Archive for October, 2011

I haven’t carved a pumpkin since living in Florida, because in the Sunshine State it only took about 24 hours for a carved pumpkin to collapse from heat-induced decomposition. Now that I live in a cooler climate I no longer feel the urge to cut a face into a pumpkin. I just buy one and let it sit on the porch and speak for itself. I figure even without carving and a candle inside, the pumpkin and the porch light are indicators that our house is open for Halloween.

We average about a dozen trick-or-treaters each year. One recent favorite was a tiny little girl, possibly three years old, dressed in a purple sweat suit with a Tinker Bell costume on top. Her little wings were adorably magical, but the young lady was all business. Her mom accompanied her onto the porch with a flashlight. I gave Tinker Bell her candy while going on and on about how precious she looked.

Tinker said, “Happy Halloween,” in a clear, strong voice, turned, and marched back down the steps while her mom was still talking to me. Clearly she wanted to keep moving. It was a cold night, and she had candy to collect.

The next day I noticed that my pumpkin had a couple of dents, and places where the white inner rind showed. Had the trick-or-treaters kicked the pumpkin? I certainly hadn’t witnessed anything like that, but perhaps one or two had returned to protest the quality of my candy. Happily, it was not the children—the dents grew larger in the days following Halloween, and soon it was clear that squirrels were to blame. Eventually they gnawed a gaping hole where the pumpkin’s face would be, so that it appeared to be drooling onto the porch.

Because I am still thinking autumnal thoughts about comfort food, I thought I’d share a recipe for pumpkin bread pudding. I got it from a blog called Smitten Kitchen. The writer, Deb, introduced it as a dessert that could cure anything. I’ve always said that my grandmother’s pumpkin bread recipe could cure anything: colds, flu, depression, hives. Perhaps pumpkins truly are magical, as they are in Cinderella. Deb obviously thinks so, as she wrote:

Burrowing our spoons into still warm, bourbon-spiked sweet fall comfort was heavenly, and as I chewed on those buttery bread cubes and pondered the ginger’s edginess, memories of cooking failures fell away, and there was just this, a blissful and eerily wholesome calm.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
5 cups cubed (1-inch) crusty bread
3/4 stick unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350° with rack in middle. While preheating, melt butter in bottom of 8″ square baking dish. Once butter melts, remove from oven and toss bread cubes with butter to coat. Whisk together remaining ingredients in separate bowl. Pour mix over bread cubes, stirring to make sure pieces are evenly coated. Bake 25-30 minutes.

Could it be any simpler? But I advise you not to eat it warm. Like revenge, pumpkin bread pudding is a dish best served cold.

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Waiting for the bats in Austin

Transform a recycled umbrella into a very clever bat puppet. ~ Martha Stewart

I like to visit Martha Stewart’s Web site from time to time, and this morning the home page featured an episode wherein Martha made a bat puppet from an old black umbrella.  I didn’t want to watch the episode, which was oddly titled “Halloween Bats and Chinese Cuisine,” so I searched for written instructions. Evidently they aren’t yet posted, but in searching for “umbrella bat” I came across something even nicer: a bat costume made from a black umbrella!

[U]se a bolt cutter to clip metal joints where angled support bars meet spokes; also cut off central rod and handle. Trim all metal as closely as possible; cover any remaining sharp points with black electrical tape. Slit opposite-facing panels midway between spokes, all the way to umbrella top. With pliers, untwist small wire that holds plastic center piece to spokes, and remove both wire and plastic; umbrella should separate into 2 pieces. Discard plastic. To rejoin spokes at top, cut wire in half (or use any similar-gauge wire), and thread a piece through the small holes in spokes of each half; bend in a loop at each end. Secure loose fabric to spokes on each umbrella half: Catch edge of fabric with a 3-inch-long piece of 28-gauge wire, and twist its ends tightly around wire that holds spokes together; trim ends.

There were additional instructions to make a harness to attach the wings to a child. That project called for grosgrain ribbon, hot glue, safety pins, welding equipment, and a tractor. Okay, I made up the last two items, but if I wanted a bat costume, I would buy one. All that wire-clipping and bolt-cutting sounds like a first-class ticket straight to the emergency room.

But it’s nice that Martha has come up with two ways to recycle an old umbrella. It reminded me of my own umbrella-recycling story….

A couple of years ago, in a failed attempt to be more environmentally responsible, I took the Metro to work for several months. It didn’t work out for several reasons that I won’t go into here. But on one of the days when I was still trying to soldier through, my co-worker, Mary, offered me a ride from work to the train station.  I accepted with great pleasure, because it was raining something awful and the prospect of waiting for the bus held no charm.

We walked to Mary’s car with our umbrellas up and angled to protect ourselves from the driving rain and blustery wind. Sadly, the forces of nature overcame my umbrella during the walk, and one-third of it flopped over and became useless. When we got to the car, Mary threw her umbrella into the floor of the back seat, and I threw mine back there too, with slightly more force than necessary. I thought: “Gah. I am not taking that umbrella out of this car. It’s trashed.” 

Now it was very wrong of me to dump my umbrella in Mary’s car simply because I couldn’t be bothered to take it with me and give it a proper burial. I wouldn’t have done it except that I was so fed up with that umbrella that I couldn’t bear to look at it, much less pick it up and carry it somewhere. So I washed my hands of it.

The next morning, Mary stopped at my office and held out my umbrella. “You left your umbrella in my car,” she said.

I explained that I had decided I never wanted to see that umbrella again. 

“Oh, it’s fine now,” she said. “I fixed it.”  And she had!  I told her it was like a fairy tale, where elves come out at night and fix things for people. Not that I deserved it, of course—but if I hadn’t abandoned my umbrella in her car, it wouldn’t have gotten fixed and had a second life. This was truly a Good Thing, because my umbrella was tan, not black, and wouldn’t have been suitable as a bat puppet or bat costume.

Ernesto and I have often talked about putting some bat houses up around our garage. When we were in Austin this past June we walked from our hotel to the Congress Avenue Bridge where spectators line up to watch more than a million bats fly out into the dusk. The bridge was still empty when we got there, so we passed the time before sundown exploring the nice trail along Town Lake, just below the bridge. Ernesto found an informational display about the bats, and he read every word while I sat on a bench and took a couple of pictures. When Ernesto was finished reading every word about bats that he could find, we settled onto a nearby dock that was touted as a good place from which to see the bats.

As the sun sank lower in the sky, more people arrived at our dock, including children. It was difficult for parents to explain to children that they, the parents, didn’t know when the bats might come out, and the children should just be patient (and quiet). The children were neither patient nor quiet. A small boy threw leaves, caring not a bit that they landed on persons not in his own party. A little girl on a Snow White blanket whined incessantly and worried about ticks. That made me worry about ticks.

At long last, someone noticed that the bats were flying. They didn’t emerge from under the bridge in a big swoosh. They were completely silent, and we had to watch the skyline to see that there was a huge number of flying objects in a line up there—a line that went on and on and on.

D. H. Lawrence despised bats, but this passage from his poem “Bat” is a good description of what we witnessed that evening:

Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.  

In the poem, the narrator initially mistakes the bats for swallows.  He describes their

serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.  

Later, he realizes that he is seeing bats and refers to their “Wings like bits of umbrella.” And so they are.

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When I come home, let’s make everything we love and eat it all at once.
~ Elizabeth Berg, The Pull of the Moon

Grandma’s bowls with cookie press

My sister told me recently that one of her friends lost a family member very unexpectedly. When asked if there were anything she needed, the bereaved woman replied, “Well, there is one thing I’d like to have. Cookies.” 

At first I said—and my sister agreed—that pie seemed like a better choice for easing deep pain. But I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and the fact is that of all the comfort food that my mom has produced over the years, her cookies are at the top of my personal list.

Every Christmas she made three special kinds: Moravian cookies, which are paper-thin ginger crisps; Christmas wreath cookies, a cream cheese dough piped out of a cookie press with maraschino cherry bows and a sprinkling of green-tinted sugar; and Christmas tree sugar cookies. Those were the ultimate: sugar cookies rolled out so thin that you could see light through them. Mama decorated them with multicolored round sprinkles. I can’t make them; I’ve tried. I can’t buy them, because no else can make them, either. The feeling I get when I think about her Christmas treecookies is like the yearning that is mentioned in certain Baptist hymns about heaven and going home and an unclouded day.

I once made a batch of cookies that promised more than they delivered. They were called World Peace Cookies by their creator, Dorie Greenspan, who wrote in her cookbook that she decided to call them that when her neighbor said he was convinced that “a daily dose of these cookies was all that was needed to ensure planetary peace and happiness.” I did not consider my batch entirely successful. They had the texture of a pecan sandy—sort of well, gritty, as a matter of fact. But the bittersweet chocolate chunks in them were delicious, and because there was also cocoa in the batter they were intensely chocolate (never a bad thing). What I liked most about World Peace Cookies was that a sort of magic was involved in their making. After creaming the butter and sugars together (brown and white sugar), you were told to add vanilla and dump in the flour, cocoa, and baking soda. The next instruction was to drape a kitchen towel over the bowl while pulsing the mixer five times, very quickly. The towel was there to keep flour from flying all over the kitchen, but it lent an air of mystery to the project that I appreciated.

And really, it’s always a bit of a mystery why we find certain foods so wonderfully comforting.

Ernesto would probably choose Tres Leches as his comfort dessert of choice. I made it once using a Martha Stewart recipe; basically it started with a sponge cake, but I didn’t like sponge cake because it was too much like a sponge (surprise). I wondered if using pound cake as the base would make it better. I doubled my Pound Cake Loaf recipe so I had one small bundt cake and two loaves. I sliced one loaf and put the pieces in an 8″ pan, then poured on a mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk. After it soaked for a couple of hours, I whipped some heavy cream and powdered sugar to top it off. Ernesto pretended to like it, then confessed that he preferred the sponge cake recipe. I thought the pound cake version was far superior, but I agreed that it was not the highest and best use of a pound cake, which is too fine to be swamped with multiple milk products. I took the rest of the plain pound cake to my office, where it was consumed like a National Geographic time-lapse film of insects devouring a cow carcass. My colleagues find pound cake extremely comforting. 

Back to pie: My grandmother made little fried hand pies called apple jacks that were wonderful and nearly always available when we visited her. She once dictated the recipe to me:

Make pie crust.
Cook dried apples with lots of water.
When water cooks down, add white sugar, nutmeg.
Fry jacks till brown.

I think that is a comforting recipe, since it breathes simplicity and a sort of Quaker plainness. What foods do you take comfort in?

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Daddy declared it a fine time to search out our autumn pumpkins, given the glorious display of changing leaves and the fact that soon he would be obliged to spend his Saturdays raking the glory out of the yard.

Mama said that she would enjoy an outing, and perhaps we could take in one or two of the pottery shops in Seagrove, which despite the name lay within rolling waves of green hills and nowhere near the ocean. All of us in complete accord, we headed out on a bright Saturday morning with sunlight tangled in the red and yellow leaves of the tree-tops.

At our favorite pumpkin farm, we took our leisurely time picking out two fat pumpkins and enjoying the farm’s cold apple cider. Mama bought a jar of lavender honey and a half gallon of the cider to take home. Then we drove further out in the country as if pulled by the lure of Autumn, until we came by way of the back roads to the pottery village of Seagrove. Mama sat up and became considerably more alert.

She directed Daddy to stop at Pleasance Pottery, which she deemed a likely place to satisfy her yearning for art. I liked it even better than the pumpkin farm. The shop was tucked back from the road in its own world. Cats stretched out in every sunny patch, and pottery toad houses and bird feeders further brightened the edges of a small pond ringed by purple and golden asters. Three massive cedar trees crowded against one side of the shop, and I saw more toad houses tucked among their roots like a village in a magic forest. Daddy put Bethany in her stroller and we walked around to examine it all while Mama went inside. Daddy pointed out a sassafras tree, with its leaves of two entirely different shapes fast turning a deep orangey red.

When we joined Mama inside the shop, Daddy advised Bethany, “Stifle your Shiva tendencies, dear heart, and touch nothing.”

Mama was trying to choose between two vases. “What do you think, Dixie?” she asked. She lifted them both to the light.

The first was a beautiful creamy white, with a crystal pattern that looked as if whiter pansies had been pressed into the surface of the clay before firing. It made me think of ice crystals and frosted windows. The other had a similar crystal pattern, but it was two colors: butternut and deep, bright blue, like a wondrous globe of some different Earth.

“I know,” Mama said, looking at my face. “It’s impossible to pick.”

She finally decided on the blue-and-butternut vase, and while Ms. Pleasance wrapped it in layers of paper and tucked it inside a box, Daddy left the stroller with Mama and walked through the rest of the shop. I followed him to see what he’d do.

The shop had three small rooms. The main room had been filled with light, and contained displays of the crystalline pottery in all sizes and shapes, all of them beautiful. The second room had a half-gate across the door, and inside we could see a work area, with two pottery wheels and an air of industry. The predominant color in there was the flat, chalky gray of the clay. Finally, there was a room that nestled like a cave among the large cedar trees we had seen outside. The trees cut off the light from the room’s one window.

“Well, well, well,” Daddy said. “What have we here?”

It was like a different time inside that room, with its rough wooden shelves, an old Hoosier cabinet for displaying pots, and a pine slab table in the center. Even the floor was different—rolling, packed dirt. The pottery was rougher, too, in keeping with this environment: plain golden-brown plates, crimp-edged pie pans, sturdy crocks in dull Quaker grays and blues. But Daddy had fixed his sight on something even more interesting—a green jug with a face molded into the side, with great crooked teeth and staring blue eyes. He picked up the jug and before long he was talking to it easily, like a friend.

“Dixie, come say hello to Brother Carl. What’s that?” He placed his ear next to the jug’s open top and listened intently. “Dixie, put your ear at the top of Brother Carl’s head, here, and listen.”

All I heard was a faint sound like trapped breezes. I told Daddy that Brother Carl was whispering, and I couldn’t make it out. “He’s pleased to make your acquaintance,” Daddy interpreted. “He wants to go home with us. I believe Brother Carl to be my foster kin, and I say we owe him a permanent residence.”

I asked him what he thought Mama might feel about offering Brother Carl permanent residence, and Daddy advised me that we would soon find out. He hooked his finger in Brother Carl’s handle and hoisted him onto one shoulder, as if he wished not to miss a word that the jug might let slip. 

Sure enough, Mama was appalled. “Frank, where on earth are you going to put that hideous thing?” she asked, as we returned to the car. Her tone held a familiar note of despair laced with amusement.

“I’ll make us a deep walnut shelf,” he said. “We can put your piece and mine, side by side for the world to look at and wonder. ‘Truth and beauty,’ folks will muse, ‘are they one and the same, as Keats would have us believe, or do they diverge and lead to entirely different destinations?’ Visitors will leave our house better people. A satellite picture from the depths of space would reveal a stream of curious light emanating from our door as the newly enlightened depart our home.”

“No,” Mama said. “Yours is not going to sit on a shelf next to mine.”

“Don’t be like that, Mel. You’re standing in the way of enlightenment and that is not a comfortable place to be.”

Daddy placed Brother Carl snugly between me and Bethany’s car seat in the back, and put the seat belt over him for added security. As we drove home, Daddy declaimed about the value of plain truth, rugged simplicity, and homespun wisdom. He grew excitable. “You know what we should do, girls? We should carve our pumpkins to look like Brother Carl’s family. Won’t that be nice for him?”

“You are not going to hijack the girls’ pumpkins, Frank,” Mama said. She turned in the seat. “Dixie, you can carve your pumpkin any way you like.”

“Oh, she can, she can,” Daddy said. He raised his eyes to the rearview mirror and grinned at me.

I said that my pumpkin could be Mrs. Carl, and Mama mock-wept into her hands.

Daddy patted Mama’s knee. “Never mind, Mel; this thing is bigger than we are. Truly a bountiful harvest. Put your ear to Brother Carl’s spout again, Dixie, and see if he has any words of wisdom for you. I’ve got a feeling he’s about to say something profound. Go ahead, now.”

Daddy watched me with quick upward glances in the rearview mirror, so I leaned to my right and put my head next to Brother Carl’s mouth. The ring of fired clay settled cool against my ear, and I listened again for the low hum of miniature wind currents circling the jug’s interior, knocking against its sides.

The jug spoke. A deep, nasal voice—loud and authoritative, but seemingly affected by an overabundance of teeth—filled the car:

Love is a funny thing
Beauty is a blossom.
If you want to get your finger bit
Stick it at a possum.

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