Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Frightful Trifle

I’m not sure why I’m always so optimistic about experimenting in the kitchen because my creations usually flop. 

But I take to heart the counsel of culinary experts to be adventurous, forgetting that I’m not a professional chef. 

I offered to make a chocolate sheet cake for my sister’s Halloween party last weekend. I had a brilliant idea to spell out the words “Trick or Treat” and “Happy Halloween” with my new alphabet cookie cutters I hadn’t used yet. 

I figured I could cut the cake into squares, carve out the letters with the cutters and pipe cream into the indentations to spell out my words. 

But I didn't want just ordinary buttercream so I found a recipe online with ingredients of cream cheese, whipping cream and Cool Whip. 

I was kind of concerned it might not be firm enough to stand up to piping but it sounded scrumptious and I wanted to try it.

I ran into my first snag with the chocolate frosting. 

The recipe is my aunt’s from-scratch icing that I make on the stovetop, and I’ve made it dozens of times. But as I spread the frosting on the warm cake, it was too thick. 

I wasn't worried because I figured I’d be covering most of it with the cream for my letters. I tinted the cream orange and although it tasted good, it was pretty runny. 

But my chocolate frosting was more like cement. I pressed the “T” (for "trick") cutter into the icing. 

It didn’t budge. I pressed as hard as I could and still only saw the barest outline of the letter. 

I took a paring knife and scraped out the frosting into the outline of a T and piped my cream. 

I had less success with the second letter and only ended up squashing flat my cake square. 

I gave up on the cutters and thought I’d just pipe the letters on top of the frosting. 

When I was finished, it looked like a preschooler’s art project. I couldn’t ask my sister to serve this mess at her party. 

I considered throwing the entire cake out. But instead I laid on my couch for a few minutes. 

And my trifle bowl popped into my head. It was my only hope for salvaging the cake.

I cut it up into bite-sized pieces and layered the cake and the orange cream in the trifle bowl. 

I didn’t have enough cream to cover the top layer so I just showered the cake with chocolate sprinkles I found in my pantry. 

I had no idea what the trifle tasted like. I took it to my sister and told her to put candles in it and use it as a centerpiece. 

She called the next day and said it was a hit. She said two of her party-goers stood over the table eating spoonfuls, saying it was addictive and they couldn’t tear themselves away from it. 

She told me I better write down what I did to create my improvisation so I could repeat it.

I guess my baking escapades are not all that different from what makes up the rest of my life. 

I create, repurpose, salvage. 

I do this all the time with my flea market finds – I use shutters designed for windows as display boards. 

I use an ironing board intended for laundry as a sofa table. 

I use containers meant for plants to hold cosmetic brushes. 

I feel inspired and artful when I find a use for something different than it was originally intended. 

And I shouldn't be afraid to do the same with the experiences of my life. 

When I think I don’t have what it takes, I actually find that I have all I need. 

To get back up after a failure. 

To move in a different direction when I hit a dead end. 

To salvage the things that happen that aren’t quite as perfect as I'd like. 

Because my life is filled with those times. 

When the writing piece I labored over didn’t get accepted. When the guy I liked didn’t ask me out. When the owner of the townhouse I loved rejected my offer. 

These experiences turned out differently than I wanted them to. 

But I reworked the writing piece and posted it as a mass-post day for bloggers. 

I discovered the man I wanted to go out with wasn’t really who I thought he was. 

I found a different townhouse I liked even more that better fit my style. 

So I shouldn’t be so quick to despair and discard. 

Because it might just be the trick that turns into a treat. 

For a Halloween treat, I've included my recipe for the cake and cream. 

Aunt Shirley's Chocolate Sheet Cake
Bring to a boil 1 cup of butter, 1 cup of water, 4 Tbsp. of cocoa. Remove from heat and add 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, and 1 tsp. of salt. Add 2 well-beaten eggs, 8 oz. of sour cream and 1 tsp. baking soda. Pour into cookie sheet pan and bake for 20-22 minutes at 375 degrees. 

While the cake is still warm, spread with frosting. Put 1 stick butter, 6 Tbsp. milk, 4 Tbsp. cocoa and bring to a boil. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 box powdered sugar. Beat until smooth. Spread over cake. Chill cake until served.

Beat 6 oz. cream cheese and 1/3 cup sugar until smooth. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 cup heavy cream. Whip until increases in volume and thick. Fold in 4 oz. Cool Whip.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Power of Words

I'm surprised sometimes by the words that linger in my head long after they're said. 

They keep replaying in the background as if they were spoken yesterday instead of years ago. And often it's the critical words I remember rather than the affirming ones. 

I have always loved books and grew up savoring words written on a page. Words that were mostly woven into fiction stories. Classic books that spoke in beautiful imagery, and modern books that told an exhilarating story. 

I liked this genre of books until after college, when a boyfriend told me he thought I lived in a fantasy world. He was very concerned that I would live my life inspired by fiction and believing in fairy tales. (I wonder if what he might have meant was that perhaps I would discover life with him wouldn’t have a storybook ending.) 

But I haven't forgotten his words. And I took his critique to heart. 

As the lone relic of our relationship, I started reading biographies, memoirs and non-fiction. 

I found that I liked reading the true stories of real people. 

I liked accompanying these authors on their real-life literary journeys. 

Because sometimes I recognized a sliver of myself as I shared their experiences with them, peeking through a window at their lives. 

Now my bookshelves are lined with books about skating, cooking and Paris. Biographies about famous people and memoirs by ordinary souls just sharing their lives. 

The books are absorbing, enduring and welcoming. I feel at home just looking at their familiar covers.

Years ago when my sister moved out of our shared condo to get married, we had a custody battle over our books. 

As she packed up her belongings, I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. She would take her books. I’d keep mine. And we’d split the rest. 

Then we started sorting the stacks. 

We couldn’t decide who would get our favorites -- a series of historical novels written in the 1940s and 50s by Elswyth Thane, and a series of juvenile novels called The Keeping Days by Norma Johnston. 

She let me make the choice. 

I thought about it for weeks because I loved them both. Finally, I opted to keep the Elswyth Thane books. 

The charming hardbacks with tattered dust covers were long out of print, and I thought it might be more difficult to find replacements. So my Keeping Days books that sat on my bookshelves since middle school, departed in the boxes of my sister’s belongings. 

I missed my old books. And I felt like I’d lost my best friends. 

Not only was I missing my sister living with me, I no longer had The Keeping Days to cheer me up.

For Christmas a few years ago, my sister surprised me with a set of my own Keeping Days books. 

It seems they had become a hot commodity since they were out of print and it took her months of online shopping to track down the entire set. 

I welcomed them back to my bookshelves like old friends. These words on a page tell a powerful story. 

Whether it's fiction or non-fiction that I'm reading, the stories help me make sense of my own. 

To understand that no matter how different someone's experiences may be from my own, they're still a lot like me. 

To appreciate that everyone has a unique and interesting story to tell. 

To admire these gifted writers that have a skill and talent that I'd like to emulate. 

It's the power of the story that speaks to me. 

With experiences that are true or words that are scripted into imagined sparkling dialogue. These are the stories I love to read. 

The stories that inspire me to pick up my pen. Or open my laptop. And write the powerful words that will eventually turn into my story. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Farmer's Market Fresh

I was hoping to find some pumpkins at a farmer’s market last weekend. Signs were posted all over my neighborhood and I’d gotten an email inviting me to the inaugural weekend of our community’s farmer’s market. 

I envisioned baskets of tomatoes, fresh lettuce and a luscious selection of homegrown fruits and vegetables. I was even hoping to pick out a pumpkin for my front porch. 

Saturday morning (after making chocolate chip pancakes of course), my niece Devon and I walked over to check it out. We spotted the crowd from down the street, but as we got closer we noticed there wasn’t much on display. 

A bag with two tiny eggplants sat on a table. Another bag had a few scraggly herbs in it. 

The man behind the table handed me a postcard with a website printed on it. He said the market had attracted far more people than they’d anticipated and they’d sold out. He told me to send an email and they’d ship me my order. 

But I was hoping to browse for fruits and vegetables in person. I wanted to buy a little sack of tomatoes and carry them home for dinner that night. But all I walked away with was a postcard.

Farmer's market in Paris
Years ago whenever my grandmother and aunt visited our family in Florida, they didn’t want to go to theme parks or head to the beach. They wanted to see our grocery stores. Publix. Albertson’s. Winn Dixie. 

They’d spend hours in the produce section comparing what we had here to what they had at home. 

In Pittsburgh, they’d make day trips to a farm, where they would come home with bags of fresh corn on the cob and baskets of strawberries. They’d talk about how they couldn’t wait for corn season or berry season, as if it were a holiday they looked forward to all year.

Fruit stand on Rue Mouffetard in Paris
Every time I see a farmer’s market or a fruit stand by the side of the road, I think of buying fresh corn and cucumbers and tomatoes to make what I ate at my grandmother’s house. 

Like her specialty salad of cucumbers sliced paper thin with skinny ribbons of onions, sprinkled with salt and pepper, vinegar and oil. 

Steaming corn on the cob with rivulets of butter sliding down the kernels. 

And most of all, I dream of a delicious juicy, tasty tomato that my grandmother sliced thick to top off her chipped ham sandwiches. 

The kind of tasty tomatoes that don’t seem to be in grocery stores anymore. 

But I didn’t find any of that at the farmer’s market. 

I can still make a cucumber salad and have fresh corn on the cob and tomatoes from the grocery store. It might not be farmer's-market-delicious, but it could still be pretty good. 

Maybe my hopes are too high. 

And not just about fruits and vegetables. 

Pie-in-the-sky dreams of finding the ultimate job or the incomparable friend or the ideal date. Which never turn out quite as I think they will. 

What I deem unsatisfactory, second-rate or inferior is just different. 

An ordinary job becomes fulfilling, a flawed person proves after all to be a faithful friend, and an imperfect candidate isn't a soul mate but can be a kind kindred spirit. 

Because adjusting expectations can produce a bumper crop. Of fresh outlooks, unwilted opportunities and ripened relationships.

So instead of browsing for vegetables, we walk across the street to the neighborhood pond. 

Where Devon spots some ducks and asks if she can take some pictures. With the big camera? And can she hang the strap with roses on it around her neck? 

I let her try it out. I sit on a bench while she runs around, camera in hand, shooting photos of birds, ducks and trees. About 183 of them. 

That we’ll download when we get home. She’s excited to see her work as a big girl photographer. 

As we walk home, I tell her the farmer’s market will be back next week. She says maybe they’ll bring some stuff we can look at. 

I hope so. 

Because I’m always looking for a few ears of corn, some ripe tomatoes or the perfect pumpkin. 

Right in my own neighborhood.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Story of Ants, Dogs and Egg Salad Sandwiches

I’ve been scribbling in notebooks ever since I was a little girl. I got my first diary when I was eight or nine. I wrote about the boys I liked at school. I wrote about the families at church that had new babies. 

I wrote about the girls who hurt my feelings when they excluded me from their grade school cliques. The summer I was nine, I made my first trip away from home to go to camp for a week. 

I thought this adventure might be worth documenting so just like the intrepid reporter I was, I took along a big green notebook with me and wrote in it every day.

Apparently what interested me most at camp was the food. I carefully chronicled what was served at every meal. A lot of fruit cocktail. 

Along with breakfasts of cold cereal and the wonder of an egg salad sandwich for lunch. 

I described how after a morning hike through the woods, my fellow campers and I unpacked egg salad sandwiches and ate them by the side of the road. I’m not sure if I was just really hungry or if the sandwich was really that delicious. 

All I know is, thanks to my green camp notebook, I can pinpoint the exact moment I discovered that I loved egg salad sandwiches. 

I continued to write in my journal through the years, chronicling college, challenges at work, and the comedy of dates with various men through the years. 

But not long after my nephew was born, I stopped journaling. I read through my old notebooks and thought some of them made me sound pretty silly. Ridiculously juvenile. 

Like recording the phenomenon of egg salad. So I threw some of them out. What if someone were reading that drivel when I wasn't around to explain myself? 

But later I came to the realization that childish or worldly-wise, interesting or dull, it was all part of my story. My viewpoint on life. Some of it may have suffered from a skewed perspective. Much of it might have been melodramatic. But all of it is my story. 

And if I don’t write it, my voice will be lost. Sort of like my mother’s sister Audrey. She died at age 24, when my mother was just 12. My mother has some memories of her and stories to tell, but Audrey didn’t leave behind any journals or letters. 

There’s no way to get to know her. Except through family photos. After she died, her husband remarried but he always kept in touch with my grandmother. 

A few years ago, I asked my mother if I could contact his wife who was now in her 70s. I sent her a letter saying I was Audrey’s niece and wondered if she had any photos of her. 

She sent me a treasure trove of family photos I hadn’t seen, a Christmas card Audrey had written to her husband, and a tiny envelope with a lock of Audrey’s hair inside. Everyone who knew her said she had beautiful red hair. And there it was, just a bit faded, a lock of her red hair.

So I tell my niece and nephew to tell their stories. Nathan’s official “Author’s Notebook” is filled with stories about ants. Ants that send out scout ants to retrieve a hot dog. 

Despite their efforts to spear the bun, Nathan writes that the ants discover they can’t fit the hot dog in their home. I ask him why he writes about ants. He says he doesn’t know. He just likes them. 

Devon writes about dogs. She asked me to buy her a journal because the cover had a picture of a girl walking a dog. She draws pictures of dogs in her journal. And she says she jots a few notes about key suspects we read about in the Nancy Drew Notebooks series for young girls. 

I think writing about ants and dogs is a nice place to start telling their own stories. And I’ll add my story about egg salad sandwiches to their stories about dogs and ants. 

Which after all is one big story of our family. With plenty of chapters still to write. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Birthday Paris-Style

I feel like I went to Paris for my birthday a few weekends ago. 

But I’m pretty sure I didn’t leave Florida. 

Everything about my birthday was Paris-centric. 

I had a girls' lunch outing with my mother, sister and niece at a café called the Paris Bistro. 

Next door to the bistro was a French bakery, where as the birthday girl, I was treated to a box of brightly colored macarons. 

My birthday gifts were Paris-themed --books about French cooking and Parisian decorating, a Paris shower curtain and even a Paris trash can. 

All of them were wrapped in pretty Paris paper.

I am a little dumbfounded with my obsession with all things Paris. 

I often tire of those who seem to talk about only one topic, person or place. And here I am, crazy about Paris. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. My life is kind of a pattern on a single theme. 

Growing up, I was immersed in the Pittsburgh sports scene. I loved the Steelers football, Pirates baseball and Penguins hockey teams. 

My room was a shrine to all things sports, plastered with pennants, posters and a bulletin board full of newspaper clippings. 

For holidays and my birthday, my gifts were always colored in Pittsburgh black and gold. I even had a pair of pajamas emblazoned with the number of my favorite player on the Pirates. 

So I’m beginning to think I’m a little prone to monomania.

Since she hears me talk so much about Paris, my niece Devon was really excited about my birthday. 

Her present to me was a Paris notepad and pen, along with some lavender Paris notecards. 

For my birthday lunch, she wore her black Paris dress adorned with tiny pink Eiffel Towers and Arc de Triomphes. 

She told me she’d been imagining that the café would have pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe on the walls, just like her dress.

When we got there, the décor was opulent with cranberry toile wallpaper, large mirrors, rich red velvet booths and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. 

But Devon said it wasn’t quite like she’d imagined it. She wrinkled her nose and said nothing on the French menu sounded good to her. She ate bags of goldfish and Cheez-its from my sister's purse. 

Not even the profiteroles for dessert tempted her to taste a bite of a French pastry. I'm hoping someday she might change her mind about French food.

But I never want her to change her mind about Paris. Right now she loves Paris because I love Paris. And I love it that she loves it, too. 

In a few years, I'm sure she'll add other people and places and things she'll adore, just like Paris. 

Looking over my birthday gifts, she tells that she thinks the Paris shower curtain and trash can would look nice in my guest bathroom. Which just happens to be her bathroom when she comes over to spend the night. 

I tell her yes. We’ll deck out her bathroom in Paris décor. 

Today her dreams are of puppies and Paris. Who knows what they may be tomorrow. 

Or where they will lead her. It’s never too early for her to start dreaming. And one day discover the God-sized dreams awaiting her. 

And I'll be right there by her side telling her, "J'taime."