Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What we want: Underwear, scotch,
chicken, peace, potatoes

Sophie and I had a lot of time to talk this past weekend as we toured the local attraction Playland Not-at-the-Beach. It's a museum of sorts dedicated to preserving memories of ways and places where people used to have fun, in particular the old Playland at the Beach that once stood out near the Cliff House and Sutro Baths in San Francisco.

They have tons of killer dioramas, which is timely given that Sophie is working on her California history unit mission diorama (how cool do you think royal icing will work as adobe plaster???). It was fun to talk about how if you lived before computers and television in a small town or the country the circus—really a traveling small town—visiting was a really important event. Did you know the circus they depict had a staff of over 100 just to prepare food?

We also enjoyed the glittering Santa's Village display, although I was at a total loss to explain how it had anything to do with amusement parks or circuses. Someone just really likes to make dioramas, I guess.

Our absolute favorite park though was Pinball Alley. Forty pinball machines all set on free play!!!! We played, laughed, gabbed, and I tried to explain the story of Tommy ("That deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!"). The pinball crown for the afternoon was Sophie's given that she beat me soundly on almost every game.

We left feeling all giddy and holiday-like since we had just had a wonderful time and were heading home to roast a pre-Thanksgiving turkey. And so we got in some good work on the Christmas lists. Sophie thinks Husband should receive:
  • new underwear
  • the cream he likes to put on his face after shaving
  • a bottle of Scotch
Done! We can totally handle that. Sophie would like:
  • ski race training shorts
  • a Nerf gun
  • new skinny jeans
  • a roast chicken she can have all to herself to pick on at her leisure
I can do that. Although Husband's not going to be happy about the chicken. My list was harder. I want for little. I'm signing up for:
  • world peace
  • lots of snow
  • good mashed potatoes
World peace is not looking good. Lots of snow is. We're playing hooky tomorrow and heading up to the mountains for a pre-Thanksgiving ski, a rarity in our neck of the Sierras.

And I've had mashed potatoes on the brain lately. It's one of Sophie's favorite foods ever. She would have them as a side dish for nearly every meal if she could, and I indulge her a lot. They just make you feel good. I think if more people ate mashed potatoes, they would be happier, nicer to people, and we might have a better shot at world peace.

So for Christmas I would like (my sub-wish list):
  • No one to buy frozen mashed potatoes at Trader Joe's. The packaging is wasteful, and they're just not that hard to make.
  • No one to use an electric mixer to make them. Just makes them all gooey.
  • Everyone who does not have a food mill to run out and buy one.

They are inexpensive, work when there's no electricity, and make perfect mashed potatoes.

Buttermilk and melted butter, both at room temperature before they are combined and added are a secret of this recipe, modified from a Cooks Illustrated issue of a few years ago. And stirring in a little cheese (we like chevre or paremesan) doesn't hurt a bit.


2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes , peeled and cubed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup buttermilk, room temperature

Place potatoes in large saucepan; add cold water to cover by 1 inch and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until potatoes break apart when paring knife is inserted, about 20 minutes.

Set food mill in sink and pour through to drain. Set mill over medium bowl and turn to process potatoes.

Gently mix melted butter and buttermilk in small bowl until combined. Fold mixture into potatoes using rubber spatula until just incorporated. Adjust seasoning with salt. Serve immediately or cover tightly and then warm in microwave and refold before serving later.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fruitcake: I swear you will like it

You know, the joke about the same fruitcake being continually regifted contains an element of truth: Fruitcake lasts nearly forever. I do not understand, however, why when you're talking about single malt scotch longevity is considered a virtue; with fruitcake, it only contributes to the endless and cruel jokes. The truth is that fruitcake also improves with age.

Just look at last year's fruitcake that has been hiding in our second refrigerator. The deep rich fragrance alone is worth digging it out. And it worked well to buy me a reprieve from what Husband had planned for me this weekend:

Staining cedar shingles for our house exterior.

It was not fun.

I agreed with Husband that it was easier to stain shingles before going up rather than after, but still. The stain smelled horrible and after a few hours, my ass hurt from sitting on the little stool I was allowed. I received only occasional breaks to help Husband run electrical cables through walls and up and down from the attic to the basement. (I love rewiring. I get to point and say "Give me an outlet here, here, and here. With a switch there.")

But feeding Husband a little aged fruitcake gave me the best break of all. With the thought that we could run out of fruitcake in his head, he was happy to have me retreat into my kitchen for a little holiday baking. Yes, that holiday. Fruitcake needs a little time to soak in its juices, so it's time to do this now.

What makes this a great fruitcake recipe is that it contains none of what people hate about fruitcake, namely that weird candied fruit that no one can identify. This recipe (clipped years ago from Sunset Magazine) includes only dried fruit: apricots, pineapple, cherries, and cranberries.

The chopping is a little laborious (my food processor doesn't do a good job on gummy apricots) but beats the hell out of staining shingles.

The batter is little else than sugar, butter, eggs, molasses, flour, and a panoply of spices.

It barely holds together the mountain of fruit and nuts folded in before baking.

These slowly baking loaves will scent your house better than any candle, without risking the anyone becoming upset that there really isn't anything being made to eat.

The last step to this fruitcake before it is put to rest for a few weeks before holiday eating or gifting is a soak in a mixture of orange liqueur and apricot preserves. When taken out to slice and eat, it is a gooey delicious mess—quite different from that fruitcake that has been circling the globe the past century.


1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses

1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 pound (2 cups) pecan halves, chopped
1 pound dried apricots, chopped
1/2 pound dried lightly sweetened pineapple, chopped
1/2 pound dried cranberries
1/2 pound dried cherries

1 cup apricot preserves
1 cup orange liqueur

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Spray loaf pans with canola spray. This recipe makes about six small loaves.

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Beat in molasses.

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour and spices. Add to egg mixture and beat until just blended. Fold in pecans and dried fruit.

Spoon mixture into loaf pans, pressing down to eliminate air bubbles. Smooth each top level with a knife.

Bake for about 1 1/2 hours. Cool for 2 hours.

Combine preserves and liqueur in small pan and heat until preserves has melted and mixture is reduced slightly. Allow to cool a little. Place loaves in an air proof container and spoon mixture over to cover loaf and leave a slight puddle beneath. Seal and refrigerate for several weeks—the longer, the better.
Seriously, you will like it. Served with a little vanilla ice cream, you may love it.

About a million years ago when we were debating wedding cake selection, Husband ventured: "Maybe fruitcake?" We compromised with a small cake and many pies (the man just does not like regular cake), and I like to think that compromise set the stage for a great partnership: I love to make what he loves to eat. And I get all the outlets and switches I want.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What's shaking: My house

You'd probably have to have spent a little time at the House of Figs to understand why I think this is a beautiful site:

For year—yes, I said years—this part of the front of our house was covered with tarps. Sophie grew up playing under them, creating an installation filled with toys and tiny outdoor furniture that she called Fun Land. We had to pay admission to enter it.

But today it's a glorious construction site. We (I use that term loosely—I really mean Husband) have repaired the faulty foundation, wrapped it in copper sheeting, and a concrete company is now building forms for a raised garden bed and some brick steps. As a general contractor, it's hard for Husband to cede control of the homestead to other professionals. He's fussy and exacting, but he has paying work right now, so it's our only way of moving forward. I quizzed him as to how he selected the specific concrete contractor. He is the cheapest? No, not really. The very best? Hmmm . . . maybe. I wasn't buying it. There had to be something else.

When this parked itself in front of my house, it all became clear. They have their own bathroom. Which means they do not need to use our bathroom, which is hugely important. They're lovely men, and it's not that I have a problem with them in my home, but there is nothing my fastidious husband loves more than a clean bathroom. It's a little-known secret that I married him because he pees sitting down. Does that rock or what? And lest you consider this sissy behavior, know that my husband is the manliest of men—all 6'4" flannel plaid clad of him. Very sexy, actually.

The inside of the house, not so pretty. With the jackhamming of concurrent foundation repair, Husband was concerned that the contents of my cabinets could come bouncing out onto the floor, so everything from the front of my kitchen now resides on and under the dining room table. Not very convenient. Husband suggested some "simple dinners" for the next week or two.

Would you imagine that chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto qualifies as such?

It does! It's one of the easiest things I make and a weeknight favorite at our house.



You do it like this:


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim chicken breast, removing tenderloin. Slice open a pocket in each breast and fill with crumbled goat cheese. Close up the breast and wrap with a slice of prosciutto.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in an ovenproof pan. My old cast iron work perfectly for this. Saute chicken for a few minutes, flip each piece, and place pan in the oven to finish for about 15 minutes.

Rice, a green vegetable, and a salad completes the meal.

A little concrete, some brick, and some stone will complete the front of my house for now, later followed by some more shingles and new windows. It's all pretty exciting—work we've been saving and waiting for for years. But recent reports of snow in the Sierras and viewing of this season's Warren Miller movie have caused us to utter the unthinkable: "Screw the house. Time to ski." Almost.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sophie and I make some choices

The other weekend I took Sophie to the Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibit at the De Young. We went all the way across the Bay Bridge to the exotic city of San Francisco. Given how close we are in Berkeley, it's amazing how infrequently we go. But then I add up the bridge and cross-town traffic and the $16 parking garage fee (for this trip add on the exhibit tickets, the audio tour, a small visit to the gift shop, and lunch) and it all becomes clear.

But some things you've just got to do. How often can you drive your car to see a painting like this?

The Musée d'Orsay is doing a little remodeling and so thoughtfully sent some of their art to San Francisco (the only city in North America to host this collection) for a vacation.

My brief foray into art history via undergraduate general ed. requirements leaves me in questionable position to guide Sophie through a meaningful art experience, but this one was pretty easy: These guys got sick of painting what everyone wanted to see and buy and went off the rails to paint what they wanted to, limiting themselves not only to what they saw but what they felt. And not only wealthy people who could afford to commission paintings but ordinary people doing ordinary things. They messed with light, time, theory, and—as we saw in the optics of Pointillism—science.

We felt we were in on the joke a few days later watching Ferris Bueller's friend Cameron experience La Grande Jatte at the Chicago Institute of Art on their day out. We had done the same thing—stand close, move farther back. As your eyes go in, the picture fades into a field of dots. Cameron gets lost in the painting. I like to imagine this is where the switch was tripped that allowed him to eventually take his stand.

Sophie and I both appreciated many of the same paintings, but our favorites were vastly different. I liked some of the Monet landscapes, with dappled soft light playing off a snowy field or a wandering river. And of course Van Gough's self-portrait and room at Arles.

Sophie's favorite was The Snake Charmer by Rousseau. I'm not crazy about the stylized vegetation, but she loved the cool calm sense of nature it evoked. And of course snakes are always cool. We bought a small print of this on our way out ("You sure you wouldn't like one of Starry Night??"), and it's hanging in her room's new reading corner.

Her choice of lunch was equally adventurous in my eyes.

In keeping with the exhibit, the cafe featured a French theme. While I chose a more pedestrian sandwich, Sophie selected and enjoyed an open-faced hot mushroom sandwich topped with a warm poached egg.

Our tastes agreed in neither painting nor sandwich, but I love her all the more for appreciating my favorites but choosing her own. I choose her.