Monthly Archives: December 2010

Pound Wise

I suspect Sara Lee introduced me to pound cake, as she had to pineapple-topped cheesecake. That was back in the day, when my mother’s time was consumed by four children, one with disabilities, a clean house, and a devoted lover — my father. She was a good plain baker back then in the sixties; by the eighties her personal landscape had changed and she could bake the derriere off any home baker I’ve ever met.

But if a beautiful woman still in her thirties, preferred to dance Saturday night away rather than bake for Sunday dinner, who can blame her? When I was twelve she showed me how to make pastry and I became the Saturday night pie pastry chef, but I look back with love to Sara Lee’s contributions.

Which is the back story to my lifelong fondness for pound cake. I sneer at grocery store pound cake now — check the ingredient list and air pump if you find butter. But still… I loved Sara Lee back in the day.

If you have a mixer, or the triceps of a Navy Seal, pound cake is easy, whether made with mechanical assistance or elbow grease. The high butter content keeps it fresh and edible for at least a week. It adores additions, any crazy-ass ingredient you desire, from bacon to M&Ms. It’s soft yet strong texture makes it a sponge for booze: take a toothpick, poke holes, and dribble in a sugar syrup pumped up with bourbon or Bushmills. It can be chocolate glazed, citrus-infused, speckled with chocolate  chips, poppy seeds or candied ginger. All these additions are all good.

But the thing about real pound cake, scented with vanilla and soft in crumb with all that butter, is that it keeps brilliantly. I mean, what other cake stands up for a week, and if you’ve for some inexplicable reason, the heel of a stale cake: bread pudding, trifle.

My favorite pound cake recipe is , well, “Best Pound Cake” from Susan Purdy’s under appreciated “The Perfect Cake.” I have baking books from all the usual buttery suspects, and love them, but for basic great cake recipes and instruction, I’m all over Susan.

Today, while taking on the furnace repair man, battered by laundry and the To Do lists of planning a Christmas road trip, I saw some decent fresh cranberries lolling in the veg drawer, leftover from Thanksgiving. I had the cake flour, the eggs, the butter, so I made “Best Pound Cake” with a Yankee cranberry bite. Wow, that’s a big cake!

We’ll eat some tonight, ferry some over to the Simpsons tomorrow, and pack a package for the road. Pound cake takes a good recipe, room temperature eggs, and some patience. But geez, for under five bucks, this is the apotheosis of plain cake.

A slice:


Filed under Five bucks or fewer, Food

The Christmas Card Letter

You know what I mean — those letters run through a printer on seasonal stationery and tucked into a Christmas card. They’ve been the butt of many parodies and late-night television jokes.

I love them!

The mean-spirited parodies feature a couple of plot lines. There’s the “All our kids got Fulbrights, we spent Christmas in Chamonix, February in Africa advising Bono, played a few chukkers during  the polo season in Buenos Aires, and just got back from Basel Miami Art Fair.” narrative.

Or the faux and snarky disaster plot  :” The trailer park got took up in the tornado, Maw’s dentures got run over by Gramp’s pickup, and Tiffany lost three fingers in the plucking machine at Tyson’s.”

Yeah, yeah it’s easy and fun, and Zoolander has discussed sending out a Christmas note noir, featuring only the year’s dark moments. Bah. There’s just no place for cynicism. Look: I get cards from fam and friends, no frenemy on the list — all good people I love. Why wouldn’t I want to hear about their year? Why on earth would I laugh my way through them — (OK, I’ve been guilty a couple of times. )

Both my sisters-in-law are artful lettreistes, funny and soulful and good writers. I love the stream of consciousness letter from the husband of a friend — they’re the ones with kids with Fulbrights — he is such a damn great writer. And I cherish the annual correspondence from another Margaret who  I met in First Grade. I haven’t seen her for forty years, but I know her teaching schedule at McGill, I know that she has a cat named Aslan, I know her daughter’s in Nursing School.

So, you ask, “Why don’t you craft a Christmas card letter, hmmmm?” I did, once, the year I bought my first PC — do you remember the bliss, the miracle, the magic of your first PC and your first printer? It was well-received. But it was a one-time wonder.

OK, I’ll trot out excuses. Well, I’ve mostly made my own cards, and that uses up creative time. Also, I often write a note in a Christmas card to put a friend in the way of anything notable of common interest.(Which leads me to a side rant: Why does no one under forty put pen to card stock and sign his/her name? OK, there are a couple of exceptions.) And I’ll huddle under the cloak of Facebook — you’ll see my status daily, right? You’ll read what I made for dinner, my soul state, and what I Like.

And yeah, I blog. If you’re kind enough to keep up with me here why should I burden you with a Christmas letter? It feels egotistical.

But these are my excuses. For everyone else: buy that paper with the poinsettia border, tell me about your black diamond skiing, your promotion, your layoff, your new Newfoundland puppy. Those letters are my Christmas bonus.




Filed under Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, Holidays, Into the Mystic, Paper

Six Second Origami Santa

Maybe even a four second Santa. He’s kinda of a mid-century Mies Santa, all elegant angles. I decorated my Christmas cards will him a few years ago, and because I’m not thrilled with my card design this year I’m feeling nostalgic.

You just might have some red wrapping paper lurking — if so use it. There’s no reson to spring bucks for origami paper unless, like me, it’s irresistible to you. It looks best in a smallish size — an eight inch square is too big.









Step One: Paper white side up. I’ve penned a dot on the upper left hand corner and half way down the right hand side for explanatory reasons — you wont need them. Fold the left corner over  to the halfway spot.









Step 2: Fold the paper backwards on a line between approx. 1/5 up on the right hand side and 1/3 up on the left hand side. It will look like this:









Step Three: It will look like this. Now turn it to the right and ta-dah!









Hat, beard, bag and everything.

(Original folder Paula Versnik)

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Filed under Art, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Less than 50 cents, Origami, Paper

End of Year Lists

I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions (I have yet to keep one, so why bother?) or Christmas lists –somehow Christmas has become much simpler. I’m talking about those “Best of” lists that bloom in the first week of December, the lists about books.

We’re New York TImes “Weekenders,” which means that we walk down the driveway Friday, Saturday and Sunday and scoop up the plastic bag that holds one of the few fripperies in our lives. (A subscription to The New Yorker is another. Um, I guess we’re officially Old School.)He’s a fiend puzzler and these three days provide the most challenging grids.

How would we spend Sunday without The Times? It’s the atheist’s Sunday observance , and I continue to amaze myself that I can spen three quarters of an hour reading the Style section, Easy.

But I digress. The Book Section had the traditional 100 Best Books listing this Sunday, and the tab-sized sheets are sitting on the piano bench lest they be carelessly recycled. The fun of reading the list is to discover that fancy-dancy literary critics agree with some of your faves, remembering books you should have read and haven’t, and scowling at entires that strike you as super snores.

Here are a couple of books on the list I’ve read and loved loved loved.

This is modern Jane Austen. I saw it at the library and took it out because I’d read a rave review somewhere. Never has a rave been more deserved — it blew me away.

A gentle, witty cookbook that made most everyone’s  Best Cookbook list is Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. This is not a rehash of French classics, it’s fresh and modern. I loved that she gave me permission to buy chicken bouillon cubes — it seems that French ladies use them all the time.

But jeez, I haven’t dipped a toe into the “100 Notable Books of 2010.”  I want to read Operation Mincemeat and Charlie Chan and Big Girls Don’t Cry and Keith Richard’s Life. That’s the beauty of saving this section — it’s a heads-up for wintry treks to the library.

Send me your list!





Filed under Books, Collections, Five bucks or fewer, Media, Worth it anyway

All I Want for Christmas is my Left Bicuspid and Other Stuff

Actually, I’m not totally kidding here. My mouth is a dental nightmare and I lost my upper left bicuspid a year or so ago. I could get by in public with a “flipper,” a tooth on a wire and plastic armature, but somehow someone stepped on it and broke it in half (probably me) during the Thanksgiving festivities. It can still fill in the gap when I don’t want to appear in public as a Dust Bowl matron, but the rough edge hurts. All of you with good teeth: know how lucky you are.

But that’s selfish stuff. What I really want for Christmas is my Daddy at home after his therapy for his hip replacement, as vital and optimistic as he was before the Fall. I believe he will be.

It’s funny, the Christmas List devolving. Even ten years ago I could write: “Silver bracelet from Tiffany’s, Vol de Nuit, ____________ novel, silk jammies, new Cuiz. Although I’d still love any of those items, the sheer desire isn’t there. I own the jammies, the bracelets and still have a few spritzes of Vol de Nuit.

What I’d love is miles. Because we don’t own any credit cards we don’t have any miles, but oh! to revisit Paris and Rome. To discover for the first time Athens and Istanbul, to sunbathe in Antibes or Antigua.

When we were newlyweds and broke, we had season tickets to the Lyric Opera. Monserrat Caballe, Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo — but we were a cheap el ride from the Opera House. In my wildest dreams of avarice I’d take a season subscription and the moolah to spend a night in a boutique hotel, dining with my Chicago buddies and drinking lots of Henriot champagne.

I want to spend most of February in LA with my daughter and son-in-law. I might just swing half of that, unless my neighbors get annoyed at the cat-sitting calendar. (And I wouldn’t blame them.)

You might have noticed that World Peace isn’t on my Christmas list. Well, pierced ears were on my list for ten years and Santa never took my mother’s hand and led her to the Piecing Parlor. It wasn’t gonna happen with earrings and it’s never gonna happen with World Peace, because the world has never been at peace.

My list is shorter every year. But y’know, it’s cheaper and cheerier.


Filed under Born in Chicago, Collections, History, Holidays, Home, Into the Mystic, Music, Worth it anyway

Nonna’s Nutcracker Sweets

(That dorky title is from my dorky husband — he thinks it’s brilliant.)

When my husband’s grandmother received her 100th birthday phone call from President Reagan she was still living in the apartment building her father won in a poker game in 1910. (You can check out the attached classic Chicago six flats at 1206 and 1208 West Lexington, in Chicago’s Little Italy.) She dressed neatly every day – hose, heels and a shirtdress from her collection bought at Chas. A Stevens, a State Street retail institution that’s gone with the Chicago wind.

Annunziata Rovai’s cooking was legendary. Even in her nineties, living alone, she prepared a real dinner every night. From her I gained my pizza prowess, tasted my first polenta and learned the finer plot points of The Guiding Light, to which she showed as much devotion as she had for Wednesday night bingo in the church basement.( That was before her arthritis made the trip down the stairs impossible.)

Christmas was quiet in the second floor front apartment when we moved into the third floor rear. Her fourteen course fish and seafood Christmas Eve dinners –mountains of cream puffs for dessert – died in the fifties when Nonno died. (Nonno knew the ‘Ville. When my in-laws bought their lot, which is now part of the park next to the Albright Studio, he’d take the train on a Saturday and tend to his tomato plants.)

Nonna maintained two inviolable Christmas customs. We’d deliver a bottle of red vermouth from her to the nuns next door at Our Lady of Pompeii, and she’d make cookies. I stood one day with her and watched, measured and wrote.  This is my favorite, known in the family as “Nonna’s Nutty Crisps. “

It’s a power butter cookie recipe, and don’t attempt it with anything that Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.  You can sub pecans or almonds for the walnuts, but I prefer the slightly buttery flavor of the walnuts. Do not stint on the powdered sugar – sieve it on in snowdrifts while the cookies are still slightly warm.



1 c. butter

6 T. sugar

2 t. hot water

2 t. vanilla

2 c. flour

½ cup chopped walnuts

Confectioner’s sugar




1)      Cream butter and sugar with a hand beater until fluffy.

2)      Mix in the remaining ingredients

3)      Drop the dough from a teaspoon onto a greased baking sheet.

4)      Bake at 350 degrees until “Very light gold” as Nonna said. Check them after eight minutes.

5)      Let them cool for five minutes then dredge them with powdered sugar. A blizzard of powdered sugar.





Filed under Uncategorized