December 24, 2010

Not Under 7 Eggs

One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life — that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters...there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives.
--Not Under 40, Willa Cather
What a wonderful passage; it is also the epigraph to Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty.

This Christmas Eve, my affectionate sister and I celebrated with sweetness rather than anguish — by baking a lovely chiffon cake. And thanks to my shiny new hand mixer, it was a breeze!

The cake calls for 7 eggs and tastes very similar to a steamed Cantonese sponge cake (馬拉糕) served at some dim sum places. If you're a fan of egg-flavored desserts (custard buns, egg tarts, etc.), you'll adore this cake.

Chiffon Cake
adapted from America's Test Kitchen
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
5 egg whites
5 egg yolks + 2 whole eggs
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract

Preheat oven to 325°F. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and grease a tube pan (preferably one with a removable bottom).

Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the 5 egg yolks, 2 eggs, water, oil, and extracts together. Slowly whisk the yolk mixture into the flour mixture until smooth.

In a large bowl with high sides, beat the 5 separated egg whites with an electric mixer on medium-low speed (I used #2 setting) until foamy, about one minute. Increase speed to medium-high (#4 setting) and whip to stiff peaks, another 3–4 minutes. "Stiff peaks" mean that when you lift the beaters from the egg whites, the peaks stand up straight, without curling at all. Fun fact: By the time it reaches this point, you could hold the bowl upside down over your head and the egg whites still wouldn't budge.

Gently fold the whipped egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and tap the pan gently on the counter a few times to settle the batter. Bake 50–60 minutes (mine only took 45 minutes, though), until the cake is golden brown and the top springs back when pressed firmly.

Note: If you want to prevent the finished cake from deflating as much as possible, invert the tube pan over the neck of a sturdy bottle (such as a champagne bottle), or devise some other method of letting it cool upside down.

December 7, 2010

The Cake I Want to Marry

"Liver," he answered. "Let's have liver and mashed potato, like Mrs. Brigstock used to make."
Veronica crossed to him and bent down and put a kiss on his springy hair.
"You have to let go of the past, darling," she said.
"Why?" he said. "I like it there."
--Trespass, Rose Tremain
I know how it feels to like it there, snuggled under the cover of one's memories, still warm from the last time you dropped by. Yet I see Veronica's point — you can't have liver and mashed potatoes every day. And, if you're anything like me, you can't eat the same cake every day, nor can you follow a recipe two times in a row without wanting to make an edit or two (after all, delicious as that cake turned out last time, what if experimentation leads to an even better version?).

But I'm a changed girl; I've become a certain cake recipe that has me swooning for its incredible fluffiness. I'm not the slightest bit tempted to replace the granulated sugar with brown sugar, nor do I harbor fantasies of sneaking in a sprinkle of cinnamon or orange zest...that's how perfect this cake is.

The Perfect Buttermilk Cake
Wet Ingredients
2 tbsp melted unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 egg

Dry Ingredients
1 1/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Final ingredients
1 cup buttermilk
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease an 8x8 square baking pan.

Mix wet ingredients (excluding buttermilk) in a large bowl and add half of the dry mixture until fully incorporated. Then add all of the buttermilk and mix thoroughly. Add the rest of the dry mixture, and stir the batter until smooth. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top evenly with lots of sugar; the resulting crinkly crust is key to this cake's simple allure. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

November 16, 2010

Fudgy, fuzzy memories

"They had escaped from their families, from the tyranny of home. Feeling a need to  celebrate all this they turned into a drugstore and ordered vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce. It was so wonderful when it came that they made up their minds to have ice cream with fudge sauce every night of the school year."
--The Folded Leaf, William Maxwell
William Maxwell knows what's up — ice cream sundaes are great celebration food. When I got my first promotion, I celebrated with an ice cream sundae from The Smith. It was delicious...but when I hear the words "ice cream sundae" I'll always think of McDonald's first. That's because when I was a young fatty, and my parents were nice enough to treat me to an ice cream sundae, it was always from McDonald's. Not sure what Chez McDonald puts in his hot fudge sauce (and maybe it would be better not to find out), but it tastes like nostalgia to me — one of my favorite flavors.

October 31, 2010

For the cook who liked to cook

The cook we had that year was a Polish woman named Anna Ostrovick, a summer cook. She was first-rate—a big, fat, hearty, industrious woman who took her work seriously. She liked to cook and to have the food she cooked appreciated and eaten, and whenever we saw her, she always urged us to eat. She cooked hot bread—crescents and brioches—for breakfast two or three times a week, and she would bring these into the dining room herself and say, "Eat, eat, eat!"
"Goodbye, My Brother," John Cheever
Anna Ostrovick would have been pleased: Not two minutes after finishing this story, I found myself measuring out the ingredients for chocolate cake—which I will proceed to eat, eat, eat very shortly.

October 28, 2010

Pork is illuminated

"The demand for lean pig meat--'the Other White Meat,' as it's been sold to us—has led the pork industry to breed pigs that suffer not only more leg and heart problems, but greater excitability, fear, anxiety, and stress."
--Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
Now that's a case for fatty pork if I ever heard one. Maybe some from Porchetta.

I was pretty disappointed to hear that JSF was working on a non-fiction follow-up to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close...but so far, it's not that bad. I still wish he'd written another novel instead, though—especially now that it's ingrained in me the fact that farmed animals in the U.S. produce "roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second"...

October 26, 2010

no love for gluttons

"Once, long ago, she had broken off an engagement only because she had detected in the young man's eyes a look of sensuous bliss as he ate strawberries and cream."
--"The Picnic," Mavis Gallant

Geesh. What a food prude.

October 17, 2010

a day like any other

"It is unacceptable, all the stunned and anxious missing a person is asked to endure in life. It is not to be endured, not really."
--Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore
"I have a poor memory. By this I mean that much that has happened in my life I've forgotten--a blessing for sure--but I have these large periods of time I simply can't account for or bring back, towns and cities I've lived in, names of people, the people themselves. Large blanks. But I can remember some things. Little things..."
--"Fires," Raymond Carver
The only thing I hate more than missing a friend's birthday is missing a friend. A thousand little things like breakfast tacos, lemongrass, and Rilke are everyday reminders of how much this friend is missed; how easily a person's absence can be a veritable presence in one's thoughts. To this friend, all I can offer by way of apology (with a little help from r.carver) is: I may have forgotten your birthday, but I can remember some things: little things that tie us together, on this day, like any other.

October 10, 2010

fruit tart inferiority complex

"That was lovely," she said. Rose had never heard such an admission of grateful pleasure from her. "Lovely," said Flo and sat remembering, appreciating, belching a little. The suave dreamy custard, the nipping berries, robust peaches, luxury of sherry-soaked cake, munificence of whipped cream.

Rose thought that she had never done anything in her life that came as near pleasing Flo as this did.
--The Beggar Maid, Alice Munro

I think I could subsist on fruit tarts for days on end without tiring of the little guys. Just thinking of the three components is enough to kick the salivary glands into full gear: (1) glazed, fresh fruit (ideally of the berry variety), (2) cold, smooth custard, and (3) a crumbly, sweet shell/crust. Individually, each would make a fine dessert, but once all three are combined, something magical takes place, and a paragon of pastry is born. Nevertheless, one would hope that familial bonds are infinitely more pleasing than mere foodstuffs (delicious as they may be). Poor Rose.

October 5, 2010

strange sandwich

He ate the whites of his eggs first...the least delicious part of his breakfast...then he carefully mashed up the peppered and mayonnaised yolks and spread them delicately on his toast. He ate with careful relish, his maimed hand curved lovingly around the rationed food as though to defend it from some possible aggressor.
--Clock Without Hands, Carson McCullers
Defend those eggs and toast! But would you defend a peanut butter, tomato, bacon, and onion sandwich? Later on, this mysterious sandwich is mentioned, and though it sounded strange at first, the more I think about it, the more I'm intrigued.

Tangential flashback: I have a distant memory of walking into the kitchen to discover my father gleefully adding a fat dollop of Skippy peanut butter to some hot noodles and cucumber...I think it was his emergency recipe for ma jiang mian (sesame noodles). Hmm, maybe there's method to this savory-peanut-butter madness. Fictional Southern characters are doing it, non-fictional Chinese dads are doing it...maybe I should do it, too.

September 28, 2010

why yes, i a.m. in the radio

By this time I was wishing I had not stopped into Chicote's but had gone straight on home where you could change your clothes and be dry and have a drink in comfort on the bed with your feet up, and I was tired of looking at both of these young people. Life was very short and ugly women are very long and sitting there at the table I decided that even though I was a writer and supposed to have an insatiable curiosity about all sorts of people, I did not really care to know whether these two were married, or what they saw in each other, or what their politics were, or whether he had a little money, or she had a little money, or anything about them. I decided they must be in the radio. Any time you saw really strange looking civilians in Madrid they were always in the radio. So to say something I raised my voice above the noise and asked, "You in the radio?"
"We are," the girl said. So that was that. They were in the radio.
--"The Butterfly and the Tank," Ernest Hemingway
Slowly making one's way through H's Complete Short Stories has its perks. You are reminded of some pretty funny (and spot-on) truths about life. For instance, if you're a would-be writer, you probably are curious about "all sorts of people," but it's not always easy — sometimes people just feel like they're going to be boring. Another thing that is (or appears to be) true is, you don't need to be attractive to work in radio.

Here's a thought. Next time you meet someone who seems boring, try asking, "You in the radio?" If they catch your drift, things may get interesting. And if you end up taking a liking to the person, just explain that it's nothing were just quoting Hemingway. You do that when you're nervous, sometimes.

September 26, 2010

Au Bon Mint Chocolate Loaf

Chocolate cake always reminds me of the bit in Matilda where Miss Trunchbull punishes a chubby kid by forcing him to eat an entire gigantic chocolate cake in a school-wide assembly. I wonder what the recipe for that cake is? Anyway, I've been meaning to bake a moist chocolate loaf cake for quite some time. I haven't done so since last winter's "I lava chocolate cake."

This time around, I made a few adjustments and decided to give it a minty twist, since I happened to have peppermint extract and a few peppermint patties lying around.

I have to say that the finished cake tastes a lot like Au Bon Pain's mint chocolate loaf, a favorite of one of my old boss's. He liked to warm it up in the microwave before eating it — a wise choice, since heat tends to revive and moisten pre-sliced pieces of cake from these sorts of establishments. And he always had it with a cup of cold milk. What a connoisseur of cake. Here's lookin' at you, boss.

(New) York Peppermint Patty Chocolate Loaf
Inspired by Ina Garten's recipe
Dry ingredients:
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients:
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp peppermint extract
1 cup of your favorite hot coffee

Final ingredients:
A few peppermint patties (like York), broken into chunks
1/2 cup chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Grease a loaf pan and put on a baking sheet in case the cake overflows while baking.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a medium bowl mix together the second wave of ingredients and pour into the dry mixture. Fold in until smooth. Incorporate the peppermint patties and chocolate chunks last. Pour into the loaf pan (note: this makes a little too much batter for one loaf pan, so if you want to prevent the cake from overflowing while baking, restrain your fatty tendencies in the name of aesthetics and use only 90–95% of the batter).

Bake for 50-60 min until a knife (or chopstick, if you're Asian like that) comes out clean.

September 20, 2010

Adventures With Almond Flour, Pt. 2

We sit beside people who show us wallet pictures of their children. "Sont-ils si mignons!" I say. My husband constructs remarks in his own patois. We, us, have no little ones. He doesn't know French. But he studied Spanish once, and now, with a sad robustness, speaks of our childlessness to the couple next to us. "But," he adds, thinking fondly of our cat, "we do have a large gato at home."

"Gateau means 'cake,'" I whisper. "You've just told them we have a large cake at home."
This passage is pretty funny, no? Personally, I think we could all do with a bit more homophone humor in our lives. Reading this also inspired me to bake.

I'd take an almond gateau over a gato, any day. Last February, I made a light almond cake with a thin, delicate glaze (Adventures With Almond Flour, Pt. 1). Finally the second installment is here, and this time, it's a denser almond blueberry loaf cake drizzled with a thick buttermilk glaze.

Almond Blueberry Loaf with Buttermilk Glaze
2 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup almond meal
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/3 cup jam (I used apple cinnamon)
1/2 cup blueberries

Grease and flour a loaf pan. Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix flour, almond meal, brown sugar, baking powder, and cinnamon in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, oil, extracts, and jam. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Fold in the blueberries last. Transfer the batter to your prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.

While that's baking, whip up the glaze.

Ingredients for the glaze:
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1-2 tbsp buttermilk (adjust according to desired thickness)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Simply whisk everything together, increasing or decreasing the amount of buttermilk according to how thick you want your glaze to be. Once the cake has cooled, drizzle it with glaze and dig in.

September 18, 2010

Eden eatin'

In the house the godling grudgingly accepted cheese and bread and cold meat and pie and coffee and a piece of chocolate cake.
"I'm used to a hot dinner," he said. "You better keep those kids away if you want any car left."
--East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Perhaps I have low standards, but that sounds like a terrific meal to me. All the fixings for a sandwich + pie + chocolate cake + coffee?! Yum.

It's a testament to John Steinbeck's storytelling prowess that even one as heathenly as I can enjoy East of Eden; indeed, reading it again has confirmed it as one of my all-time favorites. Incidentally, it also belongs to a very exclusive (re: two-member) club of literary works that feature "cold meat" and "pie" in the same sentence. If you ask me, that's a club that could do with a few more members.

September 12, 2010

Soup's on

"There's some soup," my mother said. "Why don't I heat it up." And suddenly her eyes filled with tears, and all at once we fell to kissing one another — to embracing and smiling and making cheerful predictions about one another — there in the white, brightly lighted kitchen. We had known each other for so long, and there were so many things that we all three remembered...Our smiles, our approving glances, wandered from face to face. There was a feeling of politeness in the air. We were behaving the way we would in railway stations, at my sister's wedding, at the birth of her first child, at my graduation from college. This was the first of our reunions."
--"First Love and Other Sorrows," Harold Brodkey
What a great ending; it reminded me of my family's impromptu late-night munchies sessions, circa 1996. My family had just moved to California, and I don't know if it was the time difference or simply the stress of adjusting to new quarters, but we'd get hungry late at night — the kind of hunger that could only be quelled with noodle soup, and sometimes a sponge cake to wash it all down.

The weather's starting to get colder, which means more than a soupcon's worth of soup's on 'round these parts. One of my favorite soups only requires three ingredients (besides water and seasonings): fish fillets, seaweed, and eggs.

Directions: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the fish fillets and swirl in a few beaten eggs. Once the eggs and fish look pretty much cooked, rip up a few sheets of nori/seaweed and drop them in. Season to taste. Slurp it up with reckless abandon.

September 9, 2010

For Esme, no cinnamon toast

"Do you know Ohio?" she asked.
I said I'd been through it on the train a few times but that I didn't really know it. I offered her a piece of cinnamon toast.
"No, thank you," she said. "I eat like a bird, actually."
--"For Esme, With Love and Squalor," J.D. Salinger
Cool story. But who in their right mind could turn down a piece of cinnamon toast?! Not Martha Stewart -- it's one of her favorite things to eat for breakfast. Cannot believe it's been over a year since I witnessed her greatness in person.

September 5, 2010

Choo choo...who are you?

"His father poured himself some whisky and when the stove was hot he took some hamburgers and cooked them on the lid, turning them with a rusty spoon as if he was following some ritual in which he disregarded his wife's excellent concepts of hygiene and order."
--The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever
Cheever has a pleasingly quiet sense of humor. His words sure helped alleviate that dead feeling I get whenever I ride the Metro North.

That darned Cheever had me craving a hamburger and whisky, but I had to make do with a rice krispies treat. Meanwhile, the man next to me -- who was reading a book about Islam -- neatly peeled an orange and ate it. It's funny how little things like what we pack for a train ride can reveal bits and pieces about ourselves. So take note: if you have the misfortune of sitting next to a creeper like me, someone could be blogging about your train activities right now...

September 2, 2010

swimming in doubts

"He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure."
--"The Swimmer," John Cheever
This story provided me with just cause to suspect that Kazuo Ishiguro was influenced by Cheever's work. Both writers can conjure up convincing, unreliable protagonists who go to great lengths to delude themselves and deny the existence of what causes them pain. So-called unreliable narrators indulge, instead, in a charmingly fantastical existence, taking the reader along for the that inevitably comes to a crashing halt, of course.

What would it be like to realize that for some time already, you had unwittingly led a false narrative of a life, and everyone could see through it but you? Oh wait, I know. It would be awful. And yet I like these types of stories quite a bit.

August 30, 2010

Big books

They spent hours each morning reading aloud. “We would take on a big book,” Hazzard says, “Proust, or some nineteenth-century novel, or War and Peace, which is inexhaustively marvelous. We used to say to each other, if all copies of this book disappeared, we could re-create it—we would be able to remember.”
--Shirley Hazzard, in an interview with Narrative
Shirley Hazzard and husband sound like they were such a sweet old married couple. It's been a long time since I read a long, intensely satisfying book — and by book, I mean what Hazzard calls a "big book" (none of that novella nonsense), or at least a mini-tome. And big not just in size, but also in ideas. It's gotten so bad that I even re-read Mrs. Dalloway last week because I knew that, at least, wouldn't be a disappointment. It's not a "big book," but it does lay claim to one of my favorite first lines..."Mrs. Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself." Don't ask me why I like it.
It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people.
--Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

August 25, 2010

aimless, not talentless

"A smell of fine white linen, homemade raisin cookies (from a secret recipe), and hot crackling pine resin, all mixed together ... my kindhearted Aunt Zdeni assures me that everything beautiful she brooded about back then must be safe in the threads of the white fabric she keeps stored all year long, untouched, in the dull mahogany wardrobe; since it was not to be found in her own long life, it must have stayed in the tablecloths, she says."
--"Interiors," Rainer Maria Rilke
Ooh, homemade, top-secret raisin cookies (no oats...?). Though it was never published in his lifetime, Rilke's "Interiors" is comprised of snippets that hold wisdom beyond his 22 years, as he explores the intangible transition of "little girls" into women ("it is no slow timid development, but something strangely sudden," he wrote).
"But my girls stride straight down the middle of the street, wherever they can feel the most sky above them, and they walk through the whole town on little white clouds. With no whence behind them, so without any whither. Just walking. Maybe so they won't hear the tides of their blood surge so loud. Walking in the tentative rhythm of this secret inner beat of the surf. They are the silent shore of their restless infinity." --"Interiors"
Some of Rilke's theories about young women reminded me of the prelude to George Eliot's Middlemarch, written about 20 years prior to "Interiors." It's a little amusing that Rilke's name sounds feminine, while George Eliot is female. The name Evelyn Waugh has confused me in the past, too...but that's another story. Anyway, Eliot's prelude ruminates on the idea that even the greatest, strongest women often languish in a society that lacks the outlets to give shape to their talents and unique qualities:
"Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of cent'ring in some long-recognizable deed."
I think Rilke and Eliot would have gotten along quite well if they'd met. In fact, I have a hunch they would've swapped their secret raisin cookie recipes, translator at the ready.

August 23, 2010

On the subway once, I saw a black woman open and eat part of a cellophane-wrapped cake or doughnut with powdered sugar on it, then wrap the bite or two that remained back in the cellophane and put it back into her winter coat pocket, and the woman with her told her that that was ghetto.
--Mark Dow, "Dome Light"
One person's ghetto is another person's scrap treasure...after all, I've done that before. Why not save those last cake scraps for when you really want them?

I always forget that memoirs don't have to be full-length books; they can be short-story length, too -- or essays, I suppose. I wouldn't have been able to detect whether "Dome Light" was a non-fictional piece or a short story, if it hadn't been classified under "memoir" in the table of contents. That, in my mind, is the mark of a nicely written memoir. Although I'm a fiction hound through and through, there's definitely something alluring about reading the passage below, and knowing that the author actually felt and did those things (assuming he is telling the truth, of course).
Once I lay imagining her thinking of me. I was inside of what felt like a steel concavity. The world had become much too large and I too present on the edge of my bed somewhere inside it. I tried to stop myself, behind the steel where I couldn’t breathe, from saying her name, because I knew she wouldn’t hear it or come to me if she did. But I had to say it, because I couldn’t let myself, without falling further back into a seemingly unsupportable present, not believe that I could change what she wanted by knowing it so hard that she’d arrive again and make what had led to this point a dream, or done, it’s nothing, baby, you’re OK. So say her name.

August 12, 2010

@MarthaStewart: Thanks.

When, before turning to leave the church, I made a genuflection before the altar, I felt suddenly, as I rose again, a bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds steal towards me from the hawthorn-blossom, and I then noticed that on the flowers themselves were little spots of a creamier colour, in which I imagined that this fragrance must lie concealed, as the taste of an almond cake lay in the burned parts, or the sweetness of Mile. Vinteuil's cheeks beneath their freckles.
--Swann's Way, Marcel Proust
If I were forced to choose between hazelnut and almond, I suppose almond (i.e. macarons, almond cake, almond croissants) would win — oui! (By a wee bit.) However, if the dessert contains chocolate, then hazelnuts gain a considerable appeal...which is why I really, really enjoy Nutella, even though I don't have it very often.

In fact, sometimes I catch myself taking on the unsolicited role of a Nutella spokesperson.

Mmm, this gelato tastes like Nutella...

Hmm, you know what you should try? Mixing Nutella in your oatmeal. [This is actually REALLY tasty...]

Tonight, the obsession continued: blondie edition.

It all began with Twitter. I created a Twitter account solely to follow NY food trucks and one very important person: Martha Stewart. I was catching up on Ms. Stewart's tweets when I remembered that superb hazelnut blondie recipe of hers, which my sister made a few months ago. "It's a good thing" I had butter in the fridge.

Note: The batter will seem alarmingly dry and pasty (even compared to normal blondie batter), but don't worry — they'll be fine. And if you do happen to mess them up (or even if you don't), you can just slather more hazelnut spread on top...

This recipe is really good too, if oats float your boat.

August 8, 2010

Draw your chair up close

"On that happy day when the rain was lashing and you played so unexpectedly well came the resolution of the nebulous something that had imperceptibly arisen between us after our first weeks of love. I realized that you had no power over me, that it was not you alone who were my lover but the entire earth. It was as if my soul had extended countless sensitive feelers, and I lived within everything, perceiving simultaneously Niagara Falls thundering far beyond the ocean and the long golden drops rustling and pattering in the lane."
--"Sounds," Vladimir Nabokov
This really-old-but-fantastic article calls Nabokov a linguistic acrobat. Can't help but agree. He also ate butterflies (another brilliant article).

Great nugget of information from the Richard Yates article: "The epigraph [of Yates' A Good School] is from the author’s favorite writer, Fitzgerald, his famous 'Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.'" Hooray for epigraphs.

Currently halfway through Yates's Easter Parade, hoping I don't end up anything like the main character, whose first name I happen to share. Whee! Reading is fun.

August 3, 2010

Moldy MoMAs

 "I slept until noon, then woke and made a sad little breakfast of poor man's baklava: a large biscuit of shredded wheat with honey poured over and chopped peanuts sprinkled on top. The kitchen was still in its state of neglect. More strawberries in the refrigerator, which it seemed I had only just bought, had once again withered, turned this time the turquoise-gray of a copper roof. The bread, too, had a powdery blue mold that would have made a lovely eyeshadow for a showgirl--perhaps one who also needed the penicillin. The heel end of another loaf, weeks old, was sitting on the counter in a plastic bag with what looked like a snake inside: a coil of mold with orange and black markings. It was the Frugal Girls' Museum of Modern Art."
--A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
Always alarming to find mold plastered across one's food — but it can be pretty funny, too, especially if you have someone there to share in that mixture of disgust and fascination. Pictured above is my old roommate's moldy tomato. The mold was the wispy kind that looked a little like cotton candy...

p.s. happy national watermelon day, all. may your melons remain mold-free.

August 2, 2010

A damper on damp cake

"The afternoon was like the center of the cake that Berenice had baked last Monday, a cake which failed. The old Frankie had been glad the cake had failed, not out of spite, but because she loved these fallen cakes the best. She enjoyed the damp, gummy richness near the center, and did not understand why grown people thought such cakes a failure. It was a loaf cake, that last Monday, with the edges risen light and high and the middle moist and altogether fallen — after the bright, high morning the afternoon was dense and solid as the center of that cake."
--The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers

Oh yes. Damp, gummy cake is surely delicious (re: Starbucks' reduced-fat cinnamon swirl coffee cake...sticky and finger lickin' good). Unfortunately, Frankie's so-called aberrant taste in cake is just another (albeit small) example of her inability to fit in. And yet, is it so very wrong to desire something that others are inclined to declare a failure? Not when it comes to cake, but if referring to relationships, maybe so.

July 21, 2010

Sometimes, you just need to rewrite.

"Paris Review: How much rewriting do you do?

Ernest Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

PR: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

EH: Getting the words right."
--The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1

So it didn't quite take thirty-nine times, but I think I've rewritten my I Can't Believe It's No-Butter Snickerdoodles to great success. They were pretty tasty before — crunchy yet addicting, like dessert potato chips — but I always knew I was capable of baking a better snickerdoodle.

The gustatory perfection of this rewrite may not be as impressive as "getting the words right" a la Hemingway, but hey, at least I get to eat the fruits (or cookies) of my labor.

A Rewritten Chewy Snickerdoodle Recipe
1 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
Scant 1/2 cup oil (or melted butter, if you prefer)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
dash of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix all ingredients together until combined. In a shallow dish, sprinkle a few shakes of cinnamon into about 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Mix with your fingers.

Form the cookie dough into tablespoon-size balls and roll in the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Place the cookies on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Flatten slightly.

Bake 6-7 minutes (do not overbake unless you like crispy cookies). In fact, you should probably remove the cookies from the hot baking pan and let them cool elsewhere, just to make sure they don't overbake. Devour and share to your heart's content.

July 13, 2010

A lot to say, period.

"From it, from the palm of her hand against the palm of his, from their fingers locked together, and from her wrist across his wrist to his that was as fresh as the first light air that moving toward you over the sea barely wrinkles the glassy surface of a calm, as light as a feather moved across one's lip, or a leaf falling when there is no breeze; so light that it could be felt with the touch of their fingers alone, but that was so strengthened, so intensified, and made so urgent, so aching and so strong by the hard pressure of their fingers and the close pressed palm and wrist, that it was as though a current moved up his arm and filled his whole body with an aching hollowness of wanting."
--For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Be still, my heart. One sentence. Did you notice? Props to any writer who can compose sentences of considerable length that retain – nay, elevate – one's attention from beginning to end. Milton set the bar high with the epic, 26-liner opening sentence of Paradise Lost. Lengthy, eloquent sentences give me the warm fuzzies.

July 11, 2010

A cherry weird coincidence.

He sat down, tugging at a white-paper package in the tail pocket of his coat.

"Cherries," he said, nodding and smiling. "There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Grieg's 'Iche Liebe Dich.' Those sustained blasts on 'liebe' make my throat as dry as a railway tunnel. Have some?" He shook the bag at me.

"I prefer watching you eat them."
--"The Modern Soul," Katherine Mansfield

True story: I was doing a bit of late-night cherry hopping – first, binging on Bing cherries (ha), then, a few coveted Rainier cherries. Happily basking in after-cherry glow, I started reading a short story – and not three paragraphs into it, someone begins spouting off about cherries to great length. What a coincidence. Unfortunately, he informs the narrator that "All cherries contain worms." Not exactly the information you want to absorb after consuming a bunch of Bing and Rainier cherries.

Curiosity led me to stumble, Googley-eyed, upon a VERY disturbing message here at your own risk.

Ah, well, worm-ridden or not, they were tasty little fellas. Can't very well blame worms for wanting in on this delectable flesh.

July 5, 2010

Breakfast, grilled and toasted

"Have you got nothing else for my breakfast, Pritchard?" said Fred, to the servant who brought in coffee and buttered toast; while he walked round the table surveying the ham, potted beef, and other cold remnants, with an air of silent rejection, and polite forbearance from signs of disgust.

"Should you like eggs, sir?"

"Eggs, no! Bring me a grilled bone."
--George Eliot, Middlemarch
Fred has got it made. Demanding a grilled bone first thing in the morning? Luxurious. I would be happy with eggs or even just some buttered toast.

Toast is a funny thing: It always tastes better when you had no hand in making it. Someday, maybe I'll write a book, working title: Toast Not of One's Own. For exactly one year, I'll go to every breakfast establishment and order a side of toast. It will be magical – The Year of Magical Toast? Will it be more of a Virginia Woolf or a Joan Didion? Guess we'll see what the toast has to say about that.

June 29, 2010

Hoppin' good

"They were all eating out of the platter, not speaking, as is the Spanish custom. It was rabbit cooked with onions and green peppers and there were chickpeas in the red wine sauce. It was well cooked, the rabbit meat flaked off the bones, and the sauce was delicious. The girl watched him all through the meal. Everyone else was watching his food and eating. Robert Jordan wiped up the last of the sauce in front of him with a piece of bread, piled the rabbit bones to one side, wiped the spot where they had been for sauce, then wiped his fork clean with the bread, wiped his knife and put it away and ate the bread. He leaned over and dipped his cup full of wine and the girl still watched him."
--For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Do you think Hemingway ever had a meal just like that? Literature doesn't get much more realistic than that bread-sauce dipping sequence. When a meal is that good, you would definitely use bread to sop any residual sauce from both your plate and your fork. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to pick up on this, but methinks it be no mere coincidence that Robert affectionately refers to Maria as his "rabbit" later on.

I had my first bread-soppingly delicious rabbit a few months ago. Prepared with the bones still attached, it ended up tasting a lot like chicken, except leaner and more complex in flavor (or perhaps I just interpreted novelty as complexity). I had, however, no bread with which to sop, so I made do with my bed of rice, the Asian way.

June 15, 2010

Spuds of summer

"When I woke up we had the carriage to ourselves; and my mother unpacked our picnic basket, a handsome wicker affair, the kind people then used to give as wedding presents, although wedding presents were probably something else my mother had missed out on when she eloped with my father. There were ham sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, barley water, and a thermos of tea for Mother. And apples – their skin wrinkled by winter storage – to clean our teeth and freshen our mouths afterward."
--The Fox's Walk, Annabel Davis-Goff

What a charming picnic basket. Today, I had an intense craving for hard-boiled eggs. I don't even remember how long I cooked them, but they came out perfect – no ring around the yolk, and pleasurably easy to peel. These served as a humble base for a simple microwave-cooked-potato-plus-egg salad – no mayo, but plenty of garlic mustard aioli from TJ's. A dash of Old Bay rounds out the recipe. Yum.

Sandwiches, fruit, and the like always make me think of summer. I think I ate 2.5 fruits today. That's about as much fruit as I had all winter. A cold, fruitless winter 'twas. I would award myself with a pat on the back, but it seems that I also had three cookies...meaning I probably consumed an inordinate amount of sugar.

June 14, 2010

To sleep, perchance to write

"I am the canker of my brother Sage's life. He has told me so in no uncertain terms. Tonight as we eat hamburgers in the car on the way to our first scuba class, he can't stop talking about the horrible fates that might befall me underwater. This, even though he knows how scared I am after what happened last November."
-The Isabel Fish, Julie Orringer
As far as car food goes, I prefer spam musubi to hamburgers. But in the tastiness hierarchy, spam musubi ranks below some (including a certain Shack Stack), but not all, cheeseburgers. The addition of eggs bumps spam musubi much higher – probably close to a tasty cheeseburger. Now that that's settled, The Isabel Fish was one of my favorite stories from Orringer's How to Breathe Underwater. It's rare for me to feel immersed in a short story, since it's so, well, short – but some of the ones in this collection really pack a punch.

In Roald Dahl's Lucky Break, he explains that if you wish to become a fiction writer, "You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader's mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don't." 

A good fictional tale does not just pluck you from your life and shove you into another world. Personally, I think movies are more successful at that particular task. Rather, it still allows you to be you – but it also beckons you to slip into this other person, leading this other life, fashioned from and connected through language. This experience is almost like being in a dream – you might realize, somewhere in the back of your mind, that it's not real, yet you can't help but feel fully absorbed by it. As such, those of us not gifted enough to "make a scene come alive" can take comfort in the idea that we all become fantastic fiction writers when we sleep. Alas, retrieving that gift upon waking is another matter.

June 9, 2010

mistress distress, and eggs

A clever pun...
"But I am the classic mistress."
He held both her hands. This gave an impression of restraining her from doing harm. "Don't be censorious. You look like a schoolteacher."
"The Classics mistress." They both laughed, but then she said, "What will happen to us?"
"Who can tell?"
...and a sensible use for boiled eggs in the wintertime:
"All the girls of London shuddered, waiting for the bus. Some had knitted themselves unbecoming brown Balaclavas, with worse mittens to match. Some held a boiled egg, still hot, in their glove--which warmed the hand, and could be eaten cold at lunchtime in the ladies' room. At that hour all London was ashudder, waiting for the bus."
--The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard
Shirley Hazzard, you are a genius.

June 7, 2010

Playing Changman

Jennifer 8. Lee's Fortune Cookie Chronicles puts a spotlight on many aspects of Chinese-American cuisine that I never really thought about. For instance, soy sauce packets don't taste very much like soy – and why would they? If you look at the ingredients, they're just brown-colored salt water - nothing at all like genuine, brewed soy sauce.

This book also enlightened me to the fact that P.F. Chang's (the restaurant chain) was not founded by a Chang, as I had assumed, but instead by a man named Paul Fleming. He most likely appended a "Chang" to his initials because it was (and is?) so quintessentially Chinese. My father happens to be a P.F. Chang. In the future, should he ever decide to open a restaurant, naming it after himself would pretty much be out of the question. Kinda sad, huh?

(Pictured: stir-fried cabbage and tofu, made by a real P.F. Chang.)
"Chinese restaurants in America tend to shy away from anything that is recognizably animal. Mainstream Americans don't like to be reminded that the food on their plate once lived, breathed, swam, or walked. That means nothing with eyeballs. No appendages or extremities (no tongues, no feet, no claws, no ears). Secondly, opacity. This means nothing transparent or even semitransparent (this eliminates certain kinds of fungus and all jellyfish). There is also a limit to the textures Americans will allow in their mouths: nothing rubbery or oddly gelatinous (no tripe and, again, no jellyfish or sea cucumber). There is also an acceptable color palate. Nothing organic should be too black (no black seaweed or black mushrooms). Nothing made with flour should be too white (steamed white buns have the undone look of the Pillsbury Doughboy; toasty brown is better)."

May 23, 2010

reading for resorption

We the people of the cruddy memory, in order to establish ourselves as beings capable of normal recollection, often watch and read the same things more than once in our lives. Ask me about a movie just two days after I watched it, and I could probably tell you my general impression of it, but not much else. When it comes to books, movies, and TV shows, is this goldfish-esque memory good or bad? A mixed bag, I think. For instance, Garden State the second time? Unfortunate. Replaying creepy Briony Tallis scenes from Atonement? Pure entertainment.

Reading and watching that which has already been read and seen may sound like an awful waste of time – and often is – but sometimes it's necessary. I first encountered Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking as a wide-eyed high school student, yet I could probably read it every few years and still find myself disgusted and disturbingly fascinated by its contents. History has never been a great love of mine. But this, I would voluntarily absorb again and again. I don't mind forgetting some things – how the first season of Lost ended exactly, for example. But it just doesn't seem right to forget about the godawful things that occurred in 1937...or, worse yet, to accept that they should fade away like everything else in one's lifetime.
"In contrast to Germany, where it is illegal for teachers to delete the Holocaust from their history curricula, the Japanese have for decades systematically purged references to the Nanking massacre from their textbooks. They have removed photographs of the Nanking massacre from museums, tampered with original source material, and excised from popular culture any mention of the massacre."
--The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

May 10, 2010

Growing pains

"So you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question whence all this may be coming and whither it is bound? Since you know that you are in the midst of transitions and wished for nothing so much as to change."
--Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
It's true: No one likes to grapple with ugliness, least of all when it is located inside oneself. When I think of self-improvement, instinctively I picture smiles and impressive before and after pictures, but it's an unfortunate truth of life that sadness is and will continue to be a key driving force of the process. As much as we may want to change something inside ourselves without having to ever acknowledge its existence, or without hating ourselves a bit in the process, it simply can't be done. There are no figurative rubber gloves to keep the skin of our hands clean from what horrors lurk beneath the clogged drain – the thing is to simply plunge right in and hope for the best, no comfort but for a few letters that comprise the closest thing to a self-help book anyone should ever want or need to read. His words consistently amaze and inspire.
"The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself and for hours meeting no one – this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doings. And when one day one perceives that their occupations are paltry, their professions petrified and no longer linked with living, why not then continue to look like a child upon it all as upon something unfamiliar, from out of the depth of one's own world, out of the expanse of one's own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation?"
--Letters to a Young Poet
"Petrified and no longer linked with living"...probably a fitting description for way too many of the actions of so-called adults. I always found it a little bit depressing to learn that even the best people are human; they have their petty weaknesses and petrified days, just like the rest of us.

May 2, 2010

Not-So-Stressful Microwave Mochi

"'You always start with the dessert, that's your problem,' Emory said. And he was right, I was already eating the pudding. One thing I'd discovered from years of institutional food was that a certain kind of custard survived the huge kitchens, even flourished there. The little odd square dessert in TV dinners; the airplane cobbler; I still remembered a butterscotch pudding from a dormitory cafeteria. And it was impossible to resist a dessert when I hadn't had enough sleep. This was warm custard with berries."
-- Mona Simpson, The Lost Father
"Desserts is stressed spelled backwards." As much as I'd like to take credit, I didn't realize that on my own; a Dylan's Candy Bar T-shirt alerted me to this fun fact.

Mayan/Ann is a little bit annoying in this sequel, but I guess I can forgive her. The girl was stressed, ergo she ate plenty of desserts on her search for 'the lost father.' And so it should be.

I, on the other hand, crave desserts even when I'm not especially stressed. The dessert I endeavored to make on this very un-stressful Sunday afternoon was daifuku: mochi stuffed with a sweet filling, usually anko, or sweet red bean paste. The process is surprisingly easy and it involves a microwave. Yay for radiation!

5-minute Microwavable Mochi
3/4 cup sweet rice flour (mochiko flour)
3/4 cup water
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1/4 cup sugar (optional - omit if you're going to fill the mochi with sweet red bean paste)
Tapioca or corn starch, for shaping

Combine all the ingredients except tapioca/corn starch in a microwavable bowl; stir until smooth. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for 5 minutes on high. While that's happening, sprinkle a generous layer of tapioca or corn starch on a cutting board or other clean surface.

When the mochi is finished, it will appear opaque and sticky. It shouldn't be runny at all. Remove the bowl with an towel or oven mitt, since it will be hot. Undo the plastic wrap, being careful to avoid the hot steam that will escape. Use a spoon to scoop the mochi onto the prepared cutting board. It will look a little scary at this point. Don't panic if you can't get it off the spoon. Just do your best.

Corn starch will be your best friend for the next few minutes. Make sure to coat your fingers with it before attempting to handle the monstrously sticky mochi. Cut it into manageable chunks with a plastic knife (amazingly, the mochi doesn't seem to stick to it much, and it gives a clean cut). You can either eat it like this, on top of ice cream or frozen yogurt (a la Pinkberry), or you can make daifuku - filled mochi.

If you venture down the daifuku route, and want to fill yours with sweet red bean paste, you can get some at the Japanese market. Mine came in a pouch. Simply squeeze some onto a flat disc of mochi (it's ok if it's coated with corn starch) and shape the mochi dough around the red bean paste to form an enclosed ball. Yes, my instructions are pretty bad...but if you possess an ounce of common sense, you should be fine.

Unfortunately, you may find that your fingers will get slightly grouchy from handling the hot mochi, but it may be too hard to shape if it gets too cool. You can be bold and wait until it's cooled before shaping it, if you wish. I, however, have the memory of a gluttonous goldfish, so I forgot about all that scorched finger nonsense upon taking the first heavenly bite. Hopefully you will, too.

April 24, 2010

Meat and potatoes

"I would gladly have eaten the potatoes and let the meat alone, but having got a large piece of the latter on to my plate, I could not be so impolite as to leave it; so, after many awkward and unsuccessful attempts to cut it with the knife, or tear it with the fork, or pull it asunder between them, sensible that the awful lady was a spectator to the whole transaction, I at last desperately grasped the knife and fork in my fists, like a child of two years old, and fell to work with all the little strength I possessed. But this needed some apology – with a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, 'My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I can scarcely handle my knife and fork.'

'I daresay you would find it cold,' replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to reassure me."
--Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte
Poor Agnes. She wouldn't have had this problem if she were served a nicely roasted chicken drumstick like the one pictured above – one of my favorite versions of meat and potatoes; no knife required.

April 21, 2010

13 going on old

"Certain moments in life are in another tense: they are going to become. And only when you get to that other tense do they reveal to you what they were and what they meant, and then you know that one moment is responsible for everything that came afterwards and you think, if only I had understood what was going to happen and prevented it..."
--The Way I Found Her, Rose Tremain
Thus ends the Part One of this coming-of-age novel. At one point, the 13-year-old narrator, Lewis, describes one woman's laugh as "the kind of laugh you imagine women having long ago, before they realized they were an oppressed category of people." That, in turn, made me laugh.

In the narration, there are times when you can definitely tell that Lewis is a young teenage male, but then there are also times when he sounds like a middle-aged woman. It's a bit confusing. I suppose if I were a writer, I'd have a hard time speaking in the voice of (a) a 13-year-old, and (b) a boy. I suppose Ms. Tremain does a pretty good job considering the challenges involved.

April 15, 2010

I'm lichen the mums

"A young girl, a Chinese or Vietnamese girl, slight as a child in her pale-green uniform, but with painted lips and cheeks, was coming along the corridor, pushing a cart. On the cart were paper cups and plastic containers of orange and grape juice. 'Juice time,' the girl was calling, in her pleasant and indifferent singsong. 'Juice time. Orange. Grape. Juice.' She took no notice of David and Stella, but they let go of each other and resumed walking. David did feel a slight, very slight, discomfort at being seen by such a young and pretty girl in the embrace of Stella. It was not an important feeling--it simply brushed him and passed--but Stella, as he held the door open for her, said 'Never mind, David. I could be your sister. You could be comforting your sister. Older sister.'"
--Alice Munro, "Lichen"
Ay. Poor Stella. David thinks he's too good for her, but she's obviously the one with the more evolved mind. She understands his thoughts, and she graciously accepts him for who he is -- the kind of man who would feel embarrassed of being associated with her simply because she is no longer young and pretty like the juice girl.

Juice girl. Asian juice girl. Asian juice time = Tea time? I'll do you one better: chrysanthemum tea time. Yes. Here I sit with my freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea made from dried chrysanthemums. Mmm...can't get any better than petals suspended in hot, golden liquid. Why am I using funny words to describe my tea? Earlier today I was reading a recipe on The Guardian website, even though I'd be way too lazy to convert the grams into cups and such - but that's beside the point. One of the ingredients was "golden syrup" and I thought for the umpteenth time how magical it must be to live in the U.K. What is golden syrup anyway? I don't know, but I want some. Immediately.

April 12, 2010

Pudding's Progress

"He thinks he remembers Violet coming for supper, as she sometimes did, bringing with her a pudding, which she set outside in the snow to keep cool. (None of the farmhouses had a refrigerator in those days.) Then it snowed, and the snow covered the pudding dish, which sank from sight. Dane remembers Violet tramping around in the snowy yard after dark, calling, 'Pudding, pudding, here pudding!' as if it were a dog. Himself laughing immoderately, and his mother and father laughing in the doorway, and Violet elaborating the performance, stopping to whistle."
--Alice Munro, "A Queer Streak"
Ah, how I wish I had some pudding chilling in the snow. Better yet, I wish I had a dog to call Pudding. Alice Munro's collection of stories, The Progress of Love, is a quite satisfying read. I had been hoping for quite some time to find a book that would consume me with the loveliness of its words. This is a short story collection that does just that, leaving me to desire nothing so much as an iced tea to keep me tied to this world while sinking temporarily, ecstatically, into another.

April 8, 2010

Beans? Sweet!

It's funny how sugar can change things so. I don't really care for beans in savory form (i.e. burritos, chili) – but sweeten them up, and that's a whole other story. Maybe it's the Asian in me, but I can never get enough of beans in dessert form. And one of the easiest ways to consume them is in the form of a sweet soup, often eaten at the end of a meal.
The other night, I made a big batch of red (azuki) and green (mung) bean dessert soup. If you make this soup with just green beans, it'll be faster. The red beans take longer to get soft and mushy because they're bigger.

Basically just wash the beans and put enough water to cover by about 2 inches or so (no need to be too precise, as you can always add water later). Bring to a boil and then simmer until the beans burst and get tender. It should take about an hour or thereabouts. Add sugar/honey/sweetener to taste. 

This time around, I decided to make some glutinous rice balls, too. They're really easy: Just take some mochiko (sweet rice) flour, add enough hot water until it forms a dough that's easy to roll into balls. If you have too much water, it will be too sticky to handle. In that case, just add more mochiko. Boil in water until they float, and let simmer for a few minutes. They taste great with the beans because they're chewy and starchy, while the beans are coarse and sweet. Sort of like deconstructed mochi.

Well, there you have it. A delicious Chinese dessert awaits your taste buds. And it's even full of fiber, no?


April 5, 2010

My First Flannery

"'Lemme just have a piece of theter cake yonder,' he said, pointing to a half of pink and yellow cake on a round glass stand. 'I think I got something to do. I got to be going. Set it up there right next to him,' he said, indicating the customer reading the newspaper. He slide over the stools and began reading the outside sheet of the man's paper. While he ate the cake he read and felt himself surge with kindness and courage and strength."
--Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor
My first brush with Flannery O'Connor's work was a bit like eating cheesecake. I didn't enjoy it all that much, but seeing that I was stuck on the subway and there was no other dessert around, I begrudgingly ate it up, struck by its details more than usual as I stewed in my dislike.

This bit about the cake (above) is just about the sole bright spot in the fumbling ugliness of "religious investigation" this book is said to be. Her prose is technically flawless, which is disturbing enough in itself. But even more disturbing is how very consuming it is, for such a bleak story. I couldn't stop submitting myself to its pain. Kind of like that guy on 42nd street who shouts into a portable microphone about Jesus and redemption every single day. If you ever actually stop to listen, you may find yourself horrifically entranced. Reading this book is a little bit like that, I think.

March 29, 2010

Mustard Madness

"Wrapped up like an expensive gift in her emerald batik caftan, her purple and gold sari or some wheat-colored housedress straight out of Peyton Place (for this comparison you had to pretend you didn't see the cigarette burn at the hip), on Sunday afternoons, Hannah entertained, in the old-fashioned, European sense of the word. Even now, I don't understand how she managed to prepare those extravagant dinners in her tiny mustard-yellow kitchen -- Turkish lamb chops ('with mint sauce'), Thai steak ('with ginger-infused potatoes'), beef noodle soup ('Authentic Pho Bo'), on one less successful occasion, a goose ('with cranberry rub and sage carrot fries')."
--Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl
My second go-around with this book, and its narration is just as lively and impressive as I remember. Every page is dotted and spotted (perhaps even besotted) with literary allusions, pop references, and original similes. If you were to check up every single reference, it would take you forever to finish this book. Thankfully, for those of us who haven't read every notable book ever written since the written language has been around, it's still a great read (albeit probably on a lower level). Even if you don't understand half of the references, you will no doubt find yourself captivated by Pessl's command over lay language.

Moving on to other "topics," I wonder, would cooking in a mustard yellow kitchen like Hannah's make someone crave mustard more or less? I have been in a very "mustardy" mood lately. I think it all started with a knish I had on the street; the best part of said knish was the spicy mustard. I stuck some mustard in tomorrow's breakfast-for-lunch burrito, which includes: eggs, tomatoes, turkey sausage, sauteed cabbage, white rice, onions, scallions, baby bella mushrooms...and Trader Joe's aioli garlic mustard. Yum, I hope?

March 24, 2010

Butterfish a la Steinbeck

"I wish you could have tasted the way my mother fried butterfish. She used to take an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet--and the fish, it had to be very fresh and very carefully trimmed. She'd make a batter with brown toasted crumbs--bread crumbs, not cracker crumbs--and she'd put a whole tablespoon--no, two tablespoonfuls--of Worcestershire sauce in a beaten egg. I think that was the secret."
--The Wayward Bus, John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, quite the fiction and recipe writer. Reminds me a little of katsu style. Yum.

March 23, 2010

Queer dinner

Dickon grinned.

"My dinner's easy to carry about with me," he said. "Mother always lets me put a bit o' somethin' in my pocket."

He picked up his coat from the grass and brought out of a pocket a lumpy little bundle tied up in a quite clean, coarse, blue and white handkerchief. It held two thick pieces of bread with a slice of something laid between them.

"It's oftenest naught but bread," he said, "but I've got a fine slice o' fat bacon with it today."

Mary thought it looked a queer dinner, but he seemed ready to enjoy it.

--The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mmm, fat slice o' bacon? Sign me up. Is it just me, or are bundles of food made all the more scrumptious by their less-than-perfect packaging? Children's books always seem to have the simplest but tastiest goodies, often bundled in handkerchiefs like Dickon's, all the better for taking along on adventures of the magical kind.

March 21, 2010

Spoon-fed love

"Aliette leaves her wheelchair in the foyer and begins to walk, even though the pain seems unbearable when she is tired. She loves the food she loathed before, for the flesh it gives her. She eats marbled steaks, half-inch layers of butter on her bread. She walks to the stores on Madison, leaning against a wall when she needs to, and returns, victorious, with bags. On one of her outings, she meets her father coming home for lunch. As she calls to him, and runs clumsily the last five steps, his eyes fill. His fleshy face grows pink, and the lines under his mouth deepen.
'Oh,' he says, nearly weeping and holding out his arms. 'My little girl is back.'"
--"L. DeBard and Aliette," Lauren Groff
What food would you choose to eat if you had to fatten up while recovering from polio? Doughnuts would rank higher much than marbled steaks on my list. Probably not as nutritious, though. Doughnuts: They're what's for dinner.

Last night, I did not have doughnuts for dinner (sad), but I did eat in Chinatown. At one point, I overheard a dad nudging his rather sour-faced 8-year-oldish son into line at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. " have to try. It's supposed to be the BEST." The idea that parents want to give their children "the best" tugs a little at my heart. This kid was stupid for complaining about getting ice cream, in my opinion. Free ice cream? What's there to think about? Yet I was one of those kids, when it came to other stuff. So, most likely, were you.

Children. They complain, whine, and pout while their parents labor on their behalf. And then they have the nerve to grudgingly open their mouths to taste the ice cream their parents bought for them. Lately, I find myself constantly marveling at the difficulties of child rearing and the countless ways in which children are oblivious to their parents' efforts. When we grow up we may gradually realize the selflessness of parenthood, but that's just the tip of the iceberg until we go through the process ourselves. The immensity of what it means to be a parent washes over me each time I catch the Jasons of the world in action.

March 10, 2010

Sandwiches of Discontent

Reading The Winter of Our Discontent makes me feel discontent about my self-made sandwiches. The ones Ethan Cawley makes just sound so much better.
"Behind the counter he cut four fat slices of rye bread and buttered them liberally. He slid open the cold doors and picked out two slices of processed Swiss cheese and three slices of ham. 'Lettuce and cheese,' he said, 'lettuce and cheese. When a man marries he lives in the trees.' He mortared the top slices of bread with mayonnaise from a jar, pressed the lids down on the sandwiches, and trimmed the bits of lettuce and ham fat from the edges. Now a carton of milk and a square of waxed paper for wrapping. He was folding the ends of the paper neatly when a key rattled in the front door and Marullo came in, wide as a bear and sack-chested so that his arms seemed short and stood out from his body."
--The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
I don't think I've ever savored rye bread (granted, I don't eat it all that much), but this book is making me crave it intensely.

Why don't we all make our sandwiches on fat slices of rye (buttered, too -- how lovely, how old-fashioned, how down-home American!), trim the edges, and wrap them romantically in a neat square of waxed paper? Sure beats dumping them into plastic "sandwich bags."

February 28, 2010

Adventures with Almond Flour, Pt. 1

Mission: Convert Almond Meal/Flour to Tasty Almond Cake
Status: Accomplished

A toothsome but measly slice of lemon almond cake from Recess inspired me to bake my own almond cake. For some reason it was somewhat difficult to find a recipe that neither included marzipan nor involved the use of an outrageous number of eggs...I saw some recipes that called for EIGHT eggs. I need those eggs for tomorrow night's dinner, thank you very much.

Finally I found a nice almond cake recipe on Serious Eats, made a few minor adjustments (butter instead of olive oil, a bit of extra almond meal, and yogurt in place of orange juice) -- and viola! A nice, moist and springy slice of almond cake is now sitting on a plate by my side, but fast on its way to disappearing into the depths of my digestive tract. Too graphic? My apologies.

This cake is refreshingly simple to make. If you're looking for a recipe that uses almond meal (but not your whole supply), this recipe uses a rational 1/2 cup amount and calls for a respectable number of eggs (3). Recipe follows.

Almond Butter Cake
adapted from Gina DePalma's recipe
1 cup flour
3/4 cup almond meal/flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 extra-large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter + 1 tbsp canola oil or olive oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup vanilla yogurt (you can use nonfat)
*For the glaze, just whisk 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar and 1 tablespoon of milk/buttermilk/soy milk together. Add orange or lemon zest if desired.

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 8x8 square baking pan.

Mix the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Add the butter and oil, extracts, and yogurt and whisk until smooth. Whisk or fold in the dry ingredients until the batter is thick and smooth.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, or up to 45 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool slightly and drizzle the glaze over the top before serving. The glaze will be pretty much invisible, but it really helps make this cake extra special.

February 22, 2010

Ile Flottante

"The soup was clear and hot, the lamb cooked in a sauce that was both delicious and exotic, all of it accomplished and fine in a way that would have been admired in any restaurant in any city she had ever been to, and Mrs. Larsen served it with a simplicity and finesse that surprised and pleased her. She had thought she wasn't hungry, but she ate everything, including a dessert made of light meringues floating in glistening, silky custard."
--A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick

Alas, no floating island has passed through these lips before, but it sounds, like all things custard-y, positively fantastic. Ina Garten's recipe looks inviting, minus the caramel sauce. The creme anglaise (english cream) is basically sugar, egg yolks, and hot milk, though Ina gets fancy with the Cognac. Another potential use for egg yolks! That definitely warrants an exclamation point in my book.

Tangent time: I have a friend whose pet peeve is people's overuse of exclamation points. She has a point. (Good thing she has a high tolerance for cheesy jokes, though.) She also happens to be a great writer, just about the best one I know. This is no coincidence. When I correspond with her, I try to watch my use of !, and I've noticed that it makes me a more thoughtful writer. When writing personal e-mails, it's nice to actually think about what words best express your emotion -- to rely on the strength of your words and trust your writing voice, rather than resorting to symbols all the time. Exclamation points are the easy way out - and I think that's why so many people use them so often. When you use them (and see them) time after time, people are inclined to think that you don't stand behind your words as strongly as you say. And you always want people to believe you mean everything you write...don't you? There's a great Seinfeld clip about the way people can disagree about the use of this controversial symbol, too. Check it out.

February 17, 2010

Tea and Little Bee

"Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes--the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist. I have heard that your country drinks more tea than any other. How sad that must make you--like children who long for absent mothers. I am sorry."
--Little Bee, Chris Cleave 
An interesting take on tea, for whenever someone tells me he or she is settling down with a cup of piping hot tea, I can think of no greater pleasure -- and I sheepishly find myself feeling jealous if I cannot have some, too. For it sounds like such a luxury, doesn't it? To steep a pot of tea for oneself, at one's leisure. This, I think, is a freedom and privilege. But Little Bee reminds me that not everyone thinks the same. Sometimes our most pleasurable activities or foods can be corrupted, or embittered, if you will.

After the first sentence (Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl...), I was hooked, but then my interest waned. And then, miraculously, it rose again -- in the end, I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. Funny when that happens. The author is a British journalist; his colleague, Charlie Brooker, is one of my favorite columnists. The Guardian is fortunate to have them both.