Doing Herb with Martha! – Rosemary Butter Cookies! -288 eggs, 212 cups of sugar, 215 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 270 cups of flour used so far- 4 recipes to go!
September 2, 2013
Rosemary is one of those herbs that can dominate the flavor of a dish if not used frugally. It is a delicious accompaniment to savory dishes, particularly lamb, pork, eggplant, and beef. My sister once prepared rosemary mashed potatoes. They were pretty dreadful. There was simply too much rosemary in the recipe ending in a side dish which can only be described as menthol-flavored mashed potatoes. It was this bad experience which fueled my reluctance to approaching this particular cookie. The recipe was simple enough- butter, sugar, flour, eggs- the usual suspects with the added ingredient of freshly chopped rosemary. Not a lot. Just enough to infuse the dough with a slight herbal freshness. The end result was a delicate, buttery, and sophisticated cookie that my co-workers enjoyed immensely. I was quite surprised at how remarkably delicious this cookie turned out to be given my bad experiences with rosemary in the past. My husband’s mom’s name is Rosemary. (Yes… I married Rosemary’s baby.) This has no relevance to the cookie or my story. I just thought I’d throw it out there.
I have been more than a little remiss in keeping up with this blog. I’ve no real excuse other than I’ve been depressed and frustrated with a lot of things in my life. My career, my household, my world, all have been spinning a bit out of control and I find myself longing to be somewhere else, doing something else, finding some fulfillment in my life that is currently and seriously absent. Perhaps I’m having a midlife crisis? That said, I don’t feel the need to purchase a sports car, have an affair with a twenty-something, or enroll in hair restoration, so it can’t be all that serious. Ah, well.
I just returned from my annual visit with my family over the holidays. My workplace closes each year between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It’s mandatory that I not be at work and equally mandatory that I use my personal time off to do so. My husband, Dan, however, works in retail management and cannot be away from his job during the busiest time of the year. It’s the most opportune time for me to step away and be a dutiful brother, uncle, and son. It’s always strange going home. I step out of the skin I live in and into the skin of the person I used to be back at home. It feels awkward and strained. Every question asked and answered feels a bit inauthentic to who I am and what I believe. Perhaps I live a bit more selfishly here away from my family. When I’m with them, I find myself engaged in conversations that I would never partake in otherwise. There’s very little left to my hometown that feels familiar, warm, or inviting. One place, however, has never changed and during this recent trip, I stopped by this old watering hole to have a drink and a look-see.
George’s Place is a gay bar established over forty years ago by its namesake. It rests on the outskirts of Baton Rouge’s tiny downtown area just north of the Mississippi River bridge. It is a tiny dive filled with tap beer, video screens, a centered rectangular bar, a tiny stage, and a lot of cigarette smoke. The patrons are of all ages, ethnicities, educational and economic backgrounds. I had a regular piano gig there in the mid-nineties, accompanying several local vocalists and drag personas who would work the tiny crowds into frenzies every Tuesday night. Nearly thirty years ago, the barroom was purchased from George by two gentlemen named Guy and Richard who have kept the place humming with cheap drinks, gaudy décor and reasonably attentive bartenders/eye candy. Richard and Guy were both generous and kind individuals who attracted a slew of regulars to their establishment… me included.
Many an evening was spent at George’s Place drinking away the hours and listening to the inane ramblings of soused locals who expounded their political philosophies in fluent drunkenese. Over the many years I had witnessed strangenesses within the walls of this foul-smelling parlor of iniquity and I loved every one of them. The most unusual experience came in the early nineties when I had stopped by after a particularly rough Thursday at work. It was early evening and the sun was just setting across the river. I noticed a large tour bus parked outside in the gravel parking lot. I entered the bar and was greeted by a bizarre and, even by George’s Place’s questionable standards, disturbing sight. A dozen male and female patrons sat around the bar, all holding hands with their eyes towards the ceiling. Each had a drink in front of them and smiles on their faces. Many wore sunglasses and a few had sun visors. No one spoke. They quietly held each others hands and smiled serenely. There they sat in silence as a recording of Patsy Cline lilted in the background. I ordered a beer and sat among them, peering up at the ceiling, trying to figure out what they found so fascinating. The bartender chuckled. Was this some sort of a joke?- I thought to myself.
After several minutes, I noticed another man slightly older than myself at the end of the bar. He had been eyeing me with a bemused smile since I entered the room. I approached him and whispered to him inquisitively, “What is going on here?” He gave a short laugh and explained that he was the driver of the bus outside and that his payload was a group of blind and deaf students from North Mississippi on their way to a conference downtown. “They’re not holding hands, see?! They talking to each other!” I then noticed the tapping out of words between each of the couples. I began to laugh with relief and sat down to enjoy the company of the quietest most talkative group of people I had ever been around.
I shared this story with Guy during this latest visit. He remembered that evening as vividly as I do. His partner, Richard, sat in the corner with a large smile on his weathered face and a name tag that simply read “Alzheimer’s Patient”. This was not a mean-spirited or tasteless joke. Richard, over the past few years had, in fact, been declining into a permanent state of dementia. He did not recognize me but seemed happy to see me nonetheless. Guy and Richard still own George’s Place but have passed on the management of the facility to Richard’s rough-and-tumble lesbian niece. It was good to see them and aside from Richard’s illness, very little has changed. There’s still the buzzer at the door in order to be let in. This was installed in the late nineties after an early evening armed robbery which left several patrons injured by gunshots. The clientele was still eclectic and ornery, filled with many opinions but not many facts. The place still smells of stale beer, urine, and cigarette smoke.
It was all strangely comforting.
As the saying goes…
It may not be much, but it’s home.
The Other Martha Graham! – Homemade Graham Crackers! -286 eggs, 210 3/4 cups of sugar, 213 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 267 1/2 cups of flour used so far- 5 recipes to go!
September 2, 2013
When I was a child we always kept a box of graham crackers in the pantry of our home. I never really understood why. As I recall, none of us in the family really liked them. Mom never made cheesecake, at least not cheesecake that didn’t come in a box marked JELL-O, and s’mores were completely foreign. In Southern Louisiana where it’s easy to sweat in the middle of Winter, we didn’t spend a lot of time gathered around an open fire toasting anything. As an adult, I appreciate graham crackers a bit more. They have a unique and unmistakable flavor. Honey, cinnamon, and wheat chaff are pretty tasty when combined. Baking them is no extraordinary feat. It’s a simple enough dough to assemble. White and wheat flours are mixed with wheat germ, honey, butter, salt, and baking soda then flavored with cinnamon and brown sugar. It all comes together into a dense and extremely sticky dough. The most difficult challenge in baking a batch of these crackers is the elbow grease involved in rolling them out thin enough. You don’t really want to add a great deal of flour to the rolling surface of these otherwise your crackers will turn out too dry. Instead, you must roll out the tacky dough between two sheets of lightly dusted parchment paper. Using a fluted pastry wheel, you then must slice them into uniform rectangles and prick each one with the tines of a fork to prevent them from warping in the oven. Again, they’re not terribly difficult to make but they do take time and patience.
How are they different than store-bought graham crackers? Well, the taste is superior. The buttery nuttiness with a tinge of cinnamon spice and smokey brown sugar make the homemade version of these a far more satisfying and flavorful experience. I brought these to my office where they were quickly dispatched. Most remarked that they had a much more intense flavor than any graham cracker they had ever purchased from the store. So, if you are feeling like taking s’mores or a graham cracker crust to a whole new level, get out your rolling pin and be prepared to wrestle out a batch of Martha’s Homemade Graham Crackers.
Here’s something that’s on my mind, and my mind has not been a very happy place lately. Don’t be too concerned. I’m taking a much needed vacation soon and that will put me in a much happier place soon. In the meantime, here is some rather bleak writing. You may want to pour yourself a drink for this one.
Depression is a difficult thing to write about. Too often it can appear to be a cry for help. It can seem like some sort of cockeyed group therapy in a social media setting. It can be self-indulgent and self-piteous. I am going to make an attempt, though. I am not looking for feedback or advice. I’ve had plenty of therapy and am dealing with my demons the best way I know how. After all, they are mine, not yours. I am writing about this simply because it’s best to write about what you know. I know depression. I know how to deal with this part of myself. Perhaps it might help others with similar feelings and experiences to find their way out of the dark place. Perhaps not. I’m not a therapist, nor do I claim any such wisdom. I only know what I know. Here goes.
I kill myself at least twice a day. Once when I wake up and have my coffee and once before I go to bed. I occasionally kill myself at points during the day as needed. Killing myself is a personal mantra- a prayer of sorts. Of course, I am not literally killing myself. I am merely pronouncing my death. Sometimes I do it silently and sometimes I catch myself muttering the phrase, “André died today,” or, “André’s dead.” I am not killing the person I am. I am killing the person I could be, the person, who if given reign of myself, would destroy everything in his path. I am killing my saboteur. The part of myself that would like to see everything around me crumble. The part of myself that strips away joy and magnifies misery. He is an angry child. He is my father’s son.
I split in two at a very early age. Systematic belts, and fists, and switches, and tears, and sweat, and blood stung, and burned, and bruised. The daily application of these were intended to make me into a man. They did not. They merely tore me into two incomplete persons: one, an angry little boy filled with fear and self-loathing and the other, an emotionless adult bent on self-preservation. Neither of these selves were very pleasant, nor did either please my father. They were both incomplete, and therefore weak. Peers and other predatory adults could plainly see my weakness and exploited it for their own enjoyment. I was a sissy. I was a weakling. I was a mama’s boy. I could be intimidated. I could take what they gave me in silence. I would not fight back. I would not tell. I was a pariah. This embarrassed my father and the beatings increased in frequency and intensity. I learned to smile with each strike. This was the only way I knew to stop his fists, his anger. This was my childhood as far back as I can remember. Nothing came without punishment. Failures, real and imaginary, were not tolerated and embarrassingly broadcast to anyone who would listen, a testament to my father’s long-suffering of worthless children. Triumphs were trumped by my father’s jealousy and were soon forgotten.
So, that’s how I grew up. It was a blessing that my dad gave me the boot at sixteen. I lived with my grandmother for awhile and then my cousin, and then an evangelical art teacher. I learned to sharpen my wit to deal with those who would exploit me. I sharpened my talents so that I would be able to make enough money to get by. All the while I ached for a different life. I longed to be happy.
I spent most of my twenties working constantly. I was prolifically creative and moved about the country securing contract after contract. I fell in love with the wrong type of people, but made friends with some of the right ones, too. I self-medicated a lot. Marijuana was my drug of choice and I spent every non-working moment in a pleasant and emotionless haze. I rarely saw my family and avoided my father altogether. He, too, avoided me. We despised each other.
In my early thirties, I admitted myself into a mental health clinic in Indianapolis after a long and extended bout with suicidal thoughts that began to manifest in destructive behavior. This was the third time in my life I found myself in a hospital wanting to die. Something needed to change. I needed to change. I was discharged into an intensive outpatient group therapy and the work of repairing myself began.
It was during this time I became acutely aware that I was dealing with a duality within myself: one was the preservationist, and the other was my destructor. This is not entirely uncommon among folks who have dealt with abusive childhoods or traumatic events. You see, part of me was still the victim, the scared eight-year-old boy hiding in the filthy ditch because he knew his father was looking for him. That part of myself was angry and compulsive, filled with fear and mistrust and wanting desperately to run away. The other part of myself was the adult, the one who took care of the scared child, the one who was trying to make things better. These two parts of myself were in constant conflict. The child part of myself was convinced that everything I had built was going to fall apart, that I was going to fail, that I deserved to fail, that I was unworthy, that I should just die, that I should be ashamed, that I was not ever going to be in control, that I was worthless. It didn’t take long for me to figure out where these thoughts were coming from. After all, this child was my father’s son.
The other part of myself, the adult, was trying to hold it all together. Picking up the messes that my child self had created. Trying to mend relationships and build a better future for myself, making decisions based on facts and logic, not emotions. My adult self was tired from the struggle. Worn down and ready to give up. It’s tough to keep up with a rambunctious kid.
Suicide was always an option. It was an option instilled at a very early age. My father threatened suicide often, almost weekly. He kept a shotgun in the closet in a pink leather case and would threaten to unload it into his head. Yes, I think a pink gun case is unusual, too. Sometimes he would threaten to kill me and then kill himself. As a teenager, I would always follow this empty threat with “Or vice versa.” This was followed with a punch to the face, but it always felt worth it. This morbid predilection with suicide was telling. My father was an unhappy person. Truth be told, he still is. For my own sanity, I’ve learned to let go of much of the anger I had over the childhood he provided me. He was merely the instrument of his own sad childhood. The fists that struck me were from generations past. I have forgiven as much as I can, but I don’t forget. I can’t.
During therapy, I came up with my mantra- “André is dead.” It was a way of killing off that part of myself, that angry child, that destructive part of myself that I had wrongfully nurtured for so many years. It was popular at the time for people to say “Be kind to your inner-child,” when in reality, I should have taken a hatchet to mine. The first few years the mantra was constantly running through my head, a repetitious prayer. Each day, the compulsions weakened and I began to build myself all over again. I even began to like myself a bit. Soon, I liked myself enough to let someone else into my life. The right kind of person. Now, the mantra is only used when needed: once in the morning, once in the evening, and when I feel a compulsion coming on.
I still rarely see my family. It’s difficult when I do. The mantra is stronger when I am around them. My child self screams just under the surface of calm. My father looks at me. He is older now. The years weigh heavily on him. There is shame in his eyes. Now, however, the shame isn’t with who I am, it is with who he was.
Like I said, I’m not a therapist. I don’t claim wisdom. I only know what I know. I know what works for me. If killing my miserable self twice a day so I can live happily is what I have to do, then so be it.
July 26, 2013
My apologies to my readers but after counting the recipes in the book six times, I’m afraid that Martha’s claim of 175 recipes was a slight exaggeration on her publisher’s part. There are only 173 recipes. That means there are only six recipes till this cookie endeavor is completed. (I am secretly happy about this but still a bit miffed.)
Stay tuned for a new post coming soon!
Martha’s Minty Fresh!- Chocolate Mint Sandwiches! -286 eggs, 210 cups of sugar, 211 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 265 cups of flour used so far- 8 recipes to go!
July 22, 2013
It seems like every few weeks there’s a girl scout, or the parent of a girl scout, or an aunt, uncle, distant cousin of a girl scout hitting me up to buy cookies. I always try to oblige when I can. One of the more popular cookies the girl scout cookie-pushers peddle is known as Thin Mints. I’m sure you’re familiar with these. They’re thin chocolate wafer cookie that’ve been dipped in chocolate. I have a box of them in my cupboard. They’ve been there over a year. I don’t really like them. I’ve never been a fan of minty desserts. Martha, of course, included them in her book and since I have an adversity to minty cookies, I put off baking them for as long as possible. It’s really too bad, too, because this recipe is actually quite good. Mint-flavored-chocolate butter cookie dough is rolled out very thin, then cut into discs, and baked until crisp. The filling is a simple mint-flavored vanilla concoction that is sandwiched between two wafers and then dipped in melted chocolate. Not terribly complicated, although quite time consuming. They are tasty, though. I’ve always found the Thin Mint girl scout cookies to have a bit of an artificial aftertaste due the amount of preservatives added to maintain “freshness”. This homemade version allows the flavors of butter, salt, and sweetness to come to the forefront with a refreshing waft of chocolate-mint in the finish- a much more satisfying experience.
Yes, I haven’t written in my blog for quite some time. At the beginning of this year I stepped back into the world of theater and after three shows back-to-back, I’m exhausted and can finally direct my attention to finishing out this insane cookie challenge.
I’m not being entirely honest. Yes, I’ve been ridiculously busy with rehearsals, performances, etc… but the fact is… I’m sad. Depressed, really. There are a lot of reasons for this depression. I’ve experiences a lot of loss this year and due to time constraints and an ever-growing tense atmosphere at work, I’ve not given myself the time needed to mourn.
I resume but not so fast I resume the skull |to shrink and waste / fading fading fading| and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis on on the beard the flames the tears the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the labors abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara in spite of the tennis the skull alas the stones Cunard tennis … the stones … so calm … Cunard … unfinished …
-Lucky from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
I’d like to tell you about my friend, Mark. I first met him in the mid-1990s at Swine Palace, a rather innovative theater company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where I worked for ten years of my life. Mark was a New-Orleans-based actor from Boston who we’d cast to play Oberon/Theseus in a very lush and stylish production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mark was a staple performer in the New Orleans community, appearing regularly at the Tulane Shakespeare Festival. He was, in a word– outstanding. He was handsome in a very world-weary way with a full head of neatly cropped gray hair and blue eyes that always twinkled with a touch of mischief. His voice was precise in its elocution with a controlled gruffness reflected by an intimate history shared with a thousands cigarettes and just as many bottles of scotch. He had a slight Bostonian brogue that added a mesmerizing cadence to the wonderful stories he’d tell that charmed his devout and appreciative listeners for hours.
I loved Mark… which wasn’t always an easy task. Mark was a complicated individual with a tendency to drink in excess. One of my first experiences with Mark was after a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream when he’d invited the rather large cast and crew for dinner and drinks at a favorite local restaurant. Drinks were consumed, dinner was enjoyed, and stories were shared. The grateful cast members thanked Mark profusely and began to trickle away from the festivities. Earlier, Mark had asked me for a ride back to the actor’s housing which I gladly agreed to provide. When there were only the two of us left in the restaurant it was time for Mark to settle the bill. He looked at the tiny slip of paper and asked me to read the number to him since he had forgotten his glasses in the dressing room. The bill totaled over $500. He winced then grinned and placed his hand on my shoulder. “You know, I didn’t think those bums would actually expect me to pay for this shindig.” he said with a mischievous smirk. “Truth be told, I don’t have a red nickel to pay for any of this.” I angrily picked up the tab with my credit card and silently seethed on the drive with Mark back to actor housing. I was to soon learn that this was Mark’s mode of operation. It was his test, an examination of sorts to see if I was genuinely a kind person, a person who could be trusted. He never put me in that situation again… well… not that exact situation.
Mark became a staple performer at Swine Palace. He would stay in the actor’s housing for months at a time while trodding our boards. Audiences loved him as did the company of his fellow performers. I worried for him, though. He was continuing to drink far too much and eat and sleep far too little. I remember attending a poker game after a show one night where Mark was absolutely soused in vodka. He sneezed and his front tooth flew out of his head. It was a capped tooth, but a tooth nonetheless. He grabbed it from the floor, washed it off in his drink and stuck it back in his mouth without missing a beat. It continued to hang there precariously causing him to whistle a bit with every word uttered. I expressed my concern that he should visit a dentist in the morning to have his tooth repaired before the next performance. He shrugged and continued to deal the cards and swig from the bottle of vodka. The next day, an hour before the performance, I found him sitting somberly in the green room. He looked utterly miserable and smelled of vodka and sweat. “How’s your tooth?” I asked. “Fixed!” he responded and flashed me a grimace of clenched teeth for my examination.
“Did you see a dentist?”
“No. I took care of it myself”
“Superglue. Works like a charm.”
As the Director of Education and Outreach for Swine Palace, it was my responsibility to book school performances of Season Shows. We were currently running The Merchant of Venice with Mark playing Shylock. Mark delivered a very powerful performance in this role and students were eager to speak with him afterwards. I had arranged for Mark to visit my classroom to address a group of my high school theatre students. I picked him up that morning. On the drive in he sat in the passenger seat dead silent. Mark was not a morning person. He politely and quietly asked to stop for a cup of coffee. I obliged. He was freshly showered and still smelled of soap and cologne but he still seemed haggard. When we arrived at my classroom he sat quietly in the corner and drank his coffee while we waited for the bell to ring and students to start filling the classroom. He looked a bit unsteady. I asked him if was okay. “Top Notch!” he replied with a smirk. The bell rang, the students filed in, and class began. The students had seen Mark’s performance the previous week and were thrilled to spend an hour talking about the play and his performance. Mark stood before the group and launched in a soliloquy from another of Shakespeare’s works. He paused in the middle of his speech, glanced at the faces in the room and found one very young and pretty female student. He walked slowly up to her and said “I bet you didn’t know that soliloquy was about blow jobs.” The class was stunned silent. I began to sweat. He then went on to explain in vivid detail the sexual innuendo of Shakespeare’s language in several plays. I imagine, in Mark’s mind he was making Shakespeare relevant to the average American teenager. In reality, though, he came across as a dirty old man who was freaking out a classroom of young minds. Me included. I ran across the hall to fetch a confused secretary. I asked her to please watch my class while I removed a guest who was not “feeling well.” When we returned to my classroom, Mark was demonstrating the missionary position to an audience of gape-mouthed students. I applauded loudly to let him know that the “lecture” was over. The class applauded, too. Mark stood up and took a deep bow. I escorted him to my car and quickly drove him back to the actor’s housing letting him know how inappropriate his behavior had been. He kept saying “I’m sorry.” Later that day I checked my answering machine to find he had filled it up with “I’m sorry.” repeated over and over again. Mark was deteriorating. Something had to be done.
The Swine Palace season had wrapped up and the actors and crew moved out of the artists’ housing and headed back to their homes. One stayed, though. I was alerted to the situation by the landlord who began charging our company a daily rate until Mark vacated the premises. In addition to my work as the director of education and outreach, I also served as the company manager and therefore it was my responsibility to see that the actor’s left the rental apartments in good condition and on time. I went over to the apartment and found Mark parked at the kitchen table with an full ashtray and an empty bottle. I explained he had to leave but he was barely coherent. I packed up his few belongings and cleaned the apartment while he passed-out on the sofa. When everything was scrubbed and his belongings packed and in my car, I collected Mark. As I began to drive him towards New Orleans, he confided that he had no home there anymore. He had let his lease go unpaid and therefore had been officially evicted and his possessions confiscated. I didn’t quite know what to do. I brought Mark to my home and set him up in my guest room until I could figure out what to do next. Mark continued to drink heavily. He looked sick. He was going to die if the drinking didn’t stop. I made inquiries at all the treatment facilities in the Greater New Orleans area. I was looking for a detox program that would assist him in transitional housing after treatment. It would also need to be done gratis, as Mark had no financial resources. I placed him on a waiting list for a bed in a detox center in the heart of New Orleans and a few days later I received a call they were ready for him. I didn’t discuss any of this with Mark as he was barely conscious due to his toxic state. I drove him to the facility and checked him in. Only when we arrived did he realize what was going on and he wasn’t happy about it. He protested that he was just having a bad spell and didn’t need any help. I pointed out that he was homeless and would die in a matter of days if he didn’t take advantage of this opportunity at that moment. He begrudgingly agreed
Before Mark completed his treatment, our director, BK, removed him from the transitional home to have him act in our next season. I was furious and spoke out against the director’s short-sighted and selfish decision. Mark relapsed and soon he was barely functioning. Mark and I shared the stage that season in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Mark played Lucky, a silent slave to a cruel master. His master bade him to think aloud and Lucky spewed out a jumble of thoughts and images. Lucky’s mind was crumbling. So was Mark’s. After the show closed, I did not see Mark for another five years.
Mark eventually did find sobriety. He completed treatment and transitional housing and then moved to a quiet corner apartment in the Bywater neighborhood just outside of the French Quarter. He worked as a cook at a local restaurant. He rolled his own cigarettes to save on cash and drank soda. He survived Katrina. He endured his best friend, Gavin’s unexpected and untimely death. He remained strong and sober. He even began to act again. He reprised the role of Lucky in a nationally acclaimed production of Godot performed outside on the washed-out emptiness of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He appeared in a handful of shows at Tulane Shakespeare.
Mark passed away in January. He hung himself in that tiny apartment in the Bywater. He left no note. He was tired and ready to be done with this world. Those he left behind were saddened but not terribly surprised. He was the lead character in his own tragedy. I felt guilty. Still do. I can’t help but wonder if things would’ve turned out differently if I’d been a better friend. I don’t know if it would’ve made much of a difference. Mark had his own way of doing things. This was his way of saying he’d had enough. I just wish we’d had a chance to say goodbye.
Everything But The Kitchen Sink, Martha!- Fruit & Nut Cookies! -285 eggs, 209 1/2 cups of sugar, 210 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 264 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 9 recipes to go!
January 27, 2013
If you are looking for a cookie with an impressive list of ingredients, then look no further than Martha’s Fruit & Nut Cookies. Flaked coconut, macadamia nuts, dried apricots, dates, and pistachios are the featured players in this sweet and simple drop cookie. They are dense and chewy and in spite of the extensive procurement of ingredients , they are a breeze to bake. The fruit and nuts are ground in a food processor and then combined with white and light brown sugar, flour, salt, butter, eggs, vanilla, and baking soda. They are then dropped onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and flattened with the palm of your hand. Bake them at 350• for 12-15 minutes and… Voila! Cookies! Not just cookies, but delicious cookies! So, next time you’re looking to impress a group of friends with a sweet and unique cookie, give this one a try.
Lately it seems that every time I begin a post, I start off with an apology for my tardiness. 2012 was a difficult year. Between the wedding, the six-month job assignment, the changing of jobs, the remodeling, the weight loss, etc… I’ve run out of steam. I’ve been in a low-grade depression through most of the year but I’m doing what I can to pull myself out of it. Disciplining myself to write more will certainly help. Folks who read this blog have told me how much they enjoy my stories and hope that I get around to writing more of those and fewer essays. Being a people-pleaser, I will oblige.
As many of you know, I was briefly a clown in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth®. Many years before my adventures under the big top I’d formed a circus all my own, fated to perform only once… and what a performance it was. It was the sweltering Summer of 1977. The red, white, and blue paint that adorned the fire hydrants on every street from the previous year’s bicentennial celebration had begun to crack, fade, and peel away. My sister, Nicole, was seven years old. I was nine. Each Summer, dad would whisk our mother away to some exotic location like Montréal, Orlando, or Louisville to attend his company’s Life Insurance convention/Bacchanal. This would require kenneling us with whichever relative would have us. This worked best when they’d separate me and my three younger sisters into more manageable groups of two.
My dad had a sister, Dottie who’d married a gentleman from Mexico named Trinidad- Uncle Trinnie. They had two daughters, Penny and Rhonda, who were slightly older than myself. A few years after our visit that Summer, Aunt Dottie gave birth to their third child, a son named Trinnie Jr.. They also had a pet skunk named Pepper. The skunk, of course, had it’s scent glands removed. The same could not be said for Uncle Trinnie. He had an Old Spice addiction. Aunt Dottie and Uncle Trinnie had just built their dream house only a few blocks away from their previous home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Louisiana. They had a spacious corner lot protected by a brick and wrought-iron fence. The house had three bedrooms and three bathrooms with an entire corner of the home devoted to my Aunt Dottie’s in-house business- a real Southern-style beauty parlor and gossip den. On a side note, my Aunt Dottie cut and styled my and my sisters’ hair whenever we came to visit. Having developed curly hair in my adolescence, Dottie decided to tease it with a hair-pick until it reached maximum volume. I went through most of my pubescent years with a thick mound of frizz on my head that resembled Nancy from the comic strip bearing the same name. Thanks to my Aunt Dottie’s beauty skills and her utter lack of aesthetic, I was indeed, a “Nancy” boy. I am quite certain this was why I began to lose my hair at the age of sixteen. It fell out in protest.
Aunt Dottie and Uncle Trinnie welcomed my sister and me to their home. We set ourselves up in one of the bedrooms and played enthusiastically with the skunk, Pepper, until in thirty minutes time, we were bored out of our skulls. Penny would stop chatting on the phone with friends to check in on us from time-to-time. Rhonda and my sister would play dress-up, only stopping for me to critique the series of ensembles they’d change in five-minute intervals. Uncle Trinnie would be away at work and Dottie would be loudly cutting hair in the parlor. I sat there in the den listening to the drone of the television, the hum of the air conditioner, and the loud cackling of elderly women from Aunt Dottie’s house of beauty. In the face of two-weeks of utter boredom, I had an idea. The Muscular Dystrophy Association had been encouraging kids to put on backyard carnivals to help raise funds for the cause. This was before the fear of personal injury lawsuits put an end to having strangers over to your home.
The idea of a carnival didn’t seem like something I could really sink my teeth into, though. I found the notion a bit passé. We could, however, perform a backyard circus. Rhonda had an entire trunk filled with old dance recital costumes. Aunt Dottie had enough makeup and wigs for a busload of clowns, and for Christ’s sake, we had a freakin’ skunk! Brilliant!
I assembled Rhonda and my sister around me to relay the idea. They were inspired. A chance for them to wear heavy makeup, sequins and parade about in front of a paying and captive audience? Abso-freakin-lutely!
The show itself was promoted. Costume pieces were pulled out of every trunk and closet. Music was chosen, make-up applied, and tickets sold to every neighbor on the block who had the misfortune of being home that day.
In six hours we planned, marketed, and performed a circus complete with an exotic animal act. Truth be told, it wasn’t terrible and we raised nearly fifteen dollars for muscular dystrophy.
I’ve thought a lot about that Summer recently and years ago I co-wrote play about a group of kids putting on a circus in their backyard. It was called Circus Berzerkus.
I hadn’t seen Penny, Rhonda, Aunt Dottie, or Uncle Trinnie in many, many years until my most recent trip home. My sister, Nicole and I met up with Rhonda and Penny for a few drinks. Penny is a C.P.A. in her fifties with two grown boys of her own. She recently became a grandmother. One of her sons, Shane AKA- Suga Shane, a rising rap artist, with as many tattoos as there are naughty words in his lyrics, recently fathered an adorable little boy, who as of this moment, sports no tattoos or piercings.
Rhonda recently enjoyed her daughter’s marriage to the son and heir of the wealthy owners of the largest beer distribution company in the Southeast region. I was unable to attend the wedding which my sister described as “the most expensive and decadent wedding she’d ever attended.” Shortly after the wedding, Rhonda’s husband of twenty-five years had an intense and emotional mid-life crisis, leaving Rhonda and their teenage son so he could pursue the life of a brooding middle-aged bachelor. Needless to say, we drank quite a bit that evening.
A few days later, my sister and I went to visit Aunt Dottie and Uncle Trinnie. They still live in that same old house on a double corner lot in Metairie. The beauty parlor is still humming along and Dottie has seen to it that her hair remains unnaturally dark for a woman her age. Uncle Trinnie, still smells of Old Spice or English Leather. His hair still remains pulled back in a tight pompadour, however, Dottie has allowed it to gray a bit. He looks distinguished, not unlike the world’s most interesting man from the Dos Equis commercials.
Trinnie Jr. , now a dad in his thirties was, as per usual, in jail.
These visits did not improve my low-grade depression. In fact, they may have turned up the volume on my personal grief-o-meter. I felt older. I looked around me and the faces from my youth had grown grayer, pained, and weathered.
Am I really that much older now?
Do I have another circus in me?
Maybe I need a pet skunk.
Stuck in the Middle with Martha!- Raspberry-Cream Sandwich Cookies! -283 eggs, 208 cups of sugar, 208 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 262 cups of flour used so far- 10 recipes to go!
December 21, 2012
Besides my aversion to baking tuiles, a fussy little cookie with a water-like batter that requires spending a significant amount of time baking only three or four at a time, is my extreme dislike of baking sandwich cookies. Not only does one have to create a batter AND a filling, you have to bake twice as many to generate a substantial yield, followed by assembling them into their sandwiched form. They’re a lot of work and rarely are they worth the effort. Martha’s Raspberry-Cream Sandwich Cookies are no exception. The cookie is a simple drop butter cookie flavored with vanilla bean. The filling is a combination of melted white chocolate and rendered raspberry purée. Natural raspberry flavor, while tart, is still quite subtle. These cookies were sweet- sweeter than I would prefer. The flavor of raspberry is lost in the sweetness of the white chocolate and the intense vanilla flavor of the cookie. Ultimately, the cookies disappoint. They promise the punch of berry flavor but deliver a slight nudge. Ah well… another cookie down.
This has been a helluva year. I lived in a tiny hotel room for six months of it, separated from my friends, my cats, my home, and my husband. I came back to a gazillion changes at work. I got married. Worked on a home renovation. I wrote a children’s book and two plays. Lost almost 30 lbs and took a gig playing piano for a group of raunchy drag queens.
The one thing I didn’t get to do much of was bake cookies or write on this blog. What’s even worse, I’m almost done. Just a few more recipes and then… TA DA! Fin!
Today, I’m not going to post a story. I’m not going to write a poem.
Frankly, I’m stretched too thin to even think about that.
What I will do, though, is wish each and every one of you the happiest of holidays and a New Year filled with all the things that make you feel loved.
So, preheat your ovens to 350• and bake a batch of your favorite cookies.
Just not Martha’s Raspberry-Cream Sandwich Cookies.
Ho! Ho! HO!
What an Air-Head, Martha!- Chocolate Meringues! -282 eggs, 206 3/4 cups of sugar, 207 sticks of Butter, and 260 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 11 recipes to go!
September 3, 2012
Back in March of this year I attempted Martha’s Chocolate Meringues for a second time. The first time I tried to bake these little devils was about a year ago and they came out of the oven flat and mushy. It had been raining all that day and the humidity in my kitchen was too much for the meringues to properly dry. For those of you that have not baked a meringue before, let me share what I know about them with you. There is some lore that points to the first meringues being developed in the 15th century in the Swiss town of Meiringen and then further developed in Italy. The word, Meringue, itself is French, though and first appeared in English from a translation of a French cookbook in 1706. Meringues are simple ingredients combined in complicated ways. They are fussy when it comes to how they need to bake. Essentially, you are dehydrating them while warming them just enough to expand. Whipped egg whites, sugar, flavoring, and usually an acid such as cream of tartar or in some instances, vinegar are added together to make the meringue base. There are three common methods for combining these ingredients divided as follows:
The French Method: Fine granulated sugar is simply beat into egg whites. This is the lightest and fluffiest type of meringue. It is also the most unstable.
The Swiss Method: Egg whites are slowly whisked over a bain-marie (hot water bath) to heat the egg whites. This makes for a denser and glossier meringue. This method is best for meringues for pies that will remain unbaked. The heat kills any potential bacteria that might play havoc with your digestive system.
The Italian Method: Boiled sugar syrup is added to the egg whites. This method makes for a very stiff meringue that holds it’s form. The heated syrup warms the egg whites and creates a very structural, dense meringue batter. This is the stuff you want to use for complicated meringues like macarons or baked Alaska.
Martha’s recipe was simple enough. It incorporated the French method and was easy to assemble. Whipped egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and cocoa were all combined and placed into a pastry bag with a star tip. Each tiny meringue is then piped out onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and placed in 200˚ oven for several hours until completely dehydrated. The color of these confections, and they are truly confections as meringues have more of a candy consistency rather than that of a cookie, were a slight tan with a glossy finish. They are simply a lovely cookie that literally melt in your mouth delivering their chocolatey sweetness. The humidity gods smiled down on me this past March and I successfully baked almost four dozen of these for my husband, Dan to take to his coworkers as a little team-building pick-me-up.
It seems that every time recently I sit at this computer to start typing out one of these posts, I start off with an apology for being so remiss between posts. I’m not apologizing this time. Work took me away from an oven for six months and in the last month my mother-in-law suffered a fall requiring all in the family to scramble to make transitional living arrangements for her. I’m afraid this blog kept falling lower and lower on my list of priorities but that’s life, isn’t it?
Things have settled down. My mother-in-law is out of the hospital and is in rehabilitation right now. She is doing very well and getting stronger every day. Soon she’ll move to a new semi-independent living facility which we affectionately refer to as, “The Cruise Ship.” I’ve been back in Kansas City and have reunited with my stand mixer and my convection oven. I’m also pretty glad to see my husband, too. Oh, and the cats.
I don’t really feel like writing a story today. I’ve got something else on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of perfection lately. It all started with helping my husband and in-laws pack up their mother’s home. Everything had to be examined as we searched for bills and paperwork. We also ran across a lot of photos. Many laughs were had and a few tears were shed. Each photo was delightfully imperfect. Before the time of photoshop and digital cameras, there was a process to capturing images. Camera film was expensive to purchase and equally expensive to develop and so only the most important occasions were captured. First days of school, Easter, Christmas, Family reunions, Birthdays, etc… were always the subject matter. The images were often over-exposed, under-exposed, double-exposed, etc… . Eyes were closed, clothing choices were questionable, hair styles were atrocious. They were, as I mentioned, delightfully imperfect.
On a recent trip home, I witnessed my thirteen-year-old nephew playing with his iPhone. He was using an app. called Instagram which is much like a smaller and less complex version of photoshop for your phone. He was editing recent photos of himself. He played with the color to give himself a darker tan. He removed some offensive wisps of hair atop his head. He brightened the blues of the water behind him and shaded his chest to give the illusion of more developed pectoral muscles. By the time he was done, he created an image of a god-like heartthrob that Teen Beat magazine would be proud to feature on their November cover. It was perfection. It was also a lie.
My basement flooded this weekend and I went through boxes of my old photos. I looked back at the images of myself as a teen, a tween, a child, a toddler, an infant. It was like a pictorial history of awkwardness. Every blemish was captured. Every bad hair day (yes, I wasn’t always bald) was immortalized. In not a single photo did I appear god-like. I never appeared tan. I was either pale as a sheet or red as a lobster. In many photos my eyes were closed. What I did notice, though, was that each imperfect detail, brought back a perfect memory. I remembered that ugly shirt and how much I loathed wearing it. I remembered that Summer when friends pressured me into bleaching my hair. I remembered the start of that school year when the brothers at my school made me cut it all off because it didn’t conform with school policy. I remembered the camera I brought to school that Fall semester to capture my fellow fifth-graders goofing off in front of my new Instamatic.
I then worried for my nephew. When he looked back, would he remember the reality or would the perfection alter that in some way? Did he edit out everything that would trigger an authentic memory? I then worried about all of us. Who was capturing those moments? How often are they hitting the delete button when something is less than perfect?
I visited my mother-in-law yesterday.
I sat in the cold semi-private room chatting away with her as her roommate sat a few feet away hacking violently into her oxygen mask. My mother-in-law listened to my philosophical rant and then reminded me of the photo portrait of her I had framed for my husband a few Christmases ago. It was a wonderful portrait of her at age four that her parents had professionally taken in 1934. The photo was yellowed and ghostly. It was the image of a little farm girl from Illinois. Atop her round face was a head of thick blonde hair that had been hacked several different lengths. Little Rosemary, in preparation for this sitting decided to give herself a haircut the day before the photo was taken. This happened over seventy-five years ago and yet she still remembers it vividly. The photographer didn’t try to fix it or hide the fact that she had a less-than-perfect coif. It was an imperfect moment immortalized.
Perfection is overrated. Even more so, it doesn’t exist.
There are no perfect moments. We will never be our perfect selves. There are no perfect cookies. (Sorry, Martha.)
Perfection is something to strive for, but like Aesop’s Fox and the Grapes, it’s not to be achieved.
The perfection comes in how we remember our falling short of perfection. The best memories from my life have centered around the perfectly imperfect moments of my life.
That said, I really wished my mom had snapped a photo of my sister and I with feminine napkins glued to our socks as we attempted to skate across the kitchen with Mom’s magical “Foot Mops.”
I guess it wasn’t worth the cost of film and the embarrassment at the Eckerd’s Drug Store photo lab.