Friday, July 29, 2011

A Craving is a Craving

I have an absolute fixation on Saturday breakfast.  Even though I happily eat the same breakfast the other six days of the week (4 ounces of whole-milk Greek yogurt with homemade granola and fresh or dried fruit), on that glorious weekend morning, I must have something different, something cooked, something indulgent even.  Like sausage gravy and biscuits when my father-in-law's spicy sausage is in house; waffles of one kind or another with bacon; or French toast with sour cream or yogurt and jam, a fabulous idea I picked up over at Poor Girl Gourmet.  The two toppings on that last one aggrandize quickie egg-dipped loaf-bread slices in a surprisingly good way. We've come back to that treat a few times over now.  

Recently, however, I got the hankering to try French toast in a new easy and good way--the overnight way.   I had tried the idea many years ago from a recipe that I guiltily tore out of a doctor's exam room magazine. (Isn't that like stealing? I don't normally do such things!)  I probably absconded with it because the recipe had a French name, trou pain perdu, which literally means lost bread found, referring to the transformation of day old bread into a fresh new meal.  It apparently wasn't a hit with me way back when, but tastes change. (They really do. I eat condiments on my burgers now and love vegetables!) It was worth another try.

I'm glad I made that decision.  After soaking up a lightly sweetened egg and milk mixture all night, thick slices of rustic bread become almost pastry like in flavor, with a center texture like pudding cake and edges that are browned and crusty. It's creme anglaise rich without being overly sweet. In a word, dee-lish.  And the only work required in the morning is sticking the pan in the oven!

This method is also a great way to have all the French toast ready at the same time--no holding in the oven, no tending of multiple skillets--so it would be great for a crowd.

It might also be better for cooler times than the last week (Or is it two?), when turning the oven on seems like a crazy idea, even with central cooling running.  But a craving is a craving. If it's good enough to defy the heat, it must be a keeper.

For all its charms, this recipe is a basic one. I'm already aware of fancier versions out there--stuffed with jam, lidded with caramel, brightened by citrus, etc.  Someday they may call to me.  But for now, I'm happy to add this one to my personal repertoire.

Overnight French Toast
Adapted from Epicurious

Serves: 4    (I cut it in half for just the two of us.)

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted
4 3/4-inch-thick slices rustic bread
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Dash vanilla extract
Pinch salt

Spread butter over bottom of a large heavy baking pan with at least one inch sides.  Arrange bread slices in pan.  Beat eggs, milk, sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, and salt to blend in a large bowl.  Pour mixture over bread.  Turn bread slices to coat.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Bake bread 15 minutes.  Turn bread over and bake 10 minutes longer or until golden brown.  Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar just because it's so pretty!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sweet in the End

In the past, I have thought that my life has been remarkably untouched by death.  I have been at times possessed by the fear of it, but have been brushed by it very seldom.  During my childhood, I only remember attending one funeral, for a neighbor woman who was the mother of our down-the-alley playmates.  I still recall the bright red dress I wore. The sorrowfulness of the event was apparently lost on me.

My presence was not required at a funeral again until I was twenty seven, when my great-grandmother, who functioned more as an actual grandmother and who helped raise me, died after 97 long years of life.  I wore appropiately sober colors but was late to her memorial service because my new born son was excessively fussy during the three-and-a-half hour drive to my hometown.  The needs of the new life in my care interfered with my duties to the departed and insulated me somewhat from the loss.  Besides, it seemed appropriate and acceptable that she should leave a life that had become what she had explicitly never wanted--an existence in a nursing home fed by a tube.  I felt no tearful resistance.  It was her time. 

In the ensuing years, I attended a few other funerals for acquaintances from work or church, still insulated from grief by the space between their hearts and mine.  Each time I would marvel a bit that no one really close to me had died yet.  I knew my time must surely come.

Then I got one of those phone calls.  My mother, crying (she doesn't cry often) and saying that Jerry was dead.  In my shock, the dumb question I could form was whether she meant my father or my brother, for they share the same name.  She answered that it was my brother. There followed information about the circumstances, arrangements.  I remember none of it.  But I will always remember her voice saying "Jerry is dead."  Forever, echoing in memory.  It's been years now.  I'm pretty sure it's here to stay.

That funeral had me.  I was no longer in the outer circles of loss and grief.  I was the family member in black standing in line by the casket, greeting the visitors, recognizing faces from childhood, crying, laughing, remembering, touched by the loveliness of those who came to say goodbye and comfort us.

My brother was only 37 when he was found dead on his bathroom floor.  We waited for six months to find out why from the autopsy report, which turned out to be weakly conclusive at best.  I will never know why he had to die the way and when he did, just as I never really knew the heart of him.  It turns out we can grieve what we don't know as well as what we know intimately.  We can grieve what wasn't as deeply as what was.

Since my brother's funeral service--my initiation into grief--I've been more tender toward loss.  I know how quickly it can come.  I know how important it is to pay those respects.  I find it a privilege to sit with the mourning, to conduct what rituals we have to mark the ending of life.  Which was a good thing these last two weeks.  There have been two funerals, both oddly enough for men named Gary that I barely knew but was honored to help memorialize.  I've sung and baked gladly because these are the little things that we can do for each other while we are here.  They are sometimes bigger than we think.

When my brother died so unexpectedly, I reached for meaning and sense among the wrongness of it all.  I tried to let the pain pass through me and accept what undeniably was, but I wondered how we could peacefully memorialize a life that didn't seem to us to be done.   He hadn't had time to do great things, to win the victories that by all rights should have been his.  He was just, like most of us, a good, hard working person trying to defeat the pain this world can sometimes deal out--not rich, not overtly "successful."  What was there to report of this abruptly ended life?

I got my answer when my brother's neighbor stood up to tell the story of how Jerry came over and fixed his heating unit when it went out one winter and the repairman wasn't going to be available for days.  He was helpful enough that this casual aquaintance chose to speak at the funeral and mowed his lawn for the years that the house had to sit empty while the estate was settled.  My brother wasn't rich or famous or powerful, but he was good to someone while he was here.  As far as I know, he never really hurt anyone except himself.  Not many of us can say that.

Hearing that story at Jerry's funeral led me to make a new habit.  Every night since then, when I say my prayers, I think of my brother and ask that God help us to be better people so that we may be better to each other while we're here. The little things we do matter:  Lending a hand to a neighbor.  Showing up to express sympathy.  Sending a card or note.  Saying that positive thought out loud. You never know what it might mean to the recipient.

That's why I feel privileged to attend funerals, bake lunch for the free medical clinic, pray for those requesting it, hug those I love.  If there is nothing else brave and grand we can do in this life, we can all leave love behind.  It's the best legacy.

Baking doesn't hurt either.  The cake I baked for the second grieving family that it was my privilege to feed is not my gourmet fantasy, but it did make use of part of a two-liter bottle of Coca Cola that my son's friends left in my refrigerator.  I don't drink sodas, so I turned it into a sweet gift of love.  Like dealing with death, it's good to make the best of what we get, even if it isn't what we wanted.  It just might turn out sweet in the end.

Coca Cola Cake
from MyRecipes

Yield: 12 servings

1 cup Coca Cola
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows

Combine Coca Cola and butter milk; set aside.

Beat butter at low speed of an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat at low speed until blended.

Combine flour, cocoa, and soda. Add to butter mixture alternately with cola mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended.

Stir in marshmallows.  Pour batter into greased and floured 9- X 13-inch pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.  Remove from oven; cool 10 minutes.  While cake cools, make Coca Cola frosting.  Pour frosting over warm cake.

Note: Do not make the frosting ahead. It needs go on the warm cake while still warm itself.

Coca Cola Frosting

1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup Coca Cola
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Bring first three ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring until butter melts.  Remove from heat; whisk in sugar and vanilla.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Real Strawberry Cake That Made Me Want to Blog Again

During my quiet months, I felt no real desire to share anything.  Much of that time I was depressed. (I'm not really that happy a person, in case no one noticed. Thank God for dinner.) Then I was just out of the habit and feeling sheepish.  The closest I came to wanting to sing the praises of anything was when I first made that cake up there. The second time (no need to wait for a third) was the charm.  This is too good not to be shared with my little corner of the world.

Here's the story.  We had a supper club night with some new friends (more about them later, in a sad way) for which I was to provide dessert.  I had my mind set on a strawberry chiffon pie until I found that I had missed a chilling step that I no longer had time for when I finally got myself lurching into gear.  A search for other strawberry options, which ate up a little more time, turned up that revivifying cake. One-step-and-done nicely fit the now restrained time available.

I was also curious to find a strawberry cake recipe that actually tasted mightily of the berries. It is an unfortunate fact that the very berries whose aroma during baking prepares you for an ecstacy of flavor tend to almost disappear from the flavor profile once the baking is done if they're in the batter. (I had that disappointment with muffins once.) The solution with which I'm familiar, but which I cannot endorse, is a version made with a white cake mix and strawberry flavored gelatin. Not something I can do with philsophical grace. I knew there must be some way to have a cake that tasted wonderfully of the berries and looked like it contained them, too, without involving pink dye. This seemed the day and the recipe to find out.

Martha Stewart gets credit for the recipe version I used (even Marcus Samuelson gives her the nod on the post sharing his whole wheat version, a must-try someday), but it's really classic American butter cake.  You know the drill: whip the butter and sugar till transformed into pale, fluffy wonderment; add eggs, milk, and leavened flour; and voila--cake.  Really good cake that didn't tax you too much to produce, no extra box of mix required.  With the top covered with halved strawberries and a sprinkle of sugar, it doesn't even need to be iced.

That top dressing with the delicate berries mean that they are magnified, not lost at all, during the oven time.  As Deb at Smitten Kitchen pointed out, a delicious jamminess forms around each one, while the sugar forms a crystalline crust on the batter fluffing up around them.  Don't those just sound like two good things?  Let me assure you that they are.

Yet the cake isn't intensely sweet.  It's delightfully berried, but mellow enough to serve as breakfast, especially with whole wheat flour in it (I snuck some in--don't tell), or as a snack, especially with a cup of tea, which I've now happily experienced.

You see, I made the cake that we and our new friends so enjoyed at supper club for the second time because one of those friends, who was quite ill and, we hope, benefited from our visits, left his very interesting life this week.  When I decided to take food to his wife, I knew that I would make this cake, for the memories as well as the sustenance.  I also made her a blackberry version to use the berries from her yard that are a bit neglected right now. She wanted to try it right away with tea.  (I think she'll make a pot of tea at the drop of a hat, as they say, and she often drops the hat.) It was equally good.  And surely other berries would work, too.  So now we have versatility as well.  A true winner.

This extra good cake reminded me, when I wasn't sure why I ever started this thing if isn't going to catapult me to success and fame, that recording the food winners is one of the reasons to blog. It's my record of the repertoire I've longed to create for myself, handily corraled in one ephemeral place.  I may not be the next Heidi Swanson, but I can have my virtual cookbook today, for me.  I'll know what I did, how to do it again, and maybe share with others, too.  Those rewards, like this cake, are simple and deeply satisfying. 

Real Strawberry Cake
adapted slightly from Martha's 

Makes one 9- or 10-inch cake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan 
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie plate, a 9- or 10-inch springform pan, or a 9-inch cake pan. (Do not use a 9-inch pie plate.  According to Deb of Smitten Kitchen, the results are overflowing.) The butter wrapper works quite well for this step.

Place butter and the 1 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about three minutes.  Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.  When the butter-sugar mixture is transformed, reduce speed to medium-low and mix in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture.  Transfer batter to prepared pan.  Arrange strawberries on top of batter, cut sides down and as close together as possible. Sprinkle remaining two tablespoons sugar over berries.

Bake cake for ten minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Bake until cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, about one hour. Let cool in pan on a wire rack.  Cake can be stored at room temperature, loosely covered, for two days. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wading Back In

I've done it.  I've clicked the New Post button for the first time in about two and a half months.  I've been feeling it percolating on the back burner of my mind for a while.  With my husband happily drawing in his studio, posting his art again, I'm practically shamed into....

Into what?  Being creative?  Being true to the voice that wants to speak even when the owner doesn't know what it will say?  Trying, rather than reading till bedtime while pretending that normal life is all I need?

Earlier tonight I was reading other peoples' encouraging words when something caught my eye to my left.  Beautiful evening light glowing through the lace curtain.  As if under a spell, I grabbed the camera and photographed it.  I acted without my usual fruitless thinking.  That's when I knew I'd write something again soon.

In the quiet months, I've eaten some delightful dishes that I wish I'd recorded, if only for myself, so that the good stuff would be handily in one place:  strawberry cake, zucchini salad with mint, roast beef with tomato gravy, black eyed peas with leeks and tarragon, madeleines.   I've traveled--to see family, with all the attendant love and lessons--and experienced new places, one of them thrilling in a deep and instructive way.  While for some it would be enough to do, I never feel complete unless I say or write something about the good, the bad, and the otherwise moving.  That's who I am, when I remember and can be her.

My mother told me once that I learned to talk at ten months and never shut up.  I believe it.  I in no way feel that I deserve to be heard more that anyone else or that I'm all that with a bag of chips and pickle, but I am one of the expressers.  I humbly wait my turn, but I also have to take it.  Tag, I'm it.  Again.

I'm a dreamer, a questioner, a food lover, a functional chocoholic, an encourager, a writer, and an aesthete, all held back by a glass ceiling of restraint.  My toes are in the water; I wade out, but I never dive.  Well, almost never. 

But I'm still here, vacillating among dinner, despair, and desire.  Wonder what tomorow will be?