Monday, September 29, 2008

My Own Space

Some musings on space:
For months I have looked longingly at magazine photos of women's home offices in Better Homes and Gardens, the magazine my grandmother subscribed me to after I got married. I love it--it gives great decorating ideas and (no surprise here) gardening ideas, but it did also make me crave my own space. The women profiled in the magazine, photographed in front of their uber-organized and personality-laden desks, looked so together, so happy. Don't get me wrong, I'm incredibly happy, but I did often feel backed into a corner when it came to work--and not even my corner! My husband had his home office. I could certainly use it of course, but it just seemed so mannish with its dark paint and mahogany bookshelves, his desk usually well-organized and surrounded with books for his dissertation--it just didn't feel like my space, you know? And it is located in the back of the house, the perfect man-cave, so far from the action. My house is an open floor plan, and I love that (sorry, Betty Friedan) but it does make it hard to carve out a work space for myself. I ended up working on the couch (TV temptation), at the dining table or at the counter, but my stuff was always in the way, making me feel like I was in the way. I couldn't leave my work out or I'd risk getting dinner on it, and it just generally made the house look cluttered, something neither of us liked. I just felt like my work and I were always in transition, always in the wrong space.

Until now. Dan got the itch to build something--always a good thing--and planned on building a bookshelf for my cookbook collection, which had begun spilling onto the kitchen floor. I mentioned how much I wanted a desk between the living room and the kitchen, where the bookshelf was to go, and the next thing I knew, he'd drawn up plans and we were at Home Depot shopping for wood and paint. After a busy weekend and some sore muscles and sunburns, I had my desk. We moved it inside tonight, put the books on the shelves, and I am in heaven. Isn't it amazing that a shelf, a tall white shelf, makes me feel so much more professional, like my work really has a purpose? Maybe Betty Friedan was right, in a way--an open floor plan makes women feel that they have no space of their own, as the whole house is their "job" and they have no privacy. Well, my space is still in the middle of that, but I've always dreamed of a desk just off the kitchen, so I can sit down to work for 30 minutes while something's in the oven or a sauce simmers, but am still within earshot of the timer, and can still smell the wonderful smells coming from dinner or freshly baked bread. I'm where I want to be, yet I have a delineated area to call my own--not the table, the counter, or the couch, but my beautiful desk. And to make it even better, now I look up from my computer and there are the colorful spines of my favorite cookbooks--Nigella, Jamie, Rose, Edna, Giada--they're all there, getting me through my work. Now I really feel like someone who does food studies. I mean, I'm ready to edit a new food and literature journal! I have space! All mine!

Dan, wow. You're really amazing.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dark Chocolate-Cherry Brownies

In an article on "Cravings" in the September issue of Cooking Light, I found a recipe for these brownies. They sounded too good to be true--how could a low fat brownie possibly satisfy any craving? I have been disappointed with low-cal baking in the past: My Blueberry Coffee Cake got soggy, other cookies were too dense, and I've become convinced that egg substitute cannot be used in baking. At least not in my baking. And for heaven's sake, don't try to use regular eggs when the recipe calls for substitute--that's worse than using the substitute in the first place! So I always have my eye out for Cooking Light baking recipes that use normal ingredients. This one is unbelievable. 

I don't usually like fruit and chocolate together, although I have become a chocolate-dipped strawberry convert. But fruit pizzas drizzled with chocolate or even trail mixes with dried fruit and M&Ms don't tempt me. But something about this recipe intrigued me. It used cherry preserves rather than actual cherries, so there was no weird texture combination, a big problem for me. The photo in the magazine suggested that these would be the dense, chewy, fudgy brownies that I loved. And they are sprinkled with powdered sugar. After seeing a picture of Nigella Lawson's brownies dusted with powdered sugar and gold powder sparkling in birthday candlelight, and then last December's Cooking Light cover photo, displaying chocolate cupcakes enjoying a powdered sugar snowfall, I am easily seduced by this chocolate-powdered sugar pair. 

I worried also that the cherry flavor would seem strange with no noticeable fruit source in the brownie itself. I even considered adding some dried cherries, though this would seem to directly contradict my dislike for that textural combination. I recognized this at the time--I just worry too much.

Finally, I made the brownies following the recipe exactly. And they were perfect. The cherry flavor was a lovely muted sweet-sourness--it added depth and really brought out the dark chocolate. It even kept the brownies from being too sweet. And the powdered sugar, added right before serving (or it will soak in--these are super moist brownies) is, almost literally, the icing on the cake. 

Dark Chocolate-Cherry Brownies
(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2008)
Yields 16 brownies.

Cooking spray
3/4 cup (3.4 oz.) AP flour
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup cherry preserves
1/3 cup water
5 T butter
1 lg. egg, lightly beaten
1 lg. egg white
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Powdered sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Spray a 9-in. square baking pan with cooking spray. (If it is not a really good non-stick pan, line it with parchment paper, then spray.)
3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl; stir with a whisk.
4. Combine cherry preserves, water, and butter in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. 
5. Add preserves mixture to flour mixture; stir well.
6. Add the egg and egg white; stir until smooth.
7. Stir in semi-sweet chocolate chips. 
8. Scrape into prepared pan. Bake at 350 F for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. 
9. Cool in pan on wire rack. Right before serving, dust lightly with powdered sugar.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Debates, Exams, and Food for Change

Today is the first presidential debate. (We think--c'mon, McCain, commit already.) The campus has been turned upside down for weeks, but today we hope to see the fruits of our labor--or for those of us who have not truly labored, then the fruits of our annoyance. My street has been closed for a week, parking has been crazy (thankfully only at certain times of day) and students have been, well, somewhat distracted. I will say, though, that I've heard more conversations about undecided undergrads since McCain pulled his, "Hey, let's postpone the debate--because the American people will feel better about their finances if we don't talk to them!" Really, it seems as though that small amount of irritation at their Republican candidate has given Obama the small opening he needed to get them to listen to his message. Oh, please, I hope I'm right. 

As far as the actual debate, though, I have not been terribly excited--we don't get to see it, and I was afraid the campus would be overrun with journalists without given anything back to the students. But like any true southerners, our Mississippi debate planners knew what we needed--FOOD. I am so excited about lunch today. Vendors from all over the South will be setting up booths in the Grove to demonstrate what we are all about.

I'm both excited and frustrated by this. I'm excited for my tastebuds, for the chance to try all of these foods without a ton of traveling on a grad student budget. I'm excited to show off the South through one of its best assets--its cooking. But I'm academically frustrated. How is it that everyone, I mean everyone, knows the power of food to represent identity and place, but so many people, scholars and non-scholars, do not realize that it has a serious place in the academy. Sure, the Southern Foodways Alliance is here at UM working to preserve southern food traditions through oral histories and such, but what about food in literature, or food writing as literature? We are in an era of Cultural Studies, were this type of scholarship should be appreciated, but even some of the best scholars still see it as an offshoot of gender studies (there are SO many things wrong with this, it makes my brain hurt) or, as Katie puts it, "scholarship lite." Like food is so obvious that we shouldn't even bother studying it. But that's just the point! People for years thought gender studies was too obvious to study--obviously, men were superior, right? It was in their nature! Thank you feminism, but where's the movement to legitimate my field? Food Network's certainly not helping, dumbing down every show so that any megamarket shopper who buys packaged seasoning mixes and cookie dough can consider him or herself a chef. The network that used to challenge us with experienced and imaginative chefs now, like so many other American institutions, caters to the lowest common denominator. I'm not trying to belittle those women (not to be sexist, but most home cooks are women, let's face it) who want to make their family or themselves a home-cooked meal but have no time to make fresh bread or desserts. I completely understand, and I am thrilled that they can put in some time, get some help from the store, and appreciate the act of being in the kitchen. But please, Food Network, why does EVERY show cater to this person? Why is Giada one of the few who is still imaginative? Thank you for adding Jamie Oliver and Alex Guarnaschelli to the lineup--but why so early on weekend mornings? How any people are watching, versus the number who watch Sandra Lee in the afternoons and later weekend mornings? 

You, Food Network, are really doing nothing to help me out. People think that this is all there is to food. Yes, foodie-ism is almost becoming a movement in itself, but is there a way to not dumb it down but also not be elistist? To teach the real importance of food, the joy of food, without being holier-than thou and making people appreciate it less because they feel like they can't understand it? I often feel this way when teaching--how can I convey the complex, sophisticated, incredible ways you can use language without scaring and overwhelming my students and actually causing them to do the opposite of what I want--to get them to love language?

Well, I'll enjoy the food in the Grove today. I'll take some pictures and post them tomorrow. And I'll try to turn off the scholar in me, for a little while at least. But why can the academy not recognize that what seems the most obvious is often the most revolutionary?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Best Tomato Salad EVER

When I was visiting my parents in Kentucky this weekend, they sent me home with three treasures, two of which are important for this post. (The other is Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crunch Candy, which--trust me--deserves a post of its very own.) They gave me a box full of fresh tomatoes, grown in friends' gardens, that they just couldn't eat. I'm reminded of Kingsolver's chapter, "Life in a Red State," about living in the South during August--tomato season. My students, by the way, are reading this chapter for November 4, Election Day--how great is that? Anyway, so we have a box of tomatoes sitting on our kitchen table and it really is like the chest of toys at the dentist's office when you were little--you knew that if you were good through the cleaning, if you swished and spit in that tiny whirlpool sink, you'd have a bright new plastic toy to take home with you. I make it through the morning, and I know I get a sweet tomato sandwich for lunch--the best use of Hellman's mayonnaise, hands down. I make it through the afternoon, and I get a tomato salad for dinner. Which leads me to the second treasure: Sally Schneider's A New Way to Cook. 

I've been eyeing this cookbook for several visits to my parents' house, and this time, my dad let me take it with me. Dan asked me the other day why I liked it so much. It's hard to explain. It's a beginner's cookbook that looks sophisticated without being fussy or difficult. It illustrates healthy ways to cook without being a diet cookbook--there's not a calorie count in sight. The dishes it describes are basically bistro fare at home--they are rustic dishes that allow the integrity of the fresh ingredients to take center stage. It reminds me of Kingsolver and Madison, without the dogma (though I use this term in its best possible sense). Even the autumnal color palette and the thick paper add to the satisfaction of thumbing through this book. It is minimalistic in every sense, and calms me just to hold it--is that silly? It's just peaceful, and makes anything seem possible. So when facing a box of beautiful fresh tomatoes in fear that I would not do them justice, I knew this was the best place to turn--and Sally did not disappoint.

Here's her recipe (though you hardly need one) for "The Best Tomato Salad." Really. That's the recipe title. Normally I'd find that pretentious or overly confident. Not here. She makes me trust her completely. If she says it's the best, it's the best. And it is.

Cut up a few tomatoes--thick slices, wedges, halves, whatever suits you and the tomato. Arrange them on a plate. No more than 20 minutes before serving, sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Right before you serve them, sprinkle with any fresh herbs you like--basil, cilantro, parsley, anything green and delicate. I will admit, though, that a little dried basil and oregano, which I used tonight, work fine, too. Drizzle with fruity extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and if you like, shave a few slices of parmesan over the top. And enjoy that the best part of summer comes at the end. 

Thanks to Kingsolver, tomatoes and southern politics will be forever connected. Makes election years a little more bearable, I suppose.

(I hope you enjoy the picture--I ate the salad to fast to photograph it, so I gave you a picture of me typing. Very meta.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008


So it's tradition that the bride and groom eat the top layer of their wedding cake on their first anniversary. It's for good luck, I think. I'm not sure of the origin of this one, but I do know that Dan and I felt somewhat guilty when we realized that our wedding cake was in the freezer in Wilmington for our May 19 anniversary, while we would still be in Oxford until August. (If we've had worse luck, we haven't noticed.) Another tradition I never understood: The need for the groom to smear the first bite of wedding cake on the bride's face while she is decked out in very expensive silk. And I can assure you that whoever developed this tradition never expected the wedding cake to be chocolate. (I think this means I'm a tramp, but oh well. That cake was damn good.) So imagine my sheer joy when, a few months late, Dan and I celebrated our anniversary by eating our thawed wedding cake layer, recreating that wonderful chocolatey moment on our wedding day.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Blueberry Almond Cookies

So I'm still on my blueberry kick. It's lasted months now! I guess that's better than last year's doughnut kick, but I don't know what I'll do when my farmer's market blueberries that I froze run out! I'm one recipe away--and frozen ones in the grocery store are astronomical. Maybe I'll really have to eat seasonally--practice what I preach. Or think about preaching. Does chatting about Barbara Kingsolver and Deborah Madison with people who already agree with me over wine count as preaching? 
I've made these cookies several times now. They are unusual--the reason for my initial attraction--and more like muffins or cakes than cookies. The texture reminds me of those soft, iced cookies you get in the plastic packages at Wal-Mart--you know the ones, and you know you love them, too--and the taste is remarkably complex, and not cloyingly sweet. Blueberries, toasted almonds, lemon zest--tart, fresh, warm cookies that are at the same time the essence of summer and a transition into fall.
They are also difficult to screw up. As long as you remember to let that butter get soft and cream it until it is really light and fluffy and you can no longer hear the scrape of sugar on the sides of the mixing bowl, you should be fine. The first time I made these, I realized I had no lemons--I'll tell you, lime zest makes them even more summery. So as Ellie wrote in her fig tart blog post, sometimes recipes change. Sometimes you change them. (Or, had I really wanted those lemons, sometimes you make a Wal-Mart run in the middle of a recipe.) Also, do be sure to let the batter sit in the fridge for at least half-an-hour while the oven preheats--this way, they stay fluffy instead of flattening out because the butter in the batter is too soft.
Remember that despite the fact that this recipe ends up looking like blueberry muffin tops, it uses the creaming, rather than the muffin, method of mixing. Rather than gently folding the wet ingredients into the dry, you quickly and thoroughly beat the dry into the wet using a hand or standing mixer.
But baking methods aside, these are fabulous, if not a bit surprising, cookies.

Almond Blueberry Cookies
(adapted from Everyday Italian)

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temp. (really soft)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 to 1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 tsp. lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1/2-1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped almonds, toasted
1 cup frozen blueberries, mostly thawed

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. In another medium bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer, cream together the butter and sugar (use a hand mixer if you're not using a standing mixer). Add egg and beat to incorporate. Add milk, almond extract, and lemon zest and juice. Beat until all ingredients are well incorporated.

3. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet. Fold in the almonds, then gently fold in the blueberries. If using a mixer, use it through dry ingredients, then fold in the almonds and blueberries with a spatula--gently, so you don't turn the batter purple.

4. Chill dough in the fridge for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

5. Using two small spoons or a disher, scoop batter onto cookie sheets. (Use either good nonstick baking sheets or a silpat or parchment paper.) Bake until just golden brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. 

6. Cool cookies on a wire rack. When serving, try not to stack them--they will stick together. Not that this is a bad thing, just not a pretty one.