Monday, March 30, 2009

Comfort and Joy

Yesterday I made my absolute favorite cookie except I really just poured the dough out into the pan and made bars. Of course it's easier, but I truly like bars better. Cookies are hard not to burn and I always worry that they are too thin or too dry. In my kitchen right now is a pan that has a quarter left in it of oatmeal chocolate chip bars because I managed to gobble nearly the whole thing. Oatmeal Chocolate Chip. Mmmmm.

I have no idea why everyone is so hung up on oatmeal raisin! Why put raisins in a cookie when you can have chocolate chips? I rarely buy sweets with lunch or while out and about but if I see that a place has an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, it's a must have.

I usually bake to experiment or to have muffins for breakfast for the week but when I make something like this, it's just for comfort. It's just because I am a little stressed or down or just have been craving it and can't say no. There is nothing that can soothe me more then a cookie and some tea.

When I was a kid we had tea time every day, except it wasn't at 4:00, it was after dinner. If my mom felt like making dessert it was usually on the weekend or we were having people over, but nightly we had tea and cookies. It was usually cheap tea like Lipton and my parents had it differently according to their traditions. My mom put a slice or two of lemon in hers and my dad had cream and sugar. We always had various sorts of butter cookies that came in a tin because my mom hates making cookies but my dad and I love to eat them. When I was in high school my mom became worried about the extra fat and sugar in our diets so tea time became just about the tea. We became experimental and tried all kinds of delicious teas. My dad fell in love with Indian black teas that he now drinks without cream or sugar and my mom must have red zinger and green tea in the house at all times. Before this, the only other time we had something besides Lipton was when one of us was sick. Chamomile was my mom's drug of choice for me and I loved it so much that I thought it was something special you only got when you're feeling bad. Now I drink it every other day to wind down a bit before bed or to settle my stomach after a meal.

I drink tea every day. Sometimes I drink it for the caffeine lift, sometimes to mellow out, sometimes to help me soothe an aching stomach, or to help ease a cold. My family can sit around a teapot for hours and hours. If I drink that Indian tea with my dad I usually have so much that I end up jittery until 3am. Since being in Seattle, one of my absolute favorite things to do is to go to The Crumpet Shop and get tea to go and just walk through the Pike Place Market. No matter what mood I have going into this scenario I always feel utterly at peace if I have that smooth warm taste of tea with me. If I can see mountains across the Sound then I really have an "I love Seattle day."

I have several memories in which tea played a part. Sometimes a biscuit was involved, sometimes not. The first time I had apple tea was in Turkey. My parents and I went to a carpet factory where we got to see every step of the process in making a Turkish carpet. We saw people hand dying the threads and then women working on these fabulous intricate designs that took months to do a few inches on. At the end of the factory tour they have you sit down with the amazing apple tea served in tiny narrow glass cups and show you their collection of the most beautiful carpets they have. Many of them were silk and changed color depending on how they were held up but that part of it didn't really do anything for me. I kept on thinking of the artistry of those women back there behind the scenes while I drank sweet apple tea and that is the clearest memory I have of being there. I don't remember what the finished carpets looked like at all.

A few years ago Grandma had a knee replacement. My mom and I went to the hospital with her and honestly, I'm not so good at that stuff. Hospitals and doctors freak me out and seeing my fragile grandma laying there waiting for them to take her in and preform some kind of weird science on her was beyond difficult for me. I was pacing and holding back tears before anything happened and my mom asked me to go get her some tea. I don't think she really wanted any tea but she certainly didn't me to freak out my grandma or maybe she thought I could handle it better if I just got a quick breather. I went to the cafeteria and got us green tea instead of black because I was jittery enough and as soon as I got back they were ready to take her away. I held it together and kissed her and mumbled some kind of encouragement before they wheeled her down and then once she was gone I crumbled to the floor in sobs. The fear was unbelievable. It was hours before we heard anything. We just sat there and sat there and drank green tea after green tea all day. It was all I could do until the surgeon came out to talk to us and said that it went well. We went home and were able to eat something small then.

There is a day that I can say in all sincerity was the happiest day in my life so far. It was two years ago on March 13 and that was the day that I swam with the Dusky Dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Swimming with dolphins was always something I would have liked to do but never really thought I would get a chance to. I made it happen due to a decision that changed my life forever.

On March 12, 2007 I was supposed to fly back to the US after a 3 week tour of NZ but I didn't get on the plane. It didn't feel right to leave so I extended my ticket for two months later and just stayed. I left my tour group that morning and walked to a near by hostel in Christchurch where I checked in and did some planning. At the time it felt like a panicked decision because I simply did not want to go home but I felt more and more confident with every step toward that hostel. I had met someone weeks earlier that told me they were going to Kaikoura to swim with the dolphins and maybe take a whale watch tour. It sounded like a damn good idea so why not? They mentioned what bus they took and so I talked it over with someone at the front desk of my hostel and she arranged for me to get picked up in the morning and she also told me of two good hostels there. I picked the hostel that was quite far from the place that offers the dolphin tour so I walked and walked and walked and it was getting late and I was afraid that I would miss the tour! I asked a local kiwi woman if she knew where it was and she said she would drive me. I didn't want her to go to the trouble but she insisted and in 2 minutes we were there and in five minutes I was in a disgusting wet suit. No matter, the excitement was taking over me. They only allow 13 swimmers out there at a time and so while it may seem like very few we did bump into each other a lot and I got kicked in the head with a flipper.

I made contact with one dolphin for a while. I don't know if it was a she or he but I'll say she here. She circled around under me for a long time so I followed her by making circles too. They are attracted to noise and song so I kept humming and she just stayed with me. She swam away once and I felt sad like it didn't last long enough but she came back and circled a little more. It was absolute magic. When we got back on the boat we drove out a little further and watched them swim along and jump and play. This was euphoric for me.

When it was over I felt a chill all through my body. It wasn't cold out but I needed to sit down and have a spot of tea and inhale the air. I sat outside and celebrated the most amazing experience of my life with earl grey and a biscuit. I thought about how when you want something to happen you have to go for it and that you can do what you want and what makes you happy and I just did. I even took a picture of the scene because I wanted to document Happy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sundays in Seattle

So last Sunday I made the pork chops and the trifle but not the cocktail. I like to be organized for events like these but instead was driving to the grocery store and the liquor store about an hour before I had wanted to eat these goodies. While driving there I actually yelled out, "It's Sunday!!!!!" This means that you can't get any liquor in Seattle. Being that I am from Chicago and you can buy hard liquor until 2 am in available stores, this is something I will probably never get used to. It's so funny because Seattle is one of the least religious cities in the US and yet no booze on Sundays. The jerks.

Luckily I had brandy in the house from a fig and raspberry tart I made a while back and so I improvised.

I called my Dad before rushing off to the grocery store because I wanted to know more. He said that Grandma J just fried her pork chops like a steak. Salt and pepper and nothing else. That sounded like yuck to me and I was certainly not going to do that. I ended up making a mushroom sherry sauce for them and baked them in the oven after slightly browning in the pan. Being that I have never eaten a pork chop before I thought they had a strange saltiness and tough texture. I might have over-cooked them but I looked it up and it seemed right.....

Dad said that he had never heard of putting applesauce on pork chops and it sounded disgusting. He said that kind of thing is "all American."

"Dad, do you like pork chops?"

"I like lamb chops."

"Of course but what about pork?"

"Not really. They're ok I guess. Why don't you make lamb instead?"

"Did Grandma J ever make lamb?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Did you like Grandma J's cooking?"

"It was all I knew so yeah I liked it."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, let's put it this way, when I got out of the service I thought my mother's cooking was the best in the world."

We moved on to a conversation about the trifle. He was a bit miffed that I was attempting this from across the country where he couldn't get any and proceeded to tell me that my mother thinks they are getting fat (not possible) and she isn't allowing any goodies in the house. Poor Dad. What I learned was the Grandma J didn't care one bit for baking and always used store bought sponge or pound cake for the trifle. This was a shock. It's pretty much unheard of to do this on my mother's side of the family. My mother and grandmother do everything from scratch and rarely use anything from a can, with the exception of some jams and plum butter. Sometimes I cringe a little when people tell me they use things like margarine, or miracle whip, or velveta cheese, or canned fruit, or splenda. I am willing to admit that this is total snobbery, but I really don't get it. I'm the person that orders the real maple syrup at a diner for the extra $2. Well last Sunday I was the person to make a trifle the way my Grandma J made it and that included store bought pound cake, canned peaches, jello, and dear god cool whip. No no no I just couldn't succumb to the cool whip but did buy whipped cream ready made. (also unlike me) What the hell is cool whip made of and why does it give you a horrific stomach ache? Scary stuff.

If you ever attempt a Trifle of any variety, I have this advice for you: make it the day before you want to serve it. I thought the taste was much better the next day because the brandy mellowed out a little and the refrigeration made the whole thing into more of a cake and not a slop that it was when I served it. Come to think of it now though, I seem to remember that she served it in bowls and not plates so maybe appearance and general togetherness of the elements didn't matter. Smart woman.

I found out that Grandma J didn't care much for vegetables and she made either carrots or mashed potatoes or peas every single night. I can't imagine this for the life of me. There are so many amazing tastes out there and so many meals you can make with just vegetables alone, I just wonder why anyone would not even want to try it sometimes. This is sort of a sad finding about her because I knew that she was closed minded and fearful in many other ways, but I had hoped that there might have been something outside the box that tickled her fancy. I guess it was only the occasional cheese pizza.

She will always be a mystery to me. I don't know what kind of relationship she really had with my dad, but I do know that when he married my mom it went very badly. She never accepted us. Her friend at the B&B in Sligo had no idea of who I was, but she knew of my younger cousins. I remember Grandma J being kind to me and always calling me "love," but I never got a sense of warmth from her. A very clear memory I have of her was one day when we were standing in line at TJ Maxx she hit my left boob out of nowhere and said "Gittin a bit big on top aren't you now?" The horror.

I would like to remember good things about her despite the grievances she caused my mom and the fact that I know very little about her at all. What I remember clearly was that she had sparkling blue eyes and dark brown hair. (a selkie she was) She wore dresses or skirts and heels every day of her life. She had her makeup and hair done even just to sit in front of the TV all day. And I will give this detail: O'Byrne was her maiden name.

Someday I hope to make a perfect trifle for her.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Trifle This...

Since yesterday was St. Patrick's Day I found myself thinking of my paternal grandmother, whom I called Grandma J. I always think St. Patrick's Day is kind of funny. The whole city drinks like crazy to celebrate a man who drove the snakes out of Ireland among other things. My dad is actually from Ireland and yet we hardly seem Irish at all in my family. I mean I have terrible luck, and I do admit to having the thirst, and I dislike chilly, dreary, rainy weather constantly and yet found myself in Seattle, but we never did anything for St. Patrick's Day anyway. Despite the occasional whiskey, my dad has lost nearly all of his accent. I think it's kind of sad really.

I feel like I hardly knew Grandma J. I know that she smoked like a chimney and the 7 and 7 was her poison of choice and probably what did her in towards the end. I remember that she was wild about knitting and "Murder She Wrote." She had a sing-songy Limerick accent which I am actually capable of doing an amazing impression of but haven't really done it for anyone to hear. Occasionally when something weird happens in the kitchen I let out a very quiet: "Jaysus Mahry and Joseph would you Belieeeve that now?" Or when things are going well: "Ah tis grrand so tis." But this is truly all I got from her.

I am told that my grandmothers couldn't understand anything that the other was saying but both enjoyed Lou Malnati's thin crust cheese pizza. The differences between them might have been too great to have gotten along. It might have been fear or just dislike really. And so I rarely went over to Grandma J's and most things I found out about her were after her death.

I went to Ireland 10 years ago this June. My uncle gave me a few names and addresses to look up. One of them was Teresa Kelly who runs the Pine Grove B & B in Sligo. My uncle told me that I should really stay there and pay her a visit. Little did I know that Teresa was friends with Grandma J. When I got there I told her that I thought my grandparents used to stay there on holiday after they moved to the States, and maybe she knew them? Well apparently she and my grandmother used to be great friends that played bridge with a few other ladies in town and talked badly of their husbands. She said that my grandparents would have lengthy stays at the B&B and that Grandma J would make herself at home and use the kitchen when she wanted. She used to surprise my Granddad with pork chops sometimes. He would go out "with the boys," whatever that meant (pub) and then pretend like she was mad when he got back in. She would tell him that he reeked of smoke and tease him and then say, "How bout some chops then? Maybe a bit of chops tonight."

For some reason this story about pork chops brought me to tears and I was SO EMBARRASSED. I tried to hide them because I had just met this woman and didn't want her to think I was nuts and also because I was there with my boyfriend at the time and well, honestly I didn't know him too well then either. She went to make tea then and I was able to regain composure but I wish now that I could go back in time and listen to Teresa tell these stories all night. I wish that I could have learned to knit the Celtic knot sweaters that Grandma J made all the time and I wish I knew half of the cards games she knew and I wish she taught me more words in Irish, but what I got from her was a partial interview with a woman an entire ocean away. We talked of other things and then said goodnight and I could not sleep for the life of me. I kept thinking that they were there. They stayed in the very room that she let us have that night. I was almost hoping that I would see her in a dream or something magical would happen to make me more connected to her, but all it ended up being was pork chops.

One of my uncles claim that Grandma J was a terrible cook. I find this hard to believe since she spent her life cooking for her father and brothers and then for her husband and sons. Unfortunately the only dish I remember her making is a trifle. It consisted of sponge cake, jello, whiskey and whipped cream. Hmmm. Sounds gross, but it was my absolute favorite dessert when I was a kid and it was always a big hit when they had parties. Trifle is a dessert dish that has several versions; some with custard some with fruit and cream, and in Grandma J's case jello. The trouble is that she never passed on the recipe to me or anyone. My mom has attempted this several times over for me and my Dad and it never comes out the way we remember it. At what point do you put the whiskey on the spongecake, and how much? How do you keep the whipped cream from becoming a disgusting slop with the jello and booze? I feel like these secrets are lost forever and no matter how many recipes we try we won't get it right. It's worth a try though.

This weekend I intend to make meal in celebration of Grandma J. I didn't dress in green or drink a Guinness yesterday but I intend to make pork chops and a trifle instead. Maybe I'll even have a 7 and 7. I've never once in my life eaten a pork chop so this should be interesting.....Slainte! Oíche mhaith, codladh sámh.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Stolen Apple

Yesterday I woke up hungover and hungry. I quickly realized I had practically no food in the house. I can't express how badly I did not want to walk down to the grocery store in the rain. I stared into the fridge for I don't know how long. I did have some bread and one egg. One egg and bread? No thanks. My eye wandered over to the door and there was some leftover buttermilk I had bought for a cake a week ago. Buttermilk, one egg, flour, maple syrup....yes I had everything to make pancakes. But plain pancakes are boring, so I stole a lovely gala apple from my roommate.

My Grandma makes apple crepes with granny smith apples. This is an absolute favorite of mine and I love that she pronounces it "craps" instead of crepes. I made something very similar to her recipe yesterday. I chopped half of the apple into small pieces and sauteed it in butter so that it became soft and released some juice. Grandma does this for a very long time on a small fire and makes them almost into a thick jam, but I like the apples to still have a tiny bit of crunch. I only sauteed for a bit and added cinnamon and a tiny bit of maple syrup. I also put maple syrup in the batter instead of sugar because I think sugar in the batter makes it over the top sweet. The apples needed to cool briefly and then I added them to the batter and a few minutes later I had a hangover breakfast fit for a princess.

I love the idea of making something out of nothing. If you have a few ingredients that you always keep in the house there are countless options for them. Grandma is the type of person that always manages to have exactly what you need in the house. My mom is the opposite. She over-buys groceries and then forgets something major like sour cream. When she realizes that she needs it she will check downstairs to see if Grandma has it and she always does. It's amazing. It is partly because she enjoys simple dishes that cost practically nothing to make and it's also because she is a culinary genius. One dish that I grew up eating at her house is something nearly everyone I know thinks is disgusting: pasta with cottage cheese and cinnamon. Oh my god it is delicious I swear! So simple, so yummy. She also used to make me white rice mixed with shredded apples, cinnamon, and sugar and baked them together like a cake.

Incidentally just plain white rice with plain natural cinnamon is a home remedy she knows for diarrhea. I kid you not. Grandma knows all kinds of home remedies. When I was nine years old I had the biggest stomach ache of my life and had to stay home from school. She made me swallow spoonfuls of baking soda four times that day. Yuck! It was disgusting. When it turned out that I had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery the poor woman cried all night thinking that the baking soda ruptured my appendix.

Baking soda is one of those things that should always be in the house whether you are swallowing it or not. The other day my boyfriend had a few items leftover from a chocolate birthday cake he made me. I was looking at them and realized that I had a smushed banana in my purse that I forgot to eat earlier. Chocolate banana bread? He had everything I needed except eggs. I had never made a chocolate banana bread before. I've made one with chocolate chips, but for this one I was going to use cocoa powder. I also needed more then one banana and he did have some but they weren't nice and mushy like mine was. I figured it was worth a try.

I was sending him to the store to pick up razors for me anyway so I told him he might as well pick up some eggs and we'll have a perfect little banana bread that night. The only reason that I needed him to pick up razors for me was that I am currently having water pressure issues at my place and since I was going there after work, it was nice to have a real shower. I jumped in shower while he went to the store thinking that he would come back before I was finished. Nope. I didn't want to just stand there waiting for the stupid razors so I toweled off and headed for the kitchen. I preheated the oven and mixed the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet in another and had everything ready for the egg arrival when he walks in and sees me with wet hair wearing a towel and holding a mixing bowl in his kitchen. Not only am I proud to have made something out of nothing but I managed to turn a simple banana bread into a sexy one. Despite what this scene may or may not do for you, I will have you know that I did finish the shave and the bread eventually and the non-mushy banana gave it excellent texture.

He raved about the bread and kept telling me what a wonderful woman I am and out of nowhere I said:



"Aquamarine. It's my birthstone. I'm just saying."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A New Day

A week ago today I turned 30 years old. Normally I enjoy large celebrations for another year of life, but this year I didn't want to be the planner, the baker, the jello shot maker. And so I didn't do anything. I contemplated starting a blog about baking and my various stupid adventures in the kitchen and the world but didn't feel like writing. I thought about the various things I should do to feel more lady-like. Maybe I should paint my nails more often? Maybe I should get rid of all my shirts that have deodorant stains on them? Sign up for more tango lessons asap?

What ended up happening after all was baking. I wanted to make a challah bread and so I did it. It was my first challah bread, actually my first bread altogether. The recipe seemed easy enough, but I didn't think that the dough was rising. I seriously stood there watching it for several minutes at a time as if I could will it to do something before my very eyes. The book recommended letting it sit for two hours and then kneading and then resting for another hour and a half. It was a lengthy process. I spent most of that time talking to my parents, my Grandma, and my uncle back home in Chicago. They were astonished that I was trying to make a challah bread for my 30th birthday. My mom was angry that I was spending the day in my kitchen and not in some fancy restaurant being showered with diamonds but my grandma had more helpful words of wisdom.

"Don be discourage. If no rise then try again. No big deal."

"Yeah but Grandma I followed the recipe exactly except for I put honey instead of sugar and all purpose flour instead of bread flour. What is bread flour anyway?"

"Avivitcha I no know. Flour is a flour. Altough maybe they no have good flour in Seattle. My mama put milk in the challah. You put milk?"

"No it didn't call for milk, but that sounds good. I'll do it next time."

"You put eggs?"

"Of course silly."

"I no know whats happen then. You know I make a honey cake yesterday but I forgot eggs. Can you believe? No eggs. It came so low and I said sometink wrong here, and then ah! No eggs. Stupid."

"Oh yeah? Well a couple weeks ago I made a perfect little blueberry coffee cake and then right before I put it into the oven I thought a little cinnamon would be nice on top. So, I grabbed the cinnamon and covered the whole thing and but then had a whiff of something else and just yelled right there in the kitchen. It was cumin. I put cumin all over my blueberry coffee cake."

I think she laughed so hard I made her spine hurt. I am a lucky girl to make my grandma laugh like that on my 30th birthday. I guess I couldn't ask for a better birthday present.

I asked her what she did for her 30th birthday and she said, "I no do notink." Well being that she was already married for 12 years had moved to 3 different countries and had 2 kids, her circumstances were quite a bit different. Still I had hoped that there was some ice cream or a dance or a movie she remembered from that day. I asked her what Grandpa did for her birthdays.

"Oh he alvays doing tings for me. He come home and put jacket on chair and I yell why you no put jacket away? And he oh I tired you know. So I angry vas and I grab jacket and under jacket was fabric for me for new dress! Beautiful color! Oh sometimes he hide tings in house and then I vater plant one day and behind plant, new hat! Sometimes he remin me, tell me go check pockets before vash clothes and he put a gift in pocket for me. He very surprise me all time. When we move America he give me a sapphire rink for annibersary. I yell on him, why you spend money? But beautiful vas. I never vare it. Too nice. The robbers took you know. If not happen I give you."

It never seems enough really to hear these stories even though many of them have a sad ending. The more I try to do in the kitchen the more I have to talk to her about. I can get her to open her world to me. Sometimes she tells me that she doesn't remember how to do it anymore but if you talk it out enough it comes back, a little garbled but there. I have developed an incredible fear that I will lose these gifts because I am in a race with time. It's weird how I had zero interest in cooking and baking until I got my own apartment and even then it took years to realize that I should learn what she knows and not just what is in the Moosewood cook book.

My challah did rise a little. She said I needed to put it somewhere warm but it was too late for that. It was near the back door. Huge mistake. It ended up tasty but dense and I will certainly make it again, although she thinks I should try rye next.