Saturday, November 26, 2011

Today was BAKLAVA day


Once I was asked by famous New Yorker Chris Wells to provide a food offering for his avant-guard artsy church service The Secret City. I jumped at the chance to do this (after sulking about the fact I couldn't squeeze a NYC trip out of it). I felt I'd waited my whole life to be asked a favor like this.
The following is the piece I wrote to be read at the service that evening. The theme of the service was WORK. I'm publishing it here, 'cause dang! I am totally going to milk a blog entry out of it. It's not like sloppy seconds. Really.

I picked Baklava.. My choice of food had to jump a few hurdles. Certainly I wanted the offering to reflect a fair amount of work involved in its preparation, but also I wanted to choose something that would travel well and still taste good several days after making it.

Why is it special to me? I grew up with a Greek father who wasn’t very Greek except in his love of Greek foods. I wore my ethnicity as a badge of pride as a young person since being half Greek in my small California desert town made me unusual, but not in a bad way.
Baklava is really a show-off’s dessert. I’d watched my mother end many a baking session in tears as she confronted her inability to master the process. In California, baklava is not unheard of, but there’s no Kalustyan's on every corner either. So when I grew up and discovered a natural affinity in the kitchen, I became the family’s official Baklava-Baker. My mother was thrilled. My father was thrilled. And for many Christmas', I baked Baklava in copious quantities that my parents promptly froze in their giant Kenmore freezer and ate thorough out the year.
I don’t necessarily enjoy making Baklava. It really is a recipe that asks you to follow directions to the letter and, at the same time, have the confidence to make decisions based on past experience.
Every time I think I know more than the recipe---something goes wrong and every time I follow the recipe exactly, something is off as well. It is a tricky balance.
To make Baklava, you really need to give it your undivided attention and a good 3 hours of your day. I can’t even imagine what it would take if you made your own phyllo dough…
To start, the sheets of this paper-thin dough are defrosted overnight. They rapidly dry out and will become so brittle they shatter, so once unwrapped from the packaging, they are kept under a damp towel. If the towel is too damp, the sheets of pastry will get soggy and become impossible to separate from each other. Your mother will often cry at this point.

A pound of butter is melted and clarified (milk solids removed). Each sheet is placed one at a time in the pan and painted with a thin coat of butter. The sheets tear, squirm, move, wrinkle. Cursing ensues.One must work quickly so the dough doesn’t become too wet under the towel or dry out. After the layers of pastry and butter have been built to about 1 inch, (aprox.20 sheets of dough), a sprinkling of nuts, sugar and spices is added between each layer.Now the paper-thin dough is asked to rest on the bumpy nuts and be brushed with butter. More tearing and wrinkles. More swearing and ordering of one’s children to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE KITCHEN. However, after 20-odd years of this, today I discovered that if you paint the sheet with butter BEFORE you lift it and put it on the pile...well. It works a thousand-million times better that's all. And thus today I did not cry or abuse children. When this dough/nut layer is about 1 inch thick, we resume layering just the dough and butter.The pastry is cut into the traditional diamond shapes, a clove stuck in each piece. If you are out of cloves and decide to skip it or you realize no one ever eats the clove anyway and leave it out, your father will complain about it for the next 7 months.Speaking of cloves: They are freaking expensive! I don't know why everyone is bitching and moaning about gas prices ---this jar of cloves was $10.78!

The pan of pastry is baked for an hour. Finally a syrup of honey and sugar that’s infused with cinnamon and citrus peel is poured over the hot pastry. Too much and the baklava will be wet and ooze out syrup. This also makes your father grumble. Too little syrup and the dessert will be dry and layers will separate. After it is cooled, all the syrup will have been absorbed up into the pastry layers. You can remove the pieces from the pan and set on cupcake papers or just onto a plate.
My sources tell me it can be eaten straight from the freezer while standing in your bathrobe, and actually some of these sources really have never eaten it any other way that tells you something.

Mmmm. There they are. All ready for Christmas.

After all the Baklava is packed up, these little bits left in the pan are my FAVORITES. They are simultaneously sopped with honey and crispy-crunchy. You can get plenty ill eating these all up, but it's required. The next day, you can go into the garage and , in your bathrobe, stand in front of the freezer and eat a few of the extras that didn't get shipped off to NYC or your father.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Tree-less Christmas Tree

In December of 1984, I was living the big life of my first ever boyfriend and my supremely important job at Carvel Ice Cream. I remember going next door to Sav-On and buying a set of mini Christmas Lights (a string of 25) and bringing them back to Carvel, plugging them in and declaring them the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. I strung them around the tiny tree I'd set up in my bedroom, laid in my bed and stared at it for hours. It's almost absurd to think that in the days before all this iCrap we have now, there was a time when MINI LIGHTS were the most new and exciting things we'd ever seen. I was infatuated with the lights, the music, the Miller's Outpost commercials. This was how much I used to love Christmas.

Somewhere along the line (and actually I can narrow it down to the last 7-8 years) I lost my Christmas.
Favorite Lolly pop ornament from early childhood

another favorite

Someone gave me this glass heart when I was a teenager. It was one of those rare moments when I felt someone really "got me"

'09 and '10 were especially hard. I had no energy nor motivation to do anything--no decorating, no tree, no baking. Christmas wore me out. It had swallowed me whole, and spat me out all used up and chewed on. And although I'm writing this on Thanksgiving eve (early infiltration of the holiday season being another irritant), I am hoping that I can retool Christmas to make it palatable once again. It may (and probably should)change completely for me, but being a Scrooge is a drag too.

So the first stop along the way was to deal with the tree issue. I like a tree, but I hate a tree. I like the way it smells for the first 2 days then it stops. And while everyone wants to decorate it, no one wants to clean it up. And they are freaking expensive. For $65 I'd honestly rather go out to dinner. SO...
Once we had these friends who (in addition to a tree) strung a series of parallel lines of mono-filament and hung all their antique ornaments on them just against a plain wall. It was stunning. Fast forward to this year and I tried to do the same thing on our giant sheet metal bulletin board, and it was an resounding fail. Ornaments were too heavy, strings sagged, too much assistance from tape and magnets...yuck. It looked horrible. It needed more structure, but I was hell bent not to spend any more money. After all, I'd just dropped $5 of 2 sets of lights...whew!

Timing was on my side, for Sean had just taken down a part of our fence that had been extended with some rabbit wire left over from the chicken coop days. I took that, unbent it (harder than it sounds) and held it to the steel board with the aforementioned magnets. Then I clipped it into a tree shape, outlined it with the lights and re-hung everything. I like it.

Cool things about it:
It is right above an crawling to plug in!
It doesn't look half bad UN-lit.
It doesn't need water.
It doesn't drop needles.
Ornaments are really SEEN.
It doesn't take up an inch of floor space.
It looks hip, sleek, modern AND traditional all at once.

It could be made of chicken wire as well. And when Christmas is over, it can go on the garden fence as a trellis.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Ok To Have Chocolate Cake for Breakfast. Really.

Have I ever posted my favorite choc. cake recipe?? We had this last weekend and before it disappears, I should share.
This is from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking series and the cake is so easy and fast, it could be make successfully by any 11 year old. But not MY 11 year old, cause I don't like anyone in my kitchen, but that's another story.

Here we go:

Buttermilk Cocoa Cake

Preheat over to 350. Butter and flour a 9" pan (don't start using other size pans, this is important).
Mix together 1.75 c flour, .75 c unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 c sugar, 1 teaspoon baking soda and .25 teaspoon salt.
(Please tell me you can remember your fractions people, the "1/4" just doesn't work for me)
To these ingredients add 1 c buttermilk, .50 c veg oil or melted butter, and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Turn batter into the pan and bake in the middle of the oven for 30 min. or until a tester comes out clean. Cool 5 min. and turn out of the pan.

At this point you're on your own. Because you've floured your pan, the cake looks a bit dodgy and needs a little decorating. Powdered sugar is fine as would be a quick coat of raspberry jam. You could whip up some cream and put a cloud of that on top and nestle some sugar macerated strawberries in it if you were wanting to win friends or make up for being a bit touchy the other day, but personally, I like ganache.Ganache is simply a mixture of chocolate and cream and I'm sure there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, but all I ever do is heat a little cream (not half and half!) say about a cup, and when it is hot, I add an equal amount of chocolate chips and stir till melted and glossy. You pour this over your cake and let the side drip down. Left over ganache goes in an old jelly jar to be put in your 'fridge and eaten with a spoon in emergencies (coming home from work, sitting at the computer, reading the mail...those sorts of emergencies).

The best thing about this cake is it tastes SO MUCH BETTER the next day. So if you were having a dinner gathering on a Saturday night, you could SO make this cake Friday morning or even Thursday night. It really goes together in about 7 minutes.

Then, cause I'm nothing if not a lily-gilder, I made Salted Caramel Ice Cream which  totally rocked. Again, note to self: Make this waaaay in advance. I'd made the custard Sat. night, and thought I'd freeze the ice cream Sunday morning. But it just didn't set up properly and it was softer than gelato at dessert time. Not that that stopped any of us, but even this morning when I pulled out a spoon of it to photograph, it is super soft. And this is in my full size freezer, bottom shelf. Not that I'm going to throw it away you know, but it is not like regular ice cream. I followed David Lebovitz's recipe and it is excellent.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beatles Birthday Party

Now that my kids are big and don't like "dumb ass" birthday celebrations (their words, not mine) I was forced to indulge my need for a themed party by subjecting Sean to a Beatles Birthday Party.

Thankfully for everyone, I just themed out the food. There was no "Fab-Four Bingo" or "pin the Moustache on the Beatle" games (but you KNOW I coulda...)

 So a few minutes research on the web provided a sweet baby birthday party that I quickly stole and added to for Sean's big 47th. The original link is here, and their photographs are super. MY photographs are not, but you'll get the idea.

These were a huge hit. Graham cracker crust, choc ganache and marshmallows run under the broiler.

Setting these side by side is a must.

Luckily, Sean still has lots of Beatle toys, I mean Action Figures.

Mom and Fifi rocking their 60's up-do's

These were savory and had smoked salmon on them. They look a little challenged in the photo, but  they were fine.

Yellow submarines. I mean, c'mon! However, get this: the Twinkies went a little stale sitting on the table uncovered all night. WHO KNEW???

Oh these fricking T-trees. First of all they were a bitch to bake, a bitch to frost, I had NO orange sprinkles and by Nov. 16 there are none to be had at any store for any price (meaning they didn't have them at Raley's and I was too lazy to shop around) Then they kept sliding down the sticks. THEN I added toothpick branches, and THEN...well. whatever. They didn't even taste that great. Lesson learned.

I also did the sodas with signs, but don't have photos for...
Sergeant Dr. Pepper
For the Benefit of Mr. Sprite
You Say You Want a Coca-Cola?

To supplement the sweets, there were Bangers and Mash, BBQ Meatballs and Roasted Veggies (no Beatles tie-in) but I did make an Octopus' Garden Ceviche.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Where she tries not to burn down the house...

Aladdin opens tomorrow night at Browns Valley (7 pm, T, W, TH)
Yes, my living room looked like a red, pink, ochre and purple bomb went off in there. This is the second time I've done this show. I find it so fascinating how different casts have their own quirks and challenges.
This group is hell-bent on turning their backs to the audience. At this age, "cheating out" is a pipe dream, and all you can really hope for is a bit of a flat, gingerbread man type stance while said child recites his/her lines. It's a little wooden and awkward, but words are heard and faces are seen. HOWEVER. This group. oy vey.
They are profoundly interested in delivering lines to the upstage wall.
It must make them feel more secure, cause they all do it.
I shoulda kept good on my threat and brought the super-soaker.
after a few wet-butts, perhaps these problems would have disappeared!

I discovered that I could "hem" the edges of the crazy skirt fabric by running it through a candle flame. Not as dangerous as it looks, and it went really fast. I also discovered I had about 2x as much fabric as I need, so yeah! The skirts will look extra nice.

Army uniforms--so simple, just a rectangle of felt--there's a slit cut at the top for your head to go through, a glued on emblem and a red sash.
For 17 kids, that was a kick ass costume plan. They will just wear jeans and a white t-shirt under their "tunic". Awesome.

The other kids got stuff from the thrift store, all in the same color palette'cause that's how I roll people. I like it all to match. Makes it look better. Makes it look GREAT even if it's not so great. Just an insider's secret there---free of charge.

.So come out and see us. There is no fee, and the kids really are cute.