Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Michael Pollan is coming to town!

I'm so excited! Wednesday the Lakeview Libary and Community Groundworks at Troy Gardens is having a potluck and discussion in the evening to discuss In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan as a kickoff event to his visit this week.

I'm getting up early tomorrow before work to bake an apple crisp (not low-carb, but reduced sugar, at least) made with apples from a co-worker's home orchard and from Green's Pleasant Acres, where Jennifer and U and I made our annual pilgrimage this past weekend. On Thursday, the man himself is speaking at the Kohl Center on the UW-Madison campus. On Saturday morning, it's REAP Food Group's annual Food for Thought Festival, where Pollan is the keynote speaker.

I've been a Pollan fan ever since I read his eloquent "Naturally" when it appeared as the New York Times Magazine cover story in 2001. I swooned over every beautiful word in The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World.

I don't agree with Pollan on everything, but if more people turned on to what he's saying, wow, this would be a better place. I wish Obama had taken his advice to turn those manicured acres surrounding the White House into sustainable farmland growing veg for presidential family meals and state feasts! What a message that would have been.

My main gripe – my only gripe, really – with Pollan is his anti-meat, anti-saturated fat stance. It irked me whenever it came up In Defense of Food. He consistently treated the unhealthfulness of saturated fat as a given, even though in several passages he spelled out evidence that it is not. He says humans can live healthfully without meat, but not without plants – but surely he must be aware of the Inuit and the Masai, whose traditional diets included little to no plant food.

His main arguments against eating meat turn on arguments against industrially produced meat – but every one of those can also be used as arguments against all industrially produced food, including his beloved plant leaves. Which, by the way Mike, ya can't live on eating mostly them! Environmental, ethical – all of it. The recent book The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability by Lierre Kieth (a fellow ex-vegetarian, and a feminist – I haven't read the book yet, but I like her already!) spells out the horrific cost to animal life – in greater numbers – that factory farming exacts. Woe to the wildlife that crosses the path of a harvesting machine, for instance.

That's why I'm staying up tonight making a shirt that sasses back at his famous dictum, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Gee, I hope someday I come up with a famous dictum that people quote all over the place. In the meantime, here's the design. And, for readers who aren't familiar with it, here's the cover of his book which I'm spoofing, with Pollan's oft-quoted manifesto printed on the yellow band around the romaine. (Bibb?)

To that I say this: "Eat food. Mostly cheese."

That's my Wisconsin manifesto.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Indian Lake Hike with Reeb UU Congregation

We loaded up a few carpools and headed west to Indian Lake Park. Click on the picture to view a slideshow.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Indian Lake 2

Sarah Elmore organized the trip. Everyone had a great time.
Lexander found a stand of rare Indian Pipe flower. Angus found more nearby, and a trunk of tree ear mushroom.
Ulysses and me in a log cabin in a clearing.
We picnicked in the shelter after working up an appetite on the three mile hike!

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Goodbye, Greyhound

When we saw off Don's mother last Friday at the bus depot, we noticed a reporter type interviewing folks. We waved him over and wound up as the lede for the article he wrote!


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

U's first day of school

Click on the picture with the arrow to see more pictures and two short videos of U's first day of school.

Ulysses was so excited to go to "big boy school." This summer he attended a six-week K-ready program that the school system provided. This, though, is the real thing! As it happens, his teacher, Ms. Ward (white cardigan) is the same teacher who evaluated him in March and recommend the summer school. They had instant rapport.
Ulysses wore jeans that Amma (Don's mother, Janice) sent earlier and a green checked shirt and white sneakers that we bought with funds she sent for school clothes. The backpack is a one-dollar find from a yard sale Don and Amma went to. For years Amma has been saying she will come and help Ulysses with the start of kindergarten. This year, it all came true. We went shopping for school supplies a week or so ago and had them all assembled to bring in to class. Nowadays they give you a list of what to get, including some classroom supplies.

The tables were set with an apple nametag for each child. Ulysses said, "I love my nametag!"

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Everything goes better with...

Don's mother arrived from Savannah on the Greyhound bus Tuesday evening for a long visit. For years she's been saying she wants to be here when Ulysses starts kindergarten, and now here it is. His first day will be Sept. 1. Tonight we're all going to the elementary school for registration. He's already registered, but we can meet his teacher, see his room and so forth.

The bus rolled in from via Milwaukee around 7:30 and we stopped at the China Wok on our way home to pick up our traditional Chinese feast, as we do every time she comes to visit. This time Ulysses seemed to know what Chinese food was, or at least he crowed about it and was thrilled when Don came out of the strip mall storefront laden with a heavy bag. We had been strolling along the shrubbery-lined walkways with Don's mother, who U calls "Ama," trying to get that rubbery road trip feeling out of her legs. "Chinese food!" he called. "You got the Chinese food!"

Back home we ate what seemed vats of egg foo yung with gravy, won ton soup, pork fried rice, lo mein with all sorts of seafood and meat -- it's the Wok's house special -- beef with broccoli. We each got an egg roll, too. That was Ulysses's pick.

He had his on a plate with a plenty of duck sauce and Annie's natural ketchup. Round and round went the end of the egg roll in the custom sauce between every bite. The orange and red swirl had to be replenished once or twice over the course of the egg roll. At the end of the meal, when we lifted the plate there was a ring of crunchy bits in red sauce that had built up around it over the course of the meal, left neatly behind like a reverse stencil of some kind.

When Ama got in the fold-down futon couch/bed in the living room for the night, Ulysses jumped in with her, smiling happily. "Read me a story!" he said. "Read me the scary book!" (Bears in the Night by the Stan and Jan Berenstain.)

"I'm too tired to read a book to you," said Ama. "I'll tell you a story. A story about when I was a little girl."

Ulysses's eyes shone in anticipation.

"Once upon a time there was a little girl and her two brothers. They went walking in the woods and they found some blackberry bushes. They were the juiciest, sweetest, darkest blackberries ever."

Ulysses was fairly bouncing with joy.

"They picked and picked and picked the blackberries and then they took them home. Their mother brought out some cream...."

Ulysses burst out, "...and then they put it all in a bowl with ketchup!"


Sunday, August 16, 2009

They hate the taste of mint

Ulysses ran to the bathroom and shut both doors.

When I had called, "Bedtime!" he had sprung from his computer without a word. Now he waited for me to slip inside and reach up for the toothbrushes and toothpaste. One hand covered his mouth.

One night in June, I had been going through the excruciating nightly routine of coaxing Ulysses into the bathroom for tooth brushing. He was already in the bed, and did not intend to get back out. "Do you want me to brush your teeth for you, or do you want to brush your teeth yourself?"

"No. No tooth brushing tonight."

"That's not one of the choices. I will hold you down and brush your teeth. Is that what you choose?"

"Me, I'll brush."

"All right."


"Come on."

Silence. Ulysses dug himself more deeply under the covers.

I was steeling myself to drag him out of the bed and carry him bodily into the bathroom when Donald spoke up.

"At bedtime, monsters come and take your teeth. But they don't take teeth that are clean and brushed. They only take dirty teeth. And they hate the taste of mint."

Ulysses sat up. Without a sound, he bolted into the bathroom and slammed both doors. I came in to find him with his hand covering his mouth. He quickly shut the door behind me.

We brushed our teeth together. He watched carefully, mimicking my every move with his own Spongebob Squarepants toothbrush. It was the lengthiest cleaning his teeth had ever had.

* * *

Since then, the nightly trial of getting to bed and brushing teeth has evaporated into this: "Bedtime!" and a dash for the bathroom, followed by a thorough application of dentifrice. I don't believe I've ever brushed my own teeth this well and this consistently, come to think of it.

He no longer shuts the doors and covers his mouth with his hand, of which I'm glad. I want him in bed and I want his teeth clean, but I don't want him traumatized, after all. After we brush our teeth every morning and night now, he likes to exhale with a proud puff and say, "I smell like mint! Monsters hate the taste of mint!"

* * *

About a month in, though, there was a wisp of rebellion. We were in the bathroom, but he wouldn't take the toothbrush.

"There are no monsters," he said. "They don't really come for your teeth."

"Oh, yes, there are," I replied. "They're so tiny that you can't see them. They're called 'germs.' Have you seen people with teeth missing? The germs ate their teeth. The germs grow in your mouth, but they can only stick to dirty teeth. That's why we scrub our teeth clean and rinse our mouths to wash the germs out and spit them down the sink."

I thought about showing him some of my own fillings, but he took his brush, convinced. Semmelweis should have had it so easy.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who's wiping whose bottom?

I was wiping Ulysses's bottom when he said to me, "Mama, I don't want to be a little boy."

"What do you want to be?" I asked.

"A big boy."

I was silent for a moment. Then I said, "You're getting bigger every day."

"Bigger than you!" he said.

"You say you're bigger than me?" I asked.

"Yes, I am!"

I thought about that. "You know, big boys wipe their own bottoms."


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Girl suit

Yesterday was a perfect summer solstice day. It was warm and bright, with puffy white clouds. By midday, the sun had burned off the humidity from the heavy rains of the late afternoon and night before, leaving a clean, clear, sky-blue heat that called us out into the yard until evening.

In the morning, when the air was still thick, redolent of chorophyll and moist earth, we all went yard sale-ing. We came home with good loot, including plenty of outdoor toys for U: a toy sting ray that can be filled with water and squeezed to deliver a far-reaching stream; a ball tee that instantly transformed Don's cousin Neil's gift of a ball and bat into one of the most played-with toys in U's pantheon (instead of a source of frustration for U, because it's darn hard to hit a ball that's in the air!); a play fountain with changeable heads that express a variety of showers; a set of plastic horseshoes that we would much rather have 5-year-old U play with than our real, toe-breakable ones.

In no time, Ulysses was stripped down and jumping from wading pool to gooey sandbox to fountain or sprinkler or the newly rediscovered frog-shaped sprinkler from another yard sale outing years ago (he changed them out frequently over the course of the day).

Whenever he carried the frog to the hose end, he turned it over and pointed out the frog's four feet, telling me with excitement, "Frog prints. Look! There are the frog prints! Do you know about frog prints?"

It was hours before I realized he had reinterpreted the phrase Frog Prince.

* * *

"I need my baby suit," said Ulysses, and he ran inside to search for his swim trunks.

"Here's your bathing suit," I said, finding it in the lowest drawer of the high boy dresser Don restored years ago, in hopes of a child to give it to.

"Not bathing suit, Mama," he corrected. "Baby suit."

"Bathing suit," I repeated.

"Baby suit," he insisted. So I dropped it.

Later, when we were splashing together under the hot sun, Ulysses saw my clothes were starting to get wet. "Take off your clothes, Mama!" he shouted, gleefully.

"I can't take off my clothes out here; I'm a grownup."

He looked puzzled at this, then said, "Then go inside and put on your girl suit."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What kind of cake? Birthday.

Ulysses is into knights and castles these days, so I got the idea to make him a cake shaped like a castle, with crenolated turrets made from flat-bottomed ice cream cones, and spires of inverted pointy cones. I was going to bake in a big, rectangular pan, cut out the center for a courtyard, and build up the corner towers with the material I had cut out from the center. Graham cracker drawbridge and door. Licorice ropes.

"Ulysses, your birthday is coming," I told him a couple of weeks ago. "How would you like a cake shaped like a castle?"

"A castle cake? No," he said.

"For your birthday cake," I said. "With towers and a gate and a courtyard."

"No!" he said.

Obviously he didn't understand what I meant, I thought. I showed him some pictures of castle cakes on the Internet. "No," he said to all of them. "No cake castle."

What's with this kid? I thought. Doesn't he realize how fabulous this cake will be? I started up the conversation a few more times over the following week. It always went the same way.

Then I had a brainstorm. "Ulysses," I said, "Your birthday is coming up. I will make you any kind of cake you want, in any shape. What kind of cake would you like for your birthday?"

He answered without hesitation. "A mountain."

I was embarrassed at how silly I'd been. Whose birthday was it, anyway?

"A mountain!" I said, "Do you want your mountain to be a volcano?"


It was such a great idea, I assumed he'd misunderstood the question. I asked him a few more times, describing how the cake would look, with lava and all.


So I supposed I wasn't completely cured of whatever led me to try to feist the castle idea on him. I dropped the volcano idea and thought I'd draw out some more details.

"Do you want the mountain to have a tunnel going through it?"

"Mmmmm.... yes," he said, decisively.

Uh-oh. How on earth was I going to put a tunnel in a cake? Well, I'd walked myself right into that one. I got on the Internet and found a cake that looked promising. It even had a Thomas the Tank Engine track running through it, with trains going round and round! Perfect -- we've got all that. Donald looked at the picture and description and explained to me how it was made (he's genius at that sort of thing, unlike me). Great! I could do that!

I showed Ulysses. "Is this what you want for your birthday cake, something like this?"

He looked pleased. "Yes," he said, like a happy client to an architect who had finally figured out the assignment.

I spent some time figuring out how to put the track together on the board I'd be building the cake on. Took some pictures to guide me in reconstructing it later. Over the week, I gathered materials, and thought about how to build this thing. Emptied and cleaned a big tomato can for the tunnel (it would be slit down one side and then stretched open).

* * *

Yesterday evening, Ulysses and I were at the grocery store. I was shopping for the candies to make into jelly bean boulders, peanut cluster rocks, pretzels for logs and so forth.

I thought I'd better do a reality check. I squatted down to Ulysses, who was in the little car in front of the shopping cart, and said, "Ulysses. You know your birthday is coming." He looked at me. "I will make you any kind of cake you want for your birthday party. What kind of cake do you want?"

"A birthday cake," he said. "Round birthday cake."

"Do you want it to look like a mountain?"

He looked at me as if I had just turned purple. "No."

"Do you want a cake shaped like a mountain with a tunnel in it?'


"Do you want a mountain cake with a tunnel and a train going through it, like the picture we looked at and you said that was what you wanted for your birthday cake?"

"No! No!" His voice began to rise in panic.

"Okay, okay, you want a round birthday cake," I said, switching tracks. "Do you want it to be chocolate?"


"Do you want it to be chocolate on the outside and chocolate on the inside, or yellow on the inside?"

"Chocolate outside and yellow inside," he said.

After a bit we went to the baking aisle and I showed him a cake mix with a picture on the box of a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. "Does this look like the kind of cake you want for your birthday cake?"

"Yes!" he said with excitement. I saw a flash of confusion cross his face when I put the box back on the shelf, but it was gone quickly when he heard me say, "OK. That's the kind of cake I'll make for your party."

"Yes! Birthday cake! Round! Chocolate outside, yellow inside!" he said.

So that is the current plan for the Sunday party. Meantime I already have a double batch of frosting (half is chocolate), enough for the enormous mountain, which would have used two cake recipes.

Maybe I'll make a small mountain cake for my own amusement.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A definition of fashion

After all, what is fashion but some guy doing something that's not in style – first?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kupus: Serbian cabbage soup

The most fundamental heirloom recipes are often most at risk for being lost in the sands of times. Why? One reason is that "everyone knows" how to make them, and so nobody writes them down. Another is that they're so close to us, so intertwined with daily life and the act of ordinary eating, that the people who live with these recipes don't even think of them as recipes.

Consider the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. If you were raised in the USA, you might snort and say, "PBJ? You don't need a recipe for that. You just make it." And that is precisely what would make a recipe for, or a really accurate and comprehensive description of, that thing difficult to find a generation after it has gone out of style.

Years ago, I had some friends over for a writing session. I had just made a pot of soup, so I shared it with them. Never would I have dreamed of making it especially for guests; it was just ordinary soup.

They went crazy over it. They demanded the recipe. The richly flavored broth, the big, rustic chunks of well varied vegetables, the savory rings of sliced sausage – they enthused over the most ordinary features in their ordinary bowls. I was taken aback. "There is no recipe," I said, "It's just soup."

"What kind of soup?" they wanted to know.

"Cabbage soup?" I said, feeling like I was giving a flip answer. The soup was built around the cabbage. I didn't know what else to call it.

"Well, can we have the recipe for your cabbage soup?"

"Um, OK," I said, and then never did anything about it. The idea seemed weird, writing a recipe for this. Wasn't it obvious from looking at, how it was done? You go into the kitchen and start putting things into a pot until you have soup. What was there to say?

It took me years to notice that I was responding just as home cooks too often do about the everyday food that is the bedrock of their own culture's cuisine. I've been on the other side of the conversation myself, trying to pry open the oyster that somehow won't believe there's a pearl. There's no recipe. It's just minestrone. There's no recipe. It's just tempeh with onions. Or chile ancho stew, or chicken and dumplings.

And that's how stuff gets lost.

Reflecting on my ordinary soup, which seemed so inchoate, so spontaneous and free of recipe or method, I realized there was plenty I knew about it. First of all, it has a name: Kupus. The "u"s are long, as in cuckoo, and the stress is on the first syllable. It means "cabbage soup," and it's the same as the word for cabbage itself. Sauerkraut, an ingredient I'd forgotten to include for years, is called "Kiseli Kupus" (KEE-seh-lee KOO-poos), or sour cabbage. So the whole thing is sort of cabbage to the third power.

I didn't make this soup up, as I had thought (actually, I wasn't thinking). I learned it from my mother, who made it often. I do a couple of things differently than she did; she used a can of Campbell's vegetable or cream of mushroom soup to fortify the broth, while I use a couple of
cups of my homemade stock -- the type I usually have on hand is chicken. I use a wider range of root veg also. I remember her using potato and carrot; I like to include parsnip and rutabaga as well.

Also, I include the soft, inner green leaves of a celery bunch in my aromatics, sauteeing it along with the onion. This is a trick I learned from my macrobiotic years, along with the roll cut, which I use for the parsley.

This is one of those dishes that everyone makes, and everyone makes a little differently. My mother made it different ways, too: sometimes with a hamhock, sometimes with no meat at all, sometimes with kielbasa as I've described below. We called whatever sausage we used "kobasica" (ko-BAH-seet-sa), the Serbian word for sausage. The vegetable combo varied, too.

Kupus is a wonderful, comforting soup, especially in wintertime. I love to have plenty of broth in my bowl, and I always take an extra moment to select a spoon that will be pleasant to sip from. I like to have a big chunk of cabbage in my bowl, and carve off bits with the spoon as I go.

The simplicity of the seasoning is, I think, elegant: salt, bay leaves, parsely. Whole peppercorns exude a soft, ember-like warmth that grinding shatters and sharpens (I've tried); it's key to the soup's character. Parsnips, rutabagas, even potatoes -- these are optional. Whole peppercorns are essential.

Kupus (Serbian cabbage soup)

Ingredients (listed in the order they're added to the pot)

• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large onion, sliced
• the inside of a bunch of celery, including leaves and tender shoots
• 2 outer stalks of celery, cut in 1/2" crescents
• 4 carrots, cut in 1/2" rings
• 2 parsnips, roll cut
• 1/2 rutabaga, cut in 1/4" x 1/4" x 3/4" slabs
• 2 cups homemade chicken stock or beef stock, brought to the boil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 10 whole peppercorns
• 2 bay leaves
• 1/2 cup fresh parsley, or 3 tablespoons dried parsley
• 1 small cabbage, or 1/2 cabbage, cut in chunks that include the core
• 2–3 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut in 8 or • 12 pieces (cut longways, then 3 or 4 horizontal cuts)
• 1–2 packages of Polish kielbasa (or ring baloney, or a big hamhock), cut in 1/2" rings
• 2 cups sauerkraut, with the juice (Gundelsheimer is my favorite!)
• several cups water, brought to the boil

You will need a big pot, at least 6 quarts capacity.

Heat the oil in the pot over medium-low. Add onions and cook until they're a light golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the inner parts of the celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots, parsnips and rutabagas. They don't need to hit the pot at the same time; just keep prepping and adding to the pot as you get them ready.

In a separate pot, heat the stock to a boil and add it to your sauteed veg. Add the salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and parsely. From this point on, it is not necessary to stir after adding anything.

In yet another pot, or a tea kettle, bring several cups of water to boil, but don't add it just yet.

Prep and add the cabbage. When you prep the cabbage, don't cut out the core. That's essential for keeping it in big chunks that stay together during cooking. Just slice off the very bottom, if it looks brownish to you, and discard the outer leaves. Then cut lengthwise through the core to quarter it, and then cut that horizontally into pieces. You'll also have lots of leafy pieces that aren't connected to the core. After you add the cabbage, start a timer for one hour.

Add the potatoes. Add the kielbasa. Add the sauerkraut.

Add hot water until the pot is full to about two inches from the top. Everything should be submerged.

Your soup will be done one hour after you added the cabbage. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Grind some fresh pepper over the individual servings. It's a different kind of heat than the warmth of the cooked peppercorns. In case you didn't know, don't eat the bay leaves!

Enjoy this soup with some rustic bread for dipping, or all by itself. This is a filling meal in a bowl.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm a volunteer!

I just signed up to be a volunteer recipe tester for Cook's Country magazine, which I love. If I had to pick a favorite magazine, I'd have to say CC edges out even Cook's Illustrated in my affections, because of the 50's-ish retro production style, what with its ever-so pastel-cast color photos and lightly country elements.

Supposedly I'll be getting notifications of recipes to test every couple of weeks. I can try them or skip them as I please. After I prepare the dish, I send in my notes.

I get to give Cook's Country my two cents! And to think, I was just telling someone my dream job would be as a writer and tester in their kitchens.

Close enough for now!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dan i Noć (Day and Night Serbian bar cookies)

I've always loved the name of these cookies – "Dan i Noć" (pro nounced "DAHN ee NOCH,") translates as "Day and Night." They show their sense in such a forthright way. Day and night: a light layer and a dark layer. What could be more sensible? The layer of apricot jam between the day and the night makes sense, too: a shimmering sunset – or perhaps a sunrise – of transluscent orange.

These cookies – or little cakes, as you might consider them – are generous and rich. The recipe includes a pound of butter, a dozen eggs, darn close to a half pound of chocolate, a whole jar of apricot preserves. Speaking of which, I recommend spending the extra couple of bucks to get really good apricot preserves. Look for apricots as the first ingredient, and real sugar as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. (Fruit-only sweetened is good, too.) If you buy more than one jar and do a side-by-side taste test at home, you will see how big a difference it really makes.

I remember having these at the home of my aunt and uncle when we would visit around Christmastime. it was one of the sitni kolaći (little cookies) specialties of my Grandaunt Naka (b. 1913), whom I shared more about here. Like Naka's Vanil Grancle, these feature apricots, that grow so well around her native town of Kikinda.

My cousin tells me Naka got the the recipe from her best friend, also from Kikinda. The best friend's family helped Naka's family in some way during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, but I don't know the story beyond that.

Here's Ulysses in January 2008 (nearly four years old in this picture) enjoying a piece of Dan i Noć.

Shortly after this photo was taken, that laptop stopped working. Turned out it was plugged up with cookie crumbs.

I'm posting this today as a hat tip to my niece, Anne (she is the daughter of my cousin, and by the Serbian way of looking at family relations, that makes her more of a niece to me than anything else), 7. She loves Dan i Noć, and was sad to discover there wasn't any at the family get-together in Baltimore this year. My cousin wrote, "She was really, really bummed when she heard that no one made dan i noc. I remembered telling her to choose either gitar [another exceptional sitni kolacic in the family, I'll post that recipe too] or dan i noc as her favorite and she chose gitar so that's what i made but it seems i may have forgotten to tell her why i was asking. she got tears in her eyes, made me so sad!

"so this weekend we're making dan i noc. that works because i wouldn't have had time to make it with her before Bozic [Serbian Christmas] this time and making it together is just as important as having it for Bozic!"

Here's Anne last year (she was Annie then) enjoying the Dan i Noć she made with her mother for Božić 2008.

Recipe: Dan i Noć

1 jar apricot preserves

Noć (Night)
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 medium eggs (or 5 large)
6 squares (or 6 ounces chips) semisweet baking chocolate (each square is one ounce)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Dan (Day)
Same ingredients as the Noć, but without the chocolate:
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 medium eggs (or 5 large)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Melt chocolate
Melt the chocolate. Use low heat and stir often, so the chocolate won't seize or scorch. Use a heavy-bottomed pan, a flame tamer, or a double boiler if you have one. By the time you add the chocolate to other ingredients, it should be liquidy, but cool enough that it won't cause the eggs to cook on contact.

2. Soft-bake the Noć
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in the chocolate and vanilla.

Whisk together flour and baking powder. Mix these dry ingredients into the wet mixture. This will make a soupy batter.

Line a rectangular baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. No greasing is needed. Pour in the batter. Shake sideways, or rap the pan sharply against your counter, to knock out extra air bubbles. You can see in my photos that I missed this step – see what happen?

Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. It needs to be firm enough that you can spread jam over it, but not baked through, That is, at this point a toothpick inserted in it will not come out anywhere near clean.

3. Prep the Dan
While the Noć is in the oven, prepare the batter for the Dan. Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time, beat in vanilla, whisk together flour and baking powder, stir dry mix into wet mix.

4. Apply the jam layer
Remove from oven. Spread the apricot preserves evenly over the dark Noć layer while still warm.

5. Add the Dan layer
Carefully pour the light batter evenly overtop the contents of the pan.

6. Final bake
Put the pan back in the oven for another 30 minutes, or until a knife (or cake pick) inserted in the center comes out clean. The instructions I received say to check the Dan, but I found that the Noć took longer to bake through, so make sure your Dan and your Noć are baked throughout.

The Dan will be beautifully golden brown on top. If the Dan is as browned as it needs to be, but the cake inside still needs more baking, cover the pan tightly with foil (or place a cookie sheet over it) so the top won't overbake.

7. Cool and cut
Let cool. Carefully lift the whole cake from the pan and transfer to a large cutting surface. Slice into rectangular pieces about the width and length of your index finger. Cut carefully and methodically so that your pieces are evenly sized, with straight sides and square corners. I used the patterns on my wooden cutting board as my guides.

The finger-sized pieces are lovely and make hearty portions of this rich dessert. However, after a while I cut some of them into thirds, and found this size makes a wonderful bite-sized treat.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bozic - Serbian Christmas 2009

It was great taking a couple of days of work to putter in the kitchen and make these heritage meals. After work our friend Gigi came over, hooray, our Serbian holiday co-celebrant as I've said before. Especially great to have her here because we've missed her on the last couple of occasions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Corba od Patlidzan - otherwise known as tomato soup

I pulled off the Badnje Vece meal more smoothly than ever this year! Not like the years that I would finally get everything (that I hadn't forgotten) on the table by 11 pm. I got eight courses set out before 7 pm, and I only spent the last hour working full throttle. I even made the kidney bean salad from a deeper scratch – dried beans that I soaked overnight, rather than a can. My testimonial: it's different, and it's even better. It has an ineffable homemade quality. The beans are a little grainier in texture, very nice.

Donald gave me props on the tomato soup. Since I threw it together without a recipe, just putting everything into the pot that I thought would be good to find in tomato soup, I figured I'd better write it down fast while I remember what I did.

Remember, it has to be animal-product free. So I had to stop myself from reaching for the butter and the homemade chicken stock!

Corba od patlidzan

(CHOR-ba od paht-LEE-jahn, with the "j" as in "Jack")

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons AP flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
several fresh grindings black pepper
2 bay leaves
1-2 shakes red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons (approx) fresh or frozen fresh parsley
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, juice and all

In a deep, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until cleared and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and celery partway through this onion cooking process.

Add the flour and stir well. Let the flour cook in for a few minutes. Add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, parsley and tomatoes. Fill the tomato can with water and add it to the pot.

Simmer, covered, about a half hour. Stir occasionally, making sure it doesn't stick and scorch on the bottom.

If you like, you can blend this smooth when you're done, or strain it. But I don't care so much for perfectly smooth soups, myself. I like it rustic.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Badnje Vece – Serbian Christmas Eve – Menu

Tomorrow, January 6, will be Serbian Christmas Eve. Technically, it's called Badnji Dan during the day, and in the evening Badnje Vece. If you guess that "Dan" means day and "Vece" evening from this, you'd be correct. But as I remember, we always just called it Badnje Vece, all day long, in my household growing up.

The photo shows my Badnje Vece table from 2005. Here's my blog post from that year.

I wrote a bunch about Serbian Christmas (Bozic) customs in an article several years ago. Here's a link to it on my online article archive:

Badnje Vece is a day of fasting from meat, fowl, dairy and egg products. But it's not a vegan day! The main course of the Badnje Vece dinner is fish.

The traditional menu for this meal is extensive. And, meat and dairy or no, it is as filling a repast as any I've experienced. In the early 1990s, my mother, who was born in 1920 in Ruma, a town in Srem, near Belgrade, described the Badne Vece meals she remembered from her youth. I wrote it down in my recipe notebook. Here's what she told me.

Badnje Vece menu

  • Kolac on the table, but not eaten until Bozic proper
  • Fruit – cooked prunes
  • Posna pogaca (flatbread)
  • Corba od patlidjan (tomato soup)
  • Pasulj (kidney bean and onion salad)
  • Rezanci c makom (noodles with ground poppy seed)
  • Rezanci c badem (noodles with almonds)
  • Riba (fish)

In addition, a friend told me that apples with nuts and honey are also traditional. Just slice the apples and put out a little bowl of ground walnuts and a little bowl of honey. These are put together on the fly, one at a time, by the eater – like chips and salsa. You pick up an apple slice and dip the end into the honey. Then you dip the honeyed, sticky end into the walnuts. Presto: you've prepared yourself one lovely bite of apple with nuts and honey.

The beans are delicious, and so easy to make. Here's the recipe my mother gave me. I doubt her household had canned beans in the 1920s, but it's possible, as her grandparents owned a general store. If there were commercial canned beans at that time, that's where they would be, after all.

(Kidney bean salad)

one can light red kidney beans, including the liquid
one small onion, diced (about 1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt
several grindings of pepper
1/2 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix all in a bowl.

Chill at least a few hours, or overnight.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy new year!

(Scroll down to get to a fabulous recipe for Hoppin' John!)

For the first time in years, New Year's Day was a relaxing vacation day at home -- paid time off, to boot. The past two years, I went to my job on Jan. 1. The year before that, I don't remember -- I guess I stayed home along with most other co-workers. Before that, though, when Don and I were driving cab, Jan. 1 was a day to recover from the most grueling, busy night of a cabbie's year.

But this was the first that I recall devoting Jan. 1 to a leisurely day off. It was a great way to start the year.

On and off during the day I puttered in the kitchen, making New Year's Day foods that are traditional either for me and Don personally or for a larger audience. Here's what we had.

Deviled Eggs

This is a tradition Don and I started the first New Year's we spent together, when 1992 became 1993. The two of us were together in our little basement apartment on Gorham Street, and as the clock wound down, I let out that I regretted we hadn't planned anything, we didn't have anything special lined up to happen at the stroke of midnight. Don sprang into action. He pulled out his old Slovak Cookbook that he'd gotten from his grandmother and found some fast, fun, festive recipes – cheese puffs and deviled eggs -- and made both happen in the 40 minutes remaining. Since then, we've made deviled eggs every year and cheese puffs some years. The eggs, especially, make perfect sense as a new year's tradition. Eggs and birth and newness and all that.

Beaten Biscuits

Egg Nog

Made by cooking egg yolks in milk over a gentle flame until slightly thickened and appealingly creamy, with the addition of a little sugar and vanilla. This is really a potable custard -- a like baked custard, except you can drink it. I love custard. And with egg nog, you can add rum.

Hopping John (Hoppin' John)

Black-eyed peas with smoked pork and rice is a traditional New Year's dish in the South, and, as Wikipedia tells me, throughout the Carribbean also. It's said to bring good luck in the coming year.

Flouting recipes we've read, we do not cook the rice with the beans. The cooking times of rice and beans are incompatible, and if you don't want mush rice (or pebble beans), it's neater to cook them separately and plate individual composites. This makes starch control easier too; I can get just a taste of rice with my pork and beans if I choose.

It's not strictly necessary to soak dry black-eyed peas overnight, but we do it routinely. Soaking any kind of whole seed wakes up the life force and makes it more nourishing. Soaking and rinsing beans washes away potentially toxic compounds. This latter reasoning is less new-agey than the former; our friend landed in the hospital after making a habit of cooking unsoaked, unrinsed beans. He very nearly died. Please soak and rinse all dry beans! (Do I need to mention that this does not apply to canned beans?)

Hopping John recipe

2 cups black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed thoroughly
8 to 16 ounces smoked pork jowl, cut in 1/2" to 1" chunks
1 t0 2 tablespoons bacon fat (reserved from cooking bacon) or any oil or fat you choose
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery (plus half the leaves from the core of the celery, if you have them), sliced
2 cups stock, heated
1 teaspoon salt

Heat fat in a Dutch oven or any heavy pot or saucepan of at least three quarts capacity. Over medium heat, cook onions and celery until softened. Add pork jowl and cook together for a few minutes.

Add the beans. Add the hot stock. Add the salt. Simmer over low heat for about one hour, or until the beans are soft.

Serve over rice.