It seems many of the blogs to which I’ve subscribed are focused on meditation in its many forms. Usually inspired or reflective of nature, they invite one to slow down, to think less and feel more, or to invite silence into one’s life. Others are about discovery: the feel of fresh dough in one’s hands, the smell of newly dug earth, the full moon or the bits of fog lingering over the ground.
I rarely find myself in a state of calmness that in any way resembles meditation. I am constantly hearing sounds around me, looking at “stuff” but not seeing the actual details or hearing the meaning behind the noise. Yet this doesn’t evoke any sense that I’m overwhelmed or suffering sensory overload – more as if I have forgotten how to be “aware.”
Tonight when I got out of the car, I looked up. Immediately I recognized Orion’s belt, and looked around for other familiar constellations. But my arms were full of heavy bags, and quickly the glance at the sky was forgotten and I was inside the door and heading for the kitchen.
I wish now I’d gotten back in the car and driven to some country field where I could just look at the sky and find Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades...
But instead, I visit my blogging “friends” and envy their ability to transform the skills and gifts of observation into delicate yet forceful words.
(l-r) Scones, gougeres, (partially hidden) crab rangoons, madeleines, peanut butter kisses with Dove chocolates.
When serving buffet-style as is necessary for a group too large to sit at one's table, it's helpful to make sure no one finds it too difficult to handle both a cup and saucer, and a small plate. Other than teaspoons for stirring their tea, guests shouldn't need to cope with flatware. So foods need to be truly "finger foods" and not messy to eat.
Traditional sweets at a tea include scones (at an English tea) and madeleines (at a French tea). Russian teas might have little Russian Tea Cakes (also known in the US as Italian Wedding Cookies). Madeleines, shortbread, the wedding cookies, and other small, non-crumbly cookies can be purchased in most supermarkets.
Here is the scone recipe I used. I made the dough the evening before and refrigerated it, making sure the butter in it would stay cold. I baked them the next morning. (I found this on Allrecipes.com, submitted by "Donna"). I added the currants.
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup butter, very cold and cubed
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg, beaten
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup golden raisins or currants
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and lightly grease a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Using a pastry cutter or two forks, cut in the cold butter until it is the texture of small peas.
Mix the milk and egg in a small bowl, and stir into the flour mixture until combined but not smooth. Stir in the golden raisins.
Divide the mound of dough into two pieces for ease of handling, and turn one at a time out onto a floured surface. Knead very briefly (or fold over in thirds upon itself) and pat into a rectangle of about 4"x8", about 1/2 an inch thick.
Mark and cut the rectangle into 8 squares and set upon the cookie sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes until just golden brown.
If you wish to refrigerate them overnight, don't bring them up to room temperature before baking. Making sure the butter is still cold is a key to light and fluffy scones. Don't handle the dough too much, either. The dough can also be frozen, before adding any fruits or nuts. Bring it to just barely room temperature but don't defrost in the microwave!
Tea cups, tea pots, and a rosy Eiffel Tower centerpiece are the stars of the table.
It's been a long time between posts, and I apologize. However, this topic is the first compelling subject I've had to write about in all this time!
Recently I decided to host a tea party in my home as a fund-raiser for an organization that is dear to my heart. The Syracuse Symphony's demise meant that our SSA (the volunteer organization that supported the symphony) would need to reinvent itself. Over the course of the last year, we've changed our name and our bylaws, and our mission. But there had been no major fund-raising activities other than two luncheons for our members.
So as a beginning, I thought a more personal and intimate group setting would work to launch our new mission. Hence, a Valentine's tea party.
It also helped that I've discovered the joys of drinking tea! Until just a couple of years ago, I scorned any kind of tea, including iced tea. Now I drink a variety of types of tea, all the time. Imagine!
I was able to find in my possessions enough vintage teapots and teacup sets, silver and silverplate, luncheon dishes and silverware, and linens, to accommodate about 15 guests. I invited 22 ladies who are personal friends of mine, however in the end only 12 were able to attend. Several who did not attend were gracious and sent donations anyway.
I designed the invitations myself, printed them out and mailed them about 3 weeks ahead of time.
My house is small, and frankly, I can't imagine what I was thinking when I anticipated 22 people in these tiny rooms! I created seating for 15, and it was tight. But everything looked so cozy, filled with antiques and soft colors and fabrics, fresh flowers and glinting silver!
I worked for a week polishing silver, but your mileage may vary! If you own silver or silverplate, no doubt you keep it shined much more frequently than I do!
The menu was an eclectic mix of French dainties like gougeres (cheese puffs), madeleines (shell-shaped sponge cakes), store-bought dainty cookies, and English favorites like scones with Devon cream and strawberry jam. Of course there were several kinds of tea, including Vanilla Chai, Irish Breakfast, and Green Tea. And there were sugar cubes, honey, and cream.
Savories included crab rangoons, chicken and ginger salad on puff pastry, and crostini with ham and mustard.
Valentines cookies (peanut butter cookies with Dove chocolate hearts) and chocolate candies also appeared.
Although there were few leftovers, I gave them away to my "helpers" in thanks. I did not want to be tempted to devour them myself!
Guests received their donation receipts in thank-you notes within a few days. The fund-raiser was very successful and netted over $250 for the Association's mission of supporting music education in Central New York. Future fundraising activities include a champagne party, a taco party, and another tea party. Members of the Association are motivated!
I am posting some recipes in a separate blog entry. I am also posting some photos taken at the tea party!
Dainty Treats for a Valentine's Tea Party
I don’t think I have to sing the virtues of grilled cheese. Perhaps I should, however, admit that I’m addicted to them, and for this I blame Heidi
. As a little girl I savored the image of Grandfather making melted Swiss cheese over the fire to spread on good black bread, for Heidi’s dinner. (Don’t get me started on baked potatoes roasted in the fireplace for dinner, from Milly-Molly-Mandy
My mother’s go-to lunchtime meal for 3 little girls was open-faced grilled cheese. She’d turn on the oven, letting it warm up to about a medium temperature, and meanwhile take a cookie sheet and lay out six slices of bread. This was undoubtedly Wonder Bread (what else?) but might have been Sunbeam
, the local version.
Then she would slice good sharp Cheddar cheese and place just enough cheese onto each piece of bread to cover it as evenly as possible. Somehow the spaces in between would be nearly as yummy as the cheese. Then she’d pop the tray into the oven and give it about 7-10 minutes or just until the bread was golden brown and the cheese was melted. My sister Laurie, the youngest, preferred hers to be a bit burned for some odd reason that I never understood...
These days I find many of my choices of bread, cracker, or chip are merely excuses for vessels to contain melted cheese. And thus we come to the quesadilla, which is just so versatile and of course, is a staple of many casual restaurants’ menus. Although clearly of Mexican origin, the quesadilla I first encountered was in Friendly’s – without so much as a chipotle or speck of cilantro to be found. Usually you are offered the choice of “with chicken or without”.
At home, however, you can go wild with your own versions of quesadillas. I’m using a low-carb flour tortilla by Mission
, which comes in at 90 calories apiece. Tortillas, whether flour or corn, are not known for their low-calorie (or low-sodium) characters, so you may have to hunt around if those are your criteria. But the fillings are the important part, anyway!
Here are some of the different combinations I’ve tried – or have in mind to try soon:
- Swiss cheese, thin deli-sliced ham, and grated sharp Cheddar (yes, try two or more types of cheese!)
- Swiss cheese, roast beef, pesto
- sliced tomato, Cheddar cheese, a bit of grated Parmesan
- Baby spinach leaves, sliced mushrooms, mozzarella, a sprinkle of dried rosemary or basil
- Swiss cheese, cooked chicken, sliced mushrooms
- Swiss cheese, pesto, canned tuna or canned baby shrimp or crabmeat
You could, alternately, try a sweet version with a bit of softened butter spread inside and cinnamon sugar sprinkled over the butter. Jam, honey, or maple syrup drizzled over ricotta or dry cottage cheese or cream cheese would also be awesome, I imagine. Sprinkle just a little cinnamon and sugar on the hot quesadilla just before serving. My quick cooking method is this:
- Using a large non-stick or cast iron skillet, heat about two tablespoons of good olive oil. Before it gets too hot, use a pastry brush dipped in the oil to spread the oil on one side each of two flour tortillas. (If using a soft spread as a filling, spread it on the inside of the tortilla BEFORE placing in the pan.)
- Take one tortilla and lay it in the skillet a bit off center. Begin layering your ingredients on one half of the tortilla, starting with a slice of Swiss cheese or whichever the best melting cheese in your ingredients might be. Top off with a last layer of cheese, and fold over the tortilla (using a fork or spatula) to form a half-circle.
- Lay the second tortilla next to the folded one in the pan. It might not fit perfectly but it doesn’t matter. Only the side where the ingredients are being layered needs to be firmly seated in the hot skillet. Layer the ingredients as before, and fold over the tortilla onto them to form the half-circle.
- With a spatula or fork, flip the folded tortillas over and if you have one, put a panini press on top to flatten. Grill on this side another few minutes, until the cheese has melted and the tortilla surfaces are lightly browned.
- Serve! I often have some celery sticks or carrot sticks with these for contrast and crunch. And iced tea or cold milk!
Among the other yummy “vessels” for melted cheese I like are naan bread, Nabisco Tuscan-flavor flatbread (crackers), pita chips, Triscuits, ciabatta or other crusty breads, and yes...Wonder Bread. What can I say?Results of the 2011 Grilled Cheese Invitational - If I'd only known...
Heidi and Grandfather
Most of my home is decorated with antiques and reproductions of antiques, and you could definitely call this my “comfort zone.” These belongings, from the Chippendale secretary in the living room to the pine dresser in the dining room, the reproduction Stickley dining set to all the wonderful and rare art pottery that is displayed around the rooms, were collected by me or inherited from my mother and my late sister.
Because their history tells me something about my past, owning such antiques is meaningful to me.
My children, and their children, however, live in an IKEA world with Crate & Barrel, Pier 1, and Pottery Barn accents. It occurred to me today that my granddaughters will likely always associate “antiques” with “Grandma’s old furniture” because they rarely encounter it anywhere else in their lives. They come to visit and are surrounded by vintage (“beat up”) and collectible (“what IS that?”) and the relics of my ancestors’ lives (“who??”).
In fact, I’m in the process of redecorating my second floor so that it will be a bright and shiny and welcoming guest space for my family when they visit. The two bedrooms and the sitting room will be “their” space, with a little girls’ bedroom in white and pink and lavender and pale blue, and a play room in bright teal and lime green. The walls will be white, and the furniture will be sleek and straight-out-of-a-catalog modern. They’ll feel right at home, I’m sure.
I wonder, however, if any of them (including the eldest who is 45) realize that in 30 years their very contemporary furniture from the 2010s will be considered “vintage”? Will they have long since replaced the 2011 Crate and Barrel living room set with the 2041 Crate and Barrel versions, after consigning the “old” stuff to the likes of whatever Craigslist has morphed into in 30 years?
Admittedly, I am enjoying trying out a different style for the upstairs. Target and Pier 1 have lovely stuff, at reasonable prices. I have had a lot of fun designing with Marrimekko fabrics and finding just the right colors for all the elements of a room. Interior decorating is my first love, and this has been a blank slate with the enjoyment and comfort of my family as the end result.
But when the time comes for my family to dismantle and dispose of my effects (sometime in the far distant future, I’m sure) will any of them choose to keep anything of the “old stuff”? What will my granddaughters remember from Grandma’s house – what memento will each one linger over and decide she must not relinquish? I hope they will want it all – and even fight over much of it!
In the meantime, if either of them asks me about the side table in the dining room that a Cuban craftsman hand-made out of Cuban mahogany for my grandfather in the 1940s, I’ll be happy to tell her.
I want to thank the ladies of the Saturday morning writing class who shared their rough attempts at memoir today. We have more in common that we’d expected, and our responses to each other’s revelations were warm, supportive and sincere.
None of us had tried something so personal before this week, and I’m not sure what we expected to discover. Nonetheless, we gave of our selves to each other, and in so doing we took the parts we needed to hear or which resonated with us.
We were so elated at (or intrigued by) the results of the day that we have agreed to continue meeting every other week to expand our writing efforts. I think we can build on the basic outlines we produced this week, while learning from each other what works, what draws out the tears and laughter, where we might grow from constructive criticism, and perhaps find a common destination. At least we can help each other along the way.
Today is the second anniversary of the passing of my husband, Russell Bell. So many things have happened since that day, and yet it doesn’t seem very long ago.
We were married just short of 9 years, which doesn’t cover a large portion of our lives, but perhaps it was the best portion. Russell had been married twice previously, and I had been married once. In the long interval since we had each lived with another person we’d developed a number of solitary routines, and nothing is harder for a man or woman past the age of 50 to change as the independent, self-reliant life that ensures survival after divorce or loss of a spouse. Yet, Russell managed to adapt almost immediately to sharing his life and small apartment with me. It was a bit harder for me to change – maybe I never really did – but eventually the edges got smoother and the bumps got less bumpy.
I’d measured my decision to marry again with this criteria: what would be the very worst thing that could happen, and would Russell be able to help me bear it? The worst thing that I could imagine was the death of my mother. And when I acknowledged that yes, Russell’s strong arms would be the ones I’d want around me when I lost my mother, I knew I could say “yes” to him.
Indeed, just about six months later my mother passed away unexpectedly. Russ got the phone call from New York, and he came to my office to tell me. This was the hardest thing for him to do – and harder still to bear my grief and pain. He’d gotten to love her too, and he knew instinctively that I needed his own sorrow to lean against, to help me by sharing the pain.
There were other very hard times ahead of us. There was illness for both of us, and financial hardship. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we were silent in stony and cold fury. But I don’t think a single day went by that Russell didn’t try to make me laugh, and he always succeeded. His patience and tenderness were tested by my demands and needs.
He was not, trust me, a perfect man – in fact he was so exasperating at times that it was all I could do to keep from screaming. Not that this would have helped, since he was losing his hearing and would have acted as though he didn’t hear me. His refusal to wear hearing aids was a constant bone of contention. His love of gambling might have been another issue except that I’ve never known anyone so lucky at the slot machines in my life. On more than one occasion his winnings paid for our entire vacation – Las Vegas, Atlantic City, a couple of cruises.
Nothing exceeded his love of good food, which brought him both joy and anguish, except his love of golf. He didn’t just ‘play’ golf, he TAUGHT golf (as he exclaimed over any game we played together). And he did teach me to play and to love the game of golf, as he taught my two sisters. We girls became the “golf sluts” willing to play at any time. He showed such love and patience with me on the courses we played from Las Vegas to the Yukon to the Caribbean and many points in between. And he wrote about golf as well, because he had an endless well of funny stories to share about the game.
I am so lucky to have been found by and loved by Russell Bell. He left me much too soon, and every day I wish that he were here with me.
When I first got an Apple IIE computer, in 1982, my kids were quite young. There were no programs available at all, and “users” (as computer owners were called) would write short programs, put them on 5” floppy disks and swap them for free to grow our available software. I learned to write Apple Basic language (fairly easy to do) and wrote programs for my kids – including a Bible Trivia game, and math games.
I remember the very earliest “bulletin boards” which were the first attempt at an Internet network. Every group had its own telephone number (usually long-distance, before there were 800 numbers) that you had to dial on your dial-up modem, and log in to before you could post a message and have a conversation. A person on the other end had to be online at the same moment to see your message and answer. There were literally thousands of phone numbers across the country, usually based at a corporation or hospital or college which had a large server and a group of users who could access it.
I once received a phone bill for nearly $100 which I hid from my husband. I quit the BBs for a very long time, and paid the bill myself out of my grocery budget, a few dollars a month. (That's 1980s dollars! Like, saying $500 today!)
The local computer stores would provide meeting space for user groups and post the phone numbers and provide swaps for our software disks. Everybody helped each other – but in person, as there really wasn’t an Internet to work with. This was before AOL, before Netscape, etc. When those tools arrived we thought we’d died and gone to heaven!!
The first word processing program commercially available that I remember was PFS Write. It was exciting because it eliminated a lot of the extra formatting you had to know when writing your own programs. We had a Racal modem, quite state-of-the-art at the time, and one of those huge dot-matrix printers that used paper on a continuous roll, that you had to tear apart at the perforations. It made a ton of noise and shook the printer stand when it was running.
My kids learned a great deal with that early Apple set-up, which was replaced later with one of the first Macintosh desktops, and there've been many others since then, including several PCs.
No one even has to know HTML much anymore to create brilliant websites, post their photos, make wonderful art, music and games.
We take so much for granted and change occurs so rapidly, that it's amazing to believe that nearly 30 years have passed since those first heady days as a "computer geek". I almost want to say, "What Hath God Wrought?"...
Lately I've had a yen for the sweet-tart flavor combo of strawberries and rhubarb. I don't think I've had any in more than 20 years, since no one in my extended family likes rhubarb. (But then, they don't like liver, either. How can you savor pâté de foie gras, if you don't like liver??)
And of course both strawberries and rhubarb are plentiful in the supermarket and even farmers' markets right now. My sister challenged me to try cooking them myself (even though she had no interest in the results) so finally I determined to try it.
Mind you, I don't do a lot of baking, especially pies, now that I'm living alone. My late husband loved to make strawberry pie himself, but for him this just consisted of fresh strawberries with a commercial glaze poured over them in a pie shell. Not hard work.
I bought two pints of California strawberries (the local ones came and went so quickly I couldn't find them anymore). Also, the equivalent of two cups (about a pound) of rhubarb, already trimmed. Since they looked so yummy I also bought deep red Bing cherries earlier in the week and had about one cup of those left.
For a crust, I had to go through my baking cookbooks. I just don't make my own pie crust - it's easier to buy the ready-made that you unroll into the pan. But I thought, "what the heck - In for a penny, in for a pound!" (as my Grandma Jones used to say.)
In the Fanny Farmer Baking Cookbook, I found a recipe for a Sour Cream pie crust. I just happened to have less than a cup of fat-free sour cream on hand (excellent on berries instead of whipped cream). The recipe also called for butter instead of lard or vegetable shortening, which sealed the deal.
Making the Crust
Basically the recipe calls for 1 cup of flour, 1/2 cup butter, 1/3 cup sour cream, 1 tsp salt (less if you're using salted butter), and 1 tablespoon milk plus a few drops extra if needed. Combine the flour, salt and butter with two forks, your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a food processor. Add the sour cream and mix with a fork. Add the tablespoon of milk, and form into a ball with your hands. If too crumbly add a few drops more milk until it can be handled without falling apart.
Form into a disk, flour your surface and rolling pin, and roll out the dough to a circle large enough to cover the bottom and sides of the tart or pie pan. Place into the pan and set aside.
I think in hindsight I'd have used a regular pie pan, since it would have had a flatter bottom and the pie would be easier to serve. Also, I could have baked it first to keep it from getting soggy with the berries. Hindsight is not helpful at the time, however.
So here's how I made the filling:
2 cups fresh rhubarb
1 cup fresh Bing cherries (optional)
2 cups fresh strawberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp cornstarch
Clean, pit, hull and chop the fruit into 1/2 inch pieces (cherries in half, large strawberries in quarters). Place in a large bowl. Add all of the rest of the ingredients, and toss the fruit to coat with the mixture. You can also add a dash of nutmeg, ginger, and/or ground cloves if you wish.
Pour the fruit into the pie shell, and spread to the sides. Make sure any liquid in the bowl is added to the pie.
Bake it at 425 degrees, for 30 minutes or until the edges of the crust are golden brown. Cool for about 1/2 hour before serving - add whipped cream, ice cream on the side, or eat plain.
Eating this all by myself leaves me with no regrets, whatsoever.
It sounded like the circus had come to town! The level of noise, echoing around my neighborhood, was constant and loud and filled with young children laughing, shouting, screaming and a few brief sobs and hiccups. My neighbor, a sweet and loving grandmother, had rented a “bounce house” for her children’s children for the afternoon.
The clouds threatened rain and indeed it did sprinkle on and off throughout the day. This didn’t bother the kids at all. Required to take off their shoes to enter the bounce house, they ran through the wet grass in their socks not even noticing how brown and soaked the socks had become. There was no point asking them to put their shoes back on as they were just going in and out of the bounce house too fast and often.
Their mothers and older siblings were careful monitors of behavior. I marveled that the little pairs of shoes all lined up neatly next to the bounce house entrance. There were hula hoops and bean toss games for them, as well as sidewalk chalk, to add diversions from the frenetic pace of jumping up and down for long minutes at a time. Nothing is funnier than a baby about 18 months old, trying to figure out what to do with a hula hoop! Big plastic baseball bats and oversized baseballs were tossed back and forth, and not a few grownup shins were hit by mistake.
At first I was a bit peeved that my peaceful afternoon was being overwhelmed by the noise of all these children. After a while, I realized the neighborhood hadn’t heard so much laughter and pure joy on such a large scale in years – since the elementary school up at the corner was closed – and it really was quite nice. I was a little sorry, I guess, when the last minivan pulled away from the curb filled with weary little ones and their exhausted parents. The bounce house was dismantled and taken away in less time than it takes to mow the lawn, and truthfully, it all seemed as though nothing at all had happened here.
Maybe my neighbor can be persuaded to do this every year?