Friday, October 30, 2009
Clearly I cannot find the proper words.
So I'll just ramble for a bit instead.
Blogging has been an unexpected gift that has allowed me to return to writing in a way I never would have done without it. Sure, I would have written some of the silly thoughts and stories and observations I've posted in emails to friends, in journals I keep or on notes passed in the hallway . . . er, I guess I stopped doing that a long time ago. But without blogging I never would have found the discipline to sit down and write out one of the most painful and life altering experiences of my life. It is an opportunity to reflect on my own experience and improve my writing skills with the surprising side-effect of people actually wanting to read it! I would say this is a creative outlet but it feels like so much more. The encouragement I receive to keep writing in comments and emails both humbles and emboldens me.
Thank you everyone for your emails over the last week requesting an invite. I haven't screened anyone out yet (my strict security check is rigorous) so if you have felt shy or you are not sure you want to out yourself to me or maybe you are just assuming I will send you an invite unsolicited, I say just email me. What have you got to lose?
The invitiations will be sent once I make the private transition which will be sometime over the weekend. I hope to see you on the other side!
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Cold, wet weather leads to cravings. Specifically, cravings for soup. I love a good, hearty winter soup. Especially the one I am going to share with you right now. It comes from this cherished little cookbook:
So let's get to it. For whatever reason, there are two nearly identical minestrone soup recipes - we are going to use Soup "B" which does not contain olive oil and does have green beans (the only difference I can determine from Soup "A").
While everything is sweating and tenderizing over on the stove, pull out your cabbage and spinach - and take a minute to admire the beautiful color of this head of cabbage! So pretty - especially when contrasted with the spinach.
Anyway, chop 1/4 to 1/2 cup of spinach (I really don't measure this - that is the beauty of cooking as opposed to baking, everything is to taste!) and about a cup of cabbage. I chose to rinse it all off after chopping in my very handy salad spinner. To conserve pots, you can wait until the barley is finished and use that pot for double-duty. Cover the cabbage and spinach with water and cook on high until cabbage is tender.
Then dice up that fresh basil and toss it in with the cabbage and spinach. You can also pull the oregano leaves off the stalk and toss them in as well.
Strain and set aside.
Now is the time to pull out your stock pot - or 6-quart sauce pan - and start adding all of the ingredients - the carrots, celery and onions, the tender barley, 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, 2-3 cloves minced garlic and a cube each of chicken and beef bullion. Next up, add about a cup of green beans (I used fresh but they can be frozen or you can substitute peas or asparagus), 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, 1 can kidney beans and the spinach, cabbage and herb mix. Last, add 5 14 1/2 ounce cans of beef broth.
Stir everything together and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Simmer until the flavor is blended. You can make this ahead and simmer it in a slow cooker if you want.
While the soup is simmering, make your pasta. It doesn't really matter what kind of pasta you use but I prefer something small - like these multigrain elbows. I used about half the box, but it is up to your taste as to how much you use.
While the soup is simmering and the pasta is cooking, this might be a good time to tidy up the kitchen.
Because, as you know, a watched pot never boils, right?
Finally, right before serving, add the pasta.
1 cup medium diced celery
1 cup medium diced carrots
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons granulated garlic (or 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, minced)
1 cube chicken bullion
1 cube beef bullion
1 cup green beans
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup kidney beans
1/3 cup pearl barley
2 cups water
1/4 cup chopped spinach
1 cup chopped cabbage
4 14 1/2 ounce cans beef broth
I should mention this is a large recipe and it freezes well. Which means I don't have to get sick of it and burn out this week, I can store it away for another cold, rainy soup day.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
First up, what could be more more fall than pumpkin? I love pumpkin waffels, pancakes, cookies and, of course cupcakes! To witness one of my baking tragedies and discover a fantastic pumpkin cupcake recipe topped with chocolate ganache and ginger whipped cream, click here.
If sugar cookies are what you are craving for any of the upcoming holidays - but especially in ghost, pumpkin and witch hat shapes, click here, but don't forget the step-by-step recipe instructions and tips are found here in their Christmas attire.Do falling leaves, locally harvested apples at the farmer's market and chilly temperatures make you crave pie? Or is that just me? For a delicious twist on the traditional apple pie, click here.
And what about Thanksgiving? In charge of the turkey at this year's Thanksgiving feast? Have no fear, after three successful birds, I feel confident in saying I have stumbled onto a no-fail-never-dry recipe. If you are still scared, I will baby-step you through the process. Check it out here.
Another tasty fall - or anytime - recipe is banana bread. It seems everyone has a favorite go-to recipe but if you are in the market for a new one, might I suggest this one? It freezes well and makes for a great gift or tasty treat for your self.
If overnight guests are on your holiday agenda then you will need more than cookies and turkey to keep them satsified - they might want breakfast too! Try serving them these maple oatmeal scones (and see how I cope with shattering a bottle of vanilla in my kitchen prior to entertaining). Or take the easy (and healthy!) route and make some steel-cut oatmeal in your slow cooker the night before so your guests (or you!) wake up to a hot breakfast that is ready to serve.
Of course, quiche is good any time of year, right? You can try my recipe by clicking here.
And just a quick reminder to those of you who have not yet sent me an email (soulfusion10019 at gmail dot com), you have until October 31st to request an invitation to my private blog. Don't be shy. I've been surprised by all the emails I have received - the majority of whom I have never met and rarely comment. This is the perfect time to take a deep breath and de-lurk before I disappear. Thanks for understanding!
Monday, October 26, 2009
Let me back up just a bit to explain to those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with the world of law school hiring to fill you in. The way law school works is you kill yourself to get good grades your first year so you can work for free somewhere over the summer that makes you look interesting and smart so that in the fall of your second year - a full two years before you will ever work anywhere permanently - you can interview with law firms in the hopes of getting asked to spend your second summer "working" with them and coasting through your third year. Or, at least, that is how it worked back in my day. The current recession has knocked the whole ridiculous process on its head at the expense of all the poor kids who have found themselves in their second year of law school this fall.
But luck was on my side in the fall of 1999. Sort of. Clutching my transcript and resume and wearing my navy Jones NY suit repeatedly, I dropped resumes with just about every firm that came on campus and interviewed with a good percentage of them. The dot com bubble had not yet burst and money was aplenty in big law firms - something I had extreme difficulty comprehending. As I played the numbers game and waited for the on campus interviewers to get back to me in September, I felt a moment of panic and dropped a few more resumes - including one to a firm in New York City. I had never been to New York - unless you count the time I had a long layover at JFK on my way to Europe for my study abroad in '97, which I did because I thought interviewers wanted some sort of tie to the city. I did not yet know the arrogance of the New Yorker who believed everyone wanted to live in New York because it is the center of the universe and the greatest f'n city in the world, in contrast to the LA interviewer who was paranoid you only wanted sunshine for a year or two and demanded to know all your connections to the place outside of your childhood trips to Disneyland.
So I dropped my paranoid resume with career services and by the time the interviewer came to town for round one, I felt confident with my chances of getting a job with any one of the other places that were flying me around and putting me up in fancy hotels. Only, I shouldn't have felt so smug.
Except that it probably helped me relax. I remember the day I was interviewed in a study room in the library better than any other interview. Well, except maybe that one where I insulted the law library of another near-by university for not being as nice as my current school to a couple of interviewers from a certain firm that carried the same name . . . oops. Oh, and those jerks from Chicago with their matching three-ring binders and coordinated flip to my transcript and their snobbish questions about that one sucky grade from property second semester . . . .
As I was saying, I remember the day of that interview because I didn't really care about that one. I was pretty sure I would be heading to California or perhaps staying in Utah the next summer and I had no real desire to live in New York. But I would interview just in case they decided to fly me out for a call back. My sister was in town and I found the interview to be a bit of a nuisance in its timing. I had to put on a suit and chit chat with this guy while my sister found a way to kill 30 minutes before we went to see an exhibit at the school's art museum.
The interview wasn't like any of the others. After I responded to a question posed by the interviewer, he would jump in and coach me as to how to tweak my answers for the call back. Um, so does this mean I have a call back? By the end of the interview he was handing me my resume marked up with proposed changes he wanted me to make by the end of the day so he could hand the revised version to his firm's recruiting office. Oh, and yes, they would then call me back. The carefree day with my sister had another setback.
Before I knew it I was scheduled to fly to New York City for the first time in my life on Tuesday, October 26th. Ten years ago today.
On Saturday, October 23rd, I woke up with the worst pain I had ever experienced in my life in my lower back. So I called my mom. My parents lived 45 minutes away and I was living in a bizarre little duplex with a lava rock exterior and a train-like interior. I had two roommates - one from Japan who was shy and reclusive and didn't speak much English, the other with an identity crisis because she didn't like people confusing her name with a local grocery store. She used this weird pyramid scheme Noni juice stuff on a cotton ball for something I never figured out and spent the bulk of her time locked in her room falsifying our census ballot (she was Mexican from Mexico but tried to list that she was American because Mexico is part of the American continent . . .yeah), playing with her giant punching bag and reading her Spanish People (I'm guessing, I don't really know what she did in there, that is just all I know about her). So I wasn't really wanting to turn to my roommates in my great hour of excruciating pain.
I counted the 45 minutes down to the second on my watch and took about 30 minutes of that time putting shoes and socks on. I found the pain was almost tolerable if I curled myself up into the fetal position on the side without pain. I had no idea what was happening to me.
Finally, I called my parents who cheerfully told me they were just reaching the point of the mountain since they had a couple of errands to run before heading down. Clearly, they had misunderstood the gravity of my situation. I was in tears and to really get the point across that I was in severe pain, I threw up in my garbage can during our call. I could barely speak and I completely freaked my mother out as she suggested I call someone else. For reasons I do not understand now, I was incapable of putting my glasses on and claimed I couldn't see anything to find anyone's phone number and it was pretty obvious that I was no longer coherent. Especially with the puking.
To make matters worse, my parents had never been to my current apartment. So as I lay dying on my couch watching for them out the window, I saw their van drive by at a faster rate than I had expected. I hobbled to the door in time for them to see me as they doubled back. My dad held the miniature version of the yellow pages (remember those!) he kept in the car and was muttering about the location of the insta-care as my mom helped me into the back where I may or may not have just laid down on the floor. My condition convinced him that maybe the emergency room was a better destination.
My dad dropped us off at the entrance and my mom went to the window while I sat down in the waiting room where I lasted all of two seconds before a nurse rushed out to my side. I didn't know you could get help that quickly in the ER. Perhaps my hobbled position, tears and the look of sheer agony on my face tipped them off.
I was taken to a room, instructed to de-robe and asked 101 questions, every other one being "are you preganant?" or "could you possibly be pregnant?" Sometimes the nurse or doctor or orderly or whomever tried to shield me a bit from my parents as they asked just in case their presence was altering my response. Finally, in a fit of why-the-hell-do-you-keep-asking-me-the-same-damn-question-I-am-in-a-lot-of-PAIN! humor I responded - to my father's delight - that unless the gestation period was more than three years, no, I was not pregnant. I was no longer impressed with their service. I wanted the pain to be gone.
So they finally hooked me up to some drugs so I could get some relief from what everyone suspected was a kidney stone. Wiped out by the pain and woozy from the extreme dose of narcotics now coursing through my system, I had to endure one of the more humiliating moments of my life that I didn't even notice at the time, my mom had to help me pee in a cup. After that I was wheeled down a hall stretched out on one of those wheeling beds with my IV dripping into my arm, for a cat scan or something (I wasn't totally aware of everything going on) and it was at that point, when I was left in the hall and possibly misplaced for a time. It may have been just a few minutes, it could have been an hour. I don't know. All I know is I remember being left in the hallway as I slowly blinked trying to stay awake with my blurry vision incapable of identifying anything or anyone around me. And then it dawned on me. That recylced first love boy I had briefly dated a month or so earlier? This is where he worked. I was a greasy, sweaty, pukey mess full of kidney stones and pain medicine. Yet, I was afraid he would be the one to walk down the hall and find me.
I'll never know if he, in fact, found me that day and ran the other way because the next thing I know I heard someone say "there she is" like I wandered off on my own and I was wheeled into get scanned. I fell asleep in there so everyone's horror stories about going into that tube thing - I just don't get because I was too drugged up to notice or care.
We spent the day there, my parents and me and I was discharged with a fistful of prescription slips and several strainers which I was instructed to use each time I urinated to try and catch my kidney stones. My biggest concern was whether I could get on a plane on Tuesday if my kidney stones hadn't "passed." I was given the name of a urologist to consult on Monday and experienced my first anti-lawyer encounter with a doctor who hates my kind.
By Monday the stone had vanished without landing in my pee strainer and the urologist couldn't located it on the ultrasound. He didn't recommend flying but gave me a couple more prescriptions in case I insisted on going. I did.
So it was with a significant amount of residual pain in my lower back that I packed up for my first trip to NYC. A couple of my classmates were also going with overlapping days. One offered to share her hotel room if I wanted to stay over an extra day - which I did. Another invited me to go see Ben Folds Five at the Hammerstein Ballroom on the 27th, I accepted. Sure, I was excited about the job opportunity, but mostly I was extremely intimidated.
The traffic was crazy driving into the City and I am sure I was wide-eyed at all the sights and sounds and smells of the chaos that is downtown Manhattan. I stayed in the Millenium Hilton across the street from the still-standing World Trade Center and it was dark outside by the time I checked in. I walked outside hoping to find somewhere to eat but was intimidated by the darkness, the chill in the air, the people hustling off to someplace else and the piles of garbage mounted on the curb. I also couldn't find anything aside from a McDonalad's or KFC to eat so I returned to the hotel and ate there, disappointed in my first night in the City that supposedly never sleeps but looked quite dead to me. Little did I know that the no-sleeping areas were further uptown from the financial district.
I found the firm where I was interviewing the next morning without delay and had to hold back excited squeals of delight at seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time ever from the firm's reception lobby. It was a stunning and distracting view with boats in the harbor, the sun glinting off Lady Liberty's torch. And I had to sit demurely with my leather interview folder and hands in my lap. I met with four or five lawyers and was then escorted to lunch by two lawyers - one of whom I still keep in touch - to Delmonico's, which is billed as America's first fine dining restuarant having opened in 1837.
After the interview lunch was over, I walked back to my hotel for a quick change of clothes and became a tourist. I spent the bulk of my tourist time across the street at the top of the World Trade Center where I took an entire roll of film. If you remember film days, you will recall that unless you were some type of professional photographer, using an entire roll of film on anything was considered wasteful. When I developed the film, I thought it was a waste. Now, the photos are a treasured memory of a lost view. My first glimpse at a city I would grow to love (and sometimes hate).
I met up with my classmate that evening and he introduced me to the subway (my first ride originated at the Cortlandt Street station which is no more) and NY pizza. We then hit the legendary Hammerstein Ballroom where I was blown away by Ben Folds' entertaining style and by the fact that almost everyone in the room was short. We managed to work our way up fairly close to the stage and I remember being able to see over pretty much everyone's heads and being surprised by that.
That night the Yankees won the World Series, sweeping in four games. I felt bad that I was going to miss the ticker tape parade the next day but felt energized being in the City where it happened. I met up with my other class mate who had offered to share her room with me and we did some more exploring the next morning before her interview and before my flight home. We walked and walked and walked and walked - my first real introduction as to the best way to get to know New York. We stumbled onto the famous Law & Order steps of the courthouse where I posed for some silly photos and we ate Krispy Kreme donuts (not yet available in Utah) and other forgettable snacks and treats along the way. I think we even wandered into China Town.
Needless to say, not long after I returned to school, I received an offer. And the rest is sort of history. Except, I have to add a couple of tidbits for flavor. Despite the fact that the NY firm was by far the biggest and most prestigious of all the firms with which I interviewed (and I was totally unaware of this at the time) and despite the fact that I felt I had better interviews with other firms - some practically guaranteed me a position over lunch - the only offer I received that fall was in New York with the most intimidating firm of them all. A place where I lucked out on timing because they were letting just about anyone in the doors, even a naive kid from Utah who had never even visited the Big Apple.
I feel like I should do something to commemorate or honor my first visit here in some way - but it would be impossible to retrace any of the steps I followed those two days. And really, I wouldn't want to. I had a singular experience that can never be repeated. I aimed for a position that was arguably outside my qualifications, yet I got it. For me, the best way to honor this anniversary is to once again, set my goals high and reach for something that is arguably outside my reach.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
In September a couple of things happened to push me into finally doing something. First, I was watching the news and they ran a story on how people booed at the premier of the new production of Puccini's Tosca. They booed! After reading more about it in the NY Times, I decided I had to see the new production. I mean, sure, New Yorkers have no qualms booing the Yankees and the Knicks when they don't play up to expectations but the opera?
A woman who I know through my pilates class works at the Met so I asked her about the performance and inquired about the Young Associates program. I assumedit was too late to join but she said I had plenty of time to still join and that Tosca was the first opera on the Young Associates program.
Prior to each opera, the Young Associates have a cocktail party. I felt a little awkward on my own but didn't have to wait too long to meet others who were there solo as well. I met a children's librarian and a radiologist who were very nice. I also met a pretentious and socially awkward PhD candidate who I could not maintain a conversation with to save my life. His PhD is in history and I tried to relate by mentioning that was my college major but he basically snubbed that. I tried discussing my favorite public art piece in the City - a Chagall murual - which we were standing directly under. He leered awkwardly and seemed disinterested even as he mentioned that he needs to renew his membership to the Met (the art Met) and I got the impression he is checking cultural boxes.
Are you curious about the booing? There wasn't any booing on my night, though the controversial production elements were still present. In the first act the tenor Mario Cavaradossi is painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene in a church. His lover Floria Tosca comes in and jealously questions him about the resemblence of the painting to another woman. In a jealous rage, Tosca slashes the painting. Someone near me gasped. I suppose if you were Catholic that would be the sort of thing to set you off and prompt booing.
The final scene in the first act was my second favorite part of the entire opera, even if it also contained another shocking moment. The baritone Scarpia is the chief of the secret police and acts as the villain for the opera. Scarpia plays on Tosca's jealousies in an effort to get his will. The Act closes with a chilling baritone aria wherein Scarpia expresses his debased inner thoughts on conquering Tosca layered on top of a monumental religious procession which is scored for triple chorus and augmented orchestra with bells, organ and two cannons in celebration of a victory over Napoleon. The music swells with Scarpia's lurid longing even as the religious processional is layered underneath and the religious procession slowly walks toward the front of the stage. It was incredibly powerful with bass trombones blaring, cymbals crashing, timpani rumbling, Scarpia's deep, resonate voice booming and it ends suddenly with Scarpia taking the statue of Mary in an embrace and kissing it.
My favorite part of the opera was Cavardossi's aria as he awaits execution. He sings of his love for Tosca and is overcome with dispair and Puccini's haunting melody perfectly encapsulates his emotions. Puccini has a remarkable ability to write a melody that pulls you out of yourself so that you feel like you are hovering above everything - you forget the chair you are sitting in, the people surrounding you, the head that is too big in front of you and forget to breathe as you bask in the moment with the music holding you there. "E lucevan le stelle" starts with a mournful clarinet and builds with strings. The tenor's voice and the swelling of the violins held me captive and faded too quickly. Just as the music was fading, while I was still floating outside myself somewhere, a voice shouted "Bravo!" and my soul crashed back into my body with a start that signaled it was time to applaud - a seemingly inept expression of the gratitude that was swelling in my heart for the privilege of listening.
Friday, October 23, 2009
I have decided to pursue a professional opportunity that dictates I keep a lower public profile than is possible while blogging. As a result, I have come to the very difficult decision that I need to take my blog private. Believe me, this is not something I am very happy about (the private thing, not the professional opportunity part). If things work out, the private blog thing will be permanent. If this new opportunity does not work, well, I'll come out from behind the password protected curtain to ramble on about my baking adventures, vacation adventures and, of course, my divorce, once I've recovered from the disappointment about not getting this long shot of a professional opportunity I am pursuing (and sorry, no, I can't tell you what it is).
If you want to continue reading (and I hope you do!), please email me at soulfusion10019 at gmail dot com for an invitation. You do not have to know me in real life to get an invite to the private blog. You do not have to be a frequent or even infrequent commenter to continue reading. You do, however, have to prove that you are a real person by sending me a working email address, put together a coherent email that does not come across as a spambot trying to lure me to a virus infested website and for my entertainment, let me know how you stumbled onto my blog in the first place.
In an effort to make private blogging less of an irritation, I have created a new blog that will remain public. The new blog can be found here and should be easy to remember since it is a slight variation of the current address - www.10019publicmusings.blogspot.com. Since Reader and other RSS feeds do not pick up private blogs, I find I rarely or never check them and I suspect you are probably the same. So, the plan is this: each time I post something here (on the private blog), I will add a post to the public blog with a link to the private post. The public blog will not have anything of substance on it, just links to the posts on the private blog.
The idea is for you to add the new blog (www.10019publicmusings.blogspot.com) to your RSS feed so you still get notification of when I post new material. You will have to click through and sign in to the private blog but at least you will know when there is new material without having to compulsively check on your own and get irritated at seeing the same old post at the top when I go a few days without writing.
The change will take place on November 1st so please leave a comment and/or send me an email to let me know if you want to continue reading before October 31st so I don't lose you. Because, my dear readers, I treasure each of you and will really feel bad if I lose you forever in this process.
Before I head on over to the private side of blogging, I will try and get another segment of the divorce posted for you since I know that is pretty much everyone's favorite thing to read around here.
And please, feel free to come out of hiding if you are a never commented lurker, I am not paranoid here and I have no problem with strangers reading my blog, I just have to be a little more incognito on the internet than I have been. I hope you all continue to follow me! Thanks for reading.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I learned how to bake by watching my mother. Then helping her. Then by forcefully shoving her aside and insisting I could do it for myself.
I learned through trial and error. One legendary error occurred when I decided to skip the whole recipe step for chocolate chip cookies with the aspiration of creating one myself at the tender age of 11. Without parents at home to steer me toward the proper ingredients, the result was concrete dough that even the dog avoided.
I expanded my repertoire by selecting children's cookbooks from the book orders I excitedly brought home from school with my selections awkwardly circled in my unsteady hand.
I baked and baked and baked and watched the likes of Julia Child on tv and learned a real cook has her ingredients pre-measured in little bowls and lined up in order ready to be dumped in when required. Much to my mother's irritation, I copied what I saw and dirtied far more dishes than was ever necessary - so I could put on a good show for the younger siblings, stuffed animals and dolls I asked to pose as my audience. Little House on the Prairie made me realize that some people can crack eggs with one hand - a skill I practiced and practiced until I had it right.
By the time I was a teenager I could whip up my go-to brownies and chocolate chip cookies with only a peak at the recipe and I was fairly adept at making what would become my signature piece - red velvet cake. I ignored the challenging frosting for years and then failed to get the proper consistency a number of times before it too was perfected.As an adult, I started baking for the holidays on my own and before I knew it, I had a tradition on my hands of baking ridiculous quantities of cookies, cupcakes and other sweets and inviting everyone I knew to cram into my small apartment to sample them. I take great pride in my baking and have a number of recipes I feel could beat out most anything in a bake off (though I've never entered any sort of contest so I guess I'm just all talk).
And yet, I have never done anything beyond trial and error and reading books and blogs to improve my skills.
Unless you want to count the cake decorating class I took over the summer of 1985. Which I don't. I mean, I guess I learned how to pipe clown bodies and shove those plastic ruffle-necked pick-heads on them and theoretically I learned how to use a pastry bag to pipe roses and scalloped borders . . . but, in reality, I wasn't any good at the decorating part. My mom claims I was too impatient. I contend I am just not artistically inclined. Either way, it was at that point that I decided to concentrate on flavor above presentation. And since that was a decorating class for 10-year olds, it really doesn't count as a pastry class. Right?
The class I took was at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE for short) - a place that trains people in the "culinary arts", people who go on to win awards and end up on the Food Network. A place where the woman teaching my class was on the Food Network even as she was teaching us how to make macarons!
And that was what my class was Classic French Macarons.
One of the most delicious cookies I have ever had the pleasure to taste (and taste and taste) but which despite having spent hours reading blog after blog full of tips on how to master this tasty little 4-ingredient cookie, I was too intimidated to try. Scratch that. It wasn't that I was too intimidated, I just didn't have any taste testers and if you comb through the blogs you will find all kinds of crazy tips and tricks to make these little beauties come out perfectly - domed top with a perfect little "foot". Tips like propping the oven door open part-way through the baking process, use "old" eggs and leave the egg whites sitting out on the counter for 3-4 days! I read blog after blog lamenting people's trials and errors.
And I was confused and slightly intimidated. The part where I had to make uniform circles with a piping bag was the most intimidating. And I was just confused as to what recipe to use and what tips I should actually follow - is it really safe to leave egg whites on the counter for days? (uh, no.)
So I decided it was time to seek out some professional help.
The class started with a brief semi-interactive lecture which I found completely intimidating. There were other people in the class who bake for a living! They knew fancy names for things and understood why x doesn't play well with y . . . my baking is far more uneducated and organic. I basically just feel my way through.
I was, however, comforted by the fact that while I was one of the few in the class who had never attempted to make these cookies on my own, I wasn't one of the two girls who had never tasted one and while I never knew any of the right answers to the teacher's (professor's? chef's?) questions, I had read about the old eggs thing and some of the other tricks and tips we discussed. (Thank you blogland!)
Also, apparently, the macaron is the most ridiculously difficult cookie to make known to man. It only has four basic ingredients: almond flour, powdered sugar, egg whites and granulated sugar. And yet, none of the fancy top pastry chefs in the world can agree on the best way to make them.
And during the process of combining these four simple ingredients, about 101 things can go wrong. Oh, and if it is raining, she said don't even bother trying because if it is humid at all, your cookies will not work.
She asked everyone what had gone wrong with their cookies and threw out tips to correct what went wrong with flat cookies, hollow cookies, crumbly cookies, etc. She talked us through every stage of the process and explained all the variations and offered anecdotes about what was done at this or that fancy restaurant where she had been a pastry chef.
Then she did a demonstration.
Then we paired up and ran our own little experiment. I stumbled onto a great partner who had a great sense of humor and a similar working style (uh, neither of us own scales at home, although both of us wondered if maybe we should). We dyed our first batch purple and despite the lovely hue, the batter was too runny and unsaveable and this made piping a disaster as the batter ran all over the baking sheet. Or rather, I should say sheets since we were instructed to use two sheets and three at home if we had them.
We laughed at our own folly and dove into preparations for our second batch. We agreed to fill the first batch with a simple buttercream frosting but for the second we had loftier ambitions - vanilla cookies filled with chocolate ganache. We tracked down some vanilla beans and got a quick how-to lesson from the chef.
As an aside, can I just mention how Top Chef it felt with everyone bustling around the large industrial teaching kitchen with all of its work stations and everyone wearing white aprons and calling our teacher "Chef". It was a four hour class but the time flew by in an instant which added to the must-hurry-and-get-through-this-all-very-quickly atmosphere. One guy (who I think is a chef of some sort) even called me chef as he rushed by me in search of fleur-de-sel.
We used a different recipe for our second batch and we knew before we even bag piping that it was going to turn out better - the texture was more like the demo batch. And when we piped - they actually did come out as nice quarter-sized dollops that held their shape! I cannot tell you how happy I was to pull off an entire sheet of mostly uniformly shaped off-white circles with dapples of vanilla.
I smugly did not use the recipe to make our ganache filling but I did pick up a trick of putting the bowl in an ice bath to stir it to the right consistency. And my partner made the buttercream filling and we proceeded to turn our ugly, purple mutant first batch into hodge-podge little sandwiches. They tasted good, just a little on the gooey side. And we anxiously awaited our second batch.
When they came out of the oven I nearly jumped for joy - they looked perfect! Like real macarons! They were so very pretty with their vanilla speckles and just the right foot. We cleaned up our station and filled our pastry bags with ganache as we impatiently waited for them to cool enough to fill. I may or may not have done little triumphant dances that hopefully did not come off as gloating each time I peaked at our cookies cooling on the giant wheeled rack.
Our happiness continued to grow as we piped ganache onto cookie after cookie finding even matches in abundance and stacking up a wealth of cookies resembling tiny minature hamburgers. We offered one to the teacher before either of us had sampled any as we were still in the process of filling the plentiful little guys.
To our vast disappointment, she took a bite and the whole cookie crumbled! Tragic! She said this was a result of overcooking. But the cooking portion was out of our control so we decided to continue to revel in the joy of their beauty and to hang onto the tiny morsel of hope that they would magically moisten up after a couple of days. You see, one of the tidbits offered in the lecture portion of class was that some bakeries purposefully overbake their cookies because they soften up after a couple of days into the perfect texture combination of crisp meringue-like shell, soft, velvety center.
I packed some home, left them for a couple of days and . . . . perfection!
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Does anyone else have that song in their head right now? You know, "I'm learnin' to fly, but I ain't got wings. Comin' down is the hardest thing"? No? Then I'm guessing you haven't listened to quite as much Tom Petty as I have.
Thanks for voting for me to write about the most misleading title on the list. Not sure what you were expecting here but technically, this post is not going to be about me learning how to actually fly. Or even figuratively fly. I thought about bending it into an analogy wherein I have learned to let my soal fly or something to that effect but I just don't have it in me. Besides, the title was just my attempt to trick you into letting me tell you about a beautiful October day I spent in the Hudson River Valley looking at airplanes, riding in a Model-T, taking a ride in a biplane, dressing up for a fashion show and then watching an air show.
I never learned how to fly.
How did I end up there? Well, a few months ago I decided I needed to change a few things. For one, having just married off the last of my friends, I realized I was going to need to put some actual effort into making new ones. The usual places - church contacts and work contacts - were not working. Interesting things were happening, beautiful days were dawning and opportunity was presenting itself, but without a companion I was letting all of these things just slip away from me.
Instead, I was spending far too much time either in my office or on my couch. So I decided to create new opportunities by becoming a joiner. For well over a year I had been receiving an email for an activity group that actually did some really interesting things (uh, like biplane rides over the Hudson River Valley) but I never had anyone to sign up with me so I let one fun thing after another just slip by. Until I decided enough was enough and I held my breath and jumped in.
The trip to the aerodome (that is what the place is called) was my third event (the Appalachian Trail was my second) and unlike either of the two previous in terms of the activity, the mix of people and the overall atmosphere. So far, the drill for each event has been to meet at the place where the trip leader rents a van, pile into the van, drive a couple of hours to the activity location, do something fun, drive back, fun times, the end. And that is sort of how this one went as well, except two factors made me a bit wary at the beginning.
First, other than the trip organizer the group was comprised of four other girls. Fine, not promising on the meeting guys front but not necessarily a bad thing. But when we got in the van, I stole shotgun because no one else was claiming it and I hate sitting in the back of vans where things get bumpy and I get pukey. Three girls crowded themselves in the very back row and even when offered to share the middle bench with the one other girl, they declined and stated that they were here "together." Ooooookay. The driver/organizer guy and I get along pretty well by now and he kind of feels like an old friend even though I really don't know him too well so we managed to keep up a lively conversation for most of the two to three hour drive and I tried to pull the middle bench girl in but struggled with this as I didn't like turning around in my seat too much (quesieness always follows that maneuver). At times we also tried to join in the often bizarre conversation happening in the back of the van but they either never heard us or didn't want anyone else butting in.
Second, we left the City at 8 am. On a weekend! For those of you who have forgotten what is like to not have children or a spouse or whatever it is that forces you to go to bed at a sensible hour and wake up early even on the weekend, that is early. Especially in Manhattan. Saturday and Sunday mornings pre-10 am are blissful tranquil - very few people and not much traffic. Mostly it is an opportunity to see what people wear to walk their dogs first thing in the morning or to catch any number of people on their walk of shame. The day after holidays like Halloween and New Year's are the best for spotting the walk of shame in the single digit hours of the a.m. when most people are still sleeping off the previous night's revelry. Anyway, we were lured out of the City at this early hour because we were told we had to get to this place by 10 to sign up for the biplane rides which could not be reserved in advance.
When we arrived, we were all pretty overwhelmed by the quaintness of the place - the fall foilage in all its autumnal glory, the wide green air field, the brightly painted old planes lined up just on the other side of the fence, the old red caboose on a strip of railroad tracks, the workers dressed up in sort of 20s-ish garb and the old timey music emanating from unseen speakers.
We signed up for our biplane rides and then the three girls who were "together" branched off on their own pretty quickly (along with the cute little pastry box they were carrying by the string, I might add). I busied myself by playing with various settings on my camera trying to capture the large and small details of the place and revelled in the blue sky and the bright sunshine that would later lead to me wandering around in only a short sleeved t-shirt.
As I took photos and basically wandered around the place on my own, I started to wonder what in the world are we going to do to keep us occupied here all day? I had pretty much looked at all of the planes on display within 30 minutes or so of arriving. I figured we would eat lunch at one of the little snack stands at some point and, of course, take our biplane ride but would we really stick around until 2 pm for the airshow? I reassured myself that if nothing else I would enjoy just being outside on such a beautiful day, but I was still pretty skeptical about how the day would proceed.
So I sat down on a bench and struck up a conversation with the other solo girl. Then we decided to ask if we could go for a ride in one of those cool old cars - they said yes and off we went in our first ride in a Ford Model T!
Our poor driver ended up running out of gas half-way through the ride and told us we could go dress up in period costumes and go for another ride later during the airshow and we enthusiastically agreed. Who wouldn't want to dress up in period costume and ride around in an old car?
We wandered up to the museum for a while which consisted of three large hangars and a warehouse type room stuffed to the brim with old airplanes, cars, motorcycles and even a very old movie projector. It was all pretty fascinating and there was something about the atmosphere with all of the workers dressed in period costume and the scratchy 20s music playing that made us feel like we had stepped back in time. Or fallen into some strange dimension of surreality.
After a quick lunch from the concession stand of grilled cheese and french fries it was our turn to get in the biplane.
We were pretty excited.
For good reason. It was amazing!!
The plane flew low over the Hudson River Valley so we could see the strips of changing colored foilage below us.
As well as the Hudson River and mountains in the distance.
Our red baron pilot gave us a thrill when he did some tricky dips and tipped way to the left or the right.
I believe the flight lasted about 20 minutes and I would have loved for it to keep going.But soon enough the air field came back into sight and it was time to relinquish our seats to the next in line
And before we knew it, it was time to get ready for the fashion show. It is just that no one told us all the other participants would be children. And their moms. But we dove in anyway because how else would we get another shot at riding in another old car? So we donned whatever grubby, ripped-up costumes that fit and had fun with it. And let me explain, these dresses were ratty, tattered and while I'm not really an expert, I don't think they were exactly authentic to the period. Especially the one I ended up wearing. I think I looked like Eliza Doolittle selling flowers on the streets but it was an improvement over the first dress I was given that looked like a 1980s mother-of-the-bride peach/lace get-up. The other two girls got flapper dresses (I'll note there was another flapper dress that was offered to me but it was about 5 sizes too big for me so I declined).
After we were mostly satisfied with our outfits (I really wanted a different hat but the woman insisted this flat little black one was the most authentic), we ventured out of the caboose (the changing room) to await further instructions. As we were chatting with the rest of our group who had chosen not to make fools of themselves, I glanced at my new friend and realized the entire back side of her dress was OPEN!!!
I quickly stood behind her and explained the situation and we erupted in hysterical laughter. Because what else are you going to do when the entire back side of your dress is open for the world to see? Or at least for one woman passing by to snicker at?
We rushed back to the caboose to figure out a way to remedy my friend's caboose situation (hee hee) and the girl passing out dresses was all blase, maybe we should just pin it since the velcro cleary was not doing its job (I told you I questioned their authenticity! Since when did flappers have velcro?). She put on a slip dug out of a box for good measure and we went back outside to find out that we weren't just dressed up to ride around in an old car. No. We were part of a very odd fashion show.
Yes. We had to model these strange outfits for the 200 or so people hanging around in the 2x4 plank spectator stands. The absurdity of it all was not lost on us. Especially me, in my weird dress that we were told was quite fashionable in the 1930s (my guess would put it several decades later in the 70s, to be honest).
But there was really no turning back, so I did my best to show off the outfit and have fun with it so I could read in the 1909 New York City taxi.
After the ride, we changed clothes, got some ice-cream and settled in for the rest of the airshow. At that point we realized the crowd consisted primarily of grandparents and parents with children. We were clearly not the normal demographic for this thing.
There was an absurd little story that went along with the airshow that dragged on a bit too long but was entertaining nonetheless.
And when we piled back into the minivan around 430 pm, we all marveled at how quickly the day went by and admitted to each other that we did not think we would be quite so entertained for the day. And what about those three girls who were "together" and sauntered off with their fancy pastry box? Well, they never did share the contents of the pastry box with the rest of us (to my dismay), but they did sit with us during the airshow and one of them even dressed up for the fashion show. And on the car ride home and at the restaurant where we stopped for dinner, they finally opened up and let us in on their crazy conversations.
Ultimately, I did not learn how to fly. I did, however, learn not to judge anything too quickly. And now, I'm a firm believer in taking a leap and trying new things.