Thursday, December 20, 2007

I am a Master Baker

So I put off making my Christmas cookies until the last minute yet again. I like to lay claim to the theory that the closer to Christmas and their shipping dates I bake them, the fresher they'll be -- you can't work too far ahead with cookies. But really, I was just doing other stuff. I did get them all baked off over the weekend, which was a start.

But the gingerbread cookie contest over at Baking Bites lit a bit of a fire under my ass. The deadline was the 18th, so Tuesday night I dutifully left a boringish work party early and came home to frost cookies. Frosting cookies... it's both rewarding, creative work and a deeply onerous, endless slog that hurts my back, dries out my fingers, and puts me off sugar for days. But: rewarding and creative, yes, and people do love them. They're a very personal gift that takes a lot of the guesswork and frivolity (not to mention the spending of money) out of the holidays.

And whereas production-lining anything gets old after the first ten or so, the dancing dog cookies modeled after my sweet little Milo somehow never get tiring in the same way. There's a devotional aspect to them, certainly, and watching the cheerful little guys take form, and -- sorry, this is corny -- their personalities come out, never seems to get boring.
But damn they do take forever. I finished up and the cookies were dry enough to photograph at 15 minutes to midnight. Talk about cutting it close.
And... I won! A copy of The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, which yes I have coveted, and a groovy t-shirt. But also, you know, the recognition and the props and that happy feeling that no matter how minor an achievement it is in the greater scheme of things, it's still my achievement. It was a blip on my radar, not to mention an excellent compliment from Nicole, who is a hell of a baker in her own right. I've gotten many fine recipes and ideas off Baking Bites.

So, because I know y'alls are going to ask me -- yes it's my own recipe and no it's not a secret and here you go:

(amounts for doubling (red) and quadrupling (green) are in parentheses -- I have to color-code them because I'm easily distracted and tend to screw up. I usually use a double recipe, but sometimes a smaller or larger batch is appropriate)

1-1/3 cup all-purpose white flour (2-2/3) (5-1/3)
2/3 cup whole wheat flour (1-1/3) (2-2/3)
1 tsp. baking soda (2) (4)
½ tsp. baking powder (1) (2)
4 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature (8) (16)
1 cup packed brown sugar (2) (4)
2 tsps. ginger (4) (8)
1 tsp. cinnamon (2) (4)
¼ tsp. cloves or allspice (½) (1)
½ tsp. salt (1) (2)
chopped zest of 1 lemon (2) (4)
1 egg, room temperature (2) (4)
3/8 cup molasses (¾) ()

1. Sift together white flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, & baking powder.
2. Cream together butter, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves or allspice, salt, & lemon zest.
3. Add egg & beat well.
4. Add molasses & beat well.
5. Add dry ingredients in 3 batches, mixing thoroughly after each addition.
6. Refrigerate dough at least 1 hour.
7. Bake cookies at 325° 5-7 minutes (check after 5).

2 egg whites (4) (8)
2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar (4) (8)
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar (¼) (½)
½ tsp. vanilla extract (1) (2)
food coloring or paste colors
lemon juice for diluting

1. Beat egg white to soft peak consistency – use copper or stainless steel bowl, glass if you have to, but not plastic!
2. Add sugar, cream of tartar, & vanilla. Beat to stiff peak consistency.
3. Add coloring in small amounts. Dilute, if necessary, with small amounts of lemon juice to achieve flowing consistency.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Alvy Settles In

I wonder if Alvy remembers anything about his former life on the streets. It's only been five months. But as it gets colder and meaner out there, I can't help imagining that has something to do with the fact that he's getting affectionate lately, discovering that he enjoys being handled and held (and cradled like a baby with his hind legs sticking straight out, but we don't need to embarrass the poor guy). I've also noticed at night, when I can't move my legs, that he's been sleeping curled up against Mr. Bonkers.
He's a fat and happy boy these days.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eight Random Things

This is a meme that Maia tagged me with oh, ages ago. And I’ve been thinking about it on and off. Mostly thinking that anything people don’t generally know about me is probably either unsavory or illegal or both, and that there’s probably a reason it’s not common knowledge.

Still, I am nothing if not a good sport, so here for your edification are eight random things about me.

1. Between the ages of about seven and eight, I was obsessed with wolves. Being a bookish kind of girl, I read everything I could get my hands on about them -- Julie of the Wolves, yes, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (and I actually had the wonderful fortune to meet Joan Aiken later in life, but that’s another story), but the one that really got to me was Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. It was the story of his going to live peacefully with a wolf pack – I believe he used the word “community” – in the Arctic, back in the early ’60s. It’s one of those first-person wildlife sagas that has since been accused of all sorts of embellishment and poked full of holes, but at the time I bought into it almost religiously. I wanted to go live with the wolves, painfully so. I’d have dreams where I’d look out the back upstairs window of our house and see a wolf pack trotting down the street, coming to rescue me.

What that says about the “raised by wolves” nature of my childhood I will leave to the reader to decide. But it was a very real yearning for a couple of years there.
2. My first published illustration was in the New York Times when I was 12. That was early 1976, and my dad was taking some time off and staying home with me while my mom went back to school, and back then it was noteworthy in that smarmy way the Times still has of discovering some crazy little trend way way on the wrong side of the curve. We knew someone there who decided it would make a good fluff piece, and when the editor found out I was a budding artist he asked me to do a drawing for it. I was SO excited.
Up until the moment, anyway, when I saw the article with my drawing and it was captioned: Lisa drew this cartoon of her father “househusbanding.” Even at 12, I knew enough to realize how utterly condescending that was. Here I thought I was being contracted as an actual illustrator to create a piece of artwork that would accompany an article in the New York Times with my byline underneath it, dammit, and instead I got a pat on the head.

And you know, the Times wouldn’t do that today. Now, toward the end of the article, it would say something only slightly dopey like Lisa, who is looking forward to her own career in the arts, keeps a keen eye on the family goings-on, above. Or something like that. Somewhere in the past 30-odd years, that aren’t-these-darn-kids-cute tone has mostly disappeared from the mainstream media. But that’s 30-odd years too late for my indignant, insulted 12-year-old self.

3. I have a fat scar going down my midsection from between my breasts to my navel. It’s from a benign stomach tumor I developed when I was 18, successfully removed with a maximum of drama and a long hospital stay, and from which I emerged weighing 99 pounds and addicted to Demerol. Neither of those lasted. I was asked several times afterward if it was a Caesarian scar, which mostly demonstrated a gross lack of anatomical understanding in the guys I went to bed with, and a few times people have wondered if it wasn’t one of those unborn twins with hair and teeth. Which is an awful but very entertaining concept, and over the years I’ve always considered adopting that story and embellishing it. I may yet.

4. During my sophomore year of college I worked for a man who ran a scam gay date-by-mail service, which turned out to be a front for a drug ring. I had no idea of this going in – at first he explained some of my weirder duties, like pasting labels over the old name of the company on their promotional materials, as the result of a lost trademark case. I figured it out soon enough when the angry phone calls started trickling in – “Hey, isn’t this the same as the last gay date-by-mail service that took all my money?” Which it was. In the meantime, there were large amounts of drugs floating around the office – my boss would often nod out mid-sentence – and all sorts of strange seedy characters wandering in and out: hangers-on, whiny druggies, drag queens, credit card scammers.

The boss was one of those magnetic sociopath types who could talk his way out of anything. He was a mail-order reverend, and ran a somewhat unsuccessful male escort service on the side. His brother hung around the office and freebased so much that every so often he’d get monstrously paranoid and pile furniture against the door, and I’d end up being late for class. Eventually it all got too weird for me and I started feeling really guilty for being associated with an organization that took money from closeted men living in the Midwest in their parents’ houses. “These people are not exactly going to call the Better Business Bureau on us,” my boss told me, and in a spasm of conscience I quit the next day. But I have material to last a lifetime, believe you me.

5. When Gideon was somewhere between two and three, he fell down in the playground and chipped one of his front teeth. Not down to the nerve, but it was sharp and it bothered him. So I got a teeny tiny file from one of his dad’s model airplane kits, tucked Gideon under my arm, told him that if he’d just hold still for a couple of minutes I’d fix it, and filed that broken little tooth right down. It didn’t even look that bad when I was done, and he replaced it with a nice big one in a few more years anyway. But for a while I had the redoubtable reputation as the cold-blooded mommy who filed her own kid’s tooth. People came up to me for a month or two afterward, some of them total strangers, to ask if it were true.

If I’d had any sense I would have said “Yep, an’ I worm him myself too, with the stuff from the Agway.” But I wasn’t as funny back in those days.

6. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 28. Eh, I was a city girl.

7. I have two tattoos, both of my own design. One is on my left inside ankle, a leaping brook trout, which I got when I was 33 and I split up with my husband – ’nuff said. The other, which I got when I was 18, is on my right hip. It’s from a 17th-century drawing of the skeleton of a dragon that was said to live outside Rome. I riffed on it a bit, left out the base and instead gave it a rose clutched in its claws, which is the only color on the entire tattoo. I still remember sitting in the library on Second Avenue and Ninth Street at one of those long tables, paging through some reference book – back in the day when I used to do such thing, rather than surfing airily over the internets – and finding this picture. It sparked me right away, some indefinable shock of recognition, and I wanted a tattoo of it immediately. I’d wanted one since I was 14, but hadn’t known what it would be – only that I’d know when I found it.
Both of them are kind of old and faded now. At 18 I wasn’t thinking much about the possibility of getting pregnant and ending up with stretch marks running through it, and even though the guy who gave me the second warned me that ankle tattoos don’t age well, that’s where I wanted it.

I don’t regret either of them. I toyed with the idea of getting a third for a long time – I was thinking one of these
on my shoulder, in black – but I think the window may have passed for that. I guess you never know, though.

8. I have never gotten a manicure. A pedicure once, and I really liked it because I have a bit of a foot thing going on, but I have too many cosmetic feet problems to feel good about ever going again. My nails are generally short and kind of scrubby-looking – when they posted the rules for hand and nail care back in junior high or whenever it was we were supposed to learn that kind of thing, I must have been elsewhere. I push my cuticles down, don’t bite my nails down to the ragged bloody quick, file them when I remember to, and moisturize a lot – although I also wash my hands a lot, which kind of cancels that out on a regular basis. But my nails never look good. I also cook, garden, type, and generally use my hands hard – but other people do these things and have attractive nails. Once again, an item of adult cosmetic hygiene that has managed to totally escape me.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Again With the Hawks

So I went out for lunch around noon and I was thinking of my friend Leah out in California, who was having cataract surgery – sending her those positive vibes and looking around for some kind of good sign. Not that I'm so crunchy as to go by signs and omens or anything, but it was something to do.

And what could be a better omen for someone's eyes than... a hawk? There was this hawk sitting in the middle of campus, hidden by a hedge so no one could really see it, eating a dead squirrel.

An immature redtail, I think -- my cell phone photos aren't great but it looked just like this one.
But really, wow -- it was gorgeous and incongruous here in the city. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve seen them around where I live, but that’s about six miles further up – practically the country, by NYC standards. I stood out in the cold for about 15 minutes, just watching it. As omens go, that one kicked ass.

That was about the high point of my whole day. Came home and walked the dog, brrr! And made some kale-prosciutto-noodle soup when I got home. This time of year makes me really militant about eating well... I always feel like there's only a bunch of leafy greens and a few cloves of garlic between me and certain pneumonia.