Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Luck & Money

A cold, foggy day out there, but I've got my black-eyed peas, my rice, my greens and my cornmeal. Which means I'll be set for making Hoppin' John, greens, and cornbread, for good luck and money (cornbread for gold, greens for folding money) on New Year's Day. Now, I just need to decide if I'm going the ham-hock route for the hoppin' john (always tastier, although smoked paprika--Spanish pimenton--works too), and pick up some more garlic & lemon for the greens (since I like them quickly steamed and then mixed with sauteed garlic and lemon juice in the California way, not boiled-to-khaki as traditionally they would be in the South) plus buttermilk for the cornbread.

Such are my Southern roots that I can't remember a New Year's Day where I didn't have black-eyed peas and cornbread. Maybe not in Italy, where the New Year's foods were lentils and zampone (a whole stuffed pig's foot) or a particular kind of fat sausage. I do remember going to the Carrefour on New Year's Eve day and coming home with a pannetone the size of a football helmet for 1 euro. We rang in the New Year in Bologna's main square, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with every inhabitant in the city as prosecco bottle missiles rained overhead. In the morning, we made coffee and pannetone French toast--the perfect way to start anew.

I love taking a long walk on New Year's Day--I remember E. and I walking all over the city one chilly green January 1, cresting Randall Rock and running into friends old and new all along the way.

Out with the old, in with the new. Leave the regrets behind and face the challenges with glee.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

chestnut soup

And while we're talking winter soup, here's another one: chestnut soup! Inspired by the smooth-as-velvet, froth-topped bisque from NYC's Cafe Sabarsky, and adapted from a NYT recipe by Mark Bittman, this is very easy and tastes much richer and more luxurious than its simple ingredients would lead you to believe.

Chestnut Soup

12 to 15 fresh whole chestnuts
[or 12-15 peeled whole vacuum-packed or jarred chestnuts]
2 tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 branch thyme
4 or 5 sprigs of parsley, minced
1/2 cup dry sherry or madiera
3 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp creme fraiche
4 or 5 crimini mushroom caps, sliced and sauteed in butter until tender and browned

To prepare whole chestnuts, cut an "x" in the skin of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Roast at 325F until the meat is tender and the skin dries out and curls back. Peel chestnuts while still hot, otherwise skin will stick to the nut.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Saute onion, garlic, carrot, and parsnip, stirring, until tender. Add crumbled chestnuts and sherry, and cook, stirring, over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add herbs and chicken broth, a little salt (depending on the saltiness of the broth) and simmer gently for 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, then puree in a blender. Taste for seasoning, adding more sherry as needed. Return to the pan and warm gently. Top with a spoonful of creme fraiche and a few slices of mushroom.

This went very nicely with a green-and-pink salad from the mystery box: crunchy little gem lettuces, shredded radicchio, and sliced watermelon radishes, in an apple-and-mustard dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic, and a little rosemary-apple compote.


A party centered around fried potatoes: what's not to like? As usual, the annual latke party was happy, grease-spattered chaos, with the four year olds building a fort in my bedroom and the adults circling the frying pans like starved hyenas.

And therein lies the inherent difficulty of a latke party: for latkes to be at their best, they must be freshly made and fried. You can't make the potato mixture ahead of time, or it turns into grayish, soupy mush. And in my purist opinion, you can't really fry the pancakes beforehand, or they get greasy and flabby, tasting like warmed-over hash browns. But frying to order, with only two not-very-large frying pans at one's disposal, means producing only a mere handful at a time, certainly not enough to get everyone at the party all the latkes they deserve.

Oh, well. There was a lot of hot borscht to fill in the gaps, and this turned out to be the savior of the party. Who knew everyone loved borscht so much? Or this borscht, more to the point, because there were a lot of folks who claimed to hate the beet, or be indifferent to borscht, before this batch.

Nothing fancy in it, just a whole lot of Mariquita Farm's fabulous mystery box vegetables, augmented with fresh beets from the Alemany Farmers Market. In a big pot, I sauteed chopped onions, garlic, carrots, and a lot of parsnips in a splash of olive oil. (If I'd had celery root, or rutabagas or turnips, I'd have thrown some in too. Petrouchka, or parsley root, is a nice addition if you can find it.) Then peeled grated raw beet, a handful of chopped raw cauliflower, shredded cabbage, a can of chopped diced tomatoes and their liquid, a branch or two of thyme, enough water and/or chicken or beef stock to cover the vegetables. Why so many parsnips? Well, I had them around--lots in the mystery box--and they do nicely in a soup, relaxing all soft and sweet and earthy as they cook.

Season with plenty of salt, a spoonful of caraway seeds, and a hearty splash of apple cider vinegar. Bring to a simmer, turn down heat and let it simmer very gently for an hour or so. Add the shredded beet greens, plus a good handful of minced fresh dill and parsley, just before serving. Taste for seasoning, adding freshly ground pepper and a little more vinegar as necessary--it should have a slight tang to balance the sweetness of the beets, carrots, and parsnips. You could make this heartier, by starting with some meat bones and adding potatoes and white beans, but I like it as a vegetable soup. Since this was going with latkes, I didn't add potatoes, but you could certainly put them in.

It's hard to give quantities, since it's the kind of soup that's based around how much stuff you have on hand, and how much soup you want. It's almost impossible to make in a small quantity, and anyway, why would you want to? It keeps well in the fridge or freezer, and you can down it by the quart, since it's all veggies. Top each bowl with a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkle of minced fresh dill, and serve with a slice of challah or seeded rye bread. Note that this is the hot, winter-in-the-Ukraine kind of borscht, not the same as the simple straight-up purple beet soup that's typically stirred to pinkness with sour cream and drunk cold from a glass with your scrambled-eggs-and-Nova and toasted bialy at Barney Greengrass.

Thanks must be paid to Jen, for her superlative, truly perfect sugar-dusted soufganiot (Israeli jelly doughnuts), filled with the homemade marmalade she got from PQ; to Liz for her excellent chocolate-chip gingersnaps; to Ken, for bringing six-packs of He'brew, the Chosen Beer; to Joie Rey, for Ritual Roasters coffee and a big wedge of Humbolt Fog goat cheese; to Nancy and Roxie, for taking over the frying, and bringing lovely Bodega Bay chocolates; to the happy flowers from Karlyn and Ray; to Shar for schlepping over the bridge, pink champagne in hand, after a very long day, and exciting all of us about Whale Wars; to Bill for bringing his very sweet mom (who introduced herself to everyone saying "Hi! I'm Bill's Mom!"), to Phil for finally intoducing his daughter Violet, now three and a half; to Susie for taking the train all the way from Santa Cruz, and for nearly crashing another latke party along the way; to Eric M., Liza, and DG for taking on potato-grating duty, and to all the other friends, new and old, who came and squeezed into the tiny house, with children, wine, and good cheer in tow.

Friday, December 26, 2008


What a pretty day! It's clean and blue out there, crisp and Bay-Area-wintery; perfect for doing some pre-latke-party errands, like stocking up on Russian chocolates (actually made in Brooklyn, for the Russian immigrant market) and gelt out in the avenues, digging out the dreidels (which live in my bags of random papers and tchotckes, somewhere under the desk), vacuuming and skimming all the random junk off the living room surfaces while the roomies are out of town.

But first, coffee and waffles! It's been a while since I jacked up the waffle maker, and they sure are good with butter and Sarabeth's apricadabra jam.

What I really need to be doing is KNITTING, of course. I promised a handknit scarf to Omar, and then word got out. And now his younger brothers want one, too--pink for Ches and bright multicolors for Kai. So this will be my bus activity for the next couple of weeks. Luckily C. and K. are still little, so a foot and a half of scarf will be more than enough. And I've also discovered a quickie, less yarn-intensive way to do ribbing: German rib, aka fake fisherman's rib. Fast and easy, and it doesn't take double the time and yarn like real fisherman's rib. Just cast on an odd number of stitches, k2, p2, repeat to end of row. Start with k2 at every new row, and you'll get a nice, neat stretchy ribbing, perfect for a light scarf. For Omar, though, I might try this multidirectional diagonal scarf, which looks very cool.

Off to shower and get out into the daylight now, but stay tuned for the excellent chestnut soup recipe!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Warm you up

What is it with R&B singers and raunchy Santa songs? This not being my holiday, culturally speaking, I have no problem with lines like, "Hang up your pretty stockings/Turn out the light/Santa Claus is comin' down your chimney tonight" or "I"ll slide down your chimney and bring you lots of joy/ what I got for you mama, it ain't just a toy."

1. Santa Claus Wants Some Loving--Albert King (also covered by Lynnard Skynnard, but I'd go with the original)
2. I'll Be Your Santa Baby--Rufus Thomas
3. Backdoor Santa--Clarence Carter
4. Santa's Back in Town--Elvis Presley (he blows the lyrics here, but it's worth it just for the grin)
5. Santa Baby--Eartha Kitt, r.i.p.

bring your lipstick

I had a roommate back in college whose style motto was "Always dress like you're going somewhere better later." She had perfect shiny black hair, bright red lipstick, and a carefully or semi-ironically cultivated cut-glass accent (her parents were Brits, and she'd spent her high school years divided between Rodean and Spence). She was fond of black stretchy skirts and lacy black stockings, all of which made her an exotic anomoly among the jovial preppy types. Having a fondness for black garments and red lipstick myself, I was immediately charmed, and took her advice to heart, which meant, for me, wearing silver heels, black sweaters, Tres Tres Dior lipstick and Cinnabar perfume. She really did dress up like she was heading to a Soho cocktail party instead of a kegger in the courtyard, and it was fun--often more fun than the parties themselves, with their "Come on Eileen" and Everclear punch in trash cans.

I'm reminded of this every time I wander out of the house to do just a few errands, flanneled and bedheaded, only to end up, several hours later, in an art gallery, then a bar, still sans makeup and avec tennies. You can never predict when San Francisco will scoop you up into something better, and as a result you should always dress for what you want to happen, not just for the bank-and-post-office errands on your docket.

Like today, for example. Mostly it was writing, dropping off books at the library, buying Grape-Nuts and yarn. I knew I had to pick up 20 lbs of potatoes for the upcoming latke party chez PQ, and then meet Bucky at 18 Reasons for the Chanukkah Spin n' Fry. Which meant, of course, that I assumed I could nip over to Dogpatch, grab the potatoes from Julia's Mystery Box* truck, and get home again in time to change for my descent into hipster jewery.

But then, when I arrived at the truck, Julia was just finishing up selling her vegetable mystery boxes, about to sit down to dinner at Piccino with her son and his pal, all of whom had been moving enormous boxes of parsnips, carrots, greens, potatoes, radishes, radicchio, turnips and more from the corner of 20th and Tennessee. As she was kind enough to invite me to join her, what could I do but tuck my bags of potatoes behind me and sample her nettle-and-rice soup and amazing, super herby-garlicky roasted Dungeness crab, cracked and heaped over cannellini beans, and share a simple margarita pizza? By the time the boys were discussing the various merits of lemon tart vs. flourless chocolate cake, it was past 8 and I was late for the Spin n' Fry, still in my only-for-errands clothes and, since I hadn't bothered to bring a purse, woefully unequipped with lipsticks, comb, or other purse-stashed accouterments. And Julia, with true farm wife's generosity, had gifted me with a mystery box of my own, out of the small stack of no-shows. Which meant I was now underdressed and loaded down with some 40 or 50 pounds of rambunctious organic vegetables.

Nothing to do for it but find a cab and head over the Mish, even as scruffy as I was. Who could miss a roomful of Jews, brunette, bespectacled, and smiling over the brisket and latkes, the gelt and the dreidels? Bucky was there, with a coterie of Bike Coalition chicas, and we talked food, bike repair, Christmas Eve appetizers, and somehow, the Infamous Pirate Party of 1996. And then it was on to Anchor Steam's Christmas ale at the 500 Club, where I ran into a small posse of past and present Bay Guardian writer/editors, one of whom grew up in the same part of Buffalo as Bucky did. Yet again, small city, long life.

On the way out, various knots of people were puzzled but fascinated by my enormous plastic bag of vegetables, which I clutched in my arms like a huge basket of laundry. Not quite as cool as the conversation-starting Slinky I used to wear as a bracelet back in college, but definitely more edible.

*What is the Mystery Box, you ask? Well, Julia's husband, Andy, is an organic farmer in Watsonville and Hollister. Their farm, Mariquita Farm, was a longstanding part of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Until they decided that the tourist-dominated crowds were in the market to snack, wander, and maybe buy some lavender salt, not to pack their bags with kale and carrots for dinner. However, after quitting the market, they still wanted contact with their regular city customers, even though they already had a lot of restaurant clients and a large CSA.

So the Mystery Box was born: twice a month, the Mariquita truck would pull up outside a local restaurant, and customers who'd pre-ordered through an email list would show up and hand over $25 cash. In return, they'd get an amazingly abundant pile of dirt-fresh veggies, whatever was striking Andy and Julia's fancy on the farm. It worked like a charm, and now they often bring a few items from other farming or ranching friends--eggs from pasture-raised hens, organic apricots, fresh lamb, handmade sheep's milk ricotta--or large quantities of particular items, like 25lb boxes of tomatoes or 10-bunch bundles of basil.

If you loved tomatoes but felt daunted by the amount, you would be encouraged to share the bounty with friends, on your own time. The price is similar to your average CSA box, but the quantity is much, much more generous, and the stuff inside is always intriguing. You have to be a cook, though--the mystery box doesn't pander. Parsnips, daikon radish, radicchio in all sizes and colors, turnips, arugula, enormous cauliflower and radishes fill the boxes in winter; this isn't about broccoli and lettuce. Anyone can sign up and get on the list; the only caveat is that if you confirm for a box that week, you MUST show up to pay and take it home. Miss your pickup, and you'll have to pay for the box you skipped in order to get another box in the future.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dance Dance Revolution

Dance! Dance! I'm pretty much a pushover for fun, especially when the very persuasive Susie B. calls me on her way into the city and says how I will regret it FOREVER if I don't put on my tutu, pick up my tiara and meet her and Jon at the LGBT Freedom Band's Dance-Along Nutcracker. She's been going since her daughter was little, and now that said daughter is 18 and too cool to flail around to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in public, she goes with friends instead. I am not exactly a ballerina, but as a wee pie princess I did drape myself in the PQM's Pucci scarves, put on our Nutcracker album and try to recreate in the living room what the lithe ladies of the NY City Ballet did onstage every December. Most of all I wanted to do that final pose of the sultry Arabian coffee dancer, where she lies prone, facing the audience, and arches her feet over her head. Alas, this was never achieved, but you can't fault a girl for trying.

When it came time for the Arabian number, both Susie and I hit the ground. "This is for floor work," we told our new best dance friends, two adorable 3 yr olds who were enthralled with Susie's tutu and stripey tights and my big iridescent golden scarf. We rolled around and pointed our toes in the air and flapped the scarf over their heads like a circus tent.

I can't really put the show (aside from the dancing) into words; it was a very San Franciscan mashup of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, from a Mime Troupe/agitprop angle, with a little Corpse Bride thrown in. And drag queens, and French horn players dressed as reindeer! And ghost brides, and a guy on roller skates, and a giant prop clock where 8 o'clock was marked "No on 8". The Christmas tree had menorahs and Kwanzaa candles on it, and they finished with a rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that named-checked every December holiday from Hanukkah to the winter solstice, with Ramadan thrown in for good measure.

It was pouring again when we left, sorry to swap our tiaras for raincoats. We went over to 24th St, where it was too wet to show Susie's pal Laura, a high school art teacher and painter, the murals of Balmy Alley, but where we could browse (through the window) the hot-pink rhumba panties of the Candy Kitchen lingerie store while we waited for seats at the counter at the St. Francis Fountain. This newly reopened diner was where Susie's parents courted back in the day. It used to be a real soda fountain and candy kitchen, with malteds, homemade peanut brittle, and egg salad sandwiches served with chips and a pickle slice. Recently revived by hipsters, it happily still has reubens, patty melts and even egg creams, along with vegan chorizo and tofu burritos. (And Pixie Stix and the much-discussed Wacky Packs.) The chocolate-banana shake: perfect, right down to the cherry on top.

We stopped by Phil'z for coffee on the way back, and even this hand-made-cup place falls down in making decent decaf. My cup was watery, weak and without body, as it is almost everywhere that's not my own French-pressed kitchen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

hot ginger

It's cold, it's cold, it's cold! PQ Castle still has no heat. Now usually, this is no big deal, because the heater we do have usually only heats the living room, a little. So I crank up the space heater and hunker down in my bedroom, the only warm room in the house. But now, with no heat at all, my roommate's got the space heater (since it came from her mom to begin with) in her room, and I'm in fleece and scarves. Every apt. I've ever had has been frigid at some point, often for way longer a time than was comfortable in, say, December. And no one here to snuggle up with, either, and my hot water bottle, complete with hand-knitted cover, is still in storage in chilly Brooklyn. So: cold and a wee bit lonely here! But luckily Leslie and Anya's potato party (latkes! vodka!) is coming up tomorrow in Oakland. Until then, deadlines to attack, and perhaps, gingerbread to make. I've got Elizabeth Faulkner's Demolition Desserts here, and turns out she's a sucker for gingerbread, too. Hers has chipotle in it, which sounds almost as good as the kind with bacon grease. Then again, there's also this one, a spicy chocolate gingerbread via Nigella Lawson's cookbook Feast. Lawson or Faulkner? Who could choose? Into the kitchen!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

holiday fun in the city

Hot chocolate! We don't have heat chez PQ of late, which means swapping the single space heater around the 3 of us....Which means hot drinks and flannel are the necessities du jour, as if I need an excuse for either one. BUT, fun things to do this weekend, all in places with heat:

Today, Thursday, 5-7pm, Serpentine turns one! Come celebrate with a glass of free bubbly and some nibbles down in Dogpatch, at the 17-yr-old Slow Club's lil' sister. Of course, having been kicking around SF since 1990, on and off, I remember when the Slow Club was the new cool thing in town. What the heck. I'm still about 35 years away from hitting kids with my purse on the bus to get a seat.

Sunday, 10am-2pm. Those cute, tattooed servers at Delfina, with their skinny black bra straps showing? They're not just charming and very good at their day (well, night, but you know what I mean) jobs, they're artists, too. Come to Delfina's holiday arts n' crafts fair, featuring stuff made by their staff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

in a jam!

I miss my jam pot! Specifically, I miss my big, wide copper confiture pot, with its flared sides and brass handles. It was perfect for jam-making, since it was wide and shallow, allowing for rapid evaporation. The copper was nonreactive as well as heavy, which meant even sugary things cooked evenly, without hot spots or burning, and it cleaned up like a dream. The only drawback was its size--really big--which required making a pretty hefty amount of jam at any one time. (Where is it? Still in Brooklyn storage, with all the other large, fragile, or otherwise squirreled-away items of my life, mostly books, shoes, leopard lingerie, and china.)

I've been making jam throughout the year as fruit's been available, starting with the big box of organic Meyer lemons S. brought me last spring. And now, I'm beginning to pull out the contents of the jam kitchen, inspecting and wrapping for the holidays. Something I've learned this year is to unloose the screw-top rings after the jars have cooled and sealed. Why? First, to check that the seal is clean. I pulled out half a dozen jars of apricot jam earlier this week, only to find them cruddy with sticky jam trails down the sides. I'm not exactly sure where the gunk came from--the seals were tight, and the jam inside unspoiled--but just to be on the safe side, I opened them up, adding a little more sugar, and reboiled/recanned the contents. It's also wise to remove the screw-bands after sealing so that water (or condensed steam) doesn't get caught under the band and rust out the lid.

It's also very wise to label every jar as soon as it's cooled and sealed. I have a few jars of mystery marmalade--lemon? Seville orange? Mixed orange?--that will have to be labeled "California Citrus" since I can't pin them down any further than that. As far as I can remember, what should be in the jam cupboard this year is:

Meyer Lemon Marmalade
Seville Orange Marmalade
Mixed Citrus Mystery Marmalade
Strawberry Jam
Hedgerow/Brambleberry/Raspberry-Strawberry-Blackberry Jam
Bernal Hill Wild Blackberry Jam
Bread and butter pickles

And, if I can manage to come home with some pears after my meeting out at the orchard this Friday, the divine Vanilla Pear Butter.

I'd still like to make some more pickles, and maybe even Chez Pim's bourbon-vanilla-butternut squash butter, in a mashup with Helen Witty's Spiced Pumpkin Butter.

It's been a pumpkin sort of week, or month, really, given how many pumpkin/butternut squash/sweet potato pies have been made chez PQ lately. And last night at Orson was all orange, all the time: we got 2 shots of curried pumpkin and sweet potato soup, a pumpkin pizza with fennel sausage, sage, red onion and ricotta, scallops with a sweet-potato puree, and finally the piece de resistance: The Clock After Midnight, made of pumpkin custard topped with brown-sugar streusel and pierced with dehydrated carrot spears, all over a spatter of carrot emulsion and root-beer maple syrup.

It took me a minute to get the Cinderella reference, just as it took the waiter to explain the King's Dream: peanut-butter cheesecake, peanut ice cream, slices of chilled banana rolled in cocoa nibs, and toasted marshmallows. But my favorite was the Snowcap: squares of gianduja topped with a snowfall of powdered (but still icy-cold) white chocolate ice cream, just like the snowflakes that fall during the last part of Act I in the Nutcracker. Or the froth of ice chips off the back of the Zamboni clearing the skating rink! Anyway, witty and yummy, and the best part of the meal, not surprisingly, since owner/exec chef Elizabeth Faulkner is a pastry chef from way back, and has clearly found a smart kindred spirit in Orson's pastry chef, Luis Villavelasquez.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Headcheese, Pleeze

Duck meatloaf! Apple cider doughnuts! Sausages! Fried chicken with cheesy waffles! Maple-bacon almonds! Bacon-wrapped trout! I lost track of how many times bacon got mentioned on the menu at Buttermilk Channel, a new restaurant way down on Court Street, in my old Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill Brooklyn 'hood. Turns out it's owned by a friend of an old high-school friend of mine (ah, Facebook!) who brought it up by asking what my opinion was on headcheese. I bow to John Thorne on this one, who said, "The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have never heard of headcheese, and those who have and wished they hadn't."

Gelatinous porky bits aren't really my cup of tea, although in my perambulations last week (trying to go see French film I've Loved You So Long up in Pac Hts, and being stymied by the loooong bus ride), I ended up at the back of Browser Books, reading Little House in the Big Woods just for nostalgia's sake. I was surprised at how much I remembered, pretty much word for word, especially the part about breaking down the hog for winter. Headcheese is nothing more than the bits boiled off the head, finely chopped and seasoned and set in a jelly made from the bones. Buttermilk Channel makes its own, and it's yours for $8/plate, probably much, much more than a whole pig cost back in the 1880s, when Laura Ingalls Wilder was playing kickball with the pig's bladder and grilling the tail in front of the fire.

But right now, typing away about the glories of mail-order pears (no, I don't work for Harry & David, but I should), all I want are those maple-bacon almonds, with maybe some of their housemade pickles on the side. Were I back in NYC, I'd have a pickle throwdown between Buttermilk and Chestnut, with Rick's Picks as referee.

Also, here, a fun little conversation by the owners of Rabelais Books, in Portland, ME. Headcheese gets a mention!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Leeds United!

Fabulous finger-waved art-punk femme, coming to Bimbo's 365 Club on Monday Dec. 15. Who wants to go?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Chocolate Whiskey Cake

Oh my gosh. That Whiskey-Soaked Chocolate Bundt Cake in today's New York Times sounds like Best.Cake. Ever.

Actually, it sounds a lot like the chocolate whiskey cake that my parents would always bring home from our summertime visits to Saratoga Springs. Ostensibly, we went to Saratoga for the horses. My parents loved going to the track--to gamble a little, sure, but mostly for the whole ambiance of it--the personalities of the jockeys and trainers, the semi-mob guys and their flashy wives/girlfriends/mistresses, the beautiful horses, breakfasts of steak and eggs and Hand melons at the Clubhouse during morning workouts. Spending Sunday afternoons at Aqueduct or Belmont, or a whole week at Saratoga in August, seemed perfectly normal to me as a kid, even as my mom exhorted us not to tell our grandma what we were doing.

One of the reasons I liked Saratoga so much, I suspect, was going to really good restaurants every night. Like Nantucket and the Hamptons, Saratoga's had a longtime rep as a playground for wealthy New Yorkers (originally due its natural spring waters and reputation as a spa), and so there were fancier places there than you might expect. But Mrs. London's remained a favorite, a bustling cafe and bakery with smashing croissants, the best chewy sunflower-seed bread (dubbed "Max's Loaf") and above all, the whiskey cake, a dense, rich chocolatey cake with A LOT of whiskey in there. We always brought one home with us to Jersey, serving it in small after-dinner slices to make it last.

It's been decades since I've had one. If they even still make it-- they don't, alas, have it on their mail-order list. But this sounds like it might be close, or, if not, really good in its own right. As soon as I have an excuse--or a host/hostess to please--I'm making this. I think, although I'm not sure, that the Mrs. London's cake might have had whiskey-soaked raisins in it, so I've added those in. This recipe is adapted from Melissa Clark's recent NYT article, based on an original recipe from dessert queen & cookbook author Maida Heatter in her 1980 "Book of Great Chocolate Desserts."

Whiskey Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
1 cup bourbon, rye or other whiskey, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup golden raisins
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup instant espresso powder (such as Medaglia d'Oro)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda

Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional).

1. Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan (or two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans). Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a small bowl, pour whiskey over raisins and set aside. In a double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate. Let cool.

2. Put espresso and cocoa powders and salt in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Mix until powders dissolve. Dump in whiskey and raisins. Let cool.

3. Using an electric mixer, cream 1 cup butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda, and melted chocolate, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.

4. On low speed, beat in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with whiskey mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes for Bundt pan (loaf pans will take less time, start checking them after 55 minutes).

5. Transfer cake to a rack. Unmold after 15 minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey. Let cool before serving. Dust with confectioners’ sugar if you like.

The Mrs. London cake was made in a round, sealed with a dense chocolate glaze and a dab of gold leaf.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Late Nite Easy Cocoa Cake

Most writers, in my experience, will do anything to avoid writing, even though we are usually fit for no other job. So, with numerous deadlines looming, what was I doing on Saturday night? Making chocolate cake, of course!

One of the things I'm always in search of during my rounds of stress-baking is a nice, easy, cocoa-based cake recipe, preferably one that's not too rich and calls for mostly pantry-based ingredients so I can make it late at night without going to the store. I rarely have chocolate, even baking chocolate, on hand. Why? Because I eat it before I can bake with it. Even unsweetened chocolate will get whisked up with hot milk, sugar, and cornstarch to make a kind of choco-pudding sludge if the chocolate demons (or the deadlines) really get cracking. Unsweetened cocoa powder, however, lasts longer, if only because not even I can eat it by the spoonful.

For a long time, Laurie Colwin's Cocoa Buttermilk Cake was my standard, even if the texture was rather coarse and the flavor marked with a certain unresolved acidity. But now baby's got a brand new bag, dense, moist, springy and full of chocolate flavor. I cut the original recipe in half to make just 1 layer. As always, the better your cocoa, the better the cake. I used Ghirardelli.

10pm Easy Cocoa Cake

1 scant cup flour (1 cup minus 1 tbsp, approx.)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp EACH baking soda and baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350F. Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate cup or bowl, beat egg, milk, oil, and vanilla. Pour into flour mix and stir vigorously until smooth. Pour in coffee and beat quickly until smooth. Pour into greased round or square cake tin and bake 30-35 minutes, until top springs back and tester comes out clean. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, then turn out on a rack.

I've heard you can also dissolve the cocoa into the coffee at the last stage, in lieu of adding it to the flour mixture. This sounds kind of intriguing, so next time you're stress-baking, try it out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Swing your partner, round and round

Sitemeter is always entertaining. Besides letting me know that PQ has blog readers in Moscow and Singapore, it also has a fun little feature that reveals how readers get here. For example, someone living in the U.K. needs pie bad today, having typed "PIE AND PIE AND MORE PIE" into their Google box. And what they got, as the second listing, was a PQ posting entitled, conveniently enough, "Pie and More Pie". "Dirt Cake" is always another reliable search, as is "Ice Cream Girl," whose red lace continues to make the rounds.

Well, anyway. The kitchen is finally, finally clean, the floor washed and even the compost bin emptied. The last green tomatoes from the patio--which I have to face are just not going to ripen on the nearly dead plants, it being almost December--are on the table, hopefully to ripen over the next couple of weeks, or meet their end sliced, cornmealed, and fried. The last of the cranberry bread went into the toaster for breakfast, with oatmeal topped with the remains of the apple compote from the Fallen Fruit jamming session. It's a tentatively sunny day out there, and I must put on some shoes and get daylight while I can, the last few days all having been spent inside baking, eating, and cleaning.

Fun things coming up:

Sat/Sun: The gorgeous Flora Grubb plant store/garden down in Bernal flats/Bayview is having a weekend open house today and tomorrow (11/29-11/30), with homemade pie and of course coffee from Ritual Roasters (just like some supermarkets have in-house Starbucks, FG has their own RR counter). New sprout Greyson Danger Grubb will also be on display today, accepting homage for having the coolest name ever.
This was just super fun, as it happens. S., just back from 4 days of Cape Cod family time, was dying to get back to California reality, and this is part of his post-Thanksgiving, post-family re-entry tradition. So we zipped down there, where they had not only a tall silver urn of hot cider but 3 big bottles of spiced rum, Jack Daniel's, and tequila to doctor it. Clearly, they know what the people need. We got our cups and a couple slices of really good Shaker lemon pie (with kumquats!) and set off on a happy meander around the glittery bird ornaments and enormous succulents. And who should turn out to work there but my old housemate Laura, which whom I shared a big, run-down five-person flat in the Fillmore, sometime in the mid-90s. Ah, small city, long life, yet again.


Sat: The Really Free Market in Dolores Park. Give away your stuff, go home with somebody's else's! Out with the old, in with new (to you). No money, no trade...just everything free. This sounds very groovy. 1-5pm today, in Dolores Park.

Mon: Cutting Ball Theater is having a fabulous fundraiser Monday night, with amazing music, performances, and square dancing with a caller. Don't miss it--just $10-$20, sliding scale, to raise money for the development of a new play by Eugenie Chan (of the critically acclaimed one-woman short play Bone to Pick) in conjunction with Polish performance troupe Teatr Zar.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Walk right in, it's around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track...

"...we went back to the church, had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat, and didn't get up until the next morning, when we all had to go to court."

It was on the way home from BART last night, after delivering three pies and having 2 Thanksgiving dinners that couldn't be beat, that I realized what was missing. Arlo Guthrie! We had a fondness for some hippie folk music in my house growing up--Odetta, the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary. I can remember my parents taking us to Pete Seeger concerts on the Clearwater, a sailing ship promoting awareness of the Hudson River ecosystem, which is a lot cleaner now than it was then, back in the 70s, when pollution and PCBs were killing the shad and the striped bass. Pete Seeger had, of course, been a pal of Woody Guthrie, and so Arlo used to play with him a lot. Every Thanksgiving, one of the public radio stations would play the entire 20-minute-long original version of Alice's Restaurant, and we'd sing along as my mom chopped celery and my sister Amy folded the napkins (remember? She's my middle sister, the one from Chicago who's good at ambiance).

So I sang the whole thing to myself in my head, and then watched part of it on YouTube.

Because I had promised pies to both Shifra & Stephen and Shar & Jackie, I did manage to sit down to 2 Thanksgiving dinners, one at 3pm and one at 7:30pm. Or, to quote Cheap Eats columnist Dani Leone, on her habit of following an omelette with a plate of ribs, "That was breakfast. This is lunch." Or lunch and dinner, in this case. Well, I did take dainty portions, or so I'd like to think.

Anyway, turkey, mmmm. I do love turkey, and don't know why it's so heartily maligned. These were some delicious birds--braised and moist at Shifra's, crispy-skinned and chestnut-brown at Shar's--with all the appropriately brown and white gravy vehicles, also known as stuffing, mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas, and sweet potatoes. Shannon, Shar's cousin, was there with his husband, and brought his Southern expertise to the perfect biscuits. Which I know are being sopped in leftover gravy for breakfast right as we speak. At both houses, it was a happy confluence of birth and chosen family--Shifra, Stephen, and Stephen's aunts, uncle, and cousin in Berkeley; and Shar, Jackie and a dozen assorted family, friends, spouses, and kids--a happy biscuit-, pie-, and Cool Whip-fueled chaos.

And special mention must be made of Omar's sweet-potato pie--his first, I believe, and absolutely delicious. Omar is the cool teenager of the household, keeping all the 40+ geezers up to date on Beyonce and Girlicious.

And except for me, and Jackie's sister and her husband, all the grownups there were married gay couples, almost all with children. There were kids eating cookies, kids playing kazoos, kids climbing up the back of the sofa, babies lolling half-asleep on shoulders. I could say "Look, gay families! Just like straight ones!" and on one hand, it would be true. On the other, I don't know that the goal is to be seen as "just like" straight families--that seems too much like whitewashing assimilation to me. And what's a straight family norm, anyway? There are many, many ways to be a family, and the genders of the parents is just one part. All I can say is that these were families, and every bit as married as anyone.

And the eggless pumpkin pie? A hit! It was a little soft, I think--more creamy than custardy, but rich in flavor. I would reduce the amount of evaporated milk, I think, and toss in a tablespoon of flour, and possibly chill it before serving. Overall, though, a treat, especially since for once, Shifra didn't have to bake her own desserts in order to enjoy them. Here's the revised recipe.

Eggless Pumpkin Pie
This pie does contain dairy. My neighbor Jen, however, had to cook up a dairy-free pumpkin pie, in order to accomodate her kosher sister. Her replacement? Vanilla hemp milk, richer and creamier than the usual rice/almond/soy milk options. So if you need to make a vegan or dairy-free pie, and can find hemp milk, give it a try.

2 cups mashed squash (I roasted one small butternut, one small kabocha squash, and one sweet potato)
1 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
big pinch of salt
1/2 cup pureed silken tofu (or 2 eggs)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp flour

Whisk all ingredients well until thoroughly mixed. Pour into partially baked pie shell, and bake at 350F for 35-45 minutes, until well set. Let cool to room temperature. For a firmer set, chill for several hours before serving.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

still not live blogging

Ahhh! The pies, almost done! I just missed burning the cherry pie by kibbitzing with Jen and Phoebe over tea and cranberry bread, while Phoebe sat with the massive black chunk that is the Twilight series (hey, she's 12) on her lap and we all watched Miley Cyrus dance around on the Bolt float. Luckily, though, I scampered home just in time-- it was looking a little lava-esque, but settled down once out of the oven.

Next up, the tofu-pumpkin. I have to say, the raw filling tasted AWESOME, and hopefully will be just as good cooked. 2 cups of mixed roasted butternut, kabocha squash, and sweet potato, whisked with 1 tsp pumpkin-pie spice, a little salt, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 12-oz. can evaporated milk, and 1/2 cup pureed silken tofu. The baked texture is not quite as smooth as the eggy version made last week--it's a little wrinkly--but it still looks pretty cute.

Then it was on to make a speedy apple, after t-day dinner #2 at Shar & Jackie's got added. Of course, Jackie said I didn't need to bring a thing, but when I offered an apple pie, made with fresh organic farm apples, well, a last-minute butter run was in order. Now Mr. Apple Pie is in the oven, and I've got the real challenge: how to carry 3 hot-to-warm pies on the 67 bus, the BART to Berkeley, and then another bus.

But first, time to rinse all the flour off my sticky self. Happy Thanksgiving!

p.s. Am I secretly relieved that Kim S. is FREAKING OUT, burning things, and getting lumps in her gravy? No, of course not!

Not Live Blogging, Pt 2

Coffee, mismatched pajamas (crossword puzzle below, psychedelic pink Victoria's Secret on top), cranberry bread.

The squash has been put through the strainer, last night's dishes washed, and the cherries (two jars of Trader Joe's excellent Morellos, drained) sitting around getting comfortable with the tapioca, in the hopes of softening up the little cassava balls enough so that they'll disappear in the baking. Talked briefly to my mom, Alex, and sister in Rochester, where it's been raining and snowing off and on all week. According to the family report, my sister, who is a scientist and very precise, has made a beautiful apple pie, and my mom is snapping the ends of a few pounds of green beans for some kind of casserole.

"Is it the kind with the cream of mushroom soup and the onion crispies on top?" I asked, just to tease her, since my mom is a really good cook. Sure, we had canned cream of mushroom soup growing up, but only as actual soup.

"No!! It's from Lidia. There's fresh mozzarella in it, and all kinds of things."

That's Lidia Bastianich, of Food Network/Felidia's/multiple cookbook fame, with whom my mom considers herself on a first-name basis, ever since we shared a table with her at the James Beard Awards one year, and she gave me advice about the food markets in Bologna.

Actually, come to think of it, my aunt used to be very fond of that classic kind of green-bean casserole,and always brought it with her to Thanksgiving at our house, since she knew that my mom was much more likely to have some kind of new-fangled steamed green beans with almonds or other inappropriately crunchy green thing. They must have wrangled over this one--or perhaps my aunt Karen has promised to have the real thing on hand.

But back in the kitchen, it's time to put on the Poi Dog Pondering and Hank Williams, and git these pies in the oven!

Not Quite a Live Blog

So, I'm not exactly live blogging the pie-making here in Bernal. Then again, unlike Kim Severson, I'm not getting paid, nor am I expecting Eric Asimov to bring the wine or Scott Peacock to make the biscuits.

Actually, I'd love to post photos of my kitchen right now, because it is SUCH a mess, and bloggers, in their quest to be as Food & Wine-like as possible, never show messes. There are bits of kale all over the floor (red Russian, she sheds! Especially when there are 3 bunches from the Free Farmstead squashed into one bag in the fridge, and I'm squatting down in front trying to extract just enough for dinner), cooked squash in a colander, used lemon halves on the table, random butternut-squash carnage and swelling green plastic compostable bags full of scraps waiting to go out to the green-waste bin. Not to mention the squash-baking cookie sheet, encrusted with carbonized squash juices and poking out of the sink. No, no, by all means, go back to Kim and her pair of "little turkey earrings," aka her twin 9 1/2 lb heritage turkeys--although she did post a rather yuck-inducing snap of her bro deveining shrimp.

But the spelt-flour dough is made and chilling, and tomorrow will be just all cherry pie, all the time, with fingers crossed that it doesn't come out like cherry-flavored bubble tea. And, of course, silken-tofu pumpkin pie, with dairy but w/o eggs.

Moving over to the (mostly tidy) living room, where Fluffy the meowy grey cat is sleeping a blameless, long-haired doze on a couch pillow, was anyone else a little disappointed that Pushing Daisies didn't have a thanksgiving-pie theme tonight? Since the main character's supposedly a pie baker, after all. But he did have a good line about "stress baking," after he'd already filled the Pie Hole's kitchen with pies.

"There's no more room on the counter, so I'm stress-baking in my head."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Baking for T-day

So, it's raining, it's chilly, the housemates are gone to San Jose and New Mexico, and I can do anything I want, right?

Which means, of course, that I'm baking and making a mess. So far, two loaves of cranberry-orange bread, one for breakfast and one to give to my neighbor Jen, for her Thanksgiving breakfast. It makes pretty much the best T-day morning toast you can imagine, all bright and citrusy-cranberry sweet.

Next up: Shifra's spelt-flour crust (thanks, Rainbow Grocery, for stocking both whole-grain and white spelt flour), for the eggless pumpkin pie and cherry pie. Turns out that I bought small-pearl tapioca, rather than granulated (Minute-style), which makes me worry that the cherry pie will have big, chalky, undercooked starch globules in it, instead of an imperceptively-thickened filling. The solution? Spinning the pearls in the mini-grinder--which was just like trying to puree metal ball bearings. Spin, spin, spin--to almost no effect! Oh, well. Meanwhile, a couple of squash and a sweet potato are baking, making the house smell cozy and sweet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the pumpkin pie??

Lowdown and blue, that's PQ today. Maybe it's the weather, gray and lowering, gloomy and misty, without either stay-in rainy coziness or crisp autumn-y sunshine. Or maybe it's everyone winging back to see their families, while I'm here with the waifs and strays. OK, not really--I've got a very nice invite to join Shifra and Stephen at their Berkeley apartment for Thursday turkey. But what I'm craving is coffee in flannel bathrobes, family chaos and bustle and that sense of inclusion, not lonely crust-rolling by myself in this dim Bernal kitchen.

Well, anyway. Last Thursday was Farmie Thanksgiving back down on the farm, and what a thanksgiving it was. Since my old farmie pal Hollywood was in town from Durango, I even got to skip the crawly-slow train n' bus and ride down with her in style. And when of one of his many Santa Cruz meetings got cancelled, S. even came up to join all the wide-eyed farmie types, dirt on their boots and innocence in their hearts, for turkey, stuffing, kale salad, infinite bowls of greens, and many pies, some made, you will not be surprised to hear, by PQ herself.

Yes, I had pies on my mind at the farm. It was a stunningly clear autumn day, warm and bountiful, with all the chard and straw-mulched flowers glistening under a deep blue sky. Hollywood and I cruised the farm for pie timber, filling bags with late Granny Smith apples from a tree by compost row, an armful of fresh rhubarb stalks, and a few butternut and red kuri squash from the field's onion/potato/squash stash. Then she went off to hike to the ocean through Wilder Ranch and I headed to the Up Garden chalet, to roll and bake all afternoon. The final production:

One apple pie
One pumpkin (actually squash) pie
One crustless pumpkin custard (aka the leftover pumpkin-pie filling, baked in a bain-marie, and much appreciated by the wheat-free guests)
One pink and pretty rhubarb lattice pie
One apple crisp

All in all, a lot of very nice pie, all made with farm produce, which was very satisfying. I roamed through the Up Garden, picking more Braeburn, Granny Smith, and Pink Lady apples, along with some oranges, lemons, and peppers, all in lush abundance.

The real stunner was the rhubarb, though. Not just because there was rhubarb--not a usual November harvest--but because it was slim, smooth, and juicy, and a ravishing deep pink inside, like a Pink Pearl apple. I made the pie with nothing but rhubarb, sugar, and a little flour for thickening, and it was amazing--full of clear, tangy rhubarby goodness. I think cornstarch works better as a thickener for rhubarb, giving a better, clearer set to the pink juices, but this was pretty darn good just as it was.

The pumpkin pie was pretty swell too--the recipe was based on one from Williams-Sonoma 's Pie and Tart book, only I doubled the amount of squash and used evaporated milk instead of the called-for milk and cream. And so can you.

First, roast a couple of your favorite squash. I'd recommend butternut, red kuri, kabocha, or blue hubbard (in which case you'll just need a piece, since those babies are huge). Nix to delicata (not enough meat) and acorn (too pasty and fibrous). Split, scoop out the seeds, and place face-down on a lightly oiled or parchment-papered cookie sheet. Make sure the sheet has at least an 1/2" high rim, as squash can release a lot of liquid while baking. Bake at 350F until really soft and collapsing. Take out and let cool until you can scrape out flesh from peel. Discard peel and dump flesh into a colander in the sink or over a bowl. Let drain for several hours or overnight. Then, mash the squash through a fine-mesh strainer, or spin through a food mill (much easier, with smoother results). Buzzing in a blender or food processor is not really an alternative; the point is not just to mash the squash but to make a velvety, string-free puree, and this only happens via a method that leaves the strings on top and the puree below.

Why all the bother? Because it's nice to use fresh squash in all its multicolored, stripey cuteness, and because a fresh-squash pie has a springy fluffiness that rescues it from the usual heavy-custard stodge.

OK, so you've got your squash puree. Measure out 2 cups, and put away the rest for use in a tasty pumpkin bread or pumpkin pancakes.

Make a single crust the way you do. Line with foil or parchment and pile in the pie weights. Blind-bake for 8-10 minutes at 375F, then remove foil and weights, and bake for another few minutes, until crust is set, dry, and pale blond, like Cindy McCain. Set aside to cool.

In a big bowl, mix up 2 eggs, 1 can evaporated milk (or 1 3/4 cups of a mix of milk, heavy cream, and/or half-and-half), 1 tsp pumpkin/apple pie spice (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves), pinch of salt, 2/3 cup brown sugar, packed, and 2 cups squash.

Pour pumpkin mix into shell and bake at 375 until custard is just set, 30-35 minutes. Let cool on a rack.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanksgiving Memories

So, are you dreading the family Thanksgiving yet? Personally, I miss it. I miss coming downstairs in my flannel jammies, to where my mom--in her flannel robe and nightgown--would be rubbing butter and paprika onto the big, bald, pale turkey, and chopping up onions and bell peppers for the stuffing. The kitchen would smell like coffee and celery and onions sauteeing in butter, and I'd get right down to my T-day job: peeling the freshly boiled whole chestnuts. This took forever, and after an hour or so your thumbs would be bruised and your nails caked deep with mealy chestnut meat. But it had to be done, since only chestnut stuffing (first made with bags of those Pepperidge Farm herby bread cubes, then later with torn-up Acme levain I'd bring back from CA) happened in our house. No oysters, no sausage, no Laurie Colwin cornbread and proscuitto. (I still find the idea of shellfish or meat in stuffing very weird, although probably very tasty.)

As any chestnut-peeler can tell you, there's something very satisfying about getting a big chunk of the tight, monkey-haired inner shell off in one piece. More often, though, it took painstaking effort to wrest all the clingy scraps of inner peel off the wizened, brain-looking nut. The treat was sneaking crumbles of pasty-sweet chestnut, playing guess the composer on WQXR (Aaron Copeland, always a good guess on Thanksgiving), and blabbing and/or arguing with my middle sis, who was usually good for about 20 minutes of peeling before wandering off. (To this day, she doesn't cook. Ambiance is her forte, she says; otherwise, her kitchen skills are limited to reheating lattes and making Mommy's Pink Dip--ketchup and mayo, and held in high esteem by my nieces and nephew.)

I still remember, vividly, the first Thanksgiving spent away from home--besides the one pre-adolescent year when my parents got a wild hair and packed us all up to a cold and chilly Nantucket, to play on the beach in our parkas and have creamed onions and pie a la mode at the red-brick Jared Coffin House, and clam chowder and shoestring fries at the Brotherhood of Thieves tavern.

I was just 21 and sharing a futon with that same chestnut-peeling sister in a studio apartment in Chicago, back when she was a carefree, miniskirt-wearing 24 yr old with a lot of dates. My sis was off to Joliet with the boyfriend of the moment, an actor named Dan whom we called Dan II (to separate him from her previous boyfriend named Dan) and that she called Binky. (He called her Binky, too, and me Spud. So phone calls tended to start, "Hi Spud, it's Binky. Is Binky there?") I had gotten an invite from Heather, my bookstore co-worker, who was something like 26--older than me, anyway, and wildly cool.

She had brilliant red hair, came from Florida ("You know Tampa, home of nothing"), wore a black leather jacket, wrote for the New Art Examiner, and had friends who were poets and junkies. Her boyfriend was an artist with silky shoulder-length black hair whom she called Max, although, like Binky, I don't think that was his real name. In a few years, these kind of people would be my tribe in SF, but at the moment, they were my first real post-suburbia bohemians, and I was dazzled. Heather invited me to stay over at her and Max's place on Wednesday night, and gave me directions for the bus.

She called back a few minutes later to tell me to go to a different stop, a few blocks further west.

What's at the first one, I asked.

Gangs, she said succinctly.

I was suitably impressed. Her neighborhood, Wicker Park, is groovy and gentrified now, but back then, in the late 80s, it wasn't.

We went to the enormous Jewel supermarket a few blocks from her house, squeezing down the aisles to buy potatoes and Cafe Bustelo alongside big Latino families pushing two or three carts at once. Out on the back steps of their sprawling two-flat were buckets of oysters keeping cold. There was no turkey; instead, she casually mentioned, we were having fish. Fish for Thanksgiving! Like I said, they were cool. The next day, Max was installed on the back porch with a potholder and an oyster knife. There was cheap wine and a dozen or so of their equally cool, broke, artsy pals, all eating from mismatched plates, drinking and talking at a long table snaking its way through most of the house.

Later, I would throw a lot of Thanksgivings like this myself, collecting dozens of unmatched plates and folding chairs to go with the motley assemblage of waifs and strays all gathered for turkey and mashed potatoes, or quiche and vegan gravy (not at my house, I might add--I still do not believe that quiche is an adequate festival entree, even for vegetarians), or pepperoncini chicken and a huge pot of potatoes boiled and beaten into lumpy submission with the single wooden spoon in the house.

I still remember the legendary mashed potatoes made one year by my chef pal Sugarkill, who ransacked the fridge for every dairy product he could get his hands on-- butter, half and half, ricotta, feta cheese-- and made what still live in memory as Best. Potatoes. Ever, possibly because everyone was so starved for anything by the time the turkey was ready, some 3 or 4 hours after dinner had been promised, and long after every black olive and baby carrot had been snaffled up. When dinner was finally served, it turned out the supposedly dripless candles had taken the extra time to run all over the platters of salad below, so everyone had to pick out chunks of cooled wax from among the roasted beets and walnuts.

This year, much of my small clan--my mom, her sister, my eldest sister and her boyfriend--will be convening in Rochester, at the home of my aunt Karen's family. Karen and my uncle (my mom's younger brother, and a recovered bohemian himself) live in Ohio, so I rarely see them, which is a bummer as they are really, really nice. Should I use my free Jetblue miles to zip off to Rochester for a few days? I had been toying with the idea of going to see my mom (and deal, yet again, with the remaining Stuff in Storage) for a few days around Christmas, using those same miles. But the specter of a family-less Thanksgiving, even one spend with sweet friends, is looming large in my brain right now. What to do?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Get Right with Sweet Potato Pie

The cool fog is coming over the hill and it finally feels like fall. I'm a little sad not to be going East next week for Thanksgiving, since it's one holiday that doesn't feel right without family (mine, or even better, somebody else's, as long as there's lots of bustle in the kitchen) and crackling leaves, but there's still farmie thanksgiving down on the farm this Thursday. For which, I hope, I will be baking numerous pies in the Up Garden kitchen...pumpkin? Apple? Sweet potato? Apple-quince-pear?

Got to go see Lucinda Williams last night at the Fillmore, and she rocked her silver guitar and knee-high biker boots well, having left the country-girl cowgirl look behind. And almost as fun were The Whoreshoes, a four-gal old-time band twanging upstairs, complete with washboard, stand-up bass, and songs like "Cigarettes, Whisky, and Wild, Wild Women." My old pal Lala, freshly mohawked, was playing right in the middle, and a good time it was.

Then, on to lunch at Brown Sugar Kitchen, and dee-lish pulled pork and smoked mashed yams with brown sugar butter, and of course, all the sweet tea you could drink. The smell of the smoker alone could bring in a crowd, to say nothing of the fried chicken and the sweet potato pie.

And speaking of pie, are you looking at the calendar and having fear of pie-ing? Are you dreading standing in line to buy an overpriced, over-sweetened, bland-as-cardboard bakery or supermarket pie to serve to the pie-craving hordes next Thursday? Oh, the PQ can help! This year, I'm available for in-house pie consultations. Get a one-on-one cooking class with PQ to conquer your terrors of the crust and the filling. We'll go over pastry basics, try out hand vs. food-processor methods, and learn how to judge dough consistency. We'll make as many "demo" pies as you want, in your favorite flavors. And you'll get clear, step-by-step recipes to keep. Get a few friends together and we'll make an afternoon of it!

Monday, November 17, 2008

We Now Interrupt Our Regular Scheduled Programming

UPDATE: The legality of same-sex marriage in CA goes back, yet again, to the courts. More info here. Having just ruled that same-sex marriage was, in fact, legal in May, here's hoping the court remains of the same mind. No hearing date set, but the Supreme Court will be taking on the case, and also deciding whether or not the 18K same-sex marriages performed since May will remain legal. Attorney General Jerry Brown, in an amazing display of batting for both teams, will be arguing both FOR Prop 8 (no same-sex marriage!) and FOR the legality of past same-sex marriages performed in the state.

Today, California State Attorney General Jerry Brown will be deciding whether to allow the State Supreme Court to hear and review the current lawsuits filed against Proposition 8, which was recently passed to ban same-sex marriage in California.

We need to let Brown know how important this issue is to ALL Californians. Please use the link below to contact the Attorney General's office, and request that he recommend that our Supreme Court hear these most important suits and allow us the opportunity for equal protection under the law. Please pass this along to your friends for additional support.

California General Attorney's Office Comment Form

Make sure to add your comments or insert the following text:

Attorney General Brown, I request your support for the lawsuits against Prop 8 and recommend that the California Supreme Court hear and review the current lawsuits filed against Prop 8. Please allow all California citizens the opportunity for equal protection under the law.

Thank you. Because civil rights are EVERYONE'S concern.

Quince Cake & Sunshine

Well, how 'bout that weather? It was warm, sunny and gorgeous all weekend, with everyone basking in a last chance to throw on tank tops and sundresses and take the bulldogs, babies, and tattoos out for an airing. It was a blast of Indian-summer redux, ending with a giant golden wheel-of-cheese moon dangling over the Bay.

Went to 2 Prop 8 rallies on Sat--first in S.F., which was predictably jammed (and white), and then over to Oakland, which was awash in families and, you know, family values--like honoring diversity and appreciating (and trying to understand) people different than you, proffering love in the face of hate, respecting faith but also standing up for everyone's civil rights. There was impassioned, crowd-moving poetry, great signs ("My Other Husband is a Mormon"; "Just Give Us the Same Rights as the Chickens"; "Keep Your 5 Wives; I Just Want One"), and inspiring words from Oakland city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who insisted on respect for "people of faith" but also used the bacon defense for keeping church away from state: her religion, she noted, forbade the eating of pork, but she wasn't trying to put that into the state constitution. And then she blew a shofar! This is how I imagine K. (minus the shofar) a few years down the road in NYC, fighting the good fight in public office. (And speaking of smart brunette butches, can we all just take a moment to admire smarty-pants Rachel Maddow in her pajamas?

Even if Jon Stewart's more your honey, it's worth a click.

But back to the Biggity O: Molly was there, of course, working the Marriage Equality table, her thousand-watt smile undaunted by all the amazing activist work she's been doing, not just these past few heartbreaking weeks but for years now. The Red Meat Ranger and Papa Sueno were there too, as were Shar, Jackie, Papa Steve and the kids, two beautiful, locally-adopted boys who wouldn't be in the warm two-mama home where they are loved, played with, and cared for 24/7 if they lived in Arkansas or Florida, where adoptions by gay couples (or, in the case of Arkansas, any unmarried couples) are specifically banned, even though both states have many, many more kids in the state-custody and foster systems than they have adoptive homes for. Kids who are, for the most part, in the system because of the failure of their heterosexual bio-families to create safe, loving homes for them, as writer and gay dad Dan Savage pointed out in a recent NYT op-ed.

So, we clapped, we cheered, we vowed to keep working, and then we went to Alameda and went bowling. A fabulous discovery: gutter bumpers! These railings keep kiddie meltdowns away, since every roll is nearly guaranteed to knock something down--helpful when you're four and the ball is bigger than your head. They're also pretty helpful when you're 41 and Not a Bowler.

Sunday was a day for breakfasting on ripe figs from the friendly tree overhanging my stretch of Cortland St., hiking over the hill and down the many secret staircases on the south side, slurping strawberry agua frescas from La Taqueria, browsing along 24th St to the back garden of Le Zinc in Noe Valley, admiring many, many babies and poodles along the way, and finally lolling on the green grass of Dolores Park with the rest of the hipster city licking pomegranate popsicles from Bi-Rite Ice Creamery.

Followed, as promised, by Soup Night at Leslie's, which was a Chronicle Books reunion and an all-around fab time. Having spent the day out in the sunshine, I had no time to bake dessert before riding over to Rockridge. So I took the performance-art route, and packed my flour and quinces to go. Because pastry requires space and makes a bit of a floury mess, I opted for this super-easy cake instead. Once the crush had cleared out in the kitchen, I creamed the butter, threw in eggs and vanilla, peeled quinces and threw the cake in the oven. And, of course, like any baked thing, it smelled fantastic and got even those guests sated with minestrone and Beard Papa cream puffs to take a slice. Here is Sara, Leslie's pal and backyard-cottage tenant, holding the semi-devoured remains:

As promised to everyone in the kitchen, here's the recipe. It's the simple-as-a-cookie fruit torte recipe adapted from Bakerina and Marion Burros, mixed and matched and topped with quince instead of prune plums. Since the quince is already cooked, it gets a dense, almost candied texture during baking.

Easy Quince Cake

1 stick butter (1/2 cup, 4 oz., 8 tbsp)
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 quince, cored and poached (instructions below), then peeled and sliced thinly; you could also use an apple or a pear, cored and sliced
1 tbsp sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp mixed (pumpkin or apple pie) spice or cinnamon

Grease a 9 inch round baking pan. Preheat oven to 350F. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift flour, salt, and baking powder. Stir flour lightly into butter mixture until just combined. Spread batter (it will be thick and sticky) over prepared pan. Arrange fruit slices in concentric circles over batter. Sprinkle with spiced sugar. Bake 35-45 minutes, until tester comes out clean and top is slightly puffed and golden brown. Let cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes; serve warm for best appeal.

Master recipe for poaching quince

Preheat oven to 300F. Using a heavy knife or cleaver, hack quince into quarters and core. Tuck quince chunks into a small, heavy oven-safe pot. Add water to barely cover. Add 1/3 cup sugar, half a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves and/or a couple of allspice berries. Bring to a boil over medium heat, swirling pot to dissolve sugar. Cover and let poach in the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until liquid is reduced and quince chunks are rosy and tender. Let cool in liquid, then refrigerate. Peel quince before using.

Friday, November 14, 2008

More Agent Provocateur, less Jockey for Her

I know, I know, you're wondering where all the pie-baking has gone to. Does PQ just flit from hot tub to theater seat these days, with nary a flour trail scattered behind her? Happily, my old pal Leslie from Chronicle Books is having a soup party this Sunday, so I'll be making a quince galette from S.'s recently poached quinces to bring across the bay to her sweet little cottage in Rockridge. And Sunday may be the day to try out the rough-puff (or "ruff puff" as the pastryettas call it) recipe in the Tartine cookbook and see what happens. And speaking of Chronicle, they've now got an entire puff-pastry cookbook out, to go with their other in-depth studies of toast, snowmen, and grilled cheese. Surely my soon-to-be-written tome, Everyone Loves Pudding, could find a happy home there!

I've also got to liberate my lard pastry from Paige's freezer, where it went when I chickened out over using it for the Sebastopol Gravenstein apple-pie contest. And with T-giving coming up, it may be time to search out more lard (Mexican markets? Fatted Calf? Boccolone?). But not for t-day proper, since I'm going over to Shifra and Stephen's, where trayf is, well, trayf. (For you goyim, that's Yiddish for un-kosher. And it's not just for the Orthodox; many Jews who don't keep kosher still get a little squeamish about having some of the obvious dietary-law no-no's--like pork products and shellfish--in their homes. Even as a lax baking Jew, I still very rarely buy porky things to cook at home, a hangover of growing up in a no-ham/no-bacon kitchen. The exception being, of course, my recent infatuation with lard for baking.)

In fact, because Stephen can't eat eggs, I've got to test-drive an eggless pumpkin pie. I'm thinking pureed silken tofu--the same solution used for their eggless lemon wedding cake, a few years ago. Any other suggestions for eggless custard? Dairy OK, just no cornstarch or eggs. Of course, I could just do my usual apple pie and cranberry tart, but I know how people get about a Thankgiving w/o pumpkin pie.

I also feel that it's bad form to bring a dessert that the host can't eat. So eggless pumpkin pie it is! And if I can find something like the heavenly sunshine kabocha squash that we grew at the farm last year--which tasted, I swear, like chicken, or at least like the marvelous sticky drippings left in the pan in which the chicken was roasted--I will use that instead of Libby's canned, or even a real sugar-pie pumpkin. If not, roasted butternut squash mashed and drained it is, because b-nut squash has much, much more flavor that any kind of pumpkin.

And speaking of the farm, it's Farmie Thanksgiving down there in Santa Cruz this Thursday, and I'll be there, hanging out with my fellow farmies and making pies from whatever I can get my hands on--quinces, apples, pears, sweet potatoes, winter squash...

It's also the time that you should finally get all the pie accouterments that you rue not possessing every time you start baking in earnest. Like a really huge, heavy rolling pin. And a crust shield, so you don't have to fiddle around burning your fingers while draping scraps of aluminum foil over the pastry edges that are browning too fast. And actual reusable pie weights*, which are heavier and better than old beans, especially the chain ones that look like jumbo-sized drain chains.

Of course, what I really want/need is a two-level pie basket (like this one) for carrying those pies on Muni and BART. Over the years, I've had an assortment of garage-sale picnic baskets and cardboard boxes that more-or-less did the job, but I still believe that a basket like this will come my way by serendipity.

*You know what pie weights are, don't you? They sail the seven seas in search of pwunder! Like this!

Songs for Pumpkin:
1. Kate Nash, Pumpkin Soup
2. Tori Amos, Big Wheel
3. Vampire Weekend, Bryn

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


What's on the calendar? Hot-tubbing with Shar & Christina tonight, not at the now-gone Osento (sob) but at the Piedmont Springs, in Oakland. Three ladies, one tub, much chat. Ah, California, how I love you. The serious lack of hot tubs in NYC--and the crappy, expensive lettuce-- were just 2 reasons why I nipped back here to the best coast. Last night, I was out at the Bay Guardian's Goldie Awards at 111 Minna with Paige and her pals, celebrating the best-theater award that Cutting Ball, Paige and Rob's theater company, had gotten. Great stuff, and if you haven't seen a Cutting Ball show yet, you should! Their current show, Ionesco's rarely seen Victims of Duty, is running at Exit on Taylor through next weekend. It was a pretty fun party, even if there were no samosas left (and no sign of the SF Cupcake Company's program-touted wares) after the thank-you speeches were done. And there was a cool set by the unfortunately named band Citay (not to be confused with High School Musical alpha-girl Sharpay, and sue me for knowing this, but I do have an 8 year old niece), 7 sweet-looking rumpled hipsters who really deserve a less chihuahua-ish name.

S., my produce connection, showed up the other day with two enormous, aromatic quinces and a pomegranate the size of a baby's head. Lover of poms that I am, it took restraint to make that pom last for 2 whole days. The ravishing, snappy garnet seeds got eaten straight out of hand, dappled into yogurt, and sprinkled into a butternut-squash saute. But honestly, I could have eaten the whole bowlful of seeds in one go. The quinces were oven-poached, one at a time, in a light sugar syrup with a a few bits of crushed cinnamon stick, allspice berries, and cloves. This is my standard way of dealing with quinces, since they need long, slow cooking to get tender enough for use. Hack up and core, then drop the chunks into a small pot. Barely cover with water, add about 1/2 cup sugar, and then 1/2 cinnamon stick, 2 or 3 allspice berries, and a couple of cloves. Bring to a boil on the stove, then cover and bake in a 300F oven for at least an hour, until the liquid is reduced and the quinces are deep pink and tender. Let cool in liquid and refrigerate until needed.

This gave a nice result. But the second batch was stupendous. Why? Because I used the original batch of quince-poaching liquid (plus more water and sugar as needed) to poach quince #2, AND I left the quinces in the oven for way too long, which made them deep, deep rosy-red, and reduced the poaching liquid down to a nearly-gelled slick. Ravishing, and you could put that quince jelly on toast and sing the hallelujah chorus before you'd even had your first cup of coffee.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Food, Books, Wine, & Cary Grant

Some fun things to do this weekend, after you've made your Friday night challah:

8pm. North by Northwest at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. Usually used for concerts, this classic movie palace is showing great old movies again for just $5. Eva Marie Saint, Cary Grant, Mt. Rushmore, popcorn, AND the place has a bar! Even better, Luka's Taproom is just up the street, with great beers, oysters, and killer mac n' cheese.

4-6pm. Opening party for SF's new (and only) cookbook store, Omnivore Books, at 3885a Cesar Chavez St between Church and Dolores. Run by Celia Sacks, the co-owner of nearby Noe Valley Pet Co., and a longtime antiquarian book fiend.

7:30-9:30pm. Writers with Drinks (aka "Writers Who Drink") does a cross-genre show at the Makeout Room, 22nd St between Valencia and Mission Sts. Michelle Tea reads cyberpunk! Stephen Elliot reads poetry! Other people read, you know, other stuff they don't usually read. I've read here and it's always fun.

8pm. 12th Anniversary Show, K'vetch, held at Eros SF, of all places. K'vetch, a longtime (yep, that would be 12 yrs now) queer open mic show, used to happen at Sadie's Flying Elephant, in Potrero. But now it's at Eros, a men's bathhouse/club on Market St. I know this place pretty well for a girl, since along with a bunch of pals I helped run Club Cream, a women's party, here in the mid-90s. 2051 Market St at 14th St, Doors at 7:40, show at 8pm.

Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans--new short film!
Charles Vasquez--reading original material!
Zara Thustra and Siobhan--performance art!
Sara Seinberg--amazing writing!
Rhiannon Argo--awesome excerpts of novel!
Cindy Emch--poet!
Heathen Machinery--beautiful monsters!
Vero Majano--Mission Media Archive footage!
Devon Devine and Jenna Riot--debut of BrownDownCrownTV show!
Kari Orvik--footage from BART station mobile portrait studio!
Danny Levesque--tales from the world of hair!
Margaret Tedesco--words and images!

After this show, the regular K'vetch will continue on the first Sunday of every month.

Alas, I'll probably be down in Santa Cruz on Sunday, finally picking up my farmie tools and going to Bonny Doon's annual Day of the Doon winery hoo-ha, from 1:30pm-5:30pm at their new tasting room, 328 Ingalls St on the west side. Also happening on Saturday afternoon, too.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Happy Happy, Sad

It was a beautiful night for a few minutes there. Shar and I were sitting on the couch, drinking red wine and watching reruns of Tina Fey do Sarah Palin on SNL (since I'd never seen any of her parodies) when all of a sudden Jackie was on the phone, telling us that Obama had WON. We flipped over to CNN and there it was, the 270+ electoral college votes that he needed, not to mention big numbers on the popular vote. We couldn't believe it.

The boys were running around whooping with us, and for the first time we could tell them to look at the TV and see a president who looked just like them. Fireworks were going off above the trees on the next blocks, cars were honking up and down Fruitvale. My sister in suburban Minneapolis was shrieking with joy out on her front lawn, even if all her (mostly Republican) neighbors were inside with their curtains drawn. There were the Obama and Biden families on the stage, black and white, trading hugs. The President-elect acknowledged from the podium in Grant Park that it was all kinds of people, all colors, "gay and straight" that put him there. I remember being in the Castro during Clinton's first acceptance speech when he actually mentioned AIDS, something that Reagan and Bush Sr. had hardly ever done through 12 years of a raging epidemic. I never thought I'd hear a President mention gay people as just one part of his America-wide constituency, much less as part of a momentous acceptance speech.

So it was a very uplifting 20 minutes. Until the results starting coming in for Prop. 8. A lot has been said already, and I'm not interested in repeating blame or finger-pointing. It's going back, again, to the courts, where it should have stayed--since it's very, very rare that the popular vote ever enacts real boundary-breaking change. (Votes for women? Ending segregation? Legal abortion? Left to the popular vote, would we have any of these now? Maybe, but it would have taken a much, much, much longer time. If ever.)

When I was in college, several social/dining clubs on campus (part of a system to which the majority of jrs and srs belonged; the university didn't have facilities to feed these students otherwise) were still all-male, even though the university had been co-ed for nearly 20 years. It took a long, arduous legal case, brought by a student who had long since graduated, for the NJ Supreme Court to finally rule that the clubs had to go co-ed. I remember talking to a friend of mine, a member of one of the clubs in question, before the ruling. He wasn't sexist, he insisted, he and his fellow members just liked things the way they were.

Life in Conn. and Mass. hasn't changed for straight people now that gay marriage is legal there, and it wouldn't in California, either. I am sickened at how much money came into this state from other places, expressly to deprive us of our legal and court-mandated rights and freedoms. I am heartbroken for all of the people I know who have worked so tirelessly on this issue, for years and years, working to open people's hearts and minds all across the state. Obviously, there is still more work to be done, especially out in rural communities in the Central Valley and around LA. How many times does this issue have to go to court? How many times do we--straight, gay, bi--have to fight for recognition of all our unions, not marriage for some and second-class, limited privileges and invisibility for others? How many times can our marriages disappear overnight?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


OK, I voted, and I hope you did too. Over to Shar and Jackie's now, to eat chili and drink red wine and sweat out the election results.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Vote Early, Vote Often, Eat Doughnuts

Of course, it's illegal to pay anyone to vote. But you can, ahhh, REWARD folks for doing their civic duty, as long as you're not requiring them to vote the way you want. Right? Well, it sounds a little fishy--and kind of like giving your kids money for dong their homework, which, like cleaning their rooms, is something they're already supposed to do for their own good.

Be that as it may, though, Ben and Jerry's, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme will all hook you up tomorrow if you say you voted. Yes, pull the lever or poke your chads tomorrow and you get a cone, a tall brewed coffee, and a star-shaped, red-white-and-blue-sprinkled doughnut for nada. And if you're lucky enough to live in NYC or Seattle, you can go to Babeland, the fab lady-run sex-toy store (which is actually based here now, although sadly they don't have a retail operation in the Bay Area yet--especially a bummer now that Good Vibes is no longer the groovy women's/queer co-op it once was, but is owned by a large and allegedly sleazy corporation with questionable business practices and much lower standards) and get a Silver Bullet vibrator or a Maverick (heh, heh) sleeve. So, go, vote, and get your swag. And please, if you live in CA, Vote NO ON 8. Equality and chocolate fountains for all!

Know of any other vote-for-goodies going on in your neighborhood? Let us know!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Best & Worst Halloween Candy

Candy List Time! I'm channeling my 8-yr-old self here, circa the late 70s..and please, chime in with your best/worst. We didn't have a lot of candy in my house growing up, so Halloween was pretty much the only time we got to ditch the Tiger's Milk and acerola (mmm, rose hip jelly coated in carob! you try trading THAT for a Devil Dog!)bars for what the rest of the kid world was eating. Even then, though, I had strong opinions. Thus...

Best Halloween Candy:

1. Nestle's Chunky. These were just cool: a big silver-wrapped chunk o' chocolate studded with raisins and peanuts. A mass-market mendiant, and really good if you like the chocolate-with-stuff-in-it genre.

2. Hershey's Special Dark minis. The ONLY chance of getting straight-up dark chocolate on Halloween. I loved these madly even as a kid and would swap anything for them. Even now, when I could go buy my own Green & Black and Scharffenberger extra-darks, if someone leaves an office candybowl full of minis near me, I will mock-casually fish through them while picking out and hording ALL the Special Darks for my own nefarious purposes.

3.Goldenberg Peanut Chews. An East Coast thing, originally made by a family company in Philadelphia. Dark(!!) chocolate coating around molasses-based chewy stuff and peanuts. Not too sweet, really good. These are still around in name, but are made by the Just Born Co. (of Peeps fame) now.

4. Junior Mints. Rattling the little boxes was fun. Plus there always seemed to be one last, slightly melted, minty chocolate button in there when you needed it.

5. Mr. Goodbar. Much lower on the worthwhile-mini scale than Special Darks, but they remind me of one summer when I found a copy of 70s-scandal paperback Looking for Mr. Goodbar in our rented Nantucket cottage. This led to my 10 or 11 year old self asking my sisters what a four-letter word starting with "c" and rhyming with "bunt" meant. In the middle of the ice cream parlor on Main Street. Ah, good times.

6. Nestle Crunch. Mmmm, crunchy. Rice Krispies good.

7. Dots. Hard little dome-shaped gumdrops that were fun to shake in the box. Plus, I discovered one day that my mom liked to steal these from our stash and put them in her yogurt. She was extremely embarrassed about this when I caught her at it.

8. Wacky Packs! Yep, it was the 70s...No, not candy, but these were so cool (and designed, I later found out, by the likes of anti-establishment types like Art Spiegelman) that they made up for the lack of sugar. Every parent thought these were gross, which added much to the appeal. Even as an all-girl crew, my sisters and I loved these.


1. Candy Corn. Hardened earwax masquerading as cuteness, in a dead heat with:
2. Circus Peanuts. The heinous spawn of styrofoam and St. Joseph's baby aspirin.
3. Box o' raisins. Nice try, health Mom. No wonder no one likes your kids.
4. Candy apples. Just one of the many aspects of childhood that I found trying. Not that I really remember anyone handing these out. I just hate them.
5. Butterfingers. Blech. What's with that weirdass orange (but not orange-flavored) stuff in there (see circus peanuts, above)? Yes, I know everyone else loooves them. That's more Special Darks for me, kiddos.
6. Mary Janes, Sugar Daddys, all other hard, tasteless but achingly sweet toffees on a stick. Callard & Bowser these are not.
7. Candy buttons (on paper). And the point of these would be?
8. Mounds and Almond Joys. Because I have always loathed coconut. Their only use was as trading material, or for scraping the dark chocolate off with my teeth, stopping the minute the vile white shreds appeared.
9. Hershey bars. They taste like RUBBER, people! Rubber with dirt, too much sugar, and sour milk! Not so horrible with almonds, but overall, way too ubiquitous for being such a crap product.
10. A rock. Because, you know, you're going to be spending many nickels on psychiatry if all you get is a rock.


Booo! I love Halloween. This might have something to do with having a late-October birthday; for my whole life, I've associated black cats, pumpkins, skeletons, and autumn leaves with good things coming my way. Then there's that once-a-year smell of a freshly knifed-open jack o' lantern, sitting fat and orange on a kitchen table covered with newspaper, and the slippery squish of the seeds and pumpkin-guts between your fingers as you pull them out.

Kids come in handy here, if you happen to have any around; let those deft little hands go to work separating the seeds from their clingy, slimy web of strings. It's a satisfyingly messy and purposeful job, and will keep them involved but away from the initial big-knife job of carving the lid and hacking out the big, toothy grin.

Once the seeds are separated, give them a rinse in a colander and spread them out on a cookie sheet to dry. Rub them with a light vegetable oil, sprinkle with salt (and regular or smoked paprika, pure chile powder, or cayenne, depending on your tastes), and roast in the oven at 350 F, stirring occasionally, until dry and crunchy. I find these completely addictive, and a crucial coda to the whole pumpkin-carving process.

But, back to Halloween. Since the holiday falls on a Friday, you can really make the whole weekend into a spooky celebration, ending with Sunday's Day of the Dead events around town. And goddess knows, if there's one thing San Franciscans like better than getting naked in public, it's dressing up. Many, many drag virgins will be discovering what it feels like to balance 150 lbs+ on two 4-inch spikes the size of your thumb. Just as many others, especially those from the warmer climes of the South & East Bays, will be realizing that SF gets really, really cold at night, especially when you're wearing nothing but glasses, a spandex flag bikini and a "Miss Alaska" banner. Come midnight, you gonna wish you knew how to field-dress a moose, or at least turn a stuffed polar bear into a coat, PETA be damned.

So, what you wear tonight and tomorrow is up to you (me? Joan Holloway, girdle, gold pencil, and all) but you can start out the day in the right way. What do women want? If you were me last year, it was the Batula, a spatula in the shape of a bat, and an orange and black spiderweb apron. (Both gifts were that rare and fabulous thing, items I'd never considered but that instantly spoke to my deepest desires for world batulation. Plus, you can use the Batula to spank anyone that comes between you and your pancakes.)

This weekend, it's spider and skull-shaped pancakes for everyone in the house. And while the shapes may be spooky, the pancakes themselves are both wholesome and really tasty. You could use grated winter squash or pumpkin in these if you want to really stick to the theme, but carrots are easier. Enjoy!

Spooky Autumn Pancakes

1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp wheat germ
2 tbsp rolled oats
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon or pumpkin/apple pie spice (a very handy combo of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, sold already mixed)
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tbsp vegetable oil, such as canola, or melted butter
1 tbsp maple syrup* or honey
1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 large raw carrot, grated
Butter for cooking pancakes

In a large bowl, sift or whisk dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, beat buttermilk, egg, oil, and maple syrup together. Stir (don't beat!) wet ingredients into dry, adding a couple tbsp of water if mixture seems too thick. (It should be fairly thick and pillowy--enough so you can spoon it out rather than pour it). Gently stir in nuts and carrots. Set aside.

Over medium heat, heat a wide skillet or griddle. When a drop of water will sizzle and skitter over the surface, add a slim pat of butter and swirl to coat the surface. Turn down the heat to medium-low and add batter. Flip once bubbles begin to form and pop and edges look glazed. Cook another minute or two until well-browned on bottom. Repeat as needed. Serve with warm maple syrup and butter. Boooo! Serves 3 to 4, more or less.

*Yankee that I am, I feel strongly that ONLY real maple syrup is worth eating. "Table syrup" is just corn syrup and artificial flavorings, and does nothing but skyrocket your blood sugar and make the whole kitchen stink like IHOP. Look for the deep, mellow Grade B syrup sold at Trader Joe's and in bulk at Rainbow Grocery.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Will work for food

For a lot of reasons, now seems like a very good time to see how much we can do with a barter economy. As the Fallen Fruit collective claims, "You have nothing to lose but your hunger!" All my fruits and vegetables have come from truly local sources these past couple of weeks, and none of them cost me a dime.

Not in money, that is. I did, in fact, pay for all them--by forking compost, setting up irrigation tubes, weeding, making garden signs, picking strawberries, cooking for 50 farm apprentices, harvesting chard, making rosemary bundles from the huge bush in my front yard, and more. There are a lot of sources of beautiful fruits and vegetables available, if you have the time to spare to earn them. Right now, I have more time than cash, so with a few hours spent, I've become rich in gorgeous produce, to eat and share.

A few sources:

Alemany Farm, at the base of Bernal Heights. This Sunday is their Harvest Fair, so come down and see what's going on around the farm. Best non-car way to get there, besides walking and biking: the 67-Bernal Heights bus to Ellsworth and Alemany. Get off right where the bus turns in the public housing development, then walk back out to Alemany, turn right and the farm's about a dozen yards down the street. Workdays are alternating Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5, also Monday afternoons. Volunteers work and then share in a communal harvest. Right now, the tomatoes and strawberries are finishing up, but there's still lots of chard, collards, lettuce, a few peppers, ground cherries, feijodas, and green (and purple) beans.

Garden for the Environment. 7th Ave and Lawton, in the Sunset. This is a half-acre teaching garden rather than a working farm, but volunteers often share a small harvest (I went home with a big bag of bok choy) at the end of the workday. Workdays are Wednesdays, 10-2pm, and Saturday afternoons. Workshops are taught every weekend on various gardening topics, like seed saving and worm composting. PQ may be teaching some preserving the harvest classes here this winter.

Free Farm Stand. Longtime community gardener and food-justice activist Tree started this stand inside the community garden at the park on 23rd and Treat in April, using the overflow from several community gardens in Potrero and the Mission. Now he also gets donations from Acme Bread (loads of day-old fancy bread, like their killer walnut levain) and several farmers at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market, plus city-park gleanings (including a bushel of apples harvested from a tree in Golden Gate Park) and backyard harvests from friends. Sundays from 1pm to 3pm. If you have any homegrown extras--herbs, fruit, flowers, vegetables, seedlings (I brought rosemary bundles from my yard), feel free to bring 'em along, otherwise, just come and help yourself, and talk to Tree about helping out in the various gardens in which he works.

Heartfelt. This cute little giftie and flower shop on Cortland in Bernal Heights has a little freebie table out front, where locals put out their garden extras. In the summer, it was lots of plums and lemons; right now, there are 2 big bowls of green and red apples. Seedlings, bulbs, herbs have also made their way there. Check in with the staff before you donate; help yourself if you're taking, being, of course, mindful of sharing.