The Year Of Why The Hell Not: Fresh Paneer

The Chinese zodiac calendar says that, in addition to being the fifth anniversary of the death of my first husband, February 16, 2018 marks the beginning of the Year of the Dog.

I believe the Chinese, as they have been doing this for a long time, but for me, I say January 1, 2018 marks the first day of the Year Of Why The Hell Not?.

Apparently, this is what’s happening, almost without any effort.

Next week I am going back to (yoga) school with a yin yoga training immersion, and eight weeks after that my particular friend and I are going to Amsterdam for a week.

Because why the hell not?

I used to institute “yes” days for my kid when she was little; these were days when I would say yes to everything she asked, no matter what. I never told her what I was doing, but those days were some of the most relaxed I have ever experienced as a parent. It’s nice to not be the Bad Cop, the Responsible One, the Sayer of Nos.

In the past couple days, I have felt a similar impulse rising, only this time it is pointed directly at me.

I am terrible at saying “yes” to things for myself. It feels selfish, and I can’t enjoy whatever it is, even if it’s as small as buying coffee out. Part of it is my pathological inability to spend money in a manner I deem “frivolous.” Part of it is believing that I am somehow not worth spending the time, money, and effort on. Part of it is just that stupid habit of saying no to myself.

This year is going to be different.

On January 1st I started tossing around the idea of a trip to Hawaii with Cousin Jennifer in Washington State. She was planning on going by herself, but when she mentioned her trip on The Facebook, I thought to myself, “Why the hell not?”

And a couple of days later when the deadline for an immersive yin yoga teacher training popped up RIGHT DOWN THE STREET FROM MY HOUSE, I could not think of one compelling reason to say no. So I signed up.

And this morning, because I saved a couple hundred bucks on each plane ticket, and tickets were available the week of my birthday, and my particular friend’s spring break also falls on that week, I snatched up two tickets to Amsterdam.

Because WHY THE HELL NOT?

I am 46. I will be 47 on March 14th (also known as the Best Day Of The Year). I don’t give a rat’s ass about getting older, but the clock is ticking for me as it is for us all. Although I have been on a fair amount of road trips, visiting nearly all of the lower 48, plus Alaska, my overseas travel consists of one disastrous trip to Paris with my mother. I lived in Seattle for five years and never even went to Canada (and this was before passports were required), and although I have always wanted to see more of the world, I have always had (made?) a reason (an excuse?) to stay home.

It’s time to go.

My job is portable, my kid is old enough to watch herself and is craving some independence, and I am solvent enough to make some budget travel happen.

I don’t think we should save for our entire lives to go on one dream vacation (although I am starting to put money away for Fiji in 2021, the year my kid turns 21 and I turn 50. Get ready for extra gratuitous shots of our over-the-water bungalow). What happens if, like Dane five years ago, I find myself unceremoniously meeting a tree on a dark night? Or finding a lump? Or at the wrong end of a blocked artery…nuclear warhead…etc?

I think I have been waiting for something to shift so that I could magically do the things I want to do, or to spontaneously become some different person for whom these things come easily.

But guess what? That’s total bullshit.

It’s really time to stop thinking about the person I want to be and just be that person.

Like, way overdue.

It’s always a process and a work in progress and a painful realization that some of the shit I have talked for years actually needs to be finally backed up. I can write about it all I want.

Not good enough.

So yin yoga immersion, Amsterdam, and Hawaii, here I come. Plus a possible road trip with one of my best friends in all of the world to Arthur Bryant’s in Missouri, just to have some barbeque. We’ll meet in Wheeling, West Virginia and make our way to Missourah.

Because, and say it with me, WHY THE HELL NOT?

If I am faced with the choice to do something that interests me, and I can’t think of a compelling reason not to, I am going to do it.

While The Year Of Why The Hell Not? was prompted by personal growth and travel, I think this also applies to relationships. My particular friend and I have been together for two+ years now, and we have been sharing the same house for three+ months.

This has not been easy.

This has been crazy-making, what with the kid combining and the routine combining and the deeper getting to know each other in, let’s face it, boring and annoying ways.

He said it’s like starting in the middle of a relationship, entering into something serious like this in our decrepitude (my word). In our previous relationships, it was like a slow coming together, but in this one we have plopped down smack in the domestic wasteland, mid-stride, where everyone is tired by nine, and it’s easier to just fall asleep in front of a movie than to engage or unravel things that have gotten tied up in knots of miscommunication and hurt feelings.

Seems like a good a time as any to re-engage. To make an effort. To try something new.

Because more than Why The Hell Not?, this is the person I have chosen. Not because I am so lonely I can’t take it or because I need a man to provide stability or I need a little lovin’. Pretty much all of those can be ameliorated by friends or Tinder.

Khristian is kind, funny, smart, and intelligent. He is an artist. He is a devoted father. He thinks I am swell, which is saying something because I know for a fact that is not always the case.

Doubleplus bonus: he smells really good to me, which may be TMI for a food blog, but hey. That’s how these things work. #YouLoveWhoYouLove #PheremonesAreAThing

In the accidental spirit of The Year Of Why The Hell not?, we have decided to cook our way through Madhur Jaffrey’s book Vegetarian India.

pg. 112. Spinach.

We don’t generally cook together – one of us cooks while the other one sits on the orange metal stool in the kitchen and provides moral support. I have a hard time talking to someone while I cook, so that’s no fun, and I have a hard time not bossing him when he cooks, so that’s not fun either. Getting Jaffrey’s cookbook is the equivalent of hiring a tutor to tell your kid what to do. This way, we just follow the directions and no one is in charge. We can relax and explore and learn things together.

I think relationships aren’t meant to be easy, both those we have with ourselves and those we have with others. As an unrecalcitrant introvert, they are especially hard for me at times. I continuously have to balance my desire for deep connection and my built-in instinct for solitude.

Cooking seems as good a guide as any to navigate this path, especially if my particular friend is walking with me.

We started cooking with three recipes: Stir-Fried Spinach, Andhara-Style; Spicy Paneer Slices; and Fresh Cilantro and Yogurt Chutney (plus jasmine rice).

We bought everything we needed at H-Mart on a brutally cold day, then stopped off to get frozen yogurt afterwards (as one does). While making our list of supplies, we decided to make our own cheese.

Paneer is very similar to fresh ricotta or queso fresco; it is simple with a mild, creamy taste that goes well with strong flavors. We initially planned to make saag paneer but had to table that when we could not find fenugreek leaves and decided to press it into squares and fry it in spices (well, Madhur Jaffrey told us to). From start to finish we had slices to fry in 30 minutes.

Fresh Paneer

Ingredients

8 cups whole milk (not UHT or skim milk)

1/4 cup lemon juice or apple cider vinegar

salt to taste

Special tools: cheesecloth or clean cotton towel, fine mesh strainer

Method of Production

Warm milk to just under 200 degrees in a large pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally. If you don’t happen to have a thermometer, look for milk that looks frothy but not boiling.

Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Cover and let sit for at least ten minutes. The milk will separate into curds (the cheese part) and whey (the yellow-ish leftover liquid).

Place cheesecloth or cotton towel over the strainer and scoop or pour curds into the cheesecloth.  Working carefully (the mixture is still hot), wring out most but not all of the whey (or else you will get dusty crumbles). Open the cheesecloth and sprinkle cheese with salt to taste, stirring all the way through.

If, like us, you want to spice both sides of your paneer and fry it, rewrap the paneer in the cheesecloth and shape into a rectangle (or a circle, or any shape, really). You are aiming for a thickness of about 1/2″. Place paneer on a plate and put some weight on top (another plate on top with a book on it works well, but get creative with what you have). Press the cheese for up to an hour, then cut into slices and coat both sides with the spice of your choice before lightly coating with flour of your choice and frying in 1/4″ of hot oil for one minute on each side (or until lovely and golden).

Recipe Notes

  • We used a combination of chili, turmeric, and salt, but the options are unlimited.
  • Instead of frying, slather fresh paneer on toast and top with roasted kumquats like I did (note: there is a slightly more complicated ricotta recipe in this link. Choose your own adventure.).
  • If curds do not form, it’s an excellent chance that you have either used UHT pasteurized milk, or you have ignored my admonitions and attempted this with skim milk. Just say no.
  • Don’t throw out that whey. Give it to your chickens, make rice with it, use it to make bread (instead of using water), or put it in your smoothie. If you don’t want to do any of those things right now, freeze it for later.

On this day last year: Five Food Trends To Watch (spoiler alert: I was right!)

 

 

 

 

 

Had We But World Enough And Time: Profiteroles

The wild profiterole, captured in its natural habitat.

First, for you, a poem about love. Sort of. If you are not a lover of poetry, feel free to skip to the erudite synopsis – the TL:DR, if you will – below:

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

~Andrew Marvell~

Essentially, Andrew Marvell is trying to convince his mistress to get freaky, and quick, before worms begin to eat them in the grave.

What this is really about is time (well, and if we are being honest, which we should always try to be, also sex), and how little we have in comparison to how much we tell ourselves we have (time and sex, both).

This winter break I wanted lots and lots of time. I wanted to have weeks of time to do as much or as little as I wanted, with no stress of deadlines. It may seem that as a freelance writer I have all of the time in the world, but in truth my days fly by in a haze of writing and basic life management. Most days I raise myself from a shitty night’s sleep and deliver The Child to school, and then, even with the day stretching out long before me, writing, house maintenance, family maintenance, yoga teaching/class planning, and yoga studio assistant managing fill up those minutes I thought I had plenty of when I first woke.

It astonishes me how I used to do all of the things I do these days with the added pressure of running a school and managing livestock. I cannot remember how it is that I got things done.

And that’s the haze aspect. I didn’t really spend too much time thinking about or noticing things that were happening. It’s the same as if your head is on fire – you don’t note the color of the flames, you just put the fire out. So many parts of my life have rushed by in a blur that I never fully experienced.

But the only way to really dive deep is to make time to do so. There are multiple studies on how we can’t actually “multi-task,” and that entering deeply into something is the only way to truly know that thing. If you quickly Google “how to learn something” you get 622 million results. The first few pages talk about learning something new every day and then quickly devolve into ways to learn new things in five minutes, or ten. It’s all about learning/doing the thing and less about experiencing the thing.

It’s hard to jump off the Must Get Things Done Treadmill.

But jump off I must. Not for any reason other than I want to continue to try to be present for everything. Possibly not things like cleaning the cat box or doing my taxes, but maybe even those things, too.

For months now I have wanted to give real pastry a try. I have been craving cream puffs and eclairs and cheese danish with an immeasurable ferocity for months now. The only reason I am not 1,000 pounds is because I am unwilling to pay eight bucks a pastry for substandard gluten-free bullshit. I may splurge for a $4 gluten-free cupcake on occasion, but I always regret it (I make them waaaaay tastier).

But real delicate pastry takes time and attention, both of which have been hard to come by in these past months.

Not anymore.

Here are profiteroles. Pâte à choux pastry, light and puffy, filled with sweet vanilla cream and striped with chocolate.

Authentic and delicious. Gluten-free (although you can make them with regular AP flour).

They take some time. I have modified the process a bit for less hands-on time, but still. You can’t just pop these in the oven and walk away.

Profiteroles

This recipe bows in gratitude to Michael Ruhlman and Ratio, but changes are made to accommodate the peculiar properties of gluten-free flour. 

Ingredients 

Pastry Creme (Creme Patisserie, or Creme Pat as they say on The Great British Baking Show)

1/4 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour (or just cornstarch)

4 room-temperature egg yolks

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

Pâte à Choux

1 cup water

1 stick butter (really, about 7 tablespoons, but 1 stick is fine)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour

3 room-temperature eggs, beaten

Optional drizzle

1/2 cup chocolate, chopped (I used bittersweet chips because it’s what I had)

1/4 cup heavy cream

Method

Make the pastry creme first. In a large bowl, mix together flour and egg yolks until thoroughly incorporated and smooth. Set aside.

Heat milk, sugar, and salt to a simmer in a heavy saucepan over medium heat (look for small bubbles to appear around the edges of the pan). Remove from heat and grab a whisk.

Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. WHISK CONSTANTLY. Don’t skimp, and don’t add the hot milk too fast. If you do, you will end up with sweet scrambled egg which is gross and nobody wants that.

Once the milk is completely added, pour the mixture back into the milk pan and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken (about five to ten minutes).

Pro-tip: use a whisk. I tried a spatula and that did not end well.

Remove from heat and add scraped vanilla bean (or extract). Place a fine mesh strainer over the bowl you will cool the pastry creme in. Pour pastry cream into the strainer to remove errant lumps (of egg or flour). Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream and place in the ‘fridge to cool thoroughly while you make the pâte à choux.

To make your pastry, preheat oven to 425 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment pastry. Set aside. Set up a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (or see Recipe Notes).

Heat water, butter, and salt in a high-sided saucepan over medium heat until butter is completely melted.

Add flour to water/butter mixture and stir with a wooden spoon, still over heat, until mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. You will also notice a thin skim of pastry on the bottom of the pot.

Move pastry to the bowl of the stand mixer and let cool slightly. You want to be able to touch it, but you don’t want it cold.

Turn on stand mixer and begin to add beaten egg a little at a time. Smart people beat each egg separately and add them one at a time. You may not actually use all of the egg, which can be scary.

Don’t be scared.

Add a bit of beaten egg at a time and beat until it is incorporated. Ultimately you are looking for a dough that is somewhat stiff but still able to be piped. This is somewhere between cookie dough and a thick batter. It should not ooze at all or be sloshy. I know this to be true because that’s what my first attempts were like, and I ended up with egg-tasting pancakes. #Barf

The reason you may not use all of the eggs is because of the level of humidity in the air, the temperature of the flour/water/butter mix, alignment of the planets, the difficulty of the French: any number of reasons. It’s best to concentrate on the texture you are aiming for rather than the amount of each ingredient.

This is why people have dogs: to eat their extra eggs.

So beat your eggs as needed into the flour. When done, you can refrigerate your pastry dough for a day, or you can proceed.

Place dough into a pastry bag (see Recipe Notes) fitted with a round nozzle; I used a size 11, but you can eyeball it and go for 3/4 to 1″. Pipe 1″ rounds of dough onto parchment one inch away from each other. Each dough ball should have a little peak on top (if not, your dough is too runny. Sorry.).

Use a wet fingertip to smooth the top of each dough ball.

Place in over at 425 for ten minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and cook for another 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and pierce sides with a toothpick to allow excess moisture to escape. Place back in turned-off oven and let them dry out for another 10 minutes.

Let cool completely.

Filling options:

  1. Pipe cooled pastry cream with a skinny nozzle through the hole you made with the toothpick
  2. Slice in half and use a spoon to dollop cream between both halves

For the optional drizzle, melt chocolate and cream over low heat, stirring constantly. If you are fancy as fuck, place that into a squeeze bottle and with a practiced air move it back and forth over your filled profiteroles until you achieve the chocolate coverage you desire.

If you have leftover drizzle, add some heavy cream, shake well, and pour over ice cream. Or add to milk and heat for hot chocolate.

Recipe Notes

  • You don’t need a stand mixer to make these, just lots of muscle. You can add your eggs and beat with a wooden spoon until you achieve the desired consistency. You can also use a food processor.
  • You also don’t need a pastry bag. Use a sealed freezer bag with the end snipped off and the pastry tip nestled into the snipped-off corner for the exact same result.

If you have read all the way through, finish this sentence in the comments: Had I but world enough and time, I would…”

On Worry, Creativity, And Being/Having Enough

Balls. From Storm King. Balanced, unlike myself.

I am a born worrier.

I haven’t met a problem I can’t make exponentially worse by thinking too much, too hard about it.

As I start this blog, it’s November 7th, and given the way I work at my mercenary writing (how long it takes and how I budget my time), I could be done completely for the month by November 15th.

But I am WORRIED.

I worry it won’t be done, even though I have never missed a deadline.

I worry it won’t be any good, even though my clients are 100% satisfied and, at this point, obtained strictly from word of mouth for a steady income.

I worry I won’t make enough money every month, even though my total fixed expenses every month are less than some people’s car payments, and I was able to save enough money to send my child to France for a year (and pay off two credit cards) in six months last year. I can’t retire anytime soon, and I won’t be buying a Maserati, but since I don’t care about either of those things, it doesn’t really matter.

I worry.

It should be the first thing listed on the “About Me” section of this website, my skills on my CV, and my LinkedIn profile. I am, after all, a professional.

But what an incredible burden, the fact that I must, for everyone else’s sake, hold all of the worry and woe of the universe on my puny shoulders. That sounds histrionic, yes, but as Celie says in The Color Purple, sometimes it bees that way.

Sometimes I carry the burden of other people’s woe instead of tending to my own. It’s both a selfless act and a crutch. If I worry about other’s people shit, I won’t ever really have to address my own.

I won’t have to open up.

I won’t have to risk failure.

I won’t have to see the shadow.

The problem here is that eventually everything catches up with me, and I find myself in a situation that I have woven out of my own desire to not only care for other people but perhaps to not really care for myself.

It seems to me that female artists are destined to fail at either relationships or the pursuit of their art; they cannot have both (unless you are Frida Kahlo who was married to a serial cheater and a narcissistic fuck of a man who also happened to be grievously talented).

If you make art as a woman, must everything else fall by the wayside?

If you are in a happy relationship as a woman, must art then be put away as if a childish thing now that you are taking care of others?

I am not good at balance. I don’t know where the middle is.

I don’t know how to balance meeting my own needs with meeting the needs of others in my life.

I don’t know how to make mental and emotional space for the creative part of my life when I become engulfed by planning, scheduling, and otherwise coordinating the running of a household.

And then, of course, no one’s needs are met because who wants anything from a person who is visibly miserable, cranky, and generally hard to live with?

And that burden, too, becomes placed on my shoulders.

The challenges of a blended household are not to be trifled with, especially when there is so much history behind the two adults trying to do the blending. A dead spouse is no small matter, but a still-living spouse staring down the barrel of a dead 25-year relationship is no small potatoes either. What happens when children are added from both sides of that unlucky wooden nickel is nothing short of nuclear.

I often say that parenting is the worst best job, but really, if we are being honest with ourselves, which we should always try to be, parenting is pretty much just the worst job. The hours are long and arduous, the task itself thankless and neverending, and the end result completely up in the air – you can do the best you know how and it still not be enough.

Add to this, the age of 17.

I thought 15 was a bitch, but I had not yet met 17. In the rosy blush that comes with an ocean between us and a year abroad for The Child, I assumed she and I had moved past what 15 had wrought upon us (actually, 15 1/2 to around 16 1/2).

I assumed incorrectly. And that, too, feels like my fault. Heartbreak.

What wine pairs well with a dearth of creativity? The demons of relationships past? A child who is struggling?

Here is where I would segue into a recipe, but it’s hard to think of food in times like these, especially when the story that comes before the recipe isn’t lovely and filled with exclamation points.

I have said often (including here in this blog) that food is the way that I show my love for people, that if I am cooking for you, I must be caring for you. But food is also a comfort to me in a less usual way. It’s the place where I find solace, and the place where I have always been able to nurture some form of creative practice, even when the words dry up or are too painful to put on paper.

When I was in the first days of setting up my own household as an 18-year-old, I started the ritual of completely stocking my pantry and my bar on December 31st. I have been poor for most of my life, but when the last day of the year rolls around, I still take what I have and stock up to give myself the feeling of enough.

Because really what is lacking in this entire conversation about worry and balance and heartbreak is the feeling that I am, all on my own, enough.

I can fabricate that feeling in myself with a stocked freezer, pantry, and bar cart. It’s visible proof of enough. External proof, to be sure, but proof in its own way.

For this purpose, one of the things I like to make is crackers. I eat them warm straight from the oven.

They won’t make the road we are on smooth, with straight, even lines and clearly marked directions. They won’t make my relationship with my child go back to what it was before 15 1/2.

But they are easy to make and eat when the world inside and outside of the house is overwhelming and too much. And sometimes that is enough.

Everyday Crackers

Ingredients
3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend (you can also use store-bought GF flour, or regular AP)
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
4 T. olive oil
4 T. butter, frozen and grated
1 cup water
Add-ins: 2 tsp. fennel, 2 tsp. sesame seeds, ¼ t. cracked black pepper, toasted and cooled

Method
Preheat oven to 400⁰. In the bowl of a food processor, combine dry ingredients (including add-ins). Pulse to mix. Add olive oil and butter, then pulse to mix (the mixture will resemble cornmeal). Add water and mix until dough comes together. The dough will be sticky.

Pick your cracker shape.

Shape 1 (huge time saver): Turn out half the dough onto a floured surface. Roll to approximately 1/16” thin. Cut into squares with a bench scraper or pizza cutter. Proceed as below.

Shape 2 (rustic crackers): Working the dough as little as possible, pinch a bit of dough out of the food processor (approximately 1/4” balls). Place on the cookie sheet. Pinches of dough should be an inch apart. When you have filled the cookie sheet, lightly flour the flat bottom of a glass (or a measuring cup, or anything flat), and press each pinch of dough to 1/16” thick. The thickness is not as important as evenly pressing the dough is; uneven crackers will brown on one edge and not the other.

Poke each crackers three times with a toothpick (this is important!).

Place cookie sheets in the oven and bake for a total of 12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through for even browning. Remove immediately from cookie sheets and cool on a wire rack. These crackers will stay fresh in an airtight container for three days, but you can pop them in a hot oven for a couple minutes to re-crisp if necessary.

Recipe notes

  • Oven temperatures vary and can greatly affect your outcome. Keep a close eye on your crackers, especially towards the end, to see if modifications to the bake need to be made.
  • These crackers can also be rolled out and cut into rectangles or squares with a pizza cutter. Toppings should be pressed into the rolled out dough so they don’t all end up on the counter (or the floor). Try to work quickly and not handle the dough too much.
  • Between batches, place the dough in the refrigerator.
  • Use all olive oil instead of butter to make these vegan. They may be slightly tougher.
  • Topping options are nearly unlimited, and you can also add fresh herbs into the dough when you add the water.
  • For a most delicious variation, add the zest of two lemons, ½ cup of dried blueberries (no sugar added), and 1 T of chopped thyme. Makes a beautiful, subtle, purple cracker. Serve with soft cheese.
  • These crackers can be made in a large bowl without a food processor. Work the dough as quickly as you can, and make sure all ingredients are incorporated.
  • For easier clean up, these can also be baked on parchment paper.
  • Store crackers in an airtight container. I have had them for as long as a week with no loss of texture, but I ate them all before I could experiment further.

 

 

A Balm For Memory Loss: Smith Island Cake

Only six layers. I know, I know.

For someone of my age this may seem an overly dramatic statement: I am losing my memory.

For the record, I am 46, born in 1971, so just a shade away from 47 which is officially the late 40s but I don’t really care.

What I care about is that I cannot remember things.

Part of this is a car accident when I was 16. I can remember THAT: staring up through the spiderweb of the windshield, one leg on the driver’s side of my dream car, my 1971 refurbished Volkswagen Bug, the emergency brake raking open a long, bloody seam up the back of my left thigh, and the rest of me in the passenger side. An EMT with a shaky voice, tending to a cut on my head, saying, “It’s fine. You’ll be fine,” and then nothing until the vision of my mother storming through the curtains in the ER, brusque: “You’re fine. You’ll be fine.”

The doc, several weeks later, telling me that my memory would be affected forever by the early trauma to the frontal lobe.

Part of this is other trauma in childhood, some of which I remember and am addressing with My Therapist, some of which I believe is so deeply buried that the excavation itself would cause trauma.

Fast forward decades, when this – this memory loss thing – wasn’t really an issue, to now, when it has suddenly become one.

I can’t remember shit.

Not the funny, old-timer CRS (Can’t Remember Shit) disease.

Whole swathes of my life, gone with no real understanding of what happened or where they went.

Me in a formal dress next to a boy in formal dress: no idea the occasion or the boy.

Yesterday – what I did, where I was.

Some of this can be attributed to the lifestyle of a freelance writer. I have only one real standing appointment every week; otherwise, the days are all meaningless, fabricated markers of time. Other of this can be blamed on my Ayurvedic dosha – vata – which has me consuming large quantities of information and then promptly forgetting it.

But this loss of memory is distressing.

I can’t remember significant events in my life, events that make me the person who I am. Events that have forged relationships with people I love.

The thing that has saved me in many ways is my friends.

In my head, I call them the Keeper of Records.

I have friends who have known me for forty years- they have a grave responsibility to recall the child that they thought I was to the adult I am now.

I have friends who have only known me since this move back to Baltimore in 2014. They have less responsibility, perhaps, but they also have less invested in me. Perhaps they will grow weary of reminding me of their important dates, or nudging me towards our shared memories that are even now, just these few years on, receding.

It’s hard to go on record like this. It feels like failure.

And nothing soothes that feeling better than baking, and eating, cake.

Full disclosure: I have never before eaten Smith Island cake.

#Shocking

As a native Marylander, this is also something of a failure, but I choose to let this one go. I am letting it go because as I type this I am having a big slice for breakfast, which means not only am I not a failure in the long run, but I am also a fucking grownup who can eat cake for breakfast if I feel like it.

Plus, as I was researching this recipe I found out that the one lady on Smith Island who is super famous for her “authentic” Smith Island cake uses BOXED CAKE MIX.

GTFO. That’s just DUMB.

So I looked deeper and found the “original” recipe from Frances Kitching, an innkeeper on Smith Island who is believed to have created this iconic cake. This lady is the real deal; from her linked obituary, she delivers gems like:

“The best thing you can do to a crab is let it be. Clean it, fry it, and watch that it doesn’t pop in the skillet and burn your arm.”

And, when someone asked if they could keep their beer cold in her fridge while they ate:

“You’d be the first. I have simply turned down some people who appeared to have been drinking when they came here to eat. They were in no condition to enjoy and appreciate good cooking.”

The New York Times even stopped by her inn in 1979 to write a story about her. The article is notable in its description of not only the meal the writer enjoyed but also in the beauty of the descriptions of life on Smith Island.

In 2008, Smith Island cake became Maryland’s state dessert. You will note in the description that in order to be a Smith Island cake proper, flavor doesn’t matter, but the number of layers does: between eight and 12 is the standard.

So don’t look too closely at the picture above (hint: mine only has six, but in my defense I was feeling a little woozy when I made this AND it’s my first one AND I am not actually particularly fond of crepe cakes, which is what it begins to be when you have too many layers, so BACK OFF).

Never you mind the layers. I am calling it a Smith Island cake that cannot count. The next one will come correct.

But in the meantime, back away from the boxed cake mix and use Frances Kitchings’ own recipe, as I did. I subbed out my gluten-free all-purpose flour blend, and it was, as usual, spot-on.

And also, for those of you following along at home, this little thing happened:

I wrote this.

Chad and I have been working on The Food Market {at Home} for nine months (my name is on the inside: “Written with Suzannah Kolbeck”), and it came out on Black Friday. You can order it online, or you can get it at either of his two restaurants, The Food Market in Hampden and La Food Marketa up in the county. I am not shilling this because I make any cash on the deal (I don’t), but it’s a nice big deal, and I am proud of the work.

There is even a recipe for Smith Island cake in here, Chad’s interpretation with a crazy good strawberry-flavored whipped cream cheese filling, microbasil, strawberry dust, and dehydrated strawberries. You, too, can get fancy at home (without too much fuss – seriously).

 

 

Slow Down. Open Up. Wait.

From Storm King. The first of probably many different photos I will sneak into these blogs. Just a heads-up.

It’s the first few cold days here in Baltimore, so cue the inevitable references to the busy time of the holidays.

It’s less than a month until Thanksgiving, which means it’s less than two months until Christmas, which means it’s about to get primal in the Target over the last (fill in the blank) holiday toy.

I’m not buying it. Literally.

I am done with buying dumb shit for people who don’t need it. I have no interest in scurrying around to fulfill our country’s image of what the holidays are supposed to be.

But more importantly, I am not buying the conceit that the holidays are filled with merciless and driving good cheer, buoyed by copious amount of holiday punch and $5 trinkets from the White Elephant gift exchange.

Truthfully, I dropped the pretense of the picture-perfect holiday years ago, maybe around the time when I was younger and my brother and I told each other what the other was getting for Hanukkah and then it sucked a little, opening our presents, because we both already knew.

It may have taken me a little while to really exorcise the holiday demon because Dane was a huge fan of holidays and had an image in his head about what they should be, complete with overspending and overcommitting to holiday celebrations.

But this is not about that.

As the light fades from the sky and the darkness and cold return, I am starting to pay attention more.

Turn in.

Slow down.

How often do we grant ourselves permission to be deliberate? How often do we actually choose to consider what we are doing instead of simply walking through one big, long, knee-jerk reaction of a life?

What a gift it would be if we really paid attention to the people in our lives – close up and far away.

What if we slowed down enough to hear their hearts beat? To listen to them with both ears and our own open hearts?

I am not talking about sacrificing yourself on the altar of But They’re Your Family or Deep Down, They Really Love You.

I am talking about being deliberate and intentional with your chosen family – blood or otherwise – as a meditation, of sorts.

I am not here to give you suggestions about how to do this with your family.

Today, I am not even here to give you a recipe (although here is a really fucking delicious drink, plus some meditations from Wendell Berry, and here is some delicious food. That shit is so seasonal).

Today’s message is simply this: Slow down. Open up. Wait.

Let me know how it goes.