A Few from the Show

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El Paso Mts Eve.JPGSunburst ii.JPG

California, full of light and darkness, in a show titled ‘change in the weather’ at Sullivan Goss, an American Gallery. Opening First Thursday, April, 2017.

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The Suitcases

two suitcases

They sent her overseas to save her life. A small-boned young woman just beginning her twenties, hair fashionably short in the American style swinging against her strong jaw, her black eyes proud and watchful, ranging over the seething common crowd of Chinese at the dock. She moved flanked by the black and white of two nuns, her protectors. I imagine her standing on deck while the vessel backed slowly out from the dock, clad in a slim navy wool coat, her gloved hand raised to shield her against the sunlight, controlled in every gesture, contained.

Her blood ran arrogant in her veins, and in the changing China they had none of them invited, my mother’s family feared she would not survive. Some day too soon, she would say a thing that would be unforgivable, in public, with the snap of authority, with the precision she had learned from tutors before she went to the nun’s school, and she would die for it. So they sent her away, with the two leather suitcases her father had owned during his years in the diplomatic service, and in time she came by ship to America. I see her small height strung straight, balanced on her tiny feet by the railing with perfect pride and defiance, her hair neat, her face wisely giving nothing away, her short gloves matching the jacket over her simple dress. She probably didn’t touch those leather suitcase handles until the end of the trip. Some ship crewman would have carried everything for her, carted her trunks packed with silk, cotton and wool, and her beloved books.

Today the two suitcases lie stored in our closet in America. I look at the imprint of her father’s name upon one, and I touch the stamped in letters. He was a modern gentleman who refused staunchly his mother’s pressure to have his daughters’ feet bound. He had them educated, and in the long nights they fell asleep to the sound of their cousins weeping at the pain of broken feet when they thought no one could hear them give way.

There are stories to tell that I will not, now, because I have one particular night upon my mind. All gold lights and black shadows, a blue so deep the sky seemed to fall away between the buildings and the leaning skyscrapers; a New York City night. The night I met my uncle by marriage, Xiao Qian.

My mother left family in China when she clutched those leather suitcases and went away. One of that family staying and studying in Beijing was a younger sister, who had the temper of a dragon, the patience of a tiger, the double cowlick that means these things, and when she fell in love with a writer much her elder in the torn China of those times, the family wrote to my mother and asked her what to do. My mother had by then married a New Hampshire farm boy–scientist and poet, and she said, it does not matter– if Margaret loves him, let her marry. Thus, younger sister Margaret married her beloved mentor, teacher and inspiration, Xiao Qian. He was of peasant origins, but had grown to be a writer of repute, and as the years passed he continued a correspondence of great liveliness with the English writer E. M. Forster.

My husband and I entered the New York hotel room to find several older Chinese gentlemen there to whom we were barely more than children, and my aunt Margaret. We settled to seats once the greetings had passed, and listened as my uncle spoke to his old friends and to us.

“You know it has been fifty years since we last sat together,” Uncle said, his round friendly face making his dark eyes look even larger. The lines of years of smiles marked his face, his alert glance moved from one to another of us. His quiff of silver hair gave him a look of humor, reminded me of a panda. “Fifty years, my friends! These were my students,” he said to us, gesturing at the gentlemen around him, and they murmured a deep note of assent and pride.

When the tide of the Cultural Revolution rose, E. M. Forster arranged a position for Xiao Qian in England, inviting him and his family to come and take up a new life. But Xiao Qian said “No, it is now, more than ever, that my country needs me, and I must stand by her and see her through these hard times.”

“I was such a fool,” Xiao Qian said, looking from one to another of us in the hotel room. “So proud of myself with my noble words.”

“My neighbors came to our house and they destroyed it, broke my daughter’s piano, smashed chairs, tore the books. Pulled us about and beat at us with their familiar hands. Stood us on the table and struck us, villified us. Our friends, the people we knew. That was only a beginning. I cannot tell you it all.

“They beat us into the street and in the days that came and went I fell into such despair. I didn’t remember my hopes for China, I could see only my own sufferings. There came a day when I decided to die rather than bear this, took pills I had hidden and swallowed them and my wife Maggie when she realized, went to beg the doctors for help but they were afraid. In spite of myself, and them, she made me live. Maggie, Maggie. My stubborn fierce Maggie,” he looked at her and she pretended not to be listening; she was like stone and fire, all the pride that she would not share implicit in the quiet lift of her head.

“They sent us to the country to tend the pigs. It was a hard life, but the abuse became less over time until it was only a hard life and no longer an impossible one. And the years passed.”

He paused, and I could not take my gaze from his homely face and huge black intense eyes. He made a little nod, a tender broken smile, a gesture of open hands.

“But you must understand this,” he said. “On that first night of our new reality when I looked upon my friends and neighbors, shouting and yelling in the night with their fists raised, with broken brooms and knives, I understood that if there had been any way to change places with them I would have been so glad to do it. I would have acted as they did, maybe shouted and hit harder whoever they gave me to strike. That old saying was true for me no matter how proud I was. How idealistic. There but for the grace of God would I have gone. Yes, there, I too, would have gone. There but for the grace of God. But the choice was never offered, that it was not, was all that kept me from being them.

“Now I am born again into the land of the living, of the remembered.” He gestured with his square old man’s hand and there was such liveliness and self-knowledge in his black eyes. “I am known now for the work I did long years ago, they do not even require that I write more. Here I am a guest in America, and I come with a message to you,” he looked about at his old friends, his former students. “You who are known as the overseas-Chinese…”

I had heard that term in my Chinese language classes.

“You are invited back to our country with honor, with welcome. None of your belongings will be touched or taxed, you will be greeted with joy for the knowledge and skills you have gained in this wide outside world. There, I have said it, and I will testify to the truth of it. Already I know families who have come back, many doubting, but they came home. So I bring you this welcome, I convey it to you all.”

“The letters,” one gentleman spoke into the silence that followed. “Your correspondence with E. M. Forster, what became of it?”

“A few years ago I received a letter from Cambridge,” Xiao Qian said, “enquiring that very thing. When I was first reinstated by the government, this letter came to me. But the letters E. M. had sent me were burned. My wife’s sister panicked when she saw how the neighbors behaved and she took all the letters from their hiding place and burned them.”

The men in the room caught their breaths in shock.

“But think,” Xiao Qian said, “for great though our sufferings were, how much more terrible would they have been if I had in my possession my friendship correspondence with an English intellectual? Treason, no less, all the arrangements he tried to make on our behalf to find us sanctuary in his land.”

“But let us talk of your lives and what has happened in them, and how you have been happy, my friends.”

Voices rose and fell, but I kept replaying his past words, looked over at my new husband and knew he did the same, saw how moved he was, his hand gripping the arm of his chair. Tears in his blue eyes.

“Yes, let us go and eat then,” my uncle agreed, turning to us.

“We will catch our train, we had not meant to stay so long, but this was wonderful. Thank you,” I said, and we nodded. We rose, but Xiao Qian raised his hand and such was his authority that we stopped.

“Share the meal with us,” he said. “This is a special occasion. This is once in a lifetime,” and the crowd murmured agreement. They swept us along, down to where a line of chauffeured cars waited, navy and black and gleaming, crowded on the street. One of these men it seemed, owned a restaurant in Chinatown and he had swept a table for his old teacher and mentor, Xiao Qian. I sat silent in the back of our limo, gripping my husband’s hand as the chauffeur wove us our way through the magic streets, and our throats were filled with tears.

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Setting the Stage for the Interview Dinner

 

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Our geology department has faculty job candidates coming through and to hold down costs, candidates will not be put up in hotels but in faculty guest accommodations. The advantages? Casual discussions over coffee in the morning and with that a far better sense of what living and working here is like.

As I used to crack when I was involved in interviews for Resident Administrator positions, Attila the Hun could be charming for a twenty minute interview. One wants a lot more than an interview before we invite someone in to our geology family. The increased exposure, thus, is all good.

I’ve offered our house and food for interview dinners, as I have in some past job searches, so each candidate will come and share our home for one evening. Anyone familiar with the whirlwind of interviews knows what it is like to have a dinner interview in a public restaurant. Too-loud, inappropriate music that you have to shout over, polite and necessary but utterly derailing wait staff interruptions, problems with logistics and how to get everyone who shows up at the event a chair close enough to hear and be heard. Cross-chat inevitably ensues, the decibel level rises. The only really useful thing is if the candidate is rude to the wait staff, because if that happens, you know this is not a person you want in the family.

Home dinners can offer quieter conversations and reflection, plus time to observe the candidate when he or she or they are tired and have most guards down. This can be a chance to see personality. After nearly sixty years of meeting and greeting and talking, I would hire on character, not accomplishments. You can still make a mistake, there is no perfect method, but you’re less likely to end up lying awake in bed wondering when the knife will slide into your back. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Now for the good stuff. Food. You bet there will be no caterer. I must make up a set of menus, not too repetitive, because many of the department participants will be coming to most if not all of these dinners. Five dinners, with leeway for the vegetarians among us. Only one candidate is a vegetarian, as if so happens, but I am well-aware that while most of the department are omnivores, some prefer to eat low on the food chain.

Color this picture with an oak fire in the fireplace and everyone sitting casually about in comfy chairs. Quiet light, no need for music or wait staff, for I always do these events buffet style. Anyone who leaves hungry has only him her or their self to blame!

So I’m thinking a North African meal, a vegetarian/pescavorian meal, a Middle Eastern meal derived in part from the Ottolenghi cookbooks, an Italian meal– polenta and mushrooms and then, perhaps a Thai dinner. Always enough vegetarian options so that no vegetarian may go hungry!

In the next few days I will share some specific menus, and perhaps even if you don’t want to make a batch of interview meals you may want to try one of these options for home and family.

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Cinnamon Cookies

Making dinner for the interview candidate and members of the department, I wanted something to go with my little custards in their old-fashioned pots. I had in mind a crisp cookie, strong on the cinnamon, a nice contrast to the creamy texture and quiet profile of the custard. Looking through cookbooks, I simply could not find what I wanted so this is what I made:

cinnamon-snaps

They were better than the custards. Hands kept returning to the bowl long after dessert was supposedly finished, to extract another and another and another. So here is the recipe.

R’s Cinnamon Crisps

1 cup butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

2 to 4 drops cinnamon oil depending on how you feel about cinnamon

2 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons of psyllium husk, ground (optional)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

grated nutmeg to taste

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Cream butter and sugar, add and beat in egg and cinnamon oil. Add sifted combined dry ingredients remaining, about 1/4 cup at a go, until all is combined. Shape into 1/2″ high by about 2″ flattened logs, recangular in cross-section, about 10″ long. Wrap and chill about 3 hours, then slice 1/4″ thick and arrange on bakinf sheets. Bake in preheated oven (375 F) about ten minutes, but watch them because they burn quickly! Makes about 40 cookies to 50. If you like them un-crisp you can just barely bake them through. That works too.

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The Woodland Wedding Cake

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I do not bake as a professional. I simply like food, and enjoy playing with my food despite my mother’s early strictures, much more than perhaps I ought. When my daughter’s friend Amanda became engaged, she and her fiancé came and requested me to make their wedding cake. I have done a few other wedding cakes over the years, so I asked what they had in mind. Well, they said, the theme is a Woodland Wedding.

Ah, I said, a bit like a Buche de Noel? And what are your flavors? So we worked it out.

The product stands above, a Golden Wedding Cake soaked with a simple syrup to maintain moistness, with a Blackberry Cheesecake filling between the layers, a Burgundy Chocolate Ganache bark, white chocolate and marzipan mushrooms, and fondant roses, violets and leaves. The wedding cake basics came from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s classic  The Cake Bible. However, let me admit up front that not one of her recipes escaped my hands unchanged. For one, I do not like a super fine texture of cake– I find it too powdery to use cake flour. Yet a cake made with all-purpose flour is too coarse. So I made a compromise, and adjusted the ‘cake flour substitution’ formula Berenbaum provides, to my tastes. Less cornstarch, more flour.

What I find most interesting about a cake like the one here — which I sub-sected into twelve layers as I built it with the blackberry filling, is how much of the structural supports do not show at all. Every four layers I inserted four plastic straws to act as “rebar” for that section so the pieces would not slide off when the cake was moved. Atop these straws, who were well-hidden in the cake, went a cardboard round (available from cake decorating sources.) If I didn’t do this, the bottom layers would liquefy into soft pudding under the accumulated weight of the upper layers. So the weight is thus held section on section by the straws which support each major section of four cake layers and fillings on the cardboard round below.

Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband made a dowel support because we worried that even with straws and cardboard rounds we might have a mishap when driving the cake through Los Angeles traffic to the wedding site. Below is his construct.

cake-dowels-2

You see that we pre-drilled the cardboard rounds for the two primary “stumps”. The boat-like object is a nice wooden tray made of plywood (for strength) that I had found months before in a thrift store and claimed with glee for this project in mind. My husband rounded another section of plywood, polished and finished it, then drilled the holes for two food-quality dowels (also from the decorating equipment folk.)

In the twelve days before the wedding I colored batches of fondant and marzipan then cut and shaped leaves, flowers, and made white chocolate mushrooms. For you botanists, yes, I made the woodland eclectic, with everything from beech and Eastern oak, violets, sugar maples and sassafras, to gingko!

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I ended up using the tablespoon and teaspoon measuring spoons for molds to make the white chocolate mushroom caps.

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I also cast my two milk chocolate hedgehogs using a silicone mold I purchased on ebay. Their faces got painted with white chocolate and I placed black glitter sugar in for the eyes and noses. (Black glitter sugar, you say? Think Halloween.) I made their hats of fondant.

hedgehogs-and-violets

These wedding cakes can be stored if you follow Rose Berenbaum’s directions, so I baked my cakes on Wednesday, cooled and wrapped them and let them chill overnight for easier handling. The next day, Thursday, I took them out, crumbed them, sliced each layer in half so it made two layers, drizzled each layer with the prepared syrup,filled with the blackberry cheesecake filling, then set four layers together on cardboard rounds with straws for rebar. After that, I used a simple frosting to cover the basic cake to prevent crumbs from running loose and to make my next day’s work easier. I wrapped all these in plastic and stored them overnight. The next thing I did was sprain my knee. But that’s another story that includes an x-ray and some fuss, a walker and a cane.

violets-and-roses

Friday morning I made the ganache because it needs to be formulated with nearly boiling cream and then must softly cool — at room temperature is best, until you can beat in the butter and it becomes spreadable. That cooling took about six hours, even though I put the bowl of hot ganache in a larger one of cool water to urge it along a bit. Sure, I could have put it in the fridge but I have never had luck with these things when I’ve been impatient– I end up with half the ganache solid and the other half liquid and then the whole thing becomes too stiff to spread!

The wooden base got covered with a food-safe golden foil, then I used strips of wax paper to protect that from the mess I knew placing the cake layers and spreading the ganache would produce. Yes, I was very very nervous getting the wooden dowels through my cakes, but it all worked. On the big cake I centered the monster well, then came down from the top with the dowel, finding the hole in the base by holding my breath. The slanted smaller second stump, I dared to thread on to the dowel because the smaller cakes had greater structural integrity. The ganache went on like a dream, thick rich and super chocolatey.

By the way, the ‘cut’ tops of the stumps were made with a cheesecake white frosting.

cake-preview-from-top

Here I am, after putting on the bark, having some fun with the fondant leaves. I also placed some but not all of the flowers and a few of the mushrooms, using ganache as a glue.

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Then I wrestled the considerable weight of this assemblage into my cleared fridge. There it chilled for about two hours to set the frosting before I wound it all up in plastic wrap for the night.

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It was important that the entire cake be totally chilled for food safety reasons of course– indeed I worked fast enough that after that initial chilling of the new-baked cakes, the cakes never warmed to room temperature until the time of the serving on Saturday. But it is also important to have the construct cold for transport and we indeed had to drive with the cake for about two and a half hours to get it to its destination.

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So there you have it…and yes, it was a wonderful wedding!

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Peace on Earth

So the kid arrived home with her little new dog and this is what happened in the first forty minutes.

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willie-decidingits-okaymaybe

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And no, this dog came from the shelter and so far as anyone knows has never socialized with a cat before. And yes, this is our most difficult cat of four, who chummed with no one but his old, and most sadly now deceased friend Porthos, a feral black cat.  This golden tabby cat is Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce and we’ve had him thorough terrible health problems, mainly genetic. We’ve had WWW since he was seven weeks, so we know no dogs were in his past. He was a bullying sort of little friend to Porthos who was older and doted upon him and excused his vagaries. Porthos was a wonderful fellow, he would gaze with melting affection in his big green eyes upon this little kitten in his care and wash the little rascal with tenderness. When Porthos died, WWW became very depressed, so we acquired a five year old male cat, then some months later two bonded kittens.

Willie had difficulties accommodating our new three cats and so when he walked right into the lap that held this little new dog, we held our breaths and wondered if we ought to interfere! Guess not. It’s been about ten days and for all we can fantasize, WWW imagines that the little black dog is some oddly mis-made reincarnation of his dear old friend Porthos. After all, we excuse our dear friends a lot of oddities. Coming back as a dog is okay– the point is you came back….

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Cookie Press Instructions and Recipe

Like so many of the rest of us, I don’t remember year to year exactly how the Williams – Sonoma cookie press works. Thus, when I haul it out, I try twisting different parts to get it clean and ready to press cookies. My Williams and Sonoma model came without instructions (as apparently is the norm) and I have found none on line. I am also aware of the cries of frustration from other owners. So let me share some illustrations and pointers about how mine works, now that I have embarked upon the rediscovery of its aspects, and let me share with you also my version of a good Spritz cookie dough for the machine, one that is more tender and flavorful than the old recipe I found in a cookbook. Perhaps most importantly – it extrudes well!

boxes-of-ready-cookies

So as you will see I make boxes of cookies and then assemble many plates for giving to family and friends. Someone asked me last week if I participated in a cookie exchange. No, I’m sorry, I can imagine nothing that would better take the fun out of getting the chance to guiltlessly make every sort of cookie I feel like making! And I have a suite of favorite recipes. I think it’s a rare year that I make fewer than twelve types.

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So here is a photo of my press with all the parts that are supposed to disassemble, separated for cleaning. Next, a series showing how to put the item together.

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The ring at the application end has a series of notches that you must align with the protrusions on the metal barrel before you pull off the plastic base ring. Lefty-loosey, righty tighty.

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You will want to depress the ‘key’ at the top of the barrel in order to release the plunger to withdraw it to the top of its settings. Now– pack the dough into the cylindrical barrel with your fingers. Use gloves — nitrile gloves are great for this purpose. When the cylinder is well-packed, select your metal pattern and set it on the dough.

assembling-better

Push the ring on to the barrel trapping the metal pattern in place against the dough and screw the ring a half turn on to secure it to the barrel..

When pressing the cookies onto the pan make sure the pan is cool, and not greasy. Either of these issues will make the cookie adhere more to the press than to the cookie sheet! Also, relax, pump the trigger once and wait for a count of three. The first cookie is likely not to be perfect, and you may find that more dough comes out at each pump as you go on, probably due to a slight warming of the cylinder in your hands. Remember that you can give a pump and a half, if you want a bit more dough but you don’t want as much as two pumps would give. It’s an art form!

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I like dusting these cookies with colored sparkling sugars before baking. Sometimes as many as three hues per cookie– this seems to give a very cheerful effect.

cookies-on-pan-and-rack

Here’s the recipe itself– modified substantially from the old one I used to follow, to give a shorter dough and a more tender and fragrant crumb. Makes about six dozen.

SPRITZ                                                                                                                                                              (all ingredients room temperature and oven at 375 Farenheit)

2 cups unsalted butter creamed with 1 1/3 cups sugar. Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. First sift together, then add by the quarter cup, 4 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a 1/4 teaspoon salt.

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