27 November 2012

So Now, the Baking Begins

Thank you to everyone who participated in yesterday's online bake sale to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. You are generous souls, and you will be rewarded with some yummy treats. The powers that be at A Half Baked Life will be in touch about payment details, and then I will be in touch with those who bought my items to coordinate preferences and timing. If you did not succeed in winning an item, consider making a small donation anyway to the United Way's fund (you can do this using the button on the bake sale's main page). It's a very good cause.

When I was in college, I joined a sorority that had a very nice house with a well-equipped kitchen. Money was tight, and that kitchen was a godsend, as it allowed me to economize a little on food. My repertoire at the time included such sophisticated dishes as ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese from a box, and the occasional pan of Duncan Hines brownies.

 I remember that one of my sorority sisters baked an apple pie one day. Looking back, it was just a simple, plain apple pie, nothing flashy or exceptional about it, but I was mightily impressed. I had never made a pie in my life, and that crust - wow. I asked her, wide-eyed, "How did you DO that?"

Now, this particular young woman was a sweet, kind person, patient and virtuous. But she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot she had ever met. "It's a pie," she said. "You know. You roll out the dough and bake it."

I mumbled something like, "Oh. I'm not much of a baker," and I left it at that.

I think it's fair to say, at this point in my life, that I've become a fairly experienced baker. It's an activity that I enjoy when I'm in the mood for it. My three teenagers and my gourmand husband are the most appreciative recipients of baked goods ever to walk this planet. Sometimes, when I talk to people who do not bake but wish they could, or who are very new to the activity, they ask for advice. Here are the things I would tell a beginning baker.

1.  The first thing my mother ever sewed was an 18th-century-style dress for the Bicentennial celebration in our town in 1976. She locked herself in her room for a week and did not come out until she had a perfect gown, hoopskirt and all. This is how I learned to curse.  My point? Baking is not too different from sewing. Start with a good, simple recipe, something you and the people you love enjoy eating. Don't let the first thing you bake be a seven-tiered wedding cake the night before the nuptials.

2. Read the recipe carefully before you begin. Some recipes mention a special piece of equipment or an unusual step at the very end. If you haven't read the whole recipe, you might find yourself up to your elbows in batter before you realize you don't have the right size pan or the right kind of sugar.

3. Don't confuse baking powder with baking soda, or salted butter with unsalted butter, or vanilla extract with mint extract. Read the ingredient list carefully.

4. Give yourself plenty of time. Figure out how long it will take, and allow yourself the time needed. Rushing will compromise your results.

5. Measure carefully. This is a common mistake that beginners make. "One cup of flour" means a level cup, not a heaping mound. Don't try to eyeball things, at least not in the beginning. If you are dedicating an afternoon to making cookies, give yourself a chance for success and don't mess it up by being careless.

6. Follow the directions to the letter, at least the first few times. Most published and family recipes have been tested many, many times. If it tells you to sift the flour, sift the flour. And there's probably a reason why they want you to beat the eggs before adding them. Just do it.

7. Don't get hung up on fancy equipment. Martha Stewart pretty much taught me to make pies and tarts, so I hate to badmouth her, but some of her cookbooks can leave you with the impression that you won't be able to produce a tasty pumpkin pie unless you own an industrial-size KitchenAid mixer and a collection of vintage tin pie plates in every possible circumference. Those are wonderful things to have. But consider buying a 9" ceramic pie plate and a Hamilton Beach handheld mixer at the supermarket. I promise, they will work just fine.

8. Also, speaking of equipment, here's a great rule to follow: if a piece of equipment is designed for just one type of food, you almost certainly don't need it. When's the last time you dug out the fondue pot, the crepe pan, the panini press, the silly George Forman thing? I own a "slider" pan. It makes teeny tiny little hamburgers. It takes up space in my cabinet, but I never use it. You can make teeny tiny hamburgers in a regular frying pan.

9. Be kind to yourself. Do not make yourself crazy if your results aren't perfect. There are very few mistakes you'll make that will actually render your creation inedible. Like knitting or playing the piano, being a good baker takes practice. If the little stars you cut out for the crust of your pie look like little octopi, so what? I bet they're yummy anyway.

10. Finally, patronize your local bakery. Just about every community in the developed world has at least one bake shop run by someone who knows what he or she is doing. Get to know your local baker. Make friends. Ask questions. Entrust him or her with your more complicated projects (like that wedding cake).

What advice did I leave out? What would you say to someone who is new to an activity that you're good at?

26 November 2012

Baking a Difference - Today's the Day!

I apologize for the short post. I'm working against a deadline at my real job, and I need to focus on that right now. But I did say I'd remind you, so here you go.

HEAD OVER TO A HALF BAKED LIFE TODAY BEFORE MIDNIGHT to bid on the delicious treats that I and several other bloggers are baking to benefit the United Way's Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.

I'll tell you a secret. JHL, who is running the auction, says that bakers have only agreed to ship to US addresses. But if you buy one of my items, I will be happy to ship it to you anywhere at my expense. (Be warned, however, that sometimes international packages, even sent express, take forever, and that may impact the freshness of your purchase. I can't guarantee delivery times or freshness outside of the US.)

I was looking at the items this morning, and several of them had bids - but not mine. My self-esteem is flagging. Please at least check the cookies out. Aren't they pretty?

And if you are watching calories, JHL has provided a "donate only" button.

23 November 2012

Standing in Line

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving here at Still Life. Mom, Dad, my older sister, my brother, their spouses, and eight of my parents' ten grandchildren feasted at my house on a beautiful fresh local turkey, expertly roasted by my husband, sausage and vegetarian stuffing, butternut squash soup, my sister's delicious homemade cranberry sauce, and, one of my favorites, Mama Laura's pickled beets. (Mama Laura passed away last March at 95, but she left my sister her recipe. I missed her yesterday, but I know she was here in spirit.) And there were pies: apple, cranberry cheesecake, and pumpkin - and a maple pumpkin cheesecake (my husband's favorite). My younger sister and her family, celebrating with her in-laws in Connecticut, shared the holiday with us by exchanging pictures on Facebook. My mom's dear friend Sue called in from Seattle to wish us a joyful feast, just as my dad was blessing our meal. We put her on the speaker so she could be with us.

Make no mistake - we are surrounded by love here, and we know it.

After a long day of cooking, about an hour before everyone arrived, Sam took me for a ride on his motorcycle. We rode up along the Palisades cliffs to Tallman State Park, which sits high above the Hudson River just north of the New York/New Jersey border. I sat behind him on the motorcycle, holding on as he drove. The daylight was just starting to fade. The river was gray below us, and the sky was steel blue above us. A few families were picnicking in the park, and we waved as we passed hikers and other motorcyclists. It was beautiful, and just the break I needed from the kitchen. We might have to make that part of our tradition as we go forward.

The kids watched the Thanksgiving Day parade on the television while we cooked. Every few moments, I poked my head in to see a group of dancers, a marching band, or a big balloon pass by. The thought crossed my mind that, when I was a child, the floats in the parade were based mostly on literary and cartoon characters. I remember Snoopy, and the Cat in the Hat, and Raggedy Ann. Now, the floats seem to consist mostly of advertising trademarks: Ronald McDonald, the Kool-Aid guy, and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

My son, thirteen, asked why there was a parade on Thanksgiving that featured Santa. The timing seemed off to him. In our tradition, we don't usually start talking about Santa and gifts and jingly bells until at least the beginning of Advent. (Advent, the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, begins on December 2 this year.) All the Christmassy stuff struck my son as premature.

I had to explain to him that the parade, with its corporate-sponsored floats and its strategic timing, was all about marketing. The retail industry has taken the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas and turned it into a "shopping season." The idea is to stir up a spending frenzy among consumers, to make them believe that they need to rush out and seek bargains and buy as much as they possibly can before the "Christmas rush." The day after Thanksgiving - formerly known as the day after Thanksgiving - is now known as Black Friday. The day the retailers go into the black.

And the retailers' plan works. Macy's in Herald Square was open all night last night. People lined up on the sidewalks hours and hours in advance for the chance to get some fabulous deal on something they were convinced they needed. Something they needed so badly that it was worth going out on Thanksgiving night, credit card in hand, hoping to get a deal. Or several.

The whole idea makes me sad. It turns a holiday that's about appreciation of what we have into a holiday that's about greed. Instead of focusing on Mama Laura's beets and that beautiful turkey, and all those cousins laughing and playing together, we focus on what's on sale, what we can get, what more we think we need.

But we don't need anything more. We have a roof over our heads. Ten bright, healthy children (okay, some of them are adults already) who call me either "Mom" or "Aunt Jennie" and ask what they can do to help. Healthy, happy, indulgent grandparents, hugging the little ones and tossing the salad and saying a blessing of thanksgiving over our abundance. We have each other, and the gray river, and the blue sky, and the warm apple pie, and the happy memories. Those things can't be bought, but they are the only things I'd ever stand in line for.

15 November 2012

Baking a Difference for the Garden State

My friend JHL, over at A Half Baked Life, is hosting an extraordinary fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief. She's coordinating a bake sale auction to raise funds for the United Way Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Here's how it will work:

Visit A Half Baked Life starting on November 26 to see the listings of the baked goods that will be for sale. (You can use the link on my sidebar to get there, and I'll remind you as the day gets closer.) All the goods for sale will be provided by volunteer bakers (like myself). You can bid on whatever tasty treats strike your fancy. If you win, the baker will ship the goods right to your door (or deliver them if you are local). All proceeds will benefit the United Way's relief efforts.

There are still parts of my home state, New Jersey, that are in great distress as a result of this powerful storm. From our big cities to our famous farmlands to our pristine shorelines, we are rebuilding and helping those in need in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster. Please consider supporting the blogging community's efforts to help our neighbors.

Wouldn't you love to have some of my Stained Glass Window cookies on your holiday table, and know that at the same time, you're doing something good for someone else?


07 November 2012

The Legend of Agayentah

My father is a graduate of a small liberal arts men's college called Hobart College, located on Seneca Lake in upstate New York. When I was a little girl, I used to sit on his lap and play with his class ring. It was one of those chunky gold affairs with embossed sides and a shiny purple stone in the middle. I loved the ring, and I turned it over and over, trying it on and spinning it on my finger.

On one side of the ring was the engraved profile of a Native American man in a feathered headdress. Time after time, I asked my dad who the man was, and time after time he replied, "That's Agayentah."  (The name is pronounced Oggie-YEN-tah. I loved the way it sounded, and I repeated it over and over again.)

My dad loved to tell the story. According to Hobart legend, Agayentah, a great Seneca warrior, sought shelter in a thunderstorm under a tree beside Seneca Lake. He was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning, and he and the tree were swept into the lake. From time to time, his ghost appears to Hobart students, paddling on the lake, inspiring them and impressing them with the bravery and greatness of the Seneca Nation. He remains an inspirational symbol to Hobart students to this day.

Many, many years have gone by since my dad last told me the story of Agayentah, and I probably would have forgotten it completely.  But last weekend, my college-applicant daughter and I found ourselves in Geneva, New York, visiting Hobart (or, more precisely, its companion women's college, William Smith). We took a campus tour on Sunday, and when we walked into the lobby of the gymnasium, there he was. A bronze bust of Agayentah. I knew him immediately by the proud curve of his nose, his strong chin, and the feathers trailing the nape of his neck. I had stumbled on an old friend.

My daughter, on the other hand, had stumbled on new friends. She spent the night with a William Smith student while I hunkered down at a hotel by the lake. I took a little jog along the waterfront right before the wind and rain started in earnest. The sky, thickly padded with clouds, warned of an approaching hurricane. I scanned the horizon for Agayentah, but I could not see him. I reasoned that, as a great warrior and seasoned canoeist, Agayentah would know better than to paddle these waters in this kind of weather. He would take shelter. He would stay put until the worst had passed.

I couldn't find a good picture of Agayentah, but here's the wind picking up on the shore of Seneca Lake.

We were to drive home on Monday morning, but by the time breakfast rolled around, it was obvious to me that we were going nowhere. The New York Thruway and Route 17 south through Ithaca would be treacherous if not impassable in this sort of storm. Following Agayentah's advice, which was ringing in my head, we waited it out for a second night. We had dinner in the hotel's little restaurant, where we could look out the rattling windows and see the churning waves and the swirling clouds. We slept soundly, despite the weather, and on Tuesday morning, after the worst of it had passed, we drove home.

As you know by now, the devastation wrought on New York City by Hurricane Sandy was profound. A week later, many of my neighbors still lack power; our local schools were closed for a week, and the shelters in Newark and Paterson (large nearby cities in New Jersey) are packed to capacity. We do not yet know the fate of my parents' house at the beach, as we have not been able to get there to inspect it. I suspect the damage will be marked.

It turns out that my daughter loved Hobart and William Smith and the friendly students there. I loved the gray lake, the wide lawns, and the cold wind. I don't know where my daughter will end up going to college, but we could do much worse than to send her to study under the watchful eye of an old, old friend.

Thanks to the Phantoms and Monsters blog and Delvina Smith, HWS '09, for refreshing my memory about the legend of Agayentah. And thanks of course to my dad for giving me the memory in the first place.

I Had A Terrible Nightmare Last Night

Last night, I had a terrible nightmare.

I dreamed that an extremist right-wing religious party had tried to take over the United States government. The candidate they nominated to run for President opposed public funding for just about everything - education, health care, public broadcasting, disaster relief. The people who ran for Senate hoped to make contraception, abortion, and in vitro fertilization illegal. They spoke about rape being the will of God and opined that a woman who conceived a child during a rape must have consented to the act. They opposed equal pay for women in the workplace. They called well-educated people "elitists."

This political party's adherents tried to rationalize their cruel social views with bogus economics. They claimed that poverty existed because people didn't work hard enough. They told people who were dying for lack of health insurance that they should have purchased insurance before they got sick. (If they hadn't, regardless of the reason, it was not the government's responsibility to help them.) They called wealthy people "job creators" and assured the middle class that cutting taxes for wealthy people would create a vast wave of prosperity on which all of society would rise, simultaneously and gloriously.

They alternately used religion to rationalize their policies and to intimidate the electorate. God created women differently from men, they explained, which was why women had to be dealt with differently under the law. Homosexuals were portrayed as sinners and were therefore not entitled to equal treatment under law. Preachers publicly denounced the faithful who refused to vote for the extremist party's candidate. They threatened to shun dissenters, denying them participation in comforting rituals and threatening them with eternal damnation as a consequence of their views.

And, in my dream, the American people bought it. They succumbed to the bizarre, twisted, cruel views. They voted in droves to shrink the federal government beyond recognition. They stopped arguing sensibly and started calling dissenters idiots, retards, godless fools. As the rest of the civilized world looked on helplessly, the extremist party and its views caught hold in a nation that had once prided itself on its inalienable freedom of expression, its thoughtfulness, its educational dominance. People sank into poverty and died from lack of food and medical care, which became luxuries affordable only to the ruling class.

I woke from my nightmare and rolled over. My bedroom window faces due east, and I can see Jupiter glimmering in the night sky until almost dawn. But my grand celestial view did not help. Unable to fall back asleep, I tiptoed downstairs to my kitchen.

When I switched on the light, my nightmare dissipated immediately. The kitchen was filled with the remains of a joyful party. Long-stemmed champagne flutes, rimmed with lipstick and holding traces of Veuve Cliquot champagne, lined the counter. Dessert plates and forks were stacked in the sink. Candy wrappers, cast about by celebrating children, littered the floor.

The scene reminded me that the threat of takeover by conservative extremists had been a fleeting nightmare. I remembered that life was still good. I could still practice law, even though I'm a woman. I could still discuss my health care with my doctor behind closed doors. I would still be welcome in my church next Sunday, regardless of how I had voted or spoken out in dissent. Maybe I'd lost a few friends who had subscribed to the rhetoric, but life would go on.

And it would be good.