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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

A Lazy Blogger’s Shoulda Woulda Coulda

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 3.38.45 PMFellow cooking/reading enthusiasts, what cookie recipes are you eager to try this holiday season? One of my favorite things to do periodically on this little young thang blog is to share a list of recipes (other people’s, oh yeah) that I am eager to make. Especially when I’m too lazy/busy to actually make them — like here, here, and er, here. Who do I think I am to you, Oprah? Do you really care about my “favorite things”? But I can’t help myself. I love lists. With every bullet point, a possibility on the horizon. I may be sitting here cranking out an article about meat wrapped in lettuce — yeah, that just happened — but making a list of FUTURE projects has the effect of giving the mouse a cookie. You know, it’s a carrot, a motivator, helping me play hardball with this business of putting words to paper in an efficient manner.

My other ulterior motive is to get some inspiration from you, fellow bloggers, and your smorgasbord of baking successes. I’ll have some time next week to get my hands dirty, and I’m feeling the urge to shake things up, having been lately more immersed in the world of food blogging. Will you give me a cookie? Many thanks 🙂 In the meantime, here is a short list of my own suggestions:

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.09.15 PMBalsamic vinegar fudge cookies from the award-winning blog, Baking Bites are humble drop cookie, nothing decorative going on. But the intensity of fudgy chocolate and cherries enhanced by balsamic vinegar sounds superb to me, giving these cookies special occasion status in my book. I came across them while writing an article on How to Use Balsamic in Baking.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.22.59 PMJoy Wilson’s Red Velvet Black and White Cookies are a cute and whimsical nod to the holidays, I think, an understated standout among the sprinkles, crushed peppermint, and over-the-top deliciousness… She decorates hers in black tie, taking a cue from the classic New York black and white cookie.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 2.58.24 PMAs long as we’re baking in an imaginary world, these pistachio French macaroons are on my shortlist. Pistachios + egg whites + bright green food coloring, whipped and piped into something sugary, chewy, bite-sized and oh so precious. If that description is over the top, then so be it. Long live the French and their delicate macaroons. Or perhaps you’d like some with your Earl Gray.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 3.05.50 PMA twist on the classic lemon bar — I love it! Here I go, ripping off (I’ll call it promoting) the Smitten Kitchen site with Deb Perelman’s recipe for pink lemonade bars. Raspberries, citrus, powdered sugar — let’s call it a Christmas cookie.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 3.23.25 PM

Another nostalgic choice — if I were an Italian grandma — seven-layer cookies. The layering, the colors, the marzipan, these look as festive as Deb Perelman’s recipe looks delicioso.

Links to Recipes

Balsamic Vinegar Fudge Cookies
Red Velvet Black and White Cookies
Pistachio Macaroons
Pink Lemonade Bars
Seven-Layer Cookies

[Photos: “Footprint in Flour,” recoverling’s photostream, “Saucepan Fudge Drop Cookies,” Food Librarian’s photostream, “Red Velvet Cookies,” Herr Hans Gruber’s photostream, “pistachio_macaroons,” Greencolander’s photostream, Deb Perelman’s http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2012/08/pink-lemonade-bars/, per photo guidelines]

The Magic of Eggs and the Seduction of Cheese

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 12.58.56 PMThe title of this post is not mine, cheese-lover and egghead though I may be (actually, I’m a far cry from an egghead, just looking for an easy pun there). No, this enthusiastic quip hails from Judith Jones, food editor extraordinaire, titling a chapter in her book,The Pleasures of Cooking for One. As mentioned here, her recipes and general philosophy toward cooking with equal parts gusto and frugality also provide an excellent blueprint for couples, or two-party households. To kick off the last week before Christmas, I thought I’d take a cue from Judith and contribute my own take on the holly jolly with two everyday recipes that accomplish something special via a little grated Parmesan and beaten egg whites. As much as I love colored lights, bearded gnomes, and piles of pure driven snow, I believe that the magic of the holidays is inextricably linked with — what else? — “the magic of eggs and the seduction of cheese.”

Cheesy Pasta with Walnut Sauce

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.06.14 PMI first discovered this recipe a few years ago in Giada De Laurentiis’s Everyday Pasta, and I hadn’t made it for a while until I gave it a go last night. How does this fit into the “seduction of cheese”? Because cheese allows you to do things like make a dinner out of walnuts. I love walnuts but I suppose you could make it with anything — almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts — it was a bit of a revelation for me in the frugality department because aside from half-and-half, I usually have the ingredients lying around, or some sufficient substitution (milk would do for the half and half and you could swap out whatever dried herbs you have). I also love that it’s a true sauce and not a pesto, and in that sense it’s a new way of thinking about making pasta with nuts — it’s sort of like you’re making a pesto and then adding pasta water and cream to make it a warm sauce. The original recipe calls for rotelli (those short spirals) but I happened to buy some purdy tagliatelle at Trader Joe’s last weekend. (Original recipe also calls for heavy cream and parsley instead of rosemary, if you want to give that combo a try.) I feel like tagliatelle makes things elegant for a cosy Sat night at home with my husband, and I think the “woody” rosemary pairs well with walnuts.

Ingredients

  • 16 oz. bag of egg noodles, such as tagliatelle
  • 2 T. butter
  • 1 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 3/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup hard, nutty cheese (Parm or Asiago)
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half, warmed
  • Chopped rosemary
  • Reserved pasta water

Prep Pasta and Walnuts

Set pasta water to boil; meanwhile, toast walnuts for 2-3 minutes in a warm, dry skillet over medium-low heat.

Make the Sauce

In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine walnuts, butter, salt and pepper until a paste forms. Slowly pour in olive oil as you mix to combine. Pour into a small bowl and stir in the cheese and half-and-half.

Pull it Together

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and reserve the pasta water. Toss the pasta with a drizzle of olive oil and add the sauce, ladling on the pasta water as much as needed to fully coat the noodles and achieve desired thickness. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary or another herb of your choice.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.11.59 PMThe story behind my lemon ricotta pancake experiment — in other words, the magic of egg whites — also involves an at-home date with my “hubby,” if you will. I made these (from Williams & Sonoma’s Essentials of Breakfast and Brunch) for brunch on his birthday and, as a testament to how good and easy these are, these little flapjacks wound up being his birthday cake. Sadly, they far outshined my attempt at a blueberry pie (with my typical humility, let me assure you that pie is usually my thing and I blame it on my husband’s request for something intended to be eaten in July — I probably botched the use of frozen berries, I used a different recipe for crust and I tried to transport it to an Irish pub and then realized it was supposed to cool for several hours first — the thing was a half-baked, dribbly mess. But who cares? My sister-in-law was kind enough to bring cupcakes :)) Back to flapjacks. I think it’s great when ricotta cheese, lemon zest, and whipped egg whites turns something worthy of Denny’s into something worthy of, I dunno, Dennaes. It gives you a little lift, literally and figuratively speaking.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted
  • Berries tossed with sugar, for serving

Prep the Batter

Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg yolks, sugar, ricotta, and lemon zest. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry mixture and stir until combined. It can be a little lumpy.

Whip and Fold

Beat egg whites until soft peaks form (easiest, in m opinion, with a standing mixer on medium speed, whisk attachment, but can be done by hand). Carefully fold beaten egg whites into the ricotta mixture.

Fry in a Pan

Heat a large frying pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles and immediately evaporates. Brush with melted butter. Ladle 1/4 cup batter for each pancake into the pan and reduce heat to medium-low, cooking until small bubbles appear on top, about 4 minutes. Flip and cook until lightly browned on the second side, a few minutes longer.

Serve Hotcakes Hot

If you’re serving a crowd or just feel like being seamless and professional about your homemade pancakes, keep them warm in an oven heated to 250. (Don’t cover or they will get soggy.) Or be like me and microwave them as needed. The recipe makes about 16, 4-inch pancakes.

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.19.47 PMIf this wasn’t enough to seduce you, allow me to elaborate my thoughts on all this mildly caloric magic in “What Can I Make With Flour, Eggs, Pasta Sauce & Cheese”? Either way, I wish you a merry week of Christmas preparations or post-Hanukkah chillin.’ I think it would be cosy and merry if we all waited out Advent in a pared down, pile-of-grated-cheese, pillow-of-freshly-beaten egg whites kind of way, and called it Christmas magic.

[Photos: “Eggs,” paul goyette’s photostream, “Tagliatelle!”, Sebastian Mary’s photostream, “Lemon Ricotta Pancakes II,” Patent and the Pantry’s photostream, “Grated Parmesan,” FoodMayhem.com’s photostream]

 

Home

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.11.54 AMJulie Andrews isn’t so different from her alter ego, Mary Poppins — she radiates respectability, striving to be “practically perfect in every way” with endearing panache. I could have told you that before I read her memoir, “Home”if you teach musical theatre history, she has a way of asserting her greatness, from her narration of the PBS Broadway DVD series to her vocal virtuosity to her string of original roles that lent musical comedy dramatic heft, albeit PG dramatic heft. I’d argue that the most avant-garde theatre-goer finds it hard to hate on a youthful nun, a no-nonsense nanny or an impressionable flower girl when played by Ms. Andrews. She nails the deceptively difficult task of making rather square heroines interesting and memorable. The more I learn about Julie Andrews, the more I realize that the actress shares this sunny, substantive nature. “Home: A Memoir of my Early Years,” covers her childhood and early Broadway career through her acceptance of the film role of Mary Poppins. Tenacity, talent, poise, optimism and an impressive clarity of spirit characterize her pursuit of career and family, not unlike the ingenues imagined by Lerner and Loewe or Rogers and Hammerstein. On the opening night of “My Fair Lady,” Andrews writes

“I distinctly remember feeling like a prizefighter going into the ring; I was the correct weight, I knew what I had to do, my voice had returned, and I was ready as I could possibly be. It was the only time in my entire stage career that I have felt that way.”

The reader is given a vivid backstage tour of this pivotal moment in her career, from the generous advice of composer Richard Rogers encouraging her to take the lead in Lerner and Loewe’s competing show, to her homesickness at the outset of rehearsals to her guilelessness as an actor, prompting director Moss Hart to call off rehearsals and give her a one-on-one, 48-hour acting lesson that “felt like…going to the dentist with an agonizing toothache.” The strain of the two-year run manifests itself in quirky and not so quirky ways — the urge to giggle mid-scene, vocal exhaustion, the need to cover for her co-star’s onstage pranks — but overall, this early chapter reads like a cinderella story: “for every single performance of the two years I played on Broadway, I never stopped working on Eliza. She is such a character, and I have never in my life had as good an acting lesson…”

Her memory of the fear, anticipation and excitement surrounding “My Fair Lady” is fierce, as is her memory of “Camelot,” “Mary Poppins,” a live TV special of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and so on. The quantity and immediacy of her backstage anecdotes are a reminder that the anxious, demanding and sometimes euphoric work of performing makes for a truly unique, heightened existence, that is, if your career happens to be blessed! Remarks like “there are eight unison notes as the overture begins. Every time I heard them I would think, ‘Oh my God, we’re committed now'” resonate with ahem, yours truly, a lowly production assistant on a gargantuan production of “Miss Saigon.” Never mind that mine was the sweaty job of organizing colossal piles of guns and flags, awkwardly bossing a union crew through helicopter fly-overs, chain link fence rattling, and turn table mayhem, I get a tiny, ridiculous thrill whenever I hear the ominous drum rattling at the beginning of the overture. You know, when I’m standing in an elevator or listening to the radio… Andrews walked with giants, but her walk down memory lane doesn’t speak exclusively to theatre nerds. My fondness for musical theatre is about 10 percent love of musicals and 90 percent appreciation for what it takes to produce them. Similarly, the draw of Andrews’s memoir is her ability to eloquently deconstruct her own success story while retaining a serendipitous sense of show biz magic, probably because she still seems genuinely surprised and humbled by her accomplishments.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.23.41 AM“Home” isn’t solely concerned with the home Julie Andrews found onstage. The literal meaning of the word is equally if not more important to her conception of her “early years,” as demonstrated by the opening sentence of chapter one: “I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” This is followed by a detailed outline of her family lineage and birthplace, the working class village of Walton. She writes lovingly of “Dad,” a.k.a. Ted Wells, recalling bucolic outings together in the English countryside. Dad was a “‘practical handicrafts teacher’” about whom Andrews remembers “wonderful, specific things,” such as his attentiveness to nature, poetry, music and self-improvement through study, as well as his nurturing presence. However, Andrews’s childhood is defined by struggles at home, and this is the context where she first carries the show, drawing on innate resilience, poise and sensitivity. She hints at the complex family dynamics, writing of her parents, “Someone once asked me which parent I hated the most. It was a provocative question and an interesting one, because it suddenly became apparent to me which one I loved with all my being…and that was my father. My mother was terribly important to me and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth, but I don’t think I truly trusted her.”

Andrews’s mother was a traveling vaudeville singer who, in her own words, married Dad because he was “safe” and eventually remarried her partner in the vaudeville act, a performer named Ted Andrews. As a result of her parents’ separation, Julie spent the bomb blitzes of World War II traveling back and forth between Dad and “mum and Ted.” Ted gives her singing lessons and realizes the strength and range of her voice. When taken to a vocal specialist, it is discovered that the eight-year-old Andrews has a fully formed, adult larynx. This revelation sets serious vocal training in motion, providing a much-needed emotional release for a deepening series of ruptures in her family. At nine or ten years old, Puccini arias make Andrews burst into tears, “overwhelmed by the sadness of the lyric combined with the pure sweetness of the melody.” This frustrates her mother but invokes sympathy in her voice teacher, an opera singer referred to as “Madame.” Madame gently steers Andrews toward Handel and says “never be embarrassed when you are moved by music… You will sing them when you are older and your voice is more mature. Right now it would just pull you to pieces vocally. It’s too emotional; too beautiful and sad.”

In a direct but graceful way, Andrews documents the numerous sources of sadness inside her childhood home — secrets, abuse, the emotional ambiguity of her parents’ relationships — then moves briskly to the next event, giving the reader a private, uncontained view of a life in process. For example, walking with her newly remarried mother near the family’s new home in Kent — both the “garden of England” and in 1943, “right in the middle of the flight path between Germany and London” — it is suggested that Julie settle on a more appropriate term of endearment for her step-father. “Uncle Ted” becomes “Pop” with the same suddenness that “Julia Elizabeth Wells,” originally named for dad and her two grandmothers, is handed the name “Julie Andrews.” She candidly covers the many sides of Pop, from their initial dreaded voice lessons, to performing duets with him for Queen Elizabeth, to his ongoing role in organizing their act, to instances of sexual abuse and his descent into full-fledged alcoholism.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.15.29 AMThere’s more where that come from, deeper secrets and other, ongoing hardships. But Andrews’s sufferings are a stark contrast to the Midas touch of her singing voice, her extraordinary friendships with fellow artists, the joyful experience of being a mother herself, and her second wind as a writer. There is a triumphant tone to what she has managed to ask and receive of her life, despite the limitations of her childhood home. About “My Fair Lady,” she describes the rare experience of “threading the needle” — hitting every moment of the show spot-on. It’s a metaphor for her life’s striving, described as “riding the ecstasy all the way home,” the “joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.”

[Creative Commons Licensed photos: Wikipedia and Harper Ganesvoort’s photostream, as well as the cover of the book]

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