Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Big Little Pies

Happy summer! in celebration of being able to wear white shoes from now til Labor Day, I was tapped to bring a blueberry pie to my sister's Memorial Day grillfest. Things having been a little hectic over at the PQ Castle (I was actually down in Jersey from Friday to Sunday enduring all things orange and black and tiger-striped at my 15th college reunion, which is a whole other story....), I didn't have time to make one myself in time to get the morning train to Connecticut, but thank goddess for the shops of Grand Central station. I picked up a nice 8-inch pie from the Little Pie Company counter in the downstairs dining concourse, and it was quite tasty, especially once we'd gently reheated it and put on some vanilla ice cream. Nice fresh-tasting berries in a juicy filling, no icky gummy gel, good flaky thin crust with cute star cutouts on top. I've had a bunch of their pies over the years and they're consistently good. Of course, homemade's always better, but if you're in a pinch, they're a good source.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Carrot cake results!

Happy birthday cake
Originally uploaded by Dixieday.
It worked! The cake tasted just like regular carrot cake--very moist, nicely spicy, just what you'd want a carrot cake to be. The bananas were in there, but you could only taste them if you really thought hard about it. Shifra, the birthday girl, said that this was the first birthday cake she hadn't had to bake for herself since, oh, 1996 or so. We were all happy and had seconds, and then had more with coffee for breakfast this morning.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

San Fran smackdown

When I first moved from San Francisco back to the East Coast, I was really careful whenever I invited people over to dinner. “Is there anything you can’t or won’t eat?” I’d ask, expecting the usual Berkeley enunciation, “Well, I’m not eating wheat , and Suni can’t have dairy, and also we both quit drinking….” Out in the green hills, people are eating for their blood type, or going raw, or being baco-tarians (that is, vegetarians who somehow also eat bacon--an opportunistic variation on "freegan," a particular activist subcategory of being vegan except when the food's free).

You think I’m being snarky; well, I wish. You try cooking dinner for four when your best friend refuses all meat and your old roommate’s on a super-protein, no-carb regime, and so you make a Moroccan lamb dish for the protein hound and a Moroccan-ish veggie stew for the vegetarian, with couscous on the side (where it could be skipped by the no-carber) and then after you serve it you have to take the rest of the lamb into the kitchen because the vegetarian can’t deal with the meat-smell. As you bring out the cheese and nuts instead of dessert you’ll start feeling very, very friendly toward the cute girlfriend of the lamb eater, just because she eats everything, laughs at your jokes and drinks a whole bottle of wine by herself. For some reason, even though they have lovely healthy lifestyles full of beautiful year-round lettuce and yoga classes and eucalyptus-scented breezes instead of 7 months of pissy cold winter and stinky subways full of crazy people, a whole lot of people in the Bay Area are deeply convinced that life—air, water, chocolate croissants—is a big toxic tsunami just waiting to overwhelm them.

Here in NYC, though, my friends are so dazzled that someone else will—without payment! without a white styrofoam box in sight!— turn on the stove and cook for them from scratch that they clean their plates no matter what. “We’ll bring wine,” they say. “Don’t worry, we’ll bring more wine. Can we smoke?” As long as there's wine, and celebrity gossip, everyone's happy. (Did I mention spying scary-skanky Nicole Ritchie sitting outside at Sant’ Ambroeus on Monday afternoon?)

So it’s been fun being able to cook anything I want—roast chicken! Cheese souffle! Two cheese souffles! A huge roast chicken!—but also weirdly pleasant to have a challenge thrown my way again. Naturally, the occasion was a visit from two pals from Berkeley—Shifra and Stephen, who were coming out east to go to (and possibly drag me to) reunions at the fancy-pants university that Shifra and I both suffered through. The issues? No corn, no eggs, no wheat but spelt’s OK. Oh, and it’s Shifra’s birthday, which in my house means: Birthday Cake!

Baking for the ingredient-deprived brings out the mommy in me: I imagine all those bleak years without cupcakes, without pumpkin pie, and I just want to make it all better with a perfect dessert.

Whole-grain spelt flour is pretty similar to whole-wheat flour, which means light and fluffy is out, chunky and hippie is in. Hippies…Berkeley…carrot cake! According to the very helpful vegan-baking tips on Post Punk Kitchen, bananas make a fine egg replacement, if you don’t mind (or can disguise) the banana-y flavor. Luckily, there’s a lot going on in my grandmother Gussie’s famous carrot-cake recipe—walnuts, raisins, a lot of carrot, mucho spicing, even molasses (my mother’s addition, to make it darker). A few bananas—who would know? So I messed around with the recipe, and came up with a vegan-spelt version.

Vegan Birthday Carrot Cake

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup apple butter or prune puree, or heck, just more oil
1 1/2 cups sugar (can use 3/4 cup each white and brown sugar)
2 TB molasses
2 very ripe bananas, squished up and mashed really well
2 cups grated carrot (or more—just grate up as many carrots as you have lying around)

2 cups spelt flour (or some combo of regular white and whole-wheat pastry flour)
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar mixed with 3/4 tsp baking soda (or 2 tsp baking powder)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp pumpkin- or apple-pie spice (or a mixture of 1 tsp cinnamon and a 1/4 tsp each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and ginger)

1 cup chopped walnuts, lightly toasted
1 cup raisins, soaked briefly in hot water if they’re wizened and dry

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a bundt or tube pan really well. In a medium bowl, mix the dry ingredients. In a big bowl, beat all the wet stuff together. Dump in the flour mix, stir it up, and add the raisins and nuts. You could throw some coconut in there too, unless you’re baking this for me, in which case, please, pretty please, don’t even think about it, cause I hate coconut. Pour batter into pan and bake for an hour, until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and a tester comes out clean from the middle. When it’s cool, you can frost it with cream-cheese icing, below.

…with unvegan Cream Cheese Icing

1/2 cup (4 oz) cream cheese
1/2 stick (4 TB) butter
1 or 2 TB maple syrup (to taste)
2 TB sugar, or to taste (use powdered sugar, unless you're avoiding corn products--in which case, just use regular sugar, because powdered sugar has cornstarch added)

Let the cc and butter get really soft, then beat together with the maple syrup and the sugar until fluffy and tasty. If it's too thick, add a little milk. Frost cooled cake, or put it away in the fridge for a day or two til you need it. The vegan options for frosting seem a) limited, and b) nasty. I would just dust on some powdered sugar and enjoy the cake in its natural state.

NOW, a caveat. This cake is now sitting, intact, on my dining room table, ready for the arrival of S&S tomorrow night. Which means I have no idea if the vegan variation here actually works AND tastes good. Will report back the candles have been blown out and we’ve all either had seconds or gone out for Tasti-D-Lite.

Badass Poetry

OK, New Yorkers, I want to see all your shining faces at the newly spiffed-up Bluestockings bookstore this Wed., June 1st, at 7pm. Amazing poetry, fabulous women, and it's FREE, so we can all save our money for pies and tiaras.

Come hear a gang of great girls read from the wonderful work of Eli Coppola, a funny, intense & feminist San Francisco poet who died in 2000, at the age of 38. Manic D Press has just published her selected poetry, Some Angels Wear Black.
Readers include:

Jennifer Blowdryer * Ali Liebegott * Beth Lisick * Laurenn McCubbin * Sara Seinberg * Madigan Shreve * Michelle Tea * Samuel Topiary *

wednesday, june 1st
7pm * free
172 Allen Street
between Stanton and Rivington

AND go to the Lolita Lounge (3 blocks south of Bluestockings, on the NE corner of Broome and Allen) this Sunday, may 29th to hear writer Ali Liebegott read from her epic road poem The Beautifully Worthless. 7pm.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Dirt Cake Redux

Oops! Seems my recollection of Sharlene's famous Dirt Cake was a little, um, muddy. Turns out it's a very easy refrigerator dessert and you don't need to make a cake to make it.

According to Shar's recipe, the strata are made with vanilla pudding jacked up with cool whip, sour cream, and lots of cream cheese (as Shar says in her comment on the original post, "If you spend less than $20 just on the dairy alone then you are doing something wrong") thickly layered with crushed chocolate-sandwich (like Oreo) cookie crumbs. A real flower (its stem wrapped in plastic wrap) goes into the top. Gummy worms are for suckers.

Now, go thee forth and fool your friends!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Dirt Cake

On certain very special occasions, my pal Sharlene (yes, the glamourpuss who got the original red velvet cake, below) will whip up her mother Mavis's famous Dirt Cake. It's trompe l'oeil, central-Illinois style: You fill a flowerpot with layers of chocolate cake and chocolate pudding, top it with chocolate icing and then add a thick layer of crumbled chocolate-cake crumbs. Then you poke flowers into the "dirt"--either real ones or, if you're really gifted, fake ones made out of marzipan or fondant. It should look as realistic as possible, in order to make your guests really freak out when you stick your fingers into the pot and start happily licking the "dirt" off your hands.

Why Dirt Cake? Well, I was at the Union Square Greenmarket yesterday, and there was a book-signing going on for a great new book called
You Grow Girl
, written by nifty Canadian Gayla Trail. 5 years ago, Trail started a website by the same name--a kind of virtual gardening club for funky urban homemakers. Now, the many tips, tricks, and helpful hints she's learned over the years are collected in a delightful, very user-friendly book. Whether you've got an overgrown backyard or just a teeny fire escape, this book will make you want to get out there and get dirty. Click on the link, over on the right, to get more info and find like-minded grow girls in your neighborhood.

Right now, I fall into the teeny (and mostly) shady fire-escape camp, so I'm doing more baking than gardening. But if I don't have dirt, I do have chocolate, so I spent Saturday afternoon whipping up a batch of devil's food cupcakes (from a recipe in a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated) to take to a little backyard get-together in Park Slope.

Do you know this magazine? The obsessive recipe testers at CI are the copy editors of the food world, fending off the sloppy, dump-and-taste barbarians with single-minded scientific devotion. An article about something completely ordinary, like mac and cheese or roast chicken, always starts with a line like "To find out the truly best way to roast a chicken, we spent three months roasting over 500 chickens in our test kitchen." And then they'll tell you, in insanely nit-picky detail, how they explored each tiny variable, probably in between scrubbing every strip of grout on their bathroom tile with a toothbrush and re-alphabetizing the spice rack.

Well, modern medication is a wonderful thing. I hadn't really thought that cupcakes needed their own recipe--isn't it enough just to slop a regular cake batter into a muffin pan?--but clearly, the cupcake question had been keeping the Ritalin-fired CI staff up nights. And the recipe's pretty damn good, as it should be with chocolate, cocoa, butter AND sour cream in there.

If you want the dirt-cake look, you can crumble up one of the cupcakes and sprinkle the crumbs over the icing, adding edible or sugar flowers on top.

Sweet Little Cupcakes, Baked by the Devil
aka Devil's Food Cupcakes

1 stick butter (4 oz)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Droste)
2 oz. bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (i.e., stuff you'd eat by itself, not unsweetened baking chocolate)
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or strong coffee
3/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sour cream (4 oz, or half a small-size carton) or plain yogurt, or buttermilk

In a double boiler (or a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water), melt the chocolate, butter, and cocoa together. When everything's melted, stir until smooth, then remove the bowl and let it cool until the chocolate mixture is just barely warm.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 and line a 12-cup muffin pan with those cute little paper liners. Then beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla together in a big bowl, and sift or whisk together the dry ingredients in a smaller bowl. When the chocolate's cooled off, scrape it all out with the rubber spatula into the eggs and beat together. Add about half the flour mix, stir, add sour cream, stir, then add rest of the flour and mix gently again. Scoop your lovely, gloopy dark-choc batter evenly into the muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes, or just until a cake tester comes out clean from the center of the cupcakes. Don't overbake! Let cool on a rack, and don't ice until they are perfectly room-temp.

Quickie chocolate icing

1/2 stick butter, really soft
4 TB unsweetened cocoa
1 TB coffee, rum, vanilla--whatever you like
1 cup powdered sugar

Beat soft butter with cocoa, then add the coffee, rum or whatever. Beat in sugar--if it looks too dry or clumpy, add some more coffee or a little warm water. Beat until fluffy. At first taste, it might seem way too sweet, but it will mellow after an hour or so, so don't start doctoring it until you've let it sit around for a while. Makes enough to lavishly ice a dozen cupcakes.

Songs for Dirt Cake

1. Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, "These Foolish Things"
2. Brooke Benton and Dinah Washington, "You've Got What It Takes"
3. Bow Wow Wow, "I Want Candy"
4. Romeo Nelson, "Gettin' Dirty (Just Shakin' That Thing)
5. the theme song from Brooklyn cable-access cooking show Post-Punk Kitchen

Thursday, May 19, 2005

saucy ice cream girl

saucy ice cream girl
Originally uploaded by Dixieday.
Got the ice cream--where's the pie?

Many thanks to the multi-talented Phyllis Christopher for snapping this tasty shot (and letting me sit on her stove).

Now, my question. Thanks to the joys of Site Meter, I know that this little snap is getting traffic from all over the world--Poland, Croatia, Saudia Arabia, England, even Iran. What's up with that? I'm absolutely longing to know--how are you finding this site, and this picture? Why'd you click on it? Please, the Pie Queen needs feedback from her customers. Post your comments below!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bebop-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie

It had been way too long since I'd baked a pie. Luckily, though, the book club ladies were coming over last night, and since Y. had made some wistful inquiries about the famous award-winning apple pie, I bought a big bag of fresh rhubarb from the greenmarket, a half-pound of butter and a box of strawberries, and got set to make a nice big floury mess all over the kitchen table.

Lots of recipes tell you to put the rhubarb through all sorts of elaborate machinations before you put it the pie. What a bunch of, well, rhubarb--meaning hooey. Just cut it up, toss it with sugar and a little cornstarch, and you're on your way to pie queen heaven. This pie is a juicy one, but that's what makes it taste so nice and homemade. Vanilla ice cream is the perfect accompaniment.

Mama's Little Baby Loves Rhubarb Pie

Pie crust*:
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 TB sugar
2 sticks (1/2 lb) butter (no shortening! shortening is crap!)
6-8 TB ice water

Mix dry ingredients. Cut in butter until size of biggish peas, using a food processor, a pastry blender or just your fingertips. Leave it chunkier than you think you should. Add 5 TB of water all at once, stirring and tossing with your fingertips. Add just enough more water so that you can squeeze a handful together into a rough ball. Flatten into two disks, wrap in plastic and chill for at least an hour.

Then, roll out one round on a well-floured countertop and line your pie pan. Wrap it up again and put back in fridge for another hour or so.

While it's chilling, make your filling.

4 cups of rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2/3 cup sugar
4 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp orange rind
1 box of strawberries, hulled and cut up (optional)

Mix sugar and cornstarch together, and pour over rhubarb, strawberries, and orange rind. Toss it a few times. Set aside while you roll out the top crust. Preheat oven to 400.

Because this is a very juicy pie, it's good to use a lattice crust to let the steam out. So cut your top crust into long strips for the lattice**.

Take the chilled crust out and mound the filling inside, scooping in all the sugary goo from the bottom of the bowl. If you have a lot of water in there, pour it off or leave in the bowl. Weave your lattice on top. Sprinkle with sugar and place on a big foil-lined baking sheet in the oven. (Why a baking sheet? Because some juice going to bubble over and burn, and a baking sheet is easier to clean than the bottom of the oven.) Bake for 40 minutes or so, until well browned, juicy and bubbling. You'll probably need to cover the edges with foil halfway through to keep them from burning.

*You should probably know that this crust (from David Lebovitz’s excellent book Room for Dessert) can be a pain in the ass sometimes. It loves to stick to everything—your counter, your rolling pin, your hands. When you first take it out of the fridge, it will be a hard, recalcitrant lump in the middle of the counter, and then a couple minutes later it will be a sticky, rebellious dough-child ready to smear itself on every available surface. But please, I beg you, don’t give up and use one of those crapola premade frozen pie crusts. No, no, NOOOOOOO.

Try this out. It will be so much better than every other pie crust you’ve ever had that it’s worth the swearing and scraping. It helps to be as light-handed with the dough as you can be, but this mostly means not squishing it back into a ball and re-rolling it too many times. I’ve saved my sanity many times over by finally getting a long, narrow offset spatula, which can be wiggled under the rolled-out dough to loosen it from the counter without tearing when you’re ready to drape it over the pie pan. You can also use a regular spatula, or even a long thin knife. Because of all the butter in there, it will be flaky and taste incredibly delicious and buttery even if you end up pummeling it a little. Unlike a shortening crust, which stays pallid and pale, a butter crust gets wonderfully golden-brown, and tastes even better than it looks.

**Making lattice, THE FANCY WAY: lay one strip across the middle of the pie. Then lay another strip across it to make (duh) a cross. Lay another strip down next the first. Then lay down another cross-wise strip, only weave it under the first strip and over the second one. Keep doing this, alternating vertical and horizontal strips, lifting the strips as necessary to get that cute under-and-over pattern. If your strip breaks, just jam the pieces back together or hide the broken parts under another strip. Another trick is to use a little crinkle-edged pastry wheel to cut out the strips, so they have cute pinked edges (as if you've used pinking shears) which makes the pie look really 1950s-country-fair. Put on a gingham apron when you serve this, and you might inspire an utterance along the lines of my favorite come-on line ever: "I just want you to make me a bologna sandwich, and then I want to ravish you!" (Yes, this was actually said to me by a reliably pervy friend, although the action was not suited to the words.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Chowing with the Big Dog

In my dream I am your customer,
And the customer is always right.
-Laurie Anderson, United States Live, Part II

OK, enough sniveling. There ARE lots of things to do in NYC, and here's one of them:

Jim Leff, "Big Dog" of the everyone's-a-critic site Chowhound.com, is signing copies of his new Chowhound City Guides on Wednesday, May 18, at Coliseum Bookstore on 42nd St, across from the Main Library, at 6:30pm. Leff is a very opinionated guy, so expect plenty of chat about foods far and wide--the harder to find and more obscurely, grubbily authentic, the better. Will the Sainted Arepa Lady attend? I'm going to see if I can't find him a package of his favorite Italian cookies*, just to say thanks for being such a big dog.

He'll also be at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope on Thursday, June 9 7 :30 PM (143 Seventh Ave, Brooklyn), and at Tekserve (yes, the Mac computer store) on Saturday, June 18 at 2 :00 PM (119 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan).

* What cookies are these, you ask? Well, when I worked at Time Out, we did a series of interviews with local food-industry folks for our big Eating & Drinking guidebook. Leff claimed that his whole reason for living while on tour (as a jazz musician) in Europe was a particular kind of cheap supermarket cookie, shaped like a little corncob and called pannocchie . Now, anyone who reads Chowhound knows that Leff is a populist. He would much rather stand up and eat an arepa from the Sainted Arepa Lady's cart under the el in Queens than sit down, well, just about anywhere.

Pannocchie are made by Il Mulino Bianco, the Keebler of Italy. Go into any Italian supermarket, and the bulk of the cookies on offer will be in Mulino Bianco's trademark yellow bags with the little picture of the white mill on them. They are cheap and ubiquitous and generally pretty good for mass-market cookies.

Because pannochie are basically the Teddy grahams of Italy, they don't have much in the way of import cachet, which makes them MIA in most fancy gourmet shops, even Italian ones. But I'm determined, as least as far as Carroll Gardens and Little Italy can take me.

Monday, May 16, 2005

East-West, and Cornbread!

Things to do, West Coast version:

Go see the Cutting Ball Theater's 6-person version of Macbeth at Exit Theater, now through July. I am royally pissed off about missing this, just because I lack the price of a JetBlue x-country ticket right now. The extremely talented Paige Rogers plays every woman in the show, from Lady MacB to the toil-and-trouble witches. Just go see it. Ticket info on the Cutting Ball website.

Things to do, East Coast version:

Oh, there's a million things to do here. But I can't afford any of them, because no one's paid me yet. So I'm sitting here, watching the sun on the brick wall outside my window, working on this cookbook-editing project and listening obsessively to Old Crow Medicine Show's andante version of the old blues chestnut CC Rider. There are a million recordings of this song (by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lee Hooker, and the Grateful Dead, to name just a few) and no one sings it using the exact same lyrics. O.C.M.S. seems to have made up a whole new set of verses, as well as having slowed the whole thing down to a country twang and added a mournful harmonica section.

It's a lot like cooking that way; cornbread and souffles and pie and every cook's version is just a little bit different, which means the arguments about authenticity can go on forever. There's a very funny Calvin Trillin quote to this effect, which I'll dig up when I finally get up off this hard chair in front of dutiful Ruby the iMac.

Ruby was a birthday present from E. several years ago and outdated as she may be now in these skinny-laptop days (as I found when I had to haul her bulbous red body down to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store for a little adjustment, and everyone else was clutching a tiny silver laptop or miniscule iPod. It felt like going to the vet, all of us sitting on the bench with our sick pets, waiting for for our names to be called. Except that, happily, Ruby didn't pee in her box) I'm grateful to her every single day for letting me earn my living, what there is of it.

However...speaking of cornbread, there's homemade warm yellow cornbread in my kitchen right now, and in just a half hour or so, there could be some in yours. (Or, heck, just come over and have a piece of mine. With guava jelly!) This is Southern-style cornbread, which means (to quote the guys over on Meathenge) "no cookie ingredients"-- no flour and no sugar. It's the Yankees, I'm told, that started sweetening the bread up, turning it into something more like cake than a sturdy hunk for sopping up the pot likker from a pot of greens. Personally, I like both kinds; I even like the kind of springy little muffins you get from the 40-cent box of Jiffy mix. But this recipe, from the very entertaining Stack Cakes, Shuck Beans, and Honest Fried Chicken, by Ronnie Lee, is my standard for the real thing.

Morning Cornbread

First, pop open a Dr. Pepper and find your smokes. Did you fry up some bacon yesterday? Or the day before? The pan's still on the stove, with a nice grungy layer of bacon fat in it, right? You want about 4 tablespoons' worth. Mmm. Now turn the oven to 450ºF and stick that greasy skillet--cast iron if your mama raised you right--right into the oven. Let it get really hot while you mix up the batter. If you don't have a skillet, any baking pan will do, and you can use a mix of butter and vegetable oil instead of drippings, but it won't taste as good.

2 cups cornmeal, on the coarse side and stone-ground if possible--I like Indian Head, which you can find in bright-yellow paper bags in most supermarkets
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Mix dry ingredients together in a big bowl.

1 egg
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or thinned-down plain yogurt)
(a tablespoon or so of honey or cane syrup, if you want)

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, and honey if you're using it. Pour it into the cornmeal mixture. Stir together thoroughly--since cornmeal doesn't have the same gluten as wheat flour, you don't have to worry about its getting tough (as you would with a regular muffin or pancake batter). Now, take the hot pan out of the oven. Remember, hot things are hot, and cast-iron hot things full of grease, especially so. Swirl the grease around to oil up the sides of the pan. Then, pour that hot grease right into the batter. It should snap and crackle. Stir the batter a few times, then pour it into hot pan, and turn down heat to 425ºF. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until browned around the edges and firm on top. Serve warm with butter and blackberry jam.

Line of the Day

From a posting on Chowhound, dissing downtown restaurant Barolo,

"The food is only so-so, the service can be flighty and petulant, and it's wickedly expensive for basic Italian."

Flighty and petulant--could there be a better set of adjectives for that particular Soho style of bad service ?

Music to Type By

1. Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?"
2. Paul Simon, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"
3. Old Crow Medicine Show, "CC Rider"
4. Rufus Wainwright, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk"
5. Shelby Lynne, "Life is Bad"

Friday, May 13, 2005

She Wore Red Velvet

"A woman who would refuse a slice of Red Velvet Cake is not someone with whom you will want to get naked. Testify."

This is author Dorothy Allison's final warning about her Sinful Red Velvet Cake. Warning #2 is the importance of hunting down that mad, bad, dangerous old "semi-poisonous" red dye #2 to get the "genuine lurid red dye color." Warning #3 is the not-surprising fact that this supremely unhealthy cake has never been served at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, except the one time that Allison went. All this, of course, comes after she's told you how to make it, in one-, two-, and three-layer (the "death-dealer") versions.

Most everyone knows Dorothy Allison for her breakout novel Bastard Out of Carolina, but my favorite work of hers is still her first book, the short story collection Trash. Near the end of it is "A Lesbian Appetite," a series of brief snapshots about hunger and love and food, vivid with her memories of growing up dirt-poor and Southern. There's so much squishy, queasily poetic bad food writing out there (especially of the my-mother's-cooking, or worse, the sexy-food genre) but Allison's voice is cutting and sharp and real, capturing, in just a few lines, the bitterness of nostalgia when you're homesick for a place you thought you couldn't wait to escape.

"In the middle of the night I wake up desperate for the taste of greens, get up and find a 24-hour deli that still has a can of spinach and half a pound of bacon. I fry the bacon, dump it in the spinach, bring the whole mess to a boil and eat it with tears in my eyes. It doesn't taste like anything I really wanted to have."

And later, she writes,"Food is more than sustanence, it is history. I remember women by what we ate together, what they dug out of the freezer after we'd made love for hours. I've only had one lover who didn't want to eat at all. We didn't last long. The sex was good but I couldn't think what to do with her when the sex was finished. We drank spring water, and fought a lot."

I don't quite trust people who don't want me to cook for them. All the best relationships I've had have ended up involving a lot of time in the kitchen. It's one of the first and most generous impulses: if I love you, or even just like you a lot, I'm going to want to bake you a pie.

But back to the Red Velvet Cake.

As you might have gathered from the above notes, I'm a bit of a sucker for Southerners, and in fact have distant Southern roots on my mother's side, thanks to a great-grandfather from Charleston. So I'd always been intrigued by the idea of Red Velvet Cake, even though I'd never eaten one. In fact, I'd never even seen one until Dorothy Allison and I became neighbors, as it were, in the cookbook Food for Life, a collection of recipes from queer authors and famous people (like RuPaul and Martina Navratilova) put together to benefit AIDS service organizations. Paging past my own prissy writeup for Tea-Time Scones (currants! lemon rind! heart-shaped biscuit cutters!), I found Allison's recipe for Sinful Red Velvet Cake and wanted to lie down for her right there. The recipe is an evolution from a traditional devil's food, which gets its name from its reddish tinge, a result of the chemical interaction between the cocoa (acidic) and the baking soda (alkaline). Reducing the amount of cocoa, and filling in the difference with red food coloring, makes a cake that's bright red instead of reddish-brown, with a taste more of sugar and shortening than chocolate.

I made it for the first time for a birthday party for Sharlene, a woman known far and wide for her devotion to glitter and glamour, as befitting the author of the indispensable Femme’s Guide to the Universe. It was deep red and crazy looking, especially against the plain white frosting Allison insists on. ("Do not add coconut or any tacky decorations. This cake is tacky enough on its own.") And it tasted like--well, a cheap supermarket cake mix. It was achingly sweet with a pronounced chemical twang from all that food coloring. Everyone else ate it, because it was cake, but I was bummed.

Much later, another red velvet cake showed up as an office birthday cake at my job in NYC. Made by the otherwise-fabulous Amy's Bread (home of amazing grilled cheddar-cheese sandwiches and killer devils-food cake) it was heavy and dense and had no taste at all except for a kind of generic, tinny cake flavor. Someone else suggested trying the red velvet cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, but since I already hated their regular cupcakes--mere vehicles for huge clumps of horrible sugar-and-crisco* icing--there was no way I was going to stand in line for 45 minutes for something I only yearned for conceptually anyway.

Then I finally had the Red Velvet cake at Cake Man Raven, in Fort Greene. Well, for people who like this sort of thing (like longtime Cake Man fan Patti Labelle), this is the sort of thing they will like. Triple decker, the color of lipstick inside, so hefty that a single slice must weigh at least a pound. But bite by bite, the cake is amazingly tender and light, with crushed walnuts pressed into the side of the frosting for a little textural contrast. Still, though, it just kind of tastes like...I don't know, cake. Or shorthand for cake. It's better on paper.

But then again, that's just me. If the girl (or boy) of your dreams is a sucker for Red Velvet Cake, here's how to make one. Dorothy Allison's recipe is much more elaborate and much funnier, but it's way too long to retype here. Instead, this is the Cake Man's version, as published on the bakery's website. Can't vouch for it, as I haven't baked it for anyone, but if you're so inclined, try it and report back here.

Cake Man's Red Velvet Cake

Dry Ingredients: 2-1/2 cups of cake flour, 1-1/2 cups of granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder.

Wet Ingredients: 1 cup of buttermilk, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon of white vinegar, 1-1/2 cups of vegetable oil, 1 oz. of red food coloring and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract.

Sift together all dry ingredients and set aside. Pour wet ingredients into a separate bowl and beat on medium speed until well mixed. Slowly add dry ingredients to bowl and stir well until all ingredients are combined. Pour into 3 greased cake pans.

Bake @ 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Let cool thoroughly before frosting.

Frosting: 4 cups of Confectioners Sugar, 1 lb. of cream cheese (room temperature), 1 lb. (4 sticks) of butter (softened) and 2 tsp. of vanilla extract.

Frosting: Mix together the cream cheese and the softened butter. Gradually add confectioners sugar until it reaches desired sweetness and smoothness. Add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and frost the cake.

Serves 10-12

*Please note: I have no idea if this is what Magnolia's icing is actually made of. The much-vaunted Pie Queen fact checkers having gone on tart strike, Magnolia could be using the lovingly hand-extracted milk of organic goats for all I know. But sugar and Crisco is what that icing tastes like to me.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Words to Live By

Do not be afraid to cook, or else your ingredients will know and misbehave.
-Fergus Henderson, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Cooking

People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first person to think of putting fresh lime juice in scalloped potatoes, try to understand that there must be a reason for this.
-Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life

What’s wrong with happy futures?
This is the twentieth century, said Misty. Not hardly the great age of happy futures.
There are happy futures for some, he said.
You and your debutante fantasies, said Misty.
-Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time

Acts of Love

"I loved it so much from the beginning that I can't understand why everyone isn't doing it, not playing piano. Later I realized when you perform you give yourself up to God. That's why you do it. That's why I don't care that I have such a small apartment."
-Pianist Katya Grineva, from A Concert Pianist and a Concerted Effort

Sometimes just picking up the New York Times makes me burn with envy. Especially the Sunday real estate section. Usually, this kind of lust for other people's lives is mostly sparked the damn Style section wedding pages. (Or by New York magazine, even though god knows I don't want to be some vacuous Park Avenue princess obsessing over seating arrangements at the Costume Ball, nor could I stand being one Amy Sohn's equally self-absorbed trolling hipsters. Just living here and paying my insane--and Brooklyn!--rent is already enough to make me feel inadequate, thank you very much, without internalizing the magazine's nearly pure-consumerist aspirations. Nevertheless, it still gets me.)

But the real estate section is so seductive, and so heart-wrenching. It goes right to the heart of things--home, hearth, family, safe haven--and then smacks the door shut. You didn't buy in that sweet neighborhood when it was cheap; you didn't have a funky artist dad who locked in a vast Soho loft back in the 60s so you could raise your 6 kids there with your childhood sweetheart. Everywhere you might have wanted to go has already been discovered, and nothing, not even a cottage on a tiny island in Canada, is less than half a mil. Is it any wonder that the hottest new play on Broadway is the revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross?

But the article quoted above is a rare oasis of sweetness and generosity. Bereft after her father's death back in Moscow, Katya Grineva was on the latest of one of her near-constant music tours when three of her closest friends decided her studio apartment needed an intervention. Says Stephanie Charczenko, "We thought Katya really needed to be cheered up." So for months, the friends browsed antique stores, put silk shades on the chandelier and pretty pillows on the daybed, and organized her desk. When Grineva came home, she walked into a little party: champagne, candles, food and a newly cossetting home. The before-and-after pictures reveal some judicious shopping, but mostly the friends repurposed what was already there. "I was shocked. It was an act of love...Look at these things that belonged to me that I never used."

How much love and stuff--mental, spiritual, and otherwise--do we all forget we have, and forget to be thankful for? How much wealth is there in the heart?

But still, a brownstone would sure be nice.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Derby Day!

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone. And happy almost-Derby Day! Yep, this Saturday is the first leg of the Triple Crown, and everyone not already in bluegrass country should be hoisting a mint julep and warbling through "My Old Kentucky Home." And, of course, because no festive occasion should lack its own pie, here's a recipe for the ever-popular Derby pie, a variation of Southern chess pie gussied up with chocolate, nuts and bourbon. A Kentucky company called Kern's Kitchen owns the trademark to the name "Derby Pie" (they do a bang-up mail order business to homesick Kentuckians, too) so we'll call it Chocolate-Bourbon Pie. Or maybe, in honor of my own old New Jersey home--the place where I first aquired a taste for both horseracing and homemade pie--we'll call it South Derby Road Pie.

4 eggs
1 cup corn syrup
3/4 cup light brown sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted
3 TB bourbon
1 TB vanilla
1 TB flour
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup toasted pecan or walnut pieces
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell (I would blind-bake this briefly, until just set but not browned)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat together eggs, corn syrup, sugar and 1butter. Add bourbon, vanilla and flour, then stir in chocolate and nuts. Pour into pie shell and bake for 50-60 minutes.

And they're off! Me, I'm going to bake one of these and see if it gets me any free drinks over at Floyd (on Atlantic Ave between Clinton and Henry Sts in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill), a Kentuckian-owned bar that's doing an all-day Derby party on Saturday: mint juleps, the Cobble Hillbillies, TV coverage of the race. As they say, it's Bluegrasstastic!

Monday, May 02, 2005

...but I really heart al di la

Oh, bread! and butter! Oh, floury crust and holey crumb! Bread is a very, very good thing, and all you Atkins types who recoil from a baguette as if from a snake, I spank you! Spank, spank, spank!

Broke the Passover bread-fast at Park Slope's al di la vino, the wine bar around the corner from Al di la. (Since Al di la doesn't take reservations, cooling your heels in the wine bar is inevitable, no matter what time you arrive.) Jane and I were waiting for a table with a couple glasses of wine and a thick bruschetta, deeply grilled (ok, actually burnt) soaked in fantastic olive oil and topped with a heap of new-green slippery fava beans, shreds of mint and curls of pecorino cheese. Mmmmm.

By the time we'd licked up every black oil-sopped crumb, we were summoned to the main restaurant, and we went back outside to claim our seats. In one of the those small-world moments that make living in a city of some 10 million people actually bearable, the other 6 places at the long communal table were filled with a posse of charming Texans that I'd met at a dinner party at Julie P.'s a few months ago. Hi Lisa (and baby-to-be)! Hi Conrad! Hi Becca! They recommended the lemon risotto (not on the menu, but available with a little special pleading), the beet ravioli, the pear chocolate cake, the gianduotto--basically, everything. And they were right--as far as I can tell, you can't go wrong here.

Al di la's menu is seasonal but deeply rooted in real, mostly Northern Italian cooking. A lot of the dishes were things E. and I saw all the time when we lived and traveled around Bologna--tortelli di zucca (winter squash ravioli) in sage butter; tagliatelle in ragu (fresh egg-based pasta--never spaghetti!--in a nubbly meat sauce, the quintessential Bolognese dish); Venetian-style calves' liver; braised rabbit with polenta. The risotto with ramps, pancetta and peas sounded like a perfect Italian-Hudson Valley mix, but we opted instead for a gutsy, very Roman puntarelle salad with kick-ass anchovy dressing; fat little bundles of "malfatti" (light-as-air ricotta gnocchi green with chard); beefy, chewy, delicious hanger steak with arugula salad; and a simple plate of spaghetti alla vongole (spaghetti with clams in the shell) that was second only to one I had in a wine bar in Venice. Despite the busyness of the restaurant, we never felt rushed, and the mismatched, living-room decor--huge Venetian chandelier, wooden tables, flickering candles--is a welcome change from the usual generic-minimalist look of so many new restaurants.

For dessert, a crumbly, warm slice of delicate cake dotted with chunks of pear and melting pools of bittersweet chocolate. We could have sat there all night.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

i heart bread

OK, too late (and too full) to post now, but tomorrow: the heaven that is Park Slope's Al di La; cherry blossoms in full bloom at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; props for mackerel from Diane's cooking class; and how good bread tastes after a week of matzoh.