Books of 2015 (part 1)

Finally, I’m getting around to a minimal report on the books I read in 2015. Clearly, as I have admitted before, I had too much time on my hands, as I appear to have read something like 160 books. About 20 of these, or about 12 percent, were works in translation; I suppose this is above average, but still seems low considering how I swaggered (internally) to think of myself as a big foreign-book reader.

The book I most often recommended last year was probably Sybille Bedford’s A LEGACY, a memoirish novel of a family and a childhood in the transforming, not to say collapsing, Europe of the early 20th century. Written in English as a second or third language, it almost counts as a work in translation—pre-translation, so to speak. I connected A LEGACY with Gyorgy Krudy’s ADVENTURES OF SINDBAD, also highly recommended, which apparently I read in some earlier year.  Another book I talked up was Robert Sackville-West’s THE DISINHERITED, a family memoir of the troubled and occasionally dastardly Sackville-West family (not primarily about the famous Vita). Sensing a theme here? Another in the same dying-Europe family: THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Joseph Roth.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Dangerous breakfast.

The hazards of a simple petit dejeuner.

I was sitting peacefully at my little kitchen table, drinking coffee, working on my task list for the week, and waiting for my toast, when the smoke alarm on the wall above my head (which apparently hates and fears toast) went off. I jumped up to climb on my chair and turn it off; that is, I tried to jump up, instead becoming entangled in the limbs of chair and table and bringing all, and myself, crashing to the floor. In one gesture I managed to sweep clear my bulletin board, to soak my notebook in coffee, and to break the table, my favorite Snork Maiden cup given to me by my late friend Nicole, and my glasses. And apparently I bruised my elbow along the way.

By the time I got to my feet, the alarm had stopped.

It was certainly time to get new glasses, and Ikea probably still has the little tables, but breaking the cup is irremediable.

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Challenged. (2016)

In another indication that I have too much time on my hands and am longing for order, I am considering participating in some reading challenges this year.  I don’t think they’ll change my reading habits all that much, but they will encourage me to pay attention and to write some brief reviews. Also, it means I’m participating in one of the great trends of our century, gamification.

These are the three challenges I’m thinking of (EDIT: SIGNED UP FOR ALL THREE):

  • Books in Translation at the Introverted Reader. This merely asks you to read, well, translated books, with the highest level, “linguist,” asking for ten to twelve books. But it’s too plain, so along with aiming for a dozen translated books (I’m pretty sure I read at least one translation a month), I’m going to look for at least four different languages from at least six different countries.
  • Back to the Classics at Books & Chocolate. This one has twelve categories, with opportunities to participate in a reward drawing being offered at levels of completion from six to twelve.
  • Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block. This will require some extra effort to seek out vintage mysteries. Its quirk is that it asks for Things Found on the Cover, with 75 objects in each of the Golden (to 1960) CORRECTION: THROUGH 1959 and Silver (60-89) categories. (Same list for each period.)

So does it sound like fun, or like drudgery? Both? We’ll see how long I last. I’ve made a spreadsheet to track the books, and I seldom associate spreadsheets with fun. So far: one Golden Age mystery, one object (a phone). And I’m going to decree right now that any one book may answer more than one challenge. For example, an Arsène Lupin novel (E. Gaboriau, c 1900) would count as a work in translation, a classic, and potentially the source of a scavenger hunt item (probably not a plane or a flashlight, though).

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Educational.

Happy New Year! I come into it with new knowledge, that it is very easy to make zabaglione.  Lifetime learning, that’s what I’m all about.

Also I made a quiche that one friend called “the best quiche he had ever had.” I think its special quality must have been that it was still warm from the oven and unctuously soft — there was nothing particularly remarkable about it. Here’s what it had: Plain butter crust with a little cornmeal thrown in, cream & almond milk for the liquid, sauteed mustard greens & spinach with onion and scallion, feta and cheddar.

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Layerless.

I can’t get behind the name “strata” for this foodstuff. First of all, you don’t perceive the layers; they’re only relevant to the setup. A layer cake, hell, even a sandwich is more stratified than a so-called “strata.” Secondly, it’s a plural form. I feel as uncomfortable saying “a strata” as I would “a phenomena” or, in the other direction, “several chair.” (That’s not meant as a correction. If it doesn’t bother you, go ahead. But on my tongue, it sits wrong.)

However, I have no problem calling it “a delicious savory bread pudding.” [Or you could call it a “Breakfast casserole,” as Melissa Clark just did in the NYT. Hers seems excessively rich, what with the croissants AND heavy cream, but I do like that she gives a ratio basis:
A basic ratio is one egg to a half-cup of liquid dairy (milk, cream or a combination) to a cup of cubed bread. Substituting yolks for some of the whole eggs will give you a richer custard. Using fewer eggs gives you a firmer casserole that’s easier to slice for serving. And mixing in plenty of grated cheese (about a half-cup per cup of dairy) adds flavor, luscious gooeyness and a scattering of browned bits on the top.]

For the Streetsingers‘ caroling party I made Smitten Kitchen’s corn-scallion version, using frozen white corn kernels and, along with cheddar, maybe half a cup of parmesan (mine is old and very hard, making it a pain to grate, so I quit early), and almond milk rather than cow, and adding a little mustard powder as well as the mayonnaise. It turns out that one of the flat little pane italiano from Trader Joe’s, bought a day early and sliced in half to firm up just a bit, is just about the right size to generate 8 cups of bread cubes with an end or so left over to nibble. The pudding sat in the fridge for about seven hours; I’d planned on eight but, you know how it goes, all that grating takes longer than you think.  Halfway through the 55+ minutes of baking I poked a bunch of bread bergs sticking up over the surface down under to drown in the liquid. They’d have been dry toasty crusts if I hadn’t. My old Pyrex baking dish has a wicker-sided serving container, which no doubt helps hold the heat; covered with aluminum foil right when it came out of the oven,  and wrapped in a plastic bag and a big towel for travel, the pudding stayed modestly warm for several hours, and I had no issues with extra liquid pooling in the dish.

People said they liked it; I warned them not to lie out of politeness, because it would come back to haunt them, but they insisted, so I’ll be making this (maybe in the spinach version) again for potlucks and for my new-mother cousin Deborah.

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Latke Party 2015, or, The Baking Powder Bafflement

Latkes!  I made five, even six, kinds for this year’s shapenote latke party (after three hours of singing about death, blood, and the baby Jesus, come to my house to eat latkes and light the menorah). Regular potato-onion; potato-onion gluten free (potato starch, no flour); butternut squash with sage, using gift sage from Dr. Jon; caraway tricolor red, orange, and white (red cabbage, carrots, potato with caraway and sesame seeds); chard with feta and parsley; plus totally vegan — that is, no egg — potato-radish (very fragile).  Thanks to the New York Times for inspiration for most of these. The chard-feta are an Ottolenghi recipe published in the Times (and made by me) last year; I simplified, leaving out the dill and cilantro (but adding some dill seed) to limit the number of half-bunches of herbs that would go bad in my fridge following the party.  The three-veg are also a revision, of a Melissa Clark recipe asking for broccoli stems where I used potato.  Broccoli is a dominant flavor and I didn’t want leftover broccoli florets any more than I did leftover cilantro.  I did include all of the flours (buckwheat, corn, oat bran, and all-purpose), even though I  doubt we could taste them. No doubt the broccoli version would have been good, though quite a different beast. Still, the squash and the tricolor both garnered particular expressions of delight.  I have to say it was a big success overall.  Can I say, though, that I don’t understand the purpose of baking powder in potato pancake recipes. It’s not like latkes need to rise like biscuits. Does it maybe make them stickier and more coherent? Anyone who can explain it, please chime in.

These sauces were offered: sour cream; yogurt; plain applesauce; cinnamon applesauce; cranberry applesauce; cranberry sauce; cherry jam.  Continuing the apparent theme, there was cranberry shrub to mix with prosecco and cranberry-apple cake upside-down cake (I dotted some dried cranberries on top too).

I have to thank Deb Perelman again for the revolutionary information that latkes can be made ahead and reheated.  I fried more or less a batch a day from Monday through Saturday, applesauce and cake on Sunday morning, and (the warm weather cooperating by allowing open windows) the smell of frying dwindled to a mere undertone by party time on Sunday afternoon.

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Back in November . . .

Considering there were just two of us, I made a lot of different things for Thanksgiving. And practically everything had its own sauce. I made horseradish sauce for the roasted parsnips and carrots (ground horseradish, yogurt, cider vinegar — tangy) and “gorgonzola” cream for the butternut squash using leftover soft, stinky cheese (equal amounts butter & cheese, garlic, pounded with a pinch of salt; this was delicious). And for the steamed cauliflower, a whole tiny one, very cute: wait, what is this “sauce” on my list? Apparently I was supposed to remember and find the recipe. Hah! However, as I had two kinds of cranberry sauce and mushroom gravy in addition to the sauces above, I guess we were sufficiently sauced. So to speak. (I got the sauce ideas from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, a book I had better buy so that I can quit renewing the library copy.)

The cocktail was cranberry shrub with seltzer, vodka, and Dutch’s Spirits’ Prohibitters (part of a set of three bought at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival last year); appetizers were radishes with butter & salt, olives, and artichoke hearts marinated with olive oil, lemon, and chopped olives. For soup we had passato di verdure from Beatrice Tosti di Valminata, mentioned here. Along with the parsnips, cauliflower, and squash, I made a rather unsuccessful, mostly classic stuffing using a nice bread from Mazzola’s, celery, onions, and vegetable stock. (It needed more stock, since turkey juices were not available.)  Z brought red Philippine rice and Mama Stanberg’s cranberry relish; the other cranberry sauce was the classic plain with a little medium hot pepper. We drank a granacha from Navarre, Lurra, with a sheep on the label.

I was going to make an apple crisp but in the end we ate some leftover mini pumpkin cupcakes and a Blanc de Calville apple from the Samascott orchard in Kinderhook. Oh my god, I bored everyone with my enthusiasm for this apple. Crisp with a bursting juice, and a winey tang.

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Things to put on your shopping list

after making about a zillion latkes:

  • oil
  • paper towels
  • wax paper

 

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Old ways and new ways

Bread-baking season started again in October, when it finally got cool enough to have the oven on (although it remains, in mid-November, unseasonably mild). I made a satisfactory couple of loaves following Mark Bittman’s easy (food processor-kneaded) sandwich loaf process. I varied the flours, sweetener, liquid, and fat each time, and made no detailed notes, but I am getting a better feel for the texture of dough at each stage and for the shaping of loaves.  I get nice flavor and a pretty good, well-knitted texture in a bread that can last me a week of skinny slices. It turns out that watching the rise timings helps. With those two successes behind me, I attempted a much more complex recipe for French loaves found in BAKING WITH JULIA, edited by Dorie Greenspan. I started with old dough, saved from the previous week’s baking, waking it up with a little water the night before. This went into a first starter, which then made a second starter, which then went through two long rises before shaping and final rise.  The dough looked great, stretchy with big and small holes, through the second starter and even the first rise, but the second rise almost didn’t. The dough had become almost inert, seemingly.  I shaped two small baguettes, following the instructions rather impatiently — it was now eight o’clock on the second day, or twenty-four hours into the process. Maybe they should have rested longer than an hour, but I was out of time.  So into the oven they went. And there was enough oven spring to make the two sad, poorly formed logs burst and bulge out in various directions, but not enough to make the texture less than leaden. Well, whipped lead. Still edible, but dense and somewhat gummy. Rather than developing a crisp brown crust, they had the mottled look of a redheaded glassblower. Continue reading

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In memoriam.

Light
C. K. Williams

Another drought morning after a too brief dawn downpour,
uncountable silvery glitterings on the leaves of the withering maples –

I think of a troop of the blissful blessed approaching Dante,
“a hundred spheres shining,” he rhapsodizes, “the purest pearls…”

then of the frightening brilliant myriad gleam in my lamp
of the eyes of the vast swarm of bats I found once in a cave,

a chamber whose walls seethed with a spaceless carpet of creatures,
their cacophonous, keen, insistent, incessant squeakings and squealings

churning the warm, rank, cloying air; of how one,
perfectly still among all the fitfully twitching others,

was looking straight at me, gazing solemnly, thoughtfully up
from beneath the intricate furl of its leathery wings

as though it couldn’t believe I was there, or was trying to place me,
to situate me in the gnarl we’d evolved from, and now,

the trees still heartrendingly asparkle, Dante again,
this time the way he’ll refer to a figure he meets as “the life of…”

not the soul, or person, the life, and once more the bat, and I,
our lives in that moment together, our lives, our lives,

his with no vision of celestial splendor, no poem,
mine with no flight, no unblundering dash through the dark,

his without realizing it would, so soon, no longer exist,
mine having to know for us both that everything ends,

world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away
like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.

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