Sunday, February 28, 2010

pudding of the gods

Have we talked about my obsession with bread pudding?

It started just last summer when out to dinner with my Dad in my neighborhood. I ordered a banana variety on a lark and fell wildly in love. There was passion and intrigue, surprise and wonder. On some level, this disconcerted me. I had long hated--I mean really loathed--all pudding. My brother was obsessed with those chemical-laden packets of Jell-o chocolate pudding when we were young. But I found it disgusting; after all, anything that develops a film freaks me out. Rice pudding is equally inedible, all little grains surrounded in too sweet stew. It's just not for me. But bread pudding: that's the real deal. And so over the last six months, I've become a connoisseur of sorts.

Until last night, the best bread pudding I've found is a pecan caramel glazed variety that is dangerously available right across the street from my apartment. But at $7 a serving, I've only been really tempted twice. A block away, and at the sight of my pudding deflowerment, is the banana-based one. It's dense and not too sweet, but too dry for any sustained longings. Another block from there is a nutmeg walnut one, but it's home is a very bourgie eatery, the kind of place where the peasant dessert comes on a square porcelain block and you feel guilty if it's all that you order. You find yourself ordering a $12 dirty martini and then it doesn't even matter what's in the pudding because you can't taste it.

Anyway, for all my love, I had never attempted a batch myself. It seemed too dangerous. 8 servings, maybe 10, a whole pan full of desire. I couldn't bring myself to do it, afraid what I'd become if I started whipping it up. And what if I memorized the recipe? I'd be a goner. Too rotund to get out my apartment door, let alone squeeze myself into a summer's gown. But yesterday, on a cold Kentucky evening when we had plans to host J's department head and wife, I decide that it was time. The latest Cook's Illustrated confirmed my suspicion. "Perfect bread pudding" it announced on the cover. With it's 9 yolks and 2 and a half cups of heavy cream, a few of dark rum-soaked raisins, and a bourbon-brown sugar sauce...well, perfect doesn't really approximate it. Then again, no adjectives will do the trick because it was contradictory in its perfection: light and spongy, but also full-bodied, saturated with flavor. It had a crisp top that foiled a custardy brilliance below. I think it's fair to say that it out-shined everything else. Don't tell him I said so, but I think J was a little jealous of my work.

Buy the magazine. Make the bread pudding. You'll never be the same. Neither will your middle.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

1200 square feet

I may have just 550 square feet in philadelphia, but if you add on "my" second home, my mountain retreat (which is really not that mountainous, but that makes it sound better), "I" have damn near 1800 sq ft in total. I hadn't been to my second home since October, but I fortunately evaded the third nasty storm in less than a month in Philly by jumping an early plane Thursday. J taught yesterday and I had a leisurely morning -- finally watching some olympics, knitting and then frogging a sleeve, wandering about his kentucky campus.

This is his department's building. It used to be a library. And it was this building we snuck into the December before he accepted the position. It was here that I found out about Berea's traveling library and Jane Addams's connection to the Kentucky college. Its president's wife corresponded with the pioneering Chicago social worker. In my dissertation, I explain:

Writing from a small college nestled in the mountains of Kentucky—one founded in 1855 in the middle of the slave-holding South on the simple idea that all Americans deserved access to education—Eleanor Frost could not help but feel connected to Addams when she turned the autobiography’s final page: “I am surprised that your conclusions and inner experiences should have been so similar to my own when your city world has been so different from my country one. But I suppose the matter of reading people living in a different world from our own is fundamentally the same everywhere.” Frost, it seems, read Jane Addams a hundred years ago the way I still do. She found something essential—perhaps almost primitive—in Addams’s own experiences, a resonance that defied geography but that had very much to do with gender. In her sympathetic connection with Addams, she came to realize the power of reading people and texts rightly. And yet Frost concluded her letter by reminding Addams of something they both knew well: that part of reading rightly was knowing when to close the book and face the person in need: "Over and over I have been convinced of the truth of your conviction—a mountain woman fifty miles from the railroad was telling me of their schoolteacher a college student from another state who was spending his vacation in teaching. ‘He seems to be a good man, an I reckon he knows a leap; but he stays to hisself an’ reads books. I reckon he got that habit in college. But hit takes talkin’ and ‘mixin to do folks good—leastways ignorant folks like us!” While Frost’s representation of mountain dialect reveals a now disconcerting assumption of cultural authority (she was, in fact, the college president’s wife), consider the national reach and the relevance of the “conviction” that Addams turned into action. She knew, and she convinced readers to believe, that “socialized” democracy—the talking and the mixing of disparate individuals that an uneducated woman in rural Kentucky easily explained—was the most pressing lesson that all Americans needed to learn.

Anyway....I like to think about J working away in this old library, a place in which Eleanor Frost may have penned her epistles to Jane Addams.

His office calls out to Lincoln, the emancipator, one of Jane Addams's heroes, and some might say the affective inspiration behind the college. I don't know what I'd do if my office was "The Lincoln Room." That's big pressure -- rhetorically and otherwise. You gotta think great things in Lincoln's Room. Fortunately, when he's not thinking great things or anything at all, he has a pretty stellar window.

This makes me very jealous. I have a windowless office and he has a seven foot window. He also has a lovely little coffee shop 400 yards or so anyway. And it's not even overrun by undergraduates:

I was thinking that if I can't get an academic job here, maybe I could become a barista. Or a busgirl. Or maybe I could work next door in one of three craft shops. Or maybe I could open a little community pottery studio. Apparently, there's a real need. Or maybe I could just make a nest, hatch some birdies, and forget all this academic nonsense. For now, though, I have to stay in the game, and so my saturday will look like this:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

epistolary leanings

My course on women's autobiography turns this coming week to letter-writing. My own leanings toward letters began decades ago. I had a pen-pal in elementary school and I wrote painfully ironic epistles to my friend Abby in junior high. We traded intricately folded notes in the hallways with all the cool detachment that pimply, awkward adolescents can muster. In college and before the internet took hold, I began the longest and most formative exchange with a man who remains my close friend. His letters, with their perfect prose and literary intimacy thrilled me, and in my responses, I began to formulate a different self, an ideal self, one that worked only partially with the world in which I lived. In the space of the letter, I could be whomever I pleased, and I often imagined that I got to be my "real" self. It was a self that he could not see, at least not very often, and its consistency required only a weekly letter -- or later, a daily salutation from a lonely tiny coal-mining town in eastern europe where I could only ever seem to order dessert wine, my czech so faulty that my diet suffered enormously -- and an introspection that disregarded so many of my desires. He and I wrote for years and though I would write letters with one other man, they would never approximate the fire, the thrill, the breathlessness of the original.

In my 20s, I began a long and still lively correspondence with my friend who is a poet and schoolteacher. In the space of those letters, we muscled through years of heartbreak and depression, driftlessness and despair. With a quiet dignity refined early in Connecticut that always felt charmingly at odds with her Manhattan exploits, she wrote of biting girls on bathroom floors. I wrote about men who were wrong, about first dates gone awry, about finally finding J when I had all but given up on love. I never felt at odds with the self I sent to her. Instead, in my letters I found a space to be -- to relax, to imagine, to laugh.

And so now I turn to letters in the class, coming to the seminar table as I do with a history of penning myself to those I cannot see. We'll begin with the strangely manipulative, often cruel, utterly unsentimental letters of M. Carey Thomas, the great matriarch of Bryn Mawr who carried on at least two relationships at a time, hoping, I suppose, that her letters were never misdirected. Then we're on to the Dickinson in whose letters to Higginson she plays the schoolgirl, asking to be his "scholar," hoping to find in him something, though what it is is hard to say. We'll end with Marianne Moore's letters to a friend while she was still a student at Bryn Mawr. In the letters, she reminds so much of the poet from Amherst -- and with this, I leave you, you whom I cannot see:

"You asked me about my letters -- my letters are better than my stories I suppose because I am not self-conscious because I am thinking of you (whoever you are)."

Thursday, February 18, 2010


just who is it that watches curling? i mean really.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I remember that during graduate school I often felt like I didn't have enough time. In retrospect, nothing could have been further from the truth. In graduate school, you have years -- years to read and to think and to write. You have time to take up a new hobby and you have years to become embroiled in deeply unhealthy emotional entanglements. When I first met J, he talked about wanting to "press pause" on the world, to stop everything and do all of things he that wanted to. I thought that this was absolutely absurd because graduate school felt to me like seven years on pause. It felt like a kind of suspended animation in which I could recognize change in others -- and certainly in the world around me -- but I always felt myself on pause.

Somehow I have skipped play and am now stuck on fast-forward; everything is speeding by and I can hardly catch my breath. J says I'm spread to thin. I race from one class to the office, to a meeting, to another meeting, to my computer. I'm trying to edit a book that is due at the end of June, plan and facilitate a major international conference on women's education, teach an upper-level college seminar, get out my own writing, keep up a long-distance relationship, plan a wedding, and stay sane. Sometimes it feels like just too much. This is when I want to hop a train to Kentucky and hide out from the world with J.

I know that all this complaining is really rather unbecoming. Instead, I should delight in a weekend with my little sis. After all, we sewed together:

It's another project -- a baby burrito wrap -- from the Lotta Jansdotter book. This was my first experience with her patterns. They sort of crack me up. When I was in high school, I first experimented with making clothes for myself. I used to measure my body and then freehand sketch patterns on old newspapers. They were pretty wonky, but I made a bunch of skirts that way, ones that I wore for years and to tatters. My grandmother made the button holes and I'm sure that she was horrified by my slightly uneven hems and sloppy waist bands. In any case, Jansdotter's published patterns are a bit like my high school versions -- freehand, sloppy, maintaining only a casual relationship to accuracy. But I took it in stride and this little number will hopefully calm a new baby due in May.

We also cooked a treat -- an especially rare treat for someone on a sugar elimination diet -- cinnamon rolls. The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen by way of Orangette. Of course they failed to rise properly, but we nevertheless gobbled them up with the help of a friend. Yeast seems sooo stubborn to me. I can never seem to coax it into action, even as I propped the dough bowl on a steam heater. Steam heat I tell you! It should have been quadrupling in size. But alas, no such luck.

While we were still panicking that the cinnamon rolls weren't going to rise at all, we scurried to make a dutch pancake to serve my friend as a first course. I guess you could say that we were raised right: we knew to panic when we invited a friend over for a sweet treat, she was set to arrive in 15 minutes, and we had stubborn dough on our hands. This is where the dutch pancake never fails to delight. Get the oven hot enough and you're golden...and so is it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


not one, but two days of catch up. today the sky was bright blue and philadelphia started to dig out. i drank tea, did laundry, mopped, made a big pot of split pea soup, and wandered outside to see just how my fair city fared.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

i think i willed it

I crossed my fingers. I had my hopes up. I knew it was possible. Heck, it was predicted. Everyone knew it would happen. But these were all bad signs that there would NOT be a snow day. So I refused to believe. I even prepared, if only a little, for class today. At 5:30 am I sat bolt upright in bed, scurried to my computer to check. Yay. A whole day to myself for things like:

tea leaves cardigan progress. I'm teaching myself continental knitting and all the stockinette here makes for great practice. I think I've got it down, but I'm not fast at it yet and I still purl the old english way.

I'm also promising myself that I'll start to make some kind of wedding invitation decision. The little sis -- M -- is coming on Friday for the weekend (yay!) and I'm hoping to have it down to five finalists for her to help me choose.

More importantly, I'm promising said little sis that I'll get going on all my class prep for next week so that we can spend the weekend doing all the things we love: sewing with mediocre t.v. on in the background, cooking up some tasty new recipes, wandering through anthropologie, making a bunch of wedding decor decisions, brunching, you know, the good stuff.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

from truffles to stack n' whack--I am a sucker for classes

One of my solutions to moving to the high plains without knowing a soul is classes. I'll sign up for basically any class. I have been taking cooking classes at the grocery store's teaching kitchen. They make me feel like I have a life--somewhere to go after work, an obligation to put in my calendar. They are observational classes taught by local chefs. You watch them cook, follow along with the recipe and then you eat and drink. All for $15 (which includes two or three glasses of wine). I guess I am a little discerning. I am not planning to attend "Time for Tacos" on the 18th or "Make it Steak!" on the 22nd. But I did sign up for "Moroccan Night" on the 23rd. I attended "For the Love of Chocolate" on Thursday. Of course I won the door prize--extra chocolate ganache to make my own truffles at home (the university is conspiring to keep me plump). There is a picture of my truffles below.

Yesterday I attended a "Stack n' Whack" class at the local quilting store. It was great. I don't know that I love my quilt, but I can see my self becoming addicted to this technique. By precisely pinning multiple repeats of the fabric you are able to achieve a kaleidoscope effect. It is great fun because each hexagon is such a surprise.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I woke to a rare urban blizzard early this morning, the snow flooding my city street. I watch as an intrepid traveler wades down the middle of the avenue, floating through the river of white that, if only for a moment, covers so much concrete. I can’t stop staring at it. All this snow on a Saturday feels like a lost opportunity. Why can’t it be Monday or Thursday? I feel a bit like I’m seven years old again, hoping that the blizzard will mean a snow day. A day when everything is paused, when we make hot chocolate and melt marshmallow in the microwave.

So I curl up with Margaret Fuller – that great lioness of the 19th century who died early at sea with a babe in her arms and a manuscript that would never be found – and the snow and my memory get all tangled in my Saturday morning brain. She says that, “none but poets remember their youth,” and I think that it takes this blizzard, that it takes all of this snow, for me to remember my own youth.

At once I’m back in a car – I think that it’s 1979 – and we’re all headed out somewhere, downstate perhaps, but the snow comes harder than anyone could have imagined. I’m curled up with a blanket and I can see just a tiny clear hole through the rear window. The rest is white. The trip, I think I know, is canceled. We take refuge at my father’s office or maybe it was a gas station. But we stop. The snow is too much. I can just feel being warm and surrounded, perfectly unaware of danger, just warm and surrounded.

And so I take a long, hot bath and wonder what else this snow will remember for me.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I've been fuzzy in the brain for days now. Today one of my students was rambling on and on and at one point I realized that I was seeing her in triplicate. You know when you sort of cross your eyes and your field of vision becomes a kaleidoscope? That's what it's like every day after about 2 pm. The culprit? Sugar. Or really, the lack thereof. You see, I've gone cold turkey. Gave it up. I'm on the wagon. Something had to be done. I was staring down the lining of a wedding dress and it wasn't looking pretty. In any case, I'd love to say that I feel like a new woman with a new lease on life. But really, I just feel foggy.

I've been trying to eat things with more ingredients. Fortunately J has been around to cook such things. Three nights ago it was stir-fry shrimp with a whole mess of ginger that right after this picture was taken, crashed to the floor, resulting in a bit less tang and the death of my beloved arlo bowl.

But I tried not to hold it against him. He was totally forgiven -- well, like 90% forgiven -- when I arrived home from work two nights ago to find steaming corn chowder.

It was so good that I forgot for a second that I had forgiven up my beloved nectar. And to top it all off, last night was a simple charcuterie. J had the meat product -- two for the price of one, to his delight -- but I was perfectly sated with aged gouda, my beloved green olives, and some whole wheat boule. I wasn't sure if the boule was a rule breaker, but I like to live on the edge.

The point is that I should be totally satisfied. But I feel like I'm missing an old friend. I kinda want to have her over for a playdate, but I also kinda know that she makes me do things that I really shouldn't do...Do diets always make you crazy?

non-fat (yogurt) cheese = tasty

I know you must be skeptical. Non-fat cheese is awful. But I made non-fat yogurt cheese overnight and it is delicious. Next, I will try making it with low-fat vanilla yogurt as a dessert (but according to the blogs I have read, you need to make sure it doesn't contain gelatin). I had some of the cheese today for lunch in an egg white and mushroom omelet. I think it will be a good substitute for ricotta and cream cheese too. I am thinking about making olive dip out of the yogurt cheese for a Super Bowl party on Sunday (yes A, I am admitting that I do things like go to Super Bowl parties).

So here is yogurt cheese making in photographs: