Monthly Archives: October 2010

You Start With A Pumpkin

If there were a profession called “Pumpkin Carver” I’d be planning a whiz of an old age in Lucca, the sere, beautiful,  crabby hometown of my husband’s  Tuscan ancestors. Edinburgh in Italy — the perfect family ethnic blending. But there isn’t, so my husband’s once a year meditation on sculpture  with squash won’t ensure us anything but an old age in my daughter’s basement eating cat food.

He starts with a terrific drawing: Daumier, Goya, Matisse. The he thinks a lot.  Then he looks at the October issue of “Martha Stewart Living” Then he hollows out the pumpkin, sketches his idea  on it, and morphs from a nice guy to an artistic monster, throwing down my lino scraping tools in exasperation, beating his breast, tearing his hair, yelling and cursing.

He works with the lights inside the pumpkin so that he can monitor the subtle shadings of the thick and thin layers. He throws pumpkin scraps all over the floor without apology. He annoys me.

Here’s this year’s version, after a drawing by Correggio. He got to use a drill to punch in the holes around the face, and that cheered him up — so easy. He calmed down a bit when it was completed, and I’d refrained from yelling at his excited , crazy self. Anyway here it is, and it might be the best punkin in the ‘Ville this year.

Trick or treat?

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Art, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Food, History, Holidays, The 'Ville

Site of the Day: Snopes.com

Hallowe’en seems to have become the biggest secular money-fest of our times. (Of course, historically, it’s not secular, but religious, but that was way back in the day.) I mean, for Thanksgining you might want to buy a couple of gourds and a turkey, but you don’t have to erect faux tombstones in the front yard, hang strings of teeny pumpkin lights, and head to a party store to buy a cheesy costume that will transform you into a hot dental assistant or a pirate wench.

The one chink I can find in my idol Martha Stewart’s radiation – proof armor is that she’s infatuated with Hallowe’en. Hey, we’ve carved a pumpkin after Goya. I sewed elaborate costumes for Honor — OMG, that dinosaur! I have it around somewhere. We found out, accidentally, that the ethereal last act of “Der Rosenkavalier” scares kiddies out of their wits when you open the door, so I hear it at least once a year. I’m attaching the Hallowe’en pic of me and Ian from, well, a zombie’s lifetime ago.

OK, the Hallowe’en theme is the long way round to http://snopes.com/ , a respected fact-checking site. I was reminiscing about the terrific treats we got handed into our pillowcases, way back then. They were homemade: fudge and divine popcorn balls and Rice Krispie squares, and yes, apples.  Did you know that there’s not one documented case of poisoned Hallowe’en candy? Not one? That’s why we’re stuck buying wrapped mini  Mars bars.

Really. Check this out: http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp

Snopes.com has a great Urban Legends topic, Popular Scams, and you can type in something like:” Did Earl Butz really say that awful thing?” (He did.) The Mikkelsens, the couple who run it, are researchers by profession, and you can smell how much they love their work.

Well, if Univac hadn’t been a mere glimmer in a mathematician’s eye when I was a kiddie, if the internet had been around back in the days of the family Olds station wagon, if Snopes had been around …  kids would be scarfing down the popcorn balls and fudge their friends Mom’s  made. Oh! How could I have forgotten Mrs. Bellefeiulle’s brownies ?

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Filed under Food, History, Holidays, Site of the Day

Possible Death by Chocolate — A Night of Living Dangerously

Well, I’m exaggerating for effect — I’m gonna make it through the night. But in the last five years or so my body has been rejecting chocolate in an agonizing way, depriving me of one of the consolations of the middle-aged woman.  I’m not allergic or anything. Let me put this as delicately as possible: a brownie and a glass of milk is one speedy and painful emetic.

Forewarned and forearmed I said “With my shield or on it, I’m going to make Dorie Greenspan’s “Top Secret Chocolate Mousse.”  You see, I need another cookbook like Sarah Palin needs another speaker’s fee but my respect for Greenspan and the terrific discussion about her here, at egullet.org  http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/topic/134751-cooking-with-dorie-greenspans-around-my-french-table/page__p__1759138__hl__dorie+greenspan__fromsearch__1#entry1759138 broke me down,  my fingers typed amazon.com, and two days later it was on the front porch. Willow was perched atop it.

Lou spent a day reading through it, except when I snatched it from his hands and retired to the bedroom. It’s brilliant, in the helpful, anecdotal Dorie style and it’s about food actual French home cooks turn out for dinner. (They have a fondness for bouillon cubes, God bless them.) The recipes range from Gallic stalwarts like Pot au Feu to modern Vietnamese influenced plates. Of couse, as the modern mistress of the sweets course, the dessert chapter is pretty peerless.

Which brings me back to chocolate. –that and my recent resolution to add something sweet and saucy to the end of the evening meal. Tonight I made Dorie’s Top Secret Chocolate Mousse.

When she moved to Paris all her hostesses served up the same blissful magnificent mousse. (Note: I’ve not eaten Mousse au Chocolat since the early eighties.) She figured they all had the same recipe or ordered it from the same confiseur/patissier. At last one of her amies cut her a break and handed her a Nestle’s chocolate bar — the recipe was printed on the back.

When I read the recipe I laughed as Dorie must have: it was so easy, and so relatively cheap for it’s potential gustatory cheer that I decided to sacrifice my digestive system and give it a go. You separate three eggs. You melt 3.5 ounces of chocolate (the exact weight of the on sale Ghirardelli  Extra Dark  at Family Foods) and whisk in the yolks. You crank up the KitchenAid and beat the whites. Then, ever so gently, you blend.

Thanks again for the martini glasses, my fave nephew Miles:

And please forgive the tacky food photography featuring the sewing machine on the kitchen table.

We haven’t yet dined (steak salad, rosti potatoes) but I feel secure in the success of the sweet ending. And I  own a bottle of a chalky, lurid pink substance, just to help that sugar and chocolate go down.

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Filed under Books, Five bucks or fewer, Food, History

Aprons: The Keith Richards and the Missy Monster of the Midway

Did I tell you that my sister-in-law Patty sent me a sampling of her artisinal tags to attach to my aprons? She and my friend Kim both pointed out that when they buy an apron to give as a gift, it would be a bright business idea to include a card that announces my business name — Magz Rags — and, say, an email address should the recipient want to give me  an order. I packed up two aprons today and admired the cards, attached with black ribbon. Then a strange irresistible urge came over me : I picked  up a pencil and wrote the model name on the tags. They were “Lady in Blue” and “Sweeties and Sage.” I’ll be posting pictures after Patty receives them. (Hope you like them, Babe!)

I’ve never made the same apron twice, because it keeps the design process fresh and allows me to indulge my appetite for new cotton prints. (Of course it also allows me to personalize an apron for my Apron Patrons — thank you Patrons!)  Their individuality has always made me nickname them in my head “Birdies and Budweiser, ” say, simply to remind me of my inventory. Henceforth, I’m naming each apron as if it were an expensive handbag, like a Kelly or a Birkin.

These two aprons are made on spec, just for fun and with hopes that the prints would resonate with potential Patrons. I listened to Terri Gross interview Keith Richards yesterday and the fun of that interview reminded me that I had a few yards of rocker cotton. Here’s the Keith Richards apron:

Lou Zoolander doesn’t know who Keith Richards is. Sigh.

Here’s the reverse. I love skulls and roses and I added some rock star glam with my beloved gold rickrack,

Closeup:

The Missy Monster of the Midway needs no explanation from any Chicago Bears Fan. Here’s the Monsters side:

The Bears’ navy and orange color scheme appalls me, but it goes well with the cover of the Scriabin Etudes sitting on the music rack. Here’s the closeup:

The pink calico eyelet Missy side is self explanatory:

(A Bears fan can get a discount on Missy Monsters of the Midway because the pink side  isn’t dark enough to completely block out the Bears aggressive color scheme. But it’s pretty. Let me know.)

My husband just asked “How the hell can you write so much about aprons?” Easy, really. I don’t like cooking without an apron. I like to sew. I love that I’m never, ever making the same apron twice. And sometimes, Dear Husband, someone send me a check.

And now I have the writerly, frivolous fun of naming each of my “batter-proof, butter-proof” babies.

 

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Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Born in Chicago, Needlework

Scriabin’s Spectrum — The Cheap Inside Scoop

The World, a terrific NPR show, had a segment tonight about the genius and whack job  Alexander Scriabin. If you’re a pianist, you know his fantastic (literally) passionate piano music, passionate and psychedelic. Almost literally — Scriabin had a rare condition that translated keys into colors. My two favorite pianists, Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould had almost nothing in common except their brilliant technique, mental illness and monk-like devotion to Scriabin. Scriabin wan’t monk-like — the mayors of both New York and Chicago wanted to deport him because he traveled with a lady who wasn’t his wife.

Scriabin thought keys had colors, and he wrote for the big spectrum, tonal and visual. (As The World emphasized, there is an actual condition where people do see keys as colors.) Here’s Alex’s spectrum:

By chromatic scale
Note Colour
C red (intense)
C# violet or purple
D yellow
D# flesh (glint of steel)
E sky blue (moonshine or frost)
F deep red
F# bright blue or violet
G orange
G# violet or lilac
A green
A# rose or steel
B blue or pearly blue

OK, here’s the fun part: I’m married to a pianist, a Scriabin devotee and someone who’s let’s say, artistic. He disagrees with his idol about the colors, almost without exception. He’s sitting next to me on the couch yelling:” C major is rhinestones! Then you go to C sharp and it’s hard, like steel grey. D major: Maybe brown. D flat E minor is  golden. E flat major is a lush green. E major is a steely green, except in Mendelsohn. Then you go to F, which is hard — it’s kind of blue. F sharp major is really hard — neutral and brilliant. G is calm and light yellow, A flat is rose. Alexander was wrong: the A keys are red. B flat major is sunshine. Now we have B — it’s not a color it’s a texture: it’s hard. E minor is black mourning — sad beyond belief. D minor is just explosive.”

He was getting a bit off topic, describing the power, not the color. But the fun of hearing a mortal so passionate about an abstruse topic is big fun. But as I write this, he’s yelling: “Bach did this! Don’t forget the Well-Tempered Clavier, and how he just moved the keys a smidge off-center so they worked. And tell everyone they have to listen to Scriabin’s Preludes!”

I would add that erotic, passionate, poetic “Vers la Flamme.”

Scriabin was a weird modern genius, but he’s not the reason I’m writing this. It’s all about the ravings of another musician and how, for nothing, for zilch,one can be transported by someone else’s passion.

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Filed under Free, History, Into the Mystic, Music

Let Me Eat Cake

I’m a good baker, sometimes a great baker. I make ice cream, I’ve made pannetone and cannoli from scratch, I’ve spun those crazy lovely caramel cages just as Julia showed me.  I’m proud of my pastry, straight-up pie and puff as well. I’m not diabetic, not fat, and I’m married to a man who loves sweets, heavy on the cinnamon rolls.

So why do I never make dessert, unless there’s a dinner party or a holiday coming up? Martha Stewart swears she serves dessert every night. My mother certainly did, even if it was nothing more complicated than a serving of canned apricots and a cookie. My father still does, and when I was in Ottawa I got into the swing, made pies on three occasions and loved it. So why have I meandered through the last thirty years thinking: “Life is short: have another slice of Shepherd’s Pie and forget dessert?”

My favorite food group is Potatoes Any Style, followed closely by Braised Bits of Meat (with lots of onions.) Add vegetables and anything with forty cloves of garlic and I’m happy at the table. But those two recent weeks when I ate a dab of dessert has changed my mind. What have I been thinking? Why have I deprived myself of the cheerful sweet  ending of a day at the table, especially when, in the scale of luxuries, it’s so cheap?

Over the course of three evenings we’ve split a pint of Ben and Jerry’s this week, which may not sound too self-indulgent except for the hot caramel sauce Lou made Friday night. Yesterday I got serious and made carrot cake from the Larousse  Treasury of Country Cooking. (Crown, 1975. If you can find a copy, snap it up.) I’ve made this recipe so many times that the pages stick together — I had a short career as a carrot cake venture capitalist back in the ‘8Os. It never, ever fails, contains oil rather than the more expensive butter, lasts for almost a week and can be put together with no more batterie de cuisine than measuring cups, a paring knife, a grater and a whisk. I didn’t even peel the carrots — those pre-peeled so-called “baby” carrots were on sale and I put them through the grater disk of my Cuisinart. The cream cheese maple-syrup infused icing was not exactly a test of anyone’s pastry chef chops.

It makes a huge cake, and I’ll probably give some away.

 

I’m a carrot cake Calvinist : No crushed pineapple, please.

I fell off the pie wagon in Ottawa, so I’m buying some apples tomorrow, and a can of apricots. I have the ingredients in the house for Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies. I may just fool around with salted caramels! But I’m heading into a new epoch of my life, the one where I give myself another thing to look forward to, which might just be the secret to being cheerful.

 

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Filed under Books, Five bucks or fewer, Food, Home

Complimentary Advice

This is baseline, bedrock, Cheap and Cheerful. In fact, it’s Free and Cheerful. Complimentary and Cheerful. It’s something with such tremendous force for good in the world, but I  didn’t really understand its power until my early forties, when I saw it in play with the most outgoing person in my life, my mother.

This is a shot of my parents at my daughter’s wedding reception.

Mummy was the Queen of the Compliment because it was strictly targeted, which made it so much more meaningful to the recipient. It wasn’t just “You look great!”  It was: “You’ve always had great hair, but I’m going to worm out the name of the stylist who’s given you the greatest haircut since Peggy Moffit and Vidal Sassoon!” She’d admire, enthusiastically, the ensemble of the lady ahead of her in the checkout line, the berries at Mme. Rochon’s stand at the market, the prowess of a cab driver.

A boost from family, friends, or a great boss (you know who you are, G.) is a cupcake on a cloudy day, but a compliment from a stranger is manna from heaven. I know all of us have a couple we cherish — here are mine. Yeah, a compliment on physical appearance is special to one as shallow as I.

When I was walking to work at Crate and Barrel in my early twenties (when there were only three stores) a couple of smartass young cops called to me from their squad: “Lady, you got a licence for those legs?” Twenty years later, in Marshall Fields, a salesgirl rushed up to me and said “Ma’am, do you know you have a perfect nose?” I remember those folks with gratitude, and well, my nose hasn’t changed much.

A sincere, (non-creepy) compliment to a stranger is one of the cheeriest actions you can take in a grey world. If the checkout girl has a great manicure, tell her. If the guy down the street has the ultimate in privet hedges, tell him. If your librarian’s a hoot, tell him. If the dude at your local gas station is sporting a swell new turban, tell him. My husband admired the new counter at the Speedway and the clerks were chuffed. It didn’t get him a free package of puffs or Ice Tea, but the young clerk beamed. (Lou said it took him fifty years to learn this.)  This isn’t hard lifting mes amis, it’s just opening your heart and your mouth.

I know you all cherish a random compliment from a stranger — do tell.

When you see a great piece of cheese in the cart ahead of you in the checkout line: “Great choice! I love that stuff.” Compliment good behavior from a child in a restaurant. If a kid down the street dunks a great ball, tell him. And in the great, disintegrating web of civilization, make someone’s day. It’s  free.

 

 

 

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Filed under Free, How Cool is That?, Into the Mystic