I have decided to make some changes in my life, starting from the ground up.
Super cute suede Pucci color block Mary James. Arrividerci!
Today I removed nineteen pairs of shoes (including the ones pictured above) from my closet. NINETEEN!! I sent them away for consignment, which sounds a bit like I sent them away to military school for bad behavior. I assure you, though, none of these shoes has ever exhibited antisocial or narcissistic tendencies, which is more than I can say for their current/soon-to-be-previous owner.
These shoes represent about 16% of my non-athletic shoe collection. In all honesty, I haven’t worn most of them more than once and some never at all. They all still rest in the original boxes, toes stuffed with tissue paper, sleeper bags carefully folded beneath them. I estimate half of the nineteen pairs I bought on a whim; the rest I gave consideration and indeed chose them based on a distinct aesthetic rubric. I do, in fact, still love them all.
Moschino, Marni, Pucci, and others.
So why must they go? Well, number one: I have too much stuff. We all probably do, but I have a predisposition to gather. Once gathered, I tend to stack things until the stacks fall over (usually the act of a feline). Then, I generally ignore the toppled stack until I trip over something and get annoyed and curse hideously.
Number two: At some point, I need to recognize that I purchased those shoes for a type of life that I will never have and a type of person I will never be. I think we all probably make aspirational acquisitions from time to time (“This suit will make me look powerful!”), but I, embarrassingly, invest my shoes with all matter of transformational significance. I admire their architectural qualities and I believe—not that the shoes will make me look powerful, but that they will make me powerful. Confident. Grown up. Capable.
Regrettably, this has never occurred.
Dangerously high LAMB platform booties. They’re going, too.
Number three: These shoes represent hours of craftsmanship by shoe makers all over the globe. The shoes themselves deserve to be worn, loved, and shown to the world, not shoved in the corner of some early-20th century closet gathering dust and cat hair.
OK: I admit. Number three doesn’t really matter to me at all. I just put it in there to sound less like a whiny brat.
Camilla Skovgaard, two pairs from one of her first collections. Cheerio!
Obviously: I’m no shoe-sacrificing saint, here. I still have approximately 84% of my lifelong obsession sitting in the closet. Lots of red soles and pointy Prada toes and matchstick-slender stilettos continue still to occupy ample wardrobe real estate.
But hopefully—fingers and toes crossed, and eyes closed to make a wish—this tiny purge will mark the beginning of the end of things in my life that just don’t work. Big order, right?
In the meantime, I’ll take a minute to focus on something that does work every time: limoncello. It’s as sweet and as stern as your best friend who, in your time of wallowing in self-pity, gives you a hug and then slaps your face and says, “Get it together, already!” And limoncello is simple. You need very few things to produce a consistently excellent tipple: lemons, alcohol, sugar, and time.
I ordered 10 lbs of late season Meyer Lemons from The Lemon Ladies and every bit of them went to use. The rinds infused this delicious limoncello.
Here’s something else that always works: happy, shiny pop music, like this stellar cut, “The Bleeding Heart Show,” from the New Pornographers’ excellent 2005 album Twin Cinema. If you can be unhappy during the last two minutes of this song, when the “Hey-la” bit hits, we need to have a talk.
For the past few years, on my birthday, Jay has gifted me a beautiful bottle of French wine. As a gift, it’s a pretty selfless one, something for my enjoyment alone (although I always share). You see, we have profoundly different palates: he loves tannins and fruit, I like acid and minerals. As a matter of fact, he once told someone, “Jamie doesn’t like a wine unless it’s punishing.” So, on second thought, maybe this gift isn’t so much a gift as it is a form of clever sadism? A tool for self-flagellation? A birthday gotcha?
Yikes. Well, whatevs.
Because I have almost no self-control, I can usually only make it until Easter before cracking open the cellar-worthy bottle. At least, though, I can use the holiday as a raison d’être for creating a wine-worthy meal. Last year, we had a stunning Premier Cru Chablis, which I paired with escargots, poached fish with a gribiche, and blanquette de veau with a wild mushroom fricasee. The fish-gribiche combo won the pairing war. Plus, it’s just fun to say “gribiche.”
This year, because he knows I’m a slut for the Loire Valley, the bottle was a Sancerre, with a delightfully minimalist label.
Claude Riffault grows 10.5 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc in the north of Sancerre; less than one hectare is dedicated to the rarified soils of Les Chailloux.. The flint soils here derive from a geological fault formed during the Eocene era of the Tertiary period, forty million years ago if you believe carbon dating. The winemaker vinifies and matures in barrel for less than one year, leaving the mineral character of the grape to shine.
On the nose, this wine is clean…like a wet rock or laundry on the line. On the palate, though, that minerality morphs into just under-ripe stone fruit. So, imagine licking a rock and then biting into a cold peach. Sounds delicious, right? This wine had my name written all over it.
Seafood would have matched beautifully, but it was Easter and I wanted rabbit. A few weeks ago, I took a class at Al Forno in which we deboned a rabbit, stuffed the legs and loin with a forcemeat of rabbit, herbs, and wild mushrooms, wrapped the pieces in pancetta, and pan roasted. I decided to give that a go as our Easter main course.
But first: chicken fried rabbit “wings” (I had the oil too hot to start, which is why they are very brown) and smashed avocado on Seven Stars olive bread with Greek olive oil, crushed pepper, and sea salt. The salt and fat contrasted well with the razor-sharp acidity in the wine. Bronze medal in the pairing competition.
Avocado toast, chicken fried rabbit “wings.”
Second, and not pictured: April Bloomfield’s Ricotta Gnudi with brown butter and fried sage. Click here for the recipe. So, so delicious and very, very ugly (my fault, not April’s!). The gnudi matched the wine brilliantly; the fried sage brought the fruit qualities in the wine into beautiful relief. Even Jay loved the wine with this course. Gold medal!
Third: the rabbit leg, stuffed and wrapped, served over roasted asparagus with glazed carrots and a rabbit jus. The silver medalist of pairings. The thyme served a similar role as the sage in the gnudi course and the salty pancetta played well with the delicate fruit in the wine.
And finally: lemon cake, lemon curd, and toasted meringue. Exempt from the competition. Also: blow torches are fun.
Lemon cake, lemon curd, toasted meringue.
As I chopped, butchered, whisked, and roasted, I listened to Matt Pond PA’s excellent 2005 album, Several Arrows Later. The entire album is intimate and yet somehow epic, with a heart-on-sleeve approach that is tempered by the restraint of the music. I find this song, the first on the tracklist, full of melancholy and world-weary beauty (I gasp every time I hear the fingers scraping on the guitar string at the beginning of the first song). My favorite lyric: Heard it’s modern to be stupid/You don’t need a thought to look good. Matt Pond (no longer PA) has a new album, State of Gold, coming out in June. The advance tracks are lovely, so I have high hopes.
Back in the day (like, five years ago), I consumed music avidly. I bought CDs, I went to shows in crappy dives, I read music journalism (really!), and I created annoyingly intense mixes for friends, complete with verbally diarrheal liner notes about why X or Y song was worth the three minutes of your life it would take to listen to it.
For example, this came from a mix I made in 2007:
Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe | Okkervil River
The lyrics are a bummer, all about how the real world can never live up to the drama of the silver screen. (“It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax.”) But the music! It’s the way the floor tom hits at the :26 mark and then at :40 when the entire band comes in, backed by gospel-like whoops. Very exciting! But perhaps the most touching part, for me, is right around 2:20, where this freaky thing happens with the piano and some weird electronic knob-turning, and then the song cuts to a sparse verse that includes the phrase, “From the speakers your fake masterpiece comes serenely dribbling.” I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing the first time I heard that.
So, yeah: I’m sorry if you were one of the friends whom I subjected to that.
Then, bit by bit, all the seedier local clubs closed, the cool music sites folded, Paste magazine started covering video games and craft beer, and music started to get pretty boring for me.
Lately, though (thanks in no small part to my stellar niece and god-daughter Rachel and her super-cool musician husband John, plus the exceedingly nifty James Uden), I’ve started to hear bits of things that intrigue me again. I find myself streaming KXT, the listener supported radio from Dallas, and noting song titles and artists.
(NB: I rag a lot on growing up in Texas, but that place has THE BEST end of the dial radio.)
Here’s a bit of what’s been tickling my ears for the last few months. I’m hoping to rein the pretension-level in from my past missives. Not all this stuff is brand new, but what strikes me as I listen to them together is that none of these songs would have been out of place on an episode of The O.C.
(Another NB: Oh, man, say what you will about the soapiness of The O.C., the music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas, broke some great ground for soundtracking television shows. She is a game changer.)
Let it Go, James Bay
Bay sounds to me like Brendan Benson, the non-Jack White half of The Raconteurs, and whom I declared very vehemently to be the real genius in that group after I saw Benson perform in Paris. (Also: sorry if you knew me in 2009.) This track, thankfully, bears no resemblance to the omnipresent Frozen ditty that shares its name.
I’ve written of my love for Jack Antonoff’s oeuvre before, so I’ll abstain now. Still loving this album and “Rollercoaster” is just a great pop song.
The Promise, Sturgill Simpson
Simpson came to me courtesy of Rachel and John. The entire album is great old-school country music. This particular track is an outlier, a cover of the 80’s song by New Order knockoff band When in Rome (you might remember it from the closing scene in Napoleon Dynamite). Simpson’s stripped down version made me truly appreciate these beautiful lyrics.
Queen, Perfume Genius
My musical-savant friend James Uden gifted this song to me as a part of a much-coveted 2014 year-end compilation. I love the Brian Eno meets Portishead feel of it all (indeed, Portishead’s Adrien Utley co-produced the album). It’s all very spacious and atmospheric, but also glittery and glam. Bowie could have done this song, which is always a plus in my book.
All I’m Saying, James
You may remember James from their super-catchy 1993 song “Laid” from their awesome eponymous album. James Uden included this song on his 2014 year-end compilation as well. The first time I heard it, I was on a plane and I started crying at this stark expression of loss and grief. So raw, so beautiful.
Gimme Something Good, Ryan Adams
Actually, the whole new album is pretty excellent, and I say this as an unapologetic Ryan Adams fan, so…grain of salt and all that. Rachel and John turned me on to this, too! This reminds me of early Tom Petty in the best possible way (as if there is any other way, right?).
We got a taste of summer over the weekend (and by “summer” I mean that the temps hit 40 degrees). To celebrate the practically-tropical temperature, I made ice cream. I conceived this sour cream ice cream on Saturday in an attempt to use up an almost full container of sour cream in our fridge and to serve as a tart foil to the buttery, boozy Texas Whiskey Caramel Sauce (using the TX Texas Blended Whiskey from Firestone & Robertson) I whipped up earlier in the day. Together, they sang—like Willie and Waylon, or Conway and Loretta, or Emmylou and anybody (because Emmylou Harris is the secret ingredient that makes music good).
Sweet, salty, tart, boozy.
Sour cream ice cream
4 egg yolks, beaten
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t salt
1 c whole milk
1/2 c heavy cream
1 c sour cream
1 t vanilla extract
Beat the yolks with the sugar and salt in a medium sized bowl. In a small saucepan, scald the milk and cream (be careful: it’ll go from scaled to huge milky mess in a matter of moments). Gradually add the scalded milk to the eggs and then transfer it all back to the pan. Heat, whisking constantly over low heat until the custard thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl, whisk in sour cream and vanilla. Cover with plastic and chill until completely cold.
Freeze in an ice cream maker until solid-ish, then pop it into the freezer for an hour or so to firm up.
Texas Caramel Whiskey Sauce
8 oz unsalted butter
1/2 t salt
2 c brown sugar
1 c heavy cream
1/4 c TX Texas Whiskey (substitute bourbon)
Heat butter, sugar, salt, and cream in a larger-than-you-think-you-need saucepan, stirring until it reaches a boil. Boil for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in whiskey. It will bubble up like mad and at this point you can thank me for advising you to use such a large pan. Let the sauce cool a bit and pour into a jar for storage. Store in the fridge, but warm gently before serving over sour cream ice cream (or just a spoon) with a sprinkling of sea salt on top.
Last November, I declared the oncoming season “The Winter of the Knish.” Little did I comprehend at that time how seriously this knish-worthy winter would kick my tuchis: the coldest February on record and ungodly amounts of snow have rendered any outdoor activity, with the possible exception of shoveling (So. Much. Shoveling.), nigh on impossible. Keeping our old drafty house warm challenges our middle-aged boiler. Even the cats burrow under the bedcovers or hop into any available lap to ward off the chill.
Leave a bed unmade for five minutes and this happens.
In short: this ain’t salad weather. In fact, any food served at less than mouth-singeing temperature simply won’t do. It’s stick-to-your-ribs, warm-you-from-the-inside-out food weather. The frigid temperatures call for starch, meat, salt, fat.
So, yeah: knish just got real.
A knish doesn’t just fill the belly. It fills the soul. It brings together nuggets of slowly caramelized onions, robust chunks of potato, and anything else you crave, snuggled in a blanket of savory pastry. It’s the Snuggie® of the food world. Eat a knish and plop yourself on the sofa in front of endless episodes of Dr. Who*; soon you will cease to concern yourself whether or not spring will ever arrive. As my friend Nina explains, “A knish is a hand-held mashed potato delivery system. What’s not to love?”
*Full disclosure: I still like the Ninth Doctor the best.
I would be willing to bet that the Doctor would have enjoyed the odd knish or two.
I used the better part of two snowy days to do some deep knish exploration. The dough is a dream to work with: fatty and pliable; the caramelized onions and mashed potatoes fill the house with an aroma that holds forth a umami promise. Plus, I considered the activity as housekeeping: my knish-making gave me the opportunity to use up lots of bits of stuff taking up space in the fridge and freezer.
Smoked pork belly, bacon-braised collards (left over from an attempt to recreate a meal I had last month at Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk in Charleston, S.C.):
I also made some with braised lamb shank meat (the result of an experiment with my combo pressure cooker-slow cooker) and roasted carrot, but I forgot to take a picture of the filling.
Not the prettiest knishes, but freshly baked.
Did I mention I made about a million of these over two snowy days? Did I also mention that I tried, with as much delicacy as possible, to foist knishes off on anyone whom I thought might be remotely interested? Do you know how hard it is, in these carb-eschewing times, to find a good home for a knish?
With an abundance of knishes, and since I’m the type who likes to take advantage of guests in my home, I served many of these dumplings to the lovely ladies from my book club on an evening in which we discussed the new Nick Hornby novel, Funny Girl. (NB: I liked but did not love the book, but I still love Nick Hornby.) I think there’s something badass about a woman who can throw down on a knish.
The Very Fine Ladies of Book Club, ready to dish on some knishes.
The star comestible of the evening, though, was this delightful Furmint, a great balance of acidity, fruit, spice, and minerality, and an excellent value at under $15 a bottle. It stood up well to the richness of the knishes, but I imagine it would also do well with sushi.
Delicious and thrifty!
I’ll sign off this post with three things:
Thank you to the lovelies in my book club. You ladies rock in the most profound way.
I still have a freezer full of knishes. Free to a good home!
This song, off Costello’s 2009 Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which speaks to me now more than I wish it did.
(Not in the mood for my drivel? I don’t blame you. Scroll down for the recipe.)
I do not like washing my jeans. I haven’t yet tried the cleaning by freezing method (probably because among the various butchery and charcuterie projects, I have no spare freezer real estate), but I do try to squeeze as many wears as possible out of my denim before chucking them in the wash.
Jeans (and boots) in Paris.
I feel only the tiniest bit of shame that I find great pleasure in the supremely unattractive bagginess that my two three favorite pair of dungarees garner on second or third wearing—so much so that I can pull them over my hips without unzipping or unbuttoning: my own version of elastic-waist pants (though not great, I guess, if someone decides to pants me). They’re roomy, comfy, and accepting. But, those same jeans, just out of the dryer? Make me feel like I’ve got calves the size of mature oak trees, a butt the size of an SUV, and render me unable to properly move my knee and hip joints. They’re inflexible, confining, and judgy.
Can I fit in them? Yes. Do I feel like they fit? Certainly not.
I struggle with the feeling of fitting in versus fitting every time I go to Texas. I spent many of my formative years in that crazy place and I could not wait to get out. With age and time, I realize that a good seventy percent of what I hated about Texas came with me to New England (wherever you go, there you are, right?), but there’s a good thirty percent of stuff that still bugs the crap out of me about that state. An endemic small-mindedness still gets my goat —and I’m not talking about political ideologies; I’ve known and loved conservatives, liberals, libertarians, fascists, Marxists, Trotsky-ites, Austrian economists, tree huggers. (My chief concerns are (A) Are you kind? And (B) Are you funny? And I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of (A) for a lot of (B).) It’s primarily the prevailing concept that “Texas is the greatest! There’s no place better than Texas!” (Truthfully, this also bugs me about Manhattanites—and I love Manhattan. I just want to say, “Really? And you know this because you’ve been everyplace else?”)
Do I sound bitter?
On the other hand, I discovered after I left just how astounding my Texas family is. Three brothers, three sisters-in-law, eight nieces and nephews, five nieces-and-nephews-in-laws, nine (soon to be ten!) great nieces and nephews: all with fantastic tastes in music and astonishingly generous with their love.
(My parents, bless their hearts, taught me that it was essential to be polite to friends and strangers but that is was OK to treat family like shit. My siblings (who had all pretty much grown and moved out by the time I came along) and their truly open-hearted spouses taught me how to be kind to the people I love. NB: my poor husband is still waiting for me to master this lesson.)
I can fit in in Texas. I can walk the walk: I love my vintage cowboy boots and beef cooked for hours over a low smoke and I love George Jones. I can talk the talk: my y’all’s and all y’all‘s and fixin‘s can hold their own in a room of born and bred Lone Star tallboy drinkers. But I don’t fit in Texas. Despite the state’s behemoth and dizzyingly flat land mass, I suffocate. Okay, occasionally, in the early spring when the bluebonnets have bloomed, driving alone west on I-20, maybe playing some Explosions in the Sky, I feel a little freedom, but for the most part, Texas is the just-out-of-the-dryer jeans, snidely pointing out with raised eyebrow everything that is wrong with me. But unlike my favorite 501s, these jeans never give. They never relax.
On my most recent visit, I took an afternoon field trip to the Firestone & Robertson Distillery, just twenty minutes from my dad’s house in Fort Worth. F&R operates out of an old office in an in medias-gentrification part of town. Exposed brick and reclaimed wood form the backdrop for massive copper stills. One thousand barrels of aging hooch limn the distillery floor and the aroma of sour yeast spills out the door to greet visitors.
Just one barrel of 1,000.
I first tasted their TX Blended Whiskey about two years ago. Is it fantastic? No. Drinkable? Totally. A little sweet, with big coconut overtones provided by the new American oak barrels used in the aging process. Retail product thus far has been limited to the blended stuff, but the first batch of bourbon is coming to an acceptable age (three years in new oak barrels, by law) and will likely make its way to liquor store shelves in the next eighteen months.
The proprietors’ commitment to producing a place-based spirit compelled them to culture their own yeast for the fermentation process. Yeast grows on and in everything, but most distilleries in the US (even the fancy ones) purchase commercial yeast to turn their grain sugars into alcohol. It’s easy to understand why: commercial yeasts are reliable and have a consistent flavor profile (yeast accounts for up to 25% of a whiskey’s flavor). But that consistency has a downside: it gives a distiller less bandwidth with which to create his own taste.
Bourbon, aging. Tagged by TCU fans.
To their credit, the F&R boys worked with some yeast experts and the chemists at Texas Christian University to sample over 150 local bits of stuff (leaves, grasses, rocks, flowers, etc.) to find the one yeast strain that would give them the flavor they sought. The serendipitous winner hails from pecan shells (the pecan is the Texas state tree) gathered fifty miles south in Glen Rose (also the home of some impressive dinosaur fossils).
The mash, fermenting corn, rye, and barley.
The corn and rye in the mash both come from the Texas Panhandle (barley doesn’t grow well in Texas, so it is sourced from the Midwest), and bottle caps use recycled cowboy boot leather from a storied bootmaker in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
I enjoyed my time at the distillery, especially because I was joined by several mature, gentlemanly cowboys in town for the annual stock show and rodeo, who happened to be big whiskey fans.
Cowboys and a for-show-only still at Firestone & Robertson.
Finally, to deliver on the promise of the title of this post, I decided to go full Texas and glaze some pecans with the TX. I added dried peaches (peaches: also a big deal in Texas) for a bit of chew, cayenne for kick, and bitters for…bitterness. Orange zest brings to mind the citrus-rich Texas valley. I think these would be great as a nibble with a peachy spin on an Old Fashioned (maybe this one).
Simple ingredients, big flavor.
Texas Whiskey Glazed Pecans (2 cups)
1/4 cup TX Texas Blended Whiskey (or bourbon)
1/4 cup dried peaches, diced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/ 4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (Like it spicier? Add more. Like it waaaay spicier? Try habanero or ghost chili.)
2 cups raw pecan halves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2-3 dashes citrus bitters
1 tablespoon orange zest
Combine the peaches and whiskey in a small bowl; set aside. In other bowl, mix the sugar, salt, and both peppers; set aside.
Toast the pecans in a large skillet over medium heat for 4-5 minutes or until they get toasty. Add the butter and swirl it around until the pecans are delightfully buttery.
Add the sugar and spices to the pecans and give it all a good stir. Off the heat, add the whiskey and peaches—stay away from the flame while you do this if you want to keep your eyebrows.
Back on the heat, continue to stir until the whiskey thickens into a glaze, maybe another minute or so. Take the pan off the heat and add the bitters.
Pour the pecans onto a Silpat or a parchment-lined pan. Separate those buggers as much as you can; they’re going to want to clump together.
When they’re cool, sprinkle with the zest.
Ready for snacking!
Maybe Texas has changed a little since I left. Maybe I have. Perhaps we can hope for a detente sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll just listen to George Jones.
There’s a blizzard outside and a flurry in the kitchen.
Yep. We got another blizzard in New England. The eleventeenth this month. Oh, and there’s another on tap for the day after tomorrow. And another next weekend. At this point, only a miracle will save one of us in the house (and I include the felines in this) from going completely Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining before March hits.
Puttering in the kitchen saves my sanity during these bleak days (seriously: is anyone else feeling very Ethan Frome-ish?). My desperate attempts to find inspiration will leave no cabinet unexplored on a day like this. Today, this bag of pistachios played the role of muse.
Snow day inspiration.
Last week, I read about a cast iron skillet focaccia on Serious Eats featuring pistachios, olives, and rosemary. It’s a no-knead dough, so there is only about 10 minutes of hands-on time. It also smells like heaven when it bakes.
Olive, pistachio, and rosemary foccacia.
I also ran across a recipe on The Kitchn for salted pistachio brittle; such great payoff for such easy work, but one must be patient. This brittle goes through an awkward adolescent phase before ultimately becoming a swan.
Brittle cooling. Supremely unattractive.
Brittle glamour shot.
However, since the Spousal Unit is decidedly not a candy guy, I took some of the brittle, gave it the good mortar and pestle treatment, and sprinkled it on top of simple shortbread cookies*. I even drizzled half with bittersweet chocolate.
Shortbread cookies with pistachio brittle. Some with bittersweet chocolate drizzle.
(*NB: these are 1-2-3 cookies from Michael Ruhman’s genius book Ratio. If you own no other kitchen book, own this one. It will teach you more about the fundamentals of cooking than any other book out there.)
Now, I just want an enormous scotch and a promise that spring eventually will come.
Lillian Varnell made me fall in love with fruitcake. Actually, I fell in love with her fruitcake at about the same time I fell in love with her grandson. I often wonder if those two things are related.
The people of Malvern, Arkansas, knew her as a woman of deep faith, a keen wit, and great strength. Many in town called her “Aunt Lil,” but the luckiest of us called her Mammaw.
Mammaw, on March 8, 1988, holding her great-granddaughter—our adorable niece—Loren.
She consistently used one’s full nomenclature in her address. Mammaw was totally a first name-last name kind of woman. Jay took particular delight in her charming cadence and would often imitate her. His examples: “Jamie Samons. MMMMMMMM. That is delicious. Now, let me tell you something about Jay Samons.” “Wilbur Varnell loved his television and eating at the Shack.” “Jay Samons, it is good to see you.” She spoke with great enthusiasm and great love. One of her great paradoxes was that Mammaw loved almost everybody, yet I knew that to be loved by her was something very special.
Mammaw was the mistress of a true Southern kitchen: her black eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, and fried chicken knew no equal. Her pear preserves—tender slices of pear swimming in glistening syrup— still haunt my dreams. (Those preserves on a freshly-baked, buttered biscuit? Grab the smelling salts: I’m swooning.) And, at Christmas time, her care packages of Southern treats provided warm comfort to the two of us as we hunkered down through the New England winters. She sent candied pecans, peanut brittle, party mix, and, most anticipated of all: her fruitcake.
Clumsy cook = Cherry + Tony Lama.
Mammaw’s fruitcake definitely was more “fruit” and less “cake.” Assertive chunks of dried dates, pineapples, and cherries snuggled tightly with opulent pecan halves in a traditional pound cake batter. Ample amounts of apricot brandy encouraged the fruits and nuts to play nicely together.
Shortly after we married, Mammaw shared with me her fruitcake recipe. She sent me two 4×6 index cards, on which she transcribed it from the 1946 edition of The Progressive Farmer Cookbook in her perfect penmanship. At first, I treated it rather cavalierly. In the hubristic haze of my twenties, I unabashedly mashed parts of Mammaw’s recipe with recipes from Martha Stewart and Rose Levy Beranbaum, seeking to develop my own signature fruitcake. The culinary cross-pollination proved utterly disastrous on more than one occasion. Even weeks of soaking those bitter cake-bricks in booze barely rendered them edible.
Luckily, I matured a bit and recognized that one shouldn’t mess too much with a wonderful thing. Since then, I have followed her now-smudged and batter-splattered hand-written directions almost to the letter (my only divergence is to pre-toast my store-bought Yankee pecans in an effort to approach the robustness of her Southern gems).
Mammaw’s recipe makes either 2 large tube pans or 6 little cakes. We like to share but we’re not that generous, so I generally make 1 large cake and 3 wee ones.
One of the most productive people I have ever known, she always said she wanted to walk to her grave. And on March 9, 1998 she did, lucid and active until her last days, doting on great-grandbabies and certainly debating the merits of the latest Winston Churchill biography or studying Old Testament scripture.
Out of the oven, ready for 2+ weeks of soaking in apricot brandy.
When she passed along her recipe to me, Mammaw not only shared her legacy, she also set a standard for cooking and for love that I will certainly never reach. My fruitcake, a feeble reflection of hers, is my pale attempt to pay her homage.
This song, my favorite Christmas/not-really-Christmas tune, off 1984’s Learning to Crawl, soundtracked my holiday baking this year. I love its combination of grit and strength and tenderness (Mammaw qualities, to be sure). “Outside under the purple sky/Diamonds in the snow sparkle.”
Wishing you all a magical moment of sparkle this year. Merry Christmas!
I had the distinct pleasure to sub a couple of hard core spin classes this week. My athletes rode hard, sweated buckets, and finished the workouts with fist bumps and smiles.
The music was fun, too! The playlist is a bit poppier than my usual, but the music provided all the right oomph in all the right places. I am unashamedly in love with the entire Bleachers oeuvre. That Jack Antonoff is on to something.
Also, mark my words: this Fall Out Boy tune will be the workout song of the season.
How about some free music? Nab the super-slick remix of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” here.
Full disclosure: I grew up in a big Irish/Welsh/Catholic/Protestant family, emphasis on Irish and Catholic. These four descriptors—and ensuing emphasis—mean that, growing up, I (almost) never received a nutritionally-sound, much less delicious, meal. I include the parentheses because sometimes a neighbor would invite me to eat at her house. It didn’t help matters that I was a maddeningly picky eater and for the entire year I was nine, refused to eat anything that wasn’t white. I consumed a lot of potatoes that year, which, come to think of it, I was probably genetically programmed to do.
I like to congratulate myself that things have changed considerably since then.
Still, when my latest craving hit me, brick-like, a couple of weeks ago, I was nine years old again. I wanted a knish. I wanted mashed potatoes wrapped in pastry: the ultimate all-white food. And, let me tell you: once the word “knish” gets implanted in your brain, there’s no shaking it. Knish. Knish. KNIIIIIISH!
Here’s the weird thing, though: I’d never eaten a knish. I had no idea what a knish actually tasted like. But, the heart (belly) wants what the heart (belly) wants. And mine wanted a knish.
Softball-sized knishes, ready for the oven.
The knish is surprisingly uncomplicated to make…and by uncomplicated, I do not mean quick. Give yourself an entire afternoon (although not all hands-on time) for full knish production. Be prepared to swoon over the aromas of caramelizing onions for much of that time. Ready yourself for nibbling bits (and bits and bits) of mashed potato and moaning audibly.
I followed the recipe on Smitten Kitchen pretty closely (borrowed from Joe Pastry), but I used duck fat instead of vegetable oil for the pastry dough and I added in some of my homemade lamb pastrami with the potatoes and caramelized onions. I’m not sure if this means what I made wasn’t truly a knish, but I will venture that it was knish-ish.
And if knish-ish is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Friends, we were in knish nirvana (knirvana?). Salty, peppery lamb. Hearty potatoes. Tender, savory pastry. We added some zing with coarse mustard and horseradish, and had pickled green beans and peppers on the side. It was a damn fine way to fight off the bitter chill that blew through New England this weekend.
Knish, with potato, onion, and lamb pastrami.
I still have no idea what a proper knish tastes like, but I can’t wait to find out. This might require some field research on the Lower East Side. In the meantime, I’ll keep nibbling on the leftovers of this experiment and plan for another go. Next time, though, I will likely not make them so huge. Honestly: these things weighed a ton. I blame my Texas rearing for the bigger-is-better tendency.
A knish, with its tenacious stick-to-your-ribs quality, calls for cold weather; this is polar vortex food. Therefore, I officially declare the next several months as the Winter of the Knish.
Another thing that suits a cold, crisp night is this fantastic Mike Doughty tune, “I Hear the Bells,” off the divisive (but to my ears lovely) 2005 album Haughty Melodic. The song speaks with an aching hope for joy and love.
I hear the bells, they are like emeralds, and
Glints in the night, commas and ampersands
Any song that can use “ampersands” in the lyrics is all right by me.
Finally, mega-massive thanks to my dear (and exceedingly groovy) friend Nina Insler, who gave me lots of knish tips during the intermission of the Mike Doughty show last week at the super-hip Columbus Theater in Providence. Nina not only has impeccable taste in music and literature, she’s fantastically generous and she knows her knishes!