Monday, April 14, 2014

Dear Self, Twenty Years Ago

Last weekend I celebrated my birthday. When all the eating and drinking and cake and story telling were over I found myself looking at a photo an old friend had sentme as a birthday card. On the left side, the  two of us, no more than six or seven years old, politely smiling to the camera. On the right side, another of us laughing at a party a few weeks ago. Her note read: you're still taller. I found myself looking through more albums and thinking back to how it felt to be at each age, oblivious of what's yet to come, or what will fade with time. One photo struck me especially. In it I gaze admiringly at my mom and her friend, who at the time the photo was taken were not too far from my age today. How grown up and settled people look from a 7-year-old-kid's-eye-view. I wonder what 7-year-old me would have thought of this me, here today. I wonder if the grown ups of my childhood felt as I do now: always on the cusp of something... but what?

Dear Self, Twenty Years Ago

Drink Water and floss. Habits form harder with every year that passes. Keep your journals in one place. Some years from now you'll find yourself craving a look at things you only partially remember and it would be nice to find them then. Your kid sister will grow to remember every time you stuck up for her and it will make you proud. Keep doing that, and do it even better if you can. Call grandma every week and let her tell you all the stories of her heart. She will be the first to go. In a few years you will have to leave the world as you know it and start all over somewhere new. Write down the names and numbers and mailing addresses of the friends you love the most. It is difficult to find people from half way across the world.

Sometimes it's hard to stir the pot but you still have to do it. Say what's on your mind even if you think it will get you in trouble. Let those around you grow by dealing with your feelings and ideas. Trying to protect people is sometimes selfish. Being unsure is not the same as being wrong. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. And there's more to every story.  

You're one of the lucky ones who will always have a loving home to fall back on. Learn to give back and feel less guilty about what you receive. Those fortresses you build out of the books you stay up reading will grow bigger and stronger. At times you will use them to escape but every time you will emerge stronger. You know that big guitar you carry everywhere, that's as tall as you are? Don't put it down. Music will be your solace.

Love will not be easy. You will find yourself heart-broken and defeated one day and you'll wonder how something you worked so hard for could slip through your fingers. Then you will slowly see that not every challenge is one you deserve to win, and in loss you will learn a different kind of love: one for the time and effort spent, memories had, and lessons learned. Once you shed your anger you will find beauty even in what is lost. Those who nurse your broken heart and help you build yourself again will Teach you the art of true friendship. You'll bake them lots of cookies and cook them many dinners. They'll remind you that there is no shame in failing, and as you fall asleep on their couches you'll know they meant it.

Good butter, good coffee, and sharp knives. Don't buy what you can make, and for god's sake write down your recipes. And remember, sometimes you have to do the thing first and worry about explaining it later.

The recipe I'm attaching to this post is for cream puffs. They were my favorite treat as a kid, and I still love them today. The recipe is simple but precise. So read it through once before you begin. Bon chance!

Pâte à Choux


1/2 C water
1/4 C unsalted butter
pinch of salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 C all purpose flour
2 eggs
For Filling
1 1/2 C whipping cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract 

Heat water, salt, sugar, and butter in a small pan until butter melts. bring just to a boil and remove from heat, so as not to boil off the liquid. 

Stir in the flour and mix well until no lumps appear. Then return to heat for no more than two minutes, cooking the dough while turning it with the wooden spoon. Move quickly to avoid too much exposure to heat on any one one side of the dough. The result should look like a ball of smooth mashed potato.

Transfer to a mixing bowl and let sit for 5 minutes and cool down. Then crack eggs in one at a time, mixing well with spoon or spatula, until you have a looser, yellowy, and smooth batter that just falls off the spoon. 

Preheat oven to 425

Fill a piping bag with this mixture and pipe circles on a parchment lined baking sheet. Each circle should be between two and three inches in diameter and about an inch in height. Smooth any pointy tips with a wet finger and bake for 20-30 minutes or until substantially risen and golden. When done, these babies are super light and if you tap them they sound very hollow. 

While they bake, you can whip the cream with the sugar until it is firm and fluffy (but don't overdo it and make sweet vanilla butter) and fill a second piping bag. I use a long skinny piping tip for this and you will see why in the next step. Chill the cream in the piping bag until the shells have cooled completely. In fact you can assemble the cream puffs up to a day later if that's what you'd like.

Assembly will present you with two options: 1. Using a sharp serrated knife, slice each puff  open and pipe a turban of cream in the middle. Then place other half on top and serve as little cream puff sandwiches. 2. Flip each puff and poke the bottom with your long metal piping tip and squeeze some filling inside until the cream puff feels heavier. I use the second method because I find it less messy and easier to eat. Should you want to make a little chocolate ganache, you could always dip the tops for a little extra excitement but powdered sugar will also dress these airy treats adorably. Serve with a pint of berries and you're done. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Renewing My Vows

There's an old folk tale about an old man with a long white beard. One day his friend asks him if in bed he keeps his beard under or over the covers. He can't seem to remember so he decides to check. In bed that night he tries it over, but it feels wrong. He goes for under, and he feels strange. He stays up like this all night cursing the question that got him in this mess. In the morning his friend asks if he has the answer and the old man says no, and I don't even know who I am.

This blog has been one my favorite adventures ever, and my absence for a while is what makes me think of the old man's beard. When I went back to school last year after a leave of absence I knew I needed to change my thesis topic. When I changed my topic to food, writing, and hunger, I had no idea it would interfere with the most pertinent activity in my life. I should have thought of that I guess. It's like when medical students develop acute hypochondria. I've been reading so much theory about food and eating and blogs and I think inadvertently I've been plugging myself into every idea wondering if I cook like that or think like that or write for that reason. It sounds trivial but trust me being so self-conscious like that makes it hard to write. It's not something they mention much in academia. I feel in so many cases, people write about topics so distant from their own experiences that they don't face this predicament. It's a shame because I think it's a good one. It makes me try harder not to force a line-of-best-fit through thousands of individual examples just for the sake of making a neat argument to present to my supervisor. Sure it's a slower process but I wouldn't want it any other way.

 Maybe in another post I'll write more about just what it is I'm starting to understand about what we do when we write about food, but for now I'd just like to find a way back into the stream of my own food narrative. I'm starting to think of this last pause not as lost time but rather a necessary beat where I gained some insight and found in spite of my new critical perspective that I am still as thrilled as ever to be writing right here, about food and all my other hungers.

Of course I've still been cooking and eating and feeding people, so there will be no shortage of stories to tell and recipes to share. This one seems especially appropriate with all this talk of renewal and return. It's a salty pear after all; not the inaugural salty pear of so many years ago but a new one, lovingly poached in pear juice and white wine with mulling spices and served with chopped pecans and salted caramel. It goes really well with bourbon and it's up to you to decide how you'd like to use that information...


For Pears
2 Ripe Bosc or Anjou pears peeled and cored
1 C Pear juice (I got a juices for Christmas so I juiced a few but you can use nectar or another fruit juice)
1.5 C Riesling (or white wine you have open)
2 tbsp brown sugar or honey
mulling spices (I used a stick of cinnamon, clove, star anise, 1/4 vanilla bean, and dry Orange slices)

For topping
1/4 cup chopped roasted pecans

For Caramel
(Recipe here)
1 C Sugar
1/4 C Water
3/4 C  Cream
3 1/2 tbsp unslated butter
pinch of your good salt

Peel and core the pears using a vegetable peeler or paring knife and a melon-baller. Cut the base of each pear slightly. This will allow them to stand.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in the smallest saucepan that fits your two pears and bring everything to  medium heat. Cover pears and simmer for 15 minutes making sure not to boil them rapidly as they will split and lose their lovely shape. Test with a toothpick to see if desired softness is achieved. Remove pears gently and serve warm or cold with chopped nuts and the salted caramel sauce or reduce the cooking liquid with an extra few tablespoons of honey, strain, and use in place of caramel. An extra flake or two of coarse salt? Maybe...