Sunday, December 28, 2008

Not even in effigy

The chocolate coins are all eaten but one, a golden dollar that escaped (for now), and shiny disks of chocolate-tinged foil are turning up all around the house.

The contents of the clear plastic candy-cane shaped tubes bearing Hershey's Kisses and gummy Krabby Patties (the burger Spongebob makes at his fry-cook day job) are virtually empty.

Even the hard, essentially flavorless, little Spongebob-shaped Pez-like bits have all disappeared (down the sink, in the case of the ones Ulysses gave to me, one after another, that I surreptitiously and temporarily stashed on a platter of turkey debris).

Yet the merry row of seven chocolate Santas remains intact.

On Christmas Day, when Ulysses unwrapped a long, light, rectangular package to find a box of brightly wrapped Santas, he was delighted.

"Open this box, open, open!"

He inspected the Santas and pried from the blister bedding the rightmost one, a jolly fellow in red against a green background. Carefully, eagerly, he peeled away the foil wrapper to hold the bare chocolate Santa between forefinger and thumb. He lifted it to his mouth. He stopped.

Ulysses held the chocolate figurine a litle farther from his face and regarded it for several seconds.

"I can't do it," he said, finally. "I can't eat Santa."

He looked up at us dolefully.

"Do you want me to put the wrapper back on?" said Donald.

Ulysses nodded.

A few moments of careful re-wrapping later -- the foil hadn't come off in one piece -- and Santa was back with his brethren.

And there he remains to this day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve evening 2008: Santa burnout

In the evening, I pulled out some sugar-cookie dough I'd made a month ago and defrosted today. The Cook's Country recipe using yolks only, no whites. They tout that it can be rerolled a zillion times without toughening, thanks to leaving out the tough protein of the egg whites. They're right.

"Ulysses, I'm going to make some cookies for Santa. Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"Yes!" He jumped off the couch, where he was watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, or maybe it was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by that point. He found his miniature rolling pin in his toy kitchen and ran to the kitchen. He ran to the dough on the counter and held up the pin. I invited him to pick out some cookie cutters from the pile on the kitchen table. He went to the table and looked at them.

Then I saw something in his eyes retreat, disengage.

"I gotta watch Cars," he said.

I stopped myself from saying that Cars is not a Christmas movie. I put it in the player, but by the time the menu had come up, he was playing a video game at his computer. "Do you want to make cookies with me?"

"No," he said.

He never did watch Cars that evening, but neither did he respond again, after that, when we reminded him that Santa was coming tonight. All day, he'd bounced and bounded at the mention of it. By now, it seemed, his emotions had been so thoroughly stimulated, they had just gone into overload.

He was withdrawing, for emotional safety, I thought. The obvious corollary of that, I realized later that night, was that his emotions were vulnerable and raw. They could now be readily abraded, inflamed.

* * *

I made sugar cookies in holiday shapes and colors: green wreaths and trees with little balls of many colors and with royal icing bows and garlands; red Santas with icing for the fur at his wrists, cap and ankles; reindeer with red noses; stars with turbinado sugar sparkles. I assembled a plate, including one of the trees, for Santa's visit later that night, and set it on the dining table.

Ulysses plucked a green Christmas tree from the cooling rack. "I'm eating Santa's cookie," he said, happily. How cute, I thought.

Several minutes later, he came over from his video play again and took another tree cookie.

Several minutes after that, I noticed that Ulysses had picked up the fourth and final tree. Earlier, I had asked Don if he had any requests for cookie shapes. He had told me, "I want a Christmas tree."

"Oops! Sorry," I told Ulysses. "You can't have that one. That's Tata's tree." I plucked it from his hand. "Sorry, we need to leave that one for him. Here are the other cookies. Which one would you like?"

"No! No! I want the tree!" he cried, making a grab for the cookie in my hand.


"How about this flower?"

"No! Not a blue cookie."

"A heart?"

"Not a red one!"

"All right. How about this wreath? It's green."

"No! It's broken!" It had a scalloped center cut out of it. Much like the blown glass ornaments that had offended his aesthetic sensibilities earlier that day. "I want a tree!"

"I'm sorry, this is the last one. It's for Tata. He'll be said if it's gone." I couldn't back off now. I'd established a cookie ownership and I had to follow through. The ownership of this item had to stand. The person whose cookie it was had to be respected.

"Where are the another tree cookies?"

"You ate yours. You ate mine, too," I added dryly, and only for my own amusement. "But that's OK, I let you have mine," I said, to soften the last remark, before continuing with my lesson: "This last one is for Tata and we need to leave it for him."

Don came out of the back computer room. "What's going on?" I filled him in. He said, "It's OK, Ulysses, you can have my tree cookie. I'm giving you my tree cookie." Don tried to hand it to him.

"No, no!" said Ulysses, in tears. "It's your cookie. I can't eat it, I can't. And I ate Mama's cookie!" He collapsed into sobs, falling onto the floor.

I suddenly realized that he grasped the situation far more deeply than I had imagined.

"Ulysses," I said, "Would you like me to make some more tree cookies?"

He fell silent. He looked up at me.

"Would you like me to make more tree cookies for everyone?"

"Yes!" he said, and sprang up.

"You can help me if you like," I said. "You don't have to, though."

He ran to his computer and plunged back into his game.

Fortunately, I still had some dough. Half an hour later, there were six perfect, bedecked Christmas trees on the cooling rack. "Ulysses!" I called.

Ulysses walked over, quietly, and surveyed the little green trees. He picked up three of them.

He ran to the bedroom, where Don was watching TV.

"Here, Tata, this is for you."

He ran back to me and handed me a tree. "This is for you, Mama."

With the third cookie in his hand, he sat down at his video game.

* * *

It wasn't until much later that I considered the tree cookie that had been on Santa's plate all through the conflict.

I could have let Ulysses have the tree cookie that he picked up from the cooling rack, without ever saying a word about whose cookie was whose. There would have been no issue if the trees were simply gone the next time he came grazing. Meantime, I could have taken the tree cookie off Santa's plate and put it out of sight for Don, for later.

I didn't.

I didn't even dream of disturbing the plate I'd prepared for Santa. Because ... because those were Santa's cookies. It wouldn't be right to take away his tree. I had made four trees. One for each of us.

I'd hypnotized myself into respecting the rights of a fictional character.

Christmas Eve 2008

I just reread this blog entry from last Christmas Eve – – and was struck by the magnitude of difference in Ulysses today: his comprehension, the abstraction of his thoughts, his articulation of them. Last year he was in the moment in such a way – there was no use describing to him a distant future.

This year he's been anticipating Santa's visit for weeks, announcing regularly that tonight was the night. We pointed to the day on the calendar as it approached, showing him, "We're here, this is today. Santa's coming on this day." It was hard to see his scope of comprehension, but probably a safe guess that it wasn't total. I should have told him it was a map of time, because he understands maps. (Thanks, Dora.)

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we told him that this was the big day -- that Santa was in fact coming tonight, that we had a lot to do to get ready. He was elated. We drove out to storage to pick up the tree and decorations, then to the supermarket for figgy pudding ingredients. Would you believe Copps, giant as it is, doesn't carry suet, while our neighborhood market does? It's in the same chaotically, gloriously mixed case of ethnic speciality animal parts as the chitterlings, necks, feet and other tidbits for the adventerous. Or the traditional. Depending on your point of view.

I set White Christmas to play on the DVD. Don got out the battery-powered Christmas train while I prepped the tree area. We stood the 5-foot square cedar play table (built by Don in 2006) on its side against the bookshelf to clear the living room corner. The toy bins that live under the table went into Ulysses' room. I remembered the white vinyl that been discarded at my workplace that I'd brought home for another project, and Don brought it in. We cut parts of it and made a tree skirt about 8-foot square, large enough for the train to run on its extended length track for the first time. We discovered that the other side had been printed on -- it was the color of winter sky, with a field of irregularly placed soft white dots. Snowfall! How fortuitous was that? Or maybe the dots were the printing error that caused the banner to be jettisoned. Either way, it worked for us. We draped the play table with the blue side out, a much better backdrop for the tree than bare wood.

Throughout, Ulysses played on, under and within the enormous length and width of vinyl. As soon as the snow pattern was revealed, he jumped on it with his bare feet. "Cold! It's so cold! Ouch, ouch!" he shouted, gleefully jumping from foot to foot. "Brrr, snow," he said. Next he made an "igloo" of the cavernous mounds, pulling me under with him, insisting that I also complain of the cold. It was hot under that vinyl.

There was a bit of a snag when we eventually cut up his ice fields and igloos for tree skirting and background draping, and then folding up the rest to put away. "My igloo!" he said, horrified. "You broke it!" Then I pulled out the box containing the Christmas tree. I showed him the label, with a photograph of the contents.

"Mama!" he said, excited, "We have to make the Christmas tree beautiful."

Ulysses enthusiastically pitched in to help string the lights, hang the delicate glass ornaments and unpack and set out the trees and buildings and people of the miniature village. Consider this word, "help," with circumspection. For instance, he tended to hang the ornaments not on the branches, but the needles thereon. Matching ornaments, he believed, should properly all hang on the same branch tip.

I moved into high parenting gear to prevent electrocutions, injury and excessive breakage. Don split for the far end of the house and shut the door.

An hour later, the tree was done and only one ornament, a green glass ball, had paid the price. Ulysses had been batting it around on its branch, not heeding my warnings: "Ulysses! Be gentle with that. It's fragile. This breaks very easily. It can cut you."

"No, this is not fragile," he insisted. He gripped at it, and it collapsed into shards between his fingers. A moment of shock, then howling tears. "I cut my hand! The orn'ment broke! My green orn'ment!"

His hand was not cut. Whew.

After a few moments, he was ready to be consoled with a different, identical green ornament that he hung on the same branch. He moved on, but not before he batted at it – gently – to, fro and to again, announcing, "Be careful. This breaks very easily!"

Then there were the fancy glass ornaments,the kind with the deeply indented, faceted centers. Ulysess saw one and declared it broken.

"It's not broken," I said. "It's fine. This is the design. It looks this way on purpose."

"It is broken," he insisted.

"Look, there's nothing wrong with it," I said, angling it so we could see directly into the indented pattern.

It was broken. During storage, the wire for hanging had punched through the thin wall of indented glass from within.


After I'd thrown out the broken pieces, I brought out another ornament of the same type.

"No," said Ulysses. "It's broken."

This one was not broken. But he was having no truck with any of the tray of center-dented ornaments that seemed to splinter dramatically in upon themselves. "These are broken," he insisted.

I replaced their lid and put them back in the ornament box for the season.

Ulysses regarded the half-dressed tree. "That's not beautiful," he said, and looked on the verge of tears.

"We're not done yet."

"But it's not beautiful, Mama!" He whimpered.

"Then let's keep trying. Look at this one!"

"It's a egg!" he said.

"Yes! This is a goose egg from our friend Cindy and our friend Troy. They brought it to us from ..." I couldn't remember the country they'd visited. "... Eastern Europe!"

"A egg, a egg! Two eggs!" Happy again, he set to work trying to hang the elaborately painted goose eggs on the same needle of a single branch, and didn't mind when I helped him pick out two different branches instead. Peace had been restored.

Later: "Mama! The Christmas tree is beautiful! We made it beautiful! Together!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Baka Ljubica's Vanilice crescents

This recipe of my grandmother's comes to me from my aunt, who fortunately has kept the recipe all these years. These were my Ujka (uncle) Sava's favorite cookies when he was a little boy.

Just to give an idea of the timelines involved here, my grandmother Ljubica (b. Stefanovich) Jankovic was born in 1888, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother was born in 1920, and her brother (my uncle), was born in 1923. So, want to talk about an heirloom recipe, this is it.

A few notes: my grandmother, who we called Baka, did not use an egg. However, these cookies are very fragile without one. When my aunt (my Ujna) would make these for my Ujka, she started adding an egg for strength. I made these for the first time this month, specifically to ship to my Ujka and family for Christmas, and I didn't want to take any chances with shipping a box of broken cookies, so I used the egg variant.

These hyper-vanilified cookies use a whopping two tablespoons of vanilla in a batch. Not only that, but they're dusted with vanilla sugar. Baka would place a vanilla bean in powdered sugar for a week or so in advance of making these cookies, and have a wonderfully perfumed sugar to dust with. If you don't want to incur the expense of a vanilla bean, you can pour a teaspoon or so of vanilla into a container and then place two cups of powdered sugar right on top, and wait a few days or weeks for a similar effect.

I didn't plan ahead, and I found myself making the cookies the day before I needed to ship them. Not enough time to make vanilla sugar! So I placed vanilla directly into the resealable container in which I was packing the cookies, and packed the cookies in powdered sugar. The result: I had a great insulator for my cookies that protected them from breakage, and by the time the cookies arrived by UPS ground, and then were opened a couple of days later, the powdered sugar had become vanilla sugar!

Serbian vanilla crescents

3 cups all-purpose flour
10 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter
2 cups walnuts, finely ground (use food processor or coffee grinder)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 whole egg (optional – will make cookies less fragile)
vanilla powdered sugar to garnish (directions below, you need to make this vanilla sugar in advance)

Mix together all ingredients except egg and powdered sugar.

Add egg, if using, and mix in.

When ingredients are combined, form a small ball, a tablespoon or so and then shape the ball into a crescent. I found that the prettiest crescents are made like this: Shape a tablespoon of dough into a ball. Roll the ball back and forth between your palms until it forms a rope the width of your palms. Roll the rope with a few more back-and-forth motions. The ends of the rope will extend beyond your palms, but will be tapered. Shape this into a crescent, with the points nearly touching.

Place the crescents on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 until just barely browned, about 10 min.

Remove from oven. Place on cooling racks.

Meanwhile, prep a pan, like a lasagna pan, with the powdered vanilla sugar. While still warm but no longer hot, drop several crescents at a time into the sugar and roll them around, shaking the pan, until they're well coated.

Make the vanilla sugar several days ahead of time by pounding a vanilla bean into the powdered sugar with a mortar and pestle. Or, put vanilla extract at the bottom of a container of powdered sugar several days ahead of time. The vanilla flavor and aroma will infuse the powdered sugar.

How to tell a present

Most every night we put on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and drift off to sleep with it running. A timer turns off the TV after a while. Ulysses has been hearing that theme music, with its signature transition from futuristically, whisperingly quiet to blood-stirringly horn laden (woe betide your sleep if you're only halfway into slumber by the end credits), nearly every night since before he was even born. (Some nights we play Galaxy Quest instead.)

The other night U and I were watching “Parallels,” a final-season episode featuring Lieutenant Commander Worf, the first Kingon to serve in Starfleet. The opening scenes feature a surprise birthday party for him. Mr. Worf is on the cranky side, as a matter of character. He is visibly embarrassed and annoyed as his crew mates lustily sing the rendition of “Happy Birthday” that they've laboriously translated into Klingon in his honor.

“It wasn't easy to translate,” says Counselor Troi to a still-scowling Worf. “There doesn't seem to be a Klingon word for 'jolly,'”

Ulysses was loving it. “Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he said. “It's a party!”

Then the birthday cake is brought out. In close-up, a long knife drives into an especially fudgy and moist chocolate-on-chocolate cake. The relative extreme of the visual is needed for later in the story, when the variety of cake is revealed to be a plot point.

Ulysses was delighted by all the chocolateyness. “Cake! He has a birthday cake! Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he crowed as the Klingon, still scowling, passes around plates heaped with gooey slabs.

Next come the presents. Data hands Worf a big, flat, beribboned rectangle of shiny wrapping paper. (Everything is metallic in the future.) “A present!” Ulysses said, happily.

Worf tears off the paper to reveal ... “A ... painting,” he says, trying hard to be polite, but unable to conceal his confusion at the inscrutable tangle of bright, abstract shapes. Data explains that it's his expressionist interpretation of a great Klingon battle. “I am honored,” says Worf, but the subtext is unmistakable: “This thing is awful – and I'm stuck with it!”

“That's not a present,” Ulysses said, mirroring Worf's reaction.

“Sure, it's a present from Data,” I said.

“No,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “It's a painting.”

“The present is the painting,” I said. “The painting is a present.”

“That's no present,” he said, shaking his head. He looked closely at me. How could I not see something that was so obvious to both him and Mr. Worf? Didn't I grasp Mr. Worf's reaction on tearing open the wrapping? Couldn't I feel it? Ulysses seemed to be casting about for a way to convey it to me. Finally, he found a way to get it across in terms I should understand.

“That's no present. It's not a toy.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grandaunt Naka's Vanil Grancle

In the past, I've blogged about these exquisite little jam-filled Serbian sandwich cookies that are a family heirloom. See:

Those posts told the story of my attempt to recreate, from memory, my Grandaunt Naka's Vanil Grancle (VAH-neel GRAHNT-sleh).

Today I share the exciting news that I managed to get the original recipe! My grandaunt had written down her recipe.

In Western genealogical terms, I guess she's not really a grandaunt to me, as that refers to the aunt of one's parents. But it's the only term that seems to make sense. Yulia (b. Joanovic) Pecic, whom we all called Naka, was my aunt's mother. More specifically, she was the mother of the wife of the brother of my mother. The mother of my mother's sister-in-law. Get it?

Born in 1913, Naka was from Kikinda, a municipality in what's today the Serbian Banat, part of a larger historical and geographical region known as the Banat, which happens to be extraordinarily well suited for the cultivation of apricots.

The Banat overall straddles three nations, as the borders are drawn today: Serbia, Romania and Hungary. The word can be loosely translated as "province," and whereas once there were lots of banats within the Austro-Hungarian empire and within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, this is the area that's meant when you just say "Banat" or "The Banat." It's more or less identical to a region called "The Banat of Temeswar" that was circumscribed by an 18th century treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, by which the area was within the Kingdom of Hungary but controlled by the Ottomans. Or something like that.

Kikinda is also in the Voivodina, a word that means a sort of duchy (a "voivod" would be a duke), which has historically been an autonomous region relative to the succession of empires, kingdoms and nation-states that have surrounded it. Or something like that. The Voivodina encompasses at least the Serbian part of the Banat, as near as I can figure.

But don't take my word for all this. Poke around on Wikipedia and the many other sources available on the Net and in print, and if you can figure it out better, let me know. I'm no expert. (And by the way, the experts disagree.)

At any rate, when Naka's mother was born, in 1870, Kikinda was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

These cookies represent the intersection of the horticultural tradition of apricot growing in the Banat with the sophistication of Austro-Hungarian cuisine, especially its culinary tradition of baked sweets.

* * *

Earlier this month, I tried out the recipe and sent a batch of grancle east to Baltimore, where my cousins and my uncle and aunt sampled them just this weekend. They report success! The recipe yields a cookie that's true to the original.

The only thing yet to work on, though, is the thickness of the cookie. The pictures you see show a cookie about twice as high as the original. The instructions below will yield cookies that are thinner and have a more favorable jam-to-cookie ratio than the ones in the photo. Also they'll be less of a Dagwood experience to get your teeth around.

Over the decades, I had misremembered the name of Vanil Grancle as Vanilice (vah-NEEL-eet-she). Vanilice, or vanilitse, it turns out, is a different Serbian cookie altogether. In fact, my uncle Sava's favorite cookie from his boyhood was my grandmother's Vanilice. Fortunately, I was able to get the recipe for that from my aunt, via my cousin. I'll give that in a different post

Here's my cousin in early 2008, comparing the photo and description of my 2006 cookies to Naka's grancle.

your vanilice look just like my grandmother naka's granzle (grantsle) except her top round circle cut out was smaller. they were my favorite cookies growing up and haven't had them since she passed away 5 years ago. she used to make them up until the time she died, despite the fact that her hands were almost crippled from arthitis and i used to eat each one slowly and carefully thinking of her crippled fingers making them lovingly for us.

mama never did make these herself, again the apricot jam connection to naka's recipes, wonder if they are austro-hungarian influenced because banat was occupied by austro-hungarian empire.

baka's recipe that mama recalls is the crescent. i just realized that if you remember a friend of our family saying they baked hundreds of these and froze them each year those are definitely my naka's recipe!!!!! she would make hundreds each year, they were among her specialities and i think i mentioned i really think she was a master baker among serbian women who are really mostly master bakers.

i've been to many slavas where people serve "sitni kolaci" that can't compare to these cookies.

Vanil Grancle
Yield: about 60 sandwich cookies

200 grams (1 cup minus one teaspoon) sugar
200 grams (1 stick + 6 tablespoons) butter at room temperature
1 whole egg + 3 separated eggs
1 tablespooon lemon rind, grated and minced
400 grams (2 1/3 cups) flour
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream
* * *
powdered sugar
about 2 cups walnuts, chopped into small bits
about 1/2 cup apricot jam

Forming the cookies

* Mix whole egg and three yolks with sugar.
* Mix in butter, sour cream and lemon rind.
* Add flour and mix to make a soft dough. If exceedingly soft and sticky, add a bit more flour.
* Shape dough into two logs. Wrap in parchment paper or plastic cling wrap and chill. Slice into 1/8" rounds.
* Alternately, shape dough into two or three disks that are 1/8" thick. Chill several hours on a platter, separating the layers with parchment paper or clear clingfoil so they don't get stuck together. Punch out with a cookie cutter into 1.5" rounds.
* Using a thimble, cut a hole into the center of half of the disks. If you don't have a thimble, use any cylinder into which your middle finger will just fit. I used a bit of copper piping.
* Re-roll any dough scraps left over and repeat as necessary until you've made all the dough into bottoms (solid rounds) and tops (rounds with holes).


* Bake cookie bottoms at 300 F. They should be pale when done, with just the lightest browning on the bottoms.
* Paint tops cookie tops with egg white. I did this by putting the egg white in a tray, and then placing all the tops in the tray.
* Sprinkle cookie tops with powdered sugar.
* Sprinkle cookie tops with walnuts.
* Bake cookie tops at 300 F. Like the bottoms, they'll be pale when they're done, just barely browned underneath.

Unfortunately, I didn't write down the baking times when I did this. Next time, I'll take notes and add it to this post. All I can say for now is, start checking your oven at 10 minutes. Go by sight and by the aroma of baking. When done, they will have puffed up a little. Like most baked cookies, they will feel a little underdone when they are perfectly done -- they continue to bake and dry out after you pull them from the oven -- but they'll have a light brown cast underneath, where they rest against the baking sheet.

I think the bottoms took 20 minutes and the tops 25.


Let cool. Place about 1/4 teaspoon apricot jam on each cookie bottom. Top with the cookie top. Press and twist together just enough to distribute the jam evenly to the edge of the cookies. These will be squishy and slidey at first, but the jam will set up after a few hours and the sandwich construction will be sturdy.

Here's a tip I got from Cook's Illustrated: give your jam a quick whiz in the food processor. This will break up the big chunks of apricot and distribute the fruit more evenly throughout the jam, making it much easier to sandwich the cookies.

Now here's the original text of the recipe that my cousin sent me. Note that the non-metric amounts are different from those given above. I re-translated the metric into non-metric, and used what I came up with, rather than the non-metric amounts below. Also, instead of an entire lemon's zest, I used a tablespoon, after checking with my aunt that indeed this made sense. These are not exceedingly lemony cookies.

here is the granzle recipe. the ingredients are straight from naka's recipe as are the instructions on how to assemble the cookies but the directions on mixing ingredients come from my mother and me trying to make sense from how the ingredients would go together.

apparently naka never wrote down how she makes the cookie dough and mama never witnessed it or made the granzle herself. so here goes:

20 dkg (1 cup) sugar
20 dkg (1 cup) sweet butter (unsalted) 1 1/2 sticks
1 whole egg plus 3 eggs separated (small eggs would probably be most accurate)
lemon rind to taste (mama thinks about 1 whole medium lemon)
40 dkg flour (2 cups)
1 heaping tblspoon of sour cream
powdered sugar
chopped walnuts (small pieces)
apricot jam (sorry, no info on quantity for these last 3 items, we'll have to experiment)

combine 1 whole egg and 3 egg yolks and sugar. add softened butter and add sour cream and rind, combine.

add flour and if too soft, add some more. (i'm not kidding, that's what it says)

note --naka used to roll the dough out and cut out the shapes but mama says she does know that naka changed that technique because the dough was always so sticky. i think her solution sounds brilliant.---
form the dough into a long roll like a salami, wrap in plastic wrap and chill until hard. (no info on how long) dough should be like sugar cookie dough you buy at the grocery store---slice and bake---similar shape and thickness.

then, remove wrap and slice the dough into 60 disks. cut 30 of the disks with a hole in the center (these will be the tops) using a thimble. (mama fortunately remembers naka using a thimble, i thought i remembered the hole was pretty small, i love this kind of historic detail and thanks to you, i bothered to get it from mama finally!!!!)

bake the bottom 30 disks at 300 degrees until done (again, no details sorry) and cookies should be pale, not browned.

take the 3 egg whites, whisk with a fork and then paint tops (the disks with thimble hole)with egg whites. dip the tops into powdered sugar and chopped (small pieces) walnuts. then bake at 300 until done, again pale and not browned.

when cookies have cooled, assemble as sandwich cookies using apricot (we always had only apricot but of course any jam will do) jam.

my editorial comment is that i would sprinkle the cookies with powdered sugar and walnut pieces but you might want to dip.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa Claus is coming

I never meant to raise my child to believe in Santa Claus. A fictional supernatural being who gets the credit for staging the gift-giving festivity when everyone knows perfectly well it's the parents who did the work. That it's the parents' love that makes it happen.

But it turns out my usual approach to teaching him about the world -- which might be summed up as a threefold exposing him to situations, things and opportunities, keeping him safe and staying out of the way of his process -- doesn't work the same with Santa Claus as it does with say, gravity or sharing.

The world of physics, his developing body, his energy and his inborn drive for self-preservation provided everything he needed to learn to climb the steps to the slide and come down it. It was easy to learn what leads to stumbling and a skinned knee. The world of interacting humans likewise provides plenty of feedback about what happens when two children covet a single toy. Eventually each toddler learns that snatching and running leads not to an unhampered relationship with the object of desire, but only to weeping, screeching and unhappiness all around.

Not so with Santa Claus. His image is all around all year -- you notice this when you have a young charge -- and especially as the autumn deepens into winter. He's featured on episodes of otherwise non-Christmassy TV shows. Often the plot of these episodes turns on the nullification of one character's disbelief. Or he's simply there, as real as any other fictional being in the show. He's around. He's iconic.

He's the guy who brings presents to children. And children do get presents, after all. For a four-year-old, this is not a controversial syllogism.

Anyway, I thought we shouldn't tell Ulysses that Santa Claus exists. Donald thought we should. As it turned out, it wasn't our decision to make. There was no point at which we would bestow or withhold this piece of information. (Technically, misinformation.) The world has taught Ulysses about the person of Santa Claus. The only real choice is between going with the flow and convincing him that it's all made up. That there's not really any such guy.

In other words, to be really, really mean.

So I'm going with the flow.

Santa Claus is about as real as Spongebob. But how real is Spongebob, for Ulysses? Does Ulysses realize that there is no pineapple under the sea? I want him to know that Steven Hillenberg's imagination is the true wonder of Spongebob. That Tom Kenny, Patrick Warburton, Clancy Brown -- to name just a few of that show's marvelous voice actors -- are among the legions of artists who create this pulsingly alive semblance. There's nothing to gain from trying to explain this to him now. Soon enough he'll know that these guys are made up of lots of little drawings shown in succession, synched with audio recordings made elsewhere. What does he understand now? I'm not sure. But I'm sure it would be futile, not to say hurtful, to dog him with the notion that "Spongebob is not real." Well, there he is. Interacting with a whole world of characters and things. Uttering quotable quotes that we quote in this household. Learning life lessons that we cite.

Every night for the past week or so, Ulysses has told me, in the dark of the evening and often as we're turning out the lights, "Santa Claus is coming tonight."

Each night, I say, "Santa Claus is coming soon. But not tonight."

And Ulysses answers, matching my tone in an exaggerated singsong: "Yes, tonight."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Glad we got that straight

Apropos of nothing I could identify, Ulysses spoke up with this:

"Mama. Did you know there's a tooth fairy?"

"Why, yes," I answered, after the moment it took to gather my thoughts. "I did know that."

That was the conversation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Meeting Santa

Santa was at Walgreens, meeting children and posing for photos.

"Let's go for a ride," I told Ulysses after breakfast.

"Noooo. I'm not going for a ride," he replied.

"C'mon, we're gonna go out and see Santa Claus."

"Nooo, I'm not gonna go out and see San...." he trailed off, stopped and turned toward me. "I'm gonna go out and see Santa Claus!" he crowed.

Moments later I was helping him squirm into a full set of winter clothes. But when I brought out his boots, he said, "Nooo. I don't wanna wear boots. I want to wear my Thomas shoes."

His Thomas shoes are sneakers. The ground outside was mounded with the year's first thick snowfall.

"These boots will protect your feet from the snow," I said. "They'll keep your feet warm and dry. Your Thomas shoes aren't for this weather."

"Noooo. My Thomas shoes are magic. Boots are not magic."

"You know who wears black boots?" I asked. "Santa Claus."

"Boots! I'm wearing black boots! Mama, put these black boots ... on!"

* * *

At Walgreens, we caught sight of Santa and Ulysses stopped short, fell silent. His eyes widened. There he was, the great one. In person.

"Come on, Ulysses," I said, taking his hand and gently pulling him forward. I repeated again what I'd been telling him on the way over: "Santa's here to meet the children. He wants to talk with you and find out what you like. You can tell him what kinds of toys you like. Here are the cookies we're giving him. He brings us presents, so it's only right we bring him something, too."

Ulysses dragged behind me, following with slow little steps. Santa saw him and called over to him. "Hello, little boy! Do you want to sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?"

I looked at Ulysses. His eyes shone, but at this suggestion his mouth changed from a little smile to a little "o" of astonishment. He shrank back. Santa smiled and greeted him again.

I watched as the two of them eyed one another across the stretch of glossy retail floor. Santa smiling gently; Ulysses as close to a swoon as I've ever seen him.

Then Ulysses seemed suddenly to become conscious of the zip-top sandwich bag of cookies that he was gripping with both hands. He drew himself up a little, and boldly stepped forward, all the way to Santa's chair. He held out the bag, his arms nearly straight before him.

"Here, Santa," he said in a soft voice. "I brought these cookies for you."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Magic/Not magic

One day last week, I came home from work and Ulysses ran to the door to greet me. "We gotta make shoc'late ship cookies!" he said. "Go to cooking room, Mama. We gotta make shoc'late ship cookies."

So we did exactly that.

"Schoc'late chip cookies are magic," he told me. (A first for that word.)

So I guess he liked them.

Playing a racing video game another day, he told me, "I'm racing, Mama! Race cars are magic."

Also good.

This morning we were in the "cooking room" working out breakfast. I'd put the kaibosh on his request for a bowl of halved, frozen grapes, or anything else made entirely out of sugar. (Yes, I know it's fruit. Fruit made entirely out of sugar.) So what else, what else? "Would you like some bacon?" I tried.


"Would you like a sandwich?"


"How about a hot dog?"

He looked at me.

"Mama," he said, patiently, "Hot dogs are not magic."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Koljivo (Zito/Zhito)

Koljivo, or Zito (pronounced ZHEE-toe, meaning "wheat"), is one of the most important dishes a Serbian can make. Loaded with the symbolism of life, death, harvest and renewal, it's presented at only a few special occasions: Slava, Bozic (BOH-zheech, or Christmas), and at funerals and memorials for the dead. More about koljivo on this blog here.

But if you don't happen to be Serbian, I suppose you could just make this as a delicious dessert.

To the American sensibility, it's extremely unusual, to say the least – a bowl of cooked, ground wheat fortified with ground nuts and sugar. Even the cooking instructions seem odd: Seven waters? Pillows and blankets?

The flavors, though, are straightforward, clean, accessible to the American palate, and easy to love.

Koljivo (Zito)

1 cup wheat berries (preferably white wheat, or psenica (pshenitsa) bela)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups walnuts or pecans, or a combination of the two
2 cups powdered sugar
About 1/16 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg, or 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg powder
[Nutmeg added 11/18/2012, per comments from Drago Babic and two anonymous posters.]

slivered almonds
whipped cream

Start this recipe the night before. There's an overnight step involved.

1. Seven waters
Place the wheat berries in a small pot or a large saucepan. Cover with water, about two inches above the level of the berries. The exact amount is unimportant. Bring to a rolling boil and let boil for a few seconds. Drain the water through a sieve and discard, keeping the berries in the pot.

Add new water to the wheat, the same amount as before. (I keep a kettle full of water brewing on another burner during the whole process to save time; I add the partially heated water from it and then refill the kettle from the tap.) Bring to a rolling boil. Drain.

Repeat until you've brought wheat and water to a boil seven times.

On the seventh water, add the salt. Don't drain the water.

2. Overnight soak
Place the pot of wheat on a blanket on your biggest, softest armchair or couch. I kid you not. Pack it all around with blankets and pillows. Leave overnight. Really. If you're watching Top Chef 5: New York, you'll know, from the very first episode, what happens when you try to cook wheat berries quickly. Imagine chewing on erasers. I'm telling you here what it takes to make wheat berries tender. And now you now why wheat is usually crushed into something else (flour, bulgar), and not served whole like rice.

Be sure your padded pot will be secure from wayward children or pets knocking it over.

3. Grinding
The next day, drain any water that hasn't been absorbed overnight.

Grind the wheat berries thoroughly in a food processor or a meat grinder. A blender could be problematic, but it could be done in small batches. Remove the wheat from the food processor bowl. Grind the nuts in the bowl. Add the sugar and nutmeg to the nuts and process together. Add the wheat back into the bowl and process together. Stir together the wheat and the sugar-nutmeg-nut mixture in a mixing bowl.
[Nutmeg added 11/18/2012, per comments from Drago Babic and two anonymous posters. Also, no need to process anymore; stirring works just fine at this point.]

Spoon koljivo into a serving dish, preferably a clear glass one with straight sides.

Garnish by sticking slivered almonds all over the top, like a porcupine. I've been told that if and only if the koljivo is to commemorate the dead, the almond spikes should be placed in the shape of a cross. However, I've come upon photos on the Internet of Christmas koljivo decorated with a cross of almonds.

Serve by tablespoons in very small bowls, like custard cups, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

To find whole wheat berries, try the bulk section of a natural foods store.

I used a pressure cooker this year. I didn't bring the wheat to pressure; I just made use of the tight-fitting lid to boil the water faster and to ensure a secure lid overnight.

[Added 1/5/9, in response to Mia's comment.] This is not a recipe I got from my family. It's my own version of the one given it by a friend, a woman who lives here in Madison who moved to the U.S. in, I believe, the 1960s or 1970s. She described the method to me over the phone and I took notes.

Salt is my own addition. My friend did not mention salt. I find that grains, when prepared without salt, taste like ... like they need salt. So I added that eensy bit, 1/8th teaspoon. The end result tasted like it tasted just right, if you know what I mean. If you have good results with no salt at all, let me know.

The quantities I give above are not quite the way she gave them. She specified one cup of wheat berries. However, instead of specifying a quantity for the nuts and sugar, she just said to use equal volumes of wheat, nuts and sugar. That is (she said when I asked for clarification), equal to the volume of wheat after it's been cooked and ground. I figured it would be most useful to readers (and to me in the future) to know what that volume is, so that we know how much nuts and sugar to have on hand in order to make the recipe.

The wheat made 3 1/2 cups, so I used 3 1/2 cups of nuts. However, I remembered that, in the past, when I made her recipe using equal volumes of wheat, nuts and sugar, the final product was chokingly, achingly sweet. So sweet it interfered with enjoying the dish, for me. (And besides, who needs more sugar if less will work just as well?) So this time, I started with a cup of sugar and mixed it up, then added until it tasted just right to me. Very sweet, very nutty, very rich. But not cloying.

One more note on cooking the wheat this way. I've tried cooking whole wheat berries many times before, including under pressure and for several hours (I think I got up to four), and it always retained an unpleasantly springy chewiness. Even after grinding! This method, with the waters and the pillows and the overnight rest is the only method I know of that results in a pleasant, tender berry.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slava 2008

Yesterday we had a bunch of people over for my Krsna Slava, the Serbian family holiday to celebrate the patron saint, a custom that stretches back into prehistory and pre-Christian times, when the Serbs had family gods. As the story goes, they were reluctant to leave their family patron gods, so each family got a saint designated instead. Because this happened in the ninth century, the saints are all really ancient ones, like Saint Nicholas. My family's is a pair of twins, Saints Cosmas and Damian (Sveti Kuzman i Damian), born in Asia Minor (or Mesopotamia) to Saint Theodota.

The icon here is the exact picture that hung on my wall when I was a kid growing up. It's the current top-of-article image on the Wikipedia entry about them. In past years, I've seen other icons on the Wikipedia page and other pages that my Internet searches turned up. So it was a surprise, and gave me an unexpected eerie feeling, to see this very picture after so long.

More about Slavas past here:

The custom in the Old Country is to have lots of people over all day, coming in and out, with lots of food. I never experienced that, because we didn't live in a place with a big Serb community, but it sounds like fun, so that's what I went for yesterday. Also a priest comes over and blesses the home, but of course we didn't do that, either. We did invite a Universalist Unitarian minister -- as a guest, not in an official capacity -- but he didn't show.

For many years, Don and I would just go out to dinner on my Krsna Slava, November 14. Somehow we always seemed to wind up at a Mexican place -- Pasqual's or Pedro's or Laredo's -- so that we started feeling like the Slava custom was to go out for Mexican food. Once we went to a wonderful Laotian place, Lao Laan Xang, with our friends Sigurd and Gloria -- that must have been 1999 or 2000, because it was the year I wrote about them for the Isthmus dining guide. I'm not sure what inspired me to start celebrating at home and experimenting with Serbian food instead. A few years back, we began inviting our friend Gigi, who's become our Serbian holiday co-celebrant. This year, for the first time, I decided to do something closer to the real thing and invite a whole bunch of people, as many as I dared invite to our small space and cook for all at once. It worked out great and gave me confidence to expand the guest list even more next time around. Sigurd and Gloria were there, the Dutch and Spanish mathematicians we befriended almost immediately after moving to Madison, as well as their kids, Nico (now 14) and Vicky (now 9). Also our neighbor Jayne, from across the street (we offered to give her a ride) and our friend Jennifer. Later my co-worker Jill came, along with her partner Mary. Finally my former co-worker Gil, from Israel, showed up. He was lost in the mobile home park, so I directed him over the phone, and went out into the street and waved him into a spot before running back into the house -- I was barefoot and chilly. Somehow he couldn't figure out which house was ours in the dark, though, and after we waited minutes for him, some folks went outdoors to find him, wandering around the street trying to find the house. Yeah, I know, I don't get it either. Sorry, Gil. (Unfortunately, Gigi, who loves sharing Slava with us, couldn't come at the last minute -- her father had to get emergency eye surgery. We're still waiting to hear how that turned out, and of course we hope for the best.)

Well, I must say I am proud of myself for pulling this thing off. I planned all week, stayed up late cooking and prepping Friday and got up early and got cooking Saturday. It turned out to be the most tactically succesful of all the fun food parties I've thrown over the years. By that I mean: when the first guests started showing up, I had already changed out of my pajamas. And showered. And had completed enough of the cooking that I was actually able to enjoy the party! Here's what we had.

Traditionally, whole fruit preserves, extremely sweet. Served in a jar, presented on a tray alongside several cups of cold water and a pile of dessert spoons. Each guest, on arrival, eats a single spoonful of slatko and chases it with water. The slatko I made for this occasion was apricot jam and honey. Someday I'll try to make my own from scratch. Maybe. Canning still intimidates me.

One of the central, sacred dishes that must be on every Slava table. This tall, round loaf can be regarded either as a tremendously rich, cake-like bread, or the breadiest, most un-sweet pound cake you've ever had. The word means "cake" in Serbian (and just about any other Slavic language, too). The recipe is passed matrilineally through the generations, just as the Slava saint is passed patrilinealy. I like the way that sort of balances things out. And the crisscrossing, continuous invigoration of the family tradition it makes for. My recipe comes from my mother (b. 1920), who had been Nada (Nadezhda) Jankovic. and from her mother (b. 1888), who had been Ljubitsa Stephanovic, and from her mother, who had been Radivojevic, and from her mother, who had been Bojic. So you see that it is a very old recipe, because this lineage is only the beginning. The recipe is posted here:

This year I incorporated the famous no-knead bread technique that swept the foodie blogosphere after Mark Bittman's 2006 New York Times column came out here:

and by gum if it didn't work just fine. In a big crockery bowl, I mixed up the usual Kolach ingredients on Friday night. They came out wet and sticky -- depending on the weather, you have to add milk or add flour to get the dough to the right consistency for kneading. In this case, I left if just as it was, and covered the bowl with clingfoil. In the morning, it had risen perfectly, with bubbles on top and all. I added a bit of flour and folded it over and over a few times. Then I put it in a well-buttered crockpot liner, covered it with its glass lid, and let it rest and rise for a couple of hours. After that I baked it in the oven as usual -- 400 uncovered for 10 minutes, then 350 covered with the crockpot lid for an hour. Perfect results, most of the work done overnight, and the oven freed up early on for all the other stuff that needed to go into it.

I sure wish I had two ovens. Or three.

Koljivo (Zito) (KOHL-yee-voh, ZHEE-toh)
This is another sacred dish, and one of the three elements de rigueur on a Slava table. (The third is a white candlestick ablaze.) (A fourth element needed in the room would be an icon of the saint or saints whose day it is.) It's made only for three occasions: Slava, Christmas, and for a funeral or requiem. My friend, an elderly Serbian woman in Madison I'll call Sophy S., tells me that only for the commemorating the dead is it decorated with slivered almonds arranged in the shape of a double cross. For Slava and Christmas (Bozic), it's decorated with slivered almonds stuck all over like a porcupine. However, searching for info about Koljivo on the Internets on Friday night, I came upon a picture of Slava Koljivo that was decorated with a cross.

So what is it? Essentially, boiled, then ground, wheat berries. The symbolism is powerful, especially when it's made for the dead, for what is death but the ultimate harvest? So saith the Reaperman. The wheat is mixed with ground nuts and powdered sugar. It's sweet and incredibly rich, so a tablespoon of this is a hearty serving. No kidding. Top it with whipped cream. You don't serve this for dessert; you eat it before the meal. Remember, just a tablespoon, or less. Save room for dinner.

Koljivo recipe in a separate post.

Gibanica (GHEE-bah-Neet-sah)
Call it Serbian cheese bread, call it savory cheese pie or strudel, call it flaky cheese casserole -- there's no ready American analog for this room-temp wedge of cheesy, flaky goodness, one of the most typical of all typically Serbian dishes. Read about it in this previous post:

The big discovery I made this year was to use only 3/4 of the package of filo, instead of the whole pound. For the first time, my giba was puffy on coming out of the oven, as recipes suggested it would be. Best yet, with the dough-to-cheese ratio more favorable, the result was way more cheeeesy. That's a good thing.

Djuvec (JEW-vech)
Ah, djuvec. That wonderful one-pot meal. Pork and/or beef with veg, cooked long and slow in a big pot with just enough rice to soak up the juices that exude from the eggplant, tomato, celery, parsely, onion and meat herein. I've written it up before:

This year I made it with equal parts pork shoulder and beef shoulder (I'm guessing that's another name for chuck, don't know why they called it that at the UW Provision Store where we buy in bulk to load up the standalone freezer we splurged on this summer); previously I'd used all pork. Also I upped the rice to 1/2 cup, but I think it could have taken more. The rice sort of disapperd amidst all the rest. Used a new (to me) rice this year, also: an organic variety grown by Lundberg but packaged and sold for Asian-American markets.

Pogaca (POH-gah-cha)
I made a "Farmer's Pogaca," a recipe adapted from the 1963 "Yugoslav Cookbook" printed by the state. Of course, in 1963, just about everything in Yugoslavia was done by the state, as it was a comprehensively socialist economy. Everything from the Zastava factory, where Yugos were made, to most larger restaurants were owned and run by the state. When I traveled there in 1989 I learned quickly to avoid those restaurants. They had the ambiance of, say, a DMV here in the states. Can you imagine the charm of ordering a meal from the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Asking them the difference between the shopska salata and a Srpska salata listed on the salad page? That was pretty much the flavor of the interpersonal transactions at such places. Small, privately run inns and cafes were the place to go for a warm, southern Slav experience. And good food more redolent of tradition than of institution.

Pogaca is bread, and it can be as plain and dressed down as kolach is rich and resplendent. Usually it's a yeasted flatbread, round and meant to be broken, not cut. There are many versions, including bogota pogaca, meaning "rich pogaca," with extra special ingredients like buttermilk and egg yolks, that's flaky and folded, sort of like croissant.

This "farmer's flatbread," though, is just flour, water, yeast, salt and oil. Easy, quick, and a great side to a hearty meal. The recipe makes three 10-inch pogace.

Farmer's Pogaca recipe
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoon yeast
6-8 cups flour ( I used 2 cups whole wheat and the rest AP)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil or other fat
Beaten egg (for brushing over top)

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add remaining ingredients. Mix to a medium dough. Knead for 5 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes. Divide in thirds. Roll to size and shape of layer cake pans. Lightly grease the pans. Place dough inside. Brush dough with beaten egg. Dock (prick all over with a fork.) Bake 20–25 minutes at 425, or until golden brown and done. Serve hot, or whenever.

I forgot to dock and brush with egg yesterday. I learned from this that the docking keeps weird bubbles from misshaping these.

I used these for dipping the ajvar, which is the next speciality on the menu.

Ajvar (AYE-var)
Also known as eggplant caviar or sweet red pepper relish, this can be made with either or a combination of these as the main ingredient. The word is etymologically related to "caviar," so I'm supposing the eggplant version came first. However, on Serbian tables I've usually seen it as mostly or all pepper.

I've heard that it can be spicy hot or not, but I've only encountered it non-spicy in person.

Srpski Ayvar recipe
1-2 eggplants
1 red bell pepper
5-6 cloves garlic, still in their peels
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespooon paprika
fresh lemon juice to taste -- a teaspoon or two.

Place the eggplants, pepper and garlic on a shallow baking sheet -- for instance, a cookie sheet -- and roast at 350 for 1–2 hours, until the eggplants have totally collapsed. The bell pepper and the garlic will certainly be done and need to come out of the over after an hour; the eggplant might take an hour or so longer. Every fifteen or twenty minutes or so, turn everything over so that as much surface as possible spends some time in contact with the cookie sheet.

If you make this in the summer, you can grill instead of roast the veg, and get a wonderful smoky aroma in the bargain.

Remove from oven and let cool. Placing the veg in a brown paper bag will make the peeling go easier.

When your veg is cool, peel 'em all. Discard the seeds and core of the pepper as well as its peel.

Process all this in a food processor, adding the oil, salt and pepper. Add lemon to taste. Serve as a dip.

I just realized I forgot the paprika. So much for all that tactical success, I guess. Well, I suppose that means the paprika is optional, because that ajvar was pretty darn tasty.

Snezani Jabuke (SNE-zhah-nee JAH-boo-keh)
Literally, snowy apples. OK, the Yugoslav Cookbook (1963) just calls this "Baked Applesauce." But what's the fun of that?

Deep into the evening, I said I was going to make dessert. Don looked like he was going to fall over on hearing that -- everyone was pretty well stuffed by that point. However, I was determined. That Kolach uses egg yolks only, and I had noticed this recipe the night before -- it uses egg whites. Finally, something to do with all those egg whites I can't bear to throw out and therefore collect in a seal-top plastic bowl and keep in the refrigerator for several days until it goes bad and I throw it out later!

Vicky peeled and sliced the apples for this, using the Peel-Away gadget that I and all kids love so well. Ulysses calls it the Apple Robot. After we got this into the oven, Ulysses brought out another apple from the crisper and peeled and ate it right on the robot, one crank at a time.

Snezani Jabuke recipe
2 pounds apples (about 8 apples -- exactitude is not necessary here)
2 egg whites (or however many you have on hand)
1/4 cup sugar

Peel, core and slice apples. Place in a saucepan with a few tablespoons or so of water (just enough to keep from scorching) and cook at medium-low heat until soft.

Turn apples into a buttered pie plate or casserole dish.

Beat egg whites stiff, adding sugar partway through. Spread on top of apples, making pretty peaks with your spatula.

Bake at 400 about 20 minutes, until golden brown.

Spoon into custard cups or any little dessert dishes. Serve hot or cold.

You may notice this is not applesauce. The Yugoslav Cookbook had involved instructions for rubbing and grinding and grating the apples into applesauce before turning them into the dish. But I thought, what for? As it stands, this is sort of like a crustless apple meringue pie. And about as fast as a baked dessert can get -- especially if you have an Apple Robot on your side.

Srpska Kafa, Slivovitz (Serbian coffee, plum brandy)

These would have been great, but I forgot to bring 'em out. OK, I said most tactically successful so far. Not perfect!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Found a new word

I came across this word today. The definition is from the Dictionary app that comes with the Mac OS.

narratology |ˌnarəˈtäləjē| noun the branch of knowledge or literary criticism that deals with the structure and function of narrative and its themes, conventions, and symbols. DERIVATIVES narratological |ˌnarətlˈäjikəl| adjective narratologist |-jist| noun

Carlo Ginzburg, in his interview on the 11/3/08 Open Source podcast on microhistory, uses the word "narratologist." That led me to look it up to see what it meant, exactly.

I had one of those, "Yes! That's what I like! That's what I want to find out about!" moments. It's a concept that excites and inspires me. Sounds like it could include Joseph Campbell "The Power of Myth" type stuff. Like elements that my favorite movie, TV and book reviews and discussion revolve around: the structure and meaning of story. Thus my new intention to look it up and find out more about it. Can't wait to get to it!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Unreasonable patient, or cranky doctor?

About a year ago, I posted a comment on a NY Times blog, in reference to a flurry of dispute about a doctor's column in Time magazine that had just appeared.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine suffered an injury in a bike accident and has been struggling to get reasonable diagnosis and treatment since. When she told me about how she feels she's been learning more about her case from the Internet than some of the professionals she's been talking to seem to know, I remembered the exchange from last November.

Rereading my comment, I thought it might be good to bring it out of mothballs and put it out here in the fresh air. A set of links to the articles in question follow my comment. A few remarks also follow.

I made a couple of changes to my original comment, They appear in square brackets.

Dr. Haig reveals himself to be sexist, stereotyping, narrow-minded and dishonest. “Susan” was better off crossing him off her list, even if if he hadn’t lied about his ability to treat her. In fact, my greatest criticism of her would be that, despite all the research she’d done, she[ gave ]him a visit.

Here’s what Dr. Haig says he believes:

- Patients who ask too many questions are “brainsuckers.”

- (Some?) patients who ask no questions are “Bozos.”

- Nurses are good patients because they trust him and laugh at his jokes. (My guess: they’re skilled at sucking up to arrogant doctors like Haig.)

- Engineers are good patients because they don’t challenge the narrow paradigm of, for instance, a mechanistically minded orthopedist who is proud of “know[ing] what to ignore” — like the possible contribution of dietary mineral deficiency to joint pain. (That’s one of Haig’s examples of Stupid Questions Engineers Don’t Ask.)

Maybe Haig described “Susan” and her manner fairly accurately. But maybe he was way, way off.

Here are some things I wonder.

- Why does he even mention the fact that Susan is, to his mind, “attractive”?

- Why assume “Susan” did all her research via, or the Internet, for that matter? For all we know, she went to the library and hit books.

- Why assume “Susan” knew his street address? She mentioned a highway exit that she assumed to be on his route home. For all we know, she only knows his home’s neighborhood, or town, or even simply its general direction from his Scarsdale office.

- Is it possible that “Susan” can’t afford childcare? For instance, her household income might be — like ours — too much for state-subsidized daycare, but not enough for nannies or preschool or even the occasional babysitter. She needs to see doctors. Where can the child go during her appointments? The lobby?

- Did he exaggerate the child’s misbehavior? For example, did he really investigate and confirm that “Junior”’s sippy cup contained chocolate milk? Is it possible that he just guessed something dark and stainy for rhetorical purposes? And that the cup contained, maybe, water?

- “…ripped up my magazines…” I wonder if the child was paging through some magazines (possibly already tattered and older than the child himself), and tore a page or two, through youthful clumsiness.

- I wonder if the child might have spilled a couple of crackers or Cheerios, and (with a three-year-old’s level of dexterity), accidentally stepped on one or two while trying to pick them up?

- The child was “screeching”? Maybe. We have only Dr. Haig’s questionable account. Regardless, what parenting technique would he have preferred to her reasonably toned admonitions? Shouting? Swearing? Threatening? Spanking? I have news for Dr. Haig. When an active, curious, high-energy three-year-old is on a tear, nothing short of a tranquilizer dart can quiet him or her down.

Any parent of such a child who’s had to wait with them in a tiny space filled with dangerous, fragile items — like a doctor’s office, cooped up 45 minutes waiting for a 5-minute doctor’s appointment, as I’ve done — can tell you how difficult a situation it is. I wonder how long “Susan” and child waited for Dr. Haig.

- Haig complains he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I wonder. Maybe he’s one of those doctors who doesn’t let you finish your question before charging off with a long, not-quite-pertinent response. In those situations, the you have two options: let the appointment time slip away until the doctor rushes off, leaving your questions unanswered and your symptoms incompletely described, or interrupt — at the risk of being described like “Susan”.

- Finally, I wonder how accurate was his diagnosis. In his essay, Haig tells us he lets his mind wander while “brainsuckers” ramble. At the online directory, [individual doctors are rated on a variety of points. For Dr. Haig,] the “Average User Response” to the question “Does the physician listen to you and answer your questions?” is listed as “2 / 5 (Mostly not).”

— VesnaVK

"When the patient is a Googler" by Scott Haig,8599,1681838,00.html?imw=Y

Then this NY Times commentary on the Time essay. My comment is #254.
"A doctor's disdain for medical Googlers"

As a bonus, you can also read this one:
"Time magazine's Scott Haig proves that patients need to be Googlers"

By the way, I don't think there's anything deficient in using only the Internet for that kind of research. I don't even think there's anything inferior about using Google as one's only search tool. I just was annoyed that this Haig guy was so certain that he knew that's what "Susan" had done. Also that so many people assumed he was correct.

What annoyed me most, I think, was that nearly everyone took his description of the woman and her child at face value: the woman was rude and/or a kook; the child was a brat. Hardly anyone doubted it, no matter what they thought of the rest of what he was saying. Maybe that shows how much authority people give doctors, even as they're disagreeing with them? Or maybe it shows how much authority people give whatever they see published. And this guy gets a column in Time magazine!

Other commenters made huge leaps to things that weren't even implied by what the doc said in the article. One MD said confidently that the woman was a "somatizer," someone who is obsessed with their body and invents or imagines all kinds of symptoms. There's nothing in the article to point to that. Not even jerky Dr. Haig said anything like that. Haig said he knew what her problem was and how to treat it. Haig implied that she was visiting a lot of doctors for that problem, but not that she went to a lot of doctors for a lot of problems.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Now taste!

Ratatouille has become le film du jour.

There's a running bit in the movie that involves tasting one thing -- bread, perhaps -- and then another -- cheese, perhaps. With each nibble, animation appears, showing the character's experience of the taste. Then the character eats both at the same time, and there's a burst of more complex animation that incorporates both the earlier bits. Whole is greater than sum, and all that.


Ulysses and I were sitting on the couch with a plate of cucumber slices, one of his favorite treats. I was watching I don't know what, Countdown with Keith Olberman or something. Suddenly a slice of cucumber was thrust between my teeth. Obediently, I bit into it.

"No, don't hork it down!" said Ulysses, snatching away the cucumber. He was echoing Remy (Ratatouille's central character) trying to educate his rat brother Emil's palate with the line, "No, don't just fork it down! Really taste it!"

The slice reappeared. I took a delicate nibble.

"Yes!" cried Ulysses. "Taste it."

He took the slice away. Then he put it back between my teeth. "Now," he said, "taste this." I nibbled again.

Now he was gleeful, playing up the denoument. He pushed what was left of the cucumber slice into my mouth and crowed, drawing out the first word, "Now taste it!"

Then, stern for a verdict: "Well?"

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Number One!

Ulysses still hasn't quite gotten the hang of that classic form of adult-child interaction, the "How old are you?" conversation. And I think I finally got a clue as to why: it turned on his interpretation of what the whole conversation is about.

Adults used to ask me how old he was, and I would answer. Then, as he got a little bigger, they began to ask him, instead. Knowing he wouldn't, I would answer for him: "Two," and later, "Three." I began waiting for him, giving him a chance to respond for himself, but eventually I would be the one to supply the answer.

I've been trying to teach him, or at least to rehearse it enough that the answer will come automatically, but always, he either ignores me or looks at me skeptically.

"How old are you, Ulysses? You're four! When someone asks you how old you are, you can say, 'Four." Say, 'I'm four.' 'I'm four.' How old are you, Ulysses?"


"How old are you?"



So earlier this week at a reception -- it was the campaign victory party for Kelda Helen Roys on the evening of the election for State Assembly, held at a local restaurant -- when we struck up a conversation with a woman there, I wasn't surprised when Ulysses answered her, "How old are you?" with his usual friendly, smiling silence.

"How old are you?" she repeated, adding helpfully, "Are you four? Or five?"

"No," he said, firmly. Then, raising aloft his index finger so that his chest puffed out a little, he announced, "I'm Number One!"

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Cooking Show

Next day, Ulysses decided he did want to watch Ratatouille after all. Now it's replaced Cars as the most frequently watched movie in the house. He calls it "The Cooking Show."

I haven't seen the whole thing yet, but enough to discover -- as he somehow knew but I didn't -- that the sentiment "I don't want to eat garbage" is a major driving plot point in the movie.

And I thought he was just being surreal.

Monday, September 1, 2008

U: "I don't want to eat garbage"

As the 38,647th showing of Pixar's excellent Cars was loading up in the DVD player, I thought I might divert Ulysses's attention to Ratatouille, another Pixar instant classic, and a movie I've been dying to see.

U was enjoying the preview of Ratatouille that played on the Cars disc, so I dug out the other movie and presented it.

"Look, Ulysses! Do you want to watch the movie about the rat who becomes a chef?"

He looked at the disc case in my hand.

"No!" he exclaimed. "I don't want to eat garbage."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rock on

Yesterday was the first time Ulysses asked me if I was ready to rock.

He was playing The Sims, which he learned to play yesterday. When I came home for lunch, he was watching Donald play on Don's computer and fumbling a bit with the mouse himself.

By the time I came home after work, Don had installed the game on U's computer, and he was building rooms, buying multiple clean-up robots and cooking grills, and had jukeboxes lined up in the backyard.

He pointed Betty Newbie to the boom box in a room with a pink and a green couch and directed her to turn it on and dance. To me, he said, "Mama! Are you ready to rock?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More on Multatuli

Branshea's comment to my last post piqued my interest in Multatuli even more.

I found this site devoted to him:

To read it in Dutch, take the /en/ off the end of the URL. And then of course there's always the Wikipedia entry.

I found the duck eggs quote here:,M1
in a "limited preview" online of "The Oyster and the Eagle: Selected Aphorisms and Parables of Multatuli" by E.M. Beekman, 1974.

It can be found on page 102, listed as No. 852.

Presumably Beekman selected the quote from some other Multatuli source material, but I can't identify it from the online preview.

Reading through the pages available for preview on the Google Books site, I was instantly fascinated and drawn to this figure. He's irreverent, forthright, dry, darkly humorous. A writer who belongs in the company of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken.

Right away I found another comment about parenting, although the aphorisms are mostly about all sorts of other things. This is on Page 49.

A mother who does not have nourishing milk is to be pitied.

A mother who does have nourishing milk and forces it back into her disappointed glands, robbing her child, is criminal.

Wow. That sure beats the heck out of the modern pussyfooting so common around this issue. I get angry every time I hear or read the suggestion that "this decision is a very personal one," cast as an answer to the question of whether or not to breastfeed.

I hate that "personal decision" garbage. Well, of course it's personal. Very personal. No duh. What do I need anyone to tell me that for? It's as if the writer, or organization, putting forth the statement imagines they're bequeathing on me the right to think through and ultimately make that decision for myself. I have that right already; I already know about that right; to suggest otherwise is downright insulting.

Beyond that, the statement is devoid of useful content. It's really just a cop-out, a way for parenting-related books and articles to sound wise and encompassing, while backing away from taking a stand.

In effect, "it's a very personal decision" translates to, "It doesn't matter either way." But it does matter. It's a huge deal, for nutrition, for normal human development: emotional, social, psychological. Sure, many babies can grow up happy and healthy enough without mother's milk and the comfort of mother's breast. But why should they have to?

Eggs in the water

I came across this fantastic quote this morning. It was in my A.Word.A.Day e-mail.

One does not advance the swimming abilities of ducks by throwing the eggs in the water.

-Multatuli (pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker), novelist (1820-1887)

I never heard of this guy, but now I have to look him up.

This expresses beautifully my quarrel with those who say that infants should sleep alone in their own rooms with the door shut so that they can learn independence. That they should be left to "cry it out" so that they can develop self-reliance. That every child should be steeped daily in an environment of toxic peers and authority figures (instead of, say, homeschooling for individuals better suited to that) so that they can learn resilience and other advanced social skills.

And a hundred other different ways that people push babies and children into overwhelming situations they aren't prepared to manage, on the theory that this itself will give them that preparation. That waiting until a child is strong and ready is no more than unhealthy, effetizing coddling.

Monday, July 7, 2008

His name was Robert Paulson...

(If you're a fan of the movie Fight Club, the headline will make sense.)

Ulysses's relationship to language continues to evolve. His interest in words and naming and syntax has become more directed, more active and intent.

Sometimes he repeats our phrases in a whisper, as if studying them for meaning. As if meditating on them, opening himself to receive their secrets.

Last weekend I offered him an apple and he accepted, following me to the kitchen -- the "cooking room," as he calls it these days. I fetched an apple from the refrigerator crisper, saying, "This is a Pink Lady."

He frowned, looking at the apple. "That's not Pink Lady," he said, correcting me. "That's a apple."

"Yes," I said, washing it under the faucet. "This is an apple. It's a Pink Lady apple."

He watched as I brought out the corer, a sharp, serrated cylinder of stainless steel on a bright red handle with a picture of red apples set into it, and drove it into the apple.

"That apple not pink," he said. "That apple red."

I looked at the apple. True enough. You could call it pink as far as apples go, but as far as pink goes, it was red.

"Yes, this apple is red," I said. "This apple's name is Pink Lady."

Ulysses whispered: "This apple's name is Pink Lady. This apple is red. This apple's name is Pink Lady. This apple is red. This apple's name is Pink Lady."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why don't you make like a banana and...

Yesterday was beautiful and warm. The days get long early in the year this far north, and it was still bright and blue when Ulysses and I walked off the park playground around quarter to eight. We crossed the street to Culver's, a locally based chain of frozen custard and burger joints.

Ulysses's eyes lit up at the sight of the carpeted dining room with padded banquette seats and chairs, the busy counter. The place was humming with couples and families enjoying that great Culver's fare.

I ordered a cup of turtle, the flavor of the day -- they mix each serving by hand when you place your order -- and filled a plastic cup with ice cubes and water at the soda fountain. We sat down at a little table. Ulysses was contented to sip water, and I ate the entire dessert myself (oops). The pecans were crisp and fresh, with just enough salt to set off the milky sweet caramel. The custard was creamy and rich. Ulysses looked around at the busy dining room, the counter staff carrying trays of hot onion rings, fried fish, Culver's famous butter burgers and more to the eager customers.

He looked at me. "What a great party!" he said.

Then Ulysses noticed the cut-glass salt and pepper shakers on the table. He shook some of each into his water. Then he shook in a little more. Then a lot more. After a few shakes, I tried to call a halt to the seasoning project. He resisted -- loudly. I had some choices: leave, continue to forbid the salting, or lift the salting ban. After a few loud minutes, I decided to go with the last. What the heck, I reasoned, what's so bad about what he was doing, really? How much could a shakerfull of salt cost the restaurant -- it's not that outrageous to help ourselves to that much condiment. Probably it's comparable to the cost of a few packets of ketchup, I figured, which no one would begrudge us, after all. And it would be easy enough for me to clean up when we left.

(Yes, I backed down to the demands of a four-year-old. So sue me.)

Finally Ulysses was satisfied with the seasoning in his water. He slowly lifted the cup to his lips. I kept my face straight, ready to suppress the laughter I knew would come when I saw him squinch up his face in disgust at his saline creation.

He sipped. He smiled. Then he swigged.

"Mmmm!" he said. "Yummy! Delicious! You try, Mama!" And he passed the cup across the table to me.

I sipped, and nearly choked. I thought it would be really salty, but I hadn't counted on how potent all that pepper would be. Plus, his enthusiasm was so great that I had been sort of hypnotized into thinking that, somehow, it would actually be tasty. It wasn't.

I passed the cup back to the chef, and he continued salting and peppering -- and drinking -- until the salt shaker was empty. The ice cubes and much of the water had frozen into a solid mass on which lay a thick, dusty coat of pepper.

"Can I have some ice cream?" said Ulysses, sweetly.

About a tablespoon remained of the custard I'd bought for us to share. I gave him a spoonful, and then had another bite myself. It tasted strongly of pepper -- that his lips had left on the shared spoon. And then it was gone.

"Ice cream?" he asked.

Well, I did promise him ice cream. It wasn't his fault that I bought it twenty minutes before he wanted to eat it, and then ate it myself. We went back to the counter and bought a small vanilla cone.

Back at the table, Ulysses jumped up after only a few licks at his cone. "I know!" he said, and ran back to the ordering area. I caught up with him to find him talking to the tall young man behind the counter.

"A banana split, please," he said.

"Our banana splits are bigger than him!" exclaimed the young man.

"I don't even know how he even knows about banana splits," I said to him, and then, to Ulysses, I fibbed: "I don't think they have banana splits here."

"Hmmm," he answered, and looked thoughtful.

"Let's go back to our car and go home," I suggested.

"OK!" he chirruped. There was still plenty of cone left for him to show off to Donald by the time we were home.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What if everyone went low-carb and cooked from scratch?

Here's something I posted on Low Carb Friends today. Someone wrote, a bit tongue in cheek, that if everyone quit buying processed, industrialized food -- junk, that is -- the result would be the "[c]omplete collapse of the nation's economy and the end of the world as we know it."

I don't find that idea terribly farfetched, and I wrote this about it:

Economy is based on commerce, which is the exchange of goods, which is only possible when there is a storeable surplus, which is made possible by agriculture, which always begins with the cultivation of storable starch crops and quickly leads to hoarding and the development of hierarchy -- including wealth and poverty, bosses and underlings.

This is why Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel has said that the development of agriculture might be the worst mistake in human history. A tremendous book for looking at starch foods through the lens of history, by the way.

The end of starch- and sugar-based living would indeed be the end of today's economy as we know it. It would be a transformation -- possibly a collapse, if it weren't properly managed -- more profound than I think most people realized.

If that were coupled with most people eating mostly whole foods (that is, cooking everything from scratch ingredients), growing a good portion of their own vegetables and raising their own chickens for meat and eggs -- entirely possible (theoretically) for nearly everyone -- the impact would be devastating for a huge portion of modern industry.

I just read an article (in the NY Times, I think) that said England exports 15,000 pounds of waffles annually, and also imports 15,000 pounds of waffles annually. The writer was making the point that a lot of food importing and exporting amounts to a waste of fuel and other transport costs. I noticed a larger point: nobody needs to buy a waffle. I don't mean no one needs to eat the starch; I mean waffles are easy and cheap to make from scratch.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are you an artist?

Ulysses and I were at the grassy playground near our house, and some neighborhood kids were there as well. The other big kids were out of earshot when a boy just in his early teens turned towards me.

"Are you an artist?" he asked.

I thought a moment before I said, "Yes. I'm a writer. I'm not a visual artist."

He smiled. "I knew it. I'm an ... inspiring artist." He looked quickly towards the other kids calling out to one another as they climbed along the swing, the slide, the lower branches of one of the pair of maple trees on the green slope, then he turned back to me. "I could tell," he said with a conspiratorial pride that lifted his chin as he spoke. He motioned towards my beret with a flick of his eyes. "Because of the hat."