December 15, 2011

the wind beneath a book's wings

"Used to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit. Milly would put a kettle on and set out whatever culinary adventure she'd gone on that day. For morning arrivals, she offered her famous vanilla drop biscuits and raspberry jam."
--The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen
It seems to me that birds have succeeded in squawking their way into authors' and publishers' minds, for they populate a good number of standout book titles. I loved Birds of America, Delicate Edible Birds, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I did not, however, love Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds (disappointing, because I so enjoyed her non-fiction Bird by Bird); I couldn't even make it past the first 20 pages. This observation, just now, has led me to propose a literary hypothesis of sorts: Any book with "bird" in its title will evoke a love or hate reaction from me — nothing in between. Any scientist (or student who pays attention in biology class) will tell you that a hypothesis is meant to be tested. The Bird Sisters may just be the first book to succeed in disproving my (short-lived) hypothesis. I'm about halfway through, and neither loving nor hating it.

The first few pages held so much promise; already in the first page or two, it proposed to be a story about two sisters, and one of them even liked to bake. It also hinted at some sort of suspenseful coming-of-age story, but the suspense hasn't really come through yet. Instead, it has been mildly entertaining — lively enough to keep me reading, but not good enough to recommend it to anyone yet. I'll keep reading in hopes that my hypothesis will remain intact, in the event that I either fall in love with or develop an intense hatred of this book over the next day or two. It could happen.

In the meantime, on to more pressing (i.e. gastronomical) concerns...boy, would I love a recipe for those vanilla drop biscuits. I imagine they're somewhat like scones.

December 5, 2011

Baking things slow, like molasses

I tend to enjoy coming-of-age stories, and Laura Morirarty's The Center of Everything is no different. Told from the female perspective, it runs in the same vein as Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here. Both books suck you in and hold you there for a time, reminding you of how it can be all too possible for a teenage girl to intermittently adore and hate her mother; it is a bond unlike any other she will form in her life.
I watch Deena draw on her pumpkin with a ballpoint pen. The swirling lines she's making don't look like anything yet, but I know they will. She never messes up.
"You're so good at things like this," I tell her.
She looks up quickly, like I have surprised her. "No," she says. "Not really."
--The Center of Everything, Laura Moriarty
The pumpkin carving scene above reminded me that I will always prefer to eat a pumpkin rather than carve one. Maybe it's just because I'm more of a fatty than an artist. Tonight, I did something I've been meaning to do since Thanksgiving: I baked a pumpkin gingerbread loaf. I must say I'm quite pleased with the results; it came out splendidly moist with good spiced flavor.

At my sister's suggestion, I also made a glaze to go along with it. The glaze is optional, however; reserved for those who can get behind the phrase "the sweeter the better." It's also very fun to drizzle on top of the cake. I love drizzling! (...referring to glazes and sauces, not the weather, though that can be nice at times, too, I suppose.)

Glazed Pumpkin Gingerbread Loaf
For the loaf
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup melted butter (unsalted)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup pumpkin puree (1/2 of a 15-oz. can)
2 extra-large eggs
3 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the cinnamon glaze
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
2 1/2 tsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 sprinkling of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 deg F. Grease a loaf pan and set aside. combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Combine wet ingredients in a large bowl. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet until they are well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 55-60 min.

Prepare the glaze while the loaf is baking. Whisk all glaze ingredients together and drizzle over the finished cake.

December 1, 2011

sugar and spice / and books that are nice

After an unusually warm November, New York delivered cold and crisp temperatures this morning, just in time for the first day of December.

For a long time, December was, hands down, my favorite month; it meant, among other joys, winter break, birthdays, and decorating the Christmas tree with a hodgepodge of assorted ornaments. But over the years, it has lost some of its luster; the artificial Christmas tree was increasingly neglected and eventually thrown away, and when college ended, so too did winter break.

Even so, December will always be a time when I actually feel happy about being nostalgic — nostalgic for all sorts of things, including but not limited to tried and true treats of the edible variety (ginger cookies and pumpkin-spiced everything) and classic stories (told by the likes of Dickens, Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott).
There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
How nice it is to remember that one can always count on being able to sink back into the welcoming, cozy tale of the March sisters, just as one can bite into a ginger cookie and expect to taste molasses, every time.

Chewy Ginger Cookies or Dunkable "Snaps"
Makes 2 dozen

2/3 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar + more for dipping, later
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350° F. Whisk together the oil, sugar, egg, and vanilla extract. Stir in the molasses.

Mix the flour, baking soda, and spices together in a separate bowl, then add to the wet ingredients. Combine into a uniform dough. Pour about 1/3 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt into a shallow bowl or plate. Shape the dough into approximately two dozen tablespoon-size balls, and roll each into the sugar/salt mixture. Place the balls a few inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. No need to flatten the balls -- they should flatten into discs while baking.

Bake for 10 minutes for chewy gingersnaps, or 12-14 minutes for "snaps" that are crunchy enough to dip. Remove them from the cookie sheet and cool on a plate or rack.

Best enjoyed with a good book and hot mug of your favorite winter beverage. Incidentally, National Cookie Day is this Sunday, Dec. 4th!

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
–Middlemarch, George Eliot