Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Apian motif

Perhaps your holidaze had a theme. Perhaps not.
One of the more bizarre aspects of beekeeping is discovering the enormous amount of bee-themed tchotchkes there are out there. I should have known.
But first some history: Many years ago we had bulldogs. My former mother-in-law’s family had kept bulldogs since the blustery day they hopped onto Plymouth Rock.
Initially I was terrified by the family bulldogs (growling, large protruding teeth, general bulk) but later I merely found them hideous. That too passed, as do so many aversions, and I grew to love the bulldogs so fervently that we eventually got one, and then another of our own.
By then I considered them to be the loveliest and wisest of creatures. I admired their ability to sleep all day, and I was in awe of the trajectory their drool could achieve by a simple shake of their enormous heads. Additionally impressive was the complete inability of a bulldog to survive ‘in the wild’. Not only were bulldogs pups always delivered by C-section, on account of their heads being too wide for the birth canal, but also insemination had to be effected artificially, on account of the impossibility of the male bulldog completing the act without getting stuck.

Not having grown up with dogs, I was blissfully unaware of the breed-specific paraphernalia that comes with them. I learned. While we had bulldogs, every Christmas and many birthdays were accompanied by gifts of dubious taste portraying bulldogs on a variety of objects. Objects with which you had never before associated bulldogs. Therefore I do not mention porcelain figurines of Union-Jack wearing bulldogs or prints of bulldogs playing poker. No, I am referring to bulldog paper towel dispensers, and bulldog doorstops and footstools, bulldog lamps, earrings, gravy boats, andirons, scissors, bath mats and candy jars.
You get the idea.

Our last bulldog died in 2002. By then I was divorced; acquiring another bulldog would have felt presumptuous.

Besides which, CSB, kind though he was with the late Billie, was not a bulldog aficionado. A year or so later we got 2 springer spaniels who do not seem to inspire themed gift giving.
Then came the bees.
Again, I should have predicted.
But I will insist that the decorative use of bees is intrinsically more tasteful than that of bulldogs. The Cretans made gold earrings in the shape of honey-dripping bees. Napoleon took bees as his symbol, and Empire furniture and fabric are thereby much adorned with their elegant shape.

Viz. Napoleon’s velvet robes in this portrait by Ingres.

That was a long and roundabout introduction to what was meant to be a short and pithy homage to our bee themed gifts this past Christmas: the finger puppets, wind-up toy, candle-holder, hooks, toiletry case, note cards and of course the soap. I love the soap.

In case you are wondering, sometimes I receive hagiographic gifts but these are fewer, and beloved CSB does not find them remotely as entertaining as I do. (Saint Theresa of Avila in a snow globe? What is not to like?)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the holidaze

In the interest of underscoring the surreality of Christmas, a few random notes (I used to have a brain that could organize details and form a coherent narrative; but that was before the holiday sugar gluttony. Now I speak in palindromes & lick the insides of my pockets.):

I don’t know what your Clara looked like, but ours (The Nutcracker at the Tarrytown Music Hall) had braces. I think they were Russian braces. Also one of the Snowflakes was pregnant. Hence the pauses.

Christmas Eve brought the arrival of the Aged P’s, with their long and short memories and balms of forgetfulness. It is such multilayered forgetfulness that gives rise to variations on re-gifting, bringing that somewhat maligned but useful tradition to new and arcane levels of complication.
For instance: knowing my fondness of all things Nicaraguan my mother gave me a ceramic decorative plate from Nicaragua that was given to her about 10 or 12 years ago by a Nicaraguan friend. I know this because he gave me one as well. I have since donated my decorative (but ugly) plate to the church fair. So imagine my delight when I was presented with yet another.

The black handbag with gold chain and a bejeweled clasp also came with a back story. Many years ago a neighbor of my parents died. She was reclusive and in fact my parents barely knew her, but her youngest son was a great friend of all of us. It turned out that this reclusive lady – and this was long before the days of online shopping – was a compulsive telephone shopper, and her house was full of unused and often unwrapped boxes from Saks and Lord & Taylor, full of mink hats, evening bags, designer handbags, cashmere bed-jackets, and black negligees. Days after this neighbor’s death, my mother opened her door to find Fred (the son, our friend) bearing piles of boxes full of his mother’s treasures. In his wisdom, Fred considered my mother the most stylish woman he knew and therefore the proper recipient for this bounty.
The white mink hat (think Hostess Sno Balls before they made them pink) has already come my way, and it’s in my back hall with the label still attached – in case you are interested.

One of the ways my mother has entertained herself these past few days is reading my daybook. It takes a very special person to find this book interesting because (other than my collages which are either the work of genius or a mental defective, depending on your POV) this book merely lists my daily activity in the driest and most unadorned way I can manage. (I do not always manage.) That very special person is my mother, she who corrects the spelling on restaurant menus, corrects the architectural descriptions in real estate adverts and now corrects the spelling in my daybook. “Zut alors! Surely you know that cauchemar has a U in it.”

Maybe you’ve been finding the holidaze a tad stressful and gloomy. If that is the case, you could have found consolation for your condition at the Blue Service, designed especially for the miserable, rotten, brutish and short. But you chose not to go. No one did. You preferred to suffer alone.

Which brings us to Saint Fabiola, of lost portrait fame.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How much fun is blanching almonds?

How much fun is blanching almonds?
Quite a lot of fun.
And that is a good thing because I have been a frequent almond-blancher of late.
Why frequent?
It goes back to a discussion last week of the numerous & multifarious holiday baked items that are piled in ancient tin boxes in the pantry, and CSB’s lamentable observation that there was not a macaroon among them.
No macaroons! Zut Alors! Heaven forefend!
It seems that macaroons are de rigueur for the holidays in the hallowed halls of Bedford and the Colony Club.
I have nothing against macaroons. I am fond of them, but that is not saying all that much since my sweet teeth are famous on seven continents.
But what kind of macaroons? When I think of macaroons I think of coconut. I am fond of coconut, in more or less all its permutations, harking back to travels along the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and stopping every few miles at a roadside stand to buy yet another pipa for my son who had just discovered these local delicacies and had no sense of moderation. Pipas are whole young coconuts with a straw stuck through a hole in the outer shell so that you can drink the coconut water. Young T’s overindulgence in pipas en route to Cahuita had the should-have-been-obvious result.
But CSB does not like coconuts. (I have noted that certain otherwise perfectly reasonable people have an inexplicable aversion to coconut, my sister among them. She has other strange predilections I will not mention here.) The macaroons to which he longingly referred could only be almond macaroons. And this presented a problem, because it seems that in all my vast experience I have never properly made almond macaroons.
I made the first batch with Odense almond paste, and the less said about them the better. I blanched the almonds to put atop the macaroons, but they could not save the day. They could however amuse me. The point of blanching almonds is to promote ease of skin removal, and that skin removal is what is so much fun. With just the slightest pressure of thumb and forefinger, the wily little almonds just pop out of their skin and fly all over the kitchen. (This excited Daisy and Bruno until they realized that nuts were not squirrel meat or old cheese.) Further fun can be had by learning to aim the flying blanched almonds. At first I was delighted to watch them vault into the mixing bowl, but then I got ambitious. I aimed for the recycling bin and achieved the floor. I aimed for the rosemary plant and achieved the floor. I aimed for Daisy’s open mouth and achieved the rosemary plant. I aimed for CSB’s coffee cup, and the results are not yet determined.
For the second batch of macaroons I followed a Martha Stewart recipe. Because Martha Stewart knit ponchos when she was in prison and I happen to be a first-class poncho knitter, so this seemed an appropriate choice.
Her recipe does not call for almond paste but instead for pulverized blanched almonds; as you can imagine, this involved blanching many almonds and this was so entertaining that I became giddily optimistic for the results of these macaroons.
Did I over-blanch the almonds?
Is it possible to over-blanch almonds?
Or did I skimp on the sugar?
Should I have snuck in some almond extract even though Martha doesn’t call for it?
I have another recipe I will try tomorrow. This one calls for pulsing the blanched almonds together with the sugar, and I anticipate enjoying pulsing as much as I enjoy blanching.
It also calls for almond extract.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Alternative Version of Events

Given that it is the season of goodwill, red velvet, gold ribbons and refined sugar as well as the annual spike in the national suicide rate, you may very well be asking yourselves: what could Christine possibly be doing that is so compelling it kept her from blogging about La Griteria, Saints Budoc, Mennas, Eulalia of Merida, Daniel the Stylite and Lucia.

I will tell you.


On La GriterĂ­a (In Nicaragua the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a dogma taxing to the credulity, is celebrated with fireworks, public revelry and chanting.) I made dozens of cocoa rum balls. These involve the mixing together of many healthy and alcoholic ingredients, then rolling the paste between the palms of your hands to make little spheres, and then rolling the spheres in confectioners’ sugar. They are even better after being locked inside a metal box for a week.

The next day was the feast of Saint Budoc. He was a perfectly fine abbot, but his mother, Azenor, was remarkable: when her father was being attacked by a snake, Azenor smeared her breast with milk and aromatic oil to lure to snake away from her beleaguered Papa and onto her breast. Naturally the snake obliged. But the snake wanted to stay on that comfortable spot, so Azenor was forced to chop off her own breast and throw it into the fire. God recognized her for this kind act by replacing the charred breast with a new breast made of gold. Later she survived five months sealed inside a casket in the ocean, and in fact she even gave birth to Budoc inside that cask.
I made candied orange peels. Candied orange peels are my new favorite way to put myself into a hyperglycemic coma.

On the anniversary of the miserable death of Saint Mennas (eyes and tongue plucked out, feet flayed, beheaded) I made anise drop cookies. The thing about anise cookies that intrigues me is that after making the batter and dropping into onto the cookie sheet, you have to leave them out overnight before cooking. If you fail to do this, the cookies will have the texture of socks. Otherwise, they are a delicious soft and crunchy paradox. That same day was also the feast of Saint Eulalia of Merida (asphyxiated by the smoke from her burning hair), because there is little more appealing to a painter than the opportunity to paint a bloodied and naked young woman on the snow.
Painting by John William Waterhouse

To honor the feast of St Daniel the Stylite (the second-best-known of the pillar saints, they who sit atop pillars for ridiculously long periods of time, after St Simeon the Stylite, the best-known) I made gingerbread. And why is this gingerbread so good? Because it contains mustard (the dried kind in the lovely yellow tin) and candied ginger. Now candied ginger is rather difficult to chop (try it if you don’t believe me) but I have come up with a solution. I freeze it first, and then it cracks apart so easily you (I) wonder why it took so long to figure that out.

Painting by Domenico Beccafumi.
And then on the feast of Santa Lucia I made meringues. There is very little I can tell you about Saint Lucy that is true. When the wicked Diocletian sent her to be ‘exposed’ in a brothel, God made turned her to stone so that she became immovable. When Diocletian minions set her aflame, she did not burn. In order to dissuade an over-eager – and pagan – suitor, Lucy ripped out her eyeballs and presented them to the hapless swain. But God put them back in.
What color were her eyes? Probably not red or green, but those were the colors of the meringues I made. CSB, being the purist in the house, was distraught to see the tell-tale little bottles of food coloring, but in this holiday season certain aspects of our domestic order are jettisoned (good taste?).
Meant to look like eyeballs on a platter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Of Bees and Broccoli

Yesterday’s temperatures reached an unseasonable 66˚ (that’s 19˚ higher than the normal high of 47˚) and the bees of Let it Bee ventured from their hives in search of nectar and pollen. But it is December and the pickings were slim.
What they found was broccoli. When we were putting the garden to bed a few weeks ago, CSB wisely realized that the broccoli flowers were still beckoning the bees, and so we left them to keep bolting and flowering.
Now broccoli is a funny looking plant (but not, I think, as funny-looking as Brussels sprouts or artichokes). In botanical circles there is heated debate about which came first, the broccoli or the cauliflower. One camp asserts that broccoli came about when gardeners starting growing cabbages for their shoots, and from there cauliflower was developed and of course prized because it was white instead of green. (That color hierarchy seems to be a truism in the vegetable world. Viz. asparagus.) The other camp asserts that the broccoli is a mutant form of cauliflower that evolved during the Damp Decades of the Late Medieval Green Period.
The name broccoli comes from the Italian, and means “little arms” or “little shoots”. I’m not sure where the name cauliflower comes from, but it is a term of endearment in French, as in, “mon petit chou-fleur”.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What comes after

Our national day of mandatory gratitude and gluttony and yclept Black Friday are receding into the tryptophan-dazed past; what remains for me is the intensity of my basement clean-up.
Already I regard it as its own kind of frenzy.
Nor does it take quantum mechanics to recognize the dialectic,
the pushmi-pullyu, the ying & yang of the gorge/purge pattern just enacted.
For three days I pulled out everything in the basement, put some things back – but labeled and sorted - and threw much away. We took 2 full truckloads to the DPW facility (trash and recyclables); I packed up boxes to give away to charities (And according to my daughter, leave them the task of throwing things away).
Have I mentioned how satisfying this all was?
Among the jettisoned items were:
A ceramic turkey
A non-functioning/never functioning mantel clock
About 400 pounds of dirt
6 rusted coal burning fireplace covers
Broken and sometimes intact glass urological X-ray plates, from the 40’s and 50’s
Broken skis
Broken hockey sticks
Broken tennis rackets
A motorcycle seat covered in red Naugahyde
I will stop now.

As much as I enjoy this sort of thing, I realize it is prompted by the middle-of-the-night fear that I will be run over by a speeding ambulance or impaled upon the antlers of a vengeful deer (though I try to emulate SS. Eustace and Hubert and their instant conversions as perpetrated by visions of the cross between the antlers of the hunted stag, but I fail to see anything between the antlers but bearers of Lyme ticks), and then my children, in the midst of their busy lives, will be forced to clear out this house. And they will not speak kindly of their dear-departed mother. No, they will find themselves asking:

Why did Mom think she needed three separate collections of faux fruits? Did she really need this chart of the parts of the eye? What about this 1955 Conversational Arabic? How many broken door knobs is too many? These Christmas decorations I made in third grade were not great them and now that they’ve been nibbled by a mouse they are even less appealing. Was she stockpiling floral oasis against a worldwide shortage of green Styrofoam? And did she have to keep the maps she drew in the 6th grade? Half the countries are no longer extant. Did she ever plan on hanging this mussel shell wreath? Or wearing it?
Did she really toss away our patrimony on straw hats for shrunken heads? And why does patrimony refer to the wealth we inherit from our father/parents, while matrimony means the legal union of 2 people?

No. When they retrieve my flattened body from beneath the ambulance I would like their grief to be untinged with resentment at the mess I have left behind, so I clean the basement.