Category: Books


While Cleaning My Study

June 10th, 2010 — 7:36am

With a few days’ lull in events for Cakewalk, I’ve been cleaning my house. I mean seriously cleaning: not just moving the piles around to vacuum under them, but actually going through the piles and finding field trip permission slips that should have been turned in three years ago, and a Real Simple magazine from months back that promises “MORE TIME FOR YOU: Find Extra Minutes Every Day” “Hall of Fame Time-Savers” “Short-Cut Dinners” “Problem-Solving Products” — any and all of which I’m sure I would have found really useful except that I have never had the time to open the magazine. Into the recycling pile it goes.

In five days I’ve finished the laundry room, the main bathroom, the linen closet, my bedroom, and the major coup of getting my husband to give up the big closet he’s insisted he needed for the last 18 years. For the first time in almost two decades I now have all of my clothes in one place, rather than broadcast over four locations throughout the house. Several times a day I’ve opened my pristine closet, organized and color-coded, just to stand there and admire.

Since yesterday I’ve been working on my terrifying study, which is not much bigger than the closet but has over one thousand books in it, as well as all my desultory papers and file boxes of book research and weird random stuff, like a full-body fox stole that guards my 1920s Underwood typewriter…

…a collection of birds’ nests and another of miscellaneous doll parts…

…samples of mineral pigments and a dried lotus blossom from Aswan that, if you put it in water, would smell just like it did when it was fresh. I’ve got an old farmhouse wardrobe that is filled with nothing but foreign editions of Wintering. Where are you supposed to put such things, your two dozen copies of your own novel in Estonian?

One of my favorite treasures in my study is the box that my rabies vaccine came in. On one of my trips to Egypt to research my new novel, I was bitten by a rabid dog. Rabies is so common in Egypt that there are whole hospitals devoted to it, but my bite merited only a bored glance from one of the rabies doctors, even though a chunk of my calf the size of a golf ball was missing. “Just go to the pharmacy,” the doctor said wearily as she pushed an elevator button to escape me. At Egyptian pharmacies you can simply order the rabies vaccine series over the counter, which is what I did. That was easy — getting away from the leering male pharmacists who kept insisting that I needed to have each of the series of shots administered to my bare derriere, with every man in the pharmacy in attendance, was the hard part. The strange part was the vaccine box, which is illustrated with a photograph of a friendly-looking golden retriever:

Except if you look more closely, you see that someone has drawn the notorious rabies slobber all over the dog’s lips:

The cartoonish drool looks like a 7-year-old drew it, but it gets the point across.

There’s so much stuff in my tiny cabinet of curiosities of a study that I am not sure how to get it orderly enough to keep working in it, but I’m trying. One of the problems is the Wall of Books: these are not my reference books — the hundreds of books I use for my current book project — but the myriad novels, poetry, and quirky nonfiction title that are lined up and ready to be read, as well as the piles of same that I’ve read but can’t put away elsewhere in the house because I haven’t cataloged them yet.

When I read I underline anything I think might be useful to my work — vocabulary words, memorable phrases and unique metaphors — and then I catalog all that I’ve underlined in electronic files. It takes a couple of hours per book to record my notes, and I’ve fallen far behind. I mean years behind. The neurotic in me can’t put those books away until I’ve cataloged them, so I’m basically drowning in a sea of books that never go away.

Which brings me to Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, her second novel, based on her experience in a mental hospital. Frame is one of my very favorite writers, a true genius whose excruciating sensitivity was both her  burden and her gift. This is how her narrator in Faces in the Water describes what happened to her:

“I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world drifting away through a violet-colored sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears.”

Faces in the Water is one of my Uncataloged Books, and I think it’s now been waiting its turn in my study for eight years. So it’s not like it’s here because of Cakewalk, but in that weird numinous way these things happen, when I picked it up to dust under it, this is the passage the book opened to:

“The nurses, feeling bored because there hadn’t been a recent fight, would fetch a bag of sweets from the tin which was bought every fortnight as part of the Social Security allowance for the patients. The lollies would be showered into the middle of the day room and it would be first come first served with fights developing, people being put in strait jackets, whistles blowing; and the tension which mounted and reached its peak at intervals — both in the patients and in the nurses who long ago had to suppress any desire to ‘nurse’ and were now overworked and degraded, in many a case sadistic, custodians — found its release, for a time.

After a lolly scramble, when the fights had been dealt with, there was unusual quietness and dreaminess and sometimes laughter, and those who had been successful in the rush held tight to their sweet sticky booty. The toffees always had the same taste, of dark swampy syrup that made one feel sick and at the same time gave comfort…

My own taste for toffees came at night when, being hurried along the corridor to bed, I felt such pangs of hunger that I became skillful at darting unobserved into the open pantry, and sometimes snatching a handful of toffees from a newly opened tin. But that was a rare occasion. More often I seized in one hand a slice of bread from the bin and delved honey from a large tin, pasting it, ants and all, with my fingers across the bread, and thrusting the whole in the sweaty hairy hollow under my arm, and withdrawing it and eating it, salt and sweet and gritty, in the quiet of my room.”

4 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, candy

The Brownies Heard ‘Round the World, or Cakewalk 101, Part 1: Equipment

May 26th, 2010 — 9:50pm

Surely every obsessive-compulsive baker shares my megalomaniacal fantasy that one of her best recipes will end up famous, clamored for the world over. Today must be my day for fantasy fulfillment, because my recipe for chewy fudge brownies is in The New York Times! I have never been so proud! There’s even one of those food-porn close-up shots of three of my brownies stacked on top of each other unabashed, like the teenage models in American Apparel ads, or a painting by Balthus. One little crumb has fallen seductively to the table, daring you to pluck it up between your fingers and eat it . . . well, in the photo that ran in the paper, there was a crumb . . .

Thank you, photographer Andrew Scrivani of the New York Times

At the lofty Times, it’s not enough for the reporter to test the recipe and vouch for it – a recipe tester has to try it out, too. Novelist and Mothers Who Think contributor Alex Witchel, who made the brownies for her biweekly column in the Dining section, “Feed Me,” told me during a fact-checking phone call that not only did she think my brownies were “like crack” (“I have to get these things out of my house! Now!”), but that the recipe tester thought so, too. Oh, the glory! I can hardly stand it.

Alex’s question about whether to use a glass baking pan or a metal one reminded me that I planned to offer some of my time-tested baking tips for Cakewalk’s readers, so here is part one of that post on Cakewalk 101: Equipment. These are the items I find indispensible for baking.

BOWLS: I used to like those big vintage earthenware mixing bowls because they were pretty and homey, but I always got nervous using a hand mixer – would the bowls crack or the glaze flake off into my cookie batter? Eventually, a few of them did crack, though mostly because they ended up dropped on the floor. I still keep them for backup, but in recent years I’ve moved on to sets of graduated metal bowls with rubberized bottoms. They don’t slip, they’re easy to clean and they’re lighter for pouring out batter.

MIXERS: I didn’t have a stand-up mixer until I was given one as a wedding present in my thirties, but there’s no denying that a standard KitchenAid is the only way to go. Get an extra bowl, too, great when your recipes call for beating egg whites separately, or for splitting large volumes of doubled recipes. And I also have a KitchenAid hand mixer that comes in handy for little jobs and taking with you when you’re baking remotely.

FOOD PROCESSOR or BLENDER: They’re not always interchangeable, but having one or the other is helpful, if not both.

MEASURING SPOONS and MEASURING CUPS: Forget those cutesy sets of spoons for measuring out a “smidgin” or a “pinch” and such, you’ll never use them. Get a set of metal measuring spoons (tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon, quarter and eighth) and put them on a key ring if they don’t already come on a ring. Also get a set of metal cup measures as well as at least one glass liquid measuring cup: I have a 4-cup, 2-cup, and 1-cup.

WOODEN SPOONS: You’ll never find them in a commercial kitchen anymore, but I love the feel of them. They won’t damage the surface of your pots and pans and the handle is always cool while you stir.

WHISK: Metal balloon whisks are indispensable for stirring up flour before measuring as well as just about everything else.

SPATULAS: I love spatulas, but I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of cheap wooden and plastic-handled rubber spatulas over the years  — they break when you’re stirring dense batters, or the rubber end slips off the handle, or the wood gets gunky inside the rubber. Or villains in your household use them to stir their scrambled eggs, and the spatula end melts into postmodern sculpture. Get yourself a heatproof, silicone spatula with a metal handle, like one of these:

Make sure everyone in your household knows that this particular spatula is not for flipping pancakes or making scrambled eggs! “Heatproof” is a relative term, and they will eventually melt on the edges if they’re deployed on highly heated surfaces.

You also need at least one good thin metal spatula for lifting cookies from baking pans and that sort of thing. Here are my two favorites:

And for icing cakes and cookies, thin, flexible offset spatulas, like these:

METAL RULER: It comes in handy all the time, especially for scoring cookies and candies and making even-sized portions.

THERMOMETERS: You want an oven thermometer to, um, check your oven temperature and make sure it’s accurate, and a candy thermometer for getting sugar syrups, jams and candies to the correct temperature.

KNIVES: Your favorite sharp chef’s knife comes in handy for baking, as does a non-serrated table knife for leveling flour while measuring, etc..

ROLLING PIN and ROLLING RINGS: I use an ancient wooden rolling pin with fixed handles that I think was a pasta roller in a previous life, and another elaborately carved old pin that was used to make imprinted springerle cookies (and is great for decorating gingerbread!).

Many people like the weight and cool temperature of marble rolling pins over wooden ones. I highly recommend rubber rolling pin rings, which you put on your rolling pin to roll out dough to exactly the thickness you want. Genius!

DOUGH SCRAPER: It’s a square of metal with a wooden handle on one side, used to scrape the leftover dough from the surface where it was kneaded or rolled. It’s also great for scraping up flour after rolling cookies.

ZESTER: I use citrus zest in so many recipes I should really get a microplane, but I still use the tiny side of my trusty pyramid grater.

SIFTER: I use my sifter less often for flour these days than for sifting cocoa and powdered sugar. (For flour, a good whisking before measuring is usually all you need to do.) You can also use a sifter to shake powdered sugar over the surface of cookies or a baked cake to make it pretty.

PASTRY BRUSHES: These, like rubber spatulas, tend to be ruined by people using them for the wrong purposes, like school art projects. Get a couple in different sizes and hide them.

PASTRY BLENDER: A pastry blender is the best tool ever for mixing flour and fat into light, flaky pastry. I’ve had my grandmother’s wooden-handled pastry blender for a thousand years. That is, I had it until I took it to a rented beach house over Gary’s fifty-fifth birthday weekend to make blackberry crostatas from the berries we picked in the lane ourselves – and then left my favorite baking tool behind when we returned home. I never got it back, sob. What you want is a wooden handle with rungs of flat (not rounded) metal coming out of it in a sort of arched horseshoe shape. Push the metal part against your hand to find out if they stay in place when pressure is applied. If the metal rungs bunch together (as the rounded wires on these ones, pictured below, tend to do), it won’t work — keep looking for another pastry blender.

This is not the pastry blender you want.

And neither is this. Feh.

WAX PAPER and PARCHMENT PAPER: I use wax paper almost every time I bake – perfect for measuring dry ingredients and then pouring the excess back into their respective containers. Parchment paper is equally useful.

BAKING PANS: These are the ones I use all the time. Light-colored metal helps to keep baked goods from browning too much on the bottom, which is also why I prefer glass baking and pie pans: the bottoms will be crisp but not burned.

light-colored, heavy metal rimmed baking sheets (two or three at least)

9 x 13 glass baking pans

8- or 9-inch round, light-colored metal cake pans (I have three)

8- or 9-inch round springform cake pan (that’s a cake pan with a removable bottom)

an angel food cake pan with a removable bottom

a bundt cake pan in whatever shape or design you like

cupcake or muffin pans with 12 cup indentations (two or three)

9-inch glass pie pans (two)

a round or oval ceramic baking dish for bread puddings, fruit crisps, etc.

tart pans: I have 8- and 10-inch round fluted metal pans and another that’s 8 x 10-inch rectangular

two or three standard-sized metal loaf pans

WIRE COOLING RACKS: Get some that fit inside your rectangular baking sheets for use when you’re glazing cookies and cakes – that way the drips go onto the pans rather than spreading all over your counter.

…Next time at Cakewalk 101, useful ingredients to have on hand and what to do with them, based on the frustration and triumph of long experience…

8 comments » | Baking, baking tips, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

Cakewalk’s Public Debut

May 13th, 2010 — 1:22am

I’m about to run off to The Booksmith on Haight Street for my first reading from Cakewalk, which was published yesterday. But first I thought I’d give a glimpse of what I’m bringing with me, because the reading is also a party, and I’ve spent the day baking…what else is new.

On the menu tonight are Verboten German Chocolate Cupcakes, Pink and White Animal Cookies, Salted Caramel Cupcakes, and Absolutely Best Chocolate Chip Cookie dough, which I’m going to bake up in my Easy Bake Oven. I thought bringing an Easy Bake Oven to my readings was a stroke of genius: who doesn’t want to smell cookies baking while listening to someone read about baking cookies? Unfortunately the trial run with the EBO revealed that it smells more like burning plastic than carmelizing sugar and butter, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Pink and White Animal Cookies

Everything ready to go to The Booksmith

The Salted Caramel Cupcakes are a Cakewalk Outtake, sort of: the frosting is in the book, utilized for the Brown Sugar Pound Cake recipe, but the yellow cake it goes with was cut from the manuscript when its chapter got the ax.

I love this yellow cake, an old southern recipe called “Hot Milk Cake.” It’s an unusual procedure: you heat the butter and milk together to boiling and pour it over the dry ingredients and eggs, stirring fast so the eggs don’t curdle. It smells like paradise when it’s in the oven, and the cake is spongy and light and delicious. It showed up for the first time in my life in Mothers Who Think, in an essay by contributor Maurine Shores on her childhood summers on the North Carolina coast, during which an eccentric “Cake Lady” supplied local vacationers with freshly baked cakes. Maurine’s family’s favorite was the Cake Lady’s Caramel Cake: the fragrant yellow Hot Milk Cake iced with a caramel frosting that is really a thoroughly addictive candy in disguise. Of course we ran the recipe along with the essay, and then my partner-in-crime, Camille Peri, and I became undeniably obsessed with the Caramel Cake.

In fact, everyone we knew became obsessed with the Caramel Cake. We made it to bring into the Salon office to share with our coworkers, and we made it for parties, and we made it into cupcakes for the kids’ school birthdays. It was the ubiquitous cake of the San Francisco internet heyday. Everyone who ate it wanted the recipe, and in those early days of the World Wide Web it was so smugly satisfying to be able to say, “just download it off our site.”

Just to be fancy for tonight’s reading I made the Caramel Cake cupcakes into Salted Caramel Cupcakes [LINK]: a pinch of Maldon salt flakes sprinkled over the swirl of frosting before it sets. Fleur de sel would work, too.

Caramel Cupcakes in formal dress, with Maldon salt

5 comments » | Baking, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

Songs in the key of life

May 4th, 2010 — 8:51am

Some chapters in life seem to come equipped with theme music. I can’t think of my first year of college without the thumping percussive downbeat of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” thrashing from the boys’ rooms in my coed freshman dormitory. Incongruous it may be, but the slideshow of memories I have from my maiden voyage to Europe at twenty-five comes with Bruce Hornsby as the soundtrack: my traveling companion brought along her boom box and just one cassette tape, so that’s what we listened to, over and over, as we tramped through Italy and France for a summer. I see us at our impromptu dance party in Florence, convened in the piazza between the Duomo – the cathedral’s Gothic façade like a candy box in its stripings of pink, green and white marble – and the octagonal Baptistry, one of city’s oldest buildings, a jewel of a place I hadn’t wanted to leave when I stepped inside and saw its glittering Byzantine mosaics. That night, with the building where Dante was baptized on one side of us and the architectural feat that launched the Renaissance on the other, we were dancing to “Every Little Kiss” with a pack of bemused Italian boys trying to cajole us onto their Vespas. It was sort of ridiculous, but it was sort of great, too.

After my first marriage broke up, a redemptive love affair played out against the melancholy flamenco ballads of the Gypsy Kings.  And for the four years I spent feverishly listening for the voice of Sylvia Plath, I could listen to nothing else but Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach’s haunting suites for cello.

When I think of Cakewalk, I hear only one melody: “Love You” by the Free Design, a song I first heard when I was a small child. The Free Design was a sixties-era singing group, a family with voices as harmonious and pure as seraphim. Their song (my song, I believed it to be) was so infused with the unhindered joyous innocence of childhood – something I yearned for though I knew my family was unhappy, my childhood anything but secure and innocent — that I could never forget it.

I didn’t hear “Love You” again for what must have been almost forty years. By then I was the mother of a son on his way to college, a daughter going into middle school. I was living the life I’d hoped for: I was content, the family I’d made was thriving, I spent my days writing with cats in my lap and a dog snoring at my feet. The last thing I expected was to be revisited by my own confusing, bittersweet childhood, but there it was: “Love You” was the song playing during the cakewalk game during the spring picnic at Celeste’s new school. I’d never been in a cakewalk, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity even though I was the oldest contestant by at least three decades.

To win a cake on your first try at the game is one thing. To win the cake as the theme song of your childhood plays accompaniment seems verging on the numinous.  I didn’t know then, three years ago, that I was going to write a book about my childhood, about the sweetness I could still find amidst the bitter, but as I stood in the new green grass of a San Francisco park with a besprinkled, three-layer chocolate cake in my hands, still hearing the words of the song replaying in my head, trees swaying their crowns in the breeze, the day glorious, children squealing and chasing each other with cans of whipped cream all around me, in the way of all writers I thought to myself, maybe I can use this someday.

Knowing where to end a story is almost always hard, and especially so when it’s the story of your life. Somewhere along the timeline of writing Cakewalk, though, I remembered…the cakewalk. And the song.  If I could have included a recording of “Love You” to play along with the reading of every copy of Cakewalk, I would have. Since that proved impractical, you can find the story of the cakewalk and the lyrics to the song in the book, for which I offer grateful thanks to The Free Design and the Dedrick and Zynczak families. And here you can learn more about The Free Design, and listen to (and better yet, buy!) “Love You.”

Cakewalk, A Memoir, will hit the bookstores next week after a lifetime in the making, and just yesterday I revisited the scene of its initial inspiration: Celeste’s school’s spring picnic, held every May for the last ninety years. This time, there was one event during the afternoon that was even sweeter than the cakewalk: every year, after all the younger classes sing songs and recite poetry for their families and teachers sprawled out on the grass, the school’s eighth graders weave ribbons around a maypole as a final ritual together before they scatter to different high schools. My little girl was one of those eighth graders this year.

Celeste

Maybe such a ritual seems old-fashioned in 2010, when eighth graders have iphones and blue hair and Facebook pages. Some of the kids seemed a little embarrassed by their crowns of wildflowers – or, more accurately, like they thought they ought to be embarrassed. But when the music started, they all joined the dance.

Give a little time for the child within you
Don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run, you.

Run through the meadow and scare up the milking cows
Run down the beach kicking clouds of sand.
Walk a windy weather day, feel your face blow away
Stop and listen, love you.

Be like a circus clown, put away your circus frown;
Ride on a roller coaster upside down
Waltzing Mathilda, Carrie loves a kinkajoo,
Joey catch a kangaroo, hug you.

Dandelion, milkweed, silky on a sunny sky,
Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by;
Balloons down below blooming colors of the rainbow,
Red, blue and yellow-green I love you.

Bicycles, tricycles, ice cream, candy
Lolly pops, popsicles, licorice sticks.
Solomon Grundy, Raggedy Andy
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, home free.

Cowboys and Indians, puppy dogs and sand pails,
Beach balls and baseballs and basketballs, too.
I love forget-me-nots, fluffernutter sugar pops
I’ll hug you and kiss you and love you.

–THE FREE DESIGN, 1969

Many thanks to Dorte Lindhardt for the photographs!

6 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, Family, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing

Pink Birthday Cupcakes for Emma, via Mount Etna

April 26th, 2010 — 7:09am

I’ve had a thing for blood oranges ever since I first saw them at the incomparable Berkeley Bowl market more than twenty-five years ago. I asked the nearest produce guy about a bin of small oranges blushed red like peaches, and I thought I heard him wrong when he said they were “blood oranges.” It sounded a little too gruesome for a fruit. But he cut one open with the knife he kept in his green apron, and I got it –  the flesh was mottled orange and red, the juice a clear vivid pink. And was it my imagination or did they actually taste a little different from an ordinary orange?

According to the experts, blood oranges do have a more complex, deep flavor than, say, Valencias or navels, both tart and sweet, like raspberries. To me they taste of their exotic history, an import to the southern Mediterranean and thereabouts – particularly Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Italy, but also Morocco, Greece, and the Middle Eastern countries — from Southeast Asia, brought by Arab traders along the Silk Road, or maybe the Portuguese after Columbus. The Italian arancia and Spanish naranja probably derived from the Arab nãranj, which in turn probably came from the Sanskrit for orange tree, nãranga.  In Sicily any arancia you get is likely to be a blood orange, and they’ll tell you the juice is the blood of Mt. Etna, as Gary and I discovered on our honeymoon. Every morning with our tiny cups of searing espresso and flaking cornetti we were served spremuta d’arancia, freshly squeezed over ice to cool it of its mythic vulcanism. The idea didn’t seem entirely farfetched as we sipped our brilliantly red juice while sitting at a table overlooking the rocky Ionian coast off Taormina, bougainvillea blooming all down the steep cliffside and Mt. Etna belching smoke in the far distance behind us: the three cyclopes at work, forging thunderbolts for Zeus.

Blood oranges still have that faraway appeal even though you can find them readily through the winter and into spring, and they’re usually no more expensive than their more ordinary cousins.  I hoard blood oranges like a squirrel hoards acorns, and I can’t resist any opportunity to substitute blood orange for the plainer varieties: I segment them into winter salads with kale and sliced fennel, add blood orange bitters to margaritas, stew them with chicken and dates, cook them into marmalade.

If I see them mentioned on a menu, I want whatever it is. Who wouldn’t want sorbet the crimson of roses with the flavor of a morning in Cadiz, like this one at Camino Restaurant in Oakland?

Camino's Blood Orange Sorbet with candied pomelo peel

Blood oranges figure prominently in several of my favorite cakes: sliced in their skins and sautéed with brown sugar and butter for the eventual candied topping of an upside-down cake, or their zest and juice added to another cake I made up when I was missing the flavors I remembered from past trips to the sunny Mediterranean – an almond and polenta torte with blood orange and lemon, and depending on whether you’re feeling Sicilian or Spanish or Venetian, the options of saffron, cinnamon, and cloves.

This year I used what I figured might be my last blood oranges of the season to make birthday cupcakes for my friend Emma. Emma is Greek, so I thought she’d enjoy the blood oranges’ generalized nod to her cultural heritage. Plus Emma often has a streak of pink in her platinum blonde hair, so I knew she’d like the color.

The cupcakes are a variation on the Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe from Cakewalk, with the blood orange zest rubbed into the sugar before creaming with the butter, and the juice as a partial substitute for the milk. Orange flower water and either lemon or orange extract add to the fragrance and flavor, and though the cakes don’t look particularly orange (or pink or vermilion for that matter), the frosting – also using zest, juice and the citrus flavorings – is gorgeously, festively pink. There’s nothing like pink cake to make you feel like it’s your birthday.

You can find the recipe for Blood Orange Birthday Cake and Cupcakes in Cakewalk, but here is my Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake.

Comments Off | Baking, Books, CAKEWALK, Recipes

Redeeming the Bad Banana

April 22nd, 2010 — 7:37pm

I haven’t eaten a banana in fourteen years. Bananas were one of the few fresh fruits I ate daily as a kid – in our house, pears and pineapple and mandarin oranges came out of cans, and otherwise we had apples, watermelon, the occasional berry, and the ubiquitous banana – but my juvenile banana glut isn’t why I don’t eat them now. I went off bananas when I was newly pregnant with Celeste: a banana was the last thing I ate before I was pitched headfirst into morning (and afternoon and evening) sickness. For about four months, twenty-four hours a day, I felt like I was on the deck of a rolling ship in high seas. I groaned on the couch with one foot firmly planted on the floor, like a drunk fighting off the whirling down tornadoes. Whatever I’d eaten the day before was unthinkable to ever eat again, until I was subsisting on a diet of half a plain bagel – if I even saw the other half it was too much for me – and See’s milk chocolate Bordeaux candies. Just the thought of the smell of a banana has made me run the other direction ever since. Weirdly, Celeste, too, can’t stand bananas.

Then early last year, while I was in the last phase of editing the manuscript for Cakewalk, I read a New York Times article that said the most popular recipe on the site allrecipes.com was one for banana bread.  Just about then I was ruthlessly cutting whole chapters and many beloved recipes from my way-too-bloated manuscript, and one of the recipes I most regretted losing was for Nell Cliff’s bananas roasted in rum and brown sugar.

Nell was the mother of my college boyfriend, to this day one of the great influences of my life and the person who taught me more about baking and cooking and than anyone else ever has. She still gets her due – I guess I should really say her just desserts — in Cakewalk, but with only one of the many exemplary recipes she passed on to me. Seeing her roasted bananas on the cutting room floor made me wonder if maybe it was time to try bananas again . . .

Not, however, raw: that is still beyond my capabilities. But I looked up the popular banana bread recipe at allrecipes.com, and it looked like something I might actually be able to stomach, if I doctored it a bit with some flavors I knew I could manage. One of those flavors is chocolate, about which I tend to think in terms of Mark Twain’s statement about whiskey: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough.”

Too much chocolate is almost enough, if you ask me.  So I added chunks of chopped milk chocolate to my banana bread, as well as powdered espresso and toasted walnuts. I brought the fragrant maiden loaf on a canoe trip with stalwart family friends, and when I unveiled it on a gravelly beach during our picnic lunch, after one bite Farhad, who in our circle is the High Priest of the Church of Wretched Excess, started shaking his head and laughing. It was that good.

It’s banana bread as an extreme sport. Unlike most recipes, this one calls for a lot of banana, so it’s got that unmistakable fragrance and flavor, but elevated to another level, which, given my banana problems, is perfectly fine with me. It’s kind of like banana bread candy. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re eating something vaguely healthy. So here’s that recipe, my rendition of Chocolate Chunk-Espresso Banana Bread.

But back to Nell’s roasted bananas, which deserve their own moment of glory. They’re incredibly easy to make and perfect for a last-minute dinner party dessert that you can put together while everyone is lingering over their glasses of wine. Nell made them that way, and because of my naïvete – not just in the kitchen but in polite society — I once put my foot in my mouth when the roasted bananas were presented at the conclusion of an annual party with old family friends. “Oh good, you’ve made the roasted bananas again,” I brayed as we all oohed and ahhed over our plates of sizzling bananas in their pools of rummy sauce. “When you made these at last year’s party, Nell, everyone loved them!”

Nell, the consummate gracious hostess and ever indulgent of my flaws, flinched almost imperceptibly, and her daughter Molly shrewdly steered the conversation toward the deliciousness of our dessert. I didn’t know that a good hostess does her best not to serve the same dish to the same company a second time, nor did I realize that a good guest would have avoided embarrassing her hostess by mentioning such a repeat performance. Now I know better.

Nell’s recipe evolved from one of the cookbooks by Victor Bergeron, the Trader Vic of Trader Vic’s famous San Francisco restaurant, where the theme was Polynesian Tiki Room, the food was great, and the cocktails were strong – that’s where the Mai Tai was invented. Somehow I managed to never write down Nell’s recipe, and in my ramblings through used bookstores over the years I’ve never found the right Trader Vic’s cookbook with the original recipe, but here’s a version of Roasted Rum Bananas that’s pretty close, and I hope it makes up for my roasted banana bad of years gone by.

Comments Off | Baking, Books, CAKEWALK, Motherhood, Recipes

One City, Many Books

April 19th, 2010 — 8:10am

This weekend I was one of thirty Bay Area authors feted and feasted as “Library Laureates” at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s 14th annual gala dinner.  Why was I so surprised by the enthusiastic, celebratory crowd of hundreds that had gathered downtown at the Main Library? Maybe it was a holdover from my childhood suspicion that the library — a place where they’d let you borrow their books for nothing, trusting that you’d bring them back —  was a big secret, something you didn’t talk about lest it be discovered you were pulling a fast one and the whole thing was taken away.

The opposite, of course, is true: talking about and supporting our public library system is vital to keeping them open and their resources available – not just books but music and film and news and internet access, career counseling, art exhibits, readings and lectures, computer classes, and of course story time for kids. Maybe these figures about the 16,000-plus public libraries in the U.S. will surprise and impress you as much as they did me:

*Every year, Americans visit their library more than they go to the movies. Every day they borrow 2.1 million DVDs (for free, remember!), in contrast to the 2.2 million rented from Netflix.

*Every day 300,000 Americans get job-search help at their public library. There are 13,000 U.S. libraries offering career assistance (from career counseling to help writing resumes and filling in applications), compared to the 3000 U.S. Department of Labor One-Stop career centers.

*Nearly 12,000 U.S. libraries offer free wi-fi – that’s more than all the Starbucks put together.

*There are more public libraries offering free computer training classes than there are computer training businesses in the U.S.

In San Francisco this weekend, there was even more reason to celebrate: thanks to the passage of a massive city bond measure, the Branch Library Improvement Program created a plan to renovate or rebuild 24 branch libraries across the city. Fourteen of those branches have been completed and reopened, and another eight are now in construction, including my beloved neighborhood library, Golden Gate Valley, about which I feel rather pathologically proprietary, driving by slowly a couple of times a week and surveying the contractors’ modular trailers with a gimlet eye, part rubber-necking voyeur, part self-appointed inspector (Who’s the guy handing out Krispy Kremes? And hey, buddy – you better not chip any plaster off that della Robbia door frame!)

But we weren’t just celebrating our libraries. The Friends of the Library organization hosts this dinner every year to celebrate writers, feeding us filet mignon and toasting us with good wine and urging us to take home the rapturously beautiful table centerpieces at the evening’s conclusion.

It was humbling to say the least to know that you were surrounded by these incredibly generous, visionary folks who not only recognize how vital public libraries are, but back up their convictions with their time and their money. Their mission statement is worth quoting as a standard for community involvement:

“Friends of the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to creating, stewarding and supporting a superior free public library system in San Francisco. We are committed to raising the standard of excellence of our libraries by funding programs and services beyond what’s allocated in the City’s budget. We believe in free and equal access to information for all.”

Raising the standard of excellence. Above and beyond. Needless to say I wasn’t the only writer who felt genuinely moved and honored to be included at this event. City Librarian Luis Herrera, one of my tablemates, suggested that when all the branches are reopened, we should have a city-wide celebration, and all the Library Laureates of past years would be invited to take part. He won’t have to twist our arms. One by one we each talked about how much libraries have supported us as places of inspiration, as practical resources, as mobile offices: Kathryn Ma talked about being a library “nomad,” visiting one branch or another depending on her mood. Joshua Braff, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters and Katie Williams all revealed that their books were written in libraries – in Ethan’s case, in the very room where we were enjoying our tangerine upside-down cake with blood orange syrup. Victoria Zackheim read from an essay by Malachy McCourt, who remembered “the miracle” of a Carnegie library opening in his boyhood town of Limerick. Here’s what I had to say:

“Libraries and books and the pleasure of reading have always been mixed up in my mind with sugar, with sweetness. That association started with my grandmother, a San Francisco schoolteacher who rewarded me with miniature candy bars when I was learning to read and write. We lived in Sonoma when I was small, when the town, too, was small, and the library was a stately red-brick building set in the middle of the Plaza, right across from my father’s law office and an Italian bakery that sold cinnamon pull-apart cakes. The library, it seemed to me then, was the biggest and most important building in the town, the Rome to which all roads led. They let you take all the books you wanted, bringing them back when you were done, and I was not quite sure I believed it at first.

We didn’t have many books at home. Books, I learned early, were precious things.  My father had taken a job writing and editing encyclopedia entries while he was in law school, and that set of encyclopedias, devoid of any acknowledgment of his contributions, was housed with his law books behind glass in a barrister’s case. There was a set of Time-Life cookbooks nobody looked at but me, and I mostly looked at the pictures. I remember a hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and my mother’s copy of Anna Karenina from before she was married, and a paperback biography of Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston; I knew he was famous but I didn’t realize he wasn’t the same person as Alfred Hitchcock until a military history class in high school. My father’s oversized dictionary had its own its stand, and it was always left open, waiting to be consulted, like a magician’s book of spells, or the story of the world. That dictionary was my origination, my Genesis.

In Sonoma I rode my bike to the library every week to check out a stack of books, holding my breath at the circulation desk in case I was told I was too greedy; but the librarians always slid the entire pile back over the counter to me, and I sat cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section, reading on one of the rag rugs, light shafting through the arcing Palladian windows. I could pick anything, unrushed, unquestioned, any day, and as I sat with my books scattered around me, turning the pages of one after the other, the incense of hot cinnamon and caramelized sugar wafted over me through the open windows. How could anything ever be more delicious?

Much of my childhood was more bitter than sweet, but those afternoons at the library are some of my most tangible memories, that and crossing the street to walk home with my shy, lonely father at the end of his work day, my latest stack of library books piled into the basket of my banana-seat bicycle, my father stopping at the bakery on the way home, tucking his folded newspaper under his arm so he could carry his briefcase and the pink bakery box, its strings taut under his fingers.

Libraries and books and the words they protect are still precious to me, still imbued with sweetness, sometimes with the bittersweet, and always with the weight of importance. Even now when I think of how I feel while reading a truly extraordinary book, it’s the same feeling I get from eating the world’s best dessert: the rapture of words filling my mouth, the yearning for it to last.  And I still feel that sense of wondrous awe, of being luckier than could possibly be believed, of getting away with something really great whenever I am in a library.

These days my library is the Golden Gate Valley Branch at Green and Octavia. A Carnegie project built around the same time my grandmother started teaching San Francisco first graders to read in the 1920s, the Golden Gate Valley Branch was designed to resemble a Roman basilica, a long narrow rectangle with a curved apse. Outside, the stone façade drips Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance details – carved garlands, moldings, fluted pilasters. On the inside it’s full of light from the tall windows with their curved, arching glass – Palladian windows like those at the library in Sonoma – and the original corniced shelving is still intact on the walls all around. I love the dignity and solidity of it, and how the building was sited close to the street, with no imposing landscaping to render it less inviting: a treasure box found on the sidewalk, waiting to reveal all it holds to you.

I love this library so much that it has found its way into my second novel, just as Sonoma’s library has shown up in my memoir, Cakewalk. I’ll close with the thoughts of the fictional librarian who works at the Golden Gate Valley branch, whose feelings about what that library means to her are not so different from my own:

Her library. Her sanctuary, her temple. It even resembled a church. She said it sometimes deflectively, jokingly, but the truth was she meant it: that library was her religion, the books it housed and the words within them her one redeeming faith. She carried in her head scenes and sentences and images, the astonishment of recognizing herself in the worlds and words of others. The lines and metaphors accreted in her memory, coming back to her in unexpected moments with the same startling intimacy, like snatches of remembered conversations, or a taste indelibly recalled, a sweetness at the back of her throat, as when she’d first read them. To be there, to hold the books in her hands, was a kind of atonement, a word she used privately in its original sense, at one: a harmony, an accord, a reconciliation. A word she’d learned when she was small, standing before her father’s dictionary.”

When the Golden Gate Valley branch reopens next year, I’ll be there: that too will be an atonement. And I’ll bring the cake.

1 comment » | Books, CAKEWALK, Uncategorized, Writing

“…so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…”

April 14th, 2010 — 8:12pm

Sometimes you just have to cheer because somebody got it right: That’s how I felt on Monday when I heard that Paul Harding’s brilliant, gorgeous first novel, Tinkers, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is always exciting when a genuinely outstanding book — a real work of art — is recognized for its author’s achievement, but it’s even more gratifying when that book is an underdog: published by a small press (the first small independent press to publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in almost thirty years) and overlooked by many, including the New York Times, which acknowledged its oversight in a somewhat embarrassed-sounding column in The Paper Cuts blog after the Pulitzer announcement. Especially now, when the publishing industry has been so hard hit by the economic crisis, independent bookstores falling like flies and newspaper book reviews as rare as common courtesy, it’s so heartening to everyone invested in the future of books that a novel like Tinkers would get the attention it deserves.

Why is Tinkers so extraordinary and what’s it about? I think the clarity and seemingly effortless lyricism of Harding’s prose is the best answer to that question. An old New Englander who collected and repaired clocks in his retirement – a tinker, like his father — is dying:

“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”

As George Crosby’s mind wanders in his dying body he imagines not just his own past and present – in a tour de force opening scene he hallucinates that his house and then the entire universe, windowpane by coat closet by cloud by star, collapses in on him as he lies helpless on the hospital bed set up in his living room — but also that of his father, an epileptic who drove a wagon and sold sundries and fixed pots and pans for a living, whose inner life had been unassailable to the young son he left behind when he abandoned the family without a word.  From its description of a father watching his son conduct a private Viking funeral for a mouse to its sensory observations of weather and the changing of seasons, to its acute record of the minutia of family life or detailed instructions on how to build a bird’s nest, every page of Tinkers is dense with scenes and paragraphs and lines so freshly perceived and economically crafted and breathtakingly true – as art, as reflections of humanity — that you want to grab someone and read whole passages aloud.

Here is Paul Harding on what an oncoming epileptic seizure feels like: “The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinquished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”

Or pulling the tooth of a crusty old hermit: “Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. . . . squinting to get a good look, [he] saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

Or a patient dog lurking near the table during a Christmas dinner: “Buddy the dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners.”

I particularly love this next scene, in which George Crosby’s father imagines what he might say to one of his hardscrabble customers, the frugal country wives who gazed at his display case of cheap jewelry year after year but never bought anything unnecessary, their lives as meager as their yearnings are unanswered:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give our or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps only feel the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.”

Paul Hardy’s Tinkers is an elegy to the passage of time, the randomness of memory and mortality, the startling grip of what lasts for each of us: a moving and life-affirming lament for  “the loss of this world of light and hope.” Don’t take my word or the Pulitzer committee’s word on it. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy and read it for yourself!

1 comment » | Books, Uncategorized

I Want Candy

April 8th, 2010 — 10:47am

Despite my peeping about Easter being my favorite holiday, how I love all the frills and frippery and fakey grass, blah blah, this year the Easter Bunny kind of laid an egg. Maybe not as far as the kids were concerned – Celeste and our three visiting juvenile friends from Brooklyn still got baskets turgid with fuzzy chicks and amusing toys and chocolate and jelly beans, and prodigal son Zachary, spending his junior year abroad, got an Easter treat befitting a 21-year-old reading classics at Oxford: a copy of an audacious first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  But all parents know that the primary reason to overload kids with candy at Easter and Halloween is to benefit said parents, who will be tiptoeing across darkened children’s rooms late at night for weeks to come, palming through the beribboned baskets or plastic jack-o-lanterns for a handful of Reese’s miniatures or malted milk balls, girding themselves for daylight’s less-than-sweet aspects of adult responsibility.

Thus in the two decades since I became a mother my Easter palate has become more selective, since junk candy from Walgreen’s is not what I want when I ransack the baskets as my offspring snore gently in their beds: I want the See’s Candy decorated chocolate buttercream egg, heavy as a hand grenade, to hack my way through in the privacy of my midnight kitchen, or a few post-modernist truffles from Joseph Schmidt, San Francisco’s answer to Willie Wonka. When Easter approacheth I have been known to drive all over the Bay Area and pore through catalogs and troll the Internet for the most adorable, delectable treats, tucking them into papier-mâché eggs and crinkly cellophane bags sealed with baby animal stickers in my quest not just for the eventuality of pleasurable parental consumption, but to be the cleverest, most imaginative Easter Bunny ever.

But not this year. This year, the Easter Bunny spent the month of March on post-operative nursing duty, for her husband is parked on the couch with the television remote and two new, virtually unused titanium knees. When she is not plumping pillows and doling out oxycontin the Easter Bunny has been driving the girls chorus carpool every afternoon, boiling rice and chicken breasts for a dog with acute digestive problems, and writing thank-you notes to high school admissions directors at 2 a.m.. Not to mention the depressing stress of starting the South Beach Diet (who cares about no starch and no booze? The trauma is no sugar!) to prepare for the publication of my book about my lifelong, frantic consumption of sugar. To make things even more challenging from the candy-foraging perspective, trusty and tasty See’s closed their flagship store – a mere five-minute stroll from the tired Easter Bunny’s house (See’s, how could you? Why do you think I moved to this neighborhood?!). Joseph Schmidt, too, went into retirement and locked the doors of his Wonkaesque shop.

So this year’s baskets, architected via Walgreen’s and a single rushed trip to Target, were kind of lame. Lots of chocolate that tasted like wax. Jelly beans with no flavor whatsoever. Funny — mediocre candy is not like mediocre wine: it does not start to taste better the more you have. Okay, so I was cheating on my diet, and it wasn’t even worth the guilt. If you’re going to cheat, you might as well cheat with some real candy with quality control. Using the excuse that I had essential errands to run for invalids and teenagers, I escaped my house and headed for The Candy Store.

The Candy Store opened in my neighborhood a couple of years ago. It looks like an apothecary designed by the Jetsons, with a stylized black-and-blue logo and glass jars lining the walls, all of them filled with something fabulous, like chunks of toffee rolled in peanut butter and then dipped in milk chocolate, or gummy butterflies, or green-apple gum balls. It’s fun just knowing that there’s a dedicated candy store three blocks from my house, and the owners, Diane and Brian Campbell, are so friendly and good-natured they tend to offer you a sample if you stare too long at one of the jars on display.

I usually leave with a handful of mixed Swiss Fruits because they look like doll house food: tiny dimpled oranges and blushed green pears and miniature bananas speckled microscopically with brown. But today I wanted something really great, not just the usual, something that would override the taste of carnauba wax from the Brach’s jelly beans I choked down by the handful last night. The first thing I noticed at The Candy Store was a display of coconut & Hawaiian pink salt brittle. Brian makes the brittle in small batches, toasting the organic coconut he uses, and I could smell it even through the cellophane bags.

The Candy Store's handmade brittle

As I chatted with Diane at the counter while paying for my brittle, she noticed me eyeing a polka-dotted box of something wrapped in waxed paper. “Those are amazing,” she told me. “They’re marshmallows covered in a salted caramel with a little cocoa and three kinds of roasted nuts. A woman in the East Bay makes them.” She continued under her breath. “I think they’re my favorite candy in the store right now. No – I think these may be the best candy I’ve ever had.”

Diane knows her candy, and even though they were pricey at $3 a piece, with that endorsement I had to try one.  I took my bag of high quality candy, picked up a cup of tea to go around the corner, and drove off to do my real errands.

Ten minutes later I pulled my car over to the curb so that I could call Diane back at The Candy Store. I’d already broken into the coconut brittle, which was brilliant, the crunch and toastiness of the coconut and blonde brittle balanced with savory sweetness. But the caramel-covered marshmallow – something about its combination of textures and flavors, the slight bitterness of the dark, nut-flecked caramel with its hint of chocolate against the airy, melting marshmallow, was staggering. I’d eaten it in one bite and unlike most sweets, it was so completely satisfying that was all I needed. That one perfect mouthful.

“You were right,” I told Diane on the phone. “That marshmallow-caramel thing ties for the most amazing piece of candy I’ve ever had”—I thought quickly to the unforgettable rose-flavored Turkish delight my family bought a couple of years ago at a gas station not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Termessos, a candy so tender and perfumed and beautifully pure I would have wept except that I was too busy elbowing the rest of my family away from the box as they wolfed it down.  Later we learned that we’d stumbled into the village renowned for making the best Turkish delight in the country. Now my other best candy is right around the corner from my house. Even at $3 a pop, it’s a lot cheaper than going back to Turkey.

BonBonBar's SCN Caramallows and my grandmother's toy tea set

You too can buy that marshmallow-caramel thing, called a Salted Chocolate Nut Caramallow and made by Nina Wanat of BonBonBar, through The Candy Store. You can buy Brian Campbell’s brittles, too, if you’re lucky – they tend to sell out the day they’re made.

Coconut & Hawaiian Pink Salt Brittle reposing before it disappears

And Nina Wanat, who left the film industry and then law school to start making really good candy, has a blog about dessert called Sweet Napa, where you can find out more about BonBonBar. After the salty-sweet SCN Caramallow and the coconut brittle, and my fond memories of that rosy Turkish delight, I’m ready to try Nina’s recipe for a rosewater-flavored pavlova.

Comments Off | Baking, Books, candy, holidays, Recipes

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