz back in the olden days, too.


Last year I made a Spotify playlist of all the songs from the 70s that fit into the category of melancholy love schmaltz - i.e., instant downers, despite the intended sentiment of many of them. Barbra and Barry, Melissa and Karen. I packaged them as a way to say, "I never, ever want to hear these songs for the rest of my life." And then Saturday, when putting the Christmas decorations, it seemed to be a fitting occasion to play it. What a stupid idea.


Book Report the Fifth

Because I completely forgot about this tradition until...well...now, I am upsetting my usual pattern of posting my annual book report in October. Which makes this more like an end-of-the-year kind of list, which is what I purposely tried to avoid when I began posting these lists in October (I have to be different!).

But there's nothing I can do about it now, except to set a reminder for myself next October and avoid this non-dilemma in the future. This year's list will be called Books I Read in the First Year of Trump Reality, which covers November and December of 2016 in addition to this entire year.

This year my descriptions are a bit more brief than usual and not very reflective, in part because I'm doing this in a rush. If you want to chat more about any of these, I'd love to do that.

So without further ado, the books I've read since Book Report IV, Book Report III, Book Report II and Book Report I:

1. Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett: I finished reading this book the day before the 2016 presidential election. I am grateful I did. Krista's interviews have provided great insight and solace for my soul. This book was a reminder that there are reasons to be hopeful and to have faith in our fellow humans, and in ourselves.

2. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: A quick read that gave me a mental break of sorts. I don't think it was any better or even much different from Where'd You Go Bernadette, so ultimately this one was just "meh" for me, since I felt Bernadette was over-hyped.
3. Great House by Nicole Krauss: I honestly don't remember reading this book, but Goodreads says I did. Am I getting old? Or was I just stressed? I loved Krauss' History of Love years ago, too, and don't really remember much of that, either; but in both cases, I do remember it's a multi-generational plot. So...if you like that sort of thing...

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A book I read because everyone was reading it and the movie was out. I totally suspected the ending before I got there, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it.
5. The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie: I loved this one. A love story of sorts that didn't take itself too seriously and features a squirrel! I laughed out loud throughout and was sad when it ended.

6. The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman: A compelling WW2 love story, but my biggest beef was that the story started at the end, which in this case kind of took away a bit of the drama and amazement. Still, a beautiful story.
7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: I normally don't read books about plagues wiping out civilization, but this one was so fun to read and different from what I expected that I highly recommend it.

8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: A classic that is now one of my favorites. I read a copy from the 1930s and I think it helped me appreciate how thrilling it must have been when it was published because it holds up, seven decades later. I read this on the plane to Buenos Aires, and while I normally have a fairly short attention span for books on plans (so much in-flight entertainment temptation!), this was one I had a hard time putting down.
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: One of the most lovely, inventive, strange and poignant things I've read in years. This book is not for everyone, and there are times when you just have to ride it out until you catch on, but it was so rewarding to enter this bardo-universe and consider grief and love and life.

10. High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver: I'd eventually like to read all of Kingsolver's books and essays. This is the furthest back I've gone yet, and she's consistently steadfast in her concern for the environment, thoughtfulness of nature, and appreciation of our own biology.
11. East of Eden by John Steinbeck: I could cry just thinking about the ending of this book. I wish it hadn't taken me so many years to get to it. I hope to read it again at least once before I reach 60.

12. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie: People say grief is not linear. Sherman Alexie added this beauty to that idea, in describing what he has experienced in grieving - in a most complicated way - the death of his mother: "Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive. And maybe, this repetition can become a chant inside a healing ceremony."
13. Commonweath by Ann Patchett: I tried out the audiobook version for this, and I learned more about myself in the process than I retained about the plot of this novel. Throughout the listening experience I felt really disappointed and bored by the plot but somehow listened to the entire thing. Then I went to Goodreads to see what others thought. While many of them said it was not Patchett's best, I began reading passages some had posted as favorites from the book. I couldn't remember hearing a single one of them. My listening comprehension is bad, but I didn't think it was that bad. I got the plot but missed the beauty on this one. Either the audiobook reader was less-than-great (and I think that was true) or I simply need to read words on a page to let the words really sit with me and sink in. So I'm not sure what to say about this one.

14. I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: After feeling bad about my listening comprehension, I tried once more to listen to an audiobook, this time read by the author herself, and it was much, much better. Nora Ephron was one of the best. I laughed out loud, cried a little, and am determined to one day try cabbage strudel. Loved it.
15. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver: I want to live in the woods. The end. ...Okay, not really, but boy did I crave some time in nature after reading this book. I feel so out of touch for not knowing about birds, trees, bugs, and the life cycles and food chains that surround me. This is probably one of my favorite Kingsolver books to date. It's a little sexy, which, depending on your taste, may scare you away. But I found each storyline compelling if a little preachy (it's Kingsolver, what do you expect?).

16. Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi: It's not a year in books without a little self-help. In this case, I was convicted to read this to help tame my phone habits and reclaim time to do absolutely nothing and spur on a bit of creativity. Zomorodi is the host of a program called "Note to Self" and I found her writing style to be a bit like reading a radio transcript, which is to say a little tedious. But the main points of the book were good. I have never been all that addicted to my phone, but I think part of that is because I'm on the computer so much of my day that I don't feel as much of a need to constantly check updates. But I did end up deleting the Facebook app from my phone after feeling inspired by what I read. Instagram is still where I spend the majority of my phone time, but I've weaned myself off of that a bit, too. It's hard! But probably worth it for my sanity and creativity.
17. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance: This was hard and it was good. This was just one perspective, of course, and it was, at times, fairly harsh, but also full of love and pride for family. It made me look around at my own neighbors who may be going through similar issues of drug abuse, lack of social support/capital, and living in destructive cycles. It felt like a good bookend to this list. I can't be in denial about the world I live in. At Thanksgiving this year, we went around the table asking each other some fairly deep questions, and the one that stuck with me was about what each of us feels is our highest obligation to our country. My 17-year-old niece was the first to answer, and in my opinion, her answer trumped them all: Get to know your neighbors. How can we help if we don't understand?


Weekly: Nov. 24 - 30

This morning on my way in to work, I was thinking about how just a week ago, I was watching Matt Lauer on the Macy's Day parade, wondering how much longer people would still watch such a commercialized parade. Little did I know it would be the last time I'd actually watch Mr. Lauer himself. Barf. I, along with everyone else I know, am praying Tom Hanks is still a decent dude. My faith in male celebrities hinges on this. What a horrible spectacle this all is, but glory be to all the women who are braver for this chapter in our culture.


Moving on, then.

What I ate: If you've noticed recent posts on my blog, I'm indulging in butter and stewed prunes. Welcome to the edge! Other things include:

  • A recipe, from my friend Sara, for Mediterranean baked sweet potatoes. She sent me the link last week and at first glance I couldn't understand why she was so wild about it. I'm not that big on sweet potatoes, but I had some left from my last CSA box. On a night when I was on my own for dinner, I had my perfect opportunity to try this out. Verdict: this recipe is worth raving about. It actually reminded me a lot of my favorite recipe for baked falafel with the spices, chickpeas, tahini sauce and tomatoes. If you're intrigued, try it.
  • Sugarplum gingerbread cake, which I blogged about.
  • Peppermint ice cream. Because this is one thing I crave at Christmas time, as I do Celestial Seasonings Nutcracker Sweet tea (which I can't find anywhere in Spokane, harumph).
  • Autumn minestrone, an oldie but a goodie.
  • And these meatballs, another Smitten Kitchen favorite, paired with a perfectly complementary pasta.
What I read:
  • Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley. She was never on my radar before now, and this was published in the 1970s. Her short stories in this collection are challenging and I'm about halfway through them, just relishing and re-reading parts in an attempt to understand what she's really talking about. I am trying not to consult Wikipedia too.
  • My friend Leah contributed a couple pieces to this issue of The California Sunday Magazine, which is devoted to teen voices in this complicated moment in time (though it's never not been complicated). While I consider it a personal mission to not become too out of touch with younger generations, I know I can only understand so much. But several of these stories hit so close to home and also open my eyes to the complex issues and tragedies these teens are dealing with right now, unique to their generation.
Afternoon at Rockwood Bakery
What I watched: 
  • 20th Century Women, available on Netflix streaming right now. I really liked this one, particularly the era in which it was set, the use of music in showing generational divides, voiceovers, the kid who played the son (Lucas Jade Zumann), and Annette Bening. She was so, so good. 
  • Lady Macbeth. Not my cup of tea. 
An unfinished blanket Margot found to collapse on. Alternate title: The Kitty and the Pea

What I listened to:
  • My two song obsessions right now: "Makeba" by Jain and "Soy Yo" by Bomba Estéreo (the videos are awesome, too). 
  • We have listened to a LOT of Natalia Lafourcade this year, and this week was no exception. And I just learned she's on the soundtrack to Coco. (If you're a jazz-standard nerd, you should watch this video for its sweet similarity to "The Nearness of You.")
Other excitement:
  • I decorated for Christmas a little. The tabletop trees are plugged in, but no ornaments yet.
  • A puzzle. We're a week in and it's finally feeling like we're making progress. (It's the Cinque Terre in 2,000 glorious pieces.)

Most of the remaining pieces are shades of blue



I'm a cluttered state of winter emotions right now. I don't feel like decorating for Christmas or getting particularly festive. But as my Oma wisely used to say, "Appetit kommt beim essen."

Appetite comes with eating.

Christmas spirit comes with Christmas baking.

So I made sugarplum gingerbread cake, from a recipe in a recent New York Times Magazine. Normally, I don't view stewed prunes as a positive, but in this case it inspired visions of the Nutcracker Suite. They were mixed into a molasses-y rich batter with all the spices one desires for such a cake: ginger, cinnamon and cloves. And one odd-ball ingredient: spelt flour.

I always get a thrill when I turn cakes out of this Bundt pan. Isn't it pretty? Each piece is like a mini mountain range.

One thing I learned recently in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is to look for cake recipes that call for oil, rather than butter, if you want a moist cake that lets the flavors shine through. This recipe is a perfect example of how that works. I used grapeseed oil, and now we're on day 3 and this cake is still tender and only just a slight bit dried out around the edges. I think the prunes help, too.  

While the Christmas decorations are still, at the moment, stashed away in the storage closet, I am starting to think that maybe it's time to get some eggnog for the fridge. It's a process.

Sugarplum Gingerbread Cake
Adapted slightly from New York Times Magazine, which was adapted from Genevieve Ka

1 c. (184 grams) pitted prunes, quartered
2/3 c. molasses
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Butter/spray for pan
1 c. (137 grams) spelt flour
3/4 c. (108 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 heaping T. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. table salt
3 large eggs, at room temp.
1 c. (215 grams) packed dark-brown sugar
1/4 c. grapeseed or other neutral oil, like canola
2 tsp. cocoa powder (optional - I didn't use)

Put the pitted prunes and 1 1/2 c. water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the prunes start to break down. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses and baking soda (note: not powder). It will foam up a bit and it's kind of exciting. Set it aside.

Set your oven rack to the center position and preheat to 350. Generously butter and flour your bundt pan of choice, then place it on a baking sheet.

In a small bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder (note: not soda), spices and salt - set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and brown sugar on medium speed until the mixture has turned thick and slightly pale - about 3-4 minutes. With the machine on, pour in the oil in a slow, steady stream down the side of the bowl, beating until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and with the mixer on low, add the molasses mixture, which should be slightly cooler by now. Gradually add the flour mixture, mixing on low only until all traces of flour disappear, folding in the last bits by hand. Transfer batter to the pan.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the tallest part comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then carefully invert cake onto the rack, lift away the pan and stand in awe. Let it cool completely before dusting it with the optional cocoa powder. Cut and serve.


Buttery weekend

Last weekend we were at Auntie's Bookstore and I got that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed by the number of books I will never read. Or the cookbooks I will never cook from.

But worse, holy lords!, my conscience nags, think of all the books that are just sitting on my shelves at home right now, books that are half-read, cookbooks that are barely weathered.

Rather than buying anything new, I returned home and hung out with my books. It's a weird combo of feeling a little depressed and a little grateful. Look at all I don't have. Look at all I do have. Hey, it's the holidays. This feels appropriate.

Rhubarb compote
Also appropriate in this moment: butter-laden recipes. In November and December, butter is cheap, and there are likely things sitting in your freezer or on your counter that could easily be transformed into a sweet or savory filling in a buttery tart dough.

So in the spirit of appreciating what I already have, in one Saturday, I used one well-loved cookbook and one pound of butter to do just that - dinner (big savory tart) and dessert (sweet mini tarts). The cookbook was Deb Perelman's The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. It's been awhile since I've tried anything new out of it.  (And I've since been tempted to buy her brand new cookbook.) Trying new recipes gives new life to older cookbooks, and until Saturday, this one's pages were mostly well-worn in the pizza dough section (I've since memorized her recipes for pizza sauce and rushed pizza dough).

First, I rid my freezer of rhubarb and made her recipe for rhubarb hamantaschen, starting with a simple rhubarb compote.

This is a cookie that's traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim. I'm not Jewish, and it's not Purim, but each time I page through the cookbook these catch my eye. They're so pretty, and in the last few years I've become a real fan of jammy cookies.

It was only after I put these in the oven that I learned how difficult it can be to keep the corners together. But I still got a few good triangles, and the taste was what mattered most. If you'd like the recipe, here is one blogger's very enthusiastic transcription of it. 

I didn't let these floppy corners get me down
After a couple of hours, I continued on. Next up in my Smitten Kitchen Saturday was a butternut squash galette.

This tart dough, by comparison, was just as I'd hoped: flaky and melt-in-my-mouth. And it was a dream to work with. I used a combo of white and whole wheat flours, and mixed it with nonfat Greek yogurt and white balsamic vinegar in addition to a stick of butter. The contents included roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions, fontina and fresh thyme (the cookbook calls for thyme, though her original website recipe calls for sage; either would be lovely I'm sure), with just a pinch of cayenne pepper. Pair it with a salad and you really need nothing else for a complete meal.

I only remembered to get a photo of the finished product, right before we sat down to watch The Big Chill (how have I lived my whole life without seeing this movie?!).

I highly recommend this recipe.

I know what you're wondering to yourselves: How does one handle all this butter on a single day? Turns out, you don't need to eat everything in one sitting. You can spread this out over several days or even a week. Enjoy every single bite, savor slowly, and double your normal vegetable intake for awhile. If you feel your conscience try to guilt you about it, be grateful for the very thing that is sitting in front of you on your plate. It's the holidays. This is appropriate.