Friday, December 26, 2008

I learned how to make biscotti from my Sicilian grandmother. She always made the ones with almonds, and for many years, I didn't realize there was any other kind of biscotti. I know better now, and for a change of pace this holiday, I made a batch of orange-pecan biscotti. Like so many of the recipes I post, this one is not difficult, but it does take a little bit of time. When you dunk your biscotti into your coffee the next morning, you won't regret the afternoon of baking!

Below is the recipe (adapted from a recipe in the Fine Cooking cookie issue and from my grandmother's recipe).

Orange-Pecan Biscotti
12 ounces white flour
1-1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup orange zest, finely chopped (zest of two oranges)
1 cup chopped pecans
3 large eggs
5 tablespoons olive oil (yep, it's fabulous)
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (for a stronger flavor, you can double this)
To make the dough:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats.
2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
3. Put a little of the flour mixture into a small cup and add the orange zest. Mix to keep it from clumping and then add to the rest of the flour mixture.
4. Add pecans.
5. In a small bowl, blend the eggs, olive oil, orange juice, and Grand Marnier until well blended.
6. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the egg mixture. Stir until the dough is blended. (It will be a sticky dough.)

To make the logs (or loaves):
1. On a heavily floured surface, cut off six pieces of dough of equal size. Roll each one into a log about 12 inches long. Place three logs on each cookie sheet, allowing room between each one. Flatten each log so that it's about 2 inches wide. (An easier method--for bigger, longer biscotti--is to divide the cookie dough in half. Form a loaf from each half, about 12 inches long by 2 inches wide. Place one loaf on each cookie sheet.)

2. Bake until the logs are golden and the tops are firm, about 23 minutes. Rotate the cookies sheets halfway through this first cooking (from top to bottom shelf and vice versa) to ensure even baking. (For the loaf method, follow this same step with about the same timing.)
3. Remove the logs or loaves from the oven and cool for a few minutes (until cool enough to handle).
4. Transfer logs/loaves to a cutting surface and with a serated knife cut the logs into cookies about 1/2-inch thick. (Cut the loaves into bigger slices, about 1-inch thick.)
5. Put the slices back onto the cookie sheets, one of the cut sides up, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes (for the log biscotti) or for another 15-20 minutes (for the loaf biscotti). You can't really go wrong with the baking time (unless you truly burn the biscotti). A shorter baking time makes chewy biscotti, while a longer baking time makes crunchier biscotti. Follow your preference.
*Makes about 65 small cookies (and roughly half that if you go with the loaf method)

Friday, December 19, 2008

One Christmas several years ago, I made a batch of molasses cookies, and as is my wont, I overbaked them. Instead of chewy cookies, they were hard. But because I hadn't actually burned them, they were still edible. A couple days later, SJG made a batch, and hers were perfect. We packed up all the cookies, SJG's and mine, to divvy up between my mother's Wisconsin household and my father's, where SJG and I were spending the holiday that year.

SJG's cookies were a hit, of course. Mine were ignored until all the others had been eaten up. They didn't go to waste though. When we had returned home, my mother called. "I've found a way to eat those cookies" she chortled. "They are PERFECT if you dunk them in milk! Why don't you send me some more," she continued. "But send me SJG's, not yours!"

This year, in fond memory of my mother, I made a batch of those molasses cookies. And I didn't overbake them.

Below is the recipe, adapted from the cookie edition of Fine Cooking that came out last month. The dough requires refrigeration before baking, so plan accordingly.

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature or softened in the microwave (I like to use premium butter for baking)
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup molasses (I like the strong, full flavor of blackstrap molasses, but any unsulphured molasses works well)
1 egg
granulated sugar for rolling the cookie dough in

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, spices, and salt.
2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar together with an electric mixer and add the canola oil.
3. Add the molasses and the egg to the butter mixture and blend well.
4. Stir in the flour mixture and combine well.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap or put it in a plastic bag and refrigerate for about 3 hours.

To bake:
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Pinch off a walnut-sized piece of cookie dough and roll it in your palms to form
a smooth ball. (It's a messy process, so you may want to wash your hands after you've rolled a sheet of cookies.)
3. Roll the ball in granulated sugar to coat. Place on a lightly greased cookie
sheet (or you can use a Silpat mat instead of greasing the cookie sheet).
4. Repeat the process until you've used all the cookie dough. Sprinkle each ball
of dough on the cookie sheet with a little extra granulated sugar.
5. Bake 8-9 minutes until the center surface of the cookies is dry. Avoid the
temptation to overbake.
6. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes after you've taken them
out of the oven. Cool completely on a wire rack before storing. These cookies
freeze well.

*Makes about 2-1/2 sheets of cookies (roughly 36 cookies)

Friday, December 12, 2008

My mother killed herself six years ago this week. I felt close to her in the many months after her death. Really close. She came to me in my dreams, in frequent unexplained waftings of her perfume, in unanticipated bursts of the Mozart she used to play strong in my mind. I never really felt she’d completely left me behind. It seemed we inhabited a grey space somewhere between the living and the dead.

Years later I find we no longer live there together. I’ve shifted back to the realm of the living, and she to that of the dead. I miss meeting her in my dreams and have begun to wonder if, after a certain passing of time, the living and the dead lose their point of intersection forever.

My study is one of my favorite rooms in the house. It has my books, SJG’s clothes, all my personal papers, favorite framed prints, a comfortable reading chair and one of my mother’s lamps, and an assortment of the framed family photographs and artworks I gathered from her apartment after she died.

On a recent evening, I was in my study looking for something to show SJG when suddenly my bridal bouquet, dried and fragile now, fell from the bookcase behind me onto the floor. Wondering how the bouquet could have jettisoned from its sure perch, I bent down to pick up the scattered petals. Just as suddenly, one of the wooden hair sticks flew out of my tightly knotted bun, skidded across the floor, and split in two.

And then I noticed the photograph. The square black-and-white one from the 1950s. Fallen from its corner of my grandmother’s cross-stitched sampler, where it’s been tucked for six years. The one of my mother holding me, an infant, in front of her face. Where we’re smiling at each other as if there is no one else in the world worth smiling at. That makes me smile again and forget all the suffering. And that confirms for me that it is she, with me now in this room, at our point of intersection.

Friday, December 05, 2008

SJG and I love roasting as a culinary method. It's easy to do and brings out the sweet, complex flavor of so many foods. So when I saw a recipe recently in the November 18, 2008, New York Times food section for roasted fingerling potatoes, figs, and garlic (photo above by Francesco Tonelli for the New York Times), I decided to give it a whirl.

Everyone to whom I've mentioned this recipe says, "Oooh, that sounds awful," but I'm here to tell you that SJG--who had the same negative reaction--was fighting with me for the leftovers afterwards! Below is the recipe, adapted, as usual, for my tastes and methods.

1/2 to 3/4 pounds dried black mission figs (available at most coops)

1-1/2 to 2 cups brewed black tea (I used Twining's English Breakfast, but plain old Lipton black tea is fine too)

2 to 3 pounds small potatoes, sliced in half (you can use Yukon golds, fingerlings,
or banana potatoes, a fingerling-style potato we discovered recently at our local coop)

2-3 heads fresh garlic, separated into individual cloves with the paper still on each one (choose big heads with big cloves)

10 sprigs thyme (I used dried sprigs from a pot I have in our kitchen)

1/3 cup olive oil (enough to lightly coat everything)

salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a large bowl, soak figs in tea overnight. (Don't skip this step since it allows the dried fruit to withstand high heat during the roasting process.)
2. When ready to prepare the dish, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. While the oven is heating, wash the potatoes and slice them in half the long way (to provide the biggest, broadest surface of flesh).
4. In a large bowl, combine the garlic cloves, thyme, drained figs, sliced potatoes, and olive oil.
5. Place on a large roasting sheet (a heavy duty cookie sheet is fine) and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste. Roast for about 30-40 minutes, tossing the potatoes with a spatula at about 15 or 20 minutes to ensure even baking. The potatoes are done when they have a nice golden brown color and you can easily pierce the flesh with a fork.
6. Serves 2-4 people. (Note that diners are meant to remove the paper of each garlic clove as part of the meal and eat the sweet roasted garlic meat with a bite of potato and fig. My photo below. Delicious!)

Monday, November 24, 2008


I was in San Antonio this weekend to present on a publishers panel at a teachers conference. The event forced me (willingly) to learn PowerPoint, which was fun to put together and even more delightful to put into practice, complete with remote control.

While in Texas, I found time to enjoy some of the local flavor and came home with two terrific new cookie cutters (above), Texas style. I also pondered
this literary challenge, which came to me via a colleague at home. I'm not particularly good at "what ifs," so I was pleased to attend a session at the conference devoted to ideas for using wikis, Facebook, text messaging, blogs, and the like in the classroom. One presenter wondered if Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield would be Facebook friends, and the challenge was solved. Click on the link above and see what combinations you come up with!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

SJG and I raked leaves this morning, which somehow put me in the mood for baking cookies this afternoon. The temperatures have begun to dip below freezing lately, and since cold weather often makes me want to do things with food and the oven, I took a look at the latest issue of "Fine Cooking" to see if I might be inspired by something in its pages.

In anticipation of holiday baking, this month's issue is devoted to cookies. I was immediately drawn to the section on shortbread and chose a recipe for espresso shortbread cookies dipped in chocolate. They're gorgeous--and delicious!

Below is the recipe, which I adapted for my methods and to make fewer cookies overall.

Chocolate-Dipped Espresso Shortbread
(Makes about 30 cookies)
1-1/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 ounces flour
1 tablespoon finely ground espresso beans

5 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 tablespoon canola oil

1. In a large bowl, blend the butter, sugar, and salt. (I had better luck doing this by hand than with a mixer.)
2. Sift the ground coffee into the flour and add to the butter mixture, combining until the dough pulls together and forms a ball easily.
3. Prepare two cookie sheets by placing parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat on each one.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the cookie dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a cookie cutter of the desired shape (I used a bell), cut out individual cookies and place them on the cookie sheets.
5. Chill the cookies on the cookie sheets in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.
6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Bake both sheets of cookies at once, using racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
7. Bake the cookies for about 35 minutes total, until the tops look dry and the color has darkened a bit. For even baking, switch the sheets about halfway through cooking so the top sheet is on the bottom and the bottom sheet is on top for the final baking time.
8. When done, allow the cookies to cool completely before dipping in chocolate. (I took them off the sheets and cooled on clean parchment paper.)

1. Melt the chocolate with the canola oil in a double boiler. If you don't have a double boiler, put the chocolate in a small saucepan placed over simmering water in a larger saucepan.
2. When the chocolate is melted, turn off the heat and dip half of each cookie into the melted chocolate. Don't separate the sections of the double boiler, since the chocolate needs to stay warm and smooth for the dipping. Set each dipped cookie onto parchment paper and allow the chocolate to set (about 2 hours) before storing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

We ate so well in San Francisco that when we returned home, we were inspired to try some new recipes we've wanted to make for a long time. With an abundance of local autumn squash to choose from, I right away made stuffed acorn squash and a beet salad topped with goat cheese and fresh mint. I served the meal with foccacia, baked with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, from our local coop. It was a fabulous, filling, and beautiful dinner.

The squash recipe comes from the Fall 2008 edition of a glossy grocery-store magazine called Real Food, published by Greenspring Media Group. Below is the recipe, adapted to my methods.

2 large acorn squash, cut in half through the "equator" and seeded
2 leeks, cleaned and chopped
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large eggplant, cut into small bite-sized cubes
2 small to medium zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 cup milk (I used 2 percent)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3-4 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper, to taste
shaved Parmesan

1. Wrap each squash half in tin foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, until the meat of the squash is soft. Set aside to cool.

2. In a large frying pan, saute the chopped leeks in the olive oil for about 3-5 minutes over medium heat, until the leeks are soft and starting to brown.

3. Add the eggplant and cook for about 5 minutes over medium to high heat, stirring often. Add the zucchini and cook for 5 minutes.

4. Add the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes.

5. Add the milk, thyme, spices, and garlic. Cook until the mixture has softened and thickened (about 20 minutes or so).

6. Add the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir until combined.

7. Fill each squash half with the vegetable filling, and top each one with shaved Parmesan. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through (about 10-15 minutes). Meanwhile, make the pepper sauce below.

2 large sweet red peppers, seeded and chopped into big pieces
3 cloves garlic, cut in half
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
salt, to taste

1. Place pepper pieces and garlic in a medium saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat. Simmer for 15 minutes until the peppers are soft.

2. Transfer the contents to a blender or food processor, add butter, and blend until smooth. Add salt to taste.

For color effect, serve the squash on white plates. Drizzle the pepper sauce generously over each piece. Serves 2-4 people.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

SJG and I tied the knot before a judge at City Hall in San Francisco on Wednesday October 8, 2008, with friends and family in attendance. We're legal!

Friday, August 22, 2008

At work, I normally avoid all the sweets that people bring in. Partly, it's because I don't like to eat sugar, and then crash, at work; partly it's because many of the things people offer aren't homemade and don't appeal to me. But this week a coworker brought in chocolate cupcakes made with Guinness--yes, beer--and topped with espresso cream frosting. They are the best cupcakes I've ever had. I ate two of them.

The recipe has a lengthy lineage. My coworker found it on a blog called A Mingling of Tastes, which adapted the recipe from The Detroit Free Press newspaper via another blog (devoted to cupcakes) called Cupcakes Take the Cake, and from a recipe by the Food Network's Dave Lieberman from Dave’s Dinners cookbook(Hyperion, 2006). The frosting is adapted from The Betty Crocker Cookbook (I can't verify which edition). I've adapted it additionally for my own methods and tastes, and the photo credit goes to A Mingling of Tastes.

Guinness Cupcakes with Espresso Cream Frosting

For cupcakes or cake:
1 stick unsalted butter (premium butters are great for baking)
12 oz. Guinness
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup cocoa powder (use a high-quality powder such as Penzey's)
1 teaspoon salt
1-¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup sour cream
3 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill two 12-count muffin pans with paper baking cups or grease a 9 x 13 cake pan for a single layer cake.

2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, Guinness and vanilla. Stir occasionally until butter is melted. Pour into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.

3. In another large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda. Gradually combine with the Guinness mixture. Beat in the sour cream, then beat in the eggs one at a time.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pans (or cake pan), filling each cup about three-quarters full. Bake cupcakes for about 25 minutes (30 minutes for the cake) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Leave cupcakes in the pan to cool for 5 minutes, then finish cooling on a wire rack. Frost cupcakes or cake when cooled completely.

*Makes 24 cupcakes or one 9 x 13 layer cake.

For frosting:
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)
3 tablespoons espresso (make your own or use instant powder)

In a large bowl, combine the sugar and butter. Pour in the espresso mixture and beat until frosting is smooth and creamy.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Just about every summer, SJG and I spend a week in a cabin on a lake in the North Woods. Over the years, we've developed a daily routine of morning walks, afternoon swims and sunning on the dock, and yoga and reading in the early evening. We bring our entire kitchen battery with us to cook. For dinners this year, we made a broccoli-artichoke-pepper pizza, pesto with garden tomatoes and green beans, burgers and roasted potatoes, and a Shore Lunch (fried walleye, mashed potatoes, and cooked carrots).

Part of the pleasure of our North Woods trip is picking wild blueberries along a rocky outcropping just a few miles down the road from our cabin. We generally pick about a quart of blueberries every visit, but this year we brought home two gallons. A huge forest fire last year, followed by a cool, wet spring, produced a bumper crop of blueberries this year. They're big and fat and everywhere. Even SJG, who loses patience after about five minutes of harvesting, was gleeful--and grasping. When she spotted a party of pickers emerging from their foray loaded down with ten-gallon buckets, she said, "Knock 'em over the head, grab the buckets, and run!"

Naturally, our breakfasts have been on the blueberry theme: blueberry waffles, blueberry oatmeal, and blueberry scones. Back in the city this morning, SJG made a triple batch of blueberry bran muffins, and I'm drying off three big cookie sheets of blueberries in preparation for freezing the remainder. It's blueberry heaven around here!

Below is my recipe for blueberry scones, adapted from a recipe my sister found years ago in an English recipe booklet.

Blueberry Scones
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup finely cut oats
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons butter, room temperature or slightly colder
1 egg + buttermilk to make 1/2 cup total

3-4 tablespoons fresh blueberries
milk + sugar for coating the top

1. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter to make a nice mealy mixture.
2. Beat the egg and the buttermilk lightly, until blended. Stir into the flour mixture.
3. Gently stir in the blueberries.
4. On a floured surface, gently pat out the dough into a circular shape until about 1/2-inch thick. (Don't overwork the dough.) Use a pastry brush to spread a little milk over the top of the dough, then sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of sugar over the top for a crispy, sugary finish.
5. Cut the dough in half down the center and then in half again for four triangular scones. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 11-12 minutes. Serve straight out of the oven.
*Serves two to four people.

Friday, August 08, 2008

I'm not a chocoholic the way SJG is, but I do recognize chocolate heaven when I come across it. Last weekend, our good friend Jeff paid a visit on his way home from seeing his parents. He and his boyfriend are our best foodie friends, and we go back a long way. Jeff's also just been appointed chair of his university department, so to welcome him and to celebrate his august duties and responsibilities, I made a chocolate torte of equal grandeur. Below is the recipe. (The recipe has several steps. If you have the right ingredients and equipment, you'll find that it's an easy easy recipe. And you'll wow your convives with the results!)

Chocolate Mousse Torte
(adapted from Fine Cooking magazine/March 2008)
1 recipe ganache (below)
2 tablespoons espresso coffee (optional)
6 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
butter for the springform cake pan
confectioner's sugar to decorate the cake


12 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate (at least 55-60% cacao), chopped coarsely
1 cup heavy cream

1. Grind the chocolate in a food processor for 30 seconds. It'll look sort of like cornmeal.
2. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Add to the chocolate in the food processor and blend about 10 seconds, until smooth. Add the espresso coffee and blend again briefly. Transfer the ganache into a large mixing bowl and set aside while you make the torte.

To Make the Torte:
1. Use about one tablespoon of softened butter to generously butter the inside of a
9- or 10-inch springform pan.
2. Wrap the outside of the springform pan with a sheet or two of heavy-duty tin foil. Set the wrapped pan in a roasting pan. (Don't skip this tin-foil step, otherwise you'll end up with a soggy torte.)
3. Bring a full kettle of water to the boil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
4. In a large bowl, whip the eggs, sugar, flour, and cinnamon with an electric mixer until doubled (or even tripled) in volume. This takes 6 minutes (use a timer).

5. Add about one-third of the egg mixture (above) to the ganache and mix gently with a rubber spatula until combined. Add the rest of the egg mixture to the ganache and fold in until well blended and no signs of egg remain.
6. Pour the batter into the springform pan (which you've already set in the roasting pan). Add 1 to 1-1/2 inches of boiling water to the roasting pan.
7. Bake the torte until a dry crust forms on the top and the edges are set but the center of the torte is still wobbly when you jiggle the pan. This takes about 20 minutes for a 9-inch pan, and about 23-25 minutes for a 10-inch pan.
8. When the torte is done, remove it from the roasting pan and take off the foil. Cool the torte (still in the springform pan) on a wire rack to room temperature. Refrigerate the torte (still in the springform pan) until completely set (at least 3 hours, or overnight).

To Unmold and Serve the Torte:
1. To unmold the torte, remove the springform ring. Put a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the torte and invert the torte onto a cookie sheet.
2. Using a long, thin-bladed knife or metal icing spatula, carefully remove the bottom of the pan. Invert the torte again onto a large serving plate and remove the plastic wrap.
3. To decorate the torte, place about 1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar in a small sieve and dust the top of the cake. Or you can use a stencil (I chose a crown pattern, above) to dust a confectioner's sugar design onto the top of the torte.
4. To slice the torte, run a thin-bladed knife under hot water, wipe dry, and slice a piece of the torte. Repeat for each slice. Serve plain or with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Wow!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Ice cream! When my sister and her friend Bink went to Sicily last spring, they came back raving about the basil ice cream. My sister begged me to make it, and I kept putting it off, thinking it sounded....odd. This year, I've noticed that local shops and restaurants are offering basil ice cream on their menus. So I decided to bow to my sister's wisdom when my father was in town a couple weekends ago (see "Movie Memories" post below). Served with a light drizzle of crushed strawberries in their own juice or with a scoop of chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla ice cream, basil ice cream is absolutely heavenly. Here's the recipe:

Basil Ice Cream
(adapted from Gourmet, as posted on

2 cups milk (I usually mix whole milk and 2 percent; the higher the fat content, the more quickly the milk will churn and the creamier the final texture will be)
3 generous tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup sugar, divided in two
pinch of salt
4 large eggs, separated (you won't need the whites)
1 cup chilled whipping cream, whipped until barely stiff just before churning

1) In a medium-sized saucepan, bring milk, chopped basil, 1/4 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt to a boil very slowly. (Doing it too quickly can lead to curdling.)
2) Remove from heat and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes.
3) Transfer to a blender (not a food processor, which won't get the blend smooth enough) and blend until basil is finely ground and the mixture is totally smooth (about 1 minute).
4) In a large bowl, beat together the yegg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer until thick and pale (about 1 minute). Slowly add the milk-basil mixture, beating until combined well.
5) Transfer to a saucepan and cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture reaches 175 degrees F. Do not allow mixture to boil.(I use an old-fashioned meat thermometer to register the temperature, but a digital thermometer is more precise and easier to read.) This heating step ensures the safety of the eggs, but be sure to heat slowly since rapid heating and/or boiling leads to curdling.
6) When the temperature is at 175 degrees, remove from heat right away and strain the mixture through a sieve a couple times (the finer the mesh the better) into a metal bowl. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature (about 10-15 minutes) and then cover and put in the refrigerator to chill (at least 2 hours or overnight).
7) Just before you're ready to churn the ice cream, beat the whipping cream until it's barely stiff and stir it into the chilled dairy-basil mixture. Follow the directions of your ice-cream maker to churn and/or freeze the ice cream.

*Basil ice cream is surprisingly mild in flavor, so I like to serve it plain or with a very light drizzle of crushed fresh strawberries. For visual effect, you can also serve it with contrasting ice cream(s), such as vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate. Serves about four people.

Tip A: Although it's tempting, don't skip any of the cooling and chilling steps. The colder the dairy mixture, the more quickly it will churn and/or freeze and harden.

Tip B: Making ice cream is easy, but it can be time consuming. I often divide the process into two stages over two days. On day 1, I prepare the dairy mixture up through step 6 (overnight refrigeration). The next day, when I'm ready to churn the ice cream, I beat the whipping cream and carry on with step 7.

Friday, July 25, 2008

In the family tradition of tackling one thematic topic during my father’s summer visit, the four of us—SJG, my sister, my father, and I--sat on the back porch all afternoon last Sunday to discuss “movie moments.” In a wide-ranging discussion, we made lists of favorite movies, memorable quotes from movies, iconic American movies, best international movies, groundbreaking movies, and everything in between. Later, as I pondered how to organize our stream-of-consciousness observations, it came to me that my father has the most emblematic film memories. Below are his top five.

The Firefly (1937)
My father has loved movies his whole life. As a young boy, he went to the Comet movie theater in Milwaukee every week for double features and, along with all the other children in the audience, shot paper clips at the movie screen and released the flatulence that gave the movie house its "gas house" moniker.

As a six-year-old boy, his favorite movie was The Firefly (above), a smash hit of the late 1930s, starring Allan Jones (left) and Jeannette MacDonald. In this musical romance, Allan Jones--mounted on a white steed--serenades Jeannette MacDonald as she rides in a coach through a desert landscape accompanied by her dark-haired duena. Crooning "The Donkey Serenade" in a robust tenor voice, Jones is able to catch the attention of his seemingly insouciant love interest. As the song comes to a close, Jones raises his arms in a swell of dramatic feeling--and falls off his horse. The carriage continues along, and the horse makes his way back to Jones, who kisses him on the nose. To this day, my father can still be caught singing to himself, "There's a song in the air/But the fair senorita/Doesn't seem to care/For the song in the air."

Pearl Harbor (1941)
Just a few years later, on December 7, 1941, my father learned of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pear Harbor, Hawaii (above)--at the movies. Instead of the usual Movietone News reels that preceded and followed each feature film, staff at the Jackson theater had quickly scrawled on a piece of paper (with a backwards "N") and projected onto the screen, "JAPAN BOMBED PEARL HARBOR!" Even as a nine-year-old boy, my father understood that the announcement meant war for the United States.

The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
After World War II, in which two of my father's brothers served, he saw
The Sands of Iwo Jima, a 1949 film starring John Wayne as Sergeant John Stryker. The Academy Award-nominated film re-creates the drama of the 1945 battle, in which some 28,000 American and 21,000 Japanese soldiers died in the struggle to gain control of the Japanese island. The battle was forever captured in the American psyche through the classic image (above) by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Allied flag raising atop the island's Mount Suribachi. My father denies that he is an impressionable romantic, but it's an empty claim. After the movie, he charged up Wells Street all the way home.

Fanfan La Tulipe (1952)

By the early 1950s, my father had left Milwaukee to study in New York City. There, at the Fine Arts theater, he saw Fanfan La Tulipe, a 1952 French costume drama starring Bosley Crowther's "Italian doll"--Gina Lollobrigida(left). In this swashbuckling romance, Lollobrigida plays Adeline, a luscious young gypsy woman in eighteenth-century France. She fabricates for Fanfan--a handsome peasant played by Gerard Philipe--a prediction of a glorious, romantic future.

My father's memory of the film is the way in which dialogue--in the era of censorship mania--captured lust without showing very much at all. From a tree below which Adeline is standing at one point in the film, Fanfan looks out over the landscape, remarking, as the camera highlights Adeline's revealing peasant blouse, "I can see right down the valley!" Indeed, Adeline's "valley" is irresistable, and her romatic vision comes true. She and Fanfan fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after.

Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Twenty years later, in 1973, the United States was at the height of a sexual revolution. Romantic notions of bucolic love had vanished, replaced by unblinking, graphic portrayals of human sexual drive. Perhaps no other film captured the era so well as Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1973 film about a chance encounter between Paul, an American expatriate in Paris (played by Marlon Brando), and Jeanne, a much younger Parisian woman (played by Maria Schneider). The encounter turns into a loveless three-day, sex-only affair in which the couple (above) engage in every sexual act imaginable. Viewed as obscene by some and critically acclaimed by others, the film was known for the "Go get the butter" scene--an explicit portrayal of anal sex that takes place on the floor with butter as the lubricant.

My father denies that the sexual revolution impacted him, despite the fact that he and my mother divorced at about this time and were young enough, each of them, to move on to other relationships. The Tango scene that sticks in my father's mind as the heart of the movie is not the butter scene. It's a scene in which Paul and Tom, Jeanne's fiance (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), sit on the end of a bed to commiserate about their shared experiences of Jeanne's betrayals. Amazingly unaware of the fact, they each wear matching robes given to them by her.

My father says he had the same experience--minus the butter scene. In high school, he and another boy were in love with the same redhead, who jilted them both for a third fellow at a beachside party. My father and the castoff lover shared their grievances on the sands of Lake Michigan that night. Which proves to me that we bring our own lives to the movies--a giant reflecting surface for the human story.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


This weekend, SJG and I reserved the date and bought the Gehry ring (right) at Tiffany's. So mark your calendars for Wednesday October 8, 2008. At two o'clock in the afternoon, at City Hall in San Francisco, we'll do the paperwork for our marriage license, and at three o'clock, the marriage ceremony will take place!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You know you're an adult when you spend your economic stimulus package on a new boiler--and you're excited about it. SGJ and I spent ours on the boiler at left (we have radiator heat, so it's technically a boiler, not a furnace). The crew came out on Friday to do the job on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer so far. With high humidity, the heat index was well above 100 degrees. And then they had to test the boiler after it was installed, so it was roasting at my house that day.

I've read that a large percentage of Americans are using their checks to pay down debt, others are putting the money into savings, and the rest are spending it outright. My sister gave a big chunk of her "free" money to a program that provides laptop computers to children in underdeveloped countries. My father is using his for travel. What are you using yours for?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


For breakfast every day, my father makes four-grain hot cereal. For my visit, he's bought fresh berries to put on top. Unlike him, SJG and I make our cereal double-boiler style, with milk, the way my Missouri grandmother taught me. It makes for an extra-creamy, smooth texture. Here's how:

Four-Grain Hot Cereal Double-Boiler Style
1-1/2 cups dry cereal grains (we mix oatmeal, rye flakes, wheat flakes, and bran flakes in equal measure)
3 cups milk

1) Put water to boil in the bottom of a double boiler.
2) Measure out the cereal grains into the top of the double boiler. Add milk.
3) When the water begins to boil, turn down the heat to a low to medium flame and cook the cereal (covered) for about 45 minutes, until smooth and creamy.
4) Serve with your favorite toppings. SJG and I like brown sugar, fresh fruits, and nuts, plus a little extra milk.

Note: This recipe makes about 4 servings, and you can adapt the amount of cereal by increasing or decreasing the amount of grains and liquid. Whatever you do, just do it in a 2-to-1 ratio (2 parts liquid to 1 part cereal grains).

After breakfast, it's time to head home. I kiss the cats good-bye, and my father helps me pack up the car. On the way out of town, I fill up with gas. It's $3.99 a gallon, which by this time next year will probably seem like a bargain.

All along the interstate in Wisconsin, roadside vendors offer fireworks for sale. Since it's illegal to sell them where I live, I stop at one of the tents to see the selection. I choose a small box of old-fashioned sparklers. SJG and I never get around to lighting them on the Fourth of July; I think the fun was in buying them.

Five long hours later (I'm a rotten solo driver), I pull into my driveway. Buddy flies out the back door of the house and down the porch steps to greet me as if I've been away for months. I'm home.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Harry (above) loves windows and spends most of the night sleeping in a windowsill in my father's bedroom. In the early morning hours, Harry comes to check on me, jumping onto the bed to investigate, leaping into the nearby windowsill, and jumping back onto the bed for attention.

Saturday is a sunny, breezy day, perfect for walking downtown along the lakefront. I've asked the Soap Opera to set aside fifteen bars of Tallba soap. I can't find this Swedish, pine-scented soap where SJG and I live, even though our part of the world was settled by Scandinavians.

After we pick up the soap, my father and I drive into the country to
the Flower Factory. This nursery offers more than four thousand varieties of hardy perennials. I love the drive through the rolling hills of southeastern Wisconsin and have filled my gardens at home with Flower Factory plants. On this visit, I choose deep red Asiatic lilies, to pair with purple Veronica, and maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) in a variety of colors, placement to be determined.

My father waits for me in a shady display garden. It's a quiet day at the nursery, and we sit together on a bench holding hands and watching the hummingbirds at the feeders.

Dark clouds roll in, bringing heavy rain and high winds. We race to the nearest hoop house to wait out the storm. When the skies clear, it's time to go home. Filets mignons await us there.

Monday, June 30, 2008


These are my father's hands. I drove to Wisconsin to visit him this weekend.

On the way, I stopped at the roadside Carr Valley cheese shop. They have great baby Swisses and aged cheddars. The cheese mouse (above) looks out over the access road that leads from the interstate straight to the shop.

Lavender spiderwort carpeted the median and the shoulder of the interstate the entire trip--all 275 miles of it.

Traffic is steady all the way. The interstate at Portage (above) was flooded the weekend of my birthday, which is why I had to postpone the visit to my father's house until this weekend. The area smells bad now, and fields in low-lying areas are still swamped. They look like lakes.

When I arrived, my father and I went out for Friday night fish fry--a Wisconsin institution--at the popular Avenue Bar. We each had deep-fried cod, cottage fries, cole slaw, and pint-sized beers. After dinner, we played 20 Questions and stumped each other with "maps" and "digital television converter box." We go to bed looking forward to Saturday.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


While waiting for SJG to help our aged friend Marion through the checkout line at the supermarket the other day, I idly picked up the store’s glossy food magazine, which focused in that particular edition on summer cooking. In it, I found a wonderfully simple and delicious recipe for curried carrot soup. The name doesn’t have much romance, so I prefer the Frenchified “carrot velouté,” which, even if you don’t speak a word of French, sounds like the velvety smoothness that any cream soup offers.

The soup takes less than an hour to make and is beautiful when served. Pair it with a cold couscous salad and a piece of pocket bread for a light yet filling summer meal.

Carrot Velouté
• 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
• 3 cups veggie or chicken broth
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 2-4 cloves garlic, paper removed and chopped
• 1-2 teaspoons peeled, chopped fresh ginger
• 1 teaspoon curry powder (use the mildest, sweetest variety you can find so
as not to overwhelm the carrot flavor)
• ½ teaspoon ground cumin
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup milk (or 2 cups for a milkier, milder, thinner soup)
• ½ cup plain yogurt (I like thick Greek-style yogurt, and you can use way
more than ½ cup, depending on your tastes)
• ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1) In a large saucepan, combine the carrots, broth, onion, garlic, ginger,
curry powder, cumin, and salt.
2) Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over low to medium heat about 15-20
minutes, until the carrots are soft.
3) Using a ladle, transfer the soup (solids and liquids) into a blender. Puree
a little bit at a time until very smooth. (Don’t use a food processor for
this. It won’t puree the soup to the desired smoothness.)
4) For a hot soup, transfer the pureed velouté to the original saucepan and
stir in the milk and yogurt. Heat slowly, to avoid curdling the yogurt.
5) For a cold soup, transfer the pureed velouté into a bowl and stir in the
milk and yogurt. Cover and refrigerate for a couple hours before serving.

*To serve, choose bowls in a contrasting color (green or yellow are lovely). For extra panache, serve the velouté in low-ball glasses. Either way, top each serving with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Since all was akimbo for my birthday this year, I made a pineapple upside-down cake (above) as this year's birthday cake. SJG thought it quite odd to stray from my favorites: white cake with coconut frosting or an almond cream cake, with its luscious whipping cream base. But I wasn't in the mood for the traditional thing, and since I hadn't made this cake for years and years, it seemed fun to do.

As these things go, we didn't even eat the cake on my birthday. Our neighbor and friend, Peter, announced Plan C shortly after I posted the Plan B blog entry below. Feeling sorry that my birthday plans had gone amuck, Peter treated SJG and me to birthday burger and beer at a trendy neighborhood eatery. There, for dessert, they served us an on-the-house slice of red velvet chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting--complete with a sparkler candle. After that, too full for even one more bite, we waited until the next evening to eat the upside-down cake, which my cake-baking friend in Chicago reports is included in his latest favorite cookbook, Birthday Cakes, by Kathryn Kleinman and Carolyn Miller. This gorgeous cookbook (published in 2004) is devoted entirely to birthday cakes and pulls recipes from great chefs such as Julia Child, James Beard, Alice Waters, Patricia Wells, and others. Who knew I was among such good company?

Here's my recipe for upside-down cake. It comes from my mother's recipe box and is written out on a yellow index file card in her handwriting and mine, complete with cake batter stains. Feel free to substitute other fruit toppings if you don't like pineapple. Halved plums, apricots, or figs work well, for example.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup white sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, softened to room temperature, + 2 tablespoons butter
2 separated eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup brown sugar
1 can sliced pineapple (about 8 rings)

1. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
2. In a separate big bowl, cream together the white sugar and the stick of butter.
3. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks directly into the creamed butter
mixture. Put the whites in a separate bowl to whip later.
4. Measure the milk and add the vanilla to it.
5. Add the milk and flour alternately to the creamed butter mixture.
6. Beat the egg whites to the soft peak stage. Fold gently into the cake batter.
7. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a lightweight, oven-worthy frying pan. (I use
a Farberware skillet.) Add the brown sugar and spread it out as evenly as
possible over the bottom of the pan.
8. Drain the pineapple rings and place them in a circular pattern, as pictured above,
on top of the brown sugar.
9. Spoon the cake batter on top of the pineapple.

Bake the cake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees until the cake is nicely browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

When done, immediately turn the cake onto a large, round plate or platter. (To do so, place the plate over the top of the skillet and, using hot pads, quickly flip the skillet and the plate together so that the plate ends up on the bottom and the cake can drop out of the skillet.) Don't remove the skillet for a few minutes, so as to allow the cake to slide out smoothly on its own.

This cake is best served the same day when still slightly warm.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Today is my birthday. SJG and I were supposed to be in southeastern Wisconsin, celebrating with my father and his cats. But we can't get there. Major sections of the two big interstates that connect us to where he lives are closed indefinitely in Wisconsin because of the flooding that is devastating parts of that state, much of Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, northern Illinois, and likely Missouri. It's a catastrophe, with thousands of people evacuated and homeless. And the rain just keeps coming, day after day after day.

I'm grateful that my father is safe, that my family and friends are safe, and that SJG and I are safe. I can only imagine the shock and grief of the people in flood-stricken areas across the Midwest. But I'm also just plain old sad for me because I'm not with my father on my birthday, as has become tradition in my middle age.

My father and I are talking a lot on the phone this weekend. He called once yesterday; I called twice after that. And then we talked again this morning, and I'll call tomorrow for father's day. When he asked how SJG and I were going to mark my birthday today, I said, "There is no Plan B," and we laughed. But actually, there is a Plan B: I mowed our lawn this afternoon with the push mower (pictured above).

SJG and I used to have a lawn service, but they kept killing the grass with too much this and that, and they mowed the grass so short last year that it died during the hot summer days of July and August. So we decided to do the job ourselves this year, and I'm hooked on the mowing. I love the whir of the blades and the slight resistance of the grass--especially when it's long and thick--as I push the mower across the lawn. I love the green smell, the methodical back and forth of the effort, and the delicate covering of clippings when I'm done. I like having Buddy with me, too, enjoying his rubber balls, his bones, and the sun. And today, I thrilled to the sight of my peonies (below), which opened just as they always do every year. On my birthday.