Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Week with the "NYTimes"

 As we cooked our way through that stack, I discovered interesting shifts
in the way Times readers have approached food. Desserts experienced a major renaissance during the 1970s, as the writers served up ambitious cakes, extraordinarily sweet American pies, and a novel concept called the French tart. Pastry chefs then cut back on the sugar and moved away from these monolithic, Wayne Thiebaud-style desserts to heavily constructed individual servings. We ate a lot of duck in the 1990s and none at all in recent years...We learned to cook pasta and sauce it properly, and to roast vegetables, but we left a lot of great Germanic foods like goulash and spaetzle by the curb. -Amanda Hesser (The Essential New York Times Cookbook)

My cooking method is by no means static. Sometimes the ingredients will pick me  (who can say no to in-season clementines and golden beets, after all?). Some weeks I'm in search of the perfect recipe, while, during others, they just happen to fall into my lap. While I'd certainly be the the first to admit that I've got more than enough cookbooks (the area of the dining room I've christened "Cookbook Corner" is out of space already), the truth is that I often get a lot of inspiration not only from fellow food bloggers, but also from The New York Times. To be honest, I don't know how many times a day I check the newspaper (probably more than I should, especially when I hit a writing rough spot), but I also love seeing what their resident food writers are whipping up. Melissa Clark's column, as I've noted before, is a favorite of mine and her recipes are both simple and inventive. Mark Bittman, the Minimalist, is always good for demystifying certain food items and giving you a great idea for a quick and satisfying meal. And Martha Rose Shulman, whose column I often turn to for inspiration, is all about healthy Mediterranean cooking. I sometimes think that, with the help of the New York Times alone (and the cookbooks it's helped to create), I could never run out of things to cook.

It's especially helpful during busy weeks. I've discovered that, now that I'm no longer a household of one, meals take a little more thought; it's no longer just about pleasing my palate and my ability often to be satisfied with nothing but a simple salad for dinner. The age of dinner for two has dawned and I've got to be a little more experimental. Fortunately, I have a lot of new kitchen toys to help me out. For one, my spaetzle maker, which is a revolutionary little tool that makes dumplings for dinner seem like the easiest thing in the world. I had a lot of fun using it, although I will say that, when I first saw Melissa Clark's recipe, it somehow slipped my mind that a) I always think I'm going to enjoy caramelized onions a lot more than I ever actually do (while I appreciate their aesthetic value, especially when purple and placed next to a sprig of thyme, onions, particularly raw ones, repulse me) and b) I'm not all that crazy about Swiss cheese. Just another way for the universe to tell me that recipes are often a suggested model, not an absolute set of rules.

I took that advice to heart with my next cooking with the Times adventure of the week:  Mark Bittman's delicious looking tofu curry (yet another recipe that relies on browned onions--I assure you that their taste is infinitely more tolerable when covered with curry powder and coconut milk). On a greens kick, I felt it wouldn't be right not to include broccoli. In possession of a few extra mushrooms (left over from the spaetzle), I thought they'd add a nice touch. It was a flavorful curry, but one that both the Greek and I agreed was in need of a little Sriracha. And voila; a meal made and back to work. These days, dissertation writing and Greek translation are always waiting in the wings.

My next endeavor was obvious; it was as if, all those months ago when I had bought a box of Israeli couscous, I kept putting off using it because I knew something would come along that would rock my couscous world. And, yes,  I did use more cheese than Martha Rose recommended (a clear given; most recipes always need just a tad more cheese. Best of all, my kitchen scale does not lie and tells me just how bad I'm being; .35 ounces over is a small sin in the world of "recipes for health," however!). I also used a fairly decadent and creamy goat milk yogurt for the dressing, which, considering the healthy goal of the recipe, is perhaps sacrilege, but, to put it mildly, a little fat goes a long way. Especially in these dark and chilly times.

You see, the sky has recently been looking a lot like this (see the photo below, which, thanks to the new camera below it, is a crisp and accurate view of the world beyond our living room windows). A few nights this week the fog has been nothing short of remarkable; the rain, too, at least earlier in the week, was a force to be reckoned with. At such moments you discover just how non-waterproof the majority of your clothing is; you also, if you're like me, might learn the hard way that the shoes you just paid to have fixed have sprung a leak.


The good news about coming home with wet feet is that you can seek out a recipe for a warm cocktail to take away the chill. I turned to the Essential New York Times Cookbook for help in making this decision; the recipe for hot buttered rum jumped out at me. What could be better suited for curling up on the sofa under a warm blanket than a spice-infused rum with a sliver of butter that lends a smooth finish? It just might, in my book, give the hot toddy a run for its money.

Hot Buttered Rum

Yields 1 very potent serving
Ever so slightly adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

2 ounces dark rum
1 1/2 tsp. organic dark brown sugar
2 whole cloves
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup boiling water
a thin sliver of unsalted butter (about 1/3 Tbsp.)
1 cinnamon stick

-Combine the rum, sugar, cloves and nutmeg in a mug.
-Pour in the boiling water.
-Add the cinnamon stick and the sliver of butter.
-Sip slowly and savor the warmth!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Timely Tiramisu

Luka went upstairs again and sat down at her desk. "I have to write." She'd been on the island since summer, now it was February and she hadn't written a word. Each morning she woke up at five, sometimes four, and jumped out of bed longing to write--the book was ready inside of her, every chapter, every sentence, every comma, everything was in its place, perfectly set, and she knew she could do it...but as soon as she sat at her desk the book became a reflection, the color green, a round egg, a face peering at her, and she would grab her pen to try and write as fast as she could, but the sentences rose up before her like waves pounding against the pier and the paper drew back, her hand struggled to reach it like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at the rocks of some shore.

-Margarita Karapanou (The Sleepwalker)

The first week of the semester is over; it passed in a whirl of commas, library runs and many contemplative, yet productive hours spent in front of the computer screen. And I do have to say that there's something that feels just plain good about that. When you think about what a "beginning" really is, you realize that how something starts will often set the tone for what it will become. It made me think about last semester, when, after a viewing of The King's Speech with some friends, I returned home to the horrible sensation that I was coming down with the flu, which led, in one way or another, to the sickliest semester of my life. But this semester feels different; the urge to work is there and health and other circumstances are (thus far! *knock on wood*) cooperating. So, I decided to share a cake with you all--one that, yes, I did bake while I was still in Pennsylvania, but who's counting? The point is that cake, in any and all forms, is a way of celebrating.

And cake, especially a tiramisu layer cake, is a labor of love that doesn't differ all that much from a dissertation. Think about it: it requires a framework (the yellow cake, but of course), support (the creamy mascarpone frosting) and style (simple syrup with amaretto and chocolate chips/shavings. Style, in a nutshell is a personal thing). Most importantly, however, a dissertation has to be an original contribution to your field; when it comes to Tiramisu, what can be more inventive than Dorie Greenspan's approach to make the dessert with a spongey cake, rather than with ladyfingers? This, in the world of Tiramisu, is clearly a game changer kind of recipe, much like when a scholar manages to produce a reading of an acclaimed literary text (think Crime and Punishment. Or Jane Austen anything) that suddenly causes everybody to sit up and think, "Now here's a voice worth listening to!"

Further strengthening my metaphor (yes, I'm going to run with this to the bitter end!) is the small fact that this was a very laborious project, but one that was well worth it in the end (as I've heard from those who have made it to the other side of dissertating; I'll let you know what I think when I get there). It was a deliciously heavy cake that, when you put your nose right up to it, smelled of chocolate and coffee--in short, all things good. I've always felt with layer cakes that half the fun is that you get twice the goodness in one slice, double the cake and double the icing, but I know this is just a fantasy on my part. Fantasies are key to any experience, however. And, after three and a half hours in the kitchen of making cake from scratch (a fun tip for those of you who find yourselves without cake flour and in a pinch: for every cup of all purpose flour, subtract 2 Tablespoons and replace them with 2 Tablespoons of corn starch), mixing the frosting and waiting for the cake's flavors to set in the refrigerator for a few hours, I felt I was entitled to a little fantasy. Maybe it was just me, but I'd swear that the first bite was more than worth the wait.

Tiramisu Cake

Yields about 10 pieces, depending on how you cut the cake

Barely adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours 

The main difference between my cake and Dorie's cake was that I didn't have instant espresso powder.  The very strong coffee that I prefer, however, worked like a charm.

For the cake: 
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

For the espresso extract: 
4 Tbsp. very strong coffee or 2 Tbsp. instant espresso powder mixed with 2 Tbsp. boiling water

For the espresso syrup: 
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. amaretto liqueur (Disaronno, for example)

For the filling and frosting: 
1 8-ounce container mascarpone
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. amaretto
1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

For the cake:
-Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, dust them with flour and dump out the excess. Then, line the bottoms of the cake pans with parchment paper.
-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and soda, and the salt.
-Working with a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (a hand mixer and a large bowl will work just as well), beat the butter on medium until creamy.
-Add the sugar and beat for about 3 minutes more.
-Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the yolk, beating in between each addition.
-Beat in the vanilla; at this point, the mixture might look curdled, but, according to Dorie (and me), this is fine. Beat on!
-Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk. You should begin and end with the dry ingredients.
-Mix until combined.
-Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
-Bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When done, the cake will be golden and springy to the touch (obviously, a cake tester should come out clean, too).
-Transfer to a rack and let cool for about 5 minutes. After this, run a knife around the edges of the cakes and invert the cake pans. Once the cakes are released, peel off the parchment paper and, again, let cool.

For the extract: 
-Either make a cup of very strong, dark coffee and take out 4 Tablespoons or stir the 2 Tbsp. espresso powder and 2 Tbsp. boiling water together in a small cup until blended. Then, set aside.

For the syrup:
-Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
-Turn off the heat and pour the syrup into a small bowl.
-Stir in 1 Tbsp. of the espresso extract and the amaretto.

For the filling and frosting:
-Whisk the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and liqueur together in a large bowl until smooth and well mixed.
-With a hand mixer (or by hand), whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks.
-With a rubber spatula, stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Gently fold in the remaining whipped cream.

To assemble the masterpiece:
-Place one cake layer right side up on a cake stand protected with wax paper (N.B. this makes icing the cake a neat process, although I warn you that it's not all that easy to remove the wax paper. This is a moist--due to the syrup-- and delicate cake).
-Using a small spoon, soak the layer with about a third of the espresso syrup.
-Smooth some of the mascarpone mixture over this layer (about 1 1/4 cups) and then lightly press in the chocolate chips into the cream.
-Put the second cake layer on the counter and soak the top of it (N.B. this will be the bottom of the top layer) with half of the remaining espresso syrup.
-Turn the layer over and position it over the filling (soaked side down).
-Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.
-For the frosting, you will whisk 1 to 1 1/2 Tbsp. of the remaining espresso extract into the remaining mascarpone filling. Feel free to adjust this to taste.
-If the frosting is too soft, you might want to refrigerate it at this stage for about 10-15 minutes. If not, however, add the frosting, smoothing it around the sides and over the top of the cake.
-Once done assembling, refrigerate the cake for up to 3 hours or overnight; I found that the cake's flavors were stronger the next day, so this is definitely something that you could make in advance of a special occasion.
-Before serving, you can dust the cake with cocoa powder or decorate it with chocolate-covered espresso beans. I chose to leave mine as it was--simple and unadorned. If I make this again, I think I'd go for toasted almond slivers, but that's just me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Lovely Little Lunch

"France, what's a doctor's desertation?"
"Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like. And then they make you a doctor. And I want to become a doctor without having to cut frogs in two."
-Margarita Karapanou (Kassandra and the Wolf)

To run with Karapanou's mocking treatment of the dissertating process, I'm officially back in the desert. I will say, however, that it's not such a bad place to be. I've been spending my days surrounded by books, thumbing through articles and trying--through writing and reflection--to make sense of it all. There are moments when I think that it's all happenstance, the work of one magical moment when the ideas seem to be flowing into a beautiful and coherent whole. Then, there are others when I know that it's all about staring at the screen and fiddling with it until you somehow just make it work. Deep down I know that willpower may have a lot more to do with academic success (or any success for that matter) than sheer brilliance.

And, besides willpower, a healthy sense of balance probably doesn't hurt either. That is what this past week, the last of the vacation, has been about. While, yes, there's been plenty of work, there have also been the moments when the work has been set aside--sometimes for the sake of a lovely little lunch and, at others, for the sake of domestic happiness. While there's not always time to plan meals when you're in the midst of a writing frenzy, there's something to be said for working with what you have. And we all have ingredients that, if we're just inventive enough, can turn into something resembling comfort food. After all, even the busiest among us keep our favorite things in the fridge. For me, that's peanut butter (but of course), apples and some kind of green, usually spinach. Soba noodles--for a little Asian twist--are also a staple in my pantry. It may seem like an obvious combination, but it was a revelation to me: a few red chili flakes and a splash of rice vinegar later, a warm and healthy lunch was on the table. The things that can sometimes seem so hard are often easily within our grasp.

But other things will just fall into our laps. I was in the library recently and a book by Sologub that I had looked at a gazillion times before suddenly opened to a page I had never seen before. My eye caught the word "война" (war) and, before I knew it, the theoretical apparatus of my chapter was unfurling before my eyes--painting, canvas, war as "a splendid panorama of expression!" These are the moments worth celebrating and I firmly believe that one should have sage on hand for such moments. The desert may have its perks, but returning to a cozy apartment with modern conveniences for a creative sage and satsuma cocktail and conversation with a special someone may just be the best end to any work day. There may be greatness in madness, but you've still got to know when to leave the madness behind.

Soba Noodles with Broccoli and Spinach in a Peppery Peanut Butter Dressing
Yields enough for 2

This recipe would work with tofu or bok choy. Use what you have and have fun with it. I like my dressing to be a little tangy and a lot peanut-buttery, so even though I used Heidi Swanson's recipe from Super Natural Every Day, I usually end up adding a little more rice vinegar and a little more peanut butter. Adjust to taste--the happiest way to eat.

1 package Annie Chun's FreshPak noodles
1 small head of broccoli, cleaned and cut into florets
2 handfuls of baby spinach

For the dressing:
1/3 (plus 1 tsp.) creamy salted peanut butter
2 1/2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, put through the garlic press
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
a few pinches of red pepper flakes, plus more for garnishing
1/3 - 1/2 cup hot water (for thinning out the dressing)

-Place the peanut butter, rice vinegar, pressed garlic, toasted sesame oil and red pepper flakes in a bowl. Stir.
-Add the hot water, thinning the dressing out. I like mine to be a little thick, but easily pourable.
-Once the dressing is made, prepare the soba noodles according to the directions on the package (N.B. this time around I used Annie Chun's ready-made soba noodles, which I had in my fridge, but I think I prefer the ones that you boil yourself. They're chewier and texture is key).
-While the noodles are cooling, heat up a skillet with a little toasted sesame oil.
-Add the broccoli and saute until the broccoli is beginning to change color and is easy to spear with a fork.
-At this stage, toss in the spinach. As soon as it starts to wilt, turn off the heat.
-Add about half of the dressing to coat the vegetables and, then add the noodles, as well as the remaining dressing.
-Mix well so that everything is coated in the peanut butter dressing.
-Sprinkle a few more red pepper flakes on your lunchtime achievement and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Seattle, Sweet and Spicy

Every day she got up, tucked her three cookbooks under her arm, shut herself up in the kitchen and cooked, listening to Vivaldi. The books were Elizabethan Cuisine, Plato's Symposia, and Renaissance Spices and Sauces. At night they all traveled together with their sense of taste: as they chewed they would become ancient Greeks eating light but complex dishes, would feel like barbarians from the Middle Ages as they tore into bloody meat, or would seem to hear the strains of a mandolin as a scrap of some strange herb stuck in their teeth. Each night was a surprise; they came not for the food, but for the taste of an unfamiliar age--and because only then, around the table, did they finally feel they had arrived somewhere.
-Margarita Karapanou (The Sleepwalker)

As soon as I stepped out of the LightRail station in downtown Seattle this past Friday, three things struck me: 1) it was a gorgeous downtown with lots of old buildings, 2) it was positively cold--cold enough for wisps of my breath to linger in the air and 3) I felt exhausted and couldn't help but ask myself why in the world I had decided to go to this post-holiday conference where I knew all of two people in a crowd of thousands?

Luckily, yours truly is an optimist at heart. Despite my misgivings about the whole affair, I was there and I was going to make the best of it. But as soon as I stepped into the hotel--the swank Downtown Seattle Westin (although a nice hotel, I still can't help but wonder why every Westin in the world has to jut into a city's skyline in an incredibly unappealing manner?)--I realized that, for my sanity's sake, I was going to have to spend minimal time there. I could smell the academic desperation, the worry, the fatigue, the need to make a good impression and have your fellow academics think you're nothing short of brilliant so that you--and you alone out of the masses--can get that one elusive tenure-track position. Maybe you think I'm exaggerating, but the lobby was full of suits (and tweed ones at that) and it all felt a little overwhelming. So, I took my bag upstairs, grabbed my camera and off I went for a little exploring. The concierge pointed me in the direction of Pike Place and I soon found myself tempted by the spicy Mac and Cheese at Beecher's. Why I went for the spicy option I'll never know, but something told me that I was going to need something a little sweet and creamy to take the edge off of the spice. Without even realizing that I was stepping into an acclaimed Seattle bakery (call it my sixth food sense that always made my brother wish that he had ordered what I had on the menu), as soon as I saw the offerings, my mission was clear: one slice of Triple Coconut Cream Pie to go.

Really, between the spicy mac and cheese and the pie, I don't know what was going on with me. It was like my food palate was completely out of whack. But I do know this; that coconut cream pie was the lightest and fluffiest cream pie I've ever had. The toasted coconut and white chocolate ribbons on a bed of whipped cream were a simple addition, but one that really made the pie stand out. Best of all was that, after I returned to the hotel with my lucky finds, I didn't go out for the rest of the night. 5 hours of television (Temple Grandin is an amazing accomplishment of story-telling) and one phone call from the Greek later, I got a much deserved good night's sleep.

Saturday was my nicest day at the conference. Not every conference experience allows you to sleep in and then head to a cute Italian cafe, Bacco, where you have a leisurely breakfast of ratatouille and and a large coffee to start to your day.  I did decide, however, that I needed to follow up my evening of TV and idyllic morning with an appearance on the conference scene. I had decided that I would attend a panel on "Russian and Soviet Food Culture" (I felt it was an appropriate and interesting topic) and, after three talks--one on poetry in mayonnaise, one on Soviet hot-dog making (a study of Boris Pil'niak's 1936 novel, "Мясо" ["Meat"]; you can see a poster that the speaker passed around below. Apparently, in the Soviet Union, hot dogs were in great demand!) and another on Soviet crockery--I felt rather inspired. It was wonderful to see that this kind of work was being incorporated into Slavic studies, which can often feel like a continuous study of the Russian "giants" (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, and rinse and repeat); food, after all, is an important part of culture and, by examining it, one can see trends that were dominating other facets of life. While a fellow scholar, when I mentioned the panel to him, said that he didn't really think this kind of work could go anywhere, there is actually a book on the topic, which was written by one of the panelists: Recipes for Russia.

The rest of my day passed in a blur of Seattle sights. I saw, from afar, the Space Needle, and, in my quest for good Seattle food, I walked to the Capitol Hill district, where I had what may be a perfect symphony of a sandwich at the Honey Hole, which is clearly a hipster's dream come true.  I ordered the Bellissimo, which had a Smoked Tomato grain meat, red pepper mayo, banana peppers (again, I went for spicy food; I think the fact that I was freezing in Seattle had something to do with it. I was channeling heat) and other tasty things on a baguette. And then, again in search of dessert, I walked a few blocks and stumbled upon a cute cupcake place, Cupcake Royale. Essentially a pastel pink palace with the scent of burnt sugar lingering in the air, I couldn't help but go in. Perhaps I was making up for my pie sin (I am in Camp Cake, remember?), but I couldn't leave without buying a cupcake--specifically, a Lavender one (I was tempted by "the Kate"--chocolate cake and pink buttercream frosting--but there wasn't anything all that gripping about it besides its connection to the world's most famous Duchess). While some cupcake places make good frosting, but the cake leaves much to be desired, this was basically the ideal cupcake: the cake could hold its own, even as the frosting, due to the floral notes of lavender, stole the scene. Needless to say, before 5 p.m., I was nothing short of stuffed.

This didn't stop me from venturing out to Chinatown with my fellow panelists and a friend of theirs from UChicago on Saturday night. Over shrimp soup and fried tofu, we talked about Lust, Caution and modern Japanese prose. There was also, as there always is, a fair amount of academic gossip. Just between us, it was itself the stuff of novels.

And then it was Sunday, or, as I was imagining it (as I always imagine the hours leading up to a conference presentation), Doomsday. There's something about getting in front of people and reading your ideas about a text that frightens me (it is, after all, what I've always liked to call "academic nudity"), but it's just got to be done. My nervous state was exacerbated by my fears about the paper; since my presentation was a section of the chapter that had been critiqued in the early fall (remember all those green beans?), I felt sure that somebody was going to ask an impossibly hard question about the history of the geisha or Salome and Orientalism...but, as so often is the case, nobody asked my most dreaded questions.

Instead, I would say that both the paper and the panel as a whole were a success. Yes, I was presenting to an audience of three people; yes, the discussant, like my dissertation adviser before him, wanted to know less about the French context and more about the Russian one. But these small things aside, people liked the paper and offered interesting feedback; and, for the first time in my conferencing career, I felt like there was a real dialogue and discussion during the Q&A instead of a monologue by an overbearing discussant or, in some cases, a particularly opinionated audience member.

The rest of the day was spent revisiting Pike Place, looking at the many delights in the shop windows and the lovely produce stands that give the market its reputation and unique character.

It was the first day that the sky was not perfectly grey; amidst the puffs of clouds, I could see some blue peeping through.

I went all the way to Pioneer Square and back, passing the Seattle Art Museum and looking at an installation (yarn bombing, it's called) that made me feel like I was walking through one of Dr. Seuss' colorful books.

And in typical me style, I ended my trip with a big old scoop of ice cream, courtesy of Molly Moon's. Surprisingly, I wasn't as crazy about the Salted Caramel as I thought I would be (it was all salt and too little sugar), but the Vivace Coffee, with its bittersweet taste (and the occasional crunch) of ground coffee beans, was a winner.

If I had to go anywhere for a conference a day after returning home from the east coast, I'm glad it was Seattle.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Night for a Nog

“In time,” the philosopher Schopenhauer put it, “each moment is, only in so far as it has effaced its father the preceding moment, to be again effaced just as quickly itself. Past and future (…) are as empty and unreal as any dream; but present is only the boundary between the two, having neither extension nor duration.”
Epson Hammer ("On Modern Time")

It's hard to believe that my vacation is almost over. These days have flown by; it seems like just yesterday that the Greek and I were frantically packing in the new apartment, lugging the bags down the stairs we've come to know only too well (all we've been doing is moving things up and down them and, as they say, familiarity can breed contempt), worrying about missing our flight to Pennsylvania and then sitting on the floor of SFO for a good five hours. And can you believe that it's taken 14 days of our being here for it to finally snow? As I revised, reformulated and practiced reading my conference paper aloud today (it's been sent off, but I still worry that the Salome/geisha connection is not as strong as it could be; however, in 7 double-spaced pages, it's hard to make a point), the snow was violently dancing its way through the neighborhood with the help of its overly gusty companion, the wind.

Even if only a dusting, I'm glad to get to see some snow while I'm here. I had hoped for a snowy Christmas miracle, but Mother Nature was not at all obliging this year. On New Year's Eve, it was 50 F! I should mention that this didn't stop me for fulfilling my New Year's Eve fantasy--making a Hot Apple Cider Nog that I had found in an old Southern cookbook (from 1984, which is almost as old as me!) of my grandma. Much of my vacation has been spent looking through cookbooks and I shouldn't even have to say that this has been not only lovely, but also like a walk down a geographically vast culinary memory lane.

You see, I've often felt that half the battle with cooking is finding recipes that you want to try--and knowing what to do with them to make them work for you.  Some people say that following recipes is a fairly robotic process--that people just copy mindlessly and without any innovation. But you do need to know your palate, understand the potential limitations of your kitchen appliances and time constraints and feel some kind of connection to the recipe. Usually, when I see something that catches my eye, I get this feeling of excitment and, before I know it, I've mentally written down the ingredients and am two steps from putting my shoes on and running out the door to go to the grocery store because I can already taste what awaits me.

This is exactly how I felt about this recipe. The thought of drinking a hot, spicy and creamy nog with a crisp apple cider as its base seemed ideal for a quiet New Year's Eve at home with the Greek, my family and my favorite queenly dachshund, Zoey (aka the Bug). Call me old fashioned (perhaps as old fashioned as this recipe), but I just wasn't in the mood for a New Year's with alcohol. I wanted to start the year off feeling happy, healthy and perfectly hydrated.

After all, I have a big week ahead of me. It's not often that, by the end of the first week of the new year, I'll have already been in three different states. But, come Friday morning, Seattle (and MLA) here I come! Just the thought of it, as well as the snow that is still whirling around outside the window, makes me long for another cup of this noggy cider...and with extra whipped cream, but only if it has orange zest in it (as a lover of condiments, I can safely say that the orange zest really sets off the flavor of the frothy and tangy cider and it would be lost without it).

Hot Apple Cider Nog

Yields about 7 mugs of spicy delight

Adapted from Southern Living:  1984 Annual Recipes (yes, this is a retro recipe, but one worth revisiting--much like the miniskirt)

For the Cider Nog:
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup apple cider
3/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 1/2 cup scaled milk

For the Spiced Orange Whipped Cream: 
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tbsp. orange zest
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
a splash of whiskey
a few pinches of sugar 

-Scald the milk, either in a microwave or in a pot. For those of you not quite sure what scalding is, it's when you heat the milk to 180 F (82 C); the milk will not be boiling, but a froth will appear on top. This practice was generally done for health purposes (to kill possible bacteria) and is not really necessary today because of pasteurization, but it added to the "retro" feel of the recipe. Also, it sped up the heating process of the nog.
-In the meantime, combine the first 6 ingredients in a medium saucepan and whisk to combine.
-Stirring constantly, add the scalded milk.
-Cook over low heat until heated all the way through and just below boiling.
-While the nog is heating, make the whipped cream, adding about a tablespoon of orange zest, 1/4 tsp. of both ground nutmeg and cinnamon and a splash of whiskey (for a little punch) and a little sugar for good measure (adjust to your taste). 
-Ladle into mugs and top each with a more than ample dollop of whipped cream.


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